Surgery of the Mind



Photo by Christopher Steven B.

My pee dripped onto the bathroom floor. I had clearly missed the urinal. About 10 feet away, in front of the sinks, a man continued shaving, looking keenly at the mirror. Perhaps he pretended not to notice me, even though the “drip, drip” of pee was the only detectable sound in the room. The screaming impulse in my head was to say something, but I couldn’t. I quietly gathered paper towel and cleaning solution, accepting that there was nothing else to be done. 

I was several days into a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Referred to sometimes as “Goenka retreats” after their creator, Satya Narayan Goenka, these are Buddhist-inspired sessions held throughout the year at dozens of retreat centres around the world. Participants meditate 10 hours a day, never speaking except during short question and answer periods with an assistant meditation teacher.

I had first heard about these retreats through a friend who suggested that we do one together. The main information that interested me was that they were free. After a look at the daily schedule, I quickly lost all interest. It basically goes like this: wake up at 4am. Meditate for two hours. Eat. Meditate till lunch time. Eat. Meditate till 5pm. Eat some fruit, drink some tea (no dinner). Meditate, listen to a talk about meditation, meditate, and then sleep. The reviews that appeared when I googled the retreat were written by people who had run away part way through.

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This little light of mine


Kids return to the Ducharme Primary School in La Loche, Saskatchewan

I had imagined the community of La Loche in northern Saskatchewan to be rougher, less friendly, less beautiful, and more typical. I didn’t expect to fall a little in love with the place.

Radio-Canada sent me the nine hour drive north to cover the reopening of the community’s schools last week, one month after a shooter opened fire in the high school and in a residence, killing four people and wounding seven.

I had spent a week reading about the tragedy and its aftermath right after it happened, and almost without helping it, I associated La Loche with the shooting, with another report a year ago of a teacher attacked by a student, with community profiles that described high rates of violence, unemployment, poverty and suicide. One headline in the Globe and Mail, however, stood out: “La Loche : a beautiful town with a rough reputation.” 

What I found was, indeed, a beautiful town bordered by a lake and a forest, and a town that is especially beautiful for its uniqueness, almost like a different country, far removed from southern Canada. Walking through the primary school parking lot on my first day there, I passed three young female staff, chatting and laughing in Dene, my first exposure to the predominant language in La Loche. According to the 2011 census, it’s the mother tongue of 89% of residents. You hear it much more often than English. Fascinated by language, I found this wonderful.  Continue reading

My week at a monastery

I’ve been waking up early so that I can sit cross-legged on the floor. Half an hour on the carpet of my apartment before work every day, to meditate. It’s the first time I’ve ever succeeded at regularly waking up earlier than I absolutely have to.

Anxiety and depression helped lead me to the practice, which I’ve been getting more and more into over the past year and a half. I have an on-and-off feeling of meaninglessness, of soft despair, a dullness. Perhaps a sense that life sucks. It’s hard to describe. It’s a vague, nasty little bug. But I think meditation is helping.

So this year, I wanted to use some of my vacation time to practice a bit more intensely. The teacher at my weekly Buddhist group suggested Deer Park in California. It’s a Zen Buddhist monastery in the tradition of the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, located among mountains 40 minutes north of San Diego.

Thich Nhat Hanh was chased out of Vietnam during the Vietnam War because of his peace activism. Since then he’s lived at a monastery he founded in the South of France. He later started a few others elsewhere in the world, including Deer Park.  He’s authored dozens of books that have sold millions of copies (I bought a few after my trip, though I haven’t gotten through one yet. It’s taken me four months to write a blog post…). I also found out that he’s a supporter of Barack Obama. (Here you can read an interesting interview of him by Oprah.)

The week before my departure, I developed a sharp stiffness between my neck and right shoulder. I was a little worried that I was getting myself into something that was too rigid for me – spending a week with monks and nuns. The website made the place seem very welcoming – but I knew nothing more about it than that when I booked my ticket, besides that it had my teacher’s recommendation. Continue reading

And I thought I didn’t get sick often

Well, I am immune no more. Last time I got really sick was in January 2009. I had a bad fever and had to stay home from work for a few days. Since then, I’ve had a slight cold or two, but nothing that hasn’t gone away before it can really bother me. Today though, a sore throat that lingered on from the beginning of the week, and turned midweek into an eternally stuffed up, runny nose, became the worst: a splitting headache combined with those other symptoms and a feeling of overall weakness. I lay down in bed and managed to sleep, but about once every second, my eyes and forehead throbbed with a pulsing pain. It came into my dreams, and I kept waking up. I was fairly defeated. I think that my infected sinuses are somehow putting pressure on my brain.

I hobbled over to the Shoppers Drug Mart down the street and, based on the pharmacist’s advice, bought some generic brand Advil cold and sinus (I who generally turn up my nose at medication), and also stocked up on cheap chicken noodle soup, cookies and chocolate (I might feel miserable, but I still have an appetite).

As I watched the cashier’s hand pick up each of my items to scan them, I felt a little bad for her – I thought of all the germs I was giving her – and on top of that, I thought of all the sick people who come here and pass on their germs to her. Well, I needn’t have worried. I told her my thoughts – in a rather journalistic way — “In your line of work, you must be exposed to a lot of sick people. How do you deal with that?” She told me that she just never gets sick. The last time she got sick was in 2001. Before that it was 1990. (However, when she gets sick, she says she really gets sick). Her family get sick, her colleagues, but not her.

Then this lady tells me that her 60th birthday is next week — she says she suddenly realized that two thirds of her life are over. But then, she said she thought about all the people who never get to make it to 60 and she felt grateful. This lady looked about 60 – she wasn’t one of those people who don’t show their years – but she looked healthy and happy as well. Not that tall, mid-length hair, glasses, a lined face, smiling. She kind of made my night.

And the generic brand advil, chocolate, and soup has helped.

Christmas in Val Marie, Saskatchewan

Christmas has a kind of holiness around it, to me, because I give it so much emotional significance. All my love of life seems to get encapsulated in Christmas. The carols – I find the melodies rich and not trite; the story of Christmas -more and more, as I get older, the religious aspect of it bothers me less and I enjoy imagining God’s birth, even though I don’t really believe in all of it. I can understand why the writers of all of these carols are so happy. I love the decorations, and love how the snow freezes over the world and makes it kind of crystalline and ethereal, and uniform.

I’ve always loved these things, but as I’ve gotten older and come to appreciate my family more and more, I’ve realized that in a way I owe my love of Christmas to the many happy Christmases I’ve had with my family.

This fall I moved to Regina for my first permanent job. I was ready to pay whatever the plane ticket might have cost in order to get home for the holidays. The thought of being here during my favourite time of the year seemed unbearably depressing. Needless to say, I didn’t get the time off and I was stuck in Saskatchewan. Continue reading

Tout va bien sauf…

J’ai emménagé récemment dans mon nouvel appartement et je ne me plais pas ici. Les fenêtres sont très très grandes dans la chambre ainsi que dans la salle à manger/salon. Par grandes, je veux dire presque sept pieds en largeur – la pièce est très très bien éclairée. Les planchers sont tout neufs, en bois dur. La cuisine a tout ce qu’il faut, la salle de bain aussi, je suis au quatrième étage – voir, pas dans un sous-sol. Je suis à 10 minutes à pied du travail. Donc pourquoi je ne suis pas content ? C’est parce qu’il y a une faible odeur. Une odeur de vielle appartement, ou peut-être de moisissure. Quand je suis venu regarder l’appartement la première fois, j’ai remarqué que les corridors avaient un genre d’odeur de vieille appartement – ou bien une odeur de fumée. C’est un vieux bâtiment. Mais je ne me rappelle pas d’une odeur précise dans la pièce elle-même. En tout cas, je suis obligé de rester ici au moins jusqu’au 1er décembre. C’est ça que je vais faire.

Quelques minutes après avoir rentré dans mon appartement, je ne sens plus d’odeur. J’y deviens accoutumé. J’en parlais avec mon père, et il m’a fait remarqué que c’est pareil avec toutes les odeurs, après un certain temps, on ne les remarque plus – mais de toute façon, ce qui compte, c’est le premier coup. J’ai passé toute la journée ici – à lire, à cuisiner, à chanter, à parler à ma famille sur Skype – et je peux dire que j’étais bien ici. Mais chaque fois que je rentre par la porte je suis accueilli par une bouffée de cette odeur de je ne sais pas quoi. Je suis gêné d’inviter du monde chez moi. Je crains que au cours des deux prochains mois, l’odeur va rentrer dans mes vêtements et je vais commencer à puer au travail.

D’ailleurs, hier soir j’ai entendu – pendant seulement deux ou trois secondes à peine, il faut dire – un bruit qui ressemblait au grattement de pattes d’une souris au travers un des murs dans la chambre. Ici, on peut au moins dire que c’est une aventure.

Sinon, tout va très bien au travail. La dernière fois que j’en avais parlé ici, c’était à la fin de la première semaine, où j’avais fait plutôt du travail en parallèle avec d’autres journalistes, c’est-à-dire que les journées n’étaient pas très lourdes. La deuxième semaine j’avais plus de responsabilité. J’ai fait beaucoup de ce qu’on appelle des rants – des reportages à la radio de style en direct d’à peu près 40 secondes à une minute. Mais cette semaine j’étais vraiment donné de quoi à faire. Au cours des cinq jours de travail, j’ai fait deux reportages faux direct (reportage télé d’une minute et demie fait de façon que le journaliste semble être en direct, avec des images pour couvrir le journaliste pendant une partie du reportage) deux topos télé, et un topo radio.  Je suis content que mon français est au moins assez bon pour passer en ondes. J’ai inclus ci-dessous un topo radio que j’ai fait pendant ma deuxième semaine à Radio-Canada. Vous verrez que l’accent est quand même en évidence. Afin de ne pas trébucher sur mes mots, je dois parler très lentement. En m’écoutant parfois après, j’ai envie de me dire de me dépêcher un peu. Mais au moins, c’est utilisable.

Faute de français du jour: des violons violents

Je lisais un article dans le Globe and Mail, dans lequel on mentionnais que l’une des raisons pour laquelle le prix des très anciens violons a tellement augmenté, c’est le besoin de violon de 11 millions d’étudiants chinois.

À ma coloc: “Apparemment il y a 11 millions Chinois qui étudient en violon.”

Ma coloc: “Puis est-ce qu’ils se font mal?” (ou quelque chose similaire)

Elle pensait que j’avais dit qu’ils étudiaient la violence! Par la suite elle m’a aidé à mieux comprendre la différence entre les sons “en” (le son vient de l’arrière de la bouche) et “on” (fait dans l’avant de la bouche, en-dessous du nez).

D’ailleurs apparemment les syllabes “en” et “an” se prononcent de la même manière.

Meilleurs fautes de français du jour

…de la semaine précédante, en fait

Collègue: Il fait froid

Moi: Oui, mais il semble qu’il va chauffer cette après midi

1  Collègue: Oui, il va se réchauffer cet après midi

(C’est comme si j’avais dit we’ll have an action packed afternoon…)

2  Au lieu de dire poignée de porte…. j’ai dit robinet…

À ma colloc: «Il faut appuyer sur le robinet pour barrer la porte.

Elle: «D’accord.


Me voilà assis dans le salon de ma maison temporaire à Régina, en Saskatchewan. Je suis vraiment bien ici, à côté d’un foyer, sur un beau tapis. C’est un grand espace. La semaine prochaine, je déménagerai dans un appartement d’une chambre plus proche du travail, ou je serai un peu plus indépendant. Les loyers sont chers ici– je vais payer plus de 800 $ et ça c’était l’un des appartements moins chers. Continue reading