Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Exhaustion

I leaned over the counter in my kitchen. Sweat dripped from my forehead and ran down the side of my face. My condo was air conditioned, but it had little effect on the way I felt. My limbs creaked with every movement, and my brain moved in what seemed to be slow, concentric circles.

I pushed away from the sink and lurched towards the balcony. Outside, the sun had started its long descent, but the heat hadn’t diminished. My shirt clung to my chest as I sank into the chair.

“I did it, Nelson,” I said to my cat, who had followed me outside. “And tonight I’ll go out and have some fun.”

I scratched him behind the ear and leaned back. Sixteen of seventeen days completed. Twenty two of twenty five. Without question, it was the most lengthy and difficult stretch of work I’d ever experienced, and all of it on the heels of an emotionally exhausting year.

I glanced at the book I’d brought out with me and dismissed it. I was too tired to read. Too tired to do anything. I popped open a beer and let out a long breath.

Over the past month I’d barely written, and while I’d managed to stay in touch with my friends, I couldn’t remember what it was like to get a full night’s sleep. Couldn’t remember what it was to have it all together. Couldn’t remember what it was like to, well, remember things. It was like my brain had taken a vacation.

I lived in a city that pushed people to be constantly moving. Over the past month I’d done that, in a way I’d never done before. And with a full three day weekend looming, I expected to feel relief. Three glorious days of writing and sleeping and working out.

Instead, I felt anxious.
   
I sipped my beer and sighed. The sun began to skirt lower along the buildings, casting an orange nimbus about them, as if the steel structures had suddenly earned halos. As hard as I’d worked, as spent as I felt, instead of feeling the release that was supposed to come with it, I felt an urge to work harder. To push farther. To do more. I’d checked daily into my work account for my monthly earnings since I'd started the run of work. Felt myself smile at the number. Felt something like pride when I saw it.

I can do this. If I keep working like this, I’ll be ahead of the game in no time.

Understand, youth workers don’t get “ahead of the game.” Not financially. Not in a city like Toronto. The best you can hope for is a sort of equilibrium, where your bills are paid and you have a bit left over to save and spend. Unless, of course, you’re willing to be exhausted. Not just for a month. Not just for a few moments. But consistently. Until it becomes a state of being. I didn’t think I wanted that – hell, I’d never wanted that – but after surviving the past month, I wasn’t so sure.

Do I really need three days off? Maybe I should call work and see if they have anything for me. I’m not THAT tired.

As I stared down at the traffic, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written in a while. That my novels were beyond due. That I hadn’t kept up with my friends and family the way I would’ve liked. None of those things put money in my bank account, but they were important. At least, I remembered them being important.

I tilted my bottle. It was empty. I thought about grabbing another, but it seemed a long way to the fridge. I stared down at the cars and tried to think about my writing and where I was going with my next book.

It was like sifting through lead.

All I really wanted to do was sleep.

And work again.

I’d never been a “work at all costs and get ahead” person, so that I was actually thinking that way worried me.  Was I becoming that person? The one who worked endlessly for the pot of gold but never saw the rainbow? The one I’d seen I’d the subway with the tailored suit and perfect makeup and dead eyes?

I tried to convince myself I was being practical. That everyone got busy. That a little sacrifice now meant a lot towards the future.

It wasn’t working.

After more than a little effort I managed to find my way to the fridge for another beer and back on the balcony. I cracked it open. There was little to find in literature about the benefits of exhaustion. Generally speaking, Western society – particularly North Americans – tended to work too hard for things that didn’t really matter. It had been a long held criticism that we worried too much about keeping up with the Jones and Smiths. The criticism, as legitimate as it was, had been around for so many years it no longer seemed to matter.
Advertisers still spent billions on creating needs. We still held far too much personal debt and most of us lived from paycheck to paycheck because we lived beyond our means. I was guilty of it, too. Maybe that’s why creating some financial space was so important for me, why it felt so practical, why it felt like I was making too big a deal of things.
   
I sipped my beer and stared at the relentless train of vehicles moving and weaving and honking up and down Yonge Street like worker bees in a honeycomb. It didn’t seem to matter what time I sat outside. The cars were always there, as ever present as the buildings towering above them.

Maybe that was it. Maybe it was that in working so many hours at such an exhausting job I’d lost my sense of space. That everything around me suddenly felt narrow and restricted. I’d often lamented with my friends over the shallow tendencies of our culture when it came to things like history and critical thinking and the ability to be present. But when it cost so much just trying to get to the next appointment, the next shift, the next thing, those things became impossible. We’d become a society of selfies, not mirrors, where it was more important to document our life than to actually live it. I’d never really understood that, but it made sense now. We took pictures to prove that we’d been somewhere, not only to others, but to ourselves. At the end of the day, I could pull out my phone and say, “See, I was living! I went there. I ate that. I was with her.” Even if we couldn’t remember any of the details.

I let out a long sigh as Nelson rubbed up against my knee. “Yeah, I missed you too, buddy.”

As a lifelong weightlifter, exhaustion was part of the routine. I’d work out until I was sore, wait a day or two, and the next time I used that muscle they’d have repaired themselves. Exhaustion made them stronger. But that wasn’t true about this collective urge to get more and do more and make more. Sure, I’d learned that I could work a month straight without a break at a strenuous job, but the other muscles in my life had been completely neglected. Like the ability to see beyond my own tiredness and empathize with others. The ability to think critically about social issues. The ability to consider my actions in the light of the future.

I swigged the last of my beer and followed Nelson back inside. In my room, I climbed onto my bed, too tired to even pull back the covers.

I thought about the plans I’d made for my first night off.

Maybe tomorrow.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Uncomfortable

YESTERDAY

Sitting on the hard plastic seat was like sitting on concrete. A cold piece of cement wedged into my crotch. Why didn’t they make bikes more comfortable?

“Hey, Steve! You coming?”

I grimaced, but managed to smile as I jerked the handle bars straight. My client, Jerry, wheeled his mountain bike around like he’d been doing it forever.

“You’re slow!” he said.

“I’m coming.”

The group home had a few bikes that the clients were allowed to use, so long as they were accompanied by staff. Today, I was the lucky staff member. I cursed under my breath and began to pedal. It wasn’t even like spin class, and I’d hated spin class. Only the instructor had made it palatable.

The road tilted, and I overcompensated by swinging my handle bars to the right. I missed a parked old Civic by inches.

“Let’s go, Steve!”

I growled and followed my client down one of the back streets. Why was it so hard to pedal? Had I grabbed the only dysfunctional bike the group home owned? Why did people think this was a good idea?

There’d been a time when biking was a lot of fun. Until I’d bought a car. Cars were fun. They had padded seats. They were less complicated. And I never worried about driving into a parked vehicle.

I knew the refrain about riding a bike, about how it got easier and how once you learned how to do it you never forgot.

I could only snort. Yeah. I could do it. But it didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.

“Hurry up, Steve!”

I didn’t respond. My legs were already burning.


SHELTER

“Are you a cop?”

Three black teenagers stood loosely around a weathered table. We were standing outside. The sun was hot. They wore loose fitting clothes, and the one addressing me had a broad smile on his face.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said, struggling with his thick accent.

The teenager squared his shoulders and imitated a robot. “You a cop? You walk stiff. You have beard. Muscular.”

I shook my head. Smiled. “Nope. Not a cop. Youthworker.”

I was at a homeless shelter for young people. I’d been there for a week. I was the only white face in the entire place, staff included. It held forty five young people between the ages of sixteen and twenty four, and while I liked working there and enjoyed getting to know the kids, it was disconcerting to feel so pale.

I’d written often about privilege, talked about what it meant to be white and male and straight and all the advantages it held in our culture, but it was my first experience being such a distinct minority, if only for a short time.

“My name is Stephen,” I said, extending my hand.

He took it, laughed again, and introduced me to his friends. The shelter’s yard was dingy. A few picnic tables. Sparse brown grass. A rusted fence. Staff had laid out supper on a few tables. Huge silver tins with aluminum foil folded back over each one.

It’s impossible to imagine – with any idea about what it’s really like – to be a minority when you’ve never experienced it. I tasted it for a week, barely, in a work environment where I still held power and could leave to a more “regular environment.” So in a way it hardly counts. But it still gave me a glimpse of the challenges these youths faced, of the challenges that people of different cultures faced when they dared leave their country. I’d seen it before. Seen what happened when minorities spoke up and what it meant for them. What it cost them.

But it was a reminder.

And it was uncomfortable.


HOME

Cars stacked in a traffic jam below my balcony. Rush hour. I shook my head, grateful my work ended early. Sitting in a line of cars was stressful. Especially in a place like Toronto, where movement was tied to both efficiency and success. Hell, all you had to do was listen. You could hear it in the massive steel buildings that scraped the sky and the hundreds of thousands of people who packed the subway, their eyes empty and fully charged. If you weren’t getting ahead, if you weren’t full bore for whatever was next, you either lacked ambition or were falling behind.

And nothing was worse than falling behind.

My last month had felt that way. I’d worked nearly to the point of burnout. My place was a mess. I was still living in boxes. I was struggling to keep up with the bills and laundry and other basic tasks. I was grateful for the work, but it had come at a cost. I was still adjusting. Still learning to push the constant noise of the city to the side.

Still uncomfortable.


COMFORT

“Comfort” means different things to different people in different cultures, but we are all searching for it. Something to do with finding equilibrium about our circumstances. With reduced stress. Something more than just coping. It was a place that I, too, was anxious to find. It’d been a while since I’d experienced it.

We all feel that pull away from discomfort. I’m fine at work, when I’m with my kids, and when I can see the difference I’m making in their life. Or when I’m at the gym. Or when I'm at home, where I can call a friend and toss back a beer and relax. I can, and do, purposely avoid things that make me uncomfortable. I’m human. We’re all wired this way.

And yet, for all that the past couple of months hadn’t been "fun," they'd been rewarding. I’d learned new skills, gained confidence in a way I hadn’t imagined, found myself growing stronger as I faced each challenge – even if the challenge was as mundane as working sixteen of seventeen days without breaking down. I’d dealt with the stress, the discomfort, and the exhaustion. Dealt with it and surpassed my limitations.

That never would have happened if I hadn’t been pushed out of my comfort zone.

One of the great lies of society is that we should measure the status of our life by how we feel. If we “feel” good, which we often translate to ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ and ‘comfortable,’ than things are going well. This is true in everything from relationships to living conditions to our work.

And it is a lie.

Progress – spiritual, mental and physical progress – is never achieved when we are fully at ease. Though we try to avoid these situations, humanity is at its best when it is pushed and stretched and forced into new places.

For all my frustration about the summer, I’d been forced to go farther than I could remember, and my life had changed dramatically.

I wasn’t comfortable. I hadn’t liked it.

But I was better for it.


TODAY

I swiveled my handlebars around and coasted down the street, enjoying the cool breeze on my face. Heat swelled from the asphalt.

“Hey, Jerry? You coming?”

“Yeah!” he said, flashing me a grin as he peddled to keep up.

We passed a number of old houses that looked like they’d been around since the Second World War. One of them looked like it had been burned recently, with a blackened porch and smashed windows. It stood in contrast with the one beside it. A blue Honda Civic glistened in the driveway. Orange and red flowers dotted the porch.  

I twisted past a huge pothole. “So where do you want to go today?”

“Let’s go to the beach.”

 “Are you sure?” I asked him. “There’s a big hill to get there.”

“No problem. I can do it. I’ve done it before.”

I laughed. “Yes. Yes, you have.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Of Weddings, Funerals, and New Beginnings


A piece of paper fluttered in the wind above my balcony as I opened my email. I clicked on my latest letter and read it quickly. I shook my head.

“Do I remember you?” I muttered. “Of course I remember you.”

It had been a difficult week. One of my great heroes had passed away a few days earlier and I’d been asked to speak at his upcoming funeral. The previous Saturday I’d gone to a wedding alone for the first time in over decade.

My life had been dramatically altered six months earlier. It hadn’t been pleasant. I’d spent most of my time surviving and was only now starting to find something akin to peace again.

But as I re-read the email, I felt a quickening. Felt my stomach dance. It was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time.

I took a deep breath, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. She’d asked me if I remembered her. Of course I had. Her email had caused my mind to overload on images. Pictures from a long time ago, when we were both teenagers. Pictures that made me smile. Would she consider meeting me for a coffee? The email hadn’t suggested anything like that, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. I hesitated only briefly and began to type.

ONE WEEK EARLIER

Dust swirled in the parking lot as I pulled up to the Luna Gardens. It was hot, and sweat rolled down my face. The drive had taken longer than I’d expected, but I’d made it. I leaned over and pulled my suit jacket from the hangar and stepped out of the car. My “little sister,” my dear young friend who I’d known for nearly twenty years, was getting married. As excited as I was for her, it felt strange to move along the stone walkway to the grassy area where they’d set up the chairs and find a seat by myself.

I found one in the back. Couples surrounded me. I looked to the “altar,” where water splayed off the beach cliffs just beyond the minister. Sun glinted from a perfect blue sky. I checked the chair beside me. It was empty.

When the music began to play and the bridesmaids began the long walk to the wooden arch, I felt an ache form between my shoulder blades. I listened as my friend and her groom delivered earnest vows to one another, their love unmistakable. It was in every movement, every shift of their bodies. Tears rimmed my eyes. I’d never seen my little sister so happy.

When the wedding finished, I followed the crowd to the lounge. Dinner would be served in an hour. I chatted with the family, delighted to see them, but not recognizing anyone else, I took a beer into the parking lot to reflect.

As happy as I was for my friend, I found myself filled with emotion. I’d said those same words, those same vows, and yet the chair next to me was empty. I’d had time to process things this past year, but I still did not understand. Why me? Why was I alone? Why had my vows produced an empty chair?
A while later I wandered back into the crowd of strangers. It wasn’t easy, but it was good to be surrounded by happiness. And sitting amidst the revelry of new love, I smiled at the hope and laughter and love around me. These were the good moments, I thought. Life could be cruel, but it could also be incredibly kind.

This was a kind moment.

It wasn’t to last.

FIVE DAYS LATER

I sat in the second row with my parents, clutching my papers nervously. The funeral home buzzed with conversation. One of my great heroes had passed, and his son, a lifelong friend, had asked me to speak. Though I knew the contents of my speech, I was unsure whether I could deliver it without faltering. Mr. Lesco had been such an important figure in my life. A man of towering intellect and even greater compassion, he deserved the best. I’d practiced my delivery numerous times in my apartment. I’d broken down each time.

The faces at the funeral were familiar but not. Old teachers who’d become old. Old friends who’d become middle aged. Old memories that seemed fresher than they were. We were no longer young. I was no longer young. But we were there for a reason. When the MC called my name, I steadied my breathing and strode to the podium.

When it was over, I said good bye to my parents and retreated to my car. I opened the window, the sun hot on my arm. They’d said I’d done a good job. That I’d represented him well. That he would have been proud of me, (the greatest of compliments) his son had assured me.

Tears slid down my cheeks. I’d held strong through my speech and the funeral, but I could no longer contain them. Mr. Lesco was gone, and no words – no matter how pretty or sincere or well delivered – would bring him back.

I watched the wind swirl dust from the parking lot. I understood the cycle of life. Understood that people did not live forever and that death was not the end. Understood the cruelty and kindness of life.

It did not lessen the pain. Perhaps in time it would. But not now. Not tonight.

Mr. Lesco had suffered from chronic arthritis, a crippling and painful disease. Despite that, he had forged a life of love and compassion and empathy. I thought about what that meant. About what that meant to his colleagues and friends. About what that meant to me.

I thought about the email I’d received the other night, the one that had caused my stomach to dance. She had agreed to a coffee. Two decades had passed since I’d last seen her, but I’d felt a pull I hadn’t expected. I rubbed my cheeks. Not tonight. As much as I wanted to see her, I needed to grieve my hero. I pulled out my phone and reluctantly cancelled our meeting.

In the past week, I’d been to a wedding and a funeral. I’d gone to both alone. I knew that I was being taught something, but what it was I had no idea. Was I supposed to simply accept that life worked in cycles? That while things had gone badly for me the past year, others were experiencing different moments of the same cycle?

That seemed trite to me.

Yes, people existed in different stages, but why did we have to deal with such madness anyway? Why couldn’t we just live in a world that didn’t fluctuate so damned much? Why did everything have to be so unpredictable?

Unless, of course, you were in a kind stage. And if I was honest, I’d lived the greater portion of my life in those stages. As one of my old pastors used to say in regards to suffering, “this too will pass.” He was right, because I remembered other times in my life where the pain had felt like forever. It had passed. And even if I remained a bit scarred, hadn’t my old coach and mentor set the ultimate example for me? I put the car into gear, my tires crunching over the gravel at the edge of the parking lot.


…Nelson greeted me at the door when I finally returned home from my parents. I picked him up and rubbed his belly. His purrs reassured me that I was home. That I wasn’t alone. I put him down and strolled out onto the balcony. Traffic roared below me. A gust of wind snapped open my paperback on the small table beside the two deck chairs.

The hours on the road had given me the time I needed to grieve and reflect, enough to turn my thoughts back to the email. I thought about the twist in my stomach when I’d replied, the memories that had returned like they’d happened yesterday.

She’d told me not to worry about cancelling at such short notice. Told me that she understood. That it didn’t matter.

Maybe she was right. Maybe it was just a chance encounter, a throwaway email from an old friend kind enough to say some nice things about my writing. Maybe it was just a missed coffee with someone that had once meant a lot to me.

I smiled and picked up my cell.

Maybe not.





Friday, July 29, 2016

Don Lesco: When Heroes Played


I hunch forward, keeping my heavy first baseman’s mitt low to the ground. Overhead, the sun beats down through a cloudless sky.
“C’mon, Greg!”
“Throw it in there, pal!”
“He’s got nothing!”
The chatter picks up around the infield. Our shortstop takes a step to his left, his eye on the runner dancing off second base. I tug on my cap. I am a catcher, but as a coach’s son, I’ve learned to fill it at other positions. I've just turned thirteen, and I am one of the youngest players on the team. Our shortstop is eighteen. So is our third baseman.
Greg winds up and drills a strike on the inside corner.
“Atta boy, Gregger!”
“You got this guy!”
I join in the patter and glance over at our bench. My dad, tall and lanky in his uniform, is talking to our head coach, Mr. Lesco. They are bent over in conversation. Mr. Lesco is leaning on his stool, propped up by his crutches, his face a mask of concentration. As I will learn over the next decade, he takes everything he does seriously. Whether it is teaching English or coaching or his work as a guidance counselor.  Everything is precise and planned and well considered. And what he demands of himself, he demands of others.
I shift my focus back to the batter as Greg leans into his wind up. The ball blazes towards the outside corner, but this time the hitter is not fooled. He pulled his hands in, and smashes it on a line to my right. I move without thinking and dive…

…I cleared my throat and waited in line with the rest of my Grade 12 English classmates. Mr. Lesco had just given us back our most recent paper, and I had a question about my grade. When it was my turn, I showed it to him.
“Sir, I don’t understand why you gave me a ‘D+’. I worked on it for two hours last night.”
“You didn’t do what I asked, Steve.”
“But, Sir, I worked hard on this.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you spend doing it, you need to do what’s asked.”
He looked at me steadily through his glasses, his face betraying no emotion except expectation. He’d been my coach for years and his son, Josh, was my best friend. He was also friends with my father. But that had no impact on his sense of fairness. He was my teacher, and he held to his expectations regardless of relationship.
“Yes, Sir.”
I was upset, but he’d taught something I’d never forget. A lesson about time and work and expectations that would never leave me.
I wasn’t the only one who learned from him. Indeed, his would be legacy to not only his family, but to hundreds of students and friends along the way.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I still am…

…Clouds push overhead. Traffic roars twenty stories below my balcony where I sit, my laptop propped on my lap. Much like “love,” we throw around the words “heroes” and “role models” quite a bit these days. Perhaps that’s because we think of heroics in terms of grand gestures from famous people, or certain professionals like cops and firefighters doing extraordinary things, like saving someone from a burning building. We forget about the people who aren’t on TV. We forget about the ones who don’t have famous last names and don’t wear a gun.
We forget about people like Mr. Lesco.
I sip my coffee and watch the people on the street. From this height, they look small and insignificant. When I think about my old teacher and coach, I think about someone who lived heroically. Despite the chronic pain of his arthritis and the effort it took for him to simply get from one place to another, not only did he never complain, he accepted what he’d been given and spent his life passing on his knowledge to others. He was, without question, the best teacher I ever had. To be around him was to learn. 
When I was fifteen, he asked me if I wanted to manage the Senior Girls basketball team for him. I jumped at the opportunity. I still remember the smile on his face the day he led them to their third consecutive championship.
“That’s three for three, Stevie.”
The summer I turned sixteen, I helped Josh roof their house. Mr. Lesco's reward? Two basketball books. In one of them he wrote, “To Steve, the biggest sports nut I know.”
I still have those books.
I take a deep breath and put down my lap top. I am flooded by memories. All of them good. They are accompanied by a dull ache. When someone passes from our life, the human tendency is to talk about the good things – the good moments – of their life. Usually we exaggerate a little. For Mr. Lesco, there is no exaggeration. Instead, I am forced to pick through so many good things.
I remember the time my dad and I went to see Field of Dreams with him and Josh. I was seventeen. Mr. Lesco knew that I'd studied the history of the game, and when Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Ray Liotta), settled into the right-handed batter’s box, he leaned over and whispered to me.
“What’s wrong with this scene?”
“Shoeless Joe was a left-handed hitter,” I said.
When he smiled at my answer, it was like getting a medal.
And when I sent him a copy of my debut novel last year and he emailed me back, telling me how proud he was of my accomplishment, I again felt the familiar thrill of having done something great.
I think, above all, that was his legacy. Mr. Lesco made others better. He expected more because he gave more. He expected effort because his life was filled with effort. He expected you to work through your pain because he worked through his. 
And we are all better for it.
I am better for it.
I pick up my laptop. I feel his loss deeply, but I need to write. I need to write about him. He would be self-deprecating about such a thing, but if I needed to write it, if I needed to do anything, he would expect me to get it done. And so I will…

…the ball flashes in the sun. I throw up my glove. Feel the smack into the webbing. I roll over and stare at my glove in amazement. It's the greatest catch of my young career.
“Way to go, Burnsy!”
“Nice grab!”
I trot off the field with the rest of my teammates, accepting their congratulations.
My dad gives me a thunderous pat on the shoulder. “Way to go, Son!”
I pause beside Mr. Lesco. He smiles at me, that small smile that says so much, that smile that always said so much.
“Hey, Stevie.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Mattingly wouldn’t have looked at his glove.” His smile widens.
I nod and return it.
I never looked at my glove again.