Chautauqua

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 for the summer and had invited me to come for her mid-summer art show at Chautauqua in New York. Our friends had a 100-year-old summer home just off the lake nearby and had graciously offered it to me during my visit. I had no idea what an offer it would turn out to be.

Old houses are irresistible to the Nancy Drew in me, so when I arrived, I was eager to explore. I had the entire place to myself, and I had my pick of any bedroom I pleased.

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But once I saw the sleeping porch on top of the house, 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. The idea of getting to read and write among the treetops within sight of Lake Chautauqua and its many docks and sailboats made me literally dance-a-jig-for joy.

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.

When I arrived that morning and met up with Josie Love, we biked around Chautauqua and toured the art school where I met her new friends, but then it was time for her to return to work in her studio and for me to settle in at the house. But it was the treehouse porch that was calling me.

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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 with 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.

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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 drifting in, some of them owls’; 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 blue lights and speeding tickets are more likely to make my heart thump.

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 woke 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. But I needed food.

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.

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?”

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“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 separate pods.”

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 had arrived. The driver and his young daughter, Polly, 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 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, but not feeling alone.

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.

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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.

“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?”

“Do you feel bad?”

“Yes, I feel bad about you being here.”

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“Maybe you’re thinking you ought to be hanging out with me more.  Is that it?”

“Yeah.”

“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’ll treat yourself as well as I’m treating myself. And no guilt for either of us.”

“You’re weird.”

“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.

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The next day was Sunday and the day of the Art Show I’d come to see. We’d invited Josie’s friends over for dinner after the show, so I’d 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 after, marveling at so much natural beauty and so much unnatural money, all in one place.

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.

Josie and her friends came for dinner and wanted to meet up with the rest of the student artists for drinks later. The girls’ warm thank yous were in stark contrast to Josie’s, “I’m done talkin’ to ya’,” said as she turned to leave.

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I hardly noticed. I was in a hurry to get back upstairs. 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…”

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 from every window. 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.

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“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” where I would one day get to sit back and enjoy with all those I love, forever.

It was completely dark, and the light by my bed was drawing bugs to the screen, so I turned it off. Rain had begun falling, and I smelled wet pavement. People on the street were walking and talking on their way to a lecture.

Josie Love’s work had softened and gotten richer somehow since she’d 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’d 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.”

Saying goodbye to Josie Love the next morning tugged at my heart. There was the temptation to feel guilty, the remembrance of our old issues, and the joy and sweetness of restored relationship. I was 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 share. I didn’t need to fear.

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And this thought lifted me—I wasn’t saying goodbye to him. He said his goodness and love would follow me all my days. My heart relaxed and rested there.

40 thoughts on “Chautauqua”

  1. How did I just find these? So beautiful, Eve. Your writing is a reflection of the beauty that God has and continues to craft in that gorgeous heart of yours, and that is reflected in your stunning outward beauty as well. Well done, sweet friend. Keep going. So grateful for you.

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  2. Oh Eve, this was wonderful!! So thankful that MBV gave us the great steer to your blog. God has truly gifted you with beauty, a way with words, and a warm that invites others in to your heart. Love to you!

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  3. Oh how I miss you, Eve! The Lord has given you a gift with words that make me feel like I’m right there with you having this conversation. Thank you for your raw honesty and beautiful descriptions that are like healing oils for the heart.
    I love you,
    Carol

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  4. Oh sweet Friend! This is wonderful and resonated with me on so many levels. Almost 40 years ago I went to Chautauqua with “college boyfriend”. We were visiting his family not far away in Jamestown. As an Art major he knew I would love to see it. It was truly another world then and must be still!… my Bible Study has just started Dallas Willards book, Life Without Lack, on the 23rd Psalm!!! It sounds like you’re overwhelmed and needed this respite! Bravo girl!!! We Adult Daughters, Moms ,Wives and Grandmothers need to take better care of ourselves….( do you hear that Neal!? ) I can’t wait til your next entry. I love you.

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  5. I love you!! GOD Loves You!! We all Love you!! Thank you for “filling my cup” this morning. I hope you know how amazing you are to me. AaaaaaMaaaaaaazzzzzing!!!!!

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  6. Eve, this has brought tears. I’m visiting in Chattanooga today, a daughter much like your Josie, and troubled relationship too. You say, “I was also tempted to crumple under the weight of regrets.” Yes, I feel that. Do you remember – once I and my daughter came and stayed in your beautiful upstairs room? You were welcoming to me too, and I felt about your home much as you felt about this one 🙂 A place of peace and beauty.Thank you for sharing this hope with me — I’m still deep in the hard trenches with my kids, and your words are a balm — Mary Kathryn

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    1. I remember, Mary Kathryn. Someone shared with me recently that hope comes from “perservance and the encouragement of the Scriptures.” Don’t give up! Every time I’ve prayed that God would change someone else, he changes me instead. What’s with that? I’m gonna stop praying that stinky prayer. : )

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  7. Oh, Eve, I am so glad MBV shared your blog! I so loved seeing you share your gift of writing–what a true blessing. I look forward to reading more. This touched me deeply as I know what it means to have that relationship struggle with a child. Love you!

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  8. Eve, thank you for your encouraging words. I was so blessed by your gracious honest vulnerability. Thankful you took time to use God given words, to bring the Lord glory and bless me!

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