The weather has just changed here in Oxford, and I write you with coffee in hand (and high hopes of soup for lunch). For me, life quickens in autumn with freshened energy as the colors change and the rhythm of work kicks in again after the ease of summer. I'm delighted to be writing here at my mom's blog in this season. For so many years, we greeted the turn of this time of year together in a splendid frenzy of applesauce making, long-walks, and the watching of our favorite, homey books and films. It's a pleasure to be savoring these special days with you all here (and you lovely Mom!), delighting anew in the pleasure and work of crafting my own first place to belong and grow as the days draw down to winter.
I find myself watchful, though, as I plan my next month and think of what I hope to write here. The old traditions and recipes wait to be made and claimed, my little house waits to be formed and filled, but the first thing I find I must do is actually stake out the time to do it all. There's an almost tangible change in the pace here on Oxford once the school year kicks in, both an energy, but also an anxiety. Emails pour in, assignments mount, schedules fill (to bursting) before the week begins; there are a thousand and three things to do, and between the numerous screens all reminding us of our deadlines, it can be difficult to carve out enough calm to do anything more than survive it all. Oxford students are no strangers to panic attacks, but I think this kind of hurry is the general state of the modern world.
Pace, it seems, is a precious thing that must be claimed.
When Thomas and I were on our honeymoon in the south of France (it's still fun to write those words), we learned something about pace. The southern coastal area where we spent our time burns bright and hot in August, making even a stroll to the bakery for breakfast a rather sweaty ordeal. Walking our usual long-legged (did you know the Dutch are the tallest people group in the world?) hurry-up, Oxford pace, we often arrived back at the house rather drenched. Until one golden morning when Thomas grabbed my arm, and 'slow down,' he said, 'look at the people around us'. I did, and together we both became abruptly aware of the slower pace at which they were walking, the easy way they loped along, stopping to talk with friends, sitting in the shade, and enjoying the umbrellas overhead (a delightful addition to one French town). Over the next days, we noticed that the whole culture moved at a slower pace; conversations lingered, movement was langorous, meals were leisurely, and while we were there, we made ourselves slow down from the hurry we knew to breathe, rest, and enjoy in a way we hadn't for a good long time.
What that practice formed in me (aside from fascination with the way that geography shapes culture) was a renewed commitment to take better charge of my rhythms in Oxford, to make sure that the home Thomas and I were going back to create would be marked by a pace that provided us with room, not only to produce and learn, but to rest, to listen (to God and to each other), and to welcome the people we love. To that end, I've been pretty pointed in establishing our rhythms, two of which I'll start by sharing with you today.
Breathe In: Morning Quiet
It's basic. It's simple. It feels almost too obvious to write about, but if there is one foundational practice that has formed my life and is a core rhythm in the life of almost every person I respect, it is a commitment to morning devotion and quiet time. I've written before that some of my earliest memories involve waking daily to find my mom with her Bible and a cup of coffee in hand (thus beginning my love for both!). I followed in her footsteps, establishing a reading of Scripture, and of journaling early in my teen years that even then I recognized as vital to my spiritual growth, my peace of heart, my hope in the future. That practice has become increasingly hard, though, with the demands of work, study, family, and now marriage. I have watched myself slip in commitment to that core practice, but as I do, I also notice myself become edgy, restless, and insecure in the noisy hurry of my life.
'Be still and know that I am God'; that is the heart of this practice, the reason I am working so hard to reclaim it. That quiet morning time is the space in which I remember who I am; beloved and redeemed, held in the hands of a Goodness much greater than my own. It's the space in which I am able to listen to my own soul, to untangle what troubles or grieves me, so that wounds can begin to heal rather than fester. It's the space in which my wonder is renewed, in which I become quiet enough to see and in seeing give thanks for; the gentle play of dawn light over my hands, the grace that comes in the ordinary kindness of a neighbor, the wonder of sharing a home with this man that I love.
How is it done? I think each quiet time looks different. I think each person's need and rhythm and form of devotion (and attention) varies. For me though, a portion of Scripture (even if only a Psalm), and a space of quiet prayer is core. This is where I get back to the first truth about myself and the world every day: God loves me and I can trust him with my questions, my trouble, my joy. Other people I know use this time to sing, to pray a liturgy, or simply to be hushed. If I have enough time, I always have a devotional book of some sort to frame and supplement my reading. These days, I've been going back through Madeleine L'Engle's Genesis Trilogy. Her strong affirmation of God's love as the heartbeat of creation deeply centres me. I'm also going slowly through Eusebius' History of the Church (a wedding gift to two budding theologians) and find it surprisingly simple, engaging reading about the early church that makes me want to live with fiery love and true devotion. I'm also a strong believer in journaling; it is a means of translating my soul, untangling my troubles, documenting my wonder, listening to my heart. Even if only a paragraph a day.
What these brief, daily moments add up to is a centred heart, one whose beat is set by God's love, by trust, by wonder, rather than the cadence of hurry and distraction. Be still and know. Daily, I try to do exactly that.
Breathe Out: Sunday Lunches
For Thomas and me both, home is a place where you invite others. Home is where you share meals and have long conversations, and create friendships that will last for decades. But we knew that his academic schedule, my deadlines, and the work of normal life would make hospitality hard unless we planned for it. So our second Sunday back from honeymoon, we began a tradition I think we'll keep for the long run: slow cooked Sunday lunches ready to share.
For my wedding, I was given a beautiful blue Dutch oven that has become already one of my best kitchen and entertaining tools. I'm now on my third week of sticking some combination of meat and vegetables in it on a Sunday morning, leaving it in the oven on a low heat, and arriving back from church to a delicious lunch waiting to be shared with whomever we've brought home. This means that with little work, I am able to serve 2-3 extra guests and that we are free to invite new people, visiting friends, and neighbors for a meal at a set time every week. With this rhythm in place, we're free to welcome and plan, to reach out and enjoy the people in our lives on a regular basis. It's only one of many small traditions of hospitality we hope to create, but the story is just beginning, and so far its good.
A recipe? I must admit to being a bit of an experimenter at this point. But here's what I did. Using a Dutch oven that was a beautiful wedding present, I sauteed an onion and several cloves of garlic in olive oil, adding four chicken breast to brown as well. I then filled the dish halfway with chopped carrots and halved new potatoes. I stuck sprigs of fresh rosemary in amidst the meat and vegetables, and sprinkled some 'herbs de provence' in between, then filled the pot with enough water (about 1/2 to 2/3 full) to keep the chicken simmering for 3 hours. I put the lid on, stuck it in the oven at 250/300 degrees and left it until I returned from church. The chicken was fall apart tender, the vegetables soft and savory. I was amazed. And it worked the next week too. The first week, I poured out the broth and thickened it with a bit of milk and flour (and cream!), then shredded the chicken and combined all to make a chicken pot pie base with southern biscuit topping. The second week, I just thickened the sauce with a little flour and butter and seasoning and served it all as was with green beans and applesauce. Both ways were superb.
So there you have it. My two first rhythms in my tiny Oxford house with its bright red door. Life is delightful, autumn is coming, God's is ever good and present in the smallest details of the glorious ordinary and home is one of the best places to discover that fact. I hope you're finding your own small wonders in this season. Over and out for now. Sarah
Reading this week: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I picked this up as part of a stack of good fiction to read over the honeymoon. For obvious reasons, I find it a wise and nourishing story that helps to frame some of the headlines on the news right now. Additionally, it's a book about a remarkable father, determined to teach his children to be the kind of people whom others can 'trust to do right'.
Listening to this week: Andrew Peterson's Counting Stars. Thomas had never encountered this lovely music before, so it became our soundtrack as we drove all the backroads of France (in our adorable rented red Fiat). (And let me say that 'Dancing in the Minefields' is a good (amusing) song for a new marriage.)