Newfoundland Meditations

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, “The Alchemist”

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, The Alchemist

From on top of a hill where a small white house sits, I can see the beach below. The ocean, like life itself, creeps up the coast and falls back, merging with the deep blue. From an old wooden table covered with oil paint and propped against a window, I watch the lazy summer sun and the tall grass dancing. There are voices from the house next door, but the sound of the wind makes them inaudible. A few people, smudges of red and white, walk across the beach. On the road, cars pass each solemnly and slowly. The waves come and go, like watching my breath as I sit here on this chair and fill this notebook with words. There is nothing to do. It’s strange how difficult this is to accept sometimes. Usually my inclination is to fill these silences, these empty spaces with just about anything–desires to be something or somewhere else, or just chatter. Is this all I am? This usual existence that I call my life, where I am chained to a continual like and dislike of everything is so limiting. It has length, but no width. Is it possible to forsake this view of my life for something that is much larger and far more mysterious—to die to the known and enter the unknown?

Everything is pregnant with summer, the trees, grass, sky, and ocean—the breath, the head, the heart, and the line. Wooden posts stand at attention across the hills and valleys overlooking the white capped waves, the ribbons of blue, and the stones and sand. A dog barks, a lawn mower engine starts up, and then all is quiet again. There is a natural rhythm to life here that is deeply ingrained in the locals. It has soft ebb and a flow that I can only imagine comes from living near the sea. There is a humbling feeling of being a small part of something that is so vast that it doesn’t allow you to become overly concerned with yourself and your preoccupations. This wonderful feeling of wide is a gift that can swallow up any shred of self importance.

John, the middle-aged man who lives next door is sitting calmly and collectedly on the front steps of his house, facing the ocean. Deciding to take a break from raking the grass, he pets his dog Chip. He looks like he belongs there completely, like a silent pharaoh. Looking at him betrays my own restlessness. It’s a marvel how someone or something so unobtrusive, can teach you something about yourself.

I feel something is working on me here. There is a softening of tensions that appears if I am open enough to see it and taste it. It’s like the landscape is a special mirror, and I can see myself reflected in it. What is behind my restlessness, behind my tensions? Ah! There is something else here, whole and mysterious. A vertical dimension, one might say.

We are all moving through forces that we don’t understand like little boats being rocked to and fro on that big blue expanse of ocean that I see through my window that is buzzing of flies. And like those flies, I find myself caught so often inside a prison of a small house, when all I have to do is find the door to a much larger world that is waiting patiently outside. It all comes down to what I truly and sincerely respect. What do I serve? Either my limited energy is continually taken by my likes and dislikes, flowing into my thoughts and emotions, or it can serve the one who is able to see and stand in front of the mystery. This precious energy could serve a different master that my body truly wishes to obey.

Uneasy Street

Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

Ernst Haas, Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” So taught the Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, with his hands delicately poised in front of his heart. This morning, I am sitting in front of a computer, watching the incessant demand of a blinking cursor within a blank Word document.

I notice that I am particularly tense this morning, hunched over, my head supported in a sleepy left hand, my jaw clenched and that I am even holding my breath unnecessarily at moments. I watch my thoughts negotiating with the yes and the no, the before and the after. I realize that I am singing the old songs again, and find myself walking up Uneasy Street.

I accept the fact I’m on Uneasy Street. Inevitably, I will do a little window shopping – find myself in a few stores. But for now, I try to stay away from this seductive long strip of stores with their myriad distractions by turning my attention inward. I will sacrifice all my under-the-breath commentary and judgment about what I am experiencing and to mobilize my attention in order to experience a direct sensation of myself sitting here. Specifically, I try to watch what is taking place without interfering with anything. The more I practice this, the more intriguing it becomes: “So that’s how I am right now?” I notice that all these forces of thought and emotions that pull me here and there are pretty damn interesting. It’s like watching an Easter parade–a marching band of habitual attitudes and tensions.  I give myself wholeheartedly to this activity of watchfulness by accepting everything without reservations. It’s how it is. I receive what I am.

It takes time, but if I simply wait and listen, an inner space can appear. A subtle relaxation begins to inhabit this body. I realize that this subtle relaxation is a gift, and that by letting go of my preoccupations and concerns of the day, it announces itself naturally. By the giving-over of myself, I am brought under its influence. I think it’s always there, this mysterious gift, it’s just that I am often too busy to hear it. Even though it’s really noisy just before the intersection of the here and now, I realize how necessary Uneasy Street street is.  It is an important aspect of the spiritual life because it serves as a reminder of the Other.

Photograph: Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969.

what is

Caspar David Friedrich, <em>Moonrise by the Sea</em>, 1822

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise by the Sea, 1822

Writing on my balcony the other night under the moon and shadows, I felt anxious and wanted from the night something the night doesn’t usually bring. I sat there in the cricket filled evening for a while but nothing happened. I started to write about the spiritual practice of just being there with what is–and how I often find myself rocked like a boat between two sides of myself: on one side is a sincere wish for being, and on the other I am taken by the demands and worries each day brings. In the process of writing, I discovered that often in my life there seems to be no room for the other, and I often meet these demands with this most horrible of attitudes, like the world owes me something. Now, both stances are undeniable realities. This is how I am. I need to recognize and bridge this tremendous gulf that hangs in-between. This is the spiritual struggle.

With each day buried by yet another day, we all wander lost. Sure, many of us have tasted a transcendence of the ordinary way of perceiving things–that there is another life of promise and possibility, but we don’t just explode into it and become holy whiteness forever. We ascend and descend on ladders, and unfortunately when we descend, we usually forget. If we are passive, our days take us wherever they wish to like a raging river and the current is stronger than we imagine.  But there is something within us that remembers. It knows what is required. Through an active silent watchfulness we can open to this moment as it is. From that effort, a quality of seeing can appear that expands. It is inclusive, and it does not take sides, either for, or against.


Behold the sun!

Sitting under a deep blue sky where the sun is rising, orange and pulsing, I find myself surrounded by a cloister of evergreens in the silence of seven in the morning. Nearby, I have discovered a hummingbird’s nest. When I am attentive, I can hear the buzz and whirl of her tiny wings. She darts back and forth through the leaves with a crazy geometry, and sometimes hangs suspended in the air like a question on invisible threads. Who is this unknown puppeteer?

Down here on the ground restless chipmunks forage through fall’s leaves by the barbeque standing cool in the summer sun. Suddenly, the white electric sound of a cicada fills the atmosphere, and then fades and merges back into the stillness of the morning. The air is fragrant with dew and dark green. Patches of sunlight filter down through the trees and collect on the pathway leading out of the cottage. In the distance, I can hear the soft breathing of waves rising on white sands and falling back again.

Last night, my wife Alex and I took a walk. It was late and the evening cool. It wasn’t completely dark when we descended down to the beach and as we stretched out a yellow blanket on the sand, we watched the iridescent pastels of the sunset fade to night. I smoked silently, as the stars appeared; an upside down bowl around us. The lake became still, and the lights from the cottages around us seemed to hover together like a secret tribal meeting. We owned the beach.

Planes crossed the night sky, their electric eyes winking down from above. And we counted the satellites that roamed around up there, appearing and disappearing through the starry night. With the help of a small flashlight, Alex and I consulted the star map from a National Geographic from 2003 that we found in a drawer. It was difficult finding our way through the haze of stars all milky and bright, but we managed to find the Alpha Corona Borealis easily enough, stretched out directly above our heads. We searched for some other constellations, and then we folded the map up and just lied down on our backs staring into that awesome immensity.

“A satellite,” I said, pointing to a specific spot in the sky.

“Where? Oh, I see it now.”

“Look, a shooting star!” But when I turned to see where he finger was pointing, it was already gone. Vanished. I wondered how many people on this earth had seen it besides her.

It was cold on the beach, and even though the water was still warm from the day’s sun we decided against a midnight swim. So we turned our attention back to the sky. It’s funny how all those stars can make you feel insignificant. So many things, which seem important, just fall away into nothingness against that white speckled canvas. I remembered I read somewhere once that so many of the stars that we are able to see are actually no longer there. They’re gone, and how it took an unfathomable length of time for that light to get to us and essentially, we are looking at the ghosts of dead stars still hanging there.

Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (King James Bible)

Lying there, absorbing the cold sand into our bodies, Alex and I contemplated swimming again.

We passed a mason jar filled with hot and sugary mint tea back and forth. I wondered if this night would be something memorable–one that could perhaps outshine many other evenings when one opens up to all that grandeur and silence. When it cuts right into you and leaves its mark.

Alex yawned, and inevitably so did I. She placed her hand on my shoulder and in a whisper asked: “Are you cold. Do you want to go back up to the house?” Isn’t it funny how our voices grow quieter at times like these? Would words released at a regular volume put a stain on that enveloping silence and puncture the mystery of it? Would God suddenly appear in the sky with a loud thunderclap, and like an angry parent, tell us “to keep it down!”

“Yeah, let’s go back up.” I said, brushing the sand off my swimming shorts. We collected out towels, the yellow blanket, and the half-empty mason jar. We slowly made our way up the sandy hill and reclaimed our shoes at the top. The road stood empty, beckoning with trees dark against the sky looming up large on both sides. A light from a cottage nearby illuminated the forest like a large pulsating heart. Eventually, through the darkness, we found our way back onto the small laneway leading to the cottage.

Alex had left some lights on, and soon it felt that we hadn’t left. A record skipping, a puzzle half-completed on the floor by the fireplace, and the dinner dishes stacked neatly beside the sink. We put our stuff on the kitchen table, collected a bag of chips, a Rice Krispy square, and made our way upstairs to bed. We watched a couple of episodes of “In Treatment” and I grew tired, turned off the light and went to sleep. The last words I heard: “I’m going to watch one more episode.” She was addicted. For the last three evenings, she pulled out Season Two; a four disc set, and watched every episode on the DVD, before finally settling into the blankets to fall asleep.

In the morning, I awoke early and leaving her in bed, I went downstairs to make coffee and sit with the birds and my new chipmunk friends who were looking for a fresh handout of peanuts. I poured myself a large cup, and gathered up my notebook and pen. Sitting down on an old weathered plastic lawn chair, I began to write.

Yasunari Kawabata

Photo of Kawabata, c. 1946 - at work at his house in Nagatani of Kamakura

Photo of Kawabata, c. 1946 – at work at his house in Nagatani of Kamakura

I rediscovered this remarkable photograph of Yasunari Kawabata today, the Nobel Prize winning Japanese short story writer and novelist. It made a strong impression on me. Possibly because of the the atmosphere or his countenance, I don’t know. It just really struck me. Maybe it’s because I find myself struggling through the discipline of writing lately, and in this photograph Kawaabata appears to be in the flow of things as they are. He looks meditative and at home in the process of his writing, which is a place, or a state that I aspire to be in. I haven’t explored his work yet, so I don’t have much to offer, except a couple of pithy quotes that I find noteworthy:

“Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”

And secondly,

“Because you cannot see him, God is everywhere.”

Utterly and Magnificently … Useless.

Paul Auster

I started writing at the local library today, just a couple of blocks away from my house. I found an unoccupied table by a large window overlooking College Street. It turned out to be pleasant day–a grey morning transformed into perfect blue. I sat myself in a large sprawling room with several shelves of books cloistered in the middle of it. The library was full of people, especially in the magazine and newspaper section where I happened to be. A pile of Rolling Stone magazines sat on the table to my right left behind by a bald middle-aged man, and a Chinese woman in a red sweater sat across from me, leafing through the latest glossy issue of House and Home. I looked out the window and wondered how long it’s been since I’ve spent this much time in a library. They are still remarkably quiet like I remember, and they still have that aged professor in a tweed jacket smell about them. Maybe it’s really that nourishing silence that makes libraries sacred, even if it’s cracked open once in a while by a cough or the hush of human voices. Somehow, that silence always seems to return naturally.

I am writing at the library for a couple of reasons. First of all, I had forgotten how much I really love libraries, and I am really just reacquainting myself with one of the places that I found sacred as a child. And secondly, I have been neglectful of my writing because of the demands of my computer and the interweb. It seems easier here to just show up and begin. At home there are a thousand distractions, and the struggle to throw words onto paper is easily eclipsed by the difficulty of just getting down to it. So there I was, writing. Freed from the ordinary way of going about things, sticking it to the familiar and filling hours with words.

I started my writing session by reading a little essay from The Observer by Paul Auster that I had printed out and saved as a way of encouragement. It’s a wonderful response to the question: Why does someone embark on this “magnificently useless” endeavor of writing. The piece is actually from Paul Auster’s acceptance speech for the Prince of Asturias Prize for Letters, Spain’s premier literary honor. It’s definitely worth a read or two. Here a few excellent quotations from the piece:

I don’t know why I do what I do. If I did know, I probably wouldn’t feel the need to do it. All I can say, and I say it with utmost certainty, is that I have felt this need since my earliest adolescence. I’m talking about writing, in particular, writing as a vehicle to tell stories, imaginary stories that have never taken place in what we call the real world. Surely it is an odd way to spend your life – sitting alone in a room with a pen in your hand, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, struggling to put words on pieces of paper in order to give birth to what does not exist – except in your head. Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The only answer I have ever been able to come up with is: because you have to, because you have no choice.


In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

To do something for the pure pleasure and beauty of doing it. Think of the effort involved, the long hours of practice and discipline required to become an accomplished pianist or dancer. All the suffering and hard work, all the sacrifices in order to achieve something that is utterly and magnificently … useless.


…human beings need stories. They need them almost as desperately as they need food and however the stories might be presented – whether on a printed page or on a television screen – it would be impossible to imagine life without them.


Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.

I have spent my life in conversations with people I have never seen, with people I will never know and I hope to continue until the day I stop breathing.

It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted.


So may you write until you drop, or as my favorite columnist, Sugar on the Rumpus says: “Write like a motherfucker.”


Andrew Wyeth, "Off at Sea," 1972.

Andrew Wyeth, Off at Sea, 1972.

The sun returns, pushing away the grey sky in forgiveness painted blue. Long shadows appear over the deck and the green of a small ficus tree is illuminated. The wind that rattled the stray beer cans is quiet now; leaving the neighbourhood eerily silent and waiting. She gives herself to the television in the next room. He sits on a once white plastic deck chair. He stops, smokes, takes a long sip of coffee—a break from the stream of words. It’s a late Sunday afternoon near the end of summer. He can smell the sourness in the air of autumn approaching. He can taste the acridness, the oranges, the reds, and the rusty browns. He feels the warmth on his skin, tickling the hairs, now golden on his arms. Looking up, he sees the birds dart among the rooftops, gathering together, and a moment later, dispersing again. The sun light settles gently over the trees. He asks himself if he has ever truly seen his backyard before—to have this direct impression of it, without his luggage of words. Has he ever listened to its orchestra of wind and trees? It is as though, behind all the seemingly ordinariness, something struggles to shine through.

Poet on a Mountaintop

Poet on a Mountain Top, ink on paper or ink and light colour on paper, album leaf mounted as a hand scroll, by Shen Zhou

“That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

—Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and other Writing, Capo Press, 2005

Image: Poet on a Mountain Top, ink on paper or ink and light colour on paper, album leaf mounted as a hand scroll, by Shen Zhou, Ming dynasty; in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., U.S. 38.7 × 60.2 cm.The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; purchase Nelson Trust (46–51/2)

The Secret of It All

“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.”

—Walt Whitman

Thoughts and Plans

Holly Lynton | "Mean Ceiling," May 2004. C-print 17"x23"

Holly Lynton | Mean Ceiling, May 2004. C-print 17″x23″

“It’s a lovely morning.”

Her breath escaped from her lips carrying the scent of a half forgotten dream.
I opened my eyes and took in the sunlight that softened the walls of the bedroom.
“It is,” I said, putting my arm around her waist, and pulling her closer.

We lay there together. I stared into the curve of her back. She stared into the whiteness of the wall. Both of us focused.

“What would you like to do today?” I asked. She released a soft sigh that hung in the air like a question.


“How about I go get us some coffee?” I said.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“A little after ten.”

Still sleepy, I stumbled out of bed and reached for my glasses. My jeans and t-shirt lay stale and abandoned on the floor.
“Hurry back love.”
“I will,” I said, putting on my jeans.

With my head muddled and confused, I stepped out into the new morning. I listened to the soft murmur of a city still asleep and to the churning of my thoughts that bubbled up from mysterious places.

The air was cool and quiet, embracing the backyard in a cloak of mist and fog. It was like a dance, this new day arising. It felt as if all the possibilities, if I could entertain them just for a moment, would swell up and blow me over like wind and waves. I would even say it was peaceful.

I was in the narrow alley behind our house when I had an indescribable feeling that somehow something was missing. Instinctively I felt my back pocket for my wallet. “No, it’s there.”

Just as the light poked through a patch of fog and illuminated the grey stones of the building that faced the alley, I suddenly sensed something of another quality, like a breeze from nowhere. It felt like an invitation to just settle into the moment, into things just as they are. Everything was more vibrant and alive. Then a car door slammed, just once, and this small opening in this new day closed. I was overtaken by thoughts. By plans.  I tried to find that moment again, groping after it like a fat man in a marathon.

“I’m going to try to remember myself. I’m going to try to be here now, in this moment.”

I took a thoughtful, but exaggerated breath, and tried to bring my sleep soaked body into my feeble awareness.

“I have feet, legs and hands,” I said to myself as I tried to become aware of them.

I watched my thoughts appear and then, receiving no attention, drop away, back to their mysterious origin. I felt like a boat wandering aimlessly, tossing and turning over dark deep waters. For a moment, I realized that this is probably how I am most mornings, running through the random and the ridiculous.

A few moments later, I found myself at the local coffee shop, transfixed in front of several shelves of delicious looking pastries. The caramel covered chocolate brownies in particular, drew out a weakness in me.

Then in the low hum of morning conversations, soft jazz music and the clinking and clattering of cups, I remembered that I had forgotten all about trying to remember myself; to be here now.
”Maybe I should skip the brownies for today as a punishment,” I thought.

“Can I help you?” the young woman behind the counter asked
“Yeah, can I have two medium coffees and two of those amazing chocolate brownies?”
“Sure,” she said smiling gently.
She turned to get the coffee as I stood there fumbling over my wallet.
“Excuse me,” I said.

The woman placed the paper cups of steaming fresh black coffee in front of me.
“Yes?” she asked, picking up silver tongs and approaching the pastry case.
“Do you have any bad habits?” I asked.
She looked thoughtful for a moment and then she let out a quiet laugh, her face flushed.
“Umm, yeah I do,” she said, “I never live my life in the moment, y’know, like right now even though I try really hard to.”

A few seconds passed between us. It felt as though a door had opened, like an invitation to a deeper mystery. We stood there in the silence, simply looking into each others eyes. We were relating to each other, somehow. There was no need for words.

Then, a door slammed, and I returned to the white noise, the fluorescent lights, and to my thoughts, and plans.

“Yeah, I have that habit too,” I said finally, smiling with her.

I walked out of the coffee shop with the sounds of soft jazz music, the morning conversations and the clinking and clattering of cups fading behind me.

It was just before eleven.♦