Hairstyling

I was walking by the junior kindergarten door on my way to volunteering with the Grade 6’s.  There seemed to be a flurry of activity inside.  I wandered into the comings and goings of short people and saw that the class was having a spa day … hair makeovers and pretty nails.

A 5-year-old hairstylist invited me to take part.  I was ushered to a tiny chair and covered with a tiny plastic apron.  Then the clothes pins.  At least ten of them were artfully placed through my short grey hair.  After much debate, my two stylists declared that I was ready for the world.  Except for the nails.

Across the classroom I floated to the nail salon.  A palette of colours was presented to me by a young esthetician.  “I’ll take pink.”  That would go well with my glasses and fitness tracker.  Soon a brush laden with water-based paint descended towards my digits.  A few minutes later and I was as pretty as punch.

An assistant walked me to the floor fan, where my fingers dried.  Gosh, I looked good.  I really should go the spa more often.

I traipsed over to the Grade 6 classroom, where eyes widened upon my approach.  A couple of guys said, “That looks really good, Mr. Kerr.”  I wasn’t totally convinced of their sincerity, but there were lots of laughs too.

It was time to head home from school.  I was scheduled to visit a 92-year-old resident of a seniors residence with her niece, my friend Pat.  I asked a few 12-year-olds if I should lose the accessories and got a mixed response.  A few said dump it all, some said yes to one and no to the other and a couple of adventurous souls thought I should show her the whole enchilada.  So a full meal deal it was.  Was Thelma going to have a heart attack?  I’d soon find out.

On my way to London, I dropped into the Belmont Diner, my favourite haunt.  It pretty much came down to women laughing and men staring.  Not to be thwarted, I approached a few guys, telling them that they too could look like me.  All of them declined.

I was walking towards the front door of the home when I saw a woman sitting in a wheelchair.  I asked her if I looked good.  She said something fun and positive.  And I went off looking for Pat.  It turns out that the woman was Thelma.  I hadn’t seen her for 45 years.

The three of us sat in the lobby, enjoying coffee and tea (and cookies!).   Residents and staff came by, for some reason looking at my hairstyle.  I got many compliments and smiles.  I told them that it was the latest style from Paris.  I’m sort of a cutting edge guy, you know.

So … no heart attacks and lots of happiness.  I should see my young stylist more often.

Back in Belmont, I had a ticket to a community dinner in my hot little hand.  It was at the arena, at the far south end of town.  I’m at the north end, about a 25 minute walk away.  So again the question was yes or no.  I voted yes.

The walk southward was uneventful, just a few quizzical looks from passersby.  The real test was my entrance to the arena’s meeting room.  There must have been 150 folks chowing down when I walked through the door.  (Actually the door was open).  Immediately there was a mélange of raised heads and icy stares.  A few giggles.  I went over to my friend Rosemary to tell her my story.  She knows me well so I don’t think my coiffure was any big surprise.  Later she told me that several people had come up to her to see if she knew that man.  I’m pretty sure she didn’t disavow all knowledge of the human.

I saw a lot of men with arms crossed as they no doubt contemplated my sanity.  Women don’t seem to cross their arms so much but they too were curious.  I explained myself to my tablemates and really enjoyed heading out on the dance floor to get more baked beans or another glass of orange drink.  Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it!

Finally, I started visiting the residents of other tables, and the warm-ometer needle gradually rose.  After hearing me yap away about JK kids, I guess the adults realized I was a benign character.

So there’s my adventure.  It could be that a hundred people laughed at me.  Not a bad day’s work.

 

 

Joyful On The Drums

Well, it was four nights out in a row – the art gallery and then three concerts.  Yesterday evening I listened to Nagata Shachu, seven performers from Toronto showing us the art and passion of Japanese drumming.  Years ago, I’d heard a similar group blast the skies above the Sunfest music festival.  This time, though, the beat would be within the confines of Aeolian Hall, renowned for its acoustics.  Ear plugs or not?  I decided no.

Most of the artists were young adults and one in particular drew me in.  She had long black hair tied at the back, and a lovely face.  She’d crouch behind her barrel drum, hold the sticks high and then smash them down on the horizontal skin in a flurry of strokes.  One by one, her feet would lift off the floor.  But the best was that face: it burst out in ecstasy.  Shine on, my dear.

I was enthralled.  The other drummers had their own excellent energy, and one guy even donned a cheek-revealing loincloth for one of the pieces, but all paled before my girl.  (Hmm.  Guess I shouldn’t be quite so possessive.)

What are you seeing, Bruce?  Something that teaches.  And not just about music.  What if I lived my life that way, virtually all of the time?  Gosh, that would be astonishing.  To be so “out there” that I would:

Say whatever I felt like saying, knowing that I wouldn’t hurt people
Joke around if I sensed the person was happy to play
Wear a silly costume for Halloween
Sing “Do Wa Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo” at the drop of a hat
Dance down the sidewalk with my loved one
Paint my kitchen red

Oh, bliss
To be thoroughly me
To be thoroughly happy

Courage

I like the way the French folks say it … koo-rawj’.  I need to be that.

When I was choosing the colours for my new condo in Belmont, Ontario, I don’t remember being brave.  I wanted red, blue, yellow, green, teal, purple and reddish brown walls, and that’s what I got.  Some people love it, some decidedly not.  No problemo.

The inside of the front door, however, gave me pause.  My original plan was cream, to match the baseboards.  But day after day I’d look at that door with unease.  No, cream was not it.  So red lives there now.  And I feel a surge of energy from having leapt out of beigeness.

Last night I went to Hugh’s Room to hear Jez Lowe, a British singer-songwriter.  What a sweet guy, full of stories about coal mining men and women, and usually sung with a twinkle in his eye.  I loved his song “The Bergen”, about a woman waiting back in Norway for her love to return from a sea voyage.  But the Bergen sunk off the coast of Scotland.

Sleep, why wake me with these dreams that you bring?
Dreams came to me where I lay
Deep the melody the wild waves sing
My love is far, far away

 Pity the heart, the wild waves part
My love sails the bonnie barque the Bergen

I tried to remember a song of his that used to thrill me, about a gold rush and the speaker’s partner being swept away in a flood.  Jez told us that he wanted to do one long set rather than have a break.  Hmm.  No opportunity for a request.  Except … right now!

“He’s just finished a song, Bruce.  The applause is fading away.  Ask him!  But nobody else is saying anything.  So what?  Do it.  Okay.”

“Jez, will you sing the one about the gold rush?”

“Gold rush?  I can’t remember.”

“The one where his partner died in a flood.”

(?) … … Oh.  I didn’t write that one.  It’s called “Farewell to the Gold”.

“Yes, that’s it!  Will you sing it anyway?”  (Laughter throughout Hugh’s Room)

The song is such an anthem for us humans who deeply want something but it always seems to elude our grasp.  I’ve never heard it sung live and last night was no exception.  (Sigh)

For it’s only when dreaming that I see you gleaming
Down in the dark, deep underground

A bit later in the evening, Jez introduced a song about a guy who was always a pain in the ass to his friends.  Then he looked at me, smiled, and said “Sort of like this gentleman here.”  I raised my arms in the bliss of acknowledgment.

At the end of the evening, Jez announced his final song.  I loved his music and his spirit so I knew what I was going to do as the last chord hung in the air.  I stood and clapped.  Since I was up front, I couldn’t tell if the folks behind me were joining the standing ovation.  It didn’t matter.  Jez Lowe had captured me and he deserved to be appreciated.

On we go in this life of ours

Being Different

Yesterday’s Toronto Star had a story about a little girl who loves bugs.  Sophia is seven years old.  Grasshoppers, worms, ants and snails are also part of her repertoire.

Her family moved to Ontario last year and Sophia had high hopes for her new school.  On the first day, she carried a caterpillar around.  A classmate wasn’t impressed:

“You’re weird.  You shouldn’t be playing with bugs.”

And when Sophia brought another caterpillar in for show-and-tell , a boy crushed it underfoot.  This fall, Sophia is transferring to another school where hopefully she will be accepted for being herself.

I thought back to 2001, when I was assisting a blind student in her sixth grade classroom.  One day the topic was your favourite type of music and a girl whom I’ll call Jessica stood up.  “I like classical music.”  Groans, grimaces and knowing looks followed.  But Jessica wasn’t to be swayed.  She loved playing her cello.

Hello, dear Jessica and Sophia
Carry on loving what you love
The world needs you

Beyond

Since getting home in December from my long retreat, I’ve started lifting weights.  I want to be strong.  My hours of meditation in Massachusetts were often sublime, often other-worldly peaceful.  But doing the chest press at World Gym is bringing something else out of me.

Marcin, my personal trainer, tells me that I need to “explode” on the push and then go slow on the release.  I tried exploding but it was more like a little sparkler catching fire.  Until a few days ago.  Something inside me ramped up.  My lips set tight.  I almost growled.  “I’m doing this!”  And today I did it some more, with a fierceness that I didn’t recognize.  Talk about the yin and the yang … meditation and determination, both lighting up the present moment.

Way back in my brain cells, I remembered a woman staggering to the finish in an Olympic marathon.  The awe from long ago seeped into today.  So I Googled, and here’s what I found:

Gabriela Andersen-Schiess is a former Swiss long-distance runner who participated in the first women’s Olympic marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics.  Though living in Idaho and working as a ski instructor at the time, Andersen-Schiess represented Switzerland in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Fourteen minutes into the 1984 Olympic marathon, Joan Benoit began to pull away from the rest of the pack.  She went on to win in a time of 2 hours, 24 minutes, and 52 seconds.  Twenty minutes after Benoit finished, then 39-year-old Andersen-Schiess entered the stadium.

The crowd gasped in horror as she staggered onto the track, her torso twisted, her left arm limp, her right leg mostly seized.  She waved away medical personnel who rushed to help her, knowing that, if they touched her, she would be disqualified.  The L.A. Coliseum crowd applauded and cheered as she limped around the track in the race’s final 400 meters, occasionally stopping and holding her head.

While the effects of her heat exhaustion were plainly evident, trackside medics saw that she was perspiring, which meant that her body still had some disposable fluids, and let her continue her march to the finish line.  At the completion of this final lap—which took Andersen-Schiess five minutes and 44 seconds—she fell across the finish line.  She finished 37th, ahead of seven other runners.

Oh my.  You can see Gabriela on several YouTube videos.  Infinitely beyond the chest press but really they both have the same incredible intensity.  I think we humans need to express some of that.  And we need to be moved to tears sometimes when others stretch themselves, as thousands of folks were in that California stadium 32 years ago.

Lifesaving

Just south of me is the village of Port Stanley, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie.  Jackson’s Fish Market is a local landmark, and one of its exterior walls is graced by a large mural – about 20 feet long and 10 feet high.  It depicts a rowboat heading out in wild seas to a stricken ship offshore.  Here is the inscription:

On October 29, 1902, in a savage Lake Erie gale, the three-masted American schooner Mineral State went aground and started to break up off the high clay bluffs east of the Port Stanley harbour.  The gallant Port Stanley lifesaving crew, watched by a large crowd of Port Stanley residents, braved the towering waves and rescued the entire crew of the schooner just as dusk was falling.  In recognition of their bravery, the lifesaving crew all received gold medals from US President Theodore Roosevelt.

I studied the painting.  The gold of sunset lit up the waves and the sky, as well as the faces of adults and kids who were watching the rescue.  The wind blew back their hair.  In the rowboat, a helmsman urged on the six rowers, who were cranking on their oars and straining in their faces.  On the horizon, the schooner’s masts were tilted at a 45 degree angle.

Oh, the fear that must have coursed through those men!  Was this the end?  Would their names be added to the list of fatalities?  How would their families carry on?

As I sat in my cosy car, I wondered how I’d react in an emergency.  I’ve never saved anyone’s life.  In the moment, would I have the courage to do that?  Or would I fold my tent and slink away, comforting myself with thoughts about the people in this world who needed me to stay alive?

Right now, I yearn for the chance to save someone.  And in the next breath, I hope never to face such a crisis, such a call for action.

And when the moment comes …?

 

Suffragette

How strange that I usually don’t pay any attention to the pivotal moments of history, moments which typically include someone speaking out, thrusting new values into the lap of society, giving all they have to make life better.

I knew that the suffragettes worked hard in the early part of the twentieth century to secure the vote for women, and that they were successful.  How pale a view that is, lacking the spirit of the doers.  I saw the movie Suffragette this afternoon and I have been changed.

I virtually never think “I am a man” and consider the privileges that come with the label.  Men haven’t had to earn less than their female colleagues.  Women have.  By and large, men haven’t been sexually harassed in the workplace.  Women have.  Men have always been able to stroll into a polling station and vote.  Before 1920 or so, women were denied that opportunity.  It was deemed by many males that husbands, fathers and brothers could explain the realities of politics to women, who clearly didn’t have the smarts to figure it out themselves.  Oh my.

What sort of man would I have been during these troubling times?  I think one who didn’t see anyone as superior to anyone else, despite our different strengths.  Would I have been strong enough to resist the power of male culture?  I sure hope so.

The film had many incredible moments.  Here are four:

  1. The main character Maud is barred from her house (and her son) once her husband sees her identified as a suffragette in the newspaper.  Neighbour women just stare at her as she walks away.
  2. Sonny, Maud’s husband, gives up their son for adoption.  Maud has no rights as a parent.  As the adoptive couple are leaving the home with George, Maud looks him in the eye and basically says ” Your mother’s name is Maud Watts.  Find me when you’re older.”
  3. Maud goes on a hunger strike in prison.  We see her being held down, a tube inserted into her nose, and a milky fluid poured into a funnel.
  4. The suffragette played by Helena Bonham Carter has developed heart problems after years of protesting.  As the women organize to disrupt a horse race attended by the king of England, her husband locks her in a room, fearing that she will die during the event.

I need to see the courage of people who lived long ago
I need to see the courage of people who live today
I need to act courageously

Eighty-Four Days … Part One

Since I’ve got home from the meditation retreat, I’ve mentioned some of my experiences there in this blog but I’ve never looked it directly in the eye and discovered what’s true for me two weeks later.  I’ve been scared to do that.  Not afraid of what I’d find but rather of being misinterpreted.  I’m sure you’re all smart people out there in WordPress land but I expect that very few of you have the context to hold twelve weeks of silence.

How I struggle to express myself here.  What’s true, Bruce?  Well, here goes …

One hundred of us sat in the meditation hall, did walking meditation, ate together in silence and listened to the teachers’ wisdom.  Although I didn’t make eye contact with my fellow yogis, I could feel them.  Plus I looked at them from afar.  Many were hurting – physically, emotionally and/or spiritually.  My heart went out to them.  As I quieted in meditation, I felt love waft out from me.  Peace too.  Not always but often.  As the weeks wore on, I heard more and more folks sniffing in the hall – some near me and some way up towards the front of the room.  I sensed that much of this was in response to my energy.  Perhaps I’m deluded about this.  Maybe they all had colds.  But the deeper voice inside said that some yogis were moved by my love.

Hmm.  I just had the urge to send this message right here, right now.  I’m scared to face the depths of the retreat.  Is my ego just flaring away or is it true that I touched people in that meditation hall?  As the weeks fell away, our senses, our emotions, were heightened.  I know that kindness came off me, compassion, love, peace.  Back here in society, it feels like others can’t feel me.  And I want to be felt.

When I applied for the three month retreat, one question on the form was something like “What goals do you have for your time at IMS [Insight Meditation Society]?  I answered in three words:  “To love people.”  And I know that I reached that goal.  It doesn’t make me special.  But it happened.

Throughout the retreat, I got to reflect on the Buddha’s words:  “Life is impermanent.”  My peace came and went and came again.  So did my back pain.  I fell in love with another yogi.  At the end, I found out that she’s happily married.  Now she’s thousands of miles away.

I suffered when I thought of my lost love, just like the Buddha said I would.  He said that all of our experiences are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  I’d sometimes be in the middle of “unpleasant” and have the astonishing experience of it floating into “pleasant”.  How is that possible?  All I can think of is that I was immersed within the bigness of life as I suffered, and to be so surrounded by infinity made me smile a little smile.

Towards the end of the retreat, I watched myself feel that the only important thing was to contribute to the lives of my fellow yogis.  Since I thought that being in their presence made a difference, I didn’t meditate alone in my room.  I went to every scheduled sitting in the hall, unless I had an interview with one of my teachers.  Oh my.  I just want to love people.  Travel, money, “success” – all very nice, but there’s so much beyond the daily round.

***

I’m very tired.  I told myself I’d come home and write more about the retreat.  But I don’t want to.  I treat the world gently.  I need to do the same for myself.  Heading down to Massachusetts in September, I chose a bus schedule that had me travelling for 16 hours straight, including all night.  I got no sleep. When I got to my motel in Worcester, I slept for 17 hours.  Upon waking up, I realized that I had committed violence on myself.  No more of that, thank you.

And so to bed.  Goodnight sweet princes and princesses.

Karaoke

Last night I went with my friend Karina and her friends to sing karaoke at a London pub.  I was nervous.  Just coming off a long meditation retreat, it would be reasonable to expect that I’d moved beyond such tension.  I’m afraid not.  Meditation hasn’t taught me to eliminate fear and sadness.  Rather it’s shown me that I can hold these feelings more gently.  Instead of my vocal terror being smack dab in front of my eyes, I sometimes was able to move it to arm’s distance.  Instead of taking a sledgehammer to my fear, I had glimpses of cradling it as a mother would her newborn child.

My heart was still in my throat as I waited for my turn at the microphone.  Memories flooded in of another karaoke setting, and of someone precious to me walking out, saying she couldn’t stand listening to me anymore.

What’s true?  I love singing.  I got muted applause.  The person I was hoping would say “Well done” said I was nervous.  I’m still alive this morning.

I sang The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan.  It’s a lovely song.  And an angry song.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

There I was, mic in hand.  I watched the screen and the first line of the lyrics appeared.  I couldn’t remember the tune.  The blue (?) highlighter started moving over the words but my mouth stayed closed.  Up pops the second line and I start singing.  My brain says, “It’s too low.  You’ll never hit the bottom notes.”  So midstream I went up an octave and found myself at the top of my vocal range.  No way to hold a good tone up there.  Once my voice cracked.  “Do it!” said my brain.  So I dropped back down to the bottom of my vocal range.  I waited for the lowest note, cringing that my voice couldn’t reach it … But I did!  And I couldn’t have gone a note lower.  I thought, “Way da go, Bruce.  It took courage to go down.”

Then I started feeling the words.  “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”  There was no time to reflect on the fear that leads us to put down someone whose experience of life is different from ours.  The very human need to protect our version of reality.  But I wordlessly felt our common humanity as I sang.

Did I do well?  Did I do poorly?  In a larger picture, it doesn’t matter.  Did I live in the words and the feelings within them?  Often yes.  Will I keep singing?

Yes

Ida

Last night Renato made me a welcome home dinner.  He’s been well trained as a “saucier” and the sauce which graced my chicken breast was beyond delicious.  And for an appetizer, he presented me with tomato slices and arugula greens adorned with smoked salmon.  Oh my.  And did I mention my two glasses of dry white wine?  Happy was me.

We talked and talked.  Renato told me about his mom Ida (pronounced Ee-da).  She died when he was 12.  She was in the water off an Italian beach with a girlfriend, both of them holding onto an air mattress.  The friend lost her grip and slipped below the surface.  Ida tried to save her.  They both died.

Ida owned a clothing shop and once welcomed a woman and her young son.  Her husband had died and she wanted her son to have a suit for his first communion.  Ida picked out her best suit for the boy and he tried it on.  Smashing!  She gave it to him … no dissent from mom allowed.

Another time, Ida was standing outside her shop, talking to a friend, when she saw a man chasing a young girl with a knife.  She raced towards him and tackled the fellow, most likely saving the girl’s life.

A life so richly lived.  Do you and I need to be similarly heroic in deed, or is it enough to be supremely kind?  Yes, kind.  I know in my heart that I would gladly risk my life to save another, but I don’t go there in my head.  Instead I choose to be kind, to look out for my fellow man and woman, to feel into what they need, and walk that journey with them.

I didn’t used to cry much at all.  Now I cry a lot.  I see people like Ida on my daily round and I’m moved by their humanity.  I want to be like them.  So many folks moisten my eyes.  Some friends start me coughing because I love them so much.

Thank you, Ida, for opening my lungs and my heart and my eyes.  Look what we give each other!