Monday, December 31, 2012

No Space, No Time; Just Here, Just Now

One of my recent discoveries on the Jazz front is a British group of artists who call themselves United Vibrations. The title of the cut that I featured on a recent Jazz Gumbo podcast is paraphrased in this blog’s title ( ). I wonder, as I listen to this fast-paced groove, whether the young masters know the wisdom of their mantra, or whether they’re just passing on some learned philosophy. I can’t help but to suppose the latter, though in the interview segment in which I caught some of their thoughts about music and politics and life, they sounded remarkably mature and thoughtful. It’s just that, well, I’ve always thought of myself as mature and thoughtful, and yet this knowledge is proving so difficult for me to absorb.
You see, I no longer doubt the truth of Nowness, which to my own ears has been most helpfully expressed by Eckhart Tolle. But getting past the intellectual blocks doesn’t in itself make a truth liveable.

And so, my struggle with time continues. Maybe not so much a struggle anymore (I’ve progressed that far – I’m more accepting of my inability to have the dimensions and capacities of time accommodate themselves to me). But I still experience, what shall I call it ... disappointment? ... at what I can fit into the sweeping of the clock’s hand, and what I cannot.
Oh well. I’ve gotten much better at pulling myself back into the moment, into now, and feeling the relief, the peace, the gratitude that descends, as I realize again that “ doubt, the universe is unfolding as it should”, and that “this” – whatever “this” is in its moment – is immanently embraceable.

I’ll still take the time, however, to make my occasional resolutions about my engagement with time. And there’s no better time than now. The beginning of the New Year, Solstice just passed, the days already creeping long, coming out of this odd, suspended moment that is the week between Christmas and New Year.
What are my resolutions? It doesn’t really matter, does it? A resolution is, at best, a small piece of that ongoing conversation between self and self, which is also a conversation between self and existence, between what I am and what I dream, between the elemental and the possible, in all things.

Love to you. All the brightest hopes for your New Year. And may you walk in perfect harmony with time.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


I can't recall a time when Solstice perfectly coincided with the start of winter. Certainly it's never happened as dramatically as it did last Friday.

Ponczka and I were together at Cloud, our getaway in the hills of the Finger Lakes region.What better place to spend the end of the world together!

We awoke there Solstice morning to this Winter Wonderland. There was a good 2-3 inches of heavy, moist snow covering everything. Through that day and the following night, we got another 3-4 inches.

Sooo beautiful.


and After

and, my favorite

Photos courtesy of Ponczka!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An “End” and a “Beginning”

Greetings and appreciation to all my Readers!

This idea of “The End of the World” is intriguing. I won’t like it if it turns out to be literally true, but as a metaphor of things to come – not bad. It works for me because it so mirrors what’s going on for me personally. I’ve hit a wall. I’m stuck, overwhelmed, depressed.

My doctor, when I spoke with him about it, immediately suggested I take time off from work. (Bless him for that!) He said that my symptoms suggest depression, and that he encounters is regularly among teachers, who otherwise love their work as I do. He agrees with me that I need to reground myself, and that key parts of that are to get physically active again (I’ve put on about 30 pounds in the last year) and to resume regular meditation. One of the key issues has been an inability to maintain any kind of focus or regularity, with anything!
So I’m taking time off to get healthy. It wasn’t easy to take off the time, despite how much I wanted it. I’m a government worker, and I sometimes run into attitudes about how little government workers actually work, and how we’re overpaid and live in some sort of fantasy world that’s detached from reality. Another part of the myth is that even when we’re working, we’re only coddling others who themselves don’t work or accept the harsh realities of life. The other attitude at play is that those of us in the “helping” professions typically tend to be uncomfortable seeking or accepting “help” for ourselves. We don’t practice very good self care, because we feel that we’re supposed to be caring for others. And because our clients are rarely in good shape (I work with homeless youth), even going home at the end of the day can carry a sense of incompletion.
I’ve managed to face the fact that I am not well, and that I can’t get better until I address some of the sources of my unwellness. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that one thing that’s been missing is balance. I’m using my time off to get my balance back. One thing that means is to cut things out – both things I do for others, and indulgences I allow myself. And part of that involves having a different relationship with time. Lately it seems my main relationship with time has been to keep it crammed full of stuff, or to feel guilty because I’m not. It’s a frame of mind that makes it difficult to be emotionally still, in peace, or in flow.
So part of what’s gone just lately is “keeping up” with this blog, which I dearly love. I haven’t made any determination about changing anything here; I’ve just stepped away from the expectation (self-imposed) that I post at least six times a month (something I haven’t been managing anyway).
But back to the Mayans and this business about 21 December. One thing I love about it is that never before in my memory has Solstice received this degree of attention. But it’s a day I’ve been mindful of for most of my adult life, as the day the Earth makes its shift in relation to the sun, so that the days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to lengthen.
Solstice is a great time for beginnings, for fresh starts. This “coming of the light” is the best time imaginable for births of all kinds, particularly holy ones. And personally, I’m hoping that this Solstice will be my perfect time for a shift in perspective. May the day bring you what you need as well!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Saidy's Garden

Elsaida Douglas went into the central plaza of Toronto’s Regent Park one morning and began to dig a garden. She had a shovel and a few plants and she set about turning up the soil on a small plot of ground in the otherwise concrete plaza. This simple act was both one of community building and defiance. It was also timely. Saidy’s act coalesced a pool of community energy that had been unfocused until then; she gave tongue and form to an emotional expression that had been vibrating throughout the community without voice. Her colleagues in the Dreamers came out to support her, and soon others joined them. Within a week, the 50’ x 50’ area had been transformed into a lush garden with flowers, shrubs and trees of all sorts. The Peace Garden came into being.

In fact, the Peace Garden had history that antedated Saidy’s act of creation. Regent Park was on the verge of a thorough renovation – Re-Vitalization, it was being called. Canada’s oldest, and largest, public housing developments was entering a new phase. Regent originally came about in the 50’s in response to a call for urban renewal. It replaced a community of shanties and tenements that housed the working and unemployed poor in the post-war years. It brought then modern concepts of high-rise, urban villages into practice, creating a community cut off from the surrounding city in key ways. There were no thru-streets in the original project of twenty-some acres, keeping it apart from the grid of city streets and the traffic that they carry. When the development reached its full 66 acres, only Dundas Street, a busy, main thoroughfare, bisected it, creating an unintended sense of north versus south that endured the following decades.
There were also no grocery stores, banks, or phone booths to serve the roughly ten thousand inhabitants, nor a high school. This meant that, while residents were forced out of the community to meet basic needs, there was little to draw people into it’s borders, reinforcing Regent’s identity as a place apart. This car-less nature of the community was advantageous in some ways. Notably, it created family friendly areas where mothers could congregate and allow their children to run and play. But there was also the unintended consequence that it made policing more difficult. Various corners of Regent became ideal for drug transactions, and as loitering spots for the youth who turned to “the game” for economic survival and street culture status.

Elsaida’s garden was a Peace Garden for a reason. She herseIf had lost her son to the violence of game. And as had formed the Dreamers as a collective with other mothers who’d endured this loss. The name, “Dreamers”, was not only an expression of the group’s hopes for a better future for the community. It also honored Saidy’s gift or seeing and being inspired via her dreams. She’s been forewarned of her son’s death via a dream, and first glimpsed the reality of her garden through another. This lovingly cultivated plot of land was meant as a memorial to the many community youth who lost their lives as a consequence of this game, and through other forms of violence.
The Peace Garden was one in a series of responses that Regent Park has made to its various challenges. Other responses include the creation of one of the first Community Health Centres, the formation of a wide variety of small non-profits and resident groups, to promote culture, serve children, youth and the elderly, and to address issues like newcomer adjustment to life in Canada. It was Regent Park, via the Health Centre, that gave rise to Pathways to Education, a tremendously successful, multi-pronged approach to decreasing drop-out rates, improving academic achievement, and getting more youth into universities and colleges. And Pathways is now being adopted by communities across Canada, standing now as one of Regent Park’s main contributions to the rest of the world.

By the time of Saidy’s act, the community had been lobbying for more than two decades for an overhaul of Regent, to upgrade it’s crumbling infrastructure, and to link it back into the web of city streets, in the manner that Jane Jacobs, Toronto’s guru of community design would’ve advocated. What resulted was a three year process of planning and consultations that finally initiated a complete rebuilding of Regent Park – one that is to be so thorough that there are fears as to whether the identity, cohesion and activism of the former community will survive.
Last night, I did something I used to do almost daily, but hadn’t in a few years - I took a good long walk through Regent Park, to see what was new and changed. I went into the new CRC building, where a community dinner was going on, provided by other neighborhood churches on a rotating basis. I stopped by the new Aquatic Centre, just opened a couple of weeks ago, a replacement for the old, outdoor pool that was closed two years ago. I made my way to the Daniel’s Spectrum, a long dreamed of Culture & Art Centre that seemed impossibly far from realization when groups lobbied for it in community meetings five years ago. That building in now the home of various groups that previously occupied basements and converted residential units in the old high-rises: the ArtHeart arts program for kids, the Regent Park School of Music, The Regent Park Film Festival, and other groups from around the City that have joined forces for the revitalization of Toronto’s urban core, like the Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape.

What I found missing on my walking tour however, is Elsaida Douglas’s Peace Garden. I was shocked to learn from passing residents that the garden was removed when a through street had to be created. I asked in vain for news about it being moved, or perhaps awaiting its own revitalization in the new park that’s to be developed next to the aquatic centre. No one could tell me anything. That made me wonder about Saidy. Where is she these days. I can’t imagine her allowing the bulldozing of her park without a fierce fight. Her original act of creation and defiance – on that day when she created her garden with a shovel and a dream – came in the face of Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s intransigence, as she and others demanded certain features in the new Regent Park. I was reminded, during that night of my walk, that creative tensions aren’t always apparent on the surface; the signs we see don’t always tell the full story.
As I walked through the Daniel’s Spectrum, however, which is vibrantly alive with art, I came upon a painting of The Peace Garden. It’s a beautiful work, by David Louis Wall. I was so glad to see that. So many signs of the old Regent – both good and bad – have vanished or are vanishing. Most of the people I happened upon and spoke with last night are new to Regent. They weren’t familiar with the old community spaces and buildings, pools and schools. But seeing Wall’s painting gave me a shot of excitement and hope. Something of the old Regent remains under this glimmering facade of the new. What’s ahead isn’t clear. But, from my way of looking at things...that’s a good thing. It reminds me that, on any given morning, an Elsaida Douglas, a private citizen, struggling and surviving the challenges of their own life, can step out into the public sphere, and surprise us.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Thoughts at Campaign's End

It’s come down to this. In just a few hours, polls will open for the final day of this long election campaign. By sometime tomorrow night, or late the following morning, we’ll know who has prevailed and will lead the US government for the next four years.

I’ve been making calls the last few days, logging into the Democrats Abroad website, and dialing households in Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Nevada. These are four of the dozen or so “swing states” which, by virtue of being toss-ups, will determine the outcome, or so the pundits believe. Eighty to ninety percent of my calls go directly to voice mail, and I leave brief messages encouraging them to vote, and to contact the campaign if they have difficulty. And, I generally add a couple of sentences about why I’m volunteering: because Obama is growing the economy in a way that will benefit all citizens, I say, not just those who are the most prosperous. Or I say that I’m a social worker, and I recognize that what are dismissed as entitlements are investments in human beings who, as their lives improve, improve our country. Or something else along those lines.

Even when I get a live person, most of the calls are concluded without me making it more than a question or two into my script. These poor citizens have been inundated by calls, and I’m of two minds about calling them – knowing how annoyed and put off I would be were I on the receiving end. And yet, my own anxiety about tomorrow’s outcome is severe enough that I feel I have to take a part, do what I can to support the cause. And those I manage to speak to seem sympathetic, for the most part, and maneuver politely out of conversing with me.

I sound to myself like one of those political spots, like one of the sound bites that come rapid fire out of the television at every commercial break, alerting me when I’ve landed on an American as opposed to a Canadian station. Wearysome, grating, annoying is what they are – even those for my guy, because I’d like to think that our side doesn’t need to resort to such tactics.

But...such is life in America these days. Or, better yet...such is life as a human being. Because it’s true that we respond to poking and prodding, to come-ons and guilt trips, to bribes and to having our buttons pushed. I learned that when I was an encyclopaedia salesman. It isn’t so much that people are manipulated into liking what we don’t like, or into doing what we don’t want to do. It’s that we respond to encouragement to do what we think we ought to do, and to like what we ought to like, but don’t find convenient or easy or worth the cost.

I get how hard politics is. I get that it’s so much about getting us to feel better about what isn’t easy or what costs too much. I get that it’s sometimes about prettying up some ugly choices, and about uglying down the choices the other side wants you to make. And I sincerely wish that it were more workable to talk politics in a different way. Of course, that can be done, if winning, if achieving the desired end is not paramount. I sometimes spoke to my encyclopaedia clients as though it didn’t matter if I got the sale or not. And, truth be told, I rarely got those sales, unless the buyer had negotiated all their questions and doubts and fears of a bad deal before sitting down with me. You learn quickly in sales that when you let people drift away to “think about it”, it’s a sale you’ll never see. They may buy, but it’ll be the next guy, or next year, or never.

Yes, it’s a bit cynical. But when it comes to this political game, it’s more real than any set of books anyone will ever buy. And the buying time is now. No longer time for folks to “think about it”. It’s act now, or forever hold your peace.

On the other hand, it’s estimated that thirty to forty percent of voters will have already cast their ballots before tomorrow dawns. This is no longer a 1-day event. Election Day itself becomes more and more symbolic and ritualistic. People have been voting for weeks already.

I voted three days ago, doing so electronically for the first time. I completed my ballot on-line, then sent it back to Washington State by email. I haven’t set foot in Washington State for almost 20 years, but for voting purposes, my address is still 1600 S. Massachusetts, in Seattle, a fitting address for the occasion.

I intended to use this post to lay out my most compelling reasons for supporting Obama. But I don’t really have the patience or inclination to do that. Instead I’ll give my strongest non-reason, which is how bizarre this all looks from beyond the borders of the US. Gallup did a poll awhile back, asking nationals of several other countries whom they’d like to see win this race. The results were overwhelmingly for Obama. And I see this reflected is most of the conversations I have with non-Americans about the state of US politics. To them, it’s like a bizarre and severely dated sideshow.

It strikes most non-Americans I encounter as extremely backward that, after being the sole developed country without any kind of national health care system for so long, that it was fought against so vehemently and hysterically, and that repealing it is a core position of a candidate that could actually win. It strikes many as absurd that religious fundamentalism has become so enmeshed in politics that it dictates what candidates can and cannot say, and that it has contributed so enormously to an anti-scientific mind set that stubbornly scoffs at climate change and even at evolution. And, most take it as extremely unfortunate, if not insulting, that the US seems to care little about the values, interests and opinions of the rest of humanity (except Israel). And finally, in a country once so proudly egalitarian in principle, how odd that so many working class Americans are more committed to supporting the interests of the wealthy, than the interests of the poor.

Happy Election Day to All of us, America!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Brishti - Hindi for Rain

     A friend and colleague welcomed a daughter into the world, barely two weeks ago. He and his wife gave her the name Brishti, then watched over the last little while, as rain swept through this part of the world in unprecedented quantities, bringing, along with its usual offerings, a new degree of awe at what nature can make of such common, simple elements as...rain.
          I said to my friend what I often say to new parents - and mean, to the depths of my heart - that they've performed the ultimate act, one of potentially unlimited beauty and good, and that they will never surpass it. I also expressed my envy. It's not a bitter envy, but it's envy nevertheless. Because I have no children, nor any hope that that will change. I used to dream, and believe, that I'd have many children. And that forward-looking hope still stands as a solid and tangible joy in the arc of my life, which, like all real joys, lingers in my soul even now, long after hope itself has faded, and its fading has been accepted. I remain a joyous father-to-be at heart. And I'm glad to say that it yet informs my walk through life, my work and all my other creative aspirations.
     I believe it's true that sometimes the lack of something enhances what we see and value in it. Me, I notice children, and I marvel at the ways and means of their growing into whatever they will become. My work has long been with children who are at the very outer reaches of that state - that is, with what we now call adolescents, and young adults. No, they aren't really children anymore. But it's so true, all that's said and written about the importance of those early years, about the child making the man or woman, about those first years being the formative ones, the molding of which we are never entirely free of. We never completely outgrow the child, do we?
     Increasingly, as I near the age of sixty, I see the child who lingers in those around me, and in myself. And I notice that the awareness of that child makes everyone more beautiful....
     And so, Brishti - Hindi for rain. Welcome to the world, and to all its forces that will shape and intermingle with you. Welcome to a future that each and every day will bring you something new. Welcome to Living! And may you never grow too fast.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Night Passage

     The plan was to travel to Cloud this weekend. We set out driving on Friday night, after work. However late we leave, however late we arrive, our short passage of time there will commence with sweet sleep, and we will awaken there, in that wide and deep space.
     But last weekend, the boats came out onto the hard. And the women planned a halloween party for this weekend, and so we had to stay. It's been our community, after all, through langorous, hot evenings, after cooling afternoons on the lake. It's the most natural of connections we share with these folks, nothing uniting us but the water, the boats, and yet, we come there with all the everything we are, and with no pretense, as none of it is the reason we are there. And so we laugh, and eat, and repair our boats, and go to and from out lives, and we know one another as witnesses from the fringe, where there's no question but to be ourselves.
     And so some of the guys decided to play, and I - not wanting to go at all at first, so hungering for Cloud - bought my sax along, and there were KB, and Chris, and Vaughn on the bass this time. Phil came with drums, and with a friend, Neil, and it all flowed kinda nice and unexpected, surprising us as music always does, at how good and pure it is, how easily emotion becomes sound, that sweeps out into the heart and the feet of our listeners, then comes back at us, not just us anymore, but more.
     Ponczka and I pulled away early, both of us full of the wine and the easy flirting, and the summer music even though it's deep into fall. It's a good night for driving, even though we overstayed the party, and won't get there til five or six at the earliest. It's still the plan, for awhile, until something settles inside. No need to rush. This is home too. The still though noisy night will embrace us here as on the open highway. No need for the speed.
     I pack the last things anyway. Ponczka makes her way up the stairs, leaving me with my fifteen minutes. Minutes here, comtemplating it all, this night passage, whether moving or not, wherever we find ourselves, inside whatever melody, or Halloween pretense, or restaurant along the highway. Sweet night passage. Sweet, sweet life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hidden Questions

I've been stuck. Haven't posted here in weeks now, and feeling some dissatisfaction around that.
It's not for lack of things to write about, or lack of thoughts about matters personal, public and political. It's just that...well, I haven't felt compelled, nor clear, nor focused enough to lay the words down, to process and work through the thoughts, which has really been, apart from the sharing and interaction that results, the single most satisfying aspect of blogging.

But this is characteristic of me. It's a personal trait that has both enhanced and limited my travel through life, this tendency to shift and lose focus, to drop, lose or abandon, any pattern, any habit, or routine. I've never been a steady person. I've never managed to choose a particular path and simply stay with it. Before long, I start wondering what would happen, what would I find, simply from travelling in a diffrent direction, or along a different route. Because...there's the allure that draws me toward newness, and the unanticipated, the different and the unknown. There's an energy that's triggered, merely by the possibiity of transcending the known. It is stimulating, and enticing. It has rarely failed to draw me off, at least to the borderlands of the familiar, where I can look out toward the beckoning other.

Of course this is nothing new, nor peculiar to me. That in itself doesn't make it any easier to comprehend, to manage, to come to terms with. And so, I struggle.

From these words, it might seem that I think myself some wild child, a drifter, explorer, some restless embodiment of creative yearning. But that's not the case. Yes, I like to think myself inquisitive, curious, daring to a degree, eager to embrace what may alter and stretch me. But, at the same time, I can't deny being a plodder, an introvert, one drawn to the safety of norms. I have a strongly addictive side, as well, a side virtually defined by routine, habit,  by aggressive fealty to "the known". That part of me is as strong, as resistant to efforts to purge it, as any other. It is as much me as the creative genie I like to think of myself as embodying.

This line of thinking is recalling William Irwin Thompson to mind. He is a cultural philosopher, whose books impressed me deeply thirty years ago. He presented a compelling argument for how apparent opposites work together to achieve what they mutually aspire to. The example of this which struck me most was how the wild and raving prophet in the desert, and the staid and studious priest in his temple, while outwardly in constant opposition, actually work together to promote the spiritual realm. That always stayed with me, and I guess I see both prophet and priest tugging at my spirit, and only hope that they are shepherding me in the direction of growth and wisdom.

And what has any of this to do with blogging, and with being stuck as I am? I'm not sure. But I sense that it has something to do with seeking some better balance, between this writing and the novel I started but haven't pursued, between my passion for my youth work and the growing need to be doing something different, between my comforts with what is, what I already have, and my desire to have yet another transformative life shift that takes me to where I can not even imagine.

This is, hopefully, a fruitful tension between freedom and duty that I'm feeling. This tension presses my dreams right up against my practical realities. It juxtaposes wild ambition with radical acceptance, impatient hunger with timeless gratitude. I both worry about how it will come out, and thrill at the possibilities. I experience both fear and certainty about the steps I take, both the knowing and the blind ones. I want the soothing night to last forever, and yet I'm eager for the revealing light of dawn. I love this big question I've been living inside of, not even knowing what the question is. And yet...?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Them Blues, Them Blues, Them Post-Debate Blues

     I'm recovering from last night's first Presidential Debate. And yes, I have to agree, Romney was the winner. He presented his arguments far more clearly than Obama, attacked successfully, while hardly needing to mount a defense, and he appeared more focused, comfortable and confident. One of the frustratings thing is that Obama left so much of his best ammunition un-spent. He didn't, as they say in sports, leave it all in the arena. For an excellent summary of the President's missed opportunity, see the following article by Michael Grunwald: .

     During the post-convention period, I had been feeling more and more confident of Obama's eventual victory. I'd been eagerly looking forward to last night, figuring that all Obama needed to do was to present a strong case for what he's already accomplished and a projection of where we are headed, and his re-election would be all but assured. Frankly, I expected him to destroy Romney. Instead, the President took assault after assualt, sometimes making no response at all to Romney's charges - such as that he'd wasted billions in subsidies to failed "green" energy companies.

     It's kind of ironic that, according to Gallup's daily polling on Presidential Job Approval, Obama just reached his highest rating of the last year, at 54% positive. I don't see how that can possibly stand up, after his passive acceptance of the mis-characterization of his record that Romney put forward last night. I'm reminded of that period of time during the Reagan administration, when progressives were so cowed, that all it took was the word "liberal" to send them scurrying for cover.

     Thank goodness there are two debates to go. Last night's result has to shake Obama out of his lethargy, and I'm trusting that it will.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Skin Deep Reporting - Bone Deep Issue

On Monday, Sue-Ann Levy, a reporter for the Toronto Sun, wrote an article damning the renewed presence of dozens of homeless on Nathan Phillips Square. She was critical of the programs addressing the issue, and called for enforcement of the "No Sleeping on the Square" bylaw that is not being enforced.

It was a typically sad demonstration of the politics and journalism of Optics. Levy's piece is essentially a rant against a social ill that dares to manifest itself in public, and on the doorstep of City Hall, no less. There's certainly nothing wrong with lamenting a social state of affairs that generates this phenomenon on our city streets. The unfortunate part is that Levy's attention is on the visibility of the problem, rather than on the problem itself, which is the existence and the condition of these homeless citizens in a wealthy society that has yet to solve the problem of homelessness.

An important admission to make at this point is that I work for Toronto's Streets to Homes program, a program which Levy's piece refers to as "overpriced", and which she suggests is ineffective. But where is Levy's research? Did she attempt any exploration as to who these homeless are? Or of the fate of the previous, homeless occupants of the square? Had she done so, she might have reported on the successful housing of dozens of people over the years, and she might have wondered why more homeless keep appearing.

And, as to the most chronic and longterm of our homeless, she might have posed a question or two about better tools to address their very real needs. Instead, she ridiculed the efforts made to provide comforts to the homeless, and advocated persistently that they be removed from sight.

Ms Levy might also have refered to some of the research, conducted last year as part of Major Ford's budget process, , that recognized the budgetary savings and social benefits that derive from the current housing approach.

Ms Levy is absolutely right to recognize that the problem of homelessness is far from being solved. But lets continue to refine the tools already in our possession, and seek to develop new and more effective ones. Let us not merely force those who are most visible from the reach of our offended eyes. They, and We, deserve better than that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Convention Wisdom

I've been absorbing the Republican and Democratic political conventions through the past fortnight, flicking on the television every weekday evening and catching the last 2-3 hours of speech-making, politicking and grand-standing straight through. I love that I found C-PAC and got my conventions without the narration of commentators, however much insight they may share about background maneuvering and hidden messages. I'm hugely partisan in this race, as sensitive to the differences between the parties as I've ever been, and as certain as many times before of the divergence in the paths the US faces, depending on the outcome in November.

It's unending of course, this schism between the two main parties in American politics. But through much of my life, the choice in Presidents has seemed to me only a bit more consequential than a Tweedledum-Tweedledee reckoning, so far as they way American lives were going to be lived. But, particularly since Reagan's election in '80, the effect of the way the country is steered has appeated to take on greater importance.

I know that there are different America's. I've lived mostly on America's coasts (or out of the country altogether). But I've spent enough time in the South and Midwest, and have engaged with enough conservatives in other vicinities, to understand how fundamentally differently Americans see their relationship to the nation and to one another. If I had to boil it down, I'd say that one of the core differences lies in how we judge the characters of those fellow citizens who are like us, and those who are not like us.

I think that the politics and principles of conservatives reflect, by and large, a conviction that "my kind" of people are strong, resourceful, independent and dependable, and that the other kind are weak, lazy and immoral and need to be watched with extreme suspicion.

And I think that the politics and principles of liberals reflect, by and large, a conviction that "my kind" of people are caring, creative, smart and communal, and that the other kind are brutal, selfish and hypocritical, and need to be watched with extreme suspicion.

And of course, I think that I'm on the right side, for the right reasons, and that I totally 'get' where the other side is coming from. And my side being the liberal side of the equation, I try to compensate for my tendency to think I'm smarter and more caring than those who vote differently than I, and that they are narrow-minded and greedy. Naturally, I can't be an impartial judge as to how well I manage that.

I think I manage it well enough though, to be impressed with the Republicans' lauding of the virtues of entrepreneurial spirit, and their warnings against a culture of entitlement. And I was likewise aware of the Democrats' over-selling of Obama's achievements and their demonizing of the opposition's moral intent.

But all-in-all, for 3 days and beyond, I worried over the Republicans' blasting of Obama's every act and intention. I feared they were having an effect, succeeding in eroding the faith of those wanting to stick by Obama. I thought back to 2004 - certainly the low point in my estimation of the American electorate's judgement. I was befuddled back then, absolutely not getting how we could send George, Jr. back for a second term, after years of ineptitude and unprincipled action.

But as the Democratic gathering in Charlotte got going, I was rejuvenated. Just as 2004 was a low for me, 2008 had been a huge endorsement of my fellow Americans' wisdom and our willingness and ability to "aspire to a more perfect Union.". And I saw that vision being endorsed, repeatedly and powerfully, from the podium. Most importantly, I saw the Democrats actually repudiating the stance of the GOP, with intelligent arguments and with evidence.

Now get you, I thought the Republicans put forward some great speeches as well, most notably, Anne Romney, Condoleeza Ric, Susana Martinez and Chris Christie. But the Dems were represented brilliantly, by speaker after speaker.

Joe Biden was pretty damn good. Michelle Obama was even better. I was very impressed by the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Sandra Fluke. President Obama gave a strong, solid speech, with a nice balance of rational argument and inspiration. But it was absolutely Bill Clinton who delivered the best speech of the entire two weeks. He inspired, he entertained, but best of all, he took the Republican position and arguments and dismantled them, point by point, and presented a stirring and well argued acknowldegment of Obama's accomplishments, and of the difficult circumstances under which he's achieved them. And he spoke with such dignified naturalness, with no hint of artificiality or manipulative intent. He spoke like one whose been there, telling it like it was. As he spoke, I felt that Clinton was laying out a blueprint for the remainder of the campaign, which, if followed, could not but lead to another four years for Obama. He was Brilliant!

But here we are now, a couple of days later, and the campaign is really just beginning, and the outcome far from being decided. And it's time to get more involved. Over the past few years, I've signed my share of petitions, and sent a few emails, and donated a bit of money to campaigns and organizations I believe in. But I realize that I'll need to step it up if I want to take an active hand in shaping the future of the country of my birth, and of the broader world we all live in.

As absurd, inhumane and distant from lived realities as it can be, politics is important. At its core, it's about negotiating the relationships among us, about meeting needs, and about values. Whether we've ever voted or not, politics moves us, one way or another.

Today, I was able to make contact with Democrats Abroad, and to learn a little about the actions they are taking to support Obama and other Democrats. I intend to participate in a few phone banks over the coming weeks, encouraging others to register and vote. Maybe I'll have the opportunity to actually talk ideas with a flexible or open-minded Republican or Independent. I'm hopeful.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Among the Amish

I’m spending a long weekend on Cloud, with no company but Rufus, the oldest and only male among our three cats. Rufus is the only one of the three who gets to make these trips, because he is the most unflappable of creatures, and also the most bonded to us. He endured the trip here – six hours in all when you count the border crossing and the meal and coffee stops – without a single whimper, but with much peering out and sniffing at the windows at the wonders of the roadways and the aromas of these new realms.

I feel a new and different person here, with so much space around me, the life I encounter in the forms of tiny frogs, hummingbirds and surreal denizens of the insect world. It was here – after arriving at Cloud in the early morning – that Rufus issued his first guttural growl, at creatures he sensed but could not see, nor, I suspect, understand. He has free reign of these 9 acres, but hasn’t strayed far from me, which I appreciate – not having ventured into the distant corners of our lot myself, just yet.
It’s such a different thing having this sort of relationship to a plot of land. So different than my lifelong experience of the city, where whatever nature is encountered has bent itself to the demands of ourselves: ever restless, too busy to see, dodging the rhythms that surround us.

Both I and Rufus – city cat that he is – are quieted by our encounter with this relatively untame place. Here, it seems that nature ignores us, as we ignore our potted plants and trees planted singly along boulevards as decoration. Here, nature explodes out of every untended place. I’m amazed at the proliferation of species. There’s something too about the wildness itself – this evidence of life thriving, without plan or regulation or the imposed order of what we call reason. I know some will say that this all points to some divine intelligence. All I know is that, whatever intelligence is indicated, if intelligence it be, is beyond my grasp, ultimately beyond the parsing and analysis of our infant sciences.
But enough of that. It’s the Amish I want to write about. Because I was moved by my encounter with these people who are legendary in America, though they’ve maintained their simple, grounded existence for centuries, relatively untouched amid the hustle and the bustle.

Nothing so exceptional about my “encounter” either. I simple drove downt he road a piece from cloud, to Lester’s yard, referred to hereabouts as the Amish Mall. Lester has an assortment of trailers and rvs parked around his barn, each bursting with what I guess to be surplus merchandise he buys, then sells. It seems – to some degree – a rather worldly pursuit for a member of a people I’d always thought of as maintaining a prideful separateness for our “consumer” reality. Be that as it may, Lester moves about his yard barefoot and in coveralls, with the long beard and the wide-brimmed straw hat I expected. He deals in cash, clumping and peeling bills to and from a wad he keeps in one of his deep pockets, and writes out all his transactions in the small empty gaps he finds in a wad of a notepad he carries in another. Though there are a half dozen other “outsiders” about his yard when I come by, he is unhurried, and he invites me to have a look around, including inside any of the trailers.
All I’m looking for on this stop are some nails, and I find them stacked willy-nilly in boxes and cartons, some of which are open and spilling their contents onto the trailer floor. I find what I need and then add to them a fat tomato - 75 - and a jar of strawberry jam - $4.50. I ask him if $10. will cover the lot, and after suggesting I might have weighed the nails for an accurate pricing, he shrugs and accepts the $10, implying that I’ve paid too much. But I tell him I’m in a hurry to get to his neighbor that he’s directed me to, who sells the rough lumber, so we part ways and I head over to Harry Troyer’s.

Harry is a more smiling man than Lester. He’s dressed about the same, though he wears shoes. And he’s mostly busy at his gasoline-powered saw while I’m there, among several others getting supplies at the last moment, before he closes down for the weekend. I mostly interact with Abe, a youngster of about 11 or twelve. Abe is smart and a lot more knowledgeable about wood than I am. When I tell him I’m constructing a few steps for the back of the cabin, he tells me that oak is better for outside jobs than pine, though more expensive. He helps me find the 2x4s and 2x6s I decide on, and load them into the back of the car. By the time we’re done, Harry is free to settle us up. My purchase comes to just over $21. and Harry too deals from a big wad of cash, though he writes out a proper receipt with his name printed on it.
I’m told that there are two different groups among the Amish, distinguished by the amount of technology and interaction with the wider world that they tolerate. I’m not sure to which these two households I’ve dealt with belong. They don’t seem particularly shy or wary of us outsiders. All the barefoot kids I encounter along the road - staw-hatted or bonneted, depending on the gender – offer a wave as I pass. I haven’t seem many brown-skinned folks in the vicinity, so I imagine I’m a bit of a novelty to them. But all is calm, low key and pleasant as I chat with Abe and Harry, and with the next-to-last customer, buying a truckload of lumber for a horse corral their building.

When we’re alone, Harry and I, I share – because I’ve been feeling the desire to share it, to honor it with him – my understanding of the debt my people owe to his. I recount what I’ve read, about how the  Amish were among the only early Americans who stood against slavery on principle, and about how they opened their homes to escaped blacks on their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. I tell him that, until today, I’d never met an Amish person, but that I’ve always appreciated their principled stand, and was glad to acknowledge that, here, to him. Harry smiled at that, a pleasant smile, pleased and a little self-conscious. Yes, he said, he’d heard a little about that.
We chat a little more. He’s lived here for twenty-four years, having come from Pennsylvania, Harry says. The boy Abe, had come from Wisconsin, only five years before. This of course, checked my assumption, that these were people rooted generations deep into the soil of these particular hills. So again, as is so frequent when I’m in Toronto, I’m standing with people on land none of us was born to, that we’ve all come to from somewhere else. What dya know!? It’s enough of a tiny coincidence that I raise my eyes to the hills, glowing in the light of the descending sun. It’s so beautiful around here, I say. It’s one of the most beautiful views in the whole area, young Abe says.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Carlos & Rosa...the Party

                Whenever I see Carlos moving about the boat yard, fixing or cleaning something, an image comes to mind from history books and stories and old movies. He’s like the career soldier, back in a time when soldiers marched and dug ditches and fought face to face, necessarily unromantic about the highs and lows of living, just doing, always moving, taking care of the necessary thing. Right now, Carlos is inching along the docks with a net on a long pole, fishing the algae and moss and ferns from the water. He scoops it out in long sweeps and dumps it along the row of cut back hedges on the shore. Carlos is in his late forties, a short and wiry guy, built to last, to endure, to get stuff done. He is always moving. When the rest of us are lounging around the picnic tables, drinking and snacking, Carlos prowls the yard, restless energy pulsing through him. He has a beer he keeps close, but its usually sitting on a concrete block or balanced on some stacked timber, while he prunes the trees, cleans the washrooms, washes his car again, then goes for a quick run around the bay in his small power boat.
                He greets and exchanges words with everyone, always interested in the physical tasks they are dealing with. “Your motor’s running good now, eh? Yeah, the guy did a good job. Lots of cleaning. It was old, he said.” He looks out at the sky, “Ah, it’s a nice day. We got it so good here.” And he’s moving again, with that restless quality of always wanting to see what’s next.

                Yeah, the career soldier comes to mind when I see Carlos. A man who faces death everyday, and would be surprised to still be here after so long, except he’s not the kind to stop and think about it. If death comes, he’ll accept it like a layoff notice, but nothing more. There’s always something to do, after all.
                Rosa is Carlos’s wife. Rosa is as relentless and forward thrusting as Carlos in her way. But in her eyes there is an omnipresent mischief and playfulness that dances with everything and everybody. Rosa says hello and there’s a joke already forming, and a deep smile as bonded to that child you have inside you as you are to your own best memories of being that child. Rosa is rounder and browner than Carlos, steeped in round and brown she is, a warm bundle of welcoming energy. She keeps us all fed and connected and visible and laughable and smiling to ourselves. “Kirby,” she says, “Did you get lucky last night?” A raspy chortle bottoms her words. “I don’t know what kinda shape Marzenka was in. Maybe you shoulda woke her up.”

                Rosa is so much like Ponczka (Marzenka) that they could be sisters. Women who like to keep things stirred up, who can’t leave anything alone, ever. I have such an interesting life. And how full of wonderfully interesting people, inspiring and beautiful people. And I remain in awe. That after living so long, and so often thinking I’ve gotten to the end of something, that surprises and newness are done, don’t I right then meet a human being who does being a human being in a totally new, never before conceived of expression of personhood. So bountiful this humanity, this world
                It was a great party last night. The Third Annual Vanguard Navy League Pig Roast. We had beautiful weather, food and music, a day that started mellow and opened up into breezes and sun bolts and summer ease. I invited a friend, John T. To sit in with the musicians I knew would be assembling. And I brought along my sax, even pulled it out three times this week, in preparation.

                John T. Found himself a ready home here. When we got here, we didn’t know if there’d be a keyboard for him to play. But Chris got his out, and about an hour into the playing, what dya know, but a Hammond B-3 arrives, on a truck driven by a big man named Kid. Steve, another big guy, a natural performer with a tremallowed voice, led in the singing, and there was a steadily rocking guy I didn’t know on bass, and Phil on the congas. There were multiple drummers, including Peter, a twenty-something year old, who asked to sit early, and then hung around for most of the night.
K.B., our resident guitar maestro, joined in late and was brilliant as ever, and Chris joined on the keyboard, adding his nice flourishes. But my own personal surprise was discovering that Joe, with whom I’ve exchanged maybe twenty words in the years we’ve both been around here, is an amazing trumpet player. I finally met the guy, just yesterday, through his passion for his instrument and the music just came out. We got to lay into some smooth background harmonies together, and to noodle around a little on some breaks. But he broke out with a great solo, and then an exchange with Steve to finish off a piece, and had me knowing I wasn’t close to his league.
                 It was a great day and a great night. The season’s change is so apparent when the sky starts to darken around eight. And there’ve been moments of Fall in the air. Next weekend I go to Cloud alone, that it, unless I take cat Rufus along. He’s the only one of our three that I would even think about taking into the country, but Rufus is so calm and self-possessed that...maybe it’ll work.

                Next weekend I’ll be opening a kind of doorway, into being at this new place, and channeling what I bring into it. I want to write there this weekend, to use the opportunity of the quiet to create my own little Millay. That was one of the first thoughts that Ponczka had about Cloud – having our own little Millay, our own Art Colony.  I want to build a habit of consciousness for Cloud, and the values of focus, openness, rest and of honoring things that are worth honoring along the way, which can only come if I’m aware.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Brilliant Kid

Cain is sitting in a recessed doorway on Queen Street as we approach. He holds out a dirty hand when Boris introduces us. And he begins to talk. Over the course of the next half hour, I’m dazzled by the reach and complexity of this kid’s thinking. He begins by analysing the reactions he gets from passersby as he sits panning for spare change and simultaneously selling the small, colorful artwork he’s made. He makes references to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and how their experience as labourers and hoboes influenced their work. He holds a sign in one hand, marker on a piece of cardboard, that reads, “I’m not begging”.
I couldn’t begin to describe how his conversation flows. But the kid is curious about everything it seems, and wondering and constructing theories about it all. Boris said that after first meeting him, he thought to introduce us, figuring that I would be able to get on his wavelength. And he’s right. I’m immediately intrigued by the obvious braininess of this young man. I ask him about the Ayn Rand book I see lying beside him.
“Yeah, I’m reading it,” he says, “but I have to alternate chapters of it with chapters of this one.” And he points to the other book sitting there, a metaphysical tome about the function of chance and randomness in life.  Cain does a little riff about how determinism figures into Rand’s thinking, and puts forward his objection to the notion of people, events and outcomes being controlled by any formal process. As he speaks, he makes little tangents into chaos theory and quantum physics, then mentions the spontaneity of Miles Davis’s recordings of the Jack Johnson sessions.
I ask him how old he is. Twenty-one. But he usually doesn’t tell people, having realized they make too many judgements about wisdom and maturity, and then issue arbitrary constraints accordingly. Along the way, he mentions the music of Sun Ra, and the writing of Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney and associate of Hunter S. Thompson, who appears in the latter’s work as Dr. Gonzo. The phrase “How does this kid know all this stuff” has by now become a repeating mantra in my mind.
Where’s he from? How long has he been out here, doing this? He’s from Manitoba, he says. And he’s been out wandering the middle provinces since he was about fifteen and began to really feel the limitations of what small city life and doctrinaire parents could offer him.
All the time that Cain and I are dialoguing, Boris is quiet and still, observant and within himself. The concern he’s expressed to me is that this kid is so afloat in his sea of ideation that he may never generate any movement in the concrete world. So I begin to ask Cain what he’d like to do. I point out to him that his powers of analysis and observation could create many opportunities in the world, that he could think and philosophize and construct theories – and even share them – in greater comfort than what’s to be found sleeping in doorways and parks.
He ruminates on this for awhile, then expounds on the potential worth of not being comfortable, of doing without, as creative impetus, and how he wants his life and art and writing to be rooted in an earthy reality. This might have seemed a page out of the “nobility of suffering” credo of starving artists everywhere, but it wasn’t. Cain was giving thoughtful expression to notions about how we as human beings function, how we find our best, what pressures are useful, and what freedoms limiting. And I couldn’t but feel that he was substantially right. As we talk, we’ve been sitting on a recessed stoop on the hip and happening stretch of Queen Street. We’ve faced a steady stream of empowered and beautiful youth, decked out in their fashionable don’t-you-want-to-be-me duds, practicing the look of vacant disinterest worn by those who are both watching and being watched while pretending to do neither. And I feel an admiration for Cain, who is so decidedly looking beyond all of this, and looking backward too, into himself, figuring out where he wants to go, before making his move.
I also feel the danger and seductiveness of this journey of his. I was so like him, thirty, almost forty years ago. I’d read and observed and pondered a lot too, when I was his age. But I think I wasn’t nearly so bold and skilled at synthesizing it all, at using all that to power my walk into an aimed walk. But Cain hasn’t aimed his walk yet, either. Brilliant as he is, he’s still a twenty-one year old, panning for change and selling simple designs on the sidewalk. And how easy it is to get lost after all. It happens even to the brilliant.
Cain is glad to have met me, I can tell. He’s as thrilled as I to encounter a kindred spirit, a mind that explores some of the same mysterious terrain as his own. I offer my services, I tell him, as an employee and representative of the people of this city, to help him to find a place, a stand, a perspective, a position, a path that will serve him, in health, hopefully in happiness as he pursues his explorations.
He’s thinking about it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Straddling Worlds

                 Like many working people, when the weekend comes, I go into a world that is wholly different than the one I work in. Not only are the demands of my job stripped away, but I associate with an entirely different group of people than those I associate with on the job, whether client or colleague. My priorities become rearranged, and to some degree, my personality does too.

                This wasn’t always the case. In fact, I used to feel very strongly about there being a kind of seamless connectivity between my work life and my personal life. At one time, most of my friends were colleagues or people I met through work, and my freetime activities were often related to my work. But in recent years, I’ve turned from that.
                Lately, my private world has itself become much more varied. It isn’t just one alternate world I enter on weekends. There are several others I occupy, and different groups of people I connect with in various ways. And this weekend, Ponczka and I travelled into two of our precious other worlds, one of which was Cape Croker, where we attended the annual Pow Wow.

                And at Cape Croker, I had a surprise. Among the groups of dancers from Native communities of the region, was a group invited to demonstrate the drumming and dancing of Aztec cultures. And among the members of this troupe was a former colleague of mine. Ligia Segura and I worked together at Dixon Hall, more than six years ago now. We worked in different facilities, so didn’t have daily contact, but there was always a good vibe between us, a sense of being on the same wavelength and sharing important values about our work.
                Seeing her today cast Ligia in a totally different light. She was arrayed in a traditional outfit of leathers and silks, I believe, mostly blue, which she says represents water. Her headdress was a crown on slender feathers, each about two feet long, and around her ankles were arrangements of hollowed chestnuts that rattled pleasantly with her every step. She was radiant, and dignified in a way that underscored that she was representing something larger than herself. She danced barefoot, and with an energy and focus that was akin to what she brings to her work, but which I recognized as having a quality that would’ve been out of place when working with clients of the underclass, as we both do.

                We got to sit and speak for awhile, and I shared about the burnout I’ve been experiencing. And among Ligia’s words to me were encouragement that I cleanse myself of “all that doesn’t belong to me.” And she referred to her own spirituality, and the role it plays in keeping her healthy in the face of all the toxic energies we are faced with daily.
                That phrase of hers, about what “doesn’t belong to me” really penetrated. I immediately felt the truth of her observation, that burnout has a lot to do with picking up and carrying around toxins, expectations, worries, troubles, fears, traumas, even hopes, that don’t belong to me, or on my path. It also reminded me of the duality I’ve recently been living – keeping so much of my life separate from my work life. I’m realizing that the flipside of letting go of what doesn’t belong, is to carry what is mine wherever I go, into every place and every interaction. Because, if I carry my core into each of the worlds I straddle, however fractured my life may sometimes seem, there is a wholeness that will endure.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Miles on Miles

I've just finished listening to Miles: the Autobiography, about the great trumpeter and musical pioneer, Miles Davis. It was put to paper by Quincy Troupe, and narrated, in an incredible feat of channelling, by Dion Graham, who transforms his natural smooth bass tones into the same raspy undertones characteristic of Miles himself. I've only heard Miles's voice in brief audioclips of interviews, so of course I can't really know how well Graham captures it. But he reads the material so naturally, and with such feeling, that it was easy to feel I was listening to the Dark Prince himself through the almost 17 hours of the unabridged work.

I've been a fan of Miles Davis since I was a teenager and bought Bitches Brew when I was sixteen or so. I wasn't familiar with any of his earlier music until more than a decade later. Sure, I'd heard some of it, at home and on the radio over the years. But to my young ears, most jazz from before the mid 60's was old-timey. The only real exception to this was John Coltrane, whose "My Favorite Things" was perhaps the first piece of music that I deeply loved, perhaps initiating me into my lifelong love of the art form. My mother was a singer, and during my childhood I was exposed to other great musci that she and my father loved, and I developed appreciation for the likes of Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Nat "King" Cole and Jimmy Smith. But mostly, as I entered my teens, I was enamored of the new music of my time, from artists like the Supremes and the Temptations of Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. & the MG's, and the Isley Brothers. Among the artists who won me over to jazz were Ramsey Lewis, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Wes Montgomery - a kind of mixed bag of styles. But Bitches Brew changed my listening forever.

I was more intrigued by BB than I was appreciative of it at first. It was a long time before I really "got" much of the album. But to this day, I can remember lying of the floor of the living room of Mr. B, one of the faculty who lived in my prep school dorm, with his headphones on, listening to the long cut, "Spanish Key". And the music, with it's polyrhythms, and shape-shifting tonalities carried me off to some tropical place in my mind, where palm trees swayed, and the women from the album's surreal cover danced under the sun. From that single listening, and for the rest of my life, I saw Miles Davis as a musical visionary. I knew that his music was far ahead of where my listening was, and that I would have to travel a ways before I'd catch up. But from then on, I trusted that however weird or discordant his music might sound to me at first listen, if I trusted and kept coming back to it, there was substance and richness to be discovered.

To a greater or lesser extent, my experience with BB was a template for experiences to come, in regards to the music of Miles Davis. It was the same with Live/Evil, ditto with On the Corner, and the pattern repeated itself with a number of his post '80 efforts, following his 5 year hiatus from performing. I would buy one of his albums expecting something that followed predictibly from his last, and would find instead that he had a whole new sound. Occasionally, in the case of his more accessible albums, like Jack Johnson, We Want Miles or Tutu, I'd be completely engaged right from the start. But more often, there'd be bits I'd "get", and others I didn't. But over time, beauties in the music would reveal themselves to me. Not always, but enough so that I never tired of checking out what Miles was up to now.

Despite my great respect for Miles, and love of his music, I wasn't the type to read biographies or interviews, so I didn't know much more about him than I learned from reading the backs of his albums. And while I was a fan, I didn't rush out a buy all of his albums. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was constantly discovering new artists whose music opened new aural doorways I wanted to enter into. I never had a lot of money, so had to make choices in my record-buying. Miles wasn't always at the top my shopping list. Nor was his music necessarily what I enjoyed most at any particular time.

But there were a couple of obvious things about Miles that hightened my regard for him. First off, so many of my other favorite artists had played with him early in their careers. These included Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Bennie Maupin, Airto, Keith Jarrett and oh, so many others. When I finally came around to giving a serious listen to more music from pre-1965, I was shocked to learn that my first musical idol, Coltrane, had himself been a disciple of Miles. That Miles had played a role in the development of so many, well...geniuses, suggested a lot about him. The other thing was that Miles named so many of his compositions after other people, including several of the musicians he'd worked with. In addition to the two album titles mentioned above that fit into this category, other great favorites of mine are the tunes "Duran", named for the pugilist, Roberto, and "Mademoiselle Mabry", named for one of his early wives, Betty.

Anyway, I never had any plan to learn a lot more about Miles Davis. But I'm sure glad I came across this audiobook - more than twenty years after his death - and gave it a listen. I found it endlessly fascinating. Miles speaks so much about the music, his feel for it, his constant hunger for innovation, and his seeking after the textures and rhythms he heard in his head and distilled from the life around him. And he speaks endlessly about the musicians he played and explored with, learned from, had ongoing musical dialogues with, nurtured, hired and fired.

Miles rattles off the names of hundreds of musicians in the bio. And he speaks with such critical appreciation of so many of them. He criticizes a few, particularly individuals he took into one of his groups who couldn't or wouldn't perform up to his standards. But mostly he speaks about what each musician brought to his work that he prized. He praises the technique, the tonality and musicality, the creative powers of a great many artists, even of many he never performed with. He speaks in glowing terms about the influence they had on his playing, and on his thinking. And he expresses his great joy and exuberance about playing with them. Among the great many who receive this treatment are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Williams, Fats Navarro, Billy Eckstein, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Ahmad Jamal, Willie Nelson, Cannonball Adderley, Gil Evans, Max Roach, Al Foster, and it just goes on and on and on.

He also reveals himself to be an extremely contradictory person. He reveals a great sensitivity, but was often cruel and insensitive. He cites his love of women, yet was frequently abusive and dismissive of those in his life. He proclaims his indifference to what others think, yet could be so brittle and sensitive about slights, rebukes and his perceptions of disrespect. His experiences of racism filled him with deep anger towards whites who presumed higher privilege or superiority, but he otherwise accepted whites as collaborators, friends and lovers without a thought. It seems there was much to like and even love about him, but also that it was often difficult to penetrate to that soft, vulnerable core, through a veneer that was cynical, mercurial and distrustful. I don't imagine I'd have liked him very much, but it's easy to see how many found him irresistable and compelling.

In the end, his autobiography underscores the very ordinary humanity - both beautiful and flawed - behind a pioneering genius of music. What I personally loved so much about Miles Davis was that he extended his art form into previously unknown realms. He thereby made the act of listening to music into a growth experience. As much as I love jazz, it saddens me that so much of it these days is merely the reworking of classics, in styles that were staked out decades ago. To me, the key thing about jazz as an artform is that it embraces change. In fact, change is its essential ingredient, whether that be expressed in the improvisation of musicians or in the constant incorporation of new instruments, elements and voices. Miles frustrated many of his fans even as he exhilarated others, by exploding their expectations, stretching their imaginations, their spirits, their ears. And while he clearly enjoyed the adulation of his audience, he led it and didn't follow it. And more than twenty years after his death, I for one am still "getting" all that heavy music he laid down.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Blissfully Ill

        For the last three days I've been sick, laying on the couch, overdosing on the Olympics.
There's a luxurious aspect to being ill. Of course I can only say that because I have the protection of a union structure I work within, and sicktime benefits with my employer, the City of Toronto. I can tend to my malady without worry that my job will be pulled, that I'll have to scrounge with less money for food, rent and other neccessities. And of course, I have the protection of a really outstanding health care system that covers me simply because I am a resident of this fine country. I also happen to be a citizen, but I had health care coverage long before I took that step.

       The great thing about being sick, when you have all these protections, is that it allows you to be ill without also being guilty, or ashamed, or in a position of creating a burden for others. And so I get to reacquaint myself with the couch cushions and the remote; I get to take naps all through the day, and play stupidly on the internet.

      And this is also a time to refresh, which is something I really need. One of the ways I choose to look at illness is as a communication from life itself about ways I am out of balance. It alerts me, and directs me toward what will restore balance. That may be rest or movement, or both. It may have something to do with what I'm eating and drinking. It may be a motiovator to get back to regular meditation, or writing, or communicating with family and friends. Whatever the imbalance, the need, the illness leads me toward it.

       One of the best aspects of illness is the freedom it gives to attend to what you really need. It's maybe the one time that the pressure is off. And so, odd as it is, there's legitimacy to the fact that being sick can feel good

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Let the Games Roll On

I'm already immersing myself in the Olympics. I've done so since I was 14 and watching my first - the Winter Games from Grenoble, then, a few months later, the Summer Games from Mexico City. Those were amazing games for a kid who watched them in a constant state of awe, admiration and surprise.

For one thing, I experienced the world that I was still discovering, coming together in a way that underscored all that is the same about us. I'd lived overseas already - 2 years in Germany starting when I was eight - but I didn't know that so many countries existed! Not really. And to see a parade with citizens of all these distant and rumoured lands, some wearing garb that reflected their different climes and customs...Wow! It was one of the most connecting experiences I’ve ever had through a television screen. It was eye-opening to me that the world is so big.

And then, the unfolding of competition after competition, putting these various nationals side by side, in demonstrations of all the amazing things the human body can do. Night after night I was presented with races and games and rounds and matches in sports I'd only heard of, if that. Badminton, the slalom, greco-roman wrestling (nothing like the wrestling I sometimes saw on tv on Friday nights, featuring the likes of Haystack Calhoun). There was bobsled and luge, figure skating, the high hurdles and discus, weight-lifting and archery. And gynmastics. That was the most fabulous. The things the gymnasts did were impossiblly beyond the every day.

I saw individual after individual attain a seemingly mythic dimension. There was Bob Beamon's amazing long jump, that broke the existing long jump record by almost two feet. And there was Dick Fosbury's flop, which forever changed the high jump. My very first Olympic hero was Jean-Claude Killy, the skier who took 3 Gold Medals. Another was Al Oerter, winning his 4th consecutive gold in discus, his first having come when I was only two. And there was the dominence of the Japanese men and the Chech woman, Vera Caslavska, in gymnastics, taking event after event. There was Kipchoge Keino and the other North African distrance runners, from Kenya, Tunisia and Ethiopia. And of course, very important to my political awakening, were Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with their black-gloved hands raised in protest toward the American flag, after winning medals in the 200 meter sprint.

I don't care that there are so many other more beneficial things that could be funded by Olympic money. And I know that the ideals of the games: equality of opportunity, inclusion, remaining non-political, etc., are compromised in various ways - by having tickets priced beyond the affordability of the local populations, to start - and that, after compelling those populations to make sacrifices to pull the Games off.

But I still believe in what the Olympics represent to me: exploring, appreciating and celebrating excellence, and I think them worth the cost and the compromises they engender. When arguments are made about the waste of money, it sounds to me like chiding for having my piece of apple pie, when I might have had a bowl of spinach and radishes instead. I’m not much moved by it. I would no sooner turn my back on sport than I would on art. Both are gateways into more fully realizing possiblity, beauty, commitment, gratitude, and glimpsing the realm of the magical.

I'm gonna enjoy squandering all of my free time in front of the television over the next two weeks. Many moments of amazement are to come!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Perfect Hour

We went to say goodbye to Cape Croker. At least I did. It's been a special place for me. It's somewhere to go to stretch myself open, to see what's rumbling around inside. I play my sax there. I make pancakes on a little burner in the mornings - my fruit inside, hers on top. I float in the hammock. I meditate. I read, I write. We have sex, great meals. We drink too much wine probably. We watch the thick river of stars in the black sky, and the embers dancing up off the fire. Me meet people who are easy to meet, they being as relaxed and happy as we are. I sometimes, but not always, climb up into the thick woods on top of the escarpment. More often, I just move along the beach a little ways from the camp site, where the sand and rocks have squeezed out all but the hardiest vegetation. I listen for the sounds of the birds and the insects.

I say that this is my spiritual place. And it is - me, without any formal practice, but with a wandering and wondering something inside me that needs a home. There's a meeting here, between that yearning and that destination. There's a knitting, resolving kind of energy that I find, or that finds me, seeping up out of the rocky, patient earth, thrashing about on the moody winds.

I went with a goodbye to say because next week we may take possession of Cloud. And Cloud is a place we will own - which isn't of course the right word for it. How to own land which will be here long after me; which will never come to me, but always draw me toward it, which will harbor and rest me...nourish me in ways I am already dreaming about. No ownership here. Let's say that we are stepping more deeply into a relationship with a place. And that relationship will involve centering and orienting and balancing, and whatever other things one can do with a place.

It can't ever, of course, but it will, in some ways, replace what Cape Croker has been to me. It's a place to which we intend to bring out creativity, and the parts of us that are reaching for space and for the simple rhythms of being. We will come back to Cape Croker - as early as next month for the Pow Wow. And we expect to come at least once a year. But who knows? And even so, there will be Cloud, and so less will be brought here, less will be sought here.

So now, about the perfect hour. It was our last one there. We never leave Cape Croker when others are gathering up to beat the traffic. Our favorite times are always when the weekenders have left and the place is near empty. Some week-long campers will come in and settle down. But Sunday afternoons and evenings are always quiet and calm; the weather is always perfect. And so on Sunday.

I had wanted to be on the road by six, but at five we weren't even close to ready. I said we should get going and eat on the way. Ponczka wanted to cook the sausages she'd bought from the Polish store. But that will keep us too long, I protested. Work tomorrow. So we hustled for a bit. But, well...she really didn't want to settle for fast food, and so Ponczka cooked the sausage after all. And there was green tomato salad, great crusty bread with seeds, some mustard, grilled peppers from the night before. And there were two bottles of cold, cold beer that we'd forgotten about.

It was one of those times when the food you are eating seems to be the only food possible to eat. How could there be any other? We sat under the glowing sky, almost packed, ate and drank and were happy.

When we were ready to go, we gathered a few rocks to carry to Cloud. And while we stood looking out at the bay, Ponczka said what a perfect time it would be to go in the water. We were sticky and we had the road ahead of us - three or four hours. Why not? We parked away from where we'd camped, close to the road heading out, peeled off our clothes, dug out our damp swim gear, and stepped out into the cool water. It was so shallow in this end that twenty steps in we were only thigh deep. The sun was just hovering over the bluff, in its pool of red light. The water sparkled and the air whistled softly. We lay ourselves upon the water and floated. The water was so still, everything so perfectly balanced and tranquil that we closed our eyes and let the water hold us. I remembered the mantra from yoga class, the invitation to keep relaxing more, and I let go of my hold on my muscles and felt my body softening, progressively, a bit more with every other faint outward breath.

If a place can embrace a person, and kiss every portion and particle of him, that's what Cape Croker did to me. Ponczka and I came up out of the water feeling our every pore had been flushed through, every muscle and tendril wiped clean. All was right with the world. I can't imagine the possibility of feeling better. It was a perfect hour.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who Goes There?

Hey You! Yes, YOU! The one reading this. Don’t go anywhere. I have a favor to ask. It won’t take long. Just a minute or so. I’m asking that you identify yourself. Not necessarily by name, though that would be cool too. I want you just to say where you are writing from, and what brought you to reading this post on this particular blog. Can you do that for me?

Here’s the thing. One of the reasons I started blogging was to force myself out of my writing cocoon. I’ve been writing for decades – stories, opinion, my journals...lots of stuff. Except for my letters and emails, though, hardly anything I ever wrote was read by anyone. Yes, I got the odd story or article published. But basically, I’ve been a writer without an audience
Now, with this blog, I’m developing a small audience. According to the stats that blogger generates, I get twenty to fifty to a hundred “pageviews” for each of my posts. That’s 2-300 pageviews a month on average. It’s not a huge number, but it’s a satisfying number. It’s good to know that what I share is received, that thought provokes thought, and feeling generates response. The number of readers has been growing steadily over the two years since I started, and there are indications that some people like what they read and keep coming back
The thing is, I have no idea who most of you are, and I would like to. More than half of the comments my posts have collected have come from 3 people. These three are all friends. One of them is a colleague whom I see fairly often, but the other two, I never see. Some of my other regular readers are also friends, or family (my brother). They never leave comments, but they comment when they see me, or through an occasional email.
But as to the rest of you, I HAVEN’T GOT A CLUE.
So please, take a moment to help me get a sense of who I’m writing to when I post these reflections and essays and thought pieces of mine. I realize that not everyone feels comfortable commenting. And I know from my own inner “to-comment-or-not-to-comment” debates that I sometimes don’t because I don’t think my comment would add anything. Sometimes I’ll comment just to say I like something, but that too is rare (though I’m now working on doing it more often). Your response will make a difference to me.
Another thing my stats page tells me is that I’ve had readers from more that 40 countries (most of which show up on the Flag Counter at the bottom of my page. That stat astounds me. I’d really like to know who found me from Ukraine or Pakistan or Brazil or South Africa! And WHY? Of course I will also welcome anything else you’d like to share: opinions, a review, a peeve...whatever. It’s really easy, and you can make your comment anonymously if you’d like. And if commenting on the blog itself is an issue, you can always send me an email, to
Thank you in advance for this favor. And even if you don’t respond, well...keep coming back anyway, and keep reading.
Yours Truly,
Kirby Obsidian

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Once Upon a Moment

How does the following passage strike you? It’s from the book Tantra, by Osho.
“...Don’t fight with yourself, be loose. Don’t try to make a structure around yourself of character, or morality. Don’t discipline yourself too much; otherwise your very discipline will become the bondage... Remain loose, floating, move with the situation, respond to the situation. Don’t move with a character jacket around you, don’t move with a fixed attitude.
“But...society teaches you to impose something...: be good, be moral, be this and that. And Tantra is absolutely beyond society, culture and civilization. It says if you are too much cultured you will lose all that is natural, and then you will be a mechanical thing, not floating, not flowing. So don’t force a structure around you – live moment to moment, live with alertness....
“Why do people try to create a structure around them? So that they don’t need alertness – because if you have no character around you, you will need to be very very aware...
“To avoid awareness people have created a trick, and the trick is character. Force yourself into a certain discipline so that whether you are aware or not, the discipline will take care of you. Make a habit of always saying the truth; make it a habit, then you need not be worried about it. Somebody asks, you will say the truth, out of habit – but out of habit a truth is dead.
“...And life is not so simple. Life is a very very complex phenomenon. Sometimes a lie is needed, and sometimes a truth can be dangerous – and one has to be aware. For example, if through your lie somebody’s life is saved...what will you do? If you have a fixed mind that you have to be true, then you will kill a life.”

When I first read it, it kind of floored me. I mean, on one level, it was absolutely ridiculous. It went without saying that Character and Morality are dear things, very important tools of guidance. To do without them would kind of be like to abandon language and the alphabet, and to have to figure it out from scratch every time you wanted to communicate with anyone. And, principles are important precisely because they take you out of the moment, toward something approaching the universal. Principles of character and morality are important because they are distilled from a broad view of causes, situations and circumstance and because they have been tested by time, in a wide range of human conditions. They are trustworthy. One can rely on the principles – “Do Not Kill”, “Do not Lie”, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, without having to pick apart the circumstances of a particular  instance.
Yes, it was very obvious to me that this Osho character had gotten things very wrong. Except that, well...his message is so damned compelling. It got a rise out of me, lots of rises. There was something very naturalistic and right-feeling about what he had to say. And all my objections to is were abstract and cautionary, such as, “If you abandon morality, then chaos and disorder will surely follow”, or “People will use this philosophy as an excuse to do whatever they want. It gives people a way around responsibility.”
To this day, I consider, struggle over, flip this viewpoint backward and forward, up and down, trying to come to terms with it. Of course, there is one fairly easy way out. Which is that, if no moral structure is to be adhered to, and every situation taken on its own merits, well this holds for this philosophy as for any other. I’m no more bound to the position of ‘abandonning morality’ than I am to any other.
But does that get me out of it? Out of what...? If I’m thinking on those terms, I’m right back in the loop again. At bottom line, what this statement says to me is that there’s no way out, except to be out. No way out of being in the moment and...deciding, acting, living, in whatever way this particular moment may call for. And no reaction to this moment can be fully justified – or rejected – based on reference to some other moment. Because any other moment is an abstraction, it’s an evasion of what is, right now. It’s copping out of life.
Isn’t that so?
Which leads me directly to another teaching that is having its impact upon me:
The Tao te Ching is a book I’ve known of and have read for going on three decades now, but I’ve been so slow to understand it. And what little understanding I have has come to me in small doses. A particular verse – the 15th – which for so long was totally incomprehensible to me, has begun to speak to me over the last few months. The piece of it that suddenly slammed me between the eyes is the following, from a translation by Stephen Mitchell, “Do you have the patience to wait, till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving, till the right action arises by itself?”
That passage speaks to me of all the times I’ve tried to manage my life, to make it fit into a kind of formula about “how things work”. It speaks to me of times I’ve acted, not out of any confidence I was doing what was appropriate, but from the need to be in action, to respond to a circumstance. Sometimes, it’s been merely in order to be perceived a particular way: as capable, caring, on the ball. Sometimes, action has been a way to reassure myself, because stillness would have been too much to bear. But in practice, some of my best moves seem to have had a large ingredient of happy, unexpected grace. Grace that sometimes feels like that ‘right action arising by itself’.
How much of life is indeed about being in the right place, at the right time, as my friend Lucie suggested in her comment on my last post? Being there, and not in a hurry to do what you don’t know is to be done? Maybe just giving a decision, a circumstance, a feeling, the chance to form, to ripen. And, instead of picking it, waiting, trusting, and allowing it to fall into your lap?