That last profoundly mysterious verse from Robert Frost’ great poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, came to mind as I walked the dogs down Cathedral Drive just after sunset.
Great poems come in different ways: in some the wording is complex, thoughtful, and for some readers, obscure to a degree or more regarding the meaning. In others, like Stopping by Woods, the wording is simple and straightforward, while seeming to be perfectly well-chosen. It’s as if the poet doesn’t want the words – too many, and too heavy – to get in the way. I think it’s true to say a great poem often essentially writes itself. The words come on a wave of inspiration, and the poet has a sense they are merely the vessel through which the words flow. The same goes with great music. Still, there may be skillful work to do, to carefully polish the gem without ruining it. Stopping by Woods is that kind of great poem, and a miracle of words because so much of what it says is without words.
The opening line, for example, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” I go back to that time and time again, as I did this evening, knowing full well what it’s about in my heart and soul, after almost 80 years of life on this little jewel of a planet: so wonderful, so troubled, so joyful, yet so terribly heartbreaking and too often hard to bear.
We all grow weary, do we not? It is the tragic sense of life, my children, my friends, my fellow member of the human family. We all share it, one way or another, and we all have our own way of dealing with it, or not.
So yes, no doubt there is a tree, under which a man could lay down and find some rest, snow and cold or not. Yes, it is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” to quote Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Now there’s a poet, Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about ‘the tragic sense of life’ and all the bittersweet rest of it, to be sure.
In Stopping by Woods, Frost finally speaks of having “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” His repetition of that last line is the most perfect expression of the mood, the fate we all share, the need after all to “keep on keeping on,” as many of us often say in our plain-speaking way.
What I saw that helped me feel hopeful about keeping on, and hopeful for what tomorrow might bring for the world in general, was the line of setting-sun light on the horizon, beyond the woods, below the clouds.
I took it as a sign. One never knows what the next moment will bring, something good, something wonderful, a new day in every sense of those two, simple words.
“Keep your heart and mind open to the possibility of wonder: you never know what the next moment will bring.”
Recently, I have found myself saying that often, especially when someone I know, or have just met, talks about a personal struggle they’re experiencing to the point of despair, or how much they’re troubled about the terrible state of the world.
The wonder that might be seen, heard, or thought in the next moment may not save the world. It may be a relatively small thing in the broader personal or global context; but if it lifts your spirits to suddenly see the rising sun shining bravely through a small break in dark clouds, that is also wonderful. Let it lift and embrace you, and give you hope. “Anything is possible,” I often end up saying.
I took that attitude to heart myself just over a week ago when I ran into trouble trying to get to Kingston via Toronto to visit my daughter at her horse farm in rural, eastern Ontario.
I had it all worked out. At least I thought so; except what’s the point of having a plan if you don’t write it down and pay attention to it?
So, instead arriving at Guelph Central Station in time to catch a 12:55 pm GO bus to Union Station in Toronto, that bus had already left. I assured my good friend and son-in-law Ryan not to worry, and to head back north. I still had four hours to get to Union Station, even if I had to take another GO bus to Square One, in Mississauga, and then transfer to yet another one.
Fortunately, as it turned out, I took a seat near the driver, after he showed me how to scan my Visa card on a thingy near the door. Other people boarding the bus, most if not all of them, had something called a ‘Presto’ card to scan, as if they’ve done it every day, twice a day or more, for years, which they no doubt have. I, on the other hand, haven’t used public transit in the Toronto area since the virtual, technical Stone Age.
Yes, my children, I am old enough and far enough removed from those days to remember when a child could board the Queen Street West streetcar and drop a nickel into the fare box for a trip downtown. And then when the Yonge Street subway, Toronto’s first, was built and running in 1954, I could put a quarter into a fare box at a glass booth watched over by an actual person at every station.
So, to put it mildly, I was feeling my age, and like a stranger from the boondocks, though Toronto is my hometown (with a couple of breaks to live for a few years on southern Ontario farms). But it has been 42 years since I moved up to the Bruce (Saugeen) Peninsula, and I could count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve been back. And that’s when I was still driving.
But then on the troubled trip some wonderful things started to happen, and this is the real subject of this story: the kindness of strangers who helped me on my way.
When the second driver gone on the bus to await his turn to take over the wheel at a stop before Square One, the first driver brought him over to where I was sitting and explained that I was trying to get to Union Station to catch a Via Rail train leaving there at 5:32 pm. The second driver nodded his head as he looked at me with an expression that told me he would do what he could to help me get there on time. And he did indeed, or perhaps I should say, he tried his best.
He was driving the bus when it reached Square One. I was the last person to get up to leave when he told me I’d be better off to stay on the bus as he drove it south into Toronto to the Kipling bus terminal where it was to be parked for the night. There, he said, I would be able to get on a Bloor Street subway train, which would take me to the Yonge Street subway; and then I could take a southbound train to Union Station. My experience years ago on the subway told me he was right. It was my best hope to get to Union Station quickly by avoiding surface traffic.
I thanked him for his help and checked the time. I had less than 45 minutes to get on the train to Kingston. “Be sure you get off at the St. George stop, and go south on the Yonge Street subway,” he said helpfully. I nodded my head and reassured him I understood.
I want to say something here for a moment. I don’t routinely identify people by their ethnicity. I believe there is one human family of many nations, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction. I am proud of Canada’s multicultural, welcoming diversity. I want to make a point of saying both these drivers appeared to be of an east Indian nationality, likely either immigrants to Canada or first-generation; and they are my friends now even though I only met them once and may never meet them again.
I missed my train by five minutes; but that’s my fault: with their help I almost made it.
I maybe could have stayed overnight somewhere in Toronto and taken a train to Kingston early the next morning. But my daughter Susan, who I was going to visit, wouldn’t hear of it. If I could take a GO train as far east as possible, to Whitby or Oshawa, she would drive there from her farm north of Kingston and pick me up.
With help from a security guard at Union Station, I quickly found the GO Rail area. I approached a woman identified as a GO employee, there to help folks like me. She helped me use my Visa card to buy a ticket to Oshawa, then walked with me to the platform where that train would soon be arriving. She was genuinely kind and helpful and wished me well.
It was late when my daughter and I reached her beautiful farm-home where I spent a lovely week. The trip there did not go as smoothly as I had hoped; and yet I have nothing but good thoughts about it as I think about the kindness of the good people who helped me.
I also think about the woman and her husband on the GO bus who were on their way to Pearson Airport and with whom I had a pleasant conversation. Turns out they had recently been guests at a friend’s cottage on the peninsula, and they were also avid gardeners.
It’s still there in my list of favorite movies; right up there with Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc; Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon; Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring; Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront; Grigory Chukray’s Ballad of a Soldier; and most recently Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent.
Although the original film version of The Poseidon Adventure, was the top-grossing movie of 1973, most reviewers didn’t regard it as anything that special: just an above average example of the then-popular disaster-movie genre with an exceptional cast. They included previous Academy Award Oscar winners Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, and Red Buttons. It was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two second-tier awards, one for Best Original Song, ‘The Morning After,’ the other for Special Effects. Hackman won the British Academy Film award for Best Actor in a Starring Role, and Winters won the Globe aware for Best Supporting Actress. Summarizing 25 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes gives The Poseidon Adventure a modestly good score of 6.94 out of 10.
I’m not even going to go there, other than to say 20th Century Fox, the producers, and director Ronald Neame could have done a better job of first realizing, and then focusing more on what I regard as the story’s powerful, allegorical message of hope.
Based on a 1969 novel by Paul William Gallico, I can only suspect “adventure” was added to the book and movie title to attract a mass audience. Fair enough, especially if, as a result more people get the message consciously or subconsciously; and remember it now meaningfully, as I do, in a world turned upside-down.
Here in a nutshell is what The Poseidon Adventure is about: The Poseidon is an aging ocean liner on its last voyage before heading to the scrap yard. It is New Year’s Eve, and the clock is about to strike Midnight. There has been an earthquake deep in the waters of the Mediterranean Ocean. A huge Tsunami wave strikes the ship, causing it to capsize. Sensational scenes of chaos and death ensue in the great banquet hall where New Year’s celebrations are in full swing when the everything is suddenly turned upside down. There appears to be no way out as explosions rock the ship, leaving only a small portion of the hull above water. However, learning from another passenger that the thinnest part of the hull is at the propeller shaft beyond the engine room, Reverend Frank Scott instinctively sees hope. He begins to urge people around him not to give up and soon has a small group willing to join him in a journey through the bowels of the stricken ship. He calls on others to join his little group and climb a tall Christmas Tree raised up to a door in the now upside-down banquet hall. Most survivors gather around the ship’s purser, the officer in charge of money and material needs. Others try to climb the tree after all, but under the weight of too many people, and with the explosions continuing, the tree falls.
Rev. Scott, played by Hackman, and his group begin their journey. They include a Jewish couple from New York on their way to Israel to see their newborn grandson; a police detective and his wife, a former prostitute who he loves dearly; the ships singer; a young brother and sister going to meet their parents on holiday in Greece; and a mild-mannered, life-long bachelor obsessed about his physical health.
With Rev. Scott’s help and advise they overcome many obstacles. At one point, he gets into trouble swimming underwater in a flooded area to find the best way forward. He is saved by the middle-aged Jewish woman, played by Winters, who just happens to have been a competitive swimmer. But as a result, she has a heart attack and dies.
They come upon an area where the way forward seems impossible. Down below is a deep chasm of burning oil. Before them, just out of reach, is a valve spewing burning-hot steam. The detective’s beloved wife slips and falls to her death. The broken-hearted detective, played by Borgnine, angrily blames Rev. Scott. He in turn vents his anger at God.
“How many more sacrifices? How much more blood? How many lives?” the admittedly unorthodox minister asks God. “You want another life? Take me,” he cries, before jumping over the burning chasm to grab hold of the burning-hot valve.
Gradually, slowly, with painful effort he turns the valve off. But his strength is fading.
“You can make it,” he calls out to the survivors of his group. “Keep going,” he says.
He turns to the detective, still grieving the loss of his beloved wife. “Get them through,” Rev. Scott says, falling to his death
And so the detective does, until they finally reach the point where the propeller shaft goes through the thinnest part of the hull; but they have no tools. What can they do? They hear a sound outside, the roar of a helicopter engine, and boots walking above them. They begin to bang on the hull. Those above hear it. Soon, an acetylene torch is cutting through the metal. A hole big enough for people to get through is opened. Hands reach down to pull them up.
Then we see the helicopter taking off again into the sky with the only survivors of the Poseidon aboard.
That’s hardly a ‘nutshell,’ I guess.
So be it. Just as well: it doesn’t leave much room for too many words of discussion, analysis, and argument about the meaning of it all. Some might say there is none; others of a certain evangelical religious bent might see a transcendental message, the helicopter being a metaphor for the long-awaited fulfillment of ‘end time’ prophecies
If he were alive today, I might ask Paul Gallico what meaning he meant; but from what I’ve read about him I have a hunch the very prolific author/journalist would laugh uproariously.
I won’t judge or question. I will only I say what I still see: a message of profound hope: hope for life, and for those who weep and struggle in these seemingly hopeless times to keep up their spirits, but who ultimately renew their love and their faith in life, and do not give up.
As many of my millions of readers will know, I live in anticipation of the next wonderful and often surprising moment.
They may not necessarily have global significance, except in so far as in that moment there could also be a meaningful message that might help someone on this still-beautiful, little planet get through their day and find hope for the future. And that is no small thing, after all.
And so, I offer this moment in my garden, leading possibly to yet more wonderful and surprising moments:
It began ordinarily enough: In early July I decided it was time to spread the compost pile that began during and after last years garden season as I worked the garden and to a large extent lived off the produce through the winter. The strawberry patch had finished producing, so I spread what appeared to be well-done compost in between the rows. About a week later I was amazed when I saw that hundreds of squash plants had ‘volunteered’ to germinate.
“Look at us,” I imagine them now crying out to me at the time, “we survived. We didn’t want to go off into the compost realm of being, however interesting it might be. We wanted to live again, as Squash.”
Now, you may wonder at the state of mind that considers such fancies. But in my dotage I have learned to let it “all hang out” finally, to have a little imaginative fun, when there’s no harm done. Call it freedom.
At any event, I let the volunteers grow, but was again amazed to see even more emerge, pushing their way through the crowd until it was obvious they would all soon make a canopy over the overwhelmed strawberry plants. So, I made a choice, first to thin the squash crowd, then transplant the best to a row of their own where I had planned a couple of new rows of strawberries as the runners from the existing rows spread that way. I reasoned that by the time the squash produced a late crop in September, assuming no early frost, that the ground would still be available for strawberries after the squash was harvested.
The other part of that reasoning was complicated by the fact I didn’t really know what to expect, regarding the type of squash the volunteers were likely to be. I had grown a couple of types of squash the previous season, including one I called my “weird” squash because it was derived from seeds I had saved from the 2020 season when I planted two varieties too close together and got a surprise hybrid that turned out to be remarkably colorful, and tasty, but hard to cut open.
So, “to make a long story short” as I say way too often, it remains to be seen what the volunteers will be. So far as I can tell from the fruit just starting to form, it looks like a butternut/acorn combination ‘winter’ squash.
Time will tell.
I find it very interesting to experiment in the garden like that, following an intuition not to get too carried away. There’s more than enough of that going on. Yes, of course, a good deal of selection has taken place over the thousands of years human beings have domesticated and naturally developed plants for consumption. But genetically engineering plants seems to me to be treading where we don’t belong. For example, vast quantities of corn, sweet corn included, have been bio-engineered with bacillus thuringiensis, a natural organism present in soil. In concentrated form it has been used, myself included, for years as an organic pesticide, harmless to humans, to control corn borer and corn earworms. They were not indigenous to North America, but once introduced accidentally years ago, there was always a big risk of a spoiled crop. But now, one of the problems with GMO-BT corn is – because “nature abhors a vacuum” – the sweet corn pests are already becoming immune to BT.
Speaking of squash again, squash bugs are a pest that often attack squash plants. I am very reluctant to use even organic, insecticidal soap to control them, mainly because I often see bumblebees and other pollinators feeding on the pollen of those beautiful, bright orange squash plants. So far this year, there doesn’t appear to be a serious squash bug problem in the several plantings of butternut squash and among the ‘volunteers.’
So, all things considered, I am looking forward to a wonderful squash harvest this fall.
It’s been 40 years since I came here to help the late Wilma Butchart and her son Cliff bring in the hay from that beautiful back field that reached out to the depth of their old farm lot, with the mature hardwood forest on either side.
Wilma and Cliff were the first Hope Ness residents we met in the late spring of 1979 when my then wife, Colleen, and I moved up from Toronto to Hope Ness. They welcomed us in the traditional way, with a gift of home-cooked goodness, a generous smile, and kind words. We became friends, and thanks to Wilma and Cliff we learned a lot about the history of Hope Ness, especially the Dow Chemical ‘takeover’ in the mid-1960s. (I have written previously about that in Finding Hope Ness at this link.)
Hope Ness was saved from the terrible fate of being turned into a huge quarry when Dow decided not to go through with its plans, and the Ontario government ended up owning the 2,000 acres (810 hectares) Dow had bought for a measly $5,000 acres per 100-acre farm. But most of the homes and barns had already been demolished, except for the Butchart farm, where Dow had set up its on-site base of operations. Wilma and Cliff continued to live there as tenants when the province took over ownership. Eventually, they managed to get title back to the house, barn other out-buildings, and 5.9 acres. They were also able to continue cutting and taking the hay off the back field to feed their livestock. That permit stopped seven years ago when Cliff passed away. Coincidentally, the province decided about the same time to stop issuing any more such permits on its Hope Ness land. That includes the Hope Bay Nature Reserve which surrounds the former Butchart home and property which I now own, and where I live.
I keep the hay cut on the small part of the back field I own. Beyond that I can see the new tree growth is now well underway. Already, that part where the forests on either side were nearest has begun to close, like a door on the past.
I remember being out there with them, Wilma driving the same Massey-Ferguson 65 tractor I’m still trying my best to keep in good shape, me tossing the bales up onto the hay wagon, and Cliff building the load. And so it went, back and forth to the barn to unload, for several days.
Invariably now, as I stand beside the barn and look out from there over that field as the trees and other seasonal-wetland vegetation take it over again, I also think about the years of back-breaking work that went into clearing that land. And also, the intense work that went into digging wells to help drain it, as often happened in those days. The most remarkable, where the back field begins, is a 20-ft deep well, carefully and expertly walled with stone and cement. That well also served as the main source of water for the house and pasturing livestock. It seems almost unimaginable, and yet I can see it after all in my mind’s eye: the men down below in the darkness, rocks and soil being hauled up by others. By the end of the spring run-off that well is always full to the brim. I use it to water my market garden as needed, which is often, this dry 2022 season especially.
All that work began in Hope Ness after 1880 when the first owner, John Heath, bought the 100-acre lot for “one hundred dollars,” according to the Crown Patent. Other Hope Ness settlers arrived about the same time from down south, or from ‘the old country.’ They had hopes; they had dreams; they worked their hearts out. For some it was too much to bear. Others stayed and survived, with more hard work that we nowadays can hardly fathom. Eventually, by the time the man from Dow showed up that fateful day, there was “a farm on every hundred acres,” as I heard it said in the summer of 1979. And even then, it was still a hard-scrabble, subsistence way of life. So, $5,000 must have seemed like a lot of ‘cash money,’ and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance for something better.
I do know that Wilma Butchart (Tucker), born and raised in Hope Ness, never wanted to leave. She loved this land, and the walk through what she called “the Cathedral Woods” to the lookout over Hope Bay, and Georgian Bay beyond. It was her refuge, her special, even sacred, place.
As a child and young woman born and raised on the nearby Tucker homestead, she loved to walk through the woods. She told me of seeing First Nation people from their nearby Nawash community across Hope Bay gathering edibles and natural remedies in those same woods. She spoke respectfully of that experience. I’m sure she would have joined them, being who she was. And she certainly would not have thought it amiss in any way; on the contrary, she would have welcomed them.
As I look out across that field, I wonder also how much time it takes to have a true heritage, a feeling for a place, the land, the waters, that goes so deep it becomes an essential part of one’s being. Less than 100 years of non-Indigenous settlement had passed since 1880 by the time Dow showed up in the mid-1960s; and little more than 100 years since the Treaty of 1854 that opened the Saugeen Peninsula for settlement was signed under controversial circumstances. The era of settlement is not “since time immemorial,” it is fair enough to say.
And what of me? Am I, who wasn’t even born here, entitled to feel that I truly belong here, this place where I feel so much at home, which I love, as if it was always meant to be? Or is that a foolish thing to say, let alone think under all the circumstances?
I ask these questions sincerely, without any underhand motive. It’s just a question, from my heart to other hearts who know what it means to love their heritage.
Rising more or less at first light, the beloved ritual of morning coffee and quiet reflection duly observed, the online morning news perused – the Tiananmen Pillar of Shame unceremoniously removed by a paranoid regime at Hong Kong University; a reclusive American heiress living in Italy getting a lot of attention for inadvertently funding the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capital — I look up from the screen for a glimpse out the kitchen window facing west. The sky is a lovely, soft, azure-pink color. Astonishing.
I am moved to capture it: I grab my camera and go outside quickly as the dogs complain, wondering why they’re being left behind. But, outside, the moment has already passed, enough that the pink hue in the sky has started to fade.
I should know better, I tell myself, than to think I can, even for a brief moment, stop the natural flow of the world. “What conceit, man!” I tell myself. Buddy and Sophie, look at me questionably, appearing to agree. I give them their morning meal, and, with their usual joyful anticipation, we begin our morning walk down Cathedral Drive toward our waiting Touchstone.
Right away, I take note of the profound stillness in the air: not like yesterday morning when the nearby forests on both sides of the ‘no exit’ road roared in the strong wind, each trunk and infinity of winter-bare branches an instrument within the perfect, natural orchestra. I stop to observe the uppermost branches of ash and wild apple trees along the sides of the road: not a hint of a tremble among them.
In due course, I know, the still air will soon begin to move as the sun rises, prompting the winds to play their part again in the chorus of life.
But in the silence there is also music: a calmness of spirit, a moment of quiet reflection, a gathering of strength. The sky knows, the clouds know, the sun knows, the trees know, and every big or small creature in the forest, in the grass, and in the soil under the new, snow cover; they all know.
The music does not have to be analyzed, picked apart and explained, though that doesn’t necessarily hurt if you keep the essential ‘thou’ in mind: above all, it is heard and understood in the great mystery of heartfelt wonder and appreciation.
And so, dear hearts, this is how we nourish ourselves, as creatures of the world and of the spirit. And, just as important, this is how we nourish, and bring peace and hope to a troubled world.
So said my father when he first set eyes on me, just brought home from the hospital, when I happened to open my eyes just as he looked down into the crib. He covered his eyes with an arm and looked away in surprise, and, apparently, shock. That’s the story my mother told me many times when I was a boy. For some reason she never explained, or perhaps knew; in which case she must have felt instinctively it was something I should always remember.
And, so I have, though not precisely this morning when the sun rose in a mostly bright, blue sky. A few clouds were gathering on the horizons over Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The day stayed cold and bright until late afternoon. But by early evening dark clouds were rising up on the horizons over Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, to the west and east respectively. I fed Buddy and Sophie, and a few minutes later we went for our ‘evening walk’ down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone.
I started thinking about how certain great poems or lines from Shakespearean plays have often come to mind; and not always when I’m in a mood and need that consolation. Sometimes, just the sound of words spoken dramatically, with the wind roaring through the bare branches of late-fall or winter trees — sometimes that’s more than enough reason; and I hold forth with lines like:
“Dark hills in the west, where sunset hovers like a sound of golden horns that sang to rest, old bones of warriors under ground,” the first few lines of The Dark Hills, one of my favourite poems, by the American poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson.
That led me to thinking about my father and how from an early age he loved words and devoured the great works of English literature, especially poetry, Shakespearean plays, and the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who he regarded as an underrated author.
My father certainly certainly encouraged my own interest. I remembered one time in particular when I was 11 and we were still together as a family. He came into the living room and noticed I was reading a seriously thick, hardcover book. I think I got it from the school library.
“What are reading?” he asked. “Two Years Before the Mast,” I replied. He lit up with keen interest and recognition. He didn’t have to say, he had read it: it was written in his eyes. “A good book for a young man to read,” he said, as he sat down beside me. “You must be enjoying. I see you’re more than halfway through it. Good for you. Quite a story, isn’t it?” It was Richard Henry Dana’s classic, 1840 memoir of his two year journey as a young man from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the California coast. In those days, long before the Panama Canal was built, it was a long and perilous voyage down the Atlantic Ocean, through the Magellan Strait at the southern tip of South America to the Pacific Ocean, then north to California.
“Oh, yes,” I said, happy and proud to have my father’s approval.
It was about that time, either the Christmas before or after, when he gifted me with a bound copy of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Inside, he had written: “Read as a boy, understood as a man.”
My father’s formal education ended when he turned 15 and he went to work to help his poor family survive the Great Depression. At most he got a year or two of High School, at Western Technical School in Toronto.
He was born in 1923, and adopted as a newborn baby within days of his birth. He was just days away from his 20th birthday when he looked down into my crib and said what he said about me apparently having had a previous life. Where did that come from at such a young age, one might ask. He prided himself on being a rational man by then. But already, he had seen enough of life’s pain and heartache to inform his soul. The death of my parents’ first child, a baby-girl named Susan who died at birth, was especially painful. At that hospital, in those days, my mother was not allowed to see the body of her still-born baby. But my father saw her. I don’t know that he was ever the same again, though my much younger sister, who he also named, Susan, and my brother, David, have told me our father found some peace of mind before he died.
He died in Los Angeles, in August, 1970. He was just 47 years old. With his, literally, last breath, he reached out desperately for more. Life had not been kind to him in many ways, with being abandoned at birth his first misfortune. But he loved life with all the passion of his deep, though troubled being.
“For he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most Royal …,” Shakespeare wrote for Fortinbras to say, after the death of Hamlet. That’s one of those lines I also often call out for someone to hear, somewhere. My father may have had good reason to do the same.
Had he seen those dark clouds gathering across the skies over Cathedral Drive and Hope Ness this evening, and felt the cold, ominous wind blowing out of the Northwest, I have no doubt he would want with all his heart and soul to savour even that precious moment of being alive again.
So, it has happened: that inevitable Canadian morning that says in no uncertain terms, winter has arrived for the next five months or more, and the season of necessity is in control our lives. You don’t dare refuse or neglect its demands, without risking varying degrees of trouble and misadventure, up to and including …
Well, let’s not go there. Let’s not even think of being without heat when the temperature falls below -30 degrees, or more, and you didn’t cut or buy enough firewood, or you forgot to check the furnace-fuel level, or do routine maintenance on the generator and snowblower; or – and this is most likely the biggest mistake city folks make – you still haven’t got your winter tires on. Of course, those are mostly things you should have done well ahead of this morning if you woke up to the first significant snowfall and sub-zero temperatures overnight. It’s November 23, a little less than a month from winter’s official arrival. So, what else is new? It’s Canada, eh.
The ‘necessity’ I’m thinking of especially this morning is rising to the occasion. Want to sleep in? Not allowed. Feeling a bit lazy? Not allowed. Feeling blue? Not Allowed. Ask yourself any number of questions of the sort, and the answer is always, ditto, ditto and ditto.
The remarkable thing about winter’s absolute rule of necessity is how it can remind us how strong and capable we are – especially if we have gnawing doubts about that – just by giving us a push to get going. I venture to say that can be the key, not only to surviving, and even enjoying winter, but making the best of life itself.
Years ago, when I was a young man and drove a cab for a while in Toronto, a well-seasoned old cab driver gave me good advice. We were all about to get our assigned cars for the night – the best to get, by the way, was a Dodge or Plymouth with a 225, six-cylinder engine, the venerable ‘slant six,’ good on gas and plenty of power.
The old-timer next to me leaned over and said, “I’ll give you some advice kid: whatever you do, keep moving.”
He meant keep moving in the streets with the cab, and someone would wave you down sooner than if you parked somewhere and waited for the dispatcher to call your number. It was indeed good advice for that job.
But I’ve never forgotten what he said for other, important reasons. It’s truly amazing how often “keep moving” has struck me as good advice for life: physically, mentally, and spiritually. Invariably, when I feel myself getting down, or lately, worry that age is catching up to me, I think of what the old cab driver said: it was just as good or maybe even better – inadvertently perhaps, but so what? – than an ivory-tower philosopher with a doctorate might be able to offer. Not that I would devalue the worth of a good education. Perish the thought in today’s world, so desperately in need of understanding.
I thought of that good advice again this morning as I, rather grumpily, donned a winter coat for the first time this season and the dogs and I went for our morning walk down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone. The rising sun was brilliant in a blue sky. An infinity of stars sparkled on snow-covered tree branches, and everywhere around on the fresh snow-cover.
Welcome winter, I thought. Good to see you again, and thanks for being here.
Morning walks down Cathedral Drive had become routine; something I had to give myself a little push to keep doing, because the dogs needed a walk, and so did I. And because the touchstone, the turn-around point, was down that way. But my habit of touching it while saying a prayer was at risk of becoming an empty gesture, symptomatic of … what? An increasing old-age weariness settling in? the usual seasonal disorder? Mild depression, or more?
Something had to be done. This would never do: no way to end one’s life. Hadn’t I just messaged back a friend to offer a hopeful thought: not to despair, because “anything is always possible.”
I decided to refresh the morning walks by, in anticipation of that, taking my camera along to record an image of whatever thought-inspiring moment might appear. Then, post it here as the first of a daily series of ‘Morning thoughts.’
At the end of the long driveway I realized I had forgotten the camera. Just as well, I thought; after all, hadn’t we, my online friend and I, decided after just such a moment earlier this fall, that it was better not to ‘capture’ and thus diminish the wonder of it all.
And, of course, it happened again.
The sky above on this mid-November morning appeared to be well overcast. Heading north along Cathedral, the air was still. Young ash trees along the east side of the road stood bare and unmoving. A few small, red apples still clung on the branch of a wild apple tree. The dogs, with eager interest, savored a fresh scent, of deer, likely. In the low light of this cloudy morning, the moss on the touchstone had that luminous quality I have also noticed at dusk as the light is fading.
On the way back I plodded along, my eyes looking down on the gravel road. I Looked up, and then I saw it: just over the tree-line to the south-east, a narrow band of brighter sky; the rising sun not quite breaking through, but trying to.
I looked away for a moment, then back, to see the bright orb of the sun shining through; not entirely: its light was still somewhat filtered through thinner clouds. But there it was: brave sun on a cloudy day.
I thought for a moment of having forgotten my camera, of maybe getting back to the house soon enough to hurry back with the camera but realized the moment would not last. And so it was.
Still, it was enough to lift the spirit. Let the day begin.
What a perfectly glorious autumn morning it was as we, the dogs and I, left the house for our after-breakfast walk down Cathedral Drive to the Touchstone:
The air was still, barely a breath of wind as the fall-colored forest trees just beyond the back field to the west welcomed the rising sun. A gentle mist was rising off the dew gently left on the field overnight. There was not a cloud in the bright, blue sky with the sun above the treetops. At the end of the driveway, I noted how far south the sun had already gone by this early October morning, and how much further it had to go yet before it reached its winter solstice
I thought again about the reality of that apparent phenomena, the movement of the sun, as if the Earth were the center of the solar system or, for that matter, of the universe. It is our home, this small, but wonderful, blue-green jewel of a planet that orbits our sun. As it moves, the position of the Earth’s tilted axis in relation with with sun determines the annual passage of the seasons. Modest in size, and still relatively young though many billions of years old, our sun is one of countless others in a universe still without measure. What lies beyond remains a Great Mystery.
But what we have learned in the relatively short time humans have scratched the surface of knowing has in my view done nothing to diminish the wonder and miracle of this precious moment. Some there are who would even say, surely there must be another world, another parallel moment even, just like this morning. Maybe, maybe not.
But, come what may, I find myself thinking, this morning will stay with me until that most fateful, personal moment when I linger for a while, in a certain amount of ‘fear and trembling’ wondering what comes next.
Shakespeare had Hamlet say, in his last, living words, “The rest is silence.” That could be taken literally, death being a rest from all the turmoil of life; or it could be what comes after death. I think he meant the latter. But in that case silence is not necessarily nothingness, I have good reason to believe. They are reasons I have previously written about in Finding Hope Ness, reasons having to do with the spirit of my father after he died.
And so, as I reached my Touchstone this morning, and said a prayer, the thought occurred to me that from somewhere in the “Great Mystery” I will look back on the spirit-memory of this glorious morning, and others, with life-loving appreciation for the gift of life; and likely also, I daresay, with longing.
As we walked back, the view down the road was again striking. We paused, the dogs wondering, as the sun, a little higher above the forest beyond the trees on the field to our left, illuminated the mist rising from the dew-covered tall grass and low-lying, new, wild apple trees. I felt the touch of a gentle breeze. A small cloud was forming in the eastern sky where by now Georgian Bay was responding to the sun’s warmth. And, on either side forest trees were painting their fall colors, various shades of gold and amber.
I thought those leaves are not so much fading or dying, as celebrating the life they had lived for another season among many, and giving life back to the Earth in return.
I regretted not having brought my camera to capture all those images. So, leaving the dogs in the house, I went back out, down the road again. But in that brief time, of course, the moment had passed. The mist had disappeared, and more clouds were forming, blocking out the sun now and then.
And yet, somehow it seemed right to have let the most precious moment go free, undiminished by not being photographed. So, what you see here is what it is, lovely enough in its own right on this sacred gift of a planet.