What To Say?

I don’t know what to say.  And so I’ve said nothing to you for the past eleven days. “How can I write anything of value when the virus is so new and overwhelming for me?”  Well, perhaps now is the time to start.  If anything I say turns out to be helpful to even one person, then I (finally) feel the responsibility to say it.

I have no symptoms and I’m self-isolating at home.  I go for a long walk every day but other than that it’s a lot of couch time with my friends CBC News Network and CNN.  I’m 71, and I want to protect both me and my neighbours.  No doubt like you, this prolonged period of being physically alone feels so strange.

I miss the kids at school, and when my walks take me by their homes I keep hoping that a young one will bounce out their front door and say “Hi, Mr. Kerr.”  And a few times that’s happened.  Being away from children shows me in spades how deeply I value my face time with them.

***

I’ve watched countless interviews and press conferences.  How rarely does a politician answer a reporter’s question.  There’s a mountain of words spewing forth but also a sense of tapdancing around the truth.  When the official finally wraps up their comments, I long for a reporter to say “You didn’t answer my question.”  But I have yet to hear those words.  Yesterday, someone asked a health official “How many respirators are there in Canada?”  As the non-answer droned on for at least three minutes, I felt my exhale draw the life out of me.  But then, wonder of wonders, I heard the final word: “5000”.  So I’m hopeful that the truth will increasingly be revealed.

***

The Premier of Nova Scotia just gave a press conference, in which he declared a state of emergency for his province.  No more than five people gathered together.  Strict self-isolation for positive cases of the coronavirus.  And … the police will be on the streets enforcing these measures.  People who don’t follow these public health orders will be fined $1000 per day until they do.  Thank you, dear Nova Scotia Premier.  A clear principle of classroom management is the use of judicious consequences for breaking rules.  Clearly, adults need these as well.

***

I’m glad I wrote these words.  There’s a place for me within our worldwide response to this crisis.  I don’t know what I’ll say tomorrow, but I’ll see you then.

Animation

No, I’m not talking about Pixar here.

Many moons ago, someone asked me what my favourite words were. I sat back and listened to what was inside … and two bubbled up. The first shone brightly in me, and still does – love. The second was a shock – animation. Huh? Where did that come from, and what the heck did I mean?

Once I was a teenager in Grade 13. One more year and I’d be a high school graduate. My job was to take four yearlong courses, each culminating in a June exam worth 100% (!) of the mark. Incomprehensibly to me now, I chose Latin … a dead language.

It was so strange to see as the year unfolded that Latin was becoming my favourite subject. I loved seeing the roots of many English words, and the meanings often opened my eyes. Fifty years later, I swim in my love of language.

So … animation. It comes from the Latin verb animare.

To bring life to
To breathe into
To blow
To inspire
To rouse
To refresh

It’s up to me. What do I want to bring alive? Who do I want to bring alive? I suppose the answer could be “nothing and no one”. But that’s not true to who I am.

Many or few years remain for me on Earth. I will continue to exhale into the world.

Flavours

Down Main Street, there is a convenience store. In the warmer months, the cooler in there is brimming with tubs of ice cream. So many colours, so many flavours. I’m partial to chocolate peanut butter, especially if I can score some big chunks of yumminess. Next door might be a tub of rum raisin (which, according to my extreme bias, is absolutely revolting). There’s probably twelve tubs, glowing in their differentness from each other.

Further down the main drag is the village’s coffee shop, complete with a horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. The wraparound is usually populated by men. The female regulars prefer a nearby table.

One local guy stopped coming to the diner a few weeks ago. Rumours abound, but in any event he just doesn’t come by anymore for a coffee. I miss him. At times he’s ornery and stubborn but he’s also very intelligent, with opinions that often get me thinking.

A far quieter regular died last year. He was a gentle soul who quietly ate his breakfast, usually responding to neighbours like me with very few words and a gentle smile.

At the other end of the restaurant, near the bulletin board, two women often sat together for conversation. Now it’s just one woman. Her friend also died recently, taking a twinkle of the eye to another realm.

Then there’s the Grade 5/6 class – 24 children. On the days when only 23 seats are occupied, there is a gap. Whether it’s a bouncing kid or mostly a silent one, there is a loss, a missing piece. For four days last week, I was sick and missing. On Friday, I sensed that some kids felt it important that I was back.

***

It’s when your absence leaves a vacuum
that people miss you
Unforgettable is about creating your own space
a space that would be left bare
in your absence

Nesta Jojoe Erskine

Moments Shared and Passed On

I went to a lovely concert last night at the Cuckoo’s Nest Folk Club in London. Singing and playing were Liv and Braden, better known as Tragedy Ann.

I had met this marvelous couple two years ago, as they graced the stage of the London Music Club. That evening I felt our conversation in my heart, and I’ve carried them with me ever since.

Yesterday I saw Braden and Liv in the hallway before the music started. There were hugs and many light words.

I sat in the front row, way to the side of the massed instruments and the two singers. Early on, Liv was introducing a song inspired by The Velveteen Rabbit, and by “a book we were given”. I smiled back two years. Within the walls of the London Music Club, I had given them a copy of Jodiette: My Lovely Wife, the book I had written about my dear wife Jody. She died of lung cancer in 2014. “Is she talking about Jody’s book? Nah … must be some other one.”

Except it wasn’t.

From the song Velveteen:

There’s a tree
Not too far from home
Waving leaves like it knows me

I know such a tree. I wrote about it, and about hearing Jody’s voice there, hours after she died. The bare branches trembled.

I’m waving to you, Bruce. I shelter you. I protect you. I’m here, husband. I will always be with you, cheering you on.

And from Tragedy Ann’s Facebook page just now:

We had been tweaking Velveteen for a long time before starting to perform it live. Inspired by a story read to us as children and a book given to us as adults, we wanted to touch on the nature of lifelong love, loss, and doubt.

Thank you, my friends. We move each other throughout our days and years … you and you and you and you and me.

Contact Then … Contact Now

I walked down Dundas Street this evening. Cradled in my arms was a bag of kettle corn, with the contents easily finding their way to my mouth. I was en route to the London Knights’ hockey game with the Windsor Spitfires. As I walked through the entrance of Budweiser Gardens, there was still a lot of kettle to be consumed. Staff members eyed me warily as I plunked down on a cushy red chair before reaching the ticket gate. “No outside food or beverage.”

A man can only eat so much sugar, but I was giving it the good old college try. Around a corner was a woman’s voice: “Be a fan … bring a can [for the food bank]. We also accept money donations.” As I continued to munch, she continued to spiel, maybe fifty times.

Finally I reached my nutritional limit. I dropped the rest of the bag into a garbage can and turned toward the entrance attendant. The sing song refrain for donations ceased, replaced with “Bruce Kerr”. (That’s me.) The young woman smiled at me and said “I’m Mary Bartlett.” (I’ve made up a name for her.) My mouth dropped. The face I took in was nowhere near the face I remembered from eighteen years ago. Mary said she was 30, far beyond the 12-year-old kid from a school deep in the past.

“I remember you,” I said. “You were such a free spirit, so much yourself. You spoke your mind. I bet you still do.” Mary smiled some more. I went back in my mind to a girl who stood out from the rest. I knew then that she’d be a fine adult.

I told Mary that I was a member of an international group that’s exploring consciousness, with the intention of bringing more love into the world. “If you’re curious, Google ‘Evolutionary Collective’.” She tapped the name into her phone.

Will I ever see Mary again? Probably not. She’s one of the rare former students who re-entered my life, albeit briefly. I detected gratitude in our moments together.

I know that I’ve contributed to the lives of many kids and teens who now are adults. Rarely do I see the evidence of this face-to-face. Thanks, Mary.

Holocaust Hologram

“Is there a way to be remembered forever?”

And do I even want this?  Would it be just as well if the impact I make while living is my sole contribution?  Or would I want to sit in front of people 100 years from now and tell them my story?  After I die, some folks will have fond memories of me … and then eventually they’ll die too.  Will that be it for me or do I want more?

The Holocaust Museum in Chicago has created a theatre in which an old man sits in front of an audience and tells them of his life as a Jewish boy in World War II.  The fellow answering questions is not flesh and blood.  He is a hologram – a three-dimensional image that you’d swear was a real person.  Months before, Aaron had sat down with the high-tech folks.  He answered 1500 questions while many cameras rolled.  The theatre is interactive.  Kids and adults can hear about his hiding in an attic for two years to escape the Nazis, and to escape the death that befell most of his family members.  They also can ask Aaron about his favourite food.  It’s barley soup.

It’s common for people to cry in the presence of the image, and to thank him at the end.  For Aaron’s wisdom runs deep.  “I realized that if I continued to hate, I’d be destroying my own life.”

Aaron was alive and well while the video I watched was being created.  His eyes sparkled and his love for young people shone through.  He had found his mission … speaking to thousands of folks every year about important stuff.  Man’s inhumanity to man must stop.

Aaron smiles when he realizes that his talks with those who have come after will cease upon his death.  “My hologram will take over the job.”

Ahh … to leave something precious behind
Or to merely walk off into the silence of the night

We get to choose

Post-Elton

Sometimes at school, there’s a sharing circle where kids talk about their weekend.  With some of them, there’s a feeling of “I did this, I did that.”  The listing of events usually doesn’t move me.  I want to hear about some juicy moment.

Last night’s concert was stunning.  Wanting to tell you the details, I feel myself searching for a list: This happened, and then that, and then the other thing.  This song, then that one.  But right now, those details aren’t coming to me.  What can I say that will give you the juice?  Well.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’ll just trust that something good will come out of my fingers.

The man sat and stood at his piano for two and three-quarter hours.  Just Elton and his band.  No breaks.  Both the tiny figure on the stage and the vibrating human on the big screen were committed to us, determined that we would have an outstandingly good time.

The voice is absolutely unique – resonant, passionate, so beautifully present in every phrase.  The fingers flew over the keys in impossible combos.  And thanks to a close-up view on the screen, we got to see the flying.

Elton wore one long sequined coat and later another one.  I especially liked the floral jacket.  And the glasses … shining in the night.  He often stood and received our applause.  His extended his arms and gave it right back to his 15,000 friends.  It was a love-in.

He’s been making music for us for fifty years.  Last night was his twenty-sixth concert in Toronto.  He said he doesn’t need any more applause.  He wants to stop.  He wants to be with his young sons.  You go do that, my friend.

Onstage he loved Marilyn Monroe throughout Candle in the Wind.  He called out to Daniel.  He sang seemingly forever to Levon while his three drummers traded virtuosities back and forth.  He called out to us fans in Your Song.  And he took off with Rocket Man, treating us with out-of-this-world visuals and a sweet echoing of the title.  Gosh … Elton did just about everything.

Often I looked around the arena and watched the love.  So many times we stood and applauded.  So many times we thanked this humble British fellow who’s filled our lives with music.  Fifty years of contributing to human beings.  Wow.  And yet I know I’ve done the same, just without the public persona, the huge crowds, the fame.  We need to honour both Elton John and the spirit shining bright in each of us.  We make a difference, we human beings, as we stroll the sidewalks of our lives, as we talk to those who come our way.

Someone saved my life last night, and we the audience saved his

Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You’re a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away
Bye bye

Goodbye Elton.  Thank you

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

 

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.

Creating Something New

I wonder what’s possible.  Not just a better toothbrush or a smarter Smartphone, but something outrageously new, with a stunning possibility of contributing to human beings.  An idea, an object, a synthesis perhaps, that no one has ever created.

I wonder if this is merely my ego talking – an effort to distinguish myself from the crowd, to walk the red carpet of societal praise.  Maybe.  But there’s more.  I’m willing for my contribution to be anonymous – no standing ovation.  A willingness to lie on my deathbed with a smile on my lips, knowing that what I gave lives on.

I wonder if how I lead my daily life – the love I bring to people, the swooning within beauty, the eyes I offer – could be my unique gift.  Countless people project love into the world but the blossoming of my particular flavour could be my newness.

Guess I’m wondering a lot …

I’ve had an unfinished project for at least three decades.  I’ve amassed thousands of quotations on recipe cards, words that truly “sing” to me beyond Hallmark greetings and lists of thoughts that others have chronicled.  My vision is to create an online book, putting all these quotes into categories.  If forty writers have thought long and hard about the meaning of “peace”, and if each of their passages has sung in my heart, what’s possible when all those words are brought together?  “The whole is larger than the sum of the parts.”  Can that adage be profoundly true within my collection of quotes?  Can my bringing together of wisdom across time and space and philosophies and other ways that we compartmentalize deep knowledge … make a difference?  Yes, it can.

I suppose my system of categories isn’t really new.  After all, there are a lot of humans out there thinking about things.  But it might be.

And while I’m at it, what else looms just beyond the horizon of my vision?  Is there a brand new flavour that the world hasn’t yet savoured?  I wonder.