Friday, 16 July 2010

Lessons From Horses - Harry Walker

Lessons from Horses
By Harry Walker
Given in Handwritten form to
Peter, William and Sarah O’Neill
on August 29, 2006

When I was going to High School, I lived on a farm about four miles from the school which was located in the town of Stayner, ON.

Our farm was on a back road; and, in winter, such roads were not ploughed out – only the main roads were ploughed at that time (around 1940). The area where we lived was also considered to be somewhat of a snow belt.

However, about two miles away, was a railway line that ran into town that was always ploughed out. So, a neighbour boy, Leighton Grainger, and I, often rode horse back as far as this line, and then walked the rest of the way. At the tracks, we simply turned our horses loose.

These were farm work horses and of course, we had no saddles. We just rode bare back (such horseback riding is not really very comfortable, but it is better than tramping through deep snow.)

When we let our horses go, they always went back home. I have thought about this since then and now realize that these horses were choosing security and comfort ahead of freedom. Most tame or domestic animals will do the same thing.

Most people are also inclined to choose comfort and security ahead of freedom. I know that during my life, I have often made this choice myself.

But it is when we choose the other option that we make the most progress, and gain the most in understanding.

It is always easier to stay in familiar territory. It takes courage to try something new. We must take risks if we are to realize life’s potential; its possibilities.

Bob's Still Dancing

On July 11, 1995, my friend Bob and I had our last conversation. His two last words were “Hello” and “Respect.” Hello, he said with his mouth. Respect, he said with his eyes. I’ll never forget that last conversation. Like many things with Bob and I, it was private, not intended to be shared. After many years and millions of thoughts, I think that it should be shared.

I was honoured to be asked to say a few words at Bob’s funeral.

It was tough to say just a few words so I gathered up the notes that had been prepared for me by my best friend Sally and I spoke at the Church.

In the short time that Bob was with us, he gave us so much to talk about, to think about, to love about and to laugh about. For me, I think about him everyday.

Bob or Bobby as his family called him was a husband, son, brother, relative and most importantly a friend. Whether it was based on marriage or by blood or by acquaintance the solid basis behind all of these relationships was friendship.

Bob was Fred’s best friend, he was Katherine’s best friend, he was his family’s best friend and I guess the reason why I had so much to say that day on July 14, 1995 was that I felt he was my best friend too.

Why did so many people who gathered that day and thought about him since value the friendship they shared with Bob? I suppose that it would be appropriate to delve into who he was, why he was important and how he became important.

Bob never got to actively pursue a particular profession because soon after he went back to school to build a life for himself and his beautiful wife Katherine, he was dealt a little set back. He got cancer of the heart.

That’s all it was to him was a setback, a blip.

But Bob was an engineer, a woodsman, lawyer, political organizer, doctor, and most importantly to all of us who knew him, a comedian. Bob, simply, was one of the funniest people I ever met.

On Wednesday after the wake, a number of people gathered at the Melanson homestead at 245 George Street, Miramichi; to grieve to eat and try and make themselves feel better. Many people who viewed Bob as their best friend were there.

Many of the people that viewed Bob as their best friend weren’t there so for the benefit of those who weren’t I’ll describe the atmosphere. It was just as electric as if Bob had been there in body as opposed to spirit.

There were people in the basement; there were people in the kitchen; in the living room where the food was spread out and a couple of groups on the veranda.

As I wandered from group to group, as I passed by there was always someone repeating the same phrase…I remember the time that Bob…and a story would follow. Those stories were filled with laughter.

I knew that each of those groups weren’t telling the same stories. Each person there and all of us who knew him had their own Bob stories. Because Bob is not a physical presence in our lives, we have a grave responsibility. We are, as his best friends, guardians of the memories.

Fred, who Bob loved and respected fiercely, is and will be a guardian of the memories. He’ll tell you of the time that he went fishing with Bobby. Fred was in the militia and had brought along a number of left over ration packs from exercises he had been on.

He had packed enough for three days. So the story goes, they had been fishing for an hour and a half and Fred looked up to see that Bob eating. He was just finishing the third day’s food.

Bob was always good to eat. I personally was amazed and astounded as to what and how much he could put away and still be as handsome and fit as he was.

I was proud of the way that he could eat, but his sister’s were proud of his courage. We all were. Terry Smith was awfully proud of him too. He summed up Bob’s courage by saying “He died well.” His life was short by some standards but he died well. Courage like that doesn’t come along all the time.

I visited Bob in Halifax a few months before he passed away and I asked him how he could do it; be so brave in the face of the struggle.

He said “Pete, it’s no problem, it’s only me, if it was you, or Katherine or someone else in my family that had cancer, I couldn’t handle it. They’d have to lock me up somewhere, but it’s only me.” Courage and selflessness like that doesn’t come along all the time.

Somehow when you had Bob around, he made you better than you were. Funnier, happier and just proud to be his best friend.

Bob and Katherine were and are a wonderful love story. I was a witness to that love from the very beginning. Bob didn’t have a girlfriend before Katherine. He was waiting for her.

He always told me that the first girl that he was going to go out with was the girl he was going to marry. He was right and true to his word.

Katherine, Bob and I lived at 774 Reid Street in Fredericton, NB. It began there. I don’t know if anyone else knew but Bob had had his eye on Katherine for quite some time. Those conversations are personal and private and will remain so.

During most of their marriage, Bob had cancer. It was something that Bob and Katherine lived with. Instead of becoming bitter or any nonsense like that, their love which was strong, only strengthened. Some people would give everything that they had for just a moment in time, feeling what Bob and Katherine shared.

I personally thought I would never have that. Sheila, Bob’s sister and the mother of our two children, have loved each other since we were kids, but now I know what Bob and Katherine shared. Thanks Bob.

Bob had great faith in himself and his love for Katherine, his family and his friends. He also had great faith in god and was strong in his Catholic faith. It was always important to him and even more so near the end of this life.

But let this be understood, it was not a blind faith. It was a faith based on examination and questioning. Now many Catholics remember that it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays – then they changes the rules. Bob wondered……what happened to the people who ate a piece of bacon on Friday “are they down there shoveling coal or what?”

Belief is a funny thing. Wondering is the same. Bob wondered about all those good decent people who didn’t follow a particular directive and he questioned their fate. Importantly though, he didn’t question his own faith in an all loving deity. We had a couple of conversations that were personal and private.

Myself, I always considered myself a rational and logical person. Many people may beg to differ but that’s the case. Until the year 2008, I had dismissed God, close to the same time I dismissed the tooth fairy. I didn’t and could not find the faith that Bob had. That is not until recently.

Bravery and courage was what I had been lacking. I was searching for the courage that I had seen in Bob. I couldn’t find the strength that he had. I now have it. Bob knew exactly who he was and what he was facing. He was facing the possibility of light. He is and always will be, at least for me, a flame that will show me the way, if only in the terms of courage and the possibility of self.

Bravery like Bob showed, most people will never have the privilege of seeing. Whether he admitted or not, he never stopped believing.

He never stopped believing, even when he started getting into holistic medicine. A few months before he died, he said to me “Well Pete, I’m down to witch doctoring.” He just never gave up. It was a lesson that stayed with me, like a beacon.

It was a beacon that, for many years, I just couldn’t fathom. My brother Donnie made the comment a couple of years ago that made a lot of sense to me. “We kinda lost our compass when we lost Bob.”

People pass from this life to another all the time, but, for myself, Bob’s passing was an emptiness and a void that just couldn’t be filled. It didn’t make any sense to me and in many ways still doesn’t. It’s above my pay grade.

I just have to accept that. Coming to terms with my lack of understanding was a very difficult process but one that was necessary.

Since Bob’s death, in my quest to understand life and our role in others lives, I encountered many people and did many things. Some of them good, some of them not so.

Every event, every person, every thought was and will be an experience. It is a moment in time that will not happen again. We see patterns, signs and signals in our lives but everything is unique. Bob’s courage is that way for me. It is something I will never see again in the same manner.

On July 16, 1995, Chief Roger Augustine called and asked me to get involved in the Big Hole Tract fishing dispute. It was the first time that we had really talked and we established a relationship from that point. Two days later, I was there when Bob passed away.

I didn’t know at that time that Roger was father to RJ O’Neill a little red headed fellow who just lived around the corner from me and who used to play in the Melanson’s yard with the next door neighbour Brad.

Since Bob, there have been other losses in our circle. James Smith, Mark Savoie among them. Each of them felt like a body blow. James who was diabetic was in the hospital with Bob in Halifax. James was getting a new kidney and was almost blind and Bob was getting cancer treatment.

We were quite a sight when we dragged ourselves to a movie theatre. You’d have thought we didn’t have a care in the world. Truth be told, we didn’t. We were together and it was just like when we were kids. The laughter came easy to us.

Of that trio that spent a night in a tent in Jamie’s yard and spent that day in the theatre I’m the only one still here. That makes me a guardian of those memories. There is an obligation for remembrance.

On June 1, 2008, I lost another best friend. One was Greg Savoie’s, brother. Mark and I had over the past couple of years become really very close. We shared thoughts and ideas and friendship. Although I didn’t have a replacement, I had discovered a best friend again. Then, in an instant, he was no longer around to talk to.

The circle of being was missing another flame. I went into my head to try and make some type of sense of these so called “losses”. Where did they go? What were they doing?

With Mark, we had a number of conversations about Math and Physics and his theories of the universe. James Smith and I were avid Star Trek Fans and would discuss the possibilities of space travel and the like. Space and time seemed to be concepts that were malleable, bending, curving and folding into and onto themselves.

The mysteries of the universe and the soul are bound to go on forever. If that’s not the case, I think I missed the point. Faith in eternal light and life involve that greatest of mysteries. Why are we here?

It has been my experience that each person’s journey towards faith and self concept is different. There is no singular path and the only true destination is that of self discovery. Bob Melanson, James Smith and Mark Savoie have helped me on that journey.

In January, 2009, I had called Roger Augustine to tell him about a speaker that I wanted to bring to the Miramichi. He told me that his son RJ O’Neill had passed away suddenly in British Columbia. Again, I was a little shook.

Just in our little circle of people that used to gather at the Melanson’s or around the NBTel building we were missing some important parts to our puzzle. It was and is a mystery as to where these people went. I don’t know for certain but I choose to carry them in my mind and my heart.

They live as strong in me as if they were standing right beside me. They’re not losses but merely new beginnings. Their spirits are full and complete and as much alive now as they were on this plane of existence. We are until we depart this plane of existence, guardians of their memories. Their goodness and strength live in us; that energy fills us, in the same way that faith and spirituality can fill our lives.

When RJ left us, I didn’t feel that I could go to his funeral so I stopped in to see his Mother, Janice and RJ’s sister Shannon. I then wrote something that I hoped would convey what I felt. It made me feel better and captured the mood I was feeling.

At Bob’s wedding and his funeral I told the story of our first Liberal Leadership convention in Fredericton. We were both in High School and supporting Doug Young. Bob had bought himself a new sports jacket from Lounsbury’s that had shoulders so sharp I feared that he would cut someone if he turned too quickly.

They were having a dance at the Aitken Centre and there was a large group of people dancing in a circle. They were playing the unofficial anthem of our high school and we were having a ball.

One person went to the middle of the large circle and started to dance. People took turns strutting their stuff in the middle. It came to Bob’s turn and he was quite a dancer. He had his ridiculous red top hat and his razor sharp sports coat.

All of a sudden, the music stopped but Bob didn’t notice and he’s still dancing in the middle of the circle of about a hundred people, just bopping along.

That’s what it was like that day in the church….

The music stopped, but Bob’s still dancing…

That day, I said something that I hoped would heal, but I was not quite finished. I needed to say something else but it wasn't time.

Here is the rest: … that's what it's like today, the music stopped but Bob's still dancing.

For a long time I couldn’t hear the music and I felt lost. I wondered why the music had died?

But there was a problem; I just wasn’t listening closely enough.

You don't hear the music until you add RJ and Mark and Jamie and my little friend Bert.

Then you start to hear the music. It is beautiful and passionate and powerful. The music starts to grow, keep adding souls, let the souls soar and the music lives.

Keep adding goodness and memories and let the souls dance and sing.

Fill the Spirit with music and dancing; fill the Spirit with all souls and let them soar, hear the music and add all the souls, past present and future and let them soar, music and dancing filling the Great Spirit.

Look, Bob’s dancing with Mark and RJ and Bert and there’s James, watching and laughing and dancing.

Enjoy the show.

God Bless you and keep you well.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Tip O'Neill, the Dalai Lama and Picking up Hitchhikers.

My father always said that you could tell a lot about a person by whether or not they picked up hitchhikers. I think it’s true. 

One choice or the other is neither good nor bad but it has been my experience that I learned a great deal from the people that have rescued me from the side of the road and vice versa.
An interesting event happened on my way to meet the Dalai Lama in Fredericton, NB.

I believe it was just around my 16th birthday and my mother, who was the deputy mayor at the time, was representing the Town of Newcastle at a luncheon for the Dalai Lama.
He was receiving an Honourary Degree from Saint Thomas University.

Mum had asked me to go with her to Fredericton and attend the luncheon. Dad gave us a drive over and spent the day looking for the perfect wood stove.

I got a new suit for the occasion. I had a choice between a grey corduroy suit and a brown one. I chose the brown one and feel I looked pretty impressive in my first brand new suit.

On the way to Fredericton, we picked up a mother and daughter who were hitchhiking to Fredericton. They were from Zealand Station and had recently been “burnt out.” The mother did all of the talking and explaining and the daughter, who was pregnant, sat mostly in silence beside me.

I listened to the mother as she recounted a number of stories, plans and in many ways, hopes and dreams. They had a few parcels and I forget why they had to go to Fredericton, but I know it was important that they get there.

It may have been that they were carrying all that they now owned.

There was a sense of determination in the mother’s voice as she spoke. There was a matter of fact way she had of speaking that was in its own way full of pride. She had some interesting stories and I listened intently.

Somewhere along our route, the daughter indicated that she was going to be sick. She was sitting beside me and barely got out before she vomited, luckily not on my brand new suit. Those two ladies made an impression on me to this very day.

I didn’t know what to expect when meeting the Dalai Lama, but when I looked in his eyes I could see kindness. That day at the Lord Beaverbook, I had lunch with the Dalai Lama. There were a few hundred people there and I sat beside Doug Young’s wife.

We had a meal of beef Wellington and I remember the shrimp cocktail, but my mind went back to the two people that we had picked up hitchhiking. I thought to myself, that they would probably never have the opportunity to partake in this type of meal and, in terms the expense of our lavish feast, they probably could have replaced the burnt remains of their dwelling.

There was a certain sadness that came with that realization.

The previous year, 1979, near my 15th birthday, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of other people who had a profound impact on my social and political philosophy. They were Pierre Trudeau and Andy Scott.

I merely nodded to Trudeau and listened to him speak. He was in retirement at the time and I remember that a few of the young liberals had grown a beard to reflect that our former Prime Minister was canoeing and had grown one as well.

Trudeau showed up at the Young Liberal Convention in Fredericton without a beard and didn’t look like someone who was in retirement. A few months later, he said. “Welcome to the 1980’s.” 

His vision of a “just society” had never left him and he continued on his journey.

It was a vision that I share. Justice, equality and the balance to be found between collective and individual rights pervade my thoughts and I think that the dream of a just society is one that is within the grasp of human experience.

According to B. W. Powe in his book the Mystic Trudeau, the sometimes enigmatic Prime Minister stated in 1972, “Justice to me is a warm spirit, born of tolerance and wisdom, present everywhere.”

If justice is everywhere, how does it manifest itself? Is that “warm spirit” all around us waiting to be acted upon?

Justice, at least to me, involves human direction and choices in order to manifest itself.

A couple of days before my son was born I was traveling to Fredericton for some meetings. Sheila was being admitted the next day to the hospital and labour was going to be induced.

For some reason, we had been expecting a girl and didn’t have a name picked for a boy.
I picked up a hitchhiker in Renous. He was from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and was on his way to Ontario to find work. 

We stopped in Doaktown to get some sandwiches and continued on our way.

As it is in a bus station, or train or hitchhiking we got into personal conversations and shared personal experiences that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s easy to do that with someone you don’t know and will never see again.

I had been dreading going to Fredericton, but the trip passed in almost an instant because of my new found confidant.

My sisters once joked that “Pete used to be an atheist but we got him knocked down to agnostic.” 

At that time, I never entertained the spiritual nature of things.

I felt so relieved and comfortable with that particular man that I asked him something that for me was extremely strange and totally out of character.

“Are you an angel?” I asked.

His answer struck me in a fashion that I can’t fully describe.

“You never know when you are being entertained by angels.” He replied, lapsing into silence and contemplation.

As he gathered up his things to get out of the car and continue on his journey, I noticed the name Bill on his work gloves.

That day, after my meetings, I was driving back to the Miramichi and was on the winding Kilarney road and phoned Sheila and simply said, “William Robert Melanson-O’Neill.”

“Perfect”, she replied.  

William arrived two days later. Our son is named after a hitchhiker, or an angel. 

Maybe both.

In 1971, when I was looking for something to read, I found out JFK had been shot.

One summer day, I was tired of playing with all the kids in the neighbourhood, I wanted to be alone and was looking for something to read.

Sometimes it was a little kids village around the neighbourhood and there was a bunch of us, just next door, at the Morrisons, they had 14 or 15 children in the family, we had six in ours, another set of O'Neills, the Comeaus, the Barrys had four, there were the Roys I could go on but I have pictures in my mind with the names and the faces and if I need to be reminded, we have lots of photos.

There sometimes were almost too many to count, but the ball field next to 270 Station Street and the playground behind Morrison's drew them from all over town.

In any event, I needed some alone time and I was, as usual, looking for something to read. I came across a bunch of folded up newspapers in a little room off the kitchen that we sometimes used as a fort.

They started November 23, 1963.

I thought to myself, who left these yellowed old newspapers around, but they had been read a few times, I could tell that. Now, I'm interested.

With a supply of peanut butter sandwiches and some kool aid, I never left that room for three days, coming out only to eat, sleep and go the bathroom.

Some guy named JFK had been shot and I wanted to know why it was important enough that someone would save reading material that usually goes in the garbage within minutes of being read.

Besides, it didn't really matter to me because, by that time I was reading ingredient labels on cans. I just wanted something to read.

I found out all about that day in Dallas, November 22, 1963.

I started to read everything I could get my hands on about him, trying to find out why it was important, why he was important.

I needed to know this because I wanted to be important too. We all do.

I had a picture book biography to start and that gave me the base. I read until I learned why he was important and how he became important.

Among the things I read were, johnny we hardly knew ye and joshua son of none.

In joshua son of none, I found the answer. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was important because he was part of a family. I knew someday I would be important too because I was part of station street and we had the best family going.

By the way, I was a normal kid, my favourite books of all time are about Pippi Longstockings, I used to sometimes try to sleep under the covers, with my feet sticking out, but I found it too hard to breathe so I stopped trying.


Abraham, Martin & John