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Saskatoon Shines!

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Years ago, I learned to find peace when I traveled, respite from life. Parts of me would come alive when I left my home in Utah and stepped into a new and unfamiliar place, where I could place my feet upon new streets and breathe new air. Travel became crucial for me and for my development, and my soul cried out for it. I traveled to survive.

Now I travel simply because I enjoy it. I like frequent getaways to new places. I enjoy walking and seeing what I can discover.

Saskatoon snuck up on me. It was a word that merely escaped my lips after a stressful day at work, and suddenly I had booked plane tickets for a few months later. And now I’m here, looking out at the expanse of the flat Canadian prairie country and farmland around me. I’m staying on the 21st floor of a tall building, and my view overlooks the river and a few bridges, into the distance and over the city. The skies are grey and I can see the Earth curve on the far horizon.

There is something about being somewhere I haven’t been before, and with a place like Saskatoon it is likely a place I will never be again. The city isn’t particularly magical. It’s drab, all browns and greens and grey and blues that seem muted, like Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. The people are kind, and funny, and go out of their way to be helpful. The architecture is normal. A cold breeze blows across the river. It feels like a normal metropolitan western city, with many of the same restaurants and department stores that I would find back in America.

But for me, it isn’t about the city, it’s about the experiences.

It’s wandering into a city government building to explore and having a long conversation with the security guard about canola farming and the changing temperatures of the northern farm land and the tax incentives for farmers who are looking out for their families’ well-beings generations down the line.

It’s stopping in the tourism office and chatting with a delightful potato bug of a person named Debbie about her passion and love for the city.

It’s stepping into a random restaurant and having a friendly Asian man with much too long fingernails serve you thick noodles in vegetable broth with freshly sliced mushrooms, eggplant, and cabbage, and talking about how good life is with your best friend.

It’s seeing Canadian geese on a Canadian river in Canada.

It’s sitting down and clutching a cup of coffee for warmth as two women loudly cackle while another man rushes into the place looking like he forgot where the bathroom was, and then realizing that look never quite leaves his face.

It’s going out to a nightclub in the late evening and hoping to interact with locals and then leaving two hours later, having been the only ones in the establishment.

It’s repeating a joke to a Canadian woman: “I heard that in Saskatchewan you can watch your dog run away for three full miles.”

And hearing her take it far too seriously: “Well, I suppose, but that is more in southern Saskatchewan, we get a few hills here and there up here.”

It’s complimenting a woman on her niceness, and indeed the seeming niceness of all Canadians, and having her respond, “Well, we are nice, yes, but we are sarcastic too!”

Travel sings to my soul. It takes me to a spiritual place in my own head where I can be anonymous in a crowd and just absorb. I didn’t travel, much, until just a few years ago, and now the memories I can capture in my journal or blog or just in my own head resound within me constantly on a playlist. Ocean Beach and Provincetown and Missoula and Reno and Fillmore and Little Armenia and the Castro and Pike Market. The list extends, and each place brings a smile to my face, though nothing note-worthy happened in any of those places except for long walks and life on my own terms. Community theater, vegan restaurants, saloons, beaches, live music, coffee shops, book stores, and strangers.

Travel releases me. It puts me in tune with myself. It gives me voice. It sings to my soul and through my fingertips. It slows me down and brings me back into my own self.

Yet travel also exposes me. It strips me bare. My insecurities, fears, doubts, shames, regrets, and worries work themselves out of me. At some point on every trip, I feel small and scared. I worry about insurmountable tasks. I think of my children and get tears on my cheeks. I grieve for losses. I think of the unfinished: the book, the documentary, the fitness goals. I shift to gratitude and I wonder if I’ll lose all I’ve gained. But even these parts of me are valid, vital, crucial. They are always within me, the bones upon which I build myself, and it is freeing to feel them there and let them breathe.

When we landed in Saskatoon, the welcome sign said “Saskatoon Shines!” But I haven’t seen the sun yet here. On the first night, the sun was setting, and pinks and oranges blended in with the grey clouds.

“It’s beautiful,” I muttered, and a woman nearby took notice.

“Oh, that is pretty, yes, but we get much better sunsets than that one. That one is just okay. Sorry ’bout that. Keep watching, no worries.”

She apologized for the quality of the sunset. And somehow that single moment captures the essence of this trip for me.

As I type this, the sky is still grey, and river still flowing, the colors still drab.

And the Earth is still curving, and me with it.

Saskatoon may not shine much, but it shines for me.

Easter with the athiest

Statuette of Hotei (Buddha)

I divided up the ham fried rice and sweet and sour chicken into three equal portions and served them to my sons on small plates, keeping the larger portion for myself. The restaurant was eerily quiet, just two other people quietly munching their food across the space.

My sons tore into their food with their usual enthusiasm, all cuteness and wonder at the world. My four year old, A, likes to play up being helpless when he wants attention. “Daddy, the bites are too big,” he mutters, though the bite-sized portions are the size of a thumbnail each. My seven year old, J, dramatizes everything. “Oh my gosh, this food is so good!”, though at best it was just barely noteworthy.

And here we were, a gay dad and his two boys have Easter dinner in a nearly empty Chinese place in a back neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah. And it was perfect.

We munched quietly for a bit before A pointed over my shoulder. “Dad, who’s that fat guy?”

I was initially horrified, thinking he was talking about an overweight man behind me. I turned around to see a large Buddha statue across the countertop. He sat, his usual mirthful smile carved into place, his eyes closed, legs folded underneath him, his hands comfortably resting. He was surrounded by carved wealth, coins and pearls and gold nuggets.  No wonder he was happy. There were several miniature candy bars stacked around him, as well as loose change, quarters and dimes and pennies.

“That’s Buddha.”

“Who’s Buddha?” A asked, dropping more rice than he was chewing.

“Well, a lot of people believe in Jesus, right? Many other people believe in Buddha.”

J nodded. “We learned about him in school. Americans believe in Jesus and Chinese people believe in Buddha.”

“Well, not quite. Some people in America believe in Buddha, and some believe in Jesus who live in China.”

A furrowed his brow. “Maybe everyone should just believe in Jesus.”

Oh great, a young Republican in the making, I laughed to myself. “Well, buddy, everybody has a right to believe in whoever they like. Jesus, or God, or Buddha, or Allah, or Jehovah. There are lots of different kinds of beliefs.”

“Well, I probably  just believe in Jesus.”

I scratched his head. “That is just fine with me.”

A’s cheeks were full as he continued, eager to share his vast Biblical knowledge.

“Did you know that Jesus had a mom named Mary and a stepdad named Joseph, but his real dad was Heavenly Father. That means he had a human for a mom and a god for a dad. I’m glad that my mom and my dad are both human, dad, cause if you were a God I would never get to see you.”

I have cultivated a special way of laughing around my sons because they don’t like to be laughed at. I clench my stomach tightly, close my mouth and eyes, and laugh through my nose, soft, my stomach usually shaking. My word, these precious kids and their amazing little words.

“Yeah, buddy, I’m very glad to be a human, too.”

A kept yammering, not slowing his eating at all. “Do you believe in Jesus, too, dad?”

“I used to.”

“But now you don’t?”

“Not really.”

“But why?”

I shrugged. “Just cause, buddy.”

“Yeah, but why?”

They were both looking at me now. I’m regularly flummoxed by my sons, never quite knowing how to answer those questions about where babies come from or why some people are homeless. I always want to be direct without being too grown up.

I thought for a moment. The truth is, I no longer use labels. I used to be fiercely and defensively Mormon. Now, I don’t really have an affiliation. I try to be a good person with integrity who is kind to others and responsible for my choices and actions, but I don’t like the labels at this point, and I don’t go to any church. My sons, meanwhile, go to the Unitarian Church now with their mother, and most of their family on either side is Mormon.

“Well, some people are Buddhist, some are Mormon or Methodist. Some are Muslim or Jewish. Everybody is different. I guess I’m atheist.”

“What’s atheist?”

“Well, that means I don’t believe in Jesus or Buddha or Allah or anyone. I just like to be a good person.” There was a moment of silence as we chewed our food. “Today is Easter, right? What is Easter about?”

J smiled. “Family.”

A shot his hand up in the air. “Yeah, and eggs and chocolate and the Easter bunny!”

“Easter is in the spring. We use symbols of spring, like grass and baby chicks and bunnies and eggs, all signs of life and a new season. We celebrate it by dying eggs and hunting baskets, but it is really a Christian holiday, all about new life. Do you know what happened to Jesus on Easter?”

J got a sad look on his face. “He died. I don’t like it when people die.”

“Yes, but then they put his body in a tomb, and three days later, he came alive again.”

A punched his hand in the air. “He’s like an Avenger!”

My stomach shook with laughter again. “Yeah, he kind of is.” And I thought back to the Super Best Friends episodes on South Park, where various god figures band together to fight crime.

J looked across the table. “Dad, pass the fing-fongs.”

I laughed out loud this time and handed him the won-tons. We finished our meal, and on our way out of the restaurant, we stopped to admire the Buddha statue again.

“He sure has a lot of money,” J observed.

“Yeah, buddy, they all do,” I muttered to myself.

As I strapped my kids into the car, A placed a hand on my cheek, turning my face toward him. “I’m glad you aren’t a god, daddy. I like having Easter with you.”

 

My son, the Zookeeper

022024__

Dad, remember how I wanted to be a hunter?

Yeah, buddy.

And I wanted to hunt all over the world and kill just the mean animals that hurt the nice animals?

Yeah, buddy.

And I would live in a hotel for nine million dollars and it would have a swimming pool and you could come and visit me but I’m probably gonna not ever get married cause I will be hunting all the time?

Mm-hmm.

Well, I changed my mind. I don’t want to be a hunter anymore.

Oh?

Yeah, instead I want to be a zookeeper.

Okay, that sounds great.

Cause a hunter has to hurt animals and I don’t want to hurt animals, instead I will give them a nice place to live.

Great.

But I have to figure out how to get the animals to the zoo. How do they do it?

Well, some animals are born in the zoo to their moms and dads who are already in the zoo. Others are captured and moved to the zoo.

Hmm. I like the ones born there the most. I don’t want to capture animals without their permission. Maybe I will travel all over the world and meet animals in the forests and jungles and oceans. And where else should I meet them?

Well, maybe the desert and the rain forest and the grasslands.

What’s a grasslands?

It’s like big green fields where animals like giraffes and zebras live.

Don’t they live in jungles?

No, it’s different.

Okay, well I will go to the grasslands too and I will meet the animals and talk to them and tell them to come and live in my zoo if they want to, and if they do then they can come and live there and we will be friends. I can build really nice cages for them and feed them and they will really like me but sometimes I will stay there all the time and other times I will have to go back to my hotel to sleep and the animals might get really mad and grumpy because I am gone but then I will come back the next day in the morning and cheer them up and they will know that I didn’t leave them and instead just went home to sleep and then we will be friends again.

That sounds great.

And it can be all the different kinds of animals, right?

Right.

Whatever kinds I want?

Right.

I think that sounds really cool.

Me too. Sounds like a lot of work.

I don’t like to work.

I know.

But maybe I will like to work when I’m a grown-up.

Mm-hmm.

And you could come and visit my zoo if you wanted. Even if there are some scary animals you wouldn’t have to be scared because they would still be nice ones or they couldn’t live in my zoo.

Yeah.

And I will have to feed them lots of different things. Like horses eat hay and lizards eat crickets. Or maybe they can eat meal worms. And I will feed the snakes mice. And I will have lots of tigers and mountain lions and I will feed them meat.

Yeah.

And the big fish like whales will have to eat little fish.

Yeah. Where will you get all that food?

I don’t know, at the store maybe.

That will cost a lot of money.

I will have probably nine million dollars at the hotel, remember?

Oh, right. And maybe you can charge people money to come and see your zoo.

Why?

So you can make more money to feed the animals.

But it could be free.

Well, when we go to the zoo, we pay money. Then they use that money to take care of the animals.

Well, I’ll think about it.

Okay.

Lunch was delicious. Can you read me my fortune cookie now?

Sure, hand it to me. It says ‘Maintain good health for that is your wealth.’

That’s dumb. That’s not what it is supposed to say.

Oh? What did you want it to say?

It was supposed to say, ‘hey, it’s okay to change your mind and be a zookeeper for nice animals instead of a hunter for mean ones.’

Oh.

I’m done with lunch. Draw me a dragon now.

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