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Mark and dancers

Bees, dance, playgrounds and children’s books came together unexpectedly in Toronto last week, along with synchrony, the idea of simultaneous occurrence or motion.

The children’s book was not so much the book as its author JonArno Lawson, whom I met at the Governor-General’s Literary Awards in December. His and illustrator Sydney Smith’s winning book was “Sidewalk Flowers,” which I recommend highly for children and adults alike.

I was delighted that JonArno was free one night while I was in Toronto, as he is a most engaging dinner companion. At one point he told me about a remarkable bit of playground research he’d uncovered, conducted by a student of the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. JonArno subsequently sent me a few pages from Hall’s 1983 Book “The Dance of Life,” that described the study.

As Hall wrote, “He began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. My student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground!”

Hall went on to describe how the pattern of movement was like the beat of music, with the playground’s children dancing to its silent rhythm. There was no music, however. Rather, the kids were tapping into some subconscious rhythm of play they perceived in a non-audible way.

I immediately thought of bees, and the transcendent spirit of the hive by which the colony collective seems to skip and dance and twirl within the hive much like Hall’s children on the playground.

There is a rhythm to each colony, a beat of activity set by a few individual bees. All might be quiet in the hive until a scout forager returns, dancing vigorously to inform her nestmates of the distance and direction to a field of nectar or pollen-yielding flowers. Potential foragers follow the dance and then fly out themselves, returning with nectar or pollen or both, and performing their own dances that excite other workers.

It all begins with that first scout setting the beat, but soon the pace of the hive has escalated, with some workers accepting and processing the incoming nectar, some packing pollen into cells, and still others following the now-numerous dances and then flying out to forage.

The colony appears in simultaneous motion, a synchronous blending of tasks that creates a palpable rhythm, each bee responding to the beat with different tasks while staying true to the inflections of the collective.

JonArno also suggested that perhaps human dancers resemble bees in our capacity to pace dance to a subtle rhythm-setter. We’ve all been at parties where we might be dancing fluidly among many partners, but there’s usually someone who is influencing the entire dance floor’s pace without being an obvious leader.

I experienced this intersection between bee and human dance most intensely when I was part of two dance projects with Vancouver’s LINK Dance Foundation. I’d never performed on stage with dancers before, but what struck me as most profound was how aware we were of each other without any direct look or other signals. Rather, each segment from each dance had its rhythm subtly conducted by a different performer’s individual beat, with understated leadership shifting between dancers as the piece progressed.

Whether we are well tuned to the playground’s beat or the synchronicity of dance, the pace of human life is remarkably influenced by subtle cues beneath our conscious awareness.

Hall wrote about our perception of that subliminal beat: “I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. Poets do this too . . .”

As do bees, themselves composers and poets of their own colony’s cadence, another reminder of the remarkable lessons to be gleaned by those who listen to the rhythm of the hive.


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On My 65th Birthday

I turned 65 a few hours ago. It’s an age of significance more for historical reasons than on its own merits, as it used to be the age when retirement was expected, and usually forced.

Retirement at 65 became the norm many decades ago for actuarial reasons, because it was the median mortality age for men, who made up most of the work force. Pensions and social insurance would kick in then, affordable because half the wage earners were gone, leaving enough in pension funds and government coffers for the survivors. Also, work was more physically demanding, and few employees had the strength to keep working beyond 65.

Work today is less physically demanding, longevity has increased, the work force is no longer predominantly male, and the North American courts have ruled that most employees can no longer be made to retire at 65. Still, although 65 is no longer as significant a birthday for employment reasons, it somehow remains a milestone at which to ponder the process of aging.

I recall observing friends, colleagues and family turning 65 and thinking they were old, but I can’t say I feel the least bit old as I round the corner of the 65th. I do, however, feel increasingly like an elder, whose hallowed state justifies the senior discounts I am quite pleased to receive.

I purchased my first seniors transit pass yesterday, at half the price of the regular pass, and yes, I did jump the gun by 24 hours out of excessive excitement for this most deserved of perks. I have been a heavy transit user for many decades, and payback time is overdue.

I’ve been trying to articulate a shift I’ve noticed at how I consider work, which I thought to characterize as a loss of career ambition. But that’s not quite right, as I’ve never been particularly ambitious to build a career. I have had strong motivation to accomplish, first through bee research and more recently through dialogue, which seemed to yield career progression without striving directly for advancement.

My motivation hasn’t diminished; I’m still passionate about teaching, mentoring, bees and dialogue, but perhaps not so much motivated to accomplish as to experience. My earlier motivation led to fostering a bee research laboratory, and my teaching interests led to the Semester in Dialogue that grew into a full-bore Centre for all things dialogue. Today, I want to do the teaching and the facilitating, and participate in the bee world, but without growing structures in which to accomplish.

I am also enjoying my decreasing tendency to judge others, a process worth noting at 65 although it has been more of a progression than precisely connected to that particular age. I am less critical of the faults and deficiencies of others, accepting our human weaknesses with more compassion than I did when younger, with greater facility at finding the wisdom and grace beneath the fault lines.

Age has brought another unexpected bonus, an overflowing abundance of love. The last decade has brought me Lori, soulmate extraordinaire, with her own capacity for loving that transformed my understanding of what it is to love another person. My daughter Devora grew into an adult in the last decade, and while we have always been close I never imagined our deep bond would persist as her adult independence expanded.

And love, like the universe, expands: Lori brought her wonderful children Teryl and Greg into my life, and through Greg and his wife Tiffany our dear, dear granddaughter Mackenzie. And Devora brought Zach into our world, the best of sons-in-law, whose love for Devora shines through his every molecule. Add innumerable friends, students and colleagues into the mix, and my love cup truly runneth over.

My 65th was preceded by Passover a few days ago, a holiday in which we celebrate the idea and hopefully the reality of freedom, political but also personal. One aspect of freedom is being able to grow and flourish unencumbered by personal demons, and at 65 I’m still very much on that growth curve.

I consider myself among the fortunate, one whose aging has not worn me down but made me feel, well, younger. I can only thank the capricious forces of the universe for treating me so well at 65, leaving me blessed to imagine the next many years as blossoming rather than withering.

Senior Moments

“Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others.” Margaret Atwood, “Negotiating with the Dead”

I’m becoming an official senior soon, reaching the arbitrary age recognized by society through reduced ticket prices at movies, slightly lower fares on transit and small senior-sized portions at the occasional early bird dinner.

I thought this next phase would be about growing old, but inevitable as that may be I don’t yet feel old, or even that I’m aging, although a look in the mirror should convince me that time is marching on.

What is starting to shift is feeling senior, with its particular challenge of becoming an elder, with lived experiences that may be useful to others.

In traditional religious and First Nations communities, elders are respected for having obtained wisdom and are entrusted with responsibility. They often settle disputes, guide the young and set an example of proper behavior.

At the same time, elders are expected to behave with humility, fairness, be slow to judge others, temperate in their own behavior and in religious organizations devout.

I’ve achieved the age of an elder, but I’m not so sure I’ve obtained the wisdom to be entrusted with the accompanying responsibility. Reaching this age has inspired more reflection, though, and a striving to understand what I may have learned during my time in the wash-and-spin cycle.

One thing I think I’ve learned is to listen, slowing down in conversations and paying more attention to what’s being said beneath the surface of language. It’s a rich layer, the subsurface, with currents of insecurity and vulnerability beneath the upper level of more confident words. The reward is deeper intimacy when successful at hearing what is truly meant.

Asking deeper questions is another skill that comes with seniorhood. Curiousity and inquisitiveness are skills well coupled with listening, yet most of us too often stop at the face value of interactions rather than delving more deeply into the issues of deepest concern. I have watched my own capacity to ask the next question has grown along with the ability to accept the sometimes-troubling answers, another powerful blessing of growing older.

We seniors also benefit from being repositories of history, better able to analyze current situations because of our lived experiences. I find increasingly that stories from the past come to mind that illuminate current dilemmas, often indicating a way forward informed by lessons learned many decades ago.

A final senior revelation has been a growing acceptance of my own limitations and those of others. I am less judgmental of my own faults, and certainly more tolerant of what my younger self would have considered defects in others.

It’s in this context that I’m trying to grow into my recent appointment as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue. My hope is that as a senior I can contribute by modeling a commitment to deep listening, probing but respectful questioning, attention to the stories from which we can learn and tolerance for our many vulnerabilities.

If those are to be my senior moments, growing old will be sweet, indeed.