It is a cold morning with a wind at our back. This is the view at our destination this morning, looking southeast over Smith Bay and Waupoos Island across Lake Ontario. On the winter’s coldest days I swear if I squint hard enough I can see the blue skies over the Caribbean and that island in the sun, Barbados, just there off in the distance to the right side of the photo, just beyond the darkest bit of sky. Can you see it? Even so it would take a plane to get there.
Strange, or maybe not, on these bleak days when I dread stepping out into the cold and grey, there is always a moment when I finally say out loud, “this is so damn beautiful” (in all its harshness). It really is. It can be a smell from my childhood blowing down from the north. That familiar burn of cold on my cheeks. Or that forlorn northeastern sky that used to really give me chills to the bone, knowing that not much existed beneath it, but rock, Canadian Shield, perhaps an ice sheet if you went far enough, but, as far as I was concerned not much more. I wasn’t really that aware of Inuit settlements, polar bears, caribou or just how beautiful and vital landscape could be. I suppose it happens with experiences, memories, imagination and perhaps learning.
These nights though, I dream of warm tropical places, filled with light and the richness of warm colours, vegetation, unbridled growth. It’s as if the dreamworld is bringing me that experience to warm my soul as the wind blows the ice dry and smooth, rabbits huddle under the deck and small birds brace themselves as if the strong wind is just to be tolerated.
I dream too of crowded buildings and places where people gather, places like malls and galleries, open enclosed areas. I am not quite sure what my being is calling out for. Do I need the throng of humanity? I don’t think that is it, but there is something to it, a labyrinth maybe, or a grand puzzle, a maze which I must negotiate. I always have to make my way through these crowds, find something I’ve misplaced.
For all of the memories, desires and thoughts that accompany me on that stretch of road, I am very often dragged back to the present, because that is all there is. Warmer days will be here soon enough, my shoulders will relax, I’ll smell the richness from the marsh, the lake, the first hint of lilac and then when I look across the Bay it will be to that place, much closer, where we play in the cool clear water on a hot summer day.
For way too many years in my naïve bubble of white middle class privilege I could not imagine why Christmas was a difficult time for some people. Was it because they had had such fond memories and now things had changed, they’d gotten older, they had kids, perhaps there was no one to shower them with gifts, cook a hot meal or tuck them in?
When I lived in Vancouver, thanks to partner number two we would semi-regularly trek to St Andrew’s Wellesley United for the Sunday morning service. I had been raised a Presbyterian (now a wonderer at the world and not really of any domination though Zen bhuddist seems to align with some of my beliefs and practices), so, not a big stretch. Really the reason we went I think is because the reverend Sheila Mackinnon put on a great show. It was like having Shelagh Rogers of the CBC give the sermon. There was humour, spontaneity, laughter and much food for thought. Of course my partner at the time was more devout in his practice than I, but the show and the promise of a Sunday brunch, boozy or not, were more than enough to get me out of bed.
The reverends (there was more than just one) regularly mentioned the First United Mission down on Hastings street in the downtown east side of Vancouver. A place I referred to and still do as ground zero––for drug use and abuse, for poverty, homelessness and just the saddest reflection of disenfranchised and victimized humanity.
From time to time I have had to deal with severe cases of the blues. I’m not sure if there is clinical depression lurking in my depths, but I try to deal with it with a hands on approach. Back then I took inventory: Was I sleeping? Eating properly? Bank account was overdrawn, was that it? No success with auditions? Another publisher rejected me? Should I meditate more? Do some therapy around it? Volunteer? Aha! I had heard that taking the focus off of one’s self was a great cure for feeling better! But volunteering to that point had meant stuffing envelopes or something innocuous and boring. Had I ever seen a soup kitchen? Of course I had. In the movies. Of course.
Anyway, as I learned, the First United Mission always needed volunteers so I took the cue and I marched myself down there (took the bus) to Hastings and Main. Hastings then, spoke to a former world of wide busy streets with trolley buses, cafes, Chinese restaurants, grand hotels, big department stores and prosperity of Vancouver in other glory days. The spotlight now was definitely not on Hastings which had become home to sidewalk lean-tos, welfare hotels, lumps of sleeping bags and cardboard hovels, barred windows and entry ways of those same department stores now being used as shelter from a wet and cold Vancouver. Empty taverns, still operated with moving shadows and dim lights. And of course there were people, yes people, horizontal or vertical, with deep hollow eyes and holes in the bottoms of their pockets and shoes, probably wondering how the hell they got there in between the highs and lows.
I was given a tour of First United by the pastor, a kind woman who seemed to know how to navigate her church through the rough seas of Hastings and Main. First stop on my tour was the nave, the dimly lit area where services were held. It was modern, curved with the same kind of hard modern pews that my own St Timothy’s back in Ottawa a lifetime ago had. It’s hard to forget that hard pew on my bony kid bum. Forever imprinted. In the dim light I noticed some movement at one of the pews, slowly as my eyes adjusted I saw that almost each pew was occupied with a sleeping body. A pair of boots extending over the end of one, the curve of hips or torso at another. It was almost noon. A weekday. And this was home to God knows how many. The only place to rest their heads, and street weary bodies.
Over the years I ended up participating in what was known as “family friendship” twice a week at First United. (I described it as one of the ‘realest’ times of my week.) A kind of soup kitchen in which attendees committed to showing up for a hot meal. We served, spaghetti, chili, stew, something cast off from a food supplier or grocery store, that became treasured lunch to attendees, accompanied with white bread and weak coffee, maybe jell-o, and then we sat and ate with the attendees and, over time got to know and recognize them. Some you couldn’t look in the eye. One woman, vivacious, straightforward and ball of fire, I later recognized as one of the disappeared women, who met a horrible end, at the hands of the notorious, well, I don’t want to mention more, but you can find it all in the press. You’ve heard about him.
It was a little community of regulars who crawled out from the cracks to show up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days of the week there were other services, coffee or watery soup for those who had spent the night on the street or in a bus shelter.
Christmas drew near. The Vancouver skies darkened. Lights went up downtown. Apartment balconies blazed with colour. Shop windows competed for kitsch. The carol ships (yachts line with Christmas lights), tootled around English Bay every evening, and there was a bottomless optimism reserved for this time of year, where music was everywhere, people stumbled on the sidewalks after drunken staff lunches, and after-work eggnog.
But away from all this mayhem, at the mission was a growing sense of dread. It was clear to me as my bus seemed to descend into the darkened world of Hastings and Main. While I stressed over my Christmas list and thought I was justified in despising how Christmas could bring out the worst in me, it became clear that the impending dread of these peoples’ Christmas was not the over-indulgent sentimentality of days gone by. No, they didn’t have that luxury. They didn’t miss the Christmas of my childhood and the orgy of gift taking (not much giving), over stuffing, decorating, and nodding off to Babes in Toyland. Nor was their dread about that steamroller called Christmas that, in my world, could annually crush me in its wake if I didn’t fight to make it out the other end with a couple of dollars still in the bank account. They weren’t stressing over their gift list or their guest list. There was no rent to pay.
These people had experienced Christmases where the drunk uncle wasn’t a source of amusement. Where Dad…exactly where was dad? Where there was lots of nothing, a whole lot of it, and shouting, and smashing, and fists through walls and wails and tears and the most horrible abuse, all to the soundtrack of someone dreaming of a White Christmas. It all finally made sense. I finally got it; it made its way through my safe little naive bubble and burst. This was why some dread this time of year. For me it had been extra special and for them extra horrible. While I was bemoaning my not having time to ice my gingerbread the way we did as kids or make the short bread according to my mom’s recipe and the price of more booze just because we always need more booze, to sit and reminisce, they were doing everything possible to forget.
Still we decorated the room where we ate lunch, little bits of tinsel and strings of popcorn that we made in a group, each assigned a different decorating task. Cut out paper stars. Things you make with a pair of scissors and a folded piece of paper. We stood in a circle before lunch and held hands. We said a prayer. We all knew. We all knew the storm was approaching. We all knew that the best presents we could give each other were our hopes and prayers, prayers for a safe and Merry Christmas and the hope that we would all see each other again in January. Survivors all.
Have you noticed things are a little different in the natural world? I imagine we are still polluting as badly as ever even though many of us are in lockdown. But things are different. My garden responded differently this year. It was more difficult to make things grow. The rabbits and squirrels seemed to take great delight in eating new sprouts of beets, sunflowers, watermelons. Caterpillars ate the leaves off many of my tomatoes. When we first moved here, I’d plant a seed in the hard soil and poof I’d have an eight foot tall sunflower. I planted hundreds of seeds this summer and got a few sunflowers. I had planted many things behind chicken wire–no match for any wildlife it seems.
The rhythm was different. It still is. And now the fall is here and it seems the leaves are taking such a long leisurely time to change. I don’t mind. I have taken billions of photos as a result. There is something about those colours that not only moves me, but, from time to time takes me back to the Ottawa valley in the fall. The desolation in the cold clear sky to the northeast. The warmth in our home. The rapid switch over to winter. Wondering if there would be snow on Hallowe’en.
Yes, the leaves are still putting on a show, though many have fallen. And now we have large mushrooms where there were none before. It is indeed an odd time. Nature seems to be noticing our predicament and responding, well of course it is. Nature is far more sensitive than I can ever hope to be. I’m sure I have my patterns, my response, my escape hatches, my adaptabilities. There seems to be a great knowing that takes place out there in the trees, everywhere in fact, but not in my brain, where I spend so much time trying to figure it all out.
I don’t think I’ve ever described myself as outdoorsy and yet, recently I see the possibility that I may be just that. I am inclined towards the out of doors, upon rising I stand at the front door and look out the window at the garden. I wait for the kettle to boil to make my tea and then, with notebook and some kind of device that can play music to the backdrop of the early morning birdsong, I head out. I might write something, might read a bit of the news but soon the sheer power of the setting lifts my view and my spirit. For about an hour, I stare at the garden, the tree tops, the sky, with no attention at all to anything else.
When it is time for coffee with my partner, we have one cup inside and another outside, on the other side of the house. If not outside, then sitting on the sofa, our attention to a nourishing tableau of cedars and the sky.
Somewhere in the morning is a walk with my dog, or a visit to the beach to beat the heat and other people. There we wander, run in and out of the water, play get-the-toy until we take a break and I stare at the horizon while my dog sniffs around the bushes at the top of the beach, to catch up on recent smells and activity.
In the winter we take long walks through fields, or on the sandy windswept or snowswept beach, weather permitting.
I’ve always thought the outdoorsy type did things like jump off cliffs with kites on their backs, or surf whitecaps holding onto kites, or just fly kites. I used to thing they skied down black diamond runs or over polar icecaps which qualified them for ultimate outdoorsy status. I used to think they bungee jumped, barrel jumped or log rolled, swam channels, climbed mountains, hung off of cliffs, or cycled steep creek beds.
I see now that outdoorsy has little or nothing to do with bucket list activity. Bucket list activity is about checking a box, scoring a goal, receiving a slap on the back for a daring, perhaps life-threatening feat.
Outdoorsy to me is more than just being outdoors, and less than scaling Everest or scaling a fish.
My experience of outdoorsy is my need to be under the vast sky, among some green or rocks or sand, even water, to be where the planet breathes. Birds swoop as if on a pendulum, following upside down arcs from treetop to treetop. Rabbits sit close and rip the leaves from the milkweed, one eye on me, two ears on the dog. Chipmunks travel a highway of hollow logs on the periphery of the yard. A leopard frog pokes his nose out of the mossy pond. Meanwhile new growth and new colours and new volumes of plant life slip almost unnoticed into the panorama.
All this from one vantage point. I use my butt as much to be outdoorsy as I use my limbs. I use very little skill, but vast amounts of attention, very little thought but boundless spirit. I don’t leap from rope bridges into gorges with an elastic around my waist. I don’t kayak down white water. Nor do I know a coreopsis from a blue tit. I might know when a rain cloud is bearing down on me or recognize the scent of freshly rained upon ground. But, to be honest, I know and move very little, though my eyes and ears and spirit travel vast distances at great speeds.
We do a lot throughout the day. Walks. Coffee and treats. Naps. Playing in the yard with a fabric kind of Frisbee or some other weighted toy. I talk a fair bit to him while all this goes on: “Out of there.” “Off.” “Leave it.” “Good boy.” “Water?” “Pee pee?” “Let’s go home.” “Dinner’s almost ready.” “I love you.” “Move over.” “Let’s go this way.” And a whole lot more, sometimes trying to negotiate our way out of my garden, a patch of poison ivy or a snow bank.
Though we understand a lot, I’ve come to learn that his language, and mine too isn’t my collection of disembodied words or his random barks.
When we are tugging at that toy in the yard we are one hundred percent in our own moment. Engaged with each other and connected by much more than words. And now that summer is here we go to the beach as often as we can. It is here that we have our routine that may be one step from heaven. He barks, I throw the toy in the water, soon I brave the water too and then soon after I am holding him to my chest, his feet tucked under and I have his whole body close. I am chest deep in the water and he is against my chest, held by me and his buoyancy. From here we walk parallel to the beach, our hearts close. He looks at the shore, moving his head from point to point. He likes to have the shore view as we come around to retrace our steps. We like to go as far as the uneven surface will allow. It is a quiet peace that we are part of. It is there that we both know that we are doing what we and the other loves.
Later, our other activity is called “standing”: I am in the water, now maybe waist deep and he is swimming circles in front of me. I take his front paws and his back ones reach for the bottom. Soon his front paws rest on my forearm and he tries taking one paw, then the other and standing on his own. Then he decides he doesn’t need the arm and takes himself for a little walk as far as the sway of water, current and balance will allow. And yesterday he took yet another step, backwards. He watched me, our eyes locked as he removed his paws from my forearm support and walked backwards, as if he was practicing some sort of dance step. He went back and then returned to my arm. I praised his daring, his creativity.
With him there is no “time to go,” we know when that time has come. But for those precious minutes or hours we have found our meeting place where we can speak the same language and know exactly what is the most important thing in life.
I sit in the meadow this afternoon, every
afternoon now with frog sounds, peepers
over there in the marsh. I bow my head
as if to pray, I want to pray, how
to pray, close
eyes, look into darkness, clasp hands.
Something is going on out there,
ringing against my ears, noise, news, overtaken,
by voices coming from every direction
noisy, inside, out, beneath, through and
Today the prayer-waves are clogged
by those trying to get a message to the one beyond
the door, face down, in emergency, breathing
measured lungs of oxygen. Prayers rush––
each time a door is opened, left ajar,
held for a moment by a foot or an elbow
––prayers seep through the cracks, fly around the world
clamor for space, time, understanding.
But they do get through. Prayers. It’s the angels,
the saints and the warriors, watching their colleagues
rally or falter, knees weak, back firm, one by one
as they fight an uncalled for battle
with made-up rules, decoys, red herrings,
For what do I pray, alone in messy spring grass while
they stand bed-side, delivering prayers and saying last rights
to a history they never knew –– their back towards a family
praying –– serving as a conduit for I love you,
bon voyage, we’ll meet again, simply goodbye
or a simple loving touch.
For them I pray.
From time to time the lush and evocative love theme from Cinema Paradiso presents itself on my playlist, or elevators, or in my car (I think you can hear it if you click on the album cover). It never fails to pull at my heartstrings, whether Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli sing it with Italian lyrics or it is Marc-Andre Gautier or Perlman playing it on their violins. Thank you, Ennio Moriconne.
I remember years ago when the movie first came out and how my mother had kept asking if I had seen it yet. She insisted. We had often shared similar preferences in foreign films (Priscilla Queen of the Dessert), shows (I think she even enjoyed Mamma Mia though I had played ABBA to death as a teen) and music (My One and Only).
As a young boy she took me to see the King and I, before I was even in school I believe. She had said we were going grocery shopping but I figured it out just steps from the front lobby of the Rideau theatre in Ottawa. I slept through many musicals and dreamt of having a bed in one of the box seats, so I could listen and dream.
There is a scene in Cinema Paradiso, if I remember it accurately when the old man has compiled deleted love scenes from all the movies he has shown at the cinema. The young boy, who had befriended him, a man now, sees this compilation for the first time. It is like a living love letter from the old man to the little boy, delivered years later. Some of the scenes are familiar to me and some I have yet to see. I’m sure my mother had seen most of the films in her time.
It was devastating, this simple tale of love for a person, for art, it was so well timed, directed and overall such a brilliant film, and brilliant ending to a film.
Now, years later I hear the music that went with that scene I think of my mother insisting that I see the movie and asking me what I had thought.
We weren’t an emotionally demonstrative family for the most part. Well, negative emotions could run rampant but the positive ones, and there were many, stayed buried deep inside, perhaps afraid to emerge, afraid of the power, not understanding how to hug, how to be close. Not being familiar with that language. Of course in later years I believe we came to appreciate how we felt, and showed through actions, the touch of a hand on an elbow, a hug, that we loved one another. We caught up with the rest of the world.
That music always catches me off guard. I need to at least sit for a moment, maybe put on a pair of sunglasses to mask the tears. It seems my mother in her way, was trying to tell me just how much she loved me, as much as the old man for the little boy. I can’t imagine being that small but I must have been at some point. How could you not love a little person, despite all of your duties as a lawyer’s and politician’s wife, and a mother of four? I hear it on a sunny Sunday afternoon, out of the blue and though she is gone now, I hear the message loud and clear and she is close.
Well this picture might just sum up my preparedness for things like freezing temperatures, even though I was born into it and have spent seasons of my life in it. This was a hummingbird feeder and I didn’t get to it before the freezing temps did. Nor did I get my spring bulbs planted on time–however we had a bit of a thaw in December and I ran about the yard madly hacking at the soil and dividing many bulbs among few holes. It should be an interesting spring show!
I suppose I’d rather be posting a picture of me on the beach in Mexico from an early December trip, but I should really let the full weight of this time of year press on me to see what pops out. A snowman perhaps?
When I was a kid, winters were long and lush, tons of snow and everything we did was about the ice and snow. Skating everywhere, from the back yard to the school yard and indoor arenas where candy bars and hot chocolate fueled us. Skiing on the weekend–Saturdays getting to the slopes by badly heated school bus, and Sundays with Dad in the station wagon farther into the hills where the slopes were higher and longer, with Bach and Burt Bacharach (our only two tapes) serenading us on the 8-track player.
Friends, colleagues and clients seem to be taking off every other week now, a constant overlapping of trips. A stream of “views from my room” and “views of my pedicure at sunset.” But I can bear it. Surely I can. If I tune into the hibernatorial nature of the season, I can forgive myself for feeling sloth like, having my face droop to the floor by sunset, and staring wistfully at every warm passing plane heading south.
I heard the phrase “this is the new normal” this week, sadly in regards to climate change. But I have to tell myself that this, frisbee in the yard with my best friend, mice running across the snow, bunnies by the bushel, and the wail of coyotes at 3am is not to be taken lightly. Yesterday we walked into the distant fields, the falling snow creating and acoustic quilt. You stop and stand and there is nothing but your breath, and if you stop breathing…it is indeed a divine place.