Beauty in the Commonplace

“Mitford would simply like to be the pause that refreshes.”
— Jan Karon


I grew up seeing the Mitford books line the shelves of my dear grandmother’s little brick house.  The collection expanded as the latest one came out.  I remember staring at the covers before I learned to read, which seemed to take a painfully long time, but then when I did learn, I was going to read everything, and Mitford was surely on the map.  Then I became a snob.

I was all about the classics those days and scorned best-sellers. If everyone read it, well then, it couldn’t be for me.  Then one day a preacher- a Christian man of culture, wisdom and experience- made a side comment about the wonderful Jan Karon and the highly recommended Mitford Series.

To use one of her own quotes- I “turned away for a moment, smacked by the beauty of complete surprise.”

And so I was chastened and began to read them, and have been a frequent visitor to Mitford ever since.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Mitford is a small fictional town in North Carolina. The Anglican minister, Father Tim, is the central character of the stories, but the characters in the periphery pop-up so frequently that you can almost forget it at times.  You age with them, and their stories unfold softly, just like in real life.

I consider Jan Karon the ultimate “gentle fiction” author.  She is good for you- good for your heart and eyes and weary head.  It’s in a joke well told, tears well spent, common lives worth the living.  I can pick up any Mitford novel, flip to any page, and have a wonderful time and experience the blessed kinship of knowing that thousands of other people feel the same way.  They are the best books to read and carry for random conversation, at least in my circle (which is the waiting room at the doctor’s office, the mid-day grocery store line and generally people over 60- but hey : D )

Autumn had come to the mountains at last…. Avis Packard put a banner over the green awning of The Local:  Fresh Valley Hams Now, Collards Coming.
Dora Pugh laid on a new window at the hardware store featuring leaf rakes, bicycle pumps, live rabbits, and iron skillets.  “What’s th’ theme of your window?” someone asked.  “Life.” replied Dora.
– from These High, Green Hills

Perhaps why I love these books so much is because it is my world.  She captures a hundred common things I fail to see the glory of, or the irony in, or just simply fail to appreciate the realness of. The misprints in the local paper, what everybody had for lunch, the new car on the street, the eccentricities of relationships… not much to write of, right?   I wouldn’t bet on it.

Around noon, I swung into Blowing Rock and dropped by to see friends who were mountain natives and Main Street store owners.
“Had lunch yet?” I asked.
“Yep, did you?”
“Yep.  Two packs of Nabs.”
Two packs?”
“Two packs.”
“Hon, did you hear that?”
“What’s that?”
“She had two packs.”
“Two packs of what?”
“Well, I’ll say.  Two packs.  How about that.”
“My, my.  Two packs.”
“Nabs.” Long, pondering silence. “I declare!”
This exchange invoked a kind of reverie that felt slightly akin to being wrapped in swaddling clothes…..  What the above conversation was all about was perfectly clear to me.  It was about passing time, and relishing even the smallest of pleasures- as one might savor the minuscule sweetness of a single currant in a scone…. It doesn’t take much for me, as my sister-in-law often says.  What she actually says is, “You can make more out of nothing than anybody I know.”

– Jan Karon from the Mitford Bedside Companion

Thinking of these things reminded me of a John Piper quote about C.S. Lewis, an author who had a profound effect on him (and me as well!).  He said:  “Lewis gave me an intense sense of the ‘realness’ of things.  The preciousness of this is hard to communicate.  To wake up in the morning and be aware of the firmness of the mattress, the warmth of the sun’s rays, the sound of the clock ticking, the sheer being of things (‘quiddity’ as he calls it).  He helped me become alive to life.   He helped me to see what is there in this world- things that, if we didn’t have, we would pay a million dollars to have, but having them, ignore.”   ( John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life)

This is what Jan Karon has done for me.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been again smacked by the beauty of complete surprise, when, in some common scene, I realize that the dialogue I overhear is delightfully interesting and profound.  Familiarity breeds contempt, I have heard it said to my sorrow, and found it all too often to be true.  Sometimes what we need is a visit to another place to open our eyes to what is before us and Mitford is the perfect spot for such a purpose.

So go and read!  I would start at the beginning, though I admit I haven’t read the whole series myself.
My favorites are At Home in Mitford (#1),  A Common Life (#6), Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good  (#10) and the Mitford Cookbook.  Also the Mitford Bedside Companion is wonderful for a little dose of comfort, and I do not blush to confess that my copy really is on the night-stand.

“Uncle Billy stood as straight as he was able, holding on to his cane and looking soberly at the little throng, who gave forth a murmur of coughing and throat-clearing…
“Wellsir, this old feller an’ ‘is wife was setting’ on th’ porch, an’ she said, ‘Guess what I’d like t’ have?’
“He said,’What’s that?’
“She said,  ‘A great big bowl of vaniller ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts on top!’
“He says, ‘Boys howdy, that’s be good.  I’ll go down to th’ store and git us some.’
“Wife said, ‘Now, that’s vaniller  ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts.  Better write it down.’
“He said, ‘Don’t need t’ write it down, I can remember.’
“Little while later, he come back.  Had two ham san’wiches.  Give one t’her. She looked at that sandwich, lifted th’ top off, said, ‘You mulehead, I told you t’write it down, I wanted mustard on mine!’ ”

-from A New Song


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