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.

Life-Love 87: Discovering suddenly that you care for someone

We spend many hours building walls around our hearts and souls. We protect ourselves by taking an off-handish or blasé attitude towards the relationships we share with our friends, our family, and those we love.

When it comes to people with whom we have more formal relationships, shaped by the structure and propriety demanded by a workplace, a church or a social club, it is easy to let that structure or formality act as a protective wall, separating us from others. There are times, however, when we are forced to confront our feelings, or when feelings that we weren’t sure we had are allowed to express themselves.

The moment of epiphany can come at an unexpected time.

Perhaps it is a moment of parting at the airport, while you’re ensconced in the cool transient feel of the departure lounge while you see a dear friend off. You smile and hug, and you feel her skin feather your cheek. Your ear brushes her ear, and you feel their shoulders, thin and delicate in the crux of your embrace.

At that moment, something clicks in your mind and you comes alive. You feel a surge of feeling and a rush of warmth ripples up the nape of your neck. You feel electricity spark across your cheek. Your eyes dilate momentarily. Your loose embrace breaks up and she impishly says goodbye, perhaps with a wave, as she walks up to the gate. You watch her hair bob up and down slightly as she walks, and then you see a final flash of her eyes, as she turns her head to smile at you before disappearing through the customs gate.

You’re thunderstruck, although you remain standing quietly, no visible difference in your demeanour for the people rushing around you – the kids bouncing off their parents, the elderly woman waiting patiently by her walker for her daughter who has run to the washroom for a moment.

To them, you are unchanged – an impeccably dressed man with a fancy haircut, slim in your pea coat, your sunglasses balanced over your forehead. But they are wrong. They do not feel what you feel. For, at that precise moment, somewhere between the brush of her ear against yours and her last warm smile – flashed in a rearward glance – something has changed in your heart.

Suddenly you’re filled with wistfulness, longing for moments that hadn’t happened between you, your mind empty because your heart is full of the sorrow at the thought that she might find someone during her journeys, that she may come back changed, that this feeling may not be reciprocal.

You don’t know how long you stand there – it may be minutes or an hour.

Finally you jolt back into reality, and start to walk back to your car, your mind in a haze, your walk like a dream. You realise that you’ve been given something precious by your friend, whether or not it is reciprocal, whether or not you will ever communicate it to her, whether or not you or she will ever act on it.

You realise that you should be glad to feel the wrenching emotion in your heart, and as you walk in the dusky sunlight to your car, you realise you are lucky. You are lucky to have shared moments with her, known her. For she has given you a great treasure. She has given you the gift of love.

Life-Love 86: Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a hopeful day. A change of pace from the world we have built.

We spend so many of our days pursuing things that really do not matter. We fill our minds with material goals, with dreams of status and reputation. We consume life as it is presented to us, day by day, eating it and eating ourselves. We’ve grown very good at turning people into ideas: through psychoanalysis, through economics, through television. Social media has even converted our identities as people into symbols, our relationships into public relations exercises. Even as we gain more and more awareness of what our friends are doing, we feels the human bonds that link us to them grow more brittle and, as a result, our lives are diminished. Even our feast days have become festivals of consumption – Christmas is about presents, Easter about bunnies and eggs, New Years about unsteady debauchery in face of an uncertain future.

On Mother’s Day, however, we are invited to slow down. To remember.

Our relationships with our mothers, whether we are men or women, are complicated and often fraught. On Mother’s Day we celebrate the sacrifices and generous love that our mothers have given us, but we also think – often against our the wishes of of brittle ego – back over the one real relationship that we could never escape from or diminish through media and materialism.

This thinking back can be an unsettling thing. That’s because it is human and somewhat uncontrollable. Just as falling in love with someone is a complicated blend of biology, emotion, experience and reason, so too is our relationship with our mother. We remember the times we were angered by her, or displeased at something she imposed on us because she thought it was best. We blush privately at the memory of our moments of rebellion, how we struck out at her, perhaps cruelly, in an effort to define ourselves. It hurts to think that we were striking out at the one person with whom we have a full and complete connection – a relationship bound by the unbroken golden braid of our birth, our lives and our love.

So, Mother’s Day is a good day. It is a day to remember that we are human. That we come from a human who bore us for 9 months and then suffered terrible pain and relief at our delivery into the world. We remember that this is something we share with all other humans. Everyone has a mother. Everyone started wailing and helpless, comforted by the warmth of the body, breath and arms of the woman who begat us.

Maybe Mother’s Day can be a guide back to becoming more human.


Life-Love 85: Political Participation

We are fortunate to participate in a democracy. In fact, it is a privilege to inherit the reigns to a political system built upon freedoms won by the toil, sacrifice and loss of our ancestors and predecessors. We owe those who sacrificed their lives, the men and women who left their homes during two World Wars to fight and die in filthy trenches, in fact we owe all those who gave up a portion of their peace of mind by witnessing ordinary humans committing extraordinary horrors against one another in the name of competing ideas. Those people sacrificed lives, limbs and minds to safeguard our freedom.

Political participation is also something we owe to those who have organised civil rights movements – passionate Canadians who fought to close the residential schools that were destroying the families and cultures of our First Nations brothers and sisters; quiet heroes who fought a quiet revolution to secure the emancipation French Canadians from a parochial system of prejudice and oppression that kept them from achieving their potential; everyday heroes who sit quietly in their homes, go to work and perform the duties that keep our economy running to make our society more prosperous; and of course we owe those quiet martyrs who feel low now, whose hearts have been broken because of alienation, exclusion, rejection or pain. All of these people make up our democracy – not one is better than another, not one is worth more. All are humans, citizens and equal before the law.

To participate politically is to do honour to our brothers and sisters – a family that stretches across Canada, and extends through family connection to almost every country of the world. These connections are visceral. They are human. They are real – made up of the hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, toils and travails lived by the people around us, the people who have preceded us, and the people who will follow us.

Politics are the expression of these relationships. Politics are a condensed encyclopedia of all the parts of being human. Potential, power, love, success, failure and, of course, second chances. When you opt into politics, at whatever level you choose to, you become a part of our country’s song. Your life, your story, becomes a melody coursing through the music of our collective history and our future.

When done in good faith and with good will, politics becomes the expression of what we can be, a debate between various glorious futures that are put to the test of  public controversy. When done with wisdom and with a loving consideration of the experience and value of those around us, our politics can lead us to places we could never have imagined as individuals.

That is why I love political participation. Because I believe in a brighter future. Because I have seen what can be achieved when we trust one another and strive – side by side, hand in hand – for a more perfect society.


Life-Love 84: A good spring cleaning is a good feeling

I have always found starting a big writing project to be easier if I have given my house a thorough cleaning. Somehow, the idea of my house being dusty and cluttered makes my brain’s machinery turn more slowly or even creak to a halt.

So whenever I embark on a new project, I literally clean house. I scrub the washrooms, the kitchen and the entrance. I vacuum my carpets and dust my piano. If I really have to do a huge project, I will actually organise my closets and my various drawers.

The days of cleaning end with me bringing two or three or five garbage bags of stuff to be picked up and at least that many bags of shredded paper: old envelopes, ads that I never threw away, junk mail that I put away to be examined later! It all goes.

The cleaning process is often a trip down memory lane! I examine papers from my Church where I am a lector during mass, I read old pieces of mail and scan bills that I paid a long time ago but never quite got around to filing. I finger through programs from the operas, gala parties, political and nonprofit fundraisers, art openings, and McMaster functions; remembering fondly those events and how much I enjoyed each of them and the people I met, the friends I made each time.

I think about purchases I made, and the place I was in when I made them – mentally and physically. I consider all of my purchases carefully, so I can usually situate where I was and what I was thinking for each. Most of them are tied to a moment of enthusiasm on my part.

I pack old clothes that I am finished with into bags that I will leave for the diabetes or arthritis societies. It always feels good to send quality apparel that is still in good shape on to another person. To think that they will be worn and enjoyed by someone else, perhaps as a pleasant surprise.

After the house is clean – it usually takes me a week – I walk around and enjoy the fruits of my labour: the order, the fresh scent of cleaning products, the open floor and shelf space that was once cluttered.

As I survey the house, I feel the logjam in my mind loosening and breaking up – and I feel creativity and motivation flood into my imagination in rushing, plunging torrents.

I know this means I will be doing something creative and purposeful. It’s a good feeling.

Life-Love 83: Listening to a good story

Stories are at the heart of our experience as humans. We love to live vicariously through the tales told by the people we know: our friends, family and even strangers whom we meet at a friendly pub or our favourite café.

There is something unique and special about hearing a story told by someone in a live human voice – we like sitting around a table, or in an armchair, and following the threads of the plots as the teller takes us on a journey, an adventure. We see the world through the storyteller’s eyes. Sometimes, if the teller is really good, we relive the actions through his or her gestures, we bob our heads in sympathy as he ducks to act out a chase scene that he’s telling us, or our eyes follow hers as she looks up to the sky in wonderment at an amazing scene that she’s telling us about that’s happening above our heads, in the distance. We pay close attention as the teller’s eyes widen in surprise as he narrates a part of the story where he’s crossing a street and he’s stunned as he hears the growl of an oncoming vehicle and is mesmerised by the car’s headlights as it advances on him, immobilizing him for a split second, before he snaps out of it and runs like mad to get the safety of the side walk.

We relive the lives of others through their stories. Stories help us relax. Listening to them builds up our powers of empathy, makes us more human. We need to take some time to hear someone out, to let them spin out the threads of their yarn. This means pausing from our daily race, allowing ourselves a reprieve from the frantic busy feelings that sometimes overwhelm us. When we listen to some tell a good story, when we get lost in the details and don’t see time go by, we are excused from the frenzy created by digital media, pop music and newsculture.

The most amazing thing is that listening to someone tell a good story isn’t an escape. Rather, it means participating in the real life of another. It’s real because it is a real person acting out a scene with words and gestures, and voice and facial expression. It means sharing a part of the teller’s imagination and that means sharing a part of that person’s experience, a part of their life.

While consuming media may be a more passive experience, listening to someone tell a good story is part of being human. Maybe that’s why we relax so much when it happens.


Life-Love 82: Freeing yourself from worry

We all worry about things an awful lot. We think about being single, being in difficult relationships, improving our conditions at work. We worry about our friends, and their relationships and worries. Sometimes we worry so much that we start to feel a weight upon our shoulders, a weight that pushes down upon us and makes us feel sluggish and anxious. We eat too much, we watch too much television – in the end we make the escape from worry the focus of our lives, and our lives become episode after episode of running away.

The question we have to ask ourselves is what are we running away from? So many of our worries don’t exist. They are projected upon us by our friends or family – we may be worrying about a relationship that we’re in: why don’t people approve? why is it that I am happy but others think I could do better? We may be worrying about our appearance: I feel comfortable and easy with myself when I’m alone: why do people criticise me? Too skinny? Too fat? I can’t win. We may be worrying about our lifestyle – perhaps we work very hard and like to spend downtime by lying in for whole mornings or taking incredibly long baths: why are you sleeping in? why don’t you work around the house more?

The fact is that these criticisms and these pressures aren’t real. They are the result of others attributing intentions and motivations to us based on their own personal experiences. We have all experienced the freedom that comes of one day feeling the burden slide off our shoulders. It often happens in a flash – we’re in a park, perhaps sitting on a bench, on a cool day under a blue sky in a foreign city. We might be on a business trip or vacation but stolen away for an afternoon on our own – we might have a coffee and are sitting on the bench and we suddenly feel the world around us. We run our hand across the rounded, rough planks of the bench, feathering the grooves and flaking paint with our finger tips, absent-mindedly feeling the the reality of our surroundings. We’re in the park but a million miles away at the same time – and the voices of couples chatting near us, families discussing a map or giggling teenage girls seem faraway, but still park of the soundscape of the little drama going around us. Slowly, our muscles relax – the breeze feels so real as it brushes leaves that scrape and rattle by and pushed tufts of fluff past our cheek, tickling us. We feel our breathing. We hear our heartbeat. And in what seems like a few minutes, we feel our muscles relax and we feels as though we are part of the bench – part of the scene, as though someone has painted us and the moment is immortal, even though we are living it so acutely.

We feel alive, we feel real. We feel as though our worries aren’t so real, that those worries are far away.

And they are. It’s amazing.

When we get up and look at our watch, we realise that hours have gone by and as we walk back into the reality of our lives, we feels lighter, our mind and soul and body is vibrating. We’ve crossed a mental threshold and we have let go.

Amazingly, the feeling lasts. We tasted freedom now. We realise it’s possible. We don’t want to let it go.