I read this morning an interesting thing said by an architect in Halifax, Roberto Menendez, an immigrant from the benighted country of El Salvador, and moreover from the poorest class in that poverty-stricken, gang-riddled nation. Ruminating about his life, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said his philosophy was that God had given him one day to live.
I had never heard it expressed before in quite those terms, and it set me to wondering if I had made the most of the roughly 33,000 days I have spent on this Earth. The closest I could come to having matched his aspiration was probably in the 26 years (around 9500 days) that I spent as a landed Canadian immigrant, before I decided to become a Canadian citizen. When people asked me why I had persisted for so long in my original citizenship, I would reply, “Not to worry. I vote every day.”
By that I meant that in the course of my work, my leisure, my interaction with others, my preparation of my children for their lives as Canadians, I felt I was contributing every day my mite to the Canadian national totality.
That may have been my feeling, but it was not shared by everyone, for years later, when I was throwing away my unnecessary papers from my life’s work, I was urged to stop it because they should be archived. A friend who worked in the archives in Ottawa entered my name for consideration, and received the response, “This person doesn’t seem to have sufficient Canadian presence to be worthy of being archived, and besides, appears to be better known as an activist than as a writer.” (The latter, I guess, a fate worse than death!)
That suggests that the bar against significant Canadianism must be pretty high; because during my roughly 21,000 days I had been living or domiciled in Canada, I had written many thousands of articles in Canadian newspapers and magazines, had published half a dozen books, had worked on 30 films, and had been appointed to the Order of Canada in recognition of my work.
I say this not to boast, for I am sure that to most people who know anything about it, my appointment to such official recognition was, to say the least, scarcely merited. But I have always thought it a proof of a certain decency, an open-endedness, one might call it an open- mindedness, in Canada, that someone like me, who has always felt himself up against the system, and has never set out to flatter the nation --- for example, denigrating the flag and the anthem, as I did to a Parliamentary committee on something or other one year, I think it might have been citizenship --- should have received such a warm recognition of the value of his work. (For whatever this story is worth, my friend Terry Mosher, better known as Aislin, the supreme Canadian political cartoonist, recently showed me a letter he wrote years ago warmly recommending me for membership of the Order, and then, he said, “they didn’t give it to you.”)
I have always felt rather uneasy to have received an official accolade of any kind, thinking it might be a sign simply of vanity, so I have never bruited it around unduly.
This has taken me on a sight detour from where I was intending to go with this piece. It is when I consider my personal life that I feel I have probably not taken advantage of that one essential day mentioned by Roberto Menendez. But for the life of me I can’t tell how I might have made things better even if I had followed his precept that I had only one day more of life.
Apart from such personal matters, which, as usual, I tend to pass over in silence, if I consider my working life, I suppose, at a stretch, one might say that I frequently acted more or less in recognition that there were better things to do than what I had been doing. In other words, long before I ever set foot in Canada, I had never managed to stay for more than three years in any job, always feeling that the time had come to move on to some usually ill-defined urgency that lay ahead of me. Thus, after a restless five-year career in three New Zealand newspapers, I quit the country to take up a position in a small country newspaper in northern Queensland, Australia. Six months after beginning there --- and here I revert to Mr Menendez’s criterion about the next day being the essential one ---- I quit and took off for India, where I must have imagined I had something to contribute to the country, an expectation so out of whack with reality as some would say almost brought my sanity into question. My four following years in Britain were divided between seven months of unemployment --- itself a valuable experience, requiring intense self-examination, by which I found myself sorely lacking the finer qualities that one would always hope to find in oneself ---- followed by nine months of further study of English under a great teacher, and finally one year of small-paper journalism before I set off for Canada, ostensibly on the way home to New Zealand.
In Canada I first got a job with Thomson Newspapers in Kirkland Lake, northern Ontario. I could bear it for only three months before setting off for Kenora, Ontario, where my wife Shirley kept the wolf from he door, and I began to write The Great Novel (never completed), before, after six months, I received a job offer from The Winnipeg Free Press. I stayed there for two years before heading for Montreal, where, after the usual three years of daily journalism I decided to head off to London again, only to postpone this resignation when my boss asked me to represent the newspaper in London.
Then came the one occasion on which I never had the guts to quit a job: left more or less to myself, I spent eight years there, writing furiously at whatever turned up, and enjoying every minute of the job. Eventually recalled to Montreal, I could bear only three more years with the same newspaper, before deciding --- back to the Menendez prescription ---- that my next day of life was not going to offer the satisfaction that maybe I had always expected, without being actively aware of it.
I was 43 by this time, and I have to confess that from here on towards the end of my active working life, I made a number of wildly irrational decisions that could be said --- once again stretching it a bit --- to have indicated my religious dissatisfaction with what I was doing.
I plunged into a new metier, making documentary films, and it took me four years before I felt the need to leave it all, and leave the country, and spend every penny I had ever saved, in a wild odyssey back to my home country which I found, 25 years after leaving it, offered me neither a secure livelihood, nor a fulfilling way of life.
And so, tail between legs, I came back to Canada, took out my citizenship, and worked through for another dozen or so years, at one job after another, taking any opportunity that turned up --- writing articles, books, and and film commentaries, researching, and even directing and co-directing some films --- and being extremely thankful that, by pure happenstance, enough jobs turned up ---- which, with the contribution of my long-suffering wife, vital throughout this whole job-changing recital --- were sufficient to keep my family afloat until they could go off and earn their own livings.
Although I do not want to exaggerate, I suppose one could say that this peripatetic life might, at times, have come close to fulfilling Roberto Menendez’s prescription about that one, essential, remaining day of life. But there, I think, I must stop making these comparisons. Mr. Menendez adopted his philosophy as a reaction against the intense poverty, the insane cruelty, of the life into which he was born.
For me, born into the comparative purple of the Western world economy, it was just a matter of restlessness under whichever authority I confronted, and a more or less irresponsible history of keeping moving in the hope of finding some place, some job more amenable.