A Block Away

My neighbour has died from Covid.  He was a fine fellow in his 40’s, father to three great kids.

So now it’s very real to me.  Although a friend in Belgium has now recovered from the virus, right now is when it really hits home.  We are connected … locally and across this big wide world.  We live in different buildings, or different units in the same apartment building, but we are not separate.  In a physical, emotional and spiritual realm, the space between human beings is alive.  May we be awake to the flows of energy that unite us.

As we’re relatively apart from each other’s bodies in this time of the Coronavirus, we yearn for contact.  We phone, we e-mail, and we Zoom across the miles.  We see each other’s faces in little onscreen rectangles and our souls touch.

We need to keep influencing each other, letting folks know that they’re important, that their existence has contributed to our own.  Because in a flash they could be gone.

What can be created when A and B come together?  Far more than the sum of the parts.  What bonds could magically appear that have the power to make us all smile?  We don’t know … but our embracing the future together may show us.

We are not silos.  The pain in the home down the street is shared by all.  Not the thrusting knife of a father and husband taken from the Earth but still an immense sadness.

I heard a story about a meeting the Dalai Lama was hosting for spiritual teachers from around the world.  A friend of a friend went to that meeting, excited about the prospect of awake people gathering.  “What will be created?” he wondered.  The answer?  Not much.  The flow of spiritual wisdom and experiences from each speaker was immense.  Often the audience could feel the transmission of spirit.  But essentially there was no communion between the speakers.  (Sigh)

We are all connected.  And we need to live that way

From this day forward
For better, for worse
For richer, for poorer
In sickness and in health
To love and to cherish
Till death do us part

The Last Breath

I thought tonight about Greg Scharf. He was my favourite teacher at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist centre in Massachusetts. I enjoyed many silent retreats there.

Greg was a great storyteller. One night he told us about an old monk who was declining physically. A week or so before he died, he looked out at a circle of sad devotees and said something like this: “You know, in a matter of days or weeks, I’m not going to be here anymore. I’ll be dead!” The venerable one then burst out laughing, bent over with a bellyful of mirth. And the joy kept rolling off him.

I can only imagine how shocked his audience was. I’m still shocked, and Greg’s story was five years ago. How astonishing to see the end as the best joke in the world, rather than the slow plod of a hearse.

Wow.

Will I have the same grace to see the lightness of it all when my finale approaches? In the intervening time, how will I be with inevitable losses? Friends dying, perhaps memory deserting, disease intruding, no longer being able to drive my car, needing someone to shave me.

Seventeen years ago, I ruptured a tendon in my foot and underwent tendon transfer surgery (thank you Dr. Willits!) I was on crutches for 17 weeks, and was just starting a new teaching job in a high school. My office was on the third floor and the principal made sure I had an elevator key. That first day, I looked down the stairs and realized that what was so ordinary was now impossible. The gulp of frailty is still within my mind.

And a smile is on my face. How strange that there’s no fear here, just a leaning forward into whatever’s next. It’s a wonder. Whether the end is one year away or twenty, may the smile not desert me. Why not chuckle at the silliness of it all?

***

For those of you who read my post yesterday, you’ll be pleased to know that my new printer is working fine, fully aligned with my laptop and cell phone. And I had a lovely conversation last night with my friend. Finishing is fun.

Six Deaths

A few weeks ago, I was the host on a Zoom call with about thirty people. I was the one with technical responsibility, making sure that anyone with computer problems was assisted to the best of my ability. Partway through, there was an event which I’ll call an “emergency”: lots of people would have technical issues if I didn’t act NOW. My Zoom host training had prepared me for something like this.

“What happened?” you ask.

I froze. My mind blanked. I didn’t get the job done. Thanks to the person who was teaching that day, all ended up being well. The trouble was, I wasn’t well.

I’ve thought a lot about those moments. There’s no wisdom in piling on the self-blame or coming up with excuses. “Poor me” doesn’t fly, nor does blaming Zoom. I remain a curious human being about my imperfections.

And some images have come through:

The first was a wilderness canoe trip in Alberta. I was up front, my life jacket secure, and my inability to swim parked in the nether regions of my brain. Until, that is, conversation with my canoemate jolted to a halt. Ahead of us on the river were rolling rapids. On the shore, people were yelling and scrambling for their canoes. We had missed the signal that we were to come ashore at our future campsite.

I was dead … I knew it.

One gigantic spill later, one frenzied rescue, one being stripped of my wet clothes, I was a pool of jelly inside my sleeping bag. Not much rest that night.

The image of those marauding waves has stayed with me all these years.

I guess there’s nothing to do with the picture in my head. I’ve been to counselling, and I’m happy with my life, but every once in awhile I get zapped. Zoom goneness, for instance.

Five other times I’ve looked in the eyes of death. Two of them were similar to the rapids: I saw the end coming. In one of those, the finale spread before me for thirty minutes. The other three times, there was no warning, just a blast of lethal energy.

As you’ve noticed, I’m still here. Someone large has been taking care of me, probably knowing that I have much to give, and deserve to have the time to give it.

I’m smiling now. The past sits there like a lump – or in this conversation, seven of them. The present is flowing towards the future. Here I go, wondering at the mystery of it all.

Laughing About It All

In the Evolutionary Collective, we have the opportunity to meet online several times a week. During part of our hour together, each of us is paired with another participant to do the mutual awakening practice. Today I was listening to a fellow from Florida who’s fairly new to the EC.

“Maury” kept saying all these very cool, outside-of-the-box things. My eyes continually widened, and I started laughing, over and over again. I knew I was supposed to keep silent as he spoke but I was too enthralled to keep my mouth closed. I was swept up into the celebration of his words, and my joy kept exploding with his. Deep belly laughs burst out of me. Lovely.

Right now, I’m trying to think of the stuff he said and I can’t remember a darned thing! And guess what? I’m laughing again. Oh, this is strange … and delightful. Why am I so happy with the forgetting of today’s moments?

Tonight I’m going to a meeting in London that probably will last till 11:00. Up until five minutes ago, my understanding was that freezing rain will start around 10:00, leaving me with a wild ride back to Belmont. Now AccuWeather says the downflow will begin in the wee hours. Still, when I thought that I’d be slip-sliding away on my return home, I began laughing again. I imagined my new friend Ruby floating into the ditch and getting banged up some … and still guffaws poured out. What kind of insanity is this? I can’t just laugh my way through all the trials and tribulations of life (can I?)

I’m reminded of “Dustin”, a Buddhist meditation teacher of mine from years ago. He told us yogis about a teacher of his. The very old guy had developed a terminal illness. Time was short. He gathered his students around him, including Dustin, and proceeded to tell them that he had maybe a week left. Sadness poured down over the group. And then the esteemed one began laughing uproariously … “Yes! Only a few more days!” Dustin was stunned, dumbfounded, and any other incredulous word you can think of. Woh … so am I.

***

So, my friends, shall we just chuckle our way through the journey?
Shall we be totally outrageous here?
Shall we drink deep of the mysterious elixir?
What do you say?

Day Eight: The Day Before

Tomorrow we fly to Dakar, Senegal. We leave the house at 8:30 am for the Brussels Airport. After a short flight to Lisbon, Portugal, we wait for hours before flying to Dakar. We get there at 1:00 am and then five hours overland to our village. So I’ll be laying my head on the pillow around 7:00 am on Monday. Oh boy … an adventure for the tired body and astonished mind.

Today I went with Jo on a series of last minute errands. Our final stop was to his funeral services business. The company inscribes headstones and sells products such as urns for the ashes. As Jo hurried around, I looked around.

There was a plaque on the wall showing photographs of people who had died, all enclosed in small oval frames. They go on the headstone. I looked into the eyes of the departed. A few were old, as you’d expect. A couple were middle-aged. Most of the souls, however, were kids. How sad to think that the children facing me had their lives end so soon. It teaches me to cherish my longtime and just met loved ones because we don’t know when we’ll be saying goodbye.

In Jo’s office, I spied a pile of small books. They were dictionaries. The tongues were Dutch (very close to Flemish), German, English, French and Italian. It was such a symbol of diversity, and of connection. Jo and Lydia speak four or five languages and Baziel and Lore aren’t far behind. The peoples coming together in Europe remind me of all the ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto. We’re apparently so different … but actually not. Behind your eyes are the same glories and agonies that rest behind mine. And early Monday morning, Senegalese souls will say hello to Belgians and a Canadian. It is as it should be.

When in Belgium, play basketball. That’s certainly Baziel’s approach to life. As Jo and I pulled into the driveway, I saw Baziel grooving his jump shot. I just had to join him – some NBA force was propelling me forward. We took turns shooting … he of the graceful flourish and me of the rather stiff non-jump shot, but we were the same. We grimaced as the ball hit iron and threw our arms in the air when it was nothing but net. He’s 14 and I’m 69. I pretended I was grandpa. Just hanging loose with each other.

Later in the afternoon, Lydia’s mom Marie-Paule came to visit. Lydia had told me all about her and suggested that it would be good for me to marry her and whisk her off to Canada. We were even the same age.

I received coaching on the line I wanted to use with Marie-Paule as soon as I met her – “Voulez-vous me marier?” (Will you marry me?) So I gave it a go, giving her a gigantic hug in the first moment. Clearly, Lydia had also coached Marie-Paule, because she was ready with a smile. Initially we laughed a lot but we also shared our histories – Jody died four years ago and Marie-Paule’s husband ten years ago. We shared a few moments of missing our life partner. It was sweet.

Tonight we went to a play in Flemish – The Wizard of Oz. I loved the crows surrounding the scarecrow. I loved hearing Dorothy sing. But I’m just too tired to wax poetic about it all.

So to bed. Africa around the next bend.

Tomorrow, Death Comes

Ardently do today what must be done
Who knows?
Tomorrow, death comes

The Buddha

What if the rumour is true, that I will die tomorrow? First of all, I don’t have time for this. I need to pack for Belgium and Senegal. Secondly, I like a gradual approach to things. Knocking off in a few hours would be far too … spontaneous. Not to mention that I’d need to get my affairs in order first. And no, no – not that type of affair.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I could die right now and be happy. No regrets. It’s been a fine life. I’ve touched many people and have welcomed their sweet influence in return. I have done my part in having the Earth be a better place. I’d prefer to have twenty more years of human contact but if the jig is up tonight, I’ll lie down with a grin on my face.

But back to tomorrow. If the sands run out at 4:00 pm, how will I spend my morning? If I had superdupersonic speed at my disposal, would I jet off to some vacation spot that I’m supposed to visit before I die? Hmm. Guess I need to give you an example:

Bora Bora is the poster child of the iconic tropical paradise. This island sits 143 miles northwest of Papeete, in the South Pacific, and features the extraordinary turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and beautiful greenery you’d hope to find in the tropics – only it’s more fantastic than you can imagine.

Would that do it? Surely turquoise would provide the ending bliss appropriate for an ending human being. I’ll just cram some turquoise inside and all will be well. Maybe.

***

Speaking of cramming, how about a sumptuous meal at the world’s finest restaurant, which as we all know is … Osteria Francescana – twelve tables in the heart of Modena.

Italian hospitality is in the details
the ironed tablecloths and the polished silver
It is an ensemble of gestures that define a way of life
The table is where the journey begins

Blah, blah, blah

But if I’m about to expire, do I really want to be loosening my belt so my stomach can breathe? To need a nap before the really lengthy one sets in? No thanks.

***

Okay, what else? I know … sex! Eight hours of orgasmic bliss with multiple Hollywood beauties? Uhh … then a short remaining life of being sore and exhausted. More sleeping needed, again before the big snooze.

***

So, if not these imposters … what is left to ardently do?

How about finding one open-hearted one
either male or female
and looking deep into their eyes until mine close
gazing upon the beloved as my finale nears?

Yes, that will do nicely

A Natural Exit

When I drive into London from Belmont, I usually take the 401, our Southern Ontario freeway, which has a speed limit of 100 kph (about 60 mph).  After ten kilometres or so, I’m ready to take the Wellington Road exit.  The ramp goes straight for maybe a kilometre, and then around a slight bend is a 50 kph (30 mph) sign.

As I veer off onto the ramp, I lighten the pressure on my gas pedal and gradually decrease to the 50.  I sense I’m in a natural rhythm of blending with my environment.  It feels good, like I’m flowing from one chapter of my life to the next.

Other drivers disagree.  Usually I’m tailgated on the ramp and the crowd of cars behind sometimes reaches double digits.  Once a fellow swerved onto the paved shoulder to get by me.  At the 50 kph sign, a second lane appears, with traffic lights shortly thereafter.  If the light is red, a vehicle or two has time to blast by me on the left and then slam on their brakes.  If it’s green, a convoy flows past, with most of them then flashing into my lane, since lots of us are turning right at the next light.

I let myself feel the pressure of the tailgating, and my fear.  It’s definitely a part of life.  But it’s very sweet to maintain my flow in the midst of impatient drivers.  I’m the source of my actions, not them.  Overall, the whole thing is a meditation and I’m pleased that I choose to experience it regularly.

***

I ask myself if I’ll have the same grace as I leave this planet.  Will I let myself feel the body diminishing and the mind clouding?  Will I let the words of William Shakespeare linger?

Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace!
And lips, O you the doors of breath
Seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death

Or will I vote with Dylan Thomas?

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

The ramp awaits
Soon, or not soon, my turn signal goes on

Transom

This afternoon I sat in my meditation chair looking out the bedroom window, just as I’m doing now.  The window is composed of four five-foot-long panes of glass, three vertical and a horizontal one at the top.  I learned two years ago, as my condo was being built, that the top one was called a transom.

After an hour or so of meditation today, I opened my eyes.  A puffy cumulus cloud was drifting slowly across the transom window, left to right.  A bit of blue was on the left edge.  I decided to stare.  Mr. Cumulus was sure taking his time and I could feel its peace within me.  How about that?  No hurry at all.  “I hope you’re listening, Bruce.”

As I gazed at the sky, I thought of my life.  A couple of minutes later, the left edge of the cloud passed above the middle pane, and I reflected on my 30’s and 40’s.  They were good years.  Jody and I enjoyed each other.  I enjoyed my teaching.  I enjoyed the kids.  And the cloud keeps drifting.

Now it’s over the right panel and other kids paint my life, as I volunteer at the elementary school nearby.  I have a new home.  I’m in a worldwide community of folks who are exploring consciousness.  Life is good.  But now the transom is mostly blue, and the white travels on.  I try to hold onto it but it continues to float eastward, on a mission I guess.  “Don’t go.  Stay with me.”

And then … poof!  The cloud is gone and my world is brilliantly blue.  How peaceful are the endings.

I hope to live for many more years but “the future’s not ours to see.  Que sera, sera.”

What will be, will be

Bill

If ever there was a William who truly is a Bill, this is it.  Bill Gilbert, my neighbour and friend, died a few days ago.  He was, and is, an immense human being.  How many of us look every visitor in the eyes and send the wordless message “I’m glad you’re here.  Tell me all about your life”?  Precious few, I suspect, but this was thoroughly Bill.

I went to the great man’s funeral today.  Clearly, he was universally loved.  Bill’s daughter Stephanie had the courage to speak about her dad.  Or maybe it didn’t take courage – just a loving daughter revering a loving father, the fellow who held her tiny hand decades ago, who walked her down the aisle, who gratefully accepted her hand in the days before his death.

Throughout her life, Stephanie heard Dad say “You can do anything.”  Clearly, that included giving his eulogy.  It wasn’t “Dad did this … Dad did that.”  It was “Dad loved here … Dad loved there.”  I chuckled at what a committed environmentalist Bill was, years before it was popular, with multiple bins in the garage for all sorts of recyclables.  And how sweet that as he neared death, he wanted to make sure that the expired batteries from some device would be recycled.

As Stephanie said, she had a front row seat for the beauty and kindness of Bill Gilbert.  What a privilege.  And she gets to say to her kids, “You won’t see grandpa, but you will feel him.”  Yes.  Those young ones will become 30-somethings and then 60-somethings and they’ll still sense grandpa beside them, cheering them on.

As Stephanie spoke, her son Devon sat nearby, facing Bill’s family and friends.  He was clearly torn up at losing someone he deeply loves.  I was touched by his courage, with tears close by, and him fully visible to all.  Then he stood and recited beautifully a poem which I believe Stephanie created for her grandpa.  So perfect for honouring Bill.

Towards the end of the service, Pastor Art said something about Bill, or something about what’s important in life (I can’t remember!).  I nodded in agreement, and just as I did, the electric candelabras on either side of the sanctuary flickered.  They too were saying yes, to a fine human being, and to the rightness of loving and being loved.

Well done, Bill
Look what you’ve created
It shines in your family’s eyes

Am I Going To Die Right Here Right Now?

Okay, I realize this is a sensational headline, but I did have that thought yesterday.  Maybe there’s a future for me in the tabloid press.

I went walking in the Humber River valley in Toronto, to the tune of six miles or so.  The trail was snow-covered, with little ridges of ice, water on top at times, and wet feet.  In short … perfect!  I didn’t mind going slow.  The white world was there for me to discover.

Much of the river was open, and really roaring along.  At one point I stood on a pedestrian bridge and watched the ice floes.  Way upstream was a little postage stamp of ice, moving ever so gently towards me.  As it neared the bridge, however, it morphed into an eight-foot long berg, and roared beneath my eyes like a runaway train.  Was I ever wrong about the current placidity of nature (a thought that was proven so true an hour later).

I was testing out my new wool socks.  “They’ll keep your feet warm and dry even in a rainstorm.”  Well, sort of.  There wasn’t any rain but lots of gooshy snow.  The socks were wet but my feet were still pleasantly cool.

I sat on a few benches and contemplated life, plus how many steps I’d taken so far.  By day’s end, it turned out to be 28,000.  What an athlete!  Above the flatlands by the river were steep slopes, leading up to fancy homes, which were showing their huge windows through the bare trees.  So I’m in the middle of Toronto, not exactly a wilderness experience, but still fun to be surrounded by so much unimpeded whiteness.

I was advancing calmly along the shore, with the Humber on my right, when I came to a spot where the river had overflowed its banks.  Parks personnel had posted “Do Not Enter” signs, plus a chain across the trail.  I looked way to my left, and with my deep outdoorsman knowledge, saw an area of white snow that skirted the grey waterlogged surface.  No sweat.  I don’t need a direct path from A to B.  I’m out to explore the wilds of Toronto.

My new route took me into a grove of bushes and small trees.  “Just follow the white snow, Bruce.”  Oh, this was fun.  Soon, I was going where no man had gone before, judging by the absence of footprints.  The crust of snow was hard and happily supported my weight.  No more wetness or ridges of ice.  Piece of cake.

Thirty steps farther, something new.  My right foot went down to the snow and the mass vibrated.  Like a tiny trampoline.  Energy went outwards in all directions as I moved each foot.  Then my right one broke through, about a foot down, and the crust collapsed around it.  Same with my left one.  Oh well.  Just a slower passage to my glass of wine at the Old Mill Restaurant.

As I worked my way around bushes, holding on to branches, I saw that the greyness had invaded my path.  I turned further from the river to keep from getting soaked and a route became clear.  I even saw a picnic shelter in the distance.  “No problem, Bruce.  You’re in Toronto.”

And then, a step too far.  My right foot broke through and I sunk down to my knee.  Water flooded into my running shoe and those water-wicking wool socks had no chance.  For a few seconds, I thought I was stuck.  I pulled my leg up but nothing happened.  Then I rolled onto my side and yanked the foot from its watery abode.  Soon I was vertical again and ready to move forward.  Down went my left foot to the knee, and then my right one joined in again.

And that was when this post’s title hit home.  Up to my knees.  Both feet soaked and numbing.  Bushes to the left and right.  No one around.  So scared.  Is this where I call it a day?  It’s been a good life.  Bye.

And then I snapped out of it.  “It will continue to be a good life.  There’s a glass of wine waiting for you less than a mile away.  You have your cell phone.  If you can’t extricate yourself, the Toronto Fire Department will.” > “But hypothermia will get me first.” > “Shut up and move!”

Somehow onto my side again.  And somehow the crust didn’t break where my body rolled.  Onto my feet, and looking around.  I’d been avoiding the grey areas but could they be worse than my white breakthroughs?  I grabbed a branch and stepped onto a grey patch.  It held!  And then the next.  It held too.  From bush to bush, I followed the grey.  The grassy parkland was just ahead, under its white blanket.  The meadow was raised up a bit.  My feet were numb but my brain wasn’t.  “Slowly, Bruce.  Just reach for the next branch.”  The crust held, time and time again, and finally the firm meadow was under my feet.

Fancy lounge
Dark wood
Old guy staring at me from a painting
Glass of Gewurztraminer
Squishy shoes
Unfeelable feet
Most thankful soul

Ain’t life grand?