Singing for the Angels
Preparing a winterized cottage retreat for sale involves painting trim, staining walkways, cleaning windows, replacing fixtures, washing the siding, vacuuming the inside and clearing brush from the lot. When friends offer to help, I am ecstatic.
At the end of the first day it looks better. At least the cobwebs have been removed from both the inside and outside now. Some of the brush has been burned in the pit at the back and the garbage has been lugged out to the Nuisiance Grounds. Those who have read Margaret Lawrence will know that garbage dumps in Manitoba have been known as Nuisance Grounds for ages and even in these days of EcoCenter recycling, some still are.
I comment that the place would look a lot better if the trim were painted.
My friend Doug says confidently, “Well if you want it done, we could probably finish the outside trim in a day. At most, maybe a day and a half.”
I am quick to take him up on the offer. Our next day starts late because we don’t get to the cottage until 3 pm. Doug’s partner, Melody, arrives a couple of hours later to cook supper for us but even she is put to work with priming. Even so, we only manage to complete three windows and prime four more before dark.
It is true, that what we have managed to paint, looks great. But there are still about 20 more windows to complete, some of which haven’t been primed and four of them can only be reached on full extension of the two-story ladder.
This is not looking good. Even another full day isn’t going to make a dint in painting the trim. On top of which, neither of us wants to go up to the very top on the extension ladder. I don’t even like washing first floor windows from a sloping roof. We have planned to stay overnight at the cottage. Over dinner, we talk about everything except about painting the window trim. All three of us avoid the fact that this is a five day job at the rate we are going. None of us wants to acknowledge that this task is way beyond our skills. We busy ourselves reading sections of the Saturday Globe and Mail newspaper and making a foray to the local store for ice-cream. We slice fresh peaches over the ice cream and speculate on whether melted chocolate drizzled over the top would augment or detract from the flavour. We talk about everything and anything rather than think about the job in front of us.
I dream that night about houses built into hills with no windows at all and whole tribes of gypsies washing and polishing their caravans. It is pretty clear my unconscious would like an easy way out. I try to glean the gold from these dream messages. Should I become a cave dweller? Who are the gypsies in my life? Is the solution to this a motorized home? But although confusing, my dreams do not distress me. I feel optimistic about spending a golden fall day with friends close beside the river painting the trim on a favourite haunt.
This residence has housed whole weekend meetings of book clubs complete with kids. Paths have been created for cross country skis and snowshoes in the Crown Land behind. Friends have been married, fishing trips launched and Xmas celebrated. From 400 year old white oak trees, which sprang from the acorns that early voyageurs carried with them for food from southern Ontario as they explored western Canada, the site of this tiny community has been established as an important portage or river crossing site. White oak is indigenous in southern Ontario and Quebec where the voyageurs originated but not here at the edge of the boreal forest.
Today the house sits only 1000 meters from a float plane base which ferries hunters and fishers north to exclusive private lodges. Five kilometers east on the other side lies the site of a still-functioning winter road, created each year across the river as soon as the ice thickens. Winter roads are used to move supplies into northern communities that are inaccessible by regular roads.
My dreams and memories of the place have lulled me into going with the flow today and seeing how far we get. I am aware that there aren’t many facts that would support such an attitude. One part of me is fully aware that this is a dicey situation for someone who hopes to have the house on the market and head back to the coast within a couple of days.
We resume painting early the next morning. Neither Doug nor I want to actually put into words that this isn’t looking all that hopeful at this point. Or that the house might actually look even worse if only half of the window trim is painted. We focus ourselves with the ongoing business of painting the trim, window by window.
With the extension ladder poised beside one of the high front windows, Doug is about three-quarters of the way up, swaying slightly, not looking very comfortable. I decide I better hold the ladder at the bottom for him. It takes him a long time to prime the window trim. Just as he is finishing, my neighbour, Stan, drives by in his platinum grey sports car. He reverses and jumps out in his leather jacket. I have been away for more than a year, so we have some catching up to do. I introduce him to Doug who is clinging to the ladder, looking as if he is afraid to go up and afraid to go down.
Stan doesn’t ask obvious questions, but I feel embarrassed to be caught in such a disastrous situation and proceed to explain that we seem to have bitten off more than we can chew. I try to make light of such a blatant display of abysmal judgment.
He looks around, taking in the whole scene, and asks, “Do you need some help?”
“Oh,” I sputter, “Is it possible? Are you serious? Would you help us?” Stan is a professional painter and has helped out in the past when my nephew and I couldn’t figure out how to reach the ceiling over the stairs behind the fireplace. Cathedral ceilings pose some interesting challenges.
“Sure, he says, “I’ll just get on my paint clothes and be right back.”
“If you could do the high windows, that would be wonderful”, I say. “I would be eternally grateful.”
He laughs, “Sure, no problem.”
I go into the house to collect more cans and brushes. The house, almost devoid of furniture, has an open floor plan, loft, central granite fireplace and cantilevered walls in the right loft and back wall. It is an exotic design for here in Cottage Country, which I may have cause to regret, since I am told buyers want bedrooms and bathrooms. But I am holding on tight to the belief that I only need one buyer and it is going to be an artist, writer, or weaver with no kids and a love for open spaces and the outdoors.
As I enter, the entire house reverberates with harmonious chanting. It is as if a whole choir of angels is performing. Not just any choir but the Cambridge Boy Choir with Charlotte Church and Anthony Way as soloists. As Eckists, Melody and Doug often sing the HU, so I think at first Melody must be using a tape recorder or IPod recording of the HU. I glance into the loft and see her all alone singing. HU is the Eckankar Song to God that can be chanted as long as 20 minutes at a time. The quality of the HU chant is similar to that created by throat singing, when the deep chest voice resonates throughout the whole body.
At the Rainforest Musical Festival in Sarawak this past year, a group of Mongolian throat singers performed for us. Several of the men in the group were able to produce two different musical notes simultaneously. The audience, many of whom would never have heard throat singing before, was mesmerized. They received a standing ovation. The sound that they created was eerie and profound at the same time. And it was utterly bone tingling.
Melody, whose speaking voice is quiet, has seemingly produced a HU that resonates throughout the empty house. After listening in silence for five minutes, I stumble back outside, having forgotten why I went in originally. By this time Doug is on the ground priming the front windows. Stan has returned in his painting clothes and is setting up his ladder under the eaves. I stare at them in bewilderment until I recall that we are painting the house trim and Stan has come to assist.
“Melody must have brought you here by singing the HU,” I blurt out.
Stan and Doug continue painting.
I endeavour to explain. “Melody is chanting a HU all by herself in the loft. It resonates through the whole house. It’s magnificent, like the song of the angels. That must be what drew you here to help us,” I tell Stan, who is now high up the wall.
“It’s like the Sirens in Ulysses. Even if you aren’t aware that you hear them, you are inexorably drawn to them. Melody’s singing must have brought you to us.”
Doug sees that I am serious. At least he knows what the HU song is, so he goes to the door to listen.
He comes back, shaking his head in disbelief, saying, “It’s true. It’s amazing. What a magnificent sound.”
Stan doesn’t know what we are talking about. I inform him that the HU is a love song to God for people, like Doug and Melody, who follow the Eckankar religion. I tell him about Mongolian and Inuit throat singing. I explain how Buddhists monks chant OM to achieve a heightened awareness. I speculate on how the empty house appears to provide additional resonance as if it were an instrument itself.
While Stan is not as captivated by the experience as Doug and I, he appreciates that for us, his assistance with the painting has been miraculous, even God-sent. We view his showing up to paint as nothing less than divine intervention. He just laughs and keeps painting.
After finishing the primer on the five highest, least accessible windows, he heads home to deal with a skunk his mother-in-law has caught in a live trap. Later in the day he returns to apply the final paint coat. Again he works quickly and efficiently, looking secure and comfortable on the highest rungs of the ladder. Doug and I are just finishing up on the lower windows as Stan puts the final touches on the high ones. We thank him and the HU song that brought him to us, profusely. He smiles and refuses payment.
Later Doug, Melody and I discuss the day’s events.
“Do you think, because we were so desperate, that we were in an altered state to start with?” I wonder out loud.
Melody is not convinced. She was aware of some additional resonance while she was singing the HU, and thought it was likely due to the empty house. But to Doug and I, it has the attributes of an out of body experience. I equate it to the dance of the whirling dervishes which reportedly produces ecstasy. The altered state they achieve is created by a combination of heightened receptivity to start which is augmented by repetitive actions such as dancing, chanting and whirling.
“But we were passively listening,” protests Doug. “We weren’t doing anything to shift us to a heightened state.”
“There are different ways to become more receptive,” I protest. “We were stressed to the max and not saying anything about it at all. It was weird. We have been in high stress situations during our wilderness canoe trips. How do we react? Our usual behaviour is to holler at each other and curse the elements. We talk non-stop. Since when have we ever used the technique of blithely ignoring something as a coping mechanism?”
‘You’re right about that,” acknowledges Doug.
“This is like the types of situations William James mentions in Varieties of Religious Experience,” Melody adds, “But being William James, while he may have reported it, it isn’t likely he worked out why it was happening.”
“Whatever,” Doug responds in an awed voice, “It was a very special blessing that delivered Stan to us.”
“Amen to that,” the three of us agree in harmony.
Photos: mountain ash in fall, Bear paw snowshoes, Ojibway/Cree snowshoes, most inaccessible windows, Nuisance grounds sign and sunset as we leave.