At eighty-eight, Geoff is blind in one eye and quickly losing eyesight in the other. We spend Mondays together. Introducing me to his bookshelf one day, he said wistfully, “I bought all these books for the day when I would have time to read. Now that I have the time, my eyesight has gone bad, so I sit here and wonder.” During our visits Geoff and I wander the universe, exploring black holes and the Big Bang and pondering why anyone would want to constrict the Master of the Universe into creating all things in six earth days.
His wife died fifteen years ago, and Geoff dreads the day he’ll have to leave his small house with its view across a dam to willows that provide a regular evening roost for a flock of cattle egrets. Like many older folk in these parts, his windowsill is cluttered with an amazing array of agates, crystals, and fossils picked up over the years on various excursions.
Soon after I started coming to visit Geoff, we agreed to set aside Monday afternoons for reading, and it was not long before Geoff mentioned a book that was not on his shelf because he had given away all his copies. Could I find Mister God, This is Anna and read that next? I scoured the town’s bookshops, without any luck. Then someone found the book at the Salvos. Soon Geoff and I were roaming the streets of London’s East End in the company of the book’s two main characters: Fynn, the narrator, and Anna, a child he befriends.
A surprise awaited me near the start of the book. Fynn writes:
After the evening meal I always read to Anna, books on all manner of subjects from poetry to astronomy. After a year of reading, she ended up with three favorite books. The first was a large picture-book with nothing in it but photographs of snowflakes and frost patterns.
“I know that book!” I burst out excitedly to Geoff. My dad loved geometric shapes, and our house was never lacking in geodesic models and dodecahedrons suspended from the ceiling. We also had a large collection of books detailing the astounding mathematical patterns found in nature. None was more beloved than the Dover edition of Wilson Bentley’s 1931 Snow Crystals containing over 2000 photographs of snowflakes and frost patterns.
As I became acquainted with Anna, I understood why Bentley’s work fascinated her so much. It was because each individual snowflake, painstakingly photographed with the aid of a compound microscope, perfectly illustrated her understanding of how “Mister God” had ordered the world. In fact, many of her insights into the universe were at once simple and profound.
Take Anna’s love of the night, which is something Geoff and I share:
“The sun is nice,” said Anna, “but it lights things up so much that you can’t see very far.”
I agreed that sometimes the sun was so dazzling that on occasions one was quite blinded. That wasn’t what she meant.
“Your soul don’t go very far in the daylight ’cos it stops where you can see.”
“That supposed to make sense?” I asked.
“The nighttime is better. It stretches your soul right out to the stars. And that,” she pronounced, “is a very long way. In the nighttime you don’t have to stop going out… The nighttime stretches you.”
It certainly does here in rural New South Wales, where Geoff has lived all his life. “I used to go out on clear nights with my 1930 Triumph four-stroke motorbike,” he recalled. “The headlamp never did work, but that didn’t matter. I rode by starlight!”
According to Anna, the nighttime “stretches you out big. It makes the box big.” Indeed, Anna could not reconcile herself much to school or church, where Mister God was confined to boxes that seemed to get smaller and smaller. She understood language to be divided into two parts; the problem with school and church was that both “seemed to be more concerned with the answer part of the language than with the question part of the language.” Fynn explains it this way:
Of the two, the question part of the language was the most important. The answer part had a certain satisfaction, but it was nowhere near as important as the question part. Questions were a sort of inner itch, an urge to go forward. Questions, that is real questions, had this about them, they were risky things to play about with, but they were exciting. You never quite knew where you were going to land.
That perfectly describes Mondays with Geoff. We never know quite where we are going to land. How could it be any different with someone who spends a good part of his day wondering?
Geoff knows he doesn’t have much time in front of him. But this does not particularly bother him, just like old Granny Harding in the book. Geoff started going to church at age twenty-seven, following the death of his mother. By contrast, when Granny Harding died she “went to church for the second time in her life.” As the book’s narrator reflects:
Dying could be a bit of a problem, but not if you had really lived. Dying needed a certain amount of preparation and the only preparation for dying was real living, the kind of preparation old Granny Harding had made during her lifetime. We had sat, Anna and I, holding Granny Harding’s hands when she died.
Granny Harding was glad to die; not because life had been too hard for her, but because she had been glad to live. She was glad that rest was near, not because she had been overworked but because she wanted to order, wanted to arrange, ninety-three years of beautiful living, wanted to play it all over again. “It’s like turning inside out, my dears,” she had said.
Granny Harding died smiling…She died happily because she had lived happily.
I think it will be the same for Geoff. And I’m glad Mister God arranged for the two of us to land up in the same small town in the Australian bush. I think he too is glad, and looks down on us and smiles.