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

Unravelled

Just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, I had finally learned how to knit. That had been a long-standing goal. Friends were knitters; my daughter-in-law was a knitter. I admired, I wanted to do likewise. Yet my first effort, about 10 years ago, ended in failure. My teacher, expert and patient, lived in another province, which meant that any mistake was instantly fatal for the project. I did not know how to “unknit.” I had crocheted for years; in crocheting, you just unravel the yarn until you have undone the mistake, then keep going again.   

Not so in knitting. Undoing errors is as difficult a process as the initial knitting, if not more so. After struggling to learn from a book that optimistically assumed easy success, I gave up. My half-finished toque, begun at least four times, was unravelled for the last time and tossed into the remnant yarn bin.  

Then just over a year ago, I learned of a knitting group that was going to meet weekly in a home nearby to teach beginners. Now that was what I needed – an experienced teacher to sit beside me and fix what I screwed up. After knitting numerous swatches, and pulling them apart to do yet again, I was comfortable with the basic knit and purl.

My first real project was a dish cloth, in an impractical white because I had lots of left-over white yarn and because in white, stitches can be easily seen. I was inordinately proud of it. Never mind that I’d been rescued by my teacher several times along the way.

Photo of dishcloth with skein of yarn and two knitting needles

Then I became ambitious. Having mastered the complicated (for me) pattern of that dishcloth, I expanded it into a small prayer shawl. I had enough white yarn left from this and that so I could easily make a shawl. Well, not easily. Nothing about knitting is easy for me. Probably won’t be even if I live to be 90 years old. Really good knitters begin as children.  

Although I was now bragging to friends that I knew how to knit, I began this second project in solitude. No distracting conversation, no observers to make me nervous. Slowly I gained confidence. By the time I’d knit almost two feet of the shawl, I dared to knit in the presence of family, pausing if I had something to say, because talking and knitting still couldn’t happen at the same time.

 I thought I was doing well. I boldly decided that using slightly different batches of yarn wouldn’t matter. The shawl would be “interesting” for its shades of difference. Okay, here and there I miscounted stitches and had to fudge a bit to keep the border even. Perhaps only I would see those glitches.  

Then came COVID-19 and physical distancing. No more knitting group meetings. I was on my own.

 My striving for perfection (except for those aforesaid glitches that no one else would see) came to a halt the evening that I missed an entire row. I didn’t notice, just kept knitting.  Yet when I woke up in the middle of the night, I realized what I had done. What made me think of knitting at 2 o’clock in the morning remains a mystery.

The next morning, I looked at my half-done shawl, then at the pattern book. Yep, I’d skipped a row. The shawl had now reversed itself; what was the good side had become the reverse side. It was glaringly obvious. Well, then. Time to practice my very unsteady unknitting skills.

A long, tense two hours later, I stared at what was steadily becoming something that could not be rescued. I had now tangled enough stitches, lost my sense of an even row, and become so discouraged that I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be able to get back on track.

I retreated to a private room. There was no way I was going to let even my supportive husband see me laboriously unravelling hours and hours of work, returning the yarn to its original state. (Alright, not the original state – that’s never possible –but rolled into a coherent ball with which one thereafter begins again, if the will is there.)

There is no picture of that half-finished shawl. I had planned to take that photo when it was all done, and I could legitimately brag about it. Which will not happen now.

Photo of knittng book, knitting needles and skein of yarn as well as three small balls of yarn

Yet in the unravelling, I gained a more realistic view of my project than I’d allowed myself to see before. There had been, all along, uneven stitches because my tension was unsteady, and some raggedness here and there where I’d snagged or split the yarn. My miscountings were also more obvious than I’d thought.   

Worst of all, not only were my efforts to shift from one ball of yarn to the next entirely sloppy, but incorporating different kinds of yarn was clearly foolish. The shawl had become narrower because of slightly thinner yarn. The two shades of white didn’t look fashionably creative at all; they signalled clearly that they didn’t want to be together. The whole project hadn’t merited completion in the first place.  

The effort I expended trying to unknit, however, was not in vain. Through that miserable process of guesswork and sheer ignorance of where to put the needle next, I was learning. By the fourth row of undoing stitches, I was beginning to understand how knits and purls worked, just not consistently enough to succeed in the unknitting. I was tying together, metaphorically of course, actions and consequences.

Even the eventual despair that led to plain unravelling—hold onto the yarn and keep pulling—wasn’t so deep that I couldn’t see how I might, possibly, have been able to pick up the stitches at some point and rescue some of my work. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to count rows, wouldn’t have been able to figure out where I was in the pattern, in which each row had a different sequence of knits and purls.

All of which is to say that should I choose to begin the project again (unlikely), I would do better: yarn would be consistent in color and weight; rows would be carefully counted and noted; due attention would be given to the pattern. It would still not be perfect, though. My knitting teacher and her equally skilled knitting friends had assured me that even a lifetime of knitting did not prevent errors. For them, though, errors were just delays, not disasters.   

 

COVID-19 has given me more than enough time to meditate on knitting and other connections. From my busy academic days came a memory of writing a paper on Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World, likely because of its pervasive knitting images. The lonely narrator, finally prepared to accept his Mennonite heritage and desperate to find out who he is, explores his family history all the way back to the 1500s. The image clusters of knitting needles, ropes, knives, and threads bring together the suffering of a persecuted people, the beliefs and longings of key characters, the practice of knitting while praying, and the harmonies of songs while yarn is turned into toques and mittens. It is a tour de force.

That yarn of family betrayals, prison visits, traditional hymns, and loss of faith—telling, is it not, that we call stories yarns?—seemed the right narrative to lend meaning to my otherwise meaningless efforts and unravellings. On the one hand, my knitting failures are of little consequence. As I once explained to someone I was visiting in a nursing home, it didn’t matter if I had to unravel six inches of crocheting because I was only keeping my hands occupied while actually focusing on the conversation. The world did not need another baby afghan, but it did need my presence beside her.

On the other hand, my knitting failures can become a way of re-seeing failures of communication. If conversations don’t seem to be going anywhere, if hurt seems to multiply into hurts, might there be value in tugging gently at threads until we get back to some point of beginning?

The work of psychoanalysts indicates that sometimes moving forward requires going back to find out what metaphorical knitting needle stabbings, what ignored knots, what parallel yarns lie behind the current impasse. What’s more, current research shows that trauma is often intergenerational, that behaviour patterns have long histories. The threads of those narratives have been woven into our very cells. 

Not to say that such a cat’s-cradle of stories needs to be entirely understood and somehow redone. ‘Tisn’t always possible. What is possible is some recognition of complexity, some acknowledgement of causes, some willingness to hear differing voices. Then, with greater skill and greater humility, the story can begin again.

 

Songs, stories are beyond value: they are the memory and wisdom of a people, the particular individual rivers of the sea of life which constitutes us all.

Rudy Wiebe

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.      

The Flingers and the Flung

On the dairy farm where I grew up, chores began early and never took a holiday.

photo of the barn on our farm, including one cow

There was play time for the children—we did not have a deprived, Dickensian existence—yet we did whatever work small hands and feet could manage. Thanks to the routine of morning chores and school, days always began early, with no weekend reprieve. Not until I left home could I relish the decadent pleasure of “sleeping in.”

 Consequently, the difference between those of our family who vaulted out of bed, eager to begin the day, and those who had to be coaxed into consciousness was all too obvious. The boys rose early and willingly (which they have done consistently into their senior years). The girls? Not so much.

 In that time and place where women knew their narrow roles—or were duly informed of them—this sex-correlated difference in body rhythms simply became further proof of feminine inferiority. Virtue belonged to early risers, and not much compassion was offered to my sister and me who, having no choice but to conform, coped by remaining as uncommunicative as possible for as long as possible.  

 Odd that I never registered then the contradictory fact that it was my mother who arose eagerly, talking before she even reached the kitchen, and it was my father who dutifully obeyed the alarm clock at 5:00 or 5:30 a.m., but worked in remote silence until the welcome breakfast, not served until 7:30 or 8:00 a.m.

Many decades later, after I had begun teaching English at the U of S, having meekly accepted the newcomer’s typical assignment of 8:30 a.m. classes, I discovered a poem by Margaret Avison that delighted my heart – “Meeting Together of Poles and Latitudes: The Prospect.” Although it was clear that the poem as a whole dealt with far greater complexities than the mere fact of getting out of bed in the morning, I was intrigued by her choice of that metaphor to explore profound attitudinal differences in the way that people respond to the demands of life and love.

Her deft summary of those “who fling off, toss head, / Taste the bitter morning, and have at it” and those who are “flung off, sit / Dazed awhile, gather concentration” made me smile in recognition. I wanted to share the poem immediately with a colleague who likewise functioned as the reluctantly flung, and who muttered frequently and bitterly about the “morning Nazis” who insisted on weighty academic meetings at 8 a.m.

By that time, however, I had adjusted to living both with and against my body’s natural rhythms. Years of tending to small children had taught me self-discipline and flexibility. Our three sons, each in turn, had been the sort of infant who woke early, and then, once having achieved the blessed ability to sleep through the night, went to bed early in order to rise even earlier and cheerier than ever. I was willing to trade the pleasure of sleeping later in the morning for the much greater pleasure of evening time for adults only!

One learns, in the process of growing up—and I insist that the growing up continues throughout adulthood—to accept necessary trade-offs and compromises. As the boys grew older, schedules changed, of course, but thanks to school hours, and my husband’s early departure for work, and then my own teaching schedule, I had no choice but to behave like a lark, not like the owl that I truly was.

 Not that that turned me into a flinger. Emotionally, I remained, and still remain, a card-carrying member of the flung. Rare indeed are the mornings when I wake early with eagerness to begin the day. My family understood that, when necessary, I could transition into conversation, remind children to take their lunches and not forget the project they’d done the night before. At the beginning of vacation travel, I could arise at dawn if need be, finish packing, make a picnic lunch, gather bags and books, and make sure we departed promptly. An early beginning made the rest of the day more manageable, that I will readily admit. 

photo of loaded car and makeshift trailer with bikes on top of the car
Departure for Kananaskis 1987

 Nevertheless, I remain ambivalent about posited correlations, still insisted upon by some, between one’s circadian rhythm and one’s ability to be successful in life. Or to put it in less problematic wording—who would dare to define “success”?—one’s ability and willingness to contribute to the community in which one lives. Is progress and general well-being actually dependent solely on the busy flingers who “Thresh, knead, dam, weld, / Wave baton, force / Marches through squirming bogs” (Avison)?

 I would insist that the flung have much to contribute, out of the very well of their “flungness.” Many a late-rising creative person has provided powerful pieces of music, many an artist has changed the way we think about our world, and dancers and actors and other performers have fed our souls.

No doubt, the board rooms of the nations, the wards of hospitals, and the streets of our cities have their share of the flung, who proffer their own tender perspectives. It may well be that the very effort of having to resist, in this world of “morning Nazis,” their natural inclinations to “Follow vapour-trails with shrivelling wonder, / Pilfer, mow, play jongleur / With mathematical signs” develops a kind of unsung endurance and sober second thoughts that are equally necessary for a balanced world.

Given Avison’s frequent preference, in other poems, for risk-takers (cf. “The Swimmer’s Moment”), I cannot decide just how to interpret the final stanza of “Meeting of the Poles,” in which the flingers and flung meet finally “at the Judgment Seat.” The sheer energy of the words she uses to describe the kind of love typical of flingers – in their “amorous thirst” and “thrust,” they “rock . . . like railroad engines” through “wrecked love,” yet remain “unslakeably loving” – implies awed admiration.

Meanwhile, the flung “love / As the stray dog on foreign hills / A bone-myth, atavistically, / Needing more faith, and fewer miles . . . .” The very words, when read aloud, have a languid dreaminess, a mood akin to that in the weary endings of most retellings of the legend of King Arthur. Which is often precisely the mood of the flung.

 For now, I am bemused at the ironies life has offered me, in my journey through many forced morning risings. Strangely enough, now that retirement should presumably allow me to return to my owl ways, staying up late at night and sleeping late in the mornings, it seems that my body has completely adapted to early mornings. I am now content with a regular schedule that I would once have fiercely resisted. With chagrin, I have conceded to the flingers’ insistence that early morning hours are too precious to sleep through. Indeed, I have learned to love equally the deep blue shades of pre-dawn winter mornings, and the impossible blue-pink jubilation of summer mornings.

view from the dock of Watson Lake, with the rising sun coloring the lake and putting the lone fisherman into silhouette.
Watson Lake, Yukon, just after sunrise

 Just don’t ask me for cheerful conversation two minutes after I have arisen. Early mornings are for meditative silence. Let the urgencies and worries of our mostly urban living wait until after breakfast.

Harbor in Prince Rupert, BC at sunrise

But when they [the flingers and the flung] approach each other, / the place is an astonishment.

Margaret Avison

Mind Your Questions

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

 So it happened yet again, at a biannual extended family gathering. Whether this story is mine to tell or belongs to someone else who granted me permission to tell it is not germane to the matter at hand. Let’s just call him Adam—or Eve. Your choice.

 Adam had retired since the last family gathering and wasn’t much of a hand at letter-writing, or Facebook posts. Inevitably, then, The Question came, in this case from a hearty, well-meaning cousin. “Hey, Adam. I hear you’re retired now. Are you keepin’ busy?”
     Dutifully, Adam began giving an account of himself, including volunteer work at the Children’s Hospital and the local soup kitchen, the home projects that had been postponed for years, the church committee work he now had time for, and the university course he was taking for his own pleasure. At which point, the cousin expressed astonishment: “What the . . . .? Aren’t you supposed to be retired?”

 There you have it in two breaths—the hopelessly contradictory assumptions we have about retirement. On the one hand, since people are valued for the work they do and the pay they get for it, not being busy is the ultimate form of uselessness. Heaven forbid that we should have time to be, to reflect, to live quietly in the moment simply because it’s been given and is precious.

Pike Lake, near Saskatoon, SK, on a quiet fall afternoon, when just to be alive is enough.

On the other hand, our equally common assumption about work is that it is a sentence to be served, a debt to society that once paid should be rewarded by endless days of leisure and pleasure. Thus, the only approved ways of managing retirement, to judge by most advertising and by the ubiquitous “keepin’ busy?” are extended travel and perpetual golfing.

 What both questions pointedly ignore is that Adam—or Eve—is not accountable to every Tom, Dick, and Sherry who chooses to probe Adam or Eve’s use of time. For twenty or forty or even fifty years, Eve has obediently filled out time sheets, turned in regular reports, endured yearly evaluations, completed projects, explained to her parents that she was indeed doing what they had taught her to do, met her family’s needs, and served society. For thirty years and many more, Adam has wondered when he could finally call his soul his own (which, realistically, he can’t ever do, since we all have our being in the communities and roles that make us who we are). Yet now, when he no longer owes his soul to the company store, for the sake of civility, he has to give account of himself to every Shaun, Vicki, and Harry? Doesn’t that verge on being rude and unjust?

 Oh, many retirees over ever so many decades have genially gone along with the joke and made up facetious replies on the fly: “Oh, I keep busy watching the paint grow old on the walls.” “Hey, the grandkids keep me busier than I ever was. I don’t know how I found time to work.” “Man, I’m working my way through the beers (or novels!) that have been waitin’ for me.” And so on. The socially adept will find their way through this conversational minefield as they have found their way through countless other necessary meetings and greetings. It will not do to make too much of the usual awkwardness of finding something to say to someone one doesn’t know well but would still like to acknowledge.

My sympathies are extended, though, to the Eves and Adams who are introverts, those private people who treasure their newly acquired space in which to seek the inner quietness that has always beckoned them, who want to give their time to carefully chosen projects that were never meant to be loudly public. For them, the nosiness of “keepin’ busy?” is an intrusion on privacy, and the often trivializing responses to an honest account given in good faith feel humiliating. Maybe we could craft some gentle rebukes that can convey the gist of “none of your damn business” without spoiling the friendly tone of the conversation. I’ve heard someone say, “Well, I don’t have any days in which I stare at the wall and wonder to do next.” Or also, “I am content. Is that what you wanted to know?” My favorite response is “I’m doing nothing of socially redeeming value.” Which deftly signals both that the question has encroached on personal territory and that our assumptions about work require more thought.   

While it seems a useful service to humanity to provoke some mocking laughter at our thoughtless and sometimes foolish assumptions about other people’s work or not work, it is surely more important to practice the social niceties as peacefully as possible. Some irritations are not worth risking unease for someone else, who was actually well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, I’m still looking for some gracious responses that will stamp out the “keepin’ busy?” questions and invite my interlocutors into a space where doing and being can dance together in harmony.    

The author at the Toronto harbour
Swan Lake, AB, east of Grande Prairie

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

Originally published in Prairie Messenger October 19, 2016

Rituals of Choice

 It’s almost over now, that ritual dance of words at the heart of Canadian democracy. Except that it has seemed less like dancing and more like frenetic, vindictive stomping fuelled by fear. I refuse to take sides here; we need all sides, in continual conversation, if we are to find workable compromises. Human beings are much too diverse in their gifts and their dreams to be co-opted by one voice only. A subsequent drift toward an enforced single vision is all too likely, as history has demonstrated more than once.

 And therein lies the trouble with this recent combative chorus of political voices, each of which claimed that the other voices were wrong: the volume was unmistakable, the vision largely absent. I was listening for someone, somewhere, to move beyond specific promises to a discussion of what we might be and become as a nation. Does anyone these days vote according to what might be best for our country, instead of what might bring dollars to our personal wallets?

 A long time ago, long before elections, before imaginations could even conceive of democracy, when large empires became larger by swallowing up smaller, tribal nations, a certain prophet in Judah believed that systems could and would change: “Every man will sit under his own vine / and under his own fig tree, / and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). This was not quite as individualistic as we might see it these days, since the peace that would make such an idyllic scene possible was to be established on the premise that swords would be beaten into plowshares and that disputes would be settled communally—among people as well as among people groups. True, the writer assumed that that could happen only in a theocracy, but he was gracious enough—or realistic enough—to acknowledge that other peoples might choose to “walk in the name of their gods.”

The world has since known other conceptions of the common good, drawn other blueprints for a good society, attempted various economic arrangements that were supposed to deliver happiness to the many. We have learned a veritable vocabulary of politics—and the word “politics” refers essentially to the process of allocating resources among and to groups of people; that is, who gets what, when, and how is a political matter, no matter what organization deals out the resources. Politics should therefore not be a dirty word. It is always and everywhere present as we try to work out how we should live together peaceably.

 Along the way, human beings have moved from smaller, tribal societies held together by family loyalties and rituals of gift-giving, to more complex societies that gradually adopted principles of ownership. We have experimented with capitalism, communism, socialism, dictatorships (supposedly benevolent and otherwise), monarchies both absolute and limited, democracies of greater and lesser integrity.

This is not the place, nor am I qualified, to weigh out pros and cons.

Instead, I would rather turn to poetry.

I am sure that we should all read more poetry, from which the whispers of holiness have never been eradicated.

Sara Maitland

            In “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” William Stafford begins provocatively,

If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Various parades of current ideologies all invite us to follow something, some god. Stafford argues that our choices among those possibilities will be made blindly if we do not get to know one another. In other words, we cannot realize our potential, our calling, alone. His plural pronouns are not an accident.

Indeed, if we do not maintain our “fragile sequences,” the moral dikes we have built to hold violence and selfishness and atavistic tendencies at bay may break and allow all the “horrible errors of childhood” to “storm out to play.” That, it seems, we have seen in spades recently, on the internet, on the national scene, on political stages. There has been “shouting” aplenty, until the individual voice of reason can scarcely be heard at all.

 Stafford’s poem is ambiguous with its images of patterns and lines and elephants on the way to a circus. Leaders and followers proceed, sometimes on the way to the right destination, sometimes not. One isn’t sure whether it is a good idea to break the line for an individual choice or when one should maintain the “fragile sequence.”

photo of elephants in a line

This isn’t an easy world, by any means, but Stafford does seem to call on his readers (since we are to read this ritual to one another, discernment clearly does not occur in solitude) to “know what occurs” and to be willing to name such facts aloud, “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” Such thoughtfulness is unlikely if the conversation has devolved into mindless shouting of slogans.

  I have been haunted by Stafford’s final stanza for many years:

For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

After rereading those strange and wonderful lines yet again, I wonder if it might be a good idea to interrupt the campaigning and the pointless debates, in which ideas have given way to shouted “zingers,” with some poetry reading retreats.

Let’s gather candidates in each constituency, including the party leaders (each in his or her riding) in a comfortable room with soft lighting, good coffee, real food, no cameras or microphones for quiet discussion. A neutral moderator could choose the poem(s) and begin the conversation. Let there be thoughtful silences, real attention to language, good listening, respectful body language. Let there be no purpose in the gathering but to undo the problem of “if you don’t know the kind of person I am /. . .  we may follow the wrong god home and miss our star.”

 I could pay attention to a campaign with clear signals, spoken quietly by “awake people.”

            Meanwhile, the voting booths await our yeses and our nos.  

photo of bridge over a dark chasm in the woods.

Here and There: The Puzzle of Place and Time

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

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

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

Mt. Edith Cavell near Jasper, Alberta.

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

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

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

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

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

Pool by a hotel in Fresno, California.

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

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

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

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

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

On the Awe-full Bosom of Mother Earth

 I am a dual citizen on planet earth. As a lifelong prairie dweller, I made my peace long ago with a difficult landscape. When visiting family members mock Saskatchewan as the land that God forgot, I defend not only the clichéd delights—crocuses, meadowlarks, waving wheat fields, the scent of sage, sunsets and sunrises—but also fierce winter blizzards, the spectacular percussion of summer storms, the utter lack of boundaries in the sky.

 Nevertheless, when, as a young woman, I lived in Jasper, AB, for a summer, I gave my heart to the sublime and awful beauty of the Rocky Mountains as if I had been in exile until then and had only just discovered my true home. Becoming a lifelong vacationer in the Rockies seemed as natural as breathing. There I could forget the prairie’s harsh narratives of grasshoppers and drought, and my own small stories of grief. The mountains felt clean, uncontaminated by human failures (although I knew they were not); I could breathe here, I could feel the voice of the Divine.

View from the trail to Illecillewaet Glacier near Rogers Pass, BC

 By the time I first read about the correlation between the essential human spiritualities and the primary landscapes—forest, plains (or desert), water, and mountains—our family had been tenting and hiking in the Rockies for many years. Those vacations had always been so soul-restoring for me, that it took no great act of discernment to know that mountains were my spiritual home. There I was often caught up in worship, speechless and ecstatic in the face of a beauty both exquisite in its changeable colors and terrifying in its physical demands. This terrain is not to be taken lightly. Rocks may be ancient and solid; they are also unforgiving and moveable in dreadful ways. Yet I loved it all, and felt loved within it.

 Two summers ago, our family camped in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta. Above the gash of the coulee, where the Milk River flows past the hoodoos, lay the prairies, shimmering with heat, drawing the eye skyward to eternity. Apart from the trees along the river, this was closer to desert than anything we’d known before. Among the sage and grasses and prickly pear cacti lived prairie rattlesnakes and cottontail rabbits; on the sides of immense hoodoos near the river nested cliff sparrows in great colonies and pack rats in their untidy holes.

Hoodoos along the Milk River in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone has been sacred territory for indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Their stories are etched on the rocks in symbolic pictures. On the barren tops of the cliffs, vision quests were held, and even now, recent sacred offerings left for the Creator are mute testimony of a strong human relationship with the earth.  

 Such a powerful spiritual place we were visiting, yet I felt only curiosity and wonder. My soul remained unmoved, as if it knew that I was an outsider, one whose heart had been given elsewhere and couldn’t be truly present here.

 Then came the night when heat made sleep impossible. Under an almost full moon, I needed no light to walk the campground road. A scant breeze ruffled stately cottonwoods into soft sibilant music. Could I ever learn to love this place? The moonlight on the nearby Sweet Grass Hills across the border in Montana was – tender? No, wrong word. “Cool” was more like it, with its old meaning of chilly distance.

Moonrise over the Sweet Grass Hills seen from Writing-on-Stone.

Back in the tent, I still couldn’t sleep although I lay quietly now. Then I felt it. The very soil – so close under me, less than two inches of man-made substances between me and it – rose and fell in a rocking motion that nearly stopped my heart in fear. Those 30 seconds of earth movement were no dream. A sudden scatter of agitated voices nearby asking “what happened?” told me it was real. For the next half hour, I waited, alert now, before feeling again two or three slight shiftings, then all was still.

 In the morning, I discovered that of the 6 adults in our group, all of us sleeping in light nylon tents, I was the only one who had felt the earth move. My story was greeted with courtesy but unspoken scepticism – until the next-site neighbour came over to tell us that her trailer had been shaken violently enough to wake her, and she wondered if mischievous teens had come through our site as well. When I told her what I had felt, she assumed that human hands had shaken our tent (I knew that was wrong).  Later I heard other campers whose trailers had been rudely shaken wonder who the culprits had been. All who had layers of human construction and several feet of air between them and the earth had experienced the event as a mechanical one of human agency.

 Then came news that an earthquake in Montana (5.8 on the Richter scale) had sent tremors even farther north than Writing-on-Stone. My “I told you so” satisfaction gave way abruptly to a reverent gratitude that I had been “chosen” to feel those tremors against my body. What was a rattling disturbance for everyone in trailers was, for a tent sleeper, an intimate pressure gentle enough not to wake anyone. If I had been sleeping, would I have awakened or would it have become part of my dreams? What does it really mean to be at one with the earth?   

 The next day, we hiked up through the hoodoos up to the level prairie to seek refuge from the heat in the excellent Visitors Centre.

Trail through hoodoos near Visitor Centre in Writing-on-Stone.

After a futile effort to absorb information, I volunteered to take my turn to stay outside with the dogs. Since they were content to pant beneath the picnic table, I was left alone with the land, from the grasses and sage at my feet to the towering hoodoos nearby, from the Milk River below me to yonder Sweet Grass Hills. This, this was the land that had moved and had moved me with it.  

Originally published August 30, 2017 in Prairie Messenger.