Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Physician Heal Thyself

Early this morning, as I stirred under the covers and eased myself into the child's pose, my mind turned to this blog and its next subject. Was it time to do something about Christmas, particularly my first white Christmas, which took place in Nova Scotia, in 1943? I was especially prodded by recent events, as yesterday we hiked along the old Burlington Northern right-of-way in a successful search for a tree, which now stands beside my living room chair creating one of the treasured scents of the season. In keeping with the way we do Advent, the tree goes up as late as possible, and stays for the twelve days of the season.
One of my motivations was my sense of justice. As I had, in an earlier blog, spoken ill of my experience with singing instruction in my Nova Scotia school, I was looking for an opportunity to balance the record by speaking of something positive about the Atlantic province. For the most part, I had a very good time there, with fifteen months or so filled with the adventures of books and the bush and friends, yet I have naught been able so far to dwell much on those days, through the process of fiction. As it was in the school library in Eastern Passage that I discovered fairy tales, and in an old church hall in Dartmouth that I received my first catechism class on the Holy Trinity, I obviously owe considerable to the land of the Bluenose.
But before I arose at four for keyboard practice under the earphones, I tried what I thought would be an innocent experiment with the latest variation on the child pose. This variation is simply the extension, from the completely folded position, of one leg. That is, with the left leg folded under the torso, the right is stretched straight back. This allows for a yet deeper sinking of the left torso with a resulting extra stretch in the left quads, hamstring, and butt muscles. The groin also gets some increased attention. After a few minutes, one switches, so that the muscles of the right leg get equal treatment. Day by day I get looser and looser, all over those areas, and in the last couple of days especially I have found almost total ease in my right upper leg when I cross it over the left as I sit in my chair. This is with my feet on the floor. And actually, except for when I need to stick my legs straight out under the board holding the rubber piano,I have stopped using the footstool that has been my custom for years now. Being able to alternate the crossed leg routine is the automatic unconscious and easy stretch for my lower back after walking.
But the in-bed experiment crocked my lower back. For the first time in a long time I got up stiff as the proverbial board, and had to sit on the Swiss ball at this monitor to put my socks on.
What brought on the affliction was my decision to do some arm work while in the one leg extended position, lifting myself off my belly, raising my upper body off the mattress and holding it thus for a few minutes with my arms straight. This felt reasonably comfortable at the time, but when I came out of this form to head for the keyboard, ouch. Damn. Once again, a little learning is a dangerous thing.
I tried a few loosening procedures downstairs, and they helped a bit. Bending over to rest my forearms on my knees, kneeling on the rug in front of my chair to read a little. But from four or so on is keyboard numbers research time and I wanted to get on with it. So I set up the rubber piano on its board and sat in the chair to forage into my next discoveries, but I made a point of sitting with my feet on the floor, not stretched out on the footstool. That prevented the situation from worsening.
By the time I was done with keyboard practice, I had half-an-hour to kill before coffee time, so I went back to bed. I lay for a couple of minutes with my knees pulled up to my chest, lying on my side - apparently Thomas Aquinas slept in this position - and then once again went into the child's pose. I stayed in it for over ten minutes, then shifted to one straight leg at a time for a couple of minutes each - this time keeping my nose to the mattress like an infantryman under machine gun fire - and when I got up most of the stiffness and pain had gone.
A nice Christmas present, when you think about it, and certainly a solution no ordinary Western medicine man has ever told me about.
On the other hand, I now suspect, as a result of some breathing experiments on yesterday's search for a Christmas tree, that the Eastern pundits may not have the full story on nasal breathing. Nor had I - to the degree that I have it - until yesterday. There is a price to pay for a lack of complete cross-training.
With my mind and my fingers getting closer to having the use of the harmony tetrachord nailed in all keys and song structure combinations, my voice has started to get back the old and original co-operation from the Muse. I have indeed been able to sing with more or less full resonance here and there, but more by way of promise than the fulfillment I'm used to when the breath of God himself is in full operation. So yesterday morning before the climb, puttering methodically at the real piano in A flat major, I happily rumbled away from A flat below great C to A flat two octaves higher, all in resonance, and then more or less falsetto for the third octave. The resonance can be there too, but only after enough warm up down below has made me comfortable with the higher notes.
One of the great beauties of yoga is its insistence on breath work being the most important part of the procedures. It's not easy to get this impression from browsing the models in a yoga magazine, but this is the emphasis for real teachers. Breath becomes for a yogi like vocal resonance for an actor or a singer, and of course here the performer and the wise stretcher share the common wisdom of lungs and their attendant muscles understood. My anatomical lesson yesterday was to study the location and function in respiration of the pyramidalis and the transversus abdominus. These are the little gaffers that, from the bottom of the torso, squeeze out the last bits of air. That is, insofar as this can be done. Even after the complete and final squish, the lungs are still fifty percent full. Probably part of God's plan to prevent the overly ambitious from committing suicide. Every sport has its odd balls.
Thus, when I set off up the hill, I was in good breathing condition. My dining room around the piano had been turned into a Tibetan cave, with O Ah Um and more droning like a squadron of water bombers. And yet I wasn't at peace with my nasal in and outs for a number of blocks. No combination of steps in and steps out gave me the freedom and capacity to forget about it that I wanted. Two in, three out; Three in, four out; three in, three out: nothing quite worked.
And then I had a brainwave. Could it be that the essential part of nasal breathing was on the exhale, for the sake of ensuring that the oxygen got maximum abstraction time in the lungs, and also - following the recently studied Konstantin Buteyko - allowing sufficient creation of the carbon dioxide needed to process the oxygen fully?
So, I breathed in two - it was the steepest part of the walk, just before the right of way and its welcome flatness - and breathed out a very easy, very easy, four.
And then, and only then, could I relax. As soon as weather and festivities permit, I'll be running again, to see how this fits on the track.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Saint Francis of Assisi

Push really is getting to shove.
I remember some years ago jotting down at the top of the day's journal entry the name of Saint Thomas Aquinas and having my hand shake as I did so. When I tapped in the title for today's blogspot it was my chest that took the hit. The mystic's body is a veritable road map full of mine fields for tangible reactions to the Spirit's overflow.
It's always nice to have the little troubadour and wolf tamer around, of course, because not only does he carry an enormous clout on his own behalf, but he's more likely than not to bring some of the old original team with him. Giles, Bernard, Cupertino the flying cook, Clare and her little sister, just to name a few of the first round of the insightful, and then if you tack on some of the later gang, Anthony of Lisbon and Padua, Bonaventure, and from our own time, Padre Pio, the roster puts you in mind of some of the sports teams of all times, like the Yankees or the old Montreal Canadians, allowing for the significant contempt for money in the case of the Franciscans.
But I'm not here to talk about my relation with the heavenly head of the world's largest religious order.
Marianne is the item of the day. She's had a vision of Saint Francis.
One of the unique and most telling features of the qualities of our newish bishop is our freedom to attend more church functions than the obligatory weekend Mass. We have been able to go to daily mass if the bishop is in town to say it, and the month of Advent itself got off to a very graceful start with two Corriveau appearances, with Bishop John calling a meeting to tell us he was not going to move the bishop's chair from our cathedral to the admittedly much more populous Okanagan Valley and the city of Kelowna, and then a few days later speaking at a prayer breakfast. (Kelowna had got itself quite psyched up with its hopes for a loftier status, and Nelson had been worried.)Both of these episcopal appearances brought some very pleasant graces. There was an especially nice light from heaven while he was preaching at the mass before the parish meeting.
The location of Marianne's vision was again the cathedral, on Tuesday evening when the bishop was presiding and preaching at the annual penance celebration. There were a number of other priests present to hear the confessions that followed, and one of these was a Capuchin recently appointed as acting pastor at the church in Castlegar, where Marianne and I took refuge for four solid years with the great Herman Engberink, SMA. Well, refuge for her. For me it was the only way to avoid getting loud and possibly violent with the pastor of the day, and as our absence was nothing but noticeable to the parish public it was a much more effective punishment than a good drubbing.
On Sundays we always sit in the gallery, at the back and above the lower floor. In the silly season after the beginning of 1988, this meant we could put down the kneelers when all about us the rebellious and easily misled sheep were refusing to use theirs. Prior to 88, when certain Canadian bishops and priests were playing the fool with the ancient custom of kneeling during the consecration, the habitual household pews were to be found close to the front, on the congregation's left-hand side of the cathedral. This was also my favoured location for a private visit and chat with the resident saints and their Maker. In recent months, for other than Sunday service, we have returned to the front pews, under the crucifix above and to the left, and the Sacred Heart and the tabernacle in front. In our church, Mary is at the front, above the bishop's chair.
Saint Clare is the patron of television, so I have read, because once when she was sick and could not attend the Christmas midnight mass, Christ gave her a running vision of it anyway.
Marianne wasn't sick. She'd better not be. Too many preparations for Christmas, for one thing, and I can still get into trouble with the computer and need my tech. But she was finding the so-called examination of conscience in the penance pamphlet rather tedious, so Francis took pity on her and showed up kneeling on the carpeted steps below the tabernacle. He had his back to her, she says, but he stayed for the rest of the service and apparently has hung around since.
To keep the ecclesiastical record straight, I should mention that he had shown up earlier in the house, twice during the past year since the announcement of our Capuchin appointment, but there did not seem to be any promise of permanency on those occasions.
I should also point out that the vision was not of the material and external kind, like the apparitions of Mary to children, but of the brand that comes to mature contemplatives and their interior life. This means it is something seen with the image-making faculties of the soul, but not created by the imagination.
Pseudo-psychiatrists tempted to try to second guess this information should realize that one of the first authors I read in the autumn of 1956, after leaving law school for the first time, was Sigmund Freud. He remains a thinker who inevitably gets mixed reviews from this writer. On occasions like this one he's hilarious.
As the Lord himself once said to me, "Before psychiatry, I am." Is there a modern bishop, anywhere in the world, who can understand the full force of such a statement in our times? If so, I'd like to meet him.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Roberto Luongo's Adductors

I think it fairly safe to say, after last's evening's sports news, that right now the world's best known groin muscles belong to the number one goalie for the Vancouver Canucks, Roberto Luongo. Not everyone in the world cares about hockey, of course, but the game has millions of fans in all those areas where it is possible to build and freeze a pond, rectangular or otherwise, and in this age of instant communication the hockey community probably has its mind more on Roberto's predicament than on any other issue.
The reasons don't require a rocket scientist to make them apparent. Until Roberto went down from that apparently innocent little movement of his left leg - I think it was in Pittsburgh - the team he was, somewhat surprisingly, appointed captain of this year - the outfit I used to bite my nails over in the 50's - was definitely emerging as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup, and Roberto was on every one's mind as goaltender choice for the 2010 Olympics. The Canucks had got off to an indifferent start, but then, as Global TV's Squire Barnes pointed out as things got rolling, Luongo never really gets into his deepest magic until November. That's when it becomes apparent that the Canuck backstop really is part cat. Or is it mongoose? One of my favourite Kipling stories when I was a lad was Riki Tiki Tavi, about the mongoose that nailed the cobra threatening the children in an Indian bungalo.
It was at that point most people probably remembered that Roberto had gone down from a lesser groin pull back in the exhibition season, as I recall it. Most people that is, who were not trainers or yogis, or myself. The trainers, at the first incident, automatically started thinking about a treatment that would not only put a player back on the ice, but would, especially in the case of someone so uniquely valuable as this paticular goal tender, prevent it from happening again. Yogis wondered if Roberto did yoga, and if he did not, what kind of reception would they receive if they called up Canucks management.
I'm not sure it would be prudent to call myself a yogi, because I am not now, and probably never will be, an expert on all the hatha yoga positions, or asanas as they are called in Sanskrit, and certainly have never needed them or used them in order to attain a more spiritual connection with God. Having lived within the Christian influence all my life, I have grown up experiencing that all the most desirable spiritual habits are in fact given, and are not things to be striven for through any special physical routines. But I am also just as certain, that as God is the Lord of the body as well as the soul, it was His will that I should take up the study of yoga to some degree, and later, other physiological disciplines, in order to see how through the various cultures of this many faced world of ours He has inspired men and women - and children in their own unique way - to look after their own health, and in certain cases, to teach others how to do so.
Thus, when I saw Luongo taken off the ice the first time, I immediately wondered if it were time to talk about yoga and western athletics. This is certainly not a brand new idea in many areas, but there is always the question of how thorough the yoga on the part of the teachers, and how thorough the understanding and application on the part of the student. One sees jogging clubs with quite wretched body language, due to the lack of nasal breathing and sufficient integration of walking with running, and one has to be wary of any western athletics, professional or amateur, where this is no real awareness of yoga as the fundamental route to physical self-analysis.
Luongo is, obviously, a profoundly graceful goalie, as lithe between the pipes as Gretzky was all over the ice. He makes you wonder if his mother were a dancer, and taught him the splits, and I imagine that there is a lot more wisdom about the pelvic tilt around hockey rinks than there used to be. I might be talking completely through my hat, and Roberto might have been in such perfect condition that his injury can only be put down to the sort of fluke that can happen to anybody. I recall that the most painful session I ever had with my upper back, rarely a location for injury, came from reaching for a slice of toast as it popped up from the toaster. Later in the day I hosted scheduled guests lying on my back on the living room floor and probably had two days off work.
But I also keep thinking about the child's pose, especially with the variation whereby you spread your knees wide enough to feel a nice little stress on the adductors, let your torso fall between your upper legs, and let your mind ramble happily for many, many, minutes. For my money, this is the second great position after the two prone poses, which are basically for the sake of breathing and relaxation, and possibly the most important asana an athlete can know. It not only stretches everything, it tells you pretty well infallibly just how all the tight spots are doing.
It's also great for praying - how much more can the knees bend? - as Moslems have known all along.
When I first discovered it long ago, it was a great gift for my vocal performances, singing or acting. It perfected what I knew about putting my back into things. But I actually let it go until recent months, until I finally realized that it was pretty much the missing link not only for the twinges in my joints brought on by insufficient stretching after running and even walking, but also for the finishing touches to rebuilding the voice that appears to be inching its way back to public notice.
As far as I'm concerned, it's the best thing to do before you get up, the best way to start the day, especially if you're a hockey goal tender.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Royal Revolution?

Ever since I started putting my my poetry on the blog, I have known it would only be a matter of time until I hoisted up some verses from other writers I have known. Marianne has a number of poems; one of them in particular, "Easter Vigil", is certain to appear, and possibly before Easter. Another writing friend penned some wonderful lines about Terry Fox I intend to use when the time is right. And Shawn wrote some good poetry in her student days and has occasionally jotted song lyrics since. A verse she wrote early in 1965 is appropriate now.

Walk right in, sit right down,
Gerry takes your fine from you.
An evening at the Nelson, or the Royal bar,
You went for just a couple but you went too far,
Walk right in, sit right down,
Gerry takes your fine from you.

This was a take-off from a chart song of the day, written and performed by the Rooftop Singers, lead out on a 12-string, "Walk Right In". At the first hootenanny at Notre Dame Shawn and I were just a couple, singing traditional folk songs, but we were joined by 12-string player Tim Yates, a bush pilot hopeful, for later concerts, and with a 12-string on hand Shawn wrote an entire parody about the methods the college had for getting money out of the students. Gerry was the NDU registrar. The song was hugely appreciated.
The Nelson Hotel, along with the Civic, got the between-period trade in the days of the Western International Hockey League. Both bars were just a long slap shot away from the old Civic Centre. The Royal was too far west even for a good sprinter. The Nelson has changed its name to the Grand. (Where I found the Glenmorangie of Valley Voice fame.) But the Royal kept its moniker, and today I dropped in for a couple of the local brewery's concoctions and chatted with customers and bar keep. A bar in the afternoon can be one of the deadliest places on earth, but we all managed to make it pretty lively this afternoon, because we were discussing music in general and the great show on Tuesday night in particular. (Also, the barkeep, from Winnipeg but too young to remember Bachman Turner Overdrive, writes poetry and was intrigued to hear about RockSalt.) It's been many, many, moons since I could honestly feel there was any profit in such an hour or two at that time of the day, but I'm getting the old feeling that a bar can be a school room of sorts if you work it right. Especially a bar with a stage, a certain amount of sound equipment, a drum kit, and a town full of young musicians all eager to upgrade their skills, and an open mike night.
This is not a new idea for me, by any means, but it's the first time it's been surrounded by even a hope of sufficient working elements, including sufficient skills in the presenter, and perhaps a new docility in the new generation. The middle generation, as I think of it from the other side of three score and ten, is more likely than not to be pretty much disabled by authority problems, unless it's drastically changed from the last time I ran a check. But of course this middle generation has a big age span. Some of it is actually as old as I am, some of it is as young as my grandchildren. But it's still stuck in the middle.


I did get to ask about the Latin version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, but not from the bishop or even the pastor, at last night's "town-hall" meeting. My answer came this morning from one of the town's most learned musicians, like myself disengaged much of the time from the music of the liturgy because of the parish dedication to the lowest possible standards. (A note on more the the same in Vancouver coming up. It's not just us.) He informed me that the Latin was there because this particular collection of music for the mass is thought of as coming from Taize and not from the Church as such. I am probably safe in assuming therefore that it will not be there next Sunday when the usual choir returns. It would seem this is not quite the Advent God had in mind, at least in terms of the liturgy.
But we are plainly experiencing an aspect of Advent in our Capuchin shepherd. Bishop John obviously has a genuine prayer life, and has taken well to the Franciscan emphasis on preaching the whole Christ. He is very kind, but not the least bit interested in being cool. Generally speaking, my habitually optimistic self has experienced a steady diet of spiritual infusions since the announcement of his appointment, but his sermon at the Tuesday evening mass simply created a light show, throughout the entire fifteen minutes or so that he was preaching. He is to say a word or two at a prayer breakfast tomorrow and that too, I'm sure, will be an occasion for the Holy Spirit to brag about our new man.
Thomas Aquinas says a lot of things about bishops - I once had to remind John Paul about some of them - but it all boils down, as Thomas says, to only a pair of simple priorities. A bishop must be able to rule his diocese and to lead his people in prayer. He was certainly running the show on Tuesday night, not only at the mass but at the following meeting, and I suspect that tomorrow morning he will show even more elements of his ability in prayer, subject, of course, to a few observations from an older and more Carmelite codger like myself.
Ah. One more point. Both Saint Francis and Padre Pio made brief but satisfying appearances in this study on Monday morning as MT and I were talking about the week ahead. This also augurs well for the weeks after that. It was Francis, of course, who put the manger scene into Christmas celebrations, and it was Pio who, when he wasn't redirecting American bomber squadrons, heard confessions so that people could actually enjoy celebrations with a clear conscience. There are few experiences more joyful than being hauled out of mortal sin by a priest who knows his business.