The Decline

For many years I’ve enjoyed working out on the elliptical at the gym.  I’ve also enjoyed tracking my results with Polar fitness equipment.  I targeted a heart rate zone of 121 to 145 beats per minute, roughly 80-90% of my maximum heart rate.  Overall I’ve had no problem maintaining an average of 125 bpm for 60 minutes, burning around 600 calories during the session.

Then came Covid.  I haven’t been at the gym since March and instead have used the cross-country ski machine in the basement, an old friend whom I had sadly neglected.  During the past several weeks, I noticed a downward trend in the fitness numbers, but no big deal

Then came today.  I hadn’t exercised yesterday so I was looking forward to feeling strong on the Nordic Track.  Warming up for the first 10 minutes, I felt fine.  My heart rate had reached 119, with an average of 112.  What an athlete!

I was schussing along with a good rhythm in the legs and arms, expecting the numbers to slowly rise.  Instead 112 felt obliged to fall to 111.  I didn’t increase the effort because I knew that would put my 60 minutes in peril.  “No sweat.  Just a momentary glitch.”  The sweet flow continued … for a short time.  By 20 minutes, the legs were heavy and the breathing was laboured.  110.  

What?!  This is impossible.  ‘Fraid not.  It was not only possible but the reality of the moment.  By 30 minutes, I was gasping and 109 appeared on the display.  I limped to 40 minutes and 278 calories, and dismounted from my usually faithful steed.

I sat down on the couch, my mouth curled into a sneer.  This was by far the worst I’d done on an elliptical or ski machine in a couple of years.  Grrr!  And then … the world stopped.  I just sat there, and a warmth came down from the top of my head.  Something was moving in me.  The sneer evaporated, and a few seconds later the corners of my mouth were turning up.  A smile was soon replaced by a laugh.

The voice tried to protest: This is serious stuff!  No it isn’t.  This could be the beginning of the end!  Bullshit.  What?  Look, you idiot, don’t you see what this means?  It doesn’t mean anything.  I didn’t exercise yesterday and still I did horribly.  You didn’t do “horribly”.  You did.  As in that’s all this body had today.  Why are you laughing?  Get a grip.  I don’t want to get a grip … I want to let go.

I’ll take tomorrow off and then get back on the Nordic Track on Sunday.  

My friend and I will ski together
fast or slow, long or short, virile or exhausted
And all will be well

A Life

As a teacher for many years, as a school volunteer, and simply as a human being, I’ve often asked myself if my life has made a difference.  Long ago, I wasn’t sure.  Now, I am.  I’ve touched many lives in all these decades and I smile when people’s names come back.  It’s true that I rarely get any hard evidence that I made a contribution, hardly anyone returning from a far off time to say thank you, but still I know.

Tonight I watched the film It’s A Wonderful Life.  George Bailey takes over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in Bedford Falls after his father dies, even though he yearns for a life of adventure.  His brother Harry is the one having the thrills and spills as a fighter pilot in World War II.  After the evil and powerful Mr. Potter steals money from the Building and Loan, George faces foreclosure and possibly prison.  He looks down into the winter waters of the local river, and moves towards jumping off the bridge.

Enter Clarence, George’s guardian angel.  Clarence decides to show George what would have happened if he had not been born:

1.  George wouldn’t have been there to save his 9-year-old brother who slipped through the ice.  So Harry wouldn’t have been there to shoot down the enemy plane that was about to bomb an Allied ship full of seamen.

2.  George wouldn’t have been there for Mary to fall in love with.  So she finished her days as an old maid librarian.

3.  Mr. Martini was refused a business-saving loan by Mr. Potter, money that George would have lent.  Instead of the flourishing Martini’s Bar – a centre of community relationship – there was Nick’s, where if you pissed off the owner, a bouncer would throw you into the street.

4.  As a young boy working in the pharmacy, George noticed that the pharmacist had made a prescription mistake, inadvertently putting poison into pills meant for a little kid.  But George wasn’t there.  The boy died and the pharmacist spent years in prison, returning to Bedford Falls as a skid row drunk.

5.  Uncle Billy was supported emotionally and financially by his nephew George.  But George wasn’t there, and the woes of the Bailey Building and Loan led Billy to an insane asylum.

6.  And Bedford Falls?  No, it was Potterville.  Mr. Potter owned virtually everything, and gouged his renters and borrowers.

***

At the end of the movie, grateful citizens came to George with cash to keep the Building and Loan afloat.  They hugged him with smiles as wide as the ocean.  And they sang:

We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne

I’m smiling now
I’ve offered a cup or two of kindness in my days
Ours is a wonderful life

Lullaby

“Freedom From Fear”
Norman Rockwell

Yesterday’s energy was surging, exploding, seeking the brand new in the far reaches of existence.  The step had rhythm, the arms were pumping, and I sang a happy tune.  “Come join me,” I said, ” and we will discover together in the light of day.”  My eyes were fierce and my arms far flung.  My voice rose on the wind and I pointed to the blazing sun.

Today … I rest.  There is slumber, my eyes closing, my breath slow and easy.  I look out at each of you with soft eyes and my arms flow around you.  

I’m laughing at the difference.  They’re both parts of what I bring to the world.  They’re friends, certainly not opponents.  I applaud them both.  

Three years ago, as I sat in meditation on a three-month silent retreat, music kept slipping inside me.  Fragments of one song in particular took up residence in my mind.  Not once did I sing out the words but they swept through me, and I could feel them reaching out to my fellow yogis in the meditation hall.  Today I remember a phrase here, a phrase there: “Sleep my child and peace attend thee”, “Hill and dale in slumber keeping”, “Breathes a pure and holy feeling”.  Ahh …

Just now, for the first time, I Googled “All Through The Night”.  The entries were dominated by a Cyndi Lauper song, not at all the one I remembered.  But resting beneath all the fame and fortune was a link to a “lullaby”.  Time for my phone again: “a quiet song that is sung to children to help them go to sleep”.  Today I feel like a child, safe at home with mom and dad pulling the covers up under my chin.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping
All through the night

Angels watching, e’er around thee
All through the night
Midnight slumber close surround thee
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping
All through the night

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night

Angels watching ever round thee
All through the night
In thy slumbers close surround thee
All through the night
They will of all fears disarm thee
No forebodings should alarm thee
They will let no peril harm thee
All through the night

Though I roam a minstrel lonely
All through the night
My true harp shall praise sing only
All through the night
Love’s young dream, alas, is over
Yet my strains of love shall hover
Near the presence of my lover
All through the night

Hark, a solemn bell is ringing
Clear through the night
Thou, my love, art heavenward winging
Home through the night
Earthly dust from off thee shaken
Soul immortal shalt thou awaken
With thy last dim journey taken
Home through the night

A Fork in the Road

The man, who, being really on the Way, falls upon hard times in the world will not, as a consequence, turn to that friend who offers him refuge and comfort and encourages his old self to survive.  Rather, he will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help him to risk himself, so that he may endure the suffering and pass courageously through it.  Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise within him.  In this lies the dignity of daring

Karlfried Graf Durckheim

Refuge: a place that provides protection from danger
Annihilation: the state of being completely destroyed
Indestructible: impossible to destroy or break
Daring: venturesome boldness

He’s another word to define, one that I’m in the middle of:

Retirement: the time of life when one chooses to permanently leave the workforce behind
Retirement: removal of something from service or use

So, being 71, should I contemplate the perennial nature of the couch?  Should I quietly remove myself from service?  After all, there are gourmet foods to eat; Caribbean vacations to embrace; friends to have coffee with, mulling over politics and sports.  “Refuge” is a good word.  I’ve earned the rest, the slowness of will, regressing to the mean.

Boring!

How about instead a grand adventure, calling out for other humans to join a revolution in consciousness?  I can throw myself into a project that seems at first glance “a bridge too far”.  I can go towards the barriers, the booby traps.  I can come nose-to-nose with the destroyer of dreams … and not waver or break.

Shall I be bold, venturing into the lands described by Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation:

These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise
Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds
to seek out new life and new civilizations
to boldly go where no man has gone before

Man and woman – we are going …
New vistas await.  Miracles are ours for the reaching

Shall we?

 

Crying

For the first 64 years of my life, I hardly cried at all.  Then my beloved wife Jody was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.  A year later she died.  And the tears flowed every day for months.  Now I cry sometimes … for my dear one and for other human beings who are suffering.

I love watching The Mandalorian on Disney Plus.  It’s a Star Wars story about a bounty hunter and the infant that he’s trying to return to his own people.  On Friday night’s season finale, Din Djarin keeps his promise, handing Grogu to a Jedi who will train him further in the ways of The Force.  Seeing Din and Grogu joined at the eyes on parting brought the tears once more.  I cried.  We folks are touched when people come together in love, and when they say goodbye in love.

The website What’s On Disney Plus  was full of reactions to the human connection.  Here’s a sample of the world’s responses, with my comments attached:

Okay, I full blown cried
I cried and so did my husband
Cried like a baby
My 6-year-old son and I both cried
I just started crying out of nowhere

Yes, hopefully that’s what human beings do
There’s no planning … just an explosion of being undone

***

I cried and my husband laughed at me
I had tears falling down my face with my husband laughing at me
I was tearing up and my daughter was laughing
and informed the rest of my family watching
that mommy was crying
My husband said “there’s no crying in
Star Wars!”

I guess your sadness was too scary for them

***

No tears … all cheers

There was a glorious reunion at the end for Star Wars fans
I guess it overwhelmed the despair of loss

***

I fought back my tears with a huge smile

Let’s just be happy and forget the rest

***

I had the feels
I got a little teary-eyed
Very heartbreaking at the end
It touched the hearts of millions

Ahh … euphemisms that dampen the pain
And having the sorrow reduced to the adjective “heartbreaking”
Or it being out in the world rather than in me

***

Touching, but not that touching
I get people are having emotional responses

and I have those too, but not being a Star Wars fan
I am failing to understand why

Neither here nor there on the spectrum of feeling things

:::

Sometimes, dear friends, we just need to cry together
Some of life is sad

Go Ahead and Smile

Am I allowed to laugh in the presence of the coronavirus?  After all, 1.7 million of us have died and 76 million have been infected.  Those are horrible numbers that point to immense suffering among the victims and the loved ones left behind.  But laughter helps me stay sane, so here are some creative responses from the world at large:

I wish Corona could’ve started in Las Vegas
because what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas

I need to practice social distancing from the refrigerator

2019: Stay away from negative people
2020: Stay away from positive people

Going to bed early
Not leaving the house
Not going to parties
My childhood punishments have become my adult goals

People who ask me what I have planned for tomorrow
probably assume that I even know what day of the week it is

Why the hell did I buy a 2020 planner?

Doglike instructions for humans in 2020: Sit … stay

Due to my isolation, I finished three books yesterday 
And believe me, that’s a lot of colouring

The most unused household item during quarantine: bras

“Hello.  Table for two on your outside patio …
Yes, of course I’ll be wearing a mask.  I’m Batman”

Don’t expect Covid-19 to last.  It was made in China

Has Covid-19 forced you to wear glasses and a mask at the same time?
You may be entitled to condensation

(Charlie Brown)  I’m staying in bed, Snoopy.  It’s too peopley out there

Can’t believe we stayed up and screamed “Happy New Year!”
for this mess

You never realize how anti-social you are until there’s a pandemic
and your life doesn’t really change that much

First time in history:
We can save the human race by lying in front of the TV and doing nothing

Let’s not screw this up

Hang in there, folks

Happy

Those of us who have been on the planet for a fair long spell have probably been asked the question “How are you?” thousands of times.  I bet I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve responded with “Fine” when I wasn’t feeling so.  And quite often, fine or not, I’d go into rambling detail about my current state of affairs, while the questioner wondered why I couldn’t stick to social norms.

For the last few years, I’ve paused after the question was asked, checked the state of the kingdom, and usually replied “I’m happy.”  Most times the other human seemed flummoxed.  “Such a weird answer,” they might be thinking.

Occasionally, I’ve been asked why I’m happy, as if there needed to be a good list of positive events to justify the response.  More often than not, I returned with “I don’t know.  I’m just happy.”  And that’s where I’ve been for weeks.  I suppose you could say that negative stuff is happening, but I remain quietly happy.

I’m not seeing many people in the flesh, and I love talking face-to-face
I’m happy

I miss the kids at school – haven’t seen them since March
I’m happy

The world is grappling with Covid, racial inequality and mean people
I’m happy

My endurance on the cross-country ski machine is declining, as measured by duration and energy output
I’m happy

The arthritis in my right thumb slows down the buttoning process and relegates lid-removing to the left hand
I’m happy

I’m having trouble remembering people’s names, and that used to be a point of pride for me
I’m happy

I don’t know why a blanket of happiness has nestled itself against me, and I don’t care that I don’t know.  It’s very odd to be breathing this air.  It’s tempting to look to my near daily Zoom calls with the Evolutionary Collective as the cause of my little smile, but it’s bigger than that.  I’m not doing anything to bring forth happiness.  It’s just here.

Come on in, my friend.  Would you like a coffee?

Being Different

I once asked kids at school why Nazis hated Jewish people. The most common answer I received was that “their religion was different”. In the US, for many decades some Americans have rejected millions of their fellow citizens because those folks had black skin.

I had the children visualize some leader entering the classroom, looking at each student, and culling out those whose eyes were blue. The unfortunate ones would then be ostracized, or worse. I believe that many of the kids got the message.

For a moment, imagine you’re a bird. Maybe you’re big, maybe you’re small. A fast flier or a slow poke. Bright plumage or muted. The differences are obvious but no big deal. You guys get along.

But here comes someone new:

What is that? Nobody should have a neck that long, and that coral colour is ridiculous!

Wait a minute now. Look at that weird twist in the neck. It should be a straight line. How does the thing even eat? And those legs! They’re not only grossly skinny, they bend … backwards! It’s an abomination. Drop poop on them all.

What?! That’s impossible – standing on one leg. And the idiot on the right looks like he’s sleeping. Birds are not meant to do these things. It’s unnatural. Only Big Bird has such powers. Let’s convince humans to shoot them all.

***

You’re different
Really different
You’re just a thing
And I hate you

A Poem

Two voices are having a conversation in my head …

Why don’t you write a poem today?

Huh?

You know, a poem – it’s like sentences but they flow better.

My dear friend, I’ve written one poem in my life and that was way back in the 1980’s.

That was then … this is now. Go for it!

I don’t know how to write a poem. Sounds like such a pain to make things rhyme.

It doesn’t have to rhyme. Besides, I don’t often hear the words “I don’t know how” coming from you.

Well, I guess you’re right about that. But I can’t think of anything to write about.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like a lot of your evenings at the laptop.

Hmm. I suppose. But poems take a lot of time. As I remember, that one in the 80’s sure did.

Look, it’s 5:58. Why don’t you just dive in until 7:00 at the latest? Make it a stream of consciousness thing.

Nobody will understand that. I probably won’t understand it.

Who cares? Just do the darned thing. After you press “Publish” you’ll be able to say that you’ve written two poems!

You’re not going to give up, are you?

Hell, no! This is too much fun.

(Sigh)

Now it’s 6:03. Surely you realize that at 7:00 your carriage is going to turn back into a pumpkin.

Huh?

Cinderella, dear one. Now get going. Literary wonders await.

Right ∴ ∴ ∴ ∴ ∴ Okay … here goes:

***

Wandering through the world in this night of silence
Sensing the fairies beyond my window
I reach for the solid and simply find mist
I reach for the beloved and the smile comes by

Onward through the canyons
Onward across the sky
Beckoned by the spirit
Not knowing why … or who

There’s no direction to the flow of my life
Or is is it just no destination?
For the flow underground and all around is infinitely real
And the singing bowl sings out its song

The red within and the red without
Screams its joy in the moment
Blending now with the pinks of the world
Since white demands to be heard

What’s under the table?
What’s over the end of the world as I see it?
What’s the reason that these words appear?
Will they vanish as I fall away to dust?

I stand tall in the evening, not seeing the way
And not needing to see some direction
There is simply walking in the world and feeling the breeze
On the path that merges with the wood

A finger to the wind
A glance at the night sky
A sweet nod to life
And a smile that creases my face

***

Voilà!

It All Fades

The highest of highs … the lowest of lows.  I’ve had them.  I imagine you have too.  In the moment, the intensity was breathtaking.  Whether I was soaring or plummeting, blood coursed through the body, the mouth dropped open, cells were blasted apart.

***

1.  I played the cello in the huge All-City Orchestra on the square in front of Toronto’s New City Hall.  I remember the aged Sir Ernest MacMillan shakily wielding his baton, leading us through “Land of Hope and Glory”.

2.  There were four years of weekly swimming classes in high school.  Boys only, everybody in the nude.  Since I couldn’t swim, and it seemed that adults had given up trying to teach me, I piddled around in the shallow end while my friends did laps.

3.  It was a large auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta and I spoke from the heart to hundreds of people.  I was in anguish at the coming death of an organization.  At the end, they stood.

4.  High above a mountain lake, I clung to a cliff, frozen in place, seeing my death falling away.  Twenty minutes of terror.  Why did I have to die so young?

5.  On a Sunday in May, 1986, I crossed the finish line of the Vancouver Marathon.  My goal was to break four hours.  My time was 4:12.  The smile matched the outstretched arms.

6.  Two hours later, I lay down on a bench in downtown Vancouver, knowing that the chest pain would soon kill me.  A cabbie found me and took me to Emergency at St. Paul’s Hospital.  I survived.

7.  On the university track, I lined up at the start line with some Grade 6 kids.  “Ready, Set, Go!” someone cried, and we blasted off on the 100-metre run.  They were 12.  I was 68.  I finished forty metres behind the slowest kid, smiling all the while.

8.  At 3:00 am in the hospital room, I could no longer hear my wife Jody breathing.  Soon the nurse nodded that she was gone.  I kissed my wife’s lips.

9.  On the west coast of Vancouver Island, I climbed a sandy hill, the sound of faraway surf in my ears.  As I reached the peak, the glorious waves of Long Beach stretched to the horizon.

10.  In January, I was awake for 44 hours as planes took me from Dakar, Senegal to Brussels, Belgium to London, England and to San Francisco, California.  After all that, how did I survive the one-hour BART trip to Berkeley?

***

What’s left now are blurry memories, in the realm of pleasant or unpleasant.  I still smile and frown as the images return but the moments feel muted.  But I am definitely not muted.  I feel alive, surging with promise, my hair blowing in the wind.  Somehow the energies of yesteryear have found their way inside me.  They’ve settled in the nooks and crannies of my life.  And I am the better for it.