Right Speech:
A difficult lesson

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

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 me.

"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 definition, obscene.

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 meetings.

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 become emotional.

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

Paradigms | Archetypal Advice | Articles | Essays | Writings Home

What Is SoulWork
Greeting The Muse
Is SoulWork For You?
About SoulWorks LLC
Upcoming Events
Top Of Page
Copyright 1997-1998 SoulWorks LLC