Sunday, November 30, 2014

Keeping Up with the Jones (Exhibition)

No one was in peak condition or excitement, but with the frenzy of December so imminent, we decided to spend Saturday morning at the Telus World of Science enjoying the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit.

Put on by the same folks who produced the Star Wars Identities exhibit about a year ago, the Indy tour takes a similar edutainment focus, mixing props, costumes and storyboards from the four movies along with a tremendous assortment of exhibits from the renowned Penn Museum.

Each visitor is given a tablet and headphones, but in addition to serving as a selectable audio guide (by entering each exhibit's three digit number), some exhibits also have a secondary set of visuals that play on the tablet, comparing the mythology of the movies with real history and archaeology.  For instance, discovering a bit more about the historical Nurhachi, founding father of the Chin dynasty, as well as the funerary rites of ancient China, gives the bombastic opening scene of Temple of Doom even more heft.

video

Likewise, keying in the entry for the headpiece to the Staff of Ra explains how appropriate it is that this Egyptian sun deity is the key element to finding the Well of Souls in Raiders.


Getting insights into the real world of archaeology is a real treat too; I had no idea that Mayan 'toothache' glyphs only became translatable in the last twenty years, and that we now know how to pronounce words not heard in over a millennium.

Likewise, I remember being fascinated by the Nazca lines as a child, and their appearance in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is less interesting to me than the possibility that they were maps linked to temples and water sources in an arid land.

Real historical and anthropological artifacts abound, from Nazca pottery to drinking vessels and jewelry from the Mesopotamian city of Ur, possible birthplace of the biblical Abraham.


You are even permitted to photograph these ancient treasures; they only ask that you not use your flash.  Our new point-and-shoot did a decent job in most cases, which was good, since there was no program cataloging the exhibits like there was at the Star Wars event.

Learning about recent excavations, like the necropolis of Sitio Conte in Panama, was just as fascinating, and a chance to see the craftsmanship of these 'primitive' societies is a rare privilege. Look at the level of detail in this golden bat, not much more than an inch across:

From the same site, the creatures depicted in this shining bracers are only described as having fangs and claws; they are not named.  Are they dragons?  Shedu?  Quetzalcouatl?  None can say.  The audio does explain, though, how these arm guards could also be used to dazzle an opponent with reflected sunlight.

Being a movie buff, however, meant I was just as enthralled to see much newer artifacts, like a sarcophagus from the Well of Souls:


The Grail Shield from The Last Crusade, and the emblems of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword:

And I would be very surprised if there will ever be a more iconic costume made of commonly available clothing than that hat, jacket, and Sam Browne belt, Take away the whip, and you still know exactly who you are dealing with!


For younger visitors, the tablet provides an excellent diversion.  Touching it to any of the ten pillars scattered throughout the exhibition will invite the holder to solve a puzzle of some kind, many of which involve placing the tablet in a specific place.  Here, Glory uses her tablet to help decipher some cuneiform script:

Each puzzle solved rewards the participant with one of nine shards needed to complete an artifact chosen at the start of the quest.  Collecting all the shards lets you see your prize displayed, along with the name you've chosen, at the end of the exhibit.
So, obviously, when I say younger, I am not necessarily talking about physical age or anything like that.  And I didn't need too much help with the puzzles.

Still, as interesting as the pottery is, I wouldn't have minded pursuing something from the movies; perhaps the Cross of Coronado, or one of the Sankara stones...

Yeah, maybe not that one though...

Fans of the movies, or of history, archaeology, anthropology, languages, archaeometry, or culture should take advantage of this great exhibit, which is in Edmonton until April.  Some things to bear in mind if you do decide to check it out:


  • Make sure you have seen all the movies before coming; spoilers abound.  We just finished watching them with the girls in November, and re-watching them (yes, even Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) certainly whet our appetites and primed our memories.
  • The very young may find some of the funereal themes a little disturbing, to say nothing of movie excerpts depicting melting faces and the like.  If you are too young for the movies, you might be too young for the exhibit, but knowing parents can also keep an eye on what videos are being shown on the tablets.
  • Tablet-guided interactive exhibits like this are not cheap; admission for a family of four will cost over $100.  However, if you have an AMA membership, you can get 10% off.  You can buy tickets online, but there doesn't seem to be nearly as much demand as there was for Star Wars: Identities, so you can avoid the 'convenience fee' by getting them at the box office.
  • We spent two hours in the exhibit, and probably could have spent more, so be prepared, and wear comfortable shoes; they could probably use some more benches.
  • We were told by the guide that scanning the pillars with our tablets would produce a tone; she didn't mention that there are actually two tones, a low one that means 'not yet', and a chime that means 'got it!'.  Scanning the tablet doesn't work nearly as well as actual contact, and slow, patient movements will be rewarded.
  • It is a timed exhibit, but going early on a weekend morning means you probably won't have too much of a crowd to contend with.  We were there at 10:00 Saturday and never felt rushed or crowded.
  • There is a special price and materials available for school field trips; I wonder if Sunday school would count?  I certainly wouldn't mind going back!


Friday, November 28, 2014

Dancing in the Trees


We get so many more opportunities to watch and share Fenya's vocal performances compared to Glory's Irish dancing, so I was extremely grateful that all three of us could be at the Festival of Trees this afternoon to see her dancing with Scoil Rince Mahoney.

Her teacher, Laurie, opened her own studio last summer, and not sharing the space with so many other groups means she can train more dancers, schedule extra rehearsals for events such as this, and has more students than at any point I can remember, and Glory has been dancing with her since she was 5 years old.

I prefer the hard shoe routines, but the Gaelic lilt of the soft shoe routines, the skipping, the joined hands; they have a resonance that speaks to somewhere deep in my soul.

More affecting even than that are the realizations, sometimes surprising, sometimes expected, that my littlest girl is on the cusp of becoming a young lady. Watching her on stage in her little black dress, with the poise and composure of long hours of practice, it is possible to look past the child she is now to see the tremendous young woman she is destined to become.

Rather than grieve for innocence lost though, it's far better to revel in a childhood full of fond memories, both of performances given, and experiences shared with family.  After their set, we spent about an hour visiting the Festival's displays, seeing a Bag End made of gingerbread,


...a tubular Christmas tree...


...a small tree bade of repurposed books...

...an intriguing framing idea within a tree...


...a brilliantly embossed cake...


... and most of our favourite Muppets, rendered in gingerbread.


Lots to see at the Festival of Trees, but none of the decorations nor treats were even close to being my favourite thing!


UPDATED Dec 1st:  Apparently the embedded videos are not showing up on some platforms (including my own iPad!), so here are links to the two videos, one for the soft shoe and one for the hard.


I Just Can't Quit You, Star Wars

I keep telling myself: I am not going to get excited about another Star Wars movie.

I saw Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) for the first time with my family when I was 9, and that simple act had a profound effect on my childhood and subsequent life.  Watching that movie pushed a lot of switches in my head into the 'ON' position; you can trace a lot of my current interests right back to that movie: history, weapons, religion, mythology, martial arts, air combat and so on.  In fact, reading about how Star Wars was made is one of the things that made me a film buff in the first place.

The action figures and toys held no appeal for me, but I did spend my own money on the double LP soundtrack, and in reading the liner notes I learned how John Williams had patterned the score in a leitmotif, similar to Wagner.  I didn't know who that was at this point, but the reference made me want to find out.

I read and re-read the novelization, and the comic adaptation, enjoying Luke's banter with his friend Biggs Darklighter, but even more importantly, the idea of this huge universe that had never heard of Earth, and was full of people and ideas and cultures and languages (6 million of them!) and its own history (what the heck is a clone war?).  The sequels scratched those itches, but did nothing to abate my curiosity about this larger world.

The sequels I encountered in 7th and 11th grade did nothing to dissuade me, but the prequels did.  I didn't mind the first one, especially as a children's movie, but the I found the second so disagreeable that I only saw Episode III just last year.  And at that point, despite having spent 5th grade wondering if anyone could be a Jedi Knight AND a starfighter pilot, or could only Luke Skywalker do it, Star Wars became something I used to be into.

Even when I heard J.J. Abrams was making a new trilogy, following the events Return of the Jedi, I was able to maintain an aloof disposition.  After all, Star Trek Into Darkness was no great shakes, was it?  I was glad to see a sliver more diversity in the casting, and was gratified to see John Boyega from Attack the Block in a prominent role, but the return of the original cast actually left me cold, preferring to remember the Hero, the Princess and the Rogue as they were three decades ago.

I put the odds of my seeing the film in the theatre at no more than fifty/fifty.


And then I made the mistake of watching the trailer.


Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in...

Is it the sweeping vistas, or the glittering starfields? The updated, yet ominously familiar stormtrooper helmets? Possibly.  But if it is anything, it is probably the one-two punch of seeing my all time favourite space dogfighter, the Incom T-65 X-Wing Space Superiority Fighter, blasting across a body of water so low that it raises a rooster tail in its wake, accompanied to that majestic John Williams score, still unequalled in the arena of heroic film.

I'm not saying it's going to be great, or even good, for that matter.  But with this single teaser, Abrams has convinced me to gamble the price of a movie ticket and rediscover the adventure of long ago and far away.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Serenity Gulch: Denizens Arrive, and a Street Takes Shape

The other day the UPS man dropped off a weighty little parcel. It was about the size of a shoebox, or perhaps a moccasin box, being a bit wider and shallower, but at 2.4 kg, quite a bit heavier.

The dense package turned out to be my shipment from Wargames Foundry in Nottingham, purveyors of fine historical miniatures. In an interesting bit of recycling, my shipment of figures came in the same box that they receive their casting alloy in.

Thankfully, my parcel of metal was not an ingot of lead-tin mixture, but an assortment of western characters, 96 in total.

Now comes the distribution of the figures amongst next year's Gaming & Guinness attendees, which will probably take a little while to sort out. In the meantime, it's back to Serenity Gulch. The bases for the buildings are all cut, so I sanded the edges down and started gluing down the boardwalks. A piece of scrap wood from a fake crate that once held a gift set of jars provided yet another boardwalk, once I scored it a few times with my trusty X-Acto knife.

I think I will have to glue the buildings down next, then add some sand for texture, and finally throw some spray primer onto the whole affair; it's actually quite sub-optimal since the buildings are already primed, but I can't really add the sand without the buildings, and gluing the buildings down before priming makes to very difficult to get under any overhangs and suchlike.

Well, it isn't like the buildings have a ton of detail on them, sop I think they will turn out all right. Certainly, lining them all up in the semblance of a street, standing the awning up outside the general mercantile, and imagining the balcony added to the stately Emporium saloon made for a satisfying, if incomplete, tableau.

I figure the other high-fronted building to be another commercial venture, perhaps a hardware store or laundry, but I have no idea whose residence that might be at the end of the street. Whoever it is, I can tell you they aren't good planners; without a back door, there is no easy way to access the 'facility' out back.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sheets of Laredo

I decided very early on to construct the buildings of Serenity Gulch on something like hardboard, since it makes the buildings themselves much sturdier and easier to store without damaging them. I've done this with some of my larger or heavier pieces of Warhamer 40,000 scenery as well, notably the cityscape ("Cities of Death") ruins, some of my favourite GW terrain. It recently occurred to me, however, that my existing table surfaces were unlikely to work for any Wild West games.

My go-to for war gaming is a set of flocked green felt mats GW produced and sold years ago. Most of my 40K models have green bases topped with flock (my Valhallans being the notable exception), and a lot of the rest have green painted sand with yellow or bright green dry rushed over. The green on green is fairly basic, but easy to paint, easy to store, and looks pretty decent, all told

My Lord of The Rings figures have brown rims for the most part, but enough of the games I played were set outdoors which makes the green flocked mat perfectly acceptable. I also have a cityfight mat which is essentially a large format poster of streets, rubble and debris that I can place scenery on top of for urban battles of the 41st Millennium. Nothing even remotely appropriate for a dusty town in the Wild West though.

I have neither the time, space, funding, or inclination to build a textured tabletop depicting Serenity Gulch, even a modular one, since the buildings are such a key part of the terrain, and are pretty bulky on their own. There are some very nice gaming mats available, including some Wild West versions with streets airbrushed onto them, but they are expensive even before you factor in the shipping for a 4-5 foot tube of painted fabric.

Since Glory was at a babysitting course at the Londonderry rec centre today, I found myself in striking distance of Fabricland, and thought I would take a shot at finding a fabric covering of my own for a reasonable price. This turned out to be trickier than I thought.

First of all, the fabrics themselves are arranged primarily by material, and not by colour, can you imagine? I have no idea whether twill, fleece, felt or denim will make the best covering for war gaming purposes, and I don.t have a lot of pride, but I have enough to prevent me from asking the Favricland staff for their recommendations. My primary concern was finding an appropriate shade of tannish brown, somewhere on the continuum between khaki and mud. Something close to the Citadel Colour known as Snakebite Leather, ideally. (Eventually it might end up doing double duty as a North African desert so I can also finish the Deutsches Afrrika Korps/ British Long Range Desert Group languishing in yet another closet...)

Next came the issue of texture; a couple of likely prospects had to be dismissed because they were too stretchy, or had a some sort of pattern flocked onto them, or ridges or lines or something else unsuitable for a gunfight setting. Like paisley. One of the best colours was actually found in a material made for lining outerwear, and I feared the satiny finish on the obverse could slip off the tabletop, with disastrous results for both scenery and models.

Lastly was the issue of cost: the next best colour I found was over $25 a metre, which felt excessive, especially if I wanted to experiment with painting on my own street layouts or anything.

In the end, I found a reasonably priced fleece (with anti-pilling!) in what I thought was a suitable, although some what dark, shade of tan.

Here is a picture of Serenity Gulch denizen Wendell Kane in front of the as yet unfinished and unpainted general mercantile. Between the iPad's crappy camera and the sub-optimal lighting here in the Batcave, I'm not sure if the colour comes through at all, but it feels like a pretty good match, and a nice foundation for a Nevada town.

Too bad said town is destined to a future of relentless violence and cycles of miniature bushwacking, frontier justice and comeuppance, but as I like to say: Peace On Earth, but War on the Tabletop.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Construction Begins on Serenity Gulch

There is something especially satisfying about returning to an abandoned project. Not without its share of guilt,I suppose; Audrey bought a set of old west buildings for me for Christmas back in, what 2005? At the time, I was still working for Games Workshop, and had picked up a great ruleset at Games Day in the U.K. called Legends of The Old West. I'd grabbed a handful of historically appropriate and characterful models from Wargames Foundry in Nottingham, and was planning to repurpose some Mordheim scenery in order to be able to play.

On Christmas, Audrey totally surprised me with a set of period buildings from a small retailer in the States called Arnica Montana. (The original owner sold out and it's now called Arnica Real Estate, but I miss the original motto of "It's like playing cards with your brother's kids.")

Well, there's always another project, and the western scenery got back burnered. After I left Games Workshop a couple years later, I was painting less miniatures in general, but more importantly, I wasn't around other miniatures collectors prodding me into building a western town.

In preparation for Gaming & Guinness X next May, I asked the lads how they would feel about painting up a gang of lawmen or outlaws, if I spent the winter months building a town for them to battle it out in. To my surprise and delight, they agreed, and I placed an order with the Foundry website which should be arriving in the next week or so.

In the meantime, I found the Arnica box and started cleaning and prepping the resin pieces. They are not only naturally oily but are also coated with a lubricant called a release agent to facilitate removing them from their molds. As a result, a soapy bath, as ridiculous as it may seem, needs to precede any actual constuction.

Time for building is sparse these days, but I wanted to break ground on Serenity Gulch, Nevada, before December and the attendant Advent madness. Tonight I didn't get as far as I would have liked, but managed to shave the flash off of all four buildings and get them all washed. I even got the general store started.

I bought a sheet of hardboard for basing the buildings, but need to at least get them framed up so I know what sizes to cut it into. Still, it feels good to blow the dust off a model town languishing for almost a decade...although, I guess I will need to paint on some dust in order to make it look authentic.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Time, Space, Gravity and Love: Interstellar, Reviewed

You probably already know more about Christopher Nolan's latest movie, Interstellar, than you really need to, but I will do my best not to talk too much about the plot. I do this because the less you know about the story, the greater the likelihood you will enjoy the film; the themes of discovery and loss run hand in hand through Interstellar, and the more you can share in those sensations, the fuller your experience is likely to be.

For my part, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I think it lacks the coherence of Nolan's greater works, such as The Dark Knight or Inception, but if it does, it is not due to a lack of talent or focus, but because of the scope and sheer ambition of the story.

The opening of Interstellar paints a bleak picture of a damaged earth slowly losing the ability to sustain human life. Crops are failing, airborn topsoil paints everything with a patina of grimy dust, and humanity is so focused on feeding itself, it has wholly given up on space exploration. In fact, the school curriculum teaches the main character's children that the Apollo moon landings were faked in a ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

Former engineer and astronaut candidate Cooper, played with laconic intensity by Matthew McConaughey, is a single father and reluctant farmer who does his best to maintain his corn crop and raise his family in the face of an uncertain future. A series of strange occurrences shared with his daughter Murph leads him to a place where he learns that time is indeed running out for humanity, and Earth will not be habitable within the next 40 years.

The first of several hard choices comes soon after: lead an expedition through a wormhole placed close to Saturn by an unknown intelligence, or stay on a dying earth with his young family. The trip to Saturn alone will take almost two years, and while travel through the wormhole should be practically instantaneous, the proximity of a black hole on the other side will also increase how much time passes back on earth.

Suffice to say that Coop believes the dire circumstances on Earth merit his participation, despite the fact that he may not only never see his children again, and if he does, he will have missed their childhoods, but also in spite of the fact that his willingness to leave is enough to critically damage his relationship with Murph.

Eventually our perspective shifts from another galaxy back to Earth, where a frenzied search is underway for a means to move the masses of humanity out of the gravity well on the off chance a sanctuary is discovered for them to escape to. But that is enough about the plot, frankly; the filmmakers have done a great job locking up details about what happens on the far side of the mysteriously generated wormhole, and as I said, the more there is for you to discover, the more likely you are to enjoy the movie.

So, should you see Interstellar? Is it a good movie?

Well first, let's remind ourselves that the failure of one does not preclude the other. I've seen tons of films that I cannot consider to be "good" by any objective standard, but have enjoyed them greatly nonetheless. Having said that, I think Christopher Nolan (and his brother Jonathan, who wrote the screenplay) have made a good movie, and furthermore, it's the most ambitious mainstream movie I've seen in years.

The story deals with some big ideas, like the best science-fiction should; not just the effect of gravity on time and space, but the ability of love to transcend both these things. Ways to guarantee the survival of humanity as a species, and the challenge of maintaining our humanity in the face of harder and harder decisions we might feel compelled to make in pursuit of that goal. This is a great film, not in the sense of quality, but because of the scale of the ideas it plays with, starting in the human heart, and travelling into the fifth dimension.

Comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are inevitable and understandable, given that Nolan cites it as the single biggest inspiration for Interstellar. There is a lot of overlap: the sense of exploration, the pervasive questions about trust and forgiveness, dutiful attention to the practical details of life in space, and using creative visuals to illustrate ideas that are almost unfathomable. Even the robot companion TARS echoes a bit of HAL 9000, although his dialogue is aided quite a bit by What we are assured is a 75% humor setting.

What else is there to like? Well, the production design is first rate. Nolan is a big fan of practical effects and having a set that looks like it has been lived in. The Endurance, the ship/habitat that takes the crew through the wormhole, is not always CGI but a model in many shots, giving it a texture that feels very familiar to old school film buffs, and suits the near future, NASA-style design, as well as the shots that go with it. The robots are evocative of current design concepts we see coming out of MIT and DARPA, but combine that simplicity with imaginative ideas for movement and interactions with some of the sets.

The visuals are as sharp as you would expect from the maker of Inception, but the audio design is an even more compelling reason to see this movie in the theatre. The space travel is exceptionally engaging, but the wormhole transition sequence could be an amusement park ride for blind people, and Hans Zimmer brings yet another imaginative twist to film scoring with his work here.

The acting is likewise top shelf. Anne Hathaway's Dr. Brand combines a scientific disposition and flinty diligence to her mission with the acknowledgement that love is the primary and best motivation for their mission. Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine (in his fifth collaboration with Nolan!) turn in excellent performances, full of nuance, but it is Matthew McConaughey's Coop that the story hinges upon, and he delivers admirably. He plays Cooper with a laconic intensity and the calm reserve that we associate with real-life astronauts, but really shines in the sensitivity he displays during scenes with his family.

The movie is not without its flaws, and ironically, the greatest of these is probably its ambition. The scope of ideas and concepts being bandied about in places often require a lot from the audience, and not just getting across theories of relativistic time dilation, or some of physicist Kip Thorne's thoughts on superluminal travel through an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Even more challenging are the ideas about 'Them', the creators of the wormhole, who potentially use gravity as a medium for communication, and who might live in the fifth dimension. Some of these ideas take a significant amount of exposition or setup, and even then, there are going to be audience members left scrambling to keep up.

The size of the story and the concepts contained within also increase the running time to a staggering 2 hours and 49 minutes. It's not an inappropriate length for a movie built around themes like loneliness and isolation, and how true exploration often begins with a significant journey just to reach that frontier where the adventure actually begins.

It is possible that there are problems with the math regarding the time dilation, but I'm a liberal arts grad, so I am not going to wade into that nonsense. It is enough to me that they address issues like hibernating during a two year trip to the outer planets of our solar system, the dangers of explosive decompression, and the realpolitik associated with a potential planetary evacuation; don't disregard such matters, but don't waste too much time working out all the bugs onscreen. Mention them, try not to insult my intelligence, and get back to your story, that's all I ask.

The further I get from the film, the more I appreciate it, and I would very much like to see it again, perhaps in 70mm IMAX, since so much of the film was shot in this format. Nolan is often criticized for making films that look amazing but lack an emotional core, and those who feel that way may be similarly unmoved by Interstellar. As a parent though, I found Coop's motivation and regret extremely accessible; as a romantic, I found Brand's assertions about the possible quantum basis for love to be compelling.

Interstellar is not a movie for everyone, to be sure. Who is it for? Well, if you enjoyed 2001, or similarly Kubrickian sci-fi films like Spielberg's A.I., or Moon by Duncan Jones, it is more likely you will enjoy yourself. Those who saw the theatrical version of James Cameron's The Abyss and thought the somewhat disappointing destination didn't diminish the enjoyment of the journey up to that point, and those who are able to look past a director's grasp to see what he is reaching for? You are in for a treat.

Fans of cinema should go to this movie regardless of whether or not they feel confident they will like it. Why? Because it is the only way to assure that directors like Nolan continue to get the ability to make ambitious, original films about big ideas, as opposed to endless adaptations and sequels. And you might like it, flaws and all.

Like the characters in Interstellar, we must feel encouraged to explore, to move away from where we have begun, to get outside of our comfort zones in order to discover new ideas and experiences. In this regard, Nolan has given us an allegorical movie that cleverly reminds us that stagnation is death, and that hope will always remain out of reach, until we find new ways to extend our grasp.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Novemories

November is a time for remembering, we heard today in church. For remembering the saints, remembering the origins of Protestantism, for remembering soldiers who lost their lives in our country's wars, for remembering transgendered men and women who have been murdered, and for remembering the important people in our lives who are no longer with us.

Why so much reflection in November; so much commemoration as the calendar year nears its end? Well, it is only fitting that we honour our war dead on the anniversary of the armistice that concluded the tragically misnomered 'war to end all wars'. Reformation Day is every October 31st, the day Luther defied the Church of Rome by nailing his 95 Theses to the cathedral door. Transgender Remembrance Day is November 20th, 8 days prior to the date Rita Hester was murdered on in 1998.

All Saints Day though, that one (and All Souls Day which immediately follows it) isn't an anniversary. There is a lot of supposition that the early Christian church placed those days at that spot in the calendar in order to coincide with the Celtic observance of Samhain. It makes sense, especially when you consider that the same rationale is likely the reason for our observing the birth of Christ in December, during Yuletide, instead of early summer.

But maybe there is a deeper reason.

Many cultures turn their thoughts to the dead at this time of year. Consider Mexico's Dia de Los Muertos, or Brazil's Dia de Finados. In Germany, Frederick William III dictated that the last Sunday before Advent should be directed to veneration of the dead, creating Totensonntag. Similar festivals occur all over the world, generally after the harvest, and in the case of Samhain, midway between the autumnal Equinox and winter solstice.

The Celts felt this time of year was a 'thin time', a period in which the borders between the world we know and what might come afterwards became porous, permeable. This thinness can permit visitation by the spirits of the departed, or at least the perception of them by those still living, and this sentiment echoes across the globe. Perhaps this border blurring is due to some alignment we are as yet unaware of, or perhaps, as some feel, the lack of crops upon the earth make it easier for the spirits of those interred below it to roam.

We don't talk a lot about the afterlife in my denomination, which I am grateful for, but today, in the spirit of remembrance, and in observance of what may be a thin time, we were asked to think of someone of importance in our lives, whether recently departed or long since gone. We were asked to write their name on a paper leaf, and, after a time of reflection, hang that leaf upon the branches of a 'tree of life' in the sanctuary.

My thoughts and heart went immediately to my father, who passed away two and a a half years ago. As I wrote his name on a leaf-shaped piece of yellow construction paper, I felt my eyes welling up, and I got a little frustrated with myself, to be quite honest. For heaven's sake, I thought, what are you, Hamlet? How long is the thought of your Dad's death going to wet your face? But this didn't last long.

I brought my leaf forward, hung it, and returned to my seat. I removed my glasses and brushed the tears away from the corner of my eyes with the heel of my hand, in the manner of a man grinding weariness out of his eyes, but I doubt I fooled anyone. One person looked at me, smiled sadly and nodded knowingly; another silently squeezed my shoulder as they walked past. I saw many others wiping away tears with their hands, sleeves, handkerchiefs, and I felt something.

I wish I could tell you it was the spirit of my father, because there are days I dearly wish to, but if he was there with me this morning, I was unable to discern his presence. What I was able to perceive was something I know to be of great importance to him: community.

United in loss, permeated by grief, we reach out to comfort and to reassure, gaining solace of our own, and quieting even those harsh inner voices that tell us it is well past time we 'moved on'. There is a power there, unmistakably, but whether it comes from within or without I cannot say.


Despite the discomfort it can sometimes bring me, I am not looking forward to the day when recalling my father's passing doesn't leave me affected in some way, whether the time or space is thin or not. In the end, I was grateful for the opportunity to remember him in this way today.