Steer Steady and True
By Patrick S. Wolfe
The months from May through December 1976 were likely the most important period of my life. In addition to the time I spent with [my spiritual mentor] John, which deeply influenced me, I also experienced, quite independent of him, several seminal events. These included getting back together with Colleen in mid-May, moving out of my parents’ home at the beginning of July, Colleen moving in with me in September, her becoming pregnant in mid-October, and our marriage at the end of December. These milestones were accompanied by a host of psycho-spiritual visitations, some of which I experienced with Colleen and some I experienced on my own. I will describe a few of the latter.
When I moved into the Viktor Apartments—into a one-bedroom unit that overlooked Humboldt Street in Victoria, British Columbia—I brought the standard furnishings with me. Except for a long, thin, modernistic couch from my Aunt Joan and Uncle Rex, most of the stuff came from Mom and Dad’s. Some of it, particularly the gold curtains, dated back to [paternal grandparents] Sam and Poppette’s time. The curtains, once they were hung, reminded me of photos I had seen of the interior of their hilltop home on Cadboro Bay Road that they had occupied during the latter 1940s and early 1950s, until Sam’s death on 2 November 1952. This reminder evoked in me a distinct sense of Sam, of whom I have no memory as I was a week shy of fourteen months when he died.
I mentioned all this to John and his partner, Mary, on my next dinner visit to their place. I recall them exchanging knowing smiles and playing a game with me concerning my guiding spirit, who they said was a rather formal gentleman with a slight physique. This description fit Sam who had stood five feet nine inches tall and been rail thin. He had referred to himself in his prisoner-of-war memoir, “Philippines Retrospect,” as “a hungry person” and “a thin man with an Irish temper,” while Dad said he was “a sparely built man.” John and Mary left it to me to connect the dots, which I did, although not without a healthy dose of scepticism. Given that John had been born in British North Borneo and spent six of his first seven years at Malang, Java, I am virtually certain I had told him that my Dad’s family had lived in Shanghai at the same time. But I also know that John and Mary had not seen a photo of Sam.
I like the idea of Sam being my guiding spirit, but, of course, I have no proof of it. Nonetheless, there is a variety of curious “evidence” that suggests a special relationship between us. A few days ago, on 12 January 2016, I came across a carbon copy of a letter of Dad’s that I had never seen before. Sam, the January 1970 letter says, “only saw Pat as a baby, and he certainly made a big fuss waltzing him around our living-room singing funny little songs to him!” The letter goes on to say, “Oddly, the last gift Dad presented to anyone was to Patrick—a photograph album suitably embossed in gilt lettering: Patrick Shane Wolfe.” Actually, the album had been a gift for my first birthday in September and the embossing was completed after-the-fact. I was well aware that on Saturday, 1 November 1952, the last errand Sam ever ran was to go downtown to pick-up my newly embossed album. That evening, he and Poppette ate dinner at a restaurant and took in a movie at the Oak Bay Theatre. After they returned home and entered the house via the basement, Sam’s aortic aneurysm, which had first been detected due to “a little bleed” in early 1950, burst as he started to ascend the stairs to the main floor. The fact that his little bleed “had sealed over” was miraculous, according to Mom’s family history. It “granted [him] another two and one half years” of life, which, of course, includes the almost fourteen months our lives overlapped.
My sense of Sam in my new apartment—the reminder of him sparked by those old, gold curtains—was like a call to pay attention, like a heightening of perspective, like subtle signs alerting me to new terrain, to the challenging mountain passes I would soon be traversing in my personal journey. It was one of several signals of support, of calls to attention that occurred during that summer and autumn. It was as though troops were being marshaled on my behalf, and Colleen’s—as though the control tower and ground crew were watching more carefully as the two of us taxied to the main runway for takeoff. It was not so much that these forces would lessen the turbulence of flight as it was that they were preparing us—and me, in particular—to be able to accept the special help that would be provided.
Four years earlier, during the late spring and summer of 1972, Sam had made another appearance in my life. It, too, had been a time of travel, albeit of the more conventional sort. I had spent those months in Europe, largely on my own. At the Louvre, I purchased a souvenir: a print of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Source, a nineteenth-century painting depicting a female nude balancing on her shoulder a large pottery jar from which water flows, an image of inspiration sacred to the Muses. When I got home and showed the print to Dad, he commented that it had been a favourite of Sam’s, too.
Of the various unearthly signals of support received during those vital months, the most important occurred that autumn after Colleen and I learned that she—that we—were pregnant. One afternoon we sat on the curb at the top of Roslyn Road where it meets the Brighton Avenue walkway and she proposed that we get married. This foreshadowed the fact that during our marriage she often initiated or suggested a course of action that we would subsequently jointly decide to take. In terms of duty and responsibility, getting married was obviously the right thing to do. But for Colleen the logic of this decision was soon swamped by a sea storm of unruly emotions. She was torn. She wanted the stability and security that marriage represented, but she did not want to give up her freedom. The tension she felt increased ten-fold and resulted in several blow-ups.
That James [our first child] may somehow have observed the trials and tribulations of our often tense, pre-wedding period would be a fitting explanation for his noteworthy behaviour upon being born after a long, hard labour and mid-forceps delivery the middle of the following July. When he was handed to me, I held him in my arms between Colleen and myself. Our three heads were almost touching. I was amazed by how alert he was and by his dignified solemnity. With big wide eyes, he carefully looked first at Colleen, then at me. There was a special, almost unworldly recognition in his eyes, as though he were assessing us and what he had landed into. He was the gift that formally tied our relationship, causing us to commit, however falteringly, to marriage. We are indebted to him for stepping into the breach, which at the outset did not forecast the smoothest of pregnancies or childhoods.
Of Colleen’s blow-ups, two stand out. The second of these occurred the night before the wedding while Maryanne, Colleen’s sister, was visiting us. Maryanne and my younger brother, Peter, were to be our witnesses at the civil ceremony the next day. I do not recall if there was a specific catalyst that set Colleen off, but the blow-up was highly dramatic: she hurled a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses across the apartment at me, then stormed out. Maryanne was taken aback. This was not the way couples normally approached their wedding day. Maryanne and I walked through Beacon Hill Park back to her aunt’s place in James Bay, where she was staying. She commented on my strength and comparative serenity in trying circumstances. Certainly, on that night I was more accepting of the wedding than Colleen, but it was an acceptance with little real awareness, something that became readily apparent the next day.
When I got back to the apartment, Colleen was there, another storm having passed. We were married a dozen hours later. Mom’s history incorrectly states that we were married at City Hall. The wedding took place in a provincial government Vital Statistics office on Fort Street. Mom’s explanation of why we had a civil ceremony is also wrong. “Like many of their generation,” she wrote, “they had the conviction that the formalizing of a love relationship by making vows officially and publicly somehow tended to dilute their commitment to each other or to alter it in a negative fashion.” To the extent that we were able to articulate what we were thinking and feeling, I believe it is fair to say that we married when, where, and how we did because we were under pressure, were not without doubts, and consequently did not feel like having a whole-hearted celebration.
When the brief ceremony was over, I, trying to be nonchalant, said:
“That was a relatively painful experience.”
“I beg your pardon?” the Vital Statistics official said, startled by what he had heard.
“That was a relatively painful experience,” I repeated to the embarrassment of Colleen and the others.
It was only then that it dawned on me.
“Oh,” I muttered, “I meant to say relatively painless.”
I had been completely unconscious to what I had been saying. But my subconscious and what it had me say were much more attuned to the reality of the situation. Those misspoken words were a psychic exclamation point that I would not forget. They were indicative, through the thick fog of my obliviousness, of how far I had to travel.
In his 1978 bestseller, The Road Less Traveled, the psychiatrist, Dr. M. Scott Peck, writes that “the unconscious manifests itself and speaks to us” through “slips of the tongue and other ‘mistakes’ in behavior, or ‘Freudian slips.’” But where Freud, in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, has a “negative orientation toward the unconscious… [and] perceived it as acting a spiteful role or at least [as] a mischievous devil trying to trip us up,” Peck views “it as a kind of good fairy working very hard to make us honest.” Peck adds “that our unconscious is wiser than we are about everything.”
I was not without some sense of the challenges that lay ahead. I remember telling Mom that I was in the relationship for the long haul and that it could well be decades before things improved appreciably between Colleen and me. Prescient words for one so woolly. I knew what I was talking about, yet I really did not have a clue.
There was a reason for the equanimity I possessed. It had everything to do with what had happened in the aftermath of the first of Colleen’s major pre-wedding blow-ups. Rent by the conflict within her, she had screamed her displeasure at me early one morning and exited the apartment with a slam. My intended response was to do a face-plant on Joan and Rex’s couch and to be depressed. I have forgotten how far I got toward that end—if I ever knew—for there was an intervention. To use a figure of speech, I heard a voice. But it was not a literal voice; it was an implanted thought.
“Steer steady and true,” it said.
I knew these words were not mine. They were directive and they immediately laid claim to my full attention, which I willingly gave. They absolutely galvanized me.
Steer steady and true.
The experience of those words was the single most powerful event of my life. My original interpretation of them was that they had an external source, that they came from beyond, from the other side, if you will. But a couple of decades later it occurred to me that the source may well have been internal, the wee small voice within, or, more succinctly: my soul.
This notion that the words came from my soul appeals to me. It provides a marvelous sense of companionship, even though in truth I know so little about my soul. I have heard it speak to me occasionally since then, but never with the same force or impact. Presumably this is explained, at least in part, by my greater familiarity with it. Of course, my soul is connected to the beyond, to the other side, which renders moot the question about the source of those galvanizing words, whether it was external or internal, for it was both.
Steer steady and true.
“You could put those words on your tombstone,” Colleen has told me more than once. It is an excellent idea, for those words changed my life, utterly. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “The student discovers one day that he…. is led by unseen guides.”
Receiving those words was the capstone on the myriad special experiences of that period. Those four words convinced me that I am not simply a human being, I am more truly a spiritual being having a human incarnation. Those words were the seeds of the idea—that blossomed decades later—to live this incarnation in active partnership with spirit. Such partnership comes down to an attitude and belief that support, encouragement, and assistance are available to us from the cosmic realms. It requires me to live with clear intention and integrity and to regularly monitor both how I am doing and the passing parade of issues in my life, while also requesting guidance, inspiration, fortification, and discernment from the cosmic realms and paying particular attention to what comes back in response or as special messages. I often find myself talking to the supportive presences I sense, saying thank you for some help or light that has been conferred.
On Christmas morning 2013, I awoke from a dream which featured the image of Jesus writing on the ground and words in my mind that said we are held, by spirit, throughout our lives; that it is important to know this being held; that it is important to accept this acceptance. The idea of being held in this way is hardly a new thought. The Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donohue, to give one example, talks of “a sheltering providence that… always minds you.”
Copyright © 2021 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
- This essay is adapted from a chapter in We are All Messengers: Intimate Journeys and Influences that Shaped Them, an unfinished family history and memoir. The essay is published here with the permission of Colleen Wolfe, to whom I was married for 24 years, and our son, James. ↑
- Sam’s letter of 21 March 1952 to Rev. Charles William Wolfe. See Wolfe Family Notes, 2. ↑
- “Philippines Retrospect,” 1, 23; Dad’s Reminiscences #9, p. 25. ↑
- Pierre Wolfe’s letter of 11 January 1970, to Hubert C. (“Pard”) Myers (Wolfe Family Notes, 68-69). ↑
- H. Eileen Wolfe, The Harris History, privately published, 236. ↑
- According to Michael Lipson, Ph.D., in an email of January 5, 2021, the word “’God’ and its variants … all go back to an Indo-European root that means ‘pour.’” ↑
- H. Eileen Wolfe, The Harris History, privately published, 358. ↑
- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (Simon and Schuster, Touchstone, 1979), 248, 251. ↑
- Dr. M. Scott Peck describes a similar experience in The Road Less Traveled (134-136). The event happened to Peck in his mid-teens at a point when he was struggling to make a key decision in his life: “…at the moment of my greatest despair, from my unconscious there came a sequence of words, like a strange disembodied oracle from a voice that was not mine: ‘The only real security in life lies in relishing life’s insecurity.’ …. I had decided to be me…. I had taken the leap into the unknown. I had taken my destiny into my own hands.” ↑
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Sovereignty of Ethics.” ↑
- John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (Cliff Street Books, Harper Collins, 1997), 83. John Dominic Crossan translates Matthew 10:29-31 this way: “God counts the sparrows / God counts the hairs on your head / That makes you much more important than sparrows.” This high valuing of human beings reminds me of the notion of being held. See Crossan’s The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images (1998), p. 117. ↑