photo by Demetra Penner

When I came around the corner, and the pavement was still wet with rain, and the sun had not yet risen, and the sky was grey anyways, I saw the small, tufted body of an owl, lying light on the shoulder. I stopped the car and went to her. I went to her, but I did not know what to do. A few feathers stirred listlessly in the wind. Her cheek was to the ground. Her eyes stared out like golden orbs, dimly reflecting the last moments of her life. I had not been the one to kill her — though in my own car, had I been driving twenty minutes earlier, I could have been. I stooped in the dull, early-morning light, waiting, and then I left.

Too often, I do not know what to do. Death makes a humble request for ritual, and I drive away, fumbling blindly for a response more appropriate than abandonment, until my hope for an answer wanes, and so too does my grasping. I can see, with grace, my good intention: to mourn, which is not merely to take on a shroud of sadness, but to recognize my kinship with both the owl and death. That is, perhaps, enough. Ever since I was a child I have felt compelled to do more, but I have never known what more to do. When I was young, I felt it strongly even for the smallest creature, fallen from its nest or crushed on the pavement. Now, I feel it only faintly when I pass the corpses of crows, and skunks, and even the deer, who are all so common on our highway shoulders. But the owl brought me back all the way. I had watched her, or her likeness, only two days before, hunting from the tops of telephone poles a little ways north — a harbinger of death, yet without malice. She ignored me, rapt as she was in her concentrated gaze, the games she played with the field mice and the voles scurrying through the tall grasses. Death served her as she met the ground, and when I found her two days later, Death had served her once again.

Is good intention sufficient? This is what arrests me. Meaning well and doing the right thing are not always in accord, but I do believe that meaning well is a good starting point, even if it also can feel shaky. Death makes a humble request for ritual, and I fumble because I have never been taught a ritual for mourning, nor have I been taught to trust my instincts in a world where ritual has been claimed by every belief structure and where the apparent rigidity of these rituals feels immutably esoteric. I want only to acknowledge the oneness that inherently exists between myself and the owl, and that now so evidently exists between the owl and Death, and that therefore must also exist between myself and Death. Am I allowed?

I watch my breath like the slow, graceful wingbeats of a great, distant bird. With gentle pulses, it rises and falls, and though I could take control over its rhythm, I know of nothing more pure than to watch it flow, caught on the wind of a will unto itself. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.

The following morning I slowed my car even before I came around the corner. She was there, unmoved in the dull light. Her feathers stirred as they had the morning before. Her eyes, a little clouded now, stared out. In the day and the night since I left her, there must have been a thousand cars that passed by, every one of them a recurring nightmare, an echo of the death she did not escape. I think of all the other creatures I see lying dead on the side of the road, some of them ignored for days or weeks. An owl is rare, but the skunks, the raccoons, the deer, and so many others, are barely worth a thought as we pass them by. Manitoba highways kill ten thousand deer per year. Their deaths peak in the fall, but if averaged out over the year this equals about twenty-seven per day, or more than one per hour. We all share an equal part in these deaths; even those of us who are not motorists depend on motorists for everything from our groceries to the electricity that runs through our houses. All that separated me from the person who killed the owl was a mere twenty minutes.

I lifted her body from the coarse, damp gravel. I carried her into the forest and found between the birch a pair of cedars grown across one another. Her mother, inept at building nests, would have laid her in a crook such as this. I did not know how to arrange her, but I placed her there and sat for awhile on the ground beneath, questioning myself steadily even as the cedar smoke rose to meet her body. There are those who would have known what to do according to the tenets of their faith. There must be a teaching somewhere on the funeral rites of raptors. I was dimly aware that I might have even had some legal obligation to report the fallen owl, so that authorities could procure her and pass her along to those who had the right to her body. Maybe my handling of the bird was offensive, or even illegal. Too often, I do not know what to do. I breathe slowly, knowing that even around my breath, religions have formed and that from them have been born doctrines to govern the way I inhale and the way I exhale. I do my best. 

Breath is a gift. I know this. It can be both automatic and equally yielding to my control. I can hold my breath. I can expand it. I can change its pace. But while I sleep, it continues to move. When my awareness shifts to other things, it finds a rhythm unto itself, which is the meaning of the word automatic: “to act of itself”. But who is the self of the breath? It cannot be my conscious mind; my conscious mind can be otherwise occupied and my breath remain unfazed, perhaps even more free to act of itself. Breath, far more than the “me” I’ve constructed in my conscious mind, is essential for life. Regarded in the expanded, inclusive sense of a collective that we all belong to, breath must then be like the umbilical cord that connects our stray, meandering minds back to the source. It belongs to all of us, regardless of the rituals and the doctrines we ascribe to. No one is excluded, so long as we live.

I grew up within the high, rigid walls of doctrine, but was never taught how to breathe. For many years, I was certain of things. I thought I knew what was right and wrong. And I thought I knew, at any given moment, where I was on the spectrum between right and wrong. I knew what sin was. I knew about salvation and the carefully constructed wall of stone that had been built to demarcate the saved from the lost. I knew the commandments and the stories and what was meant by these things. I knew truth and God. I was desperate to know truth and God. I was desperate to dwell within the walls that marked me among the saved. Years passed like this, and with growing unease, I realized that behind such walls, I would never find peace. Imaginary as they were, they alleged to separate me from far too much life, and so long as I believed in them, my breath would be constrained and cut off.

Walls are not wrong, but peace resides within them only when the gates remain open, and when we remember that every brick has been set in place by our own collective imagination. Though we are the architects and the gatekeepers, our control is utter illusion. Watch the next time a slight breeze picks up, how every brick will tremble, and many be lifted from their place, and some dissolve. Our doctrines are like this. Rather than chasing after the dust with desperation, we can watch with curiosity as our fleeting ideas fall apart and later transform into new ones, equally as fallible and equally as true. This is not always easy. It is not abnormal to experience deep tremors within your sense of being as ideas once clung to as irrefutable truth begin to fall away.

I watch my breath, like the slow wingbeats of a great, distant bird. It is intrinsically and irrevocably attuned to life. Expanding and contracting with ever-shifting attempts at equilibrium, it must contend not only with changes in the environment, and changes in the body’s degree of physical exertion, but with the near-constant manipulations of my thinking mind. It is when my neuroses come into play that the great, distant bird is often no longer free to fly of its own accord. Tiny threads of constrictive tension begin to limit its movement. My shoulders, in response to my brain’s insistence that things are not as they should be, begin to rise and move forward; my abdomen curls inward; my breath becomes shallow and incomplete. I may believe that because I am not consciously manipulating my breath, I am allowing it to move of its own will. However, its will is physically hampered by my contracted posture, and my anxious thoughts are implying subversive lies that my breath can not tell from truth. My breath shortens, as in this bedlam of false beliefs, I wonder if there is anything left to believe in.

When faith absconds for lack of my clutching to it, and I have no one to look to less fallible than I, what is left to govern my conviction? My heart, a pulsing thing, my mind, astray, and my will, enfeebled by the maelstrom of currents; I am lost. I carry the body of an animal into the woods with apprehension, and so too I carry my heart. Though my will wavers and my mind panics, though I rely at times on the will of my breath rather than my will to breathe, still, I exist. Where there could be nothing, instead there is me. 

I draw a circle around my anxious mind, and from it trace a line back to the feeling that I do not know what to do. Within this feeling, every time, are the beliefs that things are not as they should be and that I should be able to fix them. Implicit in every anxious thought, is the belief that I should be in control of that which I am not. Sometimes, an anxious thought overwhelms me, and I am not able to untangle myself from it directly. I can try and think my way out of anxiety, but I must do so within the context of an anxious mind, where good intentions are easily subsumed by the spread of worry. This is not an easy task. But if peace is the goal, then there is another way. Anxiety can restrict our breathing, but being free of anxiety is not a prerequisite for the liberation of our breath. At any moment, we can give our breath permission to resume its will to live. We can allow our attention to follow the rise and fall of the wind that passes through us and see how, by loosening our attempts at control and allowing our posture to become fully receptive, we can experience peace in any moment. The part of us that was expressing anxiety still needs to be heard, but when we approach it with the expansiveness of calm breath, it is far more inclined to become calm also, and to express its concern in a more helpful way so that wounds can be healed without spreading out into other parts of our psyche.

Our wounds are varied and some are changing, but most have been recurring since the earliest years of our lives. When we were still very young, and only just beginning to hear whispers that we live in a world where others are separate from ourselves, we gathered in our minds a menagerie of false beliefs. We said, I am better than others. I will never be safe. I need more. I am a disappointment. I do not know love. No one understands me. I am alone. We fell into dialogue with the many-faced illusion of separation, which designates imagined places on imagined hierarchies to divide the powerful from the weak, the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the bad, the saved from the unsaved, and the worthy from the unworthy. And these imagined hierarchies were so widely spoken of, so well established in the collective consciousness we were born into, that we believed in them as assuredly as a fish believes in water. We were born into a collective wound, and this wound, this false belief in separation, has been continually goading us on toward endless attempts at control. Believing in separation, we strive to manipulate ourselves, our environment, and the people around us so that we can secure a preferable position. We might reach it, but the voices do not go away. So we take our manipulations further, ever seeking greater control, more power, more influence, & more applause.

Do you remember the little boy, with his mind full of whispers? Do you remember the little girl first beginning to believe she was not good enough? Day after day, for the many years since our childhood, the same words have been running through our heads. They drive our actions too often. Too often they govern our lives. We wander about from day to day, so lost in the ambitions of our minds, the implicit belief that some will be saved and some will not, and the fear that we will be among the latter; we become blind to our unity. Take a deep breath. Find a posture that is receptive and relaxed, and then fill your lungs.  Certain particles of the air you just breathed, were once present in the lungs of Ghandi. There are also those that were once present in the lungs of Donald Trump. We share breath with our lovers and our friends, with our families, with strangers and with enemies. It unifies us. Like the cells of a single body receiving blood from the same heart, our lungs draw on the same global reserve of air. No matter our gender, orientation, age, ethnicity, creeds, or political beliefs, we all belong. No one is excluded.

Walls are not wrong, but let them be fluid, and let the gates stay open. And if the vertiginous sway of the bricks surrounding you begins to feel unsafe, leave for awhile. Take a walk in the forests and the open fields, where the pristine lawlessness of the undisturbed wild, makes void the toiling of your desperate mind. Let your breath become like the wingbeats of a great, distant bird, untethered and calm, rising and falling in accordance to its own will, the will of Life. Go where there is nothing for you to control and let that space expand, infinitely.




I stayed in her silence. Her red coat stirred slightly in the wind and she stared back at me, still and poised for flight. I stayed in her stillness. I stood at the edge of the lake and she turned from me, to an unseen place along the shore, and barked her unusual bark. I imagined her mate, coiled and waiting in the earthen womb where they would soon lay. I imagined him listening. She barked once more to him, and then ran, very quickly, north.

Fox is clever; Fox is coy; Fox will trick you every time; Fox is quick; Fox is Lithe; Fox will clear out your hen house in one fell swoop; Fox is dogged; Fox will sneak; Fox is not to be trusted.

There is a creature in Japanese myth called Kitsune: a mystical fox of high intelligence, long life, and the ability to change into human form. Only the Kitsune’s tail — or tails, as older, wiser Kitsunes can have as many as nine — remain unchanged and the Kitsune must be careful to keep these hidden. A Kitsune can be clever and deceptive but they are not intrinsically good or bad. Humans were warned to be cautious of a Kitsune, but not dismissive; they were just as likely to grant a valuable gift as they were to offer a crippling curse, and so, despite their dubious natures, it was often worth the risk to entertain one, though warily.

Myth, born of our deepest, shared experiences of life, offers universal insight. Rather than duplicitous, Kitsune’s assumption of the human form can be regarded as an acknowledgement of our own ability to transform our lives. In this, it is important to distinguish that transforming our lives is not the same as transforming who we are. Kitsune assumes a human shell, as have we all, but in doing so, Kitsune is not Human. He experiences the life of a human, but does not mistake his humanness as an identity.

In meditation, I often return to the simple mantra, “I am here, now.” I run it through the fingers of my mind continuously and find rest in the belief that this, more than any of the multiple layers of identity and presentation cloaked around me, is true. I am here, now, and though here and now are always changing, this state of impermanence is also continually available. With calm, open hands, I feel it pass over me like an endless waterfall. Nothing that moves over me stays the same but I will always be in the here and the now; there is no other time or place to be. I can claim to be lonely, happy, or sad; Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian; healthy or sick; I can claim to be a man, but these are all merely impermanent states of being. They are streams of water in a waterfall that is continually changing. It can be helpful to recognize the state that we are in, but any attempt at grasping these things and cloaking them around us as an identity, or repelling them as something disdainful and to be thrown aside, is ultimately futile; water has a proclivity to move. Every experience we have, and every name we bear, eventually falls away from us, and although the occurrence of a difficult experience or the adoption of an uncomfortable name can seem too adhesive to ever be shed, it adheres to us only in our imagination.

We are not who we say we are. We name ourselves by the impermanence of passing thoughts, emotions, and states of being; by claims of accomplishment and competence; by our thoughts or the thoughts we imagine that others have of us; by our relationships and our reputations; by our shame or pride; by fear; by the memories of what we have done, or have had done to us. But we are not who we say we are.

As children we heard our names spoken clearly. We were called shy, sad, happy, quiet, funny, smart, difficult, bright. We were not who they said we were but we began to weave in our minds the cloak we would wear for many years after, and although many of us carry it still, and though we have continued to weave new names into the fabric, and though we have attempted to change the pattern to better suggest the person we would like to be, our earliest threads often hold fast. This is not to say that these names must all be cast aside, only that a cloak exists to serve the one who wears it, not to define her. And if a name does not serves the one who bears it, a choice can be made.

We are not who we say we are, but it is not wrong to say these things. I can say, “I am a man,” and recognize that I am claiming an impermanent state of being. In this way, I am served by the knowledge that a stream of water is flowing over me without deluding myself into identifying with that water. I can say “I am afraid,” and be relieved to know that fear is not who I am, it is only what I am experiencing, and as something experienced, I know that it will change. Furthermore, with compassion and attention, I can be the one to change it; I can choose to experience something different. I can change, not who I am intrinsically, but the state of being that I am experiencing in the present moment. This is not always easy; often it feels impossible, but it begins to feel more possible as I detach myself from what I am experiencing, and recognize that I am not that experience.

I begin with, “I am here, now.” And then I ask myself, believing in the mutability of externalities, how I want to live, but I ask it only for the present moment. Knowing that how I want to live is born of choice, I experience the freedom to live according to what I deeply believe is true, rather than restricting myself by the delusions that have so often defined me. I do not need to live according to the contrived, societal definitions of “Man” or “Christian”; I do not need to live according to the lingering memories of things I have done or have had done to me; I do not need to live by an experienced propensity for sadness or anxiety; I do not need to live by any of the labels I have adopted, striven for, or allowed to be placed upon me. Here and now, I am entirely free. Here and now is always.

Like Kitsune, transformation is fully available to all of us. This becomes easier to accept when we identify with the immutable, endless mystery of divinity at our core and see transformation as an alteration of the external aspects, which we may, in the past, have regarded as our identity, but which we see now as the ever-changing experiences passing over us. Our identity is eternal, but the lives we live are continually defined and undefined by a quality of impermanence. This can be frightening, but only if we identify with the life that we are living, which is destined to continually change and eventually move through death.

It can be difficult to release ourselves from the layers of identifying experiences, names, ambitions, and memories that we have adopted over the years. Once started, it is an ongoing process of uncovering, which continually asks us to return to the state of awareness that frees us from judgement and into compassion. To even begin seeing ourselves in this way can be difficult enough; beginning to see others in the same way can seem more difficult still. The truth, however, is that they are one in the same. The people whom we regard with hostility, mistrust, or annoyance are no different than we are. Each one of them, like us, is capable of changing his life in any number of radical ways. More importantly, who they truly are, and who we truly are, beneath every frail attempt at false identity, need not change at all. We are innately perfect, but to see ourselves as such requires a degree of such complete, non-judgemental compassion that everyone is included. Between us and them, there is no difference.

Take in your mind the one from whom you still hold back your love. See that the identity you are imagining is not an identity at all; it is a fragile delusion, an inky cloud of confusion, wrapped insidiously around a being as perfect as you.

I watched her dance upon the lake, and I understood how her tail could be thought to paint the northern lights across the sky. And the crow, dancing with her like the night, swooped and rolled in quick delight. Even their distinct forms, so different from one another, were never static. With swift impermanence, she leapt and twisted. And his constant movement, necessitated by flight, filled the space between them with careful grace. Their dance was singular; their forms were vastly distinct. There were two of them dancing, and there was one, and they were perfect.


When time slows softly, and my mind slows more softly still, and when the calender year reaches its imaginary zenith, and so must imaginarily pause in the infinitesimal moment preceding its descent, and when earth, unaware, continues to circle, and when the day quiets and I can finally be still; when I can kneel for the quiet stillness inside me, for the quiet embers to burgeon to my knowing – I breathe, and from that breath, a perfect cord of singular direction begins to extend, first slowly through the tissues of my body, through the muscles of my heart, through even the most diminutive cells, through the breastbone that guards my heart, and then through the skin that adorns me; it escapes even the thin, imagined atmosphere surrounding my body and pierces the warm air of my living room where, in the dim light, it continues its unerring, attenuate path to the far wall, where it does not stop; it slides unflinchingly through the unseen spaces between the fibers of cedar, passing easily to the other side, into the sudden shock of crisp, cold air, by which it is touched, but not arrested; continuing toward the birch tree, which leans toward the house, it moves quietly through her papery bark, her dormant rings of sapwood, then heartwood, then sapwood again; out past many more trees, through an entire forest, it extends before breaking from the trees altogether into the clear, night air, where it pierces the absence of clouds, briefly, before, without a moment’s hesitation, it breaks from earth’s yearning pull and its speed becomes unimaginable; several planets float past, and then the stars, and then galaxy after galaxy until it becomes so vast, and the line has no plausible end, that I can do nothing else but stop there, breathing calmly upon the embers of my awareness, looking down its infinite path until it disappears into an endless unknown. And, at last, I am still. And still I am kneeling, quietly breathing in my living room with an awareness that, in any of an infinite number of directions, a similar and yet wholly unique line could be drawn from the same eternal source within me, or within any other, and that from that place, knowing of the infiniteness all around us, any one of us can claim to be at the center of everything.


There is a birch tree outside my home. Her papery bark shifts in the wind and in the morning, when looking out from my kitchen window, I watch the sun rise amidst her triad of limbs. I wash dishes at the sink and though I try, as Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes, to “wash the dishes to wash the dishes” my awareness keeps reaching out to the tree in front of me, whom the Celts named Beith in the belief that these trees, more than any other, call us to release the past, to allow all that has been gestating within us to be freely born, and to be reborn ourselves into an identity bearing a closer resemblance to the truth. Birch are self-propagating, and this one, leaning gently toward my kitchen window, reminds me of the grace of faint inner movement and the needlessness of stagnation. Whatever is in me to be born, I alone can give birth to it. In the clearest of minds, unaffected by the trances that would delude me, I can know what those things are; I can feel the life of them slowly taking form and I can settle into a calm sense of expectation, knowing that the things I yearn for, yearn also for me.


The calender year has reset. The earth, in its continual sweep around the sun, has come full-circle, and we have returned to the same place we were one calender year ago. We came back, and the sameness of some things might discourage us; the vast difference of other things might break our hearts. With every cycle completed there are losses and gains, things learned and things unlearned, people drawn nearer and others gone altogether. Equally, through both sorrow and elation, the only thing that remains constant is the ember deep within us, glowing calmly near our hearts, from which an infinite number of infinite lines extend out into an infinite universe. And though our minds cannot always find it, there is comfort in knowing that its existence does not waver at the whims of our minds’ misconceptions. Belief and thought: these are of the mind, and we are much more than our minds.


Like a stand of birch trees, we share a single, ancient birth, and the place of birthing remains in us still. From it, we draw upon life in slow, steady breaths, uniting the expanding silver branches of our conscious minds with the deeply rooted awareness of our ancient subconscious. We tithe our conscious thoughts upon an idea of identity that can alienate us from a deeper source, but when we are aware that every fraction is part of a greater whole, we can attune more closely to something more complete. It is in this harmony that our extended awareness can bring about the birth of dreams and intentions. It is in this harmony that our inner walls dissolve and that which has been burgeoning within us, even without our conscious intention, can be made manifest.


Without attention, we can easily identify with our supposed limitations; we can base the trajectories of our lives on all of the things we cannot do and quickly find ourselves hedged in by a cacophony of dubious inner voices. When we deny ourselves the truth, we kneel in acquiescence to the countless, imagined walls that sever the infinite cords of our awareness. We kneel and imagine that each of the perfectly straight, infinite lines extending from our hearts, eventually meet a barrier: a point of denial that our own conscious minds diligently enforce. The line itself continues on beyond our conscious mind’s perception. The endlessness of it is irrevocable, but we are arrested by imagined walls, built up by imagined thoughts in an imagined reality. Our subconscious mind, with roots delving deep into an ancient oneness that can never be fully denied, knows better.


Wrap the memory of fallen leaves around your hope. Cocoon yourself in dreams and listen quietly. When it begins, and the birch, suddenly propagating amongst themselves, lessen their silence beneath the frost, when their attenuate dreams attempt, in multitudinous and minutely flickering light, to blossom – be ready. There is a heart in you that is in me also. Awake from the trance of endless thoughts and acknowledge the truth of dreams born in you to be born from you. Unravel the constraints that bind your dreams and let them live.


There are birch all around my home. They fill the woods with a whiteness against the snow and though they seem dormant beneath the winter wind, beneath his cold caresses and admonishing whispers, their quietude is pregnant with multitudinous expression. They are silent now, and dreaming, but for every unborn leaf, furled and waiting within their branches, there is a recognition of the eternal. They are attuned to their nature, unaffected by the trances that so often dissuade us from our own truth. In the winter, they dream, and in the spring their dreams are born. They move from the seasons with a loyalty that acknowledges both the winter wind and the summer sun. They move, slowly, but with perfect calm.


The new calender year has begun – not in the dead of winter, but in her womb. When we have the courage to peer into this part of ourselves, to attune our minds to the endlessness of dreams, we can see that there is no barrenness there, and that even if we have have endured stagnation, or resigned to the careful construction of self-imposed restraints, this part of us is never lost, and it is never barren nor corrupt. It waits, tirelessly, for us.


My Grandmother, having lost her husband nearly one year ago, is preparing to leave her home. The unraveling of its contents has been going on for months. Even still, the enigmatic inventions of her husband are being discovered in closet spaces, and garage rafters, and basement corners. No one knows what they are; all we can do is scratch our heads, which I think would have caused him either to chuckle to himself or explain, in his mumbled brevity, that which was obvious to him, and which would become obvious – and ingenious – to us, once explained. My Grandmother is less concerned with her late husband’s gadgets. She will miss the view from her kitchen window, which faces west, across the street, toward a small, neighbourhood park. Sunlight fills the kitchen sink in the late afternoon and in the center of the yard, grown very large in the decades since it was planted, is my Grandfather’s birch tree, which he uprooted from a forest a long time ago. I don’t know what compelled him to go in search of it, or why he chose it from among the others. He brought it back with him, dug a hole in the middle of the yard, and gave it a new place of birth. I like to imagine he intended it for my Grandmother, that it would grow over her in a slow, sheltering dance, and that she, washing dishes beneath it – when the sun was setting and the summer breeze was passing through the window – would know the blessing of his intention. Apart from his tinkering, brooding nature, my Grandfather had a patient respect for growth. He puzzled over loose screws, faulty tools, and disobedient motors, but when he put something into the earth, his attendance was different. His calculating, curious mind bowed out in acquiescence to something not of his mind. There was nothing to force or augment; there was only nature, of which he was intimately a part. He let his birch grow, knowing there was little else to do.

Passage II

There is a place where the weight of a boulder presses heavily into the earth, and where surrounding trees listen carefully for the faintest of stirrings beneath it. The crows pass by, occasionally alighting in the overhanging branches, and when they stop to release their coarse cry, I feel my breath slow with attentiveness. I do not know what lives beneath the boulder’s weight. I see the open throat of earth at its descending base and count the scattered footprints surrounding it. I listen carefully, but hear nothing. I sit in wait, quieting my breath and straining for stillness, but I see nothing. The snow is melting and the place is rife with remnants of decay still concealing the promise of new growth. I wait, knowing only, with keen curiosity, an imagined place I will never see.

I learned of my Grandfather’s passing while in transit; I knew he was dying when I left Malawi, it happened while I was in the airport in Nairobi, and I received news of it in Paris. By the time I reached Winnipeg, the funeral was already mostly arranged. I sat down for dinner with my family, having slept little more than an hour in the previous two days, and answered questions foggily, preoccupied and glancing furtively across the table at my Grandmother. She was still, and quiet, and only partly there. We moved around her stillness, and our voices moved around her silence, and I wondered what moved through her mind. I spoke reticently of tragedy in a far away place, and she, seeming farther away than even the Malawians I spoke of, remained quiet.

In Malawi, two weeks earlier, I waded cautiously along a flooded path to a small village called Naliwomba. Mud slid intrusively between my toes and I moved with unknowing steps through the dark water. It pooled warmly around my knees and relieved my skin of the sun’s harshness. Along with my friends, Samuel and Immanuel, I made my way through the flooded fields toward the village where we met a woman walking through the knee-deep water, her one hand gathering her skirt at her knees, and her other holding a bundle on her head. “No one has come,” she told us. Much of the village had been washed away, the school had been completely flooded, crops had been devastated, food stores destroyed, and possessions lost. People had died. Still, there had been no response from the government, no aid from any organizations, and no attention from the media. Even the chief had been killed when floodwaters suddenly rose against the door of his hut, pressing in from all sides until the walls caved in and overwhelmed him. His body was found several meters away.

There were many bodies lost to the floods in Malawi this year. In the coming months, many more will die as a result of malnutrition and disease. Some will be old. Some will be young men and women. Many will be children and infants. They will be regarded, in many cases, as tragic deaths, and to those who are left to mourn in sorrow and disbelief, these deaths will be tragic. But to the ones whose bodies die, the idea of tragedy will become meaningless, as will all their thoughts of sadness, suffering, and attachment. Their bodies will die, and their minds as well, and all that will be left will be the mystery.

My Grandfather was ninety-three when he died. He remained relatively healthy until the Monday before his death, when he went to bed mentioning a tickle in his throat. By the morning, he lacked the strength to stand. Two days later, he died. For a while now, I would ask my Grandparents how they were doing. Their response, curt, and delivered with a calm, tired smile was often, “we are ready for heaven.” Something had gone out of them in the previous years and as they watched many of their friends pass away, their attachment to this world seemed to diminish. Still, as my Grandfather lay dying, I imagine he experienced some fear.

Our bodies die. We know this. Our minds, at play within our brains, must also die. In the moment this happens, I imagine the circumstances surrounding our death will become irrelevant to whatever it is of us that remains. But before that moment, we too easily busy our minds with the myriad possible circumstances that could surround our deaths. We strive to avoid or prevent these circumstances, losing ourselves in the details, while avoiding death’s inevitability. The Chief drowns in a distant Malawian village and we assess his death as tragic due to the circumstances surrounding it. We occupy our thoughts of this man’s death with the events that precipitated it. My Grandfather dies in a hospital in Winnipeg, and we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, in a way, he had been waiting to die. We consider his health, but know that he was old, and, for an old man, the inevitability of death seems far easier to accept. We lose ourselves in the circumstances surrounding death, judging one as a tragedy, another as a relief. Some seem insignificant, and still others can seem cause for celebration. We lose ourselves in all the circumstances surrounding death while adamantly avoiding the reality of death itself, because at the heart of death we find a deep, resounding mystery that none of us can answer, and it is waiting for us. Our bodies die. But we are not our bodies. And nor are we are our minds. In death, our mystery is born.

I entered the room where my Grandmother stood dutifully by the body of her husband. I approached the lifeless face of a man I knew for his quiet distance, and, in later years, his subtle kindness, which, although readily available, was easy to miss. I wanted a simple moment with him as he had been, to tinker again with a leaky faucet, to throw a horseshoe, or to tell a joke worthy of one of his brief, soft chuckles. Only the body dies. I stood before this body, which had held my Grandfather for nearly a century, and I imagined my Grandfather’s gratitude for it, and the relief of his departure from it. His face, once alive with short sniffles, weepy, twinkling eyes, and soft smiles, was now static. And my eyes, unwilling to accept this stillness, played small tricks on me as I watched.

My Grandmother now waits to join him in Heaven. I do not know where that is. Meister Eckhart, when asked where we go when we die, replied, “nowhere.” Meaning, the dead are all around us. Free of their bodies, their thoughts, their emotions, and their futile ambitions, all that remains is the mystery to which we all belong. Our freedom in death is to simply be, not as our egos, composed carefully in our minds; not as our bodies, carefully regarded with criticism and vanity; but as our true, eternal selves, so easily forgotten amidst our temporal madness.

Having already carried the body of my Father’s Father to his grave earlier this year, I attended a second Grandfather to his final resting place. With quiet reverence, my siblings and I, along with my cousins, lowered the casket to the open hollow of the grave. We stood back and shook against the wind. Words were spoken, the observers slowly dispersed, and behind me, a man dressed as my grandfather would dress, standing as he would stand, leaned against the hearse and stated with frank assurance to the man standing next to him, “we all go the same way.”

The circumstances surrounding death are infinitely varied, but the rite of death itself is mandatory and inevitable. We all go the same way, but no one knows what happens next. No one knows where we go to, or what we go there as. And this is the mystery that informs us all, whether by our avoidance of it, or our deep contemplation of it. If death walks beside us, from the moment we are born, if death cannot be avoided or evaded, might we not be better off making friends with it?

The observers dispersed. The shiny metal frame of the hoist was collapsed and removed; the green, synthetic turf was rolled away; the plywood was lifted from the mud; the hearse drove off. What was left was a rectangular hollow, and at its bottom was the body of my grandfather, in a simple, wooden box. I waited, standing at the edge of it, regarding what I rarely have the opportunity to see, until, from behind a children’s playground, beyond a small hill, a tractor emerged from its place of hiding and made its indecorous entrance. I left the grave, and the cold pile of mud beside it, half-wishing for a shovel, and watched from a distance as my Grandfather’s body was buried.

The Realm of Love

There is an interminable space between us, and when we lay in silence, our eyes lost in the indescribable mystery of an infinite sky, we are more akin to mingling souls than mere lovers. Our fingers might entwine, or our bodies press together, but nothing arrays our infiniteness so aptly as the confluence of her gaze and mine, which, when held in silence, alternately subsumes us in rapt hypnosis, or frightens us to look away.

She came to me in the numb softness of days when, suspended between two cities and growing false even to myself, my ambitions had paled and what remained of my soul’s longing was nothing more than an ember, slowly cooling in a hearth grown anxious with disuse. Soullessness is impossible, but far from impossible is the callous disbelief that sets in when we no longer take the time to sit by the hearthside and listen, when we no longer lose ourselves to the enchanting whispers of the flames of our soul.

She came to me without assumption, barely more than a stranger. And nor did I think anything of her coming – even as the hours passed and we fell as easily as snow into a familiarity that felt ageless and true. We drove through the day, and later through the night, toward something neither of us had expected, and away from things entirely different, things made silent in the corners of our minds. Lightening fell and the windshield became bleary with rain. We spoke in a continuous stream of unknowing. We drove half blind. And as the hours fell behind us, and the road, soon encased in ice, became impassable, we paused – still not knowing.

Had things been different, we would have fallen in love along the highway and relinquished ourselves to something beyond our frail individuality. Instead we only walked toward the edge of love, curled our toes over the brink of it, and stared down, with astonished relief, at its endlessness. We did this unconsciously. We did it with an authenticity untouched by thought. Several weeks passed like this, and for several weeks we gazed not so much at one another, as at the space between us, which was not vacuous but full of light, and mystery, and things long forgotten. Not long after, when things were different, we unfurled our toes, and leapt.

We fell, and lost ourselves to that which is indescribable, sacred, and impossible to possess. I found in her an endlessness that could never be repeated; I was both mystified and entranced. Had I continued to fall then, I could have fallen forever. Had I known for certain that I belonged to the endlessness that pulled so gently at my heart, I would have released myself to it indefinitely. And indeed, I felt at first I had. But time passed and something ancient and familiar began to voice its surreptitious presence in my heart and all the calloused disbelief, and all the cold disenchantment that I thought I’d left behind forever, resumed its thick presence around my heart. Just as the snow reaches the threshold of the earth and can go no farther, so too did I reach a threshold upon the surface of my being, barring me from the infinite depths of all we had discovered.

Fear suspended me in defiance of love, and sentenced me coolly to the belief that the infiniteness of love I had found in her was an infiniteness to which I could never fully belong. This is shame: that I, despite my soul’s urgent appeal, would be stricken by the dismal belief that I do not belong innately, and eternally, to love. Shame means nothing else.

We fell in love, as people would say. But shame, with feigned compassion, compelled me then to avert my gaze from the depth of her beauty and linger instead upon the threshold where something still akin to beauty lay, and where I, avoiding the truest depths of love, could tarry undisturbed by my illusionary lack of belonging. She remained a mystery to me for a while, as even along this thin membrane of her being, so much was unknown to me. But time passed, and what shallow love I had believed in myself enough to fall to, mystified me less and less. My ego, convinced of the validity of shame, had compelled my gaze from the endless depths of her soul, arguing easily that I could never belong to such a place, and offered me instead a view of her to which I could feel more at home. It offered me the same frail dissemblance of love from which my ego itself was also born.

I have wanted love all my life. And all my life I have been deceived by the belief that although love was an endless sphere of light, as infinite as the night sky, I could only ever hope to reach the brink of it and gasp with disbelief before turning away. Knowing only the arresting hesitance of my own disbelief, I have stood at the same threshold again and again, choosing a dissemblance of love wherein egos remain at play in ever cycling dramas, emotional patterns, insecurities, and trivialities until frail bonds tethered to shallow places have come undone, and again I’ve drifted out, not knowing.

She came to me over two years ago. And this is how it differs: in the early days, when she was still a mystery to me, I was drawn at first to her infinite soul, but found myself withdrawing to the threshold, where I tarried for awhile in disbelief. I wove a dissemblance from egoic thoughts, convinced by shame that love could amount to only this frail parade of emotions, and it too, as it always had, came undone, came crashing all around us until the ground was covered with shattered masks, and the empty shells of colorful balloons, and the discarded fragments of garish costumes, and the rustling pages of repetitive scripts, and the silenced horns of a once-continuous din, and the broken locks of once-held secrets; and every game of pretend was suddenly laid bare. And this is how it differs: we stood amidst the chaos of all our extravagant and fallen charades, naked and ashamed, our infinite depths exposed and devoid of all glamour; and rather than drifting out again, not knowing, rather than turning in fear and running with utter desperation, we held one another’s gaze. We stared into the endlessness of one another’s souls and though we were frightened, we did not look away. We did not scramble to the ground to gather the pieces, and build them up, to once again be lost in a cacophony of endless stories. We held one another’s gaze. We stood at the brink of the endlessness to which we belonged. And we surrendered.

Entering the realm of Love, we leave behind the coarse dissemblance of egoic pride; we release our shame and open the places within us most in need of love. We reveal hidden shadows and cover them with light; we call out the demons and finally see them as frightened children in need of our embrace; we arouse to fierceness the dragons we have feared and bring them at last to our loyalty. In Love our souls whisper their thin ribbons of flame and everything becomes illuminated. We roam through infinite meadows and endless forests and discover the full beauty of who we are. In Love we are home.

Malawi Floods

Several weeks ago I was contacted by my friend Samuel Magombo from Malawi. I worked with him in November and December of 2013 documenting hunger inssues in Malawi and his efforts to address those issues. With the support of the work that I did for him, he has been able to find funding for the projects that he is involved with in Malawi. I was also able to raise $1500 for his projects this past summer during my Dollar a Day Diet.

Recently, the rainy season began in Malawi. The flooding this year has been extreme and has led to loss of homes, crops, and life. Samuel made a very ardent request that I return to Malawi as soon as possibly to document the current crisis, which will have a rippling effect over the rest of the year and likely longer.

He is able to cover my costs while on the ground, but I’ve had to provide my own airfare of $2000 and take a three week leave of absence from my work. To be honest, I do not have the money, and will be paying off my credit card for the rest of the year. This seems insignificant when compared to the devastation that Malawians are now experiencing in such an acute way; but it remains a reality for me. I will be leaving on February 17th and will remain in Malawi for 3 weeks.

I recognize that we all have our own financial burdens in addition to a responsibility to those that depend on us in a more immediate way. However, if you feel compelled and willing to support the work that I’m doing in Malawi I would be grateful. I am pursuing connections with organizations working in Malawi that may be in a position to pay for images, but if I am unable to establish any payment for my work I’ll be operating at a deficet.

Here is a recent article from Al Jazeera describing the current situation in Malawi:

Any other help in terms of connections would also be largely appreciated. If you are interested in supporting Samuel Magombo’s direct response to the crisis you can do so by following this link:

Thank you for reading,




I spent the last few days of 2014 alone at home, sifting through closets, arranging rooms, and dusting the forgotten corners. I disposed of, or passed along, things I no longer needed, and cleared space – not for something new, but for simplicity. I treated these days like a meditation and remained as conscious of the present moment as I could. There were things everywhere and if taken in as a whole, our home appeared quite chaotic. Instead, I lifted a single book and chose to be aware of only that single book as I placed it on the shelf; or, I took a cloth and cleaned a mirror, choosing to be aware only of that mirror. By the last day, the climate of chaos had been transmuted into something far more akin to order, and I felt calm – even when taking it in as a whole. Compelled by the desire to mark this new climate in a clear and simple way, I decided to rearrange the couches in our living room.

Before touching any of them, I sat down at the kitchen table, drafted the room on a piece of paper, and cut out a set of scaled representations of each piece of furniture. This wasn’t necessary, but it tied the moment back to adolescent memories of rearranging my bedroom furniture in the days when my bedroom was still my soul territory. There was something nostalgic and pleasing about this process, and after I had decided on a configuration that made sense to me, I confidently began executing my plan.

The first couch moved easily. I put it out of the way to make room for the larger hide-a-bed. I moved the round coffee table as well, and then set about clearing the corner. I pulled the first side of the heavy couch away from the wall, and then suddenly stopped. At this time of day, and at this time of year, the living room is full of golden light. It spills across the carpet and fills corners that otherwise remain shadowed and unnoticed. There against the wall, as if resting peacefully, was the body of a small bird. I don’t know how long she had been there. Her eyes were closed and desiccated, but her feathers seemed perfect. Somehow, she looked comfortable, as if sleeping; but there was no movement. I felt immediately responsible, and at the same time, oddly privileged, as if this bird had come into our home with a lesson for me to learn, or a message that needed to be discerned. I had already been thinking of death during the days before and I recalled the Buddhist meditation that some novices undergo. For several weeks, perhaps longer, they sit before a decaying body until they reach a kind of consciousness that frees them from their attachment to their own body.

I thought of burying the bird, but then remembered a line of poetry I had once written: “We bury our dead that we might go on pretending/We avert our gaze knowing what mortal eyes will hold it.” And so I lifted her body with a thin piece of cardboard and carried it to the soil of a potted plant. I let them to lie together and continued my task, still thinking of the bird and wondering why she had come. Did her arrival mark the year’s end – a year rife with challenges and so many internal deaths and rebirths? Was it a portent of something else to come? Was it a universal response to my recent meditations on death and the questions I had been asking about the discrepancy between our awareness of death’s inevitability and our own feeble attempts at immortality? Or, was it nothing? At the risk of sounding ungrounded, I felt quite sure that the bird had chosen to die here in our home, and this made me immediately endeared to her.

Sometimes the confluence of rivers overwhelms us and what was once a steady stream of discouragement is compounded and reaches an edge that cannot endure it; what was once a river then cascades into a place of darkness. Discouragement becomes despair. We fall, like water over the edge of a cliff, and do not know what will happen next. Sometimes, something of our hope dies altogether and we must go on a long, deepening journey, through shadow and great sorrow, to find its resting place – if not to revive it, at least to be by its side and grieve for a while.

I have gone walking through the woods when discouragement has spilled over to become despair. I have gone to wilder places and I have felt a yearning for earth, felt the wanting of my body for burrowed alcoves, imagined the comfort of an earthen embrace. Desiring to lie down in a field, to allow the ground to slowly subsume me, I have ached, with homesickness, for the womb of clay from which my body was made and to which my body will eventually return.

The day after discovering the bird, my grandfather was taken to the hospital. When I went to see him, his face and his body were only vaguely recognizable. At the insistence of the nurses I put a gown over my body, a thick mask over my face, and a pair of gloves over my hands. I sat beside him and watched his breath, which was pushed into him, and then pulled back out of him by a hissing machine. I watched the wave of his pulse rise and fall on a small monitor. I followed the intricate lines of a web of tubes, which wove impersonally between his body and the stacks of machines that surrounded him. I sat beside him, and though I could not speak to him I prayed that he would not be afraid.

More than any analogous description of death, I appreciate most the understanding of death as being synonymous with birth. We live within the broad embrace of this temporal womb, where breath links us to life and where our fetal hearts beat only as our environment allows it. We are here, gestating, and though our bodies endure a slow decay, there is something else of us that is preparing for birth. Just as a fetus is suddenly compelled to what must seem like death, we too have a deep sense of timing that is not wielded by our conscious minds. We too will reach the day when this womb can no longer hold us, when something indescribable urges us towards the compulsory light that our conscious minds know nothing about. We too will reach a day when death and birth meet, like long lost friends, to share that single moment, to pass the torch of our existence from one to the other, that our existence might be carried on toward whatever happens next.

I wanted to stay for a long time. There was an expectation of movement that never came. His face and his hands looked like they belonged to a wax mannequin rather than a man. The coffin, though tasteful, seemed superfluous. A week had passed since I visited him in the hospital. A few days had passed since his death. This was not my grandfather. And for many, the comfort came from this, that although a body lay in front of them, my grandfather had already left it. I wanted to stay for a long time, because although I knew my grandfather was no longer there, I stood before the body that had been such a gift to him. I wanted to know what that meant. I wanted to know for myself as well, that although my body remains automated, and though it remains the womb that bears me, I will one day be born from it. It is a gift, but it is not I.

My cousins and I carried my grandfather’s body to the hearse. From the hearse we carried it to the grave where we laid it down above the raw cavity; so incongruous with the fine craftsmanship of the coffin. Words were spoken, flowers were passed around, and one by one the crowd dispersed until only a few of us were left; and then none. My one regret is that I walked away too soon, that I did not tarry awhile longer at this threshold of death, where the coarse earth lay naked before the sky, and where my grandfather’s body would once again become clay. I felt that old familiar longing for an earthen embrace. The sight of the soil compelled me. It comforted me. It whispered my name and I felt akin to it.

The bird came and what I first thought to learn from her arrival was the importance of making friends with death. I don’t know entirely what that means. We spend so much time denying the inevitability of death; we pretend we are immortal, or at least that immortality is possible. And maybe we are, but our bodies certainly are not. Making friends with death must at least begin by acknowledging his presence. Maybe then we could even one day say hello to him, or even smile. Maybe one day we could approach him, unafraid, and begin a dialogue with the one who will, one day, be responsible for carrying us forward into whatever happens next.

– C


Near my home, in the woods where I walk, there is a place along the trail marked by a large boulder. The boulder is taller than me and for a long time I had intended on climbing it. Finally, one day, after the first snowfall, I left the trail, approached the boulder for a closer look, and discovered that near it, and behind it, the deer and the rabbits had made a lesser path leading deeper into the woods. I immediately abandoned the boulder and followed the path instead, bowing my head and my body to pass beneath the lower branches, turning first one way and then the other to weave between the trees, climbing carefully over a fallen pine. The deer, as path makers, are far simpler than men. Their paths, as a result, are arguably less efficient. They are narrow and crooked, weaving wastefully and covering more ground than is necessary. They form slowly by gentle steps and their course is determined not by an ultimate destination, which may not exist at all, but by the spaces between the trees that present the least resistance. They meander over uneven ground, where roots and rocks lie hidden and where the next step must always be taken carefully.

It’s impossible to follow the path of a deer without remaining intimately aware of the forest through which you are walking. Trees reach out to grace your shoulders with their touch. The earth rises and falls beneath you. You are conscious of where your foot will fall, but only for your next step. To follow the path requires presence of mind. Ignoring this requirement can result in unexpected scrapes and twisted ankles. You might find yourself altogether lost.

I followed the path with a sense of wonder. The trees here were no different than those surrounding the broad ATV trail, from which I’d digressed. On that trail the forest truly is wonderful, but along the deer path I felt much closer to the trees. I was closer. I brushed by them and stooped beneath them. I felt I was somewhere outside of the touch of man. I felt a part of something wild.

Eventually, I reached what became my destination. Looking up from my careful steps I saw, between the trees, a much larger boulder than the one beside the trail. It reaches half the height of the trees surrounding it and is broad enough to span at least twenty strides. On one side, the boulder is quite steep, but at the place where I approached it, it rises gradually. With moderately careful steps, even with the ice and the snow, it can easily be summited.

That first day was mild, and at the top of the boulder, along its steeper edge, I removed my coat and spread it as best I could over the snow, and then lay there, staring up at the sky. This is medicine, more than anything else I know: to breathe next to the wild trees and be in stillness beneath a sky unmarked by progress. Lying there, I begin to plot how to disentangle myself even further. Lying there, I romanticize reclusion and isolation. Lying there, I feel at home.

I lay, carefully, within the edge of what I know, pressing without pressing into the invisible, amniotic wall that omits me from the place beyond it. The confines of life, tenuous and impermanent, hold me close, but I cannot deny that as much as I exist in this life, I remain unborn. The trees rise around me like so many manifestations of longing, and I, longing to be like them, lay, unborn, atop a rock, yearning to pass through that thin, unyielding membrane, and enter something more like home than this.

I am here. And though my heart longs for something beyond this place I suspect that all boundaries are, in truth, imagined. Which isn’t to say that they do not exist, but that they exist only in the realm of our perceptions. We cast them out from that place and project them onto our understanding of things because we are desperate to make sense of it all. But our perceptions cannot actually separate life from death, or ourselves from God, or our cities from the woods. They influence our experiences, but the truth remains untouched. The truth remains the truth whether we know it or not.

When I awoke, the forest was very still. The clouds had fallen from their higher places and seemed now suspended by the branches. I stood and looked around. I noticed how the sadness, which had led me into the woods in the first place, had lessened, but was still there. I descended, with some resignation, and still with the same gratitude I always feel toward the trees when I walk mindfully among them. There is something about them that alleviates woes. It may not lift them altogether but it does something to remind us of one of the most profound and beautiful miracles, which is simply this: we exist. Rather than there being nothing, there is something. And no matter how exhaustively we attempt to prove, or validate, or protect our existence, it ultimately just is.

Weeks later, I was driving along the highway, nearly home. On either side of me, were the woods. More immediately around me was the machine that carries me from place to place. And beneath me was a very even and straight, manmade path that cuts through the forest so profoundly that it’s possible, even necessary, to ignore the trees entirely. Again, I had to recognize that there was very little, if anything, that actually separates me from it all. We’ve narrowed our perceptions so severely that we often only see the paved road in front of us, and think only of the place it is designed to take us. But these are only our perceptions, and the truth pays little attention to our narrow views.

Moments later I saw a wolf approach the edge of the highway in front of me. I slowed immediately and immediately after passing him, the wolf crossed to the other side. I turned around and pulled onto the shoulder where I drove along side him as he trotted behind the thin veil of trees. I had never seen a wolf before. We watched each other move in tandem, his eyes alight, and his body graceful. He seemed both unthreatened and unthreatening, but I wondered if our encounter would have been the same in a place where boundaries, even manufactured or imagined ones, did not exist. Could we ever regard one another with mutual respect, or have I, with all my machines, and buildings, and vain pursuits, become too foreign to one who has remained so natural?

I wander among the trees when the night brings darkness between the branches and little can be seen of the distance between us. I wander along the edge of the woods, my hand tracing a gentle line along the boundary wall, which bars me from all that I do not know. I hear the wind move, and feel it joining the space between us. I remember to forget all that I have learned about where I end and all else begins. I remember that I belong to life and that my existence is beautiful.

– C

I am (a man)

I recently had the privilege of sharing the following words at the Exchange Community Church in Winnipeg where I have been showing a series of portraits of men expressing their understandings of masculinity. The following are some of my own reflections.

This past year I began revisiting an old question. It’s one that I have been asking myself throughout my adult life, sometimes earnestly and at other times with tired uncertainty. It expands with elaborations and complications until it’s completely out of my grasp and then contracts to become so simple that there’s almost nothing left of it. More expansively the question is this:

“What does it mean to be a good man, and how do my own understandings of masculinity and goodness differ from the stories told to me by my society, my culture, and the people directly around me?”

This question has remained like a recurring spark in my mind, perpetually inciting dialogue, both internally and with the men and women around me. In the past year I’ve had more intentional conversations about being a man than ever before and this has resulted not in a solution or a final answer that would lay it all to rest, but in a living, breathing interaction between individuals who are willing to express parts of themselves that might otherwise remain unspoken. I’m having a conversation that is challenging and crucial, and also long-desired.

The sense I have is that the vulnerability in men, which is stereotypically regarded as something deeply buried and often completely inaccessible, actually rests much closer to the surface and that men, when given the permission to do so, express this vulnerability readily and often with some relief. When I am vulnerable, and willing to drop the guardedness that is generally expected of men, I allow others to be vulnerable also. I offer my vulnerability to the space between us and say, “Here, it is safe.”

In speaking with and photographing the men in my recent series of portraits, I witnessed both diversity in the expressions of their experiences and also a very relatable singularity. In each case, I spoke with men who were grateful to be given an opportunity to share things that didn’t necessarily align with the notion of masculinity that had been insisted upon them throughout their lives. A real man, we are taught from a very young age, is powerful. And this power is relative and therefor sought after with some desperation. To be powerful is to be “more powerful than” – as in, “more powerful than women,” or, “more powerful than nature,” or, “more powerful than the man standing next to him”. A real man, we are taught, is physically strong. He does not cry. He does not express fear, pain, sadness, or weakness. He can express anger because it can make him appear more powerful but other uncomfortable emotions are considered unmanly. A real man, we are taught, is sexually driven and the nature of this drive is dominating and potent and not ever to be questioned or subdued. A real man amasses enough wealth to possess anything that he wants and then continues to amass more. A real man is in charge. He has power, and this power takes the form of physical strength, emotional fortitude, sexual prowess, economic success, and political leverage.

We’ve all been subjected to these ideas at some level. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, or economic status we have all faced these notions of masculinity and we have all had them imposed upon us. Some of us are unaware. Some of us are apathetic. Some of us know that we find them offensive and we resist them with active protest. Some of us feel victimized and powerless, as if there’s nothing we can do about it. Some of us celebrate these standards and embrace them. Some of us feel ashamed. And some of us have a strong, conscious desire to see through them, to understand them as deeply wounded perceptions in need of healing. We believe that behind these wounds there remains something beautiful, something that has become lost to us, something that is inherently ours.

This “something”, I believe, exists in every man, regardless of how unabashedly he has embraced the pursuit of masculine power, or how pathetically he has been trodden under it. This “something” has been with us since before our birth. It is not exclusive to the strongest, or the wealthiest, or the most attractive, or the most powerful. It is not exclusive to anyone and nor does it preclude anyone. Rather it equalizes all of us. In the moments when we realize this equality we have an opportunity to lay aside our power, and even become aware of the ultimate futility of that power. We can begin to live from the awareness that at the center of our being, stripped of all the signifiers of masculinity we have carefully built up around us, we are no more or less than anyone else, and though this place can feel like the most vulnerable place in the world, it is also the truest and by being courageous enough to be that exposed, we are able to express something of our essence.

As with my understanding of masculinity, my understanding of the divine is one that alternately expands with endless elaborations and then contracts into a deep and profound simplicity. In an attempt to live a life that is aligned with God I often return to a single question, which, in its most reduced form, is this:

“Am I being guided by fear, or by love?”

I apply this question to my pursuit of a masculine identity and my answer is inconsistent and at times seems contradictory. I don’t consider myself a stereotypical man, and I don’t ascribe to many of the popular notions of masculinity, but when I carefully assess my thoughts and my behavior, I can’t deny that lacing its way through many of my intentions there is a thread of fear, which has, in ways, persuaded me to take up the “masculine identity” that society has been pedaling – even when in my heart it doesn’t feel quite right. This thread of fear is a whisper and it tells me that I am not manly enough, that I am not powerful enough, that I am not valuable enough, and, ultimately, that I do not deserve love. Its promise is that if I manage to achieve a certain expression of masculinity, that if I manage to gain enough power through social status, or appearance, or by a carefully honed persona, I might then be able to attain love.

I’ve experienced love throughout my life. I’ve known it expressed through friendship, through family, and even through strangers when an unexpected act of kindness suddenly dissolves the barriers we imagine exist between us. And in all of these things I feel affirmed. I feel recognized and known. But none of these contexts for love confirms my masculine identity as clearly as does romantic love. And in no other context for love does my identity as it relates to my gender, becomes so obviously important. For some, a masculine identity might be sought more fervently in their relationship with their father, or their son, or in a group of male peers, but for myself it has always been romantic love that I have turned to as the ultimate source of love, signifier of love, and context for love – so that this question, “Am I a good man?” is easily usurped by the question, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved romantically?” For another it might be usurped by, “Am I the kind of man that will be loved by my father, or my son?”

These contexts for love aren’t wrong, they’ll just never be enough to affirm our value as men, and when we mistake these experiences of love with the source that inspires them, we make idols of one another and then seek ways to worship those idols by making the offerings we believe will be valued; offerings of our bodies, of our doctrines, our thoughts, or our power.

When I look at the magazine rack at the store it seems that the importance of a specific body type is becoming arguably as prevalent for men as it is for women. My mind tells me that it’s all a farce and that I will not become more valuable as a man if my body reflects this ideal, but I still walk away with a desire at the back of my mind to exercise more, to eat a specific way, to strive to become that ideal. I know that having a healthy body is good and important but what that looks like is not the same for everyone and even if I am able to achieve that ideal, my pursuit of it as a form of power to attract romantic love will not bring me peace. Still, the gym fills up with men and women trying to fashion their bodies into the form that we are taught is perfect, the one that will make us worthy of love, or powerful enough to attract it, the one that will finally lead us to the place of peace and love in which we long to rest.

But instead of peace, we are asked to be restless. We are asked by these depictions of a physical ideal to be restless about our own bodies and the bodies of our partners. We are asked by our materialistic and power-hungry culture to be restless in our careers. We are asked to be restless in the way we relate to others, to be restless as husbands, as fathers, as sons, and as brothers, wondering always if we have yet achieved what is being asked of us, so that surrounding our minds, in a constant buzz, in a crowd of changing voices, is this steady insistence that it is not enough to simply be. We must achieve more, distinguish ourselves further, and leave a legacy, if not in the world at large, at least among our peers and our family. As men, we must establish our own immortality.

Five years ago I sat alone with a woman who was then my wife. We had spent the week apart and had met to discuss our struggling relationship. After an hour of challenging dialogue, she was no longer my wife. She explained to me the ways that I had failed to be the example of a man that she desired and deserved. And I listened feeling unable to offer her anything other than the man I believed myself to be. In that moment I was not a victim, and nor was she. There was a lot of pain for us both and I cannot fully know what her experience of that moment was, but I know that for myself, among many emotions, there was a strong sense of loss. I had lost her, and I had lost the context in which I experienced what I understood to be love, but, perhaps more impactful was the sense that I had lost a significant part of my identity. This woman, who had until that moment been my wife, was leaving me, and in doing so I was no longer a husband. I felt my identity as a man slip away. Everything came into question and my entire life suddenly shifted.

In questioning my identity as a man, I often find that my real question is simply one of identity. It’s easy for me to say, “I am a man.” But what happens in the moments when I feel unmanned; when I lose the relationship, or the career, or the status that had confirmed my identity as a man? Can I detach myself enough from my experience as a man to recognize that my masculinity is only a condition that I exist under? Am I comfortable shedding the word man from my statement of identity and leaving it just at, “I am?”

In the wake of an experience in which our sense of masculinity has been taken from us, it’s easy to feel lost. And in that feeling of nakedness it’s not surprising that we would want to quickly take up some new signifier of masculinity to protect our exposed vulnerability. But rather than trying to create a new sense of identity as a man to replace the old one, I want to fully realize that my identity is not that I am a man. I am having a male experience in this life, and that is not to be ignored, but nor is it to be confused with who I am. The “I” is a complete mystery. The “I” is not gender specific. Nor is it limited to a specific ethnicity, rank, age, or tax bracket. It is for everyone, equally.

Imagine me thirty-one years ago. My body and my mind do not yet exist. I am without description. I am neutral. I am a complete mystery. Now we are here. Your perceptions of me suddenly begin to flood in. You understand that I am a man. I am white. I am thirty. I am a photographer. I am able-bodied. I am Colin. I am a friend. I am a son. I am a brother. I am good. I am bad. I am weak. I am honest. I am a nice guy. I am unkind. I am thoughtful… The list can be endless. It can be full of contradictions and it can shift because none of these things are really who I am. They are conditions in which I exist but none of them are constant. All of them can change and all of them can be taken from me.

Milan Kundera, in his novel “Immortality”, asks us to “imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what’s inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.”

The awareness that we are none of the things in which we have so feverously invested our sense of identity can be terrifying. But it can also be liberating. The question of courage in my life comes up when I ask, “What am I willing to surrender? Would I still be me if I lost my job? Would I still be me if I lost the use of my body? Am I still me, when I say something unkind? Am I still me when my thoughts are hurtful? Would I still be me if I fell out of favor with all the people in my life? Would I still be me if I were no longer a male? Would I still be me if I lost my mind?”

Taking away all these things, there must remain something, and that something must be more important than all these shifting conditions. The conditions are important, because they shape our experience, but they are not who we are. I cannot say that I am a man, but only that I am having a masculine experience of life. And nor can I say that I am Colin. That is just a name. I am not this body, I am not my reputation, I am not my mind, and I am not my emotion because none of these conditions are absolutely constant. The ones that seem most constant, such as our mind or our gender, are as impermanent as our aging bodies, our shifting emotions, and our changing thoughts. But my deep sense is that beneath all these things there exists something that cannot be changed, something that exists identically in every one of us. When we are able to see through all of the conditions we have born around us like so many layers of skin we can then surrender ourselves fully to an identity that is not changing, whose value need not be quantified or proven. We can then release ourselves from the fear that we are not deserving of love and fully embrace the reality that we are love, and that this identity is inherent and unchanging, that even when everything else is taken away from us, it still remains. We just need to be willing to express it.

“What does it mean to be a good man?” I’ll probably ask myself this question throughout my entire life. At this point in my journey I’m learning to recognize that though I am experiencing life as a man, it is not ultimately who I am. And the importance of this is that I don’t need to feel ruled by my gender. I don’t need to ascribe to notions of masculinity that tell me I must always be powerful, that I must be hyper-sexual, that I must be ambitious, that I must be assertive, and that I must be in control. I am experiencing life as a man, and I don’t hate my gender, but nor do I need to identify unquestioningly with it. I am free to be vulnerable. I am free to cry. I am free to fail. I am free to honor the strength in others before my own. I am free to love without the fear that love is some finite resource that I must strive to achieve. I am free to embrace the endlessness of love and surrender wholly to it.

A Continued Intention

For those who have been following my blog, I have every intention of resuming in the near future. For now, my focus remains on my Dollar A Day Diet and my intention to raise money and awareness for The New Life Center with whom I worked in Malawi.
Thanks for reading,

Food for a Day

It’s been a few weeks now since I finished my 30 days of hunger solidarity. Near the end of the 30 days I shared here that although I would no longer be restricting my diet to a dollar of food per day, I had every intention of continuing to work towards supporting the New Life Center in Malawi and raising awareness of hunger issues in the world. Over the last two months I have raised $1408 for the New Life Center and hope to raise the remaining $1592 of my $3000 goal within the next three weeks. 

During the 30 Days I spent eating only a $1 of food per day, I learned this:

– Without being intentional about the food I eat, it is very easy to use food primarily as a source of pleasure, to eat more than I need, to eat food that is taxing on my…

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