Our Common Life


Do you like my mule? Isn’t she grand? Annie drew her for me.

“I need a mule,” I told her in the church foyer, while the bells rang. “But just a simple one. It could even look like a donkey.” I like to say things like that to her, just to watch her face retain its serenity and composure.

Annie is something special. Besides being an artist, she’s also a mighty fine seamstress, specializing in authentic reproductions for reenactors, and she’s the proprietor of a rare and vintage bookshop. She speaks thoughtfully, walks quickly, loves patiently, reads avidly and if you need a knife, she’s got one. She’s also one of my very best friends.

I’d like to say welcome and thank you to the new readers, and the old ones, too. There are many other places you could be right now, in this land of a thousand doors, and I’m sure honored to have you here with me.

I’m sitting at my desk. There is a vase of wilted daffodils and too many books, mostly ones I’ve read and can’t stand to put away. There is a mountain of laundry downstairs and a greenhouse that needs watering outside. I haven’t made my bed because a cat is curled up in it. I went to sleep last night thinking I needed to love people better than I do, and woke up wondering if someone left enough coffee in the pot for me. Somehow I feel the need, even in the ordinariness of my subjects, to warn you against thinking I have something you don’t. Your life is worth words, dear reader, and I hope that’s what you get from mine.


In the loft of my parent’s house, I work part-time as a seamstress for an ultra-lightweight hiking apparel company. I do this in the evenings when everyone is asleep and I listen to podcasts, often about infectious diseases or conspiracy theories, which serve as a substitute for coffee. It’s hard to fall asleep on the job when the little grey cells are busy with the incoming news that Bigfoots (the correct plural) prefer Poptarts to just about anything else, and if I miss out on the history of hantavirus in Finland while the machine is going, I really haven’t missed anything. This is noise. It’s fun, sure, if you like that sort of thing. But it hasn’t produced anything in me, useful or beautiful. 

     So I cut it off last night, to listen to the house I could live in blind on the dark hilltop, but it was freezing outside for the first time in many weeks, and all was quiet, even the spring peepers. I didn’t think of anything for awhile but the fabric and pattern, the razor blade and pins. None of the bearded men on Youtube need pins, but I do. I sat down to make the round stitch for the heel, then laid it on my lap to secure to the next piece for the final seam. After that, I could be done. That’s when I noticed all the seams on my overalls. 

     I’ve never told you about the sewing before. There’s no shame in it, but as Reb Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s no great honor either. I’m thankful for the job, but it’s just a job, and one that doesn’t bring me into fellowship with people who have stories. Except for when, in the quiet of the loft, I see that it does. It is no great thing to be an invisible worker, just one of many thousands at a post in an assembly line or a girl winding a bobbin in a dark house, unless people are born naked. 

     Look down at your seams dear reader for a moment and remember that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil,” as the Book of Common Prayer says, and consider how the life of that seamstress has touched your own and answered your want, and how the work you do not love to do, might be the most needful.

Make Welcome

     I spoke to a young woman in a parking lot one day last week. She was there to have an abortion. How old is your baby? I asked. Eight weeks, she said.

    Can I ask you.. why?

    I don’t want it.

    But is it alright to kill a person we don’t want?

    She cursed me, sufficiently and repeatedly with a four letter word I don’t even know the meaning of.

  I was still there when she came out again. She had taken a pill in the office and it was already working on her womb, changing the atmosphere into a hostile place. The slip of paper in her hand told her what to expect after Pill Number Two, told her not to look in the toilet. If she did, I knew what she would see.

   Oh, would she look? Would she see?

  She turned to me. Do you want my baby? she asked. I only nodded, because I did want her baby, but I sensed a lack of sincerity in her voice. Well, here you go, she said, and pulled down her pants to expose herself. She made the space between us inhospitable, because she didn’t want me either.

  This parking lot belongs to a large brick building in a nice part of town, a prosperous old Southern town, home of one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world, and about thirty people, not guilty of any crime, are killed and put in a freezer here every day. I drive past it all the time, and did today, as I took an elderly friend to the doctor, where there was a new form for her to fill out, including the question, “Have you been abused?” I cringed at the sadness of the question, and wondered what she would say, how far back her mind might go.

    Then she leaned in and whispered in that way old ladies have of informing half the room, “Why don’t they ask if I’ve been abusive? Nobody wants to ask that one.”

    Now, this woman has been hurt. Not a year out of eighty five has gone by without a personal injustice, and some held a good deal more than others. But somehow, at some point, she was given eyes to see the hurt she herself had done looking back at her. You are the man as Nathan said, and with those painful words the hard-hearted king became a shepherd boy again.

    I have never been a mother, not even for a moment. But I’m glad to be a woman. I’m glad to be that part of creation made for the sake of man, and able to bear mankind. I’ve always believed it the greatest honor. Every month my body prepares itself for company, then cleans house only to prepare itself again. We biologically make welcome, and if we can’t for some reason, it concerns us. Unless we in our autonomy do it to ourselves. We fight to keep it legal, but no amount of legislation under the sun could make it right.

    I was in a big house yesterday, all richly furnished and clean. I was keeping the people, an elderly couple and a baby. The old folks slept, laid flat back on recliners, snoring. I sat in a rocking chair with the little girl asleep in my arms. She had hold of my hair so I wouldn’t lay her down. The afternoon light was coming through the blinds all golden. It had been raining and was going to rain again, but now the sun had come to set fire to the little dust motes no one was there to watch but me. There is something here, I thought, no, something missing. Someone missing. It was the woman of the house. I was just the help, yet here I was in the magic hour, keeping peace, witnessing the stillness of the sun between rains shining on the dust motes. It wasn’t right that it should be me, but that’s okay, because they weren’t paying me enough. Nobody wants to keep house anymore. Nobody wants to rock the baby.

     On the main road near the abortion mill, a beautiful woman stands with a sign most Saturdays. Her name is Mrs. Eva, and sometimes I stand with her. She usually tells me to go away, for the cold wind whips like nowhere else in the world around that building. You are too skinny to be out here! she’ll say, as if she wasn’t eighty-two. In Mrs. Eva’s presence, I often feel like my niece Adah, who wants always to be held just at dinnertime when my hands are busiest. Hold you, she’ll say. After hearing no a few times, she just valiantly climbs up my legs, and lo and behold, we find I can put dinner on the table and hold her at once, just as she suspected.

    Mrs. Eva stands for the unseen ones who enter the brick building and come out again in bags to be hauled away, sold for parts or burned, according to their usefulness. What happens here has all been made real to her. She sees them. I seldom have the eyes or strength to look, but I do see her.

    Mrs. Eva is a holocaust survivor. She did survive, just barely. At the age of nine, she was ripped from her home, forced on a train and into an extermination camp in Yugoslavia, where she witnessed and suffered unspeakable things. These abusers didn’t want to actually put the knife to the unwanted throats. No, they would just remove all subsistence behind walls where no one could see for reasons that sounded excusable at the time. She says there comes a moment, in your helplessness, when you can no longer watch what is happening, when the anguish is so great it will drive you insane, and all you can do is cover your eyes and try to run or hide. But if you survive, you will grow up and in some ways, you will recover. You will put on strength, God helping you. And then… then what? Well, there are lots of options for victims available today with a whole menagerie of hashtags. Or you could be like Mrs. Eva, who moves her old feet to the cold floor of a Saturday morning only to stand on a busy road to be cursed and spit upon, who feels the bitter wind up her spine and tells me to go get warm, who would be first to say I’m sorry, please forgive me, and come on in, who has, with all her cares, held my hand in the winter rain and prayed for me.

     I’m not a political activist. I don’t keep up with all the latest. Big things can happen in this world and I won’t know about it until I read the newspaper while mulching the garden six months later. I spend my days with the dying generation who remember as in a dream a place where men looked out for women and women looked out for children and children looked out for the stray cat, and that all sounds pretty good to me, and a long time gone. I’m just an American girl, a product of public schools, Disney and on a good day, Hank the Cowdog. But I’m also a storyteller. If there’s a tidy moral to these narratives, it isn’t yet obvious to me. I’m just here to tell you what I’ve seen lately in the parking lot, the waiting room, the big house and on the roadside.

    I’m just here to tell you a story, like Matthew when he said, Jesus called a little child to his side and set him on his feet in the middle of them all. “Believe me,” he said, “unless you change your whole outlook and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is the man who can be as humble as this little child who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me.  (Matthew 18, JB Phillips)

       Maybe I do have something to say, a conclusion, however unoriginal: If you are a woman, be a woman. If you have a home, keep it. Don’t think you’re too important to witness the dust motes in the afternoon sun. If your mind is turned to the ways you have been hurt, consider longer the ways you have hurt others. And if you are a mother be a mother. Make welcome.

   I confess I am afraid to deliver these words, for the internet is like an over-grazed pasture, and I’ve always been one to step in it.

Annie Dillard, Aunt Maud and Lore Wilbert

    I seriously contemplated reapplying for this mentorship under a different name. Or just reapplying in the hope that she would look down with pity and let me go again, just one more time. When I saw the announcement post on Sayable, I was in the same place, doing the same chore I was doing last year when I first read about the opportunity and my stomach churned with the possibility of going for it. What if I fail? I grew up asking this question. Well somebody’s got to fail, my Mama would say. Oh I love her bottom line. And that’s what I wanted, what I needed in writing. The plain truth. Should I keep trying? Should I set aside unforgiving minutes to the painfully slow stringing together of words? Nobody around was able to tell me, because nobody knew enough to say for sure. They all see me in a hundred ways, but mostly as their familiar friend, which is very different from the caricature of someone who writes books, all sequestered with a laptop in a damp shed while the party is going on.

     I don’t know most of you who read this blog, but I think many of you are writers. I encourage you to apply for this mentorship. I loved Lore’s own voice long before I spoke with her on the phone. As a teacher she is clear and precise, certainly intimidating for a newbie, but I can tell you she is kind and faithful. Don’t be afraid. And even if you fail, somebody’s got to fail. But do try to find a mentor. Finding someone better than you won’t be hard, but if you can find someone better who is willing to help you, you’ve struck rich, my friend. Don’t pass it up.

     Well I’m not reapplying, Lore. I asked myself what you would say. You gave me parting orders and I haven’t really tried very hard. So when I finished my chore, I took my nervous stomach down to BestBuy and bought a laptop and came home to clear out a run-down shed. So don’t be surprised if you can’t find me at the party, folks. I’m writing.


     In the first week of the mentorship we were asked to read one of several recommended books and write a reflection. I chose The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and here is my piece below. After all the training and stretched muscles of the past year, it’s still accurate. 

     I felt like a scrawny Israelite, trembling in the battle line, as I read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. She shouted over the roar coming from ahead, adding to its terror, a fierce chieftainess, with a pencil stuck behind her ear and a clothespin latched on the finger pointed straight at me.

    “Scared? Turn back now! You are free! Go home! We don’t need you!” She mocked me. I was too afraid to move, even to run.

    I am not like her, wielding a two-edged sword, handy in palpable images and stories that prove the point without strain. No, the best you could say of me is that I was willing a month ago when the sign up sheet went around. The sound of war has changed that. Am I willing to be made willing again? I think I might be, if someone would bring me Jayber Crow and a big cup of tea.

    But for now I sit in the garden, under Dillard’s intense tutelage, reading the sentence (about the Seminole alligator wrestler) for the third time because my mom is humming a hymn while she weeds. It takes my feeble brain significant effort to overcome this friendly disturbance. When she yells “Kale and Eggs!” I give up and seek a new quiet place, as the chieftainess recommended. It’s not her austere shed, but a daffodil field; my desk is a backpack on my lap. The quiet is interrupted by the dogs wrangling beside me, but I am here with the book, and the threat of war continues, unmoved by my efforts to be a good soldier.

    I don’t know how to write. What’s more, I don’t have any of the eccentric tendencies of a writer. I was hoping to squeeze it in. Maybe if I carry a sword, a bad guy will just fall on it. She has challenged me and exposed the extremity of the writing life. My half-baked heart will not suffice. I do love sentences. And I do take out two words for every one and pour out half, if not all, of every fermented batch, so that’s a good sign, I guess. Even in this piece, I have taken hold of the alligator head of each sentence and wrestled with the tail only to discover I misjudged the creature: It is an inchworm and the poor thing may not recover. I can see Dillard sizing me up, wondering if there is enough there to beat into shape. I really don’t know.

    She reminds me of my great Aunt Maud, whom I never met. There was no road to her house. She lived on a mountain. You had to set out through the woods on foot, following a pig path first, but then it left off and you’d just start to praying. At last you would reach the tidy farm house, bone tired, ready for a hug.

    “Hungry?” she’d holler from the porch. “Best fetch a chicken.”

Greatest Treasure

    One of my elderly ladies is a Rachel Lynde sort of character, quick witted and blunt, formerly ambitious for herself and now for others, of which I am foremost.

    “Have you met any young men?” she asked me yesterday, and last week, and the week before, by which she means single male humans. I thought of inventing a racy story, but this woman can smell a lie and an over-boiled pot from across the room, before it starts, and finds nothing amusing in either, and I mention it only that we may, as with Anne Shirley, thank heavens I didn’t say what came to mind.

    And perhaps the same can be said for her, although I got in the car that afternoon feeling like this lady I love saw me as wasted and invisible, uneducated, poor, and unwilling or unable to improve myself, through college, a career or marriage. Doomed to taking care of people who want me to be different. I put my head on the steering wheel. I can’t go home like this, I thought.

    So I did what the Puritans would recommend. I texted a friend. AM I OKAY? I asked, and she replied unusually fast to say, You are more than okay, because of Jesus. None of those other things could make you more. Lift up your head. And I did.

    I know a street preacher who often says, Your resume offends God. This may sound harsh, but he’s found that one of the biggest things keeping people from faith in Christ is all they think they are. Obviously, it’s God who writes our stories and he surely cares about who we are, or claim to be, more than anyone, whether that’s Anne of a Billion Followers or Anne of Green Gables. But he’s not impressed by you- and certainly not me- and to the extent that we glory in ourselves, we do offend Him. Just as I am, doesn’t mean just as I am in my independence, my success and my fullness (thank goodness), but just as I am in my nothing. Just as I was as a single cell, just as I will be in my dying hour, where I have witnessed, firsthand, the vanity of the things we come to trust in. Even in our primes, at the height of our beauties and accomplishments, we are all of us still just in Christ, or not.

     The hardest thing about loving elderly people, and caring for them, is death. It has a way of taking people, you know, clear off the face of the earth. Shazam. Just like that. It can happen to anybody, but it will happen to someone in their nineties, quite soon. There is little to gain, under the sun, from making such a late-hour friendship. I’ve invested a lot of time in people who won’t be there when I need them, want them, miss them. It’s not like raising children, and for some reason, I didn’t see this coming. Of course, old people will die, I would’ve said. But no, Sarah, these will be your friends. You will be asked to speak at the funerals and given keepsakes to remember them by, and then you will have to move on. Other jobs and other people will replace the time you had together. You’ll try not to make too much about the changes, because old people will die, and young people will go on living until something stops them. But at some point you will see yourself through the eyes of a Rachel Lynde:  All these years, you haven’t been accumulating education, admirers or money, child. You’ve been accumulating dying friends. Where is the gain?

     You’ll put your head on the steering wheel, only to raise it a little and drop it, again and again. Then you’ll ask someone to tell you the truth. My worth is not in skill or name/ In win or lose, in pride or shame/ But in the blood of Christ that flowed at the cross


Time for Tea


   A group of us were talking about fasting the other day, and how important it is to be capable of giving up something, even something lovely and lawful, for a time, to give yourself to other things.

   “What do you really love?” Mrs Eva asked me.  And before I could think to stop myself and pick something else I loved a little less, I said with profound sigh and far-off look, “Afternoon tea.”

    Mrs. Mary taught me to love tea. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that if you want someone to love the truth, you must tell them a story. Well, that is what Mrs. Mary does. She’s never said anything about tea in itself— the health benefits or the history and nobility of the art, for instance. She offers no defense. She simply asks me, and asks me again and again, throughout the seasons of the years, to come in. Come for tea, Sarie, she says, and let me show you love and real comfort.

    Her idea of tea is a feast. In every way, she feeds you… in the place settings and the smells and in the stacks of books piled up everywhere around her house, I leave full. But even on days when it’s just a quick solitary cup while milking in the barn, it was Mrs. Mary who taught me to enjoy the taste of the tea itself, apart from the cream and sugar, and of the beauty of the vessel and the warm feel of it in my hand. And it was she who taught me, by giving her time, that it is not a waste of time.

    I did something uncharacteristic and remarkably grownup yesterday and looked ahead on my calendar. And— lo and behold!— today is National Hot Tea Day, in case you didn’t know. And although I’m usually at odds with government level decisions, in general and particular, I would have to say that this one sounds like a jolly good idea. So please make yourself a cup, or better yet, a pot, and have a spot with me today in honor of Mrs. Mary.  There are, indeed, days when I fast from this good thing, but it’s not this day.


A Grocery List, A Banquet, and What Mama Always Wanted to Do

   I keep just one type of journal, which is mostly prayers and the same prayers over and over, with no juicy details or anything, and so fairly uninteresting. But occasionally I’ll write down bits of dialogue or more story-like thoughts. I’ve brought some of them here for you.

     It was a lovely year. It was a confusing year. Looking back, I can’t help but think of my Nana Betty’s oft-used words, “My, my, my! What a mess!”  But setting out on this new year, the wisdom of an old school teacher also comes to mind, “Sometimes, honey, you’ve just got to tuck your ears back and dive on in!”  So here’s to that, dear reader, because life is short and precious. 



    “What we need is a sixteen-year old boy with a chainsaw.”

     I looked up from digging the encroaching Ginger Lily roots from the walkway. “Yeah. With no regard for his own life.”

     We sighed.

     “But they don’t make them like that anymore,” she said. “What are we going to do?”

     It is not uncommon for us to begin the new year with such bright-eyed optimism.    

    We sat on the bed in the spare room, and threw away paperwork— His, not ours, so it was easily done. Mrs. Alice had a whole conversation with herself in grunts and humphs.

     “When he asks me where this stuff is, I’m going to say, ‘I have no idea!, but what a LOT OF JUNK it was, my son!’ “

   “So, did you prepare a speech or something?”

    “Nah, I got this,” he said.

     We were on the way to a lakeside club house, just the two of us. He was the guest speaker of the banquet, and we were all dressed up.

    As he pulled into the drive, I panicked.

    “Wait! What am I supposed to do?”

    “You? You’re the franchise,” he said.

    “Oh. Of course I am. Great. What does that mean?”

    “Eat and drink as much as you possibly can, because they’re paying for it.”

    Well, he really did have it. I was so proud. He made the history of blueback herring sound fascinating, from start to finish. It was a triumph. For me, as well. You ever need someone to be the franchise, I’m your girl.

IMG_0008 2.jpg

    After planting potatoes, we mulched them with old rank hay, to keep the weeds down.  About half-way through the process I started to cry. Then I got angry and did some kicking and creative swearing. I finally worked myself into a better state of mind by the last wheel-barrow. I guess there is travail in every good thing this side of resurrection. Behind each heaping plate of mashed potatoes, there is a farmer, blowing dirt from his nose and wincing from a pinched, sunburned shoulder.

     She turned sixty-one today. I was cleaning the milking pail in the kitchen sick when something hit the glass of the window. The house is built into a hill, and so the kitchen seems to be on the main level when approached from the front, but it’s second story from the side, and third story from the back. Anyway, the window is high up there. I lifted myself onto the sink rim to look down and saw her standing there on the ground. I ran over to the round hallway window and popped it open.

     “Hey, everything okay?”


     “Did something hit the window?”

     “I threw a stick at it,” she said smiling, and pointed to the ground, where I guess the stick had landed. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”

     The end of August is our bleak midwinter. There inevitably comes that moment when the men want to sail to the Keys and the women want to cut off all their hair, that moment when everything expensive breaks and we’ve run out of spending money, and finally, that moment when Captain Dave looks down the table at us, scowling, and says, “It’s time to look for the fish.”

      Somehow we always forget that these grim words habitually proceed the actual finding of fish, the coming of Fall and the general health and welfare of the offspring of fishermen everywhere.


     I enter the doors of Walmart only for those I love who won’t accept this fact by any other means.

     “Here’s my list,” and she handed me a little notebook page, covered back to front. “Now we’re not leaving until we get everything on it.”

     I dug for a pen. “Here, Nanny! Shampoo. It’s on your list. Here they are. Which do you want?”

     “I don’t need shampoo.”

     “But it’s on the list.”

     “Well I don’t need it.”

     We got body powder (check), cat treats (check), baby dolls for the great-grand-babies (check), Special K (check), ice cream (check), cookies, frozen pizza and a can of refried beans (not listed).

     “Butter! Here’s butter, Nanny. You need some.”

     “No I don’t.”

     “But it’s on the list… why don’t you get some just in case?”

     “Sarah. You’re driving me crazy.”

    I was with Ruby all day in the ER. Georgia came. We hovered over her a long time together, willing her eyes to open. It was like the day I searched for my favorite dog, and imagined over and over again his answering bark. You can picture it all, and how it should happen, you know. But nothing. Then just at the last, she really did open her eyes on us.

     “Ahhh!” she said in that Norwegian way, a delighted, eloquent sound.

     It was like how we will meet again one day.

   I just returned home from Tennessee. It was wonderful. But there’s no adventure as satisfying as the lifted up and swung around kind of hugs of coming home. I was profoundly glad to see them, and I was glad to see it. There are few things in this world as beautiful as the Tennessee river, all green on the banks under a dark sky, but it still didn’t give me the shivers like the sight of our turnip field.

    “The trustees of an institution are those who have forgiven it,” Andy Crouch said from the stage, and everyone scribbled it down as the room stirred with the memories of broken homes and churches. I thought of how close and how often my family has come to collapse, in all the anger and all the hurt and all the selfishness. This tangible home has been God’s grace to us, enfolding a fragile institution, a place on earth to lay our heads when they throbbed, to hold us when we couldn’t hold each other. This place has kept us long enough to see the day of reconciliation— to see my eyes, the barometer of our condition, weep, swell, recover and smile again. The pain would ease and we could reach for each other once more.

   I know it’s just a cobwebbed ceiling and mud-tracked floor. I know it could burn up tomorrow, and I’d be just fine. But I also know that I have a run-away heart, and this place with the hundreds of ravines, animal stalls and trees to fly to, has kept me here, where I have been best tested and refined. Here, where I can be faithful by showing up, to feed and clean and milk and wash and love. Maybe that’s just my story, but I’m beginning to think it’s a good one.



A Winter Look and See

     I was told a story the other night about an elderly lady who had Alzheimer’s and would wake up every morning dead set on going to the post office, which, to her, was making continual laps down the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen and around again. But one morning, after a bath, she absolutely refused to put clothes on for her daughter, Dot, who was much distressed. Finally, defeated, Dot went into the kitchen to make coffee. So as the old lady did her laps, she saw her reflection in the hall mirror. Horrified, she came into the kitchen and said, “Dot, did you see that ugly old thing in the post office without a stitch on?!”
I laughed, the pained laugh of falling in a cold creek. I know it well. It is the laugh of the bright side, you know, the could-be-worse. At least she had the grace to see herself, like few of us do…only the point of recognition had passed. Sanctification, I think, at least in part, is really seeing yourself, if only for a moment, and it’s grace if you don’t like what you see.

    But then sanctification is a looking away from yourself too. In a book of prayers by Amy Carmichael, she asks for a heart at leisure from itself.  I’ve had a few of those moments, here and there, and they were my finest ones. For me they came, almost every one, out in the fields with God, as the poet said.

    We can ask to see ourselves and beyond ourselves. We can go looking in the hall mirrors and the fields for the ivy-covered doors of a secret garden, but in the end the glimpses come and go when they will, and this too, is our sanctification. But don’t let that stop you from looking. You just might flush a herd of deer bedded down in a bottom, blowing, with white flags sailing in the grey mist. Or if you go to the post office, you might see something else entirely. 

    Here’s a Winter Look and See from my world today. Thanks for stopping by!

Ludwigia alternifolia or Seedbox 


A lovegrass of some kind. 
Spanish Moss from the coast


Lady’s Thumb




This day is like the road,

running away as I ride

in the back of the truck,

braced up and nursing

a sloshing cup of brandy,

    sweetened with berries.

This tree is like a birth

laid heavy on my legs,

cut down to race a season

and run a greenness,

a last-year nest falling loose

   yet telling tales

of home.


All around, the pines

keep long the last light

with a wind song of hail

to the road before—

behind? The road I rode

    while hauled away.

What mystery!  Bringing home

a Christmas tree;

To tell of life in death,

to die even as it tells,

as sap runs from a wound,

    as a summer-sweet cup

is emptied.


Mrs. Ruby at Sea

    A few months ago, in the late summer, I went into the War Veterans Home and came out again with Mrs. Ruby’s suitcase. Mrs. Ruby followed behind ever so slowly, and she laughed the slowest deepest laugh you’ve ever heard, like a beautiful mother Ent. A beech tree, she would be, strong and white and golden, the last standing of a generation cut down.

    We were going to Mrs. Georgia’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina, on just a finger of solid ground in a bay called Land’s End. We made a party of six women, with three widows, Georgia, Marie and Ruby, and three single girls, Annie, Laura and myself. Six women bound by friendship and sea-changes, bound by death and life again, bound by love for the sweet green marsh and the rhythmic tide.

   We were grieving. Each felt the other’s. Sorrow was our seventh guest there in the old house. There is freedom in grief’s company, not a morbid shunning of suffering or a worship of it either, but as an honest word among many words, like love and beauty, and certainly not the last one. In this place you could let it go a while. Let it take care of itself. You could think about your friends. You could find yourself comforting them in the bearing of your sorrow. You could say, “Look at that shrimp boat!” and “How about lunch?” and you could, like Laura, laugh at something silly you read and read it out loud so they can laugh at you instead.

  In Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, one of my favorite novels, it is prophesied among a group of friends that the war they found themselves in would cost the best of them, and you know the character Peter will have to die before the end. We brought Mrs. Ruby to the sea because some such prophesy was made concerning her. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. She was having strokes. She was sleeping too long. So she would have a holiday. She would have a long car ride down dark roads of mossy oaks, and over precarious narrow bridges. She would eat good food all the day. She would sleep in a real home. She would be surrounded by windows. She would take a shower outside, with a bird’s nest in the beam of the stall, a “million dollar shower” she would say. She would laugh her deep, slow laugh again and again at the young girls. She would see the ocean, one last time.

   One evening this autumn, Mrs. Ruby fell.

   “Well, that’s not exactly true,” she told me from the hospital bed, “It was really more of a slide.”

    Mrs Ruby broke her hip. She has been in bed for two weeks. They have done all they can. She is dying, slowly. She is dying like many do. She wakes up sometimes and tells us about the new birth. They call it her preaching, and it offends many, like that Stone of stumbling she was built into.

   “Why have you come?” she asks. And the answer is love. Her eyes light up when you say it, and not until you do. And then she points that lovely narrow finger up to the ugly drop ceiling and says, “This is how we know what love is… Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Maybe you don’t like it and don’t want to hear it, but Mrs. Ruby doesn’t care. She is way past caring. But you will never get over her, nor will I.

   Nor will I. She is standing on the shore. She is clean from her shower. She has tasted the goodness of the earth. She is happy like always. She is laughing her laugh. She is telling us goodbye. For just a moment, her eyes opened yesterday on Mrs. Georgia. “I’m okay,” she said. Just two words laid down beside grief and pain and death. Two words from a dry mouth, sent to comfort her friend.   


 “We have traveled this day to the bounding sea, O Lord, to the far edge of the habitable land, as to the utter end of our own measure and ability and strength…”

 Douglas McKelvey, from Every Moment Holy

Our Journey Home


    On this day, four years ago, I sent an email to a fellow student in an online writing class. Her name was Sarah, and she was born on August 24th, the same day as me. The class itself was somewhat of a fluke, as the teacher ran over his laptop and just sort of forgot about the whole thing, despite the considerable fee. We were both very baby writers anyway, and I was inclined to look upon this as a discouraging sign from the heavens, but she laughed it off and in an effort to salvage the experience asked: “Would you like to exchange writing prompts once a week?”

    And so we got to know each other slowly, and yet so well that it’s hard to believe four years can accomplish so much, and from so great a distance. Sarah lives in England, the land of fairytales, in a cottage in a cathedral city. True story. She comes to see me, and I have longed, especially in uncomfortable times, to run off to her, like the heroines in the Austen novels who escape to their friends by the sea or Bath, and yet the story always follows them, you know, and things get better. So would the story follow me and things get better in the city of the water meadows, where five rivers converge, and swans gather on the banks, where the evening light still rests on King Alfred’s White Horse and casts long shadows at Stonehenge, where a gentle rain hits the windowpane of the room where Sarah sits and writes to me.

    She is thinking very carefully, and loving very deeply. She is perhaps unhappy, because of these things. I have leaned very heavily on her, even from such a distance. Someone told me the other day that a single person has no household to observe as a testimony of their character. They don’t know Sarah, or this mystery of the kingdom yet, how God takes a barren woman and makes her the mother of children, how He raises the valleys and is near to the brokenhearted. But I do, and it is grace. She has kept me well. She applies the promises of God to me, and in this way especially, she loves me often more than herself.

    She is the one who introduced me to Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch, and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, novels that changed me. It was Sarah who sent me The Good God, by Michael Reeves, when I wasn’t sure He was and Robert Capon’s The Supper of the Lamb, when I was hungry for a feast. And it was she, the blessed girl, who gave me the poetry of Malcolm Guite. His words have been mile markers for us along the way, in pain,

These bleak and freezing seasons may mean grace

When they are memory. In time to come

When we speak truth, then they will have their place,

Telling the story of our journey home,

and comfort,

Some people say that life is just a given thing

but you and I both know by whom its lent

and that it’s right here in the dirt

where we’ve both been loved and hurt

that Love Himself has come to pitch His tent

    All this has kept us, with simple words, mindful of the beauty just beyond our reach, but not forever. Sarah came to see me a month ago today. She bravely slept in the back of my 4Runner while I drove the interstate for six hours to Franklin, Tennessee, where we sat in a crowded auditorium, and shivered together with a glimpse of the joy we will have in fullness one day soon, in these words by Andrew Peterson:

Does Jesus our Messiah hold forever those he loves? He does.

Does our God intend to dwell again with us? He does.

    I plan to walk with Sarah through the rest of our lives, and I know there will be many marked days, joyful and sad, but I’m not sure any moment in this vale will surpass the sweetness of singing with her and beside her that night. Except if it was the moment, in hectic Atlanta traffic, when I looked at her in the rearview mirror, and she winked.

    I know that our friendship is not unique. It is as ordinary as that red wheelbarrow. You know, the one that so much depends on. There are many thousands of them in this old world, many countless eyes searching through open windows, calculating the time of day across the world, wondering what a friend is doing at that moment, wishing they were there doing it too. “The words are purposes. The words are maps,” as the poet says. The words between us, since that first email four years ago, were purposed, beyond our knowing of it, to reach each other’s hearts….  and the map? The map is of our journey home.