Love Math

It all starts with love.  I figure that human beings can grapple with the toughest problems if they first sense the unity we share, if each of us is willing to look into the other person’s eyes and see divinity there.  Without that prior sense of being together, our efforts to problem-solve, conflict-resolve, and peace-make will come to naught.  The gap between us will remain a bridge too far.  So … let’s see what we can create with love as its centerpiece.

***

I mostly find math boring but there are certain equations that get my heart a-fluttering:

Love + Pain = Compassion

There are times when we gaze into another’s eyes and see tears welling up.  The pain may be physical, emotional or even spiritual.  All three are real.  Maybe it’s about failing at something, or another person being mean, or a loved one dying.  We know what it’s like.  We’ve been there.  It hurts.

How far you go in life depends on you being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong … because someday in life you will have been all of these.

George Washington Carver

Love + Happiness = Joy

Sometimes the face we behold is alight with the glory of God.  The person is bubbling with the good news that’s come their way.  A promotion, a newborn, a task well undertaken and completed.  The joy in response is not a given.  Some of us refuse to celebrate in the wellbeing of another.  It’s as if there’s only so much happiness to go around.  “If you have a lot of it, that means there’s not much left for me.”  Other folks are wiser:

There are so many people in this world that it’s simply reasonable for you to make their happiness as important as your own.  If you can be happy when good things happen to others, your opportunities for delight are increased six billion to one!  [Update: make that nearly eight billion to one]

The Dalai Lama

It’s simple math

 

It All Fades

The highest of highs … the lowest of lows.  I’ve had them.  I imagine you have too.  In the moment, the intensity was breathtaking.  Whether I was soaring or plummeting, blood coursed through the body, the mouth dropped open, cells were blasted apart.

***

1.  I played the cello in the huge All-City Orchestra on the square in front of Toronto’s New City Hall.  I remember the aged Sir Ernest MacMillan shakily wielding his baton, leading us through “Land of Hope and Glory”.

2.  There were four years of weekly swimming classes in high school.  Boys only, everybody in the nude.  Since I couldn’t swim, and it seemed that adults had given up trying to teach me, I piddled around in the shallow end while my friends did laps.

3.  It was a large auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta and I spoke from the heart to hundreds of people.  I was in anguish at the coming death of an organization.  At the end, they stood.

4.  High above a mountain lake, I clung to a cliff, frozen in place, seeing my death falling away.  Twenty minutes of terror.  Why did I have to die so young?

5.  On a Sunday in May, 1986, I crossed the finish line of the Vancouver Marathon.  My goal was to break four hours.  My time was 4:12.  The smile matched the outstretched arms.

6.  Two hours later, I lay down on a bench in downtown Vancouver, knowing that the chest pain would soon kill me.  A cabbie found me and took me to Emergency at St. Paul’s Hospital.  I survived.

7.  On the university track, I lined up at the start line with some Grade 6 kids.  “Ready, Set, Go!” someone cried, and we blasted off on the 100-metre run.  They were 12.  I was 68.  I finished forty metres behind the slowest kid, smiling all the while.

8.  At 3:00 am in the hospital room, I could no longer hear my wife Jody breathing.  Soon the nurse nodded that she was gone.  I kissed my wife’s lips.

9.  On the west coast of Vancouver Island, I climbed a sandy hill, the sound of faraway surf in my ears.  As I reached the peak, the glorious waves of Long Beach stretched to the horizon.

10.  In January, I was awake for 44 hours as planes took me from Dakar, Senegal to Brussels, Belgium to London, England and to San Francisco, California.  After all that, how did I survive the one-hour BART trip to Berkeley?

***

What’s left now are blurry memories, in the realm of pleasant or unpleasant.  I still smile and frown as the images return but the moments feel muted.  But I am definitely not muted.  I feel alive, surging with promise, my hair blowing in the wind.  Somehow the energies of yesteryear have found their way inside me.  They’ve settled in the nooks and crannies of my life.  And I am the better for it.

A Natural Woman

Weeks ago, in Senegal, I think I wrote about Aretha Franklin. And now I feel like doing it again. My little voice says “Don’t repeat yourself” but it’s being drowned out by the call of the Motown Queen, and someone else. Good. Little voices should be ignored.

My friend Jo and I had lots of conversations in Africa. One was about the magnificence of Aretha. He pulled up a YouTube video that brought tears to both of our eyes. It was 2015 and Carole King was being feted at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. Carole was in the front row of the balcony, sitting beside Michelle and Barack Obama. It seemed to be a surprise for everyone when the MC announced “Aretha Franklin!” and the curtains parted. The lady of the moment moved right over to the piano and started in on You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.

As brilliant as the songstress was, the true joy for me was watching Carole in the balcony. She co-wrote the song. As the first chords came through, Carole’s face exploded in joy. Later she clasped her hands to her head in astonishment. As Aretha hit the wailing high notes, Carole stretched out her hands to her as the Obamas fought back tears.

I watched the video four times today. Carole was so pure in her joy and love, so wide-eyed in embracing this astonishing moment in the world’s musical life. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It is so dearly what the world needs.

I’m so glad I was there … and can go back whenever I want for a renewal of life.

Day Twenty-One: La Fête

The party was a lunch, a dance and a gift-giving for the kids who we Belgians and Canadian are sponsoring in Toubacouta. Balloons were hung, streamers were streamed, fancy tablecloths and napkins graced the tables, and joyous music was bipbopping out of the speaker.

Girls did their hair in magical ways. They wore the brightest dresses and shirts. One boy even wore a bow tie!

For awhile I made faces with some of the kids and played the game where we’d hide behind someone sitting between us and then poke our heads out. Such fun. Some children were nicely shy while others bubbled over in their eyes. Some danced in the middle of the circle for maybe a minute. Others were pushed in there by friends and quickly scooted back to the edge of things. Mr. Bow Tie really rocked and rolled as we all cheered him on.

There was lots of lunch prep and I loved joining in. I was the only guy to do so but who cares? I sat with some girls and women and peeled onions. And there were no tears! So different from home. Next were cloves of garlic and I got to experience the impact of arthritis on my fine motor skills. I was slow and clumsy but again all of that was irrelevant. I finished with beans. Many hands made for light work as the sounds of Warlof and Flemish filled the space.

Several women distributed the various yummy food on plates in the kitchen. I got to be one of the lucky ones who presented the meal to individual kids. The whole idea was that the day would be special for the children. We served them. Before the meal we gave them the best seats on the patio. Here’s a pic I love:

After we ate, the balloons clearly needed to become soccer and volleyballs. The young’uns leapt in the air and in their hearts.

At one point, I just sat back and took it all in. Two years from now, will I be bilingual? Will I be spending a few months each year in Toubacouta, teaching these very kids how to speak English? I don’t know … but the possibility is real.

Who knows what journeys lie ahead … in my life, and in yours. Let us embrace the mystery.

The Best Home Is Over There In You

In Buddhism, there are four brahma viharas.  A common translation of the term is “best home” – a place to hang out that brings happiness and peace.  The virtues are lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity and sympathetic joy.  The last one has long fascinated me.

The word “sympathetic” throws me.  I don’t want to feel bad for you.  I want to feel with you.  So “empathetic joy” rings far more truly for me.  It’s about me feeling great happiness when you are happy or successful.  It points to the idea that there isn’t a limited amount of joy to go around.   There’s plenty for us all.  It’s taken me a very long time to figure this out.

I remember watching some really popular guys in high school.  They had Hollywood faces … chiselled and acne-free.  They usually were great in sports and seemed so confident in a group, always with something cool to say.  I remember wishing that something would go wrong in their lives.  How about a pimple or two?  “Tone down the good vibes, please.”  I had bought what society was selling us: that happiness is a scarce commodity.  If they have lots, there’s no way I can have much.

According to Sharon Salzberg … “As the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, puts it, there are so many people in this world, it simply makes sense to make their happiness a source of our own. Then our chances of experiencing joy ‘are enhanced six billion to one,’ he says. ‘Those are very good odds.'”  Indeed.  To multiply happiness by way of a simple shift in attitude.

How about if I surround myself with people who are smarter than me?
How about if I celebrate the skills of someone who writes better than me?
How about if I simply throw my appreciation over there into your eyes?

Pre-Elton

Many of the kids in the Grade 5/6 class didn’t know who Elton John was. Oh my. How did I get this old? I showed them a YouTube video of Elton blasting out “Rocketman” in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He glowed in a sparkling maroon jacket. Not much response from the young ones … and that’s okay.

Maybe ten years ago, Jody and I were ready at 10:00 am for the beginning of ticket sales for Elton in London, Ontario. I think she was on the Internet and me on the phone. We scored precisely zero, and the tickets were gone in seven minutes. What oh what went wrong?

Jody died a few years later, never having heard “Crocodile Rock” live. How sad for my dear wife. I wondered if I would ever hear the man in concert.

About a year ago, I heard that Elton was launching a farewell tour. It was finally time for retirement. “Okay, Bruce, get your rear in gear.” By the time I mobilized my backend, the event was sold out. (Sigh) And then a few months ago, my phone told me that Elton had just added more dates. Finally I seized the moment, and I was heading to Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on October 24, 2019, which happens to be today! So cool.

This afternoon, after muddling through thick traffic on the 401 for nearly three hours, I finally pulled into the Weston UP Express station. A leisurely twenty minutes later in a packed train, I was deposited only a few hundred metres from Elton land.

I’m actually here, and so is my beloved. Together we are fulfilling a dream that’s decades long. It’s 7:53, and dear Elton hopefully will favour us with his passion in seven minutes. Many thousands of human beings are sharing the space with me. Good for us.

There’ll be a “Post-Elton” post coming your way soon. Right now, a little smile has taken up residence on my face.

Lighthouse

I talked so much yesterday about people walking by, and not much about the band I went to see – Lighthouse, all fourteen of them.  Started by Skip Prokop and Paul Hoffert fifty years ago, back then there were two keyboards, a lead guitar, a bass guitar, two violins, a cello, a double bass, a trumpet, a trombone, two types of saxophone, a drum set … and a lead singer.  No one had heard of such a thing.  And Toronto was home.

From the front row, I gazed out at two original members – Paul on the far side on keyboard and Ralph Cole right in front of me playing lead guitar.  Ralph looked like my dad and dressed like my dad, in a turtleneck and a conservative suit jacket.  But he rocked unlike any 75-year-old I’ve ever seen!  He made that guitar wail as he pulled the strings to the side and then launched into a flurry of runs.  His face contorted as decades of onstage work came through.  Dan Clancy, the lead singer, told us that Ralph hasn’t missed playing in a Lighthouse gig for the entire fifty years!

Paul beckoned to the crowd with one hand and smashed some notes on the keyboard with the other, as he blasted out Sunny Days with his fellows, to the roar of the crowd.  At one point, just after receiving an award from Mayor John Tory for Lighthouse’s service to music in Toronto, Paul cradled the microphone and thanked generations of Canadians for loving him and his friends.  Clearly it was mutual.

At the back of the proceedings sat a drummer, a young man.  He seemed out of place until I found out who he was – Jamie Prokop, the son of founder Skip Prokop.  As Skip was dying a few years ago, he had two requests: that the band continue to play the songs he wrote, in hopes that they would touch a new flow of young people; and that Jamie take his place at the drum set.  Both have come true.  The furious beat goes on.

I don’t even remember what the final song was, but almost all of us were standing and dancing.  The boys in front of us were loving it.  Over 1100 souls shared joy last night.  The energy in Koerner Hall was immense.

So it was over.  Did we all file out like sheep, us to the back of the hall and the performers to backstage?  No.  I think everybody in the band came forward to shake our hands.  The front row works quite well for that.  I looked into the eyes of Don, Ralph, Dan, Jamie and Paul, one after the other, and thanked them for their music, and for their delight in performing.  Ralph held my hand an especially long time.  Thank you, dear compatriot of my dad.

If Ralph can be so deeply Ralph at 75, surely I can be deeply Bruce at 70

The Dance

I went to the school board’s dance festival this morning – nine elementary schools doing their thing.  The music was high energy and I tapped out the beat in the bleachers.  It brought me back to the disco on a Cuba vacation.  What a joy to move, to throw the arms into the air with gay abandon.

The kids helped me remember how dearly I love to dance.  I remember my wife Jody staring at me as I gyrated to the tunes.  Apparently I didn’t look too graceful but I was sure having fun.

I also remember Halloween dances at a long ago elementary school.  All costumed up, I moved amid the 12-year-olds – not as fast as them but usually just as expressive.  Oh, the joy of mindless response to great melodies and rhythms!

For the last year, I’ve been careful.  What a yucky word.  I was worried about the pain in my knee and my hip.  “Don’t break something, Bruce.  Take it slow and easy.”  Especially after today, I’m tired of measured and moderate.  My trainer and I have set me on a course to health in its many forms, including having stronger muscles around my knees.  Does this mean that my future holds dancing, maybe even running?  “Why not?” I say.

The gym was crowded with young dancers and their loved ones.  Troupes of kids dressed all in black, or all in white or tie-dyed t-shirts rocked the house.  Most wore big smiles.  Some were athletic.  Some seemed focused on remembering the steps.  The occasional kid was overweight but moving smartly nonetheless.  Some children were tiny but still pumping their arms madly beside classmates a foot or more taller.  There was even a line dancing group topped with cowboy hats, taking us through our paces in Cadillac Ranch.  No one was left out.

Boys were in short supply but they didn’t care.  It’s possible that “friends” back at school razzed them for choosing hip hop over football but the faces still shone as Magic in the Air had kids in the audience shaking their bods along with the performers.

Well, young ones, you inspired me today.  I also have two feet and fully functioning legs.  It’s time to launch assorted body parts into the air again.  There’s a place for calm and an equal spot for raucous.

Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world
for I would ride with you upon the wind
and dance upon the mountains like a flame!

(William Butler Yeats)

The Vienna Boys Choir

They stood in front of me as I sat in the front row – 23 boys from about age 8 to 16, dressed in sailor suits. But all wasn’t as I expected. They sure weren’t all blue-eyed blond Austrians. Their conductor did look Austrian, his long light hair flowing. He wore a tuxedo and moved with a flourish from piano to stage and back. When he got really excited, exhorting the kids onward, he often went up on tip toes (the advantage of having a front row seat).

The leader told us he was going to have each boy introduce himself. As he passed the microphone around, I heard words such as Germany, France, England, the United States, China, South Korea, Thailand, Colombia … and Austria.

Some kids were so “out there”, some seemed shy. Some sang full-throated, mouth wide open. Some voices rose above the others, in great beauty. Five boys had the highest soprano sound that you can imagine, and at one point those kids held a soaring note for many, many seconds. As the conductor kept his baton hand raised and the boys held the tone, we the audience roared our approval.

Most of the songs seemed to be in German but I didn’t need the translation. The energy coming off the kids was staggering. There was a left section and a right one. Two singers, one from each side, often seemed to be looking at each other. It was like they were throwing their passion for the music from one side to the other and back again.

I met their energy with mine. I was pouring myself into every singer, wanting them to be great, drawing forth their sublimity.

At the end of most songs, the final note hung in the air – a pure expression of spirit. And then it faded to silence. There seemed to be a little space between the end and our applause, as if we were all stunned by what we were hearing.

I made eye contact with six or seven of the boys. I looked at every member of the choir and was pleased that some were willing to return the favour. I wondered if they could feel the happiness and love that I was sending their way. As the concert rolled on, I sensed that the boys were being reached by the goodwill flowing from the 1100 of us. They seemed to be leaning forward into the music, and towards us.

I was lifted by the songs in English, especially “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” and “There’s a Place for Us”. The purity of the voices met the purity of the words. With this music, there seemed to be an even longer delay before our clapping started.

The final number was drawing to a close. At the last piano chord, we rose as one, drowning the kids in wild applause. There were shouts of “Bravo!” and “Encore!”. The boys’ faces were smiles. Three more pieces came our way. More standing O’s. The last one rose while the choir was lined up along the front edge of the stage. Their bows and my clapping hands were a foot or two apart. Eye contact up close.

Thank you, young men from around the world. Your eyes and your voices did their job … you and we were together in the song.

Day One: The Energy

It was a long trip from Newark Airport to Manhattan. An Air Train dipsy doodle to the New Jersey Transit Station, then a long wait, then a leisurely float to New York’s Penn Station. One fellow asked me for directions. I laughed and told him I was an absolute newbie. The folks standing around at the transit station seemed normal. It could have been a scene from downtown Toronto.

At Penn Station, I climbed all these stairs, building up my biceps as I hauled my suitcase upwards. A fellow hosting a tourist booth downstairs laid out my options. A cab would work. That’s certainly what a woman on the plane had suggested. As we landed, she said there was no way I should be navigating the subway system, in the rain, with luggage, on my very first visit to New York. I agreed. But Mr. Tourism Agent got me thinking: walk three blocks to a subway station. The train could deposit me within a thirty minute walk of my new home. Why not? Go for it, young man.

Finally a door, and the street. And then … whoosh! The sidewalk was packed with almost sprinting New Yorkers. The buildings soared above the canyons. Huge neon video boards sold their wares. And I was stunned. Sirens howled, horns blasted and the world was electric. Oh my God, who are all these people? And what am I enjoying all this noise, me of the silent mediation retreats? Just fall into it, Bruce.

I found my home … at 515 East 5th Street, and proceeded to be mystified by the lockbox that faced me. Oh, Bruce, I thought you were smarter than this! Apparently not.

Finally gaining entry, I noted that my apartment was 5C. In the first floor hallway, all I saw was 1B, 1C … A woman left her room and we smiled. “Is there an elevator?” > “No, it’s a walkup.” > (Sigh) A long haul indeed.

It was 7:00 pm. In my sweet room, with its red brick wall, I worked at translating the NYC subway map. Good luck. I Googled this and that, trying to figure out how I was going to arrive at the Affinia Shelburne Hotel tomorrow morning at 7:30 am.

Okay, it was time for action. I figured out that a northward bus was nearby. I asked folks for directions. Every single one of them was friendly! That’s not what I was told about New Yorkers.

Off the bus here, onto probably the right subway line there. Confused a lot, happy even more. And everywhere the surge of humanity. Wow, I love this stuff! At the end of exploration, there I sat in the lobby of the Affinia Shelburne, hoping I’d see a few members of the Evolutionary Collective hanging around. But no.

Now I’m in a bar called “Niagara”, congratulating myself on conquering New York. Except I didn’t. I’ve merely begun to embrace the city.

More to come …