“We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” ~ W.B. Yeats
As we near the end of August, it is bitter sweet to realize the nights are getting longer and soon quiet, lazy days must surrender to fall’s busier routine and a chill in the air. But perhaps, as Yeats said in the quote above, this is the perfect time to “make our mind like still water” and reflect back on special moments that punctuated the summer months.
Many of those moments occurred for me in July when I headed up to Haliburton and Algonquin for a vacation/painting trip. Although I am incredibly blessed to spend much of my daily life making art, taking a break from the routine of studio work was an opportunity to simply wander and create at will, not according to a schedule but wherever the wind (or my car) decided to take me. I’ve written before about the joys of “journeying without an agenda” and that was, indeed, my only intention on this trip – to immerse myself in the land, water, sky and trees that I love so dearly and let them reveal to me their “fierce quiet”.
As one of my favourite spiritual teachers, Caroline Myss, writes, “the word “vacation” comes from the same Latin root as “vacuum,” and means to become empty, to be free from duty or service. By extension it implies carving out a space of time, leaving your normal location and your normal consciousness as well, in order to enter a different space. The whole idea of a vacation is to let your physical and, if you’re lucky, your psychic field, lie fallow for a time as a way of reconstituting and recovering your power”.
On this trip I was not only “freeing myself from duty” but also secretly hoping for a glimpse through the eyes and spirit of fellow painter Tom Thomson for whom Algonquin Park was a place of “reconstituting”. And so, like him, I chose to travel light with only my brushes and watercolours, a few pens and some pencils, in search of scenes where the light or lay of the land spoke to my soul.
Koshlong Lake, Haliburton by CJ Shelton
Prior to leaving I researched several known places Tom Thomson had painted but each day I set off in the morning not really knowing where I would end up but having faith that Spirit - either Tom’s or my own - would lead me to where I needed to be. There was such freedom in this lack of agenda. No worries about catering to someone else’s needs. No need to talk or teach or explain. No need to do anything except respond in any way I chose to whatever I encountered.
As a society, we are programmed to be afraid of being just with oneself with its silence and long stretches of empty space and time. But it is in such fallow times where true creative potential lies. Like artists, farmers know the wisdom of fallow time too. When they let a field go fallow for a season, they are essentially letting it go “on retreat” to regenerate the precious nutrients that will nourish the next crop to be planted there. This concept of “retreat”, of withdrawing from the active world for a time, can seem wasteful or even sad to some, but it is the very act of emptying out and surrendering to whatever presents itself that makes creation possible.
My wanderings, here and there, through the hills of Haliburton and along Algonquin’s Highway 60, was time for my own “fields” to regenerate and I delighted in how every curve of the road brought a new vista of a sparkling lake, a curving hillside covered with Jack pine or a spruce bog dotted with waterlilies. And all the while I kept catching myself pondering “is this how Tom might have seen it”?
After several days though, I still hadn’t had that one really special moment my heart was seeking. So I finally set my sights on Canoe Lake, knowing it had been one of Tom’s favourites but also the place where his lifeless body was found floating face down near his canoe under mysterious circumstances.
When I arrived I found this sacred spot to be desecrated with the sheer volume of visitors vying for parking spots and boat rentals. Twice I attempted to simply stop long enough to get at least a glimpse of the lake, but both times it was so crowded that I literally felt I was being physically pushed away.
Taking heed of that sensation I gave up and left, wandering further along Highway 60 and eventually into a picnic area at Tea Lake Dam. By this time, it was early evening so I enjoyed dinner beside the flowing waters of the Oxtongue River. As I sat musing, the sun, now low in the evening sky, created a starburst through the trees, backlighting them until they were dark and striking silhouettes against its brightness. And then I saw it. Right in front of me, an iconic droopy pine with the branch of another tree horizontally crossing it to form a “T” … and a quiet voice on the wind whispering “here it is
Grabbing my sketchbook and pen I began drawing fiercely. By this time the sun was now beginning to wane so my hand flew, eager to capture this breathtaking moment. Thirty minutes later I had caught its essence, albeit minus colour, but with, what I hoped, a similar energy to what Tom himself might have recreated it with.
As the light seriously began fading, I reluctantly packed up my things and left the river bank. But as I was driving out I noticed a sign that I hadn’t seen on the way in. Instinctively I knew I needed to stop and read it. And, sure enough, the sign gave details on how Tea Lake Dam was the exact spot Tom Thomson had camped on his first visit to Algonquin in 1914 and where he did some of the very first sketches of his beloved park. This place of exquisite beauty and lighting was where his spirit had being trying to lead me all along and he had marked it in ways he knew I couldn’t help but notice.
Considering I was turned away twice from Canoe Lake it was as if Tom was saying, “don’t go where I died, go where I lived”
. By trusting his whispers, I was finally able to see through the eyes of the master himself and share a moment of fierce quiet with him.
Such a moment with the spirit of a painter whose life and work has deeply inspired me will stay with me forever. I went seeking and was willing to surrender to whatever magic showed up and show up it did. It was just what my heart needed during this fallow time … and also the reassurance it ached for, because sadly, my summer began with the heart-breaking moment when my 5 year old grand-nephew Cole, whose story I have often shared in this newsletter, lost his long battle with cancer.
Earlier this week I saw an uncredited post on Facebook that said: “Grief never ends … but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith, it is the price of love”.
To fiercely love a person, a place or a passion - such as the need to paint - is surely the greatest risk of all … but the rewards can be life-sustaining, even in the face of great loss.
Like the ancient Christian monks who were known to flee to the wilderness to find a place "beyond the pale" of established society bringing with them only scripture and such wisdom that would feed their souls, for a few brief days in July I too was called to the wild edges "beyond the pale", to heal and reconstitute.
Spending time in a holy landscape of water, rocks and trees restored my faith in the dance between Nature, love and magic, reminding me of what a little boy who bravely lived every second of his short life to the fullest had known implicitly - that we must live every moment, in the moment.
That same message was echoed through the spirit of another who knew this secret well, a legendary artist whose own life was also cut short, far too soon.
The words at the beginning of this newsletter from another legend, the poet William Butler Yeats, remind us that the way to find clarity and depth in life is to slow down and take the time to reflect. What simple, yet profound legacies Yeats, Thomson and a boy named Cole left - legacies to be discovered and rediscovered through whispers on the wind and images in landscapes “beyond the pale”.
Such beautiful beings never truly leave, they live on in the wild places and in the people they loved and the moments they gave us. And, if we but take time to “make our minds like still water”, they can live again, briefly, “with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.”
Even though there is still one or two “quiet” weeks left of summer, things are starting to brew in the studio as we gear up for the change of seasons. Be sure to keep reading, check the sidebar in this newsletter or go to my website to see what upcoming workshops and seasonal favourites you can enjoy this fall.
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May you enjoy the dance!