This old man is showing me how to face death

This old man is showing me how to face death

I’m no music critic, which will be immediately apparent as you read this meditation on Leonard Cohen’s new album. I’m a longtime fan. And I strive, with varying degrees of success, to be a spiritual man. I admit that being both those things makes me biased when it comes to this exquisite new album. Leonard Cohen is 82 years old. Not long for this world, you might conclude. So to hear him sing “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord” really pulls at the heartstrings. (Hineni is Hebrew for “Here I am.” But in a spiritual sense. As in the way Abraham says it when God calls his name in Genesis 22:1). The title song of his new album, You Want it Darker, features the choir of the same Montreal synagogue where Cohen’s father and grandfather both served in high positions. There’s also a gorgeous vocal solo by the synagogue’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer. It’s like in his eighties the grand old master is returning to his beginnings. Remember, this is the man who withdrew from music in the 1990s after a breakdown to devote himself to Zen monastic studies on California’s Mount Baldy. Although Cohen didn’t see this as a challenge to Jewish belief. The tradition of Zen he practiced didn’t include prayerful worship and made no affirmation of a deity. But

View Full Post

;

Halloween is a window into our collective soul

Halloween is a window into our collective soul

There’s a reason we dress up the way we do at Halloween, you know. And it’s not just dumb, stupid fun. Your Halloween costume says something important about the world you live in. This year, Americans will spend a cool $8 billion on Halloween celebrations, including $1.2 billion on their kids’ costumes and another $1.5 billion on their own Halloween outfits. That’s a whole lot of witches, vampires, superheroes, and naughty nurses costumes. So why do we do it? Well, Anthropologists have an expression for events like Halloween, particularly the kind that require costumes. They call them “inversion rituals”. An inversion ritual is an event or ceremony where people are given permission to violate normal social behaviors, to turn convention on its head, to reverse standard practice.  And dressing up allows us to mock the values we’re violating while preserving some level of anonymity. Basically, an inversion ritual is a sanctioned way to hold a mirror image up to normal social standards. In societies where hard work, thrift and modesty are the order of the day, you’ll find raucous inversion rituals like Mardi Gras or St Patricks Day. In societies where life is precarious and death is barely kept at bay, there’ll be a festival like the Day of the Dead. Where societies are very sexually repressive you’ll see masquerade

View Full Post

;

Not Everything Has to Make Sense

Not Everything Has to Make Sense

On the east coast of Japan, in the small town of Otsuchi, on a hill overlooking the Pacific, a 70 year old man named Itaru Sasaki has installed an unusual garden feature – a phone booth. Like the ones Clark Kent used to use when he was in hurry to save Metropolis. Or the old fashioned red phone boxes you still sometimes see in the UK. Only Sasaki-san’s isn’t red. It’s white with a green roof. He installed it, along with an old disconnected rotary-dial black phone, to help him deal with the grief he felt at the passing of a beloved cousin. He has cultivated the habit of regularly retreating to the booth, picking up the receiver, and talking to his departed relative. This might just be a quaint little provincial story, except for the remarkable role Sasaki-san’s phone booth has played in helping a nation come to terms with one of its greatest natural disasters. We all remember the horrific images of the relentlessly rising black wave that engulfed much of the north east coast of Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Those images, plus the news that the tsunami had caused meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, dominated our news broadcasts at the time. As did the tally of nearly 16,000 deaths and 2,500

View Full Post

;

The Lost Art of Neighboring

The Lost Art of Neighboring

In a typical suburban home, not far from where I live, a man was recently observed carrying out modifications to his house. Neighbors saw him on the roof working with power tools and assumed he was just carrying out some basic repairs. He seemed purposeful and oblivious to their attention. When his children, both of whom suffered from non-verbal autism, didn’t show up for school the following week, calls were made to the parents’ phones. No one answered. So the police attended the family home only to discover the terrible truth about what the father had been doing the previous weekend. He had converted his house into a toxic gas chamber by rigging up a sinister network of hidden pipes. He had then closed all the windows and doors, turned on a series of gas cylinders, and poisoned his wife, both the children (aged 11 and 10), himself and the family dog. It was clinical, elaborate, pre-meditated and deadly. They were immigrants, with no family connections in town. Their kids’ disabilities made them extremely demanding. The marriage was under strain, as anybody’s would be under those circumstances. No one knows if the mother was aware of the plan. She was found alongside one of their children. And so they all died silently and unassumingly, while all around them their neighbors

View Full Post

;

Does the President’s character really matter?

Does the President’s character really matter?

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.” That’s the fictitious and machiavellian Francis Underwood from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. In the Netflix series House of Cards, the amoral Underwood makes it all the way to the Oval Office, thanks to some deft manipulation of his enemies, including the odd murder or two. Sure, he’s evil. He’s probably a sociopath. But he knows how to govern. In fact, that’s Frank’s own justification for all the hypocrisy and casualties: he gets things done! So does it really matter what the character of the President is like? Should voters elect a person based on their personal morals and private life? Isn’t the POTUS just meant to “get things done”? Why do we need her or him to be a paragon of virtue?   It’s not like Presidents in the past have been lily-white. American history is rife with examples of people who were lousy spouses or backroom dealers, but great stewards of the state. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were unfaithful to their wives. As were Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Warren Harding, a man elected because it was said he “looks like a president,” even fathered a child with his mistress during his term of office. It didn’t affect their ability to govern, did it? Okay, well

View Full Post

;