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Autumn gets its extension

A photogenic thing happened on the way to St. Louis Square.

Take it away, extended autumn…




When Mickey goes bad… * PS – have since learned this is not Mickey, but a forerunner named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Resemblance is uncanny, though, isn’t it?







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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Seven – The Power of Here

August 26, 2014

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

The final leg of my trek from Mile End to Rivière-des-Prairies took me through the Bois-de-Liesse Nature Park.  When I arrived at the riverbank, there was a damp and earthy pungency in the air that made me want to burrow into the muck and settle there for years. 


There were also mosquitoes that made me want to slap myself silly and take them down.  Instead, though, I blew them off my arms and flicked them from my neck as gently as I could, reminding myself that pissing me off is not their only sacred role in the universe.  I recited the blessing with which I celebrate the intricacy of nature:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hanoten lasechvi vinah lehavchin beyn yom uveyn laylah

Blessed are You, The Provident, who gives the bird of dawn discernment to tell day from night

It didn’t reorient my relationship to the mosquitoes as much as I would have liked, but at least I tried.  Just as I tried to and sometimes found aesthetic appeal in the concrete crossings through which the park took me.




Looking back, these seven walks were a source of constant astonishment to me.  While most Montrealers would regard rambling from Mile End to the Rivière-des-Prairies to be a major expedition, the truth is it was only about sixteen kilometres (ten miles).  I needed several stages because I’m a slow walker, spent a lot of time sitting and reflecting, and went two or three hours at a time, but most of us could do it in a single day with modest effort.

Still, these Montrealers are onto something, because in that single day, one would travel through many worlds – a neighbourhood of walk-ups, two upper-middle-class communities, nondescript commercial streets, a soothing cemetery, a magnificently artistic subway station, concrete and asphalt deserts, over and below highways, unexpected woods beside an unexpected library, and an equally surprising and genteel community of trailer homes in the shadow of an airport.  One would encounter Hasidic Jews and hipsters, suffering homeless and kind police officers.  Just as I went from ebullience to tedium, despair to relief, amusement to envy, music to silence. 

Which brings me to the power of here.  Intellectually, there was nothing astonishing in these walks (except perhaps the subway steps – see Part Four in this series).  Everybody knows there are noisy highways beside quiet neighbourhoods, and that mind states go back and forth between pleasant and unpleasant.  But while my mind may have known there was a river out there, until I came within whiffing distance of the muck, my body was convinced when amidst the concrete that it lived in a world of concrete, and was astonished to discover anything else.  Just as I am prone, when in unhappy states of mind, to disbelieve I will feel any other way.  Which is one of the reasons I meditate.  More on that later, perhaps.

In the meantime, I highly recommend pointing your compass in one direction or another, and seeing where it takes you.

Next up: a post about one of the best chance encounters (or was it?) I’ve had in a long time.


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And now for something completely (okay, almost) immediate…

We interrupt the ongoing (but nearly completed) journey to Rivière-des-Prairies from August to bring you this moment from today…

I’ve asked around, and no one I know seems to think I’m fully enlightened. Perhaps this has something to do with why, for the most part, I continue to take greater pleasure in bursts of blue than in fully cloudy skies.


These were the words that came…

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, She’kacha lo b’olamo

(Rough and decidedly unscholarly translation: “Thank you, source of all that is, for bringing beauty such as this into being (and, also, helping me remember to put down my camera, close my eyes, and pay attention to the chilling wind as it sifts through autumn leaves)).”

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Four– Radical Amazement Break

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

August 19, 2014

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel

Atheists and anti-religionists, please take heart.  In spite of some of the religious stuff below, if you keep scrolling, something beautiful and nonsectarian is going to happen.  I promise.

Oh, what the hell.  Here’s a sneak preview.


As I write this, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is only a couple of days away.  The Days of Awe which it initiates are a time for self-reflection and teshuvah, often translated as “repentance,” but more precisely translated as “turning” – turning back to the source of our goodness.  As I think about the year past, the year ahead, and the years to follow, God willing (whatever that expression means, it definitely means something), I would like to honour that source by doing well by intimates and strangers, of course, but also by living, as best I can, with the radical amazement that A.J. Heschel describes.

I got a hit of it on August 19, when my walk westward took me past the ostensibly nondescript du College metro station.


The stained glass inside got me curious.


A glance down the stairway got me kind of excited.


So I decided to camp out for a while.



Then I descended further into the light.


And watched all these people stepping through the light or around it.  Sometimes it seemed the light was seeking them out or they were dodging it.  An understandable response to light – literal and metaphorical.  It’s hard to resist rushing.  Our lives are full of fires to put out and others to stoke.  But sometimes rushing is nothing more than an unnoticed habit, or simply the conviction that here is boring, and there is better.



The metro station is near Vanier CEGEP, a college.  And I found myself wondering if it has a place for its students – in a non-sectarian way, at least – to connect and perhaps deepen their capacity for radical amazement.  Show up, notice something you hadn’t before, get a passing grade.


To Jewish readers, a shana tova, a good and sweet new year.  And to all readers, wishing you some radical amazement today and in the days ahead.  If you come across some, feel free to offer a comment, telling us about it.

“We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.”

― Abraham Joshua Heschel


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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Three – The Life That Didn’t Get Away

August 18, 2014

The posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…they are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until reaching Rivière-des-Prairies.

This is the one about how I end up crying on a park bench – with friends, family and drugstore cashiers benefitting as a result.

Yesterday’s walk concluded with my arriving in the Town of Mount Royal, the upper-middle-class neighbourhood in which I grew up.  I hadn’t set foot here in twenty-five years, and was quickly dizzy with disorientation – old streets, new condos, memories crashing into the unrecognizable, mediated by the semi-familiar.

“How could I have needed a street sign to tell me this is Graham Boulevard?  I must have walked this stretch hundreds of times.  That’s the train station?  When did it become a gourmet pizza place?  When did they put up safety fences to keep jumpers from going off the bridge?”


I met an Iranian man, an immigrant living on the West Island, who had just given himself a tour.  “So beautiful,” he said, his face serene.  For billions around the world, this would be paradise.  Quiet, leafy streets, big houses, wide green lawns, even unobstructed views of the sky thanks to power lines having been sunk below ground.

But I didn’t want to come here yesterday, nor do I want to be here now. 

Perhaps my instincts said to walk west, because I might otherwise have avoided this.  No other place subjects me to such a potent mix of nostalgia and wistfulness.  Even as a teen, I was wistful here, and the closer I’ve come the last couple of days, the harder I’ve had to work to subdue a voice saying “This is the life that got away.  The life you let get away.”


So when the guy in the vintage convertible pulls up alongside, seeming to want me to look at him with envy, I am unable to accommodate him, because my mind is focused on a high school classmate who has gone on to enjoy a successful public life, and who I am now wishing private ennui.  Just as, a few minutes earlier, seeing a man not much older than me, his back hunched, his face worn and puffy, I told myself this was the price he was paying for choosing to acquire the means to live here.  I am not proud of myself, but this pettiness, this envy and judgement, are my most ready responses to the voice, however ineffectual.

I try detachment.  With my notebook in hand, I think of myself as an anthropologist studying suburban wonderlands. 


I seek out points of ease.  A black kid glides by on a scooter, clearly at home.  When I was growing up here, he would have been a spectacle.  I smile, glad his father settled down here instead of me.  I feel warmth towards the old woman getting around with a walker, and wave a friendly thank you to the driver of a loud Porsche who’s been patiently waiting for me to realize he’s giving me right of way. 

All the while, my stomach is in knots.

I had committed to sitting for thirty minutes when I got to the hour-and-a-half mark of the walk.  When that time comes, it’s at a small park where I am stung with the memory of a beautiful girl who became a beautiful woman, and I wonder what might just have been had I not backed away from the opening she gave me in our post-high school years. Feeling the way this strengthens the voice, I try to remind myself of the independence in which I often delight, the ways in which I’ve lived on my own terms, while still giving ease to others.  But the voice won’t have it, and it starts pummelling.  “You let this get away.  You could have been married.  You could have had children.  You took too many wrong turns, ran yourself into too many dead ends.  You’ve squandered your talents and wasted precious time chasing something you can’t even name.”


I sit on a bench, and do the only thing possible.  I go to pieces, crying with stomach heaving, streams of tears, full-bodied, decidedly unmanly.  It feels like it could go on for hours.

It lasts five minutes.  Maybe eight.  And then the tears are done.

I feel my brow soften, my teeth unclench.  I feel my breath.  The breath that’s always there, no matter what.  I do a blessing practice, silently wishing peace, joy, loving kindness and compassion to passersby – the pony-tailed teenage girls jogging around the park; the driver cruising by, lazily hanging his arm out the window; the cyclist with the lime green shorts, a hoodie over his helmet.  And myself.  I offer these blessings to myself because, right now, I can use them too.*  The world grows bigger as I tune into the sounds of trucks on the nearby highway and the engines of descending planes.  I sit at ease with the not knowing.  Who can say?  Maybe I would have been happier with a family, greater achievement, a house (though not in this neighbourhood, where I would surely feel like an imposter).  Maybe not.  I don’t know.  I can’t know.  The only thing about which I can be certain is that, at this moment, I’m not nearly as interested in the life that didn’t happen as I am in the one before me. 

And there’s something else I know.  I have subdued the voice – not by restraining it, but rather, by letting it spend its energy.  It hasn’t lost its power entirely, but it’s so depleted, I almost feel sorry for it.  I needn’t, I suppose.  It’s pretty resilient, and we’re bound to have another bout – or at least an animated conversation or two – in the future.  But in the meantime, its hold over me is that much more diminished, and I am that much more liberated from unnecessary resentments and judgements, of myself and others, and that much better able to bring attentiveness, patience and good-heartedness to the people in my life.  And to begin exchanges with drugstore cashiers by taking a moment to look at them, and ask “How are you?”

As for that thing I can’t quite name, it seems I’m getting closer all the time.

An office building at the periphery of Town of Mount Royal

An office building at the periphery of Town of Mount Royal

*For those unfamiliar with blessing or Buddhist metta (loving friendliness) practices, they are likely to seem absurd. What could be the point of extending good wishes to complete strangers?  This is the kind of scepticism I brought to the practice when I started it about two years ago.  It’s hard to remain sceptical, though, when it turns out to have been transformative.  I don’t say such things lightly, but the practice makes me that much more open-hearted, patient with myself, and patient with others.  As one of my teachers put it, “You may not be changing others, but you’re changing yourself.” Which, in turn, makes for happier others.


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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Two – Blue Sky, Grey Clouds and All My Needs

August 17

All the posts in this “Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust” series are self-contained, but by way of background…these are “field notes” of my efforts to walk in a mindful way westward from my Mile End, Montreal apartment until I reach Rivière-des-Prairies.

Today’s walk took me from the edges of Outremont, a picturesque upper-class neighbourhood, to the Town of Mount Royal, the well-off community where I spent most of my youth.  Both abound with lovely parks and benches in which to enjoy them.  


But I’m on a mission to prove to myself that anyplace is interesting if you stop to take notice, so I wasn’t going to force lovely on myself.  The only thing I was going to force was the commitment I made today to sit for thirty minutes wherever I reached the hour-and-a-half mark.  Which saw me planting myself on the steps of “LED Lighting” on Bates Road, one of a continuum of squat concrete office buildings.  Could I really sit here for a full half hour – especially on a Sunday, with all the businesses closed – and observe anything other than my own boredom?

At times like this, I generally find it best to stop questioning the matter, and invite the world to come alive.

Suddenly, I am aware of a playground in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish school, thanks to the yelping of children, and in the background, the springy sound of a large, bouncing ball.  And I am reminded that ultra-religious people like to bounce balls, too.  The blue sky is stealthily engulfed by a mass of grey clouds.  A car rolls by and I can’t quite believe how much noise a single car makes.  Another car starts, and I can’t get over how much noise another single car makes. 


I close my eyes.  The sound of a Hasidic boy yelling “Nein” roars through my ears.  I notice that my jaw is relaxing, which means that a moment ago, it was clenched.  I feel the sun on my arms.  Has the grey sky given way to blue again?  I feel pulsing on the soles of my feet from all the walking, in my arms from all the life.  The sound of the breeze conjures images of tall grass blowing.  Barely conscious that I’m doing so, I turn my palms towards the sun, and recite one of the Birkot HaShachar, a Jewish morning blessing, that doesn’t always stand up well to scrutiny:

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu mel’ech ha’olam, sh’asah li kol tzarki

Blessed are you, The Generous, our God, life of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.



I open my eyes, just as a Hasidic man wearing a tallis passes.  We take turns not knowing whether to greet one another. Yes, the sky has gone mostly blue again.  From nowhere, a colony of seagulls has arrived, circling in the sky, the ring expanding as they fan out.  Then, after a while, they are gone except for two of them – grey winged specks against what remains of the grey sky, until they too, are gone.

To what end, all this noticing?  I think of one of my Buddhist teachers saying, “You have no idea where you are on the path.” 

The only thing about which I am certain is that I am pleased I risked some boredom.



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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part One, the Fear-Anchor Ratio

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.

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