Thursday, February 1, 2018


So many broken memories,
So many places I never fit.

Too often the guest, rarely the host,
Too many sofa-beds.

So often keeping silent,
So often needing to be agreeable.

Never in my own home,
Never feeling at home.

A stranger within myself,
A stranger in my own skin.

Needing to be alone,
Needing desperately not to be alone.

Where I never wanted to be,
Where I was at home.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


early 1980s

    The expanse of forested land leading out to the parkland stretches before me. It is beautiful but I am not enjoying it. I have driven north of the city to this hill with a heavy, depressed mood upon me. Even the rich green textures and natural setting of a forest do not seem able to lift my spirits as they had always done in my youth. I see, but do not feel, nature around me.

    A breeze begins to blow and turns to a light wind. I close my eyes and feel my hair blown across the skin of my forehead and some strands blowing upward above my head. Slowly, as the wind continues and I am aware of the warmth of the sun, I begin to imagine God standing beside me mussing my hair with his fingertips as a man might do playfully to a boy. The mental image captivates me and I am lost in my fantasy as the wind dies a little and becomes a gentle caress over my skin. I feel my hair settling in disarray. The silky smooth breeze is soothing and at the same time energizing.

    An instinctive smile is on my lips even before I open my eyes. The lush greens of the trees stretch before me and I see the details of moving leaves and tree branches. Farther away I see the edge of the parkland and it all seems alive and breathing with a life of its own. Above the emerald landscape is a rich, blue, cloudless sky. The air smells fresh and clean. I have forgotten what terrible thing had weighed me down and led me to this spot. I linger awhile in the moment.

    It is time to return to the city and I reluctantly turn and walk toward my car. It is time to leave but I carry a peacefulness inside me that had been sorely absent when I arrived. I get into the car and start the engine. For a few moments I ease myself back against the seat and relax. Flashing a brief, quick smile I put my foot on the brake and shift into reverse. As it was in my youth, so it still is, the forest is my sanctuary.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


       They call it a worry stone. It sits on my desk, most of the time, and I occasionally pick it up to idly rub my thumb over the concave sides. Oval with narrow sides, it is polished and smooth to the touch. This particular stone is a mix of grey tones with rusty-brown colours. I hold it in my hand and rub my thumb back and forth in the hollows of the sides, or just fondle it gently, pausing now and then to look at it. Surprisingly, to me at least, it does indeed produce a calming effect.

       I bought this stone in a store that specializes in unusual and exotic goods one day after having lunch with my closest friend, Margo. It was cold that day, with a modest but chilling wind and random flakes of snow blowing about, as we crossed the road to the store. After browsing for awhile, and each of us making our small purchases, we re-crossed the busy street. I recall saying that it was not really that cold, then adding that if I kept saying that I might be able to convince myself it was true. Margo chuckled.

       That is the interesting thing about objects like this piece of rock. They remind me of other times and other places and other experiences. A piece of rock like my worry stone can bring to mind vivid memories of a happy hour or two over lunch and exploring a new store with someone close, or long ago visions of more painful, but also pleasant, times.

       We used to throw stones at each other, or any worthy target, when I was a kid. The trick was not to get hit by the ones thrown at you, which I often did. Later in life I went west for a summer and climbed rocks. Those memories are vivid too. For some, a piece of music will take them back to times and experiences fondly remembered, or wished forgotten, but for me it is the simple piece of polished stone on my desk that is the key to so many forgotten experiences. They call it a worry stone. I call it a memory of my life.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


       The temperature is supposed to hit 30C this afternoon. As I sit in air-conditioned comfort I remember a weekend that seems so long ago, but actually wasn’t. Here is what I thought at the time:

       My windows are shut tight. The Weather Network, muted because of the early hour, reports that the temperature is -17C. The wind chill, the temperature you actually feel on your skin, is -27C. The extremes of cold are due to something called the arctic vortex hovering over our region. My understanding of the vortex is that it is a mass of brutally cold air from the far north that, because of air currents, has escaped its rightful place and descended on us poor southerners without mercy.

       In these conditions Environment Canada issues many warnings to dress warm and keep skin covered. The risk is of frostbite. It can happen in a matter of minutes to exposed skin. The city also attempts to get the homeless into shelters. Sleeping out in these conditions could result in death.

       For my part, there is little I can do to help others in these circumstances. I have few resources and, due to *COPD, I stay inside during these vortices. I have, on a few occasions, found myself in a panicky state, unable to breath, in extreme cold. Retreating to a warm environment at those times brings slow relief, but eventually the flow of air returns. I can only wish them well in Toronto where the NBA All-star Game festivities are underway this weekend.

       Today, when I would usually be facilitating the writer’s group at the library, I will be burrowed in at home with all the windows shut and the heat at a comfortable level. I will read and perhaps write; I may watch a movie. What I will not do is venture out of doors, not even bundled in a parka, scarf, toque, gloves, and boots. A few deep breaths of this frigid air will all but paralyze me and I want no part of it.

       I may not be the cold-resistant, stereotype of a Canadian that the rest of the world expects, but I can breath and sit around with no shirt on, sip coffee, and be content in my small one bedroom cocoon. Someone else can be the rugged stereotype - at least until the vortex returns to the far north where it belongs. 
(*Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. For more information see: )  

Sunday, June 19, 2016


       One day last year, as I waited for a bus, Bill walked by. I had not seen him much for a few years and it appeared his condition was deteriorating. He was a touch over six foot, thin now and gaunt looking, with greying hair and a full unkempt beard. His clothes were dirty to the point of looking greasy and he walked with the hint of a limp as his upper body leaned into each step and then rocked back. Always tanned, he spent his days outdoors walking or looking for places to sit outside. I said hello but he seemed not to notice me, only mumbling "Hi how's it going?" as he kept on his way.    

       There was a time when Bill and I knew each other well and were often seen together. He had been a bit of a loner when we met. Friends asked me to assist him with some basic living chores so Bill and I met regularly to gather his clothing and do laundry and then I would take him to a local grocery store to shop. We also both were regulars at The London Coffee House where I volunteered and did part-time work. Bill began to offer his help there at snack time, taking a tray of cookies around to each person once a night. He was there all the time and he came to be almost an ambassador for the place with his outgoing, non-judgmental, friendly way. Everyone knew Bill. He laughed a lot and would share his unusual points of view in his easy going style. He was featured in some of the United Way's promotional material on the Coffee House during fund raising season. On one occasion, the United Way sent a crew to film us on trips to do laundry at a spot owned and run by a local tavern. I was told the agency rep complained to the Coffee House director that Bill and I swore at each other so much that it was offensive. We both laughed about that. Bill would take part in trips and events run by the Coffee House as well, and there are many pictures of him posing with groups of people who also took part.  I was there the day he was presented with a certificate from the United Way thanking him for his volunteer service.

       His point of view was different, but always interesting. When a volunteer group was cleaning the building that housed the Coffee House, he told the director that he did not see a point to it as it would just get dirty again. A new winter parka was purchased for him one year and the first time he wore it he had a bad slip on some ice. He refused to wear the parka again, insisting it was responsible for the mishap.    

       Eventually, I was no longer able to assist Bill and the Coffee House director took over. He was extremely fond of her and the arrangement worked well for a while. But Bill continued to have difficulty keeping a residence. Cleanliness was most often the problem. Finally, he did not have a place of his own and had his clothes done for free and was able to take a shower at an outreach agency nearby. The director made sure he was seen by a nurse when he needed to be and meals were delivered and kept at the Coffee House for him. The staff would take one to him as he sat on the steps outside each day.

       He resisted more and more vigorously any attempts to help him, though, and his appearance grew worse along with some realities of not living anywhere. Bill walked endlessly along the main street but still had a couple of steady friends. He had been spoken to about his physical condition by the staff of a number of places he might otherwise have been able to go for relief, but would get angry and refuse to return there rather than practice the necessary hygiene.

       When I left the Coffee House I rarely saw Bill except to notice him trudging along Dundas Street, alone. Not long after the last time I saw him, while I waited at the bus stop, I received word that Bill had been found dead. I never knew where Bill had grown up or who his family were, he never said. I didn't know anything at all about his background, actually. Despite his appearance the last few years of his life, to me he was always the guy who was quick to laugh, sympathetic to anyone who was upset, took pride in the service he did as part of the Coffee House community, and most often greeted me by calling me a son of a b---- and breaking out in laughter. When I think of Bill, this is who I remember: a guy I liked but knew nothing about. Mysterious Bill.
(The London Coffee House is now run by CMHA Middlesex at a new location. They offer a variety of programs and services. For more information see: )

Friday, June 17, 2016


       On a cold, wintry afternoon in February, a young boy, perhaps eight or nine, stood beside his mother greeting guests as they entered the soup kitchen. His mother, a long-time volunteer at the soup kitchen, informed each person who arrived that it was her son’s birthday. He had asked, in lieu of a gift, if he could buy lunch for the people at the soup kitchen and his mother had proudly agreed. Each guest of the birthday-boy stopped to speak a few heartfelt words of gratitude before going to their table. A smiling server brought a hot plate of turkey, gravy, stuffing, vegetables, cranberries and bread along with chocolate cake for dessert and a six inch submarine-type sandwich of cold meat to take away.

       St. Joseph’s Hospitality Center, at 707 Dundas St. East in London, does more than open its doors to feed low income and struggling clients each day of the week. It is a hub of activity involving businesses and other community organizations in the city. The coordinator, Bill Payne, has been with the “soup kitchen,” as it is commonly called, for approximately 22 years, the last 10 of those as coordinator.

       “It’s primarily supported by the Sisters of St. Joseph. It is their kitchen and they fund it, the majority of it,” he says.

       The soup kitchen opened in 1985 and has been at its present location for over 25 years.

       Numerous businesses donate food supplies to the soup kitchen, among them Metro, Parkwood Hospital, Canada Bread and Tim Horton’s. Volunteer drivers pick up the supplies, the surplus being redistributed to other community organizations in the city like the Men’s Mission Services. The staff also refers guests to other services in the city such as the London Intercommunity Health Centre, the Unity Project, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Men’s Mission.  

       The soup kitchen has approximately 120 volunteers. Between 60 to 70 work each week. Each shift four work serving meals at tables, two do clean up and two are dishwashers. Three “doughboys” rotate shifts picking up and delivering supplies.

       “[The kitchen] couldn’t be run without the volunteers,” says Payne.

       Breakfast and lunch are served Monday to Friday. Approximately 400 meals are served daily. The cost to guests is 50 cents and $1 respectively. For $25 a month they can eat both meals daily. The soup kitchen is also open for short periods on three Saturdays a month. These can be mornings for guests to sit and have coffee and read the newspaper in an unhurried fashion, or an evening coffee house setting with beverages, food, cards and music.

       One of the reasons guests are charged for meals is to avoid the temptation to think they’re getting something for free and have no right to complain or expect better. The food is good, the service is prompt, the smiles genuine and the conversation friendly. Volunteers make it a welcoming, social place.         

       “[The guests are paying] so the food needs to be good,” says Payne with a smile.

       Payne says many of the volunteers are in transition in their private lives when they contact the soup kitchen. Retirement, isolation, new to the city, are some of the reasons that people volunteer there. There are also many students from Western University.

       “It’s much more than just food,” says Payne. “[The] one word is community.”