Fading Into The Past

So here we are, thirty minutes from Game Seven in the hockey playoff between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens … and I don’t care.  How can this be?

I grew up in Toronto.  I convinced my parents to let me listen to the first period of Leafs’ games while having my obligatory Saturday night bath.  Back then only the second and third periods were televised.  I attended four Stanley Cup parades (celebrating the league champions) and watched the players raise the Cup on the steps of Toronto’s City Hall.  1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967.  I was there.

A few years ago, I was excited by the dynamic play of a 19-year-old Leafs player – Mitch Marner – and dreamt of a fifth parade.  I followed the rises and falls of the Leafs’ season.  Once more, they didn’t win a playoff series.  The last was in 2004.  Tonight may change things.

And I don’t care.  Why has hockey faded from my life?  Is it the reality of Covid, where hockey games are played in mammoth arenas with no fans?  Is it because my sporting passion has travelled to tennis?  I don’t know.

Right now, “O Canada” is being sung by Martina Ortiz-Luis.  She has a lovely voice.  For the first time in a year, there are fans in Scotiabank Arena.  Alas, just 600 of them.

Now the game has started.  The blue-and-white are rushing up the ice, pressing the red-and-white.  I’m trying to decide if the crowd noise is real or recorded.  Can a few hundred people make that much noise?

I’m watching.  The skating up and down the ice is pretty continuous – very few referee whistles to stop the play.  But no thrill is rising in me.  The players skate really fast … but I’m not enthralled.  Now here’s William Nylander dancing through the offensive zone, evading opponent after opponent.  That’s nice.

How strange this is.  Where did my love of the Leafs go?  Is it a bad thing?  Would I be a disappointment to all true Canadians?  Should I “gird my lions” and start cheering?

No.  On this potentially historic night in Toronto hockey history, I’m switching the TV to tennis.  Without a touch of embarrassment or deficiency.  I hope to see Roger Federer being his classic self.  I hope you understand.

The Cello

In my work with the Evolutionary Collective, I use the timer on my phone a lot.  When we’re done a practice, here comes the sweet melody of a cello, soaring in the air.  Samsung says it’s called “Schumann Fantasy”.  It brings me back.

I played cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13.  How I was picked at age 11 for semi-private, after school lessons was beyond me.  Our teacher was Mr. Sturm.  He played cello in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!  I felt so important.  Each Friday after school, four of us were passengers in Mr. Sturm’s car as we headed downtown to some rehearsal space.  I remember gawking out the back window, making faces at the driver behind.

Over the years, I came to love my instrument (which really wasn’t mine).  I loved the whole idea of “orchestra”, which I discovered in Grade 9 on entering high school.  At Lawrence Park Collegiate, there were about 80 of us string, brass and woodwind players recreating symphonies from Mozart and Dvorak.  I had tried out for the football team, and flopped.  Playing in the orchestra gave me the family feeling I wanted.  I was often in awe as I gazed at all those musicians giving their all during a piece, while I diligently played my part.

In Grade 11, I was selected to be a member of Toronto’s All-City Orchestra, composed of the best players from local high schools.  I still remember our concert on Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s shining New City Hall.  I was near the front of the cellos and watched the wavering path of Sir Ernest MacMillan as he walked to the podium.  At age 72, he led us in a rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory”, a stirring melody accompanied by rich harmonies.  He died eight years later.

Summer, 1967.  In the fall, I would be heading to the University of Toronto.  There was the question of whether to audition for U of T’s orchestra.  My response to this possibility still saddens me:

I’m not good enough

Just like that, my cello life ended.

Over the decades, I’ve thought of resurrecting my playing.  The cello has deep, rich tones.  In the hands of a virtuoso, such as Yo Yo Ma, it sings.  Just listen to him play The Swan.  I, Bruce Kerr, could make beautiful music again.  Nowhere near professional, but nearby London has a community orchestra which no doubt will return after Covid is done.

I feel the spark.  I feel my youth.  I feel the camaraderie of the Lawrence Park Orchestra.  Still, I think the answer is “no”.  I am plowing new fields.  I’m hearing the melodies of the human spirit, and playing in that collective.  What was important to that teenaged musician was to express beauty with my fingers and bow.  What’s important to this gently aging fellow is to do the same with my eyes and heart.

Play on …

 

I Am Like Fire, And I Will Burn

I exploded today. And I didn’t hurt myself or anyone else. I was on an Evolutionary Collective Zoom call, doing the Mutual Awakening Practice with a woman. When it was my turn to talk, I felt this surge blasting up through me and out into the world. A cannon was launching me into the stratosphere, out into the starry blackness of space.

The power was intense. I knew I could leap across the Grand Canyon. I could love every being on our dear planet. I could fly.

My partner laughed a lot as I was bubbling away. She didn’t know that I didn’t know anything. There was no reasoned progression of life, no marginal improvement of circumstances. There was just … BAM! If my shirt had buttons, they would have burst.

Hours later, I still felt the residue of this brilliant light. I went in search of a poem that could capture some of the communion, the passing right through things, and the awe of what I experienced. Happily, I found Marisa Donnelly:

I am like fire. I am wild and emblazoned with color
every step, every sound billowing up around me
When I speak, the words leave my lips
already sizzling. When I stand, the ground shakes
beneath me, both fearful and proud of my feet

I am like fire. My hands spark energy. One touch
and the world around me comes alive
When my fingertips graze over skin
goosebumps appear. When I hold a hand in mine
I share silent stories. I create warmth
with a single kiss

I am like fire. Like light. Everything I embrace grows hot
grows bold, grows brighter. I bring passion
into places where there is none. I turn flickers
into flames. There is a fierceness in my fingers, love
in my lungs that I breathe out with tenacity, with purpose

I am like fire. Something you long to touch, to experience
but are in constant awe of the way I move and grow and become
Something you must only admire from a distance as I rise

I am like fire. I can destroy or save, ignite
or keep a body breathing when the temperature falls too low
I choose not to set the things I touch into chaos
I choose to heat, to calm

I am like fire. And I burn for the things I love
for the strength I feel in my chest, for the beauty I see so wild
and alive all around me. I will burn for places, for passion.
For memories that have been and will come
I will burn, bringing light into darkness
An energy that cannot, will not be extinguished

What’s Alive?

Last Monday I had minor surgery on my right hand.  For the first few days, the pain meant that no WordPress posts were forthcoming.  Since then, my dear hand has been feeling better and better, and here I am tapping away on my laptop.

My digital journey has been fascinating, from the strange sensation of cords being cut under local anaesthetic, to the freezing coming out, to trying to shave.  But sitting here right now, the story isn’t alive.  It isn’t juicy in my soul.  It feels like old news.  Oh, I could scribe about the last week with some level of proficiency but the writing wouldn’t bounce along, since I’m not living it now.  Sometimes on WordPress I’ve told you about events that happened before but they were also bubbling up in me as I sat down with my computer.  Not so for my recent hand adventures.

My last post was called “Hair Loss”.  It was accompanied by a shaggy photo of me, courtesy of Covid closing my hair salon.  I ended the piece looking forward to Amazon delivering a hair trimming kit.  There would have been much to tell here as well.  Trying (for a long time!) to remove the blade from the trimmer in anticipation of future cleaning, the same lengthy process of reattaching the blade, watching several YouTube videos about men cutting their own long hair, the first attempt at cutting, and today’s tweaking.  All of that was there … and I just don’t want to write about it.  The story isn’t singing to me.

What is alive to wanting to write again after an absence of nine days.  Right now, I’m being pulled forward to having my thoughts show up on screens.  I want my words to reach people, and to touch at least a few of them.  I want contact.

Will tomorrow offer me a topic that I can throw myself into?  I think so, without at the moment having an idea of what that topic will be.  The past has shown me that when my heart is revving, my fingers will find the keys.

Oh … and here’s a photo of the new me.

Forza!

I was watching a tennis match from the French open today. Martina Trevisan from Italy was battling Kiki Bertens from the Netherlands. At one point, just after Martina won an important point, she clenched her fist, bugged out her eyes and yelled “Forza!”

My mouth dropped. I stared at her. The power of the moment was immense. It surged through me via the TV screen. I tried to remember what the word meant. Maybe I should have just focused on the exclamation point in her voice. Google soon enough let me know the emotional English translation: “Come on! You can do it.” Force, strength, power.

I’ve spent years meditating, where the words (when I’m not in silence) are soft. The fingers are open, rather than balled into a fist. I’ve said to myself “That’s the energy I want to project – serene, compassionate, loving.” There is great beauty in that energy but today I also saw beauty in Martina’s passion.

We are so big, we human beings. As Walt Whitman said, “I am inconsistent. I contain multitudes.” What if I’m willing to give the world all of me, covering the world at times in a torrent of water, at others in simply a trickle. Today showed me that they both have their place.

Forza!

Peace be with you

Soaring

It’s an evening concert at Koerner Hall in Toronto, a few hours after sleeping was the order of the day. In a preview of coming attractions, a string quartet of young adults has just performed six feet in front of me. I’m in seat A12 … dead centre.

The cellist was an Oriental woman. Her fingers flew and her face glowed. I wafted back to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I loved the faces there, in sculpture or paint, and I know one of my photos from that visit will be the woman who just sat before me. Give me a minute and I’ll find her.

No, the woman on the canvas is not Oriental, but the shining is the same. The cellist was a goddess. Her fingers flowed and her bow pressed hard on the bending strings. Her male fellows blended and surged as violinists and violist. I was smashed in the face by the music flooding towards me. And I returned the favour, bursting upon the musicians with my awe and with my love.

Her name is Zuri Wells and her instrument is the marimba, which I thought was something like a guitar. Wrong! It’s a huge wooden xylophone, with about fifty wooden bars … varnished 1×2’s. Sometimes she held two mallets, sometimes four or six. The instrument loomed over me. All that was humanly visible was Zuri’s face. Her eyes widened and then closed as the melody and harmonies broke from her hands. The passages were alternately sweet and raucous. Her face twisted in response to the accompanying orchestra. Often there was a tiny grin on her lips as she fell into the music. And right near the end, she exploded in a smile from ear to ear.

We stood. We applauded for three minutes. Zuri bowed and beamed.

Then it was time for everybody. The Royal Conservatory Orchestra played Beethoven’s 7th Symphony for we the audience. Flurries of bow. Soaring notes of all types, coming from all sides of the stage. Vibrating bodies, sometimes swaying and sometime pouncing.

The Concertmistress (the lead first violin) often made eye contact with her counterpart in the second violins, the two women nodding ever so slightly as they timed their entries into the fray. The first player often smiled as the music took flight. So did many others. Sitting in the front row, it felt like orgasm after orgasm flying off the stage. Whew. It was immense.

Quite the contrast to lying in bed, reflecting on my eyes slowly closing. I’d say both are needed in the round of life.

Day Twenty-Eight: Football in Passy

Training on Saturday, the day before the big game

Soucouta supporters letting loose

The match before Mamadou’s Soucouta team took the field

***

In this part of the world, “football” means soccer. It’s a universal game, with many decades of heroic exploits. Yesterday, I got to experience the passion that Senegalese folks have for their team.

Youssoupha and Mariama invited me to go with them to Passy, a town thirty kilometres away, to see our friend Mamadou play for the Soucouta team. We’d travel by bus. I’d likely be the only white person at the game. Of course I said yes. A new adventure.

The teens promised to take me only if I “behaved”. No going off on my own. Passy was a town where my safety wasn’t guaranteed. I agreed to be good, to follow their instructions.

As we walked to the bus, Mariama asked for my phone, and promptly put it into her fanny pack. I figured it was a test … guess I passed.

The bus was absolutely crammed with human beings, drums and cool hats. Soucouta would rule!

Each row had two seats on the left and two on the right. After the back filled up, a middle seat was flipped down for a fifth person, blocking the aisle. As we rolled from Soucouta to Passy, the din filled the air. So many loud conversations coming from everywhere. It was the noisiest trip I’ve ever had.

At the stadium, Mariama lined up for tickets. I took in all the words flying around, very few of which I understood. The world was hot and dry.

We climbed the steps of the bleachers with Mariama and Youssoupha pressing close. Eyes turned as we took our seats. Another game was in progress and the fans were rip roarin’ into it. The skills on the field were amazing … subtle touches, long passes, dust rising with every dribble of the ball. I was in awe, and I was so close to prime football.

Our drummers started their frantic beat as soon as the first game was done. Our cheerers cheered. Some danced. The frenzy was building. The drumming hardly ever slowed. The girl in front of me, wearing a red shawl, rocked and rolled.

And here comes Mamadou and his friends, decked out in powder blue. They dance in formation to warm up, as did their opponents at the other end of the field. We had our end of the bleachers and supporters of the other team had theirs.

In the game, we roared with great Soucouta passes and defensive gems. The energy on the field and in the stands was sky high. Back and forth, lifting our spirits and then crushing them, moment by moment. The whistle sounded and the first half ended 0-0.

Youssoupha and I went down onto the field at halftime. We greeted Mamadou and kicked around a ball with him and some of his teammates. My skills didn’t really show up, but who cares?

The second half blasted into more fevered play. The other team was controlling most of the action. They had a penalty shot deep in our zone, and their players rushed the net. There was a save and a rebound and … an opponent lofted the ball into the net. Goal!

Suddenly the sidelines broke through onto the field. A hundred fans rushed the prancing goal scorer. The other end of the bleachers was full of bouncing humans. Powder blue players lowered their heads.

The sides played on. At one point, I saw someone on the other team start fighting with a teammate. Huh? Fans invaded the field once more. Everyone was running every which way. What was happening?

I looked around and saw spectators clambering down the steps of the bleachers. Mariama was reaching for my hand. On the field, Soucouta supporters faced off with those of the other team. They were throwing rocks at each other! My God, I was watching a riot.

People were running for the exit. Mariama was moving me briskly to the safety of the bus. We scurried inside, with seemingly half the population of Soucouta piling in on top of us.

Soon we were zooming down the twilight highway back home. The referees had called the game because of fighting. It will have to be replayed to determine the semifinalists for the national championship.

This was all new to me. It was so alive, so passionate, so eye-opening. Life is certainly bigger than my history has imagined.

Cellists

Well … here I am. After three hours stuck in 401 traffic on the way to Toronto, I’m sitting dead centre in the front row of Koerner Hall, waiting for the appearance of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. The musicians are all enrolled in the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory. They’re on their way to professional careers.

Oops. Here they come, all decked out in black dresses and suits.

***

And now it’s intermission. The cello soloist plunked himself down about ten feet from me. He proceeded to throw his music into the hall, with a flourish of intense bow strokes, incredibly fast runs, and then the softest of tones misting down on us. I watched his fingernails shine as the notes climbed the fingerboard. His face contracted and released. His eyes rose to the heavens, dropped to his instrument and then closed. Sweat poured on his brow. His body swayed left and right.

We the audience were entranced. We stood at the end.

I remembered a young Bruce, the one who played the cello from Grade 6 till Grade 13. In my better moments, I had the same passion as tonight’s artist, but with far less skill. I loved being in the high school orchestra. It was the only “team” I ever played for, and we loved streaming through some classic symphonies together.

My body also swayed. My eyes also closed. At that age, I didn’t know much about making love, but that’s what I was doing with my cello. We soared.

I let go of being a cellist after high school. I was good enough to continue into university but I didn’t know that. Now it’s 52 years later. A wee bit of me dreams of playing again but really I don’t want to. I’ve passed through other chapters and today is a fresh adventure. Still I was with the young man tonight as he both caressed and attacked the strings. Well done, both of us.

Love in the Front Row

Tonight I get to experience the Royal Conservatory Orchestra from the middle of the front row. I’m jumping inside. What’s possible?

Will there be the joy of creation shared between the players? Will the word “orchestra” explode into a heart-stopping epiphany of union – all these parts blossoming into an unfathomable whole?

I’m feeling a fierceness inside that flies so beyond any worries about how you’ll respond to the language of those two questions. It truly doesn’t matter. I am open to an outrageous evening … part of which is what I’ll bring to the front row seat and the musicians nearby. For we the audience flow out to the violinists, cellists, trumpeters and flutists. They aren’t inert lumps of virtuoso mud. Our energy touches them. So how about ecstasy for all tonight?

***

I just walked into the foyer of Koerner Hall, seeking a spot where I could take off my walking boots and put on my dress shoes. Ah ha. There’s a bench with lots of people and a space for me! I sit down and smile at the woman to my right. I’m not sure what her face did in reply. After a minute of me fiddling with laces, she says “Are you here for a rush seat?” > “No, I have my ticket.” > “You’re awfully early for the concert.” > “Well, a few music students are doing a pre-concert at 6:45” …

And then it hit me. I’d plunked myself down in a lineup for rush seats. I laughed and laughed. The woman smiled (a really genuine one).

***

Speaking of the pre-concert, it just ended. My chosen spot is dwarfed by the Steinway grand looming above. I get to be under a piano! A young oriental woman walks onstage and bows. Once she’s settled on the piano chair, all I see is her lower body. Fingers to keys … and the notes vibrate in a way that’s absolutely new. The tender passages seem to waft out from the underside of the instrument and make their way into my pores. My heart is nearby. And when she plays frantically, her right foot smashes onto the pedal, her thighs bounce and her bum elevates at regular intervals. Once in awhile, the pianist arches back and I catch a glimpse of her black hair shining, but never her face. And that was just fine.

Next up is a young violinist wearing a shimmering shirt. Swaths of green and red shone like a Christmas tree. I watched his body flow and erupt, but again there was no face. It was hidden behind his music stand. I felt in the presence of Everyman.

Mr. Unknown was accompanied by a young woman who wore a long black skirt and high heels. Between were her bare feet. As she worked the pedals, I was fascinated by the pulsing bones of her right foot. So, sitting in the Underworld, I beheld sights and sounds unknown to folks occupying the 30th row.

***

Now another pianist, leading the orchestra through a piece by Tchaikovsky. She wore a gorgeous green dress and took turns caressing and then slapping the keys. During the fast stretches, I saw the muscles of her upper right arm vibrate, and her right earring flew into view. Then there was the end of the movement, with her hand held high, the fingers curling.

Linda Ruan stood, all smiles, receiving our applause. Then she turned to the musicians, and they all joyed together, the orchestra stomping its collective feet. On her way off the stage, she touched the shoulder of the very last violinist.

***

For the final number before intermission, no piano was needed. So my world widened to include actual faces – some vibrant, some meditative. The principal violist smiled a lot at her stand mate. A first violinist was the tallest blond fellow and he twisted his body every which way in his passion for the melody.

There were moments when the full orchestra swelled and the timpani player sounded the depths of his drum. The energy flooded me, and I felt mine arc back to the players, willing them on to excellence. They gave. We gave. We all received.

***

Now it’s intermission. I’m happy, ready once more to live inside the music. The time is coming for passion to reappear, and we are all the better for it. Thank you, dear players of instruments large and small; high and low; string, brass and woodwind.

Hometown Hockey

I grew up in Toronto, where hockey is king.  In the 1960’s, I went to four Stanley Cup parades, all ending on the steps of City Hall, where my heroes gave speeches and held the cup high.  The huge crowd cheered.

The official Hockey Hall of Fame is downtown on Front Street.  Each year, many thousands of fans walk by the memorabilia of the National Hockey League.  But hidden in a back alley in the Weston neighbourhood of the city is a more informal shrine, featuring all things Toronto Maple Leafs.  To find this gem, walk along Weston Road to John Street.  Turn east and watch for the sign pointing to Peter’s Barber Shop.  Pantelis Kalamaris started cutting hair just around the corner in 1961.  As an immigrant from Greece, he decided to change in name to Peter and to embrace the sport of his new country.

On Saturday morning, I reached for the sliding glass door and walked into history.  Hardly a square inch of wall space was available … the rest trumpeted the Leafs in posters, pennants, newspaper articles, pucks and hockey sticks.  I stood there transfixed.  Seeing my wonder, Peter the Younger barber smiled.  He was busy putting the finishing touches on the do of an older gentleman.  The two of them were fully engaged in the merits of the Leafs’ current star – Auston Matthews.

I sat down amid a row of blue folding seats … originals from Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s home until 1999.  As a kid, I too had occasionally sat on such seats, although we couldn’t afford the blues.

To go from waiting area to barber’s chair, you had to pass through a Gardens turnstile, again just like I had done decades ago.  The floor was covered with various hues of hair.  I asked Peter if any of that was from the Leafs’ stars of the 1960’s.  “No, but I do have some in plastic bags.”  Cool.

Here was one of Johnny Bower’s goalie sticks.  Here was a poster showing the Leafs’ 100 best players of all time, photoshopped into a team photo.  Here was a board hockey game that Peter sometimes plays with his customers.  Of course the barber always plays as the Leafs.

And here was a framed letter from Roger Neilson, a beloved coach of the Leafs and other NHL teams.  Peter the Older had invited him to come to Weston and sign the wall, alongside such luminaries as Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly.  In the letter, Roger said that his doctor wasn’t letting him travel long distances but sometime he’d get to Toronto and sign his John Henry.  But Roger died before that could happen.

It felt that my time was up at Peter’s Barber Shop.  The host and his customers were all friendly (as long as I assured them I wasn’t a fan of the hated Ottawa Senators!)  Like Roger, I vowed to return.  Hopefully unlike Roger, I will.

***

From Pantelis Kalamaris Lane, it was only a ten-minute walk to the Weston Lions Arena.  It was constructed in 1949 (just like me!) and hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs for many practices in the 50’s and 60’s.  Many of the players strolled over to the barber shop for a cut afterwards.

What I had read a few weeks ago was that the arena had the world’s best fries, and who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?  I approached a door that had a back door feel to it but it turned out to be the main entrance.  Then I was in front of the snack bar, with the ice surface beyond, full of boys skating hard and fans shouting encouragement.  I was tempted by the “Not so famous hot dogs” sign but settled for the world-renowned treat.  Pouring on the malt vinegar, I took my French fries and Diet Coke into the stands.

Spectators sat on five rows of wooden benches, some sections red and some blue.  The walls of the arena were two tone blue – robin’s egg contrasted with royal.  It was a lovely assault on the eyes.

  • The kids, maybe 12, were giving ‘er on the ice.  Some flew over the blue line.  Some fell unaided on their tushes.  Goalies stretched for the save.  Forwards dipsydoodled by defensemen, with few passes to be seen.  Coached yelled.  Fans screamed.  I ate.  Gosh, those fries are yummy!

The roof was a curve of bare beams, spotted with metal plates and inch thick cables.  The same as in 1949.  I imagined my Leafs heroes doing their drills on the ice.  Maybe some of these boys in front of me knew the history and were inspired by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich.  More likely, the names of current Leafs heroes will adorn their backs … Matthews and Marner jerseys.

So hockey has been played here on cold Saturdays for 69 years.  Oh, how a sport can seep into our souls.  Whether the seat is a barber chair or a hard bench,  we live the game.