In the Ending is the Beginning

“In my beginning is my end. . . . / In my end is my beginning.”  

T. S. Eliot
Photo of an old rotting tree stump with a bright green baby fireweed plant in front of it, growing in between the roots of the stump.

            There is more than one way to tell a story—although when it comes down to it, they do all have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In our everyday story-telling, we instinctively begin at the beginning of whatever event is at the heart of the story and then talk our way to the end. So the beginning, middle, and end correspond directly to the actual chronology of it all, although even the most inexperienced raconteur seems to know that drama and suspense can be intensified by judicious pauses, or brief digressions to supply context.   

Reality itself rarely unfolds that simplistically; it does not hesitate at the right moment, or offer some wise reflection along the way. Right in the middle of an experience, our memories intrude to remind us that we’ve felt this way before, and our instinctive behavior patterns kick in to make the ongoing development something of a reprise. In other words, keeping to strict chronological time is probably impossible, both in life and in story.

 Not surprising then, that story-tellers sometimes begin in medias res – “in the middle of things.” In movie parlance, any given scene can be fleshed out with a backstory. And any beginning is an arbitrarily selected point, because one could always take one step backward and offer yet more context and more causal explanations. Just so, endings can always be added to because any loose thread can become another beginning. Even the tidiest epilogue has within it the seeds of another story or two. Writers of serially published fiction in print or on screen (e.g. Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowlings, Julian Fellowes) know very well how eagerly readers apply pressure for a happy ending or beg for yet another installment

 While the earliest novels were usually chronologically organized, it didn’t take long for novelists to experiment with where to begin the story and how to tell it: perhaps in the middle of things, asking the reader to persevere through bewilderment until flashbacks offered clarity; perhaps almost at the end and then working backwards, as it were; perhaps in two entirely different time sequences and then moving two plots forward alternately until they finally converge. And so on. Omniscient narrators, who could explain all motives and see into every character’s mind, gave way to assorted first-person narrators, some trustworthy, some not, thus asking readers to make moral judgments with no more assistance than is offered in real life.

 Yet the end is always the end. That is, the story concludes where the story-teller chooses—it may or may not offer the reconciliation and satisfaction we had hoped for. Still, it ends. In the words of medieval romance stories, “there is namore to say.” Whatever the desired effect, the author has shaped the story toward that final end at which point the reader closes the book and begins to reflect on how it all happened and what it might mean.  

A few paintbrush flowers growing out of the rotted remains of a fallen tree.

            For most of my life, I took for granted not only that stories had beginnings and middles and ends, but also that readers should submit to the choices authors had made about what went into the beginning, the middle, and the end. I opened all storybooks, chapter books, and novels at page 1 and read my way through to page 120 or 789, however long the story arc stretched. I would not have dreamed of reading the ending first. Indeed, if a friend had already read the book, I ended the conversation promptly at the first hint of what the ending would be. No spoilers, please!

 Yet I had begun rereading stories almost as soon as I learned to read, thanks to frequent scarcity of books. If I’d already read everything that happened to be in the house just then, I reread books rather than not read, some of them many times. I learned very early, that while the pleasure of the second reading was quite different from the pleasure of the first, both were delightful. To use Booth’s image from The Company We Keep, I happily spent time with my favorite book friends, even though, or maybe because, I already knew how their lives would turn out. That knowledge actually increased the bond between us. In the absence of suspense, I could savor each moment along the way, instead of skimming frantically to find out what happened next.

 Had I been more theologically inclined at that stage, I might have recognized that I was trying on God’s omniscient perspective. Was there not something godlike about smiling yet again at Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice) in her initial dislike of Darcy and her utter misreading of his character? Or about my tenderness toward Alcott’s Beth (Little Women) going to visit the destitute, knowing full well that Beth would eventually die because of that visit? Or the frisson of dread near the end of Downton Abbey’s Season 3, watching Matthew in his joyous expectations of the future, all ignorant that his future was almost over? To know the end from the very beginning increases our awareness of our own mortality, and might well increase also our discomfort with not knowing how our end will arrive or when.

Bright yellow arnica flowers flourish under the dry branches of a dead, fallen tree. A few rocks rest beside the brightest flowers.

            In the memoir The End of Life Book Club, author Will Schwalbe reflects on his experience of sharing books with his mother during her last year of life. As they negotiate the hopes and fears of terminal cancer, spending hours together during her chemotherapy appointments, they choose books alternately and discuss their reactions. An unusual book club, indeed, with only two members and a known, inevitable ending to its duration.

In one conversation, Schwalbe admits that he “found the book terrifying,” Forgetting his mother’s habit of reading the end of books first, he adds, “And I was very surprised by the ending. Were you?” “Of course not—I’d read it first,” she replies, “I don’t think I could have stood the suspense if I hadn’t known what was going to happen. I’d have been way too worried.”  

 When I first read that, many years ago, I was appalled. How could you spoil book after book like that? I did not know then that I would eventually join her and become a “spoiler” of endings.

It first happened about a quarter of the way through a memoir I was reading for the world’s best book club (see previous post – “The Measure of a Story”). I felt so wounded by family dysfunction, so appalled by repeated, self-instigated personal disasters, and so offended by life-style choices that seemed morally blind to me, that I skipped to the last chapter in order to bring the pain to a quick end. Then, once I knew that the author had achieved a form of survival that I could admire, I had just enough interest left to read the second-last chapter, and then the third-last chapter, and on. It was an odd reading, for sure, a reversal of the usual order of things. Could one have called that a God’s eye view of a human life? Forward and backward and forward again? Time so elastic as to be irrelevant?

 Since then, I have defied the authorial order of things more and more frequently. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of living through the pandemic, maybe, too, my awareness of my own mortality that have made it almost impossible for me to endure too much suspense. Before I can allow myself to become involved I need to be reassured that the ending will not be arbitrary or unbearably bleak, but has evolved appropriately out of the beginning. I want more by way of hope than just a chin-up acceptance that life is horrible but some people can still be courageous.  

That must be why, in this year of the pandemic, I’ve become addicted to murder mysteries, that is, those written by authors who use the genre conventions to explore moral dilemmas and social issues rather than exploit violence for dubious ends. In P.D. James’s novels, for instance, I know that the lead character, Inspector Adam Dalgleish, will survive because he has to be there in the next novel. I have also learned to trust James’s moral sense; there will be examination of motives and a nuanced exploration of evil and of goodness. That is enough to make the intervals of suspense bearable. The world will come out right at the end, but not with a superficial “rightness” that ignores reality or the free will of the characters.

            The ending has always been in the beginning; it is not random, nor is it pointless. These days that’s more important than it has ever been.

In the uncertainty of pandemic days, when numbers go up and numbers go down, restrictions are tightened, then loosened, then tightened again, I have found comfort, not only in predictable yet nuanced fiction, but also in the ways of the earth. Out of the ending of some organic matter arises the beginning of other organic matter. Life and death will not let themselves be sorted into separate meanings. It is not only in story that beginnings and endings entangle themselves but in our lives as well. Hence the photos that intersperse this text. Out of every ending arise new beginnings; together they are beautiful.

Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.

(the Buddha)
A few delicate orange wood lilies, blooming in a mass of green grass and shrubbery and next to the dry roots of a fallen tree.

The Measure of a Story

            As an avid reader of stories, I should long ago have understood something of what recent conversations, coincidences, and news items finally made clearer for me. Yet it was not the first time I had observed how human learning often proceeds in spiral fashion: we keep circling back to our emotional swamps and stumble through them again, hopefully with greater maturity and more self-knowledge each time around. That is, if we do indeed stumble through instead of walking around them blind-folded. Which is matter enough for another time.

To call my current insight into stories the result of yet another swamp-wading is an exaggeration, though. It was more like returning to a familiar path—the problem of what makes a good story and why that matters—but seeing it differently.

Photo of wooden path through dense rain forest on Vancouver Island, BC.

From the time I learned to read, I devoured whatever fiction came to hand. If I didn’t like a book, I still finished it (having been taught that everything on my plate should be consumed, I carried that miserable discipline into other realms, even the world of stories). Since there were occasions when I needed to defend myself from unwanted moralizing, I learned to read quickly, skimming over paragraphs to get the main gist of the plot, skipping altogether the intrusive lessons I didn’t care to learn. I liked stories, not preachments.  

In university English classes, I learned to distinguish between stories that treated their characters with loving respect and stories that were spoiled by a propagandizing bent. With my newly acquired vocabulary, I could now dismiss as structurally flawed all those religious novels I had so disliked in my adolescent years. It hadn’t been my bad conscience or my refusal to accept correct doctrine that had been the problem. It had been the authors who defied artistic principles and stooped to browbeating their readers. I found that reassuring.

 And right there, in that loop of the spiral journey, I stepped around, not through, the uncomfortable truth that we do not only read books, but are, in turn, read by them. Our like or dislike of particular stories says something important about us as well as about the stories. 

 In subsequent years of reading, teaching, and writing, I learned to explore more carefully my evaluation of any given novel, especially when writing book reviews. That’s something of a clinical process, presumably conducted without rancor or prejudice. I did feel uneasy over the occasional negative review, wondering if I had done a book proper justice or if I was missing something.  

It took many animated discussions in the world’s best book club (which shall remain unnamed and secret) for me to discover that a book I disliked could teach me more about myself than I cared to know. Among close friends who are fellow readers, maintaining a reviewer’s detachment was not possible. In fact, doing a post-mortem on my distaste for a novel in the midst of questions and counter-opinions could feel like an emotional disrobing.  

Even years later, there are still books on my shelf that I cannot look at without flinching. Yet I’m grateful, truly grateful. I really did need to know that (whatever “that” was) about myself, or the next round through whatever emotional swamp that story had stirred up would be pointless.

Path through rain forest is now a descending wooden staircase.

My good friends had pushed me to descend far enough to allow myself to be read by the unwelcomed book.

The past couple of weeks I have attempted to get through the latest book for the aforementioned book club, which now functions via Zoom. The author came highly recommended; I had been eager to read the next offering from the author of Night Circus.

Cover of The Starless Sea

So I was bewildered when, after getting started, I was so easily distracted by other books. Suddenly, I felt compelled to read instead the next novel in the saga of Anne Perry’s Detective William Monk. Even a dense theology book became more inviting than The Starless Sea. Bewilderment gave way to annoyance and then outright guilt. What was wrong with me?

Photo of my tablet on our kitchen table. It's open to the beginning of a chapter of The Starless Sea.

Almost every day, I grabbed myself by the scruff of the neck and forced myself back to my e-book.  Twenty minutes later, I closed the tablet, relieved that there were household chores to do. No doubt, the medium in which I was reading wasn’t making my struggles to become involved easier.

Now if I had had an actual book, I would have skipped through chapters, even flipped to the end, hoping that a better awareness of the overall shape of the book might change my mind about it. As of this writing, my e-copy has vanished from my tablet, on its way to another reader, possibly a more generous one. What’s left for me is to brace myself for having to figure out, in front of my friends, why I was so impatient and unloving toward this book.

Once upon a time, in self-defense, I would have turned myself into a reviewer, pulled out old notes from a graduate class on meta-fiction (fiction that writes about writing fiction, something like the popular image of the hand drawing itself), and begun researching all the multiple allusions to other stories in The Starless Sea, for the novel is nothing if not a highly literate gathering of more references to other stories than I have ever seen before.

Lacking motivation for that effort, I took the easy way out and read whatever reviews I could find. That gave me the plot of the novel, such as it has, and a wide array of responses. Some reviewers were delighted, others were not. And one—blessed be her/his name!—pointed out a principle of reading that I should have grasped decades ago. Perhaps I had, without seeing it clearly. It just took the current political climate to give it sufficient importance.

The Starless Sea has a plethora of symbols; it situates itself squarely within story-telling traditions; its descriptions are rich, poetic, even lush. The control of style is excellent and consistent. Thematically, it has considerable depth. It offers almost everything that can be said about the magic of stories and the strange reality that we all live in stories, some given and some made. What it does not offer is characters who engage our hearts. They could be bots for all the emotion they arouse. What matters is the theme, the big idea. 

Abruptly I recalled my early resentment of novels that made their characters pawns, mouthpieces for their authors’ moralizing intentions. I had always felt betrayed when books from our church library repeatedly halted the momentum of the story in order to insert mini-sermons – the equivalent of saying at the end of a fairy tale, “and now, boys and girls, you know that you should always tell the truth.” And the story dies at once.

Numerous novelists have written about the making of art: the artist who begins having already decided what “truth” or principle his characters should embody cripples both characters and the artistic process from the get-go. It’s the artist’s calling to serve the work of art, not the other way around. To know what has to be said/concluded before the story begins is to write propaganda, not story.

Which is why writers in the grip of ideology write mostly mediocre fiction with wooden characters who never achieve a life of their own. As a friend and former colleague once pointed out, “In absolute truth, and in such an ideological atmosphere, there is no room for creativity.” An economist by profession, she translated that general principle to her particular sphere of knowledge, “Government policies should be designed for the betterment of humankind, not to perfect free market.” Indeed.

During my long walks in the winter cold, when the mind randomly shuffles ideas and stories, my resistance to The Starless Sea seemed to cross over into other recent conversations in which I had tried to summarize the religious narrative in which I had been raised, and then both of those stories bounced up against the political narrative in the US to which I have given too much listening time.

And I was granted one of those rare moments: “Oh, I see. That’s what is going on here.”

All of the various meaning-making stories we live in or through (fictional or political or religious) are best evaluated on the basis of how characters function within them. What happens to the people in this story? How does this ideology shape the people who adopt it? If a religious doctrine results in the devaluation of individual human beings, if a story cares more about its symbols and general erudition than the people who move in the story, or—to take a small practical scene of utmost importance these days, if an institution cares more about its efficient routines than the well-being of people affected by those routines—something is wrong. 

Even the bleakest novel, with seemingly no real moral center, will hold our attention if even one character matters. It may be just desperate courage that engages our sympathy, or a circumstance that seems like our own, but the story has to make a place for us. Otherwise, the idea alone, the abstract theme wins. Otherwise, ideology demands its cult-like obedience and power remains unchecked.  

Heroes are heroes when they know not only that they are human but also that other humans matter as much as they do.

All of which is weightier than anything suggested by The Starless Sea, but it was a useful provocateur for one go-around on the journey.

Path through a slightly more open forest. On evergreen tree on the side of the path is leaning at a 45 degree angle, because of prevailing winds.

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

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 Babbit 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

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.

 

Before and After: on changing one’s mind

( Text and pictures are not correlated, not unless you wish to connect them. In my mind, beauty and color are always relevant. And if you follow this blog, you already know that flowers comfort me.)

Photo of bright yellow day lilies. Includes two that are already wilted.

            ONCE upon a time, I wondered what it might be like to live through a tumultuous world-wide event, on the scale of WW2 or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. When I listened to the daily 6 o’clock news on CBC (a long-standing ritual), I was horrified by stories of war (elsewhere) and stories of natural disasters that left thousands dead and the local economy in tatters (again, elsewhere). I tried to imagine what such an experience might be like. Wouldn’t everything in life be divided into “before this” and “after that”?

That was indeed once upon a time. Now, enough has already happened in 2020 to make me face what was formerly unimaginable, let alone what I can add in from the previous year or two, as the effects of climate change have become more immediate, as democratic values have come under threats that likewise seem far too close. While I have been privileged enough to remain COVID free so far and relatively unscathed by the tanking economy, the pandemic-fueled crisis of racism has shaken me deeply. Surely if this is not a time that will hereafter divide life into “before this” and “after that,” then thousands upon thousands of demonstrators will have risked their lives for nothing. We dare not return to “normal.”

Close-up photo of very dark purple iris.

            Who can bear to watch the videos?

            How can the stories, now surfacing one after the other, leave us unmoved?

The dark purple iris again, this time with withered irises included and a bit of dried tree trunk.

  The coronavirus itself has already changed the entire world, not just North America. Among the privileged, it’s been inconvenient to learn new ways of engaging socially, new ways of getting work done, new forms of technology. For the less privileged and the marginalized—well, the narrative shifts from inconvenient to catastrophic. The glaring gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the strong correlation between that gap and vulnerability to the coronavirus have been starkly highlighted.  

 Sparked by yet one more killing of an unarmed black person by an officer in uniform, fuelled by economic hardships made even worse by the pandemic, and in defiance of health risks, demonstrations across the world have drawn in people of all classes and races in a rare show of human unity. Signs and shouts and social media messages are calling out long-standing systemic racism throughout government organizations, corporations, religious and educational institutions, and most especially the militarized police forces (could we possibly begin by talking about police services instead of police forces??). The passionate marchers are asking us all, individually and collectively, to change our minds and then act – or vice versa, however it works out.

The dark purple iris again, this time with minimal background. The vivid shades are obvious against the washed out shades of the house and dirt.

The before-and-after that is struggling to be born here, I think, goes far deeper than institutional changes. I’m not arguing against the desperate need for substantial legislative changes, for greater accountability in the police services and legal systems, for widespread societal conversations about racism.

None of that, however, is going to accomplish what Black and Indigenous Lives Matter is about without many individual changes of heart, changes of belief systems, changes of primary narratives—the kind of before-and-after that strikes at the core of personal identity.

We all have foundational stories that tell us who we are: stories that give us meaning and purpose and that determine the way we see the world. Call it a grand narrative, call it the paradigm through which we make sense of disparate facts and experiences as they come our way, call it the lens through which we see life and interpret what we see. External hardships can be faced as long as we can walk with our community and continue to know, in our hearts, who we are, where we belong, and what we believe.

Thus making substantive changes to our personal connection to those foundational stories is possibly one of the hardest tasks we face as human beings. It means casting aside basic assumptions, rethinking all of our major choices, asking that most terrifying question, “what if I’ve been wrong about how the world works? what if I’ve needlessly, selfishly hurt people who could have been (should have been) my friends?”

Photo of cluster of pinks, flowers that resemble carnations.

It’s not easy, such remaking of the self. In my own journey of spiritual rethinking, I sometimes felt as if I were standing on a high platform without a railing while it was being dismantled, one plank at a time. Would I finally fall through because there wasn’t enough wood left to stand on? What kind of surface would I land on? Or would I keep falling into a moral and spiritual abyss where nothing mattered anymore?

Perhaps that’s why I began reading, almost obsessively, memoirs of people who exchanged the security of their inherited (or absorbed) familiar grand narrative for the unknown.  For example, Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return recounts a painful exit from a Jewish Hasidic community, an exit begun almost inadvertently through gradual learning about how others live and think.  The title of Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is self-explanatory; Phelps-Roper was not only exiled from her family and community but had to face her participation in acts she now found abhorrent. Such memoirs show us the often high cost of re-evaluating that which had been assumed, given—until it wasn’t any more.  And everything changed.

Such a wholesale re-evaluation is now called for from all of us in situations of privilege, as we listen to the veritable avalanche of stories of discrimination, both deliberate and unthinking.

All those voices, some now speaking out for the first time, others already hoarse from having spoken so long in vain, make me see, now from a different angle, the ramifications of political decisions that I once supported, the benefits I reaped because of the community I happened to be born into, the education I received because I had the freedom to choose what college I wanted to attend, the stable home life that supported my educational desires because my parents had not been systematically abused in ways that destroyed initiative and hope.

What if I have absorbed (and I’m sure I did) all through life, a story of innate superiority based on the color of my skin? Which I did not choose, could not have chosen, just like everyone else could also not choose their parents, their place in society, the color of their skin.

All those tales about shiftlessness, inferior intellect, and innate tendencies to crime amongst “those other people”? Can I contemplate the awful possibility that those stories have all along been self-serving, even religiously justified, designed to hang onto privilege and wealth at the cost of the humanity of entire peoples?

Facing all of that squarely means changing an entire way of looking at the world. It will mean giving up a previous narrative and admitting that some actions were utterly shameful, even if they had been done without recognition of what they were. It takes a brave soul to begin that journey, let alone see it through to wherever it will lead.

Photo of a different shade of pinks, this time just two flowers against a background of dark green foliage.

My point in raising this particular perspective on the changes that face our world, this most shattering and poignant of all before-and-afters, is to invite us to think beyond the fierce arguments, the shoutings and counter-protests, the political posturing. Rather than judging, try to see the terrible fear in the hearts of people who cannot yet face the consequences of changing their entire self-narrative, their lens for seeing and interpreting the world.

For at some point, after such a major revision to the shaping stories of the self, the initial insistent question “who am I now?” will be followed by an even more troubling question: “whatever shall I do with my former self?”

“. . . it’s not only the things that we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs, and things of that sort. They’re not actually alive in us, but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them. . . . . And we are, all of us, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

Henrik Ibsen in Ghosts

The Company of My Book Friends

First written in 2017, shortly after the SK government budget of April 2017, in which library funds were severely cut and then restored in the face of considerable protest.

In the midst of the recent brouhaha concerning provincial funding for libraries, I visited the Frances Morrison Library in downtown Saskatoon to return a video, ordinarily a routine errand. Now it felt like a pilgrimage – and a privilege. In memory of my long history with this library, I chose to linger.

I was just a pre-teen farm girl when my mother first bought me a big-city library card that changed my life. Each week I climbed the huge stone staircase, pulled open the heavy old doors, then hurried up the stairs to the children’s department on the second floor.

Image A-1175 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library – Local History
Exterior front view of the Saskatoon Public Library building on 23rd St, opposite City Hall, circa 1945-55. A wide staircase, sheltered by white portico and pillars, formally welcomed passersby into the building which served Saskatonians as their “main library” from 1928-1965.

 There, waiting for me, was my sanctuary. Near the back of the room was a story corner: small benches, low book shelves filled with picture books and occasional stuffed animals, a box of alphabet blocks, large windows overlooking the alley (not lovely, but abundant natural lighting warmed the whole room). I didn’t care that I was too big for the benches. It was a secluded corner. While my parents did their shopping and other errands, I could read undisturbed for hours.    

No teasing schoolmates here to mock me. No one to summon me to tedious chores or rebuke me for some failure of duty. It was the safest place I knew. I could slip into other worlds, keep company with animals, make friends with book children from other cultures. I could be someone else entirely—until heavy bongs from the City Hall clock announced the end of my freedom. Still, I could take an armload of books with me to devour (along with delicious popcorn) on a Sunday afternoon or to read secretly when I should have been doing homework.

 Eventually, I promoted myself to the young adult section on the main floor. I loved that front room, with its tall windows, big chairs, and elegant wooden shelves. Love, death, jobs, art, beauty, travel, friendships—teenage protagonists guided me through it all. On days when I felt truly daring, I wandered into the adult stacks, and discovered Thomas Hardy (I could wallow in bleakness without having to own it), shelves full of photography books that showed me the art of seeing, and sex education books I’d never have found in our small school library.

In the midst of the often lonely unhappiness of my teen years, that blessed, beautiful library offered me an escape, where I could make friends with books and learn to love their authors.  This was an egalitarian world without snobbishness or bullying. Ignorance and naiveté mattered nothing because I could choose what and how much information to absorb.

By the time I became a wife and then a mother, the venerable old brick building had been replaced by the current Frances Morrison Library, where I regularly took our three sons for story time in Pooh Corner, using my brief time off from mothering to browse the shelves for as many books as our four library cards would permit us to sign out. By now, I knew also that librarians are as essential as books—we had many happy conversations about favorite books and special reading places.  

Before those years, though, the Murray Library at the U of S had become another sanctuary; it still is that. So many long hours I spent in the small one-person carrels in the literature section. Just being near the long stacks of books was comforting. In the light of the slanting winter sun, I wrote love letters to my absent boyfriend, overwrought emotional diary entries, compulsory essays (and personal ones), and I read novels, poetry, philosophy, history. It’s not a surprise that my automatic response to seasons of despondency is to seek the company of my book friends.

 And I have had the pleasure of building my own library, beginning with two 6-foot planks held up by bricks, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, back in my undergraduate days. How I envied my professors with their elegant, book-stuffed offices. Thanks to second-hand book stores and sales, those two shelves and a few bricks have given way to expansive bookcases in almost every room of our house. In whatever bedroom I have ever slept, I wanted a book case nearby; failing that, I kept my current reading on the floor beside the bed.

One of our spare bedrooms, properly equipped with books. Note the hardcover Harry Potter books on the top shelf!

When I returned to the university to earn another degree and then to teach, whatever cubbyhole I was granted for an office quickly became my home by virtue of the books I gathered around me. Publishers supply free textbooks, and conferences have book tables, with discounts. Eventually, in a real office in St. Thomas More College, I was surrounded by books that I had long loved, that I hoped to read, that I bought at sales to give away to students.

 On that day in the Frances Morrison library, as I sat in the sun, remembering, I overheard a heart-warming conversation. A patient librarian was helping an elderly gentleman, on his iPod, showing him how to borrow e-books, learn about library events, and search the Internet safely. She listened to his stories and smiled at his jests.

I was reassured to know that libraries are still a safe place in which to learn, to escape, to enter other worlds, and to know oneself as part of the company of friends: people friends and book friends.           

A COVID-19 postscript:  The libraries are all closed now. Who would have imagined that to be possible? Wryly I recall my annoyance, back in my teaching days, at the observation of a Chief Financial Officer puzzling over why professors should want books in their office: “Everything useful is online now anyway. All that’s needed is a laptop and internet access.” Indeed. Now that’s all we have, unless we have built our own libraries in our homes. The comfort of a well-loved book in hand has become more precious than ever.

What remains accessible, provided we diligently wash our hands at the first opportunity, are all the little libraries that have appeared in residential streets all over Saskatoon, or at least in the areas in which I walk and cycle. Their cheerful painted exteriors and marvelously random contents signal literal Adventures in Reading, as language arts textbooks in the 1950s were titled. My heartfelt thanks to every home owner who has set up such an invitation to make some new book friends. If you’re lucky, you might get to chat with – at a safe distance – either the proprietor or someone else eager for something to read.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Cicero

 

Unravelled

Just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, I had finally learned how to knit. That had been a long-standing goal. Friends were knitters; my daughter-in-law was a knitter. I admired, I wanted to do likewise. Yet my first effort, about 10 years ago, ended in failure. My teacher, expert and patient, lived in another province, which meant that any mistake was instantly fatal for the project. I did not know how to “unknit.” I had crocheted for years; in crocheting, you just unravel the yarn until you have undone the mistake, then keep going again.   

Not so in knitting. Undoing errors is as difficult a process as the initial knitting, if not more so. After struggling to learn from a book that optimistically assumed easy success, I gave up. My half-finished toque, begun at least four times, was unravelled for the last time and tossed into the remnant yarn bin.  

Then just over a year ago, I learned of a knitting group that was going to meet weekly in a home nearby to teach beginners. Now that was what I needed – an experienced teacher to sit beside me and fix what I screwed up. After knitting numerous swatches, and pulling them apart to do yet again, I was comfortable with the basic knit and purl.

My first real project was a dish cloth, in an impractical white because I had lots of left-over white yarn and because in white, stitches can be easily seen. I was inordinately proud of it. Never mind that I’d been rescued by my teacher several times along the way.

Photo of dishcloth with skein of yarn and two knitting needles

Then I became ambitious. Having mastered the complicated (for me) pattern of that dishcloth, I expanded it into a small prayer shawl. I had enough white yarn left from this and that so I could easily make a shawl. Well, not easily. Nothing about knitting is easy for me. Probably won’t be even if I live to be 90 years old. Really good knitters begin as children.  

Although I was now bragging to friends that I knew how to knit, I began this second project in solitude. No distracting conversation, no observers to make me nervous. Slowly I gained confidence. By the time I’d knit almost two feet of the shawl, I dared to knit in the presence of family, pausing if I had something to say, because talking and knitting still couldn’t happen at the same time.

 I thought I was doing well. I boldly decided that using slightly different batches of yarn wouldn’t matter. The shawl would be “interesting” for its shades of difference. Okay, here and there I miscounted stitches and had to fudge a bit to keep the border even. Perhaps only I would see those glitches.  

Then came COVID-19 and physical distancing. No more knitting group meetings. I was on my own.

 My striving for perfection (except for those aforesaid glitches that no one else would see) came to a halt the evening that I missed an entire row. I didn’t notice, just kept knitting.  Yet when I woke up in the middle of the night, I realized what I had done. What made me think of knitting at 2 o’clock in the morning remains a mystery.

The next morning, I looked at my half-done shawl, then at the pattern book. Yep, I’d skipped a row. The shawl had now reversed itself; what was the good side had become the reverse side. It was glaringly obvious. Well, then. Time to practice my very unsteady unknitting skills.

A long, tense two hours later, I stared at what was steadily becoming something that could not be rescued. I had now tangled enough stitches, lost my sense of an even row, and become so discouraged that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be able to get back on track.

I retreated to a private room. There was no way I was going to let even my supportive husband see me laboriously unravelling hours and hours of work, returning the yarn to its original state. (Alright, not the original state – that’s never possible –but rolled into a coherent ball with which one thereafter begins again, if the will is there.)

There is no picture of that half-finished shawl. I had planned to take that photo when it was all done, and I could legitimately brag about it. Which will not happen now.

Photo of knittng book, knitting needles and skein of yarn as well as three small balls of yarn

Yet in the unravelling, I gained a more realistic view of my project than I’d allowed myself to see before. There had been, all along, uneven stitches because my tension was unsteady, and some raggedness here and there where I’d snagged or split the yarn. My miscountings were also more obvious than I’d thought.   

Worst of all, not only were my efforts to shift from one ball of yarn to the next entirely sloppy, but incorporating different kinds of yarn was clearly foolish. The shawl had become narrower because of slightly thinner yarn. The two shades of white didn’t look fashionably creative at all; they signalled clearly that they didn’t want to be together. The whole project hadn’t merited completion in the first place.  

The effort I expended trying to unknit, however, was not in vain. Through that miserable process of guesswork and sheer ignorance of where to put the needle next, I was learning. By the fourth row of undoing stitches, I was beginning to understand how knits and purls worked, just not consistently enough to succeed in the unknitting. I was tying together, metaphorically of course, actions and consequences.

Even the eventual despair that led to plain unravelling—hold onto the yarn and keep pulling—wasn’t so deep that I couldn’t see how I might, possibly, have been able to pick up the stitches at some point and rescue some of my work. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to count rows, wouldn’t have been able to figure out where I was in the pattern, in which each row had a different sequence of knits and purls.

All of which is to say that should I choose to begin the project again (unlikely), I would do better: yarn would be consistent in color and weight; rows would be carefully counted and noted; due attention would be given to the pattern. It would still not be perfect, though. My knitting teacher and her equally skilled knitting friends had assured me that even a lifetime of knitting did not prevent errors. For them, though, errors were just delays, not disasters.   

 

COVID-19 has given me more than enough time to meditate on knitting and other connections. From my busy academic days came a memory of writing a paper on Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World, likely because of its pervasive knitting images. The lonely narrator, finally prepared to accept his Mennonite heritage and desperate to find out who he is, explores his family history all the way back to the 1500s. The image clusters of knitting needles, ropes, knives, and threads bring together the suffering of a persecuted people, the beliefs and longings of key characters, the practice of knitting while praying, and the harmonies of songs while yarn is turned into toques and mittens. It is a tour de force.

That yarn of family betrayals, prison visits, traditional hymns, and loss of faith—telling, is it not, that we call stories yarns?—seemed the right narrative to lend meaning to my otherwise meaningless efforts and unravellings. On the one hand, my knitting failures are of little consequence. As I once explained to someone I was visiting in a nursing home, it didn’t matter if I had to unravel six inches of crocheting because I was only keeping my hands occupied while actually focusing on the conversation. The world did not need another baby afghan, but it did need my presence beside her.

On the other hand, my knitting failures can become a way of re-seeing failures of communication. If conversations don’t seem to be going anywhere, if hurt seems to multiply into hurts, might there be value in tugging gently at threads until we get back to some point of beginning?

The work of psychoanalysts indicates that sometimes moving forward requires going back to find out what metaphorical knitting needle stabbings, what ignored knots, what parallel yarns lie behind the current impasse. What’s more, current research shows that trauma is often intergenerational, that behaviour patterns have long histories. The threads of those narratives have been woven into our very cells. 

Not to say that such a cat’s-cradle of stories needs to be entirely understood and somehow redone. ‘Tisn’t always possible. What is possible is some recognition of complexity, some acknowledgement of causes, some willingness to hear differing voices. Then, with greater skill and greater humility, the story can begin again.

 

Songs, stories are beyond value: they are the memory and wisdom of a people, the particular individual rivers of the sea of life which constitutes us all.

Rudy Wiebe

The Temporality of Angels and Friends

I dropped the angel on the floor as I was dusting my dresser. The chunka-ka-chunk stopped my breath—“please, no, don’t break!”

Conscious or not, the prayer was answered. Not so much as a chipped wing. Yet even in that beat or two of unknowing, I was aware of an unwelcome “so what?” I was tempted yet again to discount the possibility of continuing my friendship with the giver of the angel.

Dusty angel in hand, I was lost in memories, contemplating also another figurine on the other end of the dresser—two women seated, forever turned to one another in intimate, silent conversation. That too was a gift from another country, which I had interpreted as a promise that distance wouldn’t matter.

But it did.

The two ornaments - the angel and the two seated women - are placed on a dark blue pedestal against a white wall.

Suppressing an impulse to toss both ornaments into the trash, I returned to the dusting, still brooding on inevitable comings and goings of friends, the joy and pain of finding and then losing what Anne of Green Gables called “bosom friends.” In the giver of the angel and the two clay women, I had found, despite a startling disparity in backgrounds and experiences, a bosom friend. That particular bleak day, I concluded reluctantly that only in novels of yesteryear, or as clay statuettes, do bosom friends last a lifetime.

Or perhaps other women, with more propitious histories and better friendship making skills, managed what I seemingly could not.

Still life with two red roses in a vase, the two-women statuette on two books, on a simple kitchen stool.

I have written, in an earlier post, about the uncanny way books have of falling off shelves into our hands precisely when we need them. In between such incognito epiphanies, habitual readers will, of course, choose many other books, some for delight, some for profit, some out of obligation, some never finished. Of the books destined to be read, some become beloved companions, each rereading another gift.

Yet there are also books, once truly life-altering, that disappoint when picked up again years later. The right moment for the reading has passed and will not come again; the reader has herself changed in ways that have left those once necessary books behind.

So, too, I have come to believe that the universe conspires to bring together friends as designated angels for one another. Just as books can be pleasurable temporary companions while others speak to our souls at the deepest level, so friends are not all alike. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, distinguishes three kinds of friendships (actual or book-friends) based on the gifts they offer—pleasure, profit, and “shared aspirations and loves of a kind that make life together worth having as an end in itself” (174).

Still life with the two-women statuette on top of two books on a stool. Beside the books are two tiny succulent plants.

In other words, some friends we keep company with because they’re entertaining or they make a given social context—dance clubs, schools, cooking classes, community groups—more comfortable. When graduation has passed or the club membership is dropped, so too do the friendships end. Friends are also useful; we collaborate with colleagues, learn from teammates, share child care, carpool with neighbours. Both these kinds of friendship—pleasure and profit—end naturally, and painlessly, when circumstances change. Unless the friendships have advanced to another level, they do not last beyond the boundaries of their making.

The third kind of friendship is qualitatively different, whether having begun that way or having developed into it. With these friends, we can “be ourselves,” yet we also know that we are, in their company, becoming better people. The interaction feels supportive, even transformative; life seems richer, more worthwhile. Abstract language here inevitably fails because what happens between “bosom friends” is warmly specific and the friendship changes as it deepens.  

The giver of the angel—let me call her Cara—and I were just getting to know one another when the aftermath of family grief and an increasing anger over my church experiences pushed me into spiritual crisis and depression. How was it that she, a colleague and an ordained minister, just “happened” to be there? That we “happened” to have grown up in similar family dynamics with equally fraught relationships with our mothers? That even early conversations rarely needed superficial hallway talk before moving into riskier, soul-baring territory?  

The friendship was not one-sided; I also took my turns to listen and comfort. There was between us a meeting of minds and hearts that neither of us had known before in quite that way (although we had, and still have, other friends whom we treasure and with whom we can share ourselves). Without Cara’s presence in precisely those years, I would not be who I am today. That I cannot, and will not, ever forget.

And then she moved to a different country. She was not a letter-writer.   

Rare visits have revealed that ours was a friendship that could be renewed in the first half hour,  the only sign of prolonged separation being the need to catch up on family news. Nevertheless, a subtle, unnameable change was underway.

photo of two red roses, one already drooping and other just reaching for full bloom.

People, unlike books, are not static, and while we may, decades later, understand and interpret a book very differently than we did at first, the book itself responds—if one may use such an active verb for paper and ink—out of its unchanging soul. Not so our friends. As our bodies’ cells are sloughed off and regrown, so we, too, change through our experiences, our decisions with their consequences, our losses, and our other friends.

There is a time to laugh and to mourn, to embrace and to refrain from embracing, says the philosopher-writer of Ecclesiastes. It follows that there is a time to laugh and weep together, and a time to laugh and weep apart. As deep as the grief may be, there is a time to let go as well. The gift that was given – and I speak not of clay statuettes, but the expansion of soul that happened in her presence – has not been withdrawn. For that, and for all the friends who have walked with me, whether for a mere mile or two or for a thousand, I am grateful.

I remind myself every now and then, such as when a dusty angel reawakens loss, to remember that a clenched hand can accept nothing besides its own tension. To receive new gifts, one’s hands and heart must be open. For the divine benevolence that grants us books and friends is always generous.

photo of angel up against a mirror that it seems as if two angels are there, back to back.