A sleepless night, onion paper walls defend my minds keep; while goblins, dragons, monsters untold, bash at the gate.
A ready footed guide wakes with first light, beckoning adventure.
Dolfins at play, dancing in unwanted anticipation, churn the sea of tranquility. Doubt filled breath, now wasted, evaporates in the cool morning breeze.
The giant, once slumbering stirs, it’s dented armour gleams with dawns first rays; dauntless we approach, feigning courage with each step.
An Intrepid duo embark, following upwards, quashed fear lies crumpled at the base, frayed into a messy pile. Strands of safety lead upward like webs in the beanstalk. Our guide lights our path, nimble like so many sheep watching from the crags.
Now Ascending, hold to hold, feet nervously, desperately, search for confidence. Pitch upon pitch, lofty goals now achieved, sharing sacred space with the eagles, father and son silently celebrate the triumph.
Exhausted and satisfied, sleep evades no longer, onion paper walls freshly torn, relent, welcome rest invades the keep. Another giant, silently, patiently awaits our approach.
For most of my adult life, I would consider myself a man with faith. The object of that faith however has not been constant, consistent, apparent, valued, or at times even defined. I have, like most people, I suspect, shifted on the “faith continuum” anywhere and everywhere between atheism and belief. Today, I think I would categorize myself in the camp of solid agnostic. A man filled with constant doubt, and uncertainty. Truthfully that space is one which I find it difficult to live in, but for the foreseeable future, I think that it is where I will remain; getting comfortable with mess, and doubt.
With all of that said, I have always found the mountains to be a sacred space. Whether I shared that sacred space with my late cousin Josh, or then after with my warrior wife, and now with my kid, mountains have always been, for me, a sacred space. Maybe it is the influence of the many First Nations people that I have known and been influenced by? It could also be a product of what Richard Rohr and many others call panentheism where you find the Divine in all things. I honestly don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that mountains evoke something in me, that very few other things do.
This weekend I spent 2 ½ days in the mountains with my amazing son, and an amazing friend. I have only known Tim for a couple of months, but every now and then, someone comes along in your life and you discover that your are kindred souls, something just clicks. Tim is one of those people. A side benefit is that he is an amazing alpine guide, and he sacrificed time away from his family to hang with Andrew and me and guide us up two multii-pitch climbs. His enthusiasm in imparting his vast body of alpine knowledge and experience is inspiring. But more than that, he and I share the same love for mountains, and this weekend we got to share time in that sacred space. In many ways I am envious of the fact that he lives in the mountains all the time. Andrew would love it if we packed up and moved out of Edmonton and to the mountains where he could pursue climbing and snowboarding full time. That move is not likely in the cards. But weekends like this past one, help fill the tank so to speak, and enable me to reconnect in ways that very few venues allow me to.
On Saturday we climbed Mother’s Day Butress on Cascade Mountain, a 400 metre ascent which was awe inspiring, but not all that difficult in terms of climbing. Don’t get me wrong, we were still attached to ropes and harnesses, but the level of difficulty (5.4 - 5.6 for climbing geeks) wasn’t up there. Our Sunday climb, our going to “church” climb was altogether different. Sunday offered up a 250 meter climb up the face of Tunnel Mountain on a route called Gooseberry. It was a cakewalk for our accomplished guide, but thankfully he gets his kicks out of teaching newbies like Andrew and I how to become proficient climbers as much or maybe even more than being personally challenged in terms of his own climbing career.
The climb today was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. I fell on a mountain and learned to trust not just my guide but my equipment. I navigated pitches where at first glance I had no idea how to ascend, and then through grit and determination, found a way. I watched my kid struggle and achieve the same milestones today (minus the falling) which was a profound gift in itself. Tim provoked and encouraged us, leading us up a challenging (at least for us) adventure, where we discovered that there is more in the well, just sitting there in reserve, at our disposal, if we just put ourselves in places where there is a legitimate need to draw from it. Add to that great conversations, meals shared, wine and great beer consumed and it was a profound few days, that I will never forget.
I write this post, exhausted, bruised, cut, swollen, muscles protesting, and more importantly, full of heart, a soul refreshed, I pride not only in my own accomplishment, but in my growing and amazing young man of a son. And I reflect on the growing friendship that is built on similar passions and a perspective that enables a sharing of something sacred, ill defined, messy, mysterious, and yet at the same time vastly profound.
I don’t know if you have noticed it too, but men are not the most popular people on the planet right now. On the whole, I think a lot of criticism directed towards our cohort is well deserved. The Metoo movement rightly calls out reprehensible behaviour that until just recently was largely glossed over by society, and many would argue still is; after all, we do have a self-declared misogynist in the Whitehouse.
Yes I know, there are plenty of good, decent men in the world still. Some days, I would even count myself among them. And yet, I too know in my inner core, how men have, and still do think of their counterparts, how even good men talk about women when they are not around. How even good men perpetuate stereotypical behaviour and reinforce traditional roles where women live in a subservient position.
So what does it mean, look like, to be a man? Robert Bly offers up some thoughts on this in his book Iron John. A book in which he exegetes a Grimm Brother’s fairy tale about a young prince and his journey towards manhood. Truthfully, Bly’s book is not an easy read. It is full of poetry, difficult prose, myth, and can easily bog down. I did persist and finished it just yesterday. Now I think I need to read it again. Not because I think that his book is the new manual on manhood or masculinity, not by any stretch. But it forced me to look inwards, self-examine and start asking myself difficult questions. It is not just my fifty year old self who needs to know how to be a man, but my fifteen year old son, who is teetering on the cusp of manhood as well. The stakes are kind of high.
One of the major themes throughout Bly’s book is his treatment of the “wild man”. He documents a number of variations of the wild man in numerous cultures (the hairy man, the hairy woman). I think that our contemporary society often celebrates the idea of a “wild man” a man of extremes, independent, daring, cast all caution to the wind. I know my son was smitten with this persona after watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan. And yet, Bly clearly states that the problem with manhood is not that we aren’t all wild men, but that most men are not at all in touch with the wild man. In other words, it is not about wanting to become the wild man, living in the woods, under a lake, covered entirely in hair, but rather, that most of us have never even ventured into the woods, and given ourselves a chance at encountering that character.
I don’t think that this means that we as men all need to buy an axe and a tent and head out into the woods to get in touch with the wild man either. Although that also seems to be a growing trend in my circles these days too.
I find it interesting that Bly highlights the genetic similarities between genders, and then focuses on the three percent which separates us. Men and women are almost genetically identical, and yet, three percent creates a vast difference. We are virtually the same, and yet not. My reading suggests that it is in trying to ignore that three percent, that leads many men to become frustrated, angry, and even at times tyrannical.
I actually don’t know the answer to the question posed in the title of this post. I know that I, like so many others, want my life to have meaning, purpose, significance, and authentic relationships. I think myself, and many men I know yearn for these things, and don’t know how to get our hands wrapped around them. I think the wild (nature) beckons many of us, because inherently the woods, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean offer up a glimpse into the transcendent, and speak whispers to that longing deep inside which we so deftly quell. And I don’t think it is enough to venture off alone either. We may encounter the wild man out there, by ourselves, but I know personally, it is in sharing a common experience where true meaning is found. Very few of us are cut out to sit atop a pole in the middle of the dessert.
If I am honest though, it is not merely company that the average man seeks. Life is full of company. We have company on our teams, in our work place, on committees, even within our families. Company rarely offers up honesty, transparency, or self evaluation. I have been enamoured for decades by the stories of the Inkling - a literary society made up of kindred spirits who regularly gathered at Magdelan College or the back of a pub in Oxford (the Eagle and Child, I have sat there, and drunk a pint in their honour). C.S. Lewis, J.R Tolkien, among many others. These stories have formed for me a standard of sorts, a demand for brutal honesty, self disclosure that truthfully I have rarely encountered (even in myself).
I think the wild man calls us out of our comfort zone, our habitual way of life, and beckons us into the woods. Into a place that is unfamiliar, where we are forced to examine our own limitations, deficiencies, and our skills and talents. It calls us down, into the ashes, into places we might not want to go; to acknowledge the wounds and stare into the grief we have accumulated along the way. I personally have found this to be mostly a solitary journey, but I don’t think it need be. I think it could be made by an intentional group of men and boys who follow the wild man into the woods. Sojourners with a common purpose built around vulnerability, to discover what it means to be a man, what it means to live life well, what it means to contribute to the betterment of our world. To ultimately discover what difference that three percent makes, in a positive manner, which celebrates the uniqueness and strength of masculinity without the need or tendency to resort to misogyny.
If you are inclined to read Bly’s rendition of the Fairy Tale, I have attached it below.
Flying to Atlanta today, I found myself writing a poem about my cousin Josh. He died tragically, far too young, in a climbing accident in Kananaskis country. Seventeen years later, I found myself compelled to remember, to quietly grieve on an airplane and write the following poem. Oddly, as I have turned fifty, I now find myself pursuing many of the things that he loved and that we shared together, not as often as I would have liked. I have taken up mountain climbing and kayaking and now share those pursuits with my son. While I was devastated by his death, I don’t think I actually grieved his loss. It is so odd that this should begin, so many years later, but perhaps it is the beginning of many of these occurrences. As I said in my last post, I am mostly a man unaccustomed to grief. Not unaccustomed to loss by any means, but for the most part of my life, too shut off from my own emotions to experience them in a healthy way. Perhaps you can teach old dogs new tricks.
A long buried need for shared adventure, danger, beauty, clinging to rock, to dreams, even a glimpse of the divine.
But how, gone now, so many years, decades even, your laugh echos within the caverns of my mind, wispy remembrances, breeze through lava tubes in the desert.
A new partner, unexpected, but in so many ways, like you. Glint in his eyes, passion in his bones, craving life, drinking it in, throttle open wide.
Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Like ours, so many sunsets past, I hold it all loosely, open hands, striving not to grasp, lest he too trickles through my fingers, smooth grains falling back upon the beach, tide lapping it back into the deep.
Buried grief, now rising, pushing up, unwanted and grateful together. Tears, seventeen years in the making stream down hot cheeks, I remember your smile, your zest, sun dogs for a halo.
What might have been, could have been. Cousin, son, husband, brother, friend, uncle to so many left wanting.
Another crag, another crack, one more crux, hands reach upwards, feet searching for solid holds.
I am in the middle of reading Robert Bly’s book Iron John. Frankly, I am surprised to only have recently learned about it (thanks Tim) as it sat upon the NYT Best Sellers list for sixty-two weeks after being published in 1990. The book essentially addresses the issues around masculine rites of passage (or the lack there of, in North American culture). In it Bly exegetes the Brothers Grimm fairy tale which tells of a young prince’s journey into manhood. The book is full of prose, poetry, myth, legend and Jungian psychology. In short, it is making me think, which I enjoy, on the whole.
One of the things he addressed is the idea of sitting or living in ashes. Ashes are often used as metaphor for grief, loss, a going down. Job sat in ashes, young Danish vikings would live in the ashes of their longhouse fireplaces in between being boys and becoming men.
I have been told on an occasion or perhaps two, that my ability to discern my own emotions, let alone those of others is stunted. Just recently I have becomes aware, through the honesty (about frickin time) of a few that I am a bit of a control freak. Put another way, I am still in a place of self discovery even at the ripe age of fifty. I think one of my issues, among many, is that I still haven’t learned the art of grieving.
It hasn’t just been Bly’s book that has revealed this insight. A number of people in my life have made note of this deficiency in the past couple of months. Despite my own myopic self perspective, I must admit that it is not something that I am familiar with. Perhaps I am in need of some time in the ashes?
One incident where I feel like I became acquainted with grief was in 2011 when I visited Burundi. I made a trip to the impoverished African country as a coffee consultant with Food for the Hungry. I actually went reluctantly at the time, and most likely would still have the same reservations today. With that said, I encountered at the same time, a spirit of resilience and a crushing poverty on that trip. One evening I called home to talk to Michelle, standing in the middle of rural Burundi I sobbed uncontrollably as I recounted to her how broken the country I was visiting was. Even now, as I think back on that experience, I am confounded by my own response to what I was experiencing. What is interesting, in hindsight, is the fact that my trip to Burundi was my last trip to origin until last February. In many ways, Burundi was for me, the straw that broke the camels back. It was if my subconscious had had enough of poverty, injustice, and suffering. Visiting Costa Rica last February was the first time I returned to a coffee producing country in seven years.
So I am a man very infrequently acquainted with grief it seems. Despite personal loss, death, and failure, I seem to not know how to grieve. Despite almost a decade of living with a warrior wife, who suffers daily, I remain on the fringes of knowing grief. This post offers up no answers. I am not offering up solutions, nor dispensing wisdom in this regard. I am still a young boy in this aspect of my journey. In the Grimm tale, the young prince sets free a hairy wild man, which sets in motion a series of events which leads to maturation. Perhaps having turned fifty, I am finally about to become a man? At minimum, I need to spend more time in the ashes, learning how to discern the emotions in my chest, and in turn, having the courage to look that guy in the face, despite the clouded mirror, and acknowledge the wounds, and learn to grieve.
Hands lie open upon my lap, receptacles for the unknown. An ancient stool shudders under my weight.
A step forward, giving much needed rest to clenched fists raised upwards.
Peaceful resignation. Perhaps even clarity. Whatever should come to rest must also be held lightly.
Naked at the start. Naked too, whenever I depart. My need to control, tempered, shackled, dull iron wrapped around my ambitions.
Wayfarers smirk at my effort, silent in their observance, my own form shrouded, a clouded mirror refusing my reflection.
Dusty beams stream through cracked panes, remembrance offers faltering hope.
I am not sure, without looking back, if I have talked about my “decade of adventure”. Turning fifty in April, was at the same time the culmination and beginning of something significant. Somewhere along the way in the few months before, I decided that the next ten years were going to offer me experiences that I hadn’t yet had in my first half century.
Last weekend was the first of what I hope to be many new adventures. In part, I am simply trying to keep up with my brave, strong, passionate, loving-life son of fifteen. But more than that, I want to live life, in a way that prevents me getting old. Trust me, my body is fighting me all the way. Aches, pains, stiffness, almost daily small doses of Advil, wine, and massage keep me mobile. But more important than that, age is a state of mind. This past decade has been one mostly filled with indulgence. I invested most of my energy into developing my palate, my mind, my understanding of coffee, flavour, food, that art of imbibing. I figured it was high time for my body to get some much needed attention, which I trust will in turn, reinvigorate my perspective on what it means to grow old, gracefully in wisdom.
Arguably, many would likely question my wisdom, perhaps even my sanity, for venturing up a rock face 250 meters above level ground. Many would question my parenting in regards to not only encouraging dangerous sports with my son, but actually facilitating them. And yet this is what we did. We spent a couple of days with six other men, talking, hiking, labouring, struggling, climbing, sharing, eating, drinking, together, encouraging one another to take one more step, no matter how much it hurt, or how much it seemed like folly.
Obviously I am proud of the fact that I persevered through the difficult approach hike in and out on Saturday, where we traversed thousands of fallen trees while walking eight kilometres and climbing 400 meters in elevation. I wanted to quit so many times. I would look down at my Apple Watch and see my heart rate cresting 170 bpm confirming what I already knew as I could feel my pulse pumping out my ears.
But more importantly, it was a weekend of fellowship. Men, most of whom I did not know at the beginning of the weekend, now friends and fellow sojourners who journeyed with me and my son, along challenging paths in an adventure that we will regale for decades to come (hopefully). It was a weekend where my fifteen year old son got to witness vulnerability among men, a rare thing in our society. It was a weekend where my son was embraced and considered an equal by men 20, 30 even 50 years older than him. It was a weekend where my son sat quietly in the circle around a fire, and listened and then privately told me later that he thought it was cool the way Tim and I were a lot alike and connected so easily. It was a weekend where I was proud to be a dad, of a kid who despite all of my failings as a father, demonstrated how much of a man he is becoming in his own right.
My whole world view is in turmoil right now. But in the midst of that, it is grounding to know that despite it all, I am still just a guy, who needs to be known, and wants to know others. Who delights in the fellowship of sojourners along the way, and who feels humbled at the sight of my progeny living so well at such a tender age.
Given the start of the adventure, I may have been too conservative. Perhaps my decade of adventure will need to extend into the next half-century!
This past weekend I embarked upon the first of what hopefully is many new adventures. My son and I, along with six other men spent the weekend mountain climbing around Nordegg and the experience inspired this poem. Thanks Tim for your dedication and skill and willingness to share it with others.
Precariously balanced on a slack line strung up by doubt on one end and anticipation on the other.
Regaled with the good intentions and adventures of others who have gone before me.
Conversation and the journey distract, momentarily. Then suddenly disembarking from my metal steed, uncertainty jumps up from its hiding place to once again stare me down.
This journey into adventure seems oddly, not to be my own. Is it mere folly? Following blindly the aspiration and enthusiasm of younger legs?
And then we are off, a ragtag band of brothers, sons, strangers, on a quest to conquer rock, iron, fear, and doubt.
Tangled awkwardly together at first, the ascent begins, slow, deliberate steps silently lay before me, with only the ring of metal snapping to remind me of potential danger.
Then gathering, for a moment, the shackles are removed and with them, the fear and doubt. The journey upward continues, transcendent, silent screams of wonder ring in my ears.
Perched upon the rock, I now understand the falcon, and it’s domain. A whispered prayer of thanks offered, the rock, freshly anointed with the sweat of my brow, fond thoughts towards those who conquered it before me.
Above the final crux, I sacrifice the uncertainty and doubt, dawning fresh garments laced together with joy and anticipation. My gaze now directed longingly to the horizon, I catch sight of another giant, it’s dented armour glinting in the light, beckoning, my heart leaps.
I am reading searching for sunday by Rachel Held Evans, recently and tragically departed. It seems strange to mourn the death of someone you never knew, grieving a friendship that didn’t exist apart from words on a page. Regardless it, along with the works of Pete Enns has spawned this somewhat angry poem, not directed at them in any way of course, but by elements of my own messy journey.
The world burns,
flames lick hungrily at barred doors, and still,
the bride cowers in stoic certainty, her attendants overwhelmed by deafening silence.
Defiant she braces against the tide, pugnacious, she feigns hospitality.
Self proclaimed heraldess of truth, she secretly harbours judgment and disdain for all those who dare question her.
All hail the word, lifted above the heads of the throng, to be worshipped above all else; idolatry tolerated.
The world burns,
flames lick hungrily at barred doors,
the wedding guests panic in the heat, their cries for sanctuary go unheeded.
Shameless and silent, she sits, confident, upon a crumbling throne.
Lately, it feels like I don’t have much to say. I actually wrote a post the other day about my hot tub and my kid and how much I like spending time talking to him in it, but square space glitched out, the post disappeared and I racked it up as an unpublished piece of writing (what else could I do, get mad?).
And on top of not having much to say, I have had lots to distract me. The Bluejays are back at it (Guerrero Jr.), NHL playoffs (go Columbus??), the Raptors, Tiger won his 15th Major, Billions, GOT, Avengers End Game, I turned 50, my wife has had 30 days of migraines, oh yah work!, a little golf, a provincial election, climbing training, walking the dog, listening to books, cooking, drinking wine, hosting gatherings, even legit reading a few books. Is that enough? I am not sure, actually. All of the writing gurus out there say that I am supposed to write every day, no matter what, oh yah and, carry around a moleskin notebook in which to document every thought and inspiration. Like I said before, I haven’t had much to say lately.
My kid and his grandpa built a climbing wall in our basement last week. I drilled over 250 holes and pounded fixed nuts into them to hold hand holds. It’s not that I am obsessed with mountain climbing, not at all, its that I am obsessed with supporting my kids dreams, as harebrained as they might be. Truth be told, I think climbing will make me a better human along the way.
Turning fifty has proven to be a bellwether birthday. I am not lamenting the event, or resenting it, but I have had opportunity to mark the occasion with more reflection than any other time in my life (and that is almost certainly an exaggeration). Regardless, I am very aware of the tumult in my life. I am keenly attuned to the fact that the horizon has shifted, perhaps not in a bad way, but shifted nonetheless.
Turning fifty for me has been very much akin to the act of driving in the last spike in the infamous Canadian railway line of old. A momentous occasion which hardly anyone, other than those present, payed any attention to when it happened. What is clear is that there was a lot of ground work which occurred prior to that last spike being hammered into the ground. So too, has it been with me this past year or so. I feel as though the ground has shifted (in a tectonic kind of way) under my feet, and that I am now on some other plain altogether. I will write more of this later (Upturned Applecart and all).
What I know to be true, is that nothing will ever be the same again. Turning fifty has marked a forever shift in my life, where I know that I can’t go back. I can’t go back spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally (although in this regard there is nothing I would want to go back to). I feel like (others have validated this) one of the pair of the Muppet’s Statler or Waldorf, either one will do. I relish the notion that I have graduated to the box of life where I can sit and hurl commentary down at the madness that I am watching take place in the arena of life in front of me. Now to write like that, unencumbered, free from the care of criticism, judgment, ridicule and scorn. Oh right, what you write on the internet stays on the internet forever.
For now, I will tend to my leaky bucket, and perhaps, even go in search of a watered well to commandere, I am too damn old to dig a new one for my self.
I have been attending a marketing conference in Banff the past couple of years. I know, the hardships I endure in business. Seriously Banff is such a spectacular venue to hold a conference. The marketing conference is dubbed “The Gathering” which honours and features brands that have achieved cult like followers. One of the sessions this year was hosted by Tom Herbst, Head of Global Marketing for The North Face. I was struck today by what he started the session with, a simple black slide which had the following statement written on it.
It is a very dramatic way to start a presentation. He then talked about taking the job at The North Face, looking forward to working on a brand that was about more than getting people simply to buy more stuff. He talked about promoting a brand that he thought could make a difference by how it engaged with the world. He talked about The North Face’s recent “Walls are meant for Climbing” campaign which stands in contrast to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his attempt to build his wall on the border to Mexico. He also recognized that he was moving to a company that was by all accounts, a giant of a company, with ubiquitous products, scattered all around the market place. He posed the question how do you deal with a company this big, how do you differentiate it in the market place, then answering, you “make it a friendly giant”. I must admit, up until that point, I had never really considered The North Face to be about quality. I didn’t pay much attention to it. I had occasionally purchased products in the past, if they had been on sale, but I was definitely not a fan. I had no idea of the companies history, the birth of a clothing company grown from the climbing culture centred around Yosemite National Park. I had no idea that the curves beside the copy were there to represent the mountain Half Dome, on which climbers made the trek up its wall, the north face of Half Dome. It never ceases to fascinate me how much knowing the back story of someone or some company changes one’s perspective. You can think someone is aloof, a jerk, self-centred and then when you get to know them, all of those preconceptions fall away and you are left with something completely different.
I started writing this post back in February, and then let it sit in the draft folder until now. Maybe it was destined to be finished now, in the aftermath of Alberta’s recent election. We have, apparently joined the trend of ultra polarized politics in our neck of the woods, now too. Respectful Human Discourse be Damned! I was astounded this past couple of weeks at the ramped up rhetoric and fear mongering that we devolved into. Regardless of one’s political views, right, left, or centre, we are all fucking humans, and as such, deserve to dole out and receive mutual respect.
The North Face has adopted “never stop exploring” as their tag line. When you visit their homepage you are confronted with the following statement under a blur of slides exploring us to unplug, log off, turn off…
Exploration is a spirit within all of us.It's time to unplug from our always-on lives, turn on Explore Mode and connect in real life to the world, each other and ourselves. Never stop exploring.
I must admit that I have engaged with this brand in a new way. Watching the Oscar wining movie Free Solo didn’t hurt either. However I look at it, I am now a fan of the brand, and what they stand for. Of course they still want to sell me stuff, that much is clear, but they also want me to be a better fucking human, and that in and of itself is a bold corporate stance.
Having turned fifty this week, I think that The North Face has had an influence on me, along with the persistence of my fifteen year old son, who continues to treat me like a much younger version of myself. I have declared this next ten years of my life to be the decade of adventure, and I am going to do things I never thought I would do. Don’t panic, I am not going to be reckless, and start jumping out of airplanes or skiing down shear faces, but I am going to hike, climb, play, engage, unplug, and revel in the beauty all around me. I want to know more people for who they truly are, and see more of this amazing place I call home. Take deep breaths of Alberta, British Colombia, CANADA and find diverse and complex sojourners along the way. I want to be a better Fucking Human.
on a clear blue sky day, light spring breeze,
mostly green grass beneath crazy coloured spiked shoes.
Twain’s infamous walk interrupted, many times in fact, alongside progeny and comrades, welcoming me newly into the club, ubiquitous in its slack membership.
A day to remember, perhaps, although unremarkable, the rich brew landing familiar on my tongue,
eyes squinting into the light for the thousand time, habits long since learned, still remembered.
An unusual midweek gathering of friends, embracing, mourning, celebrating a rich table, and those around it inclined.
Familiar and novel, a ribbon dangling in the middle, two sides pulling hard, with no apparent victor.
Evidence of change, in the air, carried along on well worn shoes.
A white cross on red, atop every pole in the little land, marks the occasion,
although not for me, but for her Majesty, I am just along for the ride.
Stepping over the threshold, adorned in all that is familiar, known, wrinkled and shaped with time,
the blue sky beckons, each day now shorter,
more precious in my mind.
Bent sticks propel me beyond the crest.
Atop, the horizon in the distance. A well worn path snakes down the other side, back and forth, like a rope tossed from above, by some drunken architect.
To one side, a bench with a dissecting view, beckons me to linger. Creaky knees relinquish their burden. To my right the past, and the unknown over the other shoulder.
An intersection in time. Glinting sun dogs obscure the view both ways, warping both memories and dreams. Unlike Jacob, there is no ladder; no opponent to wrestle, no wrenched hip for a souvenir.
And yet, there is blessing, found upon that bench.
A tattered map unfolds before me, no clear direction indicated other than perspective. Perhaps enough.
Wooden slats gnaw at my back, protesting knees once again bare a familiar burden. Onwards I journey while there is still light.
I have been in the company, on and off again, with an unwelcome friend for over twenty-five years. Truth be told, while I know this friend quite well at least from the outside, I have had very little idea of what this “friend” is truly like. It is only recently that I am starting to truly get to know this “friend” intimately, and not simply through association. Who is this crappy friend, you are thinking? Don’t worry it is most certainly none of you.
This unwelcome friend that I have had an acquaintance with is depression. For over a quarter century I have watched my warrior wife battle the company of this unwelcome friend, and any who know her would attest to her ability to wrestle and mostly triumph, despite it all. I have watched from the sidelines, at times cheering, but silent for a lot of those years, an onlooker, baffled and bewildered at how this “friend” could be so persistent, so unrelenting in its quest to control.
Until recently, I was merely a bystander, someone familiar with the unwelcome effects, the morose fog and invisible weight, but never intimate, never truly comprehending. That friendship was never really mine, it was alway vicarious. That unwelcome friendship has become something intimate these past few months. Thankfully not persistent, not debilitating, but far more real and unwanted than I ever imagined. I euphemistically have taken to calling these occurrences “one of those days” but they are more than that if I am going to be honest.
I am still getting to know this unwelcome friend, but what I dislike the most about him is the energy that he demands from me. Take yesterday for example. The day started like most, my routine in tact, breakfast, emails, typical Monday tasks. As the day progressed though, I found myself struggling more and more with this invisible weight, bearing down on me, trying to pin me to the ground. Just the thought of going out for a walk later in the afternoon seemed daunting. I ended up outside, thankfully, feeling somewhat relieved afterwards, but the effort to achieve that goal seemed disproportionate. I have no idea why this “friend” has decided to inflict himself upon me, now, after so many years of simply staring blankly at him. Regardless, I have a new perspective of the heroic efforts of my warrior wife all these past years (hopefully migraines aren’t next for me, sporting a headache as I write this post).
What I am not willing to do is let this friendship evolve in secret, in the dark corners of my world. I have no illusions that this friendship that I have recently discovered will be embraced, or understood, but I will let HIM be seen. I am not sure how long HE plans to hang around, how hard I will have to struggle against his whims, but I figure that writing about him, and pulling him out into the light might hopefully have some effect. It is now an unwelcome friendship for us both. One that I hope will end sooner rather than later. But until then, I am going to keep up with my walking, I think with a real backpack, perhaps even filled with some actual weights.
On the heels of Braving the Wilderness, I am officially adopting “speak truth to bullshit” as at least on of my mantras going forward. Today has been one of those days! I am functioning on three hours of sleep, the joys of visiting your in-laws and sleeping in a strange bed.
So despite the lack of wine as an excuse, it feels like I have had a day long hangover. Currently 9:15 and looking forward to the pillow, and hopefully some decent sleep.
With that said, a young man I know is currently in hospital in Edmonton with a brain bleed, and his dad is having a far worse day than I. How do you deal with the reality that your son, in his tender years, will likely not pull through? Fuck if I know? My friend Maddie (my spiritual director) texted me and asked me to petition on their behalf, knowing full well that I am very much conflicted about that simple request. In respect for her, and them, I had a very rude conversation (perhaps with myself) where I expressed my frustration and anger with how unfair their situation is, and how unfair this world can be at times (well if we are speaking truth to bullshit, all of the time).
I am very fortunate, I know this. And knowing it, and living it, is part of the problem. Life all seems so random, so unfair, so fucking unjust. So for now, all I can be, at least in this regard is thankful.
Given my lack of energy today, I have been a bit of a sports lump. I have watched golf, baseball, and hockey. While watching hockey today I couldn't help but notice the pride with which the NHL, and Hockey Night in Canada is touting its very first broadcast of a hockey game tomorrow night in Cree. Let me first say how much I think that this is a good thing. Hockey is something which indeed offers hope to some of the youth of the First Nations in this land. And offering a broadcast of a game in a traditional language is a small step in the right direction.
With all of that said, it is nothing close to enough. Our Prime Minister is fond of the idea that he is THE defender of First Nations in Canada. I used to work for someone like that. We called him the “Great White Father”, not an endearing monicker. While he loves to talk the talk, his walk is severely lacking. All we have to look at is the housing crises on reserves across this nation. The lack of potable water, the lack of adequate housing, the epidemic of black mold, just to name a few, is evidence of how far we still need to go. I have many friends who are committed to addressing the needs of those in third world countries, which while noble in terms of intensions, fails to acknowledge the myriad of issues rife for address here at home.
Canadians are so easily outraged at intolerance directed at minorities, but are largely happy to ignore the injustice in their own back yards when it comes to the plight of Canada’s First Nations. I doubt many, if any of you who read this blog, have actually visited a reserve. Truthfully it has been ten years since I have visited one. I spent a lot of time on reserves while I practiced law, and what I encountered there troubled me then. When I got into coffee and started visiting coffee producing countries, my world was then filled with the poverty and injustice of Africa and Central America. The simple truth is that the world is filled with poverty, and injustice. It is overwhelming. And yet, it should demand our attention. It should require more than a telecast of a hockey game in Cree. It should demand houses that are not Petri dishes for black mold. It should demand water supplies that provide safe drinking water, in a country in possession of more fresh water than any other nation on earth. It should result in a Federal Government that actually walks the talk, and deals with their fiduciary obligations of signing treaties (avoiding wars) decades ago. The poverty and injustice in our world requires more than lip service.
I have no illusion that a conservative government led by Andrew Sheer will solve these problems. In fact, they will probably make them worse. I am under no illusion that re-electing Rachel Notley’s NDP will make the lives of First Nations better in Alberta. And I very much doubt that Jason Kenny will lead the charge in terms of addressing injustice. But what I do know is that individual Albertans, Canadians, can solve this issue. If we demanded that our leaders finally addressed the century long injustices, we could perhaps see true reconciliation occur in our life time. A pipe dream perhaps. Albertans would be required to apply their outrage at intolerance upon themselves and look into the mirror, recognize their own prejudices and demand justice. A tall order, perhaps?
Enough ranting? Well I am almost fifty, and I figure I have very little to lose. Be offended if you must, but it is high time that I started speaking truth to bullshit.
The countdown continues. I now have an election filled birthday to look forward to; at least something will be happening that day.
The creek is running again, my first spring days in the river valley. Walking down the trail, to wafts of thawing equine manure reminds me of my youth. I haven’t spotted the beavers yet, but they must be excited with the onslaught of spring too. As much as I am enjoying walks with only a tee shirt on, I am still looking forward to a couple of more days riding on snow capped peaks. The boy and I are hitting White Fish Montana next week!
Having spent most of the winter immeshed in fiction (audio and Harry Potter) I decided recently to refresh with some Brené Brown, and have been listening to Braving the Wilderness again. The last two chapters more than once. It has been a good reminder of some insights that I think I have misplaced these past months.
I feel like this next decade needs to be lived on the back of “speak truth to bullshit”. I know I have remained silent on far too many occasions regarding bullshit in my life. Take a simple example that occurred at work today discussing new coffee bag labels. Currently we have a little symbol on the label for either espresso or drip. Both of these symbols are bullshit. Coffee can be brewed in a myriad of methods, and no method is technically superior. One roast is not better than another for espresso; at Transcend we brew espresso with almost all of our coffees. It is just that the market perpetuates a misunderstanding about espresso vs drip coffee which needs to be abandoned. Which is why I emphatically declared today that the symbols will be phasing out this year - speak truth to bullshit (I know a pretty minor example of this, but one nonetheless).
I also was reminded that I need to get to the place (not there yet, even after fifty years) where I am content with who I am. No more striving, no more hustling, no more trying to fit in. This quote which Brown frequently uses has become, for me too, a lightening rod.
You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
I am beginning to realize that I have always been an outlier. Yet truthfully, I have kicked against the goads in this regard. I have chaffed at this my whole life, trying to ignore and convince myself of some alternate reality. I am beginning to wonder whether this internal struggle is the root cause of so much of my angst. I say things, in ways that get me in trouble all of the time. I say things at home, at work, amongst friends which get me into trouble. Well, my wife says that it is not what I say but how I say it that gets me into trouble. She may very well be right in that, but to date, I still have a hard time separating, the message content from the tone or method of delivery. Obviously this is something I need to work on, albeit I might need to employ someone full-time to carry around a mirror, so I can figure out what the hell I am doing wrong.
Over the past couple of years I have become a creature of comfort. I like staying nice places, eating good things, drinking great wine. While all of this is not bad in and of itself, I wonder whether it is indicative of something more. My kid (now fifteen) is pushing me hard. I am rock climbing again, thirty years later. We are going to get our lead climbing certificate next week. He wants to go climb El Capitan, and he will, and perhaps I will join him. Even as I type this, I am afraid of the thought of being on a cliff three thousand feet above the ground. But I think I need to do it with him. I think I need to embrace the real wilderness, so that I can embrace the fact that I live and have almost always lived there.
I started Transcend thirteen years ago with a dream of building community. I have been chasing a ghost of community since 1992. My experience living at Legg Lodge in Lethbridge almost three decades ago, has tormented me in many ways. The need for belonging has been a harsh master for much of my life. But as Maya said recognizing that you belong no place, and every place is the real key to freedom. These next years, I hope, will be built on a foundation of belonging first to myself, something that has alluded me all these years. And with that, I know that I will belong in other places, hopefully allowing me to live in such a way that my mirror-steward will have to seek out another benefactor.
I know that I am a paradox. I have always been one. I have poked and prodded and pushed and challenged all my life. I have been the burr under many saddles. I am beginning to see with more clarity, that this is who I am. Yes I need to learn to be kinder to strangers, and maybe even my friends. But I also need to be kinder to myself and embrace the fact that I am that outlier, the guy who lives best in the wilderness. And yes the price is high, as I know all too well. Perhaps with a little luck, I might just figure out, sooner rather than later, how to enjoy the rewards.
Rummaging through an old wooden box (that I incidentally built forty years ago) filled with memorabilia, I stumbled upon a small item which almost ended up in the trash. It was encased in an odd, cheap vinyl packet designed to hold a ring, I think. Just as I was about to toss it into the garbage, something stopped me. I opened it to find a small two-piece pin inside. One of the parts is a turquoise piece of glass set into a clasp with the words Kathyrn School etched around it. The ringless stone is attached to a delicate chain linked to another little pin with the word Honors engraved onto it. I was surprised to see this little item from my past, as I had no recollection of keeping it.
The year 1981 will forever stand out in my academic career as the only time I worked hard enough to achieve the fleeting distinction of honours. in hindsight, and to my own shame, I was definitely capable of achieving that award more than once, but never applied myself to that end. It is indictment on my self-discipline given that I attended primary school for another six years, and then spent eleven years in post secondary. My wife can attest to the fact that when it came to choosing between studying or doing something, almost anything else, the latter almost always won out.
So what was it about 1981? The answer is simple, actually, and I have reflected upon it more than once over my lifetime. The answer to Honors in grade six, was Mr. Norton. Granted, my memory is a bit sketchy given that his influence occurred over thirty-eight years ago. But what I do remember is that he inspired me, and not just me, most of our little ragtag class making the transition from elementary school to junior high in a small rural, oddly named (Kathyrn) school. I can remember him teaching us base five mathematics. He told us that university students were studying this. It made us feel smart. That knowledge made us want to learn more. Honestly, I can’t remember too many specifics about that year. I can remember having a massive tinfoil ball fight (after one of our monthly Peter’s hamburger days) and in the mayhem, our then Principal Mr. Minor got beaned in the forehead after stepping into the classroom. Our class missed out on the next couple of hamburger days.
Looking back, as I approach the fifty mark, I know this about Mr. Norton. More than any teacher in my past, he inspired me to reach beyond what was easy, and in so doing, he brought the best out of me. It has pained me to watch my kid struggle through school, in ways that I never had to. I never found school hard, but I rarely found it engaging either. My kid often finds school hard (unless it has to do with athletics or construction) but also has rarely found it engaging. Why is that? Why do we persist in trying to educate kids with the same dry, disengaging strategies, decades upon decades old. It doesn’t have to be that way. Countries like Finland and Denmark are making bold strides in changing the way they educate with dramatic results.
Mr. Norton found a way to challenge us, inspire us, in ways that drew us up, beyond what was acceptable and into a state of the exceptional. He created an environment that made us want to learn, want to work hard, want to impress him with our efforts. Despite my failing memories, I now have this little pin which serves as a milestone. It is a tangible reminder of what can be, when one is inspired to dream, create, and strive for one’s best. I know, this notion lives in tension, almost opposition to what I was writing about in the last post, in terms of embracing the idea of being ordinary. Perhaps that has something to do with why Mr. Norton quit teaching, not long after I finished grade six. He quit inspiring kids, and chose instead to raise sheep. I have no idea why he did this. Maybe our class was an anomaly? Maybe not everyone embraced the vision that he had for them. I have often wondered why he quit, why he chose sheep over kids? Maybe because on the balance, the sheep followed when called. I would like to ask him. I would like to thank him for that year. For giving me the gift of knowing what is possible in the midst of the ordinary.
ps. if anyone knows where Mr. Norton is today, please let me know. I sincerely would like to chat with him.
A recent conversation with a friend, about the future of Transcend ended with him saying these words to me:
Poul, you need to learn how to be kinder to yourself.
Over the past six months, this message has been rattling around my head, spoken by people like Brené Brown and others closer to home who have been speaking into this messy journey I am on. As I told him, I reiterate here, it is one thing to know that, and quite another to live it.
As I have been more reflective of late, I am beginning to discover long held habits and narratives that dominate my mindset, both consciously and subconsciously. One of those narratives which rarely pokes its head above the surface, but lingers beneath the surface, shaping my perspective is a powerful narrative that I am a failure. For many of you who know me, I am guessing that you would have a difficult time affirming that. Even I have a difficult time with that narrative. But despite those reservations, I have to acknowledge that it is a very powerful voice within my head.
One of the things that I have become more aware of is how fiercely independent I am. Jonice Webb labels it as counter-dependency. On the surface, counter dependence can look like a very positive thing, being confident, self-reliant, competent, all of these traits are valued by most in our society. They are indeed traits that prove extremely valuable in regards to being an entrepreneur. But as I am discovering, being counter-dependent is not a healthy state to live one’s life in. Aloofness, refusing to ask for help, emotional distance, short bouts of mysterious depression, are all indicators of counter-dependency, are all apt descriptions of a guy I getting to know.
So much of our personality as an adult is formed during our childhood years. Everything I am reading is illuminating the profound impact our growing up years have on us, regardless of whether we are aware it is happening. My childhood was complicated. It wasn’t bad, or abusive, or in any real way traumatic apart from what we might call growing up in a normal environment. But what I am learning is that as children, we respond to events, subconsciously, which have far reaching implications.
I was adopted. I knew that from very early on. It was never a problem for me, I freely talked about it, even as a young child. I have discounted the impact that being adopted has had on me almost up to this very day. While the jury is still out, I think there is a good chance that I am in denial regarding its impact on my life. I know that the constant teasing and bullying is a key part of the equation. Big ears, bright red hair, glasses, all impacted me in terms of how I grew to view myself. Subconsciously I shut down emotionally to protect myself, as I have learned, a necessary coping mechanism for kids, which now as an adult, has significant negative implications. I found it interesting recently, going through a memorabilia box and looking at all of my school pictures. I started wearing glasses in grade one. Interestingly, not one of my school photos has me wearing glasses. Perhaps an sign of being self conscious, LOL.
Fiercely independent, mentally tough, risk-adverse, reckless, passionate, stubborn, intimidating, domineering, indifferent, opinionated, pretentious are all words that have been said about me, and probably more importantly, by me. These are words that I use to describe me, it wasn’t a hard list to come up with, and it definitely isn’t complete. And then when you pull the curtain back, behind all of these forward facing words, is another one, which lurks in the shadows - failure. What?! How can you possibly think that, look at your life. Ah, but you don’t REALLY know me, do you? Don’t know the real story, don’t see how I have let so many people down, not lived up to the expectations, both real and projected. If people really knew me, they would see it clearly. What is the term bouncing around out there right now, Imposter Syndrome? I know, I know, we have a label for everything right now; modern day maladies are a dime-a-dozen. But, as the hard protective shell that I have lived in for most of my life, begins to crack, I can see now how much impact my narrative has had on me, and on those closest to me. My wife has endured twenty-seven years of my emotional paralyzation. My fifteen year-old kid, one of the best things in my life, has suffered from it, suffered from my harshness, my anger, my emotional distance. I am scrambling to right those wrongs, before he springs from the nest. It has had a huge impact on Transcend, on employees along the way. It has had a massive impact on me, reinforcing that negative narrative, resulting in my own avoidance tendencies and behaviour. It has impacted friends, family, and investors. The hard truth is that I am beginning to see how vast an impact that narrative has had, and see now how important it is to find the pause button, no more than that, the rewind and delete button (a reference to cassette recorders for those of you too far away from fifty). It is time to record a new narrative, one that is kinder, that is more generous. I know there is much to celebrate in the almost fifty years I have spent on this spinning orb. The challenge though remains, moving from a place of knowing something to a place of living something.
The other night, while sipping wine and conversing at some friend’s place, a wise man in the room said that we need to learn to embrace our ordinariness, give up our quest for significance. I challenged him as he spoke these sentiments, but upon reflection I think he is right, I did say he is wise. Striving, grasping at significance has caused me to perpetuate a myth. I am hoping as I crest the hill of fifty, that I can settle into a place where I can embrace being ordinary. Where I can celebrate and rest in the knowledge that where I find myself is where I am supposed to be, and that if I never move from here, that is fine, no more than fine, it is good.
You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.
Sitting in the large gymnasium this evening at Scona High School, I was almost reduced to tears. No it wasn’t the school jazz group serenading us, although they were good, and it wasn’t the drama team’s opening act of Big Fish either. I found myself fighting back tears at the prospect of my son starting high school there in the Fall. How the hell can he already be old enough to go to high school? Scona did a fine job with their open house, and moved him from I doubt it, to a very strong maybe.
When the hell did I start grade ten, oh right, it was 1985. That was the year “We are the World” topped the charts, the first .com was registered, Coca Cola blundered with New Coke, you could go to a movie for under $3 and if I had the cash or the inkling, I could have bought my first house for $75,000. I was entering grade ten almost thirty-five years ago, and now I have a fifteen year old who is about to do the same. No wonder turning fifty is such a mind-fuck.
We were talking later this evening in the hot tub about what attending high school will be like for him and I remarked that no matter what, he will have a better experience than I did. My kid is the well liked, popular kind of kid, good looking, athletic, friendly, outgoing. Most of the things that I wasn’t in high school. For that I am thankful, and I told him as much. While he finds the academic aspects of school much more difficult than I did, he seems to have the social aspect down. I recounted my awkward years, bright red hair (not cool ginger as it is now) big ears, and glasses, not to mention I was geek before there was geek, and I was an average athlete in a school where there were barely enough people to field most teams. He slid over, after, put his arm around me, and said that he was sorry that I had to go through that. Another thing my kid has on me, EMPATHY; he must get it from his mother.
There are only forty days left for me to revel in my forties. I guess I am entering a twisted sort of personal lent (40 days before Easter) where I get to count down the days until fifty. Typically people give things up for lent, to prepare themselves for the coming of Easter. I don’t think that is the right thing to do in my case. I think my twisted personal lentish period should be filled with doing, noticing, embracing, remembering, reflecting, and maybe a little eating and drinking, but for sure, it should be a time full of “inging”. Then maybe, if I am lucky, I will be prepared to step over the threshold that my son stands pointing at, whether he wants to or not.
The Oxford dictionary defines confluence as an act or process of merging; two rivers coming together to form a single confluence. Lately it seems as though my life has been impacted by several confluences.
Without any design, I have found myself in the midst of three interesting influences. Including my recent trip to the mountains, George Orwell’s novel 1984 and the Netflix series Black Earth Rising.
While driving home through Banff National Park, I muttered more to myself than anyone (I am prone to this behaviour) about how being in the mountains is good for the soul. My wife sitting next to me, overheard my muffled utterance and asked me why, and truthfully I was at a loss to explain my statement. Upon further reflection, I am still left with a bit of “je ne sais pas” but I also have, perhaps, a little bit to put my finger on. More than being awestruck by the scope of the peaks, or their snow capped beauty, it is in part their towering permanence towering over me. They have been where they are for eons, and I am but a blip, passing quickly by. Then there is the experience of standing on top of one of those peaks (Whitehorn) squinting in all directions from the summit, sunlight blinding. On Sunday, bluebird skies abruptly reaching upwards from sparkling white ridges, all I could utter was “fuck it is amazing up here”.
Sharing the day with my kid, who is far more brave than I, being challenged by him to ski down a run so steep that my heart and mind raced with anxiety and exhilaration. Seeing his joy, his excitement, the satisfaction of riding terrain that few would dare, filled me at the same time with trepidation and pride. I think all of this was at least in part, an answer to the why? There is something about mountains. There is something about granite uprisings that confound our understanding, our mortality, our reason, or at least mine. And then there is the cold, the snow, the ice, all of these, speak to me, convey something deep, too deep for me to comprehend. Maybe it has to do with the Scottish blood running through my veins? Who knows. We, my son and I are somehow bound together by the cold, the beauty and harshness of winter. It is a season I relish, long for, and likely will never despise, no matter how old I grow, or how loud my old bones protest.
Onto Orwell; more relevant today than ever, in the shadow of the puppet to the south. Freedom is slavery. Thought police seek to enslave, blue overalls rewrite history, eradicate it and mold it into a fabricated fiction. Truth is nothing but a mist burning up in the heat of the sun. How is it possible that a book penned seventy years ago can be more pertinent today, than it was when first conceived? Prophecy, prognostication, call it what you will, but as I read, I am challenged, caught off-guard by my present reality.
And then a story about Rwanda, the genocide of eight hundred thousand Tutsi slaughtered by their Hutu cousins. Oblivious to the holocaust at the time, caught up in being a president of students, occupied by trivial issues, budgets, Ralph Klein, a new library. How is it that a dramatization could strike so deep? How is it that two weeks in Burundi eight years hence could impact me so deeply. The divide between tribes, etched in my soul. The plight of Africa seared across my soul. Broken promises, poverty, hopelessness, chaos. A night of tears, torrents streaming down my cheeks, haunt me still.
Confluence. Different streams, past and present merge into a torrent of unrest; thoughts of jumbled poetry jostle themselves onto a page. And then to end it all, two nights of the Hobbit brought to life on a screen. The magic and genius of Tolkien adding to the mix. Parting words of my son, as he makes his way to bed…. How does he do it dad? Happiness and sadness at the same time, profound observations at fifteen, I think, almost fifty now. Thankfully he won’t have to wait as long as I, to unlock the mystery, he is already riding the path towards wisdom.