Uncle Rey

My Uncle Rey was an artist whose creativity spilled over. Most but not all of his brilliance went into song and his guitar strings, or on to his canvases and sketch pads. Most but not all of his brilliance was less recognised than it ought to have been. Uncle Rey generated. He didn’t self-promote. (His children channel the same talents and energies.)

Uncle Rey taught me what little guitar I play, and from a young age he kindled my love of music. When I was an undergraduate, he and Penny fed me once a week, fuel, as Rey and I learned and played a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Neil Young…

Early last Wednesday morning I was out late with some friends in Detroit — singer-songwriters, fine ones. When the bar closed, we ended up in a top floor apartment, passing a guitar around. In this company, each song seemed better than the last. One friend urged me to play something. I haven’t played in years, let alone sang in front of anyone, and I said so. I’ve resisted playing a million times. But for some reason, on this night I only protested for so long.

I played Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.” My unpractised fingertips screamed in pain, and (in this company) I sang as tentatively as you might expect. Yet I summoned this bewitchingly simple song, remembered most of the verses, its chords, the timings, the emphases. As I remember those few moments, my friends smiled and sang along, maybe even a little surprised.
In the late afternoon on the next day, my mother called me on the telephone. She was distraught: her dear brother and best friend, my Uncle Rey, had died suddenly in the night. We consoled each other, but after awhile I couldn’t help but ask when precisely my uncle had died.

Rey had passed away in the early morning, at the very hour I was in a place and with a set of players he would have savoured. At the very hour I was attempting “Sugar Mountain.”

Uncle Rey and I used to play that song together. I hadn’t played or sang for years.


Published in: on 14 Apram15 2011 at 9:37 am  Comments (1)  

That Hat

I lost my favourite hat last night. I have other hats, but right now all that is beside the point. Now’s for mourning the most particular of hats.

Our treasured things do have lives, real biographies within our own. They reflect our heights and our limits, become part of us by surviving our curiosities and contradictions.

My hat was soft felt and deep grey. It came from grey — from grand, stony Edinburgh, Scotland. It had been an impulsive, extravagant purchase, more than twenty-five years ago. I’ve worn that hat, drawn great comfort from it, for the quarter century since, half my life. With its frayed band, all marked up and misshapen, any of its serious magnificence became also a little silly. It fit so well.

Donning that hat was like putting on myself. More than merely covering my head, it concealed what I needed and invited my possibilities, granting me freedoms, containing and guarding over whatever was going on inside me.

A costume of escape from crabbed cares, from duties and proprieties? No, that hat was more of a gentle, felty cue, to myself and others — a signal I could wear. Relax, breathe, spread, stroll, open out, find special ones and special places. Amuse and be amused. Take things in, notice, listen to the world, its music, its conversations.

It’s melodramatic, maybe too much to attach to a thing. But that was one venerable hat.

Published in: on 14 Aprpm14 2011 at 3:43 pm  Comments (2)  

Krishna and Company (as seen imperfectly from a balcony and the corner of a tea stall)

The unerring cock has crowed, the sun is rising but not yet hot, and it is morning in a back street in Mumbai, India. Here is a man named Krishna, aged fifty-eight years, whose job it is to polish a small fleet of taxi cabs before their drivers begin their day’s work in the late morning and afternoon. There are nine cars in all, and quite an assortment, from the trusty black and yellow autorickshaw, to the ubiquitous Suzuki Muruti, to a gorgeously regal white tank known as the Ambassador.

With three differently coloured plastic buckets, an assortment of rags, and a stealthily “borrowed” water hose at his disposal, it takes Krishna most of the morning to complete his task. Each car needs roughly twenty-five minutes of his attention. He’d be quicker, of course, but considerably less happy, if he was alone. Which, decidedly, he is not. He has learned to factor in a series of faithful interruptions to his steady regime of soap-scrub-rinse-and-polish. In fact, human interactions, rather than cleaning the cars, become the point.

The crippled cobbler drops in first, en route to his shop, which is the patch of pavement on a near-by street corner where he has been spreading his blanket and erecting his shoe stand for almost three decades. A painter comes by on a bicycle. He has a piece of information, and he shares it conspiratorially with a wink and a laugh before re-mounting his bike and continuing on his way, impossibly laden with a dozen paint cans somehow bound together around his handlebars and basket. A man on a chair by the street is a kind of guardian angel. He never really moves, just surveys his newspaper, and barks out selected highlights to Krishna, whether his companion wants them or not. The driver of the Ambassador is reliably picky. He has no one to boss about at home, so he is sure to show up early each morning. He struts about, fussily pointing out an inconsistency in Krishna’s polishing of the right fender, a insufficiently gleaming corner on the silver roof rack.

And who’s this now? It’s a sniffy woman in big ear rings and an elegant golden shalwar kameez. I’ll guess she’s an aspirant (frustrated?) Bollywood actress who lives in a third-floor flat with her sister, only leaving to go to the gym or to a dance class to practice the “two hip lift” thing. Utterly self-absorbed, she comes by only after a fashion: she is yakking into her mobile phone while impatiently waiting for Krishna to move his hose.

The housekeeper who cleans in the dilapidated mansion that has become a hotel is much better value from Krishna’s point of view. She is bent from years of hard work, but with her bright eyes and laugh as easy as the part in her long dark hair, she is more than enough to make an older man ponder what might once have been. Besides, she has time. She has generosity not just emerging in her face, but from her very pelvis. She brings a snack, sustenance reliably spiced with entertaining gossip about the possessions and habits of the hotel’s international array of guests.

What a strange lot, these guests – all foreign tourists – seem to be. But they too have become local players, however fleeting. Like driftwood washed up on a beach until the tide of their lives and concerns carries them away, back to this train terminal or that airport. They pay Krishna little mind and interrupt him even less. They mean him no harm, but from their perspective he is human scenery en route to Colaba market, the city tour, or the boat to Elephant Island. Judge them and their gaze (and everyone else’s) if you wish. Some places and people are more beautiful, more captivating, than others. As Western strangers with eyes for India and its airs, sounds, smells and ways, they are simply the most recent. Just round the corner there’s someone selling “orientalising brew,” and next to that shop you know there is a frothing cup of “provincialising europe” and the “subaltern” sip.

If Krishna wants to be appreciated more deeply, he has other options. There is his beloved cha – if he has managed to keep to schedule then surely once, but maybe even twice, each morning. Maybe his friend the housekeeper will stop in? Krishna stretches his back between autos, looks this way then that, then saunters down the road. Past the beauty parlour, the shop selling excellent language classes, two watch repair men, the laundry, the tailor, a boy selling collared shirts on an oil drum, and a two-table restaurant specialising in dosas —  to the tea stall. With one step, he enters the steamy, aromatic, cup-clanking court of Ramesh. With golden reading spectacles askew on the end of his nose, silver stubble on his chin, and approximately four strands of hair tied up behind his head, Ramesh rules. He brews the cha, and commands a ready staff of stirrers and washers and deliverers. Ramesh reigns benignly over all comers, local and alien. Krishna pays only half of the usual five rupees for his tea. There are benefits of being in the middle, a trusted regular in this local economy. Voices are everywhere, competing against the din to be heard.

The tea break becomes the whole morning. It starts, it ends, it begins again. People float in an out. They do not take home enough to live in the dignity they deserve. But for Krishna, imperial Ramesh, the housekeeper, the snotty driver, and all the others, this back street is out front – less a place of business than a place of life itself. The stuff, the ceremony, the gestures, the accidents. Spaces of showing and sharing, and concealing a thing or two.

Published in: on 14 Febam13 2011 at 9:57 am  Comments (2)  

“A stroke of vapour,” with Paulo Barone

Paulo Barone, February 2013, Mumbai

Paulo Barone, February 2013, Mumbai

“It’s just a little book,” said Paulo Barone. “They’re charging only 250 rupees!” I could already imagine his mischievous smile. For it’s a little book only in dimensions. It’s big, in truth, drawing on diverse strands of philosophical, religious, and literary learning. Vast in is scope. It is poetic, philosophically dense, and maximalist in style. It is enormous in its implications for how we live and dream, or better put, how we might live and dream today and in the future. Barone’s subject? He inquires after the human condition in the here-and-now, while well aware that he, like each of us, comes from somewhere, brings knowledge and experience, perhaps brings faith, from somewhere.  This is searching, with compassion and concern and without fear.

Following his own learning and yearning have made Paulo Barone a purposeful wanderer. He’s a spiritual cartographer who declares, early in the book, that we – human beings — need an atlas, a map, some kind of mental “laboratory,” to orient our minds and bodies.

On Barone’s map, the protagonist sails East, engages the East, while always recalling and re-animating the West. He is as interested in points of contrast as in points of convergence. Our author is ancient and new, expansive and focussed. He knows that excellent maps for living are often old and of diverse provenance, and that it is a joy to linger lovingly in the world’s histories, amidst the inherited, plural wisdoms of people. But he is also traversing the modern and contemporary world, venturing into our present condition, with questions and compassion

We require a map because, at a certain point in each of our mature lives, singularly exquisite memories from our childhoods, spotlit illuminations from deep in our subconscious experience, moments we thought were nothing but what Joyce called “crumpled throwaways,” will press forward, whispering for our attention. Things are only known when they are on the point of vanishing, he contends. Barone believes that we need to find a way through to these “remainders,” to climb back within them, for they motivate our thoughts and lives still.

Above all, Barone explains, we need a map because of what life, for so many, has become and is becoming. He refers to “a turbid and blurred present” (84); to too many humans huddling contentedly beneath “the umbrellas of convention,” keeping back the creative chaos that would refresh and that could bring originality and invention (66). We inhabit, he proposes, “a dot-like condition,” by which he means a subject position in which the “’individual’ [is] suffocated by enjoyment [quite “saturated” in fact],” an “autostic” and “obtuse consumer,” “denuded and uprooted a vanishing subjectivity on “a mediatised landscape of reality,” often dominated by technologically-produced and –presented portals and communication strategies. It’s all so alluring (especially for our children?), with the internet as its webby pinnacle, but it is also “interminable.” The modern condition flows and flows, it never stops, it never sleeps. It doesn’t need to stretch its back, crack its neck, or fill its lungs with air. It pretends to be wise, to be offering up answers, and fast, fast, but it regurgitates clichés and conventions, it is really rather slow, just “turning around and around on itself,” so much “re-shuffling” reality disguised as the meaning of life.

What a surprise when Barone suggests that our “dot-like condition,” while clearly so dangerous, might also bring a kind of deliverance, a freedom.

Paulo Barone calls out to any of us who are modern escape artists, shedding past selves, hiding within ourselves while hiding from ourselves. Where are you going, what are you doing out here without a map?! He writes that many of us moderns have reached a point at which “we must hesitate. It may be a door into emptiness, a precipice . . . maybe only a way to forget senseless lives, suppressed lives, and along with them, to forget also the senselessness of certain amputated, violated moments, which are to be found in every life” (89).

“If we are a dot and the world has vanished, the vanishing has become our present: and it is, then, to the vanishing, the remoteness of what is past, the loss of what has faded away that we must address ourselves, interrupting this mournful work that is the passing of time.” (89-90) Addressing, attending to, the very “vanishing.”

To find hopelessness or despair or disorientation in Barone’s writing would be a mistake. Barone is neither lost nor forlorn. And he does not wish any of us to be so. He is telling us of his journey. His “thought-atlas” is partly about a “de-activation” of the fullness of his Western cultural heritage, but more essentially also of its re-generation and interaction with India, and Indian knowledge traditions.  He seeks “authentic fraternity,” and in this respect, his map-making, his track-seeking, is in the here-and-now.

He is saying that although the contaminating haze of modern life seems to thicken and blind us – can seem to envelop us in a daze of downward distractions, anxiety and deceleration of our best intellectual and sensuous energies — we are in fact facing opportunity. The eroding world, crumbling past ruins, falling away, might leave us be. Might leave us free. We can find in the semi-darkness, in the very “vanishing,” new thresholds, purposes and feelings to explore. Yesterday morning, delivering his paper before the conference, he spoke a sentence that might well have fit into the book. He said: “we are here to tell things.”  To pay attention to what Barone calls “reality in detail (35).” express ourselves, to converse with and to open up others. As W.G. Sebald put it: “One could not see before.”

What we choose to tell about, the nomad stories we narrate, the dance we summon — this is up to us.  Leading by example, Barone seems to be saying in this book: shut out the noise, reflect on yourself, on others and the world, but don’t expect to complete your task. Enter and embrace our never-ending human thicket, with its many circuitous tracks and paths, it many ways in as opposed to out. My enthusiasms and perplexities will not be yours, your strengths and strangenesses will enlighten me, just as mine may teach you. Languages, words – spoken, written, and most importantly, shared – are our medium. Our process of writing ourselves and the world involves precise observation of much which once seemed insignificant, a remnant. Our process of telling each other is a permanent state of being, of inexhaustible elaboration. “We are here to tell things.” “One could not see before.”

Paulo Barone knows there have been other thinkers, other spiritual cartographers who have trodden West-East paths related to his own, including Carl Jung himself. Barone has studied them. Raimon Pannikar looms perhaps largest, as does Pannikar’s temptation to juxtapose the West and the East, the West as closed, finished and circular, India as an infinite point. I see the point of Pannikar’s characterization. In my own way, I have gazed into the soulless eyes of Western Modernity, and sought escape, to run for the hills. And yet, for me, Pannikar partakes of the very same kind of dualism, the very binary opposition-making, and “principle of non-contradiction” that he pins on “the West.” I much prefer Barone’s more expansive view.

There is a moving passage in the book in which Paulo is in the monsoon in Benares, by the Ganges. He admires the East, and India in particular. But he is pondering the fact that some in the West experience “radical dissatisfaction with their cultural affiliation,” they have noticed their own culture’s slippage, the forgetting, the “falling away from focus,” the “violent fragmentation,” (20, 21). They have paid heed to “creative cues,” he notes, sought to address the divide. They make an “effort to bear out what occurs in the middle-between . . . the interpenetration of both.” (54) Barone’s incline towards a new “middleness” needs words to describe it. He writes of a “reassembly”, a “re-unification,” (21) humans moving with the practice of their minds and bodies towards a renewed interculture.  “Shape may be given to the new” (100).

Travel, study, reflection, listening, practice, all flows into the “thought-atlas” of our bodyminds, and grants perspective: mobile, but not frenetic, we arrest the falling away. We begin to see ourselves as the size of dots, we begin to notice details, strident memories re-surface. Dot-subjectivity can find its way to breath, its meaningful language. “Daily life is mysticism,” asserts Barone, building on the illuminations of Proust, Pannikar, Benjamin, among others. We don’t simply survive. We savour, he continues, “the astonishing quiet of absolute permanence in the present.” (71)

Some books one can summarise neatly and smartly. This one? I am certain I have missed out huge swathes of what he is saying. When I read the book again, I will apprehend new thoughts and layers, a different book entirely.

I can do no more than make an astonished pass. This is what I have noticed. My words are an invitation extending outwards, stirring your curiosity, that you might consider Barone’s delvings for yourselves.

My presentation of Mystical Survival: The Geography of the Infinitely Near, by Paulo Barone (Varanasi, India: Pilgrims Publishing, 2012)

– 2 February 2013, Somaiya Vidyavihar, Mumbai, India

Published in: on 14 Febam13 2011 at 8:13 am  Leave a Comment  

Do you remember?

Overheard near Massey College earlier this evening…

Do you remember being a student at university? On the brink of becoming keen?

Do you remember being surprised by learning? By how someone, reading a poem aloud, would make you cry and think and connect, and then talk, and think again?

Suddenly grades and regurgitation took their backseat.

Do you recall Learning revealing herself to you? When did you greet her? Her unfolding process, inherently incomplete, continuous complicating yet simply exquisite? Crazy tireless because timeless crazy, swaying wide, dipping narrow – her movements the motion of Life itself? Learning as Life’s Dancer, for whom one may always yearn but never reach.

Do you remember finding out that the so-called disciplines and fields of knowledge often seep into one another?

Do you remember discovering that natural intelligence and width of knowledge might be discovered almost anywhere, in nearly anyone?

Discovering the power of evidence artfully portrayed? That proof needs persuasion? But that book learning of the mind hungers for the body, as the heavens need the earth?

That intellectual courage and conviction, and generosity of spirit mixed with humour, with wit, are the things truly to seek and to admire?

Do you remember when you first felt the immense privilege of belonging to an intellectual community, in whatever nook or cranny – however humble? What are you reading? Why did that film move you so? What from your childhood is there, pressing in, and never goes away?

When did you realise the preciousness of a great library? Of browsing its unexpected stores? Of time to read, to study simply and profoundly and open-endedly?

Do you remember when it dawned on you that research is not work, but rather a vital, recurring, habit-forming gift — that research is a capacity?

Was there a teacher who changed it all? A presence, a curious – restlessly contextualising — person who caught your interest, who was nourishing and courageous? Rigorous and imaginative? Practical and passionate? A flawed and flailing and therefore infinitely more convincing mentor?

Was there a course of study, a research assignment, a challenge, an opportunity, a trip, a single reading, a discussion, that clinched things somehow? An experience that has –despite the distance between your personal and professional trajectories — remained a touchstone in your life, however built upon by need, and by the restless work of memory?

How much of your core being truly took shape during the opportunity of your years of university study? To draw attention to, and to nourish these kinds of experiences and attitudes before learning are why we are here.

Published in: on 14 Apram12 2011 at 1:36 am  Leave a Comment  


“1546” is an address on the sign. Framed in painted-chipped earthy green, it’s a perfect invitation for an early modern historical interpreter. (Must have been a good year, right there in the core of the sixteenth century. If it wasn’t visited by a plague of locusts.) Mezzrow’s might be the perfect bar – at least perfect in a Toronto-heart-of-Parkdale kind of way. The ugly-beautiful sign beckons only those who are able to see.

Wonders sometimes come in the dark, in the deeply dim. It’s not gloom. There are too many thriving plants (how?) in Mezzrow’s – too many unwashed ponytails, too many punk country chicks, too many vital nooks and crannies for exiles on main street – to call the atmo gloomy.  The wood is dark reddish brownish, true. But there’s all the multi-coloured books, the ricochet of shelves. And there are oil paintings, textures inviting other senses. Feels calm and right. Cozy. Sounds like? The murmur of talk and laughter. And up, a layer higher, the west coast game of Hockey Night in Canada streams. It’s always on, flashing by on two televisions, either fifteen-years-old or unnaturally small. There’s a bartender named Jason. He is also perfect. Because Jason knows. He doesn’t need telling.

Whatever would appear, if the lights ever came on . . . it wouldn’t be Mezzrow’s.

Published in: on 14 Maram12 2011 at 12:56 am  Leave a Comment  


Traveller’s Blues, take two. A mid-itinerary home-bound flight from Madrid is cancelled, and it’s Frankfurt airport — but with only a half-night to kill, and no time to do anything real, what’s up?.

People are flooding into an airport hotel in a forest  — huge queues, some of them consisting of other Air Canada refugees, while the others are predominantly Japanese flight crews. Individuals from the two groups endure check in, retreat to their respective rooms, only to re-emerge in the “lost in translation” lounge (it is actually named “Con.Nex.Ions,” something even Dickens — if somehow magically resurrected, then descended into post-postmodern hackdom and looking to name the bar in his latest novel — could not have dreamt up. A sign in English promotes the meeting facilities: “perfect for your important intercessions.” It’s an alluring prospect for Europe’s economic gurus and corporate titans at present). The new hotel guests have not begun to mix. At all.

The bar’s Saskatchewanites have freshened up. In matching fanny packs they fairly yelp in excitement as their bottle of the Lord’s Reisling arrives. (Air fucking Canada is paying, remember, up to 25 euros, and the night and its forbidden pleasures are young… unlike the folks from Saskatchewan.) The only items, beyond passports and cameras, to emerge from the fanny packs are eye drops and allergy medicine. Opportunities for important intercessions don’t happen every day, and the Saskatchewanites won’t be caught unprepared.

The prospect of divine eruption doesn’t phase the Japanese flight crew. But, changed into leisure-wear that is somehow more uniform-like than even their epaulet-laden pilot gear, the Osakan flyers are harder to please. They draw reading glasses and thin novels from velvet leisure-pockets. They pace between bar and dark corners, seeking best brooding zones and vantage points, sipping at tumblers of Calvados.

It’s cheerful innocence and fanny packs vs devil-may-care and elegant leisure pockets. Meanwhile, Germany and Europe-a’bubble-in-2012 are out there somewhere. But reality is suspended in an airport hotel. It consists of a protective waiter, Bitburger Pil on tap, and football commentary humming in soothing and low, as Bremen calmly takes apart Stuttgart FC.

Published in: on 14 Febam12 2011 at 9:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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