Stumbling Through Blessing: The Prequel – Instant Karma Meets the Jewish Morning Blessings

May 12, 2015 – This is a brief winter’s tale, and a prelude to the series I’ll be starting next week about the Birkot HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings, and the role they might play in helping us (Jews and non-Jews; believers, agnostics, and atheists) live with more gratitude, presence, and even compassion.  It will be part spiritual reportage, and part suggested practice.  

January 23, 2015

C’est tout correct?” the square-shouldered woman with the blue-rimmed glasses asks. Is everything alright?

She has just stepped outside her building to see a complete stranger (me) standing in front, staring up at her roof.  Somehow, I don’t think explaining that it’s merely part of my spiritual practice would put her at ease.  I’ll have to find a more conventional response.

The practice I’ve taken on this month – one of my own devising as far as I know – is to set time aside each day to be mindful of one of the Birkot Hashachar, the Jewish morning blessings.  The fifteen blessings I’ve chosen are brief – one-liners, if you will – intended by the rabbis who conceived them two thousand years ago to be recited in the home.  Over time, they’ve come to be recited in synagogue instead, but I’m taking them to the streets and wherever else I go.  That’s the plan, at least.

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Today’s brucha, or blessing, is:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

The question for me this morning was, how could I carry the brucha throughout the day?

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The answer was in my hamstrings.  For no sooner had I anticipated stepping outside, than they begin to tense up.  Montreal this January has been an unrelenting deep freeze, walking its sidewalks a slip-sliding workout over uneven patches of ice, some salted, most not, requiring a vigilant eye on the ground, it seems, before every step.

Perhaps this brucha can serve as a reminder to stop once in a while, raise my head, and take in my surroundings.

Before stepping into my meanderings, I sit down to some steaming fish tacos at a Mexican restaurant on Fairmount.  When the meal is done, while awaiting the bill, I reach for a book I’ve been enjoying.  Then, I remember the brucha, put the book back down, and look up instead.  Watching passersby through the window, I start doing Buddhist Metta, or loving-friendliness, practice.* A spiritual sharpshooter, I take benevolent aim at unsuspecting victims of my good will.  “Be happy,” I think in the direction of the guy negotiating his way over a snowbank, the weight of his grocery bags serving as ballast.  “Be at ease” I command the young woman rushing along the sidewalk, her hands clasped for some reason below her neck.  Others get “be healthy” and “be safe.”  The old woman inching along with her cane gets another “be happy.”  Then I notice the street itself, and how it slopes upward towards Mount Royal.  I’ve been here countless times, but somehow never seen this before.  The street’s become new to me.

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I leave the restaurant, round a corner, and am stopped by something that belongs only in the sappiest of movies – a hand-written sign stretching the entire length of the window in the doorway of a house, saying:

“I see curiosity in your eyes.  How beautiful!  I see in your gaze, someone who takes time to stop and rest for a moment.  Magnificent!  I simply want to offer you my most beautiful smile.  You have truly done me good.”

Talk about instant karma.

Further down the street, I’m about to pass a building, when I become distracted by ferns in an alcove above the entrance.  Having looked up a little, with the brucha in mind, I decide to look up a lot.  Just below the roofline, spanning its entire width, bricks are sticking out of the building at an unusual angle, and I find myself thinking about the architect who designed it, and the workers who built it, and their efforts to offer something distinctive.  They must mostly be gone by now, but they have left us this.

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That’s when the woman with the blue-framed glasses finds me.

“C’est tout correct?”

“Oui,” I respond.  “C’est tout correct.”  Everything is fine.  Then I point out the angled bricks.

She stands beside me and looks up.  “I’d never noticed them,” she says.  “That’s the way it used to be.  They used to care about things like that.  Not like today, when it’s all fast money.  Beauty is not so important to them anymore.”  Then, after a brief pause, she adds, “But truly, it’s the beauty in your soul that matters.”

She gives me a little history, explaining the condo used to be the Stuart factory; the source of all those sugar and apple pies I used to devour at metro stations.

“Thank you for the chat,” I say, as she starts to leave.

She turns to face me.  “No, no.  Thank you!  Thank you for making us aware of our own building!”

IMG_2020As the walk continues, so do my skyward glances.  In a surprisingly residential alleyway, I look up to notice a succession of weathered wooden planks jutting from the upper floors of the houses, presumably a defunct hoisting system, and one I’d never seen before.  Two birds shoot across the sky in tandem.  I quickly spin around to follow their flight, as they merge together, twist in the air, and disappear beyond the rooftops.

As I continue onto Marie-Anne Street, I suppose one could say that all I’ve experienced is some people-watching, a house with a weird sign, a conversation about bricks, and a bunch of rotted wooden planks.  But if that’s all it were, how come the desire I have to say hello to the stranger now approaching me is entirely irresistible?  When I do, she doesn’t say anything back, but there is a sparkle in her eyes and the trace of a smile on her mouth.  I’m pretty sure her day just got better.

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Let’s Get Mindful

  • Start your day with the intention of noticing when you’ve got your head pointed towards the ground, literally or metaphorically. Every so often, when you notice this…stop.  And lift your head up, and take in your surroundings.  Feel free to overdo it, and look into the sky.  Speech can be powerful, taking us from intention to commitment, or from fleeting appreciation to heartfelt gratitude, so you might want to say the brucha aloud:

Baruch Atah Adonay, Eloheynu Melech Ha’olam, Zokef Kfufim

Blessed are You, Source of all that is, who straightens the bent

  • If you like the intention, but still aren’t doing the practice, make an appointment. Tell yourself that for the next ten or thirty minutes, or at another assigned time, that you will periodically stop in your tracks, lift your head, and pay attention.
  • Is there someone you notice similarly trapped in habitual ways? Might there be something you can do to help them see what’s before them?
  • What about the more literally bent? Is there something you can do to lighten someone’s load that they might stand up straighter?

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*Loving-friendliness, or Metta, is a Buddhist practice wherein you wish well for others. When I was introduced to it a few years ago, my initial reaction was resistance.  What good could I be I to others simply by wishing them well, especially since they would never know?  But a teacher I respected told me that if I adopted the practice, it might not change other people, but it would certainly change me.  He was right and it did.  The practice does in fact make it easier for me to access patience, and sometimes even kindness and open-heartedness, benefitting me, others, and surely, the lives of those they touch.

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Low Contrast and Rumours of High-Mindedness

If I were higher-minded, this would be about gratitude to the Source of all for, as Jewish liturgy puts it, mashiv ha’ruach umorid hagashem – causing the wind to blow and rain to fall. 

And while I suppose the sustenance of this planet deserves some attention, this is really about how an overcast sky can get rid of the high contrast which complicates picture-taking in alleyways and narrow streets, and also bring out some colour.

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 And now that show-and-tell is over, let’s try some high-mindedness:

Baruch atah adonay, mechayey kol chai

Blessed are you, Source of all, who gives and renews life

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Autumn gets its extension

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

Take it away, extended autumn…

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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 Six – Journey into a Desert Sentinel

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 25, 2014

If you did a search on the 4,652 most interesting walks in Montreal, today’s industrial meanderings probably wouldn’t make the cut.   I’ve resorted to consulting maps to assure myself that there really will be a river on the other side of all this.

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Then I recall a teacher’s suggestion that we regard street signs we encounter during the course of the day as wisdom offerings.  So when a delivery truck passes, bearing the slogan, “everywhere you want to be,” I insert an ellipsis (“everywhere….you want to be”) and find myself agreeing with the truck.  No matter where I go, I do want to be present.

With that intention in mind, when an eighteen-wheeler passes on Poirier Boulevard, I notice that my knees and ears have, if only subtly, prepared for the ground to shake and for the truck to rattle, and that they are disoriented when this doesn’t happen.  I feel a rush of excitement when airplanes – mammoth, with blazing velocity – screech into descent at nearby Trudeau Airport.  I’d rather not be excited, given my concerns about air travel and the environment, but it is probably good and useful to know when something that concerns me also thrills me.

I pass by ostensibly non-distinctive roadside scrub

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and looking closer, become aware of what it reveals about the direction of the prevailing winds.

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Even in this industrial desert – or maybe especially in this industrial desert – what nature has to offer is a blessing.  When I take refuge in the shade of a tree, I recite a blessing which literally speaks of roosters, but which might fairly be applied to all gifts 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

The more I walk among the power line towers

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the more they seem to have the deportment of monster movie sentinels.

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Though I have passed tens of thousands in my lifetime, it’s never occurred to me to crawl into one.  Until now.

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And somewhere along the way, I remember to recite the Asher Yatzar, the expression of gratitude for the intricate workings of the body.*

And, oh yes, now and again I also remember to look at the sky.

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*For those unfamiliar with the Asher Yatzar blessing, and who might like to see it in Hebrew or with transliteration, you should be able to search for it easily enough online.  Since translations might be harder to find, here’s an adaptation of one from Kol Haneshamah, the Jewish Reconstructionist movement’s siddur (prayer book),

Blessed are You, The Architect, who shaped the human being with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body.  It is revealed and known before Your Glory that if one of these passage-ways be open when it should be closed, or blocked when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before You.  Blessed are You, The Miraculous, the wondrous healer of all flesh.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Five – Midday at the Oasis

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 20, 2014

The trouble started when I began to sniff an oasis.

Although I am enjoying the fact of this walk, still entertained by the idea of proceeding west to Rivière-des-Prairies and endeavouring to be present with whatever arises, today’s details aren’t doing much for me.  

There have been moments, of course.  For instance, the pleasure of witnessing a couple of teenage girls sitting on a high school bench, one of them – the one with the curly hair – laughing with such abandon that her feet leave the ground as she almost tumbles backwards.  And I get to play peek-a-boo with a suspicious resident spying on me through her living room window, her head peering around the curtain.  I wave and smile.  Caught in the act, she tepidly waves back.  Amidst a neighbourhood where the homes tend towards uniformity, and the prevailing noise is that of a lawn mower and the drone of traffic from Cote Vertu, I occasionally encounter declarations of individuality:

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But mostly, the dominant features of today’s walk have been concrete and asphalt, accelerating the intensity of the hot and humid weather (this happened in August, remember), and all I really want to do is fulfill my commitment of walking for three hours and be on my way.  Then I come across this:

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The Bibliothèque du Boisé is what a library should be; quiet and airy, its patrons brown and black, Caucasian and Asian.  A father is reading a newspaper, his daughters on either side of him, writing in copybooks.  A teenage girl leans over Electronics for Dummies.  There are teak ceilings and tall windows facing, surprisingly, woods!

I’ve earned this oasis, I tell myself. 

Almost as soon as I start out through the woods, the path I’m on leads to a construction site, beside which teenage boys are kicking around a ball and bouncing Frisbees off the side of a building.  I turn back to the woods, and construction noise follows.  This is too urban.  Or maybe it’s not urban enough.  That’s it.  That’s the problem with this place.  It’s too in-between.  And even worse, it’s too hot.  Then, almost in spite of myself, I recall a passage from Bhante Gunaratana’s Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:

“We are continually confronted by people and conditions we wish did not exist…Even something we cannot control, like the weather, makes us dissatisfied.  At the Bhavana Society in West Virginia where I teach, people complain when it is hot and sticky.  But they also complain when it is rainy and cool.  When it is dry, they complain that their skin or their sinuses are affected.  When it is cold, they complain because they fear they will slip on the ice.  And when the weather is perfect, they complain that they do not have enough time to enjoy it!”

With Gunaratana’s admonition in mind, and aided and abetted by the camera in my hands, I remember to take time off from my displeasure to notice things:

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To conclude the day’s sojourn, I sit down with the intention of mindfully eating a couple of mandarin oranges.  I deposit a piece in my mouth, my tongue watering with anticipation.  I take a bite and my face goes sour.  The mandarins are mostly dry on the surface, and more watery than flavourful inside, and I want to toss them.  Instead, I force myself to say a blessing:

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

And it becomes easier for me to remember that this food for which I have such disdain would be manna for most people on this planet.

I sit, and breathe, and try to live happily with hot and humid.

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Rivière-des-Prairies or Bust: Part Four & a half – Who Give Strength to the Weary

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

When I eventually leave the du College subway (see the previous post for what kept me so entranced there), I notice a man sitting on a bench, his purple shirt soiled and tattered, long beard in no better shape, knee wrapped in a thick plastic brace. I offer a smile, but he is staring worriedly into the middle distance.

A police cruiser stops in front of him.  The officer riding shotgun, a blonde policewoman with an uncreased forehead and a green plastic wristband, leans out the window.  “I like your sandals,” she says.  She and the man fall into familiar conversation, a relaxed smile spreading across his face, as he is transformed from a lonely hermit to a man who has friends.

Before I know it, I am whispering one of the Jewish morning blessings.

Baruch atah adonay, eloheynu melech ha’olam, hanoten laya’ef ko’ach

Blessed are you, Renewing One, who gives strength to the weary

Public piano (and grocery cart) at Parc Beaudet in St. Laurent, just outside the du College station

Public piano (and accompanying grocery cart) at Parc Beaudet in St. Laurent, just outside the du College station

At the end of today’s walk, at Côte-Vertu Boulevard, I get to watch a woman with thick arms trying to inch her pick-up out of a side street.  Realizing she won’t be able to get onto the busy road for a while, she backs up to make things easier for pedestrians.  The person who benefits most from being spared an unwanted detour onto the street doesn’t thank or even seem to notice her.  He’s an elderly man, unsteady, and leaning desperately on his cane; it’s all he can do to stay on his feet as he labours along, pain tightening his face.  The driver, being screened by taller, hardier pedestrians, doesn’t appear to know how much good she’s done him.  But you and I do.

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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.

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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.

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The stained glass inside got me curious.

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A glance down the stairway got me kind of excited.

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So I decided to camp out for a while.

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Then I descended further into the light.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.”

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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. 

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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.”

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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.  

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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. 

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.

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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,

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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. 

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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.

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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.

“Exactly.”

“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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While I Live (I Better Second Line)

Although I’m starting to turn my attention to a blog series I’m planning on launching shortly about Montreal, it appears – unsurprisingly – there’s a little New Orleans still in my system. 

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Just a bit ago, while on Rue St. Laurent / St. Lawrence Street, I started thinking about some walks I’d like to take in Montreal.  The phrase “take that walk” playing in my mind swiftly morphed into Kermit Ruffins’ “When I Die (You Better Second Line),” which I’ve been listening to on a daily basis.  Though I didn’t conduct a systematic survey, I’m pretty sure I was the only person on St. Laurent slipping into a strut and waving an imaginary handkerchief.  It didn’t last long, but the moment had to be respected.

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(Quick and hopefully painless tutorial section.  What’s a second line?  Basically, it’s a New Orleans tradition where you’ve got the leaders (the “first line”) in a brass band parade in front, then the band itself, then the “second line” AKA everyone else who wants to step into the streets and join in the strutting and marching and joy.  The second lines with which I’m most familiar are at jazz funerals, where the departed is accompanied to the cemetery with dirges, and after they’re laid to rest, have their journey onward celebrated with exuberance.  Or they’re celebrations by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, originally created when African-Americans were unable to obtain insurance and formed their own mutual aid societies, celebrating once a year with parades through the streets in matching suits designed for the main event.)

This past Sunday, following the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church – imagine “cooling off” by stepping out of a non-air conditioned church into a refreshingly humid 34°C – there was a special second line back to Satchmo Summerfest.  

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Seeing the pictures I’ve included in this post, a friend of mine responded by saying, “Joy is a serious business in New Orleans.  The only people smiling are the white tourists.”

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Well, sort of.  Joy IS a serious business in New Orleans, because joy isn’t always about being smiley.  Not while you’re strutting and dancing and baking in a suit in 34°C, and showing your pride (though these guys were smiles aplenty when it was all done and they found a shady spot with water or beer).  As for the white tourist thing, well kind of but not exactly.  There were plenty of non-white revellers, and a lot of us were either locals or people like me, enough of a regular to be somewhere between local and foreign.  Nor are all the Social Aid and Pleasure Club members black.  For instance, when I joined in for last October’s parade by the Prince of Wales club (video below), one of its heralded members was outgoing president, Joe “White Boy” Stern.

Anyway, that’s all sounding a little too dispassionate for such a non-heady affair.  The point is…

while I live, I better second line

You tell it, Kermit Ruffins (the song’s his, and the visuals are a montage of second line footage from the Treme television series, in which New Orleans itself is the star):

And one bonus video.  The Shotgun Jazz Band performed “Over in the Glory Land” at the festival, and the band at the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s performed it the next day.  A lot of young people get the idea of tradition in New Orleans.

Alright…

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Kermit Ruffins, the Spirit of Satchmo, you, me, and Giving Lightness to a Weighty World

Please don’t try this at home.  However, if you’re inclined to change the world, please DO try this in airports (as I did in Philadelphia yesterday) and other public spaces.  Be sure to let me know if it works.

Note: The first two steps are optional.

Step One – Hang out at Satchmofest in New Orleans.

Step Two – Make sure to catch the closing performance by Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, and kick loose, especially when they finish up with Skokiaan.  (If you’re not familiar with Mr. Ruffins, he’s one hell of a performer, often paid the compliment of embodying the spirit of Louis Armstrong himself.)

Step Three – Take your seat in the airport or other public space.

Step Four – Click on this YouTube video *

Step Five – As Kermit gets going, “a smile on every note” (a quote I read yesterday about clarinetist Pete Fountain, but which applies equally here), look at the people around you. Somehow he seems to be accompanying everybody, whether they’re walking energetically or dazedly, texting, drinking from a water bottle, contending with their kids. Because what he’s doing is playing the beauty of life.

Step Six – Check and see. Good chance you’re smiling.

Step Seven – Good chance what you’ve seen and are feeling will make you better equipped to bring out the smile in others.

Anyway, that’s my theory till proven otherwise.  Let’s build a body of empirical evidence, shall we?

And what the hell, go ahead and try this at home if you like.  I won’t tell.

* Kermit – should you ever see this, and would rather no one had put the recording on YouTube, let me know, and I’ll find some way to change this blogpost while still securing the improvement of the world.

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Room for Improvement = Swaying Under the Influence = Joy

Not sure I’ve ever been so pleased to discover room for improvement in my photography skills.

My pictures of the Gypsy Kumbia Orchestra at the Montreal Jazz Festival show that I would have been well-served by a faster shutter speed.  Oh well, next time.  The important thing is that those guys were flying and a joyous time was had by all.  And besides, they were making me sway against my will. 

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Oh, and courtesy of Funkzie Groove, I now understand that The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” is a funk song:

 

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My Mother’s Son Strikes Again

Most of my writing time of late has gone into determining if the book I started writing some years ago still has a pulse.  Time for a blog post, I say…

When I was young, I was easily embarrassed by my mother’s habit, when hearing a few words in conversation from a song she knew, of joyfully breaking into the song herself.

“Is the Expos game against the Phillies a day game or night game?” someone might ask.

“Night and daaay, you are the one,” she would sing back. “Only you beneath the moon and under the sun.”  And then, perhaps after a short self-conscious laugh over her impromptu joy, she would dutifully answer the question.

Meanwhile I would look for a place to hide.  I guess I might as well get over it, given that I realized a few years ago, I have the same habit.

For instance…        

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While taking shots of this lamppost I’m in love with at the Outremont Metro station, giving the anonymous underground the quality of hominess, anyone within earshot would hear me singing – loudly and possibly on key – Herman’s Hermits’ rendition of “Leaning on the Lamppost at the Corner of the Street.”  How rewarded these commuters must have felt to be serenaded with such words of wisdom as:

She’s wonderful, she’s marvellous, she’s fabulous, she’s beautiful,
And anyone can understand why,
I’m leaning on a lamp-post at the corner of the street
In case a certain little lady comes by.

Then, after capturing a bit more of Outremont station…

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 …I walked around the city for the next two days, sharing the song with everyone else.  Couldn’t help it.  Generosity is something else that comes naturally to my mother.

I’ve also been taking pictures of other things than Metro stations.  For example…

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If you’d like to see some other images from my time here, this is a link to about 25 of my “greatest hits”:

https://plus.google.com/photos/117565792703398298858/albums/6029705927308071841?banner=pwa

And if you’d like to know what Herman and his hermits had to say:

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Something in the Way We Move

A couple of days ago, with time to kill in the vicinity of the Decarie Expressway, I found myself wondering what would come of standing above it and watching the traffic for a while.

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Immediately, I felt a rush in seeing the cars and trucks below shooting away as if blown from a supersonic cannon.  I marvelled at how exciting the simple, everyday pace of our lives can be.  And desperate, too.  So little time given to us, so much to do.  Everyone with different destinations day to day, in vehicles that mark our individuality with make and colour and price tag.  Everyone with the same ultimate destination.  We ride alongside one another.  We choose or are given space from one another.  And most of the time, we occupy ourselves with the day-to-day, and postpone thoughts about the ultimate.  As it should be, perhaps.

The video clip below runs a minute or so.  Perhaps you too might experience the rush, and find your own reflections in it.

And then, later that day.  I’m riding the 161 bus out of Mile End, the old world meets new world neighbourhood where I’m living.

“Go!  Canadiens!  Go!” says the sign on the bus.  And well it should.  The Habs will be going into game seven that night against Boston (and, ultimately, pull off an upset with grit, goaltending and classic Montreal Canadiens speed). 

But the exclamation points are a marked contrast against the bus ride.

It’s a warm day, the bus is full, not moving very fast, and I feel my nostrils habitually, almost involuntarily, making an aperture adjustment to filter out the odour of a day’s worth of jostling humanity.  And then I stop.  I want to feel this in my nose.  It’s not a pleasant smell, but it’s the smell of shared experience. 

At the front of the bus is an Orthodox Jewish man with a black kippah, and closer to me, a younger one with a beatnik’s beard and a designer variation on tie-dye.  There’s a black man in front of me in a jean suit (kind enough to defer to me when a seat becomes available) and another, not far behind him, in a glistening, silver suit, while towards the front, a young black girl in pigtails conjures associations with Norman Rockwell’s civil rights paintings.  A woman with a beautiful profile; a man across the aisle distractedly keeping time to an imagined drum beat with a water bottle, slapping it again the place where neck and shoulder meet.  A young woman who I think is Russian can’t help from laughing at the antics of a couple of pre-adolescent schoolmates.  I want to tell the girl with the blue hair, out-of-season woolen socks and a knapsack with an “Are you dead yet?” decal that she is beautiful, because I suspect she has no idea. 

And we are without our masks.  We are not acting for colleagues or friends or family.  We are just ourselves, pensive, contemplative, not wearing exclamation marks.  We don’t seem to be especially happy or sad, but we are reflecting at the end of a long day, which may be falling upon the end of a long week, a long year, a hard life.

I don’t only want to see what I’m seeing, though.  I want to do something with it.  So I tell myself that, when in the future, the conduct of people is other than I would like and I am tempted to act with impatience or indifference, that I will try instead to remember this shared journey.

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Taken to the River

I’m living in Montreal for the next while; an opportunity to spend more time with my family here, and to better know the city in which I grew up but left in my early twenties.

It also seems to be an opportunity to interact with my intuition a little more.  For instance, yesterday when I awoke, I spent a while starting at the parallelograms of early morning light on the wall.

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And for some reason, the song “Take Me to the River” came to mind.  So I decided – or it was simply decided – I would make the five-mile walk along Clark Street down to the St. Lawrence River.

Doing my best to pay attention to the details, I noticed sunshine on my chest and birdsong in the air, the pleasure brought by a gradual downhill slope and the subtle discontentment that accompanied the uphills, my irritation with some people and my willingness to exchange it for curiosity about their behaviour.

And more people than were probably interested, were exposed to my spontaneous vocalizations of “Take Me to the River,” along with finger pumps accompanying the trumpets inside me head.

Also, oh yeah did I see stuff.

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If interested, you can check out the entire web album (30 images in total):

https://plus.google.com/photos/105048799489063157726/albums/6013001022224491937?cfem=1

And finally, for good measure, here’s a version of Take Me to the River I’ve always liked, from The Commitments movie:

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Rambling, Judging, Seeing Occasionally

Rambling through the day – to, through, and out of High Park – I noticed a father guiding his daughter across an intersection with his foot while chatting on his cell, and a man walking in the park and texting, and two women in the park with buds in their ears, missing out on the birdsong – and I was inclined to judge them.  What happened to being in the world when in the world?  Then, remembering I have my own kind of expertise with non-presence, I pulled back on judgement and felt a little sadness for us all; the pressure we feel to always plug on, the diminished ability to ever plug out.  But watching a swan protect its nest by chasing a goose through Grenadier Pond, I was reminded that it’s not necessarily supposed to be easy.

Also, I saw some stuff:

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Please forgive the absence of snow…

Normally I ascribe a theme to what I post here.  The best I can come up with for this one is…

Hey!  Look at all these pictures without snow in them!

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Mile End, Montreal

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Balmutto and Charles, Toronto

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Yonge Street

I know, I know…I should get with the program and give up my preference

of old and dilapidated over new and behemoth.  Just doesn’t seem to be in me.

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Black and white aren’t colours? 

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The March of March: Fire and Ice and Whimsy

In watching the transition from winter to spring, I’ve been taking turns enjoying it and negotiating with it to happen faster.

(So far, I don’t seem to be calling the shots.)

Along the way, I’ve gotten to see fire and ice and whimsy…

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What these images don’t quite capture was the adventure my afternoon companion and I enjoyed today in “progressing” along the ice in High Park.  But Paul Simon’s “Slip Sliding Away” does.  Plus it has this beautiful and heartbreaking verse:

And I know a father who had a son

He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done

He came a long way just to explain

He kissed his boy while he lay sleeping

And he turned around

And he headed home again

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Just When I Thought Attention Was Overrated…

Darned if it didn’t happen again.

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Winter. February. Who needs it?

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Let’s go shopping instead.

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But on the other hand, isn’t the way of getting the most out of winter to step into it instead?

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Apparently so, at least this afternoon.

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Outing Colour

Okay, so it’s been trying to hide, but seen in downtown Toronto the last couple of days…colour! 

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Question: are we required to offer gratitude to the browns, beiges and grays for helping us enjoy the reds and the blues?

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Popcorn Surrogate

Wanted out badly this afternoon.  Tempted to go to a movie, and use a big bag of popcorn as a hand warmer.  Reminded myself that there’s a decidedly finite amount of sunlight to be had this time of year.  Went instead, almost against my will, to the meeting place of the Humber River and Lake Ontario, and got to see this:

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Loss Meets Gain

So often we think of winter as an occasion of loss – there goes the green grass, there fall the leaves, and the birds have left for their timeshares down south.  But lately, when I remember to lift my shoulders from their seasonal hunching, I’m noticing what the “loss” reveals:Image

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And this morning, this has me thinking, “One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor” 

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And Now I Know

So this is what happens during an ice storm…

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O Sky Full of Funkiness (or thank you, bus of fullness)

Good thing the first bus that came along was full.  Gave me a chance to look up:

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Any Given Sunday

Show up at Grossman’s Tavern at the right hour of a sunny Sunday, and watch the light do its thing….and, oh yeah, catch some really fine trad jazz while you’re there:

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Green Not Gone, Auburn Didn’t Get the Memo

Nuance to this autumn day….

…some green that’s in no hurry to go…

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….and some auburn that didn’t get the memo about the approaching “dullness”

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Toronto Beltline Meets Bleecker Street

Since taking this shot while walking Toronto’s Beltline Trail a couple of days ago

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I’ve found myself thinking of a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street

“…I watched a shadow touch a shadow’s hand…”

Here’s the song:

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