This is how they get in…

So there I am at the half moon window in the Bohemia loft, Sunday morning, writing away with my trusty fountain pen, when a familiar feeling comes to me.

Tightness in the chest, building pressure into pain travelling up the neck into my ears.

Ah shit, not again. Third time’s a charm.

I try to continue writing but the pain renders my handwriting nearly illegible.

I wait for ten minutes, trying to breathe it away. Angina usually disappears in that time.

Half an hour later it’s still there.

Pack up, walk slowly downstairs, tell the servers what’s happening. I sit. Or rather I get told to to sit. One of them is a fourth year nursing student. She holds my hand and talks me through.

Call 911.

The ER nurse finds out I’m a musician. Her daughter is a jazz singer in Toronto. We talk about music and how she hates country music and its affected drawls. I said there should be a country song about an ER unit.

“Totally!” she says.

And I say,

“Yeah, something like, ‘Who’s boots are under your bed? And why are there feet in them?”

Good ol’ dark ER humour.

We laughed ourselves silly and highfived. “I’m so gonna remember that!” she said.

More tests, More waiting. It’s a patient time in all the senses of the word. I think people are so afraid of nothing happening that they fear the fear inside themselves of the unknown.

I sit – or lie down – with the unknown, with the dark, with the fear, offer them a glass of water and have conversations with them. Quiet ones. It’s totally useless to scream or complain to the unknown, fearful dark. It just listens and doesn’t answer. And the nurses and the staff and the doctors are doing their best in an increasingly tight situation.

So I wait. Listen to the beeps, the muffled voices, the complaints from the other rooms. I have my phone with me, and call family and friends. Blood taken. EKG and printouts – ticker tape, eh?

Victoria is there. My son and his wife come up from Toronto. I get a call from my other son in BC.

I call my former spouse. Sister. Brother.

The night is not good. Hospital beds are not made for sleeping. I get news the next morning that I am due, at the very least, for an angiogram, or quite possibly an angioplasty. Just to make sure. I get a heart ultrasound. I hear the whoosh and suck of that fist-sized pump in my chest.

I get my wrist shaved. I get my groin shaved. I refrain mightily from making jokes about that.

Just before I go to the procedure room, I hand my watch, my wedding ring, and my glasses to the nurse for Victoria to pick up. She already has my wallet, my journal, and my notes. I’m glad I didn’t bring my guitar. I am denuded of everything except my body as I am wheeled into the hallway next to the inner sanctum.

I am in an existential paradox of being utterly alone and surrounded by love.

The nurse tells me about the medications they use to calm the patients. Apparently the effect of one of them is,

“It makes the patient not care about what’s happening to them. They look around the room and say, ’Oh that’s a nice clock on the wall, or ceiling tile pattern.”

“I know the name of that drug.” I say.

She gives me a quizzical look.

“Oh?”

I say,

“Yup. It’s called Fuckitol.”

It’s a large room. A bed. Arm rests, foot rests. Robotic controlled x-ray machines. Huge video screens. The prep is quick and efficient. Everybody, including myself is covered in lead-lined protective sheets.

Pin pricks in the wrist. Insert the guide tube for the catheter. I see a bit of bright blood and I don’t faint. Good so far. And sure enough they find a blockage. Two of them. I can see them on the video screen. I am fascinated, not just at the technology and the skill of the surgeon and procedure room nurses, but at what my cardiac arteries look like.

Spiders. Monsters. Tree branches moving in the wind, back and forth with the beating of my heart.

And in just over a half an hour, it’s done. Two stents in. I don’t remember being wheeled back into recovery. The Fuckitol must have been really good. There is an inflatable pressure bandage on my wrist. I’m told in no uncertain terms not to move it, or pick anything up with that arm.

It’s a plastic hollow strap with a filling valve attached. A syringe-like pump adjusts the air pressure. It looks interesting enough to try it out, so I insert the pump into the valve. What I don’t know is that inserting the pump opens the valve, releasing the pressure.

Immediately I start leaking red stuff like a river. Silly me. I don’t know how to stop it. I say some words to the effect of, “Dear me.” the nurse hears, looks, rushes over and says, “Oh, don’t do that!”

Yes, that is what she said. Had I been in her position, I would have said something quite different.

There was blood all over the place. She pumps more air into the bandage, and cleans up. I am very careful from then on. I don’t faint. I’m getting better at this.

I’m in recovery, sending and getting messages of reassurance and support. Victoria is there. Johanne comes later with Elijah. One more overnight. And then I’m home.

This genetic predisposition is irritating and life-threatening. It’s like living with a small bomb inside you, a constant and insistent reminder of the shortness, the unpredictability, the amazing preciousness of this thing we call life.

I’m grateful. That’s all I can say. Right now it’s all I need to say.

(Warning: I use one swear word)

It’s one week and a bit into the new year. How are your resolutions going?

You know the ones I mean.

Lose weight. Eat better. Patch up fractious relationships. Some kind of self-improvement regimen gyms, health food stores, and therapists really like to see.

Be more environmentally conscious. That sort of thing.

A decision to change a behaviour or take up a new way of being-in-the-world.

And then the plastic Carrot to the south starts a war, and we all feel, “What is the fucking point?”

But enough about that. Let us resolve not to talk about the plastic Carrot.

For now. Politics will most assuredly come up in the near future.

And you see how I used the word, “resolve” in that sense of making a decision that leads to action.

The mindset of “This is what I am going to do.” The mind committing itself to an action.

There are so many variations of the understanding and meaning of this word:

Resolution: a formal opinion of a legislative body about a certain issue;

Resolution: the disintegration, physical or chemical, of an object or a substance into its component parts;

Resolution: the quality of an image, projected, screened, or printed – the higher the resolution, the smaller the component parts of the image, resulting in a sharper focus of the object seen or detected.

Resolution: the quality of a determined state of mind;

Resolution: solving a problem, a question, a doubt.

Resolution: the intention of an individual to undertake certain actions in order to lead a more virtuous life, commonly done on or before New Year’s Day;

That last one is the meaning I started out with.

Apparently, the ancient Babylonians made resolutions in their new year to return borrowed objects and pay off debt. (Is anyone thinking of anyone else at this point? You got their phone number?)

The definition of resolution being the separating of an object or a substance into its constituent parts reminds me of something I did when I was a wee lad.

I was fascinated by alarm clocks. You remember the kind that had two bells on top and a clapper in between, and the two keys in the back that wound up the two springs inside, one for the clockworks and the other for the alarm. The small knurled knobs to set the time. The small lever to adjust the time’s accuracy. The screws that held everything together.

Of course at my age then I knew nothing about what all that stuff was for. I just knew there was something inside I wanted to see. I figured how to unscrew the knobs. I figured out that I could use a table knife to untwist the screws. And when I opened the back, what a wonder to behold! All the different metal circles with teeth connected to each other in a metal frame of levers and pins. I saw the two springs. I saw things move, as if on their own. It was like a compact Meccano® set on steroids.

And then more screws to unscrew. And I did just that until there, on the kitchen table, spread out in the chaos of resolution, was the eviscerated alarm clock.

That resolution of separating the parts, however, needed a resolution, a solution to a certain problem.

I did not know how to put the thing back together. So there the parts lay until parents found out and yelled at me. No resolution there to be found. Childhood – good times, good times.

There is another resolution I am thinking of, being a musician.

Resolution: Musically speaking, it’s what a cadence does. It’s what a piece of music does usually at the end, and often various times in the middle, that brings a sense of finality, of coming home.

You can do this yourself, musical or not.

Sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, but stop when you get to the words “What you.”

Just stop there. Don’t continue. Don’t sing the word “are”.

I said stop there. Thank you.

Ask yourself, “Am I finished?”

Sing it again, stopping at the same place, as if the piece actually ended there on the words “what you”. Take note of how you feel. Repeat.

It doesn’t feel quite done, does it? Sit there for a moment with that unresolved feeling, because what you are feeling is essentially the history of Western music. It is a constant journey from the unresolved to the…

Now sing the song again and complete it with the word “are” and its corresponding note.

There. That felt better, didn’t it?

You have arrived at a resolution. It’s called a cadence. Specifically a “Sol” – “Do” cadence. Or a 5 – 1. Or a V – I. Or a Perfect Cadence. It is the Great Attractor of Western musical language.

Listen to the final minute (starts at 11:02) of the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It is a whole series of Five – Ones. Sol – Do – Sol – Do – Sol – Do and so on. (You can listen to the whole movement – it’s a thrilling piece of music.)

But he ends on Do. On the one. Mr. Beethoven has arrived home.

I might even venture to say that our feeling of wanting to come home in music reflects a desire for our New Year’s resolutions to bring us to a place where we feel more at home in ourselves and in the world.

And that might be the best New Year’s resolution of all.

What are you? Who are you? These are questions I would rather ask than “What do you do?” at cocktail parties.

Mind you, I can count on one hand the number of cocktail parties I have been to. Sad, sordid affairs, they were. Little groups bunched together trying to make conversation before the drink or boredom renders them inarticulate, belligerent or both.

I am a musician. I am a father. And I am a son. I am a husband, twice. I consider myself to have had the privilege of partaking of this province’s mental health facilities.

On my business card I describe myself as a singer songwriter, among other things, and a darkside navigator.

That last one always raises eyebrows and questions. Without fail.

“What is that?”

Let me sing you the song of my people.

The description does what I want it to do: makes people ask that question so I can answer it like this:

I am a darkside navigator, because, at least for my part of the world, I have been sailing the deep, grey, featureless waters of depression, melancholy, and anxiety for a very long time. Some of it medicated, most of it without.

I have an idea where the shoals are. I narrowly miss the rocks and the breakers that can send me to an unreachable bottom. I have been in the flat waters of windless weeks and the motor out of gas. I have been a resident of the Slough of Despond.

This familiarity has given me a paradoxical gift. I have learned to name names, the markers, the landmarks, the lighthouses. I can see the way the wind flows over the water, I can sometimes use the way the currents take my vessel and navigate it out of dangerous places. I always see other sailors on these waters. We wave and signal. Sometimes we are close enough to speak.

“Where are you from?”

“Where are you going?”

“Do you have enough to eat and drink to make the voyage?”

I know what it is like to feel terribly alone when I awake in the morning and lie staring at the way the bedsheet folds in front of my eyes and wonder if I should get up at all today.

I cannot drift. That is why I navigate. If I drift I will sink. I have to navigate, to use what is in front of me and inside me to get me to wherever today’s destination is. It could be work. It could be the guitar I am using to write or play a song. It could be with friends I trust with nothing else but my heart. It could be dinner tonight with my bride.

It could be getting my feet on the bedroom floor and getting dressed.

This is not an exercise in positive thinking. Being positive is less of a solution than a slow-acting poison of denial.

So when people ask, “What is a darkside navigator?” I tell them.

It’s who I am.

It’s the beginning of a conversation.

And here’s the thing.

I finished a gig at the Haliburton Highlands brewery about a month ago. It’s in an area of the province where I served as a United Church Minister for five years back in 1987 – 1992.

It was the place that when scarce years after I had been ordained I started to doubt my calling to the ministry.

There were friends I had made outside the church, because, at the time, it was not a good idea to make too many within the walls of the sanctuary.

The long and short of it was some ten years after I moved on from that place, the initial doubts about my calling turned into a full-fledged crisis of faith and sanity. I became seriously mentally unfit to do the work that hitherto I thought I had been called to. I quit the church and the Christian faith.

More than a decade and a half later I return as someone different, but the same.

Besh, an old friend of mine, had written in a post commenting on a picture of me in dog-collared finery, staring out at the camera, glasses slightly askew, a deer in the headlights of Jesus.

This is what he said:

“Thank you for your service, Ed.”

That was it.

Besh had never been a member of my congregation, indeed never been in any area where I had served.

Somehow he understood on a level far deeper than what I was able to perceive at the time, that what I had done in the years as minister was serve in a strange way comparable to what he had done in the Armed Forces.

And he identified with that action in such a way so as to thank me for that service.

We met a few weeks later for breakfast in the town where I live. When I mentioned this to him, he pointed out, “You never know how many hundreds or even thousands of people you touched and changed because of your time in that capacity.”

Indeed I don’t. People shared with me their grief, celebration, perplexity, doubt, joy, frustration, accomplishment, courage, and vulnerability. I listened and did what I could. And I tried to interpret the teachings of a first-century Palestinian rabbi to a twentieth-century mind. Sometimes I was clear. Most times I was as confused as the rest of us human beings.

And now, no longer in that arena, I play in another one. Sometimes clear, most times still confused.

Still amazed, humbled, and grateful.