Aug 29 2014


Rory Holland

On the last day of guiding a weeklong mountaineering trip, the plan was to hike along a ridge that would lead down a relatively easy trail back to our boat pick up.  Unfortunately, the route was blocked by an unexpected large amount of snow making it dangerous for the inexperienced. We had a choice to make.

The alternative was to stay one more night up high, then go back the way we came – doing in one day what had taken four coming up. We decided on safety. A five hour hike became a 17 hour last day odyssey. It has since been nicknamed “the Zion Death March”.

I was informed by experience and training, and yet I was questioned by both the kids and the chaperones that were with them. The thing is, we were fortunate, no matter how tough the outcome.

In my experience, deciding between easier and harder, less or more, better or best – means I’m dealing in far more grey than black and white. The answers aren’t obvious, or at least not to me.  Sometimes, my greatest challenge is having the option in the first place – especially when the right decision is the harder one.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t naturally gravitate to the difficult.  I tend much more towards the easy, the warm, the comfortable.  Want can put up quite the fight with need.

The thing is, I get to choose. That is a luxury that many don’t have. To whom much has been given, much is expected – as they say.  If I am to take my advantage seriously, I best pay attention and take responsibility.  No matter how long the hike.



Aug 28 2014

Who’s First?

Rory Holland

I write in the early mornings because they are quiet, and I am on my own.  The house remains dark, nothing yet has happened to distract or tempt.  This is the time I hear my own voice best.

However, it is also when my head can become most noisy. Everything from to do lists to insecure doubts vie for attention all at once. The only distraction I allow myself is making coffee, everything else needs to wait its turn. Of course that’s way easier said.  My thoughts are often like a mob trying to buy train tickets in New Delhi –everyone believes they are first in line.

My brother tells me that in the Buddhist practice of meditation the idea is not to wrestle with the internal chatter but instead reduce the friction and let it pass through.   Of course the plan there is to empty the mind – I’m actually trying to concentrate on one thing – getting words on paper.

If my mind were a living room it would be the type with stacks of half-read books, too many options for sitting down, a half finished chess game, and a carpet in need of a vacuum.  No German, contemporary, minimalism for me.

But each day I try. I get up and sit at the glow of the screen and beat back the cacophony.   One nice side effect, is that often, as I concentrate, the urgency of the rest seems to fade. I guess when they know they can’t win they stop competing.  What seemed so important is now forgotten (however that also may be due to a failing memory).

I believe what I am describing is a thing they call discipline.  It’s arriving in the morning, opening my wicket, and making a choice of who to serve first.

Aug 27 2014

This Full, Uncertain Life

Rory Holland

“I’ve come to learn nothing is certain” – hard fought understanding for the young entrepreneur sitting across the table from me.  I don’t think his new venture has any exclusive on being unpredictable.  My garden teaches that lesson on a regular basis.  In fact, it’s pretty true for life in general.

I remember when Sam was little, when he got sick he’d ask, “Why is this happening to me?”  As if there had to be some philosophical reason.  So much of life is indiscriminate.   Probably the best answer I could have given him was “you are, therefore you barf”.

Good fortune tends to come to those who put themselves in its way.   But then again, often it doesn’t. Bad luck lacks the same rhyme or reason.  I have a friend who writes daily in a gratitude journal. It’s the recognition of how many of life’s levers sit just beyond our reach and for the ones that are pulled in our favour, we should be truly thankful.

Of course there is the idea of God overseeing our affairs. With some believing he has a knack for finding those close in parking spots at the mall, and others that he takes sides at football games.  I like the idea Jesus presented when he said that he had come that we might have life to the full.  I take that to mean that sometimes we’re going to be driving around the lot for a while, and we better get used to losing games.  He will laugh with those who, in the normal course of their lives, laugh, and mourn with those who mourn.

Beyond death and taxes there is a whole lot of ambiguity.  There is something freeing, even exciting in that idea. You just never know. Full life indeed.



Aug 26 2014

I Stand Corrected

Rory Holland

The house is empty of kids.  I have written that it’s a parent’s job to raise independent children, and how glad I am mine don’t live with us anymore. I was wrong, I am not really glad.

The last of the three, Patrick, pulled out of the driveway with his buddies yesterday – heading across the country.  As the day wore on, a surprising melancholy arrived.  A sense that, it’s done.  For twenty five years at least one of the boys has been around, now none live in the same province, let alone the same house.

I spent a few minutes in their shared bedroom. I started to pack up things.  I had to stop and leave.  It’s not time for that yet.

In conversation with a friend yesterday morning “how do you feel having the last one go?”  “oh, great, really happy for all of them, it’s right for them to move on, and make their own lives”  “ok, that sounds like the answer you’re supposed to give – but how do you feel?”  “I’m sad”.

I still don’t think I’d want it any other way – they have to get out and figure things  for themselves.  Being at home is regressive.  Consequences and rewards are dulled living under the same roof as mum and dad. Crafting one’s own life is vivid. There’s tremendous value in the daily choice making.

I am so pleased they are out there storming castles, slaying dragons, discovering new lands.  I look forward to the stories that will come back – and celebrating them from afar. Successes and mishaps, wins and losses.  And, I’ll say again, I am one proud father.

But, on the other hand, I guess it’s possible to be heart broken, and that be a good thing – right?

Aug 25 2014

Dancing in Place

Rory Holland

“He bought it without telling me” she said, pointing to her husband David. “It was horrible, rocky and barren”.  We’d spent the last hour wandering around the ten acres of fruit trees, vegetables, buildings and hidden outdoor rooms with surprises of chairs and fire pits. Twenty years before they had moved here and began.

I am learning that having a true sense of place takes time.  For one who has difficulty sitting still, the lessons haven’t come easy.  We recently moved back full time to a neighbourhood we had left over a decade ago.  Last Saturday we went to the local festival for the first time in years.  Not much had changed, except the kids who used to ride their bikes in the parade were now driving the trucks pulling floats.

I haven’t done anything for twenty years in a row, except maybe be married and raise children.  We’ve moved about a dozen times, lived on opposite ends of the country, and even did a stint on another continent.  It’s been a wild and varied existence. Lots of up and leaving.

Yet, as I wander around the faire and see folks I remember from those years past – they’re still here, roots deep, relationships rich, apple trees mature.

David has started working on two buildings up at the top of the property – a glass house for limes and oranges, and one for indoor exercise.  It’s clear that they haven’t had to go anywhere to still find new.

On that festival Saturday evening, dancing in front of the stage, I point out the woman in her ‘70’s grooving right up at the front “oh yah, she’s awesome – been here for ages, comes and dances like that every year”.  Clearly this is her place, and she is right at home.

Aug 22 2014

Dive In

Rory Holland

As I dive in with my eyes open, my arms and hands glow in front of me.   I swim out further from shore, feeling very much on my own, suspended in the unseen.  All my senses are alive in the cool, dark water.

Right now, the ocean is filled with phosphorescent plankton that, at night, light up with movement. The first time we swam in the late evening was just three weeks ago.  A neighbour said, “why don’t we do this all the time?”  Exactly, why don’t we?

I am not a bucket list person.  I have no interest in accumulating experiences like possessions.  I don’t want to have been there, just to have done that.  However, I am very keen to grow, to be inspired, and/ or challenged.   Everything from public art to a sunrise, from a new culture to swimming in the dark with friends is an opportunity.

But, alas, I often stay on the beach rather than jumping in. I hold back, choose the safe, or at least the known, over the unknown.  Inside instead of outside.  Clean instead of dirty.  Calm instead of chaos.  I was going to add sitting instead of dancing – but I actually don’t do that.

Feeling the grit of sweat dried on my neck after a hike, or the warmth of sitting close when all around is cold.  Getting choked up listening to live music, or while standing in front of a painting. Listening to an argument in a foreign language.  Getting goose bumps as I climb back onto shore in the dark.  It is those moments, among the many others, that move me.  In each case there was an option, a choice not to.

I am not sure there is any good excuse to miss a sunset if one is in the offing.

Aug 21 2014


Rory Holland

I asked a bunch of friends –  artists, teachers, parents, business folk, – what they thought the difference was between two words that are often used interchangeably. My favorite answer came from an actor friend: “Desire keeps you up at night, passion gets you out of bed in the morning.”

I get that.  Lying awake in the dark can feel desperate.  The Buddhists would say that suffering comes from desire. It’s a hunger that feels insatiable. Satisfaction is just beyond reach.  Like when John Rockefeller was asked how much is enough, he replied, “just a little bit more”.

That said, there is something so good about how it feels to want, be it that new car smell, the eyes across the street, the taste of good wine, or the chance at a million dollars. Bring on the serotonin and endorphins.

I remember when Sam was ten, we were getting him a baseball glove.  In the store he found a bat he really wanted.  I said he didn’t need it.  He insisted.  I told him he could buy it himself if it meant that much.  He was so excited and bought it.  By the time we were at the car he was in tears.  The rush had worn off and he realized he was down fifteen bucks.

Sadly, my own ‘baseball bats’ have tended to have larger consequences.

In my head, I totally understand where the Buddha is coming from. But like Sam, in the moment, it can feel so hard to unclench my fists and have an open hand – am I letting go of a tiger pulling at the end of a leash, or a ledge above an abyss?

I guess if enlightenment was easy, we’d all be monks.

Aug 20 2014

An Artist’s Way

Rory Holland

The large black metal sculpture was tied down on the back of the flatbed truck.  I found the artist inside his shop packing and preparing.  He’s heading down to Burning Man in the Nevada desert, joining over 60,000 people who will arrive and create a temporary, wild, creative artist community for five days.

This is the same guy who a decade ago was running large road construction projects in the city.  Highly stressed, coping with a disintegrating marriage, drinking too much  – he had the wherewithal to recognize: change or die.  So, he up and moved to an island. Here he took on whatever jobs he could in landscaping and construction.  Over time, he found new meaning from building things – he surprised himself by becoming an artist.

We asked him to build us a driveway gate.  He stood and listened as I talked about what we wanted. About halfway through he cut me off,  “just leave it to me”.  We had no idea what we were going to get – he needed his poetic license.    I smile now every time I come home.

I said before that he ‘became’ an artist.  In fact, I think he always was, but hadn’t given himself the permission to go there.  It isn’t without its cost – life is lived close to the bone, and he’s still hustling for work to make ends meet.  But the guy is serene.  Yesterday as he was getting ready to head off – his grin was ear to ear.  He is right where he wants to be.

I believe the standard measures of success are far too narrow, reducing rather than expanding life’s experience.  In the effort to get ahead, we can leave ourselves behind. I am thankful for the artists, in particular my Burning Man bound sculptor friend, who stand in the breach, quietly reminding me of these things.

Aug 19 2014

Leaving. Again.

Rory Holland

There has been a small bird stuck in our living room.  We tried to help set him free – opening windows and doors, gently encouraging him with a broom.  I’m up early and I haven’t heard him, so maybe he made a break for it in the night.  Is it any coincidence that today our youngest is leaving home and is not sure when he’s coming back?

The boys have been heading off since they were in high school, we’re used to it. We had the traditional ‘last dinner’ complete with grandparents. Both Lisa and I have cleared the calendar on the off chance we’ll get a bit more time – most of which is inevitably consumed by their friends. However, we take what we can get.

I joke that while I’m sorry to see them go, I’d be sorrier to see them stay.  I interject advice casually, but repeatedly – with the most typical response being “I know”.  There’s the packing and repacking.  And finally, the trip to the airport.

The boys know they can always come back.  As Robert Frost said “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”.  Maybe that’s why it’s easier for them to take off, and easier for us to see them go.  If they are ‘out there’ it means everything is ok.

All that said, today is a bit of a somber day.  Along with the gain of Aidan’s independence is a loss, an ongoing absence.   I know we’ll stay well connected in all the modern ways, but they don’t replace the morning conversations before work, or the great storytelling that came after a weekend’s adventure.  It’s the real face time that I’ll miss.

The bird’s gone, but, you know, I think I’ll still keep the windows open.

Aug 18 2014

Just Ask

Rory Holland

At a dinner party on Saturday night I was having a conversation with a woman I dated 35 years ago, in high school: “You said you were going to get Elton John tickets, but then you slept in. That’s when I knew we were done”.  I have no recollection of said events, which probably further explains why she dumped me.

The things we do, or are supposed to do, for love.

How do any of us know what really matters to those we love unless they tell us? In the magic of relationships there is a difference between being told “I like it when you bring me flowers” – and showing up with flowers because I ‘just know’ that’s what she likes.  Am I right?

After almost three decades of marriage, we’ve learned it’s better to trade a little of  the magic of ‘just knowing’ – for the more practical, durable, peace making – ‘just asking’.

In fact, in general, I find asking for what I want is hard – which explains my aimless wandering up and down the aisles of a hardware store rather than seeking out a salesperson. Or waiting for the phone to ring with the offer of a dream job assignment, or a publisher for an amazing book deal.

Last year, round this time, our eldest son packed his car and drove east on the hopes of getting the job he wanted. In fact he phoned the director and told her he was coming.  “Just so you know there’s no job for you”.  He went anyways.  A month after he arrived he got the job and has since been promoted, with a raise. He asked.

It would be great if we all just knew what mattered most to each other, but we don’t.  In other words, if you really want to go to Elton John, just tell me.