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.

You Must Unload

I was streaming home from my hair appointment, feeling several pounds lighter in the head.  As Southwestern Ontario moseyed by, I was remembering CBC Radio after having no radio in my life for six weeks.  This morning I was enjoying two hosts: Matt Galloway on The Current and Tom Power on Q.  Leading into a commercial break, one of the guys said “I’m going to play a song by Ry Cooder.  I’m not really sure why he wrote it.”

My new-to-me red car Ruby and I were getting reacquainted, and it took me a few seconds to grasp the lyrics.  When I did, they seeped inside easily.  The reference to “Christians” didn’t really hit home but the rest sure did:

Now you fashion-loving Christians sure give me the blues
You must unload, you must unload
You’ll never get to heaven in your jewel-encrusted high-heel shoes
You must, you must unload

And you power-loving Christians in your fancy dining cars
You must unload, you must unload
We see you drinking whiskey and smoking big cigars
You must, you must unload

For the way is straight and narrow and few are on the road
Brothers and sisters, there is no other hope
If you’d like to get to heaven and watch eternity unfold
You must, you must unload

Woh.  It’s not just hair that needs to be shorn once in awhile.  There is tightness in holding on to the image I’ve created for myself.  Bruce is this.  Bruce is not that.  There are “have tos” to the left and right, urging me down paths that are untrue to my essence.  There is owning this, learning that and including only certain other things.  There are cherished opinions, righteous indignation, and a Bruce-central approach to living.

Oh … there is much to unload so that I may watch eternity unfold.  And not only watch, but to fully participate in the revealing.

Day Forty-Two: Home

It’s been such a long road, and now I’m back in my world of orange brick and red walls.

I arrived home late yesterday afternoon. In Senegal I had lost my house key but I knew there was a spare on my back patio, under the statue of the Buddha. Before seeking entrance, I stood on the street and looked at my dear sanctuary. I knew it very well … and yet I didn’t. I felt disoriented after weeks of other lands, other cultures.

I tipped Mr. Buddha and there sat the key. Reaching down, I discovered that it was firmly attached to the paving stone beneath. I stared. I whipped out a credit card and tried to pry the key loose. No go. My next thought was to knock on a neighbour’s door and ask for a flat screwdriver. As I walked down the driveway, I glanced back at the open garage and realized that my toolbox was sitting in there, complete with the instrument I needed. How strange … what was dulling my mind?

I knew there was a concert at the Cuckoo’s Nest folk club in London last night. Despite the long journey, I felt drawn to go. I didn’t even care who was playing. As I walked in, there was a deep breathing. Something was easy here, familiar. I sat down and looked around. My eyes were drawn to the huge stone fireplace. Many a time I’d heard melodies and harmonies while the stone framed the performers. I smiled a wee bit.

Then there were the big windows looking out on the night, with stained glass panels at the top. Another sigh. Finally the long wooden bar stretched out, reminding me of previous escapades in this very room with the Belgian beer Delirium Tremens.

The Andrew Collins Trio enchanted us with their instrumental treasures, including a Bach masterpiece arranged for two mandolins and the deep tones of a mandocello.

All was right with the world. The tunes and the wood and the stone were welcoming me home. I slumped in my chair and closed my eyes.

Forty-two days are done.

Day Forty-One: JT

“Bruce, you’ve been on the go for weeks. Now that you’re in Toronto for a couple of days, wouldn’t it be wise to hunker down on Saturday night, watch a bit of TV … chill?”

So said voice number one. Voice number two had another opinion, however:

“Nah. Get your butt to Hugh’s Room tonight and hum along to classic James Taylor songs at the tribute concert.”

So I did.

I know Kinga at the reception desk at Hugh’s. She took one look at me and searched the list for my name.

“I’m Thomas Cruise.”

“Well, sir, we don’t seem to have a reservation under that name. You’ll have to leave.”

Alrighty then. I whirled around and walked out the door. Utterly pleased with myself, I waited on the sidewalk for two minutes and then reclimbed the entrance steps. Hand on door handle … pull … nothing! Through the glass, I saw Kinga busting a gut. After a pause to let me stew in my juices, she opened the door. Ahh … to be known and appreciated.

James wrote some stunning songs, well worth memorizing. What I didn’t know is that he struggled with depression and heroin addiction. How was he able to create such beauty amid such pain? The human spirit was alive and well in the words uttering forth from the performers. All ten of them loved JT and his music.

Here are some thoughts to live by, to be happy with, to be sad with, to be happy with again:

Shower the people you love with love
Show them the way you feel
Things are going to be much betterIf you only will

***

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Susanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

***

Well the sun is surely sinking down
But the moon is slowly rising
And this old world must still be spinning ’round
And I still love you

So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it’s all right
I don’t know no love songs
And I can’t sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone

***

Thank you, James
You sing for us all
And we sing back to you

Day Forty: Canada

Here’s the view out my Toronto bedroom window. It’s been forty days since I’ve seen the white stuff. I’m home in Canada. Tomorrow I’ll be home in Belmont.

On my trip to Belgium, Senegal and San Francisco I encountered one Canadian – on yesterday’s flight. Pablo lives in Durham, Ontario and runs a furniture business. He was returning from Singapore, where many of the tables and chairs are made. I loved his stories about world cities. Only partway through our time together did I realize “He’s from Canada – like me.”

If you would have told me two years ago that someday I’d be absent from my country for five weeks, I’d have said you’re crazy. And yet here I am, having immersed myself in African life, enjoying the people whose languages I mostly didn’t speak. The geography was stunning but it’s the human beings I love.

And now I return to what I know. I come back to my local beloveds, to see what they have to say about life. There are so many Pablo’s to discover … and rediscover.

Especially there are the kids. I promised the Grade 5/6 children that I’d return to them on Monday, January 20 and spend the whole day at school. And I will do that, despite possible snow on the highway home.

I want to hear the ideas of 11-year-olds, and those of the regulars at the Belmont Diner. On Wednesday evening, I want to hear Ken Thorne sing his songs at the Acoustic Spotlight house concert in London. And if he does covers, I want to sing along!

I’m bringing faraway worlds back to Belmont. And the folks of my village and city are welcoming me home. The rhythms of life continue.

Day Thirty-Nine: Places to Sit

The Sunny Side Café

The Morrison Library at the University of California at Berkeley

Jupiter

The Destination Baking Company

***

I like going. I also like staying.

I like walking. I also like sitting.

I wander around Berkeley and San Francisco and eventually my feet get tired. Plus my heart wants to meditate, read a bit, and devour some yummies

Jinder at the Sunny Side Café welcomed me most mornings at breakfast with her marvelous smile. From my perch on the second floor, I could watch the chef flashing through meal creation. And after I paid the bill, the gentleman would always ask “Coffee to go?”

At the Morrison Library, I twice gravitated to a luscious red couch. I was hunkered down and cozy, with all the time in the world to contemplate the ornate ceiling. So very quiet in the room. Often I’d tap away on the phone. But then there were all those other times. As some wise one said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Sometimes I just sits.”

Look at those Christmas lights adorning the Jupiter patio. There are vines climbing a brick wall, heaters above beaming their goodness through the chill of the evening, and happy servers bouncing around. Plus little groups of patrons laughing the night away. As well there are the joys of craft beer and a chicken pesto pizza! All is right with the world.

Yesterday in the south of San Francisco, far from the skyscrapers of downtown, I plodded up a tippy street to find the Destination Baking Company awaiting me. Two young men smiled from the counter, and offered me the ecstasy of Quiche Lorraine. The sun was newly out after a deluge that lasted for hours. I was safe and warm. At one point, when the two guys were busy by the oven at the back of the store, I heard this:

“I love it when I bring a smile to a customer’s face”

Well said, young man. There’s lots to see and there’s lots to enjoy when you park your bum for awhile.

Day Thirty-Eight: Size

I was walking home to the Y in Berkeley last night when I came upon a football field. Young people were running laps and throwing frisbees in front of bleachers that could seat hundreds. Floodlights brought the scene alive. I assumed this was a college … but then the athletes seemed younger than that. Beyond the goal posts was a huge white building. Off to the side were others. As I continued on the sidewalk, there was a sign: “H Building”. Woh. What is this place?

Between the field and the street were letters carved into a low cement wall. They were partially obscured by bushes but I got the gist – “Berkeley High School”!

Here’s what the Internet told me:

Berkeley High School is a comprehensive four-year school serving approximately 3000 students. BHS is unique in that it is the only public high school in a community of over 100,000. Drawing from a diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic population, students embrace a broad spectrum of people and ideas.

A high school with more people than my hometown of Belmont in Canada! Oh my God. I tried to imagine what such size would mean for teens battling self-esteem issues. Would belonging to an immense community come easily, or would many students feel lost? What would lunch in the cafeteria feel like?

I welcome “a broad spectrum of people and ideas” but would I be able to find these folks? Would I be willing to speak up in the presence of the masses or would I retreat into my cave?

Naturally I don’t know what the culture of BHS is like. It could be marvelous. It probably is. I’ll likely never find out. Tomorrow I’m homeward on the big bird.

I love discovering the new … and wondering how I’d be in the middle of it. Seems to me that lots more newness is coming my way. Bring it on.

Day Thirty-Seven: Tiburon and Soucouta

I took the ferry from San Francisco to Tiburon yesterday. It’s fair to call the scenery spectacular. Broad vistas across the water, the greenest of islands, the Golden Gate Bridge twinkling on the horizon, the sun lighting our way. A seagull journeyed with us, hovering above the ship in search of yummies. And the breeze filling my soul.

In Tiburon harbour, I gazed up at monumental homes clinging to the hills. Just now, I asked Google about the average house price in town … $2,300,000 US.

As I wandered down the main boulevard towards the public library, it felt like ultra chic suburbia, adorned with wondrous trees and plants. It seemed like one long strip mall, with modern façades of warm colour. There were many consulting firms and financial services companies. People walking by averted their eyes, except for one engaging woman out walking her dog. She waxed poetic about the Italian restaurant whose menu I was perusing.

I strolled up a hilly street past lovely homes in rich tones, homes that blended in so well with the cliffs and open views back towards San Francisco.

Everything seemed dramatic, splendiferous … and actually surreal. It felt like being inside of the old TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

It didn’t feel like a home, even though there are no doubt countless residents who feel Tiburon is the best place on Earth to live. Good for them. As I felt into this supposedly idyllic world, what came through was the feeling of money and not relationship. Quite soon I wanted to leave and eventually the ferry obliged.

***

On the way back, I thought of Soucouta and Toubacouta in Senegal. Most Westerners wouldn’t call the environs beautiful. There’s nary a patch of green and buildings are composed of cement blocks. There’s lots of garbage on the ground and lots of noise in the air: roosters, donkeys, goats, screaming birds, evening drums and spiritual leaders calling the faithful to prayer.

Soucouta is plain, brown, smoky and oceanless. But the people smile and say hi. (“Cà va?”) Folks gather together and tell stories. Like residents of Tiburon, they probably spend too much time on their cell phones but in Senegal I feel the flow of family, and everyone is invited. “Veuillez vous joindre à nous pour le déjeuner.” (Please join us for lunch.)

I respect the town of Tiburon
I love the village of Soucouta