Day Twenty-Nine: Rigueur/Douceur

The kids’ vests said it all: rigor and softness. We’ll ask the children to work hard and we’ll love them.

Lydia, Marie-paule and I visited the Toubacouta school for young students yesterday. I was there first so I walked through the gate into a courtyard with swings, hanging backpacks, and shoes lined up in neat rows outside of the main building. I sat on the step and wondered if this place would be a big part of my life someday.

When the women arrived, we walked towards the door and were greeted by a teacher in a lovely African dress, splashed with colour. She smiled radiantly and ushered us inside. Kids were spread over the floor in two groups, all sitting on big mats. Eyes widened and bodies started bouncing. Marie-paule and Lydia began talking to a few adults but I didn’t want to do that. I sat on a chair beside lots of young ones – about five years old. Within seconds, legs lifted bodies, hands extended to mine and personal space was just some weird Western concept.

Kids reached for my glasses. They rubbed my white arms. They sought my grey hair. I said no to some of it but mostly I loved the contact.

A shrill teacher voice in a language I didn’t understand jolted eyes wide and sent feet scurrying back to the mat. Tiny blackboards were distributed and students got to work with their chalk. Drawings, rather than letters, were created. Rags and a bucket of water were nearby for erasing and starting again. It reminded me a lot of the Grade 5/6 class back in Canada when the kids were doing Math.

The space was packed with noise … and movement. I smiled to think of teachers’ reactions to this situation back home. Every minute or two, a Senegalese teacher would yell at some kid. At least I think that was what was happening. It was rapid-fire words with definitely an edge to them.

Later in the morning, I got to attend a language class with about fifteen kids. French was the language being learned. It appeared that a new girl was joining the class and the lesson was about how to welcome her. As well as coaching the students about what words to use, the teacher had each child approach the new one, make eye contact and shake her hand. Very cool. When each student completed the task, the teacher smiled at them, drew them close and placed a kiss on the cheek. Yes, I was in another world, but it was still reminiscent of tender moments in Canadian classrooms.

During my time in Senegal, I’ve given away most of the gifts that the kids in Belmont had made or provided – bracelets, books, beach balls. What remained was four skipping ropes, donated by a creative young lady in Grade 6. Lydia advised me to give them to teachers at the school so everyone could enjoy them. Good plan. So I did.

At recess, one of the teachers took an orange rope outside. Soon she and a child were on either end and kids took turns jumping in. I should have suspected that they’d be naturals. Then Lydia grabbed a rope and demoed solitary skipping. Woh! Small eyes followed the bouncing human.

***

Lots of young faces
A few old faces
Faces

Day Seven: Nima

What can give you a true sense of Senegal? I have many moments to choose from yesterday but my time with Nima was the best.

She’s a four-year-old girl, the daughter of my friends Ice Tea (Moustafa) and Fatou. As I arrived around midnight a day ago, she was sleepily there to greet Jo and me. At the gate, Jo picked her up and said “She’s grown so much!” I looked over to see two eyes shining in the darkness. Soon she was asleep, and we adults joined in conversation. But those eyes remained in me.

Yesterday morning, it was Nima again, finding me from across the room. She wore a pink t-shirt and her hair fell in countless braids. What was going on that I had trouble maintaining normal conversation with the tall people? There was a power here, in a tiny package, that reached over to me. How we can affect each other.

Later she sat in the next chair and her smile shone. There was Beatles music in the background and I began drumming on the wooden arm of my seat. Nima did the same, and soon we had a beat going that would have made Ringo proud … a Senegalese kid and a Canadian forty-year-old giving ‘er in the percussion section of the orchestra.

As Nima drummed, she stuck out her tongue. And I realized that I’d never really noticed tongues before. Hers was so pink against the black of her skin.

The beat went on and so did we. I plopped my hand on hers briefly. She returned the favour, and soon we were trying to escape each other’s touches from above. And still we drummed, now to the songs of Neil Young. We laughed.

I don’t believe that Nima knows any English, and my French is slowly moving from marginal to moderate. No matter. We were rejoicing in the melodies of life.

Later in the day, we had visitors. Two young boys crammed a chair with Nima. It was her fourth birthday. Conversations in French bounced across the room. And the song with “anniversaire” in the lyrics burst out. Happy Birthday, dear little one. The song morphed to something else and the kids started dancing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up my phone and started videoing. I wonder if I can send it to you. Let’s try:

Une grande célébration! Parfait pour tous les gens.

Perfect for us all

The Parade

Every year, on the first Sunday evening of December, the fine citizens of Belmont, Ontario are treated to our Santa Claus Parade, complete with the big guy.  And every year since 1846 I’ve dressed up as Charles Dickens, handing out candy to the short people.

Yesterday morning I got a call from John, the owner of FreshMart.  He sponsors the float that I start off walking beside.  Every year, I’ve never been able to keep up with the rolling hay-bale bed full of kids, because children at the curb deserve their candy and a few words of greeting.

“Bruce, I have 250 candy canes.  Do you think that’ll be enough?”  The Belmont parade has always been a popular destination but as we spoke the freezing rain was coating the world.  I’m no meteorologist or predictor of consumer trends.  However …  “No.  Make it 400.”  I have no idea where that estimate came from.  It didn’t feel like it grew out of my cognitive mind.

I arrived at the staging grounds at 5:30, a half hour before the big rollout.  My task was clear: find kids on floats.  They’d be candyless and probably would remain so for the duration of the parade.  I bet I gave out forty candy canes before the proceedings started proceeding.  Right away, I saw the challenge before me.  Candy canes have their hooked ends, which in a bag tend to resemble a glob of clothes hangers.  Try to get the buggers apart.  Happily, my finger dexterity skills improved as we hit the streets (actually just Main Street).

And now we begin.  Just a sprinkling of kids on the first block, but they were already loving the glitz and glamour that passed before them.  The candy wasn’t bad either.  I saw a girl I had volunteered with three years ago in Grade 6.  She opened her arms for a hug.  I asked if she was under 12, my fictitious limit for bestowing canes.  With a smile she said “Yes”.  During the parade, I asked many adults the same question.  The hardy souls who uttered the same lie got rewarded for their bravado with one of the little hooked things.

In a parade, if a candy dispenser has a favourite line to say, he can do that over and over again since every person is new and fresh.  I loved approaching a little girl or boy and saying “Would you like candy or lettuce?”  I’m sure you can figure out the predominant response, but there were a few kids who bubbled up with “Lettuce!”, to which I replied with “Oh, I just gave out my last bunch two blocks ago!”

So many wide eyes looking up at me with their bags open, hoping that this guy in a top hat, fake moustache and trenchcoat would drop something in.  I didn’t disappoint.  I have a certain radar when it comes to locating children.  I encouraged their nutritional awareness by often commenting “Candy is one of Canada’s Four Major Food Groups … Sugar!”  The parents smiled, knowing that I had spoken the truth.

With two blocks to go, the FreshMart float was long gone, and I was passed by Santa Claus himself.  He and I made eye and wave contact and I silently uttered an oath in favour of a red Lambourghini.  Santa zooming ahead meant the parade was over and families were drifting off to their cars.  Still with candy in my bag, I chased folks down a side street, foisting my wares on unsuspecting but grateful young ones.

I ended my evening walking back towards my car.  Within the festive beauty of Belmont Community Park, I rummaged in my bag for the dregs.  Four adults approached.  I could tell they were all under 12, and so they received candy canes in their palms.  I went to a Christmas display and dumped the contents onto the frozen grass.  Merely fragments of candy remained.

Hey, John … 400 did nicely!  And all was well in the world.

Monster Walk

On Saturday morning, at least 200 mini-ghosts and princesses walked down Main Street in Belmont, Ontario, searching for goodies.  “Mary”, the owner of the Belmont Diner, had asked me to dress up and hand out candy from 10:00 till noon.  Yes, of course I would!

The day before, I went to a costume store and picked up a greyish black handlebar moustache that made me look extinguished.  I thought about adding a black wig for consistency but then reasoned that the blond one I had at home would do just fine.

Then it was off to Value Village for the subtle tones of a shirt and pants.  A bright orange top drew me in and resistance was futile.  As for the pants, I couldn’t imagine I’d find an appropriate pair in the men’s section, so I asked a saleswoman what size I’d be in female lingo.  She thought a 12.  Alrighty then.  Lurking on the rack in front of me were bright pink trousers.  I rushed to the change room to check out the effect but couldn’t get into the pinks.  Down another aisle was a glowing turquoise version of conservatism.  Yes again.  A perfect 14!

At home there was the wig, a red foam nose and a blue fish head to frame it all.  When I created costumes in the past, I always got the question “What are you?”  Saturday was the same.  I still didn’t have an answer.

Mary had cute little plastic bags stuffed with chocolate unknowns.  I was ready.  Shortly after 10:00, the trail of young costumites and their parents wound its way to the Diner’s front door.  I had the vague idea that my job would be done in thirty minutes but the answer to that was “Not!”  The flow flowed for nearly two hours.

Kids would come into the restaurant looking impossibly cute and glance around, not knowing where to go.  I was at the far end in full regalia, waving my hands in unison and yelling “Hello!  Over here for the candy.”  Wary little ones, often urged on by mom, found their way to me.

I saw so many glimmering dresses.  So many masked demons.  And I looked into so many eyes.  Put so many bags into so many hands.  It was special.  Many kids didn’t know what to make of me but they all enjoyed receiving my gifts.  The stream of young humanity was virtually constant and so was my happiness.  Eyes of wonder.  Mine and theirs.

When the bags were just about gone, Mary pulled out a box of tiny chocolate bars.  All was well … until about 11:30, when there were maybe thirty bars left.  I moseyed over to a table of women regulars and asked if someone would walk over to the nearby grocery store and pick up more treats.  “Barb” bounced up off her seat and headed out the door.  I was handing over my very last bars when she came back.  The universe was truly unfolding as it should.

I was happy
The kids were happy
And I think the cosmos was wearing a big smile

Voices and a Cookie

I volunteer in a Grade 5/6 class.  Wonderful kids.  They create so many moments for me, some of which I’ll remember for the rest of my days.  Last week, I had challenged these young ones to sing “O Canada” with me when our anthem was played over the PA system.  Today, when I realized that the announcements were coming on in a few minutes, I piped up with “Remember the challenge!  You don’t have to do it, but …”

And then the opening chords of the song.  I looked at the wall and let the words flow from my mouth.  Tilting my head a mite, there was the chorus.  I don’t know how many kids of the twenty-four were singing but it was more than a few.  Ahh.  Life is good.

There is great power in putting out a challenge and having it accepted by some.  It feels warm inside.  It makes me wish that I had a time machine and could leap forward into these folks’ lives.  Will thirty-year-olds sing their anthem at hockey games?  Will they believe in their country?  I hope so.

***

As the bell rang, announcing recess, I plucked my coat from its hook.  “Lisa”, a Grade 5 girl, came bouncing up to me, plastic bag in hand.  “Would you like a cookie, Mr. Kerr?”  I gazed down into the bottom to find some black spots on said cookie.  Red alert!  Specifically a raisin alert.  I looked at Lisa, grimaced, and said “I hate raisins.  That’s so kind of you to offer and someday soon I’ll definitely accept if you give me another variety.”  She smiled and I returned the favour.

How lovely that she thought of me and was brave enough to come over and hold out the bag.  I feel honoured, cherished.  Just as lovely was me telling her the truth.  Kids deserve the truth.  My dislike for raisins has no impact on my relationship with Lisa.  I’ll always enjoy the kind and generous humans who come my way.  One of these days, another plastic bag will hold a chocolate chip goodie, or maybe a peanut butter one.  Lisa will give and I will receive.

***

I need kids in my life
Some kids enjoy having me in theirs
We are both teacher and student

After I’m Gone

After sunset then, I’d just finished meditating in the quiet of my bedroom.  My tradition is to ring the singing bowl three times as I come back to this rational realm of living.  That’s a touch that I witnessed many a time during meditation retreats … but I do it differently.  In the hall of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, the teacher rings the bell a second time before the sound of the first strike fades, and the same with the third.  I wait until the flow of each has fallen into silence.  It feels right so I do it.

Headlights passed before my window left to right and right to left, way off in the distance on Harrietsville Drive.  I rose from the chair … and lay down on my bed – an unusual choice in such a moment.  I rested on my back in the darkness and closed my hands over my heart.  There was no intention.  My hands merely found their way to the centre.

A perfect coffin dweller, I thought.  So there I was, feeling into my life.  My casket time may be next week or thirty years down the road.  Either way, it’s coming.  I wondered if I’ll leave something behind.  Would it be so awful if I didn’t?  No.  But I think I will.

A Grade 6 boy approached me at home time today and whispered “Don’t tell anybody, but I think you’re the best teacher in the school.”  I smiled and put my hand on his shoulder.  “Thank you.”  I’m actually a volunteer in the class, but I appreciate his thought.

On the way home, I stopped at the local arena to vote in Canada’s federal election.  On the way out the door, I saw a school bus come to a stop, and out came one of my favourite students from three years ago.  She’s in high school now.   We walked towards each other.  I know I made an impact on her back then but she was nervous with me today … a little distant, a little formal.  We traded news and said goodbye.

One kid, one teen.  I like to think I’ve touched both of their lives, even if that wasn’t so clear today.  And now I smile as I write.  The answer has bubbled up:

Yes, you have

 

The Vienna Boys Choir

They stood in front of me as I sat in the front row – 23 boys from about age 8 to 16, dressed in sailor suits. But all wasn’t as I expected. They sure weren’t all blue-eyed blond Austrians. Their conductor did look Austrian, his long light hair flowing. He wore a tuxedo and moved with a flourish from piano to stage and back. When he got really excited, exhorting the kids onward, he often went up on tip toes (the advantage of having a front row seat).

The leader told us he was going to have each boy introduce himself. As he passed the microphone around, I heard words such as Germany, France, England, the United States, China, South Korea, Thailand, Colombia … and Austria.

Some kids were so “out there”, some seemed shy. Some sang full-throated, mouth wide open. Some voices rose above the others, in great beauty. Five boys had the highest soprano sound that you can imagine, and at one point those kids held a soaring note for many, many seconds. As the conductor kept his baton hand raised and the boys held the tone, we the audience roared our approval.

Most of the songs seemed to be in German but I didn’t need the translation. The energy coming off the kids was staggering. There was a left section and a right one. Two singers, one from each side, often seemed to be looking at each other. It was like they were throwing their passion for the music from one side to the other and back again.

I met their energy with mine. I was pouring myself into every singer, wanting them to be great, drawing forth their sublimity.

At the end of most songs, the final note hung in the air – a pure expression of spirit. And then it faded to silence. There seemed to be a little space between the end and our applause, as if we were all stunned by what we were hearing.

I made eye contact with six or seven of the boys. I looked at every member of the choir and was pleased that some were willing to return the favour. I wondered if they could feel the happiness and love that I was sending their way. As the concert rolled on, I sensed that the boys were being reached by the goodwill flowing from the 1100 of us. They seemed to be leaning forward into the music, and towards us.

I was lifted by the songs in English, especially “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “There’s a Place for Us”. The purity of the voices met the purity of the words. With this music, there seemed to be an even longer delay before our clapping started.

The final number was drawing to a close. At the last piano chord, we rose as one, drowning the kids in wild applause. There were shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!”. The boys’ faces were smiles. Three more pieces came our way. More standing O’s. The last one rose while the choir was lined up along the front edge of the stage. Their bows and my clapping hands were a foot or two apart. Eye contact up close.

Thank you, young men from around the world. Your eyes and your voices did their job … you and we were together in the song.

Stan and Ollie

I was ten years old, in Grade 5 at Bedford Park Public School in Toronto.  The school had a fun night for us kids and I remember it felt very special to be showing up there in the evening.  There were all sorts of cool stations, such as standing in front of a projector while a mom traced my silhouette on black construction paper.  As I cut out the image, I was in wonder that this was me.  I’m real.

Further on in the evening, after oodles of popcorn and sweets, we sat in the gym and watched a movie.  It was Laurel and Hardy at their slapstick best.  Laurel, pencil-thin with the most flexible face I’d ever seen … and Hardy, so very fat and jolly, complete with a little Hitler moustache (although I’d never heard of that guy).

I was transfixed and exploding regularly with laughter.  Self-esteem wasn’t my best subject and what a blessing to be so very happy in the company of my friends.

Laurel and Hardy clearly sunk deep inside this insecure boy, and stayed there.  On Saturday, I was searching for a movie to see in London.  Stan and Ollie was playing at the Hyland Cinema and it was already speaking to me.  The story focused on their later years, well after the popularity of their one hundred films.  The end of the celebrity was coming and two very human beings presented themselves to me … at odds with each other and yet deeply loving each other.  Here’s a review:

Jeff Pope’s script gives us two men whose partnership needs an audience to thrive.  Alone they’re close but often businesslike, held back; with even a single pair of eyes on them they blossom into life, slipping into routines in the hope of raising a smile.  Every audience from one to a million gets the same amount of effort.

I’m here to perform.  I’m here to be around people and hopefully touch their lives.  Hopefully make them smile.

At one point late in their journey together, Stan looks at Ollie and says “You don’t love me.  You love Laurel and Hardy.”  Biting words, and Ollie chooses not to send the venom back.  As his health declines and he declares retirement, and thus the end of walking onstage, there’s a scene in bed.  Ollie is tired in his PJs and Stan crawls in beside him, fully clothed.  They sit there holding hands, and we the audience are moved.  Simple contact forged over decades of friendship and collegiality.

Here’s another reviewer:

After that delightful prologue, Stan & Ollie begins in earnest – sixteen years later, by which time Laurel and Hardy – now competing with television, their own reruns and a couple of imitators named Abbott and Costello – have been forced to tour second-tier theaters in Britain, staying in un-grand hotels and playing to half-empty houses.  They’re not happy about it, but they’re troupers above all else, playing their classic “bits” as if they’re discovering them for the first time.  Written with compassion and worshipful wit by Jeff Pope, Stan & Ollie pays tribute to a bygone era when a little song, a little dance, a dollop of slapstick and some clever stage patter counted as enormously successful pop entertainment.  By dint of sheer self-preservation and professionalism, Stan and Ollie manage to turn their final tour together into a triumph, not knowing that it’s a curtain call, not just for their nearly 30-year partnership but for an entire culture.

I see the history of Bruce as I sit in the Hyland.  A little boy, laughing and laughing at big men.  Now I’m a big man myself and happily I’ve not let the joy slip out of my life.  In the falling away of Laurel and Hardy, and of slapstick humour, I see my own future ending.  I expect lots of raucous silliness between now and then.  And I hope that some kids, when they’re in their forties, will look back on their childhood and remember me with fondness.  “Mr. Kerr – he was pretty strange … and nice.”

Day Eighteen: La Soirée

Every year, Lydia and Jo host a New Year’s Day lunch for the twenty or so kids they support. Parents and friends come too. Lydia expected that between 30 and 40 people would show up.

My life has mostly been about small groups, about Jody and me, and about being alone. Thirty human beings together in celebration! The mind boggles.

We from the B&B arrived around 10:00 am and began blowing up balloons. Oh, those life skills that are a challenge! I knew that the arthritis in my right hand would make tying the little suckers an adventure, and I was right. But truly, so what? Once I allowed my balloons to be a little smaller than the norm, life worked just fine. Maybe that could be a koan for my life: “A little smaller is okay.”

And then the arrivals. Little girls in yellow dresses … red, blue and green too. One young boy in a dress shirt, complete with bow tie. A few in flowing robes, a typical Muslim way of dressing.

The balloons were hanging on the walls between triangular banners. Splashes of colour adorned the tablecloths, which were also sprinkled with glitter. Plus smiles were everywhere.

The local school teacher led us in a clapping game, with the kids sitting and the adults standing around the big table. He would call out a rhythm and we’d clap once, four times or ten times, except when some adult got it wrong (such as me!). If you missed, you were out. I think Baziel eventually won.

Then the children sang. I feasted on their glowing faces. Oh my. Where am I? In a very good place, I think.

Time to eat – a delicious vegetarian meal. Was this couscous? Was that cabbage? And a yummy onion sauce. The names of the foods didn’t matter. We were together. There were three big tables, and other folks ate around the coffee table. With me at table were black kids, white teens, black adults and white ones. Basically the world. How I was blessed to be in the presence of them all.

After eating, I joined a table of young Senegalese kids. We made faces at each other. We made silly sounds. I picked up some bits of glitter and rubbed them into my face. Soon many arms and faces were shining red. Balloons were punched into the air at each other. Six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, a fifty-year-old – it didn’t matter. F-U-N.

A girl at home in Belmont, Canada named Sam had given me two bags of chocolate bars for the kids. Another named Jayla had created yarn bracelets. I had the joy of distributing both, and of seeing the smiles in return, with Louisa taking photos for the girls at home to see. Making a difference from many thousands of kilometres away. Thanks, kids.

Such a large human family, spreading its wings from Belmont to Toubacouta, and infinitely beyond. Thank you, dear friends, for sharing the journey with me.

Day Fourteen: Connections

We set off today to give some clothing to the two-month-old son of a young Senegalese woman who’s the sister of my new friends Ali, Aziz and Ansou. Ali led the way through the Toubacouta streets. Paths and side streets brought us past waving local folks (walking or on motos), goats, donkeys and chickens. Many of tbe humans said hi to Ali.

Holding that young man’s hand is a miracle for me. Once in awhile, he’ll come up beside me and slowly let his hand embrace mine. It’s a soft touch and I make sure to adjust my pace to his, and to pause when he’s greeting a friend. Sooner or later, Ali will leat go, and isn’t that just like life? “I love you. I don’t possess you. Go in peace when you need to go.”

In Ali’s home, we were greeted by his mother, his sister and his dog. Mom made quiet requests of him, and Ali responded with grace, without complaint. The star of the show, naturally, was the baby boy. Adult after adult held him, and I finally asked for a turn. There sat the bundle of humanity in my lap, his tiny fingers wrapped around one of mine. His back was so cozy against my chest and I mourned not having been a dad. In an instant, though, the heaviness drifted away and I was left with love.

Later we were welcomed into another home. A grandma in a bright blue dress held a young boy. Mom chatted with us with such a sweet smile on her face but I was drawn back to the child. He and I locked eyes and kept the gaze for maybe a minute. It was just him and me in the whole world. He was inside me and I was inside him. Communion.

Mom showed us the room where she sleeps. On the floor was a small carpet for daily prayer. I asked her how many times a day Muslims kneel down to pray. The answer was four, starting at 6:00 am. The peace on the woman’s face was all I needed to know.

Late this afternoon, about ten of us went to the bissap fields to pick the flowers. The petals are made into a drink high in vitamin C, and into jam. Picking the flowers is deemed to be women’s work, and in the one to two months of the season, they spend five hours a day picking the blossoms and avoiding the thorns. An hour out there in the sun was definitely enough for me. Our hands were stained bright red by the end and I know my back was feeling the effort. I tried to talk to a woman of perhaps 80 who was picking with us but she spoke very little French … just like me.

Lovely human beings are crossing my path every day here in Senegal. Thank you for saying “Hi”, dear ones.