Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Em's and En's

“Em? That’s not a word!” At eight years old, I felt cheated, incensed. My uncle often tried to beat me at scrabble. “It is a word,” he remonstrated. “Look in the dictionary.” And indeed, upon flipping through many familiar pages, I realized I was mistaken.

In the relatively short dash between then and now, so very much has transpired. That singular line between dates, like 448-338 b.c.; 356-326 b.c; 110-44 b.c.; 33-61 a.d.; 539-612; 1122-1204; 1343-1400; 1412-1431; 1564-1616; 1756-1791; 1809-1865; 1819-1901; 1879-1955; 1892-1951; and 1918-2013 certainly represents a chronological series. Yet these dates are specifically significant, indeed, and perhaps even recognizable; but it is that all too brief em dash betwixt the dates that really signifies. Therein lies the life. Therein lies the influence of a given person on others, from birth to death. And suspended as that short-stroke em-dash is between the book-ends of any given dates, it is there that the very chapters of all history get written.

Social distancing is creating a stressful acclimatization to a new world order. Indeed, we adjust to being alone, and we preoccupy ourselves with the house-chores of isolation and free time. Indeed, we phone and email and Skype and Facebook, etc., but the physical reality of hugs and handshakes are very much a current aversion. We are to stand six feet apart, if we do not want to be buried six feet under. And evidently, too many lives have been foreshortened by a bug, a disease, a contagion, that horridly knows no international boundaries. Our globe is under attack, or at least, we human beings are the ones being attacked at this dastardly time on our world.

“A debacle! It is my favourite word of the month,” writes 97-year-old M’Lady Nancy Sinclair. In her long lifetime she’s seen the world wars, and plenty more. She’s endured and persevered within the storms of inordinate odds. At now, just about to turn 98 on April 01, she is supposed to allow no one into her cottage on The Swan, near Perth, in Australia. Her adult daughters, her friends, her neighbours, how will they be able to celebrate M’Lady’s birthday? That em dash of her life is indeed experiencing an awful shrinkage in the debacle of this 2020 year. To be so very alone is difficult for anyone, let alone those who care to be generous with their love toward and care for others. It is in direct contact with others that most of us share our very vitality.

A debacle is defined as ‘a sudden and ignominious failure’. Therein lies the rub. Are we, by staying chiefly in a virtual reality for the next long while, able to control the contagion, to contain it, and even, like polio, or the bubonic plague, or malaria, or aids, to stem the spread and so to keep things in check that we no longer need to be so fearful of each other? Certainly, all personnel involved in essential services, from our health, food, and maintenance workers, deserve a hero’s accolades. Their bravery to keep us all as cared for as possible is deeply profound.

And as for that all too brief em dash in the lives of those who once lived, and all those not as yet book-ended by a final date, we can but love day to day, appreciating all that is good and beautiful and marvelous and wonderful within our lives. The em dash of Plato, and Alexander, and even Caesar, and Queen Boudecia, and Bertha of Kent, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Joan of Arc, and President Lincoln, and Einstein, and Sir Arthur Street, and Mandela too, contains their experience of love and appreciation of life. Then too, they also indeed needed to overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. So too, one fears, for each and all of us.

And as for the present debacle, darn it, we need, indeed, keep apart, and keep clean. Let us not play scrabble with the rules. After all, life for any of us can be too short. And lest we do not take precaution, unlike the inevitable and unavoidable reality of our own personal em dash; for some of us, we fear, it might become the even shorter ‘en’ dash. (Yes, the same, but shorter still.) We need think of our own impact on others. So stay safe. Be well. Move about with care. Please.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Baubles and Bangles and Balls

“I’ll lasso the moon for you,” young George tells Mary, in Thornton Wilder’s 1910 ‘Our Town.’

And as the 'Ball of Gold' poem by Stephen Crane (1871-1900) goes:

A man saw a ball of gold in the sky;
He climbed for it,
And eventually he achieved it --
It was clay.
Now this is the strange part:
When the man went to the earth
And looked again,
Lo, there was the ball of gold. 

Now this is the strange part:
It was a ball of gold.
Aye, by the heavens, it was a ball of gold.

Yes. “Be careful what you want, for you’ll get it,” goes the saying. Yet, the thing is, it’s the envisioning, the dreaming, and the actions taken toward our objectives that count, over and over. How else to live life as fully as we can? With goals in mind we move ourselves from stasis. Yes, there is no real perfect paradigm; no one size fits all. Still, by making choices, choice after choice, it is the journey itself that involves us most, very seldom the finality. We move! As Robert Frost (1974-1963) wrote: “I have promises to keep; And miles to go, before I sleep.”

Thing is, are we internally, or externally, motivated? What incites us most to action? And once a thing is obtained, then, what’s next? After all, as Robert Browning (1812-1889) urged: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?"  Then too, as Shakespeare’s Juliet exhorts: “Swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon.... [of the 1500’s] but swear by Thyself.”

True, restlessness grips us. We scarcely can stay put. We hardly can wait. We find our bones need shifting. We find our brains need stimulating. We want more, and more, and something else, somewhere else, (and sometimes even someone else.) We seldom can meditate. We seldom can sit still. With no magazine to flip, no phone to check, no music to hear, no new person to enter the room, no drama, no tv, no games, no cookies; how to be self-satisfied? Cigarettes, and coffee, and chatter, and (unchecked) thoughts govern us, mostly. Sometimes our brains simply slip out of gear. Yes, ideas (and ideals) can be ephemeral. Obtaining them is satisfying, yes, but soon enough one needs to be away. Like birds on twigs, or even at last in our nests, we humans are fundamentally itinerant. All that glitters, indeed, is not gold.

“A rolling stone gathers no moss,” goes the dictum. Frequently though, one meets the exception. (Wendy, of the Shady Rest in Qualicum Beach, has worked there for over 30 years. So too has Darci worked for three decades in the same barber shop, in Victoria’s Fort Street. Then, recently, our too-young-looking server at the Maple Bay Pub revealed that she’d worked there for over 22 years.) Everywhere, there are outliers. Indeed, at times when we over-generalize there is often enough evidence to disprove one’s contentions. (Yes, one can become quite astounded at how utterly wrong one can be.) Our gold can become clay. Then again, generally, like “the inconstant moon” itself, we prefer once more to be on the move! Wonderful as anything is; where’s the next pot o’ Gold?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Sunshine for Sharon

We human beings are fundamentally ontological. Sharon would’ve liked that word. In the meaning making sense of things, Sharon took special delight. But she does not get to read this tribute. When she died around 7:00 p.m., this February 28th, she did not make it into the leap year. The 28th we get to remember, yearly. She left the up and down and round and round carousel of life. She was, at last, free. Yet a surprising day of sunshine, Feb 29th, wedged into the calendar for those on Vancouver Island. The preceding weeks of grey clouds and rain had marred wishes for pleasant weather, and the horrid threat of Sharon’s cancer loomed over all those who loved her. By March 1st, here, so far from Calgary, it again rained and rained. ‘Tears from heaven’, indeed. Our grief is profound. Sharon’s life was too short, at 57. And as for March, we are called upon to march on and on. Sharon would like that image. Yes, we each must eventually also go, but for Sharon, cancer was her last marathon, here on earth.

She’d actually run a marathon in every province of this vast country. That’s ten 26.21875-mile marathons in a lifetime. Most of us have not yet run one. For those of us unfamiliar with this Canada of ours, it makes for an incredible feat of training, preparing, flying or driving to, and then attending the grueling races, stretched out on diverse tracks across a vast country thousands of miles wide. And always, she appeared humble about her achievements. Always, she was interested in and caring of others. Always, she loved her dogs, and loved nature, and loved the people she knew. And always, she was supportive and compassionate and insightful.

Jessie (Sharon’s mother) and Sharon had flown out westward, 2016, just especially to see me perform with a new actor, Perry Burton, who played ‘Mitch’, in ‘Tuesdays with Morrie.’ (Morrie dies, onstage, of ALS.) Nine years before, in 2007, they’d seen Jay Newman’s ‘Mitch’. (That was the same year Jessie's husband, and Sharon's father, Vic Peters, died of the disease.) In 2010, they saw me do it with Donovan Deschner. And next, in 2018, when I was invited to perform ‘Morrie’ in Canmore, with Rob Murray, they drove to see the show yet again. Think of the courage, the bravery, it took them to stare down the face of death, again and again. Yes, ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, has claimed and is claiming many victims, but for Sharon, and her mother, as well as for Sharon’s older brothers, Doug and Russ, their father, Vic Peters, succumbed to ALS, finally, back in 2007. For them all, and for the family and friends who knew and loved Vic, it all was a dreadful time. And now, with Sharon being taken by cancer too, how awful it is that we each must march on, without her. How very sad for her two daughters, Maryanne, and Jessica (with Charles and little baby Leo, who will not get to know his grandmother,) and for Sharon’s dearly beloved husband, Ken.

“My funeral was last week,” beamed Morrie. “All those people saying all those wonderful things about me, and I got to hear every word. I kept thinking; Morrie would’ve liked this! And I did!”

Sharon would beam at the reminder. During the dreadful last months, we all gave her love and care, and our prayers were felt by her, to be sure. And now, as she is off on “that final journey into the great unknown,” as Morrie puts it, she indeed has packed with her our love and concerns and appreciation for all that she gave us, while she was still here, running her marathons in the psyche of our consciousness, sharing her love and good humour and deep interest in our lives. So, it continues. She would want us to share our puns. She would want fun.

On Feb 7th, to my texting her about kismet and the unending love we shall have for her, always, she responded: “I cannot say anything quite so eloquent but say it like this: love, love, love.”

Yet her eloquence lay in the very art of love with which she contributed to life and gave to us all; it was so much greater than mere words. And as for sunshine, she shall always be a ray of love and lightness of being in our memories, for each of us. We now can but stand at the sidelines, cheering her on in the marathon of our minds, sustaining her spirit in our hearts, and carrying her love for us, always.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Carman's Carousel

[Artist Unknown]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

Collision Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Liking 'Likes'

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

At best?

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

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

“Well... no.”

“Then why pick it up?”

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

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

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

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

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

I beamed. “Done!”

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

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

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

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Inculcating Integrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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