Tag Archives: history

The Zen of Chance

 

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Spring is arriving on Windy Bay and not without drama. The water is high, and docks are floating every which way, untethered and adrift. I have been thinking about the role of chance in our lives and our stories. When do we feel the gentle hand of fate touching our shoulder? What do we do when that happens? Run and hide, or take a few gingerly steps into the unknown?

This train of thought began on St. Patrick’s Day when I glanced at an Instagram post from my nephew, Tommy Smythe. He captured the title page of a Bible belonging to his great-great-grandfather who braved the seas and sailed for the new world. His first attempt was foiled. In his own hand, Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, my great-grandfather wrote these words:

“This Bible is the only possession saved from the shipwreck of E.J.Harland on the 19th of November 1861.”

Hit by a two-ton steamer named Lake Champlain, Captain Smylie went down with his ship; the rest were transferred to the offending vessel and ended up back in Liverpool. This voyage took place when my great-grandfather was a young man of eighteen years of age. He lost his cherished mother the year before. In spite of ending up with nothing to his name, save a Bible, he was not deterred.

william q. judgeWilliam Q. Judge

 

On his second voyage, he met a man who was to change his life. On his way back to America from India, William Q. Judge, co-founder of the early Theosophist movement along with H.P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, had plenty of words of wisdom for his fellow ship-mates. Born in Ireland, April 13, 1851, Judge was now in full understanding of humanity’s great need for a new perspective on both itself and the universe.

Here is Albert E.S. Smythe’s shipboard assessment of the man:

“Judge was the master of ordinary conditions and could get honey out of the merest weed. He walked the decks with those in need of a companion, he played cards, except on Sunday when he drew the line, he played quoits, and he chatted.” The Canadian Theosophist, April 1939.

In our modern viewpoint, the word karma is part of our lives. We often joke about it, misuse the term, or think of it either lightly, or having to do with a sense of just desserts. In the later part of the 1800’s, when the concept was still in need of illuminating, Judge told the story of an Eastern King who had spawned but one son.

“And this son committed a deed, the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. But it was seen that this would not repair the wrong, nor give the offender the chance to become a better man. The counselors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into smaller pieces and thrown at the son and at his children and grandchildren as they were able to bear it. It was so done, and all were in some sense sufferers, yet none were destroyed.”
The Path 1892. From Sunrise Magazine, December 1996/ January 1997, copyright Theosophical University Press.

Chance. A chance encounter aboard a ship carrying my great grandfather to the new world changed the trajectory of our lives. What if the first ship, the fully rigged E.J. Harland, had not foundered? What if Albert E.S. Smythe had landed in New York, with his Bible and other possessions intact. While I do not recall hearing the tale of the Eastern King, I do know that it was made very clear to all of us that we were to understand one simple teaching: “Yea as you sew, surely do you reap.”

Albert E.S. Smythe

My fate changed for good when I chanced to find a ski lodge in Aspen where I met my future husband. Had I not stopped in to see if there was a vacancy, I certainly would not be where I am today, here on Windy Bay, with docks knocking on the edge of the shore. I’ll always be glad that when chance came knocking, I knew what to do.

The Opposite of Nothing is Something

Thien

The very best writing reads like music. It has rhythm. It has style. Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a symphony. The author weaves a tale of her native China, the tragic and tumultuous history with the stories of interlaced characters pulled through generations. We see history not only as it unfolds, but in the impact, it has on its people. The book is an extraordinary achievement winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize and being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2016. While the competition for both prizes was intense, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a standout.

Thien‘s style is intricate and beautiful. She is deft at moving through settings, characters and time. It is a book that can be described, as Annie Lamont put it, written ‘word by word.‘ From the very start, I found myself inwardly gasping at the beauty of her writing.

The book opens with a profound and engaging beginning. “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” Page 3.

From this start, we follow Thien’s journey to understand the events that led to this pass. She is living in Vancouver, in an apartment shared with her mother when we first encounter this thoughtful, cerebral girl. Before long a third person arrives without a coat and carrying a light suitcase. She is a family friend whose history is connected to theirs. What links them together is the fact that both of the fathers were musicians forbidden to practice their craft in the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. If music sustained her father, Marie finds a home in mathematics.

From Page 191:

“In the spring of 2000, after my mother passed away, I gave myself entirely to my studies. The logic of mathematics-its methods of induction and deduction, its power to describe abstract shapes that have no counterpart in the real world- sustained me. I moved out of the apartment that my mother had been renting ever since she and Ba first came to Canada, and in which I had grown up. Desperate to leave it behind, I cobbled together every penny I had and bought a dilapidated apartment on Alexander Street. The windows looked straight out into the port of Vancouver and, at night, the endless arrivals and departures of multi-coloured shipping containers, what they held, what they divulged, comforted me.
I kept my parents’ papers in the bedroom closet and a Cantor taped to the wall: ‘The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.’”

This picture finds an easy grace in my imagination. The link between Shanghai and the western ports of North America, where we now receive goods too staggering in size to even contemplate from a nation that was once brought to its knees is both beautiful and sad. That is the tone of the work; it hit the right note for winter reading. Every once in a great while, we pick up a book that deserves to be read twice. Some sentences are so profound that the reader needs to stop and puzzle through them. Sometimes it means putting the book down and returning to awaiting tasks with the thoughts presented rattling around begging for more time.

From Page 419:

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept, and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

Ideally, a great novel gives us a new understanding, either of times and events or, in the best possible scenario, of the pages of our own story. Madeline Thien’s work carries the power to do this. Could it be possible that I feel as if I am a better person for having read  Do Not Say We Have Nothing? I hope so. For God knows, there is much work to be done.

winning thien    Madeleine Thien

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