When I was young in the mountains, we sat on the porch swing in the evenings, and Grandfather sharpened my pencils with his pocketknife. Grandmother sometimes shelled beans and sometimes braided my hair. The dogs lay around us, and the stars sparkled in the sky.
— from When I Was Young In The Mountains by Cynthia Rylant, illus. by Diane Goode (1982)
This beautiful picture book is very calming with its rhythmical repetition, its mellow pictures, and its description of a simple, old-fashioned mountain life. The theme of contentment builds through the pages, and I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book about contentment before.* It’s refreshing and thought-provoking at the same time.
My youngest daughter and I read this book as part of our Five In A Row curriculum this week. We made a graph, counting different things in the illustrations. We talked about contentment, but my little talk seemed completely insignificant. The book speaks for itself. We looked at pictures of the Appalachian Mountains, and that was lovely. Did you know there are Green Mountains and White Mountains? We ran across a picture of a Mohican longhouse, and that was interesting. We also talked about food and good nutrition, making a placemat to remind my snacky daughter that vegetables and fruit are important, too. My daughter enjoyed the picture of Mr. and Mrs. Crawford, who looked alike. She’d cover up the bun in Mrs. Crawford’s hair and say, “Now she’s Mr. Crawford.” Such lovely, happy people in this book.
*I’ve just now thought of another book about contentment: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. But that was a bull. It’s easier for a bull to be content than a person.
Beautiful prose by Geraldine Brooks:
Whatever joy there might have been in the summer that followed Caleb’s coming to us, it ended on a day so sweet and still that I moved through it as if floating in a bath of honey. It had rained hard the night before; that kind of heavy, sharp-scented summer rain that lays the dust and washes the pollen from the air, leaving everything rinsed and bright. The fragrance of ripeness and bloom grew more pungent as the morning waxed fair. The harbor sparkled, and when the lightest of breezes rippled through the sea grass, each blade shimmered like a filament of beaten silver.
On a day so Godsent, your mind is untroubled, the entire world seems well. You gird for tragedy on a different sort of day.
— from Caleb’s Crossing (2011)
I am reading two good novels right now, and they are slow readers. Something about the language slows me down. Not to mention I’ve been busier lately, preparing for birthdays and school routines and an upcoming season of homeschool co-op.
My downstairs book is Remembering by Wendell Berry (1988). The main character is a farmer who is also a husband, father, and speaker at farm conventions. He is trying to adjust to a hook on his right arm where some farm machinery removed his hand. He leaves behind an almost ruined marriage as he goes to San Francisco for a convention where his bitterness embarrasses him in front of the audience. If I were my husband, and I was still a writer and still part me, this might be the book I wrote. Hurray for Wendell Berry and his down-to-earth farming sense combined with excellent descriptive prose and a sound insight into the human farmer condition.
My upstairs book is Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (2012). It took me awhile to understand who this book was really about, but now that I’m more than half-way through, I am delighted with the story. It’s about the daughter of Calvinist minister, Rev. Mayfield, who converts many Wampanoag Indian to Christianity. It is also about the first Native American man to graduate from Harvard University. Puritan stories are always interesting to me because I am raised in the Calvinist tradition as well. And it’s Geraldine Brooks writing the story, which means the characters are deep and rich, very sympathetic. I might write more about this book when I’m finished with it.
I am so thankful for good literature.
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
— from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, 2004
This is my second time through Gilead, and I pulled far more out of it than the first time. I think it helps to read Home first. This particular quote is near the end. It struck me as encouraging. Sometimes it’s difficult just to find a reason to keep going. We come up empty when we search for one, and then we have to trust that God has reasons we know nothing about. And even if God has only one reason for me to be living right here, right now, then that reason is sufficient. There’s no reason to flee the scene. No reason to hide. No reason to not get up in the morning.
In some ways this has been a good year. I read lots of books. Some of them were good, even great. I wrote some small things and got them published. I kept up this blog, which is a writing exercise in itself, keeping myself from going rusty.
In other ways, this has been a bad year. I feel some sympathies with the two main characters in Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2008). A prodigal son (Jack) returns home and bonds with his sister (Glory) who also returned home after a failed marriage. They are taking care of their dying father. In the scene I’m about to quote, Jack has just attempted to go to church and backed out at the last minute. He came home to find Glory giving Papa a haircut, and so Jack asks for one, too.
“I’m going to trim around your ears. I’ve got to get it even.”
He crossed his ankles and folded his hands and sat there obediently while she snipped at one side and then the other. She tipped up his face again to judge the effect. There were tears on his cheeks. She took a corner of the towel and patted them away, and he smiled at her.
“Exasperation,” he said. “I’m so tired of myself.”
Me, too. But what else is there to do, but be myself all day, everyday? I can be polite and distant like Jack, cautious to let anyone be involved with my tiresome self. I can be good and careful and quiet like Glory, keeping my true story tucked away, quietly reading my Bible in moments of peace, crying a lot. This book packs a lot of pent-up emotion.
So here’s a pent-up hurrah for the new year. May it be good for God, and may God give us the grace to make it through each day.
From far a light, maybe a hill ranch
remote and unvisited, beams on the horizon
when we pass; then it is gone.
For the rest of our lives that far place
waits; it’s an increment, one more
hollow that slips by out there, almost
a gift, an acquaintance taken away.
Still, beyond all ranches the deep
night waits, breathing when we breathe,
always ready to offer new light,
over and over, so long as we search
for something so faint most people
won’t know, even when it is found.
— by William Stafford, 1993
I can see my parents’ yard light from my kitchen window, and early this evening I happened to look out there (I look out while I’m filling someone’s water glass from the fridge water dispenser), and the yard light blinked off. I actually braced myself, waiting for the electricity outage to travel down the road to my house. Except, I’m pretty sure it goes the other way. Our house would go out first. It was probably just the wind blowing snow across my vision of their light. The wind is howling cold tonight.
And it was that sort of night, too, when I had about given up searching for lights in the darkness. I’m still not smiling, not even on the inside. But there were faint things, I suppose. My daughter’s preference for Robin Hood over Magic School Bus books. An encouraging email I hadn’t expected. A warm quilt in a cold room. I pray I never really, truly stop searching for those lights.
Nelly Dean is the housekeeper and storyteller in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Nelly Dean is also the title of a more recent novel (2015) by Alison Case. This story follows the life of Nelly, not retelling Bronte’s story, but filling in the cracks with another story just as powerful. Here is an excerpt:
It came to me, then, that the trapped bird was a good figure for any of the three of them: Hindley’s rage, Heathcliff’s desperate love, Cathy’s hunger for freedom – whatever drove them, it seemed to drive them each past sense and reason… I thought to myself, ‘I am not like them,’ and it was like a revelation to me… I did not have it in me to fly wildly at a window again, and yet again, and yet again. And no doubt that was a good thing. But for all my pride in my own good sense, I could not help being sad at the thought.
Sometimes I believe I am too much of a sensible hen, like Nelly. I agree that it is a sad thing to not have the kind of passion that embodies some people. And yet, none of us are completely tame. Who but God can know our inmost thoughts, which race wild inside us, getting caught at the filters of speech and actions? I might be a sensible hen, but I have a streak of hawk, too.