Remembering Alberta

Recently, I was reintroduced to the wonder that is Alberta.

The barn copy.jpg
Barn on my Mom’s ranch near Camrose

I spent some quality time with Mom and friends, albeit under rather sad circumstances, camped atop Alberta’s green waistline near Camrose. Life is slower here, although bearing the weight of a daily regimen of tasks that would shame a comfy city dweller like myself. Folks are simple, genuine; their politics bespeak as much. I need these types in my life to remind me of life before the city, before we traded green for grey, heart for hurry.

Calgary, that sprawling spray of suburbanism, welcomed me back into her bosom. It is the visual race-for-more set deceivingly in the beauty of rolling foothills climbing their way upward into the Rocky Mountains to the west. She eyed me closely however, untrusting of the broader perspective, gleaned from years of life elsewhere.

The bare shoulder that is Cochrane, held aloft against the Rocky Mountains to the west, provided some jogging (more slogging really) at nearly a mile above sea-level. It was backdrop to a spacious visit with my sister and her husband.

Okotoks. A once-proud cowboy town among the lemon-lime valleys south of Calgary, now Boho-wannabe with more yoga pants and boutiques than boots and hankies. She played host to the auspicious (suspicious?) occasion of my wife’s 35th High School Reunion. As much as an event aimed at aging 50-somethings could be described as ‘epic,’ I’m willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.  

Reunion pic copy.jpg
Okotoks Senior High School, class of ’82

The unattainable majesty of Lake Louise, made impenetrable by the ant colony of one-eyed, phone-clicking tourists. Paradise through a view screen.

Lake Louise perfection copy.jpg
Lake Louise in unspoiled beauty…
Lake Louise 2 copy.jpg
…or not

I’m surprised, even shocked, at my close and immediate affinity with the place. There is much more of me here than I ever suspected. My guts tighten a little whenever my senses get re-assaulted with the pungency of rape seed and peas. My eyes widen at the foothills, frolicking, green with spruce, poplar, birch and aspen, or the salutary pomposity of the Rocky Mountains. My ears still cringe a little at the old crone call of the magpie. My heart swells with memories clamouring for space.

The grove copy.jpg
In a willow grove

Alberta birch copy.jpgThere is a regal order, a persistent danger to this place, in equal measure to its complete lack of pretention. It sits in your lap, comfortable and familiar, like an old farm dog. But, treat her with due respect or she’ll reveal her strength.

It’s easy to forget the relative wealth of the place. Alberta practically drowns in money, choking at times on oil vomited from her broad, black belly. It has made her insanely rich and her people a little myopic with respect to the rest of the world. The furious pace of new construction and the larger-than-life cars, hardly suggests the unforgivable economic downturn so bewailed by her inhabitants. But, lest I come across as ungrateful, that same controversial landscape made for an upbringing much of the world would crave. I am as thankful as I am uncomfortable. It’s an uneasy tension I live with to this day.

The folks here are as big-hearted as the landscape – expansive and verdant – looking for something to grow. But decades of oil and gas revenues have created a monster that lives below, quietly snoring, biding her time. Have the best steak and potatoes of your life one day – cigars, laughter, and foot-stomping music in tow – and all is well. Dance to the beat of the oil drum and they’ll give you their shirts and a layer of skin to boot (cowboy style, that is). But, reveal yourself, even casually, as someone uncomfortable with fossil-fuel damage, global warming, and the need for alternatives and you throw in your lot with the cattle headed to be your own supper. They are a strong and proud folk, duly protective of their fossil-fed way of life.

Mom's 5 copy.jpg
Earth and sky in equal measure

So, conversations stay safest where family starts. They wander in and out of the calf-pens holding the warm and grazing words of easy strangers who feel like friends. These are those whose unadorned view of the world around them makes them quick to laugh, quicker still to pray for rain. Their hopes are found tucked in saddle bags and blue jean pockets or Esso attachés, and slumbering in the subterranean black. Their hands, farmer’s tans, truck culture, and souls are of a piece; indistinguishable parts of a whole.

It’s me through a macro-lens. It may not meld perfectly with the bio-me, but it is the stuff of who I am nonetheless. Born and raised an Alberta boy, now with complicated Celtic-progressive overlay, I can’t deny it any more than run from it. Who I am today, even this very moment, is still the product of wheat and soil, mountains and laughter, horses and magpies, oil and prairie tornadoes.

And, it’s good.

So, What Now?

Recently, I spent words lamenting my egregious fall from grace. It was egregious in the sense that I had all the tools at my disposal for such a thing not to happen. And it still did. Fall because I ended up face first in my own stink. Grace, not in the heavenly sense, but in the way a person views his or her personhood held up to the light. 

In this instance, it didn’t look as shiny anymore. In fact, the worst part of any alcoholic’s misery is the glowing reality that self-respect has left the building. And when one lose’s self-respect they lose the ability to adequately respect others as well. 

And so the question remains, what now? What steps lie ahead for this newly sober, recovering alcoholic? 

The first part of that is the convergence of two things: my vacation and, more importantly, some of that vacation spent at my Mom’s. I’m here in part helping plan papa Sam, her husband’s, celebration of life service. Hence, I begin with words penned among the whispery poplar and birch that stand guard around their mini-ranch in central Alberta.

Mom's 7.jpg
Alberta trees keep me company
Mom's 2.jpg
The home Mom and Sam built together
Mom's 6.jpg
Golden Spur Ranchetta
Mom's 8.jpg
The guesthouse
Mom's 10.jpg
Quonset-ville

*   *   *

It would be easy to lose all track of time up here. Imagine a place so quiet that the ticking of the wall clock becomes almost intrusive. I can hear the blood race through my veins. Even the creaks of my aging bones become deafening in a place almost averse to sounds other than the rustling trees and the occasional lowing of happy cattle.

Such is life on a central Alberta ranch, or so it seems to a late middle-aged, suburban white guy on vacation. A guy could get used to this pace. Well, so says the man unaccustomed to the accompanying rigours and harshness of Canadian prairie life.

One’s vacation experience of a place is usually quite different from those doing the heavy lifting to help produce that experience. So, I suppose I should, more rightly, consider myself a prairie homestead consumer. A few days spent at Golden Spur Ranchetta being waited on hand and foot by my own mother. Home cooking, and the full package, magazine-ready, prairie experience. To be fair, I washed the dishes last night. That counts for something, right?

It would be perfection indeed if it wasn’t also the context in which I’m helping Mom lay her best friend to rest. It tends to bring some shadow to an otherwise sun-bright living room where I pen these words.

This is Mom’s place. It has her touch at every turn. Like stepping back in time, there are, everywhere, reminders of my own childhood. But this is also Sam’s place. A house that boasts numerous guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, amps, gear, and tools of the luthier’s trade. He loved his old-time cowboy music and did the tradition proud with his devotion both to the music and the lifestyle it portrays.

Most of all, this is their place. Sam and Doris. Mom and “Papa Sam.” Here is a life woven lovingly together with strands of two in a single tapestry. It boasts the simplicity and industry expected of prairie home companions. A picture, painted not by Thomas Kincaid’s dishonesty or Norman Rockwell’s wishful thinking, but by two hardy souls better suited to the task.

Golden Spur is a paint by number where God does the math. Two souls plus one hope plus one God’s watchful presence, now one less.

One less. But somehow, none the less for it. Sam’s spirit lives on here. In Mom. In the legacy of his hard work.

In me.

The quiet hours spent here among the poplar and birch give me ample room to stretch my rumpled, but healing, soul. I am faced head on with the unwelcome task of returning to normal life with a lot of relational work to do.

Addicts of any kind are profoundly self-serving. We need to be in order to keep and nurture our dirty little secret. Maintaining addiction comes at a high price. Our lust for euphoria takes prisoners. There is a desperation afoot that causes us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do. We hurt those closest to us in ways we can’t imagine, and usually can’t even remember. 

Certainly for me, I become a man I do not know. Someone I do not like. I’m forced to live in a dark corner of my head that lacks judgement, wisdom, compassion, or boundaries. I latch onto whomever happens to be in the way and, like a rottweiler on a kitten, drag them under the water with me. It forces everyone into codependency, slaves with me to a burden not theirs to bear.

Then, morning after regret. The addict looks back over a smouldering wreckage with their name on it. Reputations, relationships, respect, sometimes even families, all lie in ruins – taken captive by someone blissfully unaware of the carnage that ensues through his inebriated wizardry.

Now, before this begins to sound like little more than addiction to self-pity, let me put on the brakes and reveal what is emerging in me. And, this time spent at Mom’s provides perfect respite for doing just that. In this gift of silence I have seen that the truest me, despite having lost its lustre, remains unblemished. Kicked around and battered a little, but largely intact.

For reasons known only to my Higher Power I have been continually surrounded by those who love me. They’ve stayed, even through my worst days. Few truths are more life-changing than to awake from addiction and see, through the smoke and chaos, the faces most precious, best known, eyes cast down and hurt, but still present.

Their faithfulness lends new life to one whose heavy lifting now is a daily return to sobriety with tools ready to rebuild wherever possible. Earning trust and respect, even if from scratch. So be it.

Mom, I wish I could be here under circumstances different than these. Nevertheless, I take these days, each and every one, as pure gift. In them I reconsider a life. My life. My one and only life. This great, albeit fragile, life in which I live, move, and have my being.

So, what now?

I lift up my head, newly clear and seeing far, and say in a loud voice: “Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic.” Better still, I’m a man beloved and embraced.

What could possibly be better?

Mom's.jpg
Invitation…

Morning Pages, or something like that

I’m new to Julia Cameron’s idea of Morning Pages. Her best-selling book, The Artist’s Way, has changed many lives and continues to do so. Lately, it seems to be the case for me as well. Through so much of what I write or compose, I am seeking to link the deepest places of my soul to the creative spaces in my head. To put it another way, I am happiest whenever my deepest longings meet my best gifts (thank you Frederick Buechner!).

But Ms. Cameron does this so much better, so here we are. I love the idea that art can create wonder from boredom, peace from turmoil, full from empty. It’s supposed to be that way with our spiritual practice as well. Creating light from dark is what the gospel intends to do in all of us. 

But we so easily entangle ourselves in all that is quick, convenient, or potentially euphoric. We shelf the best stuff for the fast stuff. It robs us of what our creative and spiritual selves want to share, with us, and with the world.

My interest in Cameron’s book has been piqued for many years now, but only got taken off the book shelf recently. Procrastinator you ask? Um, hell yeah! Nevertheless, we’re there now and she is guiding me into my own well by means of writing as meditation. It remains my intention to write my book from this well. 

But, I gotta find it first, relearn how to lower the bucket, and not be afraid to see what comes up. So, here goes. These were my Morning Pages from today, Friday, June 30th. Hopefully they find you whole and happy.

* * * * *

18922094_10154354170066895_4744571270974947336_n.jpg
My typical morning spot. It totally works.

Morning has again crept with typical stealth onto the broad, brown land. This is a hopeful time of day for me. It’s as though I’ve been granted another twenty-four hour run at this thing. Life may have been a jolly cock-up yesterday, but morning comes again and says “Fuck it. Let’s give this another go, shall we?”

For someone like me, prone to shadow, turbulence, and chaos, this comes as welcome invitation indeed. The equally broad landscape of my life needs this daily reimagining. They are little reawakenings as it were to all the yummy goodness just below the surface of things.

Lower Valley hills.jpg
Typical of our regional semi-arid hills and dales

In this desert, although appearing brown and dusty dry on the outside, there holds within it all the possibilities of the world’s first day. If God can step back, clap His/Her hands, and with a smile proclaim, “it is good,” then surely I can do the same.

valley_hills2-md.jpg

That should be a regular meditation for each new morning to which I have the good fortune to see. Step outside, listen, take a deep breath of its newness, and, together with my Creator proclaim, “it is good.” Perhaps with such an outlook, every day can be experienced for the next-chance-to-grow it really is.

Besides, if God could create something new every day and say these words at every one, then it behooves me to do the same. Even if I can’t quite get to that level of optimism, sometimes it is enough to say “well, I fucked up a lot less this time. That’s good, right?” The icing is to rest at the end with feet up, heart full, proverbial Gin and tonic in hand (well, tonic water for this problem drinker!)

What could be better?

One can hardly be surprised then to know that St. Augustine’s favourite passage of Scripture was the creation narrative. He elucidates upon it in depth in his Confessions in a way only a genius philosopher can (beautifully unintelligible). He sees things in the creation not readily available to mere mortals like you or me. But, in my ongoing pursuit of contemplative creativity, there is here a wonderful challenge; a holy dare.

I have before me then a challenge to see, truly see, what lies right in front of me. Where I see a sparrow, God sees the perpetual renewal of all things. Where I see a rose, God sees something magnificent from humble beginnings. Where I hear a crow caw, God hears a virtuoso in training. I taste dirty water, God tastes the banquet, spread out with delights borne of its nourishing goodness.

In the brooding darkness that so often smothers me, a good long look at a morning like this one acts as reminder that it is truer than me. It is the darkness that is askew. The brilliance, colour, and cacophony of sound is the real. And it is before me now, insistently mocking all sadness and doubt.

If God is so capable of seeing perfection in the imperfections and incoherence of each new day, then that is what I am called to see. What we are all welcomed into.

So then, step outside with me, stretch, yawn, blink, breathe in deeply, and stare into the day. Then, together, with He/She who built it, say…it is good.

Peace, dear souls

 

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 11

What I learned looking at Skye

Previously, I had recounted my experience of hiking the Quirain Ridge on the isle of Skye in Scotland. Here’s the exciting (one can only hope) conclusion…

* * * * *

What I recognized of the way here only lasted about an hour before I began to experience that hollow feeling in one’s gut that one is not where one should be. I looked ahead to a sheep gate with small steps designed to carry people up and over. I had recalled such a thing on my way here. Just not this one.

Skye 51.jpg
The rugged, volcanic landscape that is the Quirain Ridge
Skye 55.jpg
Views borrowed from God’s photo album

Skye 57.jpgBut there was still a trail and I was happy to be on it, so onward I went. Another hour passed and anything resembling a trail had faded into a maze of boggy grass, rivulets of water flowing down from the uplands downward to one of the many smaller bodies of water lower down. Before me was the ocean in one direction, the hills from whence I’d come in the other.

Both were equally baffling.

Did I chance the eastward march through the middle of nowhere, aiming to eventually meet up with the shoreline and hopefully, the A455? Or, did I retrace my steps back upwards and seek out the original trail? The decisive guy I am, I decided to walk in circles for another hour and a half becoming increasingly frantic in so doing.

Finally, I made one last attempt back up to the rock faces that had formed my right wing on my initial route. And I saw them. A young couple who, also lost, were so evidently besotted with each other that it mattered less to them than to me, a soaking wet, sweaty, panicking fifty something.

We introduced ourselves. Then, I proceeded to recount my sob story of late middle-aged geographic retardation and we came up with the following game plan. We could try to find the eastern trail that would lead back to the motorway where was my car. Or, we would turn the other direction and hopefully find our way back to where their car was parked on the western side of the island. One would then drive the other back to their respective vehicle.

The only tree on Skye.jpg

I successfully made the case that I had already been lost for two hours and would provide little in the way of reliable directions back to anything, let alone my car. So, the decision was made to retrace our steps with the intention of finding our way west across the island. As it turned out, over two hours later it was happily clear that this had been the right decision.

Many sheep, loose stone stairways, close-cropped trails clinging tightly to precarious cliffs, and heartbeats later and a glorious sight awaited us: the parking lot. We had made our way to something recognizable from which we could then regale others with the very tale I now tell.

How metaphoric this is of the spiritual life. Broad, open vistas at one turn, sheltered inland waterways at another, all make way for more rigorous upland turns leaving one out of breath and struggling. Our better curiosity about the intricacies of the abundant life comes with a dash of danger, and much that is unknown. But it is precisely for that reason that life’s best lessons are never served up on china or crystal but in clay pots and dirty goblets better fitted to the task.

Of all the stories I tell of our trip to bountiful, this is the one that stands out most. It represents something more than the expected stops of the run-of-the-mill tourist. There is a wildness here. A particularity of incarnational wonder peppers my experience of being lost on Skye. And now, removed from the imminent danger and fear of the event, it is the most memorable. And, dare I say, formational.

My connection to Skye was both immediate and profound. It bled me from the start, leaching itself onto my spirit with ferocity and tenderness in equal measure. She is a wild, unkempt, treeless wonder, at once spell-binding and succulent. I was hooked.

But more so, I had touched something primal within me, the place of raw, untested faith, eager for challenge. As a man not generally given to risk-taking, it was exhilarating. It was liminal in all the best ways and will provide rich fodder of burning peat fires of faith still needed for the days to come.

And after all, that’s much of the reason I came in the first place.

 

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 9

What I learned looking at Skye

Friday, June 3. I wave goodbye to my wife as she makes her way by train south to a writer’s retreat near Bath.Waving goodbye to Rae.jpg I make a leisurely retreat back to the Edinburgh car park where awaits my trusty chariot for the journey to come. As I shut the car door it occurs to me, shit, I have to drive through the Highlands without her as my human GPS (SatNav) where Internet is as rare as the Loch Ness monster. Lord, have mercy!

Before executing the daunting task of driving the Highlands alone I spend a few days reacquainting myself with the chic, sleepy provincialism cum arts mecca cum tourist quicksand that is Edinburgh. Long walks down the Portobello promenade watching very white-skinned Scots sunning themselves on windy beaches. It adds credibility to my insistence that Scots change color quickly given ten minutes of sun. Peppering the shoreline are numerous ice cream stands, overpriced coffee-shops above health clubs, and as many accents as are people to sport them. And best of all, to grace these precious days, friends.

One particularly memorable evening I prepare myself for a most enchanting experience: a literary pub tour in downtown Edinburgh. Two actors, one playing an actor (does he get paid the same?), the other an intellectual, regale us with tales, poetry, and saucy anecdotes of the lives of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – all of whom would have made great rock stars, awash as they were in wine, women, song, and…wine.

The Beehive Inn.jpg
Edinburgh’s historic Beehive Inn where began our literary pub night
Literary Tour actors 2.jpg
Our wacky, well-informed, richly entertaining hosts
On our way.jpg
One of the many colorful side streets housing the four pubs of our literary evening together

For lit-geeks like myself, it was orgasmic.

Sights, sounds, experiences – these are only given meaning when they can be shared with those closest to us. Edinburgh is a place of such connections. We lived here in 1989 making fools of ourselves among a motley group of trendy Baptists intent on serving one of the poorest areas in western Europe.

Inverleith Row.jpg
Inverleith Row, looking toward downtown and Edinburgh Castle
73 Inverleith Row.jpg
73 Inverleith Row, our oh so trendy address while in Edinburgh

Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and his wife Moira are two of our bedrock Scots friends. It is their home that provided our, and now, my residence these few days.

Scarcliffes.jpg
Moira Scarcliffe, Adam Scarcliffe (eldest son), Rae, Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and some aging, wannabe photographer

Hours of slow and windy driving through the Highlands bring me at last to Kyle of Lochalsh. It is a tidy little Scottish village at the convergence of Loch Alsh and what is called The Minch. The unimaginatively titled Skye Bridge leads me to Kyleakin on Skye’s eastern shore. Both towns are replete with customary Scottishisms – quaint pubs, fish ‘n chip shops, numerous cafés complete with dodgy wi-fi, and store owners speaking less Scottishy for us tourists to decipher.

Into the Highlands 10.jpg
Into the Highlands
Into the Highlands 11.jpg
Drawing closer to Kyle of Lochalsh
Into the Highlands 28.jpg
The Highlands at Kyle of Lochalsh, doorway to Skye
Skye Bridge!.jpg
“Skye Bridge”

One would think it obvious that places like Skye would have their fair share of tourists. Dozens of us cram onto the tiny ribbon-like roads, hastily taking leisurely pictures at every available layby. We follow each other like newborn puppies in search of Mom.

But, apparently I still live too much in overly-romanticized pictures of it and I become bitchy about just how many of ‘them’ are here. This, despite the fact on numerous occasions I do so while taking view-enhanced selfies or while asking someone to take my picture as I pipe my way across the island – you know, the way actual residents do. *I do not possess enough appendages required to do the same.

Rob piping in the Highlands.jpg
One of dozens of “pipe through Scotland” pictures, thanks to as many fellow pilgrims

By the time I stopped three or four times for still more precise directions I fill my cellphone to overflowing with photos even more touristy taken by at whom I whinge. I can live with that. Besides, once it became clear that I was merely part of the parade, like pinballs bouncing from one site to another, I relaxed a bit more and settled into this reality. A combination of Siri (when available) and my trusty old school map guided my way.

Cnoc Aluin, my island digs for the week would be one of the numerous well-fitted bed and breakfasts that pepper the island. But, not before getting lost on any number of identical tiny interconnecting ribbon roads, high-centering the rental car in the neighbor’s yard, and getting stuck in the driveway. I am, if nothing else, walking proof that the evolutionary process is, well, a process. Once I found the place, I knew it would be the perfect home for the days I would be here.

My B'nB.jpg
My view
My B'nB 2.jpg
It doesn’t suck here
My B'nB 4.jpg
Looking across Loch Greshornish from the front deck

Irene, more big sister than business woman, reveals well the identifying marks of many city-born proprietors now happy to live simpler lives here. Born in Edinburgh, lived in London, she and her husband are all too happy now to help those like me find some of the magic here. During my stay, their expertly retro-fitted place also houses a Japanese family and two young grad students with whom to swap exploits. Tangentially, I bumped into the two students on almost half a dozen separate occasions at spots miles apart!

My travel buddies 3.jpg
My fellow travel buddies

Skye has two ring roads that, more or less, circumnavigate the island. A northern and a southern route. Many smaller tributaries to other sites web themselves to these primary ones allowing access to more beauty than is humanly comprehensible. It is surprisingly small by North American standards. But, for its size it boasts a long, proud, convoluted history.

I waited my entire life to see this place. The greatest gifts require commensurate patience on our part. They are revealed to us only as we are prepared for the gifts, and accompanying responsibilities, they bring. Are we prepared for all that may be asked of us? Do we even know how to see what we most need to see? When we see, will we have the courage to invoke its transforming influence in our lives? Will we submit to lessons we hadn’t anticipated?

As I sit behind the wheel of the rental car about to embark on my first sight-seeing trip of this remarkable place, do I have what it takes to humble myself before its treasures and, metaphorically, God’s?

I pull out of the driveway in the expectant hope that I do.

“Trip to Bountiful”- part 6

Dunbar Harbour. A tiny nook of land nestled tightly against the North Sea. The horizon shoulders in equal measure a ghostly, white mist and the slowness of morning sea. Waves of amber grey taste the red rocks of Scotland’s southeast shoreline. And the timid shores trade their sins for the secrets of the deep, betrothed in waves of forgiveness. Pink-cheeked seamen toss buckets of fish as bate into lobster traps readying for the day’s catch. There’s a sharpness to this low tide air, the sea’s pungent reminder of her abiding presence.

Dunbar fishermen.jpg
Fishermen in Dunbar Harbour prepare the lobster traps

A lit-geek to the core, I doffed my book-bag complete with eyeglass cleaner, multiple writing implements, not one but two journals, half a dozen books and of course, my laptop. One always hopes the effort of lugging around an extra twenty-five pounds of geekery will pay off on some seaside park bench. Thereupon will I compose the next great American novel or T.S. Eliot’s long awaited Fifth Quartet, or even just the sequel to 50 Shades of Grey.

Instead, it became a large security blanket that added beats per minute to my heartrate and a rather sore neck. That said, my own journey this morning included a leisurely stroll beside these kelp-lined shores. I saw an interesting strand of beach to my right, southward down the coast and began walking in its direction.

A few steps in however and I glanced back. My view was given much better capital in the other direction. So, I redirected myself and walked northward through the ample streets lining the shore. It was to provide some rather rewarding eye candy and even more soul food.

If God is my father, the sea is my mother, and Scotland her teat upon which I gratefully suckle. In all my yearning for a sense of harbour – a deeper certainty of my soul’s DNA – these moments come closest.

Dunbar Harbour 4.jpg
A rocky beach

So much of life is lived in a sea of perceptions. A few of those are based on reality. Some are not. Like this morning, they come upon me by way of hint, innuendo, suggestion. They leave the potential of other things yet to come. It is the gentle, sideways life that doesn’t leave me breathless, but simply curious.

Dunbar Harbour 13.jpg
Walking along Dunbar Harbour walkway

At other times, without warning, I find myself stranded on a tiny isthmus that is no guarantee that I won’t be swept away in the insistent, foaming anger of my changing tide. Either way, it is how we must all live.

Our perceptions of the world are, for us, what really is, in spite of what may actually be true. This sneaky truth is the reason why we must always be in pursuit of whatever is true, or good, or noble as St. Paul suggests in his letter to the church at Philippi.

Dunbar Harbour 17.jpg
The North Sea as seen from Dunbar Harbour

I’ve been to these shores often enough to recognize the layers of what I see. There is the Scotland of history, the one with sharp wounds cut deep in her skin of stone. There is the Scotland of my imagination, the mythology of Celtic knowing and bardic mysticism.

But there is the Scotland that just is. It is traffic horns and coffeeshops and Tandoori restaurants and cell phones. It is a collection of wiry old sea dogs, self-absorbed businessmen and dark-haired, haggard looking moms. It is a clash of class, struggle, and culture like anywhere else.

Mostly, like everywhere else, it is a place where people simply live.

And, it is this discovery that has blessed me on this trip more than any other. Any of my previous fanciful notions of the place have been chipped away. What remains is an unadorned appreciation for what my senses perceive. And, in fact, as I am further removed from any need to either sanctify or romanticize it, I receive the deeper gifts available from just keeping my eyes open.

Well, either that, or I’m finally adulting (at 52!).

These moments help escort me away from the rocky shoals of misperception that are so damaging. And, even as the healing presence of Scotland’s broad sea, green vest, and briny aftershave grace my steps this afternoon, I can internalize all this to take with me when we return.

Dunbar.jpg
Street leading to the sea

The deftness of wind, strength of stone, and the broad belly of sea will speak their secrets in my lesser moments. I can share what I’ve heard of God’s voice with the dear souls to whom I return.

And, when the unforgiving summer sun in Yakima valley steals the breath from my lungs, I can put in its place what I have today experienced. Perceptions can, for a moment at least, be what is true.

And in that moment, the truth will set me free.

“Trip to Bountiful” – part 1

mobile_h_photo.jpg

The words I’m about to write are the first I’ve written about this. Not because I am ashamed of it. Nor am I trying to hide anything. Quite simply, I’m still trying to understand it all.

I had an emotional breakdown early in the new year. I hit a wall that would have intimidated Goliath. I was wiped out, gutted; truly at the end of my emotional capital. I laid curled up in a ball, weeping uncontrollably on a hotel room floor, a tsunami of thoughts raging in my skull. My soul was in a vice, and my interior life was squeezed beyond recognition.

Quite simply, I had nothing left.

In the middle of that I received a text from a close friend and colleague. Rather cryptically (and not without humor), it said, “what the f**k is up with you? I keep getting woken up to pray for you.”

Okay God, you have my attention.

In the space of an hour, I went from despair to utter calm. The room remained dark and cheerless. My soul however felt swept somehow. Not elated. Not blissful per se. Just quiet and pensive. I was for the first time in distant memory, without anxiety. It was a state I would enjoy for about twelve days.

And, although the anxiety would return, in the window of time gifted to me I made numerous life decisions that have offered great riches ever since. What I discovered in that time was remarkable. When anxiety is removed one becomes surprising lucid, focused, confident, and decisive. 

I put my ordination process on hold. Ordination is the right decision. It’s just the wrong time. I removed myself from a number of writing projects, if only for a time. I gave up my music students (shamefully, I only teach for the money anyway). I felt a desire to perform more often and to dig into gardening (the pun is easier than the gardening). I had an overwhelming desire to turn my sights toward fixing things around our home. I saw more clearly the necessity of relationships and the blessing of stability (thank you, St. Benedict).

Most importantly, it became clear to me that I must join my wife on what was originally her, not our, vacation. 

By God’s grace and if the creek don’ rise, my wife and I board an aircraft for Britain on Saturday evening. It’s been twelve years since we last stood on this sacred ground. The archaeology of our lives readily reveals itself at these moments; moments ripe with joyful anticipation, with curiosity, small misgivings of varying kinds, and simple impatience.

2016-03-26 16.32.40.jpg
Rae and I

We are grateful in such deep ways. We are aware that as we depart, we do so with people and responsibilities we leave behind. In God’s loving hands they are held. But, as everyone knows, the best thing to fix a computer is usually a simple restart. Although we go for different reasons, my requirements are 1) to flush my mental hard drive, 2) to restart my emotional computer, 3) upload fresh life experiences to enhance my spiritual monitor, and 4) set foot again on holy ground.

Ultimately, I am unsure what all of this will mean to me, to us. But, I am a man squarely in a mode of rebuilding my mental-emotional infrastructure. May God have mercy. And, may God go before us on this, our trip to bountiful.

Pix found here and my iPhone!

 

 

The bricks in our walls, chapter 4

brickwall1She was slightly chubby with a pinkish, round face, and dancing eyes that squinted a bit when she smiled. She had a way about her that was at once bracing and dangerous while at the same time hospitable and kind. She felt…comfortable. Our afternoons were often spent talking about all manner of shared interests: music, art, nature, beauty – often while lying side by side under our crabapple tree in the backyard gazing at the summer sky. It was heavenly. We held hands. We kissed. Often.

 

We were ten.

 

I was elated. It was summer. It was hot, and I was slicing through cool, choppy wake churned up by the boat behind which I was waterskiing – upright – for the first time in my life. My friend Darrin was driving, his dad beside him, and his younger brother watching me in case I came into difficulty. Silly, thought I. What could possibly go wrong? As is often the case with cocky, self-assured fourteen year olds, with over-confidence I over-compensated for over-reaching and found myself suddenly bouncing headlong over waves (surprisingly hard while cheese-grating along their ragged tops at forty miles an hour). By the time I finally pulled myself up from under the smug water, I was out of breath, bleeding from my side and completely naked.

 

It was exhilarating.

 

I saw my ever stoic and unyielding father cry only three times. Once during a heated exchange with my younger brother in which he loudly proclaimed that dad was an imposter (all three of us were adopted). Once, when my mother screamed at me so violently it made me cry out all manner of things I now wish I hadn’t. His hand, placed over mine at the kitchen table, is etched forever in the not-to-forget section of my memories. And once when he got back his biopsy results. I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so that someone was with him should the news not be good. It wasn’t. At all. He came out of the room, face a pall of grey, and trembled out a few words in his roughneck Saskatchewan farm boy manner, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”

 

I miss him still.

 

I looked out the airplane window to a sight I’d waited seventeen years to see. The tightly woven, ancient and ragged hills of Scotland, huddled together in green beyond imagination danced a jig before me. If there’d been a seat on the wing, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat just to be that much closer to the land of my soul. Although Canadian born and raised, I have always been Celt to the core. My genes are kilted, my blood tartan, and my chromosomes play bagpipes proudly, up and down the hallways of my DNA. Best of all, I was there with my Welsh-Canadian wife of less than a year. Two Celts touched ground in Prestwick on a chill April day in 1989 and have never been the same.

 

“O flower of Scotland…”

 

The din was almost deafening. Bagpipes everywhere. It was August, 1991. Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a “second first” related to this place. A bagpiper from the age of eight, I’d dreamed of making my way there to compete with the world’s finest since barely in double digits. Now, as head instructor for an up and coming junior pipe band, I was again on old country soil. This time, for the World Pipe Band Championships. To say it was dreamlike would be understatement akin to calling Mt. Everest a quaint, country bump. We were called up to the line. The pipe major barked his command, “by the right, quick march!” Two three-stroke rolls from the snare drums, drones, chanters, then – seven minutes of music, practiced and polished for two years.

 

Ask a bagpiper to define heaven.

the art of wasting perfume

There are smart people out there with books and articles and quotes intimating that the wick of the worship wars flame has burned to a stump. Now, only sticky wax remains out of which we may safely pull something shapely and useful. Whether that is true or not I can’t really say. But, we’ve been sailing post-modern seas long enough to have emerged in a somewhat better place regarding shared worship practices. What interests me most however lies much deeper than mere ritual.

So much of our corporate experience of ecclesiastica these days is about efficiency, effectiveness and euphoria (no extra charge for the cute alliteration). Even big box churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek are recognizing that it’s much easier to draw crowds than deepen congregations. Spend enough money in the right places, position the right people in your dream team staff and learn the angles (this, apparently, means relevance or some such thing) and success is all but guaranteed.

A scourge, not just of contemporary faith and practice, but of early New Testament times as well, is that of pragmatism; visible, quantifiable, “helpful” theology. If some practice of faith doesn’t yield measurable results it is considered suspect, superfluous; even useless. Dead-weight. Dross. The average church building boasts classrooms for every grade, meeting rooms for everything from Ladies’ Teas to A.A. to Family Ministries. Closet space is dedicated to coats, robes, wedding paraphernalia, soup bowls and Christmas decorations. Signs in the Narthex (lobby, foyer) proudly point to these rooms, giving visitors the impression that this is a church on the move. Look at us, we’re not idle. We’re doin’ stuff. Good stuff. Lotsa stuff. It’s exhausting just to consider the dizzying possibilities, let alone dive in.

In our culture, if an idea or practice isn’t immediately and continually beneficial for coffers, volunteers, or givers, it is suspect at best, anathema at worst.

I committed my life to Jesus while driving home to Calgary from a pub gig in Edmonton. A creeping loneliness blending with a troubled psyche was replaced by a lightness of mind and heart I can only describe as…good. Really, really good. I was barely eighteen and living at home. That very evening, my own gratitude and joy spilled over to my Mom, who became the surprised recipient of a fifty-dollar bill for doing my laundry. There is nothing quite like the joy of lavish waste in the name of thanksgiving. Well, and the look of delightful surprise with concerned consternation on someone’s face on the receiving end of such magnanimity.

As I’ve been discovering ever since, such acts are nothing new. Happy hearts become ready harbors for such ships of gratitude, over-laden with desire to be offloaded onto the object of their affection. The Gospel is all about waste and abundance in the name of love; the praise of those who get what it means to be seen. To be known. If you don’t believe me, ask your wife if the time spent making love might not be better spent painting the guest room. I dare say it might be a venture that just prepped your new sleeping quarters. The scriptures are replete with examples of extravagance in the name of love.

I am rather fond of a seedy picture of a woman, obviously swooning in gratitude for the courteous and loving attention of a well-known Rabbi casually saunters over and basically pours her beer on Jesus. Well, actually super expensive perfume. Like, way expensive. A rather sexual act by any standard, it alone deserves volumes for it speaks of much more than simple extravagance. Jesus affixes theological significance to the act. And, of course, the pragmatists in the crowd, thinking themselves in-sensed out of high ideals jump all over it.

Of course, as we can always expect under such lavish displays of unadorned praise offered inappropriately to the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong way, self-proclaimed keepers of the moral gates then, as now, cry foul. They either spit out their tea or drop their knitting needles. By the way, have you ever wondered where those sneaky bastards always come from? They’re positively creepy in their ubiquity as though finding crevices behind rocks, under the dining room table, or behind the rhododendrons.

The scriptures are replete with such acts of selfless wastefulness. Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ wealthier followers, became his post-mortem patron in the form a top tier burial plot. Not the magnanimity one would generally prefer, but there it is; another example of a heart needing to express itself in wealthy waste. King David craves water be brought him while facing the brutal Philistines but decides instead to pour out the most valuable currency in the desert back to the desert. He too knew the art of worshipful waste.

Although an overused example, it serves to illustrate my point here; if this woman by her act has openly laid bare her heart, swollen in the ache of gratitude, then she shows us what worship truly is. What it means to adore someone. And her risky act of risqué devotion mirrors God’s own character. Jesus is God’s wasted perfume. Jesus understands her because he understands his own journey into the dark abyss of broken humanity. It is a pilgrimage of pain, not the pain of the cross primarily, but the pain of loss and loneliness.

She mirrors the heart of God who knows only too well the art of wasting perfume.

ALTARWORK dot calm

These are those delightful, though humbling serendipities that add such a glow of grace to life. Please check out this wonderful initiative of which I am honored to be a part…

ALTARWORK is delighted to present a sample of Rob’s poetry – eight poems in all. Rob has a unique voice and style – eclectic, uniquely profound – and is unafraid to stray beyond convention with regards to his subject matter, point of view, and wordplay. Rob is a highly enjoyable read.”

— Jason Ramsey, ALTARWORK Founder/Editor