Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where Hope Can Be Found

"If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants."
(Sir Isaac Newton, English Physicist c. 1676)

               The first time I heard Amy Grant, I was 13 years old. The summer of 1978 was complicated for me, so I failed to recognize the message or the messenger. It’s hard to explain, but I did remember her name and I remembered her music, yet I was not compelled to join in the singing. As one year turned into another, I would occasionally note people in church discussing her, or her music for sale at the Christian Bookstore I frequented, looking for guidance and wisdom. I will admit that her public image and songs were a little too "goody two-shoes" for me at first, and she didn’t compare as an icon to Sigourney Weaver, Wonder Woman or other strong females I had been exposed to at the time.  
               As more time passed, I duly noted her presence on Christian Radio and I even started to find her music less "evangelical", and easier to swallow. It was hard not to hum along or tap my foot to songs like Giggle or Grape, Grape Joy when they were played in Sunday school rooms. When the 1980s first appeared, her first live concert albums introduced me to I’m Gonna Fly. It touched my greater sensibilities. It expressed emotions I myself had held in check. Bit by bit, song by song, I opened myself to the ideas contained in her music. It was almost as if each word and each melody revealed where hope could be found. I had failed to embrace her early on, but it was only a matter of time before she evolved into the most influential person of my life thus far.
               The release of Age to Age (1982) propelled Amy from a meek young performer to the number one Christian artist in the world. The album was number one on the "Billboard chart of the best-selling Christian music albums of the week" for more than 24 weeks. It was the first million seller for a Christian album. I bought the cassette because of the hype it received, and in one listen knew I would be forever connected to this woman of God. The lyrics consumed me, reaching to places were God had hidden since I was a little boy. Her music energized me, granting me a previously unfamiliar platform by which to explore my blossoming curiosity regarding all things metaphysical, paranormal and spiritual. Her melodies, and especially the words she chose to use, gave me permission to feel and to learn and to hope.   
               My Mother absolutely loved the cut Arms of Love, and between us, the Age to Age album was played over and over and over again for months. Slowly, often without my knowledge, Amy's music and the message behind it slipped into my consciousness and took root in the very fabric of my being. One by one, I absorbed songs like they were sermons, weaving God’s love and the lessons of life into a needlepoint. Like an addiction, when I needed more, all I had to do was seek out the display case at my favourite Christian shop. Her face even started to pop up at more secular music stores. From the moment this building epiphany began, on to this day, and underneath all my living, I could always hear her singing. She is imbedded, a part of me.

"Every time you get an inspiration you have to go with it.
That’s what faith is - the process of being led."
(Amy Grant, 2012)

               I have always felt as if Amy's songs and her message could have been written and performed just for me. When I turn on her music, I feel like a captive audience, yet I am held by choice, not forcibly detained. It’s almost like she speaks into my soul and expresses, for me, that which my heart cannot by itself. There has always been a serendipity I felt with her life and especially her music. There is something about not only each song that relates to me, but the essence of what Amy has to say that has caught my attention and still pulls me more into her substance. I feel a slight parallel between what she experiences and the life that I am living. It seems like kismet. With each album she releases, I am still captivated. I still know every one of her 300 plus songs by heart. What she sings about resonates with my mind and my spirit. There is a cause and effect to the relationship, something I didn’t once understand but have felt more and more with each new album and almost every new song. I understand her better than I do most people in my life. There is meaning in her message and revelation in her locutions.
               I have followed Amy, chased her perhaps, as she painted her life and mine in chords and melody. Some people have their Madonna or Lady Gaga, but my Diva, for lack of a better word, will always be Amy. After 30 years and more than 30 albums, Amy Grant remains the one person who has affected me the most. With all due respect to God, Jesus, my parents and partners, no one else holds a candle to what Amy has brought to my table. Some people follow scripture and others follow impulse, but I follow her music and what lies within it.
               I believe that God uses all of us for His purpose and I know that I would have been completely lost without the guide I found in this woman and her music. She has never tried to map things out for her fans, she is no guru, merely expressing her life and all that her experience has to offer. There is nothing more significant in my life and nothing has equilibrated me more than her message. I cannot express the depth and wholeness I have found in her song. Each lyric has strengthened me in times of strife and her compassion has always led me to a better place. The library of music which represents her is far too vast to explain without audio and video, but it reaches across the fringes to strangers and welcomes you as a child of God. There is no preaching or fervour in her delivery, just simple things which we can recognize in that which we know. All we need to do is listen and perhaps peer behind her eyes.

"Death is the last great lesson your parents will teach you." (Amy Grant, 2012)

               When I think on the events of my life, I can match each one with song after song from Amy.  Outside of my family, I have known her longer than anyone. After I lost my first partner, Cry a River from Behind the Eyes (1997) built a bridge for me between grief and mercy. When my Mother passed away on April 29th 2010, Hard Times and Better than a Hallelujah, both from Somewhere Down the Road (2010), related that which I had forgotten. She led me to that place called hope and granted me permission to question, doubt and even get angry with God. Of course, no one is supposed to name names. On the first anniversary of my Mother's death, April 29th 2011, Amy's mother Gloria Grant passed away at the age of 80. It would seem that date itself has become a turning point for both our lives. Since her mother's death, Amy has started a new journey while dealing with the decline in health of her father, Burton Grant.
               Last year, Amy began a series of appearances and interviews promoting awareness of those with a loss of overall brain function. She appeared on Katie, an afternoon talk show hosted by Katie Couric. Her interview brought the audience, and me, to tears. My Father has a milder form of dementia, but coupled with other medical conditions, there is great fear for his near future. On October 19th 2012, Amy performed her newest song How Mercy Looks from Here. Everything I am going through as a spiritual person found reflection in the lyrics. Once again, it was as if she was talking just to me. I suppose that’s the thing about Amy Grant that makes her so valuable to me, in a real sense she was talking to me. Her "unbearable mistakes" and “facing your greatest fear” reverberate from the exact same emotional place. A former doctor, she describes her father's illness in the song as "a brilliant mind that fades away." I can relate. I get it, completely. We always seem to be on the same page.

"I would have given up
Drowning in my tears
If it wasn't for Your Voice
All these years.
When you face your greatest fear
Losing all that you hold near
Open up your eyes my dear, my dear."
(How Mercy Looks from Here, Amy Grant 2012)

               I have never been a man who believes in the paranormal or events beyond the human experience, but when I stop to think of how much the music of Amy Grant has given to me, how she has reached beyond the mortal and shown me the Immortal, I cannot help but wonder if something greater than ourselves is at play. She is not a prophet of doom, or the end of days, rather she defines what a person of God should be and what God should be as well. Amy Grant is not perfect. She has struggled and made mistakes, just like us all.  It is her humanity itself which allows her to transcend beyond the studio or stage and command we listen to the voice of something Holy which comes from her guitar and her song. What a difference she has made in my life.
            There are those who would try to convince me that she is not all that she appears to be. There has never been a lack of condemnation for her choices made and the manner she has used to carry her message. When the video for her number one hit Baby Baby caught the attention of fundamentalist Christians in the early 1990s, they called her ungodly for dancing and demonstrating affection towards her pretend "partner". Soon after, they accused her of witchcraft and demonic practices for her choice of outfit in the video That's What Love is For. When she divorced her husband Gary Chapman, and relatively soon after married country singer Vince Gill, those same fundamentalist Christians tossed her into the fiery pit. It was as if they assaulted her for having the audacity to be herself. For me, the lyrics to even just one of her songs has done more for me spiritually than a lifetime of reading the Bible or 25 years of churchgoing ever did. No matter what may come, she is my touchstone.
               There are many things we cannot explain about this life. Whether we are Christian or Buddhist, or even an Atheist, there are many unanswered questions. We spend so much time pondering them to no avail. Amy isn't about having the answers. It is her music that allows us the freedom to discover our answers for ourselves. She challenges us to look within. She urges us to consider and to surrender to something greater than ourselves. She is the one tool I have found most necessary in surviving god. Her library of song has been a significant part of the way I got through it all. Each one has been part of a guiding force.  One can just tell she was sent from the place where hope is found.

"Music is the key, I think." (Amy Grant, 2012)

                On May 14th 2013, Amy’s latest masterpiece, How Mercy Looks from Here (the album), was released. My pre-order came the next day on my 48th birthday. It was like a gift sent just from her. As with every other project she has ever published, I was instantly swept away in a spirit. Each song, once again, spoke to me. Even the added songs, offered only through iTunes (Faith, Free) and at Target stores (Threaten Me with Heaven), seemed to reach deep inside of me and relate those things that I most needed to hear. She reminded me that I am never alone, even though I often feel as if I am. She has convinced me that I am loved, that I am “golden,” and she has shown me how to “greet the day.” Ironically, the song I love the most is the song most Christian in its approach. I cannot seem to get enough of Faith. This biblical vehicle presents Jesus discussing “food that spoils” to the masses on the Mount. Anything noting our obligation to believe in Him, might well have turned me off had another artist released the very same song.  Somehow Jesus stating that He knows “a man who toils, and toils,” only reaffirmed to me that I still believe, and for all the right reasons. No matter, have faith and believe, and remember, it is God that gives us “bread from heaven.” I took that new edition and I added it to all the other gifts I have received from her.
               I do not believe in coincidences. I have always believed there was a reason I discovered Amy’s music and the revelation of God it contains. I once believed I would one day know her personally. I no longer believe that. I do not need to. I have seen Amy in concert many times and am lucky enough to possess her entire music library, but I am not special; many others can relate to exactly what I am expressing. Some people bring to life joy and others pain. Some people walk completely alone, never knowing any form of love, including the love of God. Call it supernatural, but Amy Grant has a power at her disposal. She has tapped in to both the best and worst of life, all the while reaching across boundaries and distance to share a profound message of forgiveness and humanity and that’s how mercy looks from here.



Chasing Amy
(Original Post August 16th 2010)

(Aired October 19th 2012)





Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mirrors and Smoke

            Historians and scholars generally accept that the birth of Jesus took place before the death of Herod, sometime around 4 - 6 BCE. There are still varying theological positions on the true date and season for our modern celebration known as Christmas. The New Testament makes no claim regarding these and the early Christian church did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. In 314 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the state. In an attempt to nullify and replace the pagan sun festival of Saturnalia, leading up to, and held on December 25th, Pope Julius I Christianized this now traditional date as the celebrated day that Christ was born. December 25th flourished as an ideal and by 529 CE, it had become a "civil holiday." By the year 567 CE, "the twelve days from the 25th of December to the Epiphany were public holidays."
            The pagan festival of Saturnalia was an empire-wide celebration. It marked not only the birth of the pagan god Saturn, but also coincided with the time of the winter solstice. Celebrations included a school holiday, the making and giving of gifts and large parades. This "week long period of lawlessness" was celebrated from December 17 - 25, and concluded with human sacrifices meant to abolish the "forces of darkness." In 440 CE, the Christian Church officially adopted December 25th as the birth date of Jesus. They imported elements of the Saturnalia festival, hoping to appeal to the pagan masses. Christian leaders succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to this newer religion by promising them they could continue to celebrate the festival of Saturnalia, as Christians. Unfortunately for the Church, "there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia." To remedy this, "Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday."
            The timeline of Jesus’ birth is speculative. The harsh winter atmosphere of December, not mentioned in any biblical text, is inconsistent with the placement of His birth on the 25th of that month. The shepherds would not have been in their fields watching their flocks by night during the cold Palestine winter. Scripture itself holds clues to the accurate date and time. In the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew claims that the birth of Jesus occurred during the reign of Herod the Great of Judea (Matthew 2:1). From historical records, we know that Herod died around 4 BCE.  The biographer Flavius Josephus, "who lived 75 to 100 years after Herod", determined through "the writings of Herod's court historian Nicholas of Damascus" that Herod had indeed died before the beginning of the Common Era. Since scripture is clear that Jesus was born before the death of Herod, we can theorize that the traditional birth year of Jesus is inaccurate. Such evidence tends to validate the generally accepted hypothesis that Jesus "would have been born between the year 4 BCE and the year 6 BCE."  
            It was "common practice for ancient writers to only focus on key events in a life or in the history of a nation." Specific and accurate details were not the primary goal in such translations. No one knows for sure. We can estimate that Jesus would have "been born between March and June or September and October, depending on the specific theory." No one knows for sure. It is clear that modern society tends to do the very same thing. Islamic countries observe Mawlid (مَوْلِدُ النَبِيِّ) or "The Birth of the Prophet" during Rabi' al-awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar. In England, the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II is not celebrated on the actual date of her birth. In the United States, President's Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day do not support historical birth records. Christmas Day, one can assume, is not the legitimate birth day of Jesus of Nazareth.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.
For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’
(2 Corinthians 4:18, NIV)

            Theologically speaking, it should matter little just when Jesus was born. Whether he was born in the spring or the fall, on December 25th or July 25th, the important detail should not be when He was born, but that He was born. Even for non-believers, Christ represents a nature, a character of man that excels far above our common humanity. People still want to know "the truth" about such things. Whether to corroborate our faith experience or to enlighten ourselves, and others, we toil about, seeking answers when the questions are irrelevant. Rather than focusing on those things which truly matter, we analyze and dissect history in order to validate our own spiritual journey.
            In the 20th century, Christmas in July began somewhere in Europe, initially as an additional time for celebrating the birth of Christ and the festivals associated with it. The northern hemisphere, during July, experiences increasingly warm temperatures; Christmas jubilation tends to quench a thirst for cooler weather, or at least the idea of that time of season does. In the southern hemisphere, Christmas in July occurs during the coldest month of the year; appeasing traditions associated with wintertime. Christmas in July can occur on any date within the month, but primarily July 25th is the day of choice. The festivities tend to be more secular in nature than the December date; Santa Claus, heavy partying and commercial ventures dominate. Who hasn't been bombarded with television and print ads promoting “Our Xmas in July Sale”? The more religious nature of Christmas, found in customs such as church services and nativity displays, tends to persist silently on Christmas Day in July. Traditions based on the birth of Christ remain loyal to the day assigned in the Christian faith. 
            Every year, I begin my Christmas countdown on July 25th. I make up my lists, begin projects for the festivities and start looking for new Christmas music. I start listening to Christmas music almost in sync with this secular celebration. Although it is not part of a heavy rotation, I occasionally turn to an all-Christmas station on the internet or pop in a CD from my vast collection.  Every Christmas, for the last 5 years of her life, I created a Christmas library on disc which I gave to my Mother. I always started the project mere days after the Christmas in July celebrations. I start watching for presents, and new Yuletide décor. The momentum continues to build through the summer and fall, then crescendos throughout December. I am definitely a Christmas kind of guy.

"It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God Bless Us, Every One!" (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens 1843)

             I am most certainly not Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. The spirit of the season lives within me nonetheless. I love the feel of Christmas, the joy of Christmas and the anticipation of Christmas. I love to give gifts and I embrace the essence of love and goodwill towards men that tends to fade quickly for so many in the New Year. I have always been this way. Christmas has always meant so much more to me than mere dogma or ideology. The very idea of Christmas gladdens my heart and calls to the very best parts of me. I try to keep Christmas all year long.
            I could get tied down in all the questions, but I tend to look for simple ways to explain how I feel. I love Christmas because it defines what I believe is the entire spectrum of the Christian faith: Jesus lived. Whether he was God, or returned to God with a full report, He was here. The substance of His teachings, not the size of shoes should be the focus. To know that, because He was here, God gets me and He understands me, even if only in degrees, gives me great hope for myself and for us as a people. It doesn’t matter if we celebrate in July or in December. It’s how we celebrate and why we celebrate. We have a responsibility to remember the message of Christmas all year long, and in doing so give Christmas throughout the year as well.


 Christmas in July
(Original Post July 25th 2010)





Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dueling Banjos


            Good and evil are inseparable. You cannot have one without the other. In a very real sense, there are moments in all our lives when it feels as if we have a devil lurking on one shoulder and an angel perched on the other. It is a very human predicament to be pulled in these opposite directions. As if light exists to the right of us and darkness thrives to the left of us. There are two of us, one which does the right thing and one which does as it pleases. There is a constant Yin and Yang, a balance of these "polar and contrary forces which are interconnected and interdependent." They give rise to each other and wage a war for our soul.    
            The modern imagery used in the “Shoulder Angel/Devil” concept comes primarily from mass media. Found in literature, movies, television, and specifically in forms of animation, each personification usually resembles the host. The angel appears with wings and a white robe. A halo is their crown and a harp, on occasion, is their weapon. The angel appears from white billowy clouds which disappear when it is fully materialized. The devil appears fully red, with horns and a tail and a pitchfork to poke at the primal urges of the victim. Brimstone and fire accompany its arrival and dissipate quickly before the host can see. Each doppelganger is a mimic, resembling characters in the woven tale. The angel represents our conscience, demanding moral and ethical character from the inflicted. The devil is temptation, usually selfish and unscrupulous in its nature. Quite human, they occasionally attack each other in a battle of will. These iconic representations are archetypes, manifesting the mortal struggle within us. These figures always try to influence our choices and quite often record our deeds. 
            This expression of spiritual duality originates from the Christian belief in a "personal guardian angel," which was often "considered to be matched by a personal devil who countered the angel's efforts." The devil appears to the left, representing impurity and lies, a manifestation of the negative association of left-handedness in both antiquity and modern culture. The angel sits to the right, an abstract representation of Christ at the right hand of God.  Western culture developed these materializations primarily from Christianity. The idea that each person has a "dedicated guardian angel" took root, granting this creature the task of following their assigned person while attempting to prevent them from falling into temptation and sinful ways. This guidance is meant to prevent the person from coming to both moral and physical harm. The demon's mission is to tempt the victim into sin. It attacks the person and often the angel, attempting to banish the light in order to secure darkness. Both use an unknown form of telepathy to introduce ideas which correspond to their moral and spiritual position. As if they were dueling banjos, each demands that it bear witness and be heard.  
            An early Christian work introduced the idea that two separate angels gravitate towards each man. A non-canonical text, from the first or second century, The Shepherd of Hermas creates "one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity." Each angel will "descend into a person's heart, and attempt to guide a person's emotions." Popular medieval dramas like Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592), featured a "Good Angel" and a "Bad Angel", each competing with the other by offering opposing guidance. Modern manifestations such as Clarence, from the 1946 Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, promote the idea that there is someone watching over us. This idea of a guardian or custodian spirit finds a common theme within many "ancient and traditional cultures."
            In the Islamic tradition, Kiraman Katibin is a belief that finds two angels on opposing shoulders of each human being. They support good or bad behavior. In this tradition, they cannot influence the choices we make and merely record the actions of each person. In other Islamic literature, a Qareen, or "constant companion", urges each individual "to do evil things and to disobey God." Each Qarin is unique to each person and is assigned accordingly. These smoke-like beings made of fire "whisper to people's souls and tell them to submit to evil desires."
            There is, apparently, good and bad in every one. It all seems to come down to who to and not to listen to. In Freudian terms, each angel symbolizes "the super-ego (the source of self-censorship)," and is "counterbalanced by [a devil] representing the id (the primal, instinctive desires of the individual)." The angel is protective, safeguarding through supervision. The devil is baser, a constant tempter in your left ear.
            Can it be? Is it really all about which way we lean? Angels and devils aside, perhaps good and evil are inbred into us all. Is the experience a part of being human? This duality our true nature? It is hidden deep within us and mere prey, victim to the whims of conscience or temptation. Always an angel and a demon leading us, calling us to follow. They point in their direction past the fork in the road.

 "Consequences are unpitying. Our deeds carry their terrible consequences, quite apart from any fluctuations that went before - consequences that are hardly ever confined to ourselves." (George Eliot, English Novelist)

            I have made unbearable mistakes. Even though I recognize that each error has led me to this place, to now, I cannot help but wonder if I had only made my choices carefully, then what might have been. I was so impulsive when I was a younger man. I was so driven by my urges and the primal part of me. It is not that I regret my decisions; it is their outcome I have trouble dealing with. If only I had listened to the little voice inside my head that tried to stay me. Why didn't I curse temptation, and all it brings, and hold to the better part of me that was often lost inside my head? I suppose, in the most ironic sense, my Grandmother Norah was correct. I had always been a little devil. I never knew just who to and who not to listen to.

 ‘And often times to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths; win us with honest trifles, to betrays in deepest consequence.’ (Macbeth, Act I, Sc. III, William Shakespeare)

             I've learned to live with the guilt and the burden. All these years and the consequence still far outweighs any good that might have come from the weekend that my first partner died. My youngest brother had asked me to drive him and a friend to Toronto so they could both attend sporting events for disabled athletes. We headed out at the break of dawn. I last found Doug sleeping, with no indication of what was to come. When I left Strathroy at around 5 am, I had no idea; there was no clue to convince me to stay home. I picked up my fare in London, travelled north to the city, and then I spent the day at Variety Village, an international organization and charity for disabled children. When the day's events had concluded, once my brother knew his place for the night, I headed out for an evening with my friends in downtown Toronto.
            I pulled out onto Danforth Avenue, which runs east and west and eventually becomes Bloor Street, in the heart of Toronto. I started westward until I spotted a pay phone, so I stopped to place my call. Long before cell phones, email and texting became all the rage, the collect call was the only way to contact someone from such a distance. The moment he answered the phone, I just knew that something was wrong. Doug seemed sad, and distant, and there were none of the usual pleasantries. During the six years we had been together, he had never talked to me in this manner. When I inquired as to what might be wrong, if he needed me to come home that night, his response was neutral. There was little inflection or emotion to calm my nerves. He was blank. He explained that he had been drinking and as a result had been sick. He told me he was just going to head off to bed. This appeasement worked as I wished him a good night and expressed what would be our final goodbye. I never got the chance to speak to him again.
            Yonge Street was my fork in the road. As it approached, I felt as if a devil had appeared on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Between the left of me and the right of me began the dialogue, back and forth, each now an echo of what could have been and what should have been. Conviction met me, prodding me to journey home and ensure that everything was okay. I could return to get my brother in the morning. Temptation hindered me, it stole my conscience, urging me to place myself, once again, at the whims of all that had called me to this place. I could just see Doug tomorrow
"You've got to know who to, who not to listen to.
You've gotta know who to, who not to listen to.
Well, you know, they're gonna hit you from all sides
Better make up your mind
Who to, who not to listen to."

(Who to Listen to, Amy Grant 1985)

             The truth is, back then, there really was never anyone else I considered. There was only me. I found no balance to tame me. Not for the last time, my demons claimed victory over my protection. This was not the first time I had failed to acknowledge my angel's voice. With the choice to be made, I barely stopped to consider where I might be going. I failed to use my head to guard my heart. To my left, a night of fun and frolic awaited me. To the right, a winter's drive into despair found little that could beckon me.  It was so easy to turn on the indicator, to pull out of the turning lane and head into the hell I had just created for myself.
            I relive that moment over and over again in my mind, pondering why I took to temptation rather than following my instincts. Those instincts, I believe, sensed the events which were to follow. There is no coincidence. I did not listen to that warning within me. I played with the devil rather than flying with the angels. I fell to my baser self rather than rising above with the chance I had presented to me. I often picture my angel that night, run over as if in a Donald Duck cartoon. Crushed like a dead skunk in the middle of the road. 
            That one choice changed my life forever. The next time I saw Doug he lay frozen on a cold metal slab, a bearded victim to gravity and the decision he made.  I cannot escape the possibilities, had I listened to the day rather than the night. Be careful in your choices as you may have to live with your mistake in despair. Weigh wisely the path you follow. The road may not be all you think and there is no way to turn around once the die is cast. It really is up to each person to know who to and not to listen to. You just need to pay attention.  Either way, there is always a price to pay.


 A Shoulder to Die On …
(Original Post September 5th 2010)




Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Bad Blood


            I try not to expect too much from people, most of them only seem to disappoint me. It appears the world is a dark place with little room for our humanity. More than anything else, I am discouraged by the lack of forgiveness we give to each other. When we do offer our forgiveness, we tend to award it to someone rather than giving it freely. It is an expectation that you earn your pardon rather than deserve one. In these days of quick fixes and disposable relationships, animosity towards our fellow man has become rampant, almost second nature. We harbour animus, that feeling of hostility and ill will. We succumb to its campaign, giving it much life. We attach our feelings to events and hold on to the moment we were injured, granting it great power. Every time we are reminded of the grievance, it attacks us. It moves within us, it thrives and then it covers over us, even when our time to die comes. Anger grows and continues to flourish, even when the object of our hostility disappears. It eats away at us and consumes us. We are the host upon which it feeds, like a sponge sucking us dry of our compassion. It wounds us deeply so that it is hard to forget. This bitterness is a disease and rancour is the symptom. Forgiveness is the cure.  
            Forgiveness has little to do with the object of our disdain. It is a process meant to heal "me" rather than another person. We are damaged when we hold on to such things. Forgiveness allows us to release negativity and move back to a healthy place in our lives. With forgiveness, we can heal ourselves. When people don’t forgive, they harden and become disenfranchised, especially from their family. Conflict never encourages understanding, nor does it improve anything but our own capacity to hate. What if we all held on to all that others have done against us? What if we didn't forgive and try to forget? Life is short, too short to clutch to our anger and our resentment. We should be forgiving others, and forgiving others for not forgiving, then moving on.
            It isn't always easy to let go when we have been wronged. It is the responsibility of the other party involved to apologize, and stick to it. So many people say “I’m sorry,” then keep right on with the behaviour that caused the problem in the first place. I'm sorry but "I am sorry" means you won't do it again. It is even harder to forgive when the other party will not admit they have been in error. They did nothing wrong. It is even harder still to forgive someone who does not recant what was said and done, as if you were required to fix things for them. Taking responsibility, whether mutually or individually, then to cease and desist, allows all parties involved to banish such folly to its proper place. It is here that resolution and reconciliation can begin.
            Just because we forgive someone does not mean we have to accept their behaviour.  If you don't condemn someone when they have done wrong, then you condone that behaviour. Forgiveness is an internal mechanism, but it does not require us to continue our association with the person of interest. Forgiving has nothing to do with forgetting, and forgetting is a difficult thing to achieve when the matter at hand continues to complicate rather than compliment your life. Turning the other cheek has nothing to do with forgiveness. One needs to recognize when it is time to walk away. There is no mistake in turning from someone when that someone has done something to hurt us. There is no standard that commands we continue to associate with a person who continues to do us harm. Once you have forgiven someone, if they continue their attack, there is no law which requires us to remain a victim. Forgiving does not mean we must allow others to assault us, no matter how much love we have for them in our heart or how productive the relationship used to be. Sometimes it is better to say goodbye than perpetuate ill repute and malice. Forgiveness may require you let go.

“Be gentle and forbearing with one another and, if one has a difference against another, readily pardoning each other; even as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also.” (Colossians 3:13, NIV)

             I believe I am a forgiving person by nature. To forgive someone is one of the easiest things in the world for me to do. Unfortunately, I have an issue with forgetting what has happened. "Once bitten, twice shy" the saying goes. I have many reservations about continuing a relationship with someone who just does not seem to care. I can forgive them, but I cannot continue as if nothing has changed. If nothing seems mended, then I am the first one to walk away. Forgiveness is more about self-cleansing then repairing differences. One may be spiritually required to forgive and to keep forgiving, regardless of the conditions that brought about the issue to begin with, but there is no rule regarding repeat offenders. It is easy to forgive, but trusting that person again is the real challenge. All the words in the world won't solve anything if nothing ever gets fixed.
            When someone wrongs me, they become disposable unless my expectations are met. I may forgive them, but I have the right to expect that it won't happen again. I can't imagine the wrong in trying to survive this life and not at my own expense. Sometimes I feel like I am expected to, that I should just allow others to walk all over me again and again. What happens to forgiveness when someone continues to do harm to you? How does one forgive with one hand and forget with the other? It’s difficult to hate someone if you recognize that, on so many levels, they are almost the same as you.  People are flawed and empathy towards your fellow man is never a bad thing. What is the limit to this state of compassion?  When do you stop and I begin?
            Walking away from bad blood is not a solution for everyone. It is my solution, the choice I make when the complications far outweigh the positives. Forgiveness allows me to move on without having to take all the baggage with me. I can forgive, but it is hard to forget when it keeps happening. The hardest thing in the world to do is to part company with someone you have loved. We let go. We let go because we want to and, more often, we let go because we have to. In the end, resolution can only come from separation. We stop caring and simply fade away.  The opposite of love is not hate, it is ambivalence.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
 (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV)

             A few months before my Mother passed away, she seemed to know she was not long for this world. She made statements in finite terms, almost prophetic in their nature. She seemed to know what was coming, not only regarding her end but the end of our family as well. Her greatest request was in asking me to try and keep peace in the family, to try to save it from itself.  I willingly agreed, knowing the challenge it would be. It was as if she was making sure to make sure. I was not the only family member she compelled to do so. My Father was also urged to do the same. Needless to say, this mission has been a long and winding road over the last three plus years.
            I do not mean to imply that simple arguments and behavioural flaws have contributed to the current challenge of maintaining this family. There are many cracks in the plaster that make up our walls. There are numerous incidents over the last few years which have left a sorry taste in my mouth. I have often had to stop myself and remember the promise I made to my Mom. The best I could do was just breathe. From petty arguments to criminal behaviour, it has been more than a mere challenge to want to associate with certain members of my immediate family. Bad blood usually leaves a persistent stain and there is little resolve which might remove it.
             It was not a difficult thing to forgive in these cases. I try to keep my word, especially to my parents and the God I believe in. The problem now lies in forgetting what has happened and trying to move on. I am not sure this is possible. I was wrong in assuming that her death would make anyone closely tied to her realize how little time we have left and how damaging bad blood can be to the promise my Father and I made. I should no more expect anything from people related to me than I do from strangers. It seems my lot in life is to be disappointed. I have forgiven but I have no choice but to walk away. The promise I made to my Mother is now defunct. I would rather disappoint her than have to deal with all this bullshit. I know if she was here, she would understand completely. Forgiveness is a way of moving on and sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do.

"I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter,
But my will gets weak,
And my thoughts seem to scatter,
But I think it's about forgiveness,
Even if, even if you don't love me anymore."
(The Heart of the Matter, Don Henley 1989)




(Original Post July 31st 2010)



Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Nature of Things

June 23rd 2010

             My Mom once told me that she felt closest to God when she gardened. There was a peace she would find while communing with nature. It was, perhaps, her most favourite activity. I suppose her life was like a garden. I suppose all our lives are. We each start out with a blank canvas, fresh and new, with all hope and possibility. We toil and work, arranging it with our choices and stones gathered from our path. We spend so much time planning, and shaping, always with the secret hope of achieving perfection. The apparent commitment required can seem endless. No matter how we tend to things, we always end up rooting out unwanted weed after weed. As with everything else, these invaders will come and go. The world constantly changes. Although we are aware of what is coming, the season passes and all our work seems for nothing. The land falls to sleep and the snow of winter covers the ground. We finally find a place to rest and then comes spring and we start all over again. Life is like a garden.
            I can remember her so well, sitting up on the hill in the backyard. I can see her clearly, watering down areas that eagerly needed her attention. She would linger for what seemed like hours, filling up a pond or pruning the landscape, all the while singing softly some tune too quiet to be heard. One knew not to disturb her, sitting in her lawn chair, basking in the tranquility that surrounded her. She seemed lost to time as she cared for her roses and the patches of earth that she made her very own. I see her there, in my mind, but I know she has gone, a mother to this nature no more. I assume that her gardens miss her as much as I do. 
            My parents gardened out of love. It was not so much about the house with them; it was about the land, the trees and the greenery. It was in their blood. Even inside the house, rows of cacti and trees, surrounded by hanging plants and ivy, filled the front room throughout the year. If home was a colour, I would envision it as green. It was a pleasure to watch them both as they battled the elements and the dog crap and crawly things, simply for the joy of it. Every year they sought to create a place of safety and peace, not only for themselves but for their family and friends. For them, gardening was an obvious notion. They knew that they had come from the earth and they knew they would eventually return to it, so in between they gardened. 
            My Mom loved roses. Her rose garden, along the driveway, was simply lovely.  Every summer, the red, pink and purple, and so many other colours, would call to hummingbird and butterfly and dragonfly alike. The scent of it would rise on a warm August breeze, akin to apple pie or the Thanksgiving turkey. It would stay, like an invisible benchmark, milling around the senses and creating a point for memory recall. I still cannot smell a rose without wandering back to that place and the delight I knew then. I asked her once how she could love her roses so, in spite of the thorns. “Don't worry that the roses have thorns, just be glad that thorns have roses,” she quoted.
            The first spring without her has gone and summer has arrived. These hazy days and warm evenings returned so quickly it seems as if she just left us. I suppose, in a sense, she just did. The sky of night, so clear and unencumbered, beckons one to reach out and try to touch where she may have gone. Her gardens are in bloom again and the trees still wave like friendly folk, when the wind hits them just right. I know that soon will come autumn, and then the cold and dank of winter. When spring arrives again next year, the greenery will grow and the flowers will return. This world will continue without her. Soft butterflies will soar above the ponds and into the sundrenched flower beds and, like life, the gardens will go on. When I miss her or I need to feel her, I just close my eyes and she is working her wonders once again. I imagine her caring for her gardens as she did for her children. I can still feel all of that love from here. This is a place and time that I know I will never forget. In the distance, almost up to the top of the hill, sits a place for her, but all that remains is an empty chair.


June 23rd 2013

             Life goes on. If you are smart, you make friends with the pain. Grief, and this type of deep sorrow, is a beast one must learn to tame. In the strongest sense, you must domesticate the horror of losing; you must cultivate a way to carry on. Given time, and a fair chance, renewal will often come in unexpected ways. You learn to feel again. You remember how to love again. All those things which were so damaging when touched in memory will come back smoother when given a new season. You get used to the void.  Once again, you can handle the nature of things much better. All those remnants, like ghosts left behind, are no longer a constant reminder of what is missing. You can face the gardens which lay in ill repute. Simply existing is no longer enough. There must be sunshine, and stormy skies and beautiful flowers. We have no choice but to move on.
            Although my Father has been unable to overtly tend to my Mother's gardens, my sister has taken up the pleasure. She has reshaped borders and built new gardens on top of the old. While the gardens are not exactly the same, they are vibrant and regenerated and flourishing once again. Almost everything looks different, but it all feels the same. Some things have changed, but the presence, the essence of the display remains intact. If you close your eyes, you can still feel her near you, behind you or up on the hill. The difference is you may look for her, but you already know she isn’t there.   
            There is something unfair about living. It comes with such a cost. Perhaps if the joyful, wonderful and often breathtaking parts of being alive were not so damn appealing we might stop to realize the price we pay. I am still not sure, after everything, if it has been worth it. I wonder if this is all I get with my paid admission, can I get a refund? Of course, the only way to avoid feeling this way is to stop living altogether and I am not prepared to entertain that option. Gardens look lovely in the sunshine, but they all need a little rain. There is never renewal if nothing can grow but weeds.
            When I visit my parents’ home, it is easy to see the changes. The new decks out front and out back, the smaller, denser gardens and the absence of larger plants in the house are all telltale signs that something is different. It has been this way for so long that this fashion has become the norm. This is just the way things are now. Seasons changed and things changed, whether we wanted them to or not. Life will always go on, whether we want it to or not. If life is like a garden, then how you work it, how you toil will determine its beauty. What you do with the pain, how you cultivate surviving will ascertain the depth of it and what it takes to start again. Each season leads into another. Time marches on and so does memory. You can close your eyes and picture an empty chair or you can open your eyes and remember her there.   


The Empty Chair
(Original Post June 23rd 2010)



"The Hill"
Strathroy, Ontario
Summer 1981

"The Hill"
Strathroy, Ontario
Summer 2013