The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Inside – Outside

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MOST OF US TREASURE OUR VALUES.  WHETHER WE GAINED them by the natural transition of parents or grandparents to children, from religious faith, humanistic values, or even by strength of character, they matter to us and we seek to live our lives by their lights.  Many of the great leaders who have led our nation or our regions were driven by such values to make a difference in public life.

But we never acquired such values to accept the status quo.  We never meant for poverty to become entrenched.  It remains unthinkable to us that women still make less than their male counterparts for work of equal value.  Guilt often assails us when we realize how we have treated our natural environment.  The best politicians never meant for politics itself to become so dysfunctional, and neither have empowered citizens meant for us to become so separated from one another.

And yet these things are happening.  In our respective communities we have often looked to governments to better our condition, to tackle our problems and build on our successes.  My parents believed that and I have kept to that sentiment and tradition.  But there come those times when conditions are what they are because we have depended too much upon legislative powers to solve our problems.  They are vital, yes, but we have reached the stage where forces coming from the outside into our communities are lacking in their ability to improve our collective and individual lots in life.  They are still important, but they are no longer enough.

Governments programs and initiatives don’t work in cultures where we lose respect for one another or have left our communities to suffer neglect.  Work must begin from the inside-out if we are to recapture our heritage, and for that to happen cities and communities must receive the best of our efforts.  Peace, order, and good government can never be enough if we don’t have some local place to build on and enhance them.

All of this is just to say the communities in which we live have now become the most important aspect of who we are collectively.  The problem is that our cities often lie outside the interests and jurisdictions of more senior levels of government.  Politics, instead of being about cooperation, is now about conflictive ideals and the only way to heal what ails us is for us to remake our communities into the models of what good politics could look like.  We don’t need to ask any government’s permission to gather, share, debate, celebrate, or plan together.  Such blessings are within our domain and understandably lie outside the reach of government prohibition.  Democracy can still function even when politics doesn’t.

We all know this to be true: the locales where we actually live are far more networked, empowered, cooperative, and innovative, than those more remote places where governments sit. We also inwardly sense Edward Glaeser’s sentiments to be correct when he wrote:

“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.”

For decades we as a nation were defined by those outside forces in both the reach and responsibilities of senior government levels and their programs.  Yet during all that time we functioned here – in those places where we lived and died, learned and matured, built businesses and purchased products, and built entire communities through the very will of our desire to cooperate together.

What Jane Jacobs once wrote should cause us to question what we are permitting: “Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration.”  If true, then the time is now to redefine our potential, not merely through national or provincial legislatures, but within the very communities in which we live.  If democracy is to rediscover itself, it must begin on my street, with my neighbours, and branch out to our schools, local Chambers of Commerce, houses of faith, civic associations, and citizen engagement.

Outside-in has been awfully good to us in times past, yet effective democracy was never born in a parliament, but on a street, in an assembly hall, in a local council chamber, or in a library or school.  Democracy was idealized in the great halls but actualized in our local communities.  It’s now time for inside-out.  Our communities stand a chance once again to remake the democratic experiment from the ground level up.  Our cities are the practice grounds for our new future together.  And citizens are the key players on the field.

Back To The City

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WE TOOK SOME DOWNTIME LAST WEEK TO CELEBRATE OUR ANNIVERSARY, but since our return I have been struck by all the conversations that have been going on about our city and its future. I shouldn’t be surprised. Since the very beginning of recorded history, the places where we live, cooperate, and occasionally contend, together have dominated human thoughts.

It is proof again of American philosopher, John Dewey’s, observation: “The local is the only universal, and as near an absolute as exists.”

But somehow, along the winding and sometimes frantic pace of our civilization, power moved away from where we live to other places – parliaments, world organizations, financial bodies – that at the moment seem farther away from us than ever. The challenges that we presently face are real, but the decisions as to how to deal with them are concluded nowhere near us.

However it happened, things got away on us. Everything began local and for millennia it was all we knew. Then came empires, technological advances, massive movements of populations, remarkable developments in transportation, and before we knew it, decisions about finance, government, legislation, even how we farm, were no longer formulated in our midst, but likely in our absence.

But following three centuries of such a dizzying pace, things are coming home to roost – climate change, conflicts, rising economic inequality and unemployment, and political and financial dysfunction. And now an intriguing movement is getting underway – the important decisions and vital aspects of life are returning to our cities and the places where we bring up our families and learn to cooperate together. As global, state, and regional governments seem increasingly incapable of cooperating to solve our great dilemmas, citizens are making their own moves to build a better world. The “city” movement is picking up steam like few other organizational innovations. Some of our most intriguing politicians are some of our mayors and reeves – with a few difficult and embarrassing exceptions.

Yet with all this new attention on the “local,” we have to repeatedly ask ourselves if we are up to the challenge that community self-government will require? For all those centuries where others handled things for us, from monarchies to empires to representative democracies, we were provided little opportunity to learn the skills of self-governance. Yet that door is now opening to us, or, as Jane Jacobs put it:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

The focus of humanity has come back full circle – local has become universal again, and with that change we take on a new importance as citizens. Maybe that’s what folks are sensing, even in the lazy days of summer. Important days are ahead – elections, the setting of priorities, new exercises in civic engagement. History has come back to where we live. Now our task is to shape it.

For All of It


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“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
― Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Jane. Thank you for all the years, the dreams realized, the disappointments shared, the commitments kept and those we are still attempting to realize.  Here’s to a life lived for others in which we have discovered each other.  Walk your path; I’m near by.  Happy Anniversary – and thanks for all of it.

“Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

 

 

A New Kind of Loneliness

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IT’S A NEW KIND OF LONELINESS, ONE I’VE ONLY BEEN picking up on lately. And the more I’ve talked to people about it, the more I realize that I’m suffering from it myself.

It’s difficult to describe but emanates from two realities: the use of social media, and the loss of the public imagination. I’m afraid that both have affected me, and it’s a kind of personal isolation that I don’t think anyone sees. At the moment I feel more like Vincent Van Gogh than anything else: “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”

In recent weeks I’ve learned that others are feeling a similar sense of loss. Recently I was asked to speak to a writer’s group in another city. In one of those “aha” moments, all of us who were writers realized that our desire to write about society as a whole has often been chastised by individuals and groups who claim to be the “authentic” voice for all manners of issues and groups. The example the writers raised in the meeting concerned Canada’s aboriginal population.

Put plainly, these writers have experienced a growing awareness as a group of the numerous challenging realities facing First Nations people, especially women, and they have felt personally empowered to speak out in their writing. But each earnest effort was countered by First Nation’s spokespeople who said no one had the right to write on such issues except for qualified point people. This development left the writers in a kind of forlorn silence. They are some of our best writers and artists and their voices are needed. Empowered with the yearnings for justice and personal responsibility, they were nevertheless being told to let others do the talking. Nowhere did they sense this kind of rejection more than on Facebook and Twitter.

Let me state here that I easily identified with those sentiments expressed so sincerely by those writers. I tend to write broadly because of decades of experience in various disciplines. It certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert in any field, but it does call out my love for humanity in writing. Yet I am increasingly coming up against special interests that object to my taking on their cause. It’s a growing trend and in the process the public space is losing some very good writers and observers for fear of offending anyone.

Different, But Not Less

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EVERY SUMMER OUR FAMILY VOLUNTEERS AT AN ONTARIO CAMP that assists kids with autism. A friend, Fran Slee, inherited a former family camp on the shores of Lake Cecebe and had a dream of turning into a camp where not only autistic kids, but their families, could have a place to move out into Nature in security and awe. It is a wonderful place of personal and collective transformation.

Our family has never been challenged with the pressures of autism, but we’re not blind to the obstacles and opportunities it brings to the lives of these families. Many kids with autism face sensory challenges, reacting strongly to bright light or crowd noise. Some respond so violently that they can slam their heads against walls. Others can quietly stroke a companion’s hair and hum to themselves. The fortunate ones develop coping mechanisms over time and learn to tolerate what before threw them over the edge.

There is a spectrum to autism, with people classified within a low-medium-high range. The high functioning can move on with their lives, especially with early training. It is presumed, though not capable of being proved, that famous people like Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, and even Michelangelo, struggled with autism. But those are the people everybody likes to talk about because their creative minds discovered remarkable ways of seeing their respective worlds. But what of all the others – remarkable people with autism attempting to move ahead with little steps everyday, or those who might be forever lost in their challenges? They will exhibit public behaviours that embarrass others but are fully understandable to parents.

Those fortunate enough to spend a little time with them witness strains of remarkable brilliance breaking through those habits they require to function. Though they have trouble really knowing the world and how to express themselves within it, they are nevertheless capable, over time, of understanding it and revealing moments of profound inner beauty when such occasions occur. Those lucky enough to find an inner path to walk upon become remarkably functional; others must always be guided by a companion’s hand. Temple Grandin says that the autistic person is, “different but not less.” No matter where they lie on the spectrum, they are just like me, struggling to find a sense of order and place in the world. They have their weaknesses and strengths, but are capable of great love and self-awareness.

The ability for parents to be able to bring their kids with autism to an affordable camp, swim with them in the water, cook outside, head out in a canoe, or watch turtle eggs protected in a nest on the beach, brings moments of delight, illumination, and peace. Jane and I went out this week and bought a bunch of fireworks and set them off from the beach on Canada Day evening for those present. The “oohs” and “ahs” were worth every moment. For a time we were all just humans on a journey, capable of awe, and enjoying community.

I watch the remarkable ability of the parents and caregivers and I’m forced to wonder if I’ll ever develop such capacity for patience and understanding? Likely not, for they are forces of nature, with wells of feeling so deep that they are as remarkable as their own kids. I think of what one of their number, Debra Ginsberg, said and feel I am only capable of standing in their shadow:

“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did – that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that – a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”

Autism isn’t just about something that’s missing. It’s about the remarkable presence in someone’s life that brings out understandings often not seen and compassion almost endless. It is me that is mulling about, feeling incapable of functioning at such a high level, of overcoming moments of stress with flashes of brilliance. It takes coming to this camp each summer to expose my own limitations and feelings of insecurity and lack of capability. Camps like this exist because the human race never gives up. More than that, the human heart is capable of spotting beauty in a world of chaos. Locations like this strive to be one of those stones that an autistic child can step on for the next part of its journey. Or as author, Adele Devine, puts it: “My aim is to sort the jumble of information we throw at these children and present it in such a way that they will have a greater chance of achieving independence and fulfillment.”

Thank you to Londoners Fran, Jim and Alyssa Slee, for being these champions of the special place where such learning can continue, and where people like me can overcome my own limitations, at least for a time, and see the world for the multi-dimensioned wonder that it really is.

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