My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

The Supreme Power

Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines in 1902, the beginning to a small poem about his daughter:

I keep six honest serving-men/(They taught me all I knew);/Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who…

Five of those interrogative words, whether rendered in English or any other language, enable us to ask the fundamental questions of all mankind.

What is the meaning of life?  Why are we here?  When did life begin?  Where are we headed?

And the most fundamental of all:  Who created us?

Throughout the millennia, mankind has striven to find meaningful answers, and has codified those answers in various constructs: dogma, commandment, or science.  The first of these forms the basis for religious belief, the second for a stable, civil order, the third for progress.

One may ask, however, whether the answers so far obtained have been beneficial to our understanding of our existence.  It might be argued, for example, that the plethora of religious beliefs espoused by so many have led us, not to an utopian bliss, but into almost-endless warfare as we seek to establish the predominance of our own set of beliefs.  Think of wars fought in the name of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, either to preserve or spread those creeds.

wars

Or consider the nearly-numberless dictators and rulers over the ages who have demanded fealty and obedience from their subjects, only to have their empires crumble into disarray: Persia, Athens and Sparta, Egypt, Carthage, Imperial Rome, the Ottoman Empire.  Their names are legendary—Cyrus the Great, Leonidas, Rameses the Great, Hannibal, Augustus Caesar, Suleiman the Magnificent—but their legacies are reduced to historical footnotes.

And what of more modern empires, be they economic or military—the British Commonwealth, America, Russia, China?  Are they truly stable models of order and good government, destined to last forever?

Even science, that bastion of fact-based evidence, can mislead us.  At various times in history, scientific evidence demonstrated conclusively (at least to some) that the world is flat, the earth is at the centre of the solar system, there are canals on Mars, and life as we know it would end on Y2K.  So, who is to say the theories we espouse today are any more reliable—that evolution, not creation, has brought us to our present state; that our very existence is imperilled by global warming; or that the universe we inhabit is endlessly expanding?

The most fundamental question (Who created us?) can be deconstructed into two oppositional queries.  The first:  were we, in fact, created by some supreme power?  And the contrary second:  did we create the notion of a supreme power to help explain our existence?

Worldwide, the answer from untold billions of people to the first of these is Yes!  And, perhaps not so strangely, the answer to the second, from different people, is also Yes!

Truth be told, I have offered up affirmative answers to both queries at various points in my life, believing each at the time.  I have flip-flopped on many occasions.  But even as I answer, more questions form in my mind.

If there is a supreme power (variously portrayed paternalistically in different religions as Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, and so many more), why did it create us?  Is there some magnificent purpose behind it all?  Were we put here to love and nurture one another, in a grand homage to our creator?  Or were we created to murder each other, providing a somewhat cruel spectacle for the amusement of our maker?  Was there, perhaps, no purpose at all, just a random experiment quickly forgotten by a supreme power that is, at one and the same time, our initiator and destroyer?

god 3

Conversely, if there is not a supreme power—if, in fact, mankind created that notion to soothe our fears and protect us from our most base instincts, lest we annihilate ourselves—then what?  Are we alone in the universe, left to our own devices?   Are we nothing more than a tiny fluke in the cosmic sea?

Religious folk, theists, profess to both adore and fear their maker, as well they might in their longing for life-eternal, rewarding their faithfulness.  Non-religious folk, atheists, proclaim no god (though some may fear an unknown afterlife).

And those in the middle—the ones too sophisticated to fall for the charade of a supreme power, yet too fearful to deny its existence—what of them?

I do not know the answers to any of these questions.  But I favour the idea that there is a creator, that we and our universe could not have sprung spontaneously from nothing.  That’s not provable, mind you.  It’s faith.

This much, however, I do know to be true.  As I survey the world around me—with its endless stream of callous and fervent punishments inflicted on some of us by others of us, and with the threat of nuclear or environmental destruction looming ever more forbiddingly in our future—I despair.

If there is a supreme power, but one uncaring toward, and indifferent to, our plight, (s)he must be laughing hysterically at our hapless ways.

Equally, if a supreme power exists as a loving and compassionate being, (s)he must look upon us with pity and sorrow.  And weep.

And most frightening of all:  what if there really is…..nothing?

nothing

 

Happy to Be Home

Having just returned from a wonderful trip to South Africa, I am struck, as ever, by how good it feels to be home again.

Our journey through that wonderful country constituted the trip of a lifetime, a celebration of our golden anniversary.  Readers of this blog have already shared in some of our adventures, although my scribblings are no substitute for being there.

Over the years, my family has always loved to go on trips.  Be it winter for skiing, or summer for camping, we really enjoyed going away.

camping

My wife and I worked in the school system, so our holidays tended to come in regularly-spaced chunks, which was especially nice when our daughters still attended elementary school.  We were able to get away several times during the year, usually for short spans of four or five days.  That made us more fortunate than many folks, and we appreciated that—one reason, perhaps, why we enjoyed the opportunities so much.

Due a combination of lack of interest and financial realities, I suppose, we didn’t make elaborate journeys to glamorous vacation spots.  Our most expensive holidays were of the weekend-at-a-ski-lodge variety.  Mostly, we just visited with family members who lived out of town, stayed with friends at their summer cottages, or set up our own digs at one of the myriad provincial campgrounds.

Vagabond vacationers—that’s what we were.

In spite of our love for going away, however, and regardless of the type of trip we’d been on, there was one element common to all our family meanderings.  We loved to come home.  No matter how long we’d been gone, it was a real joy to come in the door, drop our gear, and explore through the house.

This lovely memory of bygone days washed over my wife and me once more, upon our most recent return.

Each of us seemed to have one special thing we liked to do when we arrived back, a self-appointed task that served to herald our homecoming.  Among the several necessary jobs—turning up the temperature in the water heater, plugging in the water-softener, or opening windows to dispel the stuffiness—our special tasks stood out in their importance to each of us, respectively, as our way of saying, I’m home!

My wife would spend fifteen or twenty minutes visiting her plants, watering them, talking to them, grooming them lovingly.  My youngest daughter would head to her bedroom to check on whether everything was just as she left it (though, sometimes, given the disarray, I wasn’t sure how she could tell).  My older daughter would take Cinnamon, our dog, on an inspection tour of the house, the sunroom, and the back yard, generally in that order.

For all of them, it was a renewing of acquaintance with home.

My task was to wind the five clocks.  The time on each face had to be adjusted, the chimes and gongs checked to be sure they were synchronized, and the pendulums re-started.  It wasn’t a difficult job, or a lengthy one, but it could be stretched into a half-hour of time alone, savouring the feeling of being back home again.  And, when the next full hour rolled around, and the clocks began to sound, everything seemed normal once more.

clock2

Perhaps you share my sentiment that, when I’m not in the place I love, I love the place I’m in.  My family certainly looked forward to every succeeding trip or vacation spot we planned to visit, and always seemed to enjoy ourselves wherever we happened to be.  But, when it came time to head for home, we were never unhappy with that prospect, either.

Our daughters have been gone for several years, of course, off raising families of their own.  But they’ve continued the tradition of holidays together as often as possible.

For my wife and me, however, holidays are different now—more sedate, more pampered, and to more exotic destinations than in our earlier years—places like South Africa.  Although we miss the girls, we still love to get away.

Way back when, we had a nice little routine we’d go through as each journey neared its end.  One of us would start by remarking on the terrific time we’d all had, how much fun it was to be on holiday.  Someone else would comment on the wonderful weather, or the exciting activities we had shared.  Another might mention some of the memorable highlights of the trip now ending.

“Yeah, it was a great holiday,” somebody would eventually conclude, “but it sure is nice to be coming home.”

Later, perhaps at the supper table, or maybe when the girls were getting off to bed, one of us would look up and re-affirm it.

“Y’know, it’s good to be home!”

home

So, most recently, when all the plants were tended to, and all the clocks were wound, my wife and I settled in with a glass of wine.  No words were spoken, yet we understood how each other was feeling.  And by the time the clocks chimed ten, we were both fast asleep, exhilarated and exhausted by our wonderful adventures.

And most of all, happy to be home.

Whither Humanity?

The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:

  • a collective name for all human beings;
  • the state of being human; and
  • the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.

The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.

In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens.  These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures.  But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.

It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then.  The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment.  Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.

Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species.  One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure.  Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.

It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally.  Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone.  Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately.  But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.

The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess.  And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.

So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question:  Whither humanity?

We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development.  The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established.  But where are we going?  And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet?  Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time?  If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.

But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all.  And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity.  At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.

We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations.  But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel.  Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?

I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—

          With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a

just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!