Monday, June 30, 2014

Bonnie Gray’s “Finding Spiritual Whitespace”

In 2011 and 2012, I was participating in a blogging linkup hosted by Bonnie Gray at Faith Barista. It was mostly a linkup with women and “mommy bloggers,” but I could write about my own children and my new grandsons, and I didn’t need an excuse to do that.

And then Bonnie went off-the-grid, for personal reasons. We knew she had been writing a book, but when you go off-the-grid to write a book, that’s what you say. Bonnie didn’t say that.

When an online community leader says “personal reasons,” you respect that, and you pray.

Bonnie’s season of rest went on for a year. She was writing a book, but not the book she expected to write. What she was writing about was surviving and dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and some of its more visible symptoms.

Panic attacks. Insomnia. Depression.

Bonnie turned to counseling, and she wrote what seems to be an almost effortless book that is part memoir, part meditation, and part resolution of what she was dealing with. I say “almost effortless” because the book reads easily; it’s both well-written and compelling. And you keep reading on even when it’s time to turn the light out and sleep.

It’s a book written with pain, and in pain, a book about how brokenness and broken relationships can suddenly and unexpectedly erupt, decades after they happen. It’s a book about finding rest and resolution, or at least the beginning of resolution. And it’s a book about understanding, realizing how to deal with what can never be made whole, what can’t be “fixed.”

The heart of the story is what happened to Bonnie when she was a little girl. Divorce is, unfortunately, not an uncommon event. Abandonment by a father is not an uncommon thing. Dealing with a mother’s anger and rage may be less common, but it is still common enough to be recognizable, to be familiar.

In Bonnie’s case, the effects were both immediate and often ugly and long-term, buried until they erupted into those panic attacks and insomnia. Our culture may make divorce a relatively easy to accomplish, but there is nothing easy about what leads up to it and what happens afterward.

And what she writes about her own story is personally familiar. My own parents had both been previously married. Each had a child from their first marriages. How and why those marriages failed played itself in our family, too. Children often don’t, or can’t, understand how this happens, but their do experience the effects. Brokenness shapes who all of us are, even in families that don’t experience divorce.

One result from divorce can be overachieving, the state of constant activity and work that is both a reach toward an unattainable perfection and a desire to escape pain. Welcome to American culture.

Bonnie tells her story with a structure that is both personal and communal – developing her own story and helping readers find ways to tell theirs. The purpose is in the subtitle – awakening the soul, and the mind and the heart, to the idea of rest, rest from the frenzy of activity we call contemporary life, rest from the pain many of us are trying to escape.

Finding Spiritual Whitespace is more than a good story. It is a needed story. It’s a story that, as you read more and more, becomes uncomfortably and personally familiar.

It’s our story, too.

And Bonnie’s community linkup is back.

Photograph by Bobbi Jones Jones via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

It’s not the woods

It’s not the woods, then;
it’s a lawn, planted like
a carpet, a boundary fenced,
designed to mark and define,
not to keep it. It’s a garden,
bordered in flowers, dead leaves,
earthworms, bees clinging
to the Monarda. No wildness
like then, no place to pretend,
It is what I know now.
It is what I fit, now.

Photograph: Shaw’s Arboretum, Gray Summit, Missouri.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Stares at the shutters, broken,
dangling awry on one screw,
moving with each gust
of wind, breeze, unpainted,
paint peeling, weather worn,
weather wearing, wearing
weather like a faded
hand-me-down, maintenance
unremembered, left
to the forgotten memory
of others.

Imagines her leaning
from the upstairs window,
remembers her leaning,
laughing, the mother
frowning in front-porch
disapproval, but she leaning,
laughing, not caring.
The shutters were painted,

Photograph by David Wagner via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Best Vacation(s) Ever

My friend Emily Wierenga has a new book coming out July 1 – Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look. I pre-ordered on my Kindle; I’m hearing that the paperback version is already shipping, but I suppose I have to wait until July 1 for the Kindle maginc to happen.

Emily went traveling to find herself, and to fine home – Canada, Central America, the united States, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. And she posed a question to those of us interested in reading her book. Actually, she posed several. The one that intrigued me was what inspires you to travel?

I don’t really travel, at least in the sense Emily means. When I think of travelers, I think of Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux or, more popularly, Rick Steves.

But we have been blessed in our married life to have taken some wonderful vacations.

Before kids came along, my wife worked for the Houston Chronicle in the department that did the travel section, and one time I got to tag along on one of her business trips to Hawaii (Maui, to be specific) for the price of my plane ticket. A few years later, as the result of recognition for a huge project I completed at work, she got to tag along on one of my business trips to Hawaii.

A tenth anniversary trip to London. A couple of family trips to Gulf Shores, Alabama. A week in Charleston, South Carolina when tourists had cancelled plans because of a hurricane scare; we held on to our reservations, the hurricane went north, and we had the city virtually to ourselves. A 25th anniversary trip to Amsterdam and Paris. A week in Montreal (we loved Montreal; I was even able to do a bike ride along the St. Lawrence River and a nearby 15-mile canal).

If I had to pick a best trip, however, I would have to pick two – back-to-back trips to London, in 2012 and 2013, each trip about two weeks. The first one inspired the second one; I think them as one vacation with a pause in between.

In 2012, we arrived at the tail end of the Paralympics and the 2012 Summer Olympics; the Paralympics marathon passed right in front of our hotel on the south bank, right across the Thames from Parliament. And we went to the parade called by the Queen to honor the athletes of both events, joining millions of Londoners and Britons (and waving our British flags, too). We experienced perfect weather, too; I didn’t open the umbrella once the entire time. We did a side-trip to Oxford, and my wife fell in love with the place (me, too, truth be told). And our seats for the play version of Chariots of Fire in London’s West End were on the stage – we were part of the Olympic stadium “crowd.”

In 2013, our hotel was three blocks from Buckingham Palace and two blocks from Westminster Abbey. The room was wonderful, as was the breakfast they would serve in our room any morning we wanted it. The normal London weather had returned, however; it rained every day we were there. We didn’t care (much).This time, we took a side-trip to Canterbury. We got to see James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic Theatre. I spent a morning at the Charles Dickens House near Russell Square.

The back of Westminster Chapel as seen from our hotel room.
Two things happened on this trip that turned a wonderful vacation into something unexpected, and almost profound. I’ve written about them before. One was my Sunday morning visit to Westminster Chapel, a short half-block from our hotel. The congregation prayed out loud during the individual prayer time; I’d never seen or experienced anything like it.

The other was what happened during the daily 3 p.m. prayer time at Canterbury Cathedral. This is a daily event; all activity in the church stops for a few minutes as a prayer is said over a loudspeaker. I was standing next to a group of Japanese tourists (yes, with their cameras) and when we were invited to join in saying the Lord’s Prayer, they joined in as well, saying the Lord’s Prayer in English. To be standing in one of major sites of Christendom on the planet and saying the Lord’s Prayer with all the rest of the tourists was, most likely, the highlight of the entire trip.

We take vacations for any number of reasons – to get away, break the routine, see something we haven’t seen before. In a city like London, we are drawn to the museums (and especially the art museums), the theater, and day-trips to places we have read about but never experienced. And while our vacations have been exciting, stimulating, informing, and exhausting, the one I would call our best vacation was best because of prayer.

While this is a very different kind of travel from what Emily describes in her book, it appears we ended up in something of the same place.

If you have a great vacation story to tell, The High Calling wants to hear from. Check The High Calling's web site for information on submission and linkup.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fear Was Not Part of the Job

A little over a decade ago, I spent nine months as director of communications for St. Louis Public Schools. I was hired three months into a massive reorganization. The district had hired an outside management firm from New York to essentially take over and close schools, downsize the work force, outsource, consolidate – all those things people in corporations are familiar with. But an urban school district?

The problem was obvious – a school district built to educate 150,000 children was now educating something south of 40,000. I say “something south” because no one really knew; in fact, the number was likely closer to 30,000 than 40,000. And the district was going broke, while all the usual measures of education success also looked close to educational bankruptcy.

My first day on the job, actually, my first 10 minutes on the job, the secretary told me that Channel 4 and Channel 5 has film crews outside waiting for a statement from me.

“A statement?” I asked. “On what?”

“The teachers are protesting the end of being able to bank your sick days,” she said. “They’ve called in sick.”

“Who here can I get information from for a statement?”

She looked embarrassed. “Well, the acting superintendent is at a breakfast. The assistant superintendents left the building. They were afraid you’d ask them to go on camera.”

“So who’s left?” I asked, reality slowly entering my brain. I was half afraid she was going to say –

“Just you,” she said.

I quickly scoured the building for anyone who might be hiding. Then I walked outside to the news media, introduced myself, and gave a statement. Guessing at what the policy would likely be, I made the statement up on the spot. As it turned out, I had gotten it right.

I called that moment God’s grace on Day One of the job. I experienced God’s grace every day, multiple times a day.

We had people working in the central district office who refused to visit the schools, especially the high schools. “It’s not safe,” they would say. “People have been attacked in those schools.” When I pointed out that we sent children into those schools every day, they would glare angrily.

In addition to the reorganizations and school closings, and a lot of community anger and protests, we had the usual problems of an urban school district in serious distress. We had incidents of violence. We had gun incidents. We had schools so fearful of the violence and drugs in surrounding neighborhoods that you had to buzzed through the doors after showing your face on video monitors. We had large protests at school board meetings; the first board meeting I attended had 400 screaming people and three arrests. “It was a good night,” my boss told me. “Only three arrests this time.”

School board meetings were at night, and usually at a middle school with an auditorium large enough to hold 400 people (the yelling and screaming was optional and normal). We are not talking neighborhoods like the one where I lived in a comfortable and highly regarded suburb. We’re talking neighborhoods when you could walk outside the school board meeting and sometimes hear gunshots.

I arrived at one board meeting to find almost 2,000 people in front of the school. That was 2,000 angry people, angry that the auditorium was already filled with 400 equally angry people. I stood my my car in the parking lot, and realized I was going to have to make my way through those 2,000 people to get to the door. And here I was, instantly recognizable to almost every single person in the metropolitan area as the face of St. Louis Public Schools (I was on television news a lot) (I was on television news almost every night of the week for months, and sometimes even weekends).

And the odd thing is, even standing in that parking lot, I can’t remember a single time I experienced fear, not once in the entire nine months. Perhaps I was been na├»ve or simply didn’t know enough. But I was often in schools in what even the police considered unsafe neighborhoods. I would walk outside the central office into screaming protests. My boss was assaulted in her office right next to mine (by an elected member of the school board), and I was right next door at the time and rushed out when I heard the commotion.

It wasn’t that I was brave or courageous (foolhardy, perhaps, but not courageous). But I never felt fear. And I think I know why.

“The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do,” writes Francis Chan in The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. “the Holy Spirit of God will; mold you into the person you were made to be. This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear.”

No fear. It is why I had no fear. I knew that, for those nine months, as hard and difficult as the job was, I was where I was supposed to be.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading The Forgotten God. To see more posts on this chapter, “What Are You Afraid Of,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Poets and Poems: J.R.R. Tolkien and “Beowulf”

Like most Americans of a certain age, I first met Beowulf in an English class in high school. I know exactly where I met him – in a classroom on the second floor of the school, in a textbook entitled England in Literature. It was an all-boys high school, so the story of Beowulf, Grendel and Grendl’s mother held our attention more than more works – we couldn’t resist lots of blood and gore, ogres eating knights for snacks, and arms getting whacked off?

I ran across Beowulf again in college, in an English literature class my sophomore year. Being a mixed-gender class and something more serious than high school students thinking of graduation, we focused on the epic poem itself, its structure and narrative, its history and the various literary theories about it. (Am I something of a cretin to say the blood and gore approach was more engaging?)

In the 1980s, I was reading John Gardner’s fiction, and discovered his short novel Grendl, telling the Beowulf story from Grendl’s point-of-view.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Open door

Before us is an open door,
a door we cannot close,
not individually,
not collectively,
an open door that remains
open because it must,
to what it is designed to do.
Through the door comes
the whirlwind,
the gathering storm,
raging as it is meant to do.
The door is open;
the building stands.
It stands.

Photograph by Jana Illnerova via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The cities of the dead

The cities of the dead,
they say, or they think
they say, come alive
on certain days,
at certain times,
whisps and vapors
escaping from the tombs,
monuments, to celebrate
or wail, laugh or moan,
a false gaiety,
a disguised agony,
to be sure but
the only time life
can be felt, not where
desire lives, but where
desire is granted,
on certain days,
at certain times. That’s
what they say, anyway.
I wonder what
they would say
about the cemeteries.

Photograph: A cemetery in New Orleans.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sheila Lagrand’s “Remembering for Ruth: A Room for Amelia”

We’ve reached part four in Sheila Lagrand’s Remembering for Ruth: A Room for Amelia.

To recap the story so far:

Paul and Margot Goodharte live in California, and are caring for Paul’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Paul is a pastor; his black sheep brother Matthew shows up and seems to have had something of a black-sheep shedding experience (or maybe that’s shearing instead of shedding). Matthew becomes interested in next-door neighbor Sue, and the family has a coincidental meeting with Matthew’s estranged daughter Amelia. The dog of former neighbors of the Goodhartes is left to them to care for, and Ruth becomes closely attached to him, naming him Zorro.

In A Room for Amelia, a dog trainer to help the family with Zorro. Actually, the trainer is there to help Margot overcome of fear of dogs, a result of being threatened by a dog when she was a child. The trainer discovers that Zorro is a specially trained dog, known as a schutzhund. Originally designed for German shepherds, the schutzhund program is what we associate today with dogs trained for police work, and includes many other breeds (Zorro in the story is an Airedale).

Lagrand also uses this installment of the serial to show part of the range of experiences an Alzheimer’s patient can have. Ruth moves quickly from normal lucidity to almost complete forgetfulness and back again. She’s talking normally with her family at the kitchen table one moment and then walks out of the shower dripping wet and into the hallway the next, forgetting she’s dripping wet and naked.

Also developing is the relationship between Matthew and Sue. Matthew’s daughter is coming to visit and will stay at Sue’s house, and Matthew helps Sue clean and paint the room. During the painting Sue tells Matthew of her difficult childhood and failed first marriage, and the accidental death of her second husband.

The next installment is coming in July, and I’m waiting to see what will happen when Amelia arrives, what role Zorro’s police training is going to play (I suspect there is one), and how Sue will overcome her fears about marriage to continue what is obviously becoming a love story with Matthew.

Photograph of an Airedale terrier by Charles Rondeau via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Poetry of Hope

This article was originally published at The Master’s Artist.

Every life has its dark times. They may be personal – death of a loved one, depression, serious illness, loss of a job, bankruptcy, cruelty and humiliation at the hands of another. They may be universal – war, oppression, economic upheaval. Regardless, the dark times can be terrifying, especially when no measure exists for how bad they are, how long they will last, or if the light will ever return.

For Christians, dark times can test and perhaps even overwhelm our faith. God allows my wife to die of cancer? God wants my business to go down the tubes? My career destroyed? My child to be permanently ill? This is living the victorious life? Yes, I know it’s supposed to be all well with my soul, but this is awful. Take the pain away. Please.

Poet Sydney Lea has spent a lifetime considering the dark and light times of a life, and all the things that can challenge faith. He’s published 10 volumes of poetry, been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, seen his poems published in The New Yorker, the Atlantic and some of the most prestigious literary reviews. He’s received the fellowships, he founded the New England Review and served as editor for 20 years, and taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan and Middlebury College. He’s the current poet laureate of Vermont.
 His career has been successful by any measure.

And yet he’s known pain, and dark times, and he’s held fast to his faith. And he’s written what I can only call the poetry of hope, wonderful poems previously published and now assembled as Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Spiritual Poems. I discovered this volume because I read D.S. Martin’s blog, Kingdom Poets. Martin serves as the editor of the Wipf and Stock Publishers Poiema Poetry series, and a recent volume is this collection of poems by Lea.

These are longish poems, some stretching to three pages. They tell stories about family and friends, and self. They are about aging and death, and other senseless things.

I could read these poems all day. Repeatedly. I find new things with each reading. Most importantly, I find faith; over and over again I find faith.

In “Ghost Pain,” Lea describes a Christmas service; it’s clear that most of those attending are staring mortality in the face.

…It’s minus ten degrees out there,
for the love of Christ,
and it seems above all so safe inside,
safer even than home.
It seems home.
We’ve lit the half-blighted sprice by the road,

chanted our way through a tone-deaf carol,
repaired to our coffee and small talk.
Brian just wheeled in Joan.
We wish them all the cheer that humans can,
inquire how the leg is,
now that it’s gone.

Is there ghost pain?
Brave Joan and Brian kindle like matches…

Other friends are too sick to come; some have already died.

…A dear friend down south has gone;
his church’s prayer chain couldn’t hold him.
Not this time. People die…

But in this midst of this suffering and death, Lea still finds hope:

The girl sang well, enough to bring tears.
A small voice got big, rose over the pain.
And thus did Mary trudge in,
and Joan roll in on her chair,

and Red and Agnes and Willie figure thus in our prayers,
and the only miracle for this lonely minute:
we were inside,
even those who weren’t, who aren’t, who can’t be.
And the wind that blows no good—
it’s outside.

And the cookies are good, and the coffee.
By God aren’t they good?

I’ve had those cookies, too, and the coffee, and Lea is exactly right: by God they are good.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

My clothes were clean

My clothes were clean
I thought until I saw
the one, the ones
in the white garments
walk past me. I turned
to see the whiteness,
a glistening in crystal air,
 a motion flashing past,
I looked down to see
my clothes were not clean.

Photograph by Kondo Yukihiro via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Did they have something we don’t?

Not long after I became a Christian, I became fascinated with early church history. A friend at our church in Houston recommended Alfred Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. I discovered the church history F.F. Bruce, author of such works as New Testament History and Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. I read 19th century church historians, like William Ramsay.

A few years later, when I was in my master’s program, I took a seminar called “Athens and Jerusalem” and one in early church history. I read some of the great secular church historians of the 19th century, like Adolf von Harnack (whom my seminar leader always referred to as “the great von Harnack,” emphasis upon “the great”). And Peter Brown’s wonderful biography Augustine of Hippo. I read a lot in the early church fathers, and discovered Tertullian, a third century lawyer whose fire and passion in his defense of Christianity still breathes even in English translation. (For the record, Tertullian was known for being something other than totally orthodox, but it’s unclear what the something was.)

And the question, or questions, that kept nagging at me were, what fueled the growth of the church? Why did it become stronger in persecution? What did the early church have that we did not? Was it simply a matter of being closer in chronological time to Jesus and the disciples?

The answer to all of these questions turned out to be the same: the Holy Spirit.

Jesus promised his disciples that he would send a helper. And he told them to wait. It’s the part of the passage in Acts 1 that is easy to miss or skip over – the waiting. The helper was coming, but not on the disciples’ timetable. No, the helper would arrive on God’s timetable, at God’s timing. (We Americans are okay with the idea of a helper, especially if we’re the ones doing the helping, but the idea of waiting? We want to get it done now.)

The disciples didn’t have to wait long. On Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, 50 days after the resurrection, the helper comes But he comes in a totally unexpected and original way: the disciples, gathered together, hear a sound, a sound that fills the whole house where they are together. The sound is like “the blowing of a violent wind came down from heaven.”

And it’s not just the sound. The disciples see tongues of fire that apparently appear together and then separate, coming to rest on each of them. It was those tongues of fires hovering or resting on each disciple that “filled all of them with the Holy Spirit.” And the impact was immediate: each of them began to speak in different languages, recognizable to the people in Jerusalem for Pentecost. This wasn’t mere babbling of sounds but real languages, understandable languages.

People were amazed and shocked. And from the start, there were the cynics and scoffers, sneering that the disciples must have drunk too much wine. (Obviously, someone missed a marketing opportunity here – “drink the wine and speak a foreign language.”)

And from that day, the fishermen, a tax collector, a prostitute, a political zealot and others from the lower end of the economic and cultural worlds would go on to capture an empire, the mightiest empire the world has known.

“For some reason,” writes Francis Chan in Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit, “we don’t think we need the Holy Spirit. We don’t expect the Holy Spirit to act. Or if we do, our expectations are often misguided and self-serving. Given our talent set, experience, and education, many of us are fairly capable of living rather successfully (according to the world’s standards) without any strength from the Holy Spirit.”

We don’t wait. We rely on our own abilities instead of God’s. We can do this on our own.

And very little of lasting value happens. We certainly don’t conquer empires.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading Chan’s Forgotten God. To see more posts on this chapter, “I’ve Got Jesus. Why Do I Need the Holy Spirit,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph of the ruins of the library at Ephesus by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Anna Akhmatova and the Poetry of Resilience

She was born to an upper class family in what is now the Ukraine in 1889. Her father called her poetry decadent, but more as a commentary on poetry than his daughter. She married and had a son; he was raised by her in-laws with her husband’s agreement. She and husband divorced, although that didn’t help her when he was arrested and executed by the Soviets in 1921.

She would marry twice more; her third husband would die in a Siberian labor camp in 1953. Her son was imprisoned from 1949 to 1956. She would see her poetry published and then banned, published and then publication halted. For a long time, she could not publish poetry, and turned to essays and other non-fiction.

Through enough tribulation to last several lifetimes, Anna Akhmatova continued to write poetry. She is now considered one of the icons of the Silver Age in Russian literature (roughly 1880 to 1920), associated with poets and writers like Alexander Blok and Boris Pasternak. In her own lifetime, she became a symbol of hope and survival to millions of Russians.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Gardens

For decades during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, two men circled around the queen, competing for influence and power, vying with each other, plotting against each other, and often working with each other in common cause.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), was Elizabeth’s chief advisor, served in multiple high offices including Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer, member of Parliament, leader of the Privy Council. and diplomat. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), had known Elizabeth since they were children, was a suitor for her hand in marriage, a rumored lover of the queen, leader of the English army during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish in 1586-87, and known to be Elizabeth’s favorite.

The two men vied for influence and power. They used every asset at their disposal.

Including gardens.

As historian Trea Martyn explains, in Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens, the queen loved gardens. She had spent much time in the garden growing up at Hatfield House, and she had even been given permission to walk in the garden when her sister Mary imprisoned her in the Tower of London. And gardens, and the trees, plants, and flowers they contained, had a very different meaning in Elizabethan England than they do today. The names of plants and flowers could hold double meanings (William Shakespeare knew that). Gardens were places of rest and repose, but they could also be places where a romantic, and often dramatic, rendezvous could unfold.

And if Elizabeth loved gardens, then Cecil and Dudley would attempt to outdo each other to give her the most spectacular and memorable experience.

William Cecil
Dudley’s estate (given to him by Elizabeth) was Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire; the story of what Dudley and Elizabeth was popularized (and somewhat embroidered) by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Kenilworth. Cecil’s estate was Theobalds in Hertfordshire.

It’s difficult to grasp what the two men achieved with their gardens, partially because of what they were able to do. Dudley added a lake and staged an elaborate pageant that included mermaids; Cecil did a total makeover of his gardens with the aim of pleasing the queen at every turn.

Robert Dudley
These aren’t the only gardens that feature in Elizabeth’s story (and Martyn’s book), but they are the most prominent, and Martyn goes into incredible detail to describe them. In the process, she provides an unusual look at Elizabethan power politics (and romance) played out against the backdrop of international conflict, religion still established itself in England, and power politics among the courtiers.

Today, Theobalds exists as a park; the palace was destroyed during the civil war in the 1640s. Kenilworth, too, fell victim to the same civil war; the Parliamentarians blew up the northern wall to disable the castle’s military use; in the process, they destroyed the gardens. The famous lake was drained and turned over to soldiers for farming.

Queen Elizabeth in the Garden is a fascinating account of a familiar period, and yet told with an unusual angle that adds color and detail not previously recognized.

Top photograph: a recreation of the overall plan of Kenilworth Castle.

Bottom photograph: What the palace at Theobalds looked like.