Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's been an interesting, wonderful, confounding year. It's been so much about experiences, challenges and turns that were never anticipated at the end of 2013. One of the things I'm grateful for is reference points, like the ending of a year, and the New Year, that get me to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going.

In this moment, looking backward and forward, I have to say that I've spent more than enough time regretting and lamenting. I'm sure it had to do with turning sixty, and with the self-assessing and measuring, I've been doing. And I'm confirmed in my belief that regretting has a lot more to do with things I didn't do, than about things I did.

I used to think that regretting was about shame, about doing something wrong or poorly, or with selfish intent, and wishing it could be undone. Yes, I've had lots of occasions for that. But for me, most regret has come in the form of things I thought of doing, wanted to do, but didn't. This regret is about the loss of dreams.

So, my most common lament in recent years has been about not being bolder in my dance with life; not leading, and so much time being led. So much of the not doing and not acting has been about fear. So much fear about what might happen, what could happen, all the things I measured as more likely to happen than the thing dreamed of, or fear of that improbable but devasting, horrible consequence.

What I've come to recognize is that everything that comes in life is unexpected. Even the things that come as planned for and as expected are so full of the richness of existence that they explode all preconceptions. And at the same time, the new and the unexpected are everywhere, and possibilities abound. Fear doesn't really have much of a place in all this. Fear is all about anticipation, and real life, when it comes, will crowd most of it out. So much better to focus on love than fear, to move toward the loved thing, than away from the thing feared.

As I wrote earlier, there's been too much attention to regret. And, it's ridiculous, because my life is so full of incredible freedoms and connections, of beauty, of being with and working with people I love, appreciate, admire, opportunities to create, to experience, accomplish, appreciate. How can I experience regret with all this? I guess it's that inner, human fallibility, that keeps me wanting more, always measuring and assessing, finding fault.

I don't think I'll cure these tendencies in myself. But none of that can override the rest. The wonder and beauty of simple things remains. You people, you fellow travelers are the very best of it, and I look for another year of being constantly surprised at your magic, at all the newness you create.

I wish for you whatever boldness is required for you to seize that next dream, take that next plunge, before you pass it entirely by and can only look back with regret.

Joni Mitchell wrote a most wonderful song, with the words, "...beautiful lovers I never got the chance to kiss." Ahhh, what aching there is in those words. I can relate.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

First Snow

     I arrived in the middle of the night, at the truck stop a few miles from Cloud. The young cashier groaned while I paid for my coffee.

     "This time shift is killing me," she said, referring to the end of daylight savings time. "It was almost 2 o'clock, and now it's just after 1 again! And it's cold too!"

     Yes. It was cold, alright. And I was down from Toronto to do some winterizing before that cold really set it. On the drive from Buffalo I went though two other areas where the snow was coming down thick enough to obscure my vision, with an inch or two already on the ground. Other areas were completely clear of the stuff. But it wasn't a surprise that Prattsburg was one of the areas that was being covered: so high up in the hills as it was, it always got a lot more snow than lower lying Naples, for example.

     Cloud was as tranquil as ever when I arrived. It didn't take long to get a fire going, but the chill didn't abate very much before I climbed to bed in the loft. It was a little warmer up there, but the sheets were so cold that it took awhile to warm them with my body heat.

     What a combination of feelings to come here from bustling Toronto in the middle of a fall night, coming into the quiet, the darkness. I always feel that space opens up around me when I'm here. Though it's been over two years now, there is still sometimes a sense of entering a strange and somewhat hidden land. But it quickly shifts into a sense of reconnecting with a known place, where I belong. There's a sense of whatever time has passed since the last trip here, weeks ago. But also a sense of the changeless, the permanent, the secure.

     The little cabin is now full of art on the walls. There are Ponczka's paintings, the largest of which depicts the view from our bedroom in Toronto: our deck, the red, yellow and blue, whirling wind-catcher that's mounted there, the Tree of Heaven and the Maple, both planted since we moved in and now rising up high enough that they obscure the row of homes we face, backside-to-backside. Others of her paintings are on her easel, or leaning beside it, some of them in-progress studies of the surrounding landscape that she's begun at various times through the seasons, then has put aside until those seasons return again.

     There is also the painting by Krysia, depicting a dark, looming storm cloud, but which we've discovered depicts a more uplifting scene of sun beginning to overcome the darkness, when we hang it upside down, which we sometimes do. There are small, found art compositions of feather, stick and bone, from Shadow, who lived here before us. And there's a small antler wrapped and hanging in twine, that Wisia added.

     As night progresses, I'm up a couple of times to reload the wood stove and work up the dimming embers. Light is slowly coming into the world, and I peer out at our yard, the pond beyond, the low hills beyond that. Slowly, shapes emerge in the soft light, but I only study them for moments before hurrying back to the now warm sheets.

     I only learn later, when I stop by our neighbors, Julie and Red, that last night's snow was the first of the year. That bit of info feels right, too, like the easy welcome of these friends, who collect any packages they see tied to our roadside mailbox, to hold for us.

     Am I a different person when I'm here? It seems so. There are different forces, different energies and pressures, and presences here in this world. And they seem to reshape who I am and can be.  Shadow says that there are Night People here, spirit essences that will interact with you if invited, and that they are kind. I haven't issued the invitation yet, but I feel something here that I sense as warm, accepting if not welcoming. I could say that it feels like Life that is accepting of Life. There are always so many creatures here on Cloud: mice who steal into the cupboards, deer that leave their prints in the night, black and orange caterpillars who survive, how?, birds of every kind. Ladybugs are everywhere, seemingly indifferent to us, constant reminders that it is us who are the impermanent factors here, who merely come and go, like the night, the cold, like the first snow of a season.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Speculation about Rushing to Judgement

I wonder if anyone else is feeling the vague sense of discomfort I have been feeling, about a number of very quick, very public dismissals that have been in the news recently. Awhile back, it was the pair of football players. One of them, Ray Rice, was caught on video, delivering a knockout punch to his fiancé, who later married him. Then, one of the real superstars of the league, running back Adrian Peterson, acknowledged punishing his 4 year old with a switch, leaving an array of bruises across his legs and buttocks. There was an almost immediate public outcry as these incidents came to light, and both players were dismissed from their teams in short order, while further investigations were launched.

Public opinion has been virtually unanimous, that the Rice incident was an assault that warrants charges and prosecution. There is less unanimity on the Peterson matter because, while corporal punishment has been increasingly criminalized over recent decades, lots of people still consider "spanking" to be an appropriate and effective tool of parenting. I am one of those who feels that spanking can be responsible, but thinks that Peterson strayed a good way beyond the acceptable.

The other case that has me musing is the more recent incident that saw radio personality Jian Gomeshi fired, due to accusations that he was physically abusive to women in dating situations. This case too seems to have generated judgements that are overwhelmingly critical of Gomeshi, but he has his supporters as well.

My discomfort is with the idea that a person should be summarily dismissed, have their very livelihood taken from them, because of behavior that is in no way related to the work that they do. And my discomfort is increased by the belief that the reason for the dismissals is primarily concern the employers have about public relations, and their fear of being found in violation of political correctness.

I get that abuse is a very serious matter. I also get that, until fairly recently, public figures weren't held accountable at all for what they did in their private lives. That total disassociation of private from public was disturbing as well. There was a time, not so long ago, when a public figure could be found in violation of society's values and might suffer no negative consequences at all. In fact, Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford is a kind of throwback in this regard. When there were cries from every quarter for him to resign, he simply refused to do so, and eventually, the expectation that he would step down faded away. That used to be the normal course of events. The powerful simply refused to leave, and very often, even if they were employed by some other entity, they endured.

These days, the pendulum has swung to almost the other extreme. No matter how entrenched in a quality career one may be, a violation of a moral value can end it all overnight. Companies and institutions fall over themselves is the mad rush to disassociate themselves from the now tainted personality. Contracts are cancelled, speaking engagements and endorsements dry up. A beloved figure becomes a pariah.

This worries me. This type of quick action seems to me to be tainted by righteousness and superficiality. It isn't focused at all on addressing the troubling behavior, but only on sweeping it away. As Janay Rice has said, destroying this couple's economic foundation will in no way help them to deal with the domestic violence. If there was any valuing of these individuals - and the many like them among the not-so-famous - don't they deserve help is recognizing, addressing and overcoming their failings? Or is their value simply gone, once they've crossed a particularly sensitive line?

A couple of years ago, a dear colleague was fired by the City of Toronto, because she was found to have violated a policy by having a personal relationship with a client, one of those very sensitive taboos in social services. Now a detailed examination of the situation revealed that, it was quite a stretch to say that she'd violated anything: she'd never worked directly with the "client", the very tenuous client-worker relationship had existed years in the past, with a different program and agency, the other individual was years removed from being a client, and the new relationship had no relation to my colleague's work at all. It was a situation in which the letter of the policy had been brought into question, but in which it was abundantly clear that the spirit of it had been respected.

As I write this, I'm reminded of an historic and very similar example of speedy, righteous judgement, that at the time was lauded and hardly questioned, but which is now recognized for the wrong-headed action it was. In 1967, Mohammad Ali refused to register for the U.S. military draft, citing his opposition to the Vietnam War. This was seen as such a moral affront that in short order Ali was stripped of his championship and denied the right to engage in his profession as a boxer. He was out of boxing for 4 years in the prime of his life because of that, only regaining his license when the action against him was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

No, I'm not equating Ali's anti-war stance with Peterson's beating of his children, Gomeshi's tendency to slap women, or Rice using his wife as a punching bag. I do equate the rushes to judgment that sought to merely punish these individuals, to dismiss and wipe our collective hands of them, rather then to engage them - and their victims - in efforts to understand, solve, grow and heal.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kindling for Thought

So, I received a pretty handy and powerful gift for my birthday - a Kindle reader from Ponczka. And I have mixed feelings about it. I feel that I'm on the verge of committing an act of betrayal that will undermine an entire world that has been my comfort and solace for all of my life.

How can I abandon the book? And won't using a Kindle amount to that? I'm feeling very torn: at once in wondrous anticipation of carrying around with me an entire library of books I want to read; alternately frightened at the looming demise of the book industry, and the end of all my hope of a future within it.

It's an elegant little device, this Kindle, as light as a paperback, self-illuminating and intuitively easy to use. At first, I balked at the cost that will be involved in buying books I already have in print form, but soon realized that a great deal of older content is available on the web for nothing. Then I had to confront the fact that all my life I've been a steady and avid consumer in used bookstores, libraries and at yard sales. In other words, as much of a book lover as I am, I've never done much to actually support the industry. In fact, I've used the fact of loving books as an excuse not to bear the expense of buying lots of new ones. I reasoned that, well, authors are already making enough and didn't need the few pennies that would come through royalties I contributed.

Now, I'm having to own up to my own dishonesty. It's the same honesty I demonstrate as an advocate of fair labor practices who continues to buy goods at the lowest price I can, despite knowing the exploitative conditions that are behind those super bargain prices. It's the same hypocrisy that informs my lukewarm support of animal rights while consuming meat from sources I know must perpetuate the horrific conditions that food animals endure, in order to sell me steak at five or ten dollars a pound.

Basically, my entire method and practice of satisfying my wants comes into question. But I've learned - as we all do - how easy it can be to shove difficult questions and moral points to the side, in order to live a relatively easy and trouble free life.

In truth, I don't yet know how the Kindle situation is going to play out. Kindle represents saving trees, too, doesn't it? As well as space and fuel and on and on and on.

I've had a great experience with my iPod, on which I've stored about 300 albums of music off of the original vinyl. At least a thousand more discs to go. The greatest benefit of the iPod has been that I listen to and know my music so much better than I did. I'm regularly drawn away from the ten or twenty present of those 300 albums that I listen to habitually, and am presented with the other eighty or ninety percent of my under-listened to collection. It's been amazing. Because just about all of this music is stuff I listened to closely at right after buying them. Only the few remained all-time favorites. But lots of it is music I was very connected to for a period of time, music that, with passionate intention, pulsed at the core of my being for a season. But after that, most of it gave way to the newer sounds coming along, the newer expression of what music can express like nothing else.

Consequently, my vinyl music collection is more accessible and present to me than it's ever been. The effect of the iPod has been opposite what I'm dreading from this Kindle. Who knows? Maybe this new gadget will spark a similar re-discovery of my many books. There's an argument that they have been neglected too.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One Percent Thinking

I've been wondering: Are wealth, power and influence so much concentrated in the top 1% of the population, mainly because the rest of us are so obsessed with the 1%?

In this celebrity obsessed time we live in, this seems a plausible theory. As I see it, in almost every realm of human endeavor, we so idolize those at the very top that we undervalue all the rest. I notice this especially in the Arts.

In creative writing, as in music, as in theatre and dance, there are the few who achieve great wealth, but most others fail to even support themselves entirely through their practice. I don't have the numbers to support this, and forgive me for not doing the research, but I wonder how much this is a function of how the rest of us - those who are consumers of the arts - spend our time, attention and money. When a musical act goes from performing in bars to performing in football stadiums, and from living off of Pay-what-you-can to multi-million dollar performance dates, is it because they've gotten that much better, or because we, the audience, listen in an entirely different way once celebrity comes into the equation? And is the performance by the small, local theatre company that can barely fill the seats, so much less than the "straight from Broadway" production that it's members should live in poverty?

Of course, the celebrated acts are very often dazzling in their quality, and the local unknown sometimes sucks. But often enough, it's the big production that is the huge disappointment, while the local creates the magic. But the former is still catapulted into fame and fortune, while the latter goes home with beer money. (Ever notice how stars of really terrible sit-coms of thirty years ago, or singers of one-hit wonders, maintain their celebrity and the rewards of it, forever?)

It's become common knowledge that in the corporate world, the difference between the earnings at the top and bottom of corporations has grown tremendously during the past decades. When I was in elementary school - in the sixties - we were taught that income disparities were shrinking, and what a good thing this was. But the value of a relatively even distribution of wealth seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Our way of consuming must be a major factor in this. And our consumption has a lot to do with going for what is familiar. McDonalds's has grown to be the largest restaurant chain in the world, not because it's food is so good, but because we know what we're getting. Conversely, it must also have to do with our uncertainty about what we'll get if we go to "Joe's Burger Joint" instead. And while I would guess that a famous person's voice mouthing the words of an animated Pixar character probably does little if anything to boost the quality of an animated film, it seems to be the factor that assures financing and a big audience.

So isn't this - the way we think, the way we consume - a huge factor in this world of wildly uneven quality of life experiences? If we actually attended to and acknowledged and paid for products and services according to their quality, their merit, and not so much their familiarity or celebrity, I imagine we'd live in a much less have-or-have-not world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Painting in "Plein Air"

Since we became part-time residents of the Finger Lakes region of western New York, Ponczka has become part of the arts community there. In particular, she has become a regular participant in a couple of “Plein Air” festivals, which celebrate the practice of painting in nature, out of the immediate experience of a time and place. Plein air painting requires an element of surrender to the elements, however they might manifest, and challenges the artist to convert an experience directly to canvas.

This week, Ponczka and I have been in Geneva, on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake, where the Seneca Lake Plein Air Painting Festival is drawing to a close. It’s a great time for the two of us, who have come to regard this region as part of “God’s backyard”, to borrow a Polish expression. It also feels more and more like home, like the place we’ll be coming to when working for a living is not so much our focus, and when what we do will be measured more by the satisfaction it brings than by the size of a paycheck. Painting is what Ponczka is likely to be doing when that time comes; I aim to be writing.

And this Plein Air painting festival offers a tantalizing glimpse into the potential of such a future. First – it’s astonishing to see what gets produced in a mere two days, by a bunch of artists enduring sun, wind and rain for two days, trying to capture scenes despite constantly shifting light and shadows, and with the challenge of managing easels and paints, heat and cold, distractions, tiring eyes and muscles, transportation, the need to eat and sleep, uncertainty and self-doubt, and the relentless passage of time, which transforms the subject of the painting between every brushstroke.

It’s dazzling and inspiring to see the range of conversations that take place between artist and environment – how this one speaks to the vegetation, that one to the hills, one to the waters, another to the rich earth; one communes with buildings, another with the sky; this one catches the movement, another the deep, solemn stillness underlying all movement. Some paintings aim to capture a single moment, while others are steeped in timelessness. Some dance with color and light; others forego all sparkle or shine and emerge from some weighty place, singing the language of gravity, transcending life and death. So much beauty, seemingly from nothing. But that they exist at all says so much about the fertility of that apparent nothingness.

It’s a fun and exhausting and thrilling and fearful two days. Ponczka is studiously attentive to what she sees and transposes to canvas. But her painting – to my eye – can seem almost aimless and without care. It’s fascinating to watch her quick hand, swiping and stabbing the brush almost recklessly it can seem, while her eye darts from subject to canvas. I sometimes cringe inwardly as she smears on dabs of color – “NO, not that! Not There!” I’m thinking, as she gets it all wrong. But of course, I’m not seeing what she’s seeing.

So I turn away, or wander off for an hour or two, find a place for a beer, or sit and write for awhile. And when I come back, there are no more dabs of paint on a canvas, but instead, three dimensional life. But not exactly life, because... well, there’s so much on the canvas that it calls me to look again at that street scene she’s painted. It doesn’t look quite the same anymore. I see more now, feel more, want more. Connect more…? Something. There is something more now, between me and this street, that I draw from this canvas that has her eyes and her energy all mixed in with it, and with the brick and the grass, and that wall rising up, and that window, and that vague walking figure.

And everyone sees something different. In every painting. At the gala this evening, the awards are given out, and all the works are up for silent auction. Many pieces are sold, most to a solitary bidder. But others are hotly contested. And quite a few get no bids at all. One of the top prize winners has no bids on her work, but it is rich and detailed and evocative of time and memory, and the awards are clearly deserved. And while no one has yet bid to have one of the works adorn a wall in a home, one of the awards comes from a musical association that will use her work to style its programs and announcements for the coming year. And Ponczka gets no bid on her piece that both she and I like best, but another is purchased by the same couple that bought her work last year, and who happen to be the festival organizers.

It’s Art. And every eye, every taste is unique unto itself. And, as Ponczka likes to say – every painting has its rightful owner, but it can take mere moments or many years for the two to find one another.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Keeping Pace

A confession: The only reason I'm posting now, is that this is the last day of the month, and if I don't post by the end of the night - about 38 minutes from now - this August will stand as the one month since June of 2010 in which I've failed to post to this blog even once.

That may seem a trivial motivation, but in fact it got me away from family late this Sunday evening, away from Willow, our lakefront cottage, where I was enjoying a bonfire after a great meal, and ready to start thinking about bed. I got in the car and drove to this McDonald's, half an hour away, just so as not to have this blank on my creative calendar.

All that not to say it's so difficult to come up with anything to write about. If anything, there's so much that I hardly know where to start. Which is a lot of how life is feeling these days. Sometimes I feel almost overcome with blessings. The challenge is how to manage it all.

Which is as fitting a topic for this post as there could be. Because while there's been no shortage of material, it's been extremely hard to bring myself to productive action these days. Just as I've been absent here, I've suspended my radio show and podcast. I've not been exercising to any meaningful extent. I've struggled over finishing a short story that feels ripe and ready, and there are all kinds of ideas and plans with yet no firm anchor in the world.

Yet, I'm not at all bored or lethargic, or even inactive. And I've been feeling incredibly alive! So what is it?

Maybe it's me trying to break loose. That has some feels at least partly true. I've been knowing that I need to change my job for some time now, even while I recognize what an incredible job it is, and even while I'm in the midst of a kind of resurgence of energy and satisfaction in the job. Despite all that, I know it's time for a change. And I guess one thing I've been doing is pursuing that change, though not yet with any success.

What else? I know that I have some substantial rebalancing to do to bring my life to a healthier place. And I'm being active in that, too. And here too, a big factor involves letting go on old patterns. It's clearer than it has ever been that, in order for me to do some things in new ways, I'll need to shake off some old patterns first. And that hasn't been easy for me to do.

I'm reminded of a saying, that if you want to have a particular life, you simply start living it. No preliminaries needed. No need to have it figured out in advance. And when I think of certain successes I've had, I can see that they are characterized by a kind of flow. "Flow" to me represents a
state of being in vibrant harmony with creation, in such a way that one's actions have a ripple effect that extends them beyond conscious intent. It's a way of being that creates huge efficiencies as energies link up in surprising and tangential ways.

I've been experiencing moments, even hours of flow lately. And I'm trusting that these moments both result from and generate the positive changes I'm trying to make. An aspect of this flow involves being open to what comes along. One way that has manifested is that I took the suggestion of a friend and met with a therapist - a very young one from whom I frankly didn't expect very much. But, among other useful observations, she planted a seed, that I try and experience a "Fresh Mind" - meaning, that I not negate efforts I'm making by being burdened with the failed efforts that have come before. That notion has been a very helpful one as I approach making difficult changes.

It also puts tonight in a different perspective. I didn't make the effort to drive here, to get this post onto my blog while it's still August, merely to continue a played out routine. I came here also because I want to inject something fresher and newer into my writing, my thinking, my perceiving and my sharing. Let's see how I will do with this. I don't want to let this blog die - it's been helpful to me. But I recognize that, if growth is involved, it may take a shape I cannot foresee.

Maybe I'm not just keeping pace, as in marking time. Maybe this is about setting a new pace, a new rhythm, an entirely new dance?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

That German Thing

     Don't know about you, but watching the German soccer team do its thing on the pitch impresses the hell out of me. And this isn't because of the drubbing they laid on Brazil the other day. For me, it was equally evident in their 2-2 tie with Ghana awhile back. It's the discipline and order with which they play. When I watch soccer - not being a regular viewer of the sport - it often strikes me as pretty random. I fail to perceive any plan or rhythm to the action. It seems that players are kicking the ball forward with nothing more than a vague hope of it arriving where directed, and it's as likely to end up at the feet of an opposing player as at a teammate's.

     Not so with Germany! That's a team that's clearly playing with a plan, with intention, and with the ability to execute. As is suggested so often, when talking with others about this team, it operates like a well oiled machine!

     But it's not just a soccer thing. I spent a few days in Berlin recently, and I absolutely fell in love with that city. Ponczka did too.  Both of us lived in Berlin for a time - she, as a young adult in 1980 or so, and I, as a child in the early sixties. And while we both had decent enough memories, it never occurred to us as a destination of choice. But after passing through a couple of times during our recent Europe/Israel vacation, we were so taken by it that we rearranged our schedules to spend our last day and a half there. It's a clean, tight, vibrant, well-ordered, stimulating, varied and welcoming Metropolis. And here's the thing: Berlin functions like the German soccer team plays!

     I'm drifting into a kind of national stereotyping that's generally rejected these days. It's very often me that's rejecting it, because the down side of it - assigning negative characteristics to a nation and its people - can be so devastatingly oppressive. But I can't help but acknowledge, and admire, this something-something about Germany that makes it so impressive.

     Let me get specific. You see very little litter and mess in Germany. The public transit system in Berlin runs beautifully, and on the honor system. There are no ticket gates to navigate; you simply enter a train station, board a bus or street tram, and buy and validate your own ticket. Apparently, there are monitors who will lay heavy fines on cheaters who are caught, but just the fact that trust is the default says a lot. People don't jaywalk in Berlin (as kids, my brother and I - coming from the upper west side of Manhattan, where dodging moving cars was a taken-for-granted survival skill, found it laughable that adults would stand at a street corner devoid of traffic, and wouldn't cross the street until the light changed! Now, my appraisal is more respectful).

     To top it off, Germany offers one of the best driving experiences a driver could ask for: no one on the roads and highways is being an idiot! Streets are clearly marked, directions to attractions and city centres are abundant. And drivers drive with a degree of patience and consideration rare in most places. I drove on the autobahn and was amazed to see that even the muscle cars blazing by at 200 kph moved out of the passing lanes as soon as they overtook you.

     Of course all of this raises the question of German "ordnung", the pre-disposition of a people to do as instructed, which unavoidably brings to mind the spectre of the WWII death camps. Yes, order and obedience have their downsides. Short of all that, it's simply intimidating to the rest of us that a country can operate so well, with such an apparent sense of common purpose. For goodness' sakes, Germany suffered two of the most complete slapdowns of modern history in just the last hundred years, and yet, it's already well established as a world leader in virtually every respect. That's a little scary!

     But it's also beautiful, impressive, and even inspiring to see how East Berlin has been rebuilt into the dynamic center it is, to witness a united Berlin that - to my eyes - is surprisingly diverse, and to find the citizens of that city so friendly and welcoming and helpful at every turn.

     When I discussed this with a friend, from Austria, she reflected on the phenomenon in two ways, each confirming the other, but carrying contrasting, implicit judgements. On the one hand, she said, Germans seem to require strong leaders, and plans, to which they are capable of responding with vigor and with relatively little dissent. She said this almost apologetically, because it suggests a nation of followers, executing orders with no creative (or moral) input. But then she recalled the words of John F. Kennedy, who admonished Americans to, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." This is a lesson, she suggested, that Americans and much of the rest of the world have yet to take to heart, but which the Germans have mastered. That puts a very different spin on that German thing, doesn't it?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On the Road

I recently re-read Kerouac’s classic, autobiographical novel On the Road, about young, intellectual, denizens of America's artistic fringe drifting back and forth across the continent in the late 40’s and early 50’s. When I first read it, the year was 1974. I had just turned twenty, and was in the middle of my own period of exploratory drift. I don’t recall that I picked up the book with a sense of identifying with its characters, though in many ways I suppose I was like them. I too was trying to become a writer, and had just left the world of the university. And I was exploring drugs, my sexuality and different ways of understanding myself and my place in the world, as I suppose were Carlo Marx and Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. And, I was in fabled San Francisco, my first time west, after hitch-hiking two thousand miles to get there.
But in 1974, the early fifties – when I’d been born – seemed like an awful long time ago. There was a vague sense in which I understood that the beatnik of that time was ancestor to the hippie of my own. But just as Kerouac doesn’t once in his work refer to himself or his running buddies as beats, or depict scenes of poetry readings in coffee shops with bongos in the background, I didn’t think of myself as a hippie (or a militant), and I wasn’t going to love-ins or communes, though I did attend the odd demonstration. And as blacks had appeared as peripheral figures in Kerouac’s book, I was only beginning to acknowledge whites as anything more than peripheral to my life.
My reaction to On the Road was that it was interesting, and that it described a group of young adults way less inhibited and way less purposeful than I was. They seemed oddly disconnected from the world that – I knew from history lessons as well as from my own growing up – surrounded them. I only recognized in a general way, as an interesting fact, that these characters represented Kerouac himself, and Alan Ginsberg, and the notorious Neal Cassady (whose alter-ego, Moriarty, I mildly disliked and resented, in the same, somewhat envious way I did those guys I knew who so easily slept with all the girls). Ginsberg was the only one of them I had any sense of as a living person (and in fact, the other two had already died, while still in their forties); and that was mainly from the odd tv clip depicting a lively and pleasant, bushy-faced and zealous spokesperson for perspectives I sympathized with, but sometimes felt to be naive and soft-minded. Looking back, it seems inevitable that I compared myself to them more than I identified with them.
The aspect of the novel I related to most of all was the sheer adventurousness of it: the willingness to pursue something unknown, and the contentedness to embrace it even as it remained so. I wanted for myself more of the daring and free-spiritedness that this book represented.
Forty years later, On the Road is a very different read. How can it not be? For one, I now read it as a sixty year old, and one who’s spent most of my adult years working with at-risk youth, some of whom aren’t so different from brash, irrepressible Moriarty. In some ways, I empathize with Kerouac’s idealized characters more than ever. In part, this is the writer’s side of me, understanding the desire to highlight the dream inherent in the road, in the pursuit of the ‘otherwhere’ that will reveal secrets that ‘here’ guards so jealously. And the restless mover in me understands how living can be a stand-in for art, and not just the other way around. (Yes. Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Kerouac all wrote their masterpieces; Cassady, the inspiring one, the envied one, he lived his). This time through, the book touches me. It moves me. It turns me back in on myself, but to share rather than compare.
But the other piece is that I experience the book this second time more as a creative artifact, coming out of life, than as life itself. (It astonishes me to recall how much more deeply I used to immerse myself in the fiction of a book, willing the realness of the world between its pages, to a degree so far beyond what’s possible to me now.) But this difference is a good one, because it brings the author to life in a way that honors his creation, and all the choices and deceptions and feats of magic it entails. It becomes more, not less, impressive to me, that Kerouac fashioned his book from actual friends and lovers and nights and rides and memories and notes, and of all the things forgotten that he then had to conjure, as a thread, to hold all the rest together.
During this read, I experience the poetry of this book. And its chief poetry lies in the celebration of the ordinary, of life’s passing; moments that catch us in stillness, when we forget who we are; the life that overtakes our over-tired intellect, to catch us with simple touches, inside of our hungers, just beyond the grasp of our needs. There’s an exuberance to Kerouac’s work that transcends all the small divisions and distinctions that once kept me detached from it. It isn’t so much brash, I now think, as it is innocent. It’s a book with very little judgement. Rather than a lesson on how to live, it’s a joyous and unapologetic confessional about living.
And then, there’s the film. It’s fairly new, produced just a couple of years ago, directed by Walter Salles, and starring actors I didn’t know in most of the lead roles. It popped up on Netflix, and last week I got around to watching it. Which led to all manner of new thoughts and speculations about the novel and its author, and about the reshaping of life in fiction. And that took me to Youtube, and to Google, reading mini-biographies, and catching segments of old television shows and interviews, being reminded of the second literary community to which Neal Cassady belonged, the driver of “Further”, with Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s, a dozen years after On the Road.
Three pieces of video in particular intrigued me. First, there’s Kerouac being interviewed by Steve Allen, telling how he wrote On the Road in three weeks, speaking matter-of-factly of the fabled, 120 foot long roll of paper. The interview is conducted with Kerouac standing in the arc of a grand piano, while Allen sits at the keyboard, casually tickling the ivories. Kerouac then reads from the text, including the final passages, still with this unusual accompaniment. A strange but somehow satisfying interview; one it’s impossible to imagine taking place today.
The second and third videos are more poignant. First, there’s an episode of the show Firing Line from ’68. It’s hosted by the quirky but brilliant, conservative champion of that day, William F. Buckley, and a panel assembled to discuss the curious phenomenon of hippiedom. The panel includes a musician/activist/pacifist, an academic sociologist, and an obviously drunk, and none-too-happy Kerouac. One oddity about the show – from today’s vantage point – is the respectful way in which it all unfolds. The pace is comfortable and unrushed, no one shouts or speaks over another, despite some obvious strong differences of viewpoint. And Kerouac’s intoxication is politely ignored, despite more than a couple provocative, annoying or even outrageous statements he makes. Watching, it’s hard to accept that this is the same Kerouac/Paradise of his stirring book.
The third video is a clip of Alan Ginsberg as he describes the Firing Line episode and the lead up to it, as well as another occasion on which Cassady arranged for Kesey to meet Kerouac. This piece of film makes it clear that the relationship between Ginsberg and Kerouac was as intimate and tender as that between their younger, fictionalized versions, as depicted in both versions of On the Road. But it’s most interesting for the way that Ginsberg interprets his friend’s actions and statements, in light of his past, his character, and his vulnerability.
I’m halfway through watching On the Road – the film, for the second time. And just last night, I picked up the novel – just to check a reference in its opening lines – and I was thirty pages along before I could pull myself away.  A blurb on the paperback edition I recently read, called the work, “The novel that defined a generation.” A deserved accolade, perhaps, but I hate that kind of hyperbole. This book gave voice to a tiny, creative fragment of a generation, albeit one that punched way above its weight class in terms of cultural influence. But to my mind, this isn’t the unified voice of a single generation, but rather a timeless expression that resonates throughout the ages.
This saga is the uninhibited embrace of life, but also much about a kind of loneliness and detachment, about seeking and not finding, about dreaming and insistence on believing the dream. This is a melancholy that characterizes much more than merely the discontents of a particular time. It’s a melancholy that speaks to many generations of Americans, and I can’t help but believe that it reverberates far more broadly than that even. If it has something to do with the age, then it’s a recurring age, one that a great many of us must traverse in our own time. Isn’t this same melancholy given voice by Kafka’s K, who drifts through the Castle seeking answers, and by Twain’s duo, riding the currents of the Mississippi? I think it’s even present in the Norse myths, as Thor and Loki wander through the land of the Giants, seeking adventure, even as they know that there is a desolate future lurking that they cannot change. It doesn’t stop any of them from seeking, from greeting the dawn, or at least hoping for it.
Hope and resignation are always pulling the pendulum of life in opposite directions. They endure and are endlessly recycled in literature as in life, right up to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its bleakest of landscapes endlessly calling for another day’s journey. If nothing else, the road endures. The road is forever.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Body Work

I'm tired. My body aches. It's so good.

One of the blessings of Cloud is that there's always work to do - outdoors, under the sun, and in the dirt. And getting dirty and sweaty and tired in the work is a good feeling that has something to do with being connected to the earth.

Today, it's mostly cutting grass, with the gas and muscle powered mower. The machine slashes into the tall grass that has overgrown Cloud since we were last here six weeks ago. I tug and shove the machine into the dense tangle. Every now and then, the motor sputters trying to digest a dense clot of green stems. I pull at the starter cord to get it going again, then strike into another row, watching the lawn slowly emerge underfoot.

I've always tended to like overgrown lawns, but here I'm relating to the desire to "tame" nature. And it's closely related to that other, once foreign notion, of "owning" these cherished few acres of land. There's so much that's anti-progressive in all this, from the ozone-eating emissions of the mower to the ego-centered illusion about possessing a piece of the Earth, but I don't feel apologetic about any of it. Not even about my active consideration of chemically bombing a hive of hornets that's formed in a roof joist of our shed.

It is curious though, to find myself in this "conquering" mind, with these fantasies of "lordship" over my domain. I've seen how territorial Rufus, our male cat is - how he mercilessly terrorizes any interlopers of his own species into his backyard. Now I'm feeling that surge of possessiveness over one's surroundings in myself - and it doesn't feel half bad.

"Belonging to the Earth."

Yeah, I can get that. The sense of emotional attachment to a land (though we've only had Cloud for two years); a sense of entitlement to experience the seasons of a place, as you experience your own moods and seasons; the knowledge your body gives you that not the soil, not the water, not the rays of the sun beating down are other than your element and your substance and the all of your being, in a deeper way than you will ever grasp.

When I get tired of trying to shape the lawn (I know this isn't something I do on my own, or that I even lead. I have the smallest part in this. It's like the spider weaving it's web, or the birds nesting in the trees and rafters, the mice that come into our cupboard and move the peanuts from the basket into the corners of the cutlery rack) I take a break. I slowly plod my way to our little pond, stripping off my sweat-soaked shirt, my shorts, my underwear. I stand on the edge of the deck for moments before I bend, then plunge headfirst into the slightly murky water. Its cold embrace washes away my tiredness in an instant. Can anything feel better than this? The water cradles me and I feel flushed clean and free. I go limp and float on the pond's rippling surface; I'm as much in my element as the hundreds of tadpoles that stir the sandy bottom.

When I've dried in the sun and the breeze, I walk back to the cabin, get myself dry, fresh clothes, then have something cool to drink. Then I go back to work. My body shapes itself to the task at hand, without me having to think about it. My muscles slowly creak into action. My body isn't as flexible as it once was; it hardly ever flows anymore. But I'm amazed and pleased at how strong and sturdy it still is. After all the days and all the years, it has learned to work, and to be engaged and at ease with the movement, with the toil, the slow ache. It feels good.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Old Jerusalem

We climb the highway from the Dead Sea, into the steep and dusty crags leading to the ancient city. We pass a sign carved into the rock that marks sea level and we keep climbing. The terrain is dry and sandy, an almost uniform beige, with hardly a sprig of green. We pass two arabs, herding a flock of goats just off the highway. Just beyond them, tucked between the slopes and ridges of rock and sand is a collection of roughly assembled shanties.
We continue to ascend into the hills and begin to see housing developments clustered on the sides and tops of the peaks. Some are perched above long banks of stone wall that is all that prevents them from tumbling into the valleys below. Others seemed to be carved out of the very rock.

Jerusalem rises out of the dessert mountains as we wind our way into its heart. We are seeking the old, walled city, but it is wrapped in another, modern version. We pass massive hotels, a university, the Knesset – centre of government. Even the YMCA is housed in a structure that might pass for some ancient temple.
We reach the walled city and see towers and domes rising from within. Signs point to the Damascus Gate in one direction, the Jaffa gate in the other. We are entering a realm of both history and myth, and soon we are walking narrow winding paths of smooth but uneven, cobbled stone. In North America, we marvel at places that are four hundred years old, but here we’re talking four thousand and some. And it feels that ancient, despite the long streets of vendors selling cheap tourist goods, with all the same, stupid t-shirts, mugs and keychains as any other tourist destination.
We walk past the Tower of King David and, referencing a map, head for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s obviously the centre of attention, so we enter and meander through it, but none of us has done enough research to realize its full significance until we’ve left and browsed through the pamphlets we’ve collected. We saw and touched the stone slab that Yeshua’s body was reputedly laid out on, and we saw the crowd waiting to see his tomb, but the literature tells us that the church is erected over the very spot where he was raised and died on the cross. “The actual spot?” I wonder. “Do they know, or was it an educated guess?”  I imagine that, at the time, and for decades after, it wasn’t a spot of particular note.
But what really strikes me is how open and accessible the church is. We meander freely, in and out of chambers and halls, witnessing various devotional rituals as we pass them. The walls are covered in classic paintings of Christ, but there isn’t a rope, a pane of bullet-proof glass or a “Do not Touch” sign to be seen, anywhere. Amazing.
Another huge surprise comes when we enter the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (the others are Christian, Jewish and...Armenian?) and find that it’s populated. Families are living in these houses that must be many hundreds (or thousands?) of years old. But unlike in the ancient port of Jaffa that we visited while touring Tel Aviv, there are no luxury condos here. These are poor families; the kids running over the cobblestones are in well-worn clothing, and the old men sitting together in front of a tiny coffee shop wear faces as much carved by time and wear as the arched doorways.
It’s in the Jewish quarter where we encounter our only substantial security presence. The Wailing Wall is barricaded, we pass through metal detectors and there are soldiers everywhere. It is the eve of the Israeli national holiday, and ceremonies are to take place, but it all accents the striking differences among the zones.
Exiting the Old City, then the modern, thriving metropolis, amounts to a descent back into the desert. You fall out of Jerusalem into the forbidding wasteland. It’s a realm of stunning contrast. A city of the desert rising up to the Heavens; a place that figures as much in the daily headlines as in the texts of antiquity. And resting virtually on the border of the long-contested West Bank.
I like this place more than I ever thought I would. It is beautiful and haunted. I recall that the most poignant scene of one of my favorite novels, The Master & Margarita, takes place here – that curious reconstruction of Pilate’s interview with Yeshua, that almost convinces you that a previously unknown witness was in the room.
I can’t imagine having the name Jerusalem in my mailing address. But wouldn’t I love to spend a season here, tasting all of these flavors more deeply! The desert is so silent and dark as we drive north toward Tiberias. There’s a full moon rising over the Jordan River. Doesn’t that name bring back memories – those voices rising up in song in my grandfather’s Baptist church in Detroit, almost half a world away and a lifetime ago. “Roll, Jordan, Roll!” Image that!

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Time Away

I've spent the last three hours or so in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. I drove here in a rental car to send Ponczka off to spend the last two weeks of our month long vacation with her mother and various friends in Poland. Having a chance to hang out on the internet for awhile, to make some necessary connections and handle some business, was the ostensible reason for hanging around. But the motivation that emerges is that some time in solitary anonymity feels good after two plus weeks of constant visiting with friends and relatives.

It's been absolutely wonderful - don't get me wrong on that! The reconnections made have been long awaited. And they have been richer and sweeter than I ever imagined. The world feels warmer and cozier than it did two weeks ago, because of this wondrous experience of travelling from country to country to continent to share love, memories and embraces. The knowledge of how long it's been, and the mystery of not knowing when, if ever again, suffuses and enlivens these meetings. Again and again, I find myself trying to fully take in a moment, so that I'll be able to recall if not relive it, days or weeks or years from now. Not really possible, of course - better to just be here.

But, truth be known, it's too much to take in at once. Every moment deserves more than just its moment. How to take in and savor the laugh of a friend you've reconnected with after decades of not knowing if you ever would? How to ask all the questions that need asking in a mere evening or two, when you also want to simply enjoy that evening for the simple, blessed thing it is? How to express the love and gratitude and the levels of still-evolving understanding, of a ninety-year old father, slowly losing his grip on now, and who fights that with a humor and crustiness that keeps you always a slight bit off balance?

I haven't even begun to digest it all: my own father coming around towards completion of his grand circle; my brother and I, walking streets together that we last walked half a century ago; Ponczka and I, continuing our beautiful epic of journeys together; the meetings with her family and mine, and with the loving friends, that only miracle and modern technology together can explain.

All of that is why I've been sitting with my computer in this airport terminal for three plus hours. Makes no sense, does it? But I'm grateful for this too. A kind of pause and regroup button.  A breather. I think I'm ready now to pick my ass up and get to the rental car for the 2-3 hour drive back to Tiberias.

Blessed, blessed, blessed.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Last Days

     I received word of two deaths just a few days ago. Both passings were on Easter Day.

     I only met Bill Brown once. He was my very first visitor to Cloud, stopping by because our mutual friend Shadow, from whom we bought Cloud, had thought to connect us. He was pleasant and welcoming. He was a musician, and we'd hoped to play together sometime. For various reasons, Bill and I never managed to actually meet again. Shadow says that he went in peace.

     My friend Jacquie died on Sunday as well. I've used a superlative with Jacquie that I've never used for anyone else, often calling her my all-time favorite co-worker. She was that for at least three reasons. She was passionate about her work with our homeless and mentally ill clients when we worked together at Dixon Hall. But it was a very natural passion, not rooted in philosophy or professional posture, but in her simple, human appreciation and connection with people.

     The second reason she was my favorite is that she extended the same caring to me and to our other colleagues as she did to our clients. She mothered us. When I wore sandals to work, she used to declare her partnership with my wife in declaring war on my dry and rusty feet. And she egged me on about my writing, saying she wanted to see me on Oprah when my as yet unwritten novel was chosen for her bookclub.

     The third reason Jacquie was such a favorite is that she was completely irrepressible. If something was on her mind, if she felt something about a situation, it was going to get said, no matter the consequences. This didn't always lead to "polite" interactions, but it was powerful and effective. I admit that she won me over with this trait at our very first meeting, which was at my interview for a position at Dixon Hall. Jacquie would/could not repress her positive reaction to some of my responses, practically cheering me on, depite the efforts of the department manager to enforce an objective and impartial formality for the occassion. And Jacquie was equally ready to argue a point when she felt I'd made a wrong call.

     My heart and my condolesces go out to the families and friends of Bill and Jacquie. They will be missed.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

First Days

      We're sitting in a coffee and drinks establishment on the ground floor of a small hotel in Guben, Germany, which is the border town adjoining the Polish town of Gubin. The two are divided by a few bridges that cross the Nysa River, Neisse in German. So many places have names in two or more languages, the borders in this part of Europe having shifted so often through the centuries, wars and regimes.

      It amazes me that crossing between the two countries involves nothing more than a stroll across a short bridge. No border guards, no identity checks, no guns. It's like crossing between Quebec and Ontario, except that the language shift is even more immediate and drastic. But to think of the bitter wars and political divisions that Europe has endured in the last century alone, it's incredible that such non-borders exist here at all. The US and Canada used to boast of having the "world's longest undefended border". It may still be one of the longest, but far from being "undefended" anymore.

      We spent Easter with Ponczka's Mom and brother and neice and others. It's been eating and drinking and sleeping ever since we arrived, and lots and lots of laughter. Great to see Ponczka with her family and to see where all that "happy baby" brilliance of hers comes from. Last night, something funny was said. Mom started laughing, then Ponczka got going, and the two of them were in hysterics for over five minutes. Beautiful!

      Vacationing with Ponczka is the best thing ever, and we'll be at it for a month. Next stop is Berlin, then Odense in Denmark, hopefully with a brief visit to Copenhagen. Then we go to Tiberius in Israel, for my Dad's 90th birthday! My brother will be there too, with his wife Debbie. Not so often that my brother, Dad and I get to be together. It's a blessing we're really looking forward to. My brother and I haven't been in Berlin together in FIFTY years. That will be something, too.

      It's going to be a great month!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Cloud Spring

Last time on Cloud, we could see and feel the handprint of Winter across the face of our land.
The ground had shifted. The waters had carved new channels in the earth, collecting on our back lawn this year, where they had water-logged the driveway the year before.

A gate was broken and fallen. The outhouse leaned where the ground underneath it had buckled. Limbs had fallen from old trees.

Some of the trees I transplanted last year were dead, but others held a deep color in them that somehow shone through, and sported tiny buds, seeming to promise rebirth. And paths that I cut with the mower in the fall revealed themselves with a faint shimmer of green.

It was humbling and reassuring at once, all this evidence of the force of the Winter that was endured, and of the Life that impossibly survives its harsh dominance. We spent a day slogging in mud, pulling dead growth from the garden and the planters, pressing sunflower seeds into the moist soil, hoping that when we return weeks later, they will have pushed their sprouts sunward.

We set up the rain barrels, hopeful there will be no more deep freezes to crack them. Already there is the high pitched croaking of the tiny frogs that will soon overrun the place. It is dirty, beautiful, beyond us, yet welcoming, in almost every way. A beautiful Spring day on Cloud.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Brother Love

I have a unique relationship with my brother, Rhett Preston Kirby. I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s better than other brothers, or that he does and provides what other brothers do not, though I feel that those things are true. I don’t place much value in comments of the type: “My brother, father, mother, wife, school, country, teacher, cat, chili recipe, etc. is the best that ever was!” Because, could a person  ever really know? It’s meaningless for me to say he’s the best, without offering solid evidence. I’ll pass on the superlatives and just say why he is what he is in my life.

So, what’s so unique about him, anyway? First of all, unique defines his role in my life. Rhett is the only person I’ve ever known who is like him. Sure, you say. So he’s a unique individual. Aren’t we all? Well, it’s deeper than that. And here’s why. My brother and I are about as different as brothers can be. We have different likes, inclinations, personalities, ways of engaging the world. We have different skills and foibles, different things we strive for. We’ve carved out our places in the world using wholly different tools and maps. You could even say that, with all our differences, we inhabit different worlds, and that would be substantially true. What it comes down to is that, without the accident of having been born into the same family at approximately the same time, there’s little chance I’d ever have come to know him. And, it’s why I’ve never really known anyone like him. Which is what makes him so unique to me, as I believe I am to him.

It took me a couple of decades to realize this, and to begin to appreciate Rhett in a very special way. In the sphere of my life, he has perspectives on things completely unlike those of friends, colleagues and partners I’ve attracted over the years. And, because I love him, and he me, I am able to interact with this alien intelligence in ways deep and intimate enough as to instruct, enlighten and inspire me.

Of course, I exaggerate our differences. We come from the same parents, were born in the same city into similar circumstances, and through most of our pre-adult years, our physical and social journeys were parallel. And all these similarities, all that we share, is essential to the love and bond between us.

That bond has always felt absolute and unconditional. We have our disagreements; we used to fight often enough. As adults, we’ve mostly lived far apart, sometimes not seeing one another for years at a time. We’ve hardly ever exchanged Christmas or birthday gifts, and the odd time that something is given, one to the other, it never sets a precedent of creates any kind of expectation.

But emotionally, or, maybe deeper than that, even... on the level of who we are, we are bonded. Maybe it’s on the level of the “story” we believe ourselves to be living, how we situate ourselves and each other in the world of “meaning”. On that level, in that place, we are deeply connected, mirrors of one another, alter egos, each a kind of harmony to the other’s melody, the chorus behind one another’s center stage. We are joined, in simple fact.

He’s been with me from my beginning and populates my earliest memories. In one of them, he’s bent over on the sidewalk in front of our house, retying my shoe lace, teaching me how to do it myself. In another, he’s rescuing me from a tree down the street. With his encouragement, I’d mustered the confidence to climb up it, but wouldn’t come down again. There’s never been any doubt of our connection. And we’ve both noted, as we’ve journeyed through life, our surprise at how few other siblings seem as solid and sure, as quietly passionate about their bond, as we are of our brotherhood.

I came to realize, as I learned to ponder the whys and wherefores of my life, that there were reasons for all of this. Our mutual commitment got serious reinforcement when we moved from Detroit to New York, when I was five and he was seven. For a few weeks or months we were shuttled here and there, sometimes with our father, sometimes both parents, occasionally with strangers, while our parents tried to settle on some place and some way for us to all live together. We changed schools and neighborhoods a few times through the next few years, and so often, we were each the single familiar face in one another’s world. This shifting went on, in one way or another, until we entered our teens. At the height of our life as wanderers, we found ourselves in East Germany, where our mother sang in night clubs and stage shows, on a series on month-long contracts. We stayed in small hotels, and my brother and I would meet the local kids, and learn their games and a few new words. Once we taught a group of boys how to play baseball, in an empty lot in Leipzig, and a small crowd gathered to watch.

Our parents were there with us, but much of the time Rhett and I felt like it was us two against the world. Not ‘against’ in the sense that there was any painful struggle to it. Merely in the sense that everything outside of us was different, and only we knew who we were and where we’d come from. And no one else could ever understand all that. Why even try to explain. We had each other. And it was wonderful! We grew up feeling that, despite any differences, we were sharing one journey, one adventure, one perspective on the big world that lay ahead and all around us. It was one long adventure, and the two of us, the ever successful protagonists in some epic saga.

We moved and moved again, lived with one parent then the other, watched them become disaffected, then divorce, all the while sharing our whispered conversations in our bedroom when the lights were out, our speculations about our fate and what lay ahead. And all the while, Rhett was my protector, my biggest fan, my confidant, my guide.

At one point, we were in a couple of professional stage plays, sharing the same rolls on alternating nights, and bringing our very different energies and personas to the roles. That experience is a great metaphor for how we felt about our connected destinies. However different we were, we knew that we shared a path unique to ourselves, and not translatable to others. Trust, devotion, love. I learned the depths of those emotions from my brother, through those years of growing up.

Eventually, our lives settled. We wound up back in New York, with our father. A few years in the same place led to a renewed sense of home, to new friends who became old friends. We began to develop in our separate and individual ways. Rhett played basketball. I joined the school orchestra. I read books. He caroused with his buddies. So there came a point during our teens when my brother and I didn’t have much to do with each other. We were each too involved in finding and furnishing our niches in life. I remember feeling that he just didn’t fit into mine very well. I went away to school first; he did the same, a year or so later. And that was when one of the differences in us really began to assert itself.

My response to, first, leaving the extended family behind in Detroit, and then, the dissolution of our parents’ marriage, was to try to divorce myself from family altogether. I decided to go it alone, to let relations with family weaken and fall away. But Rhett’s response was to develop a love and commitment to family that’s stronger than in almost anyone I know. He simply didn’t let me drift away. For years, no matter how ‘uppity’ and distant I got, he called, he tracked me down, he visited. He remained “Big Brother” – and friend, fan, supporter, guide. The comforting and mythic reality of “Us against the World” survived everything that might’ve pulled us apart.

I just turned sixty, and in July, Rhett will be sixty-two. And the bond between us remains as it ever was. Rhett Preston Kirby is the deepest expression of love and family that I know. He will forever be the most unique person in all my life. He is my only brother, so of course I have no basis of comparison. Yet and still, the heart has grounds for making claims that no logic or reason can undercut. I assert it because, in this life I have lived, it is true. Rhett is and has been the greatest brother I could ever have had. Without him...well, I just can’t imagine.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

This New Hour

When my sixtieth year began, just about a year ago, I found myself playing with the metaphor of my entire life as a single hour, each year represented by a minute on the clock. By that reckoning, last March I was entering my hour's final minute, and I approached the year with the intent of completing some things. I know that some of my friends were horrified by this analogy, seeing in it some morbid anticipation of death, but no such thing was intended. Rather, the image helped me to focus my priorities and set goals. It also helped prepare me for turning sixty, which I feared might otherwise come with a heavy psychological load.

Well, my hour ended two days ago. I didn't achieve nearly all I'd hoped to. The clock was an appropriate but daunting image to engage with, as all year I was acutely aware of the ticking away of those precious seconds, despite that my expanded time frame stretched each of them to almost a week. And yet, it was also a joyful minute, during which I was able to appreciate the breadth and richness of what's been a wonderful life.

I don't make much of my actual birthday anymore, and Tuesday was a pretty regular day, aside from a deluge of well wishes on Facebook and some other, more personal acknowledgements from friends. It was a good day, with lots of small reminders that a milestone was being passed. I was struck, in particular, by the realization that my thirtieth birthday, which was special in a number of ways, had passed half my lifetime ago! There were lots of jokes about loss of vigor, and my Ponczka finished off a long-standing joke between us, by announcing that she'd changed her mind, and was in fact not going to trade me in for two thirty year olds.

The great surprise though, came the next day, when I thought back to my analogy and realized that I was now into the first minute of my second hour. What a shift in perspective that brought. Suddenly, I was no longer summing up, trying to bring closure to a lifetime of intention. Now, the minute hand was starting down the other side of the clockface. Now, I was looking forward again. And looking forward, my view didn't feel nearly so populated with plans and goals and intention. I can take on anything I'd like. Time and space for something entirely new. In fact, the future feels pretty wide open.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

X Times Seven Equals Life

It's one of the best research documentary ideas ever. And it makes for some of the most fascinating television I've ever watched. I wish I had a similar record of my own family, my own communities. Apparently the model has been copied in several countries around the world, including the US, Russia, and South Africa, but until doing a little web-surfing for this blog post, I’d never heard of any of them. Certainly it’s a model worth copying, as it offers up a treasure trove of insights into the journey through life and the human condition. And talk about “reality television”!
What I'm referring to is the 7-Up series of documentaries that began in 1964 in England, a product of Granada Television’s World in Action series  ( Seeking to explore the truth of the maxim: "Show me a child at seven and I will show you the Man", Michael Apted, then a twenty-two year old researcher, selected a group of seven year olds, from the privileged and the underprivileged classes. Apted has noted his regret that he chose no strictly "middle class" children. Also, there are fewer females than males, and except for one bi-racial boy, no minorities were represented. He says that at the time he “wanted to make a nasty piece of work about these kids who have it all, and these other kids who have nothing.”
The children were interviewed, asked a range of questions about money, class, race, whether they wanted marriage and children, and where they saw themselves in the future. It was conducted with the view to catching a glimpse of what British society might be in the year 2000. It was originally conceived as a one-off, though apparently the original show included this post credits narration: "If you want to know what happens to these children, watch Granada Television on Tuesday 2nd May in the year 2000.”
What actually happened proved way more interesting than even that thought-provoking tease. Because, when 1970 rolled around, Apted, now in the role of director, tracked down the children – now fourteen – and interviewed them again. By 1977, at the third go-round, the potential and promise of the exercise really began to show itself. Some of the twenty-one year olds were exactly what their seven year old versions had hinted at, but others were startlingly different. I won’t spoil it for you, but seeing the change in Neil, from 7 to 14, then on to 21, can’t but make you wonder what happened in his young life to cause such a transformation.
Apted, who eventually moved to Hollywood, where he directed such fare as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Gorillas in the Mist”, “Thunderheart” and “Nell”, returned every seven years to track down the fourteen children and create another episode in the Up series. From time to time, one or another of them has refused to participate. One of the 14 hasn’t participated since he was twenty-one, though, ironically, he’s become a documentary film-maker himself.
The series has continued right up to the present, the latest episode, broadcast in 2012, catching up with the “kids” at age 56. I can’t recall for certain whether I was introduced to the series when the participants were 21 or 28, but being just two years their senior, I feel as though I’ve been taking my life journey right alongside them. One can’t help but contrast and compare, not only them against one another, but also against one’s self. But I imagine that this is the case whatever a viewer’s age.
Despite Apted’s original, incendiary intention, the series did not mature as a political piece. While there’s certainly lots of room for partisan or sociological analysis, it stands as a much more personal exploration of life’s challenges and rewards, its small joys and the abundance of sacrifices it demands of us. Watching the show, you develop affection for some, perhaps judgement of others. You empathize, mourn, smile along with. You understand.
I’ve missed episodes through the years, but have always caught up when I had the chance. And now, the entire series – except for the very last episode – is available on Netflix! A great feature of the presentation is that each episode contains clips from all of the previous episodes. This is an invaluable aide when several years separate viewings. When binge-watching the entire series on Netflix, they can become pretty repetitive. But even with that small drawback, I can’t recommend this series strongly enough. Though its diversity is limited in being set within the mono-culture of a single, European country, there is a deep universality to this series. It will give you much to think about: How much are we all conditioned to live the lives we lead? To what extent are we free to remake ourselves, and to what extent are we subject to the whims of circumstance? To the extent that we have choices, what have we made of them? How might we have done better, or worse? How have we touched the lives of others, and how have our lives been touched by them? And, the one that is ever present, for us and for the fourteen kids of 1964, on and off the screen, what lies ahead?


Friday, February 28, 2014

The End of Homelessness

I suspect that homelessness, like hunger, ignorance and other forms of poverty, will be with us for awhile longer, despite the best efforts of many government and social programs designed to bring about its end. With the rapid pace of change and the upheavals they can bring, it seems unlikely that individuals won’t continue to lose their way and find themselves falling beyond the edge of the social spaces that most of us live within. And, like those viruses and bacteria that mutate their way past the vaccines and medicines designed to stop them, homelessness may well take on different forms, appearances and manifestations.
At the Streets to Homes program, where I work, we’re seeing some differences in the landscape of homelessness that present as challenges. For about 8 years S2H has been out in the streets of Toronto, patiently and diligently seeking out the hardcore homeless, those who avoid the available shelter system in preference for sidewalk grates, abandoned buildings and alleyways, garages, the undersides of freeways and parklands. And we’ve had an effect. Though a lot of the more challenging cases of homelessness persist, particularly among those with serious mental illness, the landscape is changing. In a recent team meeting, a long time supervisor said that when the program began, workers were expected to house a minimum of eight persons per month. These days, we’re doing well to average one or two per month. Those one or two are likely to require as much work as the eight used to, but the reality is, the numbers just aren’t there anymore.
This should be cause to celebrate. Except that, the successes seem almost to work against us. Housing numbers decline and this generates pressures to justify the program budget and the jobs it sustains. And the social workers who fill these jobs, and who have played a huge role in bringing about the change, begin to worry for their own security. What happens when the work to which one has molded oneself ceases to exist? We feel a degree of empathy for the small towns given a death sentence when the factory shuts down, and for workers in obsolete professions struggling for a livelihood. But, on the other hand, time marches on. Societies and their needs change. And we must adapt, or risk being left behind.
So I wonder, as the face of homelessness changes, how will the field adapt? And if homelessness were to end, what would happen to us – whose jobs and even entire careers are grounded in the fight to end it? We want an end to homelessness, but not an end to our livelihoods, to our valued roles, to the work that defines us. In a paradoxical way, when positive change threatens the security of the changer, a desire is generated to preserve the status quo. This phenomenon was noted by the sociologist Max Weber in his work on the tendency of organizations and bureaucracies to outlast the conditions they were formed to address.
I don’t recall what if any answer Weber presented for this resistance to change. But my guess is that any response will involve even more change. The changer too will have to embrace change, not just for the thing struggled against, but also for self.
I’m reminded of a favorite film, Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai. It’s set in a time when many samurai no longer have lords to serve, or wars to wage. They are aimless. When a village of farmers needs defence, seven of these unemployed warriors now have purpose. They win their battle, successfully killing off the marauding bandits, most of them giving their own lives to the cause. But at the film’s end, they are no longer needed, or even wanted. The villagers are grateful, but a village is no place for samurai, and they’d just as soon have them gone. Two of the three remaining warriors prepare to resume their aimless wandering. In the end, the only one of them that finds happiness is the third. For he gives up his life as a samurai to stay with the villagers, to become one of them.
I think that we crusaders against homelessness will have to accept the ongoing and inevitable change in our strategies, tactics, and in our very roles, if we hope to someday end homelessness without becoming homeless ourselves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Bearing Weight

     I feel so heavy.
     I put on quite a bit of weight during my vacation last year, didn’t take it off, then put on another bunch of pounds while vacationing this month. I feel like a different person. It was more than a decade ago when, over a period of two years, I lost a hundred pounds. It was fascinating to go to the gym, pick up a hundred pounds in weights and walk around with them, demonstrating to myself the extent of the corporeal load I’d been burdened with every moment of every day for many years of my waking and sleeping life. It was a surreal exercise, though. It didn’t seem possible that I’d been so heavy. No way possible I’d survived that. How had I climbed stairs? How had I taken baths, ridden a bike, made love? How had I managed any sense of well-being whatever, carrying such a load?
     Now, it’s no longer an exercise. I feel every bit of the extra thirty pounds I’ve put back on. I feel it in the heaviness of every movement, in the ponderous drag when I walk, in the futility of trying to hurry anywhere. I feel the regained weight as a girdle of fat around my middle, as a thickness in my limbs, restricting my movement, squeezing out the room I had in my clothing, insulating me almost. I’m slower. The lightness I’d gained, that had felt like liberation, like re-birth when I first reclaimed it, is gone.
     Horrifying to consider what it would mean to regain the other seventy pounds I lost. Surely, it would mean death – spiritually, if not in fact. It’s beyond imagining. Except that I once grew to that weight in the first place. And a year ago, I was confident that I’d never again grow to even the size I’m at now. I must remember how easy it can be to adapt, accept, surrender.
     Of course, there is the remedy. There are the many, small steps I took to reclaim fitness. The key element was awareness. After that, resolve, commitment, patience. The lightness came slowly, but it came surely. As surely as steps become miles, and seconds stretch into days. It’s time to begin, again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Furnished Room

           I wonder if everyone has one. That place of comfort, retreat, escape from time. It’s a very private place, protected by virtue of being disconnected, unreachable by anyone but its owner. It’s seductive, malleable, somehow always just right, somehow always enough, so that you never have to leave; you in fact have to fight against never wanting to leave. Because you know that this ‘never wanting to leave’ is an illusion, an illusion built into the very furnishings, the very walls of this room.
          It’s an internal space I’m speaking of. When did I first discover it? No telling. I know that I was familiar with it by my mid teens. It is a place constructed out of sadness, lonliness, pain. And I think I first began to furnish it when I became aware of that essential aloneness that announces itself to each of us at some point in life. I don’t know that we all do it, but for me, a quiet kid who always felt a little different, a little set apart from my peers, and already comfortable with the life of the mind, it seemed a natural thing to begin to construct this little space, to decorate and furnish it. After awhile, it was a place characterized by its reliability: so long as I could put the world at bay to some necessary but not specified degree, I could retire to my furnished room and find contentment. Not happiness mind you, and peace isn’t quite the right word, either. But certainly a respite, a time away from pressures, from demanding problems that seemed unsolvable, a space or two removed from pain, or at least from its intensity.
          The Furnished Room comes to mind because I’ve been visiting it a bit too often just lately. In the face of challenges that seem to have no clear answer, up against pressures and needs that haven’t submitted to my clumsy, solutions, that persist in demanding more than I know I can muster, the room becomes so tempting. I sometimes retreat there for minutes and find them stretched to hours. I sometimes stop in, intending to regroup, to collect myself, before tackling some ambitious goal designed to correct some imbalance in life, or to secure some long unsatisfied need. But the quick stop will become a stay that robs me of my ambition, my will, my clarity. And I exit my room placid, forgetful, half asleep.
          At first, this Furnished Room of mine was a place I might stumble on from time to time, not a regular destination. But over time, I’ve discovered more and more of its doorways. Herb was perhaps the first grand entryway, to the point that I once mistook the high for the Room itself. A couple of tokes provided the instant antidote to boredom, to what could be a painful unease with self, and with consciousness. Smoke a joint and things were fine; pressing problems transformed themselves to mere inconveniences, to Rorshack blotches on the wall that could be seen in so many more interesting ways.
          But when I put the overindulgence on herb aside, I soon discovered other doors. Or maybe it’s that I learned that anything could be such a door, really. Television could certainly do the trick – it too could put me in the state of mind of being pleasantly occupied, with nothing at risk; aroused and stimulated, but with no skin in the game. Similarly, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, surfing the internet, porn, food...even books. Not that any of these things are or were problematic in themselves. It’s just that, engaged with in a particular way – in a particularly indulgent way – they became gateways to that Furnished Room, that place where pain, challenge, anxiety are all somehow muted, contained, softened, de-fanged.
          (And what's wrong with a world without teeth? It's that only the bite of life can keep us fully awake. The Furnished Room is a place of sleep. Surprisingly, meditation brings me the sharp thrust to keep me from retiring there.) That method of quiet, purposeful focusing draws me more deeply and intently into the world, places me bare-skinned into the game, able and willing to feel all the nuances, the pressures, the hurts in all their personal specificity. The Furnished Room is a place where all that is dulled and smoothed over, made impersonal and vague.
          Do you all have such places? Do you have your own such rooms? I imagine that most of us do, but that it’s the degree to which we visit them that varies. I don’t begrudge myself the occasional, short visit. But with me, drop-ins have a way of extending themselves. From inside the room, looking through the window outward – if I bother to look at all – it’s easy to say, “Cold out there. Better wait til Spring”. I can forget how stirring and enlivening the cold air can be; how much more life-embracing it is to use doorways for venturing out, instead of retreating within. I can forget how a person can expand into the big world, and conversely, how we can shrink into such narrow spaces as we allow. A room, after all, is an assembly of walls, and walls always keep out much more than they contain.