Wonders of a Southern Summer

Amur honeysuckle. Black cherry. Honey locust. Tree-of-heaven. Sugar Hackberry. Eastern redcedar. Southern magnolia. Sawtooth blackberry. Crape-myrtle. Queen Anne’s-lace. The deep greens and golds, purples and whites of the flora is mesmerizing enough, but their fragrances make their own sacred pleasure-dome (to plagiarize Coleridge) in the warm air. The beauty makes me feel like I’m in some faraway, exotic place on vacation, but I’m not. This is my new home.

Dove’s-feather white. Enormous as whales. Billowing like sails. Tinged with baby’s-breath blue. Scattered and wispy. Gray and thundering. A hilly country with more pastures and fields than forests and mountains has opened up the vast and quiet world of clouds to me. The humidity is heavy on my lungs and clammy on my skin, but makes each rainstorm a sweet relief. Cloudbursts douse the dry, dusty ground and brown grass, filling ditches and rivers. They keep the greenery lush – apart from a few leaves that have shriveled in the heat, turned banana-yellow, and fallen.

Tiny, white-eared rabbits at silflay during golden hour. Cheery goldfinches, elusive cardinals, pert mockingbirds, and aggressive blue jays hopping around bird feeders. A mother cat and three silky black kittens with golden eyes watching me at dusk. A snake longer than my arm curled lazily in the middle of a path. Many of these creatures are familiar to me, but I love watching the drama of their alert watchfulness and quick movements on my walks. My own creature, a jolly golden retriever, enjoys chasing most of them, tongue hanging out, tail wagging.

A high school performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A four-person cast in a production of C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce.” Lectures on time, the Christian values embedded in our culture, grief, and joy at the Rabbit Room’s North Wind Manor. Over the past few years, I have trained myself to listen to rumors of talks and conferences, performances and concerts that I could possibly attend on Eventbrite, Universe, Facebook, Instagram, the websites of faith & art or Christian-based intellectual organizations, and blog posts. Now, it is so good to have this wealth of opportunities within easy driving distance. Each event is a small wellspring of ponderings on time, love, justice, and joy that keep me from drying up in the grinding necessities of life (like grocery shopping and taxes).

The turbulence of the past few years in the world and my life – COVID, moving a few times, war, government changes, travel, making and canceling plans – have made me expect ephemerality. As I shopped and hauled and hammered and shifted new furniture, I kept wondering how long it will be before I have to break down what I built, repack my possessions, and move somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable imagining myself becoming safe and settled anywhere for more than a year. When will the next pandemic, tornado, hurricane, or recession break? When will I need to make a career movie or transition for family or friends? Every anchor I screw into drywall and rug I unroll is an attempt to create a fragile but cozy haven for a time, however long that time is.

In these golden, sweltering, precious summer days, I’m reading stories and trying to craft my own. I savored Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White in the sultry afternoon sun by the pool. I paged through Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There on my phone as I waited in line at the county clerk’s office for new license plates. Every free evening, I hunt for magical creatures and literary archetypes in The Lore of Scotland and The Folk Tales of Scotland by the flickering light of a honey-scented candle. I can feel potential future readers with me in every scene I craft, as if I’m the driver of a safari bus tour, hoping I don’t run us all off the road into the jungle of clichés, melodrama, confusion, preachiness, or boredom.

But finally, after empty for so long, I’m able to dream again.

Divine Guidance, Moving, and (Fictional) Demons

Tree canopy under a blue sky.
The view from my new apartment

Two Februarys ago, I drove our old family minivan about an hour away for one of my first job interviews after college. The snow was about three feet deep, old enough that it was tinted gray and covered in an icy sheen that glittered in the sun. 

I fumbled my way through my interview, developed a stress headache, and recovered by listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on the way home. I realized how comforting it is to delve into an old, familiar story when you enter unknown territory: new jobs, new places, new people. 

I thought about that drive through the snow this weekend as I unpacked in my first apartment. As I drove down here through highways edged with long green grass and golden black-eyed susans, I listened to Focus on the Family’s excellent radio drama of The Screwtape Letters. I marveled at C.S. Lewis’s cinematic prose and Andy Serkis’s ability to drop his voice to a low growl at key moments. 

During the unpacking, my roommate and I put on Focus on the Family’s radio drama Dead Air, from their Father Gilbert series – less academic than The Screwtape Letters, but also insightful and far more terrifying. 

Two stories which both explored demonic activity didn’t seem appropriate for the hot July day or the exciting/sad occasion of my first move out. But the beauty of Lewis and Paul McCusker’s stories are their demonstration of God’s love and grace conquering evil.

The Screwtape Letters made me think about how God has guided me this past spring. I prayed over a tentative five-year plan sometime in March: I wanted to move farther north and build a life near my previous job. But God gently guided me through circumstances this time (instead of speaking directly through prayer or His Word, as He has in the past). This summer has been a cascade of blessings and changes, events at the intersection of spiritual and physical reality: divine providence, Holy Spirit murmurings, situations beyond my control, and my own prayers and choices.

In Letter XXVII of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape advises Wormwood to convince his “patient” (the human he is trying to tempt away from God) that petitionary prayer is useless. If the thing the patient prays for doesn’t happen, Screwtape instructs, make him think that petitionary prayers “don’t work”; if the thing does happen, make him think that it would have happened anyway and the prayer was redundant. 

The truth of this free will-predestination paradox, which Lewis expresses through Screwtape, is that “the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.”

If Lewis is right, God heard my prayers for guidance and opportunity in His unbounded Now. And he gave me something far better than what I planned or asked for.

In Dead Air, detective-turned-priest Father Gilbert encounters a villain who calls himself “Legion” (after a group of demons in Mark 5) who is responsible for the disappearance of at least two girls. The drama explores the darkness of temptation and corruption, but Father Gilbert and one girl’s parents illustrate the supremacy of grace and forgiveness. 

I haven’t directly faced the evil or suffering described in The Screwtape Letters or Dead Air. But as I review color schemes, hang up my clothes, stack dishes, and list the hundred things I forgot to buy, these stories remind me of the real war fought beneath the surface of ordinary things. The common and cosmic, everyday and eternal, prayed-for and predestined intertwine in the mystery of God’s grace.