The Java Shop

Many moons ago, I was a 20-year-old university student in Toronto, knowing virtually no places except TO.  And I knew this was a problem.  When I noticed cards advertising a summer jobs booklet, I wrote away to any employer who lived far away.  Three positions were offered.  Since one was a resort in Southern Ontario, there really were two to choose from.

There was the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta and The Java Shop in Fort Macleod, Alberta.  Research at my public library revealed a panoramic view of a Swiss chalet hotel standing on a hill above a long lake, with two rows of mountains framing the scene.  My God.  I was sold.  See you around, prairie coffee shop.

Indeed I would.  The bus bringing me south from Calgary made a stopover in Fort Macleod.  The Java Shop doubled as the Greyhound depot.  Awesome!  I’d get to experience what I’d missed in choosing the PW.

I walked through the door and felt the call of nature part two.  Too distracted to notice the pioneer ambiance, I highstepped to the washroom.  I reached for the cubicle handle, barely noticing the box hanging beneath.  The door did not open.  A sign on the box said “25 cents”.  What?!  Pay a quarter to poop?  What kind of place was this?

Girding my loins, I laid down on my back and started pulling myself under the door.  What awaited my gaze was a row of metal teeth welded to the bottom edge.  Oh my.  Take me home, country roads.

***

And so The Java Shop became a joke in my memory.  I thought of the place today and went to Mr. Google to see how it was doing.  A 2008 article in the Macleod Gazette told all:

A Fort Macleod landmark is closed.  The Java Shop served its final meals Friday after decades as a popular meeting place and destination.  “I think it’s a tragedy,” long-time Fort Macleod businessman Frank Eden said.  The distinctive building at the corner of Second Avenue and 23rd Street has long been a popular meeting and eating place, and home to the Greyhound depot.

On Friday customers returned to The Java Shop for a wake of sorts, to say their goodbyes and enjoy one last meal — on the house.

The Java Shop was an important part of life in Fort Macleod, cultivating its share of regulars like Chris Cheesman, the Town of Fort Macleod’s electric department superintendent.  “I had my morning ritual to come here every morning to pick up my coffee and my two daily newspapers,” Cheesman said.  Cheesman had another ritual associated with The Java Shop.  It’s where he would bring his daughter Sara for special father-daughter meals.  “Fort Macleod is kind of a hub, and The Java Shop is part of the hub,” Cheesman said.  “The spokes of that hub are now shattered.”  Cheesman also recalled special feelings attached with picking up Christmas packages delivered by bus, and meeting loved ones travelling on Greyhound.

Greyhound bus drivers looked upon The Java Shop as an oasis on the prairie.  “Coming through Fort Macleod, this was my supper break or this was my breakfast break,” said retired driver Al Douglas, who spent 35 years behind the wheel for Greyhound.  “You were dying to get here.”  Drivers appreciated the warm welcome and friendly service they received.  “It was great,” said retired driver Lorne Eremenko, who put in 38 years with Greyhound.  “You were always treated good here.”

Eremenko: “This was so busy you wouldn’t believe it.”  Added Douglas: “I can remember us having nine or ten buses lined up in the alley.  You won’t see that anymore.”  The two retired drivers agreed The Java Shop was a Fort Macleod landmark.  “It didn’t matter where they were from,” Douglas said of his passengers.  “People knew The Java Shop.”

Waitress Judy Thomas, who has worked on and off at The Java Shop for 23 years, spent Friday consoling her soon-to-be former customers, putting on a brave smile and handing out hugs.  “I’m going to miss the people who come in here, even though I always gave them a hard time,” Judy, as she is known to everyone, said with a smile.  “I’m going to miss the people big time.”

***

I would have been a Java Shop employee sixteen years before Judy arrived on the scene.  I would have been part of a longstanding tradition of welcome.  I would have been in the centre of the community.

But I chose elsewhere, missing out on an experience far greater than coin boxes and jagged teeth.

You Ask … I Do

I wonder if it’s as simple as that.  You ask me to do something, and I do it (unless the doing would be harmful to me or others).  Should I hold myself back a little more?  Show some discretion?  Pick and choose which requests I’m willing to act on?

Last Friday afternoon, the kids were working on an art assignment.  Each one drew a deciduous tree and coloured the background in tiles of varying shades of green (for the grass) and blue (for the sky).  Someone asked if I was going to create one.  I said yes, grabbed a piece of art paper, and sat down amid a glom of children.

Most of the student trees looked pretty much the same, and I decided to venture elsewhere.  I made the ball of leaves far bigger and the branches spreading wider.  The wood of the kids’ trees was uniformly brown, it seemed.  It was time for me to rock the tree world.  I plucked orange, blue and yellow highlighters from their bin and set to the task.  Soon the trunk and branches were layers of these colours.  My tree glowed and so did I.  The kids nearby noticed, and sent a few ooos and ahhs my way.

As the first bell rang, I sat back and admired the fluorescence.  From behind me came a voice:

“Mr. Kerr, may I have your painting?”

With nary a thought entering my head, I said “Yes” and handed over the tree.  You ask … I do.

***

Now it’s today.  The teacher needed a bathroom break and asked if I would cover for a few minutes.  As soon as he was out the door, another girl said “Mr. Kerr, sing us a song.”

I smiled.  Inside the words “Of course” welled up and I started in.  I had sung The Wings That Fly Us Home at a meeting of the Evolutionary Collective in May.  This time, I was forgetting lots of the lines.  I stopped, pulled out my phone and found the lyrics, just as the recess bell rang.  Probably fifteen kids got their coats on and headed out to the yard.  Eight stayed and gathered around me.  I sang the whole song.  Someone had asked me to.

***

Why resist the requests?
Why say no to life?
Why not just do it?

The spirit fills the darkness of the heavens
It fills the endless yearning of the soul
It lives within a star too far to dream of
It lives within each part and is the whole
It’s the fire and the wings that fly us home

Visibly Wrong

For the second evening in a row, I sat in the middle of the front row in Koerner Hall. Last night was a celebration of the life of Charles Aznavour, a French singer and composer or co-composer of 1000 songs.

The young man who played Charles was full of the spirit of life. It shone in his eyes, his voice and in his widespread arms. And I sat at his feet. He was surrounded by other brilliant musicians, playing keyboard, drums, stand up bass, and accordion. The songs were haunting, and almost all of them were in French. I can compose sentences on French but figuring out the fast speech of others is very difficult.

Koerner Hall seats about 1100 people and I was happy to be at the front of things. I don’t mind being seen. In fact, I love being seen … and heard.

At one point, the young Charles asked for requests. I heard voices behind me and knew I’d participate. Before the concert, a friend had waxed poetic about the song “Mamma”. I didn’t know it, but why not?

“Mamma!” I yelled.

Charles stared down at me, with a quizzical look.

The woman to my left nudged me. “He sang that one two songs ago.”

Oops. If I wasn’t just so darn loud. I imagined 1100 snickers behind me.

Happily, I didn’t let this minor interruption slow down my zest for the music. Why dampen myself? Why waste energy slumping my soul? Life continues to request that I live it.

Fast forward to the last song of the concert. I pretty much knew this was the last song because things were coming to a close … in French. The real Charles made an appearance on the big screen, accompanied by the words “You will always live in our hearts.” The instruments were swelling up to a grand finale. Yes, this was the end.

The last note hung in the air and I burst from my chair in a raucous standing O. I clapped and clapped. My excellent peripheral vision showed that no one else nearby was erect. And once more young Charles was looking down at me with … curiosity.

Anothe nudge from the left. “They have a few more songs to do.”

Ahh … to be bilingual. But no matter. I held my head high and enjoyed the rest of the concert, taking my cue from other folks about when to stand again.

Sticking out like a sore thumb. I smile at the thought of it.

What Kind of Spiritual Person Am I?

First of all, I am one of those. I know it. No calculating, no comparing “yes” and “no” lists of attributes. My heart is open.

Am I the monk in the cave, blissing out on the oneness of the universe? Certainly not. I’m in the marketplace of living, full of contradictions. Sublime … exploding. Repeat.

And so we have the subject of dinner at Boston Pizza in Toronto. I love nachos, and many a time at this restaurant chain my order has appeared crammed with cheese on the top, and virtually naked on the bottom. Should my spirituality include all, knowing that the world of form is an illusion? NO, it shouldn’t.

As a proactive human being, I asked the bartender to have the chef layer my nachos. She said she’d do her best.

A few minutes later, a full plate appeared me before me. In the spirit of doubt, I peeked underneath the pile and discovered many chips with no cheese or anything else. “I’m sending this back.” The Bruce of five years ago would never have uttered these words.

Soon the bartender returned. She told me that the chef would charge me for extra cheese to meet my request. And there’s the moment. Do I lower my head, accede to the powers in the world, and chow down on dryness? No again. I asked her to have the manager come over.

The gentleman arrived with all dispatch. He heard my story and said that he’d make it right. No surcharge. He was calm. I was calm. And the result was produced. I was a happy customer.

My perception (and I could be faulty here) is that the bartender’s brightness transformed to stone after I spoke up. Hmm. Am I willing to abide with such perceived distance in order to stand with what I see is the truth? Yes, I am.

There’s an edge to my spirituality. It’s pretty new. I intend it to stay.

Cellists

Well … here I am. After three hours stuck in 401 traffic on the way to Toronto, I’m sitting dead centre in the front row of Koerner Hall, waiting for the appearance of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. The musicians are all enrolled in the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory. They’re on their way to professional careers.

Oops. Here they come, all decked out in black dresses and suits.

***

And now it’s intermission. The cello soloist plunked himself down about ten feet from me. He proceeded to throw his music into the hall, with a flourish of intense bow strokes, incredibly fast runs, and then the softest of tones misting down on us. I watched his fingernails shine as the notes climbed the fingerboard. His face contracted and released. His eyes rose to the heavens, dropped to his instrument and then closed. Sweat poured on his brow. His body swayed left and right.

We the audience were entranced. We stood at the end.

I remembered a young Bruce, the one who played the cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13. In my better moments, I had the same passion as tonight’s artist, but with far less skill. I loved being in the high school orchestra. It was the only “team” I ever played for, and we loved streaming through some classic symphonies together.

My body also swayed. My eyes also closed. At that age, I didn’t know much about making love, but that’s what I was doing with my cello. We soared.

I let go of being a cellist after high school. I was good enough to continue into university but I didn’t know that. Now it’s 52 years later. A wee bit of me dreams of playing again but really I don’t want to. I’ve passed through other chapters and today is a fresh adventure. Still I was with the young man tonight as he both caressed and attacked the strings. Well done, both of us.

The Best Home Is Over There In You

In Buddhism, there are four brahma viharas.  A common translation of the term is “best home” – a place to hang out that brings happiness and peace.  The virtues are lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy.  The last one has long fascinated me.

The word “sympathetic” throws me.  I don’t want to feel bad for you.  I want to feel with you.  So “empathetic joy” rings far more truly for me.  It’s about me feeling great happiness when you are happy or successful.  It points to the idea that there isn’t a limited amount of joy to go around.   There’s plenty for us all.  It’s taken me a very long time to figure this out.

I remember watching some really popular guys in high school.  They had Hollywood faces … chiselled and acne-free.  They usually were great in sports and seemed so confident in a group, always with something cool to say.  I remember wishing that something would go wrong in their lives.  How about a pimple or two?  “Tone down the good vibes, please.”  I had bought what society was selling us: that happiness is a scarce commodity.  If they have lots, there’s no way I can have much.

According to Sharon Salzberg … “As the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, puts it, there are so many people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy ‘are enhanced six billion to one,’ he says. ‘Those are very good odds.'”  Indeed.  To multiply happiness by way of a simple shift in attitude.

How about if I surround myself with people who are smarter than me?
How about if I celebrate the skills of someone who writes better than me?
How about if I simply throw my appreciation over there into your eyes?

Soul Singers

What type of person would watch the video of a song performance ten times in an evening?  Well … a me type of person.

I loved the movie A Star Is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  It’s the story of a wearing-out singer befriending and loving a young up-and-comer.  With her voice and songwriting, she comes to displace him in the affections of the musical public.

Lady Gaga’s character wrote a stunning song called Shallow, and performed it brilliantly in the film to a rapturous audience of thousands.  The song was nominated for an Academy Award and during the ceremony Bradley and Lady Gaga, both dressed to the nines, rose from their seats in the audience, took each other’s hand, and walked onstage to the grand piano.

Words paint pictures but you need to watch the YouTube video.  It’s the one that begins with a red curtain rising and several men in tuxedos moving the piano into position.  What was present on that stage was love, eyes locked to each other’s, voices climbing together.  As in the film, there’s a moment when Lady Gaga blasts out the words as she pounds the piano keys and  gives her eyes to Bradley:

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

I cried each time as she soared.  The voice was resonant, incredibly powerful.  A glowing bridge of spirit flowed between the two.  Its what love is meant to be … all encompassing.

What if I lived my life this way?  Full speed ahead towards the human beings of this planet.  High decibel joy.  Unfettered.  Undone.

I want the whole world to see this video, especially the ending, where their heads lean together and their eyes meet.  Please go find it.  You will be changed.

Communion in the Air

I had breakfast with my friend Imogen on Tuesday.  She’s a hairdresser, and her face shone as she talked about her clients.  I’m clear that Imogen has found one very deep niche in her life.  Hairstyles and perms are just a convenient excuse for her to be with people and shower them with love.

A lot of seniors come Imogen’s way.  Some of them are alone and simply want a caring human being to talk to.  And the dear hairdresser just might be the only person who touches them anymore.

My friend told me about Grace, an elderly woman who’s sliding down the slope of dementia … ever so slowly.  Imogen has chocolate at the ready, a favourite treat.  Plus there’s plenty of time to linger and enjoy a cuppa tea together.  Imogen could hurry Grace out the door and cram another client into the time, but her bottom line is far from the world of dollars.

One day Imogen set off for a pretty little town nearby, and a workshop that she was looking forward to taking.  The teacher asked her what she did for a living.  Hairstyling led to a mention of Imogen’s shop – Shine Salon – and the lovely clientele that she was privileged to be with.  The teacher knew the shop and when Imogen mentioned her favourite customer (Grace), the teacher knew her too.  Actually, the teacher’s mom Florence was Grace’s best friend.  Even better, Florence lived upstairs in the old home where the workshop was happening.  And she was home right now!

When Florence was beckoned downstairs, her daughter said “Mom, this woman takes care of Grace.”  Florence started crying and rushed over to hug Imogen.  “Thank you … so very much.”

Oh, to have been in that room at the moment of embrace.

It’s a good world, isn’t it?
I wonder what forces are at work
so that Florence and Imogen could share their love of Grace
It’s a mystery, isn’t it?

Problems in Doing … Lightness of Being

For most of my life, I’ve done the tasks of life well. Sure, I had to study this and put some effort into that, but I usually basked in the aura of accomplishment. I’m a good teacher. I’m a good writer.

There’s a casualness in doing well. It’s predictable. And I easily fall into a peaceful rhythm. But what if something happened to disturb that rhythm, to knock me off my comfy chair? Would that be a problem? I guess. But maybe not. Perhaps that would open me into the fresh air of brand newness.

For a long time, I’ve thought that it’s easy to be happy when the world is honouring your words and actions. Far more of a challenge is to continue going towards people when I lack skill, when I fall short, or when the environment seems to be conspiring against me.

Ahh … how life teaches its lessons. Such as today.

I enjoy my work with the Evolutionary Collective. There are opportunities to meet online many times a week with folks from here, there and everywhere. A couple of months ago, I decided to start the training for being the support person in these calls, the one who organizes everything – managing the technology, putting people into breakout groups, unmuting and muting them when they share in the large group, and handling special requests. Today my job was to do the whole thing, while being coached by an experienced tech person.

I started well in the welcoming but then I piled mistake upon mistake. I forgot important parts of the sequence of tasks. I went into overwhelm when faced with the job of moving twenty-two folks into pairs in a way that followed certain guidelines. I panicked more than once, and was grateful when my friend rescued me. I had studied all the details but performed poorly in the heat of the action.

After all the participants left, we two did a debriefing session. Lots of feedback, communicated with kindness. A recognition that I’m nowhere near independent in this role. As my coach and I ended the call, there was laughter … and then quiet smiles. We were together, on a journey.

I left home soon after on my way to the gym. Behind the steering wheel was a man fascinated with the lightness that surrounded him. There was peace. My goodness, how can this be? Why am I not beating myself up, a skill which I had honed to perfection over many decades? Why was my head high, looking straight out at the world? Why was I happy?

It doesn’t seem to be about me – positive thinking, determination, a commitment to do better. There’s no doing here. Something seems to be washing over me in the face of apparently distressing conditions.

And I smile.

Upside Down

I’m a fairly intelligent person and I know how the world works.  You start with A and get yourself to B, whether that’s an easy task or something that requires great effort and creativity.  After that, it’s on to C.  Etcetera.

Or … maybe I’m wrong.  Life just might present us with stuff that doesn’t make any sense, that’s bereft of logic, often just plain weird.  Could it be that these moments are immense windows into another way of being?

I’m looking back at jolts, discontinuities, strangeness.  One happened a couple of days ago, when I was doing a Mutual Awakening practice with someone online.  I can’t even remember who that someone was, which is a bit of a jolt in itself.  In these practices, images often bubble up.  I’ve let go of figuring out where they come from.  This time, I saw a man looking at me with his eyes closed.  I could tell they were about to open.  Instead of the eyelids rising to reveal the eyes, they came down from the top.  When the eyes were fully visible, the lids didn’t stop at the bottom.  They continued down his cheeks, gradually showing an iridescent turquoise interior.  It was shining and it was huge.  Seeing into the man’s eyes, I realized that he was me.

My lips tightened.  My head tilted.  And I was transported to another place.  I knew almost immediately that I would talk to you about this mystery that takes the breath away.  Here it is Sunday and I’m talking.  It doesn’t matter how you react to this.  It’s clear to me that this break in normal reality needs to be communicated.

***

I’m thinking back to a vacation that Jody and I had in the Dominican Republic.  The dining room was close by a lovely pond bordered with tropical colours.  Long-legged pinkish birds walked in the shallows, seeking a fish buffet.  After a minute of watching the birds tense into their pouncing, I noticed their legs.  My mouth opened and I stared.  Their legs bent the other way … folding backwards.  What ever happened to A, B, C and D?

***

Last night, I went to a BeeGees tribute concert in London.  Towards the end, many of us were moving and grooving on the dance floor that was the narrow space between Row A and the stage.  One young man danced like … I don’t know what.  His fingers were jabbing in time to his neck moving back and forth, sort of like a chicken but not really.  More staring from me.

***

When the breaks in reality flood me, I get disoriented, wavery, hanging not so loose in some in-between space.  The questions explode in my head:  “Where am I?  What is this place?  How come I don’t recognize any landmarks?”

This is all okay
Just embrace the fog
Walk inside
It’s safe