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.
Just when things were starting to look dark and dreary, I was called to go over to the raspberry batch and receive a rare treat and a blessing: late season raspberries in Hope Ness, Ontario, Canada on September 14. Within a few minutes, with the humming background music of bees doing what they do, I filled a container with a Canadian quart (1.14 litres) of freshly picked raspberries.
I found myself thinking of you again, Wilma, and how you so perfectly chose the perfect place to start this raspberry patch: in full sun most of the day for the growing season, near a roof that made sure it was well watered, and on well-drained ground. It remains a thriving testament to your love of gardening.
Less than a minute after I picked the last berry the rain came down; heavy, but just long enough to feel refreshing on unusually warm midday, and more. Yes, I choose to believe there was something wonderful, even spiritual about the experience, more than mere coincidence. There was hope in the air. I look out my kitchen window now as I write this, and the sun is shining; the clouds that blessed me, not so much dark, as life-giving have passed over.
It is for such moments that I have come to live. I look back to earlier in the morning and think now that moment began before I was moved to go into the raspberry patch and pick the late-season berries. I was putting in the time with a usual routine, checking email, news headline, YouTube, and Facebook. It asked me, “What’s on your mind, Phil?”
So, I told it, and ‘friends’:
“Sometimes these days I think there isn’t much point in doing anything without meaning and feelings of love. But then I think we, I, must continue to give ourselves the chance to find a way to make that happen. And then I realize that thought in itself is meaningful, and loving.”
I thought it was worth saying, and that some friends might agree. And so it was: enough ‘likes’ within an hour or so to make me pleased I had offered something that touched more than a few people. I do, after all, firmly believe — and often tell others struggling to keep their spirits up — that you never know when life will wonderfully surprise you and lift your spirits. It may be a seemingly little thing, though in that moment it means so much. And so it was for me this morning.
Or it could be something big and even life-changing for the better. What might that be? I suppose a lot depends on who you are, what you want, and believe.
I happen to believe life is a sacred gift and a blessing. I do not want it to end. When my time comes I hope to enter the Great Mystery of the next state-of-being forgiven and at peace, despite the things I have done wrong. And they are legion, or so I fear. But most of all, I hope my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live their lives in a safe and better world, and in the time I have left, this moment, or the next, I will try to do what I can to help make it that way.
And I hope the same for all who read this post. We are all one human family.
My recent discovery of the creative, literary works of late 19th Century, American author Kate Chopin, most notably her novel, The Awakening, has been a deeply moving and continuously thought-provoking experience. That meets one of the important criteria for a true work of art; and so does speaking so well to readers about what they may be experiencing, as they struggle to find themselves.
It wasn’t only for my own sake, but more especially for my maternal grandmother, Clara, whose tragic life I was reminded of as I read The Awakening and continue to think about it every day. Kate Chopin would have understood perfectly what happened to my grandmother; and would have felt for her. Maybe she is, right now, somewhere, somehow. It may sound strange, but I find consolation for my grandmother’s sake in such thoughts, thanks to Chopin
As a young woman of 28, and mother of two children she dearly loved, my grandmother was desperately unhappy and neglected in her marriage when she dared to fall in love with a married man, famous at the time, 100 years ago. But despite loving her too, he could not face the prospect of living openly in their love, and the consequences it was certain to have for him in the emotionally repressive, post-puritanical, societal norms of the time. That was especially true in the narrow-minded, provincial confines of WASPish (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant), Toronto “the Good” where she lived, or tried to. And it was also true of the U.S. Midwest where he was a church pastor, and a prominent figure in the progressive, social gospel movement.
As it was, the consequences of being a married woman who fell in love with a married man were terrible: a broken heart, the court-ordered loss of her first two children, her desperate abandonment of her love child, my mother, her lonely misery and abject poverty in Montreal for 18 years, and her death from cancer at an early age after her sudden return, alone, to her parental home in Toronto in 1942..
In The Awakening, Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, raised ‘American’ in Kentucky, is married to Leonce Pontellier, a wealthy member of upper-class, Creole society in Louisiana. She and her husband live in New Orleans, the focal point of the unique, French-based Acadian culture. He’s often away to the north, including New York City and Wall Street, as the story unfolds. Though apparently doting, he cares most about the material trappings of wealth, including what today would be called his ‘trophy wife.’ But she dares to question and ultimately rebel against all that. They have two young children; but Edna rejects the prevailing, social attitude that a woman should always sacrifice her needs for the sake of her children; ‘unessential things,’ yes, but not the soul of her being, as she struggles to discover what that is. She falls in love with a young man who, among other things, teachers her how to swim. That is a crucial, beginning point in her journey of self-discovery, including the awakening of her repressed sensuality. It continues through to the end of the unconsummated relationship with her ‘lover’ who abandons her, “because I love you,” he says in a parting note. Soon after that comes the final and still controversial ending of the novel when Edna, naked and alone on a beach, walks into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “He did not know; he did not understand. He would never understand,” she thinks, as she swims out as far as she can before exhaustion sets in. She had by then already rejected the possibility of other, passing lovers. She thinks fondly of her two young boys, left, apparently happy, in the care of their paternal grandmother in the countryside. But she affirms again her unwillingness to sacrifice herself and live for their sake only.
I confess to being troubled by how Chopin handles that important issue in The Awakening. It needs more attention. A key character in the novel, a happily married woman, tells Edna more than once to not give her children short shrift: “The children, the children!” she says. How Chopin’s heroine may have struggled with that begs for more creative exploration, especially when her two young sons are ultimately described in her apparently final thoughts as ‘antagonists’ seeking to control her life. It’s not hard to imagine how outrageous that must have seemed to many readers at the time, in a society where the role of woman was so locked-in to motherhood.
Speaking personally, being similarly ‘farmed out’ twice by a loving, well-intentioned, single mother to pseudo-foster parents – exploitive and abusive in one case – was a deeply troubling experience. I still struggle with it. There are other cultures in the world that have a more natural, realistic approach to parenting than one that puts all the pressure and responsibility on individual mothers: such things as a greater, shared reliance on both parents, the extended family, and the social group. There are many examples, even in the animal world.
A shallow, perhaps too-obvious interpretation of the ending of The Awakening assumes Edna’s suicide. The last the reader sees of her she has gone as far as she can out into the waters of the Gulf, with no strength left to make it back to shore. But Chopin, deliberately, I think, leaves her fate uncertain. Meanwhile, recollections of childhood memories, including walking through a “blue-grass meadow” with “no beginning and no end” come to Edna’s mind.
I am left with this thought: that Edna’s journey, her ‘Awakening,’ reaches its consummating climax, its ultimate expression of her sensuality-come-alive, in and with the sea. I might have said best would have been to go on living, in some state of love, in the world. But, in all the circumstances, Edna had realized that was not possible, that it could only lead to personal tragedy. Meanwhile, her spiritual and sensual reunion with the sea, is love, timeless and complete.
It’s also a testament to Chopin’s literary genius: to have written such a powerful scene in such a book on such a theme, in 1899, in the U.S. Midwest.
And yet, what an injustice, that The Awakening was widely condemned after its publication. Chopin was shunned in the St. Louis, Missouri community where she lived at the time. She had been born there, but married a Creole man herself, moved to Louisiana, and had six children. She, with her children, moved back to St. Louis after her husband died to look after her sick mother. She began writing in the 1890s as a way of overcoming depression after her mother died. She soon made a name for herself as a regional (Acadian) writer. But after the bad reaction to The Awakening, her further works were largely rejected. She died five years later and was virtually forgotten for 70 years. Now she is a regarded as a forerunner of the modern feminist movement. The Awakening and her short stories are required reading in literary studies.
But with all due respect to feminism, and her courageous contribution to it, any label, be it ‘regional writer’ or ‘feminist,’ diminishes her even now: Kate Chopin speaks of the human spirit in all its wonderful, though often tragic, complexity. There was much more she could have said, in the years before and after The Awakening, had she found her wings sooner. It is not quite a great novel, by a writer who clearly had it in her to be great.
There was a profound stillness in the air this sunrise, mid-March morning as we walked to my prayerful touchstone beside Cathedral Drive, the dogs and I, doing what we do every morning of every day.
But this morning was different in its mysterious way, though perhaps only ‘mysterious’ to certain disconnected mortals; otherwise, I think it’s fair to say there is a great cry of joy gathering and stirring in the woods, as the ‘sweet liqueur’ of life, as Chaucer would say, begins to rise with the sun. Under the still-deep, snow cover that remains, an infinite murmuring of countless awakening creatures, small and large. And above the old pasture across the road, the rising sun has conjured up a fine mist that speaks to how precious this moment is.
Buddy and Sophie in their canine way are well aware and join the celebration, as they run about, stopping here and there to savour the deliciously rich, rising plenitude of refreshed aromas. Ah, the joy of innocence! Whereas the best I can do is write a few, imagined words, take photos of the happy, sunrise woods, and wonder what it must be like to be a tree on a morning such as this.
But that, at least, is something worthy and hopeful after all, the Great Mystery says, by way of consolation.
And, for the moment, I treasure that blessing. It is reason enough to give thanks.