Behind Yellow Tape

From a distance the park in our neighbourhood appears to be surrounded by police tape. Yellow plastic fluttering in the wind prohibiting children from swinging, climbing and sliding.

It’s a park we’re at frequently. Practically daily. Kids play, parents socialize, our community comes together.

Not anymore. You don’t. I don’t. We don’t.

Profound changes in our world affecting us all. For how long, none of us know. A virus that knows no borders has crossed all borders and injected itself into every moment of our lives.

Victims suffer. Their families grieve. Health care professionals risk their lives. First responders hold the line. Heroes work in grocery stores, pharmacies and in the utility companies that keep us warm, lit and connected.

The rest of us continue in a sort of limbo. Working from home, digging in our gardens, walking our dogs, avoiding strangers, standing six feet from friends.

For introverts this new world is familiar – introversion on steroids. For extroverts, it must be awful.

For the millions of newly unemployed it’s hell.

Where it all ends none of us knows. Hopefully well and soon. With shops and restaurants reopening and airlines flying and life returning to something like normalcy.

In uncertain times I embrace normalcy and routine. I ran on the trails near our home every day this week and savoured fresh air, pink blossoms and random beauty – a heron swooping down from the treetops towards the stream below. Another day, another run, I explored a different trail – darker and secluded – as the path ended I found a burnt chair surrounded by beer cans. A reminder that not all is right with our normal world. That some people seek out beauty and then desecrate it, dragging in their garbage and leaving their trash behind. The world we long for isn’t always that good.

Today, normalcy meant starting a quiet Sunday morning in the living room. Writing while my daughter sat beside me, crying real tears because her mom brought her peanut butter and jam and not peanut butter and honey. There is something very special about watching a 4-year old’s sadness that is so real and yet so fleeting.

Before the Strawberry Jam Incident my daughter had asked for the book and pen which were on the stand beside me. I always read with a pen in hand – constantly underlining passages. She has seen me do it a million times. And wanted to do the same. She took the book and the pen, and turned away, so I could not see what she was doing. As she drew she repeated over and over, “You’ll never guess what this looks like.”

This is what she drew.

Molly's Drawing

She was right. I couldn’t have guessed how beautiful her drawing would be.

“You’ll never guess what this looks like.”

Words that apply to our world right now.

A world living behind yellow tape.

 

 

I am Third

My father is a mesmerizing preacher. The timber of his voice – the cadence, the pauses, the passion. Almost at will, he can bring his congregation to tears, or fill them with joy, with the power of his words.

I remember a sermon he delivered over thirty years ago when I was just a teenager. “I am Third” was the title. The message was this: God came first; his family came second; dad came third.

My dad has lived that message his entire life. A life of service. Always putting others ahead of himself.

I’m not sure I ever understood the sacrifices my mom and dad made until I became a parent myself. The mantra for the first 45 years of my life may well have been “I am First.”

I read when I wanted. I wrote when I wanted. I ran when I wanted.

In many ways we all create our own worlds. I created one that accommodated me. Christmas is a good example. Every December, without fail, I watched the movies that I wanted to watch: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, the Sound of Music.

Our three-year old daughter doesn’t share my interest in Jimmy Stewart, Ebenezer Scrooge or Julie Andrews. I don’t think I’ve watched one of those movies, start to finish, since she was born.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss those movies, and a bit of the freedom they represented.

But I don’t ever want that freedom back. Because not one second of those movies – not a single frame, or a song, or a performance, can ever top the joy of sitting next to a little girl as she watches The Christmas Chronicles on Netflix. The happiness in her face matched only by that I feel within myself. Relishing the moment.

Every day I recognize my good fortune, how lucky I am to have all the blessings I have in my life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss running at will, reading dozens of books a year, and writing daily. I still read, write and run. But often that occurs between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Trading sleep for passions. Embracing the darkness of early mornings. Stillness. Introspection.

With Christmas over, and New Years looming, this is a time for introspection. To take stock of the year that is passing and set goals for the year yet to come.

Immediately, my I am First, mind takes over. It happened yesterday. I wrote down ambitious running goals. A sub-40 10k in the spring, a 50 miler in the summer, and a personal best and Boston Qualifier marathon in the fall. In my head, my I am First head, that is how the 2020 running year would play out. I crave those times and those distances.

I also recognize those times and distances don’t matter.

I want to be a better person. To be of service to others. To my family. To my wife Sonja, who never puts herself first, always working for us – for Molly, and for me. Sonja deserves some I am First time of her own.

I want to be calmer on the inside.

I want to be a better dad. Every day feels like a work in progress – a struggle between knowing when to discipline, how to discipline, and when to let a child be a child.

I want to be better at my job. To strive daily to work with the passion and commitment that led me to be a cop in the first place. More than twenty years ago.

It was well over twenty years ago when I heard my father’s sermon “I am Third.”

My dad has always lived his life in third place.

In 2020, I want to be more like my dad.

Easter 2017.JPG

… That’s my dad, Molly and my mom.  Easter 2017.  One of my favourite pictures ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Born that Way

Maggie is 13 going on 14. Old for a golden retriever, with the failing hind legs to prove it. She is the only Golden Retriever ever that doesn’t smile.   She’s melancholy by nature, with a frown that rarely turns upside down.

But when she feels joy she feels it intensely. She leaps into the ocean to chase thrown stones. She devours dog shit like a gourmand treasures a fine meal. And she loves her family. A loyal, sad dog who wants nothing more than to be by our sides. That saddens me, because I have so little time for her, the demands of family, work and life, usually dropping Maggie to last place on my priority list. I know that when she is gone I will mourn her. But on most days, if I’m honest, she brings me more frustration than happiness. Writing that makes me sad. She’s a good old girl who has been by my side through some tough times, a faithful companion at a time in my life when I didn’t want to be around people and just needed my dog.

I’m pretty sure Maggie was born that way. Sad. I got her when she was two. Attracted by a picture on the breeder’s website of the most miserable looking dog that I had ever seen. A dog that clearly needed a home. A Golden Retriever that needed to smile.

Maybe it’s appropriate Maggie came to me. We’re a lot alike. I’m melancholy by nature. Not depressed, but not happy either. Always conscious of the fragility of life, and the cruelties of this world.

Unlike Maggie I don’t chase stones in frigid water. I chase experiences instead. A good book, an invigorating run, bring me happiness. Although happiness might not be the right word. Because I might not smile when I read or run. But inside I feel fulfilled.

And like Maggie, I want to be around my family. That doesn’t mean I want to talk (to my lovely wife Sonja’s exasperation!). But being with them, in the house together, in the living room together, on the couch together, is the most satisfying thing I know. The closest I come to inner peace.

Fortunately, my greatest pleasure in life isn’t eating dog shit. But there is something special about seeing Maggie eat crap. Because for her it is pure joy. And pure joy, sheer happiness, is not something any of us see, or feel, often in this world.

Since September, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing pure joy every week. My daughter Molly started dance lessons. She loves every second of it. This three-year old girl has thrown herself into the world of First Position, Pirouettes, and Le Grand Jete. It’s her passion. Not one that we have thrust upon her, but one that she clearly and instinctively feels she must do. And on Saturday mornings, Sonja and I stand on the other side of a large pane of glass and watch her and her classmates dance. Two, three and four year-old children, jumping and spinning for no other reason than the sheer joy of it. Watching Molly, watching these kids, has become the highlight of my week. One of the highlights of my life.

Molly might not exist if it wasn’t for Maggie. I met Sonja on an online dating sight. I’d posted a picture of me and Maggie. Sonja messaged me saying that my dog was cute. I responded “That’s Maggie. She eats poo.

Maggie is asleep right now. In the corner, on her dog bed. Molly and Sonja are in the kitchen making pancakes. I’m on the couch. Smiling. Feeling very fortunate to have a sad dog. My Maggie. She and I have a lot in common.

And look … Maggie can smile.

Happy Maggie.JPG

A Different Kind of Marathon

I ran a marathon last week along an old railway track converted into a trail.  When I crossed the finish line I cried.  Which surprised me.  I’ve done a few marathons over the years.  After my fastest I vomited steps after stopping.  I barely remember any of the other finishes, other than being thankful that the pain was over.

Pain isn’t the right word for this marathon.  Thankfully.  There had been pain leading up to it.  A torn calf muscle which took weeks to rehab and put the race itself in doubt.  It got better and it held up to the rigors of the race.  As did the rest of my body.  No new injuries.  While the final ten miles of the marathon were uncomfortable, it was the expected discomfort of an endurance event.  It should hurt and it did. 

Maybe I cried because the hurt was over, and my body and mind could let go.  I’d run alone for the last few hours, mostly without music, mostly in the rain.  I saw a handful of other runners and hikers.  There were no spectators.  This was not a big city marathon. No funny signs.   No bands belting out music at the mile markers.  There were volunteers though.  Dozens of them at the aid stations.   Men, women and children who’d sacrificed their time to stand outside in the wind and the rain and hand out food and drink to lonely wet runners.  I should have cried at the aid stations, because that’s where I felt most thankful. 

Or maybe I should have cried in the first ten miles, much of which I ran with a new friend.  A talented runner who happens to have epilepsy.  A runner who could have a seizure at any time.  Who could be moving effortlessly along the trail one second, and crumpled beside it a moment later, head covered in blood from bashing it on a rock.  That could have happened.  But it didn’t.  She finished the race.  Courage and grit.

I got home a few hours after I finished, and it felt like a normal day.  Like I’d completed a long training running.  I ate a normal dinner, went to bed at a normal hour, woke up a little sore and a little tired and very ready to enjoy a week off work.

A couple days after the marathon I spent most of the day with my daughter Molly.  We skated and went to the park and played with her toys.  I battled a tantrum or two and spent about thirty minutes coaxing an exhausted and giddy child into her car seat.    We spent hours together that day.  I did exactly what my wife Sonja does every day I’m at work except I did less of it, because I didn’t have Molly for the entire day.  By dinnertime I was exhausted.  I ate early and crawled into bed.  Sonja told me I looked more tired than I did after running the marathon. 

She was right.  A marathon is a known entity.  26.2 miles.  A runner can train for it, set their own pace, and, especially with a little experience, know essentially what to expect.  Running a marathon, you can control your speed, and reign in your emotions.  You can evaluate your pain and respond accordingly.  That doesn’t make a marathon easy, but it makes it manageable and knowable, in a way that raising a child isn’t.

I have had moments of incredible frustration this week, emotionally and physically drained by a three-year old whose behaviour I can’t control.  Sonja and I search for ways to influence that behaviour.  When it works, like seeing Molly grow in confidence and independence, the feeling is better than any finish line I’ve ever crossed.  When it doesn’t, it feels like mile twenty of a marathon. Battered and bruised, you keep moving, knowing the finish line is still a long way away.

And I love every moment of it.  Both marathoning and parenting.  Maybe not in the moment.  It’s hard to be thankful for something that hurts when its hurting.  But pushing through the discomfort always pays off.

A week ago, I ran that marathon.  I’ve already forgotten the discomfort, and I can’t wait to do the next one. 

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will not remember the specifics of any tantrum or angry word unleashed by my daughter who each day learns that this is a big world, and navigating it isn’t easy.  Imagine being three years old again and trying to find yourself as you’re bombarded by the cacophony of life.

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will remember three things that happened this week. 

I skated with my daughter.  The first time I’ve been on skates in over thirty years.  I skated with my daughter.  A sentence I never thought I would write.

I watched my daughter dance.  In a class, at a studio with two other girls and two boys.  I watched my daughter dance.  For thirty minutes I stood with the other parents outside the window that separated us from our children, and I watched Molly dance.  She was graceful and confident and joyful.  She loved every second.  It was one of the best moments of my life.

A few days after the marathon Molly’s pre-school class went on a field trip.  I went with her.  The field trip was on an abandoned railway track.  A track that had been turned into a hiking trail.  The same trail I’d run the marathon on earlier in the week.  I watched my daughter and her friends sprint down the trail.  I saw the wonder in her eyes when she stood atop a refurbished wooden bridge and gazed at the river far below.  I sat beside her while she ate the teacher’s homemade zucchini loaf and asked me, over and over, why the railway had been “abandoned.”  She seized on that word, never tiring of hearing me tell her that the trains stopped running and the bridge fell apart, and then good people came together and worked hard and rebuilt it for all of us to use.  She asked about it dozens of times.  I never tired of answering.

A few days earlier I’d run a marathon along that trail.  Now I was with my daughter, running a different kind of marathon.  A marathon with an unknown finish line, a marathon that may be impossible to train for, a marathon that taxes the mind and body daily.  A marathon where crying is possible anytime along the trail, not just at the finish line.  A marathon where the joys and rewards of just participating are infinite.  A different kind of marathon.

Molly at the Trestle Rest Stop