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.

“Thresholds”: All Saints Day, 2020

When I started planning my own contribution to the Thresholds project, I knew from experience to pick a publication date right away. I started looking at holidays and astronomical events. Halloween was the obvious choice, but somehow I didn’t want to do a Halloween story – I have too many memories of neon-orange pumpkins, sugary candy corn, black-clad witches and goblins, grotesque masks at CVS, neon green and bright purple to leave much mystique and grandeur in that holiday. I decided to do All Saints Day instead, a holiday I knew almost nothing about beyond the name.

My most recent short stories have been dystopian, science fiction, and fantasy, so I decided to experiment with another of my favorite genres, mystery. It’s very difficult to cram a full detective story into a short story format – even Agatha Christie’s are a little cramped – so I wasn’t completely successful, but it was fun to try.

My brief, unofficial, scattered research of All Saints Day showed me that this day is just as mysterious and otherworldy as Halloween, or even more so, since it deals with transcendent mysteries. Sources like this one taught me that this feast honors all saints of the Church, the living and dead. Other sources like this one suggest that this Christian holiday is meant to replace the Celtic, pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) on October 31, when Druids lit bonfires to celebrate the end of harvest, beginning of the darkness of winter, and night when the dead could come back to visit the living.

Bonfires and moonlight, restless sea and brooding sky…my imagination began to churn. I liked the idea of a night filled with holy fear; not the dark, hopeless terror of pagans trying to satisfy ruthless, capricious gods, but the sacred fear and reverent wonder of Jesus Christ and His Church.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter II [speaking from a demonic perspective]: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.

Day/night, living/dead, autumn/winter, invisible realities and visible illusions… The theme of this project is thresholds, a physical and metaphorical term for a boundary, liminal space, beginning and ending and in-between. The tale took shape. My partner, Karlee Lillywhite also gave me “artifacts” that sparked new ideas:

  • Gregorian chant
  • Woolen shawl
  • Decomposing apples

In the end, I spun this story between discussing the theology of music and re-enchantment in class, walking in golden woods and on windy clifftops, going on coffee dates and skimming scholarship on fantasy and faith. Enjoy!

Note: I recommend listening to INTROIT: Gaudeamus omnes in Domino as you read this.

All Saints Day, 2020 

…gaudent Angeli,  
et collaudant Filium Dei… 

It was the evening of November 1st. On the beaches, gales whipped the waves into a foaming fury. No one heard the silent keening or saw the dark mass huddled on the eastern shore. 

In a church in town, echoes and shadows danced among the columns. Drafts of chilly air made the candle flames shudder. A girl with wavy hair dyed black and a pale, freckled face exhaled softly. Kat’s breath fogged up her glasses through her face mask. She inhaled white rose perfume, musky cologne, and the smell of old stone walls and wooden pews. The small choir group separated from the congregation by plexiglass screens sang with voices of north wind and night. 

Exsultate justi in Domino… 

Someone touched her arm, making her jump. Her new housemate, Dan, stood in the aisle wearing his gray mask, eyes wide with urgency.  

“What?” she whispered, glaring at him. Other household groups, spaced six feet apart on either side, glanced at her. Dan turned to leave, beckoning her to follow. 

Sighing, Kat followed him outside into the chilly air. 

The streetlights were glaring after the warm golden glow of candlelight. “What’s going on?” Kat asked, pulling her mask off of one ear, then the other. Dan shivered in a thin argyle sweater, coatless, his neat blond hair ruffled by the wind. One shoe was untied. “I thought you had to study tonight.” 

“Do you know where Naira is?”

“Uh, I thought she was staying in tonight, too,” said Kat. “She said she was tired. Did you hear her go out?” 

“Yeah, I heard her take out the trash an hour ago,” Dan said. “But she didn’t come back in. Her curry burned on the stove. Her phone’s on the counter. I found this on the ground outside.” He held up a woolen shawl, crimson and gold.  

“You think something happened to her?” asked Kat. “Did you ask the neighbors?” 

“I asked everyone in the building,” said Dan. “It was awkward, but I just…it felt weird. No one saw her or heard anything. She can’t be visiting anyone — we’re still not allowed past the threshold of other houses.” 

“Ok,” said Kat, pushing her glasses back up her nose. “That does sound weird. Let’s go see if she came back while you came here.” 

They set off towards the house. A strong wind ruffled their hair. They passed closed cafes and the iron gates of one of the colleges.  

“I’m sorry I pulled you away from the service,” said Dan. “The singing was beautiful. It’s All Saints Day, isn’t it?”  

“Mm-hmm.” Kat kept her eyes on the ground. 

“Celebration of the whole Church, right? All the saints?” 

“Yep,” said Kat, nodding without looking at him. 

“That’s cool. Does your family follow the liturgical year?” 

“No.”  

Dan glanced at her, frowning, and then turned back to the uneven cobblestones. They waited for a car to go by, yellow headlights spilling on the pavement, and crossed the street to their housing block, stone with bright red doors. Dan unlocked the door, and they went in. Kat saw Naira’s wool coat hanging from a hook and her black boots on the mat.  

The kitchen light was on. Though the window was open, letting in a chill, the air smelled like burnt curry. “Naira?” Dan called. Naira’s iPhone lay on the counter. 

“She’s not in her room,” said Kat, coming down the stairs a few minutes later. Dan was scrubbing the blackened bottom of the curry pan in the sink.  

“This isn’t like her,” he said. “She doesn’t go out late or leave things on the stove.”  

Kat leaned against the mock-granite counter. “So she went outside to empty the trash,” she said, “and didn’t come back.” She and Dan looked at each other. 

“She’s a black belt in karate,” said Dan. “This is a very safe town.”  

“Let’s look outside again,” said Kat. 

“So she came out here,” said Dan, walking from their door to the trash cans, “and I found her scarf here.” He pointed to a patch of pavement.  

Kat walked up and down the street, studying the ground. “Asphalt and cement, so no footprints, obviously,” she said. 

“You’re Nancy Drew-ing it?” Dan asked, examining the sidewalk in the other direction. “I have five younger sisters,” he said when she looked at him. “I know all the girls’ books. It was self-defense.” 

“Yeah,” said Kat. “I used to read them.” She studied him. “That explains the Prince Charming.” 

“What?”  

“Uh, it explains why you’re so – why you – act so charming,” said Kat. “Asking questions…Naira and I couldn’t figure out if you were flirting or just that nice.”  

“Oh,” said Dan. “Uh, yeah, I’ve gotten that before. My female friends sometimes warn me about being creepy. Sorry.”   

Their phones chimed. Kat flipped open her iPhone; Dan opened his Android. 

“Drat, it’s another COVID update,” said Kat. “Dear students, I regret to inform you that the number of COVID cases in Fife has started rising again … high population of elderly…we are instituting another voluntary lockdown for students starting at 7 pm today.” 

“Please do not visit any pubs, coffee shops, or restaurants this week,” Dan continued.  “Please do not socialize with anyone outside your household, and avoid crowded areas where social distancing is compromised.”  

They looked at each other. “Naira’s so careful about the rules,” said Dan. “Her asthma…” 

“We need to find her,” said Kat. They were silent for a moment. “How do you track someone if they don’t have a phone?” she asked. “Satellite footage? Bloodhounds?” 

“Traffic cameras?” said Dan. “Wait. Bloodhounds. Dogs. She went out at 5:30 – that’s when Mrs. Morison takes Sausage out.” 

“Sausage?” 

“Her dachshund. Let’s ask if she saw something.”  

“Naira? The Indian girl with the pretty hair?” Mrs. Morison asked. She held her scarf protectively in front of her face with her right hand and her red door open with her left. “Yes, I saw her earlier when I took Sausage out.” Her Scottish “r”s and “oo”s were rich like dark chocolate. “She barely stopped to greet me, asked if I’d seen a child run by.” 

“A child?”  

“Aye, a wee lad running by. She said he was alone, going toward the cathedral. I said I hadn’t, so she took off in that direction.” 

All three of them looked left down the street, where the ruined cathedral stretched toward the sky. Through the black iron gates, yellow spotlights lit up parts of the structure: an archway, towers, a few walls, and gravestones on either side. 

They thanked Mrs. Morison. As the door shut behind them, they started walking down toward the cathedral. “She saw a child,” said Kat. “So she followed him to make sure he was okay.”  

They reached the sidewalk in front of the west entrance. The ruins were surrounded by a stone wall that reached chest-height and had an iron grill on top. The black iron gates were locked.  

“Naira!” Kat called. The heavy wind stole most of her volume. “Naira!” Dan called too, but when they paused to listen, they only heard the rush of the wind and the faraway pounding of the waves. 

“Scott and his flatmates are going to check Castle Sands,” said Dan, checking his phone, “Flat 6 is going down South Street, and the philosophy people upstairs are doing Market Street. I think we should look for her here. Maybe she fell and hurt herself? They have a couple of open vaults in there.” He put his hands on the iron grill at the top of the wall, hoisted one leg up, and jumped over.  

“I don’t…” Kat looked around.  

“I’m a volunteer warden, remember?” Dan called. “I have a key, but climbing over is more fun.” 

“Well, we have a good reason,” said Kat.  She climbed the wall and hopped over, too. 

The grass was slick with rain. They went down the stone steps to the western entrance, where the door’s archway and the vaulting remained intact. They crossed the threshold into the nave, of which only the wall on their right remained, lined with high-arched windows. They wandered towards the presbytery at the other end, checking various open vaults Dan knew about, around the stumps of the arcade piers, and then left into the north transept and around the graves and crosses on the lawn. They checked every corner, calling to Naira with no answer. 

“Some of these are unstable,” said Dan, looking around at the gravestones in one corner, dark gray granite with light green lichen. Kat pursed her lips and looked away. 

“You okay?” asked Dan.  

“I’m – it’s fine,” said Kat. “We had some deaths in my church this week.” 

“People close to you?” Dan asked. 

“Yes.” Kat looked towards the presbytery. “Wait – do you see a light over there?”  

On the other side of the site, the ocean-facing side, a light hovered among the gravestones: something small, flickering, and golden, unlike the glaring yellow spotlights.  

“Yeah,” said Dan, quietly. “That’s a lantern.” He gestured for her to walk in that direction. The grass muffled their footsteps. They dodged around several empty, open graves with stone coffins, through the foundations of the chapter house to St. Rule’s tower. When they reached the grassy area in front of the tower, Dan stopped so quickly she bumped into him.  

A man with snow-white hair and beard and a black coat stood at the door to St. Rule’s tower, holding the door open with his left hand, iron keys jangling in his right. Hooded figures were disappearing into the tower. “Thanks, Pearson!” the last said cheerfully.  

“Just an hour, mind!” said the man, closing the door after them. 

“Pearson!” said Dan in a voice of deep shock, walking towards him. “What are you doing? No one’s allowed in the tower! You can’t social distance in there.”  

“Hello, Dan,” said Pearson, showing no surprise as he pocketed his keys. “And who’s this with you?” he asked as Kat approached. She smelled the rich, autumn-wood smell of pipe smoke coming from him. 

“We’re housemates,” said Kat. “Are you a warden?”  

“Aye, of a sort,” said Pearson, nodding. In the eerie light, his face was pale: laugh-lines around the mouth, frown-lines on his forehead, light crow’s-feet around his eyes. “I coom out for holidays like this one. It’s tradition, Dan,” he said to Dan, gently. “They’re the SOMA, you know.” 

“The what?”  

“Society of Mystical Astronomers,” said Pearson. “They read poetry on cloudy nights. Usually in the castle, but that’s booked for a midnight masquerade tonight. Do you like poetry?” he asked Kat. 

“Sometimes,” said Kat, smiling a little. “I like the Irish poets. Seamus Heaney. Yeats.”  

“It’s a good night for it,” said Pearson. “The thresholds are thinner.” He looked up at the cloudy sky. “He reached a middle height, and at the stars, / Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank. / Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank, / The army of unalterable law.”  

“Pearson, we’re looking for our other housemate,” said Dan. “Naira. Have you seen her?”  

“Pretty girl with dark hair?” said Pearson. “She dashed through here a while ago. Said she saw a child running by. Headed towards the sea.”  

“We need to find her,” said Dan. “Thanks.” He touched Kat’s arm, and they walked quickly towards the other gate. 

“He’s not all there,” said Dan softly, when they were out of earshot. “He’s not supposed to have keys, even. I like him, but…” 

“He reminds me of my grandpa,” said Kat dreamily. “He died last month.” 

“Oh,” said Dan. “I’m so sorry.” They were quiet as he fished out his own keys and let them out the iron  gate in the stone wall on the other side. A sea breeze hit them immediately. 

“Do you know what they call the two parts of the Church?” Dan asked suddenly as they turned right on the coastal path, toward the beach.  

“No.”  

“We, the living ones, are called the Church Militant,” said Dan. “The dead are the Church Triumphant.”  

The sea lay before them, dark and rippling. The waves were roaring tonight, receding from high tide. The yellow, white, and green lights of the houses and caravan park twinkled all the way up the coast past East Sands.  

“Do you see something down there?” said Dan suddenly. “By the water?” 

In the faint gleam of streetlights and dim glow of the sky, they could make out a dark patch on the beach.  

“Let’s look,” said Kat. They ran down the rest of the sidewalk over the bridge that spanned the river inlet and down to the sand, slipping and sliding.  

“Naira?” she called. The faint echo of an answer came through the wind. They ran the rest of the way down the beach, huge at low tide. Something fishy and seaweedy hit Kat’s nostrils as the wind shifted towards them, blowing her hair back.  

They reached the dark mass. “Oh,” said Kat, stopping. “It’s a whale.” 

The creature was the size of a car stretched into something long and narrower. It lay on its left side, fins splayed. “Oh, no,” said Dan. “It’s beached.” 

“Hey,” said a tired voice from the sand. Naira sat there, one leg stretched in front of her. A little boy with curly brown hair sat beside her, staring at them. 

“Naira!” Kat knelt beside her. “We’ve been looking for you! What happened?”  

“I saw a kid run by,” said Naira. “This one – his name is James. I followed him down here to make sure he was ok, and I saw the whale – he was sneaking out with his friends and they found it. I fell and hurt my ankle – I can’t put weight on it at all – and I left my phone. I can hear it trying to breathe,” she said shakily. “It’s going to get crushed under its own weight if we can’t get it back in the water.” 

“I’m calling the police,” said Dan, pulling out his phone again. 

“People are coming,” said Kat, taking off her coat and putting it on Naira. Voices echoed from up the beach; groups of iPhone flashlights wobbled toward them. In a few minutes, they were surrounded: people from Duke’s Court, St. George’s, George’s Place, and a few students from South Castle Street. 

“Don’t touch the whale!” Naira called. “It might have bacteria!” 

“Oh, the irony,” said Kat, massaging Naira’s hands to warm them up. 

A half hour later, even more people lined the sidewalk and clustered on the beach. The police cordoned off a perimeter around the whale as marine biologists from the university gathered around in lab coats and rubber gloves. 

“I really hope this doesn’t cause an outbreak,” said Naira, shivering and looking over the crowded beach as a paramedic examined her ankle.  

Someone lit a bonfire against the stone wall that bordered the beach, its red-orange blaze a fiery echo of the lights on the coast. The surf pounded as a team of researchers, police, and other volunteers started pushing the whale back into the sea with grunts and shouts of encouragement, a team of spotters rushing in to replace anyone who got tired.  

People cheered: the whale was only a few feet from the pounding waves. People slipped, slid, groaned, pushed until it was inches deep, a foot deep, pushed up by a wave and pulled back as it receded. Kat’s tiredness wove a dreaminess over the scene, so that individual moments swam by: Naira being carried off to the hospital for an X-ray; James being found, scolded, and carried off by his mother; the whale-pushers wading back through the surf, talking and laughing in ragged, triumphant voices; a small group of people in front of them suddenly beginning to sing. It was the group from the church.  

Gaudeámus omnes in Dómino, 
Diem festum celebrantes
Sub honore Sanctorum omnium: 
De quorum solemnitate gaudent Angeli, 
Et collaudant Filium Dei. 
Exsultate justi in Domino: 
Rectos decet colaudatio. 

As the police herded them back to their houses with warnings of forced isolation and fines, with the few words she heard and recognized – Gaudeamus (rejoice), Domino (God), Exsultate (exult) — echoing in her mind, she pictured the whale swimming back to the deep. Cloud-mountains sailed across the silvery patch of night sky where the moon hung. 

Reflections on the STC Conference 2019

Denver, Colorado in the rain.

In the gray days of February and March this year, I realized that the two conferences I wanted to go to in the spring were both in Colorado, both concerning writers, within a week of each other.

I returned home after the first one last week, the Imagination Redeemed conference. On Sunday, I flew out to Denver again for the Society for Technical Communication (STC) conference and returned late on Wednesday night.

The Imagination Redeemed conference was in Colorado Springs, that blooming valley in the mountains; the STC conference was in downtown Denver, where the brick-and-stone buildings were too short to block the rain-gray sky (unlike the dark skyscrapers of Manhattan – I couldn’t help comparing), and trees with bright green leaves or fresh blossoms dotted the sidewalks.

Though I didn’t plan to attend two conferences back-to-back, and my head spun with altitude sickness the first night and day, comparing the two gatherings was fascinating. Both organizations attract thoughtful, creative, and dedicated communicators who want to hone their craft and connect with people like them.

The STC is made of technical communicators, who help their coworkers or customers understand and use technical information: technical writers and editors, librarians, instructional designers, content strategists, and information architects from software, manufacturing, medicine, business and finance, and other industries.

As technical communicators (I’m a technical writer), we work with brilliant people – software developers, engineers, mechanics, architects, and others – to translate their complex knowledge into simple steps for audiences who benefit from their work. I attended sessions about integrating images and text, the power of story, career planning, best practices of knowledge management, and more.

The Imagination Redeemed conference focused on faith and beauty, imagination and worship; the STC conference focused on transforming the creations of geniuses into plain language and clear concepts. These gatherings represent two sides of my mind and heart that I’m cultivating in work and in play, united by a growing sense of yearning: I long to be a messenger, a world-maker, teacher, and healer through my writing, in my job and my own work.

Soon, I hope to write about how technical writing is so much more than the boring manual-writing I though it would be: how it’s as challenging, inspiring, and wonder-ful (in the old sense of the world) as studying English literature. For now, here are some resolutions as a technical writer to match the ones I made at the Anselm Society conference:

Tell stories for good – The STC conference reaffirmed what I already knew: that stories are powerful. From a technical writing perspective, stories help people understand complex concepts (think of how some people can remember all the plot threads in the Marvel universe) and remember important information. As a technical writer, I want to tell stories for good, to help people gain the knowledge they need to thrive.

Critical consumerism – One of the last speakers at the conference described how we can be critical consumers, thoughtfully examining the evidence to evaluate claims and rationales. Does the speaker’s conclusion exaggerate the evidence or ignore key findings? In the workplace and the rest of my life, training myself to examine evidence will guard me against misconceptions and manipulation.

Wonder in the ordinary – Several speakers emphasized the ancient roots of technical writing: from cairns marking paths in the mountains, to cave paintings, to medieval manuscripts, humans have been teaching each other to do complicated tasks since the beginning of time. I used to think technical writing was dull work, typing up thick manuals of small black text that no one wanted to read. Over this year, I’ve tasted the joy of learning how to uncover the creative genius of software developers and communicate it to non-experts: detective work as close to my childhood dreams of being Nancy Drew as I’ll probably get in real life.

It’s good to find wonder in your work; good to sit in awe of the mind of the Creator as you see the beauty of the human mind in lines of software code, or complex machinery, or the rhythm of a sonnet. In my technical and creative writing, I want to awaken that wonder in others.

My real vocation – A speaker on a podcast I listened to yesterday said that “you work to feed your dream, and then you work on your dream to feed your everyday work” (clumsy paraphrase). Am I a technical writer in the “real world,” to earn a living, or am I “really” a creative writer who has a day job so she can eat? Both – maybe not forever, but for this season, my real vocation is to become skilled at both types of writing.

But I’m back to New England again, at least for a few weeks. The cherry trees are blossoming in bright pink clusters; the rest of the leaves are peeking from the edges of tree-fingers; and I can walk along the beach at sunset with my sister and talk about life. Summer is stirring, and I have writing to do.

White blossoms on a branch.