Just Dive In, They Say

Not me!

                                 [3-minute read]

I don’t want to just dive into the water, and I don’t care if I’m a rotten egg. I don’t dive into much, actually.

Which is strange, because I love beginnings, the freshness of unstained hope not yet wracked by reality.¹ I think it reminds me of a future that I deny. Go jump in the lake can mean, in the wrong mind, I hope you die soon. Some of my resistance to jumping into water I can’t see the bottom of, I begin to glumly theorize, arises from my diffidence about death. It doesn’t feel like dread, not quite, but I do sense my unpreparedness. Strange waters or familiar, they feel like a presentiment of extinction. This explains a lot of things.

¹ Except for writing. The terror of the start is not quite matched by the eventual, fitful flow of production and the relieved delight of having written. So swimming is like writing, too, except that I don’t imagine ever being competent in water.

Some of this nervous distaste is less abstract. It comes from my blasted confidence in water, stoked by a childhood failure at lessons in my small town’s cracked outdoor pool. Simple stuff, but I couldn’t do it. Ever since, a lake or pool or pond is above all a glorious thing to get out of, to put sand or clay or concrete underfoot again, to gaze from solid ground on the seductive beauty of water in motion, water still, water frozen and forever. I stare at it, fascinated, confirmed to find it in front of me, not over my head.

Diving in, on my preferred footing of metaphor, is letting go of my dried-out conventions and certainties, which is hard to do. I can admit to the occasional thrill when literally doing so, in Actual Water. When hot, even if unbothered, crashing into coolness is a lively shock, and I don’t flounder right away. I just hang there, most of me under the surface. From the hindsight of a desk, I wonder why a man with more than sufficient body fat won’t float with more ease. But suspended in a cold, thought-stunning brew, I always play dead for a while,

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Oliver Sacks (on awakening to the end)

Oliver Sacks is the neurologist and professor who was brought to cinematic life by Robin Williams in Awakenings, helping and observing as Bob DeNiro’s coma patient emerges from the darkness. (Side note which I vaguely promise will not turn into an intolerably long digression, but the length of whose prefatory remarks must even now be giving pause to sensitive and perceptive readers such as you: I notice suddenly the number of films in which Williams is the psychiatrist/healer. Not just Awakenings, but his gruff and brilliant therapist to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, and his turn as Patch Adams, the unconventional MD who used humour and nonsense to heal and console his patients. All of which did Williams no good at all in calming his own demons, or so it would seem. Terminate digression.)

Sack’s books on psychological oddities and wonders — Awakenings was his second book, I think, followed by such titles as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Musicophilia, An Anthropologist on Mars — made him famous and beloved, though not always embraced by medical rivals. Now that he’s dying, as he announced recently, I want to read more than I have. Typical.

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Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero

UPDATE (July 24, 2015): Two days ago, the Globe and Mail printed a sweet tribute to this man in its “Lives Lived”section. It was written by the man’s sister and his widow, and I learned more about a man that I miss(ed).

I didn’t know Mark well at all. We’d only met a few times, so when his husk was committed to the earth this week, I wasn’t there. That would’ve been for the dearest of family and friends, and Lord knows there was no shortage of those.

But funerals change me. (They certainly try hard.) I hope – I knew in the teary quiet of a Sunday afternoon – that his did wonders for me. Although I’d nearly found sufficient pretexts not to attend the service, I finally did, and thank goodness and greatness and mercy and joy for that.

For me, Mark was only the quiet, smiley man who opened the door and served the tea at Linda’s place. I’d been there occasionally, sometimes to lead a discussion or give a small talk in their modest living room, sometimes to listen in on what was sure to be an elevated conversation; no celebrity gossip, nary an ounce of snark. I can’t even say I knew his wife Linda all that well, either, though she’d been a community co-worker for a decade. Mark seemed a gentle support to Linda’s calm and steely leadership. That’s what I thought I saw there. What did he do outside those meetings? I wasn’t too sure, and to my embarrassment,

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Enid Mary Elizabeth Howden

I’d been waiting for this call, off and on, for several years. When we gathered in 2001 to say our goodbyes, we were only slightly more surprised than she was when my mother awoke from a near-coma and wondered, wide-eyed, “Am I still HERE?” But when Big Sister called and said, “I think you should come right away,” I wasn’t ready. I had packing to do, work that felt urgent, a little boy to prepare for a road trip, and a head and heart to examine. I knew Mum was more than ready to leave this world behind, and I wanted to be in hearty and complete approval.

About halfway to Hamilton, Pam called again. “Where are you? Do your best, but you might not make it.” I got misty, but kept on driving while I murmured my requests to other kingdoms. Sam was awake in his booster seat, and unusually quiet. He knew whatever a six-year-old can understand of death. I felt the sweetness of solitary meditation, purposeful motion and the best of company, all at the same time. And about 45 minutes later came the last call. “She’s gone. Don’t rush. Be safe.” So I missed Mum’s last moments, missed the bedside family choir (off-pitch, no doubt!) and their send-off hymns and hand-holding. And that was all okay with me. My heart was fine, my goodbye felt whole and good, and the best farewells at this point were spiritual ones, anyway. Knowing it would be a late-night Howden festival, I tried to get Sam to sleep. I told him the 86-year tale of Enid M.E. (Skinner) Howden: her sisters, her work, her husband, her interests, her five children, and those 13 grand-kids. Well, there was no sleeping there, especially as we got closer to number 13. Sam loved that story.

Sam finally did fall asleep briefly, while I met his big brother Will at the Hamilton bus station and headed for Idlewyld Manor, where Mum had lived out her final and steadily declining months. There were no more hymns, but her body was still in her bed. She didn’t look much different that night, the 26th of October, than she had when I last saw her alive on Thanksgiving weekend. Not much was working for her then. Her legs were useless except for restlessness and discomfort. She was hugely weary. Daily activities, for this sociable and energetic woman, had become very narrow and limited, and the world beyond her bed was often alarming and incomprehensible. Except when her family was by her side. It was so easy to bring joy to her, and sometimes even a good old joke. She could recite Psalm 23, her high school fight song, and Portia’s mercy speech from Merchant of Venice, in which she’d starred a mere seven decades before. She thrilled to see the faces of her children. She’d nearly never had a bad word to say about anyone, and now she had nothing ill to say of her life or its end. She was distilled spirit.

So I sat with that exhausted shell that had been my mother dear. I sent more beseeching out to wherever it is that prayers go, and got a little more specific with my requests. I called for a warm welcome for Mum from my father and from some of the departed ones that I have most admired. Among them was the Canadian Bahá’í pioneer Mary Maxwell, later known as Ruhíyyih Khanúm, who was on one of her epic journeys when her vehicle broke down in an African wilderness. She turned to her companion and said, “Well, whom do you know Up There who was a mechanic?” (Now that’s a specific, a practical kind of faith. That’s humour and grace on the rocks.) Also among those souls I called upon to welcome Mum, though, was old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She had been an Indians fan long before the Blue Jays received her loyal allegiance, and this was a bit of spiritual whimsy that she would have enjoyed. I certainly did, though it was slightly compromised by my later discovery that Mr. Colavito is still among us. Now, Mum must have really enjoyed that.

Diana took the train down to join us for the weekend of family plans, story-telling, laughter and commiseration. All sweet. The family gathered to bury Mum on Monday, October 30th, and I walked very happily around the streets of my home town on that sunny day. My bride, my littlest boy and I got back to Ottawa the next day, and I wrote this quick note to our friends and neighbours.

My lovely Mum died last Thursday. She was a great lady and an example of some of the best and most important things in life, say I, and she will continue to be, especially in the way of her passing. “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee; wherefore dost thou grieve?…Death proferreth unto every confident believer the cup that is life indeed. It bestoweth joy, and is the bearer of gladness…” I have never known the reality of these beautiful words (from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words and from Gleanings) as much as I have felt them with Mum’s death. She was a “confident believer”, a steadfast Christian who was open to all and accepting of the many paths to the Creator. “I’m content with my lot,” she had told me near the end, possibly her last words to me. “I’ve had good kids.” Her “wonderful family” was the thing that she remembered and treasured, and all the disappointments and difficulties of her life, even the very limited physical/mental life she had for the last couple of years, were nothing to her. She was unafraid to die, and she was grateful in the midst of all. She was loving and generous and the doors of her house and her friendship were wide open. It was a sweet goodbye for our family and community of friends, and a radiant departure by Enid M.E. Howden. 

Most of you wouldn’t know my mother, so I hope you’ll indulge me this little remembrance. I couldn’t help myself. My older sons, Ben, Will and Dave, helped to carry her body to its resting place next to that of my father. I was strangled with pride in these terrific men and with love for all my family.

(I also wrote about Mum as part of my ODY web log. It’s a mid-life odyssey, and the loss of a parent is archetypal even in the midst of writing about a dysfunctional relationship with a guitar. It’s here.)

ODY: Week 10. 70/365. But I Never Played for my Mother…

Monday. Gordon (the guitar) and I had a nice long bedward session. Michael Enright was interviewing the astonishingly young, beautiful and good Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the radio. (In Half of a Yellow Sun, she writes of the birth of Biafra in the ‘60s. Sounds powerful.) I like my right hand. I can get much more into the BlissyZone with finger picking than with chord changes. Male multi-tasking!

Tuesday. It was game 3 of the World Series, the first of the playoffs that I’d seen. First of the year. (Unbelievable. I still love that strange, timeless, slow game. I raced home from October school days to watch the Series as a kid. I played seriously into my 30s. I can still feel the bat in my hands, awake or asleep, in a way that I doubt a guitar will ever match.) Carpenter pitched brilliantly, and that turned the Series for the Cards. I watched over at my friends’ house, where I found not only a working television but that my buddy Fanfan is learning to play bass. Potential collaborator. I played long and lots. Had the room to myself ‘til the seventh inning, then the bullpen got too loud. These folks, two of them born in Canada, knew far less about baseball than I did about guitar two months ago. I tried to save them.

Wednesday. Lesson Night at the Ol’ Ottawa Folklore Corral, and it was a good night in the Old Dog guitar saddle. (How’s that for a mangled metaphor?) Asked questions. Got answers. Further to my mind-boggled reaction to the chords from last week’s “Study in E”, GG (Kurt the Guitar Guru) was able to quickly teach me the remarkable “E minor 11th” chord, which can also be played as “G 6-9”. It’s the opening chord to “Hard Day’s Night”, for one thing, and I’ve got it. Sounds good, right? Actually, it doesn’t. It’s ridiculously primitive. It’s just a brainless right-hand strum without a finger on the fretboard. (Ohh. I knew that.) The GG had lots to say about more significant things, like finger shapes. Learning to feel the chord shapes is the key. Sliding from one chord to another based on shapes, not notes, means that skilled guitarists are sometimes seen as “idiot savants” by other classically trained musicians. While they have had to learn the individual notes to a chord, good guitarists can intuit new chords quickly by adjusting their finger shapes or moving them up or down the fretboard. (I think that’s what the GG said. Musicians, forgive me when I know not quite what I am talking about.) 

And then came Thursday. “I think you should come right away,” Big Sister said. Our dear Mum has been in steady physical decline for the past several years, and it looked like she was doing her final taxi toward spiritual takeoff. And she was. I took care of what I thought I needed to, including being ready for a funeral, packing for my youngest son and preparing to practise the guitar for however long we would be away from home. I grabbed Gordon, met Calvin Junior (and his own versions of Hobbes) at the school bus stop and hit the road running. We didn’t quite make it, but I had some quiet moments of reflection in her room, where her body still lay.

I didn’t think much about music. Aside from her love for hymns and her comically poor singing of them, music was never a big part of our life together. Baseball? Hockey? Books and books? Absolutely. When I was a kid, though, Mum would make occasional reference to my hands: “Look at those fingers! You’re going to either be a surgeon or a concert pianist.” Well, I did almost get into medical school one year, but musical virtuosity was unlikely since lessons were never even suggested. It occurs to me that my impracticality stems more from my mother than I had thought. She’s always been a woman of grand dreams, and her vision of a generous, funny and welcoming family life was realized in the most vivid way, especially in the generation of her 13 grand-kids. Later, as we shared Enid stories, someone told of a young writer friend who had told Mum of an ambition: to win a (remotely conceivable) literary prize. (It might have been the Pulitzer.) Mum’s response was characteristic and quick. “Why not the Nobel?” Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? (Enid Howden quoting Robert Browning. Time and again. Burden and blessing.)

So, decades after I began to notice my own rabid interest in music, and after years of fascination and envy at the musical progress and accomplishments and satisfactions of my own kids, I embarked on this Old Dog Year. I decided to do something about a hypothesis I’d had for awhile. Maybe I am a bit musical. And with my athletic ability in free-fall, maybe I should work at something I can get better at in mid-life, without a need for youth or functional ankles. ‘Cause they ain’t comin’ back. I now feel that among the many lofty and wonderfully principled ideas my Mum had planted in me, this seed of musicianship was among them. It wasn’t well-nourished, mind you, but it was there. It was the classic “castle in the air”, which another strain of my childhood had derided. Quit your dreaming, boy. Get down to business. What a little absent-minded professor he is! And I hated that stuff, that accusation that I was cloud-bound, impractical, a dreamer.  

But although I function reasonably well in this allegedly Real World, I came to understand as an adult that I clearly was all of those things, and an idealist and a hope-filled romantic, too. So was my Mum. And like me, she would have loved Thoreau’s take on dreamers in Walden: “If you build castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now build foundations under them.”  So I do, in this case by pulling out my guitar every day. I thought later that I should’ve taken Gordon up and played a little in the stillness of her second-to-last room, but that wasn’t really us. (Among those souls I called upon that night to welcome Mum, though, was the old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She’d been a great fan, and it seemed fun; the only problem was my discovery that he’s still alive. Ah, well.) Instead, I pulled out the guitar later at Big Brother’s place, where the clan gathered late into the evening, ostensibly to plan but mainly to remember. I softly fingered all the bits I can do without thinking. It felt a little like love.

Maybe all this explains, in part, why I’ve taken the long way ‘round to being a musician. (Wow. I just said I was a musician. It hardly even hurt! I do feel a giggle coming on, though.) It also took me a long while to become a writer. Chez Howden, it was reading, not writing; baseball, not music; and, in a larger sense, principles that regularly overrode pragmatism. I felt a certain joy in Mum’s passing. It was release from a limited and painful life for her. It was a superb family reunion: everybody was there, and the laughs were legion. But there was more than that, a sense of personal relief and of eagerness to live that I attribute to Mum’s example of both. Relief and contentment at the end of a well-lived and loving day, and a current of eagerness to do what I might to realize her hopes for all of us.

Right this moment, odd as it is, messing around with a guitar seems to be part of that. Amid stories and photographs, I picked some more at Little Sister and Silent Paul’s place the next night. I was a late-night guitar vampire for the next few days, using the quiet of Big Sister’s living room to go through my exercises and exercise my memories. At times it was a welcome escape from thinking, yet at others I felt as mindful as I could be. It was a rhythmically stumbling kind of meditation, peaceful moments to linger on the kindness of dear old friends and vaguely familiar faces from the old home town. Sorry for your loss. Condolences to you and your family. Enid was a great lady…

We stood by her grave — right next to my Dad’s — in the sweet sunlight of a warming autumn day, laying roses and praying and singing. (It was just the Howdens, and we actually sang pretty well, thanks.) I walked by my grandfather’s grave, past my old high school, around some of my favourite tree-lined and leaf-scented streets. Back by the fireplace at Big Brother’s, I spent a good part of the afternoon playing, including a welcome bit of stern rehearsal time with the Itinerant Artist. My eldest son, the IA, is a genuine musician, the Real Instrumental Deal, and has taught guitar for several years. He applied the Kenny Werner learning triangle – got to play slowly, and eventually combine the ability to play perfectly, at tempo and all the way through – in very specific ways to my practising. He beat out a very slow tempo, and insisted I match it. He showed me a technique for practising chord changes that avoids frozen frustration and encourages gradual acquisition of speed. It was sweet, personalized guidance and attention. (He also played, after my fingers were numb, many of the pieces I’ve struggled with, giving me some sense for how it sounds.) I’ve never felt so much at home with playing music.

That night, at a wonderful memorial for Enid H., our words of memory and tribute were in the forefront, but so was music. “How Great Thou Art” was sung with chest-busting force and beauty by a large congregation (there was a stealth tenor among the guests, and we rode his thunder. Wow.). And there are real live musicians in the next generation. Representing them, niece Bethany played a sweetly feeling “Fairest Lord Jesus” on the piano, and the IA followed later with a gorgeous solo trombone rendition – a bit jazzier than that small-town Baptish church has likely heard before – of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. I’m decades behind, and didn’t even think of playing guitar on that bill. But I’m on the job, I’m learning, and “if a job’s worth doing,” as Mum reminded us all ad infinitum, “it’s worth doing well.” I never played for my mother, but that’s okay. I am playing for her now, and hope to do it well.