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?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Coming Around

                I got something today that every social worker needs: confirmation from a client that the work has generated some good – with evidence to back it up.

                It’s been a dull and down time here in street outreach. Not only is my personal energy low, and I’m lacking enthusiasm and even doubting my role. It’s also that my clients are going off the rails. It’s very distressing when one you take into your charge deteriorates, goes deeper into dysfunction, despite your efforts. Really makes you question if you’re doing what you ought to be doing.

                I know I have something to offer these young charges of mine. Only, I no longer believe it’s enough. I never have – in the sense that, I don’t know if anyone’s life is saved in being managed by another. It’s the learning and incorporation of self-management skills that ultimately seems to make the difference. But, a committed partner can be invaluable in mustering the energy, focus and persistence needed to develop these skills. And these days, sadly, I’m short of energy, on focus, and on persistence, even with regards to my personal issues. So how to shore up the reserves of spirit in another?

                The confirmation call I received today was from a young man I began working with about two and a half years ago. At that time, he was on the streets, drinking and smoking lots of pot (but doing no other drugs), panhandling, and being extremely bitter about every negative circumstance that came his way. He – I’ll call him Daniel – had the sort of entrenched mind set that peeled back the veneer of every good thing to focus on the encroaching rot that lie beneath.

                I won’t go into detail about Daniel’s ups and downs over the following months and years. But through a series of them, he somehow managed to recognize that much of what took place in his orbit was influenced by the decisions he made. He stopped seeing himself as the victim of malignant fate and began to make better choices, and to take responsibility for the poor ones he continued to make from time to time. He gradually got to the point of no longer needing the support of programs like mine. He found himself a compatible partner, moved into better housing, away from the downtown core, began to work.

                A few months ago, he contacted me to lend support. He was trying to get custody of children he’d never provided for, whom he’d hardly seen, but now felt ready to have in his life. He wanted a letter of support for the courts. This represented such a substantial change for Daniel. He’d grown out of his near total dependence and dysfunction, and then beyond mere survival. And he was now looking beyond his immediate needs, and wanting to provide something better for others he was ready to claim his rightful responsibility for.
                 The call from Daniel today was to announce he’d just come from court. He’s been granted shared custody of his children. He passed his last assessment by Children’s Aide, and will be able to have his kids in his home, without the supervision that had previously been required, every other weekend, every other Christmas. He was so happy and proud.
                And he said that he wanted me to know that the work I had done with him had made a difference. He said that he knows how much frustration there can be in my work – he’d caused enough of it himself. And now, he wanted to share his joy, his accomplishment, his success.
                What a gift. And for that, the job will weigh a little lighter tomorrow.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The ACLU and the KKK

The Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is backing the Ku Klux Klan. The issue at hand is participation in the State's Adopt-A-Highway program, in which community groups volunteer to clear litter and debris from sections of roadway. Groups that do so get to have a sign erected on that roadway, acknowledging the civic contribution of the group.

The KKK's application was denied on the grounds that  the posted sign will be offensive to many. In words that accompanied the decision: “the impact of erecting a sign naming an organization which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern.”

Not merely a "history of civil disturbance." The KKK has a chilling legacy of hate, violence and oppression. I can imagine the effect of the apparent sanction of this group that their participation would represent. It will generate fear, confusion, anger and outrage among many, especially among Blacks, whose exclusion from citizenship in the south was enforced by the terrorism of the KKK. And, beyond being merely offended, I imagine there will be those who will experience a sense of terror, feeling themselves suddenly in Klan county, and vulnerable to all the horrors that the white sheets represent.

And yet, as pointed out by the head of the Georgia State ACLU that has decided to defend the KKK, it is a violation of their constitutional right for them to be denied participation because they hold unpopular ideas that others may find offensive. Freedom of expression is a constitutional right, and it cannot be denied because people hold ideas that are wrong, stupid or unpopular. By extension, no group should be prohibited from participating in a civic activity based on its beliefs alone, however offensive.

By and large, I support the ACLU. I admire that it's an organization that stands of principles, regardless of the political implications. As the ACLU head stated in the radio interview I heard, the staff of the ACLU is pretty leftist; they don't share the views of the KKK at all. But they understand the importance of the principle involved. I do too. And so, painful as it is, I side with them. Yes, let the Klan itself go about in public, putting forward "good works" as the face of its racist philosophies. As the ACLU rep said, it's really only unpopular speech that needs the protection of the 1st amendment.

I recall how transparant the politics was in 2000 when the US Supreme Court was deciding the outcome of the Presidential election. Then, you had the conservative Republican party, champion of States Rights, and historically against "activist courts", calling for the Supreme Court to stop the recount of ballots that the Florida courts had ordered. While on the other side, the Democrats, who are traditionally supportive of Federal intervention in state matters, and pro activism by the courts, were insisting that the Supreme Court stay out of the matter. It was such blatant hypocrisy, on all sides, that none of the parties earned respect by it.

Yes, the integrity of the ACLU, which supports the Bill of Rights, for anyone, anywhere and anytime, is impressive. And necessary. Ultimately, I don't think it's effective only to uphold principles when they play out in ones favor. It's hard though, this supporting of principles that, in turn, permit the sharing and spreading of false doctrines, racist philosophies, and hate. But is there really a better way?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Looking for that Rhythm

These days and these weeks have been rich and rewarding. Ponczka and I have been immersed in a flow of stimulating and broadening activity, enjoying new and old friends, taking on new challenges, feeling very alive. And yet...

I'm more aware than I've ever been that doing something right doesn't counterbalance the things I'm doing that are very wrong. And it so happens that in my life now, there is a lot of both. But I can't - as I have so often before - think that this living is about averages, and that the good I do somehow erases the lapses, the mis-judgements, the indulgences.

No, I won't take this space to enumerate my failures. But I will note the corollary to the above: it's equally true that my lapses are not capable of erasing the smart, the generous and the creative things that I do. That detail is a precious little aspect of the way things are.

I've been watching a lot of sport, lately. Yesterday, it was Serena Williams versus Agnieszka Radwanska for the Wimbledon crown. One of the things I most love and admire about athletic competition is that the failures of the contestants is at the heart of every contest. Tennis players are always sending shots into the net, misjudging the tactics of their opponents, creating faults and unforced errors. And the pathway to success is always substantially bound up in how they manage these mistakes. However many aces a player produces, it isn't enough if they can't keep any of their returned serves in play. And vice versa. I admire the resolve by which a player manages to accept and somehow compensate for their short-comings. And it seems that the very best athletes are always working at managing their mistakes even better.

On the other hand, in the place where I work, and in the culture of almost all places I've ever worked, there's a substantial effort that goes into over-looking mistakes and weaknesses, in forgiving them and even accepting them as a matter of course, and designing 'harm reduction' methods to contain their effects. I'm not making a critique of the program I work for. It's a wonderful and powerful program of intervention and support, and its ways of dealing with the imperfections of our team are pretty standard, even humane. I thankful that I do not work in an environment where all of my weaknesses are used against me by an opponent who wants to defeat me. If I did, I would't survive very long.

But at the same time, I so admire the process that forces careful scrutiny of failures, in the effort to excel, to improve, to grow, to persevere, to win!

And so... I'm taking inspiration from watching sports, in which contestants are picked apart by their adversaries, and have to dig deep to come up with solutions to help them move on. I'm motivating myself by the examples of Serena and Agnieszka yesterday, battling to the point of exhaustion and beyond, expending grueling effort on point after point, only to see half their efforts fail, and having to push on.

I'm trying to push on myself. I want to hone and develop the tools I already have working for me. And I really need to take charge of some of my shortcomings, find ways to keep them from holding me back. It's not about eliminating them. No, it's more about: how do I manage my schedule better despite the fact that I'm not very punctual? How do I stay on top of my creative projects despite the fact that inspiration and the flow of ideas can't be rationed out among my days and hours? How do I keep a high level of integrity in my relationships, despite the fact that I so like indulging my appetite for doing things my way and on my own?

One of the things I aim to do, beginning tomorrow, is to write here more frequently and regularly. That's another tip I take from those athletes I most admire: their willingness to declare expectations for themselves, to allow their hunger and drive to be visible.

This is shaping up to be such an eventful year. I want to go for it. This year, I intend to leave everything on the court!