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  • Writer's pictureLeanne W. Smith

lessons from guernsey

One of my favorite books is The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. While the title is a mouthful, it’s a rare jewel—an epistolary novel written entirely in letters—the kind of book you want to return to again and again. You may have seen the Netflix movie with Lily James. Guernsey is the fictional story of Juliet, a writer who came through difficult personal losses of WWII Britain to later discover the people of an island in the English Channel who struggled through difficulties of their own. Together, they find comfort in companionship and humor. Juliet, who tragically lost both her parents in a car accident as a teen, loses her home in the war to bombing. As the tale opens, she is on a post-war book tour for a collection of humor articles she wrote during the conflict. We immediately see her gumption when we learn that she throws a teapot at a snarky critic on one of her stops. (Atta girl.) When she receives a random letter from a man who lives on the island of Guernsey who purchases a Charles Lamb book in a second-hand bookstore with her name in it as the prior owner, it is the beginning of a pull she feels to go to the island to unlock a mystery that might become the subject of her next book. It unexpectedly becomes a place filled with people that unlock her heart instead. Two things I appreciate the book, particularly in light of the current times: One, it reminds me that humor can be healing in times of difficulty. I used to marvel that laughter could occur in funeral homes. Yet it often does, through the comfort of memory and the evidences of love being shown by those who come inside the doors to wrap the hurting in their arms. Who say, in essence, “We came to hurt with you, and to remember better times, the times we brimmed with laughter.” Two, the woman who wrote Guernsey was Mary Ann Shaffer, a first time novelist who died with cancer before the book was released. Her niece, Annie Barrows, a children’s book author, actually finished the manuscript. When I read the book I marvel at how saucy, gritty, and fun-loving Juliet is coming from the pen and mind of a woman in a battle for time. As an author, especially one who now has an oncologist of her own, I find this extraordinary. (Let me be clear here: though I have an oncologist, I do not feel in a battle for time, for I have been blessed with a terrific prognosis.) I’m going to have to read it again! This past week was tough. I could use a dose of sassy, fun-loving wit. We traveled from Florence to Vienna on Friday, arriving late that night, settling into new spaces. I hardly remember Saturday’s orientation but know it involved a walking tour and a stop at Café Diglas, a pink coffee shop I never expected to see again. Sunday we worshiped together: some from OCU, two from Rochester, those of us from Florence, the Vienna group and the Swanns who live here, totaling 48. We received disappointing news Sunday night, of weekend travel restrictions. Monday we got back on schedule, with class meetings in the kitchen. Then Tuesday, on our way to a field trip, learning that while most of us were stumbling around for coffee that morning, a series of tornados swept through Nashville and the surrounding areas. Homes, businesses, schools, lives gone. Our youngest daughter was set to fly from Nashville to Vienna within hours. It rocked my world. Helpless was already a word that had meanly attached itself to my hip.

Candles in a church in Vienna. Prayers on every continent, for every continent.

As I write this blog post she is here, the most welcome sight I ever saw come through glass doors in an airport, still sleeping on the bed in the corner as I try not to hit the keys of my computer too hard. I’m feeling a bit of whiplash over here, and can only imagine what folks at home are feeling. Only ten years ago the flood of 2010, now the tornado of 2020. Life turning on dimes. Viruses. Oncologists. The best laid plans of mice, writers, and global learning programs gone airborne. Yet I'm deeply grateful for the companionship and humor that reroutes can bring. Kitchens to serve as classrooms. A family member gifted to finish a dying woman's sentences, another able to travel oceans to lift me up. Lord, we praise you for every blessing, large or small. We are reminded that life is fragile. We are reminded of our need for You, the comfort and constancy of Your love. And we are filled with gratitude for the demonstrations of that love coming through the hands of Your people. Blessed to share the journey. Leanne

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