Just Be There

I was cruising The Toronto Star newspaper tonight when I came upon an article about a dad and his adult daughter. They had agreed to make a cake together for her young godson. Dad was pooped and wanted to order from a bakery. She persisted and he got to learn a little more about life:

My baby girl has grown into a generous, tolerant, openminded young woman. I swallow my pride and head to the kitchen to make the cake but little do I know that the lesson is not over. “Dad, I don’t want you to make the cake. I just want you to be there.” Who is the parent now?

It’s so tough sometimes to BE THERE. It’s so easy to forget that sometimes just sitting down at the end of the kitchen island is what they need and want.

I like to think that I often have cool things to say, in voice or in print. Many a time my generosity flows out. And the moments of eye contact that I share can touch people.

There are also the other times, when I’m so tired in the body, so distracted in the mind, so wounded in the soul. It feels like I have nothing to give … but that’s not accurate. I can offer my physical proximity to human beings, especially the hurting ones. Here are some places where I can plunk myself down:

1. The Grade 6 class of twenty-six kids and one adult. I volunteer there.

2. The Belmont Diner – at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter or at the table for six to the left of the front door. I often eat breakfast there.

3. The home that is the home of Acoustic Spotlight house concerts every Wednesday evening. I listen to folk music there.

4. The group internet calls of the Evolutionary Collective. I’m there about five times a week.

5. Times when I sit with one other person, in my home or out for lunch. My presence is a gift to them as theirs is to me.

Lots to give
Apparently little to give
They’re neighbours, you know

The Man

I’m sitting in a Grade 9 classroom at my local high school, facing about fifteen teens.  My job is to talk about writing.  On one level, I don’t know what to say.  But there are other levels.

What are the dreams of these young people?  What are their passions?  Maybe I can say something that will open their eyes to their heart, whether that’s about writing or playing piano or acting in Mary Poppins.

Let’s see what I have to say:

***

I was at Hugh’s Room on Sunday night awaiting my hero.  What I didn’t know was whether he was awaiting me.  Gordon Lightfoot’s music has moved me since the 1960’s, when I hung out at a coffee house in Yorkville in Toronto.

This was a tribute concert for Gord.  At the table, my server winked at me when I asked if he was coming tonight.  Oh my God!  I knew it wasn’t a “come hither” look.  Gordon was really going to grace us with his presence.

No sign of the man up to intermission.  Maybe six singers gave us their cool interpretations of Lightfoot songs, such as Did She Mention My Name?

Did she mention my name just in passing?
And when the talk ran high, did the look in her eyes seem far away?

I was moved, and at the same time felt the need to visit a certain room downstairs.  As I stood at the urinal, I told my neighbour how I had all my fingers crossed that Lightfoot would show up.

“He’s here!”

(Stunned silence)

“He’s sitting at a back table, on the right, having dinner with his friends.”

I threw myself up the stairs and casually slowed past the back right tables in the hall.  There was a fellow with his back to me, hair flowing well below his shoulders.  I moved past him and then snuck a glance backward.  The man himself, looking awfully ordinary, not the stuff of legend.

I was sitting across the room from Lightfoot, and as the performers continued to interpret his words in the second half, I often looked back at him.  Sometimes he was alone with his friends.  Sometimes the paparazzi crowded around, seeking photos, handshakes, contact.  C’mon, folks – leave him alone.  Let him eat in peace.

Then there were the moments when Lightfoot seemed to be feeling into his songs, as voiced by far younger musicians.  One of my favourite pieces is Song For A Winter’s Night:

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon the page
The words of love you sent me

If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
Upon this winter night with you

When Laura Spink settled into the first phrases of the song, Gord lowered his head to his arms.  As she toned the delicate words of love, he remained still on the table.  At the final chord, he raised himself and applauded.  What was the dear man thinking as she sang?  Was it a lover long gone?  Was it sadness?  Was it peace?  To be watching him as the story unfolded was a blessing.

Lightfoot is an ordinary human being and an extraordinary poet.  We are the richer for him being with us.

***

Back to the teens.  I was only partway through my post as the bell came close.  I was happy … so happy.  I had talked to them as I typed away, sharing the decisions I was making on the fly.  I told them that my biggest word in writing is “trust”.  I know that good words will come from my fingers.  It may take time, but they’ll be there.  What I write needs to “sing” to me, or there’s no sense in creating it.  Other fine words are “real” and “natural”.  Nothing forced.  Sitting back at times and letting what wants to emerge bubble out.

I encouraged these young folks to listen inside for their passion.  For some of them, it’s clear already, not so for others.  And be willing to let that passion morph into something else if it wants to.  Write or sing or dance or play or build what pleases you and intend that your creations contribute to human beings.

I know that I’m on the planet to love people and make them laugh.  May all of us see why we’re here.

 

The Man in the Arena

Today the kids in Grade 6 were at the Jaffa Environmental Education Centre for a day of wilderness structure-building, orienteering and fire-starting.  I wanted to see them again so I showed up in the afternoon.  Apart from my coughing, I had fun – it’s always great to talk to 11-year-olds.  A few kids hugged me.  One boy asked permission first and then came close.  Very sweet.

We headed back to the school in time to catch the buses home and that same boy came up to me with a gift-wrapped present.  Inside were yummy cookies and waffles plus a pair of cool blue socks, with little bow ties scattered on them.  The gem, though, was the card.

I had met the mom just before I left for Senegal, at the school’s Christmas concert.  We got talking.  I told her about my wife Jody and the book I’d written about her, and mom wanted a copy.  I got one from my car Scarlet and signed it for her.  Little did I know …

“Jenny” lost her dad six months ago and misses him so very much.  Jody’s book helped her heal.  Wow.  That makes me feel so good …to think that my dear wife contributes to others’ lives after her death.  Thank you, Jodiette.  You sure contributed to mine.

Jenny wrote: “You were part of my journey and choosing happy.”  Wow again.  Thank you, Jenny.

Towards the end of her card, Jenny mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech in 1910.  He’s a former President of the United States.  Here’s what he had to say:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

And then … “I think you’re an arena man too!”

When people praise me, I’ve learned to simply say “Thank you” from my heart.  I know that life is a mysterious mixture of praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that these experiences touch us all.  Attaching myself to praise doesn’t work.  Acknowledging my good points does.

I do believe that I am:

Actually in the arena
Marred by dust and sweat and blood
Someone who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again
Someone who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions
Someone who spends himself in a worthy cause

***

Does this make me better than anyone else?
No

On we go

Cigarette Butts

Two years ago, I was talking to two Grade 5 boys about my thrice-weekly walks down to the Belmont Diner for breakfast.

“Maybe sometime I’ll pick up garbage as I go.  That’d be good – keep Belmont clean.”

“Well, why don’t you start doing that?”

“Okay … sure.”

But I didn’t, for months.  Then one day I was sorting through some documents and I came upon a slip of paper with the kids’ names on it.  Oops.  I didn’t do what I said I’d do.  I pride myself on keeping my word, but clearly not this time.

I began making a half-hearted effort to get the job done, which amounted to picking up stuff twice over the next year.  No oomph, no commitment, no satisfaction.

I woke up one morning this spring and found myself headed to the closet where I keep plastic grocery bags.  I plucked out two.  Apparently a fire was being kindled.  On my way downtown, I found no shortage of plastic wrappers, bits of paper, tiny metal things, pieces of wood and … cigarette butts.  All the items on list were fine for pickup but not those gross little white cylinders.  Yuck!

And then one day, without thought, I started stooping for the butts.  They lay mostly in the gutters so I began to walk there, with the occasional thought that motorists will think I’m crazy.  I’d move back onto the sidewalk to avoid parked cars and to capture other butts, plus assorted flotsam and jetsam, but then I’d return to the gutter.

The yuckiness had somehow disappeared.  “Hey, I’ll wash my hands when I get to the Diner.”  And the rhythm of removing cancerous waste said hello.  My previous trips down Main Street allowed me eye contact with drivers and the occasional wave, things that I want in my life.  But now I was head down, focused on the task at hand.  And I was perfectly fine with not meeting others’ eyes for a wee part of the day.

Okay, it’s time to go for breakie.  Time for the bags.  Time for my eagle eye.

In the spirit of keeping you in suspense (and having you return to read my next post!) I’ll tell you soon about how many butts I picked up today.  I’m used to goals amounting to “more” of something.  To soothe our dear environment, today my goal is “less”.

I’m off.

An Extraordinary Woman

I had coffee with a friend of mine today and talk turned toward her mother.  “Emily” is 86-years-old, a long retired teacher.  My friend glowed as she recounted her mom’s exploits.

Emily was about to graduate from Grade 13.  A recruiter came by to see if she would be interested in teaching in a rural schoolhouse – Grades 1 to 8.  Emily, age 19, said yes.  “It was pretty easy.”  Really?  Eight different lessons most of the time?  Apparently the older kids were brilliant in helping the younger ones.  It was just what you did.  And no yard duty at recess – the senior students watched out for the young’uns.

For part of her career, Emily taught in a region that had lots of black folks.  As a young adult, she was often approached by white parents who didn’t want their kid standing next to a black child in the school play.  Her answer was always the same:  “If that’s how you feel, you’ll have to take your child out of the play.  I’m not moving one student away from another for no good reason.  All children need to be respected.”  Pretty gutsy and marvelous from a young teacher.  Some parents complained to the school trustee who supervised Emily, wanting her to be removed.  The trustee remained firm in support of his teacher.  He no doubt knew a quality human being when he saw one.

At one point, Emily moved elsewhere and applied for a teaching position in the new district.  The board offered her a salary far less than what she had been receiving.  Emily simply said “No.”  If they wanted her to teach, they needed to pay her what she was worth, what she had been paid before.  The board caved in.

For the bulk of her career, Emily taught Grade 5 and 6 in a little village.  She loved the energy of those kids.  She taught the children of her former students, and even the grandchildren.  Virtually everybody in town knew Emily, and her kindness to all was legendary.

Emily’s had some mobility issues recently but she still gets out to the local grocery store.  Her daughter was worried about how mom was getting the groceries from the store into her car, but Emily allayed all fears: “Last week, I asked the cashier if someone could help me with the bags.  Further back in line, a 60-ish fellow said ‘It’s okay, Mrs. Smith, I’ll carry them out for you.'”  Emily had taught the gentleman fifty years ago.  Love lives on.

Dear Emily, I hope you write a book about your storied life.  I’ll be the first in line to buy a copy.  Thank you for giving who you are.

Roy McDonald

Roy was a longbearded poet who walked the highways and byways of downtown London, Ontario, greeting all who crossed his path. Roy died in February at the age of 80.

Today, on one of the small workshop stages of the Home County Folk Festival, Roy’s friends paid tribute. Love was in the air. The first speaker asked us “What would life be like if all of us were as unique, as thoroughly ourselves, as Roy was?” Oh my. What a fine question. See the power that one human being can have. Are we inspired to let our souls bubble up into our homes and schools and offices? I hope so.

Roy was known as “The Mayor of Richmond Row” – a fun stretch of shops and restaurants. One speaker said that his death left a huge hole in downtown London. Yes indeed. Another told us “Many people loved Roy. Many others didn’t quite get him. But nobody who’s met Roy will ever forget him.” And those words also ring true.

“Did he ever come up to you and offer to do a rendition of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’?” Sadly, not for me. What I remember is a late night conversation at the McDonalds on Wellington Road, sprinkled with wisdom and choice nuggets from his poetry. Lucky me.

Roxanne Andrighetti sang one of her songs for Roy, and the words point to the man:

Did we take hold of each of our days
Before all this passes away?

And to finish things off, another young woman favoured us with Roy’s favourite song – Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Goodbye, dear Roy. Thank you for being in the world.

For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

We Can

I read an article in the Toronto Sun this morning that laid bare the thoughts of Gianni Infantino, the President of FIFA, which is the world soccer association.  He was talking about the good that soccer can do, how the game can contribute to a coming together of people.  His words had me thinking about my life, how I want it to mean something to others, and how those others can impact their loved ones.  Gianni was speaking for me.

***

There are many things we’d like to change in the world.  There are many things we are not happy about that happen in the world.  It’s not in one country.  It’s not in one region.  It’s not in one area but in the entire world.

We try to work to do and speak and make things change for the good wherever we can.  But here we are, at the World Cup.  We are focusing on football.  We are focusing on celebrating football.

And actually, I think one of the things we are missing in the world – more and more – is our capacity to speak to each other and have a dialogue.  If there’s no dialogue or discussion … then we cannot go anywhere.

If football and the World Cup can contribute to open some channels and discussions and help those who have to take the important decisions to at least start to speak to each other and realize there are people living everywhere in the world – some in better, some in worse conditions – then we have done something and we have given a contribution.

Football cannot solve all the problems in the world.  Football cannot change the past.  But football can have an impact in the future.  And maybe some people who are taking important decisions for our planet can take a look at what we trying to do in football and take some inspiration to try to address these issues.

We have to look forward, learning from what has happened without denying what has happened, with the respect to those who have been touched personally and directly from what has happened everywhere in the world.

If football can contribute a little bit … then I think it’s already a positive outcome.

***

What if I changed a word or two and really brought this home inside my skin?  It would sound like this:

There are many things I’d like to change in the world.  There are many things I am not happy about that happen in the world.  It’s not in one country.  It’s not in one region.  It’s not in one area but in the entire world.

I try to work to do and speak and make things change for the good wherever I can.  But here I am, in Belmont, Ontario, Canada.  I am focusing on my neighbours, and my friends at the Belmont Diner.  I am focusing on celebrating local life.

And actually, I think one of the things we are missing in the world – more and more – is our capacity to speak to each other and have a dialogue.  If there’s no dialogue or discussion … then we cannot go anywhere.

If my friends and I can contribute to open some channels and discussions and help those who have to take the important decisions to at least start to speak to each other and realize there are people living everywhere in the world – some in better, some in worse conditions – then we have done something and we have given a contribution.

We cannot solve all the problems in the world.  We cannot change the past.  But we can have an impact in the future.  And maybe some people who are taking important decisions for our planet can take a look at what we are trying to do in Belmont and take some inspiration to try to address these issues.

We have to look forward, learning from what has happened without denying what has happened, with the respect to those who have been touched personally and directly from what has happened everywhere in the world.

If we can contribute a little bit … then I think it’s already a positive outcome.

Yay for us

Moving On

Last year I volunteered in a Grade 6 class. I loved those 27 kids, and I still do. They’ve gone to another school and I rarely see any of them.

Today was a regional track meet for elementary schools in the area. I watched our Grade 5’s and 6’s in the morning and stayed to see some of my old conversation partners in the afternoon. They’re 13 and “on the road to find out”. Adults are okay but they need to be with their friends.

At various times, eight or nine kids came up to say hi. Last June they approached with hugs as we said goodbye for the summer. This time no hugs but still big smiles. Mostly these new teenagers didn’t have much to say. That’s okay. When I asked what they were most enjoying these days, shrugged shoulders were the norm. And that’s okay too. I was so pleased to see them. Soon they were off with their best buds, getting ready for their events or just hanging out. I smiled as they walked away. I know I’ve touched their lives but I’m of the past and the present has so many wonders to behold. May they have eyes to see.

Some of these kids may reappear in my life … or perhaps not. I’m fine with both. Go see what’s out there, dear ones, and who’s out there.

Mid-afternoon, one of the Grade 7 girls came over to talk. We yapped about this and that for fifteen minutes or so. It was lovely. And then she was bouncing away.

Remembering the past is pretty cool. Imagining the future widens my eyes. But any gifts I offer to the world are only in this very moment, repeated over and over till I die. Just like the kids, I’ll move on to the beings who choose to grace my doorstep.

Garbage

It was last year at school.  I was talking to some Grade 5 students, kids I didn’t really know because I worked with the Grade 6’s.  I told them that I often walk down the main street in my village of Belmont to have breakfast at the Diner.  And there’s just so much garbage on the lawns, sidewalks and gutters.  I felt like taking a plastic bag with me and picking up the litter.

Two boys – “Trevor” and “Jeremy” – challenged me to do it.  I said I would, and I followed through – twice.  Then I convinced myself to forget all about it.  I’d occasionally remember over the next several months, but I never again pulled a bag out of the closet.

That was last year.  This spring I’ve been consistently unconscious about the whole thing, until last weekend, when I was sorting through reams of paper that had accumulated.  I came upon a grocery receipt.  On the back, in my handwriting, were three words: garbage, Trevor, Jeremy.

I gulped.  I had forgotten that they were the two kids who challenged me.  On Tuesday, I approached them and fessed up to my lack of commitment.  They nodded.  I said that I’d be walking down Main Street to the Diner on Thursday morning and promised that, unlike my history, I would do what I said I would do.

Thursday morning was this morning.  Two plastic bags found their way into my coat pocket and I set off.  I was scared, which made no sense.  I figured out that I was worried about what people would think, seeing me stooped over on their lawn.  I said that I’d have mitts on because of the cold, and it would be too awkward to pick things up.  Then I agreed to do it, but set a limit – max of 50 items each way.  And what was that about?

I shook my head at the foibles that were issuing forth and walked down Robin Ridge Drive towards Main Street.  Paper, plastic bottles, plastic wrap, plastic ties, cardboard and shingles all found their way to the bottom of the bag.  I got emotionally stronger as each item descended, and by the time I was approaching the restaurant I didn’t give a hoot about what anybody thought.  Hey, for all I know, there were folks applauding from their cars.

A garbage can stood serenely outside of the Diner.  Forty-two pieces of society, and one torn plastic bag, were deposited by a Belmont resident.  I smiled.

On the way home, the other side of the street beckoned.  I picked up fifty-nine examples of flotsam and jetsam by the time I reached my porch.

How silly to be so worried.  How happy to be so contributing.  And tomorrow morning I’ll hold up a sign to Jeremy and Trevor which will simply say … 101.  Good for me.

Emerging

A few weeks ago, I was leaving the Aeolian Hall in London after a concert when a young woman said hi. I knew Noelle fifteen years ago when she was a Grade 6 kid at the school where I worked with a blind student. I also remember her sister Renee and their friend Hillary. Noelle told me that the three of them have formed a music group called The Pairs, featuring homemade songs and strong vocals. She told me they were part of a concert on March 23 and invited me to come.

My brain went into compute mode. March 23 was smack dab in the middle of a five-day trip to Toronto although nothing was on my schedule for that evening. The commute time was about two hours.

I said yes.

I would drive to London, take in the show, and then drive back to Toronto, no doubt getting in at midnight or later. Some people would see such behaviour as weird but not me. Seize the day, as Robin Williams told us in Dead Poets Society.

I stood at the front, listening to the girls sing. Except they’re 28 now. Young women. Great harmonies, great songs and a lovely caring among them. I smiled and clapped a lot. The Pairs are finding their way in the world and who knows where their musical path will take them.

The concert was a fundraiser for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Noelle talked to the crowd about how important it is that we be good to each other. She spoke of “relentless kindness”, a sweet turn of the phrase I thought. It was clear to me that these three women were becoming full human beings, contributing to the world. And it became even clearer when I heard them sing “Woman”:

Oh I’m woman, hear me roar
Oh I may not fit where I’m supposed to be
But I do what I need to make my heart soar
Oh I’m woman, hear me roar
And I won’t let you make a man outta me

I talked to Hillary, Renee and Noelle after the music. They were all pleased I had come. Me too.

Reconnecting with folks who were once young students is rare for me. Last night was a privilege. Many kids who were in my life have now stretched their wings in ways I’ll never know about. Good for them. I like to think I’ve made a contribution to many 12-year-olds. Actually, I don’t have to think it. I have.