The Door Was Open
(The Story of My Life)
by
Austin Repath


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 Austin at sixover 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. Austin and fishBack 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.


Interesting how our perspectives on things and people change as we mature. At one time I saw my dad as someone who was never there for his son. But it was during the Depression, and he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, in a disreputable tavern in the west end of Toronto. Being that he was working from noon until midnight, of course I never got to see him, let alone get to know him.
       There was a time I resented the fact that he wasn’t there for me. And the few times that he was, he never hugged me or talked with me. He didn’t know about such things. A poor excuse for a father, I told my therapist; he agreed with me.
       It never dawned on me until years later that we were poor. It was the only job he could get to keep a roof over our heads. He was simply too tired and preoccupied to be the good father I had demanded he be.

       But now I am older and wiser, and realize what he did give me and what a good man he really was. Father and MotherI remember my older sisters saying how they wanted to marry a man like my father. I remember going over to the Rondun Hotel were my dad “slung beer,” and one woman telling me what a wonderful man my father was. “He gives respect to every woman no matter what kind she is, and he never swears,” she informed me. I realize now how much of this he passed on to me, not in words, but simply in the fact of who he was. I have been in a wonderful marriage for years, happy and in love with my wife, just like my dad was with my mother. I can see now that this respect and love for women is the biggest and best gift my father gave me.
       And in fairness, I think I was a disappointment as a son. My father, a baseball fan, gave up taking me to ball games when, after stuffing myself with hotdogs, I wanted to go home. “What a dumb game!” I remember saying to him. I guess now I can forgive him for never coming out to watch me play high school football.
       In truth I was my mother’s son, and my dad didn’t quite know what to do with me. But to his credit, he did find a way. When I was in my late teens, getting ready to go to university, he took a week off work. It was the summer I couldn’t get a job and was desperate to find some way to earn my university tuition. It was in late August, and my dad dragged me off to the race track. I couldn’t imagine anything more boring, but he showed me how to read the racing form, what to look for in a winner, how to bet the daily double, how to bet for place and show. By end of the week I had made my tuition fee.

       That summer, my father taught me how to gamble: knowing when to take a risk, when to cut your losses, never to renege on a bet and never ever bet the milk money. A skill that has proved useful throughout my life in ways I’m sure he never imagined.
       He was a man who kept his word and could be trusted. I came to sense this when I talked with some of the regulars I’d meet when I went over to see my dad at work. They use to tell me that he never spoke out against them, never fought with them, would even lend them a few bucks if they were really down on their luck. They respected his honesty and directness, and because of him I was given a certain respect myself. I was always introduced as Ernie’s boy. That carried weight. And I was proud to be his son.
       As I grew older I saw him as inept and old-fashioned, taciturn and clumsy. Yet now when I look in the mirror, or more often, when I hear myself laugh or greet a stranger on the street, I realize that I have become my dad. It is something I feel good about. In his way, he showed me how to be a good man. What more could a boy ask of his father?

 

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 Austin and railroadexcept 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. 

       At teacher's college I was trained to teach math and science. English was my worst subject. I had no idea what literature was. Poetry was a mystery to me. Grammar and spelling were simply a lost cause. And guess what? Through a fluke, or something that goes beyond explanation, I was given a full timetable of English. Help! With an extra three hours of preparation each night, I managed to 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 first year of teaching, I was so curious about this thing called literature that I decided to go back to university and take a degree in English.

Back in the classroom a few years later, I soon gained a reputation as being an outstanding teacher.
Austin as teacherOther teachers wanted to monitor my classes. I wrote a textbook on mass media that gained me a small degree of recognition, I was offered the chairmanship of the English department.

        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.


Yet she was the one who formed me and gave me much of what has made my life happy and successful. To begin with, she loved me. Maybe a little too protectively, but she loved me. One of my earliest memories was of my mother sitting with me in a huge upholstered rocking chair and reading to me from a large hardcover book that, if I remember rightly, I found in a neighbour’s garbage. It had pictures of knights on horseback riding across hills and vales, of what must have been the English countryside. “Read that story,” I’d say, pointing to a picture. She would read and rock until I fell asleep, nestled in her arms.
       When I was older, just entering my teens, I asked her to teach me to dance. She had once been a dance instructor, and our family’s one claim to fame was that we were all great dancers. She put on some music, a slow fox-trot, and stood me in the middle of the room. "You always start in the center of the room. You walk out to the center as if you were the star of the floor," she informed me. “Dancing is simply walking to the music,” she added. “And if you step on the girl’s toe, you should expect her to apologize, as her foot shouldn’t have been there.”
       We walked around the room to the music, my mother showing me how to lead. “You have to tell her which way you want to go, and you do this with one hand on her back and your hips against hers.” She put my hands where they should be. “Now make sure you signal me which way we go," and we danced around the living room. “There,” she said firmly. “The rest is up to you. That was my one and only dance lesson, but it was enough. Before the year was out, I had earned the reputation as the best dancer in the school.
       My mother had this knack of giving me the confidence that I could do anything and be anything I wanted,
a great attitude to go through life with. The downside was that I took her view of my abilities literally. I spent much of my life being greatly disappointed as my innate abilities, definitely average, never seemed able to deliver my expectations. Life proved far more complex and difficult than being the best dancer at high school sock hops. “If only, Mom, you had given me a little more sense of reality, my life would have been so much easier. Yet then I would never have tried so many marvelous endeavors, writing a novel, singing, playing the violin.”
       She hadn't bothered to tell told me the whole family was tone deaf, that we were ordinary folk. She never admitted that we were poor. She led me to believe that I would marry the princess, be the boss’s favorite, go from success to success. And so I led a life of spectacular expectations, never-say-I-can’t leaps into whatever adventure presented itself, and crushing, fall-on-my-head failures. "All of this I owe to you,
Mother Mom, and in truth I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way."
      Her simple Irish way of meeting life has stayed with me to this day. Once going off to the dentist, she informed me that she would start worrying about the pain the minute it started to hurt and not a moment before. I think I found that the most useful bit of advice she ever gave me. Even more precious, she showed me what it was like to live with a woman, that they were fun to be with, great to talk to. That a kitchen was a place to play, that ironing was an art, and that if you broke a piece of china, laugh.
       As I grew older, busy with a teaching career, looking desperately for a mate, my visits home became less frequent. I began so see my mom as talkative and possessive. I was secretly glad when she moved out west to live with my sister. My mother died out there unexpectedly. I wish now that before she left I'd told her what a special mother she was to me.
       What I have instead is a memory of a day shortly before she left. I had come by the house to show her my new motorcycle. She was old and frail, but she insisted that I give her a ride. As we rode through town, Mom sat behind me, a red kerchief around her head, one arm around my waist, the other waving at everyone along the street. I could tell she was imagining herself a young motorcycle moll wheeling down the street, one arm around her own private Marlon Brando. And Mom, for that moment, for you, I was.

 

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. Waterbearer coverHuman 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.


The next day I walked three times around the block. The next week I walked three times around five blocks. For the rest of the summer I walked every day, trying to build up my couch-potato muscles. I bought the best walking boots I could find. A friend lent me a backpack. Another friend insisted that I take his old raincoat. "You'll need it before the trip is over," he said. I argued that I would be walking through sunny Spain, but he won out.
       There was one additional thing I decided to take, despite the extra weight and the real possibility that it might break. A long time ago an uncle had given me an old violin. I’d learned to play, not too well, but enough to keep me company.
       I can still remember that first day, walking over the Pyrenees. It was a long hard route full of fog that hid the trail. I thought I'd get lost even before I started. Maybe it was those thousands of other pilgrims across the ages who had walked this way before me,
 who knows? Somehow my feet stayed on the path, and just in time for dinner I arrived at the ancient town of Roncesvalles, where the great warrior of my history books, Roland, had fought his last battle.
       In the weeks following, I trekked up glorious hills covered with tall trees, through lush farmland with vineyards almost as old as the hills themselves. I walked through small villages with cobblestones, cattle in the street, chickens all about, and at every house door (fortunately, tied up) a barking dog. Day after day as I walked, the sun beamed down, with never a drop of rain. The only useless item in my packsack was that raincoat.
       Every evening, I would arrive at a refugio
– special places where pilgrims can stay overnight, sometimes in monasteries. I remember one old monk giving us a delicious garlic soup for dinner. On a few nights when I wasn't too tired, I'd bring out my violin and play some of my favourite pieces. I couldn't speak a word of Spanish, but the music made me feel like I was part of the conversation, and my fellow pilgrims would clap and shout "Bravo!"
       I began to lose my pot belly; my muscles grew stronger. I walked farther each day. People began to wave at me as I passed along the road. At first I wondered why. Then I realized that I wasn't a tourist, not even a stranger. I was one who had been walking through their village for centuries. I was the pilgrim.
       And slowly I began to see like a pilgrim. To see that everywhere I looked, in even the smallest town, there was not just a church, but a cathedral, a beautiful ornate structure that had taken generations to build. A father had laid the foundation, his son and his son's son had built the walls, and their children had put on the roof. I was struck by the power that emanated from these works of art, shrines built with love and dedication and belief. I learned how to travel light, help other pilgrims and not damage or hurt anything along the way.
       My memories are of early mornings full of joy and gratitude at being alive. I found myself filled at times with a warm feeling of goodwill to everyone I met. Was this what it meant to be a pilgrim? Then came the day when that heavy burden proved its worth. I was nearing the end of the pilgrimage when it started to rain. But, thank God, I had my raincoat.
       One morning after a heavy rainfall, the sun came out, and I opened my raincoat, and was amazed at what I saw in front of me. Pilgrim posterHardly believing my eyes, I pulled out my camera and took a picture of my shadow cast upon the road. But it wasn't just my shadow. What I saw there on the road was the image of the pilgrim, complete with hat, staff and cloak. It was as if I was seeing myself for the first time.
       I arrived in Santiago de Compostela on November 1st, All Saints Day. And five days later, I returned to Canada. On arriving home, I showed an artist friend the photo of my shadow. Inspired, she blew it up and put it on a poster, which currently is hanging in offices and schools across the country.

 

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)

Along with struggling through this dark current of depression and cynicism in this part of my life, I managed to come upon bright moments of happiness and promise. I became an accomplished writer and storyteller
Austin writing. (Listen to my favourite story, The Last One.) And with great persistence, despite being tone deaf, as I mentioned, I learned to play the violin well enough to experience a true Isaac Stern moment.

       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.

 
The brightest, happiest thing of all was when I met a woman with a wonderful laugh, and a smile that melted my gloomy outlook. We talked about everything, laughed at ourselves and one day admitted that we loved one another. I realize that millions of people do experience this every day. But for me it was the fulfilment of a deep lifetime longing, to love and be loved.
       A few years ago I found myself writing a Valentine piece for a national newspaper. I needed to tell the world how lucky I was. I couldn't contain myself. I wanted to proclaim my good fortune and love. “A Valentine's Day Tribute to Love” was published in the 
Globe and Mail on February 14, 2002.

 

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. MarilynI 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.

 
For the last thirty-five years I have been blessed with her presence, as we shared our lives 
and Austin&Marilyn-on couchexperienced how love changes one profoundly. It opened me up to my humanity, my weaknesses, my fragility, and silly fun moments. Getting ready to go out to a movie, I walk by the open door of our bathroom. Marilyn has just stepped out of the shower and is toweling herself off. "Hurry up," she says. "You have five minutes to stare." I retrace my steps and stare. "I said you have five minutes to spare, not stare." She shakes her head in disbelief. "Time you got a hearing aid." "Why?" I ask, and we laugh. The dance goes on!

And so do our lives as we continue to grow and expand. For example,  unexpectedly, I found myself taken to an even more profound level as I learned how to love in a fuller, wider context. It happened almost overnight, and came about by a series of “accidents,” if there are such things. Marilyn, wanting to learn Spanish, went off to Cuba on a six-week study program. Being a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, I opted to stay home.
       Right after she left, several odd things happened. Our TV set, only a year old, broke down. The following day the telephone went dead. My internet connection was severed. So there I was, alone in a silent house. Feeling lonely and cut off from the world, and wanting to amuse myself, I went out to an afternoon screening of The Golden Compass, a film starring Nicole Kidman, one of my favourite actresses.
       The movie turned out to be an adaptation of the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels for young adults, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Arriving home after seeing the film, I picked up a newspaper, and an article caught my eye about how a local Catholic school board had banned Pullman’s books from school libraries, claiming they were anti-religious.
       Book censorship has always been a hot-button issue with me. So off I went to buy the trilogy, which turned out to be a simple read, somewhat like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I promptly set to devouring all three books.
       The aspect that kept me engrossed in the trilogy was a mysterious substance the author called "dust":
  a kind of cosmic energy that creates its own special atmosphere. I imagined it like stardust. Not only were the protagonists in the novels continuously searching for it and struggling to obtain it, but "The Authority" was trying to squash it. For some reason I saw this dust as love.
       Another idea that I took from the book was that love dust could be generated by the heart. This also intrigued me. I was familiar with the concept of opening your heart as a vessel for love 
cosmic love, divine love, whatever but to imply that a human heart could manufacture love the same way a dynamo generates electricity was a new and tantalizing possibility.
       I started to spend my evenings seeing if I could generate this kind of love. I’d begin by doing some simple tai chi, moving my arms upward and downward, imagining that I was drawing up the energies of the earth, then pulling down light energy from the sun and the stars. I had images of water flowing up from a deep well in the earth, and light streaming down from the sun. I expanded my vision, picturing the elements of land and sky, heaven and earth, matter and spirit
all the raw energies of life and the universe swirling and gathering together, held within a crucible of human intent. I pictured these primal elements flowing into my heart,  transformed into a veritable fountain of love energy, a glittering golden “dust” that streamed out from me into the world.
       Several times a day, more an experiment than anything else, I found myself doing this exercise for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. It helped that I had the whole house to myself and absolutely no distractions. Each time I repeated the process, I carefully observed my reactions. My chest cavity would warm and a pleasurable sensation would move out from my heart area, until my whole body was humming, my fingertips tingling. It felt good.
       Soon I was sending out this love energy, this emission of "love-dust,” to all my friends. I envisioned it filling the living room, the house, the neighbourhood. I imagined it as a gift, with no strings attached. Anyone open to it was free to use it according to his/her own wisdom.
       So that was how I spent my time, like a solitary monk in his cell,
reading, for his own enlightenment, a children's novel. Then getting up and sending out heart energy like a golden light to all who wanted it.
       Meanwhile, with mounting frustration, I battled with the telephone company, trying to get reconnected to the world. After three weeks of running up the street to the public phone at the corner drugstore, making call after call, I finally got a serviceman to come fix the line.
       Shortly after that I found a surprising message left on my answering machine. Jeff, a former student whom I’d mentored from time to time over the years and more recently has become a good friend, had driven by my home. Not something he ever does, he reported in an excited voice. But for some reason he'd found himself compelled to do so and couldn’t believe his eyes.
       As he drove down the street, my friend had seen a golden, radiant light pouring out the windows, out of every crack and cranny of the house. He was amazed and wanted to know what was going on, and ended by saying that as he drove by he’d felt a “hit” of love like he had never experienced before.
       I knew Jeff was extremely intuitive, perhaps one of the few people I’ve ever met who could have picked up on such a phenomenon. That he’d seen my house awash in brilliant light, standing out from all others on the street, was amazing to me, and a powerful confirmation that something was happening in my meditations,
something extremely unusual. I was galvanized by his response. (Listen to Jeff's phone message here.)
       In the weeks and months following my “retreat,” I came to believe it is possible for the heart to create this kind of love. Just as humans evolved into thinking beings, with a brain able to generate ideas, it seems we might be evolving a heart that can generate love energy. Or maybe we always had it, and just didn’t know how to use it.
       Not romantic, parental or brotherly love per se, but a cosmic kind. The classic icon of the "sacred heart of Jesus" comes to mind
Christ Sacred heart statuestanding with his arms wide, his heart open, pouring out love to the world. He is often quoted as saying “What I can do, you can do likewise.” This seemed as close as I can come to finding an image that fits what I was experiencing.
       I found, in fact, that people were relating to me differently, and the neighbourhood seemed much friendlier and more at peace. Maybe I was just more open and accepting, I don’t know. However, I felt that things were definitely better. I couldn’t prove that love energy released into a community would change it, but the suspicion that it might was intriguing.
       And I often find myself wondering if, at this moment in time, this particular evolutionary development has become imperative for the very survival of our species. Never before in history have we humans seemed to need such a crucial ability:
to generate love. I continue to experiment with the process.

       And as for a happy ending, while spring segued into summer, eventually the television got fixed, my wife came home, and we enjoyed a second honeymoon, most of it in Spanish. 


It’s been five years since my six-week “retreat.” Sometimes I’ve dismissed what happened during that time as an imaginary phenomena brought on by my isolation. However, I have gradually come back to a daily practice of going through the process, stirring my heart and calling up the energies of earth and matter, of light and spirit, and using these raw elements to generate love energy sending it out into the world.
       During the fifteen minutes or so that it takes to complete the exercise, I feel my chest warm and my hands start to glow and radiate. And as always, it feels good.  Often I sense that a flood of energy is pouring out of my chest.  So much about love and this process remains a mystery to me. I have no hard evidence or proof that it has any affect whatsoever on people or the world.. However, I go out to people with an open heart, expecting a moment of connection. Maybe because of this, I sense that individuals I meet are more open towards me. I know that  in a certain way, everything is different.
       Lately I have a sense that my life is coming full circle. After years of doing these love exercises I sense that I am different. Not all the time, but often enough to acknowledge this new self is not just an illusion. It’s as if I carry a loving presence, and beam out love to everyone I sense is open to this energy. I make eye contact with strangers. Those who smile or return the look get a dollop of love. More often than not strangers are willing to chat. And so each foray out onto the street, the bus, the subway becomes a joyful task of engagement.  It’s almost as if in some small way I’m approaching my youthful aspiration to become a saint. Something in this light-filled, loving stance satisfies that early longing.
       Something has changed with my friendships as well. Many mornings since I retired, I’ll meet various close friends in a restaurant for Austin-breakfastbreakfast. (See My Breakfast Club.) Over the years this has evolved into almost a ritual, something far more and much deeper than I could have imagined. We meet one on one, in communion over our bacon and eggs. I confess I shape the conversation, and most who sit opposite me seem willing to follow my lead. Rants of any kind, about bosses, mates, government, whatever, I limit to one minute, a bit longer it they are fun or amusing. No discussion of politics or sports, but weather is allowed. If they they have a personal connection, movies are more than acceptable.
       Mostly we drop into the dimensions of our lives, sharing back and forth the pain, the richness, the meaning, the purpose, the lack of, whatever we are about at this moment that’s important to us. In most cases, we find ourselves in a rich place of sharing, a time that is real and human and caring. It is a place where we’re safe, and can bring as much of ourselves as we’re in touch with to the table, which is made sacred as a result. Here is revealed and shared the mystery of our lives.
      Over the years the routine has become expected, anticipated. Every four to six weeks, I phone each of them and arrange a time and place. If I don't call, they do, wanting to know when we can get together. Several of them have commented on how important these interludes are to them. A few have said they see me as a mentor. (Read Letter to a Friend.)  
      Someone who knows my past proclaimed that she saw me as a secular priest administering to his charges. Somehow that feels right. These encounters have a quality of ritual, in which we create and share a real moment of communion. Inside my head I want to whisper, "Hey, Mom. Look what I have become! Not quite a priest in the way you wanted, but one just the same."

One more of those childhood dreams also came true. That cabin set from Santa became real
– a small cabin deep in the woods next to a Cabin-exteriorroaring trout stream, complete with stone fireplace, a sleeping loft and a wood stove. Many years ago, out fishing, I came upon this log cabin that could have come out of a Disney movie, it was so perfect in every way. I felt as if it was just waiting for me to find it. The door was open. I stepped inside to find it was fully furnished:  Hudson Bay blankets on the bed, knives and forks, even Christmas tree decorations. It had the feeling that the owner had just walked out the door, and left the door open for me.
       There was a For Sale sign on the table. By nightfall I was the new owner
– charged, I instinctively felt, to maintain the sacredness of this hideaway. And it was sacred. We found out later that the previous owners, a loving couple, were buried on the hill behind the cabin, and their energy still blessed the place.

 

Now, many years later, I'm sitting in front of the fireplace with some friends, about to add a log to the fire. Cabin-interiorWe 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.
       Marilyn, my wife, goes out to the kitchen, and the comforting smell of a roasting chicken almost ready to eat completes my sense of well-being. We gather around the table, drink wine, eat, share.
       After we've said our goodbyes to our friends, Marilyn and I chat about the events of the day, until we find ourselves as we often do embracing our journey together, actualized in our Camino walk (the second time for me) in Spain. It is the easy chitchat of two who have traveled far together, both of us once again amazed and pleasured by the deep affection we have for each other. And then not unexpectedly we drop into that sacred place that the cabin opens out onto.
       Over the years the cabin has taken on the sense of a mystical place, a threshold
Austin-cabin-wineto a realm untainted by complicated human society, a world primitive and wordless. It takes a few days of falling asleep lulled by the sound of the rapids just below the cabin, waking to the chatter of birds, and then you’re taken further into an endless source of being that removes all fear of the unknown, calms you until you find yourself blessed with the peace of being one with the great current of life itself.
       I go out onto the porch, look upstream at the pines leaning out over the water, and let my imagination replay once again my cabin fantasy. About a hundred yards up, the river makes a sharp curve. I wait, knowing it is inevitable that it will happen. Hawkeye and his faithful Indian companion, Chingachgook, come paddling furiously around the bend, pursued by a war canoe filled with shouting Iroquois. I don’t worry. Hawkeye and his friend will escape. They always do.
       Tonight, however, I find myself fantasizing a slightly different version. There is no war party behind them. Quietly, with scarcely a sound of paddles entering the water, they turn their canoe around so that it is facing upstream. Carefully, they feather their canoe up against the large rock at river's edge and sit silent, waiting.
       I go back inside and embrace Marilyn for what seems like an eternity. Then, aware that I am clad in a velvet-soft deerskin jacket, I tread swiftly in my moccasins down to the rock. They make a place for me in the canoe. It is almost dark.   

River at cabin


I feel
them push off into the current. I cannot see what lies ahead, but sense that there is something special just around the bend. I’m filled with a fullness and joy.



And so my story ends...

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Postscript

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 thepilgrim@look.ca