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An Eccentric Perfection

The Arabic term “Kamal” means something like perfection. Last night, I found myself among the endearingly odd and tiny Bahá’í community of – hmm, to tell the truth, I don’t even know where I was, though we had a gorgeous view of Baptiste Lake, wherever that is. We had joined them for their Feast of Kamal, a community gathering that combines prayer and study, community consultation and, in this case, gobs of ice cream and fresh fruit. There was sweetness on so many levels.

We four city-dwelling vacationers had wandered, not quite aimlessly, down country roads, through near-villages, past lovely lakes and the key turn. We were finally guided by cellphone along ever-smaller lanes to the Feast, whose size we nearly doubled, and were charmed by the beauty of the scene and the homey welcome of the host friends. Our program of writings, treating on the perfections of creation and the potential perfections in human beings, had been hand-printed and photocopied. No clergy, of course, in a Baha’i gathering, but I was touched, amused and impressed by the great care our hosts took in distributing the readings. We read aloud to the accompaniment of sunset sparkling on the lake, wind in the poplars, the occasional burst of laughter from the neighbouring patio or their kids squealing at the waterfront, and the tail-wagging, bumping visits of Max, the golden Lab next door.

It was too hot to be inside, and too beautiful to pay much heed to distraction. I’m sure we were something of a distraction to this elderly, close-knit band ourselves. But they never let us feel that way. Everyone was sweet to my seven-year-old Sam, the only person under 40 present. It was sweet to hear the words of Bahá’u’lláh in the sunlight and the wind. The raspberries and blueberries were bursting with sweetness. And the ice cream was, well, it was ice cream. Perfection, indeed, thanks to Slim and Mary Lou.

WritersFest III: Prisoner of Tehran

So many things to catch up on – it was a jam-packed weekend, but in my non-teaching period at the Home of the Rams I can get a little posting done. (It’s a supply teaching gig, so no marking, no prep! No steady income, either, mind you. Compensations.) Saturday began with an Earth Day festival of story, dance and other artful expressions of faith in human beings (a scarce but renewable resource) and reverence for the environment (ditto). Yes, and worm-powered composts, electric bikes, grassroots community-building and off-grid power. (All of which is green and great but, I admit, has nothing to do with prisoners or Tehran.) Then we roared off to further Ridván (“Paradise”) festivities, which did have to do with Bahá’u’lláh, the exiled Persian nobleman, also a Prisoner of Tehran. But that’s not the prisoner I mean, either.

From the mid-afternoon Ridván observance, I was off and running again to catch what remained of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival and its second-to-last day. Especially, I wanted to hear more of the story of featured, first-time author Marina Nemat – yes, I AM getting to the point of this post! – who was jailed as a teenager in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Her crime, apparently, was to be a young woman with opinions; she spoke up to a high school teacher, asking that the class get back to what they were supposed to be learning and not the pseudo-religious political dogma that was being spouted. Not a prudent position to take in 1982 in the immediately post-revolution Iran! Her torture and imprisonment, her spookily brutal marriage to her jailer and her eventual escape from Iran have made for a tremendous story, one that she couldn’t tell for many long years as she rebuilt her life in Canada.

Marina Nemat is a very young-looking 42 now. Over the last several years, she found the courage (and perhaps the desperate need) to write her story. “I was a volcano,” she says simply. “I had to write this.”  And in facing the inevitable survivor’s guilt, as one who found a tangled path by which to walk away from Evin when others she knew did not, she eventually decided that making her story public was her raison d’être. “I realized that I was the perfect person to be a witness to what happened to my generation in Iran. I felt strongly that…this was why I had survived,” she told us. “I had to show that they had not forced me to change my mind.”

She speaks with great dignity and directness. At one point, she was asked from the audience whether she fears for relatives back home, or for her own life. There was no drama in her answer, but the simple bravery was breathtaking. There are perhaps “some second cousins” left in Iran, so she does not worry about anyone else in her homeland being made to suffer for her candour. And as for herself, she says, “I will never wear a bullet-proof vest or have a bodyguard. I was a captive to fear for too long, and I would rather live one day freely than 20 years with a bodyguard. That is not living.” We all love our writers at this Ottawa celebration of the power of the word, but after this remarkable window into a world of fearsome oppression, the applause went on and on. It was a day when the standing ovation was not a mere artistic convention, but a symbol of profound respect. The gratitude of strangers.

Partying with the Baha’is

The “Most Great Festival” of the world-wide community of members of the Bahá’í Faith is underway. It is called “Ridván”, an Arabic word meaning “paradise”, which is pronounced several different ways depending on one’s origins and one’s ability to get tongue and lips organized. (My Canadian mouth manages something like ‘Rez-VAWN’.) It’s a 12-day period that contains several major celebrations of the public declaration of the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in a Baghdad garden in 1863. His exile from Persia was just about to be extended farther to penal colonies of the Turkish Empire.

Here’s the thing that has always fascinated me about this whole celebration. Do you know how the Bahá’ís kick off their biggest annual wing-ding? They hold their local and national elections. Oh, there is feasting, song and dance and drama and generally boat-loads of roses and other beauties, but a sacred kind of voting is how it all begins. This might have been my first clue that the community was organized a little differently: they love their elections. No lie: I genuinely look forward to this process every year, because it is one that induces hope, requires prayer, deepens friendships and forms the basis of an entirely radical, completely new way of organizing human affairs. A Boston-area believer named Philippe Copeland writes about it very well here, if you’re interested. (He starts with the menu for his local gathering – mmm! – but then gets on to a good description of how one community does it, and the principles on which it’s based. Cool.)

In Ottawa, and around the world, they gathered to select the nine members of the Spiritual Assembly. There were no campaign slogans or placards, not even any nominations, for heaven’s sake. Just this, among many other calls to an electoral process that is oddly simple but incredibly profound: “Consider, without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.” So we did. And so it begins, and can you wonder why I love spring?

In the rose garden of changeless splendour and in my home and adopted towns, and yours, too a flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither…

The best of the season to you.

And We Mourn for the Americans…

“We are all Hokies today,” said one email to an American sports radio show today, as the chatter about bad calls and draft prospects was cut off at the knees by the word out of Blacksburg, Virginia. Yes, Virginia Tech’s athletic teams are the Hokies, but nobody’s thinking much about spring football or the basketball season just past. “There’s somethin’ ’bout Mondays always makes me blue,” Steve Earle was just singing out of my stereo. The grim curtain of violence has just fallen again in the United States. Somehow, thirty-three dead in Virginia hits harder than another Baghdad bombing statistic, but we’re all human. The hurting is everywhere, but it’s hitting the Americans especially hard today.

This particular bit of grimness is farther away for us in Canada, but only good luck and good policing prevented a similar death toll in our own college shooting last fall. (I wrote about Dawson College here. The feeling is the same today.) Education and gunshots make a horrifying juxtaposition. I grieve for those students hurt in body and soul. I try not to imagine the parents of VaTech students, waiting and wondering, and especially for those who don’t wonder anymore.

The words of Bahá’u’lláh, 19th-century Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, come to mind as we all ask, like sports-talk jock Jim Rome did today, “What the hell is going on?” Just before the dawn of the 20th century, with all its apocalyptic confusion, Bahá’u’lláh — a Persian nobleman tortured, jailed and exiled for teaching the oneness of humanity and the renewal of civilization — wrote this:

The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day….How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society? The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective…”

We will know more, and it will likely make us sick. May it also make us work for the betterment of the world and the well-being of our communities.

And a NEW DAY to You, Too

The sun is beaming where I am, and the mercury will rise to stream-swelling temperatures tomorrow. It’s my favourite time of the year, and not only because there is the best of basketball, and days that seem brighter than they’ve ever been. It’s also a New Year in my world, and welcome to it.

The Bahá’í communities of everywhere celebrated Naw-Rúz (“New Day” in Farsí) last night with food and dance and song and holy words. “If we are not happy in this Day, for what time do we wait?” Today is a holy day on the calendar, hours of gratitude and festivity and renewed hope. (And, to be sure, of a certain kind of relief that the fasting period is over! I am, though, a big fan of the Fast.) Naw-Rúz is a Persian festival that has been celebrated for nearly 1400 years, one that is now shared by the Bahá’í Faith, youngest of the world’s religions. Bahá’ís haven’t had it easy in Iran, but last night in Ottawa Naw-Rúz was also a time of mutual respect and shared cultural richness among Muslims and Bahá’ís of Iranian extraction. So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth, said Bahá’u’lláh, and there was a fine little ray of it in Ottawa over dinner last night. (Wish I’d been there, but my Farsí is pretty limited.)

I’ll say it again: what a great time to be celebrating New Year’s! All that green, all that growing, all those immoderate northern symbols of rebirth and regeneration…

Happy Naw-Rúz!! May the spring be a season of joy for you. May your crocuses bloom.

Even Stephen?

Had there been any doubt in my mind about the most important issues facing the world, it would have been dispelled yesterday morning by what I heard on CBC Radio. The Current is more than just a saucy, growling intro from The Voice, and before 9 am I had heard from two of the greatest voices of advocacy and awareness that Canada, that anyplace, has ever had: David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis. When these two get together, what do they talk about?

(Allow me to pause and hereby notify the Nobel people. For all his eloquent education and pleading and all that he has given to those suffering through the Great Pandemic in Africa, the former U.N. Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa has my nomination for the next Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Lewis should be the second Canadian¹ to join a club that includes Mandela, Teresa, King, Schweitzer and Matthai. The Peace Prize has been awarded since 1901, and will be until, well, until we have world peace, I suppose, but even then there will be milestones and heroes who bring ingenuity, progress and life to the world once war has been politically restrained or banished.)

These particular warriors of peace didn’t have long on the air, but as it so often is these days – and this is a good thing – climate change was the subject. David Suzuki, of course, was far ahead of the public curve on climate change, and has been a passionate defender of the environment for decades. His current campaign has him flying around the country (and, be assured, buying carbon offsets for all that plane travel) asking Canadians what they’d do if they were Prime Minister. Something I hadn’t known was that the first climate conference in 1988 – instigated by the Mulroney government and gathering scientists and leaders from around the world – was chaired by Stephen Lewis. This was several years before the famous Kyoto meeting and the Protocol that resulted from it, and Suzuki and Lewis were blunt and indignant: If we had done what we said we were going to do then, we wouldn’t be in the bloody mess we are today!

It was a superb (if too-brief) conversation with two mighty men, and a trip to The Current‘s website might allow you to play the interview. (It didn’t work for me.) One thing startled me, though: after all the wrenching speeches, tears (his and his audiences’), anguish and exhausting commitment he gave to the cause of African AIDS (and the resultant societal breakdown), I heard Lewis refer to climate change as the single biggest threat the world faces. (Especially to the already-ravaged African continent, not to mention all the low-lying islands and seashores that could be submerged by rising sea levels. Bangladesh.) Imagine the humility and detachment implicit in choosing this environmental threat over the ferocious pandemic he has been fighting from up-close, tongue and tooth and claw…

And there’s more: as big as these two issues are in their human toll – and you may be as worried about war, terrorism, bird flu, poverty, human rights, ethnic struggles – they are still symptoms of one fundamental problem facing the human race. It was elaborated in the 19th century by Bahá’u’lláh: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” I’ve been thinking about this astounding statement for many years, and I am all the more convinced that this is the heart of the matter. The argument is simple but the implications are gigantic: DISUNITY is the underlying disease of humanity, and beneath all the greatest global problems lies our difficulty in recognizing the essential oneness of the human race.

It’s an awfully big idea to get my head around on a Tuesday afternoon, but I offer it for your consideration all the same.


¹ Buy yourself a milkshake if you knew that Lester B. Pearson, before he was our Prime Minister, won the Nobel for his peacemaking efforts in the Suez Crisis.

Meditations on Livelihood

“What is the supreme virtue for a warrior?” Leonidas, the King of Sparta, was asked.

“Contempt for death,” he replied.

(A writer asked himself the same question about his own artistic struggle. His answer, in the manner of Leonidas, was this: “Contempt for failure.” Is this not the heart of all noble work?)

In the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), Lord Krishna speaks to a companion about his work.

“You have a right to your labour,” he says, “but not to the fruits of your labour.” Holy detachment! And how can one work actively and yet remain at peace?

Krishna sings:
Give the act to me.
Purged of hope and ego,
Fix your attention on the soul.
Act and do for me
.

(And I am reminded of what Bahá’u’lláh, also from the Divine point of view, wrote over 4000 years later: “Ye are the trees of My garden; ye must give forth goodly and wondrous fruits….It is incumbent on every one of you to engage in…arts, trades and the like. We have made this – your occupation – identical with the worship of God, the True One.” Work as worship. Spirit first, even on the assembly line.)

Holy Birthday to You (and me).

It was a fine day yesterday, hanging out with the Bahá’ís as the community and its friends celebrated one of the Faith’s holy days, the birth of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh.* He was born in Tehran in 1817, and it occurs to me to imagine that the twelfth of November eleven years from now will be a big day in the Bahá’í universe. (And baby, better stand back when those crazy Bahá’ís start celebrating…!)

Okay, so there probably won’t be a need for riot police and pepper spray, but I like partying with the nine-pointed stars and their friends anyway. The courtesy never fails to refresh, the greetings are warm and the laughter comes easily. (In fact, I found the conversations so good that I forgot to elbow my way to the dessert table. Shocking omission, yes, but I’d warmed up with a neighbourly lunch before the afternoon bonanza.)

And it’s important fun, if that’s allowed. (Too often, there’s a nearly iron-bound divider between amusement — must be extreme, loud, trivial — and social betterment — must be stern, humourless and apocalyptic.Yesterday, it was. Solemn prayer beside the balloons. Learning along with every second conversational giggle. One aspect of community education is key: we’re understanding, steady by quick, how to not just tolerate but to venerate, to celebrate diversity while we stand together on the essentials. So a 15-year-old classical violinist shared the stage with a young white gospel singer, and exuberant African drumming and singing followed the plaintive strains of traditional Persian drumming, singing and the plucking of the tar. French, English, Arabic and Farsi were spoken. It was a smorgasbord. (Thank-you, Sweden, for that tasty word.)

(* Yes, faithful readers, give yourself a bonus point in the standings if you correctly identified Bahá’u’lláh as the “Persian exile” in the November 11 post. Give yourself two points if you hit the link either time.)

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.

Enid Mary Elizabeth Howden

I’d been waiting for this call, off and on, for several years. When we gathered in 2001 to say our goodbyes, we were only slightly more surprised than she was when my mother awoke from a near-coma and wondered, wide-eyed, “Am I still HERE?” But when Big Sister called and said, “I think you should come right away,” I wasn’t ready. I had packing to do, work that felt urgent, a little boy to prepare for a road trip, and a head and heart to examine. I knew Mum was more than ready to leave this world behind, and I wanted to be in hearty and complete approval.

About halfway to Hamilton, Pam called again. “Where are you? Do your best, but you might not make it.” I got misty, but kept on driving while I murmured my requests to other kingdoms. Sam was awake in his booster seat, and unusually quiet. He knew whatever a six-year-old can understand of death. I felt the sweetness of solitary meditation, purposeful motion and the best of company, all at the same time. And about 45 minutes later came the last call. “She’s gone. Don’t rush. Be safe.” So I missed Mum’s last moments, missed the bedside family choir (off-pitch, no doubt!) and their send-off hymns and hand-holding. And that was all okay with me. My heart was fine, my goodbye felt whole and good, and the best farewells at this point were spiritual ones, anyway. Knowing it would be a late-night Howden festival, I tried to get Sam to sleep. I told him the 86-year tale of Enid M.E. (Skinner) Howden: her sisters, her work, her husband, her interests, her five children, and those 13 grand-kids. Well, there was no sleeping there, especially as we got closer to number 13. Sam loved that story.

Sam finally did fall asleep briefly, while I met his big brother Will at the Hamilton bus station and headed for Idlewyld Manor, where Mum had lived out her final and steadily declining months. There were no more hymns, but her body was still in her bed. She didn’t look much different that night, the 26th of October, than she had when I last saw her alive on Thanksgiving weekend. Not much was working for her then. Her legs were useless except for restlessness and discomfort. She was hugely weary. Daily activities, for this sociable and energetic woman, had become very narrow and limited, and the world beyond her bed was often alarming and incomprehensible. Except when her family was by her side. It was so easy to bring joy to her, and sometimes even a good old joke. She could recite Psalm 23, her high school fight song, and Portia’s mercy speech from Merchant of Venice, in which she’d starred a mere seven decades before. She thrilled to see the faces of her children. She’d nearly never had a bad word to say about anyone, and now she had nothing ill to say of her life or its end. She was distilled spirit.

So I sat with that exhausted shell that had been my mother dear. I sent more beseeching out to wherever it is that prayers go, and got a little more specific with my requests. I called for a warm welcome for Mum from my father and from some of the departed ones that I have most admired. Among them was the Canadian Bahá’í pioneer Mary Maxwell, later known as Ruhíyyih Khanúm, who was on one of her epic journeys when her vehicle broke down in an African wilderness. She turned to her companion and said, “Well, whom do you know Up There who was a mechanic?” (Now that’s a specific, a practical kind of faith. That’s humour and grace on the rocks.) Also among those souls I called upon to welcome Mum, though, was old Cleveland Indians star Rocky Colavito. She had been an Indians fan long before the Blue Jays received her loyal allegiance, and this was a bit of spiritual whimsy that she would have enjoyed. I certainly did, though it was slightly compromised by my later discovery that Mr. Colavito is still among us. Now, Mum must have really enjoyed that.

Diana took the train down to join us for the weekend of family plans, story-telling, laughter and commiseration. All sweet. The family gathered to bury Mum on Monday, October 30th, and I walked very happily around the streets of my home town on that sunny day. My bride, my littlest boy and I got back to Ottawa the next day, and I wrote this quick note to our friends and neighbours.

My lovely Mum died last Thursday. She was a great lady and an example of some of the best and most important things in life, say I, and she will continue to be, especially in the way of her passing. “I have made death a messenger of joy to thee; wherefore dost thou grieve?…Death proferreth unto every confident believer the cup that is life indeed. It bestoweth joy, and is the bearer of gladness…” I have never known the reality of these beautiful words (from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words and from Gleanings) as much as I have felt them with Mum’s death. She was a “confident believer”, a steadfast Christian who was open to all and accepting of the many paths to the Creator. “I’m content with my lot,” she had told me near the end, possibly her last words to me. “I’ve had good kids.” Her “wonderful family” was the thing that she remembered and treasured, and all the disappointments and difficulties of her life, even the very limited physical/mental life she had for the last couple of years, were nothing to her. She was unafraid to die, and she was grateful in the midst of all. She was loving and generous and the doors of her house and her friendship were wide open. It was a sweet goodbye for our family and community of friends, and a radiant departure by Enid M.E. Howden. 

Most of you wouldn’t know my mother, so I hope you’ll indulge me this little remembrance. I couldn’t help myself. My older sons, Ben, Will and Dave, helped to carry her body to its resting place next to that of my father. I was strangled with pride in these terrific men and with love for all my family.

(I also wrote about Mum as part of my ODY web log. It’s a mid-life odyssey, and the loss of a parent is archetypal even in the midst of writing about a dysfunctional relationship with a guitar. It’s here.)