Monday, January 30, 2012

Two Titanics

Analogies often run aground. Two old codgers, like great ships in somewhat laborious progress upon the waters of life, are my dear friends. The one I've known for about five or so years, the other for some thirty. Both are older than me, the one being in his mid 60's, the other in his early 70's. And 'codger', though seemingly a discourteous word for older souls, I see as an honorarium bestowed on one who cogitates, a thinker upon our thinking. Both converse readily. But their thoughts are in stark contrast, despite their physical similarities. Lanky and lean, charming and witty, both are old world gentleman, both are considerate and genteel. Yet the younger becomes bleak and dark of outlook. He wears the wake of his progress as a scourge upon mankind. The older is accepting and integrative, and though physically hobbled by a recent stroke, carries himself with an air that declares the world and its constituents to have a right to be here. Yet the Titanic analogy, inasmuch as one is about the imminent demise of the ship of state, and that the other is about our overcoming that demise, fits. We passengers, caught in the moment of seeing our worldly progress for what it is, have much of a decision to make.

Comfortable with the Titanic comparison, my 60+ year old friend was at pains to point out that we were less likely to strike the proverbial ice-berg than to find ourselves without supplies, without sustenance for all of us, and without a harbor to save ourselves in the gathering storms. Our world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and the carrier is ourselves, mankind, or at least, charted and steered by those in power. We grow too large for ourselves. We are the cancer on the host. We are too late to altar our fate. Yes, mixing metaphors is as much a part of the conversation as are the Malthusian sensibilities. His 'the glass is more than half-empty' pronouncements has mankind much misdirected, mix--aligned, mis-informed, and basically blind. Meanwhile those of us who can dance, dance foolhardily to the band, others promenade the decks or blithely sleep below, and a host of unwitting others do little but serve the doomsday ship. It's unfair!

Tsho! It is difficult to come away from that bleakness in my friend with a sense of enlightenment. The dire predicament of mankind, if not the anger that he feels toward all shipmates, is quite the downer. Yet he is informed, politically astute, has written a book concerning the demise of the forests, is cultured and world travelled and engaging; but at root he feels we are withering up, our resources are too rapidly diminishing for us to replenish them, and though some of us, like Noah, may survive, the masses are awash.

Being with my other friend is like taking a breath of fresh air up on the outer decks while pausing to observe life. Man overcame, overcomes, progresses. Horrendous history is the story of survival. We are what we are, but through all the gloom and doom there is yet again and again renewed opportunity, renewed venture, renewed discovery. Modern man evolved from caveman; space-age man evolves from us. And though we are so rapacious and ravenous and ridiculous as to not yet collectively see our responsibility to the health of the whole, we shall get there, heaven knows how we will get there, but we know we will. Optimism beams from my friend, he who has seen over 70 years of life, he who sees mankind wobbling and wavering and disjointed and even diseased, but loves it for itself, for its potential, for its possibilities, and for its connection to ourselves.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sacred, or Scared?

Sacred Sex (part B of The Sleeping Dog essays)

Birds and bees do it. Dogs and mice and cats and rats do it. There is little that is sacred about body parts rubbing together, instinctually or intentionally, until meaning makes it so. But in giving the act meaning there are multiple layers to be evolved toward fruition that is in and of itself still but a temporary moment of the livelong day, however blissfully protracted. Such is the subject of Sacred Sex at the Sleeping Dog Retreat, with the rain thrumming on the skin of the skylight in the octagonal sanctuary. The participants in the lecture now commence asking questions, making comments, and their well articulated differentiations between male and female, the pain-body of centuries of enculturation, enslavement, expectation, and mankind's selfishness unravels, releases in the universe. The psychic rub-rubbing in the hubbub of cerebral contentions here stirs at my thoughts.

Since any and everybody is capable of some capacity or other of participation in sex, in whatever guise it takes, there is little that is special or privileged or sacrosanct about it, unless we make it so. Every virgin wonders about the naked relevance of the physical moment, and usually, in western culture, is given to understand the specialness of the emotional entanglement as well as the physical responsibility sex involves. Experience soon relegates degrees of participation, degrees of feeling, degrees of enjoyment, and degrees of the attendant hoards of psychosomatic problems that enliven our world; it is shame and guilt and desire and envy and jealousy and power and lust and insufficiency that spirals around within us as we seek more and more to be fulfilled. Surcease and celibacy notwithstanding, there continues a mental agitation, physical discombobulation, and the fundamental want to participate. It drives our species. It drives nature. It drives, or we take control. But can we take control out of our heads and while into our feelings?

Control is not necessarily a pejorative word. It connotes the awareness of responsibility and direction and practice and participation as it impacts another, let alone all others. At best, it might be argued, self-control might curtail an unchecked population explosion. At worst, it might be argued, self-control might be repressive and punitive. Yet self-control is the very thing that elevates sacred sex as an enlightened gift given to another and to the self from the fulness of one's being; a free feeling, or why think of it as sacred at all?

"Do you know how much I love you?" It is an accepted phrase; we understand the gift to mean 'an enormous amount'. Yet it connotes that there are degrees and levels to love, and sadly, that love itself is conditional; or else, that love is apportioned more to me than to another. After all, if love is given to every-body, when is it sacred? If sex can be given to any-body, when is it sacred? Is there not a confusion about them being the same thing, sex and love? Virgins, especially, wrestle with that question. Experience teaches some of us that they can be very different indeed. Sacredness, in the fulness of its participation and enlightenment, is about a total release of inhibition and curtailments, a complete giving of the self in absolute assurance to the oneness of the moment, and as such, is rare. It is the very checks and balances and insecurities and inhibitions and uncertainties, I surmise, that might well stop us from having the other kind of sex at all. Complete freedom makes sacred any act to be elevated above the ordinary, the usual, the mundane, the selfish, and the expected. "Lighten up," some say. Well, precisely! Ha!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

To Let Sleeping Dogs Lie?

Something there is in us that does not like certain subjects mentioned. We prefer not to be bothered. Yet a group of us voluntarily entered the womb-like sanctuary of Victoria's Sleeping Dog Retreat, knowing full well we'd have to face into some uncomfortable stuff. Under heavy rain on the central skylight of the large octagonal, the room thrummed. Like reverse osmosis to a portal in the heavens, I thought, the dormant energy here seeks escape to the universe. But ensconced in the warmth of the gathering of laymen, professionals, counsellors, psychologists and their ilk, and seated in a semi-circle, all pointed toward the mesmerizing speaker, we soon succumbed to the lilt and waft of words that plucked at the unbidden images of the present, past, and then pointed toward the future. After all, which of us have not been wounded? Who has not hurt the self? Who remains a victim, a conduit to animosity and anger and vengeance and hate? Out with it. Out! Or should one simply let the sleeping dogs lie?

That innocence should be stripped from a child, literally and psychically, and that shame and secrets should attend the soul so much so that it now prefers to lie asleep in the otherwise engaging streets of life, is sad indeed. And at which point is the inner being, having succumbed, now to come alert? When threatened? When it perceives threat? When it hears the footsteps of strangers, or otherwise, and knows it has to move? The animal in us, anima or animus, easily yields to a fight or flight response. After all, like dogs through the centuries we psychically continue to trample the grass underfoot, to circle about three if not four times before proverbially laying ourselves down. It is our habits that easily remain. And having chosen our spot, having given in to the world-weariness of awareness and awake-ness, we sleep, perchance to dream. But for many, albeit unconsciously, we sleep with an ear cocked, an eye open. Fear inhibits freedom.

Shakespeare named many a curmudgeon a Dog. Yet the Buddha, Jesus, and all that is God would have us be forgiving, compassionate, understanding, integrative, and absorbing. Accepting is a different thing. Acceptance comes with condoning. And worse, accepting gives license for a really dirty dog to continue its defecation on the dignity and rights and innocence of those who come after one's own demeaning. Out! It is worth calling the dog out. It is worth facing down the creature and commanding it to desist or suffer the consequences. But how shall a little child do so? How shall an infected child call out when he has neither the physical strength, the maturational insight, nor the necessary support structures intact should he leap the fence? Suffer the children, the most dangerous of the dogs would bay. Others beguile. Out, Shakespeare would rage!

My crippled uncle knew not completely what he did. His actions stole from my boyhood the privilege to tell anyone my whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Shame collared me. Eventually I realized that the man was not malicious, merely self-serving. He could not help himself, or he might have redressed his desires. So too for the victims that attended The Sleeping Dog sessions. We each had our own reasons for being there. The problem for me though, is not so much that one lets oneself be free from the past, but that one now does what one can to stop (in Shakespeare's most derogatory terms) the dogs of our world from soiling the innocence and rights of others. Shame creeps into the shade of the soul, and lingers there not as a byproduct of enlightenment, but as a ball and chain that would better be used to pin down any dangerous dog, asleep or not.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Maid for Memory (given The Help)

Tsho! An essentially South African exclamation, it haunts me still. From her aged frame and care-worn soul it was the singular sound of disappointment. Her wizened face has by now likely assumed the mind's smudge of so very many other maids along the way, and I found out just recently that her name was 'Marta'. Not a Mrs. M., or a Madam, or a Lady, but just Marta. She was possibly old enough to be my mother, or maybe even my grandmother. But back then, she was just the old maid belonging to another household, my girlfriend's household, in fact, over forty years ago.

We human beings have been like that, are like that: dismissive. The accord we give another is generally relational to our sense of kismet, our sense of an other's worthiness in comparison to our own. It's the birds of a feather flock together syndrome. It's the gathering of the similarly dressed, the similarly educated, the other most like ourselves, generally speaking. Racial and cultural differences apart, we naturally gravitate toward that which is familiar, expected, ingrained, habitual. And so, in the youth of my twenties, and in the presumptions of my privilege of race, circumstance, education, and culture, I easily took from old Hannah, the domestic, the maid, the very thing she'd been waiting very many years to deserve.

Canadians often ask me about South Africa. In the 70's it was a constant wrestle with change. It still is. But whereas the boil of too many people is now its problem, back then it was the yoke of legalized oppression. In the apartheid system prior to Mandela's 1994 release any person not of white skin as a birthright was doomed to servility. Sitting on a whites-only-bench was not allowed (let alone the same toilet.) Apartheid yoked the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Zulu, the Xhosa, and any and all other Bantu into the same envelope of separation from the whites. Apartheid relegated, mandated, legalized, and doomed non-whites to perpetual and inescapable subservience. Tsho! It was a difficult country to live in. Still is. The tensions of the opposites was palpable. Yes, people were kind and considerate and generous and thoughtful, but under the yoke of societal expectations and legalized differentiation (the maid was not allowed next to you in the car) there was a cloud of constant suppression. The USA based movie, The Help, highlights what was going on with social racism in the 50's. But we all are now well past that, aren't we?

My University of Cape Town friend and I wanted a washing machine. We'd secured a cottage up on Klaasensweg Drive, in the posh neighborhood overlooking the famous Kirstenbosch Gardens, and we'd furnished it, held weekend parties, become regulars on the road with my 20 year-old black Rover and his new blue Fiat, and we generally lived the life of privileged students on our way to becoming real men (whatever that might signify). My girlfriend mentioned that her family was thinking of replacing their machine. And somewhere in the transitions from the request to a price to collecting it I knew full well that their old Hannah, who'd worked with the family for very many years, wanted that old washer, but could not afford it. Or was it just that she did not have the right to claim her priority of interest in it? I knew that. But still, I ended up taking it. Tsho, indeed!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

At Any Age!

"I am a nonagenarian," she beams, testing me, her thick waves of silvered hair glistening in the refracted light as her head beside me bobs in the shallow end of the pool. "When I was your age I could swim like you. I'm Pat. How old are you?" I blink the chlorine out of my eyes and respond, suddenly feeling embarrassed at my sound, "Just a sexagenarian, I fear, ha!" She doesn't miss a beat. "Oh, still a youngster! Well, I can still drive!" Her hands come up out of the water and they drip as she mimes a steering wheel. "And I volunteer at the Victoria Operatic Society; I paint sets! Also, I send my knitting to the poor in Africa, and... I wish that mother would shush her child. Dreadful. In my time children were to be seen and not heard, you know!" I look into her eyes, smile disarmingly, and keep quiet. "Well, I'm Patricia. Pat. Hello...? Ah, Richard. Well, I must do my lap, bye!" And she bobs off in a dog paddle down the length of the pool, taking her bright blue eyes, remarkably young looking face, and vibrant buoyancy with her.

Perhaps I shall never see her again. In the long days of our melding with person upon persons, around whom we can maneuver with nary a nod, we are much like busy ant colonies, trudging in a general direction. Ever noticed how one or two stop for a moment to engage? They appear to pass on some conspiratorial message or other, then scurry on. The meeting between Pat and I, immersed in the fluidity of the moment, was like that. Her message of being engaged in life may well be transcribed as the proverbial 6.6: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise."

Being. Doing. Progressing. Contributing. We differentiate as we age. My friend with whom I go to the swimming pool is a septuagenarian. He brings his painful leg along. He brings his stoicism and his patience with life too. Sometimes he picks me up; other times I do the driving. His physical posture and evident age now hides his once having been the Principal of a thousand plus strong High School. We see people as they now appear. Who would think that he once tilted his lance at windmills, galloped off into the sunsets? Our 30 year relationship has run the gamut of our separate and together decades. We once lived together. We've been on shared vacations, hikes, done moving days, visited, phone-called, and commiserated. We've been best man at each other's weddings. A friendship is built of moments such as these. And in among these lines and the many moments actually lived are the many times I've taken him for granted too.

When he got into my car I did not ask how his weekend went with the four new dinner guests they'd put together. I forgot. I had my own agenda. I spoke of recently reading Brene Brown's 'Gifts of Imperfection', paradoxically, and we delved into the complexity of being wholehearted; the vulnerability of being fully authentic, and we both articulated the caveat: "Give not your truth that others may trample it." Now, if I didn't say that, then somebody, somewhere, is most likely being quoted. We much depend on reciprocity.

It is in the moment of meeting a new Pat, or an aged friend, or mayhap even a teenager that we deem or are deemed by the other be fit, to be worthy, to be authentic. Yet where our truly realistic life lies, I submit, is in not only what we practically do with ourselves at any given moment, but how we spiritually see ourselves in the swim of life, at any age.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


She was seven or maybe even eighteen years younger when I first met her. I was busy working on a very large oil painting on a friend's deck on Denman Island, off the west coast of Canada. That late afternoon's sunset I climbed a golden cliff face up to her from the shore of the mile wide Lambert Channel. Calibra, my kayak, lay outlined like a dark torpedo up on a high rock way down below. Rugby legs, she called me. Twenty years ago. She was visiting her cousin, a war-bride, who still dwells on Denman. And now, this coming April, that same Nancy is about to turn 90. Lady Nancy Sinclair, my letters to far off Australia are addressed. Thirty years my senior, petite, blue eyed, blonde haired, she had had five children of her own. Yet somewhere in our very first meeting on that Kluane deck there grew a kismet between us that has reached across the distance and across time, and our communication has been frequent, steady, reciprocal. She at first returned every three or four years; once stood for me as my Matron of Honor; but of late her health has prohibited the long flight. And I've never been able to get to Australia. In the meantime, Lady Nancy, without intention, has taught me the fine art of letter writing.

How, where, why, what, when, who, and please tell me more are the touchstones of her paragraphs. There is hardly a sentence I can write without her remarking in some way about it, her asking me for more, or her letting me know that she can relate. Still, in the years and years' turning of the handwritten pages we have not yet discussed the death of Ramses, the relevance of the X-Files, and the likes of Gillian Anderson. Amazing how things are interconnected. Amazing how way leads on to way. Denman Island was so much more than just Passing Through. I happened to be there the day Ramses arrived.

Esoteric references are indeed mostly understood by the initiated. All the more reason to ask questions. The value of intimate letter writing is that one hardly need clarify who 'M' is, since both reader and writer are familiar. And like any good James Bond movie, the mind is full of imagery that fills in the blanks, so that when the Penny drops, we know at least one of the Bonds will be there to catch her. But it is in asking what may otherwise be overlooked, or what led to the penny being dropped, or how Ramzes and the X-Files get to configure here, in the first instance, that real reciprocity is invited.

The vitality of our Lady persists. Her twin brother, Denys Street, was one of the famous fifty trying The Great Escape. And Lady Nancy has not just that sad event, but so many other tragedies to relate as well. Yet all is done in a spirit of forgiveness, compassion, integration, understanding of the times, of history, and of the ways of man. And so, for Lady Nancy, there is no shriveling up, there is a perpetual interest in things other than the self, in things beyond our ken. It is in making things interesting that we are defined.

So when I write, or respond, I have Lady Nancy's lessons trotting like black Ramses about me. It's a point of reciprocity; it's about taking an interest in things sufficient to inquire, rather than expecting life to enquire after you. That's even what the great black himself did, one early sunrise in 2006 on Denman's Xenophon farm. He whickered softly, came over to where I practiced my lines for Tuesdays with Morrie, and nudged with his great black nose when I stopped. We give interest; it inspires others to go on.