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?