Archive for March, 2016

Another gift

A great friend of my brother passed away recently. He was not my type of fellow – we could never have been friends – but he loved my brother, and my brother loved him, so he was in.

When I met Michael in 1996 after I moved to Vancouver, he was shocked – to the point of utter disbelief – that I had not remembered him from an earlier visit to Vancouver. “What did we discuss?” I asked. “What were our conversations about? If you tell me that, I should be able to remember you.” He had no memory of what we might have talked about. It was evident that he was certain that anybody who met him – even just looked at him! – could never forget the experience. I suppose that my need for keywords to navigate to my library-brain makes me as weird as he was, trusting in his physical charisma.

Early on in my Vancouver days an instance of his careless joviality incensed me, and in front of one of his girlfriends I told him off, in vulgar fashion. This is what Michael said to me in response: “Bob, I think we have different senses of humour. That shouldn’t create divisions between us.”

That effort at de-escalation successfully muted and well as calmed down that angry part of me, and *hugely* impressed the teacher in me – I tell this story to my students – and I never had a cross word with him again. Indeed, after that I was always kind of happy to see him.

One thing more. He made sure that when he entered any room, he made it brighter, for awhile at least. And that is really something – & not easy.

The gift

I watched most of the funeral for Nancy Reagan the other day – and was strangely moved, when I could subtract my feelings of revulsion for what happened during her husband’s presidency (his silence on AIDS, his support for the contras in Nicaragua, his race-baiting …).

Nancy protected her man. And that really is something, and it touches me deep down.

I recalled the funeral of Kostantin Chernenko, who was the leader of the Soviet Union for a brief time in the mid-1980s. His wife, Anna Dmitrevna Lyubimova, had to be dragged away from his open coffin. It was a flash of colour and human heat in a field of obedient grey souls. (After Chernenko’s death, Ronald Reagan said to Nancy: “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” I digress.)

I remember another funeral, one held for USA statesman George Schultz’s first wife, Helena Schultz, at Stanford Memorial Church, in 1995. I was walking down the hill from the student union to the English department – which was adjacent to the church – and I saw a coffin, on a rolling stand, unattended, behind the church, and thought, “No need to worry – nobody is going to steal a coffin.” When I stepped onto the sidewalk of the Quad, I saw a small crowd in front of the church. I went into the English / Writing building and asked my friend Dolores what was going on. “It’s a funeral for George Schultz’s wife. That’s her, in the coffin” (which was just a few feet outside the window).

I was struck that all these people (including George and Barbara Bush, I later saw) were in front of the church to commemorate her life but no one was watching her coffin, where her body was. But of course.

Back out in the Quad I saw an Asian family – parents and two daughters – who were visiting the campus. The older daughter had a shiny bicycle. The Mom asked her husband and daughters to pose for a photograph and instructed the girls to hold hands. When they did so, the bike fell over, and the whole family started to laugh, and I felt the torrent of life, to tears, into my bones, which kept me standing as though aloft in my breath. What Mrs. Schultz, I thought, would have given to have seen this moment with me, to witness such careless and happy and shared life!

Thinking back, I remember something my friend Cindy told me, that in dying the dead give you their greatest gift. I have puzzled over these words a lot in the years since she said them, an understanding of them arriving only in glimpses before leaving again and again. But the vividness of that scene, the girls, the bike, the parents, the unattended coffin out of view, the mourners, has never left me. It reminds me, with great force every time, of evanescent magic, miraculous living life.

That reminder has indeed been a great gift – from someone whom I never met, who was alone in her coffin.

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Treat It Gentle


Readers of NoContest.CA know that I spend a lot of time thinking about mental hygiene. This is a scary concept when you plumb it. Here’s why: You are the only one in charge of keeping your mind humming strong; and bad habits can be irreversible.

In the spirit of this month’s Easter season, here’s a story of how one teacher sought to redeem an angry and lazy lad:

This Easter weekend I have been contemplating, uncharacteristically, a verse from the Bible, Ephesians 4:30: “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed until the day of redemption.” On this verse the 19th-century evangelist Charles Finney sermonized: “If the Spirit leave you, you will have no heart to offer prevailing prayer, and if you attempt to pray, you will find that your mouth is shut, and if opened it will only be opened to mock God. And you will find as a matter of fact, that instead of being benefited you are only hardened by engaging in prayer.”

That remark reminded me of Sidney Bechet’s autobiography, “Treat It Gentle.” To me, the “It” is one’s muse, the source of one’s creativity. In his book the great clarinetist/saxophonist writes, “Oh, I can be mean — I know that. But not to the music. That’s a thing you gotta trust. You gotta mean it, and you gotta treat it gentle.  The music, it’s the road. There’s good things alongside it, and there’s miseries. You stop by the way and you can’t ever be sure what you’re going to find waiting. But the music itself, the road itself — there’s no stopping that. It goes on all the time. It’s the thing that brings you to everything else. You have to trust that. There’s no one ever came back who can’t tell you that.”

Bechet tells the story of Buddy Bolden, a brilliant trumpeter whose love of showmanship made his muse abandon him. “You take someone that’s grinning and stomping and moving around on the stand where the music should be going — for the moment you’re lost from the music, you’re so busy watching him fool around. But you get his same record and try to listen to the music then, and there’s no music there.”

I remember the day when I learned about not grieving the holy spirit, about treating it gentle.

I was in ninth grade, French class. We were going over our homework and my teacher, Dr. P.,  noticed that, in an exercise in which we were supposed to rewrite present-tense sentences as conditional sentences, I had changed the verbs only, using quotation marks to indicate the missing words. She took my assignment, explained what I had done to the rest of the class, ripped it up, and noted that being lazy was no way to get ahead in life.

After the bell rang and the rest of the class had left, I told Dr. P. that if she embarrassed me like that again, I would kill her.

Not surprisingly, I was yanked out of Art class the next period. There was my “guidance counselor” and Dr. P. — no disciplinary people like the Vice Principal, and no cops. She told me that, just this one time, she would speak to me in English, not wanting there to be any misunderstanding as to what she needed to say.

Dr. P.  was very serious, but without any anger or even sternness. “Mr. Basil, you have a fine mind. Right now you do. And only you are in charge of what gets inside of it, how it runs, how it thinks. I’m not in charge. Your parents are not in charge. Your friends are not in charge. Just you. You’re the gatekeeper. Cutting corners is lazy. If you keep it up, it will become a bad habit. And then you will no longer notice that this is what you do habitually. And then … you will no longer have a fine mind.”

That was it. The meeting couldn’t have lasted more than three minutes. No reprimand, no letter in my file, no call to Mom and Dad. (God knows how much trouble a student would get into making such a threat — even an obviously empty one — today.) – 12 April 09

Dr. P. had scared me, but not in the way I thought she was going to: I had never known until that moment in that small office that my mental hygiene was entirely in my care.

Dr. P. had also spared me, answering my anger with grace … and with words I could understand.