Close

I went to hear the Barra MacNeils last night.  They’re a Celtic musical family from Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.  And I got to see them from the middle of the front row.

Often the folks featured in a song stood at the front of the stage, and their faces loomed above me, maybe eight feet away from mine.  It was intense.

When Lucy sang “Caledonia”, I fell deeply into me.  Her eyes were open, and the little white dots at the centre shone.  All was liquid, and her soul reached the words:

Let me tell hou that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home
But if I should become a stranger
Know that it would make me more than sad
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had

All was well

Later Kyle strode to a spot right above me with his fiddle.  He played a soulful Scottish air, with his fingers gliding so sweetly on the strings.  The violin purred into the love song and Kyle would often close his eyes in response.  I would have such beauty linger forever.

Then it was a rousing drinking song, soloed by Stewart.  On the chorus, four brothers were only a breath away from me, blasting out the melody and harmonies.  The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, with the tones vibrating inside my heart.

Towards the end, Lucy did some fancy Irish dancing and I watched her feet fly.  The taps on her soles beat out a brilliant rhythm and her feet twisted this way and that at supersonic speed.

All happened in my very near presence and the immediacy was a huge gift.  Human beings blissing a fellow traveller in the front row.

Holding Your Head

During the year that Jody was ill and dying, her head started tilting more and more to one side as she lay in bed.  How strange that I can’t remember which side it was.  But I know I did my darndest to straighten her head some, so she could eat and drink.  We had a tiny pillow to support her jaw.  I would stand behind my dear one, place a hand on either side of her head, and lift … as gently as I could.  Often this hurt Jodiette, and I withered in response.  Sometimes, though, all went well.  I paused as I felt the weight of my wife’s head in my hands.  Those moments were magical.  Such a precious object to be holding.  A timeless moment.  And such a responsibility.

When I think of expressing love towards someone’s head, I think of kissing first of all … surely one of the great pleasures in life.  Kissing on the lips is such an expression of romantic love.  But kissing on the cheek is sweet as well, whether or not there’s romance in the air.  Such a pure thing.

Once in awhile, I’ve been moved to brush a fellow human’s cheek with the outside of my first two fingers.  Oh my.  Especially to do this in silence, with eye contact.  “You are beloved to me,” so says my hand.  Words couldn’t add to the intimacy.

And then, of course, there’s looking deep into the eyes of another.  Not in the general vicinity of their eyes, but way down into the pupils.  Unimaginable treasures reside in there, especially if we’re willing to hold that gaze with our companion.  Awe emerges.

I’m glad we all have heads.  They’re lovely receivers of delight.

 

To Cuddle

Such a great word.

I was sitting in the Family Circle restaurant this afternoon, having lunch with my friend Renato.  He went outside for a smoke and I sat at our window table, watching the snow fall on Wellington Road.

Three women were in the booth behind me.  I thought I heard “cuddle”, one of my favourite words.  So I listened some more.  “I wish we could fall asleep with my head on his chest.”  Oh my.  How lovely.  The conversation wasn’t about sex.  It was about being close.  There was sweetness and some sadness in the voices.  There was a tenderness shared with friends.  It was a privilege to witness this.

How I miss holding Jodiette’s hand as we walked through life.  How I miss rubbing her feet as we sat on the couch watching a movie.  How I miss spooning in bed.  The best moments.  Quiet ones.  Just you and me.

I know that I’ll have cuddling in my life again.  I wish it was today.  Maybe it will be next week, next month or next year.  I’ll smile at the touch.  And cry.

All Else Pales

 

An eight-year-old boy died Monday trying to rescue his disabled grandpa from a fire after saving six others.  CNN reports that East Rochester’s Tyler Doohan was staying with relatives in Penfield, New York when he saw a fire in their trailer early Monday morning.  By the time firefighters arrived, Tyler had woken six people, including two toddlers.  It appeared Tyler was trying to lift his grandpa from bed when both died from smoke inhalation.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
The Merchant Of Venice Act 4, scene 1

There are so many things I could be doing with my life right now … drinking beer, studying my investments, reading the sports section.  Nothing wrong with any of them.  But loves outstrips them all.  Whether it’s trying to carry someone who weighs three times as much as you, or holding the door for someone, or just gazing at the photo of my wife on the wall, the energy is clear.  It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.  There’s no sense of exchanging my good deed for yours.  No premeditation of possible consequences.  Just pure action, pure contact, pure service.

I’ve bought a lot of DVDs over the years, and that’s nice.  I’ve received the accolades of my peers, and that’s even nicer.  But the moments where I have loved – nakedly loved – stand apart.  You can keep your riches and high self-esteem and multiple proficiencies.  I know how I want my moments to play out, whether in the grocery store, at school, or on the couch.

Love lives in the hearts of us all
Leaking from our pores to water the wide world
Please let me have the eyes to see
The need for love in each lonely boy and girl

Toronto – Part 4: The Music

Neal and I went to folk music concerts at Hugh’s Room on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening.  Immersion indeed.

First up was Lillebjorn Nilsen, a singer-songwriter from Norway.  He had come to Toronto to pick up an acoustic guitar made for him by Grit Laskin, a mainstay of a longstanding local group called “The Friends of Fiddler’s Green”.  Lillebjorn was so enthralled with his new instrument.  It was as if he was making love as he played.  Grit was pretty happy too.

Lillebjorn sang in Norwegian, which was fine for the large Scandinavian crowd at Hugh’s but a challenge for me.  Even though he sometimes gave a little description of the song beforehand, I was getting frustrated.  I love lyrics most of all.  At some point, though, I let go.  “Just be with Lillebjorn, Bruce.”  So I did.  The soul of the man flowed out of his mouth and out of his fingers.  He could have been reciting a grocery list.  It didn’t matter.  He loved his country.  He loved people.  He loved making music.

At the end of the evening, he pulled out a Norwegian fiddle … with nine strings.  Oh, how he could make that violin sing!  Sad, joyous, mesmerizing.  Thank you, Lillebjorn.

***

Our encore visit favoured us with the songs of Paul Simon, offered by seven individuals and groups – two pieces for each.  Some of the songs I’d never heard of.  And the best performances came from a trio of musicians – keyboard/vocals, lead guitar and bass guitar.  I’m sitting here trying to remember their songs, and I can’t.  But it doesn’t matter.  The fellows were brilliant together.  I remember the smile on the face of the lead guitarist as he played a long lick … in a trance, it seemed.  One rollicking tune featured the pianist belting out the melody while tickling the ivories with his left hand and banging the keyboard lid against the vertical surface of the piano with his right.  So cool.

Then there was the trio of East Indian descent who gave us “The Sounds of Silence” – an ethereal female voice accompanied by a sitar.  Otherworldly.  Finally, the whole crew went up on stage for a rousing version of “Slip Slidin’ Away”.  We were in love.

***

Day three featured Joanna Chapman-Smith, a Toronto singer-songwriter who had lost her voice during an illness, and had it magically return months later, to our immense benefit.  Joanna was such an original … rich love songs, some unusual melodies, storytelling mixed in with the singing.  The place was packed in celebration of her aliveness and virtuosity.  I struggled with the long stories and with some of the dissonant melody lines but I marvelled at her humanity.  Such a glowing face.

The biggest revelation for me was during the break between sets.  I listened to the one hundred of us talk.  It was a symphony of voices that seemed to get louder as the minutes passed.  First, I resisted.  After all, I’m a nice little Buddhist guy that needs his large doses of silence.  But then I started smiling.  It was music.  It was we humans embracing our fellows.  It was sweet.

***

Sing me a melody, please
Make it last long inside me
Sing me a melody, please
Give me a good vibration

No One Left Out

My friend Pat took me out to lunch today at an Italian restaurant in London.  We talked and talked, looking both at the pains and joys of life.  I am truly blessed to have many such friends, people who love me and allow me to say just what I need to say.  They listen and accept.

Earlier, I drove into London to see my doctor.  Julie is another one of those marvelous friends.

And then there were the two hours between.  I knew that I wanted to be around people, even if I didn’t know any of them.  So I went to my favourite branch library, an intimate space with a huge snow-covered skylight.  People milled around the shelves, picking out treasures.  A mom and her son were having an animated discussion in the kids’ section.  Older gentlemen were sitting in plush chairs, absorbing the daily newspaper.  Another older gentleman (me!) sat on a comfy couch and pulled out my book.  I enjoyed watching the symphony of humanity between paragraphs.

And then there was the woman returning patrons’ books to their spots on the shelves.  She walked stiffly and had a concerned look on her face.  Her clothes were not fashionable.  And I knew she was mine.  I knew that today I was going to make a contribution to her life … I just didn’t know how.

I needed to take my medication and I didn’t know if there was a water fountain in the library.  So I walked up to my pre-friend and asked.  No, there wasn’t.  She suggested I approach one of the staff members at the desk.  “They know more.”  The woman seemed really nervous.

Eventually, I discovered that there was a fountain in the food court, so the med got swallowed.  As I returned to the library, I saw my friend shoving a book into Adult Non-Fiction.  I turned down her aisle and smiled.  “Thank you for helping me.  I found a water fountain by the food court.”  And I received an absolutely brilliant smile in return.  “You’re welcome.”

Enough done.  Enough said.

I Am Here, Bruce

I cry every day for my beloved wife Jodiette.  Several times a day.  As one friend  mentioned, it’s an “ocean of grief” that pours through when I’m alone – in our bedroom, in the car, on a walk.  Then the crying stops, and I walk further through my day.  But the sea returns and I let go once more.

Jody talks to me just about all the time.  Others will think what they think, but this is so.  My wife wants to speak and listen.  May we always do so.

I am here, Bruce.  Right here, right now.  I am in your heart and there I stay.  [And my hands cover my heart.]  I love you so much, dear husband.  You’ve always been so kind to me.  Don’t worry about what other people think.  They don’t think it’s possible for us to talk like this.  It’s not just possible.  It’s happening right now!  I’m here, Bruce.  Listen, my man.  Let go of your own doubts.  Let go of any defenses you might erect to this truth.  Let go.  Just listen.  You are not talkng to yourself.  I am here, husband.  And I will be here for the rest of your life, whether you’re crying, laughing, at peace or in pain.  I’m not going anywhere.  I love you so much.  Someday our bodies will be together again.  You can hold my hand again.  You can rub my feet again.  I know we both miss this touch.

I’m happy, Bruce.  I’m not in any pain.  But you are.  And I will comfort you, shelter you, caress you, for as long as you live.  I wish you could see things from my side.  I wish you could see that there’s no distance between you and me.  I’m right here beside you, Bruce.  Just as you’re typing away.  And I’m deep within your heart.  Plus I am every single tree you see on your travels.  As I said, “I welcome you everywhere,” and I do.  There is no place on earth you can go without me.  I know you’re going to Costco this afternoon to have a photo of a Cuban tree plaked.  I heard you standing in front of that tree in Cuba and loving me.  I saw you caressing the branches.  I saw you cry.  Do you have any idea how very deeply I love you, Brucio?  I dearly hope you do.  I am here with you always.  And that means right now!  Feel me here with you.  It’s no illusion.  It’s as real as the tears on your cheek.  Drive safely, Bruce.  It’s a beautiful tree.

And so I will drive safely.  I do what my wife tells me.  What a privilege to still have Jody in my life.  I love you, my dear.

Lunch with Jody

Dear inspiring ones,

It’s been 13 days since I’ve probed my laptop keyboard with these digits … Wow.  First sentence and it feels like I just don’t have it.  But one of my joys in life is to communicate, so I will keep going.

Since Jody’s death, my life has been covered with crying, flatness, a pinched nerve in my neck, pain often about 6 or 7 out of 10, and the dullness that the pain meds have given me.  More importantly, this little life of mine has received a huge flow of love … face to face, on the phone, and in my Inbox.  Thank you for loving me.

Twenty-six of us shared a meal last Saturday.  Twenty-five told Jody stories, animated with great love.  The 26th human being cried a lot and couldn’t bring words forward into the group.  So … all of us let our inner heart shine.

At one point, I stood up and started singing “Annie’s Song”, a piece that I sung to Jody for 20 years or more.  A few words into the singing, my grief blanketed the phrases.  But people heard, and many of them continued the song.  “Like a night in the forest.  Like the mountains in springtime.”  I’ve always added a special verse, but after “May the road rise to meet you”, everything tightened again.  And once more, kind souls held me with their singing.  How blessed I am to receive such love.

Julie, our family doctor, spoke of how well prepared Jody was for her appointments, armed with pertinent questions about her medical well-being. Many folks reflected on Jody’s smile, and on how she brightened their day.  It was family around the dinner table.

I played a YouTube video of Cyndi Lauper singing “True Colors”, one of Jody’s favourites.  She loved singing it with the SingStar microphone poised by her lips.  I see the song as a request from Jody to all who loved, and love, her.  “Of course you have tears for me.  May your smile return soon.  I love you because you show me what’s true for you.  You speak and act as an expression of the great soul you are.  I’m so glad you do that.”

Wow. I’m all drugged up.  I sure wouldn’t want this to be my daily life.  I think I’ve had enough writing for today.  But it is a blessing for me to speak with you again.

Oh, one more thing.  I said in my last e-mail that I’d respond to all of the messages I received after Jody went back into the hospital.  There’s about 300 of them, and I’ve said hi to 25.  I expect that I’ll get a few e-mails saying “Don’t bother.  Take care of yourself.”  The thing is, though, talking to you is taking care of myself.  So I will write to all of you who wrote me.  Just not right now.  Is answering an e-mail a month after I got it too weird?  Oh well.

Second more thing. I’m going to Cuba for two weeks, from December 5 till December 19.  I’m going alone.  Haven’t gone on a vacation by myself since my 20s.  The hotel didn’t even charge me a single supplement.  Yay!  I’ll be staying at the Memories Paraiso Azul Beach Resort, on Cayo Santa Maria, an island just off the northern coast of Cuba.  For part of my time there, I will be silent.  A lovely meditation retreat on the beach, on the jungle paths, in the dining room.  For another part of the time, I will be anything but silent.  I love talking, and I’m going to gab with all sorts of folks from all sorts of Canada, Cuba and the world.  Jody thinks it’s a great idea.  Me too.

And the third more thing.  Jody’s Celebration of Life will be held at 11:00 am on Saturday, January 31, 2015, at the Bellamere Winery in the northwest corner of London.  For all of you within easy travel, I hope you’ll come, and perhaps speak of my lovely wife.  Our room has beams and panels of vibrantly brown wood, with a vaulted ceiling animated by tiny chandeliers.  A good space for honouring Jodiette.

I will talk to you soon.  Travel well.

I love you all,

Bruce

Tonglen

In meditation, picture someone you know and love who is going through much suffering – an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear.  As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering – in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick and heavy clouds – entering your nostrils and travelling down into your heart.  Hold that suffering in your heart.  Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light.  Imagine they take it all in, and feel completely free, released and happy.  Do that for several breaths.  Then imagine the town that person is in, and on the inbreath take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it.  Then do that for the entire country, the entire planet, the universe.  You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.

It sounds so masochistic, doesn’t it?  This practice of tonglen.  Drawing in smoke and tar through the nostrils and sucking it into your heart?  Who would ever do such a thing?  Is it a form of insanity, an expression of a consciousness that is “less than” what our society says is normal?  Or could it possibly reflect someone who has largely let go of “I, me and mine”, someone  who has come to define themselves in a broader way, to love more expansively?  I think the latter.

I’ve had my glimpses of tonglen when faced with the suffering of a person, a group, or the world.  I’ve let it emerge, be a part of me, but then it goes away so quickly.  What then do I do?  Let the word disappear from my vocabulary, or start again, breathing in people’s pain in this moment, and the next, … ?   I think the latter.

It feels like the process of letting go of thoughts when I’m meditating.  First they come rapid-fire, then later a little less frequently.  But they always return.  More and more, I look at a thought’s arrival, smile, say hello, and begin again.

So I choose to embark on another experiment.  I will “be with” the newspaper headlines, such as the ebola crisis in Africa, and I will breathe in the agony of thousands, perhaps millions as it unfolds.  Then I will send them love.  Same for Jody.  Same for the folks I encounter on the streets of London.  Same for me.  Perhaps my heart is big enough to hold it all.

My Song

Thoughts from Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart:

There is a tribe in east Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth.  In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception, as in other village cultures.  For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is thought of in its mother’s mind.  Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree.  There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive.  Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them.  After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb.  Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song.  After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself.  It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations.  This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.

Truly lovely.  And I ask myself what song I would have my mother choose for me.  To see me through the length of my life.  I’d want it to be sung for me during the tough times, when I was stripped bare of my usual comforts, standing naked before the agony of the moment.  I’d want it to rock me gently, like floating in some amniotic fluid.  I’d want the words and music to be something I could come back to again and again.  Something like this:

Be Not Afraid

You shall cross the barren desert but you shall not die of thirst
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words to foreign men and they will understand
You shall see the face of God and live

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

If you pass through raging waters in the sea you shall not drown
If you walk amid the burning flames you shall not be harmed
If you stand before the powers of hell and death is at your side
Know that I am with you through it all

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

Blessed are your poor for the kingdom shall be theirs
Blessed are you who weep and mourn
For one day you shall laugh
And if wicked men insult and hate you all because of me
Blessed, blessed are you

Be not afraid
I go before you always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest

And who is the “I” that goes before me always?  Something interior rather than exterior, and yet something up, up and away.  A part of me that embraces fear and everything else as merely a passing show.  A storm coming in, raining hard, and then disappearing.

May I be sung to as I die.