Watermelon in the Rain

It’s raining again. On Vancouver Island. Which as newsflashes go is right up there with “Trump Says Something Stupid.

On a walk this morning my daughter, cold, wet and shivering, asked when the rain would stop.

I answered honestly. “Never.”

She knew I was teasing.

So I told her the real truth. “In forty years.”

That’s how it feels anyway.

I have no right to complain. I choose to move here. To an island. With rainforests on it.

There are positives. Like between November and March it rarely snows. And you can count on seeing the sun. At least once a month.

We had a glorious April. Sun almost daily. Light and heat. At a time when the darkness of COVID was shattering the lives of so many people, we walked in magnificent forests with sunshine streaming through, creating a mosaic of sparkling shadows to rival anything the finest art gallery in the world could offer.

In April I ran in shorts and a t-shirt. I needed sunscreen.

Today we’re drinking hot chocolate. It’s drizzling between rainstorms and the clouds look like they’ve captured the sun and banished it forever on this Victoria Day long weekend. The unofficial start of summer.

Some people embrace this weather. Our neighbour loaded up his paddleboard and headed down to the ocean.

I’ve tried. But I can’t. Not when the grey and rain and blah seem to never go away. When the 7-day forecast on the nightly news shows: rain, showers, cloudy, rain, rain, showers, rain.

But when the sun does come, it is glorious. Like the best of everything distilled into golden rays. Everything is better in the sun. Running, sweating, cutting the lawn, flying kites. Working from home and looking out the window at a yellow world. Everything.

And just like everything is better in the sun, everything is worse when it rains. Stress weighs heavier, the blues are darker, injuries hurt even more.

But sometimes a little light bursts through. I started writing this post sitting on the couch. Alone.  Miserable.  Now sitting beside me are my girls. Eating watermelon. Watermelon! The quintessential summer fruit on a hot chocolate day.

I could learn a lot from my girls. Injecting a slice of summer into an entirely miserable day.

Although truth be told, instead of eating watermelon in the rain, I’d rather be drinking hot chocolate in the sun.

A Little Bit of Sunshine

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.

 

 

In This Together

Wounded Rain PictureWe started in the rain. We finished in the rain.

Port Hardy to Victoria in eight days. Over 600 kilometers of running.

One cause. Support our Wounded Warriors. Honour the fallen. Support the living.

Eight intense days. Fast running. Slow jogging. Gruelling hills, treacherous declines, glorious flatness.

Eight humbling days. Meeting heroes in Legions up and down the island. Veterans of long ago wars. Veterans who still wake at night reliving those horrors.

Eight days of overwhelmingly gracious receptions. Men, women and children flooding those Legions, and community centers. Preparing meals for us, wrapping their arms around us, digging deep in their pockets and thrusting cash in our hands.

Money to support the injured – our veterans, first responders and their families. Injuries caused by the horrific things so many of them have had to see and do. Trauma after trauma, experienced over and over, and imprinted on their minds.

Our team barely knew one another at the start of the run. By the end we were a family. We loved one another. We watched each fight through tough miles. We shared stories, laughs, and bathrooms. No secrets. No egos. No attitudes.

We succeeded as runners because of the people around us. Warriors themselves. They organized this run, drove us, fed us, clothed us, housed us and cared for us. Unconditionally. One big family.

In This Together. That mantra inspired our run. We repeated it a hundred times that week.

In this together. Those words have taken on a new meaning these last few days.

Our world is experiencing a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever lived through.

Daily life continues, and grinds to a halt simultaneously.

Our run squeaked in under the wire. Before mass cancelations and social distancing. Before we had to stop hugging and high fiving. Before a gathering of hundreds became life-threatening.

Life. That’s all that matters. Life and everything that goes with it. Physical health. Mental health. Love. Family. Community.

For weeks, maybe months, all our lives will change.

We’ll get through it. As a team. In this together.

Cathedral Grove WW

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Horizon was Upside Down

I’ve been reading a lot about ultrarunners.  They push their bodies into agony and train their minds to overcome their pain.

They volunteer to suffer.  Seek it out.  Embrace it.

Hillary Allen did that.  A world class ultrarunner racing on a mountaintop she lost her footing, crashed to the ground, fractured both wrists, several ribs and sliced her head open.

Doctors told her she might never run again.

But she did.

Reading about Hillary sent me to YouTube, and a video called Redemption.  I was about 30 seconds in, when my daughter Molly scrambled up on the couch, insisting I turn off the “boring” show so she could watch her new favourite cartoon, PJ Masks.

Molly cut her knee earlier this week.  She bled and cried, while mom and dad cringed at the chunk of gravel embedded under the skin.

The gravel is out, the knee is healing, and Molly is back to tearing around the neighbourhood park and scaling the ropes of the jungle gym.

I didn’t turn on PJ Masks.  I told Molly that Hillary had fallen and hurt herself badly.  But she’d healed and was running again.  We watched Redemption together.  Over and over.  Molly kept asking me to go back to the part where Hillary Allen talked about her fall and said, “the ground was pulled out from under me” and “the horizon was upside down.”  As she fell Hillary thought she would die.  As I write this Molly is sprinting back and forth in our living room, holding my headlamp, pretending to be Hillary running in the dark.

This week the horizon turned upside down for some very close friends.  They weren’t running.  No wrists were fractured.  But their son received a life altering diagnosis.  A diagnosis that will affect his life, every minute of every day.  That will affect the lives of his parents every minute of every day.

They don’t deserve it.  As a family they have already sacrificed and struggled, pulling together, working to overcome another diagnosis.  Also life changing.  Also something that is always with them.  It is so unfair.

“The ground was pulled out from under me.”  A regular reader of this blog had the world pulled out from under her a few years ago.  Members of her family were murdered.   She is a writer.  I suspect that sustains her in her darkest hours.

None of these stories are mine to tell.  Not Hillary’s, not my friends, not the regular reader’s.

Not Terry’s either.  I worked with Terry ten years ago.  She was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.  She didn’t wear it on her sleeve.  Her profession, her career, her success required strength.  Steel.

But Terry melted around those who had nothing.  Addicts, sex-trade workers, the mentally ill. Those for whom every day was a struggle to survive.  Those who are so easy for us to drive by and ignore without giving a second thought.  I do it, all too often.

Terry used to remind me to treat everyone with respect and kindness.  Everyone.  Because you never know what they are going through.

Soon after she retired Terry was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  She fought hard.  Valiantly.  With dignity.  And passed away less than a year later.

There seems to be a consensus among ultrarunners, that the pain they experience is worth it.  Perhaps not in the moment.  But in the process, the preparation for the race.  And in the aftermath.  Real life lessons learned from voluntary suffering.

Suffering.  Utrarunners seek it out.

Suffering.  It seeks us out, throughout our lives.  Ground crumbles at our feet.  Horizons turn upside down.

I had no idea how to respond to our friends this week.  No words can heal what they’re going through.  I sent them my love.  I think about them.  They are strong and brave and they will need every ounce of that strength and bravery in the days, weeks and years ahead.

Their horizon is upside down.  I pray for healing in their lives.  For love and health and family to prevail.  For their horizon to right itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

I didn’t see my daughter this week. I wasn’t working long hours or in some distant city that made getting home impossible. Instead I got off work on time, traffic wasn’t awful, I was home at a reasonable hour, and I still missed her by minutes – every single day. My heart sank each time I opened the front door to the silence of her asleep in her bed, or the faint chorus of my wife’s lullabies, as she lay on the floor beside our daughter, singing her to sleep.

Not seeing her, even for a day, hurts. But there is something special about it too. It reminds me of my parents and how lucky I am. In the mid-1970s my dad was a student minister in Bluevale, a tiny village in rural Ontario, hundreds of miles away from Toronto. Every Sunday night, dad drove to the city for a week of classes, and long nights of studying. Every Friday night he came back to Bluevale for a joyous reunion with his family before the chaos of the weekend began. Two young boys full of energy, a wife who’d born the burden of being a single mom all week, and the demands of his calling as a minister – two services in two rural churches. The physical and emotional toil of leading those congregations on Sunday mornings must have been overwhelming, knowing that come Sunday night he’d be driving back to Toronto, to do it all over again. Four years of that. Four years of not seeing his boys every night.

I have nothing but great memories of those years. My mom was ever present, caring for my brother and I, taking us to the general store where a glass bottle of Coke cost a dime and a bag of chips was twenty-five cents. She played with us, and planted gardens with us and was always there for us. In my memories my dad was ever present too. I don’t remember the weeklong absences. Instead I think of all the things we did together. Baseball, fishing, walks by the old mill near our home. It was idyllic.

As an adult, and a dad, I have a greater appreciation of the challenges my parents must have faced. My father’s sadness at not seeing his boys for such long stretches. The strains and stresses my mother must have endured all alone with two boys, the wife of a minister in a small town with all eyes upon her. To this day my mom speaks about Bluevale often, the friendships she formed, and the way the community supported her. But it could not have been easy for her.

Although I have lived in British Columbia for over ten years, Ontario still feels like home. It still is home. I miss small town Ontario. The brick buildings, main streets, century old homes, and farmers’ fields which surround every town. Bluevale was the epitome of rural Ontario and it became a part of me which I will never shake.

In late spring 2014 I went home again. The timing was perfect. A long relationship had just ended. I needed my family. And although we had talked about returning to Bluevale for years, we’d never made the trip. It took us a couple of hours to drive there along straight country roads. We visited both churches. The front door of the first we visited was open. We wandered around and found my dad’s picture hanging in the basement, forty years after he’d preached there.

Dad in the Belmore church

Visiting the second church was sadder. It wasn’t a church anymore. Instead the church had closed, the building sold and that sacred place had been turned into a home. It made the 1970s seem a long time ago, perhaps the last decade when a village of a few hundred people could sustain a church of its own.

Bluevale church (2).jpg

The closed church did not ruin our day. Far from it. Happiness and wonderful memories abounded. Walks around the old mill and through the quiet cemetery near our home we had once walked through regularly. And our old home was still there – “the manse” in church parlance. The center of my childhood years. When I was the same age as my daughter is now.

Bluevale Manse

I had a full day with my daughter yesterday. We picked blackberries along the side of the road revelling in a “secret spot” we had found. Then to our favourite coffee shop where buying her a treat is always a highlight of my week. Perhaps the most special moment was at the library, where they’d set out toys and masks for kids to play with. And one of the librarians had a Polaroid. A Polaroid! Who knew they existed anymore? My daughter, who talks to Siri and asks for shows on Netflix, knows nothing of Polaroids. So for her it was magic, real magic, when the librarian took a picture, and out of the camera slid a white piece of paper. Which Molly shook, and watched as it transformed into a picture of her and her dad. A Polaroid. It was like we’d been transported back into the 1970s. To a small town in rural Ontario. Home.

Polaroid

 

Side by Side – Stride for Stride

Ambitious goals and a torn muscle make for maximum frustration.

Two weeks after ripping a muscle in my lower leg, I tested it on the trails.

The first couple minutes brought a gnawing sensation that something wasn’t quite right. By twenty minutes in, my calf felt like it was in a vice grip being squeezed slowly and gently. Every step brought more pain. So I stopped. Angrily and reluctantly.

That was five days ago. Five more days without running. Five days of being hyperconscious of that injury every minute of every day. Grimacing when it causes pain. Rejoicing when I realize an hour has passed and I haven’t felt anything at all.

Days pass quickly. Weeks disappear. Months accumulate. Injuries take time. Goals loom. Training falters.

In September, I’m supposed to run my first marathon in six years. A trail race in the Cowichan Valley. I’ve targeted it. I want it. Not for a time goal. Not to be competitive. Just to complete it. To prove that I can get through the training injury free. To show myself, and my family, and the world that as I near 50, my body can still do what it did at 40, and at 30. And then a muscle tears, and mileage stops and race day nears quickly as I heal slowly.

But the marathon doesn’t matter. Not really. It’s a nice to do, not a must do.

Two weeks later there’s a must do. The Peace Officers Memorial Run from Abbotsford to Victoria. A marathon a day for 3 days straight. I’ve never done that. And I’m honoured to be part of a team that’s trying. We’ll run to honour colleagues and friends who died on the job. Adrenaline and emotion will fuel us. The run will be bigger than any of us. This one matters.

And as I write this, slouched in a chair, leg stretched out before me, I feel that calf muscle. Tight and sore. Reminding me to not even think about running for another week or two. So I won’t. I’ll ride the bike, and stretch and hit the weight room. I’ll yoga myself upside down and punish my core with crunches and leg lifts. I’ll use a heating pad, and ice, and three times a day I’ll choke my coworkers when I sit at my desk, roll up my pant leg and massage A535 into my body, convinced that the more I use and the harder I push, the quicker it will heal.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. Time. Patience. Acceptance. I’ve had many running injuries. Sometimes they go away completely. Like they never happened at all. Others come and go, flaring up and subsiding with a will of their own. Some linger. Weave themselves into my body. Attain permanence. Forcing me to learn how to run around them or through them. To navigate the pain.

I walked this morning. With my daughter and our dog. While we played beside a stream my wife ran. Battling injuries of her own she relished a rare few minutes alone.

We hadn’t planned to meet up but we did, in the woods near our home. Our walk in the woods ended in tears for Molly when she banged her finger against a tree. There was no scratch. Not even a hint of blood. But she cried, desperate for a Band-Aid and for her dad to carry her home. Which I’d started doing, when Sonja turned the corner, mid-run. My daughter sprinted to Sonja and showed that uninjured thumb to her mother. And the tears subsided. And she didn’t need a Band-Aid anymore. And she asked to run with her mom.

So she did. In dancing shoes along a dirt path they ran away from me, side by side. Joyful strides both of them. And they were gone for a while. Because Molly kept running and running. Until they turned around and ran back to me. A happy dad taking picture after picture of his daughter and his wife trail running together.

Running. Family. Almost everything I write has those themes. I wish my range and imagination were broader. I wish my writing was funnier. I have taken to heart “write what you know” so I return again and again to those themes. I take inspiration from moments and from pictures. And most of those moments and pictures are running and family.

That’s how a post that started with a torn calf finished with a mom and daughter running together. My calf should heal with time. But it may hurt for a long time. Time will tell. And yet running brought me joy today. A mother and daughter, side by side, stride for stride.

… Although if you look closely at the picture, I’m pretty sure Molly won.

Sonja and Molly Running

 

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.

Dallas Road.jpeg

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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