Live Virtual Group Session: 12pm EST January 27th 2021

Thank you to everyone who joined us for this session!

Thirty participants gathered today from across the U.S., Canada, Greece, Lebanon, France, the U.K. and India to hear two readings of an excerpt from The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. What started with the question “What do you picture?” evolved into a layered discussion of how the environment (rural, fishing, islandic, cold, volcanic, new found land = Newfoundland) and its people (a narrator, a father, citizens and the sender of a mysterious box) created an overall vibe (cinematic, communal, isolated but not alone, reflecting both loss and connection). One participant likened the “cruel heavy” box to a coffin (the father’s?), and another interpreted the box of books as “food for the mind.” 

Beyond the details apparent in the excerpt, the group gradually filled in the gaps of the 1933 scene: women seemed to be missing here; who is telling the story, and to whom? No morsel was left unexamined; even the “useless cookbook” reminded one participant of trying to follow a recipe without all the ingredients. 

Our prompt was: Write about an unexpected gift.

One reader flipped the prompt to consider an expected gift – and what happened when they didn’t receive it, at least not until they explain their hurt and get a gift the next day. Does that still count? For them in the end, it does, because they have now received the gift of being heard and seen. This conclusion resonated with others in our group today, and they affirmed the importance of asking for what you want and of recognizing whether the true gift is the physical object or the devotion that the giving represents.

Another response took a poetic form of only about seven lines, which concentrated the importance of each of the words that we actually heard. The response opened with a time machine received in 1960, and we puzzled over whether the time machine was metaphorical, and if so, what it might represent. One listener imagined the time machine as a telescope, and another recalled an Inuit saying about stars as ancestors peeking down at us. In the Proulx text, knowing the year was 1933 brought forward the Great Depression; here we wondered what role might that specific year of 1960 play?

Another reading took us on a journey, following an arc that perhaps echoed the layering that we noticed in the Proulx text. It started with the pronoun “it” – “it came to me later in life” – setting us up to wonder what that was. This tension drove the piece. Finally in the last line we learn of a second chance at exploration, but we must guess why the narrator seeks this second chance, why their first chance might have gone astray, leaving us room to imagine our own second chances.

Tension – and more specifically, the release of tension – also figured in a different response, which described relief of learning that someone close has been declared cancer free. The narrator tells how they had protected themselves in case this unexpected gift never came; when it does, they can exhale.

We noticed that all of our readers told of intangible gifts, though one did began with a physical one. The unexpected gift of the Proulx text was the collection of books, though of course the value of the book is not the paper and ink but rather the intangible places that they can take us.

Participants are warmly encouraged to share what you wrote below (“Leave a Reply”), to keep the conversation going here, bearing in mind that the blog of course is a public space where confidentiality is not assured.

Also, we would love to learn more about your experience of these sessions, so if you’re able, please take the time to fill out a follow-up survey of one to two quick questions!

Please join us for our next session Monday February 1st at 6pm EST, with more times listed on our Live Virtual Group Sessions page.

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News. Scribner, 1994.

“My father taught all his children to read and write. In the winter when the fishing was over and the storms wrapped Gaze Island, my father would hold school right down there in the kitchen of the old house. Yes, every child on this island learned to read very well and write a fine hand. And if he got a bit of money he’d order books for us. I’ll never forget one time, I was twelve years old and it was November, 1933. Couple of years before he died of TB. Hard, hard times. You can’t imagine. The fall mail boat brought a big wooden box for my father. Nailed shut. Cruel heavy. He would not open it, saved it for Christmas. We could hardly sleep nights for thinking of that box and what it might hold. We named everything in the world except what was there. On Christmas Day we dragged that box over to the church and everybody craned their necks and gawked to see what was in it. Dad pried it open with a screech of nails and there it was, just packed with books. There must have been a hundred books there, picture books for children, a big red book on volcanoes that gripped everybody’s mind the whole winter– it was a geological study, you see, and there was plenty of meat in it. The last chapter in the book was about ancient volcanic activity in Newfoundland. That was the first time anybody had ever seen the word Newfoundland in a book. It just about set us on fire– an intellectual revolution. That this place was in a book. See, we thought we was all alone in the world. The only dud was a cookbook. There was not one single recipe in that book that could be made with what we had in our cupboards.

  “I never knew how he paid for those books or if they were a present, or what. One of the three boys he wrote to on the farms moved to Toronto when he grew up and became an elevator operator. He was the one who picked the books out and sent them. Perhaps he paid for them, too. I’ll never know.”

8 thoughts on “Live Virtual Group Session: 12pm EST January 27th 2021

  1. Janine Mariscotti

    End of a marriage and other valued relationships
    Time away from my children especially a new baby, abandoned one night when I slipped out of the house to begin the long road of discovering me
    Uninvited, unbidden and wholly unwelcomed
    A ruptured appendix
    Was the entry into my new life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • al3793

      Endings, abandonments, slipping ironically lead to an unexpected gift of discovery of self. I love the word unbidden and the alliteration of that line that is also captured by the word “ruptured”. Very moving to me.


  2. About an unexpected gift~~~

    It came to me later in life, this gift.
    A time when steps have slowed down,
    my life has slowed down.
    A time when I am able to gaze at the world intently and ask the question why.
    A time when I can find solitude,
    to walk alone in Nature and revel at its bounty.
    To view this world in all its disarray and ask how did we arrive at this point in time.

    I find myself in a quiet and thoughtful calm.
    Picking up pen and paper and sorting through the thoughts running through my mind.
    Sorting out my life, sorting out the world.
    Finding peace in the process.

    What a gift to have been bestowed – to get a second chance at exploration.


    • al3793

      In the solitude the speaker finds the company of nature that takes me back to the text where we hear about a remote community that thinks it is “alone in the world”. It is very compelling that the speaker waited until the last line to tell the reader about the gift mentioned in the first line. The pen and paper in line 9 remind me of the books that were shipped in that box. And by the way, the name of the island, “Gaze”, appears in the 4th line of your text. Nicely crafted.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. al3793

    Your phone was hidden by your long black hair and when I got close enough to speak to you over the noise in the ICU I realized you were talking to your daughter. “Mom, I don’t want you to hang up before I get to the hospital. Tell me something that Dad loved the most about us.” “Well, he loved our trips to the beach in France. He couldn’t wait to play in the sand and toss you around in the water. He loved those moments with us…”

    You always look at her as if you never fell out of love. You hold her hand and open the door for her and you look so happy when you do. It is so beautiful to watch you together. “We are both 85 and have been married 64 years and when I look at her I don’t see a woman in her 80’s, I still see the woman who walked off the altar with me the day we got married.”

    You cried so loud when you mother gave birth to you and I handed you to her…and you cried again, this time quietly, when you gave birth to your first child, your daughter, but then you smiled and a few tears sparkled as they adorned your cheek when I handed her to you.


    Patients often give us gifts and they don’t realize that they’ve done that…and often we don’t realize it either.



  4. Dinah Ryan

    I remember my godfather only as “Ray.” If I ever met him, I was an infant and don’t remember. Ray sent me books when I was a small child, even when I was a baby. He never seemed to think about whether a book was for a two-year-old or a six-year-old, only whether the book was beautiful to hold, to behold, to listen to. These gifts stopped when I was a small child, but when I graduated from high school, suddenly in the mail there was a box of books, a fat box filled with things no one had given me permission to read, nor had he asked permission. He gave me permission: Our Bodies, Ourselves; Condon’s The Vertical Smile; The Joy of Cooking (in hardback), Vonnegut, and so many other marvels spilling from the box. So rich, so full, so empowering, sending me on my way into adulthood. I never heard from him again. But he fulfilled his role as godfather, tending to my soul—my imagination and my sense of wonder—at those crucial emergent junctures.


    • al3793

      Dinah, the gift of the sense of wonder and the mind of writers placed into the hands of the speaker are images that are beautiful to behold like the books sent by Godfather Ray. I don’t ever remember meeting my Godmother, and my Godfather was away in the Navy when I was baptized and my Grandfather stood in for him. So your narrative stirred up so many thoughts and feelings as I read it. Thank you. Andre


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