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.

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.