Scotland: A Month in the Gray Havens

So, I’m here in Scotland. It’s October. I weathered two weeks of quarantine, cold winds off the sea, drizzling rain and blazing gold sun, walks down cobbled streets and runs up green hills. I’ve sipped mochas and eaten scones with clotted cream in little coffee shops with classmates, read long texts about aesthetics and Dante and postsecularism and a menagerie of other things, and listened to lectures on Tolkien and metaphysics and Song of Songs that made the world seem like a spinning toy carousel on a roof in Paris. 

I spent almost four years of my post-college life reading and studying, listening to and envying the beauty of others’ lives, of traveling writers and homeschooling mothers and brilliant academics. As I mentioned before, I want to be careful how I write about this year: it’s a grand adventure and glorious gift with a lot of hard work, stress, and small, dull, difficult tasks woven through it.

So here it is: a month’s worth of impressions of St. Andrews.

The town

Cobbled streets and winding roads; stone houses with slanted roofs or beige or white stucco houses with red tiled roofs; gardens of yellow rose-of-sharon or white roses; little shops of books, tartan, snow globes, scarves, golf gear, coffee, and pastries. The castle and cathedral ruins look mystical in the morning and eerie at night.

It’s charming and quaint, but also pays the price of its age: scaffolding and any kind of equipment looks out of place here, anachronistic in its bright colors and shining plastic or steel. Water pressure is piddling; mold and mildew are known hazards; they’re terrified of fire (we have three fire doors in our flat and warning signs everywhere).

The area

Steep hills of rolling green fields or plowed brown soil; pastures of black cows and white sheep; winding roads twined with blackberry plants, rose trees, and dead gray thistles; the blue sea calm and still or frothy with foam. One friend said she’s seen porpoises off the shore and rainbows on the horizon.

Fife itself is full of stone ruins and small fishing villages. I’ve only explored some of the Fife Pilgrim Trail so far, Crail, and Elie; small neighborhoods of stone houses, bright blue or red doors, ornamental wrought ironwork, gardens of orange roses and yellow begonias, and green hedges. 

Many houses and farms have cute or regal names: Kenly Green, White Cottage, North Quarter Farmhouse. 

The university

In my few days visiting Oxford last May, I felt the brilliance of the students and faculty almost palpably in the streets, lectures, and museum exhibits: we are the elite. St. Andrews has equally brilliant minds, but it feels more hidden and remote, like a secret society of astronomers meeting at the top of the world. I’m more of an insider here as a student (I was just a tourist in Oxford), but my program is also less well-known and feels delightfully intimate. 

In those soft spring days last year, Oxford was gold; St. Andrews is silver. Oxford felt like a smaller Gondor, dreaming spires at dusk; St. Andrews feels more like the Gray Havens, stone ruins at twilight. It has a special northernness, ruggedness, and loneliness from its brooding skies and wild sea.

The program

I knew so little about theology and the arts, and our discoveries are breathtaking. We’ve studied Giotto’s Arena Chapel, Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, the curio shop of religious kitsch and the wasteland/wonderland of postmodernism and postsecularism. We’ve really barely started, but here are a few curiosities I’m pondering as we read and discuss:

  • How can we value beauty without idolizing it? Protestant suspicion of beauty and visual art is well-known, and I think it has valid reasons: it’s so easy to worship beauty as an idol, as Dorian Gray did. However, driving through the industrial meadowlands of New Jersey and remembering churches with moldy gray carpets and barren walls reminds me that beauty has spiritual significance: it revives the soul and glorifies our Creator-God.
  • How do orthodoxy and artistic vision relate? In class, we’ve talked about the relationship between theology and art: are the arts 1) a mere illustration of theological truth, 2) a completely separate area of thought, or 3)  an equally authoritative source of truth? I am passionately orthodox, and the idea that an artist’s work could translate spiritual truths just as well as divinely-inspired Scripture makes me nervous. However, viewing the study of theology/art as wandering around with a doctrinal checklist and making sure every charcoal sketch or one-act play matches every cant and creed seems unnecessarily harsh and legalistic. 
  • How can I glorify God with my art? I yearn to delve into the mystery of the incarnation, the wonders of creation, and the richness of divine love with storytelling and essay-writing – but a work written with a teaching purpose behind it can become a poorly-dressed scarecrow sermon or a cheesy, flimsy thing that’s embarrassing to call yours. We’ve talked about how just following a thread of inspiration and focusing on the craftsmanship of the work in itself can create something lovely and meaningful, but I need to figure out how to do that practically.

The opportunities

After years of longing for intellectual and artistic community, I’m joyfully overwhelmed by the opportunities here. Other scholar-artists/artist-scholars here have fascinating interests and talents – just listening to them makes me want to go write a great American novel in the murmuring woods or compose poetry under the stars. You may see some of their work here soon – I started a collaboration project for autumn themed “Thresholds” and featuring some artifact-sharing that I hope will create a feast of beauty.

God is good. Through the maze of visa applications, pandemic restrictions, phone plan issues, and banking mayhem, He has upended the storehouse of Heaven and showered blessing after blessing on my head. I hope this garden-haven plants rich, lovely things in my soul to harvest for the rest of my life.

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.

Faerie Country

The lake

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.

The dream

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.

The river

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.

Summer of Faerie: “True to Me” and a Scottish Tale

Mountains at sunset on a lake

After some amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project by AJ Vanderhorst, Matthew Cyr, Loren Warnemuende, Rachel Donahue, Emma Fox, Rachel Greco, and William Stark, here is my own Faerie story for the summer. I wanted to do a retelling of one of my favorite tales – “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” – but a different, darker story called out to me this time. 

I first read about the “Two Sisters” or “Cruel Sister” ballad in Patricia Wrede’s Book of Enchantments; she did a retelling with her own spin on it, so my story is as much a retelling of hers as it is of the original tale. It’s actually a troubling, gruesome story, technically a cautionary tale instead of a fairy tale (according to Angelina Stanford, fairy tales have happy endings by definition), but I felt drawn to it by fascinated horror, sadness, and a desire to reshape it. You can read about the ballad itself and its many versions in this article. I used this version of the ballad sung by Peggy Seeger. I also threw in some research about Scottish Fae and superstitions.

Along with this tale, I have Scottish news. After about five years of waiting, praying, planning, scheming, saving, and doing a lot of paperwork, I’m going to St. Andrews University in Scotland to study for a Master’s degree in Theology and the Arts. The program will let me explore the curious, wondrous region between faith and human creation: how does theology relate to art, and art to theology? How do artists-who-are-Christians integrate what they believe with what they create? 

Most of my applications went to literature programs, and I was torn between this degree and one that focused more on the English-major topics I love. I meditated on the decision one bright, chilly morning in April, sitting on the black, red, blue, and gold rug in our front hall and petting our golden retriever as the sun streamed in. The choice came with a surge of joy: I felt that this program would best equip me to use my gifts for the Kingdom of God, to figure out how my writing can be an act of worship.

I have dreamed of going to grad school to study further since college and through various office jobs in a green farm town, silver seaport, and tinted-glass greenhouse. In those years of waiting, I often let myself sink into social media envy (a cliche of our age, I know): envying Facebook friends and Instagram profiles for their exotic vacations, gorgeous weddings, or grad school achievements. Now that I have a life event that looks good on social media, I feel shy.

This coming year is a divine gift, splendidly undeserved. It’s also the product of some hard and unglamorous work, like long periods of loneliness, bumbling through grad school research and applications, international wire transfers, and visa paperwork. Becoming a grad student is a fairy tale written just as much with stress and effort as beauty and adventure. And I’m so, so thankful for it. 

Anyway, here’s my story. Enjoy! 

True to Me

Seashore

Our backyard was dim with dusk. The harbor’s salty breeze mingled with the smell of scallops and haddock grilling on the patio.

My older sister Eara’s navy dress smelled faintly musty after 11 months in her closet. It fluttered around me as I rushed down the stairs to the rehearsal dinner laid out on the patio, carrying a flat package.

My oldest sister, Aileen, sat with her fiancé, Mike, a tall man with dark brown skin, broad shoulders, and gold-rimmed glasses. Aileen leaned forward to let him whisper something in her ear. A wave of her dark hair fell onto the shoulder of her green dress. Her expression relaxed into a quick smile before resuming its concentration.

Don’t forget to smile, I remember Eara telling Aileen years ago, before Aileen’s first violin recital. Your concentrating face is kind of scary.

My nervous smile is scarier, Aileen had said.

I looked up at the trees; my little cousins, the other bridesmaids, and I had had a hard scramble to string the golden fairy lights up there, but the looping pattern matched my concept sketches exactly. They completed the atmosphere I wanted: warm, bright, and safe.

You’re quite the Maid of Honor, my mom had said when we finished the lights.

Eara would have been chill about it, I said. But at least I can make things look nice.

Turning to the gift table, I put my package with the other presents: a watercolor painting I’d done of a sailboat on this very harbor, with the land in turquoise and the sail a vibrant orange.

My temples ached with exhaustion; I hadn’t slept through the night in months. Dreams of the pale sun glimmering from underwater and golden hair rippling in a current interrupted my sleep. In waking hours, I kept seeing weird images flicker across peoples’ faces and in their eyes, like shadows or prism-cast rainbows.

Jack, Mike’s younger brother, sat under the maple tree with his guitar. He was leaner than his brother. His skin was a shade lighter and had golden undertones while Mike’s were amber. I squinted: his guitar looked…white? Pale and yellowed, like the whale bones hanging in the Nantucket High School.

I collect instruments that carry stories, Jack told me when I saw him at Easter. He’d showed me his favorite, a guitar his grandfather bought in Berlin in August 1961.

Jack cleared his throat. Our gazes met, and I smiled. He lifted his head slightly in acknowledgement. “I found this guitar on the beach last week,” he said. “And this song kind of wrote itself.”

He began strumming, and in that moment, the instrument in its hand shimmered like a mirage of water – and golden eye in it winked at me. I looked around, but no one else seemed to notice.

I’ll be true to my love, if my love will be true to me, Jack sang with his amber river-voice.

While these two sisters were walking the shore,
Bow, balance to me,
While these two sisters were walking the shore,
The oldest pushed the younger o’er,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Audience members looked at each other. Whispers began like a breeze rustling leaves. “Kind of creepy,” my grandmother whispered loudly.

Then, Jack lifted his hand from the instrument, stopped singing, and stared at Aileen. The guitar continued to play on its own. Another voice, my older sister Eara’s summery tones continued:

While we two sisters were walking the shore,
We, Aileen and me,
While we two sisters were walking the shore,
Aileen pushed me into the wat’r,
And I’ll be true to my love, if my love’ll be true to me.

Oh sister, oh sister, please lend me your hand,
Bow, balance to me,
I never, I never will lend you my hand…

Gasps; heads turned to the wedding party’s table. Aileen and Mike exchanged glances, then stood, their chair legs scraping the stone, and ran around the table to Jack. Aileen grabbed the guitar, and they disappeared into the garden.

I was the still point of a turning world. Relatives and friends turned to me, their eyes wide. Last September’s memories rushed through me: the Coast Guard report, Aileen’s days in the hospital, the empty coffin. I walked to Jack, my high heels wobbling.

“Jack,” I said quietly. “What the heck?”

He met my eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “They had to know.” Studying his dark irises, I saw swirling mist instead of the long golden shore I glimpsed in there the last time we spoke.

 “You’re confused,” I said. “Ok. Stay here. Tell everyone else to stay here and finish dinner.”

“Ok,” he said. I walked into the garden.

Last July, Eara had brought some grad school friends here for the weekend. I came back from my day camp job one afternoon to find them walking back from the beach, sandy and sun-kissed. As I closed my car door, I saw Eara drop her blue towel. One of the guys picked it up and put it around her shoulders. She laughed, flicking a strand of wet blond hair out of her eyes. I saw Aileen at the back of the group, looking at them. The guy was Mike.

Thick cedars screened the garden from the house. Lights glimmered on the harbor’s dark water. Mike and Aileen were in the white gazebo.

“Ow! Bracelet,” Mike grunted.  

I walked to the entrance of the gazebo to see Mike hanging onto the neck of a black horse – snap – a black goat – snap – a black rabbit with golden eyes. He managed to keep his grip around the thing’s neck, hanging on as if trying to tame a wild bull with his bare hands. As the rabbit appeared, Aileen snapped her silver bracelet around its neck. It squeaked and lay still. Panting, Mike sat down with a huff, and she sat beside him, holding it in her lap.

Aileen saw me. “Mairi,” she said.

“Ai,” I said, my old nickname for her. My lungs felt small. “Why did that thing say you killed Eara?”

Aileen looked up at me, her freckles standing out more than usual. “It’s, uh…it’s hard to explain.” She looked down at the rabbit, then back at me. “Do you really think I would do that, Mair?”

I studied her eyes: hazel, with flecks of gold. A dappled light like the sun shining through green leaves shimmered over her face – no mist, no darkness, only green and gold.

“No, you wouldn’t do that,” I said. “But what really happened?”

Aileen tilted her head, studying me. “This is a púca,” she said, gesturing at the rabbit in her hands. “It stole Eara’s voice.”

“A shape-shifter?” I said, bending over to look at the rabbit. It panted, meeting my eyes with that gleeful golden stare. “Why would it steal her voice? She’s dead.”

“No,” said Aileen. “She was taken by the Fae.”

When you jump into deep water, you create a thousand tiny bubbles that hover and pop around you. I felt that plunge and tingling sensation now.

“Eara and I were researching the Fae in grad school,” said Mike. “Faerie is drifting towards us again, close enough to visit. She took something they wanted – we don’t know what. Sea Fae took her.”

“We’ve been searching for her all year,” said Ai. “We thought she was in the Aegean, so we booked our honeymoon there. But púcas are Scottish. This is from the Unseelie Court. So she might be there.”

“You knew all year that Eara wasn’t dead, and you didn’t tell us?” I asked. “Ai, seriously?”

“I know. I’m so sorry,” said Aileen. “We weren’t sure anyone would believe us, and telling stories about the Fae attracts their attention. Mike found a safe way to tell me everything after it happened. We…pretended to be dating at first when we were hunting for her, and then we ended up actually wanting to get married. And the wedding was a good cover for quest prep.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“You were in Florida,” said Mike. “Sea serpent country. They’re vicious. All Fae can be, really. And capricious, like this púca. It must have convinced Jack it really was Eara’s bones. I need to talk to him.“

“It means we have to act now,” said Aileen. “Before the wedding. Tonight.”

“Yeah,“ I said. “You two get your marriage license and go to the Aegean. I’ll go to Scotland.”

“Mairi, no,” said Aileen. “You don’t know the Fae.”

“I’m the third daughter,” I said. “You don’t think that matters on a quest? Or the ocean dreams I’ve been having about her?”

We stared at each other. “Second sight,” Mike murmured. Aileen mmmed in agreement.

Another strange feeling came to me: I felt that there were four of us standing here instead of three, and tasted snow.

“We‘ll find her,” I said. “Before the winter solstice.”

My gaze drifted to the harbor, into the waiting dark. A cool breeze brought me a hint of music, like a summons.