Of Geniuses and 800-year-old Hips.

geniusOn Sunday at 2:15, I have an appointment with an Apple Genius at Sherway Gardens. I bury my late-rising self in the Saturday papers for too long, and when I raise my head civil war breaks out.

Hips demand exercise. Sorry, Hips, I say, I’ve done Feet. No time for you. I need to spend that half hour on Mind and its buddy Computer. I’ll get back to you later this afternoon. Then I stand up.

“See,” yell Hips. “We’re all seized up. You should stretch one minute for every year of your life.”

“Like I’ve got an hour and a half every expletive day!”

“Look, we’re structural, we’re the foundation. Mind is just electrical.”

Mind, tyrant that it is, does what it wants, and uses up the half hour.

So I arrive at the Genius line more or less knowing what my computer problem is.

In front of me is a beautiful boy. He has apparently tagged along with his parents, probably bored out of his mind. But no, the adults go off with their Genius, and the boy remains. Is he 12? Maybe a young-looking 13? The next Genius leads him away, asking,”What do you want to work on this time?” The boy begins a lengthy answer, not a word of which I understand.

My Genius shows up. I ask him to repeat his name. It is Chinese and sounds like the French word for yes.

I haul out my Mac Air Book-3 years and 6 months old, no longer covered by that expensive extended warranty. “I have been leaving it on because it takes so long to reboot, but it shuts off while it’s sleeping. When I go back to it, it won’t turn on until I plug it in. The battery still has a charge, so that’s not the problem. Then it takes forever to boot up again.”

He starts tapping keys. “First of all, you need to turn it off as often as possible. We’ll get rid Rapport. I know your bank told you to run it, but you don’t really need it. The bank site is secure enough. I find people who have it complain their computers run slow. Then we’ll take out this. I’ll leave this window open and when you get home, plug the computer in and click “Turn off file vault.” I check it out. Who knew I was encrypting my files.

“We’ve only got 15 minutes, so we need to use out time wisely,” he says.

Okay. We must have used 3 already.

He reboots the thing. It’s already faster and no longer black and white when it asks for my password.

“So, I tried to save my photos on iCloud, but..”

“ICloud isn’t really for photos.” He grabs my iPad, plugs it in and in a trice loads my photos there as backup. “I’m like a car mechanic. I fix things. I’m not really a teacher. Come to classes where the teacher is good at that. Here’s the screen for quitting File vault again.” Then he adds, “I suppose you don’t turn the iPad off either.”

“Isn’t it off now?”

“No, it’s sleeping.”

Okay, I wonder, does he want me to turn off my iPhone as well? I don’t ask. I give him my humble thanks. I figure he just came out ahead by at least 5 minutes, kind of a slam, bam, thank you situation.

As he departs backstage, I rise from my high stool. My bags are on the floor. How did they get so far away? “See,” yell Hips. “You need to do a full set of Tai chi, not just the exercises and not just those stupid Yoga stretches.” Stooping is not going to work.I creak forward in a deep bend from the waist. Central Back screams. I stagger down the aisles of people, some of them four-years-old, playing with chained-down devices.

Across the way is a Pottery Barn outlet. Maybe I could just saunter around it. Who knew Christmas shopping started before Remembrance Day? I sidle through the crush. I never shop in stores now. See Hips above. But I spot red lunch plates, only $9. I really really want lunch plates to go with the Fiesta Ware I received when I turned 70, but have you see the prices?. $40 later, I have a huge box of plates. I get to the outside door, but before I press the button to open it, I go back to the store to ask for a bag. Carrying the heavy box has threatened to tip me forward.

Starbucks is jammed, but a welcome rest stop.

I am parked on the deck, way out beyond civilization, past construction. I see there is a yellow hatching on other side of the road for pedestrians, complete with barriers. Cars without parking spots are cruising nose to tail slowly around blind corners. Pedestrians on the other side are flattening themselves against hoardings as I did on the way in. The walkway I’m on is more roundabout, but finally, it leads me across the road between cars to a seven inch curb painted yellow. Okay. There’s a low wall on the left. I put one hand on it to balance and step up, ignoring Hips who are crying out in agony. I glance right. A good-looking young man is looking at me. He smiles his congratulations. I’ve made it.

Good-looking young men used to check me out for a different reason.

Hips and Feet, with a little help from Legs, approximate walking all the way back to the little red Yaris.


Winter Blues

“Pile Driver Blues” was an a cappella opus, I made up one weekend when I found myself trapped in a San Fransisco airport hotel during construction. I sang it to a two year-old as I pushed him in a stroller around the concrete. Next door was the infernal, 12 hour a day, ground-shaking pile driver. It was not my last encounter with the blues. January seems to breed them.

Does it pay to examine their origin closely? Holiday hangover? Weather fallout? Economic downturn? Legitimate grief? Fatigue? All of the above? Information is always useful, I suppose, and may provide perspective.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the treatise on ancient Chinese medicine, sees it as a good and necessary way to slow us down in winter so that we get enough rest to consolidate our strength.

Early this morning, my sister Georgia, alerted to my winter blues, phoned to prescribe Northrop Frye’s Double Vision Chpt. 3. I was taken aback, to say the least. I was on my way to a tai chi class, however, so I tabled the suggestion.

Two hours later, I was back home, stretched and invigorated, but bluer than ever. I tried a nap and woke up ready to try her idea. I found Double Vision on-line and began reading. What do you know, she might be onto something.

Chapter 3 is called “The Double Vision of Time” and begins with a description of the tragedy of time. “It seems probable that the basis for consciousness … is the awareness that the uneasy pact between body and soul will dissolve sooner or later..”  The body’s drive to survive makes us suppress our consciousness of this as much as possible or, at the very least, to convince ourselves that we are not going to die at once. The result, however, is a “subdued anxiety”, or quiet desperation, according to Frye, scholar, critic, a fellow Torontonian, and 78 years-old when he wrote that (1912-1991).

Ordinarily, we see time as horizontal and linear, comprised of past, present and future, although all attempts to grasp “Now” prove illusive. It barely emerges from the past before it vanishes into the future. Moreover, its progress involves a kind of repetition which Frye describes as parabolic as is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare’s seven stages of man, beginning and ending in helplessness. (“All the world’s a stage..” As You Like It II, vii) “Thus the tragic aspect of time in which every moment brings us toward death.” The double vision of time involves superimposing a vertical dimension, in which all time exists at once.

In practical terms, we can free ourselves from time by “genuine achievement” in everything that matters and that can be accomplished by the building of habit through “incessant practice”. Practicing the piano, for example, repetitively playing scales and practice pieces eventually allows us to break through to the freedom of accomplishment. Thus we come to an “enlarged sense of the present moment”. Experience and awareness are one. Now we are in the “Now”. This intensity is spiritual connection, the vertical dimension, enlightenment.

Right. I think I get it. I do have a number of practices: tai chi, journal writing, cooking, blogging. If I just keep at them, with intention, I’ll break through to a timeless moment? And such a moment will surely be free of the Blues.

Starving in the Dark: septuagenarian faces flash flood

Last week, a Calgarian, worn out by the flooded Bow River perhaps, wrote a letter to the National Post in which he invited Torontonians to starve to death in the dark. Alberta has the oil after all. I thought “yeah, yeah” that’s an old one – 40 yrs at least.

On Monday, I am reading with my feet up, worn out by my negotiation with a Toyota salesman. It is all but pitch dark at 4:30 p.m. but I’m used to that. It has rained torrentially at that hour many times this year. It starts to pour. I keep reading – a fictional account of the London blitz as it happens.

On Sunday, I got caught in one of these downpours. I huddled in a doorway for 15 minutes, watching water 4 in. deep race down the street. The rain got steadily worse. I put up my umbrella and set out for my car, two short blocks away. I met a guy with a clinging wet t-shirt, who smiled ruefully. My pants were soaked up to the knee and by the time I got the umbrella down, so was my the car seat. I sat in the car reading, waiting until I could see out the windshield. When I could, I chose my route carefully, avoiding the deep dip in the road to the south of my place where it floods. I’ve learned at least that much this year.

As I read about the horrors of rescue in the London blitz, lightning flashes through the window. Okay, supper time. As I walk toward the kitchen, I observe that I cannot see out my windows.

Full disclosure – I still harbour a 2 year-old within, who found herself with an unconscious baby sitter in the middle of a hurricane. By that I do not mean ‘inattentive’. I mean-down-for- the-count and never-right-again unconscious. It was only one long hungry day before I was rescued, but of course it seemed like forever. I am actually reassuring this hysterical inner-child when the carbon monoxide alarms scream, various things beep and the lights go out.

No problem. Right? It’ll come right back on. GIve it a minute. Fortunately, I do not know that the underground transformer that feeds the west end is now 30 ft. deep in water.

So it begins.

I activate the CBC app on my phone and discover the subway is flooded and shut down. The streets are jammed with wet pedestrians. The traffic lights are out and rush hour is at a standstill.

Frank, my landlord, emerges from his own underground lair to watch the storm through the front storm door. (So that’s why it doesn’t have a screen.) An hour later, the upstairs tenant arrives reporting that she was the last person allowed south on the Don Valley Parkway. She drove through the river, which was already over the road. The cars behind her were turned back, driving the wrong way to exit in the middle of the city. Her trip took twice the usual time, she is all but out of gas and there are no working gas pumps.

I leave my apartment door open and consider food.

Besides the screaming inner-child, I have dietary limitations. The list of things I can’t eat is far longer than the list of those I can. I cannot, for example, eat bread. I can eat brown rice and there is some in the fridge and there is cold chicken and salad mix. No problem. The trick is not to tarry in front of an open fridge door.

I haul the lantern out of its closet and discover the D cell batteries still work. I light the available candles -beeswax of course. Regular candles make my eyes burn. I eat my cold dinner. How I long for tea -herbal- you guessed it. Sitting there, I decide that if civilization starts coming apart, with these ‘refined’ needs, I will be among the first to go. Well, there’s some good news.

The rain has more or less stopped. Using my CP24 app, I find that a train is sitting in the expanded Don River and 120 commuters are awaiting rescue by boat, tiny zodiacs as it turns out. They have had to scramble up to the upper deck and some of them will not get off until 12:30 a.m.

Meanwhile geysers of sewage have exploded out of utility holes. Cars have been abandoned, including one Ferrari. Fireman are rescuing people. Then my fading phone declares that it cannot access the internet. It’s only 9:30 but it’s time to go to bed.

I have a lovely dream. The carbon monoxide alarm has beeped and the room has been suffused with light. I wake up. Not.

In the morning, the second hand Twitter rumour is- power back by noon. This will change throughout the day and I will gradually lose my initial desire to join Twitter. Hope is not a winged thing that perches etc. Hope is a canard, a con. It misleads and keeps you from acceptance and necessary action. It takes me 24 hours to set up a rescue for my freezer goods, e.g., and in the meanwhile I lose over $50 worth of stuff.

How to live now?

Take inventory. There is still hot water. Most of the city has its power back. With all the blinds open, I can more or less see. No paper and the phone can no longer get a signal, too many others already on the system. I warm breakfast up in a pan of hot water, milk for cereal, green soup. I take a hot shower. I drive to the tai chi club where I can make tea, exercise and charge my phone. I even do 2 sets of tai chi. During tea break I go down to the basement restroom. What is this brown residue on the floor? I call for volunteer help and grab a mop. Patty joins me. The other, much younger class members, do not. In fact, one of them waxes outraged because she has to find another toilet. Meanwhile in a search for a pail and hot water, I have stumbled wetly into the downstairs practise hall. The carpet is soaked and a little pool sits in the middle. We give tours hoping to drum up help. Not so much. We phone a report in to an actual employee, wring out the mops and carry on with our lives.

I, for example, have to call on two cats whose mom is away. They are glad to see me and a note on the counter invites me to make tea. What a great idea! I plug the kettle in. I give one cat her medicine. I feed them. Hey, what happened to my tea? I know the power is on up here. But, the thing is, it isn’t. It’s what you call a rolling black-out. These black-outs roll with me as I roll westward. I see the traffic lights fire up behind me and go black in front.

By dinner time, I have been without hot food 30 hours and my weak digestion can’t take any more and besides, the food in the fridge is now inedible. I set out for a restaurant. First, I have to get to a place with power. This involves waiting 20 minutes at just one non-functioning light. Once there, I find the parking meters on the street don’t work and I know our parking officers will give tickets on Judgement Day, so I search out working meters. There are now only 22,000 householders without power and all of them have converged on Bloor West Village for food. Cash only. I found I had raided the hidden money envelope but still had $100 left, so that’s all right. I stand in line for 25 minutes. I can see empty tables. The maitre d’ can too, but he keeps handing out menus and bustling off, leaving us there. Very hungry.

Eventually, I am seated, single and wasteful though I am. I read to keep from raiding adjacent tables and when I finally get food, I nearly weep over the mashed potatoes.

In the evening, Blake, who has never lost power, shows up to take my freezer goods into custody. I serve him a warm beer while we sit in semi-darkness.

By next morning I discover that I get tea and ice at the super market south of me, which must have a generator. I am there by 7 a.m. and soon have an ice chest set up with lunch stuff. Should have done this yesterday. Why didn’t I? No idea. Hope precluded it? Or was it mental dysfunction? I note that we all seem to be suffering it.

At non-functioning traffic lights, you stop, look, take your turn. Do this 10 times and when you come to an actual red light, you start to do it again. The woman upstairs locks her keys in her apartment, fails to pick the lock and decides to kick it in. So much noise! And it doesn’t work. Our door locks have steel plates! I lose my glasses, find another pair and come back to discover the first pair right where I lost them.

We are all suddenly very neighbourly, except to the old guy who brags that he has power just 10 houses away. People share their barbecues, carrying pots across the street. We no longer share the estimated time of (power) arrival. We are cynics, one and all.

On Wednesday afternoon, I get gussied up- poppy red dress, leggings, good sandals and set off for a second round at Toyota. I am just pulling into the parking lot when Frank calls to tell me the power is back on. I can’t say I believe it will last, but I finish the car deal and go to the green grocers and the butcher shop, pretending I believe it.

It is indeed on. I have light and a kettle that comes to a boil. I do manage to set the fire alarm off, having apparently forgotten how to cook, but after two days, it is over.

Thursday morning, I assume it is life as normal. I get to the tai chi club late. I’m still so discombobulated it takes me ages just to do a simple task like get dressed. I go through the club’s back door and an odour like something burnt sends me reeling. I know that smell. Mould! It’s okay, I’m reassured, the water has been vacuumed up. It’s fine. Try the upstairs class.

Listen if you take a canary down a coal mine don’t try to argue with it. If it falls over, get outa there. In this case, it is the canary that escapes.

By now, my head is aching badly, very badly. I can’t go back there, I reason on my long drive home. Maybe never, at least not until cold weather.

At home, I decide to try one thing. I email the location leader, telling him that mould is a health hazard not just a bad smell. Then I call ma soeur, Georgia, who listens to me rail. When I get off the phone, I see the message light flashing. The location leader has called our contractor who said hell yes, the carpet has to come out and the floor has to be treated with fungicide. I call our leader back, full of gratitude. Now my exile is down to a week or so while the place gets cleaned.

Now if only this headache would quit….

January, Muscle Spasms, and All That Good Stuff

The first 3 weeks of January went swimmingly. A molar had to have its cap removed, be re-drilled and re-covered with a brand-new $800 crown. Then I had a colonoscopy. Mention that and someone is sure to intone -‘It’s the prep that’s the worst!’  These people evidently skipped the actual procedure. Meanwhile the pump on the washer quit and the Sears man had to come back 3 -count ’em ladies and gentlemen 3- times. Each visit required a generous window of time and no one in the house could devote 6 hours every Wednesday to this pursuit except me. By the time the washer doctor pronounced the 2 year-old front loader healed, I didn’t remember what clean clothes smelled like.

Then things got rough.

I wake up at 3 o’clock to a terrible racket and stumble to a window. Outside large tree limbs writhe in the wind, the rain flies horizontally, lightning flares and thunder crashes. In January!! As I turn back, my right leg begins howling in pain. By 5 a.m. I have written a long journal entry, downloaded Michael Connelly’s, Black Box on my kindle and got well into the story. Only then does the leg let me go back to sleep.

Painkillers? I would lament the fact that I can’t take any of them (tender stomach), but since they don’t seem to kill my pain anyway, I won’t bother. Actually I lie, liquid morphine works very well, but as I’ve said before, it’s so hard to come by.

As for the leg, nothing a little exercise won’t cure, so I go for walks. I take up the rug and do tai chi in the living room as I wait for Sears. The right hip gets stiff and sore. As I take myself off to a tai chi class, the agony has spread to my lower back. But I am still working on the theory that it’s nothing I can’t work through.

By the time tea break arrives, I have been disabused of that notion. My right hip is beginning to set like cement. A minute too long and I won’t be able to bend to sit down to drive home. I turn the heat on in the Obus Form car seat. I crank up its massage feature to high. I resort to prayer.  In my driveway, I sit studying how best to get out of the car. I discover there is no best. There’s only pain.

Okay, no problem. I have ways to deal with pain. First the castor oil pack, lots of castor oil on a flannel and a heating pad. An hour later, look at that! I can walk. Only problem is I need a derrick or a crane to get me out of bed. Right, let’s try patches, lots of those patches embedded in this case with Chinese herbs, guaranteed to relieve pain, or so my past experience says. But no, not so much and, apparently, not wise to apply them on oily skin. Why not just pass out and sleep it off. An hour later, the pain wakes me up. Let’s try the tennis ball. First lie on the floor, wedge the tennis ball under the tight spot and relax into it.OMG!!!! Does the CIA know about this? It could be way more effective than water boarding! But I keep at it and a few minutes after I get up, a blessed relief floods over me. The spasm has eased.

I am so happy! And blissfully unaware that this will be the pattern of my life for the foreseeable future with one surprising twist. The spasm travels. While it seems most at home in the right hip, it is content to visit the right calf, the right knee and the right thigh, especially as I try to go to sleep. (How is that fair, I ask you.) Just for a change of venue, it zips up to the right shoulder blade, flashes along the neck and zooms down the backbone. At the moment, it has wandered right out of home territory and is visiting my upper left back.

The only time I leave the house for the first 2 weeks is to see the massage therapist and the acupuncturist. The treatments work wonders – for about 24 hours.

I get hysterical. Well, of course I do. I whine on the phone. I up my already high dose of calcium and magnesium. I meditate. I examine my soul to see what darkness lurks there.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the pain diminishes. I still have the travelling spasm, but I can head it off, so that it doesn’t become full blown.  I go back to tai chi class, only half of it at first. I find that one move, Creeping Low Like Snake, if done very, very gently, opens my back and softens it.

Instead of a marauding tiger tearing at my flesh, it’s more of a domestic cat now. Trouble is, I’m not much of a cat person.

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!

The Look of Love: paying attention

I am sitting beside him in La Veranda Osteria, when he seizes my left hand in both of his  calling me, “Sweetheart” and gazing intently into my eyes. No wonder he has had women on several continents and the odd island falling for him. My brother has had this ability to charm ever since he ran away to Europe with a backpack at 17. At the moment, he is trying to convince me of something, some better way to live, perhaps, but I am too overcome by his undiluted attention to take it in.

Great to find this in a dinner date, even if he is your brother, but much more important in a doctor or medical practitioner. I remember sitting in a sound-proof third-floor office near LAX and being the focus of the undivided attention of my acupuncturist. She asked questions of such insight, listened with such concentration and considered me so deeply, that I felt entirely and absolutely loved. The interview itself was healing: there was no real need for needling. In fact, I have had a profound feeling of change for the better, just from talking to her on the phone. That was her goal – to be so present and available to her patients that they felt connected, not just to her  but to the power that animates us. Having felt that connection and felt it repeatedly, it became easier for us to make it on our own.

Actors and self-proclaimed gurus, who project charisma, attract us because they make use of this kind of focus although not perhaps with such benevolence. I once met an actor unexpectedly on my way down to his wife’s yoga studio and almost suffered third-degree burns from the radiance of his projection. I was gobsmacked, but I did not feel better for it.

I do feel better when I can master the trick myself. The 108 moves in tai chi give me that opportunity especially when I find myself acting as Corner. (A Corner, as you might expect, is at the end of a line and so in a leadership role.) There is a lot of repetition in such a set, but repetition with variations. For example, there are 3 sets of  “Wave Hands Like Clouds”, one of 5 of this sideways step with soft arm sweeps, one of 7 and one of 3. All of them begin from the position of “Single Whip” or “Whip to One Side”, but between the set of 5 and the set of 7, just when the sleepy Corner has zoned out, the move suddenly switches to “Fair Lady Works Shuttles” or “Four Corners”, an altogether more complicated move. I have often been embarrassed when I have missed that change, dissociated or planning dinner or gazing out the window. I was not in the now, not really present.

When I do hit that groove, I experience a mental rest, like a moving meditation from the one-pointedness. It is easier than meditation for me. The kind of meditation I practise when I am able is mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on, especially internally, observing  without attachment, as my acupuncturist would say – letting each thing go -each thought, feeling or sensation.

It’s a useful technique when I am beset by anxiety or depression or pain. If I sit down, just sit, not cross-legged or full-lotus nor even necessarily straight-backed, but easily, and observe what is going on in me, I gain some distance. I am watching what my mind is doing and so I am now in the role of observer, not sufferer. I am no longer my discomfort. I can stop spinning. I have heard that the goal of meditation is to still the mind. I don’t aim that high. But if I pay attention to it, it stops screaming in agony, like a crying child when her mother holds her and gives her her attention. It may well be that there is no solution. The grief cannot be assuaged. A fearful situation cannot be resolved. A physical pain is intractable. No matter. All these things are more bearable when looked upon steadily.

It doesn’t even have to be a look of love. Did my acupuncturist actually loved each of the parade of people who sat before her? (Of course, she did me.) She became absorbed in them so that there was no longer a separation between her and other. No other in fact. In the same way, I can reclaim my anger and self-loathing, my fear of ageing and death, whatever negativity is plaguing me. Once reclaimed, these parts of me seem to shrug and get on with life.

It is these negative feelings that prevent us from focusing, both on others and on our own mental health.

Eckhart Tolle has written several books, including The Power of Now to extoll the virtues of focusing. Jon Kabat-Zinn has told us how to heal ourselves through mindfulness in Coming to Our Senses. I have read these and others and found them inspiring, but it is simple practice that gives results. Like tai chi. We don’t really need to read more. We just need to do it.

“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. “Pay attention,” our parents and teachers admonished. Yet we seldom do. We need something like the little bell that Buddhists sound during meditation calling out, “Be here. Be now. Wake up”.

Love is just that: being conscious.

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.

Consider the Second-Best Bed


Shakespeare famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second best bed. Period. Biographers have explained this. Most of his estate went to his daughter Susanna including the best bed, which would have belonged to the master bedroom, but to quote Anthony Burgess in his book Shakespeare, “She (Anne) had her widow’s dower at common law, and her place in the great house that Susanna and her husband took over, She was content to live with Susanna and she got on well with her son-in-law. The second-best bed was installed in a particular chamber and this chamber was inalienably hers.”

Will was not, after all, expressing his feelings for the older woman he married in a hurry and left asap to pursue a career in London. He wasn’t a miserable tightwad either. Having lost his son Hamnet when the child was 11, and being estranged from his daughter Judith who had married unwisely, he was laying his money on Susanna to produce a male heir. Didn’t work. Susanna had a daughter who married twice but had no children. Judith had three sons but none survived to produce children. Pas de heir!

Whew! Good to get that settled.

We all have experience of the second-best bed – at holiday time, on vacations, in cheap hotels, as children at grandma’s – the deep-valleyed ones, the plastic pull-out couch, the couch itself, the hard-as-cement beds, the mat on the floor. We have stubbed our toes on the metal legs of the pull-out and ruined our backs on the ones with blown springs and woken up aching all over in the hard ones. Our host’s query “How did you sleep” has been met with a bald-faced, not entirely convincing lie.

Or we have found ourselves in the best bed, a comfortable place to be, and discovered in the morning that the host and his wife somehow managed to coil together in a narrow cot. Discovering such a carefully concealed secret is a humbling experience.

These days, we have boxed beds that can be blown up with an all-included foot pump and provide our guests with a waterbed experience, long after the death of waterbeds, which was, as you know, watery and unexpected. Whether these air beds leak with rude noise in the middle of the night, I do not yet know.

My own second-best bed sits in the den, rather awkwardly I must admit, because of feng shui demands. It is narrow, has a metal frame on casters and no headboard. It is prone to surprising trips across the floor. In its defence, it has a good mattress -should be for that price- if somewhat too hard. When I realized that I would be sleeping in it myself, I remedied that by topping it with a feather bed. Odd that we think a night in a semi-comfortable bed won’t hurt a guest, but don’t want to spend one ourselves. Then I decided that the thread count of the sheets had to be upgraded to the best bed’s standards and a requisite number of pillows added. I overdid the duvet and find that it works well in mid-winter but after that, the quilted duvet cover is enough.

And why do I sleep in my second best bed about a third of the time. Neighbours. Thin floors. Don’t ask. There’s only so much I want to know about other people’s personal lives.

I’ve got used to sleeping there and never wake up disoriented, wondering why things are in the wrong place. This is handy since those mandatory trips in the dark would otherwise prove disastrous.

One of the advantages is better brain plasticity. Thanks to Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) and others, we now know after years of being told that once brain cells die, it’s game over, that in fact new neural pathways can be established and for example, stroke-damaged limbs can learn to move again. To maintain neural plasticity or brain change, however, we need to be learning constantly. One of my tai chi instructors harps on about moving your kettle to a different burner to avoid rigidity and stagnation. The kettle, in this case, is me and the new burner is the second-best bed.

Twas there “I dreamed the latest dream that ever I did dream”. It wasn’t a police procedural with noir overtones nor was it a lucid dream. (See previous posts.) But it was one of two dreams that have been life-changing. Someday I’ll write about the first one, which I call Etherica and which I had while napping after an exhausting trip to  Los Angeles. The latest one isn’t ready for publication yet, but I can give you the highlights.

It was suffused with love, the kind of love that I felt as a young woman for Blake, my high school sweetheart whom I married, and which I saw reflected in my grandson and his fiancé whose wedding I recently described. This nourishing, accepting and all-encompassing feeling made me not want to wake up, but stayed with me once I did. The dream began with me in my early twenties but looked forward in my dream thoughts many years and actually incorporated someone from my real future. As I pondered over its meaning, I understood the “future” person as I never had before. That was instructive, but more important was a shift that had happened.

Like many people who have had abusive childhoods, I have felt like an orphan, bereft of care, human and divine. As I did the dishes the evening after the dream, I knew that this was over. My heart felt as if it were shattering. Not breaking. I wasn’t sad although I cried. It was opening up. It had to be bigger to accommodate what it would now have to hold – another part of me, repossessed at last.

How can I break the news to Best Bed, the black Hemnes bed from Ikea, so solid, so high, so comfortable, that its second-best Sleep Country cousin has bested it in dreaming?

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.

Journaling as Zazen

Zazen just means sitting, but we usually think of it as sitting in meditation. The idea is to quiet the mind in order to be with a deeper part of self, to gain a measure of peace.

Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now describes it as being in the now, not anticipating the future or regretting the past, not planning, worrying, or processing, just being. Here we contact eternity, which is not, after all, in the future. Here we can find ourselves in heaven, which is not, after all, in the sky.

No doubt it is possible and in the forty years I have been at it, I may have actually got there a few times. Nowadays, there’s stuff in the way – wasn’t there always? – obsessive thoughts, runaway feelings, aches and pains. So I begin with the journal to give the mind a free rein, let it think all it wants and report back. It does run on, usually for half an hour and 4 or 5 handwritten pages. Then it’s the body’s turn to do the jongs or exercises associated with tai chi. This takes 15 minutes or so and leaves me limber enough to sit, but not, alas, to sit in full lotus position. Only now do I find it possible to let go of the racing mind. For whole seconds at a time!

Spiritual practice is always an individual choice, don’t you think? Whatever we do on a regular basis with concentrated focus can lead to self cultivation.

In his book of daily meditations, 365 Tao, Deng Ming-Dao says “Followers of Tao frequently use writing, art and even poetry as tools for self-discovery By articulating their experiences, it helps them to understand the stages they are going through. Once they can do this, it satisfies and neutralizes their rational minds.” (p. 63)

Journaling can be a meditation.