Sunday, January 30, 2011


That’s how I feel.

Clear as these waters off this beach, early afternoon, Tortola, British Virgin Islands. I’ve gone into the water, have tasted the sea and felt the sand between my toes. I’ve dipped into the waters off four island beaches this trip – both the Caribbean and the Atlantic sides. I don’t care so much anymore about capturing the details, with either my camera or my memory. The experiences will live in me. Perhaps on a cellular level, if there’s anything to this modernist interpretation of how experience gets integrated.

On my first ever trip to the Caribbean, during a swim near the harbour in Grenada, my good friend Thomps gave me a lesson on floating on water. It happens that Thomps is a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but I’m pretty sure that he’s also a Taoist. He instructed me to simply let go, to relax all my muscles, and let the waters do the rest. Being a clumsy swimmer, used to struggling to move myself across even a small pool, accepting his invitation was not exactly natural. Relaxing in water was something that had never occurred to me. Never would have. But it was so easy.

Almost instantly, this method became my favorite way to experience any body of water. I do it every chance I get. In a bathtub if it’s big enough. What an incredible feeling it is, to relax totally, to progressively give up control of my limbs – feet, legs, arms, head and neck, and to feel the waters carry me. More than that. The lake or sea or ocean cradles me, massages me; it causes my body to flutter and ripple with the smallest wavelets. Like being kissed by the Earth. And, best of all, it bestows upon me a deep and certain feeling of belonging. Yes, I am a creature of this planet. I was designed for it; it was designed for me. I am Home.

Not to say the method is entirely without...risk, shall I say? I’ve had my eyes stung by the salty sea quite a few times. And I’ve swallowed a good bit of it too. And I’ve become so relaxed that I’ve come out of my reverie many yards down shore – or away from shore – from where I started. I can easily imagine falling asleep out there, cushioned by the welcoming sea and blanketed by a warm breeze, while the sun bakes away all cares. What a way to go that would be.

But do you know what’s oddest of all about this method? It’s that so many people don’t believe it’s even possible. They insist that if you don’t actively swim, you will sink. Struggle or die, they say. It is, after all, a very popular philosophy of life, isn’t it?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Island Hopping

The tiniest places in the world become huge when you are there.

Antigua today, Saint Thomas yesterday, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico the night before. Tiny islands, a few miles long by a few miles across, specks on the map. Each island so different from the others.

San Juan feels loose and open and there’s a sense of life spilling into the streets. The lanes are so narrow, and the sidewalks too, the two and three storey homes jammed right up to the street and to each other, their doorways and living spaces open to the street. But it feels soft and easy anyway.

St. Thomas is a maze of tight, steep green hills, The highlight here was being driven across the island and back, vistas of the valleys and bays opening wide at every turn. The island carries an energy that belies its size. I was in awe, but like the country boy in the big city, wondered if it would be possible for me to live in such a place.

Antigua feels a bit like the accordion of St. Thomas stretched out. The hills are less densely packed; they roll more gently. And ditto for the pace and the mood. Not so striking as St. Thomas, but I feel I could live here.

In some ways, it’s such a superficial way of seeing a place, stepping onto an island at 8am, then off again by 4:30. One could easily find distraction enough among the dockside tourist lures and never venture beyond them. But it’s an easy matter to hire a driver/tour guide who will carry you all about the island for a few dollars, show you to a nice beach, answer questions about the culture, history, economy.

And, for the rest of my life – I’ve realized since tasting so many Caribbean islands over the last few years – whenever I come across a mention of Antigua in the news, a travel piece, novel or song, this very real place will come to mind. That I’ve tasted the air and water, and the local patois, rubbed the currency, licked the grilled chicken juice from my fingers – it will all matter in some way. Eight hours isn’t nearly long enough even to begin knowing a place, but it’s plenty long enough to know that a place exists, and to place it in the world, and for that place to occupy a place in ones consciousness.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Being Good, Being Happy

Travelling by train in the deep night. It evokes a sense of timelessness, and brings back memories, many of which aren’t even my own, but borrowed from classic books and old black and white movies starring Greta Garbo.

Our vacation begins. Ponczka is my perfect travelling partner, a happy baby, I call her. She thrills at every small triumph, like crossing the border on an expired passport, or smuggling our homemade wine in pop bottles. For her, the train awakens memories of travelling back and forth between Gubin, her hometown, and Poznan, where she escaped to Art High School when she was fourteen, and discovered her independence. For me, it’s travelling through Germany when I was a kid, following our show biz mom from Berlin to Leipzig to Frankfurt and back, eating dinners in the restaurants that stood in the atria of the glorious old stations. And too, my travels back and forth between Seattle and Chicago – two solid days each way – when I worked the summer sales circuit with Encyclopaedia Britannica in the early ninties.

Vacations are to dream about. We dream of what they will be in the preceding weeks or months. And we dream them again afterward, knitting together what actually happened with what might have, so that, in that wonderful freestyle replay of memory, even the ordinary, disappointing moments ultimately grow into our expectation of them, however long after the fact.

I wonder if what I experience is universal, this tug, as the vacation nears, to have it be a transformative experience, the expectation of returning a different man than when I left. I somehow anticipate that, during my vacation, I will rid myself of every vice and shed every excess pound. I’ll read a few books, pen a couple of short stories, and improve my French and tarot reading. I expect I will return home refreshed, enlightened and even galvanized, ready to make manifest whatever ambitions have lain dormant in the cradle of my spirit.

I never expect so much out of fourteen short days, as when I’m on vacation. But it’s a delicious expectation. There’s a vibrant tension between the desire to indulge and luxuriate in freedom and ease, and the desire to make the most of time that feels to be more wholly my own. A balanced tension between wanting to be happy and wanting to be good. And there’s a sought after sweet spot of comfortable exertion, of invigorating effort, that satisfies both wants.

When we exit the train in New York the balancing act will begin. To lounge over drinks with old friends, or hit up the exhibits at the Guggenheim. And when we’re aboard the cruise ship, heading to the warm Caribbean seas, will we be more diligent about visiting the onboard gym or the midnight buffets? And in Old San Juan, will we dutifully explore the historic Fort, attending to every anecdote of our tour guide, or will we stake out a spot on a beach and luxuriate as the sun works its magic?

Vacation time is upon us.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

But for the Grace of God...

...I’d have burdens I couldn’t bear.

I was going to title this post “Housing the Homeless”, but then the biblical phrase rose to mind, which I've chosen to paraphrase. I’m thinking about a few related things: generosity and how it’s affected by what we have and by what we want. I’m thinking about reaching out, and the difference between connecting with and withholding from others. I’m thinking about today’s visit to the welfare office, and how my client was treated there, and about other clients of mine who are struggling, to get or to maintain their housing.

It surprises people when I tell them that one of the biggest challenges my young clients face when they get an apartment is dealing with their friends. Let me paint a picture:

You’ve been living under the Bathurst Bridge. You’ve thrown in with others who sleep there and in the parks, in makeshift cardboard and plywood encampments, and who squeegee and panhandle and fly signs along the avenues. You share a lot with these others. When one shows up with a bottle, it’s passed around. He who brought the bottle – they are mostly males – will likely hog it to some degree, but at least a third of the liquid will go down other throats than his. If someone brings more food than they can consume in one sitting, what’s left will get passed around. Blankets are shared, bikes are borrowed. Folks take turns looking after one another’s dogs. In the sleeping bags at night, body heat is shared, and relationships are born. It doesn’t always have much to do with friendship or with liking, though these are natural bi-products. Sometimes it has more to do with getting by, and with survival. Life is pretty fluid. Someone’s squat tonight is someone else’s tomorrow. Ditto with the favoured panhandling spots, with coats and backpacks, even lovers. Property values and notions of an ordered world become pretty abstract.

So suddenly, your housing worker – maybe me – finds you an affordable apartment to share with the girlfriend of the last two weeks, or with a traveling buddy. Two or three of you together can get a decent place with your housing allowance from social services. If you go solo, you’ll end up in a dank room sporting an anthology of the last decade’s stale odors, and having to share the dismal washroom down the hall that motivates you to save your morning urination for the donut shop down the street.

You like the new place, and the property manager seems fairly tolerant, until he gets complaints from the family upstairs about the drinking party you had with your under-the-bridge crew on your first night. Your housing worker warns you that unless you go middle-class, you’re going lose your new place quicker than you found it. But what can you do when the temperature drops and a couple of buddies come by at midnight, asking to crash on the living room floor? Or when the city clears everyone and everything from under the bridge, leaving everyone to scramble for warm, relatively safe spots? When a friend is sick, or traumatized from a beating, or just out of detox or the Don Jail? Or when the party goes on and on and everyone is drunk, or stoned, or asleep? Are you gonna wake everybody at 2 in the morning and tell them to go sleep in a doorway? Not likely.

Their decision in these situations may not be smart, or mature, but they are very human. Does it have anything to do with it simply being easier to share what you have when you don’t have very much? Maybe it’s more to do with empathy, and with personal proximity to a particular form of suffering, and with suddenly being in a position to save others from experiencing it.

Witnessing the sharing and caring that takes place among my clients is one of those special benefits of the work that I do. I’m amazed over and over again at the virtual Youth shelters that spring up in the apartments of the newly housed – all longing for privacy and quiet and order trumped by the needs of their communities. But it’s this very sharing they will have to put limits on, if they are to re-integrate into the world of the housed.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Our Ugly, Regressive Politics

A couple of days ago, I received an email from one of the progressive, activist American political groups that contacts me with updates and calls to action. This particular group was organizing a defence of Obama’s controversial and hard fought health care program, in anticipation of the impending attack by the incoming, republican majority House of Representatives.

I’m fully behind Obamacare, despite its many flaws and shortcomings. To me, it’s a halting, limping half step in the right direction. A much needed step. I’m absolutely opposed to the effort to repeal or weaken it, and so I was eager and willing to add my support to the effort.

However, the message introducing the campaign was disturbing. It referred to a "...Republican majority bought and paid for by Wall Street-run corporations and their shill groups.” And it went on to state that, "Everyone knows that the Republican Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the health insurance industry and other profit-hungry corporations."

I confess that, emotionally, I feel the same way about caricature Republicans. I’m disturbed by their planks and their attacks on Democrats that take a similarly dismissive and denigrating tone. With the merits of health care and of the progressive agenda so clear to me, it’s sometimes difficult to credit anyone who sees things differently as possessing either a mind or a conscience.

But I remind myself that most living, breathing Republicans don’t fit the easy caricature any more than progressives fit the starry-eyed, soft-headed caricature that opponents would make us into. Rather, many are intelligent, caring, patriotic Americans who simply don’t see or calculate these matters as I do. As much as it may frustrate my wish to order the political world according to my values and perceptions, there are people on the Republican right who care about the country, who sacrifice and give selflessly, who agonize over policies and positions, and who come to slow, careful decisions about the strategies and tactics that will best take America forward. Just as I and others on the left do. While I know that there are Republicans who fit the ugly stereotype of the moralistic yet hypocritical and unsympathetic profiteer (just as there are a few bubble-headed idiots on my side) it doesn’t do justice to any political faction to judge it entirely by its most extreme and dysfunctional elements.

We on the left have debated among ourselves the proper approach to health care, the pros and cons of is its implementation, and we waged civil war over the importance of the now defunct “public option". Can it be categorically wrong for others to question, challenge or even to reject it because of some of its less appealing aspects? Is there nothing we can learn from honest, open debate? Perhaps it is true that not many conservatives will discuss and negotiate with open minds. Isn’t that equally true of progressives?

It’s well established that war is made possible by dehumanizing the opponent. It’s infinitely easier to shoot or drop bombs on those we view as animals and demons than on our fellows. Similarly, in politics, it’s so much easier to dismiss the arguments and concerns of the indecent and morally corrupt than of those we love and respect. It’s a cheap, immoral and dishonest approach to tear down another’s character in order to have an easier time dismissing their ideas.

In politics as in life, there are natural dividing lines and natural constituencies. The easiest thing is always to fall in line with the politics of one’s own class, race, religion or other demographic. But it has always struck me how much more powerful it is when an individual or group stands up for a cause that’s not primarily its own. It’s one thing to support gay rights if I myself suffer by virtue of discrimination against gay men. But it’s quite another to speak out on issues of sexual orientation when I’m a privileged member of the dominant heterosexuality. It’s in no way surprising if I – a black man – stand up for the rights of my own people, but quite another thing if I am a white man, looking beyond the privilege of my advantageous pedigree to champion the cause of oppressed minorities.

Similarly, if we are committed to a more mature and dynamic politic, one that embraces differences of opinion as well as of ethnicity, belief system and sexual orientation, and working in the interest of all its citizens, mustn’t we be able and willing to look for the sense and intelligence and compassion in the arguments of our opponents, and even to celebrate them?

Health care, like abortion, and gun control, and freedom of speech, is an issue that will touch on many sensitive nerves and challenge conceptions. But looking carefully at the policies, and openly debating their pros and cons, will generate a better body of solutions than continuing the hateful warfare of self-righteousness that dominates today’s politics. And if we self-styled progressives won’t take this stand, who will?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

What's Next?

It was an offbeat New Year’s Day. Ponczka likes to treat the day according to the superstition that it will become a blueprint for the year to come. Which means she likes to get a few things done: to paint a little, do something constructive around the house, fit in some self-care, attend to friends and family, have some fun, things like that. Over the years, I've taken up this attitude myself.

But today didn’t go exactly according to plan. First of all, we slept in, after being out partying until three. By late afternoon, it was pretty clear we just weren’t going to have the championship day we’d hoped to. Wasn’t a bad day, just not very accomplished. We ate too much, lounged about, went out and spent too much money, and pretty much ignored productive activity.

So, what’s that say about our upcoming year? That 2011 is bound to be a disaster! If we choose to believe in such omens. Which we don’t. Except that...well, I did make sure I got this post in.

Some possibilties are not to be trifled with!