I sat with this story for a good while. I re-read it. More than once. Let it sink in as familiar.

I leafed through it on other occasions, when I was between tasks at my desk. I randomly picked out passages and murmured them aloud.

I sat and stared out the window, thinking about it. I thought about it when I woke up in the night and couldn’t sleep.

Mostly what I thought about were the first and last images, because I was looking for the join, for the circle.

In the beginning:

“Trudy threw a jug across the room. It didn’t reach the opposite wall; it didn’t hurt anybody, it didn’t even break.”

And, on the twenty-first page:

“In this way, when she was young, and high, a person or a moment could become a lily floating on the cloudy river water, perfect and familiar.”

The circle is there, from beginning to end, though it is more of a spiral throughout the story than a closed shape.

Nonetheless, the circle is everywhere. Now I wonder at how hard I had to look for it, not for the less predictable spiral of it, but for the simple closed form. Even the first page seems stuffed with them now.

It is, of course, in the title. It is in the jug without a handle and the six matching handleless cups. It is in Trudy’s wedding ring (and engagement ring) and in the medal that Robin won for all-round excellence in Grade 8. (There are even two circles in the ‘8’.) It is in the necklace of jet beads, and the individual beads themselves which comprise it.

And these are only the circles in the first sentence and the paragraph which follows.

The story is soaked in concrete, tangible circles; I simply did not see them. In the beginning, I was hung up on the first one, the one for which the story seemed to be titled.

Janet suggests that she could arrange for the Circle to pray for Trudy to get the necklace back. I was preoccupied by this circle, the “Circle of Prayer”.

“‘But that’s just individual praying. What the Circle is really about is, you phone up somebody that is in it and tell them what it is you’re worried about, or upset about, and ask them to pray for you. And they do. And they phone one other person that’s in the Circle, and they phone one another and it goes all around, and we pray for one person, all together.’”
Trudy throws a rose away. ‘That’s botched. Is it all women?’

Around and around I went with this one. What did it mean, to Trudy? Not to Janet, because I knew I didn’t have enough information about that, but surely there was enough to suss out what it meant to Trudy, whom I’d rather liked from that first moment when she threw the jug.

All I remembered was the throwing. When I replayed that image, it was the act of throwing that stuck in my reader’s mind.

It wasn’t until I wrote out the sentence that I realized that the jug hadn’t even struck, hadn’t even broken.

Trudy thinks it’s botched, assumes it’s all women. Because when women take action they expect inaction in return? They go through the motions and it doesn’t really matter whether their desired outcome is reached? They anticipate disappointment even as they execute their plans?

Trudy has no interest in circles.

She was, for some time, in a triangle, having been the Other Woman for whom Dan left his wife. Now she is the wife and inhabiting another triangle, now that Dan has fallen in love with another Other Woman.

(These look like triangles, but aren’t they really circles, especially now that Trudy has slipped from her original corner?)

No wonder Trudy doesn’t trust shapes.

No wonder she is even suspicious of lines.

Like the parade of girls (Robin included) that files past the coffin of their classmate.

“And nobody made a move to stop it. How could anyone interrupt? It was like a religious ceremony. The girls behaved as if they’d been told what to do, as if this was what was always done on such occasions. They sang, they wept, they dropped their jewellery. The sense of ritual made every one of them graceful.”

Somehow, they have done it. They have created something sacred.

And the tangible evidence of it remains: the jewellery in the coffin, untouchable but present.

For Trudy, the line divides rather than joins.

The girls in the reception line behaved as expected, but Trudy disdains their later actions, what they did to they passed the coffin. For every ‘beautiful’ thought or spoken, when somebody else attending describes it, the reader can tell that Trudy holds the opposite opinion.

In Trudy’s life, the lines have behaved like window-glass, walls separating parts of herself from other parts, all the botched bits.

“She stood outside her own happiness in a tide of sadness. And the opposite thing happened the morning Dan left. Then she stood outside her own unhappiness in a tide of what seemed unreasonably like love. But it was the same thing, really, when you got outside. What are those times that stand out, clear patches in your life – what do they have to do with it? They aren’t exactly promises. Breathing spaces. Is that all?”

Those breathing spaces: I imagine them to be circles. Just like the circles in the last paragraph:

“Yet it radiates – what he said, the way he said it, just the fact that he’s there again, radiates, expands the way some silliness can, when you’re very tired. In this way, when she was young, and high, a person or a moment could become a lily floating on the cloudy river water, perfect and familiar.”

At first, I was caught by the lily as a symbol of Christianity, of Janet’s prayer circle. I’d forgotten that it, too, would appear as a circle, floating there, those radiant spheres emanating outwards.

And, most of all, I’d forgotten about it simply floating. Not colliding. Not striking the wall, simply being.

I had forgotten about what happens when you simply sit with a story.

When you simply wait to understand: suspended, graceful.

Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the tenth in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “White Dump”, the last story in this collection.