A Rainbow and a Flower

( This post is something of an indulgence in these difficult times. It was indeed first written in a different time and different world – November 2017 – but has perhaps still some relevance.)

On the highway between Lake Louise and Banff, cars pulled onto the shoulder, and camera-wielding drivers and passengers tumbled out—not to immortalize one more grizzly bear on social media, not this time—but to render awed tribute to the full, double rainbow that arose out of the earth in the far valley and returned to the earth on nearby slopes still clad in mists of retreating rain. The upper rainbow a soft-focus version of the brilliant lower arc, each color band was intensely itself yet merged seamlessly into the next, the red and purple declaring themselves against a backdrop of mountains and clouds.       

 The physics of light refraction, most certainly familiar to most of the open-mouthed photographers, meant little in the moment. It would have taken a truly hardened, indifferent soul not to see this unearthly beauty and then to bless the web of coincidence that had prompted light to undress itself behind a veil of retreating raindrops.

Photo of rainbow in the mountains, with the cloud and mist still hanging over the mountains.

 Can a rainbow know its adorers? As a peacock might self-consciously fan out iridescent tail feathers and strut before its admirers? Surely it cannot be sacrilegious to imagine such mysterious conversation.

 The belief that rainbow hues have spiritual dimensions is very old: from the original makers of mandalas, Buddhist monks who wove sand into magnificent sacred works of art, to today’s devotees of Zen adult coloring books, human beings have known that each vibrant color must mean something.

Even those who have stripped all that is sacred from the color spectrum—interior decorators, web-designers, and ad-makers—still know very well that the exact shade matters. Paint the walls bright yellow and we’ll consume more food! Use subtle greys and blues and we’ll stay longer, become more pliable to the message, whatever it is.

Fortunately, the rainbow, co-opted as it has been for various purposes, is not the only divine gift to the human eye. The world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use Hopkins’ immortal phrase, through a reckless profusion of flowers, from the grandiose, diva-like spread of tropical plants to the infinitesimal delicacy of alpine flowers growing far above normal human tread.

Gardeners the world over confess their immoderate obsession with the unending possibilities in the intimate marriage between color and texture. Have you ever fingered the petals of a rose in full bloom? Velvet itself is pedestrian in comparison. Or noted how the leaves of the paintbrush transfigure themselves into flowers, adopting whatever shade of red or orange or magenta or pink or yellowish white is de rigueur at a particular altitude?

Or pondered how it is that the leaves of fireweed in fall turn a dormish brown in one valley, yet in another choose to wear gorgeous purples and magentas and oranges?

Or asked a lily enthusiast to describe the patterns of lines and dots in Amber Flame or Chocolate Canary?

photo of several lilies from my garden.

 When I immerse fragile petals of black pansies in boiling water in the first stage of making jelly, a brilliant turquoise precedes the deep amethyst of the final product. That red rose petals should yield a soft blue before turning into a deep pink is no less miraculous to me. No wonder that medieval alchemists, looking for  the elixir of youth, or that which would change all to gold, knew that at the heart of all things is a congruence of elements that none but the Creator understands.

Our subconscious responses to the symbolic resonances of color are particularly evident in how we react to the contrast between what is black and white (literally or metaphorically) and what is color-full. Remember Schindler’s List (1993)? Most of the movie is filmed in black and white, shifting to color only in the last scenes as attention turns from those who perished to those who survived. Other than that, color appears only in a couple of poignant scenes, in which one little Jewish girl wears a pink coat, such a contrast to the inhuman categories of Jew or not-Jew that she provokes tears long before the sheer scale of the tragedy makes weeping the only reasonable response.

  Black and white, as a metaphor, has come to stand for immovable regulations and an avoidance of all nuance. In religion, black-and-white distinguishes between the saved and the damned (no in-between, or compassion); in politics, black-and-white sorts all people and positions into the evil and the good (with the sorter seemingly always among the good).

  Although it seems prudent not to rely too heavily on physics as a source of moral wisdom, especially since the beautiful calls for awe, not moralizing, I cannot help but ponder what physics might teach me. Light is essential for the perception of any color whatsoever; color cannot be seen in the dark. Even more striking, light itself must be broken (refracted) before rainbow colors appear. A consistent rejection of all variances, fragments, ambiguities, irregularities—terminal black-and-white categorization, in other words—impoverishes us, whether we know it or not.

A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, / How rich and great the times are now!

William Henry Davies

There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

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 Language of Stones

Had I been told, when I was a child, that I would someday talk about stones as if they were alive enough to “call to me,” I would have giggled in embarrassment. “That’s just stupid. Rocks are dead.” 

Although my father and older brothers did mutter resentfully that every spring, the land seemed to have “grown” more stones. Exempt from the hard labor of picking stones, by virtue of my age and my sex, I only knew the stones, piled in heaps alongside barbed-wire fences, as wonderfully climbable. Sometimes, at their base, I found wild strawberries, unmatched in taste by anything ever purchased since.

My indifference to stones disappeared when I had my first road trip that I can remember through the Rocky Mountains. True enough, at that time I made no connection between that majesty and the stones we cursed on the farm. From then on, when I heard the biblical phrase “God is our rock and our salvation,” I imagined the heights and austere beauty of the Rockies along the highways that we traveled on the way to Vancouver.

Stanley Glacier, near the highway to Radium, BC

 In the summer of 1968, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in search of tuition money for the next year of university and maybe some adventure.  And I fell in love.

white fabric background, and the goldstone pendant necklace

With previously unknown gemstones. Such a gift that was, my first gemstone necklace, given to me by my best friend and roommate who worked in a gemstone shop. That delicate goldstone star charmed me, all the more when I learned that goldstone is relatively soft, difficult to work with. Now, more than 50 years later, that goldstone star has lost none of its inner golden glints. Its shape is still perfect. I am still in awe.

 My fervent love of hiking in the Rockies was born that summer as well. Every possible day off, every spare hour or three, was spent on the trails near the townsite. If I had access to a bicycle or a car, the hiking was more extensive. The mountains claimed my heart and soul; in them, I could breathe and feel the presence of the Divine without any strings attached—no guilt, no struggle to achieve perfection, no intense shaping of words into prayers. I just was. Small and insignificant, yes, but caught up in beauty without a name or creed.

 Just when and how that beingness attached itself to actual rocks that I could hold in my hand, I don’t know. The love of mountain hiking was soon shared with the man whom I would wed and raise children with. He and I sat together by the side of the Athabasca River, picking up rocks out of the water, drawn wordlessly to the mysterious inwardness of that which was supposed to be inanimate.

The bank of the swift Athabasca River, framed by spruce trees - focus on the rocks, polished by the water.

We began collecting, one by one, special rocks from beloved trails and favorite campsites. I began speaking of rocks as if they had individuality, as if there was a spiritual connection between me and them.

On our first visit to Wanuskewin, a First Nations park just outside of Saskatoon, we heard the indigenous narrator of the introductory video speak reverently of the ancient rocks, seemingly rooted in the prairie, as “grandfathers.” She gave words to a vague feeling I had never been able to name and could scarcely acknowledge. Stones are part of the created world, a necessary part of the ecology, descendants of great glacial movements. They matter. They embody ancientness. They speak.

 Stones also need a habitat; they need plants, and plants want the company of stones. The breakdown of rocks into smaller and smaller bits eventually makes sand, and the energy of plants growing and decaying widens cracks among the rocks and makes humus. Together they make more beauty, a beauty that breathes and multiplies, cell by cell.

We began a rock garden in our front yard, and indoors, I placed small, favorite stones next to my houseplants to keep them company. Stones and flowers: the hard and the delicate, the impermeable and the fragile.

For decades, we have gathered rocks, never many from any place. On the shores of Lake Superior, we found green and pink-speckled stones, yielding a multi-colored sand. Their belongingness near the vast waters that curved out beyond the horizon was not immediately clear to me, not until I attempted to place a few into the dry creek bed we’d created in our front yard. Lovely as they were, they didn’t belong. I had not known that stones know their place, whether they are large or small.

 Two years ago, on the Labor Day weekend, we visited Grasslands National Park, and in the everlasting wind, we walked the trails through virgin prairie, inhabited by herds of bison, veritable congregations of prairie dogs, noisy insects.

A prairie hillside with many rocks of all sizes and gorgeous yellow-flowered shrubs.

This was a harsh landscape, which, despite my initial resistance, called to my prairie-born soul. There were stones everywhere, often covered with lichen, adding color to a minimalist landscape. As usual, my eyes noted particular stones, yet something stayed my hand. These ancient stones belonged; they did not “call” to me as I had thought other stones did. They invited me, instead, to be there, with them.

Four small stones, all very different, placed on a white cloth background.

When I did finally select four small stones, I did so on my knees, grateful to the grandfather stones who were willing to let me carry their little ones in my hands, so that I could sense their eternity. They lack a place now, except in my heart and in a photo, as a work of art.

Creativity, a knowledge of place, a listening to the inner heart of things–all these are gifts to us from the Creator. A necklace and some photos, Lord – I am grateful.

In These Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresno, California. Taken from a hotel window at sunset

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

On the U of S grounds.

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

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

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

Sunset near Oyen, Alberta

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

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

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

Linden tree in winter, Saskatoon

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

Purple fountain grass, Saskatoon

Our backyard offers its own stunning details and colors.

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

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

Hotel pool in Fresno, California

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

Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead

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.      

Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.

The Audacity of Hope

 “Signs and wonders are always doubted, and perhaps they are meant to be. In the absence of certainty, faith is more than mere opinion; it is hope.”

 (Mary Doria Russell in Children of God)

Hope is, by definition, tenuous. It is not certainty, not even probability. It is a clinging to the barely possible, in the face of more likely, undesirable possibilities. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson insisted, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune—without the words, / And never stops at all.” Hope is illogical and necessary, in equal measure. “Faith, hope, and love,” declared St. Paul, are the bedrock of theology. Also of sociology and psychology.

Also of stories. Whether the stories are fiction or history or memoir or true in some other sense, we listen with longing for wisdom and for a resolution that will satisfy. For this reason, modern fiction and drama often frustrates because of its seeming hopelessness, its bleak endings. I would argue, though, that hope is visible in the stoic courage of those who endure suffering without seeing an end. The little thing with feathers still “sings sweetest in the gale.”

One of literature’s frequent symbols of hope is the birth of a child. One tiny being suggests possibilities where none existed before. At the most elemental level, a baby means that the parents are fertile—the clan will not die out, there will be another harvest, the tribe can thrive under better leadership. Ancient myths are replete with miraculous stories of birth. Anything is then possible; all things are possible.

Yet nothing is guaranteed. The hope-full Advent story includes swords and later on, a cross. Even a cursory survey of literature offers sufficient examples of what T.S. Eliot calls the “hope for the wrong thing” (East Coker). When hope forgets humility and love turns into demand, the promised little one can only disappoint.  

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster’s classic British novel on social class, a rich capitalist family, a cultured, artistic, intelligent family, and a struggling low-class family with little in common encounter one another through tentative friendships, and brief romances, only to fall into misunderstandings and antagonism. It all seems hopeless, until an illegitimate son is conceived out of a brief passion between the lower class young man and the younger daughter of the cultural elite. Despite that intimation of hope, though, the poor baby seems the child of an artificial marrying of intellectual concepts, not actual people.    

Similarly, in two Canadian novels, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, literally illegitimate children are made to embody hope for resolution of age-old conflicts. In Wild Geese, the conflict is between a pioneer patriarch’s cold, selfish drive to possess and control both property and family, and his daughter’s earthy vitality, sensuality, and rebellious drive for freedom. It is a gender-driven conflict that pits materialism against nature itself, and nature, through the now-pregnant daughter, wins, if one can overlook the swashbuckling, impulsive father of the child who may or may not be able to provide adequately for his new partner and child.

In As For Me and My House, set in the 1930s, the situation is even bleaker. The narrator/protagonist and her husband, who have moved through several dustbowl towns, giving inadequate ministerial care to survivors of repeated crop failures, are both failed artists: he’s a painter and she’s a pianist. Neither had sufficient courage to match their artistic ambition and instead stumbled into a marriage and a half-sham performance as preacher and preacher’s wife. Everything around them and in them is infertile; they have no child (to the acute disappointment of them both) and their gardens die. The baby at the end is born of a brief liaison between the minister and a young parishioner (who conveniently dies in childbirth). The minister’s wife, who knows of the affair, insists that they adopt the baby and then move away into the big city to begin a new life with a new career. Such an adoption and such a marriage have but a snowball’s chance in hell of thriving, but there is no doubt that Ross is using an ancient symbol of hope, possibly ironically.

Indeed, the hope seems the hope for the wrong thing. The poor babies are asked to bring peace to ancient oppositions and to do so without an adequate foundation of love.      

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, also offer us babies as carriers of hope, but the tone is different. These novels are speculative fiction, located on earth and on Rakhat, a distant planet with two sentient species. The Jesuits’ first exploratory mission ends in seeming disaster, both for the planet and for the protagonist, whose faith, once close to sainthood, is utterly destroyed. Two babies play a crucial role. The first is born among refugees from an inter-species war of survival. The only human child on Rakhat, Isaac is fatherless and autistic; his mother, Sophia, sees no hope for this strange child among alien species. Yet he is gifted and creates an unearthly, uniquely beautiful piece of music based on the DNA sequences of humans, Runa, and Jana’ata. All three species recognize, in Isaac’s music, an example of God’s grace made manifest in the midst of on-going tragedy. Audacious as it may seem, hope remains.  

Back on earth again, at the end of the second novel, the weary ex-priest has gone, on the Day of the Dead, to weep alone at the tomb of the woman he had once hoped to marry. He has, he thinks, lost everyone he has ever loved. A young woman with a baby approaches, addressing him as “Padre.” He looks in amazement at her features, startlingly familiar, and sees a daughter he did not know he had begotten just before he was forcibly taken back to Rakhat. In submission to this new manifestation of grace, he opens his damaged arms to receive little Tommaso, his grandchild. Not all doubt has been resolved—it never will be—but love has become possible again. Nothing else is asked of this little one, just love.    

I end with a personal story. When I finally became pregnant with our oldest child, my parents had probably given up hope that we would ever give them grandchildren. At the time, my mother had entered another long period of depression. Even the brief return home of my older brother from Africa failed to rouse her from inner pain. My pregnancy was merely another cause for anxious fretting. 

My mother holding our infant son

Yet among my family treasures is a photo of my mother holding our son for the first time. Her smile recalls the beauty of her youth, when she was full of hope for the future. Our baby brought her back out of the darkness, admittedly not for very long. Life rarely works that simply. Yet those few months of newfound joy were a gift, and still are.

As T. S. Eliot warned, hope can be the “hope of the wrong thing,” just as love can be “the love of the wrong thing.” Even our worthiest expectations can be hubristic wishful thinking, just as Jesus’ birth, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, raised hopes of immediate political deliverance that were later nailed to the cross. This is not to say that we should not hope, for without hope, life—and love—cannot be sustained,  

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.  (T.S. Eliot)

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, December 13, 2017.

Of Fruit and Knowledge

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on November 23, 2016, but revised now in celebration of another season of fruit that’s come to an end.            

Fruit and I have close kinship; it calls to me and I answer – eagerly. As far as I am concerned, there’s no such thing as too much fruit, especially wild fruit. Family lore claims I can spot wild strawberries in the ditch along the highway through the windows of a speeding car. Small grandchildren have already learned that on hikes in the Rockies, it pays to stay near Grandma. If there is wild fruit to be had—strawberries, currants, saskatoons, raspberries, blueberries—I will find it. And will happily “steal” it from the bears who probably need the calories more than my clan and I do. My guilt over the theft, if such it is, is quickly smothered by my confidence that there are more than enough berries for us all. So far.

Wild raspberries along the trail to Black Elk Peak in Black Hills National Park, South Dakota
Wild strawberry flowers, beautiful in their own right

 The reckless, extravagant abundance of fruit, wild and domesticated, never ceases to astonish me. Even granting that some fruit in a human diet is essential for vitamins and fibre, was the Creator obliged to provide so much, in such profligate variety? Or to infuse some fruits with so much juice and joy that the first bite is like sexual climax for sheer self-abandonment to sensual indulgence? The very shape and luster of fresh peaches, to take one example, is enough to make the sensitive blush, and the intensity of taste in wild strawberries or blueberries can be grasped only through experience, through knowing.

 And abruptly, the biblical sense of knowing – physical intimacy – comes into play. A raspberry is not real until it is crushed by the tongue, and one is never the same thereafter (I speak here of raspberries for which one has braved the prickly canes, not the ones sold in multinational grocery stores, hybridized for their longevity, and shipped days ago). Whatever fruit one imagines that the first human pair ate in search of forbidden knowledge—perhaps a mango which drips juice everywhere, or a pomegranate whose every seed is a burst of flavor and surprise—it becomes an apt symbol for the uprush of new experience, with all its consequences.

 Fruit and gardens: both are so symbolically rich (and wild fruit has additional hints of the illicit and the adventurous) that writers, from biblical times to the present, find them irresistible.  Isaiah the prophet could find no more apt picture of redemption than the transformation of a wilderness into a garden; for St. John, the Gospel writer, it seemed fitting that the grieving Mary Magdalene should mistake the risen Christ for the gardener; and to John of Patmos, Heaven was incomplete without a Tree of Life that bore fruit every month.   

As I think of writers I have recently encountered, none does more with fruit and gardens than Darcie Friesen Hossack. In her collection of short stories Mennonites Don’t Dance, she piles theological implications on top of too-skimpy pies and blushing fragile tomatoes, and deftly measures her characters by their ability—and willingness—to love dirt into fruitfulness. Those who “have no use for fruit” have adopted a soulless utilitarianism designed to shield them from vulnerability. Those with wholesome relationships, with others and with their God, are most likely to grow gardens and love fruit; they’re unafraid of sensuality and are generous of soul and habit.

 What appeals to me in Hossack’s painfully honest stories about family dynamics is the recurrent insistence on hope, through the fertile, lovely gardens, in the shameless, abundant juices of fruit. Hope, for children wounded by their parents’ struggle to come to terms with their own past, is born as they learn to put seeds into the soil or gather dandelions for wine–transformational activities which Hossack associates with the creative impulse itself, often by way of a fascination with texture, not just taste, or a heightened sensitivity to color.

Sour cherry tree in our back yard.

 That last symbolic connection draws in the very nature of beauty, and raises the theological question of whether one can learn to love God without also learning to love that which is beautiful and celebrating our human sensuality. I am reminded of poet John Keats’ famous words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If we’re going to follow that line of thought back to the Garden of Eden and reclaim gardening as a necessary theological activity, maybe even as a prologue to love itself (since growing anything is a surrender of control), then . . . well, what then?

Already on that path is a growing congregation of earth-keepers, from backyard composters and determined urban gardeners to highly trained scientists estimating the number of years we have left before our entire earthly garden withers and all its inhabitants with it. Keats’ observation now takes on some urgency; if the interchangeability of beauty and truth is the sole knowledge necessary, then to seek and to gain that knowledge, we need to know also (through experience, through the crushed raspberry on the tongue) that we, and the beauty and truth that we must know (with all our passion and energy), are rooted in the earth, on the earth.  Knowing begins in dirt.

To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi

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.