Scattered Thoughts

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I’d like to write more, but often I’m pressed for either time or ideas.  Sometimes a photo prompts my next piece. Usually something happens that I feel compelled to share.  When the ideas strike, the pieces often write themselves.  I’m just the conduit.  At least that’s how it feels. 

Today I have time but no ideas.  Photos but no stories behind them.  Many things on my mind, and none of them flowing through my fingers.  More like scattered thoughts colliding.

I’m fifty-one.  Maybe closer to death than high school.  I was thirty when I became a cop.  I remember driving home at the end of a nightshift, pulling into the driveway, and wondering: wondering when I’d feel like a grown-up, wondering when I’d feel comfortable in my own skin, wondering when the world would make sense.

The world still doesn’t make sense.  Yesterday in Buffalo, New York innocent people were slaughtered in a grocery store.  I grew up near the U.S. border.  My parents shopped at that grocery chain regularly.  The grocery store is called “Tops.”  I can still hear their jingle in my head “Tops Never Stops Saving You More.”

I’ve given up trying to make sense of the world. That’s not going to happen.  Which ironically, may be an important step in having a better understanding of myself.

I may not be there yet – understanding myself that is – but I feel like I’m on the right path. It’s only taken half a century.

Fatherhood has helped.  Not that it’s easy.  Every day I grapple with being a dad.  When to discipline?  How to teach life lessons?  What’s the best way to help an innocent child become a strong and confident girl?

Until very recently I listened to the Marathon Talk podcast.  The hosts embraced the notion of trusting the process.  It’s fine to have a goal, but the goal is secondary to the work you do along the way.  It’s the steps that matter, whether in marathon training, or raising a daughter.  Any goal is the product of the steps and moments that came before it.  Take your steps.  Live in the moment.  Keep your eyes on the horizon.  Never stop moving.

I became truer to myself when I stopped eating meat.  I eat a whole food plant-based diet because I believe it’s my best chance to live a long and healthy life.  There’s more to it than that – changing the way I ate showed me that, daily, my ideals and values could be in alignment with my actions.  That was a powerful lesson. 

Veganism led me to Rich Roll.   Rich chronicled his journey from addict to endurance athlete in his book ‘Finding Ultra.’  His podcast guests are leaders in their fields; health, neuroscience, athletics, and the arts.  Podcasts have reshaped the path I’ve taken in my life. They’ve changed the way I breathe, encouraged me to write, inspired me to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to run miles in the dark, and, conversely, prompted me turn my alarm clock off because sleeping may be the best thing any of us can do to promote physical and mental health. 

I used to have one or two books on the go at any one time.  Recently it’s been five or six.  Although the world doesn’t make sense, books help me navigate my way through it.  I’ve been reading about survival, hostages in Iran, a German general kidnapped in wartime Crete, the latest Reacher novel, a collection of essays from Jedidiah Jenkins, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  I read with a pen in hand, underlying meaningful passages.  I read with my journal by my side, and I copy especially meaningful passages into it.  Great writing moves me.  Incredible stories inspire me.  They all help me focus on my process and my path ahead.

My wife and I have a close friend whose mother is terminally ill.  Words so often fail in those situations.  So we sought the answer in words more eloquent than any we could ever express.  We sent a copy of Susan Cain’s latest book, ‘Bittersweet’ which is about grief.  Cain wrote ‘Quiet,’ a book about introverts.  It helped me better understand myself.  Without having read it, I know ‘Bittersweet’ will be an eloquent, thoughtful work which will help people all over the world.

I have a friend who did something special yesterday.  He ran one hundred kilometers in fourteen hours.  That’s more than two marathons.  He suffered.  He endured.  He finished.  His achievement was even more remarkable because of his training.  His longest training run was 10 kilometers.  He’s in excellent shape.  Obviously that helped.  But, on paper, no coach would draw up a training program without incorporating much longer runs.  On paper he should have done 20-, 30- and 40-kilometer runs.  He didn’t.  He didn’t need to. His mental toughness is off the charts.  He ran sixty-two miles yesterday with his mind. 

The mind.  That’s another thing podcasts have helped me appreciate.  The power of the mind.  To heal.  To create.  To help us reshape ourselves through meditation, and by visualizing the lives we want to lead.

Two more scattered thoughts.

Yesterday we adopted a kitten.  Her name is Molly.  Our daughter’s name is Molly.  We’re going to have to rename our daughter.

The pictures of the fallen trees are from a cutblock not far from our home.  I walked through it, and although it was undeniably apocalyptic, it wasn’t awful.  There was beauty in the desolation, and in the rich green forest behind it. 

Nails on the Trail

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The trails near our home are open to everyone.  The backcountry beckons.  I run while others mountain bike, hike or walk their dogs.  Some ride their dirt bikes or quads.  Sometimes when I run, I hear their engines roaring in the distance.  When we cross paths, I breathe exhaust fumes instead of fresh air. 

But the forest and trails are vast and my encounters with motorized vehicles are always fleeting.  I wave or nod to the riders as we pass one another.  We have different interests but a shared love of the outdoors. We mean one another no harm.

I love to run hills.  There is nothing better for the legs and lungs.  And I’m lucky.  I can walk out the front door, and minutes later be doing a grueling uphill workout.  Long and steep it holds the false promise of reaching a peak.  But there’s no summit for a long time, just short breaks, and then more inclines – steep dirt tracks with scattered rocks and boulders.  They’re ideal for trail running.  And motorbikes.  Sometimes I see the bikes themselves.  Usually tire tracks are the only evidence of their presence.  They are loud but my encounters with them while running are rare.  And we can not hear them from our home.  But others must, because this isn’t the backwoods yet.  More like the shared backyard of a subdivision where hundreds of people live.

A few weeks back I was running up one of these short, steep trails when I saw a nail laying on the ground.  And then two nails, and a third and a fourth, seemingly buried in the dirt intentionally, all over the trail.  Each one placed carefully and with malice, guaranteed to puncture the tires of a dirt bike, or a quad.  Equally guaranteed to pierce a dog’s paws or a child’s flesh.

I picked up eleven nails and filed a police report.  I returned a few days later and found at least ten more.  Maybe I’d missed them the first time, buried underneath the dirt and rocks.  Maybe whoever put them there had returned. 

It is in our nature as human beings to hurt one another.  We hurt those we love.  We hurt people we hate.  We hurt people we don’t know.  So, I was not surprised to find those nails on the trail.  Not surprised.  But saddened and angered.  Thankfully, no one was hurt. 

I still run that trail.  I was there yesterday.  I found six more nails.  One was visible, churned up after I ascended, I spotted it on the descent.  I excavated the area and found five more.  I picked them up and added them to the now harmless pile of nails I’ve created inside a nearby concrete barrier. There are thirty nails in that pile now.

Thirty.  Someone carried thirty nails to that trail, got down on their hands and knees, placed them individually along both sides of the trail and right down the middle, and then covered them with dirt and rocks.  That’s cold. That’s premeditated.  That’s malicious.  That’s humanity.

The dark side of humanity. 

We’ve had illness in our family recently.  Metaphorically one of us stepped on a nail on the trail.  That nail was Covid.  It hit hard.  Its effects are still being felt.  Things are improving but not back to normal.  In the toughest days we saw the best of humanity.  A sibling and parents who dropped everything to care for the one they love.  Friends and neighbours coming to the house and offering their medical expertise, bringing soup, dropping off cookies.  Flowers and well wishes arrived from across the country.  We saw the best side of humanity.

The absolute opposite of nails on the trail.

The World Should Stop

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There are moments when the world should stop.

Like the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this week.

Innocent people suffer immensely while we go about our lives.  Last night was movie night at our house.  Fairy tales and princesses for our lovely six-year old.

In Ukraine, how many six-year old girls are terrified?  Right now. 

Ukrainians fight back. Fiercely.  Inspiring the world.  Civilians picking up rifles, and turning bottles into Molotov cocktails.

I pour my second cup of coffee.  Think about the mountain bike ride I’d like to go on.  Or maybe bouldering at the climbing gym.

Time to check Twitter.  What’s the latest from Kyiv?  Not Kiev.  Is that all we can do for Ukraine?  Spell, and pronounce, their capital city correctly.  Retweet their heroism?

My mom was born in Nazi occupied Netherlands.  I wish my grandparents were still alive.  I’d ask them what it was like to be young parents in a war torn land.

The world didn’t stop for my grandparents.  The world mobilized.  Canadian soldiers liberated my mother’s hometown.

There won’t be any Canadian soldiers in Ukraine.  NATO intervention could lead to global war.  Nuclear missiles might fly.  We fight with economic sanctions, and kick Russian banks out of SWIFT, a banking system none of us had ever heard of until two days ago.

The world should stop.  But it doesn’t.

A few minutes ago my daughter asked, “can we play Go Fish?”  “No,”  I responded, “I’m writing something.”  My no lasted for about 10 seconds.  We’ve played three games since then.

The world should stop.  But it doesn’t.  And the people of Ukraine fight on.

Bury Things Deep

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Sometimes the first time my wife learns about something in my life is reading about it on readerwriterrunner.com. 

When we first met, I told her that I liked to “bury things deep.”  Maybe I was exaggerating for effect.   There’s a difference between burying things, and not talking about them.  I’m very good at not talking.

But I don’t bury them.  To do so would mean hiding them away, somewhere within me – walled off from myself and unexamined.

I’ve seen a lot of death and misery in the last two decades.  Death and misery come with the uniform.  More and more over the last few years, I’ve seen colleagues suffering.  Sometimes one incident is the proverbial last straw and the weight of what my friends and colleagues have seen becomes too much to bear.  Sometimes the one incident is so awful it does it on its own.  For others, there is no one incident, just accumulated suffering.

I’ve learned that when this happens to my colleagues, they are injured – a physical injury as real as a broken leg. 

I’ve learned that this can happen to anyone, at anytime.  And not just first responders and veterans.  The pandemic has made things worse for everyone.

Last week I got a call from a close friend who was going through a tough time.  I don’t think I could have handled the things he has weathered.  He inspires me.  I think he would acknowledge that for many years he buried things deep.  And that part of coming to terms with those things is the opposite of burying them.

There are a lot of ways to shine a little light on dark places.  You’re probably already doing them. 

I read a lot.   I read with a pen in my hand and a journal by my side.  I underline passages that move me and copy some of them into my journal. 

I run.  Almost every day.  Sometimes listening to music that transports me a million miles away.  Sometimes in the stillness of a forest where all I hear is the stream that flows beside me.

I write.  Things I haven’t yet told my wife get posted online for anyone in the world to read. Anyone in the world, including my mom and my ex-wife and my ex-partner.  That’s a varied audience.

I talk.  Sometimes. One of the things I value more than anything in this world is going for coffee with my wife, at least once a week.  We have one or two favourite places.  We sip Americanos.  And I actually talk.  Things that have accumulated throughout the week come out.  And speaking those words, to her, over coffee, always feels good.

I’ve always known how important, reading, running, and writing are in my life.  I knew it instinctively.  I felt it in my marrow.  But I’ve increasingly also come to understand that it is when I read, run, write, and sometimes talk, that I shine light on darkness.  Far from burying things deep, I actually deal with them head on.

Postscript

I thought about some of these things last Sunday as I ran with good friends as part of the Wounded Warriors one day run from Sooke to Sidney on Vancouver Island.  This year’s team is gearing up for their 600-kilometer run from the north island to Victoria later this month.  (As a former member of the team, I was privileged to be able to join them for the one day run).  The funds they raise help first responders and veterans going through difficult times.  Those funds also help their spouses and children.  If you’re so inclined, you can visit Home – Wounded Warrior Run BC (akaraisin.com) to learn more, and perhaps even donate.

Thank you.

Daryl

Aching

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An old injury resurfaced recently.  Hip pain, dormant for almost a decade, flared up.

Except pain isn’t the right word.

It’s an ache.  A deep ache, down to the marrow itself.  An ache that morphs into leg pain and back pain, burrowing itself elsewhere in my body, so that my hip feels fine, even though that injured hip is the source of all the discomfort.

But injured isn’t the right word either.

Because injury and pain go hand in hand. 

Tearing a calf muscle mid-run is an injury – sudden and sharp pain that stops a run dead in its tracks. 

Sometimes trail runners crash to the ground, tripping on camouflaged roots or unseen rocks.  Bones break.  Ligaments tear.  Doctors intervene.  Life changes until injuries heal.

Aching is different.  Aching doesn’t send you to the hospital.  Aching doesn’t stop you from continuing.

Aching comes with options.

Push through.

When my hip aches, and the muscles and joints around it seize up, I continue running.  Because I know I can.  That long dormant ache is a part of me, as real as blood and flesh.  As alive as family and friends.  I know everything about that ache.  I know that I can keep running, and the ache may worsen, but the injury will not.  The ache hurts, and that hurt affects me.  My body tries to compensate.  My gait changes, my strides shorten.  I bend forward.  The ache gets into my head.  Trying to stop me. But I know I can push through, because, it is just an ache.  Going forward will not make it worse. 

Pushing through isn’t always the answer.  Aches must be cared for.  When my hip flared up, I stretched.  Not much, but more than usual.  Every day.  Twisting and contorting my legs and back as much as possible, with a laser focus on targeting that hip.  Using a foam roller to burrow into the joint where the ache lives, and loosen it.  Doing all I could to ease that ache.  Under no illusions that I was making it go away forever.  But knowing that with some love, and care, it would subside. 

A few weeks ago, someone once close to me passed away.  He was a good and decent man.  An honourable man who served his country in wartime, his community in peacetime, and raised a family that loved him to the end.

I hadn’t seen him for several years.

Coincidentally his death coincided with my aching hip. 

On a run last Sunday, as I thought about the difference between “ache” and “pain” I thought about him too.  And I realized the same analogy applied.

His death did not stop me in my tracks, and leave me grief stricken.  It did not injure me to the point of being incapable of going on.  Instead it made me ache inside.  Sadness and sorrow which I pushed through, going about my life seemingly unchanged and unaffected.  Yet the ache was there.  An ache which stretching and foam rolling could not help.  So I tended to it in a different way.  By reflecting on talks and walks, meals and memories.  Being grateful for a life well lived, and a chance to share in that life.

Last Sunday’s aching run was a miserable day. Cold, wet and windy.  I did not want to hit the trails.  But I went out anyway.  Aching.  And while I was thinking these thoughts, the clouds lifted momentarily.  There was a bit of sunshine, and I stopped, and I took a picture.  And then I kept running.  And the ache in my hip got a lot worse.  But it didn’t stop me.  And I made it home just fine.

Flat Miles

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Flat miles.

There’s no such thing on Vancouver Island.  Up and down, up and down.  Every run is a series of ascents and descents. 

Southern Ontario is gloriously flat.  I took advantage of that a couple weeks back, when I was home, alone, visiting my family.  I logged a lot of miles.  It was easy to do.  I had lots of time, and few responsibilities. 

I ran every day, except one.

Things happened in Ontario.  And I ran.

That’s the thing about running.  It’s with you always.  Wherever you are.  A runner can always run.  A runner can structure his day around a run.  Or a runner can squeeze in a run even when the day is busy and unyielding.  A runner finds time to run.

And think.

I had lots to think about when I ran in Ontario.

My mom.  Recovering from a stroke.  Working so hard on her rehab. Moving so well.  Speaking so well. I was very proud of her.

My dad. We ran together.  That was special.  He’s been doing it for five decades.  Part of the first great running boom of the 1970s.  He’s nearing eighty and still running.  Runners run.

My grandparents. I visited my grandfather’s grave. Born during the Great War, he and my grandmother started their family during World War II, in occupied Holland. My mother and her twin sister were born as the Battle of Arnhem was fought nearby. A famous battle – The Bridge Too Far battle. My mother’s twin died shortly after she was born, in a starving nation, torn by war. My grandmother’s name is not on the gravestone. Her ashes were scattered elsewhere. In my memory, they are always together.

My wife and daughter.  They did not make the trip.  My daughter is too young to be vaccinated.  There was an emptiness to this trip home, because my entire family was not together.

Guelph.  A small-town in Ontario.  I miss small-town Ontario.  I miss the brick buildings, Main Streets, and cenotaphs in town squares.  I miss walking in a small-town.  I miss feeling I’m part of a small-town.  I didn’t realize how important it was to me until I left it behind.

ACAB. An Acronym for ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’  Spray-painted on the wall of a cake  shop in Guelph.  I know a lot of cops.  All cops are not bastards.  I thought about how widespread anti-police sentiment has become.  I thought about the assaults my colleagues in Victoria have been subjected to recently.  Serious assaults.  I thought, if the ‘C’ in the acronym was replaced with a letter that stood for a different group, it would be a hate crime.

People.  I didn’t fly home to wander through small-towns.  I went for people.  Like my wife’s best friend and her husband.  They have become my friends.  A trip back home without seeing them is unimaginable.  People I only met a few years ago, are now important parts of my life. 

Life takes twists and turns.  I had dinner with my ex-wife. For the last 18  months, she has been on the frontlines of the battle against Covid.  Her efforts have kept vulnerable seniors alive. She has endured immeasurable stress.  She’s led her staff through difficult times.  I am proud of her.

In life’s twists and turns, there are constants.  Like my brother, and his wife and their children.  They are proverbial rocks in my life.  We don’t talk often and see each other rarely.  And yet we are there for one another, with a closeness and comfort level that transcends distance and time. 

I thought about the people I did not see.  My friend Stitch.  A man who has suffered, and endured, and come out the other side.  Strong and resilient.  If I called him and said I needed him, he’d drop everything and fly across the country in a heartbeat. No questions asked.

I thought about some people I have not seen in many years.  Once good friends who I let slip away. 

These are some of the things I thought about when I ran flat miles in Ontario.  It was hotter than I would have liked.  No crisp cool autumn days. And the colours of the leaves were muted, not vibrant.

Runners run.

And runners think.

And when this runner arrived home, in rainy, hilly, British Columbia, he was greeted by a daughter who shrieked, “daddy,” and he was a hugged by a wife he loves and missed, and he was thankful for everything he has, and everything that was.

What are the Chances?

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Yesterday I wanted to run for an hour.  Not 59 minutes. The difference is psychological but real.  There’s comfort and completeness in that extra minute.

Sixty minutes means thirty out and thirty back.

Our home is surrounded by forest and trails.  I have many options, but one favourite – a short jog down the street and I disappear into the woods, unlikely to encounter anyone in a world of silence.

I climb, and descend, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, usually somewhere in between.  Yesterday I checked my watch, once or twice, determined to turn around at the thirty-minute mark.

Twenty-four minutes into my run, on an isolated hilltop that overlooks our neighbourhood, I sensed where the run would end.  I have been running long enough, decades now, to have a feel for pace and distance.  It’s almost instinctual.   

The tree.  I would finish at the tree. 

There are tens of thousands of trees within miles of our home. 

There’s one that stands out. 

Pictures don’t do it justice.  My pictures at least.  But it is wide and thick and towers above everything around it.  It’s a special tree.  The kind of tree that protesters would chain themselves to, if a logging company ever threatened to cut it down.

What are the chances?  What are the chances that tree, my favourite tree, would be exactly thirty minutes from my home, along my favourite route.

It got me thinking.  About something that happened two weeks ago.  I ran a trail race, with a friend.  “Trail’ doesn’t do the event justice.  Almost twenty miles long, with 4400 feet of elevation, it’s a never-ending series of ascents and descents.  Nothing is flat.  Nothing is easy.  Everything burns.

About four hours in, my buddy was in pain – run stopping pain.  He moved to the side of the trail and stopped moving.  He’d been hurting for awhile but had never stopped.  He’s not the kind of guy to stop.  Ever.  So, I knew he was in agony.  And just then, at that very moment, another runner came by, her palm open, salt tablets in her hand.  She offered him a handful.  He swallowed them.  And almost instantly his pain lightened.  His legs loosened.  He was moving again.  What are the chances?  We’d been on the course for hours.  He’d been stopped for seconds.  At that very moment, in his time of need, another runner, carrying exactly what he needed, came by. 

He and I talked about that moment.  We talked about God and chance, about life’s profound moments and what lay behind them.

I work in a unit that investigates homicides.  Fortunately, on the island we live on, they are relatively rare.  Relatively is a relative term.  Because our plates are full.  There is no shortage of work.  Even though sometimes months pass between murders.  Months. 

Until a few weeks ago.  When there were two murders within hours.  Over a hundred miles separated them.  Only minutes separated them.  What are the chances?

I don’t know.  Perhaps there are answers.  Maybe none exist.

Sixty minutes.  Salt pills.  A hundred miles apart.

One tree.

Ashes

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Ashes

It’s been almost a year since a vet came to our home and put Maggie down.  She lay on the floor in our living room.  The painkillers, which had given us a few more months with her, no longer worked.

The morning she died, she walked into our bedroom.  A room she wasn’t allowed to be in.  Later, she nudged her way into my bathroom.  Also off limits.  She did it to be closer to me. 

Two unmistakable signs that the time had come.

I said my goodbyes on the living room floor.  My daughter, Molly, hugged Maggie.  Told her how much she’d miss her.  Molly was four, Maggie thirteen.  Molly had never known a world in which Maggie did not exist. 

This was pre-vaccine.  Only one of us was allowed to be with Maggie at the end.  I took Molly upstairs.  My wife, Sonja, stayed with Maggie.  They loved each other very much.  I’d had Maggie for years before I met Sonja.  But Maggie became her dog – Sonja spoiled her, spent her days with her, spoke gently to her, and not surprisingly became the primary recipient of that sweet and strangely morose golden retriever’s affection and loyalty.  I’m thankful Sonja was with Maggie at the end.

I carried Maggie’s body to the vet’s van parked in our driveway.  A neighbour, walking her own golden retriever, saw me carrying the white shroud and knew exactly what had just happened. 

A week later, Maggie came back to us.  Ashes in a cannister.

I didn’t know how to tell Molly about cremation.  I didn’t want to tell Molly about cremation.  So, I fudged the truth.  I told my daughter that the vet had used chemicals to transform Maggie’s fur into little white particles. 

Sonja loved Maggie, but not Maggie’s ashes.  So, Molly and I took that cannister, walked the trails near our home, and scattered some of Maggie’s ashes in a stream where my girls had spent countless hours playing.

It was a big cannister.  And there was another special place where Maggie needed to be, and where I needed to take her.  Victoria, and the ocean, along Dallas Road.  One of the most beautiful places in the world.  Maggie and I had lived in that area for years.  In different homes, at different stages of my life, she was my constant.  My faithful companion.  We’d walked hundreds of times along that stretch of beach.  I’d thrown thousands of stones for her.  She chased every one of them with abandon.  In my darkest hours she was my confidant.  When I felt alone, she was by my side, figuratively, and literally – on the beach and in the ocean, swimming near me as I threw one rock after another, she never gave up hope that just once, she’d catch the rock that splashed in the ocean, right in front of her.  Without Maggie, I wouldn’t have met Sonja.  My online dating profile picture was a photo of me and Maggie.  Maggie was indisputably and infinitely better looking than me.  I rode her coattails into Sonja’s life.

That’s why I wanted to spread the remainder of her ashes along Dallas Road.  But life intervened.  As it usually does.  So, for the better part of the last year, the remainder of Maggie’s “fur” remained in that cannister, in our garden shed.  Sadly, and honestly, a little forgotten.  I walked in there many times, grabbed a shovel, or the lawnmower, and never once thought about Maggie.

Last Sunday, on a sunny, summer’s day, we took Maggie back to Victoria.  Maggie’s remains accompanied us as Molly fed the ducks, ate French fries, and played in two different parks.  And then we headed to the ocean.

It was very windy.  I pictured Maggie’s ashes blowing back into my face, and hair, and covering my clothing.

Leave it to a five-year old to come up with the perfect solution.  While Sonja watched, Molly and I dug holes in the sand.  I poured Maggie’s fur into those holes.  We covered Maggie with sand, and then, covered the sand with stones. 

And then we walked away.   Before the tide came in.

I didn’t want to see it happen, but I knew that the ocean would wash over those stones, and take the rocks, and Maggie, back out into the water.

That had been our special place.  It always will be.  And I know that every time I return, I will look at the beach, and the water, and the mountains in the distance, and I will know that Maggie is a part of that splendor. 

Scattered Bones

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Evidence of a kill. 

At the end of a side trail, not heavily used.  I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.

Scattered bones – bleached white.  A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.

An awful death.  Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one. 

A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.

I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks.  Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home.  That was six weeks ago.  On a well used trail at the junction of two paths.  If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes.  Or less.  My bear encounter happened at midday.  A warm day.  The perfect day for a quick workout.  Hill repeats.  Up and down, up and down.  Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world.  Music blasting in my earbuds.  I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me.  Maybe 30 or 40 feet away.  A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill.  Slowly.   Yanked out my bear spray.  Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest.  Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people.  Feared in my gut that this one would.  Kept retreating.  Got to the bottom.  Saw the bear at the top.  It looked at me, curious and calm.  And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.

A few days later, I ran again on the same hill.  Head on a swivel.  No music in my ears.  A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so.  Still, that was close to home.  Close meant comfort.  At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below.  It was practically my backyard.

The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard.  I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before.  Because I was scared.  Scared to venture far from home.  Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision.  Into the land of cougars and bears.  I talked myself into a safer run.  Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers. 

Then I woke up.  And talked myself out of the talking out. 

Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.

Maybe because I thought of my daughter.  The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult.  When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her.  To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors. 

Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.

So, I went for that run.  I added a knife to my arsenal.  Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run.  The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other.  I banged them together frequently.  “Make noise,” the experts say.  Scare the bears off before they see you. 

I made noise all right.  No earbuds on this run.  Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone.  My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.

I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached. 

I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars.  I certainly didn’t see any.

But I smelled death.  The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard.  Twice.  The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out. 

Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.

An awful death and a necessary run.

A run that replaced fear with confidence.

A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.

Silence

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Silence is rare in our home.

My wife is exuberant.

Our daughter is not a dud.  She rarely stops moving.  Or speaking. 

I’m quieter.  Not talking is my default. 

When I fly across the country to visit my parents after not seeing them for months, I often sit in the living room and read.  It must frustrate my poor mom as she regales me with stories, and I do not respond.  Instead, I’m mute, poring over the local newspaper.

Last week, after Covid restrictions loosened, we visited with my wife’s parents and sister for the first time in forever.  They are a passionate family – interested in everything – lulls in the conversation are rare.  We sat outside on their patio, which offers a spectacular view of the ocean. 

True to form, I said almost nothing.  I sat.  I gazed at the water and Mount Baker in the distance. 

I must appear disengaged.  Lost in my own world.

Yet that’s not the case.  In those situations, nothing is more precious to me than my family.  Being surrounded by those I love means more to me than anything. It is where I want to be.  It is my comfort zone. 

Talking isn’t. 

My wife and I joke that I “bury it deep.”  Why speak aloud what can safely be tucked away inside? 

I could do better.  I could talk more.  I do believe we should all push beyond our comfort zones.

Yet, we have comfort zones for a reason.  Water finds it level.  We do too.  Learning to accept who and what we are – those things that are intrinsic to our personalities, and fundamental to our beings, is essential. 

I don’t actually bury it deep.  If I did, this blog wouldn’t exist.  On it, I share some of my innermost thoughts.  Things I wouldn’t say over coffee with my family, friends, or co-workers, I write down for the world to see.  I can’t explain it. It just feels right. 

Like silence.

As we sat on my in-law’s patio, and they talked, I spotted two Orcas, no more than a hundred meters offshore.  The fins of these killer whales cut through the water with grace and precision.  It was a spectacular sight.

Silence has its rewards.

Top of the Hat

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Deadly car crashes.

Endless road work.

Traffic congestion.

Incredible views.

All synonymous with ‘the Malahat’ – both an 1100-foot mountain and a twisting highway on Vancouver Island.

When conditions aren’t ideal it’s awful to drive – no lights illuminate the road, few barriers separate speeding cars from massive trucks, and rain, fog, and snow slicken the pavement and obscure already obstructed views.

Oh, but the view from the summit is extraordinary. 

Just hundreds of meters away from the congested highway is a mostly deserted trail.  Last weekend I ran to the summit.  In two-hours I saw two dirt-bikers and no one else.  On an island of several hundred thousand people, I was alone.

The trail to the summit was mostly satisfying – hard-packed dirt and gradual elevation.  Closer to the top, a rocky pathway replaced the earthen trail.  Running slowed to a jog, every step a potential twisted ankle or inglorious fall.

Soon after, running ceased altogether when I chose the direct route to the top.  Straight up a gully that must be a continual stream of water from November through spring.  But last weekend, on a hot dry day with summer on the horizon it was dry and completely accessible.  I grabbed a broken branch and used it as a walking stick to help as I scrambled my way up.

The scramble was worth it.

Oh, that view.

Blue sky, bluer ocean, distant mountains, a forest canopy, and an international airport as small as a postage stamp.

Travellers from across the country and around the world drive up the Malahat highway, exit at the scenic viewpoints, and revel at the glorious view.  Thousands – tens of thousands – do it every year.

Far fewer take the trail to the top.  Dozens.  Hundreds.  Runners like me.  Hikers, mountain-bikers and quad-riders.

We are drawn by the same thing.  Beauty.  Magnificence.  Nature’s wonders.

The attraction is so understandable.  The destination is worth the journey.

Which makes the next part so hard for me to understand. 

Garbage at the top.  Beer cans.  Plastic.  Paper.

Lucky lager cans tucked into the base of a hydro tower. A fire pit filled with garbage.

Who does that?  Who makes the effort to get to the top precisely because it is beautiful and then purposely despoils that beauty?  The beer cans tucked into the hydro-tower.  More cans, paper, and plastic left almost lovingly behind in the pit.

I don’t have the answer.  My gut reaction is that anyone who does that is an asshole.  I hate using that language in my writing, but it’s hard to feel otherwise.

But maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe the person who makes the effort to get to the top and then discards their trash for others to clean is me on a bad day.  Maybe it’s you.  Those people are someone’s neighbours.  They’re the people we see at the grocery store.  People we hire, work with, or work for.  Maybe our friends.  Whoever they are, they walk among us.

I try and understand.  Try to be sympathetic.  Usually, my anger and disgust overpower empathy. 

How are we supposed to understand people who clearly appreciate beauty, yet are so reckless in making the very place they worked so hard to arrive at, less beautiful?

There may be a million answers to that question. Philosophical, spiritual, practical.  There may be no answers.

I’ve given up trying to understand.  I find great wisdom in the words of Lee Child.  Author of the massively best-selling Jack Reacher series, something he wrote several books back has stuck with me ever since – “People are complicated.”

I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken, and I don’t think a philosopher, or a Nobel laureate could say it any better than that.

People are complicated.  

Even at the top of the Malahat.

That Darkness

A child was killed in a tragic accident not far from our home last week.

I heard sirens that night.

The boy wasn’t yet a teenager. 

A life ended.

Parents shattered.

When I was about the same age, forty years ago now, something similar happened.  Close friends of my mother and father lost a child, struck, and killed by a car, as he delivered papers in Hamilton, Ontario.  I knew that boy.  He was older than me.  My last memory of him is a brief conversation as he fixed his bicycle in the driveway.  I remember hearing about his death on the car radio as we drove to their home the day after he died.  I remember entering that home – palpable grief.  Silence and sobs.  I played with his young sister.  She spoke very matter-of-factly about her brother being dead, seemingly too young to truly understand.

My current job, much of my career, involves investigating death.  What caused it?  Who did it?  Those investigations span months.  Years. 

Months and years where families suffer.  The source of their intense grief is my 9 to 5 job.  It’s a sobering thought.  A jarring discrepancy. 

I was in a dollar store yesterday.  Having fun.  Buying birthday balloons, batteries for my daughter’s glowing princess shoes, and 5 pairs of reading glasses for my ageing eyes.  I’ve been to that store dozens of times.  The lady behind the counter is kind, friendly and we always chat and laugh, although I don’t know her name and she doesn’t know mine.  Yesterday she asked me what I did for a living.  I told her where I worked.  She responded, “I’d never have guessed you were a cop.”  I never asked why.  The conversation moved on.

This morning I wonder why she never would have guessed.  Is it how I look?  I’m very thin.  I lift weights but never seem to add muscle.  Should a cop be bigger – tougher looking?

I laugh in that store.  Always.  I chase my daughter around.  Everything catches her eye.  Stickers, sparkles, cards, toys, costumes.  She loves everything in that store.  Wants everything.  I’d like to buy it all for her.  Of course, I don’t.  But I can’t resist getting her something every time we visit.  Should a cop be firmer, stricter, less indulgent?  Less joyful?  Gruffer.  Meaner.  Angrier.  Bitter.

There are days I feel gruff.  Mean.  Angry.  Bitter.  Sad.

Everyone does.  Cops do.  You do.

I bet that every cop I work with could walk into that dollar store – and the kind woman who works there would never guess they are cops.  They are moms, and dads.  Husbands and wives.  Athletic and not.  Calm, and intense.  Funny and serious.  Not stereotypes.  People.

People whose careers expose them to darkness that most people don’t often see.

People who cope with that darkness in different ways.

People who are regularly exposed to death.  Sometimes it breaks them.  Sometimes it gives them a heightened appreciation for life.  Usually, it’s somewhere in between. 

I try not to think about what happened close to our home last week.  It’s too heartbreaking.  And because of that I do think about what happened.  Mostly I think about the parents.  And the young boy.  But I think about everyone who was there.  Neighbours, paramedics, firefighters, and the cops.

I think about what happened in Hamilton 40 years ago. 

And I think about a comment in a dollar store.

About how television and movie cops have shaped society’s perception of what a police officer should be.

A police officer is a person.  It’s you.  It’s your neighbour.  It’s the person next to you in a grocery store you’d never guess is a cop, because they don’t look the part.

I like cop movies.  I love detective fiction.  The best of it captures slices of reality.  But it’s fiction.  Stories.

Stories aren’t life.  And life is complicated.  So are people.  So are cops.  Just like you.  Just like me.

… If you interested, here’s a link to a podcast, where cops talk about their careers and their lives.  I work with these people.  Real people.  I’m proud to consider them colleagues and friends.  True Blue Podcast (buzzsprout.com)

Like my colleagues and friends, I pray for the victims and their families.  For peace and healing.