I hadn’t really wanted to get up when the alarm went off at 3 a.m. for a shuttle to the Atlanta airport at 4 a.m. for a flight at 8 a.m., but I did because she’d asked me to come. This was the daughter who had only recently begun to like me again, and I wasn’t going to miss it. Josie Love was in art school in New York, and I was going to see her mid-summer art show.
And now I was heading home after my long weekend with her, waiting for my Uber back to the Buffalo International Airport. That morning, I’d taken out trash and run the dishwasher, washed sheets and cleaned the bathroom of the more than 100-year-old house where I’d stayed, the summer home of friends, whose dark chocolate covered raisins had helped me feel welcome, much too welcome, in fact, as there were not any left.
Paying penance for them required, at the least, an immaculate bathroom cleaning and remaking of the bed on the second floor sleeping porch that comprised the entire upstairs of their historic cottage. I’d tried to replace the candy at the nearby grocery store, but the closest thing I could find were dark chocolate covered blueberries, a close second. Anyone who knows their chocolate covered fruit knows, as I do, that chocolate covered blueberries do not have the same tang as chocolate covered raisins. Hence, the need for careful cleaning by a greedy houseguest. But I digress.
While the visit with Josie Love had been the reason for my trip—attending the Art Show of The Chautauqua Institution and enjoying her exhibition there—the sleeping porch had been an unexpected treat just for me. Reading and writing among the treetops within sight of Lake Chautauqua and its many docks and sailboats made me literally dance-a-jig-for joy the first day I arrived.
I had the entire place to myself—our friends weren’t in town this particular weekend—and I had my pick of any bedroom I pleased. But once I saw the upstairs porch, I knew it was mine. The view could be enjoyed from wall-to-wall windows on all sides, a perfect 360 bird’s eye view of tree branches and housetops, prolific gardens, and the vast lake that stretched north and east as far as I could see. While the house itself sat less than 20 feet from the road with passers-by coming and going all day long on foot or by bike, the screened porch’s unexpected placement on top of the house, hidden from view of the street, yielded a sense of privacy and sanctuary I had needed and not known I needed, until I was in it.
By the time I had arrived that morning and met up with Josie Love and biked with her around Chautauqua and toured the art school and met her new friends and eaten a meal, it was time for her to return to work in her studio and for me to explore the house, but the treehouse porch was calling me. Like my own magical wardrobe to another land, the porch promised me something I couldn’t name but knew I wanted. I headed up to find out what had drawn me to settle myself and my suitcase there at first sight.
The glass windows were flung open, gusts of wind coming through the screens, fresh and brisk off the water. I reached for my cotton sweater. Since my early shuttle ride from Chattanooga that morning, I was weary; what was drawing me most was the single bed shoved up next to a window. I sat down on it to survey the rest of the room, but once I stretched out, the red striped camp blanket had its way with me, offering another layer of warmth and rest, and I slid in willingly beneath it.
I read and journaled until my eyelids were heavy, and read and journaled until I jerked awake, pen still in hand. Heaven for me became the wind through the treetops that night; the soft voices of anonymous neighbors, some of them owls’, drifting in; the vaulted wooden ceiling above me, its exposed dark green timbers extending so far overhead they joined branches, supported sky…moon…milky way. The porch rocked me like a giant swing as the wind blew colder, wilder. The pull-chain, bare bulb ceiling light at the stair landing, beckoning bugs and other winged beings, flickered and went black, like someone had taken a deep breath and blown. I breathed my thanks. I’d forgotten to turn it off when I climbed up before the sun went down.
I expected to see Max in my own dreamy version of Where the Wild Things Are as I slept that night, and maybe I did? But I don’t remember any wild things. I do remember that, like Max, I wasn’t afraid. I’m not easily made afraid by darkness or new places; angry words with a loved one or red lights and speeding tickets are more likely to make my heart beat faster.
Given my circumstances—aloneness, a wild-windyness, sudden darkness, unfamiliar surroundings—I was surprised to feel unafraid. But even more surprising was that I actually felt the exact opposite—a deep peace and joy settled in me, like someone had opened me up and poured in something rich and full, like melted chocolate or raspberry jam—a liquid kind of love. And like the dehydrated person who doesn’t know how thirsty she is until she starts drinking, I realized in the peaceful presence of that upstairs space, how deep my longings were for what it offered me—safety and solitude. Rest.
My personal life at that moment wasn’t particularly peaceful. I live with a grown son and his wife and their three precious, young sons, along with my husband and our 18-year-old son. It is a wonder-full life, but it is not an especially contemplative one. There are times, more than I like to admit, when it is downright stressful. There are other unsettling issues I struggle with as well. And I wondered if maybe that was the real reason underneath the reason for my trip: I needed a break. I sure didn’t hesitate to book my flight when Josie Love invited me to come. I wondered, too, if I’d felt tugged by him to be there.
I awoke early the next morning, still wearing my traveling clothes from the day before, feeling well rested but famished. I didn’t want to shower just to find a restaurant and eat there alone. I was intent on spending all my time upstairs where I didn’t feel alone at all, where I actually felt accompanied and delighted in. Internet surfing, I learned the closest grocery store was four miles away, and since all I had was a bike, I was also relieved to find a grocery delivery app that yielded a shopper who brought me fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt within the hour, along with most anything else I wanted, including those dark chocolate covered blueberries. I got four packs, just in case I ate through most of them myself, and with four I got a fifth free. Perfect.
Josie texted that she had to do some work that morning for the art show the next day but would come by for lunch, which suited me fine since I wanted to hang out in my treehouse the rest of the day anyway. “Are you sure you’re OK with me working? After all, you’ve come all this way?” “Baby girl, I’m trying not to feel too excited about it. I was feeling guilty that I wanted to hang out here by myself this morning, but I won’t feel guilty now, so you don’t either. We are two happy peas in a pod.”
I settled in for more reading and journaling, when steps on the downstairs porch alerted me that my breakfast, lunch, and supper plus lots of snacks, including Diet Snapple, had arrived. The driver and his young daughter, Polly (clearly proud to be his helper), cheerfully brought my bags inside and then just as cheerfully scrammed. Maybe heaven wasn’t just where I slept last night, I thought. Maybe I’m still there? Who delivers groceries in a somewhat snooty, gated community and doesn’t wait for a well-deserved tip?
The day was crisp and cool and sunshiny, calling me outside, but I had inside plans for this day. I read and read and journaled and journaled, safe in my cozy nest, native birdsong the unexpected soundtrack. There was Instacart bounty all around me—gluten free toast and berries and sharp cheddar on the plate by the bed, a Diet Snapple at my fingertips—and my heart felt full as it had the night before, only today, it was overflowing, thankful all over again to be in such a beautiful place with no schedule, no chores, spending time alone with him.
Before I knew it, Josie was texting that she was on her way over for lunch, so I hopped in the shower, threw on clean clothes, and had supper from the night before warming by the time she arrived. We ate pizza together and played a card game we found in an old trunk in the treehouse; playing cards together had always been a connecting thing between us, even during our dark days. We watched her TV show-of-the-moment, too, and I rubbed her legs and feet, something I used to do almost daily when she lived at home and played soccer, and then it was time for her to get back to her studio.
“Want company?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“There’s not really anywhere for you to be in the studio, mom. Besides, I can’t work with you watching.”
“I know. Seemed like I oughta ask anyway,” I said.
“Mom, do you feel bad?”
“Let me ask you, do you feel bad?”
“Yes, I feel bad about you being here.”
“Maybe you’re thinking you ought to be hanging out with me more. Is that it?”
“Well, I’m fighting feeling bad that I’m so happy without you. I want to see you as much as I can. I really do. But I’m reading and writing and having a ball doing exactly what I want to do, all by myself. I feel kind of like I’ve died and gone to heaven here. I hope you will treat yourself as well as I’m treating myself. And no guilt for either of us.”
“Yep. And you’re loved.”
“Thanks, mom,” she said with a hug. It’s quite wonderful to be hugged willingly by a non-hugger, and I soaked it in. We went outside, and just that quickly, she got on her bike and rode away. “I’m done talkin’ to ya’,” she hollered over her shoulder. Later she texted, “Mom, do you care if I go out with friends tonight?” “No worries,” I texted back, “I’m done talkin’ to ya’ 😜.” I fought feeling a little guilty that I felt so glad.
The next day was Sunday and the day of the Art Show I’d come to see. We’d invited two of Josie’s friends over for dinner after the show, so I had ordered more food, Polly and her dad delivering. Josie Love wanted salmon and lots of veggies, so I spent the morning chopping and looking for a new recipe for frozen salmon, as fresh wasn’t to be found. I took a long bike ride all around Chautauqua after, marveling at so much natural beauty and so much unnatural money, all in one place.
Once back at the cottage, I realized I hadn’t planned a dessert after dinner. I had lots of granola and chocolate chips, butter and eggs, and looking through our friends’ cupboards, I found flour, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt. Googling all of the ingredients on hand, I found Granola Brownie Bars with lots of suggested add-ins, like chocolate chips, and nothing Josie was allergic to. “You did good, God,” I smiled.
I walked to the art show in the dress Josie Love had picked out for me to wear. She was wearing a shorts outfit with a long train that flattered her figure and showed off her legs, but black lipstick? I must not be in the know, I thought. Nonetheless, with her natural curls loosely styled and her perfect brown skin, she was radiant. I admired all that she was exhibiting, two very large paintings of abstract African-American bodies and some smaller prints, mostly of the lake. She had called me when she first arrived in Chautauqua, complaining, “Mom, this place is too white! There’s not even an ethnic hair care section at Walmart! Even Fort O, corn-patch as it is, has that!” I was thinking she might be right about Chautauqua being “too white;” she might have trouble selling those large paintings.
Across from Josie’s work was that of another female artist. Among very abstract paintings was a charcoal drawing of a father seated, holding his young daughter, her head resting on his shoulder. The father was wearing a hat; the daughter had thick wavy hair. It resonated with me—the father and daughter, sharing an intimate moment, completely at ease and safe. I checked the price, $150. Reasonable, considering its size and the fact that other pieces much smaller were selling for twice that much.
I found the artist and told her how much I loved it, tearing up as I spoke about seeing the father and daughter together, and how it felt like me and my Father. She empathetically teared up as well. “No one’s ever cried seeing my work before,” she said. “I’d really love for you to have it. And you know, I hadn’t seen what you saw in it, the father and daughter, I mean. I thought it was just an abstract.”
Since the show had just begun, I hadn’t looked at everything yet, so I delayed declaring I wanted to buy it until I’d gone through the whole building. I met Josie’s sponsors along the way, the people who had funded the scholarship at Georgia that she had won, and thanked them. “She’s thriving,” I said. “This has been such a great place for her.” By the time I found the person taking buyers’ names and details, the piece I wanted was already sold. It had felt like my very own charcoal drawing of what was happening in the treehouse, and it was going home with someone else. I was sick. And sad. I consoled myself that I was having the experience; I didn’t need a drawing of it to remember it.
It was time for me to get back to the cottage to cook supper. As I loaded roasting pans with sweet potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower, I realized I had twice as much food as I needed for just four of us, so I texted Josie to bring three more friends. The girls showed up just as everything was ready, and we had fun getting to know each other around the table, talking about mothers and daughters and the friendships between the girls that summer and where everyone was from and what they liked most about being there. I felt connected with them from the start, their obvious affection for one another, their kindness, their quirkiness. I wondered how Josie was going to feel leaving all of them at the end of the summer, returning to UGA just in time for her senior year. Were they part of the reason for the tenderness I was beginning to see in her work and in her?
They were meeting up with the rest of the student artists for drinks in a nearby pub later, so I scooted them out the door for a quick photoshoot. The girls’ warm thank yous were in stark contrast to Josie’s, “I’m done talkin’ to ya’,” said to me as she turned to leave, her bag of Granola Brownie Bars swinging in her hand. I watched them walk down the street, the sounds of their voices and laughter dying away. “Thanks for letting me be a part of this tonight, God.”
I was in a hurry to get back upstairs. By the time the girls left, it was nearly sunset, that golden-glow-time between day and night, and I couldn’t wait to experience it in the treehouse. I rushed through dishes and pots and pans, talking as I did them, “Thank you for all of this. I’m overwhelmed, truly. You’ve thought of everything—a beautiful old house with nooks and crannies, time alone, nature all around me, food I love, sweet time with Josie, a bike to ride, nothing expected of me, a screened porch, a rustic camp vibe, hot showers and cool temps, gardens in every yard, beautiful neighborhoods with quaint architecture, and the LAKE! And now this intimate evening with you ahead of me. Thank You.”
I climbed up as the sun was sinking, but in its final blaze of dazzling light, the green all around me lit up as if plugged into an unseen outlet. There was the deep green of the treehouse with all the vibrant greens outside, waving at me no matter where I looked. The greens blinded me a bit, spattered with glittering raindrops that had just begun to fall, a golden, green-wash of sparkling light everywhere. I had to squint just to see it. And there was the lake at a little distance, massive and steady, calm. Goodness knows how I love the serenity and stillness of lake water. I breathed in deeply and exhaled. There it was again, the liquid love, filling me up inside, rising to my eyes, and, this time, spilling out onto my cheeks.
My heart was so tight with the joy of that moment, I thought it would burst, and I thought, or I heard, or I thought I heard, “I am restoring your soul.” And the words of Psalm 23 popped into my head,
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Thanks to our friends, the local grocery store, and Polly’s dad, I had everything I needed.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
Indeed, the colors all around me as I ate and read and wrote and slept were green, green, and more green; the comforting bedclothes downy and soft.
“He leads me beside still waters.”
There was the quiet of this old house and the neighborhood and the lake at the bottom of the hill.
“He restores my soul.”
I had felt peace and joy ever since stepping foot in the treehouse. Hadn’t he been refreshing and reviving me ever since?
“He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
Giving Josie room-to-be-Josie and me room-to-be-me are not things I’ve normally done well–or at all. My default mode has been control-the-fun-out-of-everything. If we were having fun, it was completely on him.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
I had felt his comforting presence throughout my journey, from making late connections at the shuttle and airports, to taking my first Uber; I was finding my way in unknown places, and I hadn’t been afraid.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”
Though Josie’s friends around our table that night weren’t my enemies, Josie and I have been each other’s worst nightmare in the past. The peace and love between us now is certainly God’s work, though even now, old habits die hard. We can warp back to nasty in a Nano second. But still, this visit felt like a fresh anointing of sweetness between us, an overflowing of his faithfulness to bring us through that dark valley again and again if need be, until we stick on the other side.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
And why wouldn’t my life continue to be blessed since the One responsible for all the goodness and mercy is God himself, who doesn’t change? These three days had been a foretaste of heaven for me, a little weekend visit “in the house of the Lord” that I would one day get to sit back and enjoy with all those I love, forever.
The light by my bed was drawing bugs to the screen, so I turned it off. Rain was falling gently, smelling clean like freshly turned soil or pavement or both. I could hear people on the street walking and talking on their way to a performance or lecture. This place held something for everyone at every age. Josie Love’s work had softened and gotten richer somehow since she had arrived five weeks ago as a college student winning an art scholarship for the summer. Her art seemed to me more human and less graphic than what she had done the previous year at UGA. She was healing here, and growing, I thought. “Thank you, God. And now you’ve brought me here, and I’m healing and growing, too. Thank you for this safe place for the two of us, for bringing us here and restoring us.”
I slept that night with the rain pouring, running off the roof right alongside my bed, the windows wide open, the screen somehow protecting me from getting soaked. In the morning, splashing puddles and laughter told me children were passing by beneath me on their way to outdoor classes.
This trip had begun with a 3 a.m. wake up call that I’d hated, but it turned out to be a sacred experience for me, and I was sad to leave. Saying goodbye to Josie Love tugged at my heart—the temptation to feel guilty, the remembrance of our old issues, and the joy and sweetness of restored relationship. I was also tempted to crumple under the weight of regrets. But I reminded myself that our stories together and separately weren’t over yet. There was plenty of life ahead of us, plenty of time to love, eternity even. And this thought lifted my heart: I wasn’t saying goodbye to him there. I didn’t have to leave my One True Love behind, and my heart squeezed in the realization and rested there. After packing and cleaning most of that morning, I was finally sitting at the front gate of Chautauqua, sweating a little after the mile walk from the house, my suitcase wheels bumping rhythmically over the sidewalk, and munching that free pack of dark chocolate covered blueberries, waiting for my Uber driver, and wondering what this day would bring.