On Fog, Monticello, & the Four Quartets

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The past several mornings there has been a thick fog blanketing the valley. Monday morning from my back deck, I could see down my hill, and the mountains across the way, but in the expanse between us lie a fog so thick and flat it teased me with trying to walk across it. On a clear dawn day, I can see all the twinkling lights of Roanoke and all the twinkling lights heading up the darkened mountains across the way. I have watched the sun rise many a morning since we’ve lived on our Strawberry Mountain, spilling its light into the valley, giving form and texture to twinkle lights suspended in midnight blue.

But on Monday the view ended feet in front of me only to be picked up again in the distant horizon. Everything in between was fog and mystery.

An echo of my summer.

It’s a funny thing: sitting here remembering how captivating the fog was. It was Tolkein-esque; so awesome and beautiful in its mystery. Even my oldest sons were talking about it later in the day…

Son #2: “Wyatt, did you see the fog this morning? Wasn’t it amazing?”

Son #1: “Isaac. I drove down into it. I wish I hadn’t seen it.” (spoken in a dull, flat, patronizing tone meant to remind us of his early morning football camp suffering these past 10 days; which, in turn, causes Son #2 and me to collectively roll our eyes.)

 

But when I think about the metaphorical value of comparing my summer of moving and starting over with the whole ‘turning this house-into-a-home’ deal, I don’t see the awesome or mysteriously beautiful. And I certainly don’t appreciate the fog. I’m only worried about what it’s covering.

 

*******

 

Two weekends ago we visited Monticello. At the risk of sounding drippy, it was a dream of mine come true. I can remember being newly married with my first home to decorate. In one of my interior design books (because you know I bought a small stack of them) I read of the ingenuity and beauty of Thomas Jefferson’s home and surrounding gardens. I don’t remember all the specific things that turned visiting his estate into a bucket list item (assuming I have one of those somewhere), but it did.

 

Of course, I thought everything about Monticello was absurdly perfect. The round entryway decorated with Lewis & Clark’s collectables from their travels, the clock hung above the front door with its long cables stretching from each side that told the hour, the minute, the second, and the day of the week. The library—oh the library! It was smallish (well, compared to some historic home libraries I’ve visited), but it was all warmth and light and loveliness; and it connected to his study, which connected to his bedroom—brilliant! And then there were the gardens, and the orchard, and the cellar rooms, and….

 

I could have stayed the week in Charlottesville and visited Monticello for days in a row and never grown tired of it.

 

One interesting thing I learned about Monticello is that Mr. Jefferson was making changes to it up until the day that he died. In fact, there was never a time that Monticello wasn’t in process—and is still to this day. Jefferson built the house one way, then traveled across Europe (France in particular), came home inspired and added onto it in another way. He was constantly planting new varieties of trees, trying new crops, discovering new innovations and implementing them inside and out. The man was zealous for all manner of learning, and with all manner of what he learned he applied to his beloved Monticello.

 

When I think about Mr. Jefferson spending the heft of his life on improvements to his home, I think he must have been a man very comfortable with the process of things. He took the long view, undeterred by fog and mystery. He had a vision—or a succession of them—for his land and his home, and he loved the process of fleshing out the vision as much as—maybe even more than—the finished product itself.

 

*******

 

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

                                          –T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton from Four Quartets

 

 

*******

 

Maybe it’s odd to think of Eliot’s Four Quartets when writing about fog and mystery and Monticello. But, there it is. At Monticello I was caught up in the stillness of its presence and its process. Like the fog blanketing my valley that danced though it didn’t move, so Monticello danced with me and I with it—past hopes gathered with future vision culminating in the only thing I have (but not possess): the present.

 

The Present.

 

Here alone in the vast expanse between times—the place of unknowing, hemmed in by darkness, that is going by “the way of ignorance,” waiting for the light to pierce it yet unburdened by the wait, living fully in the moment yet not fixed in one place by it—this is, I think, abundant life.

 

The Dance.

 

I wonder if Thomas Jefferson felt the dance—however fleeting—as he devoted himself to the process of making Monticello into Monticello. I wonder if he could have read the Four Quartets, would he have nodded his head and considered it with knowing?

 

I wonder if in my own process of making this house into our home, I might–by a gift of grace—someday nod my head in knowing, too.

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