This is one of my favourite tracks from my first album, Small Things Shining Bright.
Melody came first here. I was cycling on the rail path from Barrie to Orillia, humming and thinking through a different melody structure for a song. The rhythm of the pedaling helped a lot with the groove…
...and then that initial phrase, the minor sixth, da dum, popped into my head. I cycled it around, rolled with it (see what I did there?) and a melody started to form. It’s about 40km wheeling about from Barrie to Orillia so I had time, lots of time and that groove became more and more infectious. A two-step. Something you could dance to.
As so often happens with me in this process, I began to hear the orchestration: an accordion, a violin, an upright bass, a clarinet, maybe. That dotted rhythm moving the story forward. It had to be there.
So upon arriving home, I sat down, thought some more, took out Yolande (my Breedlove guitar), and dove into experimentation. A minor key. Fretted, not open, like E minor or A minor, the typical guitar keys for minor-sounding songs.
F minor, then. Barre chord, first fret, just to make things difficult, but good exercise for the left hand. Subdued. I wanted a continental, European feel to this thing. Something Parisian, Left Bank, at a cafe with wine and cheese and Gauloises and the subtle light stroke of your companion’s foot on your calf.
And the tune grew.
The words were a real challenge. Theme? Story? This took the better part of half a year. Finally, an image: an older couple, reunited by chance or disguised intent after lives lived apart in their own worlds. A rendezvous, an old flame reignited, a French film from the fifties. Un rendezvous des fous. A rendezvous of fools. Love that “oo” sound shared by both languages. A cinematographic feel to the words, images, music, and storyline.
And the rest is history.
I remember one time I performed this in the small bistro under my apartment. There wasn’t much room between the stage and the dining room, but somehow a couple managed to find enough room to dance as I played this. They became lost in their own world the music painted for them. It was a lovely, touching moment, and we all applauded them as the song wound down to its conclusion.
“Is this the way old lovers recall / the suns of passion long since cooled?/
Who knows how wintered flesh remembers the touch / of a rendezvous of fools?
...they’d rather be beside each other than beside themselves...”
I had a past life, at this writing, almost seventeen years ago, as a United Church minister. I did that for twenty years. After a major mental health crisis – another story for sure – either the god I half believed in left the building or I left the household of faith and went AWOL. The result was a new direction to an unknown destination.
I had played and sung much of what folks called Christian music. Immeasurable measures of treacly but nonetheless beloved warhorses, “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “In the Garden”, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” and such like. There were the mindless and repetitive praise choruses, and songs hardly distinguishable from pop earmush where the word “Jesus” could be substituted by whatever intended romantic idol or unrequited lover existed in the mind of the singer.
Well-produced, predictably arranged, nice, innocent, beloved, manipulative, beige, and horrid drivel. Religious, white, musical shite. Taylor Swift meets Jesus Loves Me
<Cue Gollum’s voice: We hates it! We hates it forever!>
This is not to say that there isn’t some damn good lyrical hymnody out there, classical and contemporary. I have a special place in my heart for Poulenc’s Mass, and, paradoxically enough, a gospel song “Angel Band” by the Stanley Brothers. I first heard the latter one while watching the movie “O Brother, Where art Thou?” Anything by Palestrina and Byrd. And Bach oratorios. I recently sang in a choir performing Mozart’s Coronation Mass. A lovely piece but the music seemed to belong more in a comedic opera than a mass.
Call me a blasphemous snob. I don’t care. That and a quarter will get you ten minutes’ worth of parking in Collingwood.
I wrote “Memory” as an anti-gospel tune. Perhaps I should re-phrase that. I wrote it as a life-affirming reminder that all we have is life, no afters. Expecting an afterlife after we die is a waste of good terrestrial time. This life, this bag of bones and dreams, this time where we cry, love, screw up, and maybe reconcile is the whole meal, and that dinner lasts until we finally disband, disintegrate, and decay. Our only legacy is the memory others have of us.
I remember performing this song at a concert in London, Ontario. Afterward, a woman about my age came up to me. She said,
“My father died three months ago. I haven’t slept well, wondering, 'Where is he?’ It’s been hard. Your song answered so many questions. Thank you.”
That’s as good a summary of why I do this kind of thing.
In writing the song, I concluded that the concepts of God, Jesus, the Scriptures, and the doctrines of sin, forgiveness, and salvation were, in the end, unnecessary.
All we have is each other and the stories we tell. Presence and memory.
My father, Dirk Jan Moll, died on February 17, 2011 in Guelph, Ontario of complications from a sepsis infection. Diagnosed on the Tuesday, dead on Thursday. My sister Sorouja had called me Tuesday. It was looking bad. I gathered what resources I had and made my way in by Wednesday. My sister and I had taken a short break from visiting him. The nursing station called us to say he died just as we were served at a restaurant. We finished the meal (he wasn’t going to get any worse) and went back to the hospital room where he was kept. Paid our respects, contacted the family and waited.
The next day we went to the funeral home to make arrangements. That was when the fun started.
You see, my father, compelling old curmudgeon that he was, had some specific instructions as to the disposal of his remains:
- ashes to be put into a boat;
- said boat to be set aflame and afloat on Lake Erie in front of his cottage/residence;
- accompanying music to be played: “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones;
- over the years he had painted copies of old masters - this group of about 45 paintings was to be put on auction and the funds raised from that were to go to the Sick Kids Hospital.
- invite family and friends.
There is not a drop of Viking blood in him. He was Dutch. So I guess close enough.
When we told the funeral director about the instructions, he didn’t bat an eye.
“We get lots of requests like this. We had one family put their dear departed’s ashes in shotgun shells and fire them into the woods by their hunting camp. By the way, did your father have a pacemaker?”
“Pacemakers have nuclear material in them. When subjected to the heat of cremation, they explode.”
“Oh. We didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. It really makes a mess. One time it happened on my watch and the crematorium had to replace the firebricks inside the furnace. The detonation wrecked the entire interior. That’s why we always ask. We just remove it while we prepare the remains.”
“No, he didn’t have a pacemaker.”
He ticks off a box on the form.
So what to do? We set a date for the memorial service for July 2nd of that year. We delegated various jobs, venue prep, invitations, food, sound system, and so on. I volunteered to make the boat and prepare the service. I used to make mountain dulcimers and I had been a clergyperson. So close enough on two counts.
And to put some icing on the funerary cake, another project recently had me in the CBC Toronto studios with Steve Wadhams, a renowned producer for various CBC programs and others. He overheard me talking about my father’s memorial and his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Do you think I could make a story out of this for Living Out Loud?”
I said I’d have to consult with the family and get back to him, but I was excited that he considered this program worthy.
Long story short, relatives approved, and that was a go for the day.
Putting together the service was easier than the boat. The latter took a bit of research: downloading the lofting plans for a Viking longship, finding construction material, and a workspace.
Plans were easy to find. Construction material was a bit more challenging – it had to be lightweight, easily workable, and flammable. Thin plywood for the keel, and picture matting for the ribs and hull planking. Sealant, paint. Rigging as close to plan as possible.
Of course, it had to float and carry at least seven pounds of ash with enough freeboard to clear waves on Lake Erie. My father became considerably overweight before he died. His ashes came to just over four kilos. The devil is in the details.
I managed to temporarily use my friend’s workspace to put the framing up, and finished the rest in the apartment.
I have pics:
I gave the ship a test run – it floated, carried the weight, and the rigging worked. She sailed into Lake Kempenfelt for her maiden voyage. Tethered to shore, of course. I needed her back.
So with the ship carefully ensconced in the car, on Canada Day we all met at the cottage just west of Port Bruce, myself, my brother Richard and his spouse, Susan, both of whom travelled all the way from Los Angeles, and my sister Sorouja, (her daughter Baritte, my two sons, Simon and Stan, arrived the next day). We got well lubricated on single malt, told stories and memories, played and sang, and made merry.
A storm, a good old barn-buster of a thing, rose up later in the evening, lightning and thunder flashing up the lake’s horizon. My brother and sister scurried away inside. I, however, was drunk and foolish, and stood with arms defiantly raised to the heavens below the trees between the poles where my father practiced his slack-wire walking, the steel cable buried beneath the trees. I was ripe for striking. It did not happen.
The swells on the lake the following day were up a metre high and unpredictable. The roar of the surf pervaded the conversations of the family and friends gradually drifting in for the day. We were going to start the proceedings at about one-thirty, as I remember it. Had to make a quick trip to the Aylmer version of Canadian Tire to get a cassette player that could produce enough volume to play the tracks. The wind and the waves were going to be a challenge.
We had six of my father’s brothers and sisters there. Friends and irritating neighbours. My boys and Baritte, who I mentioned earlier, came that day, ready to do their part. My father was not a believer. So no mention of the deity. But lots of poetry, Dylan Thomas et al. Memories and reflections from some and sundry.
The time had come to load the ship. Sorouja, Richard, and I, loaded the ashes in. Put in the keys to the cottage, a small airline-sized bottle of scotch, and soaked the ashes thoroughly with barbeque fluid.
Conscious that the neighbours might not have appreciated having a model boatload of burning cremains landing on their shore, we secured anchors and line to the fore and aft of the ship. Richard had a lighter sealed in a small baggie.
To the faint-sounding recording of the Ride of the Valkyries he and I carried the boat out into the waves of Lake Erie, twenty, thirty, feet out, where the troughs of the swells reached our chests, and the crests over our heads.
We had to bounce on the lake bottom to keep our heads above water. Secured the anchors. Then Richard took out the lighter, and tried once, twice, three times to set the ashes alight. Timing was critical here, and the waves and wind conspired to extinguish the flame of expectation. Fourth time was good – the lighter fluid caught and we had a good flame going by the time we waded back to the rocks on the shore and the concrete breakwater. George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Steve Wadhams was recording everything, but we hardly noticed him.
Sorouja had bought a toy bow and arrow and some sparklers, and tape to tie the sparklers to the arrow for us to fire at the burning boat.
We all watched as the flames consumed the rigging, the sail, and gradually the aft of the model, and then, after about twenty, thirty minutes it seemed like she would stay forever afloat, the longboat took on water from the burning stern and she sank in seconds. Gone.
An episode of CBC’s Living Out Loud featured Steve’s production. It aired a couple of times about a decade ago. It has been consigned to the archives and to date I have been unable to retrieve it. I do, however, have a CD recording of the show, and understandable copyright issues prevent me from bringing it to you on this blog. Maybe it will be available in the future. As for this account, any errors are due to my faulty memory. If any family and kin have corrections or additions, feel free to let me know.
Like a sand mandala, the ship and its cargo have disappeared into the silty bottom of Lake Erie. For now, I have memories in picture and story, that are now yours.
A strange title for a song, I’ll admit. It does have an explanation.
This song arrived much later. I had been living in downtown Barrie when a musician friend of mine, Roy Hickling, invited me to a local songwriting group, The Barrie and District Association of Singer-Songwriters.
BaD/ASS. Of course.
They were. Still are.
We would gather on the first Thursday of the month. Some of us brought songs we had written or were in the process of writing. We’d perform them, distribute the lyrics, and listen to commentary by anyone present. It was non-judgmental, genial, and perceptive.
Much food and drink was consumed. Ribaldry and hilarity ensued.
On occasion, the organizer would give us a writing exercise. On one particular evening, he said:
“OK. You have a pen and paper. You also have ten minutes to live. Write in 3...2...1...go”
And off we went.
Some amazing stuff came out of that session. I wrote the major part of the song that night, and added another verse and the chorus after. And the title.
So how did I come up with that crazy tune?
I am partial to jazz and popular standards between the 1930’s and late 1950’s. I had a copy of the “Real Book of Jazz”, consisting of melody and chord sequences, as well as lyrics. One of them intrigued me, Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance[link] The initial sequence of chords puzzled me for a while. I didn’t have a piano, so trying to figure out on the guitar chords that a keyboard player would easily interpret was a bit of a challenge.
Then asked myself, in all those changes, which line is moving in such a way that it attracts my attention? I figure it’s a good question to ask in any kind of life situation. Listen to the thing that moves.
So I did. And it was the line that moved in half steps. And I found it worked as a bass and as a treble. I chose bass and there were my guitar chords. Keeping one fingering and moving the bass line one fret at a time. Chromatics are us! And I decided to keep the flavour of that in the chorus as well.
Change it from four beats to three to keep with the rhythm of the words I wrote.
Ten minutes to live? I thought an attitude of gratefulness with a tinge of naughtiness would best be the way I’d begin. I had a Leonard Cohen taste in my brain as I was writing, knowing that at the end of the ten minutes, I’d be dead. So the first line, “Thank you, my love, your body was light” seemed apropos.
And then family, and the one whose mortgage I was paying to keep a roof over my head, and of course my friends, whose supply of medicinals and companionship never was in doubt. A not-so-good-natured jibe at my erstwhile and abandoned religious pastimes within the evangelical fold. And memories.
So it travels, into the last chorus, “I’ll be gone, but you’ll do just fine.” There are some weirdly apt percussion and sound effects throughout. A ten minute test in a four-minute song.
As you can tell in the recording, Ray Dillard and Don Bray had some fun with this. We all did. It's on the first album, Small Things Shining Bright. Wait till the very end for the studio talk.
I was in grade seven English class. Woodland Heights Public School, London, Ontario. We were in the poetry mode and our teacher, a genial, bespectacled gentleman, Mr. McRorie, introduced us to a poem/song “Home from the Forest.”
Written by a Canadian, he said. Gordon Lightfoot. He took out the class record player (Remember those?) And he played it for us.
It was like a revelation for me – that voice, that melody, and most of all, the poignancy of the storyline of a homeless man who eventually dies. Told in a simple, sympathetic, poetic way
I learned the paradox of beauty that can be horrible and heart-wrenching. The question toward the end of the lesson was, “What does Lightfoot mean when he says at the end of the song that ‘The old man has come home from the forest.’”?
I think we were all almost afraid to say it, “He died.” Fate, dreams, and mortality.
Those were big feelings for a twelve-year-old. And Mr. Lightfoot did that.
Even more, I wanted to learn that song. And more songs by him.
You have to keep in mind that this was way before the age of cell-phones, MTV, and computer search engines. My only access to music at the time was to become a denizen of music stores. Almost every chance I would get to be downtown I’d find myself in one of the two music stores there.
My father still had an old guitar he occasionally played. I bought a book on guitar chords. The problem was manifold: the height of the strings over the fretboard was measured in sixteenths of an inch. It was a big, awkward thing with a huge neck. Tuning it was well-nigh impossible. Translated, it meant that the thing was a bugger to play, and my pre-teen fingers were never going to be strong enough to push the old and rusted strings down behind the frets.
But I wanted to learn how to play guitar in order to play Gordon Lightfoot songs.
I babysat. A year or two later, I washed dishes for my father’s kitchen. The music store in downtown London had a Yamaha steel six-string acoustic for just over a hundred bucks. And I saved enough to buy it, the first of many Gord’s songbooks that would litter my bedroom floor.
I can credit Gord (and his publishers) for my introduction to Travis picking and dropped ‘D’ tuning.
When I see titles of his songs, about 90% of the time the tune and lyrics of at least the first verse and melody will spring to mind. That yodel of “Steel Rail Blues” still rings in my head even as I write this. For opening the doors to other artists and singers: Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Bob Dylan, Murray McLaughlin, Valdy, Bruce Cockburn, the McGarrigle Sisters, and of course the multitude of wonders of the Mariposa Folk Festival.
Indeed, when I look back, Gord was the catalyst, bringing together a host of disparate influences and curiosities in my young life: choirs, high school band music, my father’s classical repertoire, my mother’s attraction to musicals and C&W, dysfunctional family, and teenage angst. I think the climax of all of that was a performance I gave of the Canadian Railroad Trilogy for a high school lunch concert. Even if I have problems with the real history of the Trans Canada Railroad, playing Gord’s interpretation of that historical song in its entirety at the time was a coup for me and well-received by my peers. If ever I wanted to feel even close to being “Canadian” Gordon Lightfoot was the ticket.
His songwriting is poetic, down-to-earth, full of the empathetic storytelling skill that held and still holds me. Whether it was a trip to a hometown friend wondering about an old flame, riots in Motor City, or a shipwreck, philosophical musings of the wherefore and the why, or, one of my personal favourites, a road trip to the mountains to greet Marianne, Gord had the knack of bringing the story home to me.
And when I began to write songs, he was the springboard. I am eternally grateful for his life and legacy.
Ah, parting is such sweet sorrow. Safe havens, Gord. You’re home from the forest.
3 oz/85g butter , softened, plus extra for greasing
5 oz/140g demerara sugar
2 tbsp blackstrap molasses
3 ½ fl oz/100ml milk
6 oz /175g light muscovado sugar(really, any brown sugar will do)
2 oz/55g butter , cut into pieces
8 oz/ 225ml heavy/double cream (32% whipping cream. This is not for the faint of heart)
1 tbsp blackstrap molasses
Preheat the oven to 325°F/160°C
Make the cake
Butter 6, 7fl/oz/200ml individual pudding tins or use an 8" x 8" x 2 ½" deep (20cm x 20cm x 6.5cm deep) square baking dish and dust lightly with flour. I like using the “two-bite” muffin tins. If you’re going to use the baking dish, be prepared for a longer baking time (40 - 50 minutes. Check with a toothpick towards the end.)
Put the chopped dates into a large glass bowl, cover with boiling water, leave for 20 minutes to swell and soften. Once soft, add the vanilla extract.
Sieve the flour and bicarbonate of soda into a large baking bowl.
In another baking bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until light and creamy, don't worry about grains of sugar, they will melt during cooking.
In another bowl (yes, a third one) lightly beat the eggs.
Little by little, add the beaten eggs to the creamed butter and sugar, mixing really well between additions. Add the treacle and beat well.
Using a large spoon carefully fold in one-third of the flour, then carefully stir in one-third of the milk. Repeat until all the flour and milk are used up.
Add the chopped dates (including any liquid in the bowl) and stir gently. The pudding mixture will resemble a thick batter.
Divide the mixture between the six pudding tins, (or a dozen muffin baking tin) place on a baking sheet, and bake in the preheated oven for 20 - 25 mins for individual puddings or 45 - 50 mins for the large square. Do the toothpick test. The cake should be raised and firm to the touch, if not cook a little longer but take care not to burn. Once ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before turning out.
While the cake is baking, clean the bowls and
Make the Sauce
Over a medium heat, melt the butter, sugar, and half the cream in a saucepan. Raise the heat slightly and bring to the boil stirring constantly until all the sugar has dissolved. Add the treacle and allow the sauce to bubble for 2 mins. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 1 minute then stir in the remaining cream.
After the cakes have cooled, cover the bottom of a large baking dish with some of the sauce. Arrange the puddings on the dish and drizzle the remaining sauce generously over. Cover loosely with foil and leave overnight. The following day reheat slightly before serving in individual dishes with custard and berries of your choice. If you want to get really fancy, you can skip the custard, add whipped cream, berries and shaved dark chocolate, or pour a flambéd brandy, Cointreau, or Grand Marnier over the lot.
Custard, the perfect partner for British puddings and desserts.
Don't be confused by pastry cream which is a similar recipe to custard sauce. Pastry cream is much thicker and is used in patisserie making, it is not a pouring sauce like custard.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
5 fl oz/150ml milk
8½ fl oz/250ml 32% (whipping)cream
50g fine/caster sugar
6 large egg yolks
1 vanilla pod, split, and seeds removed (or ½ teaspoon of pure vanilla extract)
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan place the milk and cream and one tsp of the sugar, bring to a gentle simmer, once simmering, turn the heat to its lowest.
In a large heat-proof bowl, place the sugar and the egg yolks, and with a hand whisk, whisk until light, creamy, and paler in colour.
Slowly, while still whisking, pour the warmed milk into the egg mixture.
Strain the custard sauce through a fine sieve, back into the saucepan, and add the seeds from the vanilla pod. Over low-medium heat, stir constantly and gradually the custard will thicken. Do not speed this process up by raising the heat or you run the risk of the sauce curdling, and even worse burning.
Finally, once thickened, remove from the heat and pass through a sieve again.
(The sieve is for the purists who like their pouring sauce without the tiny chunky bits. For me it's optional. The constant stirring over medium heat is not. Distracted stirring such as leaving it to answer a text, send one, or watch a cat video will result in curdled and/or burnt custard. As well as a kitchen fine of $100,000. If you've ever made Hollandaise sauce from scratch you will know what it's all about. It takes about 5 - 7 minutes for the custard to thicken. It will be of a slightly thinner consistency than ranch dressing)
If you don’t want to go through the fuss of making the custard from scratch, whipped cream will do quite well (either the store-bought pressurized cans or whipping the cream yourself. Make sure it’s the real thing. Dream-Whip is not the real thing)
A sprinkling of blueberries or raspberries, and shaved dark chocolate will be a lovely addition.
Flamed cognac, brandy, Cointreau, or Grand-Marnier will add a luxurious touch to this dessert, especially if you flame it at the table.
I wrote this back in 2020, Hallowe'en/Samhain. Every bit true, save for some details of plot for dramatic effect.
Back in the mid-oughts of this century, I was freshly quit of the ministry, marriage, and faith. Nevertheless, I remained in a more or less formal affiliation with a local congregation as what was then known as a Voluntary Associate Minister.. My role was to act as a supply clergy for weddings, funerals, and the occasional Sunday Service. After prior interviews regarding my suitability the congregation welcomed me in an official recognition ceremony.
In my various sermons/talks/homilies I made no secret of my journey away from the household of faith. It was more like a wander out the backyard, through the gate, and down the road to the left side of the mountain range.
Goodbye, Christ. See ya later Jesus. I discovered that a lot of the good folks in that congregation felt the same way. Some, of course, didn’t, and being good Canadian United Church folk, they said nothing, but looked at me strangely and shook my hand afterward with noticeably less enthusiasm.
In the meantime, for two years I heard nothing, good or bad from the governing board regarding my position, performance, or expectations. It was a tidy arrangement: because of this affiliation, I was able to keep my license to officiate weddings in the province of Ontario. It provided a significant summer supplement to my income during the summer when music lessons decreased.
So imagine my surprise when I received a call one evening from a representative of the board informing me they had decided to terminate my position. Reason? Disappointment in my lack of congregational involvement.
The poor bastard who called me was obviously an uncomfortable bearer of bad tidings.
I was dumbfounded, speechless. I sputtered out some indignant phrases, but apparently, the board’s decision was final, pending ratification from the next level of the judicatory, the Presbytery. After a few minutes, we rang off.
I was angry. Furious at this display of arbitrary injustice. Not even the three strikes you’re out recommended by no less an authority than the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. The board had indicated nothing in those two years of any kind of dissatisfaction with what I was or was not doing.
So I wrote the first letter. I described what happened, how I felt about it, and why. I requested a reply and a reconsideration of their decision. Kept a copy, and hand-delivered the original to the church office. I would have described my tone as reasonable, and polite, with a hint of sarcasm.
I waited for the reply.
One week. Two. Three.
Three months passed. Five.
News from the Presbytery filtered down. They did not contact me directly – I heard from a friend in ministry. They had ratified the congregational board’s decision.
Time for letter number two.
I was less polite this time. I used words like ignorant, incompetent, and unjustifiable. And chickenshit. Especially chickenshit.
I was not in any way hindered by Christian concepts of forgiveness and understanding or any desire whatsoever for reconciliation. So, half in jest, the other half in irony, I pronounced a curse on that church.
“May whatever God you believe in lay a stinking, steaming three-coiler in the middle of one of your worship services.”
Now personally I don’t believe in any kind of that juju, but it felt good to express it.
This was a letter that required several overnights, like a good stew, to let its flavours mellow, mature, ferment, brew, whatever. I sent copies of it to friends of mine for review and editing. None was needed.
I wound up not sending it. I suppose better judgment prevailed. Unfortunately, I lost the only copy.
Now, if this was a case of yet another story of the triumph of wisdom over folly, the story would end here. Friends would pat me on the back congratulating me on the good choice I made.
The story, however, does not end there. Oh, no, dear reader. It continued out of my hands.
A few months later, the sweet scent of karma arrived over that part of the city block in the form of the sewers backing up. A bit of municipal geology is helpful here. The church property was located at the bottom of a fairly steep hill populated with mostly older residential properties supplied with mostly older supply, waste, and drain infrastructure. A sewage break in the line farther up the hill would not have affected the church. The effluent would have stopped at the unfortunate’s house in the middle of the hill. As it turned out the break occurred at the bottom of the hill, thereby directing the downhill course of the entire street’s poojuice into the church. Hilarity did not ensue.
In addition to that area of the street being rendered inaccessible, the church grounds and building needed immediate and thorough assessment, evacuation, decontamination, repair, and restoration. The excremental by-product not only hit the fan, but O.M.G., it destroyed the kiddies' Sunday School macaroni art.
Shit like that costs money. And I don’t have to tell you the financial status of these kinds of religious institutions is fragile at the best of times.
They did not survive. A few painful years later, the same ratifying judicatories that deemed me no longer viable, declared the same for the congregation and closed it. The building was decommissioned, abandoned, and demolished.
All that remains is a weedy parking lot.
Apparently, the deity’s version of the steaming three-coiler did its work.
Now I am fully aware of the dictum that correlation does not equal causation.
Nevertheless, I am quite satisfied the correlation occurred.
I did not have to send the second letter after all.
More stories about the songs on “Small Things Shining Bright”
This one goes further back into the late eighties and in my first marriage to a truly beautiful woman and mother of our two sons. Crackerjack French teacher possessed of a ringing laugh that makes her easy to find in crowded, noisy places.
I first met her in Quebec City. I had just finished my final year of undergraduate studies in French at Laval. This was all in preparation for further theological study for the United Church ministry, part of which required me to be a part of a local United Church congregation. Indeed, the only United Church congregation in the city, Chalmers-Wesley. The incumbent was an old-school British Methodist, Don Rabson. Straight, stiff upper lip, cigarillo-smoking, and funny as hell. After my first Sunday seated in the pews, a lovely couple, the Kitchens, introduced me to the choir, I joined and it give me a bird’s eye view of the small but lively group of worshippers.
We occasionally had visitors, mostly in the summer, the tourists, the curious, the transplanted. The English Diaspora in Quebec City was like a small town surrounded by the metropolis’s French language and culture, so any visitor and new face was a novelty met with an almost covetous sense of ownership.
So when one Sunday two young women entered the sanctuary and sat down we could not help but notice.
I could not help but notice one of them. It’s amazing what eye contact does to the heart in the ten metres between choir and pew.
Oh, be still my beating heart. It was definitely her eyes. And it being summer, her ankles.
I was hooked, caught, netted, and willingly, most pleasantly enthralled.
There is always more to the story, isn’t there? You see, at the time all this was taking place with the eyes and all, I was just back from Haiti to visit what I thought was my girlfriend at the time. She was teaching at a Baptist missionary school for the deaf in Port-au-Prince. I was to stay for a week. Upon my arrival, she told me as I got into the van, that it wasn’t going to work out. So I spent a week from hell in a missionary compound feeling ever so pathetically sorry for myself. I returned to Quebec chastened and heartbroken. I poured my soul out to Don, who listened sympathetically and offered me wine for comfort. He was a good man, God rest his soul.
Unbeknownst to me, Elaine, the one with the take-no-prisoner-eyes, was debating with herself whether or not to stay in Quebec or return to her hometown of Barrie. She had arrived about a year earlier and found work but didn’t quite feel like she belonged anywhere. She spoke with Don about her quandary, and he listened sympathetically (he was very good at that). Now the conversation went something like this (I know because Elaine told me afterward):
Don: “Do you like Quebec?”
Elaine: “Oh, I do. It’s lovely here.”
D: “What, then seems to be the problem?”
E: “It’s just that there is nothing and no one here to keep me here. And I’m missing my family.”
D: “Well, did you know that Ed’s spare?”
Yes. He did use that word. Spare. Like a tyre in the boot. The British English references are entirely intentional.
And by death, I mean the total, unmitigated release of everything we are and think we have. The body quits. We do not have a soul or consciousness that lives on in what is known as the “afterlife” – that is a Platonic concept handily appropriated by the early Christian thinkers. It has infected Christian thinking for millennia.
We no longer have any control whatsoever over who we are, what others think we are or have been, or the circumstances our dead body finds itself in. No one and nothing is looking down, or up at us.
We are dead. About as much life as a package of ground meat.
Whatever shape that death takes - cessation of life, relationship, physical ability, occupation; whatever cause whether by self, disease, others’ actions, or accident – we lose.
We don’t like losing. We don’t like letting go of this bag of blood, viscera, and bones that hold our dreams and loves and hates together. Our success-oriented, positive perseverance, grit-focused, and stiff-upper-lip society forbids it.
So when it happens, when this shell we live in collapses, when the values and actions that our consciousness cherishes fall away into shards of meaninglessness, there is nothing left.
When Jesus died, he died as any other human being did. Like any other human being does.
The striking thing about the resurrection stories in the Gospels, as different from each other as they are, is that not only were the appearances unexpected, they were unrecognizable. Whether, as some claim, they are historical accounts in the sense that they “actually happened”, or metaphorical symbols, as far as the narratives are concerned the witnesses were totally unprepared for the appearance of a recently crucified and quite dead teacher in their midst. There was nothing in their experience they could compare it to.
There was no sense of “coming back to life” here. There was amazement, terror, fear, and disbelief.
So what to make of Easter? Is this a parable, a metaphor, a popular contemporary way of thinking that in spite of bad things happening everything’s gonna be all right? Shall we always look on the bright side of life? Is this an expression of the human consciousness rebelling against death and its inevitable finality?
The desire to believe in an afterlife is phenomenally strong and historically and culturally pervasive. As humans, we stand appalled at the thought of nothingness, of the Néant, of oblivion.
However, the afterlife does not solve the problem of death, as if death were a challenge to overcome. Indeed, the concept of an existence transcending death is the greatest death denial of all.
The only thing that remains is the mystery of memory, should we be so fortunate as to have people remember us.
So then as the Christian calendar moves toward Easter and its attendant mysteries, this dance of death and resurrection takes an interesting turn for a humanist and non-believer like myself.
The central assumption of the resurrection in Christian dogma is the action of the deity expressed like this:
“God raised Jesus from the dead”
This, in my view, is the ultimate Deus ex Machina – God pulls the rabbit out of the hat. God did it. It’s a kind of theological McGuffin.
The execution of a teacher for calling out abuse and fraud in contemporary religion, culture, and politics makes for an interesting plotline. Good grief, it makes for a news story. You do not need a prophecy to know these things. Look what happened to journalists opposing the Russian oligarchy or the house of Saud.
Furthermore, that plot takes a more fascinating turn when what was supposed to be the predictable result of radical political opposition turns into a theological and cosmological reach through an interpretation that hinges on the reconciliation of what was perceived to be a split in the Divine/Human relationship.
For that, we can thank Paul of Tarsus, a brilliant, crusty, and judgmental asshole if there ever was one.
The rest is church history, in all its more than two millennia’s worth of fissiparous existence.
Nevertheless, the question for many remains unanswered: what happens when someone or something dies? Where do they go? Where are they now?
I suggest we change the subject of that question: what happens to us who are left behind when someone or something dies? Where do we go? Where are we now?
What happens when we grieve, and experience loss, regret, remorse, and shame?
The dead have no use for us. The wound their death leaves in our lives and hearts and consciousness may or may not heal. Whether it’s a loved one or a hated one, whether our feelings are secure or ambivalent or damaged, whatever follows is irrevocably changed into something unfamiliar, unexpected, and alien.
You see, we the living are the ones who have to learn how to live again.
The resurrection is not for the person or relationship or way of life that dies. That entity no longer exists, except in our memory. There is no life for the dead after death.
The resurrection, this strange, unfamiliar, alien, terrifying exile of transformation in our existence, happens to us who remain.
This is the first in a series of commentaries and stories surrounding the songs I recorded over two albums and through the last eight years.
Recording an album of songs is intense work, requiring collaboration, skill, generosity of spirit, humility, and patience. Lots and lots of patience. Many thanks to Don Bray for the initial push to get this thing going, and to Bruce Rumble, Alyssa Wright, Anna Atkinson, and Ray Dillard for the musical and mixing skills, and the encouragement. And those who took part in the funding drive for the seed money.
Great big bear hugs to you all.
The following will be from my first album ‘Small Things Shining Bright”
So. If you’ll be my Gypsy.
Queen Anne’s Lace in the fall is a lovely sight. Looking at the cluster of florets in the afternoon sun sets my heart aglow. It reminds me of a dear friend, my muse, my witch, my tarot card reader.
And so I gave into the inspiration of a road trip:
“If you’ll be my gypsy, I’ll be your violin/ we’ll ride around the country, see what trouble we’ll get in”
I make no apologies for the fact that when I wrote this song almost a dozen years ago the word “Gypsy” and its connotations as an ethnic slur had not yet hit me.
It has now. Without going into its use as an insult and a Western ethnic designation of a marginalized and ostracized group of humans, I am looking for a suitable equivalent – a Romani term of endearment, perhaps. The search continues.
Back to the story. I’m walking on a path passing by a field of Queen Anne’s Lace, and thinking of my friend Caroline. A visit to my sister, who was living in Montreal at the time. The road trip there as we took the train along the shoreline of Lake Ontario.
We were dreamers with a bucketful of hopes.
We still are.
So when Don and I planned to make the recording, I knew I needed a violin. So I wrote the part out and hired an extraordinary musician, Anna Atkinson, to play.
I had been playing with the opening guitar riff for some time and was wondering what kind of song would fit into it. The lyrics of the road trip were ideal. My sister was in Montreal pursuing (and eventually getting) her Ph.D. Of course, we had to visit. I knew a bit of the city and we had a wonderful time. Rue St. Denis is a treasure on a Friday night.
The rest? Swimming naked in Lake Ontario? Bucket list. Didn't happen, but would still love to do it.