Henry Miller (on interest, beauty, forgetfulness)

We were about a dozen, and we were trying to work out the places where discipline, artistry, ends, practice, spirit, livelihood, beginnings and joy intersect. (My submission: all over the place!) We got quiet, and then we talked, and then we ate. I contributed this apparently velvety and colourful, but finally stone-cold prescription from the writer Henry Miller:

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) was best known as a writer of frankly sexual and otherwise unconventional novels which were long banned in his American homeland. He wearied of his reputation as that naughty writer; he was a rather good one. This passage is cited in Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. While it is good counsel for writers, it’s an even better idea for pret’near everybody.

Hindsight: Memorial for a Quiet Hero

UPDATE (July 24, 2015): Two days ago, the Globe and Mail printed a sweet tribute to this man in its “Lives Lived”section. It was written by the man’s sister and his widow, and I learned more about a man that I miss(ed).

I didn’t know Mark well at all. We’d only met a few times, so when his husk was committed to the earth this week, I wasn’t there. That would’ve been for the dearest of family and friends, and Lord knows there was no shortage of those.

But funerals change me. (They certainly try hard.) I hope – I knew in the teary quiet of a Sunday afternoon – that his did wonders for me. Although I’d nearly found sufficient pretexts not to attend the service, I finally did, and thank goodness and greatness and mercy and joy for that.

For me, Mark was only the quiet, smiley man who opened the door and served the tea at Linda’s place. I’d been there occasionally, sometimes to lead a discussion or give a small talk in their modest living room, sometimes to listen in on what was sure to be an elevated conversation; no celebrity gossip, nary an ounce of snark. I can’t even say I knew his wife Linda all that well, either, though she’d been a community co-worker for a decade. Mark seemed a gentle support to Linda’s calm and steely leadership. That’s what I thought I saw there. What did he do outside those meetings? I wasn’t too sure, and to my embarrassment,

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Sports Fix (Lite) in Bangkok

The sporting sun, it was (perhaps) humblingly clear from here, does not rise and set on the tubby arse of North American interests! Now, I’ve been living in China for five years, so I knew this already, but on our annual escape southward – this year, Macau, Thailand and Cambodia – I welcomed the greater availability of some of the comforts of my Canadian home. This sometimes means good English bookstores (salute to Chiangmai, Thailand!), and it too often means affordable ice cream and choco-treats whenever I want them (sheepish salute to 7-11 stores, frequent beacons of tawdry hope and sugar lust in all three places). It has also meant limited access to the Winter Olympics; go figure, Thailand and Cambodia don’t much care!

Other evidence of my lingering athletic biases came in a Bangkok waiting room, where, pulse quickening, I noticed an English-language newspaper, that very day’s edition. Yum!

I love Gothic lettering. I love newspapers that have paper, though I’m reluctantly ready for their demise.

It was my second time running across The Bangkok Post, awakening my old jones for newsprint and crinkling pages folded just so.

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Richard Sherman (on athletic stereotyping)

“I felt like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place [Compton, a rough section of Los Angeles]. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports….I know the jock stereotype – cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it.”

Richard Sherman, DB, Seattle Seahawks (NFL), in a Sports Illustrated cover story, 29 July 2013. Speaking of stereotypes, Sherman is black, wears long dreadlocks, graduated a frustratingly close second in his high school class, and chose (and graduated on time from) Stanford University instead of the more highly ranked football factories that recruited him. Though he talks more trash than would appear humble, he is a small treasure to this coach and writer and long-time catcher and flinger of balls: Sherman is a talking, walking stereotype-buster, a jock with brains and no intention of hiding them. His story made an interesting companion to Steve Rushin’s piece on humility in the same issue, as Sherman is not shy about bringing attention to himself.

Thinking of Yourself, Less

Time to plant.

I remember when humility was a virtue, a quality that most people felt was praiseworthy and useful. We had no trouble distinguishing it from humiliation, which was a shameful condition visited upon us by others. Oh, we liked it when the braggart was forced to “eat humble pie” (sometimes, even, when it was us who had to eat that bitter confection), but mainly we felt that baking that pie and nibbling at it regularly was not just good medicine but often a sweet and sustaining way to eat.

Here’s today’s question: does a humble writer try to increase his page views by shamelessly flogging his ‘brand’? (“Duh, of course!”) Or to put it another, less JH.comAllTheTimeHeyEnoughAboutMeWhatDoYOUThinkOfMyWebsite?- centric way, how can we use the incredible connectivity and expressive potential of social media without becoming insufferably dull and incurably self-absorbed? I don’t know, and mainly err on the side of Luddism and avoidance.

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C.S. Lewis (on humility)

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was most famously the spinner of the Narnia tales. He was also a noted Cambridge and Oxford scholar/professor, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s buddy, and one of Christianity’s most noted modern apologists (which does not mean he was sorry for Christians). I was tickled to learn that he was known as ‘Jack’ to friends and family, as Tolkien was called ‘Gandalf’ by intimates. (Kidding about Tolkien.) I was pleased to stumble on this powerhouse quote* – in a Steve Rushin column in Sports Illustrated, not to my surprise – and to be reminded of this statement about the misapplication of humility, made by G.K. Chesterton.

* Perils of quotation and the Internet: not likely through any fault of his, the American super-pastor Rick Warren is given credit for this saying on several sites.

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.

ODY 27/365

As per yesterday’s prediction, tonight was indeed a wonderful evening, full of learning, careful attention, sensational munchies, belly laughs and the sympathetic sharing of a believer’s Islamic journey. All of that goodness was in our living room, though, while the Dégas had to wait down in the down-down ‘til nearly midnight for me to make musical havoc on its strings. And I did, strumming my three-and-a-half chords, picking out my two-and-a-half tunes and even improvising some swingy bits in my basic blues. Now that I liked!

But as for the “tenacious discipline” that somebody was blathering about yesterday – its tendency to leak out into other chambers of the spiritual warrior’s life, its ability to cross over from musical dedication to a BodyMovin’, I’m-not-just-a-midlife-string-picker-but-a-studly-workout-demon-too kind of ethos – well, scratch that. 27 straight days on guitar for the Old Dog, but a fat oh-fer-three since I noticed how amazing I was with the weights.

A guy has to work awfully hard to suppress humility, it seems to me. There are so many ways to learn it.

According to Albert

I came across a brief and simple meditation on the virtue of humility this morning. As ammunition for my argument that you can find spirit everywhere if you’re willing to look, I’ll point out that this exercise in quiet virtue was found in the on-line version of Sports Illustrated magazine. It was an interview with the Cardinals’ monstrously good batsman, Albert Pujols. Alongside other things I’ve read about the great Dominican, I think we can take this straight up, no grain (or mitt-full) of salt required.

Albert’s Law:

As long as you don’t get caught up thinking you are better than the game, or you think that you’re better than everybody else, as long as you don’t get caught up in that, you’ll be fine. If you stay humble, you’re going to survive to play this game — if you stay healthy — for 15-20 years. That’s what I want to do. Stay humble before God. Stay humble before my teammates. And just have fun out there and play the game.

It might not sell too much beer or get a Manly Personal Fragrance named after him, but it makes it all the easier to appreciate Mr. Pujols.

Leonard Cohen and Five Good Songs

“You should never throw anything away, including people and ideas. It’s really true that we should never give up on anyone.”  That was Leonard Cohen, in my radio today.

Cohen is 71 now. Five of his songs were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on the weekend. (Did you know there was one? Not the weekend, I mean the Hall. Although, actually, there is no actual hall for the Hall. Someday.) He was on Sounds Like Canada this morning, a taped interview he’d done with Shelagh Rogers. I missed the first 15 minutes or so of a warm, intelligent conversation of the type that CBC Radio occasionally pulls off so wonderfully well. (The “Mother Corp” takes a lot of hits from people who don’t listen to it. The TV side has its highs, even beyond Hockey Night in Canada, but I don’t watch it much; it’s so-so, even before you account for having to watch commercials. But the radio side is brilliant, commercial-free, and getting better, getting a little younger. Superb.) It was an hour-long conversation, followed by an hour of highlights from the HoF awards show. (How’s a guy supposed to get any work done?)

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in…” This is an example of the songwriter as Writer, as Poet, a designation Cohen once refused, feeling that it was too early in his career to apply to himself such an exalted title; I take it upon myself to confer it now). It comes from “Anthem”, which enters the Canuck Songster Pantheon along with “Bird on a Wire” (Willie Nelson was there to sing it, and that’s the version I hear), “Ain’t No Cure For Love” (I hear Jennifer Warnes), “Hallelujah” (kd lang did a glorious version at the ceremony, but I like Bono’s, too) and “Everybody Knows” (Don Henley does a terrific rendition on the tribute album Tower of Song, but Cohen’s own is one I find more listenable than some of the others, gritty and morose).

I’m hoping that the whole interview, as well as the awards package, will be available. I looked on the CBC site tonight for it tonight, and instead went wandering through their archives of 1950s radio interviews and 1960s television chats – Adrienne Clarkson, in all her youthful bouffant glory! – and on into the more recent past. And in case there’d been any doubt, I found an extraordinary man. Even in his youth, Leonard Cohen was profoundly articulate, gently contrarian, an artist and a seer who sounded and looked as contemporary as his interviewers looked and often sounded quaint. Now, his intelligence, insight and deep humility are beautiful to hear. I hope to hear today’s interview again. (Apparently it was filmed for eventual airing on television. I’ll let you know.)