Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrLk4vdY28Q

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.

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Bulletin from Shangri-la # 4: spirits

trees outside windowWhen I first walk into the house in the pines, I hear my mother say, “It’s beautiful!” My mother passed on in 1976, but this is the first I’ve heard from her. My grandparents, even my father-in-law and certainly my father when his time came, showed up in the days after they moved on. Not my mother. Absolute silence. So profound, that I had an existential breakdown. Now here she is- or seems to be- celebrating the tiny, jewel of house in Sierra mountains.

Of course she would be here, if anywhere, because the mountains and the pines are like her birthplace in Hereford, Quebec. And we are here, her daughter and her grand-daughter and full of joy to be together. It is the week of Mother’s Day and Julia’s mother-in-law is due to arrive as well.

We speculate that my mother has been lost in the timelessness of that other place, a purgatory of her own making, and only now has found a beacon to guide her out.

In the days that follow, her spirit seems to be doing loop-de-loops in the blue sky above the mountains. All the other mothers in our line, Janet and Jenny and Gladys, come into our thoughts as they often do, but only Lila is delirious.

She is not the only spirit there.

Besides being thin, the air is bone dry in this drought. Near the front door, a humidifier sends a jet of mist into the air. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it as a dancing water sprite.

The floors are local stone, patterned like rugs. Every step feels rooted in their strangely old, slumbering consciousness. There is a small cairn of rocks near the entry and California jade and other semi-precious stones on the desk and tables. The fireplace and massive hearth of red brick fills one whole wall. The cathedral ceiling is rafterred and wooden. A wall of sliding doors looks out on the woods. Below a lake peeks through the trees.

This is a Taoist household with altars to the ancestors and the family, but there is also a stone Buddha sitting below the bookcases. A path of beige floor stones leads up to him. One morning when I am making tea, I catch a glimpse of a figure standing in front of Buddha, the figure of a monk in a brownish robe. When I turn, he gives me what can only be called a stink eye. I hurry away. Julia tells me there is a Zen monastery nearby.

Enough proves to be enough one night as I get into bed, I have a picture of an army of brownies – no not that kind- tiny beings wearing red hats and overalls going about some work under the trees. I saw such creatures when I was a child when my father took me fishing in the trout stream that ran down through the woods. They scared me with their intensity. I always understood the Seven Dwarfs on a visceral level.

In the fields, as a child, I saw fairies – blue and pink and gold- or once in a while, a towering angel. I preferred them.

Happy ghosts, water sprites, meditating monks, nature spirits, but I don’t have to cry like Macbeth, “No more sights!” I move over to the boxcar house and don’t even see dead miners. https://115journals.com/2014/05/15/bulletin-from-shangri-la-the-boxcar-house/

 

Dance Class and Tai Chi

Tai chi-er

We are waiting for barbells. The resident teenager is reconciled to waiting. If the poor delivery guy/girl struggles through the gate with the 105 lb. package before Christmas so much the better, but meanwhile this health-nut proclaims there are many ways to exercise, a towel apparently comes in handy. I didn’t ask.

I packed fast for this trip. I brought only one pair of pjs. (Hello washing machine.) And I’m getting sick of these 2 outfits and the sweat pants. BUT, my exercise equipment did not get left behind. It is not heavy or forgettable. My tai chi is portable.

I ported it to a dance studio yesterday. Well, a masonic hall really, at least an ex-masonic hall, on Venice Blvd., where dance class is held. There is no instructor leading dancers through prescribed choreography, just a DJ with his computer hooked into what seem like the world’s most powerful speakers and a roomful of people moving however they please. Or lying on the floor as they please or lying in a pile on the floor as they please. So no one notices or cares about the mostly linear moves I’m making in the corner.

Loyal readers will say, “How Hollywood!” But no, I’m told that if I look it up on-line, I will find similar classes in my home town, Toronto. If your town is big enough, you might as well. And they will no doubt feature the same creatively dressed crowd -tights and tank- tops, sweats and baggy pants, floating silks of vivid colour, long skirts on guys and girls,- weaving out of their own imagination the beauty or anguish they feel.

They dance alone or with each other or in groups. One fellow danced with a bright red apple. A woman danced with a long white pillow with a heart embroidered on it. The sweatiest fellow in the room gave me a very looong, sweaty hug. It was déclassé  of me to notice any of this, although I carried away something of the sweaty guy’s essence.

My kind of tai chi -taoist.org – is never done to music. Master Moy, who brought the art of tai chi to the west in the early 70s, taught this silent technique so that we would learn to listen to our bodies. So it’s quite a shock to be practising, as I did yesterday, to tribal drums, as the “class” stomped through something like a solstice ritual.

Yet it is curiously liberating. I am so distracted by the whirling colour and the floor-shaking rhythm and even the occasional melody that I find my body moving unself-consciously. Suddenly I feel it accomplishing some refinement that I haven’t been able to get before. My  weight is well and truly in my feet. My belly soft, no longer trying to do the lifting. My hands, full of intention, but the push coming from the back foot. There is a real internal massage going on.

I had arrived here knotted up. Life will do that, as you know. I am away from my usual supports -osteopath, acupuncturist, massage therapist. Then I slipped on a rock, crossing a stream and added a spiral twist -and a good deal of temporary wetness- to the mix. (Incidentally, it was a beautiful fall, I’m told. I would expect no less after all that tai chi.) What to do? You guessed it. More tai chi. I tripled the number or jongs or standing exercises and came unwound. Now, of course, I have to keep that up for the interim or this 76 year-old body will revert or at least stiffen up.

There is usually someone in an electric wheelchair at dance class. One chap moves his chair in dancing circles with his chin. A woman dances with her upper body. Taoist Tai Chi has a sitting set as well as sitting jongs. I have done these while stricken with H1N1 flu when I would have otherwise just languished in bed for weeks.

So here’s the thing, “Dance, dance, wherever you may be.” (“I am the Lord of the dance, said he.) You don’t need any training for that. Or if you won’t dance, (Can’t make me!) take the training route so you never have to pack your exercise equipment. Learn tai chi. Look it up. Taoist Tai Chi is found in 25 countries. It could be in your town and if not, there is some other kind.

Or just get out your towel!

Merry Christmas!

Jack Reacher: a long way from Virginia

Will Jack Reacher ever get to Virginia? That’s the burning question.

Lee Child’s novel 61 Hours (March, 2010) opens with Reacher being involved in a bus accident in the middle of a South Dakota winter. Reacher, a former major in the military police, has, as I pointed out in my post “Jack Reacher, Wandering Taoist” no home and travels constantly across the United States, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush. His theory is that buying new clothes every fourth day is way cheaper than a mortgage and laundry facilities.) He either hitches rides or takes a bus.

He sets off at the end of 61 Hours, having managed to figure out the truth about what was down there in that strict time frame. Of course, he did, although you might, like me, have entertained the idea that he had vanished in the final mayhem. You could have guessed he would uncover the truth, so it isn’t exactly a spoiler. How could he not? He’s Jack Reacher huge of body and mind, expert in hand to hand combat and pretty good with a rifle. Why is he bound for Virginia? A woman’s voice is luring him there, the voice of a woman major, the voice that helped him through.

Worth Dying For (October 2010) finds Reacher in the corn country of Nebraska, a day or so later, having hitched a ride and ended up in a kind of feudal kingdom where most people keep their heads down and try not to remember the child who vanished many years ago. Reacher gets hooked once again and stays to help the woman who has the courage to stand up against the local oppressor.

The Affair (September 2011) doesn’t advance the journey to Virginia because it is a flashback to Reacher’s adventures in 1997.

But this fall, along came A Wanted Man, which finds Reacher still in wintry Nebraska with the broken nose he got the day before, but it was worth it presumably, since it was Worth Dying For. Given that he has taped his nose up with silver duct tape, it is surprising that he managed to get a ride, but now he’s dropped off at a cloverleaf. He waits there in the bitter cold as car after car slows, takes a look at his size and his smashed-up face and speeds away. Finally, he tears off the duct tape and after 93 bitterly cold minutes gets picked up by a car with three people, wearing identical, ill-fitting blue shirts and claiming to be business cohorts returning from a conference. Reacher thinks things are not as they seem. He is right.

Jack Batten in his review in the Toronto Star, Sunday November 5, 2012, says “What follows adds up to the most satisfying of all 17 thrillers in the series. The secret to its superiority is a matter of pace. The unfolding of events nudges along at just the right pace -deep into the book – things speed up as Reacher pulls toward an authentically gripping climax.”

Reacher makes it into Kansas at one point, but then has to back track to where he first caught the ride. By now his nose is beginning to heal and in the end, he is back at the side of the road, looking for a lift to a bus station where he can get a bus for VIrginia. And no that woman there has not aged greatly – it’s only been a few days in Reacher time.

Just as addendum: Lee Child was in my town and in answer to a question, saw nothing wrong with Tom Cruise playing Reacher in the movie, One Shot. Dismayed listeners cited height. Didn’t seem to bother Lee Child that Cruise, who is shorter than most of his wives, should play 6 ft. 5 in. Jack. Well, fine, but I will watch that movie only if it is the last one on earth and I need the distraction.

The Hungry Ghosts: Chinese All Souls Festival

As we approach the temple building in Chinatown, we can see smoke rising from the tiny courtyard, smell strong incense and feel a fine spray on our faces. Through the filagree of the metal fence we catch glimpses of red-robed figures and hear their chanting. My friend peels off at this point, allergic to such strong incense and smoke. Entering by a side gate, I come upon other chanters in light blue robes, coming down from the temple on the third floor.

Inside the tiny office area, I am pointed toward the English list. The Chinese list looks to be more sizeable. The man before me is busy adding a folded package containing a paper sports jacket, paper dress shoes and a paper cell phone to his bag of paper money. I know these customs having attended a Chinese funeral, although the deceased also received genuine Scotch whiskey to help her on her way. When it is my turn, I am greeted happily. “We didn’t know you would be here to burn your own!” But I eschew extras. I am sending only these ersatz silver and gold bars to my parents.

For weeks, we have been rolling this paper money at our tai chi club and sending it down here in huge green plastic bags. The money has been redistributed into the small parcels, such as the one I hold with my parents’ names and their memorial plaque number on the label.

“You know what to do?” asks the volunteer in charge of the English list and she proceeds to remind me, but I do know what to do. This is the sixth year that I have burned an offering.

“Why don’t you do it for Aunt Mae?” Georgia has asked me. Aunt Mae got us through our tough young lives.

“Aunt Mae doesn’t need any help,” I reply.

Perhaps our mother doesn’t either, for when she left, she never looked back. She went so completely and utterly that her leaving left me questioning my beliefs, questioning them all the way to a two-week hospital stay.

My father, on the other hand, hung around, offering, for example, financial advice: buy lottery tickets. Those who have read my memoir, Never Tell, will understand that he was the sort of parent, one is better off without.

I climb to the third floor, clutching my paper sack. Through the door to the temple I can see more blue-robed chanters moving about among what surely must be “graven images” of the Quan Yin and Confucius and other Buddist, Taoist and Confucian “saints” or holy beings. They are large and colourful and delight me, but today my business is in the anteroom where the memorial plaques are posted. Mine is #588 and easily found.

I stand gazing at this innocuous slip of yellow paper, bearing my parents’ names and the name of their native town -Hereford. How strange to see it here, amid these gaudy red and gold trappings, above this altar covered in dishes of food: fruit, pastries, rice, tea, pots with many sticks of incense, and beautiful flowers. Hereford of rolling green hills and low mountains, Hereford Hill that lies under slope-shouldered Hereford mountain and looks down over the Indian and Connecticut Rivers, a wooded place that is turning its back on cultivation now, turning back to dark and tangled forest.

I bow, the parcel tucked awkwardly under my arm. I choose a joss stick, light it on a candle, bow and stick it in the sand of an incense pot. I bow again. I don’t want to leave.

I am 76 years-old, but I am also 2 and 4 and 5. I am living through the Great New England hurricane and watching my parents build a load on the hay wagon and walking the dirt road with my mother and fishing the trout stream with my father.

If they were alive my mother would be 95. Her mother lived to that age. And my father, 98. But they have been gone for 44 and 24 years. Most of the family is profoundly grateful and it certainly has made life easier. No one else, Georgia or my visiting brother, wants to be here with me.

Downstairs, I am waved toward the back parking lot where a small iron burner stands ready. Two of my favourite instructors are there to feed the fire. They are my age, perhaps, although their wiry small bodies are in such good shape, it’s hard to tell and they are teaching another Chinese man how to do the tor yu as one of them pokes my bundle into flames.

I stand watching it burn, leaping up in bright gold and red flames, dying back to black ash and leaping into flame again. My eyes are watering. Must be the smokey wind.

I am feeding the hungry ghosts, my father who waited his whole life for a windfall, my mother who loved beautiful things -cranberry glass, cow pitchers (!), my father who sought some adrenaline high to fill the emptiness of his orphaned heart, my mother who sought solace, a gift to soothe her battered soul. And my own. My ghost is still more or less grounded here for the time being, but I know its tendency to wander, howling in the wilderness.

It’s all about me as usual.

Measured against the forests and the granite, the myriad lakes and waters, the un-reckonable ages, I am just a flame. These steadfastnesses support me, not I them. I can flicker and go out and reignite. I owe my life to Something greater.

When the fire has died down to black, I thank the men and walk through the back gate to my car, which still has a lot of time on the meter.

108 Moves in the Right Direction: tai chi or NOT

The Tao Te Ching begins by telling us that the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. That is true of many things, your love for your spouse or children, for example. Try putting that into words. And it is certainly true of tai chi.

Anthony left a request on my book Never Tell‘s Facebook page asking me to write about tai chi. I replied I would think about it. I have done, for several weeks and I still don’t know where to begin. So I’ve stolen the motto of an international tai chi organization and I’ll see what I can do.

If you follow my blog, you know I am ancient of days. (not The Ancient of Days note. That’s another dude, who, presumably is a tai chi master Himself.) But, TA DA, drum roll please, I can stand on one leg and luffa the other foot, I can lie down on the floor and get back up with no help, (shut up chair), I can get out of the car without lifting the outside leg with my hands and so much more. I have survived 2 malignancies, one for 13 years and the other, completely different one, for 10. So much for the score sheet.

It is also true that I am one of those lucky people who are earning their wings through suffering. My body thinks it’s amusing to be in one kind of discomfort or the other all the time. It scrolls through a punishing list of pains and aches on a regular basis: bowel spasm, back spasm, leg spasm, indigestion, dizziness, feeling faint, feeling faint while sleeping (!), fatigue, exhaustion and, my personal favourite, diaphragm spasm and weakness.

Now Body’s objecting that much of this is caused by me or Mind that keeps shoving stuff down into flesh and muscle and organ and bone INSTEAD OF PROCESSING IT IN A MENTALLY HEALTHY WAY. OK, stop shouting. I hear you.

And so I do tai chi.

I started 20 years ago, but I began serious study only 15 years ago. As late as 10 years ago as I was recovering from major surgery in So Cal, I still couldn’t do the whole set up in Kenneth Hahn park without a plastic-covered cheat-sheet on the picnic table. When I was more or less better and back in TO, I started going to class more often and ended up instructing beginners for 8 years.

Listen, you don’t want to start tai chi. It’ll take over your life. You’ll get addicted to all those endorphins. You muscles will ache at first and you’ll have to consult your teacher about whether you need to correct something to stop it. You’ll be in trouble at home for being out so much. Just when you think you’ve got it, your teacher will let you know you haven’t. Then you’ll feel as if you can’t do it at all. There is absolutely no end to it. I’ve heard people say it will take several lifetimes just to get one move at the end, call it “Turn to Sweep Lotus” down pat. Face it -there is no “down pat”. There is no perfection. Never. You can go on learning forever.

OMG, you actually like that last idea!

Well, you wouldn’t like that feeling of calm that settles on you during the set, once you have  learned it enough to follow. You wouldn’t like the group energy that gets going when you follow each other well. You’re an individual aren’t you? You’re a North ‘Merican if not actually an ‘Merican. (No apology needed Ozzies as you know. You’re even more so. And that 1 German viewer same diff.) You don’t want some tai chi master correcting you. Good grief, all the instructors in my club are volunteers and we are supposed to maintain our own club building and run the damn place. “This is not an exercise club”, we are told. Charitable works, open hearts! Come on!

Of course, you may be able to find a tai chi club that espouses closed hearts, uncharitable works, etc. Good luck! Your club may just charge you a high fee and let you go your own way.

I have to confess that last Saturday, at the good old volunteer-based tai chi club, when 7 of us foregathered in a work party to lift and drill and clean and eat a delicious lunch that an  someone had brought unbidden, then I was carried back to my childhood and the church hall with the women setting out the chicken pie supper. I loved that group co-operation and getting things done.

Doing a tai chi set later, a group of 6 just like doing it in a group of 35 or on occasion in a group of 700, has that same feeling, many-fold.

I hesitate to recommend tai chi to you. It’s a serious decision. You’ll be frustrated at first. You don’t want that. You may hurt sometimes. You’ll never actually know whether it’s the tai chi that making you limber and strong and keeping you alive. And all that peace that comes of a moving meditation, how’s that going to jack you up?

Better not.

Jack Reacher -Wandering Taoist

In my last post “How I developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading, I mentioned that I was hooked on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, to my dismay. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found a justification: Jack Reacher is a wandering taoist.

It was reading # 156 in Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao:Daily Meditations* the one for June 5th that clued me in to what I should have realized before.  (* Available at Amazon.com)

Inseparable: The trunk is hollow,/But the branches live./The void is fundamental,/But the ten thousand things are diverse./ Therefore wanderers free themselves of cares/And follow Tao in great delight.

In the ensuing explanation, Deng tells us that we can know all of Tao’s manifestation by travelling through the world. All experience is the experience of Tao. Those who follow it, divest themselves of ego and ambition and follow its flow throughout the land, moving from place to place as they sense the direction of its vital flow. “These wanderers have glimpsed the void that is in them and in all things. They delight in life but never see more than the void.”

As a volunteer, I once took a phone call from a very serious young man who wanted me to tell him what Taoism was. I replied civilly, I hope, that to answer would take longer than the average phone call and, besides, it was beyond me. Short answer -Tao is the stuff of life, the energy that animates it. Taoists believe in the supremacy of nature and the necessity of living by its laws, in particular the cycles of change. They understand that whatever is full and rich will decline in time and whatever is empty and poor will rise in turn. Taoists don’t talk about God in spite of reverence. Should they search for God, they would look, not in a book, but within.

I would say they are practical and work things out as they go along rather than adhering to doctrine. This story illustrates that: a Buddhist, a Confucian and A Taoist were meditating when mosquitoes began buzzing around their ears. The Buddhist let a mosquito bite him without protest. The Confucian slapped and killed his mosquito. The Taoist waved his mosquito away. When that didn’t work, he moved to another room. When the mosquito followed him there, he killed it. Taoists  prefer not to interfere unnecessarily but act instinctively when necessary.

It seems to me that many people are Taoists at heart, although they never identify as such. Joseph Campbell, for example, warned against being co-opted by the system. Systems prevent us from personal assessment and self-determination. They also enable us to succeed in our careers, attain wealth and social standing. Opting out has rather the reverse effect.

The fictional Jack Reacher attained the rank of major as U.S. military police officer. Then in 1997, he left that system over a moral disagreement, just short of being deployed to outer Thule or its equivalent. His pension is paid into a D.C. bank and accessed on the road. He doesn’t own a car, drives badly and flies only when he can’t take a bus or hitchhike, across the Atlantic, for example. He travels the United States according to whim, once deciding to follow a diagonal line from the north east to San Diego. He carries no baggage, except that folding toothbrush, I mentioned last time. When his clothes need washing, he buys new, cheap, sturdy shirts, pants etc. and throws the old ones away. he reckons that when you factor in the cost of a washing machine, dryer and the dwelling to contain them, not to mention the soap, he still comes out ahead. Nevertheless, he is a clean person, showering thoroughly in the cheap motels he chooses, although when he still wore his Class A’s complete with Purple Heart and Silver Star, he was not above cadging first class digs at the army’s expense.

Wherever he goes- Mississippi, Kansas, Colorado, he finds trouble or it finds him. Often all he does is step down from his ride, when the locals take agin him and try to run him out of town. Usually it is a very small town with its own ingrained and deeply corrupt system. But at 6’5″ and 250 lbs. and with some serious brawling smarts, the system’s minions don’t have much success throwing him out. Pretty soon, he has identified the nature of the corruption and its victims. He believes as he was taught that the best fight is no fight at all, but when a fight is necessary, he strikes first and dirty. In The Affair, he chides the rednecks who take him on for bringing only 6 men and takes them down readily. And they aren’t even the real enemy, just wrong-headed and misinformed.

I gave up watching boxing when I was 20 and now it just makes me think ‘concussion’, but Lee Child’s fight descriptions are choreography on paper. I would love to know how he knows all this stuff. Does he practise it the way I practise tai chi?

Jack Reacher can be counted on to right some wrongs before he blows out of town and to  leave behind more wisdom than he found there, that is for those who survive. The guiltiest may meet sudden ‘accidental’ ends, which cause Reacher neither remorse nor even a backward glance. He bids goodbye to his latest woman just as readily.

Now the purists among you may object that he also has sex on a regular basis. I counter, never indiscriminately and always on the basis of respect and affection as well as healthy desire. Besides Taoists are not purists. If they claim to be, that’s your first clue.

Jack Reacher looks into the void. The void looks back. That’s okay with him.