Being Different

I once asked kids at school why Nazis hated Jewish people. The most common answer I received was that “their religion was different”. In the US, for many decades some Americans have rejected millions of their fellow citizens because those folks had black skin.

I had the children visualize some leader entering the classroom, looking at each student, and culling out those whose eyes were blue. The unfortunate ones would then be ostracized, or worse. I believe that many of the kids got the message.

For a moment, imagine you’re a bird. Maybe you’re big, maybe you’re small. A fast flier or a slow poke. Bright plumage or muted. The differences are obvious but no big deal. You guys get along.

But here comes someone new:

What is that? Nobody should have a neck that long, and that coral colour is ridiculous!

Wait a minute now. Look at that weird twist in the neck. It should be a straight line. How does the thing even eat? And those legs! They’re not only grossly skinny, they bend … backwards! It’s an abomination. Drop poop on them all.

What?! That’s impossible – standing on one leg. And the idiot on the right looks like he’s sleeping. Birds are not meant to do these things. It’s unnatural. Only Big Bird has such powers. Let’s convince humans to shoot them all.

***

You’re different
Really different
You’re just a thing
And I hate you

Out Of An Abundance Of Caution

It’s an odd turn of the syllables. When I first heard the phrase, it was about the coronavirus. The words gave me pause. In the US, President Trump tested positive and was heading to the hospital for a few days. Cautious. I doubted that the danger to him was negligible. If you’re hospitalized, something major is probably going on.

Someone described the phrase as “precautions taken against a very remote contingency”. I kept returning to the strangeness of the words, and asked myself if I really wanted to armour myself against remote possibilities.

Oodles of caution seem to be spreading:

1. Seventy students and staff members at a high school go into quarantine after two teens contracted Covid

2. A professional football player developed some tightness and muscle soreness in his right calf. The coaches chose to remove him from the game

3. Some college students won’t be travelling home for Christmas due to Covid restrictions

4. Hackers injected malware into some government software. The programs have been removed

5. Schools switch to remote learning after coronavirus cases in the community rise, although the infection rate in local schools is low

6. Protests in the US about the death of George Floyd lead to the temporary boarding up of some stores in Vancouver, Canada

7. Most Republican politicians in the US Congress won’t say that Joe Biden is the President-Elect

8. Some people who speak out on TV about US politics (and some election officials who keep to the rule of law) are provided with security at home, at work, and while they commute

9. Today, as the Electoral College certified the results of the US election, some states changed the locations of the meetings and didn’t reveal those locations

***

I’m not disputing the potential value of these precautions but they do point to a hesitancy in modern life. Many people are unwilling to take chances, to burst nakedly into life full speed ahead, to be publicly themselves. Whatever happened to throwing caution to the wind?

A Story

Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher, and the founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.  He shared this story with us, written by a woman.

It was Sunday.  Christmas, our family spent the holidays in the Bay Area, but in order to be back to work on Monday we had to drive the four hundred miles back to LA on Christmas Day.  Normally an eight-hour drive but with kids it can be a fourteen hour endurance test.  When we could stand it no longer, we stopped for lunch in King City – a little metropolis of six gas stations and three diners.  Road weary, saddle sore, I sat Eric, our one-and-a-half-year-old, in a high chair and looked around and thought “What am I doing in this place on Christmas Day?”  It was nearly empty.  We were the only family.

My reverie was interrupted when I heard Eric squeal with delight and glee.  “Hi there!”  Two words he thought were one word.  “Hi there!  Hi there!”  He pounded his fat baby hands (Whack!  Whack!) on the metal high chair tray.  His face was alive with excitement, eyes wide, gums bared in a toothless grin.  He wriggled and chirped, and then I saw the source of his merriment, and my eyes couldn’t take it in all at once.  A tattered rag of a coat, obviously bought by someone else long ago; dirty, greasy, worn baggy pants; the zipper at half-mast over a spindly body; toes that poked out of the old shoes; a face like none other – gums as bare as Eric’s, whiskers too short to be called a beard, and a nose (varicose) that looked like the map of New York.

I was too far away to smell him but I knew he smelled.  And his hands were waving in the air, flapping about on loose wrists.  “Hi there, baby!  Hi there, big boy!  I see you, Buster.”  My husband and I exchanged a look that was a cross between “What are we doin’?” and “Poor devil.”  Eric continued to laugh and answer “Hi there!  Hi there!”  Every call was echoed.

I noticed waitresses’ eyebrows shoot to their foreheads and several people were going “Hmm … umm” out loud.  This old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby.  I shoved a cracker at Eric and he pulverized it on the tray.  I began to get upset.

Our meal came.  The cacophony continued.  Now the old bum was shouting from across the room “Do you know Pat-a-cake?  Atta, boy!  Do you know Peek-a-boo, Peek-a-boo?  Hey look, he knows Peek-a-boo!”  Really loud.  Nobody thought it was cute.  The guy was drunk, and a disturbance, and I was embarrassed.  My husband was humiliated.  Even our six-year-old said “Why is that old man shouting and talking so loud?”

We ate in silence, all except Eric, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring applause of a skid row bum.  Finally I had enough.  I turned the high chair.  Eric screamed and clamoured around to face his buddy.  Now I was mad.  Dennis went to pay the cheque, imploring me to get Eric and meet me out in the parking lot. 

I trundled Eric out of the high chair and looked toward the exit.  The old man sat poised and waiting, his chair directly between me and the door.  “Lord, let me out of here” I thought, “before he speaks to us.”  It soon became obvious that the Lord and Eric had other plans.  As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back, walking to sidestep him.  And as I did so, Eric, all the while with his eyes riveted to his new best friend, leaned far over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s pick-me-up position. 

In a split second of balancing my baby and turning to counter his weight, I came eye-to-eye with the old man.  Eric was lunging for him, arms spread wide.  The bum’s eyes both asked and implored “Would you let me hold your baby?”  There was no need or way for me to answer since Eric propelled himself from my arms into the man’s.  Suddenly a very old man and a very young baby consummated their love relationship.  Eric laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder.  The man’s eyes closed.  I saw tears hover beneath his lashes.  Aged hands full of grime and pain and labour so gently cradled my baby’s bottom and back.  I stood awestruck.  The old man rocked and cradled Eric in his arms for a moment, and then his eyes opened.  He said, in a commanding voice as he looked directly at me, “You take care of this baby.”  Somehow I managed “I will … I will” from a throat that contained a stone.  He pried Eric from his chest – unwillingly, longingly – as though he was in pain.  “God bless you, ma’am.  You’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

I said nothing more than a moderate thanks.  With Eric back in my arms, I ran for the car.  Dennis wondered why I was crying and holding Eric so tightly.  And why I was saying “How could I have forgotten?  How could I have forgotten?”

70%

The poll about the US election got my attention.  It said that 70% of Republicans thought the result was “rigged”.  Joe Biden didn’t win fairly.

I was stunned.  Evidence has piled up that poll workers, supervisors and politicians responsible for elections were meticulous and demonstrated integrity.  So … reality is being ignored by a lot of people.

Who are these folks?

I feel that consciousness is evolving on the planet.  Maybe, though, it shows up as the jagged lines you see on stock market diagrams rather than a smoothly ascending curve.  Clearly some folks aren’t participating in the emergence.

Somebody asserts something.  Does the reasoning make sense?  We’re intelligent people.  We have the ability to analyze statements and sense if they ring true.  Does it matter if the person asserting is male or female, young or old, Republican or Democrat?  No, it doesn’t.  The truth speaks loudly, as do lies.

What if my leader says X?  Am I an underling, inferior in wisdom to the big guy?  Do I really need to associate myself with someone powerful, in order to boost my flagging self-esteem?  Do I need another human being to raise me up from deficiency to sufficiency?  No.

Ouch.  The mere thought of being surrounded by “yes” men and women makes me cringe.  Will the group and the guru have me forget myself as cause?

Arms holding aloft signs such as “Just Say No To Creepy Joe” and “Stolen, Rigged, Fraud” remind me of other arms, ones that long ago were held straight out at a 45° angle.  That didn’t end well.

I would like the 70% to be my friends but I wonder if that’s possible.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish creator of fairy tales who lived in the 1800’s.  In an alternative universe, he’s an American in the 2000’s.

There once was an emperor.  He thought quite a lot of himself.  Others decided to follow suit.

Prime Minister:  The people are clamoring for you, Your Majesty.

Emperor:  They’re not clamoring very loud.

Prime Minister:  But they’re our best clamorers …

Emperor:  Tell them I want more clamoring.  I want more clamor!

Bad people posing as weavers offered to create for His Topness a stunning new wardrobe.  The only members of the public who wouldn’t be able to see the finery were those who were stupid or incompetent.  And who would want to be considered as such?

The Emperor undressed, and the swindlers pretended to put his new clothes on him, one garment after another.  They took him around the waist and seemed to be fastening something – that was his train – as the Emperor turned round and round before the looking glass.

“How well Your Majesty’s new clothes look.  Aren’t they becoming?” he heard on all sides.  “That pattern, so perfect!  Those colors, so suitable!  It is a magnificent outfit.”

Then the Minister of Public Processions announced: “Your Majesty’s canopy is waiting outside.”

“Well, I’m supposed to be ready,” the Emperor said, and turned again for one last look in the mirror.  “It is a remarkable fit, isn’t it?”  He seemed to regard his costume with the greatest interest.

The noblemen who were to carry his train stooped low and reached for the floor as if they were picking up his mantle.  Then they pretended to lift and hold it high.  They didn’t dare admit they had nothing to hold.

The crowds cheered and kept their gaping hidden behind the folds of the face.  Not a word of discord would be said.  Hundreds of people nodded and clapped.

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last.  “Good heavens!  Listen to the voice of an innocent child,” said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said.  “But he has nothing on at all,” cried at last the whole people.

And please tell me when the moment of “at last” will finally come.

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.

The Long Ride

I don’t know if you were reading my WordPress posts two years ago. If you were with me in June, 2018, you saw a man collapsing. I had just started riding my bicycle across Canada with seventeen other Tour du Canada cyclists. Aerobically I was in pretty good shape but my bike skills were woeful. I had ignored the advice from the Tour’s organizer: take a cycling skills course.

Within the first three days of the ride, I crashed three times and was continually terrified of the semitrailers passing within three metres of me. I couldn’t make the slow motion moves that were needed in downtown Vancouver traffic. Near Abbotsford, B.C., I misjudged the speed of a hillside left-turning car and just about had it all end.

I quit.

I spent two nights in a hotel with my bicycle propped against the wall. My hands shook, and they kept shaking for two weeks. “I’ll never ride again.”

Now it’s two years later. I still have remnants of the PTSD but they’re mild. A friend recommended I look at a video of a Bob Newhart TV sketch. A woman comes in for counselling since she’s terrified of being buried alive in a box. Bob says he’ll give her two words and then the therapy session will be over. She pulls out a notepad. Bob leans forward over his desk … and yells “Stop it!”

Woh. What? No months of therapy to deal with my now deepseated agony about being on the bicycle? No reliving my fear of impending death? No “processing” my life?

Okay. I went to my bike shop a couple of weeks ago. I had bought a more stable bicycle than the one I rode in 2018. Wide knobby tires instead of narrow smooth ones. Inside me was a fluttering but also a strange calm. Step number one: show up at the shop and tell my friends (manager and employee) the true story of June, 2018. They listened. They didn’t turn their backs.

Step number two was four days ago: I put on my cycling jersey and shorts. (Scary) I had my friends put the new bike on a stand, and I got on. I gulped … but there I was on the saddle. I pedaled. I changed gears. My heart was fast. I agonized about how to get the bike going and how to stop it. (Which foot goes where?) I couldn’t remember. I blasted myself for not being able to remember. And then I calmed down. I made an appointment to come back yesterday and ride in the big parking lot behind the shop, with coaching from my friend. I went home.

“Just stop it, Bruce!”

Yesterday came. I hadn’t slept much. The two of us moseyed out back with my bicycle, “Betty” by name. I tried squeezing out love for her but nothing came. My friend showed me how she gets on and off a bicycle. I got the “on” part but was still jangled by the “off”.

And then it was time for me. “I’m actually doing this” inside. Left foot on the ground, Right leg swung over the bike. Right foot on pedal, up high so I could push down mightily. “A ten-year-old kid knows how to do this!” > “Stop it!”

Push. I was up. I was going. “I didn’t catch my shorts on the saddle!” (Something I’ve done so many times in the past) Feeling Betty. Feeling the sensitivity of the brakes. A swooping left turn. The mouth opening in wonder.

And then the dark: “Which foot do I put down?” I just couldn’t remember. I decided the right one. Wrong choice. Brakes touched. Bike slowing … then lurching to the right as my right foot sought the pavement. I hopped. I stayed up. And I had my answer: left foot down.

Another few loops of the lot. “I can do this.” Brakes squeezed. Left foot down before I was going slow enough to do that. Another hop, but a good one this time. Going again, my friend watching with a little smile. Braking … slower … body lean to the left … foot falling through space … a gentle press on the pavement. Sweet.

There is much more skill needed. And I have time to do that. Betty and I have become friends. We will go places together.

My mind is being freed. My eyes face outward, seeing the unknown bends in the road rather than gazing at my belly button.

“Well done, Bruce.”

Assassination

It’s a horrible word.  No leader should have their life snuffed out at the end of a gun.  Agree with their politics or disagree, “an eye for an eye” is inhumane.

I know the word.  I know November 22, 1963.  U.S. President John Kennedy travelled to Dallas, Texas to make a speech.  Mid-morning in Toronto, I was a Grade 10 student heading to String Music class.  Our teacher was a fiery one, passionate about music and about us giving our all in class.  She was late.  We were tuned up and ready to go.  Ten minutes we sat.  “She’s never late.”

And then the door burst open.  Our teacher smashed into the room, crying.  “Kennedy’s been shot!”  I was fourteen, plenty old enough to have the shock blast through me.  Disbelief, sorrow, anger – all were swirling among us.  “This can’t be.”

I went home for lunch and sat glued to our black-and-white TV.  Kennedy was fighting for his life in Parkland Hospital.  My face was ash, my mind swirling.  Then it was my job to go back to school, so I did.

We the students got to watch TV some.  The CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite, filled the screen after a commercial:

From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1:00 pm Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.

The rest is a blur.

Some 50 years later, I walked into the String Music room at Lawrence Park Collegiate to find a choir settling in at the beginning of a period.  I introduced myself to the teacher, told him I was a graduate of the school, and said that something stunning happened in this room a long time ago.  “May I tell the students?”

And I did.  Many 17-year-old faces softened and saddened.

***

May young people and old people never have to live such moments
in the current day

Stuck

Twenty years ago, Jody and I bought a Bowflex – a strength training machine that’s very cool.  We used it for awhile and then discovered the social pleasures of a gym.  So it came to be that we had a dust-gathering sculpture in the basement.  Four years ago, I moved to Belmont and brought the beast with me.  It had long ago ceased to be alive in my soul.

I love working out at GoodLife Fitness – both my trainer Tony and the elliptical are good friends.  But that shut down weeks ago and I started sneaking glances at Mr. Bowflex.

Today I was down there, getting reacquainted and relearning all sorts of exercises.  There was a healthy glow, inside and out.  And then …

Meow!

Hmm.  Did I hear that right?  I turned toward the sound and there sitting in the window well was a cat.  A lovely speckled brown soul with eyes that were entering mine.  Our contact lingered, with a touch of sadness in both directions.

Through the glass was another being, one who no doubt couldn’t climb the smooth sides to safety.  And the leap would have been three feet.  Memories flashed to Jody’s and my home in Union and how I’d rescued a raccoon from a similar window well by propping a board down there.  Eventually the masked one had climbed out.

Now I live in a detached condo with no outside maintenance responsibilities.  And hence no boards.  I searched the garage for a solution and found a big square of stiff cardboard that would fit in the hole.  I went outside, shared a few moments with the captive and plunked the square down there, at a good climbing angle.

Ten minutes later, the kitty hadn’t stirred and I realized that the cardboard didn’t provide much grip for escaping.  So back to the garage, where a fabric hammock was my next solution.  Far better gripping there, and it was longer.  I wedged one end in a corner, while the other poked above the lip of the well.  Yes … that’ll work.  Any self-respecting cat should have no problem scurrying out of the hole.

Ten minutes later, my friend was curled up under the rolled hammock, with nary the twitch of a muscle.  (Sigh)

Bruce, you have to go down there and pull him out.  Sadly, my next thought was not of kindness and heroism, but of getting bitten by a dog in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Okay, but you still have to do it.  You couldn’t live with yourself if you let another being die in a hole.  So true.  Be just a wee bit heroic, dear one.

I obsessed about being bitten and how to protect myself from that.  I put on heavy clothes and a heavy coat and thought of my hands.  In the spirit of supreme protection, I pulled on a pair of gardening gloves that had some rubber coating on the palms, supposedly to prevent the ravages of thorns.  Good, but I want more.  So I put on my winter mittens over that.  Surely no feline teeth could puncture me through such sturdy layers.  (I made a note not to tell anyone about those fashion choices but clearly I’ve forgotten that advice.)

Girding my loins, I removed the mass of hammock and contemplated replacing it with … me!  Kitty was making that soft eye contact again.  My heart melted and my skin contracted.  One swift movement, Bruce – down, grab, throw!

And so I did.  Kitty tried to escape my clutch but I was supremely fast.  I grabbed her around the midsection with the offending teeth going in the opposite direction.  I swung around and launched her over the grass.  She landed on her feet and raced around the corner of the building.  The deed was done.

I am kind
I am scared
Both mostly … I am kind

Fare thee well, little one

What Was That?

Who knows what time it was … maybe 4:00 am this morning.  I was jolted awake by a dream.  As I hunkered down in the safety of my pillow, the details remained vivid.  A little red dot, swollen, appeared above my right knee.  I wasn’t concerned, but some filmy being was.  He or she squeezed it, and the tip of a silver filament appeared.  They grabbed on and pulled.  It was so tiny in diameter, and shiny.  There was no pain, just the sense of movement inside.  The being kept pulling and the string kept coming.  This seemed to go on for minutes.  A pile of silver grew at my feet, coil upon coil.  Finally the other end left my body and settled gently to the floor.

Woh.

I think I was sweating but I don’t really know.  Eyes eventually closed, the mind sort of settled, and I was asleep again.

Some time later, another jolt: I was holding a very long duffel bag, cylindrical in shape.  It was empty, except for something moving way down at the closed end.  I lifted the bag vertical and there was a fall of objects towards the drawstring opening.  Out plopped a “bug”, about three inches long, with fluttering mauve and yellow wings.  Next was a gooey snake, the colour of wallpaper paste.  It was divided up into small sections by a series of bright red rings that constricted the body.  As soon as it hit the floor, it curled into itself.  Other beings came out of the bag.  I don’t remember what they looked like, but everyone was scurrying around, seemingly in pain.  Were they hiding from the light?

Woh, chapter two.  Both dreams were shot in Ultra HD, and in silence.

When I finally roused myself to verticality, I sought the refuge of the shower.  Thank God.  Then I pulled out my phone and checked to see what CNN was saying about our coronavirus world.  Scrolling down the latest articles of sadness, I came upon one titled “The Meaning of Your Coronavirus Dreams”.  Okay.  That seems relevant to my life.

The author talked about some Twitter posters being “amazed at the peculiarity of their dreams or distressed by plots that center on death, fear and strange new worlds”.  Yup.  One woman shared that “In my dream, I called an Uber, but a hearse showed up instead.”  Alrighty then, time for a sleeping pill.

“According to experts, these cryptic responses are normal.  Our brains’ way of understanding the stressful information we take in during the day can manifest in nightmares.”

So I’m not outrageously abnormal (or am I?)  Our entire beings are being electrified by something that’s new in the world (unless you were alive in 1918).  Let’s all just breathe, and hopefully sleep.