Being Humbled

The warning message appeared on the dashboard display: “Washer fluid low”. No problem. Even though my car Ruby is new to me, I’d been down this road many times before. Once I get to school, I’ll whip out the jug of fluid and get that sign out of my space.

How many vehicles have I had in my life? I bet fifteen. Fifteen hoods to raise, fifteen reservoirs of washer fluid to locate, fifty years of driving.

There’ll be a button or lever low on the dash to get the hood open. And there it is, with its little car diagram. Flick! Open with a click. (Gosh … I just have so much life experience!)

I walk to the front of Ruby and feel for the lever that will raise the hood. It’ll be a small thing right in the middle. I’ll get my finger underneath it and push up.

I groped along the gap between hood and body. Nothing. A second sweep produced the same result. Being a mature, adaptable type of human, I anticipated that the magic lever was probably way to the right or way to the left – unusual, but my history of rich life experiences would see me through.

Nothing again … and again I say nothing.

No, Bruce. You don’t need to consult the manual. Your mature intelligence will solve the problem.

Two minutes later I’m on page 502, viewing a diagram that indicates a lever smack dab in the middle of the hood edge. What? This dumb Honda manual is lying!

I felt and felt and felt. There’s no ******* lever anywhere!

I took a break, leaning against Ruby’s driver door while the school buses spilled out their young contents. I was hoping that no kid would approach while I was wallowing in ineptitude. Thank goodness for small miracles.

Back to the redness of Ruby’s hood. Back to the gap. Fingers in slow motion left to right … and then right to left. (Sigh)

And then, something tiny nudged my hand. I lifted up. The gap did not expand. Without thought, I moved my fingers to the right.

Release … letting go … opening.

For fifty years I’ve done it one way. Today Honda had a different idea. There is much to learn in this life.

Misidentifying

Have you ever hurt someone with absolutely no intention of doing so? I sure have. I simply lacked knowledge, and sometimes asked the person a question which revealed that fact – a question that I intended to be a contribution.

Over and over, in many situations that I’ve misinterpreted, I tried to understand that my intention was good. I would never knowingly try to damage another being. Sometimes it’s been a hard sell to convince myself.

Many decades ago, I was talking to a teenaged Asian student. We were making meaning together until I asked him a question about a country – perhaps Korea or Japan. He stared at me, with what felt like a mixture of anger and sadness. “I am aboriginal … a Blood from Stand Off.” His words hung in the air as I slowly died inside.

Three years ago, at the beginning of my first year of volunteering in a Grade 6 class, I was walking around from desk to desk, seeing if I could be of help. A girl with glasses and shoulder-length brown hair was struggling with a Math problem. I did an internal search for her name and happily remembered it: “Jessie, let’s figure out what the question is really asking.” (Pause from the other human)  “My name is Ben.” Oh, the assumptions that Bruces can make in the world!

This year’s group is a split Grade 5/6. Today Jeremy, the teacher, asked me to hand out assignment sheets to the kids – certain pages for each grade. I looked over the span of children before me and realized that the 5’s and 6’s were mixed in together. For several of the kids, I didn’t know what grade they were in. (Sigh) Twice I approached boys who I thought were in Grade 5, but I was wrong. I tried not to look very deeply into their eyes.

So … life is full of mistakes and I’ve participated fully
It’s humbling to be wrong
It’s reassuring to know that I intend to do no harm
And still it hurts

Day Twenty-Three: Potpourri

Gnima and Baziel

Shells near the water

Nescafé coffee

***

Three things drew me yesterday:

1. The Leaving

We all knew it. At 2:30 pm, a van would give us a honk at the gate and then whisk away Jo, Lore and Baziel back to Belgium. There would be a hole in our family in the sense of physical proximity, certainly not when it comes to love. The day before, I asked Jo how he was feeling about the coming separation and he quite rightly said he didn’t want to talk about it.

We sat on Lydia and Jo’s patio in the early afternoon and talked about this, that and the other thing … not about what was coming next. Baziel, Lore and Lydia were here and there, chatting and doing the last minute packing. I looked at the teens and realized I didn’t know when I’d see them again. But it will definitely happen. I’m part of a Belgian and Senegalese family now. There will be reunions.

Jo and I have shared many fine conversations over the past two weeks. There’ll be another opportunity at Brussels Airport early in the morning of January 9.

The honk did come, and we all turned to each other. There were gentle and lingering hugs between the three human beings and me. The sweetest moment was the farewell of Lydia and Jo … companions in love, with the glistening eyes. As the van pulled away, we moved to the centre of the dirt street to watch it fade to the east and then disappear into a left turn. Goodbye for now, dear friends.

2. So Different … So Much the Same

There are seven million of us across the world. Almost all of us have two arms and two legs. We have skin. We have internal organs. On the other view, we have different languages, personality, culture, skin colour, facial structure, hairstyle, willingness to express ourselves, age, attitude, inclusiveness/exclusiveness. And here we are on Planet Earth, cuddling together, forming a wondrous mosaic. What a privilege to be here with you.

3. Just a Little Package

The coffee here is instant. It comes in tiny packages that mostly don’t respond to my efforts to open them. There’s sometimes a little line that indicates a perforation, but not always. The arthritis in my right thumb seems to be laughing at me as I twist and turn in search of caffeine. The staff have kindly offered me a pair of scissors. Friends across the table don’t seem to need them. In five seconds they’re pouring the contents into their cup. Today I let go and cut the end off the package. Yesterday I grunted. How can a little bit of instant coffee be such a teacher for me? I don’t know … but now it’s me who’s laughing.

On we go

Day Eight: The Language

I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon fresh from my digital copy of French All-in-One For Dummies. I’m no dummy but yesterday’s experiences among the French speakers of Senegal was truly humbling. Most of the folks here know either no English or just isolated words. My high school French knowledge has declined to muddled snatches of vocabulary and sentence structure. Guess that’s what 55 years of non-use will do to a guy!

I listened to a brisk conversation between Moustapha and Jo last night, with musical interludes as Jo improvised on his guitar to the compositions of Fleetwood Mac. The melodies were a blessed respite from the angst of understanding virtually none of the words flowing between the two. Surely I know some French!

As I sat back and shook my head sadly, I was in the middle of a deep “not knowing”. In my spiritual experiences of the past few decades, I’ve sometimes fallen into the wavery bliss of letting go, of not needing to be smart, coherent or even reasonable. Floating free in a land devoid of achievement, with nary a landmark to be seen. Being there isn’t scary anymore.

However, yesterday’s untethered state pulled me towards deficiency. I wanted to know the words, the meanings of the flowing sentences. And then … it was okay that I didn’t. The real now needed to be embraced as a whole experience. Tomorrow (now today) would give me the opportunity to return to the hotel and its WiFi, and to download the Dummies book. Monday evening was simply another version of all being well.

Earlier in the day, I was out walking with Mariama, the 20-year-old woman whom I’m sponsoring. She’s studying Math, World History and an unremembered science at school. We both sighed – long, exasperated ones – as we felt our inability to communicate. We were both sad. Last January, when I agreed to support Mariama, I knew I was coming back to Senegal right around now. So I had eleven months to improve my French. I did virtually nothing. The faraway yearning for contact didn’t get the job done. But yesterday’s tortured journey on foot together hit like a sledgehammer. And so I’m ensconced in a cozy chair at Keur Saloum, studying vocabulary and grammar.

How strange … I just threw in the word “ensconced”. It just came into my head. I love words. I love letting them spill out, and trusting that they’ll be good and true. It’s like a graceful dance, and such a contrast to my crawling en français. But hey … either way, I’m moving!

On we go, Mariama, Moustapha and Fatou

Smoke Alarming

I know things.  Quite a few things, actually.  And then there’s all that other stuff.

Consider smoke alarms.  I owned a home in Union, Ontario for twenty years with my dear wife Jody.  I often had to change the batteries and sometimes buy and install a new alarm.  So you’d think that the events of today would be a snap.  Not so.

I woke up at 3:35 this morning to the chirping of the smoke alarm in my kitchen.  Sleep was pressing down hard on my head.  Clear thinking would have to wait till business hours.  The bottom line?  I couldn’t figure out what to do.  I lay in bed, stupefied.

“It’ll go away.”  Sure.  How likely was that?  Fifteen minutes later, it did!  “See?  No problem.”  Back to snoozing.

A further fifteen minutes of tossing and turning were replaced by rechirping.  I counted: the beeps were every forty seconds.

“It’ll go away.”  It did. And then it returned, right on the dot of fifteen minutes.  Away … return … away … return …  Now it was 5:00 am.  My paltry brain tried to make sense of it all.  “If the battery was low, wouldn’t it keep up the beeping – no breaks?  But maybe it’s wired in.  Do wired in smoke alarms have batteries?”  Fuzziness ruled the early hours.

Finally, oh finally I got up.  I put shoes on and stumbled to the garage for the ladder.  After setting it appropriately in place, I climbed.  “Will I be able to get the alarm off the ceiling?”  I so lack confidence in my home maintenance abilities.  Happily the unit came off with a simple twist, revealing a nest of wires.  “Hmm … wired in.”  The close proximity chirp was piercing to the core of my mind so I grabbed my headphones.  Better.  But now what do I do?

Yesterday I wrote about choosing “this”, as in the reality of the present moment.  That commitment seemed to be fading away as the blare of the alarm ruptured my insides.  “C’mon, Bruce.  Think.”

Somehow I came up with a word which has a deep spiritual connotation – “Google”.  Surely Mr. Google could help me out.  I typed “smoke alarm chirping” and indeed an answer appeared before my wavering eyes.  There could be dust inside that’s causing the malfunction.  So I got out the vacuum and shoved the wand into the mass of wires.  Almost immediately, the chirping stopped!  Oh, I’m so smart.  I left the unit dangling from the ceiling and dove under the covers.  Exactly fifteen minutes later … well, you know what happened.

The Internet article mentioned that some wired in smoke alarms have a backup battery to deal with power failures.  I mounted the ladder once more and turned on a flashlight, trying in vain to read the small print above me.  Then I felt the surface of the unit, seeking some compartment that would be perfect for a battery.  Nothing.  Thank God for those headphones.

6:20.  The sound of “this” was pissing me off.  After much searching and whining, I found a little latch on the alarm.  A bit of pressure and … Voila!  A plastic section opened to reveal the bliss of a 9 volt battery (the rectangular one).  Laden with memories of other plastic objects, and me pulling too hard, resulting in destruction, I gingerly tried prodding the battery this way and that.  No go.  I tried to resist the explosion of sentences such as “You’re so stupid!”

I bet ten minutes later the battery came out.  The chirping continued.  I knew I had a stash of 9V batteries and I went to get one, smartly remembering how to get it back into the compartment.  The deal finally done, I closed the little door, screwed the unit back onto the ceiling, and waited.  No chirps!  Maybe I’m decently smart after all.

It was 6:50 and my head could sense a closely approaching pillow.  Dreamland was with me right away.

9:00.  Chirping.  And my mind started a slow process of disintegration.  Being a little more alert, I realized one thing: I hadn’t checked the new battery’s expiry date way back when at 6:50.  Addressing that situation, I read “December, 2018”.  (Sigh)

The story finally ended after a trip to Costco for a package of 9V batteries, clearly described as lasting five years.  Yay!  10:20 found me placing the sacred object into said unit, closing the little door, screwing the whole thing onto the ceiling, and waiting.

Chirp

(Waiting)

Chirp

(Waiting)

… … … … … Silence

Start at 3:30.  End at 10:30.  Piece of cake

 

I Don’t Know Things

There was a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Captain Picard and friends came across a slow-talking, slow-moving group of humanoids.  They didn’t appear to be very intelligent as they kept saying “We know things.”  It turns out they were crafty beyond measure.  Today I felt the opposite.

“Jeremy”, the Grade 6 teacher, had the kids read about the history of St. Patrick’s Day, and then answer questions about the passage.  I was doing fine with all that.  Then he challenged them with word scrambles – decoding twenty terms from the reading.  Pairs of kids worked diligently to rearrange the letters.  Looking over many shoulders, I saw the lists gradually being filled in.  A few kids came over one by one, to ask if I’d figured out #11 yet, or #4.  I said no and suggested they look for the possibility of a silent “e” at the end of a word, or search for consonant blends such “ch” or “st”.  I sounded fairly intelligent, at least in my own hearing.

But what was true?

I didn’t have a clue.  Eleven-year-olds were proceeding merrily towards completion of the twenty but all I’d accomplished was “iswh” is “wish” and “camgi” is “magic”.  Sweat piled up on my brow as I realized I was unable to solve “Ieardnl”, “rogaen”, “evlorc” or “enrge”.

As they say, my whole life flashed before me … times when I clearly wasn’t good enough, times when everyone else seemed to be better.  Failing a French test, falling down continually in my version of skating, piddling around the shallow end while my classmates did laps in the pool.  It’s so powerful, this pull of assumed inferiority.  Today I didn’t have the eyes to see my many good points.  They simply didn’t exist when I couldn’t recognize “clover” within the jumble of my mind.

I was asleep to what’s real.  The challenge for me is to wake up ever more quickly rather than thinking I can eliminate the moments of ignorance, deficiency and angst.

Now, with the benefit of hours between there and here, I smile.  Actually I chuckle.  What a silly goose to be defining my self-worth on my ability to turn “rogaen” into … into … “orange”!

Ahh.  There’s hope for me yet.

Visibly Lacking

I’m taking an online course with souls from all over the world. We meet live as many as five times a week. It’s astounding to see all those faces on my computer screen.

Today, just before we were to be paired up for a practice exercise, the leader gave some instructions. I didn’t understand them, but then – Poof! … there I was facing another human being.

An image came to me of a male elementary teacher. He was standing in front of me with a yardstick in his hand, ready to smack my fingers. A voice roared: “You did it wrong!”

Later I decided to share with the large group about what I had gone through. The leader was coaching me to stay with my experience, without conceptualizing or telling a story. As I struggled to find what was true for me, I felt myself dying again: “You’re no good. You’re too afraid of the teacher’s disapproval. All these people are watching.” And I shrunk.

The teacher kept trying to bring me back out but I fell deeper into the hole. I was grinding through the moment – so different than talking about a previous grinding moment. “I’m so embarrassed.”

Bruce was disappearing, and not in a transcendent way. It wasn’t a case of losing something and finding something sweeter. Of saying goodbye to the ego and then rising into rarefied air. No. I was just plain lost.

***

So, Bruce, what’s true?

At times, I struggle to stay with what I’m experiencing
At times, I get scared so easily
At times, I shrink under the eyes of others
At times, I wallow in seeing myself as “less than”

But you know, Bruce, something else is true
You’re willing to be visible

Through the warts
Through the fear
Through the not knowing
Through the public viewing
Through the words stumbling out
Through the heart sinking to the floor
Through the desires for approval
Through the not making sense
Through the “wrong answers”
Through the tightness in the throat
Through the blushing
Through the pain

***

I’ll take it

Pills

I taught visually impaired kids for many years and most Sunday nights I had trouble sleeping.  Sometimes I didn’t sleep at all.  I was scared … of parents, of not knowing enough, of making big mistakes.

Years ago, my doctor prescribed Lorazepam to help me sleep.  And when things got really bad, she added Trazodone.  During the worst times, I was eating three pills a night.  Thought I was a mature person but I crumbled under the stress.

After I retired and was caring for my wife Jody as she fell towards death, both her meds and mine mushroomed.  Through it all, I felt worlds away from being free.  After Jody died, I tried to get off Lorazepam.  It took so long, full of three-hour nights and daily dullness.  But I did it!  One of the biggest achievements of my life, I’d say.

And now I’m left with the Trazodone.  My meditation retreat is over.  No big events coming up.  It’s time.  Albert, my pharmacist, suggests that I take half a pill one night and a whole one the next, and keep that up for two weeks.  Then Stage Two.  Okay, Albert, I’ll do it, starting tonight.

I think about bedtime, after another rousing Toronto Maple Leafs game, and the fear returns.  The Buddha would say welcome it but I’m not there right now.  That’s all right.  Will I sleep two hours or six?  You know my vote.

The gossamer wings of meditation and the clay feet of addiction.  Sounds like a human being to me.

Smoke Alarm Blues

It bleated away this morning, waking me up.  It’s supposed to chirp intermittently when the battery is dying but this was a continual blast on the eardrums.  Smoke?  No.  Fire?  Not at all.  I pressed the Reset button and it stopped, only to resume ten minutes later.

Okay, Bruce.  The alarm is in your hand, having been twisted off from its ceiling mount.  Look for instructions on opening the thing up so you can switch batteries.  No instructions.  Very well.  Hold the bottom part and twist the top part.  Tight as a drum.  No problem.  There seems to be a thumb hole on the side of the apparatus.  Get your digit in there and pull the top off.  Tight as two drums.  All right.  Stare at the alarm for awhile.  Nothing magically opens.  After more staring, I realize that I have no clue about how to get to the battery.  And I feel incompetent.  How can this beast be consumer-proof?  I must be missing something.  No, I’m not.  I’m a smart person.  But the top persists in remaining unopened.  (Sigh)

I considered taking the alarm to Home Hardware and asking one of the employees for help.  But here comes Renato.  I’ll let him have a go.  My friend picks up the circular warning machine, glances at it for a few seconds, puts his thumb in the hole … and pulls outward, like opening a drawer.  And there revealed was a D battery.  More staring, accompanied by gulping.

Renato smiled.  I sort of did.  Inside, it was more like dying.  What does it mean that my university-educated brain couldn’t figure this out?  That this human being overflowing with Buddhist insights was incapable of uncovering a battery.

I thought about this on and off all day.  Am I a stupid person?  No.  Am I a bad person?  Certainly not.  Am I an imperfect person, complete with this deficiency and that?  Yes.

And so I sit in my man chair, humbled by a gadget.  What’s happening right now?  Sadness.  A wee bit of shame.  And a little chuckle.

Feet of clay
Brain of mush
Heart of gold
I’ll take it

Day Thirty-Two … What Does It Mean?

Things happen.  I make conclusions about those things and about what it says about me.  Oh well.  Sounds like a human being.

1.  Yesterday was a snowy day (in August!) and I was mostly feeling dopey.  We watched several episodes of “Border Security”, about Canadian officers dealing with people who smuggle stuff into the country.  It’s a show that I never would have chosen but so what?  I started studying the officers.  Some seemed more humane than others.  And I became fascinated by someone trying to get $1.5 million of heroin into Canada in the packaging of a painting.  What are those lives like?  Are they happy people?  And as I let myself fall into the shows, it became irrelevant that they weren’t “my thing”.  What’s important is that I was with my family.  And then I started wondering what exactly my thing is.  Does it exclude all those other things?  Mostly no, I’d say, but it still omits any acts of belittlement and violence.

***

Interlude:  Jagger just came up to me and shoved a handful of raisins under my nose.  What’s happened to the young people of today?

***

2.  Jaxon and I played the NBA video game last night.  It was his Chicago Bulls against my Toronto Raptors.  I fell behind early, amid a wash of wrong controller button choices.  At any given moment, I couldn’t figure out which player I was controlling.  So I pressed the triangle button.  That makes the player jump up into the air, trying to block the opponent’s shot.  So there was my guy in the middle of the court, nowhere near another player, leaping high in the air again and again.  Jackson’s player would block my shots effortlessly, it seemed, and then his teammates would rush down the court in a flurry of passes, culminating in a sweet layup into the basket.  I could feel my whole body contracting as the score mounted.  Gosh, what was this saying about Bruce Kerr – the real human rather than the computer-generated player he was controlling?  At the final buzzer, I looked up and saw that the Bulls had just squeezed by the Raptors 67-28.  And I let my sadness just sit there, alongside the litany of deficiencies that my brain applied to reality.

The Buddha talked about each of our moments being either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and asked us not to get all wrapped up in any of those realities.  To hold it gently, no matter what was happening.  So I choose to do just that concerning points 1 and 2, as well as the dreaded number 3.

3.  On my road trip, I’ve partaken of much beer and many nachos, resulting in a net gain in  my … body.  To the tune of 5-10 pounds, I imagine.  Sort of on the unpleasant end of things.  You might expect that a nice little Buddhist guy like me would take the high road here, realizing the impermanence of weight gain (especially when you consider the decline of life towards death).  To take a mellow approach, in which the poundage has no impact whatsoever on the essence of Bruce.  Hmm … well, I guess I’m not ready for the monastery quite yet.  My vision has been centred on my belly leaking out over my belt.  In fact, that’s not even been accurate on my trip.  I’ve studiously avoided wearing jeans so far, instead favouring loose-fitting shorts, all to conceal my personal growth.  Maturity, wherefore art thou?

This morning, it was a cold one, and I had an appointment in High River to get Scarlet serviced.  So on went the jeans, and overboard went the tummy.  Oh, time for a gigantic “So what?”  Rather than indulging in a spasm of belly consciousness.  Truly, I am often humbled by life and my frequent choices in response.

***

Sit with all of this gently, Bruce
You’re a thoroughly imperfect human being
And it doesn’t mean anything