Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Park bench diatribes and roman candles

“Last time I saw Jesus, I was drinking Bloody Mary’s in the South.”
- Over the Rhine

I’ve been taking the headphones of my ipod off more often, recently. It’s amazing what you hear, and strangely enough, what you see, when you aren’t plugged into that song that is plunging you into some internal reverie.

As in tonight, the man with the shopping cart sitting on the bench outside the library, yelling out for anyone who would listen, that he’s “antI-election, antI-RE-election, antI-Republicans-in-MEXICO!!” I have no idea what that meant, but as he paused to pay me a fairly classy compliment amid his diatribe, I concluded it was rather charming anyways.

Or the older gent who gave me a half-bow outside the theatre and said he liked the armful of white flowers I was hurrying through the night air of South Granville.

Or the young guy with a sherpa hat and massive beard and tunic and electric blue sneakers rambling past me across UBC’s grounds singing “I’m bound for the promised land” at the very top of his rather quavery lungs.

Time would fail me to tell of the slim mother and young daughter arms slung around each other as they peered in shop windows, the silver-haired man with the fedora who sings operas in perfect pitch and in stereo sound as he strolls down our street, the girl in the coffee shop who smiled at everything slightly manically, the young pan-handler who thanks me for refusing him every time I pass the liquor store.

Now, I know there’s a danger of treating people as a collector does – as odd curiosities that one can put on one’s shelf and admire from a distance. And stereotype. But I think that really looking, really listening, couldn’t but do me a world of good, and seems to do a number to stereotypes in the process.

There’s something in these moments when a flame of humanity jumps out at you – something unexpected. Not surprisingly, it’s often the ones who seem in need or at very least – vulnerable. I am coming to agree with Kerouac:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'”

I say commonplace things all the time, but I agree with the sentiment. And I think in those who are perhaps a little more on the edge, a little less dogmatic in their days and actions, I see a bit of holiness walking the earth, mixed in with all those other uglier elements of human nature. Incarnation is, after all, a messy thing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Losing Our Souls to a Piecemeal Space and Time

The early autumn rain is streaking my window, pattering in time with the music. Pulsing red blooms fill a glass on my desk. A candle glows by the modest stack of books.

The moment is simple. I’ve been trying to understand this promise of wholeness. These rare moments when concentration is possible almost without effort, when fragmentation seems to disappear.

Faint staccato as the rain grows harder. A dissonant piano chord.

Julia Kristeva diagnoses the modern malaise partly as the result of living in what she calls, “a piecemeal and accelerated space and time.” We have built a culture of show, a society of spectacle. We identify ourselves closely with images fed to us by capitalism -- by entertainment, advertising and propaganda -- and we lose all sense of our identity. Instead of experiencing those images that bombard us constantly as something outside of ourselves, we begin to experience these images as real. We identify so intimately with a set of images that we think they are us. They distort all sense of inner space, transgressing our boundaries. We may think we know our own desires, but often we are simply desiring what we have been told to desire, the need has been “artificially produced” (McAfee). We have become pawns of the external economy, and it is not merely our money that is being manipulated, it is our very sense of self.

“Modern man is losing his soul, but he does not know it,” Kristeva states. In her paradigm, those who wish to fight against this, must work to create an inner space, “ a secret garden, an intimate quarter…a psychic life.”

I identify strongly with this diagnosis. Easily distracted, easily fragmented, feeling pushed and pulled by desires that often defy classification into “real” and “societal pressures,” I find myself hyperventilating for lack of inner space. I spend my days sifting through an overwhelming tide of floatsam: collecting a hundred bits of news via a bewildering array of RSS feeds, monitoring human blips on the radar known as status messages, checking three inboxes, counting minutes, compiling lists and electronic calendars and bookmarking, sending, noting. After a day of this, I am incapable of holding a thought together for more than 30 seconds.

What is perhaps more sinister, I find that without constantly interrogating my desires, I too begin to identify with a set of images which I find I never consciously chose in the first place. That look, these stores, those activities, that music, this restaurant, that publication, this pose. Good enough if I told myself, I like this. But often, I don’t. Often, I’ve swallowed the hook somewhere without realizing it.

Distracted, fragmented, with an artificial sense of self.

I find it a bit ironic that culture was created as a way of imposing wholeness and order onto chaos. Now the forces of our culture are fragmenting us, the creators of culture.

I’ve been brushing up a bit on early ancient religion. All those creator myths about a god rising out of the chaos, the struggle to find a strong enough deity that could subdue the sea, the rivers, the “the womb of chaos.” The dividing of the earth, heaven and water into manageable entities. The establishing of rites to keep the chaos at bay.

And now, when my city life feels like a swirl of bits and pieces around an empty center, I find myself making my way to the cathedral downtown. Perhaps that is ultimately what I am seeking of my faith, a center. A meaningful way to step out of the meaningless flood that threatens sanity.

“If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up.”

Ultimately, for Kristeva, sanity can be preserved through love, through an attention to the particular, to the specific, to the individual. Through casting away empty monolithic definitions that dehumanize us.

I think the Psalmist might agree.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Listen to Your Life

"Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace."

- Frederick Buechner

Listen to the quietness about you. Listen to the look in your friend’s eyes. Listen to the light of evening spelling out each pale spine of the spider’s web. Listen to the dust under your feet. To the movement of an arm around your shoulders. Listen to the blackberries bleeding on tangled vines. To the cool shift of the breeze – just now. To the shoes lined up neatly by the door. To the stack of clean white paper on glowing, golden wood grain.

Before I beat my fists against the Silence once more, I am trying to relearn the patience of listening.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Picture Books

They were our favourites. The books my sisters and I would check out of the local library again and again as children. The ones with pages full of pictures that drew you into a perfectly-created world, one that was often precisely-drawn but full of atmosphere, heavy with an illustrator’s subtle magic.

The Storm Book, for example, with its tale of an epic storm rolling across a North American landscape, from rocky coast to hilly heartland. The page with the city at night, thin apartment buildings looming over a dark square shiny with rain, umbrellas spots of colour amid drowned streetlights and orbs of headlights and the rectangles of glowing yellow where people who lived in the city had drawn their blinds down…but not quite all the way. The cat looking out of the eighth-storey window.

Or the page with the mother rocking a perfectly-swaddled baby in the homey living room of some country house, a pale pink apron, a vase of drooping daisies, the radiators and the braided rugs so real you could imagine the heat, the roughness of the cloth weave, as the rain drummed the blackened windows and she waited for her husband to come home.

There was the “I Love my Home” book, with pages of different homes, all perfectly cozy and unique. The Victorian seaside house, the snug log cabin, the family who lived – can you believe it? – atop a grocery store! Or the houseboat that “floated by.”

“One Morning in Maine” was a favourite. All those blue and white lush ink drawings of rugged coastal trees and waves and boats ferrying the family to town to buy a new switch for the motor or new jars for canning blueberries.

I think of these books often now, a few decades later. I think of them on evenings like this, when someone urges me to look out the window at the sickle moon hanging over the city in the twilight, all the windows glowing different shades of yellow. I think of them when I see my sister stand by the lakeshore, dress blowing in the wind, holding her daughter up to see the view. When I see the awesome span of a bridge over a canyon, or a tugboat pulling a float of logs down the river, I think of picture books and the feeling they gave me as a child, that all was full of magic. That everywhere you looked there was a picture, and that this picture told you so much.

I think that as children, we didn’t simply like the drawings because they were pretty. There was something about them that both conveyed comfort and fed our hunger for newness. I would go so far as to say that these drawings conveyed the idea that there was something of endless discovery and even order and beauty in life.

Watching the city lights blink on across the bay, I often decry my tendency to “romanticize” the view. Curled in bed basking in the coziness of a lamp, a colourful quilt, a radio turned on low…I often shove aside the delight that bubbles to the surface.

But what is wrong with this tendency to frame moments? To see in the lit windows of my street, a storybook?

After all, to say that we must strive to see things “as they are” is ultimately an exercise in futility. None of us see things as they are. You cannot strip fully what informs the person’s gaze from what the person sees.

And isn’t it what we see things through that is perhaps most important? The experience and meaning we attach to the sight? If I can, in the moment I see the sickle moon hanging above the homes, dwell in the moment of flame that flickers in me, perhaps even reflect upon it, I may come to understand something important. Perhaps about myself. Perhaps about something else.

That to me, seems more important than seeing precisely what some might say the view out my window “literally” is – a quarter-moon above an average street in an average city. Oh no, it’s shining a pale gold, suspended in a smoky blue evening, with an untidy stack of large and small apartment buildings below, chock-full of wily cats, fuzzy pink slippers, and spindly old bicycles.

It’s a page from my life.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Merton strikes again...

"This time is given to me by God that I may live in it. It is not given to make something out of it."

- The Intimate Merton, p 129

Friday, June 27, 2008


Most of the day I spend chilled. Chilled by the many megawatts of energy it takes to push too-cold air through a vent installed amid the tastefully-beige ceiling panels. The massive and expensive system of vents, shafts and pipes that snakes around within my multi-story office building always succeeds in leaving us too cold or too hot, with too much of a draft or no oxygen at all. Conversation around the lunch room and in the elevator circles around this obsession.

“Too cold.” “Much too cold.” “Too stuffy.” “Too warm.”

It’s fascinating.

Add to the steady drop in temperature the comfort of padded cubicle walls that glow in a neutral shade of gold, the odd gleam of overhead fluorescent lights, the bizarre caffeine buzz of back-to-back cups of coffee (to ward off the chill), and the flickering hearth of my computer screen, and I begin to feel like I spend much of my weekdays in some alternate universe.

I speak of office-land. There are millions of us here. Inhabiting a synthetic environment. Piped air. Buzzing lights. Plastic and polyester walls. Water from machines. Coffee from machines. Tea – if you believe it – from machines (my mother would be apalled).

I’ve been craving a return to the “real” recently.

This craving has been expressed in some fairly predictable ways: a rant or two about consumerism (usually while I shop), a wistful desire to move to the middle of no where and re-learn how to farm, a sudden conviction that my true calling in life is to open a bakery, a following conviction that my true calling in life is to open a flower shop, a scouring of the net to find community veggie gardens in Vancouver, an urge to adopt many children (a la Brangelina) and bake them all bread. (Yes, my boyfriend is scared).

However, I think my disenchantment with an artificial environment is just a surface hint of a much deeper concern with my (and, I think, our) detachment from what I’m coming to think of as “alive life.” Life that is honest and genuine and anything but generic. Life that admits discomfort, joy, uncertainty, uniqueness, love, strangeness, creativity, grief. This goes far beyond the “I choose to eat organic, wear hemp, and ride a bike” stance (which is itself becoming yet another stereotypical identity to conform to and identify with). And that’s where my little blossoming romance with Julia Kristeva comes in.

But I’ll leave her for next time...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Theory and Life...

"For an heretical perhaps no more than that which in life makes bonds, thoughts, and therefore the thought of death, bearable: herethics is undeath [a-mort]; love."

- Julia Kristeva

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Vocation

"Every day I say to myself, today I will begin."

St. Anthony of the Desert