Bring a memory you want to write about.
The writing seminar’s theme was “Personal Narrative” – memoir, creative nonfiction, telling your own story. Jonathan Rogers, my writing teacher, held it just before the Hutchmoot Conference of 2022 – a faith and arts conference that I’ve dreamed about going to since 2018.
A memory I wanted to write about . . . fresh out of college in 2017, eager to finally begin my career as a creative writer, I listed memories and experiences in a spiral-bound notebook. Our magical trip to Hawaii when I was nine; summers backpacking in Yosemite; sunscreen-and-ice-cream days by the lake; the cross-country road trip west along I-40 after graduation. I had pillaged a lot of these for my writing already, and I don’t like to rewrite the same memories if I can help it – at least, not yet.
It’s not 2017 anymore. It’s 2022. Somehow, the “me” that applied frantically to every writing or editing job within a fifty-mile radius of home, read Robert Frost and G.K. Chesterton at lunch breaks, and devoured podcasts on faith, literature, and beauty on long commutes is gone. I’m not a new college grad trying to market herself to potential employers. I’m not the bewildered new car owner trying to figure out if $200 was an overcharge for an oil change.
This summer, I wrote a speech for a friend’s wedding. Writing that speech required me to delve into the memories of all that we had been at summer camp and college together, from kayaking at dawn to late-night hot chocolate. Remembering it all, and knowing that the years between then and now will only continue to grow, gave me that same feeling you get when you’re underwater and look up to see the shimmering circle of the sun.
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” said Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. That may be true, but it’s a lot easier to find things to write about now that I have worked in the adult world for a few years. For the seminar, I chose a memory from 2018: the morning when I woke up alone in a lakehouse in February. I had forgotten to pull the curtains closed, so my first sight was of whist mist hovering over the snow-muffled lake under a rosy sunrise.
Is it ok to change or rearrange details in my story? What is your earliest memory? Are we remembering, or reconstructing? What is episodic vs. semantic memory? How do you draw meaning out of sensory data and specific events? The writing seminar group met in a barn-turned-venue full of framed mirrors. Squirrels and chipmunks skittered over the tin roof as we talked. Tiny flames flickered in tea lights on the table. We shared memories, stories, techniques, questions, and mutual wonder, taking breaks to scribble thoughts for writing exercises.
That night, my first in-person Hutchmoot conference began.
Rooms named for C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and Walter Wangerin; a pottery wheel and freshly-fired pieces in one corner; books on poetry, philosophy, aesthetics, and story everywhere; a gallery of paintings, sketches, linocuts, and engravings; jam and coffee and biscuits; secret puzzles stashed in random places. Concerts and writing workshops; sessions on sacred symbolism, the art of adaptation, and the making of chai; conversations with people who loved books, had traveled to or from Libya, Japan, Mali, and other faraway, and many people who had suffered deeply.
It was a feast, a carnival, a holiday, and a whirlwind in one. I found that two years of limited large-group interactions had left me ill-prepared for so much richness all at once – by the end of some sessions or discussions I was exhausted beyond coherent thought or speech. I met many sweet friends for the first time, or the first time in a long time, who have shared their hearts and imaginations with me through their writing. Our conversations were the best part; their wisdom and encouragement was a walled garden in itself, lovely and safe.
I couldn’t help thinking about how my 2017 and 2018-selves would have reacted to all of it. I was hopeful; lonely; ambitious; a yearner, a day-dreamer, and an anxious worker. Younger-me may have handled the exhaustion better than my 2022-self, being more used to in-person interaction. She would have been breathless with excitement, eager to join in this fellowship of beauty and adventure. Her own life would have appeared dull, boring, and limited compared with the beautiful worlds of art-making, travel, and friendships that each speaker and conversant wove with their words.
At 2022, I don’t think I’m wiser, but I do know one thing: the world I ached to join, the realm in which people do walking-tours and have house concerts and read the most wonderful books, is not something far away and unattainable. It’s real, but it’s something I can make for myself, in my own way. A good life is made as well as given.
Between my younger and current self, I feel a little lost – partly in attending this conference, partly because my move to Tennessee is still so recent. In speaking of age and childlikeness, Madeline L’Engle said something that has encouraged me: “I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and . . . and . . . and . . . / If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.” (Taken from Walking on Water.)
I am all the ages I have ever been. I’m still the new college grad, the child, the entry-level employee, and the graduate student. I’m also all the selves of all the places I’ve been, including New England, Maui, Yosemite, Glacier, Iceland, Scotland, and Tennessee. Thinking of myself as many overlapping selves is somehow comforting. It turns aging into addition and expansion instead of loss. It turns my heart into a forest growing taller and wilder and thicker with golden leaves.
Theology and the Arts
Poetry, Places, and Inklings
He sees no stars who does not see them first
to flame like flowers beneath the ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”
After a winter of long drives into the dusk, ice-puddles that sparkled in the sun, and bitter cold that cracked the skin on my hands, I sat in the Trust Performing Arts Center in Lancaster, PA, frantically typing notes. I was supposed to attend the Inklings Fellowship Conference, hosted by Square Halo Books, in April 2020, only to have it postponed due to COVID. As I made my travel plans for Lancaster, I kept thinking about how much has changed in me and in the world in these two years.
The conference was joyous. For the first time, I met writers and artists in the flesh who I had met in digital forums – online classes, creative collaborations, or Zoom office hours. I gave most of them big hugs. Somehow, talking about creativity, art, faith, and beauty over the Internet gave us a familiarity that made our in-person meetings comfortable and full of laughter.
It was enthralling. Lectures by scholars, artists, and Inklings-lovers on the wordsmithing of Tolkien, the myth-blending of Lewis, and the collaboration between them fill my mind and heart with wonder. The “Rabbit and Dragonfly” pub next door, with its miniature Shire landscape, huge map of Middle Earth, painting of Lucy and Mr. Tumnus at Lantern Waste, and shelves of old books felt like a home I’d always wanted but didn’t know was real. I scoured the conference bookstore and spent far more money on books than I budgeted for.
It was exhausting. I love conferences, but the rapid pace, overflow of information, and consistency of social interaction left me completely drained, though very happy.
The power of poetry and language, of words and names, was one of the keynotes for me. I’m still pondering the fantastic lecture by professor and poet Christine Perrin on “The Poetry of Tolkien,” in which she argued that Tolkien was an epic poet equal to Dante, Milton, or the author of Beowulf, and understanding his poetry is fundamental to understanding his work. She outlined Tolkien’s love for language (apparently he felt that a new Grammar Primer was like finding a hidden wine cellar) and his understanding that to name something is to know it and possess it. She also explained Tolkien and Owen Barfield’s idea that our language is splintered and fragmented from its original wholeness, a tragedy that has splintered and fragmented our consciousness and understanding of the world. For instance, words like the Greek pneuma have a holistic meaning of wind, breath, or spirit, united so that the one word has multiple layers of meaning, while English has separate words for each concept. This separation has disrupted our ability to understand the unity of the cosmos.
The theological importance of naming reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, one of my favorite books, in which Naming is linked with loving, understanding, communicating with, and rescuing others. It also made me think of my day-job as a technical writer, in which I try to teach, simplify, and convey complex ideas about software and cloud computing in clear, simple instructions. Language is one of the greatest challenges of my newest job. The terminology of cloud computing and networking was developed by engineers, scientists, military and government officials, and (I say this lovingly) computer geeks. I doubt any artists or poets were involved, and I wish they had been. As it is, software and computer engineering language is made of many displaced or complex, hard-to-remember, uninteresting words and phrases:
- Words transplanted from the physical, artistic, and even spiritual worlds into digital contexts: screen, page, icon, code, cloud, tunnel, gateway, walled garden, firewall, routes
- Words that are abstracted and not linked with the physical world at all: data center, availability zone, encryption
- Acronyms that are very hard to remember, at least at first: HTML, DNS, IPv4, ECMP, VPC
I don’t know if anything can be done now, as experts in these fields are familiar with this language, and to change it would be as difficult as changing a national currency or measurement system (but worse, since the Internet is international). But I wish a scientist/engineer/programmer with J.R.R. Tolkien’s love for words, C.S. Lewis’s clarity and skill with analogy, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s bluntness and common sense had been the one to choose the nouns, verbs, and adjectives we use for computing and networking.
Christie Purifoy’s session on “Placemaking in Narnia” meant a lot to me after weeks of walking through concrete tunnels, gray parking garages, and tiny city parks with leafless trees and withered grass. But her talk was more than a reminder that beauty is important. She argued that even beautiful places can be place-less – lacking “aliveness” or a sense of “wholeness, spirit, or grace.” Frozen Narnia was beautiful, but it was disenchanted and lifeless under the reign of the witch. Place-making is the re-enchantment or reawakening of places.
I found this beautiful, hopeful idea of place-making inspiring and encouraging, though it brought back some frustrating memories. As a child, student, young professional, and just another human being in the world, I have not always had control over the environments in which I live, work, commute, and exercise. Location, the cost of living, spiritual calling, and bureaucratic requirements of different seasons of life (such as getting a driver’s license) have all shaped my options for places to dwell in. These shaping forces have put me in places with a tangible “aliveness” and places with a palpable “deadness” – beautiful and ugly, cozy and barren, spectacular and dingy. I’ve played in gardens full of rhododendrons and tulips; studied in school classrooms with blank white walls, and fluorescent lighting; worked in offices of gray cubicles and choking silence; read in libraries full of old books and stained glass windows. In “lifeless” places where I felt trapped, placemaking meant cultivating the little things I could control within the tiny spaces I owned (Spotify playlists, taped-up pictures from magazines, scented candles, fairy lights) and dreaming about the places I longed to make and inhabit.
I drove away from the conference into a snowy blue twilight. The wisdom I’d heard about language, beauty, and art came at a good time – late winter is my least favorite season, the doldrums of the year. As I’ve done in the past, I want to use art to fight the grumpiness I sink into amidst long, gray days of slushy snow and dirt-encrusted ice. In honor of the goodness of poetry and place-making, I’m doing a new creative collaboration for March with some fellow writers and artists, centered around the theme “Winter Eyrie” – the concept of a refuge, a haven, a fortress, a citadel, somewhere cozy and safe amidst chaos. More details to come. 🙂
Change is Red
It takes a long time to come back. The exciting folds into the mundane: the plane wheels hitting the tarmac, the unpacking of socks and sweaters and UK adaptors, the first hug with each family member, the wagging tail of the golden retriever, the scheduling of dentist appointments and renewing of driver’s license and car insurance. Going to Scotland was a grand adventure that broke down into a thousand difficult details (visas and bank accounts and SIM cards); coming back is the equal opposite. On this side, though, I have memories instead of dreams.
Scotland’s autumn was all golden leaves, red berries, and mist on the North Sea. I loved it there, but I missed the intensity of New England crimsons, carmines, and scarlets. I forgot how much I missed the earthy smell of fallen leaves here, the rosy apples hanging in the orchards, the chill in the mornings, the silvery frost in the grass, and the round on their doorsteps.
The second morning I logged into work, still blurry from jet lag, I stared at my computer screen as a grim realization sank through me: I had nothing to dream about. I have always been a daydreamer, from elementary school math class to my first office job: while my attention is fixed on the task at hand, the rest of my mind is whirring with thoughts of the books I’m reading, stories I’m telling, visions of the past and future. Last summer’s daydreams were full of ruined castles, seminars on the Inklings and the imagination, hills covered in purple heather, and cliffs overlooking the foaming sea. Now, after I’ve fulfilled that five-year dream, my vision of the future is more like a void.
Like everyone, I’ve had long periods of uncertainty and transition before: graduating from college and moving out of my childhood home in one frigid winter, watching to see how a chaotic corporate merger would affect my job, and checking infection and recovery rates every day in the first weeks of COVID. God gave me good things in each season, like that maple clearing full of golden sunlight I saw on my morning drives. I’ve also learned to cope: I hid my taskbar during boring afternoons in an office to prevent myself from checking the time every 0.5 seconds; I lined up podcasts on literature and hope and theology to fill my long commutes. I’m not patient, but every season of uncertainty has intensified beauty and good times within it.
It’s over. It didn’t feel real to me as I was consumed with moving out of my flat and traveling around through the green hills, silver waterfalls, quiet glens, and sheep pastures of England, Wales, Iceland, and northern Ireland, but it’s true – I finished my degree. It gave me a glimpse of the ivory tower (a much more isolated ivory tower in this year, but still): the brilliant people who congregate in places like St. Andrews, the life of a graduate student, and the rhythm of life in Britain. I have a general, table-of-contents knowledge of the field of theology and the arts; a gateway glimpse of research areas like ethics & literature or imagination as a way of knowing; a greater certainty that I do not want to pursue academia any further for now. I have crammed enough class readings and dissertation research to justify the devouring of fun books, like Alan Garner’s Flavia de Luce series and Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward.
I am dreaming, though my dreams are murky and indistinct: it’s easier to envision one year of grad school than the full, long life I hope for, full of ministry, good friends, a beautiful home full of books written by others – and some books written by me. But for the first time in my life, I feel that this unknown is not the unknown of helplessness – it’s an unknown of possibility.
The unknown is gray, but change is red: vibrant, terrifying, chaotic, and exhilarating.
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.
Candlemas in Lockdown
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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: “True to Me” and a Scottish Tale
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
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.