Masks and Circles

A mask has become a statement. It says I care about my health and yours. Or it says you have surrendered your liberty. I think a mast is even deeper than that.

You see, I see us all as the enlightenment’s willing adherents. It began when a number of 17th-century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently, and with variations on a theme, argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion of linear progress was perfectly fine until challenged by the bloody trenches of the First World War, the extermination camps of the Second, and now COVID’s costs. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line after all. Perhaps Indigenous spirituality was on to a more fundamental and enduring truth long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and their buddies insisted they were wrong. Maybe it’s not about lines but circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Indigenous North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in many circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

(Photo by Jeff Dean via Getty Images)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

We are into our second year of the pandemic and people are tired of how it has disturbed their lives. I bet people grew tired of the sacrifices demanded during the world wars too. Progress no longer seems linear. The air has become smudged with attacks and broken promises. New facts are dismissed as proof of old lies. Because we can’t trust everything we are told to trust nothing.

Amid the screaming on cable news, social media, and street protests we can see frustration that the enlightenment’s version of linear progress may not be true. More than that, if we look carefully, we see circles asserting themselves.

Some want their circles to be small. They say we should be loyal to and responsible for only ourselves and immediate families. Everyone of a different class, race, religion, or region be damned. Others allow a little broader circle of compassion and argue that we should also feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country. Those outside our locked borders should be left to themselves. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kick down the ladder. Still others, however, expand their circle further. They argue that we are all human beings and so we should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all.

When boiled to its essence, our thoughts regarding staying home, wearing masks, and sharing vaccines are all about whether we believe enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that Indigenous spirituality is right. Is it really all about circles – our societal and personal circles. It is about how we interpret progress and how broadly we draw our circle of loyalty and responsibility. Who knew a small piece of cloth could be so deeply powerful?

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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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Are We The 5-Year-Old Us?

I am currently reading Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye. It’s the latest of many I have read about the man who was a childhood hero of mine and for whom I still have a great deal of respect. Among the things Kennedy taught me, when my Mom used to say was too young to be thinking about such things, was existentialism. He spoke of being one and so I looked it up and thought it was a tremendous philosophy. I told myself that I was one too. An essential notion is that we are in control of our own destiny and able to create and recreate ourselves regardless of both nature and nurture. This new book, which is very good by the way, had me thinking about that notion again. But it also reminded me of an event whose anniversary is approaching that made me wonder if I should throw existentialism into the ditch. It involved a report card.

You see, about this time last year, my three younger brothers and I were cleaning out my father’s house. My Mom had been gone for some time and it was time for my Dad to be where he could be happier, healthier, and safer. So there were with a dumpster in the driveway, in what had been our home but had suddenly become just a house. What had been family treasures was bothersome stuff. “Why take this,” my one brother said, “only to have my son throw it out thirty years from now?” He was right. Furniture and kitchenware went to a Syrian refugee family and more went to local charity re-use centre, but a lot was going straight into the steel bin of sin. But then we were stopped cold.

My Mom had saved a box full of our old report cards. We stood together, laughing as we read comments from the days when teachers were allowed to be honest and communicate in English. I found my kindergarten final report card which said, “Johnny likes to sing songs and write stories.” Well, so much for Bobby Kennedy and existentialism.

I still like to sing songs. I learned to play guitar when I was nine and sang in a band in high school, then in coffee houses and bars with a friend and later alone. I recorded three songs that I had written as singles and still write a song every month or so to prove to myself that I still can. I play in a little band. We love working out new songs and playing the occasional gig. It is a rare day that I do not pick up the guitar and enjoy time singing and playing; it slows me down and slow is good.

I still like to write stories. I am writing one now. I also write newspaper editorials, magazine articles, book reviews, entries in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and am now writing my eighth book. There is a warm satisfaction earned by composing a well-constructed sentence or in weaving a lucid argument. The muse can occasionally be kind.

So the report card led me to wonder if I have really been living the existential life that I thought I had been living for all these years. Have I really been rediscovering and reinventing myself or was I set at kindergarten?

Consider yourself at age 5 and whether you are significantly different now. How have you changed, or not changed, since high school? When together with old friends, is everyone looking a little older but essentially the same? I wonder if despite the buffeting winds of change, the moments of celebration and chagrin, and the years that colour our hair and idealism, whether we are really that different than the five-year-old us?

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated 49 years ago last week at age 49. It was just weeks before he would have won the Democratic Party’s nomination and gone on to defeat Richard Nixon to become president in January 1969. Think about that. Vietnam would have ended earlier with thousands of lives spared. There would have been no Watergate. He most likely would have been president until 1976. God, he may have even stopped disco – ok, perhaps I’m stretching it.

Robert Kennedy

The point is, that if Kennedy had lived then policies would have been different, the media would have been different, America and the world would have been different and, perhaps most significantly of all, we may have been spared the cynicism born of his having been killed so shortly after his brother and Martin Luther King. The existentialism in which he believed would have been writ large through his example and legacy.

Of course, last year I would have still found the old report card that inspired both a smile and furrowed brow. Even Bobby Kennedy could not have changed that.

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