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A Letter I Never Sent (To a Friend I Can’t Remember)

[4-minute read]

Have you ever stumbled across a letter you wrote (or an essay, or a birthday card) that for some reason didn’t get where it was supposed to? I was looking through my ‘Drafts’ folder in Gmail for something that should’ve been there, and wasn’t. Then I wondered why I had so many drafts; mostly, I use that folder to keep copies of pieces as templates I might use again, such as letters accompanying a writing submission or the kind of email response I make repeatedly.

Dalian is a coastal city of over 6 million, nestled on and among hills. Like all Chinese cities, it is constantly changing. There is already much we wouldn’t recognize.

I don’t know what happened to the text below, or why it was still in Drafts. It looks like it might have been intended as a friends’n’family newsletter, and maybe it did form a part of something like that. Or maybe I plumb forgot to finish an email to whoever-it-was, but in any case, the piece moved me. It effortlessly flung me ten years backward. We were in China, my wife and 9-year-old son and me, approaching our first Christmas of what turned out to be five straight Decembers in the northeastern city of Dalian. We were adventuring, and escaping workplace frustrations, and trying to be of some use to the fledgling Baha’i community there, and learning our ever-loving heads off. Lately, as we approach the fifth anniversary of our permanent return to Canada, we have been reminiscing and brooding about the friends we left behind, many of whom we have little or no contact with anymore. I had left teaching high school (and an earlier stint writing in the Canadian government), while Diana was on sabbatical from environmental policy work. Our son Sam turns 19 soon, still speaks Mandarin well, and his coming of age and future vision push us all back to remembrance and wonder at that epic phase in our family life. What follows is how I looked at our first few months of life in Liaoning Province:

Though we are distressingly mortal, and have known the truth of the culture shock that often hits even the best-intentioned after the “honeymoon” period ends, we are well and prospering. China is an astonishing place. In practical terms, there are frustrations, but it is really not too difficult from the physical point of view. But it is a dazzlingly opaque culture to we foreigners, we moles, blind to even the most obvious of things. (To a friend, in front of our complex of apartment buildings: Kai, we need to find a photocopy place. Do you know where we could find one? Superb, resourceful, devoted Chinese friend: How about the one right there, across the street? Ah, yes. The big yellow sign with red characters. That one.)

Though my job is a job, it has the benefits that other teachers told me would be here: deeply serious and enthusiastic and appreciative students, and a general cultural framework in which education matters (sometimes even too much) and teachers are honoured (almost whether they deserve it or not). I am a week and a half from finishing my first semester as a teacher of conversational English and Western culture to Masters and Doctoral students, and I can say with certainty that I have learned more than the grand majority of my 408 (but who’s counting?) students…

Diana, though sometimes missing her professional and voluntary environmental work, has filled her days with the practicalities of making life work here, and with making friends and sundry human connections. She is so good at it. (For example, our good friend Anna visited again this week at our home, and her stories are greatly appreciated!) Diana is the centre of our shared life of service, and we have made many (most of them university students, as we live within walking distance of three universities) wonderful friends here, many of whom share our love of learning about matters of spirit and an ever-advancing civilization. When school resumes, she will be pioneering two courses in Environment and Business at one of the neighbouring schools (not mine) as well as teaching some conversational English to undergrads. And life will get a little busier, but our essential purpose will not change.

Sam, we sometimes think, has the hardest job of us all, as we have placed him in a local Chinese public school where he often has felt bored and alone. But he likes being in Dalian, in general, and has made fast and furious friends with an American boy (and his sisters). The first two months were very tough for him, but it gets better and better. Thankfully, he really enjoys the teaching and be-friending activities that so frequently bring new people into our orbit and into our apartment. He happily sings the prayer that begins “O God, guide me” in a Chinese that sounds pretty fluent to my ears, and with the help of “Alice”, another of our dear co-workers and friends, his Chinese speaking (and some writing) is progressing speedily.

Being here is a little like going on a spiritual fast, or some great quest: every day, whether we like it or not, we are vividly aware of our life’s purpose, and more in tune with the needs of the age, as well as we can understand them. And when the fruits arrive, often at the end of a sometimes frustrating or disorienting day, they taste wonderfully sweet and we think, This is the life…

And it was, you know, even if it was occasionally maddening.

Even if, now, I can’t quite remember who Anna was.

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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M.P. Freeman (on service and self-deprecation)

I’ve known MPF for a good while now, but in the way of introverts, the distance-loving perspective of nerdy writers, we’re getting to know each other more deeply via blog posts and nearly never-ending email threads. (G’mornin’, sir. How goes it?) One of his occasional comments here on JH.com recently blew up into this guest post on Aboriginal — and just plain human — identity and homing instincts.

We got ourselves into a brief exchange on feeling at home spiritually, or existentially, or even (Dawkins forbid!) religiously. Mr. Freeman, apart from his thoroughly Canadian love for hockey, curling and Tim Horton’s, is an unconventional guy, but quietly goes about serving others — as teacher, activist, fellow traveller and friend — in a way that most conventionally spiritual or religious types would do well to emulate. For my part, I come from a youthful ethical perspective that says work of any kind, performed in the spirit of service, is the truest kind of worship. I accused him of, therefore, being strongly implicated in this practical kind of faith, and I liked his brief, sardonic and wisely jocular reply:

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Albert Schweitzer (on human purpose)

“The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve…The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.”

Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965) was a Christian theologian and medical missionary in Africa (in what is now known as Gabon). He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 because of the above, off-the-beaten-path but eminently Christian philosophy. This may the heart of all true and useful religion. Was he his “brother’s keeper”, a la Jesus Christ, practising the Buddha’s “right action”, and applying Baha’u’llah’s injunction to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”? He tried.

Helen Keller (on humility in work)

“I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pulses of each honest worker.”

Helen Keller‘s quote reminds me of the banner on the weekly Haldimand Press from back home: “Small service is true service.” It comes from a wee poem William Wordsworth wrote in 1834:

SMALL service is true service while it lasts:

Of humblest Friends, bright Creature! scorn not one:

The Daisy, by the shadow that it casts,

Protects the lingering dew-drop from the Sun.

ODY: Week 6 (42/365). Old, Blue, Borrowed and New.

Just picking up Old Dog hairs from your carpet for the first time? The creation myth is here, and the first step is here.

I spent the first part of the week at a training seminar in Toronto, bunking at Sue and André’s place in a cozy Beaches neighbourhood. I’d dragged the guitar along, and kept the faith with some late-night strumming on Sunday. On Monday night, I got caught. André, husband of my wife’s old friend Sue, came home from work late and heard something that reminded him of music in his spare bedroom. He poked his head in to praise Sue for dusting off her guitar. Instead, he found me playing the ol’ Dégas in my underwear. Hurray! Male bonding!

I was training as a facilitator for the Virtues Project , an approach to teaching, child-rearing and relationships that puts fundamental human goodness right up front. Guitar Virtuosity was on my mind. Let’s examine a partial list:

Courage? (Check. Terrified of this thing, started anyway.)
Creativity? (Okay. I am making things. Basement noises. Muttering blogs.)
Enthusiasm? (Muted. Taking a jock approach: never too high, never too low. Should make more whoopee. Not what you’re thinking, though that’s not a bad idea, either.)
Determination? (Check. Day 42, kids!)
Diligence? (Long past due, but duly done.)
Humility? (If I needed more, this newfound clumsiness really helps.)
Idealism? (Larded with practicality and order, but hopefulness leaks through.)
Orderliness? (I have a good place. As for time, though, I shoe-horn practice into the absolute heel of my day, and the night-time, blues be damned, ain’t necessarily the right time…)
Patience? (Man, it doesn’t come easily, but it comes. Haven’t thrown anything. Yet.)
Self-discipline? (42 in a row argues for Yes, but the frayed edges of disappointment try to shout them down. I am disciplining Self to listen more to column A. All those days, whether purposeful or not, count. “90% of life is just showing up,” saith the prophet Woody Allen. I have showed up at fretboard and keyboard.)

Virtues I haven’t the nerve to acknowledge yet as part of this off-key odyssey:

Confidence. (A rumour, a far-away voice. So far, will and embarrassed enthusiasm rule.)
Excellence. (I have, however, just emerged from a pothole in the footpath to the parking lot next to the on-ramp to the road to excellence. That counts.)
Joyfulness. (I hear its giggle, but it runs away when I look.)
Service. (Hard to see what this does for others. Nobody-but-me for the moment…)

Tuesday was Day 3 of the Virtues seminar, and I was presenting some ideas and exercises on COMMITMENT. In part to counter-balance some of the syrupy-sweet or new-age ethereal music that had been played – but mainly to jumpstart my own courage (and humility!) – I went LIVE. I played a perverse kind of musical chairs (If you call that music. If you call those chairs!) with my new best friends. I had them scribbling some ideas in response to questions and challenges, and I (mercifully) didn’t give them much time to write. Mercifully, because their writing time was defined by my playing of “A Blues Riff”, first very slowly (à la Week 2 and 3) and, later in the exercise, as fast as I could go. Going public. Visible (and risible) commitment. (Merde, did I make a lot of mistakes!) Concentration was probably hard for them, as I inserted some startlingly realistic enactments of mock frustration. It was lively, let’s say that, and we laughed a lot. (Commitment is too often a grim, ominous and guy-unfriendly concept.) And that turned out to be my playing for the day, because I wasn’t back to my borrowed bunk ‘til 1:30 a.m., with an important meeting about the Old Dog Year the next morning, bright and early. But most importantly, I chose an intimate circle of gracious encouragement. So many pats on the back, so much praise for this tiny outreach to the Muse of music. I smiled and smiled.

The Wednesday meeting was an assessment of interest about this Guitarzan spasm of learning and all the on-line thinking I’m doing about it. Interest? ‘Fraid not. A busy man had the courtesy to indulge me with a meeting but hadn’t even looked at the submitted collection of entries on the first 31 days of the Old DogYear. Garn! I’ve learned what doesn’t work, anyway. And then it was the long trip home and another exhausted midnight guitar run. Commitment feels strong, though confidence is wobbling. This would have been the night of my second group lesson, but I missed it. I wonder how much farther KW took us.

The end of the week found me back in the beloved basement. Same old stuff. The dullard within. But doing all this repetition feels like early summer days, when the strengthening sun slowly burns off the fog of morning. KW had thrown lots of chords at us, and they’re coming. I’m starting to remember how to configure the C chord, but I’m also hearing what C sounds like and how it speaks to G and D. The little finger-picking sequence that the guitar guru showed us, an initially unruly little gang of 4 notes, began to resolve itself into a smooth and brainless pattern. Look, Ma, no eyes! It’s very relaxing, actually, quite a mind-emptying finger-dance where the digits are starting to remember their steps without my help. Sweet. A little less old. A little less blue.

And a LOT less borrowed, broken-necked Dégas guitar because, on Sunday, I finally pulled a Major Commitment Trigger by buying A NEW GUITAR. My guitar! I wanted to dance and giggle but, to my credit (or shame), I took it all in stride. It’s a Walden guitar – a D550, baby! – a solid-topped beauty that I got on sale for $200 at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. It’s a folk guitar, not low-rent classical as the Dégas was, so the strings are metal rather than nylon. The B and high E strings are like razor wire, so there is another level of fingertip toughening to come. They’re also the same colour as the – what is it, the pick-guard?—that guitar-body armour below the sound hole, so these eyes have trouble picking them out. Guitar Guy at the OFC spoke warmly and knowingly about my Walden, and I feel good about this machine. I bought a stand, an electronic tuner and a humidifier, none of which I know how to work yet. The humidifier is a fairly simple and obvious thing, though I hadn’t considered how dryness could affect a wooden instrument. I’m not sure how it sits, so that’ll be Question 67 or 68 when I go for the next groupthink lesson in a couple of days.

It’ll be fun to show off my new lovely, but I’m scared to play with her. She makes sweet and unfamiliar sounds that my borrowed love was incapable of making. The music we made was obviously much more full and rich, but I strummed as if I was nervously coaxing melody from a crystal vase. I missed the Dégas. This new friend doesn’t yet sit comfortably with me. I wanted to whale away with my mock solos and percussive energy, but I felt nervous and reserved. I wanted things to feel comfortable right away, ‘cause heck, she’s beautiful, she has a gorgeous voice and body, it’s a fresh and exciting start and besides, that first date had cost me a pretty penny! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there were those awkward pauses in the conversation, that I was unsure about how to treat her and how she might respond to my overtures. It was a tense kind of fun, though, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be seeing each other again.

Of Groundhogs and Heroes

We have such mixed feelings about rodents. Hate rats, revere bunnies. Kill mice, make them movie stars. Laugh at lemmings, make beavers a national symbol. But will someone explain to me why the news leads with groundhog sightings? Wiarton Willie says early spring, I’m told, but the American pet hog-caster (Piskaquatty Phil, or some such) says six more weeks of winter. More continental discord. Oh, my. February 2 makes me curmudgeonly. Hey, let’s celebrate ignorance! Let’s pretend that furry critters are news! Sigh. Lighten up, buddy. There go your “Man of the People” credentials. You’ll lose your drive-through status. “Man refused Canadian Maple doughnut – called unpatriotic snob.”

“It is what it is,” I say with Jock Zen wisdom, and turn to the real news. Benjamin James is heading North, groundhogs be darned, for twelve more weeks of winter. He’s my hero today. A teaching job 200 light-years north of Churchill, Manitoba, and he has jumped on it instantly. He’ll teach ESL, some life-skills maths and sciences to the largely Inuit residents of Arviat, Nunavut. He’ll be able to keep working on his novel and other writing. He’ll cut into student debts. He’ll be a service pioneer in the tiny Bahá’í community there. He’ll play trombone to the caribou. How exciting is that? My kid is going to beat me to the Arctic. Lay on, McBen!