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.