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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

First, I Found Splendor...

For this, I see now, blessed, You gave me flesh, The point of sense and muscle's grip and skin Was full immersion in this lavish earth, A world to drench my senses; rough and tender, Ardent lover, made to meet what reaches Ever out in me, the whole a gift To this five-sensed, sentient self; the means By which I'm rooted in my place, but lifted Too, in hunger, taught by every atom's gesture...

Nestled on a knoll of sun-drenched grass, most of the way up one of the Grasmere fells, I scrawled the first of the poem above. For I was in love. And by that I meant in love as a swimmer is in water, drenched in the ardent beauty imagined and formed by the first and primal love "that moved the sun and spheres." Tasting, touching, breathing a world so brimmed with golden air and undulating hills in carpets of shaggy, velvet green, and flowers in gemmed, wild profusion in old hedges, and ridges dotted with those clumsy innocents, the sheep, that every sense in me quickened, hungered, reached. And was sated by what it found.

I was in the Lake District for three days, a 30th birthday present to myself, a space of time in which I intended mostly to wander, to partake of beauty as if it were bread and I starving for it. A couple of days before I finally boarded the train to Windermere, I scrawled this in my journal: What do I really want while I'm there? I want my little girl heart again. I want that gentle, innocent self, the child, possible to me even now in adulthood if only I will make that inner room of quiet in which she breathes and sings. To work and bear and hurry are native troubles to adulthood in this world. But there is an essential rest that I think is reachable even amidst the whirlwind. A circle of hush in which that "still small voice" hums and speaks. That inner space, and the child who wonders within it, is what I hope to reclaim in my adventure.

And I did. But the wonder was that my guide and teacher was the gentle, gorgeous earth. I knew it afresh as the good gift it was in the beginning, the tale of God's kindness told in every atom of existence, there for our daily renewal. I found the simple wisdom of the earth, it's hush and humility, the way it retains and embodies the goodness to which it was called by its Maker, before the fall. But I found its profundity too; heard the low spoken prophecy that thrums in its beauty, it's vivid, dying beauty, as it waits for the healing that will one day come. I walked and walked, muscles glad in their straining, skin livened by wind and sun and sweat, my whole self restored, returned to its rest by the taste of hedgerow blackberries, the swish of grass, the mad baa of sheep, the windsong, cloudbreath, and green, green laughter of the meadows. To share a bit of the glory here with you is my thanks:

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Taken from the spot where I perched to write my poem. You see, I wasn't exaggerating.

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 Bank Ground Farm, my home for a couple of days, and also the farmhouse on which Arthur Ransome based his "Holly Howe" in the Swallows and Amazons books.

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 Bank Ground Farm, the day I arrived.

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 Over and over, as I trod the long footpaths and bumped my way between towns on the rickety old buses in their dive down impossibly narrow roads, I struggled to describe the essence of the unspoilt landscape about me. And the word "benevolence" came again and again. This is a generous landscape. The sheer ebullience of vine and flower and color are a welcome in and of themselves, before you even step foot through the low, wooden doors of its houses.

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 What a pleasant sign, yes?

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 One of my favorite things about England: public footpaths. Those little arrows gesture toward countless meadow tracks and forest ways. You might meet a few friendly (or taciturn) cows, scare a sheep, or find yourself in the far corner of an upland field, but the possibilities are endless. Just follow, not the yellow-brick-road, but the little yellow arrows, and you never know where the road might take you.

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 One of the best salads I've ever eaten. Found after a long ramble. Please notice the sprig of lavender on top.

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 Salad... followed, of course, by tea, and my ever-favorite walnut cake. Imbibed on a tiny table set on a terrace peering up the cloud-wreathed Coniston water on a blue and white and golden day.

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 Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin. I too could write brilliant tomes on art if this were my home.

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The sheep here are such curious, but suspicious creature. I am helpless in laughter every time they scuttle away from me in terror after I've attempted to make friends. Their defiant "maaaaaa"s only worsen my affliction.

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 My first day's view, the boon of a long hike in the afternoon sun.

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 A good walk should always begin with a hearty tea. Preferably replete with fresh scones and plenty of cream.

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 Or it can begin with a ploughman's lunch. (Either way, good food is a vital ingredient to the success of epic, Lake District rambles). Another of my favorite English features. Pickled vegetables, chutney, cheeses, salad, and crusty bread... there are few better meals on earth, in my opinion, and few better repasts to set one up for an afternoon of exploration.

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 My view as I ate my ploughman's feast.

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On the last night, wanting a simple meal and a good long walk, I trekked the two miles into town and got fish 'n chips, the best kind, from a little chippy shop. They were hot and greasy, spattered with vinegar and salt, bundled in newspaper. And I walked halfway back, to a bench with a view right up the lake. And then, these elegant friends joined me and made my day complete.

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But I have to end with this, with the words I jotted in my notebook at the end of my time: "I have rambled and climbed and crept through giant ferns and scrambled over rocks and walked a streambed up a mountain and scolded sheep and sweated right through my shirt and met the brazen gaze of the sun with courage and I sit, now, by a river, little girl Indian-style with hair a-tangle and the glint of sun pennies flickering in my eye off the running stream.

I am the child I ever was. I've arrived back home in myself, at rest in the old, sweet ease that is the mark of a soul at rest. I do not strive. I do not fear. I do not fret. I said that what I wanted to find in coming to this place was little-girl Sarah, the old, enduring innocence that waits to return when I actually obey the Psalm and make myself still, let myself know again whose goodness underlies every bit of the beauty I love.

But this innocence is not a simple nostalgia. There is nothing backward about the return to simplicity. I haven't dwelt wistfully for a few days in ease, now to return, with a sigh, to a busy, adultish, but ultimately, more practical self. So often in our modern world, childhood and innocence are viewed as simplistic states, almost infantile, a backward state cured by savvy and cynicism and the street sense of the world. If my innocence is a return, it is regression only insofar as it is a retrenchment from an incorrect course. I walk back from the wrong road taken, I regress in the same way that my body returns from disease to a wholeness of health and self that is the only state in which any growth or forward motion can be attained.

Child-heartedness, innocence, simplicity, these are conditions of holiness, that fundamental health to which the soul must ever aspire. Innocence doesn't mean a separation from care and sin, it means a chosen state of faith. A willed decision toward purity of heart. A state in which wonder is the operative consciousness, in which hope is native to each decision, in which thanks, sometimes simply by way of revelry in what is to be found amidst the ordinary, is the ground of discovery, education, and creativity. It is, I think, a state of grace, that fundamental orientation of self required by belief in a Father God. For to him, we are all, eternally, children. The world is his ceaseless gift, and right action, even in the care and work of adulthood, is formed in the soil of thanks, begun by a seed of wonder.

And now, if only I can keep my grip on this knowledge when I'm wrestling my way through the crowds at Heathrow tomorrow afternoon..."

Sarah Clarkson12 Comments