Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beer & Buddhism

Spiritual practice? What does that even mean?

I’ve grown tired of spiritual pursuits. Bored with religious proselytizing. I no longer welcome the Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness that comes to the door. And I don’t engage the Black Muslim who calls me brother with a wave of his newsletter. I’ve about had it with true believers. I’m not even much interested any more in finding something upon which to hang the label “Truth”.

And yet....The spirit is hungry for something. Some thing that sorts sense from nonsense, that gives a direction to all this otherwise directionless living. Some thing to give meaning to passion and prayers.

Tonight, over beer in a Bloor Street pub, we spoke to this. People, sharing what we do, explaining our hungers and dreams, our indulgences and bad habits. It was an evening of personal time with allies from my working world, people who share with me the burdensome tragedy-comedy of lives gone askew. We laughed while we consumed chicken wings and gossiped about our three affiliated places of work. But mostly we spoke of other things: the music we love, social work jobs in Nunavit, club-hopping and the passion of dance, eating or not eating meat, growing corn and making wine, why people come out to a pub to watch Glee, the inequities in sick time benefits.

I was glum and worn down when the evening began. My colleagues cheered me with complaints of their own. “It’s all about the BMW,” I was told – bitching, moaning, whining. Like listening to the blues, it raised me up. Something about shared sorrows. Not so nice when your woman leaves you maybe, but a different thing to understand that leaving and getting left is in the nature of things. It connects you somehow, pulls you down into the deep whorl of being, doing, enduring; this tragic-comic life, the inevitability of things going wrong.

Beer, of course, is an ages old spiritual practice. No doubt lots older than Buddhism, or any other formal creed with its precepts, rituals or deities. Tonight, it feels like it’s all part of a whole. What my beer teaches me tonight is to be present to the chicken wings. The crack addict waiting for his rented room will be there tomorrow. There’s nothing to do for him tonight. And the kid who had the mental collapse and who needs to find the vet for his puppy, he will show up tomorrow or he will not. And the eviction notice that’s on the way for the guys letting all their street friends crash with them...well, it won’t come any faster or slower because of my worrying.

It’s a beautiful night. The rain isn’t rain, but drops of cool moisture falling from the sky. It isn’t the eve of December, but the graceful arc of the planet as it bends its way around the sun. Whatever is hurting in my life has no intention of punishing me. But darkness follows when the sun goes down, my strength wanes with every passing year, and the edge of the knife is sharp.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Playlist for an Afternoon

I’m at home today. Won’t go beyond the sidewalk or the backyard if I have my way. Might not put on street clothes.

Coffee all day long. A toke. And music.

First cut: “Music for ‘Todo Modo’”. Mingus. The flip side of “Cumbia & Jazz Fusion”. It’s orchestral classic, mixed with boppin, groovin swing.

The sun is streaming in, after the season’s first dusting of snow three hours ago. It’s warm here in the window seat. The evaporation of minutes, in pleasant, sighing clumps, is soothing this afternoon. My muscles luxuriate in the absence of anything to do.

I’ll do what I want to do today, and ignore all calls from the world. I’ll sort and put away the piles of lps that I've been converting to digital – all the Miles, lots of DeJohnette and Dewey Redman and the Beatles and Julian Priester’s two albums.

Second cut...now let’s see.

“Stand!” Sly & the Family Stone. (that’s the whole album, by the way) Sly and company were the jam back when I was coming into my teens, my independence. Sly was a maniac. His band funked hard, and his style was part pimp, part jester, part clown, and all the way “don’t give a fuck!”

Sly was fun.

There’s a huge manuscript I need to wrestle with, that I’ve been trying to keep beyond reach, and there’s a list of agents to contact. There’s changing the ceiling fan and light in the kitchen. Yardwork, work on the boat to be done. Shopping, cooking, budgeting.

But no, not now, not today. Not that stuff.

I’m gonna nap, gonna read, watch a dvd and eat a steak.

Next up: “Wild Things Run Fast” – Joni Mitchell. Side one. Easy, jazzy Joni, with great musicians and her very own groove.

I’ve emptied the dishwasher, got most of the albums put away, took out the trash. It’s enough to keep the pressures at bay. The cats are about, each making its regular checkins with me. That possessive, belonging love, so beyond my human ego.

The sound of the stereo fills the chambers of this beating house. There’s a brief silence when the side ends....

Fourth on the menu: “In Angel City” Charlie Haden & Quartet West. Ernie Watt on that tenor, man, hittin all the right notes.

Late afternoon now. It feels like I can allow my brain to come out again. A space has opened up, through the music and the light of the day. I step out to the porch to breathe. It’s warmer then expected. Winter’s tease is done for now, another reminder of time, working on every single thing.

I have our wine to bottle. A perfect chore for this afternoon when I now wish that time would pause. Let this easy hour be drawn out and never end, until it ends suddenly.

What did I read the other day that spoke to this? Yes, a metaphor Einstein used, something like: One minute waiting for your loved one – it feels like an hour; one hour with your loved one, it feels like a minute. That’s relativity.”

One more tune. What shall it be?

“The Griffith Park Collection”. A collaboration by Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, and Joe Henderson. Smooth, straight ahead jazz.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Misses & Hits

Do you think about the close misses?
The near tragedy misses? The oh-so-close-to-heaven misses? The time the car almost skidded off the road, the hot one in high school you almost scored with, the chance you almost took - but didn't - that paid off, the opportunity that barely eluded you that would have meant disaster.

For example, I almost made it to Alaska once upon a time. I’d always wanted to go to Alaska, especially after reading John McPhee's "Coming Into the Country". I wanted to experience a little taste of the frozen wilderness, the waters, the mountains, the cold. And I got within a simple phone call of having a roundtrip ticket arranged for, and a place to sleep on a couch in the livingroom of a guy I’d be working beside. We’d be in Fairbanks, selling encyclopaedias at the State Fair, and would each surely make a pile of money.  And I could always use the money. And afterward, I might've explored further , away from the city, or to Anchorage.

But I’d just been married a few weeks before, and my wife and I were living a good reach of the continent apart – she in Toronto, me in Seattle. And we’d made plans to be together during what happened to be Valentine’s week, which happened to be the week of the Alaska State Fair, to which I was being invited in the last hour.

At the time, it didn’t seem like so much to pass on the trip. A simple choice that could’ve gone either way, nothing earth shattering. Yet, looking back, I squirm at the casual ignorance of the younger man that was me, who failed to see what a rare opportunity was being given up.

But this happens all the time.

Happened yesterday.

I’ve never witnessed a birth. And a client delivered a baby boy yesterday afternoon. I’d been with her two hours earlier, and she’d invited me to stay and watch, and I’d accepted. But then members of her family arrived, and they delayed breaking her water, and I had an appointment to go to, anyway.

I could’ve missed going without catastrophe, most likely. There’d been a bit of a mis-communication. The place we’d agreed to meet is closed Tuesday afternoons. He might not be there anyway. But then, he might. And weighing in the balance was meeting his bail conditions, and theoretically, whether or not he'd stay out of jail.

Still, I might have missed going, and caught up with him today.

I got the call from the hospital about half an hour after accepting that my client wasn’t going to show. The baby boy had come into the world about that same time, after a short and easy labour. One of the family cut the cord and helped with the afterbirth. Everything had gone well. Mama was happy and relieved.

So I missed one. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to witnessing a birth in this longish life. It may well be the closest I will ever come to being on that very first welcome committee for a New Earthling.

And, by the way, I did catch up with my other guy today, after a good visit with mom and baby.

And then something else happened. I’d decided to treat myself to an early evening movie, just to spend some time numbed out in the middle of a stressful week. But on the way, I asked myself if that was really the way I wanted to spend the next three hours of my life. Two or three alternatives bounced against each other before I decided to go to the Reference Library to do some writing. And I walk in to find myself on the tail end of a long line – the audience filing in to hear Salman Rushdie. I’d noted the date months before but had completely forgotten it.

It was SRO, but I got in, enjoyed his reading andhis great sense of humour. He shared anecdotes about his sons, and talked about integrating family and friends into his work. Lots of his thoughts about writing and about story. And I bought a copy of his "Luka and the Fire of Life", and was graced to have him sign it to my grand niece, Jaiya. The book was written for his second son, and follows "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", which was for his first.

So it’s been a happy tumble of circumstance. I missed one, then picked up a gimme on the back side. Sure, I'd trade Salman for the birth in a heartbeat. But the universe doesn't work that way, does it? You miss some, you hit some, and the world goes round and round.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Hard Slog

It's been a tough couple of weeks in the world of Housing and Street Outreach. Clients are facing eviction, dealing with courts and probation, lots of missed appointments and abandonned opportunities.

Earlier in my career I'd have said I was headed for burnout. It used to almost creep up on me without my knowing it. One reason for this is that burnout can come about in a number of ways. It can be the result of taking on the emotional burden of our clients' challenges. Or, it can come from too long a period in overdrive - simply trying to do too much. Another route is to let the formal boundaries between work life and home life collapse, and suddenly find yourself getting calls at home and handling client issues during family time. And it can result from believing that you are the one sure and necessary partner who will make or break your client's success.

I'm better about all these things than I once was. The first time I experienced burnout, it showed up in the imbalanced way I began doing my work - putting a zealot's energy into the transformative features of the program, like goal-setting and personal vision work, but ignoring the basic and practical management elements, like whether clients were completing chores and observing 'lights out'. It was a typical beginner's pitfall: believing - or wanting to believe - that all my charges needed was to be inspired and set free of constraints. My boss at the time sent me home for some manditory vacation time. It took a few days and a little distance from the transitional group home for me to see that he was right.

These days, I'm  better at managing my pace, which translates into recognizing the pace my clients are on, and the place they are in, and accepting that these are not easily changed. And still, it's sometimes hard to maintain the faith - to me, essential in this work - that growth is happening every day, whether I see it or not.

I'm glad the weekend is here. I WILL separate from the job for a couple of days, and attend to more personal needs. And hopefully, when I pick it up again on Monday, I'll be a bit refreshed. Faith is easier on a good night's sleep.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


My Great-Aunt Audrey lived comfortably on the borderlands of her memory. She spent her last years hardly moving from the upstairs bedroom she inhabited in the house of my Aunt Bernice, which was the hub of the family for more than two generations.
I don’t know exactly how old she was, but to me, when I was twenty, she seemed to be in that place in life of not wanting or needing very much. But she took great pleasure it seemed, from having one of us younguns stop in and sit with her for awhile, and listen while she shared some memory of us when we were younger, or even better, of our parents, whom we so much favoured when they were our age.
Aunt Audrey was the repository of family lore, the keeper of the otherwise forgotten details of how we’d come to be what we were, where we’d come from, and why, and of all the comic and tragic turns that had shaped and informed us. I wonder why we didn’t recognize that, and value it more. Most of us, of the generation of her children and grand-children, enjoyed our sits with her, half an hour or an hour at a time, listening as she shared her recollections of uncles and cousins and nieces, their comings and goings, careers and scandals, and their marriages and dalliances, and the children that resulted from them. But we didn’t value them enough.
I spent a month in Detroit, in the month around my twentieth birthday, right after I’d dropped out of University, restless and impatient about discovering all the newness I suspected was out in the world waiting for me. I arrived there straight from Mardi Gras, and would go on from there to Atlanta, then would hitchhike to San Francisco and live there for half a year before returning to academia to give it another try.
Ironically, only a month earlier, I’d begun to record a journal, which I maintain to this day. But I recorded hardly a paragraph about my month in Detroit, and not a word about all that Aunt Audrey shared with me. I was too busy looking for that newness, too caught up in the changes happening inside me to accord much value to the rambling memories of a sweet, old woman.
But I loved and enjoyed my Aunt Audrey. And so I sat with her many long hours during that month. And She told me how this great-uncle had come to Detroit from North Carolina in the forties, and another from Georgia in the fifties. She spoke of the family from Oklahoma whose daughter had married her brother and then become a favorite aunt to most of her own nieces and nephews.
According to my great Aunt, the family had produced business people and craftsmen, hoboes and preachers (my maternal grand-father, her sister’s husband, had been both in his time), gamblers, musicians and crooks. Most of her memory sessions began with a detail, then took off into a broad sweep of family lore. She’d start in about how her sister Birdie loved music and to go to parties, and then remember that their older brother John loved music too, but didn’t care for parties and would only sing in church, which was something he got from their mom, a real church lady, who kept herself occupied as a seamstress, she had such a talent that way. And how she wasn’t so much of a cook, but she had this way of baking biscuits, different because in her childhood she’d been raised in Louisiana, and how their Daddy liked her biscuits fine, but always complained that she didn’t fry chicken right, the way they did in Alabama, where he’d been raised. And how you could always recognize a person from Alabama from the way they pronounced their ‘r’s, drawing them out – “aw-ruh” they’d say. But one cousin had come North determined to leave everything about the South behind him, so had worked hard to speak like the city folk, and so managed to ‘pass’ in that way. But others had been light skinned enough to ‘pass’ the other way, leaving their connection to the family entirely behind and disappearing into the white world.
It was Aunt Audrey that told me where some of the white blood had come into the family lines, in those days before the ending of slavery, and right after, usually some white man with a black woman, but not always: a white woman had born the child of one of my ancestors, then left the child to grow up in an orphanage.
I was most fascinated by her claim that one of our ancestors had been a “full blooded Indian”, and that another had come to America as a slave from Madagascar. She had some speculations about where in the family tree these two were to be found, and some few added details about their lives, but it never occurred to me then to write them down.
My Aunt died before I ever set foot in Detroit again. By that time, I was more aware of the importance of what she’d shared with me. But when I asked others in the family what tribe our native ancestor had belonged to, they knew nothing of him. And when I asked how it was a slave had been brought here from Madagascar – far off any slave trade route I’d ever heard about – they recalled nothing of that story either.
Many times since losing my Great Aunt, I’ve wondered about all the family history I do not know. I have no details to speak of that pre-date the generation of my grandparents. Of my eight Great Grandparents, I have the name of one, not stored in my faulty memory this time, but recorded in a notebook after a talk with another elder from another branch of the family.
And I’ve come to realize that this isn’t uncommon. Occasionally, I’ve met an individual with a reckoning of their ancestry back as far as two centuries or more. But always, it’s a history of merely one strand of their ancestry. That is, one strand of two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen greatgrands, thirty-two, sixty-four, one-hundred-twenty-eight, two-hundred-fifty-six, and on and on and on. Really, that amounts to not knowing one’s history at all.
On the other hand, there was a claim issued in a scientific study a few years back, that everyone on earth shares kinship, that we all have common ancestry. Somewhere in the past, as those familial inputs double with every generation, our connections get broader and broader, to the point where the numbers of direct ancestors is larger than the population of the world at a given time. It's only common sense, really. Whatever beliefs you have about the 'how' of it, the human population must have started off very small, so we all had to come from a common ancestry. An ancestry that spread itself with every generation, to the point where distant cousins could meet and marry with no sign or notion that they were related. Meaning that we are all multiply related.
Imagine the fascinating web, if each of us could go back even a hundred years or so, to know all we wish to know about each of our eight great-grandparents, or the sixteen that parented them!
I regret that I didn’t attend more carefully to the reminiscing of my Great Aunt Audrey. But even without the details, she left me with a great deal. She stimulated a wonder about the past and its connection to the present that has stayed with me. To this day, I wonder about the African, enslaved in Madagascar and carried half a world away, where he generated a line of descendants that eventually led to me. And I wonder about that Native American, and at the connection he made with a Black woman that led to them having children, mingling their bloodlines in my veins.
And I cannot think of them without speculating for a brief moment about all the others I know nothing about at all. Who might they be? What were their stories? And what an amazing thing it is to think that I am, in some small way, a distillation of all of those myriad stories, and the lived lives behind them.
Thank You, Aunt Audrey!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dysfunction of Majority Rule

Something is disturbingly wrong with electoral politics, particularly the two-party, winner take all brand as practiced in my native USA.

I’m specifically disturbed at the way those who win elections by the slimmest margins are so quick to claim clear and unimpeachable mandates and act as though the entire community of the moral and the sane stands behind them, while those who lose by those same slim margins are relegated to the status of the inconsequential.

And this distorting language and behaviour is condoned by the media and by the voting public, as though it were reasonable, as though it had nothing to do with the extreme divisiveness that characterizes the politics of the day. And yet, we, the electorate, bemoan the dysfunction of government and wonder at the excess of partisanship.

This way of mediating disagreements would be considered unreasonable, controlling, arrogant and autocratic in many other areas of our lives. If any reasonably cohesive community of twenty found itself divided eleven to nine of an issue of importance, it would consider itself to be divided, and would seek ways to bring the parties together. The eleven wouldn’t trumpet themselves as champions going forth with a solid mandate. They would recognize that only a slim margin separates them from their opposition, and that a slight shift in circumstance or a change of heart could quickly reverse their standing. But in the current era of national politics, this same margin – 55% to 45% – is treated like undiluted victory for the winners and like humiliating defeat for the losers. The talk is as though the losing position lacks any legitimacy and must give up whatever it is they’ve stood for. And yet, reality proves time and again that this isn’t at all the case.

In 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected as president of the U.S. by a margin of 51% to 49%, following a victory in 2000 in a virtual dead heat (he actually trailed by half a million votes, but won in the electoral college, where it counts). He was then succeeded in 2008, by Barack Obama, who won election by a margin of 53% to 47%, only to then suffer the reversal in this week’s mid-term elections, where overall, Democrats lost to Republicans by a similar margin.

If you follow the media, these represent wild electoral swings, are signs of a bi-polar American populace that swings from steadfastly conservative to radically progressive from year to year. Right wing Bush America was transformed overnight into the liberal, “Yes We Can” Obama nation, and is now suddenly the Tea Party Land.

But we know this isn’t the case. Yes, in our communities we have seen changes of mood, party preference and political priorities. And we’ve seen swings in polls based on reactions to world events, economic conditions, and to policies and politicians and their promises and campaigns. But the friends who were conservative last year are probably conservatives still, and the progressives are likely still progressives. Most of us continue to vote for the party we’ve always voted for. And elections are swung by relative turnout, and by the relatively small numbers of us who actually go through a shift in orientation one or two times during our political lives.

So why this distortion? On some level, it has to do with the manner in which power is delegated. In a two-way race, it boils down simply to which side of that 50% line you land on. In our winner-take-all world, those who finish second are relegated to the role of obstructionists, whatever useful contributions they might make to an honest dialogue, and however circumstantial may be the manner of their loss. But that’s a mentality that sadly will get us nowhere in so far as healing the gaping philosophical rifts that have us polarized. If we can’t – as winners – develop a perspective that honors and respects and seeks to incorporate the contributions and concerns of those we’ve bested, it seems we’ll remain forever on this merry-go-round, on which it’s more important to gear up to destroy one another every two or four years, than it is to govern in a way that serves all.

It’s a senseless world, I think, where two percent becomes the defining piece of the whole, where catering to and winning the “swing vote” becomes all important, where positioning on an issue has less to do with approaching it rationally and effectively than with maintaining protection from attack.