Every season: Excruciating beauty

Please read this book: “On Looking,” by Alexandra Horowitz. See a video clip overview here.

In group therapy for addiction, a common theme often emerges. It’s something unexpected. People often comment that they after they quit drinking or using drugs they have trouble coping with all the details of life. — Not the lists and the obligations and worries, but life itself.

The best way to describe how people look when make this observation in therapy is to imagine a miner who had been trapped deep underground, suddenly coming up and out into the sun. It’s sensory overload. People abuse substances to escape trauma or pain, but they are also muting all kinds of other great stuff. And the blazing sun of awesome that is life itself can often, ironically, push people back underground.

I’ve experienced this myself over the past 18 months. Even when I was drinking a lot of wine I thought I was a great observer of things, in touch with my surroundings. But I was living with one eye shut.

These days, I’m honestly beginning to believe that it’s Not madness to suggest that I can always be happy as long as I’m able to observe simple beauty – a scarlet cardinal piping in the top branches of the tree across the block – the sleeping birch bud encased, unconcerned, in ice – and, as Thoreau himself observed just this week (but 150 years ago), how footsteps in snow collect leaves when there are no leaves in sight. Wonders! There’s definitely something here to explore further — a role for this kind of mindfulness in addictions counseling and therapy. As long as we continue to treat addiction as a medical condition, healing the body without helping people to really reconnect with themselves and the world around, it seems like a losing battle. As Dr. Gabor Mate more eloquently observes in his amazing book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” addictions therapy needs to include more compassion, or those miners could be blinded.

As my own eyes have become adjusted over the past few months, I thought maybe I should write a book about this kind of simple observation and how it can fortify and restore. But someone else already wrote it. And it’s a joy to read. Alexandra Horowitz takes us for eleven walks in Manhattan and opens our eyes to the universes all around (making it possible to also glimpse within).

Sober is Awesome.



Stand tall

Beth is a physiotherapist. She’s probably 40, maybe a little younger, small in stature, but really strong. She says I’m twisted, an observation she made within the first 5 min of my appointment/consultation. I suspect this is more the result of training than intuition. My back has been tight since I was in a snowmobile accident as a kid (about 8). Among my other self-care-and-repair steps I’m taking lately, this is the year that I gain freedom from the Ski-Whiz Pinch.Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 2.34.09 PM

I used to enjoy snowmobiling with my dad. He loved his machines. Dad was a bit sadistic with us kids by times, though, and I think he got too much pleasure from scaring us by running close to open water on streams or by pulling six of us on a 10′ birch toboggan around sharp corners in open fields of close-cropped corn. We’d slide sideways, screaming, covered with flying ice and snow, and be shaken to bits or rolled by heaving clumps of frozen red soil. Miraculously, nobody died and it made for good deep sleeps once the hot tingle came out of the nose and toes later by the wood stove. I still instinctively breathe deeply when I catch a whiff of oil-gas mix exhaust. Bring it.

tobogganOne night Dad took me out after dark for a ride. I was tucked in front of him behind the windshield, Dad’s arms reaching across my shoulders on either side for gas and brake. We were cutting close to the tree-line along the field edge where the snow was caught in drifts by the woods. This was way more fun than at mid-field, of course, because of the up and down and airtime between drifts. I remember the blast of snow in the headlamp as we came down the powdery backside before climbing again. But one drift was cut beyond sight by a plow. All I remember was flying off the top of that high bluff seeing the road scream up from straight down below.

Dad’s weight slammed into the back of me, my face into the steering column, and that was that. I woke up in someone’s house with a fat lip.

I don’t remember seeing a doctor, or a big fuss being made. But a couple of years ago as I struggled to sit upright, cross-legged in yoga, the instructor asked if I had ever been in a car accident. Well, no. But…

I’ve always had a tightness and soreness in my middle back, but I just thought I had to live with it, as if that’s just who I am. That is ridiculous. A massage therapist noticed it in the months after Angus died (2000), saying that everyone has a spot on the body where they store their anger – and that was mine. Again, the wrong message: This is just your life. Deal. What I’m learning lately is that stuff like this doesn’t have to be tolerated. It can be fixed. And over the past year as I’ve tackled bigger problems like addiction and early traumas and am being more open about who I really am, Suzy has noticed a dark patch on my back at the achy spot. I had it checked; it’s odd but not serious. Suzy says it’s my evil inner child just scratching to get out. Maybe.

Beth sees twisted differently. I have a treatable 38-year-old injury that can be repaired in just a month with bi-weekly visits and some new habits. Incredibly, I may also gain up to an inch in height as my vertebrea come unstuck. Great! New pants!

The message here, if you’ve read this far (thank you), is that no injury (of any kind) need go unhealed. Really. And anyone who tells you that you just have to put up with shit and suffer on is full of it.

So I’m spending a lot of time on the floor lately, knees pulled to one side, bending my back. I like to listen as the spine creaks and opens and cracks. And twice a week Beth sticks 18 needles in the muscles that have been tight since Ski-Whiz. They fight and scream and flex violently. They don’t seem to want to let go, but I do. I want 5’9″ for the first time.

>> See if dry needling therapy is for you.
>> Feel Good Inc. by Gorillaz:
“My dreams, they gotta catch me, ‘cos I don’t get sleep, no.”



I got 2071, how about you?

My mother turns 70 today. When we were kids, she occasionally mused that she was destined to die young. Well, she doesn’t have to worry about that anymore! Happy birthday, Mom!

Me and mom in 1968

I remember when Mom hosted birthday parties for my grandparents when they turned 70. They were always held mid-afternoon so the “old folks” could drive home before dark. The cake usually had a rocking chair on it and was served with weak decaf tea. Guests were greeted with hushed voices and told not to tease overmuch. Still, we had fun!

Today, as I search for info about being 70, some cool stuff pops up. Apparently, 70 is the new 50. So, unless I change my attitude now, 70 will be another birthday to dread. There’s even talk of a 70-year Itch, a nascent reawakening of sexuality and exploring that I will link to but will not describe further and will definitely try not to imagine.

As it turns out, having a positive attitude is one of the most important factors in longevity. So that means genes must play a huge role in my family. 🙂 Both of my grandmothers died peacefully in 2014 – at 101 and 95.

Twenty years ago, at 50, my mother was happily tromping through waist-deep debris with me on a hillside clear-cut. I’ve always felt a closeness with her at these moments, when we talk about taking something forsaken and making it better. ccutI invited her up to the top of the hill that day because I knew she could picture a cabin there, a new woods grown, and the unborn kids playing. With that validation I felt more confident about giving myself those things. And all of that stuff has since become real. I’m not sure I would have bought that land without that simple and intangible support.

So my wish for you, Leona, is that you can cast your eye to the horizon today and imagine what you’d like to do next. You’re in good shape for a grannie. Drink something strong today and see a late show. You’ve got lots of time to figure out what’s next, and we’ll follow you.

>> How old will you live? Take this test, which was created from the New England Centenarian  Study of Boston University.

“Roger that, you’re well on you’re way.”

I’ve been in a lot of therapy over the past two years – first to quit drinking, and then for why I was drinking. A common theme is letting go. One day it occurred to me how to explain this. I was looking around the room at a SMART Recovery group cross-talk session. A self-described “wine-o” Granny was comforting a teary teenage crack dealer who had just been released from juvi. He was telling his story. I can’t tell it here but, OMG.

Anyway, as I looked around the room at all the strong people at different stages of recovery, it occurred to me that life is like being launched into space. We are born and sent forth with great fanfare and hopes of high orbit. Then shit happens. A lot of people just don’t achieve escape velocity. Many fall back to earth. Splash down. Crash and burn.

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 9.44.53 PMAt first I felt a lot of arrogance in these meetings, until I heard the stories. And then, sharing mine, and gaining the support and comfort of those amazing people (yes, the granny comforted me too), I realized that I had nothing to be arrogant about. That was my start.

I am a successful guy by many measures. I’ve always prided myself on doing cool things, building stuff, producing more, achieving. Being good. If we had landed on this launched-to-life anecdote a few years ago, I would have quickly said that I had achieved orbit. Mission accomplished. But the difference with me is that I’ve realized I brought the whole launchpad with me into space. All the first stages, all that cargo. Separation didn’t happen, and it takes a lot more energy to stay aloft. This is the year to jettison the old burned out stuff and let it fall back into the ocean. I’m letting go.

>> See what I mean: Watch the booster stage separation of the Apollo 11 rocket.




“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving …”

I was camping in the desert in Jordan in 1995, snuggled up on the rooftop of a hostel with an older (28) woman named Jett. She was from Belgium. We were practically on top of each other in our respective sleeping bags because it was freezing; the hostel was full and we were given matts for the concrete rooftop.

The sky was like none I had ever seen, bright stars right to the horizon and a ribbon of milky wonder, creamy rich at the highest point in a blended hub of billions of stars at the galactic centre. It was too cold to sleep, like there was nothing between us and deep space, so we just stared and talked, watching passing satellites and more shooting stars than I will ever need for good luck.

I noticed Jupiter, rising in the east, distinguishable by its large yellowy glow and stable shimmer. We were fading, finally. I pulled out some trivia.

“Jupiter is 360 times the size of Earth and is made up mostly of gas,” I said.

“Really?” she replied.

“Yep. Now what are we going to do about THAT?”

Then, we slept. The next day we took the bus to Aqaba together, exchanged postal addresses (there being no email) and parted with a warm hug. When I got back to Canada, there was a letter.

“Thanks for keeping me warm. I would have gotten in your sleeping bag with you. And I will never forget about that ball of gas in the sky.”

I can be so dumb when it comes to relationships; don’t get me started about Venus.

> More wonder. Check out these photos of snowflakes.

> Watch this. Think and wonder about how small we are, and be glad. Monty Python’s Universe Song





I wonder as I wander

This post is overdue, and quick. It’s 10:15 and I almost broke my New Year’s resolution to write here daily. On Day 2.

Something that keeps me going back to the cabin is the sense of wonder I feel there. The place is familiar but never the same. Each winter at about this time I pull out the binders of blueprints and maps and sketches and start making lists of all the things I want to build or plant or change. My good friend Carter indulges this curiosity and longing with his sharp drafting pen (he designed Walden). So there’s a shelf-full of slightly different plans and blueprints here, full of alternate styles of plinth blocks and newel posts and porch trim patterns. If you want to build a cabin, call me.

Draft 22 of the new Walden kitchen. We settled on draft 40.

By spring, though, I truck down to the Island armed with all this ambition and, after shaking the dead flies out of my rubber boots, I walk out onto the land and Stop.

Suzy calls this gobsmacked. I find myself standing in the woods, breathing deeply, looking at everything and nothing in particular, like a tree, just there. And, suddenly, all the plans and ideas and ambition make no sense at all. Happiness is in the detail of the maple bark, the fragrant air as the earth exhales, or the evening call of the hermit thrush.

IMG_5191It’s that easy. Twenty years after building that cabin I’m still not entirely accommodating the fact that everything I could ever need to be happy is right there. And it always was.

The trees whisper, “Simplify, simplify, you idiot.”

And so begins an exploration of wonder. There is so much more here. But, for today, Day 2 of 2015, enough is enough.


Dusting off, repacking, reposting

In case you’re just joining me here, Day One of this New Year, welcome! I’ve been blogging at this address since 2001, mostly in a scattered attempt to capture some observations and to share some life lessons. I have done a terrible job of both, but whatever.

In case you missed them, here are some nuggets from the Walden archive while I collect my thoughts and repack the cannon after yesterday’s trial blast:

> Now that Grandma is gone, I can finally write this story. She said it would make grandpa turn over in his grave. I disagree. (January, 2006)

> Ten years later and I still hate muffin tins. So I resolve that 2015 will be the year of truth, reconciliation And silicone. (January, 2005)

> Don’t be afraid to break her ribs. And other life-saving tips. Thanks, JD. (January, 2003)

> Early observations of ’07. On quitting, failing and star dust.




“So please be kind, if I’m a mess”*

“You got to keep in the game;
Retaining mystique while facing forward.
I suggest a reading of a lesson in tightropes
Or surfing your high hopes, or adios Kansas it is … ” *

This is one of my son Simon’s favourite songs. He’s 10. He says it’s the piano that he likes best, but I’m pretty sure it also appeals to a Rufus Wainwright-like existential angst that he likely inherited from me. He’s the kid I have to watch as he approaches the teen years. Unlike sweet Jasper (14), Simon has a dark side that makes him prone to moodiness and “rage mode” (as we call it). He’s no sociopath, but I see a familiar tortured soul behind those hazel eyes. It makes me love him even more, but I also fear he may follow in my footsteps to addiction or other ways to cope with life. Which makes me wonder: Why?

Simon does not have my childhood. He wasn’t sexually abused at 6. He doesn’t live within an impossibly rigid (and hypocritical) framework of Christian fundamentalism. And he isn’t the product of a broken marriage, at least not yet. And I say that lovingly. [Every Christmas my mother-in-law Freda tells me that if Suzy and I ever get divorced, she (Freda) will still be my friend. I take that as a comforting (but sorta weird) compliment.]

So it’s interesting to consider how a little boy can be so like his dad, without the same inputs. If my inner happy child is longing to escape nurture, how can angst be Simon’s nature? It doesn’t seem fair. None of it, actually. And I know this because I’ve spent the past 18 months in intense therapy to try to figure this all out. (But more on this – and other painful but liberating observations – in 2015).

I sat down here tonight thinking I would write about New Year’s, and why I’m alone in the dark, writing, on the third floor of my house while my family is bouncing between festive neighbourhood parties. The thing is, I have no more to give this year. Not one more conversation. No more ‘maintaining mystique while facing forward.’ I’m not saying I had the worst year of anyone – far from it. But the best single word to describe 2014 is “Exhausting.”

Despite everything – death, destruction, disappointment – I will remember 2014 as the year that I faced the truth and consequences of some very painful early experiences that (for better or worse) have made me who I am. I’ve been quiet on this site for the past year because the first stage of this carefully managed and expertly counseled exploring is Rage Mode. Blogging for revenge is not sweet. And now, with the love and support of my patient wife, I’m ready to tell this story – little by little – just to let it go. I want to breathe deeply for the first time in my life. And, hopefully, be an even better dad.

So that’s why I’m in the dark tonight, quietly saying goodbye to an excruciating year, eager for a shiny new one.

Happy New Year! May 2015 be full of hope, love and forgiveness for All (especially for ourselves).

* Rufus Wainwright. “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk
(Start at 2:12)