Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Genius, Power, Magic

Those are words that Goethe uses to communicate the impact of pursuing ones aspirations with boldness. It's one of my lifelong favorite quotes, one I've taken inspiration from as I (so hesitantly and self-consciously) tread my way forward. Yes, I've had my bold moments, and yes, so many of them have proven powerful and magical. The 'genius' part recalls one of my other favorite quotes, from the poem "Desiderata", by Max Ehrmann, which includes the line, "...no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should." There does seem to be something genius about how things work themselves out when one stands behind a cause, a belief, a commitment, how - going back to Goethe again - "...a whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way"

I'm back at The Millay Colony for the Arts with Ponczka, for 2 weeks. I was first here almost 12 years ago (and blogged about that here in May 2010). She'll be painting, I'll be writing. And we'll be walking the roads and the State Park next door, huggling up for afternoon naps and probably drinking too much wine. In short, we'll be in Paradise.

Where the boldness comes in is that I decided to write a novel while here. Seems impossible. And there comes a quaking in my gut as I tap out those words. But a queer energy comes with it too. The notion first came to me in one of my weekly sessions with my writing partner Judith a couple of weeks ago. When she and I write, we sit down and go at it for an agreed upon period of time, sometimes doing a fifteen minute warm-up, but always ending with a solid hour, pen-to-paper, or fingers to keypad, nothing more than brief pauses to catch your breath allowed. Amazing how that works. There always come the moments when the mind becomes blank, the writing has caught up to the thinking. There is something like panic as the control of the conscious mind is lost. What will take over now? What will come out?

Well, something always does come out. Sometimes gibberish. More often something more. Eventually, always something more. Sometimes, brilliance. Sometimes, nakedness. Sometimes, a coalescing of what's been tumbling about inside, but which that so careful, needing-to-impress, needing to be right, to be error-less, conscious mind has been unable, unwilling, un bold enough to put together.

Judith is a tigress. She faces demons and bogeymen and dreams relentlessly. And writing together gives us both courage. And, what do ya know...genuis, power, magic...it's all there, everywhere. It hides in every mote and fiber of creation. Waiting for us to breathe it in, tease it out. Waiting for now, for us to be present enough, open to the world and all that's in it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Learning the Changes

            Change is a currency of my work. In social work we sometimes measure our effectiveness by the amount of desired change we are able to help bring about in the lives of our clients, and by the amount of negative change we help them to avoid. Much of it has to do with the ability to change habitual ways and modes of thinking. And, it has lots to do with overcoming the discomfort of change: feeling those different feelings, allowing the aches of newness, awkwardness, fear.

            Trauma leaves its imprint throughout the lives of the youth I work with. And trauma can be so hard to recognize when it comes disguised as the everyday, as the stuff that marks your progress into adulthood and respect. Denizens of the streets, the shelters, the walk-in centres are expected to have survival stories and losses, and conflicts and betrayals to recount, and to rant or laugh about. They are expected to share in the common pool of hard experience that makes life what it is, that shapes the accepted norms, and endows the common knowledge of the community. Trauma is rampant among these street kids, in all its manifestations. But when the abuse you’ve suffered  - and inflicted - is the common stuff of growing up, it doesn’t command the attentive and empathetic ear of your listeners.

            In a few weeks, a colleague and I will begin convening what we’re calling The Change Workshop. It’s meant to be part seminar, part support group and part resource sharing. We’ll be introducing concepts and tools relating to change, and laying out a variety of strategies for personal growth. I hope that the workshop will achieve the nice balance of challenge and embrace that characterized a Twelve Step group I attended regularly years ago. That group developed an intimate and almost symbiotic process, as those of us who gave up our dependencies at roughly the same time learned whole new ways of being social beings.

            We intend for the workshop to be a place where members can feel safe to honestly explore what change means to them, how it frightens, inspires and eludes them, to enumerate its costs and its fruits, what they’ve learned from it and suffered by it. Its bound to be a very mixed story, and the complexities won’t diminish as we dig deeper; rather the emotions triggered will become more palpable and universal and ripe. And ripeness means many things.

            So, I’m thinking a lot about change, and the role it’s played in my life. In my own case, there’s never been enough change. I’ve always wanted more, and the fact that I haven’t had my fill sometimes leaves me with a feeling almost of having failed. In this workshop, I will have to guard against being too pro-change, and perhaps not sensitive enough to the losses others will have experienced.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Havana Good Time

Back from Havana.
There is so much I think and feel about the trip, but few words. It’s partly about being in a place where the living is different, and finding no way to communicate deeply about it with the people there. Of course it is. It’s difficult to talk in a deep way  with neighbours and co-workers and friends lots of the time - about how they live, what they feel about their community and government, the quality of life.
But even when it seemed possible, and respectful, to ask a probing question, it was difficult  – because of language, because of time, because I know myself to be instantly on the other side of many divides. And maybe it’s not so that every Cuban I encountered saw me was a foreigner, as someone with different ways, values, priorities, a different kind of importance, a different kind of nuisance. But there were all the barriers inside my own head: What’s someone going to ask me to give them, or buy from them? What’s the Spanish word for this? Am I being friendly, unfriendly, rude, too easy? Would it be okay to ask...?
I tried speaking and responding to almost everyone, and I tried being much less responsive, which meant ignoring a lot of the calls and questions: Taxi? Where you from? Do you want cigars? But looking back, I see I was mostly on the receptive end of exchanges, not getting in lots of questions myself. And when I did, there was the language, the time and the circumstances.
And still, good connections were made – with wonderful Tamara in our hotel, helping us negotiate with cabbies and travel agency reps, and Alex, the brother who approached us in the square and whom we encountered every other day, who coaxed us about going to his club, and to one of the Paladors – the private kitchens that serve up meals, and Felipe, the pedi-cab rider who warned us against police and walking in certain sections after dark. I had a brief chat with Ramses Rodriguez, the drummer, and chats with a few other tourists, from Canada, the US, Denmark, Iran.

But the really social part of being on vacation was being with Ponczka, my Bardzo, my Running Buddy, my Woman, my Love, My Marzena, my Sweet Hamburguesa (her latest nickname, Spanish for hamburger – with the “h”  silent). We have such a good time together I can hardly get over it. We walked up and down, though mostly in Veija Habana – the Old Towne. We saw some of Centro, and the Jazz clubs were both in Vedano, and we did the double-decker bus tour, but it was mostly between the water and the main drag that Includes, Centro Park, the Telegrafo Hotel, where we spent our first night, the Capitolio and the Opera House.
Ponczka is my perfect travel companion. We make a nice pace together. And we manage to balance her desire to plan every step of our itinerary against my desire to roam aimlessly, her desire to snap photos with mine to sit with a coffee on a patio, my want of jazz, hers of elegant old buildings.
We ate well and simply. We’d heard and read that the food options were poor in Havana, but there was really fresh and tasty fish everywhere, and the prices – even in the Tourist Pecos – were very reasonable. And the flip side of food not being a central attraction is that I actually lost weight during a vacation.
There’s one thing that irks me, and that has led to a new commitment when travelling in less developed countries from now on. No more bargaining with artists. It becomes kind of an irresistible habit to bargain when you know you’re in an area designed to separate tourists from as much of their money as possible, especially after you discover that vendors will usually snap up an offer of half, as though they want to finish the transaction before you change your mind.
But even at the prices asked for, the art – and there was lots of good art in the tiny galleries in doorways and former store rooms – comes really cheaply. Since getting back home the other day, as we build and mount frames for the canvases we brought, I know that we got by far the better end of the art transactions. Ponczka feels this too, though, as a painter who herself works shows where she has to fend off low offers, she’s much more tenacious a bargainer than I am.
But we realize that it would be a huge support to these artists we meet and admire, if we paid them according the valuation their work would have in our market, rather than in theirs. So that’s what we’ve resolved to do. When we see art in less developed  areas, and appreciate it as art – not merely quickly produced copy work – we will pay for art, and feel more deserving of what hangs on our walls.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Different Drummer

It's been a special week here in Havana.

We've spent hours and hours walking the streets, mostly in the Old City, admiring the buildings, catching the energy of the people, endlessly answering the question about where we're from, and then absorbing the knowing, sometimes admiring comments about Canada, the US or Poland. And I think what gets to me most - in terms of the absurdity of politics - it the realization that most of these people will never have the opportunity to visit these countries they express so much interest in.

A highlight has been the music. We hear the traditional Cuban "Son" style of music played everywhere in Old Havana, especially versions of the Buena Vista Social club classics. But for me, seeking out the jazz clubs was a priority, and we really struck gold.

On Sunday we visited the Jazz Cafe, and tonight we've just returned from La Zora y El Cuervo, and both nights we took in really good acts: Roberto Fonseca and Temperamento the first night, and Michel Herrera and Joven Jazz tonight. Both groups featured talented musicians, but the one who really blew me away was the drummer for Temperamento, one Ramses Rodriguez.

Rodriguez gave the best drumming performance I've seen in a long, long time, maybe ever. His fluidity, endless creativity and his rhythmic drive kept the entire act pulsing with energy. He reminded me of the best recordings I have by the likes of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Brian Blade. Simply INCREDIBLE! And thank goodness, he and other musicians are able to travel. I spoke with him briefly and was told that he frequently travels to the US, Canada and elsewhere. If you ever get a chance to see him, don't miss it. The man is a revelation.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Yank in Old Havana

Vieja Habana! I can hardly believe I'm here. As an American, I'm used to thinking of Cuba as the one place in the Americas I can't go. But here I am, in the land of Fidel and Che, of Teofilo Stevenson and Ibrahim Ferrer. It's been a little over an hour since we arrived, after a two-hour bus ride from the distant airport. And at our hotel, we found the electricity out and water off, and so were sent to another establishment for our first night. And you know - I'm already enraptured by this city!

As I've read. amd was warned by others who've been here, this once glorious city is crumbling. During our short ride through the town, we passed one ornate wonder after another. Some are encased in scaffolding as the process of restoration takes place. Others are left collapsing and unattended. Yet others are boarded up. Many of those that look as though they ought to be boarded up show the common sign of tenancy that is everywhere in Havana, laundry drying on a line.

But despite their delapidation, these are beautiful structures, or once were, and it's easy to imagine how impressive Havana was in its glory days. We've had glimpses of the plentiful street art, and of the parks and the boulevards. Many of the streets are alive with pedestrians and people simply lounging, and well...I'm immediately drawn in. I know that Ponczka and I will spend many hours walking during the coming week.

And Oh! I've already had two lifetime firsts in this first hour. We were transported from one hotel to the other in a 1955 Chevrolet! I don't know the model - I'm not really that into cars. But it was one of those old, lumpy beauties, with all the right curves and lines. And, if the vintage designation of cars was back then as it is now, then this vehicle might have been produced in the very year I can into being: 1954. What a beautiful machine, with its upholstered seats and the hood ornament in the shape of a jet. We were told, that its guts are pure Toyota however.

My other lifetime first? I've now had the experience of using a bidet. It reminds me of the joke about the hick who marvels that in his swank hotel, each suite features a water fountain!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Make Eyes, Toronto!

I'm looking at the front page of The Grid, the free toronto weekly. It announces the 2001 Mensch Awards, to "50 people who made Toronto better this year." I love the concept. What are the many acts of civic engagement worthy of acknowledgment? I haven't looked at the list yet, but it immediately got me speculating. How many of them had specific resolutions for the year? And how many of those resolutions was aimed - directly or indirectly - at the idea of improving the place we live?

I have to look at my own intentions and efforts. I've volunteered places and made contributions to one cause or another - which I won't enumerate here. But the inspiration to specifically improve the place I live? That, I have not acted upon. And yet, I have a clearly defined and persistant annoyance with Toronto, one that shows no sign of going away. Which is: that Torontonians avoid public contact with strangers. I've posted about this before: "Land of the No-Look Pass" October 2010. Maybe I should do somethng about that, take that on? No doubt!

So here I am, making a resolution, in the form of a promise to my city. I'm going to do something about eye contact, see if I can't tease a few more face-forward acknowledgements from people.

I'm going to start a movement: "Make Eyes, Toronto!". I'm going to present my case, my ingredient for making Toronto a better city, more friendly and liveable. Which is: by looking one another in the eye, by taking the time to recognize strangers as human beings, by developing a different sensibility around public contact with strangers, finding ways to connect that feel safe, are engaging, and that pull us deeper into the fabric of social life.

How will I go about this? Posters come to mind. Small posters, 4x6 or 5x8 maybe, at various eye levels, with a graphic of a pair of eyes, and the words: Make Eyes, Toronto! Maybe another blog, with those words as a title, propaganda for eye contact - all the reasons in favor. I could write up a few pieces to send to local publications, like The Grid.

It's not at all 'me' to do something like this....I don't know that I'll actually do it. But I know I won't if I can't even write about doing it. And I like the idea.What response might it get? What could it lead to?

I'm going to encourage people to look one another in the eye, and to smile or nod, say good morning or hello. I'm going to ask Torontonians to acknowledge one another and to consciously greet one another.

I'm already imagining the kinds of reactions this might get. I know that to even consider doing this makes lots of people uncomfortable. Looking people in the eye is a kind of invitation. People may feel that they risk unwanted and unsafe contact by making invitations to strangers. That's a fact.

But, aren't there dozens of times and situations - every day - when it would be perfectly safe and non-intrusive, to smile at someone you would normally pretend wasn't there? How about the person across the aisle on a bus, or in an elevator, or while standing in line.

If the notion is at first intimidating, consider that initially, until you get the hang of it, you can direct you glances and smiles at people who are too distant for either of you to initiate conversation. In traffic, to the person in the car opposite you instead of alongside. or a person in that bus going the other way. A gentle step into this public mode could be to shift our ways with people we see regularly, but are impersonal with: those cashiers bussers and mail deliverers, ticket-takers and grocery shelf stockers that we pass every day.

I honestly don't know to what extent I'll mount a campaign. I like the idea of the "eye" posters. Hmmm.... Regardless, I'm at least commiting to being more engaging myself. I'm going to 'be the change I want to see' as some sage apparently suggested. And we'll see what happens.