It’s not the usual Easter, I know. Each household, however small or large, will mourn the traditions that will not be followed, the guests that will not arrive, the community celebrations that will not held—for the second time. Last year it was bearable, somehow. We could do our part for the health of the our community and of our country.
This year, for me, the loneliness feels acute. Our house should be filled with the happy noise of playing children; the kitchen should be crowded with busy adults, making food, cleaning up from meals, telling stories over mugs of hot coffee, answering eager questions from excited children. Somewhere there should be a bouquet of daffodils, in the midst of piles of scrap paper turned into art work. Not this year.
Instead, my heart is comforted by the miracle of an amaryllis bulb, now growing at last after an entire winter of determined dormancy. Several other amaryllis bulbs had kept their long dark leaves from summer (admittedly making no flowers) and did their part to beautify our household. Now, out of the dry dirt and debris of long-gone leaves has arisen the beginning of a flower stalk.
The growth was so startlingly that I began measuring the stalk every morning.
For a few days I hoped that I would get a flower for Easter Sunday, at least some showing of color in the bud.
Now it’s clear that I shall have to wait until after Easter. I am not complaining. Every stage of that growth is precious and beautiful, each morning a delight. The “dead” bulb has risen to new life.
The symbols of Easter — the most important holiday in the year for Christians and a celebration of spring for others — all suggest newness and astonishing (maybe astonished) life. The shell of an egg, whether painted or no, contains (or did once contain) that which nourishes life. Had the egg been hatched, the chick would not resemble the egg in the slightest. That is a miracle. The happy unwrapping of foil or opening of decorative boxes reveals chocolates which sometimes contain delectable fillings within, yet another surprise; pretty baskets contain eggs of all sorts, including plastic ones that contain who knows what little treasure. The most powerful symbol of all, the empty tomb, speaks to the transformation of death into new life. Life cannot be contained; it will burst forth, it will begin anew.
With that hope, I wish you all a Happy Easter! May you be mindful of the gifts that are given. May your heart be gladdened by beauty. May your hands hold tenderly some symbol of joy and love.
“The very first Easter taught us this: that life never ends and love never dies.”
Just over two years ago, the second posting on this blog was called “Remembering the Winter of the Heart.” In the wake of a full year of COVID-19, my mind has been drawn to re-visiting the season of emotional winter. In February of 2018, I was grateful that life consisted of summer and winter, both literally and emotionally. The balance, I declared then, was necessary and fruitful.
Since then we have, as an entire society, explored dimensions of solitude that have always been familiar to contemplatives but not to the rest of us. Our homes have become our fortified castles, not just brief resting places between multiple commitments elsewhere. We have collectively bought more jigsaw puzzles and books than airline tickets and hotel reservations.
Enough people discovered the joys of baking bread that yeast became scarce. Enough people re-discovered – or discovered – the joys of gardening that last spring there was a shortage of seeds (let’s hope that suppliers are ready for this spring).
Liquor consumption has increased. Sociologists will be busy for many years studying the results of this massive global experiment in drastically changing cultural behaviour.
Now that spring is on its way (there will still be winter storms where I live, but we know the snow won’t last), and the roll-out of vaccines promises an end to the siege of COVID-19, I want to speak my thanks for the deepening of thought and the deliberate fostering of loving connections that occurred in this great collective Winter of the Heart. The additional solitude, and the waves of insecurity, have underlined our vulnerability and offered us space and time to turn depleted energy into important self-reflection.
We have had time to learn to see subtler shades of white and grey. When the lure of screen-delivered distractions palled, our eyes rested on bland white and saw it as miraculously varied.
We have had time to let boredom metamorphose into bone-deep relaxation. Restfulness acquired expansiveness. Urgency lost its hold and immediacy its power to corral all senses.
Admittedly, that state of not-quite-hibernation was not the prerogative of everyone.
I hereby acknowledge that I write out of the privilege of the retired and adequately funded. For many, this year of the pandemic has meant extra work, multiplied tensions, fear of unending poverty, the weight of loss upon loss, or even loneliness so all pervasive and crushing that being at rest felt more like being comatose. Contemplation itself lost all meaning. I want to hold these grim experiences in balance with my personal effort to be grateful and to be, despite everything, at home in this intensified winter of the heart.
We have had, after all, time enough to nurture compassion. In fact, all our creativity has been required to continue to stay connected to the ones we love and to reach out to those whose pain has, for whatever reasons, become part of our own consciousness as well. While sometimes anger seemed the only feasible response to the statistics and to the blindly furious missives flooding social media, there has been time enough in this winter of inside and outside the heart to let go of all that anger and see instead the fear lurking behind the eyes.
Whatever their attendant annoyances (fogged up glasses, unseen smiles, unheard syllables), masks should have taught us to look people in the eye. And to listen more closely, not only to the actually spoken word but also to the intense desire to know and to be known. “Who are you, really? What’s going on in your wintry heart?”
This season of the winter of the heart has also taught more of us to walk, not to get anywhere in a hurry or to compete with someone else in how many steps can be taken, but to walk for the sake of walking. To walk in order to feel and see that the world around us is beautiful and various. To breathe the air that rejuvenates and is safe.
To envy the swarm of company that the cedar waxwings enjoy.
To hear the chickadees call out “chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” or “hey, sweetheart!” Even when eyes are so blinded by tears that the path is felt rather than seen, the simple language of birds is wonderfully reassuring to “their lonely betters” who have promises to keep (W.H. Auden), and who simply can’t keep them now.
The promise of winter, however, is that spring always follows. There will be a real summer in our landscapes and in our hearts, even if, for some of us, there is an unfathomable “feast of losses” to live through. Even if – perhaps because – the feasts of losses are also collective. Sorrow and beauty come to us all, just as winter and summer come to us all.
Oh, Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
The light-hearted, nostalgic post I had written for the second week of January, hoping to ease the sadness of a very limited, lonely Christmas, will not be published after all. It will have to wait for January 2022, when I hope the events and images of the last week will have receded in the rear-view mirror.
Never mind that I don’t want to turn this blog into political commentary. Ignoring recent events in Washington, DC, is impossible. I have, like many of you, no doubt, spent too many hours online, trying to comprehend what was happening on Jan. 6: commentators aplenty have since spoken out; reporters have recorded details; political analysts have weighed in; talk show hosts have called out the willfully blind and the deliberately violent with equal censure; news sites have played videos over and over. There is no need for me to add words to the unspeakable.
Instead, may I share some small moments of beauty and quietness as anchors for sanity?
In between reading Anne Perry’s mystery novels as escape, I have been paying attention to little things: the beauty that can be found in ugliness and ruins; the resilience of growing things, that “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” (Dylan Thomas); the quietness to be found within and from without; glimpses of transcendence in the quotidian. None of which are momentous in themselves – yet they are not nothing.
The tree that graces the beginning of this post has been my computer background since I took its photo in early November. It’s dead, its bark scorched black by fire. Yet its stark lines exude power, as well as silence. It’s exactly the kind of tree that Bill Peet, children’s author and illustrator, would turn into an image of strength, love, and laughter.
Although buildings and railway tracks are inorganic, they can evoke a similar kind of rueful, sad-hopefulness, especially when–as always happens–that indomitable “force” in the “green fuse” takes over the territory again.
Both the railroad track and the former CPR hotel are now mere ruins along good hiking trails. There was a time when the first wealthy tourists were proud to travel there, proud to be the first (in their minds anyway) to be awed by the vast icy expanse of Illecilliwaet Glacier. I do not regret the absence of the hotel; the abundance of wild flowers and grasses that now fill the former foundation are lovely. They testify to their own resilience, growing through whatever obstacles there are, reclaiming their space. I loved them when I took the photos, years ago; now, in the dead of winter (in every sense of the word), they comfort me.
Indoors, my jade plants offer me similar comfort and hope. They remind me that persistence and organic strength does not have to be dramatic. Even barely noticeable will do.
As if I needed yet another lesson from tiny, stubborn growing things, our live Christmas tree, now facing its last days in our house (indeed, it should already have been denuded of its ornaments and banished outside to await recycling) will not give up its fight to live, to be beautiful, to reach out for tomorrow’s light.
And, occasionally, there are the blessed stumbles into thin places, where the reality of this world opens into the weightlessness of knowing – for certain – that this world is not all there is. To become open to those thin places is not necessarily a matter of travel, although some of my profoundest experiences of transcendence have come when I was away from home.
What is required most of all, I think, is silence, and attention, whether the turning away from the fever of activity occurs on vacation, or close to home.
As American novelist Marilynne Robinson wrote, “Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” Indeed. A mere afternoon’s walk along the river in Saskatoon was enough to bring stillness.
The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
Even that which is broken and dead contributes its pattern of meaning, whether we see it or not.
“In difficult times, carry something beautiful in your heart.”
Remembering my oldest brother who died on December 23, 2019
To say or write something new about Christmas is impossible. We have heard it all already: the sentimental, the devout, the reverent, the irreverent, the beautiful, the profound, the cynical, the gloriously happy, and the bitter. Words and songs, candles and cookies, gifts and slights, mutters of “humbug” and shouts of “Merry Christmas!” This year, with every tradition upended and every once-joyous occasion attenuated with “distancing,” all of the above now have an undertone of loss. What is there to say? Not much, I suppose. But there is much to remember.
Like most families, we have known many kinds of Christmases: some suffused with grief over recent loss (funeral flowers were part of the decorations in 1990 and again in 2019); some marred by minor illnesses (extra supplies of Kleenex and toilet paper required); some made awkward with tension (either individual or collective or both); some filled with joy (a long absent family member home again, a new baby whose presence makes everything new and wonderful, food traditions carried on in blissfully busy kitchens). Actually, separating all my Christmases into categories like that is foolish—Christmas embodies hope above all else, and hope keeps company with all manner of disappointments and losses, as well as with deep happiness when hope is proved true.
Both of the primary narratives of Christmas in our culture have space aplenty for the full range of human experience. Both raise expectations to mythical levels; both also point to reality in its greatest rawness. The Christian narrative is of new birth, a miraculous birth that will save an entire people from violent occupation and brutal economic conditions. Some tellings of the story look forward to the redemption of all humankind. However, as a prophet informs the baby’s mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul.”
.. . . . I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different: this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
(T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”)
The Christian narrative requires us to think about our role in the miseries of now and in the future of the world that is ever unfolding.
The narrative of St. Nicholas, with its delightful magic of one man giving gifts to the whole world in a single night, seems less demanding, warmer. It invites us to generosity, not only to our families but also to those who would gladly be generous to their families yet have not the wherewithal to do so. The deep human pain in this story of expectations is implied, not often spoken. The contradictions are there, nevertheless. Underneath the story of filled stockings and too many cookies are economic realities that demand attention.
Nevertheless—and I insist on this “nevertheless”—there is beauty to be found in all levels of both Christmas narratives. The beauty that is given, for which we need only eyes to see and hearts to attend; and the beauty that we create through imagination and ingenuity. In all those forms of beauty, remembered from previous years, I take refuge in this year of the pandemic.
The photos contain no people, no food (which seems appropriate for this year). What I have included is the memory of the last time that all my siblings and I were together, evoked only through what we saw together, and other memories of quiet moments that were simply given and gratefully received.
Poinsettias are everywhere at Christmas, never mind that they are a tropical plant that couldn’t survive outdoors in the Canadian prairies. Usually they are red, brilliant deep red, framed with dark green leaves. Red and green, the colors of Christmas. This display, though, was definitely white and blue, human skills turning natural beauty into magical beauty in an ice palace.
I remember that at the time I thought this icy display of artificially blue poinsettias verged on kitsch. I was charmed, though, despite myself, by various shades of blue and fascinated with the play of sunlight through the high glass ceilings of the conservatory. Still all that added paint (who knows what the designers used) and glitter, of all things, seemed a sin against natural beauty. I am less critical now. When I see the three reflected figures in the dark blue globe in the center, I am grateful that we were together.
And after all, the entire Christmas experience, in our culture, is artificial. It is a cessation of the usual rhythm of work and school; we bring trees indoors, for goodness’ sake; we import tropical plants; we spend lavishly on gifts and food; we welcome dreams of a better world. So let our homes and our celebrations be nostalgic and extravagant. Let their beauty enrich our souls and then make us aware of how we might change our world to make it beautiful for all, not just the privileged.
I want to conclude this reflection on Christmas themed beauty with a return to the outdoors, the unadorned beauty that is given to us so generously everywhere we look.
“And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet, but the roots are down there riotous.”(Rumi)
The first killing frosts have come through. I have dug up my dahlia tubers and put them to rest for the winter in our cold room. The quiet darkness will soothe them after their summer’s exuberant blooming. Our mild fall this year had given them almost an entire extra month in which to parade their flamboyant selves.
I love dahlias (pronounced dayˈ-lee-uh in British English or daˈ-lee-uh in American English). Their colors are exorbitantly happy. From the dinner-plate dahlias—flowers measuring up to 8 or 9 inches across—to smaller patio-pot versions, each flower has dozens and dozens of petals. That miracle alone makes the work of winter storage entirely worth it.
During the anxieties of July and August when a sobering diagnosis combined with the isolation of the pandemic to make each brilliant summer day feel like walking in the dark, I received a hand-made get well card from our oldest granddaughter. She had previously emailed to ask what my favourite flowers were, and I had said dahlias, not stopping to think that they would be rather difficult to draw.
The tender care with which she created each of those many dahlias, with all those many nestled petals, is obvious. Her creative bouquet lives on, pinned to our fridge door (that universal bulletin board). It brought pleasure and comfort especially after I realized that an in-person visit could not happen. It continued to delight me during my gradual recovery in our long mellow fall. All the while, our actual dahlias continued to bloom even past the first mild frosts. Now that cold temperatures have entirely ended the real dahlias’ life – for now – the hand-drawn dahlias remain, and still bring smiles.
I say “for now,” because their life is not at all over. The clumps of seemingly lifeless tubers will rest in our cold room over the winter and when the time is right, little shoots will poke out of those dusty tubers to begin their growth toward mid-summer’s glory.
Gardeners (and farmers), together with all those who live more directly within seasonal rhythms of growth and dormancy, understand that dark seasons are an integral part of life. In our usual lexicon of duality, however, we oppose darkness and light, giving light all the good symbols and equating darkness with evil. Think of our common images: the “dark night of the soul,” “going over to the dark side,” “heart of darkness” (thank you, Joseph Conrad), “we’re in a dark time now.” We all seem to be “afraid of the dark,” at some level or other, not just young children going to bed.
Yet as Barbara Brown Taylor makes clear in Learning to Walk in the Dark, just as trees, flowers, animals, insects, and birds all need daily intervals of darkness in order to flourish well, so too do humans require periods of silence and dormancy. Above and beyond the darkness needed for our hormones to do their intricate work of rebuilding our bodies in the night, our minds and souls benefit enormously from regular absence of artificial light. The stupendous miracle of a star-filled sky cannot be appreciated except where all other light is extinguished (one reason, sufficient all by itself, for camping in what we city dwellers call the “wilderness”).
Away from the city, where absolute blackness is still possible, one can hear the owls, the poignant call of coyotes, the way the wind breathes through the leaves, whether in the midst of fecund photosynthesis or rustling their way toward equally fertile decay. In the darkness, human beings can rest or pursue the necessary journeys inward toward spiritual wholeness. We should not shun either darkness or dormancy. Both are essential for self-knowledge without which the virtues of compassion and integrity cannot develop.
Recognizing that physical darkness is essential for our bodies to sleep well, heal well, build new cells properly, etc., is one thing; accepting that emotional darkness is also essential for our hearts and minds is another. We are none of us eager to seek the dark ways of loss and grief and confusion and fear, yet they are an integral—inevitable—part of what it means to be human.
“You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing.”
Natalie Babbit in Tuck Everlasting
What my beloved dahlias can teach me is that to be dug from my familiar place, dusted off, and tucked away into the darkness for months on end, is not the end of me after all. Not even the spring divisions, when the tangled tubers and dried off roots need to be cut into pieces in order to multiply the beauty into more plants is the end of my essential being.
“Fear is not pathology. Hopelessness is not pathology. Grief is not pathology. They are path. Collect the pieces of the broken world and create a container of empathy and love for the crumbled hopes and dreams to be held and tended to with the pieces of light. Honor the holy truth that the forms that love takes will always fall apart—for this is their nature—in order that they may come back together in more integrated and cohesive ways.”
It is indeed better to live into the darkness, welcome its unknown space, breathe quietly, and be willing to wait for the newness of life, than to seek endless distractions, turn on more lights, deny the pain, grasp frantically for whatever relief might be on offer.
It had to be: five days and four nights in a ward of 4 people – 3 besides me. I hadn’t been a hospital patient for 3 decades, for which I’d been grateful. Now I was just grateful that COVID-19 restrictions had eased enough that I could be there. Medical details are irrelevant for this posting (albeit obviously not for me). What matters here are the stories I heard and what I might now do with them.
“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.”
B. Lopez, Crow and Weasel
Hospital wards offer little privacy (or modesty, but that’s another issue). Curtains are sometimes drawn around beds, especially at night, but soundproof they are most definitely not. Night times are the vulnerable times, too, when pain or fear or usually both simply must be given voice somehow—to the darkness at least, if not to the gentle night nurse who quietly appears in response to the call button.
Friendships form quickly in such emotional places, if we can call such brief connections friendships. Intimacy might be a better word, an involuntary intimacy that comes from bearing silent witness. Subject as we all were to varying degrees of helplessness, bearing witness was all we could do for one another, for the one or few days that we shared the room.
It took only one day for me to grasp my relative privilege. I had someone who visited, as much as COVID-19 allowed (the other patients came from all over the province), I had someone to whom I would go home when the time came (I would not travel by taxi or return to a solitary residence), I had enough financial security for that not to be a factor in how the healing process would unfold, I had begun from a baseline of good health and stable routines. For me, matters unfolded as they should in a competent health care system, and complications did not arise.
That, I discovered, should not be taken for granted. I had known, intellectually, about worrisome gaps in our social safety net, such as inadequate welfare resources, unmanageable case loads, too much bureaucracy, insufficient finances for all the possible treatment plans that could be helpful, and persistent negative lifestyle choices (if indeed they are genuine choices, which is debatable). On a scale necessary for drawing up budgets and making policy decisions, the gaps could be, and have been, discussed and sometimes ameliorated—or exacerbated, as has also happened.
How those policies play out for any given individual is entirely different. The stories that I heard, whether directly during daylight hours when curtains were opened and sunshine gleamed across the floor and conversation eased the awkwardness of sharing space—or overheard as doctors’ instructions and therapists’ questions, or as half-stifled sobs in the night. I did not know what to do with those stories, how to grant them the dignity the story-tellers deserved, how to hold the suffering honestly, without looking away.
I asked a friend who, as a staff member, dropped in for quick chats now and then, “how can you keep working here, with all the heartache and all the stubborn dysfunction that you must observe?” Her reply was simple: bear witness and give whatever assistance possible because both would make a difference to each patient.
Bearing witness. The phrase has haunted my quiet hours ever since, especially at night when distractions are not there and I feel most vulnerable. Bearing witness. To open one’s mind and heart and imagination and feel pain that is not one’s own yet hurts almost as if it was.
My last night in the hospital had some long wakeful spells. It was not the quietest night on the ward, although the room I was in remained peaceful enough. I lay there, thinking about the woman directly across from me who had, earlier in the day, told me amidst tears of her loneliness, isolation, separation from family and everything familiar. Social safety nets had not kept her secure—all seemed wrong and unhelpful and impossible. I had wanted to cry with her and chafed at my helplessness, at the seemingly intransigent province-wide problems that denied her any hope of change or return to her beloved community. Bearing witness was hard.
Then, in the semi-darkness, as I looked at the outline of her body relaxed now in sleep, I saw something else: beside her bed, hovering above her bedside cabinet, a dark human form, smaller than an actual person, like a statue perhaps, visible only to the waist, with head bent toward the bed, a hand holding a tiny light. As if someone were quietly keeping watch at her side. The head, with its longer hair, had a faint resemblance to Jesus figures but could also have been a woman. Only the silhouette was there, no discernible facial features. As if “bearing witness” had taken on actual physicality.
For several long breaths, I stared. That wasn’t possible, couldn’t be real. I am not a see-er of visions, although I don’t discount the supernatural, having had experiences of something More than materiality. In that moment of suspended time, disbelief and unease gave way to warmth and comfort. She was not alone after all, that fellow patient who had so little control over her life and so little prospect of improvement. Someone cared, someone was watching, offering a little light to see by.
Then another patient in the room shuffled out from behind her curtain and headed for the bathroom. In the brief illumination of the bathroom light, before the door closed, the nameless Witness became instead the silhouette of the IV apparatus standing just close enough to the wall shelves where a dark plastic bag had been stuffed in to create a seeming statue of a human being; the light in the outstretched hand was the glow of the IV monitor. The illusion of a tender watcher was at once dispelled.
Yet not entirely. When the room returned to its semi-darkness, I could “see” the figure again. And I pondered it, until I fell asleep.
The following morning, as daylight lit the room, I awoke and smiled to myself to think how simple objects can reshape themselves in the darkness. The woman who had been “watched over in the night” was now absent for treatment, and before she returned, I was discharged and on my way home. Would I have told her of my “vision” if she had been there? I don’t know. Likely not. As it was, I could not even say good-bye. Such is the transience of meetings in a hospital, and in many other places where vulnerable people come together briefly, hear one another’s stories, then go their separate ways.
Now that I am home and once again sheltering in place, more or less, until recovery is complete, I have more than enough time to ponder the meaning of the illusory watcher in the night. I had briefly wished that the figure had been real, had been an actual manifestation of godly caring. If only we could somehow summon divine intervention! make medical centres magically appear in our northern regions, transform all care homes into beautiful, fully staffed, loving places, make poverty a thing of the past! I know divine intervention is believed possible by many, in more than one religious tradition.
What I now also recognize, with gratitude, is that my ward-mate was being cared for: repeatedly, I watched various medical staff talk to her, provide the necessary attention, schedule treatments, bring meals, etc. Over and over again, in those days, I saw competent and gentle care given to others and to me. There had been social workers doing their best to work out solutions, physiotherapists and occupational health therapists teaching necessary skills and making sure that the return to outside life would be feasible. Phone numbers were given, tender hands placed on shoulders in comfort, encouragement offered.
What I also want to carry forward from here is the necessary knowledge that every person I meet has stories to tell, stories that will change my initial impressions and evoke compassion and admiration for the courage that is there. I need to go into the community, when the time comes, with the willingness to see in every face, both the vulnerable sleeper in the bed and the loving generosity of a potential care-giver.
In a world that seems woven through with disasters, pending or ongoing; when each day’s news brings fresh horrors that were surely preventable; when values we once considered untouchable and self-evident are repeatedly stomped into uselessness; when disillusionment competes with fear for our emotional attention, and incidents of heroism are overshadowed by stories of outrageous greed; when personal fears of illness and mortality have been raised to national levels so that the whole world draws nearer to apocalyptic undoing—platitudes are too thin to offer comfort. Maybe even words themselves, regardless of how well chosen and beautifully arranged, are not enough.
Life is too complicated to deal with only in words. If you can only deal with stuff that’s simple enough to put into words, you’re not going far enough. And that’s where God is – in the complicated places.
What holds my attention and my heart these days is clouds. Yes, clouds.
On evening walks, I have had to be careful not to trip on uneven sidewalks because I’m looking up. The solidity of the cement beneath my feet, like rock-hard news items of political malfeasance, failures to estimate medical needs, short-sightedness in all manner of public choices, vanishes out of my perception, lost in wisps of white against sapphire blue, the streaks of cirrus tinged with coral. My very soul is drawn upward into nothingness, into Emptiness.
Once upon a long-gone time, my childish self discovered how to use a narrative imagination to block out confusing, frightening information, dropped by adults moved mysteriously by fears too incompletely voiced to make any kind of sense (perhaps even to themselves). My world didn’t feel safe? Well, then. Make up an entirely new one and guide its characters through innocent and brave adventures that always end happily. Create a family constellation that’s balanced just right with girls and boys—I think I chose twin girls and twin boys, the boys sufficiently older to be quite out of the way.
My imaginary family lived on the clouds, great big cumulous clouds with just enough darkness across the bottom to lend solidity.
Light as air, the young cloud-dweller girls skipped from cloud to cloud without ever falling through or knowing the hard edges of earth.
At night, snuggled against their always kind, sympathetic mother, they listened to her stories, knew the light of stars up close, celebrated the moon that drifted right through their domain, applauded occasional displays of Northern Lights. Possibly they even danced on their evanescent cloud floors, although I wouldn’t then have dared to use the word “dance.” The cloud-girls just whirled and leaped and bowed to songs that had no words.
Something of that desire to leave the earth and live in air alone possesses me these days. My longing seems more than just desperate escapism. Like Denise Levertov in “The Avowal,” I yearn for the “freefall” of trust into “Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,” so the heaviness of worry can be dissipated in a realm where nothing is solid or impermeable. All is breath and spirit. Change is not to be feared: it is but a shifting of shape and color into ever more loveliness.
Even as clouds and colors grow darker, there is no terror. Clouds draw closer, like a spiritual comforter, wrapping us round with inner warmth.
Back in those childhood days, when I imagined my ongoing saga of the cloud-dwellers, I also attended school where studies were fine and recess-times were sometimes not too bad. In our music hour, we sang old favorites like “Home on the Range.” That that world of cattle and cowboys was utterly remote from our small Mennonite community was beside the point. I liked the melody, liked the hopefulness of the chorus:
Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Apparently, I never noticed the sheer impossibility of a place where discouraging words were never heard. Well, nostalgia often does create impossible scenes that never actually were. But never a cloud in the sky? The assumption being that clouds are bad? Really?
In these days of compulsive cloud-gazing, and hunting through folders of photos for the cloud pictures that I seem to have always taken, I am faced with a stark knowledge: without clouds, the skies are not nearly as lovely.
Depth of field, range of color, endless variation – all are heightened with clouds.
Even the wildest storms, with their terrifying black clouds—and I do not wish to minimize their sometimes devastating consequences—have a terrible beauty of their own.
Is there a moral here? Perhaps. It does not seem to me that we have any choice about whether there are clouds, of whatever sort, in our lives or not. Environmentalists and meteorologists would dispute that assertion, and rightly so. The world we live in, indeed, the wider universe, is so intricately connected in infinite webs that surely we do influence the presence and kind of real clouds and metaphorical ones. This is why listening to the news is so disturbing; at the grimmest level – and the most hope-filled one – we are in this together and our choices matter.
For this moment, at this stage of my journey (accompanied as I am by people whom I know and whom I don’t know), the beyond past the clouds draws my spirit, even as my eyes rest in their ethereal beauty here and now.
“Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled— to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.” (Mary Oliver)
( Text and pictures are not correlated, not unless you wish to connect them. In my mind, beauty and color are always relevant. And if you follow this blog, you already know that flowers comfort me.)
ONCE upon a time, I wondered what it might be like to live through a tumultuous world-wide event, on the scale of WW2 or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. When I listened to the daily 6 o’clock news on CBC (a long-standing ritual), I was horrified by stories of war (elsewhere) and stories of natural disasters that left thousands dead and the local economy in tatters (again, elsewhere). I tried to imagine what such an experience might be like. Wouldn’t everything in life be divided into “before this” and “after that”?
That was indeed once upon a time. Now, enough has already happened in 2020 to make me face what was formerly unimaginable, let alone what I can add in from the previous year or two, as the effects of climate change have become more immediate, as democratic values have come under threats that likewise seem far too close. While I have been privileged enough to remain COVID free so far and relatively unscathed by the tanking economy, the pandemic-fueled crisis of racism has shaken me deeply. Surely if this is not a time that will hereafter divide life into “before this” and “after that,” then thousands upon thousands of demonstrators will have risked their lives for nothing. We dare not return to “normal.”
Who can bear to watch the videos?
How can the stories, now surfacing one after the other, leave us unmoved?
The coronavirus itself has already changed the entire world, not just North America. Among the privileged, it’s been inconvenient to learn new ways of engaging socially, new ways of getting work done, new forms of technology. For the less privileged and the marginalized—well, the narrative shifts from inconvenient to catastrophic. The glaring gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the strong correlation between that gap and vulnerability to the coronavirus have been starkly highlighted.
Sparked by yet one more killing of an unarmed black person by an officer in uniform, fuelled by economic hardships made even worse by the pandemic, and in defiance of health risks, demonstrations across the world have drawn in people of all classes and races in a rare show of human unity. Signs and shouts and social media messages are calling out long-standing systemic racism throughout government organizations, corporations, religious and educational institutions, and most especially the militarized police forces (could we possibly begin by talking about police services instead of police forces??). The passionate marchers are asking us all, individually and collectively, to change our minds and then act – or vice versa, however it works out.
The before-and-after that is struggling to be born here, I think, goes far deeper than institutional changes. I’m not arguing against the desperate need for substantial legislative changes, for greater accountability in the police services and legal systems, for widespread societal conversations about racism.
None of that, however, is going to accomplish what Black and Indigenous Lives Matter is about without many individual changes of heart, changes of belief systems, changes of primary narratives—the kind of before-and-after that strikes at the core of personal identity.
We all have foundational stories that tell us who we are: stories that give us meaning and purpose and that determine the way we see the world. Call it a grand narrative, call it the paradigm through which we make sense of disparate facts and experiences as they come our way, call it the lens through which we see life and interpret what we see. External hardships can be faced as long as we can walk with our community and continue to know, in our hearts, who we are, where we belong, and what we believe.
Thus making substantive changes to our personal connection to those foundational stories is possibly one of the hardest tasks we face as human beings. It means casting aside basic assumptions, rethinking all of our major choices, asking that most terrifying question, “what if I’ve been wrong about how the world works? what if I’ve needlessly, selfishly hurt people who could have been (should have been) my friends?”
It’s not easy, such remaking of the self. In my own journey of spiritual rethinking, I sometimes felt as if I were standing on a high platform without a railing while it was being dismantled, one plank at a time. Would I finally fall through because there wasn’t enough wood left to stand on? What kind of surface would I land on? Or would I keep falling into a moral and spiritual abyss where nothing mattered anymore?
Perhaps that’s why I began reading, almost obsessively, memoirs of people who exchanged the security of their inherited (or absorbed) familiar grand narrative for the unknown. For example, Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return recounts a painful exit from a Jewish Hasidic community, an exit begun almost inadvertently through gradual learning about how others live and think. The title of Megan Phelps-Roper’s Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church is self-explanatory; Phelps-Roper was not only exiled from her family and community but had to face her participation in acts she now found abhorrent. Such memoirs show us the often high cost of re-evaluating that which had been assumed, given—until it wasn’t any more. And everything changed.
Such a wholesale re-evaluation is now called for from all of us in situations of privilege, as we listen to the veritable avalanche of stories of discrimination, both deliberate and unthinking.
All those voices, some now speaking out for the first time, others already hoarse from having spoken so long in vain, make me see, now from a different angle, the ramifications of political decisions that I once supported, the benefits I reaped because of the community I happened to be born into, the education I received because I had the freedom to choose what college I wanted to attend, the stable home life that supported my educational desires because my parents had not been systematically abused in ways that destroyed initiative and hope.
What if I have absorbed (and I’m sure I did) all through life, a story of innate superiority based on the color of my skin? Which I did not choose, could not have chosen, just like everyone else could also not choose their parents, their place in society, the color of their skin.
All those tales about shiftlessness, inferior intellect, and innate tendencies to crime amongst “those other people”? Can I contemplate the awful possibility that those stories have all along been self-serving, even religiously justified, designed to hang onto privilege and wealth at the cost of the humanity of entire peoples?
Facing all of that squarely means changing an entire way of looking at the world. It will mean giving up a previous narrative and admitting that some actions were utterly shameful, even if they had been done without recognition of what they were. It takes a brave soul to begin that journey, let alone see it through to wherever it will lead.
My point in raising this particular perspective on the changes that face our world, this most shattering and poignant of all before-and-afters, is to invite us to think beyond the fierce arguments, the shoutings and counter-protests, the political posturing. Rather than judging, try to see the terrible fear in the hearts of people who cannot yet face the consequences of changing their entire self-narrative, their lens for seeing and interpreting the world.
For at some point, after such a major revision to the shaping stories of the self, the initial insistent question “who am I now?” will be followed by an even more troubling question: “whatever shall I do with my former self?”
“. . . it’s not only the things that we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs, and things of that sort. They’re not actually alive in us, but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them. . . . . And we are, all of us, so pitifully afraid of the light.”
( This post is something of an indulgence in these difficult times. It was indeed first written in a different time and different world – November 2017 – but has perhaps still some relevance.)
On the highway between Lake Louise and Banff, cars pulled onto the shoulder, and camera-wielding drivers and passengers tumbled out—not to immortalize one more grizzly bear on social media, not this time—but to render awed tribute to the full, double rainbow that arose out of the earth in the far valley and returned to the earth on nearby slopes still clad in mists of retreating rain. The upper rainbow a soft-focus version of the brilliant lower arc, each color band was intensely itself yet merged seamlessly into the next, the red and purple declaring themselves against a backdrop of mountains and clouds.
The physics of light refraction, most certainly familiar to most of the open-mouthed photographers, meant little in the moment. It would have taken a truly hardened, indifferent soul not to see this unearthly beauty and then to bless the web of coincidence that had prompted light to undress itself behind a veil of retreating raindrops.
Can a rainbow know its adorers? As a peacock might self-consciously fan out iridescent tail feathers and strut before its admirers? Surely it cannot be sacrilegious to imagine such mysterious conversation.
The belief that rainbow hues have spiritual dimensions is very old: from the original makers of mandalas, Buddhist monks who wove sand into magnificent sacred works of art, to today’s devotees of Zen adult coloring books, human beings have known that each vibrant color must mean something.
Even those who have stripped all that is sacred from the color spectrum—interior decorators, web-designers, and ad-makers—still know very well that the exact shade matters. Paint the walls bright yellow and we’ll consume more food! Use subtle greys and blues and we’ll stay longer, become more pliable to the message, whatever it is.
Fortunately, the rainbow, co-opted as it has been for various purposes, is not the only divine gift to the human eye. The world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” to use Hopkins’ immortal phrase, through a reckless profusion of flowers, from the grandiose, diva-like spread of tropical plants to the infinitesimal delicacy of alpine flowers growing far above normal human tread.
Gardeners the world over confess their immoderate obsession with the unending possibilities in the intimate marriage between color and texture. Have you ever fingered the petals of a rose in full bloom? Velvet itself is pedestrian in comparison. Or noted how the leaves of the paintbrush transfigure themselves into flowers, adopting whatever shade of red or orange or magenta or pink or yellowish white is de rigueur at a particular altitude?
Or pondered how it is that the leaves of fireweed in fall turn a dormish brown in one valley, yet in another choose to wear gorgeous purples and magentas and oranges?
Or asked a lily enthusiast to describe the patterns of lines and dots in Amber Flame or Chocolate Canary?
When I immerse fragile petals of black pansies in boiling water in the first stage of making jelly, a brilliant turquoise precedes the deep amethyst of the final product. That red rose petals should yield a soft blue before turning into a deep pink is no less miraculous to me. No wonder that medieval alchemists, looking for the elixir of youth, or that which would change all to gold, knew that at the heart of all things is a congruence of elements that none but the Creator understands.
Our subconscious responses to the symbolic resonances of color are particularly evident in how we react to the contrast between what is black and white (literally or metaphorically) and what is color-full. Remember Schindler’s List (1993)? Most of the movie is filmed in black and white, shifting to color only in the last scenes as attention turns from those who perished to those who survived. Other than that, color appears only in a couple of poignant scenes, in which one little Jewish girl wears a pink coat, such a contrast to the inhuman categories of Jew or not-Jew that she provokes tears long before the sheer scale of the tragedy makes weeping the only reasonable response.
Black and white, as a metaphor, has come to stand for immovable regulations and an avoidance of all nuance. In religion, black-and-white distinguishes between the saved and the damned (no in-between, or compassion); in politics, black-and-white sorts all people and positions into the evil and the good (with the sorter seemingly always among the good).
Although it seems prudent not to rely too heavily on physics as a source of moral wisdom, especially since the beautiful calls for awe, not moralizing, I cannot help but ponder what physics might teach me. Light is essential for the perception of any color whatsoever; color cannot be seen in the dark. Even more striking, light itself must be broken (refracted) before rainbow colors appear. A consistent rejection of all variances, fragments, ambiguities, irregularities—terminal black-and-white categorization, in other words—impoverishes us, whether we know it or not.
A rainbow and a cuckoo, Lord, / How rich and great the times are now!
William Henry Davies
There is a crack in everything . . . that’s how the light gets in.
When it comes to flowers, the world has pictures aplenty: calendars, seed catalogues, seed and bulb packages, entire websites devoted to flowers, Facebook pages, artists’ canvasses, greeting cards, bookmarks, art galleries, t-shirts and sweat shirts, dresses, even jewelry—everyone who has ever had a camera in hand has taken pictures of flowers.
In preparation for a recent PowerPoint presentation, I went to the internet for garden photos and was promptly overwhelmed. I should have anticipated that: I have never walked through a public garden or conservatory without seeing at least one dedicated photographer equipped with tripod and several lenses.
As anyone who has read this blog knows, I also carry my camera into gardens, and assiduously grow my own flowers.
Who would not want to appreciate the abundant gift of the Creator, whether or not we understand the complex roles that flowers play in all the divergent ecologies on Earth?
What astounds me most of all, though, is the sheer, undisciplined abundance of wild flowers, many growing where human feet rarely tread, some in climates so harsh that some never grow taller than an inch or two, and flowers are measured in millimeters. While I can admire a dinner-plate dahlia or tea rose with all the awe it demands, my deepest respect is given to tiny wild flowers, such as moss campion and Western spring beauty, both native to the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains, and requiring a better camera than what I have.
Yes, the Rockies again. Get used to it. I haven’t spent over 40 summer holidays camping and hiking in the Rockies without having been forever changed by the thin air and the thin places where the soul is called beyond itself into worship.
Early in that history of following trails in the national and provincial parks, I wanted to call the wild flowers by name. I bought books on Rocky Mountain flowers, and for decades now, I’ve been teaching myself their names (their common ones, that is, not the Latin ones), trying to distinguish different varieties of the same flower, practicing my identification skills for the benefit of family members.
It would be appropriate here to insert some photos of those various flowers who have become my friends. As it happens, even the close-up photos that succeeded often leave the individual flowers looking bereft, even uninteresting, as if color has been leached out or the background badly chosen.
The more time I spent this week browsing through my photo folders, the more dissatisfied with my efforts I became, until I realized I was missing the most important point here: flowers, like people, like animals, like birds, belong somewhere. None lives alone. If hiking the backwoods trails can teach us anything, and if reading the now ubiquitous articles on climate change can likewise teach us anything, it is that habitat is everything.
Just as who I am and how I present myself depends on where I am and with whom I keep company and how I live, so flowers are themselves in their habitat, which they share with other flowers and grasses and birds and animals. I had not understood the subconscious knowing that informed my better flower photos: flowers are loveliest and most themselves in the company of of other flowers, of stones and grasses and fallen trees and running water.
Herewith some of my favourite flower photos taken on mountain trails:
The language of flowers is spoken through color and texture. It is always brief, spoken on the wind, as it were, since no flower remains in bloom for long. Yet their brief presence echoes off rocks, reverberates in moss, accompanies the slow and fruitful rot of logs, remains in the tangled roots of the fallen trees. What solo parts they might be offered here and there, perhaps in a single spot of sunlight in the forest, are still performed in a theater created by other living things, not least of which is the deep, dark soil that other flowers, shrubs, and trees have died to create.
We who have been chosen to speak more articulate, distinctive languages, which carry heavy responsibilities—“words are for those with promises to keep” (W.H. Auden)—could benefit from spending more time with the seemingly silent whisperers of color. Gentleness and beauty in the midst of harsh winds, rhythms of life and death, laughter of resurrections from the humus of the earth: who would not feel comfort and gain courage from those?
and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular, / and each name a comfortable music in the mouth, / tending, as all music does, toward silence, / and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.