I closed the red front door for the last time and remembered when I opened it on my wedding day. We have a picture of us in front of that door, bride and groom in full dress splendour with the afterglow of the wedding still clinging to our faces (as well as the exhaustion), standing on the threshold of our first home. The promises of love had been made with solemnity and a sparkle in the eye, our hands bound together for a lifetime by the priest, and that home was the site in which we would test what we had just promised. That little house, with it’s square of garden and the roses tumbling over the trellis, with the sitting room just big enough for a couple of armchairs and our endless books, those rooms, blessed by big windows and the chime of church bells, became the stage on which our love played out, blossomed, began to tangibly show forth all that we had promised. We wrestled through student days there, lost our first wee baby there, talked out in endless discussions our own new rhythms and traditions, saw the birth of our first child, and the completion of our studies. The walls of that house were soaked with our laughter and grief, and as I stood on the threshold for the last time, closing the door on rooms now empty and strangely quiet, I felt a stab of grief, and with it, fear.
The words of Legolas when he left the beauty of Lothlorien echoed in my mind, ‘we find only to lose’.
In that moment it felt that in closing the door I was relinquishing not only a place where I had been happy, but one that assured my happiness. My life in that house was part of a larger story of renewal, for that home stood in a windy back street of Oxford, a city I had come to five years ago as a lonely soul, unsure of my place in the world. My Oxford years restored a sense of self to me, convinced me that I was capable of creativity and friendship, that God was willing for me to flourish. I fell in love with theology, I found my place in writing, I found my home in worship, and I found my husband.
To leave Oxford, this place where I had come home with the homecoming of restored hope, of renewed identity, felt like profound loss. I looked ahead to the strange new house, the new town utterly unlike Oxford, to my husband’s absence in his new work, and my transition from student to full time mother, and I felt deeply threatened. The happy, confident self I had discovered in the past years seemed to forsake me as I looked down the narrow tunnel of the future. We closed the door and walked toward the car. And I struggled to swallow a sadness that was all too darkened by doubt. Was happiness something I would lose… again?
In George MacDonald’s strange tale, Phantastes, there’s a scene in the forest of fairyland where a traveller meets a young girl who holds in her hands a gleaming orb that thrums with a music more beautiful than tongue can tell. She travels through the woods, filling it with joyous melody. But the traveller, driven by a sudden greed, seizes her treasure and, in his attempt to control the music, breaks the beautiful globe. The music fails and the young girl stumbles away from him, the forest now filled with her weeping as she laments the destruction of her treasure, and her loss of the music that was her life and joy…
I always feel both clumsy and strangely alert in a new place and the first days in our new home were no different. Compounding the spiritual sense of loss I carried from Oxford was the old presence of OCD, the mental illness I have carried most of my life, making me feel like a small, threatened animal in a new environment. Every nerve goes taut, every sense alive to what is different, unknown, new. We skidded into our new life out of a week that included my final exams, Thomas’ ordination, and a family wedding. We were utterly exhausted, and I walked through our rental home, the one we’d had only an hour to choose, noticing all the flaws, the odd paint, the musty smells that the urgency of finding a decent house had obscured on my first visit. But I could still see the bones of what I had chosen and found good – a surprisingly roomy little English house with a wild, big garden and rooms with gracious, latticed windows.
That was the good on which I fixed my eyes as we began the ordering of this new home. We threw ourselves into the work, pushing ourselves to unpack in the week my husband had free before starting his new job. We found furniture, ordered curtains, shoved beds and couches and chairs around until they felt just right. We learned to accept the daily cry of the seagulls, their voices by turns haunting or belligerent at dusk and dawn. I learned my way around the new kitchen (and killed the spiders who had taken up residence since the last tenants left), baked the first muffins, sipped the first cups of tea. I began to taste something that felt like a settling.
But in the quiet moments, in the early waking morning and my first evenings with Thomas away for work, my heart still held to Oxford. I was living in this new place, but I could not open my hands to release the old life, the surety and familiarity of the people and streets and rhythms that made me feel safe… and loved. I tied myself to it with inner assurances:
We’ll go back often. It’s not too far.
Our friends will visit regularly.
We’ll keep up our studies.
I’ll find someone to help with Lilian so I can stay current with theology.
This is a temporary post, just three years.
My prayers became a glancing at God to be sure he agreed with me.
And then Lilian fell sick, deep one hot summer’s night. I touched her in the small hours and found her burning with fever. For five days she struggled to keep any food or liquid down. We navigated boxes and unfamiliar washing machines, trying to find and wash clean clothes and towels. We hunted down numbers for new doctors, and sat with her in cold waiting rooms while she shivered and cried. We took her to a weekend clinic when she grew limp and unmoving in my arms.
Just when she began to rally, taking a few sips of water, my husband fell ill too, just as hard as Lilian. The heat shimmered outside as I pushed windows open, trying to let out the stale, sick air, wondering how many days it was all right for a grown man to go without eating, trying to keep us stocked with coke despite the fact that we had no car and I wasn’t sure who to call for help.
One afternoon, I sat in our bed, Lilian slumped in my lap in uncharacteristic stillness as she watched Mary Poppins. Thomas was huddled next to me, fevered and grim, his face turned away from mine as he tried, again, to sleep after a sip of water. I could feel sweat trickle, a niggling finger, down my back. The late day air grew thick, almost muddy around us. And with a shot of panic, I felt trapped. I was tethered to the present in a way I had not yet allowed myself to be, tasting to the full the completely changed world in which I found myself.
Enclosed in this new world, far from familiarity or home. Enclosed in the heat and the sickness, the sense of futility, the fear that this monotony and service would be all I would find in the months ahead. Suddenly all the assurances I had made to myself fell away. We were here. Everything was changed. Student life was, for now, past. Quick trips to distant academic cities with a restless toddler were just silly. Our friends were miles away. The life here was new and demanding and strange. I saw myself fully where I was, rooted there in our home, to a new fullness of care demanded of me, the future uncertain, friends not yet found, the new rhythms of adventure or solitude that would keep me in life, not yet established.
In that moment, I let go of Oxford but I did not know what to hold onto. I opened my hands and all the surety slipped away. It felt like the loss of everything I knew that made me feel blessed. I sat, bereaved, in the silence and did not know how to pray. Lilian and Thomas both slept. I put the laptop away and felt myself marooned in the utter stillness of resignation and heat and exhaustion.
And a wind, sudden and curiously cool, stirred the heat-heavy branches out the window. The leaves shimmered, the light glinting off our walls as light spins off the surface of water. The air quickened, the room around me seemed suddenly to fill with invisible motion as if the currents of the atoms eddied and swirled around me where I sat. I was tethered afresh to the present, not in the resignation that felt a kind of death, in which my faculties were dulled, but in a stirring that left me alert and expectant, that quickened my heart and widened my eyes and summoned me to attention.
And a question echoed through my mind.
Where does blessing reside?
In my homesickness and and fear, my sense of the new as threatening, I wanted to say that it wasn’t here. That it could be found in the things I had loved and left, the furniture of a certain life that made me feel safe and known, that set me at ease; the house I loved, the streets I knew, the study that gave me identity, the shops and faces and great buildings I loved. But like Job, summoned to attend to the spectacle beauty of creation and the gentle thunder of his Maker’s voice in the face of his loss, I too was asked to sit up straight and think.
Where does blessing reside?
My brain was more honest than my heart. Does blessing reside in the things and people, the homes we make only to often lose, the gardens so carefully tended that yield to the ravages of storm, the familiar paths or the corner coffee shop that make us feel known, the objects of art or dish or book that remind of the love we’ve felt and seen? These are all precious, unspeakably precious, they are tangible gifts of grace by which we remember and grasp the goodness of God as we have tasted and memorialised it throughout our lives.
Their loss is, and ought to be, grief. But they do not contain our blessing. They are not the source of our flourishing or the the origin of our joy. Their passing or loss may mean our great sorrow but never our abandonment.
My mind answered the question promptly and my heart could not refuse assent though I ached with the truth of what I knew. Where, then, could one find blessing when the stuff it had irradiated was gone? In that stark moment, a blankness followed that frightened me with a sense of absence just for an instant… until the trees shivered and shimmered again with the wind and it felt as though the blowing entered my own mind, easing away the fog of dread that clouded my thought. In its place, an abrupt and unsought grace, came fragments of the Psalms I have best known and loved, like rogue breezes scampering through my thought with a swift and sudden renewal.
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, my heritage is beautiful to me…
We will not fear though the earth should change….
They looked to him and were radiant and their faces will never be ashamed…
I would have despaired unless I believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living…
He will make marvellous his lovingkindness to you in a besieged city….
O taste and see that the Lord is good…
And, where, child, does blessing reside?
Once more the question came to me, a whisper, and this time, I understood, an invitation.
And with an alertness that was not, this time, the heightened dread of OCD confronting every new sight as threat, but was rather a hand gently turning my face this way and that, directing my sight, I looked afresh on… my husband. Faithful and gentle, our marriage a delighted, ever-shifting expedition in love. On my child, a whole world of a small self entrusted to me, my immersion in the reality of self-gift, of learning to give in unstinting measure the fullness of love given to me. I looked on the window, that big, blessed old window in the house we could only have found by the accidents of grace when nothing had been available for weeks. I saw the trees and knew they were a gift to this dryad’s soul, the wind in their branches a constant music as I rocked Lilian to sleep each night. I thought of the garden where my daughter finally had space to explore, the kitchen big enough for feasts and family. I saw, in the instant collage of imagination, a dozen small graces in our new life, facts that evidenced a generous and intimate presence working on my behalf, beckoning, inviting, asking my trust in his goodness for the unknown months ahead.
That presence, that tender, flexible presence containing my angst, weaving grace as a buffer around me however blinded I was by fear, helped me to answer that echoing question with the whole of myself. Where does blessing reside? With the beloved and blessing God. My flourishing, I knew again, as I have known at all the watershed moments of my life in that wild adventure they call following Christ, resides only with God. Where he is, where he works and gives and holds, however different the trappings of my life may look, I am blessed.
Much later in George MacDonald’s story, the greedy traveller, now humbled and broken by the knowledge of his own darkness, meets again the girl whose globe he shattered. She is his saviour now, freeing him from a dark enchantment by the singing of a haunting, intricate music. When he stumbles out of the tower where he was kept by his own guilt and fear, meeting her kind face and knowing her identity, he is ashamed. But she is at ease, because she has found her music afresh and it cannot be taken from her. She stumbled in grief to the Fairy Queen, sure that the music she loved had been lost. She was made to rest in a great hall, to sleep a great, healing sleep. When she woke, hoping her globe would be restored, she was instead sent back away without it, for she no longer needed it. Something else had been given instead. ‘Now,’ she says to the traveller, ‘I have something so much better; for I can sing.’ The light and the music of the globe, wrote MacDonald, were now in her heart and her brain, no longer tied to a fleeting and breakable thing…
Thomas finally healed. So did Lilian. And a week later I sat in the garden as my little one picked dandelions with a freshened energy that belied her week of awful illness. I watched her wade her plucky way through the as-yet-uncut-wilderness of our grass. I heard the gulls cry and felt the breath of a cooler morning against my skin with great relief, and I remembered again, as if it were an anchor to which the ship of my soul still clung, my windy moment of revelation the week before. Blessing, I told myself, is here. I sit, and live, beloved.
Change doesn’t come in an instant though, and the reorientation of my heart to trust that blessing will follow me doggedly, divinely into every corner of my life was, and is, a slow one. I am clumsy in the art of trust, and new rhythms – of writing and rest, of friendship and work – take time to forge. There is a time of suspension in every new place, and that is where I dwell. But I am learning the difference between grief and fear, the way one is simply an honest lament for what is precious, a protest at the brokenness of the world, and the other a festering thing that poisons the presence with bitterness and closes all horizons. I am still homesick, still sore at the fact that this side of heaven, we must so often let go of the things we love.
But more and more, I am learning to be unafraid. I can now look around me with an eye to discover instead of suspect. Opening my hands to the new life, letting go of the old, in no way diminishes my love for what I left behind, but oddly, powerfully, connects the good I knew in Oxford to this new life as well. They are one continuous story. Everything has changed… but nothing too. Because the grace that made my Oxford years so rich still shimmers and dances in the new life too. And only in its presence will I ever find the joy that makes me at home in every odd minute of my life. I read Phantastes in the weeks following my strange, swift-winded moment of epiphany and I was stirred by the girl’s words about her music because they echoed with my own renewed understanding, with an invitation to ever greater trust. Her final words follow me yet:
‘Now I go about everywhere through Fairy Land, singing till my heart is like to break, just like my globe, for very joy at my own songs. And wherever I go, my songs do good, and deliver people. And now I have delivered you. I am so happy…’
The featured image of Grace Windows is (c) Sarah Clarkson and used with her gracious permission for Cultivating and the Cultivating Project.
Sarah Clarkson is a writer and student of theology. Through blogs, books, and current research, she explores the formative power of story, the intersection of theology and imagination, and the way that beauty brings hope. She writes books (Book Girl, The Lifegiving Home) and finished an MSt at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where she focused on theodicy (and why beauty may be the best argument we can make for the goodness of God). She chronicles her adventures at sarahclarkson.com and is at work on her next book, Beauty Never Lies (with Baker Books, 2021). Celtic music, good coffee, travel adventures, long walks, and of course, good books are the beauties that make her heart sing. Sarah lives in a tree-blessed house near the English coast where she lives and laughs with her curate husband, Thomas, and their daughter, Lilian.