A Life

As a teacher for many years, as a school volunteer, and simply as a human being, I’ve often asked myself if my life has made a difference.  Long ago, I wasn’t sure.  Now, I am.  I’ve touched many lives in all these decades and I smile when people’s names come back.  It’s true that I rarely get any hard evidence that I made a contribution, hardly anyone returning from a far off time to say thank you, but still I know.

Tonight I watched the film It’s A Wonderful Life.  George Bailey takes over the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in Bedford Falls after his father dies, even though he yearns for a life of adventure.  His brother Harry is the one having the thrills and spills as a fighter pilot in World War II.  After the evil and powerful Mr. Potter steals money from the Building and Loan, George faces foreclosure and possibly prison.  He looks down into the winter waters of the local river, and moves towards jumping off the bridge.

Enter Clarence, George’s guardian angel.  Clarence decides to show George what would have happened if he had not been born:

1.  George wouldn’t have been there to save his 9-year-old brother who slipped through the ice.  So Harry wouldn’t have been there to shoot down the enemy plane that was about to bomb an Allied ship full of seamen.

2.  George wouldn’t have been there for Mary to fall in love with.  So she finished her days as an old maid librarian.

3.  Mr. Martini was refused a business-saving loan by Mr. Potter, money that George would have lent.  Instead of the flourishing Martini’s Bar – a centre of community relationship – there was Nick’s, where if you pissed off the owner, a bouncer would throw you into the street.

4.  As a young boy working in the pharmacy, George noticed that the pharmacist had made a prescription mistake, inadvertently putting poison into pills meant for a little kid.  But George wasn’t there.  The boy died and the pharmacist spent years in prison, returning to Bedford Falls as a skid row drunk.

5.  Uncle Billy was supported emotionally and financially by his nephew George.  But George wasn’t there, and the woes of the Bailey Building and Loan led Billy to an insane asylum.

6.  And Bedford Falls?  No, it was Potterville.  Mr. Potter owned virtually everything, and gouged his renters and borrowers.

***

At the end of the movie, grateful citizens came to George with cash to keep the Building and Loan afloat.  They hugged him with smiles as wide as the ocean.  And they sang:

We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet
For Auld Lang Syne

I’m smiling now
I’ve offered a cup or two of kindness in my days
Ours is a wonderful life

A Poem

Two voices are having a conversation in my head …

Why don’t you write a poem today?

Huh?

You know, a poem – it’s like sentences but they flow better.

My dear friend, I’ve written one poem in my life and that was way back in the 1980’s.

That was then … this is now. Go for it!

I don’t know how to write a poem. Sounds like such a pain to make things rhyme.

It doesn’t have to rhyme. Besides, I don’t often hear the words “I don’t know how” coming from you.

Well, I guess you’re right about that. But I can’t think of anything to write about.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like a lot of your evenings at the laptop.

Hmm. I suppose. But poems take a lot of time. As I remember, that one in the 80’s sure did.

Look, it’s 5:58. Why don’t you just dive in until 7:00 at the latest? Make it a stream of consciousness thing.

Nobody will understand that. I probably won’t understand it.

Who cares? Just do the darned thing. After you press “Publish” you’ll be able to say that you’ve written two poems!

You’re not going to give up, are you?

Hell, no! This is too much fun.

(Sigh)

Now it’s 6:03. Surely you realize that at 7:00 your carriage is going to turn back into a pumpkin.

Huh?

Cinderella, dear one. Now get going. Literary wonders await.

Right ∴ ∴ ∴ ∴ ∴ Okay … here goes:

***

Wandering through the world in this night of silence
Sensing the fairies beyond my window
I reach for the solid and simply find mist
I reach for the beloved and the smile comes by

Onward through the canyons
Onward across the sky
Beckoned by the spirit
Not knowing why … or who

There’s no direction to the flow of my life
Or is is it just no destination?
For the flow underground and all around is infinitely real
And the singing bowl sings out its song

The red within and the red without
Screams its joy in the moment
Blending now with the pinks of the world
Since white demands to be heard

What’s under the table?
What’s over the end of the world as I see it?
What’s the reason that these words appear?
Will they vanish as I fall away to dust?

I stand tall in the evening, not seeing the way
And not needing to see some direction
There is simply walking in the world and feeling the breeze
On the path that merges with the wood

A finger to the wind
A glance at the night sky
A sweet nod to life
And a smile that creases my face

***

Voilà!

A Picture Speaks Two Words

A traditional Taoist story:

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Who knows what is good and what is bad?” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Who knows what is good and what is bad?” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Who knows what is good and what is bad?” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Who knows what is good and what is bad?” said the farmer.

Two Questions

I like questions.  The really good ones are far more interesting than quick answers.  Watching the science of coronavirus unfold, I’m fascinated as I see intelligent public health officials leaning towards “I don’t know” on the knowing/not knowing spectrum.  Some things are mysterious.

I like the question “Who am I?”  I’ve felt into it for decades, knowing that cool answers are far beyond the realms of occupation, gender, age, physical appearance and even personality.  How about that?  A question whose answer remains elusive after all these years.

And sometimes I’m even more deeply lost in a question.  Two of them have enthralled me ever since I was in diapers (okay … not quite).  The first one seems very strange.  The second one infinite.

How did I get in here?

The “here” I’m talking about is this particular human body.  I seem to be inside this basket of flesh and associated structures.  I turn my head to look at something and I swear that I’m behind those eyes, searching for the next new thing.  But why?  How come I’m not inside my neighbour or the host I see on the evening news?  Did someone flick a magic switch and insert me into this body?

Could it be that I’m not really inside this fleshed-out skeleton?  I see a tree out the window.  Why am I not embedded within those branches instead of in this shape that’s sitting on the couch?  Maybe all this interior viewpointing is a mirage.  Perhaps I’m inside you when I gaze into “your” eyes.

Hmm.  I’m getting confused again.  I feel so localized inside this head and chest, but could it be that I’m … everywhere?

However, if I’m willing to accept the consensual wisdom that I’m in this body, may I ask a simple question?  Who put me in here?

***

Okay.  Enough of that.  Time for question number two:

Does the universe end?

I look around at things.  Take that tree for instance.  I’m staring at it now.  No leaves yet so the branches are in sharp relief.  The wooden parts are “tree”.  The spaces around the wooden parts – grass and sky – are “not tree”.  Same with me when I look in the mirror.  I see Bruce and the shower curtain behind.  That curtain is clearly “not Bruce”.  There’s a point where I end.

Seems clear enough.  But what about the universe?  Does it end somewhere?  If so, what’s outside of the universe?!  The question stops my mind.  It throws me into a spasm of “Where am I?  Where are we?”  Doesn’t everything have to end somewhere?  (I don’t know.)

***

Woh.  Too much thinking.  Too many explosions inside wherever I am.  Maybe I should just hunker down with a Captain America movie … and a hot chocolate.  Much simpler.

 

Being Humbled

The warning message appeared on the dashboard display: “Washer fluid low”. No problem. Even though my car Ruby is new to me, I’d been down this road many times before. Once I get to school, I’ll whip out the jug of fluid and get that sign out of my space.

How many vehicles have I had in my life? I bet fifteen. Fifteen hoods to raise, fifteen reservoirs of washer fluid to locate, fifty years of driving.

There’ll be a button or lever low on the dash to get the hood open. And there it is, with its little car diagram. Flick! Open with a click. (Gosh … I just have so much life experience!)

I walk to the front of Ruby and feel for the lever that will raise the hood. It’ll be a small thing right in the middle. I’ll get my finger underneath it and push up.

I groped along the gap between hood and body. Nothing. A second sweep produced the same result. Being a mature, adaptable type of human, I anticipated that the magic lever was probably way to the right or way to the left – unusual, but my history of rich life experiences would see me through.

Nothing again … and again I say nothing.

No, Bruce. You don’t need to consult the manual. Your mature intelligence will solve the problem.

Two minutes later I’m on page 502, viewing a diagram that indicates a lever smack dab in the middle of the hood edge. What? This dumb Honda manual is lying!

I felt and felt and felt. There’s no ******* lever anywhere!

I took a break, leaning against Ruby’s driver door while the school buses spilled out their young contents. I was hoping that no kid would approach while I was wallowing in ineptitude. Thank goodness for small miracles.

Back to the redness of Ruby’s hood. Back to the gap. Fingers in slow motion left to right … and then right to left. (Sigh)

And then, something tiny nudged my hand. I lifted up. The gap did not expand. Without thought, I moved my fingers to the right.

Release … letting go … opening.

For fifty years I’ve done it one way. Today Honda had a different idea. There is much to learn in this life.

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

Kenosis

I’ve been strange lately.  There’s some peaceful crumbling going on, a sense of skin cells falling off.  I don’t see any danger but there’s huge mystery.  “What’s happening to me?  Where am I?”  Sometimes I seem to be enshrouded in a fog.  I reach into it and grope around for familiar shapes, often finding none.  At times I feel in free fall, but with no worry about the landing.  Or that I’m rubbing up against something unknown, something so very soft.

I suppose this sounds pathological but I trust that it’s not.  There’s often a great feeling of space around me.  At those times, there aren’t any landmarks that I recognize but somehow I feel at home.  The solidness of “who Bruce is” is fading … expanding … and fading again.

Within my waveriness, there are sometimes losses of memory.  I sat down on my yoga mat this morning, ready to do the exercises I’ve done for months.  There are eleven of them, and for five minutes at least I couldn’t remember the first one.  Yes, there was a little blip of fear but it was soon replaced in the unknowing by a little smile.  Not remembering was not a problem.

For the last few days, I haven’t felt like writing a blog post, and so I haven’t … feeling at ease around the silence on the screen.  A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated my 1000th post on WordPress but now the number seems meaningless.  There will be writing when writing feels like emerging.

A woman I know and trust told me recently that I’m going through kenosis.  Tonight I looked up a conversation on the internet on that very topic between Patricia Albere and Debbie delaCuesta.  I made some notes and here they are.  Some of them shine a light on my recent days, in which the experiences are so different from my past ones, and yet magically not problems.

Kenosis is self-emptying.  The ways in which I’ve identified myself are merely constructs, things I’ve believed in, and they don’t define who I am.

Releasing the attachment to who you thought you were  CF.  “I’ll die if I’m not somebody”

You feel like you’re being erased and you can’t find a sense of identity

Uncharted, uncertain, ever-changing

Who I am is this kind, compassionate person [or maybe I’m far more vast than that]

Being less attached to the higher … spiritual experiences come and go

Too solid, too much of a something

Achievement and growth lose meaning

Letting things melt away

I get taken into things where I have no idea what’s going on

When people are in transition, it may be transformation and not pathology

Releasing attachment to the self that we’ve earnestly built

Oh, I’m not any of those things?  There’s something deeper and vaster that has nothing to do with any of what I’ve done, any way I’ve shined up my personality?

***

I wonder if most of you are sitting there saying “What gobbledygook!  This guy’s crazy.  Being a better me is what’s important.”  If so, fair enough.  But there’s something happening here.

 

 

Day Five: Victoria

This was our first day of riding and I was nervous. Would everyone disappear past the horizon? Happily, I found out that our leader Bud had recruited a cyclist friend to “sweep” – hang out at the back and make sure the slow riders weren’t left alone. That would be me.

It soon became obvious that my bicycle skills weren’t up to snuff. I had trained on country roads, and twisty bike paths, wooden bridges and folks zipping close by in the other direction wasn’t part of my preparation.

I was indeed the slowest but Len stayed with me. Thank you, sir.

I should have taken a CanBike course to teach me the subtleties of movement but I didn’t. Being slow with Len bugged me a bit but not bad. Then there was a time we were veering left onto a side street. The pavement sloped away from me and I zoomed into someone’s driveway. (Sigh)

My cycling shoes have metal cleats on the bottom that clip into the pedals. All day long I struggled to attach the two, feeling so embarrassed that I hadn’t mastered this basic skill. Sometimes, in trying to get going from an intersection, I would hook my cycling shorts on my saddle and go nowhere.

The pièce de résistance splatted my way when I tried to climb onto a sidewalk using the cutout section. I should have aimed to the right of a pole on the sidewalk but instead chose the left, smashing into the curb, bending my handlebar and propelling myself (somewhat gently) into a tree. After a quick kiss, I was on the ground. From across the way, I heard “Are you okay?” I muttered a “yes” but the bod said differently. I was bleeding a bit, but far more from my soul than from my arm and leg.

Our leader Bud was beside me in a flash and whipped out a bike tool to straighten my handlebar. And Len put my chain back where it belonged. Thank you, gentlemen.

I walked ta-pocketa to the ice cream shop where the others were waiting. Embarrassment and sadness flooded me. To be so naked in my deficits in front of skilled cyclists was hard. I walked away for a minute and let the sadness take me.

The last part of today’s journey included wooden bridges, which I rattled through, and a paved bike path with hordes of fast cyclists bearing down at me. You might say I freaked out, and I started crying. I know I’m a good person but the despair was intense.

Finally we arrived at our destination – a hostel in Victoria. The male cyclists had a room with lots of bunk beds. I stood there in a stupour and realized that all of the bottom berths had been taken. The pain of the world fell on my shoulders. Cardio was fine, legs were a bit sore and the soul was shattered. There was no hope for me. I was lost.

Then Tony spoke up. “I think Bruce deserves a bottom bunk.” And he switched his stuff to the top. “Thank you, Tony.” I walked away into a sheltered alcove and started crying anew. Such kindness. And Tony was one of several folks who showed that to me today. Thank you all.

Each of us needs each of us

Scared

Last week my doctor phoned to tell me that my recent ECG had some “irregularities”.  Gulp.  She prescribed an echo cardiogram (happening tomorrow) and a stress test – on a treadmill, I suppose.

For the last few months I’ve been training hard, in preparation for this summer’s bicycle ride across Canada.  The medical news sent fear coursing through me.  I asked myself what’s true.  Well, all this work on the elliptical has certainly increased my endurance.  My performance on the beast has gone up at least 10% since I started working out in earnest in December.  So how could my heart be weak?  No way.

Have I gone at it too hard, sometimes to the tune of several hours a day?  Maybe.  The organizers of the Tour du Canada told us riders that we need to accumulate 2000 kilometres on the bike from January 1 till mid-June.  I’ve figured out an elliptical equivalent for cycling, based on calories burned.  As of today, I have 1980 kilometres in the bag.

So I worried a bit and watched my mind a lot.  My meditation has sure helped me on that score.  How easy it is to create a doomsday scenario, I laughed (Friday).  You’re fine, Bruce.

Yesterday morning I was on the elliptical for two hours, and I felt more tired than I’d expected to be.  No big deal.  This morning, however, I scheduled one hour, and the result was all-consuming.  I was exhausted after 45 minutes and dragged myself to the finish line.  Then I sat down in the locker room, surrounded by “What’s happening?”

Could I really have a problem?

Is it just that I haven’t had enough rest days?

How would I cope emotionally if Julie told me I shouldn’t go on the ride?  Would I abide by her doctorial request?

And so I sit, bathing in uncertainty.  Stewing in fear.  Letting it all fall out of me.

Just now … a small smile.  I’m bigger than this issue, more expansive than the events of my day, not tethered to the earth.  I will cross the bridges that come my way.

Thoughts for a Sunday Afternoon

Here are some musings from Patricia Albere, and a person whose name I can’t remember … and me:

“The yonder shore that is calling us”

When I was a teenager, I loved hearing Tennessee Ernie Ford sing gospel music. My favourite song of his was “Drifting Too Far From The Shore”. Mostly I was in love with his deep bass voice but part of me needed Jesus to keep me safe.

Why meet a terrible fate?
Mercies abundantly wait
Turn back before it’s too late
You’re drifting too far from shore

Nowadays it feels like I’ve set out across the waters of spiritual life. The way is often foggy but I trust that there’s a new shore awaitin’ – some unknown land that is beckoning me. Not “heaven” per se but something in the moment that’s beyond time and space. Something full of life.

“A wholehearted expression of fully being “met” in all dimensions of love – from simple, sweet human tenderness to sacred union”

The thought keeps returning: people don’t see me. They don’t know who I am, at a deep level. I yearn for contact, connection, a meeting of the eyes. Maybe no words would be spoken, or there might be a torrent of the soul’s work. Either way, the moment is complete. No opinions, no lecturing, no posturing … just you and me.

I want one of these oh so open relationships to include sexuality – the union of our bodies as well as our spirits. But that may not come to pass. I sense that one thing is not negotiable: the merging of consciousness so that the space between us is sacred. A wholeness that transcends and includes our individuality.

“The space between us became vivid and enlivened. As I continued exploring, leaning into it more and more, it became this vortex of consciousness, which had a momentum of its own. It was very compelling and had almost a “sucking in” momentum that was changing the experience of self, my sense of self, from someone limited in my body (kind of a consciousness inhabiting a body) to, in this case, two bodies being consumed by a vortex of consciousness. Being two was secondary to the incredible oneness of consciousness that consumed us.”

What if this vortex, this cycling of energy, was my common state of being? I’d be swept up in one long “oooohhhh” experience and I’d be sharing that with another human being. Astonishing.

“A stance of receptive surrender”

Such a tricky word. It’s not a giving up. It’s a letting go. Beyond the mind and beyond my feelings. But letting go into what? Perhaps that’s the idea. I let go into an unknown. Despite having “studied” spirituality for decades, I know not. Something brand new may be resting behind my eyes. I need to wait and see what approaches me, and to have it be okay that the depth of another person will come calling. May the energies reaching out to me be a revelation.

“What we see on the surface, and much of what we have been told is true, is a very shallow view of what exists.”

Oh my. Many folks have lent me their opinions about what is true. And most of my day features surface interactions. Still, what’s possible? Right now, I’m sitting beside a fellow in a concert hall, waiting for the music. His response to my hello was lukewarm at best. So again, what’s possible? Think I’ll say hi again.

***

Well, well, well. I drew him in. We talked about how we both love sitting in the front row, in the middle. And as for the guy on the other side, I offered to sing him “a little number”. He said yes. So I sang “Three”, which as we all know is a little number. Contact times two.

“Once they taste the mystical realm, their hearts are blown open and the flow of divine love overtakes them, and they cannot return to anything less.”

I’ve glimpsed divine realms, momentarily. I know they exist. And indeed I can’t settle for a longterm flow of anything less, even though I regularly encounter folks who want to stay on the surface of things. To be blown open, to be undone, unravelled, is a terrifying and sublime blessing.

“The first quality of mystical experiences is that they defy ordinary description or explanation. Those of us who have them find ourselves at a loss to effectively share them with others.”

But still I write, even though I fear I will be perceived as deficient and weird. I remember once I had no words for a woman so all we did was hug, for at least two minutes. It wasn’t sexual. It was communal. Afterwards all we could say to each other was “That was nice.”

“In Mutual Awakening practice, we do not speak about our experience; we give our experience a voice. We are not looking at our experience and describing it. We are allowing that experience to take us over and speak through us so that even we are amazed at what comes out of our mouths.”

Ha! Am I wide enough to just open my mouth and allow what comes out? I think so … when I’m talking to a beloved. And maybe, just maybe, there are a lot of beloveds out there waiting for me to sing them a little number.