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. 

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.

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.

The Vacuum Cleaner Survival Kit

When she was two my daughter feared the vacuum cleaner.  The sound, the suction, the fury.  She ran, hid, and cried.

My wife loves to vacuum.  Perhaps ‘love’ is the wrong word.  She needs to vacuum. 

Back then we had a Golden Retriever.  We ate and breathed floating fur.

The vacuum came out a lot.              

I created the Vacuum Cleaner Survival Kit.  Simple ingredients.  A cloth Crown Royal whiskey bag.  Fish crackers.  Miniature dolls.  A small book or two.  Little pleasures to distract a little girl.

Out came the vacuum – out came the survival kit.  My daughter and I perched ourselves on the kitchen island – ate, played and read – while my wife attacked the floors with her prized Dyson.

The survival kit worked.

Weeks before the pandemic hit, I started a new job at work.  It was stressful.  It cost me sleep, regularly, in a way that nothing at work had ever done before.

I talked with others who’d done the same job.  They’d had similar experiences.  There was comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone, and discomfort in knowing that this was my world now. 

I coped by doing what I always did.  I ran, I read, I wrote.  It all helped.  A bit.  But too often I lay awake in the middle of the night, thinking about work.

Desperate times called for…

 I pulled out a blank notebook.

And I began to write: “Last week was tough and my concern is, if it continues it will have many negative effects.  So, is born The Vacuum Cleaner Survival Kit.  Things to do, listen, think about, watch, etc… to help me … not just survive but be and do well.”

It worked.  Unbelievably well.  That notebook became my repository of everything.  I filled it with meaningful quotations from novels, Navy Seals and podcasts.  I chronicled my days and our lives.  I wrote about my aspirations and fears, about the people who pissed me off, and the things that brought me joy.  Writing it down lightened my load, changed my attitude and helped me gain perspective I lacked when I was stuck in a moment.

A few weeks ago, I marked the one-year anniversary of the Survival Kit.  Much has happened in my life since.  At work, and at home.  Good things.  Things that I’m thankful for.  Challenging things have happened too.  Health scares hitting close to home.  Many books read, many podcasts listened to.  Many people and writers who have inspired me.

And one year later, yet another new job at work.  Equally stressful.  Perhaps more so.  It challenges me daily.  So, I run, and I read.  I go to the climbing gym and I strum my guitar.  And I write it all down in The Vacuum Cleaner Survival Kit. 

Striving for Mediocrity

We live in a beautiful subdivision.  West coast style homes on large lots.  Perfectly manicured lawns and gardens abound.  Last weekend I watched someone vacuum their rock garden. (I once went 8 months without vacuuming the carpet in the basement apartment I shared with my Golden Retriever. … In my defense I did clean the bathroom weekly). 

I love our neighbourhood – a perfect mix of young families and vibrant retirees.  The park, the trails, the front porches, are all conducive to building friendships and creating a community.

There are rules though.  We’re governed by bylaws.  A long list of ‘though shall’ and ‘though shall not’ commandments dictate how our yards must look: our grass, our fences, what we park in our driveway.  Breaking the rules is a roll of the dice.  Maybe no one notices or cares.  Or maybe someone writes a letter to the council.  And they investigate.  And issue a warning letter.   Or a fine.  Maybe things get ugly.  It’s happened before.

Our home and grounds will never be the most attractive.  Our lawn is not perfectly manicured.  There’s moss, and dead spots from dog pee.  But we try.  We plant flowers, and hang baskets.  We grow vegetables.  We’ve trucked in yards of soil and mulch and spent thousands of dollars on cedars and shrubs.  In part we do it because we enjoy it.  It is satisfying and rewarding to beautify our home and our neighbourhood.  But there isn’t enough money, and definitely not enough time.  We’re treading water in the battle against weeds, erosion and decay.  We’re striving for mediocrity.  Trying to fit in, and not stand out for the wrong reasons.

I’m learning to accept that striving for mediocrity is okay.  It’s not the mediocrity that matters.  It’s the striving.

Before work I often run at Summit Park in Victoria.  This time of year, the sun rises as I run intervals on a dirt path around a reservoir in this hidden jewel of a park that overlooks the city.  This week the sunrise reminded me that our sun, and the universe, are billions of years old.  They will continue for billions of years after we are gone. 

In the time scale of the cosmos, you and I, and everything we do, are utterly insignificant.  We could not matter less.  Which, paradoxically, makes you and I, and everything we do, infinitely important.  Because our lives are miracles, precious and rare.  Every second matters.  Everything we do counts.

We cannot and should not strive to be mediocre in all we do.  Mediocre doesn’t cut it when it comes to being a husband or a father.  Our careers matter too – we have a responsibility to do our best when we go to work.  We owe it to our colleagues.  We owe it to each other.  We’re privileged to live in this country.  We all play a role in keeping it working – whatever work we do.

But life is too short to define it by our careers.  The universe is too big and too old not to pursue our passions.  Last month I went bouldering for the first time.  I’m scared of heights and I wanted to face that fear.  I’ve been three times now.  I love it.  Being sixteen feet off the ground, knowing a fall might mean serious injury focuses my mind and body more than almost anything I’ve ever done.  Talk about living in, and appreciating, the moment.  It’s impossible to think about work while lunging from one hold to another while dangling in the air.

Two weeks ago I bought a guitar.  I’ve never played an instrument in my life.  I have zero innate musical talent.  I can’t read a note.  I can’t hold a tune.  I’m starting from rock bottom.  I’ve played that guitar every day since.  I’m awful, as my neighbours will attest, because sometimes, when I get home from work, I play on the front porch or back patio.  If there isn’t a noise bylaw in our neighbourhood there should be.  They have every right to complain about my botched chords and terrible twanging.

If someone does complain, I’ll plead guilty and pay the fine.  I’ll never become a good guitar player, or even an average one, if I don’t strive for mediocrity first.

… Now, out to the garden.

The Hard Miles

“The hardship of running somehow softens the hardship of life.  Running turns the madness into music.”

Those words, from the foreword to Phil Hewitt’s ‘Outrunning the Demons’ capture the essence of this book – Life is hard.  Running helps.  Hewitt himself was stabbed, beaten and left for dead alongside a South African highway.  He survived.  Running helped.

And inspired him to collect the stories of others who, in their darkest hours, found solace in running.  People shaken by grief, addiction, disease, injury, and mental illness – in the worst of their pain, running helped them survive.

As is often the case, I write this on the couch, my daughter beside me.  A mini-crisis has just passed.   Strawberry yogurt everywhere.  “Oh no, I got some on my pajamas,” she yelled.  A very big deal for her.  Less so for me.  I responded that if yogurt spilled all over the sofa, and covered her and painted the ceiling, it would be okay.  We would fix it.  We would survive a Yogurt Disaster

As the yogurt spill played out, I looked out our front window and saw a runner, in her bright yellow vest, racing along a path near our home.  I know her.  A little.  She runs every day.  I’ve seen her running in deep snow on days when I struggled for hours just to shovel our driveway.  In winter’s darkest days she is out there – in driving rain and howling winds.  I don’t know her story.  But I suspect she needs running.  Needs it just as much as food, and water and air. 

That’s how I feel too.

Not many years ago, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer.  I was terrified she would die.  It was a bad year.  Stress, worry, uncertainty and fear churned within.  So I ran.  Signed up for a marathon and trained for it not because I wanted to.  I had no time goal.  The distance was no great challenge.  I’d run marathons before.  I entered that marathon because I needed to.  A lot changed in my life that year.  But running was a constant that helped see me through the worst and emerge on the other side.   

The other side is a new life.  A life that might be very similar to yours.  A spouse, a child.  A career with constant stress, modulating daily, sometimes hourly, from moderate to severe.  Always present and always a roller-coaster ride. 

Yesterday was Easter.  My wife and I watched a day of joy unfold as our daughter hunted Easter eggs.  We watched as her grandparents and aunt showered her with love, and chocolate, and placed a pink Easter bonnet on her head.

And there was sadness too.  My parents are a long way away.  So is my youth.  I remembered Easter when I was a child.  Chocolate and church and sunshine.  Yesterday I wanted to hug my mom and dad and my brother and his family.  And be with them and tell them how much I love them.  And thank them for those wonderful memories.

One of those memories is music.  “Morning has Broken.”  A song for the ages.  A song that captures light and life and spring and sunshine.  An Easter song.  So yesterday, in the midst of it all, on a bright beautiful April day, I ran to the trails and listened to Cat Stevens sing that song.  I played it over and over again.  I found a valley and a lone daffodil.  Just the one, in a sea of grasses and weeds.  And I thought about it all.  And was thankful for everything.  Joy and youth, light and life, family and friends. Running and hard miles.

Every Second

“Travel is medicine.  It resensitizes.  It opens you up … It forces your childlike self back into action.”

… the opening lines of ‘To Shake the Sleeping Self’ by Jedidiah Jenkins   One paragraph in I knew I’d love the book.   I didn’t just read those lines.  I absorbed them. They shook me.  Reminded me of far away places and long-ago adventures.  Sunshine and excitement.  Relaxation and restoration.  One paragraph in, Jedidiah shook this sleeping reader.

Words that resonated, in part, because, for a year now, we have been unable to travel.  Robbed of the pleasure of planning that next trip.  Of exploring a part of the world we’ve never seen before.  Or returning somewhere meaningful and magical.  Somewhere guaranteed to restore the soul.

Yesterday we searched closer to home – driving four kilometers, instead of flying four thousand.  Low budget travel – a couple cookies, a thermos of coffee, and a bag of stale breads for the seagulls. 

We needed to be away from home, together.  Away from to-do lists that never ended.  Away from the television.  Away from minor tensions and an epic tantrum. 

We needed air and water and trees. 

We found them.  Along a shoreline so close to home we had taken it for granted for years.  Never stopped.  Never explored. 

Here’s something else Jedidiah Jenkins wrote: “When you are a kid, everything is new.  You don’t know what’s under each rock … So, you look.  You notice … Every second has value.”

The essence of mindfulness.  Finding value in every second.  That does not mean every moment is pleasant or welcome.  Every moment just is. 

Every day I struggle with being present in the moment. 

It’s worse than that.  Every moment I struggle with being present in the moment.  My mind races.  Five minutes ahead, five hours ahead, five years ago.

Five.  Our daughter is five.  Yesterday, at the beach, she found value in every second.  She didn’t just feed the seagulls.  She made seashell sandwiches, fan-shaped shells, filled with water and layers and layers of bread.  The seagulls swooped in – fighting, clamoring, the winner soaring away with every morsel in its beak.  The losers squawking for more.

We discovered secret passages – pathways through dense trees.  We scampered up rocks and across logs.  We saw a sad face carved in stone, and memorial plaques mounted on boulders.  Plaques that showed that this had been a special place to others.  They too had come here and valued every second.

I’m still reading Jedidiah’s book.  He’s in South America now, nearing the end of a bike trip that began in Oregon.  A pre-Covid trip.  I envy him – envy his travels, his insights and his talent.

Soon after I met my wife, she travelled to South America.  She flew in rickety planes, ate great food, and experienced people and places that I – that all of us – can only dream of now.

Places and trips that happened years ago.  Places and trips that might happen again, depending on vaccines and variants.

In the meantime, I’m thankful that Jedidiah and my daughter remind me that every second has value.