Seeking Gifts

Just before I went to California in April, a boy in the Grade 6 class asked me if I’d bring him back a snow globe. I thought for a second and then said yes. In Monterey, I had so much fun tracking down just what he wanted – a version that featured a sea otter.

On Tuesday, I was in class before my afternoon flight to Alberta. A boy had already asked me to find a wooden sculpture for him. I bet everyone knew that I’d said yes. As time wound down towards my departure, two girls came by separately and each shyly said how much they’d like to have a necklace from Alberta. I asked for details of what they’d prefer and they were happy to oblige. I overheard another young lady telling her friends that she’d love to have a souvenir from the west.

So, Mr. Kerr, do you give these kids what they’re asking for? Immediately the answer came back “Yes”. I choose to reward the kids who speak up, who are brave enough to ask.

On the plane to Calgary, I decided to give the last girl the gift she wanted – some depiction of a horse. It’s true that she didn’t ask me directly but at least she tossed her intention out there.

Today was my first full day with Nona, Lance, Jaxon, Jagger and Jace. Nona knew of a few gift shops in nearby Black Diamond and I promised to be no more than half an hour. I figured I had six more days to score any unfound treasures.

First the recommended drug store with its gift section. A small rearing horse caught my attention on the top shelf. Cool. But so did the $89.99 price tag. My eyes roamed and soon came to rest on a pile of small plates. The top one had a sublime painting of a mom horse and her foal. I stared. “Yes” rang through me. Just like that, one of the four was complete. I could see the future smile on the 11-year-old’s face.

The accompanying shelves weren’t yielding further secrets so I readied myself to leave. I asked the saleslady where in town I was likely to find necklaces. She smiled and gestured over to where I had been. Little boxes, each with a pendant, graced the glass. I hadn’t noticed their silver chains. Before me were jewelry designs in abalone shells – shimmering greens and blues.

The first one to my eyes showed the shining feathers of a dreamcatcher, and the face of one of the askers appeared. Less than a minute later, I saw a “Tree of Life” pendant, and the other young face was smiling at me. How can this be? Three out of four in ten minutes!

I meandered down the street, peeking into this shop and that. The warmth of one place beckoned me inward. My request for “a little wooden sculpture” drew a smile from a clerk and an offer to shift my attention to tiny stone animals. I looked at the small ones in their rectangular compartments and knew that the answer was no. But I was being nudged onward, past several displays of artistry. There, sitting on a vibrant scarf, were four small wooden boxes. One was rounded at the top and a tree stretched over. Mango wood from India. Four.

In ten days, my young friends, gifts will be given.

Happy Birthday to Me!

Actually, I was born on January 9 but why should facts get in the way of a little fun?

Today was a special day at school and there were fools all over the place.  Take me, for instance.  I told the kids first thing that I had just been listening to Doug Ford on the radio.  He’s the Premier of Ontario.  “He said that starting on May 1, he’s extending the school day.  Instead of students going home at 3:30, it’ll be 4:00.”  I said this with a very straight face.  No sooner were the last words out of my mouth than I was met with a chorus of “April Fool’s!”  Kids are just so smart these days.

Around 10:00 am, one of the Grade 6 kids left the room, supposedly on the way to the washroom.  A few minutes later, a shorter and younger version of her, dressed exactly the same, came into the class and confidently sat in her sister’s chair.  For some of us it took seconds, but others didn’t notice for a minute or so.  Well done, girls!

The announcements started just before morning recess.  A teacher came on the PA with this message: “It’s Mr. Kerr’s birthday today.  If you see him in the halls or on the yard, wish him well.”  I was working with two kids at that moment, and my face jerked.  Huh?  Oh yeah … April 1.

Now, what would be the most fun?  Well, play along with it, of course.  Thank everyone for their good wishes and revel in my birthday celebration.  So that’s what I did.

No sooner was I on the asphalt than a girl rushed up with a birthday card.  How did she pull that off in ten minutes?  I smiled and said thank you.  “How old are you?”  >  “70”  >  “Oh.”  (unspoken, I believe, was “That’s really old.”)  As I walked around, maybe twenty kids came up to say “Happy Birthday!”  One girl said she had a present for me and plunked a quarter in my hand.  Naturally, staff members or volunteers don’t accept money from kids, but I made an executive decision: I picked up the coin with a flourish, opened the change pocket of my wallet and dropped it in.  The young lady was so very happy.

Feel free to congratulate me as well.  I’ll gladly receive all the good vibes that come my way.  January … April … they’re both marvelous.

It Flew Away

I was pleased with the post I wrote yesterday.  In “Flying to You”, I talked about my two trips to Alberta this June, first to see my nephew Jaxon’s high school graduation and the second two weeks later to visit my friend Sharyn, and later Jaxon and his family.  The highlights of the intervening time back home will be a Grade 6 grad and a Grade 8 one.  I’m happy about being with the people I love.

This afternoon I couldn’t resist – I had to find out how many folks had viewed my words.  “Wow!  That’s quite a lot.”  So much for not needing people’s feedback.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll be empty of ego.

One of the WordPress pages gives me the stats.  Another one simply lists my recent posts, with the first sentence or so shown.  I looked back on my week.  There were “Daddy!”, “Fresh” and “Skaters”.  Above was “Flying to You” but something looked different.  Hmm.  Then it hit me – no first sentence.  I clicked on the title …

BLANK

No words.  All gone.  Bye bye.

My heart leapt up.  My muscles collapsed into my bones.  My mouth gaped.  Bottom line: this was a disaster.  Four hundred words that I was proud of were no more.  I thought of the damage to me, and I also thought of the loss to folks who enjoy reading what I have to say.

I felt violated.  There was a huge gap ripping through me, plus a compulsion to recall the words of twelve hours past and put them into a new post – “Flying to You 2.0”.  I was leaning towards the laptop keys, shaking below the surface.  Isn’t there an “Undo” button here somewhere?

And then … I sunk back into the couch.  I loosened, all over.  I smiled.  My heart rate fell back to 60 or 70 beats a minute.  I was at ease.

So what happened?  How is it that I let go of thoughts that were “mine”?  That it didn’t matter if anyone will ever read them in the future.  That I have peace.

Are the possessing parts of me starting to break up, being shuffed off like dead skin?  Is there a new, far broader identity emerging, one that stretches far out into the world?  Or is it that I just don’t give a poop anymore?

Whatever’s happening, I sense it’s good.  The unravelling is something I can trust.

***

And how about these sentences that lie before me right now?  Just for laughs, should I press “Delete” instead of “Publish”?  Naw.  A guy can only have so much fun.

Floor Hockey

For the past decade or two, I haven’t been what you’d call a careful person.  I’m pretty spontaneous, and no doubt some of the silly things that come out of my mouth have some folks questioning my sanity.

And I want to do things.  Things that involve spurts of energy, throwing my arms into the air, singing when I feel like it.  I’ve loved dancing for many years.  Jody used to enjoy staring at folks who were watching me dance.  She loved seeing their fascination with my erratic use of four limbs – not exactly the fox trot, not exactly jiving, not exactly … anything.

I hurt my knee on Canada Day last year, slipping on some slopey grass.  It still hasn’t healed fully.  I’ve wanted to get an MRI to see what’s going on, but my doctor at the Fowler-Kennedy Clinic offered another perspective.  “You have arthritis in both knees.  They’re degenerating some.  The grass was just the moment that caused you to pay attention to something that previously you couldn’t see.”  Oh.  So I’m doing these eight exercises, not to end a pain that came on suddenly but to strengthen knees enough so that I can continue doing the “Activities of Daily Living”.

And what exactly are these ADL’s?  I guess that’s up to me to decide.  Walking, climbing stairs, bending over to pick up the newspaper – these are good things.  But I want more.  I want to play floor hockey with the kids at school!  Doctor J warned me about the dangers of sudden sideways movements of that joint of mine, but saw floor hockey in my future.  That was three weeks ago.  Today I decided the future is now.

A friend and colleague presented me with a blue t-shirt this morning.  Written across the logo of the Toronto Maple Leafs was the name of the school.  On the the back was “Brucio”.  That’s me!  At noon, the teachers’ team was to bang sticks with an ace kids’ squad from Grades 5 and 6.  The winner would go to the finals on Thursday.

So, Bruce … yes or no?  I said yes, after consulting with my right knee.  It smiled up at me.  The kids are fast and aggressive.  I’m slow and aggressive.  I got out there and did battle, noticing that when the puck did end up on my stick, I had precious little time to do anything valuable with it.  Oh well.  I played some so-so defense and got a few good passes off to my teammates.  The knee twinged here and hurt there but I consistently remained vertical.  I even got a zippy shot on net.  The Grade 6 girl playing goal had to make the best stop in the history of the western world to deny me.  Or … the puck headed right for her stomach.

I picked an opponent to check and stuck with him like glue, occasionally.  More often, he was long gone down the gym floor while I breathed behind.  Happily though, I wasn’t the token adult.  I played hard.  I wasn’t out of place.  I contributed to our stellar 1-1 tie with the kids.  And we do it all over again on Thursday.

Am I crazy?  Am I risking my future ability to walk by engaging in these hockey shenanigans?  Is this a late life crisis?  Naw.  None of the above.  I’ll keep doing my physio.  I’ll do my yoga.  I’ll be on the elliptical.  And I will have fun with those kids.  They deserve me and I deserve them.  And watch out Miss Goalie.  I see a wrist shot to the top corner in your future.

 

Day Thirteen: A Little Sick, A Lot Happy

My day started with breakfast at the B&B. The group of us had the chance to taste baguettes with onions and potatoes, or with beans. I had one of each. They were both yummy. When in Rome …

Lydia wanted us to experience a far older village than Toubacouta. Secouna (I think) was eighteen kilometres away, and we doubled up on four motos. I was sitting behind Eddy, our B&B host, and was thrilled to see carts pulled by donkeys, crowds of folks seeking shade under wide-spreading trees, and even a couple of large red monkeys bounding across the road.

At one point, Eddy and I passed a fellow carrying a load of wood on his back. Eddy gave him a toot and the guy raised a couple of fingers in response. Beautiful. It reminded me of Ellwood Irwin, my former father-in-law. He was a wheat farmer on the vast Canadian prairie. When Ellwood was driving his truck and another farmer was approaching, he also would lift a couple of fingers in salute. Senegal … Alberta … just folks.

We were about halfway to Secouna when the urge to upchuck rose within me. Oh, no. Surely I wasn’t going to puke all over Eddy’s back! Oh, God, please help me here. I was also getting dizzy, and holding on to the bar behind me for all I was worth. “I can do this!” And I did.

We finally reached the village and stopped at a store. I ungracefully lurched off the bike and rested my head against the doorjamb of the entrance. The next thing I knew, there was a chair underneath my butt and a little container of water was in my hand. My friends were there in a flash to take care of me. Love lives.

As we sat on the patio of a restaurant with a big bottle of water, I looked across the street to see four fellows working on a bicycle. They were all so intent on the task and were chatting together, I suppose about what needed to be done. One guy worked for at least ten minutes, trying to get a tire off the rim. He didn’t have the right tool but no matter.

On the way back to Toubacouta, I felt much better. Eddy and I rolled past twenty or thirty monkeys who were running full out across the dry land. What athletes! We went through two tiny villages and I waved to the folks gathered under trees. Most people waved right back. I thought of the ride to Secouna, where I didn’t wave to anybody. Yes, I wasn’t feeling well, but it’s so strange to not be friendly.

Lydia and Jo invited me to have lunch with the family at their home. And she had a surprise for me: a large bowl of pasta was placed on the table accompanied by … a jar of pesto! My favourite flavour in the world. Mareama, the woman who made sure I got Senegalese pantaloons, was wearing a gorgeous pair of gold heart-shaped glasses. I asked her if I could wear them, and she tried mine on. We looked great, as you’ll see from the nearby photos.

A large group of us went for a walk later on a flat stretch of land that reveals itself at low tide. We felt the mud under our feet and walked into a watery area where snails lay on the intertidal floor. We could see the tracks they made in the sand. Partway, Lydia took my arm as we strolled along. We reflected on love and the beauty of the land. She is truly at home in Senegal. I can see myself feeling the same way.

Thank you for accompanying me on my journey.

Day Nine: We’re Off!

More human beings to enjoy on my travels, and they’re all coming to Senegal with us. Last night, at The Wizard of Oz, I remet Anja and Curd, the friends of Lydia and Jo who were with them on that hiking trail in Alberta. They didn’t seem to speak English so I didn’t get to know them back then. I wonder if they were surprised to hear that Lydia had invited me to go to Senegal, and that I had said yes.

Along with their parents, Olivia and Camille were also enjoying Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. We said hi and gave each other cheek kisses right away, as they do in Belgium. So different from how we greet each other in Canada. I like it.

This morning at the airport, I said hello to Sabrine and Lieselotte, both friends of Anja and Lydia. Simpatico. So we are eleven, now flying from Brussels to Lisbon, Portugal.

How many times have I said this? I feel so included, that I deeply belong. Some of the new folks have very limited English, and that’s okay because I have very limited everything else! We make funny faces, we laugh a lot, and already, I believe, we see each other. We’re each part of the tapestry that is the human family.

As we waited in the Brussels Airport this morning, four soldiers walked by in camouflage uniforms, toting machine guns. Oh my. Someone in our group told me that maybe three years ago, just down the concourse from us, terrorists ignited a bomb that was hidden in luggage, killing many people. I walked over to the approximate area where it happened. I stood. I mourned. And then I went back to my family.

I’ll write some more in the Lisbon Airport and then send it to you. I figure that’ll be it for today. There’s a long road ahead to tomorrow morning and I don’t expect to have any internet access. Ciao!

***

I’m so proud of myself! On arrival in Lisbon, we were channelled into a narrow passage which soon opened onto a grand vista – behind a left to right railing stood perhaps one hundred folks waiting to greet their loved ones. I found my right arm rising naturally and a smile curling my lips. I waved to them all. In return were a good many stares and perhaps ten hands raised in response. Perfect.

Lydia lent me her hat for the day. I consider myself very pretty. Folks strolling through the airport seem to have a different opinion. It’s all fun.

Until the next time, dear friends …

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.

Day Three: ‘Sploring

Ten hours of sleep … good for a jet-lagged Canadian. I awoke to the sun. Jo and Lydia’s dining room was bathed in light. As Julie Andrews was found of saying, the hills were alive.

Lore had an oral exam at school this morning and Lydia drove her, with me in tow. The sloping fields here are green and the tall trees cast magnificent shadows.

Lore was nervous and mom was reassuring her, in Flemish, so I didn’t know what she was saying. I told daughter that we’d be thinking about her from 10:15 to 11:00, and I followed through with that, sending her good wishes.

Then it was off to Lydia’s work. She and Jo are managers at a funeral wholesaler, carving inscriptions on headstones, and selling products such as urns. Lydia wanted me to meet her colleagues and I wanted to say hi to them. After a round of Flemish hellos and smiles, I decided to do the natural thing – sing them O Canada. They laughed.

I followed Jo around, first through the shop to see how the inscriptions are created, and later out and about in town. First stop was the bakery, the home of freshly-baked smells, Then it was on to a huge home improvement store to get plumbing and electrical supplies for Senegal. While there, I picked up a can of insulating foam. Like at home, the words were in two languages. Unlike what I know, the languages were Flemish and French. Welcome to the rest of the world, Bruce.

Baziel and I went for a walk in the afternoon. Across a muddy field to see a 300-hundred-year-old windmill. I wondered what stories were hidden between those walls.

We walked on a lovely paved path between emerald fields. Such peace in the country. Turns out that the path was a road and we had to move onto the field a little to let cars pass. Soon a Mcdonalds cup appeared and then seven cans thrown out at intervals, each labelled as a gin and tonic drink. We picked them all up and later recycled them at home.

Baziel described a conflict or two with his mom – no big deal from his end but mom sometimes builds it up in his opinion. As for fights with his sister, Baziel shrugged and said they make up within five minutes. Usual family stuff but I sense an unusual love among them.

Later in the Monday agenda, Lydia, Lore and I headed to a grocery store. As the women picked up cool items from a variety of displays, I tagged along, often falling behind the purchases. At one point, I passed an old couple. The woman and I held gazes for a few seconds and then started chatting, she in Flemish and I in English. Neither of us knew what the other one was saying and it didn’t matter. We just kept looking and smiling. It was fun.

Yesterday Lydia asked me what my favourite food was. My response? Pesto pasta. So three guesses what the meal was tonight. I was in heaven and generously allowed myself to have seconds.

I am being treated like a king near Oudenaard, Belgium. The simple events of the day, as long as they’re experienced with family, are a joy.

The Santa Parade

I couldn’t help myself last night.  I just had to dress up like Charles Dickens for the Belmont Santa Claus Parade.  It was full regalia: dress shirt and tie, top hat, long dress coat and a red scarf (courtesy of the TFC soccer team).  Oh, and I used spirit gum to develop an instant moustache, a black handlebar jobbie.

I walked down Main Street to the staging area an hour before the departure time, coming across various gaggles of humanity.  Each time, I announced myself as Charles Dickens, arrived earlier in the day from England, and asked if there was a parade happening soon.  Most people laughed and joined in the fun.  One couple playfully directed me to the wrong end of town.  A few folks just stared but that’s okay.  I guess I was an abrupt shock.

Down at parade central, I joshed with kids and adults, many of whom I knew, as the rain began.  It would last for the next hour.  My task was to walk beside the Belmont Diner float, handing out mini-chocolate bars.  Based on my parading two years ago, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.  Kids deserved their five seconds of eye contact.  So my bag was plum full of tasty treats.  I felt “like a peddler, just opening his pack.”  Strength training here I come.

As our cavalcade spilled onto Main Street, there were the kids … hundreds of them on the route.  One bar for each small human, and a huge mustachioed smile.  “Merry Christmas!”,  “God bless us everyone”, and other assorted holiday greetings.  I mentioned to the adults that they’d get chocolate if they were under 15, and many of them happily volunteered that they were.  The ones who spoke up got a bar.  Why not?

I told a few kids that hidden beneath the plastic wrapping of their treat was a lovely piece of broccoli.  Pained faces, until I corrected that to chocolate, “which as we all know is one of Canada’s four major food groups.  By the way, the other three are also chocolate.”  So … many smiles.

I saw lots of kids I knew, and received several hugs from children who could see beneath my disguise to the Mr. Kerr within.  I only forgot one name and awkwardly looked at the boy for a few seconds after “Merry Christmas”.  I was sad that I couldn’t remember his name.  After all, he was in the class where I volunteered last year.  But that’s life.  Perfection is not me.

I was so happy to see people, young and old, who are part of my life.  And they were happy to see me.  Belmont has been my home for two years and now I belong.  What a sweet feeling.

As someone wise once said
“Home is where the heart is”

Just Opening My Mouth

Why not?  What’s the purpose of keeping it shut, worried about what some person might think?  Silly.  Let the real Bruce flow.  Some will love me for it.  Some will be disgusted.  Some will be afraid.  I welcome them all.

Halfway through this morning, the bell rang to announce the beginning of recess.  I mentioned to Jeremy that I was going to Toronto next week to see the same concert twice: a tribute to the Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers, who died of smoke inhalation in a plane in 1983.  Perhaps strangely (you decide), I’m doing the same thing this week, with the target of my affection being Leonard Cohen.

Jeremy didn’t know Stan’s music but immediately went to YouTube for the song I mentioned, one that some people think should replace “O Canada” as our national anthem: Northwest Passage.

Ah, for just one time
I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea

Tracing one warm line
Through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea

Three or four kids had stayed in at recess, working on their poetry homework.  Hearing Stan’s deep baritone voice again sent me away.  I started singing the chorus … full-throated, nothing held back.  It was Stan and me and the kids.  A couple of them gaped.  One smiled.  I kept singing.  At one point, I was so happy that I threw my cell phone about three feet in the air (and caught it on the way down).  Not a wise move, I agree, but the feeling of free coursed through me.  My cells were singing too.

Next was The Mary Ellen Carter.  I sang.  Then 45 Years (Stan’s love song to his wife).  I sang.  Kids watched.  All was well.

***

Tonight was the Quarter Auction at the arena.  Two hundred women and me.  Actually, there was another guy.  He was one of the many vendors spread around the perimeter of the room.  These folks were selling cool stuff for the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.  Not a single item for the garage.  That’s okay.  As a general statement, I like women more than men.

Each item to be auctioned required a bid of a quarter or two.  Then we’d hold up our paddles and see if our number was called.  I sat with “Barb” and her two daughters plus two of her friends.  I kept putting too many quarters in the little bowl, just for fun.  When my companions weren’t looking, I’d slip quarters into their little purses, just for fun.  And when the announcer corrected herself from “Ladies” to “Ladies and One Gentleman”, I leapt up with a “Yes!”  That was fun, too.

Towards the end of the evening,  I heard “78”, which just happened to be my number.  I jumped up, slammed my paddle on the table and skipped over a woman holding the necklace I’d won.  People cheered and laughed.  Me too.

There was a gorgeous blue stone set in the pendant.  Since I didn’t have a thing to wear with it, I gave it to one of Barb’s daughters.  She smiled.  Me too.

***

So it’s been a day.

I might as well throw myself out there into the world.  What’s there to lose?  Maybe blending, shrinking, averaging.  I can let those go.  Expressing is far more fun.