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

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.      

After the Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may our narrative imaginations flourish!

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

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

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.

A Rose Bush and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rose garden in our front yard

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

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

Anne Michael, Fugitive Pieces

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

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

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

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

An utterly dead rose bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerard Manley Hopkins