Not About Me

Here I was, fresh off my trip to Newfoundland, full of memoried moments about the people I’d met. It was time to visit Julia, my hairstylist, to get my locks shorn. Our history together is that she loves hearing me tell my stories but usually doesn’t have much to say when I ask about her life. Well … history doesn’t need to be repeated.

Sometimes I don’t have many words either but there’s nothing like a vacation to replenish my supply of tales. As Julia was shampooing my hair, I wondered what picture I should paint first.

And then I looked at my friend. “C’mon, Bruce, what’s coming up in Julia’s life?” I gulped as the answer hit home: her son Kyle is getting married on Saturday, September 15. She deserves the stage. She deserves to be the painter of motherly love, far more than I deserve to describe the sight of 18 cyclists climbing Signal Hill.

So I asked about her family’s special day … and I listened.

Julia is so proud of her son. Kyle and his soon-to-be wife are foster parents for dogs, helping them recover from illness or injury before passing them on to adopting humans.

Julia is thinking and thinking about what she wants to say at the reception. The plan is to go up there with her hubby Kevin and build off each other’s words of love. Sounds good.

The rehearsal dinner is the first thing and Julia is grappling with the details. Just lasagna and Caesar salad or should she add some chicken? Frozen or fresh? The details need to be handled but my friend is revelling in the prep of it all, for it’s all for love.

Julia is guessing that the blessed couple will be starting a family soon, and she’ll be a grandmother! “I’ll be a good one.” Yes, you certainly will.

I stayed with Julia through her wedding twists and turns. She’s worried about being nervous. I tell her that my wish is that she savours the beauty of the moments, from the rehearsal to the wedding to the reception and to the couple opening gifts on Sunday morning. She smiled.

I’m so happy for you, Julia
Thank you for sharing your joy
And thank you, Bruce, for stepping back
And letting your friend speak her love

Day Seven: Roaming St. John’s

First, a bit about last night …

Riders, staff, family members and friends gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall for the celebratory banquet. Cool stories of Canada travel were flying fast and furious. I kept asking questions such as “What did you like best about the Tour du Canada?” and “What impact do you think the ride will have on your life?” The answer to that one will no doubt take time to percolate through. The wife of one of the riders looked at me and said “You like asking deep stuff.” So true. The undeep is usually boring.

I spent a lot of time looking around the room, remembering conversations I’d had with each of the cyclists. Precious moments recalled. And I wondered what could have been if I’d stayed. I also thought about the goodbyes that were coming after these fine people had spent ten weeks together.

Several folks gave short speeches after dinner. Jim shocked me by talking about the impact I’d had on the group. (Gulp) I stood up and told the riders that they’d always be with me. And that’s true, whether or not we ever meet again. Paul also spoke about me, saying that I had inspired him, that I had tried so hard. (Accept it all with grace, Bruce)

I’m sad that I didn’t say goodbye to every cyclist. I was talking to Uli when a few of the folks left the hall. Fare thee well, friends. Afterwards, several of us went to a pub. Good old Newfoundland music competed with our conversations and I mostly couldn’t hear anyone at a distance. Across the table, Ken and Mary talked about the time they climbed France’s Mont Ventoux on their bicycles. The Tour de France riders go there! What an epic achievement. I hope it’s touched their lives deeply.

***

Now I’m writing about Saturday, even though it’s Sunday morning. Oh well. I like the slow pace.

Paul and his family invited me to join them for the day. That was so generous of them. Al came as well. We went to see the Terry Fox memorial on the waterfront. Terry lost his leg to cancer in the 1980’s and began running across Canada to raise money for research. He averaged a marathon a day (26 miles) until the cancer brought him to a halt halfway across Canada. Terry’s statue in St. John’s was slightly bigger than lifesize and I got to look right into his eyes. We connected. I think deep eye contact is one of the great gifts in life.

Paul’s daughters Hayley and Lindsay suggested we go on a five-kilometre hike around Signal Hill. Paul, Laurie, Al and I were up for it. Laurie drives so confidently, like she’s a Newfoundlander, and we were off.

My left ankle and right knee continue to be unfriendly and it soon became clear to me that the trail wasn’t a good idea. A few rocky downhill stretches and I knew I was in trouble. How humbling to be poised above a tiny slope, not knowing if my body will get the job done.

To say something or not? Well … clearly I needed to speak up. I told Paul and friends that I’d sprained my ankle recently and I needed to take the road up Signal Hill. They understood, and Paul and Al chose to accompany me.

One delicious and expensive hot chocolate later, we were atop the hill where 24 hours earlier 18 cyclists had completed their journey across Canada. The slope just below the parking lot was so steep and they would have been so tired. Chapeau, dear riders!

The family wanted to take the trail to Quidi Vidi, whatever that was. A St. John’s bus driver, leaning against her vehicle, mentioned that part of the trail was a bit rugged, but that her route would take me right there. I could feel my pride swallowing and voted for the bus.

Quidi Vidi is a rocky inlet, with a few of the old homes on stilts over the water. I came upon a wedding party, red dresses and black tuxedos, plus one special woman who got to wear a white dress. After all the photos, I went up to the bride and groom and said “Have a happy marriage.” She especially smiled.

I had a seat in the Quidi Vidi Brewing Company with my Iceberg beer. The fellow singing announced that the next song would separate the CFA’s from the Newfoundlanders. CFA means “Come from away” – anyone who’s not local.

I tried unsuccessfully to pick up the lyrics. Across the room, a woman in her 60’s was belting out the words and looking at me. I threw my arms into the air with my hands spread, letting her know that I was CFA. She smiled.

Then the whole crew arrived and we settled into a beer-laden table for six. As the singer sang and the room vibrated with conversation, I looked over to Paul. He was talking to his wife and two daughters, all of them sitting to his right. And the looks of love between him and them were marvelous. What a family.

Later I came upon a big circle of folks, singing and playing their instruments. For some unknown reason, I pulled out my MasterCard and flung it into the middle of them. Then I called out “2112”, which just happens to be my PIN. A few smiles came back, as well as one thumbs up. And a woman rushed over to return the card.

In the evening, we were on George Street, being screeched in at a bar called Christian’s. All six of us were sitting at the bar, watching drinks be poured and taking in the din of the place. Wow, was it loud! I was basically yelling at Hayley next door. Our host wore a newfie fisherman’s hat and regaled us with stories, Newfoundland lingo and an astonishing ability to remember the names of the 25 or so people who were being screeched.

The highlight of the day lasted several hours. Paul, Laurie, Lindsay and Hayley included Al and me. We were welcomed into the family, and how precious that was. Paul had been away from his kin for two-and-a-half months, and the family could have kept him to themselves yesterday. Happily for me, they didn’t. Thank you, folks.

Day Two: Rocking and Rolling

Walking on the train was an adventure. The dining car was about ten cars ahead of where I slept, with the dome four back. Since people’s small cabins stretched across most of the width of the train, the corridor was sixteen inches wide. As the train moved and grooved on the rails, so did my bod, caressing the walls as I stumbled forward. I was left to imagine what travel would be like if I had a beer or two in me … “Bruising on the Halifax Express”!

I loved my tiny space – two comfy chairs that a staff member transformed into a bed in the evening. I had visions of leaving the drapes open overnight so I could be bathed in moonlight, but a series of red lights flashing by soon dampened my romantic aspirations.

My bed was just fine, although I half expected to fall off at 2:00 am, given how narrow it was. As I laid down my head, the jostling of rail travel had me thinking that it would be a short night but that thought soon fell into sleep.

At breakfast yesterday, I looked out at the views – left was a wide stretch of water and right forests and fields. I had asked a gentleman sitting alone if I could join him and he smilingly said yes. Habib was a Pakistani fellow from Toronto, a commercial real estate agent.

And … we had the most marvelous conversation – my life and his life, and how important it is to be kind. I asked him if he experienced much discrimination, and he said yes. He spoke without antagonism. In fact he spoke with love. The scenery around me faded away and our words flowed.

Other meetings followed. Karen in the dome car, just returning from a yoga retreat and so interested in my long term meditation experience. Like-minded voyagers on our dear planet. Then there was Jo at lunch. She was from the UK and had fallen in love with Kelowna, B.C. A future possibility as a Canadian was beckoning.

Late in the day, a staff member told me that our train was an hour behind schedule. Oops. I was supposed to get off at Truro, Nova Scotia at 4:20 pm and get on a bus to North Sydney at 5:00. As the minutes ticked by, it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it. Jo stayed by me as I grappled with sketchy phone service to call the bus company, my soon-to-be B&B hostess, and other transportation options. Jo was so supportive.

I was amazed at how calm I was. I just knew that the universe would provide. I would get to North Sydney tonight and take the ferry to Newfoundland tomorrow afternoon. I sat there quietly pleased with who I’ve become.

Via Rail arrived in Truro at 5:05. The bus had left at 5:00. And a shuttle van was picking me up at Murphy’s Fish and Chips at 6:30. All was well.

I had a homemade piece of coconut cream pie and a fine chat with my server. When it was time to pay, I approached an older woman at the counter. I told her my Via Rail story. Her response? “Okay then. This is on the house.” I was tempted to protest but the look in her eyes told me not to. Thank you, Natalie, and to the other fine human beings who have come my way.

Saying Hi

I was sitting in the theatre lobby today after a movie, absorbed in my phone to see who was winning the Rogers Cup tennis matches.  And then … “Hi, Mr. Kerr.  What are you doing here?”  It was a soon-to-be Grade 6 girl from the school where I volunteer.

I had a nice chat with “Sofia” and her friend and her mom and her friend’s mom, talking about cool movies and the girls’ plan to sleep in a tent tonight.  Afterwards, I thought about Sofia saying hi, how good it felt to be acknowledged, included.  Kids have a fine agenda – hang out with their friends.  Sometimes they feel like including adults, and often not.  It’s a privilege when they choose to approach me.  It would have been so easy to have just kept walking but Sofia chose to do something that brightened my day.

On Tuesday, I was walking out of the locker room at the gym, with “places to go, people to meet”.  I saw “Jeremy” on a machine.  He didn’t see me.  I didn’t stop.  Jeremy has some sort of handicap, mental or physical, I don’t know.  In the car I saw very clearly that I hadn’t included him.  If instead it had been a pretty woman whom I knew on that machine, would I have said hi?  Gosh, I don’t like to see myself as a person who rates people and then decides whom to talk to.  The bottom line is that saying hello is a gift to both people and withholding that gift is a distancing that the world doesn’t need.

Decades ago, I was crossing a parking lot in Lethbridge, Alberta when a woman of Indian or Pakistani origin simply said “Hi” … looking deep into my eyes.  The experience of contact, of communion, is still vivid today.  The gift was given.

Such a simple thing to communicate “I see you” in word or action.  May I simply choose to do that when Jeremy, or anyone else, comes my way.

Being Fred … Being Me … Being You

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a popular children’s TV show in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I never saw it. But here I sit in the Hyland Cinema, waiting for a documentary on Fred Rogers to start. It’s called Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Apparently he was a kind soul and many kids “got” him. I like to think the same is true of me.

One of my favourite quotes, author unknown:

I won’t remember what you said
I won’t remember what you did
But I’ll always remember how I felt when I was around you

Bring it on, Fred!

***

My eyes widen as Fred’s story unfurls. How am I going to remember all the juicy quotes? And then I felt my pocket. I had a few index cards in there for making notes when I read books. I whipped out my pen and scrawled in the darkness. Here’s what Fred had to say:

People who have smiled you into smiling
Hugged you into hugging
Loved you into loving

Find me one person who, whether they know it or not, doesn’t need this

Kids need adults who will protect them
From the molders of this world

How tempting it is to make children in the image of ourselves
While they desperately need to be uniquely themselves
An original in the world

(While holding eyes with a handicapped girl, and extending a puppet to her)
Would you like to see Barney the Owl?

We so much need that precious contact
The sense of being truly held and acknowledged

I’ve always weighed 143 pounds – “I (1) love (4) you (3)”

What forces are at work on the planet
Far beyond the reasonableness of coincidence?

(Fred as a puppet)
I’m not like anyone else

(His friend, a girl)
I know
You are just fine as you are
You’re not a fake
You’re no mistake

So wise, this Mister Rogers, knowing what’s in the hearts of kids
And expressing the truth about them in a way that they can hear

What is essential in life is invisible to the eye

Fred planted this seed, first in his mind, and then in his actions with children
In some kids, the seed will transform into wisdom, many years later

(Talking to a young boy in a wheelchair)
I’m glad to see you
It’s you I like
Every part of you

Dear adult:
Please see me
Not my report card
Not my gold medals (or lack thereof)
Not what I look like

Let’s make goodness attractive

Why not? There are other ways to be an adult
Ways not usually featured on the nightly news
Let’s show ourselves to kids
In all our happiness and sadness
In our kindness and compassion

(Speaking to the U.S. Congress in defense of public television)
This is a plea not to leave the children isolated

Kids need the presence of fully alive human beings
They watch us like hawks
Trying to figure out how to lead their lives
Let’s give them some good examples

Don’t listen to those who try to make you feel less than you really are

There are other voices
Keep your ears peeled
You will hear them

(Fred as a puppet, and many decades ago as a kid)
I can’t go to school tomorrow
Because I don’t know everything

Fred Rogers knew children because he never lost touch with being one
I’m not Fred
I’m Bruce
And you’re you
May we all listen to the young souls around us

Day Six: Back to Vancouver

There we stood, in front of the “Mile 0” sign, marking the beginning of the Trans-Canada Highway, and the beginning of our journey. Fifteen souls had their photos taken, and then we were together for a group shot. And together we are. So far I’ve met 19 of the 20 Tour du Canada riders (including me!) and in my perception we’re all “Green flags” – genuinely nice people who care. Not just caring about your family and friends, but looking beyond our groups to the human condition, where we all need shoring up sometimes.

For two-and-a-half months we twenty will be creating a new group – friends to hang out with. Plus we’ll meet Canadians, some happy and some not so much. How can we lift their spirits? For one thing, we can honour their slice of Canada. We can listen to learn about what life is like in their hometown. We can smile. We can include.

I struggled on the bike yesterday. But friends were there to lift me up. Terry coached me all day on cycling skills. “Dig deep! You need to be in the middle of the bike lane so the trucks don’t hit you.” She was relentlessly kind and assertive, just what a friend needs to be.

We were on a pretty and leafy path for awhile, and Keith would go ahead of me and give me a thumbs up at intersecting roads when the way was clear.

Ken stayed with me for the last few kilometres, patiently adjusting his speed to mine. No hurry.

Uli inspected my bike last night, giving me advice about how to make cycling easier for me. We did this in the first floor lounge of our UBC residence. Afterwards, I was basically falling asleep in my cozy chair. I was about to reach for my bicycle ta-pocketa to carry it up to my second floor room, when Dorcas beat me to it.

Ahh … friends

Day Five: Victoria

This was our first day of riding and I was nervous. Would everyone disappear past the horizon? Happily, I found out that our leader Bud had recruited a cyclist friend to “sweep” – hang out at the back and make sure the slow riders weren’t left alone. That would be me.

It soon became obvious that my bicycle skills weren’t up to snuff. I had trained on country roads, and twisty bike paths, wooden bridges and folks zipping close by in the other direction wasn’t part of my preparation.

I was indeed the slowest but Len stayed with me. Thank you, sir.

I should have taken a CanBike course to teach me the subtleties of movement but I didn’t. Being slow with Len bugged me a bit but not bad. Then there was a time we were veering left onto a side street. The pavement sloped away from me and I zoomed into someone’s driveway. (Sigh)

My cycling shoes have metal cleats on the bottom that clip into the pedals. All day long I struggled to attach the two, feeling so embarrassed that I hadn’t mastered this basic skill. Sometimes, in trying to get going from an intersection, I would hook my cycling shorts on my saddle and go nowhere.

The pièce de résistance splatted my way when I tried to climb onto a sidewalk using the cutout section. I should have aimed to the right of a pole on the sidewalk but instead chose the left, smashing into the curb, bending my handlebar and propelling myself (somewhat gently) into a tree. After a quick kiss, I was on the ground. From across the way, I heard “Are you okay?” I muttered a “yes” but the bod said differently. I was bleeding a bit, but far more from my soul than from my arm and leg.

Our leader Bud was beside me in a flash and whipped out a bike tool to straighten my handlebar. And Len put my chain back where it belonged. Thank you, gentlemen.

I walked ta-pocketa to the ice cream shop where the others were waiting. Embarrassment and sadness flooded me. To be so naked in my deficits in front of skilled cyclists was hard. I walked away for a minute and let the sadness take me.

The last part of today’s journey included wooden bridges, which I rattled through, and a paved bike path with hordes of fast cyclists bearing down at me. You might say I freaked out, and I started crying. I know I’m a good person but the despair was intense.

Finally we arrived at our destination – a hostel in Victoria. The male cyclists had a room with lots of bunk beds. I stood there in a stupour and realized that all of the bottom berths had been taken. The pain of the world fell on my shoulders. Cardio was fine, legs were a bit sore and the soul was shattered. There was no hope for me. I was lost.

Then Tony spoke up. “I think Bruce deserves a bottom bunk.” And he switched his stuff to the top. “Thank you, Tony.” I walked away into a sheltered alcove and started crying anew. Such kindness. And Tony was one of several folks who showed that to me today. Thank you all.

Each of us needs each of us

Impact From Long Ago

I was walking in downtown London yesterday and was passing a group of women.  They all had Tim Hortons coffee cups in their hands.  “I could use a coffee,” intoned the inner me.  I approached one of the women and asked where I could find a Tims store nearby.  As she opened her mouth, I heard a voice off to the side:

“Mr. Kerr!”

I whirled around to see a young woman who I’ll call “Monique”.  Long ago, I had worked with a blind child at an elementary school, and Monique was one of her sighted classmates.  She wore a huge smile, as did I.  We hugged.  Sure she’d changed in fifteen years but I recognized her.

It didn’t matter what we talked about.  There was a sense of contact between us.  She told me about her musical career and I mentioned my cross-Canada bicycle ride this summer.  We joyed in each other’s adventures.  Monique’s friends simply watched us, enjoying the reunion.

At one point, I told Monique that a few years ago I decided why I was on the planet: to love people and make them laugh.  Her reply?  “You accomplished that well before then.”  What a sweet thing to say.

Later she said “You were one of the adults who influenced me most.”  Oh my.  I thanked Monique for saying something that I hadn’t heard very often over the years.  We smiled a lot, hugged again and were off into our separate lives.  But we’ll remember each other and our chance reunion on King Street.

May I always tell people how deeply they’ve influenced me.  It’s an act of such kindness.  We all deserve to be on the receiving end.

Kindness Times Three

I was listening to CBC Radio while driving to Toronto this afternoon.  I was hoping for a good human interest story … and I found one.  A woman was being interviewed about a remarkable kindergarten moment.  As she talked, I could hear tears in her voice.

One little girl had shown up in the morning wearing her top backwards.  Some kid laughed at her.  The teacher was right on it and gently reproved the laugher.  The target human being, however, was very sad.  At this point, I guess the teacher had decided to carry on and leave the messiness behind.  But one child had another idea.  I can’t remember if it was a he or a she but the child removed their top and put it on backwards.  And then lots of other kids followed suit.  “I didn’t want her to be sad.”

My eyes moistened.  The interviewer was just about overcome.  And I imagined thousands of listeners reaching for their Kleenex.  Oh, what power a five-year-old can have.

And then …

I was walking along Lawrence Avenue, a main street in Toronto.  A taxi came out of a side street and pulled right up to the intersection so the driver could see the traffic on Lawrence before turning right.  I jogged a bit left and walked behind the car.  As I headed back to the sidewalk, the fellow behind the wheel called out to me:

“Sorry for blocking your path!”  He wore a big smile.

“That’s all right.  You couldn’t see.”

So much for the stereotype of Toronto drivers being discourteous.  I was stunned and so thankful for his friendliness.  It was a privilege to be in his presence.

Now I’m looking for kindness number three.  I’m not going to force it.  If no wave of goodness comes my way before I lay me down to sleep, so be it.  I won’t twist my reality to line up with the title of this piece.  Think I’ll head to Tim Hortons for coffee and see what beckons.

Okay, now I’m on the subway, gently seeking kind behaviour.  But seeking isn’t it.  By grace will it come my way … or not.  I’ll just wait.

Minutes ago, I looked to my right on the train.  A fat guy is two seats away, leaning over.  His eyes are closed … and he’s yelling.  Pointing his finger at something.  I can’t make out what he’s saying.  I’m too scared to say anything in the realm of “Are you all right?”  I shut my eyes.

I think of the classic Buddhist phrases of care:

May you be free from danger
May you be happy
May you be healthy
May you live with ease

And I sent them his way.  Soon it was just one: “May you be happy.”  The gentleman keeps yelling, still with eyes closed.  Here’s my stop.  “Goodbye, dear one.”

Mission accomplished.

Kind Athletes

I’m my own person, and although I love being loved, I don’t need other folks to validate my existence.  Having said that, I still have heroes.  Most of them are humanitarians, such as Martin Luther King, but some are from the arena of sports.  For me, there’s something about striving to the depths of your sinews to get the job done on the ice, on the tennis court, or on the playing field.  I love the instant replays of sweet passing plays, great saves or the long home run ball.

But there’s something else.  I so much want my heroes to be nice people.  I want to imagine feeling comfy while having a coffee with the Dalai Lama, Meryl Streep or Dave Keon.  I want to know that they’re “just folks”, not some highfalutin’ celebrity full of themselves.

This morning I was reading the sports section of The Toronto Sun.  And I came across words that made me smile.  Larry Walker was an outstanding baseball player with the old Montreal Expos team.  Pedro Martinez, a Hall of Fame pitcher, was talking about why Larry too should be in the Hall.  Beyond the man’s performance stats was this:

Your boy was the best guy, the most outgoing veteran, the easiest to deal with.  He was like a big kid all the time.  He was always playing and trying to make you smile.

Okay, there’s a fellow I’d like to know.  Anyone who can augment the world’s output of smiles is just fine in my books.  The great plays are to be applauded but so is the kind heart.

Another article spoke of Rasual Butler, a retired player from the National Basketball Association.  Rasual and his wife were killed in a car crash a few days ago.  Sadness has flowed through the NBA this week.

He was a wonderful young man, a pure heart.  That’s why people felt about him the way they did.  He was genuine.  There was no fake about him whatsoever … The news hit Lowry hard, reinforcing how fragile life is and how every moment must be cherished. 

Ahh … to have a giving heart, one that continually reaches out while not sacrificing one’s own well-being.  And to know that the person isn’t putting up a wall, that he or she is giving you all of them.  Oh yes.  I’d love to sit in Tim Hortons with such a one.

I still love the highlight reels and the world records.  But a quiet word with a full human being is even better.