by Jennie Cesario
I stood once on a particular leaf-papered sidewalk, in a particularly quaint little harbor town, on a damp mid-autumn evening chilly enough for a jacket and a sweater. Across the street stood an old clapboard cape, its multi-paned windows a pleasing symmetry astride its wide timber door, and in each window an electric candle burning gentle gold in the gloaming.
I scarcely know how to describe how I felt at the sight of it (or why I felt it). Quickened? Transported? Bewitched? I only know that my soul went as warm wax within me – as warm wax cradling a flame – softened and supple and incandescent in the dusk.
Just up the road from that old saltbox cape are some woods I sometimes wander in. There’s a little hole at the bottom of a particular tree in there, so perfectly arched and welcoming, it captured my imagination at once.
“What an ideal home for a little family!” I exclaimed the first time I saw it, thinking of an illustration from a Beatrix Potter tale.
But my son, reader of field guides, corrected me. Noting the hole’s location right at the fork of a frequented trail, he said: “Not likely, mom. Animals don’t like to be so obvious. And they’re not at all romantic – unlike certain humans.”
I should have known this – even if my notions of animal habits do come more from fiction than not. Even in Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical (and utterly transcendent) classic, The Wind in the Willows, most animal homes are not so easily discovered, even by other animals. In the story, Badger’s great house is only uncovered by Mole and Rat accidentally, and then only after a great deal of feverish digging through a snow bank.
But what a house it is! And what hospitality! Badger graces his storm-driven friends with dressing gowns and slippers, a toasty fire, and a fine repast. And at bedtime there are beds that look “soft and inviting,” with linen on them that “smelled beautifully of lavender.”
I stood long on that leaf-papered sidewalk, just looking at that old clapboard cape, its mild window-lights illumining the darkening landscape, the earth deep-scented in wood-notes, and molder, and brine. The low mist was a cold dew on my cheeks, and the leaves floated down about me from boughs already half-undressed.
And there was something almost numinous in that moment, a strange glory in the decline of things. A powerful mystery in the imagery of home and light quietly contending with autumnal darkness and decay.
When summer slips into fall and fall into winter, the length of days shortening and shortening, we find ourselves under lamps more often, doing home-like things in their gentler casting light. Lamps in my home have fallen on the pages of The Wind in the Willows, where that book has been read aloud to two enchanted children, or read and re-read alone by a certain sentimental adult.
Like the best of tales, The Wind in the Willows can sometimes have the same effect on me as that picturesque candlelit house at the harbor. The story seems to me to capture something of the wonder of our existence. Something of sunshine and storms and the cycles of seasons. Something of home and friendship, and of our foibles and inconsistencies softened by the tenderness and compassion of friends. Something of light waning to dark and dark waxing to light again – in nature, and in us.
In one chapter, Mole and Rat pass through a small village on a snowy December evening, where “little was visible but squares of dusky orange red on either side of the street, where the firelight or the lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without… But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home… most pulsated.”
The sense of home. Is that what cast such an inexplicable spell on me as I stood before that candlelit cape near the harbor? The ideals and intimacies of home life hinted at in lamplight, but not fully exposed? Was I imagining, beyond the glow of all those little candles, warm robes and toasty fires, fine repasts, and lavender-scented sheets? A refuge from all of life’s storms?
Or was it something more? A sense of safety and cocooned coziness, yes. But all of that heightened by the sensory contrast between light and dark, damp and dry, cold and warmth? That first motif – light and darkness – is one so prevalent in our great art and literature, and so central in the Scripture. There, we find recurring themes of home – of homecomings and homelands, and the call to hospitality, and the offer of secret shelter in the shadow of mighty wings, a tender refuge for all the children of God.
Once, a long time ago. I climbed the cold, concrete steps of an inner-city walk-up, and entered the dank apartment of a woman languishing in illness, confined to her bed. I confess, my young self was repulsed by the sour smells of sickness, the staleness of poverty.
With two others, I prayed for that woman to rise, rise out of her bed. And if out of that bed, I hoped, out of that home that seemed no home at all, out of that neighborhood so bleak and blighted and treeless, so far removed from even the evidence of seasons and starlight and all the sanctifying sweetness of nature.
I don’t know if that woman ever did rise. And for years I tried not think about her, or her family, or her neighbors, or of any life narratives that ran so counter to my own romanticized and relatively privileged one. Lives that knew nothing of leisurely walks in the woods and cushion-y chairs by a fire. Children with little exposure to the joys of imagination-sparking books, little children with little experience of beauty.
Several years ago, I saw a picture online of a dead toddler face-down in the sand on the shores of the Mediterranean. And, to my shame, I only then began to truly shed my blinders. I only then began to think of refugees, of war-torn souls languishing in tents and camps all over the earth, with no real place to place their heads. Of those whose homelands are lost to them, perhaps forever. And of those who cry out for a new homeland but receive no welcome.
These days I think, too, of a two-year-old boy, separated from his mother, being raised by teenage girls in a cell at the Mexican border. And I ache, too, with remembrance of a young teenage boy who died alone in a similar cell, shaking from the flu on a cement floor, no pillow to cradle his aching head, no blanket to cover him. No mother at hand to caress him.
How many in the world cry out for what I have so long taken for granted – four walls, clean-scented sheets, and savory meals simmering on a stove? Or what Mole describes as that “special value of such anchorage in one’s existence.” A place to come back to, which is all our own, and which is ever glad to see us, ever reliable in its welcome.
How many children in the world have never known – and perhaps may never know – the rapt bliss of bedtime stories read aloud by lamplight? And how many of us with more home comforts than we could ever require feel threatened by those home-deprived children, write them off as too inconvenient to consider? As Marilynne Robinson writes: “The shrinking imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.” And yet, in God’s design, the ideals of both home and humanity always go together!
In some idealized sketch of my life, I might own that old clapboard cape at the harbor, my restoration of it profiled in the pages of Country Living or BHG. Bolded phrases like “vintage details” and “cottage charm” might caption photos of my salvaged plank floors, antique mantelpieces, and the maple tree shedding ombre leaves in front of my primitive, but refurbished, front door.
But my spirit didn’t light up that damp autumn evening for mere covetousness. Like all people, I’m familiar with that vice, and know only too well how it hardens and darkens the soul. Instead, all my longings that evening seemed to come from somewhere beyond me. Standing on that sidewalk, my soul truly did soften and grow incandescent in the dusk. A frisson formed in my core and radiated all through my limbs, warming me with love. And as I lingered there, just looking across at that old candlelit cape, I gave spontaneous thanks to the Father, in whose house are many rooms lovingly prepared for the least of these.
Jennie Cesario is a Christ-follower, a writer, and a teacher. Her words have appeared in the Perennial Gen, the Redbud Post, Fathom Magazine, and the Ginosko Literary Journal. Follow her writing journey at dappledthoughts.com where she muses on life and literature in the lamplight of faith, or on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.