Mesmerica

There are IMAX movie theatres, where the show is projected onto a huge dome ahead and above. Then there’s Mesmerica, which I experienced today. The six of us sat in our tilted chairs as computerized patterns of light blended with fanciful music. The creator, James Hood, wanted us to experience an altered state of consciousness … and happiness.

There were moments of transcendence. Peacock feathers vibrated above me. Giant discs of light slowly descended, morphing as they fell. It felt like God was embracing me.

On one arm of the journey, a beam of bluish light wound its way through a forest of deciduous trees, over this branch and under that one. I joined in the search, for what I don’t know. The seeking was soft and sweet.

The explosions of colour throughout the hour felt so new. Mr. Hood let his mind open, and fresh air clearly rushed through. What appeared before us just didn’t exist a year ago. What majesty to bring something unknown into being.

Beyond the openmouthedness of it all was the swirl of disorientation. The constant flow of the images brought me to a swoon. I bet I closed my eyes fifty times during the hour. I needed those respites for centering. A wee bit of me felt guilty for missing some of the display but I was happier when I was taking care of myself. The heavens were being revealed above but there was also a heaven inside to be embraced. And the patterns of light found their way through the eyelids and into my heart. All was well.

Brand New

I went to the regional track and field meet today, featuring excellent athletes from Grades 4 to 8. I loved watching the contorted faces, the blurred legs, the raised arms and the bowed heads. It was a spectacular day on the high school field and I wanted to see all the events. The high jump competition was in the gym so I went inside to watch the action. The athletes soared and my heart lifted with them. It was such a graceful movement, approaching the bar from the side and throwing themselves backwards up and over.

And I remembered. It wasn’t always this version of grace. When I was a kid, we’d face the bar and try to throw our lead leg over. And then something new happened:

Dick Fosbury took a moment to meditate as 80,000 people looked down at him from their seats in Mexico City’s Olympic stadium. The fans at the 1968 Olympic Games didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to witness not only the setting of an Olympic record, but the complete revolution of a sport.

Like most schools in the 1960s, the landing pit at Fosbury’s high school was made of wood chips and sawdust. Before his junior year, however, Fosbury’s high school became one of the first to install a foam landing pit and that gave him a crazy idea.

What if, instead of jumping the conventional way with his face toward the bar [the scissor kick], Dick Fosbury turned his body, arched his back, and went over the bar backwards while landing on his neck and shoulders?

***

How did the high jump community react to Dick’s innovation? Initially with criticism: We’ve been doing it this way for decades. How dare you turn your back on history? Dick was referred to as an “aberration”, as “the world’s laziest high jumper”, and was described as “a fish flopping in a boat”. None of that fazed him.

Consider … the Fosbury Flop, an upside-down and backward leap over a high bar, an outright—an outrageous!—perversion of acceptable methods of jumping over obstacles. An absolute departure in form and technique. It was an insult to suggest, after all these aeons, that there had been a better way to get over a barrier all along. And if there were, it ought to have come from a coach, a professor of kinesiology, a biomechanic, not an Oregon teenager of middling jumping ability. In an act of spontaneity, or maybe rebellion, he created a style unto itself.

***

So dear friends, are we up for a perversion or two, a leap into the outrageous? Are we willing to bring something new into the world, whether or not IQ tests have said we’re really smart, whether or not we have “academic credentials”, whether or not we’re young, old, male, female, outgoing, shy, black, white, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian … anything!?

Let’s do it.

The Old and the New

The Toronto subway is such a teacher. I was heading to a concert at the Royal Conservatory of Music tonight when people appeared before me. Foremost were three young adults – two women and a man. One woman especially was immaculately dressed. Her rich green sweater was adorned with a gold pendant. She took selfie after selfie of her and her friends. The smiles looked plastic to me. The other lady was majorly preoccupied with her hair. She brushed back this and twizzled that. Our modern life doesn’t require mirrors. A smartphone will get the job done nicely.

There was nothing wrong with the preening. Still, it seemed like such a symbol of “me” and the supreme importance of what you present to the world. It feels like we’ve been walking down this road for a long time.

The return trip presented me with another cultural icon – the ear buds. After entering a subway car, I sat at right angles to a fellow deeply immersed in his music. I must have been too close, for he soon moved two seats farther away. The recipe for happiness is clear: push Beethoven or Iron Maiden into your eardrums and create an island for yourself. Go away rather than go towards.

Narcissism and separation. Am I missing something here or are these lousy representations of well-being? There must be another way.

Just before the concert was to start in the Temerty Theatre, I felt the call of nature. An usher directed me down the hall, where I came upon a bathroom sporting both the male and female symbols. Was that the handicapped room? A quick scan revealed that this was the one and only washroom. Inside were five totally enclosed cubicles, and the sinks were being visited by both male and female hands.

I smiled at my companions and marvelled at how I was having a hand-washing conversation with women for the first time in my life. This was novel, fresh, simply new. We were striding into the wilderness instead of following a well-worn path. And we were having fun. Together.

I vote for breaking new ground with other human beings. Who knows what magic can happen when we climb up to the summit and gaze upon the vista revealed? Let’s find out.

Creating Something New

I wonder what’s possible.  Not just a better toothbrush or a smarter Smartphone, but something outrageously new, with a stunning possibility of contributing to human beings.  An idea, an object, a synthesis perhaps, that no one has ever created.

I wonder if this is merely my ego talking – an effort to distinguish myself from the crowd, to walk the red carpet of societal praise.  Maybe.  But there’s more.  I’m willing for my contribution to be anonymous – no standing ovation.  A willingness to lie on my deathbed with a smile on my lips, knowing that what I gave lives on.

I wonder if how I lead my daily life – the love I bring to people, the swooning within beauty, the eyes I offer – could be my unique gift.  Countless people project love into the world but the blossoming of my particular flavour could be my newness.

Guess I’m wondering a lot …

I’ve had an unfinished project for at least three decades.  I’ve amassed thousands of quotations on recipe cards, words that truly “sing” to me beyond Hallmark greetings and lists of thoughts that others have chronicled.  My vision is to create an online book, putting all these quotes into categories.  If forty writers have thought long and hard about the meaning of “peace”, and if each of their passages has sung in my heart, what’s possible when all those words are brought together?  “The whole is larger than the sum of the parts.”  Can that adage be profoundly true within my collection of quotes?  Can my bringing together of wisdom across time and space and philosophies and other ways that we compartmentalize deep knowledge … make a difference?  Yes, it can.

I suppose my system of categories isn’t really new.  After all, there are a lot of humans out there thinking about things.  But it might be.

And while I’m at it, what else looms just beyond the horizon of my vision?  Is there a brand new flavour that the world hasn’t yet savoured?  I wonder.

Blending

I’m feeling the call of health: to rid my life of alcohol, caffeine and aspartame; to regain the fitness that I lost in the months following my exit from the Tour du Canada; to let peace and love guide my actions throughout the day.  I’ve never learned to cook but I’m also feeling the virginal need to prepare simple meals.  In the spirit of moving into the mystery of meal preparation, I bought a blender.

I needed some gesture of addressing the problem, a symbol of taking action in this arena.  At this point, I wouldn’t need recipes.  I wouldn’t need to think too much, of the furrowed brow variety.  I just need to gather healthy items around me that I could mush together to create nutrition in a thick liquid.

And so I shopped, this time without my dear wife Jodiette making the executive decisions.  Here’s my list so far:

Unflavoured almond milk
Plain Greek yogurt
Lemon and coconut Activia yogurt
Almond butter
Chunks of fresh fruit, which gradually have morphed into chunks of frozen fruit
Granola
Bran buds
Bananas
Spinach
Wee little carrots
Unsalted mixed nuts

Well, that’s sort of a recipe … or several of them.  It’s a fragile road I’m walking, so new and undeveloped.  But I’m glad I’m here.  Baby steps forward to nutritional independence.  Just holding the tumbler of goodness in my hand is somehow soothing, with a soupçon of inspiration tossed in.

Blending.  Things merging.  I’ve also recently experienced that in the broad span of living.  In my better moments, there’s a sense of no hard edges between me and other people.  It feels like a painting created in pastel colours of chalk, with some unknown artist taking a white cloth and rubbing the hues together.  All this disappears in the tough times, such as last Saturday.  Then the lines were straight and bold, the distance between us immense, the loneliness like a dagger in the heart.  Perhaps I should just leave those times of separation alone, to let them breathe.  And to welcome the sweet contact of togetherness when it smiles on me.

Something is moving in me.  Something is climbing in me, even though it seems to be two steps up, one back … or sometimes the reverse.

Smoothie, anyone?

A Cook Named Bruce

Long ago, in a fantasy land called Vancouver, I invited my girlfriend over for supper.  I don’t remember the main course but dessert was special.  You’ll be happy to know that I had lovingly created a chocolate pie with a graham cracker crust.  It was cooling in the fridge.  With great aplomb, I opened the door and reached in.  As I pulled out the pie, I noticed that there were waves on the surface.  To my horror, I gazed down at Lake Chocolate.  I hadn’t got the memo that the pudding needed to be cooked.  My friend was so gracious.  She spooned up her soup with grace.

This memory has stayed vivid for close to fifty years.  All those decades have reinforced the basic concept: “I can’t cook.”  Jody was marvelous in the kitchen, creating so many yummy meals.  I was marvelous in the kitchen too, except that my office was the sink rather than the stove.

Now I’ve started with Derek, such a knowledgeable trainer at the fitness club.  He’s not only gung ho about strength and cardio … nutrition is a biggie too.  He’s lent me a book called Gourmet Nutrition.  Last Thursday, being well aware of my lack of culinary art, Derek challenged me to make a meal on the weekend, following one of the 120 recipes in the book.  “It can be the simplest thing, Bruce.  Will you do it?”

Yes.

This afternoon, I gazed over at Gourmet Nutrition.  It was sitting there on my end table, sticking its tongue out at me.  “How insensitive!” I moaned.

Two hours ago, I flipped to “Breakfast”.  And all was revealed to me on page 42: “Banana Cream Pie Oatmeal”.  Actually, I had already scoped out the recipe after Derek placed cheffing in my ear.  I went to the grocery store to locate the large flake oats and the coconut milk.  Except when I got home, I saw that my hand was full of coconut water.  Clearly I haven’t exercised cooking muscles so far in life.  But I laughed at my mistake!  And that felt good.

Now, the prep.  I felt like such a fish out of water but I surged ahead anyway.  “In a small pot, bring milk and coconut milk to a boil under medium heat.”  I can do this.  Five minutes in, the milks didn’t seem to be doing anything so I cranked it up to high.  Maybe two minutes after that – you guessed it – the white concoction breached the pot, despite the lid that I’d set at a jaunty angle.  White goo flowing over black stove.  And strange after strange, I laughed again.

“Add the oats.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until milk is absorbed (approximately 7 to 10 minutes).”  Again, nothing seemed to be happening.  Again, I cranked the knob – up to medium-high this time.  I stirred like a banshee (assuming such people stir).  Twenty minutes later, I called it quits, declaring that the milk was sort of absorbed.  So … hotter than recommended, and far longer than indicated.  Gosh, cooking is a mystery.

Eventually, I poured a mélange (that’s probably a cool cooking word) of banana, protein powder and water over my coconut-flavoured oatmeal and headed for my couch.  On the first taste, my heart soared.  The flavour was fine.  That wasn’t my joy.  Very simply, I had done it.  I had created something delicious and nutritious, using an actual stove.  Oh, what a good boy am I!

Could this be the start of something really, really big?  Time will tell.

Fresh

Take one aspect of your life where it’s been “same old, same old” for a long time.  It’s comfortable but there’s something missing.  You’re going through the motions.  Little frustrations nip at you but you don’t seem to have the energy to make a change.  That pretty much sums up my experience at the fitness club.

Jody and I started going to this gym about ten years ago.  It was fine – a reasonable variety of machines, super low cost, friendly staff.  After my dear wife died, I simply carried on, sometimes sporadically, usually without much enthusiasm.

Yesterday, a voice inside said “You’ve been sleepwalking.  Wake up.”  So … I got my gym clothes together and set off for a workout.  I considered it an experiment in paying attention.

A staff member whom I really enjoy was at the front desk.  She was all excited about a job she’d just got at a high end pub in London.  She wasn’t sure if she’d also continue working at the club.  “Really, I feel done here.”  Could that be my voice speaking?

I thought of the many staff members I know.  They’re fine people.  A few of them have been especially kind to me.  Is that enough of a reason to stay?

This visit I really looked around.  The main room was sort of … dark.  A few machines had “I’m sick” signs attached to them.  Was I creating a reality here or was the environment just plain blah?  And so what if it was?  The most important thing is what I create, rather than what the surroundings offer back to me.

I went into the locker room to change.  The soap dispenser took several seconds to deliver a dollop to my palm.  Assuming I’m a fairly mature person, that shouldn’t be a problem.  Maybe this is all mental.  Nevertheless, I kept looking.  The paper towels wouldn’t rip properly from their machine.  Cubicle doors banged hard when they closed.  Months ago, I asked the manager to buy some little fuzzy pads for the doorjambs but she never did.

After stretching, I reached my favourite elliptical machine.  I knew it was my favourite because none of the others worked perfectly well.  That’s okay.  At least I had my own personal steed.  After pressing the start button, I realized that the intensity was too high.  My first few minutes are usually a stroll in the park, but immediately it was a grind.  Soon I got into the flow pretty well, but on the cool-down, I had to struggle rather than relaxing into the end.  Hmm.  Are inanimate objects in the habit of sending coded messages to human beings?  Perhaps.

The last couple of months, I’ve been going to a sports medicine clinic for my knee.  I’m not really worried about the joint because after all I have a spare on the other side!  This clinic is located in a downtown fitness club.  Guess I’ve been sleepwalking on that journey too but today I decided to go there and ask for a tour.  I opened my eyes upon arrival.  This is a “clean, well-lighted place”.  (A quote from Ernest Hemingway).

A smiling receptionist (who earlier in the day I had sung with as I left my physio appointment) ushered me to a little table.  Right away, another smiler approached me with her hand out in greeting.  “Jessica” made gentle eye contact and clearly had no interest in some canned sales talk.  Actually she did more listening than talking.  And there was absolutely no sense of hurry about her.  I realized that she was “seeing” me, something I deeply value.  As members walked by us, my new friend greeted many of them, and clearly each was happy to see the other.  Hmm again.

As we talked, I counted many smiling conversations happening near me.  And there were a lot of folks here to exercise.  I listened to the energy in the building and it was happy.  Jessica was happy.  Gosh, I was getting happy.

At one point, I said “Okay, sign me up.”  Jessica looked over and said something like “Really?”  There was an amused and quizzical look on her face.  I had sensed into the truth of this place.  This could be home.  I didn’t need the grand tour or pricing options or a long list of benefits.  I knew.

I had my tour.  I signed on the dotted line.  I clutched my free gym bag and water bottle to my chest.  All of that was fine.  But Jessica’s care and the glowing passersby did the deed for me.

I had walked in the door at 6:55 pm.  I walked out at 9:00.  Towards the end of the evening, something that Jessica said made me wonder, and I had to ask the question “Was your shift over at 7:00?”  >  (Pause)  “Yes.”

I intend to pass all this goodness on to the people I meet here.  Naturally I want to get fitter but more than anything I want to create a new community for myself, to contribute to the members and staff every time I walk in the door.  It’s a fun thing to do.

Day Sixteen: A Market Like No Other

Lydia promised us something special yesterday morning. We would go by bus or moto to an authentic Senegalese market, in a village that rarely sees white people. Bring it on … give me the real deal.

We gathered at Lydia’s house. I sat across from Aziz in the open air, both of us in living room chairs with wooden arms. He did a bit of drumming and I repeated his rhythm. Then I started a new one, and the young fellow followed my lead. Soon we set up a frantic pace. I leaned across the coffee table to him, reaching with my arms. Our hands touched and then released. And on we went – Aziz forward and me back, Aziz back and me forward … a dance.

We were off. Some of us in a little bus and six of us on motos. I was on the back of Curd’s bike. We rolled through the streets of Toubacouta and then onto the highway. Way ahead a monkey scampered across the road, but I wanted more. I scanned left and right for the big red fellows. And I thought back almost fifty years, when I worked at a hotel in the Canadian Rockies. Deer were everywhere in the townsite and we employees loved laughing at the tourists who got all giddy when they saw one. Now I was the tourist and I wondered what my new Senegalese friends thought about the Canadian who went ga-ga over monkeys. Ha! What a good lesson.

Curd and I turned off the highway onto a sand road, which often narrowed to a strip of beach between two tracks. Lydia had told me that I needed to stay very still on the back because balance was essential. We could fall if the front tire dug deep into the sand.

I let go. I trusted the universe to care for me. I trusted Curd to be the best moto driver. It was one big exhale as we streamed through villages and across dry flats. I told myself not to look ahead, to just focus on the back of Curd’s ball cap, but I’ve never been good at following my own advice. So I watched the ruts ahead, the sidehill dips, the imaginary sand castles looming high. And the universe said “Thank you.”

In the little villages, kids would come rocketing out from behind walls made of branches or concrete blocks. They all seemed to be waving and screaming “Bonjour!” Occasionally I heard the word that sounds like “hallal”, which means money, but mostly the kids seemed to be waving just for the fun of it.

The market was completely, radically, new to me. Imagine a very narrow dirt street packed with human beings, with the women wearing outrageously colourful dresses. Donkey masters sat on top of loaded carts urging their beasts on with whips, and motioning wildly to get us out of the way. Live chickens, vegetables, jewelry, brightly coloured fabric, Islamic books, clothing – all were on offer.

I took three photos, two of a family and one of the street scene. Then Lydia came over and told me not to take pictures. The people don’t like it. So I put my phone away.

Everyone was black except us. Some responded to my “Bonjour”s with a smile and a “Ça va?” (How’s it going?) Others stared. People were jostling into me. Suddenly Yo stopped and Iced Tea was beside him in a flash. Someone had picked Jo’s pocket and his wallet was gone. Red alert zapped through our group and I moved my backpack over my chest, with cell phone and wallet inside. Iced Tea confronted the thief. The fellow dropped the wallet and ran. Nothing was missing except a few hundred heartbeats.

We slowed again as life for us in the street turned gentle once more. I went into a stall with Lydia and a few others to purchase some fabric for a tablecloth. I found an explosion of red and green circles on a blue background that shouted “Senegal!” to me. Eva coached me on being vigilant at every moment as I dipped inside the backpack for some francs CFAs. Bill out of wallet while wallet is inside backpack. Wallet stuffed back in. Bill out of backpack in a closed hand. Other hand zips up the pack. Piece of cake.

Now we were in a long line through tiny passages, ducking under hanging clothes and passing close by hanging carcasses. I hardly noticed for awhile but our friends Yusefa and Mamadou were always bringing up the rear, watching for thieves and making sure none of us got separated from the group. I told Louisa that I loved being in massive crowds. She smiled and said she felt the same.

The energy of the market was intense. All those voices crying out in languages I didn’t understand. Local folks moving fast when there was space – on foot or on donkey carts. The squeal of chickens who were tight together in large mesh bags. The tooting of moto horns. The braying of donkeys. The dust blowing over our faces. The sun doing its job. Wow! A world beyond my life, and yet I was a vital part of it all.

I rode home in the bus so that others could experience the wind on the bikes. I sat beside Yusefa. “Merci pour me protéger dans le marché.” (Thank you for protecting me in the market) He smiled. It was a fine moment of communion.

More to come …

Day Ten: Toubacouta Tour

I slept till noon and it could have been far more. The kids were lounging by the pool and there were no adults in sight. I had the thought that they were still sleeping but I found out they’d all gone over to Jo and Lydia’s house. After breakfast, they had decided to let me sleep. I got about five hours of shuteye – their total must have been two or three. And how exactly did they manage that?

I put my Speedo on (!) and sat by the pool a bit. My slow brain finally figured out that the kids needed to be with their friends – no adults please. By this time Jan, the father of another clan, had dropped by. He offered to walk me over to the house because I didn’t know where it was.

Outside of the B&B, I saw the real Toubacouta. Small cement homes, lots of folks walking, the occasional goat or chicken, dirt streets, a few stalls for selling things. Not at all what I experience on the other side of the world.

As Jan and I walked into the house, Lydia was there to greet us, dressed in a flowing African robe of many colours. We all had slept well. She had asked Iced Tea to drive me around the village on his motorbike. The smiling man was clearly happy to do so.

We visited some neighbours of his, often folks who were standing outside of a business. Everyone seemed to be happy. On one stop, we met his mother and a young woman peeling some vegetable. Instant smiles came my way. Mom-in-law especially glowed. After we set off again, me holding Iced Tea’s waist from the rear, he told me “I like you. I will do anything to have you be happy here.” And he absolutely meant it.

Iced Tea took me to see his house under construction. It was basically just a foundation. He stood in each room, proudly pointing to bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room. He held up a concrete brick as I snapped his picture, so proud of his future.

I told Iced Tea that the boy I tutor wanted to contribute to the village, and that I had decided to put the money into his home. His eyes widened and he surrounded me in a hug. Thank you never felt so good.

Later on the ride, Iced Tea stopped at a neighbour’s, and a 3-year-old girl bounced toward him. She settled in front of her dad with tiny hands on the handlebars. We were three for awhile. So sweet.

Iced Tea took me to the local hotel where several of our group were sitting at the bar, enjoying a drink. A few cheek kisses later, we were laughing. I paid for Iced Tea’s Coca -Cola when he wasn’t looking.

***

It’s now many hours later, almost midnight, and I’m writing this in bed. Out in the distance there’s the sound of drums. A soloist sings a line and then a chorus responds. It’s a goodnight that I’ve never experienced. May it come my way again, both on this trip and many times in the future.

Day Nine Some More: To Dakar and Toubacouta

We’re in the air to Dakar. I’m in the window seat beside two black fellows who don’t speak English. The guy next door is massive. He appears to have muscles on his muscles, and he’s totally wedged into his seat. I’d give him mine so he could stretch out but then I’d be wedged – into the overhead bin.

My goodness … what awaits me in Africa? I’ve seen photos of smiling kids and adults. There are a few haunting ones of small children with huge eyes peering into the camera.

I’m looking forward to meeting a fellow aftectionately called Iced Tea. He’s been a leader in the village in making sure the kids get an education. Jo and Lydia are thanking him by raising money in Belgium to build a house for him and his family. It’s under construction.

I’ve been tutoring a kid in Belmont. I asked the family to donate my fees to a charity that he thinks is important. The young man decided to split the money between a local mission that feeds people who are down-and-out, and something for the kids in Senegal. I’ve decided to contribute his funds to the building of Iced Tea’s house. I’ll have a few photos of me on the site so the student can see the impact of his generosity.

We’re here. Actually it’s hours later now but I was too exhausted to write then. At the Dakar Airport (about 1:00 am), two friends of Lydia and Jo were loading our luggage into two vans. In the space of five minutes, four Senegalese men approached me for money. I’ve often used the word “no” in my life and it got a good workout last night. Jo coached me that these folks are trying to survive, trying to take care of their families, and some of them will push to get what they want. So different from what I’m used to. And that’s fine.

My head kept dropping in the van on our four hour ride to Toubacouta but I was conscious enough to see a world so beyond my life.

The land was spotted with the silhouettes of trees that I’d seen in photos. Deciduous ones that sit wide and close to the ground. My blurry eyes joined with shadows of moonlight and I was lost in something so astonishingly new.

We passed many villages and they were full of what appeared to be mud buildings. What I couldn’t get my head around was that people were sitting together in front of their homes, or gas stations at 2:00 am, 3:00, 4:00 and even 5:00. Jo said that many of them sleep during the hottest hours of the day.

The trip was surreal. Towards 6:00 am, we reached Toubacouta. We reached our bed and breakfast. My bed. My closing eyes.