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

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

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

But I am writing now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s my party.

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

Save the Thinking for Later

I ran this morning, and it was surprisingly good. After a November that was sickly and often rather blue, I’ve begun to re-establish a (physical) fitness routine, which includes a half-hour run every other day. It’s been going fairly well, considering the draggy condition of my posterior during that sorry excuse for a month, but today I didn’t feel at all like running – until I was five minutes in.

Prayer is like that. The disciplines of prayer and meditation have rarely felt easy or natural for me. Although I grew up in a faithful, churchgoing family, I didn’t learn to pray, and certainly not with any system to it; there were only the odd rapid-fire mutterings of grace before a special meal. Though a Baha’i seeks moderation, this one has always been fond of extremes in temperature, immoderate efforts in sport and elsewhere, and those edges of life that “proved”, however uselessly or painfully, that I was no average Jay. Throw in a little melancholy perfectionism, and I found the pathway to prayer free and open only when I felt especially good (read “worthy to approach the sacred threshold”) or remarkably bad (read “emotional free-fall”, “worthy to approach the rocky bottom”). Spirit feast or soul famine. Yet I’ve discovered – and it has felt lovely and fresh every uncountable time – that, mainly, I only really feel like praying once I’m praying. I found that out this morning. (Again!)

In the four months I’ve been heading toward or living in China, the walls to writing have seemed similarly high. For awhile, though I had a very fuzzy imagination of myself being set free to make new word-things here, I was paying attention to the thousand things that a newbie  needs and wants to do. How do we enrol our son in school? Buy groceries? Find this? Understand that? And then I started to think about writing, about creating the psychological and physical space in our modest apartment, about how hard it is here, about the books/time/energy/order I wish I had, and the disappointment of being so far behind writerly young men that I once tutored in the art.

And then I started to write, hesitantly. And it’s early days, yet, but I think I’m remembering that the way in to writing is to write. (As if I hadn’t taught that, not least to myself, for centuries.) It’s such an old and stubborn error: we imagine an existential order in which we have values, and then realize them outwardly; in which we have a recognizable emotion or intellectual impulse and then act upon it. But all the artists who have “gone pro” (as one hard-bitten writing coach put it), all the great Sages, and all the top jock gurus know that it’s often the other way ‘round.

Inspiration comes to those who show up at their workbench, expecting it.

Certitude comes to those who practise, though uncertain.

Guys who can run can run ‘cause they run, so run!

Thinking About Persepolis

(This is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Grand River Sachem earlier this year.)

What can I tell you? I’m fascinated by many things Iranian. An Ottawa girl, whose parents fled Iran not long after the Revolution in 1982, won Canada’s largest university scholarship in January, in large part because of her activism in publicizing the human rights violations of the Iranian government. (17. Wow! What were you doing at 17? I was mostly trying to perfect my jumpshot.) I’m also a fan of Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel, Persepolis, which has just come out in cinematic form. Persepolis (the ancient Greek name for the Persian empire) was born of a similar love for Iran and lament for its struggles and the oppression of many of its best people.

But now hear this (the tragedy of speechwriting, exhibit A): many people can’t hear mention of Iran without the malignant phrase “axis of evil” echoing around in their skulls. (The George Bush speechwriter who coined this famous political mantra, David Frum, is actually Canadian. I loved his mother Barbara, journalist/interviewer extraordinaire, but his influence in America is no cause for flag-waving, say I.) That Iran is a troubled state with shaky governance is obvious. I am only too aware of some of the political and religious repression that goes on there — my spiritual brothers and sisters have endured nearly two centuries as scapegoats — but I also appreciate Iran’s mighty contributions to world civilization.

The Zoroastrian and Bahá’í Faiths were born there, and some of the fairest fruits of Islamic civilization grew in Persian soil (including the towering mind of Avicenna – Ibn-Sina – a “renaissance man” who pre-dated the Renaissance by hundreds of years). Cyrus and Darius, as we call them in Western histories – Suroosh and Daryoosh would be more nearly correct – are only the best-known kings of a Persian empire that was the greatest of its age. The poetry of Omar Khayyam and especially of Hafiz are landmarks of Iranian culture. In my small contemporary experience, I know some of the sweet expressions of Iranian cinema, music, cuisine and their perfection of the art of courtesy. I see beautiful faces, generosity and a deep pride in their rich and ancient culture. There is so much more to Iran than nukes and turbaned mullahs.

If you’re interested in more on this intriguing and deeply important country, I can recommend a couple of things. Jean-Daniel Lafond – known in Canada mainly as the husband of our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean – is a prominent documentary film-maker. Over a year ago, I saw his 2001 film Salám Iran: A Persian Letter and heard Lafond interviewed immediately afterward. He followed, in his film, the return of an Iranian Canadian, living in exile since the revolution, to his mother and his motherland after two decades away. Lafond collaborated in this film with the writer (Persian Postcards: Iran After Khomeini), translator and lover of Iranian culture Fred A. Reed. In early 2004, the pair returned to Tehran. It was the eve of elections that would spell the end of the reform movement and install the hard-line conservative regime of President Ahmadinejad and all the blustering and crackdowns that came with it.

Lafond’s and Reed’s interactions with ordinary (and extraordinary) Iranians resulted in their newly published book Conversations in Tehran. I still haven’t read it yet, but I was impressed by these two men at an Ottawa Writers’ Festival event. They are worldly, compassionate, scholarly and curious. I detected no particular axe to grind, although it was clear that they hope for more openness and less theocracy in Iran, and for greater understanding and appreciation of the country everywhere else. These are the kind of films and books that most of us never look at, but we’d see the world in a much more interesting light if we more frequently did. These authors aren’t showmen. They are understated, moderate, marvellously articulate and, in their quiet ways, intensely passionate. They love Iran and Iranians with such intelligence and force that no one who listens could fail to think or say, “Maybe there’s more to Iran than I thought.” What Fox News gives us surely isn’t the whole story!

And I know how Reed and Lafond feel. I have much to be grateful to Iran for: some of my most deeply cherished friends and co-workers, for one thing, and for a Persian exile’s vision of peace and hope that keeps me sane, that helps me walk a faithful path with (fairly) intelligent feet. Salam, Iran, indeed. Salam means “peace”, and may it someday be so.

Remembering Iran

I  read a reference to James Baker today, that long-time American political operator who’s been well below my radar for years. (Admittedly, my American political radar runs on a Commodore 64.) Mr. Baker is in the news again because, along with Robert Gates, the replacement for Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. Defence Secretary, he is a member of the Senate’s “Iraq Study Group”, an apparently marginalized group which is suddenly relevant. What really piqued my interest was a suggestion that the Group might be leaning, in its efforts to advise the President on how to deal with the dreadful Iraq situation, toward rapprochement with Syria and Iran. Now there’s an idea which is shockingly logical: consult with the neighbours. I hope somebody listens.

But now hear this (the tragedy of speechwriting, exhibit A): many people can’t hear mention of Iran without the malignant mantra “axis of evil” echoing around in their skulls. (That the apparent author of the phrase, David Frum, is Canadian is not a cause for flag-waving chez nous.) That Iran is a troubled state with shaky governance is obvious. I am only too aware of some of the political and religious repression that goes on there, but I also appreciate Iran’s mighty contributions to world civilization. The Zoroastrian and Bahá’í Faiths were born there, and some of the fairest fruits of Islamic civilization grew in Persian soil (including the towering mind of Avicenna – Ibn-Sina – a “renaissance man” who pre-dated the Renaissance by hundreds of years). Cyrus and Darius, as we call them in Western histories – Suroosh and Daryoosh would be more nearly correct – are only the best-known kings of a Persian empire that was the greatest of its age. The poetry of Omar Khayyam and especially of Hafiz are landmarks of Iranian culture. In my small contemporary experience, I know some of the sweet expressions of Iranian cinema, music, cuisine and their perfection of the art of courtesy. I see beautiful faces, generosity and a deep pride in their rich and ancient culture. There is so much more to Iran than nukes and turbaned mullahs.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to a brief report. At the National Library and Archives this week, there was an intriguing chance to reflect on other aspects of Iran. (Thanks, once again, to the folks at the Ottawa Writers Festival.) Jean-Daniel Lafond – known in much of Canada mainly as the husband of our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean – is a prominent documentary film-maker, and he showed and spoke about his 2001 film Salám Iran: A Persian Letter. It follows the return of an Iranian Canadian, living in exile since the revolution, to his mother and his motherland after two decades away. Lafond collaborated in this film with the writer (Persian Postcards: Iran After Khomeini), translator and Iranophile Fred A. Reed, and in early 2004 the pair returned to Tehran. It was the eve of elections that would spell the end of the Khatami reform movement and instal the hardline conservative regime of President Ahmadinejad.

Lafond’s and Reed’s interactions with ordinary (and extraordinary) Iranians resulted in their newly published book Conversations in Tehran. I haven’t read it yet, but I was impressed by these two men. They are worldly, compassionate, scholarly and curious. I detected no particular axe to grind, although it was clear that they hope for more openness and less theocracy in Iran, greater understanding and appreciation of the country everywhere else. M. Lafond was slightly limited by the event taking place in English, but nevertheless spoke well. Mr. Reed, meanwhile, is an understated and moderate presenter but a marvellously articulate and, in his quiet way, an intensely passionate one. He loves Iran and Iranians with such intelligence and force as to silently rebuke anyone who would think of that as “consorting with the Enemy”.

And I know how he feels. I have much to be grateful to Iran for: some of my most deeply cherished friends and co-workers, for one thing, and for a Persian exile’s vision of peace and hope that keeps me sane, that helps me walk a faithful path with (fairly) intelligent feet. Salam, Iran, indeed. May it be so.

Paradise by the Carney Lights

Well, maybe not paradise, exactly, but I found a small flood of spirit in the midst of Mammon last night. The Ottawa SuperEx was opening in all its sticky-fingered, gut-heaving glory. The girls had layered on the mascara extra-thick, the boys were gelled and bare of arm, and the same classic rock was blaring from (mostly) the same rides. And I swear that the exact same guys were trying to extract money from my pocket as when I was a flat-bellied kid trying hard to impersonate a Man at the county fair. Can’t win if you don’t spin.

But weirdly enough, just next to the BMX Oooh-Factor Bike Ramp – not its real name – was a stage preparing for a “Joy of Faith” concert. Prayer and proclamation facing down snowcones and kewpie dolls. Hymns and dancing and spoken Word versus the Ferris wheel. It was an odd conjunction but a rather sweet one. The Hindu and Jewish community choirs were in full voice, as were a Mormon crooner and a Muslim rapper who mixed gangsta sounds with between-takes appeals for peace and understanding. The Jain and Sikh communities delighted with colour and dance, and a thundering band of evangelical Christians blended power chords with the Book of Revelations. Bahá’í youth sang and spoke and played in French, English and Gypsy Swing. (Django Reinhardt at the corner of Faith and the Fair! That was better than fun.)

Beside the contrast between the midway and the spirit way, there was an ethic of appreciation for the different ways in which communities express devotion. Some groups were clearly more comfortable than others with this concept of a shared spiritual heritage, seeing unity within religious diversity. But they all came to the table, and they carried something more than caramel corn. I liked it.

Dancing For Their Lives

The Bahá’ís have been celebrating Ayyam-i-Há, the “leftover days” in their calendar when hospitality and generosity are – even more than usual – the order of the day. The Sunday school had cut its morning classes in favour of an afternoon fair. Alongside class presentations on their chosen community service projects, and general funsies, there was a jaw-dropping artistic presentation that I felt lucky to see. The DanceAbility group in my town gathers mentally and physically disabled teens and adults and makes a performance ensemble out of them.

I must say, I had my doubts. I’ve spent a lot of time in schools, especially senior elementary and secondary ones where kids can be extremely self-conscious and, consequently, at times rather cruel. The test came early for our audience, mainly composed of kids from 4 years to 15. The first piece was an improvisational dance, a duet between the instructor – an attractive, well-trained and graceful woman – and another young woman, this one short and rather round and profoundly affected by Down’s Syndrome. It was odd and it was beautiful. There were themes that influenced their movement to the simple live musical accompaniment, and the instructor would sometimes very gently suggest the next type of movement. The guide’s willingness to risk and her affection and respect for her partner were gorgeous, and so was their simple ballet. The kids were wide-eyed. So was I.

Before the performance, I’d shot a few hoops in the second gym with Robert, one of the dancers, and his younger brother. Robert was enthusiastic and warmly encouraging to his more reticent li’l bro while we shared that peculiar kinship of boys and a basketball. 22 years old, tall and goateed, Robert was also deeply serious about DanceAbility’s work. I loved the intensity, the fearlessness that he brought to his performances. (I have so much to learn from him.) And I needn’t have worried, because the kids at the Suzanne Sabih School, from kindergarteners to high schoolers, were reverently attentive during the dancing and loudly admiring in their applause. Dozens of them jumped up to join in a closing improv piece that united performers and audience. Melt.

Art does the darnedest things. Have you noticed?