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.


  1. Such a good reminder, too, of learning to live a contemplative life. The stopping and noticing and savoring…it seems to disappear into the blur sometimes, doesn’t it? Thank you so much for this reminder, once again, Stephen…May you always be brought back to the wonder of your senses, encountering the wonder of the world.

  2. These were beautiful reflections Stephen… and a very good reminder to be present in the moment. Fewer big surprises as I get older… but many more gentle subtle ones. (The wide eyed but coy smile of a curious child in a stroller, the happy wag of a too friendly dog’s tail, a sweet encouraging text message, the tighter-than-expected embrace of a friend.) Those beautiful little things that provide moments of clarity and joy and for a moment lift the fog of the routine and humdrum.

  3. I pushed Ginny in her wheel chair and now limited memory to some flowering crab trees. Her surprise and delight in that moment at the flowering beauty caused me to remember “…the wondrous weirdness in all things…”. Thank you!

  4. I was at a conference last week on using questions to help people develop counter-stories of the problems of their lives. We were reminded of how tremendously interesting people are.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *