"Remembering Dan" by Laurence Steven

Remembering Dan — a remembrance for Dan Steven, Dec. 9, 2002; by Laurence Steven, Dan’s Uncle When my brother Chris, Dan’s dad, asked me to offer a remembrance at Dan’s funeral on behalf of the Steven family, I was honoured, and a bit dismayed. After all, I have lived in Sudbury, six hours north of London, since 1983. I knew Dan as an uncle knows a nephew he sees occasionally; in other words, not well. And that was Chris’s point. My distance, he felt, might enable me to gather some perspectives on Dan that those more intimately connected might not see as readily. He also felt I might be able simply to get through this task. I hope so . . . . Dan profoundly affected a lot of people; the gatherings both here and yesterday at the visitation attest to that. Dan touched people — and they remember that touch. What does it mean for us to remember Dan? It means we want to bring back into the fullness of our attention a relationship we had with him, but which is past. We want to feel Dan’s touch again. Here are a few strands of memory, culled from stories and anecdotes a variety of people have generously shared with me. Perhaps they will help reflect something of your Dan as well: Imagine a downtown London street: a penniless, hand-to-mouth, hungry, busker Dan goes down on his knees to earnestly ask God to bring food to the hungry in the world, then gets up, walks around the corner, and immediately finds a restauranteur offering him a big bag of sandwiches, which he promptly gives to someone living even closer to the hungry streets than he is. Now imagine an open stage in a bar: a well-equipped band finishes its set, to haphazard applause; waves of chatter quickly surge through the room again. Then a scrawny, scruffy kid with a guitar climbs onto the stage. He stares out at the din, then starts slapping the side of his guitar, over and over, regularly, until the crowd gradually stops talking and pays attention. And he has them, and holds them, . . . and then he sings. Imagine you’re a little girl named Andrea, three or four years old, watching TV on Saturday morning, when an apparition in long scraggly hair, growth of beard, and guitar in hand lurches down the hallway. Now that’s a scary sight . . . . Now imagine a five year old Dan, upon hearing that my son Tom had been born, asking his grandma if he was still going to be her #1 special grandson. Grandma smiles down and says, “Of course, dear; even when you’re 49 you’ll still be my #1 special grandson.” The earnest five year old says “Grandma, when I’m 49, you won’t be here. . . .” Now imagine it’s 11:00 o’clock at night; two little girls — one nine, Jessica, and one 7, Amanda — are at the window of their grandmas’s apartment on Springbank Drive, looking down and watching their eight year old cousin Dan slipping across the lawn of the apartment building, then across the street, and into the Woodland Cemetery to go and visit his great aunt Gardie and great uncle Olding, his great grandma Connie and great grandpa Walter, and his great, great grandma Flossie and great, great grandpa Arthur . . . in the family plot. Or imagine Dan as a little boy repeatedly singing the Little Orphan Annie hit “Tomorrow”, in an Al Jolson pose, arms spread wide, and wanting to be Annie. Or imagine Dan fulfilling his friend Sultan’s joking request for a birthday present by actually wearing a dress for an entire evening on the town. Or imagine Dan “sittin’ on the dock of the bay, Watchin’ the tide roll away” in California, or Vancouver, or St. John’s NFLD. Or imagine Dan giving away his shoes . . . or his smile . . . or his guitar . . . or his smile . . . or his Christmas gifts . . . or his smile . . . Or imagine him bringing home street people or bag people who need a place for the night. Now also imagine the reactions of the roommates or parents he brings them home to . . . Perhaps you can empathize with Dan’s dad Chris when he wondered, in bewildered exasperation: “Who are you?!” Who was Dan? Among these other relationships — son, grandson, brother, cousin, nephew, friend — Dan was, centrally, a poet and a prophet. Not all poets would be called prophetic, and not all prophets are poets. But Dan was both, and he joins an illustrious group of poet/prophets who died young, or relatively so. I’m thinking of the English poets John Keats, who died at 26, Percy Shelley — dead at 30, Lord Byron — dead at 36, the Jesuit priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins — dead at 45, D. H. Lawrence — dead at 44. (At my age, as far as I’m concerned, dying at 45 is dying young . . .). And then there are the First World War poets Edward Thomas, killed in 1917 at age 39, and Wilfred Owen, killed in the last week of the war, at age 25. All poets are prophets in the sense that they “see” more than us regular folk, and they see differently. But his group I’ve mentioned, including Dan, are special even to poets. Their vision, and their lives, are on the edge — they straddle two worlds. They are both “here and not here” (as Clint Armstrong said of his friend Dan). We often call them free spirits — but I want to stress that freedom isn’t an easy thing to carry. Being free constantly gets you into trouble with authority. As Dan said, “the city is where hearts and worlds collide.” The city is the world we humans build and maintain through authority and responsibility. We hold our hearts in check to stay sane, secure, and physically satisfied. The heart is the yearning we have for freedom from this world of conventions. Dan, and the poets I’ve mentioned, lived in the collision of heart and world. And because they did so, we catch a glimpse of another world, another way to live. We are made larger because they were here, even though while they were here their “freedom” often affronted us, frightened us, as well as amazing us. The free spirits burn across the sky like lightning, a “current all their own.” And yet . . . and yet — there is another dimension here: these poet/prophets, as short as their lives were, were all supported in what they did by people who saw the lightning, glimpsed the other world, and in constant love buffered the shocks of the world as best they could. Keats had his brother the doctor; Shelley had his wife Mary (author of Frankenstein); Byron had a close circle of friends; Hopkins had his brother Jesuits and superiors; Lawrence had his wife Frieda and close friends; and Thomas and Owen had their comrades-in-arms. And of special importance to Dan — Vincent van Gogh had his Theo. And Dan himself? In addition to a whole trainload of friends, Dan had a family to envy . . . . Dan was able to say to us with force “People, people snap out of it!” because his parents made sure his voice was heard — both physically by nursing him in his sickness, but also financially and logistically by enabling the music to happen and live on. But they gave Dan one more gift, an incalculable one — by introducing him, as a child, to the person who would become the linchpin for all Dan was to become and for all he will become. That person, of course, was Jesus Christ. From “Heaven Hear Me”, the first track on Beggars and Kings, through to “Plane to Jerusalem”, the last track on Voice From God, we are overhearing Dan’s intimate conversation with his Lord. It’s for Jesus that Dan waters “the roses in the wintertime — from October 27th straight through to St. Patrick’s day.” It’s with Jesus’s assurance that Dan says to Beverly, “we are going to wake up one day and realize that we were never separate snowflakes, there was only just the snow.” Dan referred to himself as a “livin’ prophet in a dyin’ age” and said “I stay here to remember”, but “I believe in the world to come; I’ll soon be on my way.” Dan has gone on his way. I’m sure that he, that “great big shiny light,” is happy that we who are still here will remember, and “keep our torches shining bright.”