The Cello

In my work with the Evolutionary Collective, I use the timer on my phone a lot.  When we’re done a practice, here comes the sweet melody of a cello, soaring in the air.  Samsung says it’s called “Schumann Fantasy”.  It brings me back.

I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  How I was picked at age 11 for semi-private, after school lessons was beyond me.  Our teacher was Mr. Sturm.  He played cello in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!  I felt so important.  Each Friday after school, four of us were passengers in Mr. Sturm’s car as we headed downtown to some rehearsal space.  I remember gawking out the back window, making faces at the driver behind.

Over the years, I came to love my instrument (which really wasn’t mine).  I loved the whole idea of “orchestra”, which I discovered in Grade 9 on entering high school.  At Lawrence Park Collegiate, there were about 80 of us string, brass and woodwind players recreating symphonies from Mozart and Dvorak.  I had tried out for the football team, and flopped.  Playing in the orchestra gave me the family feeling I wanted.  I was often in awe as I gazed at all those musicians giving their all during a piece, while I diligently played my part.

In Grade 11, I was selected to be a member of Toronto’s All-City Orchestra, composed of the best players from local high schools.  I still remember our concert on Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s shining New City Hall.  I was near the front of the cellos and watched the wavering path of Sir Ernest MacMillan as he walked to the podium.  At age 72, he led us in a rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory”, a stirring melody accompanied by rich harmonies.  He died eight years later.

Summer, 1967.  In the fall, I would be heading to the University of Toronto.  There was the question of whether to audition for U of T’s orchestra.  My response to this possibility still saddens me:

I’m not good enough

Just like that, my cello life ended.

Over the decades, I’ve thought of resurrecting my playing.  The cello has deep, rich tones.  In the hands of a virtuoso, such as Yo Yo Ma, it sings.  Just listen to him play The Swan.  I, Bruce Kerr, could make beautiful music again.  Nowhere near professional, but nearby London has a community orchestra which no doubt will return after Covid is done.

I feel the spark.  I feel my youth.  I feel the camaraderie of the Lawrence Park Orchestra.  Still, I think the answer is “no”.  I am plowing new fields.  I’m hearing the melodies of the human spirit, and playing in that collective.  What was important to that teenaged musician was to express beauty with my fingers and bow.  What’s important to this gently aging fellow is to do the same with my eyes and heart.

Play on …

 

Walking With The Message

There’s a hallway downstairs leading to the spare bedroom. I don’t spend much time there … and I miss things.

Four years ago my friend Jane, who’s an interior designer, helped me “stage” my home in Union, Ontario for sale. Then she came up with cool ideas for my new home in Belmont. One day she walked in with the mounted poster you see here.

It’s time to pause and look, to really see the details of my life. If I don’t stop in the hall – usually a brisk walk between A and B – I lose. The “getting to” dwarfs the “being with”.

So lookie, lookie! What do we have here? I’ve always loved the power of a single word to inspire. How about nouns, for instance?

Voice
Heart
Life
Person
Adventure
Journey
Anything
Potential

Nouns are certainly cool, if a mite static. We need to colour our nouny friends with broad brushstrokes to bring them alive. Consider the adjective:

Bold
Brave
Strong
Possible
Best

Don’t they just make you want to sing? But life doesn’t stop there. Actually life is a continual going … a flow:

Listen
Live
Imagine
Be
Embrace
Make It Happen

And the next time I’m flowing down the hall, I’ll linger to drink in the words of another … which, if I’m patient, can become my own.

Love Them All

Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos On The Heart, is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.  He has worked with gang kids for thirty years.  Many of the teens don’t have a family or a safe place to live, so they join a gang.  This story from Greg says it all:

I always bring a couple of homeys with me to talk, and they get up and they tell their story.  We were taking a long flight and I took a couple of homeys from different gangs.  I like to mix them up.  One of them worked at the bakery and the other worked in the store where they sell Homeboy stuff.  They had never flown.  They were terrified.  We’re looking out the window and two of the flight attendants were going up the steps with cups of Starbucks coffee and I said “Well, pretty soon it must be time to take off because they’re trying to sober up the pilot.”  I know that wasn’t fair to say to these guys but anyway they get on the plane. You gotta mess with them sometime.

We get there.  It’s a thousand people (psychologists and social workers) in this major city.  “I want you to tell your stories first, and then I’ll talk about how I work.”  And so they get there, Mario and Bobby.  They were both nervous.  Their accounts moved people very deeply because their stories were filled with violence, abandonment, abuse, torture, homelessness of every kind.  Honest to God, if their stories had been flames, you’d have to keep your distance.  Otherwise you’d get scorched.

They spoke before me, and before I presented (because I wanted to include them ) I asked if anyone there had any questions for these guys.  A woman raised her hand.  She had a question for Mario, and he started to quake, like how do I do this?  “You’re a father … you’ve been at Homeboys for nine years.  Your son and daughter are starting to reach their teenage years.  What wisdom do you impart to them?  What advice do you give them?”

Mario was silent, and trembled and closed his eyes, and blurted out “I just …”  And he couldn’t say anything more for a long time.  Finally he looked at her as if pleading and said “I just don’t want my kids to turn out to be like me.”  His words felt squeezed out, and his sobbing was now more pronounced.

The woman was silent.  No one said anything.  She stood up again.  Now it was her turn to cry.  She pointed to him, and her voice, quite certain through her tears, said “Mario, why wouldn’t you want your kids to turn out to be like you?  You are gentle.  You are kind.  [He was known as being a gentleman at Homeboys]  You are loving.  You are wise.”  She planted herself firmly: “I hope your kids turn out like you.”  And there wasn’t much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood up and began to clap.  The ovation seemed to have no end.  All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.

Connected

The teacher handed me an outline of a human being on a sheet of paper and laid out the assignment. It was Fall, 2019 and I was volunteering in the Grade 5/6 class. I love it when I get to tackle the same task as the kids. I was to colour my human and include several words that were important to me. I watched as most kids launched into their work with gusto. I did the same.

I thought of the sports I loved: golf and tennis. Eighteen months later, tennis still shines but I’ve cancelled my subscription to Golf Channel. And my clubs sit lonely in the garage.

I thought of other activities that get my juices flowing: elliptical and meditation. Both are still alive in me. I love the swoosh of the arms and legs, and the stillness within my meditation chair.

I thought of the values I hold: love, connection and you. Yep … c’est moi! Put me in a cubicle, away from my fellow man and woman, and I would wither away. I look over there and I see your eyes, and what a delight to be in their presence.

I thought of my qualities: kind, peace and determination. I will give to you when you’re down. I am quiet inside. And then there’s the “I will do this!” part. I will never give up.

I thought of folk music … how I love the songs of the people, the stories of ordinary folks like us.

And then this other word came to me – hands. They’re such gracious instruments of blessing. They reach out. They touch.

My time on the planet showed its face as well: 70 and January 9, 1949. They’re well related. I’m happy to be this young.

Finally, two more words: Mr. Kerr.

***

Days later, the labours of all 24 of us were brought together in a magical way. My life, far longer than theirs so far, is no more special that those of the kids. Words spill out across the collage, revealing the truths of each of us … and all of us.

A few months ago, I had this glorious work of souls framed. It sits in my home, reminding me every day of what’s important.

Homesick

My first encounter with this word was when I was perhaps ten.  Mom and dad had sent me to a summer camp on the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe, north of my home in Toronto.  It was my first time away from them … and I was terrified.  I was basically scared of life and everyone in it.  That included adult leaders and other campers.  I didn’t know how to swim, I wasn’t any good at baseball and even a hike through the woods seemed dangerous.

There I was at night in a cabin, not at all snug in my bunk bed, surrounded by breathing boys.  They all seemed to be asleep, but I sure wasn’t.  I wanted my mom.  So I decided to go find her.  I whipped on my clothes, tiptoed across the floor and out of the cabin.  I walked to the beach.  I knew if I turned left at the shore, I’d end up in Toronto with my parents.

I don’t how many miles of Lake Simcoe shoreline I walked, but eventually adults with flashlights found me.  I was a mess, and I don’t remember what happened after that.

***

Many years later in Grade 12, I sat in the guidance counsellor’s office.  Grade 13 was next and it was expected that I’d go to university.  “You’re so good in Math, Bruce.  You should be an accountant.  The University of Toronto has an excellent Commerce and Finance program that will lead you to a fine career.”  As a teenager, my future penchant for independent thinking was in embryo: “Yes sir,” I replied.

So there was the academic year of 1967-1968, with me sitting amidst a bevy of eager commercial hopefuls.  While others no doubt dreamed of financial independence and a bungalow in the suburbs, I was a further mess.   Principles of economics, balance sheets and actuarial science.  I could become an actuary, living in luxury within a respected insurance company, using Math to assess various risks of insuring someone.  I remember something called “A double dot N” (two letters of the alphabet) but right now I have no idea what that means.

Sitting in lectures, or having lunch with my upwardly mobile classmates, I sensed the same sadness that I felt in that cabin.  “What am I doing here?  Can’t I just go home?”

***

Today I feel at home.  I have many friends who meet me in the eyes.  Together we discover the beauty of connection.  But there are no doubt millions of humans who feel solitary in a strange land:

Nobody really sees me … really sees who I am
I don’t make a difference to anyone
My best years are behind me
I’m in a party, surrounded by people talking, and I feel so alone
Nobody talks about their hopes and dreams, about what is truly important to them
My friends are full of opinions – about politics, sports teams, social problems
There’s all the stuff I need to do every day, and no time left for me
There’s all the people in my life that I need to be with, and no time left for me
Where are my true companions, those who will share the journey?
Where is a purpose that I can hang my hat on, and pursue with joy?
Where’s the juice?

***

We all need home

The Blessing

It’s a song written by Cody Carnes, Elevation Worship, and Kari Jobe.  In this video, it’s covered by Lara Landon.  “The Blessing” is presented in a Christian context and has no doubt tugged at the hearts of many followers of Jesus.  In contrast, I’m a Buddhist, and Lara’s rendition flows into me as well.

Look into Lara’s eyes.  I say the Divine is bursting out through them … to you and me.  Your eyes, too, can embrace those around you.  We gaze into … and linger there.  For you.

The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
Be gracious to you
The Lord turn His
Face toward you
And give you peace

Amen, amen, amen

The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
Be gracious to you
The Lord turn His
Face toward you
And give you peace

Amen, amen, amen
Amen, amen, amen

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children and their children
May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children and their children

May His presence go before you
And behind you and beside you
All around you and within you
He is with you, He is with you

In the morning, in the evening
In your coming and your going
In your weeping and rejoicing
He is for you, He is for you
He is for you, He is for you
He is for you, He is for you

He’s always on your side
You’re always on His mind
He is for you
He never will forsake
He never makes mistakes
He is for you
He is for you

Amen, amen, amen


Taken

Will you walk with me now to the far horizon?
Following the scent of a creature unknown
Will you gaze from on high to a vista sublime?
And feel other bones alongside your own

Is there a reason to venture far afield in the evening?
Is there a plan of your own mind’s creative aplomb?
Or is there launching of caution to the billowing wind?
And a glimpsing of what truly is home

It’s tempting for the journey to be a sole expedition
The lonely survivor of a world deemed unfair
Being right and strong and controlling the outcome
Who wouldn’t say yes to such a true dare?

Another voice waits in the depths of the canyon
“Just an echo of mine?” you casually ask
A nod says you’re sure there’s just one speaking
It’s crystal clear – your glorious task

But linger a bit, my friend of the journey
Pause with your basking in future applause
For there’s one, mostly hidden, curling his fingers toward you
Whispering a message of a far vaster cause

Walk through the canyon in the heat of the sun
Feel the eyes upon you, blessing your way
Revelation, exultation may be yours for the longing
Go on then to the shine of unknowable day

Listen

Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Someone does something which I call “strange”, such as dancing by himself in the broad expanse of a train station.  What song of freedom is blessing his sweeping arms?  What’s transparent to him that’s opaque to me?  Perhaps at this moment in my life, I don’t have the ears to hear the sweet melody.  And that’s okay.  I can still smile in the presence of a free human being.

Maybe, though, I won’t smile.  Maybe I’ll conclude that there’s a drunk in front of me, swirling and twirling just before stumbling to the floor.  A philosopher named Ken Wilber talked about the “pre/trans fallacy”, in which another’s behaviour appears to be deficient, even pathological.  But it may in fact be something above normal, something that reaches for the stars rather than puddling in the gutter.

Could it be that some of us see connections that are invisible to others?  See through a self-imposed roof to the glory of sunshine?  Say “What if?” and “Why not?” rather than languishing in “the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

I don’t want to “regress to the mean”, as in having my life get ever closer to the mediocrity – the vanilla – of “average”.  I want to fly across the dance floor, drinking in both the applause and frowns of onlookers.  I want to feel the praise and blame falling off me to the floor.  They’re both imposters after all.  I yearn for the real thing.

Withholding the Biggie

If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say?  And why are you waiting?

Stephen Levine

What does it mean to withhold something?  Tax people would say that it’s about “an employer deducting tax from an employee’s paycheque and sending it directly to the government”.  Sounds pretty straightforward and neutral.  Another meaning speaks of a “refusal to give something that is due”, such as not telling a police officer your name.  There’s definitely a problem with this one, but hopefully not earth-shattering.  A third definition talks about “suppressing an emotion or reaction”.  How about uttering “I’m fine” to a questioning friend when you’re feeling anything but?

I guess we can all live with these last two transgressions, although the dissonance between what’s true and what you say could wear on the soul over time.

There’s an elephant in the room, however, as in something huge and heavy.  Look at Stephen’s questions.  Whether it’s now or as your final breath approaches, what haven’t you said to the ones most dear?  It could be “I’m sorry that I didn’t stand up for you when that bully was having his way.”  Or … “I feel horrible that I laughed at you when you couldn’t keep to your diet.”  Or … “I gossiped about you when your marriage was falling apart.”  Or … “Last year, I stole money from your bedroom dresser when you were downstairs hosting a party.”

All of this is serious stuff.  If you’re about to die, it would help if you fessed up.  Actually, it would be a good thing even if you were going to remain healthy for many years.  However, there is something so important to say, that the saying of it has us soar with the eagles, and the not saying of it has us plummet like a stone.  Werner Erhard knew what must be said before we die:

When you’ve said all of the bad things and all of the good things you haven’t been saying, you will find that what you’ve really been withholding is “I love you.”

 

Till The Birdies Come




I was enjoying an afternoon meditation yesterday in my bedroom.  When it was done, I rang the singing bowl three times, as is the custom of many people before me.  I sat happy.  As I gazed out at the snow-filled field, I saw my young locust tree – 12-feet tall and branches bare.  I knew that just to the right of my view were two feeders – for nyjer seed and sunflower seed enthusiasts.  It was winter, it was cold and the birds were hungry.  I’ve seen as many as twenty sparrow-like birdies on the feeders and underneath them on the snow.  At the moment, none were in view.  It was 3:43 pm.

A plan hatched itself, accompanied by my fluid brain.  “I’m going to sit here until the birdies come, until at least one of them claims a perch on the locust.”  There was a twinge of discomfort, and I could feel my thoughts starting to churn.  “What if nobody comes?  Are you going to sit here all night?”  And up came the whole deal about giving my word.

I did a brief cost-benefit analysis of promising to stay in the chair until there was a bird.  The chances were really good, I felt, that a feathered one would show itself within ten minutes.  I was getting a bit hungry but I could shove that down for awhile.  “I can do this!”  And then I agreed to do so.

3:53

No one.

As the minutes unfurled, I looked out my window at the world.  The branches were quivering and fluffs of snow danced across the land.  There were breaks in the flurries of white and I was always glad when they’d begin again.  Way over there on Harrietsville Drive, cars and trucks went their way across my field of vision.  It reminded me of my childhood vacations on grandpa’s farm near Lindsay, Ontario, and the steam engine miles away pulling its cars every evening at the same time.  I loved the white billows seeking the sky.

4:16

“Where have all the birdies gone?  They need to eat before sleeping, don’t they?”  Perhaps not.

The tall trees across the field by the creek just stood there looking back at me.  Through the branches of one, I saw a distant red barn.  I wondered if that farmstead was full of sparrows.  “When you’re done there, come over here, please.”  But all remained still for the time being.  My stomach let its presence be known and my bladder chimed in with its own message.

4:48

Still alone.  I noticed the power pole on Harrietsville.  I’ve walked there, standing beside that pole and gazing back at my home.  Now I could almost see the tiny Bruce figure on the road.  

“This is really strange.  Why did I give my word?  I want to eat.”  And still I sat, feeling something far larger than my stomach.  This was a quest.  

Suddenly, large birds flew across the horizontal pane at the top of my window.  They were flying away from me.  Were they seagulls?  Whatever they were, I knew that even if I could coax them my way, they’d be too heavy to rest on the branches of my locust tree.

5:02

The nothingness fit right in with the softening of light towards sunset.  The less light, the less chance that birdies would come by.  I made an executive decision: I would stay in my chair until either a bird friend showed itself or I could no longer see the branches of the tree.  If I couldn’t see a bird arriving, why stay hungry, bursting and seated?

5:16

“I know!  I’ll meditate again to pass the birdless time.  Even though my eyes will be closed, I’ll be able to hear any nearby chirping.  I’ll flash my eyes open and see a feathered one sweetly atop a branch.”

5:53

My eyes opened, because I knew the meditation was complete.  No chirping had ensued.

“Keep busy,” someone said.  I reached over for the tube of lotion and smoothed the goo over my hardened heels.  That felt good.  I also knew that in the night table beside me there was a blood pressure monitor.  I’d promised my doctor to take regular readings, and now was as good a time as any.  I took ten readings over the next ten minutes.  My best score was 124/79.  Good enough.

6:20

I’d been sitting here for two-and-a-half hours.  (Sigh)  “What kind of fool am I?” I asked.  “My kind of fool, dear Bruce,” came the answer.

The sun had set at 6:00 but there was still plenty to light to show me the tree.  “Keep your word.”  Physical needs were advancing towards the red line as I stared at the branches, sadly still visible.

6:43

Three hours.  There was a vestige of tree but I realized that I couldn’t have identified any birdie there if there had been one.  “I declare myself done.”  I wondered if I was cheating but I decided I wasn’t.

Bathroom first, kitchen second.  

11:45

Time for bed.  In the darkness of my house, I sat in the meditation chair.  There was still the glost of a tree against the night sky but no possible sighting of a birdie.  I nodded in integrity and fell beneath the covers.