Tuesday, December 8, 2009

iAfrika! (The synopsis)

A stowaway! Alert to the ship's sounds, I pen the date: The Ides of March, 1975. Yes, I am the Bietjanie Zimba, the Little Lion of the ancient prophecy. Now, in my twenty-sixth year, I hope at last to fulfill my promise to my childhood mentor. Read.

Alone, an unwanted little nuisance, I arrive as a four-year-old at the Ndola train station, Northern Rhodesia. In my satchel is my children’s encyclopaedia. An angry storm thunders. I am not scared. My Afrikaner aunt and uncle show up later to take me to their game-farm. A python that night looses itself into our kitchen. It invades the dreams of my aunt. It almost suffocates an old knife-wielding warrior, M’dhalha, up at the servants’ kraal. It is this aged man, his knife, and his ancient prophecies that will always captivate me. But my new family makes my sense of purpose with the man’s insightful ways inordinately difficult. Then there is Valerie, a family acquaintance, who also becomes my confidant. She buys me books. But I won’t tell her my every secret. Is that why I am not with her when she is killed? Encounters with snakes, belligerent baboons, the child-snatching crocodile, an attack by red ants, and the capture of a man-eating leopard also signify. And then there is that awful day of having to shoot Rosie, my severely mauled donkey. It is my fault, I know. But it did begin with Aikimbo, the teenaged black boy from the war-torn Congo. I am quite sure he killed Valerie.

On my ninth birthday, after a severe whipping for betraying my step-mother, I am told I shall still at the end of the year be allowed to visit England with my estranged English father. A little drunk, he arrives on a Sunday with the unexpected gift of a bicycle. The old prophecies about “the stars” at my feet seem to glitter from its reflector-pedals. My father sees me one Sunday a month, and soon I go with him to meet Lord and Lady Broadford, my grandparents, who live only an hour away! They are altogether different from my Afrikander guardians. But they cannot reclaim me. One Sunday, against grandfather’s orders, I attempt to assist a native who has rabies. Because of me, the man dies horribly. Still, I get to go to England by ship with my dad. On board, a 16 year old girl, thinking I’m 15, seduces me, but her racist comments end my interest. I determine then never to have children. In England, my alcoholic dad shows his character. In Babbacombe Bay, in order to rescue our rented skiff, I bravely swim over a Baskin shark (before I learn that it has no teeth). In Scotland I vow to run away from my perceived destiny. I want to go to the Orkneys. One day I will! But my dad makes me go back to Africa.

On the threshold of Zambia’s independence, 1964, I return ineluctably to the game farm. I try to retrieve my stolen bicycle from my old enemy, Aikimbo, but in doing so I get M`dhalha fatefully speared. With his dying breath he makes me promise “to write, write about it all.” From his side I take up his old long-knife, and then retrieve my battered bicycle. Aikimbo’s gang, after killing our guard dog, next arrives to plunder and burn up our game farm. From behind the door of the machine shed I watch him by the light of the bonfire murder my aunt, shoot my uncle too. When one of his men comes for me I have no choice but to… use the knife. I hide in the giant water tank and decide to wait until the men go to sleep. Then I crawl into the crazed house and get my encyclopaedia from under my bed, where Aikimbo is actually snoring. He almost shoots me too, but I get away, my book and my knife in hand, my wobbly bicycle beneath me. I go and hide in the dark jungle. The next blistering day I pedal frantically until I reach my grandparents. I tell them a few details, but not about the dead man in the shed. If only I did; they too might have left. And then, no thanks to a lawyer on my aunt’s side, I am made to catch the three-day train down to South Africa. My old bike, my book, and my knife go with me. On the train I meet Reverend Martin, a curiously sad and blasphemous man who becomes a vital contact for me in my later years, when I most need help to escape. And yet, I desert him. His pain, I don't see.

My Afrikaans family in the white slums of Pretoria can hardly bear my English pretensions. I am there to be the male-nurse for my severely disabled uncle. I try to capitulate to my Afrikaans Ouma’s aggrandizing dreams for me to become leader of their church, but soon dangerously compromise myself and Muhle, the next door’s pretty black maid, in a most illicit inter-racial liaison. She lives across the rickety fence, in the servant shed. On the day that I decide to renounce the church, Ouma’s church, I come home to find my crippled and pedophiliac uncle naked with my young cousins. His stealing of innocence haunts me. I threaten to kill him. But the incident only culminates in my being tied to the washing-line post and getting savagely whipped in the name of the church. Muhle, risking her life, cuts me loose. I take up my bike, and from our storage shed get my old encyclopaedia and my long-knife and pedal away like Don Quixote himself. Ha! At the local store I telephone the school headmaster; he’d given me his number on trust.

The headmaster’s intercession gets me sent to boarding school, in Kimberley, the 'city of diamonds.' I even take my old bicycle, my book, and my knife on the train. I make several friends, but the cycle of extraordinary events continues to clamour. As revealed by the police the death of one of the boys after 'borrowing' my bicycle is my fault, I am sure. That dark night, to rid myself of the hounding prophecies about stars at my feet, I throw the bike with its glittering pedals into the old open mine-pit. I almost pitch in after it! But destiny continues to covet me. I realize I no longer have a taste for competition. I find my fellows generally shallow. Told by the new Head of school about my grandparent's death in Zambia, I also learn my father is nearby, in Johannesburg. I find him to be a very sad and drunken man. He cannot pay my school fees. Very much against boarding school policy, I decide to work on Saturdays. I countenance the prefects. I pull out of the rugby team. I get disgraced. But upon graduation, I hand over my pay.

Conscription to the South African Army leads, after basics, to my serving as a sniper up at the border for two or three horrid months at a time. On my reprieves from frequent Call-Ups I work as a stoker for the railways, based in Pietermaritzburg. There I meet the love of my life, Felicity. Still, she refuses to believe that I never want children. I cannot trust that she won’t get pregnant. Then too, after this last Call-Up to the border, I narrowly escape death. My long-ago enemy, Aikimbo, finds me ankle-trapped. He cruelly tells me how he killed Valerie. At his poetic demise I am convinced I’ve had enough of war. But a letter from the London based Reverend Martin, the man I once met on the train down from Zambia, helps me make up my mind. In the face of yet another Call-Up, and while shoveling coal on the torturous track between Mason’s Mill and Franklin (literally like stoking while on a real classical mountain diagram) I plan my fearful escape. I hitchhike the three days to Cape Town. Reverend Martin’s family awaits me. They help me to get stowed away. But by going AWOL I will have to desert Felicity too. Still, surely, I have no choice!

And now, aboard this ship (“on my second leaving,” as so long ago prophesied) I at last begin to write. My title is iAfrika! Is it my confession, or is it my penance? Read.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An Apple for The Teacher

SAGE (Society for Advancing Gifted Education) Conference, 2008
University of Calgary
Adjectives for Meta-cognition within the Dynamics and Disintegration inherent to Metaphorical Minds
By Richard Michelle-Pentelbury B.A., B.Ed., M.A. Gifted Ed.

1) Exordium:
(the winning of attention)

If one’s aim is to be integrative, enlightened, wise, then a specific body of knowledge of itself may not necessarily suffice. Knowledge does not necessarily engender practice. Understanding may not become a habit. The variety of thinking styles or habituations as suggested by Dabrowski, Dillinger, Graves, or Kohlberg, among many others, provide for the instinctually meta-cognitive some tools by which one may more effectively evaluate one’s thinking, nurture the potential in us all, and more perspicuously assist to accept, integrate, absorb, assimilate and have compassion for the many paradigms of mankind’s proclivities. It is the realization and use of such thinking tools that may well provide keys toward paradigm shifts within the aspirant, whereas a lack of such tools may well inhibit, handicap, or suffocate a given individual, gifted or not. History has given us honorable as well as horrific leaders, tremendous as well as tremulous intellects, and a chronological populace that has worked itself up from the survivalist needs of its origins to the threshold of what now becomes a necessary integration of the sheer volume of humanity, or not. Differentially seeing the constructs of man’s divining, being habitually dynamic, often experiencing disintegration, or inadvertently exercising from a psycho-geometric pattern is the issue; the value lies not only in one’s choice of an adjective (or moderator) for the subject of ourselves as we view and practice our being in this world, but in the very use of the choice itself.
2) Narratio:
(the survey)
Children and adults are naturally affected by the past and present in a series of adaptations to the status quo, despite perhaps innately knowing better, or feeling that somehow there is something greater. The degree to which the individual succumbs to peer, political, or authoritative pressure can greatly affect one’s potentiality. That potentiality is expressed by Graves, Kohlberg, or Dabrowski, in particular, in terms of a hierarchy of values. More relevantly, it is the individual’s actual ability to surmount the lower hierarchical levels of a given predominance of thinking, rather than the innate ability to surmount the paradigm in which one finds oneself, that is at stake. To rise above, or not. We all, in this presenter’s view, have glimpses of the universal; at issue is the degree to which we actualize the universal within us.
3) Propositio:
(resolving discourse, with definition)
A typical (?) individual is introduced in Harry Chapin’s song, Flowers Are Red. A little boy, affected by a teacher who curtails his creativity by forcing him to accept that “flowers are red, green leaves are green,” eventually moves to another school where he in turn countenances the creative teacher by saying “and that’s the way they’re always seen!” Perhaps we all know of such a person? Affected by the paradigm of someone else, or of the group, we think in a certain way. We adopt the political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or overt stance of the status quo. We in fact become a habituate of the habits inculcated in us by our society, nationality, schooling, group, congregation, or club. To be an individual, or even with more difficulty, to accept another for being an individual becomes a series of life-making choices. And is there indeed both in the progress, as well as in the summation of one’s life a hierarchical evincing of growth, or merely an accretion of incumbent, inherent, and conditioned substantiation of time-worn habituations? The gifted child, or not, is given to growth. The adult that results continues to grow, one trusts, but in which direction? Horizontally, or hierarchically?
4) Partitio:
(the dividing up and revelation of arguments for the case)
While not the purpose of this paper to explicate the given theories, knowing something about the ideas of Dabrowski, Graves, Kohlberg, or Dillinger, among many others, provides us with some of the tools by which we may evaluate meta-cognitively ; that essential ability to think about our own thinking. Without such tools we might less readily be aware of the habits of processing or indeed the habits of living that imbue our lives as well as the lives of others, gifted or not.
Dabrowski’s hierarchical levels of differentiated beings in the potential journey toward one’s “unique and autonomous personality” are quite clear in their distinction through first or second factor First Phase unilevel living, through disintegrative and psychoneurotic Second Phase overexciteabilities, or through Third Phase multilevel and integrative experimentation. The dynamics of one’s personality, potentiality, and paradigmatic proclivities perpetually propel a person, or not. It is one’s given proclivity for a paradigm that may inhibit the route through the “ever higher levels of universal development” of the Theory of Positive Disintegration. It is through our intentional awareness and integration of Dabrowski’s Levels One through Four, as students, as teachers, and indeed as humans in the very evolution of mankind that we each may more readily find our “autonomous and unique personality”.
Grave’s Spiral Dynamics Theory similarly apportions mankind into a hierarchy of nine essentially substantive values. In the six levels of First Tier thinking are Judgmental Attitudes, in the Second Tier is Evaluative Integration. Since the first six levels (Memes) are essentially judgmental and disassociative, it is interesting that each First Tier level would dovetail with Dabrowski’s Level One, which is about the simple perpetuation of left-right choices. At Grave’s1st level is BEIGE, which predominantly needs primarily to satisfy/gratify its own needs. At the 2nd level is PURPLE, which predominantly needs to belong to a clan/clave/closed family/club that is esoteric/closed membership/ and is fundamentally “exclusive.” At the 3rd level is RED, which predominantly needs to have The Self exercised/extolled and promoted despite or over or above others. At the 4th level is BLUE, which needs predominantly to associate itself with an “ism”: Communism, Capitalism, and any Religion-ism. It can discount/devalue/judge/disparage, even hate those disagreeing with its fundamental beliefs. At the 5th level is ORANGE, which may strive to provide service and opportunity for many kinds or creeds, but has high exclusion factors if others don't meet with its expectations. At the 6th level is GREEN, which attempts Egalitarianism and Equity for all, everywhere, yet “does not suffer fools lightly.” In Second Tier is YELLOW, the 7th level (akin to Dabrowski’s ‘overexcite-abilities’). Yellow is fragmented between integration of concepts/precepts/constructs/proclivities and its frequent adherence to/inculcations by, or the usage of/familiarity with the First Six Levels. The 8th level is TURQUIOSE, which is fundamentally integrative, experiencing degrees of individual preferences and wants. At the 9th level is CORAL, where "integration" means a complete inclusion and absorption and compassion and acceptance for every and anything. At each level one becomes more integrative, or accepting, but in the First Tier one still deems differentially (and deferentially) integrative beings to be “lesser”. Ouch!
In Kohlberg one comes across a ready framework of thinking by which one may evaluate the awareness of one’s responsibility to include others. Level One is where the consequence isn’t sufficient enough for a person; and so he does what he wants again. Our jails are full of such people. Level Two is where we’ll stop doing something only because we don’t want the consequence. Level Three is where a person’s predominating concern is about one’s affect upon one’s immediate others, best friends, and the family. Level Four is where a person thinks about the larger community he or she represents, and realizes that all behavior reflects on that community; affects it. In Level Five we’re aware of being a concerned citizen whose primary focus is about contributing to the welfare of one’s city. And such thinking is the beginning of Levels Six and Seven and even Eight. For we go, one and all, from caring about how we affect the City to how we affect the Country, the World, and indeed, the Universe. But where is one’s thinking really at? Where does one predominantly come from?
Psycho-geometrics is Dillinger’s metaphorical way of partitioning people into essential shapes that have strengths and weakness. While there are very many such personality-type models, it is interesting to note that the predominance of being any one shape, a circle, a triangle, a squiggly line, a square, or a rectangle does not determine any given hierarchical level, although implicit in one’s choice of such a shape is the degree to which one is inclusive or integrative of others. As such, being a circle is to be all encompassing, but perhaps not to have sufficient enough boundaries. Being a squiggly line is to be entirely flexible, but perhaps to be fickle. Being a triangle is to have strength and purpose, but perhaps to be prickly about it. Being a square is to have structure and sense, but perhaps to be obstinate, and being a rectangle is perhaps to be indecisive. (In this writer’s pedagogical experience only a very occasional hand will go up to acknowledge having picked a rectangle.)
5) Confirmatio:
(proving the case)
Gifted, or not, people do find themselves identifying with Dabrowski, Dillinger, Graves, or Kohlberg, among many others, and gifted, or not, there is great variance amongst people’s evaluation of themselves and evaluation (or judgment) of others. The thinking person is given to horizontal accretion of knowledge and, one hopes, a hierarchical apprehension of the journey of responsibility to the whole. It is in acquiring some of the tools by which we may more readily monitor our thinking that recurring disintegrations of habit-forming paradigms may more readily take place. As such, flowers are given a plethora of adjectives, disintegration may itself be seen as ‘positive’, and dynamics may be understood as a spiral of integration, rather than a linear progression beyond “lesser beings left behind.” At every level there is still the personality itself to deal with, which is in essence the ego’s manifestation of an individual, or might that be an individual’s manifestation of an ego? To be, or not, is indeed up to you.
6) Reprehensio:
History has given us honest and well-intentioned leaders, teachers, and missionaries. It has inspired us with visionaries and mystics. It has also given us brilliant and gifted psychopaths. And in each of these passages of people, as well as in all others not made so public to us, we may find those who are gifted, or not. The level of one’s thinking is not dependent on one’s intelligence; it is dependent on one’s ability to be integrative. The tools of other’s thinking, their insights, observations, and discoveries, may well help homo sapiens to be more aware of our individual and collective thinking, or not.
7) Peroratio:
If every Individual is EVERYTHING the degree of Predominant Realization/Identification with any given portion of Everything becomes the issue. The degrees of dissatisfaction/disassociation/and even confrontation will naturally depend on a given inherent want to protect/establish/align the self, the ego/comfort-zone as separate from Complete Integration. The more matured the soul (no matter its chronological age) the greater the realization and aspiration toward complete integration; the less mature the soul the greater the realization to stay entrenched in the familiarity of the level/tier/rung/step with which one most predominantly identifies, despite being ‘everything.’ In the awareness of how and why and what one thinks lies at least a route toward positive disintegration, inclusive, or spiral ascension, universal awareness, and effective consideration of where oneself or another is coming from. In the comprehension and use of an adjective, like colorful flowers, spiral dynamics, positive disintegration, or the metaphorical mind, lies all the difference. Always.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mis-Steps inTime: (the longer of my essays)

(Reprising Dabrowski, Spiral Dynamics, Ole Buck, the Bear, the Bowie Knife, Inuksuks, and a Wheelchair)

Thursday, November, 26th, 2009:
Inside my front door I slip off my shoes (a hallowed Canadian custom) walk three steps after a day’s work, and the sudden stab of sciatica crumples me to the floor. Months of carefully building up my physiology to walk again slides away. My empty flask clangs onto our hardwood floor; no dent, please, I recall thinking. My bag slips from my grasp. Don’t spill, please, I wished. And then as I lay there; there was this pained inability to rise. Well, at least for a bit of time.
Bits of time are all we have in the “now.” Last summer (July and August of 2009 to be precise, since we Canadians get eight weeks of sun and ten months of snow, ha) I walked in Victoria, British Columbia, by the sea. Walked! I’d built up my reserves, and one-step at a time had increased my distance and endurance, and actually managed an hour and a bit as I walked from our vacation apartment in Victoria alongside the sea to downtown, with its quaint shops and pubs and busy harbour. And there was not one day in which I used my regular power-chair, nor did my wife have to push me in my transporter-chair (since I’ve not been able to use my arms and back these past six years to wheel-push myself anyway). This degenerative disc disease, with the resultant spinal fusions and rods and screws, has sort of slowed me down a bit. It was the second summer of my walking though, and perhaps I’d pushed myself too hard, for as we were packing up I moved our portable-food-cooler, despite my wife, Linda’s injunction to wait until she helps, and… well, since September I’ve not been able to put much weight on my feet again. But this story does have a moral, and is not really just about me. Let me take you back to:
Thursday, August 21st, 2008:
The bear print haunts me. Embedded like a huge palm-print with fingers of sharp claws in the clay of the pathway, it has me unlatching the sheath-clip around my old Bowie knife, and then carefully looking around. Do I give up my ascent? This trail up Ole Buck takes one to the top of the smaller of many mountains in the Kananaskis Ranges of Alberta, Canada, and I’ve chosen it with purpose and intention. I study the threat. Instinct that goes back more than five years since I last was able to hike, to a time before the accident that had me conscripted into a three-year wheelchair dependency until just eight weeks ago (!), now re-assures me that the bear was here probably a day or even two ago. I smile. I’ve passed the chaotic bifurcation point of fear, but one is best to be cautious with bears. Had to shoot one once. Had once to use this same knife on another kind of bear too, I remember. And given that my legs are still rubbery from three years of essential immobility, despite the last eight weeks of increasing my steps with transcending determination, I’m still in no shape to run. As it is, this inaugural sojourn into the wilds is being done with the distinct sense of one step at a time; and I’ve yet several thousand steps to make if I’m to complete the three kilometre circuit of today’s challenge. So, I continue the ascent.
Having just come across the Sibbald Creek hiking bridge, about half a kilometre from where I left my car, the slope up the left flank of Ole Buck now begins in earnest. Above me the dwarfed birch trees bristle against the darkening sweep of clouds, and down to my left alongside the sparkling creek the sudden great leaping of two startled brown deer keeps me on edge. Is it the bear they smell, or me? But I’ve come a long way to do this hike, metaphorically much farther than the 80 or so kilometres from my Calgary home, and in honour of the memory of what I once was able to do, and am determined now to do again, I keep going.
My old boots go back as much as ten years ago; they soon loosen up. The small gray pack on my back also has an old familiar feel. My spirit soars. I’m doing it! I’m back in the flow of things, heading up and down and around and up again, alone, independent, self-reliant, and free to think and feel beyond the confines of immediate attachment to another’s step, pace, wants, needs, solicitations, or noise; a rare privilege for any of us, such moments of sojourn. Of incessant pain and overcoming limitations of endurance I refuse to pay too much mind; I have a degenerative disc condition that necessitated the base of my spine being removed when I was twelve, that at twenty-five required bone-chips from my hips to fuse the lower vertebrae, and that at fifty something, a short five years ago, required rods and screws surgery. Or has it been a long five years? It took a year and some months after surgery before I was able to re-apply to teach, three academic years ago. And as I entered classes I was dependent on my power-chair, incapable of walking, the pain levels of my burning nerves and degenerating neck disabling me from even pushing my own wheel-chair. But now? Hiking here with the brown soil and broken shale and the bared roots of life lifting me step by step toward the heavens, I’m mobile! Ha! When was I last on this trail? Nine, ten years ago? Yet I recall the pathway’s spiral. Still, its slippery steepness takes me somewhat by surprise. I trudge on.
Then a blurry bursting from the underbrush right at my feet startles me as a sparrow shrieks alarm and flutters up in zigzags through the sun-dappled leaves of the trembling Aspen. I look first around for some cause other than myself, insecure now. If that bear is still here and has me in its sights I do not see it, yet my scared senses make it out to be very close. Still, the over-excited bird now sits at a distance, twit-twitting at me. Ha! What was it in the poem by Earl Birney about climbing in these mountains that I’d quoted when presenting at the Dabrowski International Congress just the weekend before last in Canmore, not an hour’s drive from this hike? Ah yes: “And David found a robin gyrating in grass, wing-broken; I caught it up to tame, but David took and killed it, and said, can you teach it to fly?” Well, that bird over there is safe. But am I? Then again, just before David had his accident and wanted rather to die than face a wheelchair he too came across: “…great prints, by the lowest snow, of a grizzly.” Ha! Multi-level thinking says it does not matter, I remind myself; everything is important, and nothing really matters; isn’t that what I often say at these conventions? Besides, I’ve already been in a chair!
After the fourth switchback I halt up for breath and to still my pounding heart, and stare out over the valley, marvel at the glistening ribbon of the creek way down below, note the broiling of the darkening clouds advancing from behind the up-thrust peaks of the Rockies that shred at the amassing sky. And I dig in my pack for perhaps a band-aid with which to stop the blister chafing at my left ankle. I have no medication. For years now I’ve refused to accept even an aspirin unless the pain unendurably became too much, usually at night, but then each time the aspirin wore out the anguish would surmount with a vengeance, so I learned to accept, minimize, and flow with pain, sans tablets. No stops. Like the momentum of going here; keep up the flow. And then my fingers pluck out the second of my old knives, a small red Swiss-army pen-knife that my friend Ian Dallas gave me more than twenty-five years ago, when I first set off to hike in these mountains over the July through November months of 1982. I smile. I’d hiked from Jasper in the north along the skyline trail and over Nigel’s Peak past the Columbia Icefields, and along the Sawback ranges all the way to giant Assiniboine. And much of the gear I then carried with me I have here now, twenty five years later, even my old rain-jacket. Good! Given the sudden drop in temperature and the stalking sky, it’ll probably pour on this parade of mine. I swig from my water bottle. The blister will have to broil. I keep going. But I keep checking for the bear.
Oh well, at least if I have to bury the Bowie in the belly of the bear I’ll have the pen-knife as a back-up. Ha! Fanciful thinking. But that’s precisely what prepares one for bears, I remember. I’d got the Lee Enfield 303 back in 1976, within a month of landing in Canada, since around the lone cabins of Cordingly Lake in Northern Ontario where I was holed up working for Klimack Construction “the bears are bad this year.” And then a bear scratched at my window just as the sun was rising. “It’ll come in through a window, go out through a wall,” the game warden had warned. And since it was the bear’s second visit, and my mid-night shots in the ground near it when it first had rattled at the garbage cans still had not scared it off, I felt now compelled to stop the danger, and I went with the rifle to the door, and with one shot ended its life. Still have the skin. Ate some of the meat. Gave the rest to old Anne Liman, the half-Indian hunter-trapper who came and collected the hideous human-looking carcass in her creaking pick-up. But I’ve always felt bad about it; surely there were other options? And now? On this hike? Well, I have only the Bowie, my slightly wobbly legs, and some degree of pluck. But I will not back down. I will never give up.
“Never give up!” That’s what Darrel Janz, our stellar TV anchorman had said at the students’ convocation at the University just this last June. I sat in my power-chair in the very front row and listened to his key-note address. He did an excellent imitation of Churchill, even looks a lot like Churchill. And at his invocation, nay, his very exhortation to overcome all obstacles, tears began to spill from me. I felt compelled to walk again, to commence the marathon. If endurance is really a matter of mind over matter, then it mattered that I begin using my mind to matter, ha! And so, classes over with, I began to increase the time up out of my chair, and the distances I walked every day, and I did not speak of it, and I did not even dare think much of it; I just did it. Nor did I accept the temptation of tablets, those temporary flatlands in the spikes of reality. Forty plus years of constant pain has me now managing the burning and stabbing like a malformed backpack grafted into me, zipped to an icon in the mindscape. But in the dark when I awake in sweat and can but barely move for the knives and saws that have unpacked from my conscious clamp, and with no one awake to see me, I know pain to be visceral chains rattling against the ethereal yearning for freedom of the soul. But all that is then, this is now! Now the pain is diminished with the vigour of my movement that does not relent, will not give up, and pushes past the boundaries of self-imposed limitation. And that’s why I’m not about to turn back and head down to the safety of my parked car, despite the gathering storm and the vibrating sense of being watched by the bear. One step at a time, I’m going to keep going up this mountain. Ha! For the past three years of being in my power-chair I’ve had on my lap my academic binder with its quote on the cover by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.” Never give up!
And then I almost step on the offal. It’s a bear-scat alright; like a flattened blue-berry pie. I give it but a glance, my eyes and ears alive to what’s around. But only the aspens bristle as they gather themselves up for the threatening rain, and the wind pads brusquely among the pines, bruiting boldly about the looming underskirts of the lowering clouds swirling above, and the birds are silent. But then there is a great thud, and a loud snort, and a bashing-crashing amongst the trees to my left, and I swing with the Bowie knife immediately at the ready, only to point at nothing but the bush to see. And then I hear my heart hammering. And I take in deep breaths of air to still it, for I need to stay alert to what’s out there, not just to what’s inside of me. But there is no more sound. The moment plays back. A big buck would have alarmed at my presence. A big buck would have snorted and sprang and crashed away through the thickets. And a big buck would not find me edible. Ha! Nor for that matter, would the bear! I look down at the dark plop, and bend cautiously to pick at it with the tip of my knife. The skin is hardening, perhaps ten to fourteen hours old, the inside oozes slightly, but already is drying; this bear dropped by perhaps only yesterday. I’ve nothing to fear. Still, I keep the Bowie in my hand, and am ready for the slightest of sounds as I stalk my way silently up the rocky incline. The knife is an old friend. It saved me from a severe thrashing once before. I was in the Edinburgh hotel, 1975, applying for jobs on the North Sea oil rigs and no sooner had cockily stepped up ahead of a whole line of men and brazenly thrust open an office door when a great bear of a man grabbed me from behind, his arm around my throat. I tried to throw him off but he was too strong and too heavy, and just before the room grew black before me I desperately yanked out the Bowie from its hidden sheath at the left of my chest and sliced up into the crook of the man’s arm. He yelled as blood spurted and I dashed out of there! But all that’s another story, of a time when I was a political refugee from the South African army and had gone AWOL, jumped a ship to Britain, and was biking my way up to the Orkney Islands. That’s when I’d first got the old Bowie and the second hand tent and kit from the Salvation Army store in London. The three-speed push-bike I’d got from a contact I’d made, Martin Rumens, but, well... right now I still have more than two kilometres to hike, and the path grows steeper. Still, I wish I’d chosen some other way to deal with the belligerent man and his bear-hug; and no, I’ve not forgotten about the present bear!
At the top of Ole Buck is a makeshift bench of big logs. I sit and watch the clouds gather for their final assault. Across the valley the road from the parking lot spirals through the trees into a horizon of tooth-edged silhouettes. To my left the hiking path descends. To my right the path winds up still further. There is a small white triangle affixed by the wardens to demarcate the route. From some ten years before I recall some Inuit-like rock formations further up and decide to revisit them. The rain will come anyway. I may as well enjoy the very top of the mountain. So I head on up. After about five minutes I come out on the crag, and true to memory, like rough rock scarecrows there are now three man-made piles of stone. Inuksuks. So to each I add a small one of my own, but not to the top lest I overbalance a configuration and cause it to fall. Already useless to one side, one of these Eskimo-like Inuksuks lies discarded as a handicapped man, and I debate perhaps re-assembling it, but know that even now the slightest wrong twist of my body and I’d maybe pinch my nerve and not be able to put weight on my foot. After all, that’s what happened just two weeks ago, just before the Dabrowski Conference. I’d gone on my bicycle beside Linda, my wife, at her brisk walking pace for daily exercise and at one point had to stop quite suddenly; the jar as my foot came down set off a nerve pinch that had me unable to walk much at all. So I had to be driven to do the presentation from my wheelchair. But only for the first five minutes, for I then had the participants moving to demonstrate discomfort with their perhaps predominating psycho-geometric proclivities and rose myself, and served notice that for the first time in five years that I intended to manage the 45 minute presentation on my feet, and did so! Ha! I then used the analogy of unilevel versus multilevel awareness inherent in Birney’s poem, as is most applicable to Dabrowski: When David fell to the rock, and the blood oozed from his back, and he’d argued against Bobby bringing men up from the camp for the almost impossible rescue, “for what, a wheelchair, Bob?” I pointed back to my own chair. That David would rather die if not free to continue to climb these mountains was rather limited of him, yes? Even if he’d been paralyzed and confined, he’d still have his mind! He could still create, teach, give to others. And is that not what Dabrowski would call overcoming the disintegration to make of things something positive and to transcend the immediacy of the moment to become a fully autonomous human being? Ha! But now, looking back on the dismembered formation of the fallen Inuksuk, I wonder how it continues to serve humanity in its disintegrated state, other than perhaps to have its rocks, its very atoms rejoin the purpose of others ~ and in a moment of inspiration I pick up a small piece of it and place it with care on the standing stones of another; a positive reintegration! Ha! Then I head for the small red triangle amongst the trees signalling the path of descent.
Almost immediately I am aware of the bear again. The trees rustle, the path slides away, and the rain begins to splat at the closeness of the leaves. Am I being followed? I take off my pack, shrug into my rain-jacket, adjust my hat so as not to cover my ears, and settle the backpack into place. My sheath-knife’s handle pokes reassuringly through the side-slit of my rain-jacket. As I walk I’ll need now to watch every step even more carefully. The drops turn to a steady drizzle and the pathway is soon slippery mud and the bare rocks glisten and the trees droop and the wild flowers bob and there is no sound but the plastic swish of my rain-jacket. And as I descend I’m aware that my body is not fit, that my legs are now even more wobbly, and that each step needs careful calibrating for balance and lightness to absorb the impact that my own body weight would otherwise be putting on my discs, lean for my age as I am. Ha! Is that why the black bear I’d had to shoot so long ago was hungry? He became too lean? But it’s been a good summer for bear-berries here. Around me are many, many of whose names I’d once learned as I foraged with a guide book on that hike of mine back in the 80’s. But even then, as many months as I’d been out in the backcountry, and alone as I was for some thirteen to seventeen days at a time, I’d had no encounter with a bear. Despite seeing prints.
And then the path disappears. I’ve arrived into a heavily weeded gully that licks up at the mountain like an extended tongue, its surface rasping with tall yarrow and valerian, its sides steeply canted toward the blackly bristling pines. There appears no break. The rain brushes at the plants, interlinking the leaves, and beyond it all the trees lean indifferently. But I won’t go back. I scan about for a marker, a hiker’s blaze, a triangle of tin, but there is nothing. And the soil beneath me is turning softer and more slippery in the gathering water, so I push through into the field of the wet weeds and slog downwards, hoping that somehow I can connect with the pathway again, and then I hear it! Straight ahead! A loud groan of anticipation, or of anguish, or of frustration! It repeats. My knife out, I squat, hidden, and wait. Then the dreadful noise comes again, just as the wind picks up and shakes at the trees, then subsides. I watch. For a moment I am back there, in the jungle of my young manhood on an African border, my rifle at the ready, my mission to observe and if necessary to eliminate all insurgents; the army had, paradoxically, prepared me for this; I am trained always to be able to respond beyond my own sense of limitations. Ha! Ironic, isn’t it? That old training is almost exactly what brings me to be here now, waiting amongst the wet-weeds, awaiting the rush of a bear. And then I hear the sound again, and focus for movement, and see two old trunks, at about fifty paces, rubbing up against each other and groaning at their suddenly disturbed slumber in the harrying of the wind. Ha!
I stand up. And to the right, some twenty paces away, lies the path. I’m so glad I didn’t go back!
The way now becomes rutted, and there are massive cow-paddies that glisten up wetly underfoot as I tread through the weeds and the wildflowers. The beasts may have been here yesterday, but the blistering rain makes it too difficult for me to tell. There are other hoof prints too, deer prints for a certainty, and even very old prints of a horse, but all are being washed away. And I realize I’ve emerged onto what might have once been a farmer’s field, for the long flatness of it is overgrown with familial clusters of purple asters punctuated by stands of red Indian paintbrush and over-ranked with officious milkweed. And in the steady drizzle of rain it is like walking through a field of hundreds of individuals, all bowed to the succour of the manna-like rain, each colourful and unique. Like the five hundred or more supplicants before Mother Meera at the Darshan I managed to attend, just last night. And psychologist Rita Irwin, and grandmother Ruth Deschner, and professor Janneke Frank were there too, each amongst so many other flowers of rainbow halos wearing coral crowns. For over 3 hours of absolutely silent energy there we all were, enwrapped in the University Theatre. Some thirty of us at a time literally crawled toward her on a strip of white carpet that made an inverted L toward her chair from either side of the stage. Ushers ensured an order, and each group stepped shoeless as bid from the rake of the audience down to the stage, squatted on our heels, then again and again crawled on all fours to almost touch the back of the person before us, as we each waited our turn to be blessed by Mother Meera, who took head after head into her palms, then raised it to peer intensely into the eyes, before releasing the self to rejoin the congregation. And now, so too do each of the flowers I pass tend to congregate, like huddled with like, as indeed does all of nature in individual form raise itself from the various soils to find vigour in the light ~ despite the now seemingly insufferable constancy of the rain; ha! The path is a slippery slog, sucking at my steps. My legs, my pain, my fatigue is now at the limits of my tolerance; but then again, one step, and another step and another step, and... ah; as the Buddha says, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. So one trudges on. Blithely, or not. Bear, or not. To be, or not. One step at a time.
And then there is the re-entering of the tree line, and the slope falls away and the trees quickly thin out and suddenly I emerge back where I’d started the circuit, the little wooden bridge before me, and that first fear-filled print of the bear barely thirty feet away. I glance around. My caution had been unfounded, or was it? Had the bear attacked me I perhaps would not have come full circle to this ending of my journey; my story would have had some other ending. And that, as the Robert Frost poem goes, “has made all the difference.” But then again, had I stopped up at the first obstacle and gone back I’d also, no doubt, have some other story to tell. One step at a time.
Well, now there is another story in any case. That one step at a time can sometimes be a mis-step. My friends Laurie and Dolores Seaman were not at all impressed with my sojourn. And as they brought me to my senses I realized the impact on others my essentially selfish behaviour may have had. One mis-step and like that Inuksuk I may well have lain there, quite unwell, waiting for long hours for someone to find me and to rope me out and to take me to the hospital and then to… for what? A reason to be so foolish? But we take those steps in life, you and I, and we do not necessarily think of each one. We generally choose a direction and generally move in a series of steps toward it, hardly aware at the time of the impact of our choice upon others, upon ourselves, upon the universe as a whole.

This writing, December 04, 2009, finds me in my chair again, neck braced, feet up, and riding the hours toward the Dress Rehearsal of Peer Gynt that will happen at 3.00 p.m. today. But the intention remains the same. I choose to start walking again, sooner rather than later, step by step. Only, I shall yet once more be yet much more careful of those steps!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Tick, tick, tick!

Hank hung in there. He lay trapped in the rake-thin bones of his being, his skin a parchment testifying to his 60+ years of living. He no longer could breathe without the apparatus that pumped oxygen in, sucked it out. He no longer could move his tongue to speak, or turn his head to see. But at least, five days ago at the time of this writing, he could smile at me; show the light in his soul. For over two years I’d visited him weekly, usually on Friday afternoons, and recently went more regularly, almost daily. A dying man appreciates a familiar friend.

Often, Mrs. Jessie Peters accompanied me; she’d lost her husband, Vic, two years ago to the same disease, ALS. And since Hank and Vic were friends, and since Vic had become my friend in the course of my performing as ‘Morrie’ in the play about ALS, back when I did it with Jay Newman, and since Hank had asked me after Vic’s funeral, three times, to visit him too, I’d begun the visits, their regularity increasing as I came to love the man that Hank is. He is!

But even as I wrote this the minutes and seconds were ticking to a close for him. “You’ve so little time left; I treasure the gift of it you give me,” I once told him. He looked into me: “It’s you who brings me the gift of time,” he responded.

Time. My watch eventually stopped ticking. It lay deep in the crevasse of the couch seat; quite lost for these last two years. I’d often thought about it; wondered who’d found it; perhaps inadvertently crushed it on the road; or who perhaps was now wearing it. Like a tried and constant friend it’d been kayaking and swimming in the ocean for over 13 years of summers with me, seen me through the last six years of multiple changes too. And I knew where the scratches and nicks on it had come from. But with its loss its history had become a memory, no longer ticking with instant and accessible vitality. 101 goodbyes. Silly how we can miss a mere thing. And then yesterday, I found it! Dead, but alive with potential. Dead, but alive with memories. Ha! Even its brand name is symbolic: Pulsar. To revitalize it, it surely only needs a new battery?

“How’s ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ coming along?” Hank asked me this last June, knowing that Donovan Deschner and I were mounting it on behalf of ALS and dedicating the show to him. “Been wrestling with the meaning of one of Morrie’s lines. What do you think of this? ” I responded:

“Forgive everybody everything! If there is anybody that you care about that you are fighting with, feuding with, let it go. Let it go! Even if you’re 100% right and they’re 100% wrong you say you’re wrong if that will end it.”

My eyebrows lifted. “Ha! Sounds like he’s telling us to be false, yes? What do you think?”

Hank looked at me. He sat strapped up in his power chair which he moved by means of collar pressure pads around his head. He said, “One has to die to the ego.” Then his eyes twinkled and he took in yet another painstaking breath before saying, “But I’m not there yet! Ha!”

Hank’s being continues to tick away in the memory of those who have known him. His photos, over 300 of them, enhance Google Earth maps almost everywhere in the world. Click on Paris and you’ll see photos by Hank Geerlhoff. Click on Yemen, or Russia, or in your memory and you will find time ticking away with the current of vitality that is life, that was life, that feeds the life to come. And the 101 goodbyes to the things and to the people one knows also become hellos as we visit and revisit the current of all that is, that was, and that will be.

Tick, tick-tick, tick! The revitalizing is up to you, or me.

                                [photo by Justin Neway]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

If I Were King of The Forest:

Free! Not dependent on a group, but free to progress as an Individual; that’s what the King is. Not so for the rest of us? Why should we be sheep, or mice, or myna birds? Why should we be flocked, herded, given roosts, rooks, caves, clans, classes, phylum, and labels? So what if the elephant does better at football, the giraffe plays the musical instruments, the mice control the computers? After all, the mice on the football field are jeered at, the elephants in the music room are too cumbersome, and the giraffes do not always make the best basketball players. Yet in the education system that makes up this jungle of ours, we take giraffe, elephant, mouse, and the orang-utan for that matter, and put them all on particularized playing fields for the same amount of time, blowing referee bell for blasted bell, with only the respondent’s relative age as the real qualifier for being in the grouping, grade by grade.

But Penelope the possum really lives in a rarefied existence, except when in the jungle of the curriculum. She conceptually can get quadratic equations within minutes; Billy the goat simply couldn’t care for them. Billy the goat, however, gobbles up art supplies, Penelope possum doesn’t enjoy those. But both babies were placed in an age-relative grade, under the same canopy of the cellular curriculum, dictated to by the Curriculum King’s time-worn expectations. Time is the real problem. Possum or Goat, both must stay in the same field until the King passes them by Exit upon Examination. And not only is there a possum or a goat in their field, there are roughly 30-plus other types of creatures too. All must graze on the same “essential” fodder, for the same amount of time periods, fed-up or not.

If I were King of the forest I’d change things. I’d have me a gathering of all stakeholders and I’d lay down the following proposal. “From this day forth,” I’d say, “we attend to the individual. We differentiate. We devise units whereby we can accelerate, telescope, harbour, or invigorate, but we ensure that each one of us is provided for as is proven by our productivity.”

“Sounds like animal farm,” I can hear someone cackle. “The Devil’s in the details,” I hear another demur. “Wake up! Who’s paying?” I hear the rooster crow.

“Well, you’re right,” I purr. And I leave it to them to sort out how the committees and subcommittees will see to it that we no longer have cells of time in which cells of learners are constricted to cells of the curriculum toward sitting in cells of exams for cells of marks leading toward cells of graduation. I trust that a unit of productivity, or of achievement if you will, will determine that any given one of us may progress to the next level irrespective of our age, type, group, or sub-group. In fact, I trust that each of us, given truly individual attention, may truly become better citizens of and for the whole.

Then again, given the resultant responsibility, thank goodness I’m not the King!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Slice of Evil, Anyone?

Evil explored is fascinating. Or macabre. In the guise of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at the Pumphouse Theatre, it was mesmerizing. Sweeny Todd comes with sufficient forewarnings; many have seen it before, heard about it, or at least have a sense of what to expect. But to render it last night into the suspension of disbelief that affected the Front Row Centre players under the clever direction of Bill Torrie went beyond the moment. It was a performance likely to resonate in the mind for a lifetime.

Not my cup of tea, I thought. Not my kind of music, said a friend, but they sure sang well. Not my kind of subject preference, said another, but they sure kept me engaged. No, not quite my predilection for a play, said I, but the performance was so profound that I found in it a vigour and depth and inspiration that redressed my every presumption. In short, the show was a virtual eye-opener, a smorgasbord of visual delights, an array of colour and chorus and orchestration and performance of character that in Calgary entirely augments and continues to cement the oeuvre of offerings amongst our very many commendable community theatre companies as entirely worthwhile. Still, as yet another friend joked, it’s not quite my slice of pie. Ha! But we all agreed; we’d tell others to go!

Evil is difficult to believe. Our reaction is almost always disbelief. He did what? They said what? No! Evil is intentional. Evil is self-serving. Evil is negative. And so, given that Sweeny Todd as a protagonist, tortured of soul and twisted in vengeance becomes an indiscriminate executioner, we become mesmerized by his ministrations. We don’t? Then why is there a show of such dark content to which we flock to see? But if Sweeny is so obvious as a protagonist, it is his insidiously evil partner, the lurking Mrs. Lovett, whose pervasive psychology of ponerology (an ancient Grecian term for evil) that permeates the pies. For love she lies, cheats, steals, butchers, bakes, and self-deceives. In the exposition of evil, Sweeny Todd is a tale of woe, a tale of darkness, of disillusion, of lust, revenge, hate, envy and greed. Those deadly seven sins abound. No, not quite my cup of tea. And, no thanks to any one of those pies!

But evil is relieved in the counterpoints. Birds in cages proffered to Joanna are bits of light awaiting re-unification with heaven. Joanna, unknowing daughter of Sweeny, ineluctable ward of the diabolical judge, and love-interest of the honourable, ethical, virtuous and white-clad sailor, Anthony, is imprisoned by circumstance and event and then lunacy. But she remains grounded. She evokes centrality. She becomes the fulcrum upon which all our fortunes revolve, for were she too to be immolated we’d find ourselves entirely overwhelmed by the cut-throat reality of evil left unchecked. Or at least, I would.

Brilliantly directed and designed by Bill Torrie, intriguingly depicted and deployed, the cast and crew brought Sweeny Todd into consciousness that outlives the moment. The very ache for love that Chris reveals in his wonderfully truthful rendition of Anthony pining for Johanna, as played so charmingly by Krista, sustains the hope and potential in us all. And the belief with which the spirited Carlyn, Gregg, Jeremy, Tarra, David, Kirk, and Jomar played, along with a truly stellar chorus, made all the difference in this particular audience member being altogether swept into Fleet Street. The musical is an absolute “must see,” whether or not evil is your cup of tea!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fully Committed

She made her choices. I make mine. You too make those choices. But you and I tend to make our choices in a smudge of our own personality and character, whereas hers were explicit, intentional, in deliberate juxtaposition and counterpointe so luminous that each person she instantly became was isolated in the very anxiety of their momentum. Huh? Yes, I’m speaking of Alison Lewis in her multiple roles (16 or more) in last night’s performance of Fully Committed at the Arrata Opera Centre. And though clothed in the same garb and standing within the same space from beginning to end of the 90-plus minutes, Ali instantaneously transformed into each essentially self-serving persona on the other impatient end of her frantically busy restaurant-switchboard line. Ali’s performance was an incredible feat of mercurial choices, slid in-to and out-of with the ease of differentiation that brought each character, gruff, rough, sweet, cruel, abusive, patient, loving, narcissistic, selfish, controlling, pleading, insecure, vulgar, and tender to a heightened sense of reality in which one sees but parts of the self; mesmerized as we were with the stunning performance of an exceptional artist. And you and I too make such choices. We indeed are everything as we respond to life. It is in the predominance of our attitude that we are most recognized. It is as the famous Anonymous wrote: “I am convinced that life is 10% of what happens to me, and 90% of how I react to it.”
Well, we react with a certain sameness that is our VBEAT. It is the stuff of our Voice, our Body, our Emotional Energy, our Age, and our Truthfulness. But our choices tend to be somewhat reactionary; we become bit by bit surely and inevitably older; we generally do not indulge ourselves in meta-cognition, in the psycho-geometric shape of our personality, in the spiral-dynamic proclivity of our character, or in even in the atavistic impulse of our collective evolution. We just “are.” Huh?
When Ali Lewis transformed into the personality and character of each her compatriots she took into herself the essence of the predominance of choices that defined that character. It was as if she were becoming a You, or a Me. What might she then choose to define us? How would she see us? And in taking on our voice, body, emotional energy, age, and temperament what might not be revealed to us, ourselves? Would Ali’s vulgar and chauvinistic Cook alter if he saw himself through her eyes? Would her co-worker become more considerate? Would they make a different choice leading to a new habituation so that they might evolve to a new paradigmatic proclivity of innate choices as easily slid in-to in the moment of reaction that defines the self? Again... huh? Well, we are what we think. We become what we make of ourselves. We evolve basically into the field of our habituation. And we generally determine our lot by the degree of satisfaction with who we are. And there we stay.
Staying in one place; habituating the self to a steady stream of non-threatening choices; becoming the person that we see of ourselves, that others see more of than we know, that we know of ourselves that we don’t let others see at all, and that others and ourselves have not yet even discovered (to paraphrase from the Jo-Hari Window template) is all about the choices we make. Ali Lewis made brilliant, effective, luminous, insightful choices about characters that popped to life with all the vitality of a person bursting into one’s consciousness. Amazing! Amongst them all, who might not indeed be you or me! Bravo, Ali !

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the Blink of The Brain

My friend wobbles. But even so, his being beams with light. From my car I watch as he hobbles away toward the doors of the Victoria hospital for stroke-patients. His twin walking sticks make him an unstable dinosaur with pincer-like forelegs. My head shakes with certain sadness for the man who, twelve years my senior, in the old days easily trounced me at tennis and squished me at squash. Ian Dallas, my mentor, reduced to this stumbling gait yet with little talk of the last time he could drive, or bike, or write, or hold things with which to eat easily, or… now dependent, stroke besieged, and focused on attaining the momentum of the now. But still, as he pauses momentarily to stoop slightly to see today’s headlines on the newspaper-sales box at the entrance, he beams with light!

April 20th, 2009. It was the last time Ian knew life as it was. In one fell swoop he saw the floor come up at him and knew his life was about to be different. In the blink of his brain he knew something was dreadfully wrong; he’d abruptly lost a whole side of himself. How many of us have that clarity as we step from step to step? We progress in a seemingly seamless rhythm of seconds ticking us toward the inevitability of the last step we’ll ever take, or do we? Yes, there are the seminal events: the graduation day, the acceptance phone call into a vocation, the marriage(s), the major mortgage signing, the vacation day, and even some grand evocations of bliss, but we take ourselves along with them, stay in the same vein, as it were, simply changing our clothes. But sometimes the brain does blink. It is a subtle if not rude awakening to a new life. As for Ian. In that moment of the fall he knew his body was changing, that he no longer would be the same.

With no sense of depression, no sense of being wronged, no sense of anger, denial, victimization or even of anxiety, my friend walks his talk of being in the moment, of going with the curves and the signs and the limits of his new existence, of accepting and integrating and accommodating the exigencies of his new challenges. In the blink of his brain he knew that the alternatives might be a spiral into the morose self-absorption of the physically oppressed. For his entire right side no longer worked. The blood clot had killed off functions of balance and dexterity. Thank goodness it did not affect his speech or cognition. That’s why he now from his apartment can reach the bench that overlooks the glistening inner harbour and have strangers like “Bill” sit and tell a life-story. They talk for an hour without finding out that Ian has any condition at all. It is not that Ian disguises his malady; it is that most brains do not blink from their pathway in the veracity of their own lives. And when Ian is with them I’m sure that he beams. Acceptance is all the grace he needs. No limits to the reaches of…

The ten year old Mercury Cougar wobbles ever so slightly. I glance at the speedometer. We’re flowing around a long bend at 176 kilometres an hour. This is the blink! The brain realizes how foolish, how wrong, how futile the risk to rush at the long road home in order to save minutes or hours that may never be regained in any case, especially not at this rate! And the Cougar wobbles again, shudders slightly, as I release the pressure on the pedal and settle back to the posted speed limit. Acceptance. We all have our limits. It is as Ian says, “I am what I am”. Moment by moment. Blink for blink.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In The Spotlight

Isolating, isn't it? We course along through this universe and then, unexpectedly, someone else points out a star shining brightly where we’re not necessarily watching. And we’re sometimes surprised that they shine in our own quadrant. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several such stars course through the curriculum in my time, students who’ve shone, even amongst their peers, but nevertheless were known just as commonly as anyone else of us. We anticipated that they’d get the good grades, that they’d be the first to try to answer the questions, that they’d be involved. And we expected that they’d do well. At least, most of the time. And sometimes we are surprised. “I never knew he played guitar; that she sang; that he writes; that she paints – wow!”
My personal list of such stars goes way back to early 80’s, and here’s a few names (among quite a few others) whose careers one may easily follow thanks to both major and minor film roles, acting roles, and individual or group CD’s: Esther Purves-smith, Graham Jones, Sean Anderson, Jason Long, Jason Majid, Brad Payne, Eric Bossick, Thom Currie, Donovan Deschner, Andrew Franks, Jeff and Ryan Gladstone, Alex Hughs, Graham Ko, and now, Sheena Paris:
Calgary YMCA Youth Award (from the Calgary Herald, November 2009)
"With a bubbly personality and a mass of shoulder-length curls, Sheena Parris is a force to be reckoned with. Her friends describe her as compassionate, caring, committed and selfless. The Centennial High School student is deeply involved in social justice and peace initiatives. Through her membership in Centennial's Social Justice Club, she organized "Christmas with a Conscience," a fair-trade bazaar offering socially just gift alternatives over the Christmas season and "Oath of Silence," an event that helped students contemplate the invisibility of the world's forgotten children and the tragedy of child soldiers in Uganda. She has been both a participant and presenter at the Global Youth Summit, an annual event that connects teens with an interest in international issues and increases their global awareness. Sheena is also the co-founder of Student Voice, a group that focuses on creating a unified and peaceful school environment through open communication."We created Student Voice as a platform to connect teachers, administrators, parents, and students. Student Voice is a unified way to communicate and a positive way for students to voice concerns and really be able to transport their ideas to the right people." Next year, Sheena plans to study sociology or social anthropology with a minor in health studies to prepare herself to do humanitarian work, something she is clearly very passionate about."
Well, star or no star, the rest of us have our light to shine too. It is the light of our potentiality, unfolding into the evolution of everything, giving energy and light that is our very own unique Individuality. We just may not have been recognized for being such. If a movie or a book were to be made of the stories of very many of us we too may have our names recognized by many more than right now may know of us. And at the end of it all, what would we really want of anyone else – that they too would become their own star! So we keep shining, polishing, glowing, and giving. And maybe someday, isolated and insecure, someone will look our way and our star-light will shine for them too! All it takes is for the spotlight to be on you!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Teaching Humanity

Still interested in them? The crucible of the classroom is the test of teaching. How to keep at it, interested, day after day? Four distinct teaching periods per day comprise some 120+- distinct individuals. Students range from the casually indifferent to the subjectively impassioned. Most expect the teacher to be the Prime-Invigorator; very few are truly independent. The teacher is expected to be Friendly, Fair, Firm; interested in them; their primary source of “liking the subject.” Thirty odd years teaching serves this summation.
Amber is always alert. Billy is a bully. Carissa chatters. Damon deliberates too much. Elsie is often elsewhere. Frank is frequently rude. Graham struggles with health. Heather is shy. Ian is intense. Jack has attention deficit disorder. Karla is very recently pregnant. Liam is, well, actually lazy. Melanie is forever muttering. Noah is nearly first in class, if only he’d…. Opal is always late. Penelope hardly ever appears. Quin is too quiet; what’s he really thinking? Rachel is too raunch…. er, far too provocative. Sam is a loner. Tom is temperamental. Ursula is exacting. Virginia wants more frequent evaluations. Wesley wants every period to go to the washroom. Xavier always arrives, looks about, and then skips out. Yvette easily prevaricates. Zoe wants to be first at everything.
How many more times? Must I repeat it? Listen up! Understand? And we persevere, day after day, class after class, semester after semester. An alphabet of students annually changes common names, a cornucopia of souls co-mingle in class-time, ready or not to evolve. And the real subject to be delivered, for me at least, is not the curriculum; it is the advancement of the human condition. Not to be, or to be… a better Common Citizen!
Mediocrity is not necessarily a dirty word. It is, after all, a delineation of what on average is the average energy of the average attempt to fulfill the average challenge. We do what we do at every task on an average basis that which it is of what it is that we do. Huh? And to raise the bar, to strive for excellence above and beyond that of the average of others, is to elevate one of us into First Place, and thereby to set the standard of excellence for the other, in second. So it is in every endeavour, sport, achievement, talent, competition. The bell curve shifts. It shifts perhaps as lugubriously as the Little Prince’s python all chock full of the proverbial elephant, and it takes a seeming endless time to digest the lump of that bell toward more equanimity of the curriculum’s continuum, but the bar slowly but surely, we trust, gets raised. Still, that ubiquitous bell curve, like feeding the hunger in the process of the constrictor, re-emerges in the learning body of the class. The best quickly get better. The slow too soon get slower. The new median re-establishes a new level of… mediocrity. This is what we do, how we usually do it, and how we are going to keep doing it, climbing over raised bar after bar, reaching higher measure for measure.
Pigeonholing is problematic for everybody; well… for those who don’t like labels. It creates a sense of being limited to a ‘group’ that limits the… individual. And that individual’s Potential, as the end-product of a lifetime, is at the root of our contribution to the self, to the other, to the group, to humanity. It matters not that our Common Names be ranked in respect of each other; it matters more that a person make fullest use of One’s individual potential to participate that representation of ourselves for All. And as each student continues past graduation, it matters that life continue to be interesting! Or is that: that life has been named interesting by an Interested Teacher!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflections after the Dali Lama

I’ll show him! That’s my thought as on led-foot-edge with the big white Dodge revving beside me I watch for the green light. I’ll show him! That’s my thinking despite being at the Dali Lama’s address last night. Peace and compassion is one thing, but that Dodge had been rude, aggressive, and now I’m going to show him! But first I put my vehicle in park and awkwardly bend over the gear shift and scoop up the contents of my spewed satchel that had fallen off the seat beside me as I’d hard-braked to bring my rush at the light to a sudden stop. I hastily grab at things and slide the auto-shift back into gear. The Dodge abruptly roars. I glance up. The light is still red. Well, I’ll show him! He’d chased me down Fourteenth-Street, nosing at my rear, harrying at me to go over the posted 70 km per hour, despite the fact that the police often wait under the pedestrian fly-over. But I’d held to my spot on the road. So had others. Now… well, I’m sure going to show him!

There had been over 20,000 of us at the Dali Lama’s address in Calgary’s Saddle-dome Stadium last night. He’d sat red-robed in a lone pool of light and spoke of simplicity, of a need to understand and to allow for the differences in each other, of a need for us to act more from the heart and less with our head, of a need for us to have a sense of being the same as another despite the differences of culture, education, background, circumstance or event. And close to his finish he asked that all the lights be turned on so that he may see us, and when they came up I was astounded at the virtual sea of humanity, yoked as one by the luminescent white scarves we’d each been given at our seats, gleaming in wave upon tiered wave in the giant insides of the egg-shell oval of the covered arena. One people. One purpose. We came here to give and get Compassion and Love.

But now the Dodge roars again, and the light is about to…. I’ll show him! In the split second of the red light dimming I ram my foot down on the accelerator and feel the powerful growl and surge beneath me of my vehicle being shot… backward! In my rear view mirror I see the eyes-wide-open horror of the woman’s face behind the steering wheel of the car I’m about to back into and I jam down on the brake and hear the squeal of my tires and wait for the awful crunch… but miraculously, I come to a stop! I grin apologetically into the mirror, flick the floor-shift into Drive, and screech away.

The Dodge is gone. Other cars are now ahead of me. I relax into my mission. Get there in one piece! Or is that ‘peace’? Behind me that lucky woman is driving a black Mercedes. That would have been expensive! That would have been stupid! That would have been…. My brain whirls. I am so full of myself! So full of me! Just last night I’d lifted up my portable wheelchair to my vehicle in the parking lot after the Dali Lama’s address and wondering if anyone was watching had not focused on ‘the now.’ It slipped, caught my glasses, and they gouged deep down my nose. Blood streaming from me I’d applied a tissue and continued to drive, but in my haste to get home turned left while a pedestrian was not quite across the walk and he’d given me a rather vicious glare. “Go ahead,” I blurted through my window, “Glare at me again as though I’m an idiot!” Ha! Despite almost 60 years of living, defensiveness can still be the veneer over the real blood in one’s veins. Then again, ha!, upon reflection, and despite almost 60 years of living, one ought still to check that one is in the right gear!

Remembrance Day Address, 2009

Anguish is sometimes in the moment. Did you do it? Did you kill? Did you shoot another human being? Did you steal the cookie? Do you smoke dope? Did you steal the money? Should you push the button? And the moment between any one of us doing any such thing, however horrible or slight, is the moment of choice, or not. Sometimes we have no choice, or so I thought.
Just two months ago I was telling my class about the early 70’s, when I was conscripted into the South African Army. Conscription. I had no choice, especially not if I wanted to honour my Family’s expectations that I defend them. Or what of my Pretoria Boys’ High school reputation that we do our cadet training with the purpose of defending our country? Or what of my Church’s urging that we defend ourselves against the anarchy of the devil, communism? Or what of my Country’s belief that racism was to be legalized in the name of Apartheid? The northern borders were to be defended against the warring insurgency of communist-backed rebels wanting to overthrow the white supremacy of our Institutions. They wanted to gain control of our Economy. They wanted to reverse the precious Equilibrium and the very order of more than a century of Colonialism and Nationalism and perpetuated Legalisms of privileges endemic to a white society. And the fact that the whites in question were bent on the self-serving ends of extracting from the invaded country its minerals, its ready and cheap labour force, its blood diamonds and gold was seen as a Right, given the history of nearly two hundred years of occupancy. Sounds a bit like what we’ve done in Canada, no? Yet here the First Nations people are but a small group. Back in Zambia, where I was born and raised, the First Peoples of Africa outnumbered us 20 to 1. And so they rose up against our injustices. They went to war against our perpetuation of incursions upon their freedom, our denial of their dignity, our removal of their opportunity, our economic disincentives for them to prosper. And the wars of Apartheid went on and on. All of my boyhood the war was “up at the border,” and I knew with a certain fearfulness that I would get conscripted to it too. Then, in 1964, we were forced to leave Zambia. Pets were shot. Things were burned. I knew then that one day I too would have to pull the trigger.
“Well, did you kill someone?” a student asked me, just two months ago. I blinked. And in that blink I knew that he did not really want to know if I did it, but if he could do it too. Well, I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that even the meekest of you can do it too. That’s what I want to address here: your part in all of this. Your choices! After all, we think we have choice, and then we succumb to the events, to the circumstances, to enforcement, expectations, and to the cultural inculcations of others. We find ourselves a weapon. We decide to use it, and we fire. We fire! We fire with words of hate, with thoughts of vengeance, with blows of anger. We fire with the self that feels defensive of its needs, its wants, its desires, its dignity. We fire back if the self feels its aspirations threatened, its ego quashed, its resources overwhelmed. And it is in you to do so too. It will happen ~ unless we be inclusive, assimilative, integrative; in fact, Bigger than the Moment. It all is a microcosm of the macrocosm; the smallest of things symbolic of the largest. It’s a spiral toward our evolution, the choices we make, one by one, each by each. And one minute of awareness makes all the difference, let alone the choice, moment by moment.
Just ask George Lawrence Price, if you could. He was the last soldier to be shot in World War One, on this month, November 11th, ninety-one years ago. One minute made all the difference. A Canadian, born in Nova Scotia, conscripted (without choice) to the army while he was living in Saskatchewan, George Price was fatally shot in Belgium at 10.59 a.m., just one huge minute before the armistice. One minute! Had some miracle of modern texting, a cell-phone, twittering, or even an ancient carrier-pigeon delivered the essential message that the war was over... would the other have pulled the trigger? Strange how in one minute “the other” is the enemy, and then in another minute by some stroke of the pen, some order from above, some word from beyond, some inner call to the private conscience.... one can altogether stop from pulling that trigger. One minute more, and George may well have lived beyond his 25 years.
25 years old. That’s what I was when I went AWOL (absent without leave) from the South African Army. After five years of conscriptions, in and out again, I came to my senses. I made my decision. I could no longer defend racism. I would no longer fight. In 1975 I stowed-away aboard the S.A. Oranje, a Union Castle steam-ship bound for England. In my renunciation I became a fugitive, an expatriate. When I reached London I borrowed an old Raleigh bicycle, got a tent, a sleeping bag, a knife and a camp-stove and cycled all the way up Britain. I traded my sketches for food and the right to sleep in a field, and even bartered my sketch for a ferry across the sea from the northern tip of Scotland to the Orkney Islands. And there I met a Canadian who suggested I come to Canada as a political refugee. And so, in 1980, I became a most grateful Canadian citizen. I made my choice! But I did not see my mother for over 35 years. Dad died before I could see him. And just 5 years ago my two brothers and our sister and I were re-united.
Choices. You? We all make choices as we move within the elementary needs of the Self; the dictates of the enclosed Family, the esoteric Club, the fixated Clan; our Egoic nature wants to be the best, even it means hurting others; we wrestle with our inability to accept another Group due to their politics, their religion, their beliefs; we need to have others’ admiration, to Control, to Dominate; we desire to have Fairness, and we feel anger and revenge at injustice: we have all these warring things spiralling within us. Well, whether or not knowing life’s subtext of Spiral Dynamics, Psycho-geometrics, the Theory of Positive Disintegration, Integral Holonics, Chaos Theory, or Kohlberg, we operate with likes and dislikes throughout Life. It’s a perpetual dichotomy of Fear, or Love. Choices. Our world is rather a mess because of it. So much around us is fragmentation, divisiveness, and war. Then too, there is heroism, honour, ethics, and love.
Essentially, it comes down to our Choice. And choice, straightforwardly, is about our Evolving, or not, whether conscious of choice, or not. In the act of meta-cognition, in the very practice of thinking about our thinking, we’re able to make decisions before we pull that trigger, before we say that word, throw that punch, or give that attitude. We do have choice! And the death in wars of every person in the long history of hate and enmity toward this very Today is honoured, if we remember: most of us want Peace. As a Goal it began and continued with each of our Fallen. As a Goal it can find its home in you. Peace. It’s about the Choice to be Inclusive, Integrative; in essence: to be Bigger than the moment. Lest we forget. Peace. And please, make good choices!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In the Beginning was the Word

“She-ee-ite!” Quite the word. I sit with a mouthful of food and the person opposite me says it again. It’s a sharp, filthy, ugly sound. Carefully, I swallow. It is out of reverence for the symbolic that I usually am so considerate of the literal, but all around there are catch-phrases spat out or tongued over without much thought for their taste. ‘We see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and feel words,’ I tell my students. It’s like the Cohen song: ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word.’ Yet still, “we’re going to kill this puppy,” another will say, talking of something else entirely.

The impeccability of thought, language, choice, drives the sensibilities ~ yet we are inured to the casually idiomatic, as little fired up by common phrases as perhaps shooting that proverbial fish in the barrel. And culturally we give words a certain coolness, a certain wickedness, a certain radical-ness, and casually drop them from our mouths to be picked up by borrowing ears without much regard for whether or not they get back to us.

‘Come see the monkey in the barrel,’ the sign read. It was circa 1983. I followed the signs down a side-street in Chemainus, British Columbia, Canada. Rage chattered at my insides. My English grandmother had started the Ndola Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, back in Northern Rhodesia in the 1950’s, and as a fellow from Africa I was not about to let that monkey be abused. So, I strode angrily upon sign after beckoning sign, until there, at the end of the alley, was indeed a large rain barrel with a lid on it, and not so much as a window or air hole to show. A little wood-box on a post near the barrel sported a card that read: “Monkey in the Barrel, 25c, See for yourself!” So, I fished in my pocket, snared a coin, slid it through the slot, and advanced angrily upon the barrel. With a careful motion, so as not to scare the monkey, I peeled back the big dustbin-sized lid, and peeked inside. Nothing. No sound. Nothing. So, I let more light enter the barrel. But still, nothing. Had it escaped? And then I leaned over and looked inside, and saw my face in the mirror, staring, stupefied, back at me. Ha! I grinned. ‘Who’s the monkey now?’

Words lead. Words clarify. Words mislead. So, “let’s kill this puppy.” Well, that is what another person said, just today. And I go back to a time when I was definitely four, or maybe even three years old, and I hear my other grandmother, my Ouma, tell me that I’m the one to blame for the dog having puppies since I was supposed to keep her on a leash and not let her run out of the yard, and now we’re going to have to kill the puppies. So, I have this dark memory of myself with the bread knife approaching the puppies in the bag, and I’m under the giant pomegranate tree with its blood-red seeds spilled and squashed from the rotten fruit lying about, and I look down at the squirming bag. And in the instant I know I cannot, will not do it. Then someone (I think my mother or my aunt) comes out and yells and plucks at my ear and wallops me and then… the memory fades. But red pomegranate seeds in a salad still bring on meteorological memories. Holonic, isn’t it? Like molecules, we all are connected by permeable membranes.

Words are immediate. They evoke recollection. They provoke. Words tripped out of the mouth without thought for their symbolism are words to which we become desensitized. The list of the inappropriate appears ugly, rude, crude, lewd. Yet any one of them can be marvellously useful too! Crikey! Come to think of it, I hope you weren’t eating when I began these words with 'that' word, back then, and therewithal took up your time. Then again, as the ugly saying goes, and as the speaker repeats, “Who gives a sh...!” Oosh. You feel, say, think, taste, see, smell it? I did.