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Talk of the Town - Right speech April 15 2000

Speaking without hostility a hard lesson to learn

This is a column about what the Buddhists call "right speech" and the mystery of the world's love.

Two weeks ago, I was at my gym when a complete stranger approached.

"Aren't you Cliff Bostock?" he asked.

I braced myself. I'm never sure what the answer will provoke. "I might be," I said.

"Well, I guess you're not, because you don't look like an [expletive]," he said, laughing.

"Um, OK," I muttered, pretty shocked by the obscenity from a stranger.

He explained that I should get a copy of a local alternative newspaper. I did and found that for the second year in a row, the editors had made an attack on me in a special issue. This one was personal, mysteriously ignorant of my actual person and, by many people's definition, obscene.

Over the next days, most of my friends expressed embarrassed concern. Some told me the remark was so far from describing me that I shouldn't let it bother me. Others told me I should sue. Others told me I should be flattered that I, a provocateur myself, am such an annoyance to the paper that they attack my person instead of my ideas. My most valued friends just supported me in my anger and hurt. They didn't try to tell me how I should feel. So right away, I began to get a lesson in what's important in friendship and love.

And, thus, the psychologist in me began immediately to look for the meaning in the experience. And the world answered.

The day after I read the newspaper item, I awoke wanting - of all things - to buy a canary. I had no idea why. When I was in Spain a few months ago, I often heard a canary warbling in the home of gypsies high on the cliffs. The sound was magical to me. Still, I dismissed this impulse to buy one. Nevertheless, the desire grew, especially after my angry interaction with the editor.

I drove to the pet store at Ansley Mall after lunch and, still clueless about my motivations, walked out of the store without buying a bird. On my way home, I suddenly remembered that it was the 18th anniversary of my last drink of alcohol. When I got home, I told my partner:

"I don't have any idea why, but I have this impulse to buy a canary. Since it's my 18th anniversary without a drink, I'm just going to buy one as a gift for myself and see what it's about." Wayne looked at me, looked at the cats and raised an eyebrow.

Later that afternoon, I bought the bird, a perky bit of warbling yellow and brown fluff. By this time, I had also decided to go to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous - my first in at least five years. I went religiously to AA meetings for more than 10 years. I felt sheltered and loved there. Eventually, though, I drifted away, finding AA pretty irrelevant to my changing needs. I felt no enmity about this. It just seemed natural for me to discontinue meetings.

Canary in the car, I stopped at the Galano Club in Midtown and was stunned to see faces I hadn't seen in years. The room also was filled with ghosts of many friends who had died during my recovery. When the meeting began, the room became quiet. Wonderfully quiet. Soon, a man began talking about "the need for gentle speech." I suddenly became emotional.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning. That was the lesson in all of this. I am tired of hostile speech - my speech primarily, the speech of others too, the battles we have to conduct just to get through a damn day now, the fight to maintain simple integrity in a world where money and attention are what matter most and have created a kind of reflexive cynicism in all of us. And that, I realized instantly, was what the canary was about. I just wanted to hear something beautiful.

So, an hour later, I set the canary cage in my library and, almost as soon as the bird hit his perch, he began warbling - a long, gorgeous trill that caused me to throw my own head back and laugh, merging my voice with his.

The next few days were filled with coincidences, unplanned reconnections with old friends, the sound of the canary singing and the deep silence I was taught by my spiritual teacher, Mother Meera, to appreciate.

I have no idea yet how to handle hostile speech - my own taste for it and the taste of others. But I am grateful to be reminded again that I am not my anger.



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