Somewhere in eastern Montana I finished reading Gaudy Night. With a sigh I closed the book and stared out the train window. In the westering light, green and gold fields rolled away from the tracks in undulating waves clear to the horizon. My eyes smarted, and something in my chest ached. The train’s whistle blew, a plaintive song fading into the distance.
The curve of the sky above the train and the fields seemed taller than my urban eyes were used to, bluer, more three-dimensional. The clouds puffed their tops into the dome of the sky, like snow-white pastries rising in a celestial oven. I held the closed book between my hands, unshed tears pressing against my eyes and aching in my chest. The book was over, and I’d lived with these characters for almost 500 pages and had come to love them; I wanted to keep on living with them and loving them.
But it was more than just that. For as long as I can remember excellent books have almost always left me feeling a bit bereft, as if I lost a part of myself, left it in the pages of the book. (This is perhaps why I reread books religiously: maybe I subconsciously hope that I will find the part of myself that I left behind.) Or maybe it’s that a truly great book enlarges me, and by the end of it there is a hole, an aching gap between who I was before I read it and who I was once I finished it. Maybe it’s both.
I watched the fields roll by. As small hills appeared in the distance, dark blue against the brighter sky, a nagging awareness tugged at my attention: to some extent, this ache in my breast was envy. I knew that I would never, ever write a book like Gaudy Night, no matter how great a writer I became. For years I had railed against this, feeling somehow shortchanged because my literary abilities were not on a level with Dorothy Sayers or Jane Austen or George Eliot. I stared out the window for a long while, seeing nothing. Then I opened Gaudy Night again, and found the page I wanted, where Harriet Vane says:
“I’m sure one should do one’s own job, however trivial, and not persuade one’s self to do somebody else’s job, however noble.”
She was exactly right. One talent or ten is not up to me. My job is to do my best with what I have. Gaudy Night marked a threshold for me, the beginning of a long process of letting go of my entitlement, my pride, my shame, and my fear. As I relinquished those deadening habits of thought and being, my desire to be a ten talent writer slowly waned, and in its place came a more wholesome desire, a desire whose fulfillment lay entirely within my power: to be a better writer tomorrow than I was today, to make of my one talent all I could.
The hills in the distance drew nearer, no longer blue, instead revealing cloven sides and the sere golden brown of the stubble that covered them. An outcrop of red rock rose incongruously between two of the wheat-colored hills.
Loss. Envy. Both were true, as far as they went, but they didn’t go far enough. Watching the golden hills flow by outside my window, I recalled my high school and college fancy that when I died, I would meet all the literary characters I’d ever loved. (Even now, I secretly suspect that they exist, fully alive and animate, in some sort of Christian version of Plato’s realm of forms.) For a brief moment, I imagined myself bantering and laughing with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in a perfect place where their frightful intelligence and wit did not intimidate me, where I could be wholly myself and at the same time wholly unaware of myself and so wholly at home with them.
That momentary image of joyful at-home-ness both deepened and encapsulated the ache in my chest, and transmuted my sense of loss and even my envy: my desire to have written Gaudy Night (or any of the books that awakened this longing) was, at its core, a desire to more intimately participate in them, to become part of them. It was the longing to lose myself in something—or Someone—other and greater than myself.
Every spring, I have this same aching experience when I see a certain sort of cherry blossom—pale pink blooms drooping their delicate heads from slender stems, whole trees of them, and I want to inhale them, or eat them, or fling myself into the branches, the petals. As C.S. Lewis puts it:
“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it….At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door….We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
It was this longing for union that I felt that day on the train, the ache of longing to get in, to find, at last, my true Home—and dwell in that Land for ever.
The hills marched nearer, and I saw cattle upon them. Black, brown, white-patched, they grazed, serene and placid. Gaudy Night lay open on my lap, my hands resting on its pages, and the train trundled east. Its whistle blew, long and low, like the first note of evensong.
As always, we are deeply blessed at The Cultivating Project to have K.C. Ireton share with us.
She is most certainly one of the finest writers in America and one of the most gracious people we know.
Many blessings to you, friends!
K.C. Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. An avid reader, she is especially fond of old books and home-schools her four children so that she can spend her days reading and learning all sorts of interesting things. K.C. is pleased as punch to be writing for The Cultivating Project!