The Important Canadian You Should Know

Denham Jolly is a man we should know. He is a Canadian teacher, entrepreneur, publisher, broadcaster, philanthropist, civil rights activist, and community leader.

Family and Personal Life

Born in Negril, Jamaica, Jolly enjoyed an idyllic childhood, playing on his family’s 300 lush acres and long, natural beach. His father was a successful entrepreneur and his mother was the local justice of the peace. After graduating from secondary school in 1953, he became a clerk with the West Indies Sugar Company but agreed with his parents that a university education was essential for his future.

Jolly was accepted at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Upon entering Canada, he was forced to sign a document pledging that he would leave the country the day that his student visa expired. He later learned that only Black students had to sign the pledge and so he became acquainted with Canada’s subtle, bureaucratic racism. He augmented his studies with two years at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro before completing his Science degree at McGill University. Jolly wanted to remain in Canada but, due to the immigration rules, he was forced to return to Jamaica.

In April 1961, he was finally able to secure the papers necessary to return to Canada. He worked for a few months as a City of Toronto air pollution researcher and then secured a position as a biology teacher at a secondary school in Sault Ste. Marie. In the spring of 1963, he met the young woman who would become his wife, Carol Casselman. After a year in the Soo, Jolly accepted a position teaching Physics and Chemistry at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate. Carol moved to Toronto to pursue her nursing career, they were married in July 1965, and later had three children.

Entrepreneurship

While enjoying teaching, Jolly earned extra income through the purchase of a Toronto rooming house. He then bought a second one. In 1968, he opened the Donview Nursing Home and six months later the Tyndall Nursing Home. The success of his growing businesses led him to leave teaching and, in 1972, he built a state of the art nursing home that grew to 151 beds. His entrepreneurial spirit was seen when he discovered the astronomical sum spent each month for his residents’ laboratory work and reacted by arranging for the consolidation of two private labs and then the purchase of 51% of the new company. Then, in 1990, Jolly observed that family members visiting his residents had difficulty finding nearby accommodation and so he purchased land and built a 65-room hotel that he called the Jolly Inn. A year later he paid the fee to register the hotel as a Day’s Inn. His businesses became international when he purchased a 120-bed nursing home in Dallas, Texas and began a boat chartering company in Montego Bay, Jamaica. When after only two years the profits from neither justified the headaches of running them from afar he sold them both – for a handsome profit.

Community Engagement

While becoming an increasingly successful businessperson, Jolly never forgot the racist student visa document he been forced to sign and the racial segregation he had experienced in Nova Scotia where, because he was Black, he could not attend an all-white church or enjoy a meal in a whites-only restaurant. Later, Jolly met Toronto landlords who assured him on the phone that an apartment was available but then became suddenly unavailable when he arrived to see it. When Jolly arranged for a white friend to visit the landlord, the apartment was available again. When buying his first house, the unwritten rules about where Black people could live in Toronto forced him to have a white friend pose as the purchaser while he pretended to be a contractor. He also found that some banks had more stringent loan conditions for Black than for white entrepreneurs. Others bluntly refused loans for Black-owned businesses. Jolly believed it was his responsibility to do what he could to help fight for racial equality.

Jolly became the treasurer of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA). He learned more about racist organizations in Ontario such as the Western Guard Party that worked with the Canadian KKK to harass non-white people, spread racist propaganda, and urge the government to restrict non-white immigrants. The JCA’s headquarters was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire that all assumed but was never proven to be arson.

One of the targets of racist groups and individuals was Contrast, a Black newspaper that had been founded in 1969. Its articles reflected the kaleidoscope of the Black experience in Toronto from the perspective of long-time residents and more recent arrivals from Caribbean islands. In 1983, the paper was in financial trouble until Jolly saved it by infusing much-needed capital. He became its owner and publisher. The paper remained free to readers even as Jolly increased it from 16 to 24 pages, made it more professional looking with new computerized type-setting equipment, broadened its range of articles, and improved the quality of its writing. Under his leadership, Contrast became, according to the Toronto Star, the “eyes, ears, and voice of Canada’s Black community.” He ran the paper for three years before selling it to another Jamaican-born entrepreneur.

Jolly was angry when he saw Black Canadian athletes applauded for earning medals for their country in the 1982 Commonwealth Games but then having to endure racist discrimination when they returned home. He and some friends gathered leaders from Toronto’s diverse Black community and formed the Black Business and Professional Association. He was its founding president. It supported and publicized the success of Black businesspeople and professionals, partly through the annual Harry Jerome Awards and Scholarships. Meanwhile, he personally funded scholarships for even more aspiring young Black people.

In August 1988, Jolly became a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). Its goal was to stop the harassment of Black citizens and the frightening regularity of white police officers being exonerated after shooting young Black men. The BADC wrote articles, staged demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and helped victims’ families. The Ontario government responded to a May 1992 Toronto riot that followed a peaceful protest organized by the BADC with an investigation that revealed and confirmed the depth of Toronto’s systemic anti-Black racism.

Denham Jolly

Radio

Jolly observed that among the problems facing Black youth in Toronto were the divisions within the Black community and a feeling of isolation as a minority within a predominantly white city. Part of a response to the problems, he decided, might be the creation of a Black-themed radio station that would play a range of Black music while offering Black voices and perspectives. He gathered other Black leaders and businesspeople and became the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Milestone Radio Inc. He then led the effort to have the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) grant Milestone the city’s one available radio frequency. The first question he was asked by the all-white commissioners was, “What is Black music?” He knew his group was in trouble. The license was granted to another group that proposed a country music station.

A few years later, another frequency came available and Jolly led another expensive and complex effort to earn it. The Canadian government sabotaged its own process by stating in advance that the frequency would go to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Finally, twelve years after first applying to the CRTC, his third application bid was successful.

In February 2001, Jolly’s FLOW 93.5 began broadcasting an energetic mix of R&B, reggae, rap, and stories told by Black on-air personalities about the Black community. Instead of having to tune into American stations, Black youth heard themselves reflected and their tastes respected over the air in their own city. As the station became increasingly successful, Jolly increased the power of its range so that it reached six million listeners across southern Ontario.

While a financial success, the station maintained its broader mission by promoting emerging Black artists, such as Drake. It provided scholarships for Black youth, staged free concerts, and supported Caribana, the annual celebration of Black-island culture. Not surprisingly, given the racial makeup of the region, 60% of FLOW’s listeners were white. This meant that more than just Black listeners were learning of the presence and vibrancy of the diverse Black culture that was a part of the Canadian mosaic. Jolly happily helped other Black music stations to form, first in Calgary and then elsewhere. After five years on the air, FLOW 93.5 was chosen as Canada’s best contemporary radio station.

Legacy

In his 70s, and pleased with the impact the radio station had made and that Black music had become mainstream, in 2011 Jolly sold Flow 93.5. He also sold his nursing homes. Jolly’s first marriage had ended in divorce and he later married Janice Williams. They traveled extensively, including to South Africa, where he had made generous donations to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to support its actions that helped end the state-sanctioned discrimination of Apartheid.

Jolly’s business acumen and community engagement were recognized through numerous local and national awards. Each recognized his dedication to his community and country and to the idea that Canada and Canadians will be better when there is justice for all through and the creation of a more equitable, non-racial nation whose reality matches its international image and the principles for which it stands.

I was invited to write this piece as an entry to the Canadian Encyclopedia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your social media of choice and consider leaving a comment.

 

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Trudeau, Trump and the UN: Two Views for One World

CTV News called to ask my view on various leaders and their thoughts on the United Nations. As we are dealing with so many issues that transcend national boundaries, it is an interesting time to pause to consider the internationalist viewpoint that led to the creation of bodies such as the UN in the first place.

Here is the September 20 interview:

https://www.facebook.com/CTVNewsChannel/videos/1549973815063944/

Scrubbing History: Sir John and General Lee

Sir John A. Macdonald is no Robert E. Lee. But the 19th-century leaders are similar in that they are leading again.

This time, they are serving as the focus of Americans and Canadians squabbling about their history. In the United States, the fights have sparked riots, injuries and a death. The fight is gearing up in Canada with an Ontario teacher’s union demanding that Sir John A. Macdonald Elementary School change its name.

Power and Sir John's Echo

In the United States, memorials to Lee and other Confederate leaders are being attacked as symbols of white supremacy – and the point is valid. Southern states seceded and fought the Civil War primarily to maintain slavery.

Most of the Confederate statues erected and most of what’s named after Confederate leaders were done to celebrate the legitimacy of that reprehensible goal; they appeared around 1910 to support Jim Crow segregationist laws and in the 1960s to combat the civil rights movement.

The statues should come down. The names should be changed.

Sir John A. Macdonald’s legacy is more nuanced. He was the indispensable leader who led the Confederation debates in Charlottetown, Quebec City, and London and guided the creation of our constitution. He was our first prime minister and built the country behind tariff walls and on steel rails with the National Policy and building of the transcontinental railway.

He saved Canada when he stopped Nova Scotia from seceding. He saved us from threats of American annexation when he purchased Rupert’s Land, kept British Columbia from joining the United States and negotiated the Washington Treaty in which Britain was considering giving Canada to the Americans to avoid paying Civil War reparations. He kept us united by having French and English work together and attempted to grant women the right to vote.

In American terms, Macdonald is our Jefferson, Washington and Madison.

However, Macdonald also ruthlessly exploited Chinese railway workers and later tried to expel them while imposing a prohibitively expensive tax on Chinese immigration. He negotiated with Métis leader Louis Riel to bring Manitoba into Confederation but then crushed Riel’s Saskatchewan rebellion.

Macdonald thought nothing of taking Indigenous land without consultation or ignoring treaties to take more. He withheld promised food and support from Indigenous nations to pressure them to surrender to reservations.

Lee fought for a horrible end. Macdonald worked for a remarkable goal. Macdonald’s image on our money and public monuments and his name on our highways and schools represent our respect for that goal, and not for all he did to pursue it.

And that is the difference.

We are constantly discussing who we are and who we aspire to be. History’s facts don’t change, but our interpretation of those facts does. History is not a shield to protect ideas or a sword to attack the ideas of others or a fence to keep us from unpleasant things we’d rather not see. History is a teacher.

It is there to teach us about ourselves and to intelligently inform our existential, national conversation.

Ironically, that is the point missed by members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario who asked school boards to rename schools bearing the name of our first prime minister. Since Macdonald’s primary goals were overwhelmingly positive, he should remain celebrated. Because aspects of his means to achieve them were inexcusably appalling, he should be used to teach and learn about crimes that he and we committed.

We should use them to critically examine how we have grown, atonements due and work remaining. What better place for those conversations than public places with monuments bearing plaques briefly explaining aspects of Sir John that swell our chests or well our tears?

What better place for those conversations than schools, especially those bearing his name. So, let us not scrub Sir John from our public spaces, instead, let history to do its job.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and was the subject of my appearances on CTV television’s Your Morning and CBC Radio’s The Current. I would appreciate your comments on this latest conversation about who we are.

How to Steal Power from the Dark Side of the Moon

Only 15 human beings, American astronauts all, have ever seen the dark side of the moon. For the rest of us, we see only the moon’s bright face as reflected by the sun’s light but the dark side is hidden; its fascination is in its mystery. It’s the same with celebrity icons. We are the sun, throwing forth our needs and dreams and marveling in all that is reflected back as talent, charisma, and inspiration. But what of the dark side? When mysteries are revealed, does brightness become garish and accomplishments tainted?

Consider John Lennon. He is the cultural icon who, as a member of the Beatles, wrote alone or with Paul McCartney the sound track of a generation that sincerely believed love could conquer all. As a solo artist, he wrote of peace with songs such as Imagine, and Give Peace a Chance. And yet, he was candid in admitting that as a young man he was engaged in numerous fights and physically assaulted women, including his first wife, Cynthia. He was an absentee father who all but ignored his son, Julian. His remarks to friends often crossed the line between witty and cruel. In an interview near the end of his life, he said that violent people are often those who most eagerly seek love and peace.

Do Lennon’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his artistry and social activism? Can we appreciate the genius of his songs and respect his personal growth while knowing the dark side or can we never again really enjoy All You Need Is Love?

Martin Luther King was only 26 years old when he became the pastor of a Montgomery church. Within months he was the leader of a bus boycott that riveted the world in its brilliant use of non-violence to bring attention and change to the racial segregation that was unjust, illegal, and in violation of the ideals for which his country stood. King’s inspiring words and action led countless courageous people to risk physical beatings and arrest to stand for what was right in terms of racial equality, social justice, and the end of the war in Vietnam. But it was discovered that he had plagiarized his Ph.D. thesis. FBI wiretaps indicated that he associated with communists and that he regularly cheated on his wife.

Do King’s character flaws mean that we should dismiss his courage, goals, achievements, and the manner in which he inspired millions then and continues to inspire today?

And what of today’s celebrity icons? Do we need to know, or should we care, about Brad Pitt’s marriage or his relationship with his children or should we only concern ourselves with his acting talent and movies? Is the professional slice of Mr. Pitt’s life the only part about which we have a right to stand in judgment or, really, should know anything about? Should we care that Beyoncé recently had twins and displayed them in a tasteless photograph or do we only have a right to express an opinion about her music?

Those who fight for years to become famous are often blind to the irony of their wearing sunglasses in public while dodging photographers in a struggle for privacy. That, as John Lennon once said, seems as silly as trying to get famous in the first place. At the same time, the media, politicians, celebrities, and their handlers all profit from our voyeurism in our rampant violation of the privacy of people we only pretend to know. This is a carefully calculated, sad, and sordid game.

Perhaps we should refuse to play. We could steal the power of show business celebrities and the show business from politics by judging politicians only by their policies and artists only by their art. We could grow up a little. We could use our critical thinking to assess art we like and policies we support without poisoning our opinions with factors about which we have neither a right to know nor capacity to properly judge. We could stop seeking the dark side of the moon.

Take the one-month challenge. Shut off shows and ignore clicks and posts offering nothing but gossip. Ignore the show business of politicians and consider, for example, what policies President Trump or Prime Minister Trudeau have enacted or propose and whether they will make lives better or worse. Re-listen to Lennon and Beyoncé and like or don’t like them for the songs alone. Re-watch a Brad Pitt movie and listen to an old King speech on YouTube and then judge them by the performance and message alone.

The media and publicists will hate it. They lose money and influence when we refuse to play. The politicians will hate it. They lose the power to sway and distract when we concentrate only on legislative action. Some of us may hate it. We may cringe when recalling that the same morality that keeps us from sneaking a peek into our neighbour’s bedroom window at night should keep us from electronically peeking into the private lives of others. That’s okay. Sometimes what we hate at first is what makes us better.

Let’s surrender our desire to be the 16th astronaut. See you on the bright side. 

If you enjoyed this column, please send it along to others and consider checking my other work at http://www.johnboyko.com.  I will be taking a break from blogging for a spell in order to concentrate more fully on the writing of my next book. See you here again in the fall.

Lessons from the Moon and the Bridge

The Globe and Mail’s July 21, 1969, front page was intoxicating. Bold, green, three-inch high print announced MAN ON MOON. It reported 35,000 people breathlessly glued to a big TV screen in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square who cheered at 10:56 pm when Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module. Mayor Dennison delivered a brief speech calling it, “the greatest day in human history.” He may have been right. What he couldn’t know, and the Globe missed, were the important lessons contained in the paper that day, lessons that resonate today.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon

(Photo: thedailydigi.com)

The moon adventure was the culmination of an effort begun by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961. He had just returned from meetings with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. While Kennedy negotiated, Khrushchev had hectored. Kennedy became convinced that the Cold War was about to turn hot.

Upon his return, he called a special meeting of Congress and asked for a whopping $1.6 billion increase in military aid for allies and $60 million to restructure the American military. He called for a tripling of civil defense spending to help Americans build bomb shelters for a nuclear holocaust that, he warned, was a real possibility. The president also said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” His popularity surged.

It was daring and presumptuous. The Soviets were far ahead of the United States in space exploration. But that day, and later, Kennedy expressed the courageous new effort in soaring rhetoric that appealed to America’s inspiring exceptionality and Cold War fears. When cheers arose from public squares and living rooms only seven years later and that night everyone instinctively looked up, it was the culmination of Kennedy’s dream for the world and challenge to America.

Kennedy did not micro-manage the NASA project. He set the vision and got out of the way. He did not badger the agency regarding tactics or berate it over temporary failures. He didn’t question the intelligence or patriotism of those who politically opposed his ambitious goal. Rather, he met with them, listened, and tried to convince them of the value of ambition. He gave NASA the money it needed then trusted the scientists and engineers to act as the professionals they were. His vision and leadership spurred the team and survived his death.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon.

(Photo: karmadecay.com)

The Globe and Mail’s July 21 front page declaring his vision’s realization did not mention President Kennedy. However, a smaller headline at the bottom noted, “Woman dies in crash, police seek to charge Kennedy.” The story explained that Senator Edward Kennedy, the president’s brother, would be prosecuted for leaving the scene of an accident.

On July 18, with the Apollo astronauts approaching the moon and their rendezvous with infamy, Senator Kennedy had attended a party on Chappaquiddick Island for six women and two men who had worked on his brother Bobby’s doomed 1968 presidential campaign. While driving 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne back to her hotel, he took a wrong turn, then missed a slight curve on an unlit road and drove over a bridge and into eight feet of water.

Kennedy managed to escape the submerged car and later spoke of diving “seven or eight times” but failing to free Kopechne. He walked back to the party and was driven home. That night he consulted with advisors and then, eight hours after the accident, called the police. A coroner reported that an air pocket probably allowed Kopechne to survive for three or four hours before drowning. A quicker call for help, he concluded, would have saved her life.

Leadership Lessons from the Moon..

Car being pulled from river. Photo: www. www.latimes.com

In the 1990s, Edward Kennedy would become the “Lion of the Senate,” guardian of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, and model for bi-partisanship. However, when he ran for his party’s nomination for president against the incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, many saw not a lion but liar and not a politician but playboy. Chappaquiddick appeared to reflect a belief that ethics, morality, and the rule of law applied only to others. Voters punished his conceit by withholding support.

It was all there in the Globe and Mail, nearly 50 years ago this week. We have the legacy of one brother who, despite his personal flaws, understood the nature, power, and potential of leadership. He knew what it took to be an effective president. And we have the other brother who seemed, at that point, to understand only the arrogance of privilege, the hubris to believe that he was above the law, ethics, morality, and decency. They are lessons of the moon and the bridge.

And now, as we cringe through our inability to tear ourselves from the tragedy unfolding in Washington, as we watch political leaders displaying the characteristics of one Kennedy brother or the other, we wonder if the lessons of the moon and bridge have been learned.

 

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Are We Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

From time to time, thoughtful people reflect on whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Introspection is important for ourselves and our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. It is important for the health of our democracy to also occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?

Are we consumers?  Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made, or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to take a trip to Disney World and to go shopping.

When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume I-Phones and education. Everything is a commodity and so government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer. We complain only when price does not match quality.

Consumers, Taxpayers, or Citizens?

(Image: UGA Career Centre)

Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I benefit and I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all,  I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in society in which people are educated and healthy and so I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes that support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out at age 4. I benefit so I pay.

In his victory speech after winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer said, “We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders.” With respect to a recent controversy he said, “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear that taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.” Are they mistakes, sloppy syntax, or a confession as to how Mr. Scheer sees us? Is that all we are to him: taxpayers? Are we not more than that? This has nothing to do with party, but perspective.

Are we citizens? Anyone can be a consumer because anyone can wander into a market and buy stuff. Anyone can be a taxpayer because anybody can be made to pay for stuff. Citizenship is more than both. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to belonging to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem, take pride in the flag, and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others, after passing the muster of the gate keepers’ requirements, can join and become equal members. We can leave and live elswhere. In this way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.

As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spell them out. They suggest that we not cherry pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. Americans, for instance can’t stomp on the first amendment in their advocacy of the second. The American and Canadian Supreme Courts exist to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we and our governments are infuriated by their decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact, especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.

Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. Rallying us as consumers and calling us taxpayers cheapens the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.

It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national family. Our founders believed it was important and created a system based on our considering ourselves, and our leaders treating us, as citizens. Perhaps we should reflect the wisdom of those founders whether Sir John A. Macdonald or Thomas Jefferson and whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of us. Let’s be aware of how others within our national family speak of themselves and the rest of us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it. I would rather live in a country than a mall.

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Lessons of the Bonsai

Ancient cultures are not dead. They are around and within us and offering lessons for those willing to listen. Indigenous cultures, for instance, are teaching us the power of community, environmental responsibility, circles, cultural approbation, collective responsibility, and resilience in the face of tragedy and overwhelming odds. Let us consider the lessons of the ancient Japanese culture: patience and simplification. The lessons lie in the bonsai.

The Japanese tradition of tending a bonsai tree has its origins in China and can be traced to around the year 1200. Buddhist monks began the practice of tending tiny trees as a reflection of their lives devoted to quiet, slow, gentleness, and spiritual contemplation. A seed was planted in a small container. As it grew, the sapling would be supported by string. The monk would imagine the shape of the tree that he wished to create and then nurture that part to grow while carefully pruning leaves and branches. The process would take years but slowly, as it was lovingly tended, the tree would develop into the shape imagined. The monk’s job would then be to maintain the shape by continuing to trim superfluous bits.

By the end of the 1300s, monks had taught the practice to Japanese rulers. By the 1800s, it had become a proud traditional among all Japanese people. Ironically, considering what was about to happen, just before the Second World War there was a burst of interest in Japanese culture, and the bonsai in particular, in Europe and North America. The World Bonsai Friendship Federation was inaugurated in 1980. It convenes enormously popular conventions every four years at cities around the world.

Lessons of the Bonsai

(Photo: Bonsai Tree Gardener)

As in the beginning, it’s really not about the tree. It’s about life. To create a fine one, one that brings joy and about which happiness and satisfaction can be felt, recall what you must do: imagine how you want it to be, nurture it, trim the superfluous bits.

Consider those parts of our lives that are merely habit – the superfluous bits – those that add no value, that distort it. They are misshaping our bonsai. Imagine the merit in trimming a few people, places, and experiences that really bring no joy. Picture living with fewer things that are really just clutter or stressful responsibilities. What happiness would come from reading a book, listening to or playing music, or spending time with a loved one rather than scanning a screen to perchance see and unconsciously judge or compare what someone else is up to.

I wish I had more wisdom to envision the shape and the courage to trim. Perhaps I am getting better at it. But then again, another essential aspect of the Japanese culture, and one shared with Indigenous cultures, is reverence for elders. Maybe, if I continue to work hard at remembering and recognizing what truly matters and trim all that does not, I will, someday, with the gift years allow, have the bonsai I’ve imagined. Someday. Good luck with your bonsai.

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