Marj, who lives in Canada, and Kate, who lives in Sydney, Australia, have fallen in love through their letters, which began with a fan letter from Kate to Marj. By now their love has survived a few days of their first meeting in Sydney. From The Time Being (Talonbooks, 1997).
The time: early morning in mid-December. The sky and harbour, the leaves on the trees, the pavements and streets, have been scoured by last night’s thunderstorm, which turned the harbour lead-grey under a purple sky, drove the motorboats to safety, and the sailboats racing under their jibs before the east wind. Marj is waked by the brightness in her room, she sees strips of sunshine dancing on the wall, and hears the sound of Kate’s steady breathing across the hall. She and Kate separated coolly last night without even embracing. Their overheated discussion was interrupted by a crash of thunder and a gust of cold air that blew pages of newspaper off the coffee table. They ran around, closed doors and windows, and resumed the debate—what is the ideal form of government?—Kate still angry because Marj had thrown it off course. Marj had broken Kate’s rules for logical discourse; instead of starting out on the highway of the general, she proposed Sweden as an example of good government. Kate said that they were not talking about particular governments. Marj said, "Why not? That’s the way I think, from the particular to the general." Kate told Marj that she must think from the general to the particular. She looked at Marj with alarming severity; she had begun to shout. Unease now travelled the length of Marj’s body. She said, "I can’t talk about politics; I’m no good at thinking about politics." Her mind was full of lifeless dust; love congealed in her veins. This is our first quarrel, she thought; there will be others. They will begin during dinner when Kate’s thoughts crackle and her voice roars like a bush fire, out of the open kitchen window and across the courtyard. After the thunderstorm Kate’s mind was still blazing, as she set out to arrive by logical means at the ideal government. She had hardly begun her strategic moves and Marj already showed signs of impatience. "I think I’d like to go to bed," said Marj. Kate looked at her in disbelief. Hadn’t they been engaged in a rational discussion? Why had Marj cut it off? Because it made her uncomfortable. She said, "I don’t see why you have to shout at me." Kate said, "I’m not shouting. I am trying to conduct a logical discussion." Marj said, "Damn logic. I hate it!"
The next morning Marj walks silently past Kate’s open door to the kitchen and fixes herself a bowl of cereal, prunes and half a banana, sits down at the dining room table to eat it and is startled by the sudden appearance of Kate, the frostiness in her eyes, her quick glance at the breakfast table. "I was hungry," says Marj. "Hungry, were you, darling? That’s cool." Marj has broken love’s inflexible laws more than once in her life. Now she has done it again, for Kate sets store by the right observance of ritual. Yesterday, at Kate’s request, Marj had donned (over her bare skin) the inviting blue velvet dressing gown Kate had left in her room. It was the first time in her life that she had not got dressed for breakfast. Today she has forgotten not to get dressed; she is not wearing the dressing gown. Kate does not point out this lapse, nor does she demand Marj’s reason for walking out on their discussion last night. Marj is grateful; she thinks that Kate has realized she mustn’t pin Marj in a corner that way. Later Kate will accuse Marj of refusing to accept her as she is, of denying Kate’s passion for the truth. She will explain to Marj that other women in her life have been unequal to the sensitive acceptance that love requires of the whole person. They became friends, not close friends, she will emphasize. This time, the centre of their love holds, Kate’s voice becomes suddenly gentle, and love rushes back into Marj’s heart. The stubborn fog that made each invisible to the other has burnt off and they look at each other with glad recognition. But Marj knows she has wounded Kate’s ego, and that the two people who look at each other so lovingly now can no longer guess each other’s thoughts. Their words, their gestures, will be perceived by each in new ways; they will punish themselves with misinterpretations. In time, Kate will make clear to Marj that she has not measured up to the task of understanding her. Marj thinks: I am no longer safe, I must be careful not to make Kate angry.
"You will defuse any possibility of anger," Marj wrote to Kate before they met. She remembers the time when their voices caressed each other on the telephone and the smallest changes of tone were momentous. She remembers when Kate suggested England as a place where they might want to live, a midway point between Australia and Canada. Marj answered, "I don’t want to live in England." Kate was silent for a moment; then she seemed to jump to attention with a single word, "Sweetheart?" It held the question, "What has happened to make you sound so distant?" The questioning alarm in that one word flooded Marj with relief; they had tested the bond that held them together, and the threat, like a heavy hand that twisted them apart, withdrew. The threat could never be more serious than this, Mari thought, for each instantly understood the whys of every possible difference between them and how to exorcise them. Now Marj wonders: were the two emphatic syllables of that "sweetheart" more like a pennant hoisted, a warning in the calm before the storm? "How delicately, how intuitively we discovered each other. How truly," Marj will write, post-Australia. She will speak of the "transparency of trust" between them before they met, when, in imagination, they embraced in a garden of Eden. They felt comfortable in their resemblances, too comfortable to note that the resemblances contained differences like tripwires cunningly laid and hidden.
Marj, sobered briefly by Kate’s fierceness during the logic-session, hopes that the ideal government will never again be the subject of one of their "hiccups"—Kate’s term. Now she has resumed her giddy carelessness and skips along, saying anything that comes into her head. She likes to believe what was forecast in their letters, that they would be able to talk without restrictions or taboos. It is lunchtime on a sunny day; they are eating lettuce and tomato and bacon sandwiches on wholewheat toast. Kate has been calm and tender in their conversation about Emily Dickinson. "To see Truth slant," she murmurs. "I like that." To see truth slant—the way a painter looks at her subject, screwing up her eyes, or in a mirror, to see the subject as colour rather than form? Or she turns the canvas upside down; that way she will not be distracted by literal forms, she will not look at details at the expense of the whole? Then she sees what is missing, the bit of colour that brings light into the whole composition. Marj remembers reading a study of Dickinson’s passionate poetry and letters to women. "Some people claim Dickinson as a lesbian," she says. At last, had been her own reaction. After all the sterile arguments, after the heterosexual insistence and the studious denials, the blanks of censorship. "Where is your proof?" asks Kate; her eyes fix Marj with a cold glare. "I want you to tell me where you got that information." "I read it somewhere," says Marj. "Where?" Kate has discovered a perfect example of Marj’s sloppy statements, made of flimsy evidence. Love will not soften Kate’s outrage; her whole life as a teacher is at stake, her insistence on the avoidance of stereotypes, her determination to teach students how to think straight.
"Does it matter to you whether she was a lesbian or not?" Now Marj is slipping away from the point, Kate says angrily; she has grasped at this straw, that the word "lesbian" contains a charge of dynamite.
Marj remembers her dream, before she and Kate met, of seeing two leather-bound books with their titles: Truth and Real. She imagined herself and Kate discussing the questions what is true? What is real? Are they the same or different? She thought, too, of their two lives, perhaps of two books, one written by each, their truths and their reals. Now Kate seems to say that only proven fact is real, that truth does not admit circumstantial evidence or interpretations that leap from the poetry. She wants a plain answer to a plain question: was Emily Dickinson a lesbian or was she not?
Marj wants to examine all the possibilities between yes and no, the terrain of desire ("Wild nights! Wild nights! Were I with thee . . .") the body’s monosyllabic language. No, they are going to address the question, the only question, says Kate’s stern face. Next time I’ll be careful, thinks Marj. She remembers from her past the first flashpoint in love’s scenario, how she could be careful after one lesson learned, but the tripwire would be laid in another place. She will tread on it, despite her knowledge that love makes lovers angry with the unreasonable, poisonous and punishing anger that flourishes in the love-state. Finally it can only be resolved in silence and with the merciful passage of time.
We are too old, Marj thinks, to be repeating our youthful behaviour which leads only to exhaustion of spirit and wastes the time of love. We have no time to waste in anger. Why should Emily Dickinson, whose work we both love, be a casus belli? Marj mourns for the trust between herself and Kate that can no longer support the question: might Emily Dickinson have been a lesbian? Kate, the optimist, seems to think—we’ll ride it out. Hiccups are inevitable. As for the hard-hitting exchange of views like tennis balls, Marj isn’t up to it. She is like those others who could only accept the play-Kate, the clown, the role that Kate finds so easy. She is thinking, where is my Kate?
Marj hopes that she and Kate will never again have another logical discussion. Kate thinks that Marj has a closed mind. To open a closed mind is a delicate and arduous task; Kate was rewarded many times in her past, she told Marj, when a student suddenly saw the light after long discussion. From then on she could believe that the student had an open mind, that is, one that was open to every new idea and challenge. Even though Marj does not know the rules of logic, Kate will try another discussion. This time the question to be logically discussed is: why did Marj wait for seven months before answering Kate’s first letter? Kate believes that logic will crack the mystery; Marj thinks that the answer lies in the illogical domain of memory, her memory. Doesn’t she pile today’s mail on yesterday’s mail until a letter that has warmed her heart is suffocated and forgotten? But I can’t say forgotten, she thinks, for perhaps Kate has been tormenting herself with the idea that her letter wasn’t worth answering. "It was in a pile of letters," she says. "I get a lot of letters." "Not as wonderful as yours, of course," she adds. Will this give pain? Later, when Kate relates to Marj’s friends the saga of that first letter, she will say, "I said to myself, ‘That’s cool. Marj isn’t going to answer my letter. So what?’" She likes the element of suspense in this part of the story, the fact that destiny was kept waiting. Now she says to Marj, "During those seven months I might have fallen in love with someone else." Marj says, "When I found your letter again, I reread it and thought, oh my god, I should have answered this long ago. It’s a wonderful letter." Kate pounces, "You’d forgotten it." "I do often forget important things," says Marj. Evasive again. "If you forgot it, it couldn’t have been all that wonderful, could it?"
At the Great Barrier Reef on Green Island, Kate and Marj go to a Giant Clam hatchery where a stout man in shorts is, single-handed, attempting to save the species. A friend of Marj’s told her of the miracle of seeing the clams years ago, upright on reef beaches, six feet high. Since then thousands have been killed and eaten; their shells have been made into bird baths and baptismal fonts. At the hatchery the tourists gather round a tank of sea water. The man in shorts shows them how the heavy shell begins to close when the shadow of his hand passes over it. Its convoluted flesh, like a giant vulva, ringed with a thousand luminescent emerald green and cobalt blue eyes, begins slowly to fold inward. Light-sensitive. Minds are like that, Marj thinks, open or closed depending on the amount of light. The closed mind is opened by light, not necessarily the light of reason. She thinks that any mind can open or close; Kate thinks that minds must be trained to be open—once and for all. The openness has a logical vocabulary, Kate thinks, with her long career of mind-opening behind her.
Marj repudiates logic as a method for settling any problem in which the passions are engaged. There’s no such thing as pure reason, she thinks. She remembers that Wittgenstein finally renounced logic as a method for answering all questions. He was dumbfounded when a fellow philosopher, making an aimless gesture, asked, "What is the logic of this?" Marj and Kate would never quarrel, they promised, yet here was discord—between forms of discourse. And what had happened to their sense of humour which they had sworn in writing never to lose? When it was most needed, it lay petrified in their hearts.