The first engagement gift I received was a basket. A deep oval basket with a sturdy, warm brown weave and a strong, arched handle. 'Do you go to a weekly market in Oxford?' asked Phyllis, the giver of the gift. When I said that I did, heading down on Wednesdays to the open air market near my home to cart home paper bags crammed with vivid stacks of fresh fruit and 'veg' (as they like to call vegetables here), she smiled in happy satisfaction and leaned toward me, putting her aged, gentle hand over mine.
'This was my market basket through all the years we lived in Europe. I brought all sorts of good things home in it, fed friends and family. I'm so glad it will go to you. I hope you use it to do the same.'
I worked hard to get that basket tucked in amidst the sweaters and scarves of the boxes I packed for England. It survived the trip beautifully intact, a sturdy, weathered, finely aged gift that sits by the door in my new house. I have indeed used it to cart home apples for warm, spiced desserts, greens for autumn salads, potatoes and carrots for Sunday roasts. It has borne the sweet load of hospitality with me, and companioned my work as I've prepared for guests and opened our home to friends.
As I've gone, feeling the smoothed wicker of the handle in my palm, I've also felt Phyllis' loved and gentle hand over mine. I've walked the cobbles home with the beam of her smile in my mind, her presence around me as I set the table, write a note, cook, arts in which she has been my mentor, my teacher, my friend. The gift of her basket wasn't merely the gift of a household tool, it was the gift of her own history as a missionary and hostess, her own crafted legacy. That basket was her gift of heritage to me, a token by which I was woven into the fine companionship of hospitable, home-loving women. By giving me that symbol of her long work, she rooted my work in her own story and gave me fresh courage and help in making my own tale of house and hospitality, of meals served as acts of love, of tea poured to balm both soul and bone.
One of the dearest parts of my wedding were gifts like these. My own sweet mom gave me (among countless other gifts of hand and heart) her mother's set of blue Lenox china, the one with the fruit baskets that so fascinated me as a child, and a silver teapot with a dark wooden handle that sat on the sideboard of my father's mother throughout my childhood. These gifts of heritage and memory, linking my new home to my childhood memories of Thanksgiving tables and teatimes with Mama, are a tangible history, living gifts that are more than mere things. Every time I reach for that teapot or pour something hot into a Lenox cup, I can hear my mom's voice saying: 'drink the cup the Lord has given you, pour out your life for others...' Her gifts, like Phyllis' basket, will shape the story my home will tell.
For home is a place of history. Home is a lived narrative, one we receive as well as create. Home is never an isolated outpost in a human story, it is always linked to those before us, the place where we live out the spiritual and physical inheritance of those whose words, actions, and gifts have formed us. Home is also, always, something we give as well, the story we offer to the guests, children, and beloveds who dwell with us. One of Phyllis' maxims is that hospitality communicates something to a guest about their worth. Every aspect of home is an ongoing narrative about what we believe, who God is, and how we see the people who visit us.
In beginning my marriage and first home, I have realised afresh the extent to which the way I see life and the way I make home are legacies I received from the wise and generous women in my life. Their wedding gifts are tools placed in my hands, but I must now choose wisely how to use them as they must have also chosen in beginning their marriages and homes. I must now plan, work, and dream. In the companionship, then, of these wedding gifts, I am driven to sit down and evaluate : what do I want the heritage of my life and home to be? What gift of legacy will I someday give a new bride? If I have a daughter, what kind of story do I want my home to tell? These are the questions that every maker of home must ask.
Breathe In :: What's your story?
If you could choose an object, an image, or gift to symbolise the story you were given, what would it be? How have you been taught to see the world? How have you been taught to think about home and the people who dwell there?
One of my final year courses at Wycliffe is a paper on pastoral care in which we are examining what it means to be human, what it means to develop spiritually and emotionally throughout the different phases of life, and what it means to care. One of the first things we learned was that the relational successes, or conversely, the failures, of every phase carry over into the next, affecting our capacity to love, give, and be known. Of course, I recognise the grace of heritage in this reality, but what also deeply struck me was that if the broken and failed parts of our stories are not named and faced, they bear a brooding power to undermine our confidence, discourage us from effort, and destroy our attempts to love.
Not all stories are beautiful. Not all legacies are good. And in speaking of home as a golden gift to be received, I also want to acknowledge that in a fallen world, no gift comes free of pain or imperfection. There are profoundly difficult legacies in my family as well as beautiful. The bright is woven inextricably with the dark and painful. And for many others, I know that there is little brightness at all. For some, there was no story of home, no gifts to offer hope or beauty, no vision of life or personal worth. There is only absence. Or darkness. But that is not the end of the story.
What the Incarnation means is that God is now with us, and where our legacy is of pain or our story is one of absence, he comes with the creative power that spoke all things into being in the first place. The whole concept of home begins with the reality of a Creator God who made humans beings to be placed, relational, and known. In Christ, our stories are always beginning afresh, and if you have no history of home, then 'do not be afraid' as the angels were so often saying at the coming of Christ. The Holy Spirit, whispering within your heart and imagination will be the one to form your legacy.
One of my favorite stories is a short one by Wendell Berry called 'A Jonquil for Mary Penn' (in Fidelity). Mary is a young farm wife who has absolutely no experience in her new strenuous life of farm work, one close to poverty. Early in her marriage, she wakes up sick one day. Her husband sees this, and quietly leaves for his work, but he manages to tell one old matron in the area. Throughout the day, and the story, Mary is then visited by a bevy of generous, laughing, motherly women who help her with chores, cook, tease, clean, and put her to bed. In the void of her discouragement and inexperience, the love of others comes to create, renew, and begin her story afresh. I loves this story because it is an image of the way that God, in his life and in the love of others, begins our story afresh in a way we could not have made on our own.
To love Christ is to be caught in the forward motion of his incarnate life. There is nothing static, dead, stagnant, or lost in him. As you name the gifts and shape of your legacy, whether bright or dark, the first thing to remember is that we, in the lilting words of Andrew Peterson's song, are called to 'look into the darkness and speak'. The story can always begin again.
Breathe Out :: In the beginning...
Let there be light. Let there be love. Let there be music. Those are the concluding lines to the chorus of Andrew's lovely song, and they are a perfect soundtrack to what we are called to do in creating home. If there is a redemptive, freeing power in naming what is dark or hard in our heritage, there's wildly creative one when we sit down in the space of life, spirit, and home to bring form, color, growth, and beauty.
The question now becomes... just what do you want to create? This too must be named, must be recognised and chosen because nothing in this world just happens effort free. I'm pretty sure that every good thing I've ever done was teeth-grittingly hard (and yes, that includes the countless dishes I learned to wash at the end of Clarkson parties) and wouldn't have happened if not chosen with iron will and conscious foresight.
What legacy do you want to leave? What story do you want your guests to enter? What is the heritage of your one place on earth? What is the gift you'd give to the bride if you could? I'm just beginning to answer these questions myself. (I'm pretty sure I'd give a set of novels if I could! - Books are definitely one of my legacies.) Thomas and I are just forming the shape of our story. But something I have loved in beginning this task is sitting down to make myself answer these questions of identity and purpose because the answers to those questions will begin to form the story of my home. And I want it to be a good one.
Reading this week: A 'Brother Cadfael' mystery by Ellis Peters called The Devil's Novice. I always keep a story of some sort going even amidst academics, and these mysteries are lively stories with well-crafted prose by an author whose historical fiction and masterful narrative I adored in The Heaventree Trilogy.
Listening this week: Bach's Requiem. Courtesy of my sister who is a source of all wondrous things.
(If you're interested in more in the Incarnational theology and how it relates to home, its in Chapter Two of The Lifegiving Home.)