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?