Walking Alone

I love my Belgian family. We laugh together. We explore together, often wandering off the beaten path. And we support each other: Curd getting tired after so much driving in unknown areas, me coughing over here and over there. Etcetera.

And then there was a time for me to go out and about … alone.

I wandered along the Viale della Repubblica towards downtown Riardo. A narrow street beckoned upwards to the right and I followed my raised eyes. Beyond a tiny square stood a stone shrine to Maria. I thought of the thousands who have stood there.

The cobbles launched again, so steeply. Soon I was at the base of narrow steps that soared above the world. Balconies and potted plants greeted my climb. It was just like in the movies, and like a painting of an Italian piazza that hangs in my home. I stopped … stunned. I was really here.

The beauty of the scene embraced me, and yet a niggling feeling came my way: there were no people. Closed wooden doors told me that there were homes here but no one came out to say “Hi.”

I stood in the loneliness. It was so clear that ancient architecture and grand vistas only go so far in the creation of happiness. I need eyes meeting mine.

I ventured up and around and up some more till I saw the shade beside the castle approach. The gate was closed but I enjoyed resting in the lee of the stones. Just me. Just what I needed.

***

In the evening, we decided to eat at a restaurant a couple of miles out of town – the Masseria delle Sorgenti. I wanted to walk some back roads to get there. I believe my friends found that strange. They drove. My old friend Google Maps showed me the way, through a neighbourhood of Riardo and then out into the countrywide of vines, rows of small plants and huge bushes overflowing with white and pink flowers.

Once again, I wanted to be alone in the world.

The light was fading and I’d agreed to meet the folks at 8:30. All was quiet over the fields and part of me lounged in the solitude. Sadly, the other section of Bruce was well-scheduled, and so I didn’t give myself fully to the fragrant moments. Didn’t even take any photos.

Mr. Google told me that taking this road, that one and then the other would take me safely to my destination. And then I spotted a twinkling terrasse across the flowing land. Perfect … only about ten minutes late. That’ll do fine.

As I turned into the driveway, I noted that the sign said “Villa Ida” rather than “Masseria delle Sorgenti”. Not a problem. I pushed my chest out and strolled onto the patio, seeking my kin. There were little knots of humans spread across. I made my gracious rounds of the tables but there wasn’t a Jo or Lydia to be seen.

Huh? How could they have got lost? Google said I was here. You’d think that in a car they’d have been able to achieve that as well.

I spoke to a chef. I had just uttered the word “Masseria” when he threw his arms in the air, aiming his outstretched fingers way to the left.

Well … Back to the road. Down to the highway. A large sign announced my restaurant but I had no clue about how to find it. Two young men in a car pointed down the way I had come.

***

Just so you know, thanks to WhatsApp, and Curd picking me up amid the darkness, I was reunited with les Belges. The pasta was delicious. The company was better.

Ciao until tomorrow.

Day Five: The Bus

I got on board at 8:00 am and I’ll get off at 9:00 … pm that is. That’s a pile of asphalt and, so far, endless trees. For the first two hours, I was freezing, and the hostess gave me some reasoned response about why they couldn’t turn on the heat. After she finished, I was still freezing.

The rains came down and the clouds dropped low. Plus I was awfully hungry. Later a convenience store provided the necessities of coffee, potato chips and a raspberry flaky but I was still grumpy.

Then there was the announcement: “Welcome to ____ Bus Lines. If you’re late getting back on the bus after a rest stop, the driver won’t wait for you. You’ll be responsible for your own transportation. Consuming alcoholic beverages is prohibited. If caught, you’ll be escorted off the bus at the next stop … We hope you enjoy your trip.”

Hmm.

All the window seats are occupied and only a few of the aisle ones. Although I laughed with a few pre-passengers in Port-aux-Basques, now we’re about twenty-five solitudes. Sort of sad but I don’t feel a desire to hop over next to anybody.

I’m noticing that I’ve fallen into the trap of letting my environment dictate my well-being. It’s time to create goodness for myself, and starting this blog post helps.

Hours later, there are no views out the window, just masses of trees. It seems to me that long views are a precious reflection of an expansive life. “Look long into the good light and see the marvels displayed there. Walk towards that light.” That’s it, Bruce. The views are mostly internal. If the good Earth co-operates, I see to the far horizon. If I’m enclosed in a corridor of trees, that’s okay too. Keep looking.

Now it’s movie time on the bus – Sister Act 2. Whoopi Goldberg is the coolest teacher and the disgruntled student Rita is gradually drawn under her wing. Sister Mary Clarence is a magnet. Yay for teachers!

The rain keeps pouring. It’s pooling on the road and we’re creating huge splashes out my window. All is well.

Finally some ponds and meadows. I seek moose. Even a deer would be fine. No one.

It’s nearly dark now. I guess the moose and deer will have to remain in my mind. That’s all right. St. John’s is two hours away and I don’t want to write anymore. I hope you understand.

Goodnight all.

Hiding

Sometimes I need to.  Be away from people for awhile, but maybe watch them from a distance.  Hunker down into my shell rather than embracing all that life sends my way.

Late this afternoon, I was hungry after a workout at the gym.  I decided to go to Mai’s Café in Wortley Village, a funky area of London, full of cute shops and comfy restaurants, with a tiny library just down the street.

I walked into the itsy bitsy Mai’s and felt right at home.  To the left of the front door was a two-person window table wedged in between two walls.  If I was with a dinner partner, she would just have been able to squeeze past the table towards the chair.  Immediately I knew it was perfect.  But why?

I looked out on the world from my secluded niche, a window wall on the left and another one straight ahead.  I smiled at my need to be protected and yet to see Londoners passing by on the sidewalk.  I was a voyeur, and happy.  The walls so near were comforting.  I was friendly to the waitress as I ordered my pad thai but I really wanted to be alone, revel in the flavours and check out the sports section of the Toronto Sun on my phone.

The thought came: “I should be more ‘out there’, engaging with human beings.”  But goodbye, dear thought.  That wasn’t what Bruce needed at the moment.  I didn’t want to hide myself under a blanket on my couch but nor did I want constant conversation.  Just give me my little spot, please, and leave me alone.  I’ll fantasize about the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I’ll watch the infinite variety of folks out on the street, going from here to there.  That will make me happy.

Near the end of my meal, I had a good conversation with Kai, my server.  She told me I was funny.  Assuming she meant “funny hah hah” rather than “funny ooo”, I smiled.  Just a little bit of human interaction was all I needed.  And the food was so good.

Tomorrow I’ll throw myself more fully into the arena.  Today?  Table for one, please.

 

Birthday

Yesterday was my 67th birthday.  Mom told me decades ago that I was born at 10:00 am Eastern Time.  So there I sat in Wimpy’s Diner, my cell phone on the table, watching 9:57, and reflecting on 66.  Finally the number flipped to 10:00, and a little smile crossed my face.  “You’re young at heart, Bruce.”  Yes I am.

This may have been the first birthday where no one I’m in face-to-face contact with knows about it.  What a strange feeling.  I knew that I wouldn’t bring it up in conversation.  I’ll just have a quiet celebration … a Boy’s Day Out.  So I did.

I enjoyed being at Wimpy’s for the first time in six months.  And having a real bacon and eggs, homefries and coffee breakfast.  Plus talking to my waitress friend Angie.  And reading the sports and entertainment sections of The London Free Press.  In the realm of “Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral”, it was a pleasant time.

At one point, I heard singing from the next table.  An elderly gentleman was beaming to the strains of “Happy Birthday”.  I smiled at him, borrowing a bit of his celebration.

I was alone, a bit sad, but mostly enjoying the pleasure of my company.  I knew that around some corner of my future,  there’ll be a new loved one, a woman who will be happy to celebrate my birthdays.  But she hasn’t shown up yet, and that’s fine.  The timing of life is unknown.

I decided to go to a movie at my favourite little independent cinema.  It was a love story between a young mom and her five-year-old son.  So beautiful in the many moments of contact.  Both heartrending and ecstatic, vibrant and tender.  Pleasant.

After a quick bite to eat, and further consumption of the newspaper, I just had enough time to drive across London to a cinema complex.  I was off to see a blockbuster that came out while I was on the meditation retreat in Massachusetts.  It was a shoot ’em up and blow ’em up type film, the latest in a series.  Previously I had been engaged with the characters but not this time.  Hmm … unpleasant.  But underneath the surface evaluation was the sweetness of just being there.

In the evening, I went to a concert – about 50 of us in a comfy old home.  Two singer-songwriters were on the bill.  I wasn’t liking the music of the fellow who performed the first set.  I couldn’t locate a good melody and therefore I didn’t listen to the words.  That’s all right.  His family and friends were there, and they were cheering him on.  That was cool.

For set two, you can pretty much reread the paragraph above.  Another guy.  Another family.  Cool again.  Overall … unpleasant music.  But I did have a lovely conversation with the couple who shared my table.

So no fireworks on this 67th birthday.  I was with myself and we had a good time.  Just being out in the world is a privilege.  Someone will be smiling back at me on a birthday some day soon.  That will be fun too.

 

Moe Norman

How about reflecting on those of us who don’t fit in?  Many in society look at them and sneer.  They don’t talk right.  They don’t dress right.  They make some of us very uncomfortable.

Moe Norman was a Canadian professional golfer.  His constant chatter was punctuated with repeated phrases, such as “Not bad!  Not bad!”  At the same time, he was overwhelmingly shy in social situations.  His clothes were old and ragged.  He sometimes smelled bad.  He often slept in his car.  He stood on the tee with feet that looked impossibly far apart, and swung straight back and straight through – no classic turning of the body.  He’d walk up to his ball on the fairway or green, and just hit it – no waggle of the club, no studying the line of the putt.

Moe never made it to the big bucks of the PGA Tour.  During his few tournaments on the Tour, he was ostrasized by some of his competitors.  Moe went home.

And yet … golfers such as Tiger Woods say that he was one of the purest strikers of the golf ball who ever lived.  Moe hit it straight and true – over and over again.

Here are a few stories:

At an exhibition in Toronto, Sam Snead warned Norman that he couldn’t carry the creek 240 yards from the tee.  “I’m not trying to,” said Norman, who calmly stroked his drive across the walking bridge to the far side of the hazard.

Leading by three shots on the final hole of a tournament, safely on the green in regulation, Norman putted deliberately into a bunker, just to make things interesting. He got up and down to win by a stroke.

Norman died a week before the 2004 Canadian Open.  He’d had bypass surgery several years before, and upon waking from anaesthesia, he was asked if he knew where he was.  On the third green, he said, at the London Hunt and Golf Club.  Doctors were concerned, but in fact the hospital where he lay was built on the former site of that club.  The building that held his room was located where the third green used to be.

I need a world that makes room for Moe Norman, in fact a world that embraces him, and those who follow him down the streets and fairways of life.

Hitching Part 2

Yesterday I told you about my first experience with hitchhiking, travelling with friends eastward across lots of Canada in 1969. That was the first of five trips I made between Waterton, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario.  On the others I was alone.  Me and my little green tent and my junk food.

Looking back, I’m amazed that my parents didn’t give me grief about these thumbings.  They must have loved me a heck of a lot, and wanted me to drink deep from life’s stream.

I remember dad letting me off near the on-ramp of Highway 400, heading north from Toronto.  We were not a hugging family but his smile told me everything I needed to know.

With a few rides under my belt, I was feeling the freedom.  Nobody except the driver and me knew where on Earth I was at the moment.  So cool.  I usually had some good conversations with my benefactors.  Working at the Prince of Wales Hotel the previous summer had cured my shyness, I believe. This 21-year-old guy was feeling his oats as he talked to folks far older than him, and with much different life experiences.  Plus they seemed to like me.

One evening towards sunset, I was walking on a curvy road in Northern Ontario.  I know that walking doesn’t make much sense when you’re traversing four provinces, but it did ease the problem of “stationary thumb”. I was singing “The Long and Winding Road”, and not under my breath either. I’m pretty sure that the roadside creatures enjoyed the serenade.  I look back at that moment with great fondness.

I got to be quite good at picking a place to pitch my wee tent, usually in a little grove of trees or bushes, with headlights scanning the scene but not finding me.  Oh, I loved that feeling!  My very own hero, so I fantasized.

I think that my longest wait for a ride was nine hours.  Such a humbling experience.  I tried to look friendly and “together” to oncoming drivers, without coming across as goofy, but sometimes that just didn’t work.  I was left with myself, a few snacks, and often aching feet.  I liked who I was and it didn’t matter if my journey lengthened by a day, or even a few.

Only once on that trip was I scared.  Two drunk guys picked me up near Moosomin, Saskatchewan.  I didn’t think they’d hurt me but the car was all over the road.  I wondered if my short and increasingly eventful life was coming to an abrupt halt.  Happily, I convinced the bleary fellows that my destination was Regina, about 125 miles down the road.  Open door.  Walk on.

Somewhere west of Medicine Hat, Alberta, my windshield view began to include little bumps on the horizon.  I was so excited. After a winter in Toronto, I was aching for the mountains.  And perhaps they were aching for me.  My last ride dropped me off in front of the dormitories of the PW, my spiritual home.  Journey’s end.  And a happy young man.

 

 

Alone in a Room

Somehow, this is special – to be all alone in a large room, one that’s used for meetings, gatherings, and socializing.  Me and a big space.  And when I’m quiet in that space, all by myself, it’s a holy feeling.

My most vivid memory of this is one late evening during a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society.  The last sitting was over at 9:30, and I had gone outside to sit with a cup of tea and the stars.  And now to bed?  No, actually, back into the meditation hall.  I walked in, glanced around, and saw that I was alone.  Facing the statue of the Buddha at the front were rows of square purple meditation cushions, with chairs at the sides and back.  Just me.  I sat on a chair in the back middle, central to the Buddha’s gaze.  And something slowly happened.  In my meditation, I could feel warmth cuddle me close.  I got glimmers of all the human beings who had sat here since 1976, and I felt cradled in their company.  I stayed a long time.

About ten years ago, I had the rare opportunity to visit my former high school during school hours – Lawrence Park Collegiate in Toronto.  I walked into the foyer to find my name on a plaque … and there I was, circa 1967.  Ahead of me were the doors to the auditorium.  I pulled on a handle and it gave, opening to me a grand space of soft chairs sloping down to the stage.  I walked a few rows in and sat down.  Just me.  And so quiet.  I remembered the acne-sprouted teenager who sat in these chairs – for assemblies, concerts and plays.  I also remember the young cellist who got to play some stunning symphonies on the stage, surrounded by many gifted musicians.  A younger man, and he sat there quietly beside me.

And then there was the fall of 1974 when I helped the caretaker close up the Prince of Wales Hotel in the Rockies of Alberta.  Built in 1927 as a huge chalet, the PW’s interior beams and posts of the darkest wood, plus its chandelier and interior walkways, left me in awe.  And that fall I often got to be on the fourth floor balcony alone, looking down into the lobby as I sang a little song.  And then fall silent as the space of history wrapped itself around me.  Just me.

***

Three big rooms and an itsy bitsy human being, enjoying each other’s company