Sunday, June 29, 2014

Go Gentle on Yourself

by Christina Carson

I recently finished reading Beyond the Black Stump by Nevil Shute, a book written in 1956. The allure of Shute's novels appear as a conundrum in current time where writers are instructed to grab their reader’s interest and keep a pace in their work that drives and pounds its way to the end of the story. Shute wrote simple stories about people and their interactions in the face of human dilemmas. And the “thrill” of each story is the recurring awareness of the protagonist to understand and then proceed by doing the right thing. Sound prosaic? Well, Nevil Shute was a not a prosaic individual, but a brilliant man, a visionary even and someone who grew to deeply understand the human condition. I always come away from his novels with something to chew on and Beyond the Black Stump was no exception.

The action in the story takes place in both a remote piece of Australia called the Lunatic and a quaint small town in Oregon. What was masterfully presented is what this blog is about, what you can learn about yourself when you cross cultures, for there is no better way to understand your culture than by seeing it through the eyes of another culture. The Australians viewed the Americans in this story as a people with enormous drive, a restless energy that created a powerful belief in and need for industry at the personal as well as societal level. We were the worker bees of the world, and we got rich for our efforts…but at a price. This story investigates that price at that period of time. I then reflected on what it is costing us now.

I see a society that is tired. Have you noticed how even young people list as one of their favorite activities, sleeping? As well, we seem to believe that we have completely run out of time, time to sit down and enjoy each other, time to consider fully decisions put in front of us, time to be together - just together interacting as a family not traipsing about on holidays, time to stop and help one another. We are a driven people and no matter what we turn to for relief, inspiration, relaxation, or rest, we do it as a timed contest. We want life fast, convenient and boxed. We rarely have adventures or deep moments of peace. And we drive our children in this same fashion. We don’t realize what the Aussies in Beyond the Black Stump understood about what encourages and nourishes the human spirit versus what dulls it, imprisons it and causes it to feel constantly fatigued.

What if we were, even if only in a small part of our lives, to live more gently, to touch the world, those around us, and especially our children more gently? And what, to you writers out there, would it be like if you approached your art with a sense of gentle faith that you will succeed rather than driving yourself to meet yet another schedule.

I have had opportunities to live in several places where people lived by a different set of priorities, and I remember thinking, both as the 16 year old in Medellin, Colombia and the young adult in northern Alberta, these people get everything done in the end and yet it is so humane here.  My American father visited me once on my farm in northern Alberta. Farms were large acreages there, multiple square miles in many cases, and since my father hadn't seen one person working in the fields as he drove the miles to my place, the first words out of his mouth were, “Man, Canadians are lazy.” I didn't even grace his statement with a reply for it had been raining for a week right at harvest and, even if we were in the fields, they could be miles from the nearest road. But he was demonstrating what I am talking about in terms of how we Americans have been conditioned to see the world, and I’m here to suggest, it may be time to understand the indisputable strength in gentleness and what a wise choice it is.

Just as an old man learns other ways to live life as his physical strength wanes - cleverer, more perceptive ways - we too as a culture are now old enough to begin to realize the wisdom and power that comes with gentleness. As well, we could watch the tension, frustration and fatigue melt away. For the price we’re paying for believing "never-say-die" as the only way to accomplish great acts is increasing, and the returns diminishing. 

Like a person, a culture also matures, and a wise culture will understand how its choices of the past might no longer serve it. Gentle, as a verb, means to tame, to render tractable, to calm. But let us not miss the fact that it also means to ennoble and dignify.

With all due respect to Dylan Thomas, I think it would have been better had he written, “Do not got compliantly into that dark night,” for gentle is not the opposite of raging but rather the choice of those who would use their life-given energy in a most efficient and prudent way.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Reunion

Sometimes a reunion can be a gathering of people, but at other times it can be a gathering up of one’s life.

by Christina Carson

She had chosen the table by the coffee shop’s front window, small square panes now aglow with the light of morning. Though the air was filled with the sumptuous aroma of the day’s first fresh pot of coffee, it was not the hour she’d have chosen for this meeting with the past, but he had mentioned a plane he was catching later in the day, so morning was best. Stranger still was her agreeing to this meeting at all. Hadn't she always been the one who’d said reunions of any sort, no never? Actually, she had said never, ever. Let’s face it, if you walked off from someone without a backward glance fifty years ago and no contact since that moment why would you imagine either of you well served by meeting now? But strangely, here she sat waiting on a classmate of some fifty years back. This was stupid. This was insane. She stated to push her chair back and gather her purse and book. She’d write a note, leave it with the young man making the coffee. Quickly, she scouted through her pockets for a pen that would write on a napkin. Her fountain pen was of no use, and her writing tablet pages were sewn in. With her head down and her attention now focused in the dark inner reaches of her purse, she didn't notice him standing at the door looking directly at her, his face softened by the whirl of memories flooding his mind.

When he noted her frantic search, he stopped and leaned against the door jamb, arms folded, one foot casually in front of the other. His eyes crinkled with the smile that was deepening on his face. He waited.

When she paused for a second to raise her head and search for a barista, her gaze flash over him and slammed to a stop about five feet further on. Slowly she retraced her path and sat staring at him. Her embarrassment showed on her face, and her eyes, those beautiful dark eyes glinting in the morning light,  they too acknowledged being caught in the act. He mouthed, “You can’t run. You can’t hide.”  Words that took her back decades with the speed of light such that in that moment his hair was its usual dark brown and his face abloom with youth. Is that possible, she wondered. She shook her head slightly to clear her vision and then felt the youthful sense of impertinence that possessed her back then come within reach. It grounded her. She dropped her panic and boldly met his gaze as she had routinely done so many times in those years of long ago. He pushed off the door frame and walked slowly to her table, his eyes never leaving hers.

Her only thoughts as he came near were, how could I have forgotten?

She was confused as he sat down, because she still felt caught somewhere between then and present day. Before her sat a man who felt like he still lived in the prime of youth. The sensation was so powerful she kept thinking she even saw him as a young man. She glanced at the backs of her hands and noticed they were still old. She chuckled to herself thinking, it doesn't seem to be transforming me. Neither said anything for what seemed forever. She knew what was keeping her speechless, but she had no idea what was going on across the table. He’d always been fascinating that way. He was what her mother used to call a dangerous man.

“Why did you want to meet me?” she finally asked.

To finish this story, click here.

Monday, June 23, 2014


I've always loved short stories.  I write them occasionally. This one takes place in the far north of Alberta, with two people struggling with the lives they've chosen, only to find out how death changes everything and nothing in one fell swoop.

by Christina Carson

It was the act of digging in the small window box planter that did it. Pushing the soup spoon down into the dark, root-tangled soil. Turning it bottom for top. Chopping up the clods. It had a rhythm to it and a meaning. It amazed her, the impact it had. It was the hypnotist, dangling the watch in front of her eyes, her entire body entranced in the memory. She stood staring off her fourth floor landing into the late evening sky of Vancouver, awash in the score of years she had so recently left behind.

Joanie had difficulty imagining how the act of digging could create such a powerful revisiting. It wasn't even foot on shovel sort of digging this time. Just a kitchen spoon mixing about in her six inch deep planter. She noticed she used the same motion, however. She felt the same finality even, as when she had turned the garden each fall or plowed the fields before winter shut down the world. Brutal, frigid semi-arctic winter. Cold that could freeze expiration in mid breath, which could make spittle hit the ground with a clink. 

She returned to taking out the summer petunias. The last three cool weeks had them showing their age. She was readying the box for winter primulas. How she loved to walk out in gray rain-filled mornings and see their colors. Bright dots of scarlet, royal purple, gold, rose and virgin white in among the Kelley green leaves. The first winter she was here, it amazed her to see flowers blooming in December and January and February. She pushed the spoon in right to the bottom and brought up a big chunk to turn over and break apart. Maybe memories are stored in muscles, she wondered. She had read something to that effect once. What was the brain for if that was the case? She continued digging and turning and crushing the clods between her fingers, letting the freed dirt trickle out, until all was loose and fluffy again. With open palms, she evened the surface, with the dignity of a Baba smoothing her apron upon rising. In the quiet that followed, the memories flooded in.


"Jim, for Christ's sake, can't you put your boots on the mat? Is that so much to ask?" Joanie, arms laden with groceries, was trying to push the door open with her foot. Taking her foot back, she finally booted the door with enough force that it moved the debris behind it and banged into the wall. Once on the other side, she kicked it back in the opposite direction. Not hearing it click shut, she swung her hip against it finalizing the closing. She stood for a moment in the pocket of cold that is created by heat rushing out an open door into a winter's afternoon. Her fogged glasses blinding her momentarily, she waited still holding the groceries. All the while, Jim sat on the chesterfield watching a country western video. He had learned long ago how to ignore her unspoken needs.

It was a small house. Too small to hold out against the clutter that arises when you share the world with stock. Everything that could be damaged or rendered useless by freezing has to be brought inside during winter. Cans of paint, wood preservative, animal vaccines, motor oil, an endless list of them that stockmen share their lives with once the weather turns cold. It makes houses cave-like. It makes people crazy.

"Don't help or anything," she threw at him as she tripped over the step up into the kitchen. "I can't imagine what it would be like to have a man in my life with an ounce of thoughtfulness in him," she mumbled more to herself than to her husband in the next room. It took her a while to stop slamming the groceries on the counter as she took them out of the bag. Her anger finally ebbed into resignation and each action became more and more mechanical, until robot-like she shut the last cupboard door. She pulled the top of the coffee maker off and put in a clean filter. Bending to the shelf below the sink, she grabbed the coffee tin and ladled fresh grounds into the filter. The pot already contained water so she pushed the button. She crossed the kitchen and sunk into her chair at the table, her hands supporting her chin as she tried to stare out the ice-encrusted windows. The old chrome set had seen many years. She had re-upholstered the chair seats twice now, stuffing them full with new foam and choosing from a limited selection of vinyls at the hardware store. Each time she tried to capture a new look like she had seen in the Better Homes and Garden magazine. She'd change the curtains at the same time, hoping for a miraculous renewal to an ancient room in an equally old house.

Winter produced a sort of stupor in people. It wasn't so much the temperature, though that didn't help. It was the darkness and the drabness, endless grey against a backdrop of white or black. Joanie lit a cigarette and let the curling smoke carry her away. She wondered where the smoke went. Did it eventually end up on some tropical beach? Or get breathed in by dancers at Mardi Gras? Or float off into the upper reaches of space to rub shoulders with the universe? It felt good to let her mind go. Anything to lift her out of this tiny little backwater. To separate her, if only momentarily from all the shattered illusions of life and love and marriage.

The coffee maker stopped gurgling. She pushed herself up from the table and hunted for a clean cup. Pouring the dark liquid into her cup, she got lost again, this time in the coffee’s flow. As the coffee splashed onto the counter, she was jolted back.

"Shit," she hissed through her teeth, pulling the damp dishcloth out of the sink. "You want some coffee?" she called to her husband.

"Yeah." It didn't seem to her that he ever felt this same sort of isolation that haunted her. She didn't get it. It didn't make sense. Was there something the matter with her? Was she somehow inadequate? She sighed and filled his cup. As she came round the corner, she fixed her eyes on the TV and handed him the cup without even looking. He glanced up at her as he reached for the coffee. He knew that stare. He'd seen it often. What did she want? What would make her happy? For sure he didn't know, and he'd given up some time ago worrying about it. Life was okay. What do you expect, he wanted to ask her? No use to get all head up about something you can't have. Seemed pretty straight forward to him.

She pulled her eyes back from the video and keeping them high above his vision, turned back to the kitchen, humming the tune from the tape being played.

"You gone to work tomorrow?" They often had these conversations, across two rooms.

"Maybe, if the weather smartens up. Broke three chains already this week. That hill's got too much steepness to it, especially with the wind we've been having."

"What's the matter? Getting chicken in your old age?"

When they weren't busy with the cows, Jim felled for various lumber outfits in the region. It was tough work, particularly when the snow was as deep as it was this year. It wasn't work to be taken lightly either. The bush was unforgiving. For those who got tired or careless, the trees reminded them, sometimes for eternity. Jim knew he was getting old for this work. Forty isn't old at a desk. But you remember you're forty when you work all day in the cold, in the deep snow, in the bush. Some mornings when he'd roll out of bed and start the day off hurting and tired, he'd worry. Deep down inside him there was a fear....

To finish this story, click here

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Would You Give Your Life to Save Art

by Christina Carson

Recently Bert and I watched a movie entitled The Monuments Men, based on a book of the same name, a true story written by Robert Edsel, an ex-American oilman, who moved to Europe and became interested in Art. He questioned how so much of it survived the double threat of Nazi destruction and Russian theft during WW ll and sought the answer. The movie, written, directed by and starring George Clooney, is a fascinating story of what human beings can accomplish when impassioned by the same love and sense of value for a common goal. The goal was to locate and save as much of the treasured Art of Europe as they could. The plan was to do it with volunteer museum directors, curators, arts scholars, educators, artists, architects and archivists.

The 345 men and women who ultimately served in this capacity came from 15 nations. They were of all ages and joined the military sub commission MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section), went through basic training, and got dropped off in a combat zone to do their work – find the Art and rescue it. Their job was made even harder by starting late in the war. The Germans were in retreat and destroying their Art caches as they went.

These saviors from the MFAA were placed in situations of grave danger, little resources, no trained expertise in this endeavor and very little planning, but saw their work as having to succeed at all costs. We owe to them their vision, one which grasped how greatly civilization could be devastated by the loss of many of the greatest works of art every created.

Coming from a culture where art is the first thing we drop out of education when budgets are cut, and from a society where  only a small fraction of the population shows interest in Art, I wasn't in the best of positions to understand what these volunteers knew inherently about its value  Not until I chanced on a young woman in Florence, Italy whose delight it was to take her afternoon and show me the antiquities of her city, did I realize the effect Art could have on a society that honors it as a necessity of life.

But my real metamorphosis from ignorance to appreciation happened one dark January afternoon in Amsterdam when I visited the Rembrandt Museum. The collection is housed in a restored 17 th century building in which Rembrandt lived and worked for twenty years. The small rooms lent a sense of intimacy to the viewer, and that afternoon I was the only person there.  I walked into an upstairs room, looked around and then moved toward a painting on the far wall, but every few seconds I whipped around as one does when they sense someone else is in the room. Several times this happened until I finally stopped and stared at
one of the paintings. I realized then what was going on. I could not distinguish the eyes of the subjects in the paintings from those of an animate being. They were so alive that it made me feel like I’d stepped through a veil and had actually entered the room where these men in the paintings were gathered. I could feel their eyes on my back which was why I kept turning around.

There I stood; my first introduction to what can happen, what can be created, brought to life that does not die in the works of great masters. Art is not only an archive of visual history but also a conduit that brings forward the state of consciousness that can create in this fashion. Treating that state of consciousness with the reverence it deserves, to me is the real importance of honoring and saving antiquities. That state of consciousness is a key to tapping vast creative potential within us all.

The danger toward Art today is not its loss through plunder; in fact a great danger exists in this era of endless distraction. Saul Bellow pointed to it when he said: 

“…I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

Art is our mother ship in whatever medium it occurs. It is the ark that keeps placing us on the high hills and offering a vista about our true nature in this universe we're still far from grasping. Would you give your life unto its keeping? I believe I would.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Voice of Freedom – The Poet Kabir

by Christina Carson

Friend, please tell me what
I can do about this world I hold to,
and keep spinning out of control !

I gave up my sewn clothes and wore a robe,
but I noticed one day the cloth was well woven.

So I bought some burlap,
but I still threw it elegantly over my left shoulder.

I pulled back my sexual longings,
and now I discover I am angry a lot.

I gave up rage,
and now I notice I am greedy all day.

I worked hard at dissolving the greed,
and now I am proud of myself.

When the mind wants to breaks its link with the world,
it still holds onto one thing.

Kabir says: Listen my friend,
there are very few that find the path.

Regardless, what could be more valuable than the endeavor to loosen ourselves from our self-absorption. Our spirit seeks freedom from the encumbrances of the way we’ve been conditioned to believe life is. And trying to beg out on the grounds of work and family commitments is no good. Our daily lives form the workshop for this undertaking, friends and family awakening us to the shortcomings of our inherited beliefs, and work, empty of purpose and fulfillment, becoming our inspiration to look beyond.

Kabir was a weaver, a common man from Banares living in the late 1500 century or there about. His poetry is salty, confrontational and knowing of the truth he came to grasp. He spoofs that which he sees as false. He pulls me up short. He makes me laugh, at me mostly. But his is one of several great voices of freedom across time who can help us step over the mere puddle we cling to as us and into the ocean we actually are.

Thanks to Robert Bly’s Kabir, Ecstatic Poems for this version of Kabir’s poetry.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Change or More of the Same

by Christina Carson

When we've put in the time or garnered the courage to look at something we want to change in our lives, the next thing we crave is a quick fix. It’s not an unreasonable desire considering we avoided looking in the first place due to what we feared we’d see. Who wants to hear themselves say:

“Lordy, my writing is more amateurish than I thought.” 
“Man, I didn’t know I’d gained that much.”
“Shoot, I thought I was managing better than that.” 

No one enjoys these moments of self-revelation. We want out as fast as possible. But here’s the bind. If we just go back to the old saws that dictate how to improve, nothing truly changes. You’ve heard them all, ones like:

·       Work harder. So we do, producing more words but still as lifeless as ever.
·       Gut it up. So we do, forcing ourselves to eat less, exercise more and leave the table earlier. We lose the weight, but we don’t keep it off.
·       Get some will power. So we find some, live like a nun for a month or two, get some money in the old savings account and then see ourselves rebel in hedonism.

Obviously, improvement as we’ve been conditioned to understand it is far from being the whole picture. And to default to good enough, invites an on-going decrease in standards.

But excellence, that’s a different notion. It is born out of a desire to be the best we can be. When we cross paths with excellence, it literally thrills us, and when we experience it personally, we are engulfed with a deep sense of satisfaction. So why don’t we use this path to improve our lives?

W. Edwards Deming, whose brilliant understanding of excellence as it functions in the world of business, gave us the key as to how to make excellence operate in our lives. He said: It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best.  

So what does he mean by that? True change, meaning one with lasting consequences, requires us to pinpoint the actual source of our problem, otherwise change is akin merely to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We must answer the question: “What is it about me that has me find myself in this predicament?” When we answer that question, it will naturally point us toward "what to do." 

Quite frankly, almost none of us realize how powerful one right act can be in creating true change, but Deming understood it. He grasped the bigger picture and explained it this way: “We’re here to make another world.”

He didn’t say we were here to write a little better, get a little thinner or become a little richer. He meant we’re here to know what life is like when excellence is the only path we’ll consider.

Christina Carson, Author

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How Do They Know These Things

by Christina Carson

I can understand them relishing the suet and the cracked corn, fat and grain being natural components of their diet, but unshelled peanuts… How does a grackle know about unshelled peanuts? Yes, I know they are rather opportunistic when it comes to food, but unshelled peanuts can be tough for me to open, so I never imagined they would take them on. We had originally put a few peanuts out each day for the small group of squirrels that share the backyard with us. Then the blue jays spotted the peanuts. They wrestled with them a bit, seeming to test them for which opened easily. Next thing I knew the blue jays has learned to soak the difficult shells in the birth bath. It was about that time, I noticed the grackles snatching peanuts and doing the same thing.

Several winters back, I bought my husband a nuthatch feeder, one where the suet block is on the bottom side and the nuthatch lands in his favorite position of upside down. We watched the sparrows and chickadees watch the nuthatch, and lo and behold very soon, the sparrows and chickadees had learned how to land upside down on the nuthatch feeder. They reminded me of kids playing double dare down. They didn’t appear to feel the need to remain true to the stories we’d written about them.

Even funnier than that was an incident back in my shepherding days. To say I was as amateur when we started would have been kind. I had so little eye for sheep that I couldn’t tell one white sheep from another. Even the tiniest of spots was sufficient to get a ewe a name. Spottie had one black dot on her face and was one of the first to introduce herself. She came up to me, stuck her nose in my face as if she were nearsighted and sniffed her way across my cheeks. I guess I passed muster for we soon became friends. But the day she stole the banana peel, that was a poser. I was sitting in the pasture finishing off a banana and had the peel dangling from my fingers between my knees. I wasn’t paying attention to anything in particular until I noticed Spottie coming through the flock like a determined old shopper on $1.49 Day. She cut a swath right through her fellow females, whipped up to me, grabbed the banana peel out of my hand and kept on trucking. Now you tell me where a sheep of the northern climes comes to know about bananas.

And finally there was the weasel that lived in the nearby bush but “moused” the dairy barn for us on a regular basis. Mind you, I was not at all pleased when he shifted his diet late one spring to baby chicks and killed 49 of the 50 I was rearing, carrying each one back to the bush and neatly arranging them in some old tin cans he’d found out there. But one day when I was milking, he came in, dove down a mouse hole, came up with mouse and left. After about his third trip, curious, I went to the door to see where he was going. Our huge Komondor, Dali, was snoozing outside the back of the barn with her head resting on the skid the building sat on. The weasel ran down the skid, right over top of Dali’s snout and then shot around the side of the building and into the bush. Her head snapped up, then she leapt up and gave chase, but the weasel was long gone. Then the cheeky little beggar, just as Dali had gotten settled back down, came from the opposite direction, back over her snout and into the milking barn. Three times more he did this, and I think the last time, when she didn’t leap up but merely followed him with her eyes it was because she was as incredulous as I was. We’re talking about an eight inch weasel and a 130 pound livestock guard dog.

I believe I enjoy the animal kingdom so thoroughly because no matter where they find themselves, wild in the bush, fenced in a pasture or resident in a small back yard, it never appears to occur to them not to have fun. Ease and enjoyment is what they know with a spontaneity that thrills me. I am not sure why we see life so differently, but I do know that what one believes, one becomes. So I choose my friends more carefully these days. And since I no longer have the bush or a pasture, you’re likely to find me sitting on my back steps amongst our extended family of birds, chipmunks and squirrels. For if I am going to cultivate any beliefs at this point in my life, I want it to be theirs.