Poetry, Places, and Inklings

Lancaster, PA in the snow

He sees no stars who does not see them first
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia” 

After a winter of long drives into the dusk, ice-puddles that sparkled in the sun, and bitter cold that cracked the skin on my hands, I sat in the Trust Performing Arts Center in Lancaster, PA, frantically typing notes. I was supposed to attend the Inklings Fellowship Conference, hosted by Square Halo Books, in April 2020, only to have it postponed due to COVID. As I made my travel plans for Lancaster, I kept thinking about how much has changed in me and in the world in these two years.

The conference was joyous. For the first time, I met writers and artists in the flesh who I had met in digital forums – online classes, creative collaborations, or Zoom office hours. I gave most of them big hugs. Somehow, talking about creativity, art, faith, and beauty over the Internet gave us a familiarity that made our in-person meetings comfortable and full of laughter.

It was enthralling. Lectures by scholars, artists, and Inklings-lovers on the wordsmithing of Tolkien, the myth-blending of Lewis, and the collaboration between them fill my mind and heart with wonder. The “Rabbit and Dragonfly” pub next door, with its miniature Shire landscape, huge map of Middle Earth, painting of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus at Lantern Waste, and shelves of old books felt like a home I’d always wanted but didn’t know was real. I scoured the conference bookstore and spent far more money on books than I budgeted for.

It was exhausting. I love conferences, but the rapid pace, overflow of information, and consistency of social interaction left me completely drained, though very happy. 

The power of poetry and language, of words and names, was one of the keynotes for me. I’m still pondering the fantastic lecture by professor and poet Christine Perrin on “The Poetry of Tolkien,” in which she argued that Tolkien was an epic poet equal to Dante, Milton, or the author of Beowulf, and understanding his poetry is fundamental to understanding his work. She outlined Tolkien’s love for language (apparently he felt that a new Grammar Primer was like finding a hidden wine cellar) and his understanding that to name something is to know it and possess it. She also explained Tolkien and Owen Barfield’s idea that our language is splintered and fragmented from its original wholeness, a tragedy that has splintered and fragmented our consciousness and understanding of the world. For instance, words like the Greek pneuma have a holistic meaning of wind, breath, or spirit, united so that the one word has multiple layers of meaning, while English has separate words for each concept. This separation has disrupted our ability to understand the unity of the cosmos. 

The theological importance of naming reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, one of my favorite books, in which Naming is linked with loving, understanding, communicating with, and rescuing others. It also made me think of my day-job as a technical writer, in which I try to teach, simplify, and convey complex ideas about software and cloud computing in clear, simple instructions. Language is one of the greatest challenges of my newest job. The terminology of cloud computing and networking was developed by engineers, scientists, military and government officials, and (I say this lovingly) computer geeks. I doubt any artists or poets were involved, and I wish they had been. As it is, software and computer engineering language is made of many displaced or complex, hard-to-remember, uninteresting words and phrases: 

  • Words transplanted from the physical, artistic, and even spiritual worlds into digital contexts: screen, page, icon, code, cloud, tunnel, gateway, walled garden, firewall, routes
  • Words that are abstracted and not linked with the physical world at all: data center, availability zone, encryption
  • Acronyms that are very hard to remember, at least at first: HTML, DNS, IPv4, ECMP, VPC

I don’t know if anything can be done now, as experts in these fields are familiar with this language, and to change it would be as difficult as changing a national currency or measurement system (but worse, since the Internet is international). But I wish a scientist/engineer/programmer with J.R.R. Tolkien’s love for words, C.S. Lewis’s clarity and skill with analogy, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s bluntness and common sense had been the one to choose the nouns, verbs, and adjectives we use for computing and networking. 

Christie Purifoy’s session on “Placemaking in Narnia” meant a lot to me after weeks of walking through concrete tunnels, gray parking garages, and tiny city parks with leafless trees and withered grass. But her talk was more than a reminder that beauty is important. She argued that even beautiful places can be place-less – lacking “aliveness” or a sense of “wholeness, spirit, or grace.” Frozen Narnia was beautiful, but it was disenchanted and lifeless under the reign of the witch. Place-making is the re-enchantment or reawakening of places.

I found this beautiful, hopeful idea of place-making inspiring and encouraging, though it brought back some frustrating memories. As a child, student, young professional, and just another human being in the world, I have not always had control over the environments in which I live, work, commute, and exercise. Location, the cost of living, spiritual calling, and bureaucratic requirements of different seasons of life (such as getting a driver’s license) have all shaped my options for places to dwell in. These shaping forces have put me in places with a tangible “aliveness” and places with a palpable “deadness” – beautiful and ugly, cozy and barren, spectacular and dingy. I’ve played in gardens full of rhododendrons and tulips; studied in school classrooms with blank white walls, and fluorescent lighting; worked in offices of gray cubicles and choking silence; read in libraries full of old books and stained glass windows. In “lifeless” places where I felt trapped, placemaking meant cultivating the little things I could control within the tiny spaces I owned (Spotify playlists, taped-up pictures from magazines, scented candles, fairy lights) and dreaming about the places I longed to make and inhabit.

I drove away from the conference into a snowy blue twilight. The wisdom I’d heard about language, beauty, and art came at a good time – late winter is my least favorite season, the doldrums of the year. As I’ve done in the past, I want to use art to fight the grumpiness I sink into amidst long, gray days of slushy snow and dirt-encrusted ice. In honor of the goodness of poetry and place-making, I’m doing a new creative collaboration for March with some fellow writers and artists, centered around the theme “Winter Eyrie” – the concept of a refuge, a haven, a fortress, a citadel, somewhere cozy and safe amidst chaos. More details to come. 🙂

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Change is Red

It takes a long time to come back. The exciting folds into the mundane: the plane wheels hitting the tarmac, the unpacking of socks and sweaters and UK adaptors, the first hug with each family member, the wagging tail of the golden retriever, the scheduling of dentist appointments and renewing of driver’s license and car insurance. Going to Scotland was a grand adventure that broke down into a thousand difficult details (visas and bank accounts and SIM cards); coming back is the equal opposite. On this side, though, I have memories instead of dreams.

Scotland’s autumn was all golden leaves, red berries, and mist on the North Sea. I loved it there, but I missed the intensity of New England crimsons, carmines, and scarlets. I forgot how much I missed the earthy smell of fallen leaves here, the rosy apples hanging in the orchards, the chill in the mornings, the silvery frost in the grass, and the round on their doorsteps. 

The second morning I logged into work, still blurry from jet lag, I stared at my computer screen as a grim realization sank through me: I had nothing to dream about. I have always been a daydreamer, from elementary school math class to my first office job: while my attention is fixed on the task at hand, the rest of my mind is whirring with thoughts of the books I’m reading, stories I’m telling, visions of the past and future. Last summer’s daydreams were full of ruined castles, seminars on the Inklings and the imagination, hills covered in purple heather, and cliffs overlooking the foaming sea. Now, after I’ve fulfilled that five-year dream, my vision of the future is more like a void.

Like everyone, I’ve had long periods of uncertainty and transition before: graduating from college and moving out of my childhood home in one frigid winter, watching to see how a chaotic corporate merger would affect my job, and checking infection and recovery rates every day in the first weeks of COVID. God gave me good things in each season, like that maple clearing full of golden sunlight I saw on my morning drives. I’ve also learned to cope: I hid my taskbar during boring afternoons in an office to prevent myself from checking the time every 0.5 seconds; I lined up podcasts on literature and hope and theology to fill my long commutes. I’m not patient, but every season of uncertainty has intensified beauty and good times within it.

It’s over. It didn’t feel real to me as I was consumed with moving out of my flat and traveling around through the green hills, silver waterfalls, quiet glens, and sheep pastures of England, Wales, Iceland, and northern Ireland, but it’s true – I finished my degree. It gave me a glimpse of the ivory tower (a much more isolated ivory tower in this year, but still): the brilliant people who congregate in places like St. Andrews, the life of a graduate student, and the rhythm of life in Britain. I have a general, table-of-contents knowledge of the field of theology and the arts; a gateway glimpse of research areas like ethics & literature or imagination as a way of knowing; a greater certainty that I do not want to pursue academia any further for now. I have crammed enough class readings and dissertation research to justify the devouring of fun books, like Alan Garner’s Flavia de Luce series and Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward.

I am dreaming, though my dreams are murky and indistinct: it’s easier to envision one year of grad school than the full, long life I hope for, full of ministry, good friends, a beautiful home full of books written by others – and some books written by me. But for the first time in my life, I feel that this unknown is not the unknown of helplessness – it’s an unknown of possibility.

The unknown is gray, but change is red: vibrant, terrifying, chaotic, and exhilarating. 

“I am a ghost”: Leaving St. Andrews

“I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.” For weeks, that sentence from the end of C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce haunted me, because I knew I would be leaving St. Andrews soon, and that I would disappear like a shade at dawn.

St. Andrews is centuries old. Whatever Viking raids, Reformation riots, horrific witch burnings it’s had, students are the real ghosts – especially international ones. We come each fall to clean out the charity shops, fill up pubs and coffee shops – and then leave each summer. I am one of hundreds of thousands who came and went. I left nothing behind but a mostly-clean dorm room, kitchen-full of dishes, pots, and pans, and memories with friends. The community’s memory of me has already faded.

Finishing

August felt ghostly: gray with haar (sea fog), cool, and often rainy. I piled up books on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the sins of sloth and anger, Lord of the Rings, and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets on my desk and culled them for quotation marks, filling out the framework of my dissertation. It was quiet. We met in cozy pubs to compare word counts and progress, but most of the days were monastic: silent, solitary work, broken up by freezing swims in the North Sea or walks along the coastal path. The Queen Anne’s lace faded at the end of July. A swallow nested in the entranceway of our flat’s stairwell. 

Somehow, our dissertations came together: bullet-pointed lists of quotations and sentence fragments grew into paragraphs, sprouted into chapters, and branched out into full arguments. I read and reread each section of mine, often out loud, trying to spot misplaced modifiers or errors in reasoning, participating in the wider scholarly conversation without sacrificing too much of my word count to quotes. I examined each text in the light of the sins of sloth and anger, exploring how characters in Perelandra, Lord of the Rings, and Four Quartets find the right virtues to combat them. I found that while Ransom and Gandalf choose the virtues of zeal or hope, the remedy for despair in Four Quartets – total surrender to the grace of God – remedies every sin. When we surrender, we step into the Great Dance of the cosmos, ordered by love, where even the distinctions between virtues no longer matter.

At the same time, the paper I’ve mentioned before, in which I examine revelation in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon series, was in the throes of final copyediting. It felt wild to be working on both at the same time: adding em dashes and commas to the Montgomery paper, calling home to ask family members to double-check page numbers and wording in books I left in the States, while smoothing out transitions in my dissertation.

On August 17, after agonizing over my poetry footnotes (should I have added page numbers as well as line numbers for each poem?) I turned in my dissertation. At the same time, I announced the final publication of my Montgomery paper – the fruit of nearly five years of buying or borrowing scholarly texts, devoting morning coffee time, lunch hour, and evenings to work, and several rounds with literary journal editors. Both projects frustrated, exhausted, and refined me, revealing my weaknesses as a scholar: the impulse to oversimplify, reduce complexities and nuances, and my general ignorance of the wider body of scholarship. But now, both are done. 

Ironically and beautifully, the theses of both papers connected. I found that revelation and virtue are both relational, not equational. God does not give knowledge like a stack of library books, or hand out virtues like playing cards. He reveals Himself and cultivates goodness in us because He loves us, knows us, and wants us to know Him.

The rest of my time in St. Andrews was a frenzy of pub nights and last-minute goodbyes over coffee as well as moving. It was chaos: tossing bags and bags of goods into the charity shop donation bin by the library, filling up the kitchen trash can multiple times a day, trying to figure out what to ship home in boxes and suitcases and what I could carry around with me as I traveled the UK. Busyness and an unexpected injury meant that there was no more time to walk the coastal path or the Lade Braes – but still, the days were sweet, and full, and hilariously disorganized. When the time came, I rushed out on a gray morning to the bus, then the train to London, and out of Scotland. 

I don’t know when I’ll return there.

Wandering

Travelers, too, are ghosts, moving in and out of beauty spots and historical landmarks without (one hopes) leaving a trace. 

This is intended to be a creative writing/reflections blog, not really a travel one. I honestly don’t know how to summarize all of it. We moved so quickly: London, Bath, Wales, the Cotswolds, and then Iceland. Glorious golden weather followed us through the steep, cobbled streets of Bath, the green fields and woods of England, and the Welsh mountains with all their grazing sheep and horses. Iceland was all gray-green mystery, with mountains veiled in fog, silvery waterfalls, and pale glaciers. (I put lots of pictures and reflections on Instagram, if you want more details.)

We figured out how to operate at least five different brands of shower controls, driving on the left and right sides of the road, PCR vs. Antigen COVID tests before and after flights, train timetables, and the best kinds of souvenirs. We hiked until our legs ached, watched sheep graze on hillsides and foam churn in river gorges, laughed a lot, and made those special, highly-contextual, inside jokes that only work within one vacation and one group of people. I tried to understand what I’ve learned in this past year of grad school, life in another country, and lockdown, and who I’ve become in relation to loved ones I haven’t seen in a year.

I will write more about specific memories of these wanderings some other time. For now, I think I’ll just share the moments that were most precious to me:

  • Sitting with a cappuccino and scone with cream and jam on the lower slopes of Mount Snowden, studying the sunlight on the rowan berries
  • Examining the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall from the cave behind it in Iceland, trying to describe how beautiful all that silver-white water is as it falls
  • Gazing down a rocky gorge at a snowy glacier, realizing that it looks like, and is, a frozen river waiting to burst forth, like Gandalf’s horses in Rivendell

The rest of September will involve more travel, with more time for beauty, for rest, and for creative writing again. In a few weeks, I will go home and end this year of study and travel, this time that I worked for, saved for, and dreamed about since undergrad. 

Then, I’ll step into a new unknown.

Blue Dreams and Green Stories: Summer Travel in Scotland

I finally got to travel. After yearning for it in the golden fall, dreaming of it in the windy winter, and planning for it in the cool green spring, I finally got out to the Highlands & Islands and a bit of the Lowlands: the Isles of Mull, Staffa, and Iona one weekend, the Isle of Skye, and then Edinburgh.

It’s been glorious, exhausting, enlightening, stressful, blissful. Hikes across emerald slopes sprinkled with tiny daisies, buttercups, purple heather, and fluffy cotton-grass; cozy evenings in wood-paneled pubs with tartan carpeting and paintings of antlered deer; ferry rides past rugged peaks and lonely islands; views of faraway blue hills and glimmering lochs; laughter and long talks on train and bus rides. 

Each place gave me memories, dreams, and fragments of stories.

Iona

Sacred Haven

Iona is a tiny island, 3 square miles, with only 150 permanent residents and herds of grazing sheep and Highland cows (“coos”). It is also the place where St. Columba landed from Ireland in the 500s (1500 years ago!) and started an abbey. A replica/rebuild of the abbey is there today, full of the remnants of Celtic crosses, new sandstone pillars covered in intricate carvings, and ancient gravestones. 

One of my favorite insights was seeing the snake-and-boss design. Despite the Edenic tradition of snakes as creatures of evil, apparently the medieval Christians saw the casting and regrowing of skin as a symbol of death and resurrection. I have heard whispers of the richness of Celtic Christinaity, of thin places and rhythms of life and mysteries incarnate in the natural world (such as clovers representing the Trinity) but I want to study more. The whole island felt quiet and sacred – a place to come and heal, walk the pasturelands and talk to God, and feel connected with the great cloud of witnesses that is the universal Church.

Story fragments
  • A sacred place of healing
  • An island at the end of the world
  • An abbey with a buried treasure

Staffa

Lonely Marvels

Staffa is even tinier than Iona, shaped by some geological process I still don’t fully understand to have natural hexagonal pillars. It looks giant-carved. We rode out by ferry for an hour, chilled by the sea-wind and enchanted with a fluffy white dog who loved us dearly, and then had an hour to explore it. We sprinted down to the wonder of Fingal’s Cave, aquamarine water in a deep black vault, and then back across the steep cliffs to see the PUFFINS. They were just as clownish and cute as we hoped, though tinier. They didn’t care anything about us, but launched off into the sky as a dark seabird flew overhead.

Story fragments
  • People resettling uninhabited isles and encountering magical creatures
  • An echoing cave that is really a shadow kingdom
  • A tour boat crew that has a special understanding with the mermaids in the area

Skye

Blue Kingdom

Skye is more rugged than Iona, Mull, or Staffa. It’s also many shades of green and blue, with steep cliffs, purple heather, gray rock, and the same sprinkling of wildflowers. Slender waterfalls wend their way down the hills, among the evergreens. A Scottish shepherd recommended a gorgeous hike across the cliffs that gave us exquisite views: distant azure mountains, white sailboats on the sea, and window panes glittering in the town. We couldn’t capture it in photos, though we tried very, very hard. The shepherd also told us about the Nicholson clan of Portree (Port Righ in the Gaelic) who went broke in the 1800s and emigrated to Tasmania and the Carolinas. 

We spent Sunday afternoon with Skye’s Magical Tours: an ex-fisherman named Brian took us to the glimmering Fairy Pools and around the island. Skye was magnificent, so old and huge that I felt small and lonely. We filled it with laughter, with dinner of shepherd’s pie and philosophical discussion, mornings of berry-and-Nutella crepes and foamy cappuccinos. 

Story fragments
  • Cloud-creatures in a mountain country
  • Fairy folk who are defined by the color blue (as opposed to green, the traditional elvish color in Scottish lore)
  • Visitors arriving at a shepherd’s cottage
  • Selkies at twilight

Edinburgh

City of Stone

After several trips in the wild, it felt strange to be in a busy city: buses and trams on Princes Street, women in flowery dresses, shops with tartan scarves and Celtic jewelry, gardens of pink roses and fragrant honeysuckle, Gothic architecture, and modern tinted windows. We feasted on the best of Edinburgh: touring the gilded halls of Holyrood Palace, cullen skink and clotted cream raspberry cheesecake at a cozy pub, dizzying views from Arthur’s Seat, dappled sunlight on the river by St. Bernard’s Well, and golden hour in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Story fragments
  • A tiled fireplace with a secret message (I fell in love with Holyrood Palace’s tiled fireplaces)
  • Swans and a ruined abbey
  • Queen Ann’s lace on a dormant volcano
  • A locked well with healing powers
  • A brownie who lives at an Air BnB

Meditation: Commercialization vs. Reenchantment

In Edinburgh, thoughts planted on Mull, Iona, Staffa, and Skye finally took root and began to sprout: I realized how dramatic the tourism industry is in Scotland, and probably in other places. I mean “dramatic” in the sense of performative or theatrical: the little shops in Iona, Portree, Old Town, and other places shout all the most distinctive and unique aspects of Scottish culture and history to attract attention. The symbols of Scotland’s Scottishness – tartan, bagpipes, highland cows, the Loch Ness monster, Celtic runes and symbolism, ancient ruins, haggis, thistles, unicorns, and teapots – are the most prominently displayed where strangers and foreigners like me can purchase them and carry them home, like chipping stones from a crumbling castle. Scottish people cannot love tartan that much; it’s outsiders who want the flavor and breath and music of Scotland, because we want to come and experience something fresh and different and fully its own, individual self, somewhere unlike our home place. Most Scottish people shop at the T.K. Maxx or luxury mall we visited, which are almost identical to retail in America.

That made me sad. I know the Western world has many similarities – celebrities are popular in multiple countries, and so on – but I would hate to have all the beautiful distinctiveness of Scottish lore and heritage as a thing of the past. I have only been a Master’s student in an international university town for a year here, so I don’t feel that I really know the Scottish people and culture. But the sheer clamour of a few shops in New Town in Edinburgh made me uneasy, as if only the tourist industry wants to preserve full and distinctive Scottishness – and then, only to sell it.

But I have tasted Scottish culture in literature. I’ve been a dragonfly skimming the depths of it: Scottish fairy tales like “The Well at the World’s End” and “The Black Bull of Norroway,” ballads like “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” the mesmerizing fantasies of George MacDonald, the Jane Austen-ish societal explorations of Margaret Oliphaunt, the exquisite prose of George Mackay Brown, the haunting tales of James Hogg, and the simple profundity of Alexander McCall Smith. My side-project next year will be to delve more deeply into these and more. 

These writers imbibed Scottish tradition and added to it, weaving the desires, dreams, fears, and tensions of their own time into the loom of myth and legend. As I writer, I want to follow in their footsteps and tell stories that help reenchant places like this. I want to reawaken the wonder of selkies on the beach in the moonlight and fairy folk dancing under the green hills, as well as capturing the mystery and dangers of our own time: the whispered rumors and masked faces of COVID, the political tensions that are re-tribalizing countries and regions, the seductive illusions of social media, and the now-too-familiar marvels of the Internet and smartphones. 

St. Andrews 

Gray Havens

After so many buses, trains, and ferries, it is good to be in St. Andrews again. I’m astonished to find that after magnificent peaks and staggering views on Skye and Arthur’s Seat, the soft, golden-green beauty of fields and woods heals me instead of overwhelming me. 

This place is not home. It’s only mine for the rest of the summer. But I will love every day I have left.

After Martinmas and Candlemas

“Her name’s Hazel,” he said, gesturing to the huge owl perched on his left arm. She was the size of my torso, with enormous orange eyes in a face covered in light gray feathers. The rest of her feathers were black, white, and brown. Her pointy ears were turned back like a disgruntled cat’s. “Here, you can pet her with these.” He gave us feathers – I got a raven’s feather – and my friend, a couple of other tourists, and I used our feathers to stroke Hazel. She stared at me and blinked.

Edinburgh felt huge, fast, and busy after being in St. Andrews for nine months. The stone buildings, ornate scrollwork, Gothic spires, statues, and castles give it a medieval feel, but blinking traffic lights, blue and gray buses, and colorful storefronts mix in the neon of the twenty-first century. Pink cherry trees and tulips were in bloom in the city; yellow gorse made the surrounding hills glow.

Edinburgh Castle towers about the city like a dream in the sky.

It has been a stormy spring of cold rainfall, dark clouds, and winds that shake the blossoming trees. I’m not sure how I survived April’s pileup of assignments: an essay on Joy Davidman’s poetry and the theology of nostalgia; the relationship between faith, reason, and imagination in the works of Robert Kirk, James Hogg, and George MacDonald; a presentation on L.M. Montgomery and Dorothy L. Sayers’s contrasting perspectives on Christian doctrine; a class introduction for Part II of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces; an exam on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” and Wagner’s “The Valkyrie.” I found cross-currents of beauty and wisdom in all of these works and my non-academic life:

  • The joy of new life, pain of growing, and mystery of resurrection as represented by Spring
  • The relationship between epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how you know what you know), truth, the natural world, and the supernatural
  • Love as a way of knowing
  • The paradox of surrender, grace, and continued effort in the life of faith

I have discovered that I am tireder, but more inspired and efficient, when I mingle fellowship and travel-adventures with study. Despite the weather, I have explored red sandstone clifftops and geos (sea inlets); the grounds of a castle surrounded by green woods full of white wild garlic; meadows of bluebells and cow parsley overlooking the harbor; a garden of purple-black, red, white, yellow, and pink tulips. Wandering through the hills and looking out over the sparkling ocean makes me feel like I’ve walked into a dream of paradise. Running through gray streets while trying to follow complex and contradictory GPS instructions to catch buses in the nick of time makes me feel like I’ve created my own nightmare. Travel is freeing, and wondrous, and so fun after months of lockdown, though I need to control my longing to go completely rogue as I still have a dissertation and part-time job to do.

This year has gone by so quickly. As I’ve said before, one Master’s degree does not even give you intermediate knowledge of a subject – just a cartographer’s view of your field of study, and not a detailed map, either. However, after two semesters of classes, I’ve discovered a few interesting things about Theology and the Arts and myself:

Academic vs. artistic thinking

I think my mind and skillset are better suited to a researching-artist’s life than an academic one. Academic thought requires absorbing an ocean of complex and diverse information (tons of books, articles, and lectures), meditating on it, and then synthesizing evidence to create a new perspective that will expand the field and spark new conversations. I can research and craft an argument, but my analysis tends to oversimplify and condense too much, ignoring the complexities of a subject. I still love learning, but I may be able to contribute better by creating stories than persuasive arguments.

The interrelation of doctrines and disciplines 

In our “Christian Doctrine and the Arts,” course, our professor emphasized the unity of all the doctrines of Christianity. It’s difficult to speak about the doctrine of God the Father (patrology) without explaining His relationship with God the Son (Christology) and God the Spirit (pneumatology), but then you probably should define the Trinity, and the nature of the Trinity explains how salvation works (soteriology), and then you should explain how humanity fits in (Christian anthropology) and then perhaps how the Church matters in all of this (ecclesiology) and how all of time is rushing towards the final revelation (eschatology) . . . you get the idea. The creeds are unified, as the Trinity is unified, and the true Church is one. 

I think disciplines of study are the same way. While it’s difficult to maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge, specializing in the humanities or the sciences means you neglect the wisdom of the other house. Interdisciplinary work is truly fascinating. One of our readings by Eleanore Stump, for example, drew on an analogy from math into theology by comparing the book of Job to a fractal (“The Story of Job: Suffering and the Second-Personal” in Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, pg. 220-21). Judith Wolfe, one of my professors, is working on a research grant now called “Mapping the Imagination” which combines psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology to examine how the imagination shapes what we perceive.

As a writer, I want to diversify my knowledge so that I can draw wisdom and analogies from many disciplines and create rich, complex, and fascinating worlds and stories. I will probably have to choose breadth of knowledge over depth.

The relationship between theology and the arts

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulty of defining the relationship between theology and the arts. In discussing religion and literature (I think this applies to the rest of the arts as well), John May describes a few perspectives: heteronomy (literature as the “handmaiden of faith”), autonomy (literature judged by its own norms), or theonomy (literature and religion both grounded in ultimate reality, God) (John May, New Image of Religious Film, 20).

My faith tradition is very Scripturally-focused: Plymouth Brethren/Baptist. I believe that the Word of God as a means of divine revelation comes first, before Church tradition, wordly ways of knowing, or personal experience. I am passionate about orthodoxy, or staying true to correct Spiritual teaching – hopefully in the truest sense, so that I am as fierce about living with grace, loving-kindness, and humility as I am about righteous behavior and beliefs.

For these reasons, my view is closer to heteronomy or “the arts as a handmaiden of theology,” demonstrating, exploring, discussing, or illustrating theological concepts, because I see theology or the study of God as the first thing, the pursuit that all other disciplines fall under. I see the arts as a means of glorifying God through human making, singing a “new song.” I don’t like overly simplistic, melodramatic, poorly-crafted artwork that tries to hammer morals into people’s heads by deception or manipulation. I love and want to create work that explores difficult questions, creates beauty, exposes ugliness, and seeks to love the artist’s audience through masterful craftsmanship and complex, thought-provoking techniques.

As an artist with academic interests, I have a new set of directions to explore as I work on my dissertation this summer and return home in the autumn, including protology (the study of Creation), ecclesiology (the study of the Church), mythopoeia (mythmaking art), and the folklore of Scotland and other parts of the world. This year’s coursework has given me enough to meditate on for a long, long time – but first, I have to finish it.

And, in the meantime, drink in all I can of Scotland as vaccines roll out and restrictions loosen: ruins dappled in golden afternoon light and shadow, hilltops shrouded in fog, sea caves echoing with the crash of waves, and cafes that serve interesting varieties of hot chocolate.

Springtime, the Sea, and the Good Life

I am learning to read the winds and sky: to check the temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover to see whether it is warm and still enough to walk the cliffs, or whether I should stick to the sheltered woods. I know now that any wind above 15ish mph is too chilly for studying in a grassy meadow if the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit; that rain here is light and usually doesn’t last more than a few minutes; that the sea turns shades of royal blue, marine green, and blue-gray depending on the tides and rain patterns.

Spring comes earlier in Scotland, thank God. The white snowdrops are fading now, giving way to daffodils of bright yellow or cream; green buds pop up on the prickly beach roses and hedges; flocks of honking geese make Vs in the sky. You can smell thawing earth now (one of my favorite smells). It is warm enough for adventures again: stargazing on the pier under a golden crescent moon surrounded by haze; study sessions on grassy clifftops thick with gorse; wanders through a green park beside a huge brick mansion with boarded-up windows and KEEP OUT signs.

These past few weeks have been like treading water amidst huge waves; I have managed to keep track of everything, I think, but spring break came just in time. Classes have continued to be fascinating, so good that I can only drink in the richness: the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, our suffering and triumphant Messiah; Resurrection, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence; ecclesiology (theology of the Church), religious syncretism, and graphic novels/comics as a medium of theological insight; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mesmerizing painting of the Annunciation; love and theatricality in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”; oaths and love and power in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I am reading George MacDonald, James Hogg, C.S. Lewis, and others for various papers and presentations. I am inundated and enthralled, joyful and very tired.

The Transept artists’ group, which is connected with ITIA (my program, the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts) is also hosting an online exhibition that just started on Friday. Putting it together has required much more emailing, scheduling, Google Drive manipulation, spreadsheets, and checklists than I realized, but we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. We chose “In/break” for the theme (thinking of God breaking into human history and the world breaking out of the COVID pandemic, among other things) and artists have taken it in such fascinating directions. Barbara Davey’s set of five poems, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” has some sections that haunted me:

Barbara Davey, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” part 3

There are some real treasures coming over the next two weeks: a meditation on walking the Fife Pilgrim Trail, dramatic sketches of each of the four Gospels, a modern retelling of the birth of Samuel, and many more. The artworks will be posted on the Transpositions blog here.

On Saturday, I celebrated the freedom of spring break by hiking down the Fife Coastal Path to the Cambo Gardens, an estate with a walled garden full of blooming purple and white and green, glasshouses, woodlands full of daffodils and snowdrops, and a very large ginger pig named Lawrence. (Ginger in color, to be clear.) The coastal path is alive with tiny yellow flowers, dark green seaweed, rocks for scrambling, stone steps carved with crisscrosses to give walkers more traction. We broke our mileage record for one day: about 17 miles, give or take. We traded sore joints and tired muscles for glorious views of the royal blue sea, gray-blue mountains, and St. Andrews shining like a jewel in its cove.

How do you live a good life? I’m surprised that that question continues to haunt me over the years; it began just after finishing my undergrad. Sitting in traffic on my commute, counting up savings paycheck by paycheck, scheduling coffee dates, trying to fill up lonely Saturdays, I kept thinking: am I doing this right? How is everyone else choosing to live? How do I live for the kingdom of God in this time, this place, with this soul and these gifts? This adventure-year in Scotland was supposed to solve that question, somewhat. I saved, planned, strategized, dreamed, and prayed, and God gave me a way to incarnate hope into reality. But I still wonder now, as I read poetry and fantasy and plan hikes and picnics through lockdown, how to choose where to spend time, money, and energy in the light of Genesis and the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and Paul’s letters . . . and Revelation.

The wheel of the year turns again toward Easter. I have written before about how this holy feast feels different from Christmas because it has the grief of Good Friday, which is not the full story, but cannot be ignored. Waiting, feasting, lamenting, rejoicing, and hoping all belong in the divine narrative. I want to live well in the shadow of the cross and the sunrise of the empty tomb: in studies, adventures, art, work, and fellowship. In this silver-blue citadel, in the remaining months I have left, I hope I can continue to figure out how.

Candlemas in Lockdown

Winter sea

In St. Andrews, they call this semester “Candlemas” for the feast celebrating Christ’s presentation at the temple. Last semester was Martinmas. The names of Oxford terms are Michaelmas (“Micklemas”), Hilary, and Trinity. I don’t know much about the history of the names, but I love the sense of centuries-old tradition, the familiar turning of years. Being part of it, even in the ephemeral role of an international MLitt student, makes me feel part of a community analogous to the universal Church (on a smaller scale).

Between the strict, stricter, and even stricter lockdowns that have fallen into place since New Year’s, the howling winds, frigid rain, piercing sleet, and treacherous ice that have kept us indoors, and the heating-hour schedule which makes our flat freezing at midday and night, my morale has been low. Each new restriction feels tighter and more imprisoning, such that anything that goes wrong – a broken appliance or an interruption to work – threatens to snap my self-control. Small, comforting, physical things like baking fudge brownies, snickerdoodles, or Swedish almond cake to warm up the kitchen, keeping my space reasonably clean and tidy, wearing sea-scented perfume and makeup each day even if I can’t go out, and decorating my room with beautiful art prints helps.

This print is my favorite of the ones I purchased. It’s titled “White Day.”

My classes this semester are also marvelous. We’ve studied the paradox of God as Father and Almighty through Job and Genesis; the iconic art of Michael O’Brien; the turbulent and mystical poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve looked into riddle theory for a short story and Scottish lore for a potential, longer project. The fervent, wild poetry of Joy Davidman (the woman who married C.S. Lewis), a book of folk tales from around the world, and Dorothy Sayers’ hilarious, heart-deep Busman’s Honeymoon have also been cheering companions. Lockdown restrictions can take away so many things, but they can’t take away our studies or our books (yet) and I am thankful.

I turned 26 recently. Theoretically, it’s a transition from the bewildered post-college wandering of early 20s to the greater steadiness and maturity of late 20s. I feel a shift in how I look at the world and myself. I am not the fresh-out-of-college, cripplingly shy, confused girl that I was, though I’m not the confident, wise, gracious woman I want to be. The change is slow, like trickling sand.

After graduating college, I felt like I was living in the extended epilogue of a children’s book like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Half Magic, or The Penderwicks, when the author gives you a glimpse of how the children grew up: ten years later… It was bittersweet. But in our story, an epilogue would have ended by now. Our extended family grows from grandparents-parents-kids to grandparents-parents-young adults-babies; I continue to seek adventures and career opportunites; I try to figure out the size and shape of the gift God has given me and where it fits in the Kingdom.

Candles (another forbidden item in this fire-safety-conscious country). Not as bright as sunlight or glamorous as moonlight, but cozy and mysterious on a stormy winter night or gray winter afternoon. Candle-mas: a feast of candles, historically significant in the Church, but also a comforting image in this late winter lockdown. 

This is a season for feasts and candles.

Divine Cartography: Dreams and Memories at the Close of 2020

St. Andrews in a radiant purple dusk

After Elizabeth made a joyful prophecy over her, Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48, ESV). I am no Mary, but after this long year and a semester in Scotland, I marvel at God’s goodness to me this year – through a pandemic that shut down the world, through civil and political turmoil, through visa applications and loneliness and quarantine and study. 

Three years ago, I commuted 50 minutes each way to my first job, through New Hampshire farm country. I would use the morning ride to pray and arrive at my last requests just as I turned left at the last stoplight onto a quiet road lined with oak trees on one side and cattails on the other. Once, I saw a beaver emerge from the rushes and ponder the road (don’t try to cross! I begged him); another time, I stopped and waited as two Canada geese and their goslings waddled across in a solemn line. One of my last prayer requests would be about my dreams for grad school: that God would help me find a good program where I could learn more and grow into a better writer. 

His guidance was so gentle. That first job had its challenges – gray cubicles with high walls, humming fluorescent lights, dull work in front of a white computer screen – but established job skills I didn’t know were essential for anyone who produces any kind of content, including copy editing. Other jobs since then opened my mind to the imaginative possibilities in the business world, the energy and creativity of corporate life, which has more potential than I think many people realize. The world of software is a wonderland of human subcreation, as it’s created out of language (like the physical world is!) – and software developers are basically wizards: quirky, brilliant, and witty people who are a delight to work with.

God gave me loneliness – a precious gift that broke me out of the prison of shyness and taught me to seek community and find ways to love people. He gave me boredom, another gift that motivated me to create beauty and adventures where there were none: Spotify playlists for work that made my heart dance, mountain hikes on weekends, books and literary journals and conferences that filled my mind with wisdom and mystery. 

After all that – God the Giver, the Divine Cartographer, led me to the gift I had asked for, a year in grad school, in one of the hardest years anyone can remember. A few weeks ago, I turned in my last paper for the first semester of my Theology and the Arts program at St. Andrews. (I also published a short and wild Christmas story in my program’s blog, Transpositions, called “Flight of the Gift-Giver.”)

These past few months have been a glorious carousel ride, a snorkel through a rainbow reef, a telescope-view of dazzling constellations. Quarantining for two weeks and surviving on egg-and-mayo sandwiches and fruit in September was difficult, and the visa process confirmed my hatred of paperwork and red tape, but I survived – and found that the Gray Havens had all the magic promised to us and more. 

Our professors took us on a straight path through the mythical zoo that is the growing Theology and the Arts field: we studied Dante’s Divine Comedy and Jeremy Begbie’s work on a musical analogy of the Trinity, re-enchantment, the emergent church, kitsch, Greek Orthodox icons, and other works of scholarship and art. Much of our work focused on epistemology (different ways of knowing) contrasting the rational, intellectual epistemology of reason, logic, and argument which makes up a lot of theology with the emotional, affective epistemology of narrative, poetry, visual art, music, film, and other art forms. We looked at the arts as a means of praising vs. understanding God, an area of orthodoxy or transgression, as a fountain of joy and wisdom vs. distraction or idolatry.

I’ve explored some of Scotland. We can’t leave Fife yet, but staying here has motivated me to find hikes and little villages and ruins I may not have found otherwise. I’ve hiked up a windswept hill that once housed a Pictish fort; through the shadows of a golden sunset in pine woods; on the coast where rainwater made rivers across our path; past a solemn stone church and castle among gray-green hills. Scotland can be radiant, ominous and dark, shimmering with puddles, wind-brushed, or crystallized in frost. 

I’ve discovered academic areas I want to explore. A Master’s degree does not get you anywhere near mastery of a subject; even a PhD only gives you a narrow sliver of human knowledge. The best you can do is learn the major names and areas in your field of study so that you can choose where you will delve deeper. With my eclectic range of interests, I still have multiple areas I want to explore, including: 

  • Theology of play – I heard of this in my undergrad, but now know a few more names and specifics: some theorists think that play may be a better means of worship, of knowing God and glorifying Him, then we realize. 
  • Metaphor theory – One of my papers examined how metaphors (such as “poetry is a snowstorm”) can open your mind to multiple layers of meaning, as opposed to the more direct representation of allegories or some types of symbols. However, metaphor theory is a huge field, with links to poetry and philosophy.
  • Paradox – Christ is God and man; the Kingdom of heaven is here already and not yet; good works reveal the state of the heart but do not earn salvation. Christianity is a country of paradoxes, or seemingly contradictory statements, that we need to hold in tension, and the arts are an excellent means of grasping paradoxes.
  • Re-enchantment and sacramentality – The word “re-enchantment” gives me a shiver of delight, but after reading a small portion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I feel that the medieval worldview may have its own theological problems – for example, believing that the “white magic” of church sacraments and saints’ relics counteracts the “black magic” of demonic activity. I want to research the medieval worldview and how art can bring a spiritual renewal and healthy re-enchantment.
  • Poetry and faith – I feel myself falling deeper in love with poetry as a way of gesturing towards the ineffable, of expressing the infinite, including the realm of faith. I listened to a discussion by the poet Malcolm Guite in which he quoted George Herbert’s “Agony Poem,” which concludes: “Love is that liquour sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.” Poetry can use metaphor and simile, rhyme and meter, image and description to embody spiritual truths we struggle to articulate in any other way. I want to research this truth-bearing aspect of poetry further.

There are so many worlds to study and create. I want to join the academic conversation in Theology and the Arts, but my creative side also yearns to Make, to spin these insights into stories and poetry that reawaken people to wonder and mystery and delight. Lord willing, I can explore both in what remains of this winter break – as snow settles on the hills across the bay, blue dawns creep back from 8:44 a.m., and ice stills the tidepools below the cliffs.

Thresholds: “Limen Diei” by Jordan Kaiser

Today, I wandered through the dark evergreens and bright moss of Tentsmuir Forest down to the foaming sea. When the cold blue dawn is at 8:40 am and the gray twilight fades at 3:40 pm, you schedule your adventures for earlier in the day and save hot tea, fairy lights, and desk work for the dark evenings. After the bright whirl of exams, Advent is quiet, like the empty ballroom after a dance. We’ve crossed the next threshold, past the first semester and into the first break.

This last contribution to the Thresholds project is by Jordan Kaiser, a lovely fellow student at St. Andrews who is exploring Medieval Studies. Jordan is one of those fascinating people who reawaken you to the magic and mystery of this world: astronomy, artwork, theoretical physics, legends, poetry, medieval medicine, and so much more. Her contribution explores thresholds of night/day, land/sea, sky/earth, and more, and left me with that same resonating joy you get after a symphony or a feast. Enjoy!

Limen Diei

by Jordan Kaiser

Photo credit: Jordan Kaiser

Civil Twilight 

The Sun has fallen just below the rim 
Of the horizon. Gold-splashed buildings glow
As in farewell, while sea and sky grow dim; 

The geometrical center of the sun’s disk has reached six degrees below the horizon. The sky is still fairly well lit, although lights are switching on in the town. Clouds towards the west are edged with gold and brushed with shades of rose and amethyst. The sea is the color of oxidized bronze—verdigris green—and flocks of gulls dot its surface like pearls. Its foamy fringe rolls against the rocky shoreline. November’s daylight hours may be short, but they shine like the last of the golden leaves scattered on the pavement. 

Nautical Twilight 

So Dusk spills ink into the sea below
And in the East a moon of opal turns
The bay to silver. Daylight ebbs. Tides flow 

The geometrical center of the sun is between six and twelve degrees below the horizon. A band of lighter blue lingers in the west. The moon climbs higher along its arc as the sky deepens to a blue that blends with the edge of the sea. Shining through a wisp of cloud, the moon has a ring of green and red refracted light, like the stain left when a drop of water falls on ink and makes it run. The brightest stars and planets reveal themselves now. White, green, and yellow lights gleam across the bay and on it. The seabirds are just shapes, now, though their cries are clear. The season’s tide in the northern hemisphere is washing out—rushing to the lowest point and shortest day of the year.  

Astronomical Twilight 

And Mars above the ruined towers burns
Carnelian red. Now fires and window-lights
Brush gold on Evening’s edges. Night returns. 

The geometrical center of the sun has fallen between twelve and eighteen degrees below the horizon. The sea is almost invisible—lost in a wash of velvety indigo—except where lights mark out its fringes. There’s almost always a bonfire on the beach, a faint echo of the glittering stars. The smoke drifts up from the shore, adding its fragrance to the sharp vinegar tang of washed-up seaweed. Windows are well-lit. Their panes frame figures like icons painted on gold leaf. The cathedral’s towers loom above a quiet cemetery. In town, the bells mark the time.  

Jordan Kaiser

Jordan Kaiser

Jordan is a reader, writer and amateur adventurer who loves Old Things and Curious Things and places that hide secrets. Expert road-tripper. She was homeschooled from first grade through high school. She started writing poetry when she was five and didn’t know what she was doing. She wrote her first story when she was eight and thought she knew what she was doing. She’s kept two different travel blogs (one in high school, one in college). Above all, her faith and her family keep her anchored. True love fights dragons. To read more of her work, visit her website at https://wordsmithkaiser.wordpress.com/.

Thresholds: “Underground Inn” and “Skin to Skin” by Crissy Williams

Sun on a green field
Photo credit: Crissy Williams

It’s finals week in St. Andrews, and my mind is a carnival of concepts: the role of comedy in Christian life, magical idealism, human and divine love in Dante, the Annunciation as an analogy for the creation of art. The Kinnesburn River is chocolate-brown and foamy with the past week’s rain, and the thunder of the North Sea is deeper than ever.

In the midst of study, I snatch moments of quiet in baking, TV, or poetry like this latest contribution to the Thresholds project. Crissy Williams‘s meditation on the thresholds of human/creature, land/sky, and the hospitality of earth were deeply stirring – she captures the hope and peace of Advent with quiet grace. Enjoy!

Underground Inn

by Crissy Williams

Let me come under your roof
of brown, crumbly humus
and reside with your inhabitants,
four-footed, centi-footed,
millennial forward motion
of scrub brush feet.
Can I thread through your tunnels,
stretch and flex my muscles,
see if I can match
the ant for strength,
the moth pupa for patience?
She delights in your dark chambers
and stacks of leaves
for transforming into soft body
and powdered wings.
I need a place to rest,
ancient and deep,
to drink up the pockets of nutrients
you offer freely to all your guests
in the whispering dark of your underground inn.

Skin to Skin

I’m laying here skin to skin,
a newborn baby against your brown chest,
not to give love
but to receive it

from the caverns
of goodwill that
spread beneath me
hiding crystalline gems

from the scurry of tiny feet
and burrows of petite piles
of stashed moss and acorn caps
filled to the brim

with last spring’s nectar
a gift sprung up
from the maze of roots
winding deep under

my smooth skin
laid out against your
ribbons of green
and soft lumps of earth.

Since that morning
when I rose from the dust
formed by hand
made to sing

I have come back.

Crissy Williams

Crissy Williams has always felt things deeply. The gentle changing of the seasons or a sappy Hallmark commercial have had the power to bring her to tears or transport her to another world. This penchant for sensing the stories behind things led her to pursue a degree in English education which she has put to good use for the past 11 years by reading copious picture books to her two children and filling a stack of mismatched  journals. Poetry is a new love she’s developed during this roller coaster year of 2020 as  a way to lower her anxiety and stay grounded. You can find her occasional poems and weekly nature images on Instagram at @crissyannwilliams.