Memoir: Freedom

New Work

By Shane Neilson

Like everyone else, I bought Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom in the summer of 2010. Because it is a book of some size, I warmed up to it with preliminaries that required less commitment: short books of poems, short novels, short linked essay collections. The Franzen sat on the shelf, slave to my neglect. Unlike other books from my “new” shelf, Freedom sat there waiting for the right time. And it wasn’t the right time.

A week before I was about to go to Croatia on a second honeymoon (celebrating ten years together with my wife Janet), I pulled the Franzen down. I needed a book that would last a good part of the two weeks I’d be in Croatia, a book that I could sit with next to the Adriatic. I also knew I needed to invest in it before we caught the plane because if I brought it along without preparation, I’d just cart it to Split, Nin, and Vir as a heavy brick, unread.

I read the first section three days before we boarded the international flight. The lives of Walter and Patty Berglund troubled me. Franzen is, above all, a writer of marriage. It’s said he’s a social novelist, a writer about the family, but the key to his imaginative kingdom is the strange sanctity of marriage. I read about the frustrated constancy of Walter, the patriarch, and the raging stifling of Patty, the matriarch, and though the lives of these two characters are much distinguished from my own life and my own marriage, the real genius of Franzen is to take the marriage he depicts and write it as if it applies to everyone – which it does, of course, if it captures marriage itself. Many of us have worn those ill-fitting shoes. The Berglunds are failing and yet they are in love. As I thought about Croatia, about the grim survivorship of the Berglunds and about my own marriage, I realized that I had to stop reading until I myself arrived at a place where marriages are renegotiated, or redeemed, or lost.

The Friday before our flight was Canada Day. I was scheduled to work a book table at McCrae House, the Guelph museum that preserves the memory of Dr. John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields.” The museum building is the actual house McCrae grew up in, and behind the house is a memorial garden where ceremonies are held on Remembrance Day. There, a huge garden of red poppies and manicured trees surround a cenotaph. I carried ten copies of my book, Field Hospital: The Last Writings of Lt. Colonel John McCrae, in paper wrap. The table was already set up underneath a large maple and I arranged my books in two neat piles. I’ve been to my share of readings and book signings, but I’d never had such a personal investment in the subject.

I first learned of McCrae through the best medium of all: poetry. Back in New Brunswick, school children were expected to memorize and recite “In Flanders Fields” every day in the short lead to November eleventh. I remember thinking of graves, zombies, poppies, and the wind, but I also remember I didn’t know what sacrifice was, the kind of sacrifice that drives men from their wives and more often than not leaves them dead; but the poem transferred a charge to my young self that still could be intuited, a charge that survived the class’s zombie-like recitation. For some reason, I seized then on the image of a lark. In adulthood, I learned that it is the bird of folly.

Like McCrae, I am a physician. I never attained the heights McCrae did in medical circles – he was a darling of William Osler and won the gold medal in his class at McGill – but I nevertheless share his professional interest in death. I’m a poet too and have long wondered how to write a book about war. Poetry, war, physicianship, and nation – all birds of folly.

Safely set up at my book table, I watched people file in. Families with young children who wanted to do McCrae House before heading down to Riverside Park’s free carousel and train rides; elderly men and women with some remembering to do; active militia members who’d eventually engage in mock drill exercises; nineteenth century battle re-enacters with muskets and affected British accents. Near the cenotaph, a quartet stood on an erected stage. They did a barbershop version of the Canadian national anthem.

By now forty or so people sat on chairs, unprotected from the sun. After the anthem, a group of highland dancers took the stage. The dancers’s ages varied wildly – some of the girls were teenaged and quite advanced in technique, but the youngest were perhaps four years old, only able to kick and jump with a rudimentary synchronicity.

The first dancer to take the stage stirred an odd sensation in me. What costume was she wearing?  Not the traditional tartan skirt, white blouse, and socks I know from attendance at many Highland Games competitions in Atlantic Canada. Instead, she wore a sailor’s uniform, fitting in with the martial environment. Most strange of all was her race: in Atlantic Canada, all the dancers were white, most of Scottish ancestry. In this case, the dancer was Chinese – and she proved to be the most talented dancer of the day.

Though Canada inflicted a number of historical wrongs on its people – the Chinese Head Tax is but one example – and will continue to do so (the Aboriginal population faces a perpetual problematic), it’s fair to say that Canada’s great advantage is its freedom, an advantage attested to by anyone who lived in despotic and tyrannical regimes.

My first book table visitor was a mentally challenged woman. She had just been to the free cake tent. The cake was a sticky mess of jam and icing and the woman wore stains on the front of her dress. Her hands were covered in raspberry and cream paste. She picked up a book and started to mark every page she touched with fingerprints.

I looked across the garden at another author attending McCrae House festivities. This fellow had a genuine display – a large acoustic guitar resting on its mount. Around the guitar were placards extolling the virtues of his book, The Storytelling Guitar. What was he was doing here on Canada Day? There are worse forms of war profiteering, I suppose. He was doing good business. I wrote off the cake copy and gave it to the woman’s embarrassed elderly mother, who had trouble keeping up with her daughter.

That day a handful of other people touched Field Hospital. I refused to explain the book except to say that the cover of the book was real canvas – just like the material used to make hospital tents. Some people asked about McCrae. I tried to answer them. People mostly wanted a good day out, a sunny time spent partaking of the free stuff on offer – entertainment, food, and the time of fools. After the militiamen left for the larger park next to the Speed River to fire their guns, I took out my mobile and wondered if there might be free wifi. Three locked networks appeared on the screen; one of these networks was called “Freedom.”

It was hot and I had to spend four hours in the worst of it. One of McCrae’s biographers discusses McCrae’s toughness, describing how McCrae slept in tents with the regular men, even in the wintertime with frost forming on his face. He slept with “the men” rather than in officer quarters. He finally had to be ordered to sleep with his fellow officers when he developed the pneumonia that would kill him.

Over the course of the four hours, I slowly read my book again. What would McCrae think of my zombie manoeuvre: taking his voice and animating it with words he’d never say? What would he think of the crowd assembled around his home on a day dedicated to the free country he fought for? I suppose he’d think me like the mentally challenged woman: gluttonously consuming what was there for the taking, ruining it with my filthy hands, and cackling onwards for more fun.

At the end of the afternoon, the militiamen put away their muskets. I packed up my books, carefully sliding them back into their protective papers. I caught Cake Lady looking at the cenotaph. She had the free copy of Field Hospital in her hand. I left McCrae house and drove to where my wife and children were riding the train and carousel at Riverside Park. People took up positions so as to watch the fireworks that were to close the evening. Pregnant teenagers romped about, some of the mothers-to-be already chasing after a child. They showed their huge, bare, inked bellies proudly. This too is another kind of freedom.

We left the carousel and walked along the Speed River. At the entrance to a bridge was a team of buskers. A young man played the drums with vigour, keeping a beat that could be heard across the park. He threw himself at the drums, leaning over them, leaning back, his eyes occasionally turned upwards in rapture. Next to him, another young man, heavily bearded and magnificently reclined, strummed a guitar. The buskers had an orange placard with red lightning bolts and a yellow sun set up in front of them. Big block letters announced the name of their group: Freedom to Be. Their freedom looked to be a brisk business – change from the carousel rides and ice cream counter ended up in a top hat in front of the man with the guitar.

Stuck on a plane with over twelve hours before we would land in Europe, I pulled Freedom out of my carry-on.  I read more about the Berglunds, about how the matriarch and the patriarch lived parallel lives colliding only in absence, regret, and thwarted love. Walter and Patty never knew how much they needed each other until they didn’t have each other anymore. The word to describe their marriage is: displaced. They left one another and continued living in parallel until they realized that their separateness was false: each action or thought was interpreted in response to memory and what either really wanted, which was to be together again. Though both granted each other the greatest –and most necessary – kind of freedom, the freedom to leave, they were also free to come back.

The story ends free from happiness, free from anything realized except need: the Berglunds decide that freedom is like the image of a beautiful cerulean warbler that adorns the cover of Franzen’s Freedom. In terms of marriage, freedom, in other words, is for the birds.


On the island of Vir, children dive from a rocky outcrop into shallow water, coached and encouraged by their parents. Parents wade into the cooling Adriatic and float in brine. Young men drive onto the dock and drink. Mothers remove the upper part of their bathing suits and take sun. In the fourteenth century, Venetians clear-cut the adjacent mountains and took the wood necessary to make Venice float. Subsequent erosion made the mountains bald, and the people of Vir are free to complain. Which they do.

I pull out my notebook and wonder about the secret of marriage. What endures? What’s inextricable? What makes us want one another? Why are we doomed to indifference? My host here reads a John Grisham novel in Dutch, a book large enough in size to rival Freedom. I start to write in a form with both the greatest freedom and constraint. I write a poem about a wedding I witnessed in Trogir when walking about the city with my wife. We watched men in sashes and uniforms sing traditional songs while circling the bride and groom. The groom wore a black tuxedo and looked like he was spared what the other men had had to drink. The bride wore impeccable white and looked as if she had climbed down from the stuccoed walls of the church.

Done with the first draft, I reach into my bag and pull out a package sent to me from Victoria. Inside the package is a book designed by the same woman who created Field Hospital. I got up from the porch recliner and walked to the beach, where my wife was people-watching. I grabbed Janet by the hand and led her towards the sea. I gave her the package and watched carefully as she opened it.

The cover bore the image of a rose preserved for fifty years, the rose kept from the designer’s own wedding. I watched my wife read a few of the poems I had written for her and bound in a book of a single edition, poems as fraught as the Berglund’s own history. She and I ran back up to the cottage and placed the book where it couldn’t be destroyed. Then we ran back down to the water again and entered the sea.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Shane Neilson

SHANE NEILSON is a poet from New Brunswick. He will publish The River and The Road, a book of criticism on Maritime poetry, with the Porcupine’s Quill in 2017.