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

Knee Jerks

I’d like to be spacious of mind, always.  Letting the big picture envelop me.  Alas, sometimes I just react.  Like this morning.  I love the sports section, especially tiny columns of statistics.  And I hate typos.  I was breezing through the “Scoreboard” page of The London Free Press, not really noticing much, when my eyes settled on the word “Atalanta”.

“Not another one.  What’s wrong with this paper?  It’s like there’re mistakes on every page.  Good grief.  It’s “Atlanta” (Georgia).  Can’t be that hard to get it right!”  (Bruce huffing and puffing)  Slowing down my brain a mite, I saw that Atalanta was in the soccer column.  Italian soccer.  Atalanta beat Palermo 3-2.  Head lowered, I clicked to Wikipedia, where I discovered that “Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio, commonly known as just Atalanta … is an Italian football club based in Bergamo, Lombardy.”  Oops.  Jerking yes.  Spacious no.

I remember a time when I was driving to Tillsonburg, Ontario, to visit a low vision student.  Pretty fields and woodlots to the left and right.  Peaceful.  Except for that big truck ahead of me that was only going the speed limit.  “C’mon, c’mon … I’ve got places to go, people to meet.”  Mile after mile, the driver creeped along on the straight road.  Being a guy who was in love with his own vocabulary, I constructed a complex backstory about the human behind the wheel.  Eventually, there was a curve in the road.  An Austin Mini was leading the way.  Oops.  Jerking at the wrong person, yes.  Spacious?  Not a chance.

I wonder if I’m older and wiser now.  Based on this morning’s sporting news, perhaps I’m just older.

Ha! Ha! Ha!

That’s the sound of me laughing at myself.  I’m so not good at mechanical things, electrical things … lots of things.

Exhibit A: lawn tractor and air compressor

It was time to cut the lawn for the first time this season.  I’ve fantasized about my dear neighbours working on placards in their basements, with nifty slogans such as “Move your ass on the grass” and “Kerr forest growing daily”.  So I started the lawn tractor in our backyard shed and drove it past the house to our driveway.  At which point the front right tire came off its rim.

The tire was looking squished under the weight of the tractor so I took the jack out of Scarlet, our Toyota Corolla, and got the tire into the air.  There!  See, I’m mechanical.

Jody and I bought an air compressor a few years ago and happily I remembered where I had stored it.  Not so happily, the machine’s manual has flown the coop.  Jody was really organized and had alphabetical files for each of our outdoor apparatuses.  (Is that a word?)  But “compressor” or “air” were nowhere to be found.  Oh, Bruce, where did you leave that thing?  And then … “Ha! Ha! Ha!”  It’s so comforting to laugh at my foibles.  Too bad it’s taken me six decades to get to this point.  Oh well.  Perhaps an averagely handy guy would know how to operate the compressor, but that’s not me.  I was especially put off by the warning labels: danger this and danger that.  I phoned the 1-800 number for Rona – the store where we’d bought the beast.  “We don’t have manuals.  But your compressor was made by Black and Decker.  Try them.”  I did but nobody was at home at 6:05 pm.  Mañana.

I now sit reflecting on my lack of male skills, smiling as I do so.  I have many good qualities.  They just don’t happen to include household maintenance.

Exhibit B: TV audio

Jody and I had owned an XM radio for years, and sometimes listened to it in Hugo (our Honda CRV).  But not much recently.  So a month ago I cancelled the subscription and had an audio store remove the hardware.  Just before I went to Belleville, I decided to get the family room in order, so I got rid of the XM radio docking station that was connected to our TV and sound system.  Simple really … all you have to do is pull some cables out and voilà – no XM.  Also no sound from the TV, Playstation 3 or sound system.  (Sigh)  I looked at the ports – audio in, audio out, serial data, IR emitter …  Gosh.  What came from where?  I had no clue then nor now.  A week without TV hasn’t killed me but there were a few shows I had wanted to watch.

And now it’s time once again, ladies and gentlemen, for “Ha! Ha! Ha!”  I just don’t have a clue.  Humbling life is, wouldn’t you say?  May I ever smile at all the “not knowing” in my life.

Struggling

I bet it’s been five days since I’ve written a post, by far a record for me, unless I was away somewhere.  Illness is so humbling.  A few posts back, I was feeling poorly but I still wrote my daily thoughts.  Later, things changed.

I’ve had bronchitis for 13 days now, and the coughing has worn me out, plus my ribs have been getting awfully sore.  Whenever I ate, coughing would start.  And the worst has been the vague nausea I’ve felt after eating.  Didn’t even seem to matter what type of food.

Gosh, I don’t want to sink into “poor me”.  But it’s been quite the experience.  I’ve been worlds away from putting fingertips to keys.  So dull in the head.  Sometimes I’ve felt guilty for not writing, but I’ve usually been able to let that go.  Thank God.  I see my need for rest.

In the back of my agitated head has been the fear that this is not really bronchitis.  It’s lung cancer … exactly what took my lovely wife away from me.  Today, my doctor Julie had me get a chest X-ray, to rule out the really bad stuff.  If I don’t hear back from her by Tuesday, I’m fine.  And she thinks I’m fine.  I thought my meditation practice would prevent terror from seeping through, but good luck with that thought.  Fear has overwhelmed me at times over the past few days.

It’s so amazing not to be me, not to kibitz with folks I meet each day, not to move my body and sweat, not to love deeply.  Just blahness, fear and an overcoat of nausea.

I had bought a ticket for a concert that was held in London last night – a marvelous folk duo from Newfoundland called “The Fortunate Ones”.  Turns out that Catherine and Andrew were recently engaged.  They were so happy on stage.

I sat in the front row, trying not to cough.  A lot of little wheezes.  A couple of times, they asked the audience to sing along … and I couldn’t.  Again such a strangeness for me.  I love belting out the melodies, and sometimes the harmonies.  It’s okay, Bruce.  Your body doesn’t have it right now.

My aliveness returned in the moments when Catherine and Andrew sang to each other, and when each rocked forward towards the loved one, her caressing the accordion and him picking out the melody on his guitar.  It was like they were making love as they leaned in.  So beautiful to see.  And Catherine’s voice especially touched the heavens.

The coughing continued, and the nausea, but the world was a lighter place.  Thank you.

There.  I’ve actually written a post.  Hallelujah.  Hopefully, I’ll talk to you again tomorrow.

Humbling

Oh, to let myself be exactly as I am in the moment!

Today my friend Leslie invited me to join her and a few of her friends for breakfast.  It had been over a year since I’d gone out for breakie.

For most of the meal I did fine, chipping in during the conversation, and telling the folks some of the plans I have in my head.  And then suddenly my four companions were off like a speeding bullet into topics that clearly were old favourites.  I couldn’t handle it.  I was overwhelmed with all the words and just wanted to be with Jody.  How I faded away.  From inside came the parental voice “Be better company!”  But I couldn’t and wouldn’t.  I let go of social appropriateness and lost track of Bruce in society.  I allowed myself to go away.

Later in the day, my friend Neal and I planned to deliver Jody’s hospital bed to Lynne, one of her former colleagues whose husband was having breathing problems.  Gosh, that was a heavy so-and-so, and I wrenched my back as we hauled it out to Neal’s truck.  Big muscle spasms.

I was a hurting unit when we pulled into Lynne’s driveway.  “Pull your weight, Bruce!” screamed the inner critic, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t.  Sure I helped some but really it was the Neal and Lynne show.  I was feeling sad and feeble as we got the bed set up.  And again I chose to let go … of performance, of participation, of ego.

Two emptinesses in one day.  But it’s okay, Bruce.  You’re merely a fragile human on a little green and blue planet.

I’m Wrong

I went to the tire shop today to have the winter treads put on.  I was heading north on a fairly main street in St. Thomas when I was stopped at an intersection behind a driver who was signalling left.  No one was coming the opposite way but he or she didn’t turn.  Just sat there, for at least a minute.

My nice transformed mind was thoroughly untransformed.  “What are they doing?  Texting? Doing their nails?”  So I immediately jumped to criticism, which disappoints me as I look back at the incident.  Only after a fair time spent tapping my steering wheel (thankfully not honking the horn) did I open to the possibility that the driver was sick or hurt.  At least my humanity eventually showed up.

I edged Scarlet to the right and pulled up alongside.  The woman behind the wheel seemed fine.  Then I looked through her side window at the scene on the side street.  A school bus was stopped right near the corner and the kids were crossing the street.  Arghh!  Humility, thy name is Bruce.  How wrong I was.

Now at home in my man chair, I’m thinking of another time on the road.  I followed a semi-trailer for miles through some gently rolling countryside near London.  The speed limit was 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph) and this guy rarely topped 70.  Okay, it’s probably a heavy truck but it’s not like we’re climbing the Alps.  I created a thorough character analysis of the trucker in my mind, and I bought the whole story, adding to the list of stereotypes that I had accumulated over the years.  Plus it was such a long straight road – nice scenery but still …  And then the road started curving to the left.  You probably know the rest: a compact car was tucked in front of the rig.  More arghh.

Strangely, seeing my assumptions completely proven false was okay, then and today.  I’m just your basic human being and life keeps throwing lessons my way.  Sometimes I’m a slow learner.  I don’t mind.