Oh, the places I’ve gone…

At the Shell station cafe where H. and I stopped for an ice cream after a walk on the Point Roberts beach, I spotted a “take one, leave one” shelf of books. Although I had nothing to leave, I scanned the titles.Turn Right at Machu Picchu caught my attention, so I took it. I would bring it back or leave another — next time.

By this small chance, this small curiosity, I was off to Peru, following author Mark Adams as he followed in the paths of Hiram Bingham III who was credited, though not entirely accurately, with “discovering” that Inca site visited by thousands of tourists today. I have never forgotten reading for some literature course — it must have been in university — Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the magnificent Atahuallpa Inca betrayed by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. I’ve taken the slender book with its blue cover along to every place we’ve lived since, on account of its first impact on me, and now I opened it again, saw my markings, my underlinings, and re-read the play, travelling not only to a place but to the past — a time of confrontation between two civilizations but my own past as well, and my encounter with a powerful and unsettling text.

“I like to read in a literary stream of consciousness, unplanned, meandering, one book leading to another in an organic fashion that I need not think about too deeply,” blogger and reader extraordinaire Kerry Clare wrote some time ago. “[F]or the most part, I let the books decide.” And so it is for me. I do plan, but books assert themselves into these plans, and I’ve noticed the meandering lately, and the places I’ve gone — a stationary version of Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go! Reading is an experience of time and place, just as physical travel is. If I had a so-called bucket list, Machu Picchu would not be on it, for I feel satisfied with having been there via these books and, while reading, looking up internet photos of the details. (Much as I’ve walked the Camino several times from my chair and feel it will have to be, at my age, enough.)

After Peru I went to northern England in an enactment of Old Briton in Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, drawn there by hearing Moss speak with Eleanor Wachtel, and similarly, per a Writers and Company (CBC) conversation, to Germany during the Second World War and beyond (into the complicated coming to terms with it) with Nora Klug. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home was a journey of text and graphics that made me unable to read anything else for several days after. Some books are like that: they fasten me into themselves so thoroughly in a kind of awe or vast sorrow or mystery that by the last page all I hear are its echoes and I just have to stay in that space for a while, listening still.

In a thrift store I found a pristine hardcover copy of Helen Humphrey’s first novel, Leaving Earth, and for a time I circled Toronto with two daring women aviators, back in the 1930s when such feats of daring and panache were all the rage. I was astonished at the poetry of Humphrey’s narrative of this long, long circling. I also found the autobiography of Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s second term, and I read Madame Secretary, unsure why, for I hadn’t intended on such a book. But the book decided. It informed me and gave me context for what’s happening in American politics now, and because bile sits in my throat on account of the current scene, perhaps I needed an intelligent knowing voice, like draughts of cool spring water, to ease the discomfort.

I began Pulitzer winner The Overstory by Richard Powers and loved it — it gobsmacked me, as they say — until page 260 of 500 pages and then I felt I’d been immersed in trees and the story enough to know it and simply paged through to the end. But I did read — entirely — Ariel Gordon’s book of essays Treed, because I love the cover and because I know Ariel and because the book took me back to Winnipeg, where we lived for nearly four decades, and its marvellous canopy of trees. And not just to the trees of Winnipeg, but to mushrooms and Banff and rural Manitoba. I’m fond of trees, though I don’t know their names half the time; I like to touch their bark and even mutter to them if no one is around to see or hear, so the tour with Ariel, who is even fonder of trees and much more knowledgeable, was a fine education and pleasure.

These are some of my recent armchair adventures. And you? Where have books taken you this summer?

Reflections on “Finding Father”

A friend recently asked me if I missed my dad. After stopping to think, I said no, not really, it’s already nearly ten years since his death and, because he had Alzheimers, it seems he’s been gone even longer. So, no.

Then I happened to be in my 1993 journal, looking for something else, and I came across a really lovely letter he wrote me that year, this after I’d pushed somewhat impetuously — in the midst of a mid-life exercise of figuring myself out as it were and re-visiting my upbringing — to discuss my perceptions of our relationship when I was a kid. He’d been exemplary in so many ways, a good provider, but always busy it seemed and also being relatively quiet, left the verbal articulation of affection up to Mom, who was much more outgoing. The letter acknowledged all this, used the word “shy” about himself, and then set down exactly what I suppose I was after: words of pride and love. Much felt resolved on account of it and it must have been how I realized that we were both introverts and that I actually took after him and not my mother in personality, much as I’d aspired to be like her. Re-reading the letter, I missed him.

I was also reading Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters, an anthology of 13 personal essays, edited by Mary Ann Loewen (University of Regina Press, 2019). It made me miss him too, because good personal writing not only enlarges our awareness of others but turns us back into ourselves. I think this is especially true if one shares some things in common with the authors, which in this case includes being a daughter, but also being Mennonite and in the same demographic as many of them.

At any rate, I enjoyed this collection very much. There’s variety of voice and approach. Elsie K. Neufeld movingly excavates her father’s history as a soldier in the German army and then postwar immigrant; Magdalene Redekop structures her “findings” around seven incidents with her father, the incidents rather small but together conveying an entire relationship; Jean Janzen begins with a poem and moves into poetic prose befitting the bond between this father and daughter; Raylene Hinz-Penner wonders if her father’s Lutheran roots accounted for his confidence, exuberance, and subversion of the dour pieties of their Mennonite environment; Cari Penner writes of a man who remains a stranger to her. And so on and so on.

I noticed something interesting happening by the time I finished the book, comprised as it is of numerous voices and relationships. The fathers seemed to have merged in my mind into one father, one good man, tall and dark-haired and somber in his Sunday suit, carrying sorrows from his immigrant or near-immigrant past, trying his best, silent or inarticulate about many things. Part of the patriarchy to be sure — the one sitting in the driver’s seat– but certainly not its most negative representative. None of the fathers in the anthology is the father I’ve just described, but somehow they’d fallen into line behind this composite figure. What remained more distinctively individual, however, were the daughters — the writers — and what they were doing in their pieces in terms of understanding, reaching back and towards, praising, longing for, or defending. Each had been shaped by her father, but each seemed to have become fully herself, whether with the help of or in spite of this first and vital man in her life. And now she was able to write perceptively about him, and with the perspective of her own life experience.

Author Questionnaire

I just posted the following at my Chronicles of Aging blog, the place I notice the ins and outs of living this stage. Since it concerns my work as writer, which I sometimes talk about here, I’m sharing it in this space too. (My apologies to those who follow both blogs for the repeat.)

I just spent several hours filling out an author questionnaire for Turnstone Press, publisher of my next novel, All That Belongs. They need information to market my book. A long string of questions. Basically, who am I, what have I done, where have I lived, who do I know?

It wasn’t my favourite assignment of the week but of course I did it. It’s among the things you do after the euphoria of a manuscript’s acceptance wears off.  But it felt peculiar, vulnerable, like taking a slow 360 degree scan of one’s life, to see if anything’s still relevant. Fortunately I have an up-to-date CV I could use for my publishing history. I was also glad I could think of several places across the country where a cluster of friends and relatives might be interested in me and my book. (Glad too for a big family.)

There were questions about the work itself. A description in my words? Themes? What do I think people will like about it? (So I can’t hide behind “I hope they’ll like it”?!)

What about its inspiration? This was my answer:

I clearly remember sitting in the sun near my local library when the character of Uncle Must–a mysterious and haunted man, a kind of Desert Father, equal parts faith and fear–dropped into my head. Then, like the narrator Catherine, I had to figure out who he was and what he wanted, and who she and the other characters who soon gathered around her were and what they wanted. I was interested in the whole concept of shame as well as how the past remains with us and what we do with its legacy when we would rather turn away than embrace.

Now I’m going to reward myself with a break and go read someone else!