In Russell Hoban’s A Bargain for Frances, Frances longs for a blue china tea set, the one with tiny pictures of “trees and birds and a Chinese house and a fence and a boat and people walking on a bridge.” She is saving her money. She confides this wish to her “friend” Thelma one day while they’re playing, and wily Thelma tricks Frances into buying her inferior red plastic tea set instead. Frances is dismayed to find out Thelma then uses the money from the sale to buy the last blue china tea set for herself.
We recently read this story several times a day for days on end, and it made me burning mad each time. Thelma is greedy, deceptive, and infuriating. But Frances teaches her a lesson, strengthens the friendship, and ends up getting her blue tea set too.
In a sense, the longing in the story exists on different levels: Frances yearns for her tea set, but she yearns for a solid friendship, too, rich with trust and generosity.
One of the many great things about reading together is that we talk about words a lot. A while back we came across the word “longing” in The Goblet of Fire. Perhaps Harry was longing for a response by owl post from Sirius Black; or perhaps he was longing (to N’s huge embarrassment) to ask Cho Chang to the Yule Ball. I don’t remember the context, but I do remember the discussion that followed.
“What does ‘longing’ mean?” N asked.
“It means to want something deep in your heart. To want something so much it makes you achey.”
I could see her thinking about that, and trying to settle on her own definition. I started reading again, but soon she stopped me.
“Mom,” she said. “I long for a Maplelea doll.”
And that’s true, really. She does, and she has for two and a half years, since she first saw a flyer for the dolls in a magazine. She’s memorized all the facts about the Maplelea girls — Taryn of Banff who loves wilderness and figure skating, Manitoba Brianne who wants to be a farmer-ballerina, Alexi of Cabbagetown who loves mysteries and anything orange, and Jenna of Lunenburg who has the sea in her blood. And she’s memorized the prohibitive price too, and the fact that the accessories cost extra. (Which is why she’s still longing for one after all this time.)
I continued reading, but soon she stopped me again.
“Mom?” she asked, peering at me. “What do you long for?”
My answer was only partially true: a cottage vacation with my two, away from phone and internet and city smog. It’s just around the corner for us, and we’re all excited. But it doesn’t exactly fit the definition of longing, because when we long for something, we don’t believe it will ever come.
So the question kept rolling around in my mind. It came to me the other day, when I found myself in a mall, one of my least favourite places, searching for a birthday present for my husband. On all sides I was surrounded by massive amounts of stuff that people don’t need but buy anyway. Buy two, get one free. Buy one, get another for half price. Buy one in every colour!
More and more often, I feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff everywhere. Too many t-shirts, too many knick-knacks, too many digital gadgets, too many dolls, too many skirts and sandals and pants and hair clips and earrings and patio this-and-thats. Too much huge furniture for indoors and out, and too many shows to watch while lounging there, eating too many chips with too many flavours. Too many decorative pillows and fancy throws and waggling garden ornaments. And maybe even too many books.
There’s so much of everything everywhere that I sometimes feel myself shutting down, and can’t concentrate on any of it. And so many of us are engaged in making more, and contributing to the ever-growing mass. As I thought about all of this while wandering the mall, I passed a shoe repair shop. Inside was a man working away on a boot, polishing it up until the leather shone and trying the zipper once and then twice. He was totally focused on his task. And I thought, now there’s something useful. Providing a service, rather than more stuff.
That’s what I want to do.
Or maybe I could be a baker. Imagine the satisfaction of getting up early, baking delicious and nourishing breads and buns and bagels, and then selling all of them by mid-afternoon, and waking again the next day to a new day of baking. Do bakers get depressed? Do they ever feel that their work is pointless, or frivolous?
I guess that’s what I long for: the certainty that I’m doing something worthwhile; that what I’m writing resonates and matters. I don’t want fame or buckets of money or fan clubs. I long to feel useful.