4/12/2020 | Clay Jar

Carrying a clay jar of ointment,
she turned the last corner on the path.
The sun rose behind her, she paused.
The stone was rolled away.
There was an impulse to turn and run
Back to the men in charge.
But it was so quiet.
There was no rush, and nowhere to be.
The thrushes and nightingales slept.
Her constellation scattered,
She could follow the light into the cave.
It was relieving to see no body,
No blood stains or purgations
Tinged with yellow and green.
To not manage the swell of recognition
As the sun hit his hair.
She saw no ghost of the child
They might have had together.
She could relax, free of triangulation.
She did not hear his breathing,
His dark jokes, rambling grievances,
Quiet commands to pour wine.
The melancholic sermons and calls to mystic war,
Nor anything else it had been her role
To validate and soothe.
She followed the light deeper
To see more of nothing.
No silhouette of empire, religion, plague.
No scrolls or abaci.
She saw no men, nor women who reflect men.
No temple, or any need for memory beyond
This limestone of skeletons and shells.
When even the emptiness became empty,
She turned sunward, holding the jar.
Myrrh is gathered from wounding the stalk
Of a small thorny tree, then waiting
To harvest the ambered sap.
That’s a practical fact.
She could use the ointment herself.
To scent the moment of survivor’s guilt
As she walked away from his story
Towards a canceled schedule, different work
On this morning of the first day of a new week.
— mr

4/9/2020 | Empty Shops

In October 1960,
A gas explosion tore off the back wall
Of the Metropolitan department store in downtown Windsor.
Nine seniors sitting on chrome stools at the lunch counter
Were crushed under the rubble,
Along with one young girl, who bled out
In the arms of two firemen who couldn’t pry her free.
One five year-old boy was small enough
That the blast threw him free and clear.

My great-grandmother ran the flower shop
On that street, and over the next days
My mother, fourteen, worked with her through the nights
Making the funeral bouquets.

The current explosion, also accidental,
is slow, almost invisible.
The elderly vanish. The shops remain intact.
No one is allowed inside them,
But the shopkeepers are still working
Through the night, or whatever we call time
In the enclosed and sleeping city.

The flower shop at the end of my street is closed,
But the keeper curates her shrinking deliveries
As people call in for wreaths, centrepieces.
We can still do funerals, though no one can attend.

Two blocks down, my barber visits his quiet shop
To sit in his own chair
And listen for the echo of banter and trash talk.
To watch the sunlight pass through the barbicide
And the shears glint gently on the flannel.
Beards are growing in homes,
Like the community gardens, locked up and tangling.

An arthritic priest fumbles with his iPhone
On a tripod, on the altar, trying to frame
His face, the book, the chalice, stained glass behind him.
A parishioner Amazoned him a selfie ring-light
And it glows like a hollow monstrance.
He’s joining an ancient line of hermits
Performing rites for laypeople, remotely.

There have always been funerals that no one attends
Except those who are working on them.
Poverty, trauma, and alcoholism socially distance.
Once a month when I was a church organist,
I’d play at the service of some war vet
Who’d died on the street.
The Legion paid me, the priest, a bagpiper,
And five bucks for the altar boy
To carry the candle and fold the flag.
I sat up in the loft and listened to the gospel,
Stared out the clerestory,
Shivered when the pipes droned and cried Going Home.
Three men, a coffin, and a boy,
Standing more than six feet apart,
Saying nothing to each other apart from the ritual,
Watched by no one, careful to get it right.
Except for the boy: young, easily distractible,
Not quite part of this slow disaster.


4/5/2020 | Minister of Children

Justin Trudeau has our attention on the CBC
For the children’s question period.
Our boys lean in to hear what he’ll say.
I’m tense, waiting for the pauses and wavers.
I know that ministers and fathers can lie.

The seven year-old notes Justin is handsome.
The almost-four year-old is watchful on my lap.
My partner stands behind our chair.
A brother and sister in Montreal ask:
“What will happen to us if our parents get sick?”
I can feel my partner breathe with me,
But we keep our focus on the boys.
At bedtime she will rock the younger one as he cries
And repeats the question.
It takes more time for parents to comfort children
Than they have to comfort each other.

Justin presents a navy cardigan and meticulous grooming,
Neatly framed on the colonial steps.
I bet he’s pulling on old drama teacher tricks:
Pretend the camera lens is the face of his youngest.
Pretend the teleprompter scrolls a Christmas story.
Forget the actor’s terror of an empty theatre:
Pretend the children are all there.

He starts every answer in good form: with a sigh,
A smile, and “I know many of you are frightened.”
Then he finds the talking-point groove:
Canada, taking care, Canada, safe, Canada,
Brave nurses, Canada, working together, health,
Good place, good country, Canada.
The country’s name can become a mantra
For how its settlers want to see themselves.

If you let the sound be ancient again,
You can hear the word that meant “village”
In a time before boats and planes brought
Smallpox, economic plans, and cardigans.

A while back, the seven year-old asked me
“Is Justin Trudeau a good man?”
By instinct, my reply was more about myself:
“Like all of us, he’s trying to be a good person.”

(That feeling when teaching the benefit of the doubt
Perpetuates a spell about white intentions.)

The young interviewer, online from his bedroom,
Says they received 4000 questions.
The selections show that children ask
What many adults ask, stripped of number-crunching.
A snowsuited boy in Iqaluit asks
Whether the virus can survive the cold.
A six year-old girl in Toronto asks
How homeless people are supposed to stay at home.
There is no question from a First Nations child about how
To wash your hands without clean water.

I know the parent politics of cutting a deal
Between what I know, what I am ashamed of,
And what I can say to project a safe world.
I know the pivot between dread
And the reframe that mixes hope with fiction.
Does acting the part of the good parent scale up?
The Minister of Children also has to comfort oil barons.
He has to pretend he knows what millennials need,
Promise that we can do anything when we grow up,
That everything we want is sustainable,
That everything will turn out alright.
He shares tobacco with chiefs and then betrays them.
He has to smile as he zooms with sociopaths.
He has to count the money that pays for the stagecraft
That prompts a boy to ask: “Is he a good man?”
Instead of “Does he do good things?”

Justin is a month younger than me.
He and I might share night sweats,
Palpitations, a certain emptiness about who we are.
He and I might have bonded
In a high school drama class in the late 1980s,
When climate collapse and trickster stories
Were fantasies to star in
Rather than medicine to surrender to
When we manage to tell our children: “We don’t know.”

— mr

4/2/2020 | Lake Distance

Lake Ontario has gone still, reflecting the city.
The beach is hushed with the open secret.
Young children and dogs see the shapes of the letters
Of the signs telling us to keep our distance.
Looking south, if the day was clearer,
I might see the shadow outline of New York State,
And hallucinate the wheeze of ventilators
In the swirl of open air that is the border.

My partner plays balance beam on bleached driftwood
With our seven year-old.
She mirrors his overflowing age,
And shows him how we come from each other.
Our four year-old commands his nana
To stand six feet back;
He holds up a stop-sign hand and grins
As if the world were a traffic game.
But she can’t help herself from reaching for him.
The generations want to collapse into each other.
Some of us will never understand
How this is suddenly dangerous.

My own grandmothers no longer have bodies.
Eyes closed, I can fall into their talced arms.
They breathe out soft, clipped stories
Of the war, rationing, polio, standing on the road
To sell sandwiches to truck drivers.
Hanging out laundry in the attic.
Of a baby born premature and kept warm
In a cooling bread oven,
And making Sunday dinners for twelve on a single dollar.
As a child I saw their eyes gleam and took it for devotion,
But missed the spark of holding me to account:
“How will you make good on all of this?”
I missed the winces of pain as they shifted
From hip to hip in the twilight armchairs.
Neither had a place to name their feelings,
Nor, perhaps, anyone to hear them.
I’m ashamed for the time I spent mistaking
Silence and class dignity for avoidance.

What were all those books for? The wandering?
Why am I only learning to garden now?
Why did anyone give us credit cards?
Why did I always find something to do
To keep me hovering above this moment of water?
How did it happen that I was distracted so often
From the most fragile, vanishing things?
Why did I pry these minutes apart from each other
As if my life resided between them,
Gazing at imaginary problems,
As if these grains weren’t the continuity I sought?

None of the scriptures or poems prepared me,
Or maybe all of them did.
Like the one where the son asks the father
“Tell me about the innermost self.”
And the father says to the son,
“Like the salt mingled in ocean water,
You are that, you are that.”
Today the son would ask
“Tell me what the virus is.”
Because religion left me nothing but kind guesses,
I would say: “It’s not quite alive, but it can die.
It doesn’t know chest pain, or the feeling of drowning.
It thrives when it is within us.
It makes us aware of each other.”

I had a friend who died in his car
After swallowing a little white pill.
He was a Buddhist who helped and didn’t help people
In relation to how much he marvelled and suffered.
He taught me the phrase, “trouble and joy.”
He’s sitting with me here, closer than six feet,
We talk about impermanence, which he no longer has to test.
I murmur “I can’t believe you’re missing this”,
Meaning children, a partner, the virus.
I hope he ate that pill like those monks
Who pretend to eat the last plum on earth.
He was obsessed with the resonance between
The suffering self and the suffering world, and
I still can’t tell whether this is perceptive or grandiose.
White men can be both as we fantasize
About helping more than we help.
But sitting here now, body and ghost,
Perhaps we waste less time.

The seven year-old comes in for a hug.
He’s too big for my lap. I’ll be getting smaller.
My wife continues balancing practice, for her own joy.
The light changes. It doesn’t matter how.
I’m grateful I didn’t bring my phone.
Sitting back on the kitchen counter,
It fills up with exponentials:
infection rates, grief, financial ruin, platitudes.
If I had brought it, I may have thrown it,
To skip on the glassy water like a mute black stone.



Montréal and L’Oratoire: End of November

I have the great good luck of being able to come to work in Montréal in the late fall every year. Being away from my family is at least a little soothed by how much I like this city.
I know this is idealizing, but it does seem that Montréal has resisted the breakneck speed of gentrification I feel everywhere else. I can still feel the layering of history here, the simultaneity of decay and repair, change and conservation. I can see how the tradesmen jerry-rig, how foodies improvise, and I have friends who still know what rent control means and feels like.
On Friday night I walk with my friend to get breakfast bagels from the Fairmont bagel works, which is is open 24/7. Orthodox men hurry by in their high fur-trimmed hats, heading to synagogue. The smoke from the wood-fired ovens is now contested by the eco-concerned, and the bakery has agreed to chimney filters. Yet the bagels roll out, placed warm in my hand by a woman who’s maybe from North Africa. I look behind the counter and one baker is a younger white woman, maybe from the old family, and the other is an older Indian man. He draws a line of forty bagels out of the oven on a 12-foot long narrow wooden paddle, blackened by the years, then flips them into the air to land in the basket below for sorting. Like he’s done it forever, or as if a bagel oven is just a flat tandoor, while fire is fire the world over.
That morning, I had cappuccino pressed out for me at Olympico on Ste-Viateur by the same red-haired tousled insomniac who’s been working there for twenty years. I sat at the window and imagined seeing Uncle Leonard or Irving Layton strolling past.
After coffee I took a long walk. I stopped in at the curio shop on St-Laurent that’s crammed with old ephemera, mostly from the Cantons de l’Est: a thousand crucifixes, packs of pinup playing cards, 45 records, smoking paraphernalia, countless wristwatches in golden tangles under dusty glass. The place reeks of turpentine: the owner keeps opened cans of the vintage wood stain to touch up the vintage furniture pieces. The things we use to preserve things must themselves be preserved.
I bought a tacky toy Jesus action figure for our older boy and antique dinky cars for the younger. I also bought two old cigar boxes I’ll woodburn their names into for Christmas. They need secret boxes, just like I did.
The old man has been there forever. I finally chatted with him. I do more of that now, because time is always getting shorter and the point is to connect with people. I never knew he was from Barcelona. He said he got his landing visa in 1963 and bought the building in the 1966 for 10K dollars. He doesn’t know how long he’ll keep coming to work. With all the heart problems he’s supposed to give up coffee and sugar and salt and everything he loves, but is it worth a few more years? He shrugs. I told him that if I didn’t see him next year that I hope he will have enjoyed the coffee. We laughed and laughed and then I bonked my head on an old wooden sled hanging over the door.
Leaving the shop, I remembered that I used to sing in choir events at L’Oratoire Ste-Joseph. I hopped a bus for an impromptu pilgrimage. Montréal seems to remember, on my behalf, what it meant to grow up Catholic in the 1970s and 80s.
The Oratory is such a weird building. The basilica rises up on top of the crypt church, which is turn is above the crypt. “Yo dawg, I heard you like churches…”
It’s so big you actually take escalators between the dreary floors, like in a department store, but going from the piety section to the penance section. The architecture is neo-fascist but with melancholic statuary, as if the builders knew that the empire was hollowed out, leaving nothing but the depression of its idols.
…the architecture is neo-fascist…
…but the statuary… why the long faces?
The whole scene basically sums up the somatics of my early adolescence, when the ideology demanded awe, but the dead saints and the men who towered above seemed so distant.
I texted my partner to tell her I was visiting the “Temple of Emotional Avoidance”, and she texted back: “Overseen by the High Priest of Preoccupied Guilt?” Yep. Nailed it.
Check out that pipe organ. I don’t talk about this much but the first job I had was as a church organist. By the time I was 22 I must have sung and played for a thousand funerals and about half as many weddings. I never played this particular instrument, but I played organs like it, and now I look at it and understand why the whole thing always made me so uncomfortable. It’s like some kind of Nazi war machine with a seat for a single lonely man at the centre to pull all the levers and make himself feel like the entire universe is singing for him, or forced to sing because of him. I remember the nausea of waiting to start playing, gathering myself for the grandiose takeover of space.
Down in the crypt a tourist from Senegal asked me to take his picture, posed beside the altar to the virgin. I imagined he thought I was one of the faithful, and so I adopted that affect for the moment, and believed along with him. I made sure he was happy with his smile, and that his rosary was visible.
I handed back his phone and strolled on to pause before the main altar to Joseph, “Patron of the Church”. The full absurdity finally hit me. The whole complex is dedicated to the father of Jesus. Stepfather, I guess. It’s a multimillion dollar monument to fatherhood, and it’s cold, remote, eerie. It’s both clichéd and self-fulfilling. At least the culture is transparent about these things, if not about the fact that whatever money and social power is sitting in that building came in part from payment and political tribute made to the Catholic admins of residential schools.
It’s a mark of great privilege that I can walk through this part of my past with detachment and stylized irony. I was physically abused in a Catholic school, but I wasn’t violated, not in that way, in a building like this. Many were. I had my emotions mocked and twisted into the jagged shapes of toxic masculinity. (Yoga helped roll these out.) But I wasn’t forced to give up my language or forget my ancestors.
With this privilege I’ll withdraw my attention from this architecture, and pour it into who has survived it. Because survivors know what it means for everything to collapse, and what works when it does.
I don’t know if I’ll ever bring my boys to this place. With the little time we have it seems more important to help them find new spaces of awe, built by people who survived rather than imposed control, by people who played in forests instead of cutting them down.

Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note

Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note

Death is a singularity, but not all deaths are the same.

This summer marked the second time a friend of mine has died, suddenly and unnaturally.

This time it was a man, my age, with whom I shared so much that I walked around for weeks wondering whether I had suddenly died, or whether I was at the edge of it.

There was unfinished business, but not the type you’d have with a father or a son. Not the type that had built up over decades of microactions. It was the unfinished business of feeling that a part of yourself was now amputated, and couldn’t do its work. That first friend was hit and killed by a truck. But that’s not what happened this summer. There was no ultimate outside force involved. It was a godless death. Continue reading “Grief and Masculine Armour: A Brief Note”

The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi

The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
— Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

J. Brown makes transparency in the yoga biz bittersweet. He consistently points to the sorrow in the shadow of yoga marketing: perpetual change, impossible economics, anxious upselling, getting older, seeing through the dross, living with pain.

Continue reading “The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi”

“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

"But He's Not Erect": Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles. Continue reading ““But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies”

How I Teach Yoga Philosophy

Well first of all, as with Ayurveda, I don’t really teach. How could I? What – do I know something? Not really. Even less as I get older. But I have gathered a ragged bouquet of question techniques that range from musings to proddings to provocation. Gentleness is key, because the discussion has to explore and penetrate belief, which is sometimes all a person thinks they have in defense against despair. Musings are good icebreakers for where we are frozen; provocations require familiarity and trust. Continue reading “How I Teach Yoga Philosophy”