Where shall I begin, I ask my Soul. “Just dive in – there is no beginning and there will be no end”
Sometimes I find myself thinking and fearing. It happens as one gets older and tries to come to terms with mortality. Is this it? Is this all there is or can there be more? The angst of building a life is behind me, I have fought corporate wars trying to get myself noticed; more often I got passed over, sometimes side-lined and even at times, fired. But that is almost behind me now, there is no business angst left in me. There may be years of work ahead but they are not anxious years, they are productive years.
I built a family and truthfully of all my earthly achievements that has to be the most important to me. My life would have little or no meaning were it not for the people who sat at my table every evening and shared with me. More than food – we shared victories and sorrow. It was here that report cards and homework blended with a day at the office and bemoaned the cost of groceries. This was a daily alter where we laughed till we cried and cried till we laughed. It is a silent place now with a singular candle. There is still good conversation and good wine but the hustle and bustle is replaced with tenderer and quieter voices.
We go through different stages in our lives and the artist Thomas Cole captures them well in his series of paintings depicting a man’s voyage through life. I reflect on them as the dark river closes in on me and I sail on into the placid gloom. In the paintings a voyager sets sail in a boat down a river. The landscape expresses the stages of a man’s life as he sails on through time guided, ever guided by an angel.
In the first painting, Childhood, an infant is safely ensconced in a boat. The landscape is lush; everything is calm and basking in warm sunshine, reflecting the innocence and joy of childhood. The boat glides out of a dark, craggy cave which Cole himself described as “emblematic of our earthly origin, and the mysterious Past.” The river is smooth and narrow, symbolizing the sheltered experience of childhood. The figurehead on the prow holds an hourglass.
The second painting, Youth, shows the same rich, green landscape, but here the view widens as does the voyager’s experience. Now the youth grabs the tiller firmly as the angel watches and waves from the shore, allowing him to take control. The boy’s enthusiasm and energy is evident in his forward-thrusting pose and billowing clothes. In the distance a ghostly castle hovers in the sky. White and shimmering, it is a beacon that represents the ambitions and dreams of Man.
To the youth, the calm river seems to lead straight to the castle, but at the far right of the painting one can just glimpse the river as it becomes rough, choppy, and full of rocks. Cole comments on the landscape and the youth’s ambitions: “The scenery of the picture–its clear stream, its lofty trees, its towering mountains, its unbounded distance, and transparent atmosphere. The romantic beauty of youthful imaginings, when the mind elevates the Mean and Common into the Magnificent, before experience teaches what is the Real.
Manhood, and the youth has grown into an adult facing the trials of life. The boat is damaged and the tiller is gone. The river has become a terrible rush of white water with menacing rocks, dangerous whirlpools, and surging currents. The warm sunlight of youth has been clouded over with dark and stormy skies and torrential rains. The trees have become wind-beaten, gnarled, leafless trunks. The fresh grass is gone, replaced by hard and unforgiving rock. The man no longer displays confidence or even control. The angel appears high in the sky, still watching over the man, who does not see the angel. Man must rely on his faith that the angel is there to help him.
Within the painting Manhood there is a strong emphasis on the diagonal: in the rocks which jut up, steep and forbidding, and the river which sweeps downward, threatening to carry anything in or on it over the precipitous drop to the twisting and foaming rapids in the mid-ground. The extreme narrowness of the passage between the two rock face heightens the tension as the viewer tries to determine whether or not a small craft could navigate these tumultuous waters. In addition, evil spirits stare down from the dark clouds above. It is only in the distant background that the viewer captures a glimpse of the horizon. This line, where the distant ocean meets the sunset coloured sky, is the only horizontal line in the painting. Amidst the chaos and confusion of the wild scene in the foreground, one catches a glimpse of possible serenity.
And finally the fourth painting, Old Age, is an image of death. The man has grown old; he has survived the trials of life. The waters have calmed; the river flows into the waters of eternity. The figurehead and hourglass are missing from the battered boat; the withered old voyager has reached the end of earthly time. In the distance, angels are descending from heaven, while the guardian angel hovers close, gesturing toward the others. The man is once again joyous with the knowledge that faith has sustained him through life. The landscape is practically gone, just a few rough rocks represent the edge of the earthly world, and dark water stretches onward. Cole describes the scene: “The chains of corporeal existence are falling away; and already the mind has glimpses of Immortal Life.”
Ah yes, where to from here? My Soul tells me to continue, fearlessly. The river runs into the sea. There are new adventures waiting.