My Small Glass Heart
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence)
Twice a year I hold in my hand a small glass heart, about the size of a dime, but thicker. A golden band runs around its circumference with an an eyelet at the top of the heart for a chain to pass through to make a necklace. In the centre of the heart there is a bubble. In that hollow place lies a mustard seed. If I shake the heart, the seed jiggles. I hold the heart in my hand just before Christmas when I hang it on our tree as an ornament, and again on the day after Epiphany when I strip the tree and toss it outside into the back alley with all the other discarded dried-up evergreens on our block.
Every year, when I take the heart from its little box, I think of the girl who gave it to me a very long time ago. I was nine then; she was eighteen. She was going away to Bible school in Saskatchewan. The necklace was her parting gift, a reminder that all things were possible. She said it was like the Bible verse, the one where Jesus tells his disciples, “If you have faith even as small as a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” I used to wear the heart earnestly, as some people in mainline churches wear a cross. I think I might have worn it a year or two later when the girl married my brother. I was a candle-lighter at their wedding; I got to wear a long red velvet dress with white lace sleeves. They got married on January 6, Epiphany. Diane, the girl, chose Epiphany as her wedding day because it was part of Christmas. No one in my family thought about Epiphany, though. We did not live by a liturgical calendar, except for the big holy days like Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. On that particular January 6, we awoke to a skiff of snow and a temperature just below freezing—a rare event in Richmond, B.C.. Alvin, my brother, had turned nineteen two weeks before he got married. Diane turned twenty just two weeks after.
We were born and raised Mennonite, but Diane was a Scots-Irish-Métis baby who knew nothing her father’s Indigenous roots until she was an adult. He had left before she was born. Her mother remarried almost at once and continued to have children at an astonishing rate (eleven altogether). When I first knew Diane, her family lived in what seemed to me a very big house. Her mom and stepfather and most of the children lived on the main floor. Diane and a half-sister lived upstairs with their grandmother and a widowed aunt. The house belonged to the aunt.
Biologically, though, the aunt and grandmother had no connection to Diane whatsoever. They were the sister and mother of Diane’s stepfather, and he was adopted. They were non-blood relations twice over and had no “real” obligation to Diane. But they gave her a home and raised her, along with her half-sister. After Diane's grandmother died, her aunt continued to raise the girls, working all her life in a hospital cafeteria.
There wasn't much religion in that house, upstairs or down, Christian or otherwise. Auntie had had a painful brush with Catholicism early in life, and a long distrust of Christianity had made her a near-atheist. The family downstairs ran wild. But a Mennonite Brethren family a few houses away invited Diane to Sunday school, and for some reason Auntie allowed her to go. That's how we met her. My brother fell in love with her when he was still a kid. He wore jeans and a jean jacket and cowboy boots and rode a motorbike and looked like James Dean. Diane got a job at an A & W. They were all drive-ins in those days. It was the early '70s, and the “hostesses” all wore their shirt-dress uniforms short. They used to walk around wearing money belts that had little cartridges for coins and a pocketed apron for bills. And they carried trays of burgers and fries and heavy mugs of root beer on their raised, upturned hands. Often they carried a tray in each in hand. Some of the girls did this on roller skates so they could get around faster. The driver of the car would roll down the window (not many power windows in those days), and the hostess would hook the tray onto the window. Then the driver would pay her, and she would give change from the cartidges on her belt. Maybe she would get to keep a tip. Diane paid for her wedding dress with the tips she got. That was before her father rolled back into her life.
She used to have a recurring dream: a car would pull into one of the berths, and the driver would say to her, “I am your father.” After having the dream many times, she asked herself what she would do if this ever happened, what she would do if her father ever drove into her life. Long did she struggle with that question. When at last she decided that she would forgive him, she never had the dream again.
And then it happened, almost exactly as in the dream, except that fate made a little mistake. Diane’s father did not know her married name, so when he felt the urge to get in touch, he called one of her brothers and asked about her. The brother said she was the head hostess at such-and-such A & W in Vancouver, so the father went there to find her. But Diane had recently quit working there, and her half-sister Florence had become the new head hostess. So when Diane’s father drove up to the A & W, he saw the head hostess and thought “She looks just like Sheila” (his ex-wife). But the girl’s name tag said “Florence,” so he chickened out.
Eventually, he did get in touch with Diane, and Diane followed through on her decision to forgive him, and they began a tentative relationship which grew in affection until her father’s death.
So that’s the girl who gave me the mustard seed necklace.
For as long as I have known her, Diane has taught Sunday school, children's church, or vacation bible school, or some combination of those three. I used to think this was mere convention. You know: women work with children; men do all the other stuff. But now I see differently: these were the ministries that changed Diane's life, that helped her find belonging and purpose in her rather irregular environment, and, she would say, that helped her find God.
For the last thirty-some years, my family have been living on a ranch in the backwoods of B.C.'s Cariboo region. They have suffered serious illnesses, financial disasters, house fires, the loss of dozens of calves and cows to wolves, repeated tragedy and serious injury, but Diane is still running children's church at the little non-denominational church in the nearest very small town. She continues to keep the books for the church as she has always done. Several years ago, when my sister was dying of cancer at Christmas, Diane was there at the end to take care of her, just as she was there for my mother two years later. Ruth was never more faithful to Naomi than Diane has been to this family and to her calling as a Christian.
And me? As I write this piece, Christmas is just days away, and I am holding in my hand the same glass heart, the same mustard seed. But everything else has changed, and I think about the choices I’ve made, choices that have taken me far from my raising: I’m the only member of my family to go to university, and the only member of my wide extended family to get a PhD; I’m the only one of us kids to move around the country and settle far from home; I’m the only one to jump ship from a grassroots to a mainline church. Ostensibly, I’m Anglican now.
I remember Christmas Eve services at the German Mennonite Brethren church in Vancouver. How the air crackled with excitement as everyone arrived! It was an evening of skits and musical presentations from the all the Sunday school classes. We had carol singing and candlelight. At the end of the evening, a few appointed grown-ups stood at the doors to hand us kids little brown bags full of Christmas goodies (peanuts, candies, chocolates, a Japanese orange) as we made our exit into the quasi-darkness (modified by streetlights) which we hoped would be luminous with snow.
Once at least, I remember, there was snow, and all the boys fell to making snowballs with bare hands and throwing them at everyone, even the grown-ups. I made one or two, but my hands got too cold. I stood in the cone of light made by a streetlamp and saw that the sleeve of my blue coat had turned purple. Perplexed and a little alarmed, I turned my arm every which way while the snowballs flew around me. The sleeve remained purple. I ran back into the church: the sleeve was blue. I ran back out again to the streetlight: the sleeve was purple. The younger of my two brothers, Victor, paused in his snowball throwing and said it was the kind of light that made it purple. How very surprising. I pondered this mystery in my heart.
The names of the kids around me were Otto and Walter and Jake and Waldemar and Roswitha (pronounced Rose-veeta) and Ruthie and Tina. Their last names were Sudermann, Wiens, Dyck, Reimer, Thiessen, Thielman, Klein. The parents of lots of these kids had come to Canada as refugees after the war, like my own mother. Many of the older people had come to Canada as refugees from Russia after the First World War. A few families had recently come from South America. The kids of these recent immigrants had pathetic English, and they bored me to fidgets and eye-rolling when they tripped over their memory verses in Sunday school. I usually memorized my verses in the car on the way to church, and I could spout them off without thinking. Once when I was rattling off my verse in the car, my dad said, “That's fine. That's very good. But what does it mean?” That gave me pause.
Still, these other kids couldn't even read the bible verses aloud without pausing and stumbling. I assumed they were idiots. They were also really square. I must have said something to that effect within earshot of my father because he sat me down one day and gently explained a few things. These kids were were new to Canada, he said. They had come from a place where everyone spoke German. They had come from communities that tried to stay separate from “the world.” Now they were learning English and going to schools where they were outsiders. They had left everything familiar behind. They were probably picked on by Canadian kids. What they needed from me was kindness and patience, not fidgeting and eye-rolling.
That was then.
In four days’ time, I'll be singing the midnight mass on Christmas Eve at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, Edmonton, complete with incense, robes, processions, scripted liturgy, and Anglican chant. And I wonder, sometimes, in the midst of these things that I strangely love, have I betrayed some deeper identity? Is it possible to come from where I do and ever be Anglican? And why would I want to be? Their history is not mine; mine is most definitely not theirs. I have often felt like Keats's Ruth, “when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” And yet, here I remain, year after year.
I've been here fourteen years now, nearly twelve of them in choir—long enough for me to look back on my early Christmas Eves among the Anglicans of All Saints'. I remember how, if feeling a little foreign up there with the choir in the chancel amid clouds of incense, I would sneak a peek at the congregation. I would see people earnestly clutching their candles and singing “Silent Night,” desiring a meaningful Christmas, a touch of the sacred, a moment of peace. And I felt a dawning recognition: people all over the world would be singing this same German carol at this same moment in their lives, with the same hope in their hearts. And then the me whose father was the Sunday school superintendent at the Mennonite church and the me who sings midnight mass in the Anglican church didn’t seem so far apart.
Even now, sometimes, as I sing or listen or fall completely still, the past draws near and leans into the present. My family draws very close. The huge cathedral space fills up with something warm and holy, and the scattered bits of myself come together in this place we create through word and movement and song.
This is the power of memory and shared hope. This is the power of ritual. This is why I am here.