Trying to articulate, however inadequately, my spirituality

Anyone from “the rooms” who’s heard me talk about 2, 3, 11 and others, especially since my comeback following Craig’s death, knows that I’m having trouble – at best – articulating my beliefs regarding spiritual matters and – at worst – am profoundly confused.

The way from my heart to my head, or vice versa, sometimes seems impassable.  If I’m going to believe something, or in something, my head wants to know what I’m signing up for – and I’m pretty quick to toss out anything familiar which I think maybe has not worked in the past.  Sometimes the baby has gone out with the bath water.  Not any particular baby, mind you, although the mystical (formerly literal) Christmas story was a foundational part of my upbringing and remains of sentimental and, as I noted, mystical importance.

Occasionally I feel like I need to shield people from potentially offensive, dogmatic-sounding language.  That “need to shield” is my problem, or gift, and does not necessarily mean that anyone asks for such protection.  The best example which comes to mind is changing references to “God” (whatever that means to me at the time) from “He”, “His” and “Him” (male) gender assignments.

In the bigger picture, this problem I have of my head needing to know so much about things which may be more intuitive or “unknowable” (forgive the old Donald Rumsfeldism) can, and does, sometimes get in the way of experiencing the moment.  I’ve likened it to seeing something through my camera viewfinder alone, blocking myself (however unintentionally) from a fuller, broader experience of the moment or subject being photographed.

I feel a spiritual longing in the sense that I want to eliminate the sometimes cynical flotsam and jetsam of my thoughts.  I have experienced this during meditations which begin with simple focusing on my breathing.  There’s something powerful, to me, at what I would describe as the bottom of each breath.  Note to self: revive my practice of mindfulness meditation.  Then, rather than demanding to know “who” or what I’m communicating with (it may well be me), I need to try to be open to what I can name as my longings, my yearning, and sometimes – yes – my inquiring. 

Sometimes I get so tired of my head always needing an explanation of everything so, while avoiding the outright dismissive arguments of Hitchens, Hawking, I attribute what I do not know – or have not learned – to the Mystery.  What I do not, or cannot, know has power greater than me.

Maybe, just as the three great monotheistic religions believe in one God (triune hoops of Christianity notwithstanding), and the followers of each such faith pray to the same Deity, just maybe that’s what I’m doing as I contemplate, inquire of, or long for the Mystery. 

Many groups and individuals have shared with me their ideas and experiences of spirituality over the years.  I think of the former healing circle which used to meet in the old AIDS Committee of Toronto offices on Yonge Street each Sunday night; of various First Nations groups and individuals who so generously showed me their practices; of meditation groups.  There are many more examples.

In addition to the visual wonder I experience through photography, I am so appreciative of my love of music imparted to me by my mother and grandmother.  I cannot listen to recordings of the world’s great pipe organs without thinking of the devotion of Mom, Sunday after Sunday, splendidly playing the two-console Casavant organ in Valleyfield and thank her for the forty or so years of piano lessons she gave to kids in Perth, in Valleyfield, and back in Perth again – myself included (though you’d hardly know it now).

There is a power greater than myself in photography and music – in anything creative.

“God” can be short-hand for many wonderful and meaningful ideas, although the baggage the word carries seems to go flying off in all directions sometimes.




1480669138058663828 Toronto

Frame edits 613

Peggy’s Cove


  Grant’s Creek (Tay River)


Singing self-acceptance

This was a therapy day so, as the subject of self-love came up, I did a search for Jai Michael Josephs’ song “I Love Myself the Way I Am”, which was included on an early Louise Hay tape I bought in the late 1980s. I’ll paste the lyrics below the YouTube recording by Steve Stay:

I Love Myself the Way I Am

by Jai Michael Josephs from Carry The Love

I love myself the way I am,
there’s nothing I need to change
I’ll always be the perfect me
there’s nothing to rearrange
I’m beautiful and capable
of being the best me I can
And I love myself just the way I am

I love you just the way you are
there’s nothing you need to do
When I feel the love inside myself
it’s easy to love you
Behind your fears, your rage and tears
I see your shining star
And I love you just the way you are

I love the world the way it is,
’cause I can clearly see
That all the things I judge are done
by people just like me
So ’til the birth of peace on earth
that only love can bring
I’ll help it grow by loving everything

I love myself the way I am
and still I want to grow.
But change outside can only come
when deep inside I know
I’m beautiful and capable,
of being the best me I can,
And I love myself just the way I am
I love myself just the way I am

We used to sing this song in a healing circle held back in the early 1990s each Sunday evening at the AIDS Committee of Toronto offices (on Yonge Street at that time).

It was an emotional way to close after checking in with each other as we navigated the waters of caring for people living with AIDS, caregivers and those of us infected alike.

I used to say that while I may never be cured I can always be healed.

I wondered today whether I will ever internalize the positive feedback I get about my life and silence the doubting, self-critical, haunted guy who brings me down so much, at which point this poem was brought out for me.

When Death Comes
Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
(Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St, Boston, MA 02108-2892, ISBN 0 870 6819 5).

The richness of life with friends

It was, as I said on my facebook page, an amazing night of remembering, crying and healing at the 25th Annual Candlelight AIDS Vigil. A true sign of the richness of my life is that I didn’t get the chance to hug everybody that I knew there.

Maybe it was the fact that it was the 25th annual vigil or the fact that it’s been 20 years since I’ve known definitively that I have HIV/AIDS – and have lived to tell about it. I don’t need to know why tonight’s ceremony was extra special.

But as I fill in the details you’ll get the picture.

I sat mere steps away from the AIDS Memorial with a group of friends who have steadfastly supported me in my return to the recovery fold. Later, after several of them held me as I completely shuddered with tears, a total stranger introduced herself, asked if she could also hug me, and quickly became a found soul-mate – a friend I hadn’t met yet – as we began to share about people we both knew.

The evening started with the reading of a message from Cleve Jones, particularly to mark the 25th anniversary. The significance was lost on no one who had seen “Milk” in the past year or so, or those of us who know of him as one of the founders of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Three co-hosts masterfully presided over the ceremonies – multiple-Juno Award winner Billy Newton-Davis, himself a long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS, another long-timer Shari Margolese, and 16-year old Quinn Johnston, Shari’s completely healthy son – the first time a mother and child had shared these ceremonial duties at the vigil.

The music throughout the hour was fantastic. I know these vigils have always touched me but there was something about the music and the stories tonight that really hit home. Several references to long-term survivors (and I’d be in that group) were also very meaningful.

25 more names were added to the memorial, bringing the total to something over 2600. Candles were lit, the light passing from person to person, until the entire crowd was bathed in the glow.

I cried plenty of tears during the live music which included Nathalie Nadon singing “La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf, a song – “Can You See Me” – commissioned for this 25th anniversary composed and sung by Glenn Marais, and the nineteen voices of “Guys Like Us” singing “I Believe”. As we placed our candles around the site the Regent Park School of Music String Ensemble performed the always evocative Pachelbel Canon.

That’s when the silence was broken as we hugged and cried, and cried and hugged, met old friends, made new ones and just tried to take in the gratitude we felt for such a touching community event in the early hours of Pride weekend.

A huge thank you to all who were responsible for such an important evening.

Living in the east on west coast time

At just after 1 a.m. EDST I am now contemplating hauling ass to my bed, although any number of distractions could keep me from there.

I see my nearly new therapist for the second time Thursday and, if last week is anything to go by, I will be glad it’s a late afternoon appointment. A day after last week’s session, advised not to write too much about it, I stayed up all night and listened to what I have since come to call the soundtrack of my youth, which I stretched back to my pre-teen years (when my older brother was catching the tail end of The Beatles wave) and forward to my thirties, when I still felt young.

It was comforting to find all the music and listen to it again as it reminded me that I used music to soothe me – or numb me as the case may have been. Some of these tunes, which I will not list here, I played over and over and over again. Okay I’ll name two because I spent hours learning them on the piano in their original, not “Easy Piano”, form: Hagood Hardy’s “The Homecoming” and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”.

Barbra Streisand – Barry Manilow – Beach Boys – Beatles – Bee Gees – Billy Joel – Carly Simon – Carpenters – Cat Stevens – Christopher Cross – Creedance Clearwater Revival – Donna Summer – Eagles – Fleetwood Mac – James Taylor – Judy Collins – Kinks – Led Zeppelin – Mamas and the Papas – Moody Blues – Pet Shop Boys – Simon & Garfunkel – Supertramp – Three Dog Night – Village People – Weather Girls

The Green Piano

The cottage was simple, primitive by modern standards, but my memories of it are as warm as a favourite sweater. “Hillcrest” belonged to my Auntie Dot and Uncle Homer who owned and operated a cluster of weekly housekeeping cottages on Big Rideau Lake collectively known as “Homer’s Haven”. 

There was the cottage over the boat-house, “Rideau”, named for the lake, and “Cedar Crest” whose living area was just a matter of steps from the water but was nestled in a grove of evergreens at the very edge of the property. Up the hill a little was “Bay View”, across the well-shaded lawn from “Lakefield” and “Birch View”. Then, in the late 1960s, directly across from the main house, “Bawnvilla” was built specifically so that a faithful customer from Indiana, who was dying of cancer, could visit at a time when all other cottages were spoken for. This rush-job was made easier by the fact that Homer and Dorothy, in addition to their maintenance of this extensive property, both worked full-time at a company which built pre-fabricated homes (and cottages).

Because it was their summer home Hillcrest had a few more comforts than those available in the other cottages. Mind you there wasn’t a shower or bath-tub to be found. We had the lake for that or Homer and Dorothy would take a short drive to their winter home just outside the nearby village of Portland. Hillcrest’s bathroom would more accurately be called a “W.C”, or water closet, the British term for the single-purpose room housing a toilet and sink. In the corner was a water heater. 

The kitchen, for most of my visits there, was a well-traveled alleyway from the front door to the bathroom. Later, as I grew older and spent summers working for my aunt and uncle, I was naturally expected to help out with cleanups after meals. What I lacked in speed I made up for in detail as Auntie Dot frequently remarked, “No one can dry a dish like Kenneth Chaplin!”. The kitchen was separated from the dining area by an enamel-covered counter where we would often eat a hasty breakfast or where Auntie Dot would brew her much-loved tea. 

Two small bedrooms were off the living room area. Like all the bedrooms in the other cottages their walls were more like room dividers. A common ceiling made privacy possible for the eyes only. Snoring, quite animated in the case of Uncle Homer, and other nocturnal noise-making, were shared equally.

If my cousin was in residence I slept on one of the living room sofas, one a fire engine-red, imitation leather, couch and the other a flip-out sofa bed. These were in an L-shape facing an artificial fireplace, good for taking the dampness out of the air if we had to endure a stretch of rainy weather. 

Along the wall, between the bedrooms, was the large upright piano. It was painted green, something like the colour of lime JELL-O after it has been whipped with cream, or cream cheese, into a ‘quick ‘n’ easy’ mousse. There was a matching bench which, like our own back home, had storage space underneath for music. Pianos have been a central part of my family’s entertainment for generations and this green one saw a lot of action, whether cousin “Red Jack” was showing us his jazz prowess or Mom was leading a sing-along of Depression and World War Two-era standards. There were a couple of summers in the 1970s when I hardly let a day go by without playing that piano.

It was the time of “The Sting” and Scott Joplin’s music, particularly “The Entertainer”, was very popular. I set out to learn it – and not some simplified version for kids, either. I was determined to learn how to play it as Joplin himself had written it. That took a lot of practice, something many members of my family will remember well, if not always fondly. (I also worked on it at home and at my grandmother’s.) Thanks in no small measure to that green piano I mastered “The Entertainer” that summer (and it became a part of my repertoire for a few more years).

My fingers can still find those opening notes whenever I am near a piano, which is not too often anymore. 

I’m not sure what became of that green piano. The winters in a cottage with no insulation surely were not kind to it.