Thursday, 29 August 2013

Music Video Awards and a Weird Word.

One simple word can raise a flurry of thoughts and emotions. Recently I happily referred to myself as “old” and a friend reacted strongly. She is a physical trainer in her 70’s and often hears clients moan that they’re too old to …   From experience she knows that our bodies are capable of more than we think, if, barring illness, we keep active even into old age and stop thinking of ourselves as past our prime.
I understand her negative response, but because my focus is not on physical fitness, the word “old” has different connotations for me. Now that I’m an elder, I think of the phrase, “wise old owl”, and fight against our culture’s fixation on youth. Same word, different connotations.

I write this post after watching news about the pornographic performances at the 2013 Music Video Awards and reading this rhetorical question from Psalm 119:9,
“How can a young person stay on the path of purity?” 
Now there’s a problematic word: “purity”. 

Where does your mind go when you hear it? Imagine the reactions if we asked  the MVA audience how they try to “stay on the path of purity”. Ours is a culture where even opera advertisers use come-ons like “lies, murders, lust and betrayal!” assuming that such language will draw audiences, not turn them away.

Can you imagine a politician during a campaign saying that they try to live purely? Purity used to be an admirable goal; now it’s an archaic value.
At the rare times we hear the word, it’s usually in discussion of sexual abstinence outside of marriage.  Such a limited meaning for purity truncates a magnificent ideal.  What if we expand the word’s meaning to suggest these characteristics: integrated, authentic, consistent, and uncontaminated? What if we think of “pure gold” or “pure drinking water”? 

It was disappointing to hear a Christian minister base a sermon on a vulgar, crude musical (her words) that she had seen. Even as she joked about the congregation not telling their friends that their minister had said they should buy tickets, it was clear that she had no regret or shame about enjoying the performance. She valued the strengths of the production despite its impurity. True, sometimes we have no choice but to search through life's garbage for meaning, but why choose it for entertainment?  It sounded as if she were dismissing the wise biblical advice to fill our minds with excellence, beauty, joy, kindness and goodness 
(ex. Galatians 5 and Philippians 4). Long before modern psychology, spiritual teachers were recommending cognitive behavioural therapy: change your thoughts and you will change your feelings and behaviours.

Maybe the preacher, like others, was over-reacting to Puritanism, that uptight, “holier than thou” rigidity that looks down its nose at others. They assume that a steady commitment to high values always breeds snobbish disapproval of anyone who doesn’t measure up to those values. To the contrary, Jesus himself criticized such pharisaic attitudes. He befriended swindlers and adulterers, calling them to God’s love.  He would definitely have befriended all of the performers at the MVA’s.

However, he clearly did not chuckle at people’s self-destructive sin or follow their example. He urged them (us) to change direction toward the path of wholeness or purity. A desire for Christ-like integrity  (what the bible calls “righteousness”) need not imply an unhealthy wish to be better than other people. 

The question we started with above was written centuries before Jesus, part of the Jewish tradition he followed. 
How can a person stay on the path of purity, the path of humility, confidence, service and courage, the path where one aligns with humanity’s best and trusts God to do what we cannot? The poet’s own answer to his rhetorical question is that, young or old, we “stay on the path of purity by living according to God’s word”.  We listen for God’s wisdom in sacred books, in human experience, in Nature’s wonders and within us. 
Pure brilliance.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Men: alien encounters

On my way across a parking lot, I noticed a car idling as I carried on into the store. After talking to three polite and earnest salesmen who couldn’t sell me the radio I wanted, I returned toward my little white Honda Fit and heard the black SUV’s engine still running. Through its tinted windows I could see that the driver was male and I hesitated before approaching. Maybe the sultry August weather increased my motivation. I stood at his closed window until he opened it. “Hi. I don’t want to be a pest but you’re idling the car and polluting the air that we all breathe.” He was polite but protested that he was charging his computer. 
“Oh, is that the only place you can do it?” I asked innocently. 
He mumbled, “ Well, sort of”.
I said “Thanks”, for what I’m not sure – maybe for not cursing me - and I drove off. I thought of how much I, myself, was contributing to air pollution by driving from store to store looking for an emergency radio. I wonder what he was left thinking.

Approaching another mall I noticed seven men standing in a circle outside. They were dressed for business, mostly in dark suits, all younger and taller than I. I recognised a faint fear response in my gut – “The enemy! En garde”. I could hear that one guy was conducting a meeting, but since I had to walk right by them to enter the mall, I stopped with a big smile and said, “Ooh, scaaary - Suits!” The leader grinned back, friendly, and patient with my interruption, “What?” 
I teased, “Where are all the women?” 
Laughing, he replied, “Oh, they’re on their way”. He understood my issue and didn’t respond to my comment with irritation.

Driving again, I merged into an exit lane and let two roaring dump trucks go ahead of me. I thought of all the men who work in the rough and tough occupations, dirty, noisy, dangerous, and tiring. Although I’m glad not to have their jobs, I hope for equality’s sake that more women are choosing such work. When I was writing this I googled “trucks women drivers”. I didn’t find any stats but was encouraged to read an announcement on the “Truckers Support” website, promoting awareness of of sex- trafficking, its connection to truck stops, and urging professional drivers to help stop the crime.

Speaking of "men's work", near our house there’s an intriguing construction site with deep holes, a large crane, modular buildings and lots of men in hard hats. When several neighbours stood watching, the supervisor (tall and muscular, with steel toes and dusty clothes) joined us to chat. He cheerfully answered our questions and said how excited he was to see the modules arrive so that the job could keep going - not the gruff and silent type at all. 
A couple of days later I was walking by the site and he gave a friendly wave, just as if I were a fellow human being instead of an invisible old woman.

This summer it’s been charming to watch two young fathers interact with their children in nurturing ways. Both were affectionate with their sons as well as their daughters, both were patient and instructive, both gave full attention to specific parenting moments the way mothers traditionally do.

Another surprising alien male encounter happened during a walk along my local main street. I saw a rough looking, long-haired guy riding his rusty bike toward me on the sidewalk. He looked to be about 40, wore a sleeveless t-shirt (are they still called "muscle" shirts?) and was helmetless. He seemed out of place in our by-law compliant part of town. As he passed me, he called, “Your white hair is gorgeous!” 
Alright then. Welcome to the neighbourhood, man.

When I finally found the right store for buying a transistor radio, a middle-aged man (never my first choice for clerks) expertly advised me on exactly the right product. I was grateful. Okay, they’re not all condescending to women.

I hope that one day it will become automatic for me to expect the best of men, instead of the worst.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Dancing at Dusk

Each summer in Toronto parks a group called "Dusk Dances" produces a festival. These creative events are, for the audience, completely unpredictable. The dances range from crump through flamenco and jazz to acts like this year’s “1981 FM” by Throwdown Collective. During the latter, the audience laughed and cheered as three dancers moved athletically and comically through a car’s doors and over its roof and hood. The choreography was so clever that I hardly worried about a car door slamming on tender fingers. It didn’t happen.

All of the acts were entertaining, but one performance turned out to be epiphanal. The sun had set and there was just a pink glow left high above us. The audience sat on the grass under a huge maple whose branches were hung with white paper globes lit from within. As ethereal music began, two dancers, dressed in fantastical white costumes slowly moved into the centre of our circle. Their pas de deux was languorous. As they approached and retreated, bent and stretched within the dim evening shadows, a night breeze rustled thousands of dark leaves, adding a gentle percussion, making the moon lanterns sway, and cooling our skin. I looked away from the luminous performers, up at the moving branches, higher to the pink sky, around at the awed crowd, and back again. I shivered with grateful joy. The dancers finished by melting onto the ground, lying still while the audience sighed, and then applauded.

Two days later, in early evening, I heard a cardinal’s song through my open window. Toronto’s major bird population of sparrows, Canada geese, and seagulls don’t add much colour to city life, so even though it’s not unusual to see cardinals, it’s always a pleasure to catch a glimpse of their scarlet feathers. I stepped outside to see if I could spy the cheery singer and there he was on my neighbour’s roof antenna, bright red against the blue summer sky. As I watched, a gold finch darted past him, flashing her yellow in the glowing sunset. Sometimes you have to be quick to notice a pas de deux before it's over, but everyday life is full of dances.

"May the tunes of angels echo in your brain,
May heaven's rhythms tap your twitching feet"

With gratitude to, and in memory of,
poet-priest, Andrew Greeley, 1928-2013