Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ways to Approach an Ocean

First of all, always with respect. Recognizing that it can crush you, without a thought or a care. Beyond even that, without being aware of you as anything more than a tiny fragment of all-pervasive being, of which it too is but a tiny drop.
But you, to you, are you. And you would bathe in this ocean, source of life, maelstrom of forces, cauldron of feeling and being. You would do so and live, to return to dry land with a story, with new understanding. You would immerse yourself, and emerge a master of your inner world, your personal, inner seas tamed, channelled into more manageable rivers and lakes, the occasional splash of rain.
You might then begin your approach with a toe. But you will fail. You will instantly be splashed at least to your knees. And this only if you’ve come in the stillness between waves. Not the tiny, regular waves, of our own tiny, fleeting time, but the vaster waves that the ocean itself attends. (You, after all, do not spend your attention on every breath and heartbeat.)
And unless you instantly retreat, dryness will become but a crumbling memory.
Perhaps, instead, you will navigate your way in a boat. The larger it is, the more immune you may be to the moisture that wants to claim you. An ocean liner might be best, or even a battle ship. Take your station below deck, or in some high tower, with a panel of instruments arrayed about you, the steering wheel in your grasp. Feel your power. You can almost pretend you are on dry land. Except for the laws of tides and currents, the surface interaction of water with air. All of this will make itself felt. Your ersatz earth will be soggified, your reality tossed. And the storms, however repelled by steel hulls and decks, well...isn’t all that what you came to feel? To know that you are alive?
Maybe a smaller vessel will do. Make it a long boat, or a canoe, catamaran or kayak. Something propelled by paddle or by sail, that bends with the undulations of this ocean. Enough of denial and self-repression. Flow with this elemental power. Let it decide the islands and continents you will visit. With or against reason, it will all begin to seem the same. You will begin to intuit how life here is different than on the level ground you’ve previously clung to.
And this experience may make you bolder. Abandon the vessel altogether. You will now meet the ocean head on, so to speak. Plunging, head and outstretched arms boldly splitting the breaking wave, a lung full of air enough for this ride. This ocean is not just the source of all life, but the very amniotic fluid of this life. This is mother embracing. This is the natural home. This is where the very planet cradles you, reminds you of your own fluid nature, the part of you that exists beneath the fragile, permeable skin. This is the embrace into which you can dissolve, to become the proof that nothing in you is foreign to this alien world.
And so you may go further. You may now give up all pretence, all separateness. You will now let the inner forces hold sway, subsume you into its rhythms and cycles, recreate you endlessly, evolving and devolving in a ripple of miracles called both creation and living.
You may even drown.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Month at Millay

Ten years ago this month, I was a resident at the Millay Colony for the Arts, an arts retreat near the town of, Austerlitz, in the eastern mountain country of New York State. I often refer to that month of Millay as being the first time in my life when I lived as a writer.
The Colony is located on the estate of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, she of the bohemian, “my candle burns at both ends” aesthetic of the early 20th century. The colony was founded several years after the poet’s death by her surviving sister, to be an open, creative space to which artists could retreat for a month at a time, to work, play, rest or merely exist, away from distraction or demand. Millay occupies a beautiful setting. There are fields and forests, and a mountainous state park a short walk away, and lots of gravel roads cutting through the steep and robust stands of trees.
At the start of each month, six artists - writers, musicians or visual artists - are welcomed to the colony, provided cozy bedrooms and spacious studios, a well-stocked kitchen, a prepared dinner every evening – and lots of quiet. During my month, four of us occupied a roughly converted barn, with bedrooms on the ground floor, and huge, corresponding studios above. There was lots of bare timber, uneven floors and mismatched furniture – rough and plain. I felt I was entering a space that had been cleared for me, and was ready to absorb and feed back my energies over the coming weeks. I bought along my 1940’s era, cast iron, Royal office typewriter, and when Gail, our hostess and manager, heard me clanging away on the first afternoon, she said it had been years since she’d experienced that sound, and she welcomed my noise with the same respect and accommodation with which all or our actions and requests were met.
It wasn’t merely that I lived as a writer for four week; I was treated as one, as one doing meaningful work. There’d been an application process, which included samples of work, a loose proposal as to how I expected the residency to further my artistic goals, and I’d needed a reference letter, which a more successful, writer friend had provided. But otherwise, not before, during or after the experience, was there ever an expectation to show work, to report on progress, defend ones worthiness or even to pretend to be working if one wasn’t. We were invited and expected to do with time and the universe as we pleased, and every time I said a thank you to anyone, it was returned, with a declaration that they were the ones honoured, by my presence there.
I settled into a rhythm of days that was dictated solely by my artistic pace, which I hadn’t known until then. I found that I naturally woke between nine and ten, feeling alive and ready to move. I’d immediately climb the narrow stair to my studio and do my morning stretches on my Royal beast. There was hot water on hand for hot chocolate, and I postponed my first cup of coffee for the kitchen. I’d do some stream of consciousness writing, look over my previous day’s pages, and jot some notes and ideas for future work. And by the time I took the walk for breakfast, I’d be into my day with purpose.
Breakfast was oatmeal or eggs or pancakes, but also a chance to chat briefly with whoever else was a late morning eater. Some of the others I rarely saw before dinner. Liz, one of our two painters, rose at about 5, and I sometimes met her improvising a lunch while I started my breakfast, she with anyone else’s full day’s work already behind her.
I’d get back to work after eating, and would go for two to three hours. This session was always an attack on a new chapter or section, churning out fresh material, pushing myself into the unknowns, and daring myself to take pathways that were confronting for reasons I didn’t generally know. This was always the most exhausting, and also the most exhilarating of the day’s work. By the time I finished, I was ready for a snack and a walk.
Upon returning to my studio, physically tired, but emotionally recharged by the outing, I put in another hour or two, generally augmenting and editing the early afternoon work, before keeping the solitary appointment of the day – dinner with my fellow residents.
We had a great crew that month. The six of us – 4 writers, 2 painters; 3 women, 3 men – philosophised and laughed together, shared about the progress and the hurdles of the day, drank wine and rejoiced in this time we knew was so special, even as we counted down the weeks, then days. I didn’t keep up with the others for very long, but Liz and I became lasting friends, and she’s remained an inspiration for her work ethic as well as her artistry.
After dinner, I’d write a bit more, but without agenda, letting my ideas dart about, small inspirations spark from the work and exploration of the day. And I’d usually have another short walk, into the night, to study the sky and stars. And it was a time to read. I’d bought along a stack of books that I got part way through, but the real reading pleasures were two-fold. First, my discovery of George Perec and his amazing novel, Life: a User’s Manual, that I found in the small library and sampled, morsels at a time.
Then there were the collective journals, in which residents over the decades had reflected on their stay, and on their artistic lives, often on their doubts and fears. The journal writers – and generally there were only one or two residents journaling during any given month – sometimes wrote about the workaday lives and families they’d left behind and would shortly return to, using the distance to see with fresh eyes how they were situated in life. I remember one writer’s entries, written in the dead of winter, comparing the quiet, mountain roads of the area to the city streets he walked at home. Another reflected on his isolation at home, and not quite understanding it. And he wondered at being now thrust into this very temporary family of kindred folk for four short weeks.
And yet another wrote about the joblessness, poverty and rootlessness waiting at home, and all the stresses that came with it, which would threaten to overwhelm the vision of the project that was then underway, with such a sense of accomplishment, zeal and purpose. “What will it be like to get off the bus at the downtown terminal, of a Tuesday afternoon, and not know what I’m going to eat for dinner?”, paraphrases one of his premonitions.
I’d have been devastated if told that ten years later my novel would still be unpublished, un-represented, and only barely finished. But – and I console myself – I’d have been proud of the feeling I have about the novel I have produced, with a beginning and an end, and 120,000 words in between, with characters who live and inhabit a breathing world.
That month helped bring Bursting about. It’s where the name finally came to me. I’d started the book three years before, and it would be another eight before it was done – a journey I’d never have imagined. At Millay – taking up from Rob, another of the writers – I’d begun to tape outlines and character notes, tentative chapter titles and poems, to the thick, wooden walls. It gave the world I was slowly scripting a dimensionality it hadn’t had before. Each of the days stretched long enough that I could dive into the book several times, and have slow, drifting ascents back into my quiet, barn loft studio. I took lots of walks into the hills and fields, while I let the story and characters take me over and reveal themselves. It was so much like what I’d imagined a writing life to be, and yet so different. I hadn’t known, for example, that five to six hours was the most I could manage, sitting at my beast and writing fresh material. But I also hadn’t known how my mind, mood and spirit would so wrap themselves in the work, that I was constantly working it, shaping it, feeling my way through it. The work filled me up, I carried it in my limbs and it overflowed my skull and brain.
I did finally finish my novel. There is some disappointment about it, flowing from the teeming mass of details of my created world that do not survive on the pages of the manuscript. And from how short it falls of the brilliance I have aspired for it to be. And doubt keeps me yet from sinking fully into a second novel that will test what I think I’ve learned.
But I continue to write. And that time at Millay left its imprint on me. I now know the rhythms that work for me. I’ve felt the scope of the creative dimension I can inhabit when I am focused and engaged. And when I find my creative zone, sitting on the second or third level of the Toronto Reference Library most likely, or in the window seat before my desk on Sproat Avenue, I know the place, and I am at home.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Seventh Game

I love sport. I love watching athletic competitions of all sorts. And there’s little in sport that I like better than a seventh game!

Sport is a beautiful thing, and I’ve never quite understood those who are immune to its appeal. I understand that as little as I understand those who are indifferent to music or to sex. And I especially fail to understand those who are enthusiastic about the arts, but who consider sport to be crude, low class, and without aesthetic appeal.

Sport is like improvised theatre. It is athletic jazz. It is drama on a sometimes epic and mythic scale, played out for real stakes between opposing sides obsessed with their goal, which is victory.

The fact that sport involves the most basic instincts and impulses of man does not in any way relegate it to being crude and without art. Sport is the artistry of the human body. But it is not merely physical. It is conflict and expression encompassing all of the passion, intrigue, risk, dilemma, jealousy, heroism, and tragedy of human life. Sport among champions is Shakespeare on a playing field. And rare and exquisite is the artistry of the seventh game.

Seventh games are special because they are transcendant. A seventh game comes about when two teams have – over the course of six previous contests – demonstrated a degree of parity. They’ve traded blows, they’ve pulled out the stops, have employed every strategy and weapon to vanquish the other, only to emerge at this limbo of stalemate. Neither has been able to demonstrate clear superiority over the other.

And so, a seventh game is almost an acknowledgment that victory will take something more than mere skill, more than the employment of weapons. It will require something beyond the ordinary unfolding of things – luck or fate maybe, certainly heart and determination. A seventh game is rarely just a game. It invites something special. And that something special often turns up.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rhythm & Flow

I think of my job as a rhythm job. I work with people, and the work has to do with understanding and meeting their needs. And I’ve noticed that how I’m doing has a lot to do with rhythm.

Some days nothing comes easy. I might experience a string of no-shows, and fail to find any of my clients in the places I can usually count on finding them. And on these days, even if I do connect, the meetings often have a flatness, a kind of emptiness to them. There are engagements with clients that, no matter how much I intend to focus of solutions and moving ahead, seem mired in the dead weight of the situation we’re trying to work our way out of. Such meetings feel like punishment. The most I feel capable of at such times is the completion of applications, collecting the data that goes into files, or the plotting of next steps – setting appointments for tackling specific tasks. It’s not nothing, but such meetings are rarely enlivening; they don’t leave one feeling that they are on an upward course.

But on other days – my rhythm days – there is a sense of flow and freshness, and of freedom, almost. It’s a feeling of being alive, but also of being buoyed up and carried forward by the flow of life. And things happen. On these days, my appointments happen, and the engagements generate something. On these days I find the clients I’m looking for, or when I don’t, I encounter someone else I need to find, or that someone else finds me. On such days, meetings with clients have an energy to them; there is a sense of change as a present and active force, abundant and pervasive. Solutions and strategies seem to arise spontaneously on such days, out of the simple act of being present to a person and a situation.

I’ve noticed that this sense of positive possibility doesn’t have to do merely with feeling good, though it certainly has to do with feeling present and unburdened. I’m able to access these days best when I’m not over-determining what’s to be accomplished, when my agenda is less rigid, when I’m in a mode of ‘offering’ rather than ‘delivering’. But I don’t think it’s only about mood and attitude. I think it has something to do with alignment, with being synchronized.

I notice that on my rhythm days, I’m more tolerant of the unexpected, and I’m more likely to follow an impulse, perhaps to drop in on a client, to investigate a resource, or to be self-disclosing. On such days, there’s less of a sense of being at work, and more of a sense of being in my life. But this doesn’t have only to do with work either. The rhythm factor is at work everywhere. On an off-rhythm day, I pick up my saxophone and I play like an elementary school kid with a leaky instrument and a stiff, hard reed. But on a rhythm day, the music soars out of me from the moment the mouthpiece touches my lips.

I strongly suspect that I’m more efficient on these days, and that my decisions and choices on such days lead to better outcomes. Though I can’t be sure of this, since my subjective sense of things is so strong, and so slanted. I’m puzzling over how to create more of these days. I guess it’s the same as puzzling over how to be more alive.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Customer Service as a Cure to Low Blood Pressure

The obvious problem with my title is that most of us – if we have issues with blood pressure at all – suffer from high blood pressure, which turns this prescription on its head.

I just had an interaction with my cable company’s customer service department, and my heart is pounding so hard that it feels like it’s going to self-eject via my throat. I’ve had such traumatizing experiences with various incarnations of customer service that it’s almost to the point where hearing the words, “How may I help you today?” is like applying electrodes to my extremities. I break out in a cold sweat and my eyeballs start to twitch.

These days, it takes a really horrendous situation for me to call a customer service number. Merely bad situations are so much easier to tolerate than the gauntlet of interventions most customer service interfaces put one through.

First of all, there are the menus, the seemingly endless repetition of: “Please choose among the following options, so that we may properly route your call.” How often are you confronted with the situation in which none of the options presented conform to your particular need? Which leaves you to guess. But then, there is the next menu, which presents another body of choices. Have you encountered the situation in which your delay in choosing am option – caused by mind numbness setting in – leads to the cheery message: “Speak to you next time!” followed by the dial tone?

If you manage to navigate the menus, there is the waiting, just to get through to a live human being, most often the wrong one, who then connects you to a department which is closed for the day. If however, you finally manage to connect to a person in the right department, who potentially can actually help you, the real gauntlet begins.

“May I have your client service number please? And your date of birth? Your home room teacher when you were in junior high school? The home room teacher’s PIN number, blood type, and the name of her childhood imaginary friend?” And it goes on like that. If the heavens are aligned, and you make it through this interrogation, maybe you get to discuss your problem.

And where it comes to phones, televisions or the internet, it helps if you have a couple of degrees, in engineering and advanced physics. Because you’re asked for not only the model number of whatever contraption is causing difficulty, but also for detailed descriptions of every symptom your gadget has ever produced. And that’s before the battery of elaborate dissections and tests you are then instructed to perform. Often, I give up about an hour and a half into this ordeal, just before the point at which I’m ready to hurl the device through the nearest window. If somehow, I make it through to the end, I feel I’ve actually earned a degree. But as often as not, my gadget still isn’t functioning.

The worst part of all this is that I can’t shake the suspicion that it’s all intentional. The first clue corroborating this hypothesis is how extremely difficult it is to even find a customer service number these days. I swear that these companies are so intent on forcing you to solve your problem via the on-line, self-help tools, that they bury all clues as to how you can actually find someone responsible to speak to. And the constant redirection, from department to department, with the need to repeat problem and symptom, and steps already taken to solve the problem, with each new person spoken to…well, it all seems clearly designed to wear one down. And sadly – as evidenced by all the electronics in my home that no longer work – this strategy works all too well!

Saturday, May 1, 2010


It’s been a musical month of April for Ponczka and I. Earlier in the month we saw Baaba Maal, from Senegal, with a very lively, up tempo mixture of pop and traditional sounds. Then we took in the Toronto Symphony doing a program of Sibelius, with the violinist Pekka Kuusisto. But let me tell you about the last two evenings.

On Thursday, we went to Koerner Hall, the very modern, venue attached to the Royal Conservatory on Bloor West, to see Steve Reich, the minimalist, contemporary classical composer. He had a program of percussive works, performed with the group Nexus. There were grand pianos and electronic keyboards, one composition featuring electric guitars and bass, a hand-clapping duet, and a quintet of guys banging wood mallets. But the best piece, to me, featured – along with the six keyboards, timpanis and cymbals – three massive wooden marimbas and two vibraphones.

The pieces were very rhythmic and repetitive. Trance-inducing in a way, certainly moody and full of rich and shifting soundscapes. I liked it a lot more than Ponczka did. She – always a people watcher – took advantage of our perch, in the single row of the second balcony, high above the stage and the main body of the audience, to study the crowd. Lots of the artsy and the intelligencia were on hand – among them, Atom Egoyan and Adrienne Clarkson. It was an enthusiastic and interesting looking audience, some stylish, some rough, quite a number of music students on hand, some packing their instruments.

Then, last night, we took the drive to Gananoque, to the Thousand Islands Playhouse, to see Stuart McLean with his Vinyl Cafe. Traffic from T.O. was horrendous – it must’ve taken us an hour and a half to clear Pickering. We arrived more than 45 minutes into the show, and wondered if there was any point in going in. Turns out that Stuart gives a full evening’s entertainment. We arrived about halfway through one of his Dave and Morley stories, missing the set-up, but catching enough of it to get the culminating situational hilarity he works his characters into. And we got to enjoy a set of tunes by his regular accompanists and the guest singer-guitarist. And a routine his did with two young kids he called up from the audience, around the giving away of cds to the youngest and oldest members of the audience. Hilarious. McLean's rapport with his audience is so natural, affectionate and light. And this was all before intermission.

The best of McLean’s evening was saved for last. It was something new, he said, being performed for the first time. He said he didn’t quite know what to call it...something like a rock opera, but not that at all. It was a telling of his early life, accompanied by a performed sound track of music he’d grown up on. Wonderful, Touching, Evocative. He spoke of his parents, growing up in West Montreal, discovering Rock & Roll, his almost first kiss, and finding his way to a career in radio with the CBC. All told with humour and more than a hint of nostalgia. We remarked to each other afterward that we were surprised to learn that McLean grew up in Montreal and lived in Toronto, because the entire event felt like a small town, community gathering, just like his on-air weekly show. There were lots of families; the streets around the lake-front venue were middle-of-the-night quiet when we left, the crowd dispersing as much of foot as by car.