Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year, I felt a door opening in me and I entered the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing, like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas assigned to my brush came closer, ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people, grief and pity joined us. We forget—I kept saying—that we are all children of the King.
For where we come from there is no division into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago— a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel staving its hull against a reef—they dwell in us, waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard, as are all men and women living at the same time, whether they are aware of it or not.
After the long winter, springtime has arrived, with nosegays in little dishes on my kitchen counter. The nosegays were assembled by my four grandchildren on their first morning of a short visit their family is making, from Colorado. They arrived last week, bringing the first day of Real Spring with them, leading me to throw open the windows and put on sandals.
We’ve taken many walks already, prompted by pleas from the children who wanted to head right down to the creek to taste the wild fennel. Last night my older son “Pathfinder” arrived from Oregon, too, so I’ve got both of them under my roof at the moment. It was balm to my soul to sit with those two last night and talk in person about everything under the sun, the way we had long been accustomed to doing — but it’s a kind of nourishment I have missed for a while.
On our walks we did find new and tender shoots of fennel to chew on as we walked, plus many species in the Family Apiaceae:
“Comprising 434 genera and about 3,700 species, the carrot family (Apiaceae) is a significant group of flowering plants. Its members are often aromatic and are characterized by hollow stems, taproots, and flat-topped flower clusters known as umbels.” Here is a list of major subgroups: Apiaceae
My Seek app told me that along the path we were seeing Cow Parsnip, Poison Hemlock, Hogweed, and Wild Carrot, but I’m not fully confident that it knows the difference between all of those. We didn’t see any Queen Anne’s Lace! This morning the older boys were helping me tidy up the overgrown bed by the driveway, where I try to help the Mexican Evening Primrose to thrive, and one of the stubborn weeds we got to calling The Carrot, because it appeared to be a member of that family, too. I forgot to take its picture, but I know it will be back.
Buttercups and daisies are thick on that walking path by the creek, one more example
of the natural response to a rainy winter. Clara was captivated.
In the last couple of years one of my friends gave me a great quantity of scrap lumber to use for kindling; my son-in-law “the Professor” sawed up quite a bit of it for me when he was here for Thanksgiving. After Soldier arrived another friend lent us his miter saw to make it easier to finish off the sawing, and one day he organized his work force of three sons to get everything done in short order. (I found enough earplugs to protect the hearing of all.) They showed that the adage is not universally true, that when it comes to work, “One boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys are no boy at all.”
Liam handed boards to his father, Soldier sawed them into the right lengths for my stove, and Laddie stacked the wood in neat rows; Brodie hauled the last of my old logs into the garage and laid them on the rack, and then raked up that area. They took a load off my mind, and changed it into a load of kindling for next winter. That utility yard is greatly opened up, and now I can use the clothesline without tripping on all that stuff.
This morning the boys and I leafed through my “Sing Through the Seasons” songbook, finding all the Spring songs we could remember the tune to. When we came to “White Coral Bells,” we took the book to the garden where my own white coral bells are taller than ever before. They thought my heuchera were a little greenish to qualify, but nevertheless were willing to sing the round right there by the waving flower spikes.
White Coral Bells, upon a slender stalk, Lilies of the Valley deck my garden walk. Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring? That will happen only when the fairies sing.
“Why We No Longer But Still Could Have Beautiful Things” is something Anthony Esolen discusses in an article titled “The Ugly and the Good,” which was first published in Touchstone in 2020. This month he republished it in his Substack newsletter.
Esolen begins by talking about beautiful cathedrals built in the Middle Ages:
“I’ve come to see the medieval cathedrals of Europe as the most glorious works of folk art the world has ever known…. They rose up as a lofty expression of the piety of ordinary people, the work of hundreds of men’s hands, digging the deep cavity for the foundation, hewing and setting delicate half-ton stones without mortar, mixing colors for paint or the glazing of windows, searching the forests for the tallest oaks to fell and to carve into beams to span a roof; far more kinds of work than I know and can name.
“They did it because they loved doing it. They were free.”
He contrasts freedom with license, using the example of Ebenezer Scrooge for the latter:
“To be free is not, O modern man, to be rid of all claims upon your love, your duty, your person, and your substance. If that were true, then Charles Dickens crafted a truly blithe and free spirit in the unregenerate Ebenezer Scrooge, crouching alone in his dismal flat and eating gruel gone sour. If you are talking about freedom and you are not talking about love and devotion, then you are not talking about freedom at all; you are talking about moral license, or a permission guaranteed by statutory law, that you may in some regard do exactly as you like, which may include gazing endlessly at evil pictures on your computer screen, and thus transforming yourself, cell by cell and pulse by pulse, into a thing, an automaton.”
His college students ask him for a definition of freedom, because, unfortunately, many of them are puzzled by his statements about what it is not. This is his answer:
“Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to attain to the perfection proper to the kind of creature you are. But since man is made in the image of the God who is a three-personed communion of love, his perfection, the enlargement of his soul, can only come by means of a gift, by the gift of grace from God, which enables him to make of himself a gift to others. There is no truly human freedom without grace, and the love that is its proper response.”
As to modern man’s failure to develop a love, or even a desire for beautiful things, Esolen proposes three reasons. If you’re interested enough that you’ve read this far, you can read them in the article: “The Ugly and the Good”
He also exhorts us to work on the restoration of the culture we have lost:
“We must take back the heart, the chest, the seat of proper passions, which is to take back from Satan those commanding heights of the imagination, which is to reject the errors I have mentioned and to repair the harm they have done. We must not value the useful over the beautiful. We must not reduce beauty to a commodity. We must not forget that our experience of beauty should lead us back to the source of beauty, who is God.”
Esolen suggests that we spend more time cultivating an appreciation for art of every sort; and that we start with the beautiful things that are most accessible:
“Song and poetry are the most immediately available of all the arts, requiring only a human mind and a human voice. If you want a Rembrandt, you have to go see it, or carry a copy with you under your arm while you avert your eyes from the glare of the policeman. Grand pianos, with Van Cliburn sitting at them, are not to be found on every street corner. You cannot from your porch in New Hampshire gaze upon the great arms that Bernini conceived for St. Peter’s piazza, extending in the shape of a key to embrace the thousands who would come to worship there.
“But anyone can possess a song or a poem. If you have a voice, you can sing, and if you have a mind, you can remember what you sing. If you have a voice, you can utter a poem, and remember what you have uttered. In a way, you can best possess a song only by singing it, and a poem only by giving it the performance of your mind and heart and voice and body. Song and poetry should be the most democratic of the arts, more truly by the people, of the people, and for the people than anything else in our experience.”
That brings me to — Poetry Month! I have a little experience of what he’s talking about here, knowing by heart several poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses, which give me joy when I have occasion to recite them, usually to a grandchild, these days. How many songs do I know? Oh my, countless! After reading Esolen, I am extra grateful for all the songs and singing I have loved throughout my life. I am singing these days more than ever.
This short and beloved poem below, which I think I’ve shared here more than once — maybe I should compose a tune for it. Because of its simplicity and rhythm it embedded itself in my mind very easily, long ago, and years later it was right at hand to speak aloud, one night when my late husband and I were peering over a bridge into the dark, where with the help of a street light we could see ripples in the stream down below.
The tide in the river, The tide in the river, The tide in the river runs deep. I saw a shiver Pass over the river As the tide turned in its sleep.
May we nurture ever more beauty, music and poetry in our lives,
and offer the joy with thankfulness up to God.
Several years ago I realized that my wood stove was becoming dysfunctional in a couple of important ways. I thought that I should probably change to having a gas fireplace insert, now that I am older and my back is not as strong as it used to be, for carrying the firewood and bending over the stove to build and tend the fire.
I also thought, mistakenly, that I was not allowed to install a new wood-burning insert in our area. When I learned that it was only for new construction that the building code forbids them, I was elated.
And during that time my housemate Susan began to carry wood and build fires, too. Many times when I came home from a trip or just a late-afternoon outing in the winter, I walked into a house that had been all cozied up by her ministrations. These various factors persuaded me to buy a new wood stove, with the help of my son who shopped all over town with me.
I’ve been enjoying the fires very much this past winter, and my back has been up to the work involved, because I’ve been doing my “strengthening exercises.” (Isn’t that what Tigger also does?) The recent rains came with milder weather overall, and I haven’t had a fire for a week — until this cold, cold evening of the beginning of spring, when my feet would not get warm. It was late before I got on task, but now the logs are blazing and my toes are toasty.
For the last two months, though, I have been the only wood-carrier-fire-builder around the place, because my last housemate has moved out, and I am living alone for the first time since the summer just after my husband died. God brought me three housemates during those years, and they were all wonderful people to have around. For awhile there were three of us women living here. But now it seems it has been given me to live alone (with God) in my house, which has been more of an adjustment psychologically than I expected. I got through the transition and I am loving it.