Teachable Moment Of A Lifetime

Dear Kelly,

It’s my favourite time of the day, that golden hour when night and dawn greet each other. And now, with fall around the corner, they linger longer, coy and solemn as teenage crushes on park swings. The sun is just about to break over the skyline and burst into my study, and each time it does I’m reminded of the opening lines of Frost’s poem:


Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.


These lines always get me going, the shuddering evanescence, the fleeting nature of time, the gentle unspoken urgency to cling as long as you can to the moment.

You know, I found out that last month we had some very special days, days when the Lions Gate Portal was flung open, when Sirius was in perfect alignment with our own sun and earth. I hadn’t heard of this cosmic phenomenon until only the other day. I was describing the vividness, the strangeness of recent dreams to a friend. She smiled (mischievously, I thought) and said, “it was all the creative vibrations streaming out of the Lions Gate Portal and manifesting through you.” Such a comment, not so long ago, would have provoked from me a mocking rebuttal, or at the very least, a not-so imperceptible eye-roll. Her comment would’ve whiffed of those Walter Mercado-types, the everything-is-perfect-and-so-are-you astrologists; or those swindlers who hand out chakra cards on Bloor Street, gaze spookily into your eyes, convinced you are no more than a spiritual leper in need of their healing. To view our nearest giant star and its alignment with our own sun through anything but the lenses of astronomy, to ascribe meaning to it other than what the natural laws of physics has laid out, would have, even one year ago, lead me to recalibrate my relationship with this person. But the past is prologue, and I now accept such comments with benign indifference, even enthusiasm. So, here I am, Kelly, basking in some good vibrations still manifesting through me and hoping it is doing the same for you!

Actually, I’m curious to know how the Portal affected you this year?


Thank you for your deep and thoughtful letter and sorry for my tardy response. I’ve been in a zone, writing demonically, but not the kind of writing which brings me the kind of pure pleasure that writing to friends like you always does. But truth be told, your letter wasn’t easy to digest. I’ve had to chew on it longer than I’m accustomed, break it down into digestible bits.

Firstly, I am no longer astonished by both the sudden shifts and meandering turns on your life’s journey. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been like the Northern Lights, in a constant shifting state of metamorphosis, beautiful to behold. That you’ve been unravelling yourself from the “illusion of constant busyness and constant motion” during the lockdown, and that you “don’t want to go back to the way it was”, is precisely what I am experiencing as well. Many of us are. Our casual nuzzling up to one of the more disingenuous euphemisms we’ve concocted- the “new normal”- belies, I think, one of our deeply-entrenched fears: that everything is in a constant state of flux. It is insidious, this illusion that there is some higher order to things, some mythic center that holds together a world we’ve created in our own image and in accordance to our breathtakingly limited knowledge. Our only hope is to begin to view our relationship to the world, to others, to ourselves, and most importantly, to change itself, with an equanimity that likely didn’t exist for many of us even six months ago.   

There has not been much unravelling on my end. Tweaking a few habits here and there: eating, running, and sleeping better than I used to before the lockdown—that’s about it. But I have been wading deeper into myself. Minutes- and not seconds- of pure concentration has been gifted to me, allowing me to penetrate into my consciousness in ways both unexpected and affirming. I pray it stays.


And, yes, I couldn’t agree with you more: after all these years of stopping yourself out of shame or guilt or social etiquette, you do need to mobilize your voice, broaden the sphere of your influence beyond your inner circle of friends and family. There are so many seekers who have come out of the woodwork during this perilous time, seekers who have much to discover in a teacher like you. But the best teachers, as you well know, are also the most astute students. I know few lifelong students quite like you. 


It pains me how impatient we have become as learners. We’ve long known the art and science of learning has been eroding, but it feels as though we have reached its nadir, don’t you think? Too much information and therefore too many “alternative facts”. Every opinion viewed as equal to every other; each “truth” weighed only in its relation to another “truth”, with little regard for context. Everything has become mere perspective. A Nietzschean nightmare. And as for what was once deemed the "noble pursuit of wisdom", one is almost embarrassed by the idea, compelled to mutter it under our breath with the hope nobody was listening. It’s become something ridiculous, the target of mockery, like some dude with a mullet at a skinheads rally.

Modern education being what it is, with students being pumped out of learning institutions like cars from a Ford assembly plant, the soul, once the principal of a liberal arts curriculum, has been relegated to the role of custodian. It was as inevitable as it appears irreversible. We occasionally run past this custodian, nearly tripping over his mop bucket, on our way to the door after the final bell, without even the courtesy of acknowledgement. As it was at the end of the last school year, when the pandemic caught our institutions with their pants down, we see how the student has essentially been left to his own devices, with no real tools to guide him. Our public education system (and its governing bodies) has been revealed for what it is: a cumbersome beast, explicit in its inequities, with numbing lack of foresight. And today, one week before the start of school, every decision seems to be driven by resolving the “how to” conundrums: how to navigate a Google classroom; how to schedule live and virtual lessons; how to properly disinfect desks and boots; how to ensure kids are effectively (and safely) babysat in unmanageable groups so parents can return to work and bring home a paycheque. YouTubeable solutions that will never get to the source of modern education’s core sickness. Right now, school administrators and teachers everywhere have before them THE most teachable moment of a lifetime, a once-in-a-generation opportunity: to return a deeper sense of meaning to education. Any hope for the future of our learning institutions lies in the way it addresses, from the very first day of class, the strangeness and mystery that shrouds not only the current moment, but of life in general. The ABCs, SATs, Accounting 101, and even Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics can wait. Imagine a bold vision for education, where the soul is placed once again at the center of all learning. An education system that places What-For before How-To. Imagine it for our own sake, for the sake of our relationships, the sake of our environment begging us to STOP, take stock. The alternative, which we are living now, is dangerously off-course. That we will mindlessly march into the “new normal” and signal the cataclysm we are passing through with some modest behaviour modifications and prop switches (i.e. masks, hand sanitizers, virtual classes etc.) is to not pick up what life (and Nature) is putting down. Yet just another blip in history. I fear for the next generation of students, but trust they will be much more spiritually adaptive and progressive than ours, that they will take bolder actions.

Your views on the current state of polarization in the world, how so many of us are wilfully “turning away from what nourishes us, weakening our inner balance”, really hit home with me. As a political news junkie, I suffer unnecessarily from not taking what you prescribe—“filter the negative from the water that provides life.”  I too often- and with an intensity of masochism I barely understand- mesmerize myself for hours at a time before what you accurately note as the world’s “political play”, this chimera of players who come and go, and whose performances I can barely recall after they’ve left the stage. Watching the news today is not unlike watching a high school production of a Shakespearian tragedy. Macbeth made into an endless K-drama series. And if the world’s political play today wasn’t so tragic, we might recognize it as a farce. Being a junkie, particularly during a heavy news cycle, throws everything off-balance. It counters all the good I do each day to keep my mind and body healthy—all that good sleep (breathe through the nose!), exercise, meditation. 

    Oh well, I've always known I have so much to learn- possibly my only redeeming character trait. 

    Oh oh, I gotta go, serious business. Why Is This Happening? with Chris Hayes just came on...

I do hope you and the family will continue to keep safe and healthy, my dear Kelly. Send my love to them and your mum, whom I miss dearly. I look forward to the day I can hold you all in my always inadequate embrace.


Your Humble Karaoke Cowboy 


My Dear Yuna,
When your email arrived the other week, I wanted very badly to respond, but was inundated with more pressing and less important matters. The business of life (and the life of business) has been poked and prodded out of its spring slumber, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, your powerful words have stayed with me during this time, so this morning I felt compelled to write you.
Thank you, as always, for sharing so much of yourself with me. That you are in better spirits these days, trekking your way into the light makes me very happy! I was pleased to read that you are, as you so beautifully put it, “gathering” yourself and have “embarked on a journey of healing”. I’d love nothing more than to read your description of each waystation, of every gestation. Since your last two emails, I’d been meaning to ask how much of the deep-end part of the dive into yourself has been a direct result of the lockdown, or whether the lockdown merely brought your inner struggles to the surface and revived it like an able lifeguard? One thing is clear: it has been a time of profound reflection for you, of consequential change.
Your thoughts on vulnerability, how it’s empowering you today, offering sustenance, gave me much to chew on. To wilfully enter into a state of vulnerability, particularly these days when anonymous trolling on social media gives the bully a much larger playground, takes courage. And when it hasn't cowed people into wholesale retreat from the world, or degenerated into that most perverse form of neurosis, toxic machismo, vulnerability is like that delicate-appearing butterfly that crosses multiple continents during mating season— who can blame it?!
Most men I know, myself included, too often interpret what is being shared with them, particularly by women, like a puzzle to be solved, a problem that requires fixing. (I’ve come around to concluding it must be an Oedipal thing— boys who wanted to save their distressed mother but felt utterly helpless to do so.) How often have I entered an open, electric space and fidgeted with my toolkit when all I was asked to do was be present? To breathe. Listen. Commiserate. The truth is I’ve never been very good at it, which is why, I think, I often prefer letter-writing over direct communication as it affords me time to allow my responses to marinate and put the drill away. And it’s taken me years, after so many failed attempts, to see that it is the leaky pipe that needs fixing— not lovers, friends or family. My eyelids continue to slowly unfurl.
There is, however, a difference between “feeling vulnerable” and vulnerability. To wander alone through the African Savannah on a starlit night where hyenas and lions roam, or to set up a base camp at the bottom of an active volcano, makes one feel (deservedly) vulnerable. Nature, the whims of circumstance, and human stupidity makes it so. But this is different from the experience of vulner-ability, which requires agency, free will. You can't, for example, feel vulnerability on a desert island by yourself. You need other people to ignite it in you.
Vulnerability seems to me a human construct— a social contract that the insecure among us are always poking holes in, fearing we will lose something of value when, in fact, it's always only been worth the weight of our ego. And so it is one of the tasks we are called upon as a species to recognize as a community ideal of the highest order— possibly one of the few redemptive community ideals we have left. During this time of mass revolt, and after legitimate rage has been addressed, we, the global community, need to find a way toward a deeper awareness of this. Any form of truth and reconciliation, whether it’s in the privacy of the bedroom or in the state assembly hall, can only be reached by consciously passing through the doors of vulner-ability.  
As for the work of undoing narratives to "embrace our own truths", as you eloquently put it, strikes me as the right orientation. There were so many difficult experiences you described in your email that I felt the pain  in your expression, particularly around your traumas. I’m grateful to you for sharing them with me. It’s made me reflect on my own past experiences.
Self-narratives, both the false and less-false stories we tell about ourselves, have been around since the first hominids climbed down from the trees, stood on two feet, and ran for shelter in a cave. Language as we know it today was likely invented around then, in that cave, but my instincts tell me it was not invented to tease out narratives, to tell stories. That was a secondary necessity, likely born out of smelling our fingers after scratching the general vicinity of our butts and some rudimentary quest to understand death. Language was intended to be entirely practical, just another tool in the box, utilitarian in purpose. Stories about what happened (perhaps to offer contextual information) and why it happened (to create some tenuous link between cause and effect) must have been dismissed by our earliest Alpha Male ancestors as irrelevant. If stories had to be told, it was likely to transmit information about what might happen to a member of the tribe, particularly around danger. It was goal-directed, forward-looking. In other words, “If you do_____, then_____will happen.” A way to de-stress the amygdala's fight-or-flight response. It must have been of immense service to the gatherer when the hunter pointed out that there is a sabre-toothed tiger hiding behind the mulberry bush at the bend in the river, ready to pounce, and how the beast could best be avoided. At that moment, peering anxiously out from the cave’s entrance, the gatherer isn’t interested in the sabre-toothed tiger’s gender or how many years it took to grow its fangs or even how it got there behind the mulberry bush. The gatherer is interested- nay, inspired- to not become part of the tiger's paleo diet regimen. It's probably too obvious to point out that a story’s true utility (whether it’s told to others or to ourselves) lies in its forward gaze, its future orientation and not the past. What good would it do the gatherer to know that the sabre-toothed tiger was born with spots on its coat or was last seen mating three weeks ago? (I say this knowing it rattles the cage of some psychoanalysts and paleontologists, and all historians- these past-obsessed professionals whose vocations, by the way, like the sofabed, are entirely modern inventions, having arrived long after we abandoned the cave for upholstery.)
Whenever I hear expressions like “childhood trauma”, “internalizing guilt” etc., I feel like my inner hearing has been disrupted. Something just doesn’t sound right. Do you know Alessandro Moreschi? He was a castrato with an angelic soprano voice. It’s jarring when you see pictures of this grown man with his broad chest and then hear him sing something like Ave Maria. You feel disoriented, as though you're looking through the wrong end of a telescope or been released by kidnappers on a street corner in some foreign land. That’s what I feel when I hear people talking about their past traumas.  
This is not to say I dismiss traumas per se- yours, mine, or anyone else’s. Traumas happened, some much more intensely than others. Denying it is the neurotic's version of revisionist history. But they don’t actually exist when we are truly present. They are shadows, or better yet, carcasses we have chained to ourselves and that we feel obliged to keep dragging into this moment— and onto the next one if we can. While we push forward through time, facing backward, we gaze at the carcass and it gazes back at us, like Nietzsche's Void. Despite the mental-emotional toll it takes, we drag it along because it’s something familiar; better the carcass we know than the one we don’t, even if neither exists here-and-now.
It seems to me that trauma is about the way we orient ourselves to time, to our use of tense. The Buddhists built an entire belief system on this premise. My daily meditations teach me the same. When we are meditating or running, laughing or crying, making love or spaghetti, or writing as I am to you at this moment, traumas don’t actually exist. Whenever we are truly in a moment, any moment- and when are we actually not?- trauma is not there. It’s “behind” us in space and time, but our tendency is to eternally warp it with the gravitational equivalent of an overworked obsession. And language is essential here. Our stories matter. But tense is everything. We are not what happened to us. Nobody ever is. We are how we consciously utilize tense. Will we let it raise or decimate us? Make us feel hopeful or abject? Is it about "have done" lists or "to do"?
All this to say, my dear Yuna, that the work you are doing now on yourself is brave and good. I say keep charging forward, and without giving an iota of thought about whether or not it will lead to happiness, which is, like sex, empty of meaning and overrated if it's not exercised in the service of something higher. Happiness is not the goal of your journey. Your inner work is. And while you trek along this uncharted road, know that the obnoxious (and opinionated) voice you are hearing behind you is me, your lead cheerleader and blind guide!
Don't forget to write back!
Yours Always,
Karaoke Cowboy  


Dear Claire,


Forgive my late response to your email. Like you, I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed by current events that some silence and a proper distance from the world was in order. And with that as my meager apology, I want to send you this belated thanks for your stirring words and my best wishes from Ktown on this holiday.


The raw emotions you describe—the outrage shared with protesters on the one hand, and the COVID-induced foreboding on the other—are, of course, completely understandable. Anyone with your questions, pigmented with concern, of “what a collectively imagined future might look like” in the months and years ahead, is likely undergoing a similar experience. If the pandemic has made anything exasperatingly clear, it is that like the protests themselves- BLM, BIPOC, LGBTQ- the burden of the work, the immeasurable sacrifices, the cost of life and limb, is again being carried by the most victimized and courageous in our society. But the alarming pace of the current crises (and the wish by those it most annoys to have it over with just as quickly, as though it was one of many nightly conjugal duties) has exposed a stark contrast between those who will grudgingly accept “the new normal” (which is to say not much different from the normal of BEFORE) and those who seek a sustainable non-violent "revolution". We can only hope that there will be enough ground covered so that real positive change is both inevitable and permanent. My only fear is that the AFTER so many of us long for will arrive too soon or too late to have any lasting impact. And yet, like you, I am hopeful that "the tides are changing and people are waking up." Here's to hoping the ninja will arrive just in the nick of time. 

Your inquiry into whether any one of us, as individuals, can truly contribute to a shapeless and constantly shifting movement is something I think about all the time. The tension between all the constituent interests, the constant push-and-pull of disparate parts, feels a bit like an unpredictable but well-executed concerto. With some trust in the overall goodness of people gathered in groups, even without the aid of a conductor, I believe we can drive the whole orchestra toward something greater than the sum of our individual parts. Perhaps this is simply wishful thinking. Or naive romance. Personally, I have taken to a two-pronged approach in my daily life: to do my small part “on the ground” by allying myself with the few in my circle who have most to lose (and therefore, the most to gain) in the fight, whilst committing to the necessary inner work that will make my personal alignment to any social change meaningful. A rigorous daily routine of reading, writing, meditating and running has also been helpful. Now, more than ever, I need to balance action with mindfulness; anger with empathy; justice with self-care.


Your reflections as a white woman in a country built on a scaffolding of institutional racism and inequality has forced me today to interrogate my own complicity. And you are right to wonder, as I do now, whether this self-interrogation actually works since it’s nearly impossible to gauge whether we are changing while still “within a privileged standpoint.” Like a man who refers to himself as a “feminist”, in the end it's not up to him to make the final judgement.  

As an Asian man, slotted into the “model minority” drive from the moment I arrived in this country as a child, I see how my increasing participation in the status quo has buoyed so much collective suffering. I have knowingly benefited by walking along a path in my latest Adidas that other BIPOC have, for generations before me, paved in their bare feet. Over the years, from the safety of the sidewalk, I assumed the nearly-invisible role of bystander to the street fight between whites and their mismatched BIPOC opponents. And on this night, with fireworks going off outside my window and over Christie Pits, it’s less my mindless apathy and more my lack of courage that stirs shame in me. Until recently, Canada Day was always a day I celebrated unwittingly and without any moral reckoning.


There is the one Canada Day I will never forget. I was fifteen and my friend Mario asked me to join him to watch fireworks at Canada’s Wonderland with his “Indian girlfriend” and her cousin. His girlfriend, whom he’d met at a public swimming pool only a few days before, was visiting from Thunder Bay. At that age, the only language Mario and I were versed in was the language of stereotypes, of manufacturing Otherness. So, Alexis was “exotic-looking”; she didn’t drink beer (presumably like we, and her own people, did); she was lighter-skinned and smarter than other Indians, possibly even some white people.

     It was a day I recall as hot and still as today. Alexis and her cousin, Samantha (who never spoke much the whole day), were clad in bikinis beneath sheer dresses. Indeed, Alexis was lighter than her cousin, but she was also much smarter than Mario and I combined, multiplied by ten. At Wonderland, every lamp post was draped with a maple leaf flag. Over pizza slices, Alexis schooled us on the meaning of Canada Day, referring to it derisively as Colonial Day. With a historian’s encyclopedic knowledge and an activist’s sense of righteousness, she explained the role of both the French and English in the decimation of her people.(As Mario was Italian and I was Korean, we were pleased as pie not to be implicated in such wholesale atrocity and pretended to take it all in seriously while gawking at her bronzed body.) On that day, filled with every imaginable diversionary spectacle, I heard the terms “residential schools”, “the Sixties Scoop”, and “cultural genocide” for the very first time. Every time I hear them now, I can't help but conjure up Alexis' voice, those flinty eyes. 

     After the fireworks, we returned to Toronto on a bus in silence. I parted ways with the three of them at Yorkdale Mall. I wanted to say something to Alexis beyond "thanks, had a cool time." I wanted to tell her I could listen to her talk forever; tell her I will do something about it; tell her I would follow her all the way to Thunder Bay, wherever that was. The next time I saw him, I asked Mario if anything ever happened between him and Alexis. “Nah, she wasn’t worth it,” he’d said, “doesn’t want to give, just likes to talk”. I wished in that moment that I was Mario. I would have treated her differently. I would not have disappointed her. I would have redeemed myself. 

    But I never saw her again.

*   *   *


Claire, there have been many times like these, steeped in anxiety and confusion, so I take some solace in knowing this is not an isolated time, that we have been here before. But it saddens me that history often shows symptoms of dementia, forgetting where it put its keys, what day it is, what the name of its child is. And it is because this is so that little more than clichés will do to carry us lurching into the next similar time. But they are clichés nonetheless that occasionally, if sifted and clarified enough, might someday bear a truth worthy of the struggle it was borne out of. So, with the deepest kind of faith, we are being asked to imagine a world where everyone is allowed equal pursuit of meaning and happiness, with equal justice for all. We are being asked to contribute to its inevitability, its necessity. And although today is not that day when the horse is likely to drink, you and I are being asked to do our share by pulling the horse to water. I wonder now, in our mutual exhaustion, if you and I will ever find the strength. I wonder how others find it. But I take comfort from emails like yours, coming from someone like you, because I know this is at least possible: that if in a fleeting moment I can't locate it somewhere in myself, there is strength to be found in the likes of you. 


In any case, for now, take good care of yourself, Claire, and write soon!



Karaoke Cowboy

July 1, 2020