3rd Temple: Ryusen-ji (The Lovers)


East meets West where the Samurai meets the Cowboy: Ronin.

Sometime in the 17th Century the young Samurai Gonpachi got into an argument with his clansman over who had the better dog. A sword fight ensued and Gonpachi, being handy with his weapon, killed his clansman. Forced to flee, he became a ronin: a wandering Samurai with no master to serve.


One evening he slunk into a country inn for a drink, a meal, and a bed.  In the night he was startled from sleep by a gorgeous 15-year-old girl, Komurasaki, come to warn him that the inn-keepers were robbers and villains, intent on murdering him and stealing his beautiful sword. She also revealed herself as the daughter of a rich merchant, kidnapped by these evil men, and begged him to save her. So he sliced up the gangsters, killing them all, and returned Komurasaki to her parents.


Gonpachi and Komurasaki had fallen in love, and father and daughter did everything they could to convince him to marry and take over the family business, but Gonpachi, ever the cowboy, was not through with wandering, so he rode off into the sunset. Back to Tokyo. Or Edo, as it was then called.

Time passed.

Gonpachi began to hear stories of an extraordinary courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, not far from where Ueno Station now stands. This young prostitute was reputed to surpass all of her competition in beauty and womanly skills. Gonpachi went off to the Miuraya brothel to find out if the stories were true. He discovered that the young woman was his Komurasaki. She had indentured herself into prostitution to support her destitute parents: apparently her father’s business had not done well since Gonpachi rode away.


Reunited, the lovers could not get enough of one another. Gonpachi returned to Miuraya brothel every day. Ronin, though, have no source of steady income and Gonpachi soon ran out of funds to pay for his lover’s favours. Komurasaki would never have kept him from her bed, but Gonpachi was too ashamed to come to the brothel without money, so he killed a man, stole his money, and gave it to Komurasaki. In the days that followed he killed another man and then another and another, showering their money on his beloved. By the time it was finished he was reputed to have murdered 130 men for love of dog and Komurasaki.


In the end, the law caught up with him and he was executed by haritsuke: crucified and impaled by spears.  His body was buried just outside the gates of Ryusen-ji, better known as Meguro Fudo, an important Buddhist temple dedicated to the black-eyed fire god Fudomyo. Komurasaki killed herself on his grave and is buried there beside him.

In Japan these two lovers are symbolized by the fabulous bird hiyokudori, which has only one wing and so must find its other half in order to fly: the incarnation of faithful love.



On December 31st morning in Tokyo, Lee and I make our way from the Grand Prince Takanawa to Sunset Plaza hotel in Shinjuku. As we step out of Shinjuku subway station, I misjudge the height of one of the steps, my weight coming down heavily on one foot. Except for a pang of pain that disappears as I walk on, I am okay.

At 3 P.M. Lee returns, subway map in hand, and suggests that we make it to another Kannon temple. We get off at the Nakana-Fujimicho station and find that Toen-ji is closed. We wander down deserted streets searching for a nearby temple. Everyone seems away for the New Year holiday.  We meet Amy who has learned English from her month in Canada at the University of Manitoba, and she guides us to the subway stop.

At our $100 dinner, there is once again nothing much for me to eat.  Where are the famed soba noodles? Hungry and a little despondent at being pilgrims who cannot find temples or arrive at temples with closed doors, I pick at the margarita pizza that the organizers, belatedly, ordered for their handful of vegetarian participants, while others relish the famous Kobe beef and grilled fish.  In this island country the fish looks delicious, but I remember my joyous dream of fish basket Guan Yin (there is one such temple on this pilgrimage); in a second dream at CTTB, Kannon-like, I’d gathered hallways of dying jeweled fish and returned them to the water: I saved some, but not all.


After dinner Lee and I plan to attend New Year celebrations at a Tokyo temple. I suggest Meiji shrine, interested in seeing its unadorned cypress wood buildings, bronze lanterns, expansive gardens and roof of camphor trees. The temple commemorates Emperor Meiji who transitioned Japan from a feudal to modern society.

Lee suggests the 33rd temple on the Kannon pilgrimage, Rysuen-ji.

“Really? Will they have New Year celebrations?”

“They should. It’s a large temple.”

This evening in Tokyo, his belly may not be full of soba gold, but his heart is pure and his body when we embrace is warm.  I know that he wants this for me. It would be perfect to spend New Year’s in Kannon’s presence.


At Rysuen-ji, we may miss out on gongs and a large-scale celebration, but I am happy to be with him.  In the restroom, I slip out of my dress and slip on comfortable shoes, jeans, and a sweater.  Lee wears a suit jacket with his jeans and I worry that he will be cold.  Dressed almost always in blue jeans, he has something of the cowboy in him.  Fortunately, in our love’s history there are no murders and brothel. Yet, will our love rival the fidelity of Gonapache and Komurasaki?  Against seemingly impossible odds, we are still together.



2nd Temple: Seisui-ji


Seisui-ji could not be more different than its colossal neighbour, Senso-ji. A modest modernist structure built in 1993, we identify it by the golden dharma wheel on the face of the second floor balcony. Bright prayer flags frame an open window on the balcony. There are no crowds. We ring the doorbell and when a young man answers we have the awkward feeling that we are intruding in a private home. Once we’ve shown him our go-shuin books he understands and escorts us to the lovely shrine, leaving us alone there while he takes our books to the monk for inscription.


Despite its modern look, Seisui-ji dates to the 9th Century, though the original temple was located more than three miles away. It was built to house a Kannon statue that, according to legend, saved Tokyo from a terrible epidemic. Marcus Powles’ book tells us that the monk who carved the statue prostrated himself 3 times before every stroke of his chisel. When he finished carving the statue and placed it in the temple, the epidemic ended.

The original statue was destroyed in a fire, but before us is a Kannon that dates from the 14th Century. All the way back to Chaucer’s time, I can’t help but think.  It was Canterbury Tales that introduced me to the concept of pilgrimage. The thought of the Knight and the Miller and the Lady of Bath takes me back to memorizing the opening lines of the poem in high school. As I sit, trying to let go of these thoughts and to meditate, I am finally overwhelmed by my bladder. That beer I had with lunch. My body getting the better of me. I tell Ranjini I’m going to look for a washroom, but I can’t find our host, and the urgency of my mission makes me leave the temple altogether, telling Ranjini I’ll meet her there in a few minutes. She agrees and goes back to her meditation.


We would not have recognized the temple if it had not been for the gold wheel of the dharma chakra, a symbol of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Standing with Lee by the bare plum tree with the Zen garden to one side, we are disoriented by the smallness of Seisui-ji. We are the only pilgrims here.

On the first floor, I admire a scroll with the Heart Sutra.  A young man guides us to the shrine and shuts the door behind him. The shrine is gold leaves and flowers, candles, black lacquer and hanging lanterns. After the millions of pilgrims at Senso-ji—the bronze-roofed incense burner, thick smoke, roof of 70, 000 bronze tiles, falling oracle sticks—here, there is silence. When Lee leaves in search of a restroom, I remain seated before a many-armed gold Kannon. To the side of this elegant altar, I spot an unusual looking Japanese Kannon: she is around two-feet tall, a young woman with straight-black shoulder length hair and a gold disc of a seated Amitabha on the crown of her head.


Now, the young man returns with our go-shuin books and it is 4:30 pm and closing time. I wait outside for my Beloved.  When Lee returns, we cross the road and enter a store stacked with beautiful bowls. I am drawn especially to a bowl with the image of an orange phoenix, mythical bird, fire and ashes, symbol of endings and new beginnings.  I am bone-weary of the rapidity of the many beginnings and endings of my life and I walk away from the beckoning phoenix. Tired of packing and unpacking, disposing and giving away things, storing and shipping things, I am also trying to buy less, own less.


On Kappabashi Dogugai Avenue, we stroll past plastic food displays—steak, sushi and fruit baskets, and a cut-out of a chef floating high above a corner building. In a tiny store cluttered with stainless pots, I spot a small crème plaster-of-paris Kannon, right knee raised, seated on a lotus in regal repose: six U.S. dollars.  I ask the old woman if she has a second Kannon similar to this, and she rummages, unearths a box.  For 10 U.S. dollars, I buy two Kannons—one for each of us to take back to our separate homes to mark the first day of our pilgrimage.


1st Temple: Senso-ji


Even if you’re not on pilgrimage, Senso-ji is an appropriate place to begin a visit to Tokyo. It’s the city’s oldest temple, dating back before the city existed, almost 1400 years to 645 AD. It’s doubtful that anything but the Sumida River remains from that time, aside from the statue of Kannon that the original temple was built to house. The brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari were fishing on the Sumida and caught the statue in their nets on the morning of March 18th, 628. As they were eating their breakfast, they couldn’t have imagined the city that would grow around the statue they were about to find; they couldn’t imagine us imagining them on that sunny morning.


The statue that remains as evidence of their presence on the Sumida River that day must be imagined. Shokai Shonin, the Priest who built the original temple, had a dream warning him that no one should see the statue and it was not seen again for over a thousand years until, during the Meiji period, suspicious government officials came to verify its existence. The officials opened the altar and made sketches of the statue while the monks averted their eyes. The Bodhisattva has not been seen since, but we trust s/he is there, hidden, surrounded by the city s/he founded and the hundreds of millions of lives s/he holds in her heart. A good metaphor for faith.


The trains aren’t crowded on this 30th of December, and when we exit the subway we have no trouble finding the temple: signs everywhere point the way. By the time we reach the enormous red-and-black Japanese lantern of Kaminarimon, “The Thunder Gate”, we are submerged in a sea of humanity. On any given day Senso-ji is a popular spot, attracting 30 million visitors each year, but today is only one day before New Year’s Eve. Coming as I do from a farm in Saskatchewan I feel as though I’m surrounded by all 30 million. At least I’m taller than average, whereas Ranjini sinks into the crowd. Nervous that I’ll lose her, I grasp her hand and we follow the procession through The Kaminarimon Gate, imitating the others who reach up and touch the dragon carving fitted into its base. I suspect we’re doing this for luck.

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Once through, we swim with the crowd up Nakamise-dori, slowly approaching the temple. This narrow street, lined on both sides with a multitude of stalls selling food, crafts, kimonos and t-shirts, cheap and expensive souvenirs, makes me realize that pilgrimage is about more than faith. It’s about separating the pilgrims from their money. I don’t voice this to Ranjini, knowing she won’t appreciate the cynicism of this sentiment, but it is undeniable that the economy created by the pilgrimage is, perhaps, as important in understanding it as faith. Money may not make the world go round, but it does make people gather, and it creates cities and civilizations. All that is made manifest in the crowd pressing against us as we edge our way toward the Hozomon Gate.


Hozomon means “Treasure House” and this gate marks the boundary between the profane world of commerce and the actual temple grounds. Two Nio statues guard the gate, and the 2nd floor of the treasure house contains ancient copies of the lotus sutra and the Issai-kyo, an ancient manuscript of Buddha’s teachings. We stop at a stall near the Hozomon Gate, where a nun sells incense for 100 Yen, and ask where to buy our go-shuin book. These are used to record the visit to each temple: a monk or lay-worker stamps a page and adds beautiful calligraphy that contains a mantra, the date, and the temple’s name. The nun draws a map and Ranjini buys and lights some incense, leaving it as an offering in the huge metal incense burner. She flutters her hands like birds to direct the smoke over her body and bows to the beautiful young Buddha.



After Marie introduced me to Kuan Yin, I was confused by my overwhelming devotion to an unknown goddess.  One night after I prayed to Kannon—“Am I on the right path?”—I dreamed of her.

She stood before me. “Hello, I’m Kuan Yin.”

She was in her thirties, medium-height, beautiful, slender, dressed in gray robes, her black hair coiled in a topknot.

“You must be very busy,” I said.

She smiled at my words. “Yes,” she said, before taking off, one leg gracefully folded like an Indian goddess, flying like a dakini into the air.


I am used to crowds but I sense Lee’s difficulty as we press forward to the ancient temple of Senso-ji.   Since that dream encounter, I have been on pilgrimage.  Yet, this is my first formalized pilgrimage with 33-stops and a go-shuin book. In the souvenir stalls, there are no postcards of the ancient (and hidden) Kannon statue that we have come to visit; there is not even a replica of her in the main shrine room.


In the foyer outside the main shrine, we bow to the deities through the glass and light candles and buy good luck charms. I slip off my shoes and attempt to gain entrance into the main hall but a monk politely gestures me out.

There seems to be no way to meet Kannon.

I know that she is here, infinite, vast, limitless, endlessly compassionate, and it is silly this yearning to touch, to take home, or at the least, to see.


At Sensoji, I shake the cylindrical container. Simultaneously, thousands of pilgrims address the goddess. Yes, Kannon is very busy.

Oracle number 18, Good Fortune.

The linen robe turns into a green one. What you’ve been troubled for a long time will soon begin to fade away. Your virtue and happiness will reveal themselves. Your wishes will be realized. Building a new house and removal are good.  Marriage and employment are all good. 

Outside, white slips of oracles flutter on innumerable stands. In Japanese temples, everything seems left behind, candles and wooden plaques with inscribed prayers.  Yet, I tuck my oracle into my purse.

As we prepare to leave Senso-ji, I return to the incense burner where smoke rises in thick clouds, and direct the smoke to my heart for healing and purification.

Let go.

I tie my good oracle to the stand.

It is only later that I am told that good oracles are kept, and the bad ones left behind for Kannon’s mitigation.

Lee, my Love. Kanzeon Bosatsu. This now is blessed and joyous.  

Sakura Gardens


There are no cherry blossoms at this time of year, but the late morning is a pleasant 10 degrees Celsius, and the garden is large and green and lovely. There is a meditation room with tatami mats and a small shrine, so we slip off our shoes and sit a while listening to the birds singing the dharma and the distant hum of traffic, my brain floating off in all directions with the giddiness of the time-change and the dislocation of being in this beautiful and unfamiliar place.

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When we continue down the path we come to a small shrine. Peering through the glass we see her: Amida Buddha rests in her crown, a vial containing her tears clutched to her heart with her left hand, and her right hand open in her lap to accept our offering.

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We have come upon Kannon, the goddess of compassion, by chance in this sakura garden in Tokyo. Last night Ranjini reminded me that she was to be an important part of our trip. We were to visit some of 33 temples dedicated to her on a pilgrimage that would lead us all over Tokyo. Ranjini had a book to guide us.

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I agreed. It sounded like a fun way to explore the city. We’d see how many we could do in our week in Tokyo.

After our walk through the garden, we go for a brunch of noodles and when we finish I think we should go back to the Hotel to check on our luggage. When we do, the jetlag hits me and I lie down for a rest. By the time I realize Ranjini isn’t pleased it’s too late. She’d hoped we might visit the first temple on our pilgrimage.

I promise we’ll do one tomorrow.



In the morning we go down to the lobby and in the sunlight I see the gardens. We sit in the meditation room, and walk until we see her: Kannon. She is in a miniature temple of white walls with red trimmings, green window shutters and silver-gray shingle roof. The sun reflects off the glass, and to see her I have to shield my eyes and press my face to the glass. This is the eleven-headed Kannon, rare in China but more common in Japan.

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After lunch, we head to our new room. I use the hot water dispenser and make roasted green tea.  At 4 p.m., the gong in the sakura garden sounds. Ten chimes.

Listen to the sound of the bell. It is the voice of the Buddha, inviting us to go home to ourselves.

The sign says that the bell has been rung once each day since April 1, 2009 at the occasion of our hotel’s 55th anniversary: March through October the bell is rung at 5 pm and from November through February at 4 pm.


4:30 pm and it is already dusk.  I climb the stone steps that lead me to Kannon. Once there, I see that the shrine is lit up. She is so beautiful and my eyes fill with tears.

I have been on pilgrimage ever since a woman, Marie, came up to me at the Buddhist temple on Millcreek Drive in Mississauga, Ontario—“I feel I have to talk with you”—and introduced me to a goddess with toenails and fingernails painted pink, one foot stepping forward, holding a vase and the wish-fulfilling jewel of the enlightened mind.

Kuan Yin.


I sit on the window ledge of our room, 1256.  Ornamental “finished’ carp lie still at the edges of the koi pond—silver, orange, red, white skin jeweled with red and blue, sleeping with eyes open: emblems of compassion. The wooden fish drum, mokugyo, is used during the recitation of sutras.

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In this city of the 33-temple Kannon pilgrimage, she is there, hidden, behind red doors.

Please let me see your temples, Kannon. 

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My lover lives on the other side of the earth.

I slump on a bench at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, leaning against my laptop, strapped over my right shoulder, my small duffel bag at my feet. Stored in the laptop is a file containing draft eight of my novel The Beautiful Place. Just before Christmas it was rejected again. Ranjini consoled me over Skype, but she seems to be the only person on earth who sees anything of value in this stupid book that I’ve slaved over for more than six years. I sit awaiting her arrival, contemplating whether I should abandon all the work I’ve already done and write something new. Or maybe I should give up altogether. Does the world really need another book by Lee Gowan? Not many noticed the last one.

I close my tired eyes.


It feels good to rest in sitting position, my laptop supporting me. I’ve found a bench near the trains, behind the elevators to Departures and restaurants and shopping, and protected by those elevators from the flow of pedestrian traffic. No one else sits on these benches, though passengers constantly stream by on their way to the parking lot. Once a young Japanese woman teeters in her spiked heels to the far end of my bench and perches, her wheeled suitcase at her feet. She scans her phone briefly before continuing on her way. Otherwise I am alone in Tokyo.

It’s 10 p.m. on December 28th, 2015. I left Toronto on Sunday morning, December 27th, and, though my flight left the ground less than 24 hours ago, I lost 14 hours of this Monday when I crossed the Dateline over the Pacific a few hours ago.  I’ll sleep tonight, though my body will be confused about the time. After landing I found a restaurant and had a bowl of soba noodles and broth with seafood and a large Kirin beer, which has made me tired. That is, the food and beer and the fact I have barely slept in over 24 hours have made me tired.


Soba noodles, made from buckwheat, are part of New Year’s celebrations in Japan. This tradition is apparently related to the length of the noodles, which symbolize a long life, but also relate to them being soft and easy to cut, which symbolizes cutting off the struggles of the old year and beginning again. There is even an interpretation that the tradition relates to Japanese jewelers at year end using soba balls to gather the gold dust that fell on their workbenches and accumulated over the past year: thus soba symbolizes the accumulation of wealth.

A stomach full of gold makes me sleepy.  The upper part of the airport, where I ate dinner and killed time strolling about looking at New Year’s wishes posted on blocks of wood (“I wish for a good husband and happy family”), is lined with naked trees lit up by bluish white light, Christmas/New Year’s decorations, but there are none here on the Arrivals floor, where I’ve settled to wait after using the machine to buy our tickets on the Keiyu Line to our hotel near Shinagawa Station. Ranj’s flight from Dubai is due to land soon. The slight elation, endorphin/adrenaline-high, at the anticipation of seeing her has taken over my brain and is perhaps the only thing keeping me awake.


We’ve developed a New Year’s custom of meeting in places that neither of us has visited before.


28 December 2016, Dubai

It is 6:35 am in the morning and the sky is a navy blue, not yet fully light, and the moon is still shining brightly and three-quarters full.  I step out of the cab, place my foot on the curb and, at my feet, see a wreath of small white flowers, brown stems and green leaves.  I pick it up. The flowers are not real but “fake,” a child’s tiara perhaps.  Recently, I have been finding such things on my morning walks on Jumeirah Beach: a tassel of faux pearls, a sand dollar—five-pointed flower on its underside, bleached peach-white, on the sand. Now, I slide the white flowers into the front pocket of my red suitcase, and head into Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport for my 9-hour Emirates flight to Tokyo.


The stewardess says that there are 300 seats free on this flight—most people who want to be in Tokyo for winter break are already there.  I am glad for the rest. I am very tired—the work has felt overwhelming. I am always hurrying and behind.  I want to just be.  Next year June, I will be leaving Dubai.  I welcome these changes but I also fear them—this letting go of the struggles of my past and beginning again.

I turn to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, for refuge.

I read Marcus Powles’ book on the 33 Tokyo Kannon Pilgrimage and map possible routes.  I’m not sure how readily Lee will embark on a 33-temple circuit. But if there is one thing that I know about him, it is his overarching gentleness and generosity, his genuine desire to understand and love me. He sees me. I see him.

I love Lee.

A couple of temples will do.

At Haneda Airport, I step out, and there he is, my Beloved.

I smile.


Up the Ladder to the Roof

After all, the roof is closer to heaven.

There was a stairway to the roof of my father’s house when I was growing up. It was one of Dad’s somewhat eccentric architectural flourishes added when he cut off the peak of the house in his renovations. There was and is a sort of deck up there on the north side of the house, but it’s a bit too steeply inclined to comfortably recline on a deck chair, unless you nailed down the chair and roped yourself in.

DSCN5143At the beginning of the new millennium Dad started building an addition onto the northwest bedroom (which used to be Ray’s and mine), with a plan to make it into a display room for his gramophones. The addition cut off the staircase to the roof, which was no longer functional anyway.

DSCN5165Dad was diagnosed with asbestosis before he could complete the plan. What was it John Lennon said in that song about his beautiful son? “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” Or, eventually, death is what happens to you.

DSCN5145When I started this…thing–I suppose it’s a blog, but I like to think of it as a story with pictures–I conceived it as a way of talking about impermanence and loss: about losing my father, and losing my youth, all of which is tied up in that house.  Dad grew up and died there and it still stands, somehow physically containing all of those memories: his memories and my memories and the memories of everyone who lived there.

DSCN5149While I was writing this thing, we lost my mother, and it became about that loss too. Last June, the day after she died, we all went home to the farm and I climbed up on the roof and took these photos. When I look at the tin roof over the kitchen I can’t help but think of lying in bed listening to the patter the rain made against that tin. And I can’t help but think that maybe this would be a good place to end.

DSCN5151After all, if it’s a story it needs an ending. Problem is, I’ve never been good with endings. Maybe too much of that Modernist sensibility in me that endings should be ambiguous in order to accurately reflect reality–the problem being that most readers end up thinking, “What was that all about?” and tell the next reader that it just wasn’t worth it in the end. Or simply shake their heads and say nothing at all.

DSCN5157So what was it all about? What is it all about? I guess if I had to say, I would say it is about how my father and my mother taught us the importance of making beautiful things. Or trying, at least. Human things, beautiful at times in their ugliness and in their mistakes. Just do your best to make those things as beautiful as you possibly can. There is not so much to regret in a life dedicated to the making of beautiful things.




Aunt Shirley

Aunt Shirley was with Aunt Carmel when she saw Bobby Hill, the rodeo clown, perform at Frontier Days in the 40s, and both went home and started practicing their roping. They shared a bedroom at the top of the stairs, along with their older sister Juanita, and there must have been competition between them as they sharpened their skills. Carmel once told me that Shirley was the better roper when they were girls. Here’s a shot of Shirley doing a trick with two ropes that you probably won’t want to try at home.


They kept on practicing and in the 50s, as I recounted in an earlier post, Shirley and Carmel led The Swift Current Boys Band to victory at the Calgary Stampede:


When she was 17, Carmel started a career in show business that stretched through many decades. I’ve told that story in three more previous posts starting with this one:


Much to Carmel’s chagrin, Aunt Shirley gave up the ropes and chose a different path.

Shirley and Carmel

Why give up something for which she had such talent? According to Shirley, her body made her stop. Even by her early 20s her back was giving her problems. Carmel herself once told me that jumping up and down for so many years had pounded her spine to the point that she was an inch shorter than when she was younger. So why was she so critical of Shirley? Because she believed Shirley actually gave up roping for a man, and if there was one thing Carmel couldn’t stand the idea of, that was giving up anything for a man.

mom and dadVital Monette was barely a man when he met Shirley: only eighteen, she being the older woman. Carmel had already run off to join the circus, so he didn’t have to deal much with her direct animosity, but there was still the rest of the Gowan family: Irish Protestant Orange stock who were more than a little suspicious of his French Catholic roots. In spite of the less than enthusiastic reception, they married and moved into my father’s house, then still my grandfather’s house, where the family could keep a close eye on him. They likely suspected he was one of those fabled latin lovers who would run off and leave Shirley the first chance he got.


If so, they were wrong. Shirley and Vital bought some land and ranched a few miles from the farm where I grew up. They had three kids: Cindy, Roy, and Carol. I remember visiting them or them visiting us on many a Christmas Eve and other family celebrations. Last summer I saw them at Mom’s memorial, and while Aunt Shirley and Uncle Vital had slowed slightly, they had as much of that vitality contained in his name as ever. Shirley even demonstrated that she doesn’t always like having her photo taken.


Introducing The Beautiful Place

In ancient Egypt The Beautiful Place referred both to the underworld where the dead went to live and also to the embalming studio where the Pharoahs’ bodies were prepared for the afterlife. Their organs, except the heart, were removed and their bodies were rubbed with oils and perfumes and stuffed with sawdust, then wrapped in linen.

egyptian-mummification-egyptian-mummification-life-science-centre-education.jpgFlash-forward a few thousand years and around the globe to Saskatchewan in 1924.

Sinclair Ross was sixteen years old when he got his first job working for The Union Bank (soon taken over by The Royal Bank) in the tiny town of Abbey, Saskatchewan. Today it would take you about an hour to drive from the farm where I grew up to Abbey.

Ross began writing stories in the early 1930s and published a collection set during the dust-bowl, or “The Dirty Thirties”, as my father called those years of his youth which so shaped his view of the world. The collection was titled The Lamp at Noon. The most well-known story, “The Painted Door”, was so widely anthologized that my favourite Doctor of English Literature, Dr. Ranjini George, remembers reading it when she was studying in India during the 1970s.

In 1940 Ross published his first novel As For Me and My House. The novel takes the form of the diary of Mrs. Bentley (we never learn her first name), the minister’s wife in the prairie town of Horizon, a place which perhaps reveals some similarities to Abbey, Saskatchewan.


When I moved to an apartment on Comox Street in The Westend of Vancouver in 1985, Sinclair Ross lived in a condo two or three blocks away from me. I may have passed him on the street, but if I did I did not recognize him. I had no idea he was living there.

Seven years ago my boss Ed Carson, at The University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, suggested I should make my next novel a sequel to As For Me and My House. I took Ed’s inspiration, put a little twist on it by adding a Sci-Fi element, and wrote The Beautiful Place. The main character, the grandson of Philip Bentley, is the sales manager of Argyle, a cryonics company. The company’s highly secure state-of-the-art facility where they store the bodies of their frozen patients is called The Beautiful Place.

I’d like to acknowledge Keath Fraser’s wonderful memoir As For Me and My Body as a source of inspiration for my novel.


The Beautiful Place took twelve long years to write. I hope you will seek it out and enjoy it.

The Swift Current Airport Light

I grew up on a farm southwest of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. If I looked to the northeast on any night of my youth I would see a light sweep by on the horizon. The beam would pass in an instant and if I counted to ten it would appear again for another instant, then pass again into darkness. All night long. Every ten seconds.

I guess there must have been nights it was obscured by some sort of weather. A blizzard would certainly do the trick. But most nights, if you looked, you’d see it flicker past. Ten seconds later it would be there again. And then gone.

We had a kind of inside joke, us kids, when we were outside at night, maybe playing frozen tag in the yard. We’d say, “You can see the airport light from here,” and then we’d laugh. Or if we were swimming in or skating on the creek in the moonlight we’d say, “You can see the airport light from here.” And we’d laugh. Or if we were drinking beer around a campfire and a sort of awkward silence fell over the conversation, we’d say, “You can see the airport light from here.” And laugh.

It was funny because you could see the airport light from anywhere and everywhere in our world. Every night. Every ten seconds. It was certain. It was self-evident to the point of absurdity. It was something you could count on. Literally.

Time passed. I went away. I did some things. I accumulated some things and I lost a few things, including my hair.

And one day, though I must admit that I couldn’t even say exactly when, I returned to find the airport light was gone.



Daytime is risky for the nighthawk. In the evening you can hear them flying overhead, eating mosquitoes and other small insects, but in the daylight they sleep on branches or sometimes even a fencepost, trusting that their feathers will fool predators into thinking they are part of the tree or the post. Last summer I took these photos from only a few feet away while down below the boys, Adam and Daniel, were roasting meat (and sugar) over a fire for their lunch.

DSCN1609DSCN1610My nephew Daniel likes to sleep when the sun goes down but my son Adam, being a nighthawk, prefers to sleep in the daylight hours, thus running similar risks as his feathered namesake. He does his best to blend into his blankets. Though we did not know it at the time, we were spending our last summer with their Grandma Laureen, camping at Gowan’s Grove.

DSCN1648DSCN1672We planned another week with Mom at the Grove this August, but on May 30th she fell and broke her knee. Adam more than any of us could appreciate the pain she must have been going through, having dislocated his patella last spring. When a medical team at Regina General operated on Monday June 1st they found cancer in Mom’s knee. Then, while still under the knife, she had a heart attack. The doctors did not think she’d come out of ICU alive, but she stabilized and they returned her to her hospital room. My sister Alison and I booked Wednesday morning flights. Adam told me he wanted to come too, but he had three exams and four essays to finish, and I argued with him that it wasn’t necessary. I’d go ahead and let him know if he should come.

When Alison and I arrived in her room at noon on Wednesday, June 3rd, Mom opened her eyes and tried to speak. Ray and Heather and my sister-in-law Shann and my niece Carly were all there. We joined them in the waiting, talking, holding Mom’s hand. Adam had called Heather to say again that he wanted to be with us. I called and told him to come.

DSCN5081DSCN5082We sat with Mom for hours, listening to her laboured breathing. When we sang songs to her, “You are My Sunshine”, “Danny Boy, “Goodnight Irene” (which we changed to “Goodnight Laureen”), she would often try to sing along. At eleven that night Adam arrived and insisted he wanted to stay there in the room with her. Heather had already gone home for the night. The nurses found him a mattress and Alison and I went to get some sleep at a Hotel, leaving him to sit vigil through the night. When I arrived back in the morning they were both sleeping.


The palliative care nurse let us know that the hospital authorities had decided Mom should be moved back to her care home, Echo Lodge in Fort Qu’Appelle, by ambulance that afternoon, but I said I didn’t think it made much sense and the nurse agreed, recommending that she be allowed to stay in her room. We sat on through the day, Thursday June 4th, talking and singing, reading and thinking, laughing and crying.


At 5:30 in the afternoon Mom opened her eyes and tried to speak. Alison and Adam went to the bed and told her that we were all there with her. She looked directly into Alison’s eyes for what seemed like 30 seconds and I took this photo.

DSCN5097I put down the camera and spoke to her and she looked directly into my eyes. “We’re all here with you, Mom. We love you,” I said.

She gasped once and she was gone.

DSCN1613We are returning to Gowan’s Grove this summer. We’ll have Mom with us. On July the 11th we’re holding a memorial for her there, where we spread Dad’s ashes eight years ago. In the evening, once the sun goes down and the stars come out, we’ll hear the nighthawk flying over the treetops.