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

The Other Me

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

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

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

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

Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, August 31, 2016.

A Rose Bush and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rose garden in our front yard

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

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

Anne Michael, Fugitive Pieces

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

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

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

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

An utterly dead rose bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Falling Off the Shelf

            One definite proof of the benevolence of the universe, my friend regularly insists, is that just when you need it most—especially if you haven’t even known that you needed it—the right book falls off the shelf into your hands.

            I was in the midst of an overdue dusting and tidying in my bedroom. The small bookcase at the head of the bed was, as usual, stacked precariously with too many books. There were books I wanted to read, books others had shoved into my hands with a well-meaning “you should read this,” and books I was actually reading, each with a bookmark holding my place. As I began sorting the last category, the heaviest volume (hardcover no less) slid to the floor, just missing my foot. Its bookmark fell out as I picked it up—In Search of Stones by M. Scott Peck.

            It had disappointed me months ago when I began reading, and I had almost decided to consign it to a give-away box. Since Peck’s earlier books had once taken their turn as helpful companions on my journey, I had expected too much from this one. Some hope apparently remained, hence its place on the shelf. Randomly leafing through to see where the bookmark should go, I began reading:

            But what I am most grateful to [our children] for is the learning they have wittingly or unwittingly provided me. And are still providing.

            The learning these days is all about separation.

            I was not prepared for it.     (152)

Not bothering to find a chair, I stood in the middle of the room, transfixed, absorbing Peck’s description of his struggle to let his children “individuate” – to separate. His rueful admission that the “professional literature doesn’t talk about how much it can hurt for all concerned” (152) was precisely what I needed to read – exactly then.

            That it had been a book by M. Scott Peck that had just fallen off the shelf into my hands seemed especially serendipitous. It was Peck who had defined grace as “a powerful force originating outside of human consciousness which nurtures the spiritual growth of human beings” (The Road Less Travelled). Something there is in the universe that wishes us well, whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time.

            Such grace-full falling off the shelf, I have discovered, can happen in two or three installments, even widely separated in time. I think now of the poem I “happened” to read in a journal I never subscribed to but had picked up one day because a colleague insisted that I should submit a paper to it. I decided against the submission, but did copy that one poem for my files, where it languished, forgotten after that first charmed reading. About 15 years later, while searching for poems to use in a discussion group on poetry and theology, this poem, “The Road to Emmaus” by Christopher Mann, “came to hand.” How else shall I describe its unlooked-for appearance? I had just read T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” and now heard, with astonishment, the similar cadences and knew at once that the poems wanted to be read and discussed together.   

            Now that I think about it, I’m convinced that it’s possible for the “right” book to fall off my shelf into someone else’s hands, even in some other province, if need be. 

            Recently, while seeking distraction from a letter that refused to be written, I let CBC’s website tempt me into watching an excellent interview with Brie Larson, who plays a central role in the acclaimed movie Room based on a book of the same title by Emma Donoghue. Larson’s articulateness and passion for her work had two consequences: one was that I sent the link for the interview to my sister, a retired child psychologist living in Edmonton; the other was that Room now fell off an obscure shelf where I’d shoved it over a year ago. I’d bought it because of a persuasive friend, but knowing something of its plot line, I had been too cowardly to read it. Now I did. So did my sister. She also read another novel by Emma Donoghue, and then two other non-fiction books on childhood trauma that were clearly necessary for her. In a grateful email, she blessed me for having begun the “whole sequence.” How could I possibly take credit for having participated, unwittingly, in that mysterious loving grace that topples books off shelves into our hands?

            The opening stanza of “The Road to Emmaus” begins, “It’s not the friendliest of villages, Emmaus,/ . . . hardly the place to expect revelation, / if revelation’s the word—I leave that to you.”

“Something there is in the universe that wishes us well,
whether we name it grace or God or name it not at all. Something that drops the right book into our hands at the right time. ”

(Originally published in Prairie Messenger April 20, 2016)

These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruin

The title is T.S. Eliot’s line in the last stanza of The Waste Land, his 1922 cry for meaning in a world where all had seemingly gone mad. In the wake of the pointless slaughter of World War I, the old verities had lost their hold. Eliot responded with a lengthy poem of seemingly disconnected fragments: bits of old stories, remnants of forgotten myths, tag ends of religious ceremony, glimpses of relationships more bored than tragic.

When I first encountered the poem as an undergraduate, newly wed and full of joy, I hated it. Not even three years of English courses had given me tools enough to make sense of the senseless. Yet a patient professor (kudos to the young Dr. Ron Marken) initiated us into the very human enterprise of making meaning out of the shards that litter all lives, eventually—precious fragments that we gather and cling to as a way of holding chaos at bay.

In this post, written originally as my last column for the Prairie Messenger before it ceased publication, I salute the veritable fort of books with which I have built meaning into my life. In almost all the columns I wrote for the PM, some book or books hovered in the background, providing a focus or silently directing the process by which I tried to make sense of some experience or observed phenomenon.

This is not to disregard the teaching and influence of many good people who taught me lessons without which I would have lost my way far more frequently than I already have. It is just that as print media give way to other means of community-building, I want to praise the continued power of the written word and honor the friendship of all those many writers who invited me to enter their experiences, or their characters’, for my benefit. As Adele Wiseman once wrote about her own love affair with literature, in “stories life was in a sense holding still for [her] to look at and learn from and make judgments on” (Memoirs 7).

Library

My copies of T.S. Eliot’s Selected Poetry and Four Quartets are almost in tatters now. At such a time as my libraries (yes, that’s a deliberate plural—our house has more than one room) are dispersed, these little books will be tossed into the recycle bin. Meanwhile, I pick them up now and then, not only to remind myself of particular lines or to be drawn into Eliot’s profoundly mystic, yet grittily realistic images, but also to converse again with my younger self who was once stunned to discover how poetry could expand the soul and revivify the world.

Many other old literature textbooks (anthologies, poetry, novels) still claim space on my bookshelves because they likewise belong to my identity. I now own an almost new volume of Shakespeare’s plays in which I can reread as much as I wish, and the internet makes searching for quotations easy. Yet I cannot part with my well-worn copy. It was lent (given?) to me by my sister for my very first seminar class; it had already been copiously annotated with her delicate script.

Four Quartets and the Complete Shakespeare

During that difficult, painful year, when family cohesiveness was strained almost to the breaking point, I studied obsessively, pondering Shakespeare’s poetic wisdom, and linking it forever with the now essential relationship with my sister. When I pull that heavy book from the shelf now, even if only to raise a flat of bedding plants under grow lights, I breathe again within a sisterly love that made all the difference in the world. As Hamlet ruefully—and gratefully—observed, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” Indeed.

The religious shelves of my library tell another co-existent version of who I am. Unlike my literature collection, which shaped my identity twice—once as a confused, struggling, student, and again as an instructor who relied on all those books to supply exactly the right lines for the moment—my religious collection is a record of a journey, with very little circling back to my former self.

While once upon a time, the very evangelically oriented books of John White and Leanne Payne offered some kind of salvation, most have long since been sent to some book sale. Likewise several books on Christian womanhood and marriage, and a variety of how-to-live-right volumes of theological advice. The Edna who needed those books has changed; once-valued texts have little to say to me now.

Our identity is forged in the crucible of human interactions and experiences, both of which are temporal, even fleeting. One cannot freeze a conversation, except by writing it down (already an interpretive act); one anchors an experience often by tethering it to some solid physical entity, such as pictures, souvenirs, furniture, clothing, even journal entries.

There are those who collect stuff, preserve even the broken teacup and old newspapers. Others stockpile pictures, physical and digital. For some, regrettably, the shoring up of fragments becomes pathological as the fragile identity cannot bear to lose anything.

I gather and keep most of my books. I keep buying new ones, too. I warehouse my writings, of whatever sort, whether published or never even intended for publication. There is something about the written word that tells me who I am and who I might become. I pray only that I will be able to distinguish between the necessary and the blindly obsessive when the time comes. To be able to let go is also an indication of strength. That is what I said to myself as I said goodbye to the Prairie Messenger.

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will. –Hamlet (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

(Originally published May 9, 2018 in Prairie Messenger)