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GUEST Post: MP Freeman on Persons With Disabilities

[This is a short guest post by my friend Michael Freeman, written to help us think about one of the many designated “days” we have to raise our consciousness. Mike knows from the *inside*; he’s one of the most stubbornly capable people I know. It’ll take you 2 minutes to read this.]

 

Don’t Forget to Remember

Persons with disabilities are some of the most resilient and strong-willed people that I know. They seem

to take bumps and hiccups all in stride; something of a challenge, yet still achievable. Not

insurmountable. To some, those bumps and hiccups look all-consuming, or even life-crippling. But to a person with a disability, there is a way to manage.

There has to be.

There is no other choice.

It just needs to be found.

And find it we do.

But for some, that strength and resilience is only a façade that is held tightly, as if in a display for the public. In some strange way they believe that that strength and resilience is what the public wants to see, even needs to see so that they can go about their day and their business without giving a second thought, and for some without giving even an initial thought, as to the actual well-being of another.

Because, let’s face it, why would they?

Everything seems okay.

Everything looks okay.

What do you mean, “Things may not be as they seem?”

Out of some sense of self preservation, some insular sense of self-protection, the public gets the façade while behind the façade is not what the public would be led to believe.

The truth of the matter is that living with a disability is exhausting and isolating. It’s those little things that seem so insignificant that add up to a mountain of extra load. It’s those missed opportunities, or the avoidance of situations, that further deepens the sense of isolation. Persons with disabilities sometimes do things for all the right reasons, yet achieve all the wrong results.

Don’t forget to remember.

Check in with people, all people; persons with a disability or not. Establish, or deepen a connection on a heart-to-heart level.

Respect the façade but also look through it; let wellness be your guide. Be a part of the lives of the exhausted and isolated. Help them to remain resilient and strong.

Michael Freeman is a teacher, union leader and writer. (He is also a never-say-die fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.) He works for the Education authority of the Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest Indigenous reserve.

20-20 Remembrance

Touching the past. Poppies are sacred here. (Image from TV Ontario.)

[November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada, and it’s not so far behind me that I’ve forgotten it already. Hurray for me!  This being Covid Year and all, it was a slightly oddball experience but I cherished it all the same. Here’s a quick look-back.]     [4-minute read]
[Oh, and over THERE in the “He Said/She Said” section is a short piece setting up a related quotation from the mighty Kurt Vonnegut, on why Armistice Day is just a better name for what his countrymen call “Veterans’ Day”. It’s a companion to this piece.]

 

She dragged me outside again on the 11th. (Let’s be dramatic – Bruce Cockburn sang it this way: You tore me out of myself, alive!) It was, to be precise, about ten minutes to the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this old year.¹ In Canada we call it Remembrance Day. Once upon a time, it was Armistice Day, honouring the moment when the guns of the Great War (when ‘great’ meant ‘ginormously large’ rather than ‘famously supercool’) stopped blasting in November of 1918. I was going to stay home, listen to CBC Radio’s Remembrance broadcast, but instead I went Outside. And, of course, my lovely Accompanist was right again.

                         ¹  Yes, ‘Oct-‘ refers to ‘8’ and ‘Dec-‘ to ‘10’ and November was the ninth month of the ancient Roman calendar. And in 2020, it is the ninth month (at least in my part  of the world) of what seems several years of Covid-19.

It doesn’t take me long to remember, Ah, right, moving. That’s a good thing. I like this body-working hypothesis. We walked, my bride and I, who tends to think that sacred acts are better done with other humans. It was only a few blocks to a little patch of green, a corner lot that developers didn’t get; it’s been preserved not only for kids to swing and play, or for elders and others to perch on a maple-leafy bench and watch the world go by for awhile (or to monitor their likes). No, the Riverside Memorial Park, though tiny, is a local monument to the neighbourhood fallen and to all the veterans from our corner of the capital.

We were around 20 souls, two city councillors and a greying crew of neighbourhoodies. It turned out that for the ceremony, we listened, around a memorial stone be-wreathed and poppified, to a Bluetooth speaker that transmitted the CBC Radio broadcast. Public radio, indeed! It felt odd and tinny at first but then suddenly was Actually Just Fine, Thank You! And I remembered these things, all in a serried line:

  • How grateful I am for a solo bugle and the Last Post. I loved hearing it live, some years, during my high school’s 11 am Remembrance Day program. It was often some old fella in an ill-fitting uniform that probably brought bemusement to some students, eye-rolls for a few, until he started blowing that horn. Chokes me up without fail, even via Bluetooth at the corner of Queen Mary and North River as the bus goes by.
  • That repeated short last line of a poetic verse that most of us – the older ones, anyway – have more or less to heart in Canada; it’s so powerful. There’s not much militarism here on November 11, but rather a widespread attitude of “never again!” and “consider what we’ve lost” and “let’s pray for peace”. I fiercely muttered, along with my handful of fellow Rememberers, the fervent echo, “We will remember them.” They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.

(Every Remembrance Day ceremony in “America’s attic” now includes this fourth verse of seven in Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”, written in 1914. It’s called “the act of Remembrance”, and is a reminder that there are also some fine things about the post-colonial British heritage in this here Canada. We will remember them. Nous nous souviendrons d’eux.” And I remembered other things, too, as the prayers and tributes went on:)

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The Creature Dreams

Gary Larsen, The Far Side. (Did you hear he’s back and creating fresh content?) I’ve missed Mr. Larsen.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Welcome to JH.com. This is the default location for this site, but you might also want to look *over there on the right* for stuff that’s more sport-centric (“It’s All About Sports!”) or for longer essays (“On Second Thought”). For example, I recently posted THIS DEEP DIVE on a super-amazing aspect of The Whole Baha’i Thing

 

[5-minute read]

I don’t think of myself as an anxious person, particularly, but performance-anxiety dreams are my bedbugs. My bride still dreams, decades later, of being on stage in full costume but without an idea of what the choreography is. For me, it takes the form, occasionally, of long-gone athletic worries (suddenly I can’t judge a fly ball and there it goes, over my head!) or whistle-blowing tensions (wait, these kids have no clue and where are the basketballs anyway? Hold it, there are no baskets in this gym?!). Most often, though, after three decades in the classroom, it’s Teaching Anxiety that troubles my sleep.

Every August they’d kick into top gear, without fail. Even after retirement – or during interludes when I wrote for a living – I knew September was coming not so much from cooling nights and red-tinged trees as from at-school-sans-pants, can’t-find-my-classroom midnight adventures. Classic symptoms. After a week or so of starting-the-year nightmares — I can’t say they were terrifying, but my sub-conscious was clearly hard at work already — I’d head for my classroom on Day One wondering, “Can I still do this? You’re only as good as your last lesson, buddy, and it’s not like you’re gettin’ younger!” And two minutes in I’d know, without fail, “You were made for this. Let’s GO!

Now, a few years into retirement, the Teacher Dreams are still with me, but they’re changing. They started at about the same time of year, but there’s been no First Day of School to dismiss them, and it’s no longer the start of school that get me so much as the dread of an Ending. I loved teaching, but although I long for more of those dynamic interactions, those performances, I don’t miss the professional duties or their daily grind at all, especially with the added load teachers carry due to Covid. But I’ve been on a steady diet of dreams like this: I’m teaching, my usual assortment of high school English courses, and it seems they’ve been going along well except that I don’t think I’ve showed up for that grade 10 writing class in a month and it dawns on me that marks are due next week! and I don’t have a single grade recorded for any of these kids and I’m not totally clear on all their names and how the hell am I going to do report cards when I haven’t given even one quiz or essay?

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Darkness in Nova Scotia

A riff on Nova Scotia’s provincial flag: one extra lion for solace. Sad times. An outrage. (by Halifax artist James Neish)

                                 [4-minute read]

I’ve been circling around this all day. All week, really, ever since I heard the first grim (single-digit dead) reports last weekend. Lemme guess, white guy with grievances? Women not giving him the respect he so deeply deserves? Kills himself so he doesn’t face the music?

I had, purposely and studiously, paid little attention to the details of the story. Scared to. Not another one. I didn’t want to know more. Not only would I refuse to name the Damaged Denturist – a personal rule – I actually didn’t know the jerkwad’s name, this morning at 4:43 a.m., when I began obsessively turning over in my mind the few facts I knew. Death toll 23. Rural Nova Scotia. An RCMP officer is dead. There were fires and shootings and prolonged confusion. I tried hard to get back to sleep, but my brain was composing and couldn’t stop.

Sadness has flowed like the North Atlantic, but it’s as if the news has only intermittently, slowly breached the dikes of, what, my numbness? My fear of being overwhelmed? Isolation fatigue? Dread of another bout of Impotent Rage? (Yup, all that.) Whatever the why, one of the best stretches of sleep I’ve had in ages ended in a mid-night thought-cycle that I couldn’t escape. Maybe the first cracks opened last night, 6:28 p.m., as the CBC “World at Six” newscast ended with Nova Scotia fiddle queen Natalie McMaster scraping out “Amazing Grace” in a painful lament. She played for her province, her people, and it plumbed my own sorrow, too. All those innocent people.

Sadness was first through the barricades, but rage was right behind. These events are outrageous. I couldn’t sleep this morning because I was rehearsing ways to make words, to make sense, out of my anger. We’re a lot the same, this seething, violating numbskull and me, and I’m outraged by it. (Canadian. Educated. White. Male.) I ask, as I too often do, Why are men so goddamned WEAK? He shatters every blessed principle that any Brotherhood I’d want to belong to could possibly hold dear. Self-control. Humility. Endurance. Protectiveness. Humour. Dignity. Respect. Strength. Gentleness. Forbearance. Forgiveness. (Getting the hell over yourself and your petty disappointments, you shit!) I wasn’t planning on writing this AGAIN, but no doubt having it happen in Canada, in rural Nova Scotia, fergawdsakes!, has produced in me more than the usual disgust and dismay when cowardly men Just Won’t Take It Anymore, when they Take a Stand, when they imagine, in a fever-dream of phony heroism, that they arise to “take Arms against a Sea of troubles / And by opposing, end them…”

Hamlet was considering suicide there. It turns out this clown didn’t even have that much courage. What in overheated hell did he think he was ACCOMPLISHING? Because I have no doubt of this: at whatever level of deranged thought he was operating, the prick was riding an absolute tidal wave of we’re gettin’ some shit DONE here!

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Pandemic Darkens the World: What Good Is THAT?*

A little more physical distancing needed now, of course: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres fist-bumps African colleagues. (Wish I knew who they were.) I choose to love this image. (photo courtesy UN)

*(4th in the “Silver Linings”series, which began here in my house, and ends here, on Earth.)   [8-minute read]

In some ways, finding the bright side of the Covid-19 crisis is hardest at the international level. It was easiest inside the four walls of my own home, and required successively more vision and awareness as I moved from civic good news to national bright spots to this challenge: does a global perspective offer much in the way of hopefulness? I must say: I can be a gloomy sort of Gus. I lean in to sadness and uncertainty and so many hands (“on the other other hand…”) in my preferred movies and books and songs. (Dar Williams and Her Deep Well of Sadness¹ pretty dependably make me weepy.) Still, my Thinking Cap has a propeller on it, blowing me ever toward possibility and a belief in the eventual triumph of common decency and basic good sense. So.

                   ¹ This is not the name of her band. She mostly flies solo. (And she’s funny, too.) Back to our regularly scheduled post.

I concluded Part 3, which focussed on Canadian candles in the wind and gloom, with some final thoughts on internationalism. We in the North pride ourselves, at least insulated little pockets of us do, on being a UN-friendly, outward-looking nation. We’ve always tended to be a bit more restrained in our flag-waving than the Americans are, though they’ve rubbed off on us uncomfortably (for me, at any rate) in that way as well. Internationalist visionary and global community-builder Shoghi Effendi – no Canuck, though he did marry one – argued powerfully about the negative side of nationalism. No problem, he wrote, with “a sane and intelligent patriotism”, especially to prevent over-centralization and an overbearing global authority, but between the wars he fingered unrestrained nationalism as one of three “false gods” that threatened human progress and peace. (Communism, of the Soviet flavour at least, and racial-superiority doctrines of every stripe were the other two.) Well, please pardon me for getting all amateurishly philosophical on you. But the brightest of the silver linings behind the darkness of a global pandemic touch on the following: the extent to which we think globally, act cooperatively, and generally show signs that we get that we’re all in this together. Guided by Shoghi Effendi and others, I’ve learned to see humanity as having an extended, collective bar mitzvah. Our maturity as a species grows with our understanding that we are truly citizens of a shared and single planet.  

That’s big and heavy. Never fear. I’ll start with the low-hanging fruit, the most obvious signs of goodness in a bad time for humanity.

  • ALL THE WORLD’S OTHER PROBLEMS HAVE MAGICALLY GONE AWAY! When was the last time you heard about nuclear proliferation, terrorism, hunger, poverty in the Global South, or tensions between North and South Korea, or, like, the Middle East, huh? Am I right or am I — (Oh. Right. That stuff’s all out there even if the news doesn’t have room for it anymore. And is that a silver lining in itself? Not really.)²
                   ² So ends the comedy part of the show! Thanks, you’re a beautiful crowd!

Well, that’s not exactly a silver lining. Let me start over.

  • THE PLANETARY ECO-CATASTROPHE IS OVER! HAS BEEN SLOWED DOWN. A LITTLE BIT. FOR NOW.  Is it just me, or am I breathing better? It’s hard to see it clearly in a small, non-industrial city like Ottawa, but Los Angeles smog is vastly reduced. The canals of Venice haven’t been this clean in forever. Industrialized Chinese cities oppressed by a heavy blanket of thickened air – with a level of particulate air pollution we can barely imagine in the West – are breathing easier and seeing farther than they have in many years. Even scientists studying these changes don’t necessarily want to celebrate – Look, everybody! Pandemics are good for global health! is not a sane position to take, for anybody – but we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that industrial slowdowns aren’t ALL bad. This doesn’t mean that the climate crisis has been brought under control, far otherwise, but it does give us some not-so-subtle hints: first, that “back to normal” clearly isn’t what we should, in the largest sense, be hoping for; second, especially for the environmental nihilists, these improvements remind us that big changes are possible, even when they’re forced on us. Even being compelled to do the humane and right things isn’t all bad!

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Canada During Covid-19: A Third Layer of Silver

PM Justin Trudeau, to the nation from outside his residence. (Photo from Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national newser.)

[6- minute read. This is Part 3 the “Silver Linings Playbook” series, looking for Canadian good news amid the Covid-19 crisis. Part 1 is here, Part 2 down there.]

The slowdown that many of the fortunate among us have enjoyed – count me front and centre in that squadron – is not so obvious a benefit when we consider one’s country as a whole. Inevitably, and properly, the cost to the national economy receives scrutiny: how can workers in precarious jobs (or the under-employed) be supported, local businesses be sustained? And then imagine how many times the problems are multiplied in the majority of countries that are, to varying degrees, well behind Canada with respect to economic and social stability, particularly their health care systems, AND are not blessed with Canada’s combination of geographic massiveness and fewer than 40 million folks! And we all know: the pandemic is no picnic here, either, but imagine how awful things have been, or will be, in [insert your favourite fragile state here]!

All that pertains to illness and economic strangulation having been said – and I just read a New York Times piece in which Nicholas Kristof gets inside access at New York hospitals, so I’m not blind to blackened horizons – still, there *are* silver linings, and even in a careful, fearful nation state they’re not hard to find. Here are some of the Canadian beacons amid the gloom:

  • UNITED POLITICIANS. Sure, there’s some sniping, but the volume of dissent is much reduced. In our Parliamentary system, in which the elected government is shadowed (or hounded) by “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”, there is audibly less emphasis on opposition than on the preceding adjective. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, an arch-Conservative, has had public praise for Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau and members of his government! (My respect level for Ford is increasing; I might have expected him to be foot-dragging, ignoring scientists and muttering about “getting back to business as usual”, but he’s been a strong, sane and thoughtful voice, from what I’ve heard. He seems to be responding smartly, and with a humane compassion I wasn’t sure he could summon, to the needs of the time, and not holding on to partisan dogma. I’m pleasantly shocked, to be honest.)
  • CONFIRMATIONS: We can be oh-so-careful, maddeningly slow and frustratingly divided in our national conversation, but one strong silver lining is the continued reassurance that Canucks are actually reasonably well-governed, and have a clear tendency to often do the right thing, especially when the chips are down.

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Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 2

[4-minute read] The ice is gone, and so are the crowds. Rideau Canal, Ottawa.

In part 2 of the Playbook, friends of JH.com, we walk the sunniest available sides of the streets of Ottawa. The number one bit of brightness is that WE’RE NOT NEW YORK. By good luck, and perhaps by a certain level of good Canadian management and prudence, we’re still only in the hundreds of cases in my city, with fewer than 10 deaths. But still, Covid-19 looms darkly over Ottawa, over everywhere that people have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Science saith unto all the congregations…¹

But there are silver linings ANYWAY. As I concluded in Part 1 of this series, they all seem to have something to do with some combination of Time, Opportunity and the Transformation of our personal and societal circumstances. What do they look like in your neighbourhood, town or city?

Here’s what my neighbour Big Sam had to say: “In a pandemic, country people still have the advantages of rural living — fresh air, woods and fields to walk in, and it’s easy to avoid people. And the disadvantages are mainly gone, because now nobody has anywhere to go or much to do. Here in town, it’s the opposite: we have all the disadvantages (nature deficits, people all over the place), and none of the city advantages like, y’know, entertainment, large gatherings and art and culture and…Big Sam has chronic tongue-in-cheek syndrome, but there’s some wry truth there. But what I’m talking about is making the best of this shutdown situation, even when densification kinda sucks! Here’s what’s silver on a cloudy Ottawa afternoon:

  • LOCAL HEROES are getting celebrated on-line. Our local chief medical officer – Dr. Vera Etches – is reputed locally to have “a will of steel” and is widely admired, as are all the health workers. (Nationally and provincially, most of Canada’s chief health officers are women, as they are municipally in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.) Suddenly the love that usually goes to highly paid hockey stars from everywhere except Ottawa is being re-directed to truck drivers, shelf stockers, grocery baggers and other jobs that are low-wage but more essential than chasing pucks. Perspectives change.
  • SINGING FROM BALCONIES? Surely there must be parts of Ottawa, more dense than my neighbourhood, where people sing and perform with each other at a distance, à l’Italienne? (Hmm, okay, maybe not. This is Ottawa.)
  • BUT THERE’S BEAUTY ALL OVER THE PLACE. Kid-painted rainbows, strategically placed teddy bears, and all kinds of encouragement are to be found in street-facing windows. “You got this!” and “Tous dans le même bâteau” and “Wash! Wash! Wash!” and these two splendidly childish jokes to follow:

Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 1

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

(And HEY FOLKS: I updated my WordPressing, 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.

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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!