Abdu’l-Baha (on greatness and wealth)

At age 31, the exiled Abdu’l-Baha — son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith and one of its central figures — wrote an anonymous plea to his homeland. He wanted Persia (Iran) to rise from its lethargy and backwardness; this sternly affectionate letter to a nation that had persecuted his community and rejected its call to progress was later called The Secret of Divine Civilization. The following describes the characteristics of the truly great, those who better their own countries or the whole world:

“The happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems….

It should not be imagined that the writer’s earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts…and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes….If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor…”

John Wooden (on failure)

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

John Wooden (191o-2010) was not only the greatest basketball coach of all time, but a wise teacher for 20th and 21st century America. I quoted his wisdom in a recent article here. He was my hero, perhaps even Number 2 among the greatest men I can imagine, and I can’t believe he’s been gone three years already. He was a writer and an educator, though, and his words live on, as does his example. His advice runs through my mind nearly as often as that of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In the immediate calm-down after an incredible NBA finals, where I loved the Spurs and admired the heck out of LeBron and the Heatles, I miss basketball and coaching. I miss John Wooden.

A Hall of Fame player, tough and fiery, with a degree in English literature and teaching as a day job.

Humble victor, though he won again and again and again and again. A great man with feet of granite.

General Jack Speaks: A Play

General Jack Speaks

 This short monologue attempts to capture a little of the spirit and story of Marion Jack (1866-1954), a legendary Canadian Baha’i pioneer who was much extolled by the Faith’s Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, and much loved by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son its Founder. The three “letters” that Marion “writes” during the play are fictional, though based on letters that she wrote to, among others, fellow believers Ella Robarts and Edna True. The text uses Marion’s own words where possible, and such quotations are indicated in bold print. Statements about “Jacky” written by or on behalf of the Guardian are underlined. She was nearly 90 when she died in Sofia, Bulgaria, her pioneer post since the early 1930s.


[Marion Jack, in the middle of the stage, is seated at a small desk in her tiny hotel room writing a letter and reminiscing. An off-stage voice introduces her.]

“[Marion Jack] was such a lovely person– so joyous and happy that one loved to be with her. Her shining eyes and beautiful smile showed how much the Baha’i Faith meant to her….We used to love to go to her studio and talk with her, also to see her paintings of the Holy Land and familiar Green Acre landscapes….She always entered into any plan with zest….If we could all radiate happiness as did Jacky, I am sure we would attract more people to the Faith.”


[Marion looks up and begins speaking.]

August, 1945

My dear Ella,

This terrible war is finally over, and perhaps things can return to normal now. I apologize for using a pencil, but my little inkpot has dried up. I began this letter in a little coffee shop. I like that place as I have had the chance of speaking to a couple of fine men here, so lately I try to frequent it in hopes of catching a listening ear…[and] pass on the Glad Tidings.

Continue Reading >>

Mothering On

Nobody names their children Enid anymore, although I did christen a backyard crabapple tree with that early-20th century moniker two springs ago. We’d always had a messily dropping but spring-briefly glorious crab in our yard when I was a kid, and my mother loved those evanescent pink blooms much more than I begrudged raking up the apples in the fall.

Enid Mary Elizabeth Howden was born on April 27th in a distant 1920. The Great War still haunted many thousands of men who didn’t know that what they had was post-traumatic stress syndrome. The Spanish influenza pandemic had already killed most of its 60 million victims. The League of Nations was a brand-new baby that hadn’t yet been thrown out with the fascist bathwater. (Speaking of leagues, the NHL was a toddler with four hockey clubs we wouldn’t recognize, and the National Basketball Association wasn’t even a glint in anybody’s eye. But my Mum loved the Cleveland Indians forty years before the Blue Jays came along, and that American League baseball team had been born 20 years before she was.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Bahá’í community’s leader and best Example, was still alive. (So was Thomas Edison. So was Enrico Caruso. Legendary Canadian Sir Wilfrid Laurier had just left the building. Elvis wouldn’t show up for another 15 years.) I like to think of my Mum and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sharing the same planetary dust for a few months, way back there in the ‘20s. Whole ‘nother century, much different world.

I love my Mum. I didn’t get it in writing for her birthday, but I’m a day ahead for Mother’s Day. Interexistential greetings, Enid! Thanks for all that laughter, all that bloody tolerance and dogged hope, all that thin-lipped endurance and all those wide-open welcomes to friends, wives, spiritual inclinations and especially to More Boys.

She always grinned (eventually) when she claimed that the only reason I kept you and your brother Bill around is ‘cause you made me laugh. She didn’t even play at grudging acceptance, though, when the grand-kids came. It was bright-blue smiles, bowls of sweets and rosy admiration, even at the end when she didn’t always get the names right. My first three boys only have to think of “Mama Hoe-ney” (was that Dave’s toddler-attempt at “Grandma Howden”?) to get a shot of spiritual warmth and belonging, even as they prepare to say farewell to their other lovely granny. Sam’s only 9, though, and he’s starting to lose track of her. We’ll get out the photos tomorrow while we celebrate his own sweet Mummy, in so many ways “a girl / Just like the girl / That married dear old Dad”: blue-eyed, excitable, loving, determined as hell. (That song’s even older than my Mum — 1911 — but it’s inerasable on my mental J-Tunes. A syrupy sweet prophecy.)

Hug your mothers, kids. Pray for them as they pray for you.

An End to Foreign-ness: This is London Calling

My last post bemoaned my neglect of this quiet little forum, and that was several months ago. If you happen to have been a regular reader when there was fresh fodder, sorry and thanks. If you’re new, thanks for showing up. (And “an end to foreign-ness”? It’s part of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahà, visionary and civilization-builder, called upon the world to create nearly a century ago. I love that phrase.) (I hope I don’t have to explain the “London Calling” reference, except maybe for my mother-in-law: Margery, it’s a great punk album by The Clash. You’re welcome.)

After a wobbly and jet-lagged first day in London, vacationing back to the Anglo-Saxon homeland with my wife and youngest son, I want to throw this into the ether before pitching myself into the loft of oblivion. Sleep, my friends. Sleep.

The next thing you’ll see is a little something I wrote to my Grade 10 English class — a group that should’ve been a delight, considering the material we studied and the brainpower of many of the kids, but was only occasionally so — as class ended in June. No coincidence that I’ve relaunched my writing / With gnashing and biting and / Blasts from a thousand kazoos after a week and more away from being a full-time educator. Teaching and writing is a balancing act I haven’t yet found the rhythm or the moderation to master…


Action de Grace

In English, we call it Thanksgiving. (In Canada, it’s generally the second Monday in October. Hope yours was happy. My American friends will have to wait a while for their gobble-fest, but maybe this will give you some early appetite for thinking.)

ThanksGIVING. Give thanks and then give whatever else you can. I like that the word action appears in the French name of this wonderful excuse for a long weekend, and so I made it my title. This is clearly my favourite generally celebrated holiday of the year. (Nothing beats Naw-Ruz.) It’s all about the verbs. It’s all about gratitude being something that we actively DO, and not only feel.

Live life with an attitude of gratitude. This clunky little rhyme has become a popular motto of how to live well, and it’s a good one. (The Globe and Mail’s Judith Timson called it the “platitude of gratitude” — it may have been Anthony Robbins who originated or popularized the expression — but went on in her column last weekend to show how this admitted cliché is important to health and contentment.) For the last ten years or so, the Howden Thanksgiving shindig has featured not only turkey, Chris’s broccoli casserole, and the food-like, cottage-cheese-and-jello collision we call Pink Stuff, but also a thankfulness circle. Everyone offers a few words. Some offer a few more, not that my brother was counting or anything. It gets sweeter every year, it seems.

Over and over, we were thankful for faith and caring, for friends and community and for family, behind and beneath and above all. Our numbers and our general harmony suggest that we’re a fortunate crew. What follows is no transcript, but offers some of the ways my family circle raised its many voices in gratitude…

…for all my memories of the example of my parents
…for the richness of opportunity that we enjoy in our fortunate nation
…for the strength and support of my brothers
…for the chance to get to work and laugh and just hang out with my sisters
…for my sons, who have taught me to be a better Dad
…to my wife, who teaches me to be a better person
…that people are more environmentally responsible for this beautiful planet
…for sports ‘cause I really like sports
…for memorizing scripture verses and for music
…to be in love with my husband/wife
…for my job, and for my BOSS who’s a really cool guy
…to my parents for teaching me right from wrong
…for going to the rink, where the parents know and care for each other
…for the unconditional love – and the occasional indifference! – of pets
…for my time living in a different culture in the Arctic, a place I’ll return to
…for good times in the kitchen
…for another year at school
…for the chance to keep on learning and trying new things
…for having friends in their 90s, friends in their teens, and everything in between
…for the ability to always “go home in my heart”                                               …that I live in a family where we take advantage of each other (in a good way!)

A poet wrote: i thank you god for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes… I’m grateful for this beginning to an odd sweet sonnet from e.e. cummings, one that I recited when a second marriage opened up the windows on a stuffy life. I’m glad to have, touch wood, overcome the ankle pain that had made even the simplest act of near-athleticism seem like a pole vault with no pole; my Thanksgiving run was a 10-k canter along leafy, mist-laden country roads. I’m blessed by the lives and affections of my bride and boys, whose movements inspire and inform my own. One week after I failed to mention UNESCO’s World Teachers’ Day, I am ever more grateful for all who have taught me. And for words, of course, and especially for words like these of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a good start to any old day (or a New one!): O compassionate God! Thanks be to Thee for Thou hast awakened and made me conscious. Thou hast given me a seeing eye and favoured me with a hearing ear…

An old-fashioned definition of a gentleman says that he goes out of his way to make others comfortable. This is loving kindness, really, and all of us can do it. Love is not a feeling, I was once taught, but an action, doing for others what they most need (and as we would be done by). Feeling gratitude, it says here, is doing for ourselves what is best for us. And then we can go beyond feeling and give back, an action that testifies to our own good fortune and spreads it around. Thanksgiving is a brief festival, but it should infect our whole year. There is a lot of gratitude to be done. Action de Grâce, indeed.