Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Skeletal Remains

            The most frequent question I am asked regarding this blog is what I mean by the term "surviving god." The answer is not a complex one. For anyone who has suffered at the hands of a religion or been cast out from their God because of the doctrines and dogmas of an organized faith institution, the term is precise. Surviving God does not necessarily mean you no longer believe. It does not denote some form of atheism or rebellion against the object of your devotion. It simply refers to getting past all the garbage that seems to come from the traits and limitations mankind tends to place on the Divine. Surviving the damage these concepts can inflict is a subjective process, an evolution both intellectually and spiritually. Surviving God means just that, endurance in the face of damnation and recognition that one remains a child of God despite our harshest critics. It pertains to salvation through subsisting and pulling through in spite of all the well meaning, and often quite nasty, religious folk who would have us believe their way, their convictions, and especially their gods, are against us but for them. 
            I do not believe in any form of predestination but I do believe that each of us has set lessons we are to learn while in this mortal coil. To this end, this is why we are here. The more we endure, the more we learn and the more we learn, the closer we come to our purpose. When someone tells you that you are not good enough or tries to convince you that your path is leading you in the wrong direction, you are left with only two choices. You can follow their tactics, prescribe to their ideas regarding your life or you can refuse to surrender to their kind of thinking and strike out on your own, if the need be. I should be precise that this type of survival is a trying state to be in. We are brainwashed, by religion, into thinking that we are not good enough to begin with so we should bow and pray and thank the Lord for the opportunity to have Him love us again. When it comes right down to it, surviving god is to recognize that no one should have to earn this Love.

"You can spend your whole life buildin'
Somethin' from nothin'
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway
You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway
God is great, but sometimes life ain't good
When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway"

            I started writing Surviving God: Scenes from the Life of a Heretic well over a decade after my Near Death Experience. I have carried this life changing event with me ever since that night, regardless of any lapses in time. It has followed me, allowing for a focus on my development, to view the sum of who I am from the place I am now, but in a more subjective context than just from memory. Through the written word I have faithfully attempted to express myself. I seek to relate my journey in hopes that someone else may view the steps I have taken and in so doing consider their own. No matter how I have evolved, no matter how my life has changed since then, I always come back to a night in a cemetery and a suicide attempt. The resulting questions I still long to have answered . Although I recognize that I will never be able to truly know, I have made it a mission to try and understand. Understanding is the key and through it we may just find we don't really need any of the answers to survive god.
            The pills went down very easy considering the amount. The fact I was driving into Stratford, and didn't stop to think of what I was doing, did not deter me I am sure. I could not be distracted. I was within myself, but at the same time it felt as if I was watching from afar, unable to act. The streets and houses went by as if distant. I could only see ahead. A tunnel vision carried me with no guilt, without remorse and without a thought for anything but what I had gone there to do. The tunnel that brought me was not the same one I was soon to experience. They tell me I must have passed. I still feel it when I remember the light. I am with the two figures and the passageway behind them. I remember how it was, so precise, as I dangled in that dark stuff. I remember the words that were spoken, the ushering back. I remember the startle from waking two days later in a hospital bed. At first it was maddening not knowing what had really happened, but enduring the experience was what eventually brought me back to life.
            The irony is not lost on me. This was the most significant event in my life and I was dead for most of it. As the editor/journalist of a college newspaper in the early 1990s, I had investigated paranormal activity from a cynical position, mocking it in the student publication, The Other Side.  When I recklessly dumped those pills down my throat that icy February night, I would never have imagined being confronted with subjective proof of an afterlife. There were no stone tablets, no crosses and most certainly no representative from this other place to guide or direct me regarding my rebirth. The entire commotion was nothing but a matter of fact. It still resonates with me. It lingers in the middle of my mind, a constant reminder that there is more to this world than we know. Almost twenty years later and I am still bewildered by the outcome. Nothing has affected me more, shaped me more, than this brief time floating in the bright. I recognize completely that without it I would surely have been an Atheist by now.

"This world's gone crazy and it's hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away
Love 'em anyway
God is great, but sometimes life ain't good
When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway"

            Most forms of organized religion are inconsistent with the experience I had in the later tunnel. No one asked me which deity I had worshipped in my human form. There were no books to judge me by, no membership drive that would secure me entrance. The experience was actually quite benign. The wrath and condemnation that I had expected for most of my life, from heaven, did not manifest itself in the darkness nor was it revealed in the light. All that was and all that I remember is the embrace of the place. I did not fear. I was not afraid. I simply floated in a compassion, in a mystery I still cannot define. There was no temple, no mosque, no gathering place based on my mortal beliefs. The Love came faster than a bullet and as soon as it had begun, it was over.
            All I know for sure of this experience is the change it brought when I was returned to the living. This evolution was not instant and took years to find fruition. No cake is ready for consumption until it has been baked. Sitting, grieving the loss which had propelled me into abandon was the beginning of a progressive state, in hindsight. This progression had only one requirement, that I pay attention to it. Suddenly, years of trying to know turned into moments of attempting to understand. My life went on. I got better. I began to study, to delve into our ideas and conceptions of the Divine. I stopped trying to find some proof and began to rest in my experience. I started to envision my journey as a puzzle, each piece working together with all the others until a cohesive whole could be distinguished. The entire layout always incomplete, always adding a corner, or an edge piece, or something in the middle. 
            Someone wise once told me, "You cannot be lost when you have a destination."  I suppose it is true that if you have no idea where you are going then you cannot possibly lose your way. If I ever was found, it is because I stopped looking. I let the world inform me but I did not let it lead me. You can go your own way. I have come to recognize that any change in my life, no matter how chaotic, has always been a platform for positive modification. I still have no proof of this god or that god. I can't even be sure that I truly exist. All I know is that the questions still linger but I no longer need the answers. I rest in the things I realize from exposure to them, not the things I know from being told they are so and all the guesswork required to comprehend. I have learned to examine the questions and to forget about the answers.
            Well meaning (maybe) religious folk that I have encountered along my way have made it a point to inform me that some NDEs (Near Death Experiences) do not find heaven or the tunnel on their trip. For some, the light in front of which they are dangled, or tossed into, is an abyss of fire and suffering. I cannot speak to such experiences other than to convey that I myself have never been exposed to such an encounter. I suppose, in a sense, I did not need to go there. At least, not yet. For those who experience the NDE, it is a subjective undertaking. Survival goes without saying. Perhaps each journey, each crossing over to the other side is exactly what we need to see. Each end of this road is a message we are returned to figure out. It is defined not only by the experience but our reaction to that experience.

"You can pour your soul out singing
A song you believe in
That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway
Yeah, sing it anyway"

            While I may object to the Christian notion that you must be born again (John 3:3), at least as a requirement for salvation, I understand the necessity for it when pursuing a spiritually based life. As Jesus claimed, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit." (John 3:6, NIV) When you encounter something Holy, it is hard to go back to the way things used to be. It is hard to forget  It can change you. Nowhere in any scripture is this "change" considered an immediate phenomenon. It is a process, an almost metaphysical evolution. This development should be a lifelong endeavour; how could it not be?  Some people, however, seem able to move past any afterlife event and any change is either fleeting or made null and void. Others cling to it and make it their god. Some of us allow the experience to reshape us, we dissolve away, permitting the metamorphosis to change everything but our skeletal remains.

            Although the actual otherworldly experience I had was rather succinct, it affected me deeply and for the long haul. It acted as only I allowed it to. I determined the effect despite any cause. I gave "God" permission to mould me, to make me into what, inevitably, I allowed myself to become. Those brief moments in the light still shape me. They continue to be the prime focus of my journey, no matter what any organized religion may try to convince is true. If you are going to survive the god that men have created, you must keep going on your path, no matter what. Words can only bring you down if you let them. Any experience you have with things beyond this earthly plane is as valid as anyone else's. Your struggle, all the enduring, is enough reason, regardless of what someone's agenda might be in telling you differently.
            The trick, it seems to me, is to just keep breathing and to keep fighting. When self-righteous religious people tell me that my thinking is wrong, when I am cast into the pit by the god that they serve, I remember the secret proof that has been my friend for so long. I remember I have been restored; that is how I got to where I am.  Most certainly, I trust the light more than a religious person, but I try to love them anyway.

"I sing, I dream, I love
(Anyway, Martina McBride 2007)









Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Losing Christmas

"I’m gonna make a wish this Christmas
I’m gonna say a little prayer
I’m gonna stop here for a moment
Before the moment disappears
The world’s in a hurry this December
City streets and shopping malls
I wish we could slow down and remember
The meaning of it all"

            I looked and I looked for it, but I just could not find it. It had left me and was nowhere to be found. I could not find it in the shiny street lights or in the glitter of the shopping malls. Snowy white did nothing but interfere with my seeking. I knew I had searched everywhere, in all the places that it used to be. It wasn't with the decorations I carefully designed around my home. It wasn't hiding beneath the tree. The presents I bought still came from the same place within me just like every year, but the joy I used to have from giving them had left me as well. The guitar I got for my Father may have inspired his childlike wonder, but it was no wonder that even this gratification managed to ditch me high and dry. Under every card, mixed in all the candy, with the tape and the scissors, was nothing but some matter of fact. I spent my entire life filled with Christmas, but this year it did not find me. It was gone and I feared it was not coming back.
            I should have known that it was lost. There was no Christmas music starting in July. No list appeared by August for me to follow up with until the end. Although my Christmas shopping had started in January, it did not inspire the drive within me to care much about it at all. A few gifts were bought with tender care, but the rest were just wrapped and put under the tree. I chose them the same, for pretty papers and such. I placed them the same, once again I got too much. It mattered little to me. From the time it started until the last flickering light, I wanted it over and to tuck it in, goodnight. A few stolen moments I shall look back on with glee, like the giant silver box underneath my Dad's tree or the Twilight Zone collection that was given to me. The seasonal cartoons meant little, almost nothing at all. I even neglected to watch a few in the Fall. There were no late night movies, no walks in the snow. The traditions and heirlooms that once meant much to me became nonsense. Each stood just the same as before but there was something quite missing, of this I was sure. The rhyme and the rhythm that makes Christmastime flow had somehow abandoned me, then melted like snow.   


            When the Nativity scene came out, I felt nothing. At my parent's home, the one my Mother cherished did not manage to encourage me. The Magi and the Shepherds became silly symbols. The Angels and manger turned into simple story. Even the Virgin birth turned from wonder to misinterpretation. I was obviously losing Christmas. I just could not figure out why. Nothing new had entered my head. No new information had found me wanting. It was all the same as it was every other year, everything, that is, but me. I realized something had changed. I had changed.  Growing up, Christmas had been a mixture of religious warmth and family love. With my Mother gone a few years before, I would have assumed any change would have been immediate then, but even her death did not take Christmas from me. It is here that I rested. I figured it out. Somewhere deep within me, after all those years, I wasn't skipping Christmas. Christmas was lost.

"Wherever you are, no matter how far
Come back to the heart, the heart of Christmas
Live while you can, cherish the moment
The ones that you love, make sure they know it
Don’t miss it
The heart of Christmas"

            I do not believe in Christmas as I once did. I do not hold to the story nor do I think it really happened. The way I view that world has shifted. It is not that I didn't have my doubts before. It has been awhile since I truly believed in a baby God-King born to save this world from its sins. The pageantry no longer holds much meaning for me. I see no star of wonder and little purpose in the tale. Those things I once revered I often questioned, over and over, until they too were gone. I am not sure why it all took so long to catch up to me. I have suspected it was false for years. I suppose in some morbid way it just took a long time for it to finally die. It left with a few convulsive twists and I cannot find any reason to resurrect it. I am not sure that I could if I tried. It does feel like a part of me has died. I am not saddened by this turn of events. There is no lachrymose to wipe away. Anything I held onto for comfort in the past I still have, but I have detached it from any real spiritual meaning or Holy claim. It seems to me so many words, words that do nothing to help with any healing. I could feel it completely, aimlessly, suddenly slipping so far away. I was losing Christmas.   
            A few months before the fictitious day last year, I noticed my wonder was fleeting. I felt metamorphic without all the spectacle. I started to ask myself why. I could feel myself emptying of any glory to that god. I pondered to myself whether somehow the child within me had finally passed this place to play and the rest of me wandered out into the glow of a not so Christmassy new found way. I wasn't "Grinchy."  I had not turned into Scrooge. I even consciously followed the same routine I once knew, but to no avail. I feared that it might just be missing until I realized there was nothing to be found. I could never make it feel the way it used to. I could never bring back Christmas. I felt alone and I felt empty, a consolation prize I never asked for. As a little boy, I had known it. It stayed with me throughout all those years of chaos. No pain, no tragedy could steal it away. Did I leave something behind in the boxes and wrappers and gifts of the year before or was this desertion something more? Had I inadvertently dropped it in some discarded batch of crinkled waste or had my heart finally caught up with my head?
            Christmas morning, 12 months ago, I sat waiting for some semblance of it to come and find me. I opened my gifts, listened to Christmas music and went about preparing to head off for a day with my family. I had gone out of my way, just weeks before, to stop and ask for it to return, for it to come like it did before. I guess I didn't really want it to leave. I didn't want a no-show. As I woke that morning, I knew it was gone. There was no stage, no audience, no quick intermission to get it back. I took in the tree, the presents, I even counted the cheer. Something had killed my Christmas and it was just not there. It seemed to me that the world had bumped off one of my oldest friends so I tried to imagine I could feel it again. I had to consider if I wanted it back, well knowing I was guilty. Had I murdered any yuletide knack?
            At my Father's place, I could not see it. It wasn't there either. I could not find it in any of the faces, no childlike wonder did I behold. The kids that were present didn't even appear to care about anything but presents. It seemed everyone was different. It wasn't just me. To ask "where are you Christmas?" when it seems all around, wasn't some silly notion, it could still not be found. It got put in the bags to be set at the curb. It got tucked away in boxes and safety until next year. In the blink of an eye, this Christmas was over. It came and went for nothing but more bills and more commotion. The baby Jesus disappeared in the halo of His star while the tall tales from so long ago revealed themselves for what they are. If Christmas has lost its meaning, if no one gives a damn, was I one of those believers who found it makes no sense to have? Perhaps I could surrender to Jesus once again and give in to a renewed Faith that once had also been my comrade? Even though it was a shame that I could no longer be bothered, in a sense I'm glad it's gone.  Christmas night I walked about, crunching in the snow, and knew too much had happened and that is when I finally knew. Christmas had not died. It wasn't buried in the yard. It didn't go back up to heaven. It wasn't near and it wasn't far. The something that was missing wasn't tinsel, ribbons or tags. It wasn't Holy devotion either. All the peace that I had known from all my Christmases past was now filled with noise and much confusion, it was a silence that my Christmas sorely lacked.  

"Let’s make it feel the way it used to
Let’s find that wonder of a child
You can see the magic all around you
Come on, and open up your eyes
You can find it in the warm embrace of your family
Or calling up a long lost friend
You can even find it in the eyes of stranger
When you reach out a helping hand"

            I guess that I have been gone so long that I am no longer sure which way is Home. I find I am far too tired to walk although I am completely used to travelling alone. I have evolved but so has my Faith. All the things that Christmas now is, for each of us, are some facades. A reflection in a mirror dimly. These inaccurate depictions no longer give me peace. Like some starving man given jewelry to eat, I cry out for sustenance, but have been granted nothing but costume decor. The truth hasn't made me stop dancing. In no way has my singing been silenced. I have not stopped wanting to believe. I have simply shifted what I have Faith in. There is clarity now for me. All the packages, all the bows, all the gifts that have been given are simply for show. While they do no harm, and represent great Love, it is tough to find yuletide in a puddle of mud.   
            So what's the big deal? I can go secular just like the next man. Every year, millions of non-Christians celebrate the festive season. The Atheist, the Buddhist, even Muslims gather round the big ole tree and exchange gifts from the heart. Christmas is huge business on a global scale. In many cases, Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty are better known than Joseph, Mary and even Jesus. Still, I cannot help but to wonder if these myths and legends are not meant to give the human race something more than mere fable. I feel like I have lost touch with not only my childhood wonder but the part of me that found consolation in these stories from days gone by. As this year's celebration approaches, I have deep sadness for the part of me that made Christmas, felt Christmas and cherished Christmas but no longer can relate to these expressions. I may not only be losing Christmas, I may be losing the truest part of me that believed without reason and had Faith without proof. It is true, without Jesus there is no Christmas. All the artificial gallantry means nothing. No TV special, no big silver box, no stocking filled with toys will ever be able to give me back the part of myself that now seems gone forever. This time is different. This time sheds tear. There is no more, cannot happen, no matter how I try, there will never be, I fear for me, this most wonderful time of the year. 

"Wherever you are, no matter how far
Come back to the heart, the heart of Christmas
Live while you can, cherish the moment
The ones that you love, make sure they know it
Don’t miss it, the heart of Christmas"

              Just a few days before the big event and I am once again waiting. I have tried to do my best to honour the traditions of my friends and family, but the elusive spirit has unbound me and left me empty. I miss it, even if only for but a moment's time. Life happens. Much of the time it can be overwhelming. Despite my ability to cope with the trials and tribulations this existence cares to sling at me, I am still quite human in my reactionary ways. My walls have grown strong and mighty and no wind or myth can break them down. I have hardened. I have hardened to a way I no longer relate to. I just got tired of a god who makes promises but never keeps them. I have flown away. I tucked my tail, and spread my wings and followed a different stream to joy. I see much clearer from the top of my roost. Here, not even Christmastime can reach me.
            I may no longer believe a certain way, but I do still believe. I may not be a Christian, but I try to follow not only the teachings of Jesus but also His example. I was born into His process of Faith so my foundations remain intact, so to speak. I will admit that there is a part of me that wishes I was still the same when dealing with all this truth. That little blond boy that I carried around with me for so long, I have lost him and I fear he is no more. One thing after another has chiseled out the hard cold stone I have become. Each strata rebuilt layer after layer, despite the wrecking balls. Life can leave you feeling little if anything at all. All the sedimentary bedding has given me more reason to blame their god. I look about and most certainly know that I didn't do it.
            Although Christianity literally means that God was one of us, this last bastion of my Faith no longer simply doubts. No glimmer will make Him leave heaven again. No revelation can now shape me as I age. Carl Jung once said, "Life really does begin at forty. Up until then you are just doing research." For once and for all, I have finished my thesis. It may require some updating now and then, but for me it is proof. It was difficult to accept the truth when all the lies were exactly what I wanted to hear. I refuse to be distracted from my awareness even though it can be lonely being free. I don't want to push it away. I don't want to hold it at arm's length. It's like a knee-jerk reaction.
            I might have held on if I had known there would be a last time it would be with me.  Still, when the darkness comes, I continue to look for the Son. I am forever convinced that we shouldn't have to go through our lives earning God's love. It should not be wrapped up in pretty papers. It should not be some formula meant to bring us closer to Him. Lovely stories and simple pleasures cannot make something from nothing, even if  you once assumed it was there. I have been losing Christmas for all the right reasons.

"In the shadow of a steeple
In a star that lights the way
You will find Him in a manger
The heart of Christmas has a name"
(The Heart of Christmas, Matthew West 2010)

                         I quickly unwrapped one last gift to me. For a second or two, I felt Christmas. Was it deep within me all along? Did I feel joy in the moment or was the surprise only in the receiving? Is this all Christmas is? The gold and black foil fell down around my feet and I fought with the binding. It doesn't really matter what was inside, but I think I felt something somewhere still within me. Had Christmas come after all? I could not be sure, but it was written all over my face. In an instant I was young again, even though it was a fleeting moment. Rather than looking for a reason, I let it come and it washed me away. It is really true that Christmas is in the love we give. In the world around us and with each other. In any hope we may find. Perhaps this year I will remember why we have Christmas at all. How it can lead us to a safer, more lovely place. The best part of Christmas is the foundation it lays for those so lost that they seek something to make them found. It is the beginning of their truth. After all, you can only fill your life with what you think is there.





Christmas Day 2013
Kitchener Ontario

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

An Old Guitar

             I have always just assumed that as children we view our parents differently than when we know them as adults. While I recognize this may not be the case for some, it is only logical to believe that this is a relative statement for many. As a boy, my world revolved around my comic books, my G.I. Joes and both my parents. Friends were most welcome, but to be honest, they more or less interfered with my playtime. School was quite often a boring internment and most of my siblings were a somewhat inconvenient distraction. I cherished my Mother and I revered my Father. When my Mother passed away, a part of my life faded forever from me. I held her in such high regard that the emotional hole left from her death seemed to chisel itself deeper with each passing month. My grief long ago found its place, but there is not enough topsoil on the planet to fill that void. Her exit found many with a gaping chasm where our hearts used to beat. 

"Do you remember the time your heart was moved to tears?
Can you look back on the moment after all these years?
On the moment love broke through and heaven seemed so near
Do you remember the time your heart was moved to tears?
Keep holdin' on
Never letting go
We're not far from the end of the road
In a moment love broke through and heaven seemed so near
Do you remember the moment your heart was moved to tears?"
(Do You Remember The Time. Amy Grant 2002)

             My Father was left rather empty-handed. He was broken, damaged and you could tell from the aura about him that this wound would never scar and heal. He had to decide whether to live or die, to continue or to perish, a decision on which he still goes back and forth, depending entirely on the day. When I was a kid, my Father was without a doubt the strongest person I knew. He always seemed to have so much control, although his stoic and calm demeanour in no way masked his love for his family, particularly for his wife. He was fiercely loyal, completely reliable and a sound provider. In spite of his gruff exterior, one could often find him playing with his children and even the neighbour kids. Every winter he would ice up the backyard so his children could have their own space to skate. He taught us all how to glide, although I must admit that skating was never my forte. There are black and white photos of him and I from the 1960s, taken as he taught me how to hold a hockey stick and stand on twin blades of steel. It was always the strangest thing for me to see the childlike wonder that possessed him on such occasions. I feared these moments had disappeared forever when my Mom passed away.

           With few exceptions, I have spoken to my Father every day since my Mother died. The closeness I once shared with her now flourishes between him and me. It is not only my duty to watch over him, a promise I made to my Mother the year before she passed, but I take great pleasure from the friendship we have cultivated out of all the shit life can bring. My daily phone call to him finds a mixture of sorrow, joy and resolve. He has chosen to carry on although he doesn't like it one bit. Over the past four-and-one-half years, he has continually demonstrated that life goes on even when we wish it would not. He is constantly out and about with my sister, travelling from garden shop to thrift store in search of goodies and bargains. He celebrates holidays such as Easter and Christmas with a commitment to honour his wife and the family they created together. The box in which her ashes rest greets fresh flowers every week and her memory thrives like a memory should. Over the last few years, day trips to my current home of Kitchener have found him wandering through antique shops hunting for treasure. He often points out little traces of her so very noticeable in the items he has discovered. In August of 2013, my Dad, my sister and her son Matthew stopped at my apartment to pick me up, then we all headed across town to the St. Jacobs Antique Market, located mere steps from the famous St. Jacobs Farmer's Market in Waterloo Ontario. It is here that hope began again.

"This old guitar taught me to sing a love song,
It showed me how to laugh and how to cry.
It introduced me to some friends of mine
And brightened up some days.
It helped me make it through some lonely nights.
What a friend to have on a cold and lonely night"
(This Old Guitar, John Denver 1974)

            He just stood there like a four year old. His eyes were glazed over with a certain kind of joy and his mouth hung open like a garbage chute. He seemed enchanted, if even for a moment. Pinned to the wall, behind a sheet of tempered glass, that black 1961 Harmony six string guitar caught his imagination like a Red Ryder BB Gun would. He was almost dazed and rather confused. I had never seen my Father like this before. In my youth, he was always a hard working man. By the time supper was over, he rested heavy on the living room floor. Weekends grew busy as his five children grew older and he appeared to have little time for anyone including himself. I never once concluded that he was unhappy. I recall moments when the spirit of his family, and the Spirit of his God, blended as laughter and love and even glee at some points. Until he discovered that guitar, I had never seen the child within him like I did on this day. Seeing my Father come to life like that had an incredible impact on me.
            Less than a week passed and that guitar found itself in a safe place among my own treasures. It took no convincing for me to purchase this antique as a Christmas present for him that year. It was in most excellent condition, a condition confirmed when I took it in for a final tuning before sealing its fate. Come November, I hid it inside a 55" television crate, crammed with cardboard until it could not move. The case which had come with it ensured safe storage. The shiny silver gift wrap covering the box met black ribbon, a large silver bow and his Christmas card. For over a month it sat nestled near my Christmas tree. I could hardly wait to give it to him. It was my wish that it not only gave him something completely self-absorbing to do but I hoped he would recognize that even after my Mother's death, some things are still worth living for, especially music. Growing up he had played. The antique banjo he would strum upon still rests in the piano room of his home. It has joined the autoharp and glockenspiel my Mother played that are nestled carefully on top of that old Bell piano. They are each a testament to the love of music my parents have given to their offspring. This was a gift much more important than any value.

            Christmas 2013 came and went without a hitch. The guitar found its place in his living room and on his knee every now and then. It was the nicest, and one of the most expensive, gifts I have ever given anyone. We were both well pleased. That briefest, smallest of moments when he first became enchanted left a lasting impression on me.  I will never be able to forget the look on my Dad's face when he first fell in love with this lady. I am now convinced that through all the pain and all the loneliness there is a part of him very much alive. He would argue that his end is near, but anyone could say exactly the same thing. It's not the time you have left that matters. It's what you do with that time that counts. To have given him but one moment of joy amidst the chaos means more to me than almost anything sweet I have known in this life. I will be forever grateful that I was given the opportunity to give him that.

 "What if I told you?
You have the power
To give someone hope
Far beyond their wildest dreams
What if I told you it’s right there in your hands?
In your hands
It's hard to imagine
How something so small
Can make all the difference
Tear down the tallest wall
What if December looked different this year?"
            I have come to realize that people don't really change. They simply wither. The person we were as a child is supposed to be who we become once again.  In between, we age and convince ourselves that we are different. All of our life that occurs in the middle is simply evolution and confusion. We are supposed to die young, even when we put it off for as long as possible. It matters little who the middleman used to be. All that matters is who you turn out to be. What matters is who you become. The glimpse of my Father's innocence that I was so lucky to have the occasion to witness has convinced me. Seeing without judgment, experiencing the now, these are the qualities spoken of by so many religious and spiritual leaders. Yes, we are supposed to put childish things behind us. Seeing the world as a child does not demand that one should act like a child. It is this innate sense of innocence that is required should one wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is the greatest tool for surviving God.
            My Father is a man of great Faith and great conviction. For me, he represents the truest sense of how a person of his Faith is supposed to be. He has survived regardless of any abandon he may have suffered through. If you ask him just how he remains, he will tell you that this is what Faith can do. You grow up thinking that there comes a time when your parents can no longer teach you anything else about life. Society even convinces you that eventually you switch roles and they become the child while you must be the parent. I am not surprised, at this stage of the game, that I continue to learn from my Dad. Through all the pain, all his agony, he is still, deep within, essentially the same. He has been so all along. In the end, grief does not kill, it grows us stronger. All that remains are small moments, childlike innocence, and for some, an old guitar.  

"What if we all just
Give this Christmas away
If there’s love in your heart
Don’t let it stay there
Give this Christmas away
And your life will be changed
By the gift you receive
When you give this Christmas away"
(Give This Christmas Away, Matthew West 2010)



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Jagged Little Pills


 "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation." (Graham Greene, British playwright)

            Hamilton, Ontario, Canada is located approximately seventy kilometres from Toronto. Running south along Lake Ontario, the fifty minute drive follows the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) then diverges at the 403 highway, heading west towards Brantford then to Woodstock, meeting up with the 401. The QEW continues south towards Niagara Falls and the American border. These spans of roadway are heavily congested. One would imagine the drive from Toronto would be scenic, considering the beauty of the Great Lakes. This is not the case. Industrial and commercial endeavours line the journey, blocking out the blue. The split onto the 403 is an entirely different matter. The road bends in and out from chunks of the Niagara Escarpment. The inlet you cross over reveals tiny peaks of land such as Hickory and Cockpit island. Manmade wonders like the Cathedral of Christ the King dot the landscape. Those unfamiliar with the area usually find amazement gazing out from Dundas Peak or the top of Hamilton Mountain looking down towards the lake.
            Hamilton is "defined by its geography." It is at the centre of what is known as the "Golden Horseshoe" and is approximately "at the midway point between Toronto and Buffalo, New York." The Niagara Escarpment is carved into "the bedrock of the Great Lakes basin." In Hamilton, the Escarpment "is a vertical wall of limestone, sandstone and shale." This wall "runs through southern Ontario from western New York to the Wisconsin/Illinois border." Known as Hamilton Mountain, this Canadian portion slopes up from the shoreline inland almost five kilometres. The 403 highway rises 100 metres (330 feet) from base to the plateau. The slant can be intimidating as cars and trucks fly up and down the great hill with little caution. The edges consist of faced stone and dangling rocks on one side, and a very visible descent down into the Hickory Valley below on the other. Inexperienced drivers timidly find their way via the slow lane. Add just a wee bit of snow or rain, and the driving can quickly become rather treacherous. For the longest time, I would cringe at the thought of travelling on this monolith. While going down the mountain is a relatively easy feat, heading up the slope used to be an experiment in terror for me. I would often avoid this path.  

"There are two things panic patients hate to do. They hate to take medication - and they hate to go to doctors. They hate to come to grips." (Earl Campbell, former NFL running back)

             The trip from Toronto to the mountain took me less than an hour. Traffic was light until I exited on the 403 and headed home towards Brantford. Car after car passed me. My trepidation came more from unfamiliarity than the experience itself. I had rarely travelled this path before. With the exception of light sprinkles of rain, the trip had been uneventful. As I approached the incline, I slowed down to the speed limit and tried to maintain my place in the centre lane. I could feel my heart racing and the pulsing went straight to my head. I felt dizzy and nauseated and would have pulled over if the road allowed for such a notion. Suddenly, as a minivan started honking at me from behind, the stress of it all hit me like a fish to the face. I had never known this state before. I wondered to myself if I was having a manic episode. The Lithium that flowed through my veins had handled my depression effectively, but I still had issues with the hyper side of my Bi-Polar imbalance. Halfway up the side of that hill the voices started. I heard screaming inside my head, warning that I was in peril and quite doomed. My mind raced with irrational ideas. I feared the tires would fly off my car, plunging  myself and the vehicle over the embankment and down to a cruel, fiery death. I started shaking. I was sweating profusely. At one point, I could barely breathe.      
            My first panic attack was nowhere near my last. For years my psychiatrist minimized my condition, believing that to focus on my depressive state was most appropriate. Week after week, the panic got worse. Sometimes it was so bad that I felt compelled to stand in front of a transport truck just so I could make it stop. Over several years, I lost myself to the banshees. It was bad enough having to battle my impulses, but this even more unwelcomed circumstance became quite maddening. Meditation, new medications and even recreational drugs did nothing to move me past this hellish place. I disappeared in it all. The panic grew so extreme that I often felt as if I was having a heart attack. The head attack was more than enough for me. The tightening of my chest became a harbinger of what was to come. I had to remember to breathe or I would likely pass out, again. All the anxiety, all the discomfort, but the feelings were the worst. The self-loathing, angst and all that guilt was overwhelming. In all the time I spent chastising myself over the years, I had never known such utter chaos. When I demanded better treatment, I found myself out of a therapist and any future refills on my Lithium prescription.  I didn't want to take medication. I didn't want a new doctor. I didn't want to have to deal with any unresolved issue that might have precipitated this uncontrollable state of being. I knew I had no choice, I would have to find, for myself, someone who could help me to escape this very unwanted condition.

"Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination."
(Christian Nestell Bovee, American writer)
            I wasn't wrong, I did need a new psychiatrist. My first session with her stands out as one of the most important moments of my life. It changed everything. After only our initial meeting, she placed me on Seroquel (quetiapine fumarate), and a new world opened up to me. While she determined that 1200 mg of Lithium Carbonate managed my depressive state, it was appropriate, for many Manic Depressives, to piggyback their medications with a combination therapy. She was convinced that this new drug would benefit me greatly. On top of other treatments, Seroquel can be effective in "acute manic or mixed episodes in bipolar disorder alone or with lithium." It has proven efficient in "long-term treatment of bipolar disorder with lithium." I could barely believe the results after only one dose. For me, it was the miracle I had been praying for all those years. It was not lost on me that freedom came from a dispensary and not the Bible.
            Over two decades of sleepless nights and I found rest immediately with my newest friend. After a few weeks, the panic and anxiety didn't just lessen, they disappeared altogether. I stopped all the dreaming, all the nightmares and all the fear. I could finally control myself n a way I would never have thought possible. I could manage and maintain my impulses, completely. As a bonus, I had no real side affects from the Seroquel. Other than a deep seven hours sleep each night, I noted nothing but more favourable results. It was as if a cage door had been opened and the truest part of me found emancipation.  My mood lightened, and I was able to be the very person I had always known I was on the inside.. With some medications, one can lose themselves in the application. My resolve increased and so did my peace of mind. All the voices which had haunted me since I was a teenager, suddenly were gone, lost to Limbo, essentially quite vanquished by those jagged little pills. 

"Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death." (R. D. Laing, Scottish psychiatrist)

            Many years have passed and I rarely have to see my psychiatrist. Three times a year she renews my prescription and sends me on my merry way. There is no need for therapy, or much clinical analysis. All is well. I now live the life that eluded me in my distant past. Quite often, I still find myself looking in a mirror with much gratitude, no longer asking just who they hell I am. Taking all those pills every night may be a pain in the ass, but the consequence of doing so is in no way hard to swallow. For almost a decade now, I have wandered free. I have made a forest for myself where once no tree could grow. I am rational. I am logical. I have control, self-control. I am no longer, in any capacity, bound to the impulses which once ruled my roost. I still have the same emotions as other people. I still get angry, even furious. I have even had small panic episodes under tremendous stress, as with the death of my Mother in 2010.  I am finally, once and for all, without question, able to be fully human without being completely unbalanced.
            I once believed that I was destined to dwell in my mental darkness, but I quickly discovered I held a place in the light. Words cannot express the gift I have been given. One criticism of modern pharmacology is that it curbs creativity and dampers the more positive benefits of an unrestrained mind. In my case, this could not have been further from the truth. It seems to have worked the other way around. I have never been more unbridled in my expression, more creative in my nature. The convoluted brain which once restricted me now flows with milk and honey. 
            The mountain which once brought me great dread no longer has a power over me. I have travelled up and down its slope so often that it rides like second nature. It was the catalyst to my sanity. When I used to travel that fifty minute trek from Toronto to Hamilton, I was never able to see past all the shops, buildings and signs that cover and block out the shoreline. I am now optimistic that the lake is still there.

"Sanity is madness put to good use."
(George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher)





Tuesday, December 2, 2014

I Am Not Jesus

"I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,
And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day ...
And Nanny let my beetle out -
Yes, Nanny let my beetle out -
She went and let my beetle out -
And Beetle ran away.

She said she didn't mean it, and I never said she did,
She said she wanted matches and she just took off the lid,
She said that she was sorry, but it's difficult to catch
An excited sort of beetle you've mistaken for a match."

            Throughout my lifetime I have wronged many, just as I have been wronged by many. The list of trespasses against myself and others is long and daunting. It was convenient to just regret these incidents, then put them away and try to forget all about them. Each always seemed to fall back upon me and I never understood just why. There was a time I found it almost impossible to forgive others for what they had done. It was even harder for me to forgive myself. In most of these cases, including my own, it was not that forgiveness wasn't possible on my part. I don't believe I was strong enough to make such a commitment. Forgiveness requires great strength. It was extremely difficult to let go of my anger because, with most of these individuals, their behavior continued. It is easy to hold disdain towards a repeat offender. I have always believed that you shouldn't say you are sorry unless your intent is not to reoffend in the same manner. All mistakes are  forgivable, but we must find the resourcefulness to admit them first.
            When my maternal Grandmother died in 1999, I was bound and determined to hold her in contempt. It mattered little to me, if at all, just how ill she was leading up to her passing. I used to listen to my Mother talk about all the abuse and issues that met her at the hands of her parents. A few of these revelations shook me to my very core. When my Grandfather died a few years before his wife, I told myself that we were better off with him long gone. When my Grandmother died, I almost felt pleasure and I was suddenly confronted by my own propaganda. I could barely look in a mirror. I realized just how hateful and ungodly my own issues had made me. It serves no purpose to go into the private lives of these people, somehow expecting their behavior from the past might serve some purpose or example for me. It is only in recent generations that such forms of abuse are condemned, let alone spoken of. Standing over my Grandmother's coffin, I was so filled with rage towards her. I was glad she was gone. The final death of these two villains would give all of us, especially my Mother, a chance to move on and put them behind us. As I stood there, full of pomp and circumstance, I was strangely overcome with guilt and remorse. I could not believe it but I cried a little.
            As I left the cemetery and made my way back to my own life, I realized just how selfish and cruel I was being. I knew I had to forgive myself for hating them and for not forgiving them like I should have. As I drove along the 401 corridor to my destination, the history of all I had been exposed to played out in my mind. It hurt that there had been no real resolution, either for my Mom or for me. In a moment of clarity, I realized that the only way to truly escape all the negatives involved was to forgive them and to let them find some peace. With both now gone from us, I recognized I really had no choice. For the first time in my life, I tried to see their point of view. Empathy had never been my strong suit. Like dominoes, each memory, each moment floated past me in symmetry. Layers of dreamscape were knocked down in a mosaic of all the hurt and joy and pain they had caused. In that moment, I finally knew. It wasn't just the two of them that was the problem. It had actually been me who fed myself all of the poison and granted it permission to dwell within. Needless to say, this benchmark changed me.
            The only way to forgive another is to first forgive yourself. Shadows cannot force shadows from the darkness. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Once the light of reason found entry, it was a simple matter for me to begin to heal, although my response was slightly over the top. I started to try and contact anyone from my past who had wronged me or that I had wronged. I called phone numbers I was unsure would still be in service. I sent emails and letters, trying desperately to free myself from the reality of my newfound awareness. It was almost alchemy. When the light came in, the burden flew out. Suddenly, I found myself able to forgive both myself and others. My understanding, in a sense, turned from lead to gold. Forgiving was the easy part. It was no challenge for me in the least. As a matter of fact, it continues to be a comfortable thing for me to do. While forgiving was no longer a hurdle, forgetting became the obstacle.  It remains my challenge to this day.

"She said that she was sorry, and I really mustn't mind,
As there's lots and lots of beetles which she's certain we could find,
If we looked about the garden for the holes where beetles hid -
And we'd get another match-box and write BEETLE on the lid.

We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
'A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!'"

            To forgive is human but to forget is Divine. I can easily forgive but I cannot forget. Some would argue that this position is simply another way of saying that I will not forget. Logically, I would like to know how I am supposed to do the latter. Memories don't just fade away, never to be called upon by choice or by circumstance. The wrong done to us by others is forever stored in our minds, an association with the person in question. We may fall prey to dementia, or some disease of the mind, but that in itself is an entirely different story. I would argue that forgetting merely gives the offender permission to do it again. One doesn't have to hold on to an experience to be wary when someone exhibits ill will. When it comes down to the act of self-forgiveness, the same rules apply. If I forgive myself for something I have done, to myself or another, then I continue to demonstrate that nothing is different, all that forgiving was for naught. Forgiveness is not like discarding garbage. You can't just throw something away and expect it to never rear its ugly little head again.
            Others may argue that when the behavior of another becomes unforgettable, it is only defensive posturing on the victim's part. I would argue it is human nature. Why would anyone not regard warnings from the past? Who would give someone the opportunity to bring havoc and chaos back into their life? A few years ago, when one of my brothers and I parted company, it was easy to forgive him for the things he had said and done. Considering how much practice I had over a thirty year period, it was a lenient thing to do. Considering his observable limitations with trust, it was the safest thing to not forget. When my Father asked if I would attend Christmas celebrations in 2013 if he invited that brother, I duly noted that the possibility existed that he may show up, which he did. For me, it was as if he was not even there. Had he, at any point, apologized or shown contrition, I may have acknowledged his existence. Still, any current change in the tides involving him would make little difference to me. It is not only his behavior towards myself that has left piles of crap on my shoe but his inconsideration for elder members of the family that has sealed his dismissal. As far as I am concerned, I would prefer if he just stayed away.
            So what about the admonition by Christ that we should "not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also" (Matthew 5:39, NIV)? I would argue that may all be well and good but look what happened to Him. Unlike some incarnation, I am simply a human being. So imperfect is this mortal. Despite the lesson learned through the death of my Grandmother, I will not allow myself to fall prey to the whimsy of some narcissistic repeat performance. While it is my responsibility to forgive without question, nowhere in the annals of religion does anyone instruct me to forget what has happened. If you ask me, it would be impossible to do. Forgiving is a very human notion, the act of forgetting is beyond us. You can't even do it if you try. No matter what anyone may say, I believe forgetting is something only God Himself can do.
After all, that is what a God is for. Regardless, I am not Jesus. 

"It was Alexander Beetle I'm as certain as can be,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
'I'm very very sorry that I tried to run away.'

And Nanny's very sorry too for you-know-what-she-did,
And she's writing ALEXANDER very blackly on the lid,
So Nan and Me are friends, because it's difficult to catch
An excited Alexander you've mistaken for a match."
(Forgiven, A.A. Milne 1927)


             It's never too late to start over. This, of course, does not apply to the dead. If there is one thing my Grandmother's passing taught me, the living always have that option. We can choose to see things as something else. This is an inconvenient truth considering her state of decay. The anger and ambivalence we lean on throughout our lives does nothing but give the past a power over us. We can revise our position. We can choose to let go. Forgiveness is a subjective tool we can harness to do just that. When we clutch to our more negative experiences, they remain as such. When we forgive, the incidents in question don't just disappear as if they had never happened. It is what we do with those experiences, and the memory of them, that will determine their effect over us. Forgetting what a person has done to us, or others, is an unreachable goal. It is forgiveness that changes how we react and, in turn, how we riposte. Unless we learn to forgive, we can never forgive ourselves. I will never forget the reasons for such a lesson. 
            When my Grandma was alive, I hated her guts. She knew this was so since I told her just that, several times. All the things she had done and continued to do up to her death alienated her from me. So much time has passed but not much has changed. It is a difficult thing to resolve an issue when half of the problem is dead and gone. You can't fix something when its substance has dissolved itself. It was her death that showed me just how much I needed to forgive. Forgiving allowed me to see her from a new perspective. Forgiveness breeds understanding and understanding creates empathy. Instead of continuing to think of her as a villain, and measuring her by her faults, I started to see her as a person, just like me.  I realized, she wasn't Jesus either.