In Memoriam

This is not the blog posting that I had planned to write. At some point, I will still offer that collage of wild mountain flowers and share my longing to go hiking again. Now is not the time.

All I can think of is recent news of discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children. Human history is, unfortunately, replete with similar stories: mass graves of Jewish prisoners in European forests; mass graves of victims of the Black Death; stories of attempted genocide in various lands. None of which decreases, even by one small degree, the trauma and mourning following the recent discoveries of unmarked graves. And note that for Indigenous peoples, these are not “discoveries” but confirmation, finally, of stories that they had been telling in whispers for generations.

My attention has been caught by the distinction between “mass graves” and “unmarked graves.” It’s an important distinction. Mass graves indicate death on such a scale that individual burials—along with appropriate ceremony—are not possible. There are too many bodies. Those mass graves may have been dug with indifference, certainly with great haste, and likely no suitable rituals to recognize the humanity of those who were once alive; the mass graves could also have been dug in haste but still with deep regret at loss of human life and as much respect as was possible under the circumstances.

Unmarked graves are different. They raise other questions. For sure, they imply a continuing practice, not an emergency. Given that these graves were dug beside schools run by churches, one would hope that some prayers were said. The hope seems dubious. Had there been due respect, the graves would have been marked. Almost all families, in all cultural and religious communities, name in some way those who have gone on to another world. At some deep level, we need to speak the names of the dead and honor their presence.

To live in ceremony is the greatest and truest gift we can give to ourselves.

Richard Wagamese

As someone who is not part of this story, except to the extent that I live here, in Saskatchewan on Treaty 6 territory, I do not know how to respond. I am convinced that we are all called to bear witness, difficult as that is. In two previous posts “A Lamp in the Night” and “Can We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?” I began some exploration of what bearing witness might entail. It means not looking away or justifying the pain (or minimizing it). It means listening, carefully, to the stories, making a safe space for the stories to be told. It could include bringing food, offering handkerchiefs (actually or figuratively) for tears, providing what is necessary so that the lost children can be recognized. Perhaps placing small pairs of shoes at makeshift memorials.

Ach, it is the pictures of small shoes on church steps that nearly break my heart. Several years ago, when my husband and I toured the United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC., it was the display of hundreds and hundreds of discarded shoes from the dead that brought me to weeping. There is something even more wrenching about abandoned children’s shoes. What must it have meant for young Indigenous children to have had their handmade, beautiful moccasins taken away and being given European-style shoes that didn’t love their feet?   

Where and how this story will yet take us is unknown.  It is yet another bitter blow to absorb after the pandemic has already shown us so many other inequalities and weaknesses. At the same time, COVID-19 has also taught us something of the extent of human compassion and shown us so much generosity. Let the tenderness that has been cultivated among us now be extended especially to our Indigenous friends in their bitter time of grief.

I’ve been considering the phrase “all my relations” for some time now. It’s hugely important. It’s our saving grace in the end. It points to the truth that we are all related, that we are all connected, that we all belong to each other. The most important word is “all.” Not just those who look like me, dance like me, speak like me, pray like me or behave like me. ALL my relations. That means every person, just as it means every rock, mineral, blade of grass, and creature. We live because everything else does. If we were to choose collectively to live that teaching, the energy of our change of consciousness would heal each of us–and heal the planet.

Richard Wagamese

Updating the Public Calendar

            Every now and then, when the times are right, previously unthinkable ideas suddenly gain a sympathetic hearing. We are, just now, in a time of re-evaluating public monuments and asking hard questions about who gets a monument and why. If it was monuments I wanted to write about this time, I would definitely begin with Percy Byssche Shelley’s“Ozymandias,” a poignant reminder that nothing remains forever, not even monuments.

I’m not sure that there is an equally apt poem for helping us ask who should get a calendar day or when we might remove a special day or whether we could demote a public holiday into just a named day only. We should consider that more often, I think.

A Mother’s Day card given to me

In early May, in the week before Mother’s Day, I heard an elementary teacher interviewed on CBC Radio say firmly that Mother’s Day shouldn’t even be mentioned in the school, although she had no objection to families acknowledging the day in whatever way was suitable for them. She herself refused to ask her students to make special cards or crafts for their mothers because it was too emotionally complicated. Perhaps the time has come for some rethinking.   

So what is Mother’s Day like for you? I’ve heard such a variety of stories here, and could tell a few of my own, if I chose (which I won’t). For some children, it’s a special, beautiful day with flowers for Mommy and a child-cooked meal, liberally seasoned with love. For some children, it’s an awkward day filled with anxiety about what mood Mommy might be in. Or it could be a bitter day because there is no Mommy there to honor.

 For some mothers, it’s a tender day, time to smile with pleasure over the simple offerings made by childish hands. Perhaps the children are grown now with young ones of their own and the gathering of the clan on Mother’s Day is full of comfortable satisfaction of seeing traditions continued, new adventures begun, and affectionate, happy teasing passed down from uncles to nephews and nieces.

For other mothers, the day is wracked with regret, with submerged grief, perhaps overshadowed with inter-generational violence. What do you suppose Mother’s Day might mean for Indigenous mothers whose children were taken away? who never saw their children again? The fulsome compliments printed on the inside of many Mother’s Day cards can be agonizingly remote.

And I have not yet mentioned the women who are not mothers who wish they could be. It’s a complicated day, indeed.

            May I suggest that it is time to readjust our calendars and allow Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day, too—all of the above observations apply) to become a matter of private choice?

Back in the early 1900s, when Mother’s Day was inaugurated officially, women were still generally assumed to have been created to become mothers. Never mind voting, never mind holding office, never mind taking up respected and well-paid careers—women were designed solely to have and raise babies. They were limited to service and work that earned little—either money or respect. Mother’s Day, with its call for gratitude, served an important purpose in its recognition of the role and work of women, even as it unfortunately raised expectations for mothers without opening up other avenues of being. Surely we have now moved beyond that stereotype, and have also recognized that families come in different forms and that nurturing is done by many others besides mothers. That observation is not, by any means, meant to diminish the importance of having and raising babies.

Herewith, I offer three suggestions for making Mother’s Day unnecessary:

One, foster a culture of gratitude through small daily rituals. Teach your children from the time they learn to talk to say a clear “thank you for breakfast” (and lunch and dinner) to whoever made the meal. Teach that ritual through modeling. If Papa baked the bread, say thanks. If Big Sister made the salad, say thanks. If Baby set the table, say thanks. Say “thanks for doing the laundry,” even though that individual always does the laundry. Say “thanks for cleaning the bathroom – it looks lovely.” Express appreciation for simple tasks throughout the household, however that household is composed. Say thanks to your roommate for tidying her room, and do it without sarcasm or judgment. Keep it simple but be grateful.

While we’re at it, let’s practice those rituals of gratitude at the work place and in our neighbourhoods. Say thanks to the longsuffering individual who finally cleaned the staff room. Say thanks, often, to the night-time cleaning staff, to the boss, to the front-line receptionist. Say thank you to the grocery store cashier, the delivery person, the mail carrier. Let pandemic awareness of the services of other people continue long past the pandemic.

Two, extend the gratitude from specific tasks to states of being. Try the occasional “I like seeing you cuddled up with the dog; it makes me feel comfy”; “when I see you lost in a book, I’m pleased for you”; “your giggle is so happy it’s contagious – did you know that?” For some of us, that might take a tremendous effort of will and some practice. Given that when I was a child, I saw (and felt) far more of criticism than gratitude, it’s been a long hard course of learning for me that’s still not finished.  

Three, make birthdays a big deal. Birthdays are individual days; they’re marked just on your calendar not on public calendars. Find ways of bringing joy and recognizing the unique personhood of the people who are close to you. Birthdays are not about how well someone fills a particular role (that’s what has always made me uncomfortable about Mother’s Day—those outsize expectations always left me feeling guilty). Birthdays are about the gift of being that that person has brought into the world. Celebrate that! 

To put it simply, I wish we could recognize the worth and dignity of each human being, never mind special days. Practicing rituals of gratitude in our household and in our work places and in our public spaces might well undercut societal evils such as the racism that is only too obvious in recent news headlines. For sure, there is a desperate need also for structural reform, but for now, I’m thinking of the small deeds, the simple words that can spread an impact for good.  

May I now say, “thank you for reading this”?   

A handmade thank you card from a friend. Inside was a personal note of gratitude.

Sweet Revenge – or How to Choose a Scapegoat

In April, there has to be a photo of spring – just because.

There are no photos that directly illustrate this posting. The events recalled herein took place back when very expensive film was used to take pictures of very important people at very important events. No one would have thought to focus the camera on a ceramic ornament in a plain farmhouse living-room. If a camera was brought out at a child’s party, it was to photograph the birthday child with the birthday cake. All else could be left to memory. Or imagination.

            Most children have chores to do that they hate—if not, they should have. Whether that be shoveling out the debris in their bedrooms or setting the table or putting their dishes in the dishwasher after a meal or cleaning up dog poop in the backyard, compulsory tasks prepare children for responsibilities of adulthood. Depending on how the regimen is implemented, such chores may be readily transformed into long-lasting habits, founded on consideration for others and reverence for good order—or they may become passionately hated inevitabilities.

 My parents meant well. While I might insist now that their slavish devotion to work could have been balanced with greater understanding of the merits of play, I am grateful for many of the habits they instilled in me. I tried to do something of the same for our own children, with what I hoped was more tolerance for play and some allowance for the development of childish free will. Only they are in a position to evaluate the success of the plan.

One of the duties I had as a child was to dust the living-room in our old farm house. With rags cut from worn-out clothes, I had to wipe the dust off every single picture edge, every rung of every wooden chair, and the least ¼-inch bit of surface on our venerable Heinzman upright piano. The top of the piano was a particular horror because, along with several framed photographs, it had ornaments (all gifts probably), each of which sat on a crocheted doily. Every ornament had to be moved, dusted to a point of immaculate polish, the piano surface underneath also polished, and then replaced precisely, in the center of the doily. Perhaps I exaggerate my mother’s perfectionism here, but I doubt it.

My detestation of the task focused especially on a large parrot of garish colors. I knew nothing of parrots, might well have been enchanted by a real parrot—this particular, ridiculously heavy bird became my scapegoat, bearing for me a confusing brew of emotions. I was often a lonely child, always bookish, addicted to escape into worlds that were glamorous and exciting, where conflicts were always resolved in favor of the young heroine. In those imaginary worlds, there were no ceramic parrots.

As a teen-ager, I hated the abominable thing even more, now for what I perceived as its ugliness, its absolute inelegancy. Was I developing a more sophisticated aesthetic? Or just displacing my unhappiness over my parents’ strictness regarding social activities onto an innocent, old-fashioned ornament? It’s hard to sort out because I don’t remember seeing any more sophisticated examples of artwork. Nor did I resist all of my mother’s cleanliness routines; several have become mine as well, regardless of how much I had once disliked them.

So it could have been just the act of dusting. To this day, it is the household chore that I postpone as long as possible.

            Decades later, I was now the disagreeable adult who insisted that her sons learn to do their chores, preferably without complaint. And at the same time, I was also the adult child who was now responsible for dispersing or disposing of my parents’ possessions after the death of my father and my mother’s move to a nursing home. The work of sorting clothing, of deciding the fate of furniture pieces, of looking through old cards, books, letters, photographs was all overlaid with the pain of loss and regret over unfinished stories. Such final processes are never easy. I tossed various small ornaments into a box, swearing never to place them on any surface in our house. And I packed up the ungainly, still miserably heavy parrot into a box of its own. Some decisions can be postponed indefinitely by the simple expedient of carting boxes into the basement.

Then came the planning of a birthday party. For which son, I no longer remember. Unlike today’s popular themed birthday parties held in gymnasiums, play places, swimming pools, etc., this party was an economical home affair with simple games and homemade food. In a moment of insane inspiration, I conceived a game of “toss and break.”

 Out came a whole box of ancient dishes, cracked and unmatched, unusable and so unsaleable. On our cement patio, which could later be swept clean, I set up one dish at a time, allowing exuberant and gleeful little boys to throw balls and break dishes. There was a guilty delight in watching the ensuing destruction. I brought out a few remaining ornaments as well. Marvelous smashes they made.

 The parrot, however, I saved for its own destiny. Later, when the young guests had gone home, probably with stories that horrified their parents, I brought out the parrot. I put it up on a pedestal of some sort, still dusty from its packing box, and fetched one of our sons’ bats.

 Ach, I can still recall the delicious pleasure with which I anticipated the parrot’s final “putting down.” Well, a dignified euthanasia it was not. One swing – and the most satisfying shattering of all. Years of dislike dissipated in one blow.  Our highly entertained sons then demanded a turn, and I let them swing at the larger pieces. Rest in pieces, old parrot. May your descendants be real birds; I shall not love even the memory of this artificial parrot into reality.

 That objects can gain symbolic worth and become lastingly loveable, I know well from experience. Any parent knows about the special blanket or the stuffed toy. All it takes is one loss of such a precious object to educate adults about its crucial importance. If they are honest, parents should also confess to having special things that hold too many memories to be discarded. Every time I try to scale back my library, my hands refuse to toss some old books that, though I haven’t read them in decades, have become almost sacred objects. It will fall to our sons, no doubt, to rip the covers apart and toss them into the recycle bin. So be it. I am content with that prospect.

 Call it a necessary process of transference, sacralisation—whatever term is appropriate here, even “scapegoat” (usually a reference to people)—for objects can learn to embody for us emotions that are too complex to be readily or safely expressed otherwise. It is the way of those objects that have been around long enough to have achieved some character, some essence of their own.

May peace be with all real parrots!

 Someday, if and when the COVID-19 pandemic is well and truly over, I would like to build a huge bonfire out of disposable masks collected on neighbourhood streets and parking lots. On any given day, one can fill bags upon bags of them, unfortunately. It will be a huge, beautiful fire, and I shall take care to stand downwind of the smoke.

Avoid Not the Journey

All photos in this post taken by Arnold Voth

Two canoes negotiates serious rapids, against the background of a high cliff.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. And you may not even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm is all about.”

Haruki Murakami

            Something there is about life that is uncannily cyclical. Make what choices we will, sooner or later we will return, however unknowingly, to situations that we’ve been through before. The outward circumstances might be very different, yet the inner core of the experience will be familiar enough that our emotional radar will recognize we’ve been here before. And our inner self, the subconscious that we sense only fleetingly, will know that there is unfinished business to tend to, while our outer self will react instinctively according to old patterns.  

 Case in point: I was only 44 years old when my father died, my first real experience of death in the family. A consoling friend warned me that grief was more complicated than I might expect. Using an analogy of a glass of wine, she told me that I would have to drink the full measure of grief. If I resisted, I would have to keep sipping, time and again, until I got down to the dregs. Despite my inexperience, I thought that sounded reasonable.

Unfortunately, circumstances demanded an unreasonable response. Our three children were still young, our oldest just into his teens. I was now mostly responsible for my mother who had just been moved into a nursing home. I had barely begun PhD studies and the scholarship money was necessary. Neither time nor emotional energy was available for grieving.

My friend had been right, though. It is possible to postpone grief, but not wise. Every now and then, I was blindsided, often most inopportunely, by uncontrollable weeping, or by hours of emotional paralysis. The glass of wine had to be emptied. Sometimes, I swore that new grief would fill it again when I thought I had already reached the dregs.

 Another case: at a formal banquet and dance, our table included one of those men whose professional life had taught him that he should always be in control, even of conversations. Moreover he knew everything about everything. Having heard that I was teaching at St. Thomas More College, he began holding forth about how lax university officials had become about plagiarism and cheating. Although he was not a teacher, he knew exactly how those nasty students should be handled. Every time I attempted to explain the process or my experiences, I was cut off. When the conversation came up again later, in between dances, I abruptly walked away in the middle of the conversation, with not even an excuse.

 Safely alone in the bathroom, I took a few deep breaths. I was actually shaking and my heart was pounding. My fear of my interlocutor and my deep embarrassment at an obvious social faux pas vied for emotional attention. Why hadn’t I simply called him out for his arrogance? That could be done with some courtesy. Or, if confrontation felt too threatening, couldn’t I have ended the conversation more politely? Why had I been so intimidated?

Later that night as I lay sleepless, I concluded that I’d just taken another turn around the spiral. As a child, I had learned too well that bad consequences followed when I spoke my mind, whether in direct conversation with authority or in more social occasions. I had developed then a pattern of avoidance: stay silent, keep out of trouble. That wretched conversation in an otherwise lovely evening had activated old emotions; my gut knew that feeling of being pushed into acquiescence. My well-practiced response had been to flee, to disappear.

Old behaviour patterns, I think, are more troublesome than grief, because we usually know the source of the grief. Learned instinctive reactions, though, can lurk beneath the surface of civility for decades. My wallflower impulse remains. However, my increased understanding of where it comes from could (should?) help me choose other actions. Not easy, by no means. Also not impossible.

A final point: the upward turns on the spiral journey are not necessarily inflicted on us against our will. Crucial decisions, major steps in religious or philosophical rethinking, present us with a choice: enter the next round of the journey or avoid it. Poet Margaret Avison, in “The Swimmer’s Moment,” depicts such a choice as a whirlpool: “Many at that moment will not say, / ‘This is the whirlpool, then,’” and will, instead, “refuse” to enter. They will thus be spared “from the black pit, and also from contesting / the deadly rapids.”

Close up of rapids against a cliff. No humans or boats in the photo.
Placid river in Heritage Park, Edmonton.  It's sunset and there's a mist rising from the water.

            But the choice isn’t merely a matter of maintaining the status quo or daring the whirlpool; there are consequences on either side of that “or.” Those who avoid the whirlpool and the rapids are also “spared” from “emerging in / The mysterious, and more ample, further waters” (italics mine).

 

Whirlpool in Coppermine River, NWT

The whirlpool-fearers could have lost something important, even wonderful, “And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn / Pale and forever on the rim of suction / They will not recognize.” The turning and returning continues, but without any progress.  

Just what Avison intended her “swimmer’s moment” to signify, I’m not certain. Her usual complexity invites readers to explore multiple meanings. For me, the dreaded whirlpool has visual and emotional kinship with the image of the spiral journey. There are indeed times when yet another go-around through particularly painful parts of our progress toward maturity and wholeness seems too much like entering a whirlpool from which there might be no exit into peaceful waters, a defeat that Avison admits is possible. Either side of a choice entails risk, even if the prospect of stasis can initially seem safe. The rosebud that refuses to open can only wilt. Better then to welcome the journey.

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

Anais Nin

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

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 Language of Flowers

 When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.

In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.

Photo of outdoor gardens in Winnipeg, with a photographer about to take a picture.

 As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.

Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?

 What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.

Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.

Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.

 It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.

The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.

Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.

Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:

Lady’s Slipper, with bunchberry plants around them and possibly a false Solomon’s seal.
Lance-leaved stonecrop, a gorgeous bright yellow, here keeping company with purple asters, not yet opened, and white mountain avens.
Yellow arnica, rose-red Indian paintbrush, purple self-heal, and a whitish yellow flower at the top left that I haven’t been able to identify.
Sometimes I think I should have chosen this photo of wild strawberries for my home page: stones, flowers, and the promise of deliciousness.

 The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.

We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?  

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

Mary Oliver “When death comes

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