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Two Centuries Back: Anniversary for the World

[5-minute read. A different version of this same piece appears at www.BahaiTeachings.org, always a good place in which to wander about and think.]

Your retroactive invitation. Festivity’s over, but the party doesn’t end.

October was a big month in my little world. (Ah, but I’m always working to See the Big Picture, and to train my eyes on a World-Embracing Vision. In between laundry loads, basketball practices, and grinding away at That Book.) Just to be annoyingly clear, I’m not referring to the retail assault that was Hallowe’en, that will be BlackFriday/Thanksgiving in the Excited States of America, and which already hounds us to be frenzied consumers so baby Jesus can lay chocolate eggs under the reindeer tree — this, all over the “Christian” world and well beyond it.

No, the event I’m talking about didn’t make anybody any money. There was growing public awareness and appreciation, tributes from heads of state and spiritual dignitaries, but no ad blitzes, no junk-food tie-ins or “free” vacations on offer. No price of admission, either: come as you are, dress up if you’re able. Full disclosure: I think my wife did buy a new pair of shoes, and I bought a Dairy Queen ice-cream cake for my basketball boys. Heck, it was a celebration…

And on an October Saturday night, our family hosted a dinner party for a wonderfully mixed-up group of neighbours. Some had been our friends for a decade and a half, while others were in our home for the first time. Of course, we were celebrating the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah. (Wait, WHAT? You didn’t hear about the 200th anniversary? Man, woman, hey kid! come ON! This wasn’t on CNN or Fox News, Al-Jazeera or ‘The World at Six’ on CBC Radio, but it’s the biggest and best behind-the-news story there IS. Seriously.)

(And I hear you over there, saying, “So how come you know about this supposedly ‘IMPORTANT’ event that most people are either totally oblivious to, or just sort of shrug about?” Answer: dumb luck.)

After my love’s famous Thai soup and other delicacies, I tried to explain what the Baha’is are so excited about. You see, I’ve been hanging around the Baha’i community for years, as many of my readers know. I try (and often fail) to live up to Baha’u’llah’s call for personal and societal transformation. I do my bit here and there, I guess, but it seems like pretty small potatoes sometimes. In October, though, it didn’t. It felt like being in a junior church choir that got to sing with a massed chorus from many congregations, one small voice in a great big HALLELUJAH! Right? So I talked about what this anniversary means to Baha’is and to the world. By doing so, at least I gave our friends a few minutes to do some main-course digestion before the unveiling of Diana’s Apple Cheesecake. I wanted to say something like this:

Friends and neighbours, as you know, Diana and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. It’s a worldwide movement dedicated to a few gigantic ideas: that the human race is one family, that we have to start ACTING like it, that there are principles and mechanisms that really can make it all work, and that it WILL work.

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Long Way From Home

True North. Call myself a *Canadian*? Never been there, but my three sons have. Plus, I know J. (Quiz: could you find Ottawa on this map?)

[6-minute read]

This wasn’t the plan, not at all, but I want to write about J. today. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and I’ve been wondering how he is. Worrying, too, and running little high-stress scenarios through my mind, where we hear gut-punching news or I find him in fearsome or depressing circumstances. Such polite words: I keep waiting to hear he’s dead, incarcerated, strung out, beaten, vacant in the eyes. J. doesn’t have it easy, and he’s an awful long way from home.

We first met when I was doing some fiddly chore in my front yard, the chaos of my garage open to public view. I can’t remember whether his first request was to do some work for a little money; it might’ve been, he’s done that, but that day it was likely a request for a bit of cash to get himself fed. He looked to be in his early 20s, with a mess of long black hair and well-worn sweats. It was unusual to be approached from the street like that, but his manner was gentle, his voice soft and dignified, and his eyes were steady and calm. I gave him some money to go a few blocks over to Lorenzo’s, a pizza place he favoured.

I guessed, correctly, that he was from Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories that, as of 1999, has been self-governed according mainly to traditional Inuit ideas of community. (There are no political parties, for example, and therefore no official “opposition” to an elected government.) There’s a direct flight to my city, Ottawa, from the capital of Nunavut, so there’s a small but significant Inuit presence here. We talked. His deliberate but obviously educated speech belied his scruffy appearance, and I was intrigued. Over the succeeding weeks and months, we talked several times. J. was both open about his situation – no family here, mental health struggles, admitted though relatively benign addictions, dependence on panhandling – and mysterious. He’s a complicated fella.

I was never sure whether to buy certain elements of his story. He spoke of having been a scholarship student in engineering at an Ottawa university, but details were either fuzzy or set off my nonsense detectors. Part of that wasn’t J.’s fault, really, because though I was curious and interested about his life, I didn’t want to pry too much. I also didn’t want to be in his face about facts; the kid probably wasn’t in need of an Inquisitor. So, he’d bag a few leaves for food money, while I wondered how he could afford to live in my middle-class neighbourhood and yet often be short of food. (He wasn’t a superb yard-worker.) After a time, I started to talk to him more frankly.

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Just Dive In, They Say

Not me!

                                 [3-minute read]

I don’t want to just dive into the water, and I don’t care if I’m a rotten egg. I don’t dive into much, actually.

Which is strange, because I love beginnings, the freshness of unstained hope not yet wracked by reality.¹ I think it reminds me of a future that I deny. Go jump in the lake can mean, in the wrong mind, I hope you die soon. Some of my resistance to jumping into water I can’t see the bottom of, I begin to glumly theorize, arises from my diffidence about death. It doesn’t feel like dread, not quite, but I do sense my unpreparedness. Strange waters or familiar, they feel like a presentiment of extinction. This explains a lot of things.

¹ Except for writing. The terror of the start is not quite matched by the eventual, fitful flow of production and the relieved delight of having written. So swimming is like writing, too, except that I don’t imagine ever being competent in water.

Some of this nervous distaste is less abstract. It comes from my blasted confidence in water, stoked by a childhood failure at lessons in my small town’s cracked outdoor pool. Simple stuff, but I couldn’t do it. Ever since, a lake or pool or pond is above all a glorious thing to get out of, to put sand or clay or concrete underfoot again, to gaze from solid ground on the seductive beauty of water in motion, water still, water frozen and forever. I stare at it, fascinated, confirmed to find it in front of me, not over my head.

Diving in, on my preferred footing of metaphor, is letting go of my dried-out conventions and certainties, which is hard to do. I can admit to the occasional thrill when literally doing so, in Actual Water. When hot, even if unbothered, crashing into coolness is a lively shock, and I don’t flounder right away. I just hang there, most of me under the surface. From the hindsight of a desk, I wonder why a man with more than sufficient body fat won’t float with more ease. But suspended in a cold, thought-stunning brew, I always play dead for a while,

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Letter To a Young Writing Coach

[4-minute read]

Armed, but not sufficiently dangerous.

Dear S.:

I’m a coach myself — basketball, mainly — and I taught writing forever. I’m a chalk- and red-ink-stained wretch, so despite my bride’s entreaties, and the general on-line encouragement I’ve gotten from you, I still don’t want a writing coach. Stubborn? Maybe. I persist in wanting to lift myself by my own bootstraps; mind you, the physics of that is still mysterious to me. After quite a few years of not exactly setting the WordWorld on fire, I still want one of two outcomes: slay this ridiculous dragon of vaguely literary desire, or find a way to harness the sucker all by myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t look for inspiration, tools and writing-my-way-out-of-the-wilderness tips, though.
Mostly because of a suggestion from Margaret Atwood — via her Twitter account, that is — I follow Chuck Wendig and his fiery, rude and funny advice to his on-line band of fellow “pen-monkeys”. That’s also how I wound up lurking near Story is a State of Mind. (Your gentle, organic counsel makes for a very interesting counterpoint to his, as far as voices in a struggling writer’s ear go!) I’ve subscribed to your daily writer’s prompts for months. Never used ’em, and yup, I sometimes rolled my eyes. (“Write about the taste of rain.” Yeah, right.) Hey, listen: I know what you’re pushing me to do. I was a writing teacher in small-town high schools for years, and I, too, gave eye-rollingly absurd suggestions as Journal Topics for the Day: break OUT, guys, try stuff, just get your pen going and then you can go wherever you (or IT) want(s)… The taste of rain wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with tenth-graders.
I’ve been dry for a while, but I’m back in the saddle. Hit a big birthday, saved up for it by giving myself licence to NOT write ’til the day came, which siphoned a full tank of frustration out of the top half of August. (Good for me.) Since my birthday crepes, I’ve been trying to act more like a pro, showing up at the desk, grinding. Bird by bird, buddy. (I’m sure you get that reference.¹) I’m also a big fan of Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, and yesterday began re-re-re-rereading it with some dear ones. Three of us, at least, clearly aspire to Writingness and can hear the clock tsk, tsk, tsk-ing away. And yes, I’m on a two-week roll, which is lovely, and to get to the point, I’ve finally started using your prompts, blue pen in my own Journal. (And I did write about the taste of rain. Got down some nasty/good stuff I liked and might use, among the blathering. I got going.)

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Cezanne et Moi (and Zola, too!)

[3-minute read]

Blogs are personal, but as I think about how to begin this quick review – these things always seem to start with Me – I’m fazed by my self-centredness as a writer. Ergo, as a human, I suppose. Look how interesting I am! is what I hear now. Aren’t I clever? (Hurt. Hilarious. Lonely. Sensitive. Tough. Damaged. Special. Not Like Them. Better Than You. Worse Than You Know.) Ugh. But blogs are personal…

The poster. (IMDb helped.) Emile and Paul making their way.

I had done my duty to the fine young pair who showed up for Thursday’s SuperCool Chance to Play Basketball On the Freshly Varnished Hardwood Before School Even Starts! (Little O and Uncle Drew did great.) I had even been a good little writer afterward, though I confess that I cheated the typing gods by shortening the time. (Still, though, my thinking was interesting – take it from me – and I may have found a way out of a large, thorny maze where my book got lost.) Cezanne et Moi seemed tailor-made as a writer’s treat and re-treat, and it was the last screening at my cinema of choice. So yeah, I rewarded myself with a luscious dessert when I hadn’t actually finished my first course, but the guilt faded fast. I’m glad I went.

Irrational confidence alert: through BioPic Magic, I feel that I now understood 19th-century painter Paul Cezanne without much effort, and intimately know his lifelong friend and sometime antagonist, the writer Emile Zola, without having read a single novel of his. (But that’s what Wikipedia is for, right? Um, right?) I am hungry to know these two artists better, though, and was exposed to a nearly two-hour, loving meditation on friendship, love, and on the meaning and practice of the creative life. WIN. I’d gladly watch it again.

When you look up “old frenemies” in the dictionary.

It’s a gorgeous film to look at.

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Better Read Than Never: Wendig’s STAR WARS: AFTERMATH

[7-minute read]
“BRTN” is a periodic feature on JH.com, in which I write reviews/appreciations of books that are not exactly current. Today’s entry is, for me, rather timely; my last was on a John Updike memoir from 1989. The trouble is, time waits for no man — and neither does Chuck Wendig.

The second Death Star is destroyed. The Emperor and his powerful enforcer, Darth Vader, are rumoured to be dead. The Galactic Empire is in chaos….Optimism and fear reign side by side.

And while the Rebel Alliance engages the fractured forces of the Empire, a lone rebel scout uncovers a secret imperial meeting…

 

This is how Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig begins. If you need more background information than that, then you may not have been living in this hemisphere during the last number of decades, and maybe this 2015 novel isn’t for you. Wendig – about whom more later, but let’s just say now that he is phenomenally productive, and a review like this is at least three novels behind  – adds full-length sequels in each of the next two years. The seemingly unbreakable Star Wars Rule of Threes continues its reign. Together, the trilogy forms part of a “new canon” of official SW material beyond the films themselves. Aftermath and its children form a bridge between the events of films over 30 years apart: 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and the grizzled-Han and dowager-Leia reunion in The Force Awakens (2015). (Yes, I know, other things happened, too. Luke, for example. And ‘droids. And light-saber battles.) I’m not an SW junkie, and don’t go near fan-sites or extended universes or fundamentalist skirmishes over what is and should be in the Star Wars canon. But like this novel, I do.

It is fast, inventive, breathless and constantly in the present tense, a Wendig trademark. Unknown characters appear in rapid succession, but with references to more or less familiar faces and names from the movies (Admiral Akbar, who does not age at all; C3P0, with upgrades). We know where we are, even when jetting into new worlds. On Coruscant, in one of Wendig’s several “Interludes” — short set-pieces that add context and flavour, and offer a place for him to stow away extra ideas — emboldened former Imperial citizens pull down a statue of Palpatine; see Hussein, Saddam, formerly of Iraq. Imperial Admiral Rae (she’s a woman!) Sloane has a toady and untrustworthy adjutant typecast to remind us of the unfortunate official Force-choked by Vader in the original Star Wars film. Although Wendig takes bitter criticism (surprise!) from many of the Star Wars faithful, Aftermath is an agreeable confection that blends the familiar with the rather wonderfully invented bridgework, with only the occasional bump.

The Empire is going, not gone. Akiva, as tropical a planet as Luke Skywalker’s Tattooine was dry, is now again crime-ridden, with ex-Imperials and ganglords competing for the spoils.

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More of a Skirmish. Fray Rejoined.

[2-minute read]

Easy title, tough challenge. Here we go.

I’m back.

There are endless things to write about, and an infinite number of slimy ways to wriggle away from keyboard, from pen, from the front lines. (Yes, I’ve been meditating on courage, and how life’s demands so often exceed personal supply. I can’t want that.) Courage. My word.¹ When I think of writers I heart the best – and it’s KV² I come back to ever and anon – it’s sometimes ‘how did they do that?’ (technically, commitment-wise) but mostly it’s ‘how did they do  that?’. That is, what allows or compels an artist to be so bloody BRAVE, or reckless, or whatever it takes to tell the whole truth?

¹ Courage: Gord Downie‘s word. (And Hugh McLennan’s.) Go, Gordon.
² That’s Kurt Vonnegut. Hi ho.

I’ve re-read The War of Art. I’ve had a big birthday. I’ve said ‘no’ to a major time commitment to an activity I love well beyond reason and balance. I’m summoning resolve. I plan to act like a professional. I’m ready to write again and more and still and daily. The title speaks of my renewal of effort as “more of a skirmish”, in the wider lens of the social insignificance of whatever I do, and because I lean hard into self-deprecation and other forms of egocentrism. But it’s big news in my little corner; this is my Olympics. This is struggle. Here is my war – one of ‘em, anyway. That will mean Way More Words from the Howdy Home Office, and some of them will appear here.

Hurray for here!

And if you’re a subscriber, bully for you, and thanks for reading. (And if you’re just stumbling into this, there’s a whole lot of earlier stuff on sport and men, culture and books, faith and fandom, learning and remembering, edges and ledges and the odd bit of ecstasy.)

Things That Do No Harm

[3-minute read]

It’s a day for making lists. It’s June, after all.

Mind you, I could be writing about another especially brutal bomb in Kabul, or the abdication of ecological (or just plain logical) leadership by influential nations, or the special kind of impotent cowardice coupled with childish indignation that moves a hateful little human to scrawl hateful toilet-stall names on a rich black man’s apparently uppity home. But not today.

It’s a green day in June. I spent some time thinking – she made me do it, one of those gentle coaching shoves – about harmlessness, which apparently isn’t so far from cleanliness, or learning, or trees, or spirit. I’ve made a list of harmless things, which might even be worth less faint praise than that. Like:

+ Looking for new beginnings in all the untimely neighbourhoods. Such as, oh, June.

+ Walking among trees and alongside water.

+ Railway bridges, even where the trains are extinct.

+ Saying “good mornin’” to random bikers, walkers and drunks.

+ Wearing an old synthetic baseball jersey – still brightly white! – with a big ol’ 22 on the back, going way back to the last time I was a reasonable facsimile of an athlete.

+ Being one layer short on a morning-walk-that-shouldn’t-have-been-that-cool-‘cause-it’s-JUNE-fer-cryin’-out-sideways! I guess it’s chill to be chill, though.

+ Writing and saying things like “for crying out sideways” and “keep your eyes peeled for my phone” that confirm my status as a genuine relic of a bygone age. I’m a fossil.

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Why These Seven?

(Two responses to this question. One is my apologia, my reasons for concerning myself so — and so often — with seven people I’ve never met. The other is for the Iranian government to make. How do you solve a problem like the Baha’is? They need new answers, to both questions.)

They have endured a lot since this photo was taken.

There are countless political prisoners in the world. We call them the “unjustly accused”, “prisoners of conscience”, and they’re everywhere. There are likely some in North American and European jails, too, lest we get too self-righteous. More commonly, though, “First World” inmates, even if wrongfully held, face punishments for minor crimes based on class or racial bias. A number of Canadians, one of my sons among them, make their warehoused fellow citizens a personal cause. I don’t. Nor do I devote much time to the, what, tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands? of souls locked up by tyrannical regimes simply because of opposition, real or paranoically imagined. As my mother-in-law says, pick only one or two lost causes to get behind.

So why was I writing little-read protests about the Yaran (Farsi for “friends”), the “Baha’i Seven”, two years ago, and 18 months ago, and again now? Why flood the Inboxes of my hearty band of Twitter followers with news of the continued imprisonment of this small group in an Iranian prison? Why these Seven? I’ll start with the lamest of my reasons, which also happens to be the most emotionally compelling. This is PERSONAL:

Because they’re Baha’is, and so am I. Global citizens, we in the Baha’i community are called to be. Lovers of humanity, and not simply of our own family, congregation, tribe or nation. But I can’t help it: I identify with these people because we share a spiritual choice, though our cultural backgrounds differ widely. Barely one in a thousand citizens of Earth belong to this community, and it is natural to stand up for your own. Necessary.

Because there’s no other way to fight. Baha’is don’t oppose their governments.

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There’s a party in my mind / And I hope it never stops

Party at Farm Boy! It’s my party, and I’ll write if I want to². (Behold: the second obscure pop-musical reference. Didja get the first¹ one?)

I don’t always write when I want to. I am not, and have never been, blessed with my bride’s Do It NOW! gene, at least when it comes to things requiring effort. TV, and fridge doors (see: opening of), and thinking about sports, and reading whatever falls under my eyes – these things come as naturally as does scrolling through a Twitter feed long after my original sharing-impulse or micro-news hunger has expired. Yes: a fresh entrant to this category of Indomitably Easy Activities.)

But I am writing now.

I sit upstairs at a high-end supermarket called Farm Boy. It’s across the street from Tom the Mechanic, where my wheels are getting readied for summer. Breakfast has merged into lunch. I like buying groceries and eating them at the store. There’s even a chance to be healthy. (-er)

(And yes, music historians, the title was a pop lyric, too. I now have Spotify³ on my phone. Most of my downloads are decades old, but surely “To Pimp a Butterfly” will join my invisible milk-crate library.)

It’s my mother’s birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to. I don’t think I will, though. She’s been gone 10 years now, and I’m easy about it. I will admit, though: when I went by the asparagus downstairs in the produce department, I pronounced it “Ass-per-AG-us” in my head, because that’s what Enid just about unfailingly called it. She was never a teacher – heck, never went to university, why would she? She was female! – but reliably pronounced words in such a way as to make their spelling graspable. “Skizzers” for scissors, “fatty-goo” for fatigue, and so on and on. Whether this was with her five kids’ spelling tests in mind – we all aced ‘em, always – or just a mock-fashionable bit of extreme word-nerdery, I couldn’t say. Ennyhoo, as she also serially concluded: Hi, Mum. You had an effect.

Mum was a Christian, less nervous about death than about tidying up before Mrs. Adams, our housekeeper, got to our place for a weekly clean. She was ecumenical before it was cool, absolutely friendly with those Presbyterians and United Churchers, and dismissive of attempts by an earnest young Baptist pastor to condemn her weekly bridge games as the devil’s playground. When one of her sons was allegedly barred access to the gates of heaven because of consorting with Baha’is, she sniffed, “Well, it won’t be much of a heaven for me if my kids can’t go there.” She hated confrontation, but as I recall it, her comment snuffed that pseudo-theological debate right quick.

Maybe my mother would have liked Benjamin Sledge. I don’t know Mr. Sledge, but in the way of Internet Things I read a blog post of his on a stealth-Christian site called Heart Support. In the article, “Let’s Stop Pretending Christianity is Actually Relevant, Okay?”, Sledge jumps from the Vans Warped Tour (a travelling rock music fest with faithful underpinnings) to 2nd-century Rome, and then back to a moral landscape – modern America – that obviously troubles him. What troubles him most? “Christians”, mainly, both the mainstream don’t give it a second thought kind, on one hand, and the minority have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and hated gays and abortionists enough? brand. It’s unclear which type is the supreme irritant, but he “welcomes”, actually seems to long for, the growing irrelevance of the Christian faith in modern America. He prefers the heroic, supremely loving and sacrificial expressions of the Gospel that he finds in early Roman history, the reason Christianity originally achieved a civilizing groundswell of popularity in the centuries following the life of Jesus. Ennyhoo: you can read the piece yourself. It’s quite refreshing, especially if you reflexively shudder at the excesses of faith-gone-political. It’s not that, not at all. It gives Christianity a good name, actually.

I’m writing in a Farm Boy supermarket, and yes, it’s been awhile since I got anything Out There. And Mr. Sledge has been pleasantly irritating me: a small snippet of the “Relevant” piece has been a brain-worm, burrowing about because of its significance and its craftiness. So thoughtful and cleverly written it was, in fact, that I Actually Wrote It Down in my sorely neglected paper’n’pen journal, as well as a handy just-in-case-I-get-the-typing-itch Word doc. Sledge refers to a simple, under-acknowledged bit of cultural oddness: people hitting other humans over the head with a book they consider Holy, the Bible. Who DOES that? he basically asks. And what in the world do they think they’re DOING?

“It’s a strange practice to ask people who don’t hold the same beliefs as you to conform to your morals because you quoted a book they don’t read.”

Not bad, eh? One thing I’ve loved about the Baha’is is that they bend over frontwards and backwards to avoid using sacred writings as hammers. Another story.

It’s good to write. Sledge’s article did come my way via Twitter – not that there’s anything wrong with that — but reasoned faith and my mother’s ever-living example (for example), are far less momentary. And all these things — along with old tunes, and squeaky-cheese curds ‘n’ apples for lunch, and sunshine on a day of swapping out the snow tires — got stirred into a bloggy stew. I feel good! Like I knew that I would.₄

And if you’re a long-time reader here, thanks for sticking around. I know this could have gone in the He Said/ She Said section, but as I said:

It’s my party.

¹ “Memories Can’t Wait”, by Talking Heads, from their 1979 album Fear of Music. Spooky good. I like old music, but this doesn’t even feel dated.
² “It’s My Party”. It’s the 1963 Lesley Gore version that I hear, one of my big sisters’ 45s. Quincy Jones’s first big hit, the writer learned!
³ Spotify is tremendous, but I still haven’t given away my vinyl yet, even if it’s no longer in milk crates that I can hunch over as I read liner notes and enjoy album art. I miss the bigness and tangibility of LPs, not gonna lie.
₄ James Brown, of course! 1964. The horn break — da-dum da-dum da-dum DA — was included on the imaginary spoken-and-sung-word version of this post. First heard this on the 8-track player of my high school coach’s faux-wood-sided beat-up station wagon. That was a trip, Donny.