Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year Resolution?

"Fifty million is just enough to get me into trouble," my friend remarks as we gave him a Lotto Max ticket for part of his Christmas gift. We sit in his fabulous new house up on his private hill, overlooking a sprawling twenty acres, his horses in the barn snugged up against the winter cold, his three vehicles and a new farm-quad ensconced in the great garage, a log fire ablaze before us, glasses of excellent and very expensive 'Two-left-feet' red wine being quaffed, a delicious meal being digested, and the two young children now quietly abed. "You see," he continues, "I want to invest in a spaceship."

This much from the same man who at the start of dinner tells the delightful story of the happy fisherman who sits every day fishing from the dock, selling his fish to have just enough money. A high- powered financier tries to inspire him to invest in boats, a factory, specialized outlets, all in the name of eventually being so well off that he can retire to fishing from the dock, ...and be happy. Ha! Yes, we spoke of the value of giving others' work, and we spoke of economics, but in the end it was the worthiness of one's moment by moment existence that became our predominant focus. How to sustain that?

New Year's resolutions are a strange mix of wishful thinking and taking stock. There is the gratefulness we express for what we have, for what we've accomplished, and for the immediacy of friends and family and food and warmth. But there's more. There's this wish that gets articulated, albeit reluctantly, vulnerably, for the things one does not yet have. One person wants to quit smoking; another to lose weight; to take time to play more; to do more exercise; to watch out for too much alcohol; to stake more personal boundaries; to claim more personal rights; to learn to manage obligations. To...

...And you? All eyes turn to me.

"Well, I want to develop more of a sense of worthiness whether or not I'm being productive," I say. "Just watching ducks ought to be validation enough for my existence, or how can I validate someone else who does not appear to produce much? My life for too long has been predicated on trying to prove myself. Ha! Is it not enough just to be?"

Silence. Our hostess, a look-a-like for the intelligent young Emma Thompson, raises her glass: "To a human-being, not a human-doing, ha!" Indeed, such is the stuff of kismet.

Interesting that among our gifts for them and their children were three things that with this writing take on symbolic meaning. Not Frankincense, Gold, and Myrrh, but for the little girl a snow-globe containing a porcelain butterfly reposing on a dandelion; for the young lad a professional yo-yo complete with an encyclopedia of its tricks; and for the adults a calendar of the insights of Tic Na Hahn. The nature we live with; the topsy- turvy of our physical being; and the very spirituality of our progress are among the cares and interests and loves of our lives. It is effortful. Can worthiness be without effort too?

Worthiness arises out of the harmony of being in the moment without necessarily needing to skip stones across still waters, or needing to shush the children, or feeling less than any given circumstance. We are indeed human-be-ings. But then again, for me, I'll get to just be-ing just as soon as I finish doing what I do here! Happy new year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winning Ways

We are seriously cramped. Elbow room, road room, line ups, seating for all, food for all, fuel for all, water for all; Huston, we have a problem. Our space age may well produce food-replicators and a new bio-diversity, and we may yet indeed live in geo-spheres and explore worm-holes and even travel back in time (thanks to the CERN experiments under Switzerland), but for whom will the proverbial bell not yet toll? We are being crushed by the weight of our needs, of our indifference, of our lack of care for others or our lack of compassion for the whole. Crushed by our greed. It lies in a man's seed.

The mid to late-couple we met over a Canadian dinner on Boxing Day were of the New Age. Handsome and exquisitely beautiful. White teeth, evenly spaced. Lithe bodies, he about a head and a half taller than she. Very intelligent. Very articulate. Very travelled. He a Caucasian Canadian, she a Pakistani princess. Their company felt like a privilege. Married in Lahore, they painted a picture for us of oppressive bodies clustered at train and bus and airport terminals. I felt very uncomfortable at the sense of push and shove and at the grubbing for place and privilege and the winning over others. Survival drives an individual within masses. Density and crowded streets makes for no traffic rules, little compassion for the feeble, less compassion for the weak, and the sheer pressure of the constancy of physical bodies around oneself is everywhere, but for the singular moment perhaps of privacy on a privy. It's oppressive. Smells and stench. Such is the new world.

A day later my real brother, Andy, wrote: "We intend to spend the New Year on a beach camp on Masirah Island just off the coast of Oman. It will take us 4 hours drive and a ferry crossing of about one and a half hours with a fight to jostle for a position on the ferry as I believe that there is no order or rules! It is who has the gumpf to push in front of the other and fight for a place with the locals and camels and goats and anything else that they can drag on board or you are left behind to wait for the next ferry! I have been told that it is an experience that you have to live through at least once in Oman!"

Well now, for persons pained by physical movement, who hardly can afford to be jostled or bumped, and who find it aggravating to turn the neck, what of such ones? And when our roads are too full, and the 7,000 pedestrians killed per annum on the streets of Lahore are still not enough to enforce traffic rules, or at least to deter an irresponsible driver, then how does one exist within a paradigm of such rush and crush? When riots over the luck of a puck turns us into rats in the streets, and when the belly-bloated kids in desert-reduced countries are too many to aid, at which point do we realize? Enough!

Last night, after a Calgary dinner with friends in a Korean restaurant in the burgeoning Bowness neighborhood, and them telling us of a third-world North Korea versus (despite its denser population) the pristine South, we visited another set of friends who'd recently returned from Bali, and who spoke of India, and of China. Our friends had a set of statues, Buddha and the elephantine Ganesha, procured to remove all obstacles. On our leaving the lady of the house unexpectedly stooped to zip up each of my new winter boots (since I struggle to reach my feet), and in that small humble act she showed the essence of the winning way: Compassion is realized, moment by moment. One for one.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sharks and Shivers

The shark, its teeth as menacing as white hot spear tips, floated among the children. Some screamed in fear. One little girl was actually crying. Many of the older kids just laughed, tried to poke at it, enjoyed the Canadian fun. It was just a video, but I shivered.

Boxing Day in East London, South Africa, is a go-to-the beach affair. One takes a picnic and an umbrella, sun-tan lotion and bathing suits. The summer solstice just five days afore heats things to their zenith, and the sea gleams and the waves come crashing in and the froth bubbles and scurries its way up the sand. Children squeal with apparent delight in the sea-saltiness. Teenagers play beach ball and frisbee. Adults read, sleep, eat, slather lotions on and the air is scented with tropical oils and laden with the sounds only humans make.

In the sea the shark was unseen, or surely people would have screamed. In the sea the shark was silent, or surely my sixteen year old brother, Mark, might have shouted enough to be heard. And in the tumult of Boxing Day bathers and the beach-game players his disappearance went unnoticed. Father and Stepmother were there. When they looked for him, called for him, began their walks up and down the beach, asked questions of others, made phone calls, even contacted the police Mark was nowhere to be found. Only, some hours later, some parts of the boy, chewed off, washed ashore. That this all should have taken place in a matter of hours, and that I only write about it now, nearly thirty years later, somewhat goes to show just how long a shiver can be. (Even my sister in law, Brenda, brother Peter's wife, writes just now, May 2012, to say they were there!)

But the hydrogen-filled radio-ballon sharks that floated in the video, as well as those that I was asked to assist in assembling from the two kits purchased for our Christmas festivities, were harmless. Silent, despite the mechanized ballast that moved the huge five-foot-long life-like-looking menace though the air, the sharks hovered upstairs in the bedrooms until the propitious moment. Once all seventeen people's presents had been opened, the great blundering things were suddenly amongst us: Surprise!

It struck me that my story needed no telling; it would perhaps cause our hostess to feel sorry for me, to be embarrassed, or would unnecessarily draw focus away from her intention that we have fun. And how many other triggers are there not always for all of us? A friend's wife died two days before this Christmas. Another friend gave up smoking, yet there were cigar-smokers on the deck. Another had given up alcohol, yet there was wine and drinks and bottles of booze. One person, often catching my eye, hoping to give no offense, quietly but certainly did not sing carols; her atheism not yet uncurbed sufficiently to be completely integrative. Another person, their pet having recently died, was rather gloomy in the presence of the two dogs. Who else was hurting, was reliving some baggage, some memory, some secret in the closet? How can one be expected never again to hear a gun-shot on the TV, see army fatigues, hear of some seedy uncle fiddling with children? Sharks swim around us in many guises; it is our ability to be larger than the present or the past, to take care of ourselves that matters in the moment, even though there be lifeguards and psychologists and loving others. And sometimes, it is but a shiver that forewarns us; we guard against being harmed, or doing harm in turn.

                                                                                     [photo via Al Nickle]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Confusions

Guilt! Will this missive miss you? Or will you get it, and with it feel relieved that you've been included, not forgotten, overlooked, or neglected? We each have such long lists of friends to contact, to buy for, to be sure to contact. There are people in this very special season who once upon a time treated me with such kindness, gave me gifts, included me into their festivities, made me feel welcome; and now? They do not even appear on my list; not that I keep such a list any longer, for the sending of Christmas cards clouds my sense of obligation every December. To whom? There are simply too many people. 

Where are you now? Do you still think of me and the time when...? But that's another story. We each have our stories. We each have so very many people we'd be glad to see, glad to let know we care. But then again, where does the congregation end? Do we simply pass by those in other pews, nod at those close enough, shake hands with those in close proximity, and even get to hug the ones closest to us? Do we sign and send all and sundry a card, give some a present, overspend on the budget? Merry Christmas!

I am confused. Deep in my bones I know I should try to contact each of the persons on my list of people, or at least because we are in some sort of correspondence, or those I knew in the past and always owe a sense of care and interest in their lives, but... There are well over one thousand people on my Facebook list alone, and then all the students and colleagues and theatre people and family and ... You! How are you now, really?

Deep in my bones I worry about the lack of contact, the apparent lack of interest (in the sense that lack of contact appears like a lack of interest), and deep in my bones I ache with hope that you are well, are happy, have forgiven me my trespasses (for Lord knows I can think of no one who has trespassed against me,) and deep in my bones I wish you love and peace and happiness and contentment.

My guilt stems from the inability to express those sentiments to every person I know, easily, economically, freely. I have no need to have the gift of care returned, the reach out toward another reciprocated, the warmth of my thoughts of you felt back. But my confusion arises out of the apparent generalities of such sentiments now. Or does an 'about me' letter (in January we did this; in February we did that) really reach out more?

Right now I am here, as you are there, and we have arrived together at a moment in which (if you're still reading) you may know I am speaking directly to you and caring for your happiness and welfare. Now if this was a card in my own handwriting with a stamp that I had licked you might altogether be more convinced, even if the words in the card were generally generic, sappy, and of course, appropriately seasonal. Hence my guilt!

Christmas with its guilt confuses me. How come I do not feel so guilty about the lack of contact during the rest of the year? Why should the sentiment about care for you and your welfare and happiness only be expressed during this season? Why not let you also know that I care whenever the thought strikes me? Well, let me tell you, in that case, I'd hardly be able to stop contacting you! Merry Christmas! In fact: Happy Every Day too!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Noisy Neighbour

Vociferous Verbiage during Vespers

Something there is that does not permit sustained silence. Few of us may have the privilege really to hear it. Silence. I recall, about a decade ago, being on cross-country skis out in the Canadian backwoods and creaking to a stop, then holding my breath, and there was nothing but silence. Silence. Its magnificence is omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present. Heart beats. And then some chipmunk chatters, or a bird tweets, or a far off airplane growls through the blue. Our world is an orchestra of seemingly unrelated sounds, from car doors slamming through feet scraping through angrily shouting.

Such was the young man, even at a considerable distance across the trestle bridge, disturbing the quietude of the glorious sunset layering itself over the Victoria Gorge. Yet Canadians tend to be softly spoken. Generalities are often wrong. We know it takes only one example of the obverse for most of us to raise a contention. Yes, Canadians can be noisy too. And indeed, the vociferous verbiage came closer and closer.

Sunset over the gorge occurs in these wintry December weeks soon after four-thirty p.m., and it lingers long, often mesmerizing us with its hues. The Gorge, a wide lake-like inlet from Victoria, stretches in a long goose neck toward parts unseen, and as viewed from my balcony the sun loves to come hover over the wooden trestle bridge most late afternoons, silencing the waters, making mirror-smooth the glassy reflections, halting up  even a breath of wind. People bicycling and walking on the Galloping Goose pathway below appear as if outlined in gold, huddled romantically into themselves, their voices no longer heard when they seem to murmur in reverie. I think of Virgil: "Sacro tandem carmine vesper adest." Sacredness attends with the red-hue of vespers. Why disturb?

But the voice of the approaching young man was really angry, really loud, really vulgar. He yelled into his cell-phone in a vituperative stream of verbosity, his violence a blazing prism in which he, at twenty-something, advanced upon my landscape, head down, free hand gesticulating, his red parka open and swishing about with his erratic pedaling at his bicycle on the solidness of the pathway. Why did his listener not just hang up? He wielded an argument as though he was solely in the right, and given the ugly language, the swearing, it had all the earmarks of a foul-mouthed fellow fighting with his girlfriend. He wended his way past my apartment block, past the adjacent old-folks' home, along the seafront, and was smothered in the hollow sounds under the road-bridge archway.

I recall a time when I was that age, and in wanting to dominate a girlfriend's unruly Alsatian, I yelled at it and shouted and used my Big Voice. My landlady said she could hear me down the block! I, I who now cares that we do not chase the robin off its nest when we slam a car door have made plenty of untoward noise in my time. I have not thought about who was sleeping, who was ill, who was disturbed, nor upon what silences I was intruding. We live in a world of noise, and we give out sound, sometimes, with a sense that the louder we are the more important we are. Still, it surely suites one more to watch the ducks, to see sunsets, and in compassion quietly to allow for the belligerent and intractable. Still, preference being what it is, something there is in the magic of hearing only a heartbeat in the silence. Silence. A Privilege.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Courage and Cowardice

Hurting Courage and Hurled Cowardice

How many times have we not wished we'd spoken up? The dastardly deed takes place before us, the thing being said is harmfully wrong, the person about to make a mistake might be redirected. But we do not speak up, intervene, correct, step out of our own comfort zone. We demur. Such was my cowardice, this winter week of December, 2011.

On the beach the playful golden Labrador was perhaps only three or maybe even two years old. Although I could not discern his features, the dog's master was about my age, a man in his early sixties, late fifties, tall, grey bearded, wearing a woolen toque and black leather gloves, with a thick parka zipped against the wind. Even at a long distance he appeared a friendly enough sort; there was no aura of dominance, aggressiveness, nor even stand-offishness about him. In his right hand he sported a white sling-throw sort of oversized sausage-shaped flotation appended to a short rope, the which he lifted, twirled in an arc, then helicoptered above his head. The dog eyed it and jumped eagerly about. And then the man let it loose, and it zoomed up and away, straight out into the onrush of the frigid sea. The dog hurtled down the beach, hesitated for the slightest moment, then plunged in after the contraption. The tide was already taking the white floater out, but the dog swam, gained on it, grabbed it, gagged slightly in the salt water, then churned back. And within moments they both were ready to do it again.

Bits of intermittent sunshine reflected off washed up logs, glinted off rocks, layered itself in the foam of the ocean. But it was generally a cold gray day. I'd already walked some thirty minutes by the time I saw them, dog and man. My being there was something of its own miracle; it was the first long walk I'd taken in over eight years. Back in 2003 when I crushed my discs, my hiking days were over. And power-chairs do not handle beaches, nor do push-chairs for that matter. Ever tried riding a bicycle in deep sand? But over the last three months I've gradually increased my endurance, and though I cannot escape the nerve-pinching, the jolts and stabs and burning, there was a thing about the length of that beach that lured me along. Besides, many tossed-up logs against the shoreline provided resting spots, and the isolation from people allowed me time to meander at my own pace, step after step. I still had about twenty minutes back to the car to make. But I did not see myself easily stopping to talk to the man and his dog, even though I might've leaned heavily on my cane, there being no log right there for me to rest on where he was busy doing his throwing.

There was a certain courage in that dog. He evidently loved to chase after the throw-thing, despite the frigid water. There was a certain courage in my walking; I love to hike despite the payment my body exacts on me. Better to be there and to do, than not to be, in my mind. But does the dog know that it most likely will suffer from arthritis and joint discomfort at an early age due to the extreme temperature? Would the dog make a different choice if it did know? And more importantly, would its master? I should have told him. I could have told him. Cowardice! I've read enough, seen enough to speak with authority, with kindness; to be seen to come from compassion. But in that moment, albeit in the yoke of my own circumstances, I threw my golden chance away. And now, do I just wish to have done differently, or do I go plunge in and alter the future, hm?