Summer of Faerie: “Housing Problems” by AJ Vanderhorst

Spring has fallen upon us all at once this week: gray clouds have melted into clear skies, bright green leaves have filled up the woods, and the temperatures jumped from the 50s to the 80s. For me, this Memorial Day weekend is the real beginning of summer, when lawnmowers roar to life, lilacs fill the air with sweetness, and the heat of the sun fills your winter-harrowed soul.

After enjoying several creative collaboration projects with other writers for Thanksgiving and late winter, I wanted to do something fun for this summer. I toyed with a few ideas, but finally settled on a project called Summer of Faerie that was born from my love for fantasy and fairy tales. 

For this Summer of Faerie project, I gave some fellow writers from The Habit the following prompt, inviting them to contribute: 

  • Short, prose fairy tale retellings
  • Faerie/fairy tale-themed poetry
  • Creative nonfiction about fairy tales in general

I had three suggestions for these works: 

  • Consider focusing on something other than romance.
  • Consider mythologizing your own region through this work – how can your hometown or city be just as magical as a castle on a mountain or tower in the wilderness?
  • Consider how we can meditate on the Gospel through thinking about fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton argued that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” (I’m quoting his weird and wonderful essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in his book Orthodoxy.)

Several writer-friends responded to the challenge, and the contributions so far have dazzled me. One of the first contributors was AJ Vanderhorst, who just released an amazing novel, The Mostly Invisible Boy. Enjoy!

Housing Problems

by AJ Vanderhorst

Hands holding teeth

Two parents with too many hobbies. Two parents with four crazy, precocious boys. We overlooked the low sales price. We overlooked a lot. We were a little desperate, well, more than a little. We needed someplace big and HOA-free and durable—and fast.

The missing background didn’t bother me at first and I’m a journalist at the Kansas City Star. At least I used to be. Go on, laugh. These things have a way of creeping up on you.

The house’s previous owner, a genial, raisin-skinned gentleman who gave you the impression of holding nothing back, told us the sprawling four-story place was built in 1915. We believed him. Not that we cared, because the house was gorgeous. Dwell Magazine with vintage swagger. You felt taller just standing in the shade of its colonnades. 

By the time I got around to checking, the origin story proved impossible to verify. No records on micro-fiche. No permits at KC Planning & Development—not that they looked very hard. For a while I dug around in the basement, hoping to find old documents in a forgotten corner. Believe me, there were plenty of those. 

Forgotten corners, I mean.  

When we knocked down nonstructural walls, which happened a couple times as we got moved in, I’d scan each yellowed page of newsprint while the kids sifted dust for arrowheads and shark teeth. Nothing.

Sometimes the clue you need is staring you in the face. In this case, the clue was: nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

Plenty of dirt on everyone else though. One rabbit trail through KC history gave me an inside track on the next door neighbors. They’d been accused of witchcraft in 1740, which, reading between the lines, was code for “really big jerks we don’t want at the barbecue.” That family is still here and they’re still obnoxious and I can totally see it. 

In 1911 someone’s rooster got blasted with a shotgun and buried in concrete for crowing at 4:59 instead of 5 am. I can’t help feeling neighborhood news has become a lot less interesting.

In the more recent past, I learned how mob “Boss Tom” Pendergast got his claws in the KC Code Department—and made it so crooked that today it still can’t stop citing and snickering long enough to look you in the face. 

But I found nothing on our cavernous brick house. Only the growing feeling, as I walked its wide staircases and traced the shadows of its vaulted ceilings, that it wasn’t normal. Which was fine at first. Because downtown thought our family, with its size and irrepressibility, was pretty weird too.

I formed a theory that an exasperated realtor had pulled the 1915 date out of thin air and slapped it on his deed of sale. There were no records of the behemoth’s original use. No tales of mobs it’d outlasted with its quintuple-thick walls. No reason given for its many secret crawl spaces. The deep gouges in its irreplaceable timber floors. Or its poured concrete roof. 

At the time, my most intriguing find was a sentence from an 1875 account of Kansas City’s stockyards: “The beef barons shipped their assets on the hoof, and herds of cattle, sheep and pigs overran the West Bottoms daily. This was a stark contrast to the more exotic, costly creatures that were rumored to arrive on the riverfront under cover of darkness.”

The “news” story gave me a prickly feeling behind my eyes. The feeling was hard to pin down as it scurried along my bones. I labeled it curiosity and tried to forget it. Curiosity isn’t usually so nagging. It doesn’t usually cause you to turn on extra lights and stay up late at night. 

But the story appeared next to an ad for “MAGIC medicinal TONIC for the FORTIFICATION of boys, girls and calves.” So I felt justified in dismissing it, or trying to. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know this was my first mistake. Snobbery toward old news—news I stupidly wrote off because I could associate it with hoaxes.

Before everything happened, people often asked me for advice (free of course) about buying and fixing up old houses. Now, as the sun hangs in the middle of the sky and cocktail hour approaches, I know what I should’ve told them:

“Yeah, remodeling physical history is a nasty beast. But let’s step back. How old is the place? Is it too big? Just…Way. Too. Big? In a strange Hitchcockian way that gnaws at you slowly, offending your sense of proportion? Are there too many fireplaces? Do the quiet, twisting hallways send centipedes down your spine?”

That’s all the free advice I’d offer. But if they could afford to pay me for my time…and my scars…and my abrupt career change, I’d say:

Dragons. It just might be dragons. So point me in their direction and get out of the way. 

Business card for a Dragon Agency

AJ Vanderhorst

AJ Vanderhorst is a husband, dad and author who loves barbecue, as do all right-thinking people. His relationship with monsters is long and complicated. Visit him online at ajvanderhorst.com.

The Magic of Late Winter, Part VI: Guest Post by Hope Henchey

Pictures by Hope Henchey

Friends, the natural world is changing from gray to green, chilly to warm, frozen to refreshed, but it feels like the human world has gone mad. This pandemic has reshuffled the cards of our lives. I pray for those who are sick, grieving, afraid, jobless, homebound, or lonely.

In the midst of grief and fear, I remember an ancient truth: the God who sits above the circle of the earth and inhabits eternity is our refuge – in pandemics or prosperity, peace or war.

The LORD God is our stronghold. I hope to honor Him by seeking joy in dark places and pursuing beauty through these gray days. Therefore, I am going ahead with the next installment of my Magic of Late Winter series, a guest post by Hope Henchey about late winter in Florida.

Hope’s meditation on the beauty and transience of this season in Florida stirred me like a dream of summer in the midst of winter. I love how she captures this season’s precious, fierce, fragile joy. Enjoy!

March in Florida: The Last Days of the Shire

Text and pictures by Hope Henchey

I’m a season snob, I’ll admit it.

If you ask my opinion of living in Florida for 22 years, the answer you get will vary widely depending on what month it is. You should ask in a month like March.

Those who live in colder climates might look to March with hopefulness of sunny days and fresh air. As a Floridian, however, I’ve already been enjoying sunny days and fresh air for the past few months, so I cling to March tightly as I watch the last specks of sand drizzle through the hourglass, signaling the season when my Shire will transform into Mordor.

March is so, so lovely. It’s the tail-end of strawberry season, which means those delicious berries are cheap, plenteous, and ruby-red ripe. Since we live only five minutes from strawberry fields, we actually eat strawberries at every meal. To continue with Lord of the Rings imagery, I devour strawberries in the same way the steward of Gondor murderously eats tomatoes. The juice drips from my chin like blood, but I don’t even care. It’s glorious.

March is a month when mosquitoes (“our state bird”, as we say) are still mostly gone, and the air is cool enough to enjoy all the local rivers, trees, and beaches. My favorite beach is Siesta Key, where the sand truly looks and feels like powdered sugar. Nearby is the gorgeous John and Mable Ringling Museum and Estate (yes, the circus guy) where my daughters enjoy savoring aromas in Florida’s oldest rose garden. On the way home, we like to stop by a delightful orange grove that sells soft-serve frozen orange juice. March days are full of such adventures.

Though we still might get sunburned if we’re outside more than ten minutes, the big ol’ Star seems more like friend than foe in months like these.

There is, of course, an uneasiness that pulls at my sleeve in March. I know that the hot half of the year is hurtling toward us, with its bugs and crowds and threats of heatstroke. Especially since I’m entering my fifth pregnant summer in nine years, I know that I have months of difficult breathing ahead since my organs get all squished up, yet the fourth-most humid city in America doesn’t seem to care. Even walking to my car feels like I’m underwater in a 100-degree pool. I dread that feeling so much.

But that’s the thing with seasons, isn’t it? We don’t get to control them. Unless we have the flexibility to chase around good weather, we don’t get to pick what season we’re in. I wish strawberries were always cheap and ripe, but the plants must die and be replanted and grow from seeds again. I wish the air could always feel fresh and delightful, but heat and humidity must come.

If I could customize seasons of life by sheer will, I would cut out a lot of the things going on in my life right now, issues that are heavier than hot weather or lack of berries. But the world is broken, and God has given me limits. I can receive each season as the blessing it is, given by God for His glory and my good.

There’s beauty in every season. Even summer holds things I love such as mighty yet calming lightning storms, Vacation Bible School, and lower prices on grapes. But while it’s still March, I’ll enjoy every last moment of blowing bubbles in our yard and gator-watching at Lettuce Lake Park and meandering downtown Tampa’s Riverwalk.

I thank Him for this season and trust Him for the next.

Bio picture of Hope Henchey

Hope Henchey

Hope Henchey lives in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida with her husband and four kids (fifth on the way!) She writes on her blog and microblogs on Instagram about homeschooling, RV living, theology, childbirth, and more @called.beloved.kept and @lightingfireshomeschool. She has written for Christianity Today and Daughter of Delight.

The Magic of Late Winter, Part II: Guest Post by Loren Warnemuende

Pink blossoms
Photos by Loren Warnemuende

Last week, I posted the first in a series on the magic of late winter, or the special beauty of this season between midwinter mystery and spring awakening. This week, I have the privilege of posting an achingly beautiful piece by Loren Warnemuende, another writer-friend from The Habit writing community. Loren’s encouragement and wisdom have been a blessing to me in my writing, and her work has the warmth and richness of the first golden day of spring.

Snow and Flower

by Loren Warnemuende

I remember a day in late January, 2009, when the snow fell thick and heavy. It fell unhurriedly; it had plenty of time, and plenty to dump. Southeast Michigan in January tends more to gray days and ice, but on that day, the skies cried soft snow.

I drove, my mind churning, my tires cutting through ruts of previous vehicles. One of those vehicles carried my daughter Keren—an ambulance that sped far ahead, out of sight. I didn’t know if Keren still lived.

The snow paused. A shaft of light cut through the clouds and caressed a white field. It was as if God reached down to remind me, “I am here. I am holding all of you.” The cold and snow lingered, the heart monitor flatlined, but the sunlight touched the field.

Six months later we cleared lava rock and weeping mulberries from our yard, replacing those horrors with grass and a dogwood tree. Though Michigan dogwoods can’t compare to their southern relatives who shake out white and pink blooms each spring like antebellum debutantes at a ball, the Michigan dogwood defies winter. We trusted its pretense of fragility and delicacy when we planted our memorial for Keren. We watched our dogwood through the months. Around Keren’s seventh birthday, the leaves fell, mourning the end of summer. On the first cold January anniversary, the tree’s branches stuck out straight and brown, bare of the red berries they bore at Christmas. April arrived trumpeting resurrection. I watched the tree. Each day I checked it. Each day it stood unchanged. Then one day I noticed woody knobs tipping some branches. On others, brown points cut through the ends of boughs. A month passed from knob to bloom. There were days I bit my lip to resist shrieking with impatience. I wanted to see the flowers! Other days I inspected each knob and point, marveling at the process of glory superseding lifelessness. The sharp-tipped branches forced out pairs of leaves, raised upward like hands in praise. The knobs expanded until they broke, quartered, and unfurled crosswise, not into petals, but four leaf-like bracts. At first these bracts twisted brokenly about the center. Yet life flowed and the bracts spread, flushed, and dimpled. They imitated petals, each set of four surrounding a crown of tiny yellow flowers. The tree held her wine-red blossoms to the clear blue spring sky.

I don’t know how many years it will be till I see Keren again. Life has charged on, bringing new challenges and changes. Our family has lived in a different country, and we now hail from East Texas where great dogwoods bloom in March, and the magnolia in front of our dining room blossoms in January, dropping pink petals as softly and slowly as the snow fell that day eleven years ago. Sometimes I long for our reunion with Keren—I want to see her flower! Other times I feel like God is forcing sharp points through bare branches in my life. Yet then there are days I am enthralled by the blossoms God is slowly unfurling in those of us who wait. Often they seem warped and broken, but someday our blooms and leaves will be complete.

Photo of Loren Warnemuende

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles, including six-and-a-half marvelous, stretching years as mom to Keren, who was born with Trisomy 18. Loren is wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids (who stretch her differently than Keren did!). Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool coop, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope, healing, and stress-relief. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, for two years and now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog: Willing, Wanting, Waiting….

The Magic of Late Winter, Part I: Guest Post by Kimberly Margaret Miller

Mug in a bright window.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I posted about last year, late February through March are usually the hardest time of year for me: the glitter of the holidays is long gone, the snow turns to slush, and New England is a mess of gray fog and ice storms. Crocuses and warm winds take a long time to arrive.

This year, however, my own writing and engagement on The Habit (an online writing community) have reminded that me that I live in a world of wonders created by an almighty God, and my art gives me the power to perceive and create beauty in the grayest places.

Some of my favorite writers have already done the work of re-enchanting this season, transforming it from depressing to mysteriously beautiful: Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights, James Hogg in Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Seamus Heaney in “Glanmore Sonnets,” and others.

So I want to approach this late winter season with a spirit of joy and wonder. This blog series will explore the magic of late winter and very early spring: pearl-gray skies, silver-white ice on the dark surface of ponds, rain-speckled snow, damp winds that spread the smell of wet soil, rain-speckled snow, birdsong on misty mornings.

For this project, I’m partnering with some wonderful writer-friends from The Habit, as I did last Thanksgiving. First, Kimberly Margaret Miller graciously let me repost this exquisite poem from her blog, a meditation on winter sunlight. Kim lives in the deep South, which doesn’t usually receive heavy snows, but can be gloomy with “short days, barren trees, and overcast skies.” 

This poem originally appeared on Kimberly’s blog.

Winter Sun

Your beams stretch,
            Arms beckoning,
a final embrace as you bid adieu.
Reaching, leaning, tilting
                        You scatter color
across the bleak horizon.
Then you are gone.
            Longing fills.
                        Cold darkness envelopes.
                                    I forget.

My alarm pulses.
            Shuffling through routine with half open eyes,
                        Morning tea in hand,
I pull back the curtain.
I wasn’t looking for you,
                        But there you are.
                                    Waiting for me to behold.
                                                Your quiet grandeur
whispered in hues of pink and purple.
                        I stand and listen with rapt attention.                                   
And suddenly, I awake.

Leash in hand, I walk Curiosity—
            The chase is on.
                        Weaving through bare trees
you pursue,
                                    Streaming brilliance.
        Stopping in my tracks,
I think of night.
                                  And already I miss you.

Your arms stretch,
            Across beams,
no final embrace as you bid adieu.
Reaching, leaning, tilting
            You scatter crimson
across bleakness within.
Then night comes.
            Longing fills.
                        Cold darkness envelopes.
                                    I forget.

My hunger craves.
            I shuffle through my days with half-open eyes.
You pull back the curtain.
I am not looking for you,
                                    But there you are,
                                                Waiting for me to behold.
                                                            Your quiet grandeur
whispers in hues of love and peace.
                I stand and listen with rapt attention.
                              And suddenly, I awaken.

The Day is at hand, I walk forward.
            The chase is on.
                        Weaving through barren places
you pursue,
                                                Streaming brilliance.
            Stopping in my tracks,
I think of night.
                                    And already I know
You will never leave.

Picture of Kimberly Margaret Miller

Kimberly M. Miller is a writer, wife of 28 years, mother to four children, and granna to one amazing little boy. She graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1991 from Mississippi University for Women where she served as editor of The Spectator for two years. Kim’s writing has ranged from advertising copy and press releases to short stories and essays. Since retiring from 24 years as a homeschool mom, she’s devoted her time to honing the craft of fiction writing. Her current work-in-progress is a historical novel set in Mississippi in 1834.

Three Thanksgiving Meditations

Here is part two of the creative project I posted about yesterdayElizabeth Giger, Bethany Sanders, and I wrote poems to meditate on thankfulness, giving thanks in times of suffering, and our personal thanksgiving. In writing these, we each tried something new:

  • Elizabeth Giger wrote a lovely meditation using a series of contrasts both within the language used and the number of stanzas chosen.
  • Bethany Sanders wrote from a new perspective, incorporating Biblical and natural imagery.
  • I tried a rondeau, a French verse form with a refrain and a specific stanza and rhyme scheme.

Enjoy!

Woods filled with soft light on yellow and green leaves.

Thanksgiving

by Elizabeth Giger

Thanks be in the shimmering and shining,
In the comforted and cherished,
In the bright and the beauty.

Thanks be in the lovely and loved,
In warmth and wholeness,
In joy and justice.

And in the dark and doubt,
In the sinking and sorrowing,
In the broken and the bent?

And in the murk and the mire,
In the unknown and unfulfilled,
In the loss and in lament?

Where is the thanks in these?

It is in hope and help,
In peace and provision,
In love and liberty.

It is in the Spirit and salvation,
In the cross and cleansing,
In restoration and renewal.

Thanks be in the lovely and ugly,
In the dancing and mourning,
In the feast and in hunger.

Thanks be in the rich-robed and sackcloth,
In the surrounded and the lonely,
In the made-new and the shattered.

This is our sacrifice of praise.

Thanks be in all things.

To read more of Elizabeth’s writing, visit her blog, Made Sacred.

Sparrow's nest.

House Sparrow

by Bethany Sanders

Look there! A strip of paper.
Sun-bleached and frayed,
but soft as the edge of a feather.
I wing back to the house eave
with the paper rustling against
my shoulder as it ribbons in the wind.
Another lining for the nest.

This spring I weave by myself.
My mate and I sang with the flock
Until a shadow glided between us.
Hawk! Scatter-scatter-scatter!
But then she never returned.
Creator, remember us,
lest we fall alone.

The house eave is quiet and dry.
In here is the whorl of my nest.
I prick at the brim of the nest’s bowl,
then snake the paper into the weave.
Pluck here, tug there, hem the edge.
I sit. Warm and soft. Come time,
my future brood will be secure.

To see more of Bethany Sanders’s work, see her online webcomic, The Pelkern Cycle.

Golden sunlight on November trees.

Remaker

by me (Alicia Pollard)

You are the God who remade me
Through silent days when the earth turned slowly,
When cubicle-caves were empty and gray,
And pale screens replaced the light of day,
In two years of waiting, longing to be free.

Through two iron winters, you sent sparks of glory:
Laughter at the hearthfire, deep talks over coffee.
You gave me dreams like the northern lights at play;
You are the God who remade me.

Golden lake-days, musings in that silver valley,
Nights of exile, wondering who you called me to be:
You kindled a blaze that burned my thorn-hedge away
And grew wildflowers where the ashes lay.
In that green country and the tower by the sea
You are the God who remade me.