Thursday, March 31, 2011

Seeing What's Possible

Ponczka has been dragging me off to yoga class most Saturday mornings lately. I resisted at first, in part from feeling that the practice was somehow in competition with the Tai Chi I've worked at for almost ten years, but that I've neglected lately.

It's a wonderful class though, and I find myself looking forward to it. It's different than Tai Chi, but the practices share elements too. Both are meditative, as much about conditioning the mind and awareness as the body. And both build strength and balance in both overt and subtle ways. And, like Tai Chi, yoga is more challenging, and presents much more of a workout than I ever imagined as a casual observer.

When Sheila, our instructor, has guided us into a particularly challenging pose – torso twisted, muscles straining – she often intones the words, "see what's possible". It's her invitation to us, not to assume we know our limits, not to stop ourselves at the border of the territory we know. She regularly reminds us not to overdo anything, to rest when we need to, not to allow ourselves to suffer in pain. At the same time, she coaxes and encourages us not to give up before the strain is upon us, not to anticipate and avoid that point beyond which we fear to go. She offers up the hint that our bodies will stretch more than we imagine, that our stamina will carry us further than we dare hope, that we are more than our image of ourselves.

And of course, she's right. How very much is possible.

A recent and unexpected call reminded me of this lesson in another way. On my way home from work the other night I answered my phone and heard a familiar but unrecognized voice speaking to me. There was the slightly buzzy, fuzzy sound of the void forming a background and suggesting either long distance or a poor connection or both.

"You'll never guess where I'm calling from," said Ed, after introducing himself. It had been a long time and I was glad to hear from him. I'd met Ed when I worked in Regent Park, trying to develop skills-building and mentoring programs for youth, in a climate where there was much cynicism and skepticism about such programs, for many reasons, some of which were legitimate and some not. Ed showed up at a community meeting to sell his Life Skills/Hip Hop dance program to an ad hoc community council of youth workers, and around the table he was met by a lot of impassive faces, a few rolling eyes and little else. Maybe the most legitimate reason for the response is that Regent Park, like many other impoverished and distressed communities, was often visited by transient do-gooders who don't understand what the community offers, in either resources or challenges. Once they do understand, they often disappear, leaving little behind, but far too willing to cash in on their brief experience.

But Ed was not one of these. Rather, he was an innovative and creative pioneer of sorts. He absolutely didn't look the part of a Hip Hop impresario. What he was, in fact, was a White, Irish, Catholic School teacher from one of the Eastern provinces who specialized in teaching the hearing challenged. But in his school, he'd observed, investigated and explored the dynamics of a diverse school body. And after noticing the way a couple of his hard-of-hearing students interacted with some of the schoolyard break dancers, he'd carefully and skillfully put together a program pulling together peer mentoring, goal-setting and performance. Ill Skillz became a phenomenon, to which Ed attracted a whole array of contributers and supporters from the performance, media and business communities. The students took their act to a wide array of venues, with great success, and set many of its members of their pathways to successful careers.

Ill Skillz had accomplished about all it could in his one school, and was on its way to garnering the support of the Catholic School board to expand the program. But what Ed wanted was to give the program to a community that needed it more and could potentially do more with it.

Long story short – it never got off the ground in Regent Park. I've never been the organizer, nor promoter that I've aimed to be. Ed and I tried some things, got a couple of kids interested for awhile, but never managed to generate enough energy or momentum to get it going. He and I hung out a couple of times, appreciating one anothers' efforts and visions. His Ill Skills continued to grow into a powerful learning, teaching, mentoring vehicle. I eventually left Regent Park too, and we lost touch. Until the other night.

It turns out that Ed was phoning me from Paulatuk, a tiny Inuit community in the extreme Northwest Territories, overlooking the frozen Beaufort Sea. It's name means "Place of Soot" because of the coal deposits in neighboring hills that smolder and give off smoke. It's a community of 274, and as a teacher, he's one of a dozen or so outsiders in the helping professions. He said he thought of me because a discussion in a meeting among these professionals brought to mind something I once said about how change happens incrementally. And he gave me a call and invited me for a cup of coffee when he comes to Toronto in a few months.

So Ed has been on my mind. When we have coffee, I intend to ask him how he came to carry himself all that way, to a place where he experiences -50C temperatures and wolverine invasions causing school shutdowns, storms with howling hundred kilometer-per-hour winds, grizzlies in the neighborhood, and alcoholic binges that keep kids out of school for days at a time. I'm pretty sure that part of his answer will be that he wanted to see what was possible.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Losing Libya

What will it mean to the world, to allow the Libyan revolution to fail, when just two weeks ago it seemed the tide of liberation through North Africa was unstoppable? What will it mean to know that we in the West might have prevented that devastating outcome if we'd acted?

I don't know what it will mean?
I know that the certain dread I now feel, that Gadhafi will prevail, is as removed from fact, from any deep knowledge of the situation and the players as was my recent euphoria that Gadhafi was going down. I know that I don't know, and that there is a vast body of factors - historical, psychological, economic, spiritual, meteorological even..., and human...that I don't even suspect that I don't know.

Are there really so many pro-Gadhafi forces? Or is it that mercenaries have been bought with all those resources the people have been denied? Or is this a victory of fear against hope...fear that kept enough people off the streets and away from the protests, so that the necessary critical mass wasn't reached? Or, is it that the arms imbalance is simply too great?

Is it possible that the world's attention was diverted to Japan and away from Libya just enough that some psychic advantage in the collective unconscious was lost? Or is Gadhafi - ruthlessly moving himself up the list of all-time despotic greats - just that good at being so bad??

But, given that we don't know, that we can't truly know for certain, what has kept the west from acting? There are the geo-political factors, of course: sovereignty, the dangers of picking sides in civil wars, and the problem of the exit plan, and others. But, from a more natural perspective, is this hesitation the same as that which keeps us as individuals from intervening when rowdies are harassing a bus driver? Or when a frazzled mother is screaming at her kid in the check-out line? Is it a problem of empathizing or of failing to empathize? And with whom? Is it fear of picking the wrong side and going down? Or simply fear of taking responsibility? Or something else?

Standards depend so much on perspective. In Toronto, there is continuing fallout over police brutality against peaceful protesters during last summer's G-20 summit. And one of the sub-texts is: why didn't the good cops intervene and stop their overzealous colleagues? And, failing that, why don't some of them step forward now and finger the abusers of power? Mind you, this is the same police force that consistently blames residents of high-crime, low-income communities for not identifying and testifying against the thugs who live among them. Everyone champions loyalty, but loyalties compete on every level and between levels.

What troubles me, in myself as well as in the world at large, be that in community groups, in families, clubs and nations, and tribes of all kinds, is that loyalties and the ideas that fuel and prop them up, can be taken on so lightly, with so little probing or research, with so much taken for granted about who the good guys are, and why. Which brings me to an entirely different point than I expected when I started this essay.

What action would I stand up for regarding Libya? I support a fight for those who want some form of democratic participation for themselves. I'd support a campaign that would suppress Gadhafi's military. But I wouldn't want to "take sides" in the shaping of a government. So I'm already at odds with myself, because how to do one without the other? I can't divorce my decision-making from my values. What happens when the oppressed underdog whose cause you support becomes an even worse master? And how many times has that happened? So I find myself agreeing with a retired general whom I heard being interviewed on the CBC the other day, who said that, when it comes to an internal struggle between two near-equal factions, it's best not to step in before one side or another has demonstrated a clear advantage. What went unsaid, but implied, is that you then choose what relationship you want to have with the victor, you don't try and change the result.

Which makes all the sense in the world. But what I'm feeling is a positive rush that the UN has finally taken moves to establish a no-fly zone, and I hope that there will be even more direct military support for the rebels, and that somehow, it won't all amount to too little, too late.

I don't imagine I'd feel the same, if I was just off a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even if I'd ever been a fighting man. But, can action ever wait until all doubt is gone, until every possibility has been considered and all options weighed? Or in the end, do we act as life moves us?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I read a tombstone in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery this evening.

Today was one of our first Spring days. It warmed to above plus ten, and in the late afternoon the clouds came apart into pieces that soon dissipated, leaving the day suddenly and unexpectedly bright.

Equinox is less than a week away. The patios are about to explode into life.
My bike will be out tomorrow for the first time this year.

And Mt. Pleasant is the first cemetery I ever came to love. I lived three blocks away for nine years and it became a favorite place to walk, and later on, when I began to take back my body, it was the first place I jogged in almost a decade.

It feels wide and open for the city - spacious and well tended, curved and rolling, inviting in the sky. And it’s also the place at-long-last teaching me the names of trees, because each of its dozens of varieties are tagged with its name, both latinate and anglicized.

It’s a peaceful place. Not morbid or depressing at all. Restful, reassuring. I never connected a sense of peace or of wellbeing with burials until I came to know this place. This place has taught me the reasonableness of a common ground for the dead and the living to meet, in memory, thanks, longing and grief, for yesterdays to be measured against now, for the reshaping of histories and relationships outside of the tyranny of time.

I happened to be passing, just when my long, complex and emotional day had worked itself through, and I steered the car in along a path, then slowed and parked. Eventually, I went to where I knew I’d find my name engraved in stone, in deep and clean block letters.


Not relatives of mine, that I know of. Just the sharing of a name. No, not morbid at all... Anchoring. Seeing it raises a smile to my lips. I imagine myself on both sides of the impassable border, and the gift glows warm inside me, balanced with that other gift I can only imagine.

And then, the rest of the inscription, in squat, even letters.

What it says is:
In loving memory of
1833 – 1915
1842 – 1914
1868 - 1932
1877 – 1935
1874 - 1946

So much story in so few lines.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Reaching After Art

I’ve been reading a volume of Paris Review interviews with writers. As I read, I’m aware of the voices I manufacture to represent these writers. It reminds me of the way Hollywood presents period pieces. Whether the cultural era represented is Roman, Greek or Egyptian, Chinese or Mayan, the rulers, the elites, the higher ups are so often given formal British accents. I do something like that in my head. I hyper-intellectualize these writers in my mind. As Hollywood does with its elitist accents, I place my writers in a world apart, distance them from my every day. Whether it’s from awe, respect or fear, I place them in a realm I can skirt around, catch a glimpse of, but can’t quite enter.

And sometimes, when someone asks me about my writing, or about my practice of social work, or about fusion jazz (or anything else about which I think I ought to have some expertise) I find myself going into a subtley altered voice. Trying to sound as though I have something all figured out. Slipping in the odd fifty-cent word that I hope they don’t quite understand. It’s not intentional. Not consciously intentional. It is a little defensive though, in the same way some of the responses of these authors gets a bit defensive when asked a highly analytical or intellectualized question about something that didn’t spring from the intellect.

I have a great friend in the artist Liz Quisgard, a hard working, prolific sculptor of colourful, highly patterned columns and knitted tapestries who, when asked what her works means, replies, “Nothing at all.” She presents no theories about how her work comments on the social or cultural milieu, or responds to certain psychic of spiritual forces, or represents the evolution or devolution of what has come before. “It is what it is,” she says, matter-of-factly. She knows her work well enough, and likes it well enough, that she doesn’t need to say anything else about it. She knows that she’s an artist with such assurance that she doesn’t need to define what an artist is. She just makes art and doesn’t bother with the rest of it.

Me...I’m not even close to that. I’ve been writing – not prolifically, but steadily – for decades. I’ve amassed thousands of pages of scenes, dialogues, reflections, scenarios, ideas and outlines. I’ve had a handful of short pieces published, but most of my output is in a state that can only be called “unfinished”. But I realize that this is – more than anything – a symptom of my unresolved self-image. Because, I’m still hugely uncomfortable claiming for myself the designation “artist”, or “writer”.

I make music too, but I have no worries or concerns about whether I’m a musician or not. Because it isn’t important to me that anyone consider me a musician, I’m free to happily make music without much concern about what others think – except for the neighbours that is, when it’s late and their kids are in bed. But writing? That’s a different matter. Because I’ve wanted to be a writer all my life. And in my heart, I know I am one. A contradiction, yes, but that’s just how it is. I know and I don’t know. I am already, yet am always striving to be. I reach for what I already hold in the deepest part of my being.