I make notes. Normally I have piles of papers on my desk on which I have written lines I want to remember from podcasts, books, or movies, or even jokes such as, “She said nothing would make her happier than diamonds, so I gave her nothing.” While cleaning up a bit for some guests, I noticed one paper that had “Gaspé Mechanic,” written on it, and then below, “Everything is connected. Everything changes. Pay Attention.” The Gaspé Mechanic is from August, 2018 when I was stuck in the Quebecois town of Gaspé, with van trouble. The “Everything,” piece is a quote from the poet Jane Hirshfield, whom I heard on a podcast. I found solace and connected meaning in the two offerings.
I wrote about my Gaspé experience in a previous essay entitled “Gasping in Gaspé.” The piece described how I had found myself forced to spend the long August weekend there, stranded as my van engine was making a horrendous noise–needed attention, but the garages were closed for the holiday. It was a beautiful town, with one of the best beaches in Canada I think, a discovery I would not have made if I had merely driven through as planned. It was my rusty French that added to the problem. I did my best in restaurants, affronted when the servers would ask if I would rather have an English menu. “No,” I would explain. “I said that I wanted giraffe spots on toast with eggs soft poached like a carburetor, and I meant it,” except in French.
An excellent woman in a shop gave me her mechanic’s number. The stressful part was phoning him; no physical cues to help out. He spoke little English, but we managed. We were both nice to each other–my verbal stumbling, and his disembodied voice soft over the phone. He was kind enough to open his garage for me on the holiday Monday. When I arrived, he set out a chair for me under a tree so that I could sit in the French shade on that lovely summer day, and through the open garage door, watch the back end of my van go up, then down, then up, then down, then up again before the final bow. I remember how funny that was, like something out of a Jaqcues Tati movie. My bill was only fifty-six dollars leaving me speechless in both languages. “Le problème était seulement un boulon manquant.” I was only missing a bolt, when I had been figuring on needing a whole new engine. Do you want to know what I think? I think the garage owner was paying attention and could tell how stressed I was. I was doing my best to ask for help, for someone to be nice to me as I was, alone with a big problem.
The full Hirshfield quote is, “Zen pretty much comes down to three things…everything is connected; everything changes; pay attention.” Belt in, because I’m going to connect a thing:
When I was a kid, I never much liked going to Quaker Meeting; yes tighten your belt– but for some reason, I was always the one that my father asked to join him there. I suppose my brother and sister, seven and eight years older were off at boarding school. Even my mother rarely attended. To be clear, Quaker Meeting is not arduous. It’s church, except there is no sermon–anyone can stand and speak, and no music. Quakers believe the spirit of God is in everyone, so no need for a go-between, God will speak through you. Quakers are pacifists, and keen on lifting up those suffering, and I am all for that. It was just no fun going to meeting when there were rarely enough kids to have a Sunday school so I had to sit with the adults. I got good at it; I could be still and quiet with the best of them. I suppose it was the lack of balance in our family that made me dislike meeting. Once my father retired, he became the Uber Quaker, wanting to save the world, to the detriment of our family unit already fractured by our mothers’ drinking that dovetailed with the overall arrogance and judgement of our paternal grandmother. Our family didn’t seem to spend much time doing things together. Honestly, I don’t remember events we attended as a family. I know this doesn’t mean that it never happened, but there is nothing I can locate in my brain files. I don’t remember our mother–well, our mother just couldn’t get herself together to be the welcoming, caring figure I craved as the archetype. My father tried to kill himself in 1972, and succeeded in 2004. After his memorial at the meeting house, I had no plans to go back. I was done with religion, blaming it for being more important than our family was to our father.
Therapy for me since the mid 90’s, and then divorce, and then looking after my mother during Covid. One of my therapists suggested a book, Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance,” that helped to shift my inner life. I was already a fan of Carl Jung, and dreams, and this inner being, but Brach’s words, and the words in about a dozen other Buddhisty books, helped me begin to address my anger, ladled over as it was with a thick gravy of unworthiness. I remember stomping along the hall to my mother’s apartment one day. I stopped myself, aware of my whole body brittle with anger. I told myself that since I was never going to be mean to my own mother, was always going to do the best for her, why not drop the anger and work to be present instead. This wasn’t a perfect fix, but this awareness started my journey toward a better inner place. I had meditated for ages, but it was reworking my relationship with my mother that was the thing. Before you get all ready for a Hallmark shifteroo here, you can stand down; I reworked the story from her being someone I was supposed to be inspired by, feel the love from, to a human being in a body that I was taking care of. I stopped expecting her to change, and that was a relief.
In October of 2022, my siblings moved our mother to a facility near my sister. I was exhausted, but through tending my mother, had been able to understand more of what my father might have suffered. In February of 2023, I did a psychedelic trip. You need to know that, as per the late Terrence McKenna, a renowned source on psychedelics, it’s important to ask the questions you want answered before the journey. My first two questions were about profession and belonging. The third was, “What is it that the mushrooms want me to know?” They answered my initial questions and you can imagine my surprise when they took me on a powerful healing journey with my father. What’s key here, other than I was weeping–my face and eyeshade soaked with tears, was that the images I was shown of my father I had never imagined. It was as if I was accessing a different realm of the psyche, of mystical space. The quality of those images made me confident that I was not making them up, but was seeing the work of something else. The experience was life-changing, remarkably healing as it tended the relationship I have with my father, and yes I am using the present tense.
The town I am living in, Uxbridge, has a Quaker Meeting House, well cared for, but not used. Late in August, I began going there to walk around, or sit quietly on the porch. Then I felt drawn to read a book by a favourite author of mine, John O’Donohue, called, “To Bless the Space Between Us.” I had put off buying this book, favouring his “Anam Cara,” and other works. Why would I want a book of blessings? What was I going to do with that? I was wise enough to know that it was a matter of time–that I was being guided toward this, so I went ahead and ordered the book, an effort similar to finding yourself going for a run despite deciding not to, because something deep-in wants it. When it arrived, I picked it up at our local book store and took it to the Uxbridge Meeting House porch. I opened it to read and wept as if something huge was lifted off of my shoulders. O’Donohue was a wonderful writer, his language infused with the Celtic flavour that I love, but there was something else: In the same self-knowledge that made me go ahead and order the book, I decided that the following Sunday, I would attend the active Quaker Meeting in Newmarket where I had gone as a child, that my father loved, and where he was buried. I couldn’t believe I was even considering this.
September 3rd, and there I was, in the Meeting House, sitting on the benches with others, some whom I knew. I wasn’t sure what to expect in that stillness, looking out through the old, familiar windows, smelling that old building smell that I knew so well. Something deep-in began to shift, as if the cells in my body recognized the building as, “place,” and “belonging.” Meeting started, the beginning noted by the clerk who stood as per usual, welcomed everyone, said a few words to consider, and then sat down. In the silence, I felt a grand wave of emotion coming and my heart beginning to beat out of my chest. When one speaks in meeting, it is encouraged to wait to be moved by spirit instead of planning a speech you want to give. I waited, let my heart calm down because if I stood then, I would have fallen over. I tried to dismiss what I felt moved to say, but it kept returning, so I stood and spoke about how good it felt to be back. I spoke about the gift of grief, and the wisdom from healing around it. I talked about my father and my grandmother and aunt out in the cemetery, likely glad that I was attending, and that “I was happy too.” The thing was, as I wept through my words, and then still struggled while sitting, I imagined another new image of my father. It was again, as if the image was coming from somewhere else. He looked healthy, and happy–almost groovy, in clothing I had never seen before, standing tall in that sunlit room. I hadn’t done mushrooms here, but had still somehow found access to the mystical.
Sitting on the chair watching my van go up and down was not the same as sitting in meeting, but perhaps the feeling of being cared for was similar. All of my life, I’ve been doing my best, trying to understand my place in the world, but for so long had no idea who I was. To have felt such love there in meeting, and to have witnessed that image of my father was overwhelming. It was as if the mushroom experience enabled me to release his shame around his suicide, and to help us both to understand how much my deeper self loves him. Was it my healing work that made possible his appearance in the meeting house? Was it my risking that trip and feeling my father on that deep, deep level that allowed me to escort him safely to the place that meant so much to him? I couldn’t have done it sooner. The Greeks called it “Kairos,” the right time. And you know, I didn’t so much as forgive my father, but instead, understand him better.
I think about my mortality often, mostly as a helpful threshold: “If death is going to happen anyway, why not go ahead and do the big, fun thing?” Really, what is there to fear? In my darker times, I reached out for support to regain my footing. I reached out because I have two kids whom I adore. It makes me sad that my father attempted suicide once, then years later succeeded. I can’t know if he had reached out to anyone. Was he thinking of us kids? Did our existence stop him from making other attempts? I wonder if he struggled to make himself understood, to make it clear that he needed help leading up to that night, but nobody was listening. There was nobody who was paying attention. Nobody set a chair out for him.
It is all connected. Everything does change. And yes, pay attention. I have learned that life does give us clues when we’re ready for them. People come along, experiences that we couldn’t have planned for; a simple bolt instead of a new engine, or an experience with something mystical that nudges you toward healing and a revelation of your powerful, deeper self.