I watched a show on CNN today about the 1918 influenza pandemic.  Here’s what I learned:

1.  The pandemic was “unprecedented” and “gripped the planet”.

2.  In the US, the flu was discovered at an army camp in Kansas, where 1000 soldiers were infected.  After the United States joined World War I, American soldiers were welcomed to France with singing: “The Yanks are coming!”  They brought the flu with them, and it soon exploded in Europe.

3.  During the first wave, people who got the flu treated it with a shrug.  It was a “three-day fever”.

4.  The US President, Woodrow Wilson, never mentioned the flu in public, fearing that it would distract from the war effort, especially recruiting young American men to serve.

5.  During the summer of 1918, cases declined.  More than one medical expert declared the pandemic “over”.

6.  In the second wave, during the fall of 1918, the flu was faster-spreading and far more deadly.  People often died within 24 hours of contracting symptoms, their lungs filling up with fluid.  Lack of oxygen left some bodies purple or black.  Priests walked the streets of some cities, calling to the houses “Bring out your dead.”

7.  In September, 2018, civic leaders in Philadelphia wanted their Liberty Loan Parade to go ahead as planned, with the prospect of selling lots of war bonds.  There was a surge of patriotism in the community.  Doctors asked the city’s public health director to cancel the parade, but he was apparently too afraid of backlash from the mayor, and refused.  Days later, thousands in the city were infected and all hospital beds were occupied.

8.  Newspapers tended to glorify the war effort and gloss over the sickness.  The parade led to headlines such as Fighting men of Navy thrill large crowds.

9.  Doctors and nurses didn’t know what they were fighting.  Influenza was only discovered by science in the 1930’s.  There was no way to treat the disease.  One doctor injected hydrogen peroxide into his patients’ veins … half of them died.

10.  In various cities, new laws were created.  It was a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze without covering your mouth and nose (a fine and/or one year in jail).  Spitters were fined.  Maskless people were fined or thrown into jail.

11.  Masks were often composed of folded gauze, which naturally was porous.  Some nurses regularly wore them covering the mouth but not the nose.

12.  Since Wilson was silent on the issue, cities coped as well as they could, creating a wide variety of both successful and unsuccessful solutions.  Some cities didn’t print the names of the dead, but their citizens knew.  Fear escalated.  San Francisco was one of the cities that talked straight to the people: Wear a mask and save your life.  Their leaders essentially shut the city down.

13.  As cases and deaths declined, many cities lifted mask mandates and reopened businesses … too early.  Deaths soared and many people refused to put the masks back on when they were remandated.

14.  Woodrow Wilson contracted the virus in March, 1919.  He came to a meeting of Allied leaders to work on a peace treaty with Germany.  His agenda was not to punish the defeated country, worrying that German anger might lead to another “war to end all wars”.  Historians believe that the influenza affected Wilson cognitively as well as physically.  Apparently he caved in to the demands of European leaders that Germany must suffer for what they did in the war.  In the 1930’s, Adolph Hitler emerged.

15.  The pandemic lingered until 1920.  One third of the world’s human beings were infected.  50,000,000 souls died, at a time when the planet only had one third of today’s population.

16.  Near the end of the show, a black-and-white 1918 photo was paired with a coloured one from 2020.  Both were of a nurse’s face, only the eyes showing above the mask.

17.  Parallels:

A.  Cities shutting down too late, opening back up too soon
B.  Crowds gathering when doctors told them not to
C.  People refusing to wear masks to protect others
D.  “Leaders ignoring science, downplaying the severity of the virus because they wanted the public’s attention to be elsewhere”

Dr. Tony Fauci: [In some respects] “the lessons of the 1918 pandemic were forgotten”

There most likely will be another pandemic
Will they remember 2020?

Day Eight: The Language

I’m sitting here on Tuesday afternoon fresh from my digital copy of French All-in-One For Dummies. I’m no dummy but yesterday’s experiences among the French speakers of Senegal was truly humbling. Most of the folks here know either no English or just isolated words. My high school French knowledge has declined to muddled snatches of vocabulary and sentence structure. Guess that’s what 55 years of non-use will do to a guy!

I listened to a brisk conversation between Moustapha and Jo last night, with musical interludes as Jo improvised on his guitar to the compositions of Fleetwood Mac. The melodies were a blessed respite from the angst of understanding virtually none of the words flowing between the two. Surely I know some French!

As I sat back and shook my head sadly, I was in the middle of a deep “not knowing”. In my spiritual experiences of the past few decades, I’ve sometimes fallen into the wavery bliss of letting go, of not needing to be smart, coherent or even reasonable. Floating free in a land devoid of achievement, with nary a landmark to be seen. Being there isn’t scary anymore.

However, yesterday’s untethered state pulled me towards deficiency. I wanted to know the words, the meanings of the flowing sentences. And then … it was okay that I didn’t. The real now needed to be embraced as a whole experience. Tomorrow (now today) would give me the opportunity to return to the hotel and its WiFi, and to download the Dummies book. Monday evening was simply another version of all being well.

Earlier in the day, I was out walking with Mariama, the 20-year-old woman whom I’m sponsoring. She’s studying Math, World History and an unremembered science at school. We both sighed – long, exasperated ones – as we felt our inability to communicate. We were both sad. Last January, when I agreed to support Mariama, I knew I was coming back to Senegal right around now. So I had eleven months to improve my French. I did virtually nothing. The faraway yearning for contact didn’t get the job done. But yesterday’s tortured journey on foot together hit like a sledgehammer. And so I’m ensconced in a cozy chair at Keur Saloum, studying vocabulary and grammar.

How strange … I just threw in the word “ensconced”. It just came into my head. I love words. I love letting them spill out, and trusting that they’ll be good and true. It’s like a graceful dance, and such a contrast to my crawling en français. But hey … either way, I’m moving!

On we go, Mariama, Moustapha and Fatou

Jet Lag and Alcohol

What a teacher it is to cross six time zones. My body was basically saying “I don’t like this stuff!” Indeed.

I left Toronto at 6:00 pm on Sunday. Seven hours later, I was landing in Brussels, Belgium. I’d bought a cool pink flight pillow but I still couldn’t lay myself down to sleep. Trying to sit up straight and meditate didn’t work either. I decided to launch myself into a book about Rwanda. That basically kept me going till breakfast on the plane.

At 8:00 am on Monday morning, there were Lydia and her daughter Lore waiting for me as I passed through customs at the Brussels Airport . An hour later, we were sitting in their dining room in Nukerke. The world was my oyster. I was home.

I knew the drill. Stay up till it was bedtime in the new place. I set a goal of 8:00 pm. A quick calculation left me with an awake time of 32 hours. I was determined to meet that goal. My previous record of staying awake was 34 hours, a struggle that left me pretty much delerious. Would that be my reality this time as well?

As the day progressed, and we were out and about on errands, so did the fade accumulate. The head is heavy and the mind is slow. The vision blurs a bit and it was fascinating to watch the disintegration. Did I do something bad? Not at all. In fact, I was doing what needed to be done to get Bruce back as quickly as possible.

I thought of folks who fly to Australia, crossing 14 time zones or so. How do they do it? I guess they’re willing to take on the discomfort for three days or more.

I went to bed at 9:00 pm (!) on Monday night, scared that somehow I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Ten hours later, I woke up – a little tired and a lot refreshed. There! I did it. What a good boy was I. I was all set for the remaining eighteen days of my vacation.

There are problems you can’t control and then those you can. Tuesday evening we went to Lydia and Jo’s friends’ place for dinner. There was a festive mood among us six, and Kurt was the perfect host, continually refilling my wine glass after my last sip. I concluded that resistance was futile, that I deserved a night of excellent food and drink.


This body of mine hasn’t consumed much alcohol during the past few months. It was into a sweet rhythm and our dinner was a major jolt to the system. I was inundated with marvelous flavours and aromas but going with that flow was seductive.

I woke up Wednesday morning with a thorough hangover … dull in the head, exhaustion and bouts of nausea. Death warmed over. I slept for two hours in the afternoon in preparation for another evening out. As I stumbled around in my mind and body, I said a simple “no” to such excess. It’s not what I want my life to be about. If I’m to serve people, I need open channels to my heart and mind. Clarity, not cloudiness.

Dinner approached in a fog. I smiled at my new hosts and attempted conversation. I drank water. I ate small portions of food. And then, during dessert, my mind came back to say hello. “You know what I want, Bruce. Please give it to me.” Okay, from now on I will.

Today is Thursday and I am “normal” once more. Hallelujah. There is much living and giving to be done.

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


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.”


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.