Bring a memory you want to write about.
The writing seminar’s theme was “Personal Narrative” – memoir, creative nonfiction, telling your own story. Jonathan Rogers, my writing teacher, held it just before the Hutchmoot Conference of 2022 – a faith and arts conference that I’ve dreamed about going to since 2018.
A memory I wanted to write about . . . fresh out of college in 2017, eager to finally begin my career as a creative writer, I listed memories and experiences in a spiral-bound notebook. Our magical trip to Hawaii when I was nine; summers backpacking in Yosemite; sunscreen-and-ice-cream days by the lake; the cross-country road trip west along I-40 after graduation. I had pillaged a lot of these for my writing already, and I don’t like to rewrite the same memories if I can help it – at least, not yet.
It’s not 2017 anymore. It’s 2022. Somehow, the “me” that applied frantically to every writing or editing job within a fifty-mile radius of home, read Robert Frost and G.K. Chesterton at lunch breaks, and devoured podcasts on faith, literature, and beauty on long commutes is gone. I’m not a new college grad trying to market herself to potential employers. I’m not the bewildered new car owner trying to figure out if $200 was an overcharge for an oil change.
This summer, I wrote a speech for a friend’s wedding. Writing that speech required me to delve into the memories of all that we had been at summer camp and college together, from kayaking at dawn to late-night hot chocolate. Remembering it all, and knowing that the years between then and now will only continue to grow, gave me that same feeling you get when you’re underwater and look up to see the shimmering circle of the sun.
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” said Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. That may be true, but it’s a lot easier to find things to write about now that I have worked in the adult world for a few years. For the seminar, I chose a memory from 2018: the morning when I woke up alone in a lakehouse in February. I had forgotten to pull the curtains closed, so my first sight was of whist mist hovering over the snow-muffled lake under a rosy sunrise.
Is it ok to change or rearrange details in my story? What is your earliest memory? Are we remembering, or reconstructing? What is episodic vs. semantic memory? How do you draw meaning out of sensory data and specific events? The writing seminar group met in a barn-turned-venue full of framed mirrors. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered over the tin roof as we talked. Tiny flames flickered in tea lights on the table. We shared memories, stories, techniques, questions, and mutual wonder, taking breaks to scribble thoughts for writing exercises.
That night, my first in-person Hutchmoot conference began.
Rooms named for C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Wangerin; a pottery wheel and freshly-fired pieces in one corner; books on poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, and story everywhere; a gallery of paintings, sketches, linocuts, and engravings; jam and coffee and biscuits; secret puzzles stashed in random places. Concerts and writing workshops; sessions on sacred symbolism, the art of adaptation, and the making of chai; conversations with people who loved books, had traveled to or from Libya, Japan, Mali, and other faraway, and many people who had suffered deeply.
It was a feast, a carnival, a holiday, and a whirlwind in one. I found that two years of limited large-group interactions had left me ill-prepared for so much richness all at once – by the end of some sessions or discussions I was exhausted beyond coherent thought or speech. I met many sweet friends for the first time, or the first time in a long time, who have shared their hearts and imaginations with me through their writing. Our conversations were the best part; their wisdom and encouragement was a walled garden in itself, lovely and safe.
I couldn’t help thinking about how my 2017 and 2018-selves would have reacted to all of it. I was hopeful; lonely; ambitious; a yearner, a day-dreamer, and an anxious worker. Younger-me may have handled the exhaustion better than my 2022-self, being more used to in-person interaction. She would have been breathless with excitement, eager to join in this fellowship of beauty and adventure. Her own life would have appeared dull, boring, and limited compared with the beautiful worlds of art-making, travel, and friendships that each speaker and conversant wove with their words.
At 2022, I don’t think I’m wiser, but I do know one thing: the world I ached to join, the realm in which people do walking-tours and have house concerts and read the most wonderful books, is not something far away and unattainable. It’s real, but it’s something I can make for myself, in my own way. A good life is made as well as given.
Between my younger and current self, I feel a little lost – partly in attending this conference, partly because my move to Tennessee is still so recent. In speaking of age and childlikeness, Madeline L’Engle said something that has encouraged me: “I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and . . . and . . . and . . . / If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.” (Taken from Walking on Water.)
I am all the ages I have ever been. I’m still the new college grad, the child, the entry-level employee, and the graduate student. I’m also all the selves of all the places I’ve been, including New England, Maui, Yosemite, Glacier, Iceland, Scotland, and Tennessee. Thinking of myself as many overlapping selves is somehow comforting. It turns aging into addition and expansion instead of loss. It turns my heart into a forest growing taller and wilder and thicker with golden leaves.
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.
Thresholds: “Vapor in Time” by Shera Moyer
I think this autumn will become a film reel of memories for me: gray-green hills surrounded by swirling mist and howling winds, red hawthorn berries and dewy cobwebs in hedges, gold weather vanes on top of church steeples, pastures of grazing brown-and-white cows, warm home lights twinkling against darkened landscapes at dusk. It turns out that going to grad school in Scotland is a great thing to do during a pandemic: a class schedule is more flexible than a work schedule, you get to enjoy fascinating lectures and fellowship with other students, and you can travel the wild even if you can’t tour palaces or go to ceilidhs. God is good.
This next contribution to the Thresholds project also ponders travel, home, and wonder: Shera Moyer‘s description of her life in Tanzania and Indiana makes me yearn to visit both…but also to explore and enjoy the ordinary, familiar wonders of my own place. Shera partnered with Hannah Abrahamson, who gave her the following artifacts (creative stimuli) to work from:
- The moon rising over leafless trees
- The smell of pumpkin and cinnamon
- A soft and warm fall coat
Vapor in Time
by Shera Moyer
At the end of a sleepy siesta last month I found myself in that dreamy state where I was unsure if I was asleep or just thinking about dreaming as I woke up. For those few moments I relished the feeling of not knowing quite where I was, yet realizing it didn’t matter. I would find out soon enough. A while later, as I sat staring at the swirling steam rising from my tea, I was transported from an Indiana autumn afternoon to memories of October mornings back home in Tanzania.
Mesmerized by the same steam swirls in slanted sun rays, I sipped my morning tea to the background vocals of a rasping red-necked spurfowl. As he scratched around a nearby granite rock kopje, belting out his morning “kwa-lee’s”, a goshawk flew high overhead twittering while performing his routine territorial display. A hint of burnt grass smell hung in the chilly morning air, lingering from fires the night before – fires started to clear fields, but run wild with the wind, setting whole mountainsides aglow at night.
October skies are hazy. Dust, smoke, and ash particles suspend in the atmosphere, and in the evening, when fires are lit again, the skies blaze above as refracted sunlight ignites towering cumulus and bright streaks of feathery cirrus clouds.
With the rains still a month or two away, the weather grows continually warmer. It’s in the midst of this hot and dry that the miombo woodlands burst into leaf. While most vegetation is leafless after months of dry-season, Brachystegia trees release energy stored in their roots to adorn bare branches with new foliage. Initially, only a faint tinge of color starts to show on the brown hillsides, but in a matter of days the trees are covered with gold, red, and fresh green. A walk through miombo woodlands on a late October afternoon conjures up feelings I imagine stained glass artists hope to inspire in grand cathedrals. As I stand there on sandy, rust-coloured soil and can’t ever seem to stop gazing at translucent, tender new leaves absorbing sunlight.
Perhaps trees just like showing off this time of year. Back on the north side of the equator red maple and golden beech leaves contrast with dark green conifers and earthy oaks blending into a rich seasonal colour palette. Walking through a stand of beech trees in yellow leaf gives the impression they’ve been storing up sunlight all year just to share on a cloudy autumn day. When I wander through an autumn wood I don’t know where to let my eyes rest for all the colors. Again, I often find myself just standing, breathing in the crisp air, eyes drawn to jaggedy-edged palmate maple leaves and smooth-lobed sassafras, then up to follow the crunching sound of a bounding deer waving its white tail-flag as it leaps and lands.
Here the colors herald an ending. By November most of the trees look like they’ve been inverted, doing head-stands and waving their scraggly roots skyward. The woods are quiet now, aside from the occasional squealing chipmunk as it darts away. Sweet, musty smells of decomposing vegetation fill the air, and the leaves underfoot make damp swishes. My legs are frozen numb through my jeans, I can’t actually feel my ears, and I can see my own breath. It must be time to add more warm layers.
Back inside, thawing out, I peer into another cup of hot black tea and blow the steam to make it dance. I wonder how I know when I’ve fully arrived somewhere? The process seems more gradual than the thunk of an official stamp in a passport on June 26th, 2019. Perhaps it’s finally having a driver’s license that matches my place of current residence? Indiana, “The crossroads of America”, the state tagline reads. Its regular train whistles, honking Canada geese overhead, and criss-crossed interstate highways easily lead me to nostalgia and thoughts of people far away.
But, my feet have also walked the ground here for over a year now. The paved sidewalks and roads have worn my soles smooth, and off-track meandering has often sent me home with damp socks. Lately, I’ve also begun exploring narrow country roads, the kind that run past old brick churches and mossy cemeteries, or through family farms and along rickety wooden fences covered in thick vines. I choose the turns that beckon or intrigue and eventually I drive back home with no map. Small adventures, sure, but it’s satisfying not to know exactly where I am, but still have my bearings well enough to find my way back to a specific address.
While there are still plenty of things I’d like to do out there in the world – learn new bird calls, climb boulders to watch the sunrise, swim from deserted rocky lake shores, identify new species of flowers, and discover hidden waterfalls in deep ravines – for now I’ll boil a kettle in the kitchen. Then I’ll pick a sprig of fresh mint, drop it into the hot water, and nestle into a large beige armchair with a fluffy blanket. Cradling my mint tea, I’ll breathe deeply of its sharp aroma as I stare out the window to the stubbled field beyond.
Shera enjoys playing with words, good conversations, and spending time outside getting to know the surrounding world. One day she might start a blog for fun, but until then she has piles of notebooks full of happy scribbles, and for now that’s quite all right.
Thresholds: Three Poems by Aaron Stephens
In this small haven on the North Sea, green leaves are turning yellow; waves rise and fall with a thundering murmur; hot drinks like chai lattes and caramel mochas warm you up after walks through the cold winds. October is slipping away in later dawns and earlier dusks. Next week is Independent Learning Week, when classes are suspended to let students study, work on papers, and (in ordinary times) travel.
Now that I’ve had a month to settle in, I want to keep exploring the roles of maker, cultivator, and collaborator in my artistic work. After having so much fun with the Summer of Faerie project last summer, I longed to do another creative collaboration this autumn. I reached out to some artist-friends from The Habit and St. Andrews and invited them to join me.
Here is the full description and prompt for the project:
Project Title: Thresholds
Prompt: In her Rabbit Room article “Weathering the Books,” Rebecca D. Martin talks about reading books seasonally, and names The Fellowship of the Ring (especially the chapters up to Bree) as perfect for autumn. In honor of that beautiful thought, I invited some other artists to do a collaborative project.
The theme is thresholds: physical or metaphorical, small or great, looming ahead, just underfoot, or behind you. I took this definition of “threshold” from the Cambridge Dictionary:
1) The floor or entrance to a building or room
2) The level or point at which you start to experience something, or at which something starts to happen
3) The point at which something starts
Threshold synonyms: brink, verge, dawn, door, doorstep, doorway, edge, entrance, gate, inception, origin, outset, point, still, start, vestibule, point of departure, starting point
Medium: Anything: creative nonfiction, academic essay, fiction, poetry, visual art, theatrical script, Spotify playlist, etc.
The collaborative part: Once some people expressed interest, I arranged partnerships. Each individual came up with three “artifacts” or stimuli for their partner: concrete, physical objects such as “the color red, an iron key, and the smell of earth,” or “the taste of cinnamon, sound of a cello, and fog.” These “artifacts” didn’t have to appear in the final result, but they gave everyone a place to start.
Several artists took the challenge, and now that we’ve exchanged “artifacts” and had some time to work, I’ll start publishing the results here. This first contribution is three poems by Aaron Stephens. Aaron’s partner was Kori Morgan, who gave him these artifacts:
- A tree with a trunk that grew up at an angle
- An orange ball cap dropped on a hiking path
- A windmill statue in a vegetable garden
He responded by capturing the beauty of a woodland with profound clarity and brevity that gives many phrases the emotional resonance of whole poems in themselves.
On our own
Lost in a
Maze of trees
On paths blazed by
Neighbors as blind
When I saw you
Step on a baseball cap
On the park trail.
An old orange hat
And I thought,
‘The hat was on the path
Now the path is on the hat.’
A new aroma
Finds my senses.
A patch of lavender
Hiding, waiting for me.
You found me.
So I prayed,
‘God, make me
Walk more carefully.’
White Birch trees
Straight and ordered
Sentinels of Law
Wild Beech trees
Revelers of Gospel
Through the leaves
Of the Beeches
Down The Path
Aaron Stephens is growing more tenderhearted toward his wife and three children. Favorite color: blue. Have you had a dream that started before you were asleep? Have you had one so funny you laughed yourself awake? Aaron’s life has been like that. Just when he had settled into fearful religiosity, Jesus showed up like a belly-laugh for his soul. Find him at: aaron-erin.com.
Summer of Faerie: Poetry, a Golden Wood, and Departure
Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, chapter XV, “The Crickets”
I hope I never lose my awe at the change of seasons, the year’s wheel turning from red to white to green to gold. This year, the whispers of autumn in the cool breezes and silver-dipped backs of leaves hurts me as much as it excites me. This summer was a dream, from the beauty of blue horizons and pink beach-roses to the amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project.
I’m ready to go to Scotland; ready for the long flight, the two-week quarantine, the world of books and music and art I will enter with the other students in my MLitt program. It will be good and hard and beautiful and strange. I have never lived in a foreign country; I have been dreaming of going to grad school for five years; I’m longing to dig deep into the richness of study; I’m nervous about the many things I don’t know, like what grocery store brands to buy or whether I can keep track of the dollar/pound conversion in my head.
I wrote this poem to capture some of the beauty of this summer and a little of the scattered research I’ve done of Faerie.
Dipping paddles into darkness, stirring
Pollen gold dust over pondering deep,
We tune our ears by cicadas’ whirring,
Hearing loons cry ah-oo, spell of noon’s sleep.
Dragons dream below us. We glide like ghosts
Over their ancient rest, tree-covered spines
Watching like guards of a distant outpost
Hungry, listening, waiting for mythic signs.
Staghorn sumac raises scarlet pledges,
Toasting endless sky, hailing dark green peaks.
Silver birches gleam at twilight’s edges.
We pause, haunted, as night’s veil speaks.
Golden moment: scent of pine in a glade
Swirling rich and sweet. Steep hills overgrown,
Tangled with roots. Heat shimmers; phantoms fade.
Did I dream it, or remember? Unknown.
Eelgrass rustles; breezes finger willows.
Fireflies blink and twirl in shadowed trees.
Green-Guards conduct the peepers’ twilight show,
Their song of sleeping kings and emerald seas.
Orange seaweed drifts up from the sea caves
Remnants of the Sea Folk’s midnight fun.
Splashes: kids jump off the bridge into waves.
Tide-Keepers giggle, scales glinting with sun.
Mourning doves cry oo-ah while the Dawn-Beasts
Breathe on windows of a morning, fogging glass.
Packing quickly, I watch the kindling east
Turning green to gold. The zenith has passed.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that artists should never explain the meaning of their work: they can either remain mysteriously silent or drop cryptic hints. I’m going to break that a little now to explain the middle section of the poem, “The dream” because there’s a mystery there. Since spring, I’ve had a recurring daydream of a golden wood, a pine hollow baked dry and amber by the sun, full of hills that roots break through. It’s warm, silent, peaceful, safe, beautiful, sad. There might be a castle nearby; I think it has a wishing well. It may be from a book or movie (Ever After, Bridge to Terebithia, The Book of Three, Prince Caspian) or somewhere I have traveled (New Hampshire, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania, Yosemite). I thought it might be in Acadia National Park, but I didn’t find it there in June.
As I included that dream in my poem, I read Rebecca D. Martin’s beautiful article, on the Rabbit Room, “The Stories of Others.” I liked it so much that I went back and reread her Rabbit Room article from February, “Significant Lights.” The fourth paragraph brought me to a full stop: she describes a childhood dream
… infused with a beauty so rich I can still sense it. In the dream, I walked through a golden wood, as haunting as autumn, as living as spring. There were elements other than the forest, too: a castle, the sense of mystery, a deep feeling of belonging and hope, and even sorrow—a pervasive sadness that I couldn’t keep staying here in this most perfect place. . . . sometimes I still lay on the edge of sleep longing for a glimpse of that forest again.
Is my golden wood a subconscious memory of Rebecca’s article? (Probably.) Or did we both dream of the same place, miles and years apart? I have no idea, but the second idea reminds me of something I read in Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: L’Engle noticed that a certain image she used in her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a bonfire of roses, also appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, George MacDonald The Princess and Curdie, and T.S. Eliot Little Gidding.
Where did the fire of roses originate? I suspect that it goes back beyond human memory.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, chapter 10, “The Journey Homeward”
Is the golden wood a whisper of Deep Magic? I want to believe that.
I think the golden wood will haunt me in the darkness of winter in Scotland (six hours of light per day). I think it will come back to me when I slop through slush in the streets or feel cold, wet winds slicing through my jacket. I hope that instead of making me grumpy and discontent (as I can be), that fragrant silence, delicious heat, and golden radiance warm me from the inside out.