books, Carol Shields, Everything Affects Everyone, Fiction, grief, labyrinth, photography, Shawna Lemay
“Reality is full of secrets that everyone knows and refuses to acknowledge,” says Xaviere in Shawna Lemay’s novel Everything Affects Everyone. I had been reading the book earlier this month (as I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago), and I was reading slowly, savouring lines like this one and copying out quotations I wanted to remember.
In an interview with Xaviere’s friend Daphne, the photographer Irene Guernsey speaks about creating art: “There is above all a sacredness in creating something from nothing.” She says, “Art, itself, can bear quite a lot, and it can be enough, or close to enough.” It can be made in “isolated spots.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be noticed. The artist has to “be able to feel, to let things in.” And yet “The world is always at odds with the artist,” and “Maybe it has to be that way.” I liked finding Rilke in this novel: “You must change your life,” he says, and the women of Everything Affects Everyone recognize that they are all engaged in a process of transformation, as they work to understand the mysteries of art.
As I say, I had been reading the novel slowly, and then, last Friday, after I received news of the death of a family friend, someone I had known and loved all my life, I struggled to make sense of the shock and one of the first things I did was to curl up with Shawna’s novel and read the rest of it all at once. I suppose in a way I was trying to find out how this thing that had happened would affect all of us, everyone. Each loss is unique, of course, and yet all of us experience loss again and again, as we lose people we love, dreams we once cherished, visions of what might have been.
The Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which my family and I visited on a warm, sunny morning in late June of 2016 with our dear friend, who had lived in Winnipeg for many years.
Reading didn’t take away the pain, though I don’t think that’s the effect I was searching for. Like Xaviere, I felt I was learning that “I’m meant to breathe and live, and beyond that, I’m meant to appreciate the beauty of things in a heightened way.” I went looking for photos of the friend we had lost, and I found one—the last photo of her that I took during what turned out to be her last visit to Halifax—in which she is laughing, during a conversation with one of my aunts, and I could almost hear that familiar laugh. For a moment, she was with us again.
Quotations from Carol Shields
I won’t try to summarize the plot of Shawna’s beautiful novel. Indeed, as Xaviere says, her life “is to be without plot.” Things do happen in this book: transformation—even transfiguration—and theft, and reconciliation. But the plot isn’t the main point. A photograph stolen from an exhibition in Edmonton, Alberta called Snow Angels, Forgotten Angels, and Winged Beings is linked with the artworks stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on March 18, 1990. Something about the empty frames that mark the locations of the crimes prompts people to talk about other things that have been stolen or lost.
The courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which I visited often during the years I lived in Boston and Cambridge. These photos are from a family holiday in 2017, several years after we had moved back to Canada. We spent a week with my sister Bethie and her family, just before they moved from Boston to Bonn.
Everything Affects Everyone draws attention to “the sense that there are no endings.” Beyond the “traditional narrative arc,” says a character named Michelangelo Dupree near the end of the novel, “There is an ongoingness that I wish to capture.” And maybe that’s the word I was looking for when I read Shawna’s book last Friday afternoon: ongoingness.
I often find myself quoting Aristotle, who says in the Nicomachean Ethics that “The things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” I heard an echo of this idea in Xaviere’s claim that “I need to know things that I will only learn by knowing them.” Practice. Education. Creativity. All of us know secrets about loss. Sometimes we can look at them and sometimes we can’t. Even when the frame is empty, maybe we can create something from nothing. Learn something by doing it. Know something by knowing it. Learn to grieve by grieving.
Snowshoeing in Kingston, Nova Scotia (sent by my friend Sandra, and taken by her sister Brenda)
Photos from Banff, Alberta, sent by my brother, Tom
Photos from Hawaii, sent by my sister Edie
My mother’s orchids
Photos from my recent walk with friends, and our dogs, at Fort Needham, in Halifax