The Desiderata

As a young adult, I had the poster on my wall for many years.  Within the delicate emergence of something beyond my self-centered concerns, it spoke truth.  The words vibrated inside me.  The poem rightfully took its place next to empty bottles of Chianti Ruffino wine, which I transformed into candles.

I would often look long at the whole spectrum of love that Max Ehrmann created.   I don’t remember analyzing the thoughts.  Instead I simply let them waft over me.  Somehow I knew that was enough.

There must have been one too many moves in my nomadic youth, because The Desiderata left me one day.  I don’t even remember missing it.  My walls filled instead with paintings – visual heart-tuggings rather than the majesty of the phrase.  I didn’t think of Max’s masterpiece for decades.

But the man has returned.  He smiles at me once more.  And it’s all so gentle.  Not all of the sentences still shimmer, and that’s okay.  The whole has guided me over the years, and I didn’t even know it.  A magical absorption was at work.  And I am the better for the words having roamed around within me for so long.

Here is The Desiderata.  I hope you enjoy it.

***

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.  As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.  If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.  Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.  But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.  Especially do not feign affection.  Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.  You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.  Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.  And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.  With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy.

Gord

I have musical heroes as no doubt you do. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in concert at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1972. He was 34. I was 23. He sang into my soul. My favourite song was Did She Mention My Name? And it still is.

It’s so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day
And talk about the hometown a million miles away
Is the ice still on the river? Are the old folks still the same?
And by the way, did she mention my name?

Did she mention my name just in passing?
And when the morning came
Do you remember if she dropped a name or two?
Is the home team still on fire? Do they still win all the games?
And by the way, did she mention my name?

Ahh, yes. I so much wanted to be loved. I so much wanted a love. And Gord spoke right to me of the longing.

Tonight I sit in Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It’s an intimate venue of folk music – the songs of the people. In an hour, musicians will step onto the stage for The Way We Feel: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. We’ll hear Gord’s songs, and if we’re lucky, the man himself will join us for a few tunes. To hear the singer-songwriter who’s sold out huge halls for sixty years in a room of 200 would be such a blessing.

I’ll be fine if Gord doesn’t show up but what a privilege if he does. Hugh’s Room has hosted these four tribute evenings in a row for fifteen years. Every time, Mr. Lightfoot has appeared a couple of times. Maybe this is my lucky night.

I want to applaud someone who has created such beauty. But really we all do that, in different ways. Perhaps I need to applaud all human beings. We all struggle. We all overcome. We all could have songs written about us.

It’s intermission now and Gord’s poetry has filled the room. Such as On a Winter’s Night with You:

The lamp is burnin’ low upon my table top
The snow is softly fallin’
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly callin’

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter’s night with you

Or how about the bittersweet Affair on Eighth Avenue?

And our fingers entwined like ribbons of light
And we came through a doorway somewhere in the night

Her long flowing hair came softly undone
And it lay all around
And she brushed it down as I stood by her side
In the warmth of her love

There have been seven or eight singers so far and what’s true, beyond their prime musicianship, is their love for Gord. I share that love. What gifts he’s given to folks eager to hear. Generations of Canadians and world citizens have been slowed and then stopped by his words of the heart:

Rain is falling on the meadow
Where once my love and I did lie
Now she is gone from the meadow
My love goodbye

Ribbon of darkness over me
Where once the world was young as spring
Where flowers did bloom and birds did sing
Ribbon of darkness over me

Here in this cold room lyin’
Don’t want to see no one but you
Lord I wish I could be dyin’
To forget you

Oh how I wish your heart could see
How mine just aches and breaks all day
Come on home and take away
This ribbon of darkness over me

The band is coming back to the stage. And my writing feels done for the day. I’ll tell you tomorrow if Gord came by to say hi.

***

Hello, everyone. It’s tomorrow. No Gord last night. (Sigh) But the singers and players onstage created miracles in song.

I can’t help it … I just have to share more lyrics with you:

Early Mornin’ Rain

In the early mornin’ rain
With a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart
And my pockets full of sand
I’m a long ways from home
And I miss my loved ones so
In the early mornin’ rain
With no place to go

***

Pussywillows, Cattails, Soft Winds and Roses

Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses
Rainbows in the woodland, water to my knees
Shivering, quivering, the warmth breath of spring
Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses

Catbirds and cornfields, daydreams together
Riding on the roadside, the dust gets in your eyes
Revelling, dishevelling, the summer nights can bring
Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses

***

If You Could Read My Mind

I never knew I felt this way
And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it
I don’t know where we went wrong
But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back

If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like a oldtime movie about a ghost from a wishing well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
The story always ends
And if you read between the lines
You’ll know that I’m just trying to understand
The feeling that you left

***

The Long River

Where the long river flows
It flows by my window
Where the tall timber grows
It grows ’round my door
Where the mountains meet the sky
And the white clouds fly
Where the long river flows
By my window

There’s a tiny bird that calls
And he calls by my window
There’s a lonely tear that falls
And it falls ’round my door
But when the sun is high
There’s no time to cry
Where the long river flows
By my window

***

Oh, Gord … from where did your words come?
Thank you, dear sir, for shining a light on our lives

Twas

Twelve years ago my friend Carol, who was working at the library in Port Stanley, Ontario, came up to me with a request.  Would I “do something” at the Christmas talent show for the kids who attend library programs?

“Sure.”

Then Carol whips out the sheets of paper she was hiding behind her back.  Behold the words for “Twas The Night Before Christmas”.  Once I calmed down, and found out that I’d be wearing a nightgown and a stocking cap, and hoisting a candle onstage, I agreed.  “Okay, I’ll read the poem to the kids.”

“No.”

“What do you mean ‘no’?”

“No reading.  Lots of memorizing.”

That was October.  After many visits to Sebastian’s restaurant in London, and much caffeine, and two months of cramming, I actually knew all the words.  And my performance at the show was a rousing success (or so I fantasize).

The next year I decided to take my act on the road.  I was an itinerant teacher of visually impaired students, and visited a lot of schools.  I asked my elementary teaching friends if they’d like me to recite in their classrooms, and many said yes.

So began years of Santa poem renditions.  Thousands of kids watched and listened. There was much happiness within me and, I think, in the hearts of the young’uns.

Which brings me to today.  My friend Heather had arranged for me to speak to ten classes, ranging from kindergarten to Grade 5.  I hadn’t done Twas last year, since my heart was heavy with Jody’s death.  But now I was eager.

The kids were so close to me, typically sitting on a carpet in front of my rocking chair.  Those young faces in the front row looked way up at me.  And I got on a roll.  Words tumbled out and so did audience smiles:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer

His eyes how they twinkled, his dimples how merry
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry

He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle

There was enthusiastic applause as I finished.  I was pleased.  But I knew that Part Two follows Part One.  I told the kids about a moment three years ago.  It was early December.  I had accompanied Jody to the doctor’s office and was sitting alone in the waiting room.  Alone except for the receptionist, that is.  I then did what any normal person would have done in this situation:

“Would you like me to recite ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas’?”

“Uhh … sure.”

Ignoring the woman’s somewhat muted enthusiasm, I launched into my shtick.  And I’d say she was much happier as I ended with “Merry Christmas to all … and to all a good night.”

And here came Jody out of the inner office, accompanied by a nurse.  Once more I offered my services.

“No, Bruce.  We don’t have time.  We need to get home, wrap those presents, and get them to the post office today, or they won’t get to Alberta by Christmas.”

I was scared, but decided to carry on.

“Well, what if I say it fast?”

“Do you know how to say it fast?”

“I’ve never tried, but let me give it a shot.”

“Okay, but hurry.”

And thus began my second “Night Before Christmas” career – “Speedy Twas”.

Oh my.  Kids laugh and laugh.  And so do I.  My record has been one minute and twenty-eight seconds.  Today, one class of small people challenged me to go low.  As the second hand closed in on 12, there was a hush.  And then bursts of excitement as I sallied forth.  Small cheers erupted as I blurted out “His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.”  One minute.  I heard “Go, go, go!” in my head.  It was 1:10 when Santa sprang to his sleigh.

I collapsed into “And to all a good night” while one young soul yelled out “1:19!”  Oh my goodness.  It’s a new world record.  And what a good boy am I.

I looked at all those upturned mouths, with several bodies lying flat on the carpet, in various stages of writhe.  And I knew … I was home.

May Christmas come every year
May the words always fill my head
And may children laugh

Day Eleven … On The Road And With The Poem

Uh oh.  I’m falling way behind.  It’s the morning [now afternoon] of Day Thirteen and I’m trying to remember Day Eleven.  I’ll do my best.

I left the home of Isabelle and Bruce and headed west towards Banff National Park, then north on the Banff-Jasper Highway, west from Jasper into BC, and north to my home-away-from-home: McBride.  Gosh, that was a lot of driving.

I was stuck in a traffic jam on the freeway approaching Banff.  How can this be?  I’m surrounded by picturesque foothills and towering cliffs.  Out in the middle of nowhere breathing in exhaust.  Once we got going again, several sights beckoned me.  First was this multi-coloured van with a black and white peace sign on the hood.  The back end and the left side were festooned with words and paintings that were extremely … sexual.  Since this is a family show, I won’t give you the details but it was astonishing to see.  Whoever the driver was, I’m sure that his or her mom won’t be riding in that van anytime soon.

Then there were the wire fences – six feet tall.  The divided highway was a corridor through all those trees, with the fences blocking animals from crossing.  All this to serve human beings?  It was eerie to drive through.  Every ten kilometres or so, I’d approach twin tunnels over the road.  The route above them dipped down in the middle and was covered with trees.  It wasn’t an intersecting road for cars.  This was for deer and moose and bears to get where they were going.  Okay.  Far better than not accessing the other half of their world.

I passed beside glaciers shining in the sun, wide river flats boasting the most exquisite aquamarine waters, and an infinite number of Jody’s trees, mostly coniferous folks reaching for the sky.  But it felt strange.  I stopped when there was a cool view to take pictures.  But I felt like an ordinary tourist, driving forever, stopping for a photo and then driving forever again.  No context.  No real relationship to what I was seeing, no walking in the trees … sort of empty.  Oh well.

Before leaving Isabelle and Bruce, we sat down for breakfast.  As we were sipping our coffee, Isabelle pulled out a book.  “I have a poem for you, because you’re a traveller.”  I’d like to share it with you.  It speaks to me as I wander from human being to human being.  Thank you, Isabelle.

To Bless The Space Between Us

Every time you leave home
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in

New strangers on other paths await
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way
More attentive now
To the self you bring along
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice
Opening a conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way

When you travel
A new silence
Goes with you
And if you listen
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say

A journey can become a sacred thing
Make sure, before you go
To take the time
To bless your going forth
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you

May you travel in an awakened way
Gathered wisely into your inner ground
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you

May your travel safely, arrive refreshed
And live your time away to its fullest
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you