Secular Tithing

February 4th would have been my dad’s 88th birthday. It is almost two months since he left us…and has left me thinking about him. About his way of being in the world.

When Dad had his first bit of pay in hand, so many years ago, he took one-tenth of it and gave it to his church. And with every paycheque following, through his entire life. In the Bible, it’s called “tithing.”

He tended to have conflicts with churches, and he would go through times of keeping his study of the Bible and his worship personal, and retreat from the more public practice of attending a bricks-and-mortar. At such times, he would bank his tithe in a special account or donate it to missionaries. His grandparents had been missionaries, and the role of missions was critical to him. So over his years of earning, he supported missions, missionaries, their children, their schools. He supported an airplane pilot in Indonesia, and a Bible School in Brazil, and behind the iron curtain radio ministry, as well as broadcasting elsewhere with the message that meant so much to him.

In the 80s–so long ago now it seems–I was earning not much more than minimum wage, but I remember wanting to buy unbleached paper. It was significant to me; I used so much paper. I always needed hard copy for writing my stories. I couldn’t think and type. I wrote long hand for first drafts, and then typed and then used a computer for later drafts. I was constantly buying and using paper, and the process of making that clean white stuff disturbed me. But at that time, it was new technology to create a product that was a bit less harmful for the environment, and it cost so much more. Much like buying organic food does now, or clothing not created in places of workplace horror.

I remember paying the extra, for dingy clay-coloured paper. And I remember thinking this is what it is to believe this is just right. Money where mouth is and all.

Secular tithe. Supporting what matters to one.

I couldn’t help but notice this past month, accumulating numbers for my taxes, the amount I’ve spent on music in the past year. Not much, really. Depending on how you look at it. A month of Vancouver rent for one or two co-habiting musicians, is what it would amount to. Add with local bands, the funds going to the restaurants and bars that host the musicians… maybe another month of rent. Maybe a food bill.

How much to bookstores. Small independents… My rule for buying second-hand books has been this: the author must be rich or dead. Small number for the first group, bigger options for the second. But alive and broke? Buy new. Watch the books you buy: if there’s a black marker slash across the bottom, it’s not a book from which the author will see earnings. (Is that another post? Do you know how this works?)

What you want to eat, drink, read, see, hear–tithe and buy. On a mission.




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Tree cut

On my way to teach I drive through Kitsilano, along Beach Avenue, and then 4th. Second day of teaching in the new year, less than a month since Dad passed away.

And I see this:

Look closely and you’ll see at least four seats with reclining backs cut into these tree trunks. When it’s not grey and pouring rain–as it was in early January–you can sit back and look up at the stars…I’m guessing. I’ll have to return on a clear night. With a friend or two or three.

My first thought, when I saw this, was that I’d have to share it with Dad. He has a thing about big trees, and enjoying them for years, and then taking them down once they get too old. But not like most would. No. He creates picnic places and magic when he does this. Here are Dad’s trees:

When I passed the tree by the beach, I didn’t stop. I continued, took the corner onto 4th Avenue, found myself looking at the clock; I’d been hoping to get to work early to allow my brain time to pull together the last threads before a lecture, and the energy I need for that.

If I were to stop, I’d have less time. Yet even as I drove on, my thoughts were stopped at that tree, and words were coming in to my head about it. These words. I realized that if I took the next right, and the one after that, I’d end up back at the tree. How long could it take, I thought, to get out of my car, walk through the rain, take the pic, and get back in? Would it really make me late?

So I turned and did just that. Took a half dozen photos from various angles, and was a bit wet when I climbed back into the warm car.

The clock said I’d spent a mere seven minutes. And I arrived in my office no later than I’d planned anyway.

I wrestle with teaching. I teach what I love to do; I teach writing. But teaching writing, and writing, are not the same things. They both bring different types of energy to me. And the energy that sustains me, and has through the past few years–in particular, beginning with the journal I kept while my spouse was ill–is the energy that comes from writing. That is the energy I need to feed myself before anything else can happen.

It’s like the yellow oxygen mask that is supposed to fall out of the compartment overhead if an airplane is going down; you’re supposed to do it for yourself first, before others.

So I took the right turn, got the pictures, and am now writing the words that began to churn through my mind. And I notice that the above words about my dad and his love of whimsical tree cuts are in present tense. So maybe there is another reason to have done this, and even to write.

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Needed: one Crowbar…

No one told me that if you move to the suburbs to raise your children, there is a strong likelihood you will need a crowbar at some later point.

Shortly after my spouse passed away, I received an invite to a neighbour-friends’ party. The town I lived in was small, and I rode my bicycle to the party because my role as designated driver had come to an end, I’d decided. There was no one to designate, and I was weary of responsibility. Cabs are things you have to wait for in a small town. And I didn’t want to wait or to walk. Drink and ride, like a teenager, was a choice. And there was something about stowing a six-pack in the grocery basket over the back wheel that made me feel like Angela Lansbury cutting out. Yes, I put teenager and Lansbury in two sentences back to back.

Even the people who had invited me were surprised when I turned up. And when I spoke rather easily about my spouse, his passing, the months of care-giving…I’m not sure how people took that. It seemed to me that there was some element of relief; we could talk about it. Mostly, it seemed, people were happy to see me. I was happy to be out of my house, my house that had become hospital and hospice, locus of grief. Just as music supported me, the sounds of partying were capable of holding me up and carrying me. People, life. Silence, too, had a significant role, and I sought out hours of it. But music and human connections became vital. (Maybe this is that “music hag” blog entry I promised in my last…)

That was before my realization that, living in the burbs, I was going to soon need that (mental) crowbar to wrench people from their couches.

That party was one of few invites. After that evening, it became up to me to contact people and say, “Hey! So-and-so is playing at the pub. Do you want to meet and dance?” In the initial months, some brave folks went with me. Maybe I wore them out, going to three venues in a single evening, following the music of friends.

More and more I heard the answer: “I’m already settled in for the night…” (eh? it’s 7:34…) More and more I found myself climbing into my corolla and heading into the city. More and more often, on my own.

I began to study real estate sites, looking to see what was in the city. For what could I trade my 2600+ rambley huge house? A 600 square foot condo with a $450/month maintenance fee…that might, randomly, go up? I went and prowled around on a Saturday, looking at everything in my price range. Nothing. I didn’t want to live at 30th and Main. I wanted to be IN the city. By my definition, anything that required more than my feet to get places was a burb. I’m going home, I’ve done my time… That’s how I felt about returning to the city after two dozen years.

Then one day up popped an 1184 square foot half duplex, with wood stove, detached garage (insulated and finished, it turned out, perfect for a son with friends at music school), no maintenance fee… I knew the photos were exaggerated. The living room appeared to be able to hold three elephants. The kitchen could host the last supper. In reality, maybe an elephant foot fit. And the table could be pulled away from the wall for Christmas dinner. It was perfect. Strathcona, east side of Vancouver, walking distance to the Drive, the old Railway Club, and The Pat Pub, house of jazz, blues, and good beer.

I went to see the place one night, along with twenty other people, most of whom bid, and all I outbid. I knew it was my place. I could leave my crowbar behind.


I bought with no subjects and a lot of faith on May 30, and sold my home June 12. In little more than a week I cleared out enough to hold a weekend open house. I left no less than six bookshelves at the end of my driveway, carted off by neighbours. Several dressers went. Old tools, garden implements. Boxes of who-knows disappeared into my mom’s storeroom. One room was painted. Clutter was gone.

But after it sold began the real process of getting rid. In the end, I estimated 70% of everything I owned was distributed to the neighbourhood via the driveway—a constantly changing pile, the thriftshop (I had to begin to sneak in bags and boxes full after closing), varagesale, and the process of finding homes for things that meant something and deserved to be given: an ancient ventriloquial figure (with the correspondence course I’d taken at age fifteen) found a perfect home with home-schoolers with Children’s Hospital performing ambitions. An old flute found a similarly suitable home.

In the end, all that was left fit in one moving truck and two carloads. I had a new home where everything had its place. That had become my criterion: can I envision this in an exact place? If not, it was out.

I had no grass to mow. I had no more decorative jugs to line up. I had empty spots on my bookshelf. For every piece of furniture I kept, at least two went. Maybe four.

I was delighted to discover that the living room rug I had bought a year or so earlier, too small for my old home, was just the right size for the new one. That the one book case I did keep, made by my dad, fit perfectly on the stair landing.

What I didn’t know, at the time I moved in, was that the most significant change in my life that would come as a result…was the Gift of Time.

Not that I spent much time Taking Care of My Stuff. (Do you hear George Carlin’s voice in that phrase?? ) At least, I hadn’t thought I did. I dusted…never. But somehow less stuff equals more time. How is this? (Try it.)

At the end of the first year of living in my new home I had completed a 250+ page memoir of my time care-giving. Written a new picturebook. Completed the writing of another about to be published. And I’d—finally—completed a lengthy novel for teens that I have been working on for far too long. I can’t remember when I last wrote so much. If ever.

Emotional crowbar at play.

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“music makes you smarter” is the hardwood floor…

Here: Imagine a visual of a doctor’s prescription note. Written on it:

MUSIC (must be Live!)  3 X week minimum

Dancing — daily.

That’s about right for me now. I experience a feeling of restlessness when I need Music. So much so that after texting or contacting a few friends, if no one can go with me, I go by myself. It’s not a bad thing to take myself out for an evening; I’m good company. I meet people who do interesting things, and make new friends. The music world is not a huge one. Though there are wonderful layers to it. I like doing my piece to support it, because it supports me, and most of such mutual support is Being There.

Like a writer without a reader–arts needs people to be there. To listen and hear, to watch and see.

As a writer and as a human, I need to experience, and I need for experience to be raw and full-on. That is the basic ingredient of art. (Though it’s easy to say I’ve had more than my share of raw and full-on these past two years.) It’s as if I need more of a different type of raw/full-on to mitigate or balance; maybe that’s why there’s the drive for music and dance in my new life. Not that they didn’t exist in my old, but the intensity at which I need–and I do say NEED–is fentanyl-level. (I use that word as I became conversant with that drug and my spouse’s need for it to see him to his end.) But I am loathe to medicate my experience, though I am fully aware that I could be on any number of meds to navigate post care-giving and grief. I do believe that grief is a normal part of life, and needs to be lived through, whatever that looks like. And I know those are provocative words. And more and more, I deeply believe it’s my bloody job to BE provocative. Let’s step outside, come to blows, and then go back in for a beer…is how I’m coming to see the artist’s role… So… onward:

When people post those wimpy pieces about how music makes children smarter, and how that is the reason for music lessons, I cringe, I feel angry, I feel sad. It’s as if someone looks at a visual masterpiece, and then comments on the nice hardwood floor in the gallery…really!?

So thoughts, and my list of reasons why music should be in all our lives.

1. Music goes with everything — from morning shower, to homework, to making love, to warding off road-rage…there is Sinatra, and reggae, and Foo Fighters, and of course jazz in all its iterations…. And there’s always the volume. And there’s Spotify. And there’s no excuse.

2. Music is a good indicator of capacity for life. If you don’t like music, you are probably dead; check your pulse, or ask someone to do it for you. Use it in your on-line dating profile to weed out people-to-avoid.

3. Music creates a living wall between you and bullshit. When you’re sitting on the right side of a band, on the other side is the office and the laundry and the bedroom, and the rest of your life…and all you need to think about is the notes and maybe the voice. And when to clap to say thank you.

4. Music is root canal filling for the soul. Take the small notes and begin to push it into the corners (souls have those, along with wrinkles and folds), and fill it and fill it–fill it well to avoid infection. Sometimes, most times, infection is warded off with alcohol–though if one has issues with this, music will do the job on its own. But fill and pack it in–you know how the dentist does it–grabbing your jaw, levering, bearing down… Let the music do its work. And as it does, it pushes out the bad. Leaves you with some serious chompers to eat up life.

5. Music creates wonder. And “wonder is respect for life.” (Wm. Steig quote) Music gives you reverence and irreverence, version and inversion. Respect creates integrity. Connect the dots.

6. In case you didn’t understand that last one–because I know I don’t always make sense at first–music helps you remember who you are. If you listen. That would be the “smart” piece right there…because 13 years of elementary and secondary education SHOULD help you learn who you are, but too often takes you further from that knowledge. Music will take you back to that place

7. Music will help you remember others and who they are, too. This works even if you aren’t a “musician”–as in “one who can play an instrument with others who can play instruments.” (part of how I define “musician”)

8. Playing music alone and/or with others, or listening, focuses you. It focuses me, anyway. When I’m playing (piano or my dad’s old sax), I can’t think about anything else; if my mind wanders, so do my fingers. In this, music is meditation. It fixes my mind on itself.

9. Music is so much more fun than prozac, effexor, and the dozens of other synthetic options. If it’s not enough for you, then mix with a cocktail of dance.

10. Music is… this will come. More to learn…

Note 1: Buy the band a round of beer. Just do it. It’ll make you feel good.

Note 2: If people label you groupie, just smile and correct: junkie will fit, thanks. Or music hag.

Music Hag: that’ll be another post…

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the sharpest corner

I’ve neglected my blog. No, not neglected. Life has had many turns and a few sharp corners.

I re-read my post about our wonderful old dog, and that seems like so long ago. Just some months after that, I was re-hired to teach in the creative writing program at UBC, and I am happy to be back.

I’ve had two books published in this time: one is a nonfiction book of “lists” about mental well-being (happy-making stuff) for young people ages 9-10. This was a first, working with an educational publisher. It’s a slim little thing with few words. I wanted for it to open thoughts for those who don’t like a lot of words, and/or do like a lot of thoughts! And the second book is a ghost-written Boxcar Children book set at the Calgary Stampede. I enjoyed the research. And spending time in the city with my pal Amy, and cousins Gwen and Mike.

But 17 months ago a very sharp corner came, and my spouse was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Most people with ALS live for 3-4 years, but in Martin’s case, he passed away this past April. Except for 26 hours at GF Strong for his feeding tube installation, he was at home. My boys helped me to care for him. We have a wonderful GP who visited our home like an old-time doc, and the community health nurses and occupational therapist and physio were amazing. Our community of neighbours and friends carried us through months. They raised funds so we could renovate our downstairs. They organized and attended (and had fun!) at a huge event with multiple bands and auction items. And they brought food. I cooked twice in the last 12 weeks. and never had too much or too little, even though no one consciously organized the contributions. It’s just how it worked out; that seems like a miracle to me. Some days I’d open my front door for air, and there would be a foil-covered dish with a card left on the front step. Or a jar of home-made soup. Friends came and spent evenings with Martin so I could go to my flamenco classes for as long as I possibly could.

Family and relatives visited and took part in the care-giving, too. My brothers and nephew designed and got the new bathroom set up with contractors, and built ramps and access. Others cleaned, put food in the freezer… Martin’s brother came twice from Saskatchewan and made him laugh; that was good. (One of the most significant symptoms with ALS is emotional lability: you cry easily and hard, but you can laugh the same, too.)

We had a tribute service at the end of April, and it was all about stories and music. Guitars covered the stage and toward the end, those who can play got up and grabbed one and played along with Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. We closed with a New Orleans-style second line–musicians leading out of the church into the sun playing instruments.

I still hear the line: Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cus every little thing gonna be all right…

Through corners, I hold on. Even through this. Somehow. Sometimes I’ve closed my eyes. But I have to keep my ears open for the music. It’ll keep my heart open.


Marty and Cousin Gwen – August 2015

Centennial Beach



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