Van Winkle’s Wink

It’ll pass in a wink, Rip. So, open your eyes wide and suck it up, every blossom, every bloom, every breath. Spring is here, at last! The question now is: R.I.P. or let it rip, Rip? If you happen to be van Winkle these days it’s a vital, “to be or not to be” question.

It’s been a long winter and well over a year since I awakened from that seminal time in Sri Lanka designing, developing and field-testing the prototype for our Garden Path curriculum of teaching toys. You can read about those times beginning in Chapter 5 of this log,  Inventory of Omens, and continuing through Chapter 16,  Even if the Sky Falls.

After that I did what Rip does best. I fell into a reverie at the Palazzo Montesanto (also known as Chong House) in Hamilton, where I’ve been living in retreat over the last year with the divine Marchesa Montesanto collecting what’s left of my wits for the onward journey. Encouraged by good friends – designer / publisher Bart Hawkins Kreps, Dr. John van Eenwyk from the International Trauma Treatment Program in Olympia Washington, and Dr. Robbie Chase from the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba – I wrote a book named Beautiful Nonsense, for reasons which will become obvious when you read it.

This fulfills a promise made long ago to my friend and mentor, the late Dr. Kenneth Bush, to complete the Summa Ludo Logica, a compendium of Garden Path lore divided in three parts: (i) Small Wonders, the stories of twenty war-affected kids from Batticaloa as they grew up with Butterfly Peace Garden, as well as Blood of the Mango, Cuckoo in the Jam and other collections of war zone fairy tales:; (ii) The Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum predicated on toys and techniques we developed at the Garden to help Sri Lankan youth who had experienced years of warfare and the tsunami of 2004; and then (iii) Beautiful Nonsense, a reflection on my personal Garden Path meander over forty years, as best I can remember. So folks, what can I say? Been there, done that. Now I’m free and can go back to sleep. R.I.P. forever. Amen. What else to do if you feel like the ghost of a flea in a gone world? Or a poor little mouse on a wheel.

But hang about, Po. Where’s that fighting Irish spirit? The thought of fair Ellen from long ago springs to mind, and her mouse, Miziozit. Mizi’s fur was falling out in clumps, a condition she treated by slathering his shrivelled little body with vitamin E ointment. Or was it vitamin A? I can’t rightly recall but whatever it was he responded immediately by climbing back up on the wheel and running round and round until he dropped dead of a heart attack. I remember Miziozit fondly for his get-up-and-go. In fact I totally identify with him.

What follows is a brief account of my own ups and downs on the wheel of life over the last while. I must confess I am tired of the way it creaks, especially at three in the morning, but I have resolved to go on till the end if I don’t lose faith. That’s the key to the mad mouse marathon we call life, not to lose faith, even when you know it’ll sadly end in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or some other equally fatal embarrassment.

I abide in faith that the mayhem that many of us experience these days has some kind of meaning or, if it doesn’t, that we may discover the capacity to summon meaning from chaos through a practice in the arts and, more critically, openness to the stranger, both in ourselves and in others. I know that losing one’s mind in the profusion of contradictory stories that confront us every day in the media is a real risk. It can break your heart, like Mizi on the wheel. Or you could just lose it fighting the world and go snappers, like Ezra Pound, or like the old (and sometimes, not so old) soldiers we see fallen in the streets from sadness and self-inflicted wounds. Remember our beautiful General Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda? If it can happen to  the best of men it can happen to any one of us.

If you lose the spirit to reach out to others, or reach in occasionally to give yourself a pat on the back, then what’s left? You’re not even a mouse, or the ghost of a mouse, churning away on a wheel. You’re just completely delusional; a cadaverous crack head curled up on a cold cement floor like a potato bug in an derelict back alley garage waiting city sanitation. Or the Grim Reaper? Or his guardian angel, Annette. Remember Annette Funicello, from the Mouseketeers? And Darlene?  Cubby? And Jose! Don’t get me going. I’m here to escort you  to the pearly gates. That’s it. God the Father is pacing back and forth fuming fire and belching brimstone because you are a few millennia late getting your head  straight. Shame. Mortal sin will do that to you, son. But never mind, Start again from the top. Mortal sin isn’t always mortal. I mean it doesn’t always kill you dead.

I think of Allen Ginsburg’s admonition to “swallow your apocalypse” and get on with life and his poetry crusade to “do the work”. And what is the work again, Allen? “To relieve the suffering of the world, you dolt! To be kind!”. Oh yeah, I forgot. Kind. To all sentient beings including hairless lab rats. But meanwhile, don’t get distracted. Ottessa Moshfegh says “Work hard. The rest is mystery.” Sam Beckett confides to Estragon and Vladimir that it’s just too absurd for him. “I can’t go on, boys. I just can’t!” And they tell him, “C’mon Sam, we got a show to do! ” After a moment’s hesitation and a sly smile, he gives in. “OK. I’ll go on.”

So whatever it’s going to be get with the program, Rip, and get back up on the wheel. Or get off once and for all! You have to take whatever you can get these days, like the dog wagging her tail and drinking the dregs of your morning brew. See that? There she is, Ladybug, lapping up the cold coffee at the bottom of the cup while cocking a guilty back eye my way. Don’t sweat it sweetie, I tell her. I didn’t see a thing … except what I saw, passing through these diminished days like wendigo, the Anishinaabe hungry ghost who cannibalizes himself while on the prowl for what remains of loving kindness in world gone weird, trampling the bones of Miziozit in the dust as his shadow falls over the land. Poor little Mizi. At least he finally got off the wheel.

18.1 Toronto: the Transformative Power of Tragedy and Love

I came back to Toronto, the city I once loved and left in 1994 after years away in war-torn Sri Lanka, one of those beautiful places written off at the time by people who see the world as nothing more than a marketing opportunity for various commodities they’re selling, some life-saving, others lethal. These days, in a relatively more stable Lanka, it’s eco-tourism. If these late capitalist marketing men had a motto it would be “Improving Our World Worse for the Betterment of All”. Dear old Toronto seems a distant memory having been replaced by a familiar sci-fi Cyberia we encounter wherever we travel in the world these days. “We the North” now live in unaffordable file box condos, everything slick, silver and speeding by at warp speed. Get use to it Rip. It’s called progress and you’re too old to catch up, if you even want to.

While hearing the refrains of Jimi Hendrix singing, “there must be some kind of way out of here”, an anthem from my hippy days, I see kids junked out on or fentanyl or oxycontin in Moss Park and I think, well at least Big Pharma is booming big time, maybe I should invest my GIS with them? Or in cannabis, which the government will legalize this July and sell in liquor stores so at least we’re all well-lubricated and stoned come the Rapture, or a Raptor’s NBA Championship. While they’re at it maybe they should take a look at Portugal where they’ve legalized almost everything including heroin and subsequently seen addiction rates, and the budget for policing people’s privacy, plummet.

And what about the refugees who come here hoping to find freedom and escape war only to discover themselves locked down in a battle putting food on the table, sending their kids to school and making ends meet in a totally alien environment? It will dawn on them sooner or later that they’re really not safe on this side of the gun either because there are crazies roaming the streets, people who are hurting with no place to put their anger, their fear, or their loneliness. So they reach out to others… by hurting them.

Ladybug knows I’m confused because I’m ranting. When I get confused I rant and when I rant I get confused. She’s tired of chasing squirrels around the yard and tells me to change the channel. It’s not good for me, she says. But it just so happens all channels are running the same story today. A 25 year-old college student, desperate for a woman in his life, drives a Ryder rental van down the sidewalk on a busy stretch of Yonge Street between Sheppard and Finch Avenues intending to kill as many women as possible. He succeeds in mowing down 25 people, killing 11 by last count and leaving a trail of carnage and panic in his wake. Isn’t this exactly what people are trying to escape when they flee to Canada as refugees?

I’d had my fill of fear and loathing when I reached for the remote wondering whatever happened to Toronto the Good. Enough sadness for one day Ladybug, I mumble, shuffling off to bed where she joins me, cuddling up and whispering in my ear, “Don’t worry Rip, it’s just the news. It’s not real. It’s fake. Don’t you know that? Even the President of the Untied States knows that.” I wonder if he was watching CBC live coverage of the Sunday evening vigil commemorating the lives of those who died in the  van attack. This is definitely not fake news.

An estimated 25,000 people turned out at Mel Lastman Square bearing placards remembering the victims and banners proclaiming their “love for all and hatred for none”. One by one, ministers, rabbis, a priest, an imam, a Hindu pandit police captain, and Sri Lankan Buddhist monk offered prayers of condolence. “In Toronto, in Ontario, in Canada, we don’t run away – we run to help others,” said Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of the Beth Tzedec Congregation. The Toronto Children’s Concert Choir sang a beautiful song the chorus of which, “hang on just a little bit longer, everything’s going to be OK” washed through the crowd like balm in Gideon. The choir from the Metropolitan Community Church sang Amazing Grace and high school kids from a Catholic and a public high school ended the ceremony with the national anthem sung in both French and English.

All the while you could see people coming and going, offering flower tributes, teddy bears, incense, prayers, candles and wishes written into a scrap book in memory of the deceased whose portraits were aired with brief descriptions of their lives. One of them I recall was Renuka Amarasingha, a single mother from Sri Lanka who was killed leaving her only child behind. It was hard to take it all in. Emotions of sorrow, loss, bewilderment and love rippling through the assembled mourners were powerful and conflicting but the message was clear. This city may be mixed in its variety of colour, religion, nationality and culture but it has one heart and this heart declared itself openly to the world. We will love each other. We will not turn away from each other’s suffering. This is the kind of world we believe in.

Toronto is a city of caring and compassion, no question. There in the middle of the crowd  Prime Minister Trudeau sat beside Governor General Julie Payette, the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne with her partner and beside her, Philippe Couillard, the Premier of Quebec and John Tory, the Mayor of the City of Toronto, all visibly moved and grieving the same as everyone else; no grandstanding, no playing to the crowd, no obvious security. The police, the paramedics and the firemen who were there were mourning like everyone else. They, the first and last responders were a formidable presence, but in the background, humble heroes just as human as the next person.

Here was a city brought to its knees and finding its heart together in full view of the world. “All beings, one body”, an old Buddhist  wisdom never rang so true. You could not have witnessed phenomenon it without becoming one with it and without feeling the immense sorrow and compassion of the assembled mourners healing your broken heart.

In the week since the vigil the #TorontoStrong Fund raised $2.5 million for victims of the attack and their families and “for other people in the city that are impacted by an event like this.”

18.2 The Falling Sky Studio

A week or so before this happened I was in my atelier without walls, the Falling Sky Studio, this time at Ottawa’s Adult High School presenting the Live Simply Workshop  for 16 men and women ranging in age from – I’m guessing – 25 to 55 years old. We experimented with toys from The Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum. Some of the participants are ‘old’ Canadians from Ottawa and some are ‘new’, from places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Spain and Syria. They have many stories to tell and they tell them through engagement with some of the techniques and toys of the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum: the Story Crow, the Story Snake, the Air and Water Labyrinths, Mystery Painting and the House of Peace.

We spent six days together – Stephanie, Soz, Philip, Norman, Nasim, Naomi, Manel, Celia, Chalia, Ekaterina, Krista, Manel, Norman, Patrick, Shannon, and Kevin – in a dialogue across generations and disparate cultural experiences using the arts as the bridge to understanding one another better. If there is a way to communicate more meaningfully in a world driven by the speed and superficiality of social media it will be through slowing down and the hands-on experience of creating art, having by now realized that convenience of communication can be antithetical to deeper understanding and empathy. Communion. Creativity. Community. These are steps we must take to be more open to one other and more fully realized in our humanity. We have taken the first tentative steps in these workshops and hopefully we won’t stop there.

Allow me to brief you on the rationale behind these sessions quoting from the prospectus I sent Kevin Bush, the school principal and Stephanie Russell, the art teacher. The workshops had a unifying theme: “Live simply so others can simply live”. We don’t live very simply over here, have you noticed? We live in cells padded with electronic stimulation embedded within a sprawling society of ceaseless distraction. Running away from yourself is a race you’ll never win, yet it is regarded as heroic to try, whatever the cost. Witness the Olympics with their financial and doping scandals. Witness the spectacle of professional sports, which reward players millions of dollars for putting a puck in a net or a ball through a hoop while billions go hungry every day. It’s not the sport that’s the problem. Quite the contrary. It’s commercialization. Greed. The view that everything exist to be bought and sold. Art, music, sports, religion, people. It’s all about money now.  We’ve been here before. Mammon. Babel. Wendigo stalks the land snacking on vacated bodies and souls, his precious little timbits.

What is precious these days is interior interior presence to oneself.  It barely exists. Without an interior life of any depth we are but walking shadows. We watch endless ads on television for prescription drugs to ease an entire spectrum of maladies, appended by disclaimers warning us about disastrous side effects. Still we buy them. Distraction, dis-ease, drugs. It’s a billion dollar business in an addiction economy, with little down time for reflection, recreation and support for social programs that create more harmonious communities.

We must learn to immunize ourselves from the negative effects of big tech and full-on karaoke culture or risk becoming zombies, which is what is happening at an unprecedented rate and why the zombie genre of popular fiction and film is so popular. Think of it like water freezing. Water is water until it reaches a certain temperature and then, in the snap of a finger, it becomes ice. We humans are human until a certain level of superficiality is attained and then, in the snap of a finger, we’re zombies. We’re getting there fast. Just look at the vacant expression on the face of that kid sitting opposite you on the subway staring blankly into his smart phone and you’ll see we’ve already reached that level. And it’s happening first, foremost and fastest in the most technologically advanced countries

Remember when someone in Paris way back in the 20’s asked Gertrude Stein what is was like “over there” in America where she came from. True to form she answered, “There is no there, there”. Well, due to technological progress over the intervening century, Gertrude, there is no “there” anywhere anymore. Everyone wears blue jeans and drinks coffee at Starbucks. We’ve arrived. But you predicted that long ago. And now we have Facebook, Google, Twitter and Netflix enforcing it at every turn.

Social media were supposed to be about connecting. Remember that? But now they are about surveillance and algorithm-based marketing. They were never about communication in the first place because to communicate – and beyond that, to experience compassion and build community – you have to be present to yourself, open and vulnerable to your suffering and everyone else’s. We cannot create a truly humane world without presence to our collective predicament simply because we are all one.

There is no self and there is no other. The Dalai Lama puts it this way: “A thousand people, one human being. Ten thousand people, same human being. No barrier.” The Live Simply Workshop at the Adult High School in Ottawa is about removing barriers between people through the arts. It is about our aspirations to get real and be fully who we are.

Live Simply Workshop:  Session I (February 27- March 1, 2018)  Ottawa Adult High School

People now spend an average of 10 hours a day on screen. Digital technology is especially good at changing our brains without our awareness. We live in an addiction economy set up intentionally to undermine human will. How do we turn that around so that we can create cognitive, empathy-based communities where we are attuned to how people feel in rapidly evolving circumstances and organize collective action for the good of all? We may be the last generation that even realizes our dreams of freedom are worth defending. Where do we begin? Begin with the heart. Recover the gone world of wonder through art.

In an age of speed nothing can be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
In an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.
                                                                                                         Pico Iyer                                         

Live Simply Workshop: Session II (April 17 – April 19, 2018)  Ottawa Adult High School

 Since the 17th century the rate of change on our planet has been speeding up exponentially while the number of people causing change has also increased. There were less than a billion of us at that time and now there’s upwards of 7.5 billion with a projected increase of 48 million births in 2018.  According to UNHCR statistics, in 2017 the number of refugees hit a record high with an unprecedented 65.6 million – not counting the number of people internally displaced in their own countries which doubles that figure – people forced from their homes due to war, persecution and climate change, a third of them being under 18 years old. There seems to be no end in sight for the Age of the Refugee, which began on its current trajectory with the end of the 2nd World War and has now reached crisis proportions.

Raimon Panikker, a Jesuit theologian and proponent of inner-religious dialogue, puts it this way: “No single man or woman, no single system, no single religion can deal with the human condition today and offer a solution to the problems of our planet. Either there is solidarity on all levels or we go to disaster.” In the midst of this crisis there is an opportunity to mitigate the globalized atmosphere of dread through solidarity in making art together with people from around the world – many perhaps who are migrants or refugees to Canada.

The Falling Sky Studio is concerned with the social side of healing trauma and alienation. We get to know one another better by means of dialogue based in the original images and stories we create. We experience how the human spirit can transcend ignorance by creating the synergy for a more hopeful future through art. In times of vulnerability, if we learn to be comfortable with difference and uncertainty, the beauty of our world reveals itself.

This Garden Path Live Simply Workshop offers a playful yet profound way to improve emotional intelligence, leadership acumen and communication skills in a diverse, multi-ethnic group through creating art and narrative together. We learn to see beyond impulse and steer our erratic energy into creative channels.

Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of out relations.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Henry David Thoreau

Of Snakes, Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

 Ladybug listens to my rambling and wags her tail enthusiastically. Sometimes she likes my rants but her reasons are suspect. She notices that we’ve turned back on our evening walk and are heading home. There will be a bowl of snacks waiting and then she’ll squirm up on my lap to hear a few bedtime stories as she nods off into the reality behind this reality to which she is presently assigned, living with my friends Mary Heather and Shantie in an Ottawa suburb. Beats a barn full of rats where she lived before Farmer Fred died and she ended up in the pound as a rescue dog. She nuzzles closer. It takes only three Mayachitram stories before she makes a strange kind of croak, a death rattle of sorts, and nods off. The stories were inspired by Mystery Paintings (Tamil: Mayachitam) created in the Ottawa Workshop. Here are two and a reminiscence inspired by hearing them.

The Rock Canoe

I am a canoe. I am made of rocks from the strongest and biggest mountain. I was made by a bird who used to live on the mountain. This bird was once strong. He could fly long distances and made many places to visit. But the bird became old and weak. He was no longer able to fly and could only sit at home on the mountain. The bird lived on the mountain for many years, eating grasses, leaves and insects, drinking the morning dew to stay healthy. But now his resources have run out and he must move to a different place.

In his old age the bird replaced strength with wisdom and came up with a plan to craft me from the rocks of the strongest, biggest, mountain. It took the bird scores of days to peck and claw at the rock with his beak and talons; to chisel away at the surface of the rock until each piece fit together like a puzzle.

Finally, one early autumn morning, I was finished, but I was far from perfect. Within my belly there are many holes because the bird is not a perfect craftsman. Unwittingly the bird has engineered a special canoe, for it is these holes that allow me to float on the mighty river. Normal rocks would splash and sink but my porous body floats.

There is danger within my stern though, for within my porous body there lay a cunning snake. Like the bird the snake has grown old and wise. He needed to move from the mountain and decided to hide in the rocks that the bird was chiseling. Once the bird had put my bow and stern assembled together, the snake slithered in and is now rearing his head as we begin our journey together down the mighty river.

The snake is hungry and this bird will make the perfect meal. But each time the snake moves slightly, water seeps in through cracks in the rock and makes my belly cold. I realize the problem: the snake’s body is holding together the rocks that make my body. His slithering head to tail go all through my body, connecting each rock. Every time he moves I become weak and begin to fall apart.

Yet the snake keeps trying to catch the bird: his appetite causes him to pounce from my stern and grab for the bird at the bow. Each time I become weak as water pours in and chills my soul. I cannot call out or warn the bird because he forgot to make a mouth for me. The bird keeps watch in blissful ignorance. Eventually it dawns on the snake that he cannot eat the bird without sacrificing the integrity of my body, causing us all to drown and die.

I’ve learned something: the key to survival is balance. And the snake’s learned something too, I think. He waits patiently holding my body together, trusting the bird to guide us down the river to a better place.

Phil Crichton (Ottawa)

Time out for a Tsunami

The story of the Rock Canoe reminded me of something that actually happened in Batticaloa during the tsunami and I shared it with the class.

Imagine this for a moment. A boy of seven is running from a tsunami that bears down on him from above. He comes to an inlet on the lagoon where a dhoni lies drifting. He realizes that if he can climb aboard this small catamaran there is a chance he will survive. He tries to hoist himself up but the boat is adrift, already being driven from the shore. He loses his grip, slips and falls in the muck. Then frantically he tries again. And again. He does this over and over until he begins to tire. His hands are slippery with mud. Suddenly, seconds before the wave hits, he is lifted from behind by a stranger who shouts in his ear. “Hold on boy, here we go!” There is so much confusion he barely understands what the man is saying. Then the wave hits. The boat is propelled skyward and carried aloft to a calm patch of water mid-steam in the lagoon. All the boy knows, once he gets his bearings, is that he is adrift without a paddle. The turbulence has stopped. He is safe for the moment. But he is not alone. Coiled at his feet is a gleaming black snake who also seeks refuge in the little canoe. Together they drift to their destiny, companions in a narrow, and temporary, victory over certain death.

Paul Hogan (Batticaloa)

At a Snail’s Pace

I am a snail resting in my shell, after a long and exhausting journey through many distant countries. I now withdraw into my shell to make a home where I might rest and reconnect with myself and yes, retreat from the world for a while. I don’t want to disappear. Not entirely. But I do need to strengthen myself in order manifest spirit in the world more meaningfully at another time. Like a butterfly, you know, emerging from its cocoon when it’s ready. And that will happen someday. There is a whirl outside my cocoon, by the way, a spiral pathway. Perhaps you have noticed it. I will follow that whirl when the time is right to come out again.                                                                                                    

Manel Farfán (Barcelona)

18.3 The Wind-up and the Pitch

 If you’re anything like Ladybug may want to hear more stories like these and get a better sense of what we’ve accomplished on the Garden Path over the years in Canada, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, you may want to read Beautiful Nonsense, which concludes the Summa Ludo Logica opus. I quote a passage from its preface by the eminent Jungian psychoanalyst, Rev. Dr. John van Eenwyk, who knows my work and has spend time at the Butterfly Peace Garden in its formative years. He is better informed and a more authoritative braggart than me. 

Beautiful Nonsense operates on three levels. First, it contains an account of how Paul developed the healing process. Second, it is an example of that process. Finally, by involving us in that process we are both informed and transformed. His prose is engaging, poetic, descriptive, entertaining, and illuminating. We experience what he is talking about. It is also technical, analytic, and pragmatic. We learn how to do what he does. He grounds this “how-to” book in a philosophy of education that allows therapy programs to be adapted to local youth who have been traumatized by natural disasters and forced recruitment as child soldiers and indoctrinated operatives.

Read this book. Enjoy its stories. Allow your imagination to resonate with the images. Then apply it to the treatment of children everywhere. As Paul writes: “The Garden was an improvised temple of dreams for children whose faith in themselves was broken by war. It was both a public stage and sacred space where dreams were renewed and young dreamers revived.”

Thank you,  John.

Remember wendigo moves fast. Faster than cyber-media. I don’t mean to alarm you but soul-snatching happens in the wink of an eye, Van Winkle’s Wink. I must pack up and get ready to go even though I’m not sure where. Wendigo is at the door but it’s not my door. I have no place that I call home these days. That is my freedom.

What do you have to do?
Pack your bags,
go to the station without them.
Catch the train,
and leave yourself behind.

                        Wei Wu Wei

Before you do that though, don’t forget to order Beautiful Nonsense at the following links:


Nanton Abbey, Toronto
May 2018


Written by Paul Hogan