Friday, January 30, 2009

The Mystery of Private Prayer

David and I strongly encourage contributions to the blog: our intention is that this be a place for dialogue. Thus we thank Mackie100 for taking that risk and engaging in our digital conversations. And, as another means of engaging, we present a contribution from Fiona Wilkie. We are more than happy to add your thoughts to the blog by simply giving us them: we’ll type them. That brings us to Fiona’s contribution. We toyed with the idea of scanning her contribution and posting it as a pdf- her handwritten piece is artful in its beautiful script on crisp thick creamy-coloured paper. Alas, the timeliness factor played in and her piece has been transcribed.

Fiona’s piece underscores for me many strongly-held beliefs: life is enriched by ritual, the transcendental power of music, the liturgical mystery of divine offices, and the need to stop and listen to the still, small voice of God within us.

Thank you, Fiona, for this sharing:


Sometimes the most private experiences are meant to be shared. Nicola has so persuaded me and, as she was the instrument of my blessing, here is my story!

Last Wednesday Nicola interrupted my self-imposed week of house-bound solitude-due to a severe cold and exhaustion-by dropping off a complete, delicious, ready-to-eat, dinner and a CD. To celebrate these gifts, I lit a fire, revelled in the tasty, nourishing feast, then cleared away and tidied the kitchen and returned to the fireside. I built up a good fire, lit a number of candles in old brass candlesticks, switched off all lamps and lay down on the rug in front of the gently licking flames to listen to the CD. I had purposely read only the title: ‘Evensong for Etheldreda’ – the choir of Ely Cathedral.

There followed over an hour of perfect beauty and of heavenly bliss: lying on my back I could see the shadows of the firelight and the flickering candles on the ceiling – a shadowy, cathedral-like atmosphere evolved; I was totally absorbed into the music, its intimate calm, its soaring challenging, overwhelming magnificent passages of choral singing, its hauntingly beautiful soloists, its comforting plainsong—and the organ; as never ever before I was surrounded, wrapped, lifted up and carried inside beauty by the richness and warmth of the organ’s music. I experienced feelings that really defy my accurate or even adequate description- I just knew: beauty was God and God was beauty and I was there.

The range and depth of emotions I experienced differed from those engendered by any Evensong before, and when I read the words and titles in the CD booklet-I understood. ‘Tongues of Fire’ – the final organ solo title- perfectly described the awe, cleansing, encouragement, and even grace, that I had experienced.

Last summer in Buckfast Abbey I was blessed with an insight which has remained with me almost as a point of reference for decision making.

It happened during the middle of three Compline evenings I was able to attend. The service in the vast abbey, lit only by one candle, was one of mystery, meditation and the prayerful chanting of the brothers in their long, black, hooded habits. In that particular brief act of worship, I was unexpectedly but calmly, surely, completely and utterly filled with a certainty that all would always be well. This definite feeling was accompanied by two precise instructions for my life in the next year- totally unsought guidance. I have abided by these tenets despite persistent kindly opposition, and, quite amazingly, I can summon strength by returning in my heart to that Compline in Buckfast Abbey.

Following that memorable Compline, I pursued a slow, meaningful walk through the labyrinthine paths of the Abbey’s lavender gardens. Very separately, and silently, but very joined- so did Nicola.
Fiona Wilkie

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Likert Who?

It’s hard to escape them. The phone rings, typically as the family gathers round the dinner table; and then the query: “Can I have a few minutes of your time?” We all have strategies (some passive, some not so) for dealing with the ubiquity of telemarketing and its blood-brother, the telesurvey. Nicola’s personal favourite is to feign distress that, yes they could – but it’s usually her husband who answers all questions; and he’s not due to be released for some time. I try to stick a little closer to the facts (maybe she knows something that I don’t!). No, Mr. Adair doesn’t live here anymore (this is a true statement – as the phrasing goes). Or, in my more generous moments, I just acquiesce; as much fallout from having a possible future son in law who is one of those folks on the other end of the survey and has quite likely had all the abuse he can swallow for one day.

“On a scale of 1 to whatever, could you please rate the following statements? ‘1’ being ‘strongly agree’; ‘whatever’, being ‘I don’t ever want to hear another of your questions for as long as you may choose to live’.” “Sure, I guess.” “Are you married?” “Yes.” “No, sir; using the rating scale I described, please.” “OK, 1”. “If you answered ‘1’ to the previous question, could you please rate… ” And so it goes: a (painfully) long list of queries that produce (no doubt) a dog’s breakfast of irrelevant information that will be quantified, averaged, standard deviationed, and ultimately passed on to the company who hired this underpaid, abused individual to stick it out to the end… and then do it all again. Talk about Groundhog Day! Much as I hate to admit it, these litanies of meaningless inquiry do compel me, on those generous occasions when I agree to participate, to listen to the question and, God forbid, think about my answers.

Something approaching a high point in my week of mornings is Friday – the day the Globe and Mail includes, in their Review section, the entertaining, acerbic, droll, and frequently insightful review of the recently released movies. Time to fess up; I’m a movie nut – not just any movie but one that might steer me to the next good book on which one was based; or maybe just the next candidate for what Nicola charitably calls “treadmill fodder” (aka, something too violent, too macho, or just too inane to occupy us on a weekend evening – but suitable for David to wile away his time on the ‘mill’). Rick and Liam (two of my favourite ironists), after lauding or lacerating the video candidate (whichever is appropriate), will offer a ‘score’ as it were (somewhere between 0 and 4 stars), reflecting the global merit of the particular offering.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that ‘4’s’ are relatively hard to come by; equally (believe it or not, given the parade of mindless ‘mill fodder’ that seems to fill the big screen) ‘0’s’ don’t show up too terribly often either! Most ratings are in the 2 to 2 ½ range, indicating a product of interest, but with significant shortcomings, indulgences (gratuitous gore), irrelevancies, or just plain bad acting to make it a struggle on some level for our erudite judges to sit through – without engaging their finely honed senses of humour.

What binds these seemingly quite unrelated experiences are two elements: a) the use of some kind of mechanism for ‘scoring’ as it were; and b) the (somewhat unexpected) attention that must be paid to meaningfully ‘rate’ one’s response. As one who has, in one way or another, spent a large part of his working life in the realm of ‘ratings’ and the (sometimes fruitless) attempt to have people take this exercise sufficiently seriously to enable me to draw conclusions about their personality, intellect, pain levels, and career aspirations from pages of blackened-in bubbles on the response sheets of questionnaires, this resonated indeed. Years of being called upon to quantify the subjective, to supply a number to a definition, a writing sample, a partially recalled design, to rate a mood, or to score someone’s ‘global functioning’ (“please consider the following on a hypothetical continuum of …”) can’t help but endear one to the sheer simplicity and reductionist thinking embraced by a lovely, linear, Likert scale. The kind that’s anchored by a ‘strongly something’ at one end (often the equivalent of a ‘+2’) and a ‘strongly not something’ (‘-2’) at the other. Do I hear Ebel’s “two thumbs” echoing in the background?

Now I am not so na├»ve as to assume that everyone attends with rapt focus to a homily from beginning to end. But I have observed that sometimes my attention is captured; and sometimes, let’s just say, less so. Sometimes the Sunday morning efforts are an “English Patient”, or a “Schindler’s List”; and sometimes, let’s just say a “Death Race 2000”. And, as with any good screen play, script, or text, one looks for the requisite component pieces: the inclusion of timely scripture (a premise), the delivery (the acting), the integrity (does it wander, does it hang together), the climax (does it consolidate), the sidebars (the self-indulgences), and the resonance (does it touch, connect). And, sad to say, mere popularity, sentimentality, familiarity, as with the movies, sell tickets but may be, what shall we call them, ‘box-office successes’, but critical failures. (For fun, I’ve correlated – another psychologist’s ‘trick’ – dollars of ticket sales with the G & M’s ‘star’ scores. Not good.)

And so was born a little device, a context, a rating scale that, for me both fosters critical listening and invites a serious, considered evaluation of a weekly (hopefully) event that has as its structure and intent a pulling together of liturgy, church calendar, scripture, proffered guidance, spiritual stimulation, and reflection. How could we afford this less importance than the relentless “On a scale of … could you please rate your enjoyment of the themes explored in this week’s episode of Becoming Jessica or Being Veronica or . . ?”
David Howard

Friday, January 23, 2009

Synchronicity

Synchronicity: a meaningful coincidence. It always surprises me. The most recent occurrence for me has had me looking back into my past.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of our neighbours to the south captivated the interest of a good part of the world. The local rag had a front page story of a Stratford resident who was travelling to Washington to be a part of this historic event.

America needs the energy, optimism, realism and hope which Mr Obama genuinely embraces. Afro-Americans needed the affirmation that this historic event delivered. The world needs a superpower to shift into, hopefully, a new direction of leadership.

For most observers, though, the significance of Mr Obama's success is obvious. For myself, and this is where the synchronicity comes into play, it goes deeper. Enter: The Secret Life of Bees.

With a healthy chunk of our RBC reward points, David, unexpectedly surprised me with my very own Ipod, a sleek, shiny Nano 8. I had been resisting this popular device for one reason: its popularity. I had also been resisting a friend's several-year-old suggestion that I should listen to audio books. Na...nope, not for me: can’t walk and chew gum so how could I walk and listen at the same time. Besides, I’m the touchy-feely type: I want to fondle my books while I read.

That held until I became smitten with the writing of Ian Rankin. Mr Rankin, a Scot PhD, wrote the Rebus crime fiction series. Rebus is an Edinburgh detective inspector; a fully developed character with lots of complicated and nasty crimes to deal with. For a 2009 resolution, I decided to read the entire series from start to finish. David suggested that I listen to a download that he had of the first novel: Knots and Crosses. I thought about it for awhile. The realization that I could needlepoint and listen occurred. Brilliant. The long-in-the-tooth Leek pillow project could be finished along with the novels.

In a weekend, I finished Knots and Crosses and a long border on the Leek; six hours of listening to a delicious Scot brogue. The decision was sealed: I would listen to the series. Onto novel two: Hide and Seek.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I have a hyperactive imagination. My dreams during the period listening to these two novels became vivid crime fiction fodder. Not very restful. Best take a break from the crime fiction, but what should I listen to. As Inauguration Day was approaching, I thought about Obama’s Audacity of Hope. Na. His autobiography, maybe...na. I felt like some chick fiction. David suggested that I look at his download library, 117 books and still growing. That’s when I stumbled on The Secret Life of Bees.

1964, south of the Mason-Dixon line and a complicated childhood...that resonates. For the better part of my life (age 8 and on), I would mumble when someone asked me where I was born. Dallas Texas. Yep. You know, the city that killed JFK. I came from the country that killed its dreamers, sent its future to a dirty war in the South Pacific, and had missile silos buried all across its landscape.

Worse still, I came from the part of the country that celebrated segregation. My grandparents had 'nigger' help, a gardener and a housekeeper. There were only white people in our neighbourhoods, schools and churches. There was no mixing, no respect and no tolerance.

When I started listening to The Secret Life of Bees, I had vivid mental pictures of the events that Sue Munk Kidd describes. Things like the regular atomic bomb safety exercises at school (and yes, it seems oxymoronic to me but...). The alarm would sound and we were instructed to immediately crouch under our desks until we were given a signal. Or, watching Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. In my grandparents' home, conversation and movement of any kind was forbidden while the news was on. As an eight year old, it was unnerving. It seemed like you couldn't even breath. My grandfather would yell at Walter whenever a nerve was touched: like the enactment of the Civil Rights Act...it seemed like the world was coming to an end. It was scary.

For me, being an American was a terrible thing. It was humiliating. I couldn't wait for the day when I got get my Canadian citizenship. A few years ago, I couldn't believe my ears when my brother said that he was going for his dual citizenship papers and would be moving back to the U.S. I considered it temporary insanity.

February 2008. Michelle Obama is getting heat because of her Milwaukee speech, "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country...not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. I've been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and not just feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment." I knew exactly where she was coming from. I wasn`t convinced that America was prepared for change despite the hunger.

A part of me is relieved that my grandparents are not alive. Not for their sake; for mine. It would be impossible to talk about a Democrat in the White House, let alone an Afro-American. It's hard enough talking to my very Republican but colour-blind brother about it.

But this Tuesday, I know that for the first time ever, I too was proud of my former country. I actually said 'God bless America' out loud and meant it. Not just because the impossible became a reality. Probably, more, because I saw Americans joyfully jump into a great melting-pot of hope. I sensed that the global community was breathing in the sweet smell of hope that was rising about the USA like incense.

A chapter of history is complete, the old book is done.

In closing, I would encourage you to watch the embedded link to Bishop Gene Robinson's invocation at the Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. He reminds us that Obama is a man, not the Messiah. It is a powerful and beautifully hopeful prayer for the future.
http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=kWWAnitUCw4

Nicola Adair

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mr Howard says toMAYto; Mackie100 says toMAHto

To me, they are saying the same thing.

Resolution:

i) A resolve or determination (as in to do something)

ii) The act of resolving or determining upon an action or a course of action

iii) A reduction to a simpler form; conversion

iv) Medical-the reduction or disappearance of a swelling or inflammation without suppuration

v) Music-the progression of a voice part or harmony as a whole form from dissonance to consonance.

Mr Howard suggests using the mindfulness pruning tools of reciprocation, intention and boundaries to achieve premeditated acts of reduction that will achieve the resolution outcomes that Mackie100 welcomes.

As Mackie100 eloquently describes the desired outcomes of pruning: improve the plant’s health (necessary to sustain the momentum of continuing the journey in whatever direction or beyond whatever obstacle), increase its production (expansion) and enhance its shape (moving beyond or in new directions), he is simultaneously describing his desired outcomes of resolutions.

So, to me, we are singing from the same page; which is where the music reference, in the aforementioned meaning, comes into play. And where the paradox of the faith journey enters: hopefully moving forward on a path that we have no idea where it is taking us. Through the years, whether we are using the plant or the drop analogy, we can only hope to move from dissonance to consonance. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, our action or reaction is best from a position of mindful awareness.

Nicola Adair

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Resolutions

Same old, I suppose – lose 10 pounds, get back into shape, drink less red wine, simplify. The good news (as it were) is that the first two are, as I write this, attainable; again, depending on one’s definition of ‘shape’. The third? Well, the jury is sufficiently ambivalent (on the respective benefits and costs of same) that I think I’ll just hold that one until the definitive study is done. Also, there is that case of good Australian Shiraz that still sits on the rack. But the fourth. Now we’re talking real resolve. As Nicola and I sat on a blissfully quiet New Year’s Eve at home, and discussed where we’d like to see 2009 be directed, the need to ‘reign in’ was uppermost in both our thoughts. Not just a rewording of the old ‘take more time for ourselves’ mantra – but in the neighbourhood.

A few months back, sitting amongst a group of old friends and acquaintances, I’d begun to muse about the pleasure I was able to take in the ways in which a number of areas in my life had apparently begun to crystallize, particularly in the past year. It would be arrogance indeed to claim that these were ‘goals attained’ – since that would imply some intention in the setting of same. No, these events were more a subtle coalescence of important and very occupying quarters of my life into what could be loosely described as ‘achievement’; reaching a satisfying state that, on reflection, could have been goals if, twenty or more years ago I’d had the wisdom, forethought, and sustainable drive to target them.

I rambled (much as I am now) about the satisfying growth and expansion of an ‘accidental business’ commenced some sixteen years ago. How, without any discernible plan, a small (and decidedly tenuous at the time), private practice had evolved into a twelve-practitioner, two-building ‘enterprise’. How ‘graybeard’ status seemed to have crept up and was, at long last a comfortable mantle in my community of peers. How the opportunity to mentor and spawn a second generation of colleagues had presented. Again, not with any intention (and certainly not desire) to build some professional edifice; but to merely give back to a profession that has been good to me over my working life. And how, with the waxing and waning of many different communities over several years and focuses of interest, a few such have attained gratifying and sustainable prominence in recent times.

And so it was not without some significant surprise that I heard, amongst the litany of well-wishings, a subtext of ‘now what?’; the personal and interpersonal cost attached; and the subtle, incipient seeds of ‘addiction’ being sown. Always ready to relate things to movies, I was reminded of What A Way To Go, a 1960’s comedy with Shirley MacLaine, Dick Van Dyke, and Paul Newman, built around the ‘unintentional’ but fatal success, evidently spawned in any number prospective husbands by Ms. MacLaine’s interest in them; seeing a meteoric rise from small-town contentment to mega-success – and, predictably, one’s being done in by same, shortly thereafter. And so with more than a healthy sprinkling of addictions therapists present in said group, I thought it prudent to at least consider their take on what moments before had been a comfortable riff on being sixty-two and reasonably content at ‘having arrived’.

And so here we are with simplifying. Not such an easy task – when the ‘complications’ in one’s life are, at least on the surface, paying dividends as it were. Perhaps it was the time to actually make a plan – to contain, to build healthy and sustainable boundaries, to be selective, and to be a little less prepared to be seduced by the sweet smell of success. Another abiding metaphor for both Nicola and me is that of gardening: time to prune!

As with any good ‘clean up’, some principles need to be identified and applied. After all, one cannot just go about, randomly clipping and hacking at plants; and expect the result to be anything different than a bad hair cut – shorter hair, but a rather ragged and haphazard ‘look’. And so the task became not just one simplification – which, for me has always smacked of taking things out of an equation in the fond hope that there would be more ‘quality time’ left at the end of the day. But examining one’s commitments, roles, obligations from within the values of intention, reciprocation, boundary-setting as possible parameters directing the decision-making in the upcoming year.

A basic element in mindful living, intention invites a conscious awareness of what one chooses to do – not the harried, reactive, and ill-considered basis that seems inevitably to result in over commitment. Reciprocation, particularly in relationship, be it with individual or community, presupposes a ‘two-wayness’; a sharing with, true – but also a receiving from as a precondition of relations that present as balanced, authentic, satisfying. Too often I find commitments being made where the ‘flow’ is decidedly one-way, ultimately fostering a resentment of time and energy invested. How better to prune, to judiciously assign one’s precious resources than to those mutual attachments. And boundaries, those elusive, often porous limits to our emotional, interpersonal ‘properties’, and their companion principle – saying ‘no’ – consistently applied have simplification written all over the gatepost. With the careful excision of those co-dependent, enabled commitments, one clears the way for healthy growth, the creaking, groaning deadwood kicked to the curb.

And with it all, the opportunity to festina lente – make haste, slowly. No more rushing!

David Howard