January – Audrey Brooks
Its 11:30 a.m. January 2nd, 2009
Dvorak’s 6th Slavic Pastoral Symphony
is playing on CBC FM radio
I am driving with winter snow slanting
through struts on the high level bridge
A mist of fine snow in an aura of light
from headlights, surrounds the car
Under us the river is cloaked and dark
Invisible self-contained out of mind
Music accentuates the rhythm of snow
as it persists soft on the windshield
Woodwinds and flutes accompany
random flakes that fall so beautifully
On car roofs, bridge, struts, lights
nothing but full sound and falling snow
On the High level bridge in the middle
of winter in the morning in Edmonton
“Embracing Winter” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely January 12, 2014 Unitarian Church of Edmonton
We live in a holy city. Why? Because we live here, we form community, we work, we share, we build some things and tear other things down, we fight, we complain, we celebrate, we procreate, we die. Go down to Rossdale flats, to the first nations cemetery near the old power plant. People have been gathering on the banks of our river for centuries. There are bones of ancestors of this place here.
We live here and living is a holy thing. This is made a holy place by our presence here, by what we do here together.
In Revelations, the Bible speaks of the cities as holy places. God’s people are called to create the golden city here on earth and to go to the golden city in heaven. The city, not the wilderness; the place where people live in community.
Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days to find himself, to discover wisdom and insight. We all know about that, how beautiful and peaceful and restoring time away from the city can be. But when he was done, Jesus returned to the city, because it is there we are called to live our insights into being in community with others. So cities are holy places.
But each city is different and to a degree, unique.
It is defined in part by the land on which it lies.
Edmonton is a river city, not an ocean city or a mountain city nor a prairie city nor a city surrounded by a host of other eastern cities so closely packed that it’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends. We have the river and its parkland, often called the crown jewel of our city. We live north of the river or south of it or close to it or far away from it. We know the bridges, even see crossing the bridge as a small moment of poetic passage as in Audrey’s poem earlier. The river flows through our consciousness just as it flows through our city.
We have big skies and a sense that we are never far away from farms and forests – a short drive will get us there. And so we feel isolated from other cities. We are independent, on our own, clinging onto a last vestigial memory of the pioneer spirit of the first Europeans with their carts and sod huts. And because of that sense of isolation, we are also neighbourly with one of the highest rates of volunteerism in the nation. When you are on your own, isolated, helping your neighbour is just good sense.
We are a city shaped by nearby oil reserves and fields of growing things stretching as far as the eye can see. These things define our industry, our wealth, our political agenda no matter which side you support. Heck it’s even in the names of our two top hockey teams, and last time I looked, Toronto did not have a week long rodeo finals contest on its annual calendar.
Many years ago the Canadian Unitarian Council meetings featured the theme “Listening to the Language of the Land”. It explored the idea of how the land impacts arts and literature, theology, philosophy and so many other undercurrents that form our society. Now you might hear me say that and say , “Oh, yeah,” but be a bit unconvinced. But you know, Emily Carr could not have created her seminal art anywhere but the west coast of BC, and W.O. Mitchell could not have written “Who Has Seen the Wind” in Toronto, nor could Rick Mercer have produced his particular kind of humour had he not grown up in Newfoundland.
The subtle impact of the land was brought home to me at those long ago CUC meetings with a simple but visually dramatic exercise. When we registered, every person was invited to take one or two stickers – about the size of a legal seal. There was an assortment of colours. We were asked to pick colours that represented the land where we lived, to write the name of the place on the sticker and then drop them in a box.
Two days later, during Sunday worship, the exercise was completed when organizers revealed a large black and white map of Canada with our 250 stickers placed in the appropriate spaces. It was a revelation.
In the Atlantic provinces there was a lot of blue all over and green with some dark browns. Moving to Quebec and Ontario the fall colours showed up. Browns, greens were mixed with reds and yellows. There was a smattering of blue along rivers and lakes.
The Prairies were dominated by yellows and greens for the vast fields of grain with a little brown here and there and no red. The only blue was found around Lake Winnipeg. In Alberta those colours were repeated but now mixed with rocky mountain grey as well.
In BC we saw a repeat of the East, lots of ocean blue and leafy green with dark browns for the mighty tall trees and some greys for mountain peaks.
We were all Canadian, but we all saw the colours of our land differently. Geography shaped our colour palette. Geography informs every intangible of our lives in ways we often do not notice or appreciate.
I have been fortunate to have had chances to travel, sometimes to places where not too many Canadians go. Since most of that travelling came after that CUC revelation, I have often noticed – at least in very broad strokes- how geography influences attitudes, dress, social structure and even wealth. How we live is heavily influenced by where we live.
So we live in a holy city defined in part by our specific geography. That geography includes climate, of course. And our climate includes long lingering twilights during summer festival season. And it includes the long lingering nights of winter. Lots of winter. Especially this year.
The question, indeed it is a theological question, is how will we live in this place and in relation to this place? How will we listen to and incorporate the language of the land into our core being? This is indeed a religious question, for it is about meaning.
Most of us don’t have a lot of trouble figuring out how to live her in summer and how to celebrate this city in the warmer months. But the winter can be a challenge.
Sure some folks head south for short periods or long because they just can’t embrace winter. That’s fine. We each have to follow our own hearts.
I have had a few short winter vacations to warm places in my time, but not many. And I never mind coming home. It’s not the warm I treasure when I travel, but the green. I find I miss the colour green more than anything in winter, so usually the girls and I visit the Muttart Conservatory a few times each year.
This is not meant to be a pure song of praise. I don’t like it when it gets too cold, and the dark can be wearing on the soul. Winter storms in late March seem like a cruel joke and there comes a point where the mere sight of my boots and parka fill me with disgust so deep it is hard to express. There are days late in the season where it’s hard to look with love on my dog as he whimpers excitedly about yet another frigid walk in the cold morning darkness.
But you know, I was born in Canada. Winter is who I am. “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver!”
And besides, by August I get pretty fed up with cutting grass all the time too.
The great gift of seasons is variety. I appreciate that, for I am easily bored.
So while we have it, I think we need to embrace winter, like Rick Mercer said.
Our municipal government thinks so too. For the last few years the City been determined to encourage us to embrace this side of our home. They even have a developed a 10 point “WinterCity Strategy”:
goal 1 | Make It Easier to “Go Play Outside”: Provide More Opportunities for Outdoor Activity
goal 2 | Improve Winter Transportation for Pedestrians, Cyclists and Public Transit Users
goal 3 | Design Our Communities for Winter Safety and Comfort
goal 4 | Incorporate Urban Design Elements for Winter Fun, Activity, Beauty and Interest
goal 5 | Increase the Capacity and Sustainability of Edmonton’s Winter Festivals
goal 6 | Develop a Four-Seasons Patio Culture
goal 7 | Become a World Leader in Innovative Winter–Related Business/Industry
our winter story
goal 8 | Celebrate the Season and Embrace Daily Living in a Cold Climate
goal 9 | Promote Edmonton’s Great Northern Story Locally, Nationally and Internationally
goal 10 | Kick Start and Lead Implementation of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy: Apply a ‘Winter Lens’ to Our City
As part of this strategy, Cities in Bloom – the group that offers prizes each summer for the most interesting front yard designs, has now begun a new winter contest “Front Yards in Bloom- Winterscapes”. During February people are encouraged to do something interesting and dramatic with their front yards, something visually arresting or fun. I have seen a few efforts already, like the folks who painstakingly created an igloo our of coloured ice blocks.
To me it is a way of saying, “Hey, we live in winter. We don’t have to hate it. We don’t have to accept winter as something that oppresses us. We don’t have to only think about vacation packages or second homes in Arizona. There are ways we can safely and sensibly embrace winter and love it.”
In the Journal on Friday there was a story about a letter discovered in Australia. Penned in 1919 it was from a woman in Vulcan to her friend, a chatty letter about life in post war Alberta. The writer had grown up in New Zealand and was presumably writing home. She wrote that the snow had started falling and that recreation had turned to winter things, like skating, curling and hockey. Isn’t that how it should be? If we live here, then we should LIVE here
I took this topic on for two reasons. First, I confess I have grown a little tired of the constant complaining in Edmonton about snow removal all winter and potholes throughout the rest of the year. You could wake up from a coma and know in seconds the time of year by looking at a newspaper letters page or listen into CHED radio call in show.
Back when there was a kerfuffle about finding a new city slogan a while back I thought we might try “City of Whiners.” But that’s my inner curmudgeon slipping out of his hole for a second. But the constant complaining I hear weighs heavily on my soul – the negativity gets me down. And frustration with all of that pushed me into a little mental exercise or trying to find the other side of the complaint. What’s good about all of this? For one thing, I remembered how much I enjoy the challenge of driving in winter. I think it’s kind of fun. “Here hold my coffee and watch this.”
The other reason I have come to embrace winter is one of health. A few Januarys ago when I was given the diabetes diagnosis I decided to get serious. I hate gyms and pools, so I started bundling up and just walking. And then we got Herman, and the human lazy factor got taken out of the equation. I had to walk in the winter, but it was…nice! This winter Teilya and I finally got skates for our daughters…and for me for the first time in 45 years. And we got a family pass to Rabbit Hill and have started skiing.
Instead of hunkering down and waiting out winter, surviving winter, we chose to try to find ways to enjoy and embrace it. Yesterday the girls and I went to the Deep Freeze festival on Alberta Avenue and had a grand time. It’s a relaxed neighbourhood event with all kinds of simple free activities. It was just fun. And it’s on again today.
There is a part of me that thinks I should have figured this out years ago. From 1987-97 I lived in Vancouver. You may not know this, but it’s kinda wet out there. There was a time in my life when I used to think rain was a good excuse for staying home. After a few weeks in Vancouver I realized that this was not a viable choice. Cabin fever was setting in. To live out there is to know how to dress for and enjoy being outside in the rain. So I bought rubber boots and an anorak.
When I moved to Edmonton, the boots were freezing. To live here in winter, you need a pair of Sorrels. It’s kind of that simple. Dress for the weather, figure out what your personal abilities and degree of mobility will allow and then, go do it. Embracing winter won’t be for everyone, of course, but if you give it a try, you will find that you get used to the weather. Unless it’s extreme, it becomes a non-factor.
We live in a winter city. That’s a fact. It’s part of the distinctiveness of this holy place. And we live here. I think it is our responsibility to find ways to own that fact and to celebrate living here in every season to live fully.
What greater purpose can any human have than living fully?
Following the service, Corinne Jackson approached me.A good part of our population suffers from mobility issues that make snowy or icy streets a dangerous place. Corinne is one such person. She brought me her concerns. Corinne is a poet and told me she had written on the theme. “Send it!” I said, “We’ll publish it!” I am glad I asked. Here is her beautiful and powerful work. — Brian
Softly I fall down into the snow.
My legs unable to navigate a straight way up.
The cab driver tries to lift my right side.
A neighbor tries to lift my left side.
I am a two-ton concrete block,
creating more demonic than angelic patterns
on the frozen ground.
The snow caresses my uncovered wrists.
They sting with the severe touch of its fingers.
Trapped in this spot,
snowflakes cover me like ash from a distant Vesuvius
encase my body into a mold of a former being.
Later, I walk toward the door of the house,
Anxious to escape the
Soft smothering winter night.