Two Poems for St. Andrew’s

When I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland to pursue my master’s degree, I was convinced that I would love that little town of stone and sea with my whole being. I was sure that falling in love with its historic ruins, its adorable streets, and its rain-purified air would be simple. Yet I found myself struggling to feel that the town loved me in return; I felt that it was too old and beautiful and historic to care much about insignificant little me and so I composed this lament in the darkness of its second winter:

Under your fast-burning, crystallised veil
I was convinced for a moment
That I was—
I am
—the only one you’ve ever loved.
But you sucked premature kisses
From my chapped lips
In cold plumes which vanished all-too-fast.
Ah. So you’ve been loved before.
All who came before and beside me
Have felt the same,
And you have been too-oft beloved
To love me alone
Unique.

And yet, one morning, the voice of the sea called me to the crumbling altar of the cathedral and forced me to my knees. In an instant, I fell into a long-sought love. In a sudden sunburst, St. Andrew’s sang its love to me in the dawning of a longed-for spring:

I followed a gentle roaring east
And, warmed by the first true morn in months,
I slowed my walk from its rushing stride
To the timid tread of a spring-time bride.

For this one moment,
Wind-rocked and still,
I felt the touch of an unseen warmth
And the strengthening sun
Burned bright my veil away…
And an untied shoelace brought me low
And made me a muddy homage pay.

 

Flat Stanley’s Grown-up Adventure

Remember Flat Stanley? I’m sure many of you reading this are experiencing a burst of nostalgia. “Ah, yes!” you might think, “I remember sending Flat Stanley to my family in Michigan and receiving a cool postcard!”

Alternately, I may have accidentally rekindled anger toward lazy relatives who made up excuses for putting minimal effort into the project: “Oh, Stanley? He was . . . er . . . he was the one taking the photo! That’s why he’s nowhere to be seen . . . ”

Well, you know you’ve grown up when—rather than sending your two-dimensional pal to friends in far-off places—you become the one who gets to document his incredible journey. (Seriously, as soon as you receive a ballot, a bank statement, and a Flat Stanley in your mailbox, you know you have officially become an adult.)

A few weeks ago, I had the fun of being asked to show a preschooler’s Flat Stanley around Scotland, where I was studying. Unfortunately, the sudden spread of the current pandemic sent me packing long before I’d planned, but looking back on the photos I took with Stanley during my last few weeks abroad helped restore my good humor. (Or, as we say in the UK, humour.) I’ll have to sort out which of the following photos are preschool-friendly, but I’ll share them all here since those of you also in quarantine may enjoy the imaginative escape.

 

Flat Stanley’s Scottish Adventure

Flat Stanley arrived on a normal Scottish day. It was cold, windy, and rainy. He immediately regretted his choice of business casual attire for, although he looked classy, he was thoroughly chilled.

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Ryanne, Stanley’s hostess, was kind enough to draw him a kilt and he found it both a functional and freeing fashion choice. Now properly attired, he was ready to live his best Scottish life.

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Since it was too stormy to go outside, Stanley had fun building a fort out of Ryanne’s library books.

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Stanley discovered that Bailey’s Irish cream makes hot cocoa much more delicious. Ryanne was careful to cut him off before this became a problem.

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When the sun finally came out, Stanley explored the ruins of St. Andrew’s cathedral but when the wind nearly blew him away, he had to return to the safety of Ryanne’s backpack. He seemed woefully ignorant of the cathedral’s historical significance anyway.

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Hanging on tight so as not to fly across the sea to continental Europe, Stanley enjoyed watching the waves at the beach.

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To Stanley’s dismay, however, he learned the old lesson of “It’s all fun and games until someone gets kilt” when some rival clansmen ran his kilt up the flagpole.

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Having recovered from his shock, Stanley joined Ryanne and a friend on a day trip to Cupar, a nearby town. He took a selfie but tried to delete it when he noticed that he had a smudge on his “good side.”

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Both Ryanne and her friend settled into a café to work on their term papers and Stanley kindly offered his editorial assistance.

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Unfortunately, Stanley began to take his duties too seriously, giving Ryanne the worst grade of her life and smiling heartlessly all the while.

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Stanley did not stop there, however, but—with a maniacal laugh—relentlessly marked-up Ryanne’s entire paper.

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Suddenly, though, Stanley stopped. Still smiling emptily, he realized something horrific.

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He had been red-penning Ryanne’s paper and yet, he himself was made of paper!

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Shocked at the monstrosity of ruthlessly editing pages upon pages of his own Flat Stanley flesh, he screamed.

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As his outburst echoed throughout the café and faded once more into silence, Stanley sighed. “After all,” he realized, “‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is a lesson we all must learn.”

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And yet, despite his regained composure, Stanley wondered how many Flat friends might have been made from the paper Ryanne wasted on her rough draft. He decided, though, that this is a tricky ethical question far beyond his elementary education.

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Instead of continuing to wrestle with ethics, Stanley decided to enjoy some local art. He especially liked this picture of a highland cow, also called a “hairy coo.” He wanted to bring one home as a pet, but Ryanne explained patiently that the US customs agents would not be supportive of this idea.

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World Book Day happened to take place during Stanley’s visit. Being in Scotland, he decided to dress up as Harry Potter.

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Sadly, both Stanley and Ryanne had to return to the United States unexpectedly due to travel bans in response to the spread of a pandemic. Stanley, fortunately, cannot catch anything, but he is spending two weeks in quarantine with his hostess as an act of solidarity. Jet-lagged and tired, Stanley is now enjoying a bit of rest and working on his reading list which, ironically, includes Fahrenheit 451.

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“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

A Lesson in Time

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I posed for this picture without really putting much thought into the words on the wall. Right now, I am where I want to be: at home, writing in my favorite spot with snickerdoodles in the oven. At the same time, though, I am still caught in the in-between. This weekend, I will visit a dear person and place in California. Two days later, I’ll return home to Arizona for a day. Then, I’ll turn right back around and fly to the UK for another semester. I am everywhere and nowhere, yet the words “You are right where you are supposed to be” ring true in my ears. 

“How can this discontent in-between be where I am supposed to be?” I wondered (not for the first time) as I sat down at the piano this evening. I struck the opening chords of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, and let muscle memory take over. As I played this familiar piece, I found myself struggling as always with timing; despite grueling hours with a metronome, I still slow down in the bits I really love and skim over the more treacherous passages.

My life (as is so often the case) parallels my musical practice. Before returning to the United States for Christmas, I remember praying that my month at home would feel at least as long as my grueling month of final papers and exams. I hoped so desperately that the unpleasant days before my departure would speed by and that my equal time at home would somehow slow down. Yet, predictably, my final month of the semester felt like an eternity and now—although I feel like I’ve barely touched down—I am preparing to leave once more. Try as I might, I cannot alter time.

Similarly, a superficial manipulation of speed does not improve the music I produce. While it might allow me to linger in lovely passages and rush through nasty technical bits, my inability to keep time destroys the beauty of balance. In his Barcarolle, Chopin writes gorgeous lines that my hasty fingers destroy in their race to the finish. He also includes glorious melodies that my romantic soul savors in excess. Unchecked, I easily make a lopsided, sentimental mess of one of the greatest works of piano literature.

The mantra that “music is in the silence between the notes” is attributed to Mozart, Debussy, and Miles Davis. While its origins might be murky, the quote itself—much like the literal writing on the wall in my photograph—rings true. Without the proper placement of sound and silence, there can only randomness and noise. Music, then, is made by ordering these contrasting elements within time.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1

Music, like earthly life, is a temporal art. Both are worked out and made beautiful in time. Although I grew to despise the metronome that revealed my faulty counting, it taught me to work through difficult passages and to not cling to smooth phrases beyond their allotted pages. Whether playing an exquisite harmony or a grating dissonance, I was right where I needed to be within the piece and in time. Only by realizing that time is the basis for musical movement and beauty could I begin to submit to the metronome, the composer’s writing, and—ultimately—to the proper engagement of sound and silence, dissonance and harmony, ease and struggle.

In the same way, though I resent the travel schedule that hastens my departure from home, I am thankful, for it is one of the beams that measure my days. In the dissonance of not only being in my early twenties but also moving between continents, I too-often fear that I am not where I am supposed to be. However, while the place may not always be ideal, the timing is perfect.

“O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!”
– Psalm 39:4 (ESV)

As in a well-composed piece of music, I may struggle with technique or indulge in romanticism, but I cannot skip ahead or return to before. Instead, the order and beauty of the music depend upon recognizing that the present is always moving yet always where it is meant to be in time. In this musical, mysterious way, I am always exactly where I am supposed to be. 

Hallow Hill

The hill was ghostly. Even before finding an old sign revealing its history as an early Christian burial site, I could sense the tension between life and death in the air that chilled my face. It was a place pulsing with potential, yet quiet and lonely as a sleeping giant. Insignificance and eternity confronted me as I felt at once my own smallness amidst the swirling mist and the faint-but-discernable presence of those sleeping beneath the grass and dirt.

And so, here is a poem.

On Hallow Hill the lichen grows
On trees far, far too young to know
That ‘neath their root-laced, grassy shroud
There lies in loneliness a crowd.

O’erhead crows caw continuous gloom
As doves pray peace for th’unseen tomb.
Such sombre birds of ghostly air,
The only pilgrims passing there—

There where the earth, a swollen bride,
Still nurses those that testified:
Expecting, under dust and leaves,
The birth toward which her babes believed.

Listen! She lulls with willow song:
“Though ages pass, it shan’t be long!”
It shan’t be long ’til these hills cry
As Light tears through their cloud-hung sky.

So tune to joy, you mournful dove!
As bones reknit themselves in love
To stretch, to stand—to kneel—toward
The One who wakes them by His Word.

Maybe it’s Because of Winn Dixie

I’m reading Gone with the Wind again for what is somewhere between the fourth or seventh time. It seems that anytime I am between books, unsure what to read next, or feeling unsettled, I turn (second to my Bible) to that enormous novel for no better reason than that it is a darn good story.

But my relationship with Gone with the Wind has grown to run deeper than just loving its tale of hard times, moral dilemma, and, of course, gumption. I first read Gone with the Wind as a stressed-out sophomore in high school. I saw its spine in the school’s library and, although my Kaplan AP study guide glared reproachfully at me, I could not resist cracking it open and reading its first page.

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

Talk about an intriguing opening line! In it, Margaret Mitchell’s beautifully direct yet alluring voice is already clear and called me to continue deeper into the story of Miss O’Hara. And, though AP exams were looming, I rationed out a chapter each night in the copy that now is bedraggled and overread and never far from my bedside table.

My freshman year of college drove me back beneath the covers of Gone with the Wind. Once more, the story swept me away and restored my own sense of gumption. Like Scarlett, I was able to “square my small shoulders” and boldly face the world. Again and again, each spring semester I found myself returning to Tara and Atlanta and the fascinating courtship of Scarlett and Rhett Butler.

Once I began traveling internationally, I downloaded a Kindle edition so that I could continue my annual reread. The novel has been a constant as I’ve flown around Europe, studied in the UK, and hopped between Southern California and Arizona during long, uneventful summers. Now, it is keeping me company during a grueling layover in Amsterdam as I head to Scotland to begin my postgraduate studies.

In reflection, I’ve known and loved Gone with the Wind far longer than I even realized; in fact, you might say that I was introduced to it through a mutual friend. At a party a week ago, I was suddenly anxious. There were too many people, too many colors, too much noise. And I had too much to do, too many unfinished chores and unpacked cases waiting at home. I wanted to sink through the floor and cry. But then I found, nestled on a bookshelf, a copy of Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie and felt the tension diffuse as if I’d sighted a dear friend with whom I could enjoy comfortable silence even amidst the chaos of the party.

So I sat down and, as I did many years ago, began to read. Opal and Winn Dixie and the Preacher greeted me with welcome arms and I felt companionship in their worries and homesickness. And as I read on, I remembered that in the pages of this children’s story, I was first introduced to the novel that has come to dominate my adult reading life.

Reading Because of Winn Dixie, now and as a child, brought a sense of calm when I needed it most and, I think, planted the seed that eventually led me to Gone with the Wind. So I suppose all this is really a thank-you letter of sorts— to Margaret Mitchell, for her epic novel, and to Kate DiCamillo, for introducing us. Dear authors, your words have been friends to me in so many places and stages; I only hope to inspire others to read them and, one day, to have my own stories shelved beside them.

 

To Travel: A Sonnet

I was a stranger here yet better known
Away from all I thought myself to be—
Away from all routines that made me, me,
I found myself in being severed grown.

Away from all the people I loved best
I found myself in newer company—
I found my soul in this older country
Away from where in strivings I would rest.

I came in laughter ready to enjoy
Yet leave a somewhat sadder, wiser heart—
Yet leave more whole for being torn apart,
I return dyed a deeper shade of joy.

Away I went to see the world’s wide wealth,
I return now, a world within myself.