Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tales from the City

            When my family moved from Toronto to Strathroy Ontario in 1976, we left it all behind us. Actually, they left it all behind them. Any chance I got to go back, I took. Toronto has always been a huge part of my life and continues to be. So do the people that fill my visits. Whether socially, working, or while simply walking down the street, I think of Torontonians as my kin, in a manner of speaking. Although I live well over 100 kilometres away, in Kitchener, most of my friends live there. Most of the people I spend my time with reside in the Greater Toronto Area. My family might argue that Strathroy was where we grew up, but I know it is the Big Smoke that constitutes my hometown.
            I love the place, more than words can express. Almost every segment of my life has ties there, one way or another. I was born there. I lived there with my first partner. My fondest and fiercest memories of my youth are centered on its suburbs and the downtown core. It may be the largest city in Canada, but for me it is an escape from the complications that come with modern living. I can disappear on its streets and hide in its pleasures. Toronto means adventure and art and culture. The people represent the civilized world to me, an example of diversity through immigration and Pride and tolerance. In spite of its flaws, and its current Mayor Rob Ford, I hold it, with great bias, as the best city in the world. Most certainly, it is at least one of the best.
            The heart of a city is the people who live there. With over 9 million in the Greater Toronto Area, there is much spirit and soul to the place. I have travelled extensively throughout my adult life, yet I find this city thrives because of the people who call it a home. It is a rare thing when someone is hospitable, especially in places like New York City or Los Angeles. It is a natural thing once you cross our border. People are friendly and people are courteous, for the most part. Yes, it has its own forms of darkness; there are always good men and bad men. Yes, it has its skeletons; it comes with warts and all.  It is the people who make up the essence of this glorious place. All the architecture, all the history, yet the entire city would hold little without the very lifeblood that flows from the population. Each person has a story to tell, or we have stories to tell about each person. Each face, each being is part of an eclectic mix of those tales from the city.

Lunch with Bubba

            I had managed to go without fighting for a few weeks when Shawn Savoy attacked from behind. All I had done was to ask, in class, a question, and you would have thought the world had ended. I suppose in public school five extra minutes at lunchtime is an eternity, but that is beside the point. As I walked out the west end hallway and onto the schoolyard, he pounced. Being given a gender-nonspecific name like Kelly taught me to fight early on. Four siblings and a myriad of friends didn’t hurt my battle skills. I grabbed him from behind and whipped him over me, ducking down to shift gravity. He fell hard on his back and ass, screaming nonsense the entire time. It was over before it really started. He stood up and took his swing, only to be met by a barrage of punches and jabs. I had learnt quickly that you have to fight if you're going to win.
            So began my war with Shawn Savoy. Even though I have not seen him since my family relocated away from the city, he remains my greatest childhood adversary. I hated his guts.  I guess I still do. He lived just across the way, but he might as well have been from another planet. To this day, I am not sure what his problem was. The only time I ever reacted violently or abusively towards him was when provoked. He was my least concern. Perhaps the problem lies therein. Maybe completely ignoring him, excluding  him and mocking him behind his back, was enough to build a rage towards me. I would have thought that after endless black eyes and bloodied lips that he would have learnt his lesson, but he always kept on coming. He was an odd and angry little boy. I know we all suspected that abuse was a factor in his home, although no one ever cared enough to try to prove it. In fact, his entire family was as disposable to the neighbours as Shawn was to me. When I wonder what he is doing now, I have visions of orange jumpsuits and him having to take forced lunches with some guy named Bubba.  
            Without a doubt, his worst offence occurred when I was bitten by an Irish Setter. He was a witness to the carnage yet did nothing to help. Instead, he stood laughing, pointing at me like I deserved what I got. I can see him standing twenty feet away, only a chain-link fence between him and me and the beast. For the longest time I wished him harm, some sort anyway. He brought out the worst in me and I allowed him to every time. When I am walking down the streets of Toronto, I occasionally try to picture what he would look like, what would he be like if we crossed paths one more time? For all I know, I have stood in line with him, ate at the same restaurant as him or even roared at the same Toronto Maple Leafs game as him. When I imagine we somehow meet, our eyes recognizing one another after all this time, my instincts are still the same. I turn my head and I simply walk away. He will always be disposable.   


            Doug and I lived right across from Kensington Market, near Toronto's Chinatown, for most of 1994. We had decided to try the big city and sold most of our belongings for the cash and to save on space. Our basement apartment was quite nice considering the area, and had just enough room for us both and our two cats, Gizmo and Felix. That year was more like one long party than a quest for direction. Instead of building future endeavours, we pissed away our money on beer, tequila and cab fare. Having the Market so close was a nice touch, not only for the fresh produce but for the quaint cafés and shops scattered throughout the streets that make up the area. Two hundred feet across the way from our house was a splendid patio-bar with umbrellas and sports channels blaring on the TVs. If we were not to be found, we were either there or downtown at the Loose Moose on Front Street. Two dollar Tuesdays were a given.
            I sure can't drink alcohol like I did back in the day. Obviously I can't speak for Doug, but I am sure he too would have tired of a world lacking responsibility and mature behaviour. We used to drink and drink until the money ran out or one of us ended up with our head in a filthy toilet. It was a coin toss which one of us got shitfaced first. The Loose Moose was a draw for the young crowd. University and college students came for the prices and stayed for the decadence. When the night was over, taxi cabs disappeared like presents on Christmas morn. For two piss-drunk hedonists, it was a very long walk home. From Front Street to Spadina Avenue, then across to Dundas Street, seemed to take forever, as we both battled passing out or spewing on the sidewalk. We knew the area like the back of our hands, so we occasionally took a shortcut down a side street or a back alley most people were too afraid to travel by. We used to talk about how much we loved living in Toronto and how much we would miss it when we eventually moved for financial and other reasons. For the first time since I was a child, I was home again.
            When Spadina meets Dundas Street, you have to head west to meet up with Kensington Market. We lived on Bellevue Avenue, which was connected by Denison Avenue to Dundas Street. Like most other Tuesdays, once we had spent our cab fare on a few more beers, we stumbled towards home with little regard for anything other than our buzz. On Denison Ave., I stopped to tie my shoe, hoping to avoid falling on my butt. Doug walked only a little way ahead and was stopped by Darlene. She had been standing, pacing across the street at a tiny park near our home. Lots of girls like Darlene frequented the area. Bellevue Park, like most parks in the downtown core, had drug and vice traffic, but we had yet to be so exposed to this seedier side of city living.
            She was a tall drink of something, that's for sure. Despite the night, her African Canadian ethnicity was as clear as the two teeth she maintained in her mouth. Her hair was nappy, and from a distance you could almost smell her lack of care. A smell later confirmed by Doug. She wore a faded jean jacket, a light pink halter top underneath and a revealing short skirt. The strangest thing was that her shoes didn’t match, fashion victims of crack cocaine, we later assumed. She approached Doug, reached out and touched his chest and then asked for a dollar. When Doug informed her of his current poverty, she insisted that if he gave her a dollar she would "treat him real good." As naïve and sheltered as Doug was, he handled her like a pro would, so to speak. He removed her hand and proceeded to give her all the change in his pocket. The price she would have to pay would consist of leaving him alone. She took the money, stood back from him, and once again offered him sexual favours for more small change. I stood from my position, walked over and took Doug by the arm. "Back off sister," I said. "He my man."

"Find yourself in people city
Stay awhile if you can
With folks who will be tomorrow's faces
Kickin' the traces
Showing you places
In Toronto
That's people city
Where love takes hold
Makes old dreams happen
She makes you feel things
So very feeling
Take on old meaning
In Toronto
That's people city
Winter's white in people city
Green ravines make summer pretty
When leaves start to turn
Then the rainbow burns
That's when you learn
That you're in Toronto
That's people city"
(People City, Tommy Ambrose and Gary Gray 1973)

 Over the Rainbow

             The walk home from work was always an interesting experiment in social interaction. The radio station, located near the Bloor and Jarvis Street intersection, sat on the fringe of the gay village. I walked through it every night after my shift, up to College Street, then to home. Although not a long journey, I travelled along Church Street, spying on the night life as a form of entertainment and great amusement. It always seemed to me that the most interesting and unique specimens came out to play at night. I often found myself standing, watching some bitch slap contest or drunken leather daddy battling civility and the coming dawn. The heart of gay Toronto is made for sublime viewing and even the occasional offbeat adventure.
            While most other parts of Toronto seemed to rest after midnight, at least from a populace point of view, Church Street festivities carried on through the night. As the morning approached, the sidewalks and alleyways would empty of huddled masses and stragglers heading back from where they had been. Hints of light always seemed to chase away the strangest and most distinctive citizens, but a few carried on into the sunrise. Finishing up around 5 A.M. usually meant for silent streets. The rays of light seemed to banish these nocturnal dwellers into hiding as if they were vampires, denied their feeding come the break of day. Somewhere between the night and the morning, I always found myself walking this way back home.
            I hit Church Street where it meets Isabella Street, and turned southward in the direction I followed each night on the return to my abode. Knowing that Cawthra Square, a small park containing the city’s AIDS memorials, was a danger zone this late in the dark,  I crossed to the west side of the thoroughfare, hoping to avoid any problem that might arise from my presence. Once I passed Wellesley Street, I believed that the coast was clear. I forgot that strange creatures dwell beneath the waters off this coastline. As I headed south, I saw her coming north, across the road from me. I wondered to myself why such a sharply dressed and pretty woman would be walking alone at this hour, near daybreak. I could tell she spotted me. She cut right across the street in my direction. Her five inch stilettos calmed any fear I might have had of impending doom. She smiled, took a smoke from her dainty ebon handbag, and then stopped dead, right in front of me. Raising it to her mouth, she proceeded to ask me for a light.
            She must have stood only five and a half feet tall, although those heels added nicely to her persona. Her hair was deep black, rather short and seemed frozen in place, lying tightly to her head. Beneath her silver beaded dinner jacket was a tuxedo shirt, unbuttoned to just above her naval. A small cross hung carefully around her neck, the metal makeup of the chain and ornament disguised by the shadows of approaching dawn. Somewhere on her person was a very short skirt, although for the life of me I couldn't spot it. Her coat dropped past it to just above mid-thigh. Her earrings were modest, although they may have been diamond studs. Black velvet shoes and her purse matched perfectly, accenting her look and suiting her to a tee. For a moment I thought she was Judy Garland, then I realized that was exactly who she was supposed to be. Politely, I lit her cigarette, then reached into my back pocket, grabbing one for me as well. I wished her a good morning and tried to go about my business.
            She briefly followed me down the street, irritating me with what seemed like endless questions. Finally, she must have decided to throw everything into her basket and asked me if I wanted some company. Like an idiot, I thanked her, then informed her I was gay. "Me too," he sang. I had never met a drag queen up close and personal, but I knew instantly, once made aware, that the real Ms. Garland had a better chance than this guy of getting into my pants. Relentlessly, he offered me an experience I would never have imagined to that point in my life. As I reached Maple Leaf Gardens, his pursuit turned to desperation. "You don't know what you're missing," he cried out as I turned onto College Street and walked away. I was never much of a Judy fan, so most certainly, I was not going to take this ride over the rainbow.


            Winter in Canada can be extreme. The harsh northern wind, the terrifying temperatures, and a deluge of snow make for treacherous conditions both in the rural areas and inside the cities. Toronto gets no exemption from the grip of Mother Nature. From November to April, chances are that her streets will be covered in one form of freezie or another. One day in January might be warm and sunny, with a southerly flow, and the next day the town closes down under two feet of the white stuff. Our weather is unpredictable at best. Canadians are known for their perseverance in the face of such assailants. We may not like weather after autumn, but we can handle it. At least, most of us seem able to face the dead of wintertime.
            Like every major city in North America, and I assume most of the world, Toronto has a homeless crisis. No matter the season, the streets are riddled with beggars, panhandlers and victims of the concrete jungle. When the winds of December blow hard and cold, warnings of frigid temperatures have city volunteers searching the streets for the less fortunate from our society. The local news channels report on frozen men and women, duped into believing an exhaust vent or shelter by a building will save them from the relentless and bitter sting of hypothermia then freezing to death. As with most things you see every day, or hear about all the time, you become ambivalent, walking past them as they beg for change or sleep in the snow.
            I have never been a stranger to this ambivalence. Even though I cannot help but see them as they sit alone, sometimes with their dog, dirty and defeated, I don't want to see. I have tried to help, I have reached out to many of them, but the experience always left a bad taste in my mouth. I've been assaulted, belittled, spit upon, violated, screamed at, cursed at and everything in between. All this was just for the honour of asking if they needed my help. While the majority of the visible homeless population seem to sit with a cigarette in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, while asking for change on Yonge Street, it is the invisible factor that I feel for the most. We cannot see their need and they have no face we can relate to. Still, they are out there, beyond our line of sight and compassion. It really can be a cold, cold world.
            I still drop loose change in their hats and I always help them if they ask for help, but I refuse to place myself in a situation to which harm may find me. I guess you could say, once bitten twice shy. One winter, just after the new millennium began, I was stuck in Toronto, trying desperately to find a way home and out of Toronto. The city was covered by ice and snow and even the taxi cabs seemed to have disappeared from their roosts along Gerrard Street and up along Bay Street to the west. I left my friend's house wrapped in layers of sweaters and winter clothing, protection from the -25 Celsius wind chill and the 80 kilometre gusts sent by Lake Ontario. The Great Lake sat frozen at the foot of the metropolis. As I crossed Yonge Street, heading towards the Greyhound Station, I spotted a man lying in a pile of snow, huddled against a lamppost. His blanket was covered in at least 5 centimetres of snow and it blocked any air flow from the vent below. He was heavily covered in matted and old gear, but ice and snow was starting to build up on this body. His face and his hands were exposed to the unforgiving temperatures and I was unsure if he was breathing. Compassion defeated fear, so I walked over, I took him by his left arm and gave him a shake. I called out to him in hopes he would awaken. Suddenly, he sat up and started screaming at me to leave him alone. He reached down into his blanket and pulled out some kind of sharp weapon. It looked like a shank from one of those bad prison movies made in the 1970s. He just growled at me, as if feral and fearless, so I backed off slowly and went on my way. For all I know, he could have been Shawn Savoy.
The Harbour


            The Toronto Bay is a natural harbour located on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It is protected from the fury of this Great Lake by the Toronto Islands. The harbour acts as both a recreational area and a commercial port. The waterfront is well developed for residential living, cultural and recreational events and enterprise. The port handles well over one million tonnes of traffic each year and is rated by Statistics Canada as the 15th busiest port in Ontario. Main industrial traffic in the bay consists of sugar for the Redpath refinery and other related materials. An airport is located on one of the islands while public beaches dot the western end of the main body of water.
            The view from that water is stunning during sunlight hours, but especially at night. The CN Tower, Skydome (The Rogers Centre) and the entire skyline light up the bay as if painted by Van Gogh himself. Runners and dog owners have miles of boardwalk and trails to journey on daily. Wharves and piers are scattered all about the beachfront and rock climbers fall over the bluffs located east of the harbour. Considered a relatively shallow lake, the swimming conditions in Lake Ontario fare well, despite its size and the industrial growth surrounding the area. These waters even host their own version of the Loch Ness Monster. Known to Torontonians as Gaasyendietha, the beast has been spotted out in the lake itself, as well as in the harbour. The creature is a Native Canadian myth handed down from the Seneca tribe.
            The harbour is a busy place. Heavily travelled shipping lanes make for active waters. The Rochester Ferry service from Pier 52 to Rochester, New York only adds to the traffic. Day and night cruises, yacht clubs and recreational sports like sailing, waterskiing and jetting, all blend together with the many personal and business craft. On a warm summer day, a nautical mosaic of shapes and sizes litters the lake. Each mode of transportation is unique unto itself. Some vessels are small and some are gigantic. Some are maintained and pretty, while others show their age. Each mode has a path it must follow in the water. Deviations from the lanes may result in casualties. More often than not, these ships just pass each other by. Regardless, each one is part of the whole; we all make the waves. Even the most dishevelled boat adds its movement to the rolls in the almost blue. Everything works together to make a productive and efficient way for travelling, a microcosm of floatation devices.
            Toronto is a lot like its harbour. To see the resemblance we must first recognize that everything on land is as interconnected as anything out on the waves. The city flows through co-operation and an unconscious agreement to be civilized.  We are bound to social expectations. There are exceptions to every rule and they usually interfere with this collective stream. Sometimes we have to look outside our own little world to understand how someone might have gotten so far off course. This should not automatically disregard their right to exist. We may come to the city on different ships. We may even pass in the harbour, only aware by sight of each other's journey. We should be careful the direction we steer. In the end, we might find ourselves in the same boat.   





Fenside Public School

Bellevue Park

Church Street

University and Queen




Tuesday, February 19, 2013

that's life

The bandage wrapped around my left wrist was more than enough information for anyone to figure out why I was on this ward of the hospital. Any suicide watch I had been under had expired and I was seated alone at a table near a window, looking out on the City of London. I had yet to be awarded the privilege of my own clothes, so I sat in a blue gown and off-white robe. I guess I had cut deep enough, and acted oddly enough, to merit a 72-hour evaluation, and as my second day became afternoon, I just assumed I would be allowed to go home soon. I had spent most of my time, thus far, hiding like a little boy in his room. All the embarrassment, and all the shame, meant nothing to me. If I could only get people to leave me alone. As I sat gazing out at an Ontario summer, so captured beyond the glass, I felt like I could just die. This was not a new feeling for me. 
            It had not been a difficult thing to do. I simply took the razor blade, cut into my arm and released. I had half-expected my blood to pour out onto my bed, but it failed me. Frustrated, I reached into my flesh and pulled out, with precision, the only thing that looked like a vein, thanks to the magic of Gillette. When I fell at the bottom the staircase, alerting my parents, I lost myself in the pain. This distance remained at the local emergency room and my silence did nothing but to encourage a visit to Victoria Hospital in the city, 40 kilometres away. All I remember is an absence of lachrymose when they closed the door behind me, and the nurse who took to her watch in my room. I never said a word to anyone, eventually falling asleep on a dry pillow. 
            I had rejected the doctor who paid me a visit first thing the next morning. I sat staring at the toilet, located in a small space on the other side of the room. It didn't matter what he had to say, I had nothing to say. All I wanted was to go home and start all over again. The morning in bed did not improve my disposition. I sat for hours, fixated on how to get it right. I drew further within myself, moving past the fantasy of oblivion into the realm of woe is me. I revisited my suffering, my hard luck, but most of all I lamented on my lot in life.  At 18 years of age, oh how I thought I had suffered. I did not understand, at that time, that my feelings and actions were a consequence of Bipolar Disorder, that I was not in control of myself. With nothing to really measure it against, I simply found it easier to give in to my impulses than to fight them with my hands tied behind my back. There was the better part of me imprisoned deep inside, screaming for freedom, but I was not in control. It was in control and I didn't even know it. 
"That's life, that's what people say.
You're riding high in April,
Shot down in May.
But I know I'm gonna change their tune,
When I'm right back on top in June.
That's life, funny as it seems.
Some people get their kicks,
Steppin' on dreams
But I just can't let it get me down,
Cause this big old world keeps spinnin' around."

            After lunch, they forced me to join the rest of the ward in the common room. I took to the table farthest away from them all. I'm not generally a shy person, I never have been, but this day I did not need any complications. I wasn't there to share my feelings with anyone. Most certainly, I did not care to associate with the looks of this motley crew. It's funny how beauty can flourish under any condition. How, if you pay attention, life can overwhelm you with the goodness it has to offer. For a moment I felt this way, gazing on the Forest City, all ablaze with summertime colour. Just for a second, I forgot the pain. I remember saying to myself, "God, why can't I always feel this way?" 
            The congregation looked like a freak show. Old men talking to themselves and old women knitting in their mind convinced me that I did not belong there. One girl was missing half her face and another girl had some form of African jewellery all around her neck and chest. There were some screamers, some rockers and a few silent watchers. I was, to say the least, ill at ease. It never hit me, that I was one of them. Simply by my attendance I had joined their class. Obviously, we had not all gathered together for study, but it somehow felt as if there was something we all needed to learn. With my moment of peace far behind me, and a room of true strangers all about me, I reached for a deck of cards and escapism in the game of solitaire.
            I don't know why she approached me, but Karen Seymour was bound and determined to make me talk. She just walked over, sat herself down and started chirping in my ear. It was like when a songbird calls out in the early morning, waking you from your sleep. It just keeps going over and over, disturbing your rest. It is all you can do to not smash its head in with a rock. For a second, I wished I had brought one with me. As she prattled on and on, for the first time in my gay life I noticed a woman's chest. It was difficult to really identify just exactly what jewellery she was wearing. It looked African, from some distance, but up close you could tell it was not beads or stones. Starting under her chin, and disappearing into her blouse, were ripples of flesh, darkened and raised. They flowed  into each other like hardened lava on the steep of a volcano. I must admit, it was the strangest thing I had ever seen to that point in my life. For the first time in two days, I broke my silence. "What the hell happened to your neck?" I subtly inquired.
            Thirty-one times she said. Thirty-one times she had tried to hang herself and every time she simply ended up with another memento scarred into her body. For some reason, God just did not want this woman. Each layer, each groove represented her disdain for life. She went on about her misery as if it was a cheap paperback novel. The last ten years of her agony testified to by her necklace of welts. Her pain and sense of imprisonment chiselled into her flesh as if it was a tree meant for marking. Her thirty years of living made for an obvious obstacle to her peace. I listened, sharing my story in between the rest stops in her diatribe. Outside of my own experience, I had never met someone who so casually tossed life away any chance they got. When her story seemed to come to a conclusion, she shared the condition of others in the room.
            In a chair near the television sat Jen. The right side of her face appeared to have been wiped clean off her head. It had simply melted away when she dipped her arm and expression in vegetable oil, then grabbed the electrical input behind the stove in her parents' kitchen. Her appendage, covered by a long-sleeved sweater, peeked out at the cuff, revealing that God did not care to welcome home this woman either. Jeremy appeared to wear bracelets, dark and matted around his wrists. He had cut into the bone so many times there was nothing but an accumulated scar where his skin should have been. Doris was almost 60 the first time she overdosed on pharmaceuticals. Her function and features became expendable when the pills failed to give her ease. She seemed broken, pieces of her crippled from her choice to drink anti-freeze, in an attempt to truly exit stage left. Each member of this sideshow had a story, a cautionary tale of how not to kill yourself. It seemed obvious to me that this room was a place for the damned.    
            Karen sat with me for the rest of the afternoon. We played cribbage and two-handed euchre, as the day turned to dinner and the evening claimed the light. The entire time we spent together did nothing but prepare me for the next morning, when I would be reassessed for release. She asked about my bandage and what lied beneath it. She smirked at my story, as if amused by my misfortune, calling me a "first timer" and suggesting I leave the cutting to a butcher or bread maker. She instructed me, with much detail, on how to secure my discharge. Her tricks of the trade seemed ironic, considering her dilemma, but I took each one to heart. By noon the next day, I walked out of that cage, stopping by Karen's room to thank her and to give her a hug. I do not know what became of her, or if she finally succeeded in breaking her pattern of destruction. I can only assume that she kept with her formula, and that each season she gained another clink in her chain. I have often wondered if God left her hanging.   

"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I've been up and down and over and out
But I know one thing:
Each time I find myself flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.
That's life, I can't deny it,
I thought of quitting,
But my heart just won't buy it.
Cause if I didn't think it was worth a try,
I'd have to roll myself up in a big ball and die."
(That's Life, Frank Sinatra 1966)

            There are people who come and go so fast from our lives that we believe they have made no impact, no effect on who we are and what we learned from them. As we move past each, we forget they ever were, that we once noticed them on the ocean of life. For over 12 years, I put any recall of those few days behind me. I myself was lost in a world created by chemical imbalance and megalomania. It is a great feat to recognize another's pain when delusions of grandeur dominate your own mind. Years later, my last taste of suicidal impulse did nothing but to ensure I remain intact for the rest of my days. Unlike the freak show on ward 7, I came out of my predicament relatively unscathed, at least in a physical sense. With proper treatment and the right support system, that part of me eventually died a quiet death. 
            The experience of looking back on those years of self-destruction can be a weighted venture. You have to learn to separate who you are now from how you felt then. It is a difficult thing to reconcile the two. Like that summer day, from so long ago, you have to stop and remember all the beauty in the midst of all the pain. I often wonder if those people ever got a glimpse at how wonderful life can be. Were the scars they bore a testament to the end they eventually found, or did they heal them strong for the rest of the journey that they made? Did they survive because of them or did they perish through the act of increasing them?  I often wonder did they endure it all, like I had, or was it merely   fait accomplis for them?   
            Sometimes people need a scale to measure their suffering. We need to watch a ship going down in order to compare the damage to our own vessel. We should recognize that not every ship torn apart by warfare will sink to the bottom of the deep blue sea. I used to sit in my own descent, sinking in my own agony, believing no one else had ever felt that way. I failed to heed the lessons of others, even while they occurred, and usually as I waged my own war within myself. I now stand able to use these experiences to recognize how fortunate I was, even then. During those battles, I did not have to be so isolated and alone. I was never unique in my suffering.
            There is a stigma to mental illness. It isolates the victim, convincing them that they have done something wrong and that no one understands their dilemma. When I look back on those ships that passed me by, particularly Karen, I retain great empathy and compassion. There but by the grace of God I went. I just wish I had noticed then what I see so clearly now. When the summer comes and the breeze turns to warm, I look out on the water and try to see their course. I hope they found their way. If only I could go back and lead them to a place where they could be safe. Most times, you can never go back and fix things, you can only try to keep  yourself afloat. From the distance, you cannot save anyone but yourself. That's life.  


Tuesday, February 12, 2013


"There are three classes of people:
Those who see.
Those who see when they are shown.
Those who do not see."
(Leonardo da Vinci, Italian Renaissance polymath)

            For years, I have been witness to a form which I can barely identify. In the corner of my eye, or face on in the night, some little girl runs past me, laughing. Her giggles are a testament that at some point in time she lived, just like every other child has lived. I have seen her at the top of staircases. She flashes about down the hallway. She used to come much more often than she does these days, but she still appears on occasion. I have often wondered if she is a harbinger of something wonderful, or a warning that something wicked this way comes. We never talk, we never touch, she just appears then fades away. I have not even given her a name.
            I could overanalyze this haunting, turning it into some evidence that there is more to this life than we know. I could spout study after study on metaphysics and the paranormal. I could show you pictures of the soul leaving the body, in an attempt to identify the energy that I see when she appears. We could watch The X-Files together, searching for understanding and our favourite scene. None of these can explain what I experience. Trust me, I have looked for answers. I have questioned, researched and discussed this phenomenon with so many academics and theologians that they can picture her in their minds. There is no reason for her, no purpose I can see in her appearances.
            She seems to stand at about 4 feet, with long free-flowing auburn hair dropping from a bonnet, its brim touched with little pansies and buttercups. They don't really have colour, the entire essence about her energy is a mixture of sharp vivid blue and bright white. They blend together with a hue that overshadows her form and accessories. She wears the same dress every time she quickly floats by. The bonnet appears to be weaved together like a corn hat, or an Amish cap. It is layered by a sash which dangles to each side. I assume this would be for securing the thing, but they are always just dangling, hanging like she doesn't know they are there. Her dress is simple, it does not seem to have much texture to its style. The length drops to about her calf, it shimmers with her movement. Again, it appears as a mesh of blue and white, a glow I am sure it did not possess before she took this form. I can tell she wears shoes, and has hands. I can even make out some features of her face. After all these years, I would have imagined I would know each part of her inside out, but each quicksilver visitation and the shine of her has never allowed me that close a look. One second she is there. The next she is not.
            I often wonder if she is all in my head. As she has travelled with  me over the past 15 years, from home to home, I assume I bring her with me. I tell myself she is not real. I tell myself there is an explanation for her repeated appearances. I have yet to find one which meets my standards of proof. I have never believed in ghosts. I guess I have trouble comprehending why someone who has died would want to return to such a place as this reality. Run and keep running is my motto. Since no one else has ever seen her, there must be a reason that I do. If science cannot identify what she is, and spiritualism seems futile with all the guessing, I have had to eliminate the impossible and assume that whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

"We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect. The judgment of the intellect is only part of the truth." (Carl Jung, Swiss Psychologist/Psychiatrist)

            I have much hope that there is something beyond life, especially for the dead. I just have difficulty believing that some force of doom compels human beings to linger around and haunt, like a ghost should do. When an energy appears, the appearance might mark the spot where some tragic or great event had occurred, drawing them back to it over and over again. As if that something which defined their lifetime is irresistible, both colouring who they are now and darkening who they used to be. If this is the way it really is, then it is a sad state indeed.
            I have spent many grim nights sitting in a cemetery looking for dead people. When my first partner's gravestone found its place, I would use it as a backrest, often falling asleep against it in the silence of the gloom. In all the times I attempted to lay witness to things that go bump in the night, I have never found an iota of proof. At least, proof enough for me. I would have imagined that dying in the very same spot would have awarded me to at least a glimpse. I got nothing. I have seen energies in my day, viewed auras and even felt evil, but I cannot testify to any shape other than the little bonnet girl. If I can see her, why can I not see other spectres, other beings? She has no reason to haunt me, but surely someone I have known who has passed would have paid me a visit just to say hello. I see her, I even feel her down the hall, but I do not understand.

“Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving."
(Mark Twain, American Author)

            If this reality is merely an illusion, it is relentless in its own pursuit. An idea, like that of a ghost, is foreign to the parameters mankind has set for himself in this arena. We must attempt to understand it before it can explain itself. We can only see what the mind
allows us to see. It is possible that there exists things that are still unknown to us. Like the Russian Kirlian camera or aura imaging, we mock what we do not understand. Our knowledge about this world is very much in its infancy. The beginning of understanding is to discover something we do not comprehend.
            Sometimes the unknown passes us by, an encounter that offers us an opportunity into a world to which we previously had little exposure. It acts as a signal, an indicator to the real voyage of discovery. We must look at things differently to fully perceive them.  
Even a ghost ship will stir the water. When we recognize that we truly know nothing, we begin to find our answers. There are no answers. Sometimes we are merely sightseeing as another ship goes by. We do not board it so we know not where it came from or how it got to where it is now. We know it is there, but once it is gone we find it hard to prove anything at all. When we begin to wonder, we begin to understand.
            Ships that pass leave traces that they were once beside us. The ripples in the water, the smoke from a stack, they linger on the waves and in the air. Modern craft leave residue in the water, pointing to the engine and fuel they use for sailing. Although we cannot define the ship, we can use these traces to recognize not only how it may function, but why it may have travelled our way. We know that not one breath of air, not one grain of sand, can become nothing. Everything changes, everything transforms. From a scientific point of view, nothing can die. We know this rule of nature, yet we continue to believe that human death is the obliteration of being. What if all the ghosts we see, all the voices we hear from the dark, are merely remnants, snapshots from a time and place, caught in this time and place? What if all we see is but a dream within a dream?

"To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they know quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?"
(Socrates, Classical Greek Athenian philosopher)

            My little bonnet girl has appeared to me so many times that I have gotten used to her. I hold no fear or trepidation towards her. She has always been benign. Every time I see her now, I pay greater attention. I notice she moves the same way, looks the same, even runs the same way each time she is present. It is almost as if she was in constant replay, the same image bounced back over and over again. The process seems almost mechanical. I have come to believe she is a remnant, a marking somehow left by a theory of science we have yet to study.
            I cannot fathom why she follows me. Perhaps we met on the night of my near-death experience, a spirit which noticed me then took to pursuit. Perhaps I emit some energy which pulls this residue to me. In science, the Law of Attraction formulates that one energy will attract like energies. Maybe there is some appeal about me that draws her to me. It may even be so simple that I am tuned into her frequency, or better, a frequency which reverberates even after her death.
            As we sail out on the sea alone, we often come across things which cannot be explained. Just to the aft, a silent ship disappears into the night. We do not know where it is going and we cannot know where it has been, but the fact that it was there, no matter how brief, can be enough to make us feel less lost at sea. We are not alone, even though we can no longer see a travelling companion. If everything we can imagine is real, then perhaps these remnants are more indicator than transmission. I have to believe that the mere experience they bring with them suggests there is something there. This chance, the possibility, can bring great hope when no hope is to be found. 

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
(Carl Sagan, American cosmologist/author)



Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Pretty Lady

            I am constantly surprised at how atrocious life can be. I have had just about enough of all this death. Everything I invest my time into seems to pass away as if by some method of escape. I understand this is how life works, but this does little to lessen my resolve that all this living is unfair in the way it plays out. I understand there is a balance, life is about giving and taking away, I just wish doom would take a much anticipated holiday from my existence. I badly need a break. I am not sure how much more I can handle, given my enduring state of grief.
            It is getting to the point where I regret any attachment I have to people and animals. I am not sure that detaching myself from anything living will solve the problem. It has been a mistake for me to trust that life is kind and will not seek to harm me and my loved ones.  It is silly thinking, to hold such things in high regard, when they will only end up hurting me more. One by one, things come and things go. It is no mystery that this is the way it has always worked. There is no sanctuary from this kind of cruel and not so unusual punishment. Everything dies and there is never a release from that harsh reality. I just wish it did not need to be this way.
            My enlightened self tends to notice the flowers and feel the breeze, always aware of how lovely and sweet the finer parts of this life can be. I have great joy and contentment in the security of a beautiful day or a soothing song. Never in my life have I had greater peace of mind and ease of travel. My ship is sturdy, more than able to face the storms I may encounter. There is always a price we pay for such peace. It appears some equilibrium must be maintained so coming storms are guaranteed. There is always chaos past the horizon. Unfortunately, the price I pay for living no longer seems worth the odds. Sometimes I would rather have not than have to deal with the constant pain and agony that comes with just being. 

(Roger Murtaugh) "God hates me. That's what it is. "
(Martin Riggs) "Hate him back; it works for me."
(Lethal Weapon, Warner Bros. - 1987)

            Given some time, I had come to a place where my sadness over my Mother's death was not some metronome, clicking back and forth in constant motion, a tempo of my grief seemingly endless in its beat. Every day was no longer bringing great sorrow. The pain had found its place. Like with all the other parts of my life, I was resolved to it, as if it had settled into a part of me I could no longer separate. Just like with everything else that had left my life, she was now memory and bittersweet and walled up emotion. It had to be this way in order for me to survive. She was not gone from my mind, rather she simply found her place in the sunken graveyard that long ago was mere ocean.
            The smallest and quickest tugboat can tow any ship stuck at sea. I know it may seem stupid, even childish, but I decided to chance again. I went looking for something else to love. Of course, nothing could fill the emptiness left by Mom's passing, but perhaps I could fill myself with a little bit of joy in her absence. In January of 2012, I was in a pet store looking for different treats for my cats. I had never considered owning a rat. Visions of Indiana Jones and Willard left me questioning whether I could embrace such vermin as I had with gerbils and mice and hamsters. I stood questioning, should I risk exposing myself to the inevitable or should I play it safe and buy some fish and an aquarium?  When I saw her little white face I knew I had to have her. I took her home, named her Savannah, and placed her in the cage all my other tiny friends had known over the years. She was so lovely, and so smart, that I returned to her birthplace the very next day and purchased a black and white version, naming her Sybil.
            The cage which had been the domain of tiny rodents was not sufficient for this larger breed so I bought an oversized birdcage, the space and height perfect for my new residents. They could climb, build dens and live their lives behind the safety of black metal and welded joints. In a month, both had grown to full size, helped along by treats and many vegetables and even hard boiled eggs. Both talked to me and they knew their names. I never realized just how intelligent these gnawers could be. Winter passed, then Spring, and as Summer arrived, my two new friends seemed to have found contentment in their tall black box of bars. I spoiled them rotten.
            On July 3rd, the heat outside found its way past fans and air conditioning. The rooms were stagnant and even the portable cooling units seemed to do little to chill the  heavy atmosphere. Just after dinner, with a divided Brussels sprout in hand, I went to tempt my girls with greenery. As they both approached the delivery, I noticed Savannah's neck was crimped, leaning to the right. In an hour, she was convulsing on the floor of the cage. As the evening passed, she worsened, eventually laying still in the shavings that covered the base of her home. Just after midnight, she passed away.
            The Veterinarian told me there was nothing I could have done. Bringing her in to his office would have cost me $75.00 just to put her out of her misery. Given the time of day, I would have been hard pressed finding a clinic to have done the deed. This did little but to purge my guilt that I had done something wrong. I learned that due to inbreeding and genetic flaws many rats die in the same manner. There was a clear neurological explanation for her demise. It was suggested that the heat may have provoked this state, a state which inevitably leads to stroke and death. I cursed myself for loving again.
            On July 4th 2005, Skipper, a white Cockapoo, was placed up in the hill behind my parents' home. On July 4th 2012, my pretty lady was given up to the earth, right behind where Skip was buried, but closer to the fence. I assume this will be forevermore the white section. I have to admit I get embarrassed exposing such weakness, but the death of a plain white rat sent hurt to the very fibre of my being. I have buried many pets up on that hill, but this death cut me to the core. It was like every ache, every lonely sorrow I had hid away for survival, struck out at me trying to kill me. Pain washed over this fully grown man. It all flooded back, pulled to shore by some fucking force who just won't leave well enough alone. Any progress I had made, any movement forward, seemed to fall away as if fresh once again. Such a small creature, for such a small amount of time, yet great was the ripple in the water where she drowned.

(Keating) 'Seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.'
"Why does the writer use these lines?"
(Charlie) "Because he's in a hurry."
(Keating) "No. Ding! Thank you for playing anyway. Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die."
 (Dead Poets Society, Buena Vista Pictures - 1989)

            At first, I failed to understand why this relatively fast and "natural" occurrence brought such a volatile response to my person. Honestly, 7 months and a rodent does not really make for a funeral procession. I understand more than anything in my life that to live means to die. I also understand that life can be senseless and unforgiving, preying on the innocent and leaving the corrupt to flounder in the mud. Why did one little beast evoke such grief and sorrow? She was, after all, only a rat.           
            The pain we experience throughout our lives is in the body. The suffering we experience throughout our lives is in the mind. Pain breeds suffering. If we can stop our pain, then perhaps one day we can also stop our suffering. Grief, as a physical force, is the worst kind of pain. It never goes away, even if we let it. I tell my friends it is like going bald, you eventually just get used to it. This does not mean it is no longer there. It sits and waits in the shadows. It drifts far enough away that we cannot see its form. It is always out there lingering, floating until something pulls it back to us again. We can only try to stop it, but there is always suffering, there will always be pain.
            Occasionally on the sea we sail, a tiny boat will pass by us. We are sure it could not have any effect on us because of its size. We pay so much attention to the little tugboat that we hit the iceberg we did not know was ahead. In a sense, I wasn't just hurting over this pretty lady. I was crying for my Mom, and shaking over Doug, and longing for all the souls I have lost along the way. Grief is like that. It doesn't just flip pebbles across the water, it comes in force, a giant cannonball for attack. Without firm footing, we all get washed away. As time passes, we build safety around us, a fortress to defend the castle. It only takes one small match to start a fire.
            I wish I had left Savannah to the cage that held both her and her sisters at the pet store. Had I known what was to come, I would have warned her to at least attempt escape. I did not invite more death, yet again. There is so little about life that makes one happy, I'm not sure I can afford to lose any more. So, now I find myself running every 15 minutes to "the rat cave," her sister Sybil, and another white miss named Sydney (an oddly appropriate doppelganger of Savannah), begging their god for some privacy and more food. It's like calling my Father every day. I need to make sure he is alright. At this point in my life, I am just so damn tired, especially of death. It was natural for me to implode emotionally, given all that I have witnessed and experienced in my life. I suppose I should consider myself lucky that I'm not in such a state all of the time.
            I guess lying beneath the waves is my fractured hull. I just can't seem to make it whole. All it takes is some semblance of  the pain and then suffering rears its head once more. They tell me that time will heal the wounds. They attempt to convince me that it is the scars that will heal me strong. I'm just sick to death of all this death. Maybe I am overly sensitive, maybe I am too strong. All I know is that it took one small critter to remind me of the damage that has been done over the years. She was just another ship that passed me by, but I paid attention to the message she brought me. We pass others as they sail into their own journey. We notice the mast and the sails, we even notice the decorative things which find themselves rusting come the bottom of the sea. For the most part, we only see a ship above the water line.   

“Honey, we all got to go sometime, reason or no reason.  Drying's as natural as living.   The man who's too afraid to die is too afraid to live.”
(The Misfits, United Artists 1961)