Monday, June 5th, 2023

A weekend with Henry, Shiloh and Ubah

A view back towards Henry’s shop, with one of the owners

I crossed into Canada over the Seaway International Bridge to Cornwall Island early on Saturday afternoon. As border crossings go, it was as uneventful as could be expected given that I was driving a big black van loaded with everything a human being could need, sans food, to spend three and a half months in the near arctic. After answering the necessary questions, doing a very thorough search of my van, and confiscating a knife that I had no idea was a restricted weapon in Canada they sent me on my way. Apparently, I had convinced the very professional Canadian border security agents that I was not, in fact, running from the law (or maybe an angry husband) on the US side of the border. The agent attached a Visitor Record that he assured me would make the passage back into Canada from Alaska significantly easier on my return trip. I immediately pulled into a grocery store and purchased a weeks worth of food since I had eaten nothing but a bowl of oatmeal smothered orange slices since I’d crawled out of bed six hours earlier.

I opened the iOverlander app on my phone and found a Crown Land camping spot about two and a half hours roughly west of the border crossing and hopped on 401 heading in that direction. I spent the next hour or so chatting on the phone with my best friend as I put the miles behind me and only ended the conversation as I left the highway and began the back road trip toward Camerons Lake. I took a left in Salem, ON and headed south on Devil Lake road which soon turned to dirt as I entered the lake country just north of the Frontenac Provincial Park. It turned out that all the camping spots in the area were full which wasn’t much of a surprise since it was Saturday afternoon. I continued down the road and soon had a red Ford van on my tail so I pulled over to let it pass. As the van pulled up I rolled the window down. There was a young lady in the passenger seat and an older gentleman behind the wheel. He seemed friendly and asked what I was looking for, assuming, since I was obviously in some sort of camper van that maybe I needed a place to sleep. When I told him, he gave me a street number and told me to follow him and that he had all sorts of room to park my van. I had that quick image of being lured to my doom flash through my mind but I quickly disregarded it as the fantasy product of a lifetime of watching American film. In truth, I was immediately taken with the friendliness of these Canadians. I’d been in Canada for all of about four hours and it seemed I was already being treated as a member of the family.

As I pulled into the circular driveway and opened the passenger window the driver yelled out “Park wherever you like!” so I pulled around and touched the button on my Garmin GPS to see just how level the van was. It was almost spot on and I was out of the way so I just parked right there next to the pear tree behind the greenhouse. I stepped out of the van and walked up to the man who was already out of his van and extended my hand while introducing myself. And that’s how I met Henry and his daughter Shiloh. Henry’s wife Ubah arrived about half an hour later and greeted me with a warm smile and the familiarity of someone who has finally returned home after a long journey. Even the dogs (and there are a bunch of them) greeted me as if they had been wondering where I’d gone and when I’d return.

The afternoon, evening and the rest of the weekend has been filled with relaxation, warm conversation and the kind of ease amongst strangers that I’ve never experienced before in my life. Truly, it’s as if known these people as family for my whole life. And yet, I’d never met any of them before. At least not in this lifetime.

Serendipity – The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident. It’s been the theme of the last three days. And indeed, much of my life when I stop for a moment to feel the gratitude of all that’s been gifted to me.

Until next time…

Lest We Forget

This is no accident

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Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

We are all here on a sacred spiritual journey. We didn’t come here to get rich, or to command armies, or to die with the most toys. We came here for a reason. The beauty of the adventure is that we don’t get to know why we chose this life. Not while we’re still here anyway.

I had a dream last night that my late wife and I had a baby. A little boy. Scrawny and dark with a complexion and face that held none of the features of either myself or my wife. At three months old he was standing in his crib and telling me who I was. He spoke clear sentences. He was mischievous, funny and full of love. As I changed his diaper he looked in my eyes and joked with me. As we walked down the street he greeted everyone and ran around playing hide and seek with me in wanton joy. He brought bright smiles to all the faces in the crowd.

This short dream triggered a vague sense of deja vu. As if I were being given a little hint of those memories I’d left behind me. In my headlong pursuit of “what I was supposed to do” I seem to have misplaced what I actually came here to do. For what does a tiny child know of life in this world? They know love, they know kindness, they know vulnerability. They know fun, and how to live a life as if tomorrow wasn’t something to dread. They don’t think about tomorrow at all. Today is all that exists to them. And today is enough.

There are big things that need doing in this world. And more reasons than one can imagine for dreading tomorrow. But if we all lived life as if we were little children, would that be so bad? Love everyone, be kind, show your vulnerable side. Bring smiles to the faces of everyone you meet. Make them laugh and pass along some joy.

I think we could heal the world. One lost soul at a time.

It’s Your Turn

Death stops by for a chat

Photo by Marco De Waal on Unsplash

She stood in the doorway in that dismissive way a teenage girl stands when she’s feeling put upon. Clearly, she had better things to do and he was just an inconvenient obligation she had to address before she could get on with the important matters of the day. Still, she was nearly transparent. When she looked up and met his eyes, his blood ran cold. For here was Death herself. Not carrying a scythe. Not dressed in black. Nope, not this time. Today, she was just a pretty teenage girl. Albeit, one you literally see through. Not exactly what one would expect to see at the moment oblivion comes calling. No one would ever suspect she held the power of eternity in her hands. That is, until they looked in her eyes. There was no mistaking her identity when those bottomless black orbs caught your gaze.

“Relax”, she said, “someone very important to you asked me to stop by and remind you. You made a promise. And you’re dragging your feet. Time’s a wasting old man. Don’t make me come back here. You know she won’t be happy if you blow it again this time.”

He was just about to say something when she interrupted him. “No excuses” she said, “You have had ten years to grieve. She sent along just about every kind of human being you could possibly need to learn the difference between what the two of you had and what everyone else thinks is love. You know this, deep down. Accept it. And do what you promised to do.”

“But the kids…..”, he said. “Will be fine” she countered. “How many times have they themselves told you that? You’re just scared.” And he knew, to his very core, that Death was right. He’d set an intention in motion two and half years ago. He’d retire, somehow make the finances work and go have that adventure he had always dreamed about. The very one he described to his wife just months before she passed away. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a promise he’d made to be more than an empty husk of a man after all she had suffered.

It certainly seemed like every cause for concern was magically removed whenever he came up with another reason to hold back. The job was outsourced a month before he was planning to retire. It put him in an even better financial situation. Every obstacle just seemed to evaporate, almost as soon as he thought of it. For someone who couldn’t seem to stop worrying about what could go wrong, everything always worked out in his favor. And he knew, it was because of her. It was the gift she gave him in return for a promise that had been made and must be kept.

Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned to look. In the mirror on the wall, a flash of black wing and the shiny edge of a sharpened blade passed through his field of view. When he turned back she was gone. A waft of burnt cookies caressed his nose and the unspoken words kissed his soul, “Don’t let her down, you promised her you wouldn’t waste the time she gave you.”

The Greatest Gift

Is one we give to ourselves

I was chatting with an old friend today. A comrade in arms, so to speak, on the long road to widowhood I made over ten years ago. That trip was a painful, soul searing life tragedy I’m sure I’ll never completely reconcile emotionally. We shared the process because her husband was dying of the same disease at almost the same time as my wife.

The conversation led down some paths of reflection that I hadn’t sat with in a long time. Those days were difficult. A million things to do. But what I most remembered was the overwhelming sense of abandonment I experienced. I hadn’t examined those feelings because I let them all go a long time ago.

People fail us, when we most need them. Friends don’t show up to help when their presence would lift worlds from our shoulders. Family members just go on living their lives as if nothing is wrong.
We have expectations of the people in our lives. Expectations that they will be there when we need them. That they will love us as we love them. That they will hear us when we call out in the darkness. And yet they fail us. Over and over again.

But guess what? We fail them too. Because the things we need from other people are tied to our own perceptions. Even when we give what we most think someone needs, we often fail.

The measure of a person isn’t if they’re there when needed. Sometimes you will be and sometimes you won’t. You’ll often fail to provide that which is most needed in the moment even when you think you’re giving your all. Unless you’re just an asshole, you’re likely to try to help those you love as often as you can. But you’re still going to fail. Often.

The measure of a person is displayed in their ability to forgive. When others fail them. And when they fail others. To be able to accept the imperfections of all the people in our lives. To overlook the perceived slights and misunderstandings. To accept that we’re all weak in some ways and unable to give even when the demand is great.

Some things you don’t so much get over as you just sort of move beyond. The death of a loved one. The ending of what you thought was going to be forever. Life will never be quite the same. Hanging on to the failures you experience in life, whether those of a loved one, or your own, is a zero sum game. No one benefits and everyone stands to lose that most precious of all possessions — love. We’re here for a remarkably short ride and you never really know what pain other people are bearing. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Forgiveness. We may forgive other people but the release is ours to celebrate.

Taillights and memories

What are we all here for anyway?

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Grandfather Mountain, NC

I’d never even heard his name before. I was sixteen years old and starting my first “real” job. I’d be doing odd jobs at a golf course. Mowing, raking leaves, “whipping” the greens every morning, oh, and dodging golf balls. Greg was at least fifteen years older than I. He rode a motorcycle. He smoked (not just tobacco, either) and did pretty much any other substance he could get his hands on. He was almost certainly the most intellectually eager human being I had ever met.

I grew up in a mountain town of about five hundred souls. Deep history. But not a whole lot of intellectual curiosity. There were plenty of smart people around. They regularly kicked my ass academically. But there just wasn’t much passion for the unknown. I’m kind of a big question guy. I don’t so much care what the answer is, I just want new questions. Preferably questions nobody has ever before answered to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Greg was my very first introduction to philosophy (my wife would become my ultimate partner in those endeavors).

But here, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I found someone who spent their time thinking the same kinds of thoughts I had always entertained. Thoughts that went beyond “how do I fix this carburetor?” or “will I have a date on Saturday night?”. Here was someone with adventure woven into his soul.

He’d left home right after high school. Spent the last two years of the Vietnam war on an army base in Germany. When he returned to the states he took diving lessons and worked for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico doing underwater welding. He traveled all over the country taking on jobs that made him just enough money to get by while he tried to figure out what life was all about. At one point, he found himself in Wyoming working as a roughneck on an oil rig. When that tour ended, he hopped on his Yamaha SR500 and made a beeline for home. Over twenty hours of riding, stopping for nothing but fuel. He was around forty years old and had spent most of the last twenty years on the road. He had a lot of stories to tell and I sat in rapt attention listening to him.

Greg was a student. Not a formal academic, but rather someone who had never stopped learning. He could spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Eastern religion or with a flip of the subject, the mechanics of rebuilding a motorcycle transmission. He defined “Renaissance Man” to me. He knew something about almost everything and was one of those “most interesting men in the world” types.

But life in what Western culture had become bored Greg silly. Like most people with half a brain, a bit of compassion, and a taste for adventure, capitalism represented subjugation and exploitation. It just wasn’t a game he wanted to play. He’d grown up with money and saw the single-minded pursuit of it as something of a moral failing. The fact that all of Western culture had become enslaved to its pursuit had left him more than a little distressed and depressed.

My friend died young. Not in a noble way either. He didn’t kill himself. The end was as forlorn as his view of the world had become. He was run over by a car in whiteout conditions on a cold winter’s night in his hometown. The driver of the car never saw him and his family declined to press charges. It was simply an accident that nobody could have foreseen.

I met my wife about a year after Greg was killed. And to be honest, he didn’t cross my mind much over the years. Like so many of our early relationships, we had just sort of drifted apart. Twenty four years later though, on one of the darkest nights my soul has ever known, this man came to me in a dream.

It was a late December night, about a month after Liz had died. I hadn’t really gotten a decent night’s sleep in about three years. There was something otherworldly about everything since my universe had come to an end on the Monday before Thanksgiving. This particular night I had already been visited by my father (who had passed away twenty-two years previously).

Here, in the pre-dawn hours, I found myself straddling a motorcycle on an empty road. I looked to my right and Greg sat there, on the very SR500 Yamaha he had ridden all those years before. He wore the same blanket lined denim jacket and Marlboro Man mustache he had always sported. He grinned at me, laughed out loud, gunned the engine and took off. I chased him, across the flats and up over the hill. The last thing I saw before I woke up was the taillight of that Yamaha going around the bend in front of me. I was strangely comforted by this visit from a nearly forgotten specter of my past. He hadn’t said a word and yet he told me all I needed to hear.

Thank you for reading.