For a couple years, my wife Miska has encouraged me to read Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I couldn’t get past the title, as for some reason I pictured a 1950’s county fair and the annual blue-ribbon quilting competition. Nevertheless, last weekend, desperate for a read, I pulled it off the shelf. It’s marvelous.
I’ll allow you to discover the story’s delights for yourself, but suffice to say it centers around a small book club made up of neighbors who lived on the island of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) as they endured Nazi occupation during World War II. The tale’s a testament to the fact that friendship and stories truly can keep us sane and renew our hope when everything disintegrates around us.
Anyway, the English poet and essayist Charles Lamb appears as one of the sub-characters in the story, and there’s a moment where we hear about a quarrel between William Wordsworth and Lamb, who were friends. Wordsworth scolded Lamb for his failure to appreciate and adore the natural world to the degree Wordsworth believed satisfactory. Lamb, refusing to give an inch, answered with a defense of how enraptured he was with the common physical elements of his life. “The rooms where I was born,” Lamb wrote, “the furniture which has been before my eyes all of my life, a bookcase which has followed me about like a faithful dog wherever I have moved–old chairs, old streets, squares where I have sunned myself, my old school–have I not enough, without your Mountains?”
Now, the truth is I’m with Wordsworth on the necessity of mountains and if I happened to find myself a third wheel in the quarrel, I’d get exasperated too if there seemed to be little appreciation for these wild spaces that offer such grandeur and mystery. However, there’s something about Lamb and his fascination and delight with these physical pieces and places right in front of him, the most common and plain portions of our life, that moves me. There really is wonder everywhere.
In our little cottage, built in the 1930’s, it’s our hand-hewn peg doors and the oak floor with all its creaks and scuffs and groans. It’s the bronze nobs, the old-style keyhole, the planks that carry eighty years of love and labor and joy and heartache. It’s the books – Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver and Kent Haruf. It’s the paned windows that filter in so much stunning light. It’s all these things, all these wonders right before me, that invite me to watch and listen and be so very grateful.