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It was the evening of the 23rd of March and John Shields would be dead in the morning. He planned it that way and to send him off, well and loved, we held the most wonderful party.
We celebrated this beautiful man with his last supper requests: Swiss Chalet chicken, sauce and gravy, two potatoes and beer -- worker’s food -- and gluten free organic cake from Wildfire, the best hippy bakery in Victoria, all very John.
The room was overflowing with people from across time who loved John. Penny the celebrant had each of us bless a snow white shawl for him to carry into his final journey. John was in fine and hilarious form from his wheeled-in hospital bed. There was music, laughter and tears. A group of six stayed late and wound up singing “Memories” as a final serenade, a song I had not sang for decades and there is was. The three women John called daughter slept at hospice keeping vigil, holding onto every last minute of this precious man.
John died like he lived: fierce, dignified, ahead of his time, serving others, and surrounded by loved ones. He marched with Doctor King as a young Catholic priest, built one of the largest and most progressive unions in Canada, saved a series of non-profits from the brink, and in a final act of service, opted for the Medically Assisted Dying Program to end his suffering and deepen compassionate action in Canada.
Most men are not like John, and yet the world needs more of them now than ever before.
The world needs the emotionally intelligent and healed masculine
John invited deep dives into the realms of emotion and he lived the last years of his life surrounded by fierce women. He built men’s groups and coached individuals in exploring the healing of the masculine heart. He was fascinated by human development: what makes us stuck, and what healing looks like. The last few months of his life were spent in deep explorations of death, through Stan Groff teleconferences and reading anything he could find about cosmology, soul work and the new physics.
In John’s final months of life, he was open about his journey and the fact that he was dying. He spoke about death in an unflinching and curious way. People close to him were encouraged to share their feelings about death, dying, and how his progressing illness was impacting us.
We did this weekly. Dinners on Wednesday nights became in-house family therapy sessions. There was laughter, tears, stress, and strain. He loved the realness, and we all learned to as well. It took us, his chosen and biological family, a while to understand that keeping our sadness and pain private was leaving him feeling separated. This was a surprising and humbling lesson for a group of highly articulate and deeply emotional women. To learn it from the healed masculine perspective was beautiful, like poetry that tells of unexpected truths and lingers with you long after it has been read.
The lessons that John taught us from the healed masculine are everywhere. Alice Meyers, his niece, says her deepest lesson from John is, “to remember to breathe through intense emotions and not get steamrolled. Embrace them and come out the other side, instead.”
At 50, with a few accomplishments under my belt and more yet to accomplish, I have been musing: What if I had always had a father to say, “Don’t settle,” “Push harder,” “Be braver,” “Risk more,” and “You deserve more from love”? John was impeccable at listening and in striving to hear, in reflecting and in sharing his own wisdom in a way that does not impede others. The world needs more fathers like John.
I don’t think I would have hurt myself in love as much if John had actually been my father. The emotional and spiritual work he did helped me to become more whole; more ready to love and be loved. Like the Japanese art of
“Kintsukuroi”, a centuries old technique that fixes pottery with a lacquer dusted with gold, making the object more valuable in the end, John’s way of being poured gold mortar into cracks inside of me.
Facing pain together makes you family
In my life, I have had big gaps in my relationship to the masculine. I have been filled with stories of being unlovable and unworthy. While I know some big things are still shifting, even as I write this piece, John and I were committed to making our friendship a healing embrace between the fierce feminine and the kinder, more authentically fierce masculine.
Somewhere along the way, he spotted his fire, his rebelliousness, and his belief in system change in me and others. He adopted us into his heart and family, making space to love us in the last chapter of his life.
We connected over anything and everything progressive and political. We shared a love of popular music from the 70’s and 80’s and hand thrown pottery. We learned big things together while talking about Janis Joplin and drinking martinis in vintage green glasses.
I will never forget John raising his fists in the air from his hospice bed, as I talked about launching deeply ethical financial products on Wall Street. He beamed with pride at his step-daughter Nikki’s triumphs as she finishes her PhD and builds a world changing career, watching his niece Alice bloom in every way and her boyfriend Steve deepen as a negotiator in his own right. John had no biological children, and yet he was more loved and surrounded by people, of every age and walk of life, than a father of ten and a grandfather of thirty.
John taught me that we get to choose our family in adulthood, and that the roots are knit together through purpose and passion, and through sharing pain. Family shouldn’t be easy, but it should make you and those around you more full and more whole.
Activists need each other
John, his wife Robin, their daughter Nikki, and I are cut from similar cloth: justice driven revolutionaries and life long change agents. We lived together with a common understanding of deep purpose.
Serving the world can be a lonely pursuit, so finding your people is a big deal. Finding a cluster of activists who need and serve one another is even bigger. It is hard to work, decades ahead of the crowd, on things like carbon taxes, indigenous justice, human rights, labour reforms and feminism. It is hard to press for change and lose, hard to see wild places you love destroyed, and yet we were able to weather what many cannot, by collectively leaning on each other.
When I went to #StandingRock, everyone in the house understood. While I was gone, Nikki and John wrote a resolution, that was passed through the BCGEU, in support of stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline. I believe they were the first union to take that step.
As the time came closer to his death, John and Robin built a beautiful program, through a non-profit they were involved in, called Earth and Spirit. It was magical to watch them turn their process, their grief, and their love story into a final act of service. And already, the stories I hear about that work are powerful.
John taught me that it is possible to take something as heartbreaking, as final, as death, and use that journey to serve others. He could have lived his last days on a tropical island, but I understood. In the end, they used their own pain and process in service to others, and there is no more beautiful end of life or end of an evolutionary love story.
A good life is the pathway to a good death
Among the many lessons John taught me, nothing sits more poignantly than this idea: a good life is the pattern for a good death. If you have lived well, served well, and enlivened others over the course of your life, your end will be flooded by the energy and presence of those you affected, and the stories of all you brought to the world in life.
An end like this cannot be bought, cannot be forced or willed, in the end. John’s work filled the halls of hospice with teary eyed people he had lifted as a social worker, kids he had helped in foster care, workers he had made the world better for, land rights allies he had worked alongside elected officials like Murray Rankin who had adored him, men he had built healing circles for, and women he had emboldened into fierceness in and for the world. John Shields had a blessed and beautiful death because of how he lived.
John was my spiritual Father - it is that simple. We could literally talk about anything (and did). Sometimes, when he asked me about unhealthy patterns in my romantic life, he would pull a ‘Dr. Phil’ and say in that knowing way, “How’s that working for you?”
I asked him why he mentored me and others right up until the end. He said it was all about potential. When he saw people with potential struggling, he could not let go. Human potential gave him a sense of life and enthusiasm that was irresistible. How could he not do this for the countless people over the course of his life?
John taught me to crave the potential in others, and to give until it is realized – sometimes for their sake, sometimes for mine, but most often for others and for our planet.
Work as love
John made a career of love and justice. When he set out to change the world, he found himself forged by the US civil rights movement and by working with inner city kids as a young priest. As his social justice lens broadened, he turned his sharp mind to changing the church. When the Catholic Church refused to move forward on Vatican II, he left the priesthood to pursue justice where people and institutions were asking for it.
He became a figure in the union movement, supporting Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta in their work with farm workers, and expanding the roles for women and people of colour in the movement. His years with the BCGEU built it into a powerful platform to drive and deepen change. John was a frequently cartooned political figure in those Social Credit government years, key in the solidarity movement.
His final years were committed to The Land Conservancy pulling it back from a cliff, restoring a damaged brand and saving vast tracks of rare conservation lands from being lost. He helped build a program through The Centre for Earth and Spirit that shared the lessons of a good life for a good death.
See problems, craft solutions, and change systems
Systems Theory teaches that there are no broken systems, they all work exactly how we designed them, though the positive results may vary. John moved into these mis-formed systems and sought to make them right. When something was broken, he worked to fix it, and when it was completed he moved on to the next system.
The priesthood led to social work, which led to union service, which led to ensuring space for women and people of colour in the union, and on again. As a way to accept his own dying process, he worked to make it easier for those who loved him by committing to die consciously. He shared his life in his book, and he shared his process in dying with a New York Times reporter Catherine Porter, celebrate sane Canadian and inspire US legislation. While he wanted to die well for those closest to him, why not address the larger, systemic issues at play in the dying journey?
It is not enough to shake a fist at our broken institutions and systems, to vote about them, to post to social media or do online polls about them. If John taught me anything about systems change, it is that those things become powerful when put our bodies and our careers on the line to realize a better world.
Elders are essential
In some ways, my son was the closest thing John had to a grandchild, and he taught us lessons in that story too. When Wyatt said goodbye, John commended him for his grace in discomfort, and his ability to show up and be honest about his feelings. Together, John and I watched and celebrated a man emerge from the boy I gave birth TO almost 20 years ago.
At a divestment concert organized by John’s daughter Nikki last week – held in John’s own building, the Victoria office of the BCGEU— Standing Rock warrior Nataanii Means spoke about the need for “Elders Not Olders.” The world needs a return to the art of eldership, where the content of your heart, the service of your life, and your contribution to culture is what makes you an elder. The idea that everyone deserves respect for simply living a long life is misguided. Respect is earned. Respect should be apportioned based on how well you lived and how well you served. In this way, an elder’s last gift is in the inspiration of a future generation of elders.
John Shields earned his eldership
The night John arrived in Hospice, his nurse recognized him. She was one of the many foster kids he had helped. The volunteer on that night worked with him in the union movement. “He lit people up when he walked down the hall,” she shared with his wife Robin. It is a testament to the breadth of his impact that 2/2 people on duty knew and deeply respected John for the impact he had had in their lives. We laughed together, knowingly.
A man who learns from women
“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” This quote from Mary Oliver is how John opens his book The Priest who Left his Religion. How often do men open their books quoting women poets? Not enough I say.
John learned from his daughter Nikki that there can be no justice on stolen land without decolonization and integrated her guidance on how to be a settler ally to indigenous people. He learned about wild places and women poets from his wife Robin. He learned how to use his skills and expertise to protect land for the coming generations from friend Briony Penn. He let my work transforming public markets into his heart and made space for the fierce feminine to transform his thinking even at 78.
John leaned into privilege to move beyond it, to harness his privilege and make the world more. He listened to women, his listened to young people right up until he died. He was awesomely curious, mentally rigorous and heart-led.
Lessons from the “Death House”
Evite, the online invitation website, doesn’t offer invitations to a death party; we need to fix that. John’s dying parties were fabulous, hilarious, sacred, irreverent, and filled with his essence.
The dignity of dying, in a jurisdiction with the MAID program (Medical Assistance In Dying), is a great gift. John was very supportive of MAID and in turn has been supported by the program. He applied when he was ready to do so, there was a wait period, and then quickly he was assessed by two doctors and accepted. The rest was his call.
He chose to die on Friday March 24th, 2017, when the native Indian plum and red currant blossoms were full, just beyond the Equinox. He had hoped to die at home, but ultimately required Hospice care. Thankfully, the hospice centre at the Royal Jubilee is incredible, with lovely, skilled, and caring people doing a sacred service.
Grief comes in waves and I ride them. I let them come, feel it all, and deepen accordingly. One of John’s last lessons for me was this: Don’t avoid death. And yet don’t dwell only there – choose to be more alive. John’s life and death have given me a greater sense of mission, more wholeness and a greater ability to serve.
Death can teach us more than it takes, if you let it. Embrace it. Focus on dignity, grace, and grit. Today, I am tired, honoured, with family and broken open, just like John would have wanted
More about John Shield’s legacy
Celebration of Life will be hosted by the BCGEU in Victoria and Vancouver, website: http://www.bcgeu.ca
His book, 'The Priest Who Left His Religion: In Pursuit of Cosmic Spirituality', can be found here: http://www.influencepublishing.com/john-shields/
Earth and Spirit: Living Well Dying Well Program: https://centreforearthandspirit.ca
Watch for the upcoming piece in the New York Times by Catherine Porter
Medical Assistance In Dying: www.viha.ca