Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sympathy in Choice

I sometimes wonder how people do it –make decisions, I mean. I’m not talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or whether or not to wear a blue shirt with a red tie to work -most of those could be settled with a coin toss. No, I’m more concerned with the deeper questions we are asked to solve. The ones for which we have no preliminary data, no idea of outcome, no hint of consequence. Decisions which, poorly made, could have far reaching and unintended repercussions.

I’m not complaining, mind you –just pointing out that unprepared decisions can be fraught. But it leads me to wonder about choice. Do the decisions we make reveal anything about who we are? Do they define us or merely describe us? And if we were stripped of the ability to choose –if someone else took the responsibility- would we be happier? More content? Or bereft of identity -just another voice in the choir? Is choice, in other words, an emergent property of Life, or merely a by-product of chaos? A necessary side-effect of complexity?

Now that I am retired, I’m beginning to think that my life has become too chaotic. Too random. When I was at work, it was structured; there were duties to perform, obligations to honour, social rites to enact –expectations of continuity with commitments that left less room for choice.  And like a forest, the overall characteristics of life-changes are really only discernible when viewed from afar.

So now I am overwhelmed with choice, buried under the weight of options I never knew existed. And, since time stretches before me like a prairie, I find that I am confused by the selection. Or perhaps, bored might describe it better. When you are confined to a candy-store, perspective shifts. Tastes change, and candy is not the object of desire, no matter how many varieties are on offer. It is no longer choice, but monotony. Indifference. Detachment. A surfeit of anything no longer satisfies –it chokes.

I decided to catch a city bus the other day and as luck would have it, there was already a queue. Ahead of me in the line was a man even older than myself leaning on a cane. Bundled up against a bitter December wind, he wore an ill-fitting ankle-length winter coat, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his head like a hijab. His face seemed wrapped as well, because he had a long bushy, untrimmed white beard he tried several times to tuck into the coat like his scarf. No matter his preparations, he still looked cold. I gathered from his clothes that he wasn’t entirely used to the weather here in Canada, either. And to make matters worse, he was carrying a bulky shopping bag so his hands –both of them bare- looked almost blue with the cold.

I was about to offer to lend him my gloves for the wait, but just as I was going to introduce myself, a crowded bus arrived and we all shoved on. The elderly seats were all occupied, of course, but a stout lady in one of them offered her place to the old man. He seemed embarrassed, and looked around at those of us standing nearby almost as if he were asking for our permission. The lady insisted he take her seat, however, so he accepted with a smile and a grateful bow of his head. The scene was so unremarkable, that I think most people standing nearby didn’t notice anything unusual.

But one man did. He was a short, balding man dressed in a suit and tie covered with an expensive looking overcoat that did little to disguise his corpulence. He was carrying a briefcase that he kept shifting from hand to hand because of its weight. And since he happened to be standing right beside me, I noticed he was glaring at the old man who was now sitting quietly with his eyes closed.

Suddenly the man with the suit started to mumble and knocked his leg into the old man. “In this country,” he whispered loudly, “men give up their seats to women.” I could see he was beginning to become angry. “Not the other way around!” he added, loudly.

The old man, clearly intimidated, opened his eyes wide.

“Why is it you think you can come over here and act like you’re still over there?” The man was yelling now. “We do things differently here, old man!”

The old man squirmed uncomfortably, uncertain how to react. People around him stared nervously at their laps, or out of the window, hoping the man would stop. Nobody had yet decided what they should do, although they were obviously uneasy.

“And what’s in that bag…?” he said, reaching out to grab it.

The old man gathered it closer to his waist and I could see he was terrified. The only thing I could think of in the situation was to offer him my gloves, so I stepped between the two of them. “I noticed you looked cold,” I said, and handed him my old leather gloves although the crowded bus was really quite warm.

His eyes met mine and I could see he understood. “Thank you,” he said, accepting them with a smile so wide that it once again untucked his beard from inside his coat. “My daughter told me to dress warmly, but I forgot about gloves…” He peeked under my extended arm at the furious face of the man with the suit.

“I said what’s in the bag, old man!” The man was just not giving up. But by now, a couple of younger men in the aisle were staring threateningly at him.

“What’s in your briefcase, mister?” one of them said with a sneer.

But the little man merely attacked him with his eyes. “Well, it’s not a bomb!” He almost spat the last word out for maximal effect. He nodded his head at the old man, who was busy examining my gloves. “Don’t you read the news reports?” He yelled, as if that was evidence enough to validate his suspicions.

The young man moved closer to the briefcase and leered at him. “Yeah,” he said, his nose almost touching the abuser. “And I read what life was like for them over there…” He turned to his friend who was equally angry. “I think all of us in this bus would feel safer if you got off at the next stop, mister!” And he bumped aggressively into the man.

Fortunately, it was a popular stop, so a lot of people got off as well as the man in the suit. And as they left, most smiled at the old man or touched his leg in an embarrassed apology. A seat became available beside him, so I sat down.

He immediately clasped his hands over mine and bowed. “Thank you sir,” he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. “I didn’t know what to do…” He took a deep breath and looked at me. “I’ve never been in a crowded bus like this before. My daughter warned me… She wanted to pick me up from the hospital, but she got called in to work this morning.” He took my gloves off and gently laid them in my lap. “She told me she’d pay for a taxi, but I decided to take the bus.

“You know, I’m glad I did,” he said, smiling warmly and clasping my hands again. “It made me realize just how kind people are in this country I chose…”

He said it so sincerely, I almost blushed.

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Okay, okay, I just thought you had to be polite. Maybe a little sensitive: a smile here, a nod there –that’s all it was supposed to take. Nobody told me there was an ethical framework involved. For that matter, I wasn’t even told there were rules until I got here. But I suppose the play doesn’t end until the curtain comes down so I should have guessed. I should have realized they wouldn’t understand –they couldn’t. Once the curtain falls, there is no encore…

Retirement is hard on people –the ones still working, I mean- and you can’t just assume they will adapt. Or care. There should be classes they are required to take when they are first hired. Or maybe an app that guides them through it one stage at a time –an interactive one, so they can be sure they understand that work is only the second chapter in the drama. They are denied the third act until they’ve earned it –without that, the play is meaningless. Forgotten.

I’m usually only looking for a table in Starbucks –faces come in a distant second. And besides, unless they’re ringed with grey hair, the heads arrive and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot. But every once in a while, a pair of eyes will inadvertently disturb the water where they’ve hidden, and pattern recognition takes over. Familiarity doesn’t necessitate identification at my age, but occasionally a name will float close enough to the surface to grab.

I hadn’t seen Thomas in a while –not since he worked for the accounting firm our office used, anyway. He’d changed in the interim, I think –what hair remained on his bespectacled head was thinner, with only hints that it had once been dark and shiny. Now he wore it much as a tonsured monk might –but messier. And yet there was a certain consistency to his appearance as a whole. He was dressed, tieless, in a creased, off-white shirt, open at the neck. I couldn’t see more than the cuffs of his pants, but even in the shadows of the table where he huddled, they too appeared wrinkled.

He sat, anonymous as a bush in a forest, staring sightlessly at the room, a coffee sitting motionlessly in front of him like a dirty rock steaming in the sun. If he hadn’t brushed me accidentally with his eyes, I might have missed him. Maybe he had not wanted to engage, or maybe my name and face lay as firmly in the past as his to me, but memories intertwined atavistically at the fleeting retinal touch.

“Thomas,” I said, walking over to his table with coffee in one hand and bag with a steaming breakfast sandwich in the other.

He glanced up from studying the faux-wood surface where his mud-filled beverage lay and suddenly smiled. “Edward,” he said, half rising from his seat and extending his hand, “How are you?”

“It’s James,” I replied, but sotto voce, because he seemed so happy to have remembered a name.

“How have you been?” he continued. “I haven’t seen you in…” he thought about it for a moment. “…Years…” But he sounded uncertain, so I left it lying fallow.

I sat down still smiling broadly. “Yes, I guess it has been a while hasn’t it?”

There was an awkward silence while he evidently tried to recollect just where he’d seen me. The fact that he and the accounting firm he represented had dealt with my taxes for several years seemed lost on him –or at least misplaced. But lost or not, he didn’t seem to be hauling unpleasant jetsam aboard, because his expression was unwavering, if unreadable. “So are you retired now?”

The fact that we both looked undisguisably long in the tooth and dressed the part, he could not see. Or chose not to. So I merely nodded pleasantly as if to acknowledge we were fellow travellers. But I felt I had to reply in kind, in case he saw it as a wound that needed bandaging. “How about you? Still working at…” -I couldn’t remember the name of the firm- “…accounting?”

His face changed and a shadow seemed to cross his brow. “Retired three years ago, Edward… I think you beat me by a year or two…” He glanced at his coffee as if something were written inside the rim. “Funny you should ask, though…” His eyes walked up my arm but stopped short of my face. “I went back to the office yesterday –just to say hello, I suppose. You know… see how things were getting along there without me…”

His expression darkened like that shadow; I should have left it there, but I smiled and looked at him as if it was the type of thing we all do. “So, how was it? Still the same people there?”

He glowered at the table. “Nobody even recognized me, Edward! After twenty years in the firm, and ten years in same the office at the end of the corridor, nobody even looked familiar -except one of the typists who got my name wrong when she saw me…

“They all thought I was on the wrong floor, or lost…” He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Finally, one of the women –the one who emerged from my old office, actually- came over and shook my hand. ‘We had a heck of a job getting your old desk through the door, Timothy,’ she said, proud that she thought she’d remembered my name. ‘They even had to unscrew the legs and destroy one of the drawers to get it down the corridor.’ She laughed when she said that, as if it had acquired the status of a legend that was told with twinkling eyes around the water cooler, or something.

“My regional manager was away sick, she informed me, in front of some of the others, but by the looks on their faces and the eyes darting back and forth, I gathered he wasn’t expected back…”

His face seemed so sad, I had to look away for a moment.

“You ever go back to your old studio, Edward?” He evidently couldn’t remember where I worked either –the Past has a way of Rorschaching itself, I suddenly realized.

I smiled –lamely, I suspect- and shook my head. You can never go back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Intensity Retirement

I like exercise –if for no other reason than when I’ve finished, it makes me feel like I have expiated some ill-defined atavistic, yet autogenous guilt that I nevertheless like to blame on my mother. I suppose it borders on the masochistic to enjoy feeling that muscle groups everywhere are self-destructing, but there you have it –a modus vivendi. It’s not for everyone, I realize; not all of us require the degree of atonement bred so cleverly into my genes –okay, into my mother’s.

But each time I walk past Brien’s place and see him sitting motionless on his porch staring at his favourite tree, I wonder whether his mother had been a little too lax in her parenting. Too light on the guilt. Of course he’s retired now, as he is so fond of reminding me, and he feels he’s earned his sloth –although he prefers to refer to it as lassitude because he likes the word… I had to look it up.

Anyway, I am always on the alert for shortcuts to fitness for him. I have, in fact, made it into a kind of evangelistic vocation, so it was with no little frisson of excitement that I decided to tell him about an article I’d found in an old edition of the BBC news on the subject: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37249021 And it’s rather cleverly disguised by what seems to be an encrypted acronym, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) which is a plus –it would at least get me onto the porch.

“Hey Brien,” I said, waving at him from the sidewalk in front of his house. He always likes a warning salvo before the trespass.

“Hey,” he said, sounding as if I’d just wakened him up. Brien is a man of few words. He claims it’s to conserve energy, but I’ve been trying to encourage him to lengthen his sentences as a kind of warm-up thing.

“I found another article for you to read,” I said, threading my way with care over the cracked and broken concrete slabs that led to the porch. He used to tell me that he thought they discouraged thieves, until I pointed out that those kind of people would probably walk over the lawn to sneak up more quietly.

Even as I approached, I could see him rolling his eyes –his version of a stretch, I suppose. “Exercise again?” he asked with a yawn. He once called me an Exercise Witness, but I think he’d forgotten the right name. Anyway, I don’t hand out pamphlets or visit anybody else in the neighbourhood.

“Just fifteen minutes a week, Brien!” I thought I should italicize it, even though I knew he wasn’t very good at picking up those sorts of subtleties.

His eyes had stopped rolling by the time I reached the porch and were now wandering over my face as if they were hunting for something –the catch, probably.

“As a matter of fact, just 5 minutes at any one time…”

The eyes suddenly jerked upward to fence with mine. “Thought you said 15…”

His eyes were now embedded like fishhooks, so I smiled to disarm him. “Five minutes, at a time, three times a week on different days.” I thought I’d better clarify it for him.

“So that’s three days, you mean?” I nodded. “I have to spread it out…?” I nodded again, although I was beginning to wonder if I’d got it right.

He walked his eyes over to the tree again and hung them there for a while. Suddenly they returned with another question. “If you only need to do 15 minutes in a week, why can’t I get it all over with in one go, so I won’t have to worry about remembering it all the time?” It occurred to me that it might have been the longest sentence I’d ever heard from him.

I thought about his question for a moment. I couldn’t recall anybody in the BBC asking about that. I suppose the idea was that most people don’t have the time to do the 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week that they claim is usually recommended. “Well,” I started, sewing together my argument as I spoke. “It’s actually five bursts of 60 second exercise, each followed by 90 seconds of rest… I imagine it’s kind of tiring…”

“Hah!” he announced with a truly athletic show of eye-rolling. “Knew there’d be a catch.”

I sighed theatrically to indicate my frustration. “But that’s why you get to rest after each exercise!” I think I wasted the exclamation mark -they just seem to bounce off him like commas. “And you get to rest five times!” I wondered whether also adding two italicized words in a row might win him over instead, but I could tell by his confused expression that I’d squandered those as well.

“I’m not arguing about the rests,” he explained, obviously trying to be patient with me. “More about the need…”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “We have to keep fit when we get older, Brien.”

He rested his eyes on my cheek and left them there until I cooled down. “Fit for…?”

That was unfair. “Fit… So we can…” But I was stuck, and although the smile that crept onto his face gave him away, he waited quietly for me to say something so he could refute it; I decided on ‘health’. “…So we can be healthy.”

His smile grew until it split his face into two halves. “Which means…?”

His use of the ellipsis was beginning to bother me –I hate it when people copy my grammatical stress relievers… “Which means… I don’t know… That maybe that we can continue being able to do what we want.” It was weak, but it was all I could think of with his eyes sitting on me.

“I am…” He was just playing –he knew he had me. He summoned his eyes and sent them off again to roost in the tree. “Isn’t that what retirement is for…?”

Tall Trails

I’ve always felt a rather parental responsibility for trails. When you look down them at the start, they always seem so lonely, meandering off as if they hadn’t the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Like old men wandering from the Home, they seem to amble maplessly from hill to cliff, bush to tree, blind to direction, deaf to weather. You have to admire their courage as they head off day after day into that wild; but you also have to wonder why they do it…

In their enthusiasm for adventure, I suppose they’re more like children scampering off to explore the forest with reckless abandon as if it were their first day at summer camp. No particular agenda, no destination in mind – just a need to be in the moment. Perhaps trails are the child in all of us; they whisper about the mystery out there –the land behind the tree, beyond the mist… the sound of one hand clapping.

But a question came to me in a blinding flash one day as I stumbled through some bushes looking for a path I had somehow misplaced: what is a trail? I felt like Paul looking for Damascus. Is it really a trail if no one has ever been along it? Experienced it? Would it be a noun without a verb? Are we its Anthropic Principle -necessities for its existence? Its meaning? More than mere trail followers, the passive beneficiaries of Shinrin-yoku, are we, rather, obligate components: ingredients in the recipe –Gaians, charged with the maintenance of the machinery?

And so it is with the pride of an essential cog in that machine that I have become a Disciple, an Acolyte of the Way. I have assumed a responsibility hidden from most. Well, from James at any rate.

You remember James –that ex-military man still reliving his posting in Africa from who knows what war: https://musingsonretirementblog.com/2016/06/26/forest-tales/ “You take this stuff too seriously,” he said when I told him of my epiphany. “There is no meaning to a path. It’s just a way of getting somewhere.” We were sitting at a little table in the window of a suburban McDonald’s having a McCafe and he stomped his cane on the floor -for emphasis, I imagine. But he was in the habit of frequently banging the business end of it onto crumbs, bits of meat, or little insects in the general vicinity of the table to test his aim, so any new significance of the action was unclear.

Suddenly he screwed up one eye, and laid the cane across the table narrowly missing the coffees. “You’re not one of those environmental pantheists, are you?”

Pantheist? That caught me by surprise.  I wondered if he meant ‘pansy’. “What made you think that, James?”

The eye stayed screwed. “Saw you feeling that tree, remember…? Normal people don’t do that.” He made it sound almost dirty –like unwanted touching, or something.

I have to admit that sometimes I am so overcome by the sheer living bulk of a tree that I have an urge to stroke the rough texture of its bark. I’ve never thought of it as a molestation, though. Just an acknowledgement; ships signalling quietly in the night.

“Can’t you just hike somewhere?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously.

“I think it’s the ‘somewhere’ part I have trouble with.”

“You have to go somewhere,” he offered helpfully.

“That’s just it. Do you?”

He looked genuinely puzzled –like I had opened an unmarked door.  “Do you have to hike, you mean?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t going to be easy. “No, I mean ‘go somewhere’… The real purpose of a trail in a forest may not be to get you anywhere. It’s more the going. The process…” I sighed when I saw the blank look on his face.

“Ahh,” he said, nodding his head, “You mean the exercise.” I have to admit, he was trying.

“That’s part of it,” I said. I thought I’d better concede something.

“Come on!” he said rather testily and rattled the cane across the table. “You’re not gonna go all flaky on me, are you?” Then he thought about it for a moment.  “Or religious?” he added with a little hiss and rolled his eyes.

Maybe he had meant pantheist. I shook my head carefully, just in case. “No…” I searched for a different way to explain. “It’s just that there are many ways to look at something.”

He cocked his head and looked at me. “Your point?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, a trail can be a way to get somewhere, like you said…” He smiled at his own succinct description and nodded cheekily. “But it can also be a way to experience the forest; a way to escape from the city for a while; a time to listen to the birds and the wind rustling through the leaves…”

The smile faded and his eyes narrowed as if I was about to trick him. He removed his cane from the table and tapped it several times on the floor beside him. “You mean like a side effect?” he asked suspiciously, but obviously relieved that I hadn’t quoted scripture, or something.

I tried to twinkle my eyes, but I’ve never been very good at that, so I settled for a slow, satisfied blink. “What is the side effect of a poem?”

The eyes narrowed again, and then he rolled them before his cane thumped. “Poem??” I could actually feel the two question marks. “What on earth do you mean?” he said, a little too loudly.

I shrugged. “Why do you read a poem, James? Is it to gather information, like in a textbook? Or is it for the description, the emotion, the feeling…? Pretend a trail is like that. A poem is not just an ordinary string of words, after all. So, the trail is the noun; travelling along it is the verb; and the rest are adjectives -pictures…” I kind of liked that description, but I might as well have been talking to a stump.

“What’s a poem got to do with trails?” James can be so concrete.

“Humour me, James. Meaning isn’t always apparent right away…”

He shrugged grumpily and rolled his eyes again –it must be a military thing. “Okay, I wouldn’t decide to read a poem, but if I did, it would probably be for all –no, most– of the things you mentioned…” He didn’t want to get trapped and he lengthened the last word; he was wary now.

“But could you read it just as you would a textbook…?”

He shook his head, certain he had me. “Then it wouldn’t be a poem, would it?”

“Or a trail…” I reached for my coffee.

But his puzzled look returned. “But a trail’s not a textbook either…”

After I smiled, I think I actually twinkled when I heard the cane thump.

The Body Politic

I’ve been hearing things lately –but not in the bushes, or coming from dark alleys. These are not threatening noises. Not really. They are more like old friends whispering to me. Roommates who know me inside out –literally. I do not always welcome their company –quite the opposite, in fact. I wish they would go away. Find someone else to bother.

But that’s the problem with bodies, I find: they stick together by and large. They’re more faithful than partners and even more likely to cheek you back. Play on your weaknesses. And yet the awkward thing is that they cannot be gainsaid –at least not without consequences.

My knees, for example. They constantly talk to me in quiet dismissive tones, hopefully inaudible to passersby. They mumble and grumble quietly as I go about my day, seldom dissolving into sympathetic commiserations each evening as friends might with the retelling of some breach of Elder protocol, or the decision to hike all the way into town in sandals. They operate more like evangelical religious syndicates that would think nothing of inflicting crippling parental guilt to extract obeisance.

But I am by no means unicellular; I am homogenate -there are many voices in the choir. And in the spirit of polyphony, on any given day I am want to celebrate the chatter of almost any region. I am a personal parliament, a country masquerading as a body.

And yet, even as a body politic, I seek to understand my boundaries. Remember the Aesop fable of the ‘Belly and the Members’, in which the feet complain that the stomach gets all the food and forget that they both have to work together? My brain says ‘walk’, my stomach says ‘eat’, and my tired knees say ‘rest’. I figured maybe it was time to seek consensus before the Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive.

I decided to ask Brien what his parts were telling him. I found him, of course, sitting on his porch settling into his second bag of pretzels of the morning. Brien always looks so… rooted. I suspect he has no quarrels to mediate, no disputatious factions demanding disparate actions. He is already a large man who has obviously learned to curb some urges for the benefit of others: a benevolent autocracy. I had to learn his secret.

Of course, every country is loath to divulge too much; its sovereignty depends on its cloak; its strength on the power to convince its constituents they are acting in their own best interests. Brien was good at that.

I waved at him from the sidewalk, but I think he must have been asleep because his head was deep in conversation with his chest. I could hear them talking in that personal dialect bodies seem to evolve for themselves when they think they are alone. But as soon as it heard me on the steps, his head shot bolt upright and a momentary look of confusion –an unmediated legislative fracas- ran briefly across his face and disappeared somewhere in his admittedly thinning hairline.

“Why do you always stop by when I’m deep in thought?” he eventually muttered once he managed to pull his tongue back into his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Brien, but I need your advice.”

That immediately brightened him up. Brien feels he has a lot of ungiven advice stored away, and he once told me that whenever he is offered a chance to clear a shelf or two, he feels lighter, or something.

He straightened a bit in the recliner. “We can do it on the porch though, eh?”

I stared at him quizzically for a second, and then relented. Brien has rules.

“Last time you wanted to discuss something while we walked…” he said, deciding he should probably clarify. “I don’t multitask.”

I had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be very helpful, somehow, but I tried to segue into the topic anyway. “Do you ever wonder about functional demands, Brien?”

One of his eyes half-closed itself, as if it was girding itself for a trick. “Huh?”

“I mean how do you deal with conflicts of interests between your parts?”

“Excuse me?” he said as if I were inquiring about bathroom issues.

I thought that perhaps it might be better to frame it with reference to myself. “You know…” I replied, trying desperately to think of something. “If were really tired after a long walk but knew I still had to cook my dinner because it was late and all the stores were closed…”  I didn’t feel totally comfortable with that example.

He smiled at the naïveté of my non-question and then shrugged as if the resolution was almost too obvious for words. Suddenly a grin appeared from nowhere. “Did you just use a subjunctive on me?”

I nodded. “I suppose so. Why?”

“You don’t usually talk like that…”

My turn to shrug. “I was merely indicating that it was a hypothetical…”

He stopped me with a rapid stun-and-retreat foray with his eyes. “So you weren’t sure about using my kitchen…?”

I sighed, but evidently not loudly enough.

He shook his head and withered me with an akimbo glare. “Is that the conflict of interest you were talking about?”

Actually, with all the Socratic-like repartees, I’d forgotten what I’d been talking about. When I looked confused, he decided to help me out. “Parts problems –you were talking about some organs arguing with you… About what? About music?” He sniggered at his wit. And then he turned suddenly serious. My parts obey. “I eat lots of fibre and avoid cabbage.” Then, obviously remembering something: “Corn can be a problem, too.” He raised his hands as if in prayer. “So I don’t eat them if somebody’s coming over…” He stared at me for a second and then, satisfied that he’d given nothing away, sat back in his recliner again, certain he’d been of some help.

But his eyes never strayed from the second now-empty package lying at his feet so I got up off the step and went into the kitchen to get another bag. You know, it really is amazing –after visiting with Brien, all my concerns seem to recede into the background. He’s always good to talk to about stuff that really matters.