learning to breath under water

Feeling confused not only about my writing but about my life, I do something I hardly ever do. I call my dear mother and hint in the narrowest of…

Feeling confused not only about my writing but about my life, I do something I hardly ever do.

I call my dear mother and hint in the narrowest of terms, in the quietest, calmest of voices, “Mum,” I say, “Mum, I am struggling.”

When our parents get to a certain age — my mother is 89 — I believe we have an obligation to listen to their stories, their concerns, fears and not burden them with our own.

But I ignore this obligation, which is an indication of the amount of pain I am feeling.

And right off the bat before I have a chance to get confessional, she says, “Gregory, you don’t sound good.”

“Well Mum,” I say, “my writing is moving rather slowly, and as you know I am in search of a new home, trying on Sitka, Alaska and Nelson, British Columbia, to see if either fits me.

“Right now I am between places, not in Yukon territory anymore and not some other place really. I feel like a nomad.”

There is a long thoughtful pause.

Then she says, “I have no idea what kind of person a nomad is, but you have always been in limbo. Is that a nomad?” she asks.

“Well, I’m not sure. But you are right, Mum, I have often been in limbo,” I tell her.

Then, as only a mother can do, a woman with heartstrings of an evolutionary tightness, she quietly lays out THE one word question on which I have dwelled — in both life and literature — for the last 10 years.

She says — listen up now — she says, “SO?”


I swallow hard and reflect.

I think to myself: So. So why is it important to be connected to a place, to have a home? What do we lose in terms of personal and community wellbeing if we are nomadic, temporary, just passing through? What do we gain?

We talk a moment or two longer. I ask her about her eyes, which are not good; about the neighbour upstairs who drinks too much; and about my brother and his position in the church.

“I love you, Mum,” I say, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Hanging up the phone, I scratch out the following note: Over the course of the last 10 years, being firmly planted and secure in Haines Junction, I have simply forgotten about all those folks with shallow roots, those with no roots, the unsettled, drifters, the nomads.

By concentrating so narrowly on the rooted folks, the farmers and gardeners, the homesteaders, the long-time community residents who stack their character one generation on another, I have neglected the “homeless.”

And now more than ever, I am neglecting the estimated two billion folks who are, or who are about to become, homeless as a result of global warming.

As ocean levels begin to rise, as droughts intensify, as weather changes and this planet heats up, billions of us will be on the move.

Countless folks will be forced to drift from place to place, constant nomads surviving in a radically changing world.

I ask myself: Who will become the voice for the 21st-century homeless, those nomadic climate-change refugees? Who will tell their story, offering them hope and optimism?

In an increasingly unstable world, I wonder about the stability of so much of humanity. I begin to sense the pain of so many desperate people alive in a world turning increasingly difficult.

Then I think of this story:

There was an old monk living near the water’s edge. He was in constant fear and worried the tide would rise up and wash him out to sea. This constant worry kept him awake at night. He lost his appetite, grew weak and became depressed.

Then one day his worst fear was realized. The sea rose up and in one big wave he and all he owned washed out to sea. But in that rush of water he was transformed, released.

He survived. He learned to breathe underwater. The fear went away. He endured.

I am comforted by this story. Most of us, the rooted and the homeless, will find ways to endure. Somehow we will learn how to breathe underwater.

Yesterday I was pleased to call my mother and give her the good news.

On a payphone, standing in the pouring rain on Baker Street, I tell her, “I am settled in Nelson.”

I am one of the lucky ones I suppose.

Here I can begin, once again, to put down roots. I feel grounded.

But from this phone, I catch sight of a man with long white hair, curled up under a red and blue awning.

All his possessions are next to him piled helter-skelter into a stolen Safeway shopping cart.

I tell Mum I love her, hang up the phone and cross the street. I think I can help this man breathe underwater.

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