Wednesday, March 19, 2008

reading challenge #6

Phew. I just finished Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews and I had to jump up and start writing to save myself from tears.

Toews' father Mel suffered from manic depression all his life yet amazingly he managed to have both a successful family and career which many might regard as some of life's greatest accomplishments. Toews' tells Mel's life story from his point of view and indeed it was Mel's voice that was the highlight of the memoir for me. I can understand why he was a favoured teacher and an important member of the small town Mennonite community, and also, a much-loved father (even considering he was distant much of the time).

"When I was a young man I vacillated wildly between thinking everything mattered, that every word, every action, every task was important, to thinking that nothing at all mattered, that everything was futile. I had a gambler's mentality, all or nothing. Just as I appeared close to achieving normalcy and balance to a point where I could say Life is Good, I would notice myself cracking under the pressure of its goodness."

I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Toews to write this memoir after her father's suicide, but it is so gentle and fair and truly a treasure to read. At times I had to remind myself that this was a daughter piecing together the reasons why her father acted the way he did and how he became afflicted as he was. But definitely his story is worth telling, and the strength of Mel and Elvira's marriage is nothing short of inspirational, giving me a healthy dose of perspective. I had almost picked up A Complicated Kindness, but I'm so glad I got sidetracked by this one instead. And the baker in me is still in shock that Mel's mother was an alcoholic her whole life by drinking vanilla! Vanilla! The lengths she would go to drink and deny her drinking were simply fascinating.

The knitting comparison: a simple, seed stitch scarf that you knit for someone you love. I'm reminded of a scarf I knit for Jay that I started when we spent a quiet week at a cottage with Sadie. He helped me pick out the wool and I asked for his advice on width and style. The scarf was just about him, and as I knit and purled away I contemplated all the things that make him unique to me. It's not a quick stitch, but it is simple and in the end I had a garment for someone who meant more to me than I maybe realized at the moment I cast on. Reflection is a wonderful thing.


tam said... [Reply to comment]


Today I was cooking icecream with my son and I took a smell of vanilla - it was so strong and sweet the smell staying in my body for some time.

I loved what you wrote about the scarf - making is like that the connection to others - those special in our lives and also those before us who we share our history, story and gifts with

John Mutford said... [Reply to comment]

It must have been somewhat therapeutic for her to right that for sure, especially doing so from his perspective.

Re: Vanilla. Where I live vanilla is kept behind the counter at the stores. Recently I noticed that the artificial vanilla has been moved there as well. My guess is either the store owners don't realize there's no alcohol in the latter, or their patrons don't. As well, Lysol. And colognes and alcohol-based mouthwash are kept under lock and key. It's a sad state of affairs.

Kerry said... [Reply to comment]

When I finished Swing Low, I cried and cried, and though I love books intensely, so rarely do they elicit such an emotional response. Anyway, your post is beautiful, and a testament to the book that inspired it.

Teddy Rose said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful review! I loved A Complimented Kindness and I heard her new book is good as well. She's going to be here in Vancouver this Friday speaking about some of her books. I can hardly wait.

I just recently knitted a simple seed stitch scarf, so I know can really understand the comparison.