Summer of Faerie: Poetry, a Golden Wood, and Departure

Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year – the days when summer is changing into fall – the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, chapter XV, “The Crickets”

I hope I never lose my awe at the change of seasons, the year’s wheel turning from red to white to green to gold. This year, the whispers of autumn in the cool breezes and silver-dipped backs of leaves hurts me as much as it excites me. This summer was a dream, from the beauty of blue horizons and pink beach-roses to the amazing contributions to the Summer of Faerie project.

I’m ready to go to Scotland; ready for the long flight, the two-week quarantine, the world of books and music and art I will enter with the other students in my MLitt program. It will be good and hard and beautiful and strange. I have never lived in a foreign country; I have been dreaming of going to grad school for five years; I’m longing to dig deep into the richness of study; I’m nervous about the many things I don’t know, like what grocery store brands to buy or whether I can keep track of the dollar/pound conversion in my head.

I wrote this poem to capture some of the beauty of this summer and a little of the scattered research I’ve done of Faerie.

Faerie Country

The lake

Dipping paddles into darkness, stirring
Pollen gold dust over pondering deep,
We tune our ears by cicadas’ whirring,
Hearing loons cry ah-oo, spell of noon’s sleep.

Dragons dream below us. We glide like ghosts
Over their ancient rest, tree-covered spines
Watching like guards of a distant outpost
Hungry, listening, waiting for mythic signs.

Staghorn sumac raises scarlet pledges,
Toasting endless sky, hailing dark green peaks.
Silver birches gleam at twilight’s edges.
We pause, haunted, as night’s veil speaks.

The dream

Golden moment: scent of pine in a glade
Swirling rich and sweet. Steep hills overgrown,
Tangled with roots. Heat shimmers; phantoms fade.
Did I dream it, or remember? Unknown.

The river

Eelgrass rustles; breezes finger willows.
Fireflies blink and twirl in shadowed trees.
Green-Guards conduct the peepers’ twilight show,
Their song of sleeping kings and emerald seas.

Orange seaweed drifts up from the sea caves
Remnants of the Sea Folk’s midnight fun.
Splashes: kids jump off the bridge into waves.
Tide-Keepers giggle, scales glinting with sun.

Mourning doves cry oo-ah while the Dawn-Beasts
Breathe on windows of a morning, fogging glass.
Packing quickly, I watch the kindling east
Turning green to gold. The zenith has passed.

There seems to be an unwritten rule that artists should never explain the meaning of their work: they can either remain mysteriously silent or drop cryptic hints. I’m going to break that a little now to explain the middle section of the poem, “The dream” because there’s a mystery there. Since spring, I’ve had a recurring daydream of a golden wood, a pine hollow baked dry and amber by the sun, full of hills that roots break through. It’s warm, silent, peaceful, safe, beautiful, sad. There might be a castle nearby; I think it has a wishing well. It may be from a book or movie (Ever After, Bridge to Terebithia, The Book of Three, Prince Caspian) or somewhere I have traveled (New Hampshire, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania, Yosemite). I thought it might be in Acadia National Park, but I didn’t find it there in June.

As I included that dream in my poem, I read Rebecca D. Martin’s beautiful article, on the Rabbit Room, “The Stories of Others.” I liked it so much that I went back and reread her Rabbit Room article from February, “Significant Lights.” The fourth paragraph brought me to a full stop: she describes a childhood dream

… infused with a beauty so rich I can still sense it. In the dream, I walked through a golden wood, as haunting as autumn, as living as spring. There were elements other than the forest, too: a castle, the sense of mystery, a deep feeling of belonging and hope, and even sorrow—a pervasive sadness that I couldn’t keep staying here in this most perfect place. . . . sometimes I still lay on the edge of sleep longing for a glimpse of that forest again.

Is my golden wood a subconscious memory of Rebecca’s article? (Probably.) Or did we both dream of the same place, miles and years apart? I have no idea, but the second idea reminds me of something I read in Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on Water: L’Engle noticed that a certain image she used in her book A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a bonfire of roses, also appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, George MacDonald The Princess and Curdie, and T.S. Eliot Little Gidding.

Where did the fire of roses originate? I suspect that it goes back beyond human memory.
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, chapter 10, “The Journey Homeward”

Is the golden wood a whisper of Deep Magic? I want to believe that.

I think the golden wood will haunt me in the darkness of winter in Scotland (six hours of light per day). I think it will come back to me when I slop through slush in the streets or feel cold, wet winds slicing through my jacket. I hope that instead of making me grumpy and discontent (as I can be), that fragrant silence, delicious heat, and golden radiance warm me from the inside out.

Songs of Summer: Yearning for Purpose and Community

In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Emily’s gruff teacher shuffles through her poetry with a critical eye and sarcastic asides. “Ode to Winter – the seasons are a sort of disease all young poets must have, it seems,” he remarks.

If delight in the seasons is a disease, I’m not sure I want to recover. The music of spring, summer, autumn, and winter fascinates me. When I was younger and obsessed with summer, I felt the year was a great wheel that reached its joyous climax in midsummer before turning back down to autumn.

I’m only two and a half years out of school, and I still analyze each year separately. Each summer since college has brought its own blessings, challenges, and questions of yearning.

How Yo You Fully Live? Yearning for Purpose

The first summer after college, I had just gotten my first job. Every day, I thanked God that I found work that used my writing skills – but sitting alone in a cubicle in a dead-silent office all day was hard. I was lonely and bored.

Is this what real life is like? I asked myself. Did all my teachers in school inspire me to change the world and follow my heart just so I could tap away at a computer for the rest of my life?

One weekend, I went with some friends to a lake house in the mountains. We slathered on cool-smelling sunscreen and played catch in the blue shallows under the hot July sun. After a while, I sat on the warm wooden dock to listen to my friends talk and watch the others laugh and splash in the game.

How do you fully live in this world? I kept pondering. Is this how you do it – work a boring job all week so you can have fun on the weekends? 

For all the life principles Sunday School and my parents taught me, I couldn’t figure it out. How does God want us to balance pleasure and pain? Should we (American Christians, in my case) try to make money to donate to good causes and enjoy, or become foreign missionaries and live on beans? Should we pursue work that’s interesting, noble, or lucrative?

I couldn’t answer these questions under the hot July sun, or through that long year. In retrospect, I think God was teaching me to seek Him, not just a lifestyle or a calling that was labeled and packaged with a bow. The words of Ravi Zacharias helped with my questions about pleasure and pain:

Anything that refreshes you without distracting or diminishing or destroying your final goal is a legitimate pleasure.

“How do we fully live?” is a question to ask every day, not just once. However, if my final goal is to glorify God, I should enjoy pleasure that refreshes me on the way and persevere through pain. But my gaze needs to stay firmly on Him.

How Can I Participate in Community? Yearning for Fellowship

My second summer out of college was possibly the happiest of my life (though that summer after kindergarten with the slip n’ slide was pretty great). I had just changed jobs and now had kind, thoughtful coworkers who I could actually see and talk to, interesting work, and a gorgeous New England town of cobblestone streets and a blue harbor to explore.

In this new place and new commute, I ached to invest in friendships and meaningful work. How do you participate in community? I wondered, especially toward the end of last summer. Outside of the microcosmic bubble-worlds of high school and college, how do you build relationships and find good causes to join in? After some research and seeking, I found a Christ-centered, vibrant church and joined a small group and a ministry.

Those two weekly church events were torches through that fall and dark, cold winter. Some nights, I arrived breathless and feeling as though burning frost was eating away my skin. Some nights, swan’s-feather snow and icy highways kept me at home. But the nights I could go were feasts of fellowship: warm, encouraging, funny, and fascinating. 

My small group read through the Book of Acts and watched the drama of the fledgling Church unfold, marveling at Peter’s new wisdom in the Spirit, of Paul’s perseverance for the church. The ministry group centered on carrying the light of grace and hope into some of the darkest places I know of.

How do you participate in community? is a question is one to ask in every season of life, not just once, but I began to discover that loving friendships and worthwhile work (especially ministry) go together. Striving side by side is the best way to find the intimacy of understanding and trust – easier and more lasting than building relationships on conversation alone.

This Summer

This summer is slipping past like a dream, and it’s different from the last two: I don’t know that there’s a central question yet, other than how can I find joy in a season of waiting? 

Even as I worry about every unknown, I remember how lovingly God has shepherded me through post-graduate life. I need to learn again the simple trust of abiding. And, in the meantime, attend to my summer adventure bucket list before these golden days are gone.

Literary Role Models and Self-Revelation

Greek city on a mountain at sunset.
Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

I first wandered into the wild garden of Greek myths in second grade, during our private reading times at school. The classroom bookshelf had a huge picture book of gold, copper, ruby, and charcoal illustrations and (censored) versions of the most famous myths. I learned the melodic Greek and regal Roman names, magic on the tongue (Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno), personalities, and powers of each character. Picking my favorite stories, and my favorite characters, was self-revelation and self-identification.

I picked my favorite goddesses: Athena and Hestia. I liked the serenity of Athena’s name, by her grey eyes, and her domestic and military powers – wisdom, craftsmanship and artistry, and battle strategy. I liked that she stayed relatively innocent amidst the other gods’ drama.

I liked the sweetness and peace of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. I liked the comfort and safety of home that she represented, the love and fellowship that her fire symbolized, and her quietness.

I didn’t like Aphrodite. Her taunting, flaunted beauty and airy carelessness reminded me too much of the pretty, popular, and mean girls whom I judged (unfairly) and envied (foolishly). Her arrogance reminded me too much of what I disliked in myself.

My favorite story was Cupid and Psyche’s. Psyche represented the woman I longed to be: beautiful, desirable, kind, and courageous. I’ve heard readers and scholars complain about the fairy-tale convention of “princesses who just sit around and wait for princes to rescue them.” I liked the idea of being rescued, but I also dreamed of being brave. Psyche was both; she went on a difficult quest, but still was rescued by a handsome husband and lived happily ever after.

These preferences have become valuable memories in adulthood, amber-frozen longings of my eight-year-old self. Though I found many other literary role models, these three help me understand myself better now. I recognize my longing for the qualities that Athena, Hestia, and Psyche symbolized: wisdom, confidence, freedom, security, and of course, unfading beauty.

In college, I struggled to find a paper topic for my “Classical Literature” course (you’d think after a few thousand years there would be more scholarship on ancient Latin and Greek texts), and finally contrasted the character of the goddess-guides in the Aeneid and the Odyssey. My old loyalty to Athena, and dislike of Aphrodite, held up under my research.

In the Odyssey, Athena shepherds her friend Odysseus with compassion and concern. She restores the peace to Ithaca and a joy to his and Penelope’s marriage bed and hearthfire that must have pleased Hestia.

In the Aeneid, Aphrodite hauls her son Aeneas across kingdoms and continents in total indifference to his happiness. She forces him to love, and leave, Dido of Carthage, and brings war and chaos to Italy.

I began my paper with the underlying truth behind the goddess-guides, though now I think my thesis sounds pretentious: wisdom is a better guide than passion.

Eight years old is so young – but remembering my eager search for role models reminds me that yearning to be something more than who we are begins early. My yearning helps me see who I was and who I longed to be.

For Creative Writers

Think about your favorite characters from childhood reading. What did they tell you about your own nature, and what you wanted to be? You can use these reflections in self-examination in personal essay and memoir, as well as in building believable characters.

For example:

Self-reflection

  • If you loved Hermione Granger from J.K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series, was it her intelligence, her kindness, her sense of humor, or her friendships that attracted you? What does this tell you about your self-image?
  • Which is your favorite Marvel or DC Comics superhero, and why? Is it the character’s personality or superpowers that you find most attractive?
  • Have you read a book or watched a movie with a protagonist who you strongly disliked? If so, consider why: what does this tell you about yourself and your own relationships?

Character-building

  • Write down 10-20 fictional characters from various mediums (books, movies, TV, etc.) and genres on pieces of paper and mix them up. Pick 5 and make those the favorite characters of your own character. What does this say about your character’s personality and dreams?
  • Create a map of character traits (cheerful, angry, intelligent, anxious, etc.) for your character: three things they are, three things they want to be, and three things they don’t want to be. Match each character trait with a role model and show how your character’s actions are shaped by their self-perception and dreams.

Cleats and Lipstick: Community and the Stuff of Life

In the rows of long gray tables in my elementary school cafeteria, the girls sat in groups. The tomboys sat with the boys in T-shirts and shorts. The girly-girls sat in groups of their own in flowery dresses and skirts, their hair tied back in colorful scrunchies, looking at the boys and then at each other, giggling. I sat alone in my corner, looking out at the playground and daydreaming about the Narnia book I just finished.

When my gaze wondered, I frowned at the tomboys, remembering the gracefulness and beauty of Disney princesses and the heroines of my favorite books. (Somehow the athletic grace and beautiful strength of Mulan, Eilonway, Aravis, and other favorite book characters didn’t occur to me). I also frowned at the girly-girls, thinking about all that my mom told me about inner beauty.

Clumsy and awkward in gym class, and paradoxically careless and shy in my appearance, I didn’t feel attracted to either group. I created two false binaries in my mind between sports and femininity, appearance-consciousness and inner beauty: I chose to think that I was too feminine to be a tomboy and too conscious of inner beauty to be a girly-girl.

And I sat alone for years. I drifted in and out of groups in the cafeteria and on the playground. Some years, I found girls to run and play with at recess, but other years I had no one. I watched the girls I saw laughing and talking in groups in the school hallways with envy, and read the weekend fun they displayed in Facebook posts. I played sports myself, field hockey and lacrosse, through high school. Books about deep friendships like the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wrinkle in Time series, and the City of Ember series were my escape, and I thought suffering and hardship would be worth it if I could only have the friendships they portrayed. I yearned for intimacy, sharing, community, but had no idea how to pursue it in real life.

Now that I’ve survived middle and high school and college and entered the working world, I find that the women I work with have the athletic talents of tomboys and the mannerisms of the girly-girls: they love spin class and marathons, their makeup and hair are polished, their clothing is designed and arranged carefully. I’m learning that you need to present yourself well (hair, clothing, makeup) and have healthy, fun things to talk about (hobbies or sports) in order to engage in the life-sharing and communion of experience that is friendship. And I realize now that my elementary-school-self’s scorn for tomboys and girly-girls both was a mistake based on a half-truth.

I thought I was choosing femininity and inner beauty by scorning the sports clothes, the hair styling, the clothes, the makeup. I’m realizing now that the things I scorned were part of the “stuff of life,” the mediums through which girls experienced friendship and fun. In pursuing strength, speed, style, and beauty (good things, though they don’t determine a person’s value), girls formed the bonds I longed for. Complimenting another girl on her outfit affirmed her; practicing drills or running together supported her; borrowing each other’s shoes expressed solidarity and trust; recommending different brands and sharing tips were signs of caring.

The writing class I took last fall taught me that abstract principles like love and kindness are mediated (communicated) through the concrete, physical world. In scorning other girls’ preoccupation with high heels and lipstick, cleats and lacrosse sticks, I thought I was being deep, not shallow: choosing the higher values of character over the shallow priorities of vanity. But my scorn wasn’t humility or wisdom – it was pride and ignorance. Sports and fashion can be beautiful, healthy ways of self-expression and avenues of friendship; a girl can pursue both as well as femininity and inner beauty. In rejecting them completely, I rejected one of the main opportunities to engage in community that my school years offered.

In the stories I want to tell, I need to express abstract truth through physical realities: the “stuff” that makes up other people’s lives. For example:

  • In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Cathy extends friendship to Hareton by giving him a book. Later, they plant a garden together.
  • In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the girls get ready for balls, skate, and do a hundred other activities together. John Brooke keeps Meg’s glove because he is falling in love with her.
  • In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s friendships with Diana and other girls fall into a pattern of school, church, and social events like concerts.

Below, I’ve listed some of the physical things and activities that I remember signified the tomboys and the girly-girls. To me, this “stuff” represented worlds I didn’t want to enter, but they could have been conduits for the connections I yearned for.

Tomboy “things”: soccer balls, field hockey sticks, cleats, mouth guards, goggles, gloves, shorts, water bottles, bats

Girly-girl “things”: perfume, hair straighteners, curlers, mascara, foundation, lip gloss, lipstick, concealer, eyeliner, eyeshadow, blush, eyelash curlers, clips, bobby pins, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, tops, sweaters, jeans, heels, boots, scarves

What “stuff” (from work, from hobbies, from leisure time) fills the lives of the people around you? How can connect with someone through the things they own? For example:

  • New homeowners – paint cans, brushes, spackle, couches, chairs, rugs, mirrors, bookcases, books, kitchen supplies, curtains, shovels, rakes, grass seed, sprinkling equipment, garbage cans, leaves, sticks, new plants
  • Chefs – pots, pans, dutch ovens, spatulas, spoons, rare ingredients, spices, condiments, favorite restaurants
  • Musicians – musical instruments, picks, polishes, audio equipment, music sheets
  • Boat building – wood, saw, sanders, stands, shed
  • Pets – beds, brushes, leashes, collars, electronic fences
  • Artwork – canvases, paint, paintbrushes, pastels, charcoal

Why Do We Love the Wild?

Fog spilling into a mountain canyon.

Humankind has covered most of this earth with cities and farms, villages and fields, but the idea of the Wild still haunts our legends. The idea of some vast, unknown region full of mystery and danger and wonder has latched on to our imaginations. From the Wild Wood in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to the Western Wild in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, we fear and love fearing the untameable.

My story-loving heart treasures even the word wilderness. Spoiled 21st century child that I am, I am safe from the real, unromantic hardships that pioneers faced in hacking a living out of a cold, dangerous world. I have the luxury of curling up on my bed and reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series or William Durbin’s The Broken Blade and tasting the excitement without the suffering. 

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented a paper on historians later named “The Turner thesis” or “the frontier thesis.” He argued that the idea and reality of the frontier, a vast stretch of land open to conquest, was essential in forming the American national character of democracy and individualism, opportunity and escape. In my own words, Turner argued that the Wild, or the conquest of the Wild, shaped America. (Read an article about the thesis here). 

I think Turner’s insight is very valuable, more than even he knew. The sense of destiny, of power, of righteous and ruthless progress, along with its dark side of violence, suffering, and guilt, has settled deep in our consciousness. 

Why do we love the wild, the wilderness? Why do we love the dog but romanticize the wolf? If we have evolved to supremacy by taming creatures, building farms out of forests, and conquering landscapes through cartography, why do we love the Wild instead of hating it?

The idea of the Wild is entertaining; a character stumbling through a dark forest or cold mountain ridge tugs at our interest and sympathy. The reality of the Wild, however, fulfills a different urge: the human longing for something greater than ourselves, something to strive for, something to seek with all our strength. 

Whatever it is, the Wild is an idea with staying power. Below are some ideas as to how writers can incorporate the Wild into new stories.

  • The traditional Wild region in a fantasy land: forests, mountains, lakes, oceans, swamps, deserts, any kind of geography becomes fascinating when a writer endows it with mystery. Make your Wild region unique, though, or it will be a tired cliché. Invent ways to make the landscape frightening and beautiful – creatures, plants, magic, anything. (See Jasper Fforde’s The Eye of Zoltar for an incredible example.)
  • The Wilds of space: space is the greatest Wild because it is the greatest unknown. New stars, planets, galaxies, intelligent creatures, clever ways of traveling (like tessering in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time) can never be boring as long as they are original creative. 
  • The Wild of other spaces: create a Wild world within something unexpected, like:
  • Mirrors (like Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass and Heather Dixon in Entwined).
  • Artwork (like Jacqueline West in The Books of Elsewhere, though I’m not a fan of the occult she adds in later books).
  • Photographs (kind of like Jenny Nimmo in the Charlie Bone series).
  • Music (I’m picturing something like Fantasia, but really, how can music be a Wild space?).
  • Hearts and minds (like Inside Out).
  • Dreams (like Inception or The Matrix).
  • Stories (like Fantastica in Michael Ende’s Neverending Story).