My Father is…


…up long before dawn, deep winter, 40 below, helping a neighbour jump-start his truck;

…in a darkened farm shed bent over a steel disc, shocks of light coming from a 7018 welding rod collide with shafts of sun angling in through chinks in the log walls;

…in the plywood-sided bin by the slough, dust balloons out the door, dirt in the creases of his forehead, rivulets of sweat run down under his cap, down the side of his face, shirt stuck to his back as he shovels the last of the barley into the auger hopper;

…at the back of the general store, leaning back in his chair, beside him, a shin-high stack of newspapers and magazines, he’s reading the Western Producer, talking to mom, hopeful about Canadian Wheat Board;

…standing at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool calendar in the kitchen, noting yesterday’s rainfall amount in that acre of space beside each date;

…half a mile away from the house, singing above the roar of the 1550 Cockshutt tractor, singing, It Is Well With My Soul;

…at our cousins, telling the only off-colour joke we’ve heard him tell, about the farmer who found a whistle in a manure pile: What did he do with it? He blew the shit out of it! All the kids roar. Dad too. Aunt Nettie and Uncle Harold not quite as much;

…stuck in a drift on the way to the Riverside Farm, thick black wavy hair sprouts from underneath a toque that has climbed up the back of his head while he lays up a laser-straight row of snow beside the red and white Ford half-ton;

…raising pigs, raising a thousand turkeys that will die from some disease in the space of a few days, raising hundreds of laying hens; then he’s a general store owner, a public school trustee, a Co-op board president, bus driver, deacon, a Gideon;

…reading the Daily Bread at the kitchen table and I secretly thank him as he pretends not to notice the scent of tobacco after I come back from smoking a rollie behind the barn;

…wearing that robins-egg-blue suit of his, drapes the blazer over the back of the chair at the head of the dark-wood dinning-room table, we gather for Sunday dinner: grace, roast beef and a surreptitious interview: a son, a daughter, has brought home a date;

…building a bonfire in the tractor-rim fire pit, grandkids are gathering around, some scout for wiener sticks in the bush behind the old cabin, which was once the warehouse attached to the store in town, now retired, re-purposed, rebuilt on the farm, rooted in memories;

…up long before dawn, at his narrow desk, 40-watt bulb casts warm yellow light over his open King James bible, folded hands, propped elbows, bowed head;

…rhapsodizing at his 50th wedding anniversary, two months before his death: pride in his voice as he names his five kids, recounts the good each one did (edits well). His kids are listening, smiling, happy in the way all father’s want their kids to be happy.


And what of families touched by suicide?

No, touched doesn’t name it; more like being struck by a semi load of girders. And some families are struck more than once.

A few days ago a man I knew died by suicide. He was an acquaintance, but my wife and his wife were closer, had shared important moments together, encountered common themes in their lives, and for a while supported each other in a necessary dance of dissidence against certain traditions. The family’s second oldest is also a long time friend of our second youngest. They share a trajectory that places them on mainstream culture’s margins. So the news hurt.

Our hearts are torn for this family who have been struck twice. (Many years ago the oldest son also took his life.)  You are in our thoughts, and in our inadequate but earnest ways, we pray for your peace.

And our hearts go out to all who find themselves in that grey expanse of numbness. A shock to go from daily habits: shower, coffee, commute, work, to the new fact of someone’s absence. How long to adjust to a fragmented reality? How long before the crush lightens and the days become liveable?

All this awoke memories. Certainly for my wife. Reminded of her father’s suicide, she was, we were, momentarily dropped into that old pool of roiling emotions.

After my father-in-law’s suicide we attended a rally called Lift the Silence on Suicide.  The secret phantoms of guilt and shame make everything worse. Silence makes things worse. Open communication, they said, resisting suicide’s stigma, its taboo status, can save lives.

But not everyone makes it through. Too many don’t: call it depression, unnavigable darkness, a mental prison, emotional suffocation. Call it a precipice under a blistering sun, or a flatness under a slate blanket sky.

Fact is, the healthiest of us can be swallowed by some monstrous loss. And should there be no one around to link arms with, the vacuum may be too much.

But there’s an equally important fact: for some, there are mental health issues, things breached and broken that no amount of family support, communal support,  communication, professional help, can restore. And it’s just here where those phantoms of false guilt can come to accuse and harm those who tried to help.

Either way, we are all in this together. We all need the pressure of a warm handshake, we all need our name called out in the street, a friend running to catch up, a hug, a slap-on-the-back greeting.

We hold each other…so we can hold ourselves…so we can hold each other… For it’s through gentle giving and receiving that we live and grow and are released into the mystery of community…which to my mind is simply another name for God.


How to be good at life – a one point plan


In 1971 I sat in The Spingside Café with a friend drinking carafe-scorched coffee, listening to some old guys across the aisle talking: “No, it was the winter of ‘57 when the snow was that deep. I remember ‘cause I couldn’t get half my crop in.”

“Oh hell, the years are running together on me,” says the companion. “Yup,” comes the reply, “keeps going faster.”

We laugh. The following year I graduated high school and got out of that little prairie town ready to taste and touch every colour-burst minute, every fragrant-filled day.

Today I sit in Discovery Coffee talking with a new friend, not much younger than me and hear myself say, “Every year, time seems to accelerate.” My friend says, “Has the move out here helped that?” “I’m not sure, it shocks me at how quickly part of my brain gets habituated to circumstances and surroundings and shuts down—I look up and a year, a decade, has slipped by.”

What’s worse is I get mired in my likes and dislikes (which all feels perfectly pleasant) and reality goes foggy and I lose the young man who once responded to a painting, to music, like a colt to open pasture. More, I no longer respond to people without any preconceived notions of who I think they are, or what I want them to be.

I thought of this thing we did in a small group once: we gave ourselves the assignment of going through a week without pre-evaluating, prejudging anyone we met— friend, acquaintance, stranger —approaching every conversation without preconceptions of how it would go, without any thought of how we wanted it to go. It was impossible of course, but the effort was an education, and there were surprises (I had no notion that the bottle picker I routinely saw on 104th, had saved enough over the months and years, to go Europe twice).

And through this little exercise, it was this that hit home: we were developing a capacity for surprise.

Last week with my poetry cohort, one of the poets read a poem about a man from the Ivory Coast who carved chickens out of wood. Some of the lines, images, sound-scapes, were so fresh they swept me away, and the evening was somehow reanimated, held awake. And that sequence of days, you know, like power poles along a prairie highway flashing past your car, slowed down.

We all miss parts of our lives while going about the task of living. And that’s life too. But to find ways to train the eyes, and so at least perceive the passing of those poles more clearly, that’s poetry.

Yesterday, after supper, Deb and I walked out to the breakwater. Three cruise ships were docked and Dallas Road was full of tourists. Opened-top-sight-seeing buses, pedal-powered rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages were everywhere.

We plan, we move, we travel, hope for the rich experience, hope to add to the stock of our lives, and we do. But without a capacity for surprise that goes deep enough to touch our dormant spirits, makes us see the wondrous weirdness in all things, these bucket-items can just as easily cloud our souls.

Among the tourists, a family, away from the traffic, down at the shore among the waves and rocks; their children were playing, building an inuksuk. Deb reminds me inuksuit were often used by the Inuit for navigation. When I get home I look this up, among the many navigational uses: how to avoid areas where fog is prevalent.

Where I interview an aging man who hopes to pass a life exam


Lac Ste Anne, Alberta  December, 2016

Life is short, but how trite to say…

What do you mean?
I mean we say this but rarely think it through, which makes it hackneyed, trite.

What would it mean to untrite it?
Well, nobody really wants to sleep walk through their days. Life is short could be a prod for remembering the importance of things.

What things?
Relationships: friendships, kinships…

You’re saying the importance of relationships escalate with age?
Not exactly, they’re weighty whatever our age. Just think of your first love! No, what changes is your awareness of their importance, an awareness that’s solidified by loss.

Awareness made keen through sorrow from lost relationships?
Yes…and at the same time, joy for those that remain, and delight for those that, despite distance, sustain?

Which brings up the question of, let’s say, the intentional care and feeding of human connection…
I think it can go either way.

Either way? You mean for some life is loss, so to hell with it? and for others, life is short, full of loss, so make everything count?
Yes, although it’s far more complicated. Currently, about 7 billion times more complicated.

Granted, but keep it simple for me…
Look, life is hardly static, we’re all somewhere along a beam. Because of our nature and the sum total of our experiences, we’re either moving toward a frozen existence, or we’re evolving: moving toward some kind of meaning, some kind of beauty, that is both within and beyond us. And the only way beauty, purpose and meaning grow is through flourishing relationships—outside of that, they’re pickled.

That seems slightly wise.
Hardly, just an insight of age that’s innate in a child, then often shelved in (what can be) the self-absorbing quest of actualization, only to return and be reckoned with, in time, or in tragedy.

And the reckoning? What’s it look like?
Well, I’m thinking about the relationships I’ve had over the years. All my failures, my neglect, my taking offense at perceived slights, the misunderstandings, my face-saving bluster, all my quid pro quo “love”…

They’re hazy, barely remembered, maybe wrongly remembered.

What’s that about?
Self preservation.

Don’t you want to excavate them?
It’s not about excavating. I wouldn’t know where to start, and I don’t trust my memory. And I’m not sure if excavating the unconscious for some early trauma is of much use to me, I had a pretty good childhood. At this stage I’m more interested owning what’s there, and moving on.

And what’s there?
Well, that I’m still too driven by insecurity, fear, envy…

And how do you move on?
I’m hoping that exposing, naming, the crap that constrains me, I’m creating a choice: that is, I don’t have to fall unwittingly into false ways of belonging  (notice me with approval! ), which is an animating desire deep in all of us, and on its own, lovely and noble because it draws us to one another. But it’s also be the thing that gets us into trouble. Think about it, there’s an entire industry that caters to our desire to belong.

So this desire is divine but our grasping screws us up and life is about learning another way but learning is hard and takes time and so life’s passing seems too swift? Is that what you’re saying?
I guess I’m saying two things. Life is short. Broken, lost or neglected relationships should not be relegated to the ash heap of personal history. But also, life is short, there are dead mules—no point prodding those.

So what do you propose to do?
Make small grafts for something new. Craft little revisions to the story.

And how do you do that?
Well, I’m not all that sure. Maybe this: at dawn, give thanks for the perspective gained from being practiced in failure; then, trust the sunset, be watchful, make connection, resist scattering, go for the lasting; take these remaining years, care for them without obsessing, look for healing, look for blooming, make a garden of each day, and seek its gift.

Think your up to it?
Aiming for a passing grade.