Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 February 2017
Sometimes inspiration flows like sap through a maple tree.
Sometimes it is as slow-moving as molasses in January.
Those who read this blog (both of them!) or follow me on Facebook (the rest of their families!) are aware that I work…a lot.
Between working as an English teacher during the work week and at Starbucks on weekends, I don´t seem to have an abundance of leisure time.
And what leisure time is not required by my spouse´s instructions is not always used as productively as it should be, for there is much in this modern world to distract even the most resolute of urban animals.
And though I feel most alive when writing my thoughts and feelings, peppered with facts obtained through reading and research, writing – an exercise of the mind´s creative muscles – does feel like work sometimes, so my impulses don´t always cause me to leap behind the keyboard and create words that drip like honey from the lips of the gods.
Yesterday was my first day off – not counting sick days when I truly was ill with that most fatal of ailments, the man cold – in weeks, when I had no immediate urgent obligations to spouse or employers.
A much-beloved private student of mine works at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and finally after months of discussion, I took advantage of her offer to explore the museum for free.
I thought that getting out of Casa Kerr – our humble wee apartment a short stroll away from the Lake of Constance – would aid me psychologically and inspire me creatively.
For though there are a number of ideas I am working on, words have been trickling slowly these past few weeks.
Part of the problem has been the immediacy of the moment…
It is one thing to write about problems in faraway places like Turkey or Belgium or speak of times past remembered or researched, but to capture the electricity of the moment, fresh and still sparking, this is what has been missing from both my spirit as well as my writing.
I later visited the FIFA Museum and though I see future ideas from this visit there was still lacking the sense of urgency to verbalise what I witnessed there.
Serendipitiously I stumbled across a dozen books I had neither seen nor read before in three different bookshops, but again ideas from them must be sifted before grains of inspiration can be found lying at the bottom of the goldpan of the mind.
I returned home, began watching To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Bronte Sisters and, like many typical husbands unsupervised by their spouses, I fell asleep on the couch.
I was awakened by a phone call from Canada.
My childhood was rather…unusual.
I have four brothers (Christopher, Thomas, Kenneth and a stepbrother Stephen) and three sisters (Valerie, Cythnia and a foster sister Victoria).
Having met or learned of my brothers and my biological sisters only when I was in my mid-twenties and finding that decades apart does not a family create, the only true sibling I have any significant contact with is my foster sister Victoria.
It was she who phoned me last night / this morning.
There are many similarities between Vicki and myself.
We both come from large families yet were raised as isolated foster children by the same Irish Canadian woman and French Canadian home owner.
We were taken from our biological families because they were unable to properly take care of us themselves.
In a revolving door type scenario, Vicki, 14 years my senior, moved out to pursue her post-secondary education when I moved in.
For a time Vicki was a French teacher while I remain an English teacher.
There is a significant age difference between ourselves and our spouses.
Vicki remains quite spiritual in her beliefs and I can be occasionally philosophical in my expression.
Vicki feels too much.
I have often been accused of thinking too much.
We both worry too much.
We both desperately need to learn and practice the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi´s Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
And, sadly, though we both are driven by the creative impulse, we are both hampered by crippling bouts of self-doubt and discouragement.
She confessed to me last night that she had written two books and having been unsuccessful at getting them published, she simply tossed all of her work into the rubbish bin.
I love my sister and I know her mind and I am convinced that she, like me, need not worry whether her words are good enough to share with others but instead she should keep writing and keep learning how to market her writing.
Instead of seeing shadows of a winter endless in prospect and prophetically cold and unwelcoming, Vicki needs to believe that success will eventually spring her way and that the only handicaps preventing her from reaching that spring are those she has created herself.
Which leads me to the subject of Groundhog Day…
Last year I wrote a blog post called Omens and portents from a rodent.
I spoke of the tradition of Groundhog Day celebrated across many locations in Canada and the United States, where, according to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring weather will arrive six weeks early before the spring equinox; if it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow and retreats back into its den to resume its hibernation then winter weather will persist for six more weeks.
I wrote of the largest Groundhog Day celebration that is held every February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 have gathered to celebrate the “holiday” since 1886.
I told of other groundhogs less famed than Punxsutawney Phil, like Wiarton Willie (an albino groundhog)(Wiarton, Ontario), Balzac Billy (Alberta), Fred la Marmotte (Val d’Espoir, Quebec), Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg), Oil Springs Ollie (Ontario), Winnipeg Willow (Manitoba), Dundas Donna (Ontario)…and these are just the Canadian celebrations…
In the US, besides Punxsutawney, Groundhog Days are celebrated in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut, New York and many other places across the US…and not always with a groundhog.
Red Rock Canyon in Nevada has Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.
And Claude the Cajun Crawfish annually predicts the weather one day earlier in Shreveport, Louisiana.
And in faroff Srentenje, Serbia on 15 February (2 February according to the local religious Julian calendar), it is believed that if a bear awakens from his winter slumber and meets his shadow in his sleepy and confused state, the bear will get scared and go back to sleep for an additional 40 days, thus prolonging winter.
So, if it is sunny on Sretenje on 15 February, winter ain´t over yet in Serbia.
And it is this idea of a sleepy and confused state, this viewing of shadows of portents and omens to come, that first made me think of waxing political about how Donald Trump´s hair resembles a dead groundhog and how he casts shadows of doubt upon the future…
Then Vicki´s phone call and my encouragement of her literary efforts made me think of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.
Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again and again.
After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, Connors begins to re-examine his life and priorities.
Estimates regarding how long Connors remains trapped in the time loop, in real time, vary widely.
During the filming of Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis, a Buddhist, observed that according to Buddhist doctrine, it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to its next level.
Therefore, in a spiritual sense, the entire arc of Groundhog Day spans 10,000 years.
Groundhog Day is often considered to be an allegory of self-improvement, emphasizing that happiness comes from placing the needs of others above one’s own selfish desires.
For some Buddhists, the film’s themes of selflessness and rebirth are reflections of the Buddha’s own spiritual messages.
Some Jews and Christians see Connors’ time loop as a representation of Purgatory, from which Connors is released once he has shed his own selfishness and commits himself to acts of love.
Above: Gustave Doré’s image of a non-fiery Purgatory illustration for Dante Alleghieri’s Purgatorio
Theologian Michael Pholey has suggested that the film could be seen as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.
Above: Title page of first edition of John Bunyan´s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
Others see Groundhog Day as an affirmation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s directive to imagine life – metaphorically and literally – as an endless repetition of events.
Above: Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)
The phrase “Groundhog Day”, as a result of the film, has entered into common usage as a reference to an unpleasant situation that continually repeats, as in today is SSDD – same stuff, different day.
Fourteen years after the movie´s release, “Groundhog Day” was noted as common US military slang for any day of a tour of duty in Iraq.
Major Roger Aeschliman in his Iraq War memoir Victory Denied describes guarding assorted visiting dignitaries as his “Groundhog Day”:
“The dignitaries change, but everything else remains the same.
The same airplanes drop them off at the same places.
The same helicopters take us to the same meetings with the same presenters covering the same topics using the same slides.
We visit the same troops at the same mess halls and send them away from the same airport pads to find our way home late at night.
Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until we are redeemed and allowed to go home.”
And this is my take on Groundhog Day, both the film and the event…
Yes, there is fear that success in our endeavours is a long long way away and that it will take 10,000 years, or at least a lifetime, for us to achieve our goals, so it is almost instinctive to return back to our caves/our burrows/our warrens and ignore the unpleasant weather and let our dreams remain dormant.
But not venturing outside our comfort zones, we avoid dangerous difficulties that may lie ahead.
But just as Phil Connors had to continually relive Groundhog Day until he finally did the day right securing his release, so must we continue to strive, despite failure after failure, until we finally learn how to succeed.
So, my sister, if you are reading these words, keep on keeping on.
Fail, learn why, fail again and again, until finally you find the formula to see your thoughts and ideas spring into the hands and minds of others for their enjoyment and enlightenment.
Ignore the shadows of doubt.
Spring will come.