Monday, October 28, 2019

What Possessed Me?



October, 2019
Yesterday I told this story at a local event.  I thought you might like to read it.


"What Possessed Me?"

1999. What possessed me to go to Bosnia, a country recently ravaged by a devastating war?  What possessed me to sleep on iron cots in mouldy church basements, get bounced around in an ancient rattle-trap truck with no shocks and faulty brakes on roads pock-marked by bomb craters which the locals affectionately called Bosnian swimming pools, into regions and villages sometimes so remote they had not yet been cleared of land mines?  You had to walk only where others had walked.  Others had successfully walked.  Worst of all, what possessed me to spend a month where the only coffee was an acrid mud so awful and thick you can only tolerate it by sipping from a cup the size of a thimble?  Why did I separate myself from my supports and leave behind the love that showered me at home?  Was it for the same reason a dog licks his genitals… because he can?  


Before I left, I asked my wife, “If you could go to Bosnia, wouldn’t you?” and she says, “Not on your life!” 

I say, “But that’s all I have is my life.  How rich do you want yours to be?” 

“Very rich,” she says.  “Garage sales do it for me.” 

I know what I didn’t do it for… not for karma; not to earn a place in heaven; not to be politically correct.  Certainly not for the money.   And not… this is the most important ‘not’.… I did not go to try to make a difference in people’s lives. 

I met humanitarians in Bosnia trying to make a difference and it drained them like a pond of leeches will drain your blood.  A humanitarian’s reward lies in how palpable the change they can effect.  And like Christ and the lepers, in Bosnia they saw that no matter how much fixing they did, it would never be enough.  You can fix a hole in a road, but how do you fix a hole in someone’s soul?

In 1999 Sarajevo was an absurd contrast of ugly and beautiful, of destruction and construction.  I stood where a tank had stood on the boulevard, 100 yards away from a 15-story office tower, and with casual precision lobbed a shell into each floor.  Now three years after the war, splintered furniture, shattered pipes and shredded cables still hung from the gaping holes left by each explosion.

But the first two floors were rebuilt, with a department store and a little shop that sold that Sirnica, the snake-like coils of pastry filled with cheese, which we lived on for the time we were there.

Outside the shop, dug into the sidewalk about four inches deep was a symmetrical rosette, surrounded by a smattering of petal- shaped indentations.  Looked like a sunflower.  They were scattered throughout Sarajevo.  It's what happens when a mortar round lands on concrete.  And a lot landed. 

The Serbs occupied the mountains above the valley in which this once picturesque city was nestled, mountains that just a few years before had hosted the winter Olympics.  They dropped 3 million shells onto the city in a 4-year siege… or maybe it was 4 million in 3 years. What difference did it make?  As my friend, Jelinek told me, “You chose not to pay attention.”

The artillery men would take up their stations at dusk, drinking Slivovitz and singing songs of rape and destruction.  That was the ‘air raid warning’.  But you sat in your room and read your book.  You heard the whistle of the grenades above.  If one landed on your building maybe it took out the plumbing.  Maybe it took out your life.  What difference did it make?” 

After digging holes for water and collecting rain from the gutters before it escaped into the sewers, after making soup from the leaves of trees to stave off starvation, after burying your mother, what difference did it make?

Absurd.  It’s all so absurd. 

The evening we arrived in Sarajevo we were immediately driven to a collection centre, a little building in the woods which I think had housed municipal offices.  But now the desks were replaced by beds because now, three years after the war in Bosnia, Albanians were suffering genocide in neighbouring Kosovo.  They crossed the border as they could, gathered in whatever shelter they could find, and sat with whatever they could salvage, looking fearfully at a blank future.

When you look directly into the eyes of someone who’s lost everything, their home, their family, even their country, it hits you differently than watching it on TV.  It’s not any more gripping.  TV brings us the horror in its own magnified way.  It is just more real, this woman handing me a scrap of paper with her husband’s name on it.  “I know he got out,” she tells me.  “Please look for him.  Call out his name as you travel through Bosnia.  Tell him we’re here and we’re safe.”  The fear in her eyes belies the hope of her words.

She is perhaps the only one who can speak English among the thirty or so folks who crowded into the tiny room for our concert.  Just a few feet from us, sitting, kneeling behind, and standing against the wall. 

I’m about to sing, “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and I gesture for them to join in the chorus.  A look of concern crosses their faces.  They don’t speak English.  Now, we have an interpreter, Edo.  But he can only translate into Bosnian.  But we’ve found someone who can translate Bosnian into Albanian and so they line up, side by side next to me as I say, “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens, in chicken…”

Edo translates into Bosnian and turns to the next fellow, who repeats it in Albanian.  Then they turn back to me.

“Is, bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”

Edo copies my lilt.  “Eeai bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”

And the next guy, “Eshta bocka bocka bok bok bok gock.”

By now the room has collapsed in hysterics.  Me, a thousand miles from my home and they without a home, disparate cultures find a common language in Chicken.

So let’s sing it and let me teach you the words in chicken in case you similarly find yourself in a foreign culture 1000 miles from home.

(We sing)

Sometimes what works best when you’ve been thrown into the limbo of losing your foundation, of not knowing what to do or what will come, sometimes what works best to bring you back to the sense that you are a human being among humans is to be presented with something even more absurd than the absurd condition you find yourself in.

I remember when I stood on that spot where the tank had been, suburbans and SUVs were hustling by like ants repairing their nest, each sporting a medallion advertising their country and particular NGO, and nearby a high speed trolley with a banner on the side reading “A Gift From the People of Japan”.  I thought about what my mentor, Stan Dale used to say to me.  “Eric, there is either love, or violence.  And even violence is a cry for love.”
 
There have been times in my life when the evidence of violence was so pronounced it was hard to imagine where love was.  I guess what possessed me to go to Bosnia was a faith that love was hiding beneath the rubble.

Friday, August 2, 2019

STREET SKILLS


Hanging out in a folder I rarely visit, I happened to click on this.  I'll call it:

STREET SKILLS

I’m standing on the balcony horking up a good dollop of phlegm, snorting up my nose what I can gather, then hacking whatever’s in my throat, combining the mixture in my mouth and stirring it with some saliva into a gelatinous glob.  I gaze into the air beyond the railing, aim at a 450 angle to counter the affects of gravity ... and I spit.

It’s a good shot … out about twenty feet, then continues its parabolic trajectory for another ten before landing on a dandelion… dripping… proud … a good spit.  An excellent spit.

Then I hear a high pitched snort next to me and there’s my four year old imitating me, her mouth open to an exaggerated gaping maw, making cackling sounds in her throat, her nose scrunched up, a twinkle in her eye.

“Go for it,” I say.  “Give it a spit over the side.”  She looks and spits, a miniscule whitish sliver  quickly dissipates into a gentle spray that disappears before it reaches the ground.  I need to teach her how to spit.

I remember my youth, some sixty years ago and Billy Smith who could spit a good three feet further than anyone on the block, teaching us the finer points of street spitting.  He would form his tongue into a tunnel, thus creating extra thrust the way a rifle barrel directs the expanding gas of an exploding bullet.

We’d draw a line with chalk on the macadam and edge our toe up to it like a basketball player at the foul line.  We’d grunt and hork and snort and bring all the phlegm we could muster into play, gather it, coddle it up and cup it in our tongue, take a breath and blow.  The pressure formed by the conjunction of tongue and lips would hold it for an instant and then let the missile go with a 'fathoosh'.  The mass of gelatine would sail into the still autumn air, soar beyond the manhole cover, and land in a skipping splash on the street.

We’d mark it.  We’d comment on it.  Then call the next contestant to the line.

Spitting on East 29th Street, Brooklyn was an art.  I’m grateful I can live in the country, in a house with a balcony overlooking a garden that accepts my bodily fluids without disdain, and a granddaughter to carry on the tradition.



Sunday, March 31, 2019

You Lucky


This was back in the eighties.  I was living in the basement of a house rented by my friend Rica... throw rugs scattered on the cement floor, books in boxes, the TV perched on a milk crate.  One morning, half awake snuggled in my futon on the floor, I heard an upstairs toilet flush.  Presently an offensive smell assaulted my nose and water began to rise from the drain in the floor... not just water... sewage.  I called to Rica as I pulled rugs away from the edges of the effluent which crept rapidly like a tide on a flood plain.  Frantically we dragged boxes away from the flow, threw the futon over a chair, lifted clothes onto the stairs.  By the time the level reached a stasis there was a fetid pond some ten feet across and three inches deep.  I sat at the top of the stairs holding my nose, and wept.

The plumbers arrived in thick pants and rubber boots.  They carried long poles with flat disks on the end.  One plumber attacked the sewer on the street while the other waded into my basement swamp, pulled the drain cover, yelled to his partner, and  commenced to pound his disk-pole into the drain with the passion of a boy in a mud puddle, making waves and spraying the room with brownish droplets and little sludge balls.  I ran down and pulled what stuff I could as far from the advancing swell as possible. 

Eventually there was a yell from the plumber on the street, and the evil fluid sank back into the hole from which it came. 

As I looked gloomily around my ravaged room the way a despondent general might survey the stinking aftermath of a battle won at great cost, the plumber ... and here’s the point of the story ... the plumber said, “You lucky.” 

I’m lucky? 

“You lucky.  If it hadn’t come unplugged we’d have had to dig a big hole in your front yard.  Very expensive.  You lucky.”

That was some twenty years ago.  Every once in a while I run into Rica, we look at each other and say, “You lucky.”  We remember that disaster, and the day that followed, in rubber gloves and boots, mopping, sponging, filling garbage bags, looking at each other and saying, “You lucky.”  You know  what.  We didn’t feel lucky.  We felt... well... we felt like the stuff we were cleaning up.

On that day I vowed never to rob someone of their well-earned misery, never to tell someone with a cast on their arm they were lucky they didn’t break their neck. ... never to tell someone groaning and sweating with the flu it could be pneumonia... never to tell someone who opens the fridge and all there is is a week-old Hawaiian Pizza that people are starving in China.  Never to tell someone whose house burned down to look on the bright side.  


Saturday, December 1, 2018

REVISITING TRANSFERENCE



REVISITING TRANSFERENCE


My mother who taught kindergarten was sitting with a friend in Dubrow’s cafeteria (Brooklyn) when a pupil with his family came in.  The five-year-old ran over.  “You eat?” he asked.  Perhaps he thought she just walked into the coat closet and hung herself up at the end of the school day.

That’s transference: attributing inflated or unrealistic attributes to someone, usually one in a position of perceived authority.

Workshop participants create inflated beliefs about the leaders.  Peter Rengel, hai facilitator, once called Diana and me the ‘mom and pop’ of the Ontario community.  Yes, we were seen that way.  But the truth is we were not the ‘mom and pop’, just folks like you, doing our job.

And now that we have left HAI leadership, has the transference toward us diminished?  I know from some of my interactions that some still see us as the ‘mom and pop’, albeit estranged. 

As a well-known entertainer for most of my life, I was the constant recipient of transference, and hated it.  My fans meeting me on the street treated me as if I really was that wild guy who loved to play crazy instruments.  To me those instruments were just the tools of my job.  I left them on the stage in the way anyone leaves their tools at work.  But people saw the instruments, the stage … and not me.

Transference and my relationship to it played a significant role in my being fired.  As a HAI producer I pretty much ignored transference, denied it until it punched me in the face when, as a participant at a workshop, I shared intimacy with another participant, who later claimed she had been taken advantage of because I abused my power as a producer.  HAI’S position was despite that I was a participant in that workshop, since I was a producer, I was responsible for the other’s transference. 

I learned my lesson from that incident and took on how people might transfer theri pictures on to me, but it was too late.  Not long after, minor incidents over the past ten years were apparently collected and reported, and in the present culture of Me Too, HAI felt it safer to fire me than support me. 

HAI pays obeisance to transference.  Its policies and some of the subtle ways HAI speaks into the workshop room support it; for example, at the end of the L1 when facilitators say how participants may have fallen in love with a team member, as if there is something special about us and not simply people like anyone else, who have taken some training to help make things run smoothly.

During each workshop, I would stand up at large group share, talk how powerful it was for me to see those sitting before me whom I had affected, who were here because I led their mini, or shared personal questions.  In one way, it helped solidify the value of their path and how HAI has impacted their growth, but it was also a way of aggrandizing myself to them.  I recognize now that associating my impact with their growth contributes to their transference.  They saw me as a little bit bigger than before.  I stopped doing that when I got that it didn’t serve me.

 Stan Dale insisted we see him as the ordinary person he was.  Once, at a workshop a participant kissed his feet.  He accepted that and immediately bowed to kiss his.  Transference was Stan’s enemy.  He recognized it as the fundamental power of cults, which herds folks into obedience and robs them of choice.

I believe there are many ways in which, without thinking, HAI pays obeisance to the transference god.  And I would like us to take notice.

Recently I attended an ISTA (International School of Temple Arts) training.  There, my attitudes toward transference were validated.  It was spoken into the room and identified as something we all do and are personally responsible for.  I was invited to have whatever pictures and beliefs I wished about the facilitators -- and -- they would not take them on.  My beliefs belong to me.  Furthermore, the relationships among the team, facilitators, and participants were brought onto the same level.  We were all in this together.     

My week-long training at ISTA was a very powerful experience for me, this issue of transference being only part.  I will have more to say about it in the near future.  I highly recommend ISTA to anyone on a path of growth, and am happy to talk about my experience if you wish to get in touch.

I felt with some sadness that if HAI had the same attitude toward transference, I would still be producing and leading Mini workshops.



Tuesday, October 23, 2018

HAI'S Anti-harassment policies

No longer HAI Ontario’s producer and Executive director, I find myself in a process of completion, where there are things I need to say before I can let them go.

I have been witnessing in dismay the events over this past year relating to abuse and harassment.  I have seen reasonable and real concerns among members of our community fester into crisis proportions which neither Diana nor I nor others responded to in a timely way.  The lack of swift action has been a detriment to the community, allowing fear to spread and perceived affronts to bloom.

Significant changes are now underway, not the least of which is The HAI Canada Anti-harassment Policy paper with the goal to create an environment free of harassment; and HAI has looked to the Canada Human Rights Act for guidance.  The paper relates a long list of the many ways one person might harass another, from sexual, to religious, and even to being harassed for a pardoned conviction.[i] 

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS AT A HAI ONTARIO WORKSHOP

Given the direction the policy statement has taken, it’s important to remember that in the HAI Ontario workshops, insults based on sex, gender, etc are rare.  Rape is non-existent.  Purposely inappropriate touch is occasional.  Touching without permission due to ignorance or poor habits is frequent.  Mostly we’re talking about women’s boundaries being crossed through a man’s touch or thoughtless comment.  Sometimes consent is unclear.  And unfortunately, it is all too common for an incident not to be dealt with first hand or quickly.

The paper then describes levels of people and agencies within the HAI structure to which one can report a harassment.  It also talks about investigating the veracity of the complaint, and the consequences the harasser may encounter.  This model is consistent with how our present social system deals with wrong-doing.
  •      What rule was broken?   
  •    Who broke it?     
  •      What will the consequence be?

My personal experience leads me to believe that until now HAI’s principle strategy has been to do whatever necessary to mollify the complainer.  I’ve been told that facilitators and Global board members have, in more than one case, spent hundreds of hours trying to relax the victim to not take the complaint further. This labour-intensive process hasn’t always worked.  And from what I’ve seen, neither the harassed nor the harasser leaves feeling uplifted or healed by our involvement.  A change is called for.

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES

Although mediation and resolution are mentioned tangentially in the position paper, I want to suggest HAI focus first and foremost on the issue of harassment from this different vantage point.  Rather than the above model which looks at investigating and documenting the many varieties a person can be harassed, we simply acknowledge that the fundamental issue is, someone has experienced hurt.  Seen this way the event is a violation of a relationship and of community, involving more than one, and usually more than two people.  A restorative approach shifts its focus to the following questions:[ii]
  • ·       Who has been hurt? 
  •       What do they need?       
  •       Whose obligations and responsibilities are these?
  •       Who has a stake in this situation?
  • ·       What process can involve the stakeholders in finding a solution?


VIOLATION OF RELATIONSHIP

I understand that a group of HAI experts is being formed to deal with exceptional cases of harassment.  But I think a process needs to be brought directly into the room of love and put into action as soon as possible following the event.  In our workshops, HAI teaches very powerful tools to effect communication and healing, among them: sharing withholds, active listening, “I” statements, broken agreements, and that the ‘ouch’ trumps the intention.  Our leadership and our community are couched in these skills, and we can use them to better advantage.  We could be facilitating stakeholders to come together in conference or circle in a supportive, mutually respectful atmosphere, where the focus is on connection and healing rather than assigning blame, punishment or consequence. 

Reconciliation and apology might be part of such a conference.  But most important is that each person be able to say how the incident affected them, and hear and understand the other.  The opportunity to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes is fundamental to gaining understanding, compassion and connection.  When a conflict happens, both parties have an opportunity to empathize with the other.  Both parties have the opportunity to take responsibility, and by that I don’t mean fault or blame, but to empower oneself and see what is to be learned and be active. 

RULES FOR SAFETY

Ultimately, we want to reduce the re-offending rate, and having clear rules is one way to create safety.  But strict adherence to strong rules has its drawbacks.  To take it to an extreme, a workshop with all females would be nearly totally safe.  But at what cost?  Our rule not to touch without permission is difficult to follow, and it limits physical connection.  We pass by a friend making sure to refrain from casually brushing a loving hand on a shoulder because to stop and ask permission borders on the absurd. 

Furthermore this rule seems not to be created for everyone.  At my last workshop I saw a team member rush into the workshop room and grab a participant from behind, giving a tight hug.  Then the team member turned to another and again hugged without permission.  Turns out it was OK because the participants were close enough friends … and … the team member was a woman.  I have seen female facilitators hug a participant without permission.  It’s a natural, loving, human thing to do, which has been welcomed and encouraged at HAI workshops for four decades.  And now we are training ourselves, or rather training our men, not to.  There must be a better way.

The problems with the don’t touch without permission rule notwithstanding, exploring consent at a workshop is critical.  We need to teach more nuanced guidelines regarding consent and boundary.  The exercises are beginning to incorporate this. 

I think it would help if our attitude was, being touched without permission is not necessarily a sin, nor the end of the world.  In this atmosphere of #MeToo where people are super sensitive and tend to jump to complaint, it would behoove HAI to help folks notice just how much or how little harm has been done when their boundary was crossed.  
  
At a party I playfully slapped a guy’s butt as he passed me coming from the hot tub.  I thought we were close enough friends for me to do that.  But he didn’t feel that way, which I saw from the frown on his face.  I apologized, and he heard me.  And yet this person registered a complaint, which became one of the nails in the coffin of my having to leave.

In another incident that was added to the list of complaints about me, a participant massaged my neck during a workshop break.  Jokingly I said something about marrying him or being lovers.  This was reported.

In neither of these incidents did the person speak to me until long after the complaints were filed, and the damage done.  We need to clear the way for people to speak without fear or stress.  Whenever I have raised this, I have been told some people can’t speak due to past trauma.  That’s sometimes true but not nearly as prevalent as we think.  Far more often a person doesn’t speak because they don’t want to rock the boat, don’t want to hurt the other’s feelings, etc.  There is a cultural resistance to speaking our truth when it might be controversial.  We can see this in the hug demo when we invite folks to say “No”.  Many simply won’t, even in an exercise.  This isn’t about trauma.  “I can’t” is too often a cop out.  We need to be doing more to help people to speak, to put it at the forefront of our strategy toward a safer room of love.  There is no aspect of the workshop that inhibits a person from speaking.

And when someone speaks, we need to listen.  I have seen team members exaggerate the effect of a harassment to the person who received it, disregarding their words and real feelings.

A safer ‘room of love’ might include doing whatever necessary to eliminate inappropriate behaviour.  Or it might mean doing what we can to create a supportive, healing environment for when such a behaviour occurs.  Both initiatives have value.  But in my opinion, the latter offers the best opportunities for learning and for a world where everyone wins. It requires that HAI leaders be on the same page to actively work to keep both parties in the community.  Too often recently I have seen that those who have been accused do not return.  This is counter to HAI’s goal to create change.

There is more I want to say about HAI’s policy regarding confidentiality and labels, but this essay is already too long.  I will save those comments for another time.




[i] The list doesn’t include political harassment, so apparently, it’s OK to angrily call someone a Ford Follower, or ‘worse’, Trump follower.  
[ii] taken from Howard Zehr - The Little Book of Restorative Justice

Monday, July 16, 2018

When All of You Have Passed


When all of you have passed, you’ll be sitting around, or floating around, or whatever it is one does after one passes, and someone will ask, “Hey, where’s Nagler?”  And you’ll say, “He didn’t pass.”

“What, he failed?”

No, he just didn’t pass.  He… I’ll spell it.  He D-I-E-D.”

“What?”

“He didn’t pass.  He doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Are you kidding?  Can you do that?”

“Apparently.”

 “Well why the hell did he do that?”

“Nagler didn’t believe in passing.  He believed in … you know … the “D” word.”

“He believed in dea…?”

“SHUSH!!  Don’t say that word.  I’m told if you say the… you know… the “D” word enough times it will happen to you.”

“Really?  Come on.”

“Just like Nagler.  He… he didn’t pass.”
 
“That’s friggin stupid.  Why would you want to… you know… when you could pass like everyone else?”

“I’ll miss him.”

“Me too.  What is he, just like atoms in the Universe now?”

“I guess.”

“I don’t want to think about it.  Hey, what do you want to do tonight?”

“Night?”

“Night… day… whatever it is here in this place of transition.  It’s just an expression.  What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”

“We could go down to the Tomato Ballroom.”

“You wanna?”

“I don’t know.  You wanna?”


When I was young they didn't used to say 'cancer'. They said 'C'. It was a way to hold off the fear. I've been taking workshops that suggest it's OK to welcome fear. "Hello fear". And when the fear goes to say goodbye to it. Some of that fear is just energy, like the fear at the top of a roller coaster. Some of it can be transformed to Feel Everything And Rejoice. And some can be F**K Everything And Run. But whichever, it's a real emotion and I'd rather feel it than 'pass' on it. My two cents. As I come closer to it I become less often afraid to die.



Summer Storm


A brilliant lightning strike just across the river made me scrunch up my face at the impending clap which exploded a second and a half later.  I started to breathe again, marveling from the dry safety of the porch at the torrent which descended upon the yard, the trees bending against sheets of water and wind like soldiers forbidden to abandon their posts in a storm.

Earlier today in the muggy morning warmth I’d slipped out of bed and strolled naked to the shower in the woods – a portable hot-water-on-demand affair Ishwar had created some years before among the cedars south of the house.  If you walk at a certain pace the deer flies can keep up but have trouble landing.  And then I’m protected within the force-field of the warm spray.  Afterward I alternate drying off with whipping the towel about like a horse’s tail, imagining I’m a ninja holding the insects at bay.

Now I’m at the kitchen table listening to the receding thunder and peering out at the now more civilized downpour which creates a curtain descending from the roof, reminding me of that tunnel where you can witness The Falls from the inside.   

It is Summer, and the green surrounding the house has lost the fresh brilliance of Spring, still lush but beginning its slow progression to dullness until the burst of fall colour like a firework whose flash heralds the barren sleep of snowy winter.

I muse that perhaps it is witnessing the perennial rebirth of nature that leads to the foolish belief the same will happen to us.  But I, with only one life to lead, feel conflicted.  Part of me wants to break out, explore, find new adventures in other realms.  But I am seduced and tethered by this beauty; and fear that none who leave Shangri La can ever find their way back.