It is not exactly wilderness, although the word applies if by wilderness one means, as no doubt some today would mean, any place that does not have access to the Internet. While I was at the family cottage in Quebec for several weeks I was serenely unaware of what was happening on this website, entrusting daily intellectual scintillations to Jody Bottum and the capable staff of First Things . Scanning the postings upon my return, I see that, as expected, my serenity was vindicated beyond cavil. With a little help from the magazine’s many friends, visitors to the site were not lacking for lively contentions, and sometimes contentious contentions, on matters of consequence. My thanks to all who have succeeded in confirming my suspicions of my dispensability.
Almost all my life I’ve spent some part of summer at the cottage on the Ottawa River. That’s a very big river, 564 miles long to be precise, that begins way up in the true wilderness of northern Quebec and runs down to the Saint Lawrence, for much of its distance separating Quebec from Ontario. The cottage is on a large island, Allumette Island, in the Ottawa, almost directly across from Pembroke on the Ontario side, the town where I was born. From the deck of the cottage, one can see a few miles down the river the steeple of St. John’s Lutheran Church where my father was pastor for 28 years. And then, somewhat to the right, St. Columkil’s Cathedral where Bishop Richard Smith, a notably thoughtful and energetic leader, presides.
The Ottawa Valley is home, or at least it is the other home, since New York City, after all these years, makes an undeniable claim to that title. There were eight children, and six of us had dual citizenship from the start, having been born in Canada of U.S. citizens. Our parents, may they rest in peace, later in life became citizens and were quite emphatic about being Canadians. I suppose I could vote there and, if so, would likely vote for Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party, who turned out the Liberals last year and became prime minister with a minority coalition. Friends and relatives there—some of them being both friends and relatives—say the Conservatives would likely win a majority were an election held in the near future. And a good many who say that have voted Liberal all their lives. Meaning no offense, Canadian politics has been something of a circus since Pierre Elliot Trudeau became prime minister in 1968, reigning until 1984, and in many ways dominating the political culture until his death in 2000. Trudeau worked very hard at demonstrating that Canada, too, could produce a celebrity and encouraged an ordinarily sensible people to devote themselves to the earnest intellectual and cultural industry of crafting a distinct Canadian identity, meaning the determined celebration of the ways in which Canadians are not like Americans, meaning, in fact, the ways in which Canadians, too, can be liberal Democrats. To the outsider—and, despite all, I suppose I am that—it was depressingly imitative, but many Canadians seemed to find it quite exciting. With Stephen Harper, one has a sense of government being returned to the grownups.
It seems most of the people I know in the Valley work for the government at one level or another, or are retired from government work, the distinction being unclear in some instances. Part of the Trudeau revolution was the cult of bilingualism. English-speaking government employees spend months and even years getting their French up to speed, all at government expense, even though, or so I’m told, most have little use for French on the job. It’s the principle of the thing. New to me this year is that the government also pays for courses on retirement. Apparently, people can’t figure out on their own how to be retired. For those approaching the midlife crisis of retirement, the government provides instruction on being successfully retired, which a friend explains is aimed at helping people to feel no more useless than they felt themselves to be as government employees. Canada is a strange and wonderful country.
But I don’t know how I got off on politics. The point of the cottage is to get away from all that. There is no Internet, there is no newspaper, and the two times I saw television for a few minutes the news was about a car accident in Petawawa and the growing unpopularity of the Canada goose. The cottage has an old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica —the 11th edition, of course—and the discussion of current affairs is about such matters of moment as whether Alf Landon will beat Roosevelt or whether Henry VIII will really bolt and set up his own church. Each year I take on a particular project. Last year it was all the plays of Shakespeare, and this year it was a close reading of the epistles of St. Paul. Meaning to detract in no way from divine inspiration, I discovered anew that the man was an electrically charged frenzy of spiritual and intellectual urgencies joined to ecstasies and insecurities of an astonishing range. I’m not sure I would have cared much for his company, at least not on a sustained basis. But then, I expect that’s true of most of the saints.
More to my taste is the company of George Weigel, which is not to say that he is not a saint, in his way. This was the twentieth year with the Weigel family at the cottage: George, Joan, and the children; Gwyneth (now with her husband Dr. Robert Susil and their four-month-old William Joseph), Stephen (my godson, doing college with an eye toward criminal justice), and Monica (into theater in Chicago, while keeping her day job, as most people who are into theater wisely do). William Joseph has this peculiar habit of crying during the night, but that problem was resolved by Gwyneth and Rob renting another cottage a little farther down the beach. The Weigel visitation is in large part a matter of George and I sitting on the deck at sunset and late into the evening, with the good company of Jack Daniels and cigars, plotting fresh initiatives in the devious doings for which we are moderately famed. After twenty years, the parishioners of the parishes where I say Mass there are no longer scandalized by my long early-morning walks with the lovely lady that is George’s wife. At least nobody has mentioned it in recent years. Then, too, after the Weigels leave, there is the tradition of Rabbi David Novak coming up from Toronto for an overnight in which we try to think our way through, among many other things, just what it is that St. Paul is saying about Christians and Jews in Romans 9-11. And I got in my annual round of golf with Fr. Tim Moyle, a model pastor in Mattawa, just up the river a bit. Folks were impressed when I reported that I shot a 72, until I explained that was for nine holes.
But mainly, and despite all the comings and goings, the cottage is days upon days of solitude. With the passing of the years, I have been surprised to discover that I have something of an aptitude for solitude. Surprised, that is, because my life has been one of sustained and intense conviviality. Despite the fact that I have not always followed Dr. Johnson’s advice about keeping one’s friendships in good repair, I have had and have friends far beyond my deserving. It’s no claim to virtue but a cause of gratitude that I’m not sure I can remember any time in my life when I was lonely. I am never alone when I am alone. There is so much to think about and so many presences with whom to think. There was an additional factor this year. For some time, the young people on staff have been urging upon me the merits of the iPod. Were they ever right. You load this little thing with literally hundreds of CDs and, with the help of Bose headphones, you have at richest tones Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Handel for days. (Did I mention Bach?) In such company, life is not long enough for the relishing of solitude. And woven throughout all, inseparably part of all, as are the waters of the Ottawa moving relentlessly on from millennia to millennia, there is prayer. For friends and strangers and needs beyond numbering, for myself so pitiably far from what I am to be, but chiefly prayer of gratitude and wonder—that there should be such a time and place away, and such a time and place and work as this to which to return.
In addition to which :
From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but—as we rather pretentiously put it—a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we’ll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.
From left: Lutheran bishop William Lazareth, Fr. Avery Dulles (now cardinal), and Thomas Oden, looking very skeptical.
To access the running gallery, click here .