What I Learned

I just spent five days with eighty open-eyed people.  I was blessed to be in their presence. I knew that I wanted to describe how our time together touched me but I didn’t see the words appearing.  I still don’t.  So allow me to stumble forward into the unknown.

“How am I doing?”  It’s a question that’s haunted me for decades.  It’s so symbolic of my belly button gazing, of looking within, of analysis and evaluation.  At times during the seminar, all of that floated away.  There was service and love, a direction of energy that was out into life, rather than coming from the outside in.  The lowered head in anticipation of incoming danger went on vacation.  The head was high, looking levelly into the eyes of my fellow travellers.

Then all that goodness disappeared.  And then … I was able to locate it again.  I had had an interaction with Patricia, our teacher, in which she asked me a question I couldn’t answer.  I panicked, and blurted out something that sounded halfway reasonable.  Was I touching whatever was just emerging?  No.  I was smashing into a wall that seemed to hide “the right answer”.  No cheese down that tunnel.  I collapsed inside, grew smaller in the badness that I’ve so often chosen as a companion.

The release came as I saw Bruce as a very hard and very small squash ball, sitting on a pillow.  The pain wasn’t inside me anymore.  It was over there, ready to be observed.  In the watching, I came back.  I lost maybe two hours, which is a marked improvement over two days.

The next thing was that I wanted to talk about the process.  I’ve had a couple of coaching sessions with one of the members of the Evolutionary Collective, and she was at the seminar.  I sought her out and told of the journey.  The “going toward” rather than the “turning away” was a revelation.  The mouth opening and disclosing instead of staying jammed shut.

Then there’s the experience of rhythm.  I’ve had this naïve thought that someday I’ll graduate from my pain, and will be this totally together human, emitting a stream of love at every moment – no challenges, no interruptions.  Ha!  Good luck.  Partway through our togetherness, one of the teachers was experiencing a feeling of separation from Patricia.  I had seen this woman as a shining light, and I still do, just not one who’s swimming in perfection.  If she sometimes trips upon the path of life, surely I have the space to do the same.  I can accept my periods of smallness and find my way back to a largeness that touches the world.  Superman … no thank you.

The rhythm of being also showed up in our daily movement sessions.  In one exercise,  we were being “moved” by our partner.  She would flick my wrist, and I had three choices: to let my arm nudge back in response; to exaggerate that reaction – throwing my arm up and staggering backward; or to resist the touch.  Refusing to be moved was so painful.  Refusing to let another influence me.  What remained was a totally right and totally alone piece of armour.  No give.  No take.  No life.  How the body teaches!

The word isn’t just “influence”.  It’s mutual influence.  Despite my moments of rigidity, I’ve often felt the gifts of others coming towards me.  On the weekend,  I saw more clearly that I influence them as well.  Such a long life before I started to let that one in.  I go into the future, perhaps two steps forward and one back, fully capable of giving in a way that allows receiving.

I matter
I love
I act
I change the world

Français

I’m sure excited about going to Africa to visit Lydia and Jo’s foster kids.  I e-mailed her last week with some questions, such as the ages of the children and whether coffee will be available in Senegal.  If the answer to that last one was no, I’d have to start weaning myself off the stuff.

Almost as an afterthought, I asked if the kids speak English.  Here was Lydia’s response:

“In Senegal, French is the most spoken language, though a few people speak English due to the nearness of Gambia.”

Oops.

A few days ago, I’d seen a video of one of the kids.  He was speaking French.  And soon I will too.  I have the remnants of high school French but the rust is huge.

Jody and I went to Quebec City in 2008 to enjoy the music, the food and the ancient buildings.  The vacation, however, came to be about local people and my efforts to communicate in their language.  I had a marvelous time, and virtually every Quebeçois was kind to us, throwing in some good natured laughter as I decimated the grammar and vocabulary.  Senegal can be the same!

Yesterday, in French class, I told Madame and the kids about my dilemma: I have three weeks and a few days to get good at French.  Any ideas?

As the students got back to work, a girl approached me.  “Have you heard of Duolingo, Mr. Kerr?” > “Nope” > “It’ll teach you French.” > “All right, I’ll give it a try.”

I downloaded the app on my phone, did some registering things, and was faced with a choice: either I don’t know any French or I know some.  Okay, “some”.  The program would do a pretest with me, to see where they should start my studies.  As I pondered question number one, a few kids gathered around me, watching for my success or lack thereof.  Actually they were cheering me on.

“Translate ‘a man and a boy’ into French.”  I got to work, with lots of coaching coming from the left and right.  “Un homme et un garçon”  >  “You are correct” flashed on the screen.  Muted cheering from the peanut gallery (and from me).  We were off … question after question appeared and I (we) did pretty well.

The whole darn thing was fun, especially the kid participation part.

Okay.  That’s enough for today.  Now back to my French homework.  I sense bilingualism hanging out just beyond the horizon.

Follow Me

Two weeks ago, a young man approached me in the Grade 6 class with a book to share. “Ned” held a volume of transcendent paintings called Imagine A Night. As I leafed through the pages with him, I was transported to another land, that of the imagination. Suitably equipped with my smartphone, I zoomed to Amazon and ordered. On Monday it arrived.

Today, as the kids were silent reading, I sat on a counter and came upon …

Imagine a night
When snow white sheets
Grow crisp and cold
And someone whispers
“Follow me”

The painting showed bare winter trees, and a snowfield which blended into a room full of white beds. A young man walks through the night, holding a lantern. A girl rises from sleep and beholds the glow.

Follow me

All was silent in the classroom. Eyes roamed over secret stories. I fell into the lantern, opening to the mystery.

Who do I follow?

Ego me pronounced that I follow no one. Broader me saw the silliness of such rigidity. I bring my own flavour to the world but I’ve also been taking notes on other lives for decades. I stand on their shoulders.

Here are my influences:

1. My dad (Archer Kerr) … a gentle man who loved making kids laugh

2. Arnold Palmer … a championship golfer who played the game with passion, and treated everyone like a king (or queen)

3. Yo Yo Ma … like me, a cellist – one who made my heart soar as he caressed The Swan

4. Cam Clark … my best friend since Grade 10, whom I can always laugh with

5. Jim Bailey … a social work instructor who showed me the oomph of living far more than he taught me counselling skills

6. Adele Zezza … she of the beaming love to her daughters, and out into the world

7. Johnny Haslam … my boss at the Prince of Wales Hotel. Always a smile, always a helping hand for this young man of 20

8. Sally Armstrong … a meditation teacher who looked way inside me and saw goodness

9. Jody Kerr … my dear wife, who glowed when she said “husband”, and loved me through my foibles (still does)

10. Patricia Albere … who sees me and shares her vision of a mutual world with all who have ears to hear

***

Quite a crew of inspiring folks
I followed
They led
I lead

Stories Handed Down

I volunteer in a Grade 6 class. I read to the group and help individual kids with assignments. But what I love the most is telling stories from my life, in hopes that seeds will be planted in some of those kids.

Last week, I told them about meeting a Haida “watchman” in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago north of Vancouver Island. He told me about how “white men’s diseases” decimated the Haida population, and how hundreds of their children were stripped of their dignity in far away residential schools. I watched the kids’ faces. Many of them seemed to get the tragedy of it all.

This morning I had breakfast in the Belmont Diner. I sat at the counter with two local gentlemen, probably both of them in their 80’s. Stories were told, this time with me on the receiving end.

1. A young man walks along a plank suspended over a huge tub of molasses. He slips … and is instantly up to his neck in the stuff. Co-workers hauled and hauled and finally got him out of the tub. God only knows how he ever got cleaned up.

2. “Fred” lived right by the railway tracks. Before the world of lights and descending gates, he sat in his car and stopped traffic when he heard the train whistle. To while away the time, Fred drank beer. Apparently he polished off 24 bottles most days of his adult life … and lived to 90 or so.

3. Both of my companions had big run-ins with teachers. One got fed up with getting harassed for just having “a little fun”. One day in Grade 10 he walked out and never came back. A week later, he was working at the local hardware store.

The other chap went to a two-room school out in the country. His female teacher for Grades 5 to 8 was to be a woman who never smiled and appeared to hate boys. He was always being called out for something. Imagining three more years of this, my currently coffee-drinking friend went to his father and somehow got switched to another school. Future contact with the teacher was met with stony silence on both sides.

4. My little village of Belmont, many decades ago, had five gas stations! All this to serve a population of 500.

5. Then there was the story of an underaged guy getting into a bar in Detroit. The same fellow who was sitting beside me. I’ll spare you the heroic details.

***

While the tales were being spun with gusto, another fellow walked in and joined us at the counter. His first words:

The purple asters are covered with little yellow butterflies

So … old guys tell stories to a somewhat younger old guy who tells stories to 11-year-old kids. May it always be this way. It’s how we learn about life.

Toronto – Part 3: Scarf and Applesauce

It’s so easy to be happy and openhearted when my body feels good.  In Toronto, my body mostly felt bad.

When I was a kid, mom and Aunt Norah wrote back and forth a lot.  I got to read Norah’s letters, which were usually full of reports about her various ailments.  I vowed that I would never turn into my aunt, that I would never let what’s wrong dominate my conversations.  But I feel the need to address the pain I felt last week, as a way to open to all of life.

I had already been cold for ten days or so, and Toronto’s deep freeze sent me over the edge.  I was terrified of being cold, colder, coldest.  “Will it hurt?  How long will it hurt?”  I don’t know what happened to the mountain man in me.  He was gone.  Instead, there was a guy who developed this dressing ritual every time a door was about to open onto the outside world.  The neck of my coat totally zipped up.  Toque pulled way down.  Scarf so tight around my nose and mouth that it brought up thoughts of asphyxiation.  Mitts struggling to fit way inside the sleeves of my jacket.  Neal waiting patiently.

Sometimes our forehead-burning street travels brought us to more subway time.  I loosened the scarf so it wrapped around my neck but the rest of the arrangements stayed put.  Mitts and toque fully engaged on the train.  As we jostled our way from station to station, all I could think of was diving under the covers of my hotel room bed.  No expansive mind.  No lovingkindness aimed at my fellow passengers (well, very little of that).  Just me, me, me.  How very unBuddhist of me.

And then there was my stomach.  For most of our trip, the nausea came and went and came again.  My diet was basic – microwavable rice, bananas, dry bagels, applesauce and herbal tea.  Neal had omelets and seafood fettuccini and beer.  I was drooping with a lack of calories and flavour.  Dizzy and roiling and flat.  Oh vacation, wherefore art thou?

At the Allan Gardens plant conservatory, I sat.  At the Royal Ontario Museum, I sat.  Neal boogied around, taking lots of cool photos.  I sat.  I tried to be present with what life was offering me, to see the pain as being no worse than pleasure.  But I couldn’t.  I rarely could talk to Jody.  I missed the beauty of the flowers, of the vendors offering their food at the St. Lawrence Market, even of the Buddhist statues at the museum.  I pretty much missed it all.  Sad some more.

On Sunday afternoon, we were leaving on the train for London.  My nausea had disappeared and the temperature had warmed to 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).  How strange.

I wonder what life wants me to learn from all this.  Right now, I don’t know.  I’m open to an epiphany.  Come on down.