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Paradise Is Always a Garden: The Baha’i Thing, From Then to Nearly Now

After finishing this piece, I learned of the passing of a great pillar of the Canadian Baha’i community, not to mention an internationally renowned painter. His name was Otto Donald Rogers, “Don” to most who knew him. He was a quietly magnificent human being, and I’d like to retroactively offer this as a small tribute to a great man. Peace to his family and friends.  
[12-minute read]
A rather different (shorter) version of this piece appears at the Baha’i Teachings website: click here for Part 1, here for Part 2

Maybe you’ve been obsessing about the NHL or NBA playoffs. (No Canadian teams left in the quest for the hockey grail. No LeBron, no more Spurs.) Or wondering if spring will ever come. (Spoiler: it will. It’s underway. Just ask flood victims all over everywhere, but don’t mention climate change. That would be rude!) But for the Baha’is, it’s coming near the end of the “Most Great Festival” of the Baha’i calendar, and I’m all in.

This is not the original Najibiyyih Garden that Baha’u’llah called Paradise, but it evokes the same spirit.

This festival is called “Ridván”, an Arabic word meaning “paradise”, and the best my Canadian mouth can manage is something like ‘Rez-VAHN’. It’s a 12-day period that celebrates the public “mission statement” of the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in a Baghdad garden in 1863. This Persian nobleman, already stripped of wealth and social status and banished from his homeland, was turning a supposedly humiliating further exile into, well, a mighty big party now celebrated by millions around the globe. It’s Day 11. Two nights ago I prayed and partied with a small group not far from my house. I’ll do it again tomorrow night on Day 12, but on April 21, I joined in with a big crowd of Baha’is and their friends for the Big Ridvan Opening, where we were invited to consider how the Baha’i community got from 1863 Baghdad obscurity to the world-wide reach it has today. I’ve been trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s mighty System of knowledge and practice for a long time now. Sometimes it feels I haven’t gotten very far, but I’m still walking, and the Baha’i Big Picture is bright and ever-developing.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about histories: my own, that of the Baha’i community over the past century and a half, and even of earlier crossings into New Millennium territory.

And I thought: I would have made a very poor 1st– or 2nd-century Christian. I would’ve wanted the Kingdom to come NOW! But the growth of Christianity was slow, and the times were confusing. Heck, Pope Gregory wouldn’t be born for centuries, so the Gregorian calendar that dates our lives based on Jesus’s life hadn’t been invented; 100 years after Christ, the word “Christian” was just beginning to distinguish this tiny community from the many other Jewish cults and sects that had arisen. Even 300 years after the life of Jesus Christ, His followers were found only in tiny pockets in what we call the “Middle East”¹, Turkey, northern Africa and southern Europe, basically within a few donkey-days journey of the Mediterranean Sea. They were just beginning to organize their scriptures and get their doctrines and dogmas together, 325 years after Christ’s life, and the Christians wouldn’t become a major population even in the Mediterranean region until the 6th century. Today, it’s the most widespread religion in the world, of course, and we all take its supernatural degree of influence and prestige for granted. But I would have been so impatient as an early Christian!

¹ Ever noticed how Eurocentric that term is? As if everyplace should be measured from London or Paris (which, for many centuries, it was.)

So listen: when I joined the Baha’i community as a 1970s teenager, I began to wonder, Why are other faith groups, often younger than we are, seeming to grow so much faster than we are? I was noticing the Hare Krishna chants on Toronto streets, or the sudden North American splash, in news media and in recruitment, of the Unification Church, the so-called “Moonies”. I wasn’t tempted to join them, or even emulate their methods, but their bursts of public prominence bugged me.  A wise Baha’i elder answered our youthful questions in his deep, heavily accented but utterly logical way. (If you want to channel the voice of Dr. Danesh, imagine American diplomat Henry Kissinger, but with a Persian rather than a German accent, and with a devotion to the psychology of peace and justice rather than to strategies of conflict.) He calmly explained it this way: Think about what we are trying to grow. If you look at two plants in their first season of growth – one of them a pumpkin, one of them an oak tree – your conclusion might be easy. The pumpkin is obviously more impressive, vines and bright flowers and, within months, gigantic orange fruits! Meanwhile, the oak looks like a tender, fruitless twig. The community of Baha’u’llah is growing like an oak tree; as impressive as pumpkins seem to be, at the end of a year you have a few pumpkin pies and maybe a rotting jack-o-lantern, and that’s it.

That made sense to me then. (The reference to pie and jack-o-lanterns is probably mine, but you get the point.) There must have been a host of movements, 1900 years ago, that would have soundly defeated the Christians on a “Most Likely To Succeed” ballot. But the followers of Jesus, in the above analogy, were a slow-growing but eventually mighty oak tree, not a flash-in-the-pumpkin-pie-pan. I still have a lot to learn about patience, but the evolution of the Baha’i community, from its quietly intimate beginnings in the rose-coloured Garden of Ridvan to what I see now, is enough – barely – to keep me hopeful and sane. It’s over 150 years since Baha’u’llah announced his mission in Baghdad, which isn’t as long ago as our present-focussed obsessions and shortening attention spans can make it seem. His writings confidently predicted the growth of world-wide attention to his teachings and of the community that would arise in his name:

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness….Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.

The original “Ridvan” garden, on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad. There were roses, roses and nightingales, and joy.

Ridvan now feels like a mighty Declaration, but back then even an attentive neutral observer might have missed the planting of that seed. Baha’u’llah confirmed publicly, to only a few people, what many of his family and friends had quietly known: that he was the one who would lead us to the long-promised day of peace and justice. He thus transformed his upcoming banishment into his modern community’s greatest festival. So how did we get HERE from back THERE? The Baha’is then were few in number, decimated by persecution, and frankly their fellowship seemed like a rather hopeless little twig. I seized on five pivotal years in the steady, seemingly unspectacular growth of the Baha’i community into the beautiful young tree it is today. Here is annual snapshot number one:

 

1892. My father’s parents were young, and would soon meet each other. It’s a little over 125 years since then, the year when Baha’u’llah passed away, leaving his son and family and a still-tiny band of followers to carry on the astounding, world-changing mission he had described and put into motion. Baha’u’llah (an Arabic term, meaning “splendour/light of God”) was not much more widely known than Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) had been on the cross. His son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, still a prisoner of the Turkish empire, was left to encourage and inspire a few thousand believers, in a few Middle Eastern countries, to live as his father had prescribed, and to tell the world of Baha’u’llah’s message of world peace, world unity, and the essential oneness of humanity. Good luck with that, folks! But listen: they began.

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Home Visit (A K’wow Story)

Not the girl we visited. Cute, though. (A Dreamstime image.)

[3-minute read]

Dreamily, we’d been visiting new friends, a young mother and her daughter, a freckled, smiley kid with straight auburn hair, cropped just below her earlobes. She had the radiant, gappily eccentric grin of somebody losing baby teeth and growing big ones. She was six or seven. She didn’t really have much to say, but she wasn’t timid.

My wife and I learned more about the woman. She was relaxed having new people into her small home, easy-going in her loving but not overly attentive side chats with her daughter. The details have become gauzy, ephemeral, except for this: so casual, so homely was our meeting that, at one point, I realized that the girl was washing her hair right in the middle of the living space, in a 19th-century tub. My bride had decided to recite a favourite meditation that she thought our young hostess would enjoy. I sat quietly. Just behind and to my right, the girl raised her head from the water.

Probably her ears were plugged; she was speaking more loudly than she had been before, and was clearly enjoying the oddness of surfacing from the small tub in the middle of an adult conversation. “WHAT’S GOING ON?” she blurted. My wife carried on with the psalm, the prayer, the poem, whatever it was. The girl’s mother tried a gentle ‘sshhh’, and I put my forefinger to my lips with a quick wink and a smile. “But HOW COME?” she blurted with a twinkle that showed she knew she was just a bit naughty. She did then lower her voice.

The girl also switched from English to her mother tongue. I guessed that she really did want to understand what was happening. Maybe she hadn’t known why these two strangers had come to her home. She clearly wondered why quiet was suddenly, and unusually, necessary.

I think she was asking why? It sounded to me like k’wow. She said it very softly, but she repeated it over and over.

K’wow    K’wow    K’wow    K’wow

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Electric Boy Meets Conductor Girl: A Short Story

[4-minute read]

Some people don’t follow directions very well. He wanted to do it right, he really did, he always wanted to do the right thing but he had gotten a little confused that day.

He’d always thought there was only one place for all that nutty energy, and that was Games With the Boys, so many games, though not that many boys. It was always the same crew, with the odd newbie thrown in who would sometimes come back for more but most often wouldn’t. Not everybody wanted to play that hard or that long, but there you go. One schoolboy morning, he learned a new thing.

He turned his head, more slowly than he would have to find the outfield fence while racing back for a deep flyball, less furiously than when detecting tacklers with a brown ball under his arm. He was in the right-hand row, four desks from the front. She just walked into room 10, eyes down and too many books held against a softening chest. She bustled right by.

Surely he wasn’t too obvious. His hair was a little longer now. He didn’t stand out so much,  Sunday school cuts and careful combing having been refused. The loud girl had stopped spitting his name in scorn. This was pleasant, but he still never talked to any of them. Why bother? Mr. P. always took their side, wasn’t fair, but it didn’t do any good, and that guy had some scary vocabulary and a wooden pointer that he didn’t just point with. Anyway. Game Boy kept his head down, too, until the girl with the long blonde hair was two desks past him.

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HimBits: Poems on a Man I Never Knew

[2-minute read, tops]
Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

Pinched this image, but glad to promote this collection; sounds like a book to own.

I was subtly slain by a friend’s quick response to an end-of-July piece I wrote for a trio of birthdays: one was my big brother’s, which immediately followed that of a sorely missed coach and friend, which in turn was the day after the anniversary of my long-dead father’s entry into the world in 1911. My buddy Buck had known them all, for nearly as long as he’s known me, and he was especially moved by the paragraphs about my Dad. He slipped a dagger between my ribs with one brief, benign sentence: “In the years I’ve known you, you’ve never spoken about him.”

Really? Come on! That can’t possibly be true, forgetful and faithful friend! I said to myself, or sin-covering words to that useless effect. Of course, the absolute truth of the thing doesn’t matter a bit, and besides, in that same piece I did confess that, other than oblique and occasional references, I had never written about my father in the fog-bound annals of my Blogdom.

But as a kid – and, incidentally, inspired back then by teenaged forays into poetry that buddy Buck had startled me awake by making – I did write some rarely shared, bemused poems about my Dad. They were clumsy, but had a good heart. I reworked them 17 years later, and they were read by, I believe, three or four people other than me. Prompted by the point of Buck’s gentle stiletto, I took another look at them, and now have officially pronounced them Not Awful. I decided to give them a little air.

I couldn’t help playing with them a bit, but here are two poems about a Dad, mine – businessman, father of five, steadfast husband, demon-fighter, melancholic, man of principle and provision – nearly 40 years gone and still a mystery to me.

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STRICTLY MID-LIFE: Crisis? What Crisis?

Here’s another piece — not that anybody asked for it, as Kurt Vonnegut once muttered in opening a collection of essays called Fates Worse Than Death — that now sees the light after nearly a decade in the electronic cellar. When I wrote it, I was in Ottawa, not yet in my 50s. Five years in China are in the rear-view now; we’re back in the same house, and visiting the same local complex for its library, pool and workout facilities. For reasons mainly organizational, this one never got posted, but despite the years that have passed, it’s nearly as true now as it was when it was fresh. And hey, how are you doing?

“Well, this sure isn’t Monday Night Football,” I thought. It’s been a long while since I was twitching and “ready for some football!” that late on a weeknight, anyway. But on this particular Monday, I was in the St. Laurent recreation centre getting ready to put the ol’ bod through its paces.

Now, I have spent more pigskin hours in front of the Sacred Tube than I care to remember, but Monday nights weren’t always about a football broadcast. They never are, now. Even as a kid, there were hockey practices, and from about age 15 on, the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of basketballs were the soundtrack to any given Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday…). Even in my increasingly clumsy thirties, as the rim somehow felt higher with each jump-shot, I could still be found running around on my wife on a winter evening. Nope, not a romantic betrayal, but another doomed attempt to outrun a bunch of teens and 20-somethings. The dream was dead, but I could still fool myself for minutes at a time.

It seemed, back then, that my competitive fever had finally broken. A successful night had come to mean a few jumpshots, a good sweat, a few laughs and no icepacks. (Well. I tried to define success this way, but I was chronically annoyed with my uncooperative hands and reluctant legs.) But there I was last Monday at St. Laurent,

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Sweet Teeth and Faulty Scales: Hitting Two Hundred

LOOK-BACK: 200 FOR THE 2000s.

Five years in China, partly ’cause I walked everywhere and pounded basketballs on car-free pavements, helped me climb down from a high-level status I’d never asked for and never fully believed. When I went there in 2009, I was still tipping my bathroom scales a little too ferociously. In Dalian, it was a lot harder (or, in a few cases — I’m looking at you, Haagen-Dazs! — the price tripped my cheapness alarm) to get sweet treats that met my lofty Canadian-consumption standards. Summers back home were exercises in box-ticking (can’t get that in Dalian, gotta do it now!). Um, and in not exercising that much. My personal record: one summer, in our seven weeks home I put on seven kilos — 15 pounds!

So now we’re back for good, and this summer’s victory is that I’ve kept my balance, dietarily, and though I’m not where I’d like to be, I’m still well under the critical threshold that so alarmed me at the beginning of my Chubby Decade, towards the end of the 20th century. The piece below, another one that pre-dated this website and never saw the light of readership day, was my reaction to realizing I’d hit 200 pounds. The words below were indignant and disbelieving, fun to read years later, and pretty much useless in getting me to actually do anything about the ballast I was packing. Not right away, anyhow.

Two hundred?  Now that’s just a lie.  Hah!  Hah!  says I to myself, it’s an el cheapo scale, and besides, it was on a carpet, and shoot, it’s been cold and I’ve been sick, and besides, hey, I like to eat, it’s not like I drink or smoke so I deserve the occasional treat and I just need to get working out a little more regularly and by the way, I’ve never cracked two hundred and I still have pretty good moves for an old guy…

Okay.  So this new level of larditude is not exactly one of the “firsts” I’d envisioned for the (pre)Millennial Me. Plea-bargains and pitiable denials aside, one nasty bit of gristle in the stew of midlife is unrequited affection:  I love ice cream but it doesn’t treat me right.  (There, I’ve said it.) 

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A Letter to My Son (When He Was Only One)

He’s six feet tall now, with arms and legs madly off in many directions, a big smile, a stubborn spirit, floppy hair, and arguments that seem to never end. He drives me nuts, but he’s also smart and talented and funny as hell. It was fun to look back at how I saw him as a wee one. There were clues right from the beginning, and I’m not just talking about the messes he leaves behind. This is why baby pictures are so lovely, so necessary.

 

Dear Goonybird, Stinkerbomb, Punky Poobler, SammerBammer, my honey bunny boy,

Today you have six teeth, four consonants, and one candle on your cake. You delight the heart of a Dad who thought his diapering days were behind him. You love your little purple and orange basketball, and your peek-a-boo skills are splendid. “Clap, clap, hooray!” we say as you grin and applaud the wonders tumbling about you. With two deep dimples and the softest of skin and hair, you are a shameless magnet for kisses.

And I get to thinking about three bigger boys that I’ve hugged and smackerooed, probably a Dad’n’Lad world record, and wonder when did I stop kissing your gigantic brothers? They are rather more elusive targets, and two of them are bigger than me now, but young men can still benefit from a whisker rub now and then. Thank-you for reminding me how my chest explodes when I hold my sons.

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For a Change

Two more sleeps, and we fly to Canada, ending our five-year service in China. So much to say about our stay and our going, but little time to write. I did, however, stumble on this from my archives, a 2007 piece recalling my halting, erratic progress along a spiritual path. That road eventually led to several warm, lovely evenings and afternoons of farewell to good friends in Dalian, China. CHINA! 

I was a small-town Baptist, though I mainly worshipped Gordie Howe. I reverently oiled my baseball glove at least twice a year. We also went to church every Sunday, and were allowed to ransack our stockings and open only one present before attending Christmas service. Sunday school attendance prizes were an annual treat, but I rarely read or discussed the Bible at home. The patron saints of our southern Ontario Protestant family were Rocket Richard, who crowned my sister “Miss Corvair” in 1965, and a skinny, bespectacled local football hero named Garney Henley. Oh, and Rusty Staub, le grand orange of another Montreal sports squad, the brand-new Expos. As I became a teenager, though, love and spirit began to mean something different.

One September morning, a new girl sat in the desk behind mine, a girl with long blonde hair. In a grade eight instant, I knew there might be a reason for females after all. Within two years, I had not only fallen for her brains over basketballs, but was also fascinated by the Faith lived by her mother.

It said the Creator keeps promises.

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Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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Smokers Get All the Breaks

Remember matches?

Remember matches?

For various reasons, including some good ones, I have moved in mainly smoke-free circles for most of my life. Every once in a while, seeing someone with that fiery little tube between lips or fingers can startle me to attention, as if I’d just seen a rare bird or a quaint way of dressing. But I’ve also noticed enough workplace smoking areas to be convinced that smokers may be smarter than the rest of us. Really.

It was Wanda that got me thinking about it first. She was the professeur de français, a precise and careful woman who was also a dedicated smoker. It seemed incongruous to me, given her fastidious habits of diet and dress. After all, I was the “healthy” one, the school’s basketball coach, a guy who tried to keep an ex-athletic body in some kind of tune. We worked in a sparkling new high school with a total climate-control system, not an open window in the place.

“Time for a fix,” I’d smirk as Wanda left for the parking lot. Like the men on staff who smoked, she sat in her car, or drove around town if there were likely to be giggling grade nines or over-confident seniors lurking about. Sometimes I felt sorry for her. But then I’d find myself leaving school after practice, maybe even after the community house league games ended at 10 p.m., and I’d realize that I had breathed only recycled oxygen since early that morning. I’d barely seen the sun all day.

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