Karaoke

I learned weeks ago that we would have karaoke one evening at the Evolutionary Collective seminar in Asilomar, California. And I knew that I would sing. Apart from the briefest karaoke moments, and one time when I gave voice to the Grade 6s, I hadn’t sung to a room of human beings for forty years.

I knew that I would choose The Wings That Fly Us Home by John Denver and Joe Henry. Denver’s words and voice have soared for me for many decades. John was killed while flying his ultralight plane off the coast of Pacific Grove, California. Today I visited his memorial:

So welcome the wind and the wisdom she offers
Follow her summons when she calls again
In your heart and your spirit, let the breezes surround you
Lift up your voice then and sing with the wind

It was time to follow and so I set out to learn the lyrics. On the day before the performance, a sign up sheet appeared on our meeting room wall. I picked up the marker and made it official. And a surge ran through me. John, Joe and I would touch hearts that were already open.

Half an hour before the singing, I walked the paths of Asilomar, letting “many ways of knowing” tumble from my lips. A strange calm came down, not at all what I expected. In the room, a hat held slips of paper. The hand of a four-year-old girl chose who would sing when. I was asked to join a few others in a silly song. I put on a gauzy green scarf and gave ‘er with my friends. Can’t even remember the title!

“Next … Bruce,” said our lovely MC Genevieve. (Gulp) I tightened. I took the offer of the microphone. Genevieve whispered “We’ve got you.” As I looked out over the audience of 70, I saw that she was right. I was being held.

And then … I sang! I fell into the recently memorized words. I took in the loved ones to the left and right. They were with me. They were pulling out my best. And I gave them that.

Thoughts of my voice cracking, of not reaching the low or high notes, of disappearing lyrics – faded away. I simply shared what John and Joe and Bruce had to say:

I know that love is seeing all the infinite in one
In the brotherhood of creatures, who the father who the son?
The vision of your goodness will sustain me through the cold
Take my hand now to remember when you find yourself alone
You’re never alone …

My head was up. My soul was up. My voice was Bruce.

Some stood at the end. It felt like they all loved me.

As the evening closed, very few people congratulated me. I felt a twinge of sadness about that, but then it faded away. We were within the many songs that were sung. The theme that tied the music together was love. We were that.

There is a world beyond praise and it lives in the shared moment. Such is worth infinitely more than better and worse.

Time stops. All the world sings. It is as it’s meant to be.

Join Me

When I started volunteering with a new Grade 6 class in September, I knew a few things.  I would challenge these kids to think independently, to express their opinions and to be no one but themselves.

As a symbol of self-expression, I knew I’d sing “O Canada” whenever I was in the class in the morning.  And it is expression, not performance.  It’s processing oxygen as you throw yourself into the world.  No divas, no Eltons, no concerts … just human beings giving ‘er.  Or so I hoped.  I didn’t know how many kids would join me in song.

As it turned out, nobody did.  Occasionally I thought I heard another voice come through, but usually it was just solo me.  I wondered what the other twenty-seven people in the room were thinking as I bellowed out “God keep our land glorious and free”.  Along with my disappointment was hope, that the seeds I was planting would nestle into fertile ground.

Yesterday was an a.m. volunteer gig.  As the mid-morning announcements described the events of the day, I knew what was next.  And the oomph inside decided to speak up:

“I challenge somebody to come stand beside me and sing ‘O Canada’.”

The opening chords wafted from the PA.  I stood alone … and then I didn’t.  Kids tumbled over to me – some shuffling along, some striding with head held high.  About ten of them stood and sang with me.  Oh my.  I was indescribably happy.  “Thanks, kids.”  It was the best moment of my day.

This morning I was back at it, helping a few students with Math, marking a few quizzes, seeing who could find the typo on the worksheet projected on the Smart Board.  And then announcements.  This time I would say nothing.  Would it be “if you build it, they will come”?  Or simply solo Bruceness as before?

Alone during the opening chords.  And then a boy appeared in my right peripheral vision, soon to be joined by other kids.  We sang, again probably ten of them and me.  Kids started things.  I didn’t have to.  Happy, happy, happy.

Will any of them remember these two singings a year from now?  I bet a few of them will.  And when they’re 32, rather than 12, may they stand tall and say what they need to say.  Because their voices are needed.

To Sing a Song

Next week, The Evolutionary Collective is meeting for five days on the Monterey Peninsula south of San Francisco.  There probably will be a hundred of us there as we explore consciousness together.  Usually EC meetings are just during the day, but this time there’ll be some evening activities, such as … karaoke!

Woh.  I love karaoke.  It doesn’t matter if the voice is elite or if the songs are transcendent.  It’s about self-expression, from the heart rather than the mind.  The e-mail I received actually talked about that – choosing a song that speaks of love, of togetherness, of spirit.

So … what shall I do?  I suppose nothing is a choice but that feels pretty pale.  “Just go ahead and sing, Bruce.  You’ll reach people.”  Thank you, dear inside voice.  That’s what I’ll do.

I sat quietly for about four seconds and then a song burst through.  It’s resided in my heart for decades.  John Denver and Joe Henry collaborated on the creation:

The Wings That Fly Us Home

There are many ways of being in this circle we call life
A wise man seeks an answer, burns his candle through the night
Is a jewel just a pebble that found a way to shine?
Is a hero’s blood more righteous than a hobo’s sip of wine?

Did I speak to you one morning on a distant world away?
Did you save me from an arrow?  Did you lay me in a grave?
Were we brothers on a journey?  Did you teach me how to run?
Were we broken by the waters?  Did I lay you in the sun?

I dreamed you were a prophet in a meadow
I dreamed I was a mountain in the wind
I dreamed I knelt and touched you with a flower
I awoke with this: a flower in my hand

I know that love is seeing all the infinite in one
In the brotherhood of creatures, who the father, who the son?
The vision of your goodness will sustain me through the cold
Take my hand now to remember when you find yourself alone
You’re never alone

And the spirit fills the darkness of the heavens
It fills the endless yearning of the soul
It lives within a star too far to dream of
It lives within each part and is the whole
It’s the fire and the wings that fly us home
Fly us home
Fly us home

How astonishing lovely.  And I’ll be singing it to the beloveds on May 3 or so.

I have about ten days to memorize the words.  Some of them have already worked their way into my heart.  I know that the rest will follow suit in their own good time.  They’ll be part of me when I open my mouth one evening in Asilomar.

And then there’s the singing.  I sat down at the piano last night and discovered what note I needed to start on.  I chose a low F.   The song has a range just beyond mine.  If I start too low, the bottom notes will be lost in a growl.  Too high and I’ll squeak out the soaring ones at the end.  I went to bed with the problem, sweetly confident that an answer would come.  This morning it did.  I can lower the notes of the second last “Fly us home” and make it work.  I’ll now start on the E and take in a lot of air before “There are many ways”.

It’ll be a performance, I guess.  But far more than that, it’ll be a love letter.

Singing Like There’s No Tomorrow

I ask myself what can launch me into an altered state of consciousness. But it’s more than that. The deepest beauty is being launched into a state of communion with another human being, or with a group of them. What can propel me into the power of selfless love?

Seeing a person perform an act of kindness is one trigger. Or even reading about it. Looking way deep into another’s eyes is also transforming. And then there’s singing. Eighteen months ago, I stood alone on the outdoor stage at Tanglewood in Massachusetts … and I sang. It was Someday Soon by Ian Tyson. My audience was two.

I gave it all I had – loud, head up, joy on my face:

So blow you old blue northern
Blow my love to me
He’s driving in tonight from California
He loves his damned old rodeo
As much as he lives me
Someday soon, going with him someday soon

Singing so lustily opened something in me. There was a freedom beyond thought. I sang to my friends at the back of the hall, and I believe they “heard” … to the depths of their being.

Cynthia Bourgeault has something to say here:

We know in a very personal way that singing will often bring into play a heightened range of emotion not accessible through speaking alone. The lyrics of a song – say, “Silent Night” – can look bland and harmless on a page, but when you actually sing them (particularly with others), a magical transformation occurs.

On Saturday evening, I saw two films. I’ve written about the first one – Stan and Ollie. The second was A Star Is Born. Lady Gaga plays Ally, an aspiring singer who catches the eye and heart of a famous rocker (Bradley Cooper as Jackson). She’s written a song. He’s created an arrangement for it. And during a concert, he challenges her to come onstage and sing it with him. The lyrics open with the man singing and soon it’s time for the woman’s response. As the moment approaches, Ally is trembling offstage. Suddenly her face tightens and seconds later she walks towards the microphone. On cue, her voice and soul explode to the audience. Face shining, mouth wide open. Nothing held back.

We in the theatre and they in the stadium are transported. There’s thunderous applause in the company of a woman who’s flooding the world.

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Infinitely far from the shallow. “Up where we belong”. My head rises. My heart beats in unison with Ally’s. There’s work to be done in this world and I’m here to do my version of it. Thank you, Lady Gaga.

Songs and Smiles

Valerie is a new friend of mine.  We met on Thursday at Anne and Ihor’s B&B in Toronto.  We talked about going to the Santa Claus Parade on Sunday afternoon, and just like that … here was Sunday.

Valerie is a devout Christian and wanted to go to a morning service where people really express their joy in the Lord.  Anne told her about a church on Weston Road with mostly black folks and that sounded good.  Valerie suggested we meet after the service but I said I’d love to come.  Yes, I’m a Buddhist, but I love to hear people celebrating their spirituality.

We walked in the front door and were immediately greeted by an elderly woman with the light of Jesus shining in her face.  Truly, we were welcomed.  A Bible study was going on before church, led by the pastor, who also glowed.  He had an accent (I think he was from Sudan), and he spoke some words loudly, others softly.  The bottom line was that I could only make out a few words from each sentence, and therefore I usually couldn’t follow his train of thought.  It didn’t matter.  Love was the communication and I received it loud and clear.  It also seemed to beaming out from many of the parishioners nearby.  Black … white … who cares?  We were together.

Then it was time for singing.  Two women went to the front, accompanied by a keyboard player, drummer and guitarist.  They blasted out the lyrics and tunes … praising Jesus.  The pastor was dancing.  So, it appeared, was everyone else.  I moved and grooved and sung, without throwing my hands to the sky with Valerie and the others.  We were alive!

One of the leaders asked if there was anyone new in church today and I threw up my hand.  “What’s your name?”  >  “Bruce”  >  “And your friend?”  >  “Valerie” soared from Valerie’s lips.  So cool.

At the end of the service, we were presented with little gift bags, containing a can of pop, a package of potato chips, and a pen.  “Thanks for joining us.  Please come back.”  And I will, when I return to Toronto in January.   I know when I’m wanted.

And smiles come in all colours.

 

Just Opening My Mouth

Why not?  What’s the purpose of keeping it shut, worried about what some person might think?  Silly.  Let the real Bruce flow.  Some will love me for it.  Some will be disgusted.  Some will be afraid.  I welcome them all.

Halfway through this morning, the bell rang to announce the beginning of recess.  I mentioned to Jeremy that I was going to Toronto next week to see the same concert twice: a tribute to the Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers, who died of smoke inhalation in a plane in 1983.  Perhaps strangely (you decide), I’m doing the same thing this week, with the target of my affection being Leonard Cohen.

Jeremy didn’t know Stan’s music but immediately went to YouTube for the song I mentioned, one that some people think should replace “O Canada” as our national anthem: Northwest Passage.

Ah, for just one time
I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea

Tracing one warm line
Through a land so wide and savage
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea

Three or four kids had stayed in at recess, working on their poetry homework.  Hearing Stan’s deep baritone voice again sent me away.  I started singing the chorus … full-throated, nothing held back.  It was Stan and me and the kids.  A couple of them gaped.  One smiled.  I kept singing.  At one point, I was so happy that I threw my cell phone about three feet in the air (and caught it on the way down).  Not a wise move, I agree, but the feeling of free coursed through me.  My cells were singing too.

Next was The Mary Ellen Carter.  I sang.  Then 45 Years (Stan’s love song to his wife).  I sang.  Kids watched.  All was well.

***

Tonight was the Quarter Auction at the arena.  Two hundred women and me.  Actually, there was another guy.  He was one of the many vendors spread around the perimeter of the room.  These folks were selling cool stuff for the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.  Not a single item for the garage.  That’s okay.  As a general statement, I like women more than men.

Each item to be auctioned required a bid of a quarter or two.  Then we’d hold up our paddles and see if our number was called.  I sat with “Barb” and her two daughters plus two of her friends.  I kept putting too many quarters in the little bowl, just for fun.  When my companions weren’t looking, I’d slip quarters into their little purses, just for fun.  And when the announcer corrected herself from “Ladies” to “Ladies and One Gentleman”, I leapt up with a “Yes!”  That was fun, too.

Towards the end of the evening,  I heard “78”, which just happened to be my number.  I jumped up, slammed my paddle on the table and skipped over a woman holding the necklace I’d won.  People cheered and laughed.  Me too.

There was a gorgeous blue stone set in the pendant.  Since I didn’t have a thing to wear with it, I gave it to one of Barb’s daughters.  She smiled.  Me too.

***

So it’s been a day.

I might as well throw myself out there into the world.  What’s there to lose?  Maybe blending, shrinking, averaging.  I can let those go.  Expressing is far more fun.

 

Friends of Fiddler’s Green

This is a folk music group which was founded in 1971.  Last night at the Cuckoo’s Nest in London, Ontario, five fellows treated us to accordion, guitars, keyboard and a tiny squeeze box, as well as impassioned singing.  The musicians used to play at the old Fiddler’s Green folk club in Toronto.  They played songs and tunes from wide in the world, some raucous and some tender.

I got the last chair in the place, back and to the left of the keyboard player.  I was immersed in sound.  Closing my eyes and tapping out the rhythms on my thighs came naturally.  And so did watching Jeff’s fingers fly over the keys.  Propped up in front of him was a little notebook, with only a few hen scratches shown for each song … and yet he played such beautiful runs!

Usually there was a chorus where we the audience could sing along.  What joy to reach a harmony or two amid the sweet melodies.  I love the blending of voices – it both sends me away and drops me inside.

Our choir throbbed inside an old Tom Paxton folk song – “The Last Thing On My Mind”:

As I lie in my bed in the morning
Without you, without you
Each song in my breast dies a-borning
Without you, without you

Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind

Oh my God … we were so fine.  We knew the humanity within the words.  And the instruments soared with us.

Alistair Brown is a very funny guy.  Between his singing and playing, he peppered us with jokes:

(A man and his young son)

Daddy, why is the sky blue?

I don’t know, son.

Daddy, how do birds fly?

I’m really not sure, son.

Daddy, do people live out there in space?

I really don’t know, son.

Daddy, do you mind me asking you all these questions?

No, son.  If you don’t ask questions, how are you ever going to learn things?

It was a delightful evening.  From my angle, I got to look at a lot of glowing faces in the audience.  We stood at the end.

 

This Old Guitar

I made a promise to you folks two days ago that I would play my guitar yesterday … and I did.  It had been so many years and I didn’t even know if I could remember how to tune it.

I smiled as I pulled out the guitar case from its shelf and undid the clasps.  Am I really beginning again?  Apparently so.  There sat my friend with its strap laid tenderly over the strings.

In my hands now, the instrument felt right.  “Welcome home,” it seemed to say.  I resurrected memories of group guitar lessons in Ottawa in 1971 or so.  And there I was last night, tuning.

Use the pitch pipe to get the right sound for the low E string.  Place your left index finger in front of the fifth fret on the next string – the A.  Play the two strings, one after the other.  The two notes should sound identical.  If they’re slightly off, you should feel a vibration in tone.  If they’re right on, no vibration.  Wow, it’s actually coming back!

Continue the process on the next strings.  Strum them all with your flat pick.  Be extremely happy when the sound is wonderful.  Yes!  Except for the fact that I couldn’t put much pressure on the strings with my fingertips, and that adds up to a buzzing.

Okay, so some of my chords were a buzz.  The cool thing is that my fingers remembered where to go … C, F, G, D, Am, Bm, Dm and Em.  Four major chords and four minor ones – I can play a lot of songs with just those beauties!

I used to bemoan that I didn’t know how to fingerpick, and that I couldn’t move my left fingers out of the chord shape to hit individual notes.  Would I like to do these things?  Sure.  A guitar teacher could help me.  But sitting here right now, it doesn’t feel important.  All right.  Then what is important?

1.  I want to sing beautiful songs, ones that tell a story about life

2.  I want other people to hear me sing them

3.  I want other people to be touched by the stories, and to sense how they apply to their lives

I can do this.  First, I need to create some calluses on my fingertips, so I can play for longer than five minutes.  I have to learn some songs – know the chords, memorize the words.  And I have to convince someone to listen to me.  I can do this.

I started singing and playing last night … “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”.  I loved my voice and I loved hearing the guitar filling in the tones.  Was it performance ready?  Not at all.  But, to use a martial arts term, I had put myself on the mat.  The guitar was on my lap.  The words came out of my mouth.  The chords moved with the words.  Happiness.

I thought of John Denver, one of my favourite songwriters.  He loved playing too:

This old guitar taught me to sing a love song
It showed me how to laugh and how to cry
It introduced me to some friends of mine
And brightened up some days
It helped me make it through some lonely nights
Oh, what a friend to have on a cold and lonely night

New friends are coming my way.

Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound

Okay, so what do I want to do with the rest of my life?  There are many things that draw me – meditation, sacred relationships, cycling, spending time with kids.  And then there was the package that arrived in the mail today.  It consisted of two books, each offering the lyrics and guitar chords for 1200 songs.

Thirty years ago, I wrote out the titles to 100 songs I wanted to learn – singing and playing guitar.  My results so far?  Zero.  But here I sit, wanting to sing for people, wanting to touch them with stories that open the heart.  The dissenting voice inside says there’s only so much time left in my life.  A guy can have too many projects, can’t he?  And anyway, where am I going to find folks to sing to?

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a house in London where Christine and John host folk music concerts every Wednesday evening.  I had a great time.  Maybe they’ll let me sing one of these months.

Do I really want to invest the time to learn old songs?  Well … I could start with one, such as this pensive tale from Tom Paxton:

I’ve been wanderin’ through this land just doin’ the best I can
Tryin’ to find what I was meant to do
And the people that I see look as worried as can be
And it looks like they are wonderin’ too

And I can’t help but wonder
Where I’m bound, where I’m bound
Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound

Wouldn’t listeners find it easy to ask themselves the very same question?  Yes, I think they would.

But what about my guitar skills?  They’re pretty rudimentary and it’s been so long since I’ve played.  So?  I guess it depends on how badly you want to do this, Mr. Kerr.  You decide.

Okay.  I will pick up my guitar tomorrow and see what happens.  That’s a promise.

Time for bed.

Christmas Eve

My goal yesterday was to go to four carol services and one lovely dinner with friends.  It ended up being 3 and 1.  And what adventures I had!

Stop number one was a service at Belmont United Church at 10:45 am.  Oh we sang, as did the choir.  My favourite moment was when the minister stood in front of us.  He’s retiring next week.  He told the church members that he had made mistakes as their spiritual leader, and with his hand on his heart, asked for their forgiveness.  A stunning moment in time.  He was so genuine and so naked before us.

Service number two was out in the country near Belmont, Ontario, at St. James Presbyterian Church.  I didn’t expect to know anyone.  As I sampled the goodies laid out before the service, a fellow in a clerical collar approached me in welcome.  A lovely thing to do.  He was perhaps 70.  Minutes later, a woman probably in her 30’s came by to talk.  Her last name was the same as the minister’s, and I blurted out unthinkingly, “I just met your husband.”  “Oh … that was my dad.”  My yappy internal voice launched into “Bruce, you’re so stupid.  Look at the age difference.”  But then a remarkable thing happened:  My quiet voice simply said “It’s all right, Bruce.  You’re a human being and you made a mistake.”  And poof!  My embarrassment and fear disappeared.  Magical.  And I’m so blessed that sometimes I can pull myself out of prolonged pain.

An old colleague of mine invited me to sit with her and her family during the service.  More bold singing filled the sanctuary.  At the end, Elizabeth asked me what I was doing on Christmas Day.  I said “Nothing”, which is true.  After an exploratory conversation on her part, she invited me to Christmas dinner.  My mind raced.  I sure didn’t want anyone feeling obligated to have me.  At the same time, here was a woman offering me a gift.  What a disservice it would have been to say no.  So 5:00 pm today finds me in a lovely home with an old friend and some new ones.

Dinner at Leah’s place.  What an amazing chef she is.  Drop the librarian job, my friend, and open your own restaurant.  I had a great time with her family and a “bestie” couple.

My wife Jody and I enjoyed watching “The Polar Express” just before Christmas, but since she died I haven’t seen the film.  It makes me sad.  So what does Leah do after supper but pull out the book and read us the story!  Someone somewhere (my dear wife, I expect) is looking after me.

I had a phone call scheduled with my friend Sarah in New York City.  We met during the three-month meditation retreat.  I had promised to recite “Twas The Night Before Christmas” … normal speed and super fast.  So I did it, drawing forth little squeaks and laughter from Sarah and her roommate.  It made me happy to make my friend happy.

We were having a snowstorm and I decided during the call to skip my last plan of the day: going to a carol sing in the Old St. Thomas Church, circa 1824, 20 kilometres away.  It’s a beautiful old white building … and unheated!  After I hung up, I sat on the couch, my face tightening.  I remembered when Jody and I were visiting her brother Lance and his family in Drayton Valley, Alberta one winter.  We were staying in a motel and one night around 3:00 am Lance phones and says “You have to get up and see the Northern Lights.  They’re spectacular!”  Drowsily, I thanked him and pulled up the covers.  (Sigh)

“Not this time, Bruce.”  So I headed out into the weather, armed with a toque, mitts and four layers of warm stuff.  An hour later, thirty of us held candles and songsheets.  I blasted out the bass part of “O Come All Ye Faithful” with breath before my eyes and heart soaring.

It was a day.