The final paragraph in William Maxwell’s short story, The Thistles in Sweden, is 36 lines. I love his abandon.
The short story is about nothing and everything—it chronicles the lives and details the surroundings of the narrator and his wife, Margaret, and their cats that live on the top floor of the brownstone on Murray Hill. Maxwell’s style expands Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy decades later—a story about the minutiae of daily life that adds up to something.
Much like all our days during this unprecedented time of being homebodies, Maxwell’s sense of time in his short story is malleable—the story is written in the present tense. Time doesn’t exactly stand still though. At one point, the narrator reminds himself that time passed in that apartment “is not progressive or in sequence” but “horizontal surfaces divided into squares.”
The narrator reflects on those squares in the last paragraph:
Now when I walk past that house I look up at the windows that could be in Leningrad or Innsbruck or Dresden or Parma, and I think of the stairway that led only to the trapdoor in the roof, and of the marble fireplace, the bathroom skylight, and…Mrs. Pickering sitting in her bedroom chair with her eyes wide open, waiting for help… the guests who came the wrong night, the guest who was going to die and knew it…the sound of my typewriter…a paintbrush clinking in a glass of cloudy water…and Margaret’s empty days…
And after many more lines of quotidian sacredness, he concludes:
…and I think if it is true that we are all in the hands of God, what a capacious hand it must be.
And I believe that might be true, today, as one day blurs into another without our usual markers of time.
I woke up in the morning with a capacious heart. My heart is expanded with gratitude. I don’t recall a time when I just started out feeling so grateful. I didn’t try to “feel” grateful, or pray a prayer of gratitude, or even “be” thankful; it just was there. A capacious heart, breaking open to what is right now.
I am grateful looking out my kitchen windows to see trees open with new life. For new growth emerging from the harshness of my paved patio, yes, up through the cracks, never mind that some might arbitrarily call them “weeds.”
I am grateful for Mitch, the one I spend 24 hours a day with now. I am awed that he isn’t daunted by what might not seem possible or probable or difficult to pull off now that will bring new life to our circle of influence.
I am grateful for my adult children, both at great distances physically, but closer than imaginable. Yesterday, my daughter called for practical advice and I am reminded that I don’t have to strive to help or offer unsolicited advice, but simply be available if and when she asks.
I am grateful for a reimagined relationship with my son. He called yesterday, too, deeply reflective, to share his insights about daily living in these times, to ask what we were reading, and to share his own recommendations for films and books to savor.
I am grateful for close friends, some physically far away, who quietly provide for their families doing what naturally flows out of a deep center.
If I lumped all those sentences together in a William Maxwell-esk way, I, too, will end with:
I think of the happy green grocery on Mackenzie Avenue who stocks the freshest produce, the friends who bring ice cream bars (carefully wrapped in newspaper) sharing Mitch’s birthday while sitting 2 meters away on the lawn, and our son’s birthday letter, and our grandson dancing barefooted in the kitchen with his winter hat still on his head, and the sound of lawnmowers that mean that spring has arrived, and the mountains in the distance still covered with snow in the bright sunshine of a clear day, while we wait to cross the street on our walk around the neighbourhood, while bicycles race by on the not so busy street, and
I think if it is true that we are all in the hands of God, what a capacious hand it must be.