Monday, April 28, 2014

Quid Pro Quo

“As no cause remains without its due effect from greatest to least, from a cosmic disturbance down to the movement of your hand, and as like produces like, Karma is that unseen and unknown law which adjusts wisely, intelligently, and equitably each effect to its cause, tracing the latter back to its producer.”
(The Key to Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky 1889)


            If you are going to put me down, I’m letting you  know that I can take it. Just be prepared for me to dish it out as well. You judging me gives me permission to judge you right back. If you punch me in the face, I will not hesitate to return your kindness in spades. This is not first century Jerusalem nor have I made any contract with Jesus to turn the other cheek. I am a spiritual man, graced with an abundant life and great mercy, but that does not confine me to the state of victim. I have always stood up for myself, regardless of any threat of eternal punishment that comes with it. I am a quid pro quo sort of fellow. You get exactly what you give. If you start it, be prepared for me to finish it.
            I have always wondered if God works in the exact same way. You can call it karma, reaping what you sow or any another other construct you want, but I have noticed that what we put out is what we get back. You always purchase just what you paid for. King Saul may have been “the Anointed One”, but he cast himself onto his sword after God abandoned him to foreign armies. The price you pay for seeking mortal glory, at any cost, is defeat at the hands of your enemy. Judas thought he was betraying Jesus, but in the end, he realized that he had only betrayed himself. Even the Christ got exactly what he came for. I’m still trying to figure out just what He did to Himself before He was sent down here to die. It is obvious that God is a just and compassionate entity, unless you do something to piss Him off. With the Lord, it is quid pro quo pal, and nothing less.
            I’m not easily angered like the god found in the pages of the Bible. I don’t kill everyone who gets on my last nerve. At times in my past, I may have wanted to do just that, but the price for such violent gratification was far too high. I will say that not once, not ever in my history, did I start something I wasn’t prepared to follow through on. I have never punched someone, cursed someone or attacked someone first or without provocation. I have never picked a fight. I have never promoted violence in any form. I am simply a reactor to such things, not an instigator. To be attacked, whether verbally or physically, is more than enough just cause for me to return the favour. Nevertheless, I have felt the sting of what I believed was divine retribution for doing so. There have been times in my life when I felt I was getting precisely what I deserved.

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:7-9, NIV)

            When my first partner committed suicide, I took the weight of his world onto my shoulders. I blamed myself for his decision to end it all, no matter the amount of times people tried to convince me that this just wasn’t so.  After I unsuccessfully tried to follow suit, things went from bad to worse for me. I remember waking up to my parents, both sitting next to me in my hospital room. All I could manage to get out of my mouth was self-deprecation. I flagellated myself for everyone to see. I tried to convince them that I was a murderer, that it wasn’t fair or just for me to still be among the living and Doug was cast into death. Regardless of whether he jumped of his own volition was beside the point. I was the one who pursued him. I might as well have pushed him myself. I talked him into the life we both led. I convinced him so I should be the one to pay. There was no question I deserved to die, not him.
            When I later met a new suitor, I didn’t realize that I was making a mistake. It never occurred to me I might have subconsciously planned to do just that. Although a good chunk of time had passed since Doug’s decision, I still told myself that I was the one at fault for it all. I had internalized my pain in an attempt to go on but I also sabotaged any happiness, any pleasure that came into my life. I learnt rather quickly that God will get you back using strange and nasty weapons. This gentleman turned out to be all these things and even more. He wasn’t crazy in the conventional way, where you can tell right away from their demeanour and sense of reality. He was a volcano that built up steam until it exploded all over me. He was the kind of guy who would stand yelling at the top of his lungs because I dared come home late from work. You know the type of person I am talking about. It was okay if he had friends but I wasn’t allowed such a luxury.  He even wanted me to end my relationship with my family because I was closer to them than I was to him. Any deviation from his specifications was met with screaming, then more screaming, ending in a crescendo and him curled up in the foetal position on his living room floor.
            For almost two years, I let him treat me like I was his property. He could say anything, do anything he wanted to me because I stood and let him. I came to believe that meeting this loony-bird was divine justice. It was some warped form of retribution but it was appropriate penance for what I had done to Doug. Like almost all modern relationships gone sour, we ended up in a courtroom fighting over who was right and who was wrong. Like some good Catholic boy, I took my beating like a man. I pleaded guilty because I thought I was. When Ben came along, I knew my sentence was over. With time, I realized that the only punishment laid upon me was by my own hand. It’s strange how karma works that way. I guess that God doesn’t have to toss His judgment upon us, we do a pretty good job of taking it out on ourselves. In an attempt to charge myself for what I thought I had earned, I did God’s work for him.     

“As man sows, so shall he reap. In works of fiction, such men are sometimes converted. More often, in real life, they do not change their natures until they are converted into dust.” (Charles W. Chesnutt, African American author)

            For almost all of 1997, I worked as a bouncer at a gay bar called the Apartment. Located on the downtown strip in London, Ontario, the place was quite fashionable in the community at the time. The owner, Wally, saw me dancing one night and approached me with the offer of employment at his establishment. While I was still writing, still publishing, I felt it would be good for me to immerse myself in this culture, to use the experience to not only assist me in healing but also to escape from the life of grief I had been living. I must admit, I wasn’t just good at my job, I very much enjoyed the social interaction. For five hours every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, I got away from my worries. I stole a wee bit of happiness despite being miserable in my real life. I was popular among the staff and clientele. I made friends quickly. I found solace in the music and in the laughter. I also rediscovered the joy in boozing it up just for fun.
            Doug and I drank a lot when we were together. It was a habit neither one of us wanted to break. I suppose we thought that we could disappear in a bottle, or shot glass, so we did just that. My exposure to alcohol at the club only managed to bring back my propensity to hide in Molson Canadian and a bottle of Tequila. I would work my shift, do my part, then sit with the other employees until almost dawn, drinking and drinking and drinking even more. The thing about most gay bars is their inability to maintain themselves for any length of time. Homosexual men and women are fickle when it comes to brand loyalty. Most gay establishments have a limited life span, victims to new and fresher places to play. As the Apartment started its death throes in the fall, I wasn’t needed as much. I refused to give up my home away from home, so I would come in and party as a customer rather than as a member of the staff.     
            I had consumed my share of liquid love when the bartender asked me to assist in the removal of a patron. Some idiot had polished off enough booze that he thought it was okay for him to sexually assault the limited amount of people who were trying to have a good time at the club that night. I confronted him, requesting he remove himself without incident. I ended up placing him in a full-Nelson and tossing him out the back door. He fought and fought his dismissal. He punched me several times, he even tried to kick me in my special place. I was forced to lock my arms around his head and drag him out the rear entrance. When he was released, he lunged at me with great fury. Instead of turning away and leaving him to himself, I started to pummel him about the face and head. I thrashed him, smashed him down to the ground several times until he was bleeding. I took much pleasure from this experience. I had not let go of my anger since before Doug died and it seemed to release itself with little hesitation. I kicked the living shit out of him for almost no reason at all. I left him lying in the parking lot begging for mercy. Before I went back inside, I kicked him in the gut one last time just for good measure.
            I had the cab drop me off near Taco Bell so I could grab something to eat. All night fast food joints are plentiful in a university town like London, Ontario. I stood in line waiting at the drive thru. I was so inebriated that I could hardly see, let alone stand for any length of time. I sat down in my place and rested a little while. As the line progressed, two guys, one black and one white, started to yell at me to get off my ass and move forward. I told them both to go fuck themselves. I don’t remember much after that. I awoke several hours later in the drunk tank, bruised and beaten. The police had arrived long after the two had kicked the crap out of me. They just left me in the driveway, bleeding. I don’t know if I was even able to fight back against them. All I know is that I had gotten exactly what I had dished out earlier in the evening. Tit for tat, I told myself. I got what I had given, equivalent retaliation at the hands of two strangers that I have never run into again. I decided to quit my position. I couldn’t handle any more karma.  

“All living beings have actions as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.” (The Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama)

            Human beings seem quite ridiculous in their thinking that life’s diversity comes from blind chance or by pure incident.  Karma is a natural force like gravity. It is the law of moral causation.  Nothing happens to someone in this world that they, for some reason or another, do not deserve. In other words, karma is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We are responsible for our own happiness and misery. Whether our own heaven, or our own hell, we are the architects of our own fate. This state occurs in accordance with the philosophy of cause and effect. We are all an extraordinary creation of our own karma.
            Our current  mental, moral,  intellectual and emotional states are, for the most part, due to our own processes and tendencies, both from the past and in the present. The more time passes, the more we realize things can change and we don’t even know why. This ignorance, not seeing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of karma. It is our difficulties, failures, and misfortune that clearly demonstrate we reap just what we have sown. We believe that we are born into this state of ourselves. This is not true. We are not predestined, we have choices. In our self-directed efforts there is great possibility. What we decide can manifest into a more favourable environment. We create our own karma which infers we can negate it. We progress forward or we stay back. What we discover along the way was determined by our own hands.  

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.”
(Carl Jung, Swiss founder of analytical psychology)

            Human beings will use any excuse to avoid having to take responsibility for their actions. Karma can become a tool for deflection. We realize that what goes around comes around, but we blame life rather than facing the truth that we are the cause of all our suffering. Karma simply conducts the effect. We invite it without even knowing we have. We tell ourselves that “karma is a bitch,” when we are the one who did the dirty little deed. Karma always comes around again, no matter what we do. This is why karma serves as a deterrent to the religious man and as an incentive to the intellectual man. What each puts in they get out. The consequence we receive from our own actions deems that no one is to blame but us. It is our conscious thoughts, motives and words that come from unresolved emotions which result in our karma. It is built right in us.  

“Karma is the universal law of cause and effect. You reap what you sow. You get what you earn. You are what you eat. If you give love, you get love. Revenge returns itself upon the avenger. What goes around comes around.”
(The Power of Karma, Mary T. Brown 2002)










Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Surrounding

“Be still, be calm, see, and understand I am the True God.”
(Psalm 46:10, The Voice Bible)

            I find it strange when people claim not to believe in God but then profess their faith in Alien Conspiracy theories. We question whether Goliath actually existed during the time of the Bible but search for Bigfoot on a weekend retreat. We don’t have any issue with possession, or haunting, but the Devil is a myth. We rationalize this but we demonize that. We pick and choose based on what we think rather than what we experience. Instead of placing our trust in something Holy, we rub crystals or flash cards to reveal the future. We don’t consider that, perhaps, Jesus could really heal, but we have no problem believing some guru in Thailand can do just that. Creation Theory has become an archaic lie and the Big Bang Theory is now our gospel. God having a hand in anything is more foreign to us than some witch doctor from Zaire casting a spell. Miracles happen, but Jesus used trickery. We have turned from our outer knowledge of the Divine in the hope that something else will have the answers. We are convinced these things hold true when in fact we have simply abandoned one question for another. 
            It’s true that unless you stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Instead of angels, we now have aliens. Theresa Caputo is more revered than the Christ. There is a place in Mexico where you can phase through a wall into a wormhole, but only if you have the key to get in. Stonehenge is a portal to journey through time and Atlantis lies sleeping off the coast of Ireland. I had no idea that the earth was really hollow and that by flying into a giant crater at the top of the North Pole you could enter a second level of civilization, where dinosaurs roam and fairies dance on giant yellow flowers. God forbid the claim that someone was once raised from the dead but it’s just fine to embrace the idea of people having past lives. There are so many odd and contradictory things in which people invest their trust these days. We laugh at Tom Cruise, then steal off to our own little corner of the universe where dragons soar or the saviour is blue. People just don’t seem to realize what they are doing. They condemn religion for using myth and legend in parable, then heed claims of alien encounters or meeting the tooth fairy and that makes it more real for them. When we believe in anything, we end up with nothing.
            I don’t buy into most of the supernatural stories from the Bible. They seem improbable considering all we have come to know about how the world really works. They stand for me as that which they were created to be: metaphor. This is exactly what they were supposed to function as in the first place. I don’t believe that grey monsters from a distant planet travelled millions of light years to harvest the organs of your pet cow Herman any more than I believe in the virgin birth. I cannot conceive that your dear departed aunt visited you with some message from the other side regarding what colour shoes you should be wearing to her granddaughter’s wedding. The Loch Ness monster is as much of a fabrication as the Leviathan from the Book of Psalms. If something seems impossible, then it probably is.
            I don’t look for God in explanations. I find Him in revelation. I don’t need to know everything, I just know what I need. Century after century, mankind has sought out proof of the supernatural, a metaphysical confirmation of something beyond our human experience. The last time I checked, we have never gained even one iota of proof. All that time, with all those people searching, and observing, and all we have learned is that life is full of mystery. Just because the Egyptians thought cats were divine doesn’t make it so.  There is just as much speculation involving the abominable snowman as there is with fallen angels who rape our women. If there are demons from other dimensions, it is obvious that they must be invisible, so how could we possibly know? I would argue we are not supposed to know. We aren’t supposed to look outside the obvious because the answer lies within the obvious. No matter how we seek, we will never find it any place but there. You can go on the hunt for some esoteric justification all you want, but you already have everything you will ever need to find your answers. I may not be able to hand you Darth Vader, but I can reveal just how to find the Force.
            One day, I just stopped looking for God in the unexplained and started finding Him in the world around me. If you want proof that spacemen make circles in the middle of fields, I can take you to see. If you want to find God, start looking for yourself. There is no question. You have to be blind to miss it. It is all around us. So why then can no one see? The rocks, the trees, the stream through a meadow, these are the miracles that we can touch and see and understand. There is something supernatural in a spider’s web, in the cosmos and in loving someone so much that it hurts. I myself have spent a great deal of time trying to discover any evidence that there was something more to this life than mere existence. I just had to know for sure. I wanted to validate my faith, substantiate my upbringing and confirm my expectations. All the trying in the world won’t make something appear if there is nothing there.   

“There is so much here, O Eternal One, so much You have made.
By the wise way in which You create, riches and creatures fill the earth.
Of course, the sea is vast and stretches like the heavens beyond view,
and numberless creatures inhabit her.
From the tiny to the great, they swarm beneath her waves.
Our ships skim her surface while the monsters of the sea play beneath.”
(Psalm 104:24-26, The Voice Bible)

            If you have never gone scuba diving, the adventure may turn out to be quite an awakening if you take it. Submerging beneath the waves may reveal to you another world, but it can also unlock the incredible reality of God’s creation. There is beauty beyond beauty as you dive into the sea. Away from the surface you float on ripples, silently stroked by an ever moving ridge of water. The deeper you go, the further out you go, the more the vastness of the planet becomes your experience. You can feel lost in the size of it. On a clear day you can savour forever. Schools of fish dart and dance about without a care in the world. Jellyfish, without number, wait patiently off in the distance, dreaming of recess. It can be surreal when you realize you are alive in something so alive. A dense cloud, yet nothing at all, swallows you. 
            I grew up in the water. Early on I had a propensity for swimming. Into my late teens, I spent my summers taking lessons, learning to master the art. I constantly felt chalky from all of the chlorine my skin was exposed to. I climbed the ladder to Life Guard but never really fit into that scene. It didn’t matter anyway. I already knew how to save a life. I wanted to learn how to scuba dive. With my Instructor’s Certificate, I finally got my chance. While exploring the Great Lakes was an immediate gratification, I pined for blue waters, not the cloudy brown of Lake Ontario. Lake Erie was a wonder the first three times, but eventually there was little or no thrill to its deep. I had been to the oceans. I swam in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. I crashed through breakers at Big Sur and held my breath in the waters off Newfoundland, but I had not explored what lies beneath. In 1987, I took a voyage to the bottom to see.
            Southeast of Corpus Christi, along the Texas coast of the Gulf, looms Mustang Island State Park. Wedged between Corpus Christi Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, this coastal barrier island flourishes thanks to sand dunes up and down its 5 mile beach front. Covering 3,954 acres, sandy hills protect the park from storms and the sea. We headed to the north of the island in our rental boat, to a spot just past the jetty at Fish Pass. These protective structures of stone (or concrete) protrude out from shore in an attempt to limit erosion. Without them, the island would literally be washed away. Some extend quite far out into the Gulf and allow easier access to the deeper waters beyond the sandbars and dunes of the coastline. I had seen the hue of these waters before, but television and the movies somehow failed to underscore just how spectacular they really are. We readied our equipment, did our safety check, then each one of us plunged backwards into the unusually warm and deep blue sea.
            Almost immediately, I felt like an astronaut spying from the Moon. There were fish everywhere and juts of coral trying hard to form a reef. Flounder, mackerel and jackfish flickered in and out of rhythm, feeding and speeding and breathing liquid air. Thirty feet down and anemones and urchins blended with rock and seaweeds. Small schools of colourful fish exercised out in a constant rain of shrimp and plant life. Although I did not get to see a shark, a large sea turtle swam off in the distance. There was great bounty all around me. I felt rather benign amidst the meaning of it all. From up above, occasionally a pelican or heron would dive into my new sky, stealing away with an afternoon snack. I could sense all of the life that surrounded me. I stopped and floated. I tried to take it all in. For the first time in my life, I realized how incredible nature really is. There was beauty to be found in all of the beauty. I know it sounds silly, but I actually thought, just for a second, that I had experienced God.

“From the beginning, creation in its magnificence enlightens us to His nature. Creation itself makes His undying power and divine identity clear, even though they are invisible; and it voids the excuses and ignorant claims of these people.” (Romans 1:20, The Voice Bible)

            Off the coast of Vancouver Island, I witnessed a sunset so beautiful that it made me cry. In Algonquin Park, Ontario, I explored forest so dense that I found myself lost in the grandeur of it all. Watching a Minke whale breach the waves along the St. Lawrence Seaway left me dumfounded. The dunes of Cape Cod and the rocky cliffs around Big Sur allowed me to flirt with Mother Nature. From the mountains in Colorado to the Badlands of North and South Dakota, I have found peace in the majesty of glacial retreats and tectonic plates. Niagara Falls always reminds me just how insignificant I am in the greater scheme of things. Whether attending the cherry blossom festival in Washington DC or picking elderberries along a dirt road near the town where I grew up, the simple pleasures of the natural world bring me comfort in moments of need. Everywhere I go, all the places I have been, only act to cement my faith that there is so much more to this world than mere coincidence. I see great design in the wonders of nature. I recognize there is far more to this reality than we know.    
            It matters little to me if I see the stars at night shine big and bright deep in the heart of Texas or my parents’ backyard. This universe is awe inspiring. When comets and asteroids dance in the darkness, I dance with them in my head. I see the differences between a newborn baby and a butterfly floating about some flowers, but both are evidence that there is a magic in all of this creation. The experience of watching my cat die, or the snow falling softly outside my window on Christmas morning, each stands as proof, for me, that there is purpose and reason in all this natural wonder. Whether I am soothed to sleep by the lullaby of a cricket or awoken by the rage of a storm, I am humbled by this world and all the life that comes with it. As I walk along a deserted dirt road on a hot summer’s day, I can feel it all around me. It is in the grace of growing older and the touch of a monkey through bars at the local zoo. If you want to understand the nature of God, just open up your eyes and see it. Like the wind, and the rain, and the sun, and snow, God can be found in the things we know.

“Think about those beautiful wild lilies growing over there. They don’t work up a sweat toiling for needs or wants—they don’t worry about clothing. Yet the great King Solomon never had an outfit that was half as glorious as theirs.”
(Luke 12:27, The Voice Bible)

            So few of us ever stop to really hear the birds or take pause during a busy day to recognize a fragrance in the air. We thrive to work and we work to thrive. You may have seen the Seven (natural) Wonders of the World, then climbed Mount Everest, but were you amazed or did you have a revelation? Does the thorn of the rose just draw blood from you or does it draw life into you? We can touch, we can feel, we can understand all this nature, but we do not take the time to think about what it really is. If you can believe that vampires exist, then is it so hard to imagine that there is a God and that He hides in His creation? If you can read the stars and the signs; if you believe that a deck of cards or a wooden board can actually talk to you; if you can find meaning in things so obscure, then why can’t you see the obvious? We are, after all, part of nature too.
            I am a rational person. I believe in the Big Bang and in Darwin’s theory of Evolution. In many ways, I am more a man of science than a man of theology. That being said, there exists a modern movement sweeping many scientific fields of study which claims that there is an underlying consciousness to all reality. On a subatomic level, we also find the “God Particle”,  known as Higgs boson. Researchers believe it caused the Big Bang and is “what joins everything and gives it matter." Astronauts, having returned to earth, claim to have changed as a result of their experience in space. While the heavenly view itself may have affected them deeply, an obscure phenomenon called the “Overview Effect” seems to convey a much more profound explanation. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, in February of 1971, experienced this surrounding. Mitchell “describes being completely engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness. Without warning, he says, “a feeling of bliss, timelessness, and connectedness began to overwhelm him. He describes becoming “instantly and profoundly aware that each of his constituent atoms were connected to the fragile planet he saw in the window and to every other atom in the Universe.” When asked about any resulting conclusions or ideas regarding God, he responded, “We do have great mystery about what is the origin of the universe, how it came to be. There's a great deal of question as to whether the Big Bang is the correct answer to the way the universe arose, and under what auspices and conditions. I don't think we have the full answers to that yet. Hopefully in due course we'll be able to find a much better way to describe all this.” 
            When we become familiar with something, it loses its uniqueness. We no longer view it as special because it has become the everyday. We don't take the time to see things that are in front of our faces so we don’t even bother to look. We cling to almost anything we think will help us get through, anything but the obvious. Whether scientific or supernatural, we convince ourselves that our theories are true, well knowing that if you give a man enough opportunity, he will believe anything. In an attempt to create our own answers, we have asked the same questions. The symphony of every living thing testifies of a higher power, but we do not listen. 
            As my day in the Gulf of Mexico floated into an evening of star shine and warm breezes, I found myself, at 22 years of age, taking my first step towards spiritual freedom. I had a long and horrific road ahead of me, but I was never able to escape what happened in the sea that day and the overwhelming emotional experience of it all. The time I spent submerged helped to shape my future thinking about life and the universe. It was like God had revealed Himself to me through nature. It wasn’t angels or ladders that ushered Him in. Not one piece of seaweed caught on fire and then communicated with me. Although I had much to learn and discover about God, science and nature, at least I finally knew where to start looking. On a cool autumn evening, sitting next to a bonfire, I can sense it. Windows down, radio up, as I am speeding down a road, I can feel it. During a sun shower on a sweltering summer afternoon, I can smell it. On a January morning, while scraping my car, I can touch it. The spring sings of it. I can discover it anytime I stop to listen. There is always something divine in the air. It is a silent voice that calls out to me, over and over. It whispers, “I am here.”







Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Will and Grace

“Do you look up at the sky
When the full moon’s burning bright
And wonder why the night won’t fade away?
Do you ever feel the rain
Like a thousand drops of pain
And wonder why the sun won’t shine today?
Do you walk?
Do you run?
Or do you fly if you have the chance?
When the music starts to play
Do you turn and walk away
Or do you dance?”

            It was an almost perfect June day for a wedding. With the exception of a grey sky, and the ever so slight chance of rain, the outdoor ceremony went off without a hitch. The clouds themselves seemed merciful, blocking out the late spring sun and allowing for cooler, much more reasonable temperatures. At times like this, it seems better to welcome the threat of a storm than to bake in the glare of a sunny day. With the choice of a quaint garden setting, next to a rippling stream and cobblestone mill, it was easy to see why the bride and her groom had decided on this place to exchange their vows. There was great beauty to be found in the simplicity of this tiny cove and the minimalistic approach made regarding décor. A few flowers on a few fold-out chairs and an arbour splashed by a veil of white were the only accents outside of the natural beauty. There was an elegance in the easiness of it, a charm in the choice to go green.
            When soft symphonies began to flow from an orchestra hidden in technology, all sat ready for the march of the bride and her entourage. As ceremony would have it, the mother comes first. She passed from behind me, her shuffle was silent but her presence immediate. The long black strapless gown was stunning. The short matching jacket danced in the same colour but it was lacy, each interstice woven together sweetly, resembling a web of ebony, close to her frame. The dark set fit her perfectly and she turned every head. Although the reason she chose this dress was clear (it was arresting), I could not discern her rationality to go black. I always thought black was for funerals and that the mother of the bride was “supposed” to match her daughter’s attire (or at least accent it). While the bride was breathtaking in her gown of white, her mother was almost as beautiful for a woman in black.
            I had to ask the bride and groom just who had decided on the colour scheme for the reception.  The newly married couple had the final say. Every table, every chair was garnished in dark midnight purple. It seemed black to me at first. I almost immediately realized how well the mother of the bride blended in. White flowers and clear glass accentuated circular tables iced with shadow. The groom’s party was charcoal grey and the bridesmaids a rich burgundy, the emphasis so much on the amalgam of colour and style. Everything matched up perfectly, a blend of slight winter and harvest moon. Right down to the napkins, there was great attention to detail. I could tell how much thought and preparation had gone into this event. Without exaggeration, it was one of the loveliest weddings I have ever had the privilege of attending.
            She floated out onto the dance floor like a free spirit. Her grace was not only in her moves. You could see her radiance, her happiness. I watched her on occasion throughout the night. She had ditched her jacket so that she could spread her wings to fly. Despite any lack of brightness in the colour choice of her dress, she was emblazoned. I had met her several times before this night, but I never realized just how exempt she had made herself. She was exempt from worrying what anybody thought or said. She didn’t wear that black dress because she was trying to punctuate a colour scheme. She never thought of any message it might convey. She wore that gown because she loved it. She wore it because she wanted to, and nothing else.

“When the radio is on
Do you sing your favourite song
Or do you change the station just to hear the news?
In the small hours of the night
Do you give in to the fright
Or do you let the sound of silent wings free you?
Do you follow your dreams?
Do you follow your bliss?
Do you hold out your heart for the ultimate kiss?
If you live your life in black and white
You can let go of your fear of flight
Surrender love”

            He was wild. He was turbulent. He just didn’t give a damn. He was reckless in his recklessness and as high as the highest high. We met in English 101, the year before I met his cousin. He may have been a string bean, but his delirium seemed to grow more each day.  His vehemence was met only by a surging anger. This rage seemed directed towards everything, but mostly towards himself. He did nothing against his own will. He didn’t care what kind of clothes he should have worn to school. Sometimes panamas were good enough for him. Bathing consistently was for pussies. A clean house a mere challenge, a race in tepid destruction. He refused to do what they said or act as they said, he even claimed not to think as they thought. It was his pleasure to go against the grain, to stand out against the norm. He was rebel and hobo all tied up in one.   
            For all his nonconformity, he was not carefree. Apparently, he just could not find it within himself to dance. The weight of the world was heavy on his shoulders, as frail as they were. In his attempt to repel society, he also repelled people. Friendless and separated from family, alone he stood . A lone wolf, one might say. He dropped out of school as an act of treason and started collecting the perfect solution when avoiding social interaction, guns. His manifesto was loud and clear: fuck the system, fuck the Jones’, fuck the world that they have made this out to be. In a quest to be an individual, his anger turned to hatred and his hatred turned to a couple of years in a mental institution. He had been trying to free himself, to stand up against “the man.” The end result was forced conformity on a ward, conformity to his new label, and most of all, a silent conformity within the cage he had built around himself. Instead of being different, he turned out like every other loser who loses their way, utterly human.
            One day, he just up and disappeared. I never got to see my friend again. His release only seemed to have released his propensity to hide even more. Inside his mind, he pushed away anything that might have saved him from himself. In trying to reject the world around him, he succeeded in rejecting the only things that might have helped him. When you shove away the people in your life, when you strive to stand alone, that’s exactly how you end up. He was left with little but the clothing on his back. While he must have imagined this was the best way for him to be, his actions and choices made him like everyone else. Those who believe they are special enough to demand the world treat them so are fodder for foolishness. He wasn’t special. He wasn’t a rebel. He wasn’t even good at being bad. He just turned out to be crazy.
            I didn’t hear from him when his cousin died. He sent no condolence, made no attempt to express the loss he might have felt. I am not sure that he even gave a shit. He spent most of his adulthood  trying to be unlike the rest of us. He wanted to be dissimilar, to not conform. The world was an awful place and anyone who rested in it was an asshole, controlled by society. He only managed to isolate himself from everything that matters in this life. For well over a decade he wandered this planet on a bender. In trying not to care, he gave up everything one could care about. His attempts at nonconformity led him straight into a hell from which he could not escape. A few years ago came the news. He had taken a rifle and removed himself completely. He said goodbye to no one, for he had no one to say goodbye to. Although his reality may have been simply in his mind, he ended up achieving the very thing he tried so hard to eliminate. In rejecting the world, he had only dejected himself. Unfortunately, he turned out like every other person who decides for once and for all to stop the noise and the pain. He was not unique at all. Just like his cousin, he ended up dead.

“Do you walk?
Do you run?
Or do you fly if you have the chance?
Do you breathe to live
Or do you live to breathe?
Do you feel the rhythm of romance?
Do you laugh until it hurts?
Or do you sing like no-ones listening?
When the music starts to play
Do you turn and walk away
Or do you dance?”
(Do You Dance? Amy Sky 2005)

            Its fashionable to try and be one of a kind. The world has become one giant competition to see who can out-martyr themselves. When did being unparalleled become the norm? Does that mean that not conforming has become conforming? Isn’t saying you don’t want attention a secret cry for just that? We accentuate our position. We punctuate the freedom that we think we own. Nonconformity has become an idiom, the hip thing to do as you get older. The property in being off the grid has become in itself an expectation.  Just because you are part of the group that doesn’t like groups doesn’t mean you’re not part of a group.  We have no choice in this life. We fit in the best we can and sometimes that means you have to conform. We do it at work. We do it while driving on the highway. We even do it at Christmastime gathered around a freshly cut tree.
            Conformity is all about influence. Whether internal pressures or external factors, we are constantly shaped by our environment and the people within it. When we change our behaviour, or what we believe in, in order to fit in with a group, we have conformed. We have changed. This change is usually in reaction to both real and imagined forces. We want to fit in, to be liked. We want unity because of our desire to be correct and to find comfort in our social role. Unfortunately for many people, conformity is more of an issue than a solution. Nonconformity can work exactly the same way. People try so hard to be an individual, to avoid societal averages, that they lose themselves in the emptiness of it all. Either way, there is always a strong chance that in our perceived ideas about our individuality, however it may be, we lose touch with what it really means to be free.    
            Freedom from conformity is not a state of action or denial, it is a state of living. When you walk out on a dance floor and don’t even stop to consider what others are thinking, that is being free. To invest in the beauty simply for the sake of beauty, that is integrity. When you give a damn, that’s obedience. The only true influence we ever meet is our own, but we are often too afraid to look in the mirror. The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even dead fish float upstream. The reward for your conformity is that everyone likes you except you. On the other hand, there are pathways to madness for every man. Many try to rebuke the world, to go it alone, but they forget that failure to comply may just as well jail your freedom. Such things tend to be the enemy of growth. We need to stop trying and just start being. Trip the light fantastic.

My late friend once told me, “I’d rather die than dance.”
Not me.








Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Scars and Stripes


            Some people have great issue when they discover that I do not separate emotional responses involving death. The death of a loved one and the death of a pet can have the same effect on a person. My point is always, each pet is a loved one. Most of the animals I have “owned” throughout my lifetime meant as much, if not more, than most of the people I have known. I do not believe this attitude is exclusive to my state of being. I think deep down inside we all recognize that, in many cases, losing a pet hurts just as much as losing a person you love. Sometimes it hurts more. That initial emotion is the same in all of us, regardless of how much we try to tell ourselves it is not. Granted, the period of grieving is usually shorter with animals, the intensity is more confined, but the depth of conviction brought on by any loss can and will change a person, if they let it. 
            Not every bird that slams into your car while you drive at warp six merits a funeral. The hamburger you eat does not demand an act of contrition, no matter how much you enjoyed consuming the meat. We do not regard these examples in the same manner that we view our cat, or our dog, or even our horse. A hamster or a rat may be our very best friend and our pet pig may warm a cold and lonely bed each night. When an animal to which we have emotionally attached ourselves passes, or has to be put down, we go through withdrawal. This detachment has physical manifestations just like when we detox from drugs or alcohol. Each little life we lose leaves a tiny spiritual scar. Over time, all those tiny little scars can shred our spirit so that it becomes like a tatterdemalion. I will not argue that the long-term consequences from the loss of a pet and the loss of your spouse differ. These responses are primarily based on the magnitude of each relationship. When a pet dies, you bleed just the same. The dagger may not make as deep a hole, but the pain is identical.  When I look in the mirror, I often see many jagged marks on my soul, scars as visible as any great wound.
            We put down our cockapoo Skippy on July 4th 2005. We didn’t want to do it, but his worsening condition left us little choice. He had been mostly blind for over 5 years, but you could tell he had finally slipped into pure darkness. His teeth were falling out, he developed incontinence. He was leaving and we knew what was to come. Our decision was not an easy one to make. We mulled over our options but decided on mercy rather than suffering. It was the least we could do for such a good friend and companion. Almost nine years later and the razor blade still stings. We question ourselves, always wondering if we did the right thing. It is not a constant moaning that we hear. Each anniversary of his birth or death; each time we see his doppelganger in the elevator or on the street; each time we take the time, he haunts us quite silently. There are times we accuse ourselves of murder. Could he have had one more good day? Would he have lasted the summer? Every time, that jagged piece of mind reopens an old wound. I often wonder to myself if the decision to put him down, when we did, wasn’t a selfishly motivated act. Did we make our decision to euthanize so that we could spare him or did we kill our dog to spare us?  

 “I think we sometimes want the ones we love to be with us forever. It’s difficult to let go, whether it’s a teenager going to college, a parent who’s on their death bed, a spouse who we loved or a companion that’s beyond help. Death is never easy. I have a hard time with life support systems or keeping animals alive beyond what life would have otherwise provided in their natural environment. At the end of the day, I think we have to decide if we are keeping the person or pet alive for us or them and to realize we love the being so much that we are capable of accepting their choice to leave. Animals and humans both decide when they’re ready to go,, it’s the families and loved ones who usually have the difficult time with the decision. Be happy for your friend,, they served their purpose with you and now get to rest…  Remember,, in this animal’s natural environment,, it would have only lived a fraction of the life you provided it. When it was beyond its time, and living a life of misery and suffering, you provided a solution regardless of your own feelings. You sound like a hero to me.” (Facebook, Jason Smith, July 4th 2013)
            For most of the time that I have had Bi-Polar Effective Disorder (Manic Depression), I’ve rarely felt like I was mentally challenged. After all, there is a difference between a chemical imbalance and a psychological flaw. I have always viewed myself as dysfunctional, not crazy. Any behaviour, or medication I had to take, was the result of a physiological glitch in my genetic makeup. I will admit that all the years of jumping from hospital to hospital, from therapist to therapist, looking for a cure, left me feeling futile in the face of my storm. When I think back on all the experiences I have had because of my condition, I wonder why the resolution took so fucking long to find. Initially, they placed me on Lithium, 1200 mg a day, forever and forever. I stopped taking it almost right away. It was not only the nausea and vomiting that convinced me to stop poisoning myself, it was the mania which continued, unencumbered, whether I dropped my four salty friends or not. With my narcissism in charge, and the depression a constant struggle, I made the decision to go it alone. For over 17 years I roamed without my leash. Without any means of control, I lost myself in my own fury.
            The entire time I went untreated was like a very long and very bad episode of sleep paralysis. It was like being awake but unable to move, unable to influence any outer reality. I lived life, but it was not my own. Without treatment, I became a creature of instinct and impulse. Even during my depressive states, I lost touch with the person I wanted to be and turned into the person they all said I would be. The disease took charge, it always did. During any brief moment of clarity, I always felt myself punished from above. Although I often realized that I was only hurting myself, I also felt as if God Himself was casting the die and calling the shots. Each bad choice, each wayward action had a clear consequence. I believed these things were not only by my hand but Divine retribution, payback for my sins. Every time I did something that Christianity said was wrong, God tore me a new one.  
            I am a severe bi-polar. The worst type, I am told. With all my signals constantly crossed, it is no wonder I took on the heavy weight of condemnation from my birth religion. Even when I cast God away, swearing never to give Him my attention again, I still felt like the Christ was whipping me from behind so that I couldn’t see Him. Each incident of cause and effect was much more to me than a figurative wound that would heal me strong. Any scars I received were from constantly being beaten, lashed upon a wooden rail by life and sweet Jesus in the sky. Sometimes in the dark of night I can still see the marks against the shadows; they remind me of how unwanted I am. 30 stripes for being a homosexual. 15 for telling a lie. 20 for not believing in the Son up in the heavens and 5 for good measure. I remember each one as it cut into my neck or my side or my torso, welted deep like it was supposed to do. Each time I felt flogged, it was as if God did the whipping, striking me down, time and again, like a dictator demanding I obey His rules. The stripes I bore did nothing to convince me that I was required to follow.
            When my mind cleared, and the pills kicked in, I realized that God never does His own dirty work. He doesn’t need to, that’s what life is for. Of course, I never really believed I was being assaulted by something Holy. The idea of such a thing was only a reflection of how I felt inside myself. Actual lack of assistance from God only served to convince me I was unwanted, unloved. I felt like I was subject to spiritual condemnation as if it was corporal punishment. I am so glad that those days are long gone. I cannot even remember what it is like to live that way. I was looking through some pictures the other day, planning to organize them all from their safety in boxes and Tupperware. I came across a few snapshots from a time when I was at my worst. I tried desperately to see any hint of the flagellation I felt I was subjected to. I studied myself. I tried to remember what it felt like, what I was thinking in that pretty head of mine. I found no evidence, no indication that God had been there at all. 

“The clouds will part and the sky cracks open
And God himself will reach his fucking arm through
Just to push you down
Just to hold you down
Stuck in this hole with the shit and the piss
And it's hard to believe it could come down to this
Back at the beginning
(The Wretched, Nine Inch Nails 1999)

            It has always been a challenge for me to separate God’s hypothetic punishment from the struggles that life brings. The scars and stripes that are supposed to make us strong may prepare us for the journey we take, but I could never get past all the conjecture that they were planned, set down from above. I recognize that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Romans 8: 28a, NIV) but it is the declaration that God “disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son" (Hebrews 12:6, NIV) that I have a serious problem with.   
            Many might, or already do, argue that the experiences that this life has handed me are because I am no longer considered God’s “son”. My true nature defines me as something lesser, beyond redemption. Sheep go to heaven and all the goats go to hell. Perhaps they are correct and I am just climbing different mountains than those He considers for His “children”. All along, I may have been trying to get somewhere that I didn’t belong, and most certainly, wasn’t wanted. If I had truly met the conditions for my salvation, God would have extricated me from all the bad things and restored me into good things. While this concept might offend others deeply, I always take it like a warning, an indicator of what not to think and how not to be. It is true that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45, NIV) but this says far more about the way that life is for everyone than any lack of God’s Love and Mercy.  The deeper I dig in all this shit, the more I realize its just manure.
            To each life will come quandaries, doubts and questions on the purpose of it all. There is a constant war within each soul, a battle from each forward movement that we try so hard to make. We are all a heart in motion, always looking to be released from our snarled and tangled condition. From the slightest scar to the most penetrating flogging, it is life that gave me my wounds, not something Holy. No angels bested me. No saviour rejected me. God does not sit in His Holy Place and hand out punishment just for the sake of it. The very best we can do is to try and heal our way through each scar, to grin and bear the stripes we are dealt. This is what it means to be alive. They occur just from the act of being. I am convinced that God does not punish. In fact, it is the relationship we have with God that allows us to find purpose in our suffering, to recognize the hidden design in our ability to learn from living. We must have mercy on both ourselves and the other living things that surround us throughout our lives.
            So much damage, so much pain. So many scars piled up upon themselves. So many beatings, invisible lashings received for the pleasure of just being alive. We are so contrite in our suffering that we cannot see it has reason. When we suffer, the first thing we do is react as if we have done something wrong. When we do something wrong, when we sin, we automatically believe we are going to be punished. We take off our shirt, stretch out our arms and almost swallow the gag we use in resistance.  
 “As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;
they had their faces twisted towards their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.”
(Divine Comedy: Inferno [XX, 10-15] Dante Alighieri, 14th century)






Jason Smith profile





Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Apples and Oranges

            On the corner of Clarence and Dundas Street, in London Ontario, pedestrians flow like wine at a wedding. It is one of the main intersections in the downtown core. Every day, thousands of people hustle and bustle, back and forth, heading somewhere or leaving from somewhere else. The city of London is located approximately halfway between Toronto and Detroit along the 401 corridor. According to the 2011 Canadian census, the population of London stands at 366,151. Known as “The Forest City”, urban sprawl efficiently blends dense residential and park areas with the more capitalistic requirements of a postmodern metropolis. Glass towers, heritage buildings and thousands of trees create a quaint possibility, but the ravages of recession and unemployment have turned the main thoroughfare into a recipe that looks like a disaster. I found myself this Monday morning waiting for the bus on the corner. Across the street he was sitting, waiting just like me. You could tell right away that he was heading in the wrong direction.     
            Like every urban centre, London has its share of street beggars and the homeless. The gentleman across the way was most definitely of the latter persuasion. He was raggedy, unkempt and without question in desperate need. I thought to myself, “This guy needs a Saviour and a sandwich.” With only my bus pass, and backsliding ways to take me home, I stood unable to assist him in either hour of need. I only assumed that at least one of the many people who passed him by might spare a dime, let alone grant this human being some acknowledgement. He barely moved, staring into the passing crowd. On occasion he would close his eyes, although I wasn’t sure if he was praying or begging for mercy. I thought to myself what it must be like to be so invisible, to be so damned dispensable. My heart went out to him, even though I held nothing in my hand to offer.
            He set the box down a mere 15 feet from the vagabond. Right on the corner, for the whole world to see, he grabbed his pamphlets and started praising Jesus. The Assembly of God logo was as clear as day on the side of that crate. I just assumed it was filled with salvation. What a contradiction in terms. Not only would the money used for copying and dispensing these tools of evangelization do more good for the man quite lost behind him, but this saver of souls didn’t even notice him, sitting there, so in need of the Kingdom. As a woman, dressed to the nines, shuffled alongside of him, he handed her the gift of Eternal Life. Although rejected, he did not miss the chance to at least try and win a few Goth kids to Jesus. Each person he addressed, rich beyond measure compared to the stranger across the street from me, took his pamphlet, then tossed it to the ground or dumped it in the garbage can located a few feet down the way. Most avoided taking it altogether. He had this urgency about him and he seemed so very defeated when even one passerby got away. In the corner of my eye I saw that my bus was coming so I took out my pass. I got ready to board.
            I went to the back of the bus, as I usually do, and flopped down in the window seat, facing the homeless man across the street. I took one last look and wondered if there wasn’t something I could have done for him. Just then, a second man approached that self-appointed saviour and handed him his morning coffee. When the light ahead of me finally turned green, the bus began to pull out into traffic and carried me onward. They just stood there drinking their coffee.
They must have been on a break.

“Apples and oranges aren't that different really. I mean they're both fruit. Their weight is extremely similar. They both contain acidic elements. They're both roughly spherical. They serve the same social purpose. With the possible exception of a tangerine I can't think of anything more similar to an orange than an apple. If I was having lunch with a man who was eating an apple and, while I was looking away, he replaced that apple with an orange I doubt I'd even notice. So how is this a metaphor for difference? I could understand if you said 'That's like comparing apples and uranium' or 'That's like comparing apples with baby wolverines' or 'That's like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver' or 'That's like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.' Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.”
(Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, Chuck Klosterman 2003)

            We recently went to a restaurant that was a little outside of our regular routine. It was a nice enough place. It was classy without coming across condescending. The hostess was very pretty, and very young. I have underwear older than her. She seated us promptly and gave us our menus, as would be expected. When the water arrived, we ordered our drinks and sat back watching a news channel muted on the flat-screen. It rested on the wall just past our table. As Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons soothed our senses softly like background noise, we took our time and perused the menu. The fusion of classic French cuisine with Italian made each selection a very difficult choice indeed. Without fail, Ben took far too long to make up his mind. This time however, no waitress arrived to remind him it was time to finally decide. Having made our decisions, we waited and we waited, then we waited some more. It was far past winter when our waitress for the evening decided to show up.   
            Karen was a lovely thing. Her amber hair and delicate looks blended nicely with her toned physique and tight-fitting uniform. She was even younger than the hostess at the front entrance. Predictably, Ben ordered an appetizer with our meals, we argued about the price of it, then when our drinks came to the table, we settled in and tried to enjoy ourselves. Vivaldi had flowed into Mozart, then Mozart flowed into Bach, all the while we patiently waited for the overpriced starter. I spied around the place, looking for good ole Karen, trying to get her attention. I spotted her up near the bar where she had stopped and talked to another waitress. She then disappeared out back for at least the length of  Johann Sebastian’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor. I bet Ben $5.00 that she had gone outside for a smoke. When the organ music faded into Haydn’s oratorio masterpiece Die Schöpfung (The Creation), a different waitress brought forth our bounty. Unfortunately, she brought it all out at once.
            Our dinner grew cold as we consumed the hors d'oeuvres. With every bite I looked for Karen, but she was never anywhere to be found. With our drinks unfilled and no fresh napkins to be found, I started my traditional countdown. From that point on, each error or inappropriate behaviour on her part would result in a deduction of one dollar from the customary tip. I have known enough waitresses, waiters and busboys to realize this experience with Miss Karen was simply a reflection off one rotten apple. Ignoring your customers is just bad business. She must not have realized that a gratuity is not mandatory. It is a reward for good and professional service. By the time she finally showed up, we had finished and asked for the bill. The food was great and the atmosphere enchanting, but why would I pay her for a job she didn’t do?
            As Holst’s Saturn, from The Planets, played hauntingly in the background, Karen finally brought the damage. We both found it strange that after all that avoidance, all that laziness, that she returned immediately with it. Visa is handy, but cash is dandy when you want to make a point about service. When she returned and took the payment, I asked for the change back. When all was said and done, we stood up, stretched a little and headed out through the front entrance. On the way out the door, I leaned over to that very pretty, and very young, hostess who had greeted us when we entered and I said, “I spent so much time waiting for service that I memorized the playlist of that Classical station you use in your restaurant.” Her apology would do me no good. It was too late. I never left a penny for lacklustre Miss Karen because she had not earned one.








Still Life with Apples and Oranges
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1897