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Beth Powning

by Ann Farrell | December 27, 2001

Now is the time when we look to the beginning of a new year. For many, it is a time of reflection, on what has gone before and what will come after, on what we have been and what we will be. Here is the story of Beth Powning, her unique story that nonetheless contains the universal elements of dark and light, sadness and happiness that make up all of our lives. It comes with a wish that light will prevail in 2002 for you and yours, for the world we share.

In the midst of winter, I finally learned that
there is an invincible summer ...

These words of Albert Camus, French author and philosopher, have had a special resonance in the life of 52-year-old Beth Powning, a successful New Brunswick author who came to Canada from the United States 30 years ago with her husband Peter, a potter.

The stillbirth in 1975 of the couple’s infant son, Tate, has had a sad and lasting effect on their lives, for many years acting as an integral part of how its course was shaped. This was especially so for Beth, whether as daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, writer, potter, actor or peace activist. She writes: “My soul has been a driftwood in its sea. I’ve carried life in my womb, and I’ve carried death. I’ve given birth to both.”

She admits a writer’s is a painful way to look at life, “always wondering why people do the things they do, (but) it helps me understand them better.” However, that has not always been the case when understanding herself.

It was not only the actual death of their son, but especially the callous and insensitive treatment the young couple received at the hospital that stifled the grieving process, not just at the time, but for many years to come. Compounded with this were Beth’s feelings of guilt – common to nearly all parents who lose a child – who somehow believe that if only they had done, or not done whatever it was, death might have been averted. The fact that pregnancy was not a top priority for Beth at that particular period in her life only served to fuel her guilt in a way that was as pervasive as it was irrelevant and, at some level, it led her to define the death as “punishment” for her so-called “rejection” of this pregnancy. All this despite the fact that from the moment she (and Peter) knew she was pregnant, they reveled in all the joys and plans that couples experience when a first baby is on the way.

Dark and futile thoughts such as these were a festering secret that clouded her life for decades, although seldom on a conscious level. While not permanently extinguishing her creative flame, repercussions from this unresolved grief blocked Beth’s vision, and clouded her focus. It was only years later with medical help, and “writing it out” in her highly acclaimed book, Shadow Child, that she was finally released from her demons.

(Shadow Child was published by Penguin Canada in 1999, and subsequently by Carrol and Graf in New York in 2000. This book was on the bestseller list for two weeks, and was featured by Chapters as its “Made in Canada” book of the month. It was also short-listed for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.)

Powning says she has thought of herself as a writer since she was eight, in Connecticut. It is evidently something of a family vocation, as her grandfather taught poetry and Victorian literature. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, New York, where she studied with E.L. Doctorow, and majored in creative writing. Powning’s family are Quakers. A teenaged Beth spent a summer in a mountain village in Mexico with the Mexican Friends (Quaker) Service Committee. Nine thousand feet above sea level, without electricity or water, she describes the experience as “an amazing summer” – one that followed another memorable stay in Bavaria with a family in Omerammergau.

Only 19 and starting out on an acting career, she met Peter on a blind date. In 1972, by now married, the couple packed up and moved to a country home in southern New Brunswick, where Peter could pursue his career as a potter. Beth’s first publication followed soon after, a poem in the Antigonish Review. Next came short stories in publications such as the Tamarack Review, The Canadian Literary Magazine, and Fiddlehead. However, in those days there were more rejection slips than acceptance letters, and Beth grew to dread her trips to the mail box to find another familiar but unwelcome envelope.

Meanwhile she doubled as the potter’s right-hand person, running a pottery shop in the nearby village, going to craft fairs, keeping the books, shipping pots, attending shows, and still managing to rise at 5 a.m. to write, with a pale moon shining down on her solitude before another day in her other roles as potter’s mate, mother and homemaker.

Peter was her first manuscript reader, and, although he was always supportive, Beth admits it was an unenviable task, to be on the receiving end of her see-sawing reactions to his comments, good or otherwise. A novel was finished but not published, and in the end Beth gave up writing (for quite a time). Instead, she decided to learn how to make pots, a dubious decision whose wisdom she would come to recognize. It was a challenge that was particularly daunting considering her husband was fast gaining wide recognition in his craft throughout Canada.

Their son, Jacob (Jake, who is now a maker of swords, another in a family of craftsmen), had been born in 1977, a joyous event as there was a miscarriage between Tate’s death and this second son’s arrival.

Beth would say her life separates cruelly in half from the years before Tate’s death and those afterwards, creating a division that tended to inhibit her progress as a writer, yet ultimately bringing to her work a depth that others do not so readily share. During this period, Beth started a branch of Project Ploughshares (a peace organization) in nearby Sussex, New Brunswick, becoming its president. She also worked with Tools for Peace, an organization that sent tools, books and so on to Nicaragua.

Tate’s death was not the only major loss the Pownings suffered during their early years in Canada. Just one year before Tate’s death, another tragedy had occurred, one that though less harrowing was equally stressful, and sorely tested their resilience and resourcefulness. Peter’s workshop burned to the ground, and it was indeed fortunate that a supportive community and loving family would rally round so that life might go on. Beth’s vegetable garden continued to flourish, and eventually their luck would turn, when they could look forward, albeit with apprehension born of past experience, to the arrival of Jacob to grace the calm beauty of the New Brunswick countryside.

In 1987, Beth’s quest for a fresh creative outlet led her to study photography, initially with a leading Canadian photographer, Freeman Patterson, whose classes were held at Shampers Bluff, not far from Saint John, New Brunswick. There followed two books, the first, Roses for Canadian Gardens (Key Porter 1992), reissued in 2001 with a new cover and more pictures as Hardy Roses. In these books Beth’s photographs accompanied Bob Osborne’s authorship. There followed a second, where Beth was author as well as photographer. Seeds of Another Summer, a Penguin Studio Book, was published in 1996. Shortly after, it was taken up by a U.S. publisher, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, under the title Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. The publishing costs were supplemented by a $10,000 grant from the New Brunswick Environmental Fund. She also photographed Hardy Trees and Shrubs (Key Porter Books 1994–5).

Now Beth has a new book with her agent, a 520-page manuscript called Vanished Lives. She spent two months at the Banff Centre for the Arts working on it, a novel which begins in 1844. In the course of writing it, as part of her research, she spent a week in costume at Kings Landing Historical Settlement in Fredericton.

As a result of her book Shadow Child, Beth still hears regularly from distressed people who want to talk about their grief. She also is becoming more committed than ever before to an ideal she formed when she was about 20, that all the food eaten by her family should be home/organically grown. Her garden continues to grow in size, bearing crops of carrots, beets, potatoes, beans, broccoli, onions, garlic, corn and peas. All this bounty is destined for her root cellar, as well as dried herbs and frozen pesto.

But Beth is seemingly indefatigable and adds: “I have a large and beloved flower garden as well, and a geriatric horse, pony, dog and cats.” To top it all, she became the grandmother of Maeve on July 22, 2001.

Shadow Child: A Woman’s Journey Through Childbirth and Loss , by BETH POWNING, Penguin Books of Canada, Limited | 2001

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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