How to be good at life – a one point plan


In 1971 I sat in The Spingside Café with a friend drinking carafe-scorched coffee, listening to some old guys across the aisle talking: “No, it was the winter of ‘57 when the snow was that deep. I remember ‘cause I couldn’t get half my crop in.”

“Oh hell, the years are running together on me,” says the companion. “Yup,” comes the reply, “keeps going faster.”

We laugh. The following year I graduated high school and got out of that little prairie town ready to taste and touch every colour-burst minute, every fragrant-filled day.

Today I sit in Discovery Coffee talking with a new friend, not much younger than me and hear myself say, “Every year, time seems to accelerate.” My friend says, “Has the move out here helped that?” “I’m not sure, it shocks me at how quickly part of my brain gets habituated to circumstances and surroundings and shuts down—I look up and a year, a decade, has slipped by.”

What’s worse is I get mired in my likes and dislikes (which all feels perfectly pleasant) and reality goes foggy and I lose the young man who once responded to a painting, to music, like a colt to open pasture. More, I no longer respond to people without any preconceived notions of who I think they are, or what I want them to be.

I thought of this thing we did in a small group once: we gave ourselves the assignment of going through a week without pre-evaluating, prejudging anyone we met— friend, acquaintance, stranger —approaching every conversation without preconceptions of how it would go, without any thought of how we wanted it to go. It was impossible of course, but the effort was an education, and there were surprises (I had no notion that the bottle picker I routinely saw on 104th, had saved enough over the months and years, to go Europe twice).

And through this little exercise, it was this that hit home: we were developing a capacity for surprise.

Last week with my poetry cohort, one of the poets read a poem about a man from the Ivory Coast who carved chickens out of wood. Some of the lines, images, sound-scapes, were so fresh they swept me away, and the evening was somehow reanimated, held awake. And that sequence of days, you know, like power poles along a prairie highway flashing past your car, slowed down.

We all miss parts of our lives while going about the task of living. And that’s life too. But to find ways to train the eyes, and so at least perceive the passing of those poles more clearly, that’s poetry.

Yesterday, after supper, Deb and I walked out to the breakwater. Three cruise ships were docked and Dallas Road was full of tourists. Opened-top-sight-seeing buses, pedal-powered rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages were everywhere.

We plan, we move, we travel, hope for the rich experience, hope to add to the stock of our lives, and we do. But without a capacity for surprise that goes deep enough to touch our dormant spirits, makes us see the wondrous weirdness in all things, these bucket-items can just as easily cloud our souls.

Among the tourists, a family, away from the traffic, down at the shore among the waves and rocks; their children were playing, building an inuksuk. Deb reminds me inuksuit were often used by the Inuit for navigation. When I get home I look this up, among the many navigational uses: how to avoid areas where fog is prevalent.

Where I interview an aging man who hopes to pass a life exam


Lac Ste Anne, Alberta  December, 2016

Life is short, but how trite to say…

What do you mean?
I mean we say this but rarely think it through, which makes it hackneyed, trite.

What would it mean to untrite it?
Well, nobody really wants to sleep walk through their days. Life is short could be a prod for remembering the importance of things.

What things?
Relationships: friendships, kinships…

You’re saying the importance of relationships escalate with age?
Not exactly, they’re weighty whatever our age. Just think of your first love! No, what changes is your awareness of their importance, an awareness that’s solidified by loss.

Awareness made keen through sorrow from lost relationships?
Yes…and at the same time, joy for those that remain, and delight for those that, despite distance, sustain?

Which brings up the question of, let’s say, the intentional care and feeding of human connection…
I think it can go either way.

Either way? You mean for some life is loss, so to hell with it? and for others, life is short, full of loss, so make everything count?
Yes, although it’s far more complicated. Currently, about 7 billion times more complicated.

Granted, but keep it simple for me…
Look, life is hardly static, we’re all somewhere along a beam. Because of our nature and the sum total of our experiences, we’re either moving toward a frozen existence, or we’re evolving: moving toward some kind of meaning, some kind of beauty, that is both within and beyond us. And the only way beauty, purpose and meaning grow is through flourishing relationships—outside of that, they’re pickled.

That seems slightly wise.
Hardly, just an insight of age that’s innate in a child, then often shelved in (what can be) the self-absorbing quest of actualization, only to return and be reckoned with, in time, or in tragedy.

And the reckoning? What’s it look like?
Well, I’m thinking about the relationships I’ve had over the years. All my failures, my neglect, my taking offense at perceived slights, the misunderstandings, my face-saving bluster, all my quid pro quo “love”…

They’re hazy, barely remembered, maybe wrongly remembered.

What’s that about?
Self preservation.

Don’t you want to excavate them?
It’s not about excavating. I wouldn’t know where to start, and I don’t trust my memory. And I’m not sure if excavating the unconscious for some early trauma is of much use to me, I had a pretty good childhood. At this stage I’m more interested owning what’s there, and moving on.

And what’s there?
Well, that I’m still too driven by insecurity, fear, envy…

And how do you move on?
I’m hoping that exposing, naming, the crap that constrains me, I’m creating a choice: that is, I don’t have to fall unwittingly into false ways of belonging  (notice me with approval! ), which is an animating desire deep in all of us, and on its own, lovely and noble because it draws us to one another. But it’s also be the thing that gets us into trouble. Think about it, there’s an entire industry that caters to our desire to belong.

So this desire is divine but our grasping screws us up and life is about learning another way but learning is hard and takes time and so life’s passing seems too swift? Is that what you’re saying?
I guess I’m saying two things. Life is short. Broken, lost or neglected relationships should not be relegated to the ash heap of personal history. But also, life is short, there are dead mules—no point prodding those.

So what do you propose to do?
Make small grafts for something new. Craft little revisions to the story.

And how do you do that?
Well, I’m not all that sure. Maybe this: at dawn, give thanks for the perspective gained from being practiced in failure; then, trust the sunset, be watchful, make connection, resist scattering, go for the lasting; take these remaining years, care for them without obsessing, look for healing, look for blooming, make a garden of each day, and seek its gift.

Think your up to it?
Aiming for a passing grade.

Your soul has a wide genealogy quite apart from you


When I grow heartsick by the convulsions of this world; hopeless by the egos holding our earth hostage; helpless by the spectre of nuclear winter, I go to the ocean.

I stand at the shore with stones and seaweed. I attach prayers to seashells and release them to the water.

I watch them ride up the curl of a wave, then fall back to bob like bits of driftwood in the salt wash.

But one or two, I imagine, of the less conscious ones, reach the crest and lift like kites charged by spindrift and light, sail high, grow wings.

It was said of the holy Baal Shev Tov that one day walking in a pasture, he caused sheep to stand and pray.

Later, it was reported that he said this life-altering thing: Your soul has a wide genealogy, quite apart from you.

And I thought of our wondrous cosmos: a school of fish, an ant hill, a cloud of waxwings, a weave of sphagnum, earth’s blanket of mycelium, we flora, we fauna, we with language, one wide organism, one galactic soul.

And I wondered how, if our soul is larger than the physical limitations in which we live, larger than what we can imagine, how can we think to harm, to hurt, to hate, exploit?

For to lash out, is always to strike at our own heart (as the mystics have always known).

And I thought: discrete parts go to war, but parts, which are not apart but in communion, are kind for the sake of others, kind for the sake of themselves.

What should we call this communion? Quantum entanglement of love?

Love, implied Jesus, is the magnitude of being. Meaning, I gather, that beneath our fear, our rage, our sacrifice of others for the sake of security, lies love; our true state in which we move and live and have our being.

True state? Such a leap!

And yet this quantum entanglement of love, this wide genealogy, benign and nonviolent…is it not the only genuine argument against exploitation, apocalyptic capitalism, war?

It is, of course, the one we hesitate to speak of because it appears to be the weakest (and how we fear appearing weak).

As I stand here on the shore, caught in my own fears, resentments, caught in my still-too-sectarian frame of mind, I pray for awakening.

I pray that the deep reality  will come, spark us to life, transfigure us, bring us—all we humans, as Father James Gray used to say, still in our swaddling clothes —to adulthood.

On that day, sheep will stand and pray on their own, and our sanity will return.

On that day we’ll swim together in the bay, our bodies traced by phosphorescence. We’ll read the Kanji of kelp. All the markings of love.


Some hard reality for dreamers – and a warning for the rest of us

Happy April 1st, and happy Poetry Month!


 And here’s a slightly edited version:

Have you had it up to here
with all those creative-come-mystic types going on
about the quiet wonder of the quotidian?

Do you, too, cringe when you read the reviews?
Poet enters into the everyday and emerges enrapt.
Artist finds numinous splendour in the prosaic stuff of life.

Whatever happened to the daily grind, the brine-soaked
reality of every morning—their minutes
passing like anchoritic decades?

I swear, if I read of one more apple-cheeked author
who stands amazed under an ordinary afternoon
I’m going to shoot myself!

That snow mixed with salt and sand is not marzipan!
It’s slush!

That sunrise is not a host of seraphim with wings of flame!
The burgeoning leaf is not the hale harbinger of…
blah, blah, blah!

It’s chemistry, astronomy, biology.
Its physics! All physics!
Always been physics!

Okay, maybe “sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword,” *
but that’s because it’s bloody tired of everyone’s delight
in the predictable movement of the planetary system.

Hark! Everyday is not Christmas. Life is NOT a box of truffles.
It’s a string of purgatorial Mondays. Or if your lucky,
a boring slide to obscurity.

You want awestruck? Wait for the giant flash on the horizon.
Wait for the Four Horsemen, the Seven Trumpets,
the apocalyptic haemorrhage.

Wait for the moon to burst its seams
and bleed its achromatic pall upon the earth.
Then go oohing and awing.

Don’t be a schlub. At least win a lottery.
Then maybe, for a while,
you can go telling people of the élan within the mundane.

For the sake of all that’s marketable, don’t let them fool you.
Don’t relent to wonderment. Don’t accede to mystery.
It only breeds trust in the supposed sufficiency of any given day.

And if that catches fire we’re all screwed.
The stage will crack, the façade fall.
The ad will atrophy and the cult of consumption crumble;

and all our sacred edifices—with their theatres of envy and rivalry—
will collapse into laughter,
uncommon kindness, and liberated longing.

* a Bruce Cockburn line