Re: Listen

It can sound like a quibble when someone points out that there’s a difference between hearing something and listening. Damn semantics! But there’s truth to that separation. Listening requires purposeful attention. Perhaps that’s why a leader of a group will shout, “Listen up!” before beginning an address. In arguments we sometimes can be accused of selective hearing or be told, “You only hear what you want to hear.” Tinnitus gets in the way of my hearing sometimes, perhaps that’s why I make a point of concentrating when someone is talking. I actually like moments when I can provide a listening ear to bring comfort. Regrettably, my sister used to think that the focus I brought to a conversation made me seem too intense for her liking. 

My grade six teacher would challenge us to listen for specific changes in a piece of music to better understand what emotion the composer was trying to convey. Like my dad, he was very dramatic when he read us stories, lowering his voice so we would lean in to pick up his change of accent, or a whisper to invite suspense. He was definitely my favourite of all of my school teachers. As part of English studies, Mr. Stroud twinned us with a classroom in Newfoundland. We each had a pen pal, who we wrote to every second week. When their letters came back to us, we would learn to listen to the printed word and ‘read between the lines’ to find meaning. I think of Mr. S., whenever I watch the awesome teacher film ‘Conrack’, starring Jon Voight.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTePeZag_yI

Being a good listener takes discipline and practise. Some have called it an art form. We’ve all been in a situation where someone has accused us of not listening, when really what happened was we failed to understand. I took courses in listening attentively during my training to be a Guidance Counsellor. In class sessions, we would pair up and role play scenarios. The goal was not just to gather the facts of the problem but also to relay to the other that we really understood what they were trying to say. 

I have been challenged during COVID19 with my listening skills. It’s very clear to me that I listen to people with more than my ears. As I age my hearing has weakened. With mask wearing, I’ve realized how much I’ve depended on lip reading to bridge the gap of missed vowel sounds. I’ve watched more closely for changes in body language. All this attentive listening requires keen eyesight too, “Hold on I’ll get my glasses.” These Covid realities have made communicating more like work. It doesn’t help when my inner voice is sounding negative either. For stress relief I’ve been reminded that listening to nature breeds a calmer attitude. The breeze through the trees, a bird on a branch, waves on the shore or rain on the window will bring my focus back to what matters most. This moment can have healing sounds worth listening to.

Re: Heel

I like to keep one step ahead of things. This makes it hard on me when situations require that I heel, while others take the lead. I’m not saying I need a leash, but recent events surrounding Covid19 restrictions mean I have to hold back my urge to take charge. I like to be ahead of the pack, or at least off to the side minding my own business. These days I’m feeling I have to wait for my dinner, whine for a walk or watch expectantly by the front door. When I die, I’m not coming back as a dog.

Perhaps coincidentally, cracked heels run in my family. My nan’s chiropodist used to remove the callused skin on her heels with a device like a potato peeler. My mom would forecast, “So if you don’t wear socks more often, you’re going to end up just like her.” I was given many cautionary tales as a kid and sometimes I’d have to decipher the meanings. My mom would frequently bring me to heel. “Robert, come sit and talk with me.” She’d pronounce like a summons, while tempting me with a loaf of fresh baked bread. Our kitchen table was one of those chromed things with a stained formica top. Mom smoked while she talked, her monologues might last only one cigarette but sometimes she’d chain smoke, punctuating sentences by butting out into a perpetually dirty glass ashtray. I remember a story of a guy she used to work with being described as, ‘such a heel’. That’s the only part I remember; that he was a heel. The fun visual stuck, sort of like the image of a dickhead, with roughly the same connotation.

I’ve learned that heels can come in all shapes and sizes. Evangelical tent preachers can sometimes be heels, taking advantage of trusting people, as depicted in the great Burt Lancaster film Elmer Gantry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z73HAUbQNp4

My dad liked imitating a crazed religious healer we occasionally saw on Sunday morning television. He would playfully slap the heels of his hands on my forehead or both sides of my head while crying out, “Now! Rise and be Healed!”

I’m married to a legitimate healer. She practised nursing and complementary medicine in her working years. Now she brings this experience to our friends and family. Besides reminding me to put cream on my rough heels, my wife has provided her healing arts to all manner of damage I have done to myself; from falling out of trees, to stubbing toes, to traffic accidents, to convalescence after minor surgery.

Once, a friend of mine tried to show me the healing art of bread making. He demonstrated the correct way to knead the dough using the heels of his hands. Later, kitchen filled with intoxicating aroma, bread warm from the oven, I would ask for the heel of the loaf, just as I had enjoyed as a boy. I’d slice hard butter on it, then add a daub of peanut butter. Comfort food for a weary pilgrim.

Re: Skin

My skin has been aging. It’s getting that thin parchment paper look that I remember when my parents got older. When I look at the onion skin on the top of my hand I immediately think of my father. I’m not alarmed. I play with this loose skin the same joyous way I grasp the tiny fresh finger buds on my baby grandchildren.

Skin is the covering of the soul. It is not immortal yet it is valuable as the body’s first line of defence. Humans carry almost 4 kilograms of skin, making it the biggest organ in the body. A soft exoskeleton to be sure yet it protects us from chemical and biological invasion. Early concerns for our skin came after a ‘Booboo’ or an ‘Owie’. A simple skinned knee often caused a rush of welcomed attention as we were attended to by loving hands. We watched with wonder as a scab formed.  Some of us learned to develop a thicker skin to repel hurtful words.

I used to hate being called a skinflint, but if you want to have skin in the game you have to acquire a level of toughness. We embellished stories of how we survived by the skin of our teeth. Maybe we later grinned in the mirror to see if there actually was skin on them. And maybe that’s why we brushed!

And what’s the skinny on mule skinners? Such expressions and meanings we give to words can be baffling when they pop in your head as a skinny little snippet from your long ago past. My grandad used to ask me for some news with the phrase, “What’s the skinny son?” I used to own a mule skinner’s knife when I was a boy scout. I kept it in a leather holster that fastened to my belt for easy access on canoe trips. My dad referred to hard labour work he did in WWII as mule skinning, yet I’m sure he was never put in charge of a team of mules.

I have an urge to launch into a debate when someone tosses off the cliché; Beauty is only skin deep. Or the similar platitude; You can’t judge a book by its cover. I love the beauty of a person’s skin and I love the beauty of their character. The meaning and wonder of Martin Luther King Junior’s speech notwithstanding, I have a dream that we celebrate both skin and soul for the gifts that they are.

The sight of skin often brings me in for a closer examination. I was never a pudding lover as a kid, but one look at the caramel skin on a baked rice pudding drew me in for a delicious taste. I pet fruit in grocery stores. It’s something I miss as a result of Covid19 restrictions. It’s intimidating to see a sign next to the melons, ‘Please take the one you touch.’ I like to stroke a nectarine before choosing. I’ll palpate for softness on a cantaloupe skin. I can’t resist.

Re: Endurance

The times we are in require endurance. People living in North America have now been suffering from the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic for over a year. We are showing signs of fatigue as we try to endure closures, lockdowns, lay-offs, long lines, crowded hospitals, enclosed spaces, domestic tension, business uncertainty, mental breakdown, unexpected shortages, restricted travel, etc. The list is long as we try to hang on or hang in.

Yet I have not tested positive for Covid-19 so I call myself lucky. There are numerous perspectives when it comes to pain and grief. I stop myself from complaining about my particular situation, knowing full well that someone else will be finding life much harder. Currently, I’m only suffering from the repercussions of our society’s response. Nevertheless I wonder how much longer I can endure fundamental changes to my existence.

I’m awed when I hear tales of lost miners or people who have been abducted or imprisoned for lengthy periods. There are many compelling stories of individuals who have managed to prevail while entrapped. Anne Frank & Henri Charriére for example, lived through unendurable experiences. In a modern context, two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have now been detained by Chinese authorities for more than two years. Situations may differ but people who have endured must find a similar inner strength to stick it out.

Those who undertake endurance runs capture my enduring attention. I marvel at their willpower. The desire to be first must not be their only motivating force. I recall back in the seventies watching people hang on to the side of a boat, parked on the street. A local sports store offered the vessel in a questionable contest to promote the grand opening. Several entered, despite the hardships of the strict rules (ex. one hand must always be on the boat, only six ten minute bathroom breaks per day allowed). The winner, literally the last one holding on, endured for eight days in all types of weather.

The popular television series ‘Survivor’ and ‘Alone’ have sometimes captured this phenomenal human quality of persistence. We watch and judge as contestants muster calm, a focus, a belief: ‘this too shall pass’. With many contests, prize money is the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. In real life situations however, I believe incentive comes from seeing the light that is already there.

What makes things endurable for me is a sense that what I am doing has value. I thrive on a voice telling me to hang in there, to keep calm and carry on, to persevere. I don’t need a thrill that speaks to outlasting others in a virtual race. In my most adverse times I haven’t even imagined a finish line. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice but to hang in there. We must have conviction that we are durable. Like other generations who have faced down forces that have made life difficult, giving up is not a satisfying alternative. Soon we will say with pride, we did endure.

Re: Hospitality

Some words fall out of favour in the English language. I was talking to an inn keeper recently and commented on his facility being so hospitable. He was flattered and said that he and his wife had made it a point, when they bought the place, to make hospitality their number one responsibility. And it showed; not only was the location of the lodge immaculately maintained but the gift of personal service could be felt from the first greeting. I’m in the habit of using the internet travel site Trip Advisor so I gave the hotel a glowing review.

I’ve never travelled extensively in the lower United States, yet I’ve always heard talk of their ‘southern hospitality’. Perhaps the phrase is a boast from the days of rich, White plantation owners. It must have been easier to look after guests due to the prevalence of slave labour. Also ironically, the word Hospitality comes up in several obscenity laced rap songs performed by Black artists. Check out Ludacris: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QWQVm9J5DM

As an act of service, hospitality is not restricted to hotels and restaurants. I would say our village grocery store provides the highest standard of hospitality from produce managers, butchers through to check-out workers. It’s not an easy job to maintain customer satisfaction, especially when shoppers themselves can be less than hospitable. When coronavirus restrictions were first implemented in our region, I was surprised to see ‘essential workers’, like grocery clerks,  being applauded with banging pots during the evening yet later criticized in newspaper ‘letters to the editor’ for insisting on a fair wage. Some hotel workers in our district actually went on a hunger strike to keep the focus on their plight of being poorly compensated. Many wondered why the cheerleading of these essential workers had receded like the tide. I imagined someone inhospitably suggesting, “OK. Crisis is over. Now get back to work.”

No doubt, the hospitality industry has been hit hard economically with the realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Some governments and corporations have recognized the need for financial relief for the workers who have been laid off as a result of closures and health care compliance. I have applauded initiatives where the most needed members of our work force have been provided financial as well as moral encouragement. I believe a guaranteed income for all is a way that governments can show that hospitality works both ways. 

It would be inhospitable of me not to mention hospital workers. When we have the need to go to a hospital we expect a level of care above what even the best parent could provide. Only once have I experienced disappointment at the hands of a medical professional. Every hospital worker throughout the world has faced pressures beyond anything I would normally complain about, pre or post COVID19.  Our society venerates hospital staff but doesn’t always provide the resources necessary for optimal care. This pandemic has reminded us of the importance of caring for others, of being hospitable, as a first response to our neighbours.

Re: Preserve

Preserve and Conserve are words often used interchangeably, yet each will evoke a different feeling within the spoken or written context. As a result, their subtle separate meanings can feel rather jammy in your head. When I’m writing, sometimes I want the exact word that will deliver my point, other times it’s just fun to mess with all available synonyms to create a mood rather than a message.

My former wife was into preservation, of fruit, of vegetables, of well used bits of fabric which she turned into kid’s clothing and patchwork blankets. She loved the process of conservation. She maintained detailed genealogical records and worked hard to sustain the values she found in her local church. She was proud of her choice to be a modern example of a Homemaker. I built a cold room space that was stocked with the many varieties of her jams, jellies, pickles. I made my own wine from berries picked from our yard, preserving their goodness in a different way. We both worked at preserving the culture of family mealtime.

Human communities value conservation efforts so we set up wildlife preserves. A conservative thinker will often choose the preservation of jobs over the conservation of natural resources. Often we work hard to maintain an institution because we want to preserve a way of life that has become our very identity as a society. Here is Old Fezziwig in a scene from A Christmas Carol, asserting his believe in the ways of old. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy_G0wvlJXU

Planting a tree is an act of preservation and conservation. We are sequestering carbon dioxide, creating habitat, and providing shade for future generations. We can’t know what the future holds but we know trees are an important part of the picture. Doing art is conservational and the results may be found in a conservatory. Taking aspects of our culture and portraying it in any artistic form is a statement about our present reality and a message for our future unknown selves.

If preserving history means never updating our understanding of its context, then I’m with the people who are currently tearing down the statues of former slave owners. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVELtGOaqxY. I’m into sculptures as an art form but not to iconify individuals. Death belongs in the past and must be documented within the past: Not as a roadmap for the future, but as a story book of how things were.

As a society we sometimes hold on too tightly to outdated things. We give too much credence to conserving tradition when considering how we want our future to look. I believe there is no truth to the phrase; “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” We humans just keep being human regardless of our memory of history. Unfortunately, our nature drives our actions more than our intellect.

Preserves come with an expiry date. If used beyond that point we risk our health. Our current climate crisis suggests we have failed to conserve our valuable resources. Our pantry is being depleted of the things we need and poisoned for lack of stewardship. We are losing sight of the garden.

Re: Pause

Thankfully I haven’t had to suffer physically from the COVID19 pandemic: Thus far, at least. Like many, I have found myself with lots of time to reflect. Looking back from some future time I may coin the quintessential phrase for this period of human time. Perhaps something descriptive like; Culture Paused.

Long before the remote control device was invented I was hitting my own personal Pause button. An Adam Sandler movie called Click explores this attempt at managing your life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZNC5emNyEQ . Time travel is suggested in the film yet for me, the Pause button was most creative. Going into Pause mode in my life is about zoning out. During moments of inner exploration I’ve come up with some astounding notions, however one button on a remote is boring, so I’ll add two others to better represent my experience: Yes, No and Pause.

Yes: Is full speed ahead and don’t turn back! Embrace life and fulfill your wishes. No: Is life as negative, a dull pit where even thinking is viewed suspiciously. Pause: Let’s digest, regurgitate, forecast while chewing on some serious cud! These three settings on my remote control are an internal function, not a response to others. Importantly, “No!” is an appropriate answer to an outside directive. I can say no readily even when I am in my Yes internal setting because I don’t want someone or something to stand in my way.

My Yes moments generally come when my partner can share my curiosities. These are mildly manic times when I felt supported to try new things, experiment with new opportunities. I have jumped into marriages, leapt into fatherhood, changed dreams to accommodate unexpected passions, embraced new places and methods. I was not thrill seeking yet I surfed on high levels of confidence that opened pathways to new adventures.

My No periods have been awful times when I denied my own personality. Time would march on for others while I made excuses to get out of stuff. I lied with a “Maybe” or “Let me get back to you.” I retreated to places that kept me from decisions. I preferred to reside in my hollow. The No button, on my device, represented guilt, failure and insignificance. I can recognize myself in stories of people who admit they have given up on life. They are in a No time. I too have once said No to life. I’m forever grateful to those who stood by me as I found my way back to Yes.

Young or old, there are times in our lives when hitting the Pause button is meaningful. Fascinated by my own hands and how they fit together palm to palm, I once confounded my grade six teacher when I asked (during the middle of an unrelated lesson) if I could exert enough pressure to expel all the air from my hands so that they would remain locked together. Perhaps forever glued, without adhesive! He asked me to continue my experiment while sitting in the hall.

I like to think that perhaps my question gave him pause.

Re: Life

The virus COVID-19, like others of its kind, is not a living thing. It can’t respire. It can’t metabolize nor can it make other viruses. One of several key elements to life is being able to replicate. Since a virus has limited genetic material it requires a host to reproduce. Humans can be that host. Our cells take what is lifeless, replicating new specimens that can be transmitted to other living things through our mucus: A case of deadly biological complicity. Yuck!

In these days of pandemic we are searching for a lifeline. It’s frustrating to think that the best an average citizen can do is to stay home, thereby avoiding the infection and the consequences of spreading the contagion. Our lifestyles have drastically changed, even as we count ourselves lucky if we haven’t contracted the virus. Worldwide, medical professionals labour to bring life giving care to those who are stricken. We see the lifeless bodies of those mortals who have succumbed to the infection being taken from the chaos of underfunded, understaffed and underprepared hospital emergency spaces in increasing numbers and we wonder if there will be life after this Coronavirus. We wonder if life can ever be liveable again.

My parents used to subscribe to Life magazine. Pictorially and textually I learned much from leafing through those pages. As a teen I started collecting Time/Life books; thin well bound volumes on a multitude of subjects in history, science and nature. I used the books for research and for wonder. Like all who are youthful I believed that there were keys to bringing justice and harmony to the world. Just as the periodic table of chemical elements has order, I figured once humankind came up with a plan that worked for all then we would experience heaven on earth. I have always felt lucky that I haven’t had to personally experience the effects of war. In my lifetime I haven’t had to adapt to massive change; until now.

We say that we make or earn a living when we refer to going to work. It’s a financial context that doesn’t include other aspects of life. I prefer the rarely used word, Livelihood, to describe all of the things we do as we build our unique existence. In the presence of the economic shutdown that is one result of the pandemic, survival is paramount. After the crisis I hope our society takes a hard look at what matters most in life. We must eat. We must be housed. Our planet must be clean. We must have equity. We must know joy. We must feel peace and purpose. We’ve been taught that life is what you make it. It’s up to us to create a life worth living. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBNChSa-rkA

Confronting death can make you hyper aware of life. Those who climb mountains often site that as a reason for the risks they take on the edge of things. Perhaps now, humans throughout the world will unite in a common definition of what constitutes a life well lived.

Re: Home

I am a person who loves his home so much that he calls it his sanctuary. I’ve been called a homebody. Perhaps being a white guy I can’t call myself a homeboy but I wouldn’t mind if someone called me a homie. Settling into a comfortable homey space, with a book and beverage at hand, is a sigh inducing event. The cliché ‘home is where the heart is’ could be my bumper sticker, needlepoint pillow, memorial bench plaque or business card accent. When Dorothy awakens from her trip to Oz stating, “There’s no place like home.” I can affirm it.

After my retirement from a teaching career, my wife and I thought we could roam about in a home on wheels, being of no fixed address. I got uncomfortable with that romantic ideal pretty quickly. Our next adventure was managing a condo as live-in janitors. I soon found out that my definition of a home was different from other folks. I got frustrated when the owners didn’t take care of their property with the same enthusiasm or respect that I always had for my own home. It seemed like an injustice to clean up after these people misusing their common space in the building whilst outside on the city street homeless wanderers were hunting for any corner that offered warmth.

An enduring memory I have of my childhood is floating in an army surplus dinghy off the coast of Maine. Fishing there with a friend would come to a close as dusk made the sky a deep royal blue along the shoreline. The lights of the beachside cottages would click on bringing a warm orange glow to spaces within. That thought never fails to bring on a yearning to get inside, safe and away from the approaching darkness. It’s the vision that comes to mind whenever I read the idiom ‘home and hearth’.

I recently had a conversation with a young fellow who had moved frequently within a short span of time. I asked him what home meant to him. He described the physical structure of a house or apartment was not the same as the feeling of home. The conversation had many silent moments where I wondered if he was homing in on the quintessential thing that made a home, a home. He went on to tell me that he had a future wish that his perfect home would include a loving family, a place for a BBQ and a big screen television set. He was describing some things that brought him comfort and security, things that he felt he needed to complete the picture of his home. At least in his head, at least for now.

Ravens take the role of homing pigeons in the television series, Game of Thrones. They carried messages and were rewarded with food and safe haven. A homing pigeon knows what a home is. When he finds it I can imagine he feels just as I do when I take in the peace I recognize in my abode.

Re: Herd

A pandemic is declared. The behaviour of humans is now a matter of life and death. The human herd is working hard to protect itself from the Coronovirus. Details change daily, sometimes hourly, in terms of government directives and casualty figures. “Have you heard the latest?” is the question posed by neighbours, family and friends even as they practise social distancing and spacial awareness lest the virus reach out its infectious properties. Since we are affected as a group in these situations, we necessarily respond as a group. We can help or hinder each other’s health by how we look after ourselves and our herd.

I have found it curious to be a witness as countries and their governments decide how best to take on the issues presented by this pandemic. At the outset of risk to their country, the United Kingdom chose to pursue a controversial policy endorsing the concept of Herd Immunity.
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/herd-immunity-slow-coronavirus-pandemic-200320092928984.html. They soon reversed their position when infected numbers grew alarmingly. There is some logic to letting things work themselves out, but as a society where do we draw the line on numbers of dead people? Stranger still is how we tolerate lifestyle illness, suicide and traffic deaths more readily than succumbing en masse to viral infection.

Herding humans is an art form at Disney resorts around the world. Here, park goers are herded efficiently through endless lineups to get to their tickets, get them to their ride or help them get fed. I’ve always been anxious in a herd, part of it has to do with being an introvert. Amusement parks, arenas and packed airports are places that make me hyper alert. As an individualist, I’m not myself when others surrounding me have the potential to exhibit random behaviour, so my tendency is to resist the pull of the mob. Herd behaviour was seen recently as shoppers struggled to stock up on social isolation supplies. Survival is the imperative to the point of scoring the last rolls of toilet paper, canned SPAM or, more menacing still, ammunition. Herd mentality clicks in during crisis.

Once, as a young father I had to quickly gather my young sons at their grandparent’s trailer park location. There was a commotion over a car, seen racing through the park grounds. The driver was cornered near us by bat and crowbar carrying residents who smashed his windshield. Further violence seemed imminent. Fortunately the police arrived in the nick of time and took the cowering driver into custody as park citizens continued to taunt and shout their anger. My children saw a herd of humans at its worst.

There are other formal names given to animals that gather. I’d like another word than Herd to describe humans. We could Band like gorillas, Parade like elephants or even Convocate like eagles. Being Shrewd like apes might be helpful to emulate. In Canada we humans gather to make decisions like owls in a Parliament. My favourite collective noun is a Zeal of zebras.
I could join that fun sounding herd.