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Close Call on the Pacific Ocean

leflaneur[1]Below is an incident I wrote  in 1972 after a four month sail from San Diego through the Panama Canal and up to Key West, under sail alone—no engine, in a 42′ trimaran, similar to the one shown. We were a crew of four: the captain and his thirteen-year-old son, and my partner and I. This anecdote became part of my first book, a memoir. Says Philip Marchand, “The vital principle of any memoir, the red corpuscle in it’s bloodstream, is the anecdote.”

My watch. No wind. No moon yet. Two hundred miles offshore from Costa Rica. The three others asleep, the sea silent. Warm salty droplets on my bare arms. A freighter appeared on the horizon at 2230 hours. From the lights I could see it was on a collision course with us. No worry, it was eight miles away. Make a log entry. Five minutes later it was considerably closer. The range lights were still in line, and both red and green running lights were visible. Too far away to worry, I decided. I looked at the orange drifter hanging limp on the forestay.

In no time the freighter was closer. Surely their radar has picked us up, I thought, mildly apprehensive. To be on the safe side, I flipped on our running lights, usually left off to save the battery. About a minute later, I could see only their red light, which I decided meant that the freighter had veered off to pass us to port. Or had the green light picked that moment to burn out, or had someone stepped in front of it?

The freighter was still rushing toward us at a ferocious rate. Again, to be on the safe side, I unfastened the xenon flasher from its place on the life ring and held it high. The brilliant strobe burst its staccato message into the night, lighting up our whole ship every other second, but I knew it would do us good only if someone were looking. We had read that some freighters are too short-staffed to carry full-time watches. We’d heard about disastrous collisions at sea due to cavalier regard for the night watch.

It was really close now. I looked up at the empty heavens and prayed for a sudden squall that would send some power into the useless sail. Although I was reasonably sure it was giving us right of way, I called Captain Don out of a deep sleep.

Then I heard the engines. The ship was upon us. I braced myself, hand tight on the tiller. If Don was perturbed by the sight and sound of this freighter bearing down on us, he hid it well. He took the flasher from me and stood on the cabin top to give it as much height as possible. The engines screamed, the bow wave frothed white.

Small freighter and bow wave

Small freighter and bow wave

A few seconds later the freighter passed us fifteen metres off the stern. The crew shone a spotlight on us, we heard them laugh, and they roared off into the blackness. I pushed my heart back down my throat and told Don to go back to sleep, thank you very much.

~~~~

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir, which offers guidelines for memoir writers.

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Truth Plus Memoir Equals Revolution

When you write a memoir, you share your truths, good and bad, with those whose eyes follow your words. It’s mind to mind. It’s enlightenment, and quite possibly medicine.

Franz Kafka famously said, “A book should be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Such a book is The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir published earlier this year by the University of Regina Press.

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

Just seventy-three pages, this book represents one Cree man’s experience with abuses he endured as a child at the St. Therese Residential School in Saskatchewan, from 1935 to 1944. It’s an era that has been invisible to most of us, due mostly to a conspiracy of silence. His book is visible, real, a testament here to stay. Joseph Auguste Merasty, like the taxi driver, woodsman and warrior he was, persisted with his memoir for several years. He had his reasons:

  1. In correspondence with his editor David Carpenter, he wrote that he’d heard that one way of achieving immortality was writing a book. Leaving something behind after you ‘kick the bucket’ so you will be remembered. In this regard, he agreed with many memoirists, including Mordecai Richler who said, “Fundamentally, all writing is about the same thing: it’s about dying.”

  2.  In the conclusion of his book, he writes that he hopes what he has related has some impact, so that the abuse and terror that Indian children were subjected to, in his school and other schools in Canada, never happens again. He has a desire to recreate a better world by bearing witness, by breaking the silence. Another way of saying this is that it’s about healing individuals and a society. As Bishop Tutu said, “Without memory, there is no healing.” Merasty has made his memories visible in this small volume. Memories that are brutal and bitter, friendly and charitable.

Now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has come out with 94 recommendations to bring about justice, which is aimed at healing the injustices, is a new chapter in the magic that is Canada possible? We have poured billions into preserving the French language and culture, so now would be the time to make a similar gesture to the people who were on this land before French or English. Now would be the time to open a federal inquiry into what is at the root of “missing and murdered aboriginal women”. Now would be the time to ensure more post-secondary education for people on reserves. As John Ralston Saul asked in today’s Globe and Mail, is this our last chance to get it right?

Joseph Auguste Merasty gave his memories of the St. Therese Residential School to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Then to the rest of us in his book.

Please read The Education of Augie Merasty. Connect with his mind and medicine. Join the revolution around you. If you read the book, I hope you cherish it and the man as much as I do.

And oh yes, write your own memoir to join the other revolution—that of memoir writing. Often a third or more of the non-fiction books in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail are memoirs. What memories and medicine do you have to offer your family and/or the world?

Do someone a favour. Leave seeds of truth behind you. Seeds that become bearers of beauty … like these lupin sentinels in my yard.

Lupin in my yard.

Lupin in my yard.

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From Love Letters to Memoir

I stood by my table of books at Chapters in Peterborough earlier this month for a book signing, just inside the front door. Several people stopped by the table to talk about memoirs.

Suddenly a familiar face with a dazzling smile appeared. Joanne Culley www.joanneculley.com who took my course on memoir writing four years ago, had also just published her book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. We had talked about trading books via email, but I didn’t know whether or not she would be able to get free that afternoon.

DSC03772

Joanne Culley and her new book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters

Lo and behold, there she was! I could hardly wait to have a quick look to see how she had made a story of the over 600 letters her parents wrote during the Second World War. Letters she had talked about during the course.

I spent the weekend reading her book. It’s a love story, a history lesson, and a daughter’s tribute to the parents who raised her. The book is strong, and you realize while reading it the enormous amount of historical research Joanne did. It’s a story well worth reading.

One thing I really love about this memoir is that each chapter begins with a few lines of a song that was popular during the war. For example, chapter eleven begins with lines from But Not for Me by Ira and George Gershwin.

I knew it had taken two years to complete. When I asked her what kept her motivated to keep going, she said, “the continuing support of her Group of Sevenish writing friends.” Seven of the people who took my memoir course that spring kept meeting … twice a month! For four years! And are still going. She added, “We really keep after each other, get on anyone’s case who comes with nothing written.”

Love in the Air: Second World War Letters is available in hardcover, soft cover and e-book formats from friesenpress.com and online book stores. It was released on May 8, the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). The book includes letter excerpts, historical background, dramatized scenes, and photos.

Thank you, Joanne, for abbreviating the book’s introduction for this blog post:

This year two significant milestones from the Second World War are being celebrated – the 70th anniversaries of Victory in Europe Day on May 8 and Victory in Japan Day on August 15. These are no longer just remote war anniversaries for me, but now have more personal significance since the death of my father. While clearing out the family’s house, I came upon a box of neatly stacked bundles of airmail letters, and a note saying, “Letters written from 1943 to 1946 between Harry and Helen.”

Harry & Helen, 1943 cropped1

Harry Culley and Helen Reeder, 1943

Inside were 600 letters from each to the other while my father was serving overseas as a musician in the Royal Canadian Air Force Band. During the war, my mother, Helen Reeder, worked in the Department of Munitions and Supply in Ottawa, and later at the Toronto Transportation Commission, as it was then known. As I read through the letters, I discovered not just declarations of love, but also detailed descriptions of what was happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

Harry Culley endured bombings in London, the overall scarcity of food, and the exhaustion of travelling by trains, buses and army trucks with irregular schedules to perform in concerts, parades and dances. But he and the other band members knew that their music was keeping up the morale of soldiers and civilians alike.

He wrote to her about accompanying the famed Irving Berlin during his cabaret at the Pavilion in Bournemouth and playing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at the Beaver Club in London. He tried to explain to her what a buzz bomb sounds like: “Just imagine the biggest truck you’ve ever seen going up a street like Winnett [where Helen lived in Toronto].There’d be quite a vibration in the houses.”

On VE Day, Harry wrote, “This is the day we’ve all been waiting for. It’s pretty hard to realize now that the war is over . . . we went down to the beach [at Bournemouth] where there was a huge bonfire going on the sand with hundreds of people around it singing old songs.”

Of their letters, Helen wrote, “We’ll bind them up and read them over about twenty years from now.” I don’t think they ever did sit down together to re-read those letters – they were too busy living the lives they had dreamed about all those years before.

Image34Harry & Helen wedding

Helen and Harry Culley on their wedding day, 1946

I asked Joanne how she felt about the letters now, having initially felt they might be private. “I’m glad I read the letters,” she said. “They have given me insight into their lives as young people in love, amidst global turmoil.”

Are there any letters or other artifacts from your family that you can use as a starting point to write your story of the past?

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Manifestations from the Pond

(Marie Prins has written a nature memoir. The land lives and breathes alongside her. The following is an excerpt from a longer story that appears in Hill Spirits ll, An anthology by writers of Northumberland County. I’m honoured to reprint it here. Marie is a member of Spirit of the Hills Writers. )

~~~~

Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymphs and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe.

Gradually, our vision of an artistic landscape of ferns and wetland wildflowers was replaced by a grudging appreciation of both the alien and native plants thriving in the clay soil around our pond. For amid unruly weeds, we glimpsed tiny blue spots of water forget-me-nots and white sprinklings of bedstraw. Next to the rocks we identified bristly nut grass and pink, trailing smartweed, all modest flora offering unique shapes and colour if we but noticed their unobtrusive presence. After a few years, we conceded that the natural world had its own agenda best left to observe rather than manipulate. When we paid attention, small manifestations revealed themselves, some humorous, some profound, most ephemeral, but all unexpected revelations to be marveled at from the confines of our Algonquin chairs under a green umbrella.

Manifestations from a Pond

Manifestations from a Pond

 

Every mid-April along the margins of the pond, the invisible peeper frogs herald the opening act of the Nocturnal Mating and Territorial Squabbling Season. Soon the elongated trills of the toads, like fingernails on a comb, join this amphibious musical. As the weather warms, the high-pitched tremolo of elusive tree frogs moves from wood to water. Finally in early June, when the shrill calls of the peepers fade away, green frogs add their rubber-band twang to the choir. Occasionally, the rapid, hollow notes of a solitary leopard frog resonate as he seeks a mate in waters that are as busy as a Roman bath in the dark. Come mornings, all is quiet. But along the shore lie jelly masses of frogspawn and, twined around the lily pads, strings of toad eggs whose black dots evolve, if not eaten by predators, into hundreds of tadpoles wriggling in the warm water of the edges. A month later on the day of metamorphosis the border grass vibrates when innumerable brown toads, smaller than pennies, hop towards the grape arbour and out into the wide world of the yard.

During this coupling tumult, spontaneous Frog Wars erupt as green frogs vie for footage along the shoreline. One low croak begins the challenge. A dozen twangs of varying pitches echo around the pond. Like sumo wrestlers, frogs grab opponents and tumble in the shallows. Moments later, losers concede defeat and retreat to prior-claimed territory. Then another couple takes the stage and repeats this performance to the delight of its human audience. These acts of macho-mating recur well into June, when the weary actors disperse to drier parts of the garden and fatten up for winter’s long sleep.

With summer’s approach, the air above the pond’s surface pulsates with the darting zigzags of dragonflies and damselflies. Two-Spot, Nine-Spot, Common Whitetail Red-veined Darter, and Green Darner. After spending most of their lives underwater as ghostly nymphs, they stealthily crawl up spiky reeds, breathe the night air, and shed their larval skins which stick to plant stems like transparent clothes on a line. These ancient insects patrol the pond and devour mosquitoes, midges, flies, always attacking their prey from below. On sunny days, the air close to the pond’s edge dances with the unabashed coupling of Blue Ringtails riding tandem. Over and over, these slender acrobats form circles and hearts before the female deftly deposits her eggs on reeds below the water’s surface. In late summer, as the air cools, Rubyspots rest on rocks, chairs, arms, anyplace warm, and then resume their last minute pairing before an autumn frost ends their brief lives.

These breeding rituals fascinate us. One day, we watched the non-stop labour of a Green Darner gliding from stem to stem, never resting in her rhythmic exertion to reproduce another generation before the sun sank behind the cedars. Suddenly, from under a lily pad, a green frog leapt up and swallowed her in one gulp. Only our stunned silence witnessed her transformation from sustainer to sustenance in this peculiar dance of death and rebirth. One moment a dragonfly laying eggs, the next moment nutrients being rearranged into amphibious cells…premonitions of our own dust to dust mortality.

In my dictionary, the verb “observe” means to watch carefully, to witness, to watch without taking part. Silently, from the confines of my chair, I behold the nuanced life of the obscure—tadpoles, minnows, damsel flies—all creatures indistinguishable from another, all alive for one long moment of a season, seemingly to flicker in their beauty and then to feed the turtles, birds, frogs, toads – creatures of a higher order that emerge on logs, branches, and margins of the pond, all alive in their splendor for a few more seasons. To my ear “observe” sounds much like “absorb” which is to soak up or incorporate something into a larger entity in a way that loses much of its own identity.

Marie #2

My time by the pond is spent observing life and being absorbed by it. Moved by the saga of the Green Darner, I reflect on becoming part of a larger whole, part of a universe replicated in the life of this country pond. At times, my monkey mind quiets, the past and future meld into present. My being hovers briefly over water, pulsating gently, like the rhythmic undulation of a damsel fly levitating near the rushes. The mysterious, relentless passage of time ceases for an instant and I relax into divine tranquility, sensing dimly how my cells will one day be absorbed into a greater whole, and with relief, all will be well with my soul

 ~~~~

 A memoir breathes as if alive when it includes the living land. What part of the land or sea where you live would you include in a memoir?

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Who is Your Audience?

It was Mother’s Day in Port Hope. In a small house, gray clapboard with blue shutters, the phone rang. Her walker was handy, but so was the phone this time. It was John.

“Mom, you have to write your story!”

John had just reconnected with the yoga teacher his mom had signed him up with when he was five … over six decades ago. Out of the blue, it was time to know more about his mother’s spiritual path.

A few days later, at the meditation class that she runs, Melodie told us that she was now going ahead with her memoir. Surprise! Several people over the years had urged her to tell her story, either orally into a tape recorder so that it could then be transcribed, or written in her own words.

No, she’d said, I don’t want to go back. She saw more value in the one-on-one, here and now. Another time, long silvery hair twisted into a knot on the top of her head, she shrugged her shoulders and said, who would it be for? “Us!” cried those in the room. But we weren’t motivation enough. When she read my book, and in particular the passage about Thomas Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, she remembered that Merton’s book had been one of her mentors. Following his example, she began writing down a few memories. Perhaps, she thought, her written stories could be a way of mentoring others. Then, life got in the way—celebrations, lunches out, illness, the beautiful walker, but the damn “Mr. Ugly” new chair that does cushion her bones.

It was a son’s cri de coeur that gave her the audience she needed. Who would she write for? For him. Now would be the time to make a ritual of sitting down to write. To talk to him. What better audience than your son? Melodie Massey is hyped! Quite possibly, by this time next Mother’s Day—when she will be 93—her story will be complete.

Do you know for whom you are writing your memoir? Knowing who your audience is will help clarify what it is you want to say, what it is you have to say. And will get your “ass in chair.”

A few people do write their memoir just to keep track of their lives, or to get things off their chest with no intention of anyone reading it. Indeed, this can be healing, and studies do show that the immune system is enhanced by writing down troubling events, even if the paper is burned afterwards. But many writers of memoir have an audience in mind.

When I asked Cynthia Reyes (www.cynthiasreyes.com) about her audience when writing her memoir, A Good Home, she said this:

My first audience was probably myself! I imagined a fairly well-educated woman over 40 who had been through some big ups and downs in her life. Someone who could empathize with another woman in a similar situation. She was someone I would like to spend an afternoon with.

I imagined she was fairly well-read, had probably done some traveling and would be interested in my childhood experiences in Jamaica. And most of all, I imagined her as someone who had a memory of a special home, and who either wanted to believe in God, or – even if an atheist – could understand my faith struggle.

How it turned out: From the hundreds of letters I’ve received, I’d say that is indeed the majority reader of my book. What surprised me was the number of men who also read the book. I never expected that. And I didn’t expect that so many elderly people would find it interesting too. Most puzzling: It’s become a book that people re-read, over and over. I am thrilled, but I am still trying to figure out why.

Sidney Poitier wrote The Measure of a Man for his granddaughter so that he could be a presence in her life even after he was gone and she was grown. Abigail Carter wrote The Alchemy of Loss for other grieving spouses who had also lost husbands or wives in the Twin Towers during 9/11. Her peer group, support group, was her audience. At 105, Samuel Smith told his story in To Shoot Hard Labour for the new generation so they would remember what early life was like in Antigua. Marina Nemat’s audience for Prisoner of Tehran, was all who would listen. To warn us. I heard her say here in Port Hope that we all need to be on guard, that what happened in Iran could happen in Canada if we are not vigilant.

When I wrote my first book, The Perfect Galley Book, I was talking to other sailors, and anyone interested in the sailing life. It was a continuation of the sharing lifestyle my partner and I led while living aboard the 46′ sailboat we built; it covered a ten-year period of my life. Sailors get together when at anchor to share knowledge and knots, rum and recipes, the lore and lure of the sea, and the writing of my book was more of that. It was pure nautical pleasure to put that book together.

Of course my new book, The Gift of Memoir, has a specific audience: people who want to write the stories of their life. I imagined I was talking to the women and men who have come to my classes. They, and other like-minded people, were my audience.

I’m curious! Who do you want to read your stories? A son or daughter? Descendants as yet unborn? A specific group of people? All of us? An imaginary empathetic friend? I’d like to hear.

Do someone a favour. Leave a bouquet of your stories.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

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I Was Named After Renate

(In the story below, Renata Hill is responding to one of my earlier blogs entitled Does Your Name Tell a Story? Hers does. Thank you, Renata, for sharing this story of remembrance here.)

I was named for a childhood friend of my mother’s—a lost friend.

In the early 1930’s, when my mother was no more than eleven years old, she participated in a student exchange program. Her alma mater, Palmer’s College in England, was a progressive girls’ school which evidently had no qualms about sending their students to various places in Europe for months on end! To be fair though, my grandparents didn’t mind either and my mother, Joan, was absolutely thrilled.

Joan was sent to a family in Berlin to learn the language and culture of Germany. The Benjamins were a warm family who treated her like a daughter. Mr. Benjamin was a kind, gentle man, the manager of a bank in Berlin. His wife was kind too but stricter. She made sure that Joan spoke only in German—hard at first but it turned my mother’s basic schoolbook German into fluency by the time she left.

The Benjamins had two daughters; the younger one, Renate, was Joan’s age and they became best friends immediately.

Renate

Renate

Mrs. Benjamin didn’t restrict my mother’s learning to just the language. She and Renate showed Joan the sights of beautiful pre-war Berlin—the fantastic department stores, the parks, the famous boulevard of Unter den Linden (“under the linden trees”). Sometimes they would drop into the bank to see Mr. Benjamin and let him take them out to lunch. But often the two girls would just hop on bikes and explore the leafy suburb on the outskirts of Berlin where the Benjamins had their home. Wannsee had lakes and beaches and lovely houses hidden amongst the woods.

Renate's parents

Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin

The three months my mother spent with the Benjamins created some of the happiest memories of her childhood. She never forgot their kindness and stayed in touch with Renate for years before losing touch. For the Benjamins were Jewish; the pretty area they lived in gave its name to the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942 when the Nazi leadership met there to plan “the final solution”. Mr. Benjamin lost his job and died in 1938. The last time Joan heard from Renate was before the war when she and her mother were trying to leave Germany for Tel Aviv. Did they make it? I hope so. The meaning of the name Renate is “reborn.” Perhaps the Renate I am named for found a new life in her new country.

Post Script
After sending me the above story, Renata did some research on the internet and found the following:

The Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland was established on 4 July 1939 under the 10th decree of the Nazi’s Reich citizenship law. The organization came under the authority of the Reich Security Main Office, in particular the Gestapo. Its purpose was to identify, and to prepare for emigration, all of Germany’s Jewish population.

She found Mrs. Benjamin’s name on that list and Renate’s and her sister’s. Mr. Benjamin had died by then. Chilling and sad.

~~~~~

Does your name tell a story? I’d love to hear about it, and publish it here.

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Little Big Man

(April 30 is the day the Canadian government has chosen to commemorate the acceptance of 60,000 Boat People into Canada in the early eighties when North Vietnam took control of that country under communist rule. This short story is a piece of historical fiction by David Hughes http://straightspeak.com  Memoir, the focus of my blog, is generally true stories; however, sometimes the truth can be more compellingly revealed through the weaving of truth and fiction. All the memoir details about Mr. Ngo are factual.)

Vietnamese Boat People

Vietnamese Boat People

I’ve seen him before. Not often, but before. Diminutive. He’s maybe a hundred-and-twenty pounds and just a head higher than the counter. And today he seemed even smaller, standing in line between two strapping, thirty-something, white guys—truck drivers probably—looking as if he might be crushed if the line moved too fast. And everybody was in a rush for a coffee hit. It wasn’t eight o’clock yet, and no coffee meant an edgy line of single-minded addicts grumbling their way to a caffeine rush with a sugar chaser. Me too. I love my toasted cinnamon bun with its icing swirl that transforms into white drool and sticks to my fingers like flypaper. It sits right next to my medium, not-too-large, not-too-small, double-double. Just the three of us hanging out at our usual observation station watching the locals gather like cattle, chewing on their morning ritual. A process that goes on for hours, sucking the coffee, tea, sugar and flour out of the Doughnut King’s kitchen in trade for a few dollars of hard-earned pay or unemployment benefits. Young, old, big, small, odd, ordinary—mostly odd—trudging across the morning stage in a performance that is re-enacted every day in thousands of doughnut dispensaries across the country. It’s big business. What addiction isn’t? I come at least three times a week to slurp and watch. Never on Sundays.

He comes by bicycle. One of those foreign ones. Black. Simple. Dilapidated. It’s a girl’s bike, no crossbar. I guess he’s too small to get up over the crossbar on those man-mountain bikes. He leaves it on the far side of the parking lot. Up against a tree. Doesn’t lock it. Who does that today? Only a trusting fool. I tell myself to keep an eye on his bike.

There are more than a dozen people in line, but he appears to be the only one who is not restless or impatient. He stands quietly, pensively, while all around him shift, shuffle, twitch and tweet. If they aren’t mesmerized by their phones, they’re gawking at the floor, ceiling, lineup, doughnuts. Or the wait-staff—with a stare that says, Com’on move yer butt? Occasionally they look at me, looking at them. I’m relaxed. I don’t blink. It’s my morning entertainment. The younger women drop their eyes immediately. Most of the middle-aged women are empty-eyed, not there—gazing in my direction but lost somewhere in the noise of life. The old guys squint and scowl but don’t see me. The middle-aged guys blink, then their eyes shade into that primate question: Hey buddy, ya’ gotta problem? And the young guys glance at me like they’re still battling someone in a video game. But not the little man. He’s looking nowhere in particular but seeing everything. Eyes calm. Full. Alive.

Observing the world over coffee and a cinnamon bun is not new for me and the tableaux before me is the common herd of humanity at a convenient feed-trough. But today, more than before, the little man seems to exude a purity and grace, like a unicorn amid the morass. It’s a modern Noah’s ark, the animals coming two by two and one by one for a modicum of salvation—if caffeine and sugar can do that—and in their midst is this pondering presence, a deep harmony.

I sip my coffee without taking my eyes off the little man. I ignore my cinnamon bun. As he silently moves forward in the gangly line, I try to know him. He’s Asian. Maybe Chinese. I’ve never been good at analyzing anything foreign: food, language, clothes, people. Well, I’m okay with the people, I just don’t know much about them. Me, I am Canadian, through and through. And damn proud of it, although I’ve never been sure why I’m proud. Because it’s a big country? Nice people? Lots of lakes? The RCMP? The beaver? The true north strong and free – whatever that means? Or because I worked here all my life at the Royal Bank? Or for no good reason other than I was born here? I wonder if he has reason to be proud of his homeland? Where’s he from? How old is he? Married? Children? Where’d he get that bike? Where does he ride from? Why does he look so content? … Oh shit! He’s walking toward me. A large coffee and two doughnuts on a tray. This time I blink. He smiles. And sits down at the table next to me. It’s as if I am alone with him. The incessant hum of the feeding fuss fades and all I hear is the coffee bubbling between my lips as I try to be inconspicuous. He smiles again. A knowing smile. I say, just above a whisper, “Morning.” He is so unassuming. Tranquil. Pleasant. In my head I see a picture of the Dalai Lama. Could it be him? In disguise? There is that peculiar looking mosque or temple over on the other side of town. He could be visiting from wherever it is he comes from? India? The Himalayas? He nods ever so slightly. “Morning.”

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