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. 🙂