Yesterday Silas turned 9. I’ve found myself of late falling more deeply in love with this boy; he is smart, he is funny, and he has a beautifully developed sense of respect and compassion for other people. Often as not when someone in our household needs some TLC, it’s Silas who is there to offer it.
In the morning we sat on the couch together and looked at the mountains. I asked him what he knew about the world. “A lot,” he said, and it’s true. The boy has a fantastic memory, and repeats what he knows with such confidence that even if you harbor some doubt as to the varsity of his claims, you can’t help but admire the assurance they are delivered with. We talked about how big the world was; not in the physical sense, but in the sense that it’s vast, and has so many people and cultures on it that we might spend our whole lives getting to know them all and still only make a beginning.
I asked him “what do you know to be true?”
He thought about this only for a second and then said: “That Mythbusters is the best TV show.”
Silas wants to be a Mythbuster when he grows up. Taking the boys to see this science-meets-mayhem duo in Calgary was one of Jenn and my highlights of the year.
Then he said something that I’ve come to expect from him, but is no less extraordinary. “You can’t hold on to anything because everything changes. You just have to let go.”
And here’s the thing: he isn’t just repeating something that I’ve told him – and it is true we talk about this sort of thing a lot – but he actually understands this and tries to put it into place in his day-to-day life, as much as anybody could.
Falling asleep last night I was thinking about that statement; I wished I had learned that when I was 9. I wished I had know that when I was 19 or 29. How much of my life has been wasted desperately clinging to something that is fleeting, ephemeral, transient? I’ve spent years of my life morning some loss, some passage that simply marks the natural human progression through time.
I still am, and the thing that I’m holding on to for dear life is this darling little boy and his big brother Rio, who is 12, and also one of the great loves of my life. When Rio was born I penned a piece called The Year of Letting Go; I knew then that from the moment they are born we begin the process of letting go. I know that intellectually, and remind myself of it often, but it doesn’t make it any easier when time is pressing on you and you find yourself unable to hold on but unwilling to just let go.
“Everything changes, Dad.” I can hear my sage nine-year-old remind me as I watch him in his sleep on the eve of his 10th year. Those words remind me of the hours and days after he was born, which seem like they were just yesterday but are separated by nearly nine billion kilometers of travel through space, skinned knees, first and last days of school and innumerable lessons taught about life, not by the father, but by the son. I knew then as I know now that I have always known this beautiful person and that his coming into my life would be one of the greatest gifts I could ever hope to receive. Happy birthday Silas Morgen Legault.
In a few hours it will be winter. It’s felt like winter here in the Bow Valley for a long time. It almost always feels like winter here at 4,500 feet above sea level. For the last two months it’s been cold and snowy and at times more like winter than it is during a Chinook in the dead of the season.
All autumn I’ve felt like I’ve been falling. It’s hard to believe that it was just three months ago, at the cusp of summer and fall that I spent thirteen days along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, meeting with people with whom I work, trying hard to save what is precious and wild about that romantic landscape, and every morning and evening finding a piece of it to photograph.
Some mornings I’d be up long before the sun to find a place I’d scoped the night before to be rewarded with the most wonderful display of dawn’s early light. More than once I’d be panting, at the top of some hill, setting up my tripod and waiting for the sun, and think: I want this to last forever.
An hour or two later, five hundred frames frozen on a memory card on my camera, I’d be walking back to my truck, craving a cup of tea, a full day ahead, the feeling having passed.
But that’s why I’m still falling now. It’s so beautiful; it’s so heart breakingingly beautiful that I want it all to last forever, but of course it won’t.
In last days of October the season abruptly changed; the perfect autumn days of golden light and splendor gave way to an early season snow fall, followed close by a hard freeze and one morning all the leaves were gone. Just gone.
I’ve grown to love winter in the twenty-two years – give or take – that I’ve lived in Alberta’s Bow Valley. I don’t always love it, but now that I ski I love it almost always. But it’s still a hard time of year. Recently I’ve been going over essay’s I used to write for various local magazines and newspapers, including a five year stint as a columnist for the Canmore Leader, and every year I’d write the same two or three essays: the melancholy onset of autumn and the long wait for spring.
Some things never change.
This year they seem to have changed even less than usual; but maybe that’s because they have changed even more. Jenn and I lost a parent and a step-parent this year. I wrote about this a couple of years ago in an essay that found its way into Running Toward Stillness. Those losses, coupled with this reflective time of the year, have created a hole that I find myself staring into from time to time.
That hole is well known to us all; it is a void, the darkness, that lay on the periphery of our thoughts and consciousness at all times; seldom acknowledged but always present. It is death; the empty space. I’ve found myself aware of its dispassionate company often on my journey this fall.
Fear of death causes a lot of hardship and makes us do the most outrageous things, like buy life insurance and sport utility vehicles. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid to die: I am. I’ve felt at times over the last few months that void open up and for just a few seconds I’ve looked into that empty space. I’ve imagined myself leaving this world and what that might feel like. It’s felt like nothing at all.
The scope of my work left to complete in this life is staggering. I can count forty books that I want to write without half-trying. Now that I’m shooting more seriously for a book of photography on the foothills called Earth and Sky I want to delve so much deeper into that passion I’ve had since I was a kid. And there is still the wild earth to save, if I can spare a few hours here and there.
Most important are Rio, Silas and Jenn. Without wanting to see how things end, I want to know how things turn out for them. Their days are like stories that I don’t want to get to the end of, but want more than anything to know how they surmount the plot twists as they live the most astonishingly beautiful lives I could ever imagine.
In just a few hours it will be winter. The days will get longer, but it won’t feel like it for a while, and the coldest days are still to come. Everything changes at this time of year, and I am changing too. I’m more aware of that empty space just over the horizon now; as if I needed another reminder I’ve got to stay aware of precious every single breath is.
That’s what living so close to the seasons can do for you; you don’t get any slack; every single moment is a wake-up call to keep you from falling and never getting back up.
Maybe babies see the world the way it really is.
The highlight of most of my days is my morning walk to school with Silas. These days Rio takes the bus downtown, and I miss having both my boys with me, but Silas – now 8 – makes up for Rio’s quiet demeanor with his unbridled enthusiasm for the world.
Most mornings the talk ranges from the mundane to the mysterious to the philosophical. We’ve talked about helium balloons and the Heisenberg principle; earth quakes and quantum physics and Buddhism and spirituality, all on our fifteen minute walk to school.
This morning somehow we dove deeper than we’ve ever gone before and it’s left me feeling in awe.
Hand in hand, we were strolling up the road, and somehow we got onto the topic of morning greetings. I have this habit of bidding just about everybody that I pass on the street good morning. Silas asked why. I could have said it was just to be friendly, but that’s not the real reason. I told him: sometimes people walk around feeling isolated from one another, scared or alone. When we say hello to them, ask them how their day is, we start to dismantle that loneliness. When I say good morning, or ask about someone’s day, what I’m really saying is “I love you.”
“Really?” His face was scrunched into the question.
You bet. Then I told him that part of my purpose in life was to help people feel less alone and to understand that we’re connected through our hearts. My words might say “how you doing?” but my heart says “I love you; you and I are connected.”
Then I just laid it all out: people feel lonesome or afraid or alone because we don’t see the world the way it really is. I squeezed his hand and said: “You think that this is the beginning and the end of you, but it isn’t.” Every molecule in your body is mostly empty space, protons and electrons swirling around a nucleus-like a cloud, but almost entirely devoid of substance. We don’t end or begin where we think we do. We are passing in and out of one another all the time.
“But our eyes don’t see the world that way. They evolved millions of years ago to process just a tiny fragment of the information that is all around us all the time.” Our eyes evolved to process threats, like the mastodon that is going to step on us, or to find food or a girlfriend, and not to process the fuzzy, undifferentiated haze of energy and information that erases the artificial perception of demarcation between me and the eight year old squeezing my hand. If we could see the world as it really is, I told him, we’d be overwhelmed in an instant.
I stop and bend down and breathe on him. “What am I doing?” I ask.
He looks askance. “Breathing on me?”
“When I breathe on you and you on me, I’m inside you and you in me.”
First he says “that’s kind of creepy,” but then he remembers something from a previous conversation. “Our hearts are like that too!”
“That’s right! Our heart’s give off an electric pulse with every beat.”
“It goes out forty feet!” he exclaims.
It does. “We can’t even measure how far it goes. So right now I’m walking inside your sino-rhythm and you are in mine. When we walk by people on the street we pass through them, not just by them. We only appear separate from one another because our senses haven’t evolved to see the world as it really is. You never have to feel alone, or afraid, or apart from me, or Jennie, or Rio or anybody else because we’re always connected.”
That’s when he hit me with the whopper. “Maybe babies see the world as it really is because their eyes haven’t developed fully. They see the world as blurry and as wavy lines. Maybe they see things properly.”
There are moments in parenthood when you know – you absolutely know – that everything is going work out exactly as it should for your child, and that was one of them.
We speculated: as we grow up and as we develop our vision narrows and starts processing less information. We don’t see the world as it really is, but we can become aware once more of its complexity and beauty and interrelatedness.
We walked the rest of the way to school, talking the entire way about the size of the human brain, and how we process information, and when I left him at school he was immersed in comparisons of Halloween costumes and discussions about candy and trick-or-treating. For a moment I could see him as he really was: love, indistinguishable but completely unique amid the sea of humanity, like a wave; not separate: one.
I can’t wait to walk my son to school again.
The flood of 2013 is now receding. I live at the headwaters of the Bow River, in Canmore, near the border of Banff National Park, and less than 700 meters as the crow flies from the now infamous Cougar Creek. Most days the Bow River along this reach is a swift moving, deep blue vein that pulses between banks of spruce and pine, along aspen meadows and past clutches of willow.
Since Wednesday (June 19) it’s been a wide, brown, and spreading conveyor belt of trees, rock, silt and mud that has enveloped everything in its path. Its feeder streams, like Cougar Creek, are normally ephemeral, rising for a few weeks in the spring to deposit snow melt and spring rain, and a few truck loads of gravel, into the main stem of the river.
Not this spring.
Life is uncertain. This is one of the fundamental tenants of human existence. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know that someday we’re going to die, but we don’t know when. We know, in our gut, that everything that is important to us – our children, our partners, our parents, our friends and family, and yes, even those material objects that we clutch at with desperation – will one day vanish, before or at the moment of our own demise.
We know that life is change, but our difficulty accepting that truth causes no end to suffering in our day to day lives.
On Thursday morning many of us in Canmore woke up to learn how real that axiom really is as Cougar Creek, dry for 50 weeks of the year, and usually contained between its engineered banks of trap-rock and fill, had carved a new course through the residential community that bares its name. The creek, ten feet wide during a normal spring, surged to more than two hundred feet wide, carving a wide swath through its historic alluvial fan, and tearing away at people’s back yards, sheds, fences, and eventually foundations. That no homes toppled into the creek is a miracle.
Cougar Creek, and dozens of others – Exshaw, Heart, Jura, Three-Sisters, Pigeon – all amassed their unprecedented flows into the Bow, and meeting with the Kananaskis, Ghost and Elbow Rivers, it flooded a vast area of downtown Calgary. It is the largest flood ever recorded in Alberta.
And on it went: Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Bragg Creek, Morley; maybe the hardest hit was High River, where the entire town was evacuated and under water. Lives were lost, the financial cost of the damage yet to be calculated.
During the height of the flood we were evacuated from our east-Cougar Creek neighborhood. The flood has given us this new name for where we live. As crews worked valiantly to save the bridge over the Creek, the nine hundred or so residents who live on the eastern bank of the Creek’s alluvial fan were loaded on buses and shipped out over the fragile structure. We watched as all that water, the colour of chocolate pudding pounded against the road, the embankment, and the seemingly too narrow culvert that went under them.
Years ago I hiked up Exshaw Creek, into the South Ghost River, and down Cougar Creek from its headwaters with author and geologist Ben Gadd. Ben lived in Jasper then, and upon seeing the multimillion dollar homes built on the outside bank of Cougar Creek, and the culvert under the road, said something to the effect that they wouldn’t last.
Works crews laboured around the clock to save that bridge. They did. How remains a mystery; and one of the greatest success stories of that first day of the deluge, but on Thursday it looked very much in doubt.
As the water rose that afternoon we shut off the gas, power and water to our house, packed a few bags with everything from our marriage certificate to sleeping bags and left.
Life is uncertain. We had no idea what would happen if officials, as it was rmoured they might, diverted Cougar Creek down Elk Run Boulevard to prevent the creek from breached the bridge. Elk run is long, straight and steep and the velocity of water rushing down it would have been uncontrollable. Our home is just a hundred feet from that spill-way.
Nor did we know when we’d be able to return home, if we had a home to return to, or what condition it might be in if it was still standing. We put everything of value on the third floor, closed the door and walked away.
We spent three days and two nights at Gareth Thomson’s home, ironically just a hundred feet from the flood waters behind the dyke along the banks of the Bow River. We stocked up on groceries, put aside a lot of water, bought beer, wine and Tequila (the latter is listed as a critical item on the list of supplies to have on hand in case of any emergency) and settled in.
Through all of this my mother, who arrived on Wednesday night, and noted as we drove into town that the creek looked awfully wide, and wondered what all the fire trucks and police cars were doing on the Cougar Creek bridge – remained stoic. Sure, she had a few minutes here and there, as we all did, spent in frustration, but in general she went with the flow. So to speak.
Gareth, Jenn and I spent Friday driving around town, offering to help people in need, carrying their stuff (and holy crap do people have a lot of crap, but that’s another story) out of basements and garages at risk of flooding.
Friday afternoon I took a panicked call from someone just a few streets away saying that “a dam had breached and that we had to evacuate immediately.” We threw our gear into the back of Gareth’s car: whatever we had already packed, along with some valuables, computers, my camera, my mom. Someone grabbed a box of granola bars, and I grabbed the beer. We abandoned the tequila to the expected deluge.
Five minutes later we got another call: No dam had breached (more realistic concerns have arisen about the Lake Minniwanka dam since); it was only some rising water along the street. We noted the children still frolicked in the puddles; a surreal scene. We unpacked the beer and set about drinking it.
Saturday we were allowed to return home. Not a drop of water got into our house, the bridge over Cougar Creek remained standing, through the landscape around it will be forever changed, as will the lives of all those who lived along its banks.
Life is uncertain; we don’t know what will happen, or when we will die, and what will happen when we do. But there are foundations on which we build our existence, and for millennia humankind has based how we live on certain assumptions. One assumption is that nature has patterns that can be predicted and that we can shape our lives around.
That is no longer the case.
Climate change literally changes the game; all the assumptions we have made about where we live and how we carry out our lives must be thrown into the flood and a new set of assumptions created. The problem for humanity is that we like predictability, even if it is myth. Climate change reveals the hoax of this way of life.
Hurricane Katrina, the floods in Pakistan, Super Storm Sandy, two-kilometer wide tornados; these and a thousand other instances of bizarre, destructive, random and seemingly unpredictable weather events are the new norm, and from the perspective of people trying to live as we always have – where we crave certainty – they are anathema to our sense of security.
In the wake of the floods of 2013 Canmore, Calgary, and every other community affected has come together to work as a family to clean up and rebuild. I’ve got my tools in the back of my car and when I see someone posting they need help, I drop what I’m doing and head out the door. In Calgary a posting for 300 volunteers nets 5,000. That’s how we we’re going to get through the next year or two; working together. We use our hearts and our heads and our skills.
We’re going to need a whole new set of skills, and reinvent some old ones, to cope with that is coming. We’ll need to learn how to build bridges, fortify river banks, build on higher ground, store food, use less, love more, and remember that we’re all living downstream, in nature, surrounded by both the causes and consequences of our actions.
Maybe the most important skill we’ll need to face the Great Uncertainty that climate change presents is to sit with the knowledge that we simply won’t know what’s going to happen next.
When we were together last September, when in the afternoons we’d sit in the backyard, near the weeping birch, and talk, we discussed the idea of you telling a story. In those warm days of September neither of us could imagine what you would soon face; then we were rebuilding our relationship after so many difficult years, and you were emerging once more, my mother.
We talked then of you writing the story of your childhood; of growing up in a gold mining town in Northern Ontario, and of losing your father at the age of five. Too young to really know him or have much in the way of memories; instead, you were raised by your mother and older brother. It wasn’t an easy upbringing. We talked about how to write that story; without bitterness or guile. People aren’t inspired by resentment; what they want to read is a story of hardship, honest, simple achievement and of what life was like in a very interesting place, and time.
I asked you: what is the story you want to tell about the first chapters of your life?
When I drove you to the airport and said goodbye at the gate, I was filled with hope and love. You and I haven’t had an easy go of it. It’s nobody’s fault. I wasn’t a very good kid when I was a teen: I drank, and snuck out of the house a lot and was moody and angry. You drank too, and didn’t want to let go, or face your own fears. We clashed. For a long time we were at each other’s throats; it wasn’t easy on either of us.
But over the last decade we’ve started to grow back together. We’ve both grown up a little, and time can take the edge off; make it easier to forgive.
He proposed to you when you got off the plane. Who says you don’t get second changes, or third?
Six weeks later you got married. And four weeks after that, the ailment that had forced Ernie to sit during your wedding ceremony was confirmed as cancer.
And now he is gone. And you are alone once more. And it leaves you, and me, heartbroken.
The last year has been hell. There’s no other way to say it. In and out of the hospital during the rapid decline of your third husband, the second to be stolen by cancer in a decade. The last few weeks were more than anybody should have to endure; to lose a soul mate, one you hoped to have in your life for a few more years: just a few more years to love, to debate (and yes, argue), to share tender moments with, to discover what life’s true purpose is.
It would be understandable for you to sink lower, deeper into despair. You’ve spent a lot of your life living with regret, and its made you angry at times, lonely at others, and most of all, bitter about what could have been, but hasn’t become.
And now you have a choice to make: what do you want the next chapter of your life to be?
You can write this chapter any way you want. Yes, there are limitations: you’re struggling with a lot of physical challenges. Some of these there is nothing that we can do anything about. Some we can find treatments for, and some you can control wholly.
But within the confines of these maladies, you still have a choice. You can choose to accept control over your decisions and the consequences of those choices. You can choose to be happy; unreasonably so if you have to. Nobody would blame you if you decided to slip from mourning into a deeper despair, and resentment. But if you’re going to author this next chapter, why not choose to make it about service, about a modicum of joy, about peace?
You have it within you. I know you do. I told you at lunch before I left Hamilton that what I wanted more than anything was to see you smile again; for you to know happiness. You’re not alone; you have Chantel and I and you have friends. But the sort of happiness you must seek now can’t be dependent on others; you’re going to have to find it within. It might be centred on community, or on faith or service, but at the end of the day, you’re the one holding the pen: only you can write the story.
One: there is no end
The boys and I read a lot of books at bedtime. Both Rio and Silas are veracious readers; Rio is into Rick Riordan’s various mythology thrillers while Silas can read just about anything Dr. Seuss has ever penned. Most nights at bedtime we read stories; everything from Captain Underpants to Ernest Hemmingway. A little while ago we read The Oldman and the Sea. For a while we were making our way through Watership Down, and more recently we read Richard Bach’s There’s No Such Place as Far Away.
Bach, as you might recall, penned Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which didn’t do much for me, and Illusions, which did. No Such Place as Far Away is about a series of birds in conversation with Rae, who is on his way to celebrate his birthday party. Along the way he receives as gifts a series of oblique life-lessons from his friends. From the seagull Rae learns that “not being known doesn’t stop the truth from being true,” and from the hummingbird, he wonders “can miles truly separate us from friends? If you want to be [together], aren’t you already there?”
All good lessons, but a little obscure. The last lesson, however, was a whopper:
“You have no birthday because you have always lived; you were never born, and never will you die. You are not the child of the people you call mother and father, but their fellow-adventurer on a bright journey to understand the things that are.”
What do you think that means, I asked Silas and Rio as we snuggled together?
Neither boy was certain. I’m not sure they much carried. It dawned on me what Bach was saying: “There is no beginning and no end; not as we have come to believe in them. Life isn’t a linear progression from birth through adulthood to death,” I say, knowing that I’m treading on thin ice. Talk of death is difficult, especially before bed. “What makes you who you are, and what makes me who I am,” I pinch Silas’ cheeks, not to illustrate the point, but just because they are so pinchable, “has always been here. We’re just constantly being rearranged.”
I’m not sure if that made any sense. I still don’t.
Two: presence is your present
Sometimes one boy or the other has a hard time falling asleep. Not often, but from time to time. One of the things I’ve been teaching my children is the gift of the present moment.
If Rio or Silas is frustrated because they can’t sleep, I remind them of ‘present moment awareness.’ This is one of the most important lessons we can learn; this moment is all the life we will ever know. Both the past and future are illusion. This moment is the only moment we can live in.
How does this help a seven- or a ten-year-old fall asleep? I remind them that in this moment they are safe and have nothing to fear. I remind them that in this moment they are secure in their beds, comfortable, and so deeply loved. Safe in that knowledge, not worrying about tomorrow or contemplating yesterday, they can stay grounded in present moment awareness. I sometimes suggest they focus on their breath, as I try so desperately to do while meditating.
Recently we’ve been reciting something of a mantra, plucked from the final scene of the movie Peaceful Warrior (the book, which I read in high school, helped get me off my ass and started my lifelong passion for running):
What time is it? Now.
Where are you? Here.
What are you? This moment.
So I guess it should come as no surprise when, after reading a story a little while ago, and cuddling up with Silas, that he should remind me of the importance of the present. As I sometimes do, I told him: “I can’t wait to see you in the morning.”
He smirked and in a wry tone said “Stephie, present moment awareness!”
Three: The purpose of life
From time to time all the bedtime stories and the reminders about the present moment don’t help and one boy or the other has a tough time drifting off.
Such was the case a few nights ago. Silas was sad, missing his other household, and probably sore with growing pains. For several hours Jenn and I calmed him down and held him and he would drift off to sleep, only to wake again. Finally we went to bed ourselves, and a little while later I heard chatter from the boys bedroom, but it stopped, so I fell back to sleep.
When I got up to write the next morning, around 5:30, Silas was asleep on the floor. His comforter, not used during the warm summer months, had been bunched up to make a bed there. He was fast asleep.
Later, when Rio got up, he told me the rest of the story. Hoping to be able to fall asleep himself, and unable to because Silas was sad, he had climbed down from the top bunk and made a nest on the floor for his little brother, using extra pillows and the comforter to create a cocoon. Then the two of them had curled up there and fallen asleep together. Sometime in the early morning hours Rio had gone back to his own bed.
It’s the best bedtime story of all; it’s the story of our purpose: to love one another.
We are having a wonderful love affair together.
Today is the last day of the school year.
Tomorrow is the first day of summer. Of real summer. Mind you, we may be waiting a while longer in the Rocky Mountains for weather that resembles the season.
Despite all the warning signs that summer may actually be upon us, I can see September from here.
This morning I walked Rio to school for what may be the last time. Next year he’ll go to Lawrence Grassi Middle School, and though he says he’ll let me, I doubt I’ll be walking him to school very much. It’s too far, and Grade 5 is no place for a dotting father. I know it even if he doesn’t it.
It feels as if it was just a few days ago I walked him to Kindergarten for the first time. He was wearing his prized Scoobie-doo shirt and rode his scooter. I had just moved into my place in Fernwood so I drove up to the old house, parked, and Kat and I walked him there together.
I celebrate every single minute that I get to share with him on this earth. He is a gift. He is my heart’s delight.
Silas will still be at Elizabeth Rummel for three more years, and I bet that he’ll let me hold his hand for at least one or two of those, while he pontificates on the astrological projection of stars and the diet of duck billed platypuses as we toddle down the road. It will be just the two of us in September.
It’s all about letting go. From the very first moment it’s about stepping back, about yielding to time’s swift passage, about allowing them to grow and move on.
A few days ago I was in Burlington, Ontario, where I went to middle and high school. I was there for my father’s retirement party. I was the great surprise; the look on his face as I walked into the party was well worth the cross Canada flight. After 63 years of near daily work, he had sold the business he built with his own bare hands. Being with him at that moment was one of the greatest moments of my life; to give the gift of respect and recognition to this man who had worked so hard that my sister and I could live so well was very important to me.
We celebrated that passage together.
Just as Rio, Silas, Jenn and I will celebrate this passage too.
We let go. We accept change because to struggle against it would be foolish, ineloquent, and all-too-human.
The fact that we cannot see the simple truth that every single moment is ephemeral is part of the root of all suffering. That life is all magic-and-saying-goodbye evades us.
Summer comes, ready or not. The boys will be with us for four weeks of it. A week of that will be spent on the coast, camping with Jenn’s mom and dad, Ann and Paul, at Rathtrevor Provincial Park. Another week will be spent in Salmon Arm for the Legault family reunion. A weekend backpacking, and another just enjoying our home in the mountains.
I’ve made my choices and part of the result is that a summer too short to start with is cut in half.
Labour Day will be upon us, and the new school year – the real measure of any parent’s life – will begin again. I can see if from here. Book bags and lunches once more and walking Silas to school, not because it’s necessary (the kid could find his way back and forth across Canmore with his eyes closed) but because for 15 minutes I get to hold my son’s hand and listen to his stories. Maybe Rio will walk with Silas and me as far the Cougar Creek before he rides his bike into town and the next stage of the adventure. I’ll be glad for those opportunities. And I’ll celebrate every single new day that dawns with my family.
I can see September from here. It’s just far enough away that I can live each moment between now and then fully in the present, in awe of the wonder and the magic; aware that every moment is precious, made more so by the need to say goodbye.
Yesterday was the best Father’s Day ever. What made it that way wasn’t anything extraordinary. It was perfectly normal. My children made me really great cards, written in their own hand and using their own words. They collaborated with Jenn to buy a badminton set which we set up in the backyard. I already know that we’ll spend hours playing together there. Both children were beaming while we played. In the afternoon all four of us went for a mountain bike ride. We dubbed it a skills-building ride, and Rio and Silas did amazing.
Rio was brave and calm taking some steep downhill runs. He whooped and hollered as we rode across a narrow single track that swoops through aspens. After he had navigated a stretch of trail that is particularly tricky, with an off balance fall line and a lot of loose rock, he told me that by being calm he was less likely to bail and hurt himself. I’ve been trying to learn that lesson for years.
Silas was his usual hard-charging self, muscling up the hills without complaint and ready to do anything his older brother could.
I must have had an ear-to-ear grin on as we rode the last stretch of our circuit through the aspens because Jenn said, “you’re pretty happy right now.” Of course I was; I was with my family, doing something I love.
We finished the day with one last badminton match; Rio in his PJ’s as the sun dipped toward Mount Rundle. It was a perfect day.
I told the boys as we read a chapter of Watership Down (we have estimated we’ll be reading it for the next year, which is alright with me) in bed: this was the best father’s day ever.
Rio, from the top bunk, called down: you say that every year.
I do. And every year is the best.
Year after year I get everything an adoring dad could want: more love than I know what to do with, the presence of mind to appreciate and be grateful for it, and the good health and emotional maturity to be fully present to its richness.
I suppose there was only one thing that I want for Father’s Day that I can’t have: I want this to last forever.
Today is the 20th anniversary of my migration west.
The mental and emotional migration west started a few years before when I contemplated running away from home as a teenager. Being a fan of both Led Zeppelin and John Muir, I called Yosemite National Park and requested some pamphlets and maps of the park (going to California with an aching…).
But I didn’t run away. Not for a few more years. And when I did it was only after I’d secured a job, not in Muir’s Sierra Nevada, but at Tom Wilson’s Lake Louise.
When I got the job I didn’t even know where the place was.
It went like this: I was studying Parks Management at Sir Sandford Fleming College and knew that I wanted to work outside, preferably in the wilds, possibly in the mountains. Somewhere. But I was in south-central Ontario, and had never been west of Wawa; what did I know from mountains?
After my first summer at SSFC I got a great job, possibly my best job ever, at a small provincial park called Murphy’s Point. It was on the Frontenac Axis which is an arm of the Canadian Shield that reaches down through the southern lowlands around Kingston, Ontario and connects New York states’ Adirondack Mountains with Algonquin. Murphy’s Point was on this spine of rocky uplands and it was magical. Sometime, when nostalgia strikes again, I’ll write more about it; suffice to say, early mornings in a canoe watching loon chicks hatch and snapping turtles patrol the shore left an indelible impression on my 20-year-old heart and soul. I fancied myself a modern Henry David Thoreau, minus the pencil business and the theodolite.
The following spring I cast my lure wide looking for more permanent employment. I sent out more than eighty applications to provincial and federal parks across Canada. I got two bites: St. Lawrence Islands National Park, just an hour from Murphy’s Point, and Banff. Some considerable distance further away.
My interview went well for the position in Banff. I had studied hard, practically memorizing everything on the Park in my college’s library. This consisted mostly of old Park Management Plans and Parks Canada policy documents. I drew heavily on my experience at Murphy’s Point during the interview and a few weeks later I was offered the most junior position possible in the Park’s interpretive service. I’d be stationed in Banff, and would work at the Parks information centre, pointing tourists to the bathroom. If I did a good job of it I might get to lead a hike or two by the end of the summer.
I was ecstatic. This was my ticket west! I continued to study for the job. My father bought me a copy of Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies and it became my bible. Then, three days before I was to fly to Calgary I took a call from someone identifying themselves as Mike Kerr. He said he was my boss. He asked if I would mind working in Lake Louise instead of Banff. I would lead hikes and do campground talks instead of telling people how to get back on the highway. I said an enthusiastic yes.
The first thing I had to do after hanging up the phone was figure out where the hell Lake Louise was.
I knew it was in Banff, but I had spent all my time studying the Hot Springs and the Cave and Basin and the history of Canada’s first National Park. I found Lake Louise on a large scale map in the Management Plan but failed to note that the TransCanada Highway ran straight to it.
I’m going to be living on a lake again, I thought. I can get up early and canoe with the loons.
How right I was.
My dad drove me to the airport at 4 a.m. on May 4th 1992 and I remember waving goodbye. And then I was gone. Doug Brown, another park interpreter, met me in Calgary. On the way out of city he asked if I wanted to stop and get something to eat. We were going to arrive in Banff just as a meeting of all the Park’s interpreters were being held at a popular picnic site outside of the town of Banff so we stopped at a Subway I bought two foot long sandwiches: I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get groceries in remote Lake Louise.
Then it was on to the mountains. I fell asleep. I recall waking somewhere around the Morley flats and being gob-smacked as the sheer face of Mount Yamnuska pressed into the sky; then I drifted off again. It would be another week before I ventured into Calgary for a training session and got to experience the Eastern Slopes rising up from the foothills in all their magnificence once more.
We arrived at Cascade Ponds and I met my fellow interps (including Joel Hagen and Nadine Fletcher, who I have remained friends with ever since.) For whatever reason I had chosen to dress in my Toronto clothing that morning: black dress shoes, fashionable jeans, a dress shirt and my impracticable oilskin coat. Everybody else sported fleece and hiking shorts. I didn’t wear those clothes until I got on the plane the following September.
I tried to stay awake as Charlie Zinkan told us about the important role we would play in presenting the park to the millions of visitors that came to Banff every year. (So important, in fact, that the following summer half of the interpretive positions in the Park were cut.)
What I was really inspired by was the luminous form of Cascade Mountain rising up behind the Superintendent. I asked my new friends about the mountain names and wondered how I would ever remember them all.
Then, at last, it was onto Lake Louise. That’s when I learned the awful truth about my new home. Two million people would visit Lake Louise that year, and all but one or two who couldn’t find their way out of the shopping mall parking lot would venture to the lake shore. Dreams of another summer in peaceful contemplation of nature were replaced with the reality of motor homes belching diesel fumes. Worst of all: someone had built a seven-story hotel where my log cabin was supposed to be.
Memories of my home on the shore of Loon Lake were dashed when I saw Charleston Residence where I would live for the next three summers; a massive log structure owned by the ski area and used in the winter to house the grunts who operate the ski lifts and work in the concessions. In the summer Parks rented a few dark rooms with ski-wax stained floors for their transient staff. It was year round party central. The upshot: I met lifelong friends Jim, Jack and Josh there.
Despite these annoyances, it was a glorious summer. It was magical. I lead hikes and did campground talks about grizzly bears. I got firsthand experience in that subject matter when I was bluff charged by a notorious female grizzly named Blondie just a few weeks after I arrived. I climbed my first mountains and took up rock climbing to overcome my fear of heights. I logged nearly a thousand kilometres on trail and off in the backcountry and up and down the Plain of Six Glaciers. I fell hopelessly, madly, bottomlessly in love with the mountains.
I struggled to square my love for the backcountry wilderness with my disdain for Lake Louise itself. The scenery was magnificent; it was the scene that drove me bonkers. People bustled for a snap-shot of the lake, or of the penitentiary-like facade of the Chateau Lake Louise, and then blasted off for the next appointed attraction. It was a zoo. It was loony. It soured my disposition and I my outlook on National Parks. From time to time it made me grumpy.
Twenty years later I don’t like it any more than I did in 1992, but age and miles have taught me some patience and compassion, and I no longer grow frustrated when I stroll into that picture-postcard scene. People come to appreciate nature in their own way, in their own time, at their own speed. Who am I to judge?
Before I had left Ontario for Banff and Lake Louise I’d secured a job for the following winter as a “sustainability consultant” at my college. The summer tourist season drew to a close and on September 4th I put on my city clothes, tucking my hiking shorts and fleece deep in my pack, and Jim drove me to the airport. I remember watching the mountains grow distant as we drove over Scott Lake Hill. I thought: I’ll be back. I’ve found home.
And I had.
For the next four summers I was employed by Parks Canada. Just before Christmas in 1996 they grew tired of my grumpiness and my relentless activism on behalf of Banff and Canada’s National Parks and told me that I wouldn’t be offered a job the following summer. I didn’t leave; not for good. I just did what everybody else who had been canned by Parks for being too pro-nature did: moved down valley and got a new job.
I’ve come and gone a great deal over the last twenty years. For more than five years I lived on the west coast. While still the “West” it never felt like Alberta, like the Eastern Slope, like home. During that time I drove back and forth dozens of times, missing the feeling of peace that the mountains provided. Having been back in the Rocks for more than a year now, I know for certain I am home once more.
There will be more coming and going. But for twenty years this place has been my heart’s true home; every day here is a gift. Every sunrise is a delight and every eventide perfect. I wake and am grateful for the blessings in my life; principal among them is the opportunity to call the Rockies home.
Now my children are coming to love the mountains as I do. When I walk with Rio and Silas in the mountains, and they take my hand or run ahead on the trail, skipping, or crouch down on the fragrant earth to admire some wonder I become dizzy with gladness. My love for this landscape is now inter-generational.
I recall during my fourth summer based out of Lake Louise meeting a pair of horse wranglers and guides deep in the backcountry along the Red Deer River. They were towering men, more imposing from the saddle, and as we chatted one of them looked down and asked: “So, just how far east are you from.”
In a rare moment of quick wit I responded, “We can’t all be born in the place we call home.”
You might not come from the place you call home, but you can be born when you find it.
And so, I have.
There is a tree on one of the grassy benches above my home that is sacred. It’s a stalwart Douglas fir that rises up just a little taller than the other fir and spruce that surround it. From its base there is a standard tremendous view of the Bow Valley, the Three Sisters, Mount Peter Lougheed and Wind Ridge. It’s both easy to find and a surprise when stumbled upon. It’s like a thousand other Douglas fir that dot the sunny south-eastern side of this deep mountain vale, and singular in every way.
It is a prayer tree. Around its roots are a circle of stones with an entrance that allows access to the tree’s circumference. Approach the tree as I often do from the path that winds by its bottom and soon all manner of offerings appear: beads and glass bobbles scattered in the dust among its roots; hand written notes, an empty vile of homeopathic medicine, coins and a key are wedged in its thick bark; notes and pouches are suspended from its branches by string. A spiral of twigs is laid out in a neat pattern on the bare earth below the spreading limbs.
I found this tree by accident on one of my first runs through the woods above my home more than a year ago. I’ve had other such companions throughout my days on the trail over this lifetime. In high school I named a spreading American Beech ‘Phaedrus’ after a character in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and mourned it’s lose when my precious woods were cut to make way for the 427 toll highway. When I lived in Harvie Heights for six years in the 1990’s I named a massive Engleman Spruce Issrigill, one of the pillars of the earth in Roman mythology.
By the time I worked at Royal Roads University a few years ago I had stopped naming my favourite trees, but found them never the less. On a campus full of extraordinary trees – 16 of the largest Douglas fir left on the Vancouver Island were on the upland slopes of the grounds – there was a massive Norway Maple that at its base was six feet across. I found a way to run by that tree almost every day I was on campus and it never failed to fill me with a sense of magical wonder.
But never have I come across a tree that is so obviously important to so many other people. Despite the conspicuous adoration felt for this particular tree, I’ve yet to meet anybody there on my dozens of runs past it. And that’s just as well, because the sort of druidic reverence I and others evidently feel for this tree is best practiced in private.
A few days ago while running in the warm afternoon sun I came upon the tree as I usually do: by accident. On my circuitous routes through the woods and meadows along the slopes of Grotto Mountain I often let whimsy decide my course, so I’m always pleasantly surprised to find myself at the base of this tree.
I stopped running and walked through the opening in the stones that circled the tree. For some reason I have it in my head that the offerings left at this tree have been done so by young people. I figure most adults have lost the sense of wonder and suspended judgment that is required to leave a prayer in the form of a note, a coin or a key in such a place. I wanted to offer something but didn’t have anything to leave: somehow I didn’t think the wrapper from a Cliff Shot could be interpreted as anything but garbage.
But I did have something I needed to take with me. I circled the tree a few times, trying to quiet my racing mind. There has been a lot of pain in the world of late; a lot of pain in my family too. Several dear family members are sick. Two of the people I love the most in this world are facing the end of the journey. I do not want them to leave just yet. A friend is passing through dark times. And on the same day I was saying my prayers at this tree the father of friends I grew up with – a man whose presence when I was a child seemed like it would last forever – was being put to rest after a massive heart attack.
There were other prayers to offer. Last week a child was born to friends who are love incarnate, and this little boy will grow up deeply cared for and cherished. They named him Isaiah and recalled the Words: Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed. (Isaiah 54:10)
When we need something that we believe is beyond our control we sometimes pray for it.
I do not believe there is a supernatural being to pray to, and nobody will respond to my supplication except the wind and the sun. So why do I find myself praying when I run past this tree?
Because all life is a prayer. Because every moment, every word, every breath is a prayer. Prayer focuses our intent, and calls together the sometimes magical and often mundane coagulation of hope and belief and the power of our thoughts to create reality.
And because sometimes prayer is all we have. And sometimes prayer is all we need.
And so, at the base of the tree where others have left gifts I leave love and courage for my family and friends who are struggling to hold onto life, and offer the gift of hope and peace for baby Isaiah. And then, the afternoon sun warming my face and the wind speeding my steps, I keep running through the prayer filed woods.