The Astringent of Sacrifice in a Season of Indulgence

candy caneschocolate-covered-candy-canes-2Pilgim's InnI come home from work buzzing, high on sugar. Candy canes appear daily on my desk, and it would be rude, wouldn’t it, to disdain them? The Business Professionals club made a huge batch of buttery, chocolate-covered toffee and left a tempting tin just filled with the stuff on the little table in the faculty hallway.  I pass that table at least twelve times a day, to my woe.

Plates of cookies are everywhere; I tape little mini-chocolate bars onto greetings for adjunct faculty members–and what’s to be done with the lingering leftovers?

My teeth hurt from all the sugar; my thoughts race when I try to shut them off at bedtime.

And it’s not just the food–it’s the ads, it’s the music, it’s the movies.  It’s the message: it’s all possible.  You can have whatever you want this season.  Go ahead, indulge!

My email inbox is filled with it.  The newspapers arrive on Sunday with thick stacks of ads–stacks thicker than the papers themselves.

It’s relentless and tempting, that message: Indulge! Indulge! Indulge! You DESERVE it!

So I re-read, as I do every year, my old paperback copy of Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge.  This is the second copy of the book I’ve owned; the first came to me via a box of old books my parents nabbed at an estate sale.  I was a young teenager; I loved reading about the romance between Sally,– gawky and red-haired, tall and awkward, but with it all, radiating inner beauty, — and the suave and tormented Shakespearian actor, David.

That volume was a retired library book; it had the glossy library binding and the stamped on title and author (white print on a shiny gray surface) that takes me back, when I see its ilk, immediately to the 1960’s. (That was when I cemented my love affair with the public library in all its guises.)

The original volume is gone–maybe worn out from annual wear and tear, maybe lost in one of many moves; maybe, loaned to someone who forgot or couldn’t bear to return it. And that bright-eyed young reader is gone too; and gone are the romantic notions, as well.

Now I read the book to remind myself of the value of sacrifice, of the virtue of giving things up.  The act of sacrifice can be the doorway to incredible gain, and that is the whole crux of Goudge’s story.

Goudge gives us the Elliott family, just at the end of World War II, in Pilgrim’s Inn.  They are war-weary–some (David and George, for instance), from having fought; others (Lucilla, Nadine, the children), from having endured.  They have have lost dearly loved ones; they have suffered material losses; they have lived with terrible uncertainty and the knowledge that no one is safe.

So they come to the end of the war raw and bruised and in need of some kind of comfort.

But the trick, Goudge suggests, is that they need to let go of something tightly held before they can arrive at that comfort.  Joy–not personal happiness; she places little or no value on that concept–can only come through denial.

Three settings in the books are characters as much as the humans Goudge draws so well–, Damerosehay, matriarch Lucilla’s domain; the inn George and Nadine acquire, the Herb o’ Grace; and Knyghtwood, where people go to shed their longings and learn to laugh again. The places are as pulsing, mysterious, and lovable as the people. And Goudge paints her people well.

There are the beautiful Elliots–Lucilla, in her breathtaking old age, chief among them.  There are the plain Elliots, with their genius for insight and every day toil; they are essential to the beautiful ones, and their sacrifice is clear, and humbly accepted.  There is Sally, the bright, flashing, innocent newcomer, with her intriguing, homely but attractive, rumpled, bearded, wildly successful, painter father.  There are Annie Laurie and Jim, that charming and secretive pair; their arrival sets many things in motion. There is quiet, accepting Jill, who tames, somewhat, the terrible twins.

Many stories weave together here,–for each of George and Nadine’s children, a die is cast, a path discovered.  Wrong love is pushed away, guilt is embraced and allowed to wither in the bright, cleansing light of the sun.  Ill-considered decisions are cast aside.  Real love, with the muscular hard work that goes with it, grows. And Lucilla, clear-seeing Lucilla, whose success in navigating her own youthful tremendous sacrifice guides her hand, is at the core of all the action.

Goudge was born in turn of the century England; she had, a biography on her website suggests, (http://www.elizabethgoudge.org/a_short_biography_of_elizabeth_g.htm  ) her own tragic but secretive youthful love affair. She lived through the events, and in the venues, of which she writes. She came, through hard labor, to the beliefs she reveals in her work; her life is fascinating, and, I think, deserves another look in itself.

The Pilgrim’s Inn story ends in a grand and moving Christmas celebration, and I read eagerly, waiting to get there, to enjoy the pageantry with the Elliot family and their friends.  And then, satisfied, I set it aside, having absorbed, I hope, a little of the astringent quality of the Herb o’ Grace, a rue to help us recognize the things we must release.  I read the book, and then I have a reasonable framework in which to couch the season of indulgence, a way to filter all the demands to go ahead, eat, drink, be merry–take it, take it–it all can be yours!

So now, I will plunge–into the holidays, into the stack of books waiting to be read; I have a Big Box Book Store gift card to spend and books on order that will arrive in February.  I look forward to all the new reading, to books friends have loaned and gifted, to books that have been waiting for me, patiently, on my shelves, to books so strongly recommended I had to put them on order.  But some books are worth making the time to re-read, and Pilgrim’s Inn, as it always does, has helped me embrace the holiday celebration.

I hope your celebration, whatever holiday you embrace, is a wonderful one!

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All images from free Internet sources.

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