When we left Toronto, it was snowing sideways. When we landed in Glasgow eight hours later, the grass was so brightly green it almost hurt to look at. It was February 29, 2020. Eight Canadians had the novel coronavirus. There were no known cases in Scotland the day we arrived.
This was a long-anticipated family adventure. My husband, our three kids, my parents and I were heading to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. It’s an out-of-the-way village in the south west, tucked in between the Irish Sea and the Galloway Hills. We had signed up three years ago to run one of the town’s many bookstores for a week.
“You’re going to what?” my brother-in-law had asked, incredulous. “You paid money to go on holiday and work?”
Exactly! It’s a dream vacation for book lovers! Haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to own a bookstore? People from all over the world travel to Wigtown to become temporary proprietors of the Open Book. You get to live in a cozy flat above the store and spend your days in the shop setting things up just as if it were really yours. This unique Airbnb is so popular that reservations are made years in advance.
I had booked it on February 28, 2017 for the next available date – February 29, 2020. A leap day. Who could have known that the world would be perched on the edge of Regular Life, about to leap off, in March 2020? We sure didn’t realize, as we climbed rocky, sea-side crags, as we happily sorted books, that the very landscapes of life would soon be shifting, all over the globe.
A village of bookshops
Ruth was the first person to welcome us to Wigtown. She runs the bookstore next door.
“Ach, weel, you will nae get many customers this week as the weether is a bit grim, but lots of people from town will pop in to meet you! Annie’ll be by with your shortbread on Thursday. Close up sometimes so you can go and see the sights!”
Many of the other bookshops in town (there are 14!) donate their unsold wares to the Open Book. That’s one reason why no one minds how you run things: revenue from the apartment keeps the store going, not book sales. But this information didn’t dampen our enthusiasm one whit. The kids and I overhauled the children’s section, hanging up posters and finding some newer books to display. We filled the window shelf with Canadian authors for World Book Day. We wrapped a few carefully selected tomes in brown paper and offered customers a Blind Date with a Book. Still, business was slow, though my parents bought at least 12 books! And all of us were keen customers of the other stores in town, until our purchases outpaced sales at our shop.
Through the looking glass
“You haven’t been open much,” someone stopped in to complain. This was another part of the arrangement that we appreciated – the Open Book has no set hours. We could be there eight hours or not at all. Most days, we settled somewhere in between: exploring each morning and working after lunch. “It’s a wee bit boring, isn’t it, just running this shop?” a local customer said. “Make sure you go see a few castles.”
For the avid reader, a bookstore is never boring. And, even better, every time we set out in a new direction it felt like we were wandering into the pages of our favourite books. Trees thick with moss and ivy on the Galloway Hills looked like Narnia. Surely Puddleglum comes from Scotland’s salt-marshes? Desolate, sea-side cliffs reminded us of Middle Earth. The cobblestone alleys of Glasgow look like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, and we felt like Mr. Weasley sorting through Muggle money every time we had to pay for something with British pounds. Plus, there really was a person called St. Mungo! He was one of the first Scottish Christians circa 600 A.D.; we saw his crypt in the ancient Glasgow Cathedral, which still holds weekly Presbyterian services.
And, though we tried to ignore it, news updates about coronavirus kept thrumming in the background all week, slowly getting louder, like background music announcing a villain.
A way through
When we returned home the snow was gone. Our suitcases bulged at the seams with books. It was March 7. Two days before the first death of a Canadian related to COVID-19. In two weeks over 10,000 Canadians would test positive for the virus. With shocking swiftness, everything in the country shut down: schools, stores, businesses, churches.
And you know the next part of the story, because we’re all living through it together.
For five months now, we’ve sheltered-in-place and hoped that would beat the pandemic. We’re grieving our losses, braced for the next plot twist. It feels like we’ve left the literature section and entered science fiction. Headlines have an apocalyptic tone.
“What is it all for?” Frodo, bone-weary with his burden, asks Sam in The Two Towers.
“To realize that there’s still good in the world,” Sam says. Steady, loyal Sam. “And it’s worth fighting for. This darkness won’t last forever.”
With no end to COVID-19 in sight, we need lines like the ones J.R.R. Tolkien gave Sam. We need people like Sam. We need to nourish our imaginations so we can dream up different worlds – not “back to normal” or “the new normal” but entirely fresh ways of learning and worshipping and being in the world.
If church isn’t going back to the way it was, what other shape might the body of believers take?
If school isn’t face to face five days a week, how can we do a better job supporting teachers and parents?
We tend to look backward for answers, like the Israelites freed from slavery and still craning their necks toward Egypt. “Forget the former things!” God says, through Isaiah. “I am doing a new thing!”
With no end to COVID-19 in sight, we need prophets like Isaiah to chide us gently, to bring hope. To draw our attention to what God is doing now. To help us find a way through this pandemic when it seems like there is no easy way forward.
Our family is incredibly grateful for our bookish, Scottish adventure, that last week before the world shut down. It feels now almost like a dream.
If our lives have changed permanently, may God raise up among us more prophets and dreamers for these next chapters.
What about you?
What was the last adventure you had before being told to “stay home”? Send your stories to ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@rotide.