It is a mystery why L.M. Montgomery’s books feel so formative. Most of the ones I’ve read get on the last hot end of my nerves. Dewy-eyed protagonists naming every moment of nature that crosses their path? Even today, I drive down the road in my new neighborhood and feel a malicious glee at how Anne with an “e” would respond to my particularly unmelodious street address. But I’ll tell you who I always liked: Emily of New Moon. The little dark-haired orphan with a grim history and a strange, unsettling young adulthood on Prince Edward Island.
Like all of Montgomery’s displaced characters, Emily would rather not be where she has ended up, living with emotionally removed aunts instead of her beloved father. A wanderer and an explorer, she finds near her new home the bleak grave of her great-great-grandmother, Mary Murray, with no words except the name and the epitaph: “Here I stay.” Emily unearths the backstory, and it’s funny until you see through to its sadness. Mary Murray, we’re told, rolled miserably across the sick-making waves of a cross-Atlantic trip, from England to Canada. When her feet hit dry land, she proclaimed—well, it says on her stone.
Her travel companions meant to go on to Quebec, but she wasn’t going anywhere. She dug in. So her husband set up life where she stood, resolute. As the New Moon story goes, she was pretty happy—they both were, relatively fine and blessed in their newfound home. Still, something must have rankled all those years later when she died. It was her husband who so sparely quoted his dear, departed wife on her grave, carving out the words into eternity: “Here I stay.”
Why did this story stick with me? I’ve read far better books than the New Moon trilogy, and of those three, there were more essential moments to put in my pocket for future consideration. I couldn’t have known when I first read the books back in high school that I’d leave my home state in 2005 and spend the next decade moving, moving, moving.
At one point, my husband and I seemed to settle down long enough to buy a house, but always with one eye to the door and the road and a different job possibility. We might stay somewhere long enough to, say, get a functional kitchen going, but not to unpack the china. Long enough to stock the bookshelves with our favorites, but not to pull the childhood books and college texts out of storage.
“Here I stay.” For the last couple of moves, I’ve felt a strong, strong urge to echo Mary Murray. I’ve thought of her, and wanted to be her, and get the same solid results. And at the same time, I knew Montgomery had drawn her character’s end truly. She may have had a good life where she stayed, may have loved and been loved, even, but there was that something that rankled. There was something wrong with the way she dug in and declared what she did, and her husband felt it. And although he loved her, there at the end, he had his chilly final say. He set it in stone.
No. I did not want to grow that way in my heart, hardened around one intense desire to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Even though I sure was tired of going anywhere but here.
But then, lo and behold, after years of job searching and option considering and plot hatching that led nowhere firm and settled: a job offer. Out of a field that moved us hither and yon and into a business that would keep us local. It was a no-brainer. We moved for this new opportunity, because it wouldn’t make us move around any longer. It was, even, a soft move, back to a place we’d been before. Community at the ready, roadways and grocery stores familiar. We checked our finances and were surprised to find we could, actually, buy a house, so we did. And then the packers and the movers and the goodbyes (because we loved our last town and I could have “Here-I-stayed” there really easily) and the drive and the packers again, unloading, and the hellos and nice-to-meet-yous and the slow unpacking that is still going on. Slow this time, because there’s no longer an urgency to set up shop right away. I’m undriven by any pending move a year or two from now. What’s the hurry? Thorough this time, because our earthly belongings can all come out; we won’t have to repack any of them anytime again soon. We think.
The “we think” haunts me. How, I ask my husband, how do we settle our emotions between these two binaries? That God has given us these very good things we’ve wanted for so long: a house, a home, a place to settle into for (we think) the long term. Stability for our girls, schools, and people to know long and well. But there’s also this: this fallen world. This sad world, whose disappointments you can almost count on. Also, God’s ways that are neither fallen nor sad, but are above our understanding, and so often different than what we expect or want.
How not to live with a sort of fear that what has come true might at any time come undone? How to keep from shifting our feet toward the door—which we don’t actually want to go out of anytime soon—just in case we have to go, just to protect our little hardened hearts against the pain of leaving once again … Good grief! We just got here. Why can’t I believe that I might just get to stay? Or live like we’re going to, at any rate, without having to know for sure what’s around the corner? Because if the future is written in stone, it’s no tablet I’ve got my hands on.
“If you want it to last,” says my friend Elizabeth Dark Wiley in her essay of the same name, “don’t write it in stone.” Well, they put it on Mary Murray’s tombstone after she’d rounded all her life’s corners, so we know for sure her heels stayed put pretty close to the ground she dug them into. I think I want to know what’s around the next corner so I can bolster my emotions, but no. I don’t actually need the luxury of that kind of hindsight about myself or my life; tell me what’s on my gravestone after the fact, which really means don’t tell me at all.
I’ll be somewhere else for permanent by then, and I hope you won’t catch me looking back to see what folks needed to say about me. But I get ahead of myself. The moment in question is now; the place in question is right here; my desire is to stay. The question is how to stand firm without digging in. Or how to be where I am altogether without fearing future change, come as it may—or not.
If the future is written in stone, I believe God has his hands on it. And if I can hang onto the recollection that He is good, then I think I can take my shoes off and leave them forgotten in the hallway. I can be here. This life is, indeed, a liminal kind of place. We’re not here; we’re not there; we are here; we will be there. So yes, OK. Set whatever ended up happening in this meantime on my stone. And if you’re not still here to do it, then that’ll mean you left this place before me, and I’ll be seeing you there. Where we’re sure to stay.
Rebecca D. Martin can be found at Down the Rabbit Hole.