Thursday, August 11, 2011

Going First Class

In April, 1957, I left the Old Country and traveled to the New World with my mum and dad and little sister. I was almost eight years old. For all of us, it was a Big Adventure leaving Scotland, where my dad had worked as a carpenter, to go to Canada, where my aunt had assured my parents that there were great opportunities and lots of jobs.

We boarded the Empress of Scotland, one of the Canadian Pacific Steamships. Because we were not “well off”, we had Tourist Class tickets, but were tickled pink when they told us because Tourist Class was full, we would have to go First Class.  First Class!

We knew we didn’t fit in, but it was wonderful pretending we did. The First Class dining room (shown in the photo) was like an immense ornate ballroom. We ate out of nice china with fancy silverware, served by polite men in white uniforms. I think we actually said silly things like, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight.”

Soon enough we arrived in Canada.  After a scenic train ride across the country (I remember going through the Rockies in the Dome Car), we reached Victoria, where we came back to earth.

My aunt’s idea of the job market had been a bit optimistic.  Not finding carpentry work, my dad took a job as the night janitor in a big thrift store. It was great fun for me because the family went with him. My mum helped with the cleaning, and I roller skated around and played on the conveyor belt.

My dad seemed to take these ups and downs in his stride, but my mum not so much. I think she was the most elated by the First Class treatment, which was above her station, and felt the most humiliated by the janitor job, which was beneath it. Fairly soon afterward, my dad got a job with a cabinet maker and our family settled comfortably into the lower middle class where we belonged.

Whether it be to an unexpected benefit or to an unwelcome setback, I think my mother's response can be summed up in one sentence: I don't deserve this.

I recognize both my dad's equanimity and my mother's class-consciousness in my own character. As much as I'm reluctant to admit it, every day I catch myself making comparisons - "she's wealthy", "he's uneducated", "he's refined", "she's crude" - all measured against my current notion of who I think I am, or even, who I think I ought to be. It even creeps into my practice as uninvited thoughts critical of others' insight or commitment. And these are just the thoughts I catch.

These antics of monkey mind, if pursued or encouraged (or grappled with) tend to divert our awareness from our true nondual nature and interdependence with everything, which in turn, I think, weakens our drive to act compassionately.

The more I see you as me - whether you are wealthy but miserable, poor, dirty and hungry, addicted or deluded - and the less I set myself apart as better or worse, or just plain separate, the better are my chances of being compassionate to you.

And I need all the chances I can get.


  1. beautifully expressed. i catch these harsh judgmental thoughts all the time -- and I consider myself a kind and compassionate person! So, maybe not so much, eh? The monsters lurk under every bed.

    Just yesterday, I was lamenting a group of teens hanging outside the drug store -- tattoos galore, sagging pants, too much skin exposure, loud. Oh, I had a field day!

    There's always more work to do, isn't there?

  2. Thanks, Tara. I have a feeling our monsters aren't going to go away anytime soon. Probably all we can do is nod as we pass them and just carry on being sincere. Makes me think of the last scene in A Beautiful Mind.

  3. This is so beautiful, David...vulnerable and full of expectancy. Classism has done much to imprison us, and has also created a wonderful opportunity to set ourselves free from limiting beliefs. Sometimes I think eye contact and a smile can sneak by all our outer masks and get right to the heart of us all. At least that's the tactic I'm taking...

  4. Thank you Kellie! I like your reminder that our 'flaws' really are opportunities to progress, and I really like the eye contact and smile approach - what a great way to cut to the heart of things!

  5. Hi David. I has been nice sitting with you the past two mornings or evenings for you! You are the first person i sat with on omcru and it was nice surprise to realise there was a Scottish connection. I read your blog with interest, quite a story. Your honesty and commitment to your practice shine through. I can identify with many of the koans you describe!
    I've only ever been to Greenock once before. I live in Aberdeenshire in north east Scotland.
    Thanks for sharing this blog with me hopefully catch you on omcru soon.
    I have a blog i wrote a blog titled Scottish kings, Scottish independence and impermanence it might interest you

  6. Thank you for sharing these beautiful memories. I can identify - In my youth too I was raised by a single mom who was a "foreigner". Neither of us speaking the language well, everything made us feel "class-conscious" and inferior.

    Looking back though... I take great pride in being different --- Not better, just more independent from the standard "norm" of what I observe around me.

    Surely it's good to be unique! A breed all our own! ;)

  7. Dear Thane and Bea, in looking back over this post I realized I read your kind and thoughtful comments without taking the time to thank you for them. So belatedly, my apologies and heartfelt thanks!


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