Regarding mislaid hats and passing realisations

“ummm — I just checked and — wow — just — wow. The Monkees Good Times is Number One on Amazon — solid 5 stars — and I’d just like to say — wow — and ummm just — you know — thanks. no kiddin’. Played a song and someone’s listenin’. I gotta find my hat.”

Michael Nesmith, Facebook post (May 28, 2016)

For those of us who love music, 2016 has been, thus far, a rough year. After sharing some thoughts about the loss of David Bowie and Glenn Frey, I couldn’t bring myself to do the same for His Majesty, Prince. I just couldn’t.

I started to do so – there’s an abandoned draft in the folder – but the words I could come up with didn’t seem adequate descriptors of the talent and impact of the man. He was of ‘my’ generation in a way that the other two weren’t. Whilst David and the Eagle(s) were always and forever a part of my awareness of things that are good and wondrous about this life I lead, I met Prince at about the same time as the rest of the world did so.

I can remember the first time I saw him so distinctly…  and every little bit of the video for ‘Little Red Corvette’ remains highly detailed in my memory (oddly-functioning encyclopedia that it is).

There is, and can be, no one like him. I know that I wrote that about Bowie, too. Two icons – lost to us (save through the catalogues they left us , and the impact of those songs and their other, myriad, contributions) months apart.

He visited my hometown (a place he loved and where he lived, for a time) shortly before we lost him. I was in the midst of the move and setting up house so took a pass on the show. Chatting about it with a friend, we both agreed that we’d catch him next time he comes through town.

Sigh.

And then, just a short time later, Gord Downie announced to the world that we are losing him too. The Tragically Hip will tour one last time – in support of their latest studio album and to give all us Canadians a chance to say farewell to our most Canadian band. Ever.

(Don’t agree with my assessment? I’m happy to discuss. But I’ll win. Certain things are inarguable. This is one of them.)

I’m not going to talk about the whole debacle surrounding ticket sales to said concerts – although I loathe the giant ticket conglomerates only slightly less than I despise those vultures who cry ‘free market’ and are benefiting from Gord’s illness – and the loyalty and love of his fans – and reselling the tickets at exorbitant prices.

Instead I’ll say a little something (in passing, since I’m not going to eulogize someone who remains amongst us) about my deep affection for this band and all that they have meant and represented to me over the manymany years I’ve had the good fortune to be part of their sphere of influence.

I hung out at Queen’s University in Kingston a fair bit when I was a younger me, so I got to see the Hip, on more than one occasion, in bars and small clubs as they began their climb to dominance over cottage-and-campus playlists across this country of ours.

I saw them in large venues, too. A couple of nights in that place in Ottawa where their hockey team plays, (they keep changing its name), for example, the second of which featured nothing but B-sides and a 20-minute version of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ that was classic Gordie.

Since I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a fair bit of time with them, I’ve decided not stress too much at my inability to see them on this last tour. I’ll happily pay for the album when it is available, and hang out with them on my own, and in carefully-chosen company (non-believers in their status as our national band need not apply), whenever I have the chance. On my back deck, or in front of a fire or down by the lake at the cottage.

I’ve mentioned before that, for me, in many ways, ‘Last American Exit’ remains the definitive Hip tune. It very much speaks to their unconcern about the development (or lack thereof) of a huge fan-base in the States, and their eternal presence in their home and native land. It’s also the first song of theirs I heard – and the first Hip vinyl I purchased. Still love it (and have it back in my hot little hands after the years in storage).

Lately, though, the sentimental/nostalgic tune that keeps hitting me in the heart is this one:

(WordPress won’t let me insert videos any longer. Unless I want to pay for the privilege. Not going to happen.)

First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life…

You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century (this is our life)
You are ahead by a century

And disappointing you is getting me down

Like all their songs (there’s an entire history of Canada in their lyrics to be learned, if you listen closely), ‘Ahead by a Century’ speaks to a particular time-and-place, while being – simultaneously – universal in theme and scope.

(I can see that hornets’ nest. Been there, been stung by that.)

It’s hard not to feel that his voice – a voice I’ve known and loved for almost 30 years – is speaking to me directly. Through this song (through all their songs, all their talent) and through the reality of the health situation that may rob us of Gord.

There isn’t enough time, folks.

2016 is bringing home that message in a bigbig way.

Recently I realized (and expressed the realisation in an email exchange with one of my oldest buds) that I am doing the absolute wrong thing with my life (and that is saying a whole lot, given that I have spent most of my life avoiding subscription to most of those things that many people would deem ‘absolute’).

Part of that realisation stems from frustration and feeling under-appreciated and under-utilized and, simultaneously, over-burdened, to be sure. But more of it – most of it – comes from the awareness that we are sinking, as a species, and I’m not doing much of anything to help us swim.

I need to do better. I need to use the talents I can call upon to impact and influence as best I can.

I’m not doing that right now.

I’m trying to figure out how to change that.

I need to stop disappointing. That’s something that’s most certainly bringing me down.

‘When it starts to fall apart, man it really falls apart.’ True dat, Gordie.

But. In the midst of all that dissolution, we don’t always have to look that hard to find the inspiration to (re)build.

When Davy Jones passed away in 2012 he took a big piece of my heart with him. I love The Monkees. I always have done. (I’ve written about them before, too, but I’m not even going to try to link the posts. Not enjoying the ‘updates’ to the composition page here in WP).

So when rumours started that the remaining three guys were thinking about a 50th anniversary album… Be still my holey heart.

With contributions from all kinds of interesting peeps (including XTC’s Andy Partridge, and my beloved Paul Weller), and recordings from back-in-the-day that let Davy’s voice yet be heard, this album makes all of me smile in a reallyreally big way.

Suddenly, everyone seems to be talking about The Monkees. I couldn’t be happier about that. They’re getting some much-belated and well-earned props (not that they’ve ever felt the need to bemoan their heretofore lack thereof), which is awesome. More than that, they’re demonstrating the power of well-crafted songs that can transcend genre and era, both.

In a world of increasingly-auto-tuned ‘musical’ acts, I can’t help but smile at the irony that the original ‘manufactured’ band of the 60’s is topping the charts in 2016. I. Love. It. I’m gloating and glowing, all at the same time. And getting shivers listening to songs like this one:

While I do love them all, Papa Nez has always been a personal hero of mine. He has invented and reinvented himself so many times (invention must run in his family) – always pushing against whatever envelopes he might encounter – creating new and different means of expressing those things he feels some examination.

His innovation and refusal to be categorized or compartmentalized are inspirational to the Nth degree.

In a recent interview about all this, Michael was asked about his thoughts on what, exactly, might be driving this particular resurgence and receptiveness to what a bunch of old(er) guys have to offer a somewhat jaded and superficial music-buying public (forgive my admittedly-biased editorializing).

His response? Well, the real answer is, “I don’t know.” It’s obviously plugged into something that’s very deep. People who come to it at an early age get impressed by it in a way you wouldn’t if you discovered it when you’re older. But it certainly speaks to a kind of innocence, something that does endure. Those are spiritual qualities that don’t go away. You may lose your innocence, but you don’t lose your sense of innocence, is what that means. It’s a nice thing to revisit.’

(The whole chat can be read at: http://www.soundandvision.com/content/new-sounds-and-good-times-michael-nesmith-monkees#OHyg02rLMKQQdds8.97)

That depth of which he speaks? For me it’s about a connectivity, linked to an appreciation for and understanding of the absolutely (there’s that word again) required role of art and craft – and the important, if not always tangible or quantifiable, vitality and progressiveness that inform and permit the appearance in our world of the ensuing results, given to us by those who have the courage, and the innovation, and the talent, to show the rest of us how they see things.

I won’t, likely, have an opportunity to see, live, this most recent demonstration of a lifetime of that art and craft as presented by my remaining Monkee-dudes. I won’t see the Hip that last one more time, either.

Instead, I will get back into the world of music and its magic when I go to see Lord Huron next month. Tickets for their show don’t require taking a second mortgage on the house (or putting cash into the hands of scalpers), and, after more than a year of loving their flavour of creative input, I’m looking forward to participating in its appreciation, as they bring their tour to Toronto.

(check out this one – my current fave from their most recent album – if you’re curious about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TGld4a5Mb4)

When I showed him Michael’s Facebook post about the success of their new album, my friend, the incomparable Len, said: “FIND YOUR HAT, MIKE. STAT.”

Len’s plea, that Papa Nez might be able to navigate his competing responsibilities and commitments (his explanation about his inability to join Micky and Peter for the tour’s duration involves a deadline to be met for his most recent novel, among other things) and provide us with the opportunity to be a part of something new and old and complete just one more time, resonated more than I can explain.

If Michael Nesmith, with everything that he does already to improve and inform and entertain us all, can find some time in his schedule… I need to step up and sort myself out.

So I’m going to have a look for my missing headgear – such as it is, and set aside for too long though it may have been – with an eager ear tuned to the sources of dedication, inspiration and example upon which I can call.

Not enough time for disappointment and disengagement.

Where did I put that hat?

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Circular Motion

A few millennia ago, back when I was a first year undergrad at university, one of my housemates (he remains one of my very best peeps) and I shared a tradition on Saturday nights.  Before we headed out for whatever fun and trouble that might find us, we started things off- just the two of us, generally- with a little time spent with a beer or two and some of our favourite music.

We called it Celtic Hour.

Okay- it wasn’t actually a tradition originating in Antiquity.  But I have been feeling the weight of the years a little of late, so thinking back on old times involves more taxing of the brain than once was the case.  First year uni seems like a longlonglong time ago.

The ‘all grown up’ tasks at hand seem to be multiplying exponentially and that To-Do list is stubbornly refusing to get any shorter.  New stuff keeps adding itself to the bottom before the top-most items have come close to being completed.  I’m sure that there’s some sort of reasonable explanation for this, but I have really started to feel like it’s a function of the perversity of the universe right about now.

Add to that the fact that the temperatures refuse to rise and the sun is playing shy… there’s been a real dearth of energy in my general vicinity.

It’s hard, even with best intentions, to stay motivated when loose ends that need tying apparently multiply by the hour.

Anyhoo…

Celtic Hour.

Fletcher and I would pop on some tunes by those Scottish and Irish troubadours we so love, and have a wee sing-along.  Although the songs varied week-to-week, the one that kicked it off always remained the same.

As the first notes of the traditional folk song- She Moved Through the Fair– led into Jim’s beloved voice, we would take our seats and raise our glasses to the week past and the one ahead.  The lyric’s of Belfast Child evoke a terrible period in Ireland’s long history, while still offering up hope for return and rebuilding (and the flip-side of the single was Mandela Day– another great song that has seen a resurgence in the past while.  Talk about an incredible double bill.  How freakin great are Simple Minds?!).

Sure the arrest (and subsequent release) of Gerry Adams last week brings up its own share of unpleasant reminders and debates that continue to rage in certain circles (I’m not touching any of that, so don’t even go there please), but the real reason I was casting my mind back to the song- and its Celtic Hour memories- is because there’s this one line

‘Life goes on…’

It won’t stop popping into my head.

Seriously.

Jim seems to be permanently in situ dans my tête (how’s that for a random mixing of languages?  And please forgive the unintended allusion to a Céline tune.  Snuck in there, it did.).

Generally, at least as it’s heard in my skull, the repetition offers both reassurance and admonition.  Although the critical reproof has been on the ascendent as the myriad tasks aren’t completed as quickly as I’d like.  I’ve been very focused on them- but said focus has also had something of an overall debilitating effect as well.

I’m not sure I’ve been coping all that well, to be honest.  I’ve been putting up a pretty good front, but despite some overwhelmingly positive things happening in my life I’m still reeling and trying to find my footing in the Dad-less world.

Meaning has been a little bit harder to find, and exhaustion- mental and physical- is almost ever-present.

Then… on Sunday while sorting through things at Dad’s, amongst some other extremely cool things we had never seen before (like a circa 1895 stereoscope with lots of neato pictures- who knows where THAT came from), I found some of Dad’s business envelopes- from wayway back when he worked downtown, before the company headquarters moved outside of the city’s core.

I remember visiting Dad at work as a small child- on days off from school and such- and I knew that his building was in the same general vicinity in which I am spending my 9-5 hours these days.

But the address on the envelopes?  The VERY building.  Where I work now.

Yep.

Same building.

Do you have any idea how many office towers there are in this town?  I don’t.  Not exactly.  But there are a lot.

I’ve written before about synchronicity and connections.  I believe in these things as manifestations of the reality that we all go together– as human beings who share a planet and biological origin.

But that kind of blew me away.

I have to admit, odd moments of grief aside, that I’ve been riding something of a pretty substantial high at my new employment gig.  I honestly love going there in the morning.  As I’ve been getting to know the people I work with, I grow ever more impressed with their commitment and professionalism and sense of community- and fun.  This is a group of people- and a company- that is affecting positive change every single day.  I’m loving it.  Did I mention that?

It’s a place that Dad, with his incredible and developed sense of social justice and drive for equality and equity of opportunity, would have felt at home.  Turns out he would have been right comfortable in the building itself.  Seeing as he spent a whole lot of time there 30+ years ago.

Since Sunday, I’ve been feeling him close to me more than ever.  I have one of the envelopes on my work desk, now- as a kind of tangible manifestation of that feeling.

It’s like something has circled round again.  Two of us in the same place- if removed by a couple of decades.

There’s this other song…

(Speaking of Scottish music/musicians)…

You know I love Donovan.

Not only is the song about happiness- and how it runs in a circular motion– it is a round.  A form of music featuring at least two voices singing the same melody but beginning at different times- and fitting together in harmony.

Brilliant.

Since the sun actually deigned to make an appearance today, I took a long stroll home, through the park, after work, thinking about the counterpoints- those independent yet harmonious lines- that make up our lives.

There were people out and about- riding bikes and skateboards, walking dogs and children- enjoying the sunshine.  I saw a woman stretched on the grass on her stomach feeding a pigeon Sun Chips from her hand.  A young man sat on a picnic table playing his guitar.

I thought about my new place of employment and the opportunities it affords- which now include a connection to Dad- and the fact that one of my other housemates from first year uni works in the building across the street.  We’ve had a couple of quick lunchtime encounters to try to catch up on more years than I care to count, and there will be a better opportunity on a patio sometime soon.

When I got home and checked email there was a message from that wonderful Being who spoke so beautifully at Dad’s memorial.

I woke up this morning and was very much aware of your presence. So…. this is me following up. I trust that you are OK and that all is well with your new job. I also trust and hope that you are finding your way thru this grief process.”

I’ve been feeling Dad’s presence all week.  It seems that someone was also feeling mine.  Someone who has recently circled back into my life.

Life goes on.

In a circular motion.

And it can be pretty damn beautiful.

P.S- There’s one more song that kept running through my head as I finished this post:

The great Harry Chapin.  It’s a song from my camp days, and it’s the tune that is ending my evening.

“It seems like I’ve been here before, I can’t remember when
But I got this funny feelin’ that I’ll be back once again
There’s no straight lines make up my life and all my roads have bends
There’s no clear-cut beginnings and so far no dead-ends…”

Sleep well, WordPressWorld.

‘4am in the morning’

A day to myself.

It’s been so long since I’ve had one of those…

All day yesterday- truly one of the longest days of my life (that whole ‘time is relative’ thing again)- I kept thinking that ‘if I can just keep standing until tomorrow…’

I have a day off.  I’ve given it to myself- and firmly told myself that I needn’t do anything today that I don’t want to be doing.  I have the rest of the week to get things done and to gear up for the start of my new job (!) next Monday.  Today is for quiet and rest and the beginning of the recovery of my resources- which are a little tapped out right now.

We hosted a lovely celebration of Dad’s life yesterday.  So many wonderful people coming together to speak about him- either as part of the ‘formal’ celebration (it was hardly formal in any traditional sense) or during the reception afterward.  So very many wonderful people.  Friends, family.  People I hadn’t seen in, literally, decades– yet who took some time out of their day to share their memories of Dad- and of Mum- and of my sisters and I when we were but wee things.

I am quite drained.  Emotionally, certainly, but physically as well.  I’m not sure what that’s about.  I feel like I’ve been running marathons or something- and I sure as heck ain’t no runner.

But I don’t do idleness well.  After sitting on the couch this morning- catching up on local news (why do I DO that to myself?), I’m itching to get something accomplished.  There are lists to be made (oh, how I love lists)- of thank you cards to be sent, tasks that need accomplishing as a means of getting going on the realities that require attention after such a loss (the legal, the financial, the day-to-day things that need de- or re-constructing)… so much still to be done.

I’m not sure I have the requisite concentration level at the moment.

But this time of transition is about more than the great loss of Dad.  That’s the biggest thing, of course, and the one that it is hardest to wrap my brain around.

But…

For the first time in over 5 years I am not looking for a job.  I am not checking the myriad online job boards I have bookmarked on the laptop, or researching potential employers to better explain my suitability to join the organization in a tailored cover letter, or adapting my CV yet again to better convey the reasons why I would be an asset to the company.

I’m sort of at a loss.

Those who say that looking for work is a full time job know what they’re talking about.  And, for years, I was doing so whilst working a full time job.  And volunteering at my Museum.

Did I mention I don’t do idleness well?  Especially enforced idleness- even if I’m the one acting as the enforcer.  I told myself that today is just about chilling.  Not sorting through papers, not catching up on chores, not taking things to the dry cleaners.  Just vegging on the couch.  With a book.  Or catching up with my WordPress peeps.  Or a movie.  Or some music.  Hanging with the cats and with me.  With no one else around.  There hasn’t been much of an opportunity for that in the past few weeks.

I know this is a temporary thing.  I will be kept on my toes once the new job begins- lots to learn, people to meet- and I hope to pick up the volunteering again- slowly, and possibly in different ways than before- as I settle into a new routine.  I’ll be back running and feeling like there aren’t enough hours in a day in no time- of this I have no doubt.

So today is supposed to be about time for a little reflection and to catch my breath and sort through my own head a little.  Even though I was there when it happened- peacefully, and with the three of us at his side- I still have moments when I just can’t believe that he’s gone.

There is much to be taken on board.  Much of the ground beneath my feet has been rendered somewhat treacherous for the gaps in the foundations.

Ever since the Shuffle Daemon managed to shake me out of the total lack of clarity I was feeling after Dad died (as least insofar as I claim any real return to clarity.  I remain in more of a fog than is usual- even for me) I’ve been letting Mike Oldfield help soothe the jangled nerves.

Sometimes this is a little counter-intuitive.  Much of music is pretty much the opposite of ‘soothing’.  His hugely elaborate Tubular Bells (1, 2, 3 and the Millennium Bell) and Hergest Ridge albums feature movements that can shock you either awake or into awareness with their power.  The guy- and his talent (he plays all guitars- bass and otherwise- organs, glockenspiel, mandolin, bells- tubular and otherwise- and timpani.  Basically all the instruments)- are pretty staggering at times.  He was 19 when he recorded Tubular Bells.  19.   NINE-bleeping-TEEN.

But, in addition to the wondrous orchestral masterpieces, he has a number of songs that are more in keeping with the ‘singles’ that you might hear on the radio (radio still exists, right?)- with vocalists and everything.

The Shuffle Daemon seems sort of stuck in the way in which it is rolling out these songs for my listening pleasure.  In addition to the song I wrote about the other day- and included in the post I wrote about Dad, which I managed to read at the celebration yesterday- two others keep popping up, both featuring the wonderful vocals of Maggie Reilly.

Family Man tells the tale of the unsolicited attention that a gentleman receives whilst in a bar one evening- and his insistence that he isn’t ‘that type of guy’.  Nothing, really, to do with any of the memories I have of Dad, of course (but, as I noted the other day, our parents were people before they were parents, so who knows…) beyond the title.  Dad was certainly a family man.  We were the centre of his world- of that there was never any doubt- and my Mum was the love of his life.

Hall and Oates did a cover version of this song- which changes its tone quite completely.  At the end of their version the family man in question succumbs to the lure of the ‘lady of the night’- although it was too late to manifest his illicit choice.  And the quintessentially 80s video is so endearing in its cheesiness.  The clothes.  The production values.  That moustache!

And then there’s this song.

This lovely live version of the song- while lacking the crashing Oldfield-esque guitars of the album version- highlights the sense of loss that the lyrics evoke so beautifully.

It’s hard to choose a favourite from amongst the works of this guy.  Heaven’s Open is up there- for many of the reasons I discussed the other day- and for all the new associations that it has brought to me this week.  His artistry makes it reallyreally hard to pick one song above the others.

But Moonlight Shadow.  Moonlight Shadow.  I can remember the first time I heard it- and the many many many nights I’d sit in my bedroom listening to it on repeat.

‘The last that ever she saw him, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
He passed on worried and warning, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
Lost in a riddle that Saturday night, far away on the other side,
he was caught in the middle of a desperate fight, and she couldn’t find how to push through.

The trees that whisper in the evening, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
Sing the song of sorrow and grieving, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
All she saw was a silhouette of a gun, far away on the other side,
He was shot six times by a man on the run, and she couldn’t find how to push through.

I stay, I pray, I see you in heaven far away,
I stay, I pray, I see you in heaven one day.

Four a.m. in the morning, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
I watched your vision forming, carried away by a moonlight shadow,
Star was glowin’ in a silvery night, far away on the other side,
Will you come to talk to me this night, but she couldn’t find how to push through’

Some have suggested that it was written in response to the murder of John Lennon (despite the lack of correspondence between the timing of the events of that tragedy and those in the song), and Mike has allowed that it may have had some level of influence.  He had arrived in New York the day of the murder, and was staying a short hop away from the Dakota where Lennon’s profound voice was silenced.  Mainly though, he was thinking about a film he had loved about Harry Houdini (starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh), particularly about attempts to contact the late illusionist after he had died.

Like Mike, I am fascinated by the life and times of Harry Houdini- particularly by his attempts to expose false spiritualists who made money from the pain and loss of others.  I loved that about him.  That, and the close connection the guy had to his mother, and the loving relationship- which encompassed both the business and the personal- he and his wife Bess shared throughout their life together.

This song resonates, for me, personally, on a very specific level.  Years and years ago, my grandfather (Dad’s Dad) was staying with us while Dad was out of town on business.  One night, very late, I woke up and heard someone moving around in the kitchen.  Grandpa was down there, opening and closing the refrigerator door and wandering pretty aimlessly.  I asked him what was up, and he admitted to feeling restless and if something was wrong.  I put the kettle on and sat with him at the kitchen table.  In my memory of the event, I glanced at the cuckoo clock my parents had brought back from Switzerland, noting that it was 4 am, just before the phone rang.  The phone call informed my Grandpa that his youngest brother had just died.

A couple of years later, my Mum woke me up to say that she and Grandma (who was staying with us while Grandpa was in the hospital- Dad was out of town with work again) had to go out for a bit.  I was in charge- although my sisters were sound asleep.  I dozed off again, but startled awake not long after, feeling as if something was wrong, but also overcome by the feeling that my Grandfather was with me.

Unable to fall back to sleep, I went upstairs (I was sleeping in the basement, since Grandma had my room) and turned on the tv- catching the late night replay of CBC’s Video Hits.  A little while later they came home- surprised to find me awake in the middle of the night- and told me that Grandpa was gone.  It was 4am.

After Dad was moved back to hospital from the rehab clinic where he had seemed to be making solid progress, I found myself waking up in the middle of every single night.  Each and every time at 4am.  After the first couple of nights I didn’t even bother checking the clock.  I’d settle in on the couch, cell phone beside me, awaiting the phone call I felt would inevitably come.

When the call did come, it wasn’t at 4am.  For the first time in weeks I had slept through my own personal witching hour, until the nurse called me at 5:30.  As I called my sisters and arranged to pick them up to head to the hospital to be with Dad, a big part of me was honestly thinking that this couldn’t possibly be it.  It wasn’t 4am.  We had passed the ‘danger time’.

I don’t know why Mike Oldfield chose 4am as the pivotal time in his most wonderful of songs (I also don’t know why he included the redundancy ‘4am in the morning’– but I’ve tried to let that go in the name of artistic licence and lyrical metre) but it has always served to very personally connect me to the song.

4am is random- even when I look at my own experiences of that particular time of day/night.  It does serve to reinforce my awareness that we are all connected- to those we love and to those in the larger world who have had the same types of experiences- of family, of love, of loss- and that we all seek to share those experiences in the best ways we can.

Mike Oldfield is a musical genius.  He expresses and shares that genius through his songs.  My family and friends contribute their own forms of genius on a daily basis- sending their strengths and insights out into the wider world, and teaching me as I am touched by their examples.

So, even though it is my ‘day off’, I can let myself get away with ‘working’ since I am still taking my own prescription to chill and try to absorb all that has happened lately.  Writing, for me, can be work, certainly.  But it is also therapy- and the way I sort through my own feelings and experiences as I attempt to make manifest the gift of my life- and share the things that I have learned at the feet of teachers greater than myself.

PS- Even though I have run on more than long enough (even for me, this post is extremely long-winded), I need to thank all of you- here in my WordPress world- for the beautiful messages of condolence that you have offered in the past few days.  Anyone who claims that the online world is lacking in humanity or any sense of real connection certainly isn’t hanging with peeps like you all.  The messages are lovingly received with gratitude.

And a special shout out to Rachel at Rachel Carrera, Novelist for her kindness in nominating me for a couple of lovely blogging awards.  As usual, please, if you are so inclined, take some time to browse her site, and those of the other wonderful writers that I am lucky enough to interact with regularly here at colemining.  People are awesome.

Dad

He was my first ‘follower’.

When, after thinking and talking about it for ages, I finally started this blog as a way of writing about some of the things that I deem important, my Dad was the first one to subscribe to colemining.  Even though the blogging world was a bit of a terra incognita to him.

He always encouraged us- me and my two sisters, and pretty much anyone else who came into his charismatic sphere and stayed for any length of time- and he knew that I had things to say that needed to be said.

He was my biggest fan.

Always.

We were so very fortunate- growing up and now, as adults- to have been raised by parents (and an extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles- biological and otherwise) who encouraged us to find our own way in the world and pursue those things that most resonated with us, personally.

You see, they knew that they had raised us to be concerned about things larger than just us, that they had instilled in us the reality that we are part of a community.  They trusted us- and they trusted themselves- enough to know that they had created three responsible, independent and thinking citizens of the world.  Individuals who learned the most important lessons that can be taught- and who will hold firm to the mandate that shaped both their lives: that we are all required to do our best to leave this world a better place than we found it.

Our own paths- guided by intelligence (both inherited and nurtured) and kindness- perhaps kindness above all else- are the legacy of two wonderful people that anyone who ever met them feels privileged to have known.  Being supremely lucky, I got to have them as my parents.

When Mum was diagnosed with a form of early-onset dementia, Dad became her constant and always-doting companion and care-giver.  We often forget that our parents were people before they became our parents, but, through Mum’s long illness until her eventual death, we got to witness the playing out of a love story that Hollywood couldn’t come close to imagining.

One of their oldest, dearest friends sent this memory to me- all the way from Australia:

It is always so sad to lose one’s parents, regardless of their age or yours. It is the end of an era. Take comfort in the fact that he had a great, happy, long and useful life. When we were young and used to go out together, it was such a joy to see your parents — a couple so very much in love — I think your Dad beamed from ear to ear during the whole of their wedding ceremony! It was also the very first time that they had ever met or even heard of (her boyfriend at the time, now husband of many decades) as I was otherwise engaged, so the invitation did not include his name. Whilst other friends heartily dispproved, when I contacted your parents, they graciously said, “whoever you choose and want to bring to our wedding is alright by us. We want you to be happy and you both will always be welcome in our house” and they certainly stood by their word and the rest is history. We have never forgotten their kindness and generosity over the years.’

And this:

 ‘How time flies — it seems like yesterday when your Mum would call home to see if Rick had written and if there was a letter, she’d fly home during lunch hour to get it. So all of us knew that it HAD to be serious! Your paternal grandmother said she KNEW it WAS, as she didn’t think that your Dad was capable of holding a pen in his hand, let alone producing a letter as he had never ever written to HER when he was away so Betty HAD to be very special to get even one line from him!’

That last bit was news to me and is so veryvery ironic, I can’t even tell you.  It has become a running joke- in our family and beyond- that Dad must be on the no-fly lists of a whole bunch of countries- starting with our own.  He LOVED to write letters.  To politicians, especially.  And had NO problem AT ALL spelling out exactly where they are falling short of his expectations of them- and the responsibilities of the job to which they were elected.  (See?  I come by it honestly.)  I guess all those love letters he wrote Mum served to loosen his pen…

I lost my Dad this week.

We lost my Dad this week.  My sisters and I, and everyone who knew him.  The condolences and memories that are flooding in a constant stream into inboxes and voicemailboxes are markers of the impact that this man had on his world.

You may not be aware of it, but those of you who are kind enough to spend some of your precious time hanging with me here in the WordPress World also lost him.

All the words I write, all the truths I seek to discover and all the stories I try to tell, they all have a kernel- and sometimes a great deal more than a kernel- of my Dad at their heart.

Another of his lovely friends wrote this in an email to me today:

‘When I think of your dad I always think of him as a seeker of knowledge and truth.   I see him with his beloved books reading passages to us that he thought needed to be read aloud and discussed.

I think of him in the middle of many and varied lively conversations holding us accountable for our opinions…

I don’t need to tell you how proud he was of the three of you. He wanted you all to find your own path and pursue it with zest. He would tell us all about what was going on in your lives. (Don’t worry he didn’t divulge any of your secrets).  He loved to read your “colemining” blog and was especially touched when you wrote about your grandfather.’

Yes.  I definitely come by it honestly.  I am my father’s child.  Of that, there is no doubt.

He was proud of us.  There is, truly, no higher praise.

I was proud of him.  All my life.  The person he was filled me with constant pride and amazement.  His ethical conscience and concern with social justice was unmatched.  His life was spent in service to others- to ideals that are bigger than any one person, certainly, yet, somehow, seemed summed up in his very being.

He led by example, instilling in us the reality that boundaries- of race, religion, socioeconomic situation- are human creations– and, as such, subject to constant examination and re-evaluation.  Prejudice- of any kind- is unacceptable.  Unexamined beliefs have no place in rational discourse.  People matter.  Outdated ideologies do not.  Except as cautionary tales and reminders of how far we have evolved and developed as civilizations.

The Shuffle Daemon hit me hard, on the way home this evening.  It does that, sometimes.  Picks up on what I’m thinking and figures out just what I need to hear.

This is that morning
It’s waiting for you
The face of destiny
Standing before you

This is zero hour
Now is for you
Can you feel that power
Inside of you?

Through this priceless moment
In your possession
Answers to mysteries
Stand in succession

This is zero hour
And there’s no way back
Can you feel that power?
In its arms you’re wrapped

All through the night-time
‘Til the sun comes in
Now heaven’s open
Just to fly right in

Now you stand in that garden
This is that vision
Out on the world’s edge
It’s your baptism

This is zero hour
And your hands are free
Can you feel that power?
It’s ecstasy…

There is irony, I realize, in including a song called Heaven’s Open (the version isn’t the best quality, TBH, but it’s the only one I could find) in a post dedicated to my father.  Dad didn’t believe in heaven.  He was all about the importance of this world– and about living a life that positively affected this world.  If he believed at all in destiny– it was about the need to create and fulfill one’s own goals- schooled in experience and education and awareness and engagement with the world around him.

You gotta know that I don’t believe in heaven.  But, as I wrote in the post I reblogged yesterday, the idea of heaven, as a metaphor, or archetype, drawn from our shared mythology as a means of dealing with loss and pain, is beautiful, and so very human in its hopefulness.   So that, along with the evocative power of the lyrics of that song…

The Shuffle Daemon knows.

Mike (or, in this case, Michael) wrote the song in 1991 as part of the final album he was contractually obligated to provide for Virgin Records- with whom he had something of a contentious relationship (after he pretty much ensured the success of the label for that Branson guy with the success of Tubular Bells).  It’s a kiss off.  A lovely and elegant kiss off, but a kiss off all the same.  It’s about new beginnings- and it’s about finding the power within oneself to move past the things that have kept you stagnating.  Or imprisoned.  Or confined in any way at all.

I love Mike Oldfield.  He is a musical master.  And an interesting character.

I love my Dad.  Dad loved music.  It was a significant part of his life and he made sure that it was a significant part of ours.  He was also an interesting character.

He spent much of the last few months imprisoned by his own body, laid low by various infections that the doctors couldn’t quite seem to get a handle on controlling.

He’s not imprisoned any longer.

Thank you for giving us the tools to create our destinies, Dad.  Wrapped in the arms of the power you gave us, we will try to live up to your example.  We will leave the world a better place than the one we inherited.  Just as soon as we figure out how to navigate a world without you in it.  Which we will.  Eventually.  You taught us well.

Heaven’s Open, Dad.  Fly right in.

Dreaming of You

This was the first piece I posted, over a year ago, back when I was at the very beginning of this journey and trying to find my voice and figure out just what I wanted to do with this little space of the WordPress World.

At the moment I’m filled with things I NEED to be writing about, but the words won’t come. For many reasons- grief, exhaustion, uncertainty among them.

Looking back over the things I’ve shared this past 12 months, this, the first post, deals with the same thing I’m attempting to get a handle on now.

Loss.

While I try to do a little bit of ‘practicing that which I have a tendency to preach’ and gathering of emotional reserves, I’m also trying to remind myself that our stories continue to draw us together- even when we are faced with the very foundations of our lives being torn apart.  We can, sometimes, find the peace we need to keep on moving forward in our past reflections.  Hoping that this will be the case for me right now.

colemining

Today I had occasion to stop and think about the way people move in and out of one’s life.  It came up over coffee with a friend.  She was remembering the loss of one her childhood companions, gone 20 years today, killed in a random skiing accident.  Her first thought when I pressed her to talk about him was that he died doing what he loved best and that fact used to give her some measure of comfort, since it defined the person he was.  She went on to talk about how, not unlike the death of pivotal politicians or celebrities, she remembered exactly what she was doing when the call came, and precisely how she sprang into action to ensure that she could get home to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that she now realizes she was in shock.  At 22 she had felt loss before, but…

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Papa Kaz- Part 2

I have always been surrounded by storytellers.  Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.

Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen  Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.

I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.

I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.

————————————————————————————————-

… When he retired he chose to do so completely.  No Emeritus for Kaz.  He bequeathed to me his library- of books, maps and slides- which still hold pride of place among my own collected works here in my living room.  A friend-  another of his precious protégés- and I took him for lunch and Scotch (his poison of choice) on his last official day at the university.  The meal went on for some time, as he regaled us with tales of his time in Germany and in the classroom in the Roman Catholic high school in Queens.

We remained in touch as I completed my course work and worked on the dissertation that ate my life.  He was always there to listen to my frustration with the writing process- or the university bureaucracy- and he managed to talk me back from the edge more than once.

Then, the weekend after I (finally) defended my Doctoral thesis, he and his lovely wife joined friends and family for a champagne and hors d’oeuvres gathering.  He offered the first toast- expressing his pride in my accomplishment, especially in light of the fact that I chose a subject and approach that was challenging and outside of the norm, and congratulating me for taking the more challenging path, as seems to be my wont in all things.  Then he called me a ‘real teacher’ and told those assembled that, in addition to my drive for excellence in research, I ‘belong in the classroom’.

No higher praise.

I think I felt more accomplished in that moment than when I was told that I had successfully defended the thesis and when I took that walk across the stage to collect the piece of paper that marked the achievement put together.

Or any time since, really.

Fast forward a number of months and much had changed.  I’d moved back to my hometown after a period of personal crisis and was looking for new directions.  I received word from a close friend we held in common that Papa Kaz had cancer.  And that the prognosis wasn’t great.

That night I wrote him a long letter, recalling my most treasured moments in his classroom and in his presence, trying to describe what his guidance and continual support means to me and how I still feel his influence whenever I get up to teach.  I attempted to put into words the impact he made on me- as a student, a researcher, a teacher and as a person.

Despite the care I took with the letter, I knew it fell short and that I would have to do better.

Doing so would require returning to a town I had no interest in visiting and facing down some memories I’d have preferred to keep buried.

But this was KAZ.

He looked weakened, but in no way diminished, as we sat on his front porch and talked for hours.  He knew he didn’t have much time left, yet his voice was as strong as I remembered.  He told me stories of what he had been up to in the past while, of his family, and flashbacks to his years in Germany and the characters he met there- some of which I had heard before, but still greeted like old friends as we revisited the tales together.

But most of all, he continued to advise me.  I was thinking about going back- yet again- to school.  To get a Master’s degree in Teaching and the membership in the Ontario College that would come along with it- all with a view to an eventual government job writing policy and setting educational standards.

He reminded me that I belong in a classroom- but that the classroom doesn’t have to be a traditional one, or even a physical one.  He also reminded me that a true teacher continues to teach, regardless of circumstance or specificity of career direction.

He continued to lead me by his example.

Although we ended the conversation with his assurance that we would hang out again when he came on a visit to Toronto, that was the last time I would see him.  The cancer he had fought for far longer than anyone expected claimed him half a year later.

My current Sitz im Leben isn’t really one where I thought I’d find myself.  I am still searching for the next direction and a job that will provide some meaning while permitting me to contribute something of value to those around me.  Not a fun process, but each day I have to get up and keep trying to get it figured out.

People who have been gifted with a life filled with wonderful characters like Papa Kaz are not allowed to squander those gifts.

I will find my classroom, whatever form it might take, and follow his example- as best I possibly can- and continue telling the stories that describe our humanity.

Just like he taught me.

I’ve mentioned before that Cat Stevens has one of those voices that is as familiar to me as members of my own family and closest friends, and that he remains a beloved tutor in the ways of the world.  He helped, in a very real way, to set me on my particular road to find out.  His wisdom, expressed through songs of timeless beauty, reminds me of Kaz, and the lessons he sometimes had to force into my stubborn head.  I may still struggle with the teachings, but I never fail to hear his voice when I do so.

And more often than not, I still end up following his advice.

Just sit down, and take it slowly.

Will do, Papa Kaz.  Will do.

‘Oh Life…’

I’ve written about loss before.  The sudden death of a loved one, and the slow, painful withdrawal of the personality that was the beloved long before the inevitable loss of life.

You’d think it would get easier with years and experience.  It doesn’t.  Losing someone rips a hole in the fabric of the universe that never completely closes.

The clichés and platitudes notwithstanding (man, am I ever against the platitudes this week), it doesn’t always get easier, and letting go can feel like betrayal and lead to guilt that is even harder to shake.

Loss. Decisions.  The human condition.  These are the foundations of all the religions of the world.  Once upon a long ago time, with the development of self-awareness, and given our nature as social animals, when those we love left us, we humans created hope that we will meet them again- or that they are, at least, in place where the suffering has ceased and there is peace and happiness.

People often make the hard decisions- CAN make the hard decisions- with this as an underlying hope or belief.

But what happens when one of the things that gets lost is the religion that we create in an effort to moderate our sadness and help justify the pain and its eventual lessening?  And lessoning?

The song is 22 years old. Where has the time gone?

(More losses- of both the time that has passed and the place with which I most associate the tune)

Losing my Religion’ is really a Southern US colloquialism for losing one’s temper, flying off the handle, behaving in a manner that is less than civilized (gotta love the Southern equation of ‘religion’ and ‘civilized behaviour’.  Ack!).

Subject-wise, the song is more about unrequited love and obsession (Michael Stipe has actually compared its theme to Every Breath You Take– that exemplar of obsessive songs about stalking restraining orders love from the Police’s 1983 wonder of an album, Synchronicity) than about the loss of religious faith.

But it’s a good song.  And it fits my mood and the paths down which my slightly disordered and sleep-deprived mind is traveling right now, faced as I am with another potential loss.

I was, nominally, raised in a religious tradition.  Attended services, participated in the community, was taught the mythology.

Frustration with the blatant abuse of power in the Institution and, especially, my absolute lack of comprehension about how, in any way, the theodicy behind the myth system can be justified, marked the finality of the decision to ‘lose’ it.

Millennia ago a man wrote a treatise that encompassed all kinds of aspects of the realities of life.  It became part of the collected wisdom tradition of the people behind one of the most influential mythological systems in history and spoke to the realities of life and the nature of the godhead.  The questions he expressed- alongside a recounting of his own experiences- were answered by the theodicy of the day- ‘because the god wants it that way.’

It could have been written yesterday.  Plus ça change

Abuse of power: Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun.  Look, the tears of the oppressed- with no one to comfort them!  On the side of their oppressors there was power- with no one to comfort them.  And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive, but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (4.1-3).

The ever-repetitious cycle of life: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.  The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind and on its circuits the wind returns. (1.4-6)

Death: ‘For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (3.19-20).  (N.B. the lack of anything approaching the idea of heaven/hell in that little statement.  He finished that thought: ‘Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of of animals goes downward to the earth?’ 3.21)

That Qohelet guy found the faith in the plan of his deity to make the terror, the repetition, the inequity, the futility and the rest of the realities of morality manageable.  He, like Job and the Prophets and the authors of the Psalms, trusted the justice of the god in spite of infinite examples of injustice and pain in the world.

Me?  Can’t do it.

My faith is based in this world and in my fellow humans.  Which means that I have to do my best to act against those inequities that can be changed and roll with the punches dealt by those that can’t.  Including the deaths of cherished loved ones.

It’s a different kind of faith, and one that offers no easy answers or comforting visions of angelic choirs and waiting La-Z-Boys at the right hand of an Elder of Days.  It requires reliance on others who share our lot in this here world, and the strength to endure and to ask for help from those others when our own reserves run low.  The cultural and social realities of today, combined with our collective experiential learning, have rendered the created, absent, inscrutable, unjust godhead obsolete.

My religion may be long lost, but my civility is intact and as ready as it can be to face coming inevitabilities.

But I can still find comfort in Qohelet’s musings +/- 2500 years after they were first written down.  Not for his conviction about his god, but because of the beauty and humanity of his questioning and honest examination of the world as it was still is.

‘For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.’  (1.18)

Truer words…

Ex Libris

Still in recovery mode after a wonderful cottage weekend.  Read BOTH books and started a third- which, thankfully, one of my friends had brought and finished.  Responses to the stories will come but I’m having a bit of trouble shifting my brain out of glorious neutral right now.

I was thinking about the conversation that I had with the young woman at the bookstore checkout last week- how the Kobos et al are great tools but that things like a long weekend on a dock somehow demand the tangibility of an actual book- and the following piece came to mind.

It was submitted as an entry to the latest Canada Writes creative non-fiction competition.  I remembered that it hit on the very discussion I had with the cashier and echoed my recent post about Cat Stevens.  That type of synchronicity should not be ignored.  

Our stories connect us and help us through difficult times.  Whether they reflect musings about the unknowable/incomprehensible aspects of life or recount slices of our personal and collective experiences, they are worth recording and retelling.  We are all storytellers- after our own, particular,  fashions.  We tell our stories to each other, and on behalf of others who can no longer do so.  This is one such storytelling slice- about the power of memory and the joy and comfort of books.   

One wall of my basement apartment living room is lined with bookshelves.  To the casual observer there is no rhyme or reason to how the thousand-plus volumes are displayed.  There are a dozen shelves that are reserved for the texts that represent my former life as an academic- including the 250-page dissertation to which I devoted so much of my adult life.  But while the rest appear to be haphazardly placed, I can find any given book immediately should I go searching, something I do frequently.  Friends who visit often ask about the collection (as do the family members who had the misfortune of helping me move), and the questions have only increased with the advent of e-books and tablets that are rapidly replacing the more traditional forms of the published word.

I have no problem with the new formats- anything that makes reading convenient and accessible is an invention of great worth, but I believe there is an inherent, and almost sensual, aesthetic value to a book.  The feel of a book, the substance and weight of a treasured hardcover by an author I love, the slightly musty scent of an older volume, and the joy of physically turning the pages evoke an almost-atavistic response that a touch screen will never replicate.  But more than that, for me, books can be old friends, and not just for the stories they tell but for the memories they evoke.  They are markers of time, reminders of when they were first read.  I am a consummate ‘grab whatever is at hand to use as a bookmark’ artist and so I often come across surprises when picking up an old friend to revisit.

I remember the first reading of a story rife with the language and images of a tropical climate, but with a subtext of mothers and daughters, and history.  Delighting in the beautifully crafted pages, detailing a love affair with a city, and offering insights about mental illness, dementia and getting by in the context of things outside our human control.

The book returns a sense of time and place; specifically the ratty armchair in the basement apartment, occupied for the first reading of the book on the night the little tortoiseshell kitten came home.  Drinking bourbon, because that’s what the book suggested.  Even if I was in Ottawa and it was autumn, and chilly outside.

Then, years later, on a day off from a loathed job when I should be accomplishing things of substance- cleaning, buying Christmas presents, applications to jobs more suitable and challenging- there it was again.  Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye while dusting, and despite all good intentions I was pulling the novel from the shelf to enjoy a day just for me- to revisit old, fictional friends and luxuriate in beautiful language as an antidote to the day to day mundane and ridiculous crises that have become my working existence.

A chapter or two into the novel I found the bookmark.  It was an email dating from a time before emails were a daily reality, things to be read, answered and forgotten.  Or used as communication with friends in far off places.  This one came from my Dad, addressed to the three of us, me and my sisters.  A short note detailing the first diagnostic definition of what we had all been sensing for some time. A name for the awareness that something was seriously wrong with Mum, the woman who had been the foundation and heart of our family.  12 years ago; the very beginning of the complete loss of her, finally giving that loss a name.

Subject: Mother

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 2000 17:26:10 -0400

“Dear girls,” he wrote.  “Last week I sent a letter to Dr. Matthews concerning mother.  Today, at her previously arranged appointment with him, I invited myself to go along, having given mother the letter yesterday.

The upshot of this is that the doctor’s diagnosis is that mother is suffering from dementia.  ‘Dementia is a condition characterized by a progressive decline of mental abilities accompanied by changes in personality and behaviour.  There is commonly a loss of memory and skills that are needed to carry out every day activities.’  He tells me that he believes the form that she has will cease further loss at some point as contrasted to Alzheimer’s, in which the brain progressively loses its ability to function.  He is attempting to have other expert doctors at Sunnybrook examine her to try to determine what form of dementia she has.  But this could take up to two years.

 He advises that at this time the dementia is not treatable.

 Dad”

Taking a break from my reading, I mentioned, also via email, that I had found the letter in the book to one of the true, flesh and blood, friends of my life.  She asked how it made me feel, cutting to the heart of the matter as she is so good at doing.  Almost 40 years of friendship makes that kind of directness possible, and necessary at times.  The distance between us melted away with the question, and recalled how the distance between me and my parents and sisters seemed at once negligible and insurmountable when I first received the email in 2000.  I was at a remove in all senses of the word, and at a loss as to what I could do to make it all go away.

Of course, nothing could make it go away.  What followed was seven years of confusion- of watching a loving, beloved, active, amazing woman slowly and painfully lose all connection to those who loved her, and to those whose lives were touched immensely by her presence and grace in the world.  But they were also years of learning about immeasurable depths of love and compassion in my father as he gently cared for her until the very end.

Coincidently my Dad, who is more computer savvy than some people half his age, forwarded one of those infernal ‘feel good’ email chain things that afternoon.  It was about being in the winter of his years, and about appreciating life, good health, working for what you feel is important and getting past regrets and moving on.  Since I had just had a disappointing series of interviews that didn’t end in the job I was hoping for that week, I couldn’t help but feel that the message was directed at me specifically, despite the fact that my sisters and others from among his many friends were copied on the email.  Somehow the guy manages to keep us all going while embracing life with an enthusiasm that leaves the rest of us feeling as though we are irrationally bogged down by pettiness and irrelevancies.

That night I re-read the novel, by an author I have loved since I first encountered her work at the Leaside Library as a teenager.  I spent the afternoon, and then the evening, sitting on my couch while Cat Stevens played in the background, and as I drank a Kilkenny- no bourbon this go-round- with the first light snow falling outside my window as Toronto became blanketed for the first time this year, I thought about Mum, and family and the holiday season fast approaching and counted blessings for the first time in a long time.

I petted the two cats I have now, the grey and the black (the little tortoiseshell and the tabby I had when I first read the book are long gone, yet remembered with love), and I took comfort from them and from my family and friends, my memories and the awareness that I was inside on a cold winter night, the first harbinger of even colder winter nights to come.  There is music and beauty around me.  And always, and forever, there are the books that take me back in time and memory as I continue on my “road to find out.”

As the music on the iPod shifted to a Skydiggers song, one that I would certainly hear at the annual Christmas show at the Horseshoe, I was overwhelmingly thankful.

I love my books.  They are markers of my history, my present and my future.  A residence without books can never be a home to me.  The knowledge that there are new stories, and friends, out there waiting to be discovered is a miracle I take for granted, but I will always return to my old friends and the comfort, perspective and memories that they bring.

Dreaming of You

Today I had occasion to stop and think about the way people move in and out of one’s life.  It came up over coffee with a friend.  She was remembering the loss of one her childhood companions, gone 20 years today, killed in a random skiing accident.  Her first thought when I pressed her to talk about him was that he died doing what he loved best and that fact used to give her some measure of comfort, since it defined the person he was.  She went on to talk about how, not unlike the death of pivotal politicians or celebrities, she remembered exactly what she was doing when the call came, and precisely how she sprang into action to ensure that she could get home to say goodbye to him, despite the fact that she now realizes she was in shock.  At 22 she had felt loss before, but this was the first time that a true contemporary, someone she thought would always be in the world- however distanced by circumstance- was gone.  Just gone.

I have witnessed loss, and experienced too much of my own, yet I am always interested in hearing about how people cope with the passing of those they love.  The death of loved ones is, arguably, the foundation of religious thought and speculation.  With human self-awareness and reflection upon relationships came the questioning about what happens to us when we die- not the obvious, witnessed, biological process- but about what happens to the essence of those we love.  ‘Joe’ was my brother, he helped me hunt, and we ate together around the fire and shared a tent on long winter nights.  While his body remains visible and gradually decays and returns to the earth, whatever it was that animated him, that made him who he was- his ‘Joe-ness’, if you will- is gone.  This awareness, and concern for each special, mortal, personality is something that has led to questions, and posited answers, for millennia.

Huge mythological elements of all world religions have been devoted to suggestions regarding what happens after death.  The Egyptian Underworld ruled by dismembered and resurrected Osiris, the Greek river that must be crossed with the aid of a ferryman requiring payment, the Christian ideal of heaven and despairing vision of hell, as described by myriad myth-makers, from Paul of Tarsus to Dante to Anne Rice, and countless others in between and since.   In the Ancient Near East, the dead were afforded no glorious afterlife, yet were thought to become troublesome spirits if their progeny did not observe the proper rites of burial and remembrance.  Eastern traditions honour the ancestors and preserve the memories of their forbearers with elaborate rituals.  Hinduism and Buddhism hold to the cyclical progression of life and death believing in continual return on the wheel until perfection is attained.

Most are beautiful and hopeful ways to remember those that have left us that acknowledge the importance of our connection to one another.  Death is the ultimate truth of the human condition and our stories have always sought to deal with this reality and to somehow soften the blow.  The myths suggest the possibility of reunion with those lost, and many offer the potential of return to the ultimate source and final and complete answers to all the questions we ask while alive.  Those who suffer in this life will be rewarded in the next; the evil will receive their just desserts- whether in hellfire or rebirth as a cockroach.  Myths of the afterlife are often about retribution and recompense, but the real beauty, to me, lies in the concept that those we love may be met again.

My friend is not remotely religious.  Like me, she is a student of humanity and has studied world cultures and traditions, finding value and beauty in most expressions of belief and practice that she has discovered in her studies and travels.  While she talked about the loss of her friend, and how it is incomprehensible to her that 20 years have passed, she made some cryptic comments about conversations that sounded like they took place after his death.  She didn’t even seem to be aware of this anomaly as she expressed fond remembrances.

When I gently pointed it out, she smiled somewhat sheepishly.

“You caught that, did you?  Should have known it wouldn’t get past you.  Here’s the thing…”

She then went on to explain that shortly after her friend’s death she began having remarkably vivid dreams in which he featured as the main character.  In these dreams they were both aware that he had died, but his resurrection was treated matter-of-factly.  In the beginning of them all his body lay on a bier in the middle of the intersection at the corner of the street where she grew up.  The dream would then shift to an outdoor party with a long table of friends (at times the backyard of her childhood home at others in the small public park down the street), celebrating an event of great happiness- sometimes a graduation, others a wedding or the birth of a child.  All the celebrants were always in full party get-up- dressed to the nines and all having a great time.  There was a sense of expectation, of waiting for a missing participant, but the mood was always positive.

Then the scene would shift again, and all the partygoers were transported to a nightclub, but one that looked suspiciously like the back room of the ice cream place across from the high school where she spent so much time as a teenager.  When the party was at its height, the guest of honour would finally arrive, moving a little slowly, as if still recovering from the injuries that caused his death, but with the same smile and spirit of fun that everyone remembered with so much love.

The last part of the dream always consisted of my friend and her lost one, walking alone together back to the bier in the corner intersection.  During the walk they would always discuss things of great import- concerns that were weighing on her heavily at the time or decisions that needed making.   Her friend always listened carefully and offered answers or advice, gently and without judgement.  When they reached the intersection there would be a last hug and smile and then her friend would say goodbye and carefully resume his place on the bier.

Interpreters of dreams would have a field day analyzing these recurring offerings, and my friend has studied enough psychology and religion to be aware of the many archetypal symbols and themes that are being drawn from her subconscious mind (or the Jungian collective unconscious- take your pick).

“I know, I know.  The bier placed in the liminal intersection, the celebrants awaiting the deceased… it’s a psychoanalytic cornucopia.  But the dreams, and the memory of the dreams always give me such a sense of peace and connection.  So many myth systems offer variants of ideas of reincarnation.  For some reason these dreams have always resonated with my own interpretation of some of the Celtic stories of Tir na Nog.  Somehow I always awaken from the dreams with the image in my mind of him standing on the beach of an island, looking out to sea.  He is young, completely happy and he is waiting.  He is patiently waiting until the opportunity arises for us all to be born again together.

I realize that the Celtic myths themselves don’t speak directly to that interpretation of the afterlife and reincarnation, but isn’t that part of the power of the stories we create to provide comfort through inexplicable loss?  We take what we need to be able to move on with happiness.

It’s strange though.  I have experienced other great losses; this is the only one I view in light of my version of the Celtic afterworld.  It suits him, I guess.  Eternal youth for an exceptional friend who embraced life with vigour, and the eager anticipation of reunion when the universe says it is time.  It’s naïve and romantic, but it’s how I can smile when I think about him.  Especially now, 20 years later.”

How could I not smile, in response?  Here was a perfect example of how myths impact our lives and how shared stories, and their interpretations, connect us to one another and keep alive the memories of those we have lost.  Our myths help us to deal with the unanswerable and therein lies their value.  Our human stories allow us to cope in the way that most resonates with us as individuals and as cultures.  Telling these stories connects us to one another in ways that shouldn’t be underestimated or discounted.  Myths are not ‘untruths’, as common parlance would have it.  They are invaluable representations of the deepest wells of the best (and often the worst- can’t have the positive without its flipside- balance is ever-present) of what it means to be human.