The Obstacle Blessing

Our Made-to-Order Apocalypse

These days the human race is getting a pretty good run for its money. The Covid19 pandemic has flooded the world we thought we knew with desperation, grief and denial. However appalling it may seem though, this disaster is a blessing in disguise. It is revolution. It is revelation. It is an apocalypse made to order for us, a turning point. Camus put it like this: “What’s true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves”.

While it represents an unprecedented challenge for humanity – whether it be cracking open the immensely complicated task of vaccinating over 7.5 billion people worldwide or simply attending the everyday task of caring for kids we love, reassuring them of a promising future in what now seems like a gone world – this crisis offers numerous opportunities to shift the course of history. It does beg the question, however, of how willing we are to do so. Is the human race too stupid to save itself?

During a year of encounters with masked men and women, strangers with spooked eyes staring at each other incredulously, cut off from friends, glued to screens while locked down at home alone – or maybe worse, with loved ones – reliant on harassed politicians and endless contradictory media reports, our hallowed hearts are hollowed out by the need to be with others in the flesh, not merely on a screen. No matter how many times we hear the beloved bromide “all in this together,” many of us don’t feel that way. All one, but all alone.

Back at the turn of this century the French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, foresaw a world much like the one we’re living in. “One day,” he said, “the only people left in the streets will be zombies – one group with their mobile phones, the other with their headphones or video headsets. Everybody will be simultaneously elsewhere. They already are.”

It is as though our egg – our communities, our nations, our world – has been broken by an alien force. When an egg is broken by an outside force life ends. But when broken by an inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from within. Maybe we should take the lesson to heart and begin working from inside out, even if it’s too late. There’s a simple rule of thumb about how late it is. The more military style police you see cruising city streets, the closer we are to closing time.

We’ve got a formidable task ahead of us with ominous outcomes if we fail. It requires a fundamental shift in attention from the ubiquitous screen to paying closer attention to where we’re paying attention. If we recognize how distracted we’ve become following our smart screens around the consumer maze and embrace flesh and blood reality instead, we might begin to transform this crisis from the 5-star schemozzle it is into the obstacle blessing it could be. This knock on the noodle of our progress-fixated presumptions is heaven knocking at our door.

It requires interior focus – regulating or even turning off altogether the spew of fear-based Internet conspiracies, turning away from daily life mediated by technology and turning toward community life centred in contemplative creative practices that transform vulnerability into empathy for one another.

Society is the sum of its interiority. We address people’s aloneness only by reaching out in person to their aliveness. We enter the garden of our heart and follow the path we find there wherever it leads, restoring simplicity, sanity, maybe even sanctity and social cohesion, to our lives.

22.1 Within the Tears of Time Treasures Abound

Try as we may to bury our children alive in the debris of war after war without end, there are kids at the Butterfly Peace Garden in Batticaloa Sri Lanka who defy the masters of war. They are the masters of disaster. They have weathered years of conflict and a devastating tsunami in 1994 and now they’re back at it working their way from village to village, helping to meet the needs of poor villagers and their families affected by the global pandemic.

Even when funding from various international donors is exhausted they keep going. Having experienced life’s fragility in their flesh and bones from their earliest years, they set a high standard for helping children in their community, working day and night to achieve it.

Butterfly Garden animators have created a special name for what they do. They call it “rejewelleration”. By introducing the wish-fulfilling gem of the arts into the lives of young people in the villages, they empower them to find light and laughter within the darkness of their time.They have practiced this art and shared it with others for 25 years now. By cultivating the Seven Seed Practices of the Garden Path – Meditation, Mystery Painting, Mythography, MettaMapping, Marketing, Mediation and MegaShock Decorum – among village youth in Mattakalappu, Eastern Sri Lanka, they have come to realize their inner strengths through practicing the arts, redeeming the outer world by re-dreaming better lives for their kids than what they generally experienced themselves growing up.

Every reality has alternative possibilities. The world the Garden children see dawning for their own children begins with a decision to move away from an ethos of impossible to one of I’m possible, in communion with other kids in the community just like themselves. They may come from different ethnic and religious enclaves but through creating art together they discover their common humanity. Seeing through each other’s eyes and touching each other’s hearts, with the poet Hafiz, they declare:

 wish I could show you
when you are lonely or in darkness
the astonishing light of your own being

Having discovered openness to otherness at the Garden – through play in painting, poetry, song and story – they unlock the chamber of their hearts, sharing the treasures they find there with the whole world:

since we all have an interior life
let us return to community through contemplation
and let us return to contemplation through cultivating the arts

… and maybe a garden here and there. What then happens is life sorting itself out in the in-between moments. Amidst the tumult, terror and injustice of life in a conflict that covertly continues even to this day, the butterfly kids learn not to let disaster careen wildly off into complete catastrophe. A little comedy never hurts but catastrophes? We’ve had enough already. Their elders caution them, “Only dread one day at a time, my children.” But they are a cheeky lot and respond with seraphic smiles: “Don’t worry Mother, we only dream one day at a time”.

22.2 Falling Sky Friends

It is a honour and inspiration for me to have worked with the Butterfly Peace Garden from its earliest days. In 1994 I left the Spiral Garden in Toronto and moved to Sri Lanka to assist Father Paul Satkunanayagam setting up a magical space of refuge for children in Batticaloa trapped by the suffocating humdrum of poverty and war. To my illumination and delight I stayed on and worked there until I was stupid enough to leave in 2016 and move back to Canada.

In 2019, a grant from the Garden’s then funder GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – the German Society for International Cooperation) lured me back to Batticaloa to write a instruction book for the toy-based Out-of-the-Box Curriculum to facilitate Garden Path training-of-trainer programs.

These days the Garden in Batticaloa continues its search for long-term donor funding while teaming up for short-term projects with the following international and local NGO’s.

IOM (International Organization for Migration) promoting religious harmony and social cohesion in the Eastern Province;

Puhalidam, a center and refuge for differently-abled young people, creating 37 wall murals in seven villages promoting public sensitivity around disability issues;

BMZ (the Sri Lankan Government Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development) training a team of 53 youths from throughout the Eastern Province in building social awareness through street theatre;

The British Council Breath of Reconciliation project which teaches puppetry and ideography to an ethnically diverse cohort of kids.

Negotiations are ongoing with the NPC (National Peace Council) promoting inter-religious reconciliation, USAID regarding education around women’s issues and the Canada High Commission climate change and pandemic health initiatives.

Here in Toronto we have pulled together the Artist Refugee Continuum (ARC) Archive representing a cross-section of Garden Path community art programs in Canada, Sri Lanka and Cambodia over the past forty years. With the help of the Community Counts Foundation we incorporated as Garden Path Serendipity (GPS) Inc. tasked to animate the ARC Archive by engaging the creative genius of migrant and refugee youth in the city.

To this end we renew our intention to launch the Falling Sky Studio in downtown Toronto when Covid 19 public health restrictions ease. We are looking for partners to fund the costs of art materials and space rental in Toronto. There is a dark cloud hanging over the realization of this dream, to be sure, with lightning bolts like pernicious new variants of coronavirus appearing on the horizon with the umpteenth wave, more lockdowns, more curfews and the inevitable increase in mortality stealing our thunder and reconfiguring our dreams into a nightmarish tableau only Hieronymus Bosch could imagine and render in prescient horrific detail. But this is not Bosch. This is not Netflix. This is our lives lived in real time. Our time from which, as the bonzes of Thailand tell us, “ni mai pon”, there is no escape.

When faced with despair Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright would mutter, “I can’t go on.” And then respond by saying, “I will go on”. And he did. And we will. Falling Sky Studio will join the Butterfly Garden of Batticaloa however possible, supporting their work of addressing mental health problems, addiction and other social issues related to Covid19 among village kids in Sri Lanka and downtown kids in Toronto. How will we do that? Papaam. Only time and the butterflies will tell.

If you care to ask old Mother McCree, Sam Beckett’s mother, or any old Irish washerwomen these days, surely she’ll tell you, plague or no plague, things are never as bad as they look: “Even if the sky falls there will be a tiny hole to get out through,” she’ll say. Granted it may indeed be a very tiny hole followed by a tight squeeze down a tortuous switchback tunnel opening on the abyss yawning at every man and woman’s feet. We have found ways in the past to adapt to perilous times.  We mindfully embrace community, compassion, art, music, love… and our fate … come whatever may. 


Easter 2021



Written by Paul Hogan