It’s the Little Things

Taken in Eb’s Trails, a nature conservation area, just off Hwy #11 in SK, that is a haven for hikers and cross-country skiers.

            The light-hearted, nostalgic post I had written for the second week of January, hoping to ease the sadness of a very limited, lonely Christmas, will not be published after all. It will have to wait for January 2022, when I hope the events and images of the last week will have receded in the rear-view mirror.

Never mind that I don’t want to turn this blog into political commentary. Ignoring recent events in Washington, DC, is impossible. I have, like many of you, no doubt, spent too many hours online, trying to comprehend what was happening on Jan. 6: commentators aplenty have since spoken out; reporters have recorded details; political analysts have weighed in; talk show hosts have called out the willfully blind and the deliberately violent with equal censure; news sites have played videos over and over. There is no need for me to add words to the unspeakable.

Instead, may I share some small moments of beauty and quietness as anchors for sanity?

In between reading Anne Perry’s mystery novels as escape, I have been paying attention to little things: the beauty that can be found in ugliness and ruins; the resilience of growing things, that “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas); the quietness to be found within and from without; glimpses of transcendence in the quotidian. None of which are momentous in themselves – yet they are not nothing.

The tree that graces the beginning of this post has been my computer background since I took its photo in early November. It’s dead, its bark scorched black by fire. Yet its stark lines exude power, as well as silence. It’s exactly the kind of tree that Bill Peet, children’s author and illustrator, would turn into an image of strength, love, and laughter.

Loop Creek Trail, in the Roger’s Pass area (Glacier National Park in BC) crosses the ruins of old buildings used in the construction of a railroad track that is no more.

Although buildings and railway tracks are inorganic, they can evoke a similar kind of rueful, sad-hopefulness, especially when–as always happens–that indomitable “force” in the “green fuse” takes over the territory again.

Both the railroad track and the former CPR hotel are now mere ruins along good hiking trails. There was a time when the first wealthy tourists were proud to travel there, proud to be the first (in their minds anyway) to be awed by the vast icy expanse of Illecilliwaet Glacier. I do not regret the absence of the hotel; the abundance of wild flowers and grasses that now fill the former foundation are lovely. They testify to their own resilience, growing through whatever obstacles there are, reclaiming their space. I loved them when I took the photos, years ago; now, in the dead of winter (in every sense of the word), they comfort me.

Indoors, my jade plants offer me similar comfort and hope. They remind me that persistence and organic strength does not have to be dramatic. Even barely noticeable will do.

As if I needed yet another lesson from tiny, stubborn growing things, our live Christmas tree, now facing its last days in our house (indeed, it should already have been denuded of its ornaments and banished outside to await recycling) will not give up its fight to live, to be beautiful, to reach out for tomorrow’s light.

And, occasionally, there are the blessed stumbles into thin places, where the reality of this world opens into the weightlessness of knowing – for certain – that this world is not all there is. To become open to those thin places is not necessarily a matter of travel, although some of my profoundest experiences of transcendence have come when I was away from home.

Along the ocean beach near Tofino, BC, lie piles of driftwood - dead trees which are now beautiful in their ugliness.
On a beach somewhere between Ucluelet and Tofino, BC, at sunset, where we spent an hour watching the light recede and the colors deepen, saying not a word, just breathing in awe, not sure if the wide shimmering ocean or the gnarled dead driftwood was the more beautiful.

What is required most of all, I think, is silence, and attention, whether the turning away from the fever of activity occurs on vacation, or close to home.

As American novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote, “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” Indeed. A mere afternoon’s walk along the river in Saskatoon was enough to bring stillness.

Three photos of the South Saskatchewan River with the shrubs along the bank covered in hoarfrost.

The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence.”

Thich Nhat Hanh
Photo of broken shells next to the trunk of a dead tree.
Beach near Tofino, BC.

Even that which is broken and dead contributes its pattern of meaning, whether we see it or not.

 “In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart.”

Blaise Pascal

Christmas Contradictions

Remembering my oldest brother who died on December 23, 2019

 To say or write something new about Christmas is impossible. We have heard it all already: the sentimental, the devout, the reverent, the irreverent, the beautiful, the profound, the cynical, the gloriously happy, and the bitter. Words and songs, candles and cookies, gifts and slights, mutters of “humbug” and shouts of “Merry Christmas!” This year, with every tradition upended and every once-joyous occasion attenuated with “distancing,” all of the above now have an undertone of loss. What is there to say? Not much, I suppose. But there is much to remember.

Our Christmas tree this year, decorated with all our favorite ornaments gathered over the years, but with no gifts underneath. Gifts have all been already mailed.

 Like most families, we have known many kinds of Christmases: some suffused with grief over recent loss (funeral flowers were part of the decorations in 1990 and again in 2019); some marred by minor illnesses (extra supplies of Kleenex and toilet paper required); some made awkward with tension (either individual or collective or both); some filled with joy (a long absent family member home again, a new baby whose presence makes everything new and wonderful, food traditions carried on in blissfully busy kitchens). Actually, separating all my Christmases into categories like that is foolish—Christmas embodies hope above all else, and hope keeps company with all manner of disappointments and losses, as well as with deep happiness when hope is proved true.

Both of the primary narratives of Christmas in our culture have space aplenty for the full range of human experience. Both raise expectations to mythical levels; both also point to reality in its greatest rawness. The Christian narrative is of new birth, a miraculous birth that will save an entire people from violent occupation and brutal economic conditions. Some tellings of the story look forward to the redemption of all humankind. However, as a prophet informs the baby’s mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”

.. . . . I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different: this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)

The Christian narrative requires us to think about our role in the miseries of now and in the future of the world that is ever unfolding.

The narrative of St. Nicholas, with its delightful magic of one man giving gifts to the whole world in a single night, seems less demanding, warmer. It invites us to generosity, not only to our families but also to those who would gladly be generous to their families yet have not the wherewithal to do so. The deep human pain in this story of expectations is implied, not often spoken. The contradictions are there, nevertheless. Underneath the story of filled stockings and too many cookies are economic realities that demand attention.

Christmas display in the conservatory next to the former Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, SK. A combination of natural plants, natural stones, and the beauty created by human design of those elements, this place has been a refuge for me in many difficult times.

 Nevertheless—and I insist on this “nevertheless”—there is beauty to be found in all levels of both Christmas narratives. The beauty that is given, for which we need only eyes to see and hearts to attend; and the beauty that we create through imagination and ingenuity. In all those forms of beauty, remembered from previous years, I take refuge in this year of the pandemic.  

 The photos contain no people, no food (which seems appropriate for this year). What I have included is the memory of the last time that all my siblings and I were together, evoked only through what we saw together, and other memories of quiet moments that were simply given and gratefully received.

Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, AB. Photo taken in 2011

Poinsettias are everywhere at Christmas, never mind that they are a tropical plant that couldn’t survive outdoors in the Canadian prairies. Usually they are red, brilliant deep red, framed with dark green leaves. Red and green, the colors of Christmas. This display, though, was definitely white and blue, human skills turning natural beauty into magical beauty in an ice palace.

Three photos taken of blue-tinged poinsettias in the Christmas display in the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton.
A serendipitous photo.

I remember that at the time I thought this icy display of artificially blue poinsettias verged on kitsch. I was charmed, though, despite myself, by various shades of blue and fascinated with the play of sunlight through the high glass ceilings of the conservatory. Still all that added paint (who knows what the designers used) and glitter, of all things, seemed a sin against natural beauty. I am less critical now. When I see the three reflected figures in the dark blue globe in the center, I am grateful that we were together.

And after all, the entire Christmas experience, in our culture, is artificial. It is a cessation of the usual rhythm of work and school; we bring trees indoors, for goodness’ sake; we import tropical plants; we spend lavishly on gifts and food; we welcome dreams of a better world. So let our homes and our celebrations be nostalgic and extravagant. Let their beauty enrich our souls and then make us aware of how we might change our world to make it beautiful for all, not just the privileged.

Stone and flowers – how could I resist this photo? Also from the Muttart Conservatory.
Once again, a photo makes us see that shadows are an intrinsic element in beauty.

I want to conclude this reflection on Christmas themed beauty with a return to the outdoors, the unadorned beauty that is given to us so generously everywhere we look.

A small park near our home in Saskatoon, taken shortly after a heavy snowfall. No people, no tracks. Just the warmth of stark black and white, life in dormancy, waiting.
A sweet little chickadee that eventually sat on my hand and helped itself to the peanuts I offered. Taken on the grounds of St. Peter’s Abbey, Muenster, SK.

When I run after what I think I want,

my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;

if I sit in my own place of patience,

what I need flows to me,

       and without pain.

                                                (Rumi)

Write the Letter

The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.

Lewis Carroll

We have had to rely much more on words in these times of no hugs, no touch, no expressive body language—no, I haven’t forgotten video chats and Zoom meetings. It’s just that those ways of “seeing” can feel more like performance than actual in-person gatherings. Compared to sharing dinner with extended family in our home or having coffee with friends in places like my favorite Broadway Roastery hangout, Zoom doesn’t measure up. So words it has to be, whether in phone calls or in letters.

Does that sound rather old school? So be it. As I write ever more emails, determined to maintain some people contact, I do consider my longer emails replacement letters. They’re quicker than snail mail, of course, by far. They’re often more informal, too, defying all those rules I learned in school back in the 1960s: where to put the return address (which was part of the actual letter), how to punctuate it, how to address the recipient, what phrase to use to close the letter and introduce your signature. Conventions were stronger then, more precise. 

We wrote our letters on special paper called “stationery,” which we then folded and put into matching envelopes that had to be taken to a mail box. Letters were then, perforce, less frequent and therefore more important. Checking one’s mailbox after the mail carrier had come by was an event. The tension generated by opening a letter—with a special letter-opener—lasted longer than the two seconds required to open an email.

I remember the year my love and I nurtured our relationship almost entirely by letter. Each letter mattered. Surprisingly vivid still, over 50 years later, is my memory of sitting alone in a little carrel on the second floor of the Murray Library on the U of S campus, textbooks shoved to one side. With great deliberation, I guided my fountain pen across the lines of the paper, trying to shape the disparate details of my boring student life into something that would convey my presence to the young man who would receive those written words, one province away, in a small dorm room.

Recently, I’ve been reading the earliest volumes of my father’s diary (all that still remain). They had been written in the early 1930s, begun shortly after his arrival in Canada as a refugee from the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The covers of the simple scribblers are a worn-out black, the pages yellowed and often hard to read. Mostly consisting of brief lists of farm and church activities which were almost the whole of his life then, some entries do include personal notes. A few phrases suggest that he anticipated his diary would eventually be read by others, and he wanted to leave the story of his immigrant experiences.

Chief among those was the writing and receiving of letters. Those written words were his only link with his widowed mother who had remained behind in Ukraine in 1929 when he traveled alone to Canada to find a new future. How carefully he must have chosen his words to convey hope to his family, to share of himself without letting his loneliness overwhelm him, or them. Whole afternoons were spent writing letters, hours in which homesickness must have ached throughout his entire body.

It would be at least another decade and a half before he would be able to welcome his mother, one sister, one brother, and a nephew to Canada. It would be several decades more before he would see his beloved older brother again. A fifty-year separation. I have often wondered how they held onto hope, especially since that fifty years included twelve years of imprisonment in Siberia for my uncle, years in which not a single word was exchanged between the brothers. When letters became possible again, my calm and stoic father wept with emotion. How very, very precious was each letter, written by hand on thin paper to save on postage.

All those years – all those letters. I have no way of knowing what he wrote, or what was written in the letters he received. None have survived that I know of. I wish that even one or two letters had remained, so that I might glimpse the narrative shape that my father gave his life as he progressed from foreign farm labourer to citizen owner of his own dairy farm, or that I might have some sense of who my grandmother was. Did she dare to write about losing a daughter to starvation, about the way that men from her village were simply disappeared? How would she have told her story?

I have saved some letters myself. A few of those I have written—I discovered them among my parents’ keepsakes after their deaths. It was like meeting a younger version of myself, whom I scarcely recognized. Memory, Eduardo Galeano observed, “is always changing with you while you are changing.” Yes, that is true. That is why I wish had more letters that I had written, back when letters were written on paper and kept as treasures.

Some of the letters I saved came to me from Africa, from my big brother, as I thought of him then. I was enchanted by the exotic stamps on the envelopes, fascinated with the delicate blue “airmail” paper that minimized weight. The handwriting was terrible but legible, the writer a story-teller, aware of words. Come to think of it, we both measured our words with care. Despite our very different circumstances—he in a foreign culture speaking his newly acquired French and I in the tumultuous years of learning to be a mother—we both shared and withheld. The limiting of words to four or five pages per month is a wonderful distiller of thoughts.

Now, because I write on a keyboard almost as fast as the words come to mind, my diary entries have become copious, prolix, too easy. The letters I now write to myself in order to find out what it is I think are nothing like the diary entries my father wrote, sometimes six or seven days to a page, a line or two for each. (I see them now as a kind of performative art, the very brevity and repetitiveness of the entries enacting the loneliness and stasis of the immigrant laborer’s world.) It might be well for me to pick up the fountain pen once again, fill it with dramatic turquoise (if that’s what’s required) or staid black, and consider my words before my pen touches the paper and as I shape the cursive letters.

A few days ago, on CBC’s Writers and Company, I heard a reprise of an interview with Eduardo Galeano, a Columbian writer. He had discovered, near the end of a very long and boring book about a priest’s missionary activities, a simple yet profound story: the priest had explained to the Indigenous people what paper was – it was something useful to send messages to friends far away. This seemed so important to his amazed listeners that the name they created for paper was “the skin of God.” For Galeano, that phrase, “the skin of God,” seemed like the true definition of the responsibility of a writer. Writers send messages to friends they have met and many more friends they have not yet met.

“The skin of God”: if that is what I’m writing on, then I had best choose my words with care. And love.

A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.

Emily Dickinson

Why Buy Print Magazines?

Note that this post was written before the US election results and is thus politically out-dated already.

            I’d been doing some soul-searching lately about blog writing.  Like many other writers who have written about their writing practices, I have periodic binges of self-denigration and convictions of irrelevance. Who reads blogs anyway? Well, plenty of people, to judge by the willingness of companies to advertise on blogs, and the various algorithm-prompted responses that offer me help in making my blog more note-worthy. Okay, so the question becomes not “are there readers?” but “do I have anything worthwhile to say?”

  In the midst of that bleak mood, not even relieved by the second mug of coffee that morning and a freshly baked muffin, I read a short piece in a copy of The Walrus that my brother had graciously left with me. It was one of those short items buried in the back of the magazine, a gesture in the direction of loyal readers who read everything in a magazine, front to back (or some, perversely, back to front). In “Not Recommended,” former columnist for The Globe and Mail Russell Smith reflected on some of the changes that have altered the newspaper world entirely, and thus led to his lapsed contract with the GM.  

Encountering this well-written, poignant article a mere hour or two after also reading a piece by Jane Coaston, on Vox.com, “Trump’s presidential campaign is Too Online,” seemed a bit of serendipity I could not ignore. Briefly, Coaston points out that Trump has chosen many of his talking points according to what he encounters on Twitter and has failed to grasp that only 10% of Twitter users generate 92% of the content, and that 80 – 85% of the American population don’t follow politics very closely. Hence, Trump’s focus on issues that matter greatly only to the relatively few people who shape their worldview according to Twitter.

 Whether you agree with the finer points of Coaston’s analysis or not, or even her resistance to Trump, it seems clear that these days we all face the temptation to let algorithms determine what we read and therefore, what we deem important.

This was Russell Smith’s main point. His personal story of facing ever more pressure to write what would raise the rate of click-throughs is alarming. Apparently, in the digital world, it no longer matters to editors who reads your work or why, or whether what you have written has important influence for the general good. Just make sure that the number of clicks is increasing. That has implications for all of us readers as well, since the number of clicks determines what will show up on our screens.

 The juxtaposition of an article pointing to specific risks of living in an online, click-driven world and an article mourning the loss of appropriate arbitration of content in the more thoughtful media did little to help me rethink the meaningfulness of blog-writing—apart from giving me material for this one! However, it did strengthen my resolve to continue supporting good journalism by subscribing to print editions of good magazines and journals.

  I value print for several reasons. One of the lesser ones is that I spend too much time at my computer for my own good as it is; reading print magazines offers my eyes needed rest and my body more choices about how and where to sit/stand as I read. Quite frankly, I love the freedom of holding the paper in my hands, wherever I happen to be. May it be coffee-stained and crumbed, for all I care. Or, as my borrowed copy of The Walrus is, water-stained from being carried in a backpack in the rain.

 More crucial is that I get to choose – first of all the magazine itself – and then which articles I will read. In the process, I will notice all the articles, all the little pieces in the back pages that give me humor, art news, obituaries, book reviews, poetry, and photo essays. Because the magazine may end up lying open on the kitchen table, or the coffee table, or even in the bathroom, my attention will be caught by that varied, yet carefully adjudicated material. Quite simply, I will read more, not less.

 When I have a good news journal in my hands, my attention can remain focused completely on what I’m reading. No blinking, hyperactive ads, no hyperlinks perpetually interrupting my focus, drawing me down rabbit holes of information that merely distract from the main ideas. Attention spans are lengthened by solid print articles, not fractured hopelessly by the kind of impulsive leaping from site to site that makes online reading an entirely different kind of experience. (Which is why sources for this post are listed at the end.)

And what I read will be well-informed, and carefully edited, material. The over-the-kitchen-table, off-the-top-of-my-head, unfiltered, opinionated stuff that social media users are addicted to I can get from friends, or neighbours, or my hairdresser, all of whom I know well enough to be able to place the opinions into context, gauge the level of information on which they’re likely to be based, and decide how many grains of salt I’ll need at that point.    

Not coincidentally, reputable magazines that have the time (and money) to assign the requisite research to their journalists offer more hope to their readers than many online, click-driven news clips. It is not a blind hopefulness based on an unwillingness to admit reality, but a hope that is based first of all on a careful analysis of what is and then on fact- and experienced-based possibilities. In the midst of their grim assessment of what’s going on in our culture and our politics, thoughtful, educated writers offer realistic options – options that are based on our moral responsibilities to others, especially to the most vulnerable others.

  Above all, my subscribing to print editions of a newspaper or magazine does something for their bottom line. It signals that I care about supporting ethical journalism. It matters to me, for example, whether Mother Jones in the US has money enough to pay reporters to do the patient, time-consuming digging that is required to offer meaningful political analysis and to expose corruption in high places. My subscription provides but a tiny amount of money, compared to what is needed for a major magazine to stay afloat and to do its job well. Still it matters.

            I shall keep subscribing.

https://www.magzter.com/article/Culture/The-Walrus/Not-Recommended [NOTE this will give you the first part of the article anyway. A better idea is to buy the magazine and read all of its articles.]

https://www.vox.com/21504280/trumps-2020-campaign-too-online

Living into the Dark Places

“And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.” (Rumi)

            The first killing frosts have come through. I have dug up my dahlia tubers and put them to rest for the winter in our cold room. The quiet darkness will soothe them after their summer’s exuberant blooming. Our mild fall this year had given them almost an entire extra month in which to parade their flamboyant selves.

A bright red dahlia, about 3 - 4 inches across

 I love dahlias (pronounced dayˈ-lee-uh in British English or daˈ-lee-uh in American English). Their colors are exorbitantly happy. From the dinner-plate dahlias—flowers measuring up to 8 or 9 inches across—to smaller patio-pot versions, each flower has dozens and dozens of petals. That miracle alone makes the work of winter storage entirely worth it.

During the anxieties of July and August when a sobering diagnosis combined with the isolation of the pandemic to make each brilliant summer day feel like walking in the dark, I received a hand-made get well card from our oldest granddaughter. She had previously emailed to ask what my favourite flowers were, and I had said dahlias, not stopping to think that they would be rather difficult to draw.  

The tender care with which she created each of those many dahlias, with all those many nestled petals, is obvious. Her creative bouquet lives on, pinned to our fridge door (that universal bulletin board). It brought pleasure and comfort especially after I realized that an in-person visit could not happen. It continued to delight me during my gradual recovery in our long mellow fall. All the while, our actual dahlias continued to bloom even past the first mild frosts. Now that cold temperatures have entirely ended the real dahlias’ life – for now – the hand-drawn dahlias remain, and still bring smiles.  

I say “for now,” because their life is not at all over. The clumps of seemingly lifeless tubers will rest in our cold room over the winter and when the time is right, little shoots will poke out of those dusty tubers to begin their growth toward mid-summer’s glory.

Gardeners (and farmers), together with all those who live more directly within seasonal rhythms of growth and dormancy, understand that dark seasons are an integral part of life. In our usual lexicon of duality, however, we oppose darkness and light, giving light all the good symbols and equating darkness with evil. Think of our common images: the “dark night of the soul,” “going over to the dark side,” “heart of darkness” (thank you, Joseph Conrad), “we’re in a dark time now.”  We all seem to be “afraid of the dark,” at some level or other, not just young children going to bed.

Yet as Barbara Brown Taylor makes clear in Learning to Walk in the Dark, just as trees, flowers, animals, insects, and birds all need daily intervals of darkness in order to flourish well, so too do humans require periods of silence and dormancy. Above and beyond the darkness needed for our hormones to do their intricate work of rebuilding our bodies in the night, our minds and souls benefit enormously from regular absence of artificial light. The stupendous miracle of a star-filled sky cannot be appreciated except where all other light is extinguished (one reason, sufficient all by itself, for camping in what we city dwellers call the “wilderness”).

Away from the city, where absolute blackness is still possible, one can hear the owls, the poignant call of coyotes, the way the wind breathes through the leaves, whether in the midst of fecund photosynthesis or rustling their way toward equally fertile decay. In the darkness, human beings can rest or pursue the necessary journeys inward toward spiritual wholeness. We should not shun either darkness or dormancy. Both are essential for self-knowledge without which the virtues of compassion and integrity cannot develop.  

Recognizing that physical darkness is essential for our bodies to sleep well, heal well, build new cells properly, etc., is one thing; accepting that emotional darkness is also essential for our hearts and minds is another. We are none of us eager to seek the dark ways of loss and grief and confusion and fear, yet they are an integral—inevitable—part of what it means to be human.

 “You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing.” (Natalie Babbitt in Tuck Everlasting)

Natalie Babbitt in Tuck Everlasting
A large yellow dahlia, partly in shadow and against a black background.

What my beloved dahlias can teach me is that to be dug from my familiar place, dusted off, and tucked away into the darkness for months on end, is not the end of me after all. Not even the spring divisions, when the tangled tubers and dried off roots need to be cut into pieces in order to multiply the beauty into more plants is the end of my essential being.

“Fear is not pathology. Hopelessness is not pathology. Grief is not pathology. They are path. Collect the pieces of the broken world and create a container of empathy and love for the crumbled hopes and dreams to be held and tended to with the pieces of light. Honor the holy truth that the forms that love takes will always fall apart—for this is their nature—in order that they may come back together in more integrated and cohesive ways.”

Matt Licata

It is indeed better to live into the darkness, welcome its unknown space, breathe quietly, and be willing to wait for the newness of life, than to seek endless distractions, turn on more lights, deny the pain, grasp frantically for whatever relief might be on offer.

Live into the darkness.

“In a dark time,

 the eye begins to see.” 

Theodore Roetke

When Tidying Is not Enough

Cranberry Flats Conservation Area, south of Saskatoon.
Nature has its own transformations, its rhythms of tidying up.

            My father, a German-speaking refugee from South Russia, had two terms for cleaning up: one was German – aufräumen; and the other, we assumed, was Russian – rozmak (it might have been Ukrainian for all we knew since he had grown up in what he knew as Russia and we now know as Ukraine.)

 Aufräumen was routine, not to be shirked. It meant tasks like dusting furniture, washing dishes, washing floors, cleaning the bathroom, making beds, washing equipment in our dairy barn, putting fresh straw down for the cows, and shoveling out the manure. It also meant the final stage of any project, pleasurable or not, like sweeping up wood shavings after building something, putting away board games after a Sunday afternoon, packing up books and scribblers after homework was done, storing tools in their proper place after fixing the tractor, rinsing paint brushes and rollers when the walls were done, putting away toys as small children get ready for bed.

Aufräumen – both verb and noun. Its root, Raum, meant room, or sufficient space. With the suffix auf (up, or lift) added, the word conveys quite literally the image of picking stuff up to create more room, a cleaner, more open space. If not done often enough, it led inevitably to the other kind of clean-up. . . .   

Rozmak was something else entirely, as my father used the word. It was likewise both noun and verb in his lexicon, naming actions that were drastic, superlative, disruptive. It’s what happened when some area of the house or garage or yard required more than a mere lifting up of stuff to create a cleaner space. Instead, it meant a wholesale dismantling of the current order (more likely, disorder), and restructuring from the bottom up. Inevitably, it resulted in a very full garbage can or huge boxes of stuff to haul away to some charity or rummage sale.

If it was “time for rozmak” (as my father used to phrase it), we children became nervous about our favourite things – clothes, toys, trees, old implements back in the bush that were perfect for imaginative play. Rozmak meant deciding that the entire pantry in the basement needed to be moved elsewhere, never mind if a wall or two had to be knocked out or added; or the kitchen had become unworkable.

Rozmak applied as well to organic matter as to inanimate structures.

 As I learned from my father, rozmak required stubborn determination and an ability to see what could be done and to discard what had once been precious or seemingly so. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. One never knew just how far rosmak might go, what might have to be sacrificed before the designated space became beautiful once more.

  Rozmak – almost a made-up word, I have discovered. It was either a mispronunciation on my father’s part or a mishearing on the part of his children who all distinctly remember the “k” sound. The word, my Russian-speaking friend told me, is actually rozmah, denoting “very deep and wide and bold actions.” She used the illustration of a birthday party, which could be a modest and simple affair, a few guests, simple menu; or held with rozmah, with 100 guests and expenses be damned.

That my Mennonite father would have chosen such a passionate Slavic word and applied it to rather utilitarian ends seems typical to me now. Hard-working farmer that he was, devout and conservative, he nevertheless revealed, every now and then, something of a streak of daring, almost a gambler’s recklessness.  

            Aufräumen and rozmah.

 Does it matter whether one is engaged in aufräumen or in rozmak? Other than in the amount of energy and focus required? Not to mention the degree of commitment to the completion of a huge task, and to the survival of the core of whatever is being reconstituted? 

These two words from my childhood have been echoing in my mind as I listen to the news and read current affairs magazines. Nothing seems predictable any more or safe; 2020 has challenged our civic institutions in ways not seen since the 1918 flu epidemic or the World Wars.

 The October issue of The Atlantic (a US-based magazine I would heartily recommend for its thoughtfulness and thorough research) examines the possibilities for hope in the US. Particularly important is “Make America Again” by George Packer. What Packer offers by way of remedy for the hyper-partisan, now almost impotent legislative system, is a kind of rozmah – a wholesale clean-up that requires a re-evaluation of the core of the democratic project and a willingness to consign to the rubbish heap those practices that have become toxic to the public good.

 When we look at our own parliamentary system, I wonder how much toxicity has leached into our corridors of power as well. Does our parliamentary system in Ottawa require just a tidying up of details, a putting away of silly games, and a washing up of dirty laundry? Or is it time to host a rummage sale of political practices and attitudes before rot really sets in? How shall we handle our structures of law and order? Will a dusting cloth be enough or is it time to rearrange the furniture or even knock out a wall or two?

 In the midst of such questions, can we please remember that rozmak, even of the most thorough variety, even in its most reckless mood, is not a revolution? Its primary aim is not destruction. Instead, the whole point is to preserve what is worth keeping and make it serve its intended purpose with greater clarity and beauty.

Catastrophes can fix our minds on a common crisis, pull down political and regulatory barriers that stand in the way of progress, and spur technological leaps, bringing talent and money together to solve big problems

(“How Disaster Shaped the Modern City” by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, October, 2020, p. 69)

Saskatchewan faces an election. Shall we ask our candidates if they are willing to “hold rozmak” where needed, even if it costs all of their political capital? And what do they consider the core structure that should remain in place and be made more humane and beautiful?

A Lamp in the Night

            It had to be: five days and four nights in a ward of 4 people – 3 besides me. I hadn’t been a hospital patient for 3 decades, for which I’d been grateful. Now I was just grateful that COVID-19 restrictions had eased enough that I could be there. Medical details are irrelevant for this posting (albeit obviously not for me). What matters here are the stories I heard and what I might now do with them.

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.”

B. Lopez, Crow and Weasel

            Hospital wards offer little privacy (or modesty, but that’s another issue). Curtains are sometimes drawn around beds, especially at night, but soundproof they are most definitely not. Night times are the vulnerable times, too, when pain or fear or usually both simply must be given voice somehow—to the darkness at least, if not to the gentle night nurse who quietly appears in response to the call button.

            Friendships form quickly in such emotional places, if we can call such brief connections friendships. Intimacy might be a better word, an involuntary intimacy that comes from bearing silent witness. Subject as we all were to varying degrees of helplessness, bearing witness was all we could do for one another, for the one or few days that we shared the room.

            It took only one day for me to grasp my relative privilege. I had someone who visited, as much as COVID-19 allowed (the other patients came from all over the province), I had someone to whom I would go home when the time came (I would not travel by taxi or return to a solitary residence), I had enough financial security for that not to be a factor in how the healing process would unfold, I had begun from a baseline of good health and stable routines. For me, matters unfolded as they should in a competent health care system, and complications did not arise.

            That, I discovered, should not be taken for granted. I had known, intellectually, about worrisome gaps in our social safety net, such as inadequate welfare resources, unmanageable case loads, too much bureaucracy, insufficient finances for all the possible treatment plans that could be helpful, and persistent negative lifestyle choices (if indeed they are genuine choices, which is debatable). On a scale necessary for drawing up budgets and making policy decisions, the gaps could be, and have been, discussed and sometimes ameliorated—or exacerbated, as has also happened.

            How those policies play out for any given individual is entirely different. The stories that I heard, whether directly during daylight hours when curtains were opened and sunshine gleamed across the floor and conversation eased the awkwardness of sharing space—or overheard as doctors’ instructions and therapists’ questions, or as half-stifled sobs in the night. I did not know what to do with those stories, how to grant them the dignity the story-tellers deserved, how to hold the suffering honestly, without looking away.

            I asked a friend who, as a staff member, dropped in for quick chats now and then, “how can you keep working here, with all the heartache and all the stubborn dysfunction that you must observe?” Her reply was simple: bear witness and give whatever assistance possible because both would make a difference to each patient.

            Bearing witness. The phrase has haunted my quiet hours ever since, especially at night when distractions are not there and I feel most vulnerable. Bearing witness. To open one’s mind and heart and imagination and feel pain that is not one’s own yet hurts almost as if it was.

            My last night in the hospital had some long wakeful spells. It was not the quietest night on the ward, although the room I was in remained peaceful enough. I lay there, thinking about the woman directly across from me who had, earlier in the day, told me amidst tears of her loneliness, isolation, separation from family and everything familiar. Social safety nets had not kept her secure—all seemed wrong and unhelpful and impossible. I had wanted to cry with her and chafed at my helplessness, at the seemingly intransigent province-wide problems that denied her any hope of change or return to her beloved community. Bearing witness was hard.

            Then, in the semi-darkness, as I looked at the outline of her body relaxed now in sleep, I saw something else: beside her bed, hovering above her bedside cabinet, a dark human form, smaller than an actual person, like a statue perhaps, visible only to the waist, with head bent toward the bed, a hand holding a tiny light. As if someone were quietly keeping watch at her side. The head, with its longer hair, had a faint resemblance to Jesus figures but could also have been a woman. Only the silhouette was there, no discernible facial features. As if “bearing witness” had taken on actual physicality.

            For several long breaths, I stared. That wasn’t possible, couldn’t be real. I am not a see-er of visions, although I don’t discount the supernatural, having had experiences of something More than materiality. In that moment of suspended time, disbelief and unease gave way to warmth and comfort. She was not alone after all, that fellow patient who had so little control over her life and so little prospect of improvement. Someone cared, someone was watching, offering a little light to see by.  

            Then another patient in the room shuffled out from behind her curtain and headed for the bathroom. In the brief illumination of the bathroom light, before the door closed, the nameless Witness became instead the silhouette of the IV apparatus standing just close enough to the wall shelves where a dark plastic bag had been stuffed in to create a seeming statue of a human being; the light in the outstretched hand was the glow of the IV monitor. The illusion of a tender watcher was at once dispelled.

            Yet not entirely. When the room returned to its semi-darkness, I could “see” the figure again. And I pondered it, until I fell asleep.

            The following morning, as daylight lit the room, I awoke and smiled to myself to think how simple objects can reshape themselves in the darkness. The woman who had been “watched over in the night” was now absent for treatment, and before she returned, I was discharged and on my way home. Would I have told her of my “vision” if she had been there? I don’t know. Likely not. As it was, I could not even say good-bye. Such is the transience of meetings in a hospital, and in many other places where vulnerable people come together briefly, hear one another’s stories, then go their separate ways.

            Now that I am home and once again sheltering in place, more or less, until recovery is complete, I have more than enough time to ponder the meaning of the illusory watcher in the night. I had briefly wished that the figure had been real, had been an actual manifestation of godly caring. If only we could somehow summon divine intervention! make medical centres magically appear in our northern regions, transform all care homes into beautiful, fully staffed, loving places, make poverty a thing of the past! I know divine intervention is believed possible by many, in more than one religious tradition.

Photo of single small votive candle with a Celtic wooden cross.

            What I now also recognize, with gratitude, is that my ward-mate was being cared for: repeatedly, I watched various medical staff talk to her, provide the necessary attention, schedule treatments, bring meals, etc. Over and over again, in those days, I saw competent and gentle care given to others and to me. There had been social workers doing their best to work out solutions, physiotherapists and occupational health therapists teaching necessary skills and making sure that the return to outside life would be feasible. Phone numbers were given, tender hands placed on shoulders in comfort, encouragement offered.

            What I also want to carry forward from here is the necessary knowledge that every person I meet has stories to tell, stories that will change my initial impressions and evoke compassion and admiration for the courage that is there. I need to go into the community, when the time comes, with the willingness to see in every face, both the vulnerable sleeper in the bed and the loving generosity of a potential care-giver.

A Sanctuary in the Clouds

            In a world that seems woven through with disasters, pending or ongoing; when each day’s news brings fresh horrors that were surely preventable; when values we once considered untouchable and self-evident are repeatedly stomped into uselessness; when disillusionment competes with fear for our emotional attention, and incidents of heroism are overshadowed by stories of outrageous greed; when personal fears of illness and mortality have been raised to national levels so that the whole world draws nearer to apocalyptic undoing—platitudes are too thin to offer comfort. Maybe even words themselves, regardless of how well chosen and beautifully arranged, are not enough.

Life is too complicated to deal with only in words. If you can only deal with stuff that’s simple enough to put into words, you’re not going far enough. And that’s where God is – in the complicated places.

  What holds my attention and my heart these days is clouds. Yes, clouds.

Photo of clouds, just clouds and sky, in unearthly shades of blue with hints of white.

On evening walks, I have had to be careful not to trip on uneven sidewalks because I’m looking up. The solidity of the cement beneath my feet, like rock-hard news items of political malfeasance, failures to estimate medical needs, short-sightedness in all manner of public choices, vanishes out of my perception, lost in wisps of white against sapphire blue, the streaks of cirrus tinged with coral. My very soul is drawn upward into nothingness, into Emptiness.

Cloud photo with a bit of dark evergreen in one corner. The clouds are wispy, in the coral and soft yellow shades of sunset.

 Once upon a long-gone time, my childish self discovered how to use a narrative imagination to block out confusing, frightening information, dropped by adults moved mysteriously by fears too incompletely voiced to make any kind of sense (perhaps even to themselves). My world didn’t feel safe? Well, then. Make up an entirely new one and guide its characters through innocent and brave adventures that always end happily. Create a family constellation that’s balanced just right with girls and boys—I think I chose twin girls and twin boys, the boys sufficiently older to be quite out of the way. 

My imaginary family lived on the clouds, great big cumulous clouds with just enough darkness across the bottom to lend solidity.

The sky is the deep blue of full day and the cumulus clouds are fluffy and white.

Light as air, the young cloud-dweller girls skipped from cloud to cloud without ever falling through or knowing the hard edges of earth.

Smaller fluffy clouds against dark blue, looking a little like cotton balls.

At night, snuggled against their always kind, sympathetic mother, they listened to her stories, knew the light of stars up close, celebrated the moon that drifted right through their domain, applauded occasional displays of Northern Lights. Possibly they even danced on their evanescent cloud floors, although I wouldn’t then have dared to use the word “dance.” The cloud-girls just whirled and leaped and bowed to songs that had no words.

There's more landscape in this sunset picture, with several trees and the tops of houses are barely visible. The clouds appear lit from behind.

 Something of that desire to leave the earth and live in air alone possesses me these days. My longing seems more than just desperate escapism. Like Denise Levertov in “The Avowal,” I yearn for the “freefall” of trust into “Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,” so the heaviness of worry can be dissipated in a realm where nothing is solid or impermeable. All is breath and spirit. Change is not to be feared: it is but a shifting of shape and color into ever more loveliness.

Landscape along the river. Someone is walking along the path. Photo is mostly sky, though, in the evening, with just a few wispy clouds.
Focus is totally on the cloud, which is  a pale orange against blue sky.
Same clouds, but slightly later in the evening. Sky is darker, and the trees at the bottom of the photo seem black.

 Even as clouds and colors grow darker, there is no terror. Clouds draw closer, like a spiritual comforter, wrapping us round with inner warmth.

Quite dark photo of clouds that are almost black. The trees at the bottom and right hand side are black. But across the lower middle of the photo the slant of light leaves a few clouds white.

  Back in those childhood days, when I imagined my ongoing saga of the cloud-dwellers, I also attended school where studies were fine and recess-times were sometimes not too bad. In our music hour, we sang old favorites like “Home on the Range.” That that world of cattle and cowboys was utterly remote from our small Mennonite community was beside the point. I liked the melody, liked the hopefulness of the chorus:

            Home, home on the range

            Where the deer and the antelope play,

            Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,

            And the skies are not cloudy all day.

Apparently, I never noticed the sheer impossibility of a place where discouraging words were never heard. Well, nostalgia often does create impossible scenes that never actually were. But never a cloud in the sky? The assumption being that clouds are bad? Really?

In these days of compulsive cloud-gazing, and hunting through folders of photos for the cloud pictures that I seem to have always taken, I am faced with a stark knowledge: without clouds, the skies are not nearly as lovely.

Photo taken in Grasslands National Park, and the lower third of the photo is prairie only, no trees, brown grass. The rest of the photo is simply sky, no clouds.

Depth of field, range of color, endless variation – all are heightened with clouds.

Sunset at Kathleen Lake in Yukon. The land is a dark band across the center of the photo, and the lake in the bottom half of the photo reflects the sky perfectly. Thin clouds hold the last of the light, in delicate pink.

Even the wildest storms, with their terrifying black clouds—and I do not wish to minimize their sometimes devastating consequences—have a terrible beauty of their own.

A very stormy sky picture, with ominous grey clouds.

Is there a moral here? Perhaps. It does not seem to me that we have any choice about whether there are clouds, of whatever sort, in our lives or not. Environmentalists and meteorologists would dispute that assertion, and rightly so. The world we live in, indeed, the wider universe, is so intricately connected in infinite webs that surely we do influence the presence and kind of real clouds and metaphorical ones. This is why listening to the news is so disturbing; at the grimmest level – and the most hope-filled one – we are in this together and our choices matter.

  For this moment, at this stage of my journey (accompanied as I am by people whom I know and whom I don’t know), the beyond past the clouds draws my spirit, even as my eyes rest in their ethereal beauty here and now.

Early morning landscape with dark trees and lake. Sky is almost covered with clouds, fluffy white on top and dark grey underneath.
Another sunset picture with not many clouds this time and a clear moon. Just above the dark evergreens at the bottom of the photo, the few soft clouds are a deep orange.

“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.” (Mary Oliver)

The Lure of (maybe the cure for) Second-Hand Book Sales

            Always the tables groan with their load of books: books that once graced the bookshelves of some elderly professor or erudite bibliophile, books that are no longer relevant for students; books that libraries have culled to make room for new books; books that were once bought by someone who loved books and now can’t keep them all. 

They may or may not be organized, in these sales for charity. Sometimes all that has been achieved is a careless division by genre or age or physical appearance: “children’s books,” “coffee-table books,” “classics,” “hard cover books,” “paperback books.” Other times, volunteers have had time and patience enough to sort books into more specific categories—“religion,” “philosophy,” “politics,” “mysteries,” “literature,” “poetry,” “romance”—or even alphabetize them by author.

The lure of such sales, besides the incredible bargains (a bag full of books for $2??), is the joy of finding something that one had long been looking for (the first volume of an out-of-print fantasy trilogy, the first edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style), or the delighted surprise of stumbling over something that one hadn’t even known until that moment was absolutely necessary. For those who love reading and dread nothing more than being without books, the cornucopia of a second-hand book sale is insurance for an unknowable future (see COVID-19 and closed libraries).

In another post – “The Company of My Book Friends” – I wrote about building my libraries by visiting massive book sales, such as the annual Saskatoon Symphony Book Sale, known for its astonishing ability to raise funds for the SSO, and the University Women’s Auxiliary Book Sale held in fall, just when university students need cheap textbooks.

I can’t always explain what impulses dictated my purchases at these favourite sales. Necessity perhaps, since I was always looking for possible new texts and further research material. Personal curiosity, too, since I wanted to follow up recommendations given to me by students and colleagues. I also confess to a love of books as objects; libraries have been safe places for me and I wanted the pleasure of my own.

My office in St. Thomas More College, ca 2010

So the books accumulated. Many evoke complicated memories. Some, I know, I will never read. Now that the obligations and expectations of academia no longer touch me, I feel no compulsion to read all of the classics. I can admit, without shame, that I think Don Quixote is vastly over-rated. I can go to my grave quite content that I have never read The Decameron of Boccachio. If Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy fails to console me in any way, I do not have to finish reading it, nor does it have to sit on my shelf as an advertisement of my eclectic and erudite reading habits.

A scattering of books on my desk.

Yes, I confess – my ego was partly responsible for my collection of books and is still responsible for their continued presence. Long ago, I had revised a biblical maxim to become “by the books on their bookshelves, you will know them.” Just as I scan bookshelves when I enter someone else’s home in order to gain some sense of who they are, so I assume others will gain a greater understanding of me as they sort through my books after my death.

Some books I find easy to give away, e.g. “airport fiction”—page-turners whose plots are predictable and whose characters are one-dimensional and equally predictable, in other words, absolutely perfect for whiling away hours in airports and planes. But not only for that. I’m convinced there’s a need in everyone’s reading life for escape fiction, just as there is a need, sometimes, for dessert or an immense bowl of popcorn.

Other books I cannot part with: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word, Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading, Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity, T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poetry and Four Quartets. While some highly acclaimed books ended up on my shelves as ego-gratification, these I have just listed, almost randomly (there are many others), have profoundly influenced my perceptions of the world and have drawn me into spheres of thought I would not relinquish. These books need to stay on my shelves—to anchor me, as it were.

A larger view of the desk with books on two or three levels. The volume of  Shakespeare is open.

Nevertheless . . . . . . . .

This question arises against my will: can I still tell the difference between buying books (or keeping them) because I cannot help myself and buying books because I want to read them or need to read them or wish to have them in order to consult them or give them away at the right time? In other words, when does a collector become a hoarder? I suspect the line between those identities is thinner than one might imagine.

In recent months, I have been horrified to see the number of huge garbage bins required to clean out one house in the neighborhood. The owner is no longer able to live there; others now deal with the consequences of unrestrained buying and the inability to discard anything, especially books – mountains of books, heaps and heaps of books, more than any one human being can possibly look through, let alone read. Towers of books now mouse-nibbled and mouldy.

A photo of an attached greenhouse filled with stuff, mostly books.

The lure of second-hand books is relatively easy to explain – and to succumb to. But how shall we find a cure when the lure has become irresistible and irrational? As I reluctantly face the need to begin sorting and culling, I have given myself some mental homework and some practical steps, which might also be useful to you, my friends and readers, when you visit the next book sale, whether in reality or virtually:  

Imagine the faces and minds of those who will someday have to clean up after you. For those who have already had the honor (sometimes a dubious one) of dealing with an estate, this will not require much imaginative effort.

Consider simply donating to the charity that is hosting the book sale and do not visit the sale at all. Why should we “reward” ourselves for giving to good causes?

If the pleasure of seeing and handling books, maybe even reading signatures and messages on the front pages, is great enough that not visiting the sale is impossible, then conclude your happy exploration by buying some books that clearly have little value for you or anyone else (choose a genre you know well so you can judge this more readily) and consign them to the recycle bin yourself. Volunteers at these sales will be grateful! Remember that the world is not big enough to hold all books forever.

Promise yourself—and keep that promise!—that you will cull from your bookshelves exactly as many books (plus one or two) as you have just purchased. That will prompt you to ask yourself at each possible purchase, “is this book of more value to me than those I already own?”

Contemplate, regularly, the reality that life is never long enough to read everything you wish to read. And the satisfaction of owning a book simply for the sake of owning it needs to be examined carefully, preferably in conversation with trusted friends.

Sometimes, I have learned, the memories of pleasures past are sufficient. I do not have to try to repeat those pleasures, for there is some kind of law of diminishing returns that operates here. Furthermore, memories do not require the objects connected with them. I can let go of the objects and still remember.

It is impossible to receive new gifts if one’s hands are already full. The principle of grasp is always less satisfying in the end than the principle of gift.

The three books mentioned in the text - an anthology of short stories and two novels by Somerset Maugham

Postscript: No sooner had I formulated the above pieces of advice for myself when a friend emailed about a well-known British author, asking if I’d read his works and making intriguing comments about style. I went to my library, found first a short story in a very old anthology and then two novels (total cost of acquiring those books? less than $5), and have begun reading one of them, delighted to discover my own marginal comments written long ago in my student days. All of that advice above? Now much harder to follow.

Before and After – “and the rest is history”

  “And the rest is history”: the clichéd phrase is a typical ending for a touching romance story, often written when the couple is in a seniors home celebrating their 60th or 70th wedding anniversary. Always the phrase takes for granted that the rest of the story is well-known to the audience and therefore doesn’t need to be told.

My husband and I on our wedding day – August 28, 1970 – now almost fifty years ago.

 The crucial moment, after which everything changes, is always applauded by the assumed audience. She spots him across the room just as he drops his plate, and is charmed by his rueful grin; he speaks on impulse, inviting her to some quixotic adventure and they never look back from the trajectory that takes them to the altar. She chose to go visit a small town she’d always despised . . . . He dared to think that friendship could be something more . . . .

But why should I multiply scenarios here? We know how this kind of narrative unfolds. It’s reassuring, it’s inspiring – take the risk, do the “right” thing and “the rest is history”—a very happy, successful history, to be sure.

 The happy smiles of the young couple in the wedding photographs are heart-warming and hopeful. Their future is before them, they’re so in love, they’ve got joint goals and values that will carry them through whatever happens. Surely only a curmudgeon whose life has turned bitter would begrudge them their dreams or remind them that they’ve still got to get up each morning and make breakfast, not to mention carry out the garbage (of both sorts – real and metaphorical).  

 The problem with that feel-good story line is that it ignores the immense gap between the bland “before” and the happy “after.” “And the rest is history” turns out to be accurate, very accurate. A long history indeed plays out in that gap, a history that contains in it multiple before-and-afters, each of which may or may not be recognized at the time as a crucial moment with its own consequences.

 There wasn’t only one decision, whether impulsive or fated or thoughtfully weighed, but many, many small decisions. Each wrought a change, subtle or more definitive; each was a tiny reinforcement of movement in some direction, toward greater commitment or less, toward more kindness or less. Each mattered, probably more than could have been guessed at the time. C.S. Lewis put it more starkly: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before” (Mere Christianity).

 Evaluating all the various decisions that eventually become part of that happily successful and-the-rest-is-history conclusion would require recognition of the contexts in which we choose, for our freedom to choose isn’t as absolute as we sometimes fondly imagine. Remember that afore-mentioned “garbage”? We all bring some of that into whatever relationships we establish in life, including the influence of childhood events, the trauma within the genealogical line, the surrounding culture, the political climate, particular social status, each of which narrows the range of options.

 Nevertheless, choices are made, choices that change us inevitably, that eventually leave us looking back in surprise at who we were then, and who we are now.

Though I lack the art / to decipher it, / no doubt the next chapter / in my book of transformations / is already written. / I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz

One of my favourite novels, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lovely scene in which Anne Edwards, a 60+-year-old with a lively sense of humor and an earthy wisdom, is counselling a heart-broken young man and reflecting on her 40 years of marriage:

“We all make vows, Jimmy, [to love, honor and cherish someone]. And there is something very beautiful and touching and noble about wanting good impulses to be permanent and true forever . . . .  And we really truly mean it, at the time. . . . Lemme tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men. . . . They’ve all been named George Edwards. . . . People change. Cultures change. . . . Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people” (The Sparrow, 156-57).

After almost 50 years of marriage to the same man—or versions of the same man?—I’m grateful that somehow, almost without knowing how, we have made enough of those small decisions in favour of continued commitment to have made it through the events and experiences of 50 years, several of which could have become grounds for divorce. Fifty years cannot pass without some portions of grief, aching losses, deep regrets, misunderstandings both serious and silly, and plenty of foolish and unkind behaviors that require forgiveness.

“And the rest is history”? Yes, indeed. It need not be told here or perhaps anywhere. It is enough to acknowledge that romance is both gift and a long labor of love.

My husband and I, near Stanley Glacier in Kootenay National Park. Photo taken in 2014. Those hiking/camping trips that we both loved played a huge role in our life together.

 And so I wish to offer public gratitude to the man who has lived through and accepted the changes and choices that have made me who I am today. I am grateful for shared values and similar passions, and equally grateful for different passions and separate activities that allowed us space in which to be our independent selves as well. Our marriage owes much to that negotiation of we and I. That, and the quiet everyday-ness of shared routines, balanced with the deep surprises of love, however and whenever they come.