Extraordinary Ordinary Folks

I was walking down Weston Road in Toronto yesterday and told myself that I needed a hot dog. I didn’t, really. What I wanted was a visit with Rosina. She and her husband George own a tiny restaurant called God Blesses Canada. My history there has been yummy ice cream cones but my shivering bones weren’t up for that particular menu item. A hot dog would do nicely.

Rosina came out from behind the counter to greet me, and once I had unbundled from my winter togs, she gave me a big smile. How lovely to be remembered.

We must have talked for fifteen minutes before I got around to ordering anything. Rosina’s calm reminded me of the folks in Senegal, and I reminisced about their beauty. She was interested in my journey and was happy that I had been welcomed so.

“Any kidnapping of white folks in Senegal?” Ouch. “No, not at all.” > “It’s a big problem where I’m from – Nigeria. I don’t want to go back. Canada is home.”

Rosina told me about her mother. The family lived in the jungle. The women were naked. The men wore some large leaves around the middle to cover the naughty bits. When mom was 12, a man of maybe 25 returned to the home village from the big city, looking for a wife. He picked Rosina’s mother. It was arranged that the girl would live with him in the city. She and her grandma travelled there. The girl, and maybe both of them, entered the city with no clothes on. Can you imagine the trauma and disorientation for the child? The new husband swiftly found her some garments.

Rosina, like her mother, was deposited in an arranged and essentially loveless marriage. How very sad. Since then, Rosina escaped her husband, went to Canada, and fell in love with George. She’s a committed Christian and has served many homeless people in her coffee shops in Toronto and Keswick, Ontario. Rosina wants to adopt a child from Haiti and bring him or her to Canada.

I read a sign in the restaurant that talked about brutal conditions in Nigeria and how Rosina gives in Canada. I looked back at her and saw a glowing face, a kind person. Someone who undercharges me for a hot dog and bottle of water. Thank you, Rosina.

Next on my menu was the Weston Arena, built a very long time ago. It’s the home of hockey teams and a snack bar. I was hoping that the chuckly fellow I’d seen before would be serving up “The World’s Best Fries”. (Sorry, you Belgian readers) And there he was … chuckling.

I asked Wayne “Do you have any of those French fries that are second best in the world?”

“No! They’re the absolute best in the world.”

Okay, Wayne, okay. I’ll stop arguing the point. We continued to say silly things to each other. I sang a snippet from a song to Wayne’s admittedly grumpy co-worker. The guy stared. Wayne doubled over in laughter. I’d like to get to know this guy.

I entered the frozen arena with my world’s best and a Diet Coke. I could see my breath, and in the background were two teams of 12-year-olds – mostly boys and happily a few girls. They were skating like the wind and sometimes getting weak shots on net. It was so cool to see. What was uncool were the two male coaches. They took turns throwing around the F-word, aimed at the referee or an opposing player. What a contrast to Wayne and what dubious role models for all those young folks.

Think I’ll rest my brain cells in memories of Rosina and Wayne. Extraordinary.

Gord

I have musical heroes as no doubt you do. I saw Gordon Lightfoot in concert at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1972. He was 34. I was 23. He sang into my soul. My favourite song was Did She Mention My Name? And it still is.

It’s so nice to meet an old friend and pass the time of day
And talk about the hometown a million miles away
Is the ice still on the river? Are the old folks still the same?
And by the way, did she mention my name?

Did she mention my name just in passing?
And when the morning came
Do you remember if she dropped a name or two?
Is the home team still on fire? Do they still win all the games?
And by the way, did she mention my name?

Ahh, yes. I so much wanted to be loved. I so much wanted a love. And Gord spoke right to me of the longing.

Tonight I sit in Hugh’s Room in Toronto. It’s an intimate venue of folk music – the songs of the people. In an hour, musicians will step onto the stage for The Way We Feel: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. We’ll hear Gord’s songs, and if we’re lucky, the man himself will join us for a few tunes. To hear the singer-songwriter who’s sold out huge halls for sixty years in a room of 200 would be such a blessing.

I’ll be fine if Gord doesn’t show up but what a privilege if he does. Hugh’s Room has hosted these four tribute evenings in a row for fifteen years. Every time, Mr. Lightfoot has appeared a couple of times. Maybe this is my lucky night.

I want to applaud someone who has created such beauty. But really we all do that, in different ways. Perhaps I need to applaud all human beings. We all struggle. We all overcome. We all could have songs written about us.

It’s intermission now and Gord’s poetry has filled the room. Such as On a Winter’s Night with You:

The lamp is burnin’ low upon my table top
The snow is softly fallin’
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly callin’

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter’s night with you

Or how about the bittersweet Affair on Eighth Avenue?

And our fingers entwined like ribbons of light
And we came through a doorway somewhere in the night

Her long flowing hair came softly undone
And it lay all around
And she brushed it down as I stood by her side
In the warmth of her love

There have been seven or eight singers so far and what’s true, beyond their prime musicianship, is their love for Gord. I share that love. What gifts he’s given to folks eager to hear. Generations of Canadians and world citizens have been slowed and then stopped by his words of the heart:

Rain is falling on the meadow
Where once my love and I did lie
Now she is gone from the meadow
My love goodbye

Ribbon of darkness over me
Where once the world was young as spring
Where flowers did bloom and birds did sing
Ribbon of darkness over me

Here in this cold room lyin’
Don’t want to see no one but you
Lord I wish I could be dyin’
To forget you

Oh how I wish your heart could see
How mine just aches and breaks all day
Come on home and take away
This ribbon of darkness over me

The band is coming back to the stage. And my writing feels done for the day. I’ll tell you tomorrow if Gord came by to say hi.

***

Hello, everyone. It’s tomorrow. No Gord last night. (Sigh) But the singers and players onstage created miracles in song.

I can’t help it … I just have to share more lyrics with you:

Early Mornin’ Rain

In the early mornin’ rain
With a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart
And my pockets full of sand
I’m a long ways from home
And I miss my loved ones so
In the early mornin’ rain
With no place to go

***

Pussywillows, Cattails, Soft Winds and Roses

Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses
Rainbows in the woodland, water to my knees
Shivering, quivering, the warmth breath of spring
Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses

Catbirds and cornfields, daydreams together
Riding on the roadside, the dust gets in your eyes
Revelling, dishevelling, the summer nights can bring
Pussywillows, cattails, soft winds and roses

***

If You Could Read My Mind

I never knew I felt this way
And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it
I don’t know where we went wrong
But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back

If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like a oldtime movie about a ghost from a wishing well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
The story always ends
And if you read between the lines
You’ll know that I’m just trying to understand
The feeling that you left

***

The Long River

Where the long river flows
It flows by my window
Where the tall timber grows
It grows ’round my door
Where the mountains meet the sky
And the white clouds fly
Where the long river flows
By my window

There’s a tiny bird that calls
And he calls by my window
There’s a lonely tear that falls
And it falls ’round my door
But when the sun is high
There’s no time to cry
Where the long river flows
By my window

***

Oh, Gord … from where did your words come?
Thank you, dear sir, for shining a light on our lives

Kenosis

In Christian theology, kenosis is the self- emptying of Jesus’ own will and becoming entirely receptive to God’s divine will.

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Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us.  There is nothing to be renounced or resisted.  Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing.  You let it go.  You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing.  And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself.  That’s the kenotic path in a nutshell.  Very, very simple.  It only costs everything.

Cynthia Bourgeault

***

Alrighty then … I’ll just fall into a life of contribution with no thought for the reward, no need to achieve anything or to be adored.  “Just give, Bruce, moment after moment, until your breathing stops.  Have your life be a symphony, with all those marvelous folks flowing beside you, playing with you, creating magic together.”  And no need to have them live in your house, to be enclosed by the constraints of your mind.  Enjoy them, and let them go.  Over and over.

***

What am I willing to let float away?

Being in Senegal
Being loved by Ali and Mariama
Being loved by my Belgian friend Lydia
Being healthy
Being in the Evolutionary Collective
Living a long time
Listening to concerts from the front row
Eating pesto pasta
Volunteering with 11-year-olds
Watching Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again for the umpteenth time
Picking up garbage on my way to the Belmont Diner
Sitting at the counter or at “the women’s table” at the Diner
Travelling … anywhere
Making people laugh
Writing these blog posts
Having another life partner
Living past tomorrow

***

Quite the list of things to let go of
Quite the opportunity to give without restraint or expectation
Quite the smile on my face

The Man in the Arena

Today the kids in Grade 6 were at the Jaffa Environmental Education Centre for a day of wilderness structure-building, orienteering and fire-starting.  I wanted to see them again so I showed up in the afternoon.  Apart from my coughing, I had fun – it’s always great to talk to 11-year-olds.  A few kids hugged me.  One boy asked permission first and then came close.  Very sweet.

We headed back to the school in time to catch the buses home and that same boy came up to me with a gift-wrapped present.  Inside were yummy cookies and waffles plus a pair of cool blue socks, with little bow ties scattered on them.  The gem, though, was the card.

I had met the mom just before I left for Senegal, at the school’s Christmas concert.  We got talking.  I told her about my wife Jody and the book I’d written about her, and mom wanted a copy.  I got one from my car Scarlet and signed it for her.  Little did I know …

“Jenny” lost her dad six months ago and misses him so very much.  Jody’s book helped her heal.  Wow.  That makes me feel so good …to think that my dear wife contributes to others’ lives after her death.  Thank you, Jodiette.  You sure contributed to mine.

Jenny wrote: “You were part of my journey and choosing happy.”  Wow again.  Thank you, Jenny.

Towards the end of her card, Jenny mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech in 1910.  He’s a former President of the United States.  Here’s what he had to say:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

And then … “I think you’re an arena man too!”

When people praise me, I’ve learned to simply say “Thank you” from my heart.  I know that life is a mysterious mixture of praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that these experiences touch us all.  Attaching myself to praise doesn’t work.  Acknowledging my good points does.

I do believe that I am:

Actually in the arena
Marred by dust and sweat and blood
Someone who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again
Someone who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions
Someone who spends himself in a worthy cause

***

Does this make me better than anyone else?
No

On we go

The Gift of Illness

It’s a strange life, with the body sometimes just zipping along and at other times dragging its feet.  My feet are low right now and it’s such a opportunity to see what life is really all about.

What’s possible in the moment when you’re hurting physically?  To what extent can we move beyond the yuckiness to truly be with people?  These are good questions because I intend to contribute to my fellow travellers no matter what life is serving up.

I’ve discovered that I often cough when I’m moved by other folks, when I’m feeling love.  That started happening in Belgium when I was enjoying the presence of Lydia and Jo and their family and friends.  Then we went to Senegal and the openness of the people touched me deeply.  “I’m glad you’re here” came up to me again and again.

Other parts of Senegal were not so kind, especially to my lungs. Toubacouta is in a very dry area and the town has dirt streets.  Dust floated everywhere, including into me.

A lot of people moved about on motos – small motorcycles.  They not only stirred up the dust, their tailpipes spewed out exhuast fumes without any pollution controls.  I spent a lot of time on the back of a moto.  When we travelled on the highway, passing cars and trucks fed me more poisonous gas.

Finally, some folks near me smoked.  I often moved away when they were lighting up.

Given all these inputs, what to do?  Certainly not hide out in my room.  The beauty of the Senegalese people far outweighed my breathing problems.  I continued to interact with the kids and adults, to joy in their joy, to revel in a deep level of personal contact with each other.  And I’ll do exactly that when I come back in December.

In Senegal, I coughed a lot and Lydia worried about me.  Back home in Canada, the doctor says I have bronchitis and penicillin will fix me up fine over the next few days.

I got home last night and soon had a two-hour internet call with about forty members of the Evolutionary Collective.  This was a call we had all agreed to be on and there’s great power in keeping your word.  But the coughing was out of hand and I felt myself contract.  “These people shouldn’t be exposed to all this noise you’re making.”  Well, that is an opinion but it wasn’t going to hold sway with me.

Soon into the session, we were paired up.  “Jessica” spoke for the first five minutes.  I worked hard on suppressing the cough instead of totally being with her.  Then it was my turn.  Speak, cough, speak, cough … My eyes kept leaving Jessica’s, and then returning.  She just was with me, all of me.  I felt so naked and yet so loved.  Everything was fine, even my body’s loud reactions to congestion.  Thank you, Jessica.

Later seven of us did an exercise together.  Part of the experience was to have each person read the agreements we were entering into.  When it was my turn, I couldn’t get the words out so others took turns picking up the slack.  One more time I felt included.

Yes, these moments are gifts if I have the eyes to see.  And I intend to keep looking.

Jet Lag

I knew it would be a challenge – arriving in Toronto yesterday and feeling half-decent today. The advice that many people had given me was to stay up until a decent bedtime in the new location. Okay, I can do that.

We landed in Toronto around 3:30 pm yesterday new time (9:30 pm old time). I figured I needed to stay awake until 10:00 pm (4:00 am). Picking up my car and driving to Anne and Ihor’s was a piece of cake – an alert twenty-minute journey. This jet lag stuff was overrated.

My friends were all decked out in traditional Ukrainian clothing and were heading off to a Christmas Eve dinner. We said we’d talk later about Senegal and their recent trip to Cuba. I settled onto the couch and created the last blog post of my trip. It was both joyous and sad to tap out the words. I posted the journey’s end around 6:30, certainly tired but very pleased with myself. Todd, a longterm resident of the B&B, came to sit with me in the living room.

And then, slowly but surely, my world began to collapse. My head heavier, my eyes vacant, my confusion growing. At exactly eight o’clock, I swirled inside of “What’s this?” Of course I knew what it was, to the tune of six time zones. I sensed that it wasn’t as simple as saying it was now 2:00 am Belgian time. Some unknown but diabolical force was at work. I looked at the clock again. It was 8:07. “What? Seven minutes! How in the name of all that’s good and pure was I going to last till 10:00?”

Downward flowed the mind. I started babbling. My only strategy was to watch something exciting on TV – maybe a movie with lots of explosions and premature death. I usually hate that stuff but something had to be done to keep my eyes open.

The guide said that I could find Independence Day 2 on the telly. Perfect. Mayhem that I previously panned in the theatre. Basically, I started yelling at the screen, much, I suppose, to Todd’s amusement. But I didn’t really know. He was barely a blip on my radar screen. Anne and Ihor walked in and asked if I wanted to talk. I blurted out something to the tune of being totally incapable of such behaviour.

Some grotesque alien face was advancing on tiny humans. I have no idea what I said but I was sure giving him hell. And the commercials – some car was able to keep a good distance from other vehicles on the freeway without human intervention. I gave Toyota hell too, robbing me of my power to be.

I was incomprehensible. I was drooling. I was lost. Sure hope Todd didn’t make a video. 9:12. Forty-eight more agonizing minutes!

Somehow, by the grace of God, 10:00 pm eventually showed up in red. I grabbed the blanket I had wrapped myself in and stumbled upstairs. Just your basic local zombie.

Magically I fell asleep and stayed that way till 1:00. Then, for maybe two hours, I suffered through spiky wakefulness. Something evil kept poking me towards the abyss. Is this what my next few nights are going to be? Maybe I’ll just stay home from now on. I’ll try Belgium again next lifetime.

After countless fits and starts, I awoke again at 7:30. Now it’s 2:00 pm and I’m prepping for the drive to Belmont. Tired yes, zombie no.

May the force be with me.

Day Twenty-Three: To Toronto

It was a 6:00 am rising for the trip home. Lore and Baziel promised they’d get up at 7:00 to say goodbye. They kept their word. I hugged each of them and told them that I loved them. Such wonderful teenagers who will be great adults, ones with big hearts and huge contributions to make in our wide world. As we loaded the car, Baziel stood at the window for a few minutes, staying in touch.

Jo and Lydia drove me the hour to Brussels Airport. Sometimes she was sniffling in the front seat in the darkness.

We sat in a café having a coffee and croissant but the time was soon for parting. They walked me to the gate. Jo and I hugged and I told him that I loved him.

And then … Lydia. We turned to each other and started crying. We held each other with Jo smiling beside. She messed my hair and we said what was oh so very true.

As we walked in Belgium and Senegal, Lydia would often grab my arm. Sometimes it was her linked with Jo on one side and me on the other. A great joie de vivre as we strolled along.

If in August, 2017 on a hiking trail in Alberta Lydia Dutrieue hadn’t said “Would you like to come with us?” I wouldn’t be crying right now. I wouldn’t have held hands with Senegalese kids and kissed the cheeks of many adults. I wouldn’t now have Mareama and Youssoupha in my life. (I’ve been spelling his name wrong.) Thank you, Lydia, for moving right into my life and calling it home. You are my friend.

***

It’s four-and-a-half hours into the sky. I’ve had a delicious meal of penne pasta with a tomato sauce; a multi-flavoured salad full of greens, reds, little cheese balls and walnuts; a warm bun; an almond tart … and definitely the red wine. Wow. And that’s not even the best. I just finished watching Les Misérables for the first time. So much human communion there – love, sadness, loneliness, death – all wrapped in a blanket of song. Stunning.

***

I wonder what’s next in this life of mine. I know it’ll be about friends – in Belmont, in the Evolutionary Collective, in London, in Toronto and most definitely in Belgium and Senegal. I am blessed.

***

Okay, that was a very long flight. I am quite perfectly pooped and very glad to be staying with Anne and Ihor in Toronto tonight. I need to be good to myself and stay off the 401 in the dark when I’m this tired.

Belgium and Senegal were marvels in my world. I loved and was loved. Can you think of anything better? No, I can’t either. I’m going back in 2019 to both places … with bells on.

Thank you for sharing these twenty-three days with me. I’ve loved writing to you.

Day Twenty-Two: Belgium Briefly

As we collected our luggage in Brussels Airport, I knew a moment was coming. The family called Anja, Curd, Camille and Olivia would be taking a different van than us to get home. The same would be true of Lieselot.

I asked myself how I felt about these five folks whom I’d spent the last twelve days with. I had laughed with each of them. The truth was clear: I loved them.

Someone once said that the greatest “withhold” in life, what we avoid saying to another, is “I love you.” I’ve been in that place and it hurts not to be true to who I am. So … I said it to each of my friends. They all smiled as we hugged. Only one said “I love you” back to me. And that’s okay.

What’s supremely important to me is expressing – “energy out”. “Energy in” – what comes back to me – is marvelous to receive, but I don’t need it to be happy. I welcome love incoming when it happens. It’s a bonus. It’s not the essence of life.

***

After sleeping in to 11:00 am or so, I had a slow day at Lydia and Jo’s place. The big news is that after we four go to Italy for ten days in July, one kid from each family will fly with me to Canada for two weeks. It’s Baziel, Olivia and me! I get to be grandpa.

I’m thrilled that both teens are eager to explore some of Canada with me. I’ve threatened to focus on “old people stuff” but they’re too smart to believe me.

I’m looking forward to sitting in the Belmont Diner with Olivia and Baziel, at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. The regulars would love to chat with two kids from Belgium.

Then there are the grand events. Niagara Falls beckons. Plus Toronto. How about a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees? Baziel says he’s never watched baseball.

I was scouring the internet yesterday, searching for Toronto rock concerts in August. I found Iron Maiden, who the kids don’t know, but Olivia’s father Curd is a major fan. He’s wringing his hands because on August 9 Olivia will be rocking to their music while Curd consoles himself with an Omer beer in Belgium. Oh … the three of us will have fun doing this, that and the other thing in Canada!

I sat with Jo and Lydia in their living room last night. We took turns finding favourite YouTube songs for each other. Jo played some blues guitar. Lydia cuddled the family cat. We were together … in peace.

***

Now it’s today, and I’m about to get on an eight-hour flight from Amsterdam to Toronto. Stay tuned …

Day Twenty-One: Goodbye Senegal

Who would have thought it would be so hard? After all, it’s just another country, admittedly with astoundingly different landscapes, animals and architecture. I took lots of pictures of my surroundings so I’ll be able to remember the details of Senegal.

That’s all very fine but what of the people? They are the joy, with their smiles of welcome, their “Ça va?”s and their touches. When a child walks into a group situation, all but the youngest stroll around shaking hands. Women greet men and women with three kisses on the cheek – left right left or right left right. Take your pick. Be ready to immerse yourself in “I’m glad you’re here.” Have it be fine to touch and be touched, whether you’re with the young or old. Touching is a gift of communion. Only with your partner is it also about sex. I realize at home I can’t walk around the schoolyard holding hands with kids but it sure happens in Senegal.

This morning, as we prepared to get on the van for the four hour ride to Dakar, Ali, Aziz and Ansou – three brothers – were there to say goodbye. Ali and I took each other’s hands and looked into each other’s eyes for thirty seconds or so. Then we hugged, and I brushed the backs of my fingers against his cheek. “Je t’aime” were the words from me to him. His eyes said the same.

I had talked to a young woman named Nima over the last eleven days, and then this morning. She doesn’t know much English and I’m the same with French. Just before I took the step up into the van, we looked into each other … and waved. Time stood still.

On the surface of things, the Senegalese folks don’t have much. Everyone seems to own a cell phone but that’s one of their very few modern pleasures. But, oh, how rich the people are. You feel it.

Mother Teresa was speaking in the United States some years ago. Reporters were curious about the extent of poverty in India. She admitted that physical life was very hard for many residents. “But here in North America, you are truly impoverished.” Wanting in spirit, in “being with”, in caring.

I’m now on a plane from Lisbon, Portugal to Brussels, Belgium. The hot temperatures are long gone. Some of us are busy with our Smartphones, even though there is no internet connection. The meal, all nice and tidy in its plastic containers, was delicious. Something is missing, however. Perhaps it’s up to me to bring it to life.

On the previous leg, from Dakar to Lisbon, I sat beside a woman who was … “prickly”. She and her husband were returning from a group birdwatching tour in Senegal and Gambia. I asked her about the birds she most enjoyed but it soon became clear that she didn’t want to talk. It seemed that she wasn’t keen on talking to her husband either. As soon as the plane had come to a complete stop, she was out of her seat like a shot, getting her stuff from the overhead bin. No goodbye. And that’s okay. She has her life to lead.

But I miss Iced Tea, Fatou, Nano, Ja Ja, Bakary, Boundao and Mamadou. I’ve been spoiled.

Ahh … Senegal. What’s possible between you and me?

Day Twenty: The School

I’m a retired teacher and I wanted to see how it was for Senegalese kids in the classroom. Yesterday Lydia took us to see the local school for young children, up to age 6 or so. I had some interest in what the staff would be teaching but really all I wanted to do was hang out with the young ones.

The teacher was an absolutely glowing woman wearing a vibrant yellow dress. She didn’t need the dress to be a force of life.

The first group of kids was sitting under a tree. They looked long and long at my white skin and soon were replying in kind to my strange facial expressions. As I sat in a chair, I tried to hide behind the boy who was right in my face in the front row. I kept looking past his head – left, right and above – to make a little girl behind him laugh. Soon she was bobbing and weaving … hiding from me! I loved it.

Then I was ushered inside a large schoolhouse – one big classroom and two little ones. Heads jerked my way immediately. Inside one of the small rooms were the four-year-olds. First of all, they kept their distance but many eyes were locked onto mine. Soon kids inched forward as I made strange sounds which they tried to repeat. And then it was a free-for-all. Kids came at me from all directions, rubbing my face and arms, squeezing my cheeks and grabbing all ten digits. I thought one or more of them were going to break a finger. But then I breathed and let go into the scrum. Fear blew away and all there was was pressure. Oh my. A first-ever experience.

In the big room, some kids were at tables with what appeared to be colouring books in front of them. Actually the drawings were depicting health problems in Senegal, and seemed to be teaching empathy. Which student on this page is vomiting? Who on this page is sad?

In my hour or more at the school, I never saw a child printing letters with a pencil. Instead they would circle things.

Soon it was snack time, and I had a lineup of kids scrambling to have me open a plastic package or lid. I felt so important. Child after child wanted to touch me, and I believe to be touched by me. What a privilege to be in the middle of such energy. Delight flowed from kids to adult and right back again.

***

Later in the day, Eva wanted to deliver some clothes to the family compound which some of us visited a few days ago. This was where I saw children who didn’t go to school and who may never live beyond the homes where they were born. Eva, Mamadou, Yusefa and I were welcomed just as heartily as the group was before.

I saw the same teenaged girl, dressed in very dirty clothes and looking so sad. We were invited past the tablecloth which hung at the entrance to a house, and I held the cloth open, gesturing for her to enter before me. She gave me such a sweet smile, hesitated, and then went in. My heart was breaking for her. I pray that she’s not the victim of sexual abuse and that she has a friend somewhere near her age. Later Eva told me that she had brought some clothes for the girl. That made me happy.

***

A few hundred metres from where this family lives is the highway. Days ago, when our convoy of motos stopped there, I saw a group of kids behind a barbed wire fence and made sweeping arm gestures with them, pirouettes, funny faces … all of which they repeated. It was a lovely time of contact but I left without taking their picture. This time, I hoped to correct that problem.

And there they were! One young girl especially remembered me and soon she and her friends and I were kicking empty cans and jars around in a wild soccer game. I tried to be goalie with my legs spread wide. The young athletes scored on me every time, much to their delight (and mine). The parents were laughing at our antics and dad gave me a large bag of locally grown peanuts in thanks. Wow.

***

It was such a full day, especially in the realm of the heart. As I sat with Lydia and Jo somewhere in Toubacouta, I asked how I could help. Lydia replied that they have gathered about twenty children from different families. They challenge these kids to do well at school. If they do their best, Lydia and Jo arrange sponsors for them – monthly financial support for a long, long time.

She thought there were two kids who still needed help – a teenaged boy and a young girl. I said that I’d sponsor them both. Lydia said she’d check her paperwork back at the house to see if what she said was correct.

The actual situation turned out to be that it was two teenagers who needed assistance – a nineteen-year-old girl and a sixteen(?)-year-old boy. And I know them both: Mareama, who helped me get a pair of pantaloons made, and Yusefa, who drives me on the moto. Later, Lydia and Jo invited Mareama, Yusefa and me into their bedroom. Lydia explained to them in French that I wanted to help them out. Mareama started crying and Yusefa looked like he was close.

With Lydia translating, I said “I want to help you with money so you can do what you want to do in life. I will help you until I die, and I will put you in my will, so you’ll receive money for a long time after I’m gone.”

Lydia told me that it was very hard for Mareama to express her emotions. She wanted to hug me but … I said that Mareama didn’t have to do or say anything. She held onto Lydia and I touched her arm for awhile. It was love. Yusefa was quite happy to hug me.

In the evening, I was saying goodbye to many of the Senegalese folks because we were leaving early Friday morning. Mareama walked towards me on the path with her arms open wide. We held each other for a few seconds. My words to her were “Je t’aime.” And I do. For the first time in my life, I can say I’m a dad … of a boy and a girl.

Mareama’s birthday is January 9. So is mine. In five days, she’ll be 20. I’ll be 70. Fifty years. Seems perfect.