This has been a great year of travels for me. Travels to Chattanooga, to mourn a beloved leader and writer. Travels to New York, to explore and become inspired. Travels to Belgium, to drink copiously, eat tons of chocolate, and celebrate the merriment of one of my closest friends’ wedding. Travels to Denver, to gaze upon the mountains, laugh with my best friend, and remind myself why I’m still a Christian.
And now, my final trip of the year, to Black Mountain, North Carolina to attend the C.S. Lewis Symposium at Montreat.
I’ve been to many C.S. Lewis conferences before (I am just that level of nerd) but this one was particularly special and poignant for a number of reasons. I love driving through the rolling multicolored hills of Tennessee into the Smoky Mountains in the fall–it’s a magical, nine hour reprieve for me, where I sing, pray, drink coffee, and think about my life. The introvert’s dream. I was also reconnecting with a bunch of fellow C.S. Lewis scholars and friends that I hadn’t seen for a few years. Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis’ stepson and one of the very few remaining people to have had a personal relationship with Lewis, attended and was a keynote speaker.
And of course, the heartbreaking realization that a year prior, I was in the exact same place for the very first Evolving Faith conference. The last place I saw Rachel Held Evans alive. My final moments with her involved her taking my hands in prayer, holding up the line behind me, and asking God to watch over a refugee friend of mine. My final memory of Rachel was her praying over me and my friend. There is something beautiful in that, though grief clouds it too much for me to be truly appreciative.
I arrived in Black Mountain around noon last Tuesday, which gave me ample time to rest, meander around the little town, buy a ton of Madalyn McLeod prints, and reflect on what the day would hold for me. I forgot one of my books at my hotel room, so of course, I had no choice but to buy a new book to read during dinner. (I ended up with Patti Callahan Henry’s book “The Bookshop at Water’s End”, go read it, it’s fabulous.)
I met up with another fellow Inklings buff, my dear friend Rebecca–who I met at a C.S. Lewis & J.R.R. Tolkien conference in Oxford in 2016! I never fail to be inspired by Rebecca. She has a way of reminding me who I am and what I want to do with my life, whenever I feel a little wayward.
The first day I ended up running a little late (I stayed at the Red Rocker Inn, which has a magnificent breakfast that is sure to make you late for any morning plans you have in Black Mountain). I dashed through the doors and nearly crashed into Douglas Gresham–the stepson of C.S. Lewis.
I gaped at him for a minute until he noticed me gawping at him. “Oh, hello!”
I stammered out something unintelligible about how honored I was to meet him, how much I loved his mother, and I may have shoved my left forearm at him to show my tattoo. (He had to put on his glasses to read his mother’s quote) I then disappeared into the arena kicking myself for being so awkward.
After a quick welcome, we heard some opening remarks and an incredibly informative interview with Douglas Gresham. We learned about his frankly chaotic childhood, the deep love between his mother and Lewis, and his personal favorite Lewis book! (Till We Have Faces, if he HAD to choose!) A particularly striking moment for me was learning that Lewis actually wanted Joy’s name as a cowriter for Till We Have Faces–but she refused, telling him that she was a nobody and would detract from his sales. I’ve already felt intense sorrow for how Joy’s own talents and skills have been overshadowed by Lewis (certainly not purposefully) but this just topped it all off.
All of the talks were incredibly inspiring. Diana Glyer’s talk on the collaborative nature of the Inklings particularly struck me; I found myself scribbling out possible schedules for my own writing, making plans with fellow writer-scholars to have weekly call dates to encourage each other, etc. I loved learning about Lewis’ poetry, Dorothy L. Sayers’ love of film, and of course how she wasn’t afraid of calling Lewis out!
There were so many moments of personal validation. Dr. Don King suggesting that Lewis’ final sonnets, written around the end of Joy’s life may have been in response to reading her sonnets about him–we cannot prove that, but oh, how lovely would that be? (Can’t help but think of how Patti Callahan fictionalized that possibility in her book, with Lewis teasing Joy!)
I had a proper redo with Douglas Gresham and was able to give him a copy of Heath McNease’s album which was written in response to some of Lewis’ major works. I reiterated, again, how much I loved his mother’s poetry and how much I loved her. (“I loved her too!” was his response!) I still wish I could’ve conveyed it a little better–how I often worry about fitting in the seemingly stringent lines of Christian womanhood, and how Joy’s boisterous and courageous demeanor reminds me that there IS no ideal of Christian womanhood.
And smaller validations, like learning that Douglas Gresham was very against the Susan-Caspian kiss in the film, he was as tired of hearing complain about Susan’s fate as I was, and how Hollywood tends to ruin good things.
But the most meaningful moment of the conference came AFTER the conference.
There was a quiet gathering on a large front porch where we formed a large circle, smoked pipes and drank scotch. (And cider and something else that I can’t remember what it was because of the scotch.) It was something akin to the Inklings–if the Inklings had ever been invaded by five women, one of whom (the ravishing Rebecca I mentioned previously) showed me how to use a pipe, puffed away at her own, and pulled out her knitting.
Lewis may have loved male company, but God do I love female fellowship.
What a time it was! Douglas Gresham showed up too, with his documentarian Robert, and Dr. Root had my other dear friend Jennifer start the gathering out with a poem. We interviewed each other, I had a chance to tell Douglas Gresham about a nonfiction project in the works, we laughed, we puffed, but most of all, we listened. Douglas Gresham never ran out of stories to tell us, stories about his mother, stories about his stepfather, stories about a policeman’s hand smacking him in the forehead while he was gazing at a pretty girl, stories, stories, stories. We drank it in completely and I felt awash in gratitude and warmth. Someday I will get to tell my children, my grandchildren, that I shared scotch and pipes with C.S. Lewis’ stepson. Someday I will get to say that the Inklings had a rebirth of sorts. (But with more women!)
I even had a private moment with Douglas Gresham, that I will only share with personal friends–but it was no less meaningful, no less magical, and no less…amazing.
But while I was enchanted and delighted and inspired, I was also…reminded. Reminded of how far we need to go and what I dream for the conference.
I was speaking to a fellow attendee named Kasey, a fascinating fellow philosophy nerd (you will pry alliterative descriptions from my frozen, festering, phalanges) and she mentioned something that had struck me. She’d thanked one of the conference organizers for including women in the speaker lineup (two women is pretty good for these kind of conferences) but honestly told him that she would’ve appreciated women on the final wrap-up panel. (The final panel of the day included only men.) He became very defensive, claimed one of them was sick and the other was busy. And then, “we do what we can.” And then walked away from her.
These sort of dismissals are disheartening, especially for women in academics. Particularly after an invigorating talk about polarity and for the C.S. Lewis world to be more inclusive and welcoming of diversity. This is not to disparage the hard work it takes to create a huge event like this. I’m very thankful and very grateful towards all of the organizers for making this happen. But nevertheless…this is something we need to talk about.
Kasey very kindly shared her notes with me and she said something rather striking. “Diversity isn’t a tagline, it’s an intention.” Wow! What would an Inklings conference look like if we had diversity as an intention?
What if this didn’t offend us? What if we didn’t have to be defensive? What if we took a page out of Evolving Faith’s book and strove every year to be more inclusive and diverse? To showcase viewpoints different than our own? Suppose we made an intention to include, invite, and encourage POC scholars? Female scholars? LGBTQ scholars?
I know, I know. I don’t know how the wildly Evangelical audience would take to a transgender scholar talking about his or her theories on Lewis and gender. But I think, because of Lewis, we could lean into that discomfort and allow the Holy Spirit to show us something new.
I feel confident that older white men will not be the main demographic of C.S. Lewis and Inklings scholarship. (I have NOTHING against older white men, I have so many friends who are older white men!) I think there is enough room at the table for multiple perspectives, even ones I disagree with vehemently, to be expressed and welcomed.
Think of the Inklings themselves. Sure, they were bunch of older white men, but they were a bunch of older white men who competitively debated, who argued, who critiqued, who yelled over foaming pints of beer their objections.
Suppose we made space for disagreement, diversity, and more voices?
The table might be crowded. But I have a love of crowded tables.