Where the Wild Flowers Are

            One of the greatest hardships for me during the pandemic has been the loss of our annual camping trips, both with and without children and grandchildren. The worst trial was, of course, living entirely without family gatherings, since we have no family members living in our city. Apart from that, though, I sometimes felt that my soul would shrivel into something mean and meaningless if I did not soon manage to return to our favourite hiking trails in the Rockies.

To help me find patience to wait just a little longer, I have been scrolling through my photos of wild flowers. While I love the mountain vistas and dream of standing at high altitudes again, it has often been the wild flowers up in the alpine slopes, deep in the pine forests, and along rocky shores of rivers that send rejoicing through my veins. It remains a mystery to me that the Creator should have been so recklessly generous with the sheer numbers and varieties of beauty that live mostly beyond human gaze.

            May I share some of that beauty with you all? 

Wild flowers offer two kinds of pleasure – on masse and one by one. We have, in our various mountain hikes, stumbled on acres of wild flowers, and also discovered small clusters bravely growing on a rocky slope or camouflaged in deep forest grasses. Taking good photos of entire hillsides covered with flowers or valleys likewise filled with color is a challenge, I’ve found. Nothing I’ve taken has ever duplicated my first astonishment. The above photo of a nameless valley somewhere above Taylor Lake, the destination of a trail off the highway just north of Banff, offers me equal portions of happy memory and regret – perhaps I should have tried another angle.

We discovered the meadow by accident. Our plan was to hike up to Taylor Lake, perhaps cool our feet in the water, have some lunch, and then return the way we came. It was a last hike before we departed for home, and we were already tired even before we laced up our hiking boots that morning. It’s not a particularly onerous hike; it should have been a delightful, gentle closing scene on a soul-restoring holiday. However, arrival at the lake felt like entering a combat zone, with our tiny opponents vicious and thorough. There wasn’t enough insect repellent in both our packs to make lunch here possible.

So we kept walking, past the lake and on up a slope, not knowing where the path would take us, presumably up to some ridge for which we no longer had sufficient energy. Then the trail abruptly opened out onto this meadow with more flowers in one place than we had ever seen before except for one, much longer meadow on the trail to Helen Lake, also off the Banff-Jasper Highway. Mosquitoes were forgotten! Even lunch became secondary to exploring the gifts of this place.

But to get a good photo of the whole? A real challenge for this amateur photographer. But I keep trying.

Nobody sees a flower, really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t time and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

Georgia O’Keefe

In my own garden in Saskatoon, there are also blue forget-me-nots. They closely resemble their alpine cousins, which means that they seem insignificant, not particularly important among the larger, showier perennials with their dominant reds and yellows. Blue flowers often seem more delicate, almost hesitant to claim space whether in gardens or in the wild.

Alpine slopes are a demanding environment. With minimal soil covering the rock and the harsh cold winds that blow most of the time, flowers grow by anchoring themselves low to the ground, offering little surface to the wind and spreading their fine roots in a net wider than themselves.

I would like to learn that from the forget-me-nots and all their other alpine friends.

Blue-eyed mountain grass is another shy flower that I admired for years in my mountain flower book before ever finding it in the wild. One has to be paying attention to spot these 1 cm. beauties in the midst of the grass and shrubbery on sub-alpine slopes. The plant itself, its leaves mere thin-bladed grass, attracts no attention. Had it not been that on the trail up to Mt. Allan in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, there happened to be a considerable cluster of them, all in bloom, I might never have learned how to spot them.

I attempted to grow a prairie version of them in my garden, with no success. Upon thinking it over, I concluded that it is not necessary to own and control what one loves. Let those gorgeous blue-purple eyes with their startling yellow centres remain in the wild where they can reward those who pay attention.

One last flower from the blue section of any flower guide – blue harebells. These, too, are not overly dramatic, do not overwhelm through sheer color and size. However, they are not shy. Indeed, it seems as if they are everywhere, having developed versions of themselves that are content in almost any habitat. The mountain harebells are smaller, shorter, and the arctic version (appearing on the higher alpine slopes) are a mere 10 cm tall or less. The distinctive bell-shaped flower is consistent in all varieties.

Their adaptability is enviable; they change only as much as circumstances require without sacrificing anything of their essence. Seeing them is a little like meeting family: maybe one didn’t expect to see them here, or there, but instant recognition brings a smile.

Just as one should not judge a book by its cover or a human being by the color of their skin, so one should not judge a flower by its name. Whoever thought of naming these gorgeous purple flowers, with tiny gold studs on their stamens, scorpion weed? It seems to have come from resemblance between the coiled leaves and the curled tail of a scorpion. Having never seen a real scorpion, I cannot comment.

Their other, less common name – silky phacelia – has the poetic music the flower absolutely requires. Scorpion weed, indeed! This is a “weed” I’d be happy to welcome in my garden, except that my prairie garden offers neither the altitude nor the open dry rocky slopes that these dramatic beauties require.

I must have taken thousands of pictures of paintbrush already. They grow everywhere, it seems, from ditches along the highways to high alpine slopes. I have photographed them against water, against rocks and old tree stumps, with dandelions, bright yellow arnica, white labrador tea, even rein orchids. They’re such friendly flowers and so at home in whatever setting that they practically beg for yet another photo, like the overly chummy uncle at a party, happy to put his arm around anyone and pose for a picture.

Paintbrush flowers come in so many shades of red and orange and pink and yellow that I keep taking more photos. As if I needed another reason to love them, I learned that paintbrush flowers, with their loosely clustered and sturdy petals and abundant sweet nectar, probably evolved together with hummingbirds (Plants of the Rocky Mountains). Now that’s just perfect.

Nothing in my farming background taught me to love thistles. They were a weed, a noxious weed to be eradicated by whatever method was available, and damn the torpedos. Not until I’d been away from the farm for many years did I discover that thistles often have a beautiful scent, and they are exquisite on the avalanche slopes, as wonderfully made as any wild flower.

It is the special gift of a wild flower to demonstrate clearly that there is a place for every one of them, in its chosen place. Each has unique beauty, special ways of attracting bees and other insects, the right kind of root to establish itself where it belongs – in community with a host of friends. That I needed to be reminded of these days.

The earth laughs in flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

For Easter 2021

Against a backdrop of white satin sits a single small votive candle holder with a lit candle and a small silver cross necklace.

To all my reader friends, Happy Easter!

It’s not the usual Easter, I know. Each household, however small or large, will mourn the traditions that will not be followed, the guests that will not arrive, the community celebrations that will not held—for the second time. Last year it was bearable, somehow. We could do our part for the health of the our community and of our country.

This year, for me, the loneliness feels acute. Our house should be filled with the happy noise of playing children; the kitchen should be crowded with busy adults, making food, cleaning up from meals, telling stories over mugs of hot coffee, answering eager questions from excited children. Somewhere there should be a bouquet of daffodils, in the midst of piles of scrap paper turned into art work. Not this year.

Similar white satin background, this time with a larger lit white candle beside the votive candle. The entire photo is blurred.

Instead, my heart is comforted by the miracle of an amaryllis bulb, now growing at last after an entire winter of determined dormancy. Several other amaryllis bulbs had kept their long dark leaves from summer (admittedly making no flowers) and did their part to beautify our household. Now, out of the dry dirt and debris of long-gone leaves has arisen the beginning of a flower stalk.

The amaryllis plant with the flower stalk just beginning. It's about 2 inches tall.
Photo taken March 13th.

            The growth was so startlingly that I began measuring the stalk every morning.

 For a few days I hoped that I would get a flower for Easter Sunday, at least some showing of color in the bud.  

Photo of the growing flower bud of the amaryllis against a shadowed background.
Photo taken Good Friday, April 2

Now it’s clear that I shall have to wait until after Easter. I am not complaining. Every stage of that growth is precious and beautiful, each morning a delight. The “dead” bulb has risen to new life.

 The symbols of Easter — the most important holiday in the year for Christians and a celebration of spring for others — all suggest newness and astonishing (maybe astonished) life. The shell of an egg, whether painted or no, contains (or did once contain) that which nourishes life. Had the egg been hatched, the chick would not resemble the egg in the slightest. That is a miracle. The happy unwrapping of foil or opening of decorative boxes reveals chocolates which sometimes contain delectable fillings within, yet another surprise; pretty baskets contain eggs of all sorts, including plastic ones that contain who knows what little treasure. The most powerful symbol of all, the empty tomb, speaks to the transformation of death into new life. Life cannot be contained; it will burst forth, it will begin anew.

Photo of an amaryllis with two red flowers open.
This old photo of a different amaryllis is a memory of beauty that informs my hope for this spring’s beauty.

 With that hope, I wish you all a Happy Easter! May you be mindful of the gifts that are given. May your heart be gladdened by beauty. May your hands hold tenderly some symbol of joy and love.

“The very first Easter taught us this: that life never ends and love never dies.”

Kate McGahan

The Measure of a Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Path through rain forest is now a descending wooden staircase.

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

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

Cover of The Starless Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write the Letter

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

Lewis Carroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson

A Lamp in the Night

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

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

B. Lopez, Crow and Weasel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My office in St. Thomas More College, ca 2010

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

A scattering of books on my desk.

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless . . . . . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before and After – “and the rest is history”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stanley Kunitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Before and After: on changing one’s mind

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

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

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

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

Close-up photo of very dark purple iris.

            Who can bear to watch the videos?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of cluster of pinks, flowers that resemble carnations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henrik Ibsen in Ghosts

The Company of My Book Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cicero

 

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.