Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hair of the Dog

"It is not a question of God allowing or not allowing things to happen. It is part of living. Some things we do to ourselves, other things we do to each other. Our Father knows about every bird which falls to the ground, but He does not always prevent it from falling. What are we to learn from this? That our response to what happens is more important than what happens. Here is a mystery: one man’s experience drives him to curse God, while another man’s identical experience drives him to bless God. Your response to what happens is more important than what happens." (Chip Brogden, American author)

            Easter 1973 was uneventful, for the most part, but almost exactly a week later I would discover how random and painful this life could be. Most certainly, I understood the idea of physical pain, having been so exposed a few years previous to this time, when I angrily smashed a hockey board my older brothers were just given for Christmas. This was not some plastic plaything, mixing soft and moulded into place, rather it was cold metal, like most foosball and sport games from the 1960s and 70s.
            I don't remember trying to crush my brother's toy with my foot. I don't recall the hurt or the blood or anything remotely close to a memory surrounding my action. I have been told the jagged little players, hooked into steel rods, cut through the right sole of my 3 year old foot like a knife into butter. In spite of being aware of the damage done during my fit of jealousy, I have yet to find a single scar or recall any of that pain and hurt I inflicted upon myself. I cannot say the same about that Sunday morning on April 29th, 1973, and the event which helped shape my spiritual life for decades.     
            The day before, I had eaten the last of my chocolate rabbit and I now longed for a sugar fix before I was forced to go to church with my younger siblings and  parents. I didn't mind attending the Sunday Service, but I despised Sunday School class. It is not that I was under-stimulated by the ideas and expressions one finds within the House of the Lord, but as far back as the end of my seventh year, I could not stand the idea of worshipping God in public, especially with other children. Even then, spirituality was a private indulgence for me.
            Some people need Church services to express themselves in a spiritual manner, but I had already discovered the still, small voice that I considered God. It was with me, gentle and far more moving than some sermon or sing-along. I used to sit twiddling my thumbs in congregation and was overtly bored silly in Sunday School class. I yearned to know more about God and Jesus, but I already believed that I knew the Holy Spirit, so there was no need to go to Church. I didn't care what anyone said, I just did not want to go. In spite of my maternal grandmother conditioning within me the idea that God punishes people for being bad, such as when not attending Church, still I held no fear. After all, what could God do to me, sitting and watching way up on high?
            My two older brothers had been allowed to head over to Karen Road Public School to play baseball with their friends, including a classmate of mine. I wanted to go so badly that I threw a temper tantrum while my mother dressed me for services. When I lost my cool, I got sent outside to chill out. Why did I have to go when my older brothers didn't? Why couldn't I go run and play and have fun with my friends?
            I remember thinking that God was getting in my way. As I wandered from upstairs to downstairs, I got nasty under my breath, then fell into a sadness as I reached the back door. I walked out and down the garden stones to the small gate at the rear of the property. I cut over to the hill near our house and walked down into its small green valley. The sky was summer blue and only a few clouds whispered as they floated past. At the bottom of the slight steep sat Red, an Irish Setter who had been frequenting the neighbourhood.  His temperament had always been so calm and agreeable, so his approach gave me little reason to think otherwise. The sadness I had felt indoors had followed me outside, so I stood quietly, gazing into a sunny sky, petting the dog and thinking about how alone I believed myself to be. That's when he bit me.
            He was a large, well-groomed purebred and I immediately guessed that he had all his teeth. He almost swallowed my entire right hand but was stopped by the bone in my appendage. His attack was full force and without reason, as far as I can remember. I had been walking, petting him as many kids in the neighbourhood had for the last few weeks. I don't know why he did it, but even his eventual withdrawal did nothing but to freak me right out. The very first thing I thought was that God did this.
            As I stood crying, slightly screaming from the inside, I looked over and noticed my arch-nemesis Shaun Savoy, staring at me and laughing. I wanted to rush over and punch his face in with my other hand, but the pain became unbearable and my arm started to explode. It formed near my wrist and moved slowly up into my forearm. Like a balloon, cautiously expanding from an inner force, my arm turned pink and purple and blue. As I hit the gate at the back of our yard, I started screaming at peak volume.
            By the time we arrived at the North York General Hospital emergency room, I was almost faint from the experience. I remember looking down at the top of my hand and noting the largest fang mark; it leaked with pus and oozed with blood. Considering the swelling, it could have been a volcano ready to erupt. From elbow to fingertip, my arm became shaped like a Zeppelin, blue and bloody instead of grey. It was heavy and throbbed like the bass in a bad Deep Purple song. I sat quietly through the examination, treatment and the revelation that I was allergic to dog saliva. I was not pleased with this turn of events.
            There I sat with my parents, pushed together in a small waiting room, my arm bandaged like a mummy from the old horror movies I loved to watch. As the shot I received kicked in and my father picked me up to carry me to the car, I realized the weight of this situation. It was clear to me that I had misbehaved and clearer still that God held me accountable through punishment, just like I had been warned. Worst of all, I couldn't play with dogs anymore. Most of all, my hand would be scarred forever, a constant reminder to do as one is commanded. I can still hear grandma preaching, "We must fall into line or pay the price."
            The next day, the police took me over to a home in the Karen Road subdivision, just through the highway underpass and down to the south, beyond the public school. When I walked in, I almost peed my pants. Instantly, from somewhere below, a dog started barking as if warning of impending doom. They took me towards the noise and securely brought out the beast. In his master's grip, he snarled and yelped at me, each bark seemed like a hard turn on the roller coaster of your choice.
            It looked like him. It was him. The death toll from a seven year old. My mother took my one good hand and led me out to the waiting car. She never said a thing. We had discussed that the dog would be put down if it turned out to be the one which attacked me. We had discussed all the whys and the when. This did little to comfort me. It was confusing for me to believe that not only was I punished for being bad, but now this dog would be too. I took responsibility for it all, it was the Christian thing to do.
            As I laid in bed that right, my hand throbbing, I thought of my grandmother and how she was right. I realized God does punish us here and now, that the consequence of my misbehaviour was swift and Divinely just. I got scared thinking about it and wondered what else He could do to me. I have spent decades trying to break this conditioning. Early ideals of righteousness aside, I have always felt punished by God through action or event. When you tell a child that they will surely reap what they sow, that you get what you pay for, you instill in them fear, not reverence. When you  influence a child with such things, they carry it with them always. It can deeply affect their ideas of mercy, grace and the benevolance of an entity once viewed through much innocence.
            I spent most of my adult life trying to avoid consequence brought on through God's judgment. Regardless of any rational or spiritual understanding to the contrary, I still revert to feeling like the negative things that happen to me, I most certainly deserve. As that day fell behind me and into tomorrow, I laid suffocating from the weight of a world that had just changed so quickly. I called out for my silent friend, but could only hear the gnashing of teeth and my trust stripped away. While my innocence was not yet lost, it was surely led astray.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

First Love

"All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time and we go back to those moments and think, this is when I became myself." (Rita Dove, American poet)

            The earliest of my years are mostly dark and unknown. In the blackness, I have moments when I see flashes, but I cannot discern if they are real or simply projections. Do these projections come from my assumptions about how I grew up or from events of which I was told by my primary caregivers?
            I can see men jumping on the moon and a small black dog named Trixie, dancing about a house I do not know. I see my father and my mother, but there is distance and a blurred sense about their images. Truth be told, the first days of my life are hidden from me. Like with most people, I cannot see them in my mind's eye, let alone recall how they formed or why some bounce about my head like timeless rubber balls made of who I was and what I experienced.
            Unlike many who claim to regress to the moment of birth, I do not recall any such fabrication. I see no pinpoint of light or soft pictures from my entry into the world. I do not see angels sending me on my way nor demons plotting my purpose on this side of heaven and hell. No grand welcome met me as I was pushed past my mother and into this earthly glow. The first 4 years of my life are a mystery to me, but I know I got through them and I know that, in early March of 1970, I began to see things much clearer.
            I was born on May 15th, 1965, at 2:02 AM at East York General Hospital in Toronto Ontario Canada. I was told many years later that I almost died during the process, but fought strong and hard against the fading of a light so new. While a problem with oxygen almost stopped me dead, I claimed my identity through action. I was named Kelly (from the Irish meaning 'warrior/defender') and Johnathan (from the Hebrew meaning 'Jehovah has given'). My mother told me many times that I battled my way into this life and my father confirms I was a fighter from the get-go and, thus, the name.
            Early war cries aside, my first real memory is of my mother. From the point she walked up the stairs of our home on that late winter's day, I recall almost everything thereafter. The adage "a light went on" is a complete understatement. This moment stands forever as the pinnacle between my memory and mere guessing. After this day, I can claim almost every thought I have had or expressed. I can remember, even in bits and pieces, most of my time on this planet. It would seem I have always been aware.
            The birth of my youngest brother in February 1970 was complicated and almost killed my mother 40 years too early. Her recovery took place in hospital and it was not until just before spring that she was allowed to venture home, although only for a visit. I shook with excitement to see her and I almost burst as she entered through the front door. As she journeyed up to the landing, I watched her. Her hair was full and brown and chiselled into perfection. Her dress was as blue as any summer sky. There was a moment when our eyes met briefly, a moment when I first felt and can recall her love and all it entailed.
            Her visit was not a long one, and in about an hour she headed back to the care of her doctors. During that hour or so, my brothers and sister and I sat with her and my father. On the floor of the living room, I fumbled with a few comics and listened as she talked and played with my sister. When the time came for her to return from whence she came, I discovered how the bitter mixes with the sweet.
            I did not understand how I could feel so wonderful and happy and yet feel such sadness and longing; this human thing still so new to me. I knew I had not felt this way before and I speculated that something was wrong inside me. As my mother left from the way she had entered, I ran to her and kissed her cheek. She seemed to realize my joy and sadness when she told me she loved me and kissed me back in kind.
            As she disappeared and I withdrew to my room, something strange happened to me. Somewhere deep inside of me, I missed her. For the first time, I recognized and realized what love was. I sat on my bed, high up in a bunk, and I started to cry. One tear fell with happy that my Mom was okay and would be home for good very soon. Another tear fell in despair at the thought of not knowing for sure if she would be alright. I wanted her home, and so I whispered my very first prayer.
            As children, we don't see things with judgment. Children are innocent, uncorrupted by this world and all that it holds. While my sense of the world around me was still forming, I was beginning to truly objectify my reality. It is strange to remember those tears and the ache that had been brought with them. It is stranger that a boy, not yet even 5 years old, would actualize such things as pain and sorrow and sadness. This day I discovered myself and recognized my interaction with the world around me. I looked outside my own little world. As I sat transfixed, weeping ever so slightly from the thought of further separation from my mother, I cautiously called out to the God I knew nothing of and the Source of the light which promises comfort.
            I do not recall how, at the time, I had learned about It or Jesus or religion in general. I am not even sure if these definitive ideas had even been expressed to me. I am aware that, in the years following, I would attend Sunday School and come face to face with the God my parents held in such high regard, but sitting on my bed, the air drying the warm lachrymose on my cheeks, I felt Him for the very first time in my memory.
            I was always a sensitive boy. As far back as I can remember, I felt things deeply. While I was a little rascal most of the time, prone to adventure and mischief, I was also strangely emotional and raw. I was easily influenced by feelings. I don't know how I imagined things to be before this day, but resting on my bed, I was indoctrinated into the kingdom of what it means to be living.   
            I jumped down from my place on high and walked to the window, basking in the almost summer sunshine so warm and fuzzy on my face. The wet from shedding sorrow dried almost instantly in the shine and I could feel little pricks of evaporation on my face. The heat of the sun soothed me with a sense previously unknown. Quietly, like a butterfly landing on the rose or the dragon snap, I stood transfixed, occupied. I don't know if it was real or my imagination, but I thought I felt God. Looking out on the backyard below, I swear I heard something foreign, almost silent, but buzzing from within. In the stillness of my room, I think I heard, "I am here."
            I have never forgotten that moment. I have never deafened those three simple words but I have never heard that voice again. Though I knew not it's effect, it is here I first felt my connection to the Light. As I wept on the outside, I was filled from within. Mere words cannot express this experience. I mention it little, but this day defined life for me. With one hand I held sadness and with the other I held joy, both together but separate. I am aware that I did not understand the implications of such an experience, yet somehow I thought I did.
            As the day ended and shadows fell across the room that I shared with my three brothers, I remember tossing about and trying to sleep. I wanted someone to clear my confusion. I wanted someone to explain. Lying there, I tumbled into slumber, too young to realize what I had learned; sometimes life is beautiful, sometimes life is painful. It would take a few more years for me to realize most times, it's both.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011


"He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
(Aeschylus, Greek playwright, c. 525 - 456 BCE)

            As far back as I can remember, I have sensed something outside of myself. As a child, I believed I could hear it in the wind and see it in the rain. I have never been sure exactly what it is, but I have always sensed I was never alone. As I grew up, religion instructed me as to its substance and character, and I was told the dimensions by which it existed. No matter how much doctrine and theocracy was placed before me, I could not imagine that my comforting and invisible friend was merely a wise old man, very human and very unpredictable, glaring from a distance at my life in judgement.
            I believe that life is much more than a mere journey we are forced to take towards death. I believe that life is an unending path that continues to shape us all, even when we have died and passed on to that other side. We are, after all, spiritual beings in a human experience, not just human beings searching for spiritual directives. We can discover purpose as we walk along our path, but only if we allow ourselves to awaken to a better God and a better way. The experiences we have, the people we meet on our journey and the knowledge we accumulate from external sources all act as tools, forging us into something better, if we allow them. We are here to learn.
            Whether we recognize a greater reason or cast our salvation at the feet of a deity is beside the point.  No matter what you do, no manner with which you hide can evade the hard cold lessons life stacks upon us. Most days, it's all one can do to survive God, let alone live up to impossible standards that come built into humanity through religion. We spend so much time worrying about whether we are doing what is right, saying the prescribed words and feeling acceptable things, that we don't notice how much more to this world there is.
            When I look back on my life, often with much resolved sadness, I can see clearly why the things I know and the road I have travelled were meant for me and me alone. When I see my life, in flashes, I understand fully why I had to face my experiences and how, like a whisper, the Spirit I knew was there all along.
            Everything I am as a person, every good thing and every bad thing, is the reason I was put here. The journey is that which will carry me and create me. If I allow myself to be moulded by the Presence we call God, life becomes a lesson, not a mission. We are all but particles of energy and matter, spun together like harmony with the searching soul inside us. Every scene from our lives lifting us, making us into the person we were meant to be. When we become more aware, in touch with the unknown, and pay attention to the reasons behind the way our life has unfolded, we then can recognize the motion of something from beyond this mortal coil. In the end, the anatomy of our being and the accumulation of our experiences are the way that leads to light.
            We can only trust that, despite what others say and what we have been taught to believe, the unknown current that creates everything, including the road we follow, will lead us to where we are supposed to be. When we examine that path, and all it entails, it does nothing if not promote the same ideals with which we started. Every person on this planet is a child of God, whether we care to admit it or not. We must recognize that the way that leads us home to eternity is the very thing that will determine what we do when we get there. Each moment, each scene from a life is a revelation of the true nature of the force which guides us and calls us on. It thrives in the now and the not yet.
            Life is hard and cold and painful, but it is also tender and beautiful and rewarding. It really is all in how one looks at it. When you take the time to notice, your life can change from a burden to freedom. It is the scars which heal us strong on this journey that we take. The things we know and the experiences we have may be heavy, but they build strength and fortitude in the face of sheer misery. It is all we can do to survive the gods men have created when that which we believe should heal us often makes much deeper wounds. It is a harsh reality that all must suffer.
            As time passes on and the ways of childhood drift behind us like snow on a Canadian highway, a life so lived becomes a labyrinth, a puzzle put together by time and consequence. Each piece is unique unto itself.  If you want to witness who you are supposed to be, stop and see where you have been. Pay attention to this life and all that comes with it and you will see, without reservation, the secret that religious dogma fails to reveal. Each one of us, from the heretic to the holy, already has the answers but we fail to give them substance. If the unexamined life is not worth living, then it's time to take notice. There is a road inside of you and inside me there is one, too.
            It is our responsibility to not only study the lessons we are supposed to learn from this life, but to share these experiences with a hope that what we have learned may benefit others as well as ourselves. It is very important that we learn from our experiences; those who do not learn from their past are destined to repeat their past. Humanity has always held such promise, but our insight is limited to the reality we exist within. When we look beyond who we are and become aware of the greater meaning from our lives, only then can we escape the confines of being human and move forward to a place where the unknown, and the known, work together for the betterment of the individual and the whole.
            When I was a child, I saw life differently then I do as an adult. The price we pay for living corrupted my sense of wonder and clarity. Upon examination, these forces not only reveal the underlying Presence which guides but the reason one travels through life as we do. When we pay attention to that still, small voice, and notice its silent intent, only then can we understand that surviving god is a matter of introspection, not abandon. This revelation may be considered heresy by the religious powers that be, but it serves to demonstrate something beyond the ways of man, beyond organized religion and the human nature we have placed upon the Holy.
            The scenes from our lives are mere glimpses. They are glimpses of the true nature of both ourselves and something beyond ourselves. When we take the time to see things as they really are, we find true freedom. Freedom to be who we are, freedom be who God wants us to be and freedom to embrace how we got here and how it can shape us into who we are supposed to be.

Surviving God

“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident.”
(The Color Purple, Alice Walker, 1982)