Coombebury Heath: tilting with windmills

The following letter was apparently lost in the mails until just recently. Many friends who read this little blog from time to time have asked about the story of the windmill that Maxwell began in his first letter. I am happy to report that I am now able to post Maxwell’s follow-up.

The Oaks

Coombebury Heath

2 May 2010

Dear Liam,

Please forgive me for breaking off my last letter at a crucial moment. I had quite run out of the allotted time for writing and was running woefully late for dinner with my extended family. My aunt Dora prepared her customary May Day meal, this year with a decidedly Italian twist. I say twist because aside from the lamb lasagna and chianti, the food gave one more of the sense of a smörgåsbord than festività. There was some sort of cold potato dish that my uncle Jack said was straight out of Germany, custard with blackcurrant dressing, and pâté with cheese and crusty bread. The food and conversation made my stomach acid kick up, but I sat aloof as long as they might let me alone.

No one has less curiosity about the things that make us passionate than the members of our extended family. Uncle Jack asked me the same questions about what I did for a living that he has asked for the last twenty years. I realized that if my occupation was something conventional (and perhaps lucrative) like doctor, solicitor, or greengrocer he would understand, but being a Health Education Assessor is, to him, just another way of saying ‘unemployed bafoon.’ While I tried to explain my work for the one hundred and fiftieth time, I felt I was in a lecture theatre surrounded by the silent, disapproving faces of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews as I confirmed their deepest suspicions of my being a layabout. Things went from bad to worse when the conversation turned to football. My opinion was asked for, and when the open secret that I am a City supporter was again aired, one of my nephews rained down a torrent of abuse, the like of which I have never been subjected to in my friendship circles, where I am generally respected.

Dorcas and I left my aunt’s home feeling a wreck, went to bed and slept late. This, however, only served to confirm that indeed I am a layabout after all. Having breakfasted, I thought of America, and I wanted to sit down straight away to write you.

Oh dear, I have not gotten to the point again, have I? Well, I must right that wrong.

When last I wrote I was telling you about the librarian, Mrs Mosswell. The issue has to do with a local landmark–a windmill. This particular windmill–and frankly I don’t know the difference between the various types of mills–was built in the seventeenth century. It hasn’t been used as a mill for at least a century and a half. I believe most of that time it was used a some kind of pigeon coop. Anyway, the family of greengrocers that owned it allowed it to fall into disrepair, and it has really been in a deplorable state. But for the fact that it is somewhat off the beaten path it would have been demolished long ago. The sails and machinery are completely missing and the crumbling sandstone shell houses all manner of rubbish generously mixed with pigeon poop.

Well now, along comes Virginia Mosswell. Widowed after six month of marriage, Virginia ably oversees the local archives insofar as she is a master organizer of books and space. She is especially capable in the space category. Our library pile is a ghastly Victorian structure of blond brick and plaster filigree. The leader of the local gentry at the time it was built conspired with the Vicar to hound some poor architect into blithering submission and the result was this monstrosity, replete with gargoyles (yes, gargoyles!) that one would swear are the inspiration for the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. Still, I am thankful it is what it is. It sure beats a structure of Mussolini modernism with grey concrete walls and gun slits for windows (seems like you complained of such a building at your old university, Bluemont Hall or something you called it?). Ugly Gilded Age structure or no, the library building has deucedly small and strangely configured space and it takes a veritable wizard to figure out how to cram in zillions of books and still have adequate study space for local scholars. Enter Virginia, who was born to claim shelf space for dusty volumes. Much of her talent is due to being a formidable woman. Both tall and wide, she is the very model of efficiency. She is never seen in trousers at all, but typically wears broom skirts of varying patterns with dark floral blouses. Unlike the stereotypical librarian she neither wears glasses nor piles uncut hair on top of her head in a bun. Her short black hair is worn in spikes and the front strands are often colored in ochre hues that are typically favored by stern German women, although I once saw her briefly sporting a bluish lock that rather reminded me of Lois Lane’s hair in the Superman comic strips. Her voice is high, nasally, and confident. She orders people around so methodically that one gets the impression that she is merely fulfilling a herding instinct, like a human border collie. Unfortunately, ever since she ascended to the post of head librarian upon the death of Mrs Kinstroe, who was far more librarianesque, and had ruled the ziggurat of books for several generations, Virginia has assumed that she had somehow assimilated the sum total of the knowledge of all those books. No fool, she decided that the way to make a name for herself was to win the younger generations and through them to bend the entire community to her will. Junior Reading clubs were her method and she made the local windmill her issue. She announced that the clubs would begin reading books on a new theme last autumn. No more Madeline or Dr. Suess. No, the tykes would be reading “green” books on saving the earth and harnessing the vast stores of non fossil-fuel potential proffered by a fragile planet. Imagine the eyes of little munchkins agog with the possibilities of saving the earth and passive solar panels and such. And she sent children home with little packets of seeds and hemp fibre sacks loaded with propaganda about composting and all that rot (sorry). She would brook no opposition. Any adult who would not agree to this agenda was a blighter or, failing that, cold-hearted, and she piled out an argumetntum ad misericordium or two for good measure. After all, this was a children’s cause and what kind of monster would oppose children, especially those who had gathered this awareness from the local library where tolerance and good sense were dispensed on people of good will? Apparently, her real objective was the windmill.

Virginia began to show her cards when she made the book, Windmills are Our Friends, by S. R. Sinhumadhani the object of her singular praise. Supplementing this was a book some parents thought slightly above the club members’ level entitled, Blow Bravely, Blow Hard, by Ms. Bayez Cornflower who argued that all power plants were the product of greedy capitalists who withheld the knowledge of wind power, because it might solve our energy problems cleanly, but without profit to them. For a few adults the last straw was Mommy, Can’t We Do Potty Training With Wind? by Skark. I trust I do not need to elaborate on this last selection. When the children were discussing the Potty book, Virginia asked the question, “Have any of you seen a real windmill before?” The kids for some reason did not pick up on this being a rhetorical question. Ignoring the young hands flung up all over the place, our librarian continued, “Here is a picture of a windmill that happily worked in our community for many years, but as you can see the poor windmill is sick. Can you see what is wrong with it?…Yes! It is broken dear children, and it needs our help to fix it!” Tears, weeping and sadness gripped the tots for their poor, sick Friend that only wants to spin in the wind and save the earth. We must save our Friend! And mummy and daddy must help us!

And no one was more surprised at what happened next than mummy and daddy!

Virginia’s programme was premeditated to the smallest detail. At the end of the reading session, packed into each munchkin’s rucksack was a clever pop-up book that, when opened, revealed a handsome paper windmill. Virginia had apparently affixed a private label to this book, because the title read, “Please Save Our Windmill.” Also included each child’s horde were an ample supply of broadsides with the same title as the pop-up book screaming as a headline, and a letter from Virginia announcing a petition campaign designed to get the attention of the council. The latter informed mummy and daddy that on the Saturday next there would be a concerted petition campaign designed to coincide with the annual fête, which would afford the hobby issue the widest possible exposure to the folk of the surrounding countryside. Volunteers were required to work a Save the Windmill Table, and a muster of roving Windmill harassers was needed to hound signatures around the fringes of the fête. The letter noted that the latter would be outfitted with reflective vests, although no one has yet determined why this extreme measure should be necessary unless they are being asked to pursue their quarry into lorry traffic.

At any rate, I shall have to leave off the report of what happened at the fête and what was the town reaction in my next. I trust that you and Precious are well and that you are looking forward to Hope’s imminent wedding. Someday soon I hope that Dorcas and I might make the pilgrimage to the Great American Midwest for a visit. I am anxious to eat authentic takkos (sic) as long as they are not overly spicy (remember my stomach acid issues).

I remain, as always, your friend,

Maxwell Fleet

P.S. I am a little confused by your game of baseball as it is, but in your last you mention a team called the “Royals,” of which you are a supporter. Your explanation of the origin of the team’s name is very intriguing. You mention that it comes from a local agricultural and stock show called the American Royal. But surely this is one of these oxymorons of which you Americans are so fond. Did not our ancestors fight a war that that put asunder forever from Americans all further associations with royalty?

A Question of Being Misunderstood

Last night we had dinner at a friend’s house. The company was fun, the food was remarkable, and the conversation was a joy until “the question.”

Our host asked, “What do you think Emmanuel House will look like in one year?” Now, I hate that question not only because I felt on the spot, but because it is such a hard question to answer. I have this fear that someone might “hold me to” what I predict. I guess I don’t want to be charged with inconsistency, although I can be very inconsistent. I have a ready answer when someone asks what Emma House has been, and is presently, but I always seem to draw a blank when I try to envision the future.

So I replied, “I don’t know.” Then I turned to Precious and said, “what do you think?” Wimped out. I had just passed the baton of pressure to my wife, only I had upped the ante. Precious muddled through a few sentences of thoughts that were certainly more courageous than my response, though both of us were disappointed in our inability to offer a satisfying answer that made us look like more competent people. I tried in vain to put this scene out of mind the rest of the evening.

When we arrived at home, I unlocked the door, greeted our spaniel, Nellie, and poured myself into the tan La-Z-Boy with a discernible sigh that Precious noticed. She patted Nellie and sat in another lounger.

“I felt so embarrassed when we couldn’t answer the vision question about Emmanuel House, and really felt pressure when you looked to me rather than trying to give an answer,” Precious said. “What was going on inside you when he asked the question?”

Ah! The elephant in the room! I sighed because I couldn’t stop thinking about the question, and was almost praying that Precious would not bring up the issue. Alas, she was asking me a question I now had to answer.

“I guess I felt angry at myself because I hate the question, and I feel like somehow I ought to know how to answer it,” I replied. “Sometimes I wish this was more of a business than a ministry because it feels like I would dream and plan and think about the future all the time.”

Precious finally reclined in her chair. “I actually know what you mean,” she said as she pulled at the handle that raised her feet. “For eight years the reality of what God brings has always looked different than what we thought it would be.” Then she laughed, “do you remember when we thought we were going to be running conferences?”

I felt a sense of relief when she made these comments. I was grateful that the person whose opinion mattered most to me was on my same wave length. I felt like I was ready to disclose all the thoughts that were crammed in my head on the drive home.

“I do remember that, and that’s my point. I don’t know what the Fortune 500 guys would think about this,” I said, “but in ministry we really do have to act upon the opportunities God gives us. I hope we never end up forcing our personal agenda on the ministry.”

Precious smiled a sweet smile, “Thankfully, He knows best. If we were in charge I think we would so want to be liked we would stretch ourselves incredibly thin.” She concluded, “We already have a hard time saying no.”

There was a restful pause. I thought how much I enjoyed our simple home. She must have been thinking about simplicity as well. She continued, “Liam, I get so tired of trying to explain what it is that our ministry is about in simple terms. The more I try to explain it seems like my words all run together.”

I agreed. “Do you remember how long it took people to get the household seminary idea?” I said. I think our love for the idea and our passion really came through, so that eventually we were able to explain it in a few words. It took some time though.”

Part of the difficulty was that the household seminary idea was so foreign to what seemed like the general tenor of education in American culture, that even we did not fully understand it at first. Sure, we believe the idea of small groups of students not only learning but getting in touch with their hearts and stories had, and still has, potential. We saw a high-water mark of this unique model of education in Manhattan, the college town, before we moved to Kansas City. Promote as we might, our version of the alternative seminary has yet to catch on in the bigger city despite what sometimes seems to me like endless meetings and explanations. But foremost in our minds on this late Friday night after dinner with friends was what Emmanuel House looked like now. It was something we could not have anticipated a year ago. Our ministry had become one of spiritual direction, which involved individual meetings with Christian leaders of all kinds, and with “everyday” Christians who wanted to grow in Christ but had hit a wall along the way that left them longing for something more.

And it is still morphing. I can tell Precious loves spending time with her mother and the old people who live at her mother’s nursing home.We often talk about what this new-found passion might lead to.

I got up and went into the kitchen to make coffee. I never worry about the caffeine, even late at night. I rinsed the jug kettle in the sink and filled it with fresh cold water. After grinding the beans, I took down a French Press and poured the grounds into its empty beaker. I had resumed the conversation after the shrill noise of the burr grinder ceased.

“Now God has given us this spiritual direction work and it feels really important, but we have a whole new set of difficulties in explaining it,” I said. “I think if people knew how important it is, not just to individuals but to the whole movement of the Kingdom,  they would really get behind the ministry. It’s just hard to explain sometimes.”

“Yes,” Precious replied. “It seems like about the only people who get it are the ones who have benefited from it–like the people who have sat with us long enough to take the inward look and see how the Gospel continues to address their lives.”

“Uh-huh, that’s it.” I opened a little more of my earlier musings to her: “I think people can support ministries they understand. Everyone gets relief for victims in Haiti or helping folks affected by the oil spill. Most people love to get behind youth projects. But we work confidentially with people, many of whom are already in ministry. We have confidential ministries that help people put their marriages back together and confidential mentoring of people who are being helped back to the mission field.”

Precious asked, “Okay, I get it. Are you emphasizing confidentiality because it prevents us from being specific about what God is doing? Don’t we just have to be content to speak in generalities?”

“Yes, I guess so,” I said.  “I just feel sometimes that folks give us about ten seconds to convince them they should be interested in what we do. If you are not ready with an inspiring, yet pithy answer I feel like they conclude it isn’t very interesting. What we do is–well, complex in its simplicity–if that makes sense. Catchy slogans just don’t do it justice, and may even be misleading.”

I noticed that the jug kettle was off meaning it had finished boiling, and I poured the water into the beaker part of the press and arranged the plunger lid. “What is really hard is when we have a great breakthrough with a person who assumed God was absent…or even encounter a tragedy that requires the prayer support of the community, we can’t tell anyone specifics that make it seem real, but it feels pretentious to say we save marriages, or we help pastors and missionaries get back on track, because we are just servants who bring God to people. The Holy Spirit does the work.”

Precious held out her mug as I pressed the plunger down. I poured brown nectar into her cup. “I’ve been looking forward to this aroma, ” she cooed, then shifted the subject: “I’m so thankful for the encouragement I just got from a past student. You need to hear this, too.” She took a careful sip as if to create my anticipation.

“So, what did she say?” I assumed correctly that she was talking about a woman. I sat down after pouring myself a cup.

“Oh, just that she knew what we do is so important, and that she hoped we would keep doing it,” she said, then wheeled on me. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine.” I was lying. The encouraging comment caused one of those little emotional eruptions where you think you are going to cry just for a second, and Precious has a sixth sense for this. I needed the encouragement, but I think our student brought home the reminder that what Emmanuel House does is important. I now wished I could take back the earlier moment with our friends. I now had something relevant to say about the future of Emma House.

I looked at Precious. I could tell she was looking at my eyes. I thought it was the same look she gave me at that closing scene of It’s A Wonderful Life, where Harry Bailey raises his glass to honor a beleaguered George: “A toast! To my brother, George: the richest man in town!” Without uttering a word we both knew what her non-verbal meant. I always cry at that very moment in the film and Precious always catches me in a less-than-manly moment she loves, but this time the movie wasn’t on and I gathered my composure:

“It’s just that I can answer the question now.” I said, “In future years Emma House will be all over the world, making a difference for the Kingdom. I don’t know if we will be alive then, or if the organization will still be around, but things will be different because of changed lives that ‘pay forward’ what they have received from us, if you know what I mean?”

Precious smiled that sweet smile again. “Aww! I think that’s it,” she said, and raised her cup, and shifted her voice into a mildly-mocking nasal tone. “To my husband, Liam…who just made the worst cup of coffee he has ever made!” She laughed heartily.

I snatched the over-sized cup from her and stared into a spinning vortex of suspended grounds. This was no laughing matter for a coffee snob like me.

I had forgotten to push the button on the kettle to heat the water.

A Letter from Coombebury Heath

I received a letter yesterday from my friend, Maxwell Fleet, who is a villager in Coombebury Heath, a place I visited during some of my overseas student days. He often relates the village news to me, and I probably enjoy his letters more than I should given that I find the place far more charming than do the denizens. Nevertheless, here is his latest letter to me:

The Oaks, Coombebury Heath, 1 May 2010

Dear Liam,

Thank you for the kind words about my weblog. I feel they are greatly undeserved since most of my posts are not proofread, nor do my photos show any great technical skill. I fear I have no promise as a blogger, especially since I can only write in spare time. It seems the truly great bloggers have scads of time to pursue their interest. What I would trulylike to share in my blog are the things that happen here at Coombebury Heath, but the fact that I keep a weblog has increased suspicion of me here, even while the legend of my prowess as a web designer has exceeded all reality. I do not have the heart to tell them that my web design consists of the most basic blogspot template, but I fear that when their bubble is burst I will finally have to move away from here.

Well, I am truly knackered with the events that have transpired in the village this week. I cannot imagine  what the unfolding disaster must have been for the people actually involved. I was merely an observer who felt great embarrassment for our village, and for the villagers I come to know and love so well. I do not want to bore you, but I somehow feel, Liam, that you somehow share my sympathy from afar for the people of Coombebury Heath. Aside from being practically the only American who has ever visited here, you took it in stride when neither I nor my friends showed the slightest interest in coming to your part of America, being satisfied that we had experienced America sufficiently lolling around Orlando, Florida and Miami.

Honestly, why in heaven’s name you showed any interest in our sleepy village is beyond me, and you broke our stereotype of Americans by fitting in with our depressed state of affairs. I mean–for yourself you eschewed the typical American trainers and bright clothing by wearing black and doing more listening than talking. You remained uncritical of our National Health even after languishing for several days with a kidney stone. I admired how undeterred you were in your opinions on the benefits of talk therapy even after discovering that every adult in our village is on antidepressants. I found your reference to our villagers as ‘hobbits’ both apt and charming, but I do recommend that you be more circumspect in choosing with whom to share this observation. Tony, the pub’s most ubiquitous patron, is particularly sensitive to these Tolkien references from Americans and New Zealanders, whom he feels have stolen the Oxford don from us and  made him their own (although I don’t think Tony has ever read any of Professor Tolkien’s works, nor even knows the story. We assumed his xenophobia about Kiwis had to do with the movies about the trilogy, but when we told him several films had been produced Tony seemed shocked that anyone would attend such a thing, let alone that a movie had been actually made about the books.)

Well, enough of reminiscing. Let me tell you what our ‘hobbits’ have been up to, and you can be the judge as to whether we will survive this flap. The uproar centred around Mrs Mosswell, the librarian, who was already roundly criticized for introducing wireless internet to the library for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fear that it would be a means of stealing the identity of library patrons.

But I have run out of time for this letter, and will have to continue in my next.

I remain, as always, your friend,

Maxwell Fleet