Of Pears and Memoirs

still life photo of a book shelf with Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father, a pear, a napkin, and reading glasses.

Anyone who has ever publicly confessed to enjoying books can anticipate the next question: “so what do you like to read?” The usual assumption is that, of course, we read stories, whether they be Westerns, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, literary novels, or romance. Some might add memoirs to the list since those also tell a story, a “true” story. Others, though, prefer poetry, history, philosophy, theology, or political and cultural analysis, without necessarily understanding that those genres, too, tell stories.

 My reading life certainly began with what was called “story-books,” although I was taught, from the cradle on, to revere the Bible. Of course, what I heard from my Sunday School teachers was stories: the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jesus healing sick children or walking on water. So stories it was, and I read whatever I could find.

 Besides wanting to find out what would happen next, I delighted in the voice of the story-teller. From Thornton Burgess’ talking animal stories and the Black Stallion books to the teen Beany Malone series, it was the familiar characters that held my attention; they were like friends.

But I also grew to appreciate individual authors’ views of the world, mediated through a variety of characters. Even Thomas Hardy’s astonishingly bleak outlook on life compelled me to keep reading his novels. No surprise then, that I eventually found my way into a career of reading novels and talking about them. While I also taught drama, poetry, and essays, novels remained my chosen bedtime reading.

The sole exception was devotional reading. Childhood training had born its fruit, and I read books and books about what being a Christian meant. Thus my faith competed with story for my attention. Or did it? I don’t remember just when I understood that theology was also story, with God as the main character. As Frederick Buechner observed, the grand narrative of Christianity can be read as comedy, tragedy, or fairy tale, each genre lens yielding truth to live by.

Same book shelf but with more books, featuring Buechner's Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, a bowl of pears, and a napkin.

Actually, my reading choices were not as unchanging as I have so far implied. In both fiction and theology, I became impatient with predictability and easy answers. The pleasures of formulaic stories are limited, because they rely on superficial otherness (exotic settings, improbable plot lines), while reinforcing a simplistic distinction between goodness and badness through cardboard characters and too-easy happy endings. My tastes were evolving into a demand for greater scientific literacy and more mysticism in theology, and for honest engagement with human issues in fiction—for literature offers truth at a deeper level than facts do.

Just how much I had changed, I didn’t grasp until retirement removed the academic pressure to stay current in my field. I rejoiced that I now had the time, finally, to read as many novels as I wanted to, never mind the literary quality. Expecting to return to former habits of happy escapist reading, I was quite unprepared for what did happen.

I’ve read far fewer novels. Instead, I’ve bought poetry books for bedtime reading, and ignored  my accumulated collection of novels in favour of  reading magazines like The Atlantic, Harpers, Mother Jones. I’ve read more and more books on culture and religion and politics in Canada and the USA. That doesn’t mean that I’ve exchanged fiction for facts.

After all, “non-fiction” is something of a misnomer; there is always an author(s) who selects the facts to be discussed, who assumes a narrative voice for particular purposes, and who shapes that material into a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. So it does, in the end, come down to story. I’m just choosing different ones more often than I used to.

Perhaps an analogy from literal tastes can be instructive. In late summer and autumn I delight in the bounty of food at Saskatoon’s farmers markets, particularly the offerings of Little Quill Orchard. Delicious as the peaches and apricots are, I wait also for early autumn’s varieties of apples, many available only for a mere two weeks. They’re not “keepers,” but oh, the taste of Sunrise apples is redolent with the mature warmth of the end of summer.

 For most of my life, I ignored the similar bounty of pears. When I was a child, my palate had unequivocally rejected both flavour and texture. Fruit lover that I normally was, I could not abide pears. So I did not eat pears, did not buy pears, did not offer our children pears. Imagine my recent embarrassment then to discover, after my son persuaded me to try his pear gingerbread cake, that I liked it. Since I was then regularly baking scones for a small market, I tried pear cranberry scones – delicious! Pears now often appear in our fruit bowl, reminding me that tastes evolve; I should pay attention.

same book shelf, different books, a different bowl with more pears, and a different napkin

 In the past three years, I’ve begun reading memoirs, a genre I once disliked almost on principle, thanks to propagandistic missionary stories urged on me when I wasn’t old enough to protest safely; I resented the pious pressure to be inspired. With a fine irony, I was eventually drawn in by stories of the opposite experience—the departure from an inherited faith. First it was Karen Armstrong’s exit from the convent, then other accounts of disillusionment and drastic changes in worldview. Yet these people still found life worth living and often became voices for change, their faith changed yet not diminished.

Many memoirs I read turned out to be personal accounts of what I had been reading about in non-fiction analysis. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and Malcolm X’s autobiography increased my understanding of race relations in the USA, just after I had read A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. And Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance gave me a more nuanced perspective on the parallels between working class people and people of color. All of the above made it harder to make superficial pronouncements about recent political developments in USA politics, and easier to show empathy to those whose views might once have offended me.  

Books do come to hand when the reader is ready. In the ripeness of time, the despised can become the necessary and even the beautiful.      

The Flingers and the Flung

On the dairy farm where I grew up, chores began early and never took a holiday.

photo of the barn on our farm, including one cow

There was play time for the children—we did not have a deprived, Dickensian existence—yet we did whatever work small hands and feet could manage. Thanks to the routine of morning chores and school, days always began early, with no weekend reprieve. Not until I left home could I relish the decadent pleasure of “sleeping in.”

 Consequently, the difference between those of our family who vaulted out of bed, eager to begin the day, and those who had to be coaxed into consciousness was all too obvious. The boys rose early and willingly (which they have done consistently into their senior years). The girls? Not so much.

 In that time and place where women knew their narrow roles—or were duly informed of them—this sex-correlated difference in body rhythms simply became further proof of feminine inferiority. Virtue belonged to early risers, and not much compassion was offered to my sister and me who, having no choice but to conform, coped by remaining as uncommunicative as possible for as long as possible.  

 Odd that I never registered then the contradictory fact that it was my mother who arose eagerly, talking before she even reached the kitchen, and it was my father who dutifully obeyed the alarm clock at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., but worked in remote silence until the welcome breakfast, not served until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

Many decades later, after I had begun teaching English at the U of S, having meekly accepted the newcomer’s typical assignment of 8:30 a.m. classes, I discovered a poem by Margaret Avison that delighted my heart – “Meeting Together of Poles and Latitudes: The Prospect.” Although it was clear that the poem as a whole dealt with far greater complexities than the mere fact of getting out of bed in the morning, I was intrigued by her choice of that metaphor to explore profound attitudinal differences in the way that people respond to the demands of life and love.

Her deft summary of those “who fling off, toss head, / Taste the bitter morning, and have at it” and those who are “flung off, sit / Dazed awhile, gather concentration” made me smile in recognition. I wanted to share the poem immediately with a colleague who likewise functioned as the reluctantly flung, and who muttered frequently and bitterly about the “morning Nazis” who insisted on weighty academic meetings at 8 a.m.

By that time, however, I had adjusted to living both with and against my body’s natural rhythms. Years of tending to small children had taught me self-discipline and flexibility. Our three sons, each in turn, had been the sort of infant who woke early, and then, once having achieved the blessed ability to sleep through the night, went to bed early in order to rise even earlier and cheerier than ever. I was willing to trade the pleasure of sleeping later in the morning for the much greater pleasure of evening time for adults only!

One learns, in the process of growing up—and I insist that the growing up continues throughout adulthood—to accept necessary trade-offs and compromises. As the boys grew older, schedules changed, of course, but thanks to school hours, and my husband’s early departure for work, and then my own teaching schedule, I had no choice but to behave like a lark, not like the owl that I truly was.

 Not that that turned me into a flinger. Emotionally, I remained, and still remain, a card-carrying member of the flung. Rare indeed are the mornings when I wake early with eagerness to begin the day. My family understood that, when necessary, I could transition into conversation, remind children to take their lunches and not forget the project they’d done the night before. At the beginning of vacation travel, I could arise at dawn if need be, finish packing, make a picnic lunch, gather bags and books, and make sure we departed promptly. An early beginning made the rest of the day more manageable, that I will readily admit. 

photo of loaded car and makeshift trailer with bikes on top of the car
Departure for Kananaskis 1987

 Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about posited correlations, still insisted upon by some, between one’s circadian rhythm and one’s ability to be successful in life. Or to put it in less problematic wording—who would dare to define “success”?—one’s ability and willingness to contribute to the community in which one lives. Is progress and general well-being actually dependent solely on the busy flingers who “Thresh, knead, dam, weld, / Wave baton, force / Marches through squirming bogs” (Avison)?

 I would insist that the flung have much to contribute, out of the very well of their “flungness.” Many a late-rising creative person has provided powerful pieces of music, many an artist has changed the way we think about our world, and dancers and actors and other performers have fed our souls.

No doubt, the board rooms of the nations, the wards of hospitals, and the streets of our cities have their share of the flung, who proffer their own tender perspectives. It may well be that the very effort of having to resist, in this world of “morning Nazis,” their natural inclinations to “Follow vapour-trails with shrivelling wonder, / Pilfer, mow, play jongleur / With mathematical signs” develops a kind of unsung endurance and sober second thoughts that are equally necessary for a balanced world.

Given Avison’s frequent preference, in other poems, for risk-takers (cf. “The Swimmer’s Moment”), I cannot decide just how to interpret the final stanza of “Meeting of the Poles,” in which the flingers and flung meet finally “at the Judgment Seat.” The sheer energy of the words she uses to describe the kind of love typical of flingers – in their “amorous thirst” and “thrust,” they “rock . . . like railroad engines” through “wrecked love,” yet remain “unslakeably loving” – implies awed admiration.

Meanwhile, the flung “love / As the stray dog on foreign hills / A bone-myth, atavistically, / Needing more faith, and fewer miles . . . .” The very words, when read aloud, have a languid dreaminess, a mood akin to that in the weary endings of most retellings of the legend of King Arthur. Which is often precisely the mood of the flung.

 For now, I am bemused at the ironies life has offered me, in my journey through many forced morning risings. Strangely enough, now that retirement should presumably allow me to return to my owl ways, staying up late at night and sleeping late in the mornings, it seems that my body has completely adapted to early mornings. I am now content with a regular schedule that I would once have fiercely resisted. With chagrin, I have conceded to the flingers’ insistence that early morning hours are too precious to sleep through. Indeed, I have learned to love equally the deep blue shades of pre-dawn winter mornings, and the impossible blue-pink jubilation of summer mornings.

view from the dock of Watson Lake, with the rising sun coloring the lake and putting the lone fisherman into silhouette.
Watson Lake, Yukon, just after sunrise

 Just don’t ask me for cheerful conversation two minutes after I have arisen. Early mornings are for meditative silence. Let the urgencies and worries of our mostly urban living wait until after breakfast.

Harbor in Prince Rupert, BC at sunrise

But when they [the flingers and the flung] approach each other, / the place is an astonishment.

Margaret Avison