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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Saturday, May 21, 2005

improbable or inevitable?

Again the overcast darkens and raindrops are about to fall.

Last night Kimmie and I had dinner at Pasparos Greek restaurant with my sister Mara, her husband Mike, and their 21-year-old daughter Chella. Mike is down to do a Shambhala Training meditation weekend at the Vancouver Shambhala Centre--the very one I've been a member of since 1987. It was an animated, fun evening, a fitting end to an unusual day.

Mara's read the first 2 chapters of my book; Mike's read the first chapter and has received the 2nd. They're enjoying it so far. Mike has also started to read this blog.

This morning I keyed notes from True Believer and A History of the Jews in Babylonia. I also read over the early part of this blog, and felt a bit dismayed at how little progress I've made in the last two months. I'm not even doing a chapter a month right now, which gives me a troubled feeling about how long it will take to finish. What can I do? This is the pace I work at. My pace is slow and more or less steady. It was supposed to work for the tortoise.

For my birthday in January Mom gave me a book by James Hillman called The Soul's Code. He's a psychologist who's decrying the whole culture of modern psychotherapy and its theory that psychopathology is the result of bad parenting. He wants to junk the notion that we're merely the wounded results of our parents' mistakes, irremediably screwed up due to unalterable events in the past, and that our various activities in life, positive and negative, are so many kinds of compensation for the hurts we've sustained. Instead, he wants to resurrect the ancient ideas of the daimon or genius or guardian angel, the invisible familiar that accompanies each of us through life and ensures that we live the life we were born to live. For according to this view, each of us, without exception, was born with a definite purpose.

My mother found this book compelling and inspiring, and wanted to share it with me. I read the first couple of chapters when I received it, and was interested, but found Hillman a bit too iconoclastic even for me: I thought there might still be some baby in the bathwater he wants to throw out. But recently I picked it up again, partly because Warren told me he got the book on my recommendation. Even though I find that my mind doesn't entirely harmonize with Hillman's, I do find his thesis important and inspiring.

He uses the image of the acorn as the seed of our nature, which, left to itself, or indeed in any case, will grow into an oak. The acorn cannot do otherwise. Hillman suggests that our parents, so far from being the problem cases who screwed us up through faulty rearing, are actually the exact individuals necessary to enable us to realize our destiny. We should assume that our parents were expressly chosen by us or by our daimon in order to launch us accurately on our life path, regardless of how we feel about them.

My own birth was fraught with a sense of destiny. My birth--in the sense of my origin as the product of these two specific individuals--was exceedingly unlikely. My father was born in Latvia in 1934 and was taken by his mother to Germany when the Russians looked like they were going to retake the country during World War 2. When Germany disintegrated at the end of the war my father and grandmother were part of the tide of millions of displaced persons trying to find refuge on the right side of the Iron Curtain as it fell across Europe. They lived in Red Cross camps until 1948 when they finally were accepted for immigration to Canada.

They were sent to Montreal, where my grandmother worked as a domestic while my father attended school, knowing no French and little or no English. They eventually moved on to Ontario, and Dad got a diploma in broadcasting from Ryerson and headed west to Victoria for a job at a TV station there.

My mother was born in 1937 in Toronto, but soon had moved to a little house in Orillia north of the city, where she grew up in poverty as the second-oldest in a family of what eventually came to be 14 children. She dreamed of escape, and as soon as she could, she did: she fled west with a carload of friends headed for Vancouver.

The Victoria job didn't happen for Dad, so he came to Vancouver and applied for TV work here. In the meantime he sold encyclopedias to make ends meet. My mother had got a job at Household Finance through a friend who worked there. In December 1957 my mother was set up for a company Christmas-dinner date with an encyclopedia-salesman friend of her roommate. At that Christmas dinner she was seated next to my father, a coworker of her date.

Soon they were dating. Not long afterward I was conceived. By the end of 1958 the young (24 and 21) impoverished couple was facing the prospect of becoming parents. Under the gun, they married in January 1959, and 10 days later, on my father's 25th birthday, I was born at St. Paul's Hospital in the West End.

Imagine how shocked either of these individuals would have been had some angel announced to them in childhood who would be their partner in conceiving their first child. It's a good bet that my mother had never heard of Latvia before she met my Dad. They were both refugees, and they both arrived at Vancouver more or less by chance. They met at an encyclopedia salesmen's beanfeast, and I have sought encyclopedic knowledge all my life. I have a folder called Encyclopedia to hold project files. Hm.

Improbable? Or inevitable?


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