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Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 1

It’s a cliche for a reason. [6-minute read]

(And HEY FOLKS: I updated, and just noticed that you might have missed page 2, a button you need to punch just below the “share” notice. Not too obvious, sorry.)

This pandemic is a bloody gigantic, forebodingly black cloud that has blotted out the the sun of Everyday Life. (Yet there’s no stopping the literal sun.) Buckets of rain. Hailstones like shot-puts. Figurative lightning strikes, mudslides and wildfires – just ask doctors in New York City, Wuhan, northern Italy, and too many other outbreak spots to name. And still I maintain, and human nature appears to insist, that there are bright spots that pierce the gloom, linings of silver behind the darkest of clouds, just as my mother always said.

I’m looking for them. Lots of us are, and we can train ourselves to see positives where they exist. This is not to suggest that we ignore suffering, nor to shelter in a comfortable place and whine about inconvenience, drowning our petty sorrows in self-absorption, but also not to be blind to the light that every darkness hides. You’ve seen what folks are doing in crisis. It’s widespread, it’s constant, and often it really isn’t that hard: you support your local foodbank, he shops responsibly, maybe she’s making some extra phone calls to family, friends, neighbours, WHATEVER — but I hope you’ll join me in Finding Goodness Where We Can.

Today, I’m reporting on fortunate consequences within the cozy confines of my Ottawa home, which I share with DancerGirl and our not-long-for-teenager-dom son, The Lanky One. So:

Within These Four Walls + Our Fully Functioning Roof + Sump-Pump. Hard Times Have Been Good to Find — Let Me Count the Ways!

  • INTROVERTS for the WIN! My bride laments the lack of people, and I quietly thank my lucky stars. I don’t know if I’m storing up Loner Energy or not, but I do enjoy the lack of appointments and obligations, really, to an absurd degree. Maybe this will pass, but it’s fun for now.
  • Hang-time with the Lanky One has been almost completely good. Cabin-fever hits him hard (I hear girlfriend rumours occasionally), but he’s funny, philosophical, and the all-in-this-together vibe is working for him. (Or on him.) It’s not as sudden as it sometimes feels, but our Ornery Teen is a rather congenial housemate. Silver! Gold!

Better Read Than Never: Katherena Vermette’s THE BREAK

Credit to Amazon.ca for this image, and for choosing The Break for their Best First Novel Award — but buying from a local bricks’n’mortar bookstore is a virtue.

[7-minute read]

I grew up next to the Six Nations of the Grand River, played hockey and ball with guys off the Rez and then came high school. All the “upper-ender” kids came to Caledonia High School, so I was in class with them and added Native teammates and friends via football and basketball. (Phys. Ed. efforts with the webbed stick told me I was way too far behind to even try to play lacrosse with the Porters and Logans and Thomases.) Had we known the term, I might have described myself as “woke” when it came to an understanding of, and empathy and affection for, Indigenous people. I would have been wrong, of course.

Travelling across Canada after graduation, I got off a bus at the Winnipeg terminal in 1977 and didn’t know where I was. This is Canada? I was 19. My tenderfoot experience hadn’t prepared me: this was an assault to the senses and my small-town sensibilities, a sudden exposure to realities that most non-Indigenous Canucks, more or less actively, ignore or suppress. At the simplest level, it was the first time in my life where *I* was the ethnic minority, and my skin tone also made me (or my pockets, which were far from deep at the time) a target for desperate panhandlers. It was a pathetic carnival of faces ravaged by addiction, poverty, listlessness, need and other forms of oppression. My first grim sight of Winnipeg looked like a war zone, minus the helmets and artillery.

I was a young white Canadian. I had a lot to learn.

I still do.

Katherena Vermette’s The Break, set in Winnipeg’s North End, could be called my most recent bit of instruction if that didn’t insult the art of the thing. I was a little slow to that party, too, three years after this startlingly strong first novel made a national splash on Canada Reads. (Disclosure: three years late in getting to a novel is pretty good for me. Though a CBC Radio devotee, a part-time lit-wit and former English Creature, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to CR, and now, like so much of what we took for granted, it’s semi-cancelled.) But that makes it a perfect candidate for my Better Read Than Never series. Hurray.

The Old Smiling White Guys Book Club (not its real name) that I tag along with has been a delight. It pushes us to read fiction that stretches and challenges us, and the conversations have been, well, thrilling is not too strong a word. (I was so hungry.) We’re about a year in, and I think it was January’s conclave where one of us reported that he was being sweetly goaded by his partner: Where are the women on your list? Where are the writers of colour? The group responded with a bravery and openness that are characteristic. At the same meeting where we gulped, sat up straight and agreed to an extra meeting where we’d open the door to POETRY, fer gawd’s sake, we also agreed that our next novel would be The Break. We all knew about it, all felt it was something we really should’ve gotten to in the Age of Reconciliation, but none of us had. So: March. Let’s give ourselves a shake.

Well, *I* was shaken, before I even cracked the cover. I was visiting a dear buddy, someone who has found, for many years now, a wonderful sense of community and spiritual consolation in exploring the Anishinaabe (Mississaugas) part of his heritage. He is battling a rare cancer now. We sat in his den, catching up with each other. He explained his treatment protocols. He listed all the support that sustained him. He showed me the stack of textual nourishment on his coffee table.

“Hey! K, I’ve been looking for The Break. You finished with it?”

He wasn’t. He couldn’t continue, even though the bookmark sat at page 272. “It’s not that it’s not well done. She’s really good. It’s just, ah, it’s too hard.” I was amazed. He could put down a novel he’d invested in deeply, that he was, what, 50 or 60 pages from completing? That’s some pain.

Katherena Vermette brings the pain.

Continue Reading >>

Can You Hack It? Living As If Spirit Was, Y’Know, A THING

[NINE-DAY READ. Okay, not really, but you *could* take each of the 9 spiritual life hacks below and make it your daily focus. Or take the 15 minutes or so now!]

“You can’t hack it!”

This was as derisive as we could get. This was contempt, as close as a small-town kid in the 1970s could come to putting a rival — and sometimes, painfully, even himself — in his place. You don’t have what it takes. You’re not tough! You just quit when things don’t go your way. (Later on, “You suck! took over, with more vulgarity and less nuance.) You get the idea. “Hacking it” was the idea of fighting one’s way through heavy undergrowth with a machete; for me, though, a more apt metaphor was less exotic — hoeing and hilling the backyard potatoes, maybe, or raking all the humps and stones out of the Edinburgh Square infield so the ground balls wouldn’t bad-hop us in the head. “Hacking it” meant taking your figurative least-blunt instrument and swinging, cutting, hacking our way through obstacles.

This isn’t about unscrewing jars or getting free stuff, but it might be useful anyway.

I suppose it later had the same connotation for the computer geeks looking to break code or bypass cybersecurity, hence “hackers”, which led inevitably to the concept of LIFE HACKS. Reddit forums, podcasts and twitter feeds offer all kinds of hacks and short cuts to living well. Video gamers exchange cheat codes that allow a player to jump past problems. Rami Malek won an Emmy for portraying a disturbed Hacker-As-Hero in Mr. Robot; we all want to hack the system, at least the unjust ones. (Okay, or watch movies where somebody prettier than us does.) But life hacks? Cheat codes to goodness? Can a few simple tricks pave the way to a life of nobility and genuine accomplishment?

Well, mostly no. “Life is suffering,” the Buddha persists in reminding us. (All the Buddhas have, in one language or another.) Looking for shortcuts and easy ways out doesn’t make for great leaders, inspiring artists, brilliant chemists or superb athletes, let alone someone on the “straight and narrow” path of spiritual enlightenment and wisdom. But while a life of goodness, higher awareness and peace of mind isn’t EASY to build, it also doesn’t have to be super-complicated. There are actions we can take, habits we can develop over time, that really do lead to contentment, to Soul Success.

Or, at least, this is what I’ve READ.

Still, my wife and I were inspired by an off-hand comment that Rainn Wilson made on a podcast. He mentioned that he has sometimes given “fireside chats” in which he shares his own “Spiritual Life Hacks”, though he didn’t mention what they were. We were intrigued, and we brainstormed nine of them to share during a laughter-filled, fire-crackling winter evening in our cozy living room. As are we, the Nine Hacks were inspired by the Baha’i teachings, but they are confirmed both by age-old practice and by cutting-edge thought…

So, are you ready? (Me neither, but I can certainly explain what we talked about!) In no special order, here’s what EnviroBride and I came up with as keys to living the Truly Good Life:

  1. CHOOSE PAIN & DIFFICULTY.

Wait: we should go looking for trouble? Not exactly. I’m not recommending that we all go out and pick up some fancy addictions or purposely make Bad Life Decisions. But I am saying, Don’t shy away from the tough stuff. LIFE will challenge us anyway, so why not toughen ourselves up by our own choices? It ’s not really so strange: artists, athletes, and scientists willingly, eagerly, take on tough challenges in order to grow in their work. It builds character! Tests help us to grow! (No, really!) Famously, basketball coaching icon John Wooden put “competitive greatness” at the top of his Pyramid of Success; he argued that “real love of a hard battle” made basketball players and teams, or anybody striving to do anything worthwhile, better and stronger. The finest steel goes through the hottest forges. The Baha’i Master ‘Abdu’l-Baha put it this way:

“The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes….The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts…”

He even said we should “bring [children] up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship.” Baha’i kids love to hear that one! But it’s true.

  1. SPEAK TO THE UNIVERSE. YELL HELP! BEFORE YOU NEED IT. (Yup, it’s PRAYER.)

Pray every day whether you think you need it or not. I am still a novice at this after decades, but things somehow go better when I put some energy and thought into stating my requests to the universe and my condition within it. Praying. Whether we are basically saying Thanks!  or Help! or Wow! there is real value to voicing our innermost thoughts to our best selves, to the Universe, to our ancestors, to the Creator. We get out of our own heads. We consult powers higher than our own. We ASK. We put ourselves humbly in our place before The World has to do it, or seek understanding after life has smacked us down. It’s all good! And try not to think, I gotta get God to change His mind! Or make sure She knows what’s up!  It’s mainly our own minds we’re trying to change. Or at least, that’s the attitude that works best for me: try to feel connected with, and be mindful of, and maybe even ask for help from, a Higher Power. It’s one good way to get things off your chest.

  1. SPREAD COMPOST ON YOUR MIND. LEAVEN THY BRAIN.

As is manure to a field, or as yeast is to bread (it’s the leaven, the thing that makes it rise), so is the input of Words of Power to our hearts and minds. Reading It lifts us, nourishes us. Like most people, I have too many days where I feed my Best Self nothing but the spiritual equivalent of junk food — trivia and rumours and rehashed gossip, stuff that doesn’t nourish me at ALL. So I try to give myself at least a couple of high-fibre, vitamin-enriched mental inputs per day. I allow myself to think and rehearse the greatest thoughts of the greatest Minds. Apply. Rinse. Repeat. It doesn’t need to take long. The Prophet/Founder of the global Baha’i community offered this challenge:

“Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths…. Say: Through it the poor have been enriched, the learned enlightened, and the seekers enabled to ascend…” Baha’u’llah

And right now, for another instance, I’m reading — just a little bit, most days — the gorgeous, nature-adoring poetry of Mary Oliver. At the end of “The Summer Day”, she grabs me by the shoulder and looks me in the eye and says, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” Now, that is a healthy snack for my head.

  1. “BE STILL AND KNOW”. MEDITATE.

Sometimes our hyperactive minds, our pinball attention, need to be stilled. Regularly, in fact.) There are many forms of meditation: from the active pondering of a problem, asking ourselves questions, to the emptying or quieting of the mind. Sometimes it’s a long look back, or imagining our way into a future. (Sometimes, even now, it’s an empty gym, a hoop, and a ball.) Religious traditions have always, in various forms, advocated this quietness. (The snippet above comes from Psalm 46, verse 10, in the Old Testament.) We recently heard Daniel Levitin speaking on and around his new book, Successful Aging. The neuroscientist points to the science of meditation and its demonstrated benefits to brain health and psychological well-being. Strong advice, given in a church sanctuary to a nodding host of mainly non-church-going white-haired well-to-dos. My wife commented, “Well, it’s great that he’s advocating it, but religions have been telling us this forever!”

“The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view….Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries…” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

  1. STUDY ACCOUNTING! (KEEP SCORE, but BE KIND.)

We can learn. We believe. We plan. We are doers. We are HUMANS being. But if we don’t examine all these things for ourselves, we’re barely half alive. The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. We need to pause for reflection a whole lot more than most of us do. We need to know the score, not of the most recent Raptors game but of our own lives. The great sportswriter Grantland Rice (in a long poem, about football, of all things!) concluded as follows: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks–not that you won or lost– / But how you played the Game.” And that score is not measured, it goes almost without saying, by comparing ourselves and our material well-being to others and their treasures; as the Indigenous prayer says, we ask assistance and take stock of our lives “not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself”. Yes: know thine enemy. So we should find some way to get to better know ourselves, in some semi-organized way. We can reflect according to whatever schedule works, but the foundation is some brief DAILY accounting.

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.” Baha’u’llah

Well, that was blunt!

  1. THANKSGIVING IS EVERY DAY.

Maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” breeds humility, respect, openness, and love. We might ask, What am I grateful for today? The mirror image of thankfulness is generosity. So we Thank. And we Give. Thanksgiving. It works. It’s one of the principal reasons to pray, has been forever, but it’s also a great way to train ourselves to habitually think and behave. Christian pastor Charles Swindoll said it well: “The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” Thanksgiving is a CHOICE. Many life coaches preach the importance of the “attitude of gratitude”, and there are all kinds of scientific studies that prove it: people who are grateful are just happier, more contented, more likely to see their circumstances in a positive light. (They’re also NICER.) Thanksgiving is a renewable resource, and we should mine it daily.  

  1. DIVORCE YOUR STUFF.

At LEAST get a firm pre-nuptial agreement, so you don’t get to the point where your stuff owns YOU. (‘Cuz you can’t take it with you…!!)

MATERIALISM IS A BEAST, and it doesn’t take days off. We need to tame it. Face facts (it won’t hurt, honest!). We are tempted (constantly! everywhere we walk or scroll, by the entire machinery of our so-called civilization!!) to worship things: from big bank accounts, private jets and exotic vacations to sports franchises, sneaker collections or the obese menu of our favourite foods and drinks. It’s the human condition, after all. We do live a material existence, and I’m not suggesting AT ALL that we lead some weirdo, shadow existence that denies the basic facts of bodies. But we all know that at our best, we don’t become slaves to our possessions, our selfish desires, or our pleasures, for that matter. We should try to do better than merely “amusing ourselves to death”, as the late great Neil Postman wrote. Meanwhile, the Baha’i Teachings refer to “materialism: rampant, crass and brutal” (!!) as one of the modern “false gods” that we unconsciously substitute for real spiritual longing, for a genuine reverence. The globally elected international council of the Baha’i community — it’s amazing — warned in 2017:

“The forces of materialism [say to us]…: that happiness comes from constant acquisition, that the more one has the better, that worry for the environment is for another day. These seductive messages fuel an increasingly entrenched sense of personal entitlement….Indifference to the hardship experienced by others becomes commonplace, while entertainment and distracting amusements are voraciously consumed. The enervating influence of materialism seeps into every culture…” 

It’s hard not to let it swamp us. If we can’t exactly divorce our stuff, maybe we could try to just be friends?Baby steps: a little detachment goes a long way.

  1. HUNT GOODNESS! BE A HOPE DETECTIVE.

My best buddy and his wife have long worked hard at a thing they call valuing. It’s their antidote to the relationship-killing tendency to find fault with and backbite about everybody, but especially about the ones we should most care about. Does “seeing the good” make us wilfully blind? Not really; it actually clarifies our vision. Chronically seeing the negative is NOT “reality”, but just a bad mental habit. Instead, work to find what is best about spouses, or colleagues, or situations. Apply ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s simple foundation of psychological health: the 10 and the 1. (Simple, but not easy!!)

“If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, to look at the ten and forget the one, and if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, to look at the one and forget the ten.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

Naive and “super nice”? Hopelessly optimistic? Pretending that everything is just fine even when it clearly isn’t?

This is NOT what I mean, or what “look at the ten…look at the one” means. More like this, as sadly departed writer David Foster Wallace urged in his only commencement address: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…” Being positive is good hygiene! Filling our thoughts with what is NOT — negative situations or characteristics that lack the goodness we hope for — is not nearly as nourishing as seeing what IS. Seeing the positive this way (think: our kids, our students, the girls on the basketball team) helps others to be the best of themselves, even as it makes it easier for us to gather a little joy and discover more fuel for the warming campfire of gratitude. Everybody wins!

  1. TURN HUMAN NATURE ON ITS HEAD.

The ancient theological doctrine of original sin, compounded by any number of modern arguments for cynicism and chronic disappointment, has been profoundly confusing and destructive. Have you noticed? When people shrug and say, “It’s only human nature”? it’s always after someone gives in to temptation, or steals, or cheats on a friend, or erupts in violence. But if human nature is essentially negative and destructive, how come most of us have family and friends that we love and trust? When we look at the people we know best and care about, we might see the flaws (see no. 8) but we’re more likely to notice that most people are mainly good most of the time. We’ve ALL seen it: people help one another, at need; they’re friendly, if given half a chance; they build, they make art, they love children, and they aspire to goodness even when they’re far from it. This is also human nature! We need to learn a new reflex, so here’s my challenge: whenever you notice a small kindness, or witness people helping each other after tragedy, or consider that young person who dies in tackling the creep who’s killing kids in a school, announce it to everyone who can hear you: WELL, THAT’S JUST HUMAN NATURE RIGHT THERE!

It’s one of the ways that the Baha’i Teachings keep turning my head around, and have so much healing wisdom and energy. They say: humans are essentially good, but we can go horribly wrong if we’re poorly trained or left to our own selfish tendencies. In other words, the human spirit is a noble thing, but we can turn towards lowdown thoughts and things and, yes, we can use our superpowers for some pretty crappy purposes: 

“O SON OF SPIRIT! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.” Baha’u’llah

 “Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess….Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” Baha’u’llah

This last one is the touchstone of my life. “The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance.” We need to KNOW BETTER, and help everyone — but especially the young, and those who raise them — to recognize these “hidden gems” that are inside us, and help them to be discovered, polished, and displayed. EDUCATION IS EVERYTHING.

 

Early this morning I walked long as snow built up on the trees, and it occurred to me that my bride (a dancer, a skier, a lover of movement and stretching and fitness and did I mention MOVEMENT? — came up with NINE WAYS TO LIVE LIFE BETTER and not one of them was EXERCISE. (Or even avocadoes.) Our spirits tend to get lifted by the gym workout, the brisk walk, the game of footie or even hacky-sack at lunchtime. So that was a miss, and no doubt you can come up with other “spiritual hacks” that have worked (or could) for YOU.

These things WORK! Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking any of this will be easy, but it’s not string theory! Every guru reminds us: “Step by step. Little by little. Day by day…” Thanks for paying attention!

Close to Home: What’s Up on Whitton?

[5-minute read]

They must be wind-protected. (Photo from National Candle Association, literally not metaphorically.)

It was a relief when the police tape came down, but it hasn’t felt the same, not yet. Maybe it’s just imagination, but Whitton Crescent seems a lot less lively now. Shocking violence can do that to a neighbourhood, and it’s not only the besieged and grieving family that will never fully recover from that terrible morning in early September. The perpetrators — just kids, really — and their families are also ruined in their own particular ways. It was another sad day in, and for, Overbrook, my little piece of Ottawa, where a curvy little street is named for Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of a Canadian city.

It’s a question that came up in my living room on the weekend: Aren’t you afraid to live here? The answer, sadness aside, is a simple No. We chose this area when we moved to Ottawa. We love it. My family lives two blocks from the murder scene, and from the shooting the week before, which we learned to our dismay injured a lovely woman we know well. We’re a two-minute bike ride from the shooting at the “four corners”, where the convenience store and the pizza restaurant have seen too much of this kind of criminal traffic. Though we don’t fear for our own safety — without a doubt my daily commute across town to my high school coaching gig is more dangerous than where my house sits — it’s unsettling. As for everyone in Overbrook, but especially those on Whitton or near the four corners, these events feel far too close to home. So what are we to do? My wife and son and I are privileged folk in many ways, including our relatively easy option to move out, but that has never crossed our minds.  Nor have we considered extra home security, spending less time walking or biking the streets, or (God forbid!) getting suspicious or cold towards our neighbours.

Just the opposite, actually. If darkness has sometimes fallen on my part of town, the thing is to get to work and create more light. “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” as the ancient proverb says. When violence strikes at the heart of community, if the threat of it erodes our hopefulness and our trust in each other, then we have TRULY lost. The better course? Build more community. We started by asking what we might be able to do for the victims’ families? We’re trying to go beyond that: what are we already doing that involves us with Overbrook folk or local development? How do we do more of that? We wonder, What’s missing in this area? and then look to take some small action to begin to fill in that gap. Doing something helps us, first, and let’s hope it ripples outward, but mindset is critical.

Continue Reading >>

Reading With Phyllis in Ottawa

[8-minute read]

The more we read, the bigger the “To Read” pile grows. It’s mysterilicious.

We’ve missed her, but we carry on. This past March, her friends marked a first anniversary, grieved with her husband and family and, oh yes, be very sure of this, a sweet ripe bunch of them felt grateful for her life as they read and reflected on another fine book they’d likely never have heard of without her. And then they did it again in April.

I write here in remembrance of Phyllis Perrakis, a woman I knew only a little, though I felt lucky all the same. It is also a brief history of a book club, full of women, of course, plus one token oddball. (That would be Yours Truly.) I will also offer notes on the BIHE, an educational institution based on courage, justice and belief, but these seeming sidetracks all lead us back to Phyllis, a quiet, unassuming professor of literature. You would not have found her Very Professorial, if that adjective strikes notes for you of bombast or intellectual arrogance, but she surely glowed when she was sharing thoughts about a book she loved. BOOKS. Only now, far too late to learn more from her, do I find out that she was an internationally recognized scholar on the work of the Nobel Prize-winner for literature, Doris Lessing. But to better understand how we came to be Reading With Phyllis In Ottawa, first we need a side trip to Iran…

Once upon an early 21st century time, there was a book. It was written by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature who had fallen exquisitely in love with American writers: Twain, Baldwin, McCullers, and the Russian-born Nabokov. It may not surprise you that Nafisi’s prospects for professional advancement in her homeland, after its Islamic Revolution, were bleak, and she has since moved to the United States. But before she did that, she found a clandestine way to share her literary enthusiasms with young women, the ones that she could never engage with publicly in studying “decadent” Western texts. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran spoke of tense arrivals, a relieved doffing of the hijab upon entry into Nafisi’s home, but above all the rich delights of forbidden conversations among trusted friends about officially banned books, Lolita among them. Nafisi’s account was brilliant and popular and I highly recommend it, but that’s just the beginning.

Continue Reading >>

A Letter I Never Sent (To a Friend I Can’t Remember)

[4-minute read]

Have you ever stumbled across a letter you wrote (or an essay, or a birthday card) that for some reason didn’t get where it was supposed to? I was looking through my ‘Drafts’ folder in Gmail for something that should’ve been there, and wasn’t. Then I wondered why I had so many drafts; mostly, I use that folder to keep copies of pieces as templates I might use again, such as letters accompanying a writing submission or the kind of email response I make repeatedly.

Dalian is a coastal city of over 6 million, nestled on and among hills. Like all Chinese cities, it is constantly changing. There is already much we wouldn’t recognize.

I don’t know what happened to the text below, or why it was still in Drafts. It looks like it might have been intended as a friends’n’family newsletter, and maybe it did form a part of something like that. Or maybe I plumb forgot to finish an email to whoever-it-was, but in any case, the piece moved me. It effortlessly flung me ten years backward. We were in China, my wife and 9-year-old son and me, approaching our first Christmas of what turned out to be five straight Decembers in the northeastern city of Dalian. We were adventuring, and escaping workplace frustrations, and trying to be of some use to the fledgling Baha’i community there, and learning our ever-loving heads off. Lately, as we approach the fifth anniversary of our permanent return to Canada, we have been reminiscing and brooding about the friends we left behind, many of whom we have little or no contact with anymore. I had left teaching high school (and an earlier stint writing in the Canadian government), while Diana was on sabbatical from environmental policy work. Our son Sam turns 19 soon, still speaks Mandarin well, and his coming of age and future vision push us all back to remembrance and wonder at that epic phase in our family life. What follows is how I looked at our first few months of life in Liaoning Province:

Though we are distressingly mortal, and have known the truth of the culture shock that often hits even the best-intentioned after the “honeymoon” period ends, we are well and prospering. China is an astonishing place. In practical terms, there are frustrations, but it is really not too difficult from the physical point of view. But it is a dazzlingly opaque culture to we foreigners, we moles, blind to even the most obvious of things. (To a friend, in front of our complex of apartment buildings: Kai, we need to find a photocopy place. Do you know where we could find one? Superb, resourceful, devoted Chinese friend: How about the one right there, across the street? Ah, yes. The big yellow sign with red characters. That one.)

Though my job is a job, it has the benefits that other teachers told me would be here: deeply serious and enthusiastic and appreciative students, and a general cultural framework in which education matters (sometimes even too much) and teachers are honoured (almost whether they deserve it or not). I am a week and a half from finishing my first semester as a teacher of conversational English and Western culture to Masters and Doctoral students, and I can say with certainty that I have learned more than the grand majority of my 408 (but who’s counting?) students…

Diana, though sometimes missing her professional and voluntary environmental work, has filled her days with the practicalities of making life work here, and with making friends and sundry human connections. She is so good at it. (For example, our good friend Anna visited again this week at our home, and her stories are greatly appreciated!) Diana is the centre of our shared life of service, and we have made many (most of them university students, as we live within walking distance of three universities) wonderful friends here, many of whom share our love of learning about matters of spirit and an ever-advancing civilization. When school resumes, she will be pioneering two courses in Environment and Business at one of the neighbouring schools (not mine) as well as teaching some conversational English to undergrads. And life will get a little busier, but our essential purpose will not change.

Sam, we sometimes think, has the hardest job of us all, as we have placed him in a local Chinese public school where he often has felt bored and alone. But he likes being in Dalian, in general, and has made fast and furious friends with an American boy (and his sisters). The first two months were very tough for him, but it gets better and better. Thankfully, he really enjoys the teaching and be-friending activities that so frequently bring new people into our orbit and into our apartment. He happily sings the prayer that begins “O God, guide me” in a Chinese that sounds pretty fluent to my ears, and with the help of “Alice”, another of our dear co-workers and friends, his Chinese speaking (and some writing) is progressing speedily.

Being here is a little like going on a spiritual fast, or some great quest: every day, whether we like it or not, we are vividly aware of our life’s purpose, and more in tune with the needs of the age, as well as we can understand them. And when the fruits arrive, often at the end of a sometimes frustrating or disorienting day, they taste wonderfully sweet and we think, This is the life…

And it was, you know, even if it was occasionally maddening.

Even if, now, I can’t quite remember who Anna was.

Pardon the Interruption

We are all our own monsters. (photo from EntertainmentTime.com)

[2.5-minute read. NOTE: this post has nothing to do with the sports-men, Kornheiser and Wilbon, and their high-energy exchanges. I only interrupt myself.]

Jumpstarting a depleted battery. Cranking the old Model T. Applying the paddles to a flatlined patient. Making the Monster LIVE!

Whatever. (Insert your own favourite new-life, Renaissance, man! analogy here.)

I’m back at the controls of the Good Ship Howdy. Hurray! Below, I exhume and quote from an older piece of mine. I just re-read it, quite by chance, and it felt like a good way to help recharge by weary bloggish batteries and get GOING. It also serves to remind readers of one of my favourite things to do on This Little Site of Mine. (I’m gonna let it shine!) Yes, it’s been eerily, fear-ily quiet here at The Howdy. I keep telling myself there’s a silver lining: my recent inactivity has meant that a special piece, much more important than the bookish or sporty matters I often obsess about, was at the head of the Howdy Queue for months. (It’s just down below, in this “At First Glance” section, which is the main one.) A celebration for the age.)

Here I go again. A week ago, when I wasn’t watching, this space hit a small milestone. (It’s a small consolation that, even when I’m not grinding at the word mill, humans are still reading my messages to the universe. Sweet.) 40,000 page views is a decent month for many sites, and it’s taken me quite a few years to get here, but it’s something. I insist that many of those views involved people actually reading what I’ve written, so there! Yes. Thanks for reading, for reading me, for reading just about anything. READING MATTERS. And now this, a blast from the Oh-So-Quotable! JamesHowden past (complete article here):

He Said/She Said… Did you notice this FAVE-QUOTES section? It’s just down there, on your right, if you’re looking at this on a laptop or other big-screened device. There’s no up-top tab for this “He Said/She Said” section, but you can find it if you try hard, maybe?

I’m always looking for the right words. Some people look for the magic bullet – the easy lazy remedy, the simple common-sense answer. Some look for solace and conviction in chemical form, but for me it’s nearly always an incantation. If a problem can’t be solved with words, I’m often not interested in it….

I’ve collected quotes forever. Once upon a lucky break, I was suddenly being paid well to write with her Right Honourable Self¹, and she loved quotations, too. So I scavenged everywhere, tore from newspapers, scribbled in the margins of novels and other good reads, and I cheated: I went to Bartlett’s, to John Robert Columbo, to Cosmo Doogood’s Urban Almanac, to on-line sites like Empyrean. I love to find just the right words….

There be monsters in the quotable woods, though. I remember Mr. Hill’s comments on a high school essay that I had just larded with some of the best quotes ever. Problem: some of them I hadn’t fully understood, when removed from the context in which they were written, and “this is the evil of Bartlett’s”, quoth Mr. Hill. Who knew a treasure house of words could be evil? And then there was my recent discovery that one of my favourite quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson – beginning “To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children…” and ending “This is to have succeeded” – is “almost certainly not his”, according to a scholarly website that I accidentally consulted….

All this to say that I have a wee quote box just down there to your right, underneath the “On Second Thought” section…

¹ In the middle of the Aughts, I wrote correspondence for, and later 18 months of vice-regal speeches with, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, during her term as Governor General of Canada. It was fun. I had deadlines then. And an audience.

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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