How Wide Is Our We?

I fear that some of us are only experiencing “me” right now.  The mind is so full that the “we” is having a hard time finding its way in.  “I want a tan.”  And so Vancouver beaches are full of folks enjoying the unusual sunny weather.

I get that most of us, however, are living and breathing beyond the boundary of our skin.  We think of our parents and grandparents, of our dearest friends.  We’d go through hell for these folks.  We have so many memories of their goodness reaching out over the years.  They must be protected by our physical absence.

But is there more?

At my local coffee shop, now shuttered, there is a fellow who doesn’t like me.  “So … you didn’t know that, school teacher?”  I’ve actually enjoyed my conversations with him.  I’ve felt twinges of antagonism towards him but mostly it’s just curiosity.  Can I include him in my we?  For the sake of all beings, I must.  Personality conflicts represent one layer of reality.  We need to ascend far beyond such boundaries.

Then there are that infinite number of human beings that I don’t know.  On my daily (and solitary) walks, I often meet them.  They show up on my TV screen and on Facebook.  They too are part of my family.  I must include them as well.

I don’t have to like everyone.  For sure, I don’t.  But I do need to love everyone … not the possessive “You’re mine” type of love, but a far wider embrace.  We’re together on this planet.  Your life – apparently unknown to me – is also deeply known.  In whatever language, in whatever environment, you pass through the same joys and sorrows as I do.  You are my brother and my sister.

And so I stay away from your body … but not your soul.

 

The Men of the Deeps

They’re all coal miners – active or retired – on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. They sing of their lives. Dressed in overalls, they walk onstage in the dark, their way lit only by the lamps of their helmets.

I’ve never known this life of heat, claustrophobia and exhaustion. Teaching exercises the mind, not the biceps. And the classroom isn’t a health hazard. Conditions in the mine, however, often led to “black lung”:

I have it very bad. My dad died of it actually and I can barely walk up the stairs or anything because it really stops me from any physical activity at all.

The Men of the Deeps sing many songs of the miner’s life. My favourite is Working Man:

It’s a working man l am
And I’ve been down under ground
And I swear to God if l ever see the sun
Or for any length of time
I can hold it in my mind
I never again will go down under ground

In the dark recess of the mines
Where you age before your time
And the coal dust lies heavy on your lungs

The choir’s director captures the impact that these men have:

When you look out from the stage and see grown men crying, you realize that our story in this small corner of the world is not only our story – you could take this story to England, to West Virginia, to Saskatchewan. There are coal mines all over the world and that makes our story relatable.

I pray that audiences continue to relate to these working men, and to anyone who suffers in body and mind to feed their family.

Lifeguard

Christie Blatchford was a miracle, an outspoken columnist for all four Toronto newspapers over her career.  She died yesterday from lung cancer.

I remember reading her in the Toronto Sun.  Right now, this quote fits her perfectly:

I can’t remember what you said
I can’t remember what you did
But I will always remember
How I felt when I was around you

Christie opened my eyes.  She showed me a powerful woman, a powerful human being, a straight shooter.  She touched thousands of lives.

I don’t want to be Christie Blatchford.  I want to be more fully Bruce Kerr.  Still, there was so much to admire … and so many people who revered her:

Blatchford passionately championed crime victims, Canada’s soldiers, Canada’s athletes – particularly Olympians – and publicly obsessed over law and order issues.  In court, sitting in the front row, she would be relentlessly grabbing at tissues, weeping as she chronicled evidence of child abuse and neglect.  And then she made readers weep when reading her account of the injustice.

In 1977, a copy editor at the Globe made changes and cuts to her sports column without consulting her, and the next day she called the rival Toronto Star.  She started writing for the Star soon after.

[In Afghanistan] she demonstrated to all of us that there was no place too remote or austere for her to live with us in, no situation too dangerous, no Canadian soldier too rough or crude for her not to win over with her unique directness, toughness and impeccable common sense.

[Christie] It was scary, so raw and important at the time, that nothing else will really match that experience.  I loved being with the soldiers.  I loved the fear.  I loved the excitement, the whole thing.

Blatchford connected with people in her stories in unconventional ways.  In some cases, she would hug them and befriend them beyond the confines of journalism.  At one extended trial, a witness became so attached to her that he reached out to clasp her hand for support as he nervously walked up the aisle to testify.

She would frequently help young reporters, all the while exhibiting her renowned profanity.

She was a model for knowing how to put your faith in your truths and not worry about the backlash, not worry about how people respond.  She was unafraid and unapologetic about her views.  It was inspiring for me.

She sparked visceral response.  Nobody was on the fence about Christie.  They either loved her or hated her.  She was never about the middle ground.  She had the most consistent moral compass of anyone I’ve ever encountered.

She took flying lessons.  She was a lifeguard, played basketball, ran marathons.  She was tenacious in everything she did.

I once signed a book for Christie Blatchford. and on the inside page I called her my hero.  She read the scribbled words, turned to me and rather succinctly told me to piss off.  Only she didn’t use the word “piss”.  Then she hugged me.

***

Thank you, Blatch.  You done good

Choosing “This”

Sometimes I look back on my life and ask what moments I’m most proud of. Right now, one stands out. Maybe thirty years ago, I had gall bladder problems. The pain was intense. I spent a few nights in hospital. I remember talking to a nurse who seemed sad, even depressed. I remember willing myself to contribute to her, to somehow lighten her load. My body hurt a lot but I managed to rise above that. How?

Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. If we’re really hungry or sore, he thought there was no way that our urge to love could come through. I loved your work, Abe, but I wonder. What beauty can we human beings create in the moment, no matter what the world is sending our way?

If my pain is 8 on a scale of 10, it’s some stretch to float my hand down a loved one’s cheek. But what if it’s 4? Do I need perfect comfort in order to give? I don’t think so.

In moments of heat or deflation, I often use a key word to remind me of what’s important. One is “this”. The opportunity is to embrace all that the present brings, rather than yearning for what is not here and not now … “that”. Another is “give”, which brings that dear nurse to mind. Am I willing to send love in virtually every circumstance? My goodness, what a challenge.

If I sit around waiting for life conditions to be perfect before moving towards another human being with care, I lose a lot of zest, connection and aliveness. Seems like a pretty expensive choice.

***

So … my future beckons. The world of people roams by my window. I choose to open the front door, walk down the path and say “Hi!”

Day Seven: Living Fully

During the Evolutionary Collective seminar on the weekend, I got to experience some attitudes which allow us to make a powerful difference in the world.

***

One participant shared that she often felt like she was squeezed between the luggage on a bus.  Our leader countered that we need to take a seat on the bus.  Hmm.  So … I’m just as important as anyone else.  I belong.  I have a part to play.  I deserve to be here.  Who cares if someone else has more life experience, more smarts, a more open heart?  Not important.  What is crucial is that we talk to each other and allow ourselves to influence each other.

I’m no better than other passengers and no worse.  In fact, the whole comparison business doesn’t serve anyone.  Together we can flow towards the future, sharing our connection while also allowing each person’s uniqueness to blossom.

***

At a social gathering full of adults and kids, a four-year-old girl came to the centre of the action and said “Everyone stand up.”  They did.  “Now hold hands.”  They did.  It wasn’t a bunch of grownups humoring a kid.  It was a natural response to the power of another human being, who just happened to be very young.  Our age, gender, personality and knowledge don’t matter.  We get to throw ourselves out into the world and impact others.  We each have the juice inside to to be forthright and assertive.  Now, can we bring that to the outside?

***

Let’s say you have a negative pattern that keeps repeating.  You’re awfully tired of it.  What’s possible is to quietly say “No.  I’m not doing that anymore.”  A determination without fanfare.  A declaration.  I realize that some deep traumas (such as the ones which reside in me) need a more extensive strategy but others are perfectly susceptible to a sudden stop.  “I don’t like what caffeine does to me.  I don’t like what aspartame does to me.  That’s it.  No more caffeinated coffee or tea.  No more Diet Coke.”  So there.

***

I don’t have to shut myself down.  I don’t have to settle down.  I can be a very big Bruce, even if some folks say that’s too big.  And I can find someone to share my life who won’t back away when I’m being powerful.  She won’t run away.  Instead, she’ll beckon me closer.  “Give me all you’ve got.  I want all of you.”  Sounds pretty rare, both in the giving and the receiving, but why not?  Why should I tone myself down in my passion and commitment because someone might get uncomfortable?  Well … I shouldn’t.  The planet needs all of us to be at the top of our game – to be willing to express, to give, to disrupt the status quo.  If not us, then who?

***

Stand up
Stand up straight
Look the world in the eye

Day Five: Out and About in NYC

There’s an Evolutionary Collective internet gathering at 2:00 pm. Terry and I have just said goodbye, as he catches his bus to New Hampshire, and me the subway to Central Park. At the corner of Love and Power, we looked way deep into each other’s eyes and said what was inevitable. We are together, him and me, in the service of life evolving on this planet. Distance means nothing.

Speaking of power, consider the express train northward. It hurtles through space, blasting past local stops, rocking and rolling and surging. I feel the power within as the subway shakes in the power without.

Speaking of love, consider the black woman standing in front of me. She wears a shining black heart-shaped backpack, with a gold zipper. The whole thing vibrates. And she has no idea how moved I am.

I need to be on time. Being more than a minute or two late means not being on the call. Out of the subway staircase, it looks like three blocks to the park. Turns out to be four. I need to be away from the street noise and onto a bench. At 1:57 they are missions accomplished.

As the call begins, it’s time for my toque, hood and mittens. Joggers are flowing past. “Deb”, my partner in the mutual awakening practice that makes up half of our time, is sitting in her home in California. She loves seeing the cold and the runners and the bare trees. It’s clear to both of us that these moments are far beyond her and me. The folks passing by are part of us. We include them in our caring.

A young girl and her dad, both bundled up against the weather, come strolling along. She moves right up to me and points my way. I shift gaze from my Californian friend to my new one. Smiles both ways. “Hi” from me. “Squirrel!” from her. She was pointing to the bundle of fur that was scampering behind me. Yes, let’s include everybody. A minute later, she and dad are waving goodbye. Me too.

(Tuesday) Later it’s a beer and nachos in Dylan Murphy’s, an Irish pub on Third Street. Cozy. Gemma, the bartender, has a lilting accent and a soft smile. We talk about life. She asks me why I’m in New York. I tell her about the work of the EC. I sum it all up with the word “eyes”, as I look into hers.

I’m an evangelist but naturally people don’t like to be cornered, compressed, told they should do something. So I simply say, “If you want to know more, Google ‘Evolutionary Collective.'” Absolutely enough said.

Today I’m heading to the MET – the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ll let you know all about it in a few hours.

Day Two: Being of Service

Today was the first full day for the Evolutionary Collective Core weekend. The core folks have been living this consciousness of care and inclusion for years. I just began last April. There is much for me to learn, but today such an opening was balanced with an intense focus on serving the participants.

The support team was setting up the room well in advance of the 10:00 am start time. I admit I’m meticulous about such things – virtually anal. The cloths on the round tables at the front had to hang just so, a few inches above the floor. No dragging. The flip chart legs had to be exactly level. No tilting. And the carpet had to be absolutely clean. No lingering flotsams and jetsams. I bet that last task took me half an hour, picking up little offenders with my thumb and first finger. I was taught decades ago that I shouldn’t let anything distract the learners from absorbing the teachings.

Throughout the day, I was a mic runner. The idea was to be prompt, gentle and essentially invisible when Patricia called on a volunteer to speak. Watch them like a hawk for a slightly raised hand. Ask them to stand up if they haven’t already (I wasn’t good at that). Make sure the mic is on! Know when to take it back from the speaker. Co-ordinate with the other mic runner to cover the room. It was an art form, a dance, an imperfect support of the soul’s shares.

Finally, the photos. The folks had all given permission for candid shots but I didn’t want to be intrusive. I roamed around the room, looking for the best angles. I sought faces that were exploded in joy, or looking deep into their partner’s eyes. I looked for the heart of the inside clearly displayed on the outside … and found what I was looking for. After the day was done, I sat in the hotel lobby, zoomed in on several pics, and created some tender close-ups. It made me happy.

New York was on the back burner today. Human togetherness took centre stage, as it should.

Gabrielle Daleman

Gabrielle is a Canadian figure skater who has done well at home and internationally. As with most elite athletes, she has devoted much of her life to her craft.

At the Canadian Figure Skating Championships this week, Gabrielle was leading after the short program. Then it was time for the long skate, which would decide who gets the gold medal:

But the 21-year-old from Newmarket, Ontario, a bronze medallist at the 2017 world championships, fell twice in her free skate, and nearly fell twice more, plummeting to fifth place. She burst into tears after her marks were shown.

I saw her face fall to her hands, and she wept deeply. My eyes moistened. There was a human being in agony on the other side of the TV screen, and she was me. We’ve all been beaten up by life at times and we simply need to know that others care. Both of her coaches put their arm around her when the scores came up.

We’d like to do well whenever we enter the arena of life but there are times when it all falls apart. Strangely, I heard today about the exact opposite: my nephew scored with a few seconds left to win his high school basketball game. The gym erupted in joy. Ecstasy and despair – strange bedfellows, but they show up for each of us.

Gabby was interviewed on TV after the competition. First of all, she showed up. No hiding under a pillow. Tears rimmed her eyes as she spoke, and her gaze was strong as she looked at many thousands of us. Head up … speaking the truth. I was blown away.

This athlete has mental health problems and has admitted so publicly. What an example for each of us – nothing hidden, the warts exposed as clearly as the shining smile. Wow.

“Athletes who are attracted to figure skating are perfectionists, which is about being concerned with the achievement of perfection,” said Rebekah Dixon, who holds a Master’s degree in developmental psychology.

“This leads to being more focused on other people seeing you as perfect, which in itself is a problem, because you’re focusing on something that is unattainable.”

Gabrielle sunk low for awhile, and spent months away from skating, dealing with her demons. How many of us face similar gargoyles every day, but no one else knows? It might be physical problems, relationships, money – all most likely under the umbrella of self-esteem. How important is it for me to see every person I meet as probably in the middle of a life problem that’s very tough? Very important. A kind word, a smile, a hand on the shoulder … can heal.

The rink was a great place for Daleman. She experienced success and accomplishment – satisfactions that were far harder to come by at school. Daleman has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a learning disability. The challenges she faced in the classroom led to teasing and bullying by the other students.

Even with acid comments and demeaning looks coming her way, Gabby skated. She trained. She persevered. And she will continue to do so.

I’m glad you’re on the planet, Gabrielle Daleman
You inspire me to be great
Thank you

Dancers

I was off to another local high school this morning, this time to see a dance extravaganza with the Grade 6 kids.  I like the teens but my heart beats most deeply with the 11-year-olds.  There’s an enthusiasm, spontaneity and innocence that captures me.

There must have been fifty dancers onstage at various times.  I loved to see that their heads were up, in contact with life.  I couldn’t tell if they were truly making eye contact with us or if they were focused on the back wall.  No matter … they were engaged.

The auditorium was pretty full when we arrived but there were seats off to the side.  Soon after we sat down, I realized that there were lots of developmentally delayed kids near us.  Excellent.  And they enjoyed the whole show, which had to be at least two hours.  What a great demonstration to our students that everyone needs to be included.

One young lady in the front row often stood up and did her own twirls in response to the performers.  Good for her.  And good for the staff member sitting beside who let her express.  Some teens made occasional spontaneous noises as the dancers danced, and one student seemed to be having breathing problems.  It was all a welcome part of our gathering.

Almost all of the dancers were girls.  There were maybe five boys.  That made me sad.  It was such a great performance that I’m hoping some male elementary students were inspired to join the fun once they show up at high school.  The boys who danced were very expressive.  I imagine it took some courage for them to be up there, given the possibility of razzing from some friends.  Congratulations, guys, for being willing to do what you want to do.

The dance troupe was a celebration of difference – racially, culturally, age, body type and cognitive ability.  None of those distinctions mattered.  I saw a heavier girl take centre stage and do various flips and swirls with grace and strength.  She was a star.

There were so many different costumes … even top hats were on proud display.  The music was all over the map, including Queen’s We Are The Champions.  Many of us in the audience sang along with that one.

What a mass of work it must have been to pull this performance off – the dancers, the stage crew, the lighting crew, the teachers.  I hope each participant left the stage knowing that they had contributed to something big, that they had enthralled many of the elementary kids, and that possibly they had recruited some future Grade 9 students.  They also touched this volunteer who still loves to dance.  Thank you.

 

 

 

Extraordinary Ordinary Folks

I was walking down Weston Road in Toronto yesterday and told myself that I needed a hot dog. I didn’t, really. What I wanted was a visit with Rosina. She and her husband George own a tiny restaurant called God Blesses Canada. My history there has been yummy ice cream cones but my shivering bones weren’t up for that particular menu item. A hot dog would do nicely.

Rosina came out from behind the counter to greet me, and once I had unbundled from my winter togs, she gave me a big smile. How lovely to be remembered.

We must have talked for fifteen minutes before I got around to ordering anything. Rosina’s calm reminded me of the folks in Senegal, and I reminisced about their beauty. She was interested in my journey and was happy that I had been welcomed so.

“Any kidnapping of white folks in Senegal?” Ouch. “No, not at all.” > “It’s a big problem where I’m from – Nigeria. I don’t want to go back. Canada is home.”

Rosina told me about her mother. The family lived in the jungle. The women were naked. The men wore some large leaves around the middle to cover the naughty bits. When mom was 12, a man of maybe 25 returned to the home village from the big city, looking for a wife. He picked Rosina’s mother. It was arranged that the girl would live with him in the city. She and her grandma travelled there. The girl, and maybe both of them, entered the city with no clothes on. Can you imagine the trauma and disorientation for the child? The new husband swiftly found her some garments.

Rosina, like her mother, was deposited in an arranged and essentially loveless marriage. How very sad. Since then, Rosina escaped her husband, went to Canada, and fell in love with George. She’s a committed Christian and has served many homeless people in her coffee shops in Toronto and Keswick, Ontario. Rosina wants to adopt a child from Haiti and bring him or her to Canada.

I read a sign in the restaurant that talked about brutal conditions in Nigeria and how Rosina gives in Canada. I looked back at her and saw a glowing face, a kind person. Someone who undercharges me for a hot dog and bottle of water. Thank you, Rosina.

Next on my menu was the Weston Arena, built a very long time ago. It’s the home of hockey teams and a snack bar. I was hoping that the chuckly fellow I’d seen before would be serving up “The World’s Best Fries”. (Sorry, you Belgian readers) And there he was … chuckling.

I asked Wayne “Do you have any of those French fries that are second best in the world?”

“No! They’re the absolute best in the world.”

Okay, Wayne, okay. I’ll stop arguing the point. We continued to say silly things to each other. I sang a snippet from a song to Wayne’s admittedly grumpy co-worker. The guy stared. Wayne doubled over in laughter. I’d like to get to know this guy.

I entered the frozen arena with my world’s best and a Diet Coke. I could see my breath, and in the background were two teams of 12-year-olds – mostly boys and happily a few girls. They were skating like the wind and sometimes getting weak shots on net. It was so cool to see. What was uncool were the two male coaches. They took turns throwing around the F-word, aimed at the referee or an opposing player. What a contrast to Wayne and what dubious role models for all those young folks.

Think I’ll rest my brain cells in memories of Rosina and Wayne. Extraordinary.