Parallel

I was sitting in the living room this morning with Ihor, my Toronto B&B host. We talked about life. He mentioned that his all-time favourite teacher was Mr. Whiteside in Grade 7. He helped the kids feel like human beings, like they mattered.

Years later, Ihor saw Mr. Whiteside on the subway one evening. He was snoozing. Ihor decided to leave him alone. He no doubt was exhausted from a day of teaching, marking and creating lesson plans. The intended message was simply “Thank you.” But there was no joyous giving and no likely joyous receiving. Ihor was sad in the years proceeding that he didn’t speak up.

I listened … and remembered the same. It was about 1970 and I was a student at the University of Toronto. As I approached an old stone arch on campus, I looked through to see “a little old man” coming towards me from the other side. Closer, I recognized the fellow: it was Lester Pearson, the recently retired Prime Minister of Canada. Pearson had been a leader in promoting peace in the world. He was a true Canadian hero. “Say something, Bruce!”

And now we were both entering the arch. I looked towards him with a dry mouth … and averted my gaze as we passed by. (Sigh) My sadness lingered for many years.

Ihor nodded.

Then he began again. “Many years later, I was walking on the Lake Huron sand near Wasaga Beach. A guy was walking towards me. It was David Crombie, known as ‘the tiny perfect mayor’ of Toronto. Visions of Mr. Whiteside. I walked right up to him and said ‘Hi.’ David smiled back and we had a good talk.”

I nodded.

Then I shared the story which took place in Bruno’s Fine Foods, a few decades after Mr. Pearson. I wheeled my shopping cart into the next aisle, and there at the far end was a little old man, pushing his. Closer. I knew him. It was King Clancy, a former player and coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now he was 80 or 90. He reached for his shelf and I reached for mine. Soon we were cart to cart …

“Hello, Mr. Clancy.”

(Big smile) “Hello.”

“Thank you for your contributions to the Leafs and to hockey.”

“You’re most welcome.”

And we talked some more.

***

Lesson learned, eh, Ihor?
May we always remember

Day Eight: Everybody Gone

I’m sitting in the Basilica Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, an immense building with ceilings as high as the sky. The feeling is white, with rich blues and purples, as well as 12-foot-high stained glass windows. They’re domed, and feature many views of Jesus and his disciples. Not one that I see shows two people looking into each other’s eyes, and I feel the loss of such contact. It’s what I treasure.

I just sneezed, and despite my sleeve, the sound echoes upwards. There are only four or five folks here potentially to be disturbed. It’s a lonely place, and for me an emotionally flat one.

High on the walls, four statues of the apostles seem to stand guard. I wonder what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John think of this sanctuary. I want a simpler church, far less ornate, one that feels good for a face-to-face meeting. Just a few pews, please, and a simple cross at the front.

Yesterday’s circle of musicians and the sight of Paul’s family smiling at him drew my spiritual breath far more deeply. But I wonder what energy would issue forth if the Basilica was full with 2000 souls.

I’m now in the Duke of Duckworth pub but I remember what came next at church. A gentleman started playing the pipe organ high in the back of the sanctuary. The deep tones went right through me but still I was left wanting. I wanted to be singing a stirring hymn with those 2000 souls, to have our voices bouncing off the ornamented walls.

What’s true is that the Tour du Canada riders have all headed home and I miss them. I miss the conversation. Today it was “Goodbye Paul, Ruedi, Ken, Jin-si, Kathy, Jane and Al.” Back to their real lives, or at least to their usual ones. Feeling lonely, I sat in the hotel lobby and joked with the guests who were coming and going. But our time together was measured in seconds. I need more than that.

On the TV is tennis – the US Open. I sip and cheer for Milos Raonic, the sole remaining Canadian. Around me are groups of friends, enjoying life together. No, I’m not going to approach them, declaring “Isn’t tennis great?” It’s time to be alone with Milos.

***

Milos lost … but he gave ‘er. I finished sipping and headed home. I was tired after a day of St. John’s slopy streets. And so to bed.

Without Skill

I was walking on Bloor Street in Toronto yesterday. My ankle was sore and I was going slow. Just ahead was a woman in a flaming yellow dress, carrying a parasol on this most humid day. Beside her was a boy of 10 or so, on his bike. The sidewalk was heading up for an extended climb and it looked like the boy was matching his mom’s pace. She was taking her time.

The distance between us never narrowed or expanded. There they were, always thirty yards ahead of me. And I wondered: “How is this possible?” How is that young man staying upright? What an immense gift of balance.

Finally they crested the hill and turned down a side street. Gone from my eyes … not from my heart. I felt a sweep of marvel and a generous helping of “less than”. I thought of the unbalanced state on my bicycle ta-pocketa in downtown Vancouver, and the sadness came.

“Bruce, you’re so unskilled, so awkward, so obvious to others.” Then, magically, the arrows withdrew and the response was sure: “Yes, you’re right, and it’s all okay.”

Almost immediately, I was reminiscing about tendon transfer surgery in 2003 and my many weeks on crutches. Stairs were impossible, fatigue was constant, and self-esteem hung by a thread. Again and again … “I can’t do this.”

Another time, I was so weak after some physical debacle that on my return to the gym, when I went to wash my hands, I didn’t have the strength to push the lever on the soap dispenser. (Sigh)

Then there was the meeting at school about a certain visually impaired student. The topic was his computer hardware. As the discussion revved up, I realized I had no idea what my fellow staff members were talking about. Despair descended.

***

Not being able to do something
Feeling the pain of the deficiency
And yet …
Glimpsing the beauty of being undefended
Naked
Cracks opening to receive the light

Tenderized

When I was away in B.C., my massage therapist Nicole sent me a wonderfully supportive e-mail as I was dealing with quitting the Tour du Canada bicycle ride.  She’s so much more than a rubber of my skin.

Today I had an appointment with Nicole.  I had a laundry list of body parts that hurt, and I could feel myself sinking into “I am old” mode.  That’s a deadly mind space – I know that – and sometimes I have trouble bringing myself out from under that particular rock.  My mind tells me that I shouldn’t need another human being to do the heavy lifting for me, but today Nicole did just that.

There I was, naked under a few sheets, and feeling naked in my soul.  My right thumb, my right calf, my right knee and my left ankle all cried out for attention.  Plus my heart needed some massaging too.  So Nicole set to work …

“I’m falling apart!” I joked to the dear therapist.  Except that deep down I wondered if I really was.  The words stayed inside but here they are: “The cane will be next, then the walker, then the wheelchair, and then perma-bed.”  How my fragile mind does proliferate!  I realize that these possible futures may indeed become part of my aging life but why jump to it with such haste?  I smiled under the sheets.  “Bruce Kerr, you are a strange dude.”

Once I was past this burst of self-pity, I returned to the job at hand … welcoming Nicole’s touch.  Sweeping pressure, nodes of pain, a sense of caress – they all made their appearance.  Throughout the hour, I was being held, nourished, given to.  Hours later, my pains have less oomph and I know I have been lifted up.  Some of what Nicole did was her professional and compassionate touch, some was her sharing the athletic exploits of her daughters and the family times centred around farm chores.  She sure loves her hubby and kids.  And I was enlivened by her aliveness.

Okay … now it’s my turn.  I’m fully capable of lightening the loads of my friends and neighbours.  No need to remain stuck in my story, my deficiencies, my “Woe is me’s”.  We’re too important to each other to stay down when we’re down.

Here’s to raising each other up
Salut!

Day Nine: The End

I left the Tour du Canada this morning. I’m exhausted and have been terrified. I’m so sad to be disappointing you folks who have been cheering me on. I’ve failed as a cyclist, at least as far as what it takes to ride across the country. I know, though, that I haven’t failed as a person.

I went to bed last night extremely tired. Before I dropped myself into the tent, I managed to leave my mess kit’s cutlery somewhere and my next day’s clothes piled in some unknown location. In the morning, I was just as exhausted and couldn’t conceive of riding 90 k today. I’d tossed and turned since the wee hours and went to breakfast depressed. My body was making the decision for me: I’m simply not strong enough to do this right now.

I’m so afraid of the fast traffic that’s been whizzing by me a couple of metres away. And when there’s a drop off to the right, I worry about falling down the slope. So I’ve been riding too close to the white line. The bottom line – I’ve been riding too close to the cars. I’m not a safe cyclist.

I don’t know how to control my bicycle at low speeds on angled slopes. Yesterday I missed one of these downward ramps, lowered my head and started crying. “I don’t know how to do this,” I told my companions. And then I blasted myself: “Bruce, you should be far stronger mentally.”

I should be this, I should be that. I’m quite a mess right now. I want to find a hole and crawl into it. I don’t want to be with people, which is so unlike me. But strangely … I’m writing you.

It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone this morning. So many people to thank for helping me. I started crying again … and I’m doing it again right now. I tell myself that with my Buddhist training I should be better than this, but it’s not working out.

So now … the rest of my life. I know I can’t wallow in this. There is much I need to contribute to this world. But right here and right now, at the Travelodge in Abbotsford, B.C., I’m deeply down.

After the cyclists left this morning, I knocked on the door of the campground manager, looking for advice about how to get my bike and me home. Judy and Bernie were so kind as they helped this rattled tourist find solutions. They listened without judgment. They gave me coffee. And throughout the hour I sat in the living room, their dog C.C. licked my legs. Judy said she’d never seen him do that before so that’s a very welcome plus.

I suppose this post sounds too dreary. Oh well. It’s what I have right now. I arrive home late Monday night. It’s up to me to push myself out into the world on Tuesday. I will do that.

Day Seven: Orientation

I’m overwhelmed. I’ve usually thought of myself as mentally strong but right now I’m mentally weak. I don’t want to sing the refrain of “Woe is me” because that doesn’t serve anyone. So how do I pull myself up?

Yesterday I received many messages from home, encouraging me, loving me. Several Tour du Canada riders have been especially kind. So now what? Pull yourself up, Bruce.

The bike shop at UBC fixed my bicycle yesterday. Apparently something called the headset was a mess. Also the derailleur settings were off. Alex at the Bike Kitchen made me his “afternoon project”. He also put flat pedals on ta-pocketa, since the ones I’ve had, which attach to metal cleats on the bottom of my cycling shoes, weren’t working for me.

When I tried the new pedals out in the evening, I kept catching my shorts on the saddle when I tried to get going. Maybe six of my fellow cyclists watched me stumble, again and again. They made suggestions and also adjustments to my equipment. I died a thousand deaths of embarrassment. Here I am, surrounded by nineteen strong and skilled cyclists, and I can’t even mount my steed. Oh, the sadness.

Okay, all of that is said and done. Time to keep going. I’m not giving up. With a little help from my friends, I’ll roll into the campground at Mission, B.C. this afternoon.

Thanks for listening.

Crying

For the first twenty years of my life, I don’t believe I cried.  Maybe for an owwie when I was three.

At age 25, I went to a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in a Vancouver church.  Afterwards I sat in the dark under a tree in Queen Elizabeth Park and cried for an hour.

My wife Jody died in November, 2014.  For the next year at least, I cried every day.

Now it feels like I’m on the verge of tears a lot … eyes moist, soul overwhelmed with sadness or beauty.  But it’s not about me.  It’s about all of us, in our agony and joy.  It’s about moments of grace.  It’s about the acts of kindness I see.  It’s about the largeness of life, whether “positive” or “negative”.

Yesterday I sat with Karen at a Toronto Island church, listening to a string quartet.  I wondered where her boyfriend Barry was.  I had seen them together before I went on a meditation retreat in September.  Karen told me … he died on February 5 of melanoma.  Two weeks earlier, she and Barry were married.  I’m crying now about their lost love.

I grew up in a life where no one seemed to cry.  Certainly mom and dad didn’t, at least in my presence.  Aunts, uncles, family friends, teachers, ministers … no tears.  Maybe actors and actresses did in movies but I must have been watching the wrong films.

And then there are desperate situations in the world that would force anyone to shut down their emotional life:

I once heard a young man talk about his life as a child in Cambodia.  All of the children in his village spent years imprisoned in a barbed-wire encampment.  Four times a day, people were brought to the outskirts of that encampment to be killed.  The children were all lined up and forced to watch.  According to the rule, if one of them started to cry, then he or she would also be killed.  This boy said that each time people were brought to be killed, he was absolutely terrified that among them would be a friend, neighbor or relative.  He knew that if that happened, he would start to cry, and then he would be killed.  He lived with this terror for years.  He said that in that circumstance the only way he could survive was to completely cut off all feeling, to dehumanize himself altogether.

How immensely sad, and terrifying.

I was reading to the Grade 5/6 kids today from The City Of Ember, a fascinating novel.  Lina, a 12-year-old girl, was sitting with her grandma.  As she cared for her ill loved one, Lina thought of her dad:

In the back of her mind was the memory of the days of her father’s illness, when he seemed to grow dim like a lamp losing power, and the sound of his breathing was like water gurgling through a clogged pipe.  Though she didn’t want to, she also remembered the evening when her father let out one last short breath and didn’t take another.

“This is how Jody died,” I told the kids and Jayne, their teacher.  The room was very quiet.  My eyes were wet but I fought off the tears.  And I’m sorry I did.  It would have been a fine lesson for them to see a man cry.  “That’s okay, Bruce.  Please forgive yourself for not letting go completely.”  I do.  And now I’m crying for my dear wife.

It’s a tough job we human beings have, but I’m glad we all signed up.  The horrors are real and so is the beauty.  Let’s celebrate each other as we do our best to navigate the maze of life.

There But For The Grace Of God

There was an article in the paper this morning about a 5-year-old girl who died in Toronto.  Camila Torcato was “a cancer survivor who was killed by a driverless, runaway SUV at St. Raphael Catholic School … A second or two earlier or later and the SUV would have either missed the little girl or she would have been safely inside her dad’s vehicle.”

How can this be?  What forces are at work in the world so that I get to have a fulfilling life, and potentially a long one?  Why have I experienced the sweetness of romantic love, the thrill of cycling long distances and the softness of Caribbean beaches while this little girl has not?

Will she be back in another body to do this life business again, this time culminating in her grandchildren gathered around her?  Or was this it for her, her one and only time to shine in the sun?  Endless words have been written on these subjects but the truth is … I don’t know.

I’m a happy and peaceful person.  Bad stuff still happens but my peace is bigger than all that.  But what about all those blank faces I see on the Toronto subway?  I’m guessing that many of the souls lying within the bodies are wounded.  Why is my experience of life so different from that?  Sure, a huge part of happiness is the attitude we bring to the table but sometimes the world is full of unhittable curve balls.  Why have so many folks faced challenges that I’ll never know?

Should I feel guilty about my long life or the cards that I’ve been dealt?  No.  But I’m sad that Camila, and many other human beings, haven’t been offered the gifts that I have.  There is so much pain in the world and often I just cry about it all.

Still, the crying needs to stop at some point.  I will continue to feel deeply the sadnesses around me and in me … and then lift my head and walk on.  Because the next human being on my path needs my full presence, my brimming heart.  It’s what I can do.  It’s what I will do.

 

 

Alone

Jody’s been dead for three years now, and I miss her so.  I would love to have a dear woman as my life partner but that hasn’t happened.  I’ve gone on dates but all four of those women said no to a relationship.  That makes me sad.

Sometimes I’ve fallen in love with a younger woman, someone in her 20’s or 30’s. I’ve fantasized about making love, and about communion.  But what’s life-serving is for that young woman to find a love far closer to her age than me, so they can grow old together.

Beneath the woe of loneliness is a peace, a slow current of life that keeps seeping into me.  Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself in an altered state of consciousness while driving, walking down the street or just sitting in my man chair.  It feels like the depth I sometimes reached in meditation at last fall’s retreat.  How strange and marvelous.  And I want to sit with my lover and talk about it.  Oh well.

It may be that I will never again be in a committed relationship.  I may never again make love.  It’s amazing to open myself to this possibility … and to get that it’s okay.  I feel a happiness that’s deeper than all these thoughts.  And I get it: All that matters is the energy I put out in life.  It doesn’t matter what comes back.

And yet I still long for relationship.  How can the peace and longing happen at the same time?  I don’t know.  I see myself spooning with the beloved in bed, cuddling on the couch as we watch a popcorn-infused movie.  And I smile.  Shouldn’t I be sad that this isn’t happening in my current life?  Well, I guess, and sometimes I am.  But like I said, something way bigger is happening to me.  I feel it right now – a quiet energy roaming through my face, a falling of my flesh, a softening of my eyes.

I want to be of sevice, and I often am.  Actually, I’m often in communion with the person I’m talking to.  Maybe I don’t need the cuddling, just the deep sharing of the eyes.  Whether a loved one comes my way or not, there are always the eyes of the next human being to come calling.

Sadness
Peace
Love
Loneliness
Communion

The whole lifetime enchilada

No Go

When those two kids approached me about riding the Tour du Canada, I thought about lots of things, none of which included how the leadership of the Tour might react.  The next day, it weighed on my mind.

The Tour is owned by Cycle Canada, a company led by Bud and Margot.  I e-mailed them about having two 13-year-olds join me in 2018.  Not many hours later, I had an answer.  Margot recalled a 13-year-old girl who set off from Vancouver with her mom on a tandem bicycle.  Soon it became clear that the girl didn’t want to ride the whole time.  She was bored.  Sometimes she took the bus while her mother rode the tandem alone.  Not good.

Margot also brought up the possibility that at some point both kids couldn’t ride.  There are only two extra seats in the truck and I’d have to be in there too to look out for my young friends.

Margot’s response to me was well thought out and reasonable.

But I sighed.  Is the dream dashed even before parents start considering the situation?  I decided to write her back.

What if in the future I could provide training logs to show that the students were committed to be fit enough to cross the country?  And Margot, Bud, the kids, their parents and I could Skype to talk it all out.  I wondered if there was any wiggle room.

Also I mentioned a book – the only one I’ve read three times.  Hey, Mom, Can I Ride My Bike Across America?

Margot replied.  No wiggle room.  The American kids had flexibility in their schedule.  They could take an extra day if need be.  But the Tour du Canada is tied to a firm schedule, with details such as campground reservations and ferry schedules to be considered.  Plus everyone in that truck has to have a seatbelt or the government would shut the trip down.

Sigh again.  I don’t feel that I’m right and Margot’s wrong.  Both sides have their good points.  But I’m sad.

Yesterday I told the class about the decision.  The whole discussion would be academic if no children and their parents step forward down the road.  I asked them to think of some creative ways that interested kids could go on far shorter rides with me in 2017.  I’ll see what if anything come of that when I return from my meditation retreat in early March.

Life is often a big curve ball, I do believe.  But I still love being in the game.