Sunday, June 28, 2020

Just Another Ordinary Day

What day is it?

It may be that Covid 19, which has affected millions of people, has now redefined the meaning of “daily”. Alternatively, it may just be the constant reminders that I am aging, like an irritating and insistent buzzing in one’s thoughts that gets louder and louder. Regardless, over the past several months I have found that each day, while it may have a different name (such as Monday, or Friday), number, and month, has become more regimented and repetitive than ever before. Each day seems to lack serendipity, adventure and distinctiveness. In a phrase, yesterday, today, and likely tomorrow, become “just another ordinary day”. There is limited verve, vigour, energy and excitement in my days as they troop their way through each week. Each day is a soldier, lining up, one by one from left to right, uniformed and marching seven abreast down the calendar until reaching month-end when the page is flipped, and the soldiers disappear only to start the relentless parade down a new page.

Just another ordinary day.

But is it really? Is there any such thing as an “ordinary day”? Perhaps our imprisonment in the “ordinary” is self-imposed. We willingly choose to believe that the door to the cell is closed, but in truth it remains unlocked.  Our freedom to make each day something more than living in a drab cell is our choice.  We need only decide to escape the humdrum interior of our ordinary days. As my parents would remind me on long vacation road trips, “If you are bored, you have no one to blame but yourself”.

I believe that there is no such thing as an ordinary day, except for one of our own making. Instead, every moment is filled with uniqueness. Our days need not drone on like soldiers on parade.

In the same way, there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Just as each day is filled with opportunities and potential, I believe that each person is uniquely qualified to experience his or her journey of days as would an explorer.

C. S. Lewis on Twitter: "“There are no ordinary people. You have ...

Of course, there is security in the routine of an “ordinary day”. It is predictable and safe. In the same way, being an “ordinary person” living “ordinary days” frees us from responsibility to make the most out of life. But we pay a terrible price for enduring the ordinary; guilt, boredom and fear.

What can I do to change my ordinary into extraordinary? My temptation is to fill my calendar with exciting activities. But, like any false promise, these episodic experiences are short-lived. No, much more radical steps are required to ensure that I invest myself, and the hours I have each day, rather than carelessly spending the precious gift of life that I wake up to each morning.

To start, we need to recognize that it is never too late to opt out of ordinariness. The extraordinary is available to us each day. But we must be willing to search for it, to grasp hold of it, to nurture it, and to share it. It might be cleverly hidden in the simple, like a smile that penetrates politeness. Or it might be desperately complex, like taking the initiative to forgive, or seek forgiveness, to right a wrong.

    Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as     long as you look at it in an ordinary human way.           But if you hold it up against the light of God's             goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant     and bright. And then you ask yourself in                     amazement: Is this really my own life I see before     me? Albert Schweitzer.

There is no such thing as ordinary. Each of us, and each day that we live, is extraordinary.

 

 


Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Path

No one had cleared the path to the stream that ran behind our house, at least not since my then young children and I had made it minimally passable some 25 years ago. Even then, it was barely discernible as it wound its way through the forest to water’s edge. For a number of years, the rough path had been a source of adventure and discovery, a small pristine valley not easily accessible to anyone other than our family. Recently, I felt the need to explore it again.

As I stood alone looking down the steep pathway, I observed that a lot had changed in a quarter-century. Regardless, I saw no danger. The first portion of the pathway looked easy enough; a 20-foot section down which I slid, my street shoes giving me no grip on the steep incline. About halfway down the embankment I remembered it was here years ago that my kids had tried to make a sled track on a rare snowy day.  Citing safety issues, I was the first to try out the snow-packed run.  I soon found out that I was right to be concerned. There was no easy way to stop the sled ride except by plunging into a huge blackberry patch, minus the leaves but not minus the thorns.

Fortunately, this time I was able to grab a large cottonwood tree trunk to stop my descent and avoid another tangle with the older and much bigger blackberry patch. The tree I was clinging to proved to be a memorable marker as it is where the path took a sharp turn and proceeded laterally across the face of the steep slope. When I started out on that portion of the path, there were only a few smaller twigs and limbs covering up the trail. But as I dropped towards the bottom of the small valley I found that the path was almost completely overgrown. The path seemed to lead in numerous different directions at the same time. Although each of the choices looked promising, they all ultimately led to a dead end amid the dense underbrush, fallen trees and patches of stinging nettles. I could not seem to locate any of the familiar natural markers I had expected to find, like the partly decomposed log I had once stepped on, infuriating the occupants of a wasp’s nest.  The angered wasps proceeded to attack my two younger children, causing frantic screams and burning red welts.  That event became a long remembered, often recited chapter in our family history.

The brush had become so dense that I could not see the river. Instead of the noisy chatter of the water rushing over and around boulders and collapsed tree trunks, all I heard was intermittent gurgling off in the distance. Breaking the relative silence, my cell phone rang. “Where are you?” my concerned wife asked. “In the forest behind the house, but I am not sure where” I replied, “But I’ll be home in a few minutes”.

It was difficult to speed up my pace to reach the river, so I thought I would try walking along a fallen tree, like a bridge lifting me above the dense underbrush and marshy areas. However, one thing that people with Parkinson’s rarely do well is balance. In this case, I proved the point by falling off the log, toppling 3 or 4 feet to the ground, landing unceremoniously on my derrière. The struggle to regain my footing amidst the mud, skunk cabbage and wild rose thorns proved painful and time-consuming. But once on my feet again I was able to get my bearings. I finally found what appeared to be a very small deer path that wove its way along a circuitous route, leading to the riverbank. What would have taken me seven or eight minutes’ years ago, took over 30 minutes, and that was only one way! With no time to enjoy the fruits of my labor, I set off on the return trip.

While the path did bring back memories, it also left me exhausted, with my clothes soaked through with sweat, and my body bruised, scraped and scratched. Indeed, a lot has changed over the last 25 years, on the path and with me!  


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Measuring Life in Three Hour Increments

How do you measure your life?

As a lawyer, I learned early on that each workday was subject to its measurement in six minute increments. That is, generally, we legal types (as well as many others in service industries) seem tethered to the concept of what is called the “billable hour”. Lawyers routinely record their time spent working on a particular matter/file.  Then, their clients are sent invoices showing the number of hours of work performed, multiplied by the hourly rate of the professional.  The hourly rate is usually based on seniority, expertise and market conditions. In this way, the quantity of legal services provided can be measured, albeit somewhat subjectively. But the quality of the billable time is much more difficult to assess. Not all billable hours are equal.

I think most people tend to rely on quantitative intervals or measurements. These include not only increments of time but everything in life from monetary values (salary, cost of gas, bank accounts, and debt) to the number of “likes” we get on our Facebook page. The disruption of these fixed points on our calendar or other quantitative measurements can cause us to feel anxious, uncertain and insecure. At times, especially during this coronavirus pandemic era, days (and even weeks) slip by, blending into each other without much notice. Viewed from a quantitative perspective, life itself is evaporating one day, hour or even minute at a time.

During these recent pandemic days, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of evaluating my life based on qualitative assessments, not the quantity of time spent here and there. I find that, just as it is difficult to measure the quality of a billable hour, appraising one’s life subjectively is very challenging, as well as convicting. This process demands that just as we spend our money on what we deem to be important to us, how we spend our time (life’s ultimate nonrenewable resource) reveals our priorities.

I cannot measure the beauty of a sunset, the warmth of a baby sleeping in my arms, or the smell of freshly baked bread, but I can continuously ask myself, “Have I spent my time simply calculating life’s quantitative elements (such as age), or am I truly living out my life priorities?”  For me, this is not just an existential exercise. It is grappling with the very practical question, “How can I live more purposefully?”

Saturday, May 30, 2020

A Wake-Up Call


Despite its maximum-volume, most annoying “Classic” intermittent blaring, the alarm failed to fully penetrate the dream that was fully occupying my sleep-deprived mind. Normally, my alarm wakes up my wife first, who in turn wakes me up, shaking me until I respond. When she has gotten up earlier, or when I am travelling without her, I often remain in my dream-occupied half-sleep for a while longer.  It is as if my neurotransmitters, compromised as they are by my Parkinson’s disease, refuse to face the reality of each day any sooner than they have to.
On this particular occasion, I was travelling with my good friend, Carson (with whom I had travelled around the world in 2012). He was well aware of the impaired state of my hearing, as well as my morning dopamine deficiency routine. He had been awakened from a deep sleep in his room some 20 feet away by the aggressively grating sound of my 8 AM alarm. When I didn’t turn the alarm off, he ventured into my room, shook my shoulder to wake me, pointed in the direction of the alarm clock and returned to his room. It was then, amid the electronic shrieking of the alarm, that I noticed that, squinting at the bold red numbers showing on the alarm clock beside my hotel room bed, it was 8:04 AM.
 
I reached over to turn the alarm off, pressing the snooze button numerous times, with increasing frustration at its lack of response. But I could not seem to get the noise to stop. Anxiety mounting, I sat up, searching for the power supply to the alarm clock. Of course, this required that I turn the light on and pull out the bedside table to search for the plug-in, which was cleverly hidden behind the bed headboard. After much effort, I was finally able to find and extract the plug from the power bar. But the alarm squawking continued. By then it was 8:11 AM.

Carson returned to my room, this time pointing to my iPhone dutifully recharging overnight on the same bedside table as the hotel alarm clock. Enough neurons were firing by this time for me to realize that I had not set the hotel alarm clock at all. As I did normally each morning, I had relied on my iPhone for my wake-up call at 8 AM.

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time evaluating the stress-producing “noise” in my life. Increasingly, I have felt a sense of alarm. Life is not getting any shorter! My capacity for coping with complexity and passionate pursuit of numerous priorities at the same time has been waning. All the while, there is an alarm sounding, a wake-up call that I am anxious to silence. Hitting the snooze button doesn’t seem to work. Even attempts to strangle the sources of anxiety fail. What can be done? Maybe the alarm clock saga can act as a suitable metaphor.

Consider these questions:

Have I chosen the right alarm clock? What am I going to rely on to wake me up? Is it reliable? Will or should it begin with family, friends, or professionals?

What are the sources of “noise” in my life, as opposed to important “alarms”? Do I have a plan to deal with these?

Have I set the right time for a “wake-up call”? Will the time for which my “alarm” is set give me enough sleep so that I will be capable of meeting the demands of the day ahead of me? Do I have the right balance between self-discipline and self-care? Am I prone to hit the “snooze button” too quickly or not quickly enough?

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The F Bomb?


WARNING: Viewer discretion is advised. The following may contain language and opinions that are offensive or disturbing to some readers.
Over the past weeks, largely because of the “Stay Home” directive flowing from the coronavirus pandemic, I have spent an extraordinary amount of time watching Netflix. As have the other 170 million of its subscribers.  So attuned to the introductory formatting of movies and television series, I have become part of what I would characterize as a type of ‘herd immunity’. In fact, the warnings, typically in relation to “graphic bloody violence”, sexuality, and “strong language”, have become teasers, of sorts, enticing audiences with what amount to invitations to discover what exactly is meant by those terms.

Growing up, swearing and foul language were not permissible in any circles of society in which I took part. And the F word reserved for itself a special level of disdain during those preteen and teenage years. Sure, some of the rough, rebellious crowd used such language within their own social cliques, but it was considered unacceptable in any public setting. Perhaps taking the metaphor too far, I heard teachers and parents threaten children with “washing their mouths out with soap” for use of such profanity, although I cannot say that I ever saw the ritual performed.

Today, it seems the use of “foul” language by almost anyone, women or men, professionals or politicians, elicits little more than a raised eyebrow or, more likely, a yawn. Given its proliferation in music, movies, stand-up comedy, television, book titles and entertainment of all sorts, not to mention everyday verbal and written communication, many people do not even recognize its frequency of use. Take, for example, the F bomb. It seems this verb has lost all of its supposedly redeeming explosive power and shock value due to its common usage (often multiple times in one sentence). Of course, there are numerous derivatives in the F bomb family, such as F off, F you, WTF, FUBAR and the more recently adopted disparaging mother-f___. Although it remains tethered to the original definition of the F word, “violent and, typically, elicit copulation”, it seems to be bandied about with a large variety of meanings, leaving it difficult to define except in the context of its use in any given sentence or phrase.

Now, despite my introductory warning, I can almost hear the responses of some of those who are reading this post saying, “I can use whatever language I want. You’re just being judgmental and “puritanical”, trying to control others freedom of expression.” Look, I know there is little chance that anyone reading this post will cease using the word, or watching movies that do. Perhaps because, as one author noted, “few words in our ever-expanding language are as flexible or versatile[i]” as the F bomb?

However, I think it is worth asking the question, “is the use of the F- word beneficial, helpful, definable, or worthy of including in our daily lexicon?” Or, has the expletive worn out its welcome, becoming just another tired, overused and meaningless expression that is better left out of any helpful communication?



[i] "Why F___ Is One of the Best Words in the English Language", by Max Hill, The Peak, March 3, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2020

What’s Next?


There always seems to be a letdown after an adventure.  In most cases, the air in the balloon begins to escape before the end of the journey.  Such is the case in my trip to Antarctica.  That deflated feeling begins to creep into the final days and hours as I anticipate the dream, converted to an experience, become a memory. 

It took 7 years for the idea of going to Antarctica to become a reality.  It was conceived in the waning moments of the trip I took with my dear friend, Carson Pue, around the world in 2012.  We were in New Zealand, the end of the trip and splitting up to travel different directions after together.  We had visited 17 countries, experiencing more adventures than we could count.  We found ourselves asking, “What’s next?”  We had visited all seven continents except one, so it seemed logical to answer that question with ”Antarctica”, despite knowing nothing about what was involved nor having any appreciation for what challenges would become part of our lives in the following years.  I won’t recount the circumstances, except to say it has been a difficult series of events since we naively agreed that the next big adventure would be Antarctica.

Now, the journey to Antarctica is over, as well as our visit to Buenos Aries, Ushuaia and Puerto Madryn, all in Argentina, the Falkland Islands (under Great Britain’s flag) and Montevideo, Uruguay.  Our venture to the last continent, the most southerly place we will ever experience, is behind us.  The memories of this extraordinary expedition are already indelibly etched by the synapses into our minds (if that is what synapses do, physiologically speaking).  We are not likely to forget being bundled in layers of clothes to stand on deck staring in disbelief at the brilliant white and blue icebergs, and the countless glaciers with sheer faces intersecting the frigid waters.  There were innumerable sightings of playful penguins racing our ship as well as too many whale sightings to recall.  Though uninhabited by humans, other than the few itinerant occupants of small scientific stations scattered around the perimeters of this frozen continent, it is much bigger than I ever imagined (5.5 million square miles, 14.4 million square kilometers – the size of the continental USA and Mexico combined and 1.5 times larger than Canada).  It is difficult to believe that, while much of the earth’s surface has been occupied, or at least discovered, for millennia, Antarctica was only discovered in 1820, a mere 200 years ago, and is far from being fully explored.

Still, despite my age and decreasing mobility, energy and time, I find myself searching my bucket list for the next adventure; asking the same question, “What’s next?  Because it is never too soon to plan the next adventure.

I have learned something about adventures over the years. They represent more of an attitude than an action or activity. They are not so much an idea as the experience realized when circumstances dictate or provide opportunity. It doesn’t take a trip to Antarctica to have an adventure. But it does take a willingness to engage and embrace uncertainty and risk, to step outside of the comfort zone we so readily occupy. The recipe for adventure needs a dash of courage, a sprinkle of faith, and a measure of patience as one waits for the unique taste of significance to fill one’s senses.

Whether challenging the unfamiliar elements, grappling with fear, disease, failure, loss or insecurity, when an adventure reaches the time when it’s almost over, or there is a new chapter, there are three things to do.  First, plant the memories in your garden of adventures, where you can stroll through the variegated colors, moods, characters, significance and impact.  I need to remember the things I learned along the way, not just ‘move on’.  Second, do not let melancholy, disappointment or resentment taint the final hours or days.  Drink it to completion.  I am often prone to miss the special or surprising endings waiting for me unless I am looking for them.  Third, begin in earnest to imagine the next adventure before the current one is fully spent.  Big or small, commit yourself to live on purpose, embrace the known and unknown.  Dream again.  Plan again.  

We are made for adventure.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Overwhelmed by the Vastness - Antarctica

Buenos Aires is a long ways from Vancouver, even at the speed of a state-of-the-art Boeing 777. Including connections, the air portion of the journey took approximately 24 hours to cover the 12,300 km we traveled.

Add to that more than three full days of steaming southward 2700 km on board the Celebrity Eclipse from the capital of Argentina to our first port of call, the city of Ushuaia, labelled “the end of the world”; the distance seems immense.  Still, it is more than 1000 km to Antarctica.
Far from land, during the full days at sea, the South Atlantic Ocean offered no points of reference, except perhaps the stars that struggled to be noticed during the few, short hours of night. Increasingly, as we journeyed southward, we were replacing the familiar with the unknown, and in the process experiencing a deep and overwhelming sense of the vastness of distance, time and space.

While the passage has been smooth to date, and the weather almost warm despite patches of rain and a little snow, there seems to be a shared sense that the waves may not continue to be limited to 10-foot rollers. And the increasingly sharp bite of the wind on deck seems to foreshadow a colder climate would soon be upon us. Indeed, it is the uncertainty, the mystery and the adventure that seems to have drawn many of the other passengers to this most southern of all itineraries, a far different crowd from those occupying the sizzling beaches of the Caribbean.

Why travel all this way when the scenery, weather and water are all so severe, so unwelcoming, so far from the familiar?  Maybe because such a place; the coldest, driest, most isolated place on earth, where simply surviving for more than a short time defies our pride, scorns our self-sufficiency, and reduces our self-proclaimed conquests into short-lived tales of arrogance.

Rounding Cape Horn lighthouse, I can only imagine the incredible fear and feeling of disconnection from the rest of the world felt by the mariners of 200 years ago, or now the Chilean lighthouse-keeper and his family.  The waves in the Drake Passage jostle among themselves as if to rub shoulders in a vain attempt to get warmer.  Standing on deck 15, far above the grey-cold sea, I feel the icy wind cutting into my down-lined jacket.  As it reaches through the layers and touches my skin I have images in my head of sailors of old clambering over icy decks, while fighting bare-handed with frozen lines and heavy, clumsy sails in an attempt to keep the ship from being caught and crushed by the relentless ice.  Such a mental picture seems light-years away from the comfort of our luxury cruise-liner. 
 But the starkness of this snow and ice bound continent presents itself, as it always has to all who get caught in its unforgiving stare; powerful, uninviting, even threatening to those of us who become spellbound at the abruptness of its jagged peaks and towering icebergs that stab the grey-blue frigid water.

Life today is a long way from where it once was, just as Antarctica is a great distance from Canada’s West Coast.  But, at times, I feel lost, abandoned without bearings, snow-blind in a white-out, left to be swallowed by the vastness; my own Antarctica.  Thank you to those who courageously give hope when all seems hopeless, who choose to challenge the formidable, and lead those of us who are sometimes lost in the immensity of living to a place of purpose and peace.