Blue Dreams and Green Stories: Summer Travel in Scotland

I finally got to travel. After yearning for it in the golden fall, dreaming of it in the windy winter, and planning for it in the cool green spring, I finally got out to the Highlands & Islands and a bit of the Lowlands: the Isles of Mull, Staffa, and Iona one weekend, the Isle of Skye, and then Edinburgh.

It’s been glorious, exhausting, enlightening, stressful, blissful. Hikes across emerald slopes sprinkled with tiny daisies, buttercups, purple heather, and fluffy cotton-grass; cozy evenings in wood-paneled pubs with tartan carpeting and paintings of antlered deer; ferry rides past rugged peaks and lonely islands; views of faraway blue hills and glimmering lochs; laughter and long talks on train and bus rides. 

Each place gave me memories, dreams, and fragments of stories.

Iona

Sacred Haven

Iona is a tiny island, 3 square miles, with only 150 permanent residents and herds of grazing sheep and Highland cows (“coos”). It is also the place where St. Columba landed from Ireland in the 500s (1500 years ago!) and started an abbey. A replica/rebuild of the abbey is there today, full of the remnants of Celtic crosses, new sandstone pillars covered in intricate carvings, and ancient gravestones. 

One of my favorite insights was seeing the snake-and-boss design. Despite the Edenic tradition of snakes as creatures of evil, apparently the medieval Christians saw the casting and regrowing of skin as a symbol of death and resurrection. I have heard whispers of the richness of Celtic Christinaity, of thin places and rhythms of life and mysteries incarnate in the natural world (such as clovers representing the Trinity) but I want to study more. The whole island felt quiet and sacred – a place to come and heal, walk the pasturelands and talk to God, and feel connected with the great cloud of witnesses that is the universal Church.

Story fragments
  • A sacred place of healing
  • An island at the end of the world
  • An abbey with a buried treasure

Staffa

Lonely Marvels

Staffa is even tinier than Iona, shaped by some geological process I still don’t fully understand to have natural hexagonal pillars. It looks giant-carved. We rode out by ferry for an hour, chilled by the sea-wind and enchanted with a fluffy white dog who loved us dearly, and then had an hour to explore it. We sprinted down to the wonder of Fingal’s Cave, aquamarine water in a deep black vault, and then back across the steep cliffs to see the PUFFINS. They were just as clownish and cute as we hoped, though tinier. They didn’t care anything about us, but launched off into the sky as a dark seabird flew overhead.

Story fragments
  • People resettling uninhabited isles and encountering magical creatures
  • An echoing cave that is really a shadow kingdom
  • A tour boat crew that has a special understanding with the mermaids in the area

Skye

Blue Kingdom

Skye is more rugged than Iona, Mull, or Staffa. It’s also many shades of green and blue, with steep cliffs, purple heather, gray rock, and the same sprinkling of wildflowers. Slender waterfalls wend their way down the hills, among the evergreens. A Scottish shepherd recommended a gorgeous hike across the cliffs that gave us exquisite views: distant azure mountains, white sailboats on the sea, and window panes glittering in the town. We couldn’t capture it in photos, though we tried very, very hard. The shepherd also told us about the Nicholson clan of Portree (Port Righ in the Gaelic) who went broke in the 1800s and emigrated to Tasmania and the Carolinas. 

We spent Sunday afternoon with Skye’s Magical Tours: an ex-fisherman named Brian took us to the glimmering Fairy Pools and around the island. Skye was magnificent, so old and huge that I felt small and lonely. We filled it with laughter, with dinner of shepherd’s pie and philosophical discussion, mornings of berry-and-Nutella crepes and foamy cappuccinos. 

Story fragments
  • Cloud-creatures in a mountain country
  • Fairy folk who are defined by the color blue (as opposed to green, the traditional elvish color in Scottish lore)
  • Visitors arriving at a shepherd’s cottage
  • Selkies at twilight

Edinburgh

City of Stone

After several trips in the wild, it felt strange to be in a busy city: buses and trams on Princes Street, women in flowery dresses, shops with tartan scarves and Celtic jewelry, gardens of pink roses and fragrant honeysuckle, Gothic architecture, and modern tinted windows. We feasted on the best of Edinburgh: touring the gilded halls of Holyrood Palace, cullen skink and clotted cream raspberry cheesecake at a cozy pub, dizzying views from Arthur’s Seat, dappled sunlight on the river by St. Bernard’s Well, and golden hour in Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Story fragments
  • A tiled fireplace with a secret message (I fell in love with Holyrood Palace’s tiled fireplaces)
  • Swans and a ruined abbey
  • Queen Ann’s lace on a dormant volcano
  • A locked well with healing powers
  • A brownie who lives at an Air BnB

Meditation: Commercialization vs. Reenchantment

In Edinburgh, thoughts planted on Mull, Iona, Staffa, and Skye finally took root and began to sprout: I realized how dramatic the tourism industry is in Scotland, and probably in other places. I mean “dramatic” in the sense of performative or theatrical: the little shops in Iona, Portree, Old Town, and other places shout all the most distinctive and unique aspects of Scottish culture and history to attract attention. The symbols of Scotland’s Scottishness – tartan, bagpipes, highland cows, the Loch Ness monster, Celtic runes and symbolism, ancient ruins, haggis, thistles, unicorns, and teapots – are the most prominently displayed where strangers and foreigners like me can purchase them and carry them home, like chipping stones from a crumbling castle. Scottish people cannot love tartan that much; it’s outsiders who want the flavor and breath and music of Scotland, because we want to come and experience something fresh and different and fully its own, individual self, somewhere unlike our home place. Most Scottish people shop at the T.K. Maxx or luxury mall we visited, which are almost identical to retail in America.

That made me sad. I know the Western world has many similarities – celebrities are popular in multiple countries, and so on – but I would hate to have all the beautiful distinctiveness of Scottish lore and heritage as a thing of the past. I have only been a Master’s student in an international university town for a year here, so I don’t feel that I really know the Scottish people and culture. But the sheer clamour of a few shops in New Town in Edinburgh made me uneasy, as if only the tourist industry wants to preserve full and distinctive Scottishness – and then, only to sell it.

But I have tasted Scottish culture in literature. I’ve been a dragonfly skimming the depths of it: Scottish fairy tales like “The Well at the World’s End” and “The Black Bull of Norroway,” ballads like “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer,” the mesmerizing fantasies of George MacDonald, the Jane Austen-ish societal explorations of Margaret Oliphaunt, the exquisite prose of George Mackay Brown, the haunting tales of James Hogg, and the simple profundity of Alexander McCall Smith. My side-project next year will be to delve more deeply into these and more. 

These writers imbibed Scottish tradition and added to it, weaving the desires, dreams, fears, and tensions of their own time into the loom of myth and legend. As I writer, I want to follow in their footsteps and tell stories that help reenchant places like this. I want to reawaken the wonder of selkies on the beach in the moonlight and fairy folk dancing under the green hills, as well as capturing the mystery and dangers of our own time: the whispered rumors and masked faces of COVID, the political tensions that are re-tribalizing countries and regions, the seductive illusions of social media, and the now-too-familiar marvels of the Internet and smartphones. 

St. Andrews 

Gray Havens

After so many buses, trains, and ferries, it is good to be in St. Andrews again. I’m astonished to find that after magnificent peaks and staggering views on Skye and Arthur’s Seat, the soft, golden-green beauty of fields and woods heals me instead of overwhelming me. 

This place is not home. It’s only mine for the rest of the summer. But I will love every day I have left.

After Martinmas and Candlemas

“Her name’s Hazel,” he said, gesturing to the huge owl perched on his left arm. She was the size of my torso, with enormous orange eyes in a face covered in light gray feathers. The rest of her feathers were black, white, and brown. Her pointy ears were turned back like a disgruntled cat’s. “Here, you can pet her with these.” He gave us feathers – I got a raven’s feather – and my friend, a couple of other tourists, and I used our feathers to stroke Hazel. She stared at me and blinked.

Edinburgh felt huge, fast, and busy after being in St. Andrews for nine months. The stone buildings, ornate scrollwork, Gothic spires, statues, and castles give it a medieval feel, but blinking traffic lights, blue and gray buses, and colorful storefronts mix in the neon of the twenty-first century. Pink cherry trees and tulips were in bloom in the city; yellow gorse made the surrounding hills glow.

Edinburgh Castle towers about the city like a dream in the sky.

It has been a stormy spring of cold rainfall, dark clouds, and winds that shake the blossoming trees. I’m not sure how I survived April’s pileup of assignments: an essay on Joy Davidman’s poetry and the theology of nostalgia; the relationship between faith, reason, and imagination in the works of Robert Kirk, James Hogg, and George MacDonald; a presentation on L.M. Montgomery and Dorothy L. Sayers’s contrasting perspectives on Christian doctrine; a class introduction for Part II of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces; an exam on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale,” and Wagner’s “The Valkyrie.” I found cross-currents of beauty and wisdom in all of these works and my non-academic life:

  • The joy of new life, pain of growing, and mystery of resurrection as represented by Spring
  • The relationship between epistemology (the study of knowledge, or how you know what you know), truth, the natural world, and the supernatural
  • Love as a way of knowing
  • The paradox of surrender, grace, and continued effort in the life of faith

I have discovered that I am tireder, but more inspired and efficient, when I mingle fellowship and travel-adventures with study. Despite the weather, I have explored red sandstone clifftops and geos (sea inlets); the grounds of a castle surrounded by green woods full of white wild garlic; meadows of bluebells and cow parsley overlooking the harbor; a garden of purple-black, red, white, yellow, and pink tulips. Wandering through the hills and looking out over the sparkling ocean makes me feel like I’ve walked into a dream of paradise. Running through gray streets while trying to follow complex and contradictory GPS instructions to catch buses in the nick of time makes me feel like I’ve created my own nightmare. Travel is freeing, and wondrous, and so fun after months of lockdown, though I need to control my longing to go completely rogue as I still have a dissertation and part-time job to do.

This year has gone by so quickly. As I’ve said before, one Master’s degree does not even give you intermediate knowledge of a subject – just a cartographer’s view of your field of study, and not a detailed map, either. However, after two semesters of classes, I’ve discovered a few interesting things about Theology and the Arts and myself:

Academic vs. artistic thinking

I think my mind and skillset are better suited to a researching-artist’s life than an academic one. Academic thought requires absorbing an ocean of complex and diverse information (tons of books, articles, and lectures), meditating on it, and then synthesizing evidence to create a new perspective that will expand the field and spark new conversations. I can research and craft an argument, but my analysis tends to oversimplify and condense too much, ignoring the complexities of a subject. I still love learning, but I may be able to contribute better by creating stories than persuasive arguments.

The interrelation of doctrines and disciplines 

In our “Christian Doctrine and the Arts,” course, our professor emphasized the unity of all the doctrines of Christianity. It’s difficult to speak about the doctrine of God the Father (patrology) without explaining His relationship with God the Son (Christology) and God the Spirit (pneumatology), but then you probably should define the Trinity, and the nature of the Trinity explains how salvation works (soteriology), and then you should explain how humanity fits in (Christian anthropology) and then perhaps how the Church matters in all of this (ecclesiology) and how all of time is rushing towards the final revelation (eschatology) . . . you get the idea. The creeds are unified, as the Trinity is unified, and the true Church is one. 

I think disciplines of study are the same way. While it’s difficult to maintain both breadth and depth of knowledge, specializing in the humanities or the sciences means you neglect the wisdom of the other house. Interdisciplinary work is truly fascinating. One of our readings by Eleanore Stump, for example, drew on an analogy from math into theology by comparing the book of Job to a fractal (“The Story of Job: Suffering and the Second-Personal” in Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, pg. 220-21). Judith Wolfe, one of my professors, is working on a research grant now called “Mapping the Imagination” which combines psychology, philosophy, and phenomenology to examine how the imagination shapes what we perceive.

As a writer, I want to diversify my knowledge so that I can draw wisdom and analogies from many disciplines and create rich, complex, and fascinating worlds and stories. I will probably have to choose breadth of knowledge over depth.

The relationship between theology and the arts

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulty of defining the relationship between theology and the arts. In discussing religion and literature (I think this applies to the rest of the arts as well), John May describes a few perspectives: heteronomy (literature as the “handmaiden of faith”), autonomy (literature judged by its own norms), or theonomy (literature and religion both grounded in ultimate reality, God) (John May, New Image of Religious Film, 20).

My faith tradition is very Scripturally-focused: Plymouth Brethren/Baptist. I believe that the Word of God as a means of divine revelation comes first, before Church tradition, wordly ways of knowing, or personal experience. I am passionate about orthodoxy, or staying true to correct Spiritual teaching – hopefully in the truest sense, so that I am as fierce about living with grace, loving-kindness, and humility as I am about righteous behavior and beliefs.

For these reasons, my view is closer to heteronomy or “the arts as a handmaiden of theology,” demonstrating, exploring, discussing, or illustrating theological concepts, because I see theology or the study of God as the first thing, the pursuit that all other disciplines fall under. I see the arts as a means of glorifying God through human making, singing a “new song.” I don’t like overly simplistic, melodramatic, poorly-crafted artwork that tries to hammer morals into people’s heads by deception or manipulation. I love and want to create work that explores difficult questions, creates beauty, exposes ugliness, and seeks to love the artist’s audience through masterful craftsmanship and complex, thought-provoking techniques.

As an artist with academic interests, I have a new set of directions to explore as I work on my dissertation this summer and return home in the autumn, including protology (the study of Creation), ecclesiology (the study of the Church), mythopoeia (mythmaking art), and the folklore of Scotland and other parts of the world. This year’s coursework has given me enough to meditate on for a long, long time – but first, I have to finish it.

And, in the meantime, drink in all I can of Scotland as vaccines roll out and restrictions loosen: ruins dappled in golden afternoon light and shadow, hilltops shrouded in fog, sea caves echoing with the crash of waves, and cafes that serve interesting varieties of hot chocolate.

Springtime, the Sea, and the Good Life

I am learning to read the winds and sky: to check the temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover to see whether it is warm and still enough to walk the cliffs, or whether I should stick to the sheltered woods. I know now that any wind above 15ish mph is too chilly for studying in a grassy meadow if the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit; that rain here is light and usually doesn’t last more than a few minutes; that the sea turns shades of royal blue, marine green, and blue-gray depending on the tides and rain patterns.

Spring comes earlier in Scotland, thank God. The white snowdrops are fading now, giving way to daffodils of bright yellow or cream; green buds pop up on the prickly beach roses and hedges; flocks of honking geese make Vs in the sky. You can smell thawing earth now (one of my favorite smells). It is warm enough for adventures again: stargazing on the pier under a golden crescent moon surrounded by haze; study sessions on grassy clifftops thick with gorse; wanders through a green park beside a huge brick mansion with boarded-up windows and KEEP OUT signs.

These past few weeks have been like treading water amidst huge waves; I have managed to keep track of everything, I think, but spring break came just in time. Classes have continued to be fascinating, so good that I can only drink in the richness: the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, our suffering and triumphant Messiah; Resurrection, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence; ecclesiology (theology of the Church), religious syncretism, and graphic novels/comics as a medium of theological insight; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mesmerizing painting of the Annunciation; love and theatricality in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”; oaths and love and power in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I am reading George MacDonald, James Hogg, C.S. Lewis, and others for various papers and presentations. I am inundated and enthralled, joyful and very tired.

The Transept artists’ group, which is connected with ITIA (my program, the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts) is also hosting an online exhibition that just started on Friday. Putting it together has required much more emailing, scheduling, Google Drive manipulation, spreadsheets, and checklists than I realized, but we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. We chose “In/break” for the theme (thinking of God breaking into human history and the world breaking out of the COVID pandemic, among other things) and artists have taken it in such fascinating directions. Barbara Davey’s set of five poems, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” has some sections that haunted me:

Barbara Davey, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” part 3

There are some real treasures coming over the next two weeks: a meditation on walking the Fife Pilgrim Trail, dramatic sketches of each of the four Gospels, a modern retelling of the birth of Samuel, and many more. The artworks will be posted on the Transpositions blog here.

On Saturday, I celebrated the freedom of spring break by hiking down the Fife Coastal Path to the Cambo Gardens, an estate with a walled garden full of blooming purple and white and green, glasshouses, woodlands full of daffodils and snowdrops, and a very large ginger pig named Lawrence. (Ginger in color, to be clear.) The coastal path is alive with tiny yellow flowers, dark green seaweed, rocks for scrambling, stone steps carved with crisscrosses to give walkers more traction. We broke our mileage record for one day: about 17 miles, give or take. We traded sore joints and tired muscles for glorious views of the royal blue sea, gray-blue mountains, and St. Andrews shining like a jewel in its cove.

How do you live a good life? I’m surprised that that question continues to haunt me over the years; it began just after finishing my undergrad. Sitting in traffic on my commute, counting up savings paycheck by paycheck, scheduling coffee dates, trying to fill up lonely Saturdays, I kept thinking: am I doing this right? How is everyone else choosing to live? How do I live for the kingdom of God in this time, this place, with this soul and these gifts? This adventure-year in Scotland was supposed to solve that question, somewhat. I saved, planned, strategized, dreamed, and prayed, and God gave me a way to incarnate hope into reality. But I still wonder now, as I read poetry and fantasy and plan hikes and picnics through lockdown, how to choose where to spend time, money, and energy in the light of Genesis and the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and Paul’s letters . . . and Revelation.

The wheel of the year turns again toward Easter. I have written before about how this holy feast feels different from Christmas because it has the grief of Good Friday, which is not the full story, but cannot be ignored. Waiting, feasting, lamenting, rejoicing, and hoping all belong in the divine narrative. I want to live well in the shadow of the cross and the sunrise of the empty tomb: in studies, adventures, art, work, and fellowship. In this silver-blue citadel, in the remaining months I have left, I hope I can continue to figure out how.

Candlemas in Lockdown

Winter sea

In St. Andrews, they call this semester “Candlemas” for the feast celebrating Christ’s presentation at the temple. Last semester was Martinmas. The names of Oxford terms are Michaelmas (“Micklemas”), Hilary, and Trinity. I don’t know much about the history of the names, but I love the sense of centuries-old tradition, the familiar turning of years. Being part of it, even in the ephemeral role of an international MLitt student, makes me feel part of a community analogous to the universal Church (on a smaller scale).

Between the strict, stricter, and even stricter lockdowns that have fallen into place since New Year’s, the howling winds, frigid rain, piercing sleet, and treacherous ice that have kept us indoors, and the heating-hour schedule which makes our flat freezing at midday and night, my morale has been low. Each new restriction feels tighter and more imprisoning, such that anything that goes wrong – a broken appliance or an interruption to work – threatens to snap my self-control. Small, comforting, physical things like baking fudge brownies, snickerdoodles, or Swedish almond cake to warm up the kitchen, keeping my space reasonably clean and tidy, wearing sea-scented perfume and makeup each day even if I can’t go out, and decorating my room with beautiful art prints helps.

This print is my favorite of the ones I purchased. It’s titled “White Day.”

My classes this semester are also marvelous. We’ve studied the paradox of God as Father and Almighty through Job and Genesis; the iconic art of Michael O’Brien; the turbulent and mystical poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ve looked into riddle theory for a short story and Scottish lore for a potential, longer project. The fervent, wild poetry of Joy Davidman (the woman who married C.S. Lewis), a book of folk tales from around the world, and Dorothy Sayers’ hilarious, heart-deep Busman’s Honeymoon have also been cheering companions. Lockdown restrictions can take away so many things, but they can’t take away our studies or our books (yet) and I am thankful.

I turned 26 recently. Theoretically, it’s a transition from the bewildered post-college wandering of early 20s to the greater steadiness and maturity of late 20s. I feel a shift in how I look at the world and myself. I am not the fresh-out-of-college, cripplingly shy, confused girl that I was, though I’m not the confident, wise, gracious woman I want to be. The change is slow, like trickling sand.

After graduating college, I felt like I was living in the extended epilogue of a children’s book like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Half Magic, or The Penderwicks, when the author gives you a glimpse of how the children grew up: ten years later… It was bittersweet. But in our story, an epilogue would have ended by now. Our extended family grows from grandparents-parents-kids to grandparents-parents-young adults-babies; I continue to seek adventures and career opportunites; I try to figure out the size and shape of the gift God has given me and where it fits in the Kingdom.

Candles (another forbidden item in this fire-safety-conscious country). Not as bright as sunlight or glamorous as moonlight, but cozy and mysterious on a stormy winter night or gray winter afternoon. Candle-mas: a feast of candles, historically significant in the Church, but also a comforting image in this late winter lockdown. 

This is a season for feasts and candles.

Divine Cartography: Dreams and Memories at the Close of 2020

St. Andrews in a radiant purple dusk

After Elizabeth made a joyful prophecy over her, Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” (Luke 1:46b-48, ESV). I am no Mary, but after this long year and a semester in Scotland, I marvel at God’s goodness to me this year – through a pandemic that shut down the world, through civil and political turmoil, through visa applications and loneliness and quarantine and study. 

Three years ago, I commuted 50 minutes each way to my first job, through New Hampshire farm country. I would use the morning ride to pray and arrive at my last requests just as I turned left at the last stoplight onto a quiet road lined with oak trees on one side and cattails on the other. Once, I saw a beaver emerge from the rushes and ponder the road (don’t try to cross! I begged him); another time, I stopped and waited as two Canada geese and their goslings waddled across in a solemn line. One of my last prayer requests would be about my dreams for grad school: that God would help me find a good program where I could learn more and grow into a better writer. 

His guidance was so gentle. That first job had its challenges – gray cubicles with high walls, humming fluorescent lights, dull work in front of a white computer screen – but established job skills I didn’t know were essential for anyone who produces any kind of content, including copy editing. Other jobs since then opened my mind to the imaginative possibilities in the business world, the energy and creativity of corporate life, which has more potential than I think many people realize. The world of software is a wonderland of human subcreation, as it’s created out of language (like the physical world is!) – and software developers are basically wizards: quirky, brilliant, and witty people who are a delight to work with.

God gave me loneliness – a precious gift that broke me out of the prison of shyness and taught me to seek community and find ways to love people. He gave me boredom, another gift that motivated me to create beauty and adventures where there were none: Spotify playlists for work that made my heart dance, mountain hikes on weekends, books and literary journals and conferences that filled my mind with wisdom and mystery. 

After all that – God the Giver, the Divine Cartographer, led me to the gift I had asked for, a year in grad school, in one of the hardest years anyone can remember. A few weeks ago, I turned in my last paper for the first semester of my Theology and the Arts program at St. Andrews. (I also published a short and wild Christmas story in my program’s blog, Transpositions, called “Flight of the Gift-Giver.”)

These past few months have been a glorious carousel ride, a snorkel through a rainbow reef, a telescope-view of dazzling constellations. Quarantining for two weeks and surviving on egg-and-mayo sandwiches and fruit in September was difficult, and the visa process confirmed my hatred of paperwork and red tape, but I survived – and found that the Gray Havens had all the magic promised to us and more. 

Our professors took us on a straight path through the mythical zoo that is the growing Theology and the Arts field: we studied Dante’s Divine Comedy and Jeremy Begbie’s work on a musical analogy of the Trinity, re-enchantment, the emergent church, kitsch, Greek Orthodox icons, and other works of scholarship and art. Much of our work focused on epistemology (different ways of knowing) contrasting the rational, intellectual epistemology of reason, logic, and argument which makes up a lot of theology with the emotional, affective epistemology of narrative, poetry, visual art, music, film, and other art forms. We looked at the arts as a means of praising vs. understanding God, an area of orthodoxy or transgression, as a fountain of joy and wisdom vs. distraction or idolatry.

I’ve explored some of Scotland. We can’t leave Fife yet, but staying here has motivated me to find hikes and little villages and ruins I may not have found otherwise. I’ve hiked up a windswept hill that once housed a Pictish fort; through the shadows of a golden sunset in pine woods; on the coast where rainwater made rivers across our path; past a solemn stone church and castle among gray-green hills. Scotland can be radiant, ominous and dark, shimmering with puddles, wind-brushed, or crystallized in frost. 

I’ve discovered academic areas I want to explore. A Master’s degree does not get you anywhere near mastery of a subject; even a PhD only gives you a narrow sliver of human knowledge. The best you can do is learn the major names and areas in your field of study so that you can choose where you will delve deeper. With my eclectic range of interests, I still have multiple areas I want to explore, including: 

  • Theology of play – I heard of this in my undergrad, but now know a few more names and specifics: some theorists think that play may be a better means of worship, of knowing God and glorifying Him, then we realize. 
  • Metaphor theory – One of my papers examined how metaphors (such as “poetry is a snowstorm”) can open your mind to multiple layers of meaning, as opposed to the more direct representation of allegories or some types of symbols. However, metaphor theory is a huge field, with links to poetry and philosophy.
  • Paradox – Christ is God and man; the Kingdom of heaven is here already and not yet; good works reveal the state of the heart but do not earn salvation. Christianity is a country of paradoxes, or seemingly contradictory statements, that we need to hold in tension, and the arts are an excellent means of grasping paradoxes.
  • Re-enchantment and sacramentality – The word “re-enchantment” gives me a shiver of delight, but after reading a small portion of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I feel that the medieval worldview may have its own theological problems – for example, believing that the “white magic” of church sacraments and saints’ relics counteracts the “black magic” of demonic activity. I want to research the medieval worldview and how art can bring a spiritual renewal and healthy re-enchantment.
  • Poetry and faith – I feel myself falling deeper in love with poetry as a way of gesturing towards the ineffable, of expressing the infinite, including the realm of faith. I listened to a discussion by the poet Malcolm Guite in which he quoted George Herbert’s “Agony Poem,” which concludes: “Love is that liquour sweet and most divine, / Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.” Poetry can use metaphor and simile, rhyme and meter, image and description to embody spiritual truths we struggle to articulate in any other way. I want to research this truth-bearing aspect of poetry further.

There are so many worlds to study and create. I want to join the academic conversation in Theology and the Arts, but my creative side also yearns to Make, to spin these insights into stories and poetry that reawaken people to wonder and mystery and delight. Lord willing, I can explore both in what remains of this winter break – as snow settles on the hills across the bay, blue dawns creep back from 8:44 a.m., and ice stills the tidepools below the cliffs.

Thresholds: “Limen Diei” by Jordan Kaiser

Today, I wandered through the dark evergreens and bright moss of Tentsmuir Forest down to the foaming sea. When the cold blue dawn is at 8:40 am and the gray twilight fades at 3:40 pm, you schedule your adventures for earlier in the day and save hot tea, fairy lights, and desk work for the dark evenings. After the bright whirl of exams, Advent is quiet, like the empty ballroom after a dance. We’ve crossed the next threshold, past the first semester and into the first break.

This last contribution to the Thresholds project is by Jordan Kaiser, a lovely fellow student at St. Andrews who is exploring Medieval Studies. Jordan is one of those fascinating people who reawaken you to the magic and mystery of this world: astronomy, artwork, theoretical physics, legends, poetry, medieval medicine, and so much more. Her contribution explores thresholds of night/day, land/sea, sky/earth, and more, and left me with that same resonating joy you get after a symphony or a feast. Enjoy!

Limen Diei

by Jordan Kaiser

Photo credit: Jordan Kaiser

Civil Twilight 

The Sun has fallen just below the rim 
Of the horizon. Gold-splashed buildings glow
As in farewell, while sea and sky grow dim; 

The geometrical center of the sun’s disk has reached six degrees below the horizon. The sky is still fairly well lit, although lights are switching on in the town. Clouds towards the west are edged with gold and brushed with shades of rose and amethyst. The sea is the color of oxidized bronze—verdigris green—and flocks of gulls dot its surface like pearls. Its foamy fringe rolls against the rocky shoreline. November’s daylight hours may be short, but they shine like the last of the golden leaves scattered on the pavement. 

Nautical Twilight 

So Dusk spills ink into the sea below
And in the East a moon of opal turns
The bay to silver. Daylight ebbs. Tides flow 

The geometrical center of the sun is between six and twelve degrees below the horizon. A band of lighter blue lingers in the west. The moon climbs higher along its arc as the sky deepens to a blue that blends with the edge of the sea. Shining through a wisp of cloud, the moon has a ring of green and red refracted light, like the stain left when a drop of water falls on ink and makes it run. The brightest stars and planets reveal themselves now. White, green, and yellow lights gleam across the bay and on it. The seabirds are just shapes, now, though their cries are clear. The season’s tide in the northern hemisphere is washing out—rushing to the lowest point and shortest day of the year.  

Astronomical Twilight 

And Mars above the ruined towers burns
Carnelian red. Now fires and window-lights
Brush gold on Evening’s edges. Night returns. 

The geometrical center of the sun has fallen between twelve and eighteen degrees below the horizon. The sea is almost invisible—lost in a wash of velvety indigo—except where lights mark out its fringes. There’s almost always a bonfire on the beach, a faint echo of the glittering stars. The smoke drifts up from the shore, adding its fragrance to the sharp vinegar tang of washed-up seaweed. Windows are well-lit. Their panes frame figures like icons painted on gold leaf. The cathedral’s towers loom above a quiet cemetery. In town, the bells mark the time.  

Jordan Kaiser

Jordan Kaiser

Jordan is a reader, writer and amateur adventurer who loves Old Things and Curious Things and places that hide secrets. Expert road-tripper. She was homeschooled from first grade through high school. She started writing poetry when she was five and didn’t know what she was doing. She wrote her first story when she was eight and thought she knew what she was doing. She’s kept two different travel blogs (one in high school, one in college). Above all, her faith and her family keep her anchored. True love fights dragons. To read more of her work, visit her website at https://wordsmithkaiser.wordpress.com/.

Thresholds: “Underground Inn” and “Skin to Skin” by Crissy Williams

Sun on a green field
Photo credit: Crissy Williams

It’s finals week in St. Andrews, and my mind is a carnival of concepts: the role of comedy in Christian life, magical idealism, human and divine love in Dante, the Annunciation as an analogy for the creation of art. The Kinnesburn River is chocolate-brown and foamy with the past week’s rain, and the thunder of the North Sea is deeper than ever.

In the midst of study, I snatch moments of quiet in baking, TV, or poetry like this latest contribution to the Thresholds project. Crissy Williams‘s meditation on the thresholds of human/creature, land/sky, and the hospitality of earth were deeply stirring – she captures the hope and peace of Advent with quiet grace. Enjoy!

Underground Inn

by Crissy Williams

Let me come under your roof
of brown, crumbly humus
and reside with your inhabitants,
four-footed, centi-footed,
millennial forward motion
of scrub brush feet.
Can I thread through your tunnels,
stretch and flex my muscles,
see if I can match
the ant for strength,
the moth pupa for patience?
She delights in your dark chambers
and stacks of leaves
for transforming into soft body
and powdered wings.
I need a place to rest,
ancient and deep,
to drink up the pockets of nutrients
you offer freely to all your guests
in the whispering dark of your underground inn.

Skin to Skin

I’m laying here skin to skin,
a newborn baby against your brown chest,
not to give love
but to receive it

from the caverns
of goodwill that
spread beneath me
hiding crystalline gems

from the scurry of tiny feet
and burrows of petite piles
of stashed moss and acorn caps
filled to the brim

with last spring’s nectar
a gift sprung up
from the maze of roots
winding deep under

my smooth skin
laid out against your
ribbons of green
and soft lumps of earth.

Since that morning
when I rose from the dust
formed by hand
made to sing

I have come back.

Crissy Williams

Crissy Williams has always felt things deeply. The gentle changing of the seasons or a sappy Hallmark commercial have had the power to bring her to tears or transport her to another world. This penchant for sensing the stories behind things led her to pursue a degree in English education which she has put to good use for the past 11 years by reading copious picture books to her two children and filling a stack of mismatched  journals. Poetry is a new love she’s developed during this roller coaster year of 2020 as  a way to lower her anxiety and stay grounded. You can find her occasional poems and weekly nature images on Instagram at @crissyannwilliams.

Thresholds: “Peacemaking” by Loren Warnemuende

Last year, on Black Friday, I finally decided I would apply to some grad schools just to see what happened…and then realized I had to email my undergrad professors asking them to write recommendations during the maelstrom of final exams and Christmas preparations. (They were incredibly gracious and did.)

This year, I celebrate Thanksgiving in Scotland after months of a pandemic by having my last class focus on laughter, levity, and comedy and finishing a paper on the portray of good and evil in fantasy. Every year since graduating from college has been like this – every holiday, I look back on last year and marvel at what God has given me. Despite the terrible things that have happened this year, He has been so good.

Loren Warnemuende‘s contribution to the Thresholds project reminds me of the goodness of God and our responsibility to be peacemakers in a turbulent world. Her wise, calm, loving voice inspires and challenges me to look for real peace (not conflict avoidance) in my relationships. Enjoy!

Peacemaking

by Loren Warnemuende

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Photo credit: Loren Warnemuende

A year or so ago I thought I should find out more about Enneagrams since they’re a big deal to a number of friends of mine. I took a little quiz online, agreed with the assessment, and promptly forgot what number it said I was. Recently my sister, who is more up on this phenomenon, told me that I was a 9 and one reason was that I’m a peacemaker. 

Well, I thought, Ill go for that

After all, who doesn’t want to be a peacemaker? It seems particularly meaningful this year when the world is struggling with “How to Navigate a Pandemic” and my country has lurched through a crazy election cycle where it seems half of the country says we’re set, and the other half claims nothing is settled. 

I want bring peace and calm people down. I want to speak words that will make everyone smile and say, “Oh! How silly we’ve been to get so angry with each other. Let’s sit down and have dinner. Light the bonfire and we’ll roast marshmallows instead of throwing our neighbor’s reputation or health into the heat of the flames.” 

In my head, I speak the voice of reason and peace, a clear bell that tolls on a cold morning. 

If only I could live happily alone in my head. Sadly, there are two obstacles to that. 

First of all, there is the reality that I want to be liked by those around me. I play at peacemaking with my more casual friends. I listen to someone, smiling and nodding, even when I completely disagree with them. Worse, the reason I stay silent is my fear of stirring up conflict instead of my true care for the person. I question my own understanding to the point that I don’t challenge something that I see as untrue because I want the person to like me. 

Second, there’s the truth of how I relate to those I love and feel completely secure in their love for me. This shows up with my husband, but primarily with my children. With them my words  are sometimes like the blossoms on the camellia bush behind our house here in East Texas.  Each year it blooms around Thanksgiving—rich, abundant blossoms the bees love.  But the blossoms are bright pink, and they clash with the sere vines and leaves of orange and brown and red. The blooms are right for the bush, but wrong for the surroundings, just as my words truly reflect my state of mind, but don’t do anything to help others change in the way I think they should.  I may be speaking pure truth, but it doesn’t settle the turmoil. It exacerbates it. 

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So much for finding peace within myself. I feel as divided inside as my country is outside of me. I am fractured and discordant, longing to be made whole, to be at peace with myself as well as with others. I am balanced on an edge, looking across a threshold into what could be, what will be someday.  

But then I hear a call from the One who took all my confused messy pieces and replaced them with Himself: “Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and humble, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29 & 30 

Tomorrow we celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s the time we roast the turkey with Mom’s chestnut stuffing, savor the cranberry sauce, and inhale sweet potato casserole and Grandma’s pumpkin pie. It’s supposed to be the time when families and friends unite and feast. A time when we give thanks to God for what he has provided. A time of peace. 

It seems a contrary thing to celebrate this year. There has been so much sorrow through sickness and death. There has been more sorrow through isolation and division due to quarantine and conflicting ideologies. Some families are separated this year because of distance, health, or mandates. Just last week my kids and I had a cold and had to get a Covid test because my parents were supposed to fly down for Thanksgiving.  For twenty-four hours we didn’t know if they could still come.  We were relieved when we tested negative, but I’ve still second-guessed all of our plans, wondering if we should have let my parents travel in this season to begin with. Yet our upheaval only related to physical issues. 

 Some families are apart because they can’t see past different views to common ground. They don’t know how to love each other despite the differences. The season is anything but peaceful, and there seems little reason to be thankful. 

I want people to be happy, and thankful, and at peace. I want to respond to everyone around me with gentleness and kindness. But I can’t force that. The power is not in me to change hearts and minds. It never was. I can only rest in the one who shares His yoke with me. I have to learn from Him. The only thing I can do is encourage others to find that restful yoke as well. 

Oddly, that very suggestion can disrupt the peace more than having a different view about how to handle pandemics or politics. Jesus, after all, is highly controversial.  But His is the one truth that I can’t give up, because it is the only truth that actually brings peace. 

Jesus Himself is our peace, and He is the one who can break down the walls of hostility and unite us, but that is because He died for us (Ephesians 2:14).  It is only through His death and resurrection that we can truly have peace with each other.  Christ died for me, for my pride, my fear, my pandering, for my spitefulness and temper.  In place of my offenses He gave me His yoke, and He says He’ll give me rest with it. He teaches me slowly and gently to be more like Him, the only true peacemaker.  

That’s something I can be thankful for. 

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..

Thresholds: “Behind Old Doors” and “Home” by Hannah Abrahamson

Due dates for papers, presentations, and exams are closing in. Someone (sidhe or brownies, I think) have strung blue fairy lights and even a chandelier over some of the streets in town. Between drinking hot chocolate and researching, I’ve been stealing golden moments outside in the dwindling daylight. Now that many of the leaves are gone, the woods are brighter.

Like Shera Moyer‘s contribution last week, Hannah Abrahamson‘s contribution to the Thresholds project, with its images of green hilltops and faded leaves, stirs up a mix of contentment and longing in me. Enjoy!

Behind Old Doors

by Hannah Abrahamson

A door! What slumbers behind that old door?
My feet skip a beat and so does my heart.
A door! The unknown leaves me wanting more:
A mystery I’ll awake with a start.

Will its joy fill my lungs like crisp fall air?
Will its scent linger like leaves limp and brown?
Will it sweeten my soul and stir up care
Like cider overflowing drips down?

The threshold sparkles like flurries in flight,
And beckons me to step frightfully near.
I push the door open with all my might,
And awaken whatever slumbers here.

The Builder knows the great mystery well;
What old doors will bring only He can tell.

Home

Home: a place I may never reach by road;
A cloud kingdom built by winds roaming free,
Where I may unpack my soul’s crushing load,
For I know the keepers and they know me.

Hello, blue house, you served us well a while.
I watched my children grow within your walls.
I see my children in the garden smile,
I see laughter in every leaf that falls.

Goodbye, blue house, now we travel onward.
Your memory stays with me as I go.
I look back with joy as I look forward,
I climb to windswept heights from valleys low.

O Lord, make this green hilltop house a home,
Although till Heaven calls this earth we roam.

Hannah Abrahamson

Hannah just moved back to her hometown with her husband, son, and daughter. Right now she’s living with her parents, but Hannah and her family look forward to moving into their new house soon, situated on a hilltop surrounded by miles of farmland, prairie grass, and country roads. Hannah spends most of her time homeschooling, but also pursues a long and eclectic list of hobbies including writing, kayaking, reading, crocheting, and playing the ukulele. You can find more of her work on her website, teacherbynature.com. (“Home” originally appeared here.)

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

Enjoy!

Vapor in Time

by Shera Moyer

Leaves in the sun

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.

More leaves in the sun

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 Moyer

Canoe on a misty lake

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.