Sunday, July 25, 2010

Imagination As Gospel

There is nothing in this world, arguably, that has the capacity to move in the same way a good story does. Stories are multi-layered, speaking to us on more than one level at once, and indirectly. Ideologies communicated to us in books or lectures don’t always stick – we can listen to them again and again while remaining utterly impenetrable, even as we nod our heads in agreement. But a good story has a way of sneaking in the back door and reaching that part of us tucked far away from life’s disappointments. It can lift us out of our self-imposed drudgery and show us what we’ve forgotten.

My favorite form of storytelling is film. If it’s done skilfully, with a deep respect for the power of narrative, the end result can hold enormous impact. With repeated viewings, we often find different parts stirring us in different ways at different times. We love a good story because it takes us away and brings us home at the same time. The line between truth and fiction is absurdly thin. Even the most bizarre scenarios can resonate, and those of us who think deeply are propelled into a place of meaningful contemplation.

This year is the 35th anniversary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and some television stations are airing it on a rotating schedule. Tuning in to the first half recently – I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched the entire film – there was one scene that stood out to me this time. Jack Nicholson, a criminal serving a short sentence, is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation, where he amuses himself by goading the ball-busting Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The tables eventually turn, and though Nicholson successfully campaigns to have the World Series baseball game shown on the ward television, Nurse Ratched refuses to acknowledge it. Nicholson responds by creating a ruckus, and a gleeful one at that.

Standing in front of the blank television screen, he starts commentating on an imaginary game with unbridled enthusiasm. It is so real, and so infectious, that when the other patients start gathering around him and cheering, you actually get caught up in it too. And it dawns on you that it doesn’t matter that the television isn’t actually on. The excitement Nicholson rouses in his peers is epic.

Thomas Moore once said that imagination is more weighty than fact. If we could mine the annals of our consciousness, we might discover experiences there that had little in common with the circumstances of our lives – experiences so vivid they stunned us with their repercussions. So what determines our experience more, I wonder – what we imagine or what actually happens? I am inclined to think it is how we imagine what is happening to us, and how we imagine what will happen.

And that includes our experience of aging. Though the forces that shape our experience are vast and complex, it might be wise to take our imagination a lot more seriously, and in this sense, consider living artfully in a world bent on rationalism.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Soccer & the Art of Courting

One of the things I love the most about World Cup Soccer season is being treated, on a daily basis, to images of male comradery in the media. Intimacy between men – especially heterosexual men – is not something depicted in the public realm very often, and personally, I get a real rush from it. There’s something about what I see that I think we need a lot more of in today’s world – Nelson Mandela was really on to something. And there is nothing like soccer to inspire it. Though I know very little about the game, what I have seen about the culture that surrounds it fascinates me.

I will never forget my 2002 World Cup experience. I decided I was going to get up at 5am to catch the final match in a large Toronto bar populated by Brazilian fans. There was a massive screen up and a group of drummers poised in the middle of the room. Whenever a player began picking up some momentum on the field, the drummers would start in with a rhythmic beat, gradually increasing both pace and intensity to reflect whatever they were watching on the screen. Women scattered around the room would dance. Then, when an attempt made at scoring failed, instead of deflating or cursing, the crowd would erupt in celebration.

What I learned that day was how important attitude is to developing real skill. It’s less about whether or not you score, and more about how you play the game. No wonder the Brazilians are repeated world champions. Every play was celebrated, regardless of the outcome. Rapture marked the occasion, and the ebbs and flows that are a natural expression of raw passion undulated through the room.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience lately, and about what we could learn from the Brazilian mindset in the way we approach our relationships, especially with someone we’re attracted to. When we’re young, “courting” tends to be about looking good, snagging, ruffling our feathers, scoring. But as we get older, if we learn to go with it, hopefully we know better. We have the capacity to recognize what we’re missing by refusing to grow up. If we’re smart, we treat “courting” as a sort of a deft artistry, less interested in where we are going than we are in how we are getting there. Like the Brazilian approach to soccer.

Of course, we court in all kinds of contexts – not just lover-related. But think of the sexual as a template of sorts, because even those in committed relationships “court” their partner from time to time. One of the perks of aging for those who aren’t fighting it is a growing depth of perception that graces our day to day lives. Our sexuality takes on new dimensions. What we once thought of as “sexy” becomes laughable. We start paying attention to nuance in our social interactions. Conversations happen on more than one level – what we say comes second to how we say it; a pregnant pause can speak volumes. Even the smallest physical gesture can emit subtle, but powerful, erotic energy.

It’s not about ego anymore. It’s about a life lived on poetic terms, and the humbling experience of realizing we’re not important in the way we once thought. That love is not at all what we once made it out to be. And the willful, curious engagement of what comes our way when we’re busy making other plans.