Lent Begins

Of the World and out of this World

It has been a gloomy winter. Winter decided to brighten things up with almost 24 hours of snow. Lent is starting. On Monday and Tuesday night the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read and chanted in Orthodox churches and so it was this week. On my way out of the Tuesday service I thought how beautiful the sign outside church looked. It was carved about thirty years ago by a talented woman who lives in the United States. Nature outlines the fluid lines of the carving.

Now that I look at the image I see that it is divited into three distinct parts. On the left, the traffic and the lights of a modern city. then with a distinct divide the sign, outilined in fresh snow and on the right the structure of the building of the church itself. The distinctions are so clear that it seemed to me a metaphor for our life on earth, split as it is into the material world, the spiritual sphere and the institution of organized religion. An image from which we can take as much as we need here at the beginning of a season of reflection.

Sun in Winter

Glistening at the top of the spire

This picture is taken from the top of the little hill just where Old Montreal starts. It is almost a week old. That’s unusual for me. Usually if I like an image I use it the same day. I’ve been busy with many sad and difficult moments this week and so I never used it. I don’t know the name of that church but the shining top of the spire caught my eye. it was mid afternoon and now with the agonizingly slow lengthening of days I am starting to notice things like this. Today it was bitterly cold and yet the sun was strong enough to melt snow on steps and sidewalks. I took one walking pole to get to the gym.

Still very cold

I’m still glad of my faithful coat that keeps out wind and cold. Things are glittery around us and I suppose we have to find the glittery parts inside too. It is not original to say living is a mystery but it is as true as breath. It is late and this is a mixed up post. I will do better tomorrow.

You are here

You are here

Says the little red drop on the map of my neighbourhood park. You are here in the unseasonable sun, the snow melting around you and the sky as blue and clear as the dome of heaven can be. You are here and yet someone who unexpectedly hugged you tight two days ago is not. She died suddenly and will never be here again. On Sunday when I went to church to hear the gospel of the Prodigal Son, a woman I knew came to speak to me during coffee hour. She was happy and celebrating the tenth anniversary of her son having been declared cancer free. He is still a young man. She is…was ten years younger than I am now. We talked a little about coping with bringing up a child with health issues. As I was leaving she suddenly hugged me close. There was a tremendous warmth in that unsolicited hug. When I found out that she had died, on Facebook, if you please, I put on my boots and went out to walk in that miraculously beautiful afternoon. I wanted to be sure I was “ here” I slipped as I walked on a patch of ice and my walking poles “ saved” me. I was still here and still upright. A man was clearing a heart shape on a pond. Why? To show his Valentine? The ice held and he didn’t fall in. He was still here. How fragile everything felt.

Here I am

People called me about Maria when I got home I learned things about her that I never knew. I knew she was sweet natured and kind. I hadn’t really thought about her courage, her endurance in helping her children. I hadn’t been “ here” in her presence the other times that we had just passed the time of day in church. Where is she? Where is the signpost? I’m still here…. for the moment.

My Neighbors

Ducks in my Pond

It’s the park pond after all. The pond is almost frozen over except where running water is pumped into a pool leading to a stream that flows under a bridge. I have to cross that bridge when I walk to the Metro. This morning I was going to church because today is the Sunday of the parable of the Prodigal Son. I have also been much affected by news of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and so needed to go to church. I often don’t go to church because my teen- aged grandchildren have developed the habit of sleeping over on Saturday night. It’s hard to detach from them in time for church. This morning I managed it.


And here on the way were many ducks, out of the water and exceptionally wandering around on the path. I often thought of this flock of ducks during our harsh winter and particularly during the intense cold of last weekend. Their webbed feet, their difficulty in finding food, all nagged at me. And here they were, rushing towards me asking for food, it seemed to me! I didn’t have anything to give them and so, foolishly perhaps, I promised them that I would bring them something from church.

Church was wonderful but a little tiring. I was the only soprano, and I felt a bit submerged by two young altos and two male singers. We had a talented and courageous fill-in conductor so I was on my toes all during service. Basically the soprano’s job is to carry the tune and I lost the plot a few times so that some unusual harmony only versions of well known pieces emerged.

The Prodigal Son and his father and brother sustained me. I admit sometimes to wondering what Mum was up to and to a deep sympathy for the older brother. Of course, the turning point of the story is when the ( anti) hero “ came to himself”. The awakening, the realization that things can be fixed, that courage, action, humility can cause a wonderful outcome, is such an electrifying moment for me.

Back to the ducks… I had to keep my promise and I did. I gave them blessed bread from church. Traditionally one takes a piece of this bread for someone at home, someone who cannot take communion. I don’t really understand why water is blessed. I think it’s such a blessing and in fact, blesses us all the time. In the same way, ducks don’t take communion but they’re in communion all the time, I think. I’ll bring them more ordinary bread tomorrow. I have to salute their courage , after all.

PS those are the new boots, by the way!

49 Days, but Who’s Counting?

Good Old Brierley

Two hundred and fifty kilometres from Porto to Santiago de Compostela… nothing, right? Certainly nothing much compared to the Camino Frances at almost 800 km. After I finish the Portuguese Camino I plan to walk to the coast and back and that should take a week or so. Suddenly I’ve started to count the days. I’m anxious to enjoy the packing, the preparation, the route. It starts to feel real.

All those cliches about how the Camino gets under your skin, how it haunts you, calls you back again and again are true. There are other cliches that I reject” The Camino Provides” when I walked in 2021 I provided for myself. For the scatterbrain that I am, I did fine in keeping all my belongings together, not getting robbed, not getting too seriously lost. Well, there was that time in Zubiri when I was shell shocked from the hellish descent and there was no place to sleep and somebody found me a private room and the owner of the place hugged me like I was her long-lost sister and…. Or that time in Leon when I was sitting at a table at a sidewalk cafe with three of the most incompatible ( for me) people I could imagine and this charming guy whom I had met in Zubiri, in fact, came sauntering down the street and I jumped up and ran and hugged him and whispered in his ear “ save me, save me from these people!” and he did. ..Or the time I fell and smashed my knee as I gazed up at some ceiling paintings in a cathedral and I was sure the Camino was over for me, but then I remembered some PCV cream I had bought for the outrageous sum of 50 euros in Pamplona and I dug it out of the depths of my pack and smeared it on and the next day my knee was just fine….Or the time I got to the Cruz de Fer where you are supposed to have a stone that you bring from home to leave at the cross as a symbol of leaving your burdens except that I didn’t believe in such things until I got to the Cruz de Fer and all of a sudden there was a crystal at my feet and right beside it a wild flower that bore the name of the woman who, we’ll never mind about that, but I picked the flower and put it with the crystal and part of what needed to be left behind was left there. But I don’t really believe that the Camino provides.

Before I walk I will do two weeks as “ hospitalera” in an albergue in Porto. I don’t even know what I will be required to do. Not cook… I told them I can’t cook. I suppose I will greet them, stamp their documents, change beds, clean toilets.., all in English or French since a couple of weeks of Duolingo Portugese has embedded about twenty words in my brain along with the conviction that Portugese operates under a deranged pronunciation code. I only just found out that Duolingo teaches Brazilian Portuguese so my twenty words will come across in a South Wales valley sing-song.

I walk in the gym and today for the first time in ages I walked in the big park very near my home. The sun was strong and some enormous icicles, built up ( or down) during a vicious cold spell, came crashing down with a roar like thunder.

So this is how I count down the days. These days are precious and interesting too. Count with me.

When does Spring Arrive?

The grocery store encourages me

After days of grey skies and fine snow, just seeing these beauties made me smile. Genius marketing. The colors and scents of these blossoms reminded me that there is more to life than trudging through January.


A lot of my footwear is Colombia, from everyday boots to trail runners that conquered the Camino de Santiago. I’ve had this venerable pair of boots for what feels like forever. During a Colombia sale I finally chose a new pair-not quite so Santa like but still pretty snazzy. Went to pick them up from the post office and decided to ditch these venerables right there in the recycling bin of the Shopping Centre. When memories become baggage it’s time to let go!

Tomorrow is St Bridget’s Day. Let her drag Spring in here by the frostbitten ear!

Looking for a Job?

Maybe not this one!

It’s been a fairly mild winter so far but wet snow and icicles are hanging around. I guess some property owner got nervous about the strength of the roof. Up went boyo here with his shovel to toss off a few pounds, kilos, tons? He was quite cavalier about his task. I from my window trembled to see him close to the slope. What a job up there! I wonder what he’s like.

They say winter will begin in earnest soon. Will I see him again? Who knows?

At the Museum

Two Hearts by Jim Dine

I love Jim Dine’s work even though I am not very “good” at contemporary art. I am a volunteer guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. This piece is one of my favorites. It was absent from its place here at the main door of the Museum where it has welcomed so many visitors. After several months it has finally returned just in time to acquire a mantle of wet snow.

Today I led a “ welcome tour” for a group of new members. It had been several years since I had conducted a tour like that so I was a little worried about the timing. The idea is to fix a sort of road map of the various collections in the museum complex, to make the visitors feel welcome in the museum community and show off a few star pieces. The tour lasts 90 minutes and there’s no dilly dallying since we have to visit four separate buildings and drop in on the Art Hive where visitors can potentially make their own art.

High Summer by Hans Hofmann

Another of my few favorites in abstract art. Hofmann, who came to the USA in the 1930’s was perhaps the most influential teacher of postwar American artists. This week I have three tours of contemporary art with college and university students. I still have plenty of studying to do but it is becoming less of a “ challenge” and more of a joy. What is always a joy is the interaction with the visitors.

Time to get more comfortable with contemporary I guess.

All that is Left

Just a few branches

Salvaged from a most beautiful bouquet of roses sent for Christmas from my far-away daughter. The old favourite carpet that still gets away with its threadbare patches glows in morning light. My parents’ cocktail shaker, the lid lost in one of many moves, remains as a handy vase.

What remains of Christmas? Memories of music? Of happy meals, the crackers snapping, the toasts, the food, familiar or new delights? What remains? The mystery in the night? The meetings with old friends? The church, decorated and solemn?

And how many behind us? How many to come?

Out of the Storm

The park close to Mary’s  new condo was a great consolation. As her daughter had put it so persuasively, “It’s very convenient, Mum. To your right the shopping centre and to your left the lovely park for your nice walks.:

Like coaxing an old dog, Mary had thought, “Walkies girl, come on!” They were all right, of course. She couldn’t quite manage her house and the garden any more. The condo was close enough to her daughter’s place – but not too close for both their sakes.

She soon learned that the turn to the right always meant chores; boring shopping, trudging along with her wheeled cart. But the way to the left had opened up unexpected beauty.

It was one of the biggest parks in the city. If it was a little more manicured than Mary liked, there was still enough wildness, enough unofficial paths through the brush close to the two big ponds, enough birds and once, magically, a fox who held her gaze for just a moment before he plunged into the undergrowth.

By noon on Christmas Eve, Mary had spent hours gazing out of the big patio window hoping against bitter reality that the storm would abate. Hail, freezing rain and wet snow had been pelting down for over twenty-four hours. The weather channel was blaring in an orgy of self-satisfaction. Every hour or so an earnest police officer would interrupt to urge citizens to stay at home and wait out the storm.

At three o’clock the phone rang and Mary resigned herself to the expected reassurance from her daughter that if she would “just sit tight, the kids will be over tomorrow to walk you over to our place for Christmas dinner.”

Of course, there was no question that Mary would go to the Christmas Eve service.

“Stewart’s not even going to try to get the car out until this all dies down and anyway, I just looked on your church website. The service is cancelled. Imagine, first time in 62 years.”

Mary sighed , “ Right, be sure to tell Angie to bring her old sleigh tomorrow. The kids can drag me through the park to your place.”

Come on, Mum! I know it’s disappointing but at least we have electricity. Some people can’t even cook. OK so we’ll see you tomorrow. Keep snug, Bye.”

Mary turned on the TV and scrolled to a channel that showed a burning log fire. Christmas songs were playing. This year was so different.  For the first time in decades she would not open her kitchen door in the dark and step out into her little city garden with the grape arbour decorated for Christmas Eve. If she opened her kitchen door now she would be in an empty carpeted hallway impeccably vacuumed and silent as the graveyard.

She fell asleep, lulled by the howling wind and the saccharine crooning of ancient Christmas pop songs. At a little before midnight she awoke with a start. The televised fireplace had emitted a few extra-loud crackles that had convinced her that her place was on fire.

The storm was less impressive now. The spindly tree that stood between Mary’s building and that of her neighbors was thick with untouched snow. Large heavy flakes still fell but the wind had died down.

She was wide awake and stiflingly hot. On impulse she opened the patio door and stepped out onto the sheltered balcony. It was not enough. She turned, shut the door and headed for her closet. She fished out her boots and a thick jacket with a fur-trimmed hood. There were her keys hanging on the special hook her daughter had installed for her.

“No more losing your keys, eh, Mum?’ and that knowing look that meant yes, we all know you’re on the slippery slope but for as long as possible we’ll keep you out of “the home”.

The halls and the elevator were deserted. The snow on the steps was well over her ankles and the wind had driven it up into great drifts beside the ornamental tree that stood at the end of her short pathway.

She turned to the left and, walking down the middle of the deserted street, made straight for the wide entrance to the path. The snow was stopping but a few large flakes still clung to her hood. As she entered the park she noticed a small dog trotting in front of her, his slender paws skimming over the deep snow.

“Here boy,” she called, “Are you lost, come here. Who let you out on such a night?’ The little creature held his bushy tail erect, stopped for a moment and turned to look at Mary. She recognized the pointed muzzle and ears of a fox.

“Oh, what do you want, I wonder?’ Mary was quite startled. The fox sat for a moment until she had almost caught up to him and then with a lively little bound, he trotted off again, turning now and then to be sure she was following him.

“Where do you want to take me?  A strange outing for Christmas Eve!” She chuckled to think what her daughter, even her grandchildren would think of her, trudging through the thick snow alone in a deserted park to follow a fox!’

It was wonderful to walk solidly, at her own steady pace along the wide path. There were a few signs that city skiiers had been out earlier but now she only had the clearing clouds and a few stars for company.

The little fox trotted along ahead of her, just keeping his distance. Some parts of the park were very dark and Mary tried to stay on the well-lit paths but now her little companion turned off towards some rough sheds where park tools and equipment were kept.

“I think I must go back now, Foxie,” she whispered. “I must get home and go to bed.” But just as she went to retrace her solitary footprints, she noticed a faint light in one of the sheds. She could hear someone softly singing and, surely not, was that the cry of a little baby?”

She stood uncertain at the fork of the path. Perhaps there was a homeless person there, a mother with a young child. Anyone, a criminal, a drug addict, could be there.  Was it really her business? Mary stood hesitating for an endless moment and then the sharp yap of the fox was overpowered by the mooing of a cow!

 Lured on by her own curiosity, Mary approached the shed. A soft glowing light enveloped the place. It was quite crowded. A young girl sat on a rough wooden box, rocking a tiny baby while a man standing beside her shone a beat-up flashlight. Mary’s fox and a couple of racoons were curled up in a corner and a blue-jay, a cardinal and a knowing crow looked down from the rafters. And yes, a cow and a sheep with a little lamb stood chomping on one of the hay bales normally used as barriers on the toboggan run.  Three uniformed Park employees, one in a red turban, one in the park regulation cap and the third in a traditional Palestinian Kufiya stood guard at the door.

“Don’t worry, Ma’am.” murmured the gentleman in the turban. “We’re taking care of things. Everyone will be safe here tonight. Not the first time homeless people have taken shelter here, but it’s the first time we’ve had a newborn.  Christmas Eve, you know. I don’t celebrate myself, but this little family didn’t want to be rushed off to a shelter. Time enough for that tomorrow.”

“May I see the baby? ”whispered Mary.

Just as the young girl lifted a soft blue blanket from around the child, Mary felt the rush of great wings, a flurry of soft snow and a gentle power lifting her up and carrying her down the familiar park path. In an instant she found herself trembling at the foyer of her condo block, her keys in her hand.

It was just midnight. Normally at this moment Mary would have been struggling to make her rather thin soprano voice heard over the booming alto of the choir director’s daughter. This Christmas Eve had turned out quite differently. She touched the little figures of the crèche on her night table. Time to sleep now. On Christmas Day she would sort out what was real and what was a dream.