Mind Your Questions

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

 So it happened yet again, at a biannual extended family gathering. Whether this story is mine to tell or belongs to someone else who granted me permission to tell it is not germane to the matter at hand. Let’s just call him Adam—or Eve. Your choice.

 Adam had retired since the last family gathering and wasn’t much of a hand at letter-writing, or Facebook posts. Inevitably, then, The Question came, in this case from a hearty, well-meaning cousin. “Hey, Adam. I hear you’re retired now. Are you keepin’ busy?”
     Dutifully, Adam began giving an account of himself, including volunteer work at the Children’s Hospital and the local soup kitchen, the home projects that had been postponed for years, the church committee work he now had time for, and the university course he was taking for his own pleasure. At which point, the cousin expressed astonishment: “What the . . . .? Aren’t you supposed to be retired?”

 There you have it in two breaths—the hopelessly contradictory assumptions we have about retirement. On the one hand, since people are valued for the work they do and the pay they get for it, not being busy is the ultimate form of uselessness. Heaven forbid that we should have time to be, to reflect, to live quietly in the moment simply because it’s been given and is precious.

Pike Lake, near Saskatoon, SK, on a quiet fall afternoon, when just to be alive is enough.

On the other hand, our equally common assumption about work is that it is a sentence to be served, a debt to society that once paid should be rewarded by endless days of leisure and pleasure. Thus, the only approved ways of managing retirement, to judge by most advertising and by the ubiquitous “keepin’ busy?” are extended travel and perpetual golfing.

 What both questions pointedly ignore is that Adam—or Eve—is not accountable to every Tom, Dick, and Sherry who chooses to probe Adam or Eve’s use of time. For twenty or forty or even fifty years, Eve has obediently filled out time sheets, turned in regular reports, endured yearly evaluations, completed projects, explained to her parents that she was indeed doing what they had taught her to do, met her family’s needs, and served society. For thirty years and many more, Adam has wondered when he could finally call his soul his own (which, realistically, he can’t ever do, since we all have our being in the communities and roles that make us who we are). Yet now, when he no longer owes his soul to the company store, for the sake of civility, he has to give account of himself to every Shaun, Vicki, and Harry? Doesn’t that verge on being rude and unjust?

 Oh, many retirees over ever so many decades have genially gone along with the joke and made up facetious replies on the fly: “Oh, I keep busy watching the paint grow old on the walls.” “Hey, the grandkids keep me busier than I ever was. I don’t know how I found time to work.” “Man, I’m working my way through the beers (or novels!) that have been waitin’ for me.” And so on. The socially adept will find their way through this conversational minefield as they have found their way through countless other necessary meetings and greetings. It will not do to make too much of the usual awkwardness of finding something to say to someone one doesn’t know well but would still like to acknowledge.

My sympathies are extended, though, to the Eves and Adams who are introverts, those private people who treasure their newly acquired space in which to seek the inner quietness that has always beckoned them, who want to give their time to carefully chosen projects that were never meant to be loudly public. For them, the nosiness of “keepin’ busy?” is an intrusion on privacy, and the often trivializing responses to an honest account given in good faith feel humiliating. Maybe we could craft some gentle rebukes that can convey the gist of “none of your damn business” without spoiling the friendly tone of the conversation. I’ve heard someone say, “Well, I don’t have any days in which I stare at the wall and wonder to do next.” Or also, “I am content. Is that what you wanted to know?” My favorite response is “I’m doing nothing of socially redeeming value.” Which deftly signals both that the question has encroached on personal territory and that our assumptions about work require more thought.   

While it seems a useful service to humanity to provoke some mocking laughter at our thoughtless and sometimes foolish assumptions about other people’s work or not work, it is surely more important to practice the social niceties as peacefully as possible. Some irritations are not worth risking unease for someone else, who was actually well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, I’m still looking for some gracious responses that will stamp out the “keepin’ busy?” questions and invite my interlocutors into a space where doing and being can dance together in harmony.    

The author at the Toronto harbour
Swan Lake, AB, east of Grande Prairie

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

Originally published in Prairie Messenger October 19, 2016

After the Choices

The election is over now. We’ve had time to think about our choices and balance them against the ones we might have made. We’ve heard the “victory” speeches, such as they were. Within days, we also heard a few mea culpas, not enough, mind you. How is it that after such an important exercise of democracy (ideally a thoughtful, rational, and informed process), everyone – politicians, pollsters, media people, coffee row pundits – can so readily agree that the campaign was short on vision and way too long on insults and trivialities? Was that not obvious early enough to have changed course?

 But it is not the post-mortem I want to focus on, although it has its place; in fact, I hope that its conclusions will definitely affect what comes hereafter. A minority government, as historians and students of current politics tell us, is a forced opportunity to learn cooperation and diplomacy out of which can come important legislation. However, nothing will get done if the shouting and the animosity don’t stop.

A distant shot of the Parliaments that includes more trees and river and sky than buildings.

I have not worked out yet whether I’m hopeful about federal-provincial cooperation or not. I do know that we need reasonable unity and focus in the 43rd Parliament, not more partisan jockeying for attention. We have pressing issues to attend to, and to have individual premiers threatening to take their marbles and go play elsewhere is not helpful.

Before the election, I suggested that we institute some poetry reading retreats for our political candidates, encourage them to get to know one another, away from the spotlights and under the influence of holy wisdom of poetry. Now I’m going to suggest some additional rituals, ones that call on our narrative imagination in different ways.

For the politicians, I recommend a private ritual of writing eulogies. (No, I’m not implying dark deeds of revenge and violent seizures of power!) I have noticed in the past that when a former or even sitting Member of Parliament dies, the eulogies spoken and written are warm and gracious, devoid of partisanship and rancor. Suddenly the enemy from across the aisle has been transformed into a statesperson of great stature and goodness. To our amazement, we hear far more than we knew before about this individual’s genuine contributions and honest efforts to create a better world.

So what if, after the election, each politician took time for a solitary, quiet retreat in which to compose a eulogy for that political opponent who had served most often as his or her punching bag in the recent campaign? That could be a first step in defusing the often pointless quarrels that have been magnified past reason in order to motivate voters. Such an exercise will not be easy.

If necessary, the composition of eulogies for opponents could be preceded by the writing of their own eulogies. What would each newly elected or re-elected parliamentarian want to have said about herself or himself? What goal, which once motivated the politician to enter the public square in the first place, would he or she like to see as a crucial point in the eulogy? Honesty and self-awareness would be required for this ritual, but I can’t imagine two qualities that I would like to see more of in our representatives, apart from, of course, a thorough knowledge of the home constituency and the constitution.

 For the rest of us, I will make a different recommendation—although personal eulogy writing wouldn’t hurt us either. What I suggest will require some detective work, and considerable attentive listening. Here it is, with all its echoes of clichéd advice from previous centuries: look for stories of positive change and circulate those instead of the latest rant. Tell the Rick Mercer types to take a hike.

 For example, it was a friend, with first-hand experience, who told me about a little-known goal of Saskatchewan’s former premier Brad Wall, who had decided early in his political life that he wanted to make his province the best possible place for people with disabilities. Many of us, including me, became very angry over several cuts in his last budget, such as the shutting down of our provincial bus service (STC), yet we failed to notice that funding for disability services  had remained steady and even increased.

While the attention given to one group of vulnerable people does not cancel out the pain of another vulnerable group—social ledger sheets cannot be so balanced—it does remind me that premiers, like the rest of us, are not always consistent. Internal trade-offs seem an inevitable part of the job description.

The story also reminded me that we cannot possibly know all of the details, or understand the complicated processes of getting some programs through and cancelling others. Even in the age of social media when nothing seems private any more, the general public is not always aware of essentially good motives and acts of personal integrity. We should not forget the humanity of all political actors.

 On a more local level, I recently heard encouraging stories of initiatives in Saskatoon that seek to ameliorate the difficult living conditions of our most at-risk residents. Whether a particular helpful measure is conceived and brought into reality by city council or by creative and determined individuals makes little difference to those who receive a hot meal (Friendship Inn asks no questions but simply serves the meal) or a place to sleep in security (The Lighthouse). We need to hear these stories.

 So let’s not forget the second portion of this ritual of finding positive stories: pass them on. Admittedly, I have no right to give advice regarding social media, since I do not use them (with the exception of personal email and this blog!). Perhaps there are already a myriad of feel-good stories that are circulating, some of which are even factual.

What I have in mind, though, is the act of pointing out good initiatives in direct conversation with others, as well as passing on pertinent links to specific individuals. Admittedly, it is hard to stay cool in the middle of a heated conversation and then to retell, tactfully, some facts or stories about the object of the rant. Yet without such deliberate tamping down of anger, how shall we proceed toward the cooperation that we all say we’d like to see in our governments?

Long may our narrative imaginations flourish!

“[Marcus Aurelius] argued that the [narrative imagination] contributes to undoing retributive anger. He means that when we are able to imagine why someone has come to act in a way that might generally provoke an angry response, we will be less inclined to demonize the person, to think of him or her as purely evil and alien.

Martha Nussbaum
A photo of a solitary path through the woods.