In The Balance

I took a picture of this butterfly this morning, balancing on the end of a piece of grass, gently and irregularly opening and closing his wings. Like my father, I can’t get a clear shot. He is in and out of focus. Will the monarch have the energy to gather with the others at the edge of Lake Ontario and make the thousands of kilometres trek to Mexico? Or is that something for the others. Have they already gathered on this cool September morning.

I am sitting beside my father as he sleeps, restlessly in his hospital bed. He had a couple of strokes last week. It’s been a long week and the long drives have been spent thinking about the past.

As a little boy the only way I could hold my father’s hand was to take hold of his finger with my little hand, to keep him close. And in the car, he would lean forward onto the steering wheel to have me grab him from behind and pull him back off of the steering wheel. I can’t imagine what it felt like for him to have my little hands holding, clutching, pulling. That was our language and our vocabulary.

I’ve brought some enlarged photographs to the hospital for him to see, when he wakes. They are pictures of our favourite place on the Ottawa River. I remember, years ago, maybe in my twenties or thirties––my days of prodigal son long behind––one hot and sunny afternoon, we stood waist high in the river, by the dock, drinking beers from “the French side” ––Quebec. We talked about simple things and perhaps happiness. Out loud, I said to my father, “maybe this is as good as it gets,” only because it was so perfect to be in that moment with my dad, with the sun seeming to hang motionless in the middle of the afternoon.

I am blessed with these stills and vignettes from my life. I suppose our lives have been complicated, interesting, challenging, but never boring. My father is a bright man, but our times together have always been filled with simplicity and frequently silent. With little need to speak.

Here, now, watching him, there is so little that needs to be said, it was spoken in those moments years before.

The butterfly surprised me this morning, and it wasn’t until much later that I saw his little balancing act with so much familiarity and recognition.

An Emancipation Day Query: What if Trump were Black?

A colleague (I don’t have many who think this way) recently bemoaned the fact that his cab driver “I think he was Lebanese or something,” was not happier and in a more positive mood upon receiving a twenty per cent tip. “You’d think the guy could be a little happier about living in this country.”

I held my tongue since we have descended down this rabbit hole before, whether it be injustices of native land claim treaties, building out-of-town compounds for the homeless or the intricacies of increasing minimum wage. I tend to change the subject or give an informed view quoted from a respected publication, although I don’t arm wrestle to the bitter end. I usually just say something like “well that’s just stupid,” and like a benign golden retriever he backs off to find another bone to chew.

I was on a café terrace recently with my dog, catching up with a dear friend. A man in the far corner offered free-of-charge comments towards our corner of the terrace. Regarding my dog he had this to say: “no wonder Disney called the dog Goofy.” I thought about what he said, trying to find some redeeming kindness in it. Naïve, as I am, to some people’s innate crabbiness.

My dear friend and I continued to chat while my dog “Hugo” graciously accepted pats and compliments, lapped some water and rejected a piece of rhubarb square I offered him. He barked intermittently––the kind of bark that says I am here. The kind of bark that is isolated, happens once every few minutes and no one pays much attention to.

The man in the corner––I’ll call him the ‘dog whisperer’––continued to offer his sage unsolicited advice to the terrace: “He’s bored, he just wants to play.” (Thank you, after seven years I think I figured that one out). I hadn’t seen my friend in ages. My well-exercised, love-of-my-life, attention getting, centre-of-my-universe dog, in the shade, with water, and all the comforts of life, could suffer for a few moments.

My dear friend, who happens to board, raise and train guide-dogs, said that the man is always offering free-from-the-corner advice on how to treat their latest charge, with no knowledge of seeing-eye-dog training protocol.

This all got me to wondering about explaining the event to my cab-riding colleague. I might take great pleasure in saying something like “A white man, sitting on the terrace this morning was very crabby and didn’t mind interfering in my conversation to advise me on dog rearing protocol. I’m sure he was at least third generation white Canadian and had no reason whatsoever to be so bitter. I mean this country has been so good to him and his ancestors, and he is white after all. He is living in Canada, the greatest country on the earth. What could he possibly have to be cranky about?”

My cab-riding colleague might then look quizzically at me and wonder what the Sam Heck I am talking about. Well think about this. What if the corner of the terrace man had been Lebanese? Or from India or Pakistan? What if he were Native, or Black? Would he be given the same wide berth for bad behavior? I won’t answer that because I have been thinking about it ever since the incident, and it has been bothering me.

What if my cab-riding colleague’s cab driver had been white? Would he have been subjected to the same scrutiny? The same happiness quotient? Might he just be a white guy having a bad day? And what about Trump? What if he were Black? Would he be given the same carte blanche look-the-other way leniency that he seems to get?

Take any of your recent top headlines and change the skin tone, the background, the colour, like I did as a kid with my big sister’s Vogue cut out dolls. See what you come up with.

The Second Chance

A few weeks ago I had an early afternoon off from my day job. I had a few duties to attend to that were government related, phoning aboublogfeb4t their tax mistakes etc. I also wanted to walk the dog, but I hadn’t really made a plan in which order I would do these things. I knew I had to phone during business hours, and walk my dog before dinner. We had a quick foray down the road when I got home, and then I tackled the administrative stuff. Lines were busy, my patience was running thin. Hugo wanted another outing to play frisbee. I dressed, not warm enough and quickly took him out, where my patience ran as thin as my clothing. It was freezing outside and I hadn’t put on anything for an extended time in the cold. I grumbled. Back in we went. Back to the phone. Back to the busy signals. Back to waiting.

We had one more trip out doors, but still I was distracted, and this time it dawned on me just how distracted I was. Enough to realize that I hadn’t been present at all, to our walks. They were walks of duty, which I am sure Hugo could sense. I was disappointed in myself. This was not at all what life was about. Too late, dinner time, cold fingers, setting sun, biting wind, drafty drawers, numb thumbs, simmering discontent, no one on the other end of the line. And I had missed our chance at a perfectly perfect couple of hours. I had blown it.

The next day I had a client who cancelled an appointment late in the afternoon. I went home, bundled up in parka, snow boots, toque, scarf, heavy gloves, and for Hugo to wear, his much disliked but not so bad once they are on, booties.

From the moment we headed out I thanked everything for giving me this second chance to have mindless wandering with my best friend. I thanked deeply and extensively. Hugo was thrilled, sniffing everything. And everything was beautiful from my cozy vantage tucked into my parka; the snow was slightly sticky, the tree branches creaked. Wind howled. Hugo raced, leapt, bounded and bounced from snowdrift to tuft of grass, burying his face, for scents. I noticed field mice or voles or moles or whatever, poking their noses out of places we had stepped. I realized there was a city of life not far below the surface, made up of tunnels and little grass dens.

Time disappeared. There was no rush, no destination. Distractions were made up of no more than new scents, paw prints, and the odd stumble. We squatted by a tree to stare into the wind that blew from miles away (imagining it starting somewhere in California and flying across the continent) onto the field, to us. I looked at Hugo, smiling into the wind, and he looked at me. This was it. We wandered. And I kept saying thank you, for having a chance to retrieve something I had so carelessly missed the day before. It is all too short and so sacred, so divine. I can’t say thank you enough.

A Walk Out Back

winter

With all my layers of down, wool, cotton and synthetic––not to mention the snow booties for the dog and not much else as he has a thick coat––I attach myself to one end of our life line, the 25 foot leash, and the dog and I head out back. It became apparent that after the recent days of odd weather and temperatures that kept us holed up inside or dodging vast lakes of melted water outside, someone needed to stretch his poodle legs.

I trudge through about a foot of new fallen snow covering some great sheets of ice and paradoxically, a few brooks moving across the fields. I admire the well of energy my dog has; we circle about six huge fields, I’ll guess well over a hundred acres, and other than tip toeing gingerly and quite comedically on ice sheets, he bounds most of the way. I inhale and relish the feelings of racing pulse, freezing toes and stinging cheeks. Perhaps there is no way to understand a beauty that can also be life threatening. Crystals and frozen drops of water adhere to stems of grass. Ice forms on ponds with the same pattern that you would see on the scaled side of a fish. I could lie down in this peace, in a welcoming drift of snow by a decrepit fence, and never get up.

Recently, and again thanks to my dog, I have taken to sitting in the yard I have fenced for him, and while he sniffs the edges for traces of rabbit intrusion, or waits for me to throw the frisbee for the hundredth time, I listen while  a silence descends, and envelopes. I wonder how to reconcile this odd beauty that is winter with the sometime discomfort of cold car seats, sodden socks and short painful walks into a brisk north wind.

I feel now, somehow, it is my duty to stop, pull at the seat of my jacket as I sit, so my bum doesn’t freeze, and to stay a bit longer than I am used to. Over my shoulder is the house and beyond is the car and beyond that is the road to town, then a highway, train station and airport. But some silent power says it is my duty to stay in that cold chair, feel the frost burn at my cheeks, squeeze my frozen toes, clutch at my frozen thumbs, and marvel at the sight of my breath.

A Christmas Story

train

I was on the Friday evening train bound for Toronto a couple of weeks ago –– warm inside, cold outside –– enroute to a week in the sun. Surrounded mostly by kids going home before, during or after Christmas exams. My own pre-trip challenges had been stressful in my little world from where to board the dog to how to stuff my flippers and snorkel and all of my camera gear into one bag.

At one of the stops a woman boarded with her two small children and what I thought were a few bags. There was a little commotion getting settled into the seats in front of us, and a certain amount of squealing. Other passengers exchanged glances, some kept their heads down, others, wired to tech, were oblivious. Where were they going a child’s voice asked. To his aunt’s, his mother replied.

From time to time I caught the reflection of the one little boy as he marveled at objects passing outside in the dark –– a truck, another train, lights that went ding –– beyond the window, as well as the fact that he could spy on me via that same reflection.

Not long into the ride, the woman asked the conductor if he could help her with her bags when they disembarked. She was only going a couple of stops, getting off before Toronto. He replied that he had lots of people to help off the train but would try.

I offered to help. She had a dazed look. She was heavyset, not dressed warmly enough for the night, and the younger boy clung to her thigh. We collected up bags and all made our way –– small children in tow –– towards the front of the car.

She pointed to a collection of plastic grocery bags in the storage space. Most of the bags consisted of half opened packages of food that you would find in a refrigerator or cupboard, a half empty 2 litre bottle of cola, boxes of Kraft Dinner, assorted cans, jars and packages, of the kind of food that is not expensive, meals for a dollar a can, spaghetti, stew. It seemed she had cleared out her cupboards and fridge, of what she could carry, along with bags of clothes, and two little boys –– the more curious one, about 3 feet tall, and the other more clingy one about 2 and half feet tall (a three year old and a five year old?).

She still held her ticket in her hand, the kind of ticket they print out at the station, not the kind you print on your printer at home, or have encoded on your cell phone. She wasn’t holding a cell phone. The little boy continued to ask where they were going. His aunt’s, she replied.

When the train stopped, I jokingly told the conductor not to leave without me. I took up as many plastic bags as I could, and the older little boy followed me. I stepped down and he stood at the top of the stairs staring at the vast space between him and the platform below. I took his stiff little body in my free arm and held him against my chest. I swung him and the bags around to the middle of the platform, and lowered him to the ground. I told him not to move, to stay beside the concrete light standard.

I turned back to his mother and the conductor. I recall the conductor assuring her more than once that someone would be along to help her, but I doubted this would happen. The platform was empty. He told the woman that she must keep her children close to her, as it was a busy station, and went back to the train. I told the little boy not to move but stay with his mother because the trains were big. I looked down the platform to see if anyone was approaching to help. I asked her if someone would be meeting them, and she nodded, wide eyed, still dazed. I was torn between my life on the train, and these lives.

I got back on the train and returned to my seat with enough time to glance at the scene on the platform, before the train started moving. With a backdrop of a freight train racing past them now, not more than twenty feet beyond, the mother crouched over the littlest boy who had his face buried in her thighs and the other little boy standing stock still where I had placed him, surrounded by plastic bags. Our train jolted into motion. My heart broke right then.

What should I have done? Gotten off the train? Found them a cab? A safe passage to the doors of the station? I realized I had a five-dollar bill rolled in the bottom of my pocket. Why didn’t I think to give it to them? Why didn’t I carry a business card with my phone number? Why didn’t I carry more money for such emergencies?

The conductor’s face appeared over the seat back to thank me for helping. How could I not help? It was literally the least I could have done.

I rarely use my twitter accounts except some self-promotion but I took my phone and tweeted out two messages with the hope that somewhere in space someone would see and perhaps offer a hand:

“Just helped a poor woman with 2 small boys off #via55 Oshawa. They need an angel,” and added to the second message, “Please God be with them.”

I could do no more. The train slid towards the city where homeless freeze to death on streets paved with gold, and multi-billionaires are called philanthropists.