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The Birthday Present

Sophie's World is an unusual book I sent to my son for his birthday a few years ago. Sophie's World is essentially the history of philosophy embodied in a story - a story in which a young girl comes home from school to find a letter in her mailbox that says simply, "Who are you?"

The 400 pages that follow, lead her to what might be an answer.

Throughout this book, between both random and specific pages, I put in photocopies of old poems that my son had written as a child, letters to me from him when a very small boy - passages from Winnie the Pooh and other favourite childhood books. There was also a photograph of the son of a friend of ours, a little boy, aged nine, who, had (like my son) loved baseball - and who had been killed the week before in a car accident. This photo was wrapped in tissue paper on which I had written: "Vita brevis: Go to a ball game".

There were various denominations of money - wrapped in paper which said things like - "invest in something" and "give something away" and "buy something unnecessary"and "save something." There were word puzzles which I had written and put on Christmas gifts for him when he was young (without the answers to see if his adult brain was as nimble as his childhood mind.) He loved puzzles then - and the idea was that when he solved the puzzle/conundrum/wordplay, he could open the present (Christmas mornings at our house were long, leisured and lovely).

There were photos of himself as a child doing interesting things - sleeping in the snow, holding a wolf, bird-banding, sailing his own small boat and singing alone like Brendan on his Voyage on the Nova Scotian sea - and photos of him as an an adolescent in full dress kilt receiving his Eagle Award from the Lieutenant Governor in Canada – and more. And other intimate family photos - taken at memorable events - and at home, playing scrabble by the fire - all with captions.

There was a coin - a 1914 English penny that I got from his grandfather who got it from his mother, wrapped in tissue paper on which I wrote, "Someone whose blood is in your veins, walked around England with this in his pocket, thinking of the raging Great War" and I added a tea bag or two between the pages of this book that said "Drink This" in Alice in Wonderland Handwriting.

There were dozens of other things between the pages of this book - Bookplates, soap leaves, a computer chip, a ticket that said "Free Pass. Not good for anything, but free" - a joker from a deck of cards, a silver key, his old brilliant report cards with the biting cranky English schoolmaster begrudging acknowledgment of excellent work long ago finished by his childish paint-stained hands. “He normally sets himself very low standards which he unfortunately fails to live up to. Still, somewhat improved. Alpha. A+.”

What else? Gorgeous old stamps, a holy card of a pilgrim, a scarlet ecclesiastical ribbon, a Starbucks gift card, a metal medieval bookmark horse, a newspaper article I saved about him when he saved someone’s life. And more. Then I wrapped it in brown paper and wrote "Who are you?" on it, tied it up with a necklace that said "No" and sent it off to him. ____

He loved it of course. But now it is years later - he is a father himself and his birthday is imminent

I wish I could think of something interesting to send him.

12 Comment count
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Presents, past and future

I read this on the phone and could not wait to post a comment. I was, and am sorry if I sound a bit of a wuss, choked with emotion.

Harrison, there is thoughtfulness, sensitivity, emotion, memories, connectivity and a feeling of osmosis. The book held chapters of your life within it, your son's life and the lives of who you were and became in the process of 'growing up'.

It is simply beautiful and this may not be the right forum to say it, but here's a hug from me.


PS: I know you are not looking for suggestions of what to send, but just a recounting of this would be wonderful.

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I have two sons and cannot imagine life without either.  These connections are cellular, bred in bone, sinew, veins, blood. They cannot be helped. As they are learning with their own children, without whose existence, presence, love they will not be able to imagine life. And I don't think you could ever sound like a wuss or be one. But I will definitely take that hug. Thank you.

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Leaves of life

How to respond to the perfection of a mother’s thought-filled love? I myself am simply enraptured to consider the joy you must have had in assembling this book and the emotion your son must have felt to receive it. (There is not enough hyperbole available.) Such riches! I read the post over several times, and each time said, Yes! Yes! as I discovered another treasure.
"Someone whose blood is in your veins, walked around England with this in his pocket, thinking of the raging Great War." I (who lack relations of any kind) selfishly found this especially poignant, the continuing of the DNA, articulating it, giving life to the past through the future. And now your son has a son…and all these treasures will be shared anew in time.
This gift is itself the gift of you, the gift of everyday memory, of a shared private magic. Even as I comment, I feel I am treading on precious wildflowers that my heavy feet may crush.
The gift of the past, present and future, infused with love. Harrison, I am stunned.

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Leaves of Life~

That's a perfect summation. Yes, I loved assembling this. Love thinking about it now. It's hard for me to imagine having no relatives. I wonder what that would feel like. The number of aunts, uncles, cousins and assorted others that I have is staggering. Both parents have 7 siblings who all married and had 3-6 children, who married and had 2-4 children who are almost all now marrying and having 1-2 children. Not to mention my parents' aunts and uncles whose descendants number even more and are also my cousins. But singular among all this DNA is the experience of sons. Stunning, precious, private magic. You've expressed it perfectly. And for expressing it at all, I deeply thank you. Hx

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Harrison, I loved Sophie's

Harrison, I loved Sophie's World and to read how you personalized it for you son on his special day years ago--how precious. I loved reading your words, the memory. Wonderful!

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Isn't it a fascinating book?

I've really never read anything like it and if you have, do let me know. Mixed/cross/multiple genre work really engages me - I suppose that is why I write in this manner. Several years ago I went into a bookstore and found my book on the shelves in five different categories! That was pleasing, I must say. This son is so multi-faceted, so funny, so deep that this sort of gift was perfect for him. I gave a gift to my other equally beloved son (who has some of the same and some very different qualities) that was, appropriately, similar but very different. One of the reasons is that I am even able to do this is that I keep everything that ever had anything to do with them. This is not necessarily an admirable quality. But it does mean that I have a trunk full (okay, closet full) of things to draw from. I am fondly imagining that one day, grandchildren will have fun playing with or making fun of these treasures, depending on age, stage and personality! Thanks for your kind words, Rebecca. :)

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Hi Harrison, No, I don't

Hi Harrison, No, I don't think I've ever read anything like it either. It must have been a very great feeling to see your book shelved in so many categories! Just seeing your book on the shelf must be amazing. Your sons are lucky to have you. At least you keep the important things--having tactile treasures keep the memories alive.

You made me think of a few books, that if you have not read, you may enjoy:

-Jostein Gaarder's other book "The Solitaire Mystery." The little bit I read is so imaginative and again, he takes us into multi-layered worlds each section a suite of cards. I began this novel a couple of years ago; however, I did not finish because I didn't want to find myself at the end. Silly, I do this often. I'm moving this book back to the top of my list.

-The Sibyl by Par Lagerkvist. Here is my reaction from my "book log." I enjoyed the story and the beautiful writing of this potent little book.  It is mostly told in the first person, when a man climbs the mountain to query the Sybil, after he is cursed by not allowing a man to rest on his home.  He consults the oracle, but is not satisfied with the response, so he asks around, and a man directs him to the woman who lives high on the mountain and who used to be the priestess and serve God--the oracle.  I say mostly first person because when he goes to ask her his question, he is concerned that his fate has been set and he is to live with the curse of God, she then speaks through practically the whole book, she recalls to him and to herself her life, how she came to be and there are surprises toward the end.  It's a book that turns you to yourself, turns you to look at your relationship to the divine.  Something I hadn't noticed before, except that I've read three of Lakervist's books by now, is that his characters often have a physical deformity.

I remember reading on Mara’s blog that you were a nun for a time, so two books that made me think of you that I enjoyed very much were:

-Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.
-Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake.

Lastly, a book that I have been saving because I feel that it will be a true masterpiece that I will not want to end is Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi and The Glass Bead Game. This work won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. I read up to a point and read up to that point at least three times and stopped over the past several years. It feels odd that I have the habit of doing this and I cannot explain it except to say, for certain books, I just want them to stay in my imagination for a time, up to that point. Does that make any sense? I know there must be others that do the same.


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Marvellous suggestions1

Rebbecca, thank you so much for the thoughtful reply and the marvellous suggestions. Of all those you mention,  I have only read Mark  Salzman's lying awake and Hesse's Magister Ludi.  I will definitely add the others to the impossible-unless-there-are-48-hours-in-a-day list.  The Sybil sounds especially intriguing.  It is very kind of you to share your synopsis. And yes, I think you are right - tactile treasures keep the memories alive.  I'm very pleased to have some of my childhood books and one "velveteen rabbit" literally and figuratively. 

You ask if it makes any sense to read a book up to a point and then stop because you don't want it to end. Well, it doesn't make sense to me because I can't sleep if I don't know the end, but it must make sense to you. Everyone is so diverse.  I am blessed and cursed with a convenient memory-disposal unit which is why I can re-read books and re-watch films and still be shocked or delighted or surprised or sad or triumphant or reflective, etc. etc. the second or third time round. I have a happy suspension of belief as well as disbelief. That's why I love Disneyland, like my profound professor Jesuit friend who also loves it.  He quotes  Baudrillard who says  “In America everything is fake, except Disneyland.” Then says - with affection, since he just became an American citizen by choice -  "What I like about both Disneyland and USA is that the fakeness is real. What is impossible for me to live with is the British obverse of that, which is fake reality as opposed to real fakeness." 

We both tend to enter things so thoroughly that we are almost in altered states. When I'm reading or watching a movie or am flying a tie fighter to the Death Star in Disneyland, that's where and who I am. When the experience is over, then I return to observer state and really don't thoroughly remember the other world. Not in the same way. So I have the pleasure of repetition.  So I really don't need to stop reading a book because I will experience it for the first time the next time I read it. Of course it isn't quite as black and white as it seems but it is pretty accurate.

In any case, thank you so much for this delightful response. Much appreciated.



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Harrison, I love every word

Harrison, I love every word - from the coins to the stamps and the free pass to the way you composed puzzles for Christmas morning gifts and the begrudging English master - (they do still exist by the way!) The nostalgia I felt for my own three boys and the passing years caused me to shed a wee tear. I wish I could gather them back (the years) and relive them again just as you have been able to do in your magical, exquisite, unique style.

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Yes, I knew you would understand. We all have our own magic with our children. I read that in all your posts. The puzzles were really fun, though. One was based on the form of word puzzle in Jane Austen's Emma, where each syllable of the word that tells what the present is, has a different clue. Fun to solve, but more fun to create all through advent!
Thank you for being such a bright part of my Red Room experience! Hx

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Rebecca ~

I have just unwisely bought three of the books you recommended for which I thank you again. ("Unwisely" because I have had to add them to the omg-what-am-I-going-to-do- with-this-four-foot pile-of-books-and-growing tower since I have promised myself that I won't actually read them until more of my dissertation is done.) The Solitaire Mystery, I have had to hide from myself, so that is probably the one I will read next. And thanks again for your kind thoughtfulness in the recommendations and in the response to this post. ~Harrison

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Ah, Harrison, that's

Ah, Harrison, that's wonderful! Yes, the piles do grow don't they? And it's so challenging to keep up with new writers and old writers, etc...I can just see you playing hide and seek with The Solitaire Mystery. As I mentioned, I haven't read it through yet, so I'm going to have to bump it up on my list. I can't wait to hear your thoughts about it and the others.

Happy writing, thinking, analyzing. I bet you'll feel so relieved when your dissertation is complete!