I bumped into S. on my morning walk to Life of Pie (Canadian salute to the wonderful Yann Martel) where I go for my morning coffee and to get online. “Of course,” S. nodded when I told her about my routine, “there’s no wifi where you’re staying.” No, there isn’t. And after the initial jitteriness of feeling cut off, (in truth, I’m very far from being cut off) I can begin to rest in a routine of meaningful emptiness and just be. No doubt I’m talking myself into this, for, much as I think I’m good at being electronically separated from the outside world, initially I’m pretty awful at it. It takes a while to revert to ‘unplugged’, but, when you do, there is a lot to be gained. Not least being pushed to look up, out and around; to see the newness, to be present to what’s going on. In fact, it’s just how C. described it in her recent email: “It was much easier when I was living abroad last year; everything being new, everything felt like an adventure, something to remark upon, to consider, to photograph and paint and describe. Being back home, it’s taken me some time to find my way back to that place of wonder.” Ah yes, wonder; that’s what we regain when we take space and time to switch off and tune in.
Whilst there is a lot to be said for finding contentment and serenity in one’s own surroundings, C. is right: if we can possibly get to look upon different walls, greenery, sand, mountains, water, people for a week or two, then we should. This year, my new scenery is Canada, as I spend time with the Canadian side of my family. Some days will be people-filled with laughter and singing and stories and eating and drinking and diving into lakes – all outer-life stimulation. But these early days of quietude on the veranda, where I think I can almost see the shoot of a vine grow one inch in an hour, these are the days that leach stillness into my bones, contentment into my heart, and let wonder unfold.
All too often we grow scales over our eyes and stop seeing – particularly the everyday – and in order to scrape the scales away we need to retreat into our shell to rekindle a sense of awareness. And, for my first few days in Canada, the peace of my mother-in-law’s back yard has become my shell. It is a time to let new sights and new thoughts percolate my inner-life. I watch the sparrows having a dust bath (why do they do that?). I follow the black squirrel up the trunk of the choke cherry tree. I smile at how impossibly cute a chipmunk’s stripes are to my unfamiliar eye. I implore a racoon to amble along the back fence, as it did it did last year when the change of time zones (very) temporarily turned me into an early riser. From somewhere on high a cardinal whistles, and I whistle back. We return calls for a while, but I can’t see him. He’s not on top of the tall cedar – the one that looks like it’s straight out of a Tom Thomson painting. By 8am two workmen have arrived to continue a loft conversion at a nearby house. The radio’s on and they’re hammering along to one-time local girl, Alanis Morissette. She’s in unusually good humour with her hand in her pocket: ‘and what it all boils down to, is that everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine.’ She went to high school in the Glebe areas of Ottawa, just down the road.
Last year, the school I attended throughout my teenage years celebrated its centenary. One of the many things they did to mark the occasion was to produce a marvellous book of prayer and reflections as an aid to contemplation. I had forgotten that I had given my mother-in-law a copy and, this morning, when I might otherwise have been scrolling through internet news sites, I found myself leafing through it. I was reminded of one of the lesser-known mottos of Dominican life: ‘Contemplare et Contemplata aliis Tradere’ (to contemplate and to give others the fruits of contemplation). As I turned a page, memories of Sister Labouré sprung up, immediate and vivid; a vision of her keeping us in rhythm by cheerfully banging her ring on the table. ‘Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron’, rang in my head, incongruously alongside, ‘Our God Reigns,’ two of her favourites. Sister Labouré taught us music, a little bit of sewing, and a lot of graciousness. She’s gone, but this morning she spoke to me from the page, nodding in approval at these quiet mornings spent on the verandah.
‘The Shell’, by Sister Labouré O.P., Dominican College, Portstewart (abridged)
‘Yet in me
There is a secret place, apart,
filling the deep core of my being.
Be not curious, like a child
who shatters, scatters and forgets.
Leave me my secret space.
For, I too, am fragile, frail –
Intrude, and that, which
you no longer hold
may be fragmented,
far flung, dispersed.
I need my secret place, apart,
To be with my Creator.’