Justice and Beauty: Poems and Essays by Sandy Cameron

What follows is the contents of a little book of Sandy Cameron’s stories and poems that I put together recently.

When I would write something and ask Sandy to edit it, he would usually say something positive about it and then ask, “But what is the organizing principle?” After Sandy died, I was left with many poems and short articles that had only been published in the Carnegie Newsletter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I thought more people should have a chance to read them. But what was the organizing principle for all this writing? I thought about it for months and then, while I was on a walk in the woods,
it came to me: Justice and Beauty. That is the organizing principle of these writings. They are about beauty or beautiful justice. Or, as Sandy writes in Beauty brings the gift of hope: “Beauty as the clothes of being carries a political message because we have no right to harm or exploit our relatives. Brother Sun; sister Moon.”
–Jean Swanson

When Orcas Play

Some time ago I was taking the ferry to Victoria, and as we were passing through the Gulf Islands, the captain announced that we were about to join a large group of orcas.
Everyone rushed to the railings, both port and starboard, where we could see the whales rising silently from the deep, shining silently, a huge fin in the water here, a whale breaching there in a glitter of white foam. The orcas swam with such effortless grace and surges of power that we were transformed.
Children were beside themselves with excitement. They called to the whales, not in words for words are a second level of experience, but in pure, joyful song that the unperceptive would call screaming. Those mighty, moving, mysterious beings touched the children, and the rest of us too, in some deep, hidden part of our being that is the source of joy.
We were amazed at the beauty and power of those whales. Something in us rose high when they burst into sunlight, and dived deep when they sank beneath the water. We felt intensely alive, and it was the orcas who were giving us this gift. We held them in awe. We loved them. We understood, if only for a few seconds, that we and the whales were linked together, and that we had been linked together for eons and eons.
After a short time the orcas went their way, and the ferry went its way. We returned to our seats, our newspapers, our coffee, and our French fries. Our eyes were a little brighter, though, and we talked to each other in a more open way than usual.
“Maybe we humans really are a living part of Nature,” I mused, “and maybe that economic stuff about us being isolated and hedonistic creatures who pursue our own self interest in the so-called market is absolutely wrong.”
“Maybe that sense of reaching out, of standing in awe, of feeling related to, is an expression of our truest self. Maybe those orcas are our older brothers and sisters, and maybe we have much to learn from them – before it’s too late.”

Telling Stories

We need to tell our own stories.
If we don’t tell our stories,
people with power
will tell our stories for us,
And we won’t like what they say.
When we tell our stories,
we reach out to each other
and build community.
We share our pain.
We share our hope.
We share our laughter,
and our determination.
When we tell our stories
we draw our own maps,
and we question
the maps of the powerful.
Each of us has something to tell,
something to teach.
We speak the language of the heart-
here-in the Downtown Eastside-
the soul of Vancouver.

An Angry Old Man Hates Democracy

Jean Swanson and I went to Victoria on February 23, 2002 {thanks to buses supplied by the B.C. Federation of Labour}, to attend the huge rally to protest Gordon Campbell’s vicious cuts to social programs, labour standards, environmental laws, and government services. About 25,000 people were there. It was an inspiring and peaceful rally – one more step in the long fight to stop the big business fanatics who want to serve up B.C. citizens and resources on a platter to international corporate and investment powers.
During the rally Jean and I went for a walk on the streets close to the Parliament Buildings to stretch our legs. We saw a man in his seventies walking towards us. He had a slight limp, and he used a cane to steady himself. He had a round, flushed face and a handlebar mustache. He wore a jaunty brown fedora and an expensive, brown camel hair coat. He was obviously very angry, and smoke appeared to be hissing out of his ears. His eyes flashed like a prairie thunderstorm.
“Thousands of socialists are ruining the lawn,” he snarled. (the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings).
“And a handful of capitalists are ruining the province,” Jean replied, as fast as an Ali left jab.
“Canada is a capitalist country,” he said. “You only get what you work for.”
“Canada is supposed to be a democracy,” I said.
“Democracy is a joke,” the old man said, and he walked on, muttering to himself.
Why did he call democracy a joke, I wondered. What did he mean when he said that Canada was a capitalist country? Capitalism is about accumulation. It is about buying cheap and selling dear. It is about maximum profit. The old man holds the value of making money above all other values, and he thinks Canada, also, should hold the value of making money above all other values. That’s why he called Canada a capitalist country. Democracy, on the other hand, is about equality, citizen participation, and human rights. Democracy and capitalism have never gotten along. They hold different visions about what it means to be a human being, and how a human being should live.
The old capitalist who called democracy a joke reminded me of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ story called A Christmas Carol. Scrooge said, “Humbug” when his nephew wished him a Merry Christmas. What did Scrooge mean by that? He meant that the value of making money was the only legitimate value, and the values of Christianity, and the other great religions of the world, were just so much “Humbug”.
Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute wrote an article in the Toronto Star (Dec. 24/92) entitled “Dickens was wrong; miserly Scrooge was a hero.” In it Walker took the same position as the old capitalist we met on the streets of Victoria. Making money is the only legitimate value. Scrooge is a hero according to Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, and this neoliberal propaganda tank is a major influence on the corporate elite that controls the B.C. provincial Liberal Party.
The narrow, self-centred, acquisitive values of unrestrained corporate capitalism lead to a world where,

“Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.”
(King Lear, by Shakespeare, Act 4, Scene 2)

We have some very dangerous, violent people in charge of our province right now. They have a monetary vision of the world that is quite different from the democratic vision of most ordinary Canadians.

A Spirit-Being

He lurched towards me
on a quiet street.
“Sir, sir,” he said,
“a red rose for your sweetheart.”
He looked as though
he lived nowhere,
This man with wild hair
and eyes deep
as the Cumberland Mine.
His face was twisted
like an Iroquois mask
that blessed through suffering
a tormented world,
and on his lips a smile
as though we were God’s spies.

“For me? I asked.
“For your sweetheart,” he replied,
“And she will kiss you for it.”
“The price?” I wondered.
“A caring heart,” he said.
“You are kind,” I said,
and he bowed
a courtly bow.
Giving me the rose
He said again,
“For your sweetheart,”
and then he left,
a man without a name
a spirit-being
looking for a home.


The Qu’Appelle River runs through the Qu’Appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan. So graceful and harmonious is this valley that it reminds the traveler of that visionary homeland where each thing has what it needs to live a beautiful life. When I first saw the Qu’Appellle Valley, I thought that this place was like the home I might have had if the Great War of 1914-1918 had not cast a violent shadow over the entire twentieth century.
The Qu’Appelle River flows through the Qu’Appelle Valley like a Queen on parade. Her name, “Qu’Appelle”, is French for “Who calls?” This is a rough translation of the original Cree words for the river, and there are many stories as to how the river got its name. One story goes like this:
Long ago a First Nations person was going down the river in his canoe. One day he heard a voice calling to him. He stopped paddling, and listened intently. Again he heard the voice calling, and he called out in his turn. No one answered him, so he carefully looked around for the tracks of another person. He couldn’t find any tracks, and from that time the river was known as “Who calls?” (1)
Today we cannot hear the earth speak in the same way as aboriginal people did before the coming of the Europeans. In the old days the relationship of First Nations people to nature was intense and personal. Everything in nature had the power to reveal itself as a living presence, should it choose to do so, and should a person be ready to hear or to see. This relationship went both ways. Human beings were part of nature as were fish, trees, rocks and grizzly bears. And because humans were created later than most other creatures, people were often humbly thought of as the younger sisters and brothers. So did humans see themselves as members of a larger family on a living earth. Black Elk said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of human beings when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe.”
In our technological, urban world we have lost much of our ability to hear many of the voices in nature. We long for connection to the beauty we see, and we talk of spirituality rather than formal religion. Spirituality is about the quality of our relationship to the world. It is about our ability to see our connection to everything around us, to see the beauty, to hear the voices, to be present to the miracle of that which is simply in front of us. Chief Seathl, after whom the City of Seattle was named, put it this way: “Every part of this land is sacred in the view of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove….”
We reach out to the people around us with deep caring. We watch. We listen. Rain falls. The wind is like breathing. “All real living is meeting,” Martin Buber said. Life is relationship. First Nations people close many of their speeches and prayers with the expression, “All my relations.”
In April, 2010, an international conference for the protection of the earth took place in Bolivia. President Evo Morales of Bolivia invited the peoples of the world to this conference, and more than 30,000 people from over 100 countries came to share their concerns. President Morales urged the delegates to listen to the voices of indigenous people as they talked about respect for the earth and stewardship.
We can be more aware of the voices around us, and we can start with the people we meet every day. Can we hear the person who is asking for help? Eagles fly overhead at many of our ceremonies in the Downtown Eastside. What are the eagles saying to us? Waves on the shore of Crab Park have stories to tell. The Oppenheimer Park totem pole speaks to the long history of First Nations on this land, and it also asks us to remember those who have died in the Downtown Eastside, and those who have survived.
The old heritage buildings in our community speak to the early history of Vancouver, and in the streets late at night you can hear the voices of unemployed men during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They are marching in a snake parade because they are hungry and have no place to sleep. Chinatown and Japantown have stories to tell of those who fought for dignity and human rights.
So many voices. So much pain and courage and laughter. “Who calls?” we ask, and we hear the voice of the other one, reminding us of relationship, or our kinship to the mice in the fields and the stars in the sky. As Chief Joseph said, “The earth and myself are of one mind.”

(1) River in a Dry Land, by Trevor Harriot, published by Stoddart, 2000, page 12.

Prairie Storekeeper

We reminisced
the storekeeper and I
in the front room
waiting for supper.

We talked of prairie wind
and storms and snow.
We talked of the fierce sun,
and how the prairie’s like a mountain peak
for all above is sky.

For thirty years
he kept a general store
in a small town near Regina;
a prairie conservative
independent, stubborn,
and not without compassion.
Men learn to work together
on the prairie.
No one can live in that vast loneliness

He mused about his store;
How tough it was to stay in business
when you weren’t a corporation;
Of those who win, and those who are exploited;
the pressures of a foreign market;
the deals he must accept……or else.

We lapsed to silence,
Sharing each other’s company.
The clock ticked softly on the mantelpiece.
And then he spoke again
but deeply, far away as if in dream,
as though he spoke from regions in himself
that opened up on powers scarcely dreamt of.
His voice was heavy with authority,
speaking itself through him.
“If young people really knew,” he said,
“what an unjust system it is,
they would tear it down in five minutes.”

Notes on the Sacred

My hope is that people from different traditions can share with each other. These are dark times in which “fair is foul and foul is fair.” We need each other.
I have learned something about the sacred, and something about resistance to injustice, from First Nations people.
When is the sacred? The sacred is saturated with being, as Mircea Eliade said. It manifests itself in the relationships of a living universe—I and Thou—intense like fire, inclusive like family.
Scott Momoday, author of House of Dawn, said the theft of the land was a terrible catastrophe, but the theft of the sacred was even worse – the replacing of a living relationship to the world with an I /It relationship of objects, each with a monetary value.
The sacred was not part of the world I grew up in. That world was one of war, fragmentation and death. But in the ceremonies of First Nations people, in the singing, drumming, dancing, and in the enduring resistance to imperial policy, I experienced a feeling of astonishment and awe that made me want to revisit aspects of my own culture.
In his book, The Primal Mind the First Nations writer Jamake Highwater, says that modern artists have received inspiration from the caves of Altamira, and in his efforts to explain to Europeans the intensity of an aboriginal world view, he quotes Kandinsky on Cezanne, “he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything.”
Camara Laye, an African writer, wrote a book called The Guardian of the Word. In this book he draws parallels between some western art and the traditional African experience of being, of the scared. Camara Laye quotes from the European philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who talks of Van Gogh’s paintings. “It seem to me that some secret spring of life is opened to us for a moment, as if the depths hidden in every existence were unveiled right before our eyes,” Jaspers says. Think of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” for example. Camara Laye goes on to say that in the traditional African experience “that secret spring of life is open, not for a moment, but constantly.”
Then the Europeans came. The vision became blurred, and Camara Laye wrote that Africa is now “a continent in quest of a vanishing spirituality” – or as Scott Momoday might say, a continent experiencing the theft of the sacred.
The culturally formed images of my relationship to the mystery, the ineffable, will not be the same as the images of a person from another culture, but we will both share the experience of astonishment, awe, humbleness and gratitude.
In November, 1988, there was a women’s conference in Vancouver called “Women and Language Across Cultures.” Out of that conference came an excellent book entitled Telling It, published by Press Gang in 1990. Jeannette Armstrong, a First Nations writer, speaks in the book and she says, “I have been just sitting, listening…(and)…I have started to ask some questions, not only of myself and of my people as a cultural group, but of my people as a people from this land, from this earth, and as living parts of this universe. And I think that when we start looking at what we are…we start to speak the real language – and that real language is a language that is understood by babies, and is known between people as relationships. That language has more to it than words. I think that when we begin to get to that point, then we can begin to cross these cultural, racial, social and class gaps.”
We have much to share with each other, in sisterhood, in brotherhood.

“Living Is A Matter Of Hope”

Dedicated to all those fighting the atrocious
violence of Gordon Campbell and his
government driven by the ideology of wealth
and power for a few and increasing poverty
for many.

On April 7, 1945,
allied armies approached
the Buchenwald concentration camp
in Germany.
Prisoners could hear the American guns, and
they hoped, oh, how they hoped.
Then the SS decided to move
five thousand men from the camp –
five thousand skeletons –
to hide them perhaps,
to kill them,
these ghosts that bore witness
to holocaust.
So began a twenty-one day nightmare –
fifty freight cars
one hundred men to a car
wandering aimlessly in Europe.

No hope now.
Starving, delirious men
shared a few potatoes
a bit of bread.
Sometimes the train
sat at a siding for days,
suspended between life and death.
About two men died
in each car every day, and
the dead were left beside the track.
Some men went mad
and pounded their heads
against the wooden walls.
Others, delirious with fever,
screamed for water.
The SS hit them with clubs
to restore quiet.
Then an SS officer
appeared at the top
of an open car,
his face contorted with hatred.
He fired his rifle
into the car
as though killing others
would kill his inner torment.
One prisoner was shot through the head,
and his blood and brains
splattered on those around him.
In spite of themselves, the others
were glad it wasn’t them.
They thought of the extra space
they would have
when the body was removed,
and they mourned their selfish thoughts
along with their dead comrade.

So time passed.
Men died of dysentery, exhaustion
and despair.
The world had become absurd.
On April 26,
as one more lay dying,
three of his brothers
from the Franciscan order
sat in silence beside him.
Slowly, as water trickles
from a hidden spring,
a song arose among them.
They sang the Canticle of Brother Sun,
written by Saint Francis,
and their voices touched the hearts
of the remaining three thousand prisoners.
“Glory…for the gift of your creation
for our brother the sun
for our sister the moon…”

They sang like
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego
in the fiery furnace,
and like Nazim Hikmet,
the Turkish poet
who spent many years in jail
because he loved justice, and
who wrote while in prison:
“Living is a matter of hope, my love.
Living is a serious business,
like loving you.”

The Slave Ship
In 1840, a famous English painter by the name of William Turner, painted a large picture called “The Slave Ship” which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
It is a picture of a ship in a terrible storm, and the ship is in danger of sinking. To save themselves, the masters of the ship are throwing the cargo overboard – the cargo in this case happens to be human beings – black people brought from Africa to work as slaves in America. You can see them bobbing around in the sea, abandoned to drown.
Turner got the idea for his painting from a true story about a slave ship ravaged by plague. The captain ordered the sick and dying Africans to be thrown into the sea because he could claim insurance for them if they were lost at sea, but not if they died on his ship.
When he painted this picture, Turner was not only making a statement about slavery. He was also commenting on the relationship between the rich and poor of England in the nineteenth century. “The Slave Ship” was a powerful political, as well as artistic, creation.
Turner’s statement is as true today as it was in 1840. In these stormy, Scrooge-had-it-right, economic times of corporate mastery, governments and corporations are throwing human beings into the sea of unemployment, poverty, and homelessness so that those who have much can have even more.

Why I Am Fasting From March 25th to April 1st, 1996

The Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) goes into effect on April 1, 1996. It abolishes 4 of the 5 economic rights in the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) which it replaces, and cuts $7 billion in transfer payments to the provinces for health, post-secondary education, and social assistance.
Gone are the right to income when a person is in need, the right to adequate income, the right to appeal, and the right not to have to work for welfare. The only CAP right maintained in the CHST is the right to income assistance regardless of the province a person is from.
The CHST will place Canada in a position of breaching international human rights law expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1976), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), all of which Canada has signed.
Under the CHST provinces will not be obliged to have financial assistance programs for persons in need. National standards for social assistance will be gone, and so will one more building block of Canadian unity.
A fast is a reminder that hundreds of thousands of Canadians, many of them children, do not have enough to eat. A fast is an expression of solidarity with those who are hungry. There’s a great deal of denial that unemployment, poverty and hunger are serious problems in Canada. Business lobby groups try to prove that 8% unemployment is full employment, and that poverty is not a major concern. However, the growing need for food banks is proof that something is terribly wrong with our economy. The public safety net is collapsing, and with the abolition of national standards for social assistance, the way is open for third world poverty in Canada on a large scale.
A fast is a way of grieving for Canada, the second richest country in the world, where:
(a) the infant mortality rate is increasing.
(b) the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing.
(c) the number of homeless is increasing.
(d) official unemployment is close to 10%, and will continue at that high level for years to come.
(e) the suicide rate for teens between the ages of 15 to 19 is the third highest in the world.
(f) universal health care is being eroded, and a two tier health care system is developing.
(g) our schools are being ravaged by cuts, and many post-secondary students cannot afford a university education because of high tuition fees.
A fast is a way of grieving for the numbness and paralysis of many Canadians in the face of growing injustice. We see long food bank lines, and we get used to them. We see more and more homeless people, and we get used to them. We know that increasing rates of poverty and unemployment cause increasing rates of family breakdown, infant mortality, child abuse, malnutrition, mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, homicide, rape, property crime, youth alienation, and we get used to it.
A fast is a way of grieving for our political and economic leaders who have become dehumanized by the structures they themselves manipulate, and whose acquisitive, aggressive way of being in the world is the opposite of being in the world for others. They are unable to grasp that it is not just that some people are rich and others poor. It is that some people live and others die.
A fast is a way of grieving for those who speak out against injustice, knowing full well that the principalities and powers that warp and brutalize our society are so strong that it is necessary to pay a price to oppose them.
A fast is also an act of protest, a powerful action by a powerless person, a time of reflection, an act of penance for oneself or for those who are destroying our country, a way of demonstrating commitment to something beyond one’s personal comfort, and a symbol of hope.
We were proud of ourselves after the Second World War, for we had seen what we could do in a national emergency. We thought of ourselves as a people with a common democratic purpose, and we even dreamt of having our own flag. Our dreams were not so different from the dreams of many other people in the world, and were expressed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It included the right to decent work, decent income, adequate food, clothing and shelter, respectful relationships, and the opportunity for each person to participate fully in the life of a healthy community.
Today Canadians fear the loss of hard-won social democracy in the global economy of competitive impoverishment. We long for community that lifts being-in-the-world beyond the predatory stage of human development. We do not want our success to depend on another’s failure, nor our prosperity on another’s poverty. We want to be in control of our lives, to belong to our land, to live with our traditions. This dream is worth fasting for. This dream is worth fighting for.

A Hug
Two big guys at the Carnegie
with long hair,
denim pants
and jackets.
One guy goes up to the other
and gives him a hug.
They hold each other for a long minute.
“Hey man, I needed that, “ one says.
“I’ve been in hospital,
a lonely place that place.”
“Yeah,” the other says,
pleased to see his friend.
“But you’re home now.
It’s alright now.”

Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, Community

I got shingles at the end of January, 2006. It was misdiagnosed and it turned into post herpetic neuralgia. My life stopped dead at that point, and I asked myself some questions. What is this illness trying to tell me? What’s wrong with the way I’ve been living? Why didn’t my immune system take care of this? I knew that I couldn’t let the pain take over, and that attitude was important in controlling it.
The American philosopher, William James, wrote, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”
Over a number of months I discovered five words that would help me find meaning in this new situation. The first word is “Intentionality”. It means making a commitment to a goal. My long range commitment is to turn roadblock into challenge, and fate into journey. Intentionality also means discipline and perseverance. Living is a bit like driving a car at night. The journey is long, but the headlights light up only a small part of the road. As we drive on, the headlights illuminate a new section of the road – and so on until we reach our destination. The point is we have to keep going.
The second word is “Mindfulness”. A book that helped me with this word is called “Coming To Our Senses – Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness means attention. It means being awake. It means deep breathing, meditation, and prayer. A French mystic, Simone Weil, wrote that attention without an object is prayer in its highest form. When an anthropologist asked the Lakota Chief Standing Bear what his people taught their children, Standing Bear replied, “We teach our children to look when there is nothing to see, and to listen when there is nothing to hear.” That’s mindfulness. Mindfulness is at the centre of a balanced life. It helps me control pain. It helps me wake up and see the beauty around me, and when I see that beauty I am astonished. Astonishment is a cornerstone of gratitude.
The third word is “Gratitude”. I pray almost constantly – giving thanks for the sun, the stars, and the people I meet. Here’s a quote from a poem called “Listen”, by W. S. Merwin:
“with the night falling we are saying thank you –
back from a series of hospitals, back from a mugging,
after funerals we are saying thank you,
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you,
in a culture up to its neck in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you,
over telephones we are saying thank you,
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators.”
The fourth word is “Compassion”. When I see intensely, when I listen intensely, I am open to the pain of another person, and I care for that person. And now I am in pain, and belong to the community of those who live in pain. This experience has deepened my compassion. The writer, Margaret Atwood, said, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” When I care, I am present for the other. I hear her words. As the Spanish philosopher, Miguel De Unamuno, said, “bodies may be attracted by pleasure, but souls are attracted by pain.”
That brings us to the fifth word – “Community”. It seems to me that the community of those who live in pain includes just bout everyone. We need each other. Human beings are gregarious animals, and caring and co-operation are more important for survival than competition and selfishness. In my view, women usually have a deeper understanding of caring relationships than men do, and Life is relationship, or as the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber said, “Life is meeting,” and meeting builds community. But it only builds community if we can see and hear with mindfulness.
Here are the five words that have helped me find a way to live with pain. Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, and Community. You will have other words that have helped you. Putting words down on paper is one way of finding out what we actually think about something, and sharing those words is a good way to start a dialogue.

Cherry Blossom Blizzard
I was walking
On East Pender Street
where the street
was lined with cherry trees
on both sides,
The trees were heavy with cherry blossoms
and a big wind came up
and cherry blossoms
went flying everywhere.
It was a snowstorm
of cherry blossoms,
a blizzard from
one end of the block
to the other,
and I couldn’t see
anything but pink petals
swirling and falling,
swirling and falling.
“Holy month of May,” I said.
“Nothing is forever.”

Beauty Brings The Gift of Hope

The Alhambra is an ancient Arab palace in Granada, Spain. I knew a little of the history of the palace, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the intricately carved stone archway at the entrance. It was poetry in stone. So powerful was the beauty of this architecture that my legs became weak, and I almost fell. I have to change my life, I thought. In the face of this beauty I have to change my life. I wish the buildings in my city of Vancouver were beautiful. My city is a machine for making money. When I go back home, I want to make something beautiful.
Vincent Van Gogh saw the ugliness and injustice of his society. He wanted to help people who were suffering, and he went to live in a mining village where the people were very poor. He wasn’t any help, though, because he gave everything he owned away, and his family had to rescue him. Slowly an idea formed in Van Gogh’s mind. He would make the world a better place through his paintings. He would make something beautiful, and give it to someone as a gift. “How can I be of use in the world?” he asked in a letter to his brother Theo (July, 1880). “Cannot I serve some purpose and be of some good?” The millions of people who line up to seek the paintings of Van Gogh, and come away with renewed hope, have answered that question.
I wonder what Van Gogh meant by the word beautiful? He said that he wanted to paint things as they really were, and the writer, John Berger, thought Van Gogh’s entire life was an endless yarning for reality. (Selected Essays of John Berger, edited by Geoff Dyer, Vintage International, 2003). The problem is that different people see reality differently. The reality Van Gogh was seeking was not the reality of the scientist who said that what was real could be measured with a calculator. Van Gogh’s reality was closer to William Blake’s statement: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, people would see everything as it is, infinite.” This was a vision of the sacred, using Mircea Eliade’s definition of the sacred as that which is saturated with being – the essence of things.
The philosopher, Karl Jaspers, described how Van Gogh’s paintings captured the essence of things. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that some secret spring of life is opened to us for a moment, as if the depths hidden in every existence were unveiled right before our eyes.” To see things as they really are is to experience the sacred. The person who sees with full attention becomes a seer, and that person will reject the materialistic, profit-driven society we live in. In this sense the spiritual is political.
The philosopher, Heidegger, defined truth as the unconcealedness of being, and beauty as the clothes of being. This is the reality Van Gogh sought. This is what Keats meant when he wrote in his poem Ode To A Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” We share being, for all things are one in that they are, and all things are many in what they are. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation expressed our connection to all that is when he said, “the earth and myself are of one mind.” If we are of one mind, or one reality, with all that is, then we are kin with the mice in the forest and the stars in the sky. First Nations people state this reality in the phrase “All my relations.” Beauty as the clothes of being carries a political message because we have no right to harm or exploit our relatives. Brother Sun; sister Moon.
We are part of the healing of the world when we create something beautiful. We reach out to our sisters and brothers with the gift of hope – a song, a poem, a dance, a painting, a banner, a poster, a photograph, a quilt, a sculpture, a play, a newsletter, a story, a speech, an opera, a collage, a drawing, a wall hanging, a mural, and the giving of a kind word from one person to another. All these creations are precious stones for the bridge we are building across the river of despair and injustice to a land of beauty where everyone is included.

The Laughing Buddha

A statue of a Laughing Buddha
watches the traffic
on Hastings Street.
He laughs, I think,
at our frantic busyness,
and his large stomach
suggest one who is ready
to give birth
to compassion for all beings.

The Laughing Buddha
sits in front of
a Buddhist temple,
and the door
of the temple
is graced with Buddhist teachings.
“Be decent, wise
and don’t engage
in selfish competition,
but do meritorious deeds
for the benefit of others,”
is one of the teachings.

For months I repeated
this teaching
every time I caught the bus
in front of the temple.
“Be decent, wise
and don’t engage in selfish competition,
but do meritorious deeds
for the benefit of others.”
It became a mantra for me.
It helped me orient myself
to the events of the day.
The Laughing Buddha
became my friend.

One morning in late autumn
I was waiting for the bus,
and repeating my helpful mantra,
when I noticed
an old man shuffling along,
Mumbling to himself.
his white hair was disheveled,
His clothes were as old
as he was,
and he looked confused
by the rush hour traffic
roaring by.

When he saw the Laughing Buddha,
the old man stopped
and gazed long and hard
at him.
Then he stepped
into the flowerbed
where the Buddha sat,
and carefully avoiding the flowers,
he slowly approached the statue,
one deliberate step at a time.
When he reached the Buddha,
he paused in intense concentration.
Then he threw his arms
around the neck
of the Laughing Buddha
and kissed him.
After that, he steppd back,
Carefully, he made his way
to the sidewalk,
Bowed to the Buddha,
and went on his way.

Keep Fighting, Friends

We keep fighting for a better world, and sometimes we get depressed. We don’t seem to be moving toward a more democratic society. In fact, our political and economic leaders preach the Scrooge-had-it-right economics of the 1840s.
We still have to keep building support groups for justice, though, and here’s a story that shows why our efforts are important, even when we don’t think they are.
Back in the early 1950s, a group of black women in Montgomery, Alabama fought for better conditions for black people on the city buses. They called themselves the Women’s Political Council, and nobody paid much attention to them because their dream of equality on the buses didn’t seem realistic.
In 1954 these Montgomery women invented a system to distribute 50,000 notices calling people to boycott the buses. Only the time and place had to be added. Some members of the black community told the women they were wasting their time. There was no way black people could challenge the white power structure in Montgomery, Alabama. The women, however, kept on organizing because they believed that what they were doing was right.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to stand up in a Montgomery bus when ordered to give her seat to a white person. Her action had not been planned. Rosa was returning home from her job as a seamstress, and she was tired. She did care about community issues, though, and had attended a seminar on civil rights at the Highlander Centre a few weeks earlier.
As soon as the Women’s Political Council heard that Rosa Parks had been arrested, it printed tens of thousands of leaflets announcing a bus boycott. Thanks to the distribution system set up by the women, most black people in Montgomery knew about the bus boycott within hours.
It wasn’t until the first day of the bus boycott was over that a 26 year old Minister, Martin Luther King, got up to speak to thousands of people at a church in Montgomery. “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” he said, and the civil rights movement in the United States was on its way.
Keep fighting, friends, so that when the tide changes, we will be ready.

What the Luddites can Teach us

The Luddites were skilled workers in the English woolen industry around the years 1810 to 1814. New machines such as power looms and shearing frames were taking their jobs, and they demanded protection against displacement by machinery as a constitutional right. They wanted a gradual introduction of new machinery, with alternate employment for displaced workers. They also wanted a legal minimum wage, better working conditions, especially for women and children, and the right to organize trade unions.
Luddites were defending more than their own jobs. They saw the huge cotton mills advancing with their long hours of work, exploitation of child labour, and the reduction of workers to objects in the marketplace – all this powered by the mean –spirited, degrading ideology of unregulated laissez-faire competition.
As E. P. Thompson said in his excellent book, The Making of the English Working Class, “the principle behind Luddism was the regulation of industrial growth according to ethical priorities, and the pursuit of profit subordinated to human needs.”
Because the English Parliament had blocked all constitutional means of reform, the Luddites were forced into destructive action against property. “We will never lay down Arms till the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all machinery hurtful to commonality…We petition no more – that won’t do –fighting must,” said Ned Ludd.
Violence against machinery was organized and selective. For example, framework-knitters only broke the frames where wages had been lowered.
In 1812 the Government responded to the frustrations of the wool workers by making frame-breaking a crime punishable by death.
Eventually the Luddite struggle was crushed, but the vision of the workers lived on in the Ten Hour Movement and the fight for the democratic vote. William Cobbett reflected the Luddite dream when he wrote about the rights of working people in 1833, “Among those rights was the right to…have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from the inability to find employment.”
Today our rights, including the right to a decent job at a decent wage, are being taken away from us by an international, corporate agenda driven by the same Scrooge-had-it-right, laissez-faire, economic ideology against which the Luddites fought.
Our Luddite brotherss and sisters were part of the two hundred year fight for a more democratic and just society. We, also, are part of that long haul.

Longing for Light

“Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” a thoughtful person asked at a gathering of people telling Downtown Eastside stories. (1) How many times have we asked ourselves that question, “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” Are we getting anywhere with our work, or are things just as bad as ever? Is gentrification crushing the low-income community of the Downtown Eastside in spite of all our efforts? Will Insite be destroyed by people who are unable to understand the extensive research on harm reduction? Is the light at the end of the tunnel really a train coming right at us? Sometimes we are overwhelmed with sorrow, although we want justice to prevail.
We work to make our community a better place, not a perfect place, but a better place. If we look for immediate results in this work, we are in danger of falling into despair. Society does not change quickly, and our commitment is for the long haul.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a peace activist, and a writer. A friend of his was falling into despair because he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Merton wrote to his friend, saying, “ Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all…As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on…the rightness, the truth of the work itself…in the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”
A good example of a determined commitment to the rightness of a cause is the five hundred year old resistance movement of first Nations people against injustice. This inspiring struggle will continue from one generation to another until justice is done. Leonard Peltier of the Anishinabe and Lakota Nations has been unjustly imprisoned for over thirty years, yet he does not despair. He wrote in his book, Prison Writings – My Life is My Sun Dance, “Never cease in the fight for peace, justice and equality for all people,” and “I know that without compassion and respect for all of Earth’s inhabitants none of us will survive –nor will we deserve to.” Leonard Peltier has turned his life into a prayer, and he wrote, “No prison bars can stop a prayer.”
A wise Inuit poem recognizes our longing for light. The poem goes like this:
“In the eternal darkness
the crow
unable to find food
longed for light
and the earth was illumined.”
This poem is telling us that the light is not at the end of the tunnel. The poem says that light arises out of our longing. It is within us, but we need silence and full attention in order to see it. When asked what he taught his children, the Lakota Chief Standing Bear replied, “They were taught…to look when there was apparently nothing to see, and to listen intently when all seemingly was quiet.” (2) People who follow that path will see the light.

(1)Eastside Stories – The people, The Voices; sponsored by the Vancouver Moving Theatre, the Radha Yoga and Eatery, and the Carnegie Community Centre.
(2)American Indian Prose and Poetry: An Anthology edited by Margot Astrov, Capricorn Books, 1982.

Hey, I’m not a Consumer
If big business had its way, we would all be called consumers instead of citizens, and we would vote with dollars instead of ballots. Consumers buy and buy. They are like vacuum cleaners that suck up everything around them. They never stop because they are never satisfied. Advertising has taught them that they cannot be complete persons unless they buy this thing or that thing. They are addicts, and the health of the economy depends on their addictions.
According to the consumer philosophy, our purpose in life is to accumulate as many things as possible, and the person who has the most things when he or she dies, wins.
The word “consumer” supports the big business dream of endless accumulation. At the centre is homo economicus, the consumer, who is an isolated, individual vacuum cleaner that attempts to fulfill its desires in the market. The ideal consumer sees the world as commodity. Everything is for sale. Buying and selling define its relationship to the earth. Value is understood in terms of money. The golden rule is make profit, not loss.
But I refuse to be reduced to a mere consumer and you probably feel the same way. Our earth and her children (including us) are bound together by a web of complex, living relationships, and that means that we’re not isolated, individual buying machines.
It also means that the only way we can understand ourselves is in relation to all the persons and things around us. This homo economicus is a monstrous perversion of our human experience.
We can simplify our lives, and that’s fine. Wise people have been telling us that for centuries. At the same time, we have to be more aware of the complexity of our relationships. It really isn’t possible to do one thing by itself any more than it is possible to throw a stone in a pond without making ripples.
Anyway, let’s get rid of this word “consumer.” We’re citizens, after all, and even more, we’re human beings.

No Justice, No Dinner

On March 9, 1994, Jean Swanson and I traveled to Seattle, Washington to take part in a trilateral (United States, Canada, Mexico) demonstration against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The demonstration was supported by the Seattle Labour Council, and organized by the Jobs with Justice Committee. Jean and I represented Action Canada BC.
An upbeat, energetic crowd of about two hundred and fifty union and community activists met in a parking lot across the street from the Labour Temple Building. Demonstrators carried banners, shook rattles made of pop tins with dried peas inside, sang union songs, and listened to one speaker from each of the United States, Canada (Jean), and Mexico. The speakers told the crowd that NAFTA was killing jobs, killing wages, and in Chiapas, Mexico, killing people. It was also killing democracy as it transferred the power to make important decisions about the economy from elected institutions such as Parliament or the Congress to the boardrooms of transnational corporations.
The Mexican speaker, a Jesuit worker priest, said that working people in Mexico were against NAFTA, and that many workers could not buy adequate food, clothing and shelter with the wages they earned.
The demonstration was planned because an expensive trade conference ($300 registration fee) on how to make money out of NAFTA was taking place at the Seattle International Trade Centre. Because of the downward spiral of competitive impoverishment that NAFTA generated, the demonstrators called for jobs with justice. They wanted it known that they would fight against job losses and wage and benefit reductions.
After the speeches were over, we marched to the accompaniment of songs, rattles, and chants such as “Human need, not corporate greed,” to the International Trade Centre two blocks away, where business executives hoped to have a gourmet banquet. The march to the Trade Centre didn’t take long and before we knew it, and much to our surprise, we had taken over the banquet room on the second floor. The circular tables were set for dinner, but the guests had not yet arrived because it was only 6:15 pm. We sang and chanted slogans for the next forty –five minutes in a festive spirit of disciplined defiance. Our favourite chant was “No justice, no dinner,” and we delayed the banquet for more than one hour. Nothing on the tables was disturbed, including the dinner rolls and the exquisite wine glasses, but our presence made it impossible for the executives to put on their feed bags.
The Seattle police waited quietly on the sidelines, and at 7:10 pm demonstrators snake danced around the banquet hall and down the stairs to the street. The message had been delivered.
Jean and I felt privileged to be part of this trilateral demonstration for democracy and against NAFA. We were impressed with the energy and commitment to justice of our American and Mexican sisters and brothers. We knew the fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement wasn’t over. In fact, it was just beginning.

The Year of Jubilee
Sheila Baxter has written a book on homelessness called Under the Viaduct that describes a society in which the accumulation of wealth has taken the place of compassion. Some of us are homeless because those with enormous homes are dependent on our homelessness for their homes, and some of us are homeless because we have lost “the great shining of the world’s inwardness” as the Hasidic tradition puts it. What have we forgotten?
Different traditions have different stories about homelessness and homecoming. Here is one story from one tradition.
Long ago the ancient Hebrews lived as slaves in Egypt for more than four hundred years. They knew what it was like to be homeless. They knew what it was like to be used for the profit of others.
Under the leadership of Moses the people fled Egypt, and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They longed for home, a land to which they could belong, a land overflowing with milk and honey.
A land was given to them by the Creator, but with this gift came responsibilities. The people agreed to a covenant or contract concerning their behavior in this precious land.
Every seventh day was a Sabbath day, a day of rest for the people, their animals, and the land. On this day the people remembered their covenant with rejoicing, and remembered also the giver of the gift.
Every seventh year was a Sabbath year. In this year debts among the people were forgiven, and those of the people who had become slaves because of debt were released from their slavery. In this way the people reminded themselves that the ethical foundation of their community was more profound than the rules of commerce – that economics must be regulated by ethics.
Every fiftieth year was the year of Jubilee. In this year all land was returned, without repurchase, to the original owner. When the people first came to the promised land, each family, except for the tribe of Levi which had special duties, was given land on an equal basis. This was the inheritance of that family. It was a gift. The family did not think of themselves as owners of the land, but as stewards of the land. Stewardship was part of the covenant.
In each generation commerce took place, and some families lost land. This land would be returned to the family that lost it during the year of Jubilee. In this way the people reminded themselves of their covenant and of their responsibilities to the land and the coming generations. They remembered what they had been told by the Creator: “For the land belongs to me, and you are only strangers and guests of mine.” (Leviticus 25:23)
In those days the people didn’t think much of one person trying to take away another person’s land, and they remembered what has been called the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark.| (Deuteronomy 19:14) In other words, it is wrong to take away another person’ means of making a living. If my home depends on you homelessness, then my home is built on quicksand.
The Sabbath/Jubilee model of society was based on compassion and justice, and it implied that a model of society based on profit and loss was unacceptable because such a model not only denied justice to the poor, but it forgot that wealth was a gift and that we are called to be stewards, not owners, of the land.
About three hundred and fifty years went by between the time the people entered the promised land until they set up their first king. Many of those years were good years, but gradually wealth and power began to concentrate in the hands of fewer people. Some say an urban elite, with military backing, turned agriculture from village subsistence to one crop exploitation for export, causing independent farmers to become day labourers on large estates. Whatever the reasons, the covenant was forgotten, and the prophets arrived.

Spratts Oilery

In 1882 Joseph Spratt of Victoria, BC decided to start a floating cannery and fish oil plant at Coal Harbour which is in Burrard Inlet just past the First Narrows, and tucked round the corner of what is now called Brockton Point. This bay was called Coal Harbour by the European settlers because of the coal found in what is now Vancouver’s West End.
In 1882 Burrard Inlet was still rich in fish, and its shores were lined with magnificent forests in spite of the logging that had been going on for over ten years. Douglas fir trees over three hundred feet tall and one thousand years old stood where much of Vancouver stands today.
Gassy (because he talked a lot) Jack Dieghton had wandered over to Burrard Inlet from New Westminster in 1867 with a barrel of whiskey. He built a shack twelve feet by twenty feet at what is now the intersection of Carrall and Water Streets, and sold liquor to loggers and the mill workers at Stamp’s Mill (north end of Dunlevy) and Moody’s Mill (north shore of Burrard Inlet).
By 1882 Gassy’s Town, or Gastown, officially known as Granville, was little more than one block long on Water Street. It consisted of a few hotels, saloons, and shops among the tree stumps and the skunk cabbage. Giant firs loomed in the background.
Joseph Spratt planned to use herring as his major source of fish oil for his cannery. This plan was reasonable as the herring run into Burrard Inlet was a large one on which the First Nations people had relied for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Motivated like most newcomers to the west coast by dreams of unlimited wealth, Mr. Spratt discovered a cost-effective way of fishing. He would dynamite the fish. The Native people were very upset with his method of fishing and warned him that something bad would happen. He didn’t listen to them.
In 1885 Mr. Spratt had to close down his floating cannery and fish oil plant because the herring stopped coming to Burrard Inlet, and they never returned there. He didn’t seem to understand that he was responsible for their disappearance. His greed destroyed his enterprise, you might say, and it also destroyed an important fishery in Burrard Inlet for First Nations people.

A Ghostly Beacon in the Night

After 3000 years, the Hale-Bopp comet has returned. Last time it visited Earth, David was king of Israel, the Pharoahs still ruled in Egypt, and First Nations people settled at the present site of the Musqueam community on the Fraser River.
If the sky is clear, you can see it in the northern hemisphere before sunrise or after sunset (when the sky is dark). The comet will be at its best for viewing from March 26 to April 9—weather permitting.
When I saw the Hale-Bopp comet about two weeks ago, it looked like a fuzzy star, but when I looked at it with binoculars, it was very bright. I could see the tail of dust and gas that stretched for 400,000 kilometers—about the distance between the earth and the moon.
The Hale-Bopp comet was named after its recent discoverers, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, who found it in July, 1995. Hale was in New Mexico and Bopp was in Arizona, and unknown to each other, they discovered it at the same time.
Imagine a dirty snowball the size of Toronto and you’ve got the Hale-Bopp comet. The centre is a spinning egg-shaped mass of ice, frozen gas and dust about 40 kilometers across. When the sun heats the core, the frozen material changes into gas, and dust is released. As ice melts, the comet gives off water vapour at the rate of a room-sized block of ice every second.
Many scientists think that comets are the old remains of the material that first formed our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
The speed of the comet varies with its relationship to the sun. It can move from 36 kilometres per second to 100 kilometres per second. It will be closest to earth around March 23—about 194 million kilometers away.
Seeing a comet puts our violent human history in perspective, thank goodness. In the old days, people thought comets were a bad omen. I thing the Hale-Bopp comet is a good omen because it inspires our sense of wonder and humility—two qualities lacking in the laissez-faire greed of the global economy. In its awesome mystery, the comet tells me that the fight for justice is as enduring as the beauty of the heavens.
Watch for the Hale-Bopp comet on this visit, or on the next one in 4380 A. D.

Last Poem

(Jean’s note: I found this poem on Sandy’s desk a few days after he died. It was in draft form and hard to read but this is what I could make out)

Do not weep for me
when I have gone
and you are lonely
in the quiet night
sitting where we
used to sit together.

Do not weep for me
for I am closer
to you now than I
have ever been before.

Wind caresses you—I am the wind.
I am the sun’s warmth.
I am the sweetness of the
summer flowers.
I am the smell of gentle rain.

The I of which I talk
is not the tiny I
that is born and dies
but the I that ever was,
the “I” that says “before Abraham was, I am.”

The I of which I speak
is not the I of me
but the I that lives at
this exact moment and forever.

Do not weep for me
when I have gone
and you are lonely in the quiet night.
for I am closer to you now
than I have ever been before.

Comments are closed.