Friday, November 27, 2009

Tick, tick, tick!


Hank hung in there. He lay trapped in the rake-thin bones of his being, his skin a parchment testifying to his 60+ years of living. He no longer could breathe without the apparatus that pumped oxygen in, sucked it out. He no longer could move his tongue to speak, or turn his head to see. But at least, five days ago at the time of this writing, he could smile at me; show the light in his soul. For over two years I’d visited him weekly, usually on Friday afternoons, and recently went more regularly, almost daily. A dying man appreciates a familiar friend.

Often, Mrs. Jessie Peters accompanied me; she’d lost her husband, Vic, two years ago to the same disease, ALS. And since Hank and Vic were friends, and since Vic had become my friend in the course of my performing as ‘Morrie’ in the play about ALS, back when I did it with Jay Newman, and since Hank had asked me after Vic’s funeral, three times, to visit him too, I’d begun the visits, their regularity increasing as I came to love the man that Hank is. He is!

But even as I wrote this the minutes and seconds were ticking to a close for him. “You’ve so little time left; I treasure the gift of it you give me,” I once told him. He looked into me: “It’s you who brings me the gift of time,” he responded.

Time. My watch eventually stopped ticking. It lay deep in the crevasse of the couch seat; quite lost for these last two years. I’d often thought about it; wondered who’d found it; perhaps inadvertently crushed it on the road; or who perhaps was now wearing it. Like a tried and constant friend it’d been kayaking and swimming in the ocean for over 13 years of summers with me, seen me through the last six years of multiple changes too. And I knew where the scratches and nicks on it had come from. But with its loss its history had become a memory, no longer ticking with instant and accessible vitality. 101 goodbyes. Silly how we can miss a mere thing. And then yesterday, I found it! Dead, but alive with potential. Dead, but alive with memories. Ha! Even its brand name is symbolic: Pulsar. To revitalize it, it surely only needs a new battery?

“How’s ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ coming along?” Hank asked me this last June, knowing that Donovan Deschner and I were mounting it on behalf of ALS and dedicating the show to him. “Been wrestling with the meaning of one of Morrie’s lines. What do you think of this? ” I responded:

“Forgive everybody everything! If there is anybody that you care about that you are fighting with, feuding with, let it go. Let it go! Even if you’re 100% right and they’re 100% wrong you say you’re wrong if that will end it.”

My eyebrows lifted. “Ha! Sounds like he’s telling us to be false, yes? What do you think?”

Hank looked at me. He sat strapped up in his power chair which he moved by means of collar pressure pads around his head. He said, “One has to die to the ego.” Then his eyes twinkled and he took in yet another painstaking breath before saying, “But I’m not there yet! Ha!”

Hank’s being continues to tick away in the memory of those who have known him. His photos, over 300 of them, enhance Google Earth maps almost everywhere in the world. Click on Paris and you’ll see photos by Hank Geerlhoff. Click on Yemen, or Russia, or in your memory and you will find time ticking away with the current of vitality that is life, that was life, that feeds the life to come. And the 101 goodbyes to the things and to the people one knows also become hellos as we visit and revisit the current of all that is, that was, and that will be.

Tick, tick-tick, tick! The revitalizing is up to you, or me.

                                [photo by Justin Neway]


Thursday, November 26, 2009

If I Were King of The Forest:


Free! Not dependent on a group, but free to progress as an Individual; that’s what the King is. Not so for the rest of us? Why should we be sheep, or mice, or myna birds? Why should we be flocked, herded, given roosts, rooks, caves, clans, classes, phylum, and labels? So what if the elephant does better at football, the giraffe plays the musical instruments, the mice control the computers? After all, the mice on the football field are jeered at, the elephants in the music room are too cumbersome, and the giraffes do not always make the best basketball players. Yet in the education system that makes up this jungle of ours, we take giraffe, elephant, mouse, and the orang-utan for that matter, and put them all on particularized playing fields for the same amount of time, blowing referee bell for blasted bell, with only the respondent’s relative age as the real qualifier for being in the grouping, grade by grade.

But Penelope the possum really lives in a rarefied existence, except when in the jungle of the curriculum. She conceptually can get quadratic equations within minutes; Billy the goat simply couldn’t care for them. Billy the goat, however, gobbles up art supplies, Penelope possum doesn’t enjoy those. But both babies were placed in an age-relative grade, under the same canopy of the cellular curriculum, dictated to by the Curriculum King’s time-worn expectations. Time is the real problem. Possum or Goat, both must stay in the same field until the King passes them by Exit upon Examination. And not only is there a possum or a goat in their field, there are roughly 30-plus other types of creatures too. All must graze on the same “essential” fodder, for the same amount of time periods, fed-up or not.

If I were King of the forest I’d change things. I’d have me a gathering of all stakeholders and I’d lay down the following proposal. “From this day forth,” I’d say, “we attend to the individual. We differentiate. We devise units whereby we can accelerate, telescope, harbour, or invigorate, but we ensure that each one of us is provided for as is proven by our productivity.”

“Sounds like animal farm,” I can hear someone cackle. “The Devil’s in the details,” I hear another demur. “Wake up! Who’s paying?” I hear the rooster crow.

“Well, you’re right,” I purr. And I leave it to them to sort out how the committees and subcommittees will see to it that we no longer have cells of time in which cells of learners are constricted to cells of the curriculum toward sitting in cells of exams for cells of marks leading toward cells of graduation. I trust that a unit of productivity, or of achievement if you will, will determine that any given one of us may progress to the next level irrespective of our age, type, group, or sub-group. In fact, I trust that each of us, given truly individual attention, may truly become better citizens of and for the whole.

Then again, given the resultant responsibility, thank goodness I’m not the King!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Slice of Evil, Anyone?


Evil explored is fascinating. Or macabre. In the guise of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Pumphouse Theatre, it was mesmerizing. Sweeny Todd comes with sufficient forewarnings; many have seen it before, heard about it, or at least have a sense of what to expect. But to render it last night into the suspension of disbelief that affected the Front Row Centre players under the clever direction of Bill Torrie went beyond the moment. It was a performance likely to resonate in the mind for a lifetime.

Not my cup of tea, I thought. Not my kind of music, said a friend, but they sure sang well. Not my kind of subject preference, said another, but they sure kept me engaged. No, not quite my predilection for a play, said I, but the performance was so profound that I found in it a vigour and depth and inspiration that redressed my every presumption. In short, the show was a virtual eye-opener, a smorgasbord of visual delights, an array of colour and chorus and orchestration and performance of character that in Calgary entirely augments and continues to cement the oeuvre of offerings amongst our very many commendable community theatre companies as entirely worthwhile. Still, as yet another friend joked, it’s not quite my slice of pie. Ha! But we all agreed; we’d tell others to go!

Evil is difficult to believe. Our reaction is almost always disbelief. He did what? They said what? No! Evil is intentional. Evil is self-serving. Evil is negative. And so, given that Sweeny Todd as a protagonist, tortured of soul and twisted in vengeance becomes an indiscriminate executioner, we become mesmerized by his ministrations. We don’t? Then why is there a show of such dark content to which we flock to see? But if Sweeny is so obvious as a protagonist, it is his insidiously evil partner, the lurking Mrs. Lovett, whose pervasive psychology of ponerology (an ancient Grecian term for evil) that permeates the pies. For love she lies, cheats, steals, butchers, bakes, and self-deceives. In the exposition of evil, Sweeny Todd is a tale of woe, a tale of darkness, of disillusion, of lust, revenge, hate, envy and greed. Those deadly seven sins abound. No, not quite my cup of tea. And, no thanks to any one of those pies!

But evil is relieved in the counterpoints. Birds in cages proffered to Joanna are bits of light awaiting re-unification with heaven. Joanna, unknowing daughter of Sweeny, ineluctable ward of the diabolical judge, and love-interest of the honourable, ethical, virtuous and white-clad sailor, Anthony, is imprisoned by circumstance and event and then lunacy. But she remains grounded. She evokes centrality. She becomes the fulcrum upon which all our fortunes revolve, for were she too to be immolated we’d find ourselves entirely overwhelmed by the cut-throat reality of evil left unchecked. Or at least, I would.

Brilliantly directed and designed by Bill Torrie, intriguingly depicted and deployed, the cast and crew brought Sweeny Todd into consciousness that outlives the moment. The very ache for love that Chris reveals in his wonderfully truthful rendition of Anthony pining for Johanna, as played so charmingly by Krista, sustains the hope and potential in us all. And the belief with which the spirited Carlyn, Gregg, Jeremy, Tarra, David, Kirk, and Jomar played, along with a truly stellar chorus, made all the difference in this particular audience member being altogether swept into Fleet Street. The musical is an absolute “must see,” whether or not evil is your cup of tea!


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fully Committed


She made her choices. I make mine. You too make those choices. But you and I tend to make our choices in a smudge of our own personality and character, whereas hers were explicit, intentional, in deliberate juxtaposition and counterpointe so luminous that each person she instantly became was isolated in the very anxiety of their momentum. Huh? Yes, I’m speaking of Alison Lewis in her multiple roles (16 or more) in last night’s performance of Fully Committed at the Arrata Opera Centre. And though clothed in the same garb and standing within the same space from beginning to end of the 90-plus minutes, Ali instantaneously transformed into each essentially self-serving persona on the other impatient end of her frantically busy restaurant-switchboard line. Ali’s performance was an incredible feat of mercurial choices, slid in-to and out-of with the ease of differentiation that brought each character, gruff, rough, sweet, cruel, abusive, patient, loving, narcissistic, selfish, controlling, pleading, insecure, vulgar, and tender to a heightened sense of reality in which one sees but parts of the self; mesmerized as we were with the stunning performance of an exceptional artist. And you and I too make such choices. We indeed are everything as we respond to life. It is in the predominance of our attitude that we are most recognized. It is as the famous Anonymous wrote: “I am convinced that life is 10% of what happens to me, and 90% of how I react to it.”
Well, we react with a certain sameness that is our VBEAT. It is the stuff of our Voice, our Body, our Emotional Energy, our Age, and our Truthfulness. But our choices tend to be somewhat reactionary; we become bit by bit surely and inevitably older; we generally do not indulge ourselves in meta-cognition, in the psycho-geometric shape of our personality, in the spiral-dynamic proclivity of our character, or in even in the atavistic impulse of our collective evolution. We just “are.” Huh?
When Ali Lewis transformed into the personality and character of each her compatriots she took into herself the essence of the predominance of choices that defined that character. It was as if she were becoming a You, or a Me. What might she then choose to define us? How would she see us? And in taking on our voice, body, emotional energy, age, and temperament what might not be revealed to us, ourselves? Would Ali’s vulgar and chauvinistic Cook alter if he saw himself through her eyes? Would her co-worker become more considerate? Would they make a different choice leading to a new habituation so that they might evolve to a new paradigmatic proclivity of innate choices as easily slid in-to in the moment of reaction that defines the self? Again... huh? Well, we are what we think. We become what we make of ourselves. We evolve basically into the field of our habituation. And we generally determine our lot by the degree of satisfaction with who we are. And there we stay.
Staying in one place; habituating the self to a steady stream of non-threatening choices; becoming the person that we see of ourselves, that others see more of than we know, that we know of ourselves that we don’t let others see at all, and that others and ourselves have not yet even discovered (to paraphrase from the Jo-Hari Window template) is all about the choices we make. Ali Lewis made brilliant, effective, luminous, insightful choices about characters that popped to life with all the vitality of a person bursting into one’s consciousness. Amazing! Amongst them all, who might not indeed be you or me! Bravo, Ali !

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the Blink of The Brain


My friend wobbles. But even so, his being beams with light. From my car I watch as he hobbles away toward the doors of the Victoria hospital for stroke-patients. His twin walking sticks make him an unstable dinosaur with pincer-like forelegs. My head shakes with certain sadness for the man who, twelve years my senior, in the old days easily trounced me at tennis and squished me at squash. Ian Dallas, my mentor, reduced to this stumbling gait yet with little talk of the last time he could drive, or bike, or write, or hold things with which to eat easily, or… now dependent, stroke besieged, and focused on attaining the momentum of the now. But still, as he pauses momentarily to stoop slightly to see today’s headlines on the newspaper-sales box at the entrance, he beams with light!

April 20th, 2009. It was the last time Ian knew life as it was. In one fell swoop he saw the floor come up at him and knew his life was about to be different. In the blink of his brain he knew something was dreadfully wrong; he’d abruptly lost a whole side of himself. How many of us have that clarity as we step from step to step? We progress in a seemingly seamless rhythm of seconds ticking us toward the inevitability of the last step we’ll ever take, or do we? Yes, there are the seminal events: the graduation day, the acceptance phone call into a vocation, the marriage(s), the major mortgage signing, the vacation day, and even some grand evocations of bliss, but we take ourselves along with them, stay in the same vein, as it were, simply changing our clothes. But sometimes the brain does blink. It is a subtle if not rude awakening to a new life. As for Ian. In that moment of the fall he knew his body was changing, that he no longer would be the same.

With no sense of depression, no sense of being wronged, no sense of anger, denial, victimization or even of anxiety, my friend walks his talk of being in the moment, of going with the curves and the signs and the limits of his new existence, of accepting and integrating and accommodating the exigencies of his new challenges. In the blink of his brain he knew that the alternatives might be a spiral into the morose self-absorption of the physically oppressed. For his entire right side no longer worked. The blood clot had killed off functions of balance and dexterity. Thank goodness it did not affect his speech or cognition. That’s why he now from his apartment can reach the bench that overlooks the glistening inner harbour and have strangers like “Bill” sit and tell a life-story. They talk for an hour without finding out that Ian has any condition at all. It is not that Ian disguises his malady; it is that most brains do not blink from their pathway in the veracity of their own lives. And when Ian is with them I’m sure that he beams. Acceptance is all the grace he needs. No limits to the reaches of…

The ten year old Mercury Cougar wobbles ever so slightly. I glance at the speedometer. We’re flowing around a long bend at 176 kilometres an hour. This is the blink! The brain realizes how foolish, how wrong, how futile the risk to rush at the long road home in order to save minutes or hours that may never be regained in any case, especially not at this rate! And the Cougar wobbles again, shudders slightly, as I release the pressure on the pedal and settle back to the posted speed limit. Acceptance. We all have our limits. It is as Ian says, “I am what I am”. Moment by moment. Blink for blink.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In The Spotlight


Isolating, isn't it? We course along through this universe and then, unexpectedly, someone else points out a star shining brightly where we’re not necessarily watching. And we’re sometimes surprised that they shine in our own quadrant. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several such stars course through the curriculum in my time, students who’ve shone, even amongst their peers, but nevertheless were known just as commonly as anyone else of us. We anticipated that they’d get the good grades, that they’d be the first to try to answer the questions, that they’d be involved. And we expected that they’d do well. At least, most of the time. And sometimes we are surprised. “I never knew he played guitar; that she sang; that he writes; that she paints – wow!”
My personal list of such stars goes way back to early 80’s, and here’s a few names (among quite a few others) whose careers one may easily follow thanks to both major and minor film roles, acting roles, and individual or group CD’s: Esther Purves-smith, Graham Jones, Sean Anderson, Jason Long, Jason Majid, Brad Payne, Eric Bossick, Thom Currie, Donovan Deschner, Andrew Franks, Jeff and Ryan Gladstone, Alex Hughs, Graham Ko, and now, Sheena Paris:
Calgary YMCA Youth Award (from the Calgary Herald, November 2009)
"With a bubbly personality and a mass of shoulder-length curls, Sheena Parris is a force to be reckoned with. Her friends describe her as compassionate, caring, committed and selfless. The Centennial High School student is deeply involved in social justice and peace initiatives. Through her membership in Centennial's Social Justice Club, she organized "Christmas with a Conscience," a fair-trade bazaar offering socially just gift alternatives over the Christmas season and "Oath of Silence," an event that helped students contemplate the invisibility of the world's forgotten children and the tragedy of child soldiers in Uganda. She has been both a participant and presenter at the Global Youth Summit, an annual event that connects teens with an interest in international issues and increases their global awareness. Sheena is also the co-founder of Student Voice, a group that focuses on creating a unified and peaceful school environment through open communication."We created Student Voice as a platform to connect teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Student Voice is a unified way to communicate and a positive way for students to voice concerns and really be able to transport their ideas to the right people." Next year, Sheena plans to study sociology or social anthropology with a minor in health studies to prepare herself to do humanitarian work, something she is clearly very passionate about."
Well, star or no star, the rest of us have our light to shine too. It is the light of our potentiality, unfolding into the evolution of everything, giving energy and light that is our very own unique Individuality. We just may not have been recognized for being such. If a movie or a book were to be made of the stories of very many of us we too may have our names recognized by many more than right now may know of us. And at the end of it all, what would we really want of anyone else – that they too would become their own star! So we keep shining, polishing, glowing, and giving. And maybe someday, isolated and insecure, someone will look our way and our star-light will shine for them too! All it takes is for the spotlight to be on you!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Teaching Humanity



Still interested in them? The crucible of the classroom is the test of teaching. How to keep at it, interested, day after day? Four distinct teaching periods per day comprise some 120+- distinct individuals. Students range from the casually indifferent to the subjectively impassioned. Most expect the teacher to be the Prime-Invigorator; very few are truly independent. The teacher is expected to be Friendly, Fair, Firm; interested in them; their primary source of “liking the subject.” Thirty odd years teaching serves this summation.
Amber is always alert. Billy is a bully. Carissa chatters. Damon deliberates too much. Elsie is often elsewhere. Frank is frequently rude. Graham struggles with health. Heather is shy. Ian is intense. Jack has attention deficit disorder. Karla is very recently pregnant. Liam is, well, actually lazy. Melanie is forever muttering. Noah is nearly first in class, if only he’d…. Opal is always late. Penelope hardly ever appears. Quin is too quiet; what’s he really thinking? Rachel is too raunch…. er, far too provocative. Sam is a loner. Tom is temperamental. Ursula is exacting. Virginia wants more frequent evaluations. Wesley wants every period to go to the washroom. Xavier always arrives, looks about, and then skips out. Yvette easily prevaricates. Zoe wants to be first at everything.
How many more times? Must I repeat it? Listen up! Understand? And we persevere, day after day, class after class, semester after semester. An alphabet of students annually changes common names, a cornucopia of souls co-mingle in class-time, ready or not to evolve. And the real subject to be delivered, for me at least, is not the curriculum; it is the advancement of the human condition. Not to be, or to be… a better Common Citizen!
Mediocrity is not necessarily a dirty word. It is, after all, a delineation of what on average is the average energy of the average attempt to fulfill the average challenge. We do what we do at every task on an average basis that which it is of what it is that we do. Huh? And to raise the bar, to strive for excellence above and beyond that of the average of others, is to elevate one of us into First Place, and thereby to set the standard of excellence for the other, in second. So it is in every endeavour, sport, achievement, talent, competition. The bell curve shifts. It shifts perhaps as lugubriously as the Little Prince’s python all chock full of the proverbial elephant, and it takes a seeming endless time to digest the lump of that bell toward more equanimity of the curriculum’s continuum, but the bar slowly but surely, we trust, gets raised. Still, that ubiquitous bell curve, like feeding the hunger in the process of the constrictor, re-emerges in the learning body of the class. The best quickly get better. The slow too soon get slower. The new median re-establishes a new level of… mediocrity. This is what we do, how we usually do it, and how we are going to keep doing it, climbing over raised bar after bar, reaching higher measure for measure.
Pigeonholing is problematic for everybody; well… for those who don’t like labels. It creates a sense of being limited to a ‘group’ that limits the… individual. And that individual’s Potential, as the end-product of a lifetime, is at the root of our contribution to the self, to the other, to the group, to humanity. It matters not that our Common Names be ranked in respect of each other; it matters more that a person make fullest use of One’s individual potential to participate that representation of ourselves for All. And as each student continues past graduation, it matters that life continue to be interesting! Or is that: that life has been named interesting by an Interested Teacher!

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Badge of Pain


Our scars are not always visible. Our pain is not necessarily self-evident. Jesse died on Saturday. He died of too much pain for his 18-old years to handle. His pain was inside, hidden by his disarming smiles, but so evidently rubbed raw by his perpetual concealment that none of us who loved him reached him in time. His suicide was evident at his funeral, this last Thursday, 23rd of July, 2009, but as to how he committed it I did not bother to find out.

These past three years he was my student. We’d Face-booked. He hugged me all but a month ago, just before he graduated from grade 12. A month or two before that, both of us wearing pink T shirts on the “students against bullying” day, as I sat in my power-chair, he’d climbed up on my lap, and like two pink petunias in a black pot we’d glowed for the photo. He’d even dyed his hair pink for the occasion. But on Saturday, Jesse died. He died to potential, to power, to possibility. He gave it all up for the immediate release from the perpetual pain of his circumstance; he evidently did not see how he could change it.

Where is our part in all of this? How do we see others’ pain? I drove to the funeral, parked about 300 paces away, did not use my handicap-sticker since I’ve been walking more and more, entered the vestibule, was not in my usual power-chair, had my hand shaken by various people, had to cue up, shuffle forward, stand seemingly interminably, then stoop over the sign-in book , then repeat the movements all over again to enter the church, walk the aisle down to the pew, managed an end seat, but had to get up three times to allow others past me, had to stand for seemingly forever during some of the sermon and songs, and then... well, I walked out at the last moment, ahead of the throng, had to shake the hand of a former student on passing in the vestibule, and at last managed to reach my car, my senses grey with my exertion, my toes, shins, legs, hips, and forearms and fingers and neck burning and scorching and needling at me. But nobody had seen it. No one appeared to notice. Without my chair I had not warranted the slightest deference due to my condition. I’d looked like everyone else. And now I had to pay for it, in pain.

We presume each other’s health; we take for granted another’s ability to smile, to stand, to be shaken, and even to be bumped. It is natural. But might we not use more care, be more gentle, be more considerate, be more cautious if we could but see the possible pain? There are many persons in wheel-chairs who do not have pain; they can play basketball from a chair. There are many persons who wear their pain as an appendage in the form of a cane, a brace, a sling; it signals to others that there is certain fragility to this particular flower in the garden of life.

Like the pink T shirts: Do not bully! Only today?But to bully is by definition intentional. Like one’s choice of words. Or not. And to walk and sit and stand and shake one’s hand is by definition natural. Or not. Then might we all not be more naturally gentle with it all, with us all? Or do we really need to wear our badge of pain? Hello there, one smiles; see me, hear me, reach me, help me, care for me; and so for me to you too! Again and again. Perpetually.

Reflections after the Dali Lama


I’ll show him! That’s my thought as on led-foot-edge with the big white Dodge revving beside me I watch for the green light. I’ll show him! That’s my thinking despite being at the Dali Lama’s address last night. Peace and compassion is one thing, but that Dodge had been rude, aggressive, and now I’m going to show him! But first I put my vehicle in park and awkwardly bend over the gear shift and scoop up the contents of my spewed satchel that had fallen off the seat beside me as I’d hard-braked to bring my rush at the light to a sudden stop. I hastily grab at things and slide the auto-shift back into gear. The Dodge abruptly roars. I glance up. The light is still red. Well, I’ll show him! He’d chased me down Fourteenth-Street, nosing at my rear, harrying at me to go over the posted 70 km per hour, despite the fact that the police often wait under the pedestrian fly-over. But I’d held to my spot on the road. So had others. Now… well, I’m sure going to show him!

There had been over 20,000 of us at the Dali Lama’s address in Calgary’s Saddle-dome Stadium last night. He’d sat red-robed in a lone pool of light and spoke of simplicity, of a need to understand and to allow for the differences in each other, of a need for us to act more from the heart and less with our head, of a need for us to have a sense of being the same as another despite the differences of culture, education, background, circumstance or event. And close to his finish he asked that all the lights be turned on so that he may see us, and when they came up I was astounded at the virtual sea of humanity, yoked as one by the luminescent white scarves we’d each been given at our seats, gleaming in wave upon tiered wave in the giant insides of the egg-shell oval of the covered arena. One people. One purpose. We came here to give and get Compassion and Love.

But now the Dodge roars again, and the light is about to…. I’ll show him! In the split second of the red light dimming I ram my foot down on the accelerator and feel the powerful growl and surge beneath me of my vehicle being shot… backward! In my rear view mirror I see the eyes-wide-open horror of the woman’s face behind the steering wheel of the car I’m about to back into and I jam down on the brake and hear the squeal of my tires and wait for the awful crunch… but miraculously, I come to a stop! I grin apologetically into the mirror, flick the floor-shift into Drive, and screech away.

The Dodge is gone. Other cars are now ahead of me. I relax into my mission. Get there in one piece! Or is that ‘peace’? Behind me that lucky woman is driving a black Mercedes. That would have been expensive! That would have been stupid! That would have been…. My brain whirls. I am so full of myself! So full of me! Just last night I’d lifted up my portable wheelchair to my vehicle in the parking lot after the Dali Lama’s address and wondering if anyone was watching had not focused on ‘the now.’ It slipped, caught my glasses, and they gouged deep down my nose. Blood streaming from me I’d applied a tissue and continued to drive, but in my haste to get home turned left while a pedestrian was not quite across the walk and he’d given me a rather vicious glare. “Go ahead,” I blurted through my window, “Glare at me again as though I’m an idiot!” Ha! Despite almost 60 years of living, defensiveness can still be the veneer over the real blood in one’s veins. Then again, ha!, upon reflection, and despite almost 60 years of living, one ought still to check that one is in the right gear!

Remembrance Day Address, 2009


Anguish is sometimes in the moment. Did you do it? Did you kill? Did you shoot another human being? Did you steal the cookie? Do you smoke dope? Did you steal the money? Should you push the button? And the moment between any one of us doing any such thing, however horrible or slight, is the moment of choice, or not. Sometimes we have no choice, or so I thought.
Just two months ago I was telling my class about the early 70’s, when I was conscripted into the South African Army. Conscription. I had no choice, especially not if I wanted to honour my Family’s expectations that I defend them. Or what of my Pretoria Boys’ High school reputation that we do our cadet training with the purpose of defending our country? Or what of my Church’s urging that we defend ourselves against the anarchy of the devil, communism? Or what of my Country’s belief that racism was to be legalized in the name of Apartheid? The northern borders were to be defended against the warring insurgency of communist-backed rebels wanting to overthrow the white supremacy of our Institutions. They wanted to gain control of our Economy. They wanted to reverse the precious Equilibrium and the very order of more than a century of Colonialism and Nationalism and perpetuated Legalisms of privileges endemic to a white society. And the fact that the whites in question were bent on the self-serving ends of extracting from the invaded country its minerals, its ready and cheap labour force, its blood diamonds and gold was seen as a Right, given the history of nearly two hundred years of occupancy. Sounds a bit like what we’ve done in Canada, no? Yet here the First Nations people are but a small group. Back in Zambia, where I was born and raised, the First Peoples of Africa outnumbered us 20 to 1. And so they rose up against our injustices. They went to war against our perpetuation of incursions upon their freedom, our denial of their dignity, our removal of their opportunity, our economic disincentives for them to prosper. And the wars of Apartheid went on and on. All of my boyhood the war was “up at the border,” and I knew with a certain fearfulness that I would get conscripted to it too. Then, in 1964, we were forced to leave Zambia. Pets were shot. Things were burned. I knew then that one day I too would have to pull the trigger.
“Well, did you kill someone?” a student asked me, just two months ago. I blinked. And in that blink I knew that he did not really want to know if I did it, but if he could do it too. Well, I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that even the meekest of you can do it too. That’s what I want to address here: your part in all of this. Your choices! After all, we think we have choice, and then we succumb to the events, to the circumstances, to enforcement, expectations, and to the cultural inculcations of others. We find ourselves a weapon. We decide to use it, and we fire. We fire! We fire with words of hate, with thoughts of vengeance, with blows of anger. We fire with the self that feels defensive of its needs, its wants, its desires, its dignity. We fire back if the self feels its aspirations threatened, its ego quashed, its resources overwhelmed. And it is in you to do so too. It will happen ~ unless we be inclusive, assimilative, integrative; in fact, Bigger than the Moment. It all is a microcosm of the macrocosm; the smallest of things symbolic of the largest. It’s a spiral toward our evolution, the choices we make, one by one, each by each. And one minute of awareness makes all the difference, let alone the choice, moment by moment.
Just ask George Lawrence Price, if you could. He was the last soldier to be shot in World War One, on this month, November 11th, ninety-one years ago. One minute made all the difference. A Canadian, born in Nova Scotia, conscripted (without choice) to the army while he was living in Saskatchewan, George Price was fatally shot in Belgium at 10.59 a.m., just one huge minute before the armistice. One minute! Had some miracle of modern texting, a cell-phone, twittering, or even an ancient carrier-pigeon delivered the essential message that the war was over... would the other have pulled the trigger? Strange how in one minute “the other” is the enemy, and then in another minute by some stroke of the pen, some order from above, some word from beyond, some inner call to the private conscience.... one can altogether stop from pulling that trigger. One minute more, and George may well have lived beyond his 25 years.
25 years old. That’s what I was when I went AWOL (absent without leave) from the South African Army. After five years of conscriptions, in and out again, I came to my senses. I made my decision. I could no longer defend racism. I would no longer fight. In 1975 I stowed-away aboard the S.A. Oranje, a Union Castle steam-ship bound for England. In my renunciation I became a fugitive, an expatriate. When I reached London I borrowed an old Raleigh bicycle, got a tent, a sleeping bag, a knife and a camp-stove and cycled all the way up Britain. I traded my sketches for food and the right to sleep in a field, and even bartered my sketch for a ferry across the sea from the northern tip of Scotland to the Orkney Islands. And there I met a Canadian who suggested I come to Canada as a political refugee. And so, in 1980, I became a most grateful Canadian citizen. I made my choice! But I did not see my mother for over 35 years. Dad died before I could see him. And just 5 years ago my two brothers and our sister and I were re-united.
Choices. You? We all make choices as we move within the elementary needs of the Self; the dictates of the enclosed Family, the esoteric Club, the fixated Clan; our Egoic nature wants to be the best, even it means hurting others; we wrestle with our inability to accept another Group due to their politics, their religion, their beliefs; we need to have others’ admiration, to Control, to Dominate; we desire to have Fairness, and we feel anger and revenge at injustice: we have all these warring things spiralling within us. Well, whether or not knowing life’s subtext of Spiral Dynamics, Psycho-geometrics, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, Integral Holonics, Chaos Theory, or Kohlberg, we operate with likes and dislikes throughout Life. It’s a perpetual dichotomy of Fear, or Love. Choices. Our world is rather a mess because of it. So much around us is fragmentation, divisiveness, and war. Then too, there is heroism, honour, ethics, and love.
Essentially, it comes down to our Choice. And choice, straightforwardly, is about our Evolving, or not, whether conscious of choice, or not. In the act of meta-cognition, in the very practice of thinking about our thinking, we’re able to make decisions before we pull that trigger, before we say that word, throw that punch, or give that attitude. We do have choice! And the death in wars of every person in the long history of hate and enmity toward this very Today is honoured, if we remember: most of us want Peace. As a Goal it began and continued with each of our Fallen. As a Goal it can find its home in you. Peace. It’s about the Choice to be Inclusive, Integrative; in essence: to be Bigger than the moment. Lest we forget. Peace. And please, make good choices!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Beginning was the Word


She-ite! Quite the word. I sit with a mouthful of food and the person opposite me says it again. Carefully, I swallow. It is out of reverence for the symbolic that I usually am so considerate of the literal, but all around there are catch-phrases spat out or tongued over without much thought for their taste. We see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and feel words, I tell my students. It’s like the Cohen song: There’s a blaze of light in every word. Yet still, we’re going to kill this puppy, another will say, talking of something else entirely.

The impeccability of thought, language, choice, drives the sensibilities ~ yet we are inured to the casually idiomatic, as little fired up by common phrases as perhaps shooting that proverbial fish in the barrel. And culturally we give words a certain coolness, a certain wickedness, a certain radical-ness, and drop them from our mouths to be picked up by borrowed ears without much regard for whether or not they get back to us.

Come see the monkey in the barrel, the sign read. It was circa 1983. I followed the signs down a side-street in Chemainus, British Columbia, Canada. Rage chattered at my insides. My English grandmother started the Ndola Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, back in Northern Rhodesia in the 1950’s, and as a fellow from Africa I was not about to let that monkey be abused. So I strode angrily upon sign after beckoning sign until there, at the end of the alley, was indeed a large rain barrel with a lid on it, and not so much as a window or air hole to show. A little wood-box on a post near the barrel sported a card that read: “Monkey in the Barrel, 25c, See yourself!” So I fished in my pocket, snared a coin, slid it through the slot, and advanced angrily upon the barrel. With a careful motion, so as not to scare the monkey, I peeled back the dustbin-like lid, and peeked inside. Nothing. No sound. Nothing. So I let more light enter the barrel, but still, nothing. Had it escaped? And then I leaned over and looked inside, and saw my face in the mirror, staring stupefied back at me. Ha! Who’s the monkey now?

Words lead. Words clarify. Words mislead. So, let’s kill this puppy. Well, that is what another person said, just today. And I go back to a time when I was definitely four, or maybe even three years old, and I hear my other grandmother, my Ouma tell me that I’m the one to blame for the dog having puppies since I was supposed to keep her on a leash and not let her run out of the yard, and now we’re going to have to kill the puppies. So I have this dark memory of myself with the bread knife approaching the puppies in the bag, and I’m under the giant pomegranate tree with the blood-red seeds spilled and squashed from the rotten fruit lying about, and I look down at the squirming bag. And in the instant I know I cannot, will not do it. Then someone (I think my mother or my aunt) comes out and yells and plucks at my ear and wallops me and then… the memory fades. But red pomegranate seeds in a salad still bring on meteorological memories. Holonic, isn’t it?

Words are immediate. They evoke recollection. They provoke. Words tripped out of the mouth without thought for their symbolism are words to which we become desensitized; the list of the in-appropriate appears ugly, rude, crude, lewd; yet any one of them can be marvellously useful too! Crikey! Come to think of it, I hope you weren’t eating when I began with 'that' word, and therewithal took up your time. Then again, as the ugly saying goes, who gives a ...! Sorry! Made you feel, say, think, taste, see, smell it?