Winter Dreams and Waiting

Woods filled with snow.

L.M. Montgmery hated winter. In Looking for Anne of Green Gables, Irene Gammel, one of the leading scholars of Montgomery’s work, points out that Anne of Green Gables has many delightful scenes of spring, summer, and fall, but almost no scenes of winter beauty except for Christmas and the morning after Anne saves Diana’s sister’s life (147-48). Gammel also tell us that Montgomery dreamed up the luxurious gardens of the book during the winter of 1905, reading flower seed catalogs by the fire when she was snowbound in a cold house with her grandmother (65).

I read L.M. Montgomery’s journals through late winter and early spring of 2017. I felt a curious connection with her, especially when I reached 1898, when she is 23 years old. I was 22. She stopped teaching and moved home to take care of her aging grandmother and try to make a living as a writer. I also lived at home, supported by my parents as I applied to every writing or editing job within a 50-mile radius.

Montgmery’s grandmother wouldn’t let her have a fire in her room during Prince Edward Island’s frigid winters, so she sacrificed privacy for warmth and worked in the kitchen. She lived that life for 13 years. She read, wrote, went to concerts, prayer meetings, literary societies, and parties, weathered winters and enjoyed summers until her grandmother died and she married Ewen Macdonald in 1911. By then, she had published Anne of Green Gables in 1908 and become internationally famous. It wasn’t a perfect happy ending – she experienced marital turbulence, legal battles, and the world-rending of the Great War – but that long season of waiting stood out for me.

I was blessed with a much shorter time of waiting. I found a job within a few months, continued to research L.M. Montgomery’s life and work, and explored the questions of young adulthood: after securing a place to live and a job, what do you live for? How do you build community and fill your time? What is your purpose? 

Of all seasons, winter feels most like the time of waiting; at first, we wait for Christmas, and then through February and March, for the relief of spring. We wait for plows to carry away the snow and spread sand and salt so we can drive to work; for our defrosters to melt the ice on our windshields; for sunrise to creep back and sunset to glide forward. 

And in that waiting, we rejoice. We hang golden Christmas lights and kindle cozy hearth fires, watch snow soften the silent world, wonder at the blue-light mornings and blazing sunsets, and sip hot chocolate with frozen fingers. We ski or snowshoe through the white-smothered woods, or skate across glass-paved ponds. 

In the midst of the early snow in these first weeks of December, I finished the book of Isaiah after studying it since August. As the days darkened and cold settled in, I was awed by the book’s summer-storm beauty: harsh blasts of judgement on idolatry, injustice, and disobedience, followed by the rumblings of forgiveness and warm shower of grace. 

Reading Isaiah after the fulfillment of many of its prophecies is a delight. The book gleams with foretellings of the hovering Holy Spirit, the restoration and gathering of the nations, the child Immanuel, the righteous Savior to come, the suffering Servant and triumphant King. The Jewish people waited and wondered for the Messiah for centuries before He came.

Even now, some of the greatest prophecies of Isaiah – the gathering and peace on the holy mountain of the Lord, and the new heavens and the new earth – are still unfulfilled. We are still waiting.

This winter, I hope I can rejoice in the waiting. I want to love the sun glittering on the snow, even in those last days when the drifts are slushy and dirt-encrusted. I want to notice how the lack of leaves lets you see the azure clarity of the sky, and your misty breaths make you feel dragonish. I want to dream up stories that help other people see the enchantment of this frozen world, as well as wait for crocus shoots and thawing breezes, through this time of stillness.

Presenting a Conference Paper – and Rose Gardens

Pink roses.

A week ago, a new email in my inbox lit me up: the committee accepted my paper proposal for the 2020 L.M. Montgomery Conference. I’ll be presenting it at the University of Prince Edward Island next June.

This paper has been my intellectual rose garden for three years: a joy, and a challenge that cultivated me as I cultivated it. It officially started as my independent study the last semester of college – but really, it began when I was ten.

We were visiting family in California. Through sun-soaked days of biking past gardens of red roses and avocado trees and creating a slip-n-slide in the backyard, I’d read through the books I brought in my blue backpack. I started L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon series, a stack of three paperback books my grandma left on the wooden desk in the den.

I read through the first two books quickly, enjoying the rich natural scenery, humor, and drama, but feeling from the start that Emily’s story was different from Anne’s (I’d read Anne of Green Gables already). Anne of Green Gables starts out like a morning in spring, rich with the promise of a new family and a new home. Emily’s beginning is autumnal, dusky: she comes home from an evening walk to learn that her beloved father is dying. Emily’s love for writing, more pronounced than Anne’s, resonated with me – but her anger and pride, bitterer and deeper than Anne’s fiery temper, felt too close to my own for comfort.

The third book felt like a dry and weary land where there is no water (though there are some oases). Emily is unhappy and uncertain, falling in and out of love, deserted by her childhood sweetheart, often unsuccessful in writing…and discouraged. I pushed through knowing that there must be a marriage and happy ending – I thought all books had those. Finally, I shut the book with a sigh of relief. Finishing Anne of the Island, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and other favorite books filled me like a feast, but this story weighed on me. 

For twelve years, I thought about the Anne and Emily books, wondering, what happened to L.M. Montgomery between writing the two series? Why is Anne so bright, and Emily so dark? And where is God in the Emily books – the God who always gives hope and life, who is always our happy ending?

In my last semester of college, I set up an independent study on children’s literature, starting with a comparison of the Anne and Emily series. I examined their views of God and threw in a light comparison/contrast between Anne and the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Emily and another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

My professor liked this contrast, and encouraged me to explore it further. She also encouraged me to try to publish the paper. I hoped to go to graduate school for literature, so I took her advice and dug deeper. 

When I went home that winter, I split my time between applying to every possible job within 50 miles and researching the paper. On days too cold and snow-smothered to go outside, I sat in front of the gas fireplace with my laptop. My purring cat crawled all over me and wrote gibberish on my resumes and research notes by stepping on the keyboard. 

Over the next three years, in bright mornings while sipping my coffee and dark evenings after running, three jobs in three states, and other writing projects, I worked on the paper. I submitted it to possible literary journals and received rejections that hurt a little, but came with the excellent scholarly criticism: names of books and articles to read, thoughtful analyses of weak points and oversimplifications, and suggestions for new directions for research. 

I delved into L.M. Montgomery’s emotional and intellectual life as expressed in her journals, her Scottish Presbyterian faith and heritage, rich knowledge of 19th century literature, religious and spiritual perspective, as well as the wealth of resources created by scholars before me like Mary Henley Rubio, Elizabeth Epperly, Irene Gammel, and Monika B. Hilder. I combed the surface of Wordsworth’s poetry and scholarship: golden daffodils dancing on a hill, souls moving inland with age, cliffs looming out of the darkness. I ran my fingers across Shelley’s work: dark pines on a mountainside, beauty moving among mankind like an unseen ghost, a boy running through a starlit wood hoping to speak with the dead.

Finally, I submitted a proposal to the conference – and was accepted. This year, I plan to dig deeper than ever before into the roots of the paper – L.M. Montgomery’s work, the Bible, Scottish Presbyterian theology, Wordsworth, and Shelley – to cut away the weaknesses in my argument and replace oversimplifications with comprehensive analyses. Next June, I’m excited to learn the insights of other scholars and hear the labor, and the rewards, of their rose gardens. 

Material: The Ordinary and the Exotic

Hallway in Versailles.

Last year, I set out on the noble, if reckless, task of reading through my old school anthology of Romantic Literature from cover to cover. I loved the course, and the sight of the book sitting unread on my shelf filled me with so much guilt that I finally gave in. It’s alphabetical (sort of), and William Blake nearly overwhelmed me – his language! His images! I haven’t lingered on each poem as long or thoroughly as a worthy scholar would, but I’ve begun to pick up a certain pattern between Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Sir William Jones, Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, Blake, and Shelley (I skipped ahead to him): a focus on what I call “exotic materials.”

The Romantics had a deep love for the natural world that they conveyed beautifully. They celebrated the “stuff,”  the materials, of nature itself such as the sun, moon, and stars; wood, stone, leaves, flowers, grass, fire; water, ice, and snow. (See Barbauld’s “Summer Evening’s Meditation” or Charlotte Smith’s September 1791 poem about the moon – they’re breathtaking).

However, when the Romantics discussed the “stuff” or materials of the human world, I see a contrast between the exotic materials of dreams and the homelier stuff of everyday. For example, Blake discusses soot and bricks in poems such as “The Chimney Sweeper” and “London,” but he dreams of gold, silver, precious stones, and melting metals in his formidable vision The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Shelley discusses a whole list of exotic materials in his enthralling poem Alastor: diamond, gold, crystal, chrysolite, pearl, gems, and alabaster (somewhere around lines 90-114).

Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge and the other anthologized writers also contrast the exotic materials of dreams and visions with the uglier, commonplace materials of Regency England (especially London). Note: British Orientalism hovers in the background of this fascination with the “exotic.”

As a writer, I realized that I, too, have a tendency to fill my dreams with exotic materials – expensive, intoxicating “stuff” that become the set and props for my daydream adventures. I made a list of the kind of materials that fascinate and compel me, that carry with them associations of magic and intrigue, adventure and romance:

  • gold
  • silver
  • silk
  • satin
  • velvet
  • mahogany
  • marble
  • bronze
  • iron
  • steel
  • copper
  • mahogany
  • cedar
  • crystal
  • glass
  • gems
Gold and crystal chandelier in front of a mirror and some red velvet curtains.

Like Anne of Green Gables, who loved the idea of an “alabaster brow” before knowing what it was, I love thinking about these materials and using them in metaphor and simile. However, I believe that writers have an obligation to reveal the beauty of our own place and time. I started to make a list of the materials I encounter every day:

  • concrete
  • plastic
  • styrofoam
  • cardboard
  • paper
  • wood
  • metal
  • rubber
  • cement
  • ceramic 
  • paper
  • cardstock
  • aluminum
  • tin
  • sawdust
Car junk heap.

Unfortunately, this list felt increasingly negative as I kept listing. Where is the poetry in plastic? The magic in concrete? The fascination in cardboard?

Back to the Romantics: in an age hovering on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, they too saw and touched ugly things every day. Even nature has its ugly moments: mud, sleet, slush, decaying bark, ashes, mold, and more. This is a fallen world; a truth-loving perspective acknowledges loveliness and hideousness, and joy celebrates and encourages the former.

With that in mind, I made a goal of listing “good” materials I encounter every day, or seeing “ugly” materials in a positive light:

  • The shining smoothness of glazed pottery
  • The dreamy reflections in a car’s gleaming exterior
  • The cheerful cleanliness of fresh paint
  • Frost glittering in the cracks of pavement
  • The crinkly delight of tissue paper

What materials construct your world? How can you describe them in order to create a vivid, tactile experience for the reader?