The Door Was Open
(The Story of My Life)
My earliest memories are of my mother reading to me the stories of the saints, those special ones who could do miracles, who could heal the sick, part the waters. And be guaranteed a front row seat in heaven. Why be a fireman or a doctor or a baseball star? How ordinary, how uninteresting! I decided I was going to grow up to be a saint. And even well into high school that was still my first career choice. One I wisely kept to myself.
Being taken every Sunday to mass, I witnessed the magic happening right there in front of me. The candles, the smell of the incense, the organ sounds, the ancient vestments of the priest, the strange words spoken in Latin over the bread and wine that magically changed them into the flesh and blood of Jesus. It was all so overwhelming, and intoxicating to a young kid who took it all as absolute. My mother, who was Irish, had decided early on that I would become a priest. It seemed like a good idea, so I willingly went along with her.
The normal kid stuff like baseball and street hockey I played because the other kids did, but my real passion was the woods, the forests, the rivers and lakes, the deer, the rainbow trout, the cabin in the woods, fishing, hunting. I read Outdoors and Field and Stream magazines, but my personal bible was a book I found in the local library, Wildwood Wisdom, by Ellsworth Jaeger. I read and reread it, memorizing how to make a lean-to, a balsam bed, skin a rabbit, find edible roots. I tried to absorb the wisdom of the wilds: how to be self-sufficient, sense the lay of the land, live happily just with what you need.
The other book I kept beside my bed was The Last of the Mohicans. It offered me a role model that I realize now has lasted a lifetime. Hawkeye, in his buckskin jacket and moccasins, roamed the forest and woods, befriending the Indians, learning the secret ways, observing where the enemy might be and how to outsmart them. He would enter a fort, a deer slung over his shoulders – venison for a feast. And that evening, sitting around the fire, the townsfolk would listen as he told them news about the world beyond their walls. It was a heroic image of the outsider, one that I seem to have lived out in my life.
I remember also the gift from Santa Claus of a Lincoln cabin kit, the Christmas I was four years old. You built the cabin out of dowel logs and put on a roof of cardboard. It was my dream to one day have such a cabin as a hideaway.
I lived out my adventure as a woodman in High Park, in the west end of Toronto. Almost a mile square, it was to a small boy a perfect wilderness, having a pond filled with perch, sunfish, and a few bass. I had plans to catch every fish in the pond. Back then I was mostly into what they now call catch and release. I had an old paper punch that I would use to punch a small diamond hole in their tail fin. There must still be fish swimming around in Grenadier Pond with a diamond hole in their tail. I did bring a few homes for my mom to cook up for dinner but in truth they never tasted very good.
To get to the pond I traveled through groves of trees filled with rabbits, racoons, and I swear a deer. It was my avowed quest to bring down that deer, make a buckskin jacket and moccasins from its skin and provide enough venison for my family for a year. The only person happy that I failed was my mother, who after much reluctance made stew out of the one unlucky rabbit I happened to shoot with my homemade bow and arrow and who told me that never again would she cook anything I bought home.
Those years up until high school where happy, unconscious ones. I was like a primitive, exploring in my own way the things that interested me. There were few restrictions: be home before dark, make your bed, do your homework.
In my third year in high school, I was given a writing assignment to do over the summer holiday. I wrote what I remembered from my childhood. It turned out to be book length, full of grammar mistakes and misspellings (English was my worse subject), but I captured the play of this Huck Finn stage in my life, a time of just doing what I wanted, totally unaware of the rest of the world. Mom, dad, sisters were more or less background characters, more cardboard than real. (See Adventures in High Park)
I entered high school at fourteen years of age weighing 90 pounds. I remember that because I had to weigh in to play in the under 90-pounds football house league. It was the one sport I truly loved and played all during my high school years, not that I was particularly good at it. I just enjoyed the fun of tackling and catching the ball. By my senior year I had put on muscle and height, and even won the most valuable player award one year.
But sports didn't really interest me. Even though I played league baseball well into my senior years, I was really not interested in the game. I told myself that I was the worst player, and that everybody was happy for me to be on the team, as I saved everyone else from that particular designation. The truth was I had no competitive spirit. I just wanted to hang out with the guys.
After my Huck Finn boyhood, going to high school was my introduction into society. How To Win Friends and Influence People gave me some clues how to be with people. I read it many times and practised its precepts religiously. It helped immensely and I found myself liked and happy. It helped that I never wanted to excel, but simply to be a B student. All I wanted was to fit in.
I still was a devout little Catholic; still wanted to be a saint, but was beginning to question my mother's belief that I had a vocation for the priesthood. I attended an all-boys school, which was a good thing as I had three older sisters, an overprotective mother and a more or less absent father whom I could not relate to.
High school changed my perspective on life. My sense of the noble calling to be a priest was being eroded by my sexual drives, so much so that whenever I seriously considered entering the priesthood, my body reacted like I had a paralyzing illness. Fortunately, the wisdom of my body won out over the life-limiting ideals of celibacy and priesthood.
University for me was a simple extension of high school. I was proud of myself for getting this far beyond my own expectations. I majored in philosophy and science. I have little memory of anything from that time in my life except for one amazing summer when I took a summer job with Frontier College. I was expected to work with the men during the day. Six days a week, nine hours a day we laid steel in northern Ontario. In the evening I taught them whatever they needed. I thrived on the hard physical work, but I loved the evenings when I stood in front of ten or twelve men. They wanted to improve their arithmetic skills, to learn to read better. After class I helped them write letters home.
I decided after university to become a teacher. The main reason I told myself was that teaching guaranteed a two-month summer holiday. But after evenings of helping the guys on the railroad gang, I discovered that I had a gift. I knew that I'd be a good one.
teacher's college I was trained to teach math and science. English was
subject. I had no idea what literature was. Poetry was a mystery to me.
and spelling were simply a lost cause. And guess what? Through a fluke,
something that goes beyond explanation, I was given a full timetable of
English. Help! With an extra three hours of preparation each night, I
stay one day ahead of my students, which on the plus side gave me a
sense of what
they needed to know, and helped me relate to them. At the end of my
of teaching, I was so curious about this thing called literature that I
to go back to university and take a degree in English.
Still, I longed to be married. I had good women friends, but had never really gone steady. One reason was that I had such an idealized image of women, much more than “sugar and spice.” Another major factor was that I was born with a birthmark on my face – a red patch of skin that runs from the bridge of my nose to the corner of my right eye and down across my cheek, leaving my top lip swollen as if someone had hit me in the mouth. My mother said it was a mark that God had a special task for me. It helped me to see it this way.
Fortunately, I was never teased about it at school. I think that would have been devastating. But although I could ignore it, and ignore my friends pretending not to see it, it was a defining element in my life. How did I manage to live with such a disfigurement? Simply deny it, act as if it wasn’t there. Bigger question: how did I manage to make such a good life for myself? Biggest question for me: what would my life have been like if I hadn’t been born with it?
I was in my thirties when I married. As I mentioned it had not been easy for me to find a wife. And there were other reasons. I can still remember that, when I turned fourteen, my mother thought it might be a good idea to give me a statue of the Virgin Mary. Go figure! She was just doing what she thought was in my best interests. My mother was overly protective and in truth, too attached to me.
It isn’t easy talking about my mother. Not sure why. With my father absent so much of the time, she became my friend and confidante. Maybe that explains it. Being a mommy’s boy, I spent much of my early adulthood freeing myself from the apron strings and establishing my own male independence.
Getting over the stricture of maternal and religious inhibitions was helped by my desperate urge to have a sexual relationship. And so it happened. She lived down the hall in a high-rise. After a year of living together, we married. I realized when she said she was willing to get married in the Catholic Church that I no longer believed. The faith that had shaped my life had melted away. We got married in a secular setting. Long afterwards I realized how painful that must have been for my mother. Not a priest and now not even a Catholic. After all her prayers and quiet prodding, she had failed and I had lost my Faith. I had betrayed her. I'm sure as I look back on it that it must have broken her heart, and wish now that I could have told her about the good things she had given me.
A year after we were married, my wife came home from a sensitivity weekend to inform me that she had "made out" with the workshop leader. I was devastated. That night during a blinding snowstorm I walked the streets until after midnight. I felt like someone had blown a hole in my stomach with a shotgun. The woman I’d trusted and vowed my love to had betrayed me. And so ended my happy life.
What was about to begin was my journey into anguish, adulthood, and ultimately wholeness as I discovered my humanity, and eventually even some inner grace that I might call my divinity. But that would be a long time in the future.
Although she felt she was doing the right thing, I wish my wife had not been so honest that night. She had no idea how vulnerable I was. How little confidence I had to deal with what she had done. She never explained how far they had gone. She wasn't one to elaborate, and I was too frightened to even ask. I honestly suspect that they had made out, but not had sex. Not that it mattered. The shock of her betrayal was such that I never recovered the confidence to be able to trust her, or even feel comfortable with her. Yes, I desperately wanted to reclaim our warm and affectionate intimacy, but it was never a possibility. I found myself cast out of the garden of earthly delights, out into the realm of longing and hurt. I was thirty-four.
And so began the rest of my life, far removed from the blithe spirit of youthful optimism and innocence and naive trust. Both of us, shocked and distraught and frightened, entered therapy. Not couple counselling, but a therapy commune that a friend of ours had told us about. It was composed of around six or seven hundred people, many of whom lived in group houses. Each of us had an individual therapist. We attended group sessions, renovated group houses, worked an organic farm outside the city.
Desperately wanting to heal the wound of our marriage, my wife and I joined, becoming full members in a thriving commune. I quickly discovered a sense that I was part of an experiment in how to live openly and truthfully with other people. The community was a place to learn about the unconscious, to understand how our early upbringing, and traumas in our families, had affected our lives. It was on one hand a time of amazing learning and exploration of the inner drama of our lives. I found myself enchanted by this gathering of committed people healing their past and working to make their lives whole and healthy. I saw it as a Camelot, a world apart that offered a return to a place of trust and honesty, caring and truth. I had high hopes that it would be a place to heal my broken heart. I realize now that I should have remembered how Camelot ended: in betrayal and collapse.
Over the four years that we lived in the community, I never once got to talk one on one with my wife, ask her what had happened on that fateful night, and understand what had been the root of her action. Explain to her the devastating effect it had on me, and how it had destroyed what we had between us. It was like a wound that continued to bleed. Better, I see now, if we had simply parted ways, divorced, and let the pain subside and our wounds heal. Instead, my marriage became a long twilight of the bright day it once had been.
After four years she told me she no longer loved me. Lonely and hurt, I left the community, and fell into a bewildered and unhappy time of recovery as best as I could. Eventually I came to realize that we had entered a cult that had taken from me my self-confidence and much more. The magic of my teaching disappeared. I had lost my ego. I felt too unsure of myself to even talk with a woman. It was a huge price to pay for my interlude in Camelot.
At the same time I need to acknowledge all that I had gained from my experience there. First of all, a profound understanding of the human unconscious, and how people act out of motives they are not even aware of. That has stood me in good stead to this day, and has served as a gateway into being open to the deep mystery of our lives. Also, because of the work the men did together in renovating and carpentry, I grew to understand the rich and brotherly love that men can share. In some small way I suspect it resembles the profound feeling that soldiers in battle experience. I find now, wherever I go, that I can meet and engage men as both equals and companions on some deep level. This has been a gift in how it has opened me up to my friends and coworkers.
However, there still is for me a great ambivalence. It was like there were two currents in the community. On the one side, I was aware of an attempt to achieve something noble and profound, a claiming of the best side of human nature. On the other, I gradually began to experience a dark cult of manipulation and abuse.
It wasn't until years later, when I found myself writing a science fiction novel, a summer project to fill in some time, that it slowly dawned on me that I was writing a metaphor of my experiences. I saw that I was reshaping my experience with a positive outcome within the imaginative realm of my writing.
My book, The Waterbearer, was reviewed by Library Journal as "a highly symbolic first novel. Human beings face the dark forces within themselves and, reconciling good and evil, go on to create a new world of peace and joy in which the species can realize its true potential." I was proud to have my first attempt at a novel reviewed by such a prestigious U.S. publication.
I had recreated the world of that therapy commune as an alternate reality in which the hero, Richard, finds himself, and where he meets his idealized “higher self” in a being he calls Michael. In the climactic moment Richard follows his inner voice, consciously descending into the depths of his suffering and anguish, guided by his unexpressed anger. There he does the deed that makes him whole. He reconciles the two cosmic adversaries, Michael the Archangel and Lucifer (see excerpt), and in the process heals the split between the forces of good and evil. For me, the light and dark sides of my personality.
I can see now that, symbolically, that was what life was asking of me in the years ahead. Little did I realize that opening myself up to the darkness within me would unleash a time of travail and struggle, the purifying caldron, the alchemist's crucible that offers the possibility of changing lead to gold. I know now that that was what I was about – transforming my life.
But at the time that wasn't how I experienced it. All I wanted was to find some respite for the loneliness and my shattered sense of self. My teaching magic had dissolved, along with my self-confidence. I felt betrayed by my church, my community, and my wife, although I see now that I was also to blame for the collapse of our marriage. And so began a time of searching for meaning and looking for a way forward.
Having a need to find something to believe in, I starting looking at the New Age movement, tried meditation, checked out other communes (slow learner, am I?). Went to visit the Plains Indians and take part in sweat lodges and even a Sundance. I gardened in Findhorn, Scotland, explored the Holy Land, traveled in India. Nothing really worked. Cynicism was my middle name; atheism was my position in any religious discussion. I had never experienced a day of depression in my earlier life. Now I was constantly falling into depression.
Looking back on this time, I can see that things were beginning, ever so slightly, to shift. One day I was sitting in a diner, having my morning coffee, when a young woman sat down in the booth opposite me and began to chat. As we talked for a bit about the weather and other trivialities, I found myself wondering what she wanted from me, an old guy more than three times her age.
Finally she asked me, with great curiosity, what it was like being old, and I found myself opening up and telling her things I never talk about to anyone, much less strangers: about shattered dreams and deep disappointments following the great expectations of my youth. And about how, with the collapse of every dream, the breaking of every illusion, I found myself becoming more vulnerable, more open. Having suffered, been hurt, and failed at so many attempts to gain “success,” I found myself able to reach out to others in a way I’d never thought possible... with compassion.
As she listened, the words poured out of me, and in the process of articulating the process I’d been going through, I began to feel a new sense of what my life was about: connecting with humanity and becoming human myself. At the end of my spontaneous soliloquy, the young woman smiled into my eyes, got up and silently left. I looked for her the following day, the following week, but I never saw her again.
It was a few weeks later that another funny thing happened. I was browsing in a bookstore, killing time, waiting for a friend, when this book fell off the sale table. I picked it up, glanced at the cover, read the back blurb and bought it. While watching TV the next day, I idly reached for it and started reading. The book was The Pilgrimage, by Paulo Coelho. It was about an old trail that pilgrims used during the Middle Ages to get to some shrine in Spain called Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle St. James had been found back in the first millennium. People are still walking the trail to this day.
I don't know why. All I can say is that after reading the first three pages, I found tears running down my face, and I knew I had to walk this ancient pilgrim, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, all 800 kilometres of it. I was so fascinated by the possibility of walking across Spain on an ancient pilgrim's route. It was as if I’d been given a lifeline, one I sensed would pull me out of this dark valley, I had been lost in.
In the years that followed I found a way of giving shape to the dark path my life had taken me on, and began to articulate it in words beyond religion or simple optimism or even worldly cynicism. Began to find a way forward. Slowly the religious belief of my youth was transforming into a mature, insightful grasp of the human condition and the wisdom of being true to one's way. What came out of this was The PilgrimCards, a collection of meditations on life's journey that one reviewer called “a superb, creative resource for anyone desiring spiritual depth and growth. These reflections draw one inward with ease and clarity. Each card resonates with a part of the human heart that seeks integrity, strength, hope and resiliency. I highly recommend this set of cards for every pilgrim who has known the ups and downs of life's journey."
I believe the cards are the best thing I have ever written. They’ve
been used in rehab groups, praised by many, and spread around the globe
simply by word of mouth. (visit www.pilgrimcards.com)
It was always a challenge, even after years of lessons. My violin had no compunction about humbling me in public. Auditioning for a street festival, I became so nervous the bow started bouncing off the strings. I performed at a friend’s soiree, and even I could hear the scratchy, unmusical notes as my violin and I stumbled through a piece together. In the privacy of my room my fiddle and I would dance, and more than once I found myself transported into realms beyond words. But in public, as if ashamed to be heard with me, my violin would humiliate me.
Then one evening I was standing in front of two dozen Alzheimer's patients in a nursing home. I tucked my violin under my chin, in that casual way that Isaac Stern used to. I nodded to my accompanist, laid my bow on the strings, and a sweet, sad sound of days past filled the room. Forgotten dreams were remembered. I looked about me as the vacant eyes came back to life, and could hardly believe this was me, creating such magic. There was a blind lady in her nineties there, who obviously had an ear for music. She thrilled as I reached a high A on the E string, and shouted out in pure delight, “Wonderful, you play so wonderfully!”
At that moment I stood with Stern, Menuhin, Heifetz. With them I was playing to the peak of my ability before an adoring audience. And I knew it had all been worthwhile.
Like many other men, I have loved a woman for a great many years. Like some others, I have had the good fortune to have that loved returned. And as best I can without sounding too sentimental or maudlin, I’d like to tell you about it.
Just as I begin, I tell my wife what I am writing about, and she tells me to include all the difficult times. I get angry because I want to celebrate the good times that stand out against the bad times, and make the whole thing magical. But that’s just one viewpoint. Mine. Already I can feel myself off on a tangent that is central to our relationship. Being a Persephone, willing to live in the dark world, she has no difficulty with the dark moment. I, unable to tolerate such depths, want to sing of our days in the sunshine.
Let me begin again. Everyone enjoys a roaring fire, but the fires that, in my mind, are best are those that have died down a bit and glow deeply, giving off a greater warmth. Which is my way of saying that the colour and light of our romantic years have mellowed into something that is as rich and pleasurable as a late summer afternoon.
We sit at opposite ends of our old comfortable couch, which we should have replaced long ago. I think of it as sitting in opposite ends of a canoe, distant and safe from the wild creatures that prowl the shoreline. We turn off the television set, refuse to answer the phone, and talk with each other, of dreams the night before, of daytime angst and hurts, and other seemingly trivial things. I think of two animals preening each other, combing the other’s fur and scratching out-of-reach places.
Sometimes she reads, and I watch her, happy in her presence. Or, more honestly, delighting in her presence as I watch her, unobserved. So simple a thing, perhaps too ordinary, but for me, as I look across at the row of candles burning on the mantel over the fireplace, I am truly in love, and filled with such a deep contentment and joy that I feel I am about to become maudlin.
In bed, of course, there are intimate moments of pleasure when I feel like a teenager about to feast on earthly delights. But most times there is simply the evening ritual of whispering to the other the question du nuit: “Huggee or hugger?” And we fall asleep front to back or back to front, depending on the whim of the moment, and drift off in that bliss of falling asleep in the arms of the beloved.
And there are the not infrequent trips to a local bistro where we enter into the drama of the rendezvous. I arrive early. Always early, to sip a glass of wine and wait in eager anticipation for her arrival. Such an exquisite waiting! Will she come? Will she be happy to see me? Have I worn the right shirt? The foreplay of the rendezvous is climaxed by her appearance in the doorway. God, what a beautiful woman, I think to myself, and rise to greet her with a kiss, to be rewarded by her breathtaking smile.
And that brings to mind her laugh. Such a laugh! I feel like I’ve won a lottery every time I make her laugh.
I know I need to stop, but I can’t, not now. There are times, and I can’t predict them... Once when we were watching a sunset, I turned to her. Once when we were at a wedding, I saw her face. Once when she was weeding in the garden, she looked at me. At those times her features take on a radiance, as if I am seeing the beauty of her soul. Or is it simply the sheer radiance of her being? Or am I seeing her through the eyes of a lover?
For that moment I know beyond all doubt that I am one of the luckiest men in the world. I have been blessed with one of life’s greatest gifts. I love this woman in ways I was never able to years ago, and somehow I sense there is still more to this thing called love – more that will unfold in the years ahead.
I look up and there she is, standing with beckoning arms, and we dance out through the kitchen, down the hall and back again. And I am suddenly transported back to the old Palais Royale, where I met her... and discovered we danced together like I couldn’t with anyone else.
And as for a
happy ending, while
spring segued into summer, eventually the television got fixed, my wife
home, and we enjoyed a second honeymoon, most of it in Spanish.
Now, many years later, I'm sitting in front of the fireplace with some friends, about to add a log to the fire. We
are in one of those mellow moods, reminiscing about our lives: the
times we worked together to build The Willow, a magnificent house in
the country where as a community we would have our therapy group and
celebrate our lives, the long talk into the night in house groups. Now
distant enough from the upsets of that time, we laugh at our mistakes,
realize how in hindsight so many of the wrong turns turned out to be
the right ones.
And so my story ends...
A year after writing this story, I have had some time to reflect on where I am in my life. I see now that my old life is over.
Indeed, my journey is over; it is completed. I am happy and feel fulfilled with my life. I have arrived at the sacred city, at pilgrimage's end. In a sense I am in Santiago de Compestella, the holy city that ends the Camino de Santiago. However, there is a little further one can go. It is down to Finisterre.
Earlier pilgrims thought of this place as the end of the world as they knew it. They would shed their worn out boots and shred bare clothes and cleanse themselves in the sea. It is on this road beyond the pilgrim's route that I realize I have arrived at. I am happy and content. More than anything, I feel free in a way that I have never felt before.
Looking back over the stories I have written, I realize that I have captured this ultimate state of being in my short story, The Last Act... here.
It is a free, rich, and blessed time.
For more stories, see my book The Last Rites and
and my website www.austinrepath.com.
To contact me directly, please write email@example.com