Old Yeller

I was just a kid when I sat in a dark theatre to watch the 1957 film Old Yeller. I didn’t have a dog but I could feel the love between Travis and the yellow retriever. Old Yeller was a stray who ended up saving the family from an angry mother bear, a cow, a hog and a wolf (not at the same time!) The wolf bites Old Yeller on the neck, and the beloved dog contracts rabies.

To protect the family and other folks, mom brings a rifle out to Travis and Old Yeller. Travis kills his own dog.

I would have been around ten when I saw the film. I don’t remember being devastated about the ending … but clearly many people were.

Disney Plus shows Old Yeller, and a post on the Facebook fan page has brought lots of response. My take about many of the posters is they think crying is bad, dangerous, to be avoided at all costs:

Never want to see it again because of the ending

Umm … no thank you. Once as a child was enough for a few lifetimes.

I refuse to watch it again because the ending made me cry so much.

I can’t watch this while I’m pregnant. I cry too much.

My heart is still scarred from the book. Jesus, not a chance. That movie messed me up when I first saw it when I was like 6. Never again.

We were shown it at school when I was a kid. Imagine a whole gym full of 6th and 5th grade kids and teachers crying.

I don’t wanna cry …

***

So here we are as human beings
Some of us feel so much
Some of us shut it down

Tears show weakness
Tears are a blessing
There’s no right or wrong about this
Just people in their infinite variety

Sitting … Now

The sun is long gone as I open my eyes. From my meditation chair, I see a bit of grey in the sky and the sweep of snow across the field. Soon all will be black, except for two dots of light out past Harrietsville Drive – farms to the north.

I don’t know these folks but I usually greet them at night from my bed or chair:

Hello neighbours.

At this moment the world consists of the candle on my keyboard and the shining twins near the horizon. But I know that sooner or later they’ll have company. (I’ll stop tapping until the mystery guests appear.)

(I’m still waiting.)

Ahh … another light. This one enters from the right and passes through my life so briefly, leaving me at the left edge of the window.

Hello traveller.

And now from left to right flow two lights tied together, one red and one white.

Hello traveller.

I used to call out “travellers” but I soon realized that I couldn’t see who was in those cars. Perhaps it was just a single soul. I find myself hoping that there’ll also be a passenger in the front seat … so the driver isn’t alone.

Who are the human beings who live on those farms?
Who are the human beings who float over the land on the road?
And who exactly is the fellow sitting in this chair?
We don’t know

Day One: Departure Lounge

I’m in Toronto Airport, on the cusp of a grand adventure. Forty-two days from now, I’ll set foot in Canada again. Until then, I’m an honorary Belgian, Senegalese and American. All privileges. During this trip, will I be writing you every day, lilting over the events and people, the landscapes and architecture? I hope so, because no doubt there will be much to describe, to feel into, to celebrate.

There’s a main reason I travel: to come together with people, folks whose outward lives often seem so different from mine, but whose souls resonate with this Bruce. And here they are sitting in front of me in the departure lounge:

A tall young man in dreadlocks and Adidas sweats, fiercely punching his cell phone keys

A middle-aged Jewish couple, she with a head scarf and he with what I’d call a beanie, staring out into the rainy darkness

A well-bearded fellow resplendent in long hair, shorts, argyle blue knee socks and a purple baseball cap whose logo I can’t read

A cute blond teenager, alternating between her pink-edged iPad and her phone, with a glimpse of a smile on her face

A distressed looking Aer Lingus employee dressed in a sharp black suit, him no doubt dealing with the realities of a late-arriving airplane

A young man bouncing on his father’s lap, blissfully unaware of our overnight flight to Dublin, Ireland (and perhaps, like me, venturing on in the morning to Brussels, Belgium).

All human beings, doing the best they can to live this life with grace. Me too.

On we go across the big pond …

Napoli

Lydia and me in Napoli

***

I had heard lots of negative stuff about Naples: it was dirty, smelly, and so congested with traffic that you couldn’t drive into the city. So why go? Lydia was interested in seeing the catacombs – underground burial sites from as long ago as 200 AD. She and Curd figured out that we could drive to Caserta, take the train to downtown, and then the subway to the resting place of the ancients. Okay, let’s do it. I’ll hold my nose when the time comes.

We climbed the steps out of the Metro station, and just like my first view of New York in January, I was blasted with life – tall buildings with their laundry flapping off balconies, surges of smiling faces, cobbled streets. “Oh my God … where am I?” I just stood.

We headed up an incredibly narrow street, with five levels of balconies looming above, and cars squeezing by as we hugged the walls. Sadly, we were in destination mode, and I wasn’t fully being with my world. Soon we were at the gate of the catacombs and descending many stairs to the dark entrance. Stone walls said “Come on in” and we walked where the flesh and bones of thousands of people had come to rest. There were large holes in the walls for adults, small ones for kids. It was quiet and we were quiet. Only the tones of our tour guide broke the spell.

What did I want down here? It wasn’t holes in walls. There were many frescoes painted in recesses, showing wealthy folks. I wanted their eyes. And so I wandered around, seeking communion. Eye contact with those who have been dead for centuries … it was magical. There were messages coming towards me but they were just beyond my conscious mind.

We meandered through Napoli for hours. Little caf├ęs welcomed us in. Servers smiled. Lovers kissed. Folks walked through the squares hand in hand. The descending sun shone golden on old stone. Life rippled around us and through us. Alleys hosted tiny bars with a couple of tables. I looked and looked and was everywhere mesmerized by the beauties.

I’m coming back, dear Napoli, hopefully with a new life partner. Together we will join the smiles, the pizza, the light on the harbour towards sunset. Such a home for celebrating love. All of us human beings deserve to be here.

Watching All the World Go By

“Lighthouse is a Canadian rock band formed in 1968 in Toronto, Ontario. Their sound included horns, string instruments, and vibraphone; their music reflected elements of rock music, jazz, classical music, and swing.”

I have proof in my pocket that “included” is really “includes”. In an hour, I’ll be in the front row of Koerner Hall, listening to them rock the house.

I’m sitting on a bench on Philosopher’s Walk, a path I strolled, also in 1968, as a University of Toronto student. Such great memories of open windows at the Royal Conservatory of Music – the tones of violin or voice drifting down. I look up to a glass balcony where I will no doubt be standing at intermission, looking down to a bench once occupied.

People in all their human flavours are moving left to right and right to left before me.

***

Eight runners just zoomed past: young adults, mostly in blue shirts and black tights. Their mouths were little O’s and the heavy breathing sounded synchronized. They were giving ‘er, one of the best parts of life, I’d say.

Now a little boy dressed in yellow, and in a stroller, leading his mom up the path. I say “Hello”. He gives me a sweet smile while she turns away. There is such yinning and yanging in this life.

To the left, just off the path, a grey-haired man gazes at a small sign, in the presence of fourteen trees. It’s a memorial to the fourteen female engineering students who were murdered in Montreal in 1989. His female companion lingers back on the path, looking impatient.

As I type, I hear a woman’s voice coming in from the right. She’s crying. I looked up to see her passing in front of me, laughing with her boyfriend. It’s so easy to get it wrong in this life.

Here comes a portly fellow with three friends. He points to Varsity Arena. “I used to play hockey in there. Our music department team was called the Gustav Mahlers. We were terrible.” The friends smile. Mahler was a Czech composer at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

I look up. Folks in fancy clothes are on “my” balcony, many of them drinking wine. I’ll share a room with them in a bit. They’re physically above me but we’re all charter members of the human family.

Time to go in. I’ll see you at the break.

***

As I walk to the front of the Royal Conservatory building, a trumpet sounds from above. Windows then and now.

***

I look down from the balcony, down to the twilight trees, down to an empty bench. The CN Tower shines blue in the distance. A couple walk the path hand in hand. All is well.

Presence in Absence

Objects contain absent people

Julian Barnes

I was watching a TV show last night about the wonders of New Zealand and its people. The host was very engaging. He had a syrupy voice that almost hypnotized me at times. At one point, I was nodding off when he spoke the words above. Huh? What did he say about objects? And what does it mean?

The day after, it’s clear. Dear human beings remain in place after they move on in life or in death. They continue to reside in precious objects. Such as …

1. I wrote a book about my loved one, called Jodiette: My Lovely Wife. About 1200 copies are spread around Canada and beyond. One sits on Anne and Ihor’s coffee table here in Toronto. Jody radiates from the pages.

2. The totem poles of Haida Gwaii, a huge island off the mainland of British Columbia, stand guard. Twenty-six of them tilt in the abandoned village of Ninstints. Hundreds of years of the Haida people remain in the wood.

3. I’m sitting in the waiting room of a walk-in clinic on Weston Road. Six others wait with me. The chair beside is empty and I think of the thousands of sick people who have put their rear end down in that spot. May they all have found health.

4. I wandered through the 911 Museum in New York City last week. I came upon a piece of paper, charred at the edges. It was a report about some project that a company was initiating. I imagined some young account executive holding this sheet as he or she spoke to colleagues and bosses. The person was still there in the paragraphs.

5. Value Village is a thrift store in London, featuring lots of quality used clothing. I go to Wellington Fitness next door and often see crowds of folks coming and going with their treasures. I think of the folks wearing other folks’ clothing and wonder if the energy of the previous owner shines through to the new one.

6. I bought a wooden mask in Toubacouta, Senegal in January. The smile is big and the eyes are wide. The fellow offering it said that his great-great-great? grandfather carved it over a hundred years ago. That man’s hands are still in the crevices of the face, in the high cheek bones, in the joy.

7. I’ve been privileged to see many bears in the Canadian Rockies, even the occasional grizzly. And yet most times on the alpine trails there was no sign of the majestic animals. But I would look to the way ahead and realize that the bears were here – I just couldn’t see them. I would sense their footfalls on the dirt and exposed rock.

8. At home I have a ticket stub for a Bruce Springsteen concert in Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium, around 1980. What lives on in that little slip of stuff is … me. A younger version. Dancing in his seat. In love with life, just not as deeply as now.

9. I’m still in the waiting room, and a huge window allows me to look across the street to a brick building. Its side is covered with a mural, depicting Weston Road as it once was. A streetcar rumbles down the street. A two-storey brick building is topped with a bell tower. Mother and daughter are strolling on the porch of what might be a general store. The people are created in paint but they stand in for real folks who walked this street decades ago. And the artist’s love lingers on the wall.

***

Ghosts from the past
Real in the present
Leaning into the future

Day Eight: The 911 Museum

I knew I wanted to go there, to let the sorrow come at the loss of so many human lives. Upon climbing the subway stairs, I saw the tips of a huge silver wing past the buildings ahead. A block later, the whole expanse spread itself before me. The Oculus. Hearts took flight, heads were lifted again after the trauma of 2001.

Now I was approaching a large square reflecting pool, the exact footprint of one of the twin towers. The water flowed into a central cavity. Angled all around the edge was metal plate, on which were inscribed the names of the nearly 3000 victims. Every so often, a yellow rose grew from a name, noting a birthday. I came upon a fellow whose name was Bruce. It could have been me.

Inside the museum stood a cross of girders – a huge rust red symbol of love and hope. Other artifacts, large and small, took their place in history. Papers burned at the edges, eyeglasses beside a toasted case, a crushed fire truck. And the photos, screaming of human anguish. The videos of impact and devastation.

Down a ramp, rectangular images were projected on a wall. They would slowly appear, linger for awhile, and then fade away. These were posters pleading for the recovery of loved ones – friends and family who also faded away, to reappear forever in the hearts of others. One scrawl under a name said it all: “Have you seen my daddy?”

I took a photo, and then spent minutes studying it. Right at the bottom was the smile of Brooke Jackman, a young woman leaning into a delightful life. I decided to stare at the wall until she returned. It probably took twenty minutes … and there she was, for a few seconds.

I looked for Brooke in the Memoriam room. On the walls were colour photos of all who died on 911. A screen allowed me to input her name. Photos of white dresses, beaming parents, friends at a party. An audio clip from mom sharing Brooke’s love of books, even word of a phone call home from a crossing guard, warning that the young girl was crossing a busy street while reading. And then a wavering dad … saying how Brooke always included everyone. Oh my. Real live human beings.

In an alcove, a sign said “Advisory”, warning of disturbing content. And it was. Photos of people jumping from the burning and smoking. Plus a few quotations. To paraphrase one: “She was dressed in a business suit, her hair awry. She smoothed out her skirt (such an innocent gesture) … and fell.”

Another display tucked in a corner told of Flight 93, and the passengers who overwhelmed the hijackers, causing the plane to land in a Pennsylvania field, rather than in the hallways of the White House. Several passengers reached loved ones by cell phone. I heard the spirit of an overcome woman’s words to her husband:

I pray that I will see your lovely face again

I love you

Goodbye

***

Who amongst us would be moved by this place
and the events it describes?

Every single one

A Flood of Humanity

I think balance is a great thing, but sometimes … not. What would life be like if I crammed it with people, taking hardly any alone time? Not so great long term but how about trying it for a day? A friend told me that I love being with people so much that I could pretty much be in their presence hour after hour. Well, yesterday was the experiment. I didn’t plan it out but it’s how it worked out.

8:30 – 10:00

I sat with eleven Grade 9 students, one at a time, and wrote them messages in Jody’s book. I asked each one what they were passionate about and included that in my words. One girl talked about her commitment to make a difference in the world by leading the push for social justice. Very cool.

I also dropped into a Music class and joked with the teacher. I sang “a little number” for the kids – “3”! Some mouths turned up at the edges.

10:15 – 10:20

Messing with the mind of the young woman who served me at the bakery. Bring on the fresh bread! She laughed.

10:30 – 11:15

A late breakfast at Wimpy’s Diner. The section of my favourite server was full so I had only the occasional moments to say silly things to her from afar and give her snippets about Senegal. There’ll be a fuller conversation next time. The woman who did serve me smiled as she gave me extra peanut butter.

11:30 – 12:30

An online call with about thirty members of the Evolutionary Collective. I love looking at all the little rectangles, each containing a human being. I had a partner for part of the time and I told the group afterwards that he was Santa Claus, giving me the gift of himself. And he sure looks like Santa! Some folks agreed.

1:00 – 3:30

Volunteering in the Grade 6 class. I sat at an empty desk and marked Math tests, much to the interest of the kids sitting beside me. “How’d I do?” I showed them, leading to fist pumps and grimaces.

I told the 11-year-olds that I was heading to New York City on Thursday and asked the experienced ones what I should see there. Great enthusiasm came back about the 911 memorial and Times Square. The adult in me (or kid?) also wants to walk in Central Park and see a Broadway play.

4:15 – 5:15

On the elliptical at the gym. The fellow manning the front desk was all excited about turning 24 in two days. We compared ages. He told me that I was probably more fit than him. What delightful nonsense!

I actually had some alone time … just me and the rolling beast under my feet. I managed to get in some good conversation with the elliptical, however.

6:00 – 10:00

Dinner at my neighbours’ place. They were so eager to hear about Senegal and I was happy to oblige. I painted a picture of a very affectionate society and they seemed fascinated with the people I met. Holding hands with children as we walked down the dirt streets was an astounding experience. Overall, we talked and talked about the mysteries of life. Good food, good conversation, good friends. Four hours of quality blabbing.

10:30 – 11:30

Another Evolutionary Collective call, this time about twenty folks. I did a practice with a woman who’d I’d never seen before and within a couple of minutes it was like we were old friends. How is that possible? During the group sharing, I mentioned that my partner and I managed to talk about each other’s eyes for five minutes or more. From the outside, I realize this sounds very weird. From the inside, it was a blessing.

***

So there you have it … a very unusual day. I was nourished by human beings from dawn to bedtime. We’re all so fascinating, so different from each other, but down deep the same. Yay for us.

Extraordinary Ordinary Folks

I was walking down Weston Road in Toronto yesterday and told myself that I needed a hot dog. I didn’t, really. What I wanted was a visit with Rosina. She and her husband George own a tiny restaurant called God Blesses Canada. My history there has been yummy ice cream cones but my shivering bones weren’t up for that particular menu item. A hot dog would do nicely.

Rosina came out from behind the counter to greet me, and once I had unbundled from my winter togs, she gave me a big smile. How lovely to be remembered.

We must have talked for fifteen minutes before I got around to ordering anything. Rosina’s calm reminded me of the folks in Senegal, and I reminisced about their beauty. She was interested in my journey and was happy that I had been welcomed so.

“Any kidnapping of white folks in Senegal?” Ouch. “No, not at all.” > “It’s a big problem where I’m from – Nigeria. I don’t want to go back. Canada is home.”

Rosina told me about her mother. The family lived in the jungle. The women were naked. The men wore some large leaves around the middle to cover the naughty bits. When mom was 12, a man of maybe 25 returned to the home village from the big city, looking for a wife. He picked Rosina’s mother. It was arranged that the girl would live with him in the city. She and her grandma travelled there. The girl, and maybe both of them, entered the city with no clothes on. Can you imagine the trauma and disorientation for the child? The new husband swiftly found her some garments.

Rosina, like her mother, was deposited in an arranged and essentially loveless marriage. How very sad. Since then, Rosina escaped her husband, went to Canada, and fell in love with George. She’s a committed Christian and has served many homeless people in her coffee shops in Toronto and Keswick, Ontario. Rosina wants to adopt a child from Haiti and bring him or her to Canada.

I read a sign in the restaurant that talked about brutal conditions in Nigeria and how Rosina gives in Canada. I looked back at her and saw a glowing face, a kind person. Someone who undercharges me for a hot dog and bottle of water. Thank you, Rosina.

Next on my menu was the Weston Arena, built a very long time ago. It’s the home of hockey teams and a snack bar. I was hoping that the chuckly fellow I’d seen before would be serving up “The World’s Best Fries”. (Sorry, you Belgian readers) And there he was … chuckling.

I asked Wayne “Do you have any of those French fries that are second best in the world?”

“No! They’re the absolute best in the world.”

Okay, Wayne, okay. I’ll stop arguing the point. We continued to say silly things to each other. I sang a snippet from a song to Wayne’s admittedly grumpy co-worker. The guy stared. Wayne doubled over in laughter. I’d like to get to know this guy.

I entered the frozen arena with my world’s best and a Diet Coke. I could see my breath, and in the background were two teams of 12-year-olds – mostly boys and happily a few girls. They were skating like the wind and sometimes getting weak shots on net. It was so cool to see. What was uncool were the two male coaches. They took turns throwing around the F-word, aimed at the referee or an opposing player. What a contrast to Wayne and what dubious role models for all those young folks.

Think I’ll rest my brain cells in memories of Rosina and Wayne. Extraordinary.

Day Seven: Des Gens Extraordinaires

The family Nachtergaele has a cat. We leave for Senegal in two days. Last night, Poopi curled up on top of a piece of luggage lying in the living room. Lydia knows that Poopi knows we’re leaving and she doesn’t want us to go.

We need to be in each other’s presence. We need to love even more than we need to be loved. Both are blessings.

This morning, the family’s housekeeper Karin was cleaning up. She only speaks French, exactly the situation I’ll face in Senegal. I said “Bonjour, Karin.” She returned the favour. I saw her stare at the piece of luggage. Perhaps Poopi left a little poopy – I didn’t look closely. What I did do was furrow my brow in potential translation. I so much wanted to communicate with Karin.

“Le chat dormit au bagage.” That was my best attempt at “The cat slept on the piece of luggage,” although I couldn’t remember how to do the past tense, or the word “on”.

Quite proud of myself, I wasn’t ready for the barrage of words that came back. And memories returned from Jody’s and my vacation in old Quebec City in 2008. The Francophone no doubt thinks I understand a fair bit of French and blasts out a sentence or two at supersonic speed, leaving me in the linguistic dust. But really, who cares? I will love my new Senegalese friends, with or without our mutual understanding of words. Our eyes will make meaning.

Now it’s later in the morning and Pil and I have been talking at the dining room table. I still have happy memories of the 12% (!) beer we shared in Bruges yesterday. We look out over the back field and watch flocks of pigeons fly. Pil is so happy to teach me about local things. These pigeons will hang around some more, as long as the weather stays warm (5 degrees Celsius) but when winter sets in, they’re off to Spain.

Down by the pond, the orange leaves of a weeping willow are waving in the breeze. The two Shetland ponies are searching for the best grass. Mom is about thirty and son around ten. They have each other. An orange-headed woodpecker has just stopped for a visit near the window. Peace is here.

Away up on the horizon, vehicles move left and right. Who are those people? Where are they going? Do they have the same joys and sorrows that I do? Of course.

***

This evening two families enjoyed food at a Chinese restaurant. Liesbet is Lydia’s best friend and the two of them sat side by side, joking in Flemish most of the evening. The love between was as clear as a moonlit night.

Both Lydia and Liesbet had gifts for all of us. Liesbet and Lode gave me two jars of mustard created in Oudenaard. Lydia presented me with a quill pen – a fine white feather inscribed with “Dream On.” It’s so sweet to be included.

The meal and the wine were delicious but eating was just a convenient excuse to be together. The four kids gabbed away, and so did we five adults. My goodness, I’m part of a family after being alone for four years.

I said silly things to the servers and at one point started eating a decorative onion. Anything to get a laugh out of people. I threatened to approach the table next door to see if they were as nice as us but Lydia held me back. I enjoyed myself so much.

I’m in Belgium. Sure the streets wind so exquisitely and are often cobblestoned. Sure the buildings are ancient and the old brick shines in the sun. Sure the beer is strong and the wine sublime. But give me people any day.

We were together
I don’t remember the rest

Walt Whitman