December 30, 2019

Photo credit: Laura Frederick

Time passes. Tempus fugit and all that. The calendar turns yet another arbitrary number and we hear the cries of “Here we go again! This year will be the best of all!”

That and jokes about 2020 vision.

I am reminded of someone simpler. Her name is Billie. It’s the name of one of my guitars. I named it after, yes, THAT Billie.

Billie Holiday.

My Billie is a Gibson guitar. Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago I found myself in the Halifax Folklore Centre. It is a dangerous place for me. I was on the hunt for a tenor guitar when I spied with my little eye a lovely specimen hanging from the ceiling beam.

“What is that?” I asked.

“It’s a Gibson L3. Wanna try it?”

Do I like ice cream?

He brought it down for me. Small, parlour size. Carved top and back. “The Gibson” inlaid on the headstock. Narrow frets, almost wires. An ancient manufacturer’s sticker on the inside with the model and serial number written in pencil. Black varnish worn from the first to third position on a “V” shaped neck – no truss rod, then.

This was an old guitar. I played it. Beautiful, bold, brassy. Lead licks sounded, oh, so sweet. Rhythm could cut through damn near anything.

How old?

“1914” the man at the counter said. “Previous owner couldn’t play anymore because of arthritis. He’d had it for a very long time.”

Long story short, I took her home with me. I christened her Billie.

And she’s been with me ever since. She is 106 years and wears her age well.

She was born when the first world war began in Europe, one year before the real Billie Holiday came to this earth. When Ernest Shackleton survived his Antarctic expedition without losing a man in his crew. Not even twenty years had passed since Louis Riel was tried, convicted and hanged in a five day, trumped-up trial in Winnipeg. The great depression. The Winnipeg General Strike. Lived through second war, the Korean war, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis. She was born before amplifiers. When 78’s were all the rage with the Charleston and the Flappers, and Prohibition. When Al Capone did business in the backwoods of Eastern Ontario.

Open tunings on her sound magical, harplike. I have had her re-fretted, made some changes so she could be plugged into a sound system.

And I can already hear the purists say, “Ohmigawd, why are you doing that to a collector’s item?”

I will tell you why.

Billie is meant to be played, to make music, to bring joy to a desperate world. I refuse to hang her on a wall and show her off like some hoarder’s trinket, to value her worth as an appraised resale item.

No, sir. Billie is meant to make music. Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”, one of the most influential musicians in vocal jazz and pop culture in the mid-twentieth century, died when she was only 44 from her demons, both the ones inside her and the ones who mistreated her.

My Gibson has outlived her two and a half times. I call her Billie to honour the memory. To keep the music going.

(The recording you hear on this blog edition is an original song, “Boogie with the Reaper” played on the Gibson. It will appear on my upcoming CD, “Caught” (c) 2017 Edward St Moritz)

December 18, 2019

It is snow squally out there. I am thinking of this day way back when. I am also thinking that the picture of me in that photo is when I was about six years younger than the present age of the boy who in that picture is much more interested in the cake.

Three days ago was our oldest son’s birthday. Thirty-five years ago, Monday, December 17, 1984, mom’s water broke and we made a hair-raising, mid-winter, sixty kilometre trip from a small eastern Ontario village north to the hospital in Renfrew.

They examined mom and ready-to-go child and told us that we needed to go another hour and a half to Ottawa Civic. Her by ambulance and me following in the car. This was unexpected. And to us the inexperienced first to be parents, it was confusing. Was something wrong? Why was the umbilical cord lower than the baby about to see the world?

I had just started my post as a United Church clergy that summer. Elaine was pregnant and we were excited on both counts. As the days came closer we realized that we might have a Christmas kid. Sorta like Jesus?

Well not quite.

At least it was snowing lightly.

We arrived, and upon further examination, Elaine had to make the difficult but necessary decision to have a Caesarean. At the time I was not permitted to be in the room. Good thing too, I would have had to have some extra care, having passed out on the floor

Simon introduced himself to the world the following day. He was in an incubator while mom was recovering from the surgery.

There, behind the glass, was a piece of Elaine, a piece of me, and an entirely whole new burgeoning consciousness. Simon Edward. I felt awestruck, realizing that there was a living, breathing, and entirely helpless representation of past, present, and future, lying there.

Elaine was doing well after the surgery. Friends in Ottawa said we could use their apartment for a week as a staging place to recover and prepare our homeward trip while they were away. I phoned the church to tell them the news, and they were so happy for us. Was I going to take the service that following Sunday? Elaine and I had talked about that, it was Wednesday, and yes, but only for the services, I’d be taking the rest of the week off.

I think that’s what I said. It was thirty-five years ago.

I phoned Elaine’s family, and they were ecstatic.

And then I phoned my father.

“So why did you make me a grandfather?”

It was a short, awkward conversation.

Sigh. Some people take aging so hard.

So how to compress thirty-five years into a couple of hundred words?

You don’t even try. All I can do is think of Simon and his partner and her daughter living and working in Halifax. All grown up now. I tell him about my writing stuff and he refers me to an early twentieth-century literary theorist. When I talk with him it’s like he’s cradling my spirit. He tells me that my time as clergy and the way I treated people was a major influence in the way he is in the world. He’s not Christian, and I’m no longer one, but somehow that makes no difference anymore.

In a world that steadfastly refuses to humanize damn near everything, we are trying to be good humans.

Sorta like Jesus.

Maybe we did have a Christmas baby.

So what happens when the body wants to collapse in the throes of a confusing mix of memory, grief, and the sheer horror of existence?

At work?

My day job is a receiver for a local health food and supplement store. One of my regular drivers (Let’s call him Brian, of course not his real name) came in the other day with his product and a long face. I was in the middle of processing an order, so I looked up, nodded, and finished up.

As I was doing so, he said, “Good move.”

I said, “How so?”

He said, “You didn’t ask me how I am.”

Well, now, of course, I’m going to. After six years of working with my drivers, I get to know them. Treat them well. You know, like human beings. One of them described the receiving bay as a sanctuary, a place of calm in the middle of a gale of daily shitstorms.

So I look at him, and say, “You realize that is a perfect opening.”

“I suppose so,” he replied.

Brian told me a relative died of a fentanyl overdose. He had chronic health problems and all the associated issues with addiction, drugs, alcohol and such.

And no matter how they tried this time, those close to him couldn’t save him. Even the ones who gave the drug to him.

“I could never understand that nyou know.” Brian was truly puzzled. Not a tone of judgment in his voice. “Isn’t there a point where you could say no, a point where you refuse because you know it’s going to harm you? And then why you keep on doing it?”

Yes, it’s supremely difficult to understand, I told him. But addiction doesn’t work with a simple yes or no. The comfort you get from the drug or the alcohol or whatever you choose (or whatever chooses you) overrides the capacity for a reasonable argument against it.

And the roots of that search for comfort are deeper than you know. (See the link below for an interview with Dr. Gabor Maté.)

In most cases that search begins with childhood trauma. And when I told him that, he pointed his finger at me and said, “That’s it.”

I waited.

“His grandparents raised him. His father burned down their house with his mother still in it.”

And that was when the grief of the whole thing overwhelmed me, that combination of horror and sadness, coupled with my own memories and stories of my family: my mother’s memories of the Japanese concentration camps, my father’s stories about the Great Hunger in the last year of the German occupation of Holland, and how that trauma played out as they raised me, my sister, and brother when they tried to make their life in Canada.

More than half a century in the space of a few seconds. The weight of all that nearly drove me to my knees. Add to that Brian’s story.

I found myself trying to support my body by leaning into the top of the chest freezer.

I heard his voice to me, “Ed, come back. Come back, Ed. Back to receiving.”

He knew what was happening.

“Are you okay?”

“Give me a moment,” I said.

And he did.

And I did return.

As I write this in a local café, I am hearing a song by Dan Mangan with the words “What is this sorrow?”

Indeed.

For an excellent overview of what this sorrow is and what addiction is and does, listen to Dr. Gabor Maté here.

We called it the lurgie, from a hilariously wacky British radio comedy called the “Goon Show”. (link goes to their last show on BBC)

It was a cold, really. Or any kind of upper respiratory viral nastiness that made me sick enough to be up in the wee hours of the morning singing the song of its people.

That and a week of hard physical and mental labour at a job that does not provide sick days because of a provincial fiat removing that particular requirement from employers in the guise of “efficiencies”, I was essentially working sick because I could not afford to take the time off to get better.

Which meant that the weekend of Thanksgiving and my Queen Schweetie’s birthday had me a trainwreck of body and mood.

Nevertheless, I did put out the news of my discomfort on the electrons of social media, and my lovely friends offered many remedies.

I list them below in no particular order or efficacy:

A juice glass of Napoleon Brandy just before bed. Drink it like water. (I liked this one);

Vicks Vaporub® on the soles of my feet and socks over them, again just before retiring. (This brings back memories of the Vicks on my chest and throat and under the nose as a child);

Gargling warm salt water. (this one, too);

A Chinese cough syrup that is sweet enough to double as pancake syrup;

Oil of Oregano. (I can attest that this is a good thing. The taste is bloody awful – think of a distillation into a dropper of every spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce you’ve ever had, into the back of your throat. But it really, really works!);

Honey and fresh ginger tea. Laced with cayenne and diced raw onion. (This is good, too. I like to slice fresh turmeric and ground black pepper into the mix);

Hot bath with a cup of tea with rum. Or cup of rum with tea. (I don’t have a bath tub. Drinking tea and/or rum in the shower doesn’t seem to do it for me);

Natural honey and cinnamon (Always good for what ails you).

The kindness of friends knows no bounds. My thanks to you – you know who you are.

As of this writing I am feeling a bit better. The night cough has lessened and doesn’t sound as if I’m horking a lung out on the pillow.

And the brandy tasted good. I bought a Bowmore single malt for reinforcement.

I believe the Lurgie is leaving the building

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.