Kelly appeared on the doorstep of my house the next morning at about eleven o’clock, dressed in jeans and a sweater, her hair pulled back in a long braid. She greeted me with a warm smile when I opened the door. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Come in for a minute; I’m just making a thermos of coffee”.
She kicked off her shoes and followed me through the back porch and into the kitchen. By now I had my spare bedroom set up as an office, but the work tended to spill over to my kitchen table as well. “Go on through to the living room if you like”, I said apologetically; “It’s a bit tidier than this”.
The drip machine was already beginning to beep, and so while she wandered into the living room I poured black coffee into my thermos flask and packed it in my backpack. By then she was bent over in front of the stereo system looking through my record collection. “See anything you know?” I asked as I went through to join her.
“Not much. I know some of these classical titles, but that’s about it”.
“Most of the rest is traditional folk music”.
She straightened up and grinned at me; “Dad told me you were into that stuff; that’s really interesting. Maybe when we come back from the lake you can pick a favourite album and play it for me, or even play me some stuff yourself?”
“I could do that. What sort of music do you like?”
“Pretty well everything except for opera, and whiney country stuff”.
I laughed; “You’d hear a lot of that around here – the whiney country stuff, I mean!”
“Yeah; my parents’generation were all country fans, and the kids I went to school with were pretty well all into classic rock”.
“Some; I like the Beatles, but I’m not such a big Stones fan. I like some of the newer stuff, too – Billy Joel, Talking Heads, the Police, Dire Straits, that sort of thing”.
“I know of them, but I can’t say I’ve really listened to them very much”.
“No way! Have you honestly spent your entire life in a traditional folk music bubble?”
“No, not at all. My mum’s a classically-trained pianist and there was classical music playing in my house all the time when I was growing up. And when my friend Owen and I started playing guitar, we spent our first couple of years trying really hard to sound like Simon and Garfunkel”.
“I like them, too. How long have you been playing?”
“Since I was thirteen”.
“How old are you now?”
“You really haven’t got a shy bone in your body, have you?”
She gave me a sheepish grin. “Sorry – I don’t know how not to be up front!”
“That’s alright; it’s refreshing, actually”.
“Well, that’s okay, then! And I’m twenty-four, in case you were wondering”.
“I’m twenty-four too”.
“So you’ve been playing for eleven years?”
She glanced at my crowded bookshelves with a smile; “You obviously like to read”.
“I do; how about you?”
“Oh yeah”. She scanned the shelves for a moment; “You like Victorian novels, eh?”
“Yes, although I’m also a big Jane Austen fan, and she’s pre-Victorian”.
“Do you have a favourite?”
“I like a lot of them, but if I had to pick three, I’d go for Austen, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy – especially Hardy, even though he can be depressing at times. I like his poetry, too”.
“I think the only thing I’ve read of his is Far from the Madding Crowd”.
“That’s one of the few that have a happy ending”.
“What about Dickens?”
“I’ve read a lot of his stuff; I think he’s brilliant, but I can’t say I really enjoy his books like Austen or Hardy. I don’t mind David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t really care for the others”.
“Do you like any modern writers?”
“I’m a big Tolkien fan, though I’m not really that interested in his imitators. How about you; what do you like?”
“A lot of poetry, actually”.
She glanced at my bookshelves again; “I see that. I’m a little old fashioned about poetry, though – I like poems with rhyme and metre. My favourite is Robert Frost – do you know him?”
“I like him a lot”.
“Which of his poems do you like best?”
I thought for a moment, and then said, “‘Birches’, probably, and ‘Mending Wall’, and maybe ‘The Road Not Taken’”.
She looked up at me eagerly; “I love that one! I really like the part in the middle – you know,
‘Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back’.
It seems so true to life – every time we make a choice we rule out a whole bunch of other choices, and maybe we think we’re leaving our options open and we might come back one day, but we probably won’t”.
I smiled at her; “You really love this stuff, don’t you?”
“Of course; don’t you?”
“I do, although I’m probably not as expressive about it as you are”.
“Tom Masefield, are you mocking me?”
“No, not at all”.
She glanced at the framed photograph of Becca on the wall. “That’s obviously your sister”.
“What’s her name?”
“Rebecca, but she goes by Becca”.
“She’s twelve, you said?”
“She turned twelve in August”.
She pointed at another photograph. “Well, that’s you, but who are the other two?”
“My former musical partners; that’s Owen Foster on the left, and Wendy Howard on the right”.
“She’s a real beauty”.
“Yeah; Owen and I met her at an open stage two years ago, and she started singing with us not long after that. She’s got a really lovely voice”.
Her eyes searched mine; “Anything going on there?”
I shook my head; “No, the three of us were just good friends, that’s all. Shall we get going, then?”
“Sure. Do you want to ride in my truck?”
We spent a couple of hours walking the trails at Myers Lake Recreation Area. As Kelly had said, it was a wide lake surrounded by thick woodland: aspens, poplars, and spruce. We saw chickadees and nuthatches, and for one brief moment I saw the red flash of a pileated woodpecker before it flew away between the trees. Kelly, I discovered, was not talkative at all when she was out walking in the woods; she was completely focussed on what she could see and hear, and she noticed details that passed me by altogether. She was also much more knowledgeable about trees and plant life than I was, and she could readily identify different species without any hesitation at all.
After a couple of hours of rambling we sat down at a picnic table beside the lake. I poured her a cup of coffee from my thermos flask, and she accepted it from me with a smile; “Thank you”, she said.
I poured a cup for myself. “You’re welcome. And thank you; this is really lovely. It was nice of you to spend time bringing me out here when you could have been with your family”.
“Krista went back to Edmonton after breakfast this morning, but that was okay – she and Joe and I sat up talking until about two-thirty anyway”.
“You must be tired”.
“A little, but I’ll be fine”.
“You’re pretty close to them, then?”
“I’m probably closest to Joe, but that doesn’t mean Krista and I aren’t good friends too”.
“You and Krista are more outgoing; Joe’s a little less…”
I laughed; “I was going to say ‘boisterous’, but ‘noisy’works too!”
“You’re right, though; Krista and I are extroverts, like my dad, but Joe’s an introvert, more like my mom. And you? I have a hunch you’re an introvert, too”.
“People toss those words around a lot, but I’m not sure I know what they really mean”.
“I make friends easily, and I have lots of them. Joe takes a lot longer to make a friend than I do, but I think his friendships are probably deeper than mine”.
“I think I’m probably more like him”.
“Not too many friends?”
“I’m friendly with a lot of people, but I only really have one or two close friends”.
“How did you meet?”
“We were both eleven. I was born in north Oxford, but my dad bought a house in the village of Northwood and we moved out there during the Christmas holidays in 1969. I started at the village school in January 1970, and on my first day, during what you would call ‘recess’, three other boys ganged up on me and started to beat me up. Owen came to help me, and we held them off until the teacher intervened. That was how it started”.
“And you’ve been friends ever since?”
“Yes. He was raised in Northwood and he knew the countryside really well, so he took me out and showed me things; that summer of 1970 we went out exploring on our bikes pretty well every day from morning ’til night. And when we went up to high school together, his dad was my English teacher, and eventually he was the one who got me interested in the idea of teaching English”.
“Were you always a reader?”
“Yes, but Mr. Foster introduced me to books and authors I’d never heard of before; actually, I might have felt intimidated by them if he hadn’t showed me how to enjoy them”.
“You didn’t get that from your family?”
I was quiet for a long time, trying to decide how to answer that question. Eventually she said, “Sorry, that’s obviously not something you want to talk about right now”.
“Do you mind if we don’t? I’m sorry…”
“No, I’m the one who should be sorry – I can be really pushy without thinking about it”.
“That’s all right. What about you? What made you decide you wanted to be a nurse?”
“I was always interested in biology, and how the human body works. And I guess I’ve always wanted to help people. I thought of becoming a doctor at one time, but I really didn’t want to spend that long in school. And nurses get to spend more time with their patients; that’s what I wanted”.
“You ended up moving a long way from home to work”.
“I guess so. I was lucky to get the job in Jasper, because I’ve always enjoyed visiting there. We used to go camping up there when I was a kid, and now I can spend a lot of time exploring the back country trails, which is great. But you’re right, I’m a long way away from my old friends – although I’ve made some new friends, too”.
“That’s the extrovert thing, I suppose”.
“I guess so”.
“Who are your close friends?”
“Mainly family; Joe and Krista are my closest friends, and then some of my cousins. You’ve met my Uncle Hugo and Auntie Millie; their daughter Brenda and I are very close”.
“Where does she live?”
“Saskatoon; she runs a coffee shop there. She got married two years ago to a guy called Gary Nikkel. And you know my cousin Don”.
“Yeah; I get on pretty well with him, too, although he’s a few years older than me”.
“I get the sense that the Robinsons aren’t keen churchgoing Mennonites like the rest of your family”.
“No – Aunt Rachel married a guy who wasn’t really a churchgoer. I guess Uncle Mike was raised Anglican, but he’s never really practiced it. Nice guy, though”.
“I’m not a churchgoer either, and I like to think that I’m a nice guy!”
She laughed and punched my arm lightly; “Of course you are!”
“Actually”, she said with a sudden faraway look in her eyes, “I’ve been on a break from churchgoing myself for a while”.
“Yeah, I suppose I’ve had my little teenage rebellion”.
“Against your mum and dad?”
She shook her head vigorously; “No, not at all. Seriously, what’s to rebel against? It’s not that we never fight, but I really think I have the best parents of anyone I know”.
“I’d have to agree”.
She frowned thoughtfully. “When I got into my teens I started to struggle a little with some of the things I read in the Bible – you know, the wars and bloodshed, and the times when God commands the Israelites to slaughter whole populations, including children and babies. And of course, I started to notice that people in the church weren’t always consistent about how they lived their lives, and sometimes that bothered me, because I was a pretty idealistic teenager. And then I got into science, and I learned about evolution, and DNA and how it works, and all my textbooks assumed that the human body was a totally natural organism that you could explain completely without making any reference to God at all. Nobody at church was talking about that; it seemed to me that they were just carrying on talking about the Bible as if modern science didn’t even exist. So I guess I had my little flirtation with doubt”.
“Is that a bad thing?”
“Well I don’t think it is, but I’m beginning to see the limitations of it. I think I might be on my way back in, although I still don’t go to church very much”.
“What’s bringing you back?”
She grinned; “Are you really interested, or are you just indulging me?”
“I’m interested; I’ve had conversations like this on and off with Owen during the past few years”.
“Okay”. She drained her coffee cup and set it down again on the picnic table. “T.S. Eliot has a quote in one of his poems about the end of all our exploring being to come back to the place we started from, and knowing it for the first time”.
I nodded; “Little Gidding”.
“Yeah, that’s right – it’s a great poem, even if it doesn’t have rhyme and metre”.
“So it makes sense to you?”
“It totally does. I think it’s been good for me to be away from the church and Christianity for a while; it’s given me more of an objective view. I’m less distracted by the peculiarities of individual churchgoers, and I can focus more on the central ideas of Christianity”.
“What do you think of as the central ideas of Christianity?”
“Well, Jesus – it’s really all about him, isn’t it?”
“I think so. One of the things I couldn’t get my head around as a teenager was the idea that Jesus was somehow unique. The old Mennonites I grew up with all assumed that every other religion on earth had got it spectacularly wrong, but the one that we belong to, by an amazing coincidence, just happened to be the right one. That seemed more than a little arrogant to me”.
“It’s all tied up with the idea that Jesus is the Son of God, not just a great religious teacher. The idea of God becoming a human being and living as one of us seemed really weird to me. Like, if God was Jesus, then what was happening to the rest of the universe when he was a baby? And that’s when Christians would bring up the doctrine of the Trinity, which I never really understood”.
“No”. She was quiet for a moment, and then she frowned and said, “I never succeeded in persuading myself to stop believing in God, though”.
“No – even though all the science books I was reading assumed that the universe was totally explainable without the God hypothesis, that never really rang true for me, despite all my questions about science and the Bible. I’ve spent days hiking the mountain trails in Jasper and looking at the majesty of creation all around me. And I’ve stood in the middle of an open field here in Saskatchewan and looked up at the huge prairie sky, and felt really small and insignificant, kind of like an ant, I guess. And I’ve always felt, in an intuitive kind of way, that there had to be a Creator. It’s not something I came at from rational argument; it’s just something I felt in my bones. I didn’t have to be able to explain God or figure him out; I was just always pretty sure that God was there. And sometimes, especially in the mountains, I had a sense I was getting close to him”.
“You’re sure that wasn’t just natural awe at what you were seeing around you?”
She shrugged; “Maybe; I guess I can’t be sure about that. But that’s okay; there are lots of things I’m not sure about”. She smiled at me; “Is there any more coffee in that thermos?”
“Of course”. I poured her another cup, and topped up my own mug at the same time. “So you think you’re on the way back into Christianity, then?”
“Maybe. Jesus is fascinating, isn’t he?”
“He is to me. I’m not starting with any assumptions about him being the Son of God or anything like that; I’m just reading the gospels from time to time and trying to figure him out”.
“What do you find fascinating about him?”
“Well, for one thing, the shrewd things he says. Like when he says that a man’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions. I mean, there’s a whole modern advertising industry dedicated to proving him wrong, isn’t there? But you just know instinctively that they’re wrong and he’s right: you are you and I am me, and none of the really important things about our lives are defined by what we own”.
“And then I think about all the wars in human history that grew out of revenge and tit for tat – ‘You hit me, I’ll hit you back harder, you burned down my village, I’ll burn down ten of yours’- and Jesus comes along and nips it all in the bud”.
“ ‘Turn the other cheek’, you mean?”
“But isn’t that a bit impractical?”
“I guess, but how’s the alternative working for us? Wasn’t World War Two basically Hitler working out his rage that the Allies had won World War One? And wasn’t all that fuelled by the Treaty of Versailles, and the determination of the French to punish the Germans? Turning the other cheek may be impractical, but it seems to me that anger and revenge have caused millions of deaths, too”.
“I never thought of it that way”.
“I guess that’s the sort of thing that impresses me about Jesus. And then I love the way that he’s just his own guy, you know? He doesn’t bow and scrape to the establishment, and he ignores barriers that other people won’t cross. He talks to women, which apparently you weren’t supposed to do as a Jewish man in those days, and even though he’s very religious he hangs out with prostitutes and treats them like decent human beings. I’m not sure he would have made a very good Mennonite pastor!”
We both laughed, and I took another sip of my coffee. “You’re saying that Christianity might not have got Jesus right all the time?”
She shook her head with a frown; “I don’t know. Like I said, I went through a phase in my late teens when I was a little disillusioned with organized religion, but now that I’ve reached the ripe old age of twenty-four, I’ve got a little more patience for it. Yes, it often misses the mark, but then, so do I”.
“I suppose we all do at some point. So are you going to rejoin the church, then?”
“I’m not there yet; I’ve still got lots of questions. Joe would like me to, of course”.
“Is he a believer?”
“Yeah, he was baptized when he was sixteen, and he’s never really looked back”.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s been baptized as a teenager before. All the Christians I knew were Church of England, so they were christened as babies. Me too, I guess”.
“You were christened as a baby? I thought your parents didn’t go to church?”
“No, but you don’t have to be a regular churchgoer to get your baby christened”.
“You don’t? That’s weird!”
“Why is it weird?”
She shrugged; “Well, I guess it depends on what you think baptism means, and it’s possible that Mennonites have a different take on that. We think that baptism is a commitment you make to Jesus and the church. That’s why we don’t baptize babies; we think you have to be old enough to understand what you’re doing before you make that commitment”.
I grinned; “I notice you said ‘we’ ”.
She shrugged apologetically; “I can’t remove myself from my Mennonite heritage, I guess”.
“So you’ve never been baptized?”
“No, although Joe and Krista both have”.
“What would it take for you to get baptized?”
“I wouldn’t want to do it unless I was reasonably sure of the central truths of Christianity, and willing to commit myself to living as a Christian”.
“And you’re not there yet?”
“No”. She hesitated, and then said, “To be absolutely honest, I know I’d like to be there. I mean, I admire my mom and dad, and in some ways my brother is my hero, but I don’t want to let that influence my thinking”.
“Well, then it’s not objective thinking, is it?”
“No, but surely the fact that Christianity has produced people who you admire and look up to is an argument in its favour, isn’t it? After all, if all it produced was hypocrites, you wouldn’t give it a second thought, even if its ideas were attractive to you”.
“True enough; but then, I can’t deny that Christianity has produced some hypocrites too”.
“I suppose that’s true”. I was quiet for a moment, drinking my coffee and remembering conversations I’d had with Owen over the years. Eventually I said, “It must have been different, growing up in a Christian home and then having a teenage rebellion against Christianity. For me, it worked the other way around: having conversations about Christianity with my best friend had a bit of teenage rebellion attached to it. I suspect that made it a bit more attractive to me”.
She looked at me in silence for a minute, and then she said, “I’m getting the sense that things aren’t all that easy between you and your parents”.
I shook my head, avoiding her gaze.
“I’m also getting the sense that you don’t want to talk about it”.
“Okay”. She drained her coffee and said, “Well, shall we head back to town? You promised to play me some traditional folk music, and I’m looking forward to it”.
“So I did. Alright – give me half a minute to finish my coffee here, and we can be on our way”.