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.

Could We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?

(begun December 6, 2019, completed just before International Women’s Day)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. That first mass shooting in Canada (it remains the deadliest). Every year on December 6th since then, there have been public remembrance services for the women who died that day and renewed calls for vigilance and for greater equality. Memorials have been set up in various cities across Canada.

photo of candles, two long-stemmed roses, and three teddy bears, arranged on church steps draped with a black cloth

Since then, mass shootings in North America have become more frequent and their targets more varied: children in schools, concert goers, Muslims, Jews, party-goers, journalists, women again. As if the fearful, the isolated, the helplessly angry know that education and music and diversity are agents of peace and freedom – or can be. Admittedly, artists and musicians can bring people together for nefarious purposes as well as for good ends. And partiers can dance for and with everyone, or band together to exclude.

One can pray for the death of enemies—and thus inevitably become more inclined to bring those prayers to fruition—or one can pray for strength and peace for all neighbours, regardless of skin color or ideology or accident of citizenship and inherited traditions.

still life photo of celtic cross, and two candles, on the base of draped white satin.

 In the end, we can choose to smolder in our house of hatred or throw open windows and doors to let the heart embrace beauty however it is embodied. We can choose to embrace the dignity and worth of every human being or recast some humans as enemies. Those choices are, admittedly, strongly shaped by those we happen to be in relationship with, not to mention surrounding circumstances that influence what worldview we find most compatible and safe. Yet, surely, at some point, we can reach for sufficient maturity to reflect on how we might play the cards that have been given us.  

still life with two different candles holders and a silver cross necklace.

What I fail to understand is how we as human beings dare to ascribe superiority and merit to those characteristics we can impossibly choose. Why should I as a woman be deemed unworthy of some privilege that men claim as a birthright? (For a detailed example of “birthright” privilege, read Price of Honour by Jan Goodwin)

I did not choose to be born as a woman any more than my brothers chose to be born as men. Neither I nor they are justified in levelling blame or in boasting about either bodily state. Nor did I earn my whiteness that I should have reason to be proud of it. Equally I should not accept reprimand for my pigmentation or lack thereof.

Now what I do with the current privilege (or disadvantage) of any of my birthrights is another matter. Part of acquiring wisdom and equanimity as we live through each day is learning how to differentiate between what we might be responsible for and what we’re not. Then follows the need for courage to act in ways that matter, according to values that have come to be recognized as universal—e.g. the preciousness of every human life, compassion, the right to have basic human needs met, etc.

More difficult is thinking through what others are responsible for. Our own circumstances we know and our own motives we can learn to understand if we take the time and effort. The circumstances and motives of others? Not so much. Let there be compassion and patience in abundance before we dare to judge.

A personal story: on December 6, 1989, the day that Marc Lepine entered the École Polytechnique and fatally shot 14 women, six of them in a mechanical engineering class, I was back in university, as a mature student. I no longer recall my reactions that day, or my reactions in the following year when the first anniversary of the shooting took place. Mostly I was preoccupied with trying to balance the demands of being a parent to teen-agers, a daughter to my elderly and increasingly ill parents, a wife to my husband, and a student in PhD studies.

In the midst of that stew of obligations, I met a fellow graduate student (J), likewise a mature student with many family demands, but from a very different cultural background and set of circumstances over which she had as little choice as I had over mine. She was Indigenous, and I had grown up in a milieu of unspoken and even unconscious prejudice, although during a few years on the board of MCC Saskatchewan, I had heard enough about the experiences of Indigenous peoples to provoke some serious re-thinking.

Nevertheless, I was still quite unprepared for J’s angry response to colonial attitudes in the literature we were reading, literature that I had grown up enjoying and even revering. I felt seared by J’s bitter resentment of white privilege and confused about our Canadian history.

Just what led to our choosing to have a long lunch together, I hardly know.  Perhaps it was the need to function together in a small graduate seminar class, or maybe, through class discussion, we had glimpsed the possibility of common ground. I don’t recall who offered the invitation. As it turned out, that luncheon was an eye-opener for us both.

I listened to her talk about her father, a runner of real prowess, who earned an Olympic medal which he was not allowed to keep—how was it that the Indian agent felt empowered to confiscate it? That seems like such an act of gratuitous humiliation. I heard bits of J’s personal story that moved me deeply. How had she been able to become a conscientious mother and diligent, brilliant graduate student? I gained a new respect for her courage in overcoming disadvantages that I could only dimly comprehend. I felt sure that I could not have done the same.

On the other hand, J was startled to realize that my background had not been unbroken privilege. She had not known that Mennonites also revered the land, although differently than Indigenous peoples, or that our history included the Russian Revolutions, violent fragmentation of families, and desperate flight to different countries. As I talked of my parents’ regret over the loss of what they considered their homeland and their struggle to adjust to a different country and a different culture, she sympathized.  

Did all misunderstandings disappear at once? No. Did I learn everything I needed to know in order to understand the lives of Indigenous peoples? Not even close. But I did learn to appreciate something of J’s viewpoint in subsequent classes and could hear her contributions without bristling inwardly. I have since followed her scholarly contributions with interest. 

Reflecting on that experience, now decades ago, as long ago as the massacre at École Polytechnique, I wonder how long we need to keep memorializing that tragic event. Could we balance the retelling of that awful day by celebrating some event, some occasion in which diverse people had come together in peace and laughter?

Photo of dining-room table covered with an Iranian cloth of intricate weave, with a table centerpiece of three clay women in a circle with a lit candle in the centre.
The table covering is a gift from an Iranian friend.

I know, our calendars are already full, what with holidays from several religious traditions, special days such as International Women’s Day, Vimy Ridge Day, Groundhog Day, National Tartan Day, and whatever label we use to make sure that we get a long weekend in February.

Anniversaries are meaningful, whether personal (that first real kiss, the death of a family member) or national or even international. And I do not wish to denigrate them. Furthermore some horrors are so dehumanizing that we must remember them lest we repeat them. That had been the intent of Remembrance Day. What I fear is that we foster antipathy to perceived enemies or somehow, unwittingly I hope, glorify violence. Perhaps what I wish for is a continued, daily awareness that the most basic, efficacious response to violence is learning to see the Other as friend.

            Let’s share tea and break bread (or muffins) together more often than we light candles.  

photo of same table but with a cheerful blue tablecloth made in Bangledesh, the three women-centrepiece with lit candle, two tea cups and a plate with two muffins.
Table ready for two. Tableclcoth made in Bangladesh.

Of Pears and Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Privilege of Bearing Burdens

(First written over two years ago, and now revisited in memory of my brother)

 Such a triumvirate of memento mori that was, in the space of two months or less: first the announcement of the dreaded Diagnosis (two of them, in fact, one in my husband’s family and one in mine); then the request to serve as Power of Attorney and Personal Agent (albeit the requester was still in excellent health); and somewhere in between, a book fell off the shelf into my hands – The Good Funeral by Thomas Long, theologian, and Thomas Lynch, funeral director. Clearly, I needed to pay attention.

Given my age and my status as the youngest in my family, I was not surprised that I should be reminded so directly and repeatedly that none of us is immortal. (The deaths of a good friend and of a brother within the last six months have sharpened that reminder.) That comes with the territory of post-retirement years.

photo of lake with geese and a bare tree on the shore.

What did surprise was an abrupt reversal of one of my assumptions, thanks to The Good Funeral. The book has much wisdom to offer on all kinds of matters, particularly the North American evasion of all reminders of death and the strange banishment of the body from all public displays of grief, limited as those displays now are. That cultural analysis I had encountered before. But I had never seriously questioned the commonly used phrase “I don’t want to be a burden.” Indeed, I had said it myself, if not so bluntly.

  An understandable sentiment, surely, an appropriate recognition of our dignity. Being a burden means becoming dependent on others who, presumably, have better things to do with their time than care for us. The agony of giving up a driver’s license, for example, lies in the coming horror of having to ask others for rides, to the grocery store, to church, to a friend’s home, unless public transit is readily available. And if physical mobility has become a challenge, then even public transit ceases to be an option. Any and all disabilities, including mental deterioration, can turn us into a “burden.”  

rocky edge of Lake Superior.

 How have we come to use such language? “Burden,” as a friend pointed out to me, “is such a negative word. It gathers in weight and awkwardness and struggle, all of it unwanted.”  Human “burdens” claim time and emotional energy—to do errands, help with chores, listen, make appointments, assume legal responsibilities, change bed linen. There’s no assigned contract limit for such a commitment to bear the weight of another’s physical weaknesses and to hold in one’s mind and heart an immeasurable emotional heaviness. Patience is required, abundant patience, which is another way of saying that one’s own interests and choices must be set aside.

 Being afraid of making such claims on others seems understandable, yet shouldn’t we think more carefully about the very nature of our relationships before insisting, instinctively, that we will not be a burden to anyone? What virulent strain of individualism has persuaded us that we can get through life without being a burden or without carrying a burden?

 But then, I hadn’t even questioned the concept of burdensomeness until I read The Good Funeral. Thomas Lynch caught my attention with his musings about how the first human death might have been experienced: suppose the woman wakes up to find her partner unresponsive, cold – what is she to do?

In a warm climate, she will soon know that the unresponsive one must be removed or she will have to find another cave for herself. Whether she elects to leave the body to the animals and birds or to bury it or to push it off a cliff into the sea, she will have to accompany the body to its last resting place.

As Lynch imagines it, “maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties who do their part sensing that they may need exactly this kind of help in the future” (57, italics mine). From then on, Lynch argues, human beings are human precisely in their ritual responses to death, rituals in which people, in a community, care for the grieving ones and dispose of the body with due respect.

sunset on lake with interesting clouds and a jet streak

 In his questioning of the concept of preplanning funerals—to avoid “being a burden to your family”—Lynch points out a simple fact I hadn’t thought about long enough: just as our children were once a burden to us in the sense of needing to be fed and carried and changed and trained, etc., so too will those children carry the weight of others as they grow older, first their own children and then their parents. That is the normal order of life and death (and I’m well aware that that order is sometimes upset, creating a particularly painful mourning).

Quite apart from this parent-child relationship, human beings thrive only in community and that entails taking on some burdens for others and becoming a burden to others. Of such is humanity. To pretend that we can manage our affairs so precisely that we never need the help of anyone whom we haven’t already paid for professional services is foolish, and deprives others of their turn to practice compassion, that most human of all qualities. 

Isn’t it time that we simply accepted the weight of being a human being? Then perhaps we can carry that weight with all the dignity that becomes those who stand a little lower than the angels, who, we are told, know nothing of the glory of bearing burdens. 

Does graciousness mean you want to help–or that you don’t and do it anyway? The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particularly backstory.”   

Leslie Jamison

The Audacity of Hope

 “Signs and wonders are always doubted, and perhaps they are meant to be. In the absence of certainty, faith is more than mere opinion; it is hope.”

 (Mary Doria Russell in Children of God)

Hope is, by definition, tenuous. It is not certainty, not even probability. It is a clinging to the barely possible, in the face of more likely, undesirable possibilities. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson insisted, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune—without the words, / And never stops at all.” Hope is illogical and necessary, in equal measure. “Faith, hope, and love,” declared St. Paul, are the bedrock of theology. Also of sociology and psychology.

Also of stories. Whether the stories are fiction or history or memoir or true in some other sense, we listen with longing for wisdom and for a resolution that will satisfy. For this reason, modern fiction and drama often frustrates because of its seeming hopelessness, its bleak endings. I would argue, though, that hope is visible in the stoic courage of those who endure suffering without seeing an end. The little thing with feathers still “sings sweetest in the gale.”

One of literature’s frequent symbols of hope is the birth of a child. One tiny being suggests possibilities where none existed before. At the most elemental level, a baby means that the parents are fertile—the clan will not die out, there will be another harvest, the tribe can thrive under better leadership. Ancient myths are replete with miraculous stories of birth. Anything is then possible; all things are possible.

Yet nothing is guaranteed. The hope-full Advent story includes swords and later on, a cross. Even a cursory survey of literature offers sufficient examples of what T.S. Eliot calls the “hope for the wrong thing” (East Coker). When hope forgets humility and love turns into demand, the promised little one can only disappoint.  

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster’s classic British novel on social class, a rich capitalist family, a cultured, artistic, intelligent family, and a struggling low-class family with little in common encounter one another through tentative friendships, and brief romances, only to fall into misunderstandings and antagonism. It all seems hopeless, until an illegitimate son is conceived out of a brief passion between the lower class young man and the younger daughter of the cultural elite. Despite that intimation of hope, though, the poor baby seems the child of an artificial marrying of intellectual concepts, not actual people.    

Similarly, in two Canadian novels, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, literally illegitimate children are made to embody hope for resolution of age-old conflicts. In Wild Geese, the conflict is between a pioneer patriarch’s cold, selfish drive to possess and control both property and family, and his daughter’s earthy vitality, sensuality, and rebellious drive for freedom. It is a gender-driven conflict that pits materialism against nature itself, and nature, through the now-pregnant daughter, wins, if one can overlook the swashbuckling, impulsive father of the child who may or may not be able to provide adequately for his new partner and child.

In As For Me and My House, set in the 1930s, the situation is even bleaker. The narrator/protagonist and her husband, who have moved through several dustbowl towns, giving inadequate ministerial care to survivors of repeated crop failures, are both failed artists: he’s a painter and she’s a pianist. Neither had sufficient courage to match their artistic ambition and instead stumbled into a marriage and a half-sham performance as preacher and preacher’s wife. Everything around them and in them is infertile; they have no child (to the acute disappointment of them both) and their gardens die. The baby at the end is born of a brief liaison between the minister and a young parishioner (who conveniently dies in childbirth). The minister’s wife, who knows of the affair, insists that they adopt the baby and then move away into the big city to begin a new life with a new career. Such an adoption and such a marriage have but a snowball’s chance in hell of thriving, but there is no doubt that Ross is using an ancient symbol of hope, possibly ironically.

Indeed, the hope seems the hope for the wrong thing. The poor babies are asked to bring peace to ancient oppositions and to do so without an adequate foundation of love.      

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, also offer us babies as carriers of hope, but the tone is different. These novels are speculative fiction, located on earth and on Rakhat, a distant planet with two sentient species. The Jesuits’ first exploratory mission ends in seeming disaster, both for the planet and for the protagonist, whose faith, once close to sainthood, is utterly destroyed. Two babies play a crucial role. The first is born among refugees from an inter-species war of survival. The only human child on Rakhat, Isaac is fatherless and autistic; his mother, Sophia, sees no hope for this strange child among alien species. Yet he is gifted and creates an unearthly, uniquely beautiful piece of music based on the DNA sequences of humans, Runa, and Jana’ata. All three species recognize, in Isaac’s music, an example of God’s grace made manifest in the midst of on-going tragedy. Audacious as it may seem, hope remains.  

Back on earth again, at the end of the second novel, the weary ex-priest has gone, on the Day of the Dead, to weep alone at the tomb of the woman he had once hoped to marry. He has, he thinks, lost everyone he has ever loved. A young woman with a baby approaches, addressing him as “Padre.” He looks in amazement at her features, startlingly familiar, and sees a daughter he did not know he had begotten just before he was forcibly taken back to Rakhat. In submission to this new manifestation of grace, he opens his damaged arms to receive little Tommaso, his grandchild. Not all doubt has been resolved—it never will be—but love has become possible again. Nothing else is asked of this little one, just love.    

I end with a personal story. When I finally became pregnant with our oldest child, my parents had probably given up hope that we would ever give them grandchildren. At the time, my mother had entered another long period of depression. Even the brief return home of my older brother from Africa failed to rouse her from inner pain. My pregnancy was merely another cause for anxious fretting. 

My mother holding our infant son

Yet among my family treasures is a photo of my mother holding our son for the first time. Her smile recalls the beauty of her youth, when she was full of hope for the future. Our baby brought her back out of the darkness, admittedly not for very long. Life rarely works that simply. Yet those few months of newfound joy were a gift, and still are.

As T. S. Eliot warned, hope can be the “hope of the wrong thing,” just as love can be “the love of the wrong thing.” Even our worthiest expectations can be hubristic wishful thinking, just as Jesus’ birth, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, raised hopes of immediate political deliverance that were later nailed to the cross. This is not to say that we should not hope, for without hope, life—and love—cannot be sustained,  

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.  (T.S. Eliot)

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, December 13, 2017.

Of Fruit and Knowledge

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on November 23, 2016, but revised now in celebration of another season of fruit that’s come to an end.            

Fruit and I have close kinship; it calls to me and I answer – eagerly. As far as I am concerned, there’s no such thing as too much fruit, especially wild fruit. Family lore claims I can spot wild strawberries in the ditch along the highway through the windows of a speeding car. Small grandchildren have already learned that on hikes in the Rockies, it pays to stay near Grandma. If there is wild fruit to be had—strawberries, currants, saskatoons, raspberries, blueberries—I will find it. And will happily “steal” it from the bears who probably need the calories more than my clan and I do. My guilt over the theft, if such it is, is quickly smothered by my confidence that there are more than enough berries for us all. So far.

Wild raspberries along the trail to Black Elk Peak in Black Hills National Park, South Dakota
Wild strawberry flowers, beautiful in their own right

 The reckless, extravagant abundance of fruit, wild and domesticated, never ceases to astonish me. Even granting that some fruit in a human diet is essential for vitamins and fibre, was the Creator obliged to provide so much, in such profligate variety? Or to infuse some fruits with so much juice and joy that the first bite is like sexual climax for sheer self-abandonment to sensual indulgence? The very shape and luster of fresh peaches, to take one example, is enough to make the sensitive blush, and the intensity of taste in wild strawberries or blueberries can be grasped only through experience, through knowing.

 And abruptly, the biblical sense of knowing – physical intimacy – comes into play. A raspberry is not real until it is crushed by the tongue, and one is never the same thereafter (I speak here of raspberries for which one has braved the prickly canes, not the ones sold in multinational grocery stores, hybridized for their longevity, and shipped days ago). Whatever fruit one imagines that the first human pair ate in search of forbidden knowledge—perhaps a mango which drips juice everywhere, or a pomegranate whose every seed is a burst of flavor and surprise—it becomes an apt symbol for the uprush of new experience, with all its consequences.

 Fruit and gardens: both are so symbolically rich (and wild fruit has additional hints of the illicit and the adventurous) that writers, from biblical times to the present, find them irresistible.  Isaiah the prophet could find no more apt picture of redemption than the transformation of a wilderness into a garden; for St. John, the Gospel writer, it seemed fitting that the grieving Mary Magdalene should mistake the risen Christ for the gardener; and to John of Patmos, Heaven was incomplete without a Tree of Life that bore fruit every month.   

As I think of writers I have recently encountered, none does more with fruit and gardens than Darcie Friesen Hossack. In her collection of short stories Mennonites Don’t Dance, she piles theological implications on top of too-skimpy pies and blushing fragile tomatoes, and deftly measures her characters by their ability—and willingness—to love dirt into fruitfulness. Those who “have no use for fruit” have adopted a soulless utilitarianism designed to shield them from vulnerability. Those with wholesome relationships, with others and with their God, are most likely to grow gardens and love fruit; they’re unafraid of sensuality and are generous of soul and habit.

 What appeals to me in Hossack’s painfully honest stories about family dynamics is the recurrent insistence on hope, through the fertile, lovely gardens, in the shameless, abundant juices of fruit. Hope, for children wounded by their parents’ struggle to come to terms with their own past, is born as they learn to put seeds into the soil or gather dandelions for wine–transformational activities which Hossack associates with the creative impulse itself, often by way of a fascination with texture, not just taste, or a heightened sensitivity to color.

Sour cherry tree in our back yard.

 That last symbolic connection draws in the very nature of beauty, and raises the theological question of whether one can learn to love God without also learning to love that which is beautiful and celebrating our human sensuality. I am reminded of poet John Keats’ famous words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If we’re going to follow that line of thought back to the Garden of Eden and reclaim gardening as a necessary theological activity, maybe even as a prologue to love itself (since growing anything is a surrender of control), then . . . well, what then?

Already on that path is a growing congregation of earth-keepers, from backyard composters and determined urban gardeners to highly trained scientists estimating the number of years we have left before our entire earthly garden withers and all its inhabitants with it. Keats’ observation now takes on some urgency; if the interchangeability of beauty and truth is the sole knowledge necessary, then to seek and to gain that knowledge, we need to know also (through experience, through the crushed raspberry on the tongue) that we, and the beauty and truth that we must know (with all our passion and energy), are rooted in the earth, on the earth.  Knowing begins in dirt.

To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi

Here and There: The Puzzle of Place and Time

 Decades ago when I first discovered Canadian fiction, I read Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson with happy recognition. Back in the 1970s, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing familiar scenery in novels; characters all lived elsewhere. So when the fictional Maggie Lloyd got off the bus at Kamloops and hitched a ride into the hills to a fishing camp, I was delighted. I could actually visualize her journey clearly and recognized the names of the small towns she traveled through. Our family had camped at Paul Lake near Kamloops, and we had driven the Princeton-Hope Highway, back before the Coquihalla Highway made straight the wilderness of the Fraser Canyon.

Low mountains and pine trees along the old Princeton-Hope Highway.
Taken from the campground near Lytton, BC.

Maggie’s confidence—“I know this all and I know how to live here”—was also familiar. That’s how I feel whenever we drive into Jasper, Alberta. I recognize every bend in the road and can name most of the mountains, thanks to summer jobs in Jasper when I was a university student. I had walked its streets many times and hiked up whatever slopes were accessible in a day off.  Ever since, driving into Jasper has felt like coming home, though buildings change, and Mt. Edith Cavell loses a glacier and rearranges the landscape. I love that place. When I’m there, I can barely imagine my real home in Saskatoon.

Mt. Edith Cavell near Jasper, Alberta.

That whole puzzling business of being “here” rather than “there”. . . . How do place and memory connect? And what has the connection to do with who I am? As I pack up camping gear, I tell myself, “In two days, I’ll be in Wapiti Campground.” It seems unbelievable. Then three days later, breathing the wondrous mountain air, shivering in the evening coolness, my home seems remote, as if back there, I was someone else, not this woman who now sips her hot tea and watches the elk wander past.

Am I the only one who runs up against that disconnect, I wonder? How do frequent travelers cope? Those who go to Europe one summer and Barbados the next and Africa the year after. How do they know who they are? Or is their need for at-home-ness in a particular space less than mine?

Place and time and memory—and identity: philosophers have tangled with those magnitudes ever since human beings could think of themselves as separate from their surroundings and grasp the passage of time.

 It all comes into sharp focus during the last days of planning and packing, before  departure. I stare at the familiar walls of my study, that place where thought and language happen, and try to fathom that in three days or four, I shall be in wherever—Fresno, California, or Goshen, Indiana. And when I’m actually there, maybe at a conference, I wonder who I am—the woman who did dishes at the sink and chatted with her husband the day before (such are the wonders of air travel), or the woman standing at the podium delivering a paper to other scholars, who are also from elsewhere.

 Time then seems to bend and waver, stretch and condense in confusing ways. The hours in the airport are time suspended, refusing to move on. The last day away is both slow and too rapid. I think: today I’m looking at orange trees by the pool; tomorrow I shall pull on parka and boots to slog through snow.

Pool by a hotel in Fresno, California.

I wonder if those who traveled once by slow boats or walked or rode their camels had a more solid sense of who they were and where they were. Were they more at home in their skins, then, when all they saw was recognizable, even after days of travel?

In the opening chapter of Swamp Angel, Maggie Vardoe (not yet back to being Maggie Lloyd), stares out her kitchen window, rehearsing in her mind her careful plans, made over years, to leave Vancouver and her marriage. Every simple action of preparing supper has been done before, many times. Only an hour or two, now, before she will walk out the back door, step into a prearranged taxi cab, and begin her transformation into Maggie Lloyd, fishing camp cook hundreds of miles away. And she is aware of “time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past),” fearing that time had “stood still, or had died.”

 There are occasions in our lives when time both stands still and marches on, when who we are is about to change beyond recognition. It might not even be through physical travel from place to place; sometimes an inner journey, a private decision, turns everything around us into a different country. Who can live through such moments? Yet we all do.

I have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition to breathe and be where we are, not where we plan to be or where we’ve been. “When you sit and breathe mindfully,” he says, “your mind and body finally get to communicate and come together. . . . usually the mind is in one place and the body in another.” Precisely.

No wonder that time wavers and bends and stands still. I am attracted to mindfulness, can see the freedom of living in “now-ness,” yet cannot give up the creativity that I think is inherent in our endless puzzling about time and place and self, the pieces provided by memory. I am not prepared, yet, to give up self-awareness. Not for longer than a reasonable meditation time, anyway.             

Sorting Through Family Stories and Finding My Place – Part 2

 The desk and floor in my study are cluttered again, this time not with just papers and open books—which I insist is the sign of a working mind—but also boxes of pictures and albums, old journals (mine and my father’s), and my father’s old briefcase with some ancient documents and a tattered Bible. I had not planned to delve into my family history again. I had been there and done that, more than once.   

On the floor are two photo albums that belonged to my parents and my mother’s Bible.

Yet we do not choose when convergences will invite us into new layers of self-knowledge. Emails arrived. Old pictures were shared, not all of which I’d seen before. Questions were asked. Memories came back to haunt. Different stories were told that I hadn’t heard or remembered. And reminders of mortality were showing up. For some conversations, it was already too late.

It seemed wisest to pay attention and prepare myself to re-enter the shape-shifting nature of retold stories. For one thing was becoming clear: each time I have become caught up in the formative stories of my parents—and my people (the Mennonites)—some new information emerged that demanded a changed narrative. Just how that also changed my identity, my sense of who I was in relation to my family and my inherited faith story, I wasn’t always clear. But these stories mattered, whether I understood just how or not.

What I had worked out, after the third or fourth go-around, was that one’s identity is shaped in a spiral fashion. Instead of progressing in a nice, straight line, preferably upward toward greater wisdom, it is the nature of human self-awareness to keep circling back to old material, not to rehash old emotions without change (at least one hopes not), but to return to problems not yet resolved, old knotty issues that never made sense, now seen in new contexts and thus from new perspectives. Hopefully with more knowledge and greater maturity as well.

Dramatic versions of startling discovery followed by a completely new self-identity are the stuff of novels, of course—protagonist discovers skeleton in the closet (sometimes literally – see Sarah’s Key) and has to re-imagine entirely who she or he is. It’s the stuff of memoirs, too, such as My Secret Sister. Perhaps part of the reason we read such accounts so eagerly is that, on some level, we’re all aware of how partial our knowledge is of our parents’ lives, yet how important it can be. Without some sense of who the people are who raised us – as individuals and more than just their roles in relation to us – we cannot really understand ourselves.

My father’s well-worn Bible (upper left) and various immigration documents kept in a very fragile cloth wallet.

 In my various explorations of family histories, I have found no actual skeletons in any closets. Mostly, what I learned about the sources of my parents’ fears and prejudices made it easier to forgive them for not being perfect parents, although I am still learning to forgive myself for not being the perfect daughter (that’s material for some other posting, if ever!).

 What is more difficult is sorting through the stories of who my people are. My childhood vision of good Mennonites being led almost miraculously by God to the safe country of Canada, out of the power of the evil Communists who were destroying the beautiful, clean, and prosperous godly Mennonite villages in Ukraine is no more. That mythologized version of the story was completely revised in my mind during my four years of thesis-writing when I felt as if the self who I had been was being pulled apart and somehow I would have to salvage the necessary parts.  

Why had I never known that the Mennonite villages were not small utopias at all, but were seriously divided, economically, the landowners with power in the church and community and the landless labouring class? And I had known nothing of the huge estates owned by the wealthiest Mennonites who depended upon an impoverished Russian peasantry for cheap labour, nor that the initial land grants under Catherine the Great had given Mennonites advantages that the Russian people had always resented. Small wonder, then, that Revolutionary fervour got out of hand in the prosperous, privileged Mennonite colonies.  

Ironically, now that I had a context in which to ask truly important questions of my parents, I could no longer ask them. Yet would they have been able to re-examine their primary narratives? Is there a point beyond which such personal foundation stories can no longer be retold in new language? Will I know when that happens to me?

My mother’s Bible, with a list of dates of sibling birth and deaths, some cards that were meaningful to her, and a map of the Molotschna Colony where she spent her early childhood.

And now I have re-entered the stories again. I had not thought that would be necessary after our pilgrimage to Ukraine, to visit the birth-places of my parents. Yet that pilgrimage led to sharing stories with the next generation, which is stumbling into its own necessary questions. Then—oh, the serendipitous beauty of mysterious timing—came the emails from cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, if ever.

The pictures and questions and stories, and subsequent visits to libraries and museums, are drawing me into a different kind of rethinking of the family history. Until now, I had been placing myself into these stories through asking “who am I in relation to my parents?” and “who am I in relation to my people, my ethnic roots?”  What was missing was connection to the extended families.

For the record: to my wonderfully discovered clan of maternal cousins – thank you! I had not realized how much my soul craved a fuller family context, which you are now providing. I had been doing my story-work alone, without the help of those who share portions of my history and half of my genes. To see my grandparents and my mother through stories told by her siblings and her nieces and nephews changes my perspective again, rounds out the landscape. Like the poet Stanley Kunitz, in “The Layers,” I feel now as if “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own.”

A clean study again – for now.

A child’s curiosity can absorb some family stories; the young adult hears the same stories with idealistic disdain for bad choices; the middle-aged parent ruefully acknowledges that old family behavior patterns have not been left behind after all, but are being subconsciously repeated; and the older adult, with leisure now, and presumably emotional maturity enough to hold all sadness with respect, seeks not to achieve  closure for good and all (ambiguity will always remain), but to add what wisdom is possible before bequeathing those stories to the next generations to live into however they choose.

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