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?