Friday, May 19, 2017

Vanity Sanity

Vanity, as a personal attribute, has a really bad rap, and I don’t think it’s entirely deserved. It’s true that excessive concern for one’s appearance leads to extreme dieting and harmful cosmetic surgeries, but a certain amount of vanity can be healthy. I know that because I’m vain, and it serves me well.
When I’m depressed I don’t care how I look, which is a typical symptom of depression. If I’m feeling low, but not so low that I can manage to put on a face and don some nice clothes, the finished product I see in the mirror lifts my spirits a little, albeit temporarily. “Practised” properly, however, vanity has longer lasting effects.
Vanity is part of the reason I practise yoga. Yoga doesn’t just help me spiritually and psychologically, it keeps me looking fit and trim. If I wanted only the mental health benefits I get from yoga, I’d stick to meditation alone. But I want to look good, too, so I practise to maintain a certain level of grace and ease as I move through my daily life off the mat. 
A good friend of mine once told me that he was one of the most superficial people he knew. I was rather shocked to hear him say that, until I fully understood what he meant. In the 35 years I’ve known him I’ve never seen this “superficial” friend of mine be rude, unkind, lose his temper, or make a fool of himself. He refuses to engage in crude, hostile, aggressive behaviour because it’s ugly and destructive. He’s also given me some of the best advice I’ve ever had - It doesn’t matter what happens, my dear, as long as you look good. 
Those words are by no means as ill-conceived and shallow as they seem. My sage friend was saying that we can’t control everything that happens to us – and shit happens, it’s a part of life – but we can choose how we react. Responding to the most trying of circumstances with strength and grace looks a lot better than having a meltdown. Besides, getting into an unseemly flap only makes matters worse. 
In his novel Girl on a Swing, Richard Adams described someone who has a nervous breakdown as a person who no longer cares about appearances. When I first read those words many years ago, I realised how I must look when I acted out my despair for all to see, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. I was an aspiring actress at the time, and my cringe-worthy, off-stage histrionics had a lot to do with my need to be heard. The good news is I got the attention I needed; the bad news is I sometimes made a pathetic spectacle of myself. Yikes.
I still need some form of dramatic self-expression, which is why I pay so much attention to my appearance. If the only way I can express my best and most attractive self is to focus  on my appearance, then that’s what I do, because costumes and makeup are some of the actor’s most useful tools. Oscar Wilde, who was a major proponent of the cult of Beauty, once said that one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art. And there’s another reason I practise vanity- because I aspire to a life of Beauty.
Being vain would seem to belie my yoga practice. A true yogi shouldn’t be concerned with how she looks on the mat, nor compare herself to others in class. Although I’m well aware of that, I frequently fail to leave my ego outside the studio doors. I also have the very unyogi-like habit of checking myself out in mirrors and shop windows, but those moments of apparent narcissism are to make a note of my carriage and alignment, and not to admire myself. Honest. And given the choice between embarrassing, self-absorbed habits, or not giving a damn if I look like crap, I’ll take the former any day.
Self-maintenance gets more time consuming as we get older, and if we don’t take the time to keep ourselves as healthy as possible, the body declines more quickly. I’m no longer young, and haven’t been for a long time. Given the current youth-obsessed culture it means I have less reason than ever to be vain.  And there’s the irony, because the older I get the more vain I am.
Gyms are filled with people of all ages working out to stay healthy and fit, but a lot of those fitness freaks take pride in looking “cut” or “buff”. That’s vanity, plain and simple. The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, a man who’s in the vanity business, has said that vanity is the healthiest thing in life.
It’s normal and healthy to want to look and feel our finest; to be as beautiful as we can be. At its best, vanity is another way to appreciate Beauty, which is a noble and enlightening pursuit.  The poet Rumi said it beautifully - Let the beauty we love be what we do.
- G.P.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Word Power

My all-time favourite movie quote is from Chariots of Fire, one of my all-time favourite movies.  It's a true story about two British runners who competed in the 1924 Olympics.  I have paraphrased the quote only slightly...

God made me fast. 
And when I run, I feel His pleasure.

The quote has stuck with me for the three and half decades since I first saw the film.  The screenplay, by Colin Welland, deservedly won an Oscar.  The words are spoken by Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish missionary. 
I don't believe in God -  at least not the God that Liddell refers to - but I've thought about these words so much recently that they've almost become a mantra of mine, and have helped me get through some of  the worst days of winter. 
I've always yearned to feel the sort of blissful inspiration expressed in that quote.  I don't run, nor have I been doing anything that has invoked divine pleasure.  Yoga is supposed to do that, but I haven't been practising it much, and it's been a long while since my longest-held passions, acting and writing, have transported me from the mundane. 
This quote has been a much needed beacon for me.  The words are so powerful that when I think about them, I feel a flash of what Welland so eloquently describes through the character of Liddell.  It reminds me that peak experiences are possible, especially when I'm doing something I love.  Such is the power of words; they can heal and inspire.  Surely that's what heartfelt prayers and apologies are meant to do. 
My muse hasn't been around lately, because she only shows up if I do, which I haven't done.  I think things will be easier when the Sun, a pagan deity if there ever was one, finally returns.  In the meantime, I'll continue to muse on beautiful words that have the power to brighten the darkest days. 
So mote it be.
- G.P.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Survival of the Fittest

I didn't go to yoga class this morning because it's so friggin' cold.   The walk to my studio takes about twenty-five minutes on clear sidewalks; on icy, snow covered turf it takes longer.  By the time I get to the studio my fingers are numb and yellow from lack of blood.  So I just plain decided to skip yoga today.  That's a major decision for me because practising yoga keeps me fit and looking as good as I can at my not-quite-advanced age. 
As I went about my morning ablutions in an unhurried manner, thanks to my decision to lay low, I had mixed feelings about the wintry weather.  While I'm grateful that there's finally genuine winter weather when there should be, temporarily staving off my usual worries about global warming, I also really, really hate the cold.  Despite feeling badly about missing yoga today (which is bound to happen quite a few times during the winter), experience has shown me that a miserable walk to the studio won't be mitigated by seventy-five minutes of yoga, because I have to make the trek back home again.
These thoughts were going through my head when I eventually sat down at my computer.  I laughed out loud when I opened up the Google browser and saw the masthead depicting the anniversary of Roald Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole.  He and his small team of explorers reached the South Pole on this day in 1911. 
I know that what Amundsen achieved is historically remarkable, but I just can't get as excited about it as most of the world did when it first happened.  I don't understand why anyone would want to suffer hardship, pain, and misery, all the while risking death, just to be the first person (read man) to go somewhere that is uninhabitable and inhospitable.  I suppose the same could be said about landing a man on the moon, but the science and technology required to do that certainly advances our understanding of the Universe. 
Maybe I'm overestimating myself by suggesting that I have some idea about what is required to survive extreme cold.  It's not rocket science.  I've lived in northern climes all my life and know what's required to cope with winter, which is why I have absolutely no desire to do it on a bigger and more treacherous scale, like trekking to the South Pole. 
When I embark on my half-hour walk to yoga, I know what I must do to prevent frost-bite and broken bones from falling on slippery pavement.  The same exercise in fine weather is meditative and pleasant, and the perfect preparation for yoga practise.  That doesn't happen in sub-zero temperatures.
At least I have a choice when I decide not to walk to yoga in the cold and dark days of winter, and for that I'm grateful.  Millions of people around the world suffer terribly just to get through the day, only to get up the next morning for more of the same.  I try not to dwell on such things too much.  Feeling depressed about it doesn't help anyone.
I don't understand why anyone would choose to put themselves through hell for the sake of being the first to do anything or go anywhere, unless it's to save their lives.  Surviving brutal circumstances is challenging, whether it be privation, war, disease, or natural disaster.  The word "survivor" is never more aptly applied than to those brave souls who do indeed survive such adversity.
Then there are people who deliberately challenge themselves by engaging in extreme sports and activities.  It must be the Nietzschean thing of what does not destroy me makes me stronger.  One can't be complacent living on the edge.  But that's not the way I operate.  I guess I'm a wuss. 
During the darkest, coldest nights of winter, my idea of moving out of my comfort zone is just getting out of bed in the morning.  And no, I don't expect a medal.  I'm not that spoiled.  Being able to sit in my warm, sunny study and write about it is reward enough.  So mote it be.
- G.P.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Day After


Thursday, September 29, 2016

Walking Home

Nature is the greatest teacher of all.  I learned that again when I recently went on a brief but meaningful trip to a beautiful part of the world, just a few hours drive from where I live.  I hiked along trails with my sister-the-minister on the Bruce Peninsula in central Ontario, and took a boat ride to Flower Pot Island on Georgian Bay, where we swam off its rocky shores in crystal clear, blue-green water.
We covered a lot of ground in a few short hours each day.  It was by no means serious hiking; I just wanted to spend some time in spectacular scenery, breathing in fresh, woodsy air, and feeling glad to be alive.  Mission accomplished.
The short sojourn wasn't without its physical and emotional challenges, however.  My sister, who is an inveterate hiker, and who also served as my tour guide, took me along some very difficult terrain on the Bruce Trail.  She's familiar with the various trails because she's walked them numerous times.  And if that weren't enough to qualify her as an expert guide, two years ago she walked the entire 885 kilometres of the Bruce Trail from Queenston to Tobermory.  It took her two months and all her heart and soul.  No wonder she considers that journey a bona fide pilgrimage. 
The portion we walked along wasn't especially strenuous, but it was certainly difficult, even treacherous at times, due to very rocky, slippery ground .  Normally I enjoy walking, even if it's a tough physical workout.  However, the "walking" we did (at times it was more like clambering) proved to be more of a mental workout than a physical one.  It was slow going and required absolute focus and constant vigilance.  Looking up at the forest canopy or checking out the surrounding scenery was out of the question.  My eyes were glued to the hazardous, rocky path.  If I let my attention lapse for even a moment, I would slip and almost lose my footing.  Although I didn't really enjoy traversing those trails, I'm glad I did it.  Once we finished negotiating the rough patches I was able to relax and enjoy the vistas.
All in all, it was a rich and fulfilling time.  I gained a new respect for my sister, who's a talented nature photographer as well, and has the requisite sensitivity and patience for capturing rare, fleeting moments of the myriad wildlife that inhabit the lacustrine land we visited.  She interacts with wildlife galore on a daily basis, but her special animal and spirit guide is most surely the Turtle.
The road in front of my sister's home in the country is visited every spring by snapping turtles who lay eggs in the sandy earth on the side of the road.  The turtles were nesting there for many generations long before the road was built.  Their nests are a short distance from the Beaver River, where the baby turtles instinctively migrate soon after hatching.  This means they have to cross a fairly busy country road to get to the river.  As a result, there are several Turtle Crossing signs along the stretch of road near my sister's home.  My sister has saved numerous mother and baby turtles over the years, often getting out of her car to pick up a turtle or two that she's spotted making their precarious way across the road.  It has earned her the nickname "Turtle Girl," or Tg for short.
Despite my sister's penchant for finding turtles, we didn't encounter any on our various walks through the Bruce Peninsula and some of its marshes. Nevertheless we headed home after two solid days of the great outdoors feeling tired but happy.  We were just minutes from my sister's place when I noticed something reddish-brown in colour appear to fly into the front left wheel of the car.  From where I sat in the passenger's seat I thought it might have been a monarch butterfly; but when my sister suddenly swore gravely under her breath I knew we had probably struck a small animal.  It turned out to be a chipmunk. 
Chipmunks have got to be the cutest and most endearing animals of the rodent kingdom, so my sister and I were very suddenly plunged into the saddest of moods.  The timing couldn't have been worse.  We were mere minutes from home after a wonderful trip and in such good spirits, and then bam!  We ran over a little animal.  What kind of karma was that?
Well, it wasn't karma at all.  It was just plain bad luck. It's a part of life.  Shit happens. 
I suppose some of my regular readers might wonder how I can say that when I'm always going on about karma.  But not everything's always about karma and payback.  There are random occurrences in the Universe.  Lots of them.  All over the place and all the time.  Coincidence and synchronicity would have no meaning if there weren't randomness.  When the poor little chipmunk crossed the path of the car my sister and I were in, it was an accident without any meaning, which makes it even sadder.  And so, with just minutes to go before we arrived home, my sister and I fell into a deep funk.  Damn.
We sat silently lamenting the sad ending to a happy time when my sister suddenly pulled the car over to the side of the road, only steps from her home.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
My sister didn't answer.  She jumped out of the car and ran back down the road.  I followed, and saw her stop and pick something up from the yellow median.  When I arrived a few moments later, I could see she was holding a tiny snapping turtle, perfectly formed and distinguished by its long tail. 
"How on earth did you spot that little thing?" I wondered aloud.
"It's what I do," was her reply.
Although I already knew that about my sister, I had now witnessed it for myself.  I mentioned the remarkable retrieval of the tiny turtle to her husband a few minutes later when we got home.
"She's got The Vision," he told me.  And he didn't mean her eyesight, because she wears glasses.  I couldn't help feel a little bit envious of my sister's special gift.  But mostly I felt proud, and happy again.  A sad ending to a lovely little holiday had been redeemed.
If the accidental death of the little chipmunk was random, saving the baby turtle from the same fate was not.  Neither my sister nor I deserved to have our time together spoiled, and somehow fortune intervened to set things right.  That baby turtle crossing the road at exactly that time was no accident.  Sure, baby turtles frequently cross that road to get to the river (although the little guy my sister saved was born very late in the season), but the placement and timing of the one that saved our vacation was just a little too perfect to be mere chance.
Accidents happen.  So does magic.  But magic, by its very nature, happens far less frequently.  Saving the baby turtle restored a sense of balance to my time spent with my sister. 
As spirit guides, turtles and tortoises represent patience, the way of peace, wisdom, and Mother Earth.  They are also keepers of portals into the Otherworld.  So I felt deeply blessed when my sister gave me the honour and pleasure of releasing the baby turtle on the river bank myself.
I learned a lot about patience and peace in my brief time in the woods with my sister, and I can't help thinking that the baby turtle appeared to make sure I never forget those lessons.  My mini-vacation taught me that I wasn't as patient or wise as I thought. 
The acquisition of wisdom doesn't have to be fraught with hardship.  Of course we can, and should, learn from our mistakes.  But knowledge is also derived from being still and silent.  Much wisdom is gained from deep listening.  I wrote about that very topic in my first book a number of years ago.  I'd forgotten my own words about a subject that's very dear to me.  So I shall end this brief meditation by quoting myself...
Take time out from the fast-paced, high-tech world to return to nature.  Like giant fir trees that have stood for hundreds of years, ostensibly doing nothing, reaching maturity and finding peace is a gentle process, and one that requires infinite patience.
Blessed be.
- G.P.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Late Bloomer

Happy Autumnal Equinox.
I write this because I'm setting a pattern for the entire season, as well as the rest of my life.  Being the first day of fall, the seasonal routine I'm establishing is rather obvious, but I should explain how this sets the tone for the rest of my life...
Anyone who's been following me on this little web knows my obsession with the meaning of numbers, and 22 is my favourite.  It's a master number representing making and building, especially foundations, craftsmanship, magic, accomplishment, and dreams made manifest. 
Today is the 22nd of September.  The autumnal equinox lands on the 22nd frequently, but this year is especially noteworthy because when all the numbers of this date are tallied together they equal 22.  As a number that signifies a solid foundation it also means balance.  That's a nice coincidence to occur on an equinox, when the daylight hours are equal to night time.
I know full well that noticing such things is the purview of a magical thinker, but that's why I created this little web - to publicly muse upon strange coincidences and synchronicities.  So to mark this very special and personal equinox I'm writing this blurb.
I enjoy imagining that today is a turning point for me, when day and night are equal and my life is in balance. With two 22s embedded in this date, I move forward on sure footing. Today isn't just the beginning of the rest of my life, it's the start of the best of my life.  So mote it be.
- G.P.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Here's to Queers

Queer is one of my favourite words.  I like the way it sounds - crisp and short.  I also like what it means:  (adj.) strange, odd, weird, eccentric.  That's the perfect definition for a word that begins with an uncommon letter, because only .49% of the words in the English language begin with "Q."  And since I've always been fond of people, places, objects, or ideas that are slightly strange or outside the norm, the word queer meets all my criteria for favourite things.
The adjective queer was first used as a noun to mean "homosexual" in 1922.  Now it's in popular usage, as in the acronym LGBTQA.  (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer, asexual )  However, I find the acronym too long and somewhat redundant.  I prefer to call all people who love or gender-identify differently as queer.  It's an inclusive word with a fascinating etymology that describes contemporary queerness beautifully.
Sadly, my fondness for odd things and people is not shared by everyone.  The recent massacre of forty-nine people in a gay bar in Orlando, Florida is a tragic example.  Hate crimes against minorities are committed because the victims are not the same as whomever happens to be the majority.  The people who died in Orlando were killed because they love differently.
Queerness has a long history of being feared and ostracised, and I don't mean strictly in terms of gender-identity.  There are many kinds of outsiders who have been relegated to the periphery of human society for their differences: mad people, fools and clowns, poets, artists, spinsters, widows, the very young and the very old, and other "strange" folks who've been marginalised or disenfranchised in some way.  There have been cultures and periods of history, however, when many of these outsiders were respected and even revered for the very same reasons they were reviled.
Outsiders have a different perspective, and can offer a more objective point of view if they are allowed to do so.  But looking from the outside in can be dangerous as well.  Ancient soothsayers, bards, court jesters, priests and priestesses, or  anyone who was considered "touched" by the gods were taken very seriously by the powerful people they advised.  Unfortunately, such outsiders often sacrificed their lives if the truth they spoke displeased those in power.
The day after the Orlando shootings, I demonstrated solidarity with my queer brothers and sisters by dressing up in motley attire.  I walked to my yoga studio on a brilliant, summer's morning bedecked from top to bottom in multi-colours and patterns galore.  My appearance may have been eccentric, even outlandish, but I knew that whatever attention I attracted to myself (although that wasn't my purpose) was to support rainbow-souls everywhere. 
As I stood at a stoplight waiting to cross the street, I spied an attractive, hip, young woman on the opposite corner.  When the light turned green we walked across the street, passing each other midway.  She looked at me with a broad smile.  "You look so beautiful," she said. I smiled back and thanked her.  It was reassuring to know that there are people out there who appreciate and even admire weirdness and "otherness." 
The next day I wore clownish garb again.  While changing into my quirky clothes after yoga class, a septuagenarian yogi by the name of Wendy exclaimed "Your outfit's so bright and gay."  Wendy wasn't being intentionally ironic when she used the word gay to mean happy, because she didn't know my reasons for dressing so oddly.  I took great delight in telling her how fitting her use of the word gay was.
Mortal outsiders have always been favoured by Otherworld spirits.  Fairies, who are outsiders themselves, prefer weirdoes and oddballs to mortals who adhere to mainstream convention.  So it's entirely appropriate that the supposedly pejorative epithet "fairy" is often used to describe gay men.  How ironic is that? 
Magic is not the norm.  In fact, it's the complete opposite of anything that's normal or ordinary.  But just because something is weird doesn't mean it's wrong or bad.  It's just different.  And like my Otherworldly counterparts, I have always had a soft spot for eccentrics and outsiders.  Maybe that makes me a little weird as well.  I sure hope so.
I also hope that one day all the weirdoes of this world will be loved and appreciated and for their unique perspectives and distinct ways of living and loving.  Differences are something to be cherished and nurtured, not rejected or feared.  Different and diverse people add colour and texture to this manifold world. 
Where there is no diversity there is no life.  Mother Earth is a rare and special miracle in this vast Universe due to the fact that She harbours life - a great variety of life.  It's called bio-diversity.  Earth is a living, breathing organism.  If you want everything to be the same all the time, go to Mars.  It's been the same, arid, unchanging planet for eons.
So I'm writing this as a tribute to the forty-nine queer folk who died because they loved differently; and to honour all eccentrics and outsiders who grace this world with their wildly, mildly divergent ways. 
May all of you stay weird and wonderful, and above all, stay true to yourselves.
Blessed be.
- G.P.