don kerr

1 year ago · 6 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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When we knew some shit

When we knew some shit

November 3, 1993

We’d finished off a few pounds of Gordie Howitzer’s Elbows (chicken wings for the uninitiated). Estelle wandered by checking the status of our pints. Homer’s glass was near empty and he nodded for a refill of whatever watered-down near-beer he was drinking. I confirmed my request for a fresh pint of Guinness and we waded back into our philosophical meanderings.

The Wheat Sheaf attracts Toronto’s deep thinkers at King and Bathurst since 1849. Mercifully the lavatories have been slightly modernized and there’s some neon but it remains an honest, unpretentious watering hole. That’s largely why Homer and I preferred it…cheap, good eats, cold beer and a mix of toothless crones, old farts, and the dispossessed. At least that was what it was like on this chilly November day in 1993.

It was a pretty good year. The Leafs were at 16-3 with Wendel and Dougie leading a remarkably skilled team in front of little Felix Potvin. Hopes of a Cup glimmered faintly.

When the epiphany occurred it came in with a whimper. There were neither clashing symbols nor horns blowing in exaltation. We’d been talking about our careers which had, up to that point, been mirror images. Homer had followed me from the newspaper business to copywriting then I moved down the road into marketing and he later followed me there and when I left he took over then when he left I took over again. Showed a complete lack of imagination, to be honest.

It was the realization that we had passed what was probably the midpoint of our time on earth that prompted us to this remarkable clarity. We declared that after wallowing about in the trenches for some time we had ‘achievements’, we were ‘recognized’, and most remarkably we were being paid some pretty good coin.

It puzzled us. Then we figured it out.

Homer probably declared it first with this eloquent insight, “We know some shit!”

Then, with the Guinness asserting itself, I (woefully, in retrospect) launched this considerable turd of a thought. “Yes, Homer. We have wisdom.”

Estelle wandered by and we decided that more beer was the essential lubricant for this intellectual grind. See, that’s some of the shit we didn’t really know. Latent inebriation first shows itself with delusions of intellectual grandeur and blazing insight into the painfully obvious.

Segue to the 21st century and 26 years after the Wheat Sheaf summit and I come to the fatal realization that I still don’t know that much. My delusions of wisdom are buried in the painful reality that unless I continue to learn and evolve, my remaining years on this earth will not bring the outcome I so hoped for.

I come back to the essential question then. What do I know? And I don’t mean this in the vein of Rod Stewart’s song where he states, “I wish I knew then what I know now”. This is very much a present moment issue that revolves around my need to put the black dog in the kennel and try to keep it there for as long as I can.

It’s a painful reality that knowledge of an issue does not immediately create the capacity to manage it. Coincidentally it was 26 years ago that I was formally diagnosed as someone who would live with depression. In the years since my path has wandered throughout the grey mists of the illness with several moments when the sun would break through.

It is those brilliant moments to which I should cling and use as a touchpoint for finding the way forward. What is it then that gets in the very obvious way of bringing this realization to active practice every day?

This is an insidious illness that infects everyone with whom you interact. And, perversely, the infection grows exponentially in correspondence to how much love you feel for those closest.

Let me explain.

In 2006 I married Kate. She entered my life a few years before and in that period I came to realize that she was someone who created shining moments. With Kate, I emerged for long periods of time from the shadows. She was a powerful antidote to my misfiring synapses and created in me a feeling that we can always reinvent and reimagine.

In 2007 we brought Gabriel into the world and what a stupendous joy he was. And what a complete surprise to me that, at an age when most of my friends’ kids were off to university, I was learning the realities of welcoming an infant into our life. Samuel followed his brother into our family in 2010.

Our life was on a beautiful trajectory.

But depression brings along the reality of collateral damage. Depression is non-discriminating in this regard and as such is an insidious illness capable of throwing a knuckleball into your life at any moment. Unfortunately, it is those closest to you who are exposed to this potential disruption.

It’s difficult for me to contemplate the notion of mental health in the context of my family and particularly my kids. One has a perspective of them being total innocents just beginning a journey through a sparkling life where little can intrude upon their sense of wonder. Until you begin to think of your children as little humans, not just tiny toys.

The formation of a child’s mind is a hugely complex undertaking and one we learn about each day. I am a disciple of Dr. Dan Siegal and his book The Whole Brain Child. In it, he writes,

“In fact, even though entire libraries have been written discussing mental illness, mental health is rarely defined. A simple way to express it, though, is to describe mental health as our ability to remain in a ‘river of well-being’.

“Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Whenever you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you.

“Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river’s two banks. This causes different problems, depending on which bank you approach. One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control. Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day. You need to move away from the bank of chaos and get back into the gentle flow of the river.

“But don’t go too far, because the other bank represents its own dangers. It’s the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos.”*

When I read this I realized there was another example of my non-knowing and my need to learn to ensure my kids weren’t tossed about during their trip on the river of life.

And then, in November of 2011…

I’m waiting in the lineup to pick up my boys from school. Sam is 2. Gabriel is 4.

The phone rings.

I answer and hear from my wife Kate’s GP “Your wife has a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.”

Within three weeks we were lead to believe that Kate would die.

Kate did not die.

Finding beauty in the wreckage

“Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” - Christopher Hitchens

My canoe veered violently to the bank of chaos.

For grown-ups, the onslaught of cancer is overwhelming. Can you begin to imagine the impact on little boys, aware of their environment while trying to understand that something very different was happening but being incapable of fully absorbing, expressing and understanding? Can you imagine, when it is so important for all of us to feel felt, what these children were struggling with while enveloped in a cloud of big-person words and confused, oddly-behaving parents?

My learning now continued. I couldn’t help my family without helping myself. This is akin to the airline safety message to apply your own oxygen mask before attempting to help anyone else.

Learning that there was very little support for male caregivers I decided to see what I could do to fill that gap in some small way. I began to write a blog. I sought conversation with other male caregivers when Kate was undergoing her chemo treatments at Credit Valley Hospital. I spoke to groups. I appeared on television. I wrote a book (Riding Shotgun: A book for men and the partners they care for).

Kate left the corporate world and began educating herself in Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. She started her own company Wake Up Kate. We simplified our lives. We moved from our monster home in Oakville to a much smaller home in Burlington. We changed our diet. We modified our approach to life by becoming more concerned with being and less concerned with having. I entered the world of psychotherapy. I too studied mindful meditation (although I still find it difficult). We focused as much as possible on being in the present moment and creating experiences for our family rather than acquiring things. (We still have a strict policy that when some new item comes into our home we get rid of something else.)

I continued to grow my copywriting and brand strategy company, Don Kerr Writes. Then, inexorably drawn back into the world of marketing Kate and I started our own company Wake Up Kate Marketing with a solid determination that our re-entry into this world would revolve around purposeful marketing.

Our boys are now 10 and 12. Most of the time they travel down the middle of the river and when their canoe veers to one bank or the other they have the resilience and ability to get back to calm waters. Most of the time! They’re still growing after all.

And that brings me right back to the start…I’m still growing too.

The black dog still drags me around the block. My family still has to deal with someone who can be unpredictable. But at the heart of it all, there is growth and a comfort to turn toward adversity.

I didn’t really know much that truly mattered on that day at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern and I still know that there is much that I don’t know.

Where the beauty arises from the wreckage is in having the confidence and humility to admit that I am flawed. And as time has passed there is one thing I do know with certainty: Experience, including all of the highs, lows and middles should soften you up rather than toughen you up. Remaining open to the small pleasures in life and acknowledging that we will fail miserably at times results in a fuller human experience.

While it might seem odd to quote Albert Camus when thinking of finding beauty in the wreckage, this little and huge thought from him has illuminated my life. Perhaps it will trigger some little light for you as well.

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.”

*©2011 by Mind Your Brain, Inc., and Bryson Creative Productions Inc.

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don kerr

4 months ago #18

Jim Murray

4 months ago #17

Nice work, Kid.  If you stick with it you might have some success with the writing gig.

don kerr

1 year ago #16

Hey chef! You trumped it all by coming back from death's door! Randall Burns

don kerr

1 year ago #15

John Rylance There are many thoughts to ponder in your response and they're mostly above my pay grade. thanks for your perspective.

don kerr

1 year ago #14

Jerry Fletcher Probably has something to do with encroaching decrepitude!

don kerr

1 year ago #13

Pascal Derrien Honoured that you found time away from running your ass off to stop by! Thanks muchly.

don kerr

1 year ago #12

Paul Walters high praise indeed from a truly wonderful writer. Thanks sir.

don kerr

1 year ago #11

Always nice to have old friends chime in. Much appreciated Franci\ud83d\udc1dEugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador

don kerr

1 year ago #10

Thanks so much Ken Boddie. As usual you've brought your scintillating wit to bear and I love it.

don kerr

1 year ago #9

Thanks Robert Cormack. Your experience completely resonates. It's so much about moving from 'having' to 'being'. BTW: Your pieces are one of the few reasons I visit beBee from time to time.

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #8

Nice piece, Don. I think advertising taught all of us that depression just adds to what is already a depressing skill of selling. For a time, back in the 70s, the creative took the depression away, only to return in the 90s with truly depressing work. I ran from it to a small town, giving up some material goods, but I guess even renovating is material in a sense. I realized what I needed more than anything else was open air. For both Wendy and I, long walks on beaches and in forests, we haven't gotten back to nature as much as gotten back to ourselves. Wendy still does contracts back in the city. She'll call and say, "What am I doing? I'm sixty-three and waking up at 3:00 in the morning, worrying." I prescribe another beach, another trip to Long Point or Turkey Point (15 minutes away). The rest is pretty incidental, as much about craft as anything. So I write the ghosts away. It's all we've got, but it's something.

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #7

Good to see you back on beBee, Don, and with such epic epiphany coupled with life’s endurances. Personally, I can state with absolute certainty that, at my age, “I’ve forgotten some shit”, but it sounds like you’ve got your shit together. Here’s to life and to all the excrement it throws our way.

It's so good to hear from you Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr. And thank you for gifting us with such an eloquent and powerful piece.

Paul Walters

1 year ago #5

Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr Well after disappearing for a while much to my and others consternation you roar back with one of the most eloquent posts I have read for a while. Have to say I love the company name, Wake Up Kate Marketing, its a cracker. Seeing your lads from time to time on FB posts I have no doubt that they are truly loved and being guided down that river by two strong and determined parents. Thanks for sharing. Interesting to note that all of my journals have Mr Camu's quote as an opening title ... I sense that you too use this as a mantra! Nice to have you back!

Pascal Derrien

1 year ago #4

Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr what a powerful write up I was glued to it from start to finish .... THANKS with big T for writing and sharing this ☝️

Jerry Fletcher

1 year ago #3

Don, Masterful. Ours is one of several epiphany write ups that have crossed my desk lately. Something in the air? And so it goes.

John Rylance

1 year ago #2

This thought provoking piece led to this conundrum. Does everyone who has an unhealthy mind have a mental illnes? Can there be unhealthy thoughts that are not a sign of mental illness? Is it more socially acceptable to say I have mental health issues, than I have a mental illness? Are they both saying the same thing?

Randall Burns

1 year ago #1

Great to hear from you Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr It has been a while. Excellent and thought provoking post that has elicited numerous emotions in me; I can relate. love the analogy of staying in the calm center of the river. As I age I seem to be learning and growing even more, something I tell everyone around me, especially younger cooks, is; "The older I get the more I realize what I don't know" This is a good perspective and with accepting this premise comes relief, and also an openness of mind to actually learn more. It is a journey for everyone, good to hear about your's. Great job and thanks for sharing!

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