What is the season of ambition? I hadn’t thought about that until the last chapter of Christie Purifoy’s book, Roots and Sky: A Journey Home in Four Seasons. A case could be made for autumn, when the world revolves around the return to school. And a case could be made for spring, when fields are being planted and worried students are asking for extra credit assignments and graduates are trying to impress in new jobs.
But I think summer is the season of ambition: crops ripening, weeds filling in the gaps, vacations and summer reading and all the things both we and the earth strive to stuff into these days of long light.
“My plans for a day are always bigger than a day itself. I never have learned to write a to-do list that exactly fits a 24-hour slice of life,” Christie writes. Same here. Likewise, plans for a weekend, a year, a life.
Let’s pause and listen to Christie talking about ambition, and summer, and gold star stickers for accomplishment, in the book’s last chapter, “All the Loose Ends in the Sky.” Playing time is 8:41.
It bears repeating:
There is no gold star when I entice my children to eat their vegetables. No gold star when I remember to sweep the kitchen floor. Yet Paul told Jesus’ first followers that humble lives, emptied of selfish ambition, would shine ‘like stars in the sky.’ And he gave them this surprising charge: ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.’
I no longer remember what I thought of Paul’s strange words before I came to Maplehurst. But for twelve months I have witnessed the glory of a quiet life. I am beginning to understand what it might mean to be ambitious for quietness rather than accomplishment. I still do not live this quietness every day, but I am sure it is the thing most worthy of my ambition. The quiet life shares the good news loudest, perhaps because only the quiet life is first able to hear the good news. (p. 200)
It’s probably worth noting that while ambition now means determination, hard work, generally toward a career goal, and generally something admired, historically it has had very different meanings, generally pejorative—seeking flattery, a thirst (unquenchable, no doubt) for popularity. Its Latin root means to go around canvassing for votes.
Here I want to thank you, readers, for being patient as we skipped a couple of weeks in this book club while events of personal life drew me away. Because of that, we happen to be wrapping up this book club on a day when Christie and I and many other writers are gathering for a biennial festival of writing and publishing. Whether we are keenly or dimly aware of what form it takes, we are all motivated in part by ambition.
So I’m going to dial back my ambition to pose questions, and instead let Christie ask some. Here are some of the passages that stand out in neon for me, the ones that give voice to my own deep questions, whether they’re in the form of a question or not. Use any of these as a springboard into your own thoughts, about ambition, or love, or summer, or friendship, or tomatoes, or art, or place.
1. “I sometimes think that every good gift I’ve been given has its roots in emptiness” (p. 161).
2. In explaining why, while there’s a perfectly good dryer, she has asked her husband to install a clothesline, when he’s already working hard on building a sturdy wooden fence instead of choosing the ease of viny: “I wouldn’t complain at all if there were less laundry to do, and yet I am not that interested in doing the job more efficiently. Instead, I want to do it more beautifully. Which is another way of saying, I want to do it with more love. … Love doesn’t tick boxes on a to-do list in order to live its real life on vacation somewhere else. Love pours itself out, right where it is. Love does things right, does them well, takes care. Of course, I am speaking of fences as well as of children and neighbors. I am speaking of laundry, and I am speaking about all of life” (pp. 169-70).
3. “We imagine we are cultivating food or friendship or beauty. But we are, in all of these ways, cultivating God’s glory in our midst” (p. 166).
4. “Some days I feel small. On other days, my world feels small. Neither feeling is true” (p. 184).
5. “Where does art come from? Like so many of the very best things in this world, its roots spread through emptiness and brokenness. Are begins when someone recognizes that things are not as they should be. Our art is born in the ache between death and resurrection, and we make art in the empty hours between Friday and Sunday. Whether we speak of poems or paintings or places, all art acknowledges an absence and dreams of something other, something more. Art is the material form of hope” (p. 189).
6. “Ours is a waiting world. But what will we grow in the emptiness? What will we cultivate with the moments and resources given to us? I want to grow a living hope. Something as vivid and alive as a bed of flowers. I want to create something that shows the way” (p. 190).
7. “We are more like trees than birds. The meaning of our lives can only be discovered in our roots. What ties us to the ground and where? How are we bound to other people? Hardly less important is the question weighing heaviest on my mind right now: What should I make for dinner?” (p. 192).
Well, on second thought, I’ll ask this final question, based on a belief I have about the possibilities and power of every good book: How has this one changed you?
Thanks for reading along with us, and for your voices in the comments. Peace.