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.

In These Times

Stones and Flowers was never intended to respond to current issues or political events. It was to be a thoughtful reflection on personal experiences—a space to find beauty and commonality, maybe even joy.

But these times are unusual. Unless people have lived in other countries where epidemics have come and gone (remember Ebola?), hardly anyone younger than I will remember what it’s like to be afraid of a seemingly unstoppable new illness with disastrous consequences.

And my memories of the 1950s polio epidemic are vague, just a mental snapshot or two: my small 6-year-old self standing on the upper rungs of a long ladder propped against the house, trying to peer into the upstairs bedroom where my beloved big sister is in isolation. Who put the ladder up or why, I can’t imagine. What remains in my memory is my childish fear that I wouldn’t ever see my sister again.

 But I did. Both my big sister and my big brother contracted polio, yet survived without any long-lasting effects. Not everyone in our small town and surrounding farms was as fortunate.

Perhaps that’s why I felt an uprush of gratitude every time I took our children for their vaccinations. It seemed like such a privilege to know that they would not die or be damaged by whooping cough, polio, measles, etc.

 Now again, we are being tested by a new disease. It’s not only a matter of frantic research to find a cure and a vaccine. Our challenge is also to live with compassion for others and to resist panic. Blind fear will accomplish nothing; kindness to a neighbour will make the day easier for someone.

Meanwhile, I shall claim this blog space in which to share some photos that bring me joy and remind me that the world is a beautiful place. All we need is to open our eyes and our heart that we may see and rejoice.

There is no theme today, no pattern or order to the photos.  Each of them, though, is somehow connected to someone I love.

Kelly’s Bathtub in William Switzer Provincial Park, near Hinton, Alberta

For a few days with family in Hinton at the end of February, just before all travel ceased and the world became a lonely place, I remain very grateful.

Pond on the grounds of Calvin College (now Calvin University), Grand Rapids, Michigan

Not a frequent traveler, I have treasured every occasion to attend academic conferences that has been granted to me. This one is particularly special, since it was shared with a dear friend.

Fresno, California. Taken from a hotel window at sunset

A Starbucks coffee shop, a stunning sky – what’s not to love?

On the U of S grounds.

The University of Saskatchewan is known for its lovely grounds and unified architecture. In my life, those grounds have been the place for getting to know my boyfriend, struggling through those angst-ridden young adult years when who I was was under major construction. As a young family, we cycled along its paths, explored the small zoo in the Biology Building, attended occasional concerts. And then I became an instructor and had the privilege of walking those paths for many years. The U of S is home.

A walk in a park in Calgary
Lake Annette in Jasper, Alberta

While Saskatoon has been my residence for most of my life, Jasper remains a special place, where I first lived and worked away from home as a young adult, where we honeymooned, where we camped and hiked as a young family, where we, now as grandparents, continue to camp and hike with family.

Sunset near Oyen, Alberta

Since all our children live in Alberta, we have learned to know the highways between Saskatoon and Edmonton, and between Saskatoon and Calgary. For a prairie born soul like me, the pageantry of sunset never loses its soothing magic.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean on Wickinnish Beach, near Ucluelet on Vancouver Island.

And after we’d absorbed in almost total silence the ever-shifting light on the waves rolling into shore, until darkness gradually covered it all, we turned to leave and saw a full moon in the sky – a blue moon as it happens. It was August 30, 2012.

Linden tree in winter, Saskatoon

Our front yard has also given us beauty of all kinds. Black and white, actually mostly white, feels soul-cleansing. Snow offers inner quietness, the rest that comes before growth is possible.

Purple fountain grass, Saskatoon

Our backyard offers its own stunning details and colors.

My photo albums and digital folders are full of mountain pictures. I claim the Rocky Mountains as my spiritual home.

However, I am not blind to the loveliness of more exotic places. I offer one last photo, hoping that it may awaken dreams of days when travel is possible once again.

Hotel pool in Fresno, California

Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead

Could We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Pears and Memoirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Privilege of Bearing Burdens

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

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

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

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

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

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

rocky edge of Lake Superior.

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

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

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

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

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

sunset on lake with interesting clouds and a jet streak

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

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

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

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

Leslie Jamison

After the Choices

The election is over now. We’ve had time to think about our choices and balance them against the ones we might have made. We’ve heard the “victory” speeches, such as they were. Within days, we also heard a few mea culpas, not enough, mind you. How is it that after such an important exercise of democracy (ideally a thoughtful, rational, and informed process), everyone – politicians, pollsters, media people, coffee row pundits – can so readily agree that the campaign was short on vision and way too long on insults and trivialities? Was that not obvious early enough to have changed course?

 But it is not the post-mortem I want to focus on, although it has its place; in fact, I hope that its conclusions will definitely affect what comes hereafter. A minority government, as historians and students of current politics tell us, is a forced opportunity to learn cooperation and diplomacy out of which can come important legislation. However, nothing will get done if the shouting and the animosity don’t stop.

A distant shot of the Parliaments that includes more trees and river and sky than buildings.

I have not worked out yet whether I’m hopeful about federal-provincial cooperation or not. I do know that we need reasonable unity and focus in the 43rd Parliament, not more partisan jockeying for attention. We have pressing issues to attend to, and to have individual premiers threatening to take their marbles and go play elsewhere is not helpful.

Before the election, I suggested that we institute some poetry reading retreats for our political candidates, encourage them to get to know one another, away from the spotlights and under the influence of holy wisdom of poetry. Now I’m going to suggest some additional rituals, ones that call on our narrative imagination in different ways.

For the politicians, I recommend a private ritual of writing eulogies. (No, I’m not implying dark deeds of revenge and violent seizures of power!) I have noticed in the past that when a former or even sitting Member of Parliament dies, the eulogies spoken and written are warm and gracious, devoid of partisanship and rancor. Suddenly the enemy from across the aisle has been transformed into a statesperson of great stature and goodness. To our amazement, we hear far more than we knew before about this individual’s genuine contributions and honest efforts to create a better world.

So what if, after the election, each politician took time for a solitary, quiet retreat in which to compose a eulogy for that political opponent who had served most often as his or her punching bag in the recent campaign? That could be a first step in defusing the often pointless quarrels that have been magnified past reason in order to motivate voters. Such an exercise will not be easy.

If necessary, the composition of eulogies for opponents could be preceded by the writing of their own eulogies. What would each newly elected or re-elected parliamentarian want to have said about herself or himself? What goal, which once motivated the politician to enter the public square in the first place, would he or she like to see as a crucial point in the eulogy? Honesty and self-awareness would be required for this ritual, but I can’t imagine two qualities that I would like to see more of in our representatives, apart from, of course, a thorough knowledge of the home constituency and the constitution.

 For the rest of us, I will make a different recommendation—although personal eulogy writing wouldn’t hurt us either. What I suggest will require some detective work, and considerable attentive listening. Here it is, with all its echoes of clichéd advice from previous centuries: look for stories of positive change and circulate those instead of the latest rant. Tell the Rick Mercer types to take a hike.

 For example, it was a friend, with first-hand experience, who told me about a little-known goal of Saskatchewan’s former premier Brad Wall, who had decided early in his political life that he wanted to make his province the best possible place for people with disabilities. Many of us, including me, became very angry over several cuts in his last budget, such as the shutting down of our provincial bus service (STC), yet we failed to notice that funding for disability services  had remained steady and even increased.

While the attention given to one group of vulnerable people does not cancel out the pain of another vulnerable group—social ledger sheets cannot be so balanced—it does remind me that premiers, like the rest of us, are not always consistent. Internal trade-offs seem an inevitable part of the job description.

The story also reminded me that we cannot possibly know all of the details, or understand the complicated processes of getting some programs through and cancelling others. Even in the age of social media when nothing seems private any more, the general public is not always aware of essentially good motives and acts of personal integrity. We should not forget the humanity of all political actors.

 On a more local level, I recently heard encouraging stories of initiatives in Saskatoon that seek to ameliorate the difficult living conditions of our most at-risk residents. Whether a particular helpful measure is conceived and brought into reality by city council or by creative and determined individuals makes little difference to those who receive a hot meal (Friendship Inn asks no questions but simply serves the meal) or a place to sleep in security (The Lighthouse). We need to hear these stories.

 So let’s not forget the second portion of this ritual of finding positive stories: pass them on. Admittedly, I have no right to give advice regarding social media, since I do not use them (with the exception of personal email and this blog!). Perhaps there are already a myriad of feel-good stories that are circulating, some of which are even factual.

What I have in mind, though, is the act of pointing out good initiatives in direct conversation with others, as well as passing on pertinent links to specific individuals. Admittedly, it is hard to stay cool in the middle of a heated conversation and then to retell, tactfully, some facts or stories about the object of the rant. Yet without such deliberate tamping down of anger, how shall we proceed toward the cooperation that we all say we’d like to see in our governments?

Long may our narrative imaginations flourish!

“[Marcus Aurelius] argued that the [narrative imagination] contributes to undoing retributive anger. He means that when we are able to imagine why someone has come to act in a way that might generally provoke an angry response, we will be less inclined to demonize the person, to think of him or her as purely evil and alien.

Martha Nussbaum
A photo of a solitary path through the woods.

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.

Graveyard Reconciliation

My paternal grandmother would have understood the plight of Syrian refugees. Born in 1870, in what is now Ukraine and then was Russia, she survived the upheaval and banditry of the Russian Revolution; her husband had died earlier, in a typhus epidemic. In 1929, she said farewell to her middle son (my father), then only 18 years old, who fled alone to Canada, seeking a life with more hope than was possible in Russia. She lived through forced collectivization, lost a daughter and son-in-law to starvation, and in WW2, welcomed German invaders because they spoke her language and brought some order amidst the chaos. Whether she was one of many Mennonites, including my father’s oldest surviving sister, who followed the German army back to Germany only to be repatriated to Russia, I do not know.

My grandmother entered my life when I was a little girl, too young to understand the stories told among the grown-ups—but only in the daytime, lest recurring nightmares banish sleep. She had been brought to Canada as a refugee by my father after WWII had ended and before the Cold War made emigration impossible. A quiet woman, grateful for every kindness, she was granted a few years of comfortable living before she died. The primary thing I remember of her is her burial in a country cemetery, in a light rain, to the sound of my father’s sobs – a sound I’d never heard before.

My family eventually moved to Saskatoon, and I left behind the small Mennonite community of my childhood. Anxious to become part of my new city life, I refused to look back. I did not return to that country graveyard until our children were teenagers.

Country cemetery

By that time, my only sister and I had grown apart, thanks to different life choices and experiences. To her credit, she never gave up on me and remained in regular contact, despite my judgmentalism and unwillingness to explore either patterns of human behavior, which she, an educator and psychologist, had made her life’s study; or our religious heritage, which she had examined more honestly than I had yet dared to do.  

But there comes a time in our lives, according to James Hollis, writer and Jungian analyst, when we cease striving and begin evaluating what it has all been for—that is, if we can permit memories to resurface and begin to question the assumptions on which we have carved out our careers and built our families. The first half of life requires the creation of our identities; the second half is for finding meaning. This shift is not determined by a calendar.

For people like my paternal grandmother, the struggle to survive forestalls any such reflections. Beliefs remain unexamined because they’re too badly needed for survival; education remains a distant dream. Or life may have been easy enough and kind enough that it’s possible to refuse the calling to become more than earners of wages and spenders of the spoils. For others, the second half of life begins early, as it often has for mythic leaders and religious thinkers. Childhood trauma can also lead to urgent re-examination of identity, of selfhood, long before the chronological middle of life.   

 The second half of my life just happened to coincide with the beginning of my career, following years given to raising our children, when religious certainties were dissolving like so much mist in the sun. Frankly, it felt more like breaking apart into small pieces as if I were an already cracked rock being pummeled by a random sledge hammer. Who knows how the cracks first appeared. As in the forest giant boulders are wedged apart at last by sun and wind and granules of sand and infinitesimal roots of plants, so the mind and heart are infiltrated by small questions, incongruent happenings, stubborn inner cues that won’t go away, and loving actions of others (sometimes strangers, sometimes enemies). Whatever the mysterious process is, it leads us where we need to go.

Where I needed to go, with my sister, was to the country graveyard where my paternal grandmother lay, half a world away from her home. My sister had come for a summer visit and wanted to return to places that we both knew. I provided a vehicle and my company—and a picnic lunch that we ate in that treeless prairie graveyard, in the shade of a small tool shed. The stone on Grandmother’s grave was almost unreadable, but we did find it, and stood in silence and tears. We wept, I think, for her many losses and suffering, and for our father, now also dead, who should have had more time with his long-widowed mother.

Old gravestone with name barely visible.

We wept also for each other, each of us carrying our own traces of family trauma; for we were beginning to understand how the pain of one generation suffuses more than just that one generation. And we were now learning to listen to each other again, not in order to peddle our own grand solutions, religious or psychological, but in order to hear, to bear witness.

Grandmother, gentle quiet soul that she was, had lived through so much, without a voice, with little choice but to endure. I like to think that she would have smiled to see that her grave had become a safe place near which her granddaughters could give each other hugs, and share a sandwich.

photo of country cemetery

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on July 13, 2016

Wearable Prayers

Twice within as many weeks, family members asked me, “What’s a prayer shawl?” I had been working on something vividly red, and my family assumed that I was crocheting another baby blanket or larger afghan, my usual projects for those times when my hands require repetitive motion while our mouths and minds catch up on family news. I hadn’t anticipated the question, nor did I have a ready answer.

I should have. After all, I had never heard of prayer shawls until just over a decade ago, some years after joining the church we still attend. In one service, an older woman who chaired a ladies group explained to the congregation that they were crocheting/knitting prayer shawls for people connected to the church who were ill or recently bereaved. She had brought several shawls with her and our pastor prayed a blessing on the shawls.

For me, this was an entirely new practice, yet it made immediate sense. All my life, I had heard prayers spoken for others. The particular Christian milieu in which I had spent my childhood and early adult years was characterized by a strong belief in the efficacy of prayers. The prompt response to any story of grief, loss, and illness was “we’ll be praying for you,” and that was not a reflexive, clichéd “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” No, the promise of direct prayer was sincere and literal, based on the conviction that God expects such prayers and will respond to them, albeit not always in the ways that we might wish.

Connecting intercessory prayer, as it is named in devotional language, with a physical object seemed intuitively right—grief and fear often do leave the body cold. So, I thought, in this church, prayers come with hugs, some actual, some embodied in yarn. And I also began making prayer shawls, not many and, at first, designed for specific persons whom I knew well and loved.

rocking chair, shawl, cushion, plant
The first prayer shawl I made – Photo by Helma Voth

The question “what’s a prayer shawl?” asked by two different people made me rethink the whole project. Why should a shawl be linked to prayer? And if such a gift matters, why should it? It was time for research.

The seemingly recent practice of making prayer shawls was begun by Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo in 1998, with the following purpose: “Prayer shawl. Peace shawl. Comfort shawl. Mantle. . . . . These are a wearable hug crafted with love and intent from maker to recipient.”

“Shawls . . . made for centuries universal and embracing,

symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving God.

They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace,

mother, hug, shelter and beautify.”

(Janet Severi Bristow) http://www.shawlministry.com/

            So that explained all the pattern books for making prayer shawls—and the one I bought includes several blessings to accompany the gift of a prayer shawl.

red shawl in process, pattern book

But where did the idea for a prayer shawl come from? Was there a longer history here? Vaguely familiar with Judaism’s use of specific garments for prayer, I began my research in the Bible.

And yes, in Numbers 15, the prophet Moses instructs the people: “Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commandments of the LORD, that you may obey them.” Hence the tallit, which is a “large rectangular shawl made of wool, cotton, or synthetic fibers. In each of the four corners of the shawl are strings tied in a particular pattern, called tzitzit.” Before putting on the tallit, a specific Hebrew blessing is spoken, and particular actions are prescribed for the handling of the shawl. Thus, the prayer shawl is simultaneously a garment of ritual worship and a personal submission to the care of God. 

The belief that ultimate comfort comes through divine care is made real by a simple gesture of gift and warmth. Grief and illness leave most of us helpless: we cannot restore the dead to life nor can we make illness miraculously go away. Time is needed—long days of feeling lonely, managing pain, being helpless—to process irrevocable change (even should the illness be eventually healed, one does not return to what was). Hence, the prayer shawl.

It is a physical, touchable thing, made by hand, a slow, deliberate process. Every stitch has been made out of love, giving comfort and solidity to the one who wields the hook or needles, and then giving the same to the one who receives the shawl.

I shall make more prayer shawls.

“For it is the love and kindness of human hearts through which the divine reality comes home to us, whether we name it or not.”

George Merriam

Postscript: It seems that not only books, but objects fall into the right hands at the right time. I had given the red prayer shawl pictured above to our church’s supply—to be given out as need arose.  Months later, it so “happened” that our pastors gave the shawl to someone who had just been admitted to the local hospital’s palliative care ward. They did know that the individual was a dear friend of mine; they had not known that I was the shawl’s maker.

Now, in the mysterious fashion in which objects exert their influence even at a distance, I am also comforted by that red shawl, knowing on whose shoulders it rests. My fingers recall the tension of the yarn as it curled over the hook and slid through the next loop—compassion weaving itself through ache and loss toward comfort and healing.