Dante with notes Canto 29 Paradise
Awake from a dream of Ottawa, the place where I first began to discover my own life and my own strength.
Writing this adaptation has been a journey by itself with each Canto echoing, reverberating, becoming manifest in my daily life.
I dream now of places complete, whole city blocks of memory instead of rooms connected by staircases in houses that are either falling down or hopelessly tangled in labyrinthine corridors, connected by hallways with peeling paint and collapsing ceilings just down the street from a stormy ocean.
I dream of places where I live with my husband. And in those places, others make their way. They come and go from our lives and we are stable, we are making a place that is ours and is solid.
My dreams were never this way before.
For Dante, the story ends at the top of a mountain at sunrise on Easter morning. For that reason, I chose to round back to the top of Christmas Hill, the place where I would go to walk every morning before dawn when I was staying with my mother and trying to find a job, a place, a life for myself with a sense of home and permanence in Canada.
I looked in Victoria because that is where my family landed before they came apart. It is where my parents divorced and I finished high school. Without Steven, it was as good a place as any.
At the time, I thought I was looking for a place. As I discovered, when I stopped looking, what I really needed was one person to care about me in a calm, clear way, a companion, a true love a safe port in a stormy world. That was the person I married.
The truth of our lives is often elusive. Just as more quotidian truths are elusive. We can spend hours turning over every sofa cushion, emptying every desk drawer, looking for the house keys, only to find they are sitting on the counter beside the back door, or next to your purse on your desk.
It happens every day.
And this story happens every day too. We search for our lives, we long for the good parts to begin and as long as we are trying, so very hard to push the frozen river, it does not flow.
When you proclaim the false lover your true love, you leave no room for real love. When you go out and chase a life, life cannot find you.
I remember, quite clearly, the day I decided to commit to my life no matter what it might be bringing me. I stood on my balcony on Bayswater Avenue, in Ottawa and looked at the view of the western edge of the city. Little Italy and Chinatown lay behind me, I was in a part of town that for me was rougher and uglier than I would have liked but it still had its own beauty and I had a clear view of the sunset every day.
I thought the world would be very grey without the excitement of an affair or the prospect of travel and adventure, but I decided the affair I had would never bring me real happiness and worse, would threaten any security I tried to build, so I let it go and embraced the idea of greyness.
I decided to find a casual companion whose company I could enjoy as I went on through my own, grey life. I resigned myself to a plodding pace. No excitement.
Within days, I met my husband.
Of course, I didn’t know he was my husband at first but it quickly became apparent that this was the man I had always hoped for, dreamed of, held in my heart of hearts. He was even the man I imagined as a romantic teenager, a tall, slender, dark haired man, with eyes as green as a stormy ocean and as clear as a running river.
An artist and a gentle man, an accomplished man with a deep sense of humility and a deeper love for me. A quiet love, a fervent and unshakable love. It’s astonishing. Finishing this, ten years later, it is still astonishing.
I married a man who would walk without tears or fanfare, through the underworld with me and hold my hand. We’ve been through major health crises, the losses incurred during the pandemic, political upheaval, financial insecurity, all of it. I married a man who is clear, who is purposeful, who is courageous, level and clear sighted. He has done the work, he is unfettered by internal conflict.
I married my husband, my own true love, the love Dante never found — or never immortalized. And when I did, I knew I was ready to finish this book.
Dante died within hours of finishing his version, I plan to live for decades with mine.
But our lives are never done. They go on reverberating through time and space and stories. Published or told from one family member to another, we all make our epic journeys and they are all a mythology worth learning.
So this is my version of the 29th Canto of Paradise. From here, Dante is all praise and glory, so here is really where the story begins to end. I’ve interspersed some explanatory notes in italics.
My Guide, the first guide was with me once again.
We made it to the hilltop by sunrise. Only a thin band of cloud hovered over the horizon. By noon the sun would be clear of it maybe. By the standards of the place, it would be a lovely day.
This is a reference to the view from the top of Christmas Hill in Victoria, it is typical of a Victorian winter sunrise where the cloud cover swallows the visible sun for at least the early morning hours and often for the day. If I did not get out of bed by 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. and go “up the mountain” I would not see the sun for the day. I decided, in an effort to prevent seasonal affective disorder from lack of daylight, I would make that trip every day.
The way I got myself out of bed and onto the chilly, dark trail was this: I would wake up and ask myself; “what kind of person do you want to be? the kind who rolls over and goes back to sleep or the kind who gets up and goes up the mountain?”
When you put it that way, there really is only one answer.
The last two stars in the sky, twinkled and then vanished. We watched the sky turn violet and then a radiant blue. My Guide beamed, lovelier than she had been before.
“I think,” she said, “you might see now that God, if you would call it that, is the force of love that makes life possible in the world.”
I wasn’t sure but she went on. “So petulant and frozen into our own little lives are all of us that we fail to remember the inner drive to love, if we allow it, is stronger than any ambition or attachment. We move into love naturally, as creation does. Each one of us a small reflection and a new way to generate that energy in the universe, love begets love and we are from that impulse.”
This is where Beatrice introduces Dante to the idea of his own life being sacred.
You entered this path in sorrow. Regretting the loss of someone you could not have but I tell you, you have nothing and at the same time, you have him.
You loved as love could be, it was smaller and shorter than you imagined and then, unexpectedly, it was greater and larger, it will fill your whole life now but even then, small and false, it was still freely given, still love. There is no regret for that.”
Even now, trying to impart this idea, I do wrestle with the idea that all love is worthy love. I think it is true that a there is no such thing as false love, only false lovers.
Goethe expressed the idea that we are changed by what we love even as what we love remains unchanged by our act of loving it. I have certainly seen this to be true.
My affair was misguided, the love was as false as it could be and the figure of the beloved in this book is also. All that angst and all that conflict is bubbling within the heart of a false love, true love is joyful, it is peaceful, it does not thrive on turmoil.
Dante never really understood this. He idealized Beatrice at a great cost to his own life. But I think his readers got it for him.
All love is sacred, all love, freely and truly given in trust to another person, an animal, a scene or an idea, is true love. Just as hope is real and enduring, so is the act of love. I hope you can understand that paradox and accept yourself for the times when you have loved unwisely.
I learned a great deal from my false love and was changed by it forever. The life I have now, the true love, the marriage, the peace, the joy — none of that would have come to me had I been content to live without the pursuit of that false love.
So while it is fruitless to push the river, it is, in a sense, the whole point of life. Your path goes through the rocky places as well as the smooth. Sometimes you must forge ahead when you are doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and that’s a kind of hell but the only way out is through.
Those cliches are all true, deeply true, they are our mythology as human beings. We say them to each other daily, they are the wisdom we have left to pass on. We no longer gather round a fire to tell the stories of the great ones, we need to live those stories, in microcosm in our own lives. And we do it with the blessing and support of all of those we encounter, even when we don’t know it, even when they deny it.
I searched my heart for a reminder of that longing. I thought of him alone so far away and longing, which he loves to do and I knew it was no longer for me. I had loved as a gift and now could withdraw as the giver.
We did not touch and nothing generated from us. It was the passage of a perfect moment we shared, two people passing on the stairs and admiring the beauty of one perfect moment, like a work of art.
“Let us talk about what you call God” said my Guide, “I know you came here thinking you could have some answers that way. Your predecessor made his way through these realms for the same reason, thinking and reasoning in the context of his day. He was a Catholic man and for all that, still a thinker. So he found his faith embedded here and exemplified. This was his Paradise and now it is yours.”
“What have you learned?”
“God was not asleep in me despite my disbelief.” I said
She continued, “Creation lived before you and will go on without you as you are today. Everything changes and everything stays the same. Our problem, as a species, is not whether God exists but rather, it is dealing with our own importance or the lack of it.”
“You are God’s only daughter, or at least it is meant to feel as though you are. You live in the world in this body and see creation through your eyes. You can’t help it. That’s the nature of the physical world. The universe does revolve around you — that’s the only way you can move through it. It revolves around each one of us. That is the only way anyone can begin to perceive it. Embrace that and move on.”
“You are nothing to the universe, no more than a speck of dust or a blade of grass or a crumb of asphalt. The world was born before you and will live on after you. That is true for the world and you can use your mind to perceive that as best you can too.”
This is my central belief in life. We are all everything, and simultaneously, we are all nothing.
If we can embrace that paradox, we will treat each other as though we are the most and least important people in the world. That is always true. We will be more careful with each other and less likely to cling to what we perceive as being special or sacred, placing it above the sacredness of everything else. There is no hierarchy. The idea of hierarchy is a false idea but it keeps us trying to be better and so it is a useful one.
You are God’s most cherished offspring and so am I and so is the ant you stepped on when you got out of your car yesterday without even noticing.
There is no way you can ever truly honor another being in the way God honors them. You will never be wise enough to pay homage to creation in the way it deserves. But then again, nobody will ever fully appreciate the holy light that shines from you either. You, the tree, the ant, the car — all sacred, all irreplaceable and all just one of multitudes.
It’s like the universe with billions of inhabitable earths in it — they are all real and all the most important world. They are all just a part of a much larger creation.
That, I believe, is the mystery of life.
“If you can hold these two thoughts in your heart, that will put you on the path to understanding life.”
“You’ll never understand it, not really, no being does, but you will be able to think about it, you won’t be afraid and what is the one message the angels delivered to man, over and over again? “Be Not Afraid.”
“For the universe revolves around you, you are loved and cared for, always, even when you are betrayed, even when you are alone.”
“It revolves around me too, and around the drunk outside the pub and the child in kindergarten and the politician on the platform, the universe revolves around all of us and all those many universes, revolving as they do and rubbing up against each other? That is what makes life.”
“Do you think life cares for what you do? No. It is all about how we bump against other worlds, about the times when we meet and interact, our friction — our delight, the music we make when we come together. That’s what matters.”
“People grasp this idea in many ways and I tell you this; hear me now, every single one of them is true.”
“How will I know” I asked, “if I’m getting it right?” I’ve fooled myself so many times?”
“You know.” She answered, “You always do.”
“When you find yourself waiting for someone else to act, when you know you are wasting your time (your time is your life) but hope you are not. When you try so hard to be patient that you forget to be active — that is how you know. Creation is an active principle, those who wait are dead. The living do.”
So clearly had she summed him up, there was no room for further doubt but as though she heard my thoughts she said, “he is not your villain, he was never your hero and he’s no more villain than hero, lover or companion, he was a boy in a man’s body perhaps but even that is unkind. He was and is a man living in his own universe which is nothing like your own.”
“He chose to be dead with you. He was still, inactive, that is true, as Beatrice was to Dante. And you might have chosen to memorialize and die. That is an action in itself. But you chose to carry on with life as a dance and so you are here and also there, because the future has moved into you already, I see that. You are not still, even though you wanted to be.”
“Don’t make him any of it. He was gone before you arrived, your affection was for you.
People are too swift to claim wisdom as their own. They puff up their chests with their philosophies and wait for others to tell them how wise and sane and free they are. I tell you, ignore that. Live as one in motion and understand me, everything you believe will change and be challenged. That’s how it was always meant to be.
Preachers and teachers will pound at the lectern and declare themselves the arbiters of truth. Many will listen and try to live their lives this way, without ever moving or speaking, not changing only by being faithful to the word, and yet, I tell you again, the word is not faithful, it changes every day. Rather be watchful, listen, be mindful, see and live where you are. That is a blessing you are freely given.
So many feed on “if” and “what” if as though it made any difference at all. Feed on now and here, love and conversation — make those things central to your life if you would be free.
As for the others? They have made a feast of wind. They will never be filled.
And my dear, since the act of love grows from the act of recognition, seek to recognize the pearl inside the person beside you.
See them, be with them as you are, give them your eyes, your ears, your heart and that will make you whole, that will make you wise. Learn to love.
And then consider how lofty, how eloquent and glorious is a love that multiples as it is divided — the love of the earth, of the sky, of each other only makes room for more and grows by leaps and bounds the more we learn to use it.”
I sighed, knowing I could not stay frozen and waiting, not anymore.
“Be happy.” She said at last, “happiness in creation is wisdom, it is gratitude and it is grace. Only be happy, as you are free to be.”