The Gift of Illness

It’s a strange life, with the body sometimes just zipping along and at other times dragging its feet.  My feet are low right now and it’s such a opportunity to see what life is really all about.

What’s possible in the moment when you’re hurting physically?  To what extent can we move beyond the yuckiness to truly be with people?  These are good questions because I intend to contribute to my fellow travellers no matter what life is serving up.

I’ve discovered that I often cough when I’m moved by other folks, when I’m feeling love.  That started happening in Belgium when I was enjoying the presence of Lydia and Jo and their family and friends.  Then we went to Senegal and the openness of the people touched me deeply.  “I’m glad you’re here” came up to me again and again.

Other parts of Senegal were not so kind, especially to my lungs. Toubacouta is in a very dry area and the town has dirt streets.  Dust floated everywhere, including into me.

A lot of people moved about on motos – small motorcycles.  They not only stirred up the dust, their tailpipes spewed out exhuast fumes without any pollution controls.  I spent a lot of time on the back of a moto.  When we travelled on the highway, passing cars and trucks fed me more poisonous gas.

Finally, some folks near me smoked.  I often moved away when they were lighting up.

Given all these inputs, what to do?  Certainly not hide out in my room.  The beauty of the Senegalese people far outweighed my breathing problems.  I continued to interact with the kids and adults, to joy in their joy, to revel in a deep level of personal contact with each other.  And I’ll do exactly that when I come back in December.

In Senegal, I coughed a lot and Lydia worried about me.  Back home in Canada, the doctor says I have bronchitis and penicillin will fix me up fine over the next few days.

I got home last night and soon had a two-hour internet call with about forty members of the Evolutionary Collective.  This was a call we had all agreed to be on and there’s great power in keeping your word.  But the coughing was out of hand and I felt myself contract.  “These people shouldn’t be exposed to all this noise you’re making.”  Well, that is an opinion but it wasn’t going to hold sway with me.

Soon into the session, we were paired up.  “Jessica” spoke for the first five minutes.  I worked hard on suppressing the cough instead of totally being with her.  Then it was my turn.  Speak, cough, speak, cough … My eyes kept leaving Jessica’s, and then returning.  She just was with me, all of me.  I felt so naked and yet so loved.  Everything was fine, even my body’s loud reactions to congestion.  Thank you, Jessica.

Later seven of us did an exercise together.  Part of the experience was to have each person read the agreements we were entering into.  When it was my turn, I couldn’t get the words out so others took turns picking up the slack.  One more time I felt included.

Yes, these moments are gifts if I have the eyes to see.  And I intend to keep looking.

Day Twenty-Three: To Toronto

It was a 6:00 am rising for the trip home. Lore and Baziel promised they’d get up at 7:00 to say goodbye. They kept their word. I hugged each of them and told them that I loved them. Such wonderful teenagers who will be great adults, ones with big hearts and huge contributions to make in our wide world. As we loaded the car, Baziel stood at the window for a few minutes, staying in touch.

Jo and Lydia drove me the hour to Brussels Airport. Sometimes she was sniffling in the front seat in the darkness.

We sat in a café having a coffee and croissant but the time was soon for parting. They walked me to the gate. Jo and I hugged and I told him that I loved him.

And then … Lydia. We turned to each other and started crying. We held each other with Jo smiling beside. She messed my hair and we said what was oh so very true.

As we walked in Belgium and Senegal, Lydia would often grab my arm. Sometimes it was her linked with Jo on one side and me on the other. A great joie de vivre as we strolled along.

If in August, 2017 on a hiking trail in Alberta Lydia Dutrieue hadn’t said “Would you like to come with us?” I wouldn’t be crying right now. I wouldn’t have held hands with Senegalese kids and kissed the cheeks of many adults. I wouldn’t now have Mareama and Youssoupha in my life. (I’ve been spelling his name wrong.) Thank you, Lydia, for moving right into my life and calling it home. You are my friend.

***

It’s four-and-a-half hours into the sky. I’ve had a delicious meal of penne pasta with a tomato sauce; a multi-flavoured salad full of greens, reds, little cheese balls and walnuts; a warm bun; an almond tart … and definitely the red wine. Wow. And that’s not even the best. I just finished watching Les Misérables for the first time. So much human communion there – love, sadness, loneliness, death – all wrapped in a blanket of song. Stunning.

***

I wonder what’s next in this life of mine. I know it’ll be about friends – in Belmont, in the Evolutionary Collective, in London, in Toronto and most definitely in Belgium and Senegal. I am blessed.

***

Okay, that was a very long flight. I am quite perfectly pooped and very glad to be staying with Anne and Ihor in Toronto tonight. I need to be good to myself and stay off the 401 in the dark when I’m this tired.

Belgium and Senegal were marvels in my world. I loved and was loved. Can you think of anything better? No, I can’t either. I’m going back in 2019 to both places … with bells on.

Thank you for sharing these twenty-three days with me. I’ve loved writing to you.

Day Twenty-One: Goodbye Senegal

Who would have thought it would be so hard? After all, it’s just another country, admittedly with astoundingly different landscapes, animals and architecture. I took lots of pictures of my surroundings so I’ll be able to remember the details of Senegal.

That’s all very fine but what of the people? They are the joy, with their smiles of welcome, their “Ça va?”s and their touches. When a child walks into a group situation, all but the youngest stroll around shaking hands. Women greet men and women with three kisses on the cheek – left right left or right left right. Take your pick. Be ready to immerse yourself in “I’m glad you’re here.” Have it be fine to touch and be touched, whether you’re with the young or old. Touching is a gift of communion. Only with your partner is it also about sex. I realize at home I can’t walk around the schoolyard holding hands with kids but it sure happens in Senegal.

This morning, as we prepared to get on the van for the four hour ride to Dakar, Ali, Aziz and Ansou – three brothers – were there to say goodbye. Ali and I took each other’s hands and looked into each other’s eyes for thirty seconds or so. Then we hugged, and I brushed the backs of my fingers against his cheek. “Je t’aime” were the words from me to him. His eyes said the same.

I had talked to a young woman named Nima over the last eleven days, and then this morning. She doesn’t know much English and I’m the same with French. Just before I took the step up into the van, we looked into each other … and waved. Time stood still.

On the surface of things, the Senegalese folks don’t have much. Everyone seems to own a cell phone but that’s one of their very few modern pleasures. But, oh, how rich the people are. You feel it.

Mother Teresa was speaking in the United States some years ago. Reporters were curious about the extent of poverty in India. She admitted that physical life was very hard for many residents. “But here in North America, you are truly impoverished.” Wanting in spirit, in “being with”, in caring.

I’m now on a plane from Lisbon, Portugal to Brussels, Belgium. The hot temperatures are long gone. Some of us are busy with our Smartphones, even though there is no internet connection. The meal, all nice and tidy in its plastic containers, was delicious. Something is missing, however. Perhaps it’s up to me to bring it to life.

On the previous leg, from Dakar to Lisbon, I sat beside a woman who was … “prickly”. She and her husband were returning from a group birdwatching tour in Senegal and Gambia. I asked her about the birds she most enjoyed but it soon became clear that she didn’t want to talk. It seemed that she wasn’t keen on talking to her husband either. As soon as the plane had come to a complete stop, she was out of her seat like a shot, getting her stuff from the overhead bin. No goodbye. And that’s okay. She has her life to lead.

But I miss Iced Tea, Fatou, Nano, Ja Ja, Bakary, Boundao and Mamadou. I’ve been spoiled.

Ahh … Senegal. What’s possible between you and me?

Day Twenty: The School

I’m a retired teacher and I wanted to see how it was for Senegalese kids in the classroom. Yesterday Lydia took us to see the local school for young children, up to age 6 or so. I had some interest in what the staff would be teaching but really all I wanted to do was hang out with the young ones.

The teacher was an absolutely glowing woman wearing a vibrant yellow dress. She didn’t need the dress to be a force of life.

The first group of kids was sitting under a tree. They looked long and long at my white skin and soon were replying in kind to my strange facial expressions. As I sat in a chair, I tried to hide behind the boy who was right in my face in the front row. I kept looking past his head – left, right and above – to make a little girl behind him laugh. Soon she was bobbing and weaving … hiding from me! I loved it.

Then I was ushered inside a large schoolhouse – one big classroom and two little ones. Heads jerked my way immediately. Inside one of the small rooms were the four-year-olds. First of all, they kept their distance but many eyes were locked onto mine. Soon kids inched forward as I made strange sounds which they tried to repeat. And then it was a free-for-all. Kids came at me from all directions, rubbing my face and arms, squeezing my cheeks and grabbing all ten digits. I thought one or more of them were going to break a finger. But then I breathed and let go into the scrum. Fear blew away and all there was was pressure. Oh my. A first-ever experience.

In the big room, some kids were at tables with what appeared to be colouring books in front of them. Actually the drawings were depicting health problems in Senegal, and seemed to be teaching empathy. Which student on this page is vomiting? Who on this page is sad?

In my hour or more at the school, I never saw a child printing letters with a pencil. Instead they would circle things.

Soon it was snack time, and I had a lineup of kids scrambling to have me open a plastic package or lid. I felt so important. Child after child wanted to touch me, and I believe to be touched by me. What a privilege to be in the middle of such energy. Delight flowed from kids to adult and right back again.

***

Later in the day, Eva wanted to deliver some clothes to the family compound which some of us visited a few days ago. This was where I saw children who didn’t go to school and who may never live beyond the homes where they were born. Eva, Mamadou, Yusefa and I were welcomed just as heartily as the group was before.

I saw the same teenaged girl, dressed in very dirty clothes and looking so sad. We were invited past the tablecloth which hung at the entrance to a house, and I held the cloth open, gesturing for her to enter before me. She gave me such a sweet smile, hesitated, and then went in. My heart was breaking for her. I pray that she’s not the victim of sexual abuse and that she has a friend somewhere near her age. Later Eva told me that she had brought some clothes for the girl. That made me happy.

***

A few hundred metres from where this family lives is the highway. Days ago, when our convoy of motos stopped there, I saw a group of kids behind a barbed wire fence and made sweeping arm gestures with them, pirouettes, funny faces … all of which they repeated. It was a lovely time of contact but I left without taking their picture. This time, I hoped to correct that problem.

And there they were! One young girl especially remembered me and soon she and her friends and I were kicking empty cans and jars around in a wild soccer game. I tried to be goalie with my legs spread wide. The young athletes scored on me every time, much to their delight (and mine). The parents were laughing at our antics and dad gave me a large bag of locally grown peanuts in thanks. Wow.

***

It was such a full day, especially in the realm of the heart. As I sat with Lydia and Jo somewhere in Toubacouta, I asked how I could help. Lydia replied that they have gathered about twenty children from different families. They challenge these kids to do well at school. If they do their best, Lydia and Jo arrange sponsors for them – monthly financial support for a long, long time.

She thought there were two kids who still needed help – a teenaged boy and a young girl. I said that I’d sponsor them both. Lydia said she’d check her paperwork back at the house to see if what she said was correct.

The actual situation turned out to be that it was two teenagers who needed assistance – a nineteen-year-old girl and a sixteen(?)-year-old boy. And I know them both: Mareama, who helped me get a pair of pantaloons made, and Yusefa, who drives me on the moto. Later, Lydia and Jo invited Mareama, Yusefa and me into their bedroom. Lydia explained to them in French that I wanted to help them out. Mareama started crying and Yusefa looked like he was close.

With Lydia translating, I said “I want to help you with money so you can do what you want to do in life. I will help you until I die, and I will put you in my will, so you’ll receive money for a long time after I’m gone.”

Lydia told me that it was very hard for Mareama to express her emotions. She wanted to hug me but … I said that Mareama didn’t have to do or say anything. She held onto Lydia and I touched her arm for awhile. It was love. Yusefa was quite happy to hug me.

In the evening, I was saying goodbye to many of the Senegalese folks because we were leaving early Friday morning. Mareama walked towards me on the path with her arms open wide. We held each other for a few seconds. My words to her were “Je t’aime.” And I do. For the first time in my life, I can say I’m a dad … of a boy and a girl.

Mareama’s birthday is January 9. So is mine. In five days, she’ll be 20. I’ll be 70. Fifty years. Seems perfect.

Day Eighteen: La Soirée

Every year, Lydia and Jo host a New Year’s Day lunch for the twenty or so kids they support. Parents and friends come too. Lydia expected that between 30 and 40 people would show up.

My life has mostly been about small groups, about Jody and me, and about being alone. Thirty human beings together in celebration! The mind boggles.

We from the B&B arrived around 10:00 am and began blowing up balloons. Oh, those life skills that are a challenge! I knew that the arthritis in my right hand would make tying the little suckers an adventure, and I was right. But truly, so what? Once I allowed my balloons to be a little smaller than the norm, life worked just fine. Maybe that could be a koan for my life: “A little smaller is okay.”

And then the arrivals. Little girls in yellow dresses … red, blue and green too. One young boy in a dress shirt, complete with bow tie. A few in flowing robes, a typical Muslim way of dressing.

The balloons were hanging on the walls between triangular banners. Splashes of colour adorned the tablecloths, which were also sprinkled with glitter. Plus smiles were everywhere.

The local school teacher led us in a clapping game, with the kids sitting and the adults standing around the big table. He would call out a rhythm and we’d clap once, four times or ten times, except when some adult got it wrong (such as me!). If you missed, you were out. I think Baziel eventually won.

Then the children sang. I feasted on their glowing faces. Oh my. Where am I? In a very good place, I think.

Time to eat – a delicious vegetarian meal. Was this couscous? Was that cabbage? And a yummy onion sauce. The names of the foods didn’t matter. We were together. There were three big tables, and other folks ate around the coffee table. With me at table were black kids, white teens, black adults and white ones. Basically the world. How I was blessed to be in the presence of them all.

After eating, I joined a table of young Senegalese kids. We made faces at each other. We made silly sounds. I picked up some bits of glitter and rubbed them into my face. Soon many arms and faces were shining red. Balloons were punched into the air at each other. Six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, a fifty-year-old – it didn’t matter. F-U-N.

A girl at home in Belmont, Canada named Sam had given me two bags of chocolate bars for the kids. Another named Jayla had created yarn bracelets. I had the joy of distributing both, and of seeing the smiles in return, with Louisa taking photos for the girls at home to see. Making a difference from many thousands of kilometres away. Thanks, kids.

Such a large human family, spreading its wings from Belmont to Toubacouta, and infinitely beyond. Thank you, dear friends, for sharing the journey with me.

Day Sixteen Some More: Fear and Love

Lydia met an old friend of hers in the market yesterday. Nabou is married to Ja Ja and they own a restaurant in Toubacouta. We were invited there for an early afternoon drink of bissap, a pure sweetness made from the flowers we picked a few days ago. It went down just fine in the shade.

Lydia wanted us to experience another village in the afternoon, where people don’t speak French and kids don’t go to school. Unless things change, the children will not leave the walls of their compound to live. How sad. Lydia often says that she can only do so much, can only help so many people. It’s time for other people to step up … such as me.

I was on the back of Yusefa’s moto as we rolled over the dirt roads. We stopped at a grocery store to pick up some suckers for the kids we’d meet along the way. Lydia packed them in a plastic jar and we were off again.

Soon we were off-road on a sandy track across the dry land. The sand became deep in places, at least to my eyes. Yusefa clearly was confident on the moto, so much so that he was tailgating Mamadou ahead. I froze. All that basic trust went out the window as I imagined falling off the bike and recovering in a Senegalese hospital for a year or so.

At a rest stop, I asked Lydia how much farther. “What’s wrong?” she replied. And then … I lied. “I’m tired.” Lydia looked at me like she knew I was telling tales. So now the truth: “I’m scared.” Ahh, the truth works. We talked about how everyone is afraid of something. For her, it’s flying. For me, right now in general, it’s riding my bicycle. Right now in specific, it’s little mounds of sand, and Yusefa often putting his feet down to keep us upright. Yikes!

After we walked for a bit, I felt better. On the moto again, I was able once more to look around, to drink in the parched land and its goats and cows.

At the edge of one village out in the middle of nowhere, we stopped. Kids came running. Lydia pulled out the jar and was quickly surrounded. Such happy faces and full mouths.

We came to an extended family’s homes, surrounded by a fence of long vertical sticks. Cement houses and, according to Lydia, a bleak future. Many eyes met mine, and many smiles. The queen of them all was a tiny girl, all dressed up in orange and red. What a sweetie, and we spent a few moments with each other’s eyes.

Farther on, we came to the highway. Our convoy stopped for awhile, and I never did find out why. I looked across the street and saw a little girl in a pink dress gazing at me from her yard. I raised both arms high above my head … and so did she. I swept my hands to the right and she mirrored me. To the left. Arm circles. Hanging from a tree. Twisting and shouting. All repeated by the girl and soon five or six of her friends. I couldn’t read their faces from our distance but I bet everyone was smiling.

And now, next. I crossed the road and walked up to the barbed wire fence. The kids stayed back some but they were curious. And I just loved the beaming smile of my young pink friend. One of the kids threw an empty jar at me and I tossed it right back, to a flurry of giggles. Then it was an old rubber strap. I wore it around me like a necklace. More giggles. Hands came closer and fingertips touched. Two women in the background smiled.

Then it was time to go. Motos revved up. The young ones smiled at me and I returned the favour. I bowed in my best Buddhist manner and they bowed back. We waved goodbye and the asphalt took me away.

It was of the most remarkable times of my life. I was in love. Sadly, I forgot to take their picture. Lydia said we’ll go back into the area again and I hope to see the kids, this time with my phone at the ready.

Goodnight, dear ones.

Day Fourteen: Connections

We set off today to give some clothing to the two-month-old son of a young Senegalese woman who’s the sister of my new friends Ali, Aziz and Ansou. Ali led the way through the Toubacouta streets. Paths and side streets brought us past waving local folks (walking or on motos), goats, donkeys and chickens. Many of tbe humans said hi to Ali.

Holding that young man’s hand is a miracle for me. Once in awhile, he’ll come up beside me and slowly let his hand embrace mine. It’s a soft touch and I make sure to adjust my pace to his, and to pause when he’s greeting a friend. Sooner or later, Ali will leat go, and isn’t that just like life? “I love you. I don’t possess you. Go in peace when you need to go.”

In Ali’s home, we were greeted by his mother, his sister and his dog. Mom made quiet requests of him, and Ali responded with grace, without complaint. The star of the show, naturally, was the baby boy. Adult after adult held him, and I finally asked for a turn. There sat the bundle of humanity in my lap, his tiny fingers wrapped around one of mine. His back was so cozy against my chest and I mourned not having been a dad. In an instant, though, the heaviness drifted away and I was left with love.

Later we were welcomed into another home. A grandma in a bright blue dress held a young boy. Mom chatted with us with such a sweet smile on her face but I was drawn back to the child. He and I locked eyes and kept the gaze for maybe a minute. It was just him and me in the whole world. He was inside me and I was inside him. Communion.

Mom showed us the room where she sleeps. On the floor was a small carpet for daily prayer. I asked her how many times a day Muslims kneel down to pray. The answer was four, starting at 6:00 am. The peace on the woman’s face was all I needed to know.

Late this afternoon, about ten of us went to the bissap fields to pick the flowers. The petals are made into a drink high in vitamin C, and into jam. Picking the flowers is deemed to be women’s work, and in the one to two months of the season, they spend five hours a day picking the blossoms and avoiding the thorns. An hour out there in the sun was definitely enough for me. Our hands were stained bright red by the end and I know my back was feeling the effort. I tried to talk to a woman of perhaps 80 who was picking with us but she spoke very little French … just like me.

Lovely human beings are crossing my path every day here in Senegal. Thank you for saying “Hi”, dear ones.

Day Twelve: It’s All About the Kids

When I’ll remember this trip to Senegal, it’s possible that the overwhelming image in my mind will be looking deep into the eyes of the children. Such as today. Lieselot, Sabrine, Anja, Curd, Camille, Olivia and I are staying at the bed and breakfast, and this morning we walked over to Lydia and Jo’s home. As we came through the gate, Iced Tea’s daughter Nima was sweeping grass off the dirt of the front yard. The broom was so much bigger than her, but she was brushing for all she was worth.

The big group of us walked over to the store. In front stood an old man named Moustafa and his donkey Black. On the cart behind were many bags of rice, to be distributed by us to fifteen families whose children Lydia and Jo sponsor.

We set off to the first home. I said hi to lots of people throughout the morning, some of whom spoke only French and a Senegalese dialect, and others who only knew the local language. No matter. We made meaning.

Aziz, one of Jo and Lydia’s kids, took my hand as we walked and held on for half an hour or more. Father and son in my mind. Wow. Aziz’s older brother Ansou walked with us for awhile, often flashing a wide smile.

In front of one home, the family had a darling little girl. Several of us took turns holding her. Me too. What a treasure in my arms.

Mareama helped me yesterday to have a pair of Senagalese pantaloons made, and today she and I picked them up from the tailor. As you’ll see from the pic, I’m basically a handsome African fellow.

We’ll talk again soon.

Day Eleven Some More: Hands

So simple this. A group of us were walking to a store that sells rice. Lydia wants to give good quality rice to the families of the kids she supports. We deliver it tomorrow morning, and it will be much appreciated.

We were strolling down the back streets of Toubacouta. And two of Lydia’s kids were with us. I was struggling to learn their names and suddenly the boys stopped. One of them picked up a stick and drew “Ali” in the sand. Then the other fellow grabbed the stick and drew “Aziz”. So there we have it … the names of my new friends.

As we walked on, Ali took my left hand and Aziz the right. For the first time in my life, I believe, I felt like “dad”. Words cannot express the joy that flooded through me. An astonishing experience. I know I would have been a good dad and today, for a few minutes, I got to live beyond the yearning for fatherhood. Such a fortunate man I am.

Back at Lydia’s home, Aziz sat beside me at the table and let his arm touch mine. Oh my. Time stood still.

There’s something astonishing happening in Toubacouta. A Canadian fellow is experiencing love flowing, from within and from without. It’s a gift beyond my dreams.

What does this all mean? I feel a supreme opening of the heart – beyond language, beyond skin colour, beyond environment. I am blessed.

Goodnight, my friends. I await the drums.

Day Five: Friends From Away

Lydia, Jo, Lore and Baziel are officially my Belgian family. They care about me, want me to thoroughly enjoy their country, and laugh with me. Having lived alone for four years, I feel blessed that they want to spend time with me.

Lore’s name is so difficult for me to pronounce. I won’t even try to explain it to you. But I’m determined. It’s been three days and I’m getting a little better. I know at home I feel the same way – people, such as “Johanna” (Yo-haw’-na), deserve to have their name pronounced correctly. It’s a huge part of who they are.

Lore invited me to go walking with her and her horse Jackson this morning. She’s 16 and a most kind human being. We set off on the main road and then narrow country lanes and then muddy paths through fields. All three of us were having a grand time. Lore absolutely loves horses and Jackson is the prime example. She can see herself owning a riding stable someday, and both massaging and shoeing her four-legged friends. I just know she’ll do it.

We came upon a fellow named Didier on a country road and stopped to chat. What a great smiling guy, and he knew English so I could fully participate. He and Lore talked some in Flemish and I was happy to stand back and listen to the cadence of the language.

Further on, we stopped at the home of one of Lore’s friends. The girl was still sleeping but no worries – her mom came bouncing out of the house to say hello. She only spoke Flemish but I thanked her with my English for the yummy cookies she had made for me and the rest of the crew. What she understood was my eyes.

Our third stop was at Lore’s old elementary school. Young kids were out for recess and crowded the fence to get close to Jackson. All those bright eyes. The Canadian couldn’t compete with the horse, and that was fine.

Lore, Jackson and I talked so easily together. It didn’t matter at all that our ages were 16, 3 and 69. We were simpatico.

***

This afternoon, Lydia, Lore and I took the train to Ghent, to be joined later by Jo and Baziel for dinner. The trip was a flow of green fields and red slate grooves, but then there was our arrival! Ancient murals adorned the walls of the train station, and as we exited the building a panorama of classic European architecture sank into me. I stopped and stared, again and again. Canals and bridges welcomed us here and there … and everywhere.

Happy people rode by on their bikes (with nary a helmet to be seen!) Couples strolled arm in arm. Little kids zoomed between the tall folks. Trams flowed along. Sirens occasionally wailed, and had me realize that I’d never heard this authentic European sound except in movies.

There’s an energy in Ghent that’s palpable, fueled in part, I believe, by the large university population … it seems to be simple happiness. And I fell into it almost immediately.

I sang O Canada twice today – once to the two hostesses in a jewelry shop and once to Baziel as our family (!) meandered through the curvy streets after dark. The lights of Christmas animated the old buildings, casting shadows over the brick. “C’est magique!”

I am loved in Belmont. I do believe I am loved in Belgium. And I give it right back in both places. Salut, mes amis!