Hometown Hockey

I grew up in Toronto, where hockey is king.  In the 1960’s, I went to four Stanley Cup parades, all ending on the steps of City Hall, where my heroes gave speeches and held the cup high.  The huge crowd cheered.

The official Hockey Hall of Fame is downtown on Front Street.  Each year, many thousands of fans walk by the memorabilia of the National Hockey League.  But hidden in a back alley in the Weston neighbourhood of the city is a more informal shrine, featuring all things Toronto Maple Leafs.  To find this gem, walk along Weston Road to John Street.  Turn east and watch for the sign pointing to Peter’s Barber Shop.  Pantelis Kalamaris started cutting hair just around the corner in 1961.  As an immigrant from Greece, he decided to change in name to Peter and to embrace the sport of his new country.

On Saturday morning, I reached for the sliding glass door and walked into history.  Hardly a square inch of wall space was available … the rest trumpeted the Leafs in posters, pennants, newspaper articles, pucks and hockey sticks.  I stood there transfixed.  Seeing my wonder, Peter the Younger barber smiled.  He was busy putting the finishing touches on the do of an older gentleman.  The two of them were fully engaged in the merits of the Leafs’ current star – Auston Matthews.

I sat down amid a row of blue folding seats … originals from Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s home until 1999.  As a kid, I too had occasionally sat on such seats, although we couldn’t afford the blues.

To go from waiting area to barber’s chair, you had to pass through a Gardens turnstile, again just like I had done decades ago.  The floor was covered with various hues of hair.  I asked Peter if any of that was from the Leafs’ stars of the 1960’s.  “No, but I do have some in plastic bags.”  Cool.

Here was one of Johnny Bower’s goalie sticks.  Here was a poster showing the Leafs’ 100 best players of all time, photoshopped into a team photo.  Here was a board hockey game that Peter sometimes plays with his customers.  Of course the barber always plays as the Leafs.

And here was a framed letter from Roger Neilson, a beloved coach of the Leafs and other NHL teams.  Peter the Older had invited him to come to Weston and sign the wall, alongside such luminaries as Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly.  In the letter, Roger said that his doctor wasn’t letting him travel long distances but sometime he’d get to Toronto and sign his John Henry.  But Roger died before that could happen.

It felt that my time was up at Peter’s Barber Shop.  The host and his customers were all friendly (as long as I assured them I wasn’t a fan of the hated Ottawa Senators!)  Like Roger, I vowed to return.  Hopefully unlike Roger, I will.

***

From Pantelis Kalamaris Lane, it was only a ten-minute walk to the Weston Lions Arena.  It was constructed in 1949 (just like me!) and hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs for many practices in the 50’s and 60’s.  Many of the players strolled over to the barber shop for a cut afterwards.

What I had read a few weeks ago was that the arena had the world’s best fries, and who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?  I approached a door that had a back door feel to it but it turned out to be the main entrance.  Then I was in front of the snack bar, with the ice surface beyond, full of boys skating hard and fans shouting encouragement.  I was tempted by the “Not so famous hot dogs” sign but settled for the world-renowned treat.  Pouring on the malt vinegar, I took my French fries and Diet Coke into the stands.

Spectators sat on five rows of wooden benches, some sections red and some blue.  The walls of the arena were two tone blue – robin’s egg contrasted with royal.  It was a lovely assault on the eyes.

  • The kids, maybe 12, were giving ‘er on the ice.  Some flew over the blue line.  Some fell unaided on their tushes.  Goalies stretched for the save.  Forwards dipsydoodled by defensemen, with few passes to be seen.  Coached yelled.  Fans screamed.  I ate.  Gosh, those fries are yummy!

The roof was a curve of bare beams, spotted with metal plates and inch thick cables.  The same as in 1949.  I imagined my Leafs heroes doing their drills on the ice.  Maybe some of these boys in front of me knew the history and were inspired by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich.  More likely, the names of current Leafs heroes will adorn their backs … Matthews and Marner jerseys.

So hockey has been played here on cold Saturdays for 69 years.  Oh, how a sport can seep into our souls.  Whether the seat is a barber chair or a hard bench,  we live the game.

Ants Below

Construction started on Toronto’s CN Tower in 1973.  Until 2010, it was the tallest freestanding structure in the world.  I’d never been up it … till yesterday.

What does it mean that millions of people across the world have gazed out from the sky high observation deck, but not me?  How about “absolutely nothing”?  It’s becoming clearer to me that life is not about accumulating experiences but rather about living in accord with my highest values.  And those are love, compassion, kindness and peace.

But I still wanted to take an elevator to the heights.

My eyes widened as I approached the glass.  The world was so far down.  The sun was shining on Lake Ontario and the ice was breaking up, creating a jumble of geometric patterns.  Two channels of smaller floes showed the way to Ward’s Island and Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island.  A ferry found its way through.

Directly below was another spot of ice – a skating rink bordered by tall condos.  But “tall” didn’t seem to fit from up here.  The penthouses were hundreds of feet below.  On the ice, little dots of colour circled.  And I got it … each speck was a human being.  Someone with joys and sorrows, health and illness, high and low self-esteem, leading lives so much like mine.  I just stared.

Then there was the Royal York Hotel, a classic Toronto landmark since 1929.  Way, way below me.  I thought of my dear wife Jody, and the time that we stayed there.  I smiled.  And I imagined all the human beings inside the building right then … showering, sitting in the lobby, enjoying a drink in the lounge.  All like me, those folks.  Some differences, sure, but just minor variations on the theme homo sapiens.

The Gardiner Expressway flowed beneath me, although that’s not the right word.  It was late afternoon rush hour in the big city, and the cars crawled.  The backup stretched way to my left and way to my right.  There’d be one or two people in each tin can, maybe tired after a day of stress, longing for home, longing for a “beam me up” machine that would transport them to their couch.  All with hopes and dreams, successes and failures, pleasure and pain.  I tried to place my soul in each car but immediately felt overwhelmed.  “They’ll find their way, Bruce.”

From on high, life didn’t seem so darned serious.  Just a whole bunch of people walking or riding from here to there, each on their path.  It’s okay.  There’ll be a few dead ends, a few traffic jams, but also moments of flowing free.  On we go, fellow travellers.

Am I Going To Die Right Here Right Now?

Okay, I realize this is a sensational headline, but I did have that thought yesterday.  Maybe there’s a future for me in the tabloid press.

I went walking in the Humber River valley in Toronto, to the tune of six miles or so.  The trail was snow-covered, with little ridges of ice, water on top at times, and wet feet.  In short … perfect!  I didn’t mind going slow.  The white world was there for me to discover.

Much of the river was open, and really roaring along.  At one point I stood on a pedestrian bridge and watched the ice floes.  Way upstream was a little postage stamp of ice, moving ever so gently towards me.  As it neared the bridge, however, it morphed into an eight-foot long berg, and roared beneath my eyes like a runaway train.  Was I ever wrong about the current placidity of nature (a thought that was proven so true an hour later).

I was testing out my new wool socks.  “They’ll keep your feet warm and dry even in a rainstorm.”  Well, sort of.  There wasn’t any rain but lots of gooshy snow.  The socks were wet but my feet were still pleasantly cool.

I sat on a few benches and contemplated life, plus how many steps I’d taken so far.  By day’s end, it turned out to be 28,000.  What an athlete!  Above the flatlands by the river were steep slopes, leading up to fancy homes, which were showing their huge windows through the bare trees.  So I’m in the middle of Toronto, not exactly a wilderness experience, but still fun to be surrounded by so much unimpeded whiteness.

I was advancing calmly along the shore, with the Humber on my right, when I came to a spot where the river had overflowed its banks.  Parks personnel had posted “Do Not Enter” signs, plus a chain across the trail.  I looked way to my left, and with my deep outdoorsman knowledge, saw an area of white snow that skirted the grey waterlogged surface.  No sweat.  I don’t need a direct path from A to B.  I’m out to explore the wilds of Toronto.

My new route took me into a grove of bushes and small trees.  “Just follow the white snow, Bruce.”  Oh, this was fun.  Soon, I was going where no man had gone before, judging by the absence of footprints.  The crust of snow was hard and happily supported my weight.  No more wetness or ridges of ice.  Piece of cake.

Thirty steps farther, something new.  My right foot went down to the snow and the mass vibrated.  Like a tiny trampoline.  Energy went outwards in all directions as I moved each foot.  Then my right one broke through, about a foot down, and the crust collapsed around it.  Same with my left one.  Oh well.  Just a slower passage to my glass of wine at the Old Mill Restaurant.

As I worked my way around bushes, holding on to branches, I saw that the greyness had invaded my path.  I turned further from the river to keep from getting soaked and a route became clear.  I even saw a picnic shelter in the distance.  “No problem, Bruce.  You’re in Toronto.”

And then, a step too far.  My right foot broke through and I sunk down to my knee.  Water flooded into my running shoe and those water-wicking wool socks had no chance.  For a few seconds, I thought I was stuck.  I pulled my leg up but nothing happened.  Then I rolled onto my side and yanked the foot from its watery abode.  Soon I was vertical again and ready to move forward.  Down went my left foot to the knee, and then my right one joined in again.

And that was when this post’s title hit home.  Up to my knees.  Both feet soaked and numbing.  Bushes to the left and right.  No one around.  So scared.  Is this where I call it a day?  It’s been a good life.  Bye.

And then I snapped out of it.  “It will continue to be a good life.  There’s a glass of wine waiting for you less than a mile away.  You have your cell phone.  If you can’t extricate yourself, the Toronto Fire Department will.” > “But hypothermia will get me first.” > “Shut up and move!”

Somehow onto my side again.  And somehow the crust didn’t break where my body rolled.  Onto my feet, and looking around.  I’d been avoiding the grey areas but could they be worse than my white breakthroughs?  I grabbed a branch and stepped onto a grey patch.  It held!  And then the next.  It held too.  From bush to bush, I followed the grey.  The grassy parkland was just ahead, under its white blanket.  The meadow was raised up a bit.  My feet were numb but my brain wasn’t.  “Slowly, Bruce.  Just reach for the next branch.”  The crust held, time and time again, and finally the firm meadow was under my feet.

Fancy lounge
Dark wood
Old guy staring at me from a painting
Glass of Gewurztraminer
Squishy shoes
Unfeelable feet
Most thankful soul

Ain’t life grand?

Being Gay

Eric Radford just won a bronze medal at the Olympics.  He’s a Canadian pairs skater with partner Meagan Duhamel.  Like any elite athlete, Eric has shown years of dedication to his sport.  But there’s been another mountain for this man … he’s gay.  I read about him this morning in the Toronto Star.

I think of the challenges I’ve faced.  My wife Jody with a terminal disease, and dying.  Some people perceiving me as “less than”, weird and perhaps even dangerous.  Being close to death three times in one summer.  But Eric?  What an astonishing warrior.

“It’s a gold mining town, in the north, hockey town, male figure skater.  And the only one.  It was very hard for him.”

What are the depths of loneliness that can touch a human being?

“And not only not being accepted by other people, but there was a long time where I didn’t accept myself.  And that took time.  And I think that I just look at that, and if I had someone like that to look up to, it would have been easier.”

Can I look myself in the mirror, see my version of a face, and still smile?

Eric came out to his mom and dad when he was 18.  Their reaction?  “So what?”

“It was a couple of days later, and she came in and she was weepy and she said ‘You turned out so well despite going through all of that.  I wish you had told us sooner so I could have been there for you.’  And she felt so guilty and bad that I hadn’t told her sooner, and I really was kind of on my own.”

And what is beyond a mother’s love?

“I remember arguments about money when we were kids.  You know how you hear things?  And they never said once ‘We can’t do that.’  They said ‘How are we going to make this work?'”

What do I need to do to turn my dreams into realities?

“When Radford has gone home to Red Lake, he attracts crowds when he practises in the old rink, and many of the kids from the old days have come up and apologized.  ‘And I really appreciate that they come up and talk to me … It probably can’t be that easy, you might feel stupid or shy … It’s nice to have their respect, and to know that these people have grown up, they’ve matured, and they’ve learned.”

What does it take to let go of the familiar old and open to a more inclusive life?

***

The definition of gay: Homosexual
The definition of gay: Lighthearted and carefree
How about both?

Kindness Times Three

I was listening to CBC Radio while driving to Toronto this afternoon.  I was hoping for a good human interest story … and I found one.  A woman was being interviewed about a remarkable kindergarten moment.  As she talked, I could hear tears in her voice.

One little girl had shown up in the morning wearing her top backwards.  Some kid laughed at her.  The teacher was right on it and gently reproved the laugher.  The target human being, however, was very sad.  At this point, I guess the teacher had decided to carry on and leave the messiness behind.  But one child had another idea.  I can’t remember if it was a he or a she but the child removed their top and put it on backwards.  And then lots of other kids followed suit.  “I didn’t want her to be sad.”

My eyes moistened.  The interviewer was just about overcome.  And I imagined thousands of listeners reaching for their Kleenex.  Oh, what power a five-year-old can have.

And then …

I was walking along Lawrence Avenue, a main street in Toronto.  A taxi came out of a side street and pulled right up to the intersection so the driver could see the traffic on Lawrence before turning right.  I jogged a bit left and walked behind the car.  As I headed back to the sidewalk, the fellow behind the wheel called out to me:

“Sorry for blocking your path!”  He wore a big smile.

“That’s all right.  You couldn’t see.”

So much for the stereotype of Toronto drivers being discourteous.  I was stunned and so thankful for his friendliness.  It was a privilege to be in his presence.

Now I’m looking for kindness number three.  I’m not going to force it.  If no wave of goodness comes my way before I lay me down to sleep, so be it.  I won’t twist my reality to line up with the title of this piece.  Think I’ll head to Tim Hortons for coffee and see what beckons.

Okay, now I’m on the subway, gently seeking kind behaviour.  But seeking isn’t it.  By grace will it come my way … or not.  I’ll just wait.

Minutes ago, I looked to my right on the train.  A fat guy is two seats away, leaning over.  His eyes are closed … and he’s yelling.  Pointing his finger at something.  I can’t make out what he’s saying.  I’m too scared to say anything in the realm of “Are you all right?”  I shut my eyes.

I think of the classic Buddhist phrases of care:

May you be free from danger
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you live with ease

And I sent them his way.  Soon it was just one: “May you be happy.”  The gentleman keeps yelling, still with eyes closed.  Here’s my stop.  “Goodbye, dear one.”

Mission accomplished.

Two Movies on a Sunday Afternoon

Off to the Hyland Cinema in London for stories about life.

***

First up was Phantom Thread, about a famous dressmaker who becomes entranced by a young waitress.  And she too is mesmerized.  She comes to work for him and waits for Reynolds to fall in love.  But it’s a hard go.  He’s obsessed with his work and she places a distant second.  It was sad to see the distance between, a buffer so obvious in many couples.

Alma isn’t allowed to be herself.  Breakfast for Reynolds needs to be a quiet time, and Alma’s noisy buttering of toast and dripping of orange juice into glass just won’t do.  The household of family and employees jump to his every whim, and Alma needs to follow suit.

Reynolds is “obsessed with perfection” and Alma finally has had enough.  She poisons him with a toxic mushroom – not enough to kill him but plenty to make him sweat and shake.  It feels like Alma wounds him so she can nurse him back to health, on her own, without a roomful of design associates in the scene.  Through all his insensitivities, she loves the man.

This is messy love … two human beings with flaws and spites.  Not a saint to be seen, but a tenderness hiding under the gowns and dress shirts.  Hey, there’s hope for all of us imperfect ones, hope for connection with the beloved.

***

After a suitable interlude, which I spent reflecting on life and the bliss of popcorn, along came Darkest Hour.  This is the story of Winston Churchill at the height of Hitler’s power, when it looked like Great Britain was about to be invaded.  Three hundred thousand British soldiers were near Dunkirk in France, with the massive German army closing in.  Churchill asked his cabinet what the plan was for rescuing these men.  The response?  “There is no plan.”  So Churchill came up with one – recruiting the pleasure boats of countless British citizens to pluck the soldiers from Dunkirk’s beaches.  And it worked.

I watched the agony of the man as he struggled with how to serve his people.  His colleagues pushed for peace talks with Hitler, and threatened a vote of non-confidence if he refused.  But Churchill knew in his heart that the end result would be the swastika flying over Buckingham Palace.

To see the courage of the man was inspiring.  He seemed alone in his resolve to fight, save for his wife and secretary.  He was called “delusional” and seen to be sacrificing the lives of 4,000 soldiers at Calais.  How to be yourself, and true to your beliefs, when the world was collapsing around him.  Oh to have such steadfastness.  When his commitment started to flag, Churchill fled his home on Downing Street, snuck into the underground, asked a passenger for directions to the station nearest to Parliament, and got onto the subway.

Churchill then asked his travelling companions what the country should do.  “Fight!”  What about entering into peace negotiations with Hitler?  “Never!”  The Prime Minister then got off at the appropriate station, marched into the government building, and hours later addressed Parliament:

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.  We shall go on to the end.  We shall fight in France.  We shall fight on the seas and oceans.  We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air.  We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.  We shall fight on the beaches.  We shall fight on the landing grounds.  We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.  We shall fight in the hills.  We shall never surrender.”

Oh my.  I was stunned silent to hear his words.  And to think what hung in the balance if Churchill chose to flag or fail.

***

Cinema as an eye opener
Twice in one day

How shall I lead my life?
Will love and courage lead my way?
They must

Senegal

I was sitting on a bench on the Alberta prairie in July, 2017, admiring the mountains to the west.  I was alone, and very much looking forward to the sunset.  Along come four hikers.  We smile.  We say hi.  They sit down.  Turns out that they’re all from Belgium and are revelling in the grandeur of the Rockies.  One couple says nearly nothing.  The other one enjoy chatting with this Canadian guy.

After awhile, the folks head on up the trail, showering me with friendly goodbyes.  A half hour later, I set off too, having immersed myself in oranges and pinks.  The trail enters some trees.  Soon I’m back in the wide open spaces.  I look ahead and there’s another bench in the distance.  Two people are sitting there.  After a bit, I can make out my talkative new friends.  “They’re waiting for me.”  And indeed they were.

Lydia and Jo welcomed me to the new bench and we start talking about life in all its beauty and disappointment.  They tell me that they have about 20 foster children … in Senegal.  Lydia whips out her phone and shows me smiling photos and videos.  Those kids are so alive, so real.  I’m loving this.

Maybe an hour later, Lydia has something to say:

“Bruce, we go every Christmas to see our kids for two weeks.  Would you like to join us sometime?”

Oh my.  Did she just say that?  My small mind goes off into small thoughts.  “But we just met.”  “I can’t afford that.”  “I like being home for Christmas.”

Happily, my big mind held sway.  “Yes, I’ll go with you to Africa to meet your children … in December, 2018.”

Too soon, we were saying goodbye.  Lance’s family and I were heading off in the morning.  I hugged Lydia and Jo and it felt right.

Back home in Ontario, I had lots of thinking to do.  “I said yes.  I really did.”  Well, not knowing how many years I have left on the planet, isn’t it about time that I stretch my wings?  Yes it is.  I wondered if my Belgian friends thought I’d really follow through.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that Jo and Lydia and I and a few other fine people are flying from Brussels to Dakar on December 23, returning to Belgium on January 4.  Although I haven’t arranged my flight to Brussels yet, I intend to spend a week visiting my friends and seeing the sights before we fly to the kids.

This is real
I’ve never been to Europe
I’ve never been to Africa
This is real

Look at me now, a world traveller.  Also a lover of humankind in all its diversity.  Belmont is so cool.  I’m sure the rest of the world is too.  As Cat Stevens was fond of saying:

Well I left my happy home
To see what I could find out
I left my folk and friends
With the aim to clear my mind out
Well I hit the rowdy road
And many kinds I met there
And many stories told me on the way to get there
So on and on I go, the seconds tick the time out
So much left to know, and I’m on the road to find out

Thank you, Mr. Cat

On and On and On

I sat down to meditate this afternoon.  In my meditation chair in my bedroom.  And opened my eyes again two hours and fifty minutes later.  I’d never experienced anything like it.

Within a few minutes (I guess), everything stopped.  My head dropped.  I was fully aware but there was this huge space inside my head.  Thoughts would occasionally come but they had no power.  All was quiet.

Sometimes I had the thought “I should stop.”  But why?  I was in my comfy chair.  No back pain.  Slumping into a deep silence.  Keep going.  Keep letting it unfold.

Two hours later, I had to pee, and the feeling built.  Eventually I gave in and opened my eyes.  Almost three hours.

How long could I have gone on?  I don’t know.  With pre-urination, I suppose it could have been hours more.

Everything was so quiet.  I heard the snowplow outside, dealing with the winter dump of snow.  The furnace came on.  Nothing was important.  Time stretched on effortlessly.

Sometimes there were words.  “Love.”  And that brought a little smile to my face.  “I am free.”  And the head bowed again.  The sweetest times were when I was in love with people.  Less so when I felt into my ease.  But all of it was fine.

This is a very long time.  No tension.  Just floating.  “Please don’t have this end” sat beside “It’s perfectly fine when this ends.”  They were friends.

It’s by grace that all this came upon me.  Will it ever come back again, to the tune of 2:50?  Maybe not.  But what a blessing for a Friday afternoon.  Thank you, o mysterious powers of the universe.

Space

I’ve long been a fan of Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut.  He took his guitar onto the space station and favoured the world with a soulful rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

I was just listening to a program on CBC Radio.  Nicole Stott, a retired astronaut, was talking about space.  She thinks that most of her fellow space travellers have a spiritual life.  Something about seeing our little blue marble from the window of a spaceship.  One astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, had a spiritual epiphany while flying back to Earth.  As Nicole says, perhaps we should invite our political leaders to a space station vacation and see if a change in perspective rears its lovely head.

A few days ago, a Grade 6 girl, knowing of my reverence for Mr. Hadfield, lent me a book of his space photos.  Such lovely images and such a lovely thing to do.

Something spacious is calling me and Chris seems to be an instrument of my freedom.  There’s a loosening inside me, some epiphany of my own on the way.  I’ll look out into the vastness and may be very surprised by what I see.

A walk beyond my personal ship beckons.

You Are Free

It feels like I wrote about this same topic a few weeks ago.  My yappy voice says that therefore I shouldn’t repeat myself.  But I don’t care.  I was walking home from breakfast at the Belmont Diner today when this thought once more exploded in my brain:

It doesn’t matter what comes back to you in life
All that matters is what you put out there

It feels like a cozy new age message but no, it’s a world beyond that.  As I sauntered down the snowy sidewalk, joy wrapped itself around.  “It doesn’t matter.”  The pains will continue when they do.  The sadness, the fear, the loneliness will still come calling.  And none of that directs me.  Waves of energy roamed behind my eyes on Main Street and fell down my face.  “You are free,” spoke the quietness inside.

“No, I’m not free.  That’s ridiculous”

You are free”

“No.  I’m bound by self-esteem issues”

“You are free”

“No.  I’m bound by what other people say and do”

You are free”

“No.  I’m bound by what my body chooses to do”

You are free”

“No”

“Yes”

***

I’m sitting on my couch, thinking about going to yoga class tonight.  The mouth tightens.

“I’m so inflexible … can’t get my knees anywhere near the floor”

You are free”

“You’re not strong enough to do most of these poses”

You are free”

“You can’t even balance on one leg”

You are free”

“Your fellow yogists see your flaws, and are critical”

You are free”

***

“And about that bike ride of yours this summer … you suck”

You are free”

“You don’t even have the balance to get your water bottle out of its cage”

You are free”

“Too old, too weak, too far”

You are free”

***

“You’re alone in life”

You are free”

“You’ll never be in a committed relationship again”

You are free”

“You’ll never have sex again”

You are free”

***

Quite a persistent voice, wouldn’t you say?
Perhaps I should listen