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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

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Interview with Christie Purifoy – Author of Placemaker

April 20, 2019



Christie Purifoy is a rare and beautiful example in this world of someone whose craft of words matches the voice they use in life. She is the acclaimed author of Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons, and Placemaker: Cultivating Places of Comfort, Beauty, and Peace. Placemaker is a memoir and introduction to trees and wonder, earth and roofs, homes and journeys there. It sings of beauty that surrounds us, often unseen, and of the call to us to plant our hearts into the places where God has planted us. Placemaker is an extraordinary book but no more so than its extraordinary author herself. The life Christie cultivates at Maplehurst and beyond is both incarnational and an invitation to each of us to go and do likewise. It is my deep happiness to share Christie’s interview with you. 





 

LES: Early on in Placemaker, you offer your readers this beautiful summons:

“This book is an invitation to reconsider your own relationship to the ground beneath your feet and the roof over your head.”

You extend this summons not so much though as simply a call to awareness as to enter into relationship. Everything in Placemaker is couched in the concepts of relationship. Relationships with time, space, people, trees, places… all bound together in a whole life and whole world. In Placemaker you create layers of portraits like icons made to be passed through to something beyond the portrait itself. Not the least of these is the underlying presence and portrayal of God. You give a kind of “tangibility” to God in Placemaker that is rare and hungered for, and needed. You introduce Him as personal – “a God who delights in places as well as people.” 

Do you have a sense of collaboration with God in the writing itself about all this and about His loves and delights? What is that partnership with Him like?

CP: I do, primarily because God has always revealed himself to me through beauty, and especially the beauty of creation. I was never explicitly taught to look or listen for God in those places and in those ways, so it took many years before my eyes and ears were really opened to beauty as a language of God. I hope Placemaker is affirming for others who may have sensed God’s voice in forests and gardens but haven’t felt free, for one reason or another, to pause and listen well.

LES: Where did the word Placemaker come from and how did its meaning become clearer to you as you wrote the manuscript?

CP: I believe the word first came to me when I was giving promotional interviews for my first book Roots and Sky. Though I have tried and failed to remember if someone shared the word with me, or if I shared it with them! But isn’t that so often the case with creativity? The spark is lit in relationship, and suddenly there is this new shimmering idea whose origins are mysterious. The word placemaker feels like that to me. I am sure I wasn’t the first to use it. I hope and pray I won’t be the last. But it has also felt like a gift given to me, something I turned and shaped in my own heart like a rock tossed in the water, until it was ready for me to give it back to the world in a more polished form.

LES: How did you come to use trees as the device to anchor this book of memories? Where did that opening idea about the Magician’s Nephew cover come from and how did that lead to the other trees?

CP: The trees came only after I sat down to write an early draft of the book. Only a few paragraphs in, I found myself bored to tears. I knew I could never write the book as a straightforward memoir without boring myself and my reader. At that time, I had recently read the memoir H is for Hawk, and I had been struck by the book’s form: a somewhat typical memoir of grief wrapped in the history and practice of falconry. I began to wonder if I could use a similar unconventional form in order to better pass on, not simply my own placemaking stories, but the inspiration behind them. I asked myself: what inspires me the most in the place where I live? And I knew, almost immediately, that the answer was trees. I am the woman who used a birthday gift certificate to buy herself an enormous tree encyclopedia (and I do mean enormous—it might break a foot if dropped!).

The memory of that book cover was immediately accessible when I sat down to write this new version of Placemaker. The idea and image of a Narnian forest is one of my most persistent and significant memories. It is the lens through which I have seen every forest I’ve ever visited.

I think artistic lenses, like those C. S. Lewis offers in his books, don’t distort our seeing. Rather, they help us see more truly, like the glasses I wear every day.

A Writer’s Life 

LES: Were the hurdles as a writer different for you this time than when you wrote Roots and Sky? As a writer, how do you get past the roadblocks, both the old repeating kind, and the new ones that you don’t expect?

CP: The hurdles were very different. With my first book, I was almost paralyzed by a need to make it a perfect work of art, a desire I also knew I could never attain. Also, I wrestled with the underlying theology of Roots and Sky, often writing myself into questions I couldn’t answer. I needed long breaks with theology books before I could write myself toward satisfying conclusions. With this second book, I accepted from the beginning that it would fall short of the perfect, beautiful idea in my head. I knew I would simply do my best, falling short in some ways, surprising myself in others, and the writing process was so much more enjoyable as a result. The challenges this time were all formal and artistic, and so they were very satisfying challenges. For instance, I struggled with timelines and narrative pacing, verb tenses and the precise weaving together of all the stories I wanted to tell.

LES: Whatever the difficulties were in writing Placemaker, what was your greatest joy in writing it? What did you discover as you wrote it that you had never seen before?

CP: “Discover” is exactly the right word. My greatest joy came in the discovery. I don’t mean the research itself, though I loved reading books about trees and antique roses as I wrote. No, it was my discovery that the bits and pieces of my life really did tell a story, a story I had never fully understood. When I began to write Placemaker I was overwhelmed by the needs of our old farmhouse and property and really was asking myself whether the choice to move here and remake this place had been a folly. Writing Placemaker, I realized that my current home needed a new and different kind of placemaking, one my past had prepared me for in ways I had not realized. I had always thought of placemaking in individual terms. DIY and all that. Writing this book, I discovered the extent to which placemaking is meant to be communal. My current home has needed a community of placemakers. It is too much for me and too much even for my husband. But now I know that our own insufficiency is a gift. Placemaking is best when it is done in community. I have been living that truth for a while, but only recognized it in the writing of this book.

LES: Placemaker is written and there a kind of relief that follows in the completion. But most writers, having “finished” a manuscript also feel emptied out, much like we feel after giving birth to a baby. That empty space calls for rest and renewal, but it also leaves a shape for something new to fill it. How do you refill as a writer and how do you know when a new book is asking to be written and given life in the world? Do you have any sense of the shape a new book might take?

CP: The strange thing about writing a book is that, while I write, I have little time for the very things that inspire my writing. So, while I wrote about gardening and while I prepared to release a book about creation and cultivation, I had little time for my own garden. I looked forward to the book’s release for many reasons, not least because it would usher in a spring I hoped to spend entirely outdoors.

I assumed I would take a long, long break even before thinking about another book, but it will probably surprise no one when I say I have already begun playing with ideas for a gardening book, a mixture of practical and inspirational.

 

LES: When we were at Refine {the Retreat} this year, during your presentation on Saturday you said, “Beauty is a choice. Beauty is Love taking form.” In your chapter titled Pine Tree, you write:

Many of us long to put down roots in some particular place, but we guard ourselves against heartbreak by waiting for a perfect place. The imperfections of a place will hurt us so much more if we have freed our hearts and sunk ourselves deep.”

Reading this immediately made me think of C.S. Lewis’s famous statement about love and safety in The Four Loves.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

Are there practices you use personally to overcome your fear of heartbreak in order to plant your heart and love a place into being? Has writing Placemaker part of that process for you?

CP: Writing Placemaker has been a part of that process. I love that you offered these words from Lewis, because he was a storyteller, and it is always stories that prove to me, again and again, how much love matters and how worthwhile it is. Sifting my own stories and shaping them and studying the stories of other placemakers in order to write this book helped the truth settle a little more deeply into my heart. I hope my stories inspire readers to ponder the stories of their own lives because I really do believe that every true story says the same thing about love:

our hearts may break, but they will be restored and love is always, always worthwhile.

LES: Dreams and desires are sometimes an expression of a “holy discontent”, a sacred prompting from the Spirit of God to reach for something that has not yet come into being. You give us a vivid portrayal of that in Saucer Magnolia. Another place I have seen this holy discontent is the story of Hannah, the prophet Samuel’s mother. Hers is a profound example of holy discontent humbly and honestly laid before the Lord that was answered not only in a remarkable way as the answer to Hannah’s own prayer but the longing He placed in her was made to be answered as an answer to needs in others she could never have known.

If we are struggling with our own holy discontent how might we recognise it for what it is and share that with the Holy God who plants it?

CP: Hannah’s story has always been a precious one to me, in part because of my experience with infertility, another thread I weave into Placemaker. And Hannah’s story is instructive. Though her husband encouraged her to let go of her desire, to say that he was enough for her, other events in Hannah’s life seemed to conspire to deepen her pain. I have observed that pattern in my life and in the lives of others I have known. Sometimes we hold onto desires selfishly though everything in our lives is inviting us to let them go. But sometimes we want to stop feeling a particular longing, but everything in our lives is forcing us to feel the pain more deeply. I have learned to submit to this. I have learned that though there is no guarantee that our longing will be met, and most likely it will not be met in precisely the way we imagine, God does seem to stir the ember of a holy discontent in this way, and there is much to be gained by leaning in toward the pain rather than numbing ourselves or pursuing forgetfulness. And God will meet us in our pain, and he will bring us through it.

 

Safe Ground

LES: Frederick Buechner wrote a beautiful and haunting statement about living when he said: “Here is the world. Terrible and beautiful things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

You echo this when you write:

“The work of wholeness and the cultivation of peace will carry us right on out and into the realm of chaos. It will lead us to the edges – in the land, in our hearts, in our memories. How frightened we will sometimes be. How hopeless we will sometimes feel. And yet here is where we will make gardens. Here we will eat the fruit of them.”

Christie, when you contemplate the range of experiences you will have by choosing to live rooted in one place with an open heart, when you choose to love deeply and commit with a whole heart, where do you find your own safe ground from which to be brave and present?

CP: My own safe ground. What a beautiful phrase. Yes, I feel the need of that daily and deeply. One thing that has helped especially over the past year or so is discovering (or in some cases re-discovering) those writers and artists and theologians who also seem prone to anxiety or fear or debilitating self-doubt. This year I have twice read Henri Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love, and it has helped turn my focus inward toward that hidden, secret place where God is always present and waiting for me to encounter his love in silence and solitude.

The Hardest Questions

LES: Christie, one of the questions you wrestle with in Placemaker is in the closing chapter. You ask Is life anything more than a litany of the things we lost in winter?Placemaker is your response to this hard, haunting question.

When that despairing question returns (as I imagine that it does for each of us) how do you find yourself answering it now having written Placemaker? Does having gone through the arduous effort of framing these words and ideas arm you in some way to make a stronger defense against that question of “Does any this last? Does any of it matter?”

CP: I feel so privileged to be a writer, an observer of life, and a storyteller. Because I have faced this question in the writing of this book and because I have, slowly, written myself toward an answer—yes, this matters, yes, this will last—though I am sure the question will return, I have received an answer that will always stand firm under my feet. And this is a gift I hope to give others who read this book. I hope to invite them to consider their own losses and their own longings and to ask the hard questions of their own lives.

Those who seek will find, but such seeking takes courage and faith and many will choose not to pursue the questions lest they be disappointed. Books can be a safe place in which to ask the hardest questions.

LES: Choice is the most powerful causative agent in existence. Everything we know of existence itself – time, place, history,  has been shaped and defined by choice, either God’s, the enemy’s, or our own.  One of your most compelling questions asks, “Did we choose Maplehurst, or was it chosen for us?” One of the things I find so powerful and so anchoring in your narrative is your ownership of your choices in the journeying.

“I cannot say I only drifted there because I had no other option. I chose it though I did not know what I was choosing…”

Your words here help to give others words and grace to choose their the choices we have made and trust God for the outcome of those choices.

How can we make deeper peace with choices we have made when they seem to have led us in directions different than we thought we going with them? What are ways we can trust with any confidence that the choices we have made really are leading us Home?

CP: I use the word “participation” a great deal in this book. I’ve come to believe that giving us freedom to choose is one  of the most important ways God invites us into deeper participation, deeper relationship. It’s as if all of life is a dance and God wants so much for us to join in. When we choose, we join in, and though our choices have the power to change the pattern of the dance, I think the small details of the pattern actually matter so much less to our Father than the fact that we are dancing with Him. And if we do dance with Him, then we are always dancing in the right direction.

Living Houses and Grand Palaces

LES: One of my favourite illustrations from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity is this depiction of us as a living house.

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

In Placemaker, you plant similar depictions of us as being ourselves places – places where Jesus dwells and abides. How does placemaking apply to us as places ourselves to be made and incarnated?

CP: One of the most important things God has taught me at Maplehurst (and through Maplehurst) is how easily satisfied I am and how much more God longs to give me. My husband and I have begun joking that we are content with “good enough” because that feels comfortable and possible but God keeps on tugging us toward a grander vision. I have always thought of myself as quite a visionary person, and it has been humbling to realize that my visions really do run along the lines of a personal cottage. Now, to quote a beloved author, I am “excessively fond of a cottage,” however our God is a builder of palaces. That is work only he can do, and it will make us uncomfortable in a thousand ways. But if he is willing to do it? If he loves us that much? Why would I hold back? Why would I ever say no?

 

“Who are the placemakers? They are the ones who gaze out over emptiness,

and sometimes through tears, see shimmering possibility.”

Recommended Reading

I recommend the novels of Elizabeth Goudge but especially two books in which she captures the spiritual power of a home: Pilgrim’s Inn and The Scent of Water. I also heard T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets echoing in my mind as I wrote Placemaker. It is all about return, and though I have moved and moved and moved in my life and traveled so far from my Texas beginnings, Placemaker taught me that if we are moving toward God we are always, in some sense, returning.

3 practices to expand our placemaking

~ Grow flowers. A geranium on a sunny windowsill is sufficient.

~ Pay attention to the trees. Learn a few of their names. Call them by name when you see them.

~ Get your hands dirty. This might be actual dirt, or it might be sticky bread dough or a potter’s clay. It might be the prick of a sewing needle or a callus from your guitar. Use your hands to make something. It’s what our hands are for.



Images of Christie and Lancia at Refine {the Retreat} are courtesy of Mary Bonner.

Images of Maplehurst are courtesy and of Christie Purifoy.

Images of Christie Purifoy is (c) Lancia E. Smith and used with glad permission for The Cultivating Project. 



 

Lancia E. Smith

comments

  1. Matthew Clark

    April 23rd, 2019 at 11:17 am

    “it is always stories that prove to me, again and again, how much love matters and how worthwhile it is.”

    Christie, thanks for pressing into those questions. Lately, it’s been harder to feel that there is ground beneath my feet. Loss gets big, and effort feels hard to justify. Thanks for sharing stories.

  2. Jordan Durbin

    April 24th, 2019 at 6:48 pm

    Thanks so much for allowing us to share in this loveliest of conversations!

  3. shelly

    April 26th, 2019 at 4:03 am

    This is truly one of the finest interviews I think I’ve ever read. I felt moved to tears by it for some reason. Thank you Lancia and Christie, both the questions and answers are beautifully offered here.

  4. Lancia E. Smith

    April 26th, 2019 at 2:11 pm

    Shelly, thank you so much. It is my great joy to share this interview with Christie, and I am honoured that you would be reading it! Christie is truly so remarkable. I’m grateful for the way she brings all these words together and gives them a fresh look!

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