Without knowing what we were doing, we had opened ourselves to learn some lessons which life in the world of the city and the “modern world” generally were not prepared to teach. Without knowing what we had set in train, we were to discover that living without the shelter of modern conveniences opened our eyes to more permanent wonders. Although, parents and children, we had come with the usual diversity of agendas, something in the new life spoke to each of us.
Remembrance of Things Past
In a world full of things, one occasionally glimpses a truth only fleetingly seen down the corridors of time - that not to be possessed by things may be the greatest riches of all.
Although our eldest daughter still declares, in mock seriousness, that we waited until she had gone to college to put a bathroom in this house, the fact is we came straight from the city and city conveniences to this country place with the appurtenances of summer cottages we had loved and we lived here for four years before we even had the wherewithal to begin to think about making changes, and if there were complaints, and I'm sure there were even if I don't remember them at this distance, they were of that sort that can be summed up under the heading of "Yes indeed, it is a fallen universe."
For the first year and a half or so of our time here we were in fact on leave from my position in the university back in Ontario and expected and expecting to return there. So in a way we were just "camping out" for rather longer than usual.
There came a time though, and my memory is of a very dark evening sometime in the winter, when we gathered the children of an age to have an opinion in what memory suggests was the room in which I am now writing but then was part sitting room and part storage space. The room, as I remember it, was itself rather dark. That particular family council was called to make a decision about our return to the city. I had to make my intentions known to the university, and although at one level there was no question but that we would return, at a deeper level it seemed a tide was running in the opposite direction.
I am still awed at the strength of that tide as it appeared in the gloom of that dark evening. None of us, it seemed, was longing to go back to the city. But the "sense of the meeting" was positive, not negative. All of us wanted to stay. And so the unimaginable letter of resignation was to be written and sent off and I for one fervently hoped that the tide that was running would not sweep us away into the pathless ocean to be lost in its dark depths.
Something one of the children told us recently opened a little window onto those times. Our youngest, now living in Ontario, said that friends of his will say to him, "Tell us about how you lived when you were growing up." And he tells them about chores and getting up in a cold house in the winter and about making hay and bringing it in loose, and, no doubt, about the treks across the yard to the outhouse in the double dark of night and winter. His audience shake their heads in astonishment.
No-one opposed the plan to put a bathroom in when there was a room free for the putting, some four years later. The outhouse still is available although its principle use now is as a support for a luxuriant yellow clematis. Our great innovation (which I'm sure we read about somewhere) was the installation of a styrofoam seat for winter use. A visitor in those early days came back from the outhouse with a smile from ear to ear. He had grown up in Wales where the seats, as he vividly recalled, were slate.
The outhouse is, for most of the world, an object of ridicule. A standard item in country gift shops of my childhood was a slim volume entitled "How to Draw Outhouses" - the reductio ad absurdum of books which will tell the seeker how to draw flowers, trees, country cottages or what-have-you. Nevertheless I often think of our forays into a bitter winter night just before going to bed and the wonders, like northern lights, we no longer see because we no longer make that journey.
It was on such a quest, one snapping cold night, as I was waiting my turn outside that I saw the stars dancing. I had always assumed that the phrase referred simply to the twinkling of starlight in a clear sky, but I know now, thanks to that humble trip across the yard, that there can be some disturbance in the atmosphere which does indeed make the stars appear to frisk about as if they were dancing.
The alchemical philosophers were right when they said that the philosopher's stone which changes base metal into gold is so common it is thrown in the gutter every day - and, I might add, every night as well, if our seeming, worldly, riches keep us from seeing what is truly to be seen.
23 September 1997