Dark is thick, and I am weary as the frayed last light dying out beyond the trees. The mud and cold stick to my boots and my sigh etches a frozen circle on the air. The river path I walk home at night in Oxford is a shortcut to my flat, but also a reprieve from the clatter of the streets. Sound is swallowed here, mostly, by the brooding water and untrimmed woods. Houseboats dock along this path and I cannot help but spy through the round windows as dusk falls and sets the inner rooms in bright relief against the night.
They draw and, somehow, dismay me–these long, low dwellings with narrow rooms, docked low in the muddied stream, ever in a lilt and knock against the riverbank. Most are a clutter of cups and books, clothes and logs and old plants piled on the decks, whole lives crammed into a space too narrow to contain them. They remind me of myself.
I am a gypsy soul, a restless-hearted wanderer. For far too long now I have sought my place on earth. My life, outer and inner, feels ever crammed in suitcases as I soldier on to one more new frontier. Though the journey is bright and the changing landscapes rich with adventure, come night, I am weary. My hope grows frail as I trudge alone, again, to a temporary home. The loneliness of my one, striving self far from home; the constant fight to work, to perform, to achieve; the sense of being adrift in an unsettled world: these cluster about me at night. The dread of my own unmoored existence is something I can almost taste. If only, I think, if only I could find my place on earth.
But even then, would my heart arrive at home? In the blackness, I trudge on, stung by the memory of a talk with a friend. Her life is as settled as mine is transient. The hunger haunts her as well. The rest, or rootedness, the sense of belonging we both crave eludes her grasp as deftly as it does mine. The soul can be in exile even when the body has arrived. And in the dark, I wonder. Are all of us doomed to wander on and never arrive, body or heart, at the shelter we desire? To venture bravely forth but never make it back? Is life in a fallen world a houseboat existence? Are we confined to one narrow craft and shoved ever on down the river of life?
I stop. A strong beam of light reaches out, like a gracious face turned to mine. I meet it and my eyes are turned from the darkness. Through one porthole window, round as a well-cut gem, the warmth of a long, low room peers out. Books line the walls of this houseboat. A marionette swings from the window ledge. A low red chair sits in a corner next to a table cluttered with bread and teacups, photos, letters, flowers. People sway back and forth through the slender spaces, and laugh as they catch the low shelves for balance. On the window sill, a single candle burns. The light of it sears the darkness like the sun risen fresh in the morning. And watching it, I know.
Home is the shelter that I make on the river. A candle alight in a houseboat at dusk. The flame may gutter with the rush of the water, and darkness may fall thick as rain outside. But home is the room I carve out at the center of my journey, the space of self and time in which I light the candle of God’s joy and watch it fill the coracle of my heart. Yes, the river rushes on. No, I cannot escape the flow of time, the shove of hunger for a world beyond this, the journey and work to which every heart is born. But home I may craft wherever I go.
Home may be made, the confines set, the shelter claimed, by my own creation within the narrow confine of my river-sped days. The joy with which I set a feast and light the festal candle, the hope I choose to light, like a dozen candles in the windows of my heart, the shelter of quiet I craft for my a soul, these make a home in which I may root and rest, even as I sail the rapids of this white-water life.
I walk ahead again. The river sweeps me on into the night. But the light of that candle is in my eyes.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she’s not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.