The Other Me

 Two friendships converged in a berry patch, and I was sent out to examine the moral worth of a book friendship.

My friend and I were swapping stories of our childhood reading habits. As Saskatoon berries fell into our pails and our mouths, we both confessed that we had been distraught on winter Sunday afternoons if we ran out of books, and that we had reread favorite books until the covers fell off. We also discovered that although we had both loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, neither of us had ever heard anyone else speak of it. After wondering why two teens, one a Catholic and one a Mennonite, would be so taken by a story set in ancient Egypt, we talked of other books.      

 Yet Mara, the pretty slave girl of Egypt, did not leave me so easily. To use the language of Wayne Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, I once spent a great deal of time in her company. Friendships, including book friendships, Booth suggests, offer us three kinds of gifts: pleasure, profit, and the “kind of company that is not only pleasant or profitable, but also good for me.” So what gift had McGraw given me through the fictional Mara?

Book friends offer us pleasure, profit or gain, a ‘kind of company that is not only pleasant or profitable, . . . but also good for us, good for its own sake.’

Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep

 After all, she was nothing like me, nor did her circumstances resemble mine. An untameable slave, she was impudently self-confident and utterly unscrupulous, bent on looking after herself. Thanks to her cleverness and brazen charm, Mara became a double agent spy, purchased to seek out treason against the reigning Pharaoh Hatshepsut while choosing to carry messages for precisely those treasonous agents of Hatshepsut’s half-brother Thutmose, kept in virtual palace arrest.

Photo of book cover of Mara, Daughter of the Nile, showing a lovely Egyptian girl in expensive clothes.

The novel is plot-driven, suspenseful; betrayal by anyone would mean death for someone. Exotic location, jewels beyond description, romance, adventure: all the necessary ingredients of escape reading. Perhaps this book-friend’s gift was merely the pleasure of leaving, for a time, my own drab, narrow world.

That berry-picking conversation provoked a hasty and successful book hunt. My curiosity had been piqued: would Mara still hold my interest, now that I was grown up and educated enough to teach sophisticated literature in university English classes?  Well . . . evidently the sophistication hadn’t taken. Once again I slid effortlessly down the rabbit hole of Mara’s ancient Egyptian world, and I cared as much about her eventual happiness and security as I had when I was fourteen. In fact, I still delighted in watching Mara secretly read forbidden books, engage in daring repartee, and invent creative lies for both her masters.

After rereading it yet again, I couldn’t help pondering the emotional processes at work here. Wherein lay the charm? It was true that I had once also secretly read forbidden books and told lies to cover certain activities, so that Mara’s utter lack of guilt might have been reassuring for me. But beyond that, what could this friendship have offered to me? It was time to abandon the reader’s initial naiveté and ask harder questions.    

 To begin with, I could at least look again at the novel’s underlying assumptions about gender roles. And then it was obvious that Hatshepsut, as a woman, was obviously less worthy of the throne than her brother, and that the handsome Lord Sheftu would retain all the real power while Mara would become his lady of leisure, suitably preoccupied with jewelry and costly linens.

In my teens, though, living among Mennonites typically suspicious of luxury, self-indulgence, and beauty, I had seen only hope in such a conclusion. Part of the novel’s allure lay in Mara’s ability, by will power and love, to achieve about as much success as was possible in a man’s world that, at its core, was not that different from my world after all, if one ignored the trappings of royalty and military aggression.

 Even the religious devotion to and fear of the gods of Egypt, although I had understood little about such pagan beliefs and would have dismissed them as ridiculous, had I paused to think about them, were not that different from my own fearful attitudes. Desires and contingencies and impulsive actions played out against an unquestioned spiritual backdrop in my world and in Mara’s.

She, however, recognized that life was about love here and now, and was prepared to take risks that I could not have imagined. She could act decisively as I could not; what’s more, she was learning to put aside self-preservation for a greater good. Mara had become my friend because I felt I was a better person in her company, one of the qualities by which Booth suggests we should evaluate our book friends.

 In any case, whether or not the plot was believable—I didn’t care if it was or wasn’t—whether or not the novel supported patriarchy, I saw Mara as the lovely fearless young woman that I wished I could be, clever enough to make a crucial difference in how the world unfolded, and beloved by the man she loved. Who wouldn’t want an ending like that? 

Besides, without really noticing the novel’s moral underpinnings, I had been deeply gratified to see the former slave, now an aristocrat, negotiate for the freedom of another slave, and for the return home of a lonely alien woman caught in palace intrigue. Mara understood more now than just the value of freedom and personal integrity; she, the former waif and guttersnipe, had also grasped what home meant and how important it was to belong and to foster belonging.    

 That was what my book friend, my other self, was trying to teach me all those long years ago when all I had looked for was escape.

The author, at age seventeen, on the family farm.

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, August 31, 2016.

A Rose Bush and Politics

 It’s been a gloomy 2019 for me, so far. Never mind that the coming of spring brings the delight of watching the gradual greening of the perennials in my garden—which of my roses will leaf out again? Did the new shrub make it through the winter?  What with new depths of incivility in high places of government, plastic-clogged oceans, outrage and hatred on social media, and some monumental displays of hypocrisy, not to mention private griefs, I’ve not been in close fellowship with hope for some time now.    

 I am not alone in my pessimism. Seeking to move beyond shrill and superficial sound bytes, I’ve been following thoughtful columnists and reading some reputable journals like The Atlantic. It seemed important to stand back from daily doses of petulant partisanship and ponder the larger picture, as drawn by astute, knowledgeable political writers, both small-c conservatives and small-l liberals. My reading has been expanded by emails peppered with links to good articles and dependable news postings, sent by family members who typically reside well to the right of me on most topics. In sum, I’ve been trying to achieve a balanced perspective.

However, the possibilities of good outcomes to the current state of affairs, at whatever recent point one chooses to measure it, seem far out of reach. I do not regret the various articles I’ve read, about the function of race in the last presidential election, about the degradation of our environment in favour of profit, or about the way that current policies seem to make reasonable changes in health care or education so difficult to achieve. All awakened compassion in me for those whose future has been steadily closed down by the forces that drive globalization and other cultural processes. Disheartening as these analyses are, I am glad that I read them. I would rather grieve over systemic evils than waste my energy learning to hate particular groups of people for their behaviour in circumstances that would break anyone.

 Even a book as optimistic and as soundly grounded on moral principles as Stephan Schwartz’ The 8 Laws of Change, with its message of the power of the individual committed to non-violence and to making life-affirming decisions, still made it clear that the social and political culture of our time is dangerous to the earth and to all its human and non-human residents.

In such a context, it seems trivial to worry about whether a rose has lived or died. On the other hand . . . .  There was a rose bush that had something to teach me. And it wasn’t just the truism that getting dirt under your fingernails will ground you, to use an obvious pun.

 The “Berini rose,” as it was known in our family, had been planted originally by my mother after her move from her last real home with a real garden to a seniors townhouse, Berini Court, with laughably limited space for gardening. For Mom, growing flowers had been one constant source of pleasure and hope. When available gardening space was reduced, she found some consolation by giving me her best red rose. I planted it beside our front door where she was most likely to see it on visits.  

The rose garden in our front yard

It bloomed happily for some twenty years. I began to buy more roses, and more, until the plot became an entire rose garden. For me also, flowers were essential for sanity. I agreed with Anne Michael’s dictum: “Find a way to make beauty necessary and to make the necessary beautiful.” Yet she hadn’t said it would be easy. For all their hardiness, roses are vulnerable to insects and to black spot and who knows what else. The Edenic project of a rose garden requires constant attention, and even then, success is not guaranteed.

Find a way to make beauty necessary, and to make the necessary beautiful.

Anne Michael, Fugitive Pieces

A bad winter of too many freeze-thaw cycles destroyed at least three of my rose bushes and weakened two others. The Berini rose managed to put forth a few new shoots which eventually produced flowers, albeit with a whiff of desperation about them. I grieved, of course, yet without surprise, when the following spring, the Berini rose showed no signs of life at all.  

There was nothing more to be done. Sentimental attachment would not revive a rose corpse. Yet no sooner had my spade bitten into dirt than I spotted the tiny green shoot (only a month late!), defying me to keep digging. Ach! The shrub that would take its place had already been purchased. 

Fortunately, we have a capacious front yard with a sunnier spot where the rose could live, if it so chose. So out it came. In the process of moving it, though, I broke off the new shoot. Was some pernicious subconscious process at work? In opposition to the regenerative power of the natural world?

 I had believed, when I saw that hopeful little green shoot, that Gerard Manley Hopkins had been right about reality in “The Grandeur of God“: “for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” What’s more, I had, even after reading too much political writing, hoped that that “freshness” was true of human beings as well, not just “nature” (as we so blithely distinguish between us and nature).

An utterly dead rose bush

Two months later, the brown sticks remained decidedly dead. The trauma of transplanting had been the last indignity. A desire to keep memories alive was insufficient. It was time for acceptance—and resilience.

Step one was to toss the clump of dry roots into the compost. That in itself is a reminder that even death is not nothingness. Compost speaks of resilience, of continued life through transformation.

Step two had already begun, without my awareness that it was the next step. I had been filling spaces in the former rose garden with dahlias—dramatic, diva-like flowers whose beauty can be preserved only by taking the tubers indoors for the winter. Of course, I miss the resilience of hardy prairie roses, yet dahlias demonstrate another kind of beauty and an equally miraculous ability to store life until it can blossom again.

In comparison to an increasingly chaotic world stage, the life or death of one relatively insignificant rose matters little. Nevertheless, I could not forget that Hopkins did not limit the “dearest freshness deep down things” to the much trodden-upon earth. For him, human beings also embody that which is capable of transformation, of continued life and beauty.

 His testimony is supported by Marilynne Robinson in The Givenness of Things, a theological and artistic tour de force. In “Metaphysics,” she proposes that human beings are intimately and wonderfully connected to everything of the earth and to the vast complexity of the universe. We are not an accidental development of a random unfolding of atoms and cells, but a special category of existence with a unique quality of self-consciousness that participates in the Divine, separate from yet essential to Creation, however one conceptualizes that confluence of impossibilities.

 If that is the case, and Robinson is compelling and artistically coherent, then Hopkins’ glorious statement “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” applies in a particular way to human beings. There is then always reason to wonder at the creativity and consciousness—and an innate capacity for goodness—of humanity. There is more than enough miracle here to give the lie to despair. Whether a rose lives or dies, whether politicians make a hash of formerly workable societies, there will always be beauty and wonder – and hope.

. . . . . . For all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins