Thursday, February 20, 2020

Carman's Carousel

[Artist Unknown]

Milton Carman let go of the carousel. He’d lived 91 years. Round and round the cycles of his lifetimes he’d gone, but just before his birthday, February 14th, 2020, he set off into the great unknown. “Happily.” At least, that’s what I inferred by the gleam in his eye when he told me he was “looking forward to the inevitability of the journey.”  Reincarnation, for him, was a foregone conclusion. It was a visceral entity, an inherent belief.

We’d known each other but a scarce seven months, before this last January 27th, and yet his vitality still resonates. It was the energy of a deeply profound man, an ordained monk, a Buddhist teacher, writer, composer, husband, father and grandfather. In short, he was a man who’d lived a full, long, life. And he seemed (as Morrie Schwartz in ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ would put it) a man “at peace with himself.” Morrie’s lines also advise: “Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird that sits on your shoulder, that asks, ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I being the person I want to be?'” Indeed, Milton Carman appeared always to be the person he wanted to be.

“Are you the artist?” he asked, back in June. We were at The Broken Paddle CafĂ©. My thirteen paintings had been up on the walls for the month. He appeared an older man than me, but I would not have put him in his late 80’s. His interest in my work, his care to continue the conversation, and his invitation to visit him, and to meet Carol, his wife, was deeply appreciated. By email, Friday, June 14th, he wrote: “My dear Richard, I immensely enjoyed our time together.  It is rare indeed during these turbulent times to come upon another soul who speaks the language with the lilting cadence, precision and metaphorical whimsy that excites another’s curiosity and imagination.   It was lovely indeed being with you. The book about dying that I mentioned is titled, Preparing to Die by Andrew Holecek.  ‘Tis a life-changer.” Yes, from the very outset, Milton was prepared to talk about death. 

A sense of friendship formed quickly. A tea at his house, then a dinner with others of his friends, “at a date for the assignation which suits us all.” And at each meeting Milton was content not only to listen, to ask questions, but equally to expound about his abiding interest in the Anima and the Animus*, and its essential interconnection. It formed the foundation of the novel he was writing. (It is a novel, at this writing, that is “sadly a few pages” unfinished.) The cycles of re-incarnations fascinated his imagination, became a belief so endemic to his apperception of life that he was convinced he would “experience life again shortly after regaining entry into the hereafter.” Milton, captivated by the philosophy of Hermann Hesse, also wrote, “I would truly appreciate receiving your extra copy of Demian, which I’ve never managed to catch up with.”

Thing is, the man was still wanting to add to his book collection, wanting to read yet more, wanting still to take an interest in others around him, willing to add to his burgeoning set of acquaintances and friends even at his very late stage and age of life. Thing is, we each are affected by the memory and awareness of others, throughout history. And the thing is, we each, individually, are made more fortunate by the touchstones and special persons that are revealed to us in the passage of our own lives. Thing is, as Milton would have it, each person is special, all in and by themselves.

He signed his emails: “Be well and happy.” At question, one might aver, is just 'how happily we are being the person we want to be.' For me, he was an exemplar. Be well. Stay well. Be happy.

                                                Milton Samuel Carman: Feb 14, 1929- Jan 27, 2020

*Anima and Animus
The anima and animus are described in Carl Jung's school of analytical psychology as part of his theory of the collective unconscious. Jung described the animus as the unconscious masculine side of a woman, and the anima as the unconscious feminine side of a man, each transcending the personal psyche. Jung's theory states that the anima and animus are the two primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind, as opposed to the theriomorphic and inferior function of the shadow archetypes. He believed they are the abstract symbol sets that formulate the archetype of the Self.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Collision Course

The shattering sound of the crash had people craning their necks. Had the overladen waitress flawlessly balanced the tray no one would have applauded her. We go about being perfect with nary a notice. But at our collisions, at our mistakes, at our upsets, we easily draw attention. To her credit, the waitress did not swear. To her colleagues’ credit, several appeared quickly on the scene, and voiced concern for her, and offered help. Disconcerted, she appeared flustered, but not self-deprecatingly so. And close as I was, I thought to get up from my table to help, but realized the ineffectiveness of my position. Yet as alert as I’d like to think myself, I did not see my partner react to the splashed orange juice on the back of her own leg, nor did I note the fresh stain on our server’s apron, let alone the bit of pulp on his wrist. Only later, in my partner’s writing of the incident, did such detail come to my attention. How much else did I miss?

We each are fixated in moments, and our senses apprehend but a smidgen of the whole. We retain the stains, the sounds, the images, and even the feelings, perhaps, but the fullness of the moment, the accuracy, the whole of it escapes us, clearly. How many glasses broke? How much juice spilled? What was the colour of her hair? How many came to her aid? Was the floor mopped, afterwards? How much detail of it, after all, signifies?

Writing can be like that. We cram details into it sufficient to get our story across, but must leave out the whole. We can only particularize. Like comprehension itself. Very few of us can recall an entire page of writing, let alone the precise phrasing of an exact sentence, unless we give it much focus, or mental intentionality. No, we glean. We gather. We coagulate from the flow and make concrete, at best, our collective impression. Individually. And then, when some other reader draws any kind of editorial comment through a word, a phrase, an observation, we might be dissuaded from the power of our own vernacular. We can feel impoverished in the wake of someone else’s seemingly superior insight. We can feel insecure about the balance we strike between the hefting of words onto the platter of the page, and the tipping of them so far off-centre that they might come crashing to earth so as to embarrass oneself for having delivered an offering of ‘personal’ images to another in the first place. We can be our own worst enemy.

No amount of observing others will have one balancing the tray of life. One must needs carry it oneself. And indeed, learning from others will assist with the displacement of the proportions of our actions. But not to carry our talent until we are recognized as a professional would be never to get there, in the first place. One needs best play the guitar with the decision to allow mistakes. One must throw the ball at the hoop with persevering intentionality. One must write, and write some more, until the words hone sentences into double-edged swords that slice though simile and metaphor and symbolism so keenly that oneself be satisfied. Therein lies the crux! Self-appraisal. Self-worth. Self-evaluation. Yet humility always to learn more. But if always waiting for another's appraisal, our progress may be very slow. We play, we do, we evolve all the while we grow at the immediate limits of our capacity, naturally. And it’s best to enjoy the very process, indeed.

That waitress will perhaps not attempt to balance quite so much next time. She will have learned. And so too, as we delve into our own lives, we might best participate with what we have, from where we’ve taken it, rather than o’erreach ourselves. And we shall keep doing so with all the certainty that attends our age and stage, one hopes, or what else is living for? 

There are but six major conflicts in all of literature: Man versus man; nature; the supernatural; society; technology; and himself. Amidst all of these, a crises of confidence is the Achilles heel to bring down the most stalwart amongst us. A jury of peers will each render a different opinion if asked to review one’s art, one’s performance; one’s game; one’s writing, no matter how praising they may  collectively be. But to be able to continue to practice one’s art, despite what anyone else may say, now that’s the true measure of overcoming all that which has gone before. And that’s why, no doubt, that waitress will still be found, carrying yet another tray.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Liking 'Likes'

Perhaps among the most difficult of lessons is to give without expectation. We expect the other to like the gift, to show appreciation, and at least to express gratitude, somehow. We expect, in our very gesture of giving, to feel pleasure. All the uncertainty of, “I hope you like it!”; or that of, “You can use the gift receipt to exchange it, if you want,” ... all that aside, we do feel good about giving. It is very difficult, at best, not to be acknowledged.

At best?

20 years ago, a grade 12 student, Penelope, alone in the corridors while classes droned on, and not seeing me, turned down a hallway. From the T junction, I noted her veer to some discarded wrapping. Stooping and picking it up, she retreated toward the rubbish receptacle, saw me, and blushed. “I have a hall-pass,” she offered.

I smiled. “Penelope, was that garbage yours?”

“Well... no.”

“Then why pick it up?”

“Oh. I think it good to help the janitors out,” she offered, blushing again.

“I’m putting your name in for commendation, Penelope. I wish all students would follow your lead and help out around here.”

“My name? Oh no, please don’t do that. “I’ve no desire to get any credit.”

I balked. “But how else to serve as an example to others?”

She demurred. “Well, what about saying you saw someone help out, and hope we all might help out, and leave it at that.”

I beamed. “Done!”

Thing is, that single gesture still resonates, and very many hundreds of students have been told about Penelope, (and now you too.) And no, Penelope was indeed not her name. (And no, the argument does not hold that if we all did it a janitor would be out of a job, ha!)

We do things for each other, one hopes, by contributing to the health of the whole. We are polite, considerate, compassionate, caring, and responsible. Not to expect any reward is a most difficult lesson, indeed. Gifts or no gifts. After all, I want to be liked, loved, and appreciated. It’s natural.

But to continue contributing, silently, unobtrusively, and not to expect anyone even to find out, or necessarily to notice, now that’s the thing of enlightenment. We stoop to pick up other people’s garbage, if not our own, and we dispose of it without looking up to see who is watching. We do it for stranded earthworms. We do it for the helpless. We do it because it is ‘the next right thing.’ Over and over. Or am I hereby waiting for you to respond? Hm?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Inculcating Integrity

I wish I’d been taught more intensely about integrity. But whichever way the lessons of honesty and intention were delivered, they still have not settled. Attitude and insight may be up to me, (New Years’ resolutions aside,) but betraying promises, cloaking truth in lies, or protecting the self from the judgement and the reprobations of others, continues. Then again, even Churchill is purported to have said, “Truth needs to be concealed in fabrications, if Truth is to be kept safe.”

Yet what about the small truths of our lives? What about the promises we make that we perpetually break? That cookie jar of our promises can get emptied more quickly than we intended. Surely intentions need consistency of action if we are to inculcate integrity? The promises we make need be valuable. After all, is deception not, at its core, guiltily enervating, disassembling? (Yes, then there are those invigorated by evil, or intentional harm.)

“Did you touch your present?” she asked the five-year-old, her eyes hard and threatening.

“No Mammy, I didn’t,” he lied, feeling at once desperately afraid.

Her voice as sharp as a spear point, the adult challenged, “Then why is the corner torn a bit, and the present not exactly as I put it? Don’t you listen? I told you not to touch the presents!”

He blanched. Involuntarily, his eyes darted over to the Christmas tree. He shook his head. “It must’ve been the cat,” he suggested. “It likes to go under the tree.”

She snatched forward and tugged at his ear. “Tell me the truth now!”

Great fear overwhelmed him. He knew he was in for a painful hiding if he told the truth, so he persisted: “I didn’t. I promise. I did not!”

She let go of him. Then, striding toward the presents and plucking his up, she ripped it open. She thrust forward the shiny new pencil case, and growled angrily, “Well, that’s the last you’ll see of this, you little liar! No presents for you, this Christmas. That’ll teach you!”

And the thing is, he never saw the pencil case again.

Yes, little lies come from our need to protect our actions. Fibs alter reality, and serve, ultimately, to undermine our sensibility of what integrity is actually about. The ability to be true to the self requires constant vigilance; the ability to be true to others requires constant evaluation. (What use is truth if you’re being tortured in order to reveal where your friends are hidden? What use is truth if you know, down deep, you’ll never be forgiven, or trusted, or believed, or loved?)

Integrity gets inculcated in us, lesson by lesson, over the length of our lifetime. We learn to be discreet, careful, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, conscious of our choices, considerate of our actions, and to nurture our intentions. Yes, we make promises that we break. Yet in so doing, one hopes, we feed off guilt and its negativity in an integrative spiral of enlightenment toward yet more solidity of being. Our integrity is the gathering of the fragments of our actions, habits, thoughts, and preferences into a package that is indeed full of the present. It is a present guided by the yesterdays of the lessons of our life, and it also is a present imbued with the potential of what is yet to be. Our own integrity might appear wrapped up for others, but at least we know what is inside.

Yes, New Year’s resolutions aside, we are best off, daily, to be inculcating our own, inner, (and preferably) inviolable integrity. No fears about it. Right?

Monday, December 23, 2019

An AGAPE (Ah-Gha-Pay)

            Immersed in his painting, twenty-five years ago, his inclination was to be dismissive of the unexpected visitors. In the hot August sun of a Canadian afternoon, on the front-deck of ‘Kluane,’ (a friend’s residence on Denman Island,) the young South African had sought refuge in more ways than one. Next to his own property, up the road away, the neighbours were boring a well, and the persistent thump-thump of the machine was simply too much for focus. Besides, he wanted no distractions while working on his large 6ft by 3ft6ins oil painting, minutely detailed and surreal in its contrasts of historically garbed humans, each plotted on the squares of a chess-board, with greater than life depictions of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ in a wood-panelled train-car observing the game, all passing through a sylvan landscape, and all, progressing through a desiccated one. The still-wet canvas had the painter deeply involved in the yoking together of the variables of his past.

            And then, she stood there. Instantly, as they looked at each other, there was an accord, an understanding that there would be unconditional, utter, and complete acceptance. Thirty years his senior, she was a sprightly and altogether younger looking sparkling blue eyed blond; he a bearded and rugged thirty-something. And the year was 1993. And the years, twenty-five of them (at the date of this writing,) were yet to pass. Indeed, their friendship was instant.

            That late afternoon of their first meeting, while she stayed on the coast-side property of her war-bride cousin, a few kilometers down of the artist’s own property, he kayaked to her vista, and she saw him from the cliff top, and he parked the kayak up above the tide-line, scaled the rocky cliff, and sat in the lawn-chair, chatting. And she loved him, and he her, in the way that people do who have an instant sense of their commensurate way of being, their connection that goes beyond age, or sex, or even background. The details of each other’s lives slowly filled up conversation, filled up their constant letter-writing, filled up thought and care and became a constant stream of consciousness that filled up much of their continuing history. He was, indeed, twenty years later, to fulfill his promise to be her amanuenses. Her colourful, painful, and rich Memoir was fundamental to their communion.

            We each have friends like that. We each have experienced that Greek sense of AGAPE, a love that “embraces a universal, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance.” It is an entirely selfless feeling at best, wanting nothing but the best for the other. While the details of the other’s life can be intriguing, interesting, absorbing, we care more for the very spirit of the compatriot. While age, and looks, and circumstances of wealth and possession can be attractive, we care not so much for these things as we do for the feeling we experience with the other. The connection runs deep in the veins, in the arteries, in the very soul.

            Twenty-five years later, that friendship not only remains, it has grown and evolved, deeper than a well, more reliable even than a well, it proves to be the very life-source of a sense of profound accord and care and compatibility. And so it shall always be. It is a persistent thump-thump revitalizing the heart’s core. Always, so long as either shall live. By it, the yoking together of the variables of one’s past is a constant; we each grow by the years, and although there may be fulcrums around which we turn the pages toward new chapters, we know, always, that the footnote to our progress is made up of the love we experience along the way. Such is the power of agape. Such is the beauty of a pure and Platonic and everlasting love.


Saturday, December 14, 2019

Christmas Conciousness

As the season draws nigh we begin the clothing of it. Decorations. Lights. Trees. Cards. And presents. It all becomes a part of the make-believe of Santa, yes, but for many of us it is imbued with the spirit of giving. It is a giving of the self, beyond the self. And it can be in the small pleasures of glitter and baubles that we take delight, a sensibility of something ethereal made real, tangible, and shared. Yet, knowing lots of people gives much concern at this time. Who does one forget? Whom do I consciously overlook? After all, signing, and then sending cards can absorb very many hours, cost much in postage, and feel somewhat compulsory, obligatory, rather than providing a sense of generosity and clear-headedness. After all, if I send to so and so, then should I not also send to him or her, who happens to know so and so too?

Women, it appears, feel more stress at Christmas than do men. Apart from having the house all decked out, and the tree ‘just right’, there is the meal to prepare, the consideration of whom to invite, and all the appropriate presents to give. Then too, the present wrappings need ‘be right’. The man, by contrast, generally tags along. Some of us may grumble at the time of putting up lights, and decorations, and at the price tag of purchased items, but we do get to enjoy the basic magic of Yuletide. And the extra treats of chocolate and eggnog and... well, being at liberty to treat the self more than usual can be pleasant, for those of us who can afford it.

Much of the world cannot. Much of the populace at large is so desperately impoverished and unable even to find a piece of paper, let alone a glittery card, that Christmas may indeed come and go, and be just another day.

Just another day. We tend to make of our days something special, where we can. Born in an African country where no commerce whatsoever was allowed on Sundays (not even petrol-stations were open,) it struck me as unfair, odd, eventually, when that law was relaxed, that some people had to go to work on a Sunday. Not everyone gets the weekend off. And then, as far as special days go, in the North American calendar, there is a holiday every month. A holy day, off. That sense of taking additional holidays, of having time and space to relax and do what one wants sure can drive the weekdays to an anticipated special day; a special date. Yet Christmas, one can aver, is hardly relaxing.

Perhaps the worst Christmas I can recall happened when I was about seven. We had a tree. We had presents. And by about 6:30a.m., wide awake, my two younger brothers and I were in the living room, taking it upon ourselves to rip into our presents, with exclamations of some dismay (in my recollection) as I unearthed a small-child’s gardening set: the little shovel, the little fork , the little rake. But suddenly out guardian father was upon us, and we each in turn were yanked into the air, our backsides walloped, our ears boxed. Summarily, we were ordered back to bed. So much for Christmas. Then too, when I was nine, there was the time I peeked into the corner of my present, when I’d been warned not to, and got charged with doing so, and lied about it, and... well, many of us have sad stories. At issue is not my own sad tales of the past, nor even of yours, but of the sad tales that are happening now, all around us, and into the future too. Our world is in a sorry state, indeed. And doing what we can for some other individual, each by each, surely simply has to help.

But why wait for Christmas? After all, much of the world is not Christian. And much of the world does not subscribe, even, to a holiday ‘season’ at all. But to be sure, at any time, at any day, every little girl and boy appreciates tokens of care and consideration, love and warmth, and an honouring of their very existence. So too for each human being. We may not all know how to express gratitude, and some even how to feel it, but the hobo without socks or shoes is better off for them; the addict somewhere down deep understands a direct look into the eyes, with a ‘hang in there!’ And even the spirit of Santa, large as he is, appreciates the clothing of care and consideration and the generosity that some of us, more privileged than others, can bestow. After all, such is a consciousness of Christmas, indeed.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Interesting Interests

Entirely self-involved, we hardly but can see things from our own perspective. (Does compassion come ‘only’ because I feel good about being aware of practicing it?) Our own perceptions do govern our apprehension of life, and the Oscar Wilde statement, “I’m only interested in...” strikes me as a symptom of our human condition. We are raised to respond to external stimuli. Something or someone outside of ourselves needs elicit our interest. Flowers, bees, spiders, and snakes! Beauty, ugliness, accidents, and loud bangs! Something grabs the attention. And as judgementalism goes: “Inferior talk is about things; mediocre talk is about other people; and superior talk is about ideas.” We are given to absolutes. We are governed by the majority. And we certainly also have a collective common sense. It is those who break the code, who betray our common values, who step out of the box that we find ‘interesting’. After all, the poor bird that bashed into the window, lying now upside down but moving, remains more interesting than those flying freely around. And since it is outside, we may watch with interest sufficiently long enough until the concussed thing flits off again. For some brief moments, in all of this, we forget about ourselves, entirely captivated by the drama without, and in that catharsis we experience but brief surcease from the perpetual self-involvement that inhabits our own corporeal state of being; release is a feeling we instinctively seek, again and again. And finding something to interest me, as the acculturation of my learning has established, becomes a lifelong pursuit. After all, that which you find so interesting, indeed, may not much interest me.


It is a phrase often heard. Our ‘taking’ an interest in something seems to elude us, generally. Were we to suffer solitary confinement, be penned up in some dim cell with virtually no outside stimuli, we might begin counting the cracks in the wall, the number of tiles, the threads in our clothing, the.... we might ‘make’ something interesting. After all, as the poet Earl Birney has it, (in the poem David) “caught on a cliff ledge, our frozen fingers and boot-nails clung to the ice, we recalled the fragments of poems”. That is, from inside the self, there is best to come that curiosity toward life that precocious children tend to exhibit. Questions. Observations. Arrested interest, yes, but then a readiness to find almost anything else also worth examining. We are better off “to take an interest in,” than we are to have something “make us interested”, indeed.

And yet...

Real life, lived life, is about hierarchies. Preferences abound. This is better than that. More is often more desired, than is less. Our five senses guide our sensibilities. Our moral rubrics; our acculturated physical codes; our liabilities and consequences; our sensitivity, and productivity, and our very inclination is driven by our proclivities born of a lifetime of acquisitions. We may indeed accrete, but do we do so entirely horizontally, ever expanding our knowledge and reach, or do we consciously go about improving vertically, enhancing our enlightenment and intuition and comprehension and integration? The questions are not always rhetorical. The choices are not always a simple uni-dimensionality of left, or right? ‘Less’ is decidedly not necessarily worse than is ‘more’. And in our every encounter on the road of life, as we, like any other vehicle, are contractually bound to obey speed laws, are necessarily subject to the traffic around us, and are indeed contained in the vessel transporting us, we are subject to things being interesting, (and may as well also take an interest in that which is all a real part of the ongoing journey.)

“Are we there yet?”

The same road, travelled very many times over, perpetually reveals something not seen before. It is because of the light. It is because of the focus given in a moment. It is because of others who point out things one has not hitherto noticed. It is because life itself is so very rich and vibrant with change and possibility and potential and interest (that word) that we can always find things to be interesting. At issue is, how ‘to make things interesting’, and not to be dependent on things interesting me; that’s how to be invigorated! (Or do I hereby speak just for myself? Hm?)