It dawns open and expectant, as wide as the sea.
but soon will be whizzing by, hurtling me closer and closer to that final destination.
But sometimes, more often now, I remember to see the landscapes opening up on the sides,
the ones that hold still,
the peace that sits so quietly under the trees.
Happy New Year to all of you!
Last week's drive from Montreal to central New York started out under blue skies: this is the beginning of the St. Lawrence Seaway, with the Pont Champlain in the distance. There were a couple of huge boats in the canal, easily breaking up the thin ice as they moved through it -- but the Great Lakes shipping traffic will end pretty soon.
Adirondacks -- not that you can see them very well in this picture, taken out the window as we whizzed down the Northway!
Amsterdam, NY: a city of mostly-abandoned mills on the Hudson. We stopped at this auto parts store to buy new windshield-wiper blades.
While J. was inside the store, I took this photograph of the mill behind it.
At "home": the view from the porch the next morning. So much for sunshine! But we had holly berries and a lot of warmth and brightness inside.
I'm still busy with singing, work, and getting ready for the holidays; somehow this year everything really did converge at once. Except for my music obligations, though, Christmas itself is simpler for us than it used to be. I miss the family and friends who are no longer with us, especially at this time of year, but I'm also noticing a growing sense of of acceptance and calm in myself, a desire for simplicity, and less internal pressure to do all that baking and shopping and gifting and visiting I used to do. Things don't have to be perfect: I don't have to be perfect. I trust that the love I feel is expressed all the time, not just at Christmas, and I've let go of most of the expectations (both of myself and others) that used to lurk around the holidays like icebergs, threatening to sink the whole ship. It's a relief to recognize this, and I wonder, looking ahead, what such an unburdened Christmas will be like ten or twenty years from now, should I still be here.
Paradoxically, as the trappings of Christmas -- both physical and emotional -- lighten, it feels like the season is regaining some of its mystery and joy that I remember from early childhood. Doing less opens up a space, and within that space, I find I can see much more. O magnum mysterium, we will sing on Sunday. Yes. One doesn't have to be literal about the Christian story to feel mystery at this time of year; the wheel of the seasons turns, and then stands still for a moment, inviting us to stop, too, and find the light hidden in the dark midwinter stillness.
Well, here we are on a Monday morning, and for the first time in a couple of months, I am looking ahead past the deadlines on my virtual desk. We sent two big projects off at the end of the week, and I feel like I've just stuck my head up above water after swimming very hard for a very long time.
The first thing I did after getting to the studio today, though, was to accept a painting commission - with a deadline, of course. It's for a landscape in Iceland, and the scene is so beautiful I really wanted to do the commission; it will be a pleasure to work on it. Fortunately it doesn't have to be done before the end of the year.
And this morning I also received a new manuscript for consideration, a very interesting potential project, on top of the new CD and two planned books that Phoenicia will be publishing in the early part of 2014. We'll see...
Coming up before the end of December: a visit to my father; rehearsal and performance of The Messiah; singing the annual Lessons&Carols service at the cathedral as well as Christmas Eve mass at midnight; baking to do and a few presents to send off; a special concert back in Vermont for a friend's 75th birthday. J. and I have tried to learn how to keep the holidays from being too stressful, and a big part of that has been for me to learn to do less, and spread the tasks out over a longer period of time. It's taken a while but I'm getting there!
However, as my mother could have told you fifty years ago, I'm one of those people who's happier when I'm busy, though I do like (and need) to have some quiet and completely unstructured time, and struggle when I don't. What about you -- do you prefer being busy or not? Where's the line for you between feeling productive and contented, and overworked and stressed-out, and how do you manage it?
We're having a gentle snowstorm here in Montreal; it's beautiful. Wishing all of you a good week ahead, and hoping to finally be here a bit more regularly myself!
First snow. Dark silhouettes of people going to work, against the newness of the white earth and frosted trees; the bright orbs of light from the lamps in the park; the muffled, soft stillness.
An ambulance careens by in a blur of chartreuse. A runner, in neon tights; a woman pushing a baby carriage through the slush; determined bicyclists; walkers under umbrellas.
How fragile we are, with our firetrucks and snowplows and ambulances, arming ourselves against the unpredictable! How we clutch at a bit of warmth: the early-morning coffee cup, a cigarette, the loyal dog trotting at our side in its bare paws; how we distract ourselves with colors of lipsticks and scarves; the question of whether to put salt or sugar on our oatmeal! Meanwhile the giant poplars are singing themselves to sleep, the earth shrugging and settling beneath its white blanket, the planet hurtling through the universe. I gaze at myself and my fellow travelers with tenderness: so tiny, so myopic, so trusting, so unprepared.
While in D.C., we went to the Washington National Cathedral on Sunday afternoon. I hadn't been there since singing with my choir from St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hanover, NH, at the bishop's invitation, on New Hampshire Day at least ten years ago -- and a memorable experience that was!
This time we arrived at about 3:30 p.m., before the 4:00 service of Evensong. And just as happens in the Montreal cathedral where I now sing, the choir of Men and Trebles (boys, in this case) was finishing their rehearsal as we walked up the long aisle of the nave.
While my friends looked around, I went up into the side chapel where the choir members were putting on their white surplices and waiting until it was time to begin the processional. I went up to one friendly-looking fellow and asked some questions about their schedule, and very soon we were deep into a happy conversation about lifelong choir singing, liturgical repertoire, Benjamin Britten, and the differences and similarities between the musical life of our two cathedrals.
Then I saw my friends starting to come up the chancel steps into the choir loft and realized we were going to be able to sit in the stalls: a treat that sometimes happens in big cathedrals. As it turned out, I ended up right next to the choir, facing the conductor, and across from the organ, so I could hear the performance and watch the director almost as if I were singing myself. Some of the young boys had absolutely beautiful, clear voices, and the men were professional and supportive, singing the tenor and bass parts. It was extremely interesting to watch and listen to another top-flight choir in action -- and, if I can be permitted a little bit of self-praise, it made me realize how very good our choir and our director really are.
There was netting above us throughout the space; we learned that this was a precautionary measureto catch any loose mortar, as restoration work proceeds on the damage caused by the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that struck the Washington area on August 23, 2011. The cathedral sustained quite a bit of damage but has been declared structurally sound.
After the service, which filled me with happiness and peace after a very busy weekend (that's what can happen when you aren't performing!) I visited some of the other side chapels, and took some photographs of favorite windows. Aren't they gorgeous?
All the windows in the cathedral are modern, and they are just as beautiful to me as the stained glass of Chartres or Notre Dame. The cathedral "is a privately-owned and operated non-profit organization that receives no federal or national church funding," and while it is staffed by Episcopal Church clergy and follows Episcopal/Anglican liturgical tradition, it is ecumenical in spirit. They try hard to make everyone feel welcome, and the architecture, carvings, windows, ironwork, art, and gardens -- many of which commemorate history and people from our own times -- are all well worth seeing.
Earlier that same day, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, there had been a Blessing of the Animals. In this press photo, Rev. Baylor blesses a pet mouse:
The vision statement of the cathedral is this:
The National Cathedral will be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world.
There were fairy cobwebs.
And alien spaceships.
And jeweled tapestries.
I sat and watched the sun slowly become visible through the fog, as swallows skimmed silently over the water...
...and every single blade of grass seemed precious.
Alex Colville, the Canadian painter, died peacefully on Tuesday at his home in Nova Scotia, at the age of 92. Many of us recognize his most iconic images without, perhaps, even knowing the painter's name. He was an official war artist during WWII who later became an easel painter with a painstaking technique of laying down his pigment in tiny dots. His paintings, with their deceptively mundane subjects that also express feelings of anxiety, tension, and foreboding, say a great deal about life in the later half of the 20th century. An obituary and appreciation published by the CBC remarks that the artist became quite popular in Germany, where he did a residency. Colville is quoted as saying, "Germans know how bad things can (and did) get...Everything in my paintings that frightens Canadians seems to appeal to Germans." In his work I find echoes of the melancholy loneliness of realists such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and the British painter Eric Ravilious -- but Colville is uniquely himself.
I became more aware of Colville through my friend Vivian Lewin, who wrote a series of poems about his paintings. Today I asked her to share one with you, and to say a few words about why Alex Colville mattered to her, and also what, if anything, was particularly Canadian about him. Here is her answer, followed by her poem, "Dog and Priest."
Beth, you asked me about Colville. I have always judged myself harshly for not being brilliantly productive, for brooding over unhatched plans and vague intentions, for collecting bits of raw material and feeling incapable or at best unready to use them in any conclusive way. In 1984, the year my marriage ended, I wandered into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and saw an astonishing exhibit of work by Alex Colville. It included not only a good sample of his paintings, drawings, and prints, but also many excerpts from his notebooks and drawings and sketches collected over many years. I could see how he was patient but not pushy with himself--it seemed to me that he was both relentlessly persistent and resolutely patient, allowing the images that moved him to gather themselves--ripen, as it were--and in good time to find their places in finished work.
If there is anything inherently Canadian about this, I think it is the fundamental refusal to be flashy for the sake of flashiness, but instead to invite time as a partner in the solving of problems. Not to think first of turning a quick profit on a short-term solution to a hard question. And to be unafraid of hard questions--even, at best, humble in the face of them, and in the face of life's real difficulties. I am grateful for his example and his work.
DOG AND PRIEST
“...there is no limbo, purgatory,
or hell for animals.”
Like a present still wrapped up
the man in full clericals reclines
on a bleached wooden dock while past his shoulder
drops down towards the water, a textbook
picture of symbiosis,
scratchy firs rising from it
in northern, diffuse light. The far shore
is delectable. By his side a Black Lab
levels its muzzle
to inhale the horizon and this profile
serves to eclipse the priest's face.
Ripples cover the water
like souls hastening towards a cure,
attracted the more by his ability
to love another best,
and they crowd at the pilings, swirling against
his vow. His inertia
is an achievement. He looks
calmly out and might not see it all –
this body might be only one part of what
opens to the sea
just around that point. For now, sun-warmed dry wood
holds him up. He's in no rush
to put on a simpler suit
like his companion's shinier coat,
this retriever whose heavy collar has worn
who knows no need to dress up or strip down,
just water and plunging in.
--Vivian Lewin (1989)
Poem (c) 2013 by Vivian Lewin; please do not reproduce without permission
The locust is the last to leaf out. I sat underneath, a few evenings ago, gazing up at the stiff knarly branches, and the fern-like fronds of new leaves, when a slight breeze rippled across the canopy, ruffling their feathery edges in turn like the shrugging shoulders of a flock of green birds. Beyond the locust, fully-leafed maple branches billowed in the same breeze like sails, while above them the individual leaves on the great poplars shimmered, as tremulous as paillettes on the costume of a belly dancer, each attached by a single thread. And it's all a matter of attachment, I thought, this diversity of movement -- and at the time their varied dances seemed miraculous, the most beautiful thing in the world.
Perhaps I was just becoming feverish. That night I woke coughing, my head completely congested, and have been sick ever since with a miserable summer cold that seems finally to be abating. I've moved from the couch to the bed and back again, with brief forays into the kitchen for chicken broth and tea, while J. has made me meals, and made me laugh. I haven't been sick for a long time, and it reminds me how much I take my normal state of health for granted. Another attachment; another body, stiff or pliant? How does it move when the wind blows?
Still life with lilies of the valley and an animal skull (1), pen on paper, 11" x 8 1/2"
I've been drawing a bit, more explorations of the muguet de bois, and probably will do some more today. These are two versions of the same basic still life, drawn on the same size paper but with pens of very different thickness. The line width makes a big difference in how the drawing feels, and the second one is also more simplified -- your opinions?
“The king stablished all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d'Arthur, pp 115-116)
Yesterday was Pentecost, a major feast day in the Anglican Church. It falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter, and commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples after Jesus' death. In Greek, Pentecost means "the fiftieth [day]" and originally refered to an ancient, historical Jewish festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In modern Judaism this festival is called Shavuot.
As had happened with the Jewish festival, in early Christian England, the theological observance of Pentecost was conflated with already-existing pagan ritual of Beltane. In the Arthurian legends, not only did the King have his knights swear their most solemn oaths on the day of Pentecost, he also refused to go into the dining hall until he had seen some miracle or wonder; it's one of the ways that Arthur's other-worldliness and spiritual leadership is shown in the legends, in contrast to Lancelot and Guinevere's adultery, as well as some of the other knight's acts.
In later England, though, Pentecost was more often called Whitsun, or Whitsunday. The Wikipedia has a good entry on the possible etymology of the name "Whitsun", or "White Sunday", in the late Middle Ages, and on the possible conflation of "whit" (white) and "wit" (understanding) :
"The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "The Holy-Ghost, which thou did send on Whit-Sunday" in the old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon, John Mirk (c1382 - 1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy WytteThus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples."
However, today the liturgical color for Pentecost in our tradition is red: red for the "tongues of flame" that supposedly showed the presence of the Holy Spirit. Lots of parishioners, too, wear red on that day. Yesterday we had a liturgical dance by the kids, carrying trailing "flames" of yellow, orange and gold transparent cloth, three baptisms, and we sang a lot of special music - more about that later. I've never been too keen on the idea that the "Spirit" only appeared in the world at that time, and only to these early Christians, so I was happy that our Dean preached about the Spirit being present to all human beings, of all creeds and none, from the beginning of time. He also made a point of calling it "Her."
For our part, we had two services filled with music, much of it for eight-part double choir. In the morning we sang a terrific unaccompanied contemporary mass setting, the Missa "Cantate," by Bob Chilcott (unfortunately no recordings or videos of this that I could find.) It ends with an Agnus Dei written with aleotoric sections: that's where the singers are some instructions but then asked to improvise or repeat it individually and freely according to certain restrictions: these may be a set of notes or a specific phrase, and a time period. We then "gather" on a specified note at the director's instruction, and move on to the next section, which may be written out conventionally, or proceed to another set of instructions.
The effects created can be absolutely mesmerizing: murmuring sound clusters, voices emerging out of a cloud of sound, repeated words, created musical "atmospheres" in a less defined progression than usual, that invite a different type of listening experience: sometimes meditative and minimalistic, sometimes surprising, sometimes eerie, often emotional. I had never seen scores like this before joining this choir, and was really intimidated when I first had to perform them but quickly became fascinated. It was, as you can perhaps imagine, perfect for Pentecost.
We also performed another aleotoric piece, this one written by our own director, Patrick Wedd, for a Vancouver choral festival, on the Pentecost text (and one of the oldest hymns of the Christian church), Veni Creator Spiritus. Patrick's piece is almost all aleotoric, with certain voice parts singing the hymn, while others improvise on sets of given notes in the key of B-flat major. But in addition to the voices, the piece also includes a score for handbells: in this case, all the bells in the key of B-flat major. We have a beautiful multiple-octave set of Whitechapel handbells at the cathedral, and use them every week for the psalm chants, but not so often as part of other music. I like playing them (being an old instrumentalist at heart) so I had fun trying to coordinate my bell, the hand-written score, and my improvisational vocal part, while keeping an eye on the director and trying to turn pages and not drop anything -- my expensive bell in particular. Maybe one day we'll have a recording of this piece that I can share with you; I think it came off pretty well.