Saturday, November 10, 2007

Yo vengo a ofrecer mi corazon

Written for Mercedes Sosa by Fito Paez

Who says that everything is lost?
I come to offer my heart.

So much blood that the river took with it,
I come to offer my heart.
It will not be easy,
I don't know what is happening
It will not be as simple as I
thought it will be
How can I open my chest and
take out my soul?
A slash of love.

Cradle of the poor always open,
I come to offer my heart.

I will join the ends of the same
loop, And I will leave in peace,
I will go slowly,
And I will leave in peace,
I will go slowly,
And I will give everything I have,
and, you will give me something,
Something that will help me a little bit.

When there is no one close or far,
I come to offer my heart
When the satellites can't reach,
I come to offer my heart.

I talk about countries and hopes,
I talk about life, talk about
nothing, talk about changing our
home, of changing it for simply
changing it.
When there is no one close or far,
I come to offer my heart
When the satellites can't reach, I come to offer my heart.
I talk about countries and hopes,
I talk about life, talk about
nothing, talk about changing our
home, of changing it for simply changing it.

Who says that everything is lost?
I come to offer my heart.
It will not be easy,
I don't know what is happening
It will not be as simple as I
thought it will be
How can I open my chest and take out my soul?
A slash of love.

Cradle of the poor always open,
I come to offer my heart.

Like an untouched document
I come to offer my heart

I will join the ends of the same loop,
And I will leave in peace, I will go slowly,
And I will give everything I have,
and, you will give me something,
Something that will help me a little bit.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Chemical Valley

Michael, my assistant designer arrived at work today complaining about a lingering a sinus cold. In the month that follows he will visit two doctors and willfully surrender to their prescribed remedies of antihistamines and antibiotics. His right eye will begin to protrude and his headaches will become more frequent and more severe. On a weekend of unbearable pain, he will go to emergency at Mt. Sinai Hospital where an MRI reveals a tumor the size of a golf ball between his eye and his brain.

My suspicions lead me to his hometown, Sarnia, which is situated in an area called Chemical Valley. Forty percent of the chemical companies in Canada are in “the valley”. Last month a report was released called Exposing Chemical Valley - An investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution in the Sarnia, Ontario Area. The executive summary reads as follows "What is particularly striking about the air pollution in the Sarnia area is the amount of toxic pollutants released. In 2005, the NPRI facilities in the Sarnia area emitted 5.7 million kilograms of “Toxic Air Pollutants,” including numerous chemicals associated with reproductive and developmental disorders and cancer among humans. These toxic air emissions are more than the NPRI releases from the entire provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick or Saskatchewan and greater than any other community in Ontario."

Michael will begin to bleed from his nose from time to time. This spontaneous hemorrhagic condition though innocent and non-threatening in appearance can be terminal if it is not dealt with immediately. The emergency operation will require one surgeon to extricate the tumor and another to reattach the front of his skull. The hope is to remove the entire tumor with this radical procedure. Michael will survive the operation because of his good physical health. The tumor is removed successfully. On Michael's insistence, his father will call me after the nine-hour ordeal. The conversation is a struggle for Michael's father as he stoically describes the trauma engulfing his family and his only son.

There is over fifty years of environmental chemo-enhancement in the Sarnia area. There is a dearth results on the damage being done to the ecosystem on the part of American and Canadian environment-related government services. The journalists have done their part over the years, triggered by mysterious floating blobs the “size of a basketball court” in Lake Ontario, the unusually high frequency of chronic symptoms in the aboriginal community and the continuing empirical evidence of damage to Sarnia’s air, water and the health of its community. The citizens have repeatedly organized their protest to draw attention to the anomalies that permeate their environment and the community.

In the period before Michael’s radioactive therapy and the administering of 'chemo elixirs’, his cancer will grow back. "I just want my life back,” he says without resentment, just a tired expression on his face. The radiologist warned that he might be blind and deaf on one side due to the proximity of the tumor and the aggressiveness of the therapy, regardless there is no alternative. Miraculously, Michael survives his ordeal of cures - the cutting, the burning and the poisoning - and after a punishing year of interrupted time he will resume his life as a young Toronto designer, all of his senses intact.

Could this intrusion on Michael's life have been prevented? Probably not. However, it appears the elected officials in Sarnia and the citizens of Sarnia themselves have made disastrous trade-offs alongside the companies that fuelled their local economy. Clearly the perpetrators are the chemical companies, but surely those with the power to protect the community and the citizens whose responsibility it is to help each other are complicit. Sound action was undermined by denial, short-term agendas and procrastination at great human expense. Decades of collective compromise, perhaps democracy at its worst, has proven to be a flawed strategy deferring the real battle for others to fight from hospital beds.

Today in the studio, long before the diagnosis, I pass an article to Michael on an abandoned fiberglass factory in Chemical Valley. He recalls, “Hey, I used to skateboard in that building.”

Friday, September 21, 2007

the shroud

Sri Sri on Park Lane

My first thought was, this is unusually early for me. I quickly revised my assessment to, this is much more unusual than it is early. Finally I refined my thought to, it is too early to be this unusual. I don’t often gather with forty others in the living room of an opulent house owned by someone I have never met to sit patiently for the arrival of someone who has been compared to Ghandi.

The house in the Bridlepath welcomes you with a circular driveway leading right up to a modern translucent plate glass front door bordered by gardens and fountains. The modern architecture was straining not to be kitsch but the eye is more forgiving when the scale and the signs of abundance are of this magnitude. The plate glass surround in the foyer and the light coloured marble floor provide an uncluttered roomscape for the antique vases and the Chinese antique art. Though not over dressed, there were messages of wealth everywhere. As I mentioned this is not my normal circumstance and I found myself to be comfortable and not entirely at ease.

The living room seating, all perfectly spaced and arranged in a gentle curve is facing one larger place of honour, empty and silent in front of massive windows facing a lush garden that obscures most of the tennis court in behind. At the foot of the chair lies a beautiful silk carpet with subtle intricacies in design and colour I have never seen before. Light and space seem to keep the atmosphere fresh even as the room fills with unfamiliar faces. They are all dressed for an evening dinner at this early breakfast gathering. A video on the work of the Art of Living Foundation was playing on a large wide screened TV. The sight of technology seemed to scratch the patina of the tranquil setting.

The Consul General of India, a soft-spoken man, apologized for the delay of our distinguished guest. He spoke of him with great reverence as he explained the reason and he was careful not to disrupt the calm. This would not be the first apology he would have to make because the delay was much longer than anyone had anticipated.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar enters a room as if he is walking down a sidewalk, without formality or pretense. His white native dress appears especially exotic and culturally rich, milky white and flowing with accents of gold outlines. His face is warm and endearing against the backdrop of the glass and marble and his voice is not deep and soft, it is light and warm. His palms are pressed together as if in prayer as he acknowledges each of us. His first instruction is a series of simple stress reduction exercises followed by a lesson in breathing and meditation. It is difficult surrendering to the moment entirely because I am very conscious of how absurd this group would appear to an uninitiated onlooker. Flashes of the Buddah of Suburbia went through my mind, kureishi, bowie, the neighbourhoods of the lost and found. Soon I was able to appreciate my awareness of myself, alone and the other didn't matter.

I had occasion to meet Deepak Chopra along with another group of business people for a small dinner. Sri Sri and Chopra are not so dissimilar although their ideas and their approaches are distinctly different. The thing that makes them credible individuals to skeptics like myself is their complete respect for the free will of others. Unlike politicians, educators, business relationships and all of their respective institutions, there is no agenda other than to inform you. Both of them gently offer a proposition, you are left to choose freely to accept or refuse and the outcome is entirely your responsibility alone.

So here I sit in front of another, a man who is an advocate of what it is to be child-like. His expertise appears to be in the two things all of us do too little of, stopping and reflecting. His meditation is stopping, not focussing, not turning off, just stopping in order to temporarily let go of the entanglements between the mind, the intellect, the ego and the soul. The advantage to his dialogue is derived simply from having spent time reflecting. Comparatively and in contrast our behaviour is largely either imitative or automatic or both, habitual responses to common or familiar situations with very little serious reflection if any at all. Surprises are few and the probability of an epiphany is zero.

I asked Sri Sri a question that has been top of mind for me lately, "In business, in our relationships with nature and each other there is something that seems quite pervasive these days and that is denial. Denial seems to stand between such things as the willingness to act and an action." In response he made the observation that we tend to doubt good news, that is, when someone says, "What a great hat you have!" the response is "Do you really think so?" whereas if it is a remark about a bad thing we tend to doubt it less and accept more readily. Conversely, if someone says, "What a terrible hat you have!" the other's response is not "Do you really think so?" Instead we are instantly self-conscious and in doubt about the choice of hat we made. The lesson he proposes is that fear and insecurity cause us to doubt the good. In light of the question I asked his point seemed rather indirect to me. Secondly, I believe our fear and insecurity can cause us to doubt anything.

I had to leave the event early and I missed what appeared to be a grand and glamourous breakfast. Sri Sri responded to my expression of thanks the same way he did when we greeted him, with his hands in prayer position and an acknowledging bow. My experience was short but in my mind I had travelled without leaving home. It was a peaceful trip, suspended time. I was disoriented as I re-entered the world of traffic, meetings and complexity.

No.7 Mangoes

It is seldom you meet someone who knows the history of his or her own country well. This was one of those occasions. As we talked and he revealed his homeland, I asked about the main industry in the city of his birth with the naïve view that this information would suggest why it existed two hundred miles west of Lahore. His response was mangoes, the best mangoes in the world. He described the over-sized golden fruit with pride and adoration, informing me of the greatest attributes of the fruit itself, its comparative quality on a world scale and the reason for their relatively high price in Toronto’s Gerrard East Pakistani markets, and finally he punctuated his monologue on mangoes with a description of its most treasured quality, “Sweeeeeeeeeet” he sang with a joyous smile and his hand raised in praise. He instantly segued to the same analysis on the merits of tangerines. Finally, I was compelled to ask, “Is your family in farming?”

History in general is regarded as the sister of other things – the history of philosophy, the history of literature, etc. - merely performing an archival role on behalf of the proposed heart of the matter. On my spontaneous prompt about farming and with the mere suggestion that the farming might be of historical relevance in his family he launched into his own analysis of time.

History to this cab driver is as it should be, a chronicle of transformation, a sequence of events provoked by powerful characters, each with their own dispositions and motives, and a record of the migration of people, religion and souls. He spoke of the movement of the Aryan people, the changing character of the rulers of his country, the impact of the Mongols and the ruthlessness of their practices, the development of his Islamic sect, the Amhaddiyat, the uniqueness if his belief, the persecution of his sect to the present day and the repopulating of his people in different parts of the world, the diaspora.

I asked him what his family does in his country to which he replied, “We’re farmers. We have been farmers for thousands of years.”

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The red tea box 2002

I remember carrying an idea around for two weeks before I knew how to approach it. I needed to know what other people think about. I wanted an opportunity to overcome the fear of having more meaningful conversations with others.

I happen to stumble on a new storefront on Queen Street West called The Red Tea Box. From the outside it appeared tiny and insignificant. I quietly stepped through the front door. I was instantly surrounded by Chinese antiques, a plethora of unique and mysterious teas housed in ancient drawers, exotic fruit and beautiful baked goods stacked lovingly on decorative platters. I noticed a modest kitchen on my right and a door on the left as I visually groped my way deeper into the space. A young woman, Mun was her name, spoke up and invited me to proceed through the door to take a look. I was reminded of the movie Shangri-La as I walked down the long narrow shaded pathway along the outside of the building into an open courtyard. From the din of the pathway into the light of the courtyard, the feeling the serenity and richness felt miles away from the busy street I had left only a few minutes ago. There were obvious touches of detail that made this refuge even more entreating; wooden Indonesian artifacts, a primitively crafted bench and an large antique framed mirror reflecting the gardens back onto itself. Beyond the courtyard I faced a two-story carriage house with open French doors revealing a sitting room. Again, I was drawn into the exotic décor and the meditative atmosphere. I turned around and slowly returned to the front of the store and walked in again through to the carriagehouse. I repeated the experience a third time and I realized the feeling of the space grew richer on each review. Now on my third goodbye, Mun asked if I was in need of anything at which point I spontaneously requested a quote for a private gathering in the carriage house for twelve to fifteen people. This was a new request for them and it took some time for them to respond.

The others called the first gathering The Salon. Friends and friends of friends arrived not knowing what to expect. My intention was to let it happen instead of determining it any more than I already had. I was as much a spectator and a participant as anyone else, or so I thought. Michael, a chief technology officer was the first to arrive and after he introduced himself he made the observation, “I guess we should move the seating into a circle."

I continued to greet people as they arrived. As the organizer I felt I would begin by setting the tone of the conversation through storytelling rather than by introducing an agenda. I must admit my first words were like I had stepping into an abyss. I was conscious of the random path of my words as I expressed my curiosity about life and living. If there were expectations they quickly dissipated as others began to engage by offering similar, alternative or contrasting examples from their own life experiences. What were initially small fragmented conversations became one inclusive conversation which developed its own empathic cadence on a platform of generosity and mutual respect.

The trust in the room was very high. Everyone was willing to participate and everyone walked away having satisfied a need. I walked away with hope.

There is a sympathetic quality in knowing.

We have a natural curiosity and a need for soft resolve.

I, the masses, am no more or less human.

These observations may sound obvious to others but for me these are things I have had to confirm. I leave the Red Tea Box with much more hope and far less cynicism knowing I can trust these people as we pass on the street.

A sampling of email responses:

I had this thought that connecting a bunch of ideas that were passed around, what if "everything is as it should be" (not in the naive sense that there aren't numerous things that need to be changed and that we should (if we feel so moved), get involved in to make a difference), but rather, in the big picture, balanced sense, that as humans it is next to impossible to see or believe because it is bigger than we are (and we are too used to seeing things only from our own limited, narrow personal perspective). Anyway, on this theme, things like the cave paintings that you were talking about and how there was such overlap and parallel with the same kind of art expression across cultures in the same time period - it makes me think that there is a sort of developmental human evolution that is going on in both a large scale and personal scale and that there are always parallels that we can have access to. So, that we can see for example the parallels in art expression of a given period across cultures and we can see similarities for example in developmental states of human (moral, emotional, intellectual and sensori-motor) development (i.e 2 year olds tend to behave in particular similar ways). So, it leads me to wonder what picture we could begin to paint (so to speak) of the place we are at in human evolution right now, trusting that "things are as they should be", what would we look like (in other words, let's say if an outside observer were to be able to articulate how they perceived humanity in the year 2002. And, I believe WE have the capacity - though not often practised, to be able to formulate this kind of big picture thinking/sensing, so that we are better able to SEE OURSELVES and evaluate/assess how we are doing and where we are going and where we would like to be going.

Thanks for your response. You have a way of reaching out that encourages the graceful and reassuring act of holding hands. That's sort of what it felt like to me last night. A group of people interested in thinking and feeling deeply and sharing that. If I didn't have words, an accurate image to reflect this connection and yearning for intimacy (in the largest sense of the word), would be of people sitting together holding hands.

I guess in trying to articulate the energy I feel from participating in the salon, it is in feeling the joy of the opportunity to share who I really am. And to experience the privilege of other people risking being emotionally and intellectually open. Sadly, there seem to be so few opportunities for this. There is nothing I would rather spend my time doing than this. So, I came away with a smile on my face and in my heart and just felt glad to be alive. Sounds so simple really, but how often do we really stop to actually feel this?

Yes, I too get back a sense of hope, of possibility and expansiveness. Reminds me of the title of a good film, "the incredible lightness of being". Something delicate and sacred and hearty.

I am not at all surprised by what you wrote... nor the reverberation I feel as I'm assimilating the thoughts, feelings, ideas, beliefs....
I'll write later....
thank you, thank you.
(.. I wondered if people just left so quickly normally. I felt as though I was needing some time to talk some more afterward.. )

Monday, August 6, 2007

A sunrise, a sunset

I am fortunate to have people around me who are kind enough to indulge me from time to time. On this occasion I looked up from my coffee and onto the sky with a need to know how others might interpret a simple idea. Soon after I arrived at my office I sent an email to some friends that read, “What is a sunrise? What is a sunset?”

Quite personally a sunrise is the most natural and glorious reminder of life; a sunset the realization that we are mere mortals in the big picture. Everything in between is 'stuff' that we label, try to control and if we're lucky - understand. Sunrises/sunsets: two sided chameleon bookends.

What is a sunrise? the beginning - hope, aspiration, inspiration, intention
What is a sunset? a pause to reflect and refuel
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundation under them. -- Henry David Thoreau

What is a sunrise? - A new beginning; a new day; the perfection of this infinite universe.
What is a sunset? - A conclusion; harvest; another day of existence; the dawning of night.

a sunrise to me represents hope for renewal - the experience of being bathed in warmth and seeing things clearly for what they is a time to appreciate what regeneration can is the beginning of another journey called a is the great is promise and possibility....and proof of something is vitality and strength

a sunset to me is a respite.....a small door into is is movement....i can look at a sunset and watch it is the yang.....reward......excitement about possibility.....freedom......contentment....bring on the peace!!!

a sunrise is a promise
a sunset is a celebration

Eggs being tossed in a skillet. They go up, they go down.

A sunrise is a reminder that we are blessed to have the opportunity to love again. A sunset is an opportunity to give thanks for the gifts of the day and to acknowledge ourselves for our contribution.

I had the thought of the world breathing in for a sunrise and breathing out for a sunset.

A sunrise stirs the eyes
That the sunset puts to bed

"Sunrise" and "Sunset" are two things I/you/we can be sure of in life - continuous and infinite!
Certainty is a rare commodity

A sunrise is hope
A sunset is peace

I appreciated the variety of perspectives, the individuality, the courage and commitment in each thought. Time passed and I was curious to know why one of my friends had not responded. I phoned to ask him why, “Where’s your email on sunrises and sunsets?” He said, “You haven’t heard? My mother died.” I paused and I expressed my condolences. Then he added, “And you know what my eulogy will be about don’t you?”

I recently forwarded this story to a new friend who had experienced the sudden death of a close friend and she responded with:
For me,
Sunrises are about starting fresh.
Sunsets are about entering into the eternal--the world of Magic.

“What is a sunrise? What is a sunset?”

Signs of change

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Children are not broken

I was born to fix things. It is a rewarding and enjoyable preoccupation with houses, boats and anything else I can dismantle and reassemble. My first instinct as a parent was to try to fix problems as they came along, but it proved to be a disastrous approach in many instances. The flaw in this approach is two-fold; first, it assumes a child is broken. It has been my observation that this simply is not true. Second, it presumes I know how to fix whatever is broken. My conscious history provides little support in these matters and it appears my generational background compounds the problem in more ways than I would like to admit. I have found the born-to-fix parenting method focusses on my needs more than those of the family and for this reason I have chosen to abandon it.

One summer evening I returned home from work and as I walked into the kitchen I instantly became aware of the pandemonium in the room. Two children below the age of four at the peak of their energy, full of curiosity and highly receptive to the slightest amusement adds up to high pitch, high volume and high action. One glance at the rouge of my wife’s frustrated cheeks and the Vesuvius-like expression in her eyes, told me the situation was desperate. It was clear from my children that they were not going to be receptive to my opinion on orderly behaviour so I turned around, I proceeded to the bedroom and I changed from my business attire to more comfortable clothes. This allowed me the time to pause. On my return the question that needed to be answered was not; how do I reverse this calamity? Without triggering my born-to-fix habit the critical question became; how can I love them in this moment? I had no preconceived plan, no expectation and no solution at hand.

What transpired next was as much of a surprise to me as it was to my family. I don’t know how or why the following action entered my body or my mind but I started to hop into the kitchen. The children stopped abruptly and their attention turned to their hopping father. A smile appeared on both of their faces and I saw the relief in my wife as her shoulders relaxed and her face cooled. The children ran up to me, formed a line behind me and began to hop laughing and giggling. I realized we had never hopped together.

On another occasion my son would not go to bed on a Christmas evening. Hysterical he rejected all proposals to go back to bed. He was 3+ years old. How can I love him in this moment? I held him in my arms and hugged him as I descended the stairs toward the Christmas tree and I didn’t speak a word. I didn’t try to convince him or console him or distract him. I simply held him close and sat him down beside me in the sofa in front of our lit tree. We sat for a half an hour. While the volume had diminished slightly he was still rather distraught.

My wife finally came down the stairs and gave me a disappointed look. She had expected a resolve of some kind and clearly I had done nothing and spoken nothing to alter my son’s state. She stopped in front of the two of us and asked sternly, “What are you doing?” My response? “I’m counting the green lights”. My son stopped crying and with a slight grin he said, “And I’m counting the red ones.” My wife paused and then asked, “Are you ready to go to bed now?” With tears still fresh on his cheeks my son agreed to be carried to bed.

In retrospect, the question did several things for me; it turned my attention away from my own feeling of frustration toward the needs of the people around me; it focused me on the needs of the moment without the excess baggage of past or future events; and most importantly, it became a matter of love.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A reality check

It is very simple, very self-indulgent and very revealing. It is a brief opportunity for a free association moment, as is, no need to fear and no take backs - an internal rant. Just begin every sentence with "I am suspicious of..." Here's mine:

I am suspicious of things I don’t understand. I am suspicious of people who don’t make an effort to help me understand. I am suspicious of people who form groups before the group is ‘formed’. I am suspicious of people who want me to belong to their group before I want to belong to it. I am suspicious of 'value' before I know it is truly there. I am suspicious of words that attach to all of these things. I am suspicious of the intentions behind them. I am suspicious of myself when I say ‘You should…anything’. I am suspicious of those who don’t know their power to deceive, manipulate and damage. I am suspicious of myself for this reason. I am suspicious of disease, headaches and tiredness. I am suspicious of objectivity - the arrogant, possibility of it. I am suspicious of the use of the word ‘authenticity’ out of the mouth of anyone else but me. I am suspicious of unhappiness. I am suspicious of how conveniently it can protect people from the truth. I am suspicious of the truth because I find it more elusive than a lie, which means I am a struggling honest person or an easy liar or both. And at the same time I am ambivalent to everything but this moment because at this moment I am alive typing on my computer, because I want to, because I can, because it feels good, because I am thinking of people around me, because it makes me think of my children who I am not suspicious of and I hope will never have reason to be suspicious of me.

Robin Uchida

Friday, July 13, 2007

No.6: The Healing

The taxi is a private space, outside it is a makeshift display of driven people, silent in the noise and disarray, blurred on all sides, inside it is an invitation for a meaningful conversation. It is the driver’s office I step into each time, he permits me his company and the temporary comfort of his space in return for some respect for the hours he invests waiting endlessly, the intermittent meal he does not have time for and the threat of financial ruin with every traffic violation. Other cab drivers have reconciled the hardships with the benefit of seasonal work or the freedom office workers do not have. The sullen look on the face of this driver is borne out of none of these hardships, life has delivered him much more to reconcile.

There is no small talk. There is only restrained pain and anger in his voice as we begin with pleasantries. Unexpectedly, my “how are you?” presented him the ideal opportunity to reveal the reason for his distress. “My kidneys, I have a problem with my kidneys.” He continued, “It happened three years ago. I was in my cab with a passenger at night and we were slowing to a stop at an intersection. Something smashed on my windshield. My door opened. My head. My body. Then my passenger was dragged from the car. He was cut in the head. He is not the same. I visited him once and he is not the same, forever.” This story is familiar to me and I cannot remember how or why.

“They were teenagers, drunk from a party. They were having fun. I have lost everything because I was in the hospital and in therapy for a long time. It took me a long time to come out of the house after that.” He refuses to drive the night shift anymore. As he recalls this event and everything that followed, it is clear his terror has lost its edge but his body will never forget as it exhumes the pommeling of bat against bone whenever his driver’s seat prods his internal scars.

How does someone overcome fear of this kind, imagined because the same thing can never happen again and not imagined because in truth there is something to fear? “They should bring back the death penalty. These kids get away with this. They know they will not be punished. I get nothing. I am still tired.” There is no distinction between the past, present and future anymore, there is only the reality of the crashing in, the pain and the senselessness.

He was unable to leave the house well after his body had repaired. “How did you do that? Leave the house," I ask. “One day I set up a place in my house to pray. I prayed every day. I thanked God for my life, everyday. My family and relatives helped me.” It was a decision to leave a victim behind. “You have a family?” I continued. “A son.” He answers without hesitation, with only love and appreciation. I inquire further, “Your son, what does he do?” He says it as if he had just been rescued. “He is a police officer. He is a good boy." He remains unresolved but he has built a place to pray.

Monday, July 9, 2007

No.5: To kill a goat

Mistakenly, I assumed this young man from Kandahar who had been in Canada for sixteen cold winters was someone who had decided to stay. “I want to go back. There is a lot to fix. If there is a hole in the road we will build a new road and go around the hole.” There is determination in his voice, he has reflected on his past long enough and he has been waiting for me to give his thoughts a rest.

“So you’ve seen death”, I say imagining the worst. “Yes, of course," he said. “So tell me. Tell me what happened," I prod, thinking what is it like to be this man? “When?” he asks, meaning there were many deaths to tell about and I had not been explicit enough with my request. “You people here don’t know," he criticizes knowing Canadian life well enough to be right. He began to describe many days and nights in Kandahar, “Everyone was in the house. The windows are closed up and covered in mud. The bullets don’t go through the mud. They stop. The army was coming. The Russian soldiers march along the trucks and tanks down my street.”

“Were you afraid? If there were soldiers and tanks coming down this street in Toronto right now I would be very afraid," I admit. “You people are afraid if I kill a goat. You don’t sleep for a week. I kill a goat once a week. There were six men on the roof. I could see through a little hole. I watch.” His observations were correct again, but his proposition was unsettling. “How old were you?” “Eleven”, he replied.

He continued, “The men on the roofs threw hand grenades onto the soldiers. The soldiers leave. The men were gone. I was first to come out on the street. There was blood. There was blood.” He is amused by my disbelief. He knows how foreign this experience is for me; nevertheless he continues his casual walk through the bloody aftermath. “I can’t believe you were not afraid. You must feel something. Where were the bodies?” I persisted.

“The men throwing grenades from the roof were gone. They sat down and drink tea with their brothers. They ask, where did the men go? They didn’t know. This is why the Americans do not know. They know technology but it is no good in Afghanistan," he laughs. He cannot conceal the pride in his premonition, “This is why the Americans will get tired just like the Russians.”

“What about the leader?” I ask, attempting to find order and reason on his bloodied street. “Nobody likes him”, he reacts quickly. “ How will you get rid of him? How will you get him out?” I questioned, knowing he would have an answer. “When the Americans go, then we will have a clear shot”, he laughs again. I was growing increasingly more disturbed by him, as I thought of him as that eleven year old who has carried indelible stains for many years, now a grown man who thinks and laughs as he light-heartedly describes death with chilling clarity, loss and more death with a sarcasm-filled vengeance.

“Didn’t you feel anything?” I ask again. “You are in communications. If you talk in front of people maybe you are not afraid. I would be afraid. This is easy for you. That is war. I am used to it,” and I continue to fail. Desperate to hold onto the difference between the insanity of one and the adaptive skill of the other, the fears are not the same for me.

“One time an old man, a neighbour was shot. I was sad for him. That is different. He was shot in front of my house. We moved his body to another place. If we didn’t move him, they would say we did something.” In this moment I finally hear a glimmer of attachment, a sense that the blood came from a body and the body was once living, a trace of injustice before the hate could turn into a more insidious thing.

“Another man was taken from his house. He was taken to justice and they bring him back to his house outside and tied him to the front. I see them cut his throat.” I realize there is finality in his stories, a focus on the moment of death with very little reflection on what it looked like, who he was and what these people meant to him, distance and endings. I needed to know for sure, “You must have been shocked to see a man’s throat cut.” “No. This is war. I am used to it,” he smiles. “He was a man who tortured other people. He was a traitor”

“Maybe it’s no good to get used to war. Maybe we should be afraid”, I venture to challenge this man who smiles and laughs as we talk about death.

Befitting the end of our brief conversation I detect a prophetic quality in his soft defiance, his fearlessness, his pride in Afghanistan and I am overcome by a disquieting sadness. “Americans are not afraid. They don’t see the bombs. They just push a button. I have seen the bombs. And sometimes the bomb doesn’t explode. If the bomb makes a hole the children swim in it like a swimming pool.” And then I realized, we are not so different.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Mutual knowing

A friend once asked me, “how do I tell her I love her?” I asked him, “Do you love her?” to which he instantly replied “Yes”. It was clear to me he spoke the truth nevertheless the words were impossible for him to speak in her presence. The words were fused to his vulnerability and to speak them threatened the thing that held his inner and his outer worlds in place. He could not risk saying them or else it would all collapse. His feelings were left unheard. “How do I tell her I love her?” We are all plagued with this truth-on-mute problem in one way or another. It prevents us from being in the world with friends, associates and family members. It prevents opportunity in many relationships and maintains dysfunctions in existing ones. We deny ourselves dynamic experiences in each instance, freedom and creativity, the joy in mutual knowing, an authentic life.

“How do I tell her I love her?” I am familiar with this tension, a generational mystery sabotages an intentional life, and it is known by every man at some point, if not in its chronic form. I offered an experiment from my arsenal of personal remedies. Try a sign of affection you can manage, your own way of saying I love you. I wanted to tell my daughter I love her and for reasons beyond my understanding this seemed an impossible thing to do. I noticed I could hold her hand and caress her finger with my thumb. I thought she may notice or she may not, but for the moment this would be my way of saying I love you - I began. In retrospect this is the most important step, to begin. In my mind the ease of this expression allowed me to say I love you without the encumbrances of generational baggage. I was finally free.

Months later, I was driving my two young children to meet their mother. My daughter was very tired and emotional and her anxiety seemed to be increasing the farther we drove. In time her emotional frustration seemed to be subsiding and I was curious as to why so I looked in my rear view mirror and I surveyed the back seat. I witnessed my 5 year-old-son calmly comforting her. He was silently facing forward in his car seat undisturbed by her behaviour. With confidence and the concern of a loving sibling, he had reached across from his car seat to hers and he was stroking her hand with his thumb. He gave both his sister and I a gift I will always be grateful for.

I graduated from one way of expressing love to another until some time later I was able to say what I needed to say, “I love you.” I developed many creative ways to challenge my barrier, never knowing precisely why it was there. I am still not as demonstrative or as effusive as others but I know my children have heard me, a message my father never made clear to me with words in all of his living years. I do have a memory of an occasion, as an independent nine-year-old, when I had to loosen his hugging arms so I could go and play with my cousins.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An addendum to No.3

Today, I met another Afghani from Kabul and I described the man of peace to him, remarkably he said he knew him. "The heavy guy", he confirmed. He gestured as if he was hugging a tree. Apparently, the lieutenant’s burns are far more extensive than I could have known. A clash with a tank left him with a permanent memento, a tragedy of a kind that embarrasses us all.

My new acquaintance relies solely on his family in Kabul for reliable reports on current events. “Two years ago there was a wedding in the street and we have a tradition, we shoot the guns into the air. The Americans thought they were shooting at the plane. They bomb the wedding. One hundred and fifty dead, killed.”
I wondered afterward why he told me this particular story among all of the possibilities, was it the injustice, the insanity or his own lingering denial?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

No.4: The Homeless

I entered a cab one morning, I directed the driver, I sat back and proceeded to assess my workday, meetings, things to do, solutions, problems etc. In the midst of my inventory check I realized I was no longer in the cab. My mind was oblivious to what was directly in front of me. I was unconscious of the space I occupied and the motion around me was an insignificant peripheral blur. It was in this moment I decided to be in the cab.

He was angry, verging on violent from the moment I entered. Initially, I was concerned for my welfare but more importantly I wanted to know. “Why are you angry?” I asked. “Who wants to know?” he retorted, his abrupt resistance startled me. Restless in his seat, hunched over his wheel, this life appeared intolerable for him. He complained erratically about the injustice of the homeless in “a city as rich as Toronto” and he was angered by the personal responsibility he felt on the occasions when they could not afford his fare. “People don’t care enough to do something about it”, he objected. He was on the front line of a war against intolerable social conditions. What appeared to be the ranting of a sociopath was actually a man expressing compassion, frustrated by a social predicament that on this day had erupted into a one-man political protest.

I asked him to explain, in the hope that listening would help him. In time he elaborated on his daily experience of having to reconcile his benevolence with his livelihood, infuriated he said, “They ride and then they don’t have enough money. What am I supposed to do? It happens all of the time. Why am I the guy who has to fix this? Why doesn’t somebody else do it? It’s all going to shit.”

As we arrived at the foot of my home my three-year-old daughter and my four-year-old son ran toward the taxi to greet me. The approach of their joyous faces was a dramatic contrast to the persistent look of the irritated man in the front seat and my first inclination was to protect them. Instead, I opened the door with a request of the driver, “It looks like my children would like a ride.” He nodded with approval and grunted, “Get in” adding under his breath, “Children are good. Family…” his voice faded into an unintelligible murmur. His posture in the seat shifted. For the first time his grip on the wheel relaxed. He proceeded to drive us around the block with my exuberant children on either side of me. What was an everyday task for him was a unique first experience for them. It was an unexpectedly long ride as we navigated our way through the neighbourhood’s one-way streets. We returned to our starting point, I thanked him and as my children scrambled out of the back seat I asked, “So should I tell them there is no hope?” “No”, he paused and repeated, “No”, this time in a more yielding tone. I believe for a moment the taxi driver and I were on the same side.

Monday, June 25, 2007

No 3: Peaceful

The taxi is a sacred space, the windshield a lens into the unseen. The driver steers his car like an over-sized planchette revealing the truth to all who ride. Sixty hours a week he journeys with or without direction, venturing forward nonetheless. From my seat the confinement looks like freedom, the regimen appears timeless and the isolation is a connection to the world.

He is a heavy-set man whose silhouette exposes a history of resistance and fearsome will. I sense his body is in a constant state of recovery. He is different from the others. He is a clear and simple spirit. He was a soldier in the Afghani army. He fought the Russians. “Hello my brother”, he said as I tried to get comfortable in my seat.

Conversation about his geography and mine quickly evolved into an exchange of trust - he appreciated my sincerity and I his gentle honesty. “What is war like? What does it feel like?” I inquired of my friend. He described a life that he grew painfully accustomed to. “You never knew if someone would break your door down in the middle of the night. They didn’t know my country.” Then he spoke in his own way, “…my brother, I have peace now.” I paused to enjoy the calm in his words and I felt compelled to mention, “You know you’re the first person I have ever met who uses the word peace so often in a conversation”. He replied without hesitation “I have a roof, a job and safety for my little daughter and you see this $20 I respect it” He rubbed the paper between his thumb and forefinger as a farmer would the soil.

It was dark leaving the cab, and we shook hands when I noticed the touch of his skin was course and his hand was disfigured. Now that I could see beyond his rear view mirror it was evident he had been severely burned in the past. The sinewy texture of repaired skin on his face, taut and shiny beyond the collar of his t-shirt, screamed of an unimaginable trauma, something we did not talk about. “Peace my brother”, he said finally. It struck me as the car door slammed and we parted, how incomprehensible it is that a man who had suffered as he did could be so content and forgiving. How could this be?

I realized later that my need for justice would never be satisfied and that I would never change.

No.2: The lucky man

How old were you? “I was sixteen in the war. I left when I was eighteen. I was north of Kabul. Close to Russian border”, he said. I am curious about the moments that changed him, his opinions and prejudices. I imagine my curiosity provokes visions of old places, familiar faces, perhaps haunting sounds or persistent odours. Will he dwell on the injustice of being displaced from his home or is this simply a reminder of those who have long been buried - is this resolve or repair?

Did you fight the Russians? “No, I saw war. I was in village. I was the lucky one. The Russian helicopter, the first I have seen is bombing us, me, my friends. They shoot bombs from 10 o’clock in morning to 5 o’clock in afternoon. Then, two helicopters come. They shoot bombs, missiles and they go. Then two more come. All day.” There are bombs with no sound, shrapnel with no path, air without odour and stories without fear.

Afghanistan has been invaded many times. “There was Pakistan, Russia and United States. After the Russians there was still building left. We still have food. After the Americans there was nothing. They destroy food. They piss in our bread. They shit in our food. They leave a surprise, a bomb, under plate in the house or something. The Americans destroy everything.”

Did you kill anyone? “Civilians have no guns. They are all killed. Soldiers have guns. They are not in villages. They don’t stay. In war civilians get killed and soldiers living.”

Were you afraid? How did it feel? “I was not afraid. I was eating fruit in a tree. My friends say, are you crazy? I am lucky. I knew how to win. I see the helicopter and I run. The helicopter goes this way and I go that way. Helicopter can only shoot bombs where he is looking. I run to other side each time.” He motions with his hands to illustrate his foot strategy for fighting modern wars. “My friends, some of them died. I am lucky.” He has mentioned ‘luck’ several times, not to say he has luck but as if he is luck. He is able to remember his deceased friends and family in this way, not to deserve life any more than they and not to appreciate it any less, but to live believing luck is all that separates the living and the dead. So far he is winning.

All of the while I picture his village as the hideout it may have been. I imagine the vulnerability of a farming community, a simple town plan of sandy stone and clay buildings. I see AK47’s in the hands of a few men who choose to be as steadfast as these century old buildings, the town politicians delivering a community response with bullets, conscious of the only earth they are bound to and the families they love even more. As inaccurate as my imagination may be, I can only depict from the spirit of the man I am sitting with. We are satisfied.

We arrived at my destination, he turned on the interior light of the car, motioned me forward and continued, “One day Russian tank stopped and said to the people, keep going, you are winning, keep going you are winning - a Russian.” He spoke as if his recounting of the war, his dead friends and neighbours, his narrow escapes from Russian bombs, the American shit in his food, and the dead civilians in a war between soldiers was instantly ratified by the Russian’s words. He spoke of justice for those who had no interest in the argument, for the unsuspecting family who had died today and for the lucky man driving this taxi.

As I left the cab he spoke with gratitude saying, “Thanks for the time.” “No, thank you. I asked and you told me.” This is my last thought of the lucky man.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Argument

I hear my own sickness in my brother’s words as he continues to press down on his open wound. I remember this feeling of torment as a tense hollow gut, a tight rope for sibling jousting. It is all too familiar, the silent voice of curses beneath a smiling calm, so insidious a smile that it grows more comfortable until it is unnoticed, automatic. This used to be ‘the game’. The object was to win at all cost, leaving behind any vestige of virtue at which point we were licensed to say and do anything to generate pain in the other. And now years later, I think of it as ‘the torture’ as we relive the ritual and chant our mantra "Are we feeling my pain yet?"

The oppressor and the oppressed, angry and angered, I am ashamed of this inescapable me. To stand victorious over the barbarian as retribution for a lifetime of unworthiness or to wallow in victim’s tears in a lifetime of fear and degradation, neither victor nor victim is free. We remain trapped in our misery.

I am inclined to share our notion of disadvantage or weakness at any opportunity by suppressing others. My subconscious speaks for me, “Do you understand me as I manipulate you with these words, until I see my pain in your eyes? Ah finally, there it is.” And the more people we infect, the less lonely we feel. It is an elite form of psycho-bacterial warfare that I participate in. And like bacteria it is most easily shared with those who are closest to us. “So you are weak” my grinning subconscious continues “So am I. Happy to meet you…really”.

‘He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.’ – from Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ashbridges Bay

It was dusk at Ashbridges Bay when I encountered a crowd of people attentive and smiling as they stood there waiting. My first instinct was to glance skyward at what I thought would be a full spectrum kites with people attached to them, their tethers criss-crossed by the paths of catapulting volleyballs, but their was nothing in view. I looked back at the crowd. They were planted together, people of all kinds, tightly packed, standing with their eyes directed uniformly toward the beach in deep anticipation. In the next instant I was startled, unprepared for the enormous crash of yelling and screaming that impulsively cracked the air. It was chaos at first. I found myself trying to disentangle the excruciating sound. The adults stood red in the face and unrelenting, reveling in this rare and absurd freedom. Unconscious and never more awake the shrill sound flowed evenly from their mouths, as their emotions seemed to step closer and closer to a precipice. The children delighted in the play with strained faces and smiling eyes, exploiting the freshly granted permission, for them it was like devouring candy. The discharge of emotional polyphony seemed like it would go on forever. I realized I had been holding my breath and the insides of my chest had frozen stiff. As I finally inhaled, the chorus began to dissipate into the darkening ceiling. The sounds of joyous release and celebration revealed patches of unexpected despair, people falling to their knees, others with unexplained tears hiding their faces from the children and many others spontaneously embracing the person standing next to them.

In the direction of the muted horizon I noticed the object of their attention, an arrangement of amorphous shapes. The orbs glowed from the bellies of curious wooden vessels, dories I think. There must have been a hundred of them spread over the expanse of the beach and into the shallow water like fireflies that had finally landed. They seemed to extend off into the universe fusing the ground, the water and the sky. In the midst of the experience I glanced back and forth periodically. I noticed as the sound modulated the peppered lights changed in intensity and pattern, as if the landscape was in dialogue with the crowd. Finally, as the screams subsided the light from the vessels softened and what was a crescendo of light, sound and earth returned to dusk and respectful calm.

In the last moments rather than stand on the fringes I cautiously walked toward them. Just in view and beyond the crowd, I noticed someone who appeared to be measuring the moment in preparation for a repeat performance, standing peacefully alone as he surveyed the air. After a period of reorientation and without speaking a word, the conductor raised his hand. Everyone knew what to do, myself included. As he slowly raised his other arm I began to yell with the others. I don’t know how many times I reloaded my voice. I do know it had been decades since my body had been pushed to these limits. As our voices were heard, the lights began to reveal themselves again. The feeling was familiar, lying on my parent’s bed recovering from a long cry, my finger in the air tracing the cracks in the ceiling as if it was a road map to secret places, my weakened lungs still stuttering. I remember it was a good feeling and something I appreciated even as a four-year-old child. As our effort increased we exhausted our bodies and collectively cast our insides onto the water. The landscape gestured back with messages of beauty and forgiveness.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No.1: Calcutta

He was from Calcutta and his cab was like all of the others.

For a moment I imagine the tables are turned as I usually do and for a second of daylight I am in Calcutta, away and too far from home. “You’ve come from far away.” I said. He returned my innocent offering with a friendly grin.

He is a calm-spirited man and I instantly feel welcome to inquire. On other occasions my conversation begins quite differently, sometimes abruptly, “ Is it my imagination or is there less trust all over the world?” However in this instance, I was not in a political mood and strangely this man's demeanor exuded an apolitical life. Customarily, weather is a big complaint in Toronto, second only to our obsession with work and its toll on life. “It's nothing for a man who was born here to accept the winter” I remarked telling a half-lie. “It takes a brave man to accept the Canadian winter for 16 years if you're new to this country.” He laughs reservedly knowing his rite of passage has indeed been at a cost. He knew and I did not know at what cost.

“Have you been back?” I inquire. “Once”, he replied in a soft voice. He raised one finger to punctuate the once, intimating this was not the way he wished it to be. “Do you miss it?” I asked. To which he replied, “I forget”, a different response I thought. “Is your family here? I meet so many others whose families are here. I suppose it makes things less difficult.” I revised my thoughts, “No, it makes it different not less difficult.” He nodded with a smile and in this brief moment we exchanged compassion.

I felt he needed to tell me something. His reticence melting he yielded to the moment, “I have not been able to go back because of things here. My 9-year-old daughter has leukemia. She is better now.” “She is in remission?”, I interjected. “Yes, she is in school." Hesitating he added, "My wife has cancer. The doctors told us when they operated 2 years ago that there was no cancer left. Now it has come back.” “Did she have chemo?” I asked. “My daughter had radiation and my wife had chemo 7 times and now it is back. Those doctors said it was gone and now it is back.” It is different to hear a gentle man speak with anger and resentment. His two fingers in the air he declared, “Two together - at the same time. It is too much.” It is and I could only imagine.

“Your daughter, does she know what is happening?” I asked. “She knows she has cancer." The full impact of the nightmare slammed my gut. “She must be very brave, your daughter.” I imagined the face of a child I have never met, her stubborn resistance. “Yes, she is”, he said as he stared forward. “My daughter was at Sick Kids Hospital. My wife was at St. Margaret’s” “My wife’s doctor said it was gone” - the doctors for the third time. “The doctors can never know 100%. It’s not their fault. My father had cancer.”

We reached my stop. “What a beautiful place” he said as he looked down toward the expanse of green at Riverdale Park. I said “You should see it during the winter - toboggans.” I assumed his smile was accompanied by sounds and images. I paused as I motioned my way out of the cab
and he turned to grip my ten-dollar bill. “All of my best to you and your family.” I said. I revisited the look of defeat in the eyes of his rear view mirror as I walked toward the front steps of my home.