Empathy

I listened to Stan Rogers last night.  His spirit and songs poured from the mouths of his loved ones.

Stan was a Canadian singer-songwriter who died on the tarmac of the Cincinnati Airport in 1983, of smoke inhalation.  He lives on.

Stan’s daughter Beth sang 45 Years to us.  It was a love song to his wife Ariel.  As Beth’s voice soared, I cast a few glances to Ariel, who seemed lost in love.  At the end, she told us that their 45th anniversary was a month or two ago.  Oh my.

Where the earth shows its bones of wind-broken stone
And the sea and the sky are one
I’m caught out of time, my blood sings with wine
And I’m running naked in the sun
There’s God in the trees, I’m weak in the knees
And the sky is a painful blue
I’d like to look around, but honey, all I see is you

The summer city lights will soften the night
Till you’d think that the air is clear
And I’m sitting with friends, where forty-five cents
Will buy another glass of beer
He’s got something to say, but I’m so far away
That I don’t know who I’m talking to
‘Cause you just walked in the door, and honey, all I see is you

Stan walked into the shoes of ordinary Canadians, feeling their pains and joys.  The poet helped all of us know …

1.  The Alberta Ranch Wife  (Lies)

Then she shakes off the bitter web she wove
And turns to set the mirror, gently face down by the stove
She gathers up her apron in her hand
Pours a cup of coffee, drips Carnation from the can
And thinks ahead to Friday, cause Friday will be fine
She’ll look up in that weathered face that loves hers line for line
To see that maiden shining in his eyes
And laugh at how her mirror tells her lies

2.  The Prairie Wheat Farmer  (The Field Behind the Plow)

Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight, dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dust cake from your nose
Hear the tractor’s steady roar.  Oh you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section more or less to go

And it figures that the rain keeps its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles, but you guess you’ve got awhile
So ease the throttle out of air, every rod’s a gain
And there’s victory in every quarter mile

Poor old Kuzyk down the road
The heartache, hail and hoppers brought him down
He gave it up and went to town

And Emmett Pierce the other day
Took a heart attack and died at forty-two
You could see it coming on ’cause he worked as hard as you

3.  The Great Lakes Seaman and His Girlfriend  (White Squall) 

The kid was so damned eager.  It was all so big and new
You never had to tell him twice, or find him work to do
And evenings on the mess deck he was always first to sing
And show us pictures of the girl he’d wed in spring

But I told that kid a hundred times “Don’t take the lakes for granted
They go from calm to a hundred knots so fast they seem enchanted”
But tonight some red-eyed Wiarton girl lies staring at the wall
And her lover’s gone into a white squall

4.  The Nova Scotia Fisherman  (Make and Break Harbour)

Now it’s so hard to not think of before the big war
When the cod went so cheap, but so plenty
Foreign trawlers go by now with long seeking eyes
Taking all where we seldom take any
And the young folk don’t stay with the fishermen’s ways
Long ago they all moved to the cities
And the ones left behind, old and tired and blind
Won’t work for a pound, for a penny

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few
Too many are pulled up and rotten
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten

***

Thank you, Stan
We hardly knew you
And now we know you

History Now

My new condo neighbour “Brad” is a very cool fellow.  He’s well into his 70’s and brimming with appreciation for Belmont, his new home.  Both of us have a cornfield out back that we love.

Brad and I went out for breakfast today at the Belmont Diner.  I wanted to introduce him to the regulars and he enjoyed meeting them, engaging in several conversations.  He’s an easy guy to know.

Brad is a historian.  He’s done lots of research on the Black Donnellys, an Irish family who emigrated to Lucan in Canada in the 1800’s.  The Donnelly clan got involved in some violent disputes with the locals, and many members of the family were killed at their homestead one night in 1880.

I watched Brad’s face as he talked about the Donnellys, about standing by the foundation of their home, about the feelings of the Lucan residents he’s met.  He was living right now in the events of the past, totally engaged in the story.

Brad lived for a time in Fort Erie, Ontario, and I learned of him gathering artifacts from the War of 1812, between the United States and the precursor of Canada.  He talked about the heavy cannonballs that the Americans fired at the British from their ships in the Niagara River, and then told me that he has one of them in his home.  Brad also has a collection of buttons from the tunics of American soldiers.  His eyes were wide as he transported himself back 200 years.

Then there was the native princess who lived by herself in a tent near Minnedosa, Manitoba – Brad’s hometown.  As a young boy, he watched the woman as she sat on a large rock in her native dress, gazing out over Lake Minnedosa.  He would encircle the  rock, trying to draw her into conversation.  But she was in her own world.  In the years since, Brad has tried to figure out who she was, and has collected many arrowheads from a local battleground once shared by two tribes.

Throughout all of this, there was Brad’s face … animated with the stories of the past.  Clearly he is enriched by the journeys of those who have gone before.  History is alive in his soul.

My eyes were opened over bacon and eggs.  The aliveness of Brad merged with my own and I realized that people who lived decades and centuries ago have lessons to teach me.  May I absorb these lessons in order to become a more empathetic person, and may that empathy touch lives in 2018.

 

Narrowed and Wide

I was riding the train in Toronto today – the UP Express. I love the train, with its big windows giving me a chance to look out at the world. I see into people’s backyards and wonder what lives are being led on the other side of their windows. I watch a long string of cars waiting at a red light for their left turn … and feel sad for the folks inside. Life passes me by.

Today was different. I grabbed the last remaining window seat but there was a partition right in front of me. All I had to see out from was a sliver of vertical glass. My eyes tensed up as images came by too fast. I couldn’t linger on anything, and lingering is truly one of life’s pleasures.

And I thought of other things:

What would it be like to have no peripheral vision, just a small circle in the middle for focusing on things?

What would it be like to have a moderate hearing loss, where you can only catch a few words from each sentence?

What would it be like to have the beginning of Alzheimer’s, and you just can’t remember the names of those near and dear?

What would it be like to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and be racked with terror in the middle of the night?

What would not be touched by a narrowed life? What essence of me would still be there? And could I find it?

In August, 2018, my life is expansive. In August, 2019, it may not be. It’s time to feel into what will always be there.

Being Fred … Being Me … Being You

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a popular children’s TV show in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I never saw it. But here I sit in the Hyland Cinema, waiting for a documentary on Fred Rogers to start. It’s called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Apparently he was a kind soul and many kids “got” him. I like to think the same is true of me.

One of my favourite quotes, author unknown:

I won’t remember what you said
I won’t remember what you did
But I’ll always remember how I felt when I was around you

Bring it on, Fred!

***

My eyes widen as Fred’s story unfurls. How am I going to remember all the juicy quotes? And then I felt my pocket. I had a few index cards in there for making notes when I read books. I whipped out my pen and scrawled in the darkness. Here’s what Fred had to say:

People who have smiled you into smiling
Hugged you into hugging
Loved you into loving

Find me one person who, whether they know it or not, doesn’t need this

Kids need adults who will protect them
From the molders of this world

How tempting it is to make children in the image of ourselves
While they desperately need to be uniquely themselves
An original in the world

(While holding eyes with a handicapped girl, and extending a puppet to her)
Would you like to see Barney the Owl?

We so much need that precious contact
The sense of being truly held and acknowledged

I’ve always weighed 143 pounds – “I (1) love (4) you (3)”

What forces are at work on the planet
Far beyond the reasonableness of coincidence?

(Fred as a puppet)
I’m not like anyone else

(His friend, a girl)
I know
You are just fine as you are
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake

So wise, this Mister Rogers, knowing what’s in the hearts of kids
And expressing the truth about them in a way that they can hear

What is essential in life is invisible to the eye

Fred planted this seed, first in his mind, and then in his actions with children
In some kids, the seed will transform into wisdom, many years later

(Talking to a young boy in a wheelchair)
I’m glad to see you
It’s you I like
Every part of you

Dear adult:
Please see me
Not my report card
Not my gold medals (or lack thereof)
Not what I look like

Let’s make goodness attractive

Why not? There are other ways to be an adult
Ways not usually featured on the nightly news
Let’s show ourselves to kids
In all our happiness and sadness
In our kindness and compassion

(Speaking to the U.S. Congress in defense of public television)
This is a plea not to leave the children isolated

Kids need the presence of fully alive human beings
They watch us like hawks
Trying to figure out how to lead their lives
Let’s give them some good examples

Don’t listen to those who try to make you feel less than you really are

There are other voices
Keep your ears peeled
You will hear them

(Fred as a puppet, and many decades ago as a kid)
I can’t go to school tomorrow
Because I don’t know everything

Fred Rogers knew children because he never lost touch with being one
I’m not Fred
I’m Bruce
And you’re you
May we all listen to the young souls around us

You and Another

I sat in the lounge of the Sheraton Four Points Hotel yesterday, eating my curds and whey.  (I think that’s from some fairy tale)  The waitress and I had a few good mini-talks while she came and went.  I wanted those talks to be longer but duty called.

I drank my white wine and devoured my honey garlic wings and read Toronto Maple Leafs articles on my phone.  All in a cozy chair.  So nice.  Glancing over to the bar, I saw my serving friend chatting with a grey-haired fellow (just like me!).  And their conversation extended, much to the delight of both.

After I got over the “Why not me?” reaction, I smiled.  How marvelous that they’re connecting, making meaning, enjoying each other’s company.  I should always be so happy in such circumstances.  “It doesn’t have to be about you, Bruce!”

The Buddha had a lot of good ideas.  My favourite is the thought of empathetic joy … being happy about the good fortune of another.  It’s such a sweet thing to do.  More of that, please.

Here I am on January 8, 2017, reflecting on my future joys.  As much as I want the goodies of life, including a love, I marvel at the happiness I feel when a friend glows about her boyfriend.  Clearly, I’m not the most important person in her life.  I don’t make the biggest impact.  I’m not the one she thinks of first.  And the smile again.

As far as I know, all the you’s in my life have a primary other who isn’t me.  Even though I hope a lovely woman will walk into my life and see me as her most significant other, that’s not happening right now.  I bask in the redirected glow  of dear companions gazing into the eyes of a third person.  And I take pleasure in their union.

 

 

 

Tears

An hour ago I sat down with my laptop to write a blog post.  Couldn’t think of a thing.  Fifty minutes later I gave up.  “Read your Stephen King novel, Bruce.  Nothing to say tonight.”

Brian’s dad gave David a strained smile.  There was sweat trickling down his cheeks and standing out on his forehead in a galaxy of fine dots.  His eyes were red, and to David he looked like he had already lost weight … Mr. Ross now had one arm around his wife’s waist and his other hand clamped on her shoulder … David then realized that it wasn’t sweat trickling down Mr. Ross’s cheeks but tears … He realized that he was shortly going to be crying himself.

I’ve spent most of my life not crying, willing my face to stay dry even in the most despairing situations.  All that changed when Jody died.  I’ve cried for my wife most days in the 14 months that her body hasn’t been with me.  Often this happens in the car when I’m alone, remembering Jody’s hand in mine as we floated towards London.

Lately I’ve been crying because I’m lonely and finally ready to look out into the world for a new love.  I go out for meals with friends, partake of a weekly yoga class, and talk to the staff at World Gym.  I contribute.  But so often when I get back home, the tears come, both for me and Jody.

Oh so strangely, my eyes may moisten at the simplest moments.  Why do I start crying when I see:

A mom and young daughter walking up steps towards their front door?

A couple holding hands on the street?

A most likely homeless guy looking for handouts by the left turn lane?

A symmetrical tree looming ahead?

A driver trying to enter the flow of traffic and no one letting them in?

An Asian golfer being interviewed on lpga.com and struggling to express herself in English?

A two-storey house at night, with a light shining from an upstairs bedroom?

9000 fans cheering in a London hockey arena?

Hardly anybody singing “O Canada” at that same game?

Person after person walking downtown with head tilted to their Smart Phone?

An obese woman shuffling down the sidewalk?

Three teenaged girls laughing and poking each other in the mall?

A man sitting alone in the library, tucked into a good book?

 

 ***

Is there something wrong with me?
Or is there something right with me?

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.

No Bad Guys

Lord Krishna appeared before one king, who was known to be wicked and cruel … “I would like you to travel throughout the provinces of your kingdom and see if you can find one person who is truly good” … “My Lord, I’ve done your bidding, but I have not found one truly good person.”

Then Lord Krishna went to the other court ruled by a famous queen named Dhammaraja, who was known to be kind and gracious … “I would like you to go throughout your kingdom and find one truly evil person” … “My Lord, I have done as you asked, but I have failed my task … I’ve seen many people who act unskillfully.  Yet when I really listened, I only found people who are misguided.  Their actions always came from fear, delusion and misunderstanding.”

Several people have been mean to me in my life, and in my wiser moments I’ve realized that they weren’t evil, but just full of fear.  Perhaps fear of what would be left if they dropped the “act” which they felt they’ve needed to survive.  Sometimes the act is “I know what I’m doing” or “I’m better than these other people” or “Life is a win-lose game.  If I’m going to win, the other person has to lose.”

I remember one particular supervisor from so many years ago.  He hurt people, all sorts of people.  He smiled his watery smile when face-to-face and yet sabotaged us when we were gone.  A friend of mine heard what life was like for this person when he was a child: lonely and suppressed and sad.  It made me think, about him and also about karma.  Whatever energy you put out in life will come right back to you, sooner or later.   I wonder what’s become of my former oppressor, and I feel sad when I imagine the karmic results that are coming his way.

He’s not an evil person.  None of us are.

Illness and Light

Nausea has come and gone and come again for nearly a week now.  I thought it was food poisoning.  Finally, yesterday morning, I went to Emergency to figure things out.  (Turns out it was a bacterial infection.  I now have antibiotics.)

I waited in the triage chairs for my turn to be seen.  Those seats are right beside a sliding door that kept admitting the cold as people came and went.

No.

Overhead, a TV was blaring out a news channel, complete with on-the-spot reporting and brassy commercials.

No.

After I was registered, I sat back down in the waiting room at the far end, away from shivering and blare.  A couple sat down on triage chairs, her head slumping away from him, his hand on her shoulder.  He continued to comfort her as they waited to be seen.

Yes.

The vague nausea swept over me again.  Such a sense of not being present in my life’s moments.  Harder to reach Jody, to talk to her.  (“Bruce, I am here with you, even if it’s hard to sense me right now.  I’ll always be here with you.”)  But I can’t hear these words.  Jodiette, where are you?

No.

I wonder if I will get to the point in life where I’m totally accepting of what the world sends my way.  Where there’s no sharp demarcation between this being good and that being bad.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Anyway, time to be ushered into the inner sanctum of Emergency.  I was in a long room which had been divided off into five curtained spaces.  I lay on my back, zipped up my parka and pulled on my mitts.  So cold.  And there I lay, comforted by the fact that I was no longer alone.  Someone would help me.

I heard voices from elsewhere in the room – doctors advising their patients, nurses coming and going, family members being with their loved ones.  I heard stories of not just nausea, but major vomiting.  And I felt small.  Here I was, not having vomited once in my week of discomfort, on the edge of feeling sorry for myself.  I decided to let the smallness go.  I deserved better.

And then I hear a woman tell her husband, “I left the meds list at home.  Stupid me!”  And I started crying.  Silently: “No!  You’re not stupid.  Please don’t say that.”  I was weeping for someone other than Jody.  And my wife was happy.  “You care so much, Bruce, about all these people.  I’m so glad you’re my husband.”

And now I’m crying for my darling wife Jodiette again.  “You are here, Jody.  I feel you.  Oh, my wife.  My darling wife.  We will be together in body again.”  “Yes, Bruce.  We will.  As for now and the rest of your life, I am with you always.  Every moment.  In sickness and in health.  In joy and in sorrow.  When you’re alone and when you’re surrounded by friends.  Always.”

I love you, Jodiette.

I love you, Bruce.