Re: Circumstance

It is possible to be convicted by circumstantial evidence. Likewise, we are all victims of circumstance. Our unique set of circumstances, beginning with the accident of our birth, forms the template of our lives. Some of us will carry our fates like a cross to bear, some will struggle with the unfairness of our circumstances while others will journey forth to find the truth of their destiny.

It’s not pleasant to feel shackled by unfortunate circumstances. We can look at the hand we’ve been dealt and search vainly for something up our sleeve; some magic that will improve our circumstances. I’d hate to live as a Hindu under the caste system. How is that any different from the rule of apartheid as practised once in South Africa? One’s lot in life can be accepted but to have it institutionalized is a travesty of human rights. It’s a form of segregation that the Dalai Lama finds abhorrent. I can’t imagine being an Untouchable.

I refuse to be a victimized by my circumstances.  I have sometimes shouted the Billy Joel song, ‘My Life’ while in the shower. Feeling angry after being bullied, I wanted to be left alone with my own life. Under these circumstances the lyrics can be seen as an encouragement to stand tall, girded by the courage of your own convictions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tka4DQGx7zc

I think artists, and particularly poets, are the scientists of emotion. They use words to try to make observations and draw conclusions about feelings. If you get concerned about the hand you’ve been dealt in life, it might help to change your vocabulary. Coincidence is linked to circumstance. Fate is the annoying brother. Serendipity is the favourite aunt. Timing is your gym coach. These words can lead you out of the prejudice you find whenever you hear the word Circumstance. Yes, events happen to you, but you can decide what to do next. Circumstances may have brought you to the crossroad and then it is up to you to go left or right.

To be sure, there is unfairness in the world. It’s unfortunate that some people work harder to prove this truth than to correct it.  I find no satisfaction in saying, “I told you so.” And pointing the finger of blame doesn’t help either, even if you are pointing it at yourself by saying, “I can never catch a break.” I walked by a park near where I live and saw many tents occupied by homeless folk. “Get a job!” I’ve heard some shout as they drive by in their cars. One tent was set on fire under suspicious circumstances. I often wonder if under different circumstances, I might be one of these unfortunates hunkering in a flimsy structure, unfit for a cold dark winter.

I like the first four letters in the word coincidence. Our circumstances can provide us with the ‘coin’ we may use to get the most out of life. Don’t make yourself a slave to fate. Watch for the opportunity, then lay down your hand with optimism.

Re: Wild

Most people my age can describe stories of their wild childhood. Children of the late fifties were told to get outside and play, totally unstructured. Urban kids, like me, would find creeks to splash in, grassy fields under towering hydro power lines or small preserved woodlots. I remember Saturdays leaving home after breakfast, scrounged some food from neighbours or restaurants for lunch. Getting up to no good, some would say. “Come home before dark.” was the only direction our parents gave, otherwise,“Have fun!” Along the way I learned how to fend for myself, who to trust and how to manage time and space. There has been a recent social movement to allow more freedom for young folk, to be raised in this ‘free range’ style without a lot of parental supervision. The whole idea of what wildness can do for our personal growth needs more examination.

Since our cave dwelling days, humankind has feared the wild even though we are part of it. We’ve been given biblical directives to tame the earth, thus separating us from nature. I enjoyed the characterization given to wild things in the television series Game of Thrones. For example there is the conundrum of the Wildlings; those far northern people beyond The Wall, who are feared and sneered at by those from the southern regions. They are clothed in primitive furs, exhibit a fierce determination and have awesome survival skills. They remind us where we came from so we get to feel superior. I found it so fitting that Jon Snow finds kinship with these prehistoric folk. At the end of the series, without giving too much away, this beloved character gets to start over by going back to the wilderness. To me, he goes home.

My formative years were spent near the Warden Woods in Scarborough, Ontario. In that area of the world there were few places, then as now, where one can find any sense of wilderness. In my mind’s eye I created deep jungles, vast oceans and towering mountains. I recreated the adventures of my explorer heroes, setting off to wild foreign landscapes with the wish to discover what others already knew. Charles Darwin was my earliest pretend mentor; brave scientist sailing in the Beagle to catalogue the wonders of the natural world. He went where the wild things dwelt.

Sir David Attenborough has made an impassioned plea for humans to ‘rewild’ the planet. This suggestion to go wildly off tangent from our consumptive trajectory is in response to the facts of global warming, deforestation and species decline which are elements of the Anthropocene. His latest effort is a call to action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Puv0Pss33M

Space travel does not answer the question of our ultimate survival. We already live on a spaceship. A former U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson said, “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship… preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and…the love we give our fragile craft…on (our) resolution, depends the survival of us all.”

Re: Story

I’m thrilled that my three grandchildren are being read stories to. I have yet to have that task assigned to me, what with COVID19 keeping my little ones from scrambling up on Grandpa’s lap. For now I have enjoyed the sight of them tumbling for access beside their parents while we long distance chat though the magic of the internet. The young ones’ smiles and squeaks of glee fill my ears and heart as cardboard pages are turned beyond the screen that separates us.

My father, who loved to create his own stories, once had to work night shift when my younger sister was in her prime bedtime story time. Unable to share tales with her to settle her to sleep, he crafted yarns on a reel to reel tape recorder. He left the cumbersome machine on a stool by her bed, asking me to press the start button. His voice would quickly work its magic spell on her anxious soul. Once down, she was a deep sleeper. I sometimes surrendered to sleep, as I sat on my bed nearby, only to be jolted awake by the flap, flap, flap of the tape’s end. 

Stories have always bound us together. Ancient ancestors recited tales around the campfire. Today we create blogs. When we travel and meet others we might share a meal together and ask, “So, what’s your story?” Our stories are our lives: Interpreted so that we may understand ourselves. Told, so that others may know us. The character Tyrion Lannister in this scene from The Game of Thrones speaks well of the power of stories. 

History is really a series of stories, retold, written down, debated and repeated. Unfortunately, men have generally been the arbiters of HIStory, with women’s roles often being left as footnotes. Societies are slowly coming to realize that the truths of our lives have only been half told and that HERStories cannot be left unrecorded. A woman is not the ‘better half’ of a partnership story anymore than her past can be lewdly considered ‘storied’ as in pulp fiction novels. All human beings contribute to the narrative that is OURStory.

When I witness a large crowd of people I’m overwhelmed by the thought of all those stories: Globally almost 8 billion! The story of one can seem as simple as choosing yes or no. Now I add an extra to my circle. Then I add those who are close to me, then those who I work with and others I’m only vaguely familiar with. Like rain drops on a quiet pond, I picture a vast collection of Venn diagrams; spaces where stories overlap, large arcs where stories are still unfolding, and along the edges there are stories I can only imagine. My story is only complete when it’s placed within the context of this vast community.

I don’t know how to comprehend the many stories of humanity but sometimes I have a Eureka moment when I experience poetry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws5klxbI87I

Re: Soul

Long ago, a book called The Aquarian Conspiracy was gifted to me. I recalled it yesterday when someone talked of a soul connection. When I heard this term my first thought went amusingly to the bottom to my foot. Going further off on a tangent I called to mind my favourite fish dish; Breaded Sole. Solely on the basis of these diversions I’m not sure how I can get back to matters of the spirit, but I will try.

I’ll suggest that spirits float free; think ghosts. When they find a host to inhabit let’s call them souls. Some have told me how they can see an aura surrounding an individual. I don’t believe that you can use any of your five regular senses to determine a soul’s existence. But when you do sense its presence you know it. We sometimes refer to that recognition by using a word like  Soulmates if the relationship has longevity, yet even brief encounters with strangers can seem astonishingly intimate when they involve a soul connection. The soul is at once separate from the body and attached to it. It’s along for the ride: On a soul train! The soul adds to one’s personality yet doesn’t dominate it. We can’t be whole without acknowledging this aspect of our existence. I find that music tunes me in to my soul faster than anything else.

When I have recognized the soul within another person my heart has leapt. Once I stood transfixed by a harmonica playing homeless person. Babies show their soul when playing “Peek-A-Boo”. I recently had an ultrasound examination. I was cared for by a technician who had a warm professional manner. The whole event was surprisingly relaxing. I asked lots of questions and she helped calm my fears. As I was shown the way out of the office the examiner said, “It was really nice to meet you.” It was the way she said it! I felt she recognized my soul. It was an instant quite magical yet also remarkably familiar. There is a scene in the film ‘What Dreams May Come’ where we get a sense of this intangible mystery of the soul. 

I’m not a pet lover but I do enjoy other species. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I have sensed the souls within some of these animals. A while back I did some volunteering at a Therapeutic Riding Stable and I encountered one horse called Bangsy that seemed to connect with me from the first day of meeting. He watched me. He responded to me as other horses did not. He got me. I thought my soul had touched him too. When we say we have had a ‘meeting of the minds’ I suspect we really are talking about a soul connection.

So if the body is a carrier of a soul I will be ever watchful for opportunities to recognize others in this way. This spirit may have come my way before so I’ll say, “Hey!”

Re: Legacy

I’ve had some amazing students in my classrooms. Some children have burned so brightly I’ve wondered at the time if this moment in their lives would eclipse all other accomplishments. Collectively, what they have left to me, is an affective legacy. Just as I have been part of my students’ lives they have shared themselves in ways that have influenced who I am today. 

Lately the term ‘Legacy’ has come up in news reports to describe what a particular politician might leave behind as they vacate their office. Lessons may have been learned from their tenure in government. If the leader was of great stature they may have created change that will live on in national policies and the consciousness of the citizenry. Hopefully these achievements will be referred to before the death of the individual. Contributions are worthy of repeating long before funeral speeches are written. 

While some wealthy people have used philanthropy to improve their social legacy, only history will say whether their overall impact as human beings will be revered or frowned upon. Gaining inheritance money or being a child of a celebrity can often be viewed as riding on someone else’s coat tails. Children of parents who have gone to prestigious universities in the United States are able to get Legacy Status for admission and thereby skipping the line. Recently people of privilege went a step further using bribery to receive bogus scholarships for their children.

Every Canadian knows of the legacy of Terry Fox, a one legged runner who attempted to cross our giant country to raise money for cancer research. His achievement and humility are factors that make his name appear on lists of top ten important Canadians, something he hadn’t envisioned or desired when he began the straightforward act of running. His legacy inspired Steve Fonyo to continue his run of a lifetime. Each year many run in Terry’s honour and hundreds of thousands contribute to boost this financial legacy. Individuals are often praised for what they leave behind. Groups of individuals can also be recognized for making a lasting contribution. Banners in stadiums attest to past achievements in sport. Plaques, stars in pavements or statues we erect can’t tell the whole story behind the individual honoured for their legacy.

Like the over used word ‘Hero’ we may be in a time when we hunger for an example of greatness so much that we might use ‘Legacy’ too easily. And yet no other word can be relevant to describe Captain Tom Moore as an example of a person’s actions leaving behind an imprint for the ages. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPxOjHgqFrY . Capt. Tom’s example inspired others, such as John Hillman of Oak Bay, to add to his own personal legacy by raising money for a cause by the simple act of walking. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7s4JshbjUA .

Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Ultimately we increase the value of any legacy by continuing the work that has been started. 

Re: Teeter-totter

Playgrounds are a big part of children’s lives. When my boys were small we lived in a house directly across from a small parkette. It had a teeter-totter, slide and sand area. As the boundaries for their play expanded from their own front yard, crossing the street, all by themselves, was a longed for objective. I have fond memories of setting up a camp chair on my lawn and witnessing this early bit of boyhood adventure, just across the divide of our quiet residential street. Curiously, my sons’ favourite activity was transporting handfuls of sand to the top of the slide, giggling as the grains slid down the slippery slope. Once I watched my eldest try to walk up and over the teeter-totter. He made it up to the centre point and then, all wobbly (and with my heart racing) he jumped to safer ground.

Rarely seen in playgrounds anymore, the seesaw or teeter-totter has always seemed a strange choice for a kids’ park. It’s a dangerous piece of equipment! It’s made of hard materials. A certain level of balance is required while sitting in the tiny seat and holding the pokey handlebars. It’s one piece of playground equipment that requires another person in order to have productive fun. The choice of partner may also be a challenge since size, agility and communication skills are important considerations. Trust is also a big factor as you must have confidence that your teeter buddy will know the right time to get off their end, slowly, preventing the one in the air from crashing to the ground.

Seesaw is derived from the French ci-ca, meaning this or that. I love the broader philosophical view here: either this or that, up or down, here or there, you or me. A teeter-totter has a fulcrum like a set of scales. In order for this equipment to work properly a degree of justice must prevail so that one person isn’t forever stranded in the air, awaiting a fateful decision. In practise, this machine is a type of lever (one of humankind’s first tools) and yet metaphorically a seesaw has the potential to pry you out of your comfort zone, enabling you to gain a different perspective. The ride can be a thrill as you may pretend to be part of a circus act of tumblers, jugglers and acrobats. Add danger at your pleasure, equivalent to your level of imagination.

Certainly cheaper and with fewer moving parts than a roller coaster, a teeter-totter is also a handy metaphor for mood. Your state of being may fluctuate: ‘I’m feeling down today.’ Or ‘Hey my prospects are looking up for a change.’ Or ‘I think I need more balance in my life.’ I have often seesawed my way through life. I’ve been grateful for the partners I’ve had, on the other end, lifting me up, then with a push getting me grounded again.

Recognizing the value others bring to my play has not always been easy for me. Achieving balance is a knack that takes practise.

Re: Privilege

COVID continues and I’m binge watching the television series The Crown. Talk about privilege eh? I feel lucky to have something to occupy my thoughts amidst the luxury of NOT having coronavirus. The portrayal of the British Royal Family shows characters who are the epitome of privilege. Setting aside their vast wealth for a moment (and I don’t do that lightly), I ranted privately on how someone could be given the right to rule simply because of the circumstance of their birth. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II parallels my time in history since she ascended to the throne the year I was born. My British parents were working class and yet still had an affection for the “goings-on” at Buckingham Palace. My mom thought that Edward VIII did the right thing by abdicating and “leaving all that nonsense behind.” As the episodes of The Crown unfolded I often shook my head in a socially egalitarian way, yet before I got too judgemental about the Windsors I couldn’t help but take stock of the ways I have been privileged.

Firstly, I’m born a white skinned male. Enough said? I’ve had the privilege of a solid education. I held a career with public status and enjoyed an income healthy enough to support a family of five. I can’t help but wonder how others may see what I’ve done with my privileges. I do believe with privilege comes responsibility yet I recognize I have been selfish at times with my talents, my resources and my energy. Someone once told me that I “present well.” I’m sometimes embarrassed by the privileges I have not earned, however it’s been a privilege to help maintain the society within which I have been able to thrive. I try not to abuse the gifts that have been bestowed on me. I sincerely feel that privilege never gives me licence to be rude or disrespectful.

Birthright does not always enter into the success of an individual’s life, hard work and talent can place you in a privileged, enviable position. It’s true, those who work hard deserve something special for their efforts. However I also judge the way the wealthy few exercise their privilege. When I think of today’s 0.1%: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, for example, it’s clear they represent the new royalty. Their individual wealth gives them privileges far beyond anyone currently entitled to a crown.

When dog walker Amy Cooper famously ranted in Central Park she abused her privilege. When Ted Yoho swore at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez he assumed his privilege would protect him. Ms. Cortez later stood in Congress on a ‘point of personal privilege’, and gave a moving speech related to human rights.

Sometimes it is clear where the line between privilege and right is drawn. The United Nation Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 rights felt to be essential to human life. They are often disregarded, usurped or dismissed by those who claim privilege, however these rights are inclusive, irremovable and do not depend on where, how or to whom you were entrusted at birth.

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.

Re: Sort

Carl Linnaeus, considered the Father of Taxonomy, developed a system of sorting plants and animals in the mid-eighteenth century. In university, I enjoyed an Entomology course where 50% of the final mark was to sort hundreds of varieties of insect specimens found mounted and stored in dozens of drawers in the lab. Many features on each specimen needed examining before it could be assigned its proper Order, Family, Genus then Species names. I got my highest mark in this course, where order took precedence over randomness.

Not without coincidence perhaps, my favourite candy as a boy was Liquorice All Sorts. When we first came to Canada they were hard to find in stores. Sometimes my grandmother would send a package from England at Christmas. My sister and I had different favourites which luckily avoided conflict; she liked the black tubes filled with white sugar paste and I loved the coconut wheels with the liquorice centre. I still enjoy them as a treat, my wife loving the colourful beaded ones that look like buttons. No arguments here: Harmony reigns.

An English phrase I recall my parents using was, “Let’s get you sorted.” I’d have a problem with my bike, or something troubling happened at school or sibling rivalry reared its head and Mom or Dad would sit us down to get to the bottom of it. We were encouraged to sort through our problems in a structured way by examining ourselves first.

What sort are I? Like my fellow human, I am a person wanting to be able to express free will. The more you put me in a box with a singular definition the less I will feel free to be me. In the documentary film, ‘Ask Dr Ruth’, Ms. Westheimer rejected being classified by her daughter and granddaughter as a feminist. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkZ8Kn3xVO8
I thought about this scene in the movie for days afterward since it seemed obvious to me that she represented in word and deed what a feminist would stand for. She later accepted the label saying she wasn’t ‘radical’. I wondered if her reluctance had anything to do with being sorted, as so many of her generation had been, in the methodical terrorist manner that was the Nazi Germany of her youth. Under Adolf Hitler, people were identified and classified. Once labelled, a person could be discriminated against, legislated against and potentially exterminated.

None of us want to be put in boxes. We are much more than one aspect of ourselves. We are many facetted. We are all a unique combination of our skin colour, our beliefs, our upbringing, our occupation, our thoughts, our daily activities. We are complicated. We are right to reject being classified. We must shout loudly if necessary, that we are a member of the human race. We can say this with certainty, objectivity and truthfulness in our hearts and minds. History tells us that this fact needs to be declared repeatedly so that we remember our common natural classification as Homo sapiens. No further discussion needed. What else needs sorting?

Re: Border

I have donated to ‘Medicine Sans Frontier’. In English this band of brave men and women are called Doctors Without Borders. They believe bordered countries prevent medical equity. Some human issues are borderless. My wife loves to suggest: For the unity of all human kind we need an attitude of People Without Borders.

I’m fascinated by how borders are created. On the desktop map I had in my room as a youth, I would skate my finger through Germany, France and Spain on my way to Italy. My digits had no need for a passport as I straddled the 49th Parallel, testing the waters on the U.S. side of the continent. I’d love my family’s once a year camping trip to Maine as much for the thrill of crossing the border into New York State.

After one particular trip to the seaside we returned to Canada via the New Hampshire forests. It wasn’t our usual route since it took an extra day and Dad only had so much holiday time. It was Mom’s idea since she had always wanted to see Lake Champlain so a route was planned that included a night at White Mountain National Forest. While the camp was being set up I was told to monitor my younger sister as she rambled through the hardwoods. She found a turtle! It was about a quarter her size as I recall, so it took the two of us to carry it back to our site. Much oohing and aahing ensued. We constructed a sort of corral out of firewood for the hapless creature. I think my folks were suspecting Mr. Tortoise would be gone by morning but he had retreated into his shell so now what to do? My sister said, ‘please, please’ so arrangements were made for his transport accommodations: A bed of leaves inside our large metal Coleman cooler which was always placed in the middle of the back bench seat of our Plymouth to separate the siblings. As we came up to the border crossing Mom repeated the warnings to “Look straight ahead. Don’t say anything. Under no circumstances open the cooler.” At the customs gate I kept thinking the words, Turtle, Turtle, Turtle with such intensity that I was sure I was yelling them out loud. Fortunately, I didn’t speak (although several years later while at a similar checkpoint, family lore has it that I told the border guard my name was Mr. Wetsuit on account of the undeclared contraband I had bought with my life savings). Back at the apartment, Dad put the home made car-top carrier on one end of our balcony and filled it with leaves, fashioning a wee pond from an old metal basin and our Mr. Turtle seemed happy. Until the first winter frost came.

Natural or man-made borders exist and more boundaries are created every day in the belief that we can keep things out, or keep things more safe within. Yet here we are on a finite spinning ball bordered by a thin atmosphere surrounded by space.