Life-Love 94: Moments of Stillness

Ours is truly a world of movement. We race around in our cars, run around our places of work and then go home and surf the web, while chatting away on social media, texting our friends and talking on the phone. There is nary a moment of respite, a moment when we are not turned on, a moment when we granted the licence to discover and rediscover who we are, get acquainted with that person whom we feel has become a long-lost friend: ourselves.

Filling one’s life with noise is dangerous. We feel like we’re buzzing and crackling with energy constantly – our eyes alert. When we look at others, we don’t do so languidly, or with peaceful hearts, but rather with extreme feeling: hunger, anger, frustration, lust. All of these things lead to a reduction of how we perceive the world around us. In fact, they are dehumanizing. When we look at the people in those extreme ways, we end behaving in a “fight or flight” fashion.

We might snap when someone has done something they thought would be helpful to us, but without telling us. A parent, spouse or partner might rearrange the furniture in our home to make the space cozier, or more hospitable. When we see this, rather than appreciating the care and effort that this person has gone to on our behalf, rather than appreciating the thoughtful surprise they were planning, all we see is an intrusion, an attack. We snap back and get angry, and the person who thought that they had done something caring for us feels rebuked and hurt.

Later on, when we feel more settled, we are overcome with remorse and we want to say “I’m sorry, I over-reacted. I realise now that you only meant the best for me.” But the moment has passed and that person has walked away hurt. The relationship will have to heal. This healing will happen, but it isn’t progress, it is just catching up to where we were before the angry moment.

Sometimes, however we can feel a moment of stillness. It can often happen when we are exhausted from some form of physical effort, like gardening, or team sports, or a good workout, when we are sitting quietly, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and feeling the delicious exhaustion that comes of a good day’s work, of achievement.

Many of us can think back to the sweet moments that we have felt in a team bus in the dusky twilight after a day’s exertions at a big tournament where we have done our best and are satisfied and feel close to those team-mates against whose shoulders our heads rest. We watch the clouds and the watercolour reds and violets and ochres of sunset glide by. We feel at peace. Our mind is set to voyaging, through the foggy pathways of memory, to past experiences.

It is in these moments that we become reaquainted with ourselves. Quiet moments. Still moments. Real moments. No buzz. No lights. No stimulation. Just stillness and ourselves. Just our feelings and our memories. Human moments.


Life-Love 93: Principles versus rules

We have been brought up in a culture of bookends and facts. For many of us, growing up or growing older in urban or suburban environments, everything was structured. We watched tv shows on a box that was always the same dimensions, we went to piano or ballet lessons, which lasted exactly thirty minutes or half an hour. We spent time at hockey or soccer practice, all of which was limited to the number of hours booked. When the Internet came along, we started to bookend our relationships, defining them through lists of likes and dislikes, political and philosophical affinities, cultural and identity preferences. Since the Second World War, our lives have grown increasingly structured and orderly.

It seems as though this has brought forth a desire to “know”. We want certainty. Certainty about what we have to learn to pass a professional development or self-improvement course, certainty about getting a job after we finish school, certainty about what is expected from us in a relationship  – and, sadly, what we hope “to gain” from our relationships. Trying to know things leads to a life defined by categories and limits. It’s an objectified life, where we categorize our friends, our loves and our environment. This may be reassuring, but in many ways it isn’t human. It’s a little mechanistic. And it changes our perception of the world from the natural human propensity for mystery, adventure, love and wisdom, to a perception based on facts, things, schedules and rules.

Ah, now that’s the rub, isn’t it – rules. You see, in a subjective world of human experience, it is very difficult to impose rules. Rules constrain and limit human behaviours. They thrive on bookended categories that are well-defined in our personal lives. Rules are hard and fast. Rules are not forgiving. Too bad that human experience is not rule-oriented. In fact, people do their best to get around the rules – it’s almost something you can wear with pride.

In a subjective human world, full of interpretation and mystery, rules are not as effective as principles. The difference, I think, is that principles generate behaviours and perceptions, regardless of the context that you find yourself in. Rules just box you in. Principles put the onus on the perceiver to interpret the world critically and then make a subjective choice that he/she can stand by. People are proud to stand by their principles.

Principles require interpretation, and interpretation requires understanding. Understanding requires dialogue and real, loving, empathic human interactions. Machines can follow rules. Only humans can interpret principles in context.

A world of rules needs to build prisons to punish rule-breakers, whereas a world of principles needs to build schools to form character and cultivate a loving attitude.

Would you rather say you took a principled stand, than say you followed the rules?

Life-Love 92: Rainy days

I just ran in from under the rain – my hair still has beads of waters that roll down like cool surprises onto my ears and cheeks and forehead. I’ve just driven home after an outing at the grocery store, where I picked up a bâtard French loaf, some veggies and a sac of my favourite fruit of the moment: asian pears.

I had a funny rainy-day experience in the grocery store parking lot. My Mercedes-Benz suv has a rear-view camera which is quite useful as I back up, but this time I was surprised, for things seemed closer than normal – the bumper of the car behind me loomed large and my heart leapt into my throat, thinking I was going to back into it! Thankfully, however, I discovered that it was an optical illusion courtesy of the rain, a fact which was confirmed when I snapped my head up and back to look out the rear window of the truck. I was relieved to understand that the heavy drops falling from the skirt of the car were acting as a magnifying lens for the camera.

Rain is an opportunity to feel quiet and calm. It gives us an excuse to turn inwards and bundle up – to think about how the world around us is unfurling and what our place is in it. This is best accomplished over a cup of tea, I think – my favourite is lemon green tea – and in a great, cozy winged armchair. Nature’s colours are livelier when perceived through the misty lens of a rainy day. The greens are more vivid, and houses lose their sharp edges, the bricks becoming softer and more rounded. Even hard built structures feel organic and natural in the rain. This makes everything seem a little less definitive, a little more malleable and approachable.

When the rain abates and the sheets of water become a gentle drizzle, it’s a pleasure to walk to the mailbox and feel the each tiny droplet land on the nape of your neck or the back of your hand, tiny jolts of cool against the warmth of your hand. It makes you realise that you are alive, that your body is warm, that you’d rather be dry and near a fire that’s chasing the damp out of the room.

Rainy days are made for thinking and remembering, writing letters to friends or journal entries. They are nature’s way of slowing us down and making us think. That’s a beautiful thing.

Life-Love 91: Transport through memory over calvados

I went out for dinner tonight at a place in Hamilton, Ontario, where I live, called Le Parisien. It was a lovely evening with several of my dearest friends. We spoke of books and fashion, politics and philosophy, food and pop culture and were served by an elegant, tall thin man with an arch manner and a sense of moment. We started with oysters and chablis, then moved on to a Bordeaux merlot and lamb shanks.

It was a lovely evening of discussion and commentary, peppered with the friendly recounting of the weeks events and the necessary commiserations over hard-fought defeats, and well-earned victories. We spoke of what motivates us – a desire to learn more about the world; to feel its beauty more acutely than we already do; to not succumb to the easy utilitarianism that beckons in the speech of so many cynics – those who have lost faith in the beauty of the world, its truth and perhaps, its ultimate justice.

No, at our table, romance was well alive – the crystal call of a storoes of love, brotherhood or friendly solidarity animated our conversation, driving us toward topics which lay ever closer to our hearts, those places where it is difficult to avoid revealing who you really are, and what you really care about.

There was a special moment during dinner, for me though.For even though I was among friends, I found myself longing for the sunny shores of my memories and my imagination.

There was a moment, amidst the clatter of plates and glasses, silverware and wine bottles, that I felt a pang for a world that I haven’t known. I have not known the caress of a wife’s arms, and I have not known the cry of a child’s voice calling for me as father. I have not felt the many joys – tinted with pains, of course, I am not a fantasist – of the bond between two hearts and bodies that have been joined though experience, and passion and desire.

The moment when I felt this most specifically was when I took into my hands the great tumbler of calvados that I had ordered. It was hot, and my fingers recoiled slightly as I first wrapped them around the glass; glass which I expected to be cool and reflective, but which was shockingly hot and sent a jolt through fingers up my arm and into my mind. A jolt which moved my mind away from the present, my melancholy at not sharing my life with a kindred spirit. A jolt which grasped my mind and sent it hurtling back in time, the years a blur as I breathed in deeply of the stringent aroma of the calvados, bobbing and weaving along the great raging current of my memories of the past, submerging me under the liquid fire of past experiences, both good and bad, until I emerged in an eddy of memory, the calm and reflective pool which was my destination.

I remembered being twelve year old, and picking apples with my mother and father. This was several years since the tragedy of my brother’s death, which still coloured and shaped many of my emotional experiences of being with my parents. I worried constantly that all would end suddenly, that either they or I would be taken, and the survivor remain, forlorn alone and helpless on the wretched earth. But this was not to be that fateful day. This was a golden day of joy. A day of walking between rows of apples trees, heavily laden with fruit, under a blue sky which seemed so deep, so pure and yet so soft. Fluffy clouds glided across the cyan canvass and I watched them, lying on my back, feeling the spiky grass against my naked legs under my khaki shorts, and the moist earth cooling the back of my head as I sank back into the ground, feeling rooted and ancient. I remembered the diesel smell from a tractor growling in the distance, and the warmth of the sun on my face and on my arms as I finally emerged from under the shady coolness under the apple tree.

I ran to catch up to my parents – my mother was worried about me, her face lined and her eyes slits from looking for me between the branches of the trees and calling my name. Finally I did, and she took my hand and we walked, in silence for bit, until she asked me what I had been doing. I told her that I was looking at the clouds and the sky and she smiled and said that it was alright, but I really should not have fallen behind them. We spent the rest of the afternoon picking apples together – my father telling stories and my mother interjecting. It was a happy day.

And so I was brought back to the dinner table, my reverie over, and my focus replaced upon the conversation at hand. But I felt a certain calm, and at the same time, a certain urgency. An urgency to somehow find a place in my busy life for golden sunny afternoons in the orchard, with someone who wants to be there with me, telling stories, holding hands, picking apples, and maybe sharing the day.

As I drove home in the rainy night, I kept the radio off in my Mercedes-Benz. My mind was full of memories and possible futures – all of them unrealised.

Amazing what a warm glass of calvados will trigger after dinner.


Life-Love 90: Reaching out to understand another

It is easy to judge others. Alternatively, it is easy to be a relativist, and not put any demand on anyone, expecting that others will never judge you. Both ways of thinking are reinforced by an education system that privileges talking over learning, knowing over wisdom. The thing is, once you step over the threshold of relativism, you enter into a lonely and selfish world.

Think of it this way: if everything is equally valid, then nothing is meaningful, nothing is special. Worst of all, nothing is true. This is a tragedy, because it takes away that thing which is at once the most challenging part of our lives and the most profoundly human – belief.

Truth is not normative. Truth should not prescribe, because think of the arrogance of that position – it implies that somehow we can know the world or another person. I don’t think we can know others – we can only continually seek to understand them better and welcome them further into our hearts. So, for me, truth is the opposite of normative. Rather, it is something that is born of actions, habits and belief. If we believe profoundly in a possible truth, then our lives become journeys of openness, of seeking out wisdom.

Where does wisdom come from? I think it comes from the loving application of reason to our experiences and the experiences of others. It is easy to hear others when they complain, when they tell us of their sadness or their anxiety and doubt. When we hear these things, we can treat them as objects and classify them away. We can dismiss the worries or fears of others as unimportant, or trumped up, or simply not worthy of consideration. But what an impoverishment of our lives this would be.

Rather, imagine the richness of opening your heart to a suffering friend, life companion or acquaintance. Imagine the floodgate of feeling you can open in another person when you say “I know you have made a mistake. I know that you know it too. But let’s work through this together! Take my hand. I believe in you.” These are healing words. Surprisingly though, they are not about you healing another person. Rather, they are words of mutual growth and mutual emancipation.

For, when you seek to understand another, when you open your heart to them and offer to help shoulder their burden, you become more human. You may lose some productive time, you may miss a favourite tv program or outing, but you will have gained understanding and you will have deepened the waters of your heart and soul. In fact, you will have done one of the greatest things a person can do: you will have shown someone else that they should believe in themselves and other people.

This is a beautiful realisation to have. It’s life changing. In fact, this is one quiet way in which we can change the world, one person at a time, one day at a time.

Life-Love 89: Telling a good story

We are a storytelling society. We love to watch the flickering lights of television open new world to us – exotic places that we have not visited, or people enjoying lifestyles that are not a part of our reality. We listen to and watch the news on social media, getting all of our favourite topics streamed to us conveniently.

There is something that has been forgotten in this world of media, however. That is the art of telling a good, engaging story. Whether you are doing it over a drink, by the fire, or in a written note, spooling out an engaging tale means welcoming someone else into your mind and your heart. It means thinking in terms of the people you’re telling the tale to, imagining them listening to you, reading you, feeling you. It is a wonderful moment of perfect empathy, when you let your heart sing through your words, through your voice. It is a moment to paint pictures with words, to weave a rich tapestry of  images that engage and fascinate the people with whom you are sharing the hidden realms of your innermost moments.

You relive the moments of the stories you tell – time becomes circular and you are brought back to the moment that you lived or was lived by father or mother, or whomever shared their experience with you. In the moment of listening, the people you are sharing with feel time collapsing around them, and they relive the moment of the telling. In fact, storytelling makes time circular, each moment of telling looping back to the moment when you were told the story, and looping back again to the moment that person who told you the story heard it first. It is this way that storytelling links us backwards in a golden chain, with each teller a link, until the first moment of telling, generations ago.

Thus, when you tell a new story, and people fall in love with its characters, its rhythm and cadence, you are shooting an arrow into the future, uncertain of where it will land. For if your story become beloved, it will be told and retold, as a theme and in many variations. And your words, and a piece of your heart will ripple out and your laughter and your words will echo forward through the voices of others. Storytelling, when it is human, may procure for you a certain immortality. It a way that you may be remembered and your thoughts become part of our culture’s DNA.

Truly, ask yourself, who will sing of your name, if you haven’t told anyone the stories that animate your heart and your imagination?

Life-Love 88: Seeking instead of receiving

We are so powerfully inundated with messages through traditional and social media, that we sometimes can be swept away by the flow of words we stand in the middle of. Communication has become like air – something we breathe in and exhale, without noticing that it is keeping us alive. Just as air quality affects our health and well-being, so too does communication. It can shape what we think of who we are, what we want, and what we feel is important.

Life is not exclusively about image or receiving a packaged experience. A large part of life is discovering your point of view on things, your unique take on the world around you. This is tied intimately to noticing, isn’t it? When we are in the habit of receiving experience, we walk in straight lines, our eyes shielded like a blindered horse. We don’t look away from the beaten path. We uncritically accept superficial messages in politics, about the economy and accept relativist moral and ethical perspectives. This is a recipe for shallow, brittle existence.

When you break out of the receiving culture that we are conditioned into, and become a seeker, it is amazing what you can find. The world suddenly takes on hues and sounds that you simply weren’t perceiving before. You notice depth in other people’s feelings and nuance in political or economic proposition that you may have viewed as starkly black and white in the past. Receiving is self-centered. Seeking is other-centered.

I like to go for walks with my father in nature. A few summers ago, we went for a long walk and he did his usual thing of noticing all of the differences on the trail that he could remember from the times before that he had walked it. When I was a teenager, I decided that this was an annoying practice, and I closed the room of my mind that otherwise would have listened to him. I walked our walks with my mind turned inwards – lost in the dream of analysing and obsessing about my life: my relationships, my career prospects, my wants and needs. So the walks could really have been anywhere – that trail or another.

This time was different. I was in a contemplative, quiet mood, and paid attention as he commented and inventoried all of the fallen trees, gurgling brooks, whispering grasses, shrubs, deer rests, and changes in direction of the path. As we walked, I became acutely aware of the trees, how the sunlight filtered through the leaves and illuminated the ground in a evanescent, changing pattern of light and darkness. I felt the loamy earth underneath my shoes and every crackle of a breaking branch or twig as I trod upon it. I felt alive. I felt connected. As the walk continued, I felt my heart open and burden lift from my shoulders and my mind. My shoulders relaxed and my body felt lighter.

I didn’t talk much, and when we stopped in a clearing to sit on a stump in the pale yellow sunlight of a late spring afternoon, to eat our salami sandwiches and sip coffee from our thermos, I realised something. That this is what it means to be alive, to be at peace. This is what it means to seek experience rather than to experience it. My father’s inventory of the lush, hilly forest environment we walked through was a trail of breadcrumbs, each one anchoring an experience on the changing canvass of the natural world.

At one point, my father broke the silence, gruffly remarking on how he liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. That this was one of his favourite sounds. I asked him why. He thought for a long moment, as we chewed our sandwiches. His answer, when it finally came, was simple:

“Because it is the song of my childhood.”

And so these walks were a journey through memory, a journey reconnecting past and present. The story of a life remembered through small things noticed. Through attention and caring to detail. To understanding the present in the context of the past. A past that he remembered, because he took the time to seek out knowledge, experience and feeling – in a reasoned way – of the world around him.

I learned a life lesson that day that I wish I had learned many years before. And to think, it was there all along during those walks. All I had to do was seek it out by listening and noticing it when it fleetingly appeared right in front of me.