A Day of Life

I find myself up early these Fall mornings remembering the recent past and wondering about the near present. Nature is so tidy.  The rains begin. The fire ban lifts. Beauty, mirth and elegance preside over a feast of decay and darkness somehow illuminating the wonder found everywhere.

Here, Garry Oak leaves hold on while Big Leaf Maple, Poplar, Cottonwood and Willow conspire a slippery roadside compost. The Merlins have gone. The Crows have dropped the last of the walnuts on asphalt laneways. Rufous is humming elsewhere while Anna stays a while longer. Tree frogs make only silence til March and the impossibly soft eggs of so many Painted Turtles are safely buried beneath the beach at Stowell Lake.

Within this natural order came Sunday’s annual burn. After hours of sorting and heaving, the pyre drifted from flames to coals throwing heat evenly from its metre-wide circumference.

I puttered with a pair of pruning shears. M. leaned back in a plastic garden chair and entertained me with lists of jobs done, food prepared and activities waiting. I reached deep into the limey-green stalks of fern and looked up at the gleaming healthy canopy of fragile fronds.

My mission. Reduce the presence of Periwinkle and other root-creeping invasives that  made a home here decades ago. The pruning ritual satisfies and humbles. Every year it relegates a large pile of unwanted growth to a heap that suggests – for several months – that eradication has been successful.

Many annual burns in this area of the yard have infused the soil with carbon. It is rich and black which perhaps explains the weed-family preference for this particular spot. Despite the cover provided by our largest cedar the earth was damp. For a couple of days the rain had fallen with impressive force.  Crawling along I peered into the shade, soiled my knees and was pitched from forearm-to-elbow.

When M. called for quiet her voice conveyed happiness, excitement and a familiar kindness. There followed a point. At the base of the cedar a row of five California Quail stalked one another across our rain-dropped septic field.

I admit that my first thought was dismal. I thought how their numbers had dwindled since summer. Then, mammas and papas were followed by 20 and more chicks. A cock would find high ground with hens and other cocks forming middle and rear guards. Together they guided the covey into or out of hedgerows, through fences, across roadbeds or into ditches.

Now the 20 or 30 were five. Three cocks, two hens. All plump and all searching for clues to several unknowable questions. As they veered our way I released my hand from the clippers and let myself sink into dark, cool dirt: a form-fitted mattress that, on a summer’s day, would have made for great sex and drollery. A place where guttural gasps and hilarious laughter would complement two lives thriving.

Lucky us. Quails 1 through 5 turned in our direction. Perhaps it was the warming fire, perhaps the newly disturbed earth, the scattered bits of mortified branches. Perhaps the simple quiet of our Sunday morning. As Quail approached the purposelessness they exhibit from a distance was reconfigured by proximity to their pitched peeps. Logic said these sounds were fuelled by respiratory tracts and articulated within passages formed of delicate beak.

But logic was confounded by their social anatomy. A secret sonar resembled speech acts. Bold articulations of a freshly evolved intelligence sounded among them. The heaving bellow of their breasts droned and jib-like topknots whistled.  What echolocations choreographed last-minute course-corrections?  Which crash-avoidance system freed them from crossed paths?

M. and I watched. We nodded at one another, smiled and saw them dance for us. We saw them respect a boundary they’d drawn around our presence. We saw their nature lacking the panic of roadside sightings. Then, in a fit of decisiveness they turned away and followed the fence line to another direction.

 

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It rained yesterday

Clouds; Atmospher; Time

Clouds; Atmosphere; Time – Matthew Metzger

It rained yesterday. The drops started early evening. But the threat was settled that morning. At 5:00 am stars in every direction. Soon cloud cover was complete.

The air settled yesterday. I wore a lovely sweater. Damp weaving moisture with warp to weft.  I wondered, “is this morning’s wet exceptional?”

All day clouds jellied. Their authority muted the minute and monstrous sounds of the village – dogs and diesel engines, birds and braking bicycles, chattering children and chainsaws… In quiet I typed, composing logic and process that I hoped others would recognize and return.

As my burrow closed-in, I laboured. Atmospheric pressure sank, heart rate dropped, blood thickened. A single moment within moments stretched out hours of meteorological time. Then rain.

Hiking with Duck Tape

This summer I was lucky to be part of two wonderful walks into the back country. Both illustrated why duck tape has been on every NASA mission since the early Gemini days (~ 1961).

Vesta

Vesta sticks to her guns!

The duck tape origin story goes something like this. During World War 2, a mom and munitions factory worker, Vesta Stoudt, thought cloth backed adhesive would be a superior way to fasten boxes of ordnance.  She was correct.

Her good idea found its way to a Johnson & Johnson affiliate where they adapted an existing medical tape product. A waterproof polyethylene (plastic) coating was added to the cloth with a layer of rubber-based gray adhesive bonded to one side.

Usually, I carry two rations of duck tape on a multi-day hiking trip. I wrap several meters of tape around the outside of a Nalgene bottle and I wrap about one meter around a pencil. This covers large and small jobs and lets me store the precious tape in different compartments.

This tape went unused until this summer. Occasionally I would look at it, estimate its total weight and then think about something else. But during our Yukon trip I totally exhausted both sources. First, one of the people we were hiking with broke a pole. After about 30 minutes of figuring, we cut the end off of an oak stirring spoon, wrapped the spoon’s handle in duck tape, snuggly inserted the taped spoon handle into the two pieces of graphite and taped over the two pieces. It worked.

My boots were the next order of business. Both started falling apart – one more so than the other. Without any shoo-goo on hand, I relied on the remaining supply of duck tape to solve this very important problem. I rationed the remaining tape to secure the midsole and heel sections of the tread to the leather boot. It worked.

Fine and dandy. But did I re-supply with new duct tape for the second trip? Er, no. Luckily my friend H had his own pencil wrapped in duck tape. When falling on a sharp rock created a wide split between his ring and pinky finger it was duct tape that more or less permanently secured the gauze and butterfly bandages to his left hand. This promoted healiing and gave him latitude to swim the remaining 3 days!

So simple message: Go hiking, have fun, bring duck tape.

The map is not the territory

My good friend A. and I turn 60 this year. Our spouses, M. and S., rewarded us with an early birthday present – a treeline to tundra walk into the Yukon Territory’s Tombstone Range.  Like other back country adventures here too we received advice about what to watch out for. While many people cautioned us about Grizzlies no one mentioned Gravity. Grizzly-Glissade_ElevationsThe Ogilvie Mountains are a study in applied physics. Apparently, switchbacks have only recently been discovered in this part of the North and most trails tend to go straight up. Those that trend in a downwards direction are frequently (and I mean frequently) punctuated with boulders (small to massive slides that resemble rivers of rock) over which the intrepid hiker must hop (and occasionally leap) to successfully cross. 1The rare moments when we reach a saddle or levelling in the trail are a perfect salve. Boots off, feet deep in glacial water, pans of just melted ice soaking sweaty heads, hard cheese and hard sausage gobbled down. We repeat this ritual for five blissful bluebird days.2The slopes we trek and the summits we reach are deep-fried. Daily temperatures average 25 to 30C. At times, it is like walking on the lid of a slow-cooker. All of the steepest climbs are glorious. Each 100 meters or so the wind increases, the temperature drops – a lovely gift to the blood-pounding beauty of our healthy hearts. desGoing down, our tootsies compress further and further into the aptly-named toe box of our boots. Deceleration impresses the soft skin of our feet. The knitted architectures of our socks, once removed, show off neatly lined ridges rising up from lithe dermal valleys. Discoloured toe nails predict imminent loss. Specialized blisters forming. Fleshy digits bonded to one another.fAt the top of mountain passes we are awestruck by this Yukon. Craggy, gnarly peaks – Monolith, Tombstone –  recalling medieval ramparts and crenellations thousands of meters tall. Spires pointing to infinitude, caves homesteading wizards, dwarfs, hermits… Your choice. 5Massive cirques littered with scree and talus. The brittle body of upper earth crushed against a green bottom. And as we look down on this forcefulness, witnessing its brutal beautiful outcome, we step into it. 7We walk off a cliff. First, tentatively. Feeling gravel and sheets of shale give up their place on the mountain is unnerving. Plotting long angles we temper the suicidal slippage of each step. Then glee. Our requirement for traction and certainty is replaced by the confident joy of momentum. We ski to the bottom. Each of us four begetting her or his own avalanche of expectations.6And as we cross over this lost horizon we find a Shangri La. Eternal life bubbling from the coloured, flattened stones of sourceless creeks. Borne into patches of blueberry. Swept along the endless merger of contiguous valleys. 8Tiny juniper and wind-shaped willows willfully forgetting the weariness of winter dormancy. Fireweed standing together in a common statement of generosity. Prairie crocus singly clinging to the dried solitude of untrodden earth. Cottongrass reminding every living thing how delicate and dominant snow must needs be. 9Lakes. Cold blue steel lifting hot grey stone. Sirens to our puny human desire for intensity. Four naked bodies driven to draw breaths deeply from this tarn. Wet whispered sun sonnets recovering what was lost on our way here.10This North, these days, are bug-free. We see them, they see us, yet they seem pre-occupied with some other mission. Birds too. The odd sparrow here and there, a family of ptarmigan pandering to indecisiveness, a tiny hawk swooping overhead at 1500 metres, two ravens calling forth the sun. campThe near absence of flight, both entomo- and ornitho-logical, inspires us to flee our itinerary. Though back country campsites are beautifully outfitted (Yukon Parks provides fantastic pads for tents, ropes off camp trails, and shuttles barrels of poop, pee and grey water out by helicopter) this is not where we need to be. 11We head for ‘the shire,’ a large verdant Yin butted against a rock-ribbed Yang. Here, deep lichen-flecked moss lightens each barefoot taken, inhales our sleep-over impermanence, and saturates our nostrils with sudden prehistoric aromas. As morning breaks we see too how our ground cover sustains the bull Caribou who for the next two hours nibbles, strolls and lopes in the shallow dip below our tents.12You will recall “the glee.” The rock skiing. This occurred in Glissade Pass. To glissade means “to slide down a steep slope of snow or ice [or loose rock].” To my knowledge there is no climbing term to describe the ascent of a scree field. While “motherfucker” captures some emotional elements of the act it doesn’t fully describe the technical challenges involved. In any case, upon leaving ‘the shire’ we immediately climb a large talus slope and regard 300 meters of very steep walking. 13Our approach is simple. We plant firm, purposive footfalls, make deliberate pole placements, rid our consciousness of self-doubt, and don’t look down. As the pitch sharpens, loose-packed stone gives way to broken rock and walking more closely resembles scaling. 14We scan, we estimate, we grunt. We severely kick footholds into the mountain only to feel them give way when transferring weight from one foot to the other. We learn that hand-holds, although comforting to look at, are liable to break, and thus dangerous. 15We are a slow-moving, genial hive-mind. We encourage  one another, suggest easier, more stable routes, and occasionally curse as one. But at some ill-defined point, our common experience dissolves. Our position on the mountain clarifies one thing: we are on our own. Or are we? upAfter two hours of climbing, ten meters separates our company of adventurers from the top of the Pass. And at this point our good will and some unknowable karma produces the most beautiful avatar. A lad from the Dolomites crosses the ridge like he’s sprinting over a massive piece of crumbling polenta. His happy face shining, his helping hand extended.17Physically, this hike was arduous. physicalMentally, we pushed past all existing comfort zones.16Aesthetically, incomparable. saddleSpiritually, affirming. osThank goodness for the Yukon Territory.us

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel in the North

The Past
The unsettled weather I am travelling through has not been seen in this area in 75 years. To say that it is unusual understates its impact by a magnitude. I know this because my first daughter was born in these parts 26 years ago.

screen-shot-2017-01-25-at-5-46-23-amOn 21 January 1991 I saw her form for the first time. I inhaled her presence in the cabin that we rented on Pelican Lake in Sioux Lookout, Ontario. I smeared the thick cheesy vernix envelope that had painted itself over the pink oxygen of her skin.

When she arrived that day it was cold. I remember looking out the bedroom window at the Pine and Evening Grosbeaks gobbling seed. A thermometer fastened next to the feeder read -42C.

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
By way of comparison, I was in Kitchenuhmayooosib Inninuwug (KI) or  Big Trout Lake on January 21st this year. KI lies about 450km due north from Sioux Lookout. It was 2C in KI. The snow was melting away, baring roofs and spawning puddles on the hard clay roads.

The warm warm weather conspired with heaps of cold cold snow to create dense dense fog.  As the ceiling fell below 600 feet, flights were cancelled producing a classic case of weathered-in-ed-ness among the pocket populations of fly-in help.

About 20 hours after the cancellation of our Friday afternoon flight a dynamic emerged that in many ways resembled Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief. Positioned at various points in the tiny hotel’s common room I witnessed and, indeed, participated in the following:

  • Acceptance. Various visitors lazily lounge in front of endless inaugural commentaries. Occasionally a droll observation about northern travel emerges. Many casual expressions of fluidity, e.g., “I’m OK with staying over another night,” are offered;
  • Denial. Phone calls from Sioux Lookout paint an increasingly dire picture of the weather system’s scope. People who by now should have been in KI have yet to lift off. This information gives rise to multiple and unsolicited opinions about northern air service followed by unfounded, if not irrational, forecasts that “we’ll definitely get out today.”;
  • Anger. When a knowledgeable local enters the hotel and  unequivocally states that  planes do not fly on the sabbath, the “we’ll get out tomorrow” assumption is lost. Their revelation is viewed as vexatious, toxic even. Later it inspires poetikal verse:

    No Fly Zone

    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    How do you know that you cannot fly from KI on Sunday?
    You find out when you’re weathered-in
    Weathered-in on Friday
    You find out when the agent says:
    If you don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    You don’t get out today,
    You won’t get out tomorrow.
    Cause the church is State
    And you’ll have to wait
    The Sabbath means
    You don’t play ball
    You don’t haul wood
    You don’t exert, don’t run, don’t flirt
    Don’t shout, don’t cry
    And you DO NOT fly
    From KI
    On Sunday.

  • Within a half hour those short fuses have become long faces. Depression sets in and the many legitimate and fabricated reasons “why I HAVE TO get out today” start to tumble from the homunculus. Several people get off the couch and head for their bedrooms where the sound of frantic texting overcomes the incessant and delirium-inspiring ambiance of the forced air furnace.
  • Bargaining signals the end of Act One. Could we….
    • Split the cost of an air charter?
    • Engage the services of a local driver Sunday to travel the 50 or so kilometres to Wapekeka where a more enlightened parish permits planes to land on the holy day?
    • Re-arrange our massively important schedules to remove those immovable barriers that just moments earlier pre-supposed necessary, nay requisite, absolution from natural temperaments and known unknowns?

As we head to the KI airport – which we find emptied of staff and information – we realize we are exactly where we began: Will the plane fly? Will the fog lift? Will the freezing rain permit us to land should we get anywhere near Sioux Lookout? Answers are: yes, no, yes and no.

Our little group from the hotel is augmented by others. We chat, touch though do not grope, we find our commonness. Magically our frazzled selves and the pervasive uncertainty – of where we are to go, when, or how – resolve and high spirits, good humour, and occasional notions of contingency prevail.

It is 8:30 PM and having bypassed Kasabonika we find ourselves in the Pickle Lake airport waiting room. At 9:30 PM a big group boards a plane for Thunder Bay. Two beautiful young people decline to board after the pilot’s warning that should the plane fail to land in Thunder Bay they will be diverted to Regina, Saskatchewan.

We adopt them. We are ten, we are happy, we are shuttled to the best worst bar in the world. Water, beer, white wine, rye, and vodka supplement the menu’s only fare: potato wedges and chicken fingers. Long story short, we arrive back to the Sioux Lookout airport by noon Sunday.

The Sioux Lookout Airport
This place might reasonably be described as both art installation and train wreck. Its transfiguration of function into chaos is no easy feat. New construction and renovations introduce innumerable  ambiguities “How does one get in,” say, or “how does one get out?”

Similarly, its liminal state reconfigures important human dimensions of air travel. “How are so many bodies to fit in so little space?” Flight delays and cancellations redefine the temporary nature of waiting room. Children scream through a maze of travellers all the while fully expressing the low-level anxiety that an uncertain routing, arrival or departure suggests. Meanwhile one-year olds peg leg toward each other, hands waving, smiles spread widely as if compensating for the grim adult expressions everywhere else.

Passengers wear timely though inappropriate outer wear – parkas, boots, hats and scarves. Vestments hang loosely from bent skeletal forms: their bulk inspires perspiration and thankfully conceals the stink of foliation. Eyes bow to handheld devices. In this steam bath of otherness, data plans are abandoned, yearning brows lift to itch primal needs, and fleshy palms re-engage their social contract.

Monday
So, following an eventful return from KI over the weekend, I fly to Fort Hope and then back again the same day. Simply put, I witness the same passive, multi-layered cloud cover thwart the pilots and their flying machines. Closing in on our destination patches of ground appear with some clarity. Thirty or sixty seconds later that clarity is erased only to be re-introduced as a tawdry expressionist version of reality. And this cycle repeats.

Part way through the third or fourth such cycle, the happy sound of flaps turning down and wheels descending shine a light on our collective and unwarranted hope of landing at this fort. The utter degradation of the visible world unfortunately corresponds with lower altitude and proximity to our destination. We know – all eight of us – we know we will not land.

The now familiar – and impressive – acceleration of the engines signals a farewell and our collection of thoughts turn to Plan B. Heading west again my travelling companion recalls the creeping fog seen in Sioux Lookout as we taxied from the terminal. After almost two hours in the air we all fear that our time has passed. Might we safely land in Sioux Lookout?  As the protocol begins again: deceleration, nose down, scanning for lights, our hearts synchronize on a single instance of good luck.

Dense cloud provides no hint of the topography below us. The groan of hydraulics eases flaps and wheels out of their nests. Flying. We are flying, but in reverse. We are, in aviation terms, initiating a controlled crash. We’re lifting ourselves out of the ether and returning to earth.

Where exactly is the earth? There it is. The train tracks. The train tracks? These tracks are no more than a half kilometre from the airport! AND WHUMP. Our wheels find the sloppy seconds of runways bullied and bared by unwanted warmth. Pressed against glass I see the tower lights dimly welcome what certainly is the last plane to land in Sioux Lookout that day.

Sleeping Giant – A Man Called Ove

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A Man Called Ove is no ordinary sob story. It’s powered by melancholy, fuelled with ancient ambitions and, like those centuries-old afflictions, the film surrenders us at rival gates and employs an indispensable elasticity to traverse enemy territories along a polarized continuum of mirth and remorse. The tale and its narrative arc rehearse nordic Sagas. A jätte (giant) – maltreated, introspective and near mute – is stripped clean. No mother, no father, no home…

And yet the gentle behemoth – displaced and pursued by Lilliputian-like white shirts – is  unbound by a young woman’s kindness and his own coarse desire to know her. As they rise up together and confront the beast lurking inside him their coupling forges a shield of shared and unperturbable destiny.

os2When Fortuna refuses their wilfulness and layers on pain and suffering, Ove retreats to yesteryear. Fury lifts him from slumber and anger announces his arrival. Villagers and livestock flee in Ove’s presence while we, the audience, entrench and extend his ill-tempered underdog status with distant admiration. Between the tears and the laughter Ove’s voice weakens as he anticipates and animates a pernicious decline.

fired If this were a modern tale of nihilistic ageists and personal health information breaches, we should say, “Poor Ove.” But Ove’s world is positively medieval. In it live sprites and fairies, thralls and wastrels, a Persian Venus, a Saab!

The Saab’s magick is internal combustion, an explosive metaphor that serves as automotive and jailer. Saabs provide a thread of shape shifting continuity, coded in colours and models, revved up with adolescent memories, and powered by incantations of engineering superiority.

en-man-som-heter-ove

We soon realize that having four-on-the-floor is Ove’s bane. Like the diesel locomotive that stops his father in its tracks and the diesel coach that neatly fails his beloved, the gassy interlopers that threaten the Estate’s walkways chain him with miscalculations and self-loathing.

Potent though the Saab may be the giant’s attachment to assembly line enchantments is broken by Parveneh, a saffron-wielding sorceress. She, floating above petty provincial judgements and lacking masculine temperaments at home, fearlessly walks into Ove’s fat palm and coaxes driving spells from a gruff, damaged soul.

persianReluctantly and methodically Ove teaches her to control the beast. And as she learns to drive, Parveneh regards and brightens Ove’s aura. Ove’s bark and predictability diminish. His generosity flowers. His graveside habits change. Then one evening while Venus retreats from the Swedish sky and fresh snow dusts his walk, Ove’s mortal coil unwinds.

A Man Called Ove, plucks vintage heart strings. It engages our reptilian brain while provoking the otherworldliness of civilizing influences. It seizes the overwrought and offsets their grief with an oddly engaging and instrumental rationality. The film speaks to the good and bad, the best and beastly among us.  It’s a story cast within millennial rather than generational timeframes and it summons quite a thought: healing takes a long time.

This one-in-a-million Swedish suburban saga considers unlucky lives by rehearsing the minor falls and major lifts of neighbourly behaviour. The film shows that no matter how foreign, alone, or oafish one might be, the milk of human kindness is a powerful potion. It bathes wounds, dissolves barriers, and clarifies destinies.

More and more and more and tomorrow

ecc_decline_american_01

In 1986 we paid to watch the decline of the american empire. A gaggle of elite academics drank heavily and sifted through one another’s scat. Recall the adulterous braggadocio? The self-cancelling embrace and disregard for infectious disease? The pandering to feelings while nailing one another to the wall? Denys Arcand was one smart cookie. The film reads like a Tao of Demise. “Maybe,” it seems to ask, “the darkness is a precursor for an unbearable lightness of being?”
25_years_episode1_pic_1In the 1980s we witnessed political machinery run out of gas. We saw Soviet military might dissolve (warehouses of unsorted Stasi surveillance records exposed to the elements and stripped of their coercive powers). We saw the Reagan administration withhold NIH funding for HIV (shame and silence being its anti-bodies of choice), and we read one dick – now at Stanford – proclaim the end of history (invoking an Hegelian dyspepsia that quaked and crumbled collective memory).
6Lacking state sanctioned oppression, institutional capacity for compassion, and a dialectic for enlightenment, ferment in the field of human freedoms produced vinegar rather than wine. Today’s grim situation has been a long time coming and its ascendency is formative at best.  I’m afraid that the only correspondence between Donald Trump’s recent election and global societal malaise is that his initials suggest a Delirious Tremens that we’ll only stave off with more drink.

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On institutional wherewithal & human being

Of the possibilities for personal transformation Thomas Merton writes,

In order to gain possession of ourselves we need some confidence, some hope of victory. And in order to keep that hope alive we must usually have some taste of victory. We must know what victory is and like it better than defeat.

I am not the person I should have been. I grew up poor in Windsor, Ontario and lived in run down neighbourhoods where petty crime and vandalism were part of everyday life.

And victory? Victory was the stuff of fairy tales.

All of this to say that my parent’s socio-economic status predicted not much more than a lifelong struggle with poverty.

But that poverty didn’t happen because Canadians wove together a social safety net. Over a period of about 25 years I landed in that net three times and those soft landings changed everything. Faceless policies and caring institutions deftly anticipated my situation.

LANDING #1
I am two years old. I severely cut my hand in a household accident. I am taken to the hospital immediately where I receive treatment. Yet, the medical encounter continues for another three years. Here are the highlights:

  • Infection
  • Infection management
  • Failure of infection management
  • Discussion of options, Amputation?
  • Medical curiosity
  • Medical advocacy
  • Medical intervention
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Hospitalization
  • Rehabilitation
  • Medical success!

As interesting – miraculous even – as the clinical outcome, is the fact that between 1959 and 1962 my family bore no financial burden for the prods, pokes, and procedures, the beds I occupied, the rehab therapies, nor the numerous follow-up appointments with our family physician. Why?

Because in 1955 labour unions, the municipality, its hospitals and local docs  created Windsor Medical – an affordable monthly fee that made access to quality health services available for all.

LANDING #2
I am 12 years old and “rough” is a word that describes near everything in our one-size-fits-all world. The family next door is “rough” with their children, the place down the road is in “rough” shape, and the school I attend is dominated by “roughians,” gangs of boys rumoured to carry knives and possessed of nasty temperaments. This word becomes a call to action. My parents say that we’ve got to go somewhere better.

Where? How?

My mother discovers a special provision in returning veteran’s legislation that provides  no interest loans for former soldiers saddled with various disorders and diseases. Here the combination of vague language, an exemplary civil service, and a highly motivated maternal presence, converge in the purchase of a modest home. At just $52.00 per month the house is ours, forever.

LANDING #3
High school was a bust for me. I attended grades 9 through 13 though paid little attention. I smoked a lot of dope, skipped plenty of classes and after five years I was ushered to the door without certificate of graduation. Factories and shift work came next, some travel, more shift work. Then in my early 20s I awoke to a grim fact. My recent past foresaw an identical future.

Ontario post-secondary education policy was there for me to land in. It allowed me to enrol in a remedial community college program where patient – and I’m certain poorly paid – adult educators helped me with the fundamentals. Then a mature student exemption built a bridge to higher learning.

Clutching these assets I enrolled in the university, completed graduate school and found my way into telecommunications and health technology consulting.

It’s been said that there are but three ways to affect change.
– You can let it happen.
– You can help it happen; and,
– You can make it happen.

As a citizen of Canada I feel lucky that civil servants and their political bosses helped me not hit the ground. Instead they gave me a taste victory and they showed me how much sweeter it is than defeat.

Unquestioned

boots_off_the_ground_rockpass

“As a mountain of rock is unshaken by wind, so also, the wise are unperturbed by blame or praise” (Verse 81, Book of Dharma)

This Fall we spent some time in the North Cascades. Deep in the Pasayaten wilderness – a roadless raw tooth in the American Cordillera – our three happy bodies lay still, wanting for nothing.

rockpass_from_woodypass

We were shaken by the wind, washed with rain, and cocooned by cold. Beneath us lay 400 million years of geologic time; tectonic plates beached at a place we now call western Washington.

 

Just As I Am

I am the son of a Baptist Minister. In Baptist churches you hear Just as I am a lot. This is the first verse…

Just as I am, without one plea
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

What a song!

It makes a humble and unbowing statement that clearly positions our voices within the Protestant canon.

In four words Just-As-I-Am expresses our connection to G-O-D. No middle men,unmediated access to power. “Just you and me!”

When I was growing up I would hear this song all the time. Randomly at Sunday services. Often visiting Pastors wrapped their sermons by featuring all six verses.

Choirs. It’s well-suited to choirs. Just As I Am oddly features a profound and muted drone resilient to the disharmonies of mixed-bag chorales and spontaneous public expression.

There are these moments of serotonin-spiking dissonance in Just As I Am where the simplicity of human revelation is cast so effortlessly against the sonic excess of a choir, a congregation, a stadium that it unlatches the deadliest bolts of pretense and solemnizes a tearful eternal coming together. Listen to the reaching crescendo at the end of the third line and how it’s replaced by a child-like whisper of promise.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
hath broken every barrier down;
now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Television. You used to hear it all the time watching Billy Graham. If you haven’t guessed already Just As I Am was a key recruiting tool for the Baptist church. The song was a closer. It signaled the end of ritual, the beginning of lifetimes, and the convenience of spiritual conformity.

  1. The end. Anybody who spent any time in church could tell you that hearing Just As I am was a Pavlovian trigger for teenage adherents. Hearing those introductory bars on the piano said, in no uncertain terms, that you were going home and real soon.
  2. Lifetimes end and begin with motion. Just As I Am mobilized the audience and  choreographed their movement into an endpoint of light. Hailing from the dimmest corners of the room, converts burdened and sagging with corporeality; witnessed –  looked down upon – from ten thousand craning necks: weeping, weeping, lubricated in sobbing kaleidoscopes of sin, walking into salvation. Hands over mouths, arms crossed, pensive, leaning on canes, ordinary people left their seats to purify their souls.
  3. And the song closed a gap between here and now, before and after, us and them. Just As I Am unified – the primarily white, nominally affluent, and fiscally conservative – participants into a transgressive movement whose only articulated cause was to present sacrifice as a reasonable pathway to redemption. My favourite verse:

Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

So you could hear Just As I Am in plenty of places.

It was known. Acknowledged. A standard in the proto-fundamentalist quasi-charasmatic protestantism of the 1960s and 70s.

But the best part of Just As I Am – in fact, the whole reason that I’m going on and on about my personal experience with this song – is that I got to listen to it so many times in Pastor Crane’s First Baptist Church, Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

Pastor Crane was my Dad’s friend. He was from Kentucky. He had tan skin. Black hair. A broad smile of straight teeth and, like his cigarette-smoking flock, was the owner of many white short sleeved shirts. Sundays he delivered powerful strings of rubuke, damnation, and condemnatory certainty while somehow abiding the tenets of beauty, casting off judgement, and offering hope.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Over several years we visited his church. Mostly in summer. We would cross the Ambassador bridge, drive through empty interstate canyons, past Detroit city limits and the multi-story rubber tire that relentlessly displayed car production in the Motor City one vehicle-at-a-time. We would arrive. Late. A small argument would ensue and when the tie had been tightened, makeup touched, and embers cooled, we would join our brethern inside.

Like Pastor Crane the congregation was from Kentucky. They drove Galaxie 500s and Chevy Beaumonts. Occasionally a Chrysler Newport or an older Cadillac. And they sang. They sang hard. They sang without the measures of propriety excising sounds more than two standard deviations from the mean. They seemed to squeeze sound from their tear ducts – recreating an original and universal pain. All the time tailoring esophageal stress into an energy of apportioned magnitudes.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Damn!