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The first snow – a moment of regret? or an invitation to contemplate?

We spend so much time in the waiting room of life, anticipating a future in which the conditions will be right for us to take action.

The first snow fell today, in silent sprinkles. I am watching its flakes drift and glide in a zig-zag as they fall, in a manner similar to leaves.

I am surprised by the thought of thousands of perfectly formed crystals falling from the sky against the bright grey-white light of the winter morning.

Snow, where I live, is the harbinger of change.

Its arrival means that winter nature will be asleep soon, that Christmas is around the corner and that the clock will soon tick over into a new year.

While a new year is a somewhat arbitrary marker in life’s path, it is significant because we make it so.

I ask myself this morning – how do you face a new year without some nostalgia or regret? It must be possible, but how?

I think the answer is in a daily feeling of “nowness”, or mindfulness in today’s vernacular. I have successfully integrated meditation into my life, mostly due, in an amusing twist, to technology. A dear friend introduced me to the Calm app on my phone and my Garmin watch has a feature where it measures my stress and suggests that I breathe. Both the daily meditation from Calm and the breathing helps me to find my centre for the day, or grants a moment’s respite during a stressful hour.

As some of my readers may know, I am a liberal and progressive, yet faithful Roman Catholic. As such, I have always tried to incorporate daily prayer into my life, with varying success and at different levels of intensity over the years. I find that mechanical repetition of prayer becomes a chore rather than something I look forward to, so have sought to find ways of approaching prayer more mindfully, more contemplatively.

One of the methods I use, is listening to Taizé music. These simple, repetitive chants are very similar to the mantras sung by yogis. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical movement that invites all Christian orders to unite in song and contemplation. Taizé songs are sometimes so beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, making me feel a great emotional release and spiritual uplift. They seem to open a door to the sanctuary of transcendent feeling that comes of gaining a glimpse of the reflected, warm golden light of love.

Another method that I have used with success is the Ignatian daily examen. This method of practical prayer and contemplation was prescribed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Order of Jesuits. The examen is simple, yet elegantly effective. At the end of the day, take a moment to:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward to tomorrow.

Obviously, this is a religious approach to mindfulness and that won’t work for many. I do encourage you to check out Taizé and the Ignatian Examen as both can be practised and enjoyed in a secular, fashion as well.

I have found going through this can help open the door to self-examination and awareness. I have found that being in this state can avoid nostalgia and regret in those moments when we become aware of the flight of time’s arrow. They make us more aware of where the arrow is leading us.

Indeed, they possibly allow us to be in sync with our actions enough that we mindfully and willfully shoot an arrow into the future with each of our actions, confident that it will land in a future place that we will be one day happy to inhabit.

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On a chill night (and a warm heart)

Sometimes, in the dead of summer, we forget that in a few short months, the heat will be replaced by icy winter paths – shivers, tingling faces and a chill wind blowing around the ears.

What does this changeable environment mean?

Being cold reminds me that I am alive.

Today I was in Ottawa, walking along the Mooney’s Bay, late in the evening, feeling the wind penetrate first my coat, then my sweater and finally my shirt, before enveloping my skin, lowering my body temperature.

I looked across the bay and saw sparkling lights strewn across the inky black water, large stars against a black night. The lights danced and bobbed with the wavelets and in the cadence of the cars that passed, obscuring them for a fleeting second, and then letting them wink back into electric flame.

Every day, we see things. Scenes that seem so mundane and boring — the landscapes of the everyday, framed against the sounds and fury of the roads, people’s cries and the general hubbub of the city. We know it so well that it becomes the beat of our lives and eventually goes silent.

What do we replace the noise and sights of the fascinating world around us with, once we no longer notice them?

I think that the answer is that we can never stop noticing them – for it is in this quiet awareness of the world that we draw our own identity. Not only in the rough-hewn categories of sociological or cultural identity, but in the identity that comes of how we appreciate the symphony and counterpoint of the world’s music, urban and rural; in the identity that comes of seeing the forest and its flowers and the light penetrating in beams of light through the branches. In the crackle of snow and ice under our boots as we walk. In the peels of laughter of others reacting to a good joke or a funny situation.

That is the music of life and its visual arts, its tapestries. Our ability to notice and translate what we see and hear is our identity. Our ability to draw inspiration from it is the source of our creativity and, really, our humanity.

 

On illness, loss and identity

We begin life fresh and surprised at the sensory assault of even the limited confines of the birthing room.

After that initiation into chaos, followed by the first reassuring embrace from our mother, we linger through the slow days of childhood, looking forward with anticipation to our adult years, which we think may signal freedom and independence.

The slow pace of childhood accelerates in our twenties, when we spend much of our time in the world of things thought but unsaid, feelings felt but not exclaimed – often for fear of the shame of rebuke and rejection.

How wrong we were to be so hesitant, we think, as time torques and we are slingshot through our thirties and into our forties, and we réalise that indeed, there was nothing to be afraid of. That others would have welcomed the expression of our candid thoughts, rather than be confined to the lonely towers of our mutual fear of the world.

Alas, this period is often triggered by illness and loss. First the loss of beloved family members, then of mentors and then, perhaps most unnerving, of peers and friends and colleagues.

Sometimes the loss is one of disappearance, sometimes it is of mental ability, other times it is simply debilitating illness that takes away the rhythms and cadence of the life we knew with that person. In any of these, the loss is sad and sometimes shocking, for it makes us  meditate on our mortality and life’s fragility.

When we watch a friend endure a physical trial, struggling to keep strong mind dominant over a weakened body, we are reminded that our strength shouldn’t be reserved for those epic struggles against the force which pulls us toward the night, but rather that strength should be expressed in the moment in every day. Strength should not be epic, rather it should be a force that, deployed in noble and honourable causes makes for a better, more predictable and secure world for us and those around us.

You see, I have had an epiphany amidst the confusion of the losses I have experienced in the last ttwo years.

And it is simple.

Strength comes not of struggling against others or an idea. Indeed, that is weakness and, in fact, a waste of precious time. Rather, strength comes of working for an ideal. It comes of cherishing the lives of those around us, even those with whom we disagree, and working toward making the case for a better world.

I think that when we adopt the idea of recognizing the vulnerability and fragility of those people who disagree with us, then fear and resentment fade. We can love earnestly and with care. We can put thoughts of control and power behind us.. those thoughts which form  an iron cage for our minds and hearts.

The beauty of this is that we are aware of the glorious light of discovery and surprised at the comfort of the caring love of another when we first come into the world. This is indeed a gentle irony to contemplate as we rediscover ease in the midsummer of our lives.

So younger readers, I entreat you to relax your fear of reprisal and express your care for those around you in earnest trust. Youth is a fleeting treasure, like a sun beam across the snow on a grey day in February … a thing to be enjoyed and acted upon.

For those of you closer to my age, may I suggest that you reject fear and insecurity as well as the structures we have put into place in our lives that seems powerful, but now only serve as iron cages of anxiety, stress and fear.

Open this golden door before you are jolted into this realisation by illness and loss.

My faith in humanity is renewed

Last Friday I did an intensely stupid thing and left my wallet on he GO bus from Pearson Airport in Toronto to Hamilton. Wow I felt so dumb and hapless.

I spent the weekend worrying about all the applications I would have to fill out to replace all the cards in the wallet. Plus, it was one of those expensive securid wallets which was a gift and which I really liked.

Well, i got a call from GO Lost and Found today that someone had turned in my wallet… completely intact with everything in it… cards, cash money, Starbucks gold car and presto cards (both of which are basically like cash).

I was so relieved!

Thank God for the person who found my card and turned it in without taking anything.

People like that Good Samaritan make me have faith in the future!

Beauty of the moment.

I walked past a homeless man today in Hamilton, who stopped me and told me a story.

He was old, smelled of cigarettes and looked as though he may spent a little too much time indulging in the juice and maybe even some smack. His eyes were grey and vacant, ringed like an ancient tree that had been struck by lightening and cracked open and fallen over, its history laid out under the clouds and in the mist and the vapoury sunlight. His eyes were misty.

I am ashamed to say I tend to walk past — no sadly I would say walk through — people like this on my journey to somewhere important. Too bad I can’t remember any of the destinations. Just the forgetting of the people I passed along the way to them. Anyhow this man’s foggy grey eyes caught me and held me and I listened to him go on for a minute or five or something.

“I wasn’t always a hobo, man,” and he looked at me penetratingly, I couldn’t look away even though I felt he was a little crazy and I didn’t know what to do with that, so I just looked and listened. “Oh yeah. I lived in BC and saw orcas and helped carve totem poles. I walked along the Bow River in Calgary and delivered newspapers. I even lived in Montreal as a bouncer in a club. I’ve had a life.”

“I imagine,” I said, a little nauseated at the triteness of my words. “Sounds like you’ve seen some country.”

“That don’t count for nothing, man. Seeing country is nothing. I made friends with people, I connected. Not no one can take that from me. I got nothing here but I got memories and sadness and a lifetime of things I seen and people who remember me. I got wealth man. I got wealth.”

And then he walked off, teetering on his can, bringing his alcoholism and his need of a bath to another location. But he made me think.

What makes him lesser than another? Is it achievement? His mind and his life were full of experiences– he had touched the lives of hundreds as he zig zagged across our country, a hobo or whatever. In the end, his eyes were full of the joys and pains and loves and resentments and sadnesses and contentments of a life.

And that’s the kicker, friends – life. We only have one. Whether we spend it conventionally or whether we wander, stinky and forlorn, we have life. And life is beautiful. It is unique and rhythmic with sleep and sunset and sunrise and misty mornings and the glory of God’s great creation. An orchestra of sound and light and colour and smells and … life.

That’s why we have to take care of each other and believe in one another. Believe for those who have lost heart and believe for those who never did. We can get to a better place.

The homeless dude had a life. It is precious and serious and important. When we finally see that , a whole world possibility will open before us.

I can just feel it.

Digital and physical life?!

So I was thinking about social media and social networking and how difficult it is to get a handle on the different ways people understand them. It’s a big mashup of old school and personality and metrics that don’t mean anything and bots and fake news and broadcasters and networkers.

What’s a social media strategist to do?

First, it’s important to stop thinking media necessarily ne start thinking network. Think neuron. Don’t think laser. If you want to get electrical about it.

Next think aloneness and blinking screens that make you feel anxious but sort of reassured when they’re on because they give the illusion of voice when actually your sitting silently tapping on glass.

Then think consumerism because sitting quietly is boring and disconcerting and when you shop at least it feels like you’ve taken an action and moved in the misty digital ether.

But then you feel poorer and stupid for spending money and you know that you’ll just add that news pair of sneakers or useless kitchen implement to the pile of stuff you never use but feel guilty for owning when you hear about refugees or the working poor.

At the base of this dilemma for the social marketer is the difference between representation and reality and where the two mix and don’t.

So… digitally everything is representation but in the physical world everything is action. A digital action is just a representation of an action so it feels hollow and unsatisfactory and lifeless and fake. I feel that’s what make us do outrageous things online that we wouldn’t in the real physical world. The digital is the expression of our mind actions whereas the the physical is about how it feels intense when you stub your toe.

Social media communications and marketing success comes when you can somehow make the representation taitkmal digital world and the physica action world cohere together.

Good luck!

I don’t like flying

There is something strange about taking a commuter flight. Just as when you are a child you get used to going into a rolling box which takes you somewhere fast, you can get used to a claustrophobic tube with two giant seething jet engines balanced on either side of it slipping through the air like a fat unwieldy arrow. 

For me, air travel is decided unpleasant and full of annoyances, but it is an efficient way of getting from point A to point B. I have to say that it holds no romance or excitement for me, rather the whole experience from airport to flight to airport is just unpleasant.
I have also had many a white knuckle, stomach-churning turbulence experience as the plane hit air pockets, dropping a few hundred feet at a go or a storm where a phantasmagorical light show outside reminded me not only of my mortality but of the bright lights of the afterlife. Storms in flight are all a little too real for me.

Now, I am grateful for the ability to travel through the air and get where I need to go quickly. I also feel for the long-suffering flight staff who have to deal with sick grumpy people all the time and who seem perpetually exhausted. 

It really is amazing how something as unnatural as flying can become a commonplace, though. I sometimes imagine my ancestors who would probably look sceptically at these precarious tubes in the ether and wonder at the fact that humans have taken some aspects of birds and taken flight.

In the end I avoid flying as much as humanly possible because I loathe the experience but I appreciate its efficiency and the kindness of the flight attendants who do their best to make the best of an uncomfortable, unnatural circumstance.

Alternative facts, social media bubbles, assortative mating/friendships and diversity

We all like to think we have a handle on what’s real — it’s natural.

However, with the pervasive nature of opinion media broadcasting 24/7 on television and now on the internet, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the situation. This is compounded by the echo chambers of our social media bubbles and our assortative friendships as well as assortative mating.

What this all means is that we are getting a lot of positive reinforcement from people who agree with us. So it all feels right — our opinions, our choices, our behaviours are all reinforced by friends and family and followers who tell us, very earnestly that you should “be yourself” because “you can’t be anyone else”.

It’s too bad that what this really means is: “Be like us, conform to our little bubble’s social, moral and ethical norms. We’re with you, let those who challenge you — the unenlightened or the profane — be silent.”

After all, you can unfriend those nagging voices who question your beliefs, challenge your morality and your ethics or criticize your choices. You can cut them out because they make you feel something psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the fact that we can’t hold two opposing propositions in our minds at once. It’s actually painful — if you believe someone is a good person and then you get evidence that they are a liar or a cheater, it is easier to dismiss the new facts because they make you feel uncomfortable.

Before social media, assortative mating and friendships, safe spaces in universities, etc. we were often confronted with opposing views and had to argue them out before arriving at a decision.

Now, the process has changed… when we feel an impulse to do something: take a political position, make a life choice, buy something, etc. we tend to go our affirming group to have our decision positively reinforced. If people disagree, then our affirming group labels them as outsiders and often as questionable morally or ethically. So we dismiss them.

Our new internet bubble and assortative mating/friendship trend have meant that many of us live in a state that used to be reserved for people who join cults or espouse strongly ideological politics. It isn’t good because there are few dissenting voices and more social pressure to conform.

All of this while we all sing the praises of diversity and difference. Too bad we rarely experience it.

Diversity and difference means actually countenancing an opposing view and then using reason to debate, discuss and then either dismiss it or change your own views.

But this implies that there is a discussion happening. I fear that our social media bubbles and assortative mating/friendships have made having that discussion inconvenient or even uncomfortable.

Time to open the debate and burst the bubbles.

Otherwise, alternative facts (from every perspective) will be a fixture in our lives, society and politics going forward.

Glamour oh glamour

Whilst I have spent much of my career as a professional communicator building shimmering images of glamour and desire I have to say that the idea of glamour actually repels me as an idea.

I love the chase of an idea or image, a concept distilled down to its simplest form and then adorned is to me the most powerful way to build a narrative either visual, auditory or in language.

To me that’s the antiglamour really.

Glamour is the narrative turn fed by jealousy and a desire to withhold or hide beauty. It is created through a tantalizing feeling of access to privilege that is really rooted in a lack of access – glamour is dress up, a taunt or the reminder of an absence in your life, be it excitement or power or wealth or control of others. That’s what drives the desire to consume: either to project the taunt “look at me, you can’t have this” or to struggle to own it.

The problem is that while this works, it also makes people unhappy with their lives.

To me the mysteries that work best in communication and fashion aren’t those heavy handed storylines of glamour but rather the suggestive breezes of momentary uplift when we are reminded of the beauty and joy of a simple moment… a deep breath upon stepping outside for the first time after a day in a building, a perfect coffee as the sun kisses your face even on a crisp winter day. The fleeting electric tingle of a brush of your hand by someone you like.

To me the sun and the breeze and the tingle of the cold in my cheek or the split second thrill of light touch are sensations that remind me that I am alive and that life holds so much promise.

That’s real glamour. The rest is vanity, isn’t it?

Language and dimensionality: The movie “Arrival”

I watched the film Arrival last night. It was an interesting exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has two versions:

  • Linguistic Relativity — claims that language shapes and colours our worldview (i.e. if you don’t have a nuanced set of words for different types of snow, you are less likely to see the different varieties unless you focus on noticing).
  • Linguistic Determinism — claims that language determines how we view the world (i.e. if you don’t have a word for green, you can’t see the colour)

Arrival takes the linguistic determinism interpretation with the main character, a linguistics professor named Louise (Amy Adams), actually having a piece of her mind unlocked which allows her to perceive time differently, based on learning the script language of the Heptapods.

Generally, linguists reject the linguistic determinism hypothesis because it seems to contradict the laws of physics — as Steven Pinker put it in his book, The Blank Slate, learning a new language doesn’t rewire the cone cells in your eyes.

However, on a deeper level, I think there may be something to linguistic determinism — call it a mindful or meditative, perhaps even a spiritual level. For example, Buddhist koans and Christian plainsong have been said to induce ecstatic transport, increase focus and alter consciousness. I recognize that this isn’t linguistic determinism proper, but there is a linguistic behaviour here (chanting) at play that seems to have the potential to alter one’s perception of reality.

The fact is that we don’t  understand the brain well enough yet to be able to know how different stimuli and practices come together in the network or palimpsest or whatever configuration of mental representations through which our minds are organized .

Now, these altered states may not be determined through language strictly but through a combination of language, memory, shape, colour, sound and attention… who knows.

The idea of the link between symbols, representation and our consciousness is pretty fascinating and I am happy that Arrival was abe to produced such a nuanced and engrossing experience based on it.

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