A difficult lesson
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
This is a column about what the Buddhists call "right speech"
and the mystery of the world's love.
Two weeks ago, I was at my gym when a complete stranger approached
"Aren't you Cliff Bostock?" he asked.
I braced myself. I'm never sure what the answer will provoke. "I
might be," I said.
"Well, I guess you're not, because you don't look like an [expletive
deleted]," he said, laughing.
"Um, okay," I muttered, pretty shocked by the obscenity
from a stranger.
He explained that I should get a copy of a local alternative newspaper,
Southern Voice. I did and found that for the second year in a row,
the editors had made an attack on me in a special issue. This one was
personal, mysteriously ignorant of my actual person and, by many people's
I called the story's editor and asked her what she was thinking
when she published the remark. She said she had "no explanation"
and told me she'd talk to the publisher and get back to me. Naturally,
I never heard back. I wrote a letter, asking an apology and threatening
a lawsuit. At this writing, I've had no response. It appeals to my own
sense of irony that members of the alternative media now can practice
the "stonewalling" for which government bureaucrats are so notorious.
Journalism has changed enormously since the many years I worked
as an editor both in mainstream and alternative media. Many editors now
do not recognize the difference in a personal attack and heated discourse
about ideas. But, even at its best, I think the profession, because it
requires so much skepticism, often causes its members to lose their sense
of simple appreciation - especially if you work as a critic, as I have.
Over the next days, most of my friends expressed embarrassed concern.
Some told me that the remark was so far from describing me that I shouldn't
let it bother me. Others told me I should sue. Others told me I should
be flattered that I, a provocateur myself, am such an effective annoyance
to the paper that they attack my person instead of my ideas. My most valued
friends just supported me in my anger and hurt. They didn't try to tell
me how I should feel. So right away, I began to get a lesson in what's
important in friendship and love.
And, thus, the psychologist in me began immediately to look for
the meaning in the experience. And the world answered.
On the same day I called the paper, I awoke wanting - of all things
- to buy a canary. I had no idea why. When I was in Spain a few months
ago, I had often heard a canary warbling in the home of gypsies high in
the cliffs. The sound was magical to me. Still, I dismissed this impulse
to buy one. Nevetheless, the desire grew, especially after my angry interaction
with the editor.
I drove to the pet store at Ansley Mall after lunch and, still
clueless about my motivations, walked out of the store without buying
a bird. On my way home, I suddenly remembered that it was the 18th anniversary
of my last drink of alcohol. When I got home, I told my partner:
"I don't have any idea why, but I have this impulse to buy
a canary. Since it's my 18th anniversary without a drink, I'm just going
to buy one as a gift for myself and see what it's about." Wayne looked
at me, looked at the cats and raised an eyebrow.
Later that afternoon, I bought the bird, a perky bit of warbling
yellow and brown fluff. By this time, I had also decided to go to a meeting
of Alcoholics Anonymous - my first in at least five years. I went religiously
to AA meetings for over 10 years. I felt sheltered and loved there. Eventually,
though, I drifted away, finding AA pretty irrelevant to my changing needs.
I felt no enmity about this. It just seemed natural for me to discontinue
Canary in the car, I stopped at the Galano Club in Midtown and
was stunned to see faces I hadn't seen in years. The room was also filled
with ghosts of many friends who had died during my recovery. When the
meeting began, the room became quiet. Wonderfully quiet. Soon, a man began
talking about "the need for gentle speech." I felt myself suddenly
It hit me like a bolt of lightning. That was the lesson in all of this.
I am tired of hostile speech - my speech primarily, the speech
of others too, the battles we have to conduct just to get through a damn
day now, the fight to maintain simple integrity in a world where money
and attention are what matter most and have created a kind of reflexive
cynicism in all of us. And that, I realized instantly, was what the canary
was about. I just wanted to hear something beautiful.
So, an hour later, I set the canary cage in my library and, almost
as soon as the bird hit his perch, he began warbling - a long gorgeous
trill that caused me to throw my own head back and laugh, merging my voice
with his. The next few days were filled with coincidences, unplanned reconnections
with old friends, the sound of the canary singing and the deep silence
I was taught by my spiritual teacher, Mother Meera, to appreciate.
I have no idea yet how to handle hostile speech - my own taste for it
and the taste of others. But I am grateful to be reminded again that I
am not my anger.
Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing
Archetypal Advice |