Wandering Down the Valley

It’s been awhile since I’ve walked the Humber River Valley in Toronto from Lawrence Avenue to Bloor Street. Today was the day.

I bundled up (Is that a Canadianism?) and headed down the path. My feet remembered the steps from months and years ago.

As I passed through the underpass below Lawrence, towers appeared on the left. Actually they were twin basketball hoops, ones that I knew. Last August, my Belgian friends Olivia and Baziel came across the water for a visit. They’re basketball fanatics and we spent many an evening hour on this court, with the kids being welcomed by TO ballers. This afternoon all was empty and cool on the cement. Young ghosts still dribbled and deked and launched three-point shots. I smiled.

There was ice on the edge of the river and ducks riding the current. There were trails across grass that had lost its green. Stuck amid the leaves, bushes and trees was garbage. Plastic and styrofoam and glass and metal dotted the land. Some would call this disgusting but my time in Senegal lent perspective. There you throw stuff away when you’re done with it. Ecology hasn’t caught up with the warmth of the people.

At Eglinton Avenue and Scarlett Road, I came upon a familiar sight: Bevo Espresso and Gelato. It was time for warmth and a cappuccino. I sat with the frothy one and thought about … tennis. I’m enthralled with the current tournament – the Australian Open. On my trusty phone, I discovered a story about Rafa Nadal, the immense Spanish champion.

Rafa had launched a wild shot that smacked into a ball girl’s head. He rushed over, clearly distraught. He lifted her cap to see if there was a welt, and then planted a kiss on her cheek. She smiled … so widely. It was an immensely tender moment and I got to be with them both in a coffee shop.

Onward down the valley. Around more turns of the Humber, tennis came to me again. The Edenbridge Tennis Club was alone in the grass, devoid of nets and people. But the thrill of the match remained, even a white umpire’s chair where someone makes the tough calls. I could feel the summer energy washing over the three courts.

An hour later, here I am in the Home Smith Bar of The Old Mill, a sweet hotel of wood and stone. A glass of Riesling sits before me and the thumbs are happily tapping away. Voices are all around, many no doubt eager to hear the jazz musician who right now is bringing his instruments into the lounge.

I won’t be staying. I’m drawn to the Toronto Raptors on the big screen at Boston Pizza, many miles away. The jazz player and I laugh together. “I’m happiest when I’m making music.” Yes. May we all be the happiest.

On I go.


I pulled into the school’s parking lot this afternoon just before the bell rang to end lunch recess.  There’s a metal gate that separates cars from children.  Gathering my stuff, I slid out of Ruby and started for the office.

And then I looked to my right.  Six or seven Grade 5 and 6 kids were leaning over the gate towards me.  One girl yelled out something like “I know who you are!”  She meant that I was Bruce Kerr but in a deeper way these young ones do “get” me.  They know I love them. They know I challenge them to be full human beings.  They know I make them laugh.

I walked up to the throng and tried to absorb all the words that were flying my way.  Apparently a professional wrestler had been speaking at this morning’s assembly and the general consensus was that he was totally cool.  As the collective babbling reached a crescendo, I understood: They wanted to hang out with me.  They wanted me to know what they were thinking and feeling.  The lean was real.

After signing in at the office, I headed to the classroom.  Silent reading held sway for the first fifteen minutes.  I sat in a chair at the edge of the carpet and pulled up The Last Leopard on my phone, the closest kids only a few inches away.  Jeremy remarked that I had quite a crew around me.  He was right.  Children often come close.

Towards the end of the day, I put on my coat and told the students that I was heading to Toronto for a few days, especially to hear a marvelous choir from Los Angeles on Saturday evening.  One boy asked me whom I was going with.  “Me.”  A girl said “Take me.”  And then a young guy said the same.  Somehow I don’t think parents would be too interested in that prospect.


So what do I make of all this?  Humbly, I know that I impact many children.  I wish I had grandkids of my own.  But I don’t.  What’s left for me are the hours at school, in which there are minutes of connection between 11-year-olds and a 71-year-old.

What a blessing to reach young souls
What a blessing to contribute to the lives of others
What a blessing to walk the paths of the planet … with you

The Mall

I had to buy five greeting cards today.  I knew that Carlton Cards was in White Oaks Mall  so I headed there.  As I pulled into the parking lot, I realized I hadn’t been in a mall for months.  Jody and I used to go often but that time is no more.

I entered by way of the east entrance, as I had done a hundred times before.  Inside though, I began to feel strange. The t-shirt-making shop that I had used to create unique messages on my chest was empty. The folding transparent door stood like a guardian before the empty space within.  I remembered standing at that counter, now lost in a sea of bare floor.

I knew that the card shop was at the far end of the mall. “I’ll just walk through the food court like I always do.”  As I moseyed between the tables packed with eaters, I glanced at all the mini-stores on the edges. There was Taco Bell, Manchu Wok and New York Fries. Cloudy sky bathed us through the skylight.  Strangely, it felt surreal, almost a “Where am I?” feeling.  This conglomeration of commercialism would be so foreign in Senegal, even though perfectly normal here.

But it’s more than that.  My life just doesn’t include malls anymore. Yes, I went to Best Buy last week and bought a TV but all these stores crammed together in White Oaks seemed like a foreign country.  I’m certainly not a “better” person, but I am different from the fellow who five years ago strolled through malls as a form of entertainment.

I passed by well known brands:

The Body Shop with its infinity of fragrances
Cinnabon, home to the aroma of cinnamon buns hanging in the air
Walmart … where you can get almost everything you want
Tip Top Tailors and its racks of dark suits that I haven’t worn in twenty years
La Senza, with all the fancy bras and panties that a woman could ever desire
Yankee Candle. A whole store about candles?

This stuff isn’t a bad thing. I simply bought a TV rather than a suit. But it’s disorienting to me right now to walk amid the world of “more, better and different”.  It’s a bit of a mystery … what kind of person I’ve let go of, and who I’ve become.

Math Life

The classroom day usually starts with Math. This morning Jeremy put a question up on the SmartBoard. Two graphs displayed the same data about bread: the average price of a loaf each year for five years. On the top was a bar graph. Below was a line graph. After looking at the image for a few seconds, I realized there was something very important here. The bar graph suggested there had been a moderate price increase (the bars gradually rising to the right) while the line on the line graph zoomed upwards.

But it was the same data!

Look at the scales used on the left side of each graph. The top one starts at zero and climbs in increments of fifty cents. The bottom one starts at $1.40 and climbs in increments of ten cents. There’s a little squiggle at the bottom left to show that there’s a whole bunch of information left out: from zero all the way up to $1.40. If you don’t start at zero, the climbing line appears to rise more steeply that it actually does!

Woh … there’s a lesson about life in here, not just about Math. The kids need to get this. They need to become adults who are intelligent analysts of information. What we were all looking at on the screen was how to manipulate data – how to manipulate people. If these two graphs were about crime rates rather than bread, an opposition politician could point to the bottom one and say “See? Crime is totally out of control under this government’s watch!”

As the lesson moved on to the next question, I looked over the sea of young faces. Had they heard me? Had they seen that you can’t always believe everything you read or hear or view? I pray that the answers are “Yes”.

No future bamboozling
No unexamined equating of power with integrity
No acceptance of meanness and “othering”

And if so …

No worries about passing the torch to the next generation


Have you ever hurt someone with absolutely no intention of doing so? I sure have. I simply lacked knowledge, and sometimes asked the person a question which revealed that fact – a question that I intended to be a contribution.

Over and over, in many situations that I’ve misinterpreted, I tried to understand that my intention was good. I would never knowingly try to damage another being. Sometimes it’s been a hard sell to convince myself.

Many decades ago, I was talking to a teenaged Asian student. We were making meaning together until I asked him a question about a country – perhaps Korea or Japan. He stared at me, with what felt like a mixture of anger and sadness. “I am aboriginal … a Blood from Stand Off.” His words hung in the air as I slowly died inside.

Three years ago, at the beginning of my first year of volunteering in a Grade 6 class, I was walking around from desk to desk, seeing if I could be of help. A girl with glasses and shoulder-length brown hair was struggling with a Math problem. I did an internal search for her name and happily remembered it: “Jessie, let’s figure out what the question is really asking.” (Pause from the other human)  “My name is Ben.” Oh, the assumptions that Bruces can make in the world!

This year’s group is a split Grade 5/6. Today Jeremy, the teacher, asked me to hand out assignment sheets to the kids – certain pages for each grade. I looked over the span of children before me and realized that the 5’s and 6’s were mixed in together. For several of the kids, I didn’t know what grade they were in. (Sigh) Twice I approached boys who I thought were in Grade 5, but I was wrong. I tried not to look very deeply into their eyes.

So … life is full of mistakes and I’ve participated fully
It’s humbling to be wrong
It’s reassuring to know that I intend to do no harm
And still it hurts

A Natural Woman

Weeks ago, in Senegal, I think I wrote about Aretha Franklin. And now I feel like doing it again. My little voice says “Don’t repeat yourself” but it’s being drowned out by the call of the Motown Queen, and someone else. Good. Little voices should be ignored.

My friend Jo and I had lots of conversations in Africa. One was about the magnificence of Aretha. He pulled up a YouTube video that brought tears to both of our eyes. It was 2015 and Carole King was being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. Carole was in the front row of the balcony, sitting beside Michelle and Barack Obama. It seemed to be a surprise for everyone when the MC announced “Aretha Franklin!” and the curtains parted. The lady of the moment moved right over to the piano and started in on You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.

As brilliant as the songstress was, the true joy for me was watching Carole in the balcony. She co-wrote the song. As the first chords came through, Carole’s face exploded in joy. Later she clasped her hands to her head in astonishment. As Aretha hit the wailing high notes, Carole stretched out her hands to her as the Obamas fought back tears.

I watched the video four times today. Carole was so pure in her joy and love, so wide-eyed in embracing this astonishing moment in the world’s musical life. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It is so dearly what the world needs.

I’m so glad I was there … and can go back whenever I want for a renewal of life.

Different … New

We human beings are quite different from each other. We each have a tone – an aura – that is unique in the world. Fingerprints, voice, the look in the eyes. Unrepeatable within the family of homo sapiens. But do I really get this when I see you on the street?

“Here’s Mary. She’s one of a kind on this planet.”

Usually not. It’s more like “Here’s a 40-year-old woman who probably buys clothes at White Oaks Mall, likes coffee and has an outgoing personality. She’s somewhat like other women I know.”

Not only is Mary immensely particular, she doesn’t remain the same version of Mary moment to moment. And it’s not just that she’s happy one day and sad the next. The truth is that the woman standing before me is a fresh being on planet Earth, someone who continually emerges newly. I really can’t say “I know Mary” because she rolls within the mystery of “newing” herself.


What if I put an exclamation mark behind your name when we see each other? Actually, why don’t you try it now? Look in the mirror and say your name with a gasp of astonishment. Feels pretty good when I say “Bruce!”

Here are some faces. Perhaps they’ll inspire an exclamation mark or two. We all deserve a reaction of wide eyes and a little “O!” of the mouth.


Weeks ago I was visiting friends in Belgium. We decided to watch a movie in the family room, loafing on a bed-like couch. On came the film and open came my eyes. The clarity of the picture was stunning – all the details of faces and architecture were so clear. I just stared. My TV at home was a fuzz ball in comparison. Lydia didn’t think theirs was anything special but I sure did.

Okay … now why? What’s the big deal about sharpness of picture? Is it just so I can brag about having the best TV? No, no … it’s not a status thing for me.

Actually, why worry about the quality of TV reception anyway? Aren’t there countless other ways I could spend my time, ways that would be more life enhancing than watching some comedy show? Certainly. There’s a 1-1 conversation about what’s important in life. There’s a meditation session. There’s a walk in the woods.

While we’re at it, we can compare two paintings of a person: one is totally realistic, looking virtually like a photograph, while the other uses broad brush strokes to catch the character of the face. Surely there’s a place for artistic interpretation. And surely this can apply to TV as well – softness, blending, a pastel feeling … all can communicate beauty.

Yes to all of this. And yet I’m drawn to the crystal clearness that stood in that Nukerke family room.

Now it’s today, and I’m watching the Australian Open tennis tournament on TV. On my new LG OLED hi-def TV as a matter of fact. Belgium – meet Canada. Things have improved in my Belmont living room. I’m following the crispness of the tennis rallies with pleasure. But mostly I’m cherishing the close-ups of faces. Every little detail of skin and spirit is there. That’s what I want.

And what wonders await when I buy a subscription to the 4K movies and nature shows on Netflix? This consumer is about to find out.

Improvising Life

On the plane from San Francisco to Toronto last Friday, I thought about folk music. I thought about Acoustic Spotlight concerts at the home of Christine and John in London. Last night I showed up.

It’s cozy in the living room – long and narrow, full of couches and chairs. I was back home again.

A gentleman came to the front with his fiddle, ready to play a mini-set with Jake Levesque on the keyboard. Martin Horak is a jolly soul with a bend to the unrehearsed. He wanted to see what two musicians could do within the mystery of improvisation. No borders here. No set schedules. Instead a whole bunch of flow, weaving together a tapestry of notes.

Martin suggested that Jake play eight chords and that the violin would meander through the sequence with a mind of its own. I marvelled at the unknown tune which emerged … a fairyland of leaning into the next moment, again and again.

Next, Martin wanted Jake to create a melody from the wisdom of his fingers, and the fiddle would respond into the spaces with harmonies and counterpoint. As they put fingers to key and string, I didn’t know what was happening in the blending: “Who is leading and who is following?” It didn’t matter. The swaying of two human beings into the composition being composed was all right by me. Clouds parted and the shining illuminated us all.

One more time, with Jake playing increasingly minor and weird chords and Martin leaning into the disharmony with tender bowstrokes. What was going on in his mind as he was taken to fields afar? I’ll never know. What was clear was the union of the two players as they ventured forth into the land of audience cringing, and then took us out the other side.

Should a musical piece resolve at the end with a major chord?
Should poetry rhyme the second and fourth lines?
Should I contain myself within convention?

Or … not?

Reading to the Kids

Before I left for Senegal six weeks ago, I asked “Jeremy”, the Grade 5/6 teacher, if I could read to the kids when I came back. I love novels and all the characters, and changing my voice to suit each of them.

During silent reading time in class, I had roamed through the world of 11-year-old Martine Allen in Dolphin’s Song. What an adventure! I eventually figured out that this was the second book in a series about Martine and her friends. In Senegal, I downloaded the first book onto my phone and sped through it. The White Giraffe is aimed at kids but this loosey goosey adult was entranced by the action, the decisions the children made, and the ups and downs of relationship.

Yesterday Jeremy said yes to a young girl and an impossibly tall mammal. “Why not this afternoon, Bruce?” I glowed.

And so we began. I told the kids to put their lives between the pages. Are you like Martine, or Ben? Maybe not. What would you have done or said when X happened? Many of the young ones leaned forward, ready for an engrossing tale.

Lauren St. John knows how to grab her readers’ attention. How about this on page one?

The night Martine Allen turned eleven years old was the night her life changed absolutely, totally and completely and was never the same again.

Okay, Lauren. You’ve got me.

Martine was home in bed, dreaming:

It was a wild goose with a broken wing. But instead of helping it, some of the children began tormenting it. Martine, who could never bear to see any creature hurt, tried to stop them, but in the dream they turned on her instead. Next thing she knew she was on the ground crying and the injured bird was in her arms. Then something very peculiar happened. Her hands, holding the wild goose, heated up to the point where they were practically glowing and electricity crackled through her … Suddenly, the bird stirred. Martine opened her palms and it shook out its wings and flew into the violet sky.

Do dreams come true? Does this girl have the gift of healing? How can I possibly resist this story?

Our soon-to-be heroine was home in England. And the house was on fire! Lauren places us Canadians inside that choking bedroom:

Martine stood paralysed with terror. Far below her, the snow glinted mockingly in the darkness. Behind her, the room was filling with smoke and fumes and the fire was roaring like a factory furnace.

The snow was mocking Martine. Oh … what exquisite writing!

An ordinary writer might have said “Martine started crying.” But there’s no ordinary here:

Martine’s eyes streamed.

Even with all the panic, The White Giraffe isn’t emerging as a one-dimensional story about preteens. There’s already plenty to chew on about loving and being loved:

And Martine had smiled at him and thought how lovely her parents were even if they were sometimes a little weird.

Lauren has me. I hope she and I already have the kids. There are worlds to explore together.