This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Silence, please

 This week my husband and I enjoyed a little midwinter break at a Scandinavian spa. After a soak in a hot pool, I sat ensconced in my robe in a relaxation room in front of a large picture window. I was starting a new book that I’d brought along: “This is what I’ve come to believe about change: it’s good, in the way that childbirth is good, and heartbreak is good, and failure is good.  By that I mean that it’s incredibly painful, exponentially more so if you fight it, and also that it has the potential to open you up, to open life up, to deliver you right into the palm of God’s hand, which is where you wanted to be all along, except that you were too busy pushing and pulling your life into exactly what you thought it should be. So this is the work I’m doing now, and the work I invite you into: when life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate.  And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.” (Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet)  Good stuff. As I looked up from my book, I saw that fat snowflakes had begun drifting down. Above the trees, a huge hawk circled.  It was a moment of perfect, silent serenity.

Silence is meant to be the order of the day at this spa. As it says on their website, “The value of silence -- With a quiet and tranquil environment the soul is able to see what was once elusive. Silence clears a path for thought and reflection. At Scandinave Spa silence is at the heart of the experience so the guest can realize complete relaxation, wellness and rejuvenation.”  Yet as I left the quiet room and made my way through the various pools and saunas, I was confronted at every turn by noise. Despite the signs posted everywhere reading, “Quiet please, Respect the silence, Enjoy the tranquility,” couples and groups of singles congregated as if attending a kegger, speaking to each other at full volume.  One gaggle gathered by the waterfall, talking loud enough to drown out the sound of the water. A group of girls posed in a hot pool, carrying contraband cell phones and giggling as they took selfies. I entered the steam room, passing through the door bearing a large sign urging “ABSOLUTE SILENCE.”  Inside, a group of workmates chattered incessantly – and I’m not talking about intelligent conversation or essential information being transmitted.  No, this was a pointless exchange of banalities about the temperature of the sauna (surprise – it’s hot in there!), who’s wearing what, who said what to whom at the office… It was clear that most of the talking that was going on was simply to shield against the “discomfort” of silence. (I imagine that if you challenged these people about their noncompliance, they would counter with something along the lines of “We paid for this; we can talk if we want.” But that argument doesn’t fly, given that the rest of us paid for the advertised tranquility and quiet, and we can’t get what WE paid for while they continue to natter.  But I digress.)


All of this served to bring into sharp relief for me just how uncomfortable our society has become with silence and self-reflection.  For most of us, our waking hours are inundated with noise and other sensory stimuli, most of it of our own choosing.  Conversation by way of phone, text, Facebook or email; television; music piped through earbuds; movies; video games – anything and everything but stillness.  We are at once more connected and more disconnected than we’ve ever been. It all makes me very curious as to why so many of us avoid quiet. Are we afraid to be alone with our own thoughts?  If so, why? Or are we afraid of what we might hear in the silence? As one who has learned to appreciate silence, I highly recommend it.  Who knows, you just might hear the voice of God.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

This morning as I made my coffee, a bluejay appeared on my deck.  He perched atop a bird-feeder pole, feather coat plumped against the cold, and checked me out through the window.  Putting down my cup, I went to throw some peanuts onto the deck, noticing that it was wearing its first real snow-coat of the season.  Soon my feathered friend was joined by a raucous gang of his buddies -- along with one opportunistic red squirrel darting in and out to grab his share -- swooping in, each choosing the fattest nut he could find, and hurrying off to deposit it somewhere before coming back for more.  They reminded me for all the world of a bunch of trick-or-treating teenagers, overjoyed to have found one house on the block that still had candy left, and taking full advantage of the fact.

Behind them, the cherry tree surrendered its remaining leaves to the snow-coated pile gathering on the lawn. Farther back, the rusty leaves of the oak tree waved in the sunlight, proud to have hung on through the recent high winds and driving rain.  According to the calendar, there is still more than a month of autumn left, but we all know that it's really only autumn with a wink and air quotes. In reality, it's just an extra month tacked on to the beginning of winter, but with a slightly less depressing face.

As ever, sadness and loss surround us on all sides, but so does beauty and abundance.  We must find a way to see and embrace both.  Our outdoor environment becomes unfriendlier with the change in weather, but as we hunker down inside, we draw one another in closer for warmth.  There are changes to grieve and changes to celebrate.  And as a wise woman said, there is always, always, always something to be thankful for.

I hear a bluejay calling: "Hey guys -- over here!"

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hard frost. Even the parsley has surrendered, and the leaves of the cherry tree are dropping like stones to the ground. The bird bath is frozen solid. Now come the short grey days. But after I adjust to all the nakedness around me, November ends up having its own stark beauty.

No more flamboyant colours - variations on tan and grey are the order of the day.  No more fields pregnant with the promise of corn and wheat; the remaining dry stalks bend and rattle in the wind. As Joni Mitchell so beautifully put it, "All that stays is dying, all that lives is getting out" - a few hardy birds the exception that proves the rule. Yet the sight of the sun slanting low across a once-golden field in the late afternoon almost makes it hard to mourn the summer now long gone and the autumn winding down.  Hush now, and walk quietly.  The natural world is bedding down for a long nap.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Wild Life

I love birds.  Not all kinds of birds, but most kinds (grackles, starlings, and crows need not apply).  I love their colours, songs, behaviours, and the fact that seeing one almost always makes me smile.  I like to attract them to the deck off our kitchen, because that's the best way for me to get to see and enjoy them up close. In fact, I currently have five different types of bird feeders attached to my deck railings, just so that everybody from hummingbirds to cardinals gets their preferred type of feed.  I even keep a bag of unsalted peanuts handy so I can throw them to the bluejays when requested.

I do not, on the other hand, love squirrels.  Squirrels, in my experience, are generally ill-mannered brutes and gluttons.  They do not play well with others.  Call me a specist if you will, but there it is.  I would like squirrels just fine if they were reasonable and willing to share.  The problem is that they park themselves on any available bird feeder (except for the hummingbird-specific one, of course) and stuff themselves until the food is gone. The red squirrels (so deceptively cute) are the worst of the lot in terms of gluttony.  They are extra annoying because they are also bullies, chasing away any creature that dares to trespass on what they see as their own personal spa.  I am not exaggerating - I've seen them gorge themselves, take a long sip of water from the birdbath, then stretch out along the railing as if trying to get a nap and a tan.  I'm sure they'd accept a massage if one was offered.

My family has almost gotten used to my banging on windows, waving my arms, yelling, chasing, and threatening to buy a gun with a silencer.  Almost, not quite - there's still a fair bit of eye-rolling that goes on.  No matter what I try, those little red devils are always one step ahead of me.  Yesterday I watched one chase a beautiful cardinal couple away from the feeder, and I saw red (pun intended).  I had to try something desperate.

I don't have a handgun license, so I did the next best thing.  I drove to the WBU store and grudgingly laid down the big bucks for a "squirrel-proof" feeder.  Now, I'm not naive - I've been around long enough to know that sooner or later, my squirrels are bound to figure a way around even these defenses.  I just needed to feel like I had the upper hand, if only for a day or two.  I actually got a bit of discount by purchasing a feeder that someone else had returned, not because of a problem with squirrels, but with raccoons!

Well, I took my new purchase home, set it up, and took some pleasure in watching my now perplexed freeloaders trying to figure it out in the evening.  So far so good.

As I headed off to bed a few hours later, the thought crossed my mind that I hoped no neighbourhood raccoon would come by and knock it down.  I'd rarely had any issues with coons, but for some reason I flicked on the outside light as I walked past the deck door just to check.  The sight that met my eyes had me convinced that I must be on Candid Camera.

There, packed together on the railing as if it was a row of theatre seats, was not only a raccoon, but five - count'em - five young kits.  Oh, they weren't bothering the new bird feeder; their focus was piling on top of each other to take swigs out of the hummingbird feeder.  It put me in mind of nothing so much as a gang of kids being taken out by their mother for ice cream cones.

Amidst much purr-growling, and with me urging them along with a broom, they all eventually and reluctantly left the deck and moved into the cherry tree next to it.  I hope they won't be nightly visitors, but I guess the bottom line is, if you invite wildlife into your back yard, you don't necessarily have a lot of control over just how wild it gets!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Living in Spring

The woods and trails were full of voices today, even though I was the only human in sight. If you ignored the distant hum of traffic, you could hear trickling water, a near cacophony of birdsong, and in the distance something else -- was it? -- yes, definitely a great chorus of spring peepers, no doubt rejoicing in being freed early from their lengthy slumber. And walking through a stand of pines, I noticed that even they were talking. I don't mean the familiar sigh of a breeze passing through needles, but a quiet yet distinct clicking sound. I have no idea what it was -- perhaps pine cones cracking open? All of this is to say that there is no mistaking it; spring is definitely here again.

This year is not typical. The first signs of spring were slightly less noticeable due to the mild winter we had experienced. In the past two weeks, unusually warm temperatures for March have caused spring to come on like an avalanche of greening and flowering plants. The arrival of spring after a harsh winter is generally more subtle and poignant: the first day of thaw reveals snowdrops already prepared to flower; the year's first returning robin huddles in a tree looking bewildered by a March snowstorm; clearing away dried leaves and old plant material reveals hyacinths, tulips, and daffodils already pushing their greens up through the earth. Spring usually forces us to await it with longing and comes on slowly...but come it does, no matter how harsh the winter, like the fulfillment of a promise.

For those of us who see life in such terms, the promise of spring is reflected in the spiritual world. I see the arrival of spring as a confirmation that always, even after the coldest, darkest days of our lives, a spiritual, spring-like renewal comes if we're open to it. I'm sure that is why Easter is celebrated in the spring. When we are experiencing a winter season in our lives, it can seem interminable. Yet gradually, we start to notice that there's a little more light each day -- perhaps we catch ourselves smiling or even laughing out loud at things that previously had failed to amuse us. One day we notice that we can hear about a great opportunity happening to someone else and not think, "But what about me?" We begin to recognize bits of beauty in the world where we had previously seen only dirt-crusted snowbanks. A chapter of scripture seems not empty or admonishing, but feels like what it is - a personal love letter from the Author. Eventually we look around and realize that we are once again living in a season of joy.

Some months ago, I was experiencing a winter of the soul. I didn't think that anyone else was aware or impacted; I kept throwing on my scarf and galoshes and trudging through my personal snowbanks. I scarcely realized that an unhealthy focus on self and an ungrateful spirit had me in a deep freeze, and it was affecting my work and my relationships. Yet even in that period of apparent dormancy, unseen forces were at work beneath the cold, snowy crust. Various influences begin to align themselves to shake me awake, admonish me, comfort me, encourage me, feed me -- until one day I was able to open my eyes fully and see that the snow had melted away and new growth was pushing its way through the softened soil into sunlight.

Good Friday can seem like a bleak day, but it thrums with a hidden energy. If you listen closely, it whispers "Hang on, hang on -- Easter is almost here!"

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Waving at the chariots as they go by...

In the movie "Chariots of Fire," the character Eric Liddell makes this memorable statement: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure."  Yesterday afternoon, as I was pursuing one of my favourite pastimes, strolling along a local trail, camera at the ready, the thought occurred to me - God made me slow.  This is a fact that has sometimes been the source of considerable frustration for me, my family, friends, and occasionally coworkers.  It is also, I am coming to see, a gift.  I do tend to move slowly through this world, but as I do, my eyes are wide open.  I find that I tend to see and appreciate details that those moving at a faster clip may tend to overlook.  When I first started taking photographs, it was just as a way of chronicling life, and of committing to memory the things that I was seeing and experiencing.  As I have gotten older, and photography has become a passion, I see that it has in fact also become an act of worship for me.  When I notice, and try to capture with my camera, the beauty and incredible detail in the created world, I am also saying, "Father, I see it - and I acknowledge that it comes from you."  I also feel a desire to share these images with others, in the hope that they will have a renewed appreciation for these small wonders and for their Creator.  Those that move faster may accomplish much more in a day, but sometimes they miss these rumours of glory as they rush on by.

Fast people win races.  They also complete lists, and impress those of us who are not similarly calibrated.  I may have to push myself every day to accomplish the practical necessities of life, but I am also learning to make peace with, and even appreciate, the way that I have been made.  I accept the fact that I am more likely to be the one taking pictures at the finish line.  And that gives Him pleasure too.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Viva Venezia!

Venice was one of the cities on our itinerary that I had visited on my much-earlier European tour. My memories of it were hazy, clouded by the fact that I had been feeling very homesick at that point, and distinctly uncomfortable sleeping at a youth hostel in a room full of strangers. Still, on this day, as our train from Rome passed from hilly countryside through much flatter terrain and eventually across a lagoon, my excitement was growing. Venice, just by the uniqueness of its setting, seems somehow magical to me - a tiny island kingdom from another era, complete with palace, its narrow cobblestone streets completely devoid of traffic. Here, after leaving the train station, we dragged our bulging suitcases onto a vaporetto instead of a bus or taxi. We climbed off at our stop right next to the Rialto bridge and made our way along the canal and down a few sides streets to our bed and breakfast. Wrestling our way up six flights of stairs, we finally arrived at our room and met Claudete, perhaps the loveliest and most accommodating of any of our hosts to date. She graciously provided us with maps, directions, and suggestions. As we got ourselves settled in our room, a beautiful, operatic male voice drifted up into our open window. I hung my head out to see man walking along the narrow lane outside our room, enjoying the acoustics as he walked. He looked up at me, grinned widely, and continued singing on his way. I knew right then that I was going to like this place.

We grabbed our map and set out walking, savouring the carless streets and manageable distances. After a short stroll, we found ourselves in the Piazza San Marco. I instantly felt like a kid in a candy store, and I couldn't wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the day. The crowds didn't bother me in the least as I walked around snapping pictures of tourists covered in pigeons, vendors selling t-shirts, masks, and silly hats, St. Mark's Basilica, and the beautiful Doge's Palace. For me, it was another "Somebody pinch me!" moment. It was like being Photoshopped into a series of postcard images. Crossing over the Rialto bridge, we strolled through the crowded market stalls and shops hawking Murano glass jewelry, scarves, or fresh fruit. Eventually we made our way to Campo San Polo. This large square bordered by homes and a few restaurants was recommended to us by our hostess, who told us we would be able to dine here in a place frequented by Venetians rather than tourists. As we sat outdoors, feeding bread crumbs to a sparrow that came and sat expectantly on the corner of our table, we watched neighbourhood children chasing each other around the fountain or kicking soccer balls while parents and grandparents strolled around the square, stopping to chat with each person they met about the news of the day. Gradually, as the sun set, they all headed home for their dinner, or began to fill in the tables at the restaurant where we were, as usual, among the earliest of the diners. It grew dark as we headed back toward "home," and we stopped off at Piazza San Marco on the way. This area becomes quite magical at night, pigeons and vendors mostly gone, and the square softly illuminated by lights atop the buildings that make up the perimeter. Several of the restaurants that face onto the piazza set up tables and chairs, and each of these spots includes a small canopied stage where a small orchestra in evening attire plays throughout the evening. Few people actually sit at the tables, having been forewarned (as were we) by their guidebooks that exorbitant prices are charged for drinking or dining there. But there is no charge to listen, so one is free to wander from place to place stopping to listen to whichever quintet strikes the fancy. Periodically, one or two couples would step back from the small crowds watching the show and spontaneously begin to ballroom dance in the empty parts of the square. Others just stood with their arms wrapped around each other, swaying to the music. Later, we found our way back to our room, crossing canals over small bridges while gondolas passed quietly underneath, carrying well-heeled tourists who had opted to wait for nightfall to indulge in their lamplit tour of the city's waterways. I personally don't know how Niagara Falls ever got its reputation for being the honeymoon capital of the world; in my estimation, Venice beats it hands-down for romance at its finest.

The next morning, we awoke to a lovely tray of breakfast, including my very own pot of coffee, brought to our room by Claudete. Fuelled for the morning, we headed off to check out the morning fish and fruit market near the Rialto. This incredible array of seafood and farm-fresh produce starts arriving by boat before dawn, hauled to row after row of long wooden tables. As I viewed the vast displays of squid, octopus, long eel-like fish, and another variety of fish that looked like it was soaking in black ink, I tried to memorize their Italian names so that I wouldn't accidentally order them from a menu. I'm afraid that my spirit of adventure does not extend very far when it comes to seafood.

Next on the agenda was a lengthy tour of the Doge's Palace, including the so-called "secret areas." These included a torture room, as well as the jail cell where Casanova was once held prisoner until he made a daring escape. We also passed through the famous "Bridge of Sighs" which connects the palace to the prison, so named because its windows offered convicts their last view of the city before their incarceration. We walked for hours in the afternoon, all the way to the train station and back, stopping en route to visit the huge Frari Church, filled with massive and glorious statuary, including a statue of the crucifixion that I found more moving than any other I had seen - and I had seen quite a few by this point.

After all of our walking, Wendy felt like an evening in, so I set out to prowl on my own. Venice is one of those cities where I never felt unsafe for a moment, even when walking alone. I loved to wander along the canals and narrow streets window-shopping, people-watching, taking pictures from bridges, and watching the gondoliers gather to moor their boats for the night. And before heading back to my room, a gelato in the Piazza made a perfect bedtime snack, and the music of the duelling orchestras offered a lovely lullaby.

The next morning, after breakfast, I asked Claudete if there was any way to tour the Grand Canal without spending an arm and a leg. She mentioned that she had heard something about a celebration of some sort taking place that day, where they might be offering free gondola rides for the morning. Wendy had seen gondolas gathering near the Rialto on her early morning walk, so we headed down there to check things out. She talked to a girl who was standing near the dock and she confirmed that it was true - she, in fact, was waiting for her two friends to meet her there for the event. We were near the front of the line and waited patiently there until the appointed time of 10 o'clock, doing our best to hold our own against the shoving of the Venetian matrons who showed up in droves and showed little respect for the concept of waiting in line. When the time arrived to allow people onto the gondolas, we managed to climb aboard one with the three girls, and were handed two Venetian flags to wave. As our new friends tried to explain to us, this was some kind of tourist board-sponsored pro-Venice, anti-motorized boats event. We pulled out into the Grand Canal and then sat there for quite a while, surrounded by dozens of other gondolas. I assumed that this was to be the extent of our free ride, and was content to have had a chance to sit in a gondola. Suddenly, our flotilla began to be joined by other larger gondolas manned by teams of rowers in uniform. Then came two much larger boats rowed by larger teams and carrying what seemed to be important town dignataries. One boat was draped with a huge red banner proclaiming "Rispetto e Decoro per Venezia" (respect and honour for Venice). As these boats pulled past us, our gondoliers all began to paddle, forming one giant procession with the larger boats! We travelled all the way down the Grand Canal to St. Mark's Square. The largest boat had a sound system blasting stirring music such as the "Ode to Joy," alternating with rousing speeches by a man on board and concluding with cries of "Viva Venezia! Viva San Marco!" It was so exciting and moving that I was close to tears. People crowded along the shores and bridges waving and cheering as the "parade" passed. We felt like real celebrities. Wendy and I decided to pretend that this event was, in fact, a belated celebration of our 50th birthdays (mine had just taken a couple of years of extra planning) - and we even got to keep the flags. What a thrill, and it cost us absolutely nothing!

My time in lovely Venice was brief, but so very memorable, and as I took my farewell stroll through the Piazza San Marco later that night, I knew that our departure the next morning would be another one of the sad goodbyes. But Lake Como awaited us at the end of the next train ride - the last hurrah for our month-long Italian tour.