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Jane Ahlin: Taking us through lens of time, love and grace

Aging makes us humbler. But does it make us wiser?

 Sitting comfortably in my chair on the dock with a cup of coffee, there’s plenty of time to consider the thought. The day is glorious – summer as it is meant to be. A breeze ripples the surface of the lake but falls far short of roiling up waves to blunt the water’s dazzle. I need my sunglasses. And yet, I can’t make myself move away from the spot. In this part of the country, given how seldom we get to use the words “perfect” and “weather” in the same sentence, I think I’d better bask in the experience while it lasts.

The air smells good, gratifyingly fresh. Perhaps I should say almost painfully fresh. In truth, the juxtaposition of pain and pleasure, sunshine and shadow that we all encounter along life’s journey is on my mind. I just finished reading one of those unusual novels that is both fine fiction and a balm for life’s wounds, and among other thoughts, it’s brought the question about wisdom to mind.

Written by Minnesota mystery novelist Kurt Krueger, the name of the book is “Ordinary Grace.” I was hooked in the prologue when Krueger had the Methodist minister, father to the 13-year-old protagonist, quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus: He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. It’s a favorite of mine.

I’m told the novel is a departure from Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series of mysteries. (Confession: I’ve not read them.) Actually, Krueger put a mystery into “Ordinary Grace”; however, it comes over halfway through the novel and is not particularly mysterious. The magic of the book is the narrative voice of Frank Drum remembering his 13-year-old self four decades removed from the pivotal summer of 1961 when five deaths disturbed both the quiet town of New Bremen, Minn., and Frank’s family. At the end of the prologue, the adult Frank Drum says, “I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God.”

For Frank Drum and his 11-year-old brother, Jake, glimpses of wisdom accompany the different kinds of deaths that happen in the summer: accidental, natural causes, murder, and suicide. The story begins with the death of Bobby Cole, a simple boy with a sweet temperament, teased cruelly for being slow in school, who’s hit by a train on the tracks of a railroad trestle. At his funeral, Frank and Jake’s father, Nathan, preaches; their 18-year-old sister, Ariel, plays the organ “shaping music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies”; and their mother, Ruth, sings. Frank says, “And when she finished the sound of the breeze through the doorway was like the sigh of angels well pleased.”

But the family is not perfect. Jake is teased because he stutters; Ariel has the scar from a cleft lip and has taken to slipping out of the house at night; Ruth, having given up her own dreams of a music career to marry Nathan – who was to be a lawyer but came back from World War II changed and became a minister instead – shows her displeasure as a minister’s wife by openly smoking and drinking. She lives vicariously through her daughter who already composes music and is scheduled to go to Juilliard. We also see the flaws of other characters and of the small town, itself, harsh to anyone who strays from its accepted norms. Yet, mostly we see our reliable narrator Frank, taking us back through his lens of time, love, and grace.

And wisdom.

 Attending the funeral for a young boy who died tragically years ago, I was struck by words on the funeral folder: “When the sun shines, get under it.” I think about that while sitting on the dock, too. Maybe the wisdom we’re supposed to glean when we are in shadows along life’s way is the importance of getting out from under them.  Maybe the secret to wisdom is recognizing ordinary grace.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email