The desk by the south-facing window
July 20, 2009
My dear American varmint,
The beginning of this story is right in the middle of things. Through the wardrobe, into the magical frozen wasteland. Welcome to Canada, to a small town of three streets by four surrounded by hidden creeks and a montage of hills and plains. Green in spring, golden in fall, fallow black-and-white in winter’s stark exposure.
There’s so little time on this earth; so much to say. I’ll see little of you in this life, so these letters will have to do.
There’s a mystery here amid the change and silence. So, let me finish the picture I began to sketch.
Many of the essays I write here are in fact letters to faraway friends, most often my Texan varmint of a writing partner. They’re illustrations of the life that exists here on the Canadian prairies — an older way of life, a beautiful and largely forgotten place that predates the cultural and economic shifts of urbanization and industrial farming. Here, we are still family, with our feet and history planted in the ploughed earth.
In 2010, I was approached by a small publishing startup about doing a creative nonfiction book. I collected, rewrote, expanded upon, and thought long and hard about how to make these various seasonal ramblings into a bigger picture. They begin here in my prairie. But where should they conclude? Like the ocean, the prairie goes on forever.
As it turned out, it didn’t matter right then. The small press owner had no stable direction, and shortly after I signed, the internal dynamics became toxic. I cancelled my contract as circumspectly as possible. The owner cancelled the rest of the relationship when I found her bullying other writers and (rather firmly) suggested she stick to standard critique etiquette. Her departure was both hilariously melodramatic and quite a pleasant change.
And I thought that was how the story ended. Life went on the same as it has, and the manuscript sat quietly in my files. Creative nonfiction, after all, isn’t fiction. It draws on actual life events. How can one write an ending that hasn’t happened?
But now it has.
For he says, “At the acceptable time…”
2 Cor. 6:2
We’re moving away.
We never planned to. When we got here, Dave said it was the last time and we were staying here forever. But for some very strong reasons, eventually he changed his mind. And after a year of stalling and digging my heels in, I changed mine with him.
So we go. Out of the prairie and into a more suburban setting. Out of the solitude (also known, on bad days, as isolation) and into a different kind of closeness, one I’m not sure I’ll be comfortable with.
There, it’s the closeness of unknown neighbours who may have opinions about our rather creative lifestyle. It’s the invisible cords of greater regulation and restriction.
Here, it’s the closeness of family, with all its headaches and treasures. The cords are blood ties and heartstrings.
I have lain down and cried several times. My youngest child was born in this house. We’ve put so much of our time together into it, made it over in ways that speak silently of our relationships and the gifts of others.
The antique floor-to-ceiling newel posts given me by my mother-in-law.
The ceramic tile I laid with my daughters and son, a skill taught me by my father and passed on to my children.
The windows my husband bought me because I find them beautiful.
The church full of people I’ve known literally all my life, many of whom I’m obscurely related to going back five generations. Our ancestors settled here together, broke sod together, broke bread together. The weave is invisible and immeasurable.
I don’t know how to write this ending, except in the belief that it isn’t one. It’s another beginning.
When I left here, it was with no wish to return or ever to claim my heritage. Growing up here was difficult and traumatic. It left me bitter. But like other things that I never thought would heal, that too is healed over now by the surgically precise guidance of an unseen hand.
I trust that hand. It writes a bigger story than I can.
You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle.
Are they not in Your book?
Yesterday, we told our church. I cried. My lifelong neighbours cried. I was embraced and prayed for. There was grief and shock and maybe a bit of denial on all sides. I write this down because I want to remember, in time to come, how different it was from the last church we left. A church full of empty politics and knives designed to sever one’s backbone.
Back then, the phone never rang once. No regrets were given, not even among those few who stayed semi-casually in touch. “Good riddance,” the rumour mill of that other town echoed back to us. And this gem of a quote: “I don’t care about them, but I miss their children.”
“How do you two manage to keep smiling?” a friend on the sidelines asked us back then.
“Oh… we don’t. We shed our tears at home,” my husband answered.
So we went, broken; we went home.
And here my home was, waiting to heal so many, many aching wounds.
We’ll never quite leave. I’ll always be from here, where my great-great grandfather built a manor house and planted an orchard. Where a creek winds down between pasture hills under oak-scented leaves and sunshine. Where family may hurt each other, but they don’t leave it on those terms. There’s always coming back and making better.
I get it now. I know where I’m from.
I’m from here, and forever, where a good and gracious God will make a final healing and a final homecoming. In this world, all things change and fall to dust. The old schoolhouse my father attended has burned down. The church where my ancestors are buried is abandoned. The people I remember, pass on. There are would-be publishers taking out their personal issues on the business and churches imagining their internal politics are religion. It’s all a big game where the fleeting, poisonous butterfly of ego rules the day.
All is vanity. There’s nothing new under the sun.
But still the grain fields ripple under a vast and perfect sky, like the last unending amen. And always I will walk them; find me there.