“He was standing by the edge of a small pool – not more than ten feet from side to side – in a wood. The trees grew close together and were so leafy that he could get no glimpse of the sky. All the light was green that came through the leaves: but there must have been a very strong sun overhead, for this green daylight was bright and warm. It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine.”
In a rush of warmth and familiarity it came back to me, the same words and sentences I had read as child evoking the most calm and contented feeling. Where was I, who was I, when I last turned these pages? One of my favourite things about books is how they can serve as miniature, paper-filled, time machines, reminding us of things that have changed, as well as things that never will.
Reading the chapter in C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ where Digory (the eponymous nephew) travels for the first time out of our world into the ‘wood between worlds’ served to take me back to several times I’ve read this book. The idea of a calm, silent wood serving as an in-between place in the spaces between myriad worlds fascinated me. When I’m stressed, I often long, as I’m sure many do, to escape to such a place, lying down on the grass and falling asleep beneath green-leaved trees. Of course, it’s a very English vision of a peaceful getaway, but I’m very English so it appeals!
Since moving to Prague maybe I can understand the idea of a place between places better than before. My normal has changed, multiplied, since moving. Going home feels very normal, as does coming back to my new normal of work and friendships in Prague. I didn’t expect that. I thought going ‘home’ would be a relief, a welcome return, a restful experience. At times it was all of those things, but it was also, surprisingly and reassuringly, normal. I guess I have lived in England for twenty five years of my life; things are bound to have remained relatively unchanged in the course of four months.
Yet it wasn’t normal as it had been before because work, church, house and ‘stuff’ were here in the Czech Republic. It’s amazing how quickly I have started to feel comfortable here. I guess getting the bus to work each day, interacting with the same people, even dealing with the same dodgy customer-service, has made a routine like any other.
Between these two new normals I think I would like a wood. Somewhere to cosy up in and retreat to. The allure of an idealised countryside has a strong pull on me, as it seems to on the English consciousness as a whole. Rolling hills, a moss-covered forest floor, a National Trust tea shop… I think this desire to escape is also a symptom, for me at least, of busy working life and a desire to do lots and fill my time to the brim. If only I could simply slip on a magic ring (as Digory does) and flee the burdens of this busy life.
Yet C. S. Lewis makes this wood more than just a beautiful place, it is somewhere where you quickly lose all ties to the world you have left.
“The strangest thing was that, almost before he had looked about him, Digory had half-forgotten how he had got there. At any rate, he was certainly not thinking about Polly, or Uncle Andrew, or even his Mother. He was not in the least frightened, or excited, or curious. If anyone had asked him ‘Where did you come from?’ he would probably have said, ‘I’ve always been here.’ That was what it felt like – as if one had always been in that place and never been bored even though nothing had ever happened.”
Sometimes I long for this too, or so it seems. To just be free of fear, excitement, curiosity, burden, events even, would be so much easier. Just give me a nice book, cup of tea and wood between worlds. But what would there be to escape, to enjoy, to achieve there. I’m tempted much of the time to just jack it all in and run to my bed, comfy and warm and free from danger. Yet I know that I have been put here for a reason, for God to work his purposes in, for his glory and my good. The place between normals isn’t as good as the normal, the run-of-the-mill, the stressful and busy.
Give me normal, as long as I know the wood is there. It’s in the pages of the book I’m reading, the simple pleasure of sleep, a nice cup of tea, Netflix. It’s in snatched ten minutes and lazy Saturdays. It’s ultimately and completely in heaven, though the metaphor is decidedly flawed when stretched to that extent. May my desire for escape and rest not lead to me fleeing normal, but to my enjoyment of that peaceful wood when I glimpse it.