December 2, 2013
“I told you I don’t want to talk about this any more,” Irving shouts into his cellphone, the strain of which unleashes a coughing fit. I hand him a glass of ice water from his lunch tray which, as usual, is uneaten but thoroughly picked over. The old and the sick seldom have good appetites. “And the same to you too!” he shuts off the phone and throws it upon the bed. “Damn gold digger!” A green knot of veins threatens to burst through the paper skin of his neck.
A television is speaking in the background; it is set to one of those 24/7 news channels that continuously run a scroll of the stock market numbers. His red-rimmed lizard eyes dart back and forth catching the scroll. Wiithout looking away he reaches for his vial of pills, but knocks them over. As I pick them up off the floor he again coughs heavily, then apologizes by saying he has been a four-packs-a-day smoker since he was a teenager. Irving is in the end stages of terminal emphysema.
“Doesn’t matter,” he swings his naked legs from the side of the bed like a petulant child. “I’m eighty-six. Its not as if I’d have more years without it.” They are as pale and fragile as dessert grass. After a moments pause, he has another little moan about his wife, with whom he had been quarreling over the phone. ”I’m not even dead yet and already she is decorating her next home in her head.” She is much younger than him. I imagine her as a classic trophy wife, all jeweled and coiffed as she escorted him to his soirees with politicians and CEOs. Hard to imagine that this frail Gecko of a man once held sway over the destinies of people like me.
Mid-sentence he is distracted by the television. “Damn, Blackberry is down again.” It turns out a chunk of his fortune is invested in those stocks. By the the time the nurse brings the replacements for his pills, he has clear forgotten about them. “What are these for? I already took my pills.” I remind him that he had not. I rewind the events to when he ended his phone conversation. “Oh that gold digging floozy.” He sets off on another tirade about her, and then back to complaining about the bouncing Blackberry stocks.
By the end my visit the tone of his voice has softened. “Will you come and see me again?” I promise him that I will, and true to my word, I begin my next shift by heading to his floor. I am surprised to see that another man is occupying his room, sleeping in his bed. I locate a nurse and ask if Irving was discharged. “No,” the nurse gives me one of those apologetic, pursed smiles. “He passed away.” As volunteers we expect to lose patients, but we still feel a certain sadness about it. As I walk away I couldn’t help wonder, what were his last words? “That damn gold digger!” or perhaps his last thoughts were about the future of Blackberry? I can’t decide which is sadder: that he is gone, or that he spent his last days and hours stressing the banal?
Death is very rarely (if ever) the way it is in the movies: all angel choir and violin crescendo. More routinely there is a cacophony of arguments, stress, and worries for a future in which you have no part. I think many of us have a fantasy that our last words will be something profound.
“It is very beautiful over there,” said Thomas Edison on the moment of his death. “I see a black light,” reported Victor Hugo. We imagine in our dying breath the mystery of life will be self-evident. Perhaps one may commune with his or her personal god. But as I walk away from Irving’s last place of unrest, I wonder if that is even a realistic expectation?
I mean, many people do not have the same luxury as Irving had had: death will come to many unexpectedly. As it did for a healthy young woman named Soraya Nanji. She was crossing the street on one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. “Well, have a great trip,” she wished her friend on the cellphone. A truck hit her. She was dead.
Over her grave, mourners wished her, “Rest in peace.” And perhaps Irving’s merry widow might raise of glass wishing him the same. But shouldn’t we have wished them that while they were still alive?
November 25, 2013
The hospital was offering CPR training at a nominal rate for its volunteers. Naturally, I signed up. I live with a cardiac survivor and also my neighbor has been hospitalized numerous times with heart issues. I was so grateful for this chance to acquire the skills which may one day save someone’s life that I had not given any thought to the date of the training nor its location. As I sat in class, our jovial instructor began by asking, “Who do we give CPR to?” Before anyone could answer he delivered the punch line, “To dead guys.” Humor was his way of connecting with his students, most of whom were either medical students or foreign-trained physicians awaiting residency. They had seen it all.
He continued his stand-up routine, comparing the symptoms of a heart attacks between men and women. An odd realization ran through me. Not only was this class being held at the hospital where I was treated, it was directly under its Cardiac Critical Care. What is more, the class was held very near to the anniversary of my near-fatal trauma. Something about the confluence of time and place overwhelmed me with an emotion I could not name. It was not anger, his humor was satirical but respectful; how was he to know I was once that dead guy receiving the chest compressions and electric shocks he was joking about. I wasn’t sad; I don’t fear death anymore. In fact I ran through the list of known emotions and eliminated all of them. Yet I felt something. But what?
Is it possible that some emotions are so unique that they cannot be identified?
Lately I find myself thinking a lot about my niece, who at eighteen, suddenly finds herself thrown into adulthood. She has just began university and is living away from home for the first time. Gone is the caring gaze of her parents, gone are the high school teachers who spoon feed knowledge, gone are the childhood friendships the closeness of which is never again to be repeated. This is a niece who shares her uncle’s love for words; yet, when she is asked how she feels, she is at a loss to describe.
I wonder if unidentifiable emotions happen more often than we realize? After all, emotions reside in the Amygdala, a part of the brain inherited from our reptilian past. It was never designed to process the complex nuances of modern urban living. No wonder Torontonians are at a loss for words over the bizarre behavior we witness daily at City Hall (curtsey of a drug-addict, wife-beating, gangster mayor). Over the past six months we have gone through the spectrum of all the usual emotions, and now we are strangely silent. We can’t describe it as numbness, which is an absence of feeling (we definitely feel a fullness of emotion). To call it shock is also inaccurate; shock is a state of medical trauma caused by a lack of blood (and we surely feel a surge of blood when we think about what the mayor has done).
As the news channels go on recounting the salacious events, it occurred to me that “the news” is all about unidentifiable emotions. News is sensational by nature. It intrigues us with tales about tsunamis that sweep over dozens of countries in one swoop. It fascinates us with earthquakes that shatter metropolises as big as New York. The news is only ever about the incredible and the extraordinary, but I wonder if we recognize the novelty of the emotions we feel when we hear about these sensational events. I was too young to recall the JFK assassination but I do remember 9/11. None of us was able to articulate the emotion we were experiencing. The news media did their best to identify the unidentifiable, name the unnameable. In the end all failed. Yet we felt something. But what?
Isn’t it interesting that the question people ask is,”Where were you when John Lenon was shot?” and not, “How did you feel?” This is because our memory cannot file away what it cannot name. The best it can do is recall the events leading up to it and around it.
I am lucky enough to be acquainted with many poets. It seems to me that they dedicate their lives to describing the indescribable. They resort to abstract imagery and metaphors in an attempt to invoke in our memory the freshness of that unidentifiable emotion. Sometimes, if we are lucky, they succeed and we enter the realms of the sublime. But perhaps we stumble into the sublime in daily life but just do not have a name for it?
November 18, 2013
Dillon blushes as he gets up on stage to receive his citation for bravery from the Fire Chief. Being fourteen, almost anything can make him blush, but being called ‘a hero’ is particularly embarrassing. He hears that a lot lately, ever since he went back into his burning house to rescue his baby brother and nine-year-old sister. “I just did what anyone would have done,” he shrugs. But is that true? Would we risk our life for anyone, or only certain people? Or no one at all?
According to geneticists such as J.B.S. Haldane there was nothing altruistic about Dillon’s action. Handane called it kin selection, an extension of the selfish gene idea, he maintained that we are ready to lay down our life for those who share our DNA only because it is a strategic way to ensure its continuance. So Dillon was not being heroic at all: Pretty canny there, Dillon! George Price even came up with an equation to calculate the probability of someone risking his life for another based upon the percentage of shared DNA.
When I listen to such theories I can’t help but remember a dog named Jazz. She was a Border Collie, much like Lassie, and no less heroic. She risked her life to save me. She put up her body as a barrier to shield me from danger. I was only a visitor to her home, I never fed her or took care of her. She certainly had no genetic advantage in leaping to my rescue. Jazz is not the only animal in recorded history to have risked its life for a human. Nor is this phenomena unique to animals.
In 1996 a black teenager named Kiesha Thomas was among the protestors of a neo-Nazi march happening in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The police in riot gear were there to protect the Nazi’s from the protestors who were confined to the other side of the barricades (the US does not have anti-hate laws as other places do). One of the protestors spotted a man with a swastika tattoo on his arm milling among protestors. “Kill the Nazi,” shouted someone and the protestors channelled their anger towards this lone man on their side of the barricades. Kiesha did not know the man but she knew his life was in danger. For all she knew he was perhaps someone who might have harmed her given the chance. Yet she threw herself to shield him from the angry mob. Why? “Because I know what is like to hurt,” she said. She was so familiar with being singled-out and hated that she could not tolerate anyone else subjected to the same. In other words she empathized with him to the millionth degree.
Dillon, Jazz and Kiesha did what we all routinely do when faced with urgent action, they acted out of emotion rather than reason. We do not weigh the pros and cons before we act in an emergency. The intellect and the logic are absent during an adrenaline rush. We do not have time to calculate the Price Equation (even if we understood it). The decision to risk yourself would be an instinctual response, like raising your arm to shield your face. And surely the emotion that drives that instinct is love?
Oh, I don’t mean the cliche of love found on Valentine’s Day cards, or the sentimentality of a Jennifer Aniston movie. I mean an empathy so strong that the sense of the other disappears. In that moment of emergency the division between the other and I disappears. This is not a theoretical or mystical experience, but an emotion each of us is capable of feeling. Dillon experienced it, as did Kiesha, as did Jazz. Each risked his life because of a kind of self-love. Except that his definition of self had broadened to include everyone. A kind of empathy to the millionth degree. It is this emotion that I think deserves inquiry.
So for whom would you risk your life? For me this question is more than cocktail party banter. Through investigation of it, can this emoiton lead me to someplace greater than myself?
October 28, 2013
Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.
As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?
And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.
I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?
From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.
How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown. The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food. Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?
In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.
If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.
Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?
October 7, 2013
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” laments Jacob. A nurse directs his attention to a letter-sized sheet of paper she always keeps in front of him. It contains his full name, the name of the hospital he resides in, the floor and his room number. But these clues do not help Jacob’s disorientation. He has Alzheimer’s. He cannot remember his family. He cannot recall where he was born, or his occupation, or the places he has lived. It seems obvious to state that who we are is about our past. Everything we know about our character, what we believe, the people we love, our skills, the things we like and don’t like, all rely upon our memory. But wait, new research is saying that what we remember may not be what we actually experienced.
Scientists say it is very easy to trick the mind into remembering events that never happened. Elizabeth Loftus carried out an experiment in 1994 in which she was able to convince 25% of her subjects that as children they had once been lost in a shopping mall. She showed them photoshopped images of themselves lost in a mall as proof. The mechanism of memory is highly flawed. Our imaginations, our dreams, even movies can trick our brain into believing we actually experienced an event in the distant past that never happened.
This is why eye witness testimony is notoriusly unreliable. The Innocence Project, thanks to DNA, has freed dozens of men, including Rubin Carter, who were wrongfully-convicted of horrific crimes solely based upon eye witness testimony. It is not that the witnesses were deliberately committing perjury, they genuinely believed they saw Mr. X do whatever he was accused of.
Not only is memory highly suggestible, it remembers differently at different times. Couples when they bicker usually disagree over widely divergent memories of the same events. It is a lot like that Steve Lawerence song from the film Gigi, Oh Yes I remember It Well. “I did the shopping last week,” says one spouse. “No I did,” argues the other. It is not that one or both parties are liars. They truly remember the past differently and the conflict arises because both of them trust the accuracy of his respective memory.
To get conclusive proof of the unreliability of memory, you don’t need experiments. Your dreams are made purely from memory. Anachronism are routine (You are at a family gathering where everyone is as they are today except for your thirty-five-year-old nephew who is three). People and items are mislocated (you dream of your childhood home but the couch is the one you have now). Such errors are routine because in sleep the memory does not have clues from our senses or the collaboration of other people. In waking life we fill the gaps of memory by deduction, we infer, we assume, we trust. Dreams are raw memory and memory is not recollection but re-imagination.
This is the reason why when we fall out with someone close to us, we re-imagine our mutual past to align with the shift in our new opinion of that person. We re-interrupt our mutual relationship so convincingly that we conveniently forget contrary events. We might even swear ’remembering’ them saying and doing things they never actually did. (Isn’t it amazing that every young person who dies tragically was a living saint?)
Which brings me back to Jacob. It may be stating the obvious to say that who we are is about our past, but if our data is unreliable then should we trust our conclusions? Even for those without Alzheimer’s, Jacob’s question is still relevant. Who am I? I believe I know but that belief changes depending on who I am with. Sure, the physical descriptions do not change (race, gender, height) but internally who I am is a flux. The facts of my name and location do not vary from moment to moment and so I do not experience Jacob’s disorientation. But if I am being honest, when I look back over the years to find an answer to who I am, I am as befuddled as Jacob.
At first this notion is scary. Terror is always about the unknown and the unexpected. But once you get comfortable with the uncertainty, it can bring about a flexibility in your relationships. When you acknowledge that your memory might be flawed, you allow the possibility that others may be right in what they remember. When you lose faith in your memory the world is a more nuanced and layered place. I love how infants, who have no past and therefore no concretized definition of who they are, move about with a perpetual sense of discovery and wonder. Might an acknowledgement of the unreliability of our memory allow us to experience some of that astonishment about life?
September 30, 2013
Every once in a while I come across a patient who forces me to re-examine my life and the way I move about within it. Mary is 89, small and fragile. Yet she wields a strength far in excess of anything Mr. Schwarzeneggar can muster. You see, she lives in a complete state of gratitude. In response to my simple inquiry about how she was doing, she became emotional that I, a stranger, cared enough to ask after her. She told me everyone at the hospital was taking such good care of her and,”Do you know, they bring me something to eat every single day.” She could no longer hold back the tears. The very idea that strangers loved her enough to feed her three-meals-a-day was simply overwhelming.
I was captivated. I am used to patients who complain about the meals, the water is not cold enough, the tea is not hot enough. They, like me, have expectations about how they should be treated. We are burdened by entitlement, we are afflicted by our rights. Mary is not. She effortlessly abides in gratitude. And her beauty is overpowering.
At first glance she may appear innocent, even naive. You would be wrong. She is a survivor of a World War, and a refugee from a Communist revolution. She has seen much too much ugliness to be naive. Then what makes this woman so unique? I strive to understand because I think it would be wonderful to experience her ecstatic state of gratitude.
As I attentively listened to her story I realized Mary had dedicated so much of her life to caring for others that now, after eight decades, her ego had been knocked off centre stage. Almost every single sentence she uttered was focused on other people, their needs, their concerns, this despite her own significant difficulties. Don’t get me wrong, her deference to others was not a kind of oppression. I have met people who have been so humiliated, so beaten down that their own needs and desires were suppressed. Such people exude pathos. Mary exudes joy and contentment. This is because she took care of others whom she loved. She put their needs ahead of her own out of choice, not duty.
Over the years I must have spoken to countless people who were angry, frustrated, or depressed because they had suddenly lost the capacity to be independent, useful members of society, but Mary is the only person I have met to express gratitude in that same circumstance. It makes sense. All of us need to feel useful. We need this to survive as much as we need oxygen. The difference with Mary is that even while she lies helpless on a hospital bed, her gratitude rubs off on anyone lucky enough to come into contact with her. We in turn spread that gratitude to others in our lives. Thus wheelchair-bound she contributes to the well being of society at large. No wonder she has none of the self-pity and bitterness common to people newly diagnosed with a debilitating sickness.
Very soon we in Canada will celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Once a year we are collectively to be grateful for the bounties of this land, (as opposed to the defeating poverty and endless strife of less fortunate nations). There is something selfish about this type of gratitude; an uncomfortable thank heavens it is them and not us subtext. That may be why we do not grant gratitude is just due. We in the West are told as children: ”Finish your supper clean, there are children starving in India.” Such guilt-induced gratitude is passive and impotent. Whereas pure gratitude, like Mary’s, is empowering because it is born out of an appreciation for others. (By the way, the children of the middle class in India are never guilted into finishing their meals. All leftovers are promptly distributed to the said starving children, who are conveniently at the doorstep.)
It no longer surprises me whenever a homeless man complains about the free meal being served to him by volunteers. I understand it now. Ingratitude is human, ordinary, no effort required. Gratitude on the other hand, takes conscious effort. It requires you look at the glass as half-full, but it is an optimism tempered by constructive action.
Thanks to Mary I get it now: Gratitude is appreciation of the other’s point of view. She has shown me it is worth the effort to do what she has done unconsciously most of her life. I fail gloriously at times, but that is okay. I am grateful for my failures also because they set me up to succeed the next time.
It is against hospital rules for volunteers to touch patients. I did not care. I asked Mary if I could give her a small hug. She has moved me and for that at least I am eternally grateful.
September 3, 2013
Derek sits on a chair by the window, strapped to an IV drip. He longingly gazes out at the city spread out before him and the lake beyond. His immune system has been artificially reduced to zero while stem cells are continually being injected into him. “You know, I can’t talk to my kids about how I feel,” he says sadly. He is of a generation when men did not cry. Dads were the rocks, the ones who shielded the children from fear. Then Derek’s “children” walked into the room. Both were in their thirties and dressed like professionals. They certainly looked like intelligent, worldly people. Yet the father cannot bring himself to express the same fears he had just expressed to me, a total stranger.
I suspect Derek is afraid he might lose the sons’ respect. Were he to confide in his work colleagues or friends, he might be judged as ineffectual or weak. How can he be sure they will not gossip behind his back? So he bottles it all in, until this volunteer in a burgundy uniform appears with a trolley of magazines, and Derek pours his heart out. Only problem is, I am not in a position to do anything concrete for him, his sons are.
I come across variations of this scenario again and again. It seems to me when we enter into a relationship, we are play-acting. Whatever the role: Father/son, brother/sister, friend/friend, there is an unspoken script. We act out our part and hope the audience finds our performance convincing. We don’t get Oscars, but we do get complimented for being “a good father”, “a great sister”, or a “favorite uncle.” But while giving attention to our performance we sometimes neglect or override other more urgent duties.
We hesitate to ask for help that may be outside of the script of the relationship. One of my favorite geriatrics is Simone. She is recovering from a severe fall and she is anxious about how she will cope with day-to-day living once she is discharged. “Don’t you have family?” I ask. “Yes, but I don’t want to bother them. They have enough on their plate.” Her daughters and sons are in their sixties and perhaps could accommodate a change in roles but she is afraid the new roles might feel awkward, and so Simone will likely end up institutionalized, cared for by paid strangers.
Isn’t it ironic that in traditional cultures, where class, caste and gender roles are well defined and strictly adhered to, the people have less of a problem with switching roles as parents age. An Indian boy understands, even as his father is taking care of him, that one day it will be his turn to care for the father. In such places the idea of nursing homes is alien. Can the difference be precisely because the roles there are so rigid, that people see them for what they are, transactional necessities which can be tweaked as needs evolve? We on the other hand are unaware that relationships are role-playing and hence we cannot adapt as easily.
I think assistance is almost a currency. You do someone a ‘favor’ and the receiver feels obliged to pay back in the future. Some people even keep score. There is a sense that if you ask for too many favors from the same person, he or she will feel used and exploited. In other words, you might enter obligation bankruptcy. And so people suffer in silence and perhaps resort to prayer. Isn’t it revealing that when a couple take their wedding vows, the spousal contract specifically states that both parties will aid and assist the other under all circumstances. Apparently love is no guarantee that you may ask for help in need, they are required to swear an oath.
I come from a culture where we have this notion of karma, a kind of bank of favors. I do good deeds for strangers and the Universe deposits them into my account, to be redeemed in times of need. It is a nice idea, but the only problem is that karma requires people to execute those deeds. What if you do not have enough people in your life? The usually explanation given is not to worry, help will come from unexpected places. This again falls back to faith, just like prayer. Don’t get me wrong, I think faith and prayer have a place, but I do not believe in a passive spirituality. Practical problems demand practical solutions. Why not use spirituality to cultivate a support network during the good times, when you don’t need help? Why not have enough faith to have an open dialogue with the people in our lives?
August 26, 2013
Some time ago I found an ornate, black stick on the stairwell of my building. It looked like one half of a pair of Geisha hair sticks. I kept it, intending to give it to someone. Months later I have taken up calligraphy and now my desk is full of nibs, penholders, and inks. Searching through a drawer I came across that Geisha hair stick, gathering dust at the back. I immediately recognized it for it is–a pen holder. And I was looking to buy myself another one! It made me wonder: was it just a random find? Or was this a sign from the Universe that I was pursuing what I was meant to do?
In Asian cultures people tend to believe in omens, signs and portents. They take comfort in this secret language which hints at order behind the chaos of the world. “Nonsense,” said Todd, “there is nothing rational behind it.” Todd fancies himself as a scientist because he studied chemistry in college, even though he is a pen-pusher for a big national bank. “The world is chaos and everything happens randomly, including life.”
One of my writing mentors, Wayson Choy absolutely believes is paying attention to signs. It is how his illustrious writing career got started. He was in a writing workshop taught by Carol Shields where the students were asked to pick a random piece of paper from a hat. Each chit had the name of a flower and the assignment was to write a short story using their serendipitous flower. Wayson’s chit said peony. He was at a loss for a story with peony as its theme. Later that day he visited his aunt for tea. She handed him a gift, a jade peony that had once belong to his mother. In that instant the idea struck him he should write about his upbringing as the child of indentured Chinese labourers in 1930s Vancouver. The short story, titled “The Jade Peony,” so impressed Carol Shields that she submitted it for the UBC Alumni Chronicles. It has since been anthologized a dozen times and it spawned a full-length novel, The Jade Peony, which won the Trillium Award for best fiction. “Be alert for signs,” he advised me with a knowing grin.
I appreciate Wayson’s ability to link seemingly unconnected events, it informs much of his writing, yet I struggled with it. Did this mean that whenever obstacles clutter my path, I am to read them as signs that I was pursuing the wrong thing? The writing life is fraught with rejections, some of them entirely random. I know from experience at a literary magazine that submissions are sometimes rejected wholesale because the reader was not in a good mood, perhaps she was hungover or just wanted to be somewhere else. If I or Wayson or any other writer were to give up because of these obstacles, then there would be no more writers left in the world. Sometimes obstacles are meant to be overcome, they teach us to improve ourselves. I believe in facing challenges by developing new character skills. I worry that reading signs can sometimes be an excuse for defeatism and weakness.
Whatever the logic or illogic behind signs, these facts are indisputable:
1) The world is experienced ONLY through the medium of the mind. Take away the mind (as in sleep) and there is no world.
2) If the medium is chaotic (like that drunk editor), the information processed through it will be a confusing mess.
3) If the medium is uncluttered, then the information processed through it will be orderly and sensible.
So perhaps Todd and his kind, who experience the world as chaotic, do so only because their minds are confused and chaotic? (Todd’s personal life is as messy as his apartment). Then perhaps persons like Wayson who see omens and signs everywhere, do so because their minds are beginning to de-clutter? Hence for them the world has some purpose and order?
Perhaps. I don’t it is always clear-cut which obstacles are worth fighting, and which are signs that it is better to give up before you punish yourself further. While I don’t have all the answers, I find a clear mind does helps to distinguish when to fight and when to admit defeat.
Of course the whole issue of signs and portents leads to big questions about destiny versus free will. If signs are real than does that mean I am a mere puppet of the gods? If all is preordained than do I have any choice at all? I’ll save that question for next week’s post. Who would have thought a simple pen holder could raise such huge questions?
August 12, 2013
Sandy is young, bubbly and very sick. Once in a while I get to meet a patient as thoughtful about her sickness as Sandy. She, like many other heart patients and trauma survivors, have experienced what is commonly (and wrongly in my opinion) known as Out-of body experiences, or OBEs.
You break through the limits of your own body’s senses. You experience sights, sounds, memories and feelings that do not belong to your own body or mind. You inhabit the universal and that includes your body lying there on the bed. In fact I think the term out-of-body is an oxymoron because in this state of hypersensitivity you experience sensations within your own body much more acutely. Once you have experienced the world from this perspective, you cannot ever see the world in the same way again.
Out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, happen spontaneously during extreme trauma such as car accidents, or during medical events such as heart attacks. They can also be induced through hallucinogens such as LSD or anesthetics. More commonly, they are a byproduct of meditation practices, or through lucid dreaming with the aim of taking a trip into the subtle worlds.
In my lost youth I eagerly devoured the books of Robert Monroe on Astral Projection. The idea of taking mystical journeys fascinated me and though I never experienced what he claimed I would in his books, I did have my first taste of meditation. I would lie still, enter a catatonic state where my body was asleep but my mind was fully alert. It was a scary sensation at first, a feeling of being trapped, yearning to escape. In this state it occurred to me for the first time that the mind might be a separate entity from the body. Gradually, with practice, the mind is encouraged to lose its fear of roaming away from the body. It is something it naturally does during dreams. OBEs are fully-conscious dream-like experiences.
Modern neurology has attempted to debunk OBEs by inducing them in subjects. By stimulating various parts of the brain electronically, they hope to prove that OBEs are a simple neurological phenomena. But they miss the point because they are asking the wrong questions. What they should be asking is: Does the mind live inside the body? Or does the body live inside the mind?
Sandy and I sat for two hours exchanging ghost stories. She recalled visitations from the departed as glowing, warm presences without the human form or costumes (O how Hollywood has that wrong). As fascinating as ghost stories are, they reaffirm the revelation of OBEs that the mind and body are indeed separate entities. During her procedure Sandy saw prayers from her church members ascending towards her (another very common phenomena). While in this state neither she nor any other OBE experiencers felt threatened or afraid. To a man they report a feeling of deep peace and joy. Much more than that, they feel a wholeness with others after they survive the OBE itself. They are more empathetic in significant and unalterable ways. Surely, there is more at play here than stimulated neurons?
For me the experience of OBE was prolonged and I experienced different degrees of it. The times when my heart stopped completely, the experiences were more intense and vivid to other times during the coma, I heard, saw, felt events happening outside of my hospital room. Events I was later able to verify with the people saying, doing, experiencing them. Yet I was aware of my body the whole time. To this day I question this accepted notion that the mind resides within the body. It felt so natural, so normal to be wondering around while the body lay there tethered to tubes and machinery that I think it is the body that resides within the mind.
The mind is this enormous, shapeless presence that houses this body. The very fact that OBEs happen to so many people, of all ages and in every culture, proves that OBEs are a clue to the reality of our existence. To me this is what is worth investigating. It is unfortunate that this term has entered into everyday speech as a way of describing extraordinary desserts, dresses, film stars. (“When Brad Pitt looked at me I thought I was having an out-of-body experience.”).
This phrase means so much more.