More Things Matter Less

Two people I didn’t know died recently.

I learned about them, their lives, and their deaths, from grieving friends.

Their deaths were unexpected.  One from a chronic health problem that deteriorated rapidly.  The second also “natural,” but without warning.  Both had young children.  Both left grieving families, friends, and colleagues

Natural causes.  A phrase we’ve all heard thousands of times.  Two words that don’t convey the pain death leaves in its wake.

I began to think of death a little differently not that long ago.  It was something I heard on a show that has become a big part of my life.  The Rich Roll Podcast.  Rich is an ultra-endurance athlete, a vegan and an inspiration.  He challenges himself and his listeners to be their best selves.  His guests share their lives with Rich because he’s authentic, curious, and humble.  He radiates warmth and trust.  He’s become a fixture in my life.  Like a friend I’ve never met.  Although I did meet him once.  Travelled across the country to hear him speak and met him briefly afterward.  Bought a t-shirt which I still have.  Very worn, and very torn, I still wear it proudly.

A year or so ago, one of Rich’s guests spoke about aging, and longevity – with a focus on people around my age – forty and fifty.  Not old, but not young.

The guest said something like ‘Nature doesn’t need you anymore.’

Thought provoking words.  Not spiritual, not healing, not sugar-coated.  Evolutionary.  We are all animals.   Dying is wired into our DNA.  And by our forties and fifties, most of us have had children, and aren’t going to have any more.  Nature – cruel, merciless – doesn’t need us.

A lot of things don’t need us.

Work doesn’t need us.  If we are lucky, we have careers in which we are fortunate enough to make contributions – to our co-workers, to our organizations, to the world at large.  But, at work, each of us is completely replaceable, regardless of what we do.  You and I might be missed.  But we’re not necessary.  Not essential.  We’d be replaced and the machine would grind on.

Things don’t need us.  We surround ourselves with so much that is non-essential.  So much plastic, so much made overseas, so much packaging.  Inert crap, that adds little value to our lives.

The news cycle doesn’t need us.  It gorges, spits out, and moves on.  Trump today – gone tomorrow. 

The planet doesn’t need us – alive, we drain it, suck out its exhaustible resources.  Every second we breathe, we’re part of the problem.  Dead, we return to the earth.  Giving a little bit back after all we’ve taken.

But if a lot of things don’t need us – a lot of people do.

Our communities.  Our friends.  Our families.  Our children.

Not knowing that I’m writing this – never knowing anything that I write about – my five-year old daughter just started talking about death. She said to me “I bet you die right now.”  I reassured her and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

I did not tell her that nature doesn’t need her father anymore.  She’s five.  She still needs her dad.  Needs to cover my face in shaving cream like she did a couple of hours ago.  Needs to paint my nails pink and spray me with perfume like she did right after that.

And I need her.  For as long as I can hang on. 

Which is another reason Rich Roll has become a mentor and inspiration.  Nature is merciless.  Accidents happen.   Diseases ravage.  Aging never stops, and always takes a toll.  But there are things we can do that increase our chances – increase our chances to live longer, be healthier, and find contentment in whatever path or paths we choose along the way. 

More things matter less than ever to me now.  Things I used to be passionate about like baseball and politics.  Not that long ago they were central to my life, now they exist on the periphery.

But if many things matter less, then a few things matter more.  My family.  My friends.  Seeking rewarding work – not working for rewards.  Reading. Writing. Running.

And living a life with pink nails, and a shaving cream head.

Addiction.ca

I cannot remember the last Saturday morning when the first thing I did after pouring my coffee wasn’t looking at homes on Realtor.ca.

I like our house.

Sometimes I love it.

Our neighbourhood is fantastic – trails and a park – young families and retirees.  A genuine community.

And yet, Realtor.ca beckons.  Constantly.  Not just on Saturday mornings.  The app on my phone means constant checks throughout the week. 

Chasing the perfect home. An extra bathroom.  A magnificent view.  Something more walkable too – schools, stores, coffee-shops – ideally would be just a short stroll away.

The next best thing just around the corner.  Because the next home will make everything better.  Parenting, life, and work stress will disappear when we add another toilet.

It’s ridiculous of course.  Most of us grew up sharing bathrooms, in homes without walk-in closets and jacuzzi tubs.  We survived just fine.  We didn’t know any different.

I think of my grandparents.  Children of the First World War.  Young parents themselves during World War II.  They suffered.  Their infant daughter died soon after birth in the dark autumn of 1944 in occupied Holland.  War raged while they mourned and battled for survival, and struggled to raise their surviving daughter.  My mother.

Many decades later my grandparents retired to a small bungalow in very small-town Ontario.  One bedroom, one bathroom.  They took pride in that home.  My grandfather spent thousands of hours in his garden.  Sometimes I helped him.  Today, when I work in our backyard – a sun-drenched property with apple trees, pear trees, and garden boxes which overflow with tomatoes – I think of how much my grandfather would have loved this home.  I wish he was alive and bedside me.  And I feel guilty for ever thinking about leaving. 

Leaving a place my daughter loves, adding a hundred thousand dollars to our mortgage, and an hour a day to my commute, all for the sake of looking outside and seeing the ocean and the mountains.

The draw of that view is powerful.  The desire for an extra bathroom is real.  So is the reality that the things I want come at a cost. A cost that may not be worth paying. 

Still, it’s hard not to look. 

Addiction.ca

When Inner Storms Swirl

I’m almost fifty years old and I still seek my parents’ advice.  Their wisdom rarely fails me.

Almost fifty.  Decisions matter more than ever.  When I was thirty, thirty-five, even forty I still felt time and life stretched forward far beyond what I could see.  Or imagine.

No longer.  Not when I’m just months away from half a century.  By the numbers I’m closer to the end than the beginning.  Closer to the end of my career.  Closer to the end of my life.  Fifty sneaks up on you.  But 50 is a number that does not lie.

Decisions are supposed to get easier as we age, drawing on maturity and life experience to guide us forward.

Fat chance.

Decisions get harder.  There’s more at stake.  Less time to play with.  Maximizing every moment matters more than ever.

But what does maximizing mean?

For a few days this week it means being by the ocean.  In a hotel with big windows and long views.  A hotel just a few steps from a sandy beach.   

A hotel with one bedroom, one bed, and a four-year-old tossing and turning all night.  Maximizing means me getting out of bed when I’m still tired, escaping to the living room, and reading and writing, well before 5 a.m. when it’s too dark to see the ocean, and too cold to be warmed by the fireplace.

And it’s quiet.  Quiet helps – helps with making decisions, helps with maximizing.

Quiet does not provide answers.  But quiet lets you listen to the inner-voice.  To the collected wisdom of friends and family.  To the doubts that eat your insides when the path forward isn’t clear.

And it rarely is.  Big decisions have big consequences and are rarely straightforward.  Big decisions are not a flashing red 99 on a scale of 1 to 100.  Big decisions are often 50 – 50.  There is no clear right answer.  There is no clear wrong answer.  When we agonize over these choices, we work to tip the scale – to get to 51.  Or higher.

Sometimes we are right.  Sometimes we are wrong.

And sometimes we realize that there is no right, and no wrong.  That 50-50 means that there is good and bad in whatever path we choose.  And those paths often flow from within.  Do we seek comfort and contentment – or strive for challenges where growth requires pain? 

Maybe the closer I get to 50, the more comfortable I am with 51.  With accepting that consequential decisions are made – must be made – when inner storms swirl.

No storms swirled around us this week.  The ocean and sky competed for the prize of bluest and most beautiful.  The sun warmed everything.  Inukshuks lined the shoreline.  Parks reverberated with children’s voices and laughter.  Ice cream sundaes were devoured.  Wine was savoured.  Life was relished.  Family was maximized.

I got a few days closer to 50.  And a lot closer to 51.

A Walk in the Cemetery

I had a few hours of free time this morning.  It’s rare for me to be alone, and away from home.

So I went to a cemetery.

A cemetery, near a forest by a church.  A beautiful church.  An old church. 

Smoke from the forest fires raging south of us obscured the sky. 

No one else was around.

It was like walking through a P.D. James novel.

Our world feels very obscured.  There is no clarity.

Cemeteries provide clarity.  Death provides clarity.  The on switch is flicked off.  1 becomes 0.  Light is dark.

The cemetery was quiet.  Peaceful. Tranquil.  Mostly grey with splashes of flowers.  Immense trees loomed overhead.  I saw an infant’s grave.  I saw many birth dates far to close to the birthdays of people I love who are still alive.  Loved ones I treasure beyond description.  The people I do not ever want to lose.

As I write this, our dog is hours away from being euthanized.  I’ve written about her in the past.  Not always glowingly.  But her absence will create a void in my life.  In my wife’s life.  In my daughter’s life. I will always remember the golden beauty who was with me when I was alone, and lonely, and a little bit scared of what the future held in store.  I’ll remember long walks along the beach, stones thrown into the ocean, and hot summer days laying by the water, a book in one hand, and my Maggie beside me.

I’ll remember this day.  Some glorious free time with something awful looming.  And yet I’m still enjoying myself.  A coffee in a café.  My laptop in front of me.  Nowhere I need to be for 90 whole minutes.

The where I need to be is my daughter’s pre-school.  To pick her up.  Earlier this week she was terrified before her first day.  My wife and I felt her fear.  Agonized over it.  Needlessly.  Because she came home and told us, “I love pre-school.”  She asked to go every day.  Kids grow up fast.

Today, when I dropped her off, she greeted her teacher with glee, overjoyed to tell her about the new doll her granny bought her.  Almost forgetting dad was beside her.  Maybe actually forgetting, because I had to ask for a hug and a kiss before she bounded into the classroom.  I was so proud of her.  And so conscious that my little girl is growing up. 

My days often feel very obscured.  The smoke of work, the smoke of stress, the smoke of life.  Who has time for clarity when life moves a million miles an hour, Covid keeps us from one another, and fires blacken the sky? 

Clarity might be unattainable.  Or maybe it is does exist, but it is precious because it is both fleeting and hazy.  Like a walk in a cemetery on a day filled with both life and death.

POSTCRIPT

Dad picked up his daughter and bought her a Happy Meal for lunch.

Maggie died peacefully, in her home, surrounded by love.

The Best Thing Ever

Our dog Maggie is dying. Slowly. She’s in enough pain to require expensive medication, and the medication works so well we cannot put her down. Obsessed with food, she spends her waking hours stalking my wife, begging for snacks and sniffing the floors for non-existent crumbs. A dozen times a day she barks at the back door. We let her outside. A minute later, she yelps to get back in. I should feel charitable towards her. I should be cherishing my last weeks and final days with a loyal companion. But I’m not. I want her gone because life will be much less stressful without her. Her presence – her noise – grates on my nerves. Unceasingly.

My wife is kind, gentle and empathetic. Maggie entered her life when we met. She showered her with love and kindness. Maggie is more her dog than mine now. She has been for a long time. She loves Maggie more than I do. She’ll miss her more than I will. Where I see a dog hanging onto life by a string, she sees a beautiful old girl still desperate for a daily walk and tasty treats.

I’m not proud of how I feel about Maggie. But it is the truth.

Here’s another truth. Silence is rare and I crave it. We are blessed to have a vibrant, healthy, energetic daughter. She brings me joy every day. Not just joy. Pride. Wonder. Fulfillment. Meaning.

And exhaustion. Life is full-on from the moment she wakes up until the second her head hits the pillow. Talking, moving, dancing, playing, showing, asking, telling, smiling, teasing, laughing. And the opposite. Yelling and screaming. Sometimes throwing and hitting. She is only four. The world is opening to her. In all its wonder. And in all its reality. She knows Maggie will die soon. Last night she asked if the needle will hurt when the vet injects Maggie to put her to sleep. That’s a tough question to answer.

Like every parent, I am privileged to experience the world anew through her eyes. Like most dads with daughters, I get to experience a different kind of childhood than my own. Pinks and purples, princesses and unicorns. All those things colour my life.

As does watching her with other children as she learns to navigate relationships and personalities. Loud boys, silent girls. Loud girls, silent boys. The discovery that some kids are friends, most are acquaintances and a handful must be either avoided, or, as a last resort, confronted, because aggressiveness and cruelty already define them.

As I age – as I watch my daughter age – I’m more comfortable with what defines us both. I’m an introvert. Years ago, I would have balked at that description. Been embarrassed by it. Pretended it was not the case. Socialized when I would rather have been home. No more. It is who I am. It is what I am. It is why I need silence to recharge. I need to read. To write. To run. My website is readerwritterrunner.com for a reason.

I’m reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  It helps me better understand myself. Reinforces that it is okay for me to be me. And helps me understand my daughter. She responds to stimulus intensely. She always has. We saw it when she was a preemie, in an incubator in intensive care, constant movement when all the other infants lay still. It’s the same today – she feels deeply and reacts passionately to the good, the bad, and everything in between. The research suggests that, given her nature, she is almost certain to grow up to be an introvert herself.

Maybe a different kind of introvert than her dad. Quiet, stillness and serenity are not on her radar. Life is a maelstrom of activity and feelings.

I love that maelstrom. It is the best thing ever. And among the most challenging things ever. To remain myself in the commotion. And to recognize, that, even within the whirlwind of life there are always – always – moments where calm, silence and quiet prevail.

On a bench

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despair Soup

Big things crush small things.

Covid ravages nations.

A horrific death in Minnesota reverberates around the globe.

Really big things. Really bad things.

Overwhelming things.

It feels selfish to miss small things amidst so much death and suffering.

Too much death and suffering.

But I miss them. I miss them desperately. Baseball. My daughter’s dance class. Restaurants. The Tour de France – incredible athletes and stunning scenery. I gorge on the Tour for three weeks every July. But not this year.

It all makes for one giant recipe for despair. Despair Soup. Take one horrific virus – add a divided society – strip away the simple pleasures – simmer for months – await the explosion.

Maybe it will not explode. There might be a vaccine. We may all come together instead of pulling apart. But look south. To America. A country ripping itself apart. A country defined by left vs. right. Republican vs. Democrat. A global superpower coming apart at the seams.

Big things crush small things.

But not always. Sometimes small things win.

Running is a small thing.

Covid can cancel races but it can’t stop runners from running. That’s what we do. It’s our answer for everything. Feeling down? Go for a run. Feeling good? Great day to run. Body sore? Run to recover. Tired? Run to wake up. Can’t sleep? Run for exhaustion.

Overwhelmed by the world?  Run.

That’s what I did on a quiet morning when the sun made a rare appearance defying the dark clouds and rain which have settled over us for months.

I can’t say I was at peace when I began that run. Work stress. Life stress. World stress.

But I laced up a new pair of trail shoes and headed uphill. No music. No watch. Just a trail with roots and rocks and mud and horse manure. Switchbacks and inclines. Towering evergreens. Warning signs about bears in the area – because big bears crush scrawny runners.

But I didn’t see any bears. And not many people. Just me and my thoughts. And my no thoughts. Straining uphill. Testing my legs and my lungs. Then getting to the top and resting my legs and my lungs. Just enjoying the view. A beautiful view. A small moment of peace. A big view.

Big things crush small things. But sometimes small things win.

Picture B_20200628_090010

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.