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.

Musings from the UK: The Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham

After some full, exhausting days at Oxford (we walked 13 miles each day), we went to the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham. Miles of train travel past thick forests, green fields, and small villages showed me that some of my favorite books – Watership Down, Jane Eyre, A Room with a View, and others – captured and mythologized a place of real beauty and intrigue. The feeling of being in a story turned out to be a theme of the trip.

I also gained a new appreciation of J.K. Rowling’s genius. Train travel is fast, convenient, and lets you relax and watch the countryside, but is also stressful, dirty, and chaotic. Rowling turned a monotonous necessity into a delight with the Hogwarts Express. I kept thinking of Harry Potter every time the food cart rattled by.

I also gained even more insights about imagination and story-telling.

Stories are mythologized truth

Every scene was a story; I’ve read about the loveliness and mystery of this place from dozens of authors. They saw truth, and they told it slant. The shaped it in imagery and metaphor and breathed life into characters who embodied the human experience.

Kendal was all gray stone, with tight corners and winding streets – somewhere Father Brown or Sherlock Holmes would have walked. The taxi ride was on winding rows and hills through green fields, pastures, low stone walls, hedgerows, woods, and little farms – a country of borders. You’ll have to take my word for most of it; our speed and the rain made picture-taking difficult.

Bowness-on-Windermere, a village next to Lake Windermere, was all shops and restaurants painted white, walled gardens with white and yellow roses, and a shining lake reflecting the green mountains around it. It was Laketown from The Hobbit.

The hikes were glorious. We stepped into a shadowy tunnel of green trees covered in thick moss, up through hill pastures ringing with the forlorn bleating of sheep, to a hilltop shrouded in silvery mist. The dim outlines of trees were all we could see, but I didn’t mind – it felt secret, ominous, and foreboding as Weathertop or the moors of Wuthering Heights.

The magic of stories is the magic of real, natural beauty on God’s earth, expressed in minute detail by people He gifted with wordcraft. I’m burning now to spin a story out of the beauty of New England.

Travel for people

The allure of the Lake District, Edinburgh, and Durham was worth traveling to see. But the best parts of this trip really were the people. Though we trekked 15 miles up and down the streets of Edinburgh to collect Scottish tartans and chocolates as souvenirs, it’s the conversations that I value the most.

We talked with our taxi drivers about English weather (one said that snow shuts down the Lake District; the other said that now winters were too warm and wet for snow); “health and safety” regulations set by the government; and regional accents (two of them warned us about Liverpool and Newcastle accents). The owner of the hotel in the Lake District told us what he knew of the history of the place, his previous career, and his aunt’s paintings which hung in the dining room. I spent hours talking about food, travel, dating, and culture with two Americans, a British woman, and an Australian woman on our last train.

In college, and just after, every glamorous Facebook picture of my friend’s travels filled me with envy and yearning: European castles, Italian vineyards, and tropical reefs. Now, after being able to take a few pictures of my own, I feel stronger knowing that I want to travel for people, not just scenery – fellow travelers, conference attendees, and hopefully new friends.

Seek out the family of God

Sunday morning in Durham, just before we had to get back to Heathrow, I was feeling sick, and we were both tired. We persevered enough, however, to get to Christchurch for their service.

The meeting room had a high ceiling, large windows, and white paint that caught the light. It was full of families: men and women talking in small groups, college students, and children who ran among the metal folding chairs, filling the room with laughter.

“If you get Jesus wrong,” one pastor began, “you get everything wrong, and you can’t relate to Him.” We recited the Nicene Creed, and sang through Christ-centered songs based on the Psalms. The main pastor talked through Psalm 8, pausing at verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

“Oh, good,” he said, when one of the children there let out a happy cry. “I was hoping that would happen. In fact, I prayed that it would happen.” He continued to explain the majesty of God in making human beings, as helpless and small as babies, into priceless treasures. He went to Hebrews 2 to explain how Adam’s race had failed to rule this world as God created us to, but Jesus Christ became the ruler Adam failed to be.

I felt like crying with joy; to travel across the Atlantic and much of England and Scotland, and then find my family – radiant with worship, full of love for each other, steadfast in the truth – was exactly the encouragement I needed.

And then we returned. Now, I sift through my memories and new resolutions: to mythologize the beauty around me in stories; to use travel to build relationships, not just view pretty scenery; and to seek out the family of God everywhere.

While we were gone, summer arrived: tree canopies are lush and green, white spirea and pink rhododendrons are blooming, and the ocean is impossibly blue. For the first time, I can taste the sweetness of the word homecoming.

Musings from the UK: Oxford

On June 2nd, I flew back from a week in the UK – exhausted, content, pondering, and with a renewed sense of yearning. May was an intense month of travel (Colorado Springs, Denver, Pennsylvania, and then the UK) and I was more than ready to come home.

But it was beautiful. The rich history and traditions of Oxford, the mysterious beauty of the Lake District, the medieval look and modern busyness of Edinburgh, and the green peace of Durham gave me images and insights enough to ponder for a long time. I still need to sift through my hundreds of pictures and thoughts, but at first glance, here are a few things I discovered.

Oxford

Oxford has layers of loveliness: the old beauty of stone walls, buildings, spires, and statues, all covered in the fresh spring beauty of yellow roses, green ivy, and flowering vines. We walked through the green parks every day, dodging bikes and other foot travelers, listening to birds cooing in the trees and watching ducks, swans, and ravens hop around among the lilly pads and cattails in ponds.

The town was full of tourists like us, the murmur of many languages, and students in black robes. We got chai tea and Italian hot chocolate (my life will never be the same) at a tea shop, wandered through a curio/bookshop full of quill pens and gilded masks, and explored the stalls of the Covered Market.

We heard echoes and whispers of the spirit of Oxford. The town and university are centered on thought leadership and intellectual discovery, but remember faith: we attended a lecture on “The Failures of Political Journalism” at Green Templeton college, wandered through the University Church of St. Mary, went to exhibitions on language and 3-D images at the Weston Library and Museum of the History of Science, and enjoyed an Evensong at Magdalen College.

Every day brought so much to ponder and so much to enjoy. I’ll reference this trip in many future posts, but for now, I came away with some important resolutions:

Enjoy nearby beauty

Oxford was breathtaking with its ancient stonework, glassy rivers, yellow roses, and silver skies. But I had a recurring realization: New England is just as beautiful: its starry mayflowers and pert black-capped chickadees, fragrant beach-roses and green maple trees. Though traveling is great in many ways, I only need to step out my front door to see beauty. I need to value the treasures around me, not just those that are far away.

Seek unity in diversity

Most of the “content” we found at Oxford in lectures and exhibitions presented a set of different opinions on each topic, without identifying any as primary or true. Diversity, inclusion, and redefinition (breaking down old meanings of humanity, gender, faith, language, science,etc.) were celebrated as the highest good.

I love listening to people who are different from me, being sharpened as iron sharpens iron. But I believe that the highest good is celebrating true things, not just different things. The original purpose of universities was to seek unity in diversity, with every individual discipline striving together to unravel mysteries. I yearn to seek transcendent, unifying truth, Wisdom, in literature, art, language, and theology, and from people of all nations, backgrounds, and experiences.

Burn bright in darkness; cultivate in the desert

While rushing to the lecture, we had two minutes to duck into the Eagle and Child Pub, were Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings used to meet. My glimpse of the place stayed with me: dark, tiny rooms dimly lit by light bulbs, with barely enough places to squeeze faded armchairs beside brick fireplaces. The famous Rabbit Room was plain, with only a wooden table that may have seated five.

Lewis and Tolkien lived in a dark time: through the blood, fire, and fear of two world wars, sickness, grief, and a growing cynicism and loss of belief. But in imitation of God in Genesis 1, they spoke worlds into being: stories that acknowledge darkness and despair, but burned bright with love, beauty, and hope. The Inklings’ fellowship by the fire nurtured friendships, creativity, and joy that they poured out in stories that still kindle imaginations today.

The Christological center of Lewis and Tolkien’s imaginations stirred me deeper still. People of different faiths or no faith at all (like George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Patricia McKillip) can also imagine worlds into being. But the narrative of an all-powerful, loving Redeemer who sacrificed Himself for humanity is the greatest Story; all other good stories echo it.

The world is still dark – maybe darker – today. But there are many light-bearers and dream-cultivators, people of strong faith and abundant imaginations, in Oxford (including Michael Ward, Sarah Clarkson, Joy Clarkson, and many others), in New England, and in the whole world. I can’t wait to discover more of them.