Saints preserve us!

Pope Francis has put two of his predecessors, John XXIII and John Paul II, on the fast track to sainthood.  Well, alright, for all I know, they were fine people, and maybe deserve some recognition.  Setting aside for the moment the question of all the millions of other fine people who were their contemporaries, but not popes or even Catholics, I have a major quibble with the reasoning here.

According to the ancient rules of such things, to even get this far (beatitude) there has to have been an attested miracle.  This can vary widely, from healing the sick to simply not rotting in the casket.  In the case of John Paul II, there have been two alleged miracles, both involving inexplicable cures from incurable medical conditions after praying to him (while dead, of course) to intercede with God on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Here’s what’s weird.  Presumably, had JP II not been in heaven, all those pleas for intercession would have been for nothing, and the women involved would still be sick today, if they hadn’t died first.  But according to the Church, God is perfectly just.  The whole thing seems to resemble a lottery, in which your health depends not on medicine, or even on your personal faith or the extent of your prayers, but on whether you guessed right as to the eternal disposition of some dead person.

Of course, this is just a minor quibble, in the face of the idea that God, presumably the creator of the universe and hence all of the laws of physics, will suspend those laws on the request of someone from earth.  And not do it for anyone who doesn’t ask nicely, or even for the vast, vast majority of those who do.

Mysterious ways, indeed.

Ah, youth

Another tale from the annals of my splendidly misspent youth.  As usual, I have changed the names, out of a rather quaint sense of propriety.

Well, there we were, the lot of us squeezed comfortably into the crevices of a small, 5th floor pension a block from Plaza Cataluña in Barcelona.  What did we expect?  When you’re young, love blooms early and often, or at least what passes for love, some combination of lust and infatuation, I suppose.  Mother Nature gives us a double shot of hormones to get us making more of ourselves before we get distracted by life’s illusions.  For ordinary mammals, this is pretty straightforward; for us humans, anything but.

The Pension Fontanella was, above all, cheap, and the landlord easy going.  For 50 peseatas a day, about 75 cents in the exchange rate of the day, you got a bed in one of a half dozen or so rooms with anywhere from two to six beds each. In the morning was an included breakfast, of endless coffee, scones and butter, sometimes jam.  For another 30 pesetas, you could go down the street a ways to the worker’s cafeteria and get an enormous midday meal consisting, typically, of a giant bowl of paella, a grilled meat and potatoes course, and flan for dessert, all washed down with a Coca Cola bottle filled with cheap Spanish wine.  We thought Europe on $5 a Day, a popular guide book at the time, was woefully extravagant.

I won’t say the Pension Fontanella was a den of iniquity.  It was 1970.  The world was in one of its usual celebrations of youthful exuberance to accompany the coming of age of a postwar cohort, and the horrors of AIDS were nowhere on the horizon.  There were drugs, yes.  The landlord doubtless shared a portion of his profits with the local Guardia Civil.  It was 1970.  Mostly hashish, taken with a kind of connoisseurship: Moroccan blond, versus Lebanese red, etc.  Personally, while I had indulged lavishly while in military service, I had lost interest since my discharge.  I had come to find that while the first half hour or so of getting high was pleasant enough, after that I would often want to do something, and the hash haze became an obstacle.  Take whatever that says about the military as you wish; it was a different institution back in the days of Vietnam and the draft.

Anyway, as I said, there we were, merrily hopping from hash to hash and bed to bed, all bedazzled by the sheer possibility of life, blissfully ignorant of folly and its curses.  We played music; I imagined myself to be a competent guitarist and passable singer, mostly because of my friend Sid, who was so brilliant that when we played together, it made my amateurish thrashing about sound like intentional rustication.

Then, in walked Inga, and set it all a-tumble.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful, though her features were regular enough.  But, musically, she was head and shoulders above the quotidian, workmanlike talent we were used to.  It was the way she sang, with her eyes, gliding atop the effortless guitar lines with a sublime inevitability.  She made the trite seem fresh, and the fresh seem stunning; most of all, she made it seem personal to every male listening.  I was smitten.  So were we all.

She had arrived in the afternoon from nowhere in particular, and half the denizens of the pension sat far into the night under the spell of her singing and playing.  I fell asleep with the resolve that, in the morning, I would find her, and away from the rest of her admiring audience, I would have a chance at connecting.

Well, morning did come, and I found her, but not alone.  There she was at the reception desk, guitar and backpack all cinched up and ready to go.  Next to her was Billy, whom I had come to consider a good friend.  They were checking out.  Together.

Blap!  Just like that.  I lost my moorings.  I stammered a “good morning,” and asked, “What’s going on?  Are you leaving?”

“Yeah, Billy said, smiling broadly.  “We’re heading for Ibiza; the boat leaves in an hour.”  Inga beamed radiantly.  I was crushed.

“I gotta go,” I said lamely,  I could feel their quizzical stares as I headed for the staircase and out the door.

Well, it’s an old story, I guess, ruefully celebrated in many a folksong:

For courting too slowly you have lost this fair maiden
Begone you will never enjoy her
Begone you will never enjoy her
I once loved a lass

I walked down the street to a pub we occasionally patronized for special occasions.  It’s bar, lined with tapas the length of it, was a major attraction that outweighed the price of the beer.  Inside, I found Will, Sid’s brother.  He looked up and saw my face.

“You too?” he said.

I nodded and let out a sigh, and sat down next to him.  It was beer and calamares for a long, long brunch for us.  Not quite equivalent to true love, but it would have to do.

Welcome home, Mom and Dad

Hey, welcome back. It’s been – what – almost 70 years! My God, the time flies. You’d think after all that time you’d hardly know the place. I guess that’s true, in a way. I mean, the big shopping centers in the Old Town, and on Dzirnava Street; nothing like that in your day. I know, I know, the city market; it’s still there, still huge and bustling, but in an organic way, like mushrooms and dandelions. These other places, well, you know them from America. Conceived and built from scratch by speculators long before anyone guessed they wanted them, and yet wildly successful, fulfilling God knows what lack. How could they be here, of all places?

I tried to find your old place on Ernestine Street – ridiculous, I know, since I don’t know the number. I did find a lovely little park, filled with trees and hillocks and children’s swings. I imagined you lived in one of the houses facing it, and watched your boys playing there.

What’s that? Oh, the graffiti. Ugly, isn’t it? Another import from outside. Partly copied from those Americans you never quite figured out, partly welled up from within during those cold grey years under the Dogma. I know, the people making it were never alive in that time, but cultures have a way of making hurt live on long after real grievances have gone extinct. My God, look at the Israelis and Palestinians, after 3000 years!

Still, there’s a lot you’d find familiar, I’ll bet. Just today, I was strolling in the Forest Park. You know the place, at the end of the trolley line, past all the cemeteries filled with the dead from wars and ordinary life. I’ll bet you’d find a few old friends in those places! A bit overgrown these days, at least in parts, and amidst a few soviet apartment buildings I guess would break your heart, covered with, yes, graffiti. I should have warned you. But at least the graves are well tended.

Near the canal by the Old Town, boys and girls still lay out their blankets on the grass, and give each other such joy as they can under the circumstances. Their soft laughter blends so well with sparrow’s songs, I can hardly tell the difference sometimes. I know you sat together here often; if I only knew the spot. You’d be shocked, though, to see how little they wear these warm summer days, not like the elegant suits and dresses of your day! Still, there might be a twinkle in your eyes. It is nearly midsummer – full breeding season here.

They still have those wooden boats, you know, to cruise out to the river in. I bought a straw hat just for the purpose. I wonder if you ever did.

Russian voices are everywhere. I doubt that would bother you. I still remember warm evenings of food, drink and fellowship with the Russians and Jews who came to share dinner with you when I was growing up. I never understood what you talked about, but it was grand, judging from the atmosphere.

There’s music everywhere, of course. I think you would have been shocked to find otherwise. I’m glad it took me this long to show you around. A few years ago, when I first came here, there were sour faces everywhere. Not so long before that ordinary people died in the streets for independence. The long gray shadow of the Soviet Union still cast its spell. Now, people seem to have forgotten how to be cynical, in spite of hard times lately. I mean, here’s a people who, despite centuries of conquest and exploitation kept their own language and culture, and sweet, cheerful demeanor. Okay, so maybe it’s because no one bothered to eradicate it. Still, it was there all along, invisible but strong. The last century was not the longest or worst period they’ve survived.

Did I tell you, there’s been a renaissance of tradition? That music I mentioned: yes,there’s the ubiquitous hip-hop, metal, and pop drivel, but rather a lot of traditional stuff as well. I doubt you’re surprised; music is music, as any Latvian will tell you. Today in Forest Park I passed an old man (Old! He was probably my age!) playing songs on the accordian I’ll bet you could sing along with. And in the Old Town, I saw a little girl, maybe 10 years old, playing a lap dulcimer and singing, with a beautiful clear voice, songs I heard from you, I believe even before I was born. The old religion is everywhere, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Christian sourpusses. But wasn’t it always like that? The old oaks and elms, the thunder and fortune, could always accommodate a god or two in excess.

Dad, don’t listen for awhile, I’m talking to Mom now. I know you were afraid you were going to hell. Personally, I doubt you’re anywhere other than in my heart. But if you are, it’s not hell. You knew the value of the old ways, you felt the pulse of gypsies beating in your heart. There is no god worthy of the name who couldn’t stand that, who couldn’t see the beauty and righteousness of it.

Dad, I have no way of knowing what horrors you passed through. I know you were a good man, and I know you never wavered in doing what you thought was best for us. I took me a long time to forgive you, longer still to forgive myself. At last, it’s done.

I can’t quite grasp what it was to see it all crumbling, to watch the poison seeping into such a rich well, to leave it all so utterly behind. Did you really think you’d ever come back?

Anyway, I’m so glad I could show you around the old place. I hope you enjoyed it.

The ki to chi

Any one with at least a passing acquaintance with martial arts knows about ki, or chi, depending on the country of origin.  Most can give you some kind of definition, along the lines of, “a mysterious force you can tap into.”  Higher ranks will get you more mystical rhetoric, but the gist is usually the same.  You can “have” more or less of it, depending on your skill level in the art.

This is contradictory, since the force is said to pervade everything, a kind of combination of ancient Egyptian ma’at and the “ether.”  As a member of the universe, then, one has as much of it as anyone else, if indeed such a protean force can be said to be had.  Shin Shin Toitsu (Ki Aikido) recognizes this contradiction, and no longer speaks of an individual extending his or her ki, but rather being mindful of its existence.  There is, however, still talk of blocking ki, as if a miniscule speck can stop a force of nature from acting.  Worse yet, this is usually said to be done inadvertently, as if it is a human’s nature to block another nature.

I have seen amazing things done in martial arts, both in person and on video, even the famous touchless throw.  But all of what I have seen is explainable in terms of skill and timing, and the ability to anticipate how one’s opponents actions will unfold.  So, do I believe there is such a thing as ki or chi?

Yes and no.  If I have to accept a mysterious force that is separate from gravity, momentum, and biomechanics, count me out.  There are ways of moving, however, in concert with those familiar forces that are far more likely to get the results we want.  You don’t have to find a martial arts master to see it in action.  It’s there in a laborer who’s been at the job for years, and has pared down the energy required to dig a hole to the maximum efficiency.  I recall when I was a young man working on construction jobs, coming home spent at the end of the day.  There was an old man, Leroy, who never seemed to break a sweat.  He never hurried, never cursed, and was cheerful no matter what the situation.  Some people said he was lazy.  The only thing was, when you looked to see what everyone had accomplished at the end of the day, Leroy was always way ahead, untired, and still cheerful.  Leroy “had ki.”

Had he tapped into some mysterious supernatural force?  No.  He had simply stopped wasting energy on actions that did not contribute to the task at hand.

I say simply, but I do not mean easily.  His cheerful demeanor was not unrelated to his skill; to do this you must relax everything that isn’t working towards your end.  That includes your mind.  I won’t go into the techniques that will get you there.  Suffice it to say that Leroy’s skill was the result of a lifetime of work.

More examples of this are everywhere.  Think of a skilled musician, a carpenter, a surgeon, an athlete.  Think of yourself walking through a crowd.  Do it.  Go to a crowded mall, walk, and try to think ahead of what to do next to avoid each oncoming person, each person passing, each physical obstacle.  Then just give it up, and walk.  Which was the more successful?

How did you do it?  It’s not obvious.  Watch a toddler try the same thing.  Chaos.  You managed because you and everyone else involved have been walking and avoiding people and things all your lives.  You’ve gotten good at it.  No mysterious force required.

Of course, if someone is trying to harm you, that complicates things considerably;  it’s as if someone in the crowd were deliberately trying to bump into you.  It’s a situation you’re not as familiar with.  But what if you trained to keep your body in a position to move in any direction in an instant?  What if you also trained to anticipate the intention and the momentum of someone coming towards you.  Those things require calmness and total relaxation.  Nervousness will distract you, and muscle tension will impede your movements, so what if you trained yourself in those arts as well?

You’d have ki, my friend, all from within yourself.