August 14, 2014
What do you do if you’re restless to get into motion? If you’re like many people, you take action.
And if you’re like me, you drive yourself insane considering which action to take. At least, until you reach the point where you say, “Fuck it. I’m grabbing my camera, firing up the compass on my phone, and going west.”
I’ve been back in my hometown of Montreal for a few months, and though I’ve covered a fair bit of ground, I’m also conscious that there is an expiry date on my return and much of this city I haven’t seen. So to liberate myself from my indecisiveness, I’m determined to do something I always daydreamed about when in school (take your pick, elementary school, high school, CEGEP, university, rabbinical college) – getting up and walking straight until I’d circled the world. So I’m walking west. I won’t make it around the globe, but at least west will get me to Rivière-des-Prairies. Of course, I’ll have to make detours to allow for the fact that I haven’t mastered the art of walking through walls, and may feel the obligation to observe ethical imperatives such as being seduced by one bakery or another. But basically, I’m going west from my Mile End apartment in three-hour installments until I reach the river. Why west, when the compass has 359 other directions to choose from? I’m not sure, but it’s what feels right. What I do know is that west has some familiar territory and a lot of new ground. Whatever I find there – in the mere ten kilometres, but thousands of footsteps, between home and the river – I will have the chance to test the assertion I like to make that any place is interesting if you’re paying attention.
Speaking of attention, I’ll be toting my spirituality with me, mostly a blend of Buddhism and Judaism. Don’t be scared, though. Before I start telling other people how to live, I need to figure out how to live my life. The only person I’ll be sermonizing is me. Preaching to the mirror, as it were. And even though I’m something of a killjoy, I think I’ll slip in some fun, too.
So let’s get started, across my deck, down forty-six spiralling steps into a rag-tag alleyway of tin and wood and concrete and flowers, serenaded by ambulance sirens, garbage trucks, and a young red-headed woman on her balcony scraping at something with sandpaper.
Here’s some of what I see along the way (if you wish, you can enlarge the images or go to a slideshow by clicking on them):
As I expect I’ll be doing on most of these meanderings, I sit for a while, just to see what arises. Plunking myself on a small knoll in a parkette at Van Horne and Hutchison,
my eyes settle after a while on the abandoned building across the street. Dominating the assortment of graffiti is the word “PEUR” – French for “fear” – scrawled in large, jagged yellow letters three times across. PEUR PEUR PEAR. FEAR FEAR FEAR. On the other side of the street, someone has painted the world “ANCHOR” on a building.
Fear 3, Anchor 1.
That sounds like just about the right ratio to describe our lives. To the extent one can really know such things, I think I’ve detected some anchors. The young Hasidic couple, husband pushing a stroller, wife wrapped in an olive jacket, chatting with attentiveness and ease, like lifelong best friends. The young Hasidic boy in a blue-striped polo shirt, one hand held firmly by his father’s as they cross the street, the other animatedly gesticulating a story. Soon, I am surrounded by a frolicking troop of developmentally disabled young people and their counsellors. One of the kids rolls in the grass for a while with a counsellor, who finally says, “That’s it. I’m all out of smiles.” Another keeps chanting, “Scooby Doooo, where are youuuu?” occasionally winning the laugher he’s chasing. And still another sits happily, lovingly held in a counsellor’s lap. All anchored, all seemingly secure.
But what is it to be their parents, I wonder, knowing how unlikely it is their children will ever be capable of fending for themselves? And I think back to the many Hasids I’d passed, walking with haste and speaking urgently into their phones, as if trying to forestall something from going awry. Not far from me, a couple of guys on their lunch break are spending more time with their phones than each other, as if they’ll otherwise miss out on something crucial, some source of relief and happiness that could pass them by if they are not vigilant.
Yes, 3:1 seems like the right fear-to-anchor ratio to describe our lives. We all carry fear, a grea deal of it, sometimes of our own invention, sometimes pressed upon us from stark reality. The next time someone pisses me off (or is that the next time I get pissed off with someone?), I might do well to remember this ratio, and on my good days, summon a greater capacity for kindness.
PS: I have an agreement in principal to buy a gas station.
It happened when I went looking for some batteries, which were out of stock. Then I spotted a package of nuts.
“Well now that I’m here,” I began, “it would be rude of me -”
“- not to buy something,” the clerk said.
“If you want, you can buy the whole store.”
“Can I get a discount?”
“Sure. We’ll give you the whole thing for half a million. In cash.”
“Deal. I need to go to a bank machine.”
“No problem. In the meantime, I’ll let the owner know so he can prepare the papers.”
Maybe there’s a lesson in fear and anchors in this too, but I’m too busy figuring out why it took me three hours to walk two kilometres.