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September FIRST. What’s It To You?

Top o’ the evenin’, friends. (All slip and slope from here.)

Here were the many bits of sparkle and significance of an apparently random Tuesday in the life of a meaning-masher (me), trying to understand where one slightly eccentric but on the whole rather typical guy (also me) was coming from.

(NOTE: I am aware of autumnal equinoxes and Officially Falls, but summer was over and I heard the school bells ring. September First is a Time of Change.)

Once a teacher, always one, and always for me has the first of September been a wistful but galvanizing passage. The anxiety dreams were, and are still, in full swing. (Can I still do this? Even if I don’t actually do it anymore? Luckily, performance worries are easily transferrable.) It was, once again, time to get ready.

September 1 marked Cycle 39, Phase IV, Action Plan 13(b) of my eternal Get Organized! campaign. Those shelves? Downstairs. Clear that desk. These books go here and there. (Some may even be released into the wild.) Several priorities are in the shop for rearrangement. So much STUFF. And what do I do with cassette tapes of radio recordings and The Talking Heads? A coil-bound series of musty journals? My files from a teaching career that shows hopeful signs of being defunct? Major conundrums. Serious biz, no doubt, but I waded in and felt enlivened and resolute (with a hot ‘n’ sour side of rueful fatalism).

Speaking of fate and rue: 9-1 was mumblety-seven years and a few odd days past a coulda shoulda wouldabin wedding anniversary, would’ve been a quietly joyful reconnaissance of things past if the lights hadn’t gone out that dreadful year. Instead: “Yup. That happened. We started off so well, I thought.”

On the other hand,

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Hitting ‘Refresh’: One Dark Night, This Ol’ Dad

I just didn’t get it. (I never seem to, as he often reminds me.)

We’d had a pretty good time at the basketball courts, my 13 year-old son and me and a half dozen temporary teammates. I thought so, anyway; I was gassed, toast, bagged (as we used to say in the Grand valley), as usual, but fairly content. I’d had a good run. Some shots and passes found their targets. No ankles were harmed in the making of that afternoon which had turned into an early Dalian evening. We had a 20-minute walk home, but somehow we couldn’t pull it off.

Ours was not a Norman Rockwell moment.

I can’t rebuild that wrecked conversation now, and there’s no instant replay available – all I know is that I must have said a steaming pile of Wrong Things, and before I could say “that was fun” my lad was snorting and huffing, you just don’t get-ting and stomping his way as far from the Dysfunctional Father Unit as he could get. He’s a fiery critter, and a stubborn, and maybe-just-maybe a little too much like his old man for our collective good. Here we go again, I muttered. How did we get here from there?  

It was dark, and I was alone, and except for the relationship shrapnel, that was fine by me. Breathing room. A little peace and quiet. Yes. But not only that: I also remembered to turn to an old favourite consolation.

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Slowed by Fasting

For a while there, I just gave up on eating and drinking. I’m telling you, I was done with it.

Fasting.

What a weird and counter-cultural thing to do in a world of Whoppers and I’m Lovin’ It and Have it Your Way, to say nothing of obesity epidemics and 140-character limits on attention. (Yeah, I guess I might as well say it. Harrumph.)

Fasting. Muslims do it. Christians used to, though even by my faithful mother’s heyday, she would merely give up one of her oral pleasures – usually chocolate, never cigarettes – for the Lenten leadup to Easter. (Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 famous days in the

Not the view from downtown Dalian, but sunrise is lovely anywhere.

wilderness, getting ready to bear a mighty Ministry; however, this exemplary practice seems to have been largely abandoned  by followers of the Son.) Baha’u’llah also prescribed it for a 19-day period leading up to the first day of spring (the Baha’i new year), from sunup to sundown.

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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!

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.)

"Poor Poor Pitiful Me"

Is there anything worse than the desire for sympathy on the part of someone with little apparent reason to receive it? Well, actually, there are lots of things worse than that, but I must say that the whining of pretty comfortable people drives me NUTS. The victim mentality, the “look at what I have to put up with!” schtick.

Which makes me shudder, In turn, when I consider the psychological truism that what most irritates us in others tells us a great deal about ourselves. (Oh-oh.) And I definitely don’t like it when others just don’t seem to realize how hard poor li’l me has it. And I hate it when I realize that I’m dipping into self-pity. (And then I really start feeling sorry for myself…)

What is the best possible light in which to regard this? Hmm. It’s quite simple, really. If life is suffering – and a focus on material things always brings, late or soon, some kind of challenge or difficulty, just like the Buddha and His Buddies have always said – then it is somewhat natural to want another person to be aware of our troubles. We want to be known, and the guiltifying fact that “others have it worse” doesn’t help with that at all. Sympathizing with the others, though, is a great start, and all part of acting as if other people (all six point whatever billion of ‘em) are real. The other half, it seems to me, is what loving and being loved are for. (And what prayer is for: Big Friend, Creator of All, You see me, You know me, You are my haven and my refuge…) The greatest consolation is to know that someone (Someone?) else, fallible or Infallible, knows our secrets and cherishes our single little lives anyway.

To all the whiners out there (and in here!), my slippery thesis is saved for the end: Tell the Maker, not me! Prayer is the cure for self-pity. (And probably a few other things, too.)