The Still Centre

Most days work doesn’t bother me. I don’t bring it home. Literally or figuratively.  

This week was different. Darkness followed me home and burrowed inside me, its presence as real as my house and family.

I was sad but not grief stricken. Down, but not depressed. Angry, but not furious. A little bit of everything. Including sleep drunk. Long hours, short nights. Impaired by tiredness.

Toxic stew for the soul.

It can’t be a coincidence that I felt this way during a week in which I did not run. A few days before work exploded I tweaked my calf. Something less than a full rip, something more than a niggle. It was my own fault. I ignored the warning signs my leg sent to my brain. Tightness that I rationalized as dehydration. Soreness that I tried to run through. More than run through – sprint through. My muscle tore when I raced around a gravel track – interval training when I should have been resting.

I just finished Martin Dugard’s To Be A Runner. It is the best book about running I’ve ever read. Sometimes Dugard writes about “the still small voice” inside his head.

Before I got hurt, before work got busy, I went for a run from my office to the ocean. Along the way, I was thinking about Dugard’s book. And misremembering what he had written. Instead of “the still small voice” I started thinking about the still centre. I pictured the still centre as a ball of calm inside me. Relaxing me. Quieting me. Centring me through the little frustrations and aggravations that life throws at all of us daily. That morning I ran along the water at sunrise in Victoria. As beautiful and peaceful a setting as this world has to offer.

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The still centre has quickly become a mantra for me. An ideal. An embodiment of what I want to be. Calm, relaxed, peaceful, content.

Exactly the opposite of how I felt this week. I lost the still centre. I didn’t run. Work was tough. I wasn’t my best self. I was not myself at all. Or at least the self I want to be.

It can’t be coincidental that a week in which I did not run was one of my toughest weeks in recent memory. Work would have been awful anyway. There was no getting around that. But movement and breathing, running fast and jogging slow would have taken the edge off. Cleaned out some of the thoughts that clogged my brain. Lightened some of the darkness that lived inside me.

Today was better. A lot better. No, I did not run. But the first run back is just days away. My calf feels good. Maybe even completely healed. I won’t know for sure until I try, but just knowing that a trial run is around the corner brings relief. As did a good sleep. And a day off. The first in a week and a half. It felt like a vacation. Dinner with my wife and her family and our daughter. Laughs, love and pizza on a warm night with a cool breeze and a blue sky.

And before that an afternoon with my daughter. Who I have barely seen lately – out the door before she is awake and home long after she has fallen asleep. More precious than any run could ever be.

Pure joy in her face, her eyes, and in her squeal of delight when I bought her bubble gum ice cream. Which, minutes later and melted, she painted on my nose to make us bubble gum twins. Then down to the ocean, where we saw a dozen seals sunning themselves on a pier. Even the babies barely moved. They just lay there, bellies exposed, at home and at peace. Being themselves. Relishing the scorching sun. Which we fled, finding shade under a magnificent tree. Alone, with an apple, a pillow and a blanket. I relished every millisecond.

Me and Molly under the tree

I need to run. It nurtures and heals. It breaks me down and builds me up. But, when I look back on a rough week that’s ended much better than it started, my abiding memory won’t be that I did not run. Instead I’ll remember today with my family. The people that I love, and that love me. The people that are there for me when my still centre is not.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Essentials

I read. I write. I run. Ideally. But not as often as I’d like.

I’m a husband, I’m a father.  Every second, every hour, every day.

I work. And commute.

That’s my life, in three lines and thirty words.

Three lines, thirty words and twenty-four hours to fit them all in. Precious time. Never-ending but never enough. For the essentials, or the non-essentials. Like the ten cedar fence panels that need to be stained. Start to finish that would take me about thirty hours, spread out over many days. Thirty hours I don’t have. Or more accurately, thirty hours I don’t want to carve out of my schedule. Sacrificing essentials.

A fifty mile run is starting to feel essential.

Run, jog, climb, walk, shuffle. 12 hours. Or 14. Maybe longer. Through heat and humidity. Or rain and wind and mud. Discomfort. Pain. Chafing. Boredom. Cramps. Nausea.

A finish line.

Exhilaration.

The allure of the 50 Miler. An allure I can’t entirely account for. But I’m drawn to the 50. Maybe because I’m closing in on fifty myself, running 50 miles before turning fifty feels like a worthy goal. Maybe because it’s a challenge that seems hard, but doable. I might fail – in the training, or on race day. But I might succeed. I think I can succeed. I’d like to find out.

But I haven’t registered yet. I’m not even sure which race I’d attempt.

Maybe the same one my brother did several years ago. He suffered, finished and inspired. He ran all 50 miles with a Yoda doll on his back. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” My brother the Yoda runner made a lot of people smile that day. The trail run is called Sulphur Springs. It’s just outside Hamilton. My dad grew up there. My parents were newlyweds there. I was born there. Went to university there. Hamilton is special. The farther it recedes in the distance the more special it gets.

Sulphur Springs is in a little town called Ancaster. I did my first ever 10 kilometer run in Ancaster. Twenty-two years ago. Part of training for my first marathon. I remember finishing, and hurting, and wondering how could I possibly run four of those back to back. Plus another 2.1 kilometers just for some extra agony. But I did. Learned that it was possible. Running rewards training, and miles, and minutes and hours.

There are good reasons not to do it.

Thousands of reasons. Thousands of dollars. Flight, hotel, rental car.

Hundreds of reasons. Miles. Hundreds and hundreds of miles required. To train my body and my mind. But when a one hour run is a luxury, how do I justify a three hour run? Or four hours – two days in a row? Time away from the ones I love. Days, hours, minutes, seconds.

I think a lot about those seconds.

About selfishness.

About the distinction between being true to myself and being responsible.

About the essentials.

Should a daughter grow up seeing her father doing the things that he loves? Or does she grow up and remember that he was away for endless hours. Not with her. Choosing not to be with her. When I want more than anything to be with her.

I started writing this essay months ago, and set it aside until today. Coincidentally it’s Father’s Day 2019. An incredibly special, still surreal day for me, a man amazed that I am blessed to be a father.

I’m awake early. On purpose. Some quiet time before my daughter wakes up.  I can hear her singing in her crib. I’m too far away to make out the words, but it’s probably a song from Frozen, the Disney movie. The one all little girls seem to love. I can’t tell you how much I love having a little daughter who loves Princess Elsa and Princess Anna. It’s one of the best things ever. She sings, and dances, and role-plays, and assembles her dolls and celebrates Coronation Day. Pure joy, and innocence.

Elsa and Anna will probably have a Coronation Day this morning. On Father’s Day 2019. I’ll be one of the invited guests.

And sometime after Coronation Day, or maybe before, I’ll put on my shorts and lace up my shoes and head out. For a ten miler. Or maybe 15. Building blocks for a 50 Miler.

Coronation Day. Father’s Day. And maybe, one day next year, Race Day – 50 Miles.

The essentials.

 

The Essentials (3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictures Never Imagined

For much of my thirties I lived on a one hundred acre farm in Ontario. The property was magical. Endless fields, tracts of forest, a century old red barn, and the original brick farmhouse. Suburban development encroached all around, but this farm retained the beauty and charm of its origins.

I was a guest on that property because of the relationship I was in. We lived in a newer house which had been built to look old, fashioned out of reclaimed timber and recovered windows. This isn’t the place for the story of how I came to live there, why we left it, and the ultimate dissolution of that relationship. Only half of that story is mine to tell anyway.

But I lived on that property for a few years. I became a little part of it and it became a little part of me — my time there, a mere fraction of the years and memories of the family who owned it. A family that lived there for over fifty years, raised five children, rode horses, milked cows, skated on the pond, sewed crops, grew Christmas trees, and lived with the rhythms of the seasons.

That family moved away too. The timing theirs. The choice theirs. And the land changed. Development was unavoidable. The house where I once lived was demolished. Dozens of homes replaced it, packed cheek to jowl on the front lawn I once mowed, and the back lawn where my niece and nephew once played. The barn came down too. A structure that witnessed birth and death, hard labour and joyful play. An Ontario barn, an iconic building, synonymous with rural Ontario. A barn that is no more.

There’s a playground there now. Which is wonderful. Because hundreds of families can walk out their doors and be there within minutes. So it’s still a special place, just for different reasons.

The original farmhouse still stands, a designated heritage home now owned by a town that doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. So it sits abandoned. Boarded up. Surrounded by a fence.

I live on the other side of the country now. My trips to Ontario are infrequent. My time precious, maximizing every moment I can with family and friends. There’s little time for visiting places. So it was last October. My wife, my daughter and I were driving from the Toronto area to the Niagara Region. Our travels took us through the town I once lived. Although it was no longer a town. Many farms had been swallowed up. Many big box stores had moved in. It was now one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

We had no plans to stop. Until a full diaper intervened. And then we had to stop quickly. We were close to the old farm. Just minutes away. I knew there was a park there.   So we stopped. And changed a diaper. And walked around. And played. And I tried to remember where things were. Where exactly was the barn? The shed? The home I had once lived in? Landmarks like trees and berms had been knocked over by bulldozers. The land scraped flat.

The farmhouse was still there. We walked up to it. I remembered many things. Meals and people, many good times, and a few quite sad. Infinitely small memories in the history of that farm and that land.

I took pictures. Pictures I never thought I would take. Of my wife and my daughter on those grounds. My family – a family I didn’t know I would have when I lived on that farm. A family I could not have imagined. A mother and daughter playing in a park. A little girl prancing on a lawn. A beautiful autumn day.

Not long after we returned home, I lost the phone I’d used to take those pictures. I thought it fell down a storm sewer during a fierce storm, slipping out of my open jacket pocket while I bent over to put my daughter in her car seat. I had never downloaded those photos. I was sure they were gone forever.

A few weeks ago my wife found the phone. It was in our car all along. Jammed in the crevice of a seat.

I never imagined I’d see those photos again. I’m glad to have them back.

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Sarah – A Run for Life.

A few years before she was killed on duty, Sarah Beckett worked in a homicide unit.

I worked with her on a couple of cases. I did not get to know her but I formed impressions. She was “very.” Very professional, respected, hard-working – and pretty. It was hard not to notice her.

Sarah returned to working on the road. That’s where she was killed.

The morning she died I was working in the same homicide unit Sarah had been in. Her death rocked our office. One of my colleagues – one of the strongest and toughest people I’ve ever met – both physically and mentally, wept in front of a desk. Mostly there was shock, and silence, and whispers. For a few minutes it looked like our unit would be investigating Sarah’s death. Fortunately that changed. It would have been too much for too many.

Yesterday, I ran in the inaugural Sarah Beckett Memorial Run.

There were many families there. A community rallied behind Sarah’s family, her friends, her co-workers.

I witnessed stirring moments. A West Shore cop sprinting to the finish line. Sprinting at ten in the morning after being up all night working a nightshift. Sprinting when he could be sleeping, with another nightshift looming just hours away.

Canine cops running in full uniform. Weighted down by boots and vests.

Families running together. Strollers and children. A pregnant mom, herself a cop, who did not have to run, but did because she could.

My most abiding memories of the run are mascots and Mounties.

Our three year old daughter Molly came to watch the race. What she saw were giant furry figures, like Marty the Marmot, towering over her. She was terrified. She cried and cried, tears running, snot flowing. Molly finally calmed down on the drive home. But she remained fascinated by the mascots. And by her fear. She kept asking me to tell her the story over and over, about how she was scared. So I did. And I told her that I was scared too. I said that she was scared because she was too young, and I was scared because I was too old.

Molly is too young. Too young to understand what Sarah’s 5k was all about.

I am old. Older than Sarah Beckett of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ever got to be.

The Mounties get a lot of bad press, much of it undeserved. What rarely gets reported is how close knit they are. The RCMP is a national family. Tens of thousands of members and one large family. I’d experienced that first hand when I’d marched in Sarah’s funeral – me and dozens of my Victoria Police colleagues lost in a sea of Red Serge.

Yesterday that sea of red didn’t march. It ran. At a run for Sarah. A run for life. A run that everyone there felt privileged to be a part of. A run that everyone there wished never had to happen.

Beckett 5k

 

Toxic

Our home is in a subdivision regulated by bylaws. In British Columbia this is called a bare land strata. We’re all bound by rules and regulations that relate to how our properties look.

Recently, our strata council resigned en masse. In the letter explaining their actions, they wrote that “there is a split within the community” and called the current situation “a toxic community environment.”

The professional property management company that the council had hired quit too. Their letter to us said, “we wish you the best of luck moving forward and healing the divisions in your community.”

As so many neighbour disputes do, this all started over a fence.  It’s gone way beyond that now. If the strata council hadn’t resigned, they might have been voted out. Special meetings have been called. Letters from opposing sides tell us about tribunals and Supreme Court.

I don’t know which side to support. I see merit in the arguments of both sides. And blame too.

But this toxic, fractured community is not the neighbourhood I know.

It has snowed, pretty much non-stop, for the better part of the last two days. A region where snow is a novelty has been hit very hard. Our roads remain unplowed. Our children and our dogs step outside and disappear into banks of powdery fluff. Our driveways require shovelling. Over and over and over again. I’ve done mine at least 8 times in less than 48 hours. Last night I was sorer than I have been in years. A 50 kilometer trail run hurt less than 50 centimeters of snow.

And it’s been glorious. We live across the street from a park. It’s been filled with kids. Constantly. Toboggans and crazy carpets and remote controlled ski-doos. The sounds of delighted children fill the air.

The park has been full of adults too. Parents revelling in two consecutive snow days. No work, some shovelling and much play. With their children, and their friends’ children and the children of people they don’t even know.

The sidewalks have been alive. With banter between friends and strangers. Commiserating about the non-stop shoveling. Sharing stories of blizzards long past. People slowing down, taking time to talk. To be in the moment. To share both the beauty of our snow-covered community and the frustrations of winter.

Everywhere I look I see neighbours helping one another. Stuck cars don’t remain stuck for long. An older woman falls. A younger woman rushes over. Sidewalks and public paths get shovelled. I just watched a man push his snow-blower up and down our street, clearing the road itself. In the absence of snowplows, he’s doing it himself. Doors get opened to share hot chocolate, and snacks, and some laughs.

Nothing is toxic. Nothing divisive. Entirely the opposite. A community coming together.

That’s exactly the kind of neighbourhood I want my daughter to grow up in. One where we can tie a rope to her old baby’s bathtub and pull her down the snowy streets, to play with her friends and rejoice in the glories of winter. A neighbourhood of nice homes, stunning scenery and wonderful people.

It doesn’t take much for a neighbourhood to become toxic. It started with a fence.

But maybe it doesn’t take much for that neighbourhood to heal either. Maybe all it takes is some snow.

 

Snowday

 

Climb

As I write, my daughter sits on the sofa beside me, pretending to be a bus, a ‘snuggle-puppy’ book in her hand. Beside her sits her mom, my wife. Together they count to twenty. Twenty seconds later, our daughter scampers to the floor, takes me by the hand and leads me to her hobby horse. It sits in our living room, which we’re pretending is a barn. The horse becomes a unicorn.

Reality meets fantasy. Learning, growing and imagination collide every second of every day. A tiny life, full of life.

I struggle for a transition to the next sentence. As if on cue, now wearing sparkly shoes and a glittering dress, my daughter tries to clamber up next to me. I can’t climb it,” she says. “My shoe.” I offer my hand, she grabs it and I hoist her up.

Climbing. I’m reading about climbing. “Into the Silence,” by Wade Davis. Gripping. Riveting. The story of the first attempts to conquer Mount Everest. The story of men whose lives were defined by the First World War.

The story of millions of lives. Obliterated. Sometimes instantaneously by a shell. Sometimes, slowly, dying in agony. Burnt alive, lungs gassed, bodies pierced with shrapnel. Survivors scarred forever. Physically and mentally. Some sought solace in the Himalayas. Risking death to reaffirm life.

That war seems so long ago. Over a hundred years since it ended. A significant anniversary just passed that changes World War I. Relegates it to the history books with the Napoleonic Wars and the Boer War.

And yet its legacy is ever present.

We had dinner with my in-laws last night. My wife’s mother is Scottish, her father German. Opposite sides of that terrible conflict. Opposite sides of the trenches. A Scottish piper leading his comrades into battle, armed with only his bagpipes. A German soldier, shot in the arm. The randomness of death spared them both. Because they lived, my mother-in law exists. Because they lived my father-in law exists. My wife was born. My daughter sits in the kitchen now, eating pancakes.

Our lives are so interconnected. All of them.

We live in unsettling times. Trump has been President long enough to begin to begin to define an era. It’s understandable that we would find our times perilous and precarious. Because they are.

But I’m not sure they are unique. Our parents, our great-grandparents, their parents are not historical figures. They are with us still. They are living memory. They are present in our children. Our lives are so interconnected. All of them.

In a world that is often dark, I find solace in a little girl, pretending to be a bus, petting a unicorn and eating pancakes.

Climb.

It’s That Time of Year

I got mad at a barista last week.

It’s my own fault. I should have known better than to go into a Starbucks in early November. A couple days after Halloween, a couple days before Remembrance Day.

I just wanted coffee. I did not want the Christmas music playing on the loudspeaker. I did not want the green “Holiday” cup.

I told the very pleasant young woman getting me my coffee that I knew it wasn’t her decision, but I couldn’t believe they were playing Christmas music.

She responded, “It’s that time of year.”

I snapped back, “No it’s not.”

It’s November.

November is supposed to suck. Everywhere in Canada. Bitter winds. Driving rain. Long nights. Short days. Cold. Snow. Awful.

Appropriate weather in the lead up to Remembrance Day. Bleak and depressing. We suffer through it in our heated homes and comfortable cars. And imagine the mud and misery of the trenches. The horror of battle. We bundle up and take our families to cenotaphs on November 11th. We shiver, and maybe wish that the wreath laying didn’t take so long. And then we see veterans. Old men, resplendent in their medals. Marching. Sometimes crying. And we are humbled, thankful and blessed.

It’s that time of year.

Time to suffer through November together.

Instead we’ve let companies cheapen Christmas by dragging it backwards into early November. The earlier Christmas comes, the less special it is.

Christmas is special because it’s fleeting.

And it comes on December 25th. That’s Christmas.

I’m not talking about religion here either. For tens of millions of people, the world over Christmas is special because of family and tradition, meals and music, parties and friendship.

And gifts too.

If there was no December 25th, there would be no Black Friday. No Boxing Day sales. No billions and billions of dollars spent by consumers, fueling our economy.

Not only have we allowed companies to extend Christmas into November, they exploit the hell out of December 25th without having the courage to call it Christmas.

There is no such holiday as Holiday.

It’s that time of year.