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.

Your Own Blue Rodeo

I don’t have the words to convey how much Blue Rodeo’s music means to me.

But I’ll try.

I fell in love with Blue Rodeo while I was falling in love. My ex-wife was a huge fan.   Blue Rodeo’s masterpiece “Five Days in July” was released the same year we met, the same year we got engaged, the same year we went to our first concert together. The same year Jim Cuddy sang, “Find the face you’ve seen a thousand times.”

The face you’ve seen a thousand times.

You expect to see that face forever.

When our marriage ended almost a decade later, I went months without listening to Blue Rodeo. I didn’t know if I ever would again. The link between the music and our relationship was so strong that every song was bound to hurt. We’d played “Lost Together” at our wedding.

Instead Blue Rodeo helped me heal. Often on long runs, cradling my Sony Discman, listening to their latest CD.

Time passed. I moved – to a new relationship and a new city – small town Ontario colliding with expanding suburbia. My long runs got longer and longer. Hour after hour, slow and steady along busy country roads with commuting cars speeding past. So sometimes I just stepped out my front door and ran lap after lap around my new home, a 100 acre farm. Peace, solitude, and endless repetitions of songs that left me feeling like Cuddy and Greg Keelor had crawled inside my head and torn their lyrics from my life.

Years passed. Apple conquered the world. Music accompanied all of us everywhere. Blue Rodeo moved with me across the country. A new province, a new job. The same relationship. Another face I saw a thousand times. Until I didn’t.

A break-up that surprised neither of us. Warning signs appeared at a Jim Cuddy concert in Victoria. I was so excited to be there. An intimate venue, a new album, old favorites. She was sad. A death in the family that day. Someone who lived far away. My sympathy was real but perfunctory.  Selfish.  The concert trumped all. I was angry when she didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Or I wanted her to. A great concert. A bad night.

The next day Cuddy’s band was in Vancouver. I didn’t have tickets or any plans to be there. Instead, on a cold January morning, I strapped our Christmas tree to the roof of the car and drove it to a local school. Trees chipped for charity. One of the chippers was a friend. It was early afternoon. Six or seven hours until the concert would begin. Still no plans to be there. I mentioned it to my friend, almost jokingly, “hey do you want to go?” He did. His wife said he could. I raced home, booked tickets, a helicopter ride, and a hotel. Sped back to his house to pick him up. We flew to Vancouver. I saw the Jim Cuddy Band for the second night in a row. Totally spontaneous. A good night.

A memorable weekend. Capped off with an 8k road race back on Vancouver Island on Sunday morning. Hung over, tired and catching the first float plane of the morning back to Victoria just to get to the start on time. A weekend that showed the importance of Blue Rodeo, and running in my life.

The band and running intersected again just weeks later. Early spring, not long before I was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon. A bucket list race, and an iconic experience for marathoners around the world.

Training was going well. I felt as strong and healthy as ever. Including regular one hour early morning runs along the oceanfront in Victoria. A 6 mile run that I always did listening to Blue Rodeo’s album, “The Days in Between.” There’s a song on that album that gives a glimpse of Blue Rodeo’s brilliance. The song is called “Truscott.” I did not expect to like it. The song title itself got my back up. Steven Truscott was a teenager when he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl named Lynne Harper in the 1950s in Ontario. He was sentenced to be hanged. The federal government commuted his sentence to life in prison. Decades later his conviction was overturned.

I didn’t expect to like the song. As cops go, I’m pretty liberal. Maybe very liberal. But Lynne Harper was the ultimate victim. She deserved a tribute. Her once convicted killer didn’t. But then I listened and heard a song about perseverance, strength and love:

When the fever was breaking,

I was sweat soaked and frail,

I dreamed I was Steven Truscott,

A child in jail.

 

And when I awoke,

And I felt your cool breeze,

I wept like an ocean,

Sweet tears of relief.

 

Subtle. Simple. Beautiful.

 

Blue Rodeo has remained with me into the next stage of my life. A wonderful woman, a lovely daughter. Cool breezes.

My love for the band is as strong as ever. I listen to them daily. I see them in concert annually. They are so talented, their set list so deep, that after a three hour concert, dozens of their best songs still haven’t been played. They are that good.

They are more than a band. More than a collection of songs. They are a part of my life.

If you don’t know them, I hope you’ll listen.

If you already love them, you know what I’m talking about.

And if neither is the case, then I hope you have your own Blue Rodeo. Something special accompanying you through your life.

 

The Essence of Summer

Online dating brought my wife and me together. It was inevitable. We had so much in common. A love for running, reading, dogs, history, travel, Victoria.

However, it might have been something that wasn’t in our online profiles that sealed the deal.

Camping.

I think we were the only two people on match.com who didn’t rave about camping. Or at least pretend to love it.

We might be the only two people in British Columbia who don’t camp.

Maybe it’s because we’re both from Ontario.

I’ve lived in BC for over ten years. I’m proud to reside here. Fortunate to raise my daughter in a beautiful and prosperous province where people flock from all over the world to both visit and live.

Yet Ontario will always feel like home. Because it was home for three and a half decades. Not just for my formative years. I was creeping up on early middle-age when I left.

And I noticed differences when I arrived. Subtle but very real.

In Ontario, people go to the movies.

In B.C., I hear, “have you seen that show?”

“No, which one?” I reply, thinking maybe I’m being asked about “Seinfeld,’ or “Breaking Bad.” Thinking I’m being asked about a television show.

Instead, the response I get is, “Star Wars (Episode One Thousand: Attack on the Audience).”

I say, “No I haven’t,” while my inner voice screams “It’s a movie, not a show!”

There are language differences at work too. In Ontario, I heard the word “copper” daily. Because a police officer was a copper. For example, “That guy I just pulled over is a copper with Hamilton.”

No one says “copper” here. Instead everyone is a “member.” I’m still not used to that. Member of what? Rotary? A golf course? The Jell-O of the Month Club?

These small differences appear at work and at play. My ex and I had a cottage on an island not far from Victoria. Except here everyone called it a cabin. An inconsequential difference. Meaningless. Yet it grated every time I heard it.

Because cottages are very Ontario. Going to the cottage – your own, a friend’s, a rental – is for many people the essence of summer.

The same way that camping is here in B.C. Not everyone owns a motorhome or camper. It just seems like it. Which is understandable, because never-ending forests, pristine lakes, and the mighty Pacific offer incomparable beauty.

All things which I want to see. Which my wife wants to see. However, we want to see them and then drive back to our hotel, with indoor plumbing, a kitchen, cable and the internet.

Our daughter is not from Ontario. British Columbia is her home. It’s her culture. Her friends will camp. She’ll want to camp. She should. She should experience the best that this province has to offer.

Sonja and I owe her that experience. We might do it. Next summer. Perhaps starting by pitching a tent in the backyard. Still a pretty big adventure for a two year old (and for this forty-seven year old). And maybe that evolves. Maybe Sonja and I open our minds and try something new. Maybe we embrace our adopted province and start camping.

Or, dear reader. My friends. The ones with little kids, tents, RVs. Maybe you can take her for a few days. Just a few. She’s cute, funny, full of personality, and won’t take up much space in your camper.

While you’re gone Sonja and I will rent a cabin and watch a show.

Hey I’m trying.

One step at a time.

The Essence of Summer