• Musings

    Can Morality be Erotic?

    One of the most important books I read during my chaplaincy training was Linda Holler’s Erotic Morality: the role of touch in moral agency. The course was titled after a recent film, “Opening the Hurt Locker”, and it was about what lies inside of us when we experience trauma, and how we decide to respond. In order to appreciate this book, though, my understanding of the word ‘Erotic’ needed some adjusting, even more so the phrase, ‘Erotic Morality’, as a text for a seminary course!

    Going back to the course’s theme of ‘trauma’ now. It is important to understand that everyone has a different experience of trauma, and of situations, in general. Thus, no one-size-fits-all therapeutics can adequately predict or create an outcome for those who experience trauma. What is traumatizing for one person may not be for another: for example, I am terrified of horror films, pictures of monsters, and even have to leave the room when ads for these come on the TV. A good friend of mine is the same way, and when we go to the movies and ads for any horror films come on, we cover our ears and dive down behind the seats in front of us. Yes, two adults scared out of their wits over a film trailer! I have considered petitioning the film industry to rate horror film trailers and TV ads the same way that adult films are rated, to protect those of us who cannot tolerate them…

    However, a vast number of people, especially adolescents, love this horror genre. In fact, it can be considered a part of developing resilience, to experience terror in a controlled manner (such as in a movie theatre) and stay for the end when it all turns out okay. This is one way we learn to endure fearful situations, and find resolution.

    Antelopes communing

    So, why do some people love horror films and others cringe? Experiencing a film is one way of being touched, but not by hands or fingers or toes. Filmmakers know this. Actors know this. But, when I searched for a photo to illustrate ‘touch’ for my newsletter, all of them but two showed humans in some way using their hands and fingers to touch someone or something. Portraying touch this way reinforces a limiting concept of what touch is. I chose two animals communing, instead.

    learning about ourselves through touch

    We need to restore our innate, pre-verbal, sense of touch. The way we learned about the world from not only by tactile means, but by sensing love, hurt, relationship, and the eminences of plants, animals, and the energy fields we live in.

    What I learned from Holler’s book was very affirming for me as a sensitive person: that my way of touching and being touched is not limited to hands and fingers and toes, but is of an ephemeral nature. When I enter a space, I have an immediate reaction to it that may at times be so strong that it will affect whether I stay in it or not.

    In an everyday example, my sensitivity could be an eye-roller when I was uncomfortable or attracted to something that meant nothing to others. Yet, I was used as a gauge of sorts by my family when deciding whether to eat at a new restaurant based upon how I reacted when we entered the establishment. They had observed in their way, that my history of reactions before being seated were close to 100% of being accurate as to whether this was a going to be a good place to eat, or not.

    In a professional context, my sensitivity has allowed me to make immediate connections with people and their inner processes in spiritual care counselling, with Nature as a biologist, with others’ physical abilities and limitations as a Tai Chi Chu’an instructor, as a musician when playing in ensemble, and with patterns in world-wide events as a writer.

    We name this sort of attunement in various ways: intuition, psychic power, ESP, paranormal abilities, perceptiveness, or as a pathology. My job as a person is to stick with what I experience and disregard the labelling by others.

    The beauty of Holler’s book is that it explains, with examples, what is going on when we pay attention to what we are touching or are touched by, at numerous levels. My belief is that we all have these ‘psychic’ powers, but have learned to choose to ignore all but what is tangible and before our eyes or tactile with hands, fingers, and toes.

    I invite you to reflect upon your experiences of being touched. You can restore your abilities by various means, such as mentorship with an intuitive guide, or learning mindfulness techniques, for example. There are many modalities for re-learning how to touch and be touched.

    The more of us who return to valuing the subtler experiences, the more we are able to appreciate the lives and beliefs of others, and are able to share ourselves and our wisdom with one another.

  • Musings

    Pausing of the Waters

    The building I live in has a water problem. I moved in two years ago, and at the time saw how efficiently the staff and maintenance people attended to a leak in the ceiling in the lobby. Their work ethic and commitment to keeping the building operating impressed me, and also the attentive manner with which the manager engaged with residents coming into her office also felt reassuring.

    Meanwhile, I signed the lease and moved in. Leaks continued to plague the building, springing from ceilings, running down walls, and causing them to have to open up the wall behind the sink and toilet of my newly renovated bathroom – twice. This was alarming to me, my nicely plastered walls were now a bit lumpy-bumpy the charm of the upgraded apartment was dissolving into concern about what might come next with regard to repairs.

    Our water was shut off time and again, now to stop a burst pipe in the apartments upstairs, and again to stop a catastrophic flood in the sub-basement parking garage, and again to replace the boilers. The building is over 60 years old, and has the ambience and look of a nicely appointed Old World style hotel, with statues and figurines and chandeliers and fountains leaping in the lobby. But, eventually, even with the greatest attentiveness and care, things wear out.

    Long time residents tell me that the leaks and water problems have been going on for years, my estimate from averaging the varying time frames they report, about maybe 4 years now. The building has so many nice features, because it is old. The walls between apartments are thick and so it is quiet with little disturbance from neighbours; it is very low tech with no electrified walls or wiring beyond fire safety alarm codes; everyone has a spacious balcony; and as mentioned, the staff have an old fashioned commitment to attending to residents’ needs.

    Yesterday, I came home from some errands to find that the water was shut off without notice for an emergency: the city is replacing the drainage system, which apparently has been the cause of all the water backups and pressure leaks inside the building. But, the city broke something and our water was shut off – again, and for an indeterminate amount of time.

    Oy! it’s right before Shabbat, and right before Passover, and most of the residents of this building, like me, are Jewish and rushing around trying to get their apartments ready for festive meals and guests.

    I was heading out for a Tai Chi class (at the Renge Dojo in Toronto), and got into the elevator. It was crowded with people going out for Shabbat and stopped on a couple of floors on the way down. I made a joke about how boring our building would be if we didn’t have these water shutoffs from time to time. Everyone chuckled and one gentleman laughed, and smiling at me, said he liked making a joke about it instead of a complaint

    The truth is, though, they may never end. The other truth is, that we were all in the same boat (or elevator) and instead of staring at the doors or the floor counter on the wall, we were chatting and bonding with our complaint, and also having a laugh together.

    Although our ride down to the lobby was brief, it changed something for us all. No longer stuck together in an elevator or in a leaky building, we got to know our neighbours a bit better, and got to step into a new way of looking at our situation, replacing angst and irritation with irony and humour.

    Perhaps at this season of turnover, when it is traditional for Jews to read the passages in Torah about the exodus from Egypt, or Mitzrayim – the narrow place, we can find a new way of seeing challenges or barriers to our wellbeing. Part of leaving Egypt meant the Hebrews had to face the barrier of the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea). Did they stand at the shore and complain? Some of them did! But then, one person, whose name in midrash is Nahshon, saw a way forward, and he put his foot into the water, and the waters withdrew.

    Think about some narrow place you may be in, and how you react to that. And then, think about this man who stepped into the Reed Sea first and made a path for others, or even how my joke in the elevator brought change for some residents. Opening up to as many options as are available can liberate us from seemingly endless or hopeless bondage.

    Have you tried this lately? write to me and tell me your story, too!

    Wishing You a Peaceful Transition in this Season of Freedom Celebration.

  • Musings

    Full Eclipse

    Today, I was fortunate to be living adjacent to the zone of full solar eclipse that passed through North America.

    To be honest, I hadn’t made any plans for watching it until the last minute, despite the near deluge of information in almost all the media that crosses my inbox. Since sustaining a concussion at the end of last November, it has been imperative for me to triage all new activities, prioritizing them by need. Everything else then is put into a queue, and if any become obsolete, they are then deleted.

    I liked the idea of watching the eclipse, and recalled friends who, in 2017, dashed north to Oregon to watch a solar eclipse there. Some of them also attached a great deal of cosmic significance to the event. This latter part caused me to move the eclipse lower on my to-do list: I’m too much of a pragmatic scientist and grounded intuitive to attach human interpretations to a natural event.

    What did catch my interest was an invitation from the Toronto Zoo to the general public to come watch the behaviours of the zoo animals during the eclipse, for research purposes. There is a dearth of data on how different exotic species might change their habits during a full solar eclipse, and as a former zoologist myself, this was an added-on value for acquiring some funky solar eclipse glasses.

    I drove to the zoo. As soon as my car merged onto the freeway, I saw flashing emergency vehicle lights on the other side. There was a huge pile up of cars going the other direction. It was only 11am, and the eclipse wasn’t going to start in Toronto until half-past 2pm. Panic was already setting in.

    Along the way, overhead information beacons warned of a solar eclipse on 8 April, and to ‘Plan Ahead’. Actually, I had planned ahead, and bought my admission and parking tickets online, fearing that I would make the long schlepp to the zoo only to find no parking and the gates closed due to the thronging crowds filling the park to capacity.

    But, I easily found a parking spot and strolled up to the entrance. I noticed a lot of people, mostly those with small children in wagons and adults in wheelchairs, exiting the park. It was only 11:45am.

    I ran up to the table where eclipse glasses were being given away. Bling! I was a free agent now, able to watch anywhere and in any way I wanted to. I picked a pair with tiger stripes, for full zoo effect.

    My plan had been to show up, have a snack of zoo junk food, and then stroll around. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. The zoo was re-developing the large area adjacent to the entrance and food concessions. Mega-loud generators gunned and ground a sonic wave of nausea right through my vulnerable brain and nervous system. I immediately lost the ability to finish a thought, but did know to duck into a large building to get away from the cacophony and decide what to do. It was not possible for me to stay in the park unless I could get far from this noise. Of course, no one else seemed to notice it at all: loud as it was, everyone else seemed to just ignore it.

    I know, however, that their brains and bodies were hard at work blocking out the noise, coping with the stress and energy drain that it caused, and producing escalating irritability for seemingly ‘no reason’. I left the building and made a beeline to the far end of the zoo, hoping to evade the noise. This was tiring. There, all the food concessions were closed for the season. No food. And, there was more construction, in the form of jackhammers on cement.

    I began to wonder how the zoo was going to separate the behaviours of its animals resulting from the solar eclipse with those caused by the effects of all that construction noise. Was anyone going to factor that into the data analysis?

    Well, since no asked me, and I was starting to feel a bit like a Larry David, irked by this obvious oversight in the research promotion, I decided to leave. My balcony at home, I realized, was facing exactly the right direction to see the full eclipse, and I could have all the snacks I wanted: and, bonus – observe animal behaviour, of my cats, during the eclipse.

    I still had plenty of time to get back home, it was only 1:30pm. Recalling the traffic pile-up scene on the freeway heading there, I took the side streets back. Surely, the panic on the freeways would have escalated exponentially by now, only minutes from the start of the solar event.

    I got back home, wiped down my patio table and chairs, and sat with a lovely coca-cola on ice, my iPhone’s camera ready, and watched the whole event.

    It was a cloudy day, the sky was overcast. Looking down, I saw that traffic was lighter than usual, but also that there was almost no one out on their balconies, as I was, or paying much attention. Perhaps they thought that, due to the cloud cover, there was nothing to see.

    © Susan J Katz 2024

    I sat patiently, anyway, knowing that small breaks of sky or thinner regions of cloud would reveal the sun, in its waning and waxing. And, sure enough, it did. I was so excited every time the river of clouds overhead thinned just enough to show some sun, like a Can Can dancer flipping her skirts up just enough to get a glimpse, and then keeping you at the ready for the next moment of revelation.

    Meanwhile, down on the street, no one cared.

    I’d had trouble understanding the apathetic or amused responses from several people when gaily told of my plans to watch the event. “I’ll watch it on TV”, they’d said: even people living right here in the path of eclipse. Maybe having the cloud cover instead of a fiercely bright sunny day felt like just another disappointment, another event that was ill-conceived or poorly staged, another gadget that didn’t work as advertised, or broke. They turned to the virtual version of the event, instead of the analog natural event going on right outside their doors.

    Somehow, our electronic screens have replaced great and awesome natural events. The next such event will be here will be in 2144. I suppose an AI version could be created now, and save everyone from not being around for a sunnier day, 120 years into the future.

    It is the disconnect from our natural environment that troubles me so. Yes, this is urban Toronto. Does that mean that only manufactured, ersatz natural events are real? With this realization, I now better understand how our modern disregard for the importance of things non-human has come about.

    We debate publicly as to whether climate change is man-made or not. But, has anyone paid attention to what in their own backyard is also at stake? birdwatching has evolved into telephoto-lensed camera-lugging, to snap the most professional picture of a birds. Learning bird calls and silhouettes, and patiently watching for characteristic behaviours, has replaced by looking into a viewfinder or a smartphone screen. Outdoor appreciation activities have given way to beyond-ultimate skiing, ultimate mountain biking, ultimate rock climbing, complete with selfies or video recording.

    Can anyone just ‘be’ in nature any more?

    I took a few photo mementoes, between squeals of delight at seeing the crescent sun pop in and out of breaks in the clouds, from my balcony. The next opportunity would be 120 years from now.

    © Susan J Katz 2024

    By the way, my cats joined me for a while, bravely climbing onto my lap to peek over the balcony railings before decamping to their favourite spots on my bed.

    As soon as the eclipse ended, just before 4:30pm, the clouds finished passing by and the sun came out, full and bright.

  • Musings

    The Art of Saying ‘No’

    If you have visited my website recently, you probably noticed that it has been under construction, and either the posts are hidden, or the whole website was down for maintenance.

    That was intentional, and for a good purpose. I had begun noticing how so much of my time was spent taking care of other peoples’ or organizations’ needs. Meanwhile, my true desires, to provide spiritual care and intuitive-guided counselling and have my own oboe studio, were sent to a lower berth of engagement.

    In the autumn, these choices to serve away from my desires and purpose, came to the forefront of my attention. Ready to change gears and re-evaluate my choices, things began to drop into place. Being a highly sensitive/highly intelligent person, with particularly strong gifts of intuition and insight, I found a practitioner with similar traits and life experiences with whom to explore how I was attracting other peoples’ projects and not attending to my own.

    Just as we began this work, though, I was struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking in a crosswalk next to my home. The resulting spin around from the impact caused me to have a concussion. I was left simply unable to do anyone’s work, mine or others’. I decided to keep working with my career transition coach anyway, alongside the medical care I needed to recover.

    Here was an opportunity for change. My focus and attention were now expanded beyond my normal and long-held boundaries and patterns. Some things jumped out at me as being keys to my transition away from what other people do or want, to defining what I want. One of these items was an essay in the New York Times by a guest writer, about her ‘Notebook of Noes’1

    So began my reconstruction, or resurrection, of what my intentions were when I became an independent, freelance spiritual care counsellor, writer, and musician.

    No sooner had I engaged the services of my coach, when emails and calls started to come in, from people wanting my services. It was actually astounding to me, having found myself pretty much ignored for a very long stretch, but not knowing why. My coach and I had no explanation for this opening of the heavens and ringing of phone and email contacts. My becoming available was being sensed out there, some semiophoric pheromone or energy cloud was wafting through the ether, with a big empty channel leading toward my phone and email and ultimately, to me.

    Was I going to fill up this beautiful new space I had cleared out for myself, with others’ projects? With a lifelong history as a woman, and one who accommodates others for all sorts of personal historic reasons, I now had clarity about my own system for subsuming my needs underneath those of others’. Was it for praise? extra credit and good grades? fear of rejection or being fired from a job? Here is the spot where you can plug in your experience with this sort of relinquishing your goals to serve others’.

    It is one thing to identify this sort of dynamic: it is another thing to change that pattern.

    Starting with being mindful of my goals and how much I was now moving ahead in establishing their fulfillment, I could then ask myself, “Is this offer/request in alignment with my agenda and purpose, or will it take up time that I have now set aside to write/make music/set up counselling?”

    In the past, it would have been very hard for me to see the difference, but with a bump on the head and a list of Noes, I have the impetus and tools to choose the requests that fit, and politely say ‘No’ to the others.

    Enjoy my new website and its features. If you are looking for Spiritual Care Counselling, Intuitive energetic self-management, or music performance, please don’t hesitate to contact me for a free 20 minute consultation.

    Wishing You the Best of Health and Personal Growth…Susan

    1. ‘The Mind-Boggling Simplicity of Learning to Say ‘No’ by Leslie Jamison ↩︎
  • Musings

    A Reed for the New Year

    The Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh HaShana begins this evening at sunset. It is an auspicious time of reflection on the past year and what went well, and even more importantly, what did not. We are encouraged, through our traditions and liturgies, to go even further; and examine the things we ourselves did that perhaps made things not go well for not only for ourselves, but for others.

    As time moves on, so do traditions. Communal prayer, which replaced the animal sacrifices of Judaic Temple times, was considered a time to be with others to pray and reflect on our relationships with God, with self, and with others. Full prostration by not only the prayer leaders, but congregants as well year ’round, was not uncommon, such as during the Aleinu prayer. Tears and beating one’s chest over the heart, and other gestures, covering the head in a prayer shawl or scarf, provided solitude, as well.

    Things have changed, though. Prayer spaces are crowded during holidays, and priorities as to what we show to others have shifted. Long services often become a time for restless shuffling of nearby congregants, scrolling on mobile phones, thoughts of luncheon meals and guests, as well as tempting redirection away from deeper or painful thoughts towards uplifting songs and instrumental music from the prayer leaders.

    Let’s face it: it’s hard to do ‘deep reflection’! A relative used to glibly say, wineglass swaying in her hand, “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Yes, why would they?

    I’ve opened this post with the usual, annual, Jewish invitation to ‘reflect deeply’. It’s hard, and where are the instructions! I agree. So here is one way to think about it….

    The one thing that defines the personality and angst of being an oboist, far above anything we do or create, is our Oboe Reeds. Finding or making or being gifted the Perfect Oboe Reed is the ultimate quest for an oboist. Why is that?

    An oboe, the long wooden conical bore with keys on it, a bell at one end and an opening to blow through at the other, is not the part that makes the gorgeous, plaintive, oboe sound. It is the reed that allows the correct and perfect sound to move through the bore with the correct selection of keys for each note, become amplified into warm, dark, sumptuous sound waves, and gracefully round itself as it resonates through the bell. With an unresponsive reed, one that is too hard to vibrate naturally or too soft to hold its shape under embouchure pressure, the sound is, well, lousy. Quacky, like a duck, which is what beginner oboists are often accused of sounding like.

    So, there are a few things going on that an oboist has to control: the quality of the instrument; good habits with regard to embouchure, breath control, and fingering of keys; and using an excellent reed.

    It’s not too hard to acquire a good instrument, although they are expensive! I happen to own a wonderful Violetwood oboe that plays like a dream. However: Embouchure, breath, and fingering control are built and maintained by quality instruction in technique, and you guessed it: tons of practising those techniques!

    That leaves the bane of all oboists: the reed. It’s really hard to make or buy a perfect oboe reed. Making them requires good tubes of cane, and then gouging them to the right thinness, and then assembling and scraping the blades down, but not too much….You can buy a really good one, but it will still need your expertise to perfect it. The oboist will still need to have a good well-sharpened reed knife to whittle away on it, correctly, testing it at each slight scraping away of the cane until it feels and sounds perfect.

    My teachers always emphasized the primary directive of adjusting the reed to the player, and not vice versa. Settling for a bad reed, one that is not responsive, or plays too flat or too sharp, means monkeying around with your breathing, posture, embouchure, fingering, in order to get a decent sound out of it. In other words: the reed is controlling you.

    In the process of doing all these contortions, to the point of losing all your hard-earned good technique, you are no longer making your music. You are relinquishing your unique identity and timbre of sound, your signature as a musician, in order to produce instead an adequate sound, from a poorly crafted piece of cane. Your ability to play as a unique and expressive musician and muse of the instrument are the cost of this battle for control of the instrument. Convenience has won out.

    Again, back to my wineglass-waving relative. “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Making reeds is hard! Making excellent reeds is even harder! But, as musicians, driving to capture the correct sound for who we each are, it is imperative to strive to make them. Or else, we are lost to a poorer quality sound of convenience.

    Just like the oboist, we must patiently and attentively whittle at those rough places. The easier ways out – of letting the reed, or the situation, or that other person, control you – will cost you your self-hood.

    I recently received an email advertising a master class in learning how to adapt to and play with low quality reeds. Imagine! The premise is: that bad reeds abound. They come from making them without enough expertise or good materials; or else we buy them, and are unable to finish them well. Either way, this reed hack master class will teach you how to distort and bend your good habits and technique in order to play low quality reeds.

    I immediately thought of my teachers, often correcting me for doing just that: trying to get a good sound out of a bad reed, thus sacrificing the hours and hours of hard work I’d done to develop good technique in the process. Those reeds, they said, needed to be either adjusted or replaced.

    Looking at this past year now, and the unknowable that will unfold ahead, how will you adjust your reeds? will you adjust yourself further and further to meet the needs of reeds or situations that are unsuitable? or take the opportunity this time of year sets aside and do the satisfying work of refining these situations and yourself, forming lovely reeds for playing your song?

    I wish you all a year of good music, for yourself and with others, and all the joy and connections that music brings your way.

  • Musings

    If Moses Used A.I.

    This week’s Torah portion is called Ki Tavo, named from the opening words of the reading, which mean, “When you enter”. In this section of the Torah, from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is continuing his summary to the Israelites of how they are to be, as new inhabitants of the land which God had promised them as their inheritance.

    The speech is eloquent, at least the the words that have been passed down to us which are attributed to Moses are. But, also recall, that much earlier, in Exodus 4:10, we read that Moses is not so eloquent of speech,

    “Moshe said to YHWH:
    Please, my Lord,
    no man of words am I,
    not from yesterday, not from the day-before, not [even] since you have spoken to your servant,
    for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I!”*

    God’s anger flares, and He reminds Moses who created humans and their abilities in the first place. After more assertions from Moses that he cannot speak well, God points to his brother Aaron, and tells Moses,

    “You shall speak to him,
    you shall put the words in his mouth!
    I myself will be with your mouth and with his mouth,
    and will instruct you [both] as to what you shall do.”* text quotes: The Schocken Bible, Everett Fox, 1995

    This dialogue caused me to think about AI. While recovering from the exertions of my trip to Taiwan (you may have noticed in the photos of the previous post how bloated I became there), I have been watching a lot of TV. I like retro TV shows the best.

    On one particular streaming station, almost all of the commercials are promoting an A.I. writing assistance app. Over and over again, my resting brain took in the peppy and chipper rolling out of all the amazing tasks this app can do: for you, for your business, for your teamwork.

    As a writer and writing educator, though, I took offence to this shortcut tool, seeing it as just another ‘hack’ to enable people to shortcut and bypass using our brains’ own sublime social and technical capabilities. AI can certainly be a communication boon or even lifeline to those who have learning and developmental disabilities. Going to school provides an opportunity to work hard and develop strong social and communication skills, allowing us to not only communicate well at work, but also become independent and capable adults socially.

    I watched the commercials with trepidation. In one version, three young women sat in a room, and one of them had an idea for a product to manufacture and market; we saw her computer’s text bubble to her team about it. Her colleagues, though, were writing text bubble responses with phrases and words that were cutting and crude: “You’ll have to fix that container, it won’t work.” Certainly not what any high school or MBA educator would have approved of!

    But, thankfully, our commercial showed us how these teamsters could tell the AI app to make their phrases more friendly or supportive, even choosing the wording a gradient of softer or harder wording. In the last scene, the original brainstormer is opening a box with her original idea product, now gone to market, thanks to the wonderful, supportive messages from her development team.

    Well, at least these colleagues recognized that their terse inner thoughts and outgoing phraseology were out of place for work. These were okay for an after-hours dish-session about their esteemed colleague, but not okay for getting the work done. With the aid of the AI app, though, they bypassed their real, dishy, thoughts and let a robot fix it for them. Sort of like the butler Jeeves getting his master Wooster out of yet another malaprop faux pas. But, I wondered, what happens when they have to meet face-to-face, say, around a conference table; or meet with clients to demonstrate their product line and have a live conversation? Where will the AI app be then?

    There is always a risk involved when communicating information second- or third-hand. Suppose God handed Moses the AI app to get the job done, instead of pairing him up with his brother Aaron?

    Let’s look at the difference:

    AI

    • Artificial intelligence
    • Words generated by algorithm
    • Grammar and etiquette rules
    • Incapable of empathy
    • Has no agendas or purpose

    Aaron

    • Human intelligence
    • Words provided by Moses to Aaron
    • Divine inspiration
    • In loving, supportive relationship
    • Has inspired purpose and intentions

    I could go on with these comparisons between contracting to communicate with AI vs Moses enlisting his brother Aaron to speak to the Israelites, but this list has the essential points on it.

    Think about what the most important job is for a Prophet: Leader of the People? Rule-maker? Rule Enforcer? Soothsayer? Seer? Smiter of Sinners?

    My answer: Above all else, a Prophet is a Role Model. Yes, A Role Model. This is the person who models not what the directives are for the people; but also how to be a person. We sometimes make excuses for ourselves when we miss the mark, and say, “Well, I’m no Moses, after all…” but actually, Moses was an imperfect, flawed person. We just read about his speech impediment.

    But, also, he had a very real human personality. He got angry, a lot. Angry with the slave master who beat the Hebrew slaves, with the stubborn Israelites who complained and built the golden calf, and he got angry with God. He was a workaholic, trying to manage the people all by himself, until his father-in-law Jethro told him to delegate his onerous amount of work and appoint judges to offload much of it.

    Perhaps your ideas about what a role model is are shifting now. If Moses wasn’t a perfect person, who can we look to!? AI?

    Despite being imperfect, Moses was a person, chosen because he had vision and tenacity, and the compassion and strength to take risks to see that his very human sensibilities about right and wrong were fulfilled. When God wanted to destroy the Israelites, Moses interceded (Ex. 32-11). His arguments with God are noted several times. He was fearless in bringing forth his beliefs and willing to negotiate to move things forward.

    When it was time to enter the Promised Land, though, Moses was not allowed to enter. Why would this exceptional human being and role model not be allowed to continue on with his inspired leadership? because his mission, to single-mindedly bring the Israelites to the new land, had ended. And, as an exceptional human being and role model, he understood what defined his purpose.

    Instead of covering himself with sack cloth and moaning, or berating God, or taking out his anger by harming innocent others or himself, Moses chose to close his relationship with his people by giving them the eloquent and soul-touching Deuteronomic charge and last instructions as they were about to enter the Promised Land.

    This is what we learn from our role models: how to live by our truth and vision, no matter who we are; and how to accept closure and find peace at the end.

    Tell me, would the words from an A.I. app inspire you this way?

  • Musings

    Cultural Integrity, Valuing Heritage

    “Make new friends/but keep the old; one is silver/and the other’s gold”

    summer camp

    We used to sing that tune many years ago, usually during the closing campfire the night before a long bus ride home to suburbia from Girl Scout camp. After two weeks of camping and learning together in the great outdoors, sleeping under the stars in outdoor bunks, tending the horse corrals, swimming at the poolhouse, and singing lots of songs. The mundane chores of divvying up food servers, dish washers, and flag duty guards were done by song; routines that became old friends. These rituals helped us retain a sense of order and familiarity, of how to share chores, the fun of learning with others, and the special songs we sang about how to do this, lingered even after we returned home.

    Music does that. Some music is new, some is old. Our songs came from around the world: Maori, French, Native American, British, American folksongs, to name a few. The music embeds a sense of time and place and important relationships into memory.

    Traces Thru Time

    Sometimes, though, older music or traditions are replaced; or worse, discarded. Time and distance can cause alienation from cultural treasures, especially if the chain of connection is broken. from the origin. We learned the value of keeping our older friends or traditions, while adding new ones, from the song, “Make New Friends, But Keep the Old”.

    I want to share that belief with you today through a recent experience of mine, travelling to Taiwan with a group of Canadian musicians, to rehearse and learn with a local orchestra in Taipei. It was quite a long distance to travel! But the truth is, it is quite one thing to play music from a score thousands of miles from where the music originated, and quite another to be locally and culturally immersed and learn the context and full authentic sound of the music. This is what we did.

    no birds on bus

    We arrived at 5am local time, after 20 hours of travel, and after a brief stop in our hotel rooms, met for breakfast with our host, Dr. Chen Zhisheng. Then headed for the National Palace Museum.

    It seemed crazy to me, with part of my mind or neshama still in Canada, to be rushing off to a museum within hours of landing. I like museums, but couldn’t we have a nap first or something? But, there was reason for Dr. Chen’s suggestion we go there: tradition and culture. That is what we came to Taiwan to absorb, to bring into our music. And, so into the museum we went.

    We mostly looked at the excellent collection of foundational manuscripts there. My favourites were pages from treatises on the Yi Qing (I Ching).

    Me and Lin Ruibin

    Some TCO members took part in master classes in conducting for Chinese orchestra. I had Suona lessons, particularly reed-making lessons, as it is not possible to buy ready made alto suona reeds. My teacher, “Daniel” 林瑞斌 Lin Ruibin, came to my hotel each morning and so generously and graciously made reeds and gave me tools as well as lessons on my instrument and information on where to buy supplies.

    master class
    rehearsal

    We started having orchestra rehearsals after a few days. Because of the great size of the orchestra, we had to move the rehearsal venue to the dance/gym building at a school in Taipei.

    rehearsal time

    Rehearsals kept up daily, and so did the post-rehearsal food! One evening, Dr. Chen took us all out to a 22 course Japanese dinner. Another night we went for Izakawa, so loud and fun and raucous, with great beer and cool A/C.

    Izakawa!
    wishes burn upward
    One of 22 Japanese dishes
    cat chilling on roof by the sea
    making wish balloons
    shrine near waterfalls
    Night Market

    We continued our cultural explorations, going to night markets and shopping for gifts and personal treasures in the retail stores. I bought Chinese preschoolers’ calligraphy books and stationery, a dress, toiletries.

    Food is a big part of Taiwan’s culture, a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and other Asian cuisines. Prices are so low and quality is so good, and everything is fresh.

    Hotel Morning

    In all of this hubbub, though, I truly appreciated starting my day with a quiet breakfast and looking out the window of my hotel’s breakfast room.

    Eventually, the day came for our concert, Thursday 20 July. We’d had our private music lessons, orchestra rehearsals, and dipped deeply into Chinese history, language, music, food, landscapes, and customs over the past ten days.

    concert about to start
    Suonas, Pipas, Harp, Percs

    The National Concert Hall was filled, both orchestra level and balcony. Everything went like clockwork. Most notable for me was how smooth and blended movement and sound were; my experience was that it just flowed. There was none of the usual anxiety about missing cues or entrances or playing off key as with bands and orchestras where we played well from scores, but were mostly lacking cultural literacy for the music. Instead, there was a naturalness and understanding of what we played, and we played together as a corps rather than sweating out individual parts.

    moving water still stone soft leaves
    Me and Dr. Chen

    All in All, it was a delightful experience, and the intent to share traditional cultural context for this music with Canadians came back home with me. Although there is motion in some parts of Asia to replace traditional Chinese music with Western orchestral music and instrumentation, and emphasize soloists, preserving the beauty and transcendence of the culture as a whole and sharing it with those in diaspora is Wisdom at work. Yes, modern western instruments were integrated into the orchestra, and yes, some pieces were very modern in vibe: however, these were enhancements of traditional sounds, tonalities, and instruments.

    The Xianse Gong Chinese Orchestra and we Canadians made new friends, and we will depart to share with our golden friends back home, extending the reach of traditional Taiwanese culture and music, for the benefit of all.

  • Musings

    Are You Lonely?

    The U.S. Surgeon General states that loneliness is now in epidemic proportions. News about high levels of loneliness is found in sources globally, including Harvard Magazine and Al Arabiya. Is loneliness a new thing, since the rise of COVID-19, and is if affecting you?

    Loneliness is not a new phenomenon, it arose with the first life forms, since time immemorial. I suspect, in fact, that the even the earliest life forms had sensations of loneliness.

    For example broadly, the lone survivors after their primordial soup desiccated under the unfiltered sunlight, or catastrophic flood or volcanic eruption. Or, perhaps the simple lack of contact stimulus set them moving about to find mates in order to procreate or assist with feeding.

    Of course, we can only speculate on this, although in an informed way. I was delighted to find a book that allowed me to integrate my personae as both Biologist and Chaplain, Origin of Group Identity by Luis P. Villarreal. This book discusses the importance of group identity for all organisms, even ones that seem inanimate, such as viruses.

    Moving forward a few billion years, though, not much has changed for living organisms. We all become alone, from the single-celled organism to the very complex human being. Transforming and then defining this state of singularity into the cognate of ‘loneliness’ shifts what is natural and common into a status requiring action.

    As humans, endowed with the ability to manipulate our environment, we can do things, such as gather and live together in communities, share resources, such as hospitals, places of worship, governance, and recreation. This adapting the environment to suit us rather than vice versa, where the environment makes the rules and the organism must adapt, is something that sets us apart from how other life forms address solitude.

    Of late, we also have social media. That can be a good thing. For people who are housebound due to illness- or age-related frailties, social media can be a life-line for drawing in necessities, such as companionship, grocery delivery, or a doctor visit.

    But, over the past few short decades, relatively healthy cohorts have drifted away from shores of direct personal contact towards the uncharted lands of the solitary individual touching others via their electronic keyboards: much of value has been left behind. The tips of the icebergs on these man-made seas has been of concern for quite some time now: cyber bullying and the emotional impact of social media on adolescents, the ability to post anything and everything with strokes on one’s inert, faceless keyboard. And now, we have AI fabricating ‘facts’ about ourselves and others.

    For now, I want to focus on loneliness because that is what the world’s esteemed authorities on human health and welfare are telling us we are suffering from, in pandemic proportions.

    I’ve already given hints as to the scientific/biological origins of ‘loneliness’. Now, let’s look at what our wise and compassionate human ancestors gave us through their legacy of wisdom, of Torah, regarding what loneliness is and how to take care of it. This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, in part addresses speaks of loneliness, through the speech of Moses in Deut. 10: 16-19:

    (16) Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.

    (17) For your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe,

    (18) but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing.—

    (19) You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

    The definition of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim means a place of narrows: the narrow place wherein the Israelites were squeezed, through their enslavement. These words of Moses are so relevant today that they could have been written recently: about living through the COVID pandemic, with their reference to us all having been strangers in the land of Egypt/Narrowness at one time or another.

    Indeed, anyone over the age of a few weeks old has lived through some or all of the pandemic, that strange and uncertain time of travelling through some harrowing and narrow bridge or birthing canal into a new land. Think about what you did during that time. We had to isolate, stay home, stay apart from others. We had to make sacrifices and take care of ourselves as individuals, even if we lived with others, because there was no place to go, no distractions such as going to the office or shopping, or to a movie or a vacation. We had to be individuals navigating enforced tight quarters and relationships, or as isolated individuals.

    Creating and maintaining personal boundaries is an important skill: however, the lengthy periods of COVID isolation enforcing them, combined with replacing direct personal contact with social media, may have created thick walls of impermeability where once we absorbed the presence of others, and could feel empathy and normal social awareness. This is a thickening about the heart, just as described in verse 16 above.

    The stiffening of the neck is what we do when we know what is right but refuse to do it. The child who won’t eat their vegetables or pick up their toys, the adult who acts on impulse to their detriment; or those of us ignoring calls for empathy, contact, or love from others because it’s just easier to send a text or emoji.

    Ask yourself, “have I built a great callous around my heart?” are you able to have real and safe interactions with others, away from social media?

    Pick up the telephone and call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, or who has been away from usual activities due to illness or travel. Send a card, buy a gift, have a coffee.

    Loneliness can cause us to assume others have left, moved on, or worse, are never coming back. Let them know you are here, too – that you are no longer strangers in a strange land.

  • Musings

    Violence and Passive Aggression: The ‘Love Bomb’

    I was making an inventory of the things I want to bring on my upcoming trip to Taiwan, where I’ll be performing with the Xianse Gong Chinese Orchestra. I’m very excited about this trip, as there will a few ‘firsts’ for me: my first travel away from Toronto since March of 2020, and also my first trip to East Asia. I’m going with a group, many of whom also play in the Toronto Chinese Orchestra. Here is a link to our concert, scheduled for 20 July: “On the Other Side of the Rainbow is Home

    High on the list, next to my Alto Suona, are the Tai Chi Chu’an slippers that I wear for morning outdoor practice. I’m hoping to join a group in the mornings at a nearby park while I’m there.

    I looked at my collection of Tai Chi swords and sabres, wistfully. Much as I’d like to get extra practice with them in Taiwan, they are just too long and awkward to bring on a 13 day trip.

    Then, another thought came to me, a memory of a conversation with someone who came to visit me while I was recovering from surgery a few months ago.

    She was perusing my collection of books and artwork, then stopped. “Oh, you have weapons“.

    “Where?” I asked. I followed her line of gaze upwards and towards a rack on top of the large keepsake display case in my dining room. “Those swords on that rack are for Tai Chi, they’re not for fighting or hurting people.”

    Her nose scrunched upward, pursing in her lips as they did so, as if something smelled off. “I think of tai chi as something graceful and peaceful, not violent or aggressive, with weapons.”

    “You’re right, it is graceful and peaceful. And also, Tai Chi Chu’an is a martial art – that is its origin, and if the martial applications and intentions of the movements are not understood or incorporated, than what is being done is merely arm and hand waving, with little benefit to health or inner strength.”

    “That sounds violent.”

    “Well, the whole point of learning Tai Chi Chu’an is to prevent violence. Tai Chi Chu’an is an internal martial art, designed to develop the inner self. By doing this, by reducing fear, violence can be prevented and if not, then the discipline and practice prepare one for self-defence. Inner peace, rather than external hard strength, is developed through learning how to engage with challenges, both inner and outer, with confidence and grace. It’s very psychological.” I thought this latter piece about psychology might register as a more acceptable reason for practising tai chi. But, her nose remained wrinkled as she continued to squint with distaste at the resting swords and sabre.

    “I believe in Love Bombs as the best tool for violence prevention and self-defence”, my visitor said.

    I’m not sure what a ‘Love Bomb’ is, and I asked her. The answer came as something about showing care of people and letting them know they are cared about.

    Here is what I read about ‘Love Bombing’ online:

    “You may have heard the term “love bombing” circulating online and on social media, but what does it mean? Although it might sound like something we’d all want — being showered with unlimited love and affection — it’s anything but healthy. Love bombing is a tactic often used by a narcissist to manipulate you into falling for them.”

    This is what I came to understand while looking at my swords: Despite my being a functional invalid, with a plaster cast on my foot for the next several weeks, I never heard back from her or received the promised ‘Love Bomb’ of congregants or other helpers that were to come assist me while I recovered.

    So, this irony raises some questions. What is the difference between violence, aggression, and passive aggression? and, how does Tai Chi Chu’an fit in to categories? Let’s start with the dictionary definitions of these terms, and proceed from there1:

    • Violence: “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy.”
    • Aggression: “a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.”
    • Passive-Aggression: “passive-aggressive behaviour, the donning of a mask of amiability that conceals raw antagonism toward one’s competitors, even one’s friends.— Hilary De Vries”

    The history of modern Tai Chi Chu’an, of at least the past 100 years can be found online in a variety of places. Since my mind is on Taiwan right now, I found this quote in a lovely article in Taiwan Today about one of the founders of modern internal martial arts, Master Cheng Man-Ching:

    WuShu Herald

    “It is inconceivable to the uninitiated how a Tai Chi Chuan boxer trained only in physical and mental relaxation can fight a man of muscle. Relaxation is, in fact, the secret, and the degree of accomplishment is measured by one’s ability to relax. The most advanced achieve a mental calm that is a great force in itself.
    Prof. Cheng often says that Tai Chi Chuan is a mental process that eliminates fear, which is man’s biggest enemy. Fear makes a man rigid, deprives him of flexibility and paralyzes both body and mind. When a student practices Tai Chi movements, he is taught to deal with an imaginary enemy who is strong and fierce. But when he is actually facing an opponent, he must imagine there is no one in front of him.
    The appearance of Prof. Cheng as Tai Chi Chuan master is deceptive. He wears sideburns and whiskers. Chinese long gown and cloth-soled shoes are his everyday attire. On occasions, he puts on the gown-like dress he designed himself. He is more than unobtrusive; he looks sluggish….
    During World War II, he staged two impressive demonstrations at the British Embassy and the American military mission in Chungking. In both cases, sturdy stalwarts experienced in Western boxing were selected to disprove his strength. None of their blows even landed. Instead of hitting him, they were sent lurching many feet away.
    One towering giant of some 230 pounds tried twice. He was obviously perplexed by the inexplicable power of the small Chinese. Frustrated in the first attempt, he attacked even more violently. But force again undid him. He was tottering perilously toward a serious fall and the spectators were watching with apprehension. Before anyone knew what was happening Prof. Cheng had darted to his side to steady him with a soft hand on the elbow.”

    So, perhaps this story helps you have a more complete idea of what Tai Chi Chu’an is, and whether it is an aggressive, violent practice, as was my visitor’s belief, or a practice of letting go of fear and reducing aggressive behaviour.

    In addition, I want to highlight the importance of understanding what ‘passive-aggression’ is. Sometimes people appear passive and harmless while they are actually harming you. The fear this behaviour arouses in you is blocking you from seeing the truth of what they are doing.

    In these times we have so many restrictions on what one is or is not allowed to say. However, these restrictions do not change attitudes, and aggression and violence have not gone away. Instead, they are expressed in a sideways, socially acceptable, manner; such as a person making general statements about “certain people” or “those people” when they really are referring to you. We recognize this sort of covert violence and aggression in others as, “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” or “A back-handed compliment”.

    And we are harmed, because no one wants to be the little child who cries out, “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes”.

    A “Love Bomb” is still a bomb.

    Think about the people in your life, whether employers, family members, friends, neighbours, politicians, or anyone else. Are their behaviours congruent with their words? Are they helping you up or pulling you down with their polite conversation or when answering your request for assistance?

    Violence and Aggression are overt and easy to discern. Passive-Aggression is much more difficult and covert. It seems too innocent, and socially unacceptable to call it out as harmful. The question arises then, of how to address the harm that aggression and violence does, whether overt or covert.

    One answer is to become aware. As it is with Cheng Man-Ching: removing fear as your baseline allows you to fully feel and understand whatever is coming at you so you can address it in a non-violent and satisfying way. And, he reminds us, it takes work to be able to do this.

    As I pack for Taiwan, and look ahead at practising Tai Chi Chu’an while there, a peaceful comfort comes with knowing that I am continuing to do my inner work, the work that helps me reduce fear and engage in my experiences with dignity and grace and confidence.

    1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/violence
  • Musings

    Beha’alotcha: Learning from Nature

    This week’s Torah reading is called Beha’alotcha, and in it, we read about the detailed and complex duties of the Levites. The Israelites are deeply in their desert sojourn away from the Narrow Place of Egypt, and we also read about a lot of complaining.

    Dr. Dennis Chitty

    This prompted me to recall my days back when I was a Biologist, when I studied Population Biology and Genetics. My supervisor was a student of Dr. Charles Krebs, who had been a student of Dr. Dennis Chitty.

    Dr. Chitty published research on the population fluctuations of meadow voles. Remember the Disney film, “White Wilderness”, where we watch the lemmings control their cyclical explosion population growth by jumping over cliffs? Well, that was Disney, and that portrayal was a hyperbole for what the voles, which are related to lemmings, would do when their numbers caused overcrowding and a scarcity of resources.

    From his observations, Dr. Chitty proposed that cycles in wildlife numbers are self-generated by the interactions between individual animals. His conclusion, that changes in aggressive behaviour and physiology can prevent unlimited population growth, is now a fundamental tenet in population ecology. This is recognized as the ‘Chitty Hypothesis of Population Regulation’.

    Dr. Chitty and his students were able to demonstrate in the lab and field that overcrowding these innocuous little mammals caused them to become extremely aggressive towards one another and overgraze on the plants and insects they fed on. That is how their population sizes come to fluctuate cyclically. They don’t need the drama of some mad-cow, deranged beeline for the nearest cliff or chasm to plunge into.

    The truth is, population regulation is how Nature works. We as humans, have a Divine intelligence allowing us to create  laboratory scenarios to explain what we see animals doing in the wild. The abilities we have for insight, to transfer what we learn from Nature to better ourselves, are gifts from God.

    We differ from animals because we can look at our options and make choices about how we want to prevent ourselves from biting each other to death, or destroying all the food resources in our environment; and we can wear masks and make vaccines to control the spread of disease.

    We don’t have to jump off a cliff when life becomes overwhelming, although these days so many people only see that option, emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically.

    Perhaps we could have foreseen and done a better job of averting these global days of floods, rains, fires, crop failures, wars, and epidemics by heeding the meadow vole and other population models of scientists such as Dr. Chitty.

    We do have Torah to show us how to navigate difficult times when they arrive, and how to respect each other, including those among us who are differently abled or are strangers.

    With regard to this week’s Parasha Beha’alotcha: let us hear the complaints about the lack of fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but be more like Moses, and remind one another of the big picture and value of the whole congregation of humans – follies and all.

    We are beings favoured with Divine wisdom and sacred books such as the Torah, who can learn from, and find a way through, our dilemmas with the natural world and amongst ourselves.

    photo by A. Hoskins