How This Story Ends

Many of the essays I write here are in fact letters to faraway friends, most often my Texan varmint of a writing partner, Quixote. 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.

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, My Love 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?

Psalm 56:8


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.

Every Natural Love

“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all… How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

-Penn Jillette, proselytizing atheist

The Great Divorce

“But could one dare — could one have the face — to go to a bereaved mother in her misery — when one’s not bereaved oneself?…”

“No, no, Son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it’ll be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

There comes a moment in a Christian’s life when one doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore. Very rarely is it for the sake of our own cherished, secret sins. No, those we justify, as Lewis has rightly noted elsewhere. We tell ourselves tales of how our own unrighteous thoughts and inclinations can’t be so very bad, for after all, we’re Christians.

No, the moment when one has a sudden urge to quit Christianity is in the moment of loss. Loss of face, loss of self-respect, loss of valuables or dreams.

Loss of loved ones.

Hypotheses and Realities

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

-Philip K. Dick

A short time ago, a friend listened to me rail against the empty hypotheticals that arrive with profound loss. In general: Oh, she is at rest now. Oh, she is at peace. Or on the Christianish side, oh — perhaps there was some last-hour miracle in which her heart changed, or perhaps all go to heaven due to some overbearingly rude indifference of God toward the will of those who have no wish for a God at all.

My grandmother was one who had no wish for God. From my childhood on, my grandparents were avowed atheists. It was she who taught me the art of thoughtful skepticism: to examine religion and large (or large-seeming) ideas and compare them to how the world actually works. She introduced me to Shirley MacLaine’s New Age notions and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. She mentored each of us in many a late-night conversation, preparing us for the deceits and absurdities of the adult world.

She did for us what was never done for her, and it changed my life.

It was my grandmother’s materialist atheism that taught me to look for and thoroughly question the connection between religious abstraction and concrete reality. In a very real way, her sense of intellectual principle has kept me a Christian all these years. I’m no intellectual lightweight, yet I can’t falsify it.

But I railed because, in the overture of a late and cold high summer, she died.

The Heart Has its Reasons

In the shoals of grief, the Christian quickly runs up against a sudden, fierce anger against God. If God can save whomever He chooses, and it’s nothing of man’s doing, then why doesn’t He save those for whom we pray most fervently? If God can intervene in whatever He chooses, then why doesn’t He save the failing marriage, rescue the broken engagement, spare the innocent child, relieve the suffering of poverty and war?

On the threshold of death, it would be reprehensible to posit some high-minded abstract answer. All I can or should say is that I know this angry struggle. I know it and I’m cut by it to the core of my heart, because she’s gone.

But I cannot, even now, accept convolutions of our love for loved ones. High-minded fancy is blasphemy in the space where reason knows nothing. As Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

The afterlife (or lack thereof) is an abstract without connection to our real experience. We don’t know, so we make up fables and judge facts by them. This reversal can tear the heart to shreds in times of grief, precisely because it gives nothing to hang onto. Stop believing in it, and it goes away. That’s only another burden for the heart to bear.

“I Don’t Respect That At All”

Empty platitudes are no solution; neither is trembling at the natural differences of view between us who remain on this earth.

So, then: the anger of loss.

“…someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a year: that love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this (heavenly) country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

“That saying is almost too hard for us.”

“Ah, but it’s cruel not to say it.”

(Lewis)

My love is not enough to invoke eternity. Not my love of work, not my love of principle, not my love of others. Only Christ’s love for my soul; Christ who died for me. And for you.

God, then, will have to be enough for me, because I can’t be enough for you. Why should I be? To say otherwise would be a tremendous conceit and a denial of my faith.

You can stop believing in me, and I can go away. In some sense, we ourselves are not a full reality. So, instead, I will entrust you to God’s goodness, and be good to you insofar as I can stumble through, because He is good.

Our Cultural Hells

“You cannot torment yourself,” my friend said, “with images from medieval paintings. Whatever comes after, we know that God is good.”

And he was right. Those images of hell are representatives of a relatively recent and bloody European culture, rife with the brutal treatment of rivals — burnings at stakes and other monstrous tortures. To acquiesce wholesale to them makes grief a vicious weapon that spears us through the heart.

Those are images of this world, not of the blank spaces in our knowledge of hereafter. Neither the outer darkness nor the light of heaven are within our sight while we walk this plane. Only their shadows fall here.

But if as non-Christians we torment ourselves instead with the idea of annihilation — that there is no heaven or hell but what we make for ourselves on earth — then we must believe that every natural love is ultimately destroyed.

That too is a culturally-driven speculation, a thing we can’t know.

I watched it shatter my grandmother when my grandfather died; I sat with her as she broke down and wept and berated herself for the illogic of grieving what, to her, simply didn’t exist anymore. Not him; not their love.

Yet we can’t know this as a fact, not in the way we know the sun rises in the east. Not in the way I know the knife-edge of anger at God in the face of death and loss and evil.

We arrive at eternity’s front path by an indirect route.

To Cross The Salt Sea

She always told me what she believed, because she loved me. Because she knew that to hold convictions on the greater good of humanity, and not speak, is disreputable and cowardly.

She’s gone; whatever comes after, I know that God is good. This, at least, is no abstraction; I can connect it to the concrete reality of life in all its pains, for I’ve experienced His goodness. And when I stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.

There I begin, over and over again.

She taught me to look for the set of ideas that corresponds most robustly to the world’s visible facts. From there, we may triangulate the way forward, indirect though it be.

That gift takes me through her loss, beyond empirical reason, and charts me a course across the salty seas where reason knows nothing; where the heart’s reasoning rules.

And I arrive, over and over again, at this:

Every natural love is not destroyed. Some rise again, and live forever.

If I Have Ever Had a Memory

I can’t even remember my name most of the time. I find myself waking up even though I’m already awake, and wondering who I am and what I’m doing. So if you’ve ever had a memory, I envy you.
Jill Domschot

If I have ever had a memory, it’s a flash of leaves and light. I can’t remember what I’m doing; who I am has always been up for grabs. I have a poor sense of my own person. I never know how to answer when asked my name.

The countryside rolls with the winds like a sea. It’s the grain, it makes waves, and the hills are swells rising higher than houses. The trees in the valleys are seaweed forms, mottled by the shifting light that filters down through clouds that sail on forever and aye.

This is my ocean. 

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of this place where houses tumble down after the last century’s boom and crash, quickly built by railway speculation in the grain trade, and slowly crumbled by the dustbowl’s lingering effects on once-prosperous estates. These farms were the manor houses of the New World, fiefdoms unto themselves. Now both the politics and the liberties available have changed irrevocably.

There used to be a homestead every half-mile. They say the housewives found it terribly isolating. Now the silence of birdsong and the sun’s turning is overridden by gargantuan tractor engines echoing off the hills and jet planes shushing by at altitude. Everything echoes in this ocean’s spaces. It echoes in the space left by family farms that had no choice but to fold in the face of corporate-sized endeavours. It echoes in the spaces left by the children who dwindled away. Eighty in the school when I was a child. Then fifty, then thirty, then a dozen. Then a handful and a fight over the inevitable closure.

This is my ocean, but I don’t belong to it anymore. The farming is done; my father was the last of four generations. Where we go after this, I don’t know.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of award-winning pies and breads at the local fair. Horse teams stomping their feet and circling the ring. Artwork and photography on display. Handmade quilts and sparkling Gem jars.

We did these things because it’s what the land required, not out of high-minded idealism or magazine promotions. Not by lifestyle choice, but by choosing to live here.

And I do.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of calling my mother-in-law for Grandma’s sweet pickle recipe.

Steam rising from the canning pot and dampening the strands of hair that escaped from the scarf on my head and the braid falling down my neck.

The scent of dried-out wheat and barley stalks falling in tidy swaths, their chaff carried on the wind. The sunset that reaches across half the sky when harvest dust hangs in the air, and a huge golden moon on the rise.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of the neighbour phoning to say he found my son a blacksmith’s tools at an auction. Of brickwork on the tumbledown abandoned houses, lath-and-plaster walls of finer quality than drywall, stained glass windows in parlors and front doors.

If I have ever had a memory, it’s of leaves and light. Leaves green and young, poplars rattling in the summer breeze and reeds swishing in answer. Leaves golden-brittle, tumbling down on overgrown field trails that were once official roads. Now they’re mere tracks, but still we know them all, and who once lived there.

I can’t remember what I was doing in that flash of leaves and light because I wasn’t doing anything, just being.

It’s called the backwater for a reason. Out in the back places, silent ponds stand under leaning trunks, sheltered from the sun’s touch. Beaver and muskrat dive and build. Secrets hum in the night and flicker like sparks: when things are still, the fireflies dance outside my bedroom window. Always, I stop in wonder. These are my lights that burn all night, the only ones I want. For my next dance, I’ll take the wind upon the winter’s first snow.

I don’t know how to answer when my name is asked because there’s history attached to it, history that you can’t know if you haven’t been here.  Some of it is painful; some is still a mystery even to me. Do you expect to call me what my family and neighbours call me? I don’t hand out that name. It lives where I live.

I came from outside this culture, and it took me nearly forty years to start to understand its hidden ways and now, in this place, it’s dwindling to a ghost. It’s still vital and alive elsewhere, and this is not its last rodeo. But like any self-respecting old cowboy, it’s not what you want it to be. It is what it is.

Who I am is no longer up for grabs at this late turning of the season. This is my ocean; I haven’t ceased to belong here yet. Lord willing, my burial will be upon this sea.