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.
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“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.”