Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Walled Within

As organisms we are easily identifiable. Contained by the very skin in which we find ourselves, we hardly change. Yes, we grow older. Yes, we learn. Yes, we become more mature. We adapt and integrate and assimilate and make of our inner world a more complex organism, while perhaps simultaneously coordinating with our outer worlds as a simple order of constructions. We go to work. Cook. Sleep. And make do. Yet few, like caterpillars, are entirely metamorphic.

Trumpean pronouncements of "building a wall," and the Brexit isolationism are symptomatic of the fears that wall us within. We hardly can expand into other realities. Like maggots, or fruit flies, bees or wasps or flowers, we find ourselves identified by our species. Like rats or bats or dogs or cats; like horses or dolphins or whales, we are self-contained within the very molecules that go toward making our identity. Evolution is very slow. It takes several millions of years to make a man from a monkey. It took many millions of years for an elephant to arise from the rock rabbit. We find Neanderthal or Rudolfensis or Erectus identities and traits deep within our ethnic genes. We trace our ancestry online and sign in to DNA testing all in a search for our origins, all in the interest of discovering the far flung shores to which we owe some allegiance, some badge of identification; albeit solipsistically. So the kilt gets replaced by Romania. Or the rice-paddy-hat gets supplanted by a bowler. We are surprised that we are not really German. The Irish in us come out. After all, we want a sense of 'true' identity, at last, on which we may hang our hat.*

But the faults in my analogies in the above lie in my not championing the evolution of the individual. There is a natural tendency to presume that all elephants (in the room) materialized simultaneously: Poof! That one day we were apes, and the next day not. That Neanderthals suddenly, on April first, in the year 2 million BC, woke to find themselves more intelligent and humanoid than ever before, as though a Quantum Leap had taken place: "Everybody in the pool; last one in is a rotten egg!" Remember those games? Remember the strictures and the acculturation of how to advance in society, the adoption of language, identity, dress, religion, and traditional habituations to which you yourself became inured? We identify quite readily with 'the group", even though we may be urged to be at the forefront of it. Yet the fault-cracks in our collective-composite are created by the evolution of individuals, until each finds new community, coming out of the closets of self containment. Indeed, not all closets are kept closed by others.

A friend wrote: "Hello Richard, Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on your acting. You were good. (Indeed, one emotionally touched reviewer wrote: "The best acting seen in 20 years of attending Victoria theatre." Another wrote: “Incredibly powerful and moving.”) But we became friends because we were honest with each other, that was our bond, and I know that is what you would expect from me now. So let me say that while you were good, you were not stretched. It was as if you pulled on a familiar piece of clothing, an overcoat that felt comfortable on you, that was safe. You knew which button was loose, where the hem needed stitching, where the stain was that wouldn't come out. It felt agreeable. But I would like to have seen you pushed into the red zone, because that is where the creativity lies. We would have seen magic, my friend. You did the best you could with the material, but the play was dated. We have seen and heard this all before. The jokes were weak, the dialogue banal, the character development obvious. It was not raw, not edgy. And we're dealing with life and death mate! But I'm glad I saw it. Thank you for inviting me."

Yes, we are contained by the scripts we are given, walled within. (I wonder what Mitch Albom, the author of Tuesday's with Morrie, would think of my friend's critique?) Yet as Morrie himself asks, "Are you at peace with yourself? Are you trying to be as human as you can be?" Yes, it is one thing to exercise being "raw and edgy," to suit some, but also at the same time to be, as Morrie would have it, "filled with light." Or do we remain year after year, as individuals, as an identifiable organism, unscratched at the core, carefully closeted, and perpetually walled within?

* See: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Impeccable Integrity? (three hours before the Town House Debate)

"Already, some good has come of it," says Morrie Schwartz, and we wait to see what that might be. Well, we have all sorts of discussions going on about 'private parts' now. Between males. Between wives and husbands. Between sisters and brothers. And hopefully, very much around the immature ideas and childish impulses of boys, and girls, and between everyone who thinks about what they're thinking about, let alone what one says. Certainly, CNN news channel does!

Which of us has never been guilty? Which of us has never thought badly of another, or even said something in some derogatory term or other, without sensitivity that they too 'feel'? (Or do we charge people with oversensitivity? Do we simply say you need to develop a thicker skin?)

Political correctness aside, there is now a vulgar word or two not quite readily heard or shared across the news channels of the world. Some countries will delete out the topic altogether. But at least the subject of propriety itself raises the bar, sets a standard for sophistication and sensitivity and awareness and decency. The clarity is now (and was) that some things are undeniably lewd, crude, and rude. And the larger implication is that integrity itself is at stake.

"You are the same person, wherever you go," says Morrie Schwartz (in Tuesdays with Morrie). It is a call not only to act much the same wherever one is, but also to monitor one's own thinking. But we do swear when children are not around. (Or even in front of them.) We wear faces for business purposes. We put on our teacher masks, our professional masks, our dress and garb and accoutrements all to impress and disguise and hide and cloak. At 14 we spend three hours preening in front of the mirror in preparation for meeting an 'other'. At 20 we may spend two. By the time one is 65 our personal preparations may have evolved to no more than ensuring we're clean. We do care about the comfort of others. We do not want to offend.

Impressing others is natural to us all. We use our vehicles, our houses, our clothes, our things and even our voices in the changes of ourselves to suit the occasion. But being authentic is not about using the same voice or wearing the same clothes day in and day out. It is about realizing that we pay deference to funerals, to weddings, to the opera. Being authentic is not about never having a dirty thought or expressing anger or frustration or disappointment or even ruling out showing up in your dressing gown to answer the knocking at the front door. It is not about being (overly) concerned about the cleanliness of your house. Being authentic is about the integrity of being aware of why we're thinking something, why we're doing something, and whether that thing we think or does is harmful to others, to creatures, or to things; let alone to ‘the self’. And that kind of awareness, mostly, takes education. It takes mentoring by our society. It takes the monitoring of oneself. It takes the maturational stages through which we all go in order to become yet more and more mature, insightful, and compassionate. We are always in progress toward getting older and older; at issue is whether we progress, or slip into that seventh age of Shakespearean second childishness, sans eyes (the ability to see), sans teeth (the ability to chew over all that feeds us), sans ears (the ability to discern that which we hear), and mere oblivion. (Just how very many things, around and within us, are we not oblivious to?)

Our world is at a tipping point, yet again, in history. We proved that black children can become the president. We may prove that girls can become one too. And we may prove that fear may continue to trump sensibility. That last point may collectively regress us to a state of shallow-callow xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and the sense of product before people. ("If their work is not up to my expected standard, I do not pay them.") The thing is, perfection is never a long-lived product; it always is a progress. Therein might we have compassion. And therein too, always en route, which of us is impeccable? Yes, already, "some good has come of it," indeed.

Friday, October 7, 2016

One Waves at Flies

Chaos and fractals invigorate. We love energy! Nature rearranging itself excites or at least provokes interest. Stasis, eventually, is boring. Action, if a story is to progress, needs to come early. And so, late last night in rain-drenched dark and along the wind-swept and leaf bestrewn Lagoon Road down to our beach, we drove with a certain privilege, ensconced in our warm car. It "was a dark and stormy night," and the howling winds wrestled with the trees and battered at the buildings. This was not Haiti. It was not Florida. It was simply those six or seven foot waves bashing themselves up in furious froths against our usually tranquil Colwood Bay. And with our car's headlights on high-beam (as well as with quite a few other cars parked there too,) the sea was lit up in its dramatic anguish. Out there, somewhere far-far off, huge winds and waves were creating more damage and resulting in more deaths than we possibly could countenance. Only in the aftermath shall we see the effect on our own beach, are we likely once again to regroup.

Yet the fly became the biggest bedeviller of our night. A loud buzzer, it crawled the walls above the TV and disturbed our enjoyment of an episode of 'The Good Wife'. And each time its black dot settled on the white wall I thought to rise and capture it. I've succeeded with other flies. A clear glass and a stiff piece of paper to slide carefully under the orifice once the spider or ant or fly is enclosed, securely does the deed. One can then escort the thing out. But it was already the late hour of 9:30pm, and the weather outside was dreadful! Poor fly. So I did not rise and disturb my own inertia. I wanted to. But I did not. I was tired! And then, at about 9:45, my wife suggested we drive down to the beach. "The waves will be nice and big!"she expostulated, so....

But by the eleventh hour I'd had enough of that fly. Back in the warm house, it'd followed us into the bedroom, buzzed busily and annoyingly over and about and around our faces, crawled along exposed arms, and occasionally tap-tapped at the ceiling with its efforts to get at the light. It did not appreciate the door temporarily opened for it. It did not allow me to get close enough to capture it. And so, frustrated by the prospect of a disturbed sleep, I at last reached into our laundry basket for a used towel and went after it with a regretful vengeance. Killing things was something I'd learned to unlearn. But when it comes to mosquitoes, or some flies, well...

"I was too young when I abandoned my mother," Morrie Shwartz shares with Mitch, his former student from sixteen years ago. "And you were too young too, when your uncle needed you. We did what we were able to do!" Yes, along with forgiveness of the self, as well as compassion and awareness of another's point of view, we come to each moment in time only with all that we have in that given moment. And yet, towel in hand, and several ineffectual whacks later, I could not reach the culprit. All it did was eventually dart aside into the bowl of the ceiling light fixture, and there, since I heard not further sound nor saw again a sighting of it, I presume it died. Ugh!

But I thought a long time about that thing. And about all those so drastically affected by the storm off the coast of the USA. And I wondered at how all the future of the possible progeny of that particular fly, and then too of the very many people who died in the damage wrought by the big and brutal waves of nature, could so be yoked to chance and circumstance and location and even to an Other's intentions. We can help. We can save. We can avoid. And we can follow our instincts that'd have us get up off the couch and do something about life as much as possible, as early as possible, young as one may be. (Even if it is to arise and search out that which moves us, and to watch life with an interest and care and concern and momentum that gives one “peace with oneself, wherever one may be,” as Morrie says.) How else to change our very epigenetics? How else to affect the changes needed to wave after wave of our ancestral and individual habitations? How else to be as conscious as one can be of the significance of our lives to the future? Except perhaps, when disturbed by something as little and simple as a fly!