The title is T.S. Eliot’s line in the last stanza of The Waste Land, his 1922 cry for meaning in a world where all had seemingly gone mad. In the wake of the pointless slaughter of World War I, the old verities had lost their hold. Eliot responded with a lengthy poem of seemingly disconnected fragments: bits of old stories, remnants of forgotten myths, tag ends of religious ceremony, glimpses of relationships more bored than tragic.
When I first encountered the poem as an undergraduate, newly wed and full of joy, I hated it. Not even three years of English courses had given me tools enough to make sense of the senseless. Yet a patient professor (kudos to the young Dr. Ron Marken) initiated us into the very human enterprise of making meaning out of the shards that litter all lives, eventually—precious fragments that we gather and cling to as a way of holding chaos at bay.
In this post, written originally as my last column for the Prairie Messenger before it ceased publication, I salute the veritable fort of books with which I have built meaning into my life. In almost all the columns I wrote for the PM, some book or books hovered in the background, providing a focus or silently directing the process by which I tried to make sense of some experience or observed phenomenon.
This is not to disregard the teaching and influence of many good people who taught me lessons without which I would have lost my way far more frequently than I already have. It is just that as print media give way to other means of community-building, I want to praise the continued power of the written word and honor the friendship of all those many writers who invited me to enter their experiences, or their characters’, for my benefit. As Adele Wiseman once wrote about her own love affair with literature, in “stories life was in a sense holding still for [her] to look at and learn from and make judgments on” (Memoirs 7).
My copies of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poetry and Four Quartets are almost in tatters now. At such a time as my libraries (yes, that’s a deliberate plural—our house has more than one room) are dispersed, these little books will be tossed into the recycle bin. Meanwhile, I pick them up now and then, not only to remind myself of particular lines or to be drawn into Eliot’s profoundly mystic, yet grittily realistic images, but also to converse again with my younger self who was once stunned to discover how poetry could expand the soul and revivify the world.
Many other old literature textbooks (anthologies, poetry, novels) still claim space on my bookshelves because they likewise belong to my identity. I now own an almost new volume of Shakespeare’s plays in which I can reread as much as I wish, and the internet makes searching for quotations easy. Yet I cannot part with my well-worn copy. It was lent (given?) to me by my sister for my very first seminar class; it had already been copiously annotated with her delicate script.
During that difficult, painful year, when family cohesiveness was strained almost to the breaking point, I studied obsessively, pondering Shakespeare’s poetic wisdom, and linking it forever with the now essential relationship with my sister. When I pull that heavy book from the shelf now, even if only to raise a flat of bedding plants under grow lights, I breathe again within a sisterly love that made all the difference in the world. As Hamlet ruefully—and gratefully—observed, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Indeed.
The religious shelves of my library tell another co-existent version of who I am. Unlike my literature collection, which shaped my identity twice—once as a confused, struggling, student, and again as an instructor who relied on all those books to supply exactly the right lines for the moment—my religious collection is a record of a journey, with very little circling back to my former self.
While once upon a time, the very evangelically oriented books of John White and Leanne Payne offered some kind of salvation, most have long since been sent to some book sale. Likewise several books on Christian womanhood and marriage, and a variety of how-to-live-right volumes of theological advice. The Edna who needed those books has changed; once-valued texts have little to say to me now.
Our identity is forged in the crucible of human interactions and experiences, both of which are temporal, even fleeting. One cannot freeze a conversation, except by writing it down (already an interpretive act); one anchors an experience often by tethering it to some solid physical entity, such as pictures, souvenirs, furniture, clothing, even journal entries.
There are those who collect stuff, preserve even the broken teacup and old newspapers. Others stockpile pictures, physical and digital. For some, regrettably, the shoring up of fragments becomes pathological as the fragile identity cannot bear to lose anything.
I gather and keep most of my books. I keep buying new ones, too. I warehouse my writings, of whatever sort, whether published or never even intended for publication. There is something about the written word that tells me who I am and who I might become. I pray only that I will be able to distinguish between the necessary and the blindly obsessive when the time comes. To be able to let go is also an indication of strength. That is what I said to myself as I said goodbye to the Prairie Messenger.
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will. –Hamlet (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)
(Originally published May 9, 2018 in Prairie Messenger)