The other day, I was speaking with Lorne Tulk, who happened to mention a winter trip north that he took by train, to Moosonee, Ontario, back in the mid to late 1970’s. Located approximately nineteen kilometres (twelve miles) south of James Bay, Moosonee is considered to be “the Gateway to the Arctic” and, as such, it cannot be accessed by road. One must travel either by train or by plane. This got me to thinking about the Arctic of our minds and the gateways we have for accessing the remote regions of our thoughts.
Whenever I travel north, by car, from Toronto to my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, I am struck by how quickly the scenery changes. Roads narrow, rolling hills turn to rock and trees become thicker, more narrow and pointed. Populations diminish, speed limits decrease, temperatures drop, radio reception gets patchy and we become more aware of our basic essentials than when we left the big city. I suspect that, the further one goes north, the more these aspects intensify.
How, then, might one traverse the gateway to the Arctic of our thoughts and ideas? Probably some solitude will be involved. We can deliberately tune our radio to the static in between stations, we can close our eyes, light a fire in the fireplace, put on a candle and engage the senses.
We all have memories of having taken an afternoon or an evening, to go through boxes of things from the past. We find old letters, journals, diaries, scrapbooks, yearbooks, photo albums, faded newspaper clippings of prizes won, marriages, births and deaths. We find baby clothes, locks of hair, old books and toys, family mementos passed down over time, cassette tapes, records, slides and home movies, things that got pushed to the back of the drawer and forgotten about. One thing reminds us of another, thus triggering the memory of yet a different object, place or person, perhaps a lonely, misunderstood classmate from long ago, or an old, abandoned house that we used to cautiously pass by each day. With these things, the voyage to the Arctic of our minds – those remote regions that cannot be accessed by road and that require special transportation – takes us on a journey of self-reflection, of close observation and evaluation.
“Unpacking” the Arctic of one’s mind, is not generally something one does in a group, or in a noisy setting. It is a quiet, solitary activity and one which can help to shed light on our actions and those of others. It can help us to reconnect with our moral compass, to become more compassionate beings than before we began the journey.
Glenn Gould’s love of solitude is nothing new and, while he was famous for having remarked that it is “the prerequisite for ecstatic experiences,” at the end of the day, I think, like many of us, Glenn just plain enjoyed his own company and, as Lorne has told me, “Glenn was alone, but never lonely.”
Perhaps, then, the occasional task of travelling the gateway to the Arctic of our minds can not only help us to care deeply for others (humans and animals, too) but also to appreciate the silence from which musical thought emerges. As the French writer, Henri Bosco once said, “There is nothing like silence to suggest a sense of unlimited space.” If that is true, then, as Archibald MacLeish said, “the ear is already half poet.”
With the silence and solitude traversed during one’s journey to the Arctic regions of the mind, where populations thin and landscapes grow rugged, we likely can make headway in seeing things more clearly than before our journey began.
“I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but let me sit on and on, silent, alone.” – British actress, Audrey Hepburn (1929-93).
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – French mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623-62).
(Pictured at top: The Polar Bear Express at Moosonee station, northern Ontario. Wikipedia)