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Solitude

This continues a web diary covering my 2004 Sabbatical.
The beginning of the diary may be found by clicking here.


Saturday, September 25, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

I woke up this morning amid the most extraordinary beauty. The lake was mirror-smooth, and the trees are just beginning to show their fall colours.

View from the cottage door, September 25, 2004
What more perfect setting could there be
for solitary creativity?
The place is not entirely uninhabited, of course - it is Saturday, and some cottagers who live near enough will spend weekends at the lake until after Thanksgiving - but certainly things are much quieter than they are during the Summer.

Rather than begin work on my book, I spent several hours doing a photo essay for Heather - which I then sent to her via email. Basically I wanted to share with her what the new doors and counters and kitchen area in the cottage look like. However, as I toiled away at the essay - making the layout and the visuals absolutely perfect - I knew at the back of my mind that I was putting off the start of my book. Avoidance?

When the project was finally sent off in mid-afternoon, I gave myself a good talking-to and started to write.

It didn’t progress well. The words appearing on my screen just didn’t have any “zing.” For weeks now, I have been reading what the best scholars in the world have had to say about the English Reformation, and now that I was putting it into my own words, well... by comparison my writing just seemed quite trivial and inadequate.

A boat pulled up to the dock. My brother-in-law, Ross Dixon, is here at the lake for the weekend with his partner, Mary-Jill, and they decided to drop in. Reprieve! I put down my work and offered refreshments and pleasant conversation for the next hour or so.

Then it was time to make dinner, after which I did some more desultory work on the book. Eventually - discouraged - I picked up one of the dozen books I had brought, and went back to reading, rather than writing.

Is this “writer’s block?” Or, is it “writer’s nerves?” Or maybe even “writer’s insecurity?”

Tomorrow I’ll go to church, then meet with Jean Lalande (our handyman). Even now, as I prepare for bed, my mind is constantly churning with the text and imagery planned for the opening section of my book. Maybe something will sort itself out....


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Sunday, September 26, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

This is a marvel of the Anglican church: the Sunday liturgy of Holy Trinity, Hawkesbury, and that of St. Thomas, Toronto are poles apart - from different planets, you might say - and yet they are both parishes in good standing of the Anglican Church of Canada!

I have already given an impression of St. Thomas’ worship: measured, elaborate, formal, and solemn. There is a large choir, several clergy, and plenty of servers. Holy Trinity, by contrast, is informal, almost “chatty.” The choir consists of one person. There are no servers.

There are two small things these churches have in common, however; one quite significant, and the other trivial, even funny.

The significant commonality is this: both congregations are immersed in the familiar, in the known, in oft-repeated custom. The people come each week and dip themselves in something they know well, and this somehow gives a benchmark, a stable jumping-off point, for their lives. Holy Trinity is a little congregation and they may not have a grand and ancient ceremony, but they know what happens in this place of a Sunday, they are ready with their spoken parts, and they help the reader out if he or she can’t find the page.

The trivial commonality is this: at coffee-hour the two churches are identical! Same little clusters of people, same mix of age and gender, same moving about the room by the clergy.

I attend Holy Trinity every Summer, so I am known, and made welcome. The first hymn was to be found in a song book, and when I visibly reached for the standard hymnal, the organist - who is a retired high school band instructor - whispered “Hey!” and waved the correct booklet at me - all the while continuing to play!

When the Rector came out, she said, “Well, my first Sunday back from sabbatical!” and they all clapped. I did too. At sermon time, she told the story of her sabbatical journeys - to a monastery in the U.S.A., various monasteries and shrines in England, and a Mediterranean cruise for which her husband joined her! She had photos pasted up on posterboard, and invited us all to have a look at them over coffee. I sat there - deep in my own sabbatical - listening with pleasure to what she had learned, and how she had been refreshed. I was thinking, “Why didn’t I just take a time of prayer and study, instead of attempting this Mount Everest of writing a book!?”

Back at the lake, I phoned my son, Troy - today is his birthday - then Jean Lalande came over and took me through all the details of what he had adjusted, repaired, or replaced on the cottage. Afterwards - as the fellow-cottagers we are - we sat for a long while and chatted about life and how the universe is unfolding.

When he left, I knew I had plenty of time to get in some work on the book, but stalled, read some of my scholarly literature, made a few notes, and did other things - all the while knowing full well that I was stalling, putting off the terrible task of literary writing. Come bedtime, nothing has been attempted.

Perhaps today was my “sabbath.”


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Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

The writing has finally begun to flow! Whatever logjam there was, has broken, and the book is now underway.

Consequently, there are no great adventures to report. I am in perfect solitude, deeply content, and the opening chapter of my book is almost done.

As I thought, once the weekend was over, almost all signs of human activity around the lake ceased. This evening a couple - whom I don’t know - paddled silently by in a canoe, but other than that, there has been no one around.

Consequently the wildlife has been very much in evidence. Flocks of geese have been honking overhead, ducks and Grebes have landed in the lake and stayed a while before moving on. Fish are jumping. As I type this, I hear the hoot of an owl on the hunt.

It has been sunny all day every day - and while I could call the nights “cold,” by mid-afternoon I can walk around outside in a t-shirt and be quite comfortable. In the evening and in the morning, I keep a fire going, and the cottage is proving to be very pleasant and cozy.

Solitary writer at work...
Earlier this year I read a biography of Patrick O’Brien - the author of Master and Commander (recently distorted into a hit movie). O’Brien had marvellous self-discipline: he would get up in the morning and write until noon, attend to the chores of living, and have dinner with his wife, then write for a few more hours in the evening... every day, for weeks on end.

I am a little more random. Although each day begins with a time of prayer, the rest of the time I’ll putter about the cottage, musing about the book, then - it might even be late at night - I’ll sit down and write non-stop for an hour or two. No two days are alike. But regardless, there is some progress.

Last night was somewhat out of the ordinary. At 10:00 p.m. I took part in a telephone meeting with a congregation in Vernon, B.C. It was, of course, only 7:00 p.m. in their part of the world. They were meeting to plan something called “Consecration Sunday,” a carefully-designed programme which allows parish members to reflect together on the spiritual side of giving, and on what it means to offer a portion of one’s money for the work of the church. While most of the programme is carried out by the local pastor and parishioners, its creators insist that an outside speaker be brought in for the actual “Consecration Sunday” event.

I will be the “outside speaker” for All Saints’ Vernon on November 21, and last night’s meeting was intended to get the working committee acquainted with me - and vice-versa.

The most unusual and delightful aspect of all this is that the parish priest at All Saints’ is my eldest son, Christopher. The congregation has invited their Rector’s Dad to be their keynote speaker on the big day! I am touched and honoured, and hope I can live up to expectations - my own as well as theirs!

I really don’t like attending a meeting via speakerphone - I like to see people in person, and sense their reactions and responses to the content of the meeting. But distances being what they are, this was the best we could manage, and I think on the whole the meeting went as well as can be expected.

Heather phoned this evening and we talked for 45 minutes. One more week and she will be here.


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Thursday, September 30, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

Ol’ Harry has gone and done it again! This time, he won’t start.

The battery is good, the starter cranks just fine, gas is getting to the cylinders (you can smell it after a few minutes of cranking) - but no fire. Nothing. Not even a small burp and puff of smoke.

It is like Ol’ Harry’s gone on strike! He drove to church without protest last Sunday, and brought me and my groceries back in great form. I parked, and came across the lake and haven’t gone out since.

I needed to run to town for some more groceries today. I’m out of bread, eggs, and meat, which means that - apart from licking peanut butter off a knife - there isn’t much to eat around here.

I got up this morning, washed, shaved, loaded the boat with several bags of garbage to put in the bin beside the road (I’ve been cleaning up the grounds), went across the lake to our landing, put the garbage bags in the trunk, got in the car and turned the key. Plenty of whirring, but no ignition.

“What??? Harry! You ran perfectly on Sunday!”
        (When you live alone, it’s okay to talk to inanimate objects - especially if you’ve given them a name!)

Up until now, I have been enjoying the fact that there is utter silence at the lake, and a distinct lack of human habitation.

BUT... try to imagine being stranded in the woods seven miles from habitation, with no food in your fridge. It’s not a happy thought.

In the end, the telephone saves the day. I was able to call for a tow, but by the time he came, and was able to haul Ol’ Harry to Hawkesbury, it was after 5:00 p.m., so my car is resting at the Mazda dealership overnight to be looked at in the morning.

I rode into town with the tow truck, and now there is a rental car parked at the landing.

And there is food in the fridge.

If the dealership can’t fix Ol’ Harry tomorrow (Hawkesbury is small, and parts may have to be shipped in from Ottawa), they said they will try to find me a “loaner” and I won’t need to have the rental more than a day. Of course, it would be better if he were fixed tomorrow!

Let’s see now, maybe if I go back to what I wrote on September 8th, I’ll remember why I chose to bring Ol’ Harry along on this trip!


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Friday, October 1, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

Well, Ol’ Harry is safely parked at the landing once more, and the rental car has been returned. What a pain in the neck!

It turned out the plugs and ignition wires and rotor and cap were all about 5,000 years old, and after many days parked under the forest canopy, with cold nights and damp mornings, this equipment couldn’t light a fire in the pistons for love or money!

So, it was a relatively simple repair; a bit costly, what with the tow and the rental, but better than it might have been! Of course, I haven’t tried to start up again after parking Ol’ Harry. He is about to go through another cool and damp night, with rain promised for tomorrow!

His next duty will be to take me to church on Sunday. Will he start? I hope so, but we shall see.

Heather says I should abandon Ol’ Harry in Toronto, and fly back to Winnipeg when my sabbatical comes to an end. Of course, if I do that, I have no transportation once I’m back home.

“a magical world...”
The view from our landing. Our cottage is in the shaded part of the shore near the centre of the picture.

As I arrived back at the lake, it was as if I had entered a magical world. The air was luminous, the water as smooth as glass, and the colour of the trees had brightened imperceptibly. I took the photo you see here, but it hardly does justice to the scene.

Back in my cottage I had an amazing burst of creativity, and worked on the book non-stop until almost midnight!


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Sunday, October 3, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

Phew! Ol’ Harry started this morning without a hitch.

And this after a downpour yesterday!

What a contrast from the magical beauty of the night before. Dark and grey and cold... then drizzle, then a thunderclap, then a wall of water. If Ol’ Harry was going to continue refusing to start when cold and wet, this was his golden opportunity; particularly because as night fell the temperature dropped to nearly zero.

But, no, he has a new lease on life.

So I was able to go to church, and did so gladly.

The Rector of Holy Trinity Hawkesbury has five churches to care for, so she wasn’t there this morning. Worship was led by a member of the congregation - an affable retired gentleman of British origin, who in his youth was a part-time professional auto rally driver.

We used the 450 year old rite known as “Morning Prayer,” - exquisite pre-Elizabethan English, read and sung by this congregation with the cadences of people who have done the same thing the same way time out of mind.

I could not help reflecting on the congregations of 16th Century England, for then it was this very material that was new and hugely radical. They had had their own familiar routines vandalized and discarded by dictatorial reformers. The process had to have put many of them into a state of shock! However what was new and disquieting then is now comfortable and familiar and routine - and four and a half centuries old.

I mentioned in this space last week, that despite the ritualized nature of the Sunday worship at Holy Trinity, it is also at the same time delightfully informal. For example, consider this moment in the sermon:
“That is probably enough about Jeremiah....” he said, then paused, and looked a little uncertain, “... we could go on I suppose...” There was another pause, then he changed the subject.
I rather liked what he was saying about Jeremiah, but evidently he thought we had had enough, so that was that!

What is so noticeable about this and about much else of the worship in this little church, was the conversational tone. The ancient ritualized worship is faithfully maintained by a small group of people who know each other so well that they unselfconsciously intersperse the standardized material with all sorts of comments and asides.

Ol’ Harry sprinted back to the lake, and the rest of my day was spent with writing, reading, two comfortable phone calls with Heather, and normal cottage routines.


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Tuesday, October 5, 2004
Craig’s Lake, Québec

Why do you suppose Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine?

Most people - if they have heard or read anything about Henry and his six wives - think that he wanted a male heir, that he kept trying to find a wife who would bear one for him.

Well, I learned something very intresting today - Henry didn’t always use the “I want a boy!” gambit!

In trying to terminate the marriage to his first wife - Catherine of Aragon - Henry certainly said their 20-year marriage was sinful, against God’s commandments, on the grounds that Catherine had been briefly married to his deceased older brother Arthur, and the church has long forbidden marrying your sister-in-law. It was necessary that some moral allegation like this be made if Henry was to get church officials to pronounce the marriage null and void.

And Henry did sometimes argue that Catherine’s failure to give him a boy was proof God was mad at him.

* See Peter Gwyn, The Kingšs Cardinal, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey (London, 1990), p.512
But on at least one occasion*, still trumpeting that his marriage was against God’s commandments, Henry actually grounded his argument to a group of notables in November 1528 on his daughter Mary’s right to succeed him on the throne! Imagine what would happen, he told them, once she is Queen, if her legitimacy were in doubt? Civil war for sure!

I’m reading Peter Gwyn, a very thorough biographer of Thomas Wolsey, and he believes all the various arguments Henry used were just window-dressing for the simple bald fact that he wanted to trade in a dusty old wife for a sparkly new one!

These current days at the cottage have been very intense and productive in my project. The writing is going well, and I do love coming across fascinating little tidbits like the one above. Tomorrow night, Heather arrives.


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