Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Maximum Capacity

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life.
Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
(The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes 2011)

            Writing a blog has become one of the most enjoyable and easiest parts of my life. For over 5 years, I have published myself, with little effort. Now, as I approach 500 postings, I carry on with the daily, and the weekly, and all roads of time in between. I have made a commitment to myself to try and reach others through my mistakes so that  they may somehow dream from my inspiration.  I have always been a writer. It is second nature for me to spill open the floodgates and relate from my experience. Putting words to my life has never been much of a challenge. It comes naturally to me, all this give and take and expression. The entire process has never been anything but an ease, a complete exercise in pleasure and personal gratification. At this relatively late stage of my life, the conveying of word to pen, then to paper (so to speak) is more than just a reward. It is my salvation, unconditionally cathartic and brings me much peace.
            I first became aware of my inclination back in public school. I may have gotten in trouble for my report on Adolf Hitler but I remember the praise I received from anyone who took the time to notice and actually read the report. I realized rather quickly just how hard it is to kill words once they had been put "out there."  I am not convinced that it was a conscious decision to follow this road. Throughout my formative years and into adulthood, I recognized this innate ability was within me. It was part of me, much like singing has always been. I did not need to sign on some dotted line confirming I am a writer. It just was. I just was. Years of higher learning did nothing but help me hone a pre-existing condition. For all my years of study, I discovered very little to assist in my craft. Structurally, I picked up a few things here and there but generally speaking, I had  already mastered the art.  

"A word is dead when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day."
(A Word is Dead, Emily Dickenson 1862)

            My professional life as a journalist and broadcaster helped to form my writing style but only from the position of application. I realized early on that if I wanted a career in the field, I had to adjust that style to suit each forum. If I wanted to make any real money, I had to adapt to each assignment, conform to each project. It was not okay to be subjective, even if your experience told you differently. Blogging and journalism are different sides of the same keyboard. Like any good blogger would, I had to learn to put my objective biases aside and subjectively deal with the matters before me. This was no newspaper or all news station that I was working for. I am my own editor and have complete control over all content. It did not take many postings for me to realize that blogging had few restrictions. One can do as one pleases and when one pleases. The only deadline we have we assign to ourselves. The only form of censorship is self-censorship. Blogging is not news reporting but it seeks to inform in much the same way. Journalism is swimming in a river while blogging is floating on the ocean.
            I took to the computer almost immediately after my mother died. Having primarily written for news media, it was a challenge at first to dive into blogging. For over a year, I wrote and posted, almost daily. It was a heavy commitment. Each week saw 5-7 blogs placed for all to see.  Each week (depending on the timeframe) was meant to be a tribute to those who had gone before me but that quickly changed. Initially, the beginning blogs were smaller, quicker and desperate for structure and style. The thing about writing is the more you write, the better you are supposed to be at the art. Like exercise, you have to work the muscle for it to function at maximum capacity. The more you apply yourself, the more favourable the outcome. The end result should always be met with your own approval. The words you use define you, regardless of the platform, content and style. It is the expression that should stand out. Unlike with news journalism, the facts are secondary. With blogging, the feelings matter the most.

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."
(Robert A. Heinlein, American writer)

            It's not what you write. It's how you write it. There is a conscious shaping which occurs throughout the writing process. We cut and paste, we edit, we scrutinize each word. It is our mission to relay information regardless of the content. We may write for the sheer joy of it. We may write professionally. We may even use the written word to effect change. The platform acts to convey the message in a way that is suitable to our writing style and expression. The type of medium we work within may either limit or expand our process. All writing is the same, the platform is all that varies. Inevitably, we find panache, our expression, a fashion all our own. We follow general structure and guidelines yet in all our work we must reveal (but only what we want to be seen).
            I only have three simple rules I use when writing. I learned them early on from an old school newsman. He taught journalism to first year media students. For the life of me, I can only remember his first name. I was instructed that I should call him Geoff.  I guess I never really used his surname. I am able to remember his three simple  rules (one should follow in writing) but I can't remember his bloody last name. I tried to look him up on the internet but it was a futile act. He probably died years ago.  His lasting effect did not go with him. All the thousands of dollars in tuition, and years of study, and it is the most basic course that left the lasting impression. Geoff set the standard for me. Had I left higher learning at the point I knew him, I would still be in the same place. These guidelines are a foundation that I try to follow.

1. Keep it simple, stupid
2. When in doubt, don't
3. It's all in the details

            All good things come to an end. It pretty much works for the bad things in that same way. Everything ends and we are left to begin all over again. Sometimes circumstance is the cause of the destruction. Often, random influences are an agent of futility. Sometimes things just are and there is nothing we can do about it. In  juxtaposition to the cause, we ignore the path we are supposed to follow. We end things hoping for renewal and not caring about consequence. In the end, there is nothing but to end. I say leave them wanting more. Moving on may be the very best option. It is by acknowledging that we have crossed the dotted line that we discover with every end comes a new beginning. In fact, more than not, to end is a good thing, the right thing, exactly how it is supposed to be. It's time to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
            I starting blogging with 'Borrowed Knowledge.' For over a year, I tried to publish each weekday. I grew exhausted and closed it with great relief. When I began posting 'Surviving God,' every Tuesday, for year after year, the effort bore much fruit. I had no idea the depth it would reach for and the commitment it would need. Like all good things this too must end. I am in no way abandoning the medium. I simply wish to focus less on one topic/theme and relate more generally speaking. I grow tired and restless of the same old centre and wish to more fully express myself. Rather than having the thesis of each blog somehow tie in with what it means to survive God, I can approach without any intellectual limitations from a point well taken.  I will conclude this blog with a final prologue, consisting of several individual blogs. Once all is said and done, I will introduce the new blog, one more suitable to my expectations. It is my hope that the reinvention will grant me maximum capacity.

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all." (American Hunger, Richard Wright 1977)



Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Preaching to the Choir

"Do we need to start a war?
Do we need to take a side?
If we open up our eyes
Realize that we are blind
Is it all worth fighting for?
It all comes down to
Who's wrong or right
Who's black or white
It doesn't matter what you're bleeding for
Straight or bi
Your God or mine
It doesn't matter underneath it all
Cause we're only here to love
Like there's no tomorrow
So let's live each moment like
Our time is only borrowed"

            The world isn't fucked up, it's all the people that live there. Make no mistake, I do mean every last one of us. We are ships tossed and turned and left out to sea. We have no idea where we are going. All of us are lost, conveniently blind, with no idea where to go or how to get there. It is not a complicated matter to understand. We do as we please whether other people can see that or not. Our secrets are usually hidden for a reason. We are more emotional baggage than rational creature. We believe we are better, others have been convinced, but underneath it all is a selfish greedy monster that rarely shows its head, at least not in public. Only we can see it. We place it out of sight for no one else to witness. It is the true us, the one so many gurus have warned us about. We take the self that we show to others and we convince ourselves that it is the truest part of us. We try to ignore the voice of our reality. I hate to break the news to the believers out there but no matter the God you have found, no matter the change you make on the outside, underneath it all is narcissism, pettiness and self-indulgence. Don't get me wrong, I am talking about everyone, every single human being including me. 
            Collectively, we do more damage than individually. We are one massive, unpredictable hate machine. We are vile, one and all. We destroy almost everything with which we come in contact. We are, it seems, more tyranny than peace monger. We make war with our brothers and so we abandon each other, harm each other and in the end, we always seem to kill each other. All the time we beg greater beings to bring peace into this world. I suppose we need help from ourselves but we truly believe it is needed only in others. Yes, we tend to have the most wonderful moments throughout our lives. We have insight, compassion, even agape love for one another. They are spoiled by our evil; Halloween costumes in the middle of May. These are merely icing on a hard cold stone. They rarely, if ever, really serve a purpose. We do not see eye to eye. The ways that we treat other people is indicative of the way we treat the rest of the world. Each of us is a dissimulator, screaming for salvation but only for ourselves.

"Do we need to build a bomb?
Do we need to fire a gun?
If you have to stand your ground
It's a war that can't be won
Is it all worth dying for?
It all comes down to
Who's rich or poor
Virgin or whore
It doesn't matter what you're praying for
Death or life
Your truth or mine
It doesn't matter underneath it all
Cause we're only here to love
Like there's no tomorrow
So let's live each moment like
Our time is only borrowed"

            I believe that, for the most part, people are disingenuous. We claim to love the light, we even claim to move towards it, but in the end we are not as we claim to be. We are shadow and darkness and sin and folly. This mortal coil operates more on impulse than instinct. The reason we try not to reveal these traits lies in the  fear of discovery. We rarely admit we have this creature within. We rarely see things the same way the world does. Each of us have been splintered by our own device. We appear to be whole and logical and, some would claim, good. Lord, how we do try. Beneath all the right things, we are drawn to the wrong things. We don't think of all the consequences because we really just don't care. Regardless of brother or family or strangers, we enlist them to our cause. We validate by drawing a few closer. We all are stupid, idiots who can't see for the truth in front of our faces. We waste so much time. It carelessly slips through our fingers. We don't see that it is all just borrowed.
            Apparently, for human beings, it is our differences which define us. We all congregate yet at the same time we separate. Our commonalities end up meaning little if anything at all. Those differences are what really count. They are the wall that stands between all of us and enlightenment. It is through self-awareness that we gain control. The result resonates but we stop giving altogether and not just monetarily. We rarely can find any part of ourselves left to give. It's easier to be a bitch to some homeless guy because it makes it easier to just walk past. We dissolve our responsibility so we do not have to proceed with it. We hear but we do not listen. We can see but only what we want to see. It's easier that way. We have turned from it all. All seems lost. The world is falling apart around us and we sit watching, like it was some television program. We get to decide when to turn the channel or not. The world may be coming to an end but at least we are all entertained. It turns out that we don't need Jesus or the Madhi to bring the apocalypse. It's clear, we really only need ourselves for that.

"It all comes down to
Who's rich or poor
Virgin or whore
It doesn't matter what you're praying for
Death or life
Your truth or mine
It doesn't matter underneath it all
Cause we're only here to love
Like there's no tomorrow
So let's live each moment like our time is only borrowed
Our time is only borrowed"
(Borrowed Time, Madonna 2015)

            Every person holds the light within them but we no longer seek it. In the most basic sense, it seems it is gone for most of us. All this preaching to the choir is for naught. We all talk about love but few of us even know how to use it. Although love is always there, so is chaos and corruption and greed. Whichever one wins is ours to determine. Collectively, we have settled for doom. Not even one of us is really that good. We may claim to be, we may even think we are, but guess again. In the end, there will be an end. This world cannot sustain the virus known as human being. We are killing the planet. We are killing ourselves. We are soon to be fodder, leftovers from our melting pot. I can imagine some alien craft landing after our demise. They just shake their heads (or whatever), drenched by the stench of ignorance and futility.   
            We all have a responsibility to shine. It is our struggle with the darkness that will actually define us. It is our obligation to love in spite of all the shadow. Love is the dotted line, that which we are bound to. It goes without saying, but we do not pay it heed. I'm not sure what the answer is. Like most times, I am not sure if there even is an answer. How do you strive for goodness among mankind when individually the darkness has taken over? I guess it comes down to either shitting or getting off the pot. I can only hope that we flush before it's too late.

 "The idea behind a kaleidoscope is that it’s a structure that’s filled with broken bits and pieces, and somehow if you can look through them, you still see something beautiful. And I feel like we are all that way a little bit."
(Sara Bareilles, American singer-songwriter)




Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Fine Print

"I get up, I fall down
Sometimes I feel like I am always on the ground
You pick me up and brush me off
And tell me that I'm good enough"

            We had talked about buying a house for years. We had no idea what was in store for us. When the closing date was set for over four months later, we were foolish to believe that such an amount of time would be a good thing. It never is unless you are about to die. I had already started packing months before, initially dealing with paperwork and organisation. Slowly as the months passed into the next year, the spare room started to fill and we started to plan. Before we even started looking for a home to purchase, I concentrated on the heavy burden that seventeen years of "marriage" can accumulate. The chore of such a feat was not lost on me. It was challenging sorting through all that shit. Box after box began to build into a giant Jenga game in the corner of each room. The spare bedroom was eventually swallowed up by cardboard and materialism. It was overwhelming the amount of storage the endeavour took. It was a necessary evil that someone had to do. 
            I quit smoking around the same time I started getting ready to relocate. I tried to absorb myself into the matter in order to avoid temptation. It worked for the most part. Unfortunately, when you smoke cigarettes like I did for over thirty years, everything in the path of the smoke is filthy. Every book, every treasure was covered with a slick layer of nicotine and tar. I have to admit it was disgusting just how much brown washed off the articles just before I stuck them in a box for safe journey. Bucket after bucket and even more went on forever like some water torture. Like some rotted stew it mocked the years of me sucking on this death. It was a reminder of my insides, my lungs, my heart, all lathered with the dark sickening goo. Every nic nac, every picture frame was a form of contrition, penance for the sin of addiction. I wish I had counted along as every splash represented every cigarette. Each squeeze from a rag was every drag I used to take. I could have handled a few days or even weeks of this sorry mess, but eight months of constant evidence was often enough to make me want to light one up just in spite. Right up to the end, my death wish was rubbed in my face. Every piece of furniture, every shelf was coated with a sticky residue. It stuck to my fingers when I touched it. As I worked each one clean, a tide of anti-chocolate dripped on my feet and the floor. Puddles of what lies inside me beckoned themselves for recognition, urgent, at last, to be seen.
            All the packing, all the cleaning was nothing but a pain in the ass. This compared little to the actual interactions with those who were supposed to be helping us. You pay someone and they are supposed to do their work, their responsibilities, but apparently this is not the way the world works anymore. People don't seem to care whether you get pissed off at them for not doing their job. Growing up, my parents instilled a sense of obligation in me, an idea that if someone pays you to do work for them then you do it the best that you can and as promptly as you can. This is no longer my experience. People just don't seem to give a shit, no matter the cash you dole out to them to do what you hired them to do. Companies and businesses seem to cherish this newfound attitude and not just in the lower ranks of their employees. Short of murder or raping a client, it seems management will allow almost anything as long as it doesn't interfere with the bottom line. The days of courtesy and efficiency are gone now. Not only has being polite become a lost art but respect and obligation have as well. When I am trying not to tell them all off, I forget that this is just the way the world works now. Professionalism seems to no longer even be a word. So it would appear from the vantage point of looking in. It's hard to just grin and bear it.

"You are faithful to me
I am not afraid no matter where I go
You will never leave me
In You I am home
Cause you are faithful to me"

            The chaos may have started right away but it was nothing like what it would become. It was the bank that played harbinger, foreshadowing what lies ahead. To my surprise, I had no real idea just how commonplace stupidity has become. Being approved for a mortgage, then quoted specific details was nothing but a waste of our time. Two days later and they called to change it all, every morsel of the previously agreed upon terms. It was like pulling the rug out from beneath us the moment we first stepped onto it. There was no question that we needed to find a different institution.  Of all the services and attendants we had to deal with over the half year, not even one seemed to have a clue. Even our realtor, in the end, failed to dance outside the mess. It turns out that no one did what was fully required of them. Of course, they still took payment. The mortgage broker, home inspector and lawyer that he referred us to left something to be desired. Failure to return our calls became a main event. It often left us lingering in some financial mode of limbo. It was hard to understand why people refused to do a good job, that they were getting paid to do more than ignore us. The entire experience made me eager to run and hide. We even considered abandoning the cause altogether. We did not give up although at times the heart was not willing to invest any longer. Back and forth, up and down, one stress after another layered upon our standing ground. More times than not you could smell defeat. There was something quite rotten and it sure wasn't me. 
            Before the closing date, we hired a home inspector to make sure everything was up to standard. With only one electrical issue, our above average rating was good news indeed. He was a friendly chap, nice enough I suppose. It appeared that he did a terrific job. He appeared efficient and professional. Several months later and it is obvious that not everything was as it seemed to be. The shower needed to be replaced and repaired with no notice from our $400 examiner. I suppose it could have been worse. The previous owner easily could have left stickers on all walls throughout the house rather than every other one. The most unfortunate event occurred around one week after we moved in. The dishwasher was part of the deal, left under the conditions of sale. The inspector said that it worked. He put it in writing but this just was not so. We had been living off paper plates and those red plastic cups, since move-in day. I met no hesitation when I stacked the first load and set it into action. It was by no means a full load. At first, everything seemed okay so I left it to its own volition. Then came the bubbles. I had used dish soap, like an idiot, in order to compensate for lack of real detergent. As the foam seeped from the bottom of the machine, I imagined that this was all due to my lack in judgment. As I scooped up the spreading mess and dumped it using a dustpan into a metal bucket, I soon realized that the bubbles were coincidental. Water spit from the very same bottom, in spurts, then running, then spurts again. Parts of the hardwood floor looked like a potato chip the next day. If they had only told us it didn't work. If we had only been alerted to this complication during the process, someone may have actually earned their wage. The ride had apparently just begun.
            It wasn't just the bank or the lawyer or even the mortgage broker that seemed less than committed to our cause. From the cable company changing our appointment and particulars over and over, to the U-Haul rental that kept shifting from pick-up spot to pick-up spot, everyone seemed in on the joke. When we returned the vehicle in the dead of night, we had no idea just what the final bill would entail. I wasn't ever laughing. With the purchase of a fridge and stove at Sears, we learned not to bank on others with our own decisions. People cannot be trusted. Apparently lying, overcharging and perverting the delivery, over and over, only convinced me that doing business, no matter the company, no longer means proper customer service. It is something entirely different than what it used to be. Complaining about said delivery process doesn't even merit a finger pointing from head office. It seemed to be the status quo. Why everything needs to be so complicated is beyond me. Quite often, I wish for the days of my youth when everything was simpler and you didn't have to pay for a little respect. Right through Halloween and the crap continued. Missing accessories, delayed appointments and incomplete work haunted us. It seemed it would never stop no matter what I did or didn't do. If I had known just how much trouble it all would be I am not sure I would have been so gung-ho regarding the house. It was a stressful time.

"I feel lost and on my own
Isolation has me thinking I'm the only one
But You show up and hold me close
You tell me I am not alone"

            I have to admit that on occasion, throughout the process, I felt like karma kept smashing me in the face. It's natural to experience doubt and regret when dealing with such matters but what we had to go through was more than enough to make one feel oddly guilt ridden. So much chaos and it must be something we were doing. The universe seemed to be laughing in our face. God, apparently, had a hand in the joke. Cumulatively, incompetence and disregard built to a crescendo, results of not feeling good enough and any punishment that was sent from above. We weren't doing anything wrong or so we kept telling ourselves. Surely, event after event was not some random experience added into all the rest. Every error that was made, all the hell of back and forth, whispered not so gently, from floods to a plague of stickers and holes, left in or on almost every wall of the house, these must have been a punishment from the deity of our choice. At least, the Bible and other scriptures tell me so.
            Always read the fine print before you sign on the dotted line. What you ratify in your mind may not be the same as on paper but they both act in similar ways. You enlist into your existence. You manifest what will be. How you view each experience is the common denominator in almost all cases. Tragedy and trials come to everyone. Some sit thinking they have done a dirty deed while others see opportunity even throughout the darkness. Sometimes it's not about right and wrong. It's about taking what life has to give to you and moving through it to a better place. Half full or part empty, it's all in the presentation. Hard times, struggle, even chaos will come and go in a constant tide. It is our reaction, on almost every level, that will determine our fate. The shores are friendlier this side of the dotted line. Things went away when things finished up. The world has become peaceful again, or at least it has for the moment. The noise and confusion have subsided for the most part. Still, I sit here wondering about when God up in heaven will strike again in His own special way. We are all at His mercy, at least that is what I have been told. In the end, whether God chastises, karma attacks or chance plays its hand, hard times come for everyone and just living can make dying look easy.

"I am not alone, I won't be dismayed
You will hold my right hand to help me
I will have no fear
You my God are here
Standing right beside me"
(Faithful, Plumb 2014)


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Six Feet and Under

“Enjoy today, the time you have now, for time cannot be found only lost.”
(Marty Rubin, American activist)

            The death of my first partner changed me. It still manages to shape my decisions and the way that I treat other human beings. His suicide, coupled with my attempted try, only convinced me more that life was not worth living. For a month or so after his demise, I plotted a way to escape the pain. The near-death experience I encountered on the night of my greatest endeavour did little to calm my fears and give me reason to want to remain. I was lost to the world, although mostly to myself. The last time I felt that yearning to end it all was four weeks to the day after Doug died. Rather than drinking the eight ounces of tequila that I carried with me, then plunging from nine stories up, I walked away with a new beginning. I realized how fruitless dying would be to my cause. A reason to live is hard to find at any time but permanent peace takes away any other option. As I tossed the bottle into a field and sojourned away from the scene, I made a decision to keep on going, if only for a small amount of time. I didn't know it then but walking away was the start for me. It was the first step in recognizing the importance of claiming each day and making each day. In the fraction of a moment that I decided to keep living, a world I did not know opened up for me. The idea of dying to escape drifted into nothingness and left me with a comfortable friend. Twenty years later and I don't regret my decision. Death itself turned over in my head. Rather than a way to avoid life, it has become a reward for this life. In a way, it was so mellifluent.
            I am no longer afraid to die, not that I ever would be. It is not that I don't question what is to come. It is not that I don't tremble at the thought of it. The idea of my own death just doesn't have a hold on me, not any more. Even when I wanted to die, I stood afraid of what would happen. I am, after all, bound to death physically. Nothing else remains. I am not scared to be dead. I don't even worry about what will come with my rest. In fact, my "sleep will be sweet." I believe that I have nothing to worry about. I may not know for sure but I trust that everything will work out in the long run. I still have enough faith to see me through. I may not be religious, I may not hold to the things I was taught as a child but I still cling to the assurances of my birth faith. The words and teachings of Jesus I have not cast aside. Above all others, it is the Christ that merits my approval regardless those who claim to literally follow Him. I may no longer be tied up in the doctrine and dogma that associates with Christianity but I remain His faithful servant. I choose the way that I walk. In the end, when it all comes down, I believe that anything good that happens in this life is from God. I am just not sure where all the negative comes from. I do know if there is anything nasty that happens in life, it has nothing to do with anything Holy. There will be arms waiting for me. In the end, when I close my eyes for the very last time, I believe I will find peace.
            I had been convinced that I found Jesus at an altar call when I was a teenager. I never really understood the experience or any of the other times when I signed that proverbial dotted line. Each time I gave myself away to Jesus, I found myself swimming in a new covenant. It was a difficult thing to worship something that really wasn't there. He never came to me and I have never experienced the Holy Ghost talked about in the Bible. The first time I really felt like I had seen something Holy was during my near-death experience. Somewhere in the mix of darkness surrounding me and light calling for me, two figures came into the bright. The one who stepped forward I knew all too well. The other one lingered on the edge of shadow before him. He was tall like Doug was. He was bearded like Doug was. I could not tell his face for lack of shine. I have always felt this figure was Jesus. It just makes sense. Most people are greeted in the tunnel by the icon of their culture. Some people see Buddha or Mohammed. Others simply float into the stream. There seems to be variables to the experience. Each of us will see what we imagine it to be. One is welcomed not by a stranger but by our own ideas of comfort and familiarity. There is great warmth in the encounter. I know that I was never afraid. This state has convinced me that there is nothing to fear. When I draw my last breath, I know exactly what lies waiting for me. When I exit stage left, I will know serenity, even if the entire experience runs only in my head. The contract I made at my birth will be made null and void by my death and all those dotted lines will disappear forever.

"I trip and stumble through this world
All my days are just a blur
My feet wander through the fields
But as always You reveal
When I lie down, I will not be afraid
When I lie down, my soul will breathe again
I will not fear sudden disaster
When I lie down, my sleep will be sweet"
(Sleep will be Sweet, Plumb 2015)

            Most people do not want the truth. They want a constant assurance that what they believe holds the correct answers to all their questions. The truth is we really don't know anything about being dead and all that it entails. There really is no truth, it's all guesswork and wishful thinking. I believe we are not supposed to know. I also believe that most people recognize this innate predisposition towards ignorance. We all realize we are holding on by a thread when we practice things like religion and spirituality. We may think we know. We may even convince others that we really do know. We don't. Death remains the one great mystery, the ultimate unknown. Even those who have returned after undergoing a near-death experience recognize the limitations within their encounter. We are bound by our humanity in every sense of the word. Life and death are filtered through our perspective and it is this perspective that will determine the makeup of our ideas on dying and the afterlife. We see what we have been conditioned to see. Anything that occurs beyond that will remain in the realm of "you actually have to die to get there." No one can tell you about the other side because no one has ever come back once they really and finally died. If you're alive to know this, then you did not really pass away, you simply took a trip and returned to tell your tale. If you still exist, you did not die.
            There are moments in this lifetime that never fade away. They cling to us,  whether for good or for bad or just because. Certainly we carry them with us, mostly as scars. No matter how hard one tries, it is almost impossible to forget them. They are always with us just waiting for an opportune time. They haunt us when we try to find some sleep at night and they linger like a lily in bloom. No matter how much time passes, they do not. They become a picture flashing in your face for only you to see. It is glimpses of yesterday during a little piece of today. If you're lucky, and I mean really lucky, those moments do not always sting. They linger in a better place. To have even one such moment, an ode to joy, is heaven itself. That which sings of pain will bring pain and that which sings of joy will bring joy. Sometimes even the worst thing that has happened to you can be the best thing that has happened to you.    

"Now that you're gone,
All that's left is a band of gold
All that's left of the dreams I hold
Is a band of gold and the memories of what love could be
If you were still here with me."
(Band of Gold, Freda Payne 1970)

            It was either that he jumped or the bitter February to which he exposed himself struck against him as he climbed the tower. It is quite possible that the temperature killed him as he crawled up the side of the silo. He dropped over 100 feet, landing on his back. The few seconds of terror he may have known ended quickly as he hit the ground. The deed was done on contact but his body had yet to freeze. For over 12 hours he laid in the snow, presented on the pavement like a fish stick. Come the dawn, he was more like a popsicle than some filet. When the police came to the door in the early morning, I had already guessed what had happened. I didn't know the details but that mattered little to me at the time. He just disappeared the night before, no note, no sign to indicate why and where. A shift worker at the flour mill discovered him in the early morning light.  I stood in shock when the police left me to linger. My father soon joined me and we headed up to the hospital to dance in the morgue. It wasn't really the morgue, just a back room containing a slab of silver and one very frozen dead body.
            I knew right away it was him so identifying his body just seemed redundant to me. Once the police became involved, there was little room for doubt. The formality before me was a silent trip. He laid there and I stood there, one last moment for one last time. I scanned over him like a metal detector. He looked almost normal from the neck down. His white runners and jeans fit him perfectly despite the ice. His pants had come undone at the zipper, a testament to the fall that he took. The white flannel over-shirt he wore posed a small Detroit Red Wings logo. It still rested in the upper right hand corner like it always did. He legs spread out flat. His left arm laid beside him while the right arm seemed to be reaching out into the ether. His head faced forward, frozen in place just like his arm. It was his eyes that immediately started to haunt me. Both were open wide and staring into the same invisible place. Each was coated in an opaque film, stark white and covering each eyeball completely. His hair was messed and miniature icicles had formed throughout his beard and dark wavy locks. Underneath his brow and about his shoulders was a puddle of him, frosted over like a pizza would be. It seemed like a halo of blood, it was the last thing I saw of him. The entire play goes on in my mind even 20 years later. I know that I walked away more prepared than ever to end it all.

"The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living."
(Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher)

            Whether the remaining influence of Jesus or the experiences I have had with expiration dates, I do not fear death. Dying is another matter altogether. The process of crossing over that line does not trouble me, how I end up six feet under is my issue. I have great trepidation regarding just what will eventually end up killing me. I don't want to suffer. I just want to get it over with. I have a surety of sorts, an understanding that whatever comes, I am safe and sound. When I think on the road that brought me here, I am reminded in flashes. Some people see smiling faces. Some people see rainbows and lullabies. I see dead people. Through their death I am constantly reminded of the importance of today. Sometimes a person has more influence in death than they did in life. The glimpses of a frozen head that cross my mind are evidence to me that there is always hope, there is always faith and there are always unanswered questions. 



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Number Eight

            Kitchener, Ontario was my home for over 10 years. The latter part of that decade was spent in a 17 storey apartment building called the Alexandrian. Located in the heart of the downtown core, mere feet from City Hall, the building was built in the early 1970s. It most certainly was not a perfect choice when we decided to move in but we were sure that we could make it our own. First we signed on the dotted line, then we settled in. We had no idea that we would be staying there for 6 years. The place was acceptable from a vantage point and we bought in to the initial viewing. It was not a high-end building but it wasn't a low-end building either. We certainly would not have taken the place had we known what was to come. The building seemed clean and taken care of. The pool looked pristine and the grounds cared for. We chose to move onto the 16th floor, well knowing it would be quite some time before we relocated again. The moving in was the easy part. It was all the chaos that came with living there that stole away the peace and serenity that is supposed to come with a rental contract.
            It just goes without saying that the building wasn't the problem. Locked up inside our space we found solace and silence and security. The moment I found out that the superintendents of our building were fundamentalist Christians, I knew there would be trouble. The inalienable rights such creatures grant themselves always interacts poorly with those who do not tow their line. Instead of following a pathway and living by example, more extreme forms of Christianity (and almost any other world religion) tend to use Jesus (or any other icon) as an excuse rather than a catalyst. People who condemn others, figuratively crucifying men for their faults, will then go ahead and do the very same thing they accuse others of (most times even worse). The blood of a deity will apparently wash those sins away but this only manages to leave greater room for greater folly. Some new crack can fracture the window. Although these terms do not apply to all Christians, the ones that I have had contact with over the years have convinced me of nothing but fear and lack of trust. My restoration is my concern. Self-righteousness is not a positive character trait. Rather than being humble, they presumed. They presumed salvation. They presumed truth. They presumed.    
            You can measure the validity of a person's religious or spiritual conviction not by words or ideas but through their actions. It's not about what scriptures you know or how deep your meditation. Those who are truly enlightened regarding God should have no religion. Their focus should be on expressing the agape love they serve through acts, not semantics. Faith can only take you so far. At some point you're actually going to have to start living as the 'child of God' that you profess to be. It is your "fruits" that will define you. Not once in half a decade interacting with the managers of the Alexandrian was I convinced that they adhered to the beatitudes, let alone any part of their professed belief structure. Yes, every Sunday morning they shuffled out the door to church but they might as well have been going to brunch for all the good that it did. In all my years of soul searching, I have never experienced  more artificial Christians than the husband and wife team who were paid to take care of the building. It started slowly, then it started to grow. One thing led to another and the place where we lived turned from comfortable and safe to decayed, abandoned and very much ignored. The quaint city living that we signed on for turned into an experiment in the ridiculous.

"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21b, KJV)

            If you're going to practice a religion, you have to play by the very same rules as everyone else. You make a commitment and are supposed to apply yourself accordingly. If you follow the Bible, for example, you don't get to pick and choose what scriptures to follow and what scriptures to ignore. Claiming to be a disciple of the Christ means adherence to the entire work, not selectively literalizing whatever works for you. Your belief is meant to change you, allowing you to better spread the Gospel. It is not just the Faith you practice through words that matters. It is your response to your experience that suggests your definition. You are not only bound to spiritual law, you are bound to mortal law as well. Jesus is very clear that we must not only do our duty to God but we must follow the laws of the land and government as well. "Giving unto Caesar" means that you pay your taxes. You appropriately respect the authorities. If you have a job, then you do it. If you have something against a "brother" you make it a priority to resolve it. To be a Christian entails a long list of dos and don'ts. Should you claim to be saved and live a 'Christ-like' life, then every single line of scripture becomes binding. It's just like scribbling your signature on a dotted line. You can't just say you're a follower of Jesus unless you actually follow Him.
            People spout off about the God they serve all the time. Everyone thinks so differently so, of course, everyone else is usually wrong. We end up believing that we have been let into an exclusive club that secretly knows all the answers. This hyperbole has existed since before the library of sacred texts that mankind worships in place of the one true God. If I have been given the answers through Holy inspiration, then there is no way I can agree with yours. It's only my way or the highway. I would be constipated if I stopped to feed on the lack of professionalism and negligence exhibited by the superintendents of our former home. It was immediate but took time to become visible. It really started with the small things. Little by little, this was cast aside or that duty wasn't respected. Ever so slowly the place fell apart. It's one thing to skip a few things but if you continue on in the same manner, eventually there will be nothing left to ignore. No true Christian (or any other true religious person) would sit idly by and not do the work that they were paid to do. I have always found it strange that followers of this deity or that God always seem to ignore their own offenses. I guess not so well-meaning disciples of faith are not accountable like the rest of us.
            Nothing gets done but somehow the cheque for the work you've done always gets cashed. Taking payment for services rendered implies you did the work. If you take the money well knowing you didn't meet the standards of the contract you entered into, then you are no better than a thief. Actually, you are a thief. For the entire tenancy, we witnessed the lies, the disregard and the deadliest sins of all. Rather than loving your neighbour, giving to your fellow man and attempting to live a Jesus centred life, sloth and greed and all sorts of vile hubris came with each encounter we had with the management. If either one of them had not at some point told me they were Christian, I would never have known, let alone believed it. You can't steal from people and still claim to be a servant of the Lord. Being born again means personal restoration, becoming a new being in Christ. In no way does that mean you get to do whatever the hell you want with no repercussion and no responsibility to others.

“You shall not steal." (Exodus 20:15, NIV)

            As much as I hate to admit it, I am grateful for the experiences I had with the superintendents of our former apartment building. They have been a constant reminder that not everyone is always as they claim to be. Not every person of God is actually from god just as not every Christian is from Christ. I suppose that is why Jesus asked us to follow him (Matthew 16:24), not the Pharisees or John the Baptist. For me, these two pseudo-disciples are the epitome of what is wrong with Christianity. Granted, they do not represent every person in their belief system. In my personal experience, this is what a modern Christian really is. There are more of them than not. It goes to show that every single person, regardless of the idol they worship, comes into your life with a purpose in doing so. It may be grand or simple but there is always a reason in everything this life throws at you. Sometimes the light you're looking for turns out to be shadow. We can still learn from the dark. It can teach us what we should not be doing. If you pay attention, even the most offensive person has something to offer in the way of example.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:
The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

            Six months since our move and the company that owns the Alexandrian finally fired the pair in question. The details are unspecific, even the friends who still live there could grant little in terms of information. They have been removed just the same. I am unsure if it was karma that caused the downfall. I am unsure exactly why it took over seven years as deadbeat superintendents for justice to be served. I just assume they blame the devil rather than stopping to look at what they did to finally cross the dotted line. I could laugh inside at their folly. I could rest in their defeat. Unfortunately, such matters always make God look bad. Imitation is the most sincere part of flattery.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tales from the Crypt

"Usually in the morning
I'm filled with sweet belonging
And everything is beautiful to see
Even when it's raining
The sound of heaven singing
Is simply joyful music to me
But sometimes I feel like a sad song
Like I'm all alone without you"

            Whenever I enter a cemetery, I feel like I just arrived home. Like safe harbour, I find great comfort surrounded by those gone before. I often see an eerie glow rising from the ground, but only the hallowed ground. I have had this "ability" ever since I attempted suicide at the gravesite of my late partner far back in 1995. I do not know whether my near-death experience (at the time) has anything to do with it but I must admit such events inevitably make me feel welcome rather than merely paying a visit. It doesn't matter what graveyard, how many stones or even the faith system of those buried deep within the consecrated place. The incandescence to which I am witness may never expose its purpose but I suppose that may well be the entire point of these experiences. Like sunshine or a coming storm, it just is and nothing more. This, at least, I tell myself as those deceased give off an almost fluorescent aura. On occasion, I have even heard a distant humming, music by which the remnants of the dead dance about, leaping, crawling and floating above it all like any collective ghosts would do.  
            After more than twenty years catching such visions, I am convinced that they are representational rather than just revealing. There is no subtle message I am to learn from them. There is no secret proof from which it does disclose. These chances are simply an encounter with the remains as they lay. For many years I did not believe the glow was anything more than my mind playing tricks on me. I would not validate them or give them heed. Every time I enter a stone garden, the place always gives up the dead. I don't know what it all means, nor does it matter. For me, the proof is in the pudding, the message loud and clear. Just the manifestation of this oddity is more than enough. Whatever happened to me that night, so long ago,  introduced me. It made me aware that there is more to this world than we know. Although I have never been one for superstition or the unexplained, I cannot help but feel comfortable admitting that just because I don't understand the experiences doesn't make them any less real.
            I have entered so many graveyards over the years that the dead, apparently, see me coming. In spite of this constant drone straight up in my face, there is a curiosity within the curiosity. My experience turns out to be that way. Every stone, every marker, tells of who and when and sometimes why. The light rises from each of these. It seems as if a million or so fireflies hover over each assigned hole. In contrast, like patches, scattered through each cemetery, are black spots. They seem a place of no energy, a void rather than remnant. There is no essence floating for these. No matter how large or small the monument, there is never any force coming from the cremation walls. I have come to understand that it must be one's remains that send off this aura only. A few mental visitors will manage to see. I often feel like I am bound to know these things. There was a cause and an effect to my actions so many years ago. I am suddenly made aware that there is much beyond my reasoning. They never let me forget.

"So many different places
A million smiling faces
Life is so incredible to me
Especially to be near you
And how it is to touch you
Oh, paradise was made for you and me
Sometimes I feel like a sad song
Like I'm all alone without you"

            My first exposure to people dying occurred in my youth. When twin girls who lived across the street were mercy murdered by their mother, I was terrified. I had never known dead people before. When my Great-Grandfather Giuseppe Pascuzzo died of natural causes just a few months later, I got to see my first dead body. Ever since then I seem to have collected the departed, like a list of who went first. I lost friends in high school, victims of drunk driving or cancer in the throat. Throughout my late teens and twenties, my comrades in the gay community continued to drop like flies from AIDS and all the related factors. I lost count at this point, there were so many, so quickly. My friend Maurice accidentally set himself on fire in the early 1990s, introducing me to my personal connection with euthanasia and mercy. When my first partner committed suicide in 1995, my encounters with the dead became a daily exercise in both imagination and futility. I attempted to off myself in order to escape it all. I failed at the only thing I had left to do. My NDE propelled me into seeking something more than just the truth. On every visit to his grave, the glow I have come to behold manifests and lingers throughout my stay. The experience of almost dying tossed me into an exclusive club. I became friends with the dead, not just casual acquaintances. I began to notice a unique yet collective aura rising from each grave. This only helped me survive the onslaught of dying relatives, polished coffins and very much, much ado about nothing.
            Although not a regular activity, I like to spend time with the glow that must be all in my head. Several times a year, I sojourn to the resting place of my late partner. This process I will repeat all the days of my life. Randomly, and on the spur of the moment, my current partner and I take day trips to search for ancestors and dead people well-known.  From the smallest country grave in the shadow of Niagara Falls to an isolated outpost near Teeswater, Ontario, instead of barhopping we go 'grave hopping.' Being huge fans of the television program Will and Grace, we spent a day hunting down the headstone of Gregory Hines, who died from cancer in 2003. Some people collect stamps but we collect pictures of our dead, at least of their final resting place. It seems to me a tactile experience, much more rewarding that mere prayer or contrition. By the very act of searching for a marker, one automatically acknowledges the dead. Remembering blends with reality and in so doing the tribute stands alone.

           Some of the most peaceful and beautiful places I have visited are cemeteries. The regal testaments to all those men and women and children sit quietly with quaint little lanes and tree-lined sanctuary. Over time, the ever-changing landscape becomes littered with new granite and rock and marble. There is always someone dying to get in. The graveyard, specifically the Avondale, located in Stratford, Ontario, is not only a resting place for the dead and their accessories but for me as well. Whether on the sunniest day or in the darkest night, I find refuge alongside people I will never know in their mortal frame. I see them all regardless. Every time I step into a place of goodbye, I bid hello to one and all. I'm not afraid of dying because I will be in good company. They each are strangers but I know them all so well. I have become, in a sense, a man waiting for my sleep. There is not trepidation, no fear for what the other side brings. The glow of so many confirms my suspicion. There is more. There is more. 

"I know that life goes on just perfectly
And everything is just the way that it should be
Still there are times when my heart feels like breaking
And anywhere is where I'd rather be"

            The nicest, largest and most spectacular cemetery I have ever set foot in is Arlington National in Washington DC.  Row upon row of limestone markers, for as far as the eye can see, line up perfectly sculpted along chiseled roads, cherry trees and thousands of miniature American flags. It left me breathless and tearstained. I did not possess the view I have now when I visited it then. There was no glow, no aura, just sadness, stretching out for the entire world to see. The Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, Louisiana looks like a forgotten place. Walking into all that eerie instantly reminded me of every Anne Rice book I had ever read. It is heavily tarnished and desperate, a testament to the age of the city and the lack of care that seems to have come with all those years. The entire time I walked about the place I felt like someone had done the voodoo that they do. I am almost glad that I did not have my gift when I travelled here. I don't imagine I would have wanted to see what I just might have seen. A few miles past Wingham, Ontario, just off Highway 4, stands twin cemeteries. The Protestant (Culross-Teeswater Cemetery) and the Catholic (Sacred Heart Cemetery) are separated by a simple country road and centuries of dogma. My paternal Grandparents are buried on the Culross side of the street. My Aunt Joyce is with them and many of my Grandmother's relations. Across the street more kin lie in waiting, seldom visited but not because of their faith. Such hallowed grounds for so far out in the middle of nowhere. You have to go looking for this place. We always made an effort to journey north of Kitchener to pay our respects. It's sad to say that I see them more in death than I did in life. Every time I show up, the place starts to glow.            
            There was something so iconic, so mythical about Hollywood that I could not resist the urge to return there. All three times in California pre-dated my NDE and the resulting oddity. On my second trip, I made sure to attend Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills) in Los Angeles. I was surprised at the layout. It looked more like a miniature golf course than a cemetery should. The monuments of marble and bronze revealed the affluence of each bearer, large and opulent and stunning in nature. It was the green space between the markers and monuments and mausoleums that confused me. The almost two hundred and seventy acres played out like 18 holes. A huge expansive design, with gardens and memorials and solemn refuge, was clearly a place for the wealthy to reside after their fate. A stunning vista of the San Fernando Valley was a backdrop most suited for the scene. There were no rows of tombstones, just acres of courts and posh tributes to the dead. Ground markers littered the concourse and the picturesque Old North Church looked out of place in a congregation filled with the rich and famous. My fondest memory of the place was the memorial to Bette Davis. A Romanesque stark white statue of a woman with flowers stands over a minimalistic display of the star's name in marble. The entire experience was unforgettable for me, even without the glow that was soon to reveal itself. I had no idea of the bumpy ride to come.    

            Consecrated in 1871, holding 30,000 dead and covering 17 acres, my first encounter with Avondale Cemetery was dark and bitter. On a snowy and windy New Year's Eve, as the clock stuck 12 midnight, I stood on an incline staring at the headstones of Doug's relatives long gone. You could not have convinced me that this place would become like a second home to me. A few years later, after his death, it became just that. I tried to die here, right after his exit. I return here over and over again. I have become familiar with the massive collection of stone and soul. I know many markers by name. They almost call out to me, of the futility of living and the sadness of our storms. They welcome me each time I pass through the gateway. It had been six months of travelling back and forth from Strathroy to Stratford. As I passed into the cemetery and past the enormous mausoleum, I noticed something odd and out of place. At first I thought that a fog had settled over the ancient tombs and headstones that lined the older, weathered part of the place. The cloud lingered and seemed to spread over the entire view I had of the grounds. As I went forward from the old into the new, the fog seemed to grow denser and glow. It was a dim bright, an aura without colour and lacking any shine. I had no idea that I was the only one who could see it. Every time I enter a cemetery comes the gleam. It doesn't matter how massive the place or how small and out of the way, something always flickers then fades in like a stage production would. I approached professionals in order to explain the phenomena. I checked with a therapist to make sure I wasn't out of my mind. There was no distinct sense of surprise when not one of them knew the answer. Apparently, I'm either crazy or there is something seriously wrong with my eyes. I think it happened on a dark snowy night when I laid down in the snow looking for Doug and for Jesus. I am resolved not to know what it is and why it comes and goes now. I still look to see if there is someone inside the fog.   

 "Oh, and in the night time
I know that it's the right time
To hold you close and say I love you so
To have someone to share with and someone I can care with
And that is why I wanted you to know
Sometimes I feel like a sad song
Like I'm all alone without you"
            The dead are much better company than the living, at least it would appear so from my experiences with them. Whatever my encounter with the light really is, it is no longer a thrilling event after over 20 years. I have grown accustomed to it. It is there, in every depot, and it looks like it will not go away. Would it hurt to spice it up with some colour once in awhile? Would it be so bad to have even one spectre pop up from that glow and ask me for directions to the public washroom across the way. It can be quite maddening to be able to see something but never know what it is. It can make you feel as if you are losing your grip on reality. I mean really, just what the hell am I supposed to do with it? How do you explain it, portray it and even share it with others? I could use more communication, more information and the reason for the melodramatics. I just want to understand but I cannot with a simple visual distraction. I need more.
            On a recent expedition, we discovered an unknown graveyard just outside Niagara Falls, Ontario. The Lyon's Creek Cemetery is a testament to my partner's history and the part those buried there played in settling this area of Canada. The markers were old and rugged, damaged here and crooked there, all tricks of time and exposure to the elements. You could barely make out the epitaph on each headstone. It was the strangest thing. Dead centre of the small burial area was a giant tree, grand, powerful and old like the hallowed ground upon which it lay. It seemed to me an oak tree (Quercus). It commanded the centre of the grounds and towered over the entire lot. Ben's ancestors were the first persons planted here, along with that tree. The grand monolith is in much better condition than the stones. The glow off the thing was enveloping. I couldn't see even the smallest fraction of light extruding from the two dozen or so gravestones scattered about the place. Either the tree absorbed their light or they have disintegrated along with their boxes. Each now beyond organic recognition. As I stood in awe of the thing, I wondered if somehow this experience related to cremation and the need for matter to project the glow. In bits and pieces, it would appear, the dead do give up their secrets.   

            Birth is like signing a contract with death. You don't even need a pen. The moment you enter this world you sign on the dotted line, whether you are able to or not. From life comes death and from death the unknown. In the most literal sense, you are born to die. Since no one really knows what happens to us when we cease to exist, you can only grasp at the hints and the unexplainable for any clues you might discover along the way. In the end, it is inevitable. Just because a person has died does not mean your relationship with them need die as well. You can choose to hold on, even if only a small part of them remains. You can spend the effort and try not to forget, although most people do. I know that I will never lose affection for the people and things that went before. The dead are of great benefit to me. They remind me, tell me that there is something else beyond all this living. They are a soothing relationship, as I glare into the limelight and stand before their place. My assurance is not what they are, or even who they are. My assurance comes because they are.

"Sometimes I feel like a sad song
Like I'm all alone without you
Without you"
(Like a Sad Song, John Denver 1976)



Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Better than Nothing

"Just got back from a pleasure trip: I took my mother-in-law to the airport." (Henny Youngman, 1928–1987)

            Before his death, the relationship I had with my first partner's father was frail at best. I wasn't the easiest person to get along with back in that day and both parents seemed to simply tolerate my existence. We were not close by any means. They knew nothing of our true relationship and all that it entailed. I must admit I cared little about either one of them. Once the dirt covered the grave, things changed quickly. I formally outed myself to everyone, including Doug's parents. It was confirmation and emancipation. The act may have been redundant but I needed to do it just the same. In hindsight, I should have waited much longer to expose myself. It may have explained everything to people but only served to complicate the heavy grief we all experienced at the time. His father did not take me well. His mother fared better but remained at a careful distance. Despite the sum of all our mistakes, I managed to keep contact with Pauline and slowly built something resembling camaraderie. Once she acknowledged the nature of her son's life, she seemed to make a conscious effort to keep in touch. The same could not be said of the father. He appeared quite pleased with himself by confronting me on many related issues. We did not build bridges, we were only able to maintain them, for the most part. Five years after we laid Doug to rest, we buried his Dad. Sometimes bridges collapse and there is no way to cross them. As with my mother, he dropped dead from a heart attack and was gone before he hit the floor.
            After the death of her son, then her husband, a cloak of darkness and death seemed to settle over my "mother-in-law." Her mother then passed, Warren's father then passed, a cumulative death march apparently strutted through her life for over half a decade. She was left alone in her home, all alone, wondering what she had done to deserve this fate. Her remaining child was the only glimmer of hope left in her life. I found it revealing how well she seemed to handle it all. She didn't just make it through, she survived, relatively intact for the most part. So much death and destruction yet she stood her ground like any solider would. She did not grin and bear it, she took it all upon herself and carried on. In my experience, only my own mother manifested as much strength and fortitude in the face of calamity. Pauline's world became a complicated puzzle but with no image for her to follow. Periodically, over the last fifteen years, one family member after another has died, adding to a grim pile. One person passed of cancer, or another suicide, or the ravages of aging. Eventually, it seems as if she knew more dead people than those living. She picked herself up and continued to walk through what some might call a living hell. When everyone around you keeps dropping like flies, and you don't, you have to wonder (or at least she did) whether you are doing something wrong to deserve all this. I have never witnessed one reason that merited what she got. 
            So many years ago, I made a conscious choice to remain in contact with Doug's parents. To this day, Pauline remains a close friend and confidant. We have had a relationship with one another much longer than I ever knew her son. It took commitment when it would have been easier to just walk away. I owed them nothing and they wanted nothing from me. Still, there are reasons we remain so close. There are most certainly not a lot of people she can talk to about her son. They don't want to think about such things let alone listen to someone else toss it into a conversation. His death binds us, like a contract, and we both decided to sign on the dotted line. It would be quite easy to simply fade away and forget. Had I done so, I would not have such a rewarding friendship and our last connection to Doug would be lost. In befriending each other, we have managed to somehow keep Doug alive. We make the effort to stay in contact, not only for our relationship but what we both believe is something that would greatly please him. It is strange and often odd to maintain it so.       

"I told my mother-in-law that my house was her house, and she said,
'Get the hell off my property.' (Joan Rivers, 1933-2014)

            I have to admit that the strongest, most vivid memory I have of meeting my current "mother-in-law" is that of the hat she was wearing. The flat south-western look made me think of Wynonna Judd, who still had a career at the time. Just minutes before the knock at the door, I had been standing sorting laundry in my underwear. Needless to say, I had not dressed for the occasion. Her announced but surprising presence forced me into the closest thing I could find to put on. The meeting was brief but nonetheless uncomfortable. I was not prepared to entertain anyone from the life of my soon to be partner. The entire experience sent shivers of "flee" and "run, run quicker" through my overwhelmed mind. It wasn't that I wasn't receptive, or nice even, I just felt trapped, cornered by a complete stranger that I had not even considered meeting at that point. This almost humorous encounter began a stranger camaraderie. Since then, the presence of Joanne (Jo-Jo Bean) has been a constant in my life. Every once in awhile she appears at parties, dinners or just along the way. She pretty much looks the same as she did 17 years ago, although she is not the same person as she was back then.
            Our history together is more a tale of friendship than some artificial endearment. She isn't really my mother-in-law any more than I am her son-in-law. The words just don't fit even though, on some level, the terms may apply. I've never thought of her in any other way than as a friend. We get along very well. Whatever it is that we have seems to fit and it is what it is. We shop together, talk on the phone, email each other and we even team up in times of grief and danger. Perhaps nothing else defines who she is, and why we work so well together, as her humour. She knows how to laugh in the face of it all. She has made it through so much, many overlapping trials and tribulations. Somehow she always manages to laugh at the most appropriate of times. Her strength comes from building, I suppose. She moves forward although not always using the most effective tools.  Her struggle has cast upon her great fortitude, even if she doesn't always recognize that this is so. A formidable woman, she is shaped by the endless agony that comes with all our living. Even her moments of weakness forge walls to help her make it through. She is a complex weave of maturing woman and old soul. I am constantly surprised and often amused by her endurance. She is one of a kind to be sure.
            Sometimes people polish themselves up so that others don't see all the dim. For others, the dim fades the polish until it loses all the shine. For Joanne, what you see is what you get. Her tenacity is something to which few transcend. I don't believe that she is aware of just how I appreciate who she is. Sometimes she's a mother. Sometimes she's a bitch. Sometimes she is friendly. Mostly, she is oh so very human. Her grace reveals itself in her struggle against the act of being mortal. She is the rose bush, that comes with thorns and all. We each manage our way through this life. For most of us, the burden is constant and the rest seldom. Sometimes we discover a kindred spirit. There are common grounds that unite us. Perhaps Joanne's experiences when she was much younger are the ties that bind. We both know great heartache from early on. Her loss when she was a teenager lingers just as my encounter with death does. This is a foundation based in understanding and a choice regardless of the outcome. It is a contract, an agreement we seem to have although we have never signed on the dotted line.

"My mother-in-law has so many wrinkles,
when she smiles she looks like a Venetian blind."
(Les Dawson, 1931-1993)

            I have always had a thing for strong women. I suppose the obvious reason would come from my mother. Even all these years after her death and she still reigns as centre of my relationship with "the fairer sex." Beyond her and the effect she continues to have on me, I have been fortunate to have other women to view as a glowing example. I always gather such fortitude to me. I guess like attracts like. They come from every avenue. From Sigourney Weaver to Taraji P. Henson from Empire, I am drawn to women who really strut there stuff. Each powerhouse is a confidence booster. The songs of Amy Grant have shaped me and continue to do so. She is a silent strength, a hiding place. The gumption of my cousin Lisa and the survival skills of my friend Sharlet are reminders that this too shall pass. They all carry on, revealing how to rise again. Even the little old ladies that I know from Kitchener are a testament to determination, steal magnolias one and all. They are all well noticed. Not one passed by me without relaying their message. The secret is their strength. 
            Most people begrudge their in-laws. People spend their entire marriage fighting over a nosy mother-in-law. The relationship is tried at best. I have been given a rare gift, a special benefit from this life I have lived. To have one "second mother" is one thing but to have two is often disaster waiting to happen. For me this could not be further from the truth. I have a relationship, a good relationship, with my partner's parents. I have maintained a connection to my first partner's Mom, slipping beyond obligation into friendship. My current "maternal influence" has turned from a polite acquaintance into a close friend. I trust them both. Both are abundant in the strong department. While they each are very different women, it is their substantial nature that I hold in high regard. I just love it when a woman is strong. When she stands up for herself and makes it count. When she survives and then thrives. I desperately needed these examples when first Doug and then my mother died. These women did not compensate during my grief, they influenced, demonstrated and revealed to me that even I could go on.
            What destroys us can be used to rebuild us. You never really know all the little purposes that lie hidden in all the chaos. Every problem is an opportunity to gain resolve and a tool when trying to survive god. When we dissect our lives, we see that most of what we know doesn't come from events or incidents but from the people that enter into it. For good or for bad, be it right or in error, we have the choice to pay attention or to ignore these matters. Of these women, I am grateful for the support and thankful for their example. It is hard to find such stamina in the best of us. Doug may be long gone but I still have a connection. My mother may be gone but her strength is fully represented. These forces to be reckoned with are, most of the time, much better than nothing.

"My mother-in-law had a pain beneath her left breast.
Turned out to be a trick knee." (Phyllis Diller, 1917-2012)