Friday, 19 September 2014

There's a River Crossed

Inverness Ness Footbridge 15760.JPG

Well, it's happened.

The outcome was exactly as I guessed, though it doesn't bring me any satisfaction. As a Canadian, I'm too familiar with separation referenda. It's difficult to get folk to secede from what they've known, unless they're being rousted out of bed by soldiers, imprisoned, and tortured. (Hello, Ireland!) But it's like the Scots to be game for a go on pure conviction; the fact that the nation was up to it speaks volumes. Too bad I couldn't be there; as I understand it, Canadian residents were invited to vote.

I'm impressed by the lack of newsreader second-guessing, constant updates on "who's winning", exit interviews, and the whole democracy-negating circus we North Americans put up with. Scottish voters were left in peace to make their choice. "Envy" doesn't begin to cover it.

Nor has the Scottish initiative been as cruel and hateful as Québec's was in 1995, an experience that left both sides so traumatised, still twenty years later, that the PQ have never been able to muster the political will to try it again. The SNP have promised they won't hold the nation and Union hostage to endless rematches in the coming years, and I heartily recommend that Yes cleave to this pledge. Trust me, it's brought nothing but damage and stagnation to Québec. (And I say this as a Québec nationalist.)

I was particularly struck, while avidly following the news from home via livestreamed radio, by the Yes movement's welter of voices: Irish; Australian; Canadian; English of many stripes; and a Babel of accents from non-English-speaking countries. One Yes organiser I heard on Radio Scotland was a Pakistani Muslim; another on the Scottish Independence Podcast was American. So proud am I of my father's people, that I've been irritating my Facebook friends with it even more than usual. (By the way, the most in-depth coverage I found consistently came from BBC 4; better than any Scottish station, in fact. Somewhere in there is reason to be thankful this happened in the UK, and not somewhere else.)

Any road. As we launch into the next phase of our history, let's get something straight: the Yes loss is a giant win for the Union, which stood to lose not merely a large part of its people, but the best one. The Scots are a people of the future, who can't be trammelled by broken-down notions of nationhood and justice. This train is steaming forward. It's get on or get left.

Indeed, any who may gloat at the SNP defeat may have cause to wish we'd gone after all by the time we're done. As my father said forty years ago: "The world isn't ready for an independent Scotland." Nor, I suspect, are many within the Union ready for the renewed, activist nation that Scotland has become. Show me another nationalist movement, anywhere, that speaks in so many accents, and I'll recant.

Aye, UKIP. I'm talking to you.

So, best to Scotland for the future, near and far. And all those promises we heard before the referendum, all the things Westminster was going to do, if only Scots voted No? Well, it's happened now, hasn't it?

So it's time for a reckoning. Or raise hell if they don't.


(Photo of Ness Footbridge in my old hometown of Inverness courtesy of Hartmut Josi Bennöhr and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

WW: Scotland rocks!

(No politics here; just my blanket wish for the entire
country, win who may.)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

For Fudo and Dr. Suess(-roshi)

Samanera_(sculpture).jpg Today I will sit
In this place, unmoving,
Until I have transcended all suffering
Or until my legs begin to hurt
In which case, I will stand
But I will sit while I stand
Then I'll walk about a bit
And sit while I walk
And then sit again
Really, this time
Until I have transcended all suffering

Should suffering hold out until lunchtime
I will sit while I eat
Then I will sit while I vacuum
Later I'll sit while I cook dinner, and then again while I eat
And then while I read
Finally, I will sit while I sleep

If by tomorrow I still have not transcended suffering
I will sit again
I'll sit in the bath, and I'll sit on the path
I'll sit on the grass and I'll sit on my, uh... cushion
I'll sit in the house, the garage, and the yard
I'll sit with the carrots, nasturtiums, and chard
I'll sit in a chair if I'm feeling conservative
I'll sit with a bagel, if it has no preservatives

I'm determined to sit for the rest of my life
In the midst of all happiness, boredom, and strife
I'll sit before dawn and I'll sit 'way past noon
I'll sit in September, December, and June
I'll sit while I sing and I'll sit while I cry
I'll sit in Vancouver, Algiers, and Shanghai
I'll sit while I play and I'll sit while I pray
Don't know if I'll sit while I poop, but I may

See, I'm no longer young, but I'm not just yet old
So I sit to remember and keep off the mould
When at last my bones fail, then I'll sit while I lie
And when my heart follows, I will sit while I die

After that I don't know what will happen
But it'll involve sitting.


(Photo of Thai child monk sculpture courtesy of Tevaprapas Makklay and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

WW: To picnics long past


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Street Level Zen: Needs

Tamme-Lauri tamm suvepäeval

"What does a man need - really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in - and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That's all - in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade."

Sterling Hayden


(Photo of the Tamme-Lauri Oak, Estonia's oldest tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

WW: Official flower of summer


(Monarda [bee balm]; aside from being beautiful,
it also makes good tea.)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Update on Christopher Knight, "The North Pond Hermit"

Loon Island, Forest Lake, Gray, Maine It's been a busy few weeks for the backlist. First, the passing of Robin Williams led to a run on my review of The Zen Path Through Depression. Then my article on Christopher Knight – "The North Pond Hermit" – trended as well. A quick Google search revealed that GQ had recently published an in-depth story about him.

The Strange And Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit is a remarkably sensitive and balanced account by Michael Finkel, the first journalist to win Christopher's trust… or at least enough of it to permit him to write a well-developed article. Reading it, I had the following thoughts:

o Apparently, Christopher really did live year-round in the Maine woods – in a tent, with no fire – for 27 years. I was not alone in doubting this part of his story; I've lived in Québec, and it's frankly difficult for me to imagine surviving even one night in the depths of that winter. In fairness, Christopher himself admits that even he barely did, sometimes. His greatest strength seems to be iron discipline, sticking to rigid protocols that allowed him, day after day, to meet critical challenges. My hat is off to him; I could never be so consistent for so long.

o As earlier accounts reported, Christopher possessed no firearms and offered no resistance when arrested. (Which didn't happen in his own camp, as I first believed, but at gunpoint, while burglarising a cabin.)

o I also predicted that we would soon learn troubling details about his saga, but this too has proven overly cynical. Though much of his past remains blank, everything released so far checks out. He really does seem to be nothing more than a guy who walked into the woods one day. (And who refuses to discuss his motivations for it.)

o He talks like the real thing. "More damage has been done to my sanity in jail, in [seven] months," he says, "than years, decades, in the woods." As a forest monk, I have no trouble believing that. And he has clear insight into his fate: "I stole. I was a thief. I repeatedly stole over many years. I knew it was wrong. Knew it was wrong, felt guilty about it every time, yet continued to do it." Believable perspective from a man who has been living in solitude; denial is a disease of the gregarious.

o It's interesting to note that in the woods he was always carefully groomed, but stopped shaving in jail. I also was more fastidious about my appearance on the mountain, in part to avoid attracting the attention of possible onlookers. Christopher claims his bushy, unkempt jail beard was a calendar; otherwise he had no way, in that barren, sterile environment, to gauge the passage of time. Again, credible.

o As it happens, he did meditate, but only when in danger. It worked, too: "I am alive and sane, at least I think I'm sane." But in spite of the article's title, Christopher isn't a true hermit. "When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me," he told Finkel. "Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy." (An impression that is totally accurate.) He was in fact a recluse: a person who lives in isolation for non-spiritual reasons.

o Mental health examiners suggest that Christopher may have Asperger's syndrome. Speaking as someone with close experience of this condition (think Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory), it's plausible. He was often cold, unresponsive, and impatient with Finkel; he sometimes voiced a high opinion of himself and disparaged perceived rivals – even famous confrère Henry David Thoreau – in adolescent terms. Tics not likely produced by three decades of solitude, which tends on the contrary to make difficult people (such as me) more friendly, loving, and mindful of others' worth.

o Another detail that may be counter-intuitional to the inexperienced: his camp turned out to be almost within sight of a cabin; isolation and distance are not always synonymous. He lived in a state of camouflage, just as I planned to do when I thought I'd have to sit my 100 Days on public land. The best defence is not to be seen in the first place.

o His difficulties with advancing age also ring true. He complained of the growing hardship of a lifestyle tailored to a man in his twenties, and shared my battle with failing eyesight, which he partially solved the same way: "I used my ears more than my eyes."

o Finally, and most fascinating, he did in fact gain profound existential insight out there, even though he wasn't a contemplative. "Solitude did increase my perception," he told Finkel. "But […] when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. […] To put it romantically: I was completely free." That's pretty much what happened to me, too. Interesting that Zen training apparently wasn't necessary – though it did get me there a few hundred months sooner.

Ultimately, my conviction that Christopher's story is essentially accurate as he reports it boils down to the following "Wisdom To Live By", surrendered at last to his chronicler after repeated pestering:

"Get enough sleep."

I learned the same thing, Out There.


(Photo of the Maine camp country courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)
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