Septuagenarian Hobbit: Brussels con.

( the 4th in a series in which I examine my Hobbit-like reluctance to travel)

The street in Bois Fort, a district of Brussels, is narrow and lined with attached houses, many of which were once businesses. My brother Rob’s house used to be a bakery for example. The ovens used to be in a building in back, separated from the kitchen and store front by a small yard. The two buildings are now one and the ovens have been replaced by a fireplace. You can still see where the counter stood on the tiles in the living room and there is a tin sign hanging on a wall on which the prices of the various loaves could be written in in chalk.

As always people drop in. They don’t call first or even text. They just show up. If there is a meal on offer, they share it. They may even bring their wash.

I live in an “old” suburb of Toronto. The only people who ring my doorbell are from the Jehovah Witness program. I don’t even, anymore, get those annoying people who demand to see your utility bill because they can save you money. The rare visitor gives me fair warning of impending arrival.

I remember that open door policy here in Bois Fort even on my last visit 20 years ago. Whether it is actually a neighborhood phenomenon or my brother’s influence I can’t say. I remember that as a young teenager, he more or less lived with a neighbour, so communal living may come readily to him.

Across the street live two octogenarians that he calls his little old ladies. Their cottage sits four feet below the street on which it once sat level. It is freshly painted and has an indoor toilet now because of Rob. They protest that they don’t need these fancy new gadgets like water heaters, but they seem glad of his visits and the roast chicken he buys for them at the Sunday market. Sundays they get no meals on wheels, another thing he arranged for them. They are Bruxellois and although they speak French, their actual dialect is a language peculiar to that group.

They are not the only marginalized people Rob has adopted. He is mentoring a young man with mental challenges, teaching him the value of wearing his teeth and underwear, for example. The lame and the halt find sympathy here. He has a firm belief that we owe it to the world to make it a better place, no matter how annoying the process can be.

Why? We four siblings had every opportunity to become homeless addicts. While it is true our parents were hard workers who professed to love us, we lived in fear for our lives, constantly vigilant. At any moment, our father might take it into his head to beat us or our mother might try to drown us in the bathtub. Mental health issues! Ya think? In fact, three of us ended up in the teaching/preaching game and Rob, who was in a more creative line, took that vow to make life better for others. And did it laughing. Mostly. But if that kid doesn’t wear his teeth….

What’s not to like? Monastic me with the silent doorbell, practically imploded the other night as the table and then the family room filled up with laughing people. Long bouts of French too fast for me to follow made me go off line. Mostly translations followed so that stories got laughed at twice and that was, if anything, more overwhelming.

I have to do a certain amount of self-mentoring. I am in no danger of leaving my teeth out, but I have to tell me to relax. There is no danger here. These people actually like each other. My brother has gathered them around him, baggage and all. Despite illness and  grave prospects, there is a pocket of hope on this cobbled, narrow street.

Jack and Charlie: a study in compassion

Jack and Charlie lived at Wild Heart Ranch in Oklahoma in the care of Annette Tucker who has fostered 16,000 animals since she got her permit. Jack was a 16 year-old goat when the story began and Charlie, a horse blind in one eye.

I learned their story on an episode of the program Nature on PBS featuring unusual relationships between animals. I don’t usually watch Nature because, although I can watch any amount of mayhem involving people, I can’t stand watching animals suffer. But this one was full of good news. A retriever and a cheetah raced each other and had play fights, having been paired as puppy and cub, as did a lion and coyote. A gorilla hugged its dog friend. An owl and a pussycat played games. A female deer adopted a blind dog  and groomed his hair into spikes every morning. But it was Jack and Charlie that blew me away.

At first, Jack walked on the side of Charlie’s good eye when he guided him to a favourite patch of grass in the woods. Then when Charlie lost his sight in the remaining eye, Jack walked ahead of him and, according to Annette Tucker, Charlie followed the sound of Jack’s footsteps, which he could distinguish from other horses’ or people’s.

Once in tornado weather, Jack came running home screaming. As soon as he got a response, he set off running back into the woods where Annette found Charlie trapped in a circle of downed trees, a real Lassie moment -“Timmy’s in the well. Timmy’s in the well.”

To see Jack plodding along, as he did for 16 years, you cannot explain this dedication. Jack doesn’t seem to get any reward for his efforts nor does he seem especially happy to be doing it. He just goes on doing what needs to be done year after year. He never dawdles along the path, snacking now and again, as he did before Charlie went blind. He walks slowly and steadily about 10 or 15 feet ahead, waiting when Charlie gets confused.

When Charlie dies in his favourite pasture, Jack rests his head on the fallen horse briefly. Then he gets up, walks the path alone and lies down in his usual spot to sleep, apparently unmoved. Does he understand his friend is dead? Evidently, for from that point on, Jack declines. We see a much weaker animal making his way to the woods to graze. In the end, he is buried there beside his friend.

Remarkably, two members of my family, who never watch Nature either, saw the same episode and so I had a little discussion forum. One of them hypothesized that these were highly evolved souls. The other said it was just a case of companionship and that was Jack’s reward.

Scientific studies have found that people who help others are healthier and live longer. It  kept Jack going for a great number of goat-years. Giving others what they need can be a satisfying experience. We feel connected when we do and this  good feeling translates into well-being.

Jack gave me insight into the nature of compassion. It isn’t a sentiment or even an emotion; it is an action. Jack registered a need and responded to it. He provided a model for me.