Warning: if you don’t like mushy stuff the following post would very likely upset your sensibilities. If you put the argument to me that it has little relevance –or place– in a blog featuring hard hitting political analysis; I’d agree warmly. But I did start The Activist noting that I think activism without the personal context is largely rootless, easily blown about in the changing winds and—most importantly—lacking in understanding of the actual social goo that brings us/binds us into a community.
Have you ever noticed that there often seems to be a most inexplicable paradox such that those on the political left—the side that cares most about our collective goodwill to all people—can seem to have distant, often acrimonious personal relationships and those on the right—the side that cold-heartedly puts profits first with little concern for compassion or well being of individuals, can be open and warm-hearted to those immediately around them?
So I want to bridge some of that by telling my own—mushy– story about my Christmas heart attack and how it has so profoundly affected my understanding of what really matters.
I just wrote to my sons about how this heart attack was such a shock and how difficult it has been going onto heart meds but in my heart of hearts I am feeling so deeply blessed.
In a scenario not greatly different from the Good Samaritan story of strangers stopping to help someone in distress beside the road, a most wonderful group of people stopped to help someone in distress (I wasn’t moving)they didn’t know and waited and cared for me until the ambulance came. Then there was the medical community, ambulance attendants, doctors, nurses, hospital staff of our public health care system that seemed to me to be the best possible care one could imagine. I realized how fortunate we all are to have such an effective health care system designed to ask only what does this person need to be well again—not as it would be just south of the 49th; does this person have enough savings to pay for our care!
But here is the thing that absolutely rattled the grounds of my being. After a traumatic time in St Joe’s emergency where I had a much closer brush with the great beyond than I want to have for a long time to come, I was delivered by ambulance to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. As the attendants were undoing straps and medical equipment in preparation for transporting the stretcher to the Cardiac Ward, the door of the ambulance swung open and there—to my great surprise stood my youngest son—the one who was a bit of a challenge in a time now grown over with warm memories. I can’t tell anyone without choking up with emotion about how it felt to see him there. The grounds of my being trembled for the joy of it. He flew over to Victoria from Vancouver and beat the Comox ambulance to the hospital! Having them open the door and seeing him standing there reminds me of when the two boys were born and how moved I felt at being part of this life renewing process. My oldest son came here from Calgary and I was so happy when he said to me, Dad I’m going to lose some weight. I want to make some positive changes to come from the sadness and worry we have all felt over your heart attack.
I don’t know where all this goes but I do know I am much happier with my family, with the world, with life. I see in a whole new dimension how beautiful and precious this—all too temporary—gift of life is. I think I will worship every bulb that pops its stem above the earth in this beautiful ritual we call spring. And the flowers! I feel a little like Scrooge after the ghosts have visited to give him a chance to see the beauty that is/can be –to see that love and good will are so much more rewarding than the accumulation of money!
I can’t lift anything over 10 lbs for two weeks. I can’t drive for a month and can’t get back on my bike for 6 weeks. Oh, but that day when I take the bike out of the garage and put my foot on the pedal and head out on another ride—I think it will be ecstasy .
My wife isn’t doing well. Her health just isn’t anything one could call health. I can now see that all we have been through—it hasn’t been easy– hasn’t been so bad after all. Our love has been strained but not broken. Together we raised these beautiful children on a small farm in the Granby River Valley–likely the most pastorally beautiful place on Earth – or perhaps universe. I don’t know where we go from here. Unless her health improves soon, we have difficult decisions to make about how independent we can continue to live, but you should have seen my boys trying to find ways to make it work. You should have seen them attending to every need of their mother’s –care that no ordinary son could imagine having to give to their mother. And they did it with such grace!
I have written these words largely for my friends; for the social and environmentalist activists; for the activists at heart; especially for those who have lost heart; for those who, like myself for so long, have yielded to despair believing there are just too many ways to poison the earth or use it up-too many insatiable greeds to even hope there is yet time for us, as a species, to learn to love the Earth rather than consume it.
It is strange how these moments of epiphany arise; one seemingly insignificant event triggers a whole cascade of effects and suddenly the fog of our everyday lives lifts. The significance of gas bills, the looming meeting at work, the bank statement, the dental appointments, the garage that desperately needs straightening, wafts away like valley fog on the wings of an August Sun. The distant horizons appear abruptly out of the cloud and we can see everything around with such marvelous clarity. A child at play looks unpredictably our way and smiles full in our face; a summer storm passes and we see with fresh eyes the transforming vitality of our place within the web of life; the hand of a partner or friend slips unexpectedly into ours; all the greatly overrated fluff falls away and we truly see those transforming values which inspire our lives with genuine grace and meaning and significance.
It is strange also how at other times we can so easily delude ourselves into believing that the news coming over the radio is, in fact, the bounds, bonds and only meaningful reality of our lives; that the advertising hype presented on the television is about matters of value-that Coke is it. When we know deep in our hearts that Coke isn’t it, and Pampers don’t make dancing/happy children, and Cheese Sticks *tm will not make us a loveable people or caring parents. Or at least that is the way I see it. Such utter rubbish about the needs and lives of human beings is at least as much garbage as the mountains of waste we generate while consuming these so-called “goods”—all because we cannot stop long enough to ask: what is good? What is actually important?
And while such deceptions have incredible power over our consciousness of the effects of our consuming lifestyles on the natural world, they are even more devastating on our perceptions of self-our knowledge of who we really are and what it is that forms the grounds of genuine happiness. Coke is it only if we allow ourselves to become nothing more than a manufactured image of a life-if we lose contact with the values that all peoples before us have considered to be the most precious and defining characteristics of human existence.
Love, not Coke is it-the ultimate grounds of human beingness and joy; that most valuable product which we should be manufacturing in all our hearts and advertising to all the world around. Silly? It sounds silly; it becomes increasingly silly in our advertising hyped world to speak of values that cannot be packaged; but they are real and they can still be more constructively powerful in their effects than the destruction unleashed by the bomb dropped over Hiroshima or the monster machines which level whole forests like a lawnmower over a residential lot on a Sunday afternoon.
As my son stood beside me in the Cardiac Ward my thoughts turned to a morning most distant. Two years after the snowy New Year’s morning with my one-year-old son, I woke rather exhaustedly on a warm spring morning. I had spent the previous evening hurriedly cranking out an article that was due by 10 o’clock that morning. Stumbling automatically through a list of morning chores so I could dash off to town with the belated article, I paid little heed to the morning that was dawning outside the perimeter walls of our rustic, sun-lit home.
Returning a bowl hurriedly emptied of its breakfast cereal to the sink, I distractedly thought of the article and its many imperfections. I thought of the typewriter and the imperfect way it responded to my pecking. I thought of my spelling and the obvious benefits of a computer with a spellchecker. I was distractedly indifferent to anything or anyone around. Suddenly I realized that my wife was standing in the doorway to the kitchen and that she had already called gently but persistently to me several times. I looked into her eyes apologetically. We’d been through this before. She loved me-even if I was easily distracted.
“You should come see our son,” she whispered smilingly.
I follow her quietly out into the living room. Looking through the slightly drawn drapes out onto the deck with the garden, orchard and birch trees beyond, I see my now three-year-old son. He is smiling and buck-naked; he doesn’t notice that we are watching. He’s walking directly west along the length of the deck. His arms are broadly spread and held fully extended over his head. His hands, palms up, point north and south. He is walking happy like the dog when I look toward the woods exclaiming “Go for a walk!?”
At this age his feet turn out slightly so that the combination of the high stepping saunter and the angled step give the impression of an enchanted waddle. At the end of the deck he turns around and heads directly back in the opposite direction. He continues to pound back and forth on the deck and all the while he is chanting, “Trees I love you; birds I love you; sky I love you; grass I love you…” On and on he went and then when he came to the end of a long list-he went on again, “Trees I love you…”.
Suddenly I remembered an Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C. conference I had attended recently where a deputy minister of the provincial ministry of Lands and Parks, had argued that the way to create value in our wilderness and parks is to charge user fees. I remembered with delight the young woman who responded to these ideas by suggesting that in her reading of the history of human values, it was precisely those treasures which were not traded in the market place which all human cultures have held in the highest regard.
Standing beside her seat, looking defiantly up at the podium, which was considerably elevated above the audience, she boomed up at the speaker. “Would you say to me that the way I can show how much I value my children is by charging a fee to those who might wish to abuse them?”
The deputy minister fidgeted uneasily but didn’t respond so she went on. “I say that love and family and gentleness of being and a respect for the inherent wonders of creation are values we hold so utterly precious that they can only be corrupted by the market -most definitely not defined by it.” Then a most moving thing happened. With the deputy minister standing speechless before the mike, a colleague who was to speak next stood up unintroduced and moved to the podium.
He turned the microphone toward himself and began in a measured voice. “I want you to know”, he hesitated emotionally looking down at the young woman, “I want you to know that I’ve heard what you have to say, and it has certainly stirred a response in me. It is so easy to get caught up in the weight of all the mountains of facts and figures that cross my desk, that I sometimes forget the values that brought me to his office. I thank you for reminding me of that. It is certainly an important lesson I will take away from this conference.” With that he returned to his seat.
It is many years now since that distant morning watching the snow cascade from the birch trees while watching my young son recite his greeting to the new day. The years stretching out from that fine winter morning have not been particularly easy one. Nor has the message over the radio changed a great deal over the years: the petty scandals, the advertising hype, the scheming politicians, the greed of the corporations continue to constitute the broadcast news. But, every time I think of my young son paddling back and forth on the deck, his arms spread in loving embrace of all of creation, or hear of a wilderness preserved because it has a whole living worth greater than anything we get by dismembering it, or stand with a friend in silent awe of a sunset, or listen unjudgingly to the story of another’s struggle to find love and meaning in their lives, I know that life is a wonderful gift and that love is the greatest good we can aspire to.
As the Buddhists teach, pervading joy is love (compassion) arising from a deep felt sense of connectedness. Regardless of what others do, joy/love/connectedness is the result of my own decisions, actions, and experiences. Hope, yes I see a great deal of hope, because I have come to believe that the message that will save our planet and empower our lives is not so much in the placards we carry or the logging trucks we stop or even in the legislation we manage to enact as it is in the transformation of our own hearts and experience All my experiences teach me that the idea of basing our social relations on the 17th century dream of isolated and greedy individuals is, at least, as damaging to our essential human spirit as it is destructive of our communities and natural systems.
My hope in relating these experiences is that the reader may go away with a heart more open to and understanding of such experiences.