One of those big decisions

I think in general, that life just goes along in a normal pace. Sometimes it is punctuated by events like birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, and maybe taking a few weeks off work to get better if you get the flu.

But then there are the larger big decisions that come along, infrequently, that hopefully causes us to slow down, put the brakes on a little bit, and make sure that we’re going in the right direction. I think some of these decisions are along the lines of getting married, having children or not. I was about to say choosing a place to live, but I’m not even sure that choosing a place to live counts anymore because people move so easily from one house to another house or one city to another city. Hopefully, choosing a partner is still counted as a big decision. I know it was for me.

In my life, I’ve made a few big decisions.

I decided I was going to learn how to play the guitar.

I decided I was not going to have a particular operation that was going to make it difficult to learn how to play the guitar. That was the first time I said no to an operation out of 36 other operations that I had had by that time.

I decided I was not going to move with my parents to Toronto in 1972, in February, when my father got a new job. I stayed in Charlottetown to finish grade 12. I decided I was not going to stay living with the family my parents had arranged for me to stay with. That might not seem like a big decision, but it was a very pivotal decision in what happened in the rest of my life. I also think, in retrospect, that it was a very big decision for my parents to agree to let me stay in Charlottetown in February 1972 in the middle of my last year of high school.

This story, then, is about one of those big decisions I made in my life. Well, I’d like to think I made the decision, but at the end of reading the story, you may come to the understanding that perhaps I didn’t make the decision. Perhaps I was “guided”, and there was really no decision to make. In any case, it is a story worth telling.

I have told the story many times and most of the time people tell me “You should write the story down”. Well, this is it.

It turns out that learning how to play the guitar was an important part of the story. Certainly, when I made that decision when I was 12 years old, I had no idea that playing the guitar would have such an impact on my life. But it has, and it is continuing even now as I am twice the age of my 30-year-old son!

So when I was 12 years old I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. For those of you who do not know me, that may not seem like a particular important decision to take. As I alluded to above, I had 36 operations as a child. I was born with a rare congenital condition called arthrogryposis, which affect the joints and the muscles and tendons. My hands and elbows have had operations. And my hands are certainly not what anybody would describe as normal. Certainly, using the legal definition of the average person, the average person would not ever imagine that I would be able to play the guitar based on the condition of my hands.

Imagine a 12-year old crippled [as they used to say with no fear of political incorrectness] kid sitting on an examination bed or table in the doctor’s office. Typically, for me, after I had an operation, I would be sent home to get better. After the cast came off, we’d drive from Stratford to Toronto and have a discussion with the doctor about what to do next. The doctor in question was Dr. Robert Salter, head orthopaedic surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, or “Sick Kids” as it was called. Since the Hospital for Sick Children is affiliated with the University of Toronto, it is a teaching hospital. Dr. Salter always had a gaggle of interns following him around. They would always be present at these meetings. The discussion would be along these lines: well we could go back and update the left ankle, or perhaps we could do some work on the hips again, or perhaps we could fix the left wrist. The recommendation of Dr. Salter that particular trip was to straighten out my left wrist. Most of you in the world are able to flex your wrist up-and-down. In order to do that you have tendons and muscles that are working together. If you do not have tendons that work correctly with your muscles, or your tendons are so tight they have totally deformed the joints, you would not be able to flex your wrist. If you want to imagine what this is like, attached the ruler to your forearm and your knuckles. Attach it tightly so you can’t bend your wrist. That’s me. Actually that’s my right hand. My left hand is the exact opposite. The wrist is bent in a permanent 45° angle down with my fingers another 45° angle down resulting in a perfect right angle to my fingers and my arm. And keep in mind that is already after several operations. Each operation is a huge improvement over the past. Normally, there’s never any question as to whether or not an operation would take place.

But this time, little Jimmie, sitting on the doctor’s examination table said, “I don’t think I want to have that operation.  I want to learn how to play the guitar, and I think I need to have my wrist just like that so I can hold the guitar correctly.”

Dr. Salter said no problem, we can do something else. The other doctors in the room looked surprised at each other and were about to jump in. Dr. Salter said if you want to learn how to play guitar, you can learn how to play the guitar. My parents were, to say the least, surprised. A group of them went out into another room to have the discussion without me being involved. When they came back in Dr. Salters said: as we agreed, we will do something else and you can learn how to play the guitar.

And that was that!

This, though, is not about learning how to play the guitar.

Charlottetown in 1972 in February, I was 19 years old. My parents left me the 1966 Galaxie 500 convertible, $40 a week to cover living expenses and an Irving oil credit card to pay for gasoline. Room and board in Charlottetown in 1972 was about $25-$30 a week. Gasoline cost about $.60 a gallon for about $.15 a litre, if I remember correctly. I think it might’ve cost about eight dollars to fill the tank. Everything I owned could be moved in the car. With the top up or with the top down. Didn’t make any difference. The trunk was huge. So after my parents left, and I was no longer satisfied with the people they had left me with, I took my guitar, the old brown Samsonite suit case of clothes, my few other belongings, and found a room in a house that was run by a nice old lady who was quite happy to help me with my socks in the morning, feed me eggs and dinner and give me a lunch to take to school. She was a nice lady. I really wish I remembered her name.

I know that my parents really wanted me to move to Toronto right after finishing high school, so I cooked up a little plan that would require me to stay for summer school. It wasn’t that difficult to fail Grade 12 chemistry! So I called my parents and told them I would be spending the summer in Charlottetown. Summertime in Charlottetown. What could be better? I found a small apartment above a clothing store on Grafton Street. It was right across street from the Confederation centre. I was going to need some money to live on, so I went to the welfare office and tried to sign up. The young girl in the welfare office basically said that I should go live with my parents in Toronto. I told her my parents ran away from home. I told her that I shouldn’t need to go live in Toronto, since I grew up here in Charlottetown. She said she would give financial assistance if I could find a school to accept me. So I went and found that I could get into the Maritime Christian College if I told him I wanted to become a Baptist minister. It wasn’t that difficult! So I got on welfare. I lived across the street from the Confederation centre. All of the young people in Charlottetown hung around the Confederation centre. All the musicians and artists hung around the conventions centre as well. I was a musician.

In those days, the Confederation centre, let the local musicians play at lunchtime in the courtyard outside at the back of the centre. It was a good location, the acoustics were good. Sometimes, I would play there as well.

This one particular day, I was playing my guitar outside the back of the Confederation centre. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about that day. At least not that I was aware of. As I was playing my guitar, the fellow by the name of Pat O’Neil was walking by and heard me playing the guitar. He stopped and listened for a moment, and said to himself something along these lines “I would like to teach this guy the Baha’i Faith”.

That’s all he said.

That’s when things began to change.

It is important to add, at this point in the story, that I was not high in any way, in any form whatsoever. That evening, I went to bed as usual. Not long after I was in bed there came three really really really loud knocks or bangs on my door. I jumped up out of bed, answered the door, but there was no one there. My bedroom is at the end of a long hall, and if there have been someone there I would’ve either seen them or heard them. But there was no one. So, thinking it odd, to say the least, I went back to bed.

As soon my head hit the pillow, my whole body started to shake uncontrollably. No, I was not frightened. When I open my eyes, my body stopped shaking, and I looked over at the mirror on the dresser and saw Jesus Christ on the cross. He certainly wasn’t normally on my mirror. But there He was. I closed my eyes, and my whole body started to shake uncontrollably again. When I open my eyes, and looked at the mirror, my body stopped shaking, and I saw that Jesus Christ was no longer on the cross, He was now standing beside the cross and looking right at me. I figured that this was the end, and that Jesus was coming to take me away. Who knows. I really don’t know what I was thinking. In any case, I closed my eyes again, and my body started to shake again. When I opened my eyes, my body stopped shaking, Jesus was standing right beside me.  I close my eyes, started shaking, opened my eyes, and there at the foot of my bed was Jesus and another person. The other person I’ve never seen before. [Not that I’ve ever met Jesus before. Certainly I had seen statues, pictures, and all the other renderings of Jesus. The Jesus that I saw looked like what I imagined Jesus would look like. I imagine if Jesus appeared to you, he would probably meet your expectations. That would be the only way you would know who it was!]

But who was that other person? He had long hair, beard, and was smiling. Jesus was smiling too. Neither of them said anything. They were just smiling. I was taking all this in, and then the next thing I remember it was morning time.

My landlady was waiting for me downstairs, and she told me I needed to get out.  She was complaining about all the banging last night. I tried to tell her it was not me, I tried to tell her that I had nothing to do with it, but she didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. So, she gave me back half my month’s rent, and away I went. That was that. [You certainly cannot kick out people like that these days!]

So I went looking for a place to live that was in my budget. I knew of a rooming house on Water Street. Landlady was blind. It was a very old building. Rooms were $20 a week if I remember correctly. There was only one room available, Sort of. There was a lady who was away “travel teaching” as the blind lady said. She said that the lady who was away travel teaching was late returning, so she let me have the room. The landlady was Ma Baker. The travel teaching lady was Doris McKay. So I moved into my room, and got myself settled in. As was the custom when living in rooming houses like that, you only ever really closed the door to your room when it was time to go to bed. You left the door open so you could meet people. So you could get to know who you’re living with. If ever you needed to knock on the bathroom door to get in quickly, it’s always better if you know who you’re asking to leave!

So later that evening, the fellow in the next room walked by. It was Eric Maloney. Eric Maloney and I it turns out where friends from high school. We did photography together. We both enjoyed music. We were good friends. We were good friends until he died last year!

He was in a grade ahead of me in high school so we kind of lost touch with each other after he left high school before I did. He was working as a cook at the local Subway restaurant. So we sat down and started talking about Minolta vs Pentax vs Hasselblad! Probably we took off from where we were at our last discussion! Then, out of nowhere, in walks Pat O’Neil. Pat O’Neil doesn’t live in the building, but he’s a friend of Eric. Pat comes in and has a huge smile on his face when he sees me. I distinctly remember noting he had a smile on his face, but I didn’t think much about it. He asked me where I was living, and I told him the room next-door. He said something along the lines of “I guess we will need to find another place for Doris”. Eric hadn’t said anything about Doris. Who’s Doris I asked? She’s a friend. She’s out travel teaching. Yes, I said, that’s what Ma Baker said. And that was that discussion.

Since I had gotten kicked out of my apartment, for noise that I hadn’t made, I told them my story of what happened the previous evening. Pat continued to smile, and Eric said something along the lines of well, you have a place to live now. I ask them what they thought of what happened. I asked them who they thought the guy with the long hair and beard was. Both of them said much the same thing at the same time: You’ll find out when you need to know. That was not much help.

In the next couple of weeks I came to understand that Eric was member of the Baha’i Faith, and so was Pat. Eric and I did not talk much about religion. We talked mostly about cameras and other technology stuff. I had no idea that he was a member of the Baha’i Faith when we were in high school because we spent so much time talking about gear.

Pat, on the other hand, was more engaging in matters of religion. He knew I was studying at the Maritime Christian college. So that was an opening for us to discuss matters of religion. I was not closed to the idea of investigating another religion. When I was in my teens, my father encouraged me to go to the other churches in Charlottetown. I taught Sunday school of the Catholic Church, but was a regular visitor at some of the other churches. I would not exactly say I was a religious person, but I was not anti-religion.

It was interesting listening to Pat talk about the Baha’i Faith. Always had a story to tell. Anytime I asked a question, his answer would invariably be based around a story. And somewhere in the middle of the story would be the answer to the question. The question could be something simple, or something deep. There was rarely very a simple answer to the question. A question on my part would result in a deep laugh on Pat’s part, a deep inhale of the cigarette, and then the answer. The laugh was not “what an idiot”, it was more like “yeah okay I have something for that”.

We became friends. It didn’t take long. We had coffee together at the coffee shops, I would go to his place of work from time to time. Eric would bring really long Subway sandwiches for supper for sharing, and we would smoke lots of cigarettes. Cigarettes. Nothing else.

I was still going to the Maritime Christian college, and I guess you could say that I was studying the Baha’i Faith in earnest. And, central in all of this, I was trying to sort out what I was going to do with my life. In Charlottetown Life was pretty easy, but I really couldn’t get a sense of where I was going. I was a musician, playing guitar as well as I could with the gift I was given, and writing poetry and stories, equally as well as I could with the gift that was given. So one evening, I went to bed with a question on my mind: should I sell my guitar scrap my writing, cut my hair and try to get a real job. The long hair seemed to be an obstacle to getting a job. That night, I had a dream. It was a dream. It wasn’t someone banging on my door. Wasn’t Jesus Christ on the cross. Wasn’t that long-haired guy smiling at me. It was a dream.

In my dream, which was quite short, Jesus Christ was in fact in my dream, and so was that long-haired guy. Jesus Christ gave me my clipboard of writings and told me to keep doing it. The other guy gave me my guitar, and told me to keep it. That’s all that was. As soon as I had the dream, I woke up so that I would remember. There was no sense in writing it down, because it wouldn’t be able to read my writing. I did not want to start up my Olivetti electric typewriter at whatever time it was, because I knew it would wake up the people in the rooms around me.

Next time I saw Pat, I asked him about the dream. I asked him what he thought it meant. His answer was pretty straightforward, for a change. Seems pretty clear to me, he said. Don’t stop what you’re doing. Okay, I get that, but who’s the guy with a long beard? And how come he is with Jesus Christ? And how come they’re smiling together, like as if they know each other, like as if they are friends? All he said was what he said before:  You’ll find out when you need to know. Still  not much help.

From that summer, 1972, through fall and winter, I became very close friends with Pat. I also met a lot of the other members of the Baha’i community. As it turns out, through all of the stories that Pat was telling me, he was “teaching” me the Baha’i Faith. In the Baha’i Faith it is forbidden to proselytize. But, it is certainly permitted to answer questions! And I certainly had a lot of them because the Baha’i Faith was certainly not something that was being taught at the Maritime Christian college!

As I am writing this story now, it is during the period of the Fast in the Baha’i Faith. We do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. [This is not a story about what the Baha’i Faith is. There is lots of information available in lots of places!] But, the Fast is an important time of the year. Also, it’s a time when there are opportunities that don’t come up in the rest of the year. Although I was not a member of the Baha’i Faith, I did find myself getting up early in the morning and going to one of the restaurants that Pat convinced the owner to open early so he and some of his friends could have breakfast before sunrise. Eric would come home late in the evening with extra Subway sandwiches for us to have for dinner, or put outside the window to stay cold in the snow for breakfast if we were not going to the restaurant. We were never hungry! Let’s put it like that.

I was continually bugging Pat and Eric about who the guy with the long hair was in my dream and other experience. They weren’t helpful. I was asking the other Baha’is, and they did not offer any help either! I didn’t realize at the time that Pat was a good “teacher” and most of the Baha’i’s in the community would not get involved in teaching someone that he was teaching. They seem to know that he had a process that worked, and the less they got involved in the better. This is probably why they weren’t helpful!

At the end of the Fast there is a large celebration called Naw-Ruz, for New Year’s. The calendar is a solar calendar, and the first day of spring is the first day of the year. The Fast is viewed as a time when Baha’is are supposed to make plans for new projects: make important decisions, implement new plans, And so on. As for myself, there wasn’t much that I heard about the Baha’i Faith that I disagreed with. There were a few “Christian” items that I wanted some answers to, and Pat felt that we needed to go talk to a friend in Halifax who was studying to be a priest at the same time he was studying to be Baha’i. So rather than Pat answer my questions, we went to Halifax to talk with Dennis Stark.

So in the first week of April, we got up early, caught the first ferry off the island, and went to Halifax. We arrived on Barrington Street, dragged Dennis down to a local coffeeshop, and had breakfast. Pat told Dennis that I had some “Christian” questions that needed answering. So I posed my every so important  questions to Dennis. Dennis answered them with no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, I suspect that Pat already answered them, but for some reason he felt that I needed to get the answer from Dennis, considering our background.

I now understood why we needed to get up early and catch the first ferry. Pat told me that Williams Sears was arriving at the airport, and that there would be many Baha’is at the airport to meet him. So we should go out to the airport and possibly have an opportunity to say hello to Williams Sears.

Well, we got to the airport and everyone was there, having a good time, but William Sears had arrived early, and was already in town. He was going to be having meetings that afternoon, and there would be a public meeting the next day. We would have an opportunity to see him then. So, it didn’t take me long to figure out that we were not going back to Charlottetown that day. Since we were already at the Halifax airport, we went to Sackville and visited Lena and Jerry Scallion. To this day, I have no idea if any of this was planned out in Pat’s mind. But we arrived at Scallion’s house, which was already filling up with Baha’is. Several of them had started to say prayers in the living room. So after we had our coffee, we joined them. Pat pointed to an easy chair in the corner, and suggested I sit there. Everyone else was cross-legged on the floor. No way I was going to do that!

I plopped down into the easy chair, looked around the room, and there in front of me in a 3′ x 4′ photograph was ‘Abdu’l-Baha’. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ is the son of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet founder of the Baha’i faith. It was ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ who was in my dream, it was ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ who was in my experience in my apartment on Grafton Street in Charlottetown. Everything became perfectly clear at this point. Everything.

I decided right there and then to be a member of the Baha’i faith. That was April 8, 1973.

The next day, we met Williams Sears. If you don’t know who William Sears is, it’s worth looking him up. I went up to where he was sitting and introduce myself; I told him that I had just declared myself as a member of the Baha’i faith the day before. He said that I just made one of the most important decisions of my life! Boy was he not kidding!

The day after, we return to Charlottetown. I decided I needed to go back to Stratford Ontario to see if I could introduce the Faith to some of my friends in Stratford. We moved to Charlottetown in 1966 for a job for my father, and since it didn’t seem that long ago, I thought it would be possible to reconnect with some of my old friends in Stratford. I went to Stratford with Gary Mills, a guitar player friend of mine from Charlottetown, we got a small apartment, tried to make contact with my friends. None of them were interested. Gary got a job at a factory, and I started memorizing prayers on one of the islands in the middle of the Avon River. I learned the long obligatory prayer, and I learned the Tablet of Ahmad. As summer was coming to an end, Gary wanted to go back to Charlottetown for his birthday.  It was time to leave.

We drove back to Charlottetown, I found an apartment with Eric, and got enrolled in Holland College photography and journalism program. Went to a dance, saw a girl dancing with long red hair, and asked Eric who she was. He had no idea. I told him I was going to marry her. I tracked her down.  Her name was Sheila. We got married a year and a half later.

And the rest, is as they say, history.

The brief postscript. A few years later, I went back to the hospital to visit Dr. Salter. It wasn’t for any surgery or anything, just to say hello. I had my guitar with me. He said can you play? And I said yes. He called his receptionist and told him to call in the interns. So his office filled up with the interns. He told them of the guitar story. He told them of my condition, and all the operations that he had done on me. And then he said let’s hear Jimmie play the guitar. I took out my Gibson, and played two compositions. There was not a dry eye in the place. Afterwards, Dr. Salter told the interns to remember one thing: he said remember that you are not God, sometimes the patients know what they want, and we need to learn how to listen!

After all of the interns left, I gave him a copy of Gleanings, a Baha’i book. He looked at the book and said “well did you know that I have visited every single Baha’i Temple on all the continents!” That is hard to put together with everything else in the story. Fairly amazing, I would say!

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