In the first week of Covid-19 lockdown, I pulled The Box Garden off the shelf, opened it to read:
“That there are no certainties in life. That we change hourly or even from one minute to the next, our entire cycle of being altered, our whole selves shaken with the violence of change.”
A reread through Carol Shields’ work has been in the works since a friend observed that I haven’t written much about her here, although the phrase “buried in print” was inspired by The Republic of Love: “Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve.”
So, I began. With schools and public buildings closed, bars and restaurants still sorting out a pathway to closure, retail stores and malls caught in a strange limbo: in that week, living that change by the hour and by the minute, I was beckoned back to Carol Shields’ tender and matter-of-fact way of telling stories.
First in my reading log was The Stone Diaries, in 1994; then, Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, in 1997. It was meeting Daisy Goodwill Flett that originally pulled me into her backlist territory, via trade-paperback copies purchased from the women’s bookstore, their covers all title, no artwork.
The copies I’m rereading are Totem paperbacks, even older than those, two finds from different and long-ago Trinity College sales. This Small Ceremonies copy from 1978 has remarkable blurbs on the cover, two blatantly Canadian (one from the Globe and Mail newspaper and the other from Macleans magazine) and one designed to attract a different sort of reader, pulled from the Financial Post: “Superb bitchiness.”
I’m taking my time with this reread. Small Ceremonies (1976) is arranged chronologically, beginning with September, each chapter describing one month of Judith Gill’s life, through to the following May. I plan to finish reading in May, when Judith is living in May.
As Jack observes in Happenstance (1980), “the ends of all stories are contained in their beginnings” and, here, the end of Small Ceremonies is just the beginning of my rereading project.
(It’s just one of a few new reading projects now underway, including #HereandElsewhere, #TheWritingLife and #ReadtheChange, and a couple of new ones, like this, which have blossomed with stay-at-home advisories in effect.)
In my memory, Small Cermonies recorded the year in which the Gill family were living in the Spaulding family’s Birmingham flat, while husband and father Martin was on sabbatical. I remembered Judith’s record of that September, the “real beginning of the year”, as being an opportunity to reflect on her everyday life at a distance.
With public policy in many countries now driven by an effort to “flatten the curve” of this novel coronavirus, a lot of us are thinking more about home and what it means, just like Judith. The Gills are away from their familiar home and inhabiting an unfamiliar home, which is the Spaulding family’s familiar home, while they inhabit an unfamiliar home in Cyprus.
I say ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’ because Judith is clear that her familiar and customary home, in the Greenhills suburb of a small Canadian city, isn’t the kind of house she imagined herself living in, only a place she used to describe as a temporary place to roost. “This place, 62 Beaver Place, is not really me.” But now she lives there. “We could calculate, if we chose, the exact dimensions of our delusions.”
But, in fact, on rereading I realize that Judith is looking back on that year. It’s still very much on her mind, but time has moved on. As it does. So she is back on Beaver Place for this realization, which is where the novel begins:
“Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”
Scrolling through social media in recent weeks, it’s a question I sense lingering behind so many lovely photos, the sort which appear with little commentary, perhaps a thin string of hashtags, filtered signals of something-like-contentment.
The “small ceremonies” that Judith’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Meredith, observes, are the small ceremonies that Judith creates and sustains. Sometimes unwittingly, as with suggesting on a second Sunday that they could have had garlic bread with their meal, which Meredith notes was on the menu the previous Sunday. Sometimes deliberately, as with the High Tea meal they continue to enjoy on Sunday afternoons, a ritual carried across the ocean, to Beaver Place.
“But we’ve never managed to capture that essential shut in coziness, that safe-from-the-storm solidarity. We fly off in midair. Our house, perhaps, is too open, too airy, and then again we are not the same people we were then; but still we persist.”
Even in the unfamiliar, we can create our own “small ceremonies”. And, if we are fortunate, we can enjoy that “essential shut in coziness, that safe-from-the-storm solidarity”. The Gill family is moving through the months and, in my timeline, the curve is flattening.