This Is Homeward Living

pasture rail fence 2

It was only a little brown house in North Carolina.

Three bedrooms, a kitchen, a dining space and a living room clustered on one box-shaped floor — with not even an indoor staircase or garage to lend some interest. Yet when I think of the kind of childhood I’d like to give my daughters, this is the house that springs to mind.

We slept and ate within its walls, as parents are wont to require of their children, but it’s the outside I remember with greater affection.

I roamed every inch of its surroundings in the few years we lived there. Each season brought new marvels, and frequently it seemed that every corner I rounded revealed a surprise. Unbidden day lilies bloomed under our windowless eastern wall; a particularly robust zucchini swelled to the size of a watermelon in the garden plot. During our first winter there, my mother called me to the window to see the pansies that had poked their proud and vibrant heads up through the snow.

The house itself rested on a steep hillside that rolled downward into an overgrown forest. Strange and curious neighbors often came to call out of this haven; one afternoon I spent an hour staring down a very stoic and ancient-looking toad. On another, my father was called upon to evict a large black snake that had made itself at home on the deck. Somehow he uncoiled it from the hula hoops with a broomstick and tossed it far over the railing, into the woods. The snake spun through the air like a helicopter’s rotor blades, and I like to think that that moment of avian glory is as fresh in its mind today as it is in mine.

Sometimes, after dinner, we would walk across the gravel driveway and up the winding road.

We’d pass cows that looked back at us with brown velvet eyes, and stop to pick a wild raspberry or two or five if they were ripe. We’d wave hello to the retired neighbors tending their garden and thank them for the tomatoes they brought over.

But then — right where the asphalt ended in gravel, my pace would quicken. For just beyond it, if you could get past the house with the foul-tempered Great Danes, lay the sight that makes all the aforementioned charms dim in my memory.

The left side of the dirt road opened to a view of meadows on a hillside, beyond a valley just large enough that a nine-year-old girl wouldn’t dream of crossing it on foot. Sunlight and cloud-shadows played across the untouched distant grass, alert to the whim of the conducting breeze. Hidden away from all but a few pairs of eyes, that green hill seemed timeless; the air about it still bore the hush of fresh creation, and it met the sky in a curve so gentle and seamless that it might have been the very edge of the world itself.

It was only a meadow — but the first time I saw it, the beauty and the peace in the sight pierced me clean through with a yearning from which I’ve never quite recovered.

Even at that age, I knew it wasn’t a yearning that could be sated by setting foot across the valley. What I found most irresistible about the meadow wasn’t its existence, but a glimmer of something else.

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 30-31)

Lewis calls this longing by the German word sehnsucht in Surprised by Joy (in a reference, I now find, to some unattainable green hills of his childhood!). Jennifer Trafton has identified its Welsh counterpart, hiraeth, in a gem of a post about home and sanctuary and light; L.M. Montgomery christened it “the queer ache” via Anne Shirley. All of them discuss it in the context of a greater reality.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” said Owen. . .

“It’s so beautiful that it hurts me,” said Anne softly. “Perfect things like that always did hurt me — I remember I called it ‘the queer ache’ when I was a child. What is the reason that pain like this seems inseparable from perfection? Is it the pain of finality — when we realise that there can be nothing beyond but retrogression?”

“Perhaps […] it is the prisoned infinite in us calling out to its kindred infinite as expressed in that visible perfection.” (Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery, Ch. 26)

On that dirt road, the “kindred infinite” awakened my sense of wonder through the hint of more glorious things. It called to me in full joy — in a rambling wilderness, full of all that a child could desire — as well as full sorrow, because the little brown house chapter of my life was also one of the hardest. It was a deep ache that met me at both ends.

A year or so later, that ache resounded again as I heard of a God who had purchased my passage to a “better country altogether, nothing less than a heavenly one.” The homesickness was pointing me Home.

I’m creating a home for my own children now. Like so many other parents, Y and I want our house to be a haven for our little ones, and for any of their friends who may need it; we pray it will be a safe refuge during their own hard times and a launchpad for courage and inspiration. But along with these, one of my greatest ambitions is to make room for yearning.

For wonder.

For awe.

For every stab of joy that leads us to the three-personed Source of all that is worthy and beautiful and of good report.

Nobody, save One, can bring these things into being — but we can forge spaces in our lives where wonder and awe and yearning can steal in. We have a real reason to coax ourselves away from screens and into nature, to seek out face-to-face conversations with people, and even to champion imagination as much as engineering: these forgotten practices quiet us to hear the God who speaks most clearly through his own Word. They help bring about an awareness of eternity that enhances the tenor of our work and our play; they make way for the stillness in which we remember we have souls.

This is what I mean by Homeward living, and this, to a great extent, is why I write.

pasture rail fence
“Pasture and Rail Fence,” Joseph Clemens Kaufmann, 1869.
William_Keith painting, 1869
“San Anselmo Valley Near San Rafael”, William Keith, 1869.