Posted by: Dan | September 26, 2013

This is a Love Letter

I.

Last week I attended a funeral for a young man I knew from my work.  He died in a bed in a homeless shelter.  He was barely over thirty but, in many ways, he was still a child.  His brain didn’t work the same as most other people’s brains work.  Some of his family members showed up for the funeral – it was our first time seeing any of them in the two years that we knew this fellow – and they put together a montage of pictures from his childhood.  He looks sweet and happy and maybe a little bit awkward in the pictures.  He, too, got his heart broken along with his mind… although I’m never sure if minds that we consider broken actually are, or if we are the ones with broken minds, or if all of us have broken minds, in which case, I’m not sure why it matters to emphasize the brokenness of some minds over others.  Regardless, his body broke as well and he then never got up again.  He went from laying in his bed to laying in a stretcher to laying on a slab to laying in a coffin.  I felt like I was attending the funeral of a child and it made me weep.  He often made me laugh, with the accents he would assume when he spoke, with the way he pretended to shoot us with his fingers, “Bang! Bang!” and with the ways he was constantly sneaking in and out of places he was told not to go.  This, too, is a Charlie, I kept thinking, this, too, is a Ruby.  And he is dead, he is dead, he has been carried away, and we will never see him again.

~

Nietzsche said that God is dead and we have killed him, but he neglected to mention that all of us on the way to becoming supermen and superwomen are killing children on the way.

~

At the funeral the priest – the family asked for a Catholic service of sorts – talked about God’s love and how this young man was being welcomed home and being embraced in the love of God.  And I wept because of this, too.  It’s such a beautiful story and I remember how beautiful the world was when I believed that story, but now I don’t know what to believe.  I just don’t know.

I do know this – this young man was the fourth “street person” that I knew who died in about a five week period.  People are dying faster here than I remember them dying in Vancouver.  All this despite the City Managers and public advocates and professional service providers who talk about how they are curing homelessness in this town.  I’ve noticed that these people like to talk about poverty and health and the public good but none of them seem to talk about oppression.  Until they do, people will continue to die here.

II.

As all these people were dying, I got word from a dear friend out West that the eight year old son of one of her dear friends had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  They cut the kid’s head open once to try and remove it, but they weren’t able to get all of it.  He’s in a hospital room confused and frightened and in a lot of pain when his meds start wearing off.  His mom is barely holding on with the help of booze and pills and a loving husband and a loving friend.

I did mention that the kid is eight years old, right?  Can you understand this?  The world is full of parents grieving the loss of their children and children grieving the loss of their parents and lovers grieving the loss of their friends and all of us grieving, deep in our bones, everything that has been taken away before its time.  When we recognize that this grief is inside all of us, how can anyone be condemned?

~

I’ve been rereading The Brothers Karamazov lately and I was struck by the words of Father Zossima when he tells Alyosha to hold himself responsible for all the sin in the world and hold himself accountable to all the pain in the world – to take it all into himself and carry it as his own.  My God, I thought, I made the mistake of taking this advice seriously!  It’s terrible advice.  Don’t do it.  It’s unbearable.

III.

At the same time, another dear friend of mine told me his marriage had fallen apart.  He has been very involved, from the very beginning, with a lot of the Truth and Reconciliation work that has been taking place in Vancouver.  When I was at my lowest point there, I was a poor friend to him but he was a good friend to me, and he took me in for a time and gave me a home and was kind and gentle and considerate with and to me.  I remember sitting in his kitchen and watching him make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for his kids.  He was an amazing sandwich maker.  He did everything just the way the kids wanted it done and he did it like it was nothing at all and just kept chatting happily with me all the while.  I remember thinking, “I hope, one day, to be the kind of father you are.”

And now he too has been abandoned.  Now he too will only see his kids part-time.  This, too, seems like an unbearable thought.

Intermezzo

IV.

I’ve continued to talk to the birds and the trees and the river and the grass and the bugs and the bushes and the flowers when I walk to work in the morning.  I still invite them to meet me in my dreams so that we can speak a common language and understand each other.  I’ve done this, now, for about two months straight.  Then, the other day something miraculous happened – they spoke back.

I had just finished speaking my invitation to my dreams when I suddenly realized, I didn’t need to wait for my dreams to hear what they were saying to me.  And then, two words appeared in my mind:

“Be grateful.”

And that was all.  Be grateful.

~

At first I was confused by this because, in many ways, I have spent the last few weeks feeling far more grateful than I have felt in years.  Because I had fallen in love, you see?  But as I thought about it more I thought they were recommending that I be grateful even for the things that I am not usually grateful for.  And then I thought about how I also apologize to the plants and the animals and the river and the soil every day because I am counted amongst those who are poisoning and killing them all.  And this is what I thought they were saying:

“We know that we are sick.  But every day we continue to sing, we continue to flow, we continue to bloom.  We know that we are dying and that you have poisoned us.  But every day we choose to offer ourselves as something beautiful and good to the world.  We don’t want your apologies.  We know you’re sorry and we know you can’t make it better.  Stop saying sorry and start saying thank you.”

And then I thought about the kid with brain cancer and I thought about other kids who are dying and I thought about how they still draw pictures and they still sing songs and they still dance and they still tell stories – while they still can – and they don’t want us to spend all our time crying over them and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”  Instead, they want us to say, “My God, what a beautiful picture.  Thank you.  It’s perfect, I love it, can I have another?”

And so I decided to try and be grateful.  I said thank you to the birds and the trees and the river and the grass and the bugs and the bushes and the flowers and I didn’t say sorry and I said I couldn’t wait to see them again tomorrow.

~

The very next day when I was walking under the bridge, I saw something that made me forget to keep moving my feet.  A pigeon had become tangled in some of the debris dangling from a pipe that ran under the bridge and it was hanging in the air above the river.  One wing was above its head and the other was hanging at its side.  It had suffocated and died and its body was left there hanging and spinning and twirling.  I couldn’t look away and I only remembered to keep walking after somebody almost hit me on a bicycle.  The world seemed to be speaking again and it felt ominous.  And I didn’t know how this fit into feeling grateful…

…And then the girl I fell in love with said she didn’t want to be with me and said we couldn’t talk anymore and I understood what was going on.

And I said thank you.  For everything.  For being.  Even though I felt like I was spinning and twirling in the air, I said thank you.  Because I felt that, too.

~

This is what it means to have your heart come back to life again.  Living hearts know joy but living hearts also know sorrow.  That’s why we numb our hearts – that’s why I numbed mine.  I was tired of feeling sorrow.  But I have decided to accept the sorrow again.  And so I grieve the young man and the three others who died, and so I grieve the child with brain cancer, and so I grieve the divorce my friend is experiencing, and so I grieve my own broken heart… and still I say thank you.

V.

I was walking to the bar a week or so ago and a leaf, already yellow, landed on me and I realized that it was shaped exactly like a heart.  I opened my eyes and noticed that the sidewalk and the lawn beside me were littered with leaves and all of them were heart shaped.  How about that, eh?

~

I always thought my mom was a little crazy – albeit in a harmless way – because she sees everything as a love letter to her from God.  These butterflies, the shape of that snowbank, they all spoke to her of God’s love for her.  Now I think I understand it a little more.  My mom is simply in love.  And when you’re in love, everything strikes you as a love letter from and to your Beloved.

Postscript

My God, what a beautiful picture.  Thank you.  It’s perfect, I love it, can I have another?

Posted by: Dan | September 8, 2013

Ruby’s Squirrels

In Iraq babies are being born with all sorts of deformities.  And we’re not talking cleft lips or shortened limbs or missing/extra digits on their hands or feet.  We’re talking about babies that look like this:

Image

And this:

Image

~

I don’t want to see anymore.

~

These babies are thought to be one of the long-term effects of the Depleted Uranium that the Americans used with the shells and bullets they poured into the Iraqi people and the Iraqi land and the Iraqi water and the Iraqi air… not to mention the animals, and plants and creeping things.

The Americans are a lot like the God they worship.  They are jealous and, if you go astray, they will visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation.

~

I remember when my children were born.  I remember when both of their heads started crowning.  I remember when they emerged from the water and the body and the blood of my wife and began to breath and began to cry.  I remember holding them and saying hello and saying I love you and saying you’re beautiful and saying it’s so good to meet you.

I wonder if that’s what the Iraqi parents said to their babies.  To the one’s that survived, anyway.  Some were born with organs on the outside instead of on the inside.  Some were born without all their organs.  Some weren’t able to live very long.  Some were already dead.

What does it do to a woman to carry a child marked and set apart for death because some people on the other side of the world decided they wanted something that was connected to you and decided to take it in just about the most vicious way imaginable?  What does it do to a father to see his beloved son or daughter born this way?  What would it do to me?

~

I don’t want to know anymore.

~

King Saul fell on his sword
When it all went wrong
And Joseph’s brother sold him down the river for a song
And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove

Some things you do for money
And some you do for love love love

Raskolnikov felt sick
And he couldn’t say why
When he saw his face reflected
In his victim’s twinkling eye

Some things you’ll do for money
Some you’ll do for fun
But the things you do for love are gonna come back to you
One by one

Love love is gonna lead you be the hand
Into a white and soundless place

Now we see things
As in a mirror dimly
Then we shall see each other
Face
To face

And way out in Seattle,
Young Kirk Cobain
Snuck out to the greenhouse
And put a bullet in his brain

Snakes in the grass beneath our feet
Rain in the clouds above
Some moments last forever
But some flair out
With love love love

~

Scientists at Tufts University have grown ectopic eyes on the bodies of tadpoles and then removed the other eyes – the one’s in their heads – in order to study how the brain and body adapt to major changes.  Apparently this is an important question in regenerative medicine, bioengineering, and sensory augmentation research, although it’s probably not a question the tadpoles were asking.

~

The Vacanti Mouse was a mouse that had an ear-shaped structure grown on its back by seeding cow cartilage cells into a biodegradable ear-shaped mold implanted under its skin.  Scientists in South Korea created glow-in-the-dark cats which then became the mothers of their own cloned selves.  By adding mouse DNA and some E Coli Bacteria to a pig embryo, another group of geniuses created a pig that produced significantly less phosphorus than other pigs.  Meanwhile, the good folks over at Nexia Biotechnologies created a goat that produced spiders’ web protein in its milk.  Philip Morris still tests various carcinogenic blends on mice and rats, even though it also now tests its products on human lung tissue that it grows in its labs.  Elsewhere:

“In 2011, Pfizer experimented on nearly 50,000 animals—including 2,557 dogs, 1,159 primates, 452 cats, 7,076 guinea pigs, 31,560 hamsters, 5,512 rabbits, 1,680 gerbils, and 161 horses—in its own laboratories. More than 15,000 of these animals were forced to endure painful experiments, and more than 6,000 were denied pain relief. These numbers don’t even include mice and rats or any of the animals tormented for Pfizer experiments in contract testing laboratories.”

The same is true of every other major pharmaceutical company I looked up.  And don’t forget that producing all of these animals to be caged and tortured and killed is a big money business, too!  Thanks so much, Charles River Laboratories.

~

Already, back in the ‘50s, Vladimir Demikhov was creating two-headed dogs by transplanting the head of one dog, onto the body of another.  This inspired Harvard-grad, Dr. Robert White, to do the same thing with monkeys in the ‘70s. The monkeys were all paralyzed in the process and, after being studied for awhile, they were killed. I’m not sure what they studied them for… “yep, that there is a two-headed monkey”… but I’m sure they learned something.

~

We create and we destroy like gods but we are monsters, we are monsters, we are monsters.

~

I don’t want to learn anymore.

~

My daughter, my Ruby Violet Beloved, who isn’t really “mine,” (she isn’t a “thing” to be owned, I know), but whom I adore, still gets excited and points and laughs and kicks her feet around when she sees a squirrel.  “Squirrel!  Squirrel!” she yells in a bubbly voice overflowing with happiness.  Because, yeah, it’s a squirrel.  Probably the 173rd one we’ve seen today.  And she loves it.  Loves it to pieces and thinks it is the most wonderful and exciting and pretty thing in the world.  And she’s right.  It is.

~

My daughter has five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot.  She has two arms and two legs and all her organs, and they’re all on the inside where they’re supposed to be.  She can’t even imagine a person wanting to cut open an animal or cause it to grow new parts (before it is killed) because that person is curious about such questions as “how do the body and mind respond to dramatic changes?”  Nor can she imagine a person wanting to cut open human beings with munitions that cause those left behind to have babies that grow new parts (before they, too, are killed by the mutations).  She can’t imagine any of these things.  Because she is a child and she is white and she is middle-classed and she was born into a part of the world where Depleted Uranium wasn’t anywhere close to her mother when she was pregnant.

Image

~

I don’t know how to express the kind of love she makes me feel in my heart.  I think about her and I think about my Charlie (who also isn’t really “mine”, I know, but whom I adore) and I think about how dear and wonderful they are and how good they are, how good it is for the world that they exist, how they are a gift to me and to us and to each other… and then I think about Ruby’s squirrels and I think of how they, too, are a gift… and then I think about those puppies in those labs and those monkeys and those pigs and those mice and I think about what we do with gifts, and I think about those kids in Iraq and I think about what we do with each other, and I think, “that girl born with no face, that’s my Ruby, too,” and I think, “that boy born with no lungs, that’s my Charlie, too” and I think, “that puppy in that lab, that’s Ruby’s squirrel, too,” and then my mind kinda loses track of itself and forgets which way is up and mistakes colours for words and lights for sounds, and I find myself weeping and weeping and weeping, like Rachel in Ramah mourning for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

~

I wish I could take it all back.  Everything I’ve seen.  Everything I’ve learned.  Everything I can do nothing about, if, at least, I want to be around to care for my children.  And I do want to be around to care for my children.  All I want, now, is to be a good father to my kids for as long as they want me to be.  All I want now is to love and to be loved.

~

Sometimes, when walking around with a broken heart, you forget to be kind to others.  Sometimes, when overwhelmed by the violence of the world, you forget to be gentle with others.  Sometimes, when blinded by tears, it is hard to see the beauty in everyone.  I have often been unkind.  I have often been harsh.  I have often been blind.  I’m trying to change that now.  I hope you’ll bear with me.

~

By the time that we woke up,
We couldn’t stop the sparks,
We couldn’t see outside,
When the curtains fell apart.

We couldn’t hear the books
When the pages curled away.
We should shut that window we both left open now.

We lost our chance to run,
Now the door’s too hot to touch.
We should hold our breaths with mouths together now.

Posted by: Dan | August 24, 2013

What the Elephants Remember: A Fable

Elephant Crying

Some cold and flu germs only live for a few minutes.

The mayfly has a life expectancy ranging from half an hour up until a maximum of twenty-four hours.

Our skin cells live, on average, two to four weeks.

Some octopuses live six months.  Others, up to five years.

In 2010, the worldwide average life expectancy for homo sapiens was 67.2 years, although, currently, where I live, it is closer to 80 years.

Some species of turtle can live between 150-250 years.

Some pine trees can live over 5000 years.  Some sponges are thought to be more than 10,000 years old.

Tirritopsis nutricula is a species of jellyfish that is immortal — it will live as long as the ocean will sustain it.

Our sun is estimated to be 5 billion years old and is expected to live another 5 billion years before it dies.

The universe, although harder to calculate, may be somewhere around 13.75 +/- 0.1 gigayears old.  I’m not sure how much older it’s supposed to live before it doesn’t anymore.

How can all these “things” co-exist?  How can we inhabit a space together?  Isn’t that amazing?

~

What is the measure of a life?  The mayfly is born, reproduces, and dies in a day or less.  Does it experience angst?  Does the pine tree?  Do we want them to?

Does the sun feel the same about us as we feel about our skin cells?

Does a cold germ feel about itself the same as we feel about ourselves?

Does a 10,000 year old sponge look at the brevity of our lives and wonder if, between being born, reproducing, and dying, we ever find time to ask bigger questions about meaning and beauty and truth?

~

Does the length of time that one lives determine the kind of meaning one finds in life?

Elephants have the same lifespan as we do.  Do elephants think the same as we do?  They, too, bury their dead.  They mourn the loss of loved ones with tears streaming down their faces.  Their children play.  They like to shower.

Why are they not like us?  Why have they not developed civilizations and cities and guns?  We do they let us slaughter them?

Is it because they were wise enough to not put the men in charge? 

Or is it because they’ve decided that they do not want to be like us?  Is it because they remember that if we forget that we are animals we become brutes?  Perhaps they would rather die with the earth instead of becoming like those who got civilized and killed the earth?

Instead, they roam their ranges, follow the water, and forage for food.  Perhaps their lives look hard to us.  But that, too, may be a sign of all that we have forgotten.  And all that they have not.

 

First Thought:

“Is there a triangle in this sentence?”

Second Thought:

What is this?

Image

Third Thought:

What is this?

Image

Commentary

I encourage you all to come up with your own answers before reading what follows.

First Thought:

It seems to me that whether or not a triangle is contained in the sentence quoted, depends upon what  a triangle is and if  a triangle is and what the relation is between this supposed triangle and the name given to it (i.e. “triangle”).  If a triangle is something that exists outside of language and apart from the name we give to it (does anything exist outside of language?  How can we talk about it then?  And if we can’t talk about it, how can we know it?), then one could argue that there is no triangle contained within the sentence.  But is a triangle divorced from the name “triangle” still a triangle?  If it is not then the name “triangle” itself contains or is a triangle, in which case there is a triangle in the sentence.

Second thought:

I came up with the following although I’m sure answer could be multiplied endlessly:

  1. A tetrahedron;
  2. Four triangles;
  3. A quadrilateral divided into four uneven parts;
  4. A quadrilateral divided in half;
  5. A symbol;
  6. A shape;
  7. A thing;
  8. The representation of something else;
  9. No( )thing;
  10. An empty signifier;
  11. Modern art;
  12. Not a pipe.

Third Thought:

  1. Me;
  2. A picture of me;
  3. A simulacrum;
  4. A series of tiny coloured dots displayed on a computer monitor;
  5. A singularity;
  6. One in a series;
  7. A multitude;
  8. The same thing as that explored in the Second Thought above;
  9. Something different than that explored in the Second Thought above;
  10. A stunningly attractive and intelligent young man;
  11. All of the above;
  12. None of the above.

And you all?  What answers did you give to these questions?

Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2013

The Pianist (A Fairy Tale)

I’ve seen her at the pub before.  She is young, especially for a place like this, and one of the first things most any fellow would notice about her is how full her lips are.  Generally she is sitting at the bar drinking with an older fellow – not the same older fellow – but different men who look almost but not quite old enough to be her father.

She doesn’t smile very much.  Her posture and her expressions remind me of the way a person drinks at a work function.

Another gal I used to drink with at this pub once told me that she is a sex worker who picks up clients here.  Perhaps it is the formality with which she drinks that led to this conclusion… perhaps it is the ever changing older and far less attractive men around her.

I don’t know if this story is true.  Maybe she’s just socially awkward and, let’s be honest, it’s pretty much only older folks who drink at this place so if a pretty young gal shows up here, there’s bound to be any number of daddies creeping on her.  And, who knows, maybe the gal who told me this story was just feeling insecure or jealous of her beauty.

But, honestly, I don’t care either way.  If a person chooses to be a sex worker, I reckon that’s no better or worse than choosing to be a social worker or a construction worker or any other kind of worker.

~

When she sits down beside me, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where our conversation might go.  We are both fairly drunk – her more than me, I think, as she keeps repeating the same questions or makes the same statements multiple times.  She begins by telling me that she is a registered nurse but later states that she’s actually a nurse practitioner – it’s just most people don’t understand what a nurse practitioner is, so it’s easier to say she’s an RN.  On weekends, she goes to Toronto and is a “Bud Girl” at special events.  She does a mock performance of how she gets the fellas to buy beer from her.  She is quick to call me “honey”.  Mostly, I only like it when the older servers at the bar call me that.  They’ve spent a lifetime waiting tables, dealing with drunks, putting up with pricks and I reckon they can get away with calling people “dear” or “honey” or “sweetie.”  Whenever the younger servers pull that on me, I feel like they’re trying too hard.  Let’s not get carried away, okay?

But she calls me “honey” and she touches my arm a lot when she talks to me.  She asks me if I’m single and I say that I am.  She asks me why and I am honest and say that most everybody I meet bores me – I don’t really give a fuck about hearing somebody talking about her favourite TV shows or her favourite kind of music or the fact that she really digs guys who can make her laugh.  Wow! Who knew?  God, what a bore.  She says she understands and feels exactly the same way about the guys she has met since moving to Ontario when she was twenty-four.  That was three years ago – she came here from B.C. – and started a new life for herself.

I don’t mention that I’ve already decided that she is boring, too.

~

She gets excited when she learns that I play piano and have a keyboard.  Turns out she is a classically trained musician – piano and vocals.  She asks if I have all eighty-eight keys and if they are pressure sensitive.  It is imperative that they be pressure sensitive.  I say that they are but that I don’t have a full range.  She asks if I have drinks at my place and if I like to party.  I mention I have drinks but I don’t party much these days.  But, hey, I don’t care if she indulges.

~

She asks about going back to my place.

I say okay.

Getting into her car she says, “But we’re just doing this as friends, right?  This is just a friends thing, okay?”

I say okay.

~

My place is a bit of a mess from having kids for the last four days.  I tidy up quickly and mix a drink for her as she settles at the keyboard.  She plays some songs from memory and some songs from sheets that I have.  I play a few songs and she sings in the background.  She has a decent voice but she is an exceptional piano player.  When I play, she pauses to powder her nose… a few times.  And then she plays one of the most beautiful renditions of the Moonlight Sonata that I have ever heard.

When she finishes, she says thank you very much and, gosh, it’s hot in here, and I escort her to her car and say goodnight.  I smoke a final cigarette out back after she drives away and then I go to bed.

~

A friend tells me I should be looking to get laid.  She points out that the mock profiles I set up on an online dating site – one to see if I could get rid of an old toaster, one pretending to be a total D&D nerd dressed up like a banana, and one pretending to be a circus bear – aren’t actually very conducive to meeting people and she reminds me that, really, I should be more serious about dating or at least picking people up.  She says it’ll make things easier.

I’m not so sure.  The story of lonely people meeting in bars and going home to lose themselves in the embrace of strangers seems a little overplayed.  I met a girl at a pub.  She came home with me and played my piano and then she left.  I never touched her once.  And, that, I think, made this whole encounter much less boring than I thought it was going to be.  I was laughing to myself about it as I fell asleep.

~

I hope I don’t ever see her again.

~

I have started talking to the flowers and the trees when I walk to work in the morning.  I thank them for being beautiful, I thank them for giving us clean air to breath and for replenishing the soil and for caring for the bees and the ants and the creeping things.  I apologize to them for the ways we are poisoning them.  I apologize to them for cutting down their brothers and sisters (the City recently felled a number of old trees that I used to pass on my morning route).  I tell them I don’t know what to do to make things better.  I touch their skins – their bark and leaves – I feel the dew and the rain that collects on them and rub it into my palms.  I smell the evergreens.  I ask them to come and visit me in my dreams, where we can share a common tongue and speak with one another and be understood.

They haven’t shown up yet.  I’m not sure that they trust me.  I don’t know why they would.

But I’ve got time.

~

What do you see, when you look upon the world into which you have been thrown?  What are you looking for?  What do you find there?

~

For a long time, I went looking for Death.  Not because I was attracted to Death but because I thought that love could conquer Death and I thought that I could be an agent of love and Life in places abandoned and scarred and living in the valley of the shadow of Death.

And I found Death.  The more I looked, the more I found Death everywhere.

(I think that Death, like God (if we can speak of such “things” as “God”), is beyond gender.  But I will refer to Death as a “he”.  It seems to me that men as a whole have had much more to do with Death than women or transgendered or intersexed people.  It makes sense (quite literally, of course) to refer to Death as a “he.”)

But, yes, I went looking for Death and I found him.  I found him lurking under jungle gyms in suburban parks.  I saw him pissing behind a tree on the trails by UBC.  Once, I passed him while he was smoking a cigarette at the base of the war memorial in Victory Square.  I grew up with him, as did many others.  The kids and adults and men and women I have worked with over the years were intimately acquainted with him.  I hung out in bars he frequented – bars that put up signs saying, “watch your drinks, date rapes happen here.”  I hung out in other bars where he came just as often but nobody put up any signs – buit, hey, I suppose that’s a bit of the difference between the rich and the poor, in dive bars people care for one another, in college bars, nobody gives a fuck.

But Death does not discriminate.  I found him in the company of the rich and I found him in the company of the poor.  He was in dining rooms and conference centres and churches and classrooms and alleys and condos and the greasy spoon breakfast joints that are everywhere if you know where to look.  He asked thoughtful questions, he listened to lonely people talk, he often sat in silence watching us, he was generous with his embrace.  He was nothing but generous.

~

michelangelo-pieta

~

Hebrews 13.2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Perhaps.  I don’t know anything about angels but I suspect that we have, often unbeknownst to ourselves, frequently hosted Death.

~

I looked for Death and I found him and I thought that love would conquer him… but slowly and inexorably, Death conquered me.  I grew tired.  I stopped loving well.  And then I forgot what it is to love.  Love became a stranger to me… and I became more and more attracted to Death.  Memento mori, memento mori, memento mori.

How could I forget?  How do you?

Do you know Santa Muerte?  I know her well.  She is the Virgin to whom I could pray for intercession.  Have you seen Tod und Frau by Kathe Kollwitz?  That is the only kind of visual art that connects with me – that hits me like a kick in the chest.  Everything else leaves me cold.

~

When I sit on my couch and look out the window in my apartment, all I can see are trees and the sky.  Because of where I am (next to a seniors’ home), and because of the angle of my view, it’s like there is nothing else out there but the trees and the sky, even though I am only minutes from downtown.  I remember the day I realized that the trees were alive – that they were a form of life, silently growing and breathing and eating and drinking, just outside my window.  I began to count how many I could see and I lost track somewhere around fifty.  My God, I realized, I am surrounded by Life.  I looked at the flowers.  I looked at all the tiny blades of grass growing from the lawn below me.  My God, my God, Life is so abundant.  It’s everywhere.  Silently there.  Silently alive.

The world is full of Life.

~

Ruby is in love with animals.  I hold her up by the window and we look for what we can find.  She laughs and smiles and points and does an excited wriggle in my arms every time we spot something.  So far we have seen squirrels and skunks and raccoons and rabbits and dogs and cats and geese and mallards and hawks and sparrows and starlings and cardinals and red-winged blackbirds and chickadees and butterflies and spiders and beetles and ants.

The other day, just outside my work, I saw a groundhog.

The world is full of Life.  Ruby knows this.  I had forgotten, but I am remembering now.  I am beginning to look for it.  I am starting to see it everywhere.

~

(And I have not forgotten Death – how can you forget him?  But I am remembering there is more, so much more – in the ground, in the air, in the water, in the cracks in the sidewalk, crawling up the screen of my window, there is Life.)

~

A few weeks ago, I cried for the first time in over three years.  After the night in the airport when my wife flew away with my son and I didn’t know if or when I would see them again and I cried and I cried and I cried, I haven’t been able to cry – no matter how much I felt like crying, nothing would come out.  I felt sick in my heart.  Something was wrong inside of me.  Even during the dissolution of my marriage, I never cried.  That’s just one example.  So many traumas have occurred recently, and I have never cried.  In all the tumult and hurt and breaking and brokenness of the last three and an half years, I have sat with a blank expression on my face and wondered why no tears came.

Then, a few weeks ago, two very dear friends came to visit me.  It was a wonderful visit and after they left I cried – full-on hard, ugly cried.  I cried not because I was sad that they were leaving – I cried because I was overcome with joy and gratitude that there are such wonderful people in the world and that I have the marvelous privilege of having some of those people consider me a friend.  My God, my God, what a gift.  I wept for joy and my tears said “thank you, thank you, thank you” in ways that I could never put into words.

Since then, I have found I myself crying much more frequently and much more easily than I have in a long time.  I wept watching soldiers return home to their children.  I wept when I heard that the grandchild of a friend had died.  I am weeping at almost every fucking sentimental video I come across online.

I think my heart is knitting itself back together again – another cycle of rebirth has begun.  And this is what I have started to wonder: perhaps it takes an intense experience of joy and gratitude to liberate us to feel the full bodily intensity of our sorrows.  Perhaps it is knowing joy that permits us to know our sorrows.  Perhaps.  I don’t really know.

I do know this: I have gone looking for Life and, wonder of wonders, I think that I am also finding it in myself.

~

Revelation 21.1-5a: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and God will dwell among them and they shall be God’s people, and God will be among them, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any Death; there will no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’

And the One who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”

~

I was holding Ruby and thanking her for spending time with me and telling her that I loved her so much and telling I was looking forward to seeing her when she came back from spending time with her mommy.  She laughed and pointed over my shoulder and said, “Squirrel!”

Posted by: Dan | May 29, 2013

Best Friends Forever

Image 

He bought some helium balloons and wrote on them with a large felt marker: “do not resuscitate.”  He tied them to his wrist and climbed the six flights of stairs to the top of his building.  When he forced open the door to the roof it triggered an alarm.  He didn’t need a lot of time.  A few steps and the parking lot below.

~

His message wasn’t necessary.  When they found him his head didn’t resemble much of anything we would recognize as a head.  It was broken and shattered and leaking lots of things.  More than you might imagine, unless you’ve seen that sort of thing before.  The balloons were still attached to him.  They were floating straight above him.  There wasn’t any wind.

~

When he stepped off the edge, I wonder if he wanted to just hold onto those balloons and float away.  I guess
in a way
he did.

~

~

(And I took the balloons – I took them home with me.  I think he’s still there, inside of them.  At night I hear them scream with a voice that seems to be rising from underwater: “Do not resuscitate!  Do not resuscitate! Do not resuscitate!”  I hold them in bed beside me and I whisper to them, “It’s okay.  I’m here.  It’ll get better, I promise.”  As the balloons shrivel the voice gets fainter and now they are deflated I carry them with me in my wallet.  I take him places and tell him what I see.  At night I still whisper to them, “It’s okay.  I’m here.  It’ll get better, I promise.”  Sometimes I hold them to my ear and I think I can hear the faintest, dried-out whisper, “Please… please… please…”.  I will never puncture them.  I will love him forever.  He’s my friend.  I’ll make him better.  I promise.)

Posted by: Dan | February 1, 2013

There Lived… An Emperor

the-emperors-new-clothes

Is the desire to convince ourselves of our significance — the desperation to participate in something meaningful — is that a symptom of our particular historical moment?  A symptom of the spectacle?  Of life after God?  Of opulence? Of enlightenment?  Of living in a world where we are all now aware that our high standard of living comes at the cost of the health, children, and lives of others?

Or what?

Whatever the cause, it’s a sad desperation that is masked with irony and alcohol and adrenaline and name brands and accessories and Facebook friends.  Because I hear people describing daily occurences as “epic” and I see people repeating the same lines over and over, and reliving the same moments time after time, and throwing all their intimate details before the world on a computer screen, and I look into their eyes and I examine their brands and I listen to their voices and this is what I here:

Am I living a meaningful life?  Do I really matter?  Does this?  How can I know?  How can I be sure?  How can I know? How can I know?  How can I be sure?  HowHowHowHowHow?

I matter, right?  I matter?  Please, tell me I matter.  Please, believe that I matter.

Because, look, we see others getting up for work everyday.  We see their smiling families online.  We see the tan they brought back from Cuba.  They tell us stories about sex and parties and promotions and awards and paying off mortgages and buying new cars and making a mark in their field and publishing papers and books and articles and chapters.

We hear them talking about how rewarding their lives are.  We hear that their dreams are all coming true.  We hear them talk about sleeping well at night.

And the Emperor’s clothes really are as beautiful as everyone says they are, as long as we say it enough to believe it.  Just a few more times.  Tell me again about how beautiful they are.  Just one more time.  I can almost believe it… almost… Tell me again.  They really are beautiful, aren’t they?  Aren’t they?

That’s the thing, isn’t it?  That’s what drags us on and on.  That we can all almost believe it.  We get so close.  So close.  And we think that one day we’ll cross that final barrier and be free and oblivious and drugged and happy… but we never quite get there.  Or do we?

Did you?

~

Solidarity’s going to give a lot less than it’ll take
Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?
Is there a human alive that can look themselves in the face
Without winking?
Or say what they mean without drinking?
Or believe in something without thinking what if somebody doesn’t approve?
Is there a soul on this Earth that isn’t too frightened to move?

~

Before I realized that every land we live in is a fantasy land, I used to have this idea in my head about “the real world” and how mind-blowing it would be.  I think this was partially the product of reading a lot of adventure novels (including the Bible) and watching a lot of stunning nature documentaries at a young age.  One of the results of this was that I discovered that I had oddly high expectations of a lot of things.  Like mountains, I still remember my first time seeing mountains (I thought they would be bigger) or flying (you had a better panoramic vision in the documentaries than from the window of the plane) or even seeing animals in “real life” (wait, I blinked and missed something… I can’t rewind that or wait for the slow motion replay… and if I was looking at animals at the zoo they kinda looked restless, plus the bars were in the way of a totally clear view).

I think there is something about imagination that allows us to feel the unspeakable or the inexpressible or the unrepresentable.  As I child reading those stories and watching those documentaries gave me something of that feeling.  My mistake was thinking that somehow, somewhere,I would encounter that unspeakable, inexpressible, unrepresentable thing and then I would know it in a way that could be spoken or expressed or represented.  But every word, every form of expression, every representation, every signification, and every thing ends up falling short and (at the very first, even if only for an instant) feeling like a let down — “Oh, I thought that this would feel like… I don’t know… something else… something more…”

~

Tonight,
We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter
Than the sun

So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down
I’ll carry you home,
Tonight.

~

I walked that way for awhile.  Alcohol and parties and three day hangovers and walking home as the sun comes up still drinking one more beer and smoking the last of your cigarettes.  And, despite the beauty and the intimacy and revelation that occurs in communities of beautiful and broken people who gather around a particular substance which both devastates and enlivens them (which both defiles and purifies them), I chose to walk away.

This will not be the fire that consumes me.

~

Instead, I think, the key is learning to live with longings that will never be satisfied.  Feelings that will never be translatable.  Rather than desperately trying and always failing to cross over into meaning, the key is accepting that we live in a liminal state.  We live in the borderlands.  Like Moses on Mount Nebo but, even then, we die before we make it high enough to get a decent view.

~

This, too, is a beautiful outfit is it not?  Look at the cut of the vest!  Look at the buckle of the belt!  Look at how the colours match his complexion!  Beautiful!

~

Because, babe, here is the truth that cannot be spoken: reality is the most beautiful clothing of all and we are, all of us, naked.

Posted by: Dan | January 15, 2013

In a Faraway Land

When I was young, a baby Robin fell out of the nest in our front yard and was abandoned by its mother.  It was small and pink and featherless, and I made a little nest in a shoebox, but my parents told me not to expect it to survive the night.  I know it may seem strange to think that a child growing up in an atmosphere of violence and fear could still have an unbroken heart, but in many ways I did, and I think my parents were trying to protect my heart and prepare me for disappointment if the bird didn’t make it through the night… but it did.

I named the Robin “Tweet” and it grew feathers and hopped around.  When Tweet was very small, I fed him/her through an eyedropper.  As s/he got older I dug up worms and mashed them up for him/her.  I tried to get Tweet to watch me dig up the warms so that s/he would learn how to do it.  I took Tweet outside but mostly s/he stuck by me.  I got used to cleaning bird shit off of my shoulder and the front or back of my shirt.

I was never sure if Tweet was going to be able to fly but one day s/he did.  And then one day, when the seasons were changing and the nights were getting colder and longer, Tweet flew away and never came back.  I knew that was for the best, I had been working towards Tweet being independent and free so I knew this meant I had completed what I was supposed to do — I had saved a life — but I still locked myself in the downstairs bathroom and turned the fan on so that nobody would hear me crying my eyes out after s/he flew away.  Tweet was my best friend.

~

Today I went to the bank to open my own chequing account because my wife and I are beginning to formalize the separation we agreed to in mid-December.  In Ontario, it is easier to get a divorce if you have been separated for a year first.  And we are getting divorced.

The woman at the bank was wonderful and sensitive and friendly and kind.  She remembered my children and commented on how lovely my daughter was.  After I told her where I worked she told me that her daughter had committed suicide eight years ago.  Within twenty-four hours of being released from a mental health ward in the hospital she was dead.  She was twenty years old.  Everybody’s got a story that will break your heart and, baby, my heart broke when she told me hers.

~

It seems that most of us want things to be black and white, we want there to be good people and bad people and we want to be on the side of the good people so that we can feel superior to the bad people (at least I’m not poor… at least I’m not a criminal… at least I’m not a woman-beater… at least I’m not a goof… everyone wants to feel superior to somebody, right?).  But really, babe, there’s just broken and lonely people and everyone of us is trying to find our way from there.

~

I was still whistling in my funny childhood way when Tweet flew away — whistling while breathing in instead of out — and for the first few years when the Robins came back in the Spring, I used to whistle to them to see if Tweet was back and would recognize me and come and perch on my shoulder.  But none of them ever did.

I think it was around the same time that my dad accidentally killed our pet rabbit, Flops.  I sure wept hard when that happened.  I think my dad felt real bad about it.  It’s the only time I remember him sitting me on his knee and trying to comfort me.  I remember thinking I would never recover from that loss — that I would return to school and simply sit and mourn silently at recess and that my peers would look at me and whisper in hushed tones, “Oh HIM?  His rabbit DIED.” And they would be amazed at my loss and silent fortitude — that I had loved so deeply and lost everything but bore it all silently — and they would also be secretly grateful that this was happening to me and not them.

I’m probably understating things to say that I was a bit of a melodramatic child (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)!

~

It is harder to know which is more difficult to bear — privately carrying the loneliness of feeling unloved or publicly admitting to the world that you are not any good at making another person feel loved.

~

We had two dogs when I was a child — a white German Shepherd and a Samoyed — but my old man sold them both (on separate occasions) when us kids were all away at school.

~

People grow and people change in good ways and in bad.  Some of our wounds heal over time, some tear open at unexpected moments.  Some of us sprout wings and learn to fly, others of us fade away like fires in the early hours of the morning.  Some of us have our best years ahead of us, for others of us, those years are already behind us.  There is no knowing which way any of us will go in advance and you can only hold on to each other for so long when your river forks and what used to be a single current pushing you along together turns into two separate currents pushing you in different directions.  You keep holding on and the water batters you and you both begin to drown.

What are you supposed to do?

You search and search for an answer but you learn that those who are wise realize that they cannot advise you, while those who are still learning to be wise give poor advice.  You also learn that there is no God out there who will help you out or save you or tell you what to do one way or another.

And then you learn how complete your loneliness is.

~

I was fully and completely in love with the beauty of animals when I was young.  The only shows I was really allowed to watch — and which I absolutely loved watching — where nature shows and documentaries about badgers or cephalapoda or tigers or the great barrier reef or whatever wonder was yet to be revealed to me.  Every night, before I would fall asleep, I used to pray: “Dear God, if you only ever answer one prayer in my life, let me be able to talk with animals.”

But then the documentaries started getting more and more sad.  Everything would begin beautifully, but then the final third of the show would be dedicated to talking about how this animal was now on the brink of extinction or about how the environment was being destroyed.  Man, I was a child.  This was all too much for me.  I stopped watching the shows because I couldn’t stand learning, time after time, that all the beauty I was seeing was being destroyed.  Completely destroyed in the never-coming-back, never-living-again kind of way.  How could I process that as I child?

~

How can I process it now?

~

Listen, children: we live for a moment only.  In a second we are born, we live, grow old and die.  We vanish like drops of rain in the ocean, like every breath we exhale into the air. But, listen, children: that second is sacred.  Sacred in the manner that is wondrous and sacred in the manner that is terrible.  It contains everything — all of our great loves, all of our great sorrows, all the little but not insignificant things, too, and, yes, everything else as well. But, listen, children: I will ever only be grateful that, within this second of mine, I got to share it with you.  If all of this is a part of what it means to be with you, it is worth every goddamned thing that ever was or ever will be.

I love you, Charlie, you are my sun and my stars.

I love you, Ruby, you are my beloved.

It's raining sunshine!

It’s raining sunshine!

1. Down the Rabbit Hole

If you want to surprise yourself after you watch “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” ask this question: who is the protagonist in this story and who is the antagonist?  In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? (And, yes, they are both guys.)

Once you ask this question you realize something surprising: the person you might otherwise imagine to be the bad guy — Flint Lockwood, who almost destroys the entire world — is actually the protagonist.  He’s the fellow we’ve been rooting for.  If that’s the case, who is the bad guy?  The Mayor.  Of course, we are groomed from the beginning to root for Flint and to dislike the Mayor — Flint has a backs story and we first meet him as a wide-and-starry-eyed child who is bullied by his peers but loved by his mother (who dies while he is young, leaving him with a gruff but loving father who doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with his boy).  Unlike Flint, the Mayor has no back story — I didn’t even know that he had a name until I looked the movie up on IMDB.

Flint = good; Mayor = bad.  Everything unfolds from this.  And down the rabbit hole we go…

2.  Friends and Enemies and You

Who or what is Flint Lockwood?  Well, we know he is something of a dreamer and an inventor.  He is a bit nerdy, sometimes a bit misguided, but always well-intentioned.  After a number of failed efforts, he does something of great significance: he invents a machine that causes it to rain food, thereby revitalizing the economy of a town that was dying and creating access to a resource that was quite limited (previously, the folks in Flint’s town lived off of sardines).  Food, of course, provides people with energy — Flint is an energy provider.

However, Flint’s method of resource extraction ends up producing some less-than-ideal results.  The amount of waste produced is staggering and, although everyone ignores it (Flint invents a machine called “The OutOfSighter” to catapult the waste out of sight and out of mind), it piles up on the horizon and threatens to tumble down and annihilate the town.  As if that’s not bad enough, the mass production of this resource also results in an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy the entire planet.

Does this story sound familiar to anybody?  It should.  Flint isn’t just any energy provider, he’s Big Oil.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood's character.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood’s character.

So, if that’s who Flint is, who is the Mayor?  Well, let’s look at the way he speaks about himself in the first behind the scenes shot we have of him:

This hellhole is too small for me, Brent. I wanna be big. I want people to look at me and say, “That is one big mayor.” And that’s why this has to work. It has to work. Otherwise, I’m just a tiny mayor of a tiny town full of tiny sardine-sucking knuckle-scrapers.

Of course, the mayor very quickly does become big… very big.

Before

Before

After

After

So the oil company is the good guy and the Mayor is the bad guy and the bad guy wants to be big… do I really need to explain this?  The antagonist in this film is big government.  Yes, you see, the problems arise because the government wants to exploit the kindly, good-hearted but somewhat naive energy producer in order to gain wealth and status.  Flint just wants to make everybody’s lives better — the Mayor wants to be big.  Because of this the Mayor pushes Flint to do things he would not do otherwise.  Flint realizes that things are getting somewhat out of control and dangerous and wants to pull the plug — but the Mayor talks him out of it and then, when that fails, the Mayor breaks Flint’s machine to prevent him from pulling the plug.  Then, when disaster strikes, the Mayor abandons the town to try and make his own escape at the expense of others.  Big government is not your friend.

But there is another enemy lurking here, somebody else who is to blame for all of this.  Who is this hidden enemy who also helps to drive the world to the brink of destruction?  You.  You see, if you weren’t demanding that the energy provider continually flood the market with more and more and more, everything would have been just fine.  The energy provider was ever only trying to make you happy.  After all, unlike the Mayor, Flint was never motivated by a desire for wealth, or power or status.  Sure, he wanted to be loved by others (who doesn’t?) and maybe that blinded him a little, but isn’t that true of all of us?

3. Vindication and Salvation

All of this is beautifully explained in a speech that the police officer, Earl, makes to the townspeople when they are intent on lynching Flint because they blame him for the disaster.  As they rock Flint’s car back and forth, Earl jumps in to restore order and says:

This mess we’re in is all our faults. Me, I didn’t even protect my own son. Look, I’m as mad at Flint as you are. In fact, when he gets out of that car, I’m gonna slap him in the face. I know Flint Lockwood made the food, but it was made-to-order. And now it’s time for all of us to pay the bill.

So, you see, BP, TransCanada, Keystone XL, Imperial Oil, none of them are to blame for any of this mess.  We are.  If the oil companies are guilty of anything it’s of trying too hard to make us happy and to be loved by us.

This is all your fault.

This is all your fault.

Notice, also, that it is a police officer making this speech in the movie.  Earl is the representative of the rule of law in this film, and the law vindicates Flint.  Sure, he may deserve a slap… but even that is barely enacted, and Earl quickly apologizes to Flint for slapping him (but, don’t worry, Flint is such a nice guy that he responds by saying, “That’s okay”!).  So, really, the law punishes the energy provider more to placate the people than to serve justice (and, of course, out of love for the people, the energy provider goes along with it… just like good ol’ Tony Hayward who pretty much died for our sins).

Not only does the law vindicate Flint but it is right to do so — for Flint is the one who ends up saving everybody in the end.  How does he do this?  With further technological advances.  Specifically, he invents a flying car that permits him to gain access to the machine in the sky that has gone haywire so that he can prevent a catastrophe.

That he uses a flying car is significant — aren’t flying cars the symbol of a future when technology has produced a wonderful world for us wherein anything is possible and all our problems have been solved?  The solution, then, is not to abandon any of our technological advances but to trust in technology to miraculously save us from an impending disaster that appears to be unavoidable and catastrophic.  If this also sounds like a familiar story it should — the oil companies have been saying the same thing to us for years about climate change.

4.  Conclusion: Stop Worrying…

All told, the message here is this: any environmental catastrophe we are experiencing was produced by self-serving politicians and greedy consumers exploiting well-intentioned energy providers.  The solution, then, is to not cast stones, except at big government, and wait for BP to save us, just like Flint saves the townspeople in the film.

So, really, if this is anything to go on (and anybody with children should break out in a sweat from 3:10-3:40, although the previous minutes provide the necessary context for that segment), by watching this movie I’ve been preparing my child to view the world in a certain way — a way that favours the narrative of the oil giants and a way that brackets out other narratives.  This is how I’ve been teaching Charlie to stop worrying and love the bomb.

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