Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In Search of Humility

Dreams, Darkness and Glory

There's a scene in Sasha Baron Cohen's new movie, Bruno, in which he poses as a movie producer in search of a child actor. In his discussion with the hopeful parents of a three year old, he asks them if they'd be comfortable with a weight loss program for the baby that might include liposuction. He also informs them that the role would include their baby being "crucified" on a cross. Would that be a problem? No problem at all, the parents tell him, we really want this part.

Say what you will about Cohen's comedy, (not my style) or the possibility that he "Michael Moore's" the interviews, we've seen and heard enough in the past fifty years about former child stars to presume the interview was not staged. From Lindsay Lohan to Corey Haim to Michael Jackson, the list of intrusively abusive parents in their quest for vicarious stardom over the past century continues to grow. And while the stories are occasionally related to money, it seems there is something much deeper at stake, something beyond money in this cultural obsession with celebrity.

As a youth worker, I have lamented this for many years, puzzling at the core of what would drive someone to use other people, especially their own children, for something so… vacuous. And quick. Imagine my surprise then, this past week, when I realized not only what made this type of abuse possible, but that I had become guilty of it as well.


Westmount Crescent is a quiet street on the northern edge of Welland, a small blue-collar city in Southern Ontario. The street is lined with large maples, and every fall it becomes draped in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows, as if taken from a scene in an old movie. Aside from the odd puttering of lawn mower, about all you'll hear is the wind whistling through the leaves. Most of the residents are older now, and have lived there for twenty or thirty years. My parents moved there in 1972, and I was born just a few days later. Like most of the city, I was raised in the unpretentious style of the moderate home. There is little to find in Welland that would suggest "star seeker", and indeed, the idea of the child actor's abusive parents is met by scoff there.

As a kid, and even later as a teenager, Welland seemed big to me. Until my first move to Ottawa as a twenty-five year-old, I never realized just how small my hometown was, yet even then, I remember thinking and dreaming about being a star. About moving to Hollywood or writing a best-selling novel. The lure however, had very little to do with money. Being "known" was far more important, and I'd watched enough inspirational movies to know that anything was possible.

My first attempt at a novel quickly disabused the notion of sudden celebrity, but it didn't matter. I was willing to work, and for the next decade I averaged a thousand words a day. I wrote three novels, a memoir, none of which drew much attention from the literary world, and yet through it all I managed to stay positive. With the occasional published article and enough compliments from various sources, I set myself to wait for the big moment. The one where I hit publishing glory. The one where my name would suddenly be known to editors and agents. The one where I would no longer walk into Chapters or Barnes & Noble as just another reader, but as a distinguished author.

I wrote and wrote, waiting, ever hoping, ever believing, ever holding onto the dream.

But it never happened. And this year, it finally began to take its toll.

In the past, I would simply get up, have my coffee, and write. But suddenly that had changed. Every day it became progressively harder to write. For the first time in my writing life, the words did not come. It wasn't writer's block so much as it was writer overflow. There were too many things to say and to write about, without the surety of whether or not it made a difference. A small voice kept nagging at me.

Who cares? Who cares if you write? What difference does it make? What makes you think you're going to get a book published now? You'll always be a nobody.

For the first time, my pace faltered. I started missing days. I would walk into the computer room and spend an hour on the internet and walk away. No matter what I told myself, the truth was self-evident. I hadn't made it. I was turning 37, and I was the same literary nobody I was when I was 23. Meanwhile, I felt a part of me dying. It was more than the writing, it was the dream, and it was breathing its final gasps without any way for me to stop it. I could feel myself standing on the side of the road watching it die as if it'd been hit by a car. That I was getting married and excited about my relationship with my bride to be and all that meant made the feeling strangely more acute.

I was lost.


For idealists and dreamers, there is always a lag between reality and realization. So much as we barely acknowledge any one reality in the first place, it is difficult to convince a dreamer that their dreams are, in fact, dead. When it happens however, unlike most personalities, the shift is such that you can feel the tearing within you, as if the fabric of your life has been suddenly ripped open. And when that happens, when a dreamer's world turns grey, it can feel as if life is no longer worth living.

Someone asked me once why I have always stressed the importance of following your dreams. They pointed at the dark shadows of Hollywood, of hangers on and tranquilized addicts and the desperate lives of people in pursuit of their dreams. Dreams may sell movies, they said, but in the end, they inevitably produce the embittered soul of "what might've been." At the time, I was so enraptured by the force of my own passions that I hardly knew how to respond, and when I did, I was indignant. "Better to live a life worth pursuing than not live at all," I said, or something along those lines. Back then, it mystified me why people would allow their lives to flow into a simple routine that had nothing to do with their passions as a child or young adult. Who would want to live that way? As I met people like this through the years, I often accounted them as cowards and moved on. I wanted to inspire people with the guts to take life by the throat and shake it. I wanted people who were ready to shape their own lives. And I wanted to help people who had "lost" themselves through no fault of their own -- bad relationships or smothering family – to find their way in the sunlight of their passions. Who had time for people too lazy or too afraid to go for it?

Somewhere I had bought into this notion that the only reason people didn't change their life was because they couldn't be bothered or were too afraid or simply weren't "tough" enough. Just because they couldn't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps", didn't mean we should excuse them or ourselves. If you wanted the dream, you had to be willing to go for it. And if you weren't, that was your problem.

Even writing this I can feel the harshness of my beliefs, and it saddens me. Perhaps that is why I moved away from conservatism these past few years. Much of what I saw in the movement, both politically and spiritually, was an echo of my former understandings of why people didn't live the way I felt they should. It angered me that people talked about their dreams but refused to act on it. They seemed as anchors to me, weighing down both themselves and the people around them. It never occurred to me to question why they were a weight, or where they were holding others down from, exactly. From the surface? To wealth? To the "good life", as advertised on the thousands of commercials we hear and see every day? Where were we going anyway, that required us to move up? What I saw was a sea of empty promises, and a complete misunderstanding of what it meant to love people. To love meant loving the actual people, and not my own ideals for how they should be. That lesson took a long time to learn, and in many ways, I have barely grasped it all.


If you had asked me a couple of months ago why I couldn't write, I would never have associated celebrity parents and their seemingly disgusting actions with my own. But there was a link between us. Neither I nor them had answered the one question that needed to be answered. As a youth worker and counselor, I always asked my students and young people what they loved, the necessary first step in following your dreams. What I neglected however, was the next question, the important one. Why? Why did you want to be a singer or a writer or an actor? Why did you want to fly airplanes or work in a big firm or be a mom?

When you first start in pursuit of your passions there is great optimism and hope. Spurred on by inspirational tales and others involved in their own similar pursuits, the questions of why we're doing it seems redundant. (Because I'm supposed to, because I love it, because I was born to do this, because I'm gifted, etc…) Yet it isn't enough. The dark side of dreams is the shadowed reflection of the unanswered question. Too often that goes to the next generation, to the parents who didn't follow their dreams or gave up or didn't make it, and they attempt to vicariously pursue it through their children, to the destruction of both parties. It is here that the evidence of humility is absent, and the pursuit of dreams is revealed to be nothing more than a narcissistic search for self glorification.

To what end do we pursue our dreams. Is it to further our own celebrity? To have others recognize us? No one person is completely altruistic – we don't pursue life solely for the purpose of others, and anyone who claims to do so is either a liar or unaware of their own humanity – but somewhere in the mix we need to be looking at the world around us. Somewhere we have to know that part of the "why" is to make a difference, to help those around us in some way. No matter how successful we become by the world's standards, if our goal is only self-serving, then inevitably we will find disappointment and emptiness.

How different would the world be, would our world be, if the notion of selflessness were to walk hand in hand with the passions and gifts God has given us?

I think about Jesus sometimes, about what he must have been thinking when the people tried to make him king. I wonder what it must have been like for him to carry this burden of knowledge and understanding, and do so while wandering as an itinerant Rabbi. I wonder if he ever thought that yes, people were listening, but couldn't he do so much more if he was the king? Wouldn't his impact be greater if he had more power and recognition? Somehow, he never lost sight of what he was about, of why he was there and what he was called to do. In the Bible, it says that Jesus never considered equality with God something to be grasped, but instead, considered others better than himself.

Why do I want to write? Why is it so important that I do so?

This past month I have been wrestling with these questions, and I have found a peace for the first time in a long time. Not because I have answered them all, but because I have asked them. In the asking, I have learned more about myself, some of which I don't like, but what I must know if I am to keep on in pursuit of the passionate life.

My hope this week is that you will take time to consider your life. Your dreams and goals. Not just the question of what, but why. Are they simply about you, or is there another reason for them? Are you finding delight in the joy of your pursuit, whether it be acting in a volunteer theatre or writing in obscurity or teaching a small class. God has given us all dreams, and often the purpose of the dream is not material success or notoriety, but a bridge to walk along beside another, a chance to forge the type of relationships that change not only our life, but the lives around us as well.

Every day on my way to work I pass by people who have given up, and more often than not they are wearing an expensive suit. You can hear it in their voice and see it in their demeanor. The world calls them successful, but if they were being honest, they would tell you that the light bulb they knew as a child, the one that fired their imaginations when they read comic books and stories growing up, has long since been extinguished. They have no need for dreams, because they're adults now. All grown up. And soon enough, they'll have kids.


Sunday, July 12, 2009


The night is clear, and from our balcony we can see the changing colours of the CN tower and the vast Toronto cityscape. The day has finally ended. Joyous, stressful, exuberant, hushed; it has been the longest day of my life. And also the greatest. My bride sits next to me, beautiful and quiet as we process what has happened. What it all means.

"Do you want to open the cards?" I ask.

She nods and then laughs, and it reaches a place in me that resonates deeper than any other. One by one, we open the gift cards, taking turns to carefully read each card. Each sentiment. Halfway through however, I can not continue, as the tears slowly began to slip down my face.

"Can we stop for a minute?" I ask her. She looks over at me, and noticing the tears, walks over and hugs my neck. I can smell the lotion on her skin, and I am, as always, struck by how easily she fits into my arms. She slips into my lap and together we look out at the city. The gifts are extraordinary, and I am not sure what to do with them. So many people have sacrificed to make our day special, many of whom have reached well beyond their means to let us know how much we are loved. The effect is both surreal and humbling. A while later we finish opening the cards, and even back inside, I remain close to tears. I cannot shake this idea that something has happened. Something more than marriage. Or that many people might not understand the significance of this day and what their gifts and love have meant.

We all have dreams of the ideal relationship when we're young. Even boys, although it is often less articulated than that of young girls. When I was a kid, I remember thinking about marriage, but it was an abstract idea. As in, of course I am going to get married and be happy. Those were the stories I read about in my books, and it seemed like a simple thing. Just love each other and everything will be okay. Until the time of my break up with my first girlfriend, I always assumed the one I was with would be "the One". A romantic and silly notion for a 23-year-old perhaps, but idealism has always been something of a trap for me. Married at 25, divorced a few short years later, the idea of a "perfect" marriage had long since faded, to the point where I was certain it could never happen. I was too difficult to live with, too picky, too cynical, too finite about my views of God and just a bit too… strange. Who could possibly fill all those requirements? Who would be willing to see past my scars and hurts and accept me for who I was?

The years passed, and while I found friendships that would last forever, in itself an unbelievable turn of events for someone who had once locked themselves away from the world in his late twenties, I never found that special someone. The person that I had dreamed about as a young teenager and later as a young man. Even as I lived and looked however, my ideas about the "One" began to change. I watched my friends with good marriages. Watched how selflessly they interacted. Watched how they asked for forgiveness and worked hard not to pin their own struggles on their partner. In the glaring light of these examples, my ideas about love changed from the Disney twinkle of Cinderella's shoes, to the clasped hands of sweating, smiling teammates after a long, hard fought game. So much as sentiment is as natural to me as breathing, this was a difficult revelation, and it cast a different light upon my past relationships that struggled to make their way past the end of "happily ever after." For as much as I could claim a personality mismatch, it would be unfair to exclude my inability to work as part of a team. Too often I had relied upon the romanticized idea of "boy meets girl, boy loves girl", with a clear delineation between both the boy and girl and the role each one was supposed to play. There were, in fact, buried within this seemingly simplistic ideal, any number of rules and regulations that for the life of me I could no longer understand. No wonder then, when I thought back to my past relationships, to my past struggles, that I remembered the times being paralyzed into inaction due to my inability to navigate the world of boy meets girl. It was all so complicated, so difficult, this road to love.

Three years earlier, I'd mentioned to a colleague of mine that the possibility of meeting someone and marrying would probably never happen. He'd scoffed at me like a patient teacher. "What? How old are you? Thirty three? You're young, Steve. It'll happen." I'd nodded that day, but didn't bother explaining to him the reasons for my hesitancy. The reasons for the occasional sadness that would flutter onto my shoulders like a black winged butterfly. Despite all this, despite what I'd learned, I held onto the slimmer of hope, enough to spend one winter night gazing up at the stars, with the tears rolling down my cheeks, asking God for a second chance at a first chance. Little did I know that just a short eighteen months later my prayer would not only be answered, but with such a resounding boom of grace and love from friends and family it would leave me speechless and my world completely redrawn.

One Week Later

The balcony is quiet this morning. Rain drips onto the edge of the railing, as the sun struggles to break through the clouds. The steady drumming of construction is absent for the weekend, and only the faint hum of music from another apartment pushes past the breeze shushing through the trees. A tiny, yellow tailed bird hops onto the branch about five feet from where I sit, flashing her wings and riding the swaying branches.

I head back inside to refill my coffee and trip slightly on one of the unopened boxes of cookware. The apartment is filled with gifts and boxes, most of which have been pushed to the side. Some have been opened, some not, but either way it is overwhelming to walk past them. I pour out the coffee from our new coffee pot and stir in my condiments. My mug is also new. Also a gift. Everything we have, it seems, is a gift. My mind flashes to the week before. To the arrival of Jackie and Mireille. Of Jackie's cake making and their sure hand at taking over the details so that our day will go smoothly, not the least of which will include the sound system and flowers. I think of Alanna and her 75 hour work week and the unbelievable amount of cooking and errands she does for us. I think of Bethany's brother, selflessly running errand after errand, and her sister, Heather, volunteering for whatever needs to get done. I think of Jeremy, my long time friend, and his wife, Heather, who have sacrificed their weekend to do the ceremony.

And then there was the day itself, with Allison and Brice and so many others pitching in to make it special. With Mark and Naomi driving us from place to place, putting themselves at our disposal. My mind drifts back to the reception, to the kindness in the speeches, to the laughter fomented by my brother, forced to pull double duty as a best man and M.C., and his own speech, which seven days later still brings tears to me eyes. Even when the dance ends, they are there. Mark, Naomi, Jackie, Heather, Allison, Szymon, Brice, Mireille, Alanna, Lindsay, Nathan, Elias, Ernie, Jeremy, Heather. All pitching in to clean up while the music plays. All of it a gift.

I head back out to the balcony, past the table where we have put the cards and the cluster of gifts placed temporarily on a shelf. I can't help but wonder what this means in light of God's love. Is this what it means when Scripture teaches us that all we have is a gift? I have done nothing to deserve my new life or the gifts, both material and otherwise, that have been heaped upon Bethany and I. It is beyond humbling, so much so it casts my very existence in a different light. I'm not sure I'll ever be the same again. I hope not.

The balcony door rattles open as Bethany pokes her head outside.

"If I make you a protein shake, will you drink it?"

"Yeah, that would be great." I pause unable to speak for a moment. "Did you know I love you?"

"Yeah. Know I love you?"


She smiles, her hair pulled back into an early morning pony tail, and heads back inside. With a shake I realize that with all the generosity of my friends and family this past two weeks, with all they have given us, with all the boxes and items and things and details and work, the biggest gift of all, is her.

Not a wife.

Not a romance.

Not a perfect relationship.

But a laughing, wondrous teammate. Someone to share in the ups and downs of life. Someone to lay my head against. Someone to discuss things and make a difference with in a world that often makes no sense. Of all that we have been given, it is that gift, more than any other, that keeps me both humbled and excited about the future. I put down my coffee and open the door.

"Hey, love. So what are we doing today?"


This column is dedicated to the people who worked so hard to make our wedding day special. To our parents and families, and especially our friends, most of whom have been mentioned. There are no words for how to properly thank you for what you have done for us. Know that we love you and will treasure it always.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A New Home

The balcony is higher than I remember. Across the lake, the Toronto cityscape merges with the parks and green trees surrounding my new home. About five feet from the railing a tall pine extends its branches just past the eighth floor. A redwing blackbird flashes to the top of its limbs and sings before darting away, diving into the air currents and fluttering to another tree farther down.

For the first time in nearly two years I am alone. No sounds of my housemates getting up for work or getting breakfast or early morning chatter; just the distant hum of the highway and the quiet echoes of my coffee percolating in the kitchen. It’s strange, and in some ways welcome, this quietness, this sense of distance. There is sadness there, however, and it surprises me. After two years, my life has been irrevocably changed by my housemates and friends, and my ideas about community and privacy have as well.

I head to the kitchen to pour my morning coffee. The apartment is filled with boxes and a few scattered furniture items, and my sandals slap against the hardwood floor. With a bit of digging I find a mug and manage to pour myself the all important first cup of the day. It is hard not to think about what changes have come, and the changes that will soon ensue. For today though, I am lost in the memories of my move to Toronto two years ago, of my first meeting with my housemates, my first experience of living in community, and the way the many nights and long conversations on the stoop have changed me and challenged me.

I’m back outside, and I can hear my neighbor rattling around on the balcony next door. Somehow it reassures me, and I smile into my cup even as I thank God for the past week. Of all the things I’ve learned these past two years, perhaps the most poignant is that it isn’t enough to simply say you believe something. It’s fine to talk about the “rightness” of your religion, but it’s more important to chat with someone outside your faith – not because you want to evangelize them – but just because you want to hear their story. It’s fine to talk about issues, but not unless we’ve met the people who believe other than we do. The older I get, the less sure I am about many things, including my faith. The pathway to God seems murkier, especially when trying to steer through the natural prejudices of my culture and upbringing.

What makes it so ironic is that the times I feel closest to God are the times I confess my struggles. Times like this morning when I sit and chat with a God I long to serve and know, and One whom I respect enough to realize I may have it all wrong. Jesus has long been my hero, but in rational terms, there is nothing really concrete about my faith. I can’t prove it to you or hand you a lab test or logically convince you that I am right, if only because I may be wrong. I may be completely off about the whole idea of creation and loving Creator. What I do know, however, is that in building relationships with the people around me, in opening my ears and eyes to hear their story, I sense the imprint of a loving God in them, and that is what stirs me to pray. It is what stirs me to love better and more, and try harder at putting my ‘self’ to the side more often. My housemates helped teach me that, and I will do my best not to forget those lessons.

I stare out across lake to the city, until my gaze flickers at the two crows circling upward in draft, their wings wide, heads high, before diving back down towards the ground. The sound of morning traffic reaches up to the balcony, and it is with a contented sigh that I sip my coffee and look down at the world below.

Change can be difficult, but as I’ve learned, it is the one thing that helps us to grow in both understanding and wonder at the life around us. I’ll miss my housemates, but as in all things, it is time to move on.

My prayer this week is that you would embrace the changes inevitable in life, that you would hear God’s voice amidst the questions of your everyday journey, and that you would find both joy and peace, and perhaps a little conversation amidst all of life’s struggles and hardships.

Much love


This blog is dedicated to Szymon, Nads, Keti, Tika, Nemo, Hanz, Didi, Ashley, Mitoki, Yuca, and Eriko