Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Number Eight

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tales from the Crypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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