Home County

Tonight is the beginning of this weekend’s Home County Folk Festival in London, Ontario. I just showed up at the bandshell in Victoria Park. Maybe thirty folks were scattered among the sea of folding chairs and I did what any self-respecting folk purist would do. I gave a speech.

“Welcome to Home County. This is my 80th time here [the festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary!] I’m happy to announce the results of our draw. One of you lovely couples has won an all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico!” I then pulled a nickel from my wallet and flipped it. Looking at a middle-aged couple in row six, I approached them with handshakes. They smiled a lot and didn’t believe me for a second … but it was fun.

And then the music started – a duo of women with lovely voices and sweet lyrics. But all around me people were talking, and they kept doing so song after song. Yuck! What about respect for the performers? I wasn’t brave enough to tell the folks to be quiet and just watched the situation, fascinated with what I was tempted to call a lower state of consciousness. But really, yapping during the singing is just another way of being. I decided to let it go.

And the skies started dribbling. A drop here and a drop there, and suddenly the umbrellas were up in full force. I wanted to feel superior to people who are so protective of their comfort, but I realized there was no cheese down that tunnel. So more letting go. The drops doubled and so did the umbrellas. I was enjoying the refreshing spatters on my arms and shirt and reflecting on the differences among us.

Halfway through the performances, I thought it would be cool to throw my consciousness inside all these festival goers. I tried, which is never a good sign, and nothing happened. Oh well. You’re such an idealist, Bruce.

An hour later, Donovan Woods was wrapping a song, and I looked out over the crowd. Zap! I was there, inside them all. And within the band members too. Bruce was beyond the edges of Bruce’s body. Bruce had spread himself wide. He was inside all those heads.

Then the rains really came and guess whose umbrella was up like a shot? And … the expansion into other folks’ souls had gone poof.

Ain’t life a mystery?

What Nourishes Me?

I sit quietly and wonder about the activities I choose to do, the thoughts that I allow to proliferate. Will the choice I make right now enhance or diminish my life, and the lives of others?

I wonder some more. Here are the nourishments I’ve discovered while sitting under a tree in London’s Victoria Park:

1. I need to open my heart, when I’ve allowed it to close, and keep it open throughout the day. My eyes need to be soft as I gaze out at the human beings near me. I need to feel into their joys and sorrows and let those energies sit within me. More than anything, I need to “be with” my fellow travellers, in a state of union, rather than separation.

2. I need waving leaves and dappled sunlight. To see the massive trunk of this maple tree sink into the earth and to feel the softness of the grass beneath my feet. Simply, I need to be outside in the natural world.

3. I need to have conversations that matter with one human being at a time, hopefully many throughout the day. To look into each other’s eyes and see the universe there. To touch each other’s essence and smile in response. To see who’s there.

4. I need to have children in my life, to bathe in their spontaneity and giggles. For that to happen, I’ll keep volunteering at the elementary school nearby, probably staying in Grade 6. Many of those 12-year-olds love to talk. I need to show the kids one example of a positive male role model, and let them decide whether to emulate me.

5. I need to write for an audience. “Bruce’s Blog” will do just fine. Whether there are three of you out there or three hundred, I hope that my words touch you and contribute to your life. I intend to continue saying what’s true for me, knowing that my heart is good.

6. I need to meditate, to close my eyes and watch what appears, to allow anything to emerge. The stillness opens me to life’s energies and allows me to be in place. I am being held gently by something very big and I’m grateful. I need these moments of awareness.

7. I need to move … walking, the elliptical at the gym or (gulp) riding my bicycle. The last choice still elicits huge fear, so it remains on the back burner for a bit. But I need to feel the tendons stretch and the muscles press, the deep grabs of air, the bowed head of fatigue.

8. I need to sing. I need to harmonize with others. I need to have tender love songs fall from my lips. I need to speak lyrics that tell of the human condition, in all its sweetness and despair. I need to vibrate way down deep.

9. In the spirit of “not this”, I need to be vigilant, to avoid that which has me contract: mean people, surface conversations, overeating, mindless TV watching, the urge to keep busy, wondering “How am I doing?”

***

I get to choose
And those choices determine my impact on others
Choose wisely, Bruce

Ouch

I went to see the fireworks last night at the soccer fields in Belmont.  I saw lots of people I know and love.  As I was moving over the uneven grass with my chair, on the way to the best spot, a sharp pain in my right knee said hello.  After sitting a bit, I went for a hobbling walk with two wonderful kids.  It was fun to talk to them.  But then it was time to sit down and await the light show.

The sky was full with bursts of colour.  I especially liked several explosions that looked like the multiple blossoms of a rhododendron.  So cool.

Alas, all good things come to an end.  As I got up to leave, the knee shrieked.  In the dark it was hard to see the subtleties of grass contour and I paid for my missteps.  For awhile I held on to the top of a low fence as I muddled along.  Not good.

The strangest thing was that I smiled through it all.  Despite the pain, I felt peaceful.  Somehow I knew that all would be well.  I crawled into bed and strategically arranged my legs for comfort, trusting that life would continue working.

Early this morning, there was trouble in River City.  Rolling over sent shoots of yuckiness through the bod.  “All right, that’s enough.  Go to Urgent Care in London.”  I’m getting better at obeying those commands.

Walking in the bedroom was in slow motion.  I tried to keep my right leg straight and pretty much dragged it along.  Still I was fine in the head.  Remarkable.  I then took the most careful shower of my life.  Images flooded back of the ruptured tendon I had in 2003.  That produced a tendon transfer surgery and 17 weeks on crutches.  Then those pictures floated away.  I remained calm.

Once I was shoehorned into Scarlet, driving was fine.  I parked in the garage at St. Joseph’s Health Care and began a tedious shuffle towards the door of Urgent Care.  How humbling to be so slow, to make sure there were no cars for 100 metres before crossing the street.  I felt very old … so why was I happy?  I don’t understand me.

As I reached the receptionist, words unfolded in my head: “Be good to them, Bruce.”  Well, of course.  That’s why I’m on the planet.  And I followed through with that intent.  I made the triage nurse laugh and she made me comfy in a wheelchair.  I also shared chuckles with the X-ray technician.  Plus the doctor (“Call me Danielle”) and I reflected on the mysteries of the body while she expounded on the meniscus, a collateral lateral ligament strain, Tylenol, Advil and ice.  She told me that I wouldn’t damage the knee any more by walking on it, so I said no to crutches.  “It was a pleasure to meet you,” she smiled, as we said goodbye.  And the same from me.  Thanks for helping me, doc.

I’m happy.  I’m icing.  I’m medicating.  And I’m going to the visitation tonight for a dear friend and neighbour.  Bill deserves my presence, even a limpy version.

Win-Win

We live and breathe within a win-lose context.  On one level, that’s completely obvious.  Stanley Cup champions are face-to-face with hockey also rans.  Elected Prime Ministers and parties are up against colleagues who garner 2% of the popular vote.  And then in Toronto there are the mansions of Rosedale down a few roads from the public housing of Jane and Finch.

How deep does this cultural attitude stretch?  Maybe it’s completely insidious and virtually unnoticed in most interactions we humans have with each other.  If I’m talking to you, is there an unspoken current below to the tune of “I’m better than you, smarter, more handsome, kinder … blah, blah, blah?”  I hope not, but I worry that it’s so.  And perhaps you’re having the same thoughts about me.  Two isolations.  And it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Buddha talked about empathetic joy, in which I can be supremely happy when you have success.  It’s not that there’s only so much happiness to go around and I get antsy if you score too much of the pie.  No.  Have yourself a piece or two and there’ll be plenty left for me, and for everyone else.

What if I knew that my well-being revolved around being good to other people?  What if I wanted you to have everything, to be so deliciously happy and peaceful?  And that became far more uplifting to me than any worldly accolades that come my way?  Is that so very far out in left field?  Can we create a world like that?  I wonder.

What if I knew that in the expanse of life’s goodies there is actually nothing but love?  I’ll cheer when my team scores the winning goal and revel in my promotion and enjoy beach time in the Caribbean while sensing that only we are the world.  Or as Walt Whitman said, “We were together.  I don’t remember the rest.”

I want you to have joy in your heart
Maybe you’ll want me to have the same
Wouldn’t that be the sweetest dessert?

Community of Music

Since I moved to Belmont 18 months ago, I’ve been creating communities for myself.  Now that the worst of my grieving for Jody is over, I need to be out there in the world.

I love going to the Belmont Diner three times a week for breakfast.  The horseshoe-shaped lunch counter means that I get to talk to lots of folks.  Then there’s the elementary school where I volunteer in a Grade 5/6 class.  Kids and adults know me there and being known is a blessing.

And there are more gathering places: the Barking Cat pub, the Belmont Library, community events in the upstairs meeting room at the arena.

I often go to brunches and concerts at the church on Toronto Island, 200 kilometres from home.  I’m a familiar face there.  Also in London at the Cuckoo’s Nest folk club, Wellington Fitness and the Aeolian Hall concert venue.

Last night was a new opportunity.  A friend told me about weekly folk music gatherings in an old house by the Thames River.  Why not?  I’ve thought for years how cool it would be to go to a Newfoundland kitchen party, where everyone shows up with an instrument and their voice.  But that’s thousands of kilometres from me.

I got out of Scarlet and walked a little nervously towards the lights and parked cars.  I reached for the door, crossed the threshhold and there was Christine, smiling at the newcomer.  She and her husband John have hosted Wednesday evenings at their home for fifteen years.

The living room was narrow, with a small stage set up along one wall.  Chairs and couches were getting full with music fans, and smiles were aimed every which way, including at me.  I felt warm, included, seen.

The first set featured Jake, a mellow pianist, who shared his melodies, his knowledge of how to play jazz, and the voice of his lovely wife Julia.

Then there were the Back Seat Girls, four women (sometimes 5 and even 6) who loved belting out the fast tunes, many of which were so singable.  I was in heaven, sitting there with instant friends, sipping ginger tea, munching chocolate chip cookies, and throwing in a harmony or two.

Wow.  What’s happening?  Another community … and so effortless to embrace.  I am blessed.

The music lasted till 11:00, the smiles no doubt much longer.  I got to drive a fellow home.  He just happened to be the king of trivia questions and how to coach people in answering them.  At red lights and beyond, I tackled this one: Name nine pro baseball, basketball or hockey teams in North America whose names don’t end in “s”.  Here’s one to get you started – the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So I got to do a good deed, stretch my brain cells and laugh a lot.  Earlier I got to sing, drum my fingers on my thighs and enjoy a lot of happy human beings.

Wednesday evenings sound good to me.

Two Parking Spaces

It was a long time ago.  I was visiting mom and dad in Toronto, from my new home in Alberta.  I wanted to visit my old favourite bookstore on Hoskin Street and borrowed dad’s car.

I was creeping along Hoskin, trying to remember what the storefront looked like.  And there it was!  Plus an empty parking space.  I put on my turn signal, pulled alongside the car in front, looked over my shoulder, and prepared to demonstrate my parallel parking skills.

And then … horn blaring from behind.  Again and again.  A car was right up to my rear bumper.  I couldn’t back into the space.

I was shocked, and that noise kept blasting into my head.  Every muscle contracted and so did my brain.  I put dad’s car into “Drive” and sped off.

On a side street, I gathered myself (sort of).  Heart still pounding.  Fear in my throat.  Shame in my soul.  Why did I give in?  Why did I let another human being abuse me?  Well … maybe because I was 35 and scared of everybody.

Over the years, I’ve looked back at that moment and cringed.  Over the years, I’ve become a Buddhist and have seen peace grow within me.  Equanimity.  Doing no harm.  But in the midst of “letting go”, over and over again, I also see the need to stand up, stand tall, and defend my rights.

Yesterday, I was creeping along Dundas Street in London, seeking a parking space near Aeolian Hall.  And there’s one!  I put on my turn signal, pulled alongside the car in front, looked over my shoulderand prepared to demonstrate my parallel parking skills.

I started backing and began turning the wheel when I was opposite the car’s rear bumper … Honk!  Honk!

Glancing into my side mirror, there was the front end of a car inches from my rear.  Honk!  I couldn’t risk going back further.  Honk!  But neither could I risk sacrificing my soul on the altar of peer pressure.

I held Scarlet at the severe angle.  Two more honks.  I sat.  Silence.  And then the driver behind squealed their tires around me.  I nodded.

Behind was another car, a more patient variety.  I checked my mirrors and pulled into the spot pretty well.

I sat some more.  No fluttering heart.  No mega-pulse.  Just quiet inside.

A lot has happened in the years between.  I guess I’ve grown up.  And something else too.  In the nighttime of Dundas Street, my eyes moistened.  I thought of the honker and felt so sad for him or her.  What kind of life must it be if you have to block a fellow traveller from his simple mission?  Does every little thing cause pain for this person?  And what’s it like for their family?

The world needs kindness, assertiveness and happiness.  May we all live here.

The Kids I Love

Friday was my first day volunteering at Davenport Public School, where last year’s Grade 6’s at South Dorchester School now go.  Those are the kids I love.  We shared so many awesome moments.

After signing in at 8:45, I walked out to the schoolyard.  As I rounded a corner of fhe building, I wondered if any children would come say hi. The answer?  About ten of them!  I was so happy.  Since it’s now Grade 7, I didn’t expect any hugs to come my way, and my expectations were met. And that’s fine.

What did land on me were many smiles, which changed to some frowns when I told them that two of the three Grade 7 teachers had said yes to me volunteering.  There was great sadness on the faces from the third class.  I told them that I was sorry that I wouldn’t be in their classroom but inside me young sorrow created senior sorrow.

A day later, as painful as that moment was for me, I’m seeing more deeply that I’m important to many of those 12-year old souls.  I am humbled and privileged that this is so.  And I am blessed to have touched these kids, and to be revered in return.

In the classroom, the teacher let me participate in a class discussion about how you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet.  I even got to share with the kids about my swallowing of everything I read in high school textbooks, including the wonders of Canadian democracy. Only years later did I learn that women weren’t allowed.to vote until 1921.

The teacher had some very cool ideas about writing, such as the rhythm of grouping phrases in threes.  And I got to help a special needs kid with his wordsmithing.  Plus I looked around and often made eye contact with young folks I care deeply about.  Talk about dying and going to heaven.

It feels like the gods are smiling on me these days.  I know Jody is.  Thank you, my dear.

Pride

It’s supposed to be a bad thing but I felt it big time yesterday and I’m happy about that.

It’s been a grind getting off sleeping pills.  My weaning is now into Week Seven and I’m proud to announce that I haven’t had any for the past seven nights.  But, oh, the fuzziness!  One night recently, I must have woken up ten times … but magically tottered back to sleep soon after each one.  Overall, a lot of recent dullness in my life.

So yesterday morning I raised myself up and floated through the morning in a light stupor.  I also think I was suffering from food poisoning.  But I was scheduled to volunteer at South Dorchester School in the afternoon and I love those kids.  Mid-morning, I was leaning towards the comfort of my bed but later roused my cells enough to get in the car and head to school.

I arrived at lunch recess and walked towards the Grade 6 portable.  Tiffany, the teacher, was nowhere to be seen so I plunked myself down in her rocking chair and sat in the darkness.  Almost immediately came the message from within:  “Go home.  Rest.  The kids will do fine without you.”  Which is, of course, true.  Kids can have fun wherever they are.

I could feel my hands pressing down on the arms of the chair, preparing for an exit.  But the rest of my being wanted to stay.  “But what good will you do?  Maybe you’re not dizzy but you’re somewhere in the ballpark.”

“Oh, be quiet.  I’ll give what I have to give.”  And so I did.

Good things happened in the afternoon:

1.  I talked to the girls’ basketball team and told them that my ecstatic happiness after their win must be because I love them, and want them to be happy.

2.  Several times, I accompanied various kids to the art supply room, where they found colourful construction paper and plasticene for their projects.  Many thanks came my way.

3.  While I was waiting for one group of kids to find their stuff, a teacher came up to me and asked “How are you?”  I thought for a millisecond and replied with the truth:  “I’m happy.”  One young lady chimed in with “Mr. Kerr, you’re always happy.”  I smiled.

4.  I scoured the school for empty cardboard boxes, bugging this staff member and that, ending up with two big ones and one small one – perfect for the creation of dramatic sets.

5.  One girl, after some running frustrations in PE, declared “I am nothing.”  I let her know, forcefully, that she was something, and a very special something indeed.

6.  Four boys were hunched down inside a playground hut, practicing their recorder pieces during an outdoor Music class.  I applauded at the end, and one fellow reached his ball cap towards me, for a tip no doubt.  I reached into my wallet and found four coins – two dimes and two nickels.  Into the hats the money went.  Their first professional performance!

7.  I watched the kids pass the baton during relay practice.  I did very well as a corner post, managing to stay vertical the whole time.  What a thrill it was to have sprinting 12-year-olds blowing by me at full speed.

8.  I watched from a distance as a boy and girl sat together way out there on the playground grass, playing their recorder duets.  Sweet.

9.  I read to the kids from a diary written by an aboriginal residential school student.  Such hard words to read, and for the kids to hear.  Children identified only as numbers.  Having to say white man’s prayers while any expression of their own religion was punished.  Not being able to talk at meals.

10.  During the end-of-the-day “Shout Outs”, I applauded a girl who was on yesterday’s victorious basketball team, but couldn’t play because of a concussion.  She was a great cheerleader, and dealt with the feelings of loss that no doubt came up.

***

Ten reasons to get out of bed
Because the world needs me (and you) even if we’re not 100%

Pride before a fall?  Maybe.
But what’s a bruise or two in the course of a lifetime?

Dancing Eyes

My friend Eleanor told me about a local “Dancing With The Stars” competition three weeks ago.  It was to be held in a historic railway station in St. Thomas, Ontario, built in the 1870’s to the tune of 354 feet long and 36 feet wide.  It was fascinating to hear that the seven couples had no ballroom experience but were getting two months of instruction from a skilled teacher.

And then I forgot about the whole thing.

A week ago, I saw Eleanor again and discovered that the show was sold out.  “Strike while the iron is hot” – so said someone from my deep dark past.  No striking from this guy.

For the past few days, I’ve had three folks trying to score me a ticket for last night’s performance.  I phoned the first two and they weren’t successful in their quest.  “Oh well, I don’t need any particular life experience to be happy,” chirped my little Buddhist soul.  But I sure wanted to go!

Thursday evening, just before the big hockey game on TV, here comes a phone call.  Eleanor’s sister-in-law was to go with a friend, but that person’s husband was ill, so she had to cancel.  “Do you know anyone who needs a ticket, Eleanor?”  “Well, I do know this guy named Bruce.”

And so I got to go, plus I got to sit in the second row, perfect for checking out flying feet.  Thank you, universe, for aligning the CASO Station and me.

Here are my personal highlights:

1.  I sat next to Lora and we laughed all night, ending up with a marriage ceremony planned for next Tuesday at 2:00.

2.  I talked to Bonnie, an old friend from the Port Stanley Community Choir.  I got to renew my zest for sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.  Maybe I’ll have a future back there.

3.  I watched one of the couples swirl across the dance floor with great love in their eyes.  Their bodies moved beautifully but it was the eyes that held me.  Afterwards, I told them how vividly their love shone.

4.  With another couple, the woman’s face was so darn alive.  I didn’t think skin could do all that.  I told her later about the joy I saw.

5.  Another pair were the driving force behind the St. Thomas Performing Arts Series – many years of concerts in a sublime circular sanctuary.  At the end, I thanked him for bringing the Barra MacNeils and many other artists to a small city.

6.  The last dancers included a woman I know well.  She was Jody’s nurse practitioner as my dear wife fell towards death.  I hadn’t seen her since Jodiette went to the hospital for the last few days of her life.  On a break, I walked up to Laura.  We smiled, we hugged, and I thanked her for taking such good care of Jody.

***

Eleanor was the coach for one of the dancing pairs and they won the People’s Choice Award.  She bounced up and down and presented us all with a huge smile.  In the audience, I was smiling pretty widely too.  Lots to be happy about.

Up In The Air

It’s quite possible that I’m a strange person.  For instance, I keep testing gravity.

I was lifting weights at Wellington Fitness yesterday.  My dear friend Karisa works there and today her boyfriend Nick was working out.  She’s so much in love with her man and today I got to meet him.  He seems like a fine fellow.  Later, I told Karisa that I hope their love continues to blossom and that they grow old together.

I was standing at the front desk, so very happy that she’s happy.  I was drinking my protein powder from a shaker cup.  Without apparent thought, I threw the cup way high into the air, close to the ceiling.  The toss wasn’t as straight up as I’d hoped, and I rushed forward to make the catch.  It was a glancing blow and then a smash on the floor.  Vanilla goo flowed freely.

For a bit I just stared.  Did I really do that?  Apparently so.  The puddle was immense and Karisa found me some paper towels.  I soaked and wiped and soaked some more.  And then Brandon showed up with a mop.  I was happy, not embarrassed or guilty.  Nothing in my cognitive system had planned it out.  I just … threw.

Many years ago, when I was teaching at St. Mary Choir School, I must have been similarly happy.  I was standing in the staff room talking with Marg, after consuming a precious liquid in my favourite mug.  Same story.  The mug soared.  The mug broke.  I stared.  And somehow it was all okay.

Then there was the time in Costco when I was also flying high.  I was slurping my chocolate waffle cone while talking to a couple of employees in the vision department.  Up went the cone, sadly nowhere near the store’s high ceiling.  It did a flip in the air.  I reached out my right hand.  Plop … ice cream end down.  It should have been on the Plays of the Week.  Oh, what a good boy was I.

Guess my eye-hand co-ordination has faded over the years.  But it’s okay.  I was volunteering yesterday afternoon at South Dorchester School and Tiffany asked me if I would like a water bottle.  She had one extra.  And it has a holey insert for shaking.  Nice.