Community / Family / Hospitality / Maturity and Flourishing / Ordinary Life / Work and Rest

A Gentle Madness

“People have always collected things. Whether a vestige of our hunter-gatherer days, a need to forge order amid chaos, or a simple desire to have and to hold, the urge to possess is a hallmark of the human psyche. Yet pathology is a danger. Compulsive hoarders find value in everything. Others fixate on a single thing, succumbing to what author Nicholas Basbanes calls ‘a gentle madness.’ In 1869 the bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps said he needed ‘to have a copy of every book in the world.’ His final tally (50,000 books, perhaps 100,000 manuscripts) wasn’t bad.” (National Geographic, January 2014, “The Things They Brought Back.”)

As we prepare for a move that we pray happens later this year, we are looking into closets, corners and other hidey-holes in the house. What to sell, pitch or move? Denis and I each have collections we think indicate pathology or at least a “gentle madness” in the other. He has too many books, and I have too many containers of unidentifiable organic stuffs in the refrigerator. He accuses me of housing colonies of cholera – little does he know that that gelatinous mass of kombucha tea could improve his health, if only he would drink it. But, I ask, shouldn’t some of his books go away, especially titles which no one, not even he, will crack again? We have twenty-three bookcases packed full! At one point he reluctantly agreed to get rid of most of them. I know it hurt because they are his friends, but he had steeled himself. When our Board of Directors learned about this plan, one, who won’t be named, in the time it takes to wave a hand, dismissed the idea, saying Denis should keep them! Otherwise, how would he do research? Several others agreed. Check. Mate. Perhaps they will help us move.

Still, I don’t think 7,000 books compare to the refrigerator Denis frequently visits trying to sneak things into the trash without my knowing. Things I am saving. Like creamy horseradish sauce, pepperoncini, capers, fish sauce, angustora bitters (What are they for, ANYway?) … all these necessary ingredients for that wonderful something I might make some day. When I catch him with his head in a shelf crying, WHAT’S this??? You never use it! It looks like rotten raccoon carcass! I’m throwing it out! NOOOOO. That’s like me throwing away all the obscure titles Francis Schaeffer wrote over the years. No. Do not throw away my fermented carrot condiment which I made and which I may or may not begin eating everyday for the microbial health of my intestines.

Little by little, we have begun to sift through thirty-three years of home-making at Toad Hall. Today, in early January, I’m going through my filing cabinet. Back, back into the dark ages of my life. Dumping, dumping. Throwing files of essays, clippings, reviews. Children’s authors. Crocheted blanket patterns. Homosexuality. Bank loans. Pathetic poems by Margie. Trying not to stop and read and wonder: WHAT was I thinking? It is easier to declutter and pitch when I remember that I’m lightening the load my children will one day bear to the trash. It will be one less box to handle when I die. I don’t think my death is immanent, but I’m motivated.

It’s more difficult to know what to do with jewelry boxes that belonged to Denis’ Aunt B and Aunt Ruth. Fake pearls, pop-beads, paste diamonds, heavy bracelets. Strangely configured brooches. Nothing of much value. Is there a granddaughter who would love these things? Perhaps turn them into glittering sculptures? Add them to vintage clothing? I don’t know.
So, through the house I go, from the attic to the basement sorting, deciding. A few items sold on Craig’s List, others posted “Free”, some taken to Salvation Army. I know this purging is doing me good because when the single bedspreads and button collections are gone, I feel freer, lighter.

We laugh about these things, but underneath I am anxious. How we will manage the future? Why does every little thing need to be a hurdle of spiritual growth for me? It seems as if I am constantly being prodded to reach a level of maturity I can’t achieve – that elusive place where I finally trust fully in God’s interest in all my unhistoric struggles. I constantly stray.

Take the Tour
If things go as planned by early March we will be ready for the 360 degree show-off the home show with bare surfaces, artfully placed bowls of fresh fruit, where no human has ever put their feet on a coffee table. Our house will never look better, but don’t you dare believe we live like that every day. When we are finally listed – watch our FaceBook pages for the MLS listing and you might be able to visit us at Toad Hall for the last time. I know that over the years many of you have wished you could stop in. We do, too. I would have had everyone of you, if it were possible.

Two weeks later
We are back from our annual Board Meeting which was in Chicago this year at Donald and Mary Guthrie’s. Our directors are all old friends, peers who know and love us well. We’ve all been through much together. Their role in our ministry and lives seems to involve three things in varying degrees: Directing. Consulting. Blessing. We trust them.

In our discussions this year as Denis and I outlined what we think of as the next phase of life – a gradual reduction of some responsibilities over a period of years, a move to a home on one level, and a look at what increased writing might involve – the Board sharpened their focus and tackled: where? We had been looking in an area north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. A rural area where we might own several acres and to tell the truth? It is sort of in the middle of nowhere. The questions they piled on boiled down to: What and who are you moving to? Well, we’re moving to Margie’s dream: to expansive horizons with birds and wild animals. To gardens and no traffic or helicopters. To quiet beauty. (Denis was with me in this, but easier to please.)

I don’t know how it happened that I determined we should move to “nowhere farm,” because we have often advised people about where to move when they faced a big change. We say you must not move without considering where and who your community will be. What church or body of Christians will you become a part of? Who are the people who will be your friends? Everyone ought to have people with whom you develop deeper relationships – more than just a friendly wave at the checkout counter or a “peace be with you” at the appointed hour in church.

As I write this, we are still processing and I’m trying to understand how I could have blown past all our own advice. In her book Another Country, Mary Pipher warns people our age not to move to some exotic location where you’ve always dreamed of living but then in the following few years as your health disintegrates you are far away from a community of friends and family who would surround you with help when you are deeply in need (that phrase scares me; I don’t WANT to be in deep need). Community trumps location in Pipher’s mind. I didn’t think I was ignoring her advice. It’s not like it was the Florida Keys or Flathead County, Montana. But in fact it is pretty dreamy, when I’m forced to think of it. Imagine me being 76 (in ten years!). It’s 30 below. The porch is sheeted in ice. The car won’t start. Denis is sick. And we live 45 miles from the ER in St. Paul.

Then there is the Anita-Factor. She’s been with us for almost six years now as our assistant and her work has been incalculable. She has owned many things; she doesn’t just complete a list of duties, but rather she comes alongside with her own initiative and gifts. But lately, she, too, has sensed a need for change. We love one another, so that isn’t the reason for wanting new direction. She and I share a lot of likes, and I fantasized breathing fresh air while she did the chores, raised chickens, and mended fences. Yes, I imagined her still doing all her Ransom work, too. It’s embarrassing to admit I willfully ignored her signals about needing change, and the Board’s suggestions that when we move, we need to look for a place where we could live minus what Anita can do, because in the near future she may need to find a different position for many good reasons.

As for what’s to become of my dream? I am emotional about it. And confused – feeling one thing now and the opposite the next day. On one level, I am quick to accommodate. That’s what I did at our Board meeting when pressed about where we should live. I immediately saw my inconsistency. Then, as the people-pleaser I am, I quickly gave up my dream to saying, yeah, I could live here with a narrow little view in a Chicago suburb. So fine. Give me a row house with a microchip yard.

On another level, I’m angry with God. Why doesn’t he just give me what I want with a lot less fuss? I’ve worked hard all my life. I deserve this little piece of cake. I also embarrass myself because I almost always process things verbally. So after blabbing, (like I’m doing here) everyone knows what I’m thinking. When I’m forced to change my mind, I have to go back and say, oh, sorry, that’s not going to happen. Not even close. So, here I am acknowledging that a place in the country won’t be likely.

As often as I return to these wise words, they remind me of God’s love: “God knew the worst about us before he chose to love us, and therefore no discovery now can disillusion him about us in the way that we are so often disillusioned about ourselves, and quench his determination to bless us. He took knowledge of us in love.” J.I. Packer.

We have lived through many crises and changes and seen how faithfully God delivers us time after time, year after year in ways I couldn’t have imagined. But I still can’t confidently shout: Don’t worry about where you will live or … “what you will wear…” Or as the Message puts it: “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.” (Luke 12:24)

I know it. I know it. I know it. But, God help me, I still doubt. I don’t know where Home is!

A prayer from Common Prayer touched my cloudy eyes today “Lord, we all suffer varying degrees of blindness. We are blind to love, to justice, to grace and to life. Help us not to condemn one another in our blindness, but rather to work together to help one another see more clearly by your light” (January 22). I am so happy not to be condemned by others (like our Board) for my blindness. I’d even be happy if I learned not to condemn myself for blindness.

People don’t normally write about things such as this to their mailing list – although many of you are personal friends. It seems, well, UN-spiritual in the way of ministry newsletters. However, declaring it “unspiritual” is antithetical to all we’ve stood for over the years. We maintain that there is not one square inch of life over which Christ does not reign. So all this dilemma and fogginess is part of our being human, struggling with our own faultiness and finiteness. It is exactly what God wants to take us through right now, even though I hate the uncertainty.

In some corner of my heart, I can give my hopes and dreams to God for safe keeping. I don’t know where we will be in six months. I know there could be a spot for us that is more urban yet doesn’t rule out a clear horizon and a quiet neighborhood. And if not? Will I eventually find grace and contentment in where we land? I think so.

I’m going to watch to see how all this turns out. In the meantime, if any of you understand just a portion of this – if you have lived counting down the days to some inevitable change in your life, then I’m comforted. You can pray for us. You are my friend.

“Lord, to laugh in the midst of trial and to rejoice in the darkest valley is another way of saying. ‘Our hope is in you.’ Fill us with laughter and joy while we work for peace and strive for justice. Amen.” Common Prayer (January 27)