GOODNESS. This word has been on my mind since I started reading Pulitzer Prize Winner Carol Shields’ Unless.
Unless is a story about Reta Winters who was reassessing her life after her oldest daughter Norah, 19, dropped out of university and started panhandling at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst in Toronto. Norah sat cross-legged there on the street wearing a cardboard sign that read “GOODNESS.” She wouldn’t talk to anybody even her family and she refused to go home. At night, she stayed at a homeless shelter. You can just imagine Reta’s anguish as the cold winter days approached and Norah was out there begging while she, her mother, was safe at her warm and comfortable home with her husband Tom and their two younger daughters, Christine and Natalie.
Unless brought me back to that time about 20 years ago when a similar thing happened to a Certain Girl (CG).
It was the end of the second semester. CG just finished her second year of college. She and her older sister were living by themselves. CG came home one night with a friend who was there to help CG tell her sister that she wanted to enter the convent. Her sister was appalled. She couldn’t understand why CG wanted to do be a nun. Her sister wept that night. I was reminded of the movie Sister Stella L., when her sister asked CG “can’t you serve HIM in ways other than entering the convent?” That was the same line that Jay Ilagan’s character said to Sister Stella L, played by Vilma Santos, in the movie. But CG was head-strong. There was no budging her. She really wanted to do it. She was under 18 years old then and her sister was sort of her guardian. Her sister was helpless and there was nothing that she could do but agree. The next day, CG entered the convent.
CG’s mother was very distraught when she learned that her daughter entered the nunnery. Like Reta, she wanted to reclaim her. CG’s sister felt guilty. She thought that she had not been a good sister to her. They always quarrelled. Also, she convinced their mother that they could manage to live on their own and take care of themselves. But she felt that she failed their mother.
Unlike Norah, who wouldn’t talk to her family, CG’s sister and a few relatives were able to visit and talk to her in the convent. They knew why she went there. And yet her sister blamed herself for not being a good sister.
On the other hand, Reta, who had no idea why Norah chose to live in the streets, blamed men, (novelists, journalists, critics) whom she wrote unmailed letters to. She accused them of shutting out women of the universe, of neglecting to mention them as great writers.
Let’s go back to the word GOODNESS.
In Unless, Reta analyzes this word. In the first chapter, she says, “I don’t know what that word really means, though words are my business. The Old English word wearth, I discovered the other day on the Internet, means outcast; the other English word, its twin, its cancellation, is worth – we know what that means and know to distrust it. It is the wearth that Norah has swallowed.”
In my dictionary, it says, “GOODNESS applies to the inner quality in a person that makes him kind, generous, fair, sympathetic, and otherwise acceptable in character and conduct.”
To Norah, GOODNESS is distributing to other street people nine-tenths of what she gathers in her begging bowl.
To CG, it is serving the Lord, praying to Him, adoring Him.
What do I think goodness is? I think what Terry Fox did is goodness. So does what people are doing to help our less fortunate neighbours. I think it means being compassionate. Being nice and friendly. Forgiving each other. Not breaking the law. Not being judgemental.
The reason why Norah became a beggar is revealed in the final chapter of Unless. What happened to her in the end is also quite similar to what happened to CG. I hate to spoil the ending. So go and check it out. It’s a good read.