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A Cult is Born
16 June 2022

My friend Sandy’s daughter got bit by a psychic’s dog on Saturday.

‘Surely if she was psychic, she would have predicted her dog would bite Flora,’ said Sandy’s mother, later, on the phone.

‘My mother went to a psychic in England in the early 60’s,’ I told Sandy.  ‘They predicted she would emigrate and marry a foreigner,’ and as I said that it occurred to me that given the masses of people leaping from the good ship Britannia at the time, and the preponderance of Brits I grew up among in 1980s Toronto, this doesn’t seem like too great a stretch of the imagination.

I had an encounter with premonition.  Or perhaps it was mere coincidence.  One August night in 1995, out of the blue, I dreamed of Jerry Garcia.  He died the next day.  

Daily I find myself wishing I had powers of precognition.  We all do.  It would be useful to predict lottery numbers or bet on a horse at the track, but I would be content using mine purely as a means of mitigating mishap and misadventure.  Last Friday I climbed onto the roof of my friend’s garage to hang some fairy lights.  I had refused a ladder (my first mistake) and was shirtless (my second) and I climbed up by spidering myself between the neighboring garage wall and theirs until I could get a handhold on the roofs edge, at which point, I levered my chest up onto the roof and discovered that the roof’s edge was clad in aluminum panels that had been baking in the hot sun all day.  At this point I was committed. To bail out would mean falling 16 feet to the alley below, losing face in front of my friends and possibly breaking a limb.  In the few seconds it took me to wriggle my legs up I was as good as pressing my nipples onto a flattop grill.  Yes, daily I find myself wishing I had powers of premonition, but I’d settle for a little common sense.

The psychic’s house was an old redbrick off Queen Street.

‘I don’t really believe in psychics,’ Sandy said.  ‘I just wanted to see inside her house.  It smelled of decades of cigarette smoke and damp carpet and the walls were thick with yellow and maroon paint.  And oh my god her toenails!’  I think Sandy might have said she was eastern European, but my memory tripped up at toenails so I’m not sure.

By far the most onerous of the many tasks which our bodies demand of us is the trimming of our nails.  As a runner my toenails are a persistent pest and I hate cutting my fingernails because whenever I do, there is always a thing that day which requires a bit of nail, be it removing a price sticker from a book or an extra stubborn tab on a can of beer.  My fingertips remain extra sensitive for a few days so that fishing teabags from a mug (I’ve always eschewed spoons) is painful.  My mum had family who spent much of their lives in Africa, and they cautioned her to be careful how you dispose of nail clippings as they can be used to create some dark magic against you.

‘Are you ok?’ I asked Flora, who is 12, when I met them after at the Dark Horse café on Spadina.  

‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ she said brandishing her ankle to reveal a faint red welt.  ‘It was just a chihuahua.’

In a quiet corner of the café Flora showed me some crystals she had just bought.  She is an avid collector.  Blue calcite, obsidian, and tiger’s eye and then she read my tarot with cards her mom had just bought for her.

‘You have to be given tarot cards for them to work,’ said Sandy.  ‘You can’t buy them for yourself.’

We spent the next hours ‘crafting’.  Sandy made imprints of plants she had collected with quick drying clay and fashioned pendants from them, and I doodled with water colours which I had not done since I was a kid and Sandy and Flo gave me pointers while we chatted.  At one stage Flora motioned for us to lean in closer and so we bent our heads to hers and she whispered,

‘Guys.  We should start a cult.’

I had an emergency appendectomy when I was 13.  My family was living in Malta, and I had returned to Canada on my own to spend the summer.  I was staying with the family of a friend when it happened.  I had felt poorly for a week but woke up to an unignorable pain in my gut.  I was shy to mention it and tried to distract myself by watching Turner and Hooch on TV in their pink-carpeted basement, but then the pain became such that I had to say something.  My pal’s mother bundled me into her car (which I vomited all over) and drove me to the hospital.  They needed parental consent to operate on me and I lay on a gurney for hours as they tried to reach my parents who were six hours ahead and obviously out for the evening and as the situation grew more desperate they began calling every minute.  I recall that someone finally answered.  That the conversation took less then 30 seconds and then the last thing I remember is being rushed to the operating room, the gurney knocking open the swinging hospital doors at my head like you see them do on TV.  

I think a lot of the anxiety I feel to this day was born in those hours.  The sudden onset of serious illness.  The separation from my parents.  To be sure I was an anxious kid beforehand, but it doubled in subsequent years.  I recuperated with that same family and will be forever indebted to the care their mother gave me.  I never once felt like an inconvenience.  We remain close to this day.  I stayed in a small study and the walls were lined with books. (Joyce is one of the great readers of my life).  I picked one off the shelf.  It was about cults.  I read of Jim Jones and what occurred in French Guyana.  And then I had a dream where I was a small boy, smaller than I was then, and living in Jones Town.  There were decaying bodies in the hot jungle, and I was running, running, running and a guard threw a throwing knife at me as I tried to escape, and it cut off three fingers.  I woke up clutching my right hand to my chest.

On Friday we met at my friend’s Joel and Karen’s house(they of the nipple scorching garage roof).  Karen, Sandy and I have been friends for thirty years.  They grew up in Brampton and when we were teenagers they would drive down to the city and see me on weekends.  We would wander the streets.  See art and movies.  They had a wicked sense of humour which was sarcastic and surreal, and I had never met people who made me laugh the way they did and who were so precociously creative.  My teenage years were mostly unhappy when I returned from Malta.  High school was a lonely place where each day I felt I had to run a gauntlet of scornful and unfriendly eyes, and I wanted to shrink from view. To become invisible or at least unnoticeable. Those two were similar misfits and helped turn all that around.  Sandy is now an illustrator and author, and Karen works in theater.  Sandy was visiting from Montreal for the weekend to attend the launch of a book she has illustrated called ‘The Fossil Whisperer’ and she and Flora were staying at Karen’s.  It makes me happy that my two great pals married guys who aren’t assholes, that they have such nice kids and that we remain close.  Flora gave an impromptu lesson on how to draw a dragon which Karen and Joel’s two boys and myself participated in.  She is already an accomplished artist.  Confident, pretty and cool without being self-conscious. Four years ago, when she was 8, she gave me the nickname ‘Nosebone’, which is possibly the best riff I’ve heard on my very riffable surname, and a definite improvement on her mom and Karen’s name for me ‘No Ass’.

Sandy and Flora returned to Montreal on Monday.  I was sitting on my balcony in Kensington Market reading and we texted back and forth.  

Sandy:  THIS IS WHAT I’M READING.  SO WEIRD AND GREAT (the book is Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal)

I looked it up online and read an excerpt.

Me: I JUST READ AN EXCERPT.  THAT LOOKS GOOOOOD.  THE KIND OF BOOK I DEVOUR…WHAT A FIRSTLINE!  (‘When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The devil led us to the wrong crib…”). I’M GETTING ON MY SKATEBOARD TO GET IT NOW.

S: ARE YOU?  HAHA THAT’S THE BEST.  SHE HAS AN INTERESTING STYLE AND YOU WILL FALL IN LOVE WITH HER.

And I did.  Later, when I was reading it on the balcony I came across this passage,

Growing up is difficult.  Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear…Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world.’

Karen recently confided in me that her eldest son Adam ‘just barely tolerates childhood’ and I remember as a child, longing to grow up.  To be grown up.   Surely then things would make sense.  And of course, they don’t, and if anything, they get more confusing and each of us become such complicated creatures.  Some of us, ‘the wrong size for our worlds.’  Sometimes I get the feeling that it is impossible to learn anything new now, that to do so means pushing some other hard-won truth out of my head.  I am inarticulate with my emotions, but as I’ve spent so much of my life in books, I find it easier to express them, and myself in general, when I write them down, because then I become a fictional version of myself, and I am more comfortable with a life lived in the third person.  A sentiment Jeanette Winterson very much echoes in her memoir which I have just finished.

City living is great but it can wear on one.  Those mornings when I am raw and unprepared for the busy world, and I wander out my door to be shouted at by a drunk or one of the poor people with mental health issues who teem on Toronto’s streets. 

 ‘You should get a nose job,’ a wasted Rastafarian on a bicycle shouted at me as I was walking up Augusta Ave. the other day.

They’re replacing the water mains in the market and everyday all day, all I hear are jackhammers and diggers and heavy vehicles reversing and it is like this all over the city.  It makes me think of Pablo Neruda’s poem, ‘Walking Around,’ which begins,

‘I happen to get tired of being a man.
It happens that I enter the tailor shops and cinemas
withered, impenetrable, like a felt swan
Sailing in a water of origin and ash.
The smell of the hairdressers makes me cry out loud.
I just want to break from stones or wool,
I just want not to see establishments or gardens,
no merchandise, no glasses, no elevators.
It happens that I get tired of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
I happen to get tired of being a man.’

But then ‘Everybody suffers.  Why shouldn’t you?’  Says the wise Hoopoe to the Finch in the 12th Century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds.   And I would be wise to remember such counsel and that I don’t live in the Ukraine or Syria or Yemen or countless other places, and that a denuded spirit and singed areolas are minor on the long shit-list of shitty things to happen to one.

M-I’M WRITING ABOUT YOU AND FLORA’S VISIT TO THE PSYCHIC.  TOENAILS.

S-FLORA SAYS DON’T FORGET IT WAS A CHIHUAHUA.

As if I ever would.  

It would be good to join a cult.  One designed by a 12-year-old.  There would be no talk of God or doom or death.  Just days spent running around and learning stuff.  Collecting things.   Drawing.  Reading books about dragons.  Laughter.  Friends.

Sign me up.  I’d swallow that Kool-Aid any damn day.