Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Heading Home

Amos skied the Whistler mountain resort as often as he could. He’d drive up Highway #99 in the late afternoon. That twisting, coast and mountain-hugging drive was almost as much fun as skiing a slope in spots. He’d drive slowly through Squamish to the outskirts of the small town outside the Whistler resort. In the twilight, he’d find the dead end parkette he’d scouted out last summer and wrestle the large canvas tent out of his trunk, over the snow bank, and into the deep snow.

Getting the two centre poles between the eight foot cross bar up was like roping a calf in the deep snow. He’d lasso both poles then, holding both ropes, yank both poles with cross bar between into the air. Then he’d scurry to quickly peg the ropes deep beneath the snow into the icy ground swinging a hatchet out from his coveralls’ deep pockets. If he pulled too hard the whole thing would fall towards him to the ground. If he was too slow, the pole that wasn’t being pegged would yearn for attention and twist this way or that and fall to the ground pulling the centre bar out. When that happened, Amos would have to drop everything and begin the process all over again.

He’d work up a sweat by the time it was up and secure. Next he carried his bulky bed roll from the car, over the snow bank and laid it out inside. Two heavy blankets beneath a half decent sleeping bag and two more blankets on top. He’d bought the blankets at an Army Surplus. They were heavy mover’s blankets quilted with well sewn edges that wouldn’t fray.

The next trip was for the Coleman Stove and food pack. Only half of the eight man tent was up. The side with the door. In Toronto before heading west, he’d searched out a tailor down off of Spadina, in a basement shop, willing to put a new zipper on that door. He’d had to try many a shop before finding someone willing to take on his old canvas tent.

His family had inherited it from another family at church whose camping days were over. They’d used it on the great Canadian family car trek west and east in summers of his childhood. Amos had invested a hundred bucks into that new zippered door. The tent must have weighed close to a hundred pounds – with the steel poles for sure. Half the tent still gave him a 6’ by 8’ apartment. He could stand up at the centre poles and even the low side stood four feet tall where three poles held the corners and centre between two good sized screen windows with canvas flaps tied down against the wind.

He’d cook up a soup with noodles, or a pot of chili with crusty bread on the Coleman. Yes, he knew that running a Coleman stove inside was dangerous. But he’d keep the flaps open while cooking to draft the fumes. He’d read by lantern, spooning down his dinner along with Friedrich Nietzsche into the night’s fall. Even though he’d met his Lord, his friend Jesus, he wasn’t drawn to the scriptures.

The experience of Christ was still fresh with him. he was still living it – tasting it – savouring it anew with signs and signals in his every day that he wasn’t walking alone. A lyric from a song would strike him with meaning – a message lifted to his attention – to encourage. He’d notice and give thanks. A snatch of conversation in his cab – an encounter with a stranger was an angel’s lift or a devil’s test. An old alc-y could speak truth with a steady gaze piercing through the booze, A young lady’s subtle lie could twist him into seduction til he saw it for a cheap trick and could laugh it off. Sunlight breaking through the clouds and shining on his path across the Vancouver bridges wasn’t just nice scenery. It was his Maker letting him know he was on his way. He was noticing. Awake. Alive to the mystery present in every subtle and simple flow of moments strung together like pearls.

He didn’t want to spoil it – turn it into an academic exercise by reading about it. His days were holy scripture. The tent that had held his childhood family of five was now a lonely cocoon that he filled with great thoughts and questions of fate and future quests. How would he best serve his Lord? It had replaced the question “How would he make a living?” Now, instead of making the world work for him, he only wanted to work for the world’s hope.

Before climbing under the covers he’d strip down naked and go out into the frigid night for a pee. Lowering his skin’s temperature after stoking his stomach’s furnace was part of the winter camping strategy he’d picked up from library books. Diving in under the cold blankets, he’d wait for his body to warm their surfaces and begin holding it close to him. He was the heater. He was the source of the night’s comfort. He was the keeper of the fire that burned within – a sacred fire that required careful tending.

The next couple of days, he’d ski – systematically trying all the different hills those mountains offered – returning to the one’s that had beat him last time until he found his “line” to follow. He’d take a run for pure pleasure. Then he’d take on a hill beyond his skill level. Laughing, swearing, crashing, tumbling, collecting himself and his gear to begin again. He was competing against only his own sense of limitations and fears. He’d try to talk himself out of taking on that hill again. But, a courage kindled a confidence that gently led him back to the top of that hill – fear and fury stirring in his guts til he plunged down into the run letting out a wild war cry whoop – crazy for the thrill of finding a way down just beyond the edge of being in control. Tasting the place where body, mind and spirit synched with snow, slope and speed.

There was no one to pat him on the back if he did it. No one to notice the accomplishment. No one to prove a thing to. Just the man in the mirror. And the man unseen just behind – with his steady hand on Amos’ shoulder. Amos could see his grin in the snow blowing off the trees. Could feel his presence in the birds he shared his lunch with in a quiet snowy sunny spot away from the slopes.

The next week, he’d be up there again. Weekdays the line ups were thinner – and so were the cab customers – so he’d ski and ski. The evenings in the tent got lonely sometimes so he’d try out the Chalet scene. But he had no heart for it and the expensive drinks would cut into his skiing budget. He sought the company of people less and less and learned to enjoy the solitude of the green canvas walls, starlit sky, and blanket’s nest.

When Amos found that he could manage any and all of the hills to his satisfaction – dancing down even the most difficult in a style all his own - he knew it was time to test himself on whatever else the Rockies had to offer. This winter was his one chance to ski the Rockies. It wasn’t likely he would ever be rich enough to spend winter vacations skiing Rocky Mountain Resorts. He knew he wasn’t cool enough, or maybe care-free enough, to become a permanent fixture among the Mountain denizens.

Amos didn’t yet know what he would do, or where he would end up, but he knew that now was his chance to ski the Rockies – and he went after it with a puritan work ethic.

He found that he was getting settled in to life in Vancouver. He was beginning to actually know his way around the streets in his cab. Taking people where they wanted to go without asking them for directions or resorting to the map book, gave him a sense of propriety over the place. Almost like he belonged there.

Amos had a circle of friends now too; a girlfriend, and a soul brother in Danny who had given him much to carry and the muscle to carry it with. He could see that it would be easy to settle in and let some roots start growing in this fertile rainforest coast.

But it would be a transplant. He was an eastern species. His quest for meaning and purpose – the meaning and purpose for his life – wasn’t going to be found in the laid-back comforts of a Vancouver lifestyle. The new identity he was fashioning here wasn’t as important as the new sense of himself in his old shoes. The demons that chased him out here had been put in their places. He’d faced them and found he could walk strong among them without losing his way to their fearful diversions and distractions.

Besides, Vancouver was just too beautiful. It still seemed surreal to Amos. He felt that his fate lay somewhere in the cold, uptight, city streets of Toronto. They seemed more real and urgent and potent with trials waiting around the next corner. Toronto called him back to its centre like an electron back from the edge of its arc.

Goodbyes were always awkward for Amos. He felt like they were a test of friendship – how sincere, or insincere, would the pledges of staying in touch be? Let’s just say “so long” and leave it at that. He hated expectations of social ties he knew he’d lug around and never untie again. He was touched by sincere efforts to convince him to stay. But, his friend’s love was proven by their unselfish best wishes for him. They listened to him try to explain what was in his guts. They couldn’t understand it because Amos couldn’t either - really. It was just time to head home.

So, with as few promises as he thought he might keep, and some sincere words of thanks, with new rubber on his wheels (a deal from his new friend at the cab company’s garage), he left – heading east. It was a Sunday morning that he left Vancouver. On his way out of town he got the idea to stop at the skid row church in the East End that he'd been curious about but never yet visited. It was mid morning and he figured he’d have time to make the service.

It stood right on the southeast corner of Hastings and Main. The main crossroads of the downtown eastside. It was where the guys he’d pick up from Detox would want to be dropped. Where hookers and pushers and all kinds of folk footloose and free from society’s claims would cross paths. Amos was curious what kind of a church service he might find in the midst of such waters. He’d written a poem about Jesus in the alleys, helping junkies with their needles. He wondered if that kind of Jesus might be hanging out in there.

The service was in progress. He’d turned around on the sidewalk about three times between the car and the front door. Thinking it was dumb and a waste of time and what was he doing this for? Inside the front door he found an old man in an dark old suit. He put a bulletin into Amos' left hand and shook the other and left him to find his way into the sanctuary.

It was a large wide space. Two aisles ran between three rows and columns of pews up to a raised platform with oak railing and an empty choir loft. Silent brass organ pipes were the backdrop within a nave the size of whale's mouth. Over the nave was enscripted a banner that read “All ye who are weary, Come and I will give you rest.” The speaker who was introducing the next hymn stood - not up on the platform hidden behind the oak pulpit – but instead down on floor level, to one side, exposed behind a simple pine podium – a bookstand really with a single post to the floor. A piano accompanied the two dozen singers spread in bunches throughout the mostly empty pews.

The speaker had on a suitjacket and no tie. He looked like an ordinary young man of the cloth. No wild eyed street preacher. Not even a beard. Just a guy you might find working in an office downtown. He had a regular kind of voice. He gave a regular kind of message to a regular kind of Sunday morning crowd. There were no streetpeople in the pews. Amos was kind of disappointed by that. But not surprised when he thought about it. Sunday morning was for the good people.

There was an offering and Amos putting five twenties on the plate feeling large about it - making a thanks offering for what that city had given him. The closing hymn was all about moving on.
“I feel the winds of God today. Today my sail I lift.” In the last verse he discovered why he was there that morning. It spoke the vow he didn’t know was in him until he sang it.
If ever I forget your love
and how that love was shown,
lift high the blood-red flag above;
it bears your name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way,
you will not let me drift.
I feel the winds of God today;
today my sail I lift.

He lingered after the service. Said good morning to a few of the other worshippers. No one seemed much interested in him. All kinds of young guys must drift through there Sunday mornings he figured. Getting too friendly with them could cost you a five or a ten to send them on their way. He thought there might be an angel among them he was supposed to meet. But on his way out he realized he’d already been given the message he was looking for. So he lifted his sail and headed east mountain by mountain.

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