Saturday, December 31, 2011

Burnout and a Bucket List

I’ve been dancing on the border of burnout. My energy is down, my focus off. One of the reasons – if reasons are meaningful or necessary, and I’m not sure that they are – it that our team of four has been down to two for several months, but the homeless youth keep showing up. I’m distracted and even less organized than usual. It results in me being late more often, and because my work hours are flexible anyway, I often start my days later. But I’m also ending them later, because of all the above, but also because I’ve given up on multi-tasking, and am resolved to do only one thing at a time. It helps to be more deliberate, and to stick with something until it’s done. One effect is that I’m having more meetings and phone calls with my youth in the late afternoon or evening, sometimes answering my phone when they expect to be getting my voice mail.

Burnout isn’t a good thing. The overall result is that less gets done, and what gets done may be done poorly.  No denying any of that.  One small consolation is that the interactions I have with my youth can be exceptionally rich. I think this is because in my present state I’m more vulnerable, and so more like them, more intimately familiar with the inertia that binds so many of us to our circumstances. Change is hard; inevitable yes, but not always easy to mould into the shape of our dreams.  

I can’t hide my burnout. It’s too obvious, and too real. And so I’ve talked with my boss about it, and to some of my co-workers, and to my clients. I let them know I’m getting things done more slowly, that I’m focusing my efforts more on the basics, the essentials. I put more responsibility on them to keep us connected. I tell them I just don’t have the energy to chase them, as I sometimes do when more fit.

Somehow, this burnout dance acts as a clarifying lens. For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about efficiencies. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how it is that we can engage in routine activities, aimed toward a goal, that produce few or no tangible results over a long period of time. But then, there’s that occasional single act, or conversation or intervention that changes everything in a moment. Some actions have great power. So, so many actions are impotent. But so often, we can’t tell one from the other.

I was recently with a friend who's in a position much more dire than my own. She's approaching a fork in her road at which she anticipates huge pain and disappointment, whatever path she chooses. Seeing no way out of her dilemma has shifted her relationship to the present, in a way both enlivening and alarming. First of all, she keeps reflecting, when she finds herself engaged in some activity, that it might be the last time she ever does it. Her last time in Ottawa, her last meal in a particular restaurant, or experiencing Winter solstice, sitting and drinking with me in a pub... It's a very healthy reflection, I think. She says that it makes her more attentive and appreciative of things that otherwise escape her notice. And there's been an element of relief, or release for her. It brings her into the present and out of the realm of those heavy apprehensions. And that, in turn, has led to a very intentional way for her to acknowledge and sort out her life. She's prepared a bucket list, and is slowly going about, doing and completing the things she feels she absolutely ought to do before departing life. That’s the alarming side – this willing consideration of ending her life. But I see that it is bringing a kind of peace, an ability to, on a deep level, take things just as they are, without the pretence or illusion of a future.

There are connections we realized, my friend and I, as we sat talking about my burnout and her bucket list. I can’t try and dissect that here and now – and we didn’t then. This is something more ‘felt’ than ‘thought’ anyway; something to do with making space and with suspending time, with values and with the brittle artifacts we carve out of expectation. Maybe not something to be reasoned.  I asked my friend if executing her bucket list was leading her toward suicide. And she said she had no idea. Which seemed the only appropriate reply. Living just doesn’t work by such precise formulas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Going For That Next Spin

I Love that we've come past Solstice, that each day brings minutes more sunlight than the day before, that we're on that long, inevitable arc toward summer. The planet comes to another birthday, another spin around the sun as we mark it in years. Let's ride around too, so long as we can.

I remember this year clearly through my blogging. This has been a new voice for me, and I feel its ebbs and flows, note how one feeling or observation about some piece of my world burbles up here in words, while others do not, but  come out somewhere else, or remain stewing and fermenting and deepening inside, awaiting their time. It's been encouraging to get your occassional comments, but even more nourishing to have you tell me, when we meet or speak, that you've been thinking about something I wrote, or that a piece gave you something pleasant in your day. I LOVE that!

Thank you all for coming here and exploring some of my harvest from walking about in the world. That's what this blog is more than anything else - feeling and reacting to being alive. Here. Now. In Toronto, in 2011, none of which is quite that anymore, such being the persistence of change. It's a record of some of the spashes that have accompanied my flow through life. Developing this voice, and this space, is growing me in unpredictable ways. And you out there, being ears I can whisper into, help this growth along. Thank you so much!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reality Show

     Okay, so I'm a bit of a tv addict. I can go passive in front of the small screen for sustained periods, and enjoy it. It's a guilty pleasure, and there's no denying that much of what is consumed while gazing at the tube is mind-numbingly insubstantial. But I'm here today to laud the genre of 'Reality Television' - at least some of it. Now a junkie will always defend his or her poison, and you might put this down to nothing more or less than that. But keep an open mind. I won't argue that television deserves the share of my lifescape that it holds, let alone that of the average North American. However, there's a merit to reality shows that shouldn't be overlooked. And I'm here to testify.

     So what's the particular flavor of my poison? It starts with Biggest Loser, the weight-loss marathon show that I blogged about a year ago. The favorites that I've added since, and that I watch regularly are So You Think You Can Dance? and yes, The X Factor. But it doesn't end there. Channel-surfing to put off bed time turns up all sorts of unexpected reality fare. (Did you know there's a match-making show on which this guy who lives in his parents' basement has a bunch of young women bunking up in the house while he eliminates them one by one? And no, that's not one that's hooked me) So occassionally I find myself watching an episode of The Amazing Race, Iron Chef, or Survivor! In fact, I've watched season finales of four of these shows in just the last week, and I'm eagerly awaiting the finale of The X Factor on Wednesday. Yes, I've got it bad!

     But wait! Before you write me off as a loser, living vicariously through the anything-but-real fantasy fodder of media tycoons, let me make my case. Which is, that these shows are often thrilling, authentic and inspiring windows into possibility! Yes, inspiring!

     I'm inspired watching a group of people transform both their bodies and sense of self, reclaiming movement and dynamism, as they replace an often life-long repertoire of putting off and avoiding life (Biggest Loser). I'm thrilled as I watch couples dashing around the globe, while engaging in all sorts of limit-breaking challenges (The Amazing Race). And I'm absolutely awe struck at the grace and power of dancers, stretching the limits of what the human body can do, combining athleticism and artistry, creating moving poetry with their bodies, on So You Think You Can Dance.

     The X Factor confirms for me that artistry and creativity is widespread, as is aspiration, courage and the willingness to dream. And sure, there are plenty of the deluded who show up for the auditions, displaying not a scrap of musical ability. I can't conclude anything about them really - there is sadness in some of them, desperation in others, a radiant joy and confidence in others. They are fascinating too. Among other things, they remind me that genius so often goes unrecognized. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life - and that via his devoted brother, an art dealer. And Ornette Coleman, when he first arrived in New York with his plastic saxophone, was laughed at and chased off stages, for not knowing how to play.

     But as for the group of performers that made it to the playoffs - they all do magic with their voices, and with their showmanship. And the final three for tomorrow night's finale are dreamers all: a pudgy, thirty-something burrito maker, who first appeared on stage a scruffy, unkempt mess; a young, tatooed garbageman just out of rehab, and a young immigrant from the Caribbean who seemed absolutely ordinary until she opened her mouth and let out a blazing, electrifying voice.

     Survivor fascinates me as a kind of ultimate game. It reminds me of Thucydides and his epic work about the wars between ancient Athens and Sparta. He writes in his introduction to the work that war presents the best opportunity for studying man, because he reveals his true self when under the extreme pressures and discomforts that war places him in. And survivor seems to back that up, as contestants, placed in a pseudo state-of-nature environment, learn their true values and limits. Again and again they try - and generally fail - to maintain friendship, loyalty and principle, while simultaneously strategizing to secure the million dollar prize. I'm repeatedly thrown into wondering, as I watch the plots and aliances form and dissolve, "What would I do?"

     And when all is said and done, I don't know that there's anything that approaches The Iron Chef for the sheer intensity of creative artistry. I'm dazzled watching the competing chefs come up with multiple ways to prepare each show's 'secret ingredient', which could be anything from pork loin to pinapple, or, as on one recent show, popcorn.

     Each one of these shows inspires or moves me in some way. They remind me of possibilties I don't always make room for in my life. They tease out my dormant potential, support and encourage my dreams. Which is all good. I know that one of the complaints about television is that it can too easily become a substitute for living; televised dreams can become easy stand-ins for actualized dreams. It may be so. But that's choice too, isn't it? I have a rich live, but I also thrill at richness in the lives of others, strangers and friends. Will I ever actually take on one of the other-worldly and larger than life adventures that these shows tantalize me with? Not likely. But it seems to me that, just as books and movies, music and bedtime stories have all had their role in openning the world to me, these shows do as well. They make the world a little bigger, but also a little closer; they thicken my personal catalogue of "What I Might Do." And, in the larger realm of aspiration and possibility, they link me to you.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Party Serendipity

     I really didn't want to go to the party. It was my third this weekend, and I was tired. I've been tired. And though I love the good neighbor friends, and don't see enough of them, I really wanted to lay on the couch and nap in front of the late football game.

     But we went, and there was a nice serendipity to it.

     Side track - I love that word: serendipity. It's been a favorite forever. First because of the sound of it - the bop and the bounce. But then, more sweetly, for it's meaning. One account of the word's origin is that is refers to the accidental discovery of Sri Lanka by explorers who were searching for someplace else. Apparently, it was such a wonderful place to stumble upon that its ancient name Serendip has come to stand for the 'happy accident', for that experience of stumbling onto something beautiful and unexpected, particularly when you are seeking something entirely else.

     So I guess you could say I went to the party expecting not to get engaged with anyone, but to merely make an appearance before slipping off for home. And instead I had two great interactions with great people.

     First, I found myself chatting with Andrew, a high school teacher of philosophy and math. We had a great talk, exchanging notions and theories about education, the cultural influences that affect achievement, the distribution of opportunity, and our own efforts and ideas for fostering social justice. The exchange enlivened me, made me glad I'd left the house. And it planted thoughts in mind about the work I'm doing, some reflections on a workshop I'm about to start, with clients dealing with life changes. In particular, our talk underscored the point that when people are making important choices for their lives, they can only choose among options that are present to them. That's obvious on the surface, but so much overlooked in this world of gross inequities, where one of the largest gaps between haves and have-nots is the opportunity gap.

     My other very special interaction was with Bronwen, who shared a very passionate artistic journey she's embarked on, during a needed break from her own teaching career. She's been taking small trips around the continent, to meet and study with creators of unusual mosaic art projects. Among other places, she was recently in Philadelphia, checking out the Magic Gardens: . And she's intending a trip to Los Angeles to check out the Watts Towers: . I've known Bronwen for awhile, and it was so great seeing her so passionate and enlivened by her exploration, so bold and free in crafting this journey. Have a look at these links - they are fascinating.

     And keep your eyes and spirit open for the unexpected. The thing about serendipity is that it isn't available to those so deadset in their objective that they can't see anything else.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Alchemy of Human Touch

                Years ago, when I was twenty, and travelling in January from San Francisco to Boston, I found Myself standing alongside a highway outside of Cleveland, trying to hitch a ride. San Francisco had been warm, and Boston was home, and the detour to visit my brother, an inspiration that grew out of realizing how close to him my travels had brought me.

                I wasn’t prepared, either mentally or in the way I was dressed, for the assault of an Ohio winter. It may have been only an hour or so that I stood there that afternoon, but it took less time than that for my optimistic certainty of a ride to drain away, along with my body heat and my faith in humankind.

                You face a sea of cars coming your way, and at first you feel like the celebrity at a party, looking for the girl to dance with. There might be a timid rejection or two, but you almost feel that the choice is yours – only to decide who to ask. Someone will surely stop soon – who will it be? But after an hour, no longer able to feel anything but the numbing crush of cold in your fingers and toes, and the slush now oozing into your shoes, socks and pant legs, the shivering in your body threatening to dislodge purpose and memory, you want to give up. I wanted to give up – but give up and do what? Go where?

                And finally, a car stopped.

                It was a station wagon, with a couple in the front seat: man and woman, thirty something, white, working class. Regular people. He was driving. And I must’ve been a sight, because during my entire time in their car – which was less than thirty minutes – the woman was turned toward me, comforting and caring for me.

                I was cold enough that warming up was painful, and cold enough that I didn’t care about the impression I was making. I'd enjoyed telling people about my adventures in San Francisco, and that I was on my way back to Harvard. I wanted strangers to see me as a bright, adventurous young man, overflowing with life, insights and ideas. But in that station wagon that day, slowly making its way north out of Cleveland, I cared nothing for all that. And I was glad to be seen for the cold, lost, pitiful puppy that I was.

                Which brings me to what I’m writing about here, which is the magic of kindness, the lasting impression that generosity can make.

                This couple fussed over me. They found me a towel to dry myself with, and turned up the heat in the car. I think that if I hadn’t insisted, they’d not have let me out of their sight that night. But as it was, we weren’t headed in the same direction. They had a route change coming up shortly. So, while he drove, and we all talked, she took care of me, like a big sister reluctantly preparing to send a younger brother into danger. They’d stopped for food a short while before picking me up, and still had a half full bucket of fried chicken, which they began feeding to me. I learned that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and can’t remember another detail about them.

                When they had to pull over to let me out, they insisted that I take the rest of the chicken, and they gave me a bible – as a gift for my future well-being, and five dollars. I was a different person exiting their car than I was climbing in. I had the chicken to munch on, the five bucks – a lot back then. And it didn't feel so cold anymore. Their caring had somehow ended my waiting for that night.

                I was serene, facing the stream of traffic again, catching glimpses of one driver, then another, the faces flowing by. How many years later did it occur to me that they – that couple – stood as a fleeting moment in the eternity of my life, like a shooting star, here once, but somehow transformed into a lasting presence.

                We touch and move one another in such surprising and unexpected ways, we human beings.

                Years later, I stopped on another highway to pick up a young, lesbian couple, on my way home to Seattle from Olympia, Washington. It was cold that night too, and learning that they had no place to go, I invited them to stay with me and my girlfriend. One of them woke the next morning with a slight fever, so they spent two days convalescing in our home, huddled together in our spare bedroom. I wonder if the memory stays with them as it does with me.

                How many times I’ve  been surprised, looking back at an initial encounter with a group of people – colleagues at a new job, fellows in a classroom, or in a dorm at university, neighbours along a street – at who would make a lasting impression, at who would change my life.

                I met Sari a year and a half ago outside a shop where my bike was being worked on. I’d overheard her conversation with one of the staff, and learned that she was an artist, and I introduced myself.  She responded in the way that old friends describe being reconnected – as though we were resuming a well established acquaintance, honoring a connection that needed nothing to support it but our being there in that moment. During our chat, Sari suggested – no, insisted – that I go home and begin a blog, that very night. As it was, it was two weeks before I executed the order, but it changed my relationship to writing, shifted my experience of being a writer, and how it places me in the world.

                I emailed Sari the night I began this blog, and when I didn’t hear back, thought she’d simply passed it over. But last week - a year and a half later - that return email finally arrived. My message had been lost in her server all that time. And she’d found it. And over the last few days...has she read every single post? She's been commenting, and messaging back and forth with me, making fresh suggestions about developing my art. She planted a seed, and has now circled back to nourish again what she planted, this fascinating stranger outside a bike shop.

                I believe in these invisible tendrils that connect us, stranger to stranger, sister to brother, spirit to spirit. I think it’s part of the magic of being alive – that we work in surprising and unanticipated ways on one another’s chemistry, we tinker in one another’s souls, we make bridges for one another across chasms of the impossible. We transform one another with glancing touches.

                Almost ten years ago, I was in Yonge-Eglinton Centre, shopping for a bottle of wine. I can’t say for sure whether the feeling or the glance came first, but I became aware of a woman standing nearby, shopping for wine herself.

                What is it, that energy that suddenly enters a space, that sizzles behind a look, that stirs inside of a space and moves you, for no clear reason or logic than its own? It was there that day, in that wine section of an LCBO. And I did nothing about it. What to do? A stranger. An attractive stranger, but that, if anything, made it less possible to do or say anything. An energy, that’s all.

                So she left the store. I left the store, going the other way. I realized though, that I was turned around, so reversed myself. There she was, up ahead. I watched her, still feeling that energy, that something that doesn’t really mean anything. Nothing clear, that is. Attraction? Hormones? Can’t respond to every hormone rush, can you?

                And so I began the walk down the ramp into the subway. She, I noticed, was turning into the grocery store. In a moment, she’d be gone, like a parting that happens with strangers a thousand times a day. But in the moment before she’d have disappeared from sight, she turns her head and darts a look over her shoulder. From her eyes to mine. I stop, I turn, I follow.

                Now I’m walking straight ahead into the eyes of a stranger. And who is she? And what does she have to do with my life and the path I’m on? And how will she respond? But now it’s time to do something.

                “I felt that I should speak to you,” I said, or something like that.

                And Ponczka’s first ever spoken word to me was a simple, smilingly delivered, No. Then she laughed. And I must’ve smiled back at her. And we’ve been smiling at one another ever since, now together more than a dozen years.

                Cars streaming along a highway, a stranger outside a shop, rogue energies binding us in mystery. Moments that come and go, not to be recognized from a distance, but suddenly there, ripe and rich and transforming.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's To Vote About

In the wake of Phase I of the Occupy Movements – and I, for one, am confident that there are phases II through VI to come - there's been much discussion about whether or not the movement should participate in electoral politics, with lots of occupiers expressing vehement opposition  to the suggestion.

As a fringe Occupier – but a lifelong voter – I want to weigh in on the debate.

First of all, I implore both Occupiers and those that disparage the movement to consider a basic reality. The time will never come when 51%, or 40, or 10, or even .01 percent of the population is going to pack up a tent and occupy anyplace but their own home. Which is pretty obvious. But it also underscores the point, that needs to be underscored, particularly for the on-lookers and nay-sayers, that though the numbers of body's at Occupy sites and in the streets, and the growing number of Occupy sites in itself, is both impressive and meaningful, it wasn't ever the point. Those numbers are a dramatically elegant and powerful  expression of a wide array of points, most having to do with dissatisfaction of one kind or another with our financial, political and social systems. Dissatisfaction with the way things are, with the status quo, with business as usual.

When one is railing against What Is, how natural it is to recoil at the idea of channeling that transformative energy into something so ordinary, so conformist and, on its surface, so counter-revolutionary as voting. When one votes, and when one supports a minority view, it is difficult to escape the oppressive sense that one is acting alone. All it takes is one unenlightened neighbour to nullify whatever you've effected by stepping into the voting booth, and that neighbor's brother starts the tide in the other direction. WHY BOTHER!!?!

Well, I have a couple of reasons why to BOTHER!

And they have to do with transcending the limited notions of what an election is in the first place. We cannot overcome the basic, defining characteristic of elections, that they determine a choice – among candidates and parties, among platforms and issues. Nor should we want to. But elections and votes are more than just that. And they tell a much more complex story.

So – what the hell is an election, anyway?

First of all, it isn't a race, a prize fight, a coronation, a rubber stamp, a mandate, or any of those things we've been told repeatedly that it is. If an election were a sporting event, it would be okay to say, when candidate A secures 51% of the vote against the 49% secured by candidate B, that it’s a decisive victory. But elections takes place in real life, and they affect the world that we inhabit. And in real life, such an outcome would be called a TIE. It tells us is that there's a huge divide, that the population is split on an issue, and a split population is a sign of serious dissatisfaction. In the real world, such a split would signal the need for a community to come together and seek common values, and solutions that stem from those values. That’s what at 51-49 split communicates. But our warped politics - and a duplicitous media - deceives us into accepting such splits as though the public has spoken with a clear voice. And if we ever have an election in which the split is 60-40 or 70-30, it’s as though the winner is granted carte blanche to completely ignore any voice in opposition.

The big problem with elections is that they work by simplification. They are designed to reduce complexities to simple one-or-the-other propositions. And they accomplish this by rounding off. In two way elections, anything above 50 percent becomes 100 percent. Anything below 50 percent becomes zero. Winner take all. All or nothing.

This may be good enough when it comes to determining the occupant of a single seat in Parliament or Congress. But surely it isn`t good enough for coming to terms with a complex issue, let alone the entire body of issues dealt with by political bodies. Nor is it good enough to register citizen concerns and values.

For elections to have the impact on issues that they ought to, they need to be seen as instruments of measurement and communication.

Elections need to be looked at with fresh eyes, for their potential to be potent tools of transformation, not just rubber stamps to the status quo. After all, up until 3 months ago, no one would have pointed to public parks as effective instruments of social change.

Of course, another part of the reality is that, if only 50 or 60 percent of eligible voters participate in an election, then even a 70% result represents only one in three of the voting pool. And if we count those who never register, or who are disenfranchised for various reasons, the winning candidate or position is even less representative.

My point is that, if, as we do in the real world, we viewed levels of participation and ballot results as measurements of and communication from the citizenry, the numbers would tell us a much richer story than simply that candidate A defeated candidate B.

And this, I believe, could play a huge role in the broader Occupy / 99% movement, toward building an economy and a politics that serves ALL of us. Such an approach to elections would make it suddenly significant when a small party wins 15 or 20 percent of the vote. One in five or six citizens is a very substantial number, from any perspective except that of business-as-usual politics.

What’s needed then, is to separate the tool – elections and voting – from the sorry art of politics with which it is associated. One very positive and powerful campaign to refit this tool to better serve the population is the Proportional Voting Proposal. It was defeated in Ontario some years ago, but has been adopted in many places in the world, and will surely get another go in Ontario before much longer.

Even simple voter registration drives can become a tool for transformation that isn’t instantly embedded in the current scheme of party politics. On the most basic level, an election is a roll-call of everyone we live and work with, to agree on what’s for dinner, where to build the school, how we will take care of one another, what we want our city, province or state, our nation to stand for. If we don’t like the stale choices that we’re presented with in the voting booth, or the unmindful way the results are used and manipulated, let’s not blame that on elections.

The problem with elections is that they’ve been co-opted by a stingy, dishonest and self-serving politics. The solution is between the collective ears of the electorate. Where it comes to elections and voting, we have to begin to think outside the box. That worked out pretty well for parks, didn’t it?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Banana Bottom

I recently reread one of my favourite novels, Banana Bottom by Claude McKay. I first read it twenty or so years ago, and that left a clear and deep impression on me. I've never forgotten the name Bita Plant, nor her spirit and love of life. And it is just that quality of life-lovingness that has endeared me to this novel and made it one of my great favorites.

McKay was a Jamaican, born in 1890, who emigrated to the US as a young man, and eventually became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's and 30's. Though he lived in Harlem for several years, during much of the Renaissance itself, he lived in Europe and North Africa. His most famous novel, Home to Harlem, and its follow-up, Banjo, take place in the urban centres of New York and Marseilles, respectivel. Banana Bottom, the final of his three novels, published in 1933, is set in his native Jamaica, which he left at age 15, never to see again. And it reads almost as a love story to the island.

Banana Bottom tells the story of Bita Plant,a young, black girl, who after being seduced and ‘spoiled’, is adopted by white missionaries and sent to England for 7 years of refinement and a proper education. The novel begins with Bita’s return to her homeland. She is now perceived as belonging to a different social order, unfit for the simple life and the simple company she once enjoyed, and destined to serve as an example of the better life that western civilization offers.

Over the course of the novel, Bita interacts with representatives of every stratum of rural and small town Jamaican society, and ultimately rejects the narrow, hierarchical values of the elites, as well as the hedonism and ostentatious ways of the native pleasure seekers. Among all the suitors vying for her hand, she chooses the simple, earthy drayman, Jubban, who works for her father. There’s lots of examination of values, of one’s place and duty in community, and the challenges of simple desire – how to regard it and what to do with it. And Bita, though surely she’s a thinker, confronts her challenges with a combination of thoughtful analysis, intuition, and the movement of her heart and spirit.

So, it’s a book with a clear message and set of values to put across, but it does so with humor and naturalness. And its rich and multi-faceted examination of the social, cultural, racial and religious forces at work in the world it describes is gentle but deep, thought-provoking and life-affirming. The characters mostly fit the stereotypes of the time and place, but they think, feel and breathe, and so come to life – even those whose values and outlook can be easily rejected.  

Often in reading historical fiction, I find it impossible to understand the actions and motivations of the characters. I love Dostoyevsky, but I often simply don’t get the passion that drives his characters in particular situations. I guess part of what makes Banana Bottom work so well for me, is that McKay isn’t afraid to tell as well as show, which is something that almost all instruction on fiction writing advises one not to do. Mckay makes it work, though. Throughout his novel, he shares bits of history, social custom and religious practice, and he breaks down the biases and psychological needs that inform his characters. And it all makes for a rich and moving portrait of a world that is decades removed, but still relevant to now.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Floating In A Different Season

A gorgeous day today. I couldn't resist pedaling circuitously around the city as I travelled from home to drop-in, to office.

Going through Grange Park, I came upon this vision, this anomaly, this beautiful contradiction. Throughout the park, all the trees were bare, stretching their dark, naked limbs against the blue sky. And then...there was this one tree.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Makes Me Wanna Holla - Pt. II

I despaired today.

I despaired at the inability or unwillingness of human beings to rise to the call of their humanness, in service to another.
I was self-righteous today, and over zealous in my challenging of others who would not – or could not – be bold, and do something right simply because it was right, and logical and humane, though it did not fit within the guidelines and the procedures they are saddled with.

Here’s the situation:
I found and arranged a rental for one of my young clients in a property owned and managed by Toronto Community Housing Corporation. She moved in on September first. I got a message from her last week that she wanted help with her utilities, but I only learned today that she’s not had any heat or hot water throughout these two plus months.

Today I was on the phone with representatives of Enbridge, the utility company concerned, a number of times, speaking to people in various departments, in a vain attempt to get service for this young woman. The problem is clear: a previous tenant allowed the utility bill to go unpaid for quite a long time, and service was ultimately shut off. Enbridge has been attempting to recoup its losses from TCHC and so far, TCHC hasn’t made good. Enbridge is refusing to give my client service, isn’t allowing her even to open an account, until their demands have been met by TCHC.
Today, I spoke with no fewer than six Enbridge employees, including two mangers, in various departments, including service, collections. They all acknowledge that my 19-year old client is not in any way responsible for the problem. They also know that she has done everything in her power to have the matter resolved. She remains ready – as she was when she moved in – to open an account and to take responsibility for paying for the service she hopes to receive. But all those I spoke with today remained adamant on the point that she will receive no service until the unpaid bill left by some stranger has been paid.

I am so infuriated at this situation. It’s getting cold here in Toronto. This young woman has so much on her plate already: issues around her income, plans around education and training, relations with friends and family, and her mental and emotional health. And now, two massive corporations, entrusted with responsibility for basic public services, are using her as a football to kick back and forth, over a matter involving a few hundred dollars.
I don’t see any justification for this treatment. It isn’t a life and death issue. Lots of my clients face far more serious issues than this. But there’s something so fundamentally unfair about this young woman being held hostage over a matter she has no responsibility for and no power effect. And I’m infuriated that two vast commercial entities, entrusted with the public wellbeing in their respective areas of concern, could be so unmoving and unresponsive on this matter.

I hope that when I am next in a situation when it is me who has an opportunity to be bold in the face of a rigid and impersonal structure , that I will rise to this level of consciousness and empathy that I have been championing all day. I know that it’s so much harder to act in such circumstances when you feel your own security to be at risk, when there’s a danger that the unthinking and unfeeling machine – massive with inertia – will turn on you should you dare to be insubordinate.
But if we can’t do this...what then?

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Worthy Occupation

I finally made my first visit to the Occupy Toronto site, and I'm very impressed with what I saw.

In Toronto, the movement has encamped itself in St. James Park, a medium-sized plot, taking up a full city block just east of St. James Cathedral, and just bordering the downtown commercial core, but perhaps half a mile from the heart of Bay Street, which is Toronto’s – hence, Canada’s – financial heart.  King Street forms the southern border of the park, so that many of those who commute to Bay Street will pass right by it on their way to the financial towers in which they toil.

My first impression, upon walking into the park along one of its diagonal walkways, is of a small village coming into being. There are tents of all types, sizes and condition pitched everywhere, but they have begun to take on the informal, impromptu order of a community. I didn’t consciously recognize the signs of this order at first, merely took in the impression of it. But later, I learned that committees have formed to take on certain areas of responsibility, like Logistics, Media and Food. I realize now that there was none of the random trash nor the foul odors that I’m accustomed to finding at urban encampments, when I encounter them in my profession as a Street Outreach Counsellor to Toronto’s homeless community. While some of the street homeless have found their way to St. James Park, or have been recruited there, it isn’t the culture and ways of the random homeless that has asserted itself here. It is in fact an Intentional Community.

There are signs everywhere - promoting various positions, thoughts, viewpoints related to the wide and increasing imbalance in fortunes that we experience in Canada and in the world. Many of them come across as gentle provocations, invitations to thought. And the feel of the Park, despite it being so densely packed, is open and inviting. People walk about variously clothed against the elements. Many are eating, out of bowls, cups and assorted other containers, with spoons, ladles and fingers.

The most impressive thing I come across during my brief visit is the small grouping of about twenty people, forming a loose circle just east of the gazebo, and discussing issues, logistics and strategy. They are mostly in their twenties, but a few are older. They are about to break into smaller groups to address a number of subjects: violence (and I’m not there long enough to discover what violence they mean); the Remembrance Day activities being planned at St. James Cathedral, and the proactive intention to avoid any negative interactions between pro and anti military sympathizers who might be there; and the overarching topic: "Why We Are Here". Individuals volunteer to facilitate each group, and others are invited to join whichever group they prefer. One of the two people facilitating this larger group, a well-spoken young man wearing a tuque and a skinny tie beneath his wool blazer, suggests that, if a breakout group is too small, others be recruited from around the park to give input.

A man who appears to be in his fifties and middle-class, in smart, casual dress, and wearing a soft, wide-brimmed hat, asks to speak to the assembled before they disperse. He appears to be a bit apprehensive about speaking, and his audience is slightly wary. “It depends on what it’s about,” says the young man. But once assured that the interruption will be brief, he invites the older man to share.

The oldster announces that he and two companions are from St. Catherine's, a small city an hour’s drive away. They are planning an Occupy movement in that city, and they’ve come to consult with the organizers and to glean some do's and don't's before proceeding.

There are pleased looks all around, and a smattering of applause. The man is invited to "speak to everyone", but the second of the facilitators, a young woman wrapped in a blanket and eating stew from a bowl, gives practical and focused advice: "You should take time to connect with all of the committees that have taken responsibility for different areas," she says. Which is when I myself learn of the various committees. "The people in those groups can give you the best overview, tell you what problems arise and the best solutions so far."

The older man thanks them and tells them what a model and inspiration they are. There are smiles, and a young man who’s been videotaping the whole thing asks that something he didn’t catch be repeated. I notice then that one of my young homeless clients is sitting on the opposite edge of the group, smiling broadly, clearly pleased about the circumstance in which he finds himself. I tried to catch up with him as the group broke up, but he’d disappeared into the group, which by then had doubled in size. I left and went about my day.

The impression lingered, however. As it always does, and always will, going to the encampment and experiencing it live, for even a few minutes, brought a sense of reality and context to this fledgling movement that would not have been conveyed through an hour or two of media clips. What comes across on television as chaotic, indulgent and unfocused (to the unsympathetic), in the flesh reveals itself to be, if nothing else, earnest. I haven’t bothered to report any of the specific political messages I saw declared on various signs, because, to me, they aren’t the point.

It’s obvious to everyone attending to the current, world financial crisis, that solutions will be complex and will take time. What the Occupy movement reminds me of is that, even while the media and politicians try to wean themselves from the conditioned obsession with daily and quarterly fluctuations in currencies and markets, to get at more long-term indicators and mechanisms of the global economy, they haven’t come close to digging deep enough.

What the Occupiers are saying – all around the world – is that is won’t be enough to restore smooth, predictable functioning to an economy that bases itself on fiscal and monetary values, but ignores human values. They are saying this in many ways, pointing out lots of specific aberrations and injustices. But it seems to me to boil down to a howl of protest, a loud and sometimes ineloquent insistence that we’ve simply gotten things all wrong.

In recent years, I’ve often reflected back on the world I was entering into in my late teens, and what’s happened since. In the late sixties and the seventies, it seemed that my generation was going to be the one to tear down the moral and intellectual mindset that rationalized and upheld oppression of all kinds. It almost seems as though we were raised to do so. At that time, in the US at least, income disparities were shrinking. Oppression based on race and gender and sexual identity were all slowly being eroded. And yet, all that while, we allowed our attention to slip somehow, or we began to take too much credit for our own well-being. And the current monstrosity that wears the guise of international finance was allowed to grow. We blew it!

And so, my feeling, as I walked through St. James Park yesterday, was a combination of appreciation, excitement and hope. “Look at them,” I thought. They don’t seem as angry as we were, and not so extreme in their rejection of us as we were of our elders. There’s a focus and confidence about what I’m witnessing in these movements that inspires and touches me. And it’s all encapsulated somehow in the fact of seeing my homeless client in the midst of this rag tag group of young, practical activists. They sought him out and took him in, made him a part of their community and listen to what he has to offer. Maybe they will succeed. They’ve already sparked imaginations, shaped dialogues and enlarged the playing field.

My request, to each one of you who may read this, is that you go to one of the occupy encampments yourself, that you not simply dismiss it. Explore it. Talk with the occupiers. And Listen. Despite what you may be hearing, the lack of focus, and the organic, embryonic qualities of this movement are its strengths. And each of us has something to give.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Running Out Of...


Is that how you  finished the phrase? I wonder. I know it isn't just me for whom time is the one thing that's always running out. Curious, isn't it? Of all the things that could complete that simple phrase. Of all the things that I actually can and do run out of. Because an added paradox in the equation is that it never happens. There's always time. It never runs out (until the moment of death, anyway, and does it matter after that?)

Still, there's this notion - this feeling, really - of trying to hold onto something, or hold back something, that's slipping away. Like sand through an hour glass, or the last rays of light in the sky.

That last thought trips a potent coming-of-age memory. I used to be a night owl. I loved the hours after midnight. When I was in my teens and twenties it was a favorite time for hanging out, for getting high and philosophizing with a friend, for listening to music, and taking solo walks through the city streets. It was the time I did my most creative writing - when I could escape my self-consciousness and be more playful and exploratory with words. The first time I lived with a lover, those late hours provided my solitary time, for reflecting and journal writing, for checking in with myself in a way that was difficult in the light of day.

In those early years, there was a romance about the late night. I experienced it as an unending well that only got deeper. The later it got, the more removed I was from ordinary reality, and from the constraints that daylight imposed. The middle of the night was a free and magical space, made all the more special by the rarity of my ventures into it.

I can't remember when it was that I stayed up all night for the first time, but I'm sure I experienced it with ambivalence. I made it through to the other side. But what a disappointment to discover that the deep didn't continue to deepen! Of course I knew about dawn, the cycle of the day, the rotation of the earth. But it had always felt like the night brought with it a kind of suspension of the ordinary rules of things. The clock, beyond a certain point, wasn't really measuring time anymore, so much as fathoms of depth, or portals through dimensions. It was a bit crushing to discover that behind the last curtain was not 'beyond', but merely street sweepers, buses resuming their routes, and people trudging off to work and school. At dawn, my miraculous oasis evaporated like the mirage it was.

And perhaps that loss of innocence marks the beginning of my losing struggle with time.  Because the toll of those excursions into night only began with the lightening to the east. The greater price, exacted by way of exhaustion, was the dimming or outright loss of much of the next day. Either I dragged my way though it foggy brained, or slept through it in that dream-logged place that doesn't know time at all.

One way or another, it seems that it was during my twenties that the 'running out' of time began, and it's been accelerating ever since. But I'm finding my ways around that.

My first line of approach is simply through realizing that time never runs out. It only seems so, in relation to something I either want to happen, or want not to happen. But in life, there's always something to want and something to dread, and that fact itself seems enough to somehow quiet the tyrannical ticking of the clock. It's that Buddhist thing again, living in the moment.

I recall a minor character in the novel Catch-22, who occupied himself with watching television test patterns and the like. His theory was that if he made himself as bored as possible, his subjective experience of time would stretch, and he'd live longer. But of course, it doesn't really work like that, except in the instant. Those empty seconds may stretch, but the days and months will fly by, with nothing at all to distinguish one from the other. But when life is busy and rich, the minutes and hours may seem to fly, but looking back, I'm always amazed at how thick with life my time has been, how full and generous the days become.

But my best tactic recently has been to renounce multi-tasking! I'm done with trying to do several things at a time. I've decided that nothing robs me of time like that. I've become very happy with doing one thing at a time. Sometimes that means going back and forth from one thing to another, to another. But increasingly, when I'm doing something, I try and keep most of my attention on it, and not allow myself to be distracted with other things I have to get to. And it's made a change. It seems to work as a kind of spotlight, highlighting whatever I'm doing, wherever I am, whoever I'm with, in way that ... well, that seems to make the passage of time just not matter so much any more.

And one other thing. I've finally come to accept that I'm just late for everything. After fighting it - unsuccessfully - all these years, I've surrendered. Aaaaahh! How wonderful. Time! Do what you want with me!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Embrace of a Stranger: Toronto's Public Art

Years ago, when I was still relatively new to Toronto, I was at Yonge and Eglinton one Sunday afternoon, looking to buy a newspaper. As I walked along the sidewalk, I was approached by a young woman. "Can I give you a hug?" she asked, smiling up at me. I hesitated for a moment, long enough for a suspicious thought or two to arise and fade. "Sure," I responded. The attractive young woman put her arms around my neck, while mine circled her waist, and for a few seconds we stood embracing in the middle of the sidewalk. I smiled and thanked her, she did likewise, and we continued on our separate ways. I noted that she was with two other youngish folk as she walked off. They all appeared happy and smiling. I remember resisting the unwanted impulse to check if I still had my wallet. After all, I wanted to believe.

I recall this minor episode here because I'm thinking about this city's public art. Because, to me, public art is much like the freely offered embrace of a stranger. It's unexpected, capable of stopping one in the middle of an otherwise mundane passage. It can be touching and inspirational. And it feels good. By public art, I don't mean the momuments and large scale commissions by governments or corportations, though I generally like that stuff too. What I refer to here is the artful graffiti, the murals, the commissions of small business owners, and the displays people make of their living spaces.

I loved the murals that adorned the public housing of Regent Park when I worked there, most of it the work of school kids on subsidized summer crews. And I'm blown away by the graffiti art overflowing the alleyways south of Queen Street West. Awhile ago, I was intrigued by the hundreds of reproductions of a single, sketched portrait, with the name "Andrew" inscribed on it, that were plastered on walls and lamp posts all through the downtown.

A few weeks ago, as I rode the streetcar east along Dundas, from the far west into the downtown, I was struck by the numnber, variety and quality of murals decorating the walls of small businesses on almost every block. And my single favorite mural these days, is the huge, surfing body that adorns a building just south of OCAD, on McCaul.

I didn't care much for the moose sculptures that were popping up everywhere a few years ago, but there are two recent examples of serial street art that I count among my favorites. First, there are the spray-painted, monochrome, abandonned bicycles, which a quick google search tells me are part of "the good bike" project. I hear that they've become controversial, that there's a political aspect to them, and that there's been a "this ain't art" backlash. But I think they're beautiful and enlivening.

My other favorite is the recent crop of decorated utility boxes. I've seen about a dozen of them around the city. They're clearly done by different artists - the styles vary so much. Some are crude and simple, others more elaborate or skillfully rendered. But for me, the main appeal is that artistically inclined citizens have taken the time and opportunity to decorate what would otherwise remain drab, utilitarian cabinets. Looking on the internet, I discovered that these painted boxes are flourishing in spots all over the world, particularly in California. And some of the designs are inspired.

It saddens me that, as with the bikes and some murals, critics sometimes come along and put a 'tag' on one of these creations, or deface it with random scrawls, or paint over it. But I understand that not everyone sees these efforts as 'art'. And I totally sympathize with the homeowner or small business person who sees the uninvited project as nothing more than vandalism. Different strokes for different folks, right?

But for me, these instances of public art are a positive symptom, of a city expanding in the dimension of community. Those who know me know that, while I LOVE Toronto, I don't find it a particularly friendly city. In fact, I often refer to the public coldness of my fellow Torontonians as the city's one blemish. In my mind, these tiny artistic eruptions resonate with that long ago embrace from a stranger. Like that hug, these murals and glowing bicycles and scenic utility boxes represent a positive and potent communal energy. They signify a consciousness of openness and sharing that stand as promising exceptions to Toronto's apparent standard of public aloofness. Like that chance embrace of long ago, public art is like a tiny bit of serendipity that eases my despair about our stingy public ways, our mute expressions, our wordless rides up and down the elevators. It embraces me, warms my spirit, and stands as a special ingredient of my image of the city that's my home.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Perfect Life

I believe I have the Secret.

The secret to my perfect life is encapsulated in a short list of guidelines, rules of daily conduct if you will. They WORK. When I do these things daily, life is amazing: I’m balanced, productive, grounded in the present and I’m happy.

It’s wrong to call my list a secret though.  It’s comprised of fairly obvious and simple guidelines, much like those that anyone would come up with who’s given much thought to the art of living well. A similar list could probably be distilled from most personal growth books or lifestyle seminars, or from spiritual practices. Not that I’ve explored enough of them to know...but I’m guessing.

I haven’t been scientific or systematic about creating this list. And it’s not in any final or polished form. It’s just that – over the years – as I’ve commenced any number of campaigns to get my shit together, to re-create myself, or to reach this or that lofty goal, it’s become clear that whenever I make real progress, it comes as a result of applying these elements, attending to these realities. So that gradually, this is what my own personal lessons for living distill down to.  It’s my own list, in language that’s meaningful to me, and that fits the contours of life as I experience it.
Here’s my personal list of things to attend to daily:

Eat Healthy
Do Good Work
Use and Move My Body
Be Loving

That’s about it, really.

Of course, this list is both general and overlapping. It’s been longer and it’s been shorter. And I’m sure I’ll package it a bit differently the next time I try and encapsulate this great ‘secret’. Each of the six items is a kind of shorthand, and could be expanded upon, at great length. That would specify and complicate matters though, and without the guarantee of improvement.

I’ve termed these items differently at other times. For example, years ago, instead of ‘Meditate’, I’d have put ‘Pray’. And there’ve occasionally been elaborate regimens in place for items like ‘Eat Healthy’ and ‘Use and Move my Body’. And of course, the various religions and personal development sciences and psycho-therapeutic schools can offer up entire menus of concepts, tactics and beliefs to instruct and guide around the ‘how’ of each of these rules. But I no longer think that the ‘how’ is the meat of it, really.

What’s most important about my rules is that they balance and connect me, and they ground me as a human being in the world. The above is just the wording that works for me in a personal way.

My problem is that I’ve never in all my life managed to keep to my rules for very long at a time. Invariably, one or more of the six starts to slip. I miss a day of meditation, or go on a chocolate cake binge. Or I get indulgent and forgetful of my relationships, or slack about work. I get frustrated with my creative output and put it aside, or tired of going to the gym and so take up the remote. Yes, the human being loses focus and enters into drift, despite the angelic intent.

But even that’s okay. Eventually, I notice, I come back. My resolve and focus last awhile, then I slip again. It’s so hard to keep all six rules in place on the day-to-day. So much so that I’ve accepted this inability as simply something that is, a part of life, of being human. The inability to keep to such a simple set of rules – though doing so would transform my life – has become my most potent lesson in humility. It’s like ‘being present’: simple, natural...but for me, so far...impossible.

For all my slackness and failure to measure up, though, my list is a fine list. I’m glad I have it. Practicing these rules brings me glimpses of the perfection that life is. Mastery will undoubtedly continue to elude me. But I’ll keep right on trying.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Haul Out

Yesterday, our boats came out of the water, onto the hard. A heavy, lifting crane arrived at 7am, and the twenty-five or so boats that occupy our tiny marina were lifted one by one, and set onto trailers, blocks and cradles. It was a cool, overcast Fall day, but warm enough, with us moving cradles and hauling cinder blocks, taking down masts and cleaning hulls.

The boats have a nude look without masts, sails and rigging. And with the boats hauled out of Ashbridges bay (the other two, larger marinas had their haul outs last weekend) there's a look of desertion to the near empty docks and fingers. Masts were coming down all through the week, in preparation. Vaughn, one of our most enthusiastice boaters, left his for the final afternoon, so he could get in one last, decent weather sail, after several days of raining and blowing kept us from venturing out. One well out-fitted 30-footer remains in the water at day's end. Nancy doesn't want the trouble of taking down her mast, so will take her vessel to the portlands sometime over the next couple of weeks, where it will winter in Ulee's yard. Which means that some of our group will get some late season sailing in, on her boat, before it too hits the hard.

Lyma prepared coffee, peameal bacon and egg sandwiches, muffins and pie for breakfast, chili and shepherd's pie for lunch, which was supplemented by Romanian sausages that Sebastian cooked up on the barbecue. Ponczka bought bottles of our homemade wine, and there was beer, and some of the guys still had rum and scotch, maybe marijuana, left over from the previous night's hanging out - the season's last with the boats still on water.

But partying and drinking were by no means a focus of the day. The mood was bitter-sweet, as always at haul out. It's a communal time, with all assembling to assist with one another's boats. There's catching up with those who didn't manage much sailing this year, or power-boating - we have those too. And for those who got out a lot, there's reminiscing, and a sense of having used the season well, and already looking forward to launch, sometime in May.

We've been in the marina for five or six years now. This year it felt more like a community than ever before. Several of the boater's virtually transplant themselves from house or apartment when summer rolls around, enjoying the mind and spirit shift of life on the softer element. It's more romance than indulgence, and more aspiration than adventure, but it absolutely feeds an appetite that straight city living can't satisfy. This summer, every night found a handful of boats occupied. And on weekends it became a small neighborhood, with visits among boats, barbecues in the yard,and gatherings in the clubhouse.

Through some magic that has yet to be explained, a number of our members are professional musicians, and quite a few others are committed amateurs, so it's common to hear guitars, keyboards and voices sounding out across the water. Yesterday, it was agreed that we'd have a final party next weekend. It'll be a good way to finish off the year, marking the end of one season and the beginning of another with celebratory music, acknowledging this point on the cycle, that will eventually bring us around again to rolling across the waters, and riding the waves.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Home Is

            I’ve been meditating on the subject of home, what it is, what allows a place to grow into that designation. I’ve lived in quite a few places, for varying lengths of time. The places I’ve lived for five years or more number 5, and together count for all but about 10 of my 57 years. There are another 2 places I lived for two years or more. Another 3 where I lived six months to a year or so, and a few others where I spent a month or more. That’s quite a few addresses; lots of different places that served the purposes of home in one way or another. But really, when I think about it, only 4 of those places became home for me.
            I started out in Detroit and lived there my first five years or so. But I don’t think I would’ve considered it home if that was the end of it. Those were my formative years, sure, but in the early memories I call up, there’s hardly any sense of ‘place’ beyond the house I was born into, and those domiciles of relatives that were interchangeable with my own. But Detroit was home in my consciousness for a long, long time, and there was pride in that before I knew any other place. Because I was born there, and my mother was born there, because it’s the place my father adopted as home when he ran away from his birth place on the night of his high school graduation. And it’s the place I returned to for long stays, summer after summer during my teens, when my growth was marked in large part by the changes I saw in my cousins, and that uncles and aunts saw in me. And whatever other places have taken Detroit’s place as home, it is forever the place I’m from; it remains a part of me, and I part of it. And it’s the place my family roots begin.

           New York City was my next home, both in the sense that I spent the next chunk of my life there, and that it claimed me and I came to identify myself as a New Yorker. My individuality developed in those years. New York was the place I began to know myself, to make independent and life-changing choices, where I began to see myself in the broader contexts of community, calling, and the world. New York was the first place I made the conscious choice to leave, and from then on, my destinations were largely my own choice.

            But then came a span of a dozen years, during which I lived in lots of places – some that I loved. But the bar had been raised, so far as what it took to make a place my home. And the next place to meet the standard was Seattle.

            This matter of home has much to do with the simple passage of time. But when choice is figured in, time spent in a place is no longer a simple thing; it can be a measure of commitment, or of hope. I lived in Seattle long enough for it to grow into home. It was there that I began to recognize that part of what home represents to me is the richness and personal resonance a place develops, from the layering of experience that comes with time. Like the difference between a short story and a novel, that between a place merely lived in, and a place that was home, is time and the blossoming of growth and change, including growth in attachment to and relationship with a place.
             A particular nugget about how and why Seattle was home is that I watched others grow there. The person in my life who came closest to being a child of mine was ten years old when I came to Seattle. And by the time I’d left, she was an adult who’d travelled the world and was attending an out-of-state university. Similarly, I did social work there long enough that I began to encounter young adults who were settled into jobs and relationships, or graduating university, or serving long-term sentences in prison, whom I’d first met as traumatized pre-teens in a group home. Some of my most substantial romantic partnerships took place there, and my first writings to see print were composed there. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that the “I” that moved to Seattle wasn’t the same “I” that left there twelve years later. I didn’t even go by the same name.

            But finally, home became Toronto. I said earlier that I chose my cities of residence after New York. But, in fact, on more than one occasion that place was determined in partnership with a woman in my life, and that’s the case with Toronto. In fact, if not for the woman I married and came here to live with, it would have been inconceivable to me that I move to Toronto. It’s not that I had anything against the city. In fact, I’d never been here before the week I was married, and knew little about it. But I was – and still am, really – in love with Montreal, a place I spent large chunks of two magical summers in my university days. Yes, I love Montreal, like I Love San Francisco, and love Paris. But my time in these cities was transient, and my love had more to do with a time in my life, a freedom and sense of possibility, and with a romance of circumstance and mood and chemistry, than it had to do with growing in and knowing a place.
            Toronto is my home in ways that transcend my love for such other places. I was first attracted to Toronto because it holds in its streets the rhythms and accents of so much of the world. But what I came to love is a city of neighbourhoods, where each feels open to all others. It’s not just a busy city, but also an alive city, in which movement and art, invention and expression serve the broadly shared purpose of good living.
There are also the ways in which my personal life has intersected with the life of this city. I’ve been blessed to experience Toronto through so many of its cultural and social facets. And in the course of that, I’ve transitioned through entire phases of life. I even contemplate the possibility of my last life phase ending here.
But all of this has me reconsidering my initial premise: that places become home by meeting particular, time related standards. Yes, it’s part. But maybe this makes for only a difference in degree, rather than a difference in kind. I remember another place I felt a sense of home, but in an oddly concentrated way, and for a very short while. It was my grandmother’s house, in rural Indiana. I went there to stay with her, in the ninety-fourth year of her life, after my grandfather had died. I went there to be company to her, to take care of errands and some house-keeping (not much, mind you; grandma was incredibly able and active at ninety-three, and didn’t relish turning over her routine so that she could sit and waste).
I didn’t much like the tiny town of Shelburn and environs. The landscape was ragged and stingy, and the weather oppressive. I found the inhabitants mostly as alien as they undoubtedly found me, and there was little culturally or socially that interested me. So why do I include this reminiscence, then? Why does this memory well up so unaccountably? I guess to reveal something to me, to form a lesson, broaden a meaning, to break down an artificial delineation
            Because there was home there in Shelburn. It resided in tiny doses, in the artifacts of family: in sepia photos folded in albums, in the biscuit dough that grandma worked by hand in the huge mixing bowl on the kitchen table, in the odors that lingered in the crumbling barn and the long-unused chicken coop, and in my grandpa’s Illinois railroad watch that she dug out of a drawer and presented to me one afternoon. And mostly, it resided in the single personage of that old woman, her tongue loosened for the first time in my memory, giving her over to sharing memories of my Dad and my aunt as kids, her marriage to grandpa, and their struggle with the local white folks when they became the first blacks to move into the community, even of her first time seeing an airplane, circling overhead at a county fair when she was twenty-one. Home resided in all that, and in watching her unwind her cascade of white hair every night, to comb it, then roll it up again, while she shared her wisdom, much of it to do with the faults and blessings of being a male member of my line.
             It’s a feeling and memory of home that brings things almost full circle, like a psychic return to Detroit, but through a different portal. Home embodied in small, personal details, and almost disconnected from the broader environment. Suggesting to me that home is something carried inside, and released in those places that call it forth, that allow it to open and breathe, places where my inner reality somehow finds resonance.
Which takes me one step further now. Wasn’t that a little bit of home in Atlanta that summer, taking evening walks in Piedmont Park, and in the music building at Exeter, where I’d go at lonely times to pick at the keys of a piano? Don’t those love affairs with San Francisco and Paris and Montreal all contain a little bit of home, of the self expanded, of kinship spread thin but amplified, of love circulating out, then back again?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Free Fall

I’m in my season.

The season of release. The season of settling, of coming down from the high of summer.
The season of hitting ground, then digging down, to the root of things.
It’s the time when time turns backward, peeking around at distant beginnings, while age reinvents itself, and youth comes into maturity.
It’s slow death generating new life.
Autumn brings the introspection that clears the sightlines to the stretched out world, drawing me into meandering walks, coagulating thoughts, dreams imploding to some core clarity that
I track down with deliberate, echoing footfalls,
Pick up from the dust at the side of the road,
Brush with tentative and questioning fingers
Then slip into my pocket, to carry me along.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Close Calls & Miracles

So many close calls lately. So many that it seems as though Life is whispering a message I’m just not getting.  There was falling a couple of weeks ago, and landing on the back corner of my skull, with almost my entire weight behind the impact. A miracle that I didn’t break my neck, and that aside from the knot that sprouted on the back of my noggin, there were no after effects, not even any pain. Then, just yesterday, I dropped my entire ring on keys into the lake while parking the sailboat. Miraculously, there was an old roofer’s magnet lying around the boathouse, and on the third try it hauled up what felt like the keys to my entire life. The remote to the car even worked. There’ve been a couple of close calls on the bike lately, and an instance or two of leaving something where it should have grown feet and walked off, but didn’t.

I often think of my life in terms of flow. When I’m effortlessly gliding through my days and weeks, I can’t help but feel that I’m doing just what I ought to be doing, that my own personal “universe is unfolding as it should”. So, if there’s anything to this notion, what might it mean to have so many things almost go disastrously wrong, only to suddenly right themselves? Should I be rushing to the convenience store to buy a lottery ticket every time some gruesome possibility eludes me? Or should I simply be more alert, attentive to my steps and choices?

It’s more observation than question, really.  I decided years ago that, when it comes to the question of miracles – that is: Do they never happen? Or do they happen all the time? – my full endorsement goes to the latter. One might argue that, by definition, the miraculous can’t be commonplace. But there’s wonderful evidence that it is, and it lies in the simple fact of being, as in: me being here, and you being here. Biology tells us that in the human sexual act millions of sperm cells are released, each of which contains a different variant of the genetic material, and hence, a different potential person. Which means that every single one of us human inhabitants of Earth is the one sperm cell that made it, against odds of many millions to one. Miraculous!

Not that it matters what we believe about such things. Like they say, gravity works whether we believe in it or not. Personally, I enjoy reflecting on it...the wonder of it all. No ticket necessary. The lottery is won.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I have more than I can do with - so much extra. And this is sometimes daunting. There are so many actualities, and so many more possibilities. And I keep reaching.

Imagine a scenario: You and your favorite food...and an appetite! Nothing better than that, right? Well, whatever your favorite food is - let's say steak, just for the hell of it - no matter how perfect, it could use something to go along with it, right? So, let's add a baked potato, with butter, sour cream, salt and pepper. That improves on perfection, doesn't it? How about we add some asparagus? Maybe sauteed mushrooms. A really good steak sauce couldn't hurt. A nice salad to go with. Maybe an appetizer to get things started. Oh yeah, mustn't forget the wine. What better way to top off perfection than with dessert?

Then coffee, then brandy. Then a cigar. How about the music. And the setting ought to be just right: comfortable furniture, a nice room, with a view, overlooking something impressive, and close, but not too close. And the weather should be just so. And it should be early evening, dark but with a touch of blue lingering on the horizon, and a crescent moon rising. And...for company...!

Seems a little like my life, that. Something in that notion of constantly improving on perfection. Maybe a little neurotic? (is neurotic even a concept anymore?) My life is good, very good, even - yes - perfect! that single bite of steak can be. But nowhere in this perfection does there seem to be space for the concept: enough. There's only the space for the baked potato.

Is there something wrong with a something that always needs to be growing, that needs always to be expanding, improving? All my life I've heard something to the effect of "grow or die!" I don't know that I believe it anymore. My body isn't really growing any longer. But I'm healthy and continue to exist. Businesses talk about the need to grow, to generate profit, to diversify product and capture new markets. But there are not-for-profit's that work. Everybody gets paid, there just isn't any extra.

It seems to me that so much wealth - so much extra - has become tiring. And beside the point. Slow and same maybe, for awhile.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Clearing Landmark

I am a huge admirer of the programs of Landmark Education. I’m currently finishing up a 10 part seminar series on the subject of Excellence, which has me re-enlivened in my work and recognizing some inauthenticities on my part which have blocked me in important areas. A few years ago, I took the renowned Landmark Forum, which was  intense and brilliant in its effect of “clearing out” emotional and perceptual blocks that lie in the way of me being focused and powerful in important areas of my life. And twenty-five years ago, before Landmark existed in its current form, I was involved for two and a half years with the Breakthrough Foundation, a non-profit offshoot of Landmark’s predecessor, Werner Erhard and Associates. That program was my introduction to the ‘technology’ that Werner Erhard put together, that lies at the heart of Landmark Education and its programs today. And that long ago youth program remains one of the very best youth programs I’ve worked with, encountered or even heard about, in my almost 30 years in youth services.

But while being such an enthusiastic advocate of Landmark, and having such respect for the brilliance of its founder, I’ve always had a degree of discomfort with its evangelical zealotry. During those years I was involved with Breakthrough, I steadfastly resisted participating in the Forum. On my part, there was both stubbornness and insecurity at work there. I wasn’t going to be pressured into doing anything. I admired the intense and confronting ideas and tactics I saw at work, but would only give into them so far. While the rumoured notions of brainwashing were clearing absurd, there was a degree to which practitioners of Erhard’s technology bought into a kind of group-think, with its own language and value system, and I didn’t want any part of that. But, my insecurities came into play in that I could see how powerful this language and these values were, and I saw how much these practitioners credited Erhard with ‘transforming’ them, and I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything for shaping my life.

Years later, having experienced psychiatry and 12-Step programs, having more deeply examined my religious upbringing, and beginning to derive the benefits of meditation, I no longer felt so vulnerable to powerful ideas and the changes they generated. I was both more trusting of my strengths and more accepting of my failings, and therefore had less need of total autonomy of thought and idea. And so, completely removed from the recruiting fervor of Erhard’s followers, and remembering the power of the methodology, I sought Landmark out, and enrolled in the Forum.

It was simply brilliant. It was everything those colleagues of mine from long ago had said it would be – a powerful inquiry into ways of being, that step by step invited participants to discover and remove ingrained ways of thinking and perceiving that limited ones Living. And yet, there was that zealotry again, that constant exhortation to bring your friends, bring your family, bring your workmates, and even the strangers that you meet, that they too might benefit.

To me, having been brought up in a Baptist Church community, this type of appeal was both familiar and off-putting. I’d spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood reconciling my appreciation of much of the ethos of Christianity with my rejection of the rest, and with my recognition that other spiritual practices had as much or more to offer in support of spiritual growth and love and life as the preachings I’d been raised on. Any message that came close to sounding like a call to “the one, true path” was immediately suspicious and distasteful to me. The desire to share ones learning and growth and even one’s enlightenment, so that others “can have what I have” is a generous a and noble intention. Except when it’s coupled with the certainty that there is no other legitimate path, that any other way is a wrong way, and that others must therefore be saved from their failure to know life precisely as “I know it”.

Is this the mindset that the promoters of Landmark speak from? I don’t think so. But it’s close, it’s related. And I’ve struggled to come up with the distinction to define it, to nail down what I find so unsettling about Landmark’s constant, ever-present self-promotion.

When I signed up for my current workshop – again, independent of any outside invitation or pressure – it wasn’t long before my old complaint re-surfaced. I thought I’d come to terms with the fact that, well, Landmark is a commercial, for-profit enterprise, after all. Of course it will use its success to generate new business. And who better to go out and get that business than those who’ve just enjoyed the rich benefit of an outstanding service, impeccably delivered? But I could not get beyond the sense that, on some level, integrity was missing.

To my great relief and surprise, it was Landmark itself that delivered the distinction that clarified for me the issue I’ve been having with Landmark’s promotional zeal. It came during session number 8 of my current seminar on Excellence. The distinction brought to light was Hidden Agendas. Boom! That’s it. The seminar leader led us through an exploration of the phenomenon: professing a commitment to one thing while secretly harbouring a different intent, a different purpose. We looked at how disempowering it is when motives are kept hidden, unrecognized, unacknowledged – how this keeps a person from having the clearing in which to act powerfully, in which to be that which will bring a commitment to fruition.

The issue is that Landmark participants are constantly being encouraged to bring others to Landmark, ostensibly so that they can benefit from Landmark’s teachings. But what goes unacknowledged is that this is part of a business plan, that there are attendance and income targets being considered. It’s not that the aim to help others isn’t real. Landmark, which is owned by its staffers, has a great product, of which it can and should be proud. But when its self-interest in conflated with its message of open expression, of “speaking from possibility”, of honest communication without intending a specific result, integrity is lost.

In my reflection over the years about my dis-ease with Landmark’s approach, what often comes to mind is my very different experience with the Ontario Vipassana Centre, the non-profit organization that teaches and promotes Buddhist meditation. These two ventures are related in a very significant way in that, through very different approaches, they generate remarkably similar teachings, about the power and freedom of being fully present to life, in the moment and free of the anxieties related to obsession with past and future. But the Vipassana Centre hardly sells itself at all. When you go to your first 10-day training, you can’t pay for the service even if you want to. Nothing will be accepted from you until you’ve completed the course. And even then, there’s no pressure to give, only the message that any gift will assist the organization in speading its teaching to others. And in the many years I’ve been on the Vipassana Centre’s email list, I’ve never been asked or encouraged to recruit others – I’ve only been invited, in the mildest terms possible – to bring others to guest events or introductions. It’s an organization that sustains itself by donation alone. (Info about The Ontarion Vipassana Centre, which is located outside of Barrie, Ontario can be found at Interestingly enough, if you go to you will find info about Vipassana courses offered by the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. The latter charges about $100. per day. Hmmm?)

Naturally, a for-profit and a non-profit entity are different creatures.  There’s nothing inherently wrong in deriving income and making a living from a product that is essentially spiritual. But the spiritual, transformative, growth-generating principles at the core of the product must be honoured in the presentation of the product, if integrity is to be preserved.

I intend to present this reflection to my seminar leader and to others connected to Landmark. I’m hoping that it will be well received, because I believe that what Landmark offers is invaluable. I can’t but believe that in eliminating this inauthenticity, it will become a more vibrant, a more meaningful and a more effective company. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for its Hidden Agenda will create a huge clearing for Landmark. And inside of that clearing...? Oh, what Possibilities!