I am invited to a party at the home of people I do not know, a family called O’Brien. The house on the lower side of Waterford Bridge Road is about 100 years old. A handsome boy of about twelve comes to the door, all chatter, and asks who we are. We give our names and he gives his and leads us in.
His mother, Trish, is in the kitchen, where my stepsister and her boyfriend, who is also the town cryer of St. John’s, have taken possession and are whipping up seafood tacos. Trish, I learn, is a physician who manages to combine locums with being at home with her children. Her husband Loyola appears after a few minutes, just back from work. He runs a tour-boat in Bay Bulls that takes people to see whales and a bird-sanctuary. During the winter months, it is his turn to be mostly at home. Something about the chemistry of their lives impresses me.
My step mother is perched on a stool sipping her glass of sparkling wine. Looks like my chance to volunteer. I ask if there is anything I can ruin. It turns out there is: I can grate some carrots. I am warned that slicing my knuckles is my business, but I am not to get any of into the coleslaw.
The room fills with people I might have known but didn’t — single degrees of separation when we were in high school. I seem to know a brother or a sister of each person who comes in.
I wander out to the patio which looks down on a little ravine through which runs the Waterford River. There is a man from the south coast who combines teaching and singing in a band — he will pull out his guitar in a little while.
I sit on a wooden bench beside Loyola, and we talk about his boat. I have not been on the sea in a long time. He thinks I should come out for a tour. I consider this for a minute and say, dammit, that is a good idea.
On Sunday morning he shows up in his van. I hop in. The other passengers, picked up at hotels, are a medical researcher of Persian descent living now in Alberta, and a German who is planning to ride all around eastern Canada as soon as his motorcycle arrives from Iceland. I am not sure how it got to Iceland, but it is on a ship headed this way.
Bay Bulls is on the southern shore, once a long way out, but now the city limits have reached it. Much of my family comes from this area, some from Kilbride, and more from Admiral’s Cove a little further south. Most of the old families in these parts came from the southernmost part of Ireland at the time of the famine.
About thirty people have gathered for the tour. At first, the souvenir shop is over-run by people grabbing up tee-shirts, hoodies, and mugs. Then we board. The boat is tall for its size, and rises and falls in one-metre waves. We are told this is not much of a sea.
Our guide, a whimsical young man named Justin, tells us that he can promise birds. There are millions of them over on the island. If we see something like a potato flying past, that is a puffin. As for whales, he makes no promises. There are five tour companies running boats here and they radio each other when a whale is spotted.
There. A couple of points off the starboard bow and maybe half a mile away, a whale is spouting. The boat speeds up and heads towards it. We can no longer see the whale — it is diving. The boat slows and waits for it to reappear.
‘Now look there — a lighter colour in the water. Almost emerald.’ The sea is dark blue, nearly grey, but I don’t see the contrast. Then the whale breaks the water and spouts again. The boat matches its pace and direction and keeps a distance of perhaps 200 yards so as not annoy it and send it into a deep dive.
It is a big humpback whale — about 40 tons with long pectoral fins. Now I have a sense of the contrast in the water, the patch of emerald where it is just below the surface. Again and again it rises, blasting air and drops of water out the two blowholes like nostrils on his back. He never fully breaches — I don’t see him waving his tail. But this is as close as I have been to a whale and am touched by gratitude.
The clock is running on our tour, so we turn towards the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. I have been on dry land for years and am just a little queasy as the boat rises and falls. Still, this is something I want to see. I go to the bow, hang on to a railing, and let my knees remember how to roll with the waves.
In the distance, the island looks low, grey, and a little forbidding. There is fog on the water, and the temperature drops very fast the further we get from land. Soon plenty of little potatoes are flying past our heads or scooting through the water. The island is looking more green and white — the great streaks of guano on bare rock.
After its first year, Justin tells us, the puffin goes out to sea for three years and does not mate until its fifth year. Then it comes back to the island with the same mate to the same burrow for as many as twenty years. ‘Same house, same spouse,’ he says. ‘These are good Catholic seabirds.’
But the island is not a safe place for hatchlings or for any small birds. Some of the seagulls looking for food have wing-spans of six feet. They are classified as kleptoparasites — I am surprised that this term originates with ornithologists rather than political scientists.
The island is home to 600,000 pairs of Leach’s storm petrels, little black birds with white rumps, that stay out of the light to avoid predators. They come out only at night and don’t trust themselves even to a full moon. The island is also home to other species such kittiwakes and murres, a cousin of the long-vanished great auk.
The boat turns round and we are heading back to Bay Bulls. It seems not long enough. My face is a little burned. My stomach has settled down. What can I say? It is a day of gifts.
I spent a little time with Karen Solie at Coffee Matters on the corner of Military Road and Ordinance Street in St. John’s. As poets go, she has an unusual power to re-invent herself. The night before, she and the also-splendid Patrick Warner had given a reading at the Ship Pub. Among her new works was a fascinating poem about St. Anthony — not the finder of lost keys, but the earlier one, who headed off to the desert in Egypt. His example of fervour saw such places over-run with solitaries — a mystic behind every dune.
I remember reading Thomas Merton on these desert fathers — a little book called Wisdom of the Desert based on an ancient collection of texts called the Verba Seniorum — full of humane tales about how to make the mad act of going to the desert into a sane one. Of course, there were a good many of those desert fathers who stayed crazy, including a fellow who stuck his fingers into a candle repeatedly through a long night of sexual urges: somehow he ignited a spiritual fire in his hands.
Karen is thinking a lot about these long-ago people, as Heaney did in his Station Island. They were all over Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa. There was a contingent who lived in caves in Ireland and Scotland. They were laying a huge bet on the possibility of a fulfilling life of contemplation. Nowadays no one wants to run such a high table. I certainly don’t.
Every now and again, some modern person seems to make a go of the hermit’s life. The sharp-tongued art historian Sister Wendy Beckett decided to vanish, though the cameras seek her out still. Merton himself was a most sociable hermit — ask Joan Baez.
At 55, I have come to think a lot about separateness and privacy. I live in an apartment in the middle of Toronto — I can’t think of a desert to go to. Twice married, I have a history of shipwrecks. Most days I attend mid-day Mass at the Newman Centre. My prayer is generally a wordless condition of adoration. Often I imagine the host in my hands as an offering. There is no effort to these things — they seek me out far more than I seek them. At most, I consent to my small piece of the desert.
I have time on my hands. That is the essence of the thing.
At 9:30 in the morning, I climb the steps of the Basilica — a building out of all proportion to the town where it was built — in just the way that odd villages in Europe possess Gothic Cathedrals, this one, Romanesque, is at the top of a ridge and gazes out through the Narrows. Its ceiling, with elaborate plasterwork, is painted with tiny leaves and vines and sometimes reminds me a of a Paisley tie.
As a child, I came here from time to time with my father — our regular parish had a modest church in the first floor of a suburban school. One Good Friday when I was six or seven, he took us here, and for the first time I really noticed the towering windows — the drama of Christ and the saints, as imagined by Irish people 150 years ago.
When I was about seventeen, I began to attend daily Mass here. I had my license and could drive the seven or eight miles from St. Phillip’s on Conception Bay. Piety and road safety are different things, as I was often in a rush. One day I slid in snow and smashed the door of the Bronco I was driving.
That was a strange, difficult year. My mother was suffering a mental illness, and my father made a poor fist of helping her. I was trying to launch my own life and was applying to join the Jesuits. Often I was sad and edgy.
I have no idea how many funerals I attended that year. The 9:30 Mass often featured a coffin, but not always mourners. People died in boarding houses and nursing homes and their funerals drew no family or friends. Always at that Mass there were old people, who came mainly out of devotion, but also because they had nothing else to do. One of the priests lamented to me that he was a “geriatric babysitter” — hard words, but he was trying to explain his own complicated discontent.
At the back of the church, I often saw two obese men, brothers in their forties. After Mass they would drive to a third (much healthier) brother’s garage and watch him inflate tires and change spark-plugs. I thought of them as saintly. They did not last long — both dead in three or four years. I was not there, but I assume their funerals were at least modestly attended.
I think sometimes of those great big men, with their black-rimmed glasses and their rosary beads. What was the point of such lives? I don’t ask the question to be dismissive or cruel. I think it important to try to answer it.
I am not sure whether it is a fault or a virtue — but I am an ambitious person. Often, I take on bold projects, but I am also inclined to measure the worth of my life by my book count. How many are there? How were the reviews? I measure myself by my education and by the achievement of my children. This sounds like back-door boasting, but it has a relevance.
Often, my instincts dupe me. If there is pain in life, I assume that there is something more I can do. If I push harder, raise myself to a new level, I will be okay. I will make myself worthy of God’s love.
I was in my forties before I learned that I can do nothing to merit God’s love, and no failing of mine can make Him not love me.
“Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and by this means to save his soul,” says St. Ignatius at the beginning of his Spritual Exercises. I will spend my life learning what this does and does not mean.
Those brothers with their foreshortened lives, the aged daily communicants, the anxious priest, were all living in one corner or another of that sentence.
A gift implies need. I cannot bear to be embarrassed. I want nothing to do with my own need. And so I stand before God and change the subject. The hurry to repent of a sin or to charge off on a mission is often an attempt to get out of the hands of God.
But the brothers had fewer means of escape. They could not imagine themselves tackling a world that they were certain to leave soon. I like to think that they served God solely by accepting His gifts.
I am back in St. John’s and I see that Tim Horton’s is hiring: Full and Part-Time. For somebody that will be good news.
My haunts — Harvey Road, Military Road, Bonaventure Avenue — I left them twenty years ago for Toronto and a paycheque I could count on. Those were the days of the cod moratorium. Nobody worked. Since then oil came, with it a boom in real estate, steady demand for tradesmen, every old car traded in on something better. And now the money has gone again. Failure comes and goes here like an exhalation.
I come back in the summers for a week or two — mainly to see my mother who at 88 is beyond ordinary conversation. She inhabits a wheel chair and what little she says has to do with dreams and her wandering jail-broken memories. In a long life of half-realized brilliance she was mostly unhappy. Now, with her meds calibrated, she seems content. Very occasionally, I think she knows who I am.
When I walk the downtown streets, there is a sense of the vanished and the vanishing that I do not find in Toronto. The grey stone of the Anglican Cathedral and the shoulder-to-shoulder clapboard houses enclose me in the last years of the nineteenth century. The narrows are like an eye half-opened.
But living here is different. Time crowds in. The day has its imperatives of work and food, family and friendship. Failing to see this makes you a stranger and sentimentalist.
But even so, life here is more aware of old roots, of waves that have rolled in and receded. The heart is different in St. John’s.