“It seems to me of supreme importance for parents to try to arrange, I would almost say at any cost, some sort of getaway place for their family. To be physically removed from the scenes of ordinary life and routine is refreshment that cannot be found any other way.”
– Elisabeth Elliot, The Shaping of a Christian Family
When I was in my teens and still fairly new to Christianity, I was surprised to read these words of advice from Elisabeth Elliot. Almost at any cost? Unobtainable any other way? I wondered at this emphatic counsel — but perhaps the fact that it came from a woman who had endured so much throughout her lifetime doubled its impact; at any rate, it returned to me yesterday as readily as a forgotten book tumbles open to an oft-skimmed page.
Whatever my doubts in youth, as a woman now — especially after this past month — I could not agree with her more.
We barely got ourselves away the Sunday before last. In May both girls had taken turns getting sick, the news cycles had been particularly devastating, and added pressures had so clouded my brain that I left most of my packing until that morning.
After the luggage was Tetrised into the trunk and we were finally seated in the car, the engine refused to start. I immediately cast my eye on our only other option — Y’s small commuter car — but turned back to see Y hesitating.
“We can just take that one, can’t we?”
“Yes… I’m just not sure it will make it over the mountains.”
With a considerable reduction in care over squashed suitcases and a considerable rise in parental stories about the cramped conditions of childhood road trips in the 80s and 90s, the four of us wedged our bags and ourselves into the other car. For the next few hours we wound our way through acres of cattle pastures and the long vehicular chute of the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, and finally we approached the crest of the last mountain pass before Steamboat Springs.
Whereupon we found ourselves inching along in white-out conditions in a mountaintop blizzard. On the twenty-ninth of May.
Y and I laughed helplessly — and then we white-knuckled our twenty-five-mile-an-hour way down into the valley.
As I settled into a kitchenette chair with a cup of herbal tea on our first night, having closed the blackout curtains to a shrouded and storm-spent sky, I realized how worn down I was. In the days leading up to our trip, I had begun to sense that the heaviness I bore was more than a temporary grayness. Somehow I could not recover my perspective, and I was on the verge of saying (quietly and to myself, which is the most pernicious form of this thought) that I could not for another minute go on.
But I had also brought with me some pieces by favorite authors that I keep in reserve, knowing I needed refreshment of the mental variety as much as anything. On Monday I opened only those pages and tabs that I had “packed,” and dwelt on their words and stories.
Calmed and quieted for the moment, I acknowledged — and not for the first time — that my soul needs a slower pace, one that allows for the unfettered celebration of goodness and an intake of nourishment through beauty and delight. These provide a balance that allows me not to put a premium on the brokenness of the world. The healthy gladness of ordinary living, for me, comes from an expectation based on the felt knowledge that God is good and beautiful and true, not businesslike or inaccessible or wringing His hands at the destructive bent of His creatures. It doesn’t mean living in denial of the wounds of the places and people among whom I dwell; it means that, if I’m not paying attention, I can easily lose my head in the depths and become apt to lose my hope.
So I set in motion the guidelines I had sketched out for this bounded time, this convalescence of soul. I shut off the taps of information and anxiety that were within my control and made room for stillness — which was soon amplified for me when I came down with whatever (non-Covid) virus the girls had had. As funny as it sounds, I think the timing was providential; for if, as Elisabeth Elliot writes, “quietness, open space, and time are essentials for recreation,” being sick paved the way for all three.
And between those relatively sleepless nights and (masked, for me) short outings, small things — imperceptible to anyone else — began to happen. From the sheltered window seat at the public library, I looked up at the ruffled waving of a rose-colored crabapple tree and then spied an answering flutter from a paler pink crabapple across main street, peeking over the roof of a little building. When we came back to the rental I hurried to jot the moment down in my little green “book of beauties.” It wasn’t the mere existence of the two shades of pink that had struck me; what I wanted to remember was that I’d felt a sudden, inexplicable stab of joy that there were two. I wanted to remember that such surprises could still happen, that the hope of the Spirit makes incursions into seemingly impenetrable strongholds without flagging.
It happened again on our way down a mountainside trail, in a tableau that stole my breath: fluffed white dandelion seed-heads glowing like candles on their tall stems in the golden-hour light.
We bought groceries, read books, played board games. Y and the girls played hide and seek. In a throwback to my own childhood, we watched episodes of Wheel of Fortune after dinner, cheering on each other’s attempts to fill in the puzzles. On Wednesday Y and I talked long into the night over tea; on Friday all of us visited our favorite botanic park twice.
Throughout, I spent some time in the company of the authors and characters and lines and lyrics and films that brought a dose of vivacity, like friends who come into a sickroom and swing open the windows to a summer garden. I rented and watched Enchanted April for the first time on Thursday and promptly bought it when it expired on Saturday. I’ve sought out similar little “wells of refreshment” before, of course, and never as mere light distractions from the everyday business of living, but this time they seemed to matter more.
Deep in the middle of my late-night conversation with Y, I was able to name what these sources were bringing to my depletion. The element they had in common was their approach to each day – what some might call their “outlook on life.” Dear Marguerite Le Patourel flashed to mind as an illustration, and I read three descriptions of her at different ages to Y:
Her complete naturalness and her un-self-conscious delight in life shone from her like sunshine. “Why!” she ejaculated in astonishment, “I do believe I’m beautiful!”
“Very conceited of you to say so,” said Marianne tartly, thrusting a dainty little foot out of bed.
“Why?” asked Marguerite. “I’m being grateful. Thank you, God, for making me beautiful. I give a lot of pleasure.” And she pirouetted round the room, a whirling pillar of blue and white and gold.
Was she really as useless as Marianne thought her, wondered Marguerite this morning? She thought that she was not. She knew . . . that what the world sees of the life of any human creature is not the real life; that life is lived in secret, a reality that moves behind the façade of appearance, like wind behind a painted curtain; only an occasional ripple of the surface, a smile, a sudden light or shadow passing on a face, surprising by its unexpectedness, gives news of something quite other than what is seen. And Marguerite believed that her real life was of value, besides being an immense joy to herself. She assured herself that the practice of the presence of God, that she had learned with self-discipline of thought and will, was not a selfish thing but something absolutely essential if one’s soul was to be of the slightest use. . . . Like Brother Lawrence, she had learned by bitter experience that “useless thoughts spoil all”; she had learned to silence the chatter of self, to focus her mind in meditation, until the beauty dwelt upon became not a picture but an opening door.
Reverend Mother had yielded, meanwhile eyeing Sister Clare [Marguerite] with that slight uneasiness with which her laughter always inspired her superiors. For was it right that so spiritually gifted a nun should be at times so extremely flippant? Was it right that she should enjoy the little things of life, the taste of a ripe apple, a beam of sunlight, a kitten, a bird’s song, with such abandonment? Quite right, Sister Clare had once said in answer to this question. It was her opinion that the compensatory intensification of delight in little things that comes when larger things have been renounced is God-given. Why should He have scattered such playthings as sunbeams and kittens along the thorny way if they were not to be exclaimed over and enjoyed?
In addition to Marianne, every story I drew from had a character or narrator who seemed to bear an expectation that something new and wonderful could happen. They were always ready to be delighted. This happy anticipation struck a kindred chord in me, but I made a sober confession to Y after sharing the passages: “I think I find them so restorative — and vital — because I am not that way naturally.”
Last month, before sharing a confidence, someone observed, “You seem like someone who understands grief.” Instantly I remembered a college suitemate who once told me, when I apologized because I could do so little to comfort her: “No, I can see that you understand; it’s in your eyes.” I take these as the compliments and deep honors they are in the context of my relationships, but this long companionship with sorrow means that I am not always in alignment with the road of hope that I wish to follow; the trauma and grief of the world and my own hidden concerns rattle the axles of my thoughts, sometimes severely. On Wednesday I finally acknowledged it may be that all my life I will need constant pit stops to reorient my view.
I am therefore grateful for those who are brave enough, in a disapproving world, to write and speak and sing out of their gladness – those whose birthright seems to be one of beauty and exuberance, though I know none of us walks unscathed. Through them I remember, not by being told but by being shown, that I am ultimately made not for wars of striving but for harvests of joy. That perhaps I have a natural affinity for the exquisite glories of my Father after all. They give me courage to begin yet again, in life – and on paper.
For all art is a foray in shamelessness. Who in their right minds today would put hundreds of hours of effort toward planning Tolkien-themed storytelling nights, or adding countless layers of depth to a musical album, or smoothing the stuttering joints of a poem? People I know, thank God (and I do). Such art anticipates the voices of the scoffer and the critic, owns the inevitable and regrettable cracks in its construction, and brings the vision to completion anyway.
More and more, particularly now that I’ve landed at home, I know that I want to write not centrally from a struggle to make sense of ashen chaos but from the heart of a woman who knows something beyond hurt and grief. Whenever this happens, I know that the stories I tell bear a different emphasis and language altogether. And to make it happen, I know I must set – and reset, whenever necessary – a different rhythm to my life… because the only real way to be shameless is to know that you are loved.
How? In terms of daily hours and seasonal tides, I’m still working this out. But perhaps it’s telling that the single stop we made on the way home was at a local florist’s shop, where we found an arrangement that reminds me uncannily of my bridal bouquet. I’ve woken up to the fact that periodic, replenishing soul-Sabbaths will be wise, and that a deep soak in Scriptural passages underscoring the love of Christ is in order this month.
But in terms of writing, I’ll begin with a strengthened willingness to be cut down. To know what accusations might be leveled against the hope I am keeping in my center view and the Anne-ish, adjectival ways I depict it, and to hold it out anyway. Here, friend. The Bread of Life fills and the Living Water refreshes. No matter how imperfectly I may say it, I cannot say any less.