Soft Venom

I was having dinner tonight at Wimpy’s Diner in London, savouring one of my favourite meals: Philly Cheesesteak.  Lots of beef, roasted veggies, melted cheese, coleslaw and ciabatta bun all decided that my mouth was an inviting target.  I agreed.  But a couple of tables away, there was trouble in River City.

I was reading on my phone about a 16-year-old girl named Jade who has a chance to make the Canadian Women’s Soccer Team for the upcoming World Cup.  I was enthralled with her spirit.  The energy near me in the restaurant was another thing.  A man’s deep voice kept inching into my consciousness.  There was a staccato forcedness as he talked to his female companion.  I couldn’t quite catch their topics but complaining seemed to sum up his presentation.  She said very little in reply.

More troubling was how he treated the young waitress.  It wasn’t blatant, where someone like me needs to confront him.  No, it was more subtle, but the intent was clear:

You’re not really a person.  You’re a thing, an object getting in the way of me
receiving and enjoying the perfect meal I deserve.

My serving friend was shaken, and more than once.  “Why weren’t certain options available on the menu?  The food was … (enter any negative term that comes to mind).  The service was … (ditto).  I’m upset about all this.”  The waitress returned twice with altered plates of food.  No thank you’s were to be found.  There was a low, rumbling grumpiness that wouldn’t go away.  The fellow seemed skilled in halting his barbs just before the onset of abuse.  Actually, though, I don’t think that’s true.  The series of calmly spoken digs at her accumulated to emotional violence.

I chose not to speak to him.  I chose to send love to her.  In retrospect, I should have included him in that love.  I didn’t talk privately to her about him but I did joke with her when it was time to pay the bill.  I told her about a time when I wasn’t paying attention as I had the machine in hand.  I thought I was doing my PIN number but instead I was at the tip part of the procedure.  Just before I clicked yes, I looked down in horror to see that I was about to leave my server $11,000!  Tonight I told the woman standing in front of me that I just couldn’t afford that with her.  We laughed together.

Did I make any difference tonight?  I’m clear that the answer is yes.  Not a confrontation in the spirit of defending the well-being of a teenager.  Not an empathy session with her.  But yes … a contribution.

1000

We interrupt these California musings for a public service announcement: Bruce Kerr is currently writing his one thousandth WordPress post.

Hmm. What do I do with this fact? Just let it be there, I guess. No shouting from the rooftops. No “Look at me!” Quiet.

I don’t know how many of you read my stuff. I don’t get many comments. I don’t know if my thoughts “land” in many. Both of those are okay. There’s a sense of walking into the unknown, hopefully with many friends beside me … but maybe not. What’s important is to keep throwing myself into the universe. If my heart falls to earth over the horizon, may it be a soft landing. May someone over there stop, look around, and ask “What was that?”

How do I celebrate 1000? Create a party for myself? Eat rich food and drink fine wine? Hop a flight to the Caribbean? No, no and no. Maybe just show up tomorrow in the Grade 6 class, and volunteer me to those kids. How those moments will show up … who knows? Just being in the presence of 12-year-olds will be enough.

And here’s another thought: if no one reads my experience of daily life, would I keep writing? I’ve always said that a diary is of no interest. Is it possible that, readership or no, I influence people in mysterious ways? I certainly glimpse how human beings touch me. So … whatever happens out there in my world, I will keep writing. Why not?

One thousand is feeling small right now. Not worse than two thousand. Just not important in the immense scheme of things.

There is magic to behold, and to create together. Let’s do it.

Day One: Have You Ever Been to Denver?

I’m sitting in a pub, watching Toronto Airport passengers chow down – some happily engaged in travelling-type conversation and others solitary, perhaps contemplating what their life’s journey will be. Ahh, that’s such a mystery. Out on the concourse, carry-on suitcases zip by with their owners, bound for Gate This or That. Some folks stroll. Others push hard towards boarding times. All is well.

Denver is three hours and forty-five minutes away, Monterey, California a couple of hours beyond that. My layover in Colorado will steep me in airport architecture and the comings and goings of more passengers. I’ll be able to say that I’ve been to Denver, but I won’t. Just like people, it takes time to know the insides of cities. In the same spirit, I don’t know Amsterdam, The Netherlands or Lisbon, Portugal. Name-dropping, anyone?

The five days of the Evolutionary Collective’s seminar in California will offer me the insides of many cosmic travellers. We give each other what is most precious, and we allow the giving to flow well beyond “the group”, for all Earth-dwellers need love. The surface contact of typical social discourse just won’t do on the shores of the Pacific. We’re up for bigger and broader things.

***

Now I’m in Denver and the last three hours have been spectacular. Not because of the scenery, other than the swoop over downtown Toronto on takeoff. After that, it was clouds. The majesty was in the woman who sat beside me across the States. Her name is Shanti. She’s a podiatrist who lives with her husband in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those details are fine but they don’t touch the spirit of the person. How is it that I’m so blessed to meet such a bevy of fine human beings? I don’t know but I’m totally willing for this to continue.

Shanti told me so many things. I’m sitting here trying to keep her stories straight … unsuccessfully! We both laughed hard when I admitted my confusion. And it doesn’t matter. If I get the facts all jumbled, it’ll just be more fun to read.

Shanti told me about her once nine-year-old daughter who went on a mission trip to Ecuador with church members. This “girly girl”, who at home had to look perfect, didn’t give a hoot about that in the jungle. The group was building a road and the young one spent her days felling plants with a machete. Mom showed me a long ago photo of one beaming young lady.

Then there was longer ago – a family trip to Barbados. Shanti’s childless aunt and uncle lived there and insisted that everybody stayed with them over Christmas. A fine time was had by all. And … the emerging tradition was repeated for the next twenty years! Longterm joy to everyone.

Shanti and I share the blessing of community. For her, it’s the church in Albuquerque. For me, it’s the worldwide members of the Evolutionary Collective. We’re both immersed in the deepest sense of family. In 2020, Shanti and her husband will travel to somewhere in the US for a retreat for church members from probably 90 countries. Maybe more than a thousand folks in this family. Truly a wow.

Do you get the sense of this person? I sure do. She lives her life in a reaching out, a being of service … a bottomless love.

Blessings abound.

Day Nine: Homeward

It’s over … my west coast communion with Evolutionary Collective friends and my sojourn in the world of Berkeley, California. I’m in the big bird heading to Toronto and Belmont and home. I’m happy in the going, in the abiding, and in the returning.

There was a lovely long lineup at airport security this morning. All I did was mention to the woman behind me that the post-and-strap system to create weaving lines of people was a great invention. And then we began. Priya is Indian in origin and is heading to Singapore to surprise her mom and dad. It’s a big anniversary for them and the husband has orchestrated a surprise party for his dear wife. Neither know about the daughter showing up. She’s so excited. We talked of love, family and the joy of reunion. It didn’t matter an iota that she was young and I was old, that she’s from the business world and I’m from education, that she’s a woman and I’m a man. We felt the same need for connection even though our time together was measured in minutes. We hugged goodbye.

***

A huge mural at the San Francisco Airport filled a wall. You’ll see a photo of it if you’re seeing this on Facebook. It celebrated immigrants finding a new home in the Bay Area. The words on the plaque nearby drew a parallel between those people and the birds who arrive in the nearby wetlands. The painting was orange and green and blue. Flying off the canvas was a mother lost in the eyes of her son, a father tossing his infant daughter high in the air, a likely husband and wife whose auras were blending, a woman holding the head of a monk, folks dancing … It was such a celebration of life, of being thoroughly alive. The power of art to transform.

***

I was packing up this morning when I came upon the card I bought yesterday. A huge owl in mid-flap is looking right at me as he bursts through the sky at sunrise. There’s such power in his gaze and upstretched wings. I want that to be me: unstoppable, unwavering, unaffected by crosswinds. He’s going to have a place of honour in my home as a reminder of what’s possible in life. He’ll be on my Facebook page too.

***

An hour to Toronto. I’m looking forward to being with my loved ones – young, medium and old. I’ll have stories to tell, and I’ll delight in theirs. Home … by midnight.

A Flood of Humanity

I think balance is a great thing, but sometimes … not. What would life be like if I crammed it with people, taking hardly any alone time? Not so great long term but how about trying it for a day? A friend told me that I love being with people so much that I could pretty much be in their presence hour after hour. Well, yesterday was the experiment. I didn’t plan it out but it’s how it worked out.

8:30 – 10:00

I sat with eleven Grade 9 students, one at a time, and wrote them messages in Jody’s book. I asked each one what they were passionate about and included that in my words. One girl talked about her commitment to make a difference in the world by leading the push for social justice. Very cool.

I also dropped into a Music class and joked with the teacher. I sang “a little number” for the kids – “3”! Some mouths turned up at the edges.

10:15 – 10:20

Messing with the mind of the young woman who served me at the bakery. Bring on the fresh bread! She laughed.

10:30 – 11:15

A late breakfast at Wimpy’s Diner. The section of my favourite server was full so I had only the occasional moments to say silly things to her from afar and give her snippets about Senegal. There’ll be a fuller conversation next time. The woman who did serve me smiled as she gave me extra peanut butter.

11:30 – 12:30

An online call with about thirty members of the Evolutionary Collective. I love looking at all the little rectangles, each containing a human being. I had a partner for part of the time and I told the group afterwards that he was Santa Claus, giving me the gift of himself. And he sure looks like Santa! Some folks agreed.

1:00 – 3:30

Volunteering in the Grade 6 class. I sat at an empty desk and marked Math tests, much to the interest of the kids sitting beside me. “How’d I do?” I showed them, leading to fist pumps and grimaces.

I told the 11-year-olds that I was heading to New York City on Thursday and asked the experienced ones what I should see there. Great enthusiasm came back about the 911 memorial and Times Square. The adult in me (or kid?) also wants to walk in Central Park and see a Broadway play.

4:15 – 5:15

On the elliptical at the gym. The fellow manning the front desk was all excited about turning 24 in two days. We compared ages. He told me that I was probably more fit than him. What delightful nonsense!

I actually had some alone time … just me and the rolling beast under my feet. I managed to get in some good conversation with the elliptical, however.

6:00 – 10:00

Dinner at my neighbours’ place. They were so eager to hear about Senegal and I was happy to oblige. I painted a picture of a very affectionate society and they seemed fascinated with the people I met. Holding hands with children as we walked down the dirt streets was an astounding experience. Overall, we talked and talked about the mysteries of life. Good food, good conversation, good friends. Four hours of quality blabbing.

10:30 – 11:30

Another Evolutionary Collective call, this time about twenty folks. I did a practice with a woman who’d I’d never seen before and within a couple of minutes it was like we were old friends. How is that possible? During the group sharing, I mentioned that my partner and I managed to talk about each other’s eyes for five minutes or more. From the outside, I realize this sounds very weird. From the inside, it was a blessing.

***

So there you have it … a very unusual day. I was nourished by human beings from dawn to bedtime. We’re all so fascinating, so different from each other, but down deep the same. Yay for us.

Day Four: Love Blossoms

It’s not just in the orientation: love can unfold when the soil is rich. Derek and I started our day at Café 64. A woman smiled at us in welcome as we walked in the door and she never stopped. It didn’t matter who Dawn was talking to – the love came rushing out of her eyes. A couple walked in with their very young kids and Dawn was down on one knee in a flash, cooing at the infant. I shook my head in wonder as she greeted new folks. Finally I asked her: “Do you smile in your sleep?” She smiled.

Now in the hotel, our Evolutionary Collective orientation was well underway. During one practice, I was opening to the love offered by my two partners. A fellow looked at me and said “I want you to be so very happy.” No one had ever said such a thing to me. His words and eyes went deep into my heart. I was transfixed. Such a pure wish for my well-being.

Later in the day, it was again my turn to be the focus of attention. Three partners gazed into my eyes and then shared what they saw inside me. I heard words such as “spark”, “surprised at being loved”, “explosions”, “you are love”, and “both childlike and wise”. I was nourished. I was seen. Near the end of my time, the others were asked to call forth even more of me, for me to be an even deeper Bruce. Woh. And when it was someone else’s time to be at the centre, I delighted in looking way deep into their eyes and calling forth their best.

Six of us went to supper, and unlike many of my group experiences, the conversation was not watered down. We wanted to serve each other. So often comments were responded to by one of us, rather than the new speaker immediately starting up a new topic.

At one point, after I had been joking with Derek, he got really angry with me, saying that I wasn’t respecting his boundaries. I went to his eyes and stayed there. Even though I was churning inside with the criticism, I loved him from eye to eye. We maintained the gaze for a long time, and held hands for a bit. In the words of one of our witnessing companions, we “returned to love”. I was moved by our courage to “stay on the inside”, to not let the issue overwhelm the relationship. And our friends held us in love.

A white rose shone amongst us all.

Stories Handed Down

I volunteer in a Grade 6 class. I read to the group and help individual kids with assignments. But what I love the most is telling stories from my life, in hopes that seeds will be planted in some of those kids.

Last week, I told them about meeting a Haida “watchman” in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago north of Vancouver Island. He told me about how “white men’s diseases” decimated the Haida population, and how hundreds of their children were stripped of their dignity in far away residential schools. I watched the kids’ faces. Many of them seemed to get the tragedy of it all.

This morning I had breakfast in the Belmont Diner. I sat at the counter with two local gentlemen, probably both of them in their 80’s. Stories were told, this time with me on the receiving end.

1. A young man walks along a plank suspended over a huge tub of molasses. He slips … and is instantly up to his neck in the stuff. Co-workers hauled and hauled and finally got him out of the tub. God only knows how he ever got cleaned up.

2. “Fred” lived right by the railway tracks. Before the world of lights and descending gates, he sat in his car and stopped traffic when he heard the train whistle. To while away the time, Fred drank beer. Apparently he polished off 24 bottles most days of his adult life … and lived to 90 or so.

3. Both of my companions had big run-ins with teachers. One got fed up with getting harassed for just having “a little fun”. One day in Grade 10 he walked out and never came back. A week later, he was working at the local hardware store.

The other chap went to a two-room school out in the country. His female teacher for Grades 5 to 8 was to be a woman who never smiled and appeared to hate boys. He was always being called out for something. Imagining three more years of this, my currently coffee-drinking friend went to his father and somehow got switched to another school. Future contact with the teacher was met with stony silence on both sides.

4. My little village of Belmont, many decades ago, had five gas stations! All this to serve a population of 500.

5. Then there was the story of an underaged guy getting into a bar in Detroit. The same fellow who was sitting beside me. I’ll spare you the heroic details.

***

While the tales were being spun with gusto, another fellow walked in and joined us at the counter. His first words:

The purple asters are covered with little yellow butterflies

So … old guys tell stories to a somewhat younger old guy who tells stories to 11-year-old kids. May it always be this way. It’s how we learn about life.

Just A Wave

I was returning from London this afternoon on our local freeway.  I took the off ramp towards Belmont and braked to the stop sign.  To my right were two lanes in my direction which merged into one a couple of hundred metres away.  To my left was the freeway overpass and I saw no one coming.  I pulled into the right lane and put on my left turn signal.  My side mirror showed a motorcyclist zooming along the left lane towards me.

If you were a fiction writer, how would you finish this story?  With a spectacular crash and heroic rescue?  A near miss?  The truth was far less dramatic.

I let the motorcyclist go past and then moved into the left lane.  He or she waved.

And I paused, feeling a warmth course through me.  I pondered the beauty and the simplicity.  It was a “thank you”.

***

About a week ago, I was driving to the school where I volunteer.  It’s way out in the country, surrounded by corn and soybean fields.  Almost all the students are bussed, but there is an exception.  I started braking in preparation for turning left into the parking lot.  I glanced left to the house beside the school and there was a girl walking down the driveway.  She waved at me.  The same warmth, the same smile.  Contact.

***

Three summers ago, I went on a road trip to Western Canada to visit some of Jody’s relatives and a few old friends of mine.  I stayed a couple of nights with a marvelous family near Kamloops, B.C.  We laughed a lot.  When it was time to say goodbye, I hugged everyone and got in Scarlet.  As I drove down their lane, I glanced in the rearview mirror.  Three human beings were standing in front of their house, each of them waving to me.  Ditto again.

***

Hi
Bye
I see you

Parallel

I was sitting in the living room this morning with Ihor, my Toronto B&B host. We talked about life. He mentioned that his all-time favourite teacher was Mr. Whiteside in Grade 7. He helped the kids feel like human beings, like they mattered.

Years later, Ihor saw Mr. Whiteside on the subway one evening. He was snoozing. Ihor decided to leave him alone. He no doubt was exhausted from a day of teaching, marking and creating lesson plans. The intended message was simply “Thank you.” But there was no joyous giving and no likely joyous receiving. Ihor was sad in the years proceeding that he didn’t speak up.

I listened … and remembered the same. It was about 1970 and I was a student at the University of Toronto. As I approached an old stone arch on campus, I looked through to see “a little old man” coming towards me from the other side. Closer, I recognized the fellow: it was Lester Pearson, the recently retired Prime Minister of Canada. Pearson had been a leader in promoting peace in the world. He was a true Canadian hero. “Say something, Bruce!”

And now we were both entering the arch. I looked towards him with a dry mouth … and averted my gaze as we passed by. (Sigh) My sadness lingered for many years.

Ihor nodded.

Then he began again. “Many years later, I was walking on the Lake Huron sand near Wasaga Beach. A guy was walking towards me. It was David Crombie, known as ‘the tiny perfect mayor’ of Toronto. Visions of Mr. Whiteside. I walked right up to him and said ‘Hi.’ David smiled back and we had a good talk.”

I nodded.

Then I shared the story which took place in Bruno’s Fine Foods, a few decades after Mr. Pearson. I wheeled my shopping cart into the next aisle, and there at the far end was a little old man, pushing his. Closer. I knew him. It was King Clancy, a former player and coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now he was 80 or 90. He reached for his shelf and I reached for mine. Soon we were cart to cart …

“Hello, Mr. Clancy.”

(Big smile) “Hello.”

“Thank you for your contributions to the Leafs and to hockey.”

“You’re most welcome.”

And we talked some more.

***

Lesson learned, eh, Ihor?
May we always remember

Two Folks

I met two fine human beings today. In the spirit of “scarcity”, I could tell you about one of them now and the other tomorrow. Then it would be smooth sailing. I wouldn’t have to create a topic from the events of Saturday.

I’m now shaking my head “No”. That’s not how I want to write this blog. Right now, I’ll talk about what’s fresh … and that means both people. Tomorrow something else will emerge.

***

I’m staying at my friends Anne and Ihor’s B&B in Toronto. Last night I met another guest and she beat me to breakfast this morning. Lucy is from Beijing, China. She’s been here for a week, helping her son get established at his new school. I couldn’t help it – I had to find out her Chinese name. “Zhao Yu.” I asked which name she preferred and it became clear that her English was very basic. Eventually she understood my question, and said “Lucy is okay.” After a bit more prodding from me, she smiled and said “Zhao”.

I struggled to understand Zhao’s English and yet I could glimpse the full human being across the table. She worked so hard to have me get her messages. At one point, she got a container of raspberries out of the fridge and offered them to me. So sweet of her.

Zhao had bought bacon at the grocery store but didn’t know how to cook it. Our hostess Anne was going to help out here. I could feel judgments creeping into my brain but as I let them be there they soon floated away. The woman simply hasn’t had any experience with bacon.

Zhao was all excited that I live in London, a two-hour drive from Toronto. She wants to visit there someday. Anne pulled out maps of Ontario and the world and it became clear that Zhao thought I lived in London, England. Again judgments intruded and again quiet looking allowed them to fade.

Zhao is an accountant in Beijing and had stories about the city of 30,000,000 souls. Absolutely crammed sidewalks, roads and subway cars. Clearly this was an intelligent woman and the real problem was my inability to grasp her words. She was groping through a language that was foreign to her, offering me raspberries along the way. Thank you, Zhao!

At one point in our meeting of minds, I learned that Zhao was scared last night as she walked along Weston Road near the B&B. The reason? Because there was virtually no one on the street. Anne explained that in this intense heat people stayed indoors.

Toronto (3,000,000) is in between my home Belmont (2800) and Beijing. I experience Toronto as crammed with folks and Zhao sees it as empty! Perspective is a lovely thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Zhao. We hugged our goodbyes.

***

I just spent an hour with Barry in the Tim Hortons at Bloor Street and Dufferin. I was sitting at a table with my only company being a toasted bagel. Since the place was full, he asked if he could join me. I was happy to say yes.

Barry said it’s important to ask permission, not just to barge in, and I immediately liked him. I sensed that here was a fellow with cool things to say. Good sensing, Bruce.

My new friend tows large passenger planes away from their berths at Toronto Airport. It’s a job with a huge responsibility to keep people safe. Barry’s been doing it for thirty years and knows how to avoid accidents and deal with emergencies. He quietly admitted that he’s saved a few lives along the way.

The more Barry talked, the more I sensed that he’s been the topic of conversation at many supper tables over the years … all complimentary, I’d guess. He’s stood up for probational employees and taken more than a few of them under his wing to teach them the subtleties of the trade. He’s told his charges that if there’s a big problem, and only one tow-er of the two gets to come home that night, it’ll be the one who’s learning. He takes care of his guys.

Barry’s the one that management calls on when there’s a bomb scare and a plane has to be moved away from the terminal and far out on the tarmac. It’s volunteer work and he always raises his hand.

I was sitting across from love and courage. It was a privilege to be there. We shook hands goodbye, with deep respect flowing through them.

***

I’m going to a folk music concert tonight at Hugh’s Room
Will another vessel of motherhood or brotherhood come by?
I say yes