Sunday, February 5, 2012

February flowers

If I knew how to cut back the brightness of the whites the delicate textures of these lovely little flowers would show a lot better. Snowdrops, they are called, and are the first of the new crop of flowers to show up in our New Year. From the litter of last years oaks they must draw their nourishment, which makes me think of the ancient association of the colour white with death. When the oaks turn green again, there will be no sign of these snowdrops. We've been having an Indian spring the last few days, and the crocuses must be hastening to open up to the sun. A few cherry trees are also in blossom.
Spring is often used as a metaphor when we want to remark on the cyclical nature of life on this planet. It's a commonplace to say that history repeats itself, and a false commonplace in my view. Looking at the history of the planet earth it's obvious that over the eons things have drastically changed. A hundred million years ago gigantic dinosaurs roamed the world. Whenever I hear some global warming propaganda all I have to do is remember that only a few thousand years ago Victoria was buried under a mile of ice. Yes, as long as the earth tilts in its orbit around the sun we will have seasons. But just as its hard to see the motion of a clock's hour hand, it's hard in a short lifespan to see the changes that accumulate from year to year and century to century, but they do nevertheless. Spring comes and goes but each spring the world is a little different. I am a little older this year, and the number of springs remaining for me to see is subtracted by one. Friends and family have died, new children have been born. "Thank heaven for little girls," goes the song, and thank heaven I am alive to see a new crop come along. I think it's only when you get old that you begin to realize what a miracle that is.
Cruise ships are another sign of spring in Victoria. They're not coming in yet except to get pulled onto our graving dock for maintenance. But there will be a spring when they don't come anymore, just as the tea clippers don't come anymore. In their heyday not many could have imagined that that era could come to an end. But it did, and now the world is a different kind of place... I mean the world of men. Seasons still come and go, but unbeknownst to those clipper captains, the seeds of their demise were already sown, and it's always like that.
At one time the city of Rome commanded a vast empire. After centuries of obscurity, it reached its peak of vigour during the time of Augustus and his successors. Not one of them would have given the least thought to a baby born in a manger in an insignificant town in the East, and no science yet known to man could have predicted that that little baby would transform the world. But he did.
One of the most important things about the Christian belief system is that every single soul matters. This is in sharp contrast to the older paganistic tradition that saw history as an ever recurring series of cycles. It was axiomatic that history repeated itself... everything was foreordained. But if you believe that then it logically follows that nothing we could possibly do could matter in the slightest.
Science doesn't admit the possibility of a supernatural creative being, but it does believe that the universe unfolds in a mechanical way. There was a Big Bang in the remote past and everything that can possibly happen was already built into the universe. That's why I think of science as a form of pantheism.
But if that's true, then what is the point of being alive? Why suffer? Why strive? Well, I don't think it's true at all. I think the Christian premise is the truth. Could it be that the ennui so evident in all our modern thinking comes from the loss of faith in that all-important Christian principle?
I do think hard times are coming. There are periods in history when all hell breaks loose. But one of the main reasons Christianity survived the destruction of the Roman order is that they knew every human life was important. That was why, unlike the pagans, they did not kill their babies. Is it so surprising that our society which doesn't value its young, has lost its sense of purpose?
But never fear. Even now, in some obscure part of the planet something new is about to be born, something to carry us a little farther than we have gone before. In the middle of the winter the days are already growing longer.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Words have always fascinated me, unlike numbers which do not seem to register very well in my brain. I have some favourite words, like crepuscule and merry and jubilant. I like it that words often have histories, like families.
The other day I talked about charisma. Today I'd like to mention virtue. Virtue is like charisma in that its original meaning is not the same as its present, popular meaning. When we talk about virtue today- usually in some amusement- we mean something like chastity or goody goodiness, even something a little sissified. But the vir part of the word is the Latin word for man. So by my amateurish etymological reasoning, virtue must originally have meant manliness.
Now there's something that's decidedly out of fashion. Manliness now means too much testosterone. Macho, another word that has faded from common use, is a word that caricatures the male of our species. The captain of the Costa Concordia, by the looks of him, would be the perfect picture of the Macho Man. Of course it was only a pose, there being nothing virtuous about deserting his sinking ship and leaving his passengers and crew to die.
It was another beautiful day in Lotus Land, a beautiful day for walking along our working waterfront, and for enjoying a coffee on the patio of the Fol Epi Bakery. I also spent $8.00 for a loaf of their delicious sourdough bread. It's a busy little place and almost idyllic where young mothers (and dads, since we are so enlightened now) bring their toddlers and dogs, and watch the ducks on the ponds and the rowers in the harbour. None of them have the look of people who ever get their hands dirty except when they plant tomatoes in their balcony pots. They are all good looking, seem intelligent, and I'm sure they eat the right organic foods and cycle to work.
I would guess that I was the only one who enjoyed the sound of Lafarge Cement's gravel crusher chugging away across the water.
It used to be that women did all the hard jobs while men sat around and polished their swords while listening to tales of heroic battles or memorable hunting expeditions. In the Middle East I think that's still the way it works. In many ways a woman's status there is worse than a slave. A slave at least represents a valuable investment, but a woman is disposable. In most native American cultures women did the fieldwork, built the houses, made the clothes, cooked, cleaned, and carried away the sewage. Such work was despised by any self-respecting Arapaho warrior, and was one of the reasons they despised white men.
That's where the word virtue comes into it. Virtue came to mean a man doing his duty, even if it meant going down with the ship while the women and children got away. That's the way it worked when the Titanic sank a hundred years ago. Things are different now.
At some point in our history manliness (virtue) meant supporting a family, protecting a family from the hardships of life as much as possible... in other words, work. Of course, there have always been men who sought to escape those kinds of duties, but all evidence indicates that those who work are much happier than those who don't. Quite simply, there is something immensely fulfilling about spending your life doing useful work.
For some reason that has always escaped me, feminists have done there best to return things to the old ways, where women do those hard jobs. And it doesn't matter that it is now pretty well established that children raised in a family consisting of a father and a mother where the father has the primary responsibility of providing food and a home are happier than single parent environments, that children grow up healthier and happier, and that the whole community benefits.
We've done pretty well under that system. Too bad it's gone out of style.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Victoria in January, part II

Charisma is a word that was heavily overused in the seventies and was accordingly dropped from favour. Of course, it was misused, as words usually are when they are bandied about by people who hardly know their real meanings.
As I watch and read the commentariat tie themselves into knots over Newt Gingrich's unlooked for win in South Carolina, it seems to me that it would be a good time to give some thought to that wonderful word, charisma. It means, quite simply, grace. But not the kind of grace that makes us think of ballerinas and such. No, this is the kind of grace that comes from above- from that higher realm I wrote about the other day.
I first started thinking about that idea when I became fascinated by the music and personality of the composer Richard Wagner. Some of the most glorious music ever written came out of his fertile imagination. It was noble, it soared, and it transformed the history of music. It was a seismic event in the music world of the 19th century. Many people hated it... and still do. That's not a bug, as they say, it's a feature. What really fascinated me was that this gift that was visited on Wagner was undeserved. Not to put too fine a point on it, by all accounts Richard Wagner was a jerk. He was not a nice man. His music was noble, but his person was petty, mean, vindictive and callous. He was especially good at using women to advance his interests and then ditching them as soon as they became inconvenient. And he didn't particularly care if they were already married, or that he was married to someone else.
Another figure more familiar in our times who had charisma was Steve Jobs. Since moderns don't grasp the ancient Greek concept of charisma, the term 'reality distortion field' was invented. But charisma was a far better expression.
Because charisma enables its host to see things the rest of us don't. While the rest of us paw over the same old bits of the puzzle, trying to arrange them in some way that will help us understand, the Steve Jobs and Richard Wagners of the world see solutions in one blinding glance. While the rest of us are afraid, they dare. That lack of fear, and the unrelenting will to advance a vision is another attribute they have that distinguishes them from the rest of us. And above all, they are able to enlist a following of devotees to become their shock troops and allies, without which they could do nothing. They are able to convince the more ordinary among us to do their bidding. The more talented and dedicated and numerous that following may be, the more likely the charismatic individual will have a major impact on the world.
But it's always wise to remember that Adolph Hitler had charisma. Jimmy Jones had charisma. Sometimes it enables evil instead of good.
At any rate, when I saw the videos of Newt Gingrich inspiring the crowds at the South Carolina debates, I knew I was seeing charisma. And if those silly commentators- even ones I greatly respect, like Mark Steyn- are still pawing over the entrails of past scandals, of various political platitudes, of political promises, etc, etc, they entirely miss the point.
Barack Obama had (has?) charisma, too. I responded in horror, just as most of the political pundits (even the conservatives) are recoiling in horror at Gingrich. He is erratic, they say, he changes his mind about things. One day he is trying to reduce the deficit, the next he is sitting with Nancy Pelosi discussing the global warming hoax. Except they weren't saying it was a hoax. But something tells me this man is the one to turn back the tide- or maybe he is the tide. Barack Obama may have been the high tide of statism, and he may have been necessary to show anyone willing to listen that his way is the way to slavery and oppression. The tide, the seasons, they go back and forth and all we can do is adjust and try to decide which wave to latch onto.
One perceptive writer on the Gingrich phenomenon compared him to Winston Churchill, and I wouldn't disagree with that. In his victory speech Gingrich spoke of American exceptionalism, which sounds a lot like charisma to me. Like Gingrich, America has lots of warts. In spite of the warts America has been the light of the world for over two hundred years. That's charisma. There's a lot more I could say about that, but I just turned 69 today and I tire easily. And it was a beautiful day in Victoria. It was warm, the sun shone, and Victoria looked young and beautiful again. Yes, I think Victoria has Charisma, too, as does the earth and especially the human race. Yes, environmentalists, we humans are also part of Nature... and though sometimes my faith is shaken, I really know that we are what the earth has been striving toward for all these eons.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Victoria in January

After snow, wind. Winter the season of dark and cold, a time of endings setting the stage for renewal. Often we are urged to anaesthetize ourselves against the sense of loss we get from this time of year, or for the ups and downs of our internal seasons. I often think that there must be a higher realm, invisible to our senses, but where the core of our being lies, a place which has its own seasons, its own weather, a place with its own hills and valleys, beauties and pitfalls, its own dangers and afflictions, but a place that is more permanent and lasting. This is the realm our souls inhabit, and this world of our senses, what we call Creation, is an extrusion of that realm. Plato set forth such a theory when he tried to understand how we know things through reason. He believed that our souls were able to see things because they were illuminated by the uncreated light of pure reason which had its origin in God. I take the concept a little further. Many philosophies have looked at this same problem and concluded that the world is an illusion, or the creation of an evil being and that the rational thing to do is to ignore it. Stoicism taught that we could learn to ignore pain. It was a popular doctrine among the militaristic Romans. Since I subscribe to the view that God is good, I conclude that he has a reason for sending us out on this strange journey we call life, and so I think its wrong to try to wall our selves off from the pain we receive from our injuries. Just like physical pain teaches us about the dangers of the physical world, the deeper pains of our inner beings is telling us something we need to know and try to understand. So whether we anaesthetize ourselves with drugs or philosophy, it's a mistake.
The strange thing about pain is that it tells us that we are alive. Pain is feeling, and we are constantly told to get in touch with our feelings. Sometimes you have to shut them down to get through a difficult time, but if you don't have them you are just as good as dead.
What brings on this train of thought is the experience of a friend of mine who lost his mother a few months ago. "Get over it," he is advised. But you never do really... and you shouldn't. If you lose a loved one it leaves a gaping hole in your heart. It heals, but the scar tissue never goes away.
And today I read a piece about what happens to people who become bonded together in marriage and then separate. She likened it to a two pieces of wood glued together with a super adhesive. They can be pulled apart but they can never be put back together again because both halves of the union have been too damaged. When the damage occurs to a human soul it becomes an ulceration that will never heal. The writer was trying to explain why a young girl should not yield to the first seducer that comes along. She also made the point that men and women are complementary. One has attributes the other lacks. We can't be complete beings without each other. This is why gay marriage is wrong. Man with man, woman with woman, these are sterile, dead end relationships which defeat the spring. With them there is only death. There can be no renewal.
Being human we are prone to do ourselves injury, but when we do let's not blame God. Let's think and ponder as the pain of our own foolishness washes over us, and thank him instead for giving us the means of finding our way back. As for that other realm, I believe we came from there and I think we are going back. I do not believe that there is death after life.
As someone who has been permanently damaged by my own folly I welcome the winter for its role in forcing me to think about it all over again.
The streets are barren today, the wind gives the illusion of life to dead leaves and scraps of newspaper which skitter along the pavement and jump up into the air.