“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.
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.
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.