The Man in the Arena

Today the kids in Grade 6 were at the Jaffa Environmental Education Centre for a day of wilderness structure-building, orienteering and fire-starting.  I wanted to see them again so I showed up in the afternoon.  Apart from my coughing, I had fun – it’s always great to talk to 11-year-olds.  A few kids hugged me.  One boy asked permission first and then came close.  Very sweet.

We headed back to the school in time to catch the buses home and that same boy came up to me with a gift-wrapped present.  Inside were yummy cookies and waffles plus a pair of cool blue socks, with little bow ties scattered on them.  The gem, though, was the card.

I had met the mom just before I left for Senegal, at the school’s Christmas concert.  We got talking.  I told her about my wife Jody and the book I’d written about her, and mom wanted a copy.  I got one from my car Scarlet and signed it for her.  Little did I know …

“Jenny” lost her dad six months ago and misses him so very much.  Jody’s book helped her heal.  Wow.  That makes me feel so good …to think that my dear wife contributes to others’ lives after her death.  Thank you, Jodiette.  You sure contributed to mine.

Jenny wrote: “You were part of my journey and choosing happy.”  Wow again.  Thank you, Jenny.

Towards the end of her card, Jenny mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech in 1910.  He’s a former President of the United States.  Here’s what he had to say:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

And then … “I think you’re an arena man too!”

When people praise me, I’ve learned to simply say “Thank you” from my heart.  I know that life is a mysterious mixture of praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that these experiences touch us all.  Attaching myself to praise doesn’t work.  Acknowledging my good points does.

I do believe that I am:

Actually in the arena
Marred by dust and sweat and blood
Someone who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again
Someone who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions
Someone who spends himself in a worthy cause

***

Does this make me better than anyone else?
No

On we go

Day Two: Family

“Je sens déjà une partie de ta famille.” Lydia and Jo, the friends I met on a hiking trail in Alberta, are sitting with their children Lore and Baziel (and me) as we shared a meal. I had been in their home for only an hour or two but I knew what was true: “I already feel a part of your family.”

I picked up my luggage at the Brussels airport and there was Lydia greeting me at the gate with a big hug. On our serpentine way home, we laughed a lot and actually giggled about me being here. Lydia’s friends had said “You mean that Canadian guy is really coming?” Yes, indeed he is.

Lydia is so in love with life. Enthousiasme! Tonight we walked down a dark street on the way to watching Lore and her horse doing jumping training. We bounced along walking arm in arm. I made animal sounds and Lydia smiled lots.

Jo started almost two months ago turning a dusty attic into a sanctuary for me. His home is a marvel of his own making and my bedroom fits right in. Right now I’m sitting in his designed living room with a wall of windows facing a horse meadow sloping down to a pond. There’s such a feeling of space. Thanks, Jo.

Last night, Baziel stayed up to 11:30 to do the finishing touches in the room – and this with exams looming on Monday. Such dedication to someone he’d never met.

Baziel’s passion is basketball. I saw him shooting hoops in the farm’s courtyard … swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. And tomorrow evening, I’m going to watch him practice with his team. That should be fun. I think I’ll be the proud uncle.

I walked into the muddy yard to greet Lore’s two Shetland ponies: the 24-year-old mom and her son. What a wonder to run my hand through that long hair. And then there was the star of the show – Jackson, truly Lore’s horse. I watched the two of them together, and the love between animal and human flowed freely.

Tonight Lore and Jackson had a jumping session at a nearby horse barn. Poles were set up in various configurations for Jackson to float over … and mostly he did! I stood nearby to watch the grace and power.

Lore was the main chooser of objects to display in my bedroom. The first thing I noticed was Jody’s book standing proudly on a cupboard. Across the way was a small statue of the Buddha – perfect for me. Her attention to detail was a perfect expression of love for, again, someone she’d never met.

I’m home here. The old sharp-sloped rooves, the shale tiles and the red brick are a factor, but essentially the people in this home are the beauty. Thank you, dear loved ones.

Thank You

I was walking down Weston Road in Toronto an hour ago. On my left was a familiar funeral home, and here came an elderly gentleman through the parking lot, wearing a suit, tie and dress coat. Assuming he was an employee, I called out “Hope you don’t have to stand out here for long!” He looked at me funny … but came closer.

“I’m looking for 1273 Weston Road.” I glanced across the street and saw 2056. “You’re not really close. Here, I’ll look it up on my phone.”

Google Maps, I praise you. Within thirty seconds, I showed the screen to my new friend. He needed to drive past Lawrence, past Jane, and then watch for his destination five blocks later. How marvelous that technology helps me give.

The well-dressed gent put his hand on my shoulder, looked me way deep in the eyes, and said “Thank you.” I smiled in return. “You’re most welcome.”

***

I was walking down Bloor Street half an hour ago, on the way to my favourite library. A fellow wearing a turban was taking a box out of his truck. As he turned towards a store, the sheet perched atop the box fluttered away. I watched it zoom forwards on the sidewalk and then make a sharp right turn past a parked car. “Come back,” I muttered. On command, the paper exited traffic and renewed its relationship with the sidewalk, coming to rest at the base of a garbage can.

I pumped my legs purposefully and plucked the sheet from the cement. Yay! Truly an athletic move. I whirled around to find the delivery guy gone. “He’s in the cab.” I walked briskly to the passenger window to see that the truck was unoccupied. Another whirl left me with a row of businesses to choose from.

Hmm.

Seconds later, the guy emerged from a doorway just ahead, looking away from me towards the last known location of the sheet. I came up to him from the side, holding aloft the precious documentation. The fellow’s eyes widened, he burst into smile and accepted my gift. “Thank you.” We bowed to each other.

***

Two simple words, anointing us both

Day Eight: Visiting Buckeye

And then there was that woman with horror on her face. She said something like “buck eye” and I responded with “What’s that?” Thought the poor lady was going to have a heart attack. For the uninitiated, the Buckeyes are the beloved football team of Ohio State University. The name comes not from a deer (“buck”) but from the buckeye tree. Who knew? Well, clearly not me. Ontario isn’t far from Ohio but obviously I don’t possess the local consciousness. Oh well. I just hope the distraught woman didn’t end up in Emergency.

My friend “Kayla” walked me through part of the university campus yesterday. Towering trees and some dramatic brick buildings. Plus there was a tranquil little lake bordered by water grasses and black iron benches. I sat there for a long time while Kayla was doing an errand, and watched Ohio folks stroll by. Well, actually some rushed by but the peace remained.

There were memorial stones forming parts of the path. So many human beings were celebrated with love. More than a few professed love for the Buckeyes. Okay, I’m getting the hang of this.

I meandered through a grassy and tree-festooned area aptly called “The Oval”. Kayla had told me that decades ago, when the university fathers and mothers were deciding where to put sidewalks in the space, they simply watched where people walked. The natural routes became obvious. How beautiful – people before policies.

The Evolutionary Collective Global internet call was coming up in less than an hour. My plan was to find a picnic table and hang out there. But then the rains came … and stayed. Across the way was a big building named R-PAC. “I’ll try there.” Turns out it’s a huge fitness and athletic complex.

I dipsydoodled up to the Welcome Center and asked the young fellow if they had an empty room where I could talk out loud to folks from across the world. He didn’t flinch, but set to work in fulfilling my request. He consulted with his fellow employees. He asked a woman to walk me upstairs to see if a particular meeting room would work. She smiled and we were off.

My guide opened a door for me and I walked into a lecture hall that would seat 100 students. And it was all for me! Thank you, OSU human beings. Seventy-five minutes later, I emerged, thankful for the contact with my EC friends and for the generosity of my hosts.

You know, life is pretty darned good

Kindness

I like words.  My second favourite one, right after “love”, is “kindness”.  I’m sometimes moved to tears when one person gives of themselves to another.

Reporters were gathered around The Dalai Lama.  One of them asked “Sir, how would you describe your religion?”  The world’s most visible Buddhist smiled and simply said “My religion is kindness.”  Four words that say so much.

I’ve often written about moments of kindness.  Today I yield to the intelligence and open hearts of many other folks.  I hope you let their thoughts flow into you.

*

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world
For indeed, that’s all who ever have

Margaret Mead

What is true power?

*

The simple act of caring is heroic

Edward Albert

Who are true heroes?

*

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted

Aesop

How about picking up an eraser that a classmate has dropped?

*

When I was young, I admired clever people
Now that I am old, I admire kind people

Abraham Joshua Heschel

I’m good at using words in unusual ways
Putting my arm around someone’s shoulder is far better

*

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind

Henry James

What, no cunning intellect, no dashing good looks?
No … neither of those

*

I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance

Pablo Casals

Pablo was an astonishing cellist
He also knew a thing or two about life

*

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle

Plato

And if what if that’s true?
How would that change my speaking and doing and being?

*

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Will this be the last time I’m with this human being?

*

Be kind whenever possible
It is always possible

The Dalai Lama

Even when someone is being mean to me?
Yes

*

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better
It’s not

Dr. Seuss

Maybe everybody is like me … down deep

*

Always stop to think whether your fun may be the cause of another’s unhappiness

Aesop

Let’s laugh together
Let’s not laugh at together

*

Never be so busy as not to think of others

It might be the worst four-letter word

Mother Teresa

*

There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up

John Holmes

The physical heart and the spiritual heart … companions

*

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around

Leo Buscaglia

Just say hi

*

That best portion of a man’s life:
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love

William Wordsworth

Do it
Even if the person forgets that you did it
Or even if they didn’t know it was you

*

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