Monday, 21 December 2015

Same Old, Same Old WOW!

The worn-out story of Christmas is told again this week, acted out in ridiculous and charming children’s pageants, or solemnly revered at artistic crèches by priests with incense wafting. Our familiarity can blind us to any connection with modern life.
At the same time, thousands ignore or scorn what they consider a fairy tale for naïve adults, the equivalent of Santa Claus with his flying reindeer.
It’s challenging to see beyond our culture’s conflation of consumerism with its strangely seasonal compassion for the poor. Is Christ's birth worth celebrating?

In fact, the old bible story has contemporary spiritual themes: our yearning for positive change, our perpetual struggle against destructive egotism, and our battle between fear and hope. The characters in the nativity drama, like other ordinary people in bible stories, show us our human options.

Mary, for instance, was shocked by her private situation, an unwed pregnancy in a patriarchal tribe. Somehow she decided to stand firm and trust her own encounter with God’s outrageous promises.

Joseph was confused and embarrassed by his fiancee’s circumstance. Despite his social conditioning, he, too, went with God’s counter-cultural advice.

Sheep herders on the night shift were changed from nobodies to insiders when they heard gob-smacking news about a nearby miracle. Instead of pooh-poohing their wild vision of angels shouting, “Don’t be afraid anymore. God has a peace plan!” they ran off to see if it was true.

Foreign scholars were wise enough to be humble in their pursuit of knowledge and eventually discovered the unimaginable. 

Lacking such wisdom or humility, King Herod in his corrupting robes of power, gave in to ego’s lure. Hundreds of babies were murdered because of his raging tantrum. He gained nothing.

Anna and Simeon waited for decades, longing for a dream to come true; would their world ever be delivered from oppression? They refused to give up on God.

Common, but always miraculous, a newborn baby lay in naked vulnerability. Did Eternal Love in fact risk everything for brand new possibilities?

These characters made their choices as we keep making ours. In disaster, or ease, or tedium, may we hear, “Don’t be afraid. There’s great news! You’re not in this alone.”

Welcome to Christmas, dear Reader.

Monday, 14 December 2015

You Are

You are
…in the winsome sound of a men’s choir singing with utter precision the pensive Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?” 

…in the servant attitude of a teenager willing to travel between towns to wash windows and put up a Christmas tree for his older relatives.

…in the fierce confidence of a little girl who’s going to be a tiger for the church’s Christmas pageant.

You are the empathy of a worker at the deli counter, her slow pace keeping me waiting until she handed me sliced corned beef with a friendly smile and complimented my jacket. I walked away and then did a u-turn to thank her for her cheerfulness. When I told her about my husband’s illness, saying that her attitude had lifted my spirits, she frowned with concern and cooed hope for us.

…in the rescuing initiative of neighbours who united to sponsor a family of war refugees for immigration to Canada. 

…in the reassuring welcome of an easy-going radiation tech who greets cancer patients with a grin.

You are
…in the vulnerability of a rough-looking beggar who approached our group for money outside a downtown restaurant where we had enjoyed salmon and crème caramel at our annual Christmas dinner. 

…in the generous spirit of an atheist friend who chose a Christmas card for me that sparkles in huge red and green letters, “GOD IS GOOD”. 

Please, High Holy Mystery of Love, help us to recognize  where You are in our messed up world.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Careful Editing

( Dear friends who subscribe to my blog by email, please note that it’s a prettier read if you go to my blogsite instead of your inbox. One day I will switch to a better method of access.)

Writers all struggle with the editing process, even if their only editor is themselves. What should I put out there to readers and what needs deleting?

For instance, it seems nervy to describe in public my own grief and confusion during my husband’s brain cancer illness, when our story pales beside others far worse. Mid-Eastern  refugees are living in unsanitary tent cities. Those mothers hold their sick babies close while fathers guard the family's worldly possessions in a bundle about the size of my garbage can.
Our family's current challenge is nothing compared to theirs. The stress of facing a medical team who rattle off incomprehensible jargon and hand over wads of instructions while leaving the exam room does not equal the terror of facing armed soldiers who bar a border crossing. 

Edit carefully.
I don't want readers distracted by my words of self-doubt such as above, or to feel they need to respond with advice, to save me somehow from any negativity. 
But I firmly believe that mixed feelings about life are natural and healthy. Writers from King David through to Ann Lamott have described the seesaw between glory and gloom. Devout followers of Jesus remember that Jesus himself felt abandoned by God. 

Ideally, we consciously choose what to do with our emotions. Like many, I sometimes decide to write them out, not just in a private journal but in public. It’s a sacred wonder that my personal stories occasionally encourage others. What an honour!

I hope readers give at least equal attention to my joy in the ongoing sparks that can illuminate a dim day with bright delight.
Here are some recent shiny moments.
One neighbour bought a grocery item we needed, saving me an extra hair-raising drive through Toronto’s traffic. Another took my wristwatch to have a new battery installed, shortening my list of tiresome tasks. Of course these are errands I could have done for myself, but my days are newly tiring so a neighbour’s favour helps keep me functioning.

Women at church sent my husband and myself each a cozy “prayer shawl”, hand-knit with love. Wrapped in the woolly warmth we feel God’s consolation.

Last week, my husband enjoyed two nights beside Lake Ontario at a corner-windowed hotel room, upgraded by a sympathetic manager. He needed a day away to regroup, and found the 36 hours calming and inspiring. He reminded me that hotel rooms are more comfortable than convents. :-))

While he was away, I spent the day following my inclinations, one hour walking an outdoor labyrinth while listening for Sophia*, another hour happily buying gifts at a beautiful Nature store, and several hours reading. 

Recently we had fun taking grandchildren to see the animated Christmas window displays that include a charming underfloor mouse-house. We ate a one-star meal at a deli where we played our family's traditional “Pass the sugar packet” waiting game, and smiled at a six year old’s refusal to order a hotdog because the Children's Menu described it as “beef”, an idea that was confusing and off-putting to her. 

At a Christmas coffee party with new church friends
I received lots of lingering hugs and enjoyed seeing the elaborate Christmas decorations in the host’s gorgeous home. My aesthetic sense appreciated the break from hospital waiting rooms.

A member of my husband’s book club brought us an unusual present, a Ganesha mask. This friend thought of us because the Hindu god is known for help during difficulty. 

I wish I could divide up all my resources and supportive relationships to share them out with the thousands in Lebanon or in Toronto hospitals who lack such riches. 
I will do what I can to help, pray to accept life’s confusing fusion, and keep on celebrating. 
Thanks be to God.

* “Sophia” is an English version of the name that means wisdom. Wisdom is personified in the Bible book, Proverbs, Chapter 8, so some of us use it as one of many names for God.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Off Balance

This is the weirdest experience. 
Maybe a sorcerer transported me. Maybe I’ve been cast in the TV show “Once Upon a Time” where characters travel back and forth between their fairy tale lives (Snow White, Peter Pan, etc.) and modern reality.

In the past, if I heard that someone’s husband had been diagnosed with brain cancer, or was in some other dreadful crisis, I’d feel sick for them and wonder how they could function at all. Wouldn’t they be on the floor raving with pain or fear?
I’d eye grieving spouses at funerals, chatting with guests, appearing “clothed and in their right mind,”* and think,
“You must be part of an entirely different species. I could never cope the way you are coping.”

Now, here am I, down the rabbit hole. 
Even our considerate and careful surgeon referred to the pathology reports with the comment, 
“It doesn’t get much worse than this.” 
But who can believe such news? How can we imagine that death may actually be approaching much sooner than expected? Or that disability might increase to unbearable degrees? 
So far our lives continue normally…but not.

As I monitor pill-taking and chauffeur my cheerful husband who always preferred the driver’s seat, I feel disoriented. 
Last Sunday I went to church and spoke calmly to friends about our new situation. I laughed at the jokes in a discussion group.
But my dear neighbour looks so serious as she hugs me after hearing the news. 
Why are people bringing us generous surprises of home made meals? I’m not sick – and then suddenly, tears of stress well up. I am sustained by such kind comfort food.
Yes, I hauled the snow tires to the mechanic’s for the first time - no problem - but then, when I dropped them off, I didn’t know the answers to questions he asked. Seasonal tire-change hadn’t been my job.
Who’s supervising our money? My almost fine CFO husband who’s always been a controlling comptroller of our family finances? Money-know-nothing me? Newly designated helpers? I’ve never found group assignments easy.  This is so confusing.

A word that comes to mind is “liminal”. Besides liking the word’s texture in my mouth, its meaning feels familiar: in between, like having one foot on either side of a threshold. Am I in or am I out? Neither and both. Most of us are in between in some sense, never quite there, but on the way. Waiting and uncertainty are the norm in liminal-land. 

Of course this is exactly where Christian faith takes us whether we like it or not (NOT). God’s ideal for a healed and peaceful humanity burgeoned in Jesus, but how can this miserable world be governed by a loving God?! Look around at the crowds of wounded souls, bleeding out despair or revenge, some wreaking havoc in their pain. 

The preachers say that God’s peaceable kingdom is “now and not-yet”.  Such nonsensical but precisely accurate description can make you feel like tearing your hair out. 
And yet, compassion and beauty abound even during brain cancer.  Why is there peace and gratitude in my frustrated, scaredy heart?  Only God knows.

*An expression from Luke 8:35, used casually by my fundamentalist parents whose primary literary reference was the Bible.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Beat Goes On

Thank goodness for funny moments.
I suggested to my husband that, as we waited another day for news about his brain illness, we listen to a significant CD together. 
He thought he’d lie down on the couch to hear it. It is a very touching CD by Steve Bell, with music and thoughtful words about dark times. Soon after the album began, as I was grabbing kleenex to wipe my tears, I heard my husband snoring, fast asleep. 
Off to bed he went for a nap while I continued to hear the CD’s wise comfort. 

A few years ago this Canadian musician put out the album called “Solace”, at the suggestion of a dying friend. The music CD comes with a second CD of Steve’s radio interview with several people. They discuss the difficult issue of Christian belief in an all-loving God who allows suffering. Obviously this conundrum has been a puzzle for the ages and comes without any solution, no matter how much faith we have.

During the show, besides a chat with my nephew Dr. John Stackhouse about his helpful book, Can God Be Trusted?, Steve also talked with Lydia Harms. Years ago she was widowed and left to raise four young children by herself. As a long time devout follower of Jesus, she was furious with the way God had let her down by allowing her husband to die so young. 
Not being a shrinking violet she responded aloud to some of the mindless comments people made in their awkward attempts to be polite or helpful during her grieving. One poor man at the funeral wished her, “All the best”. 
“All the best?!” she responded, “I just buried it!"
I think she refrained from actually hitting him.

I need no lesson about raging at God. S/He and I are long comfortable with that kind of honest relationship; God’s love has proved unconditional. 
What I found interesting was Lydia Harms’ admission that her fury at life’s injustice and at God’s mysterious silence in response, still erupts from time to time, even many years after her husband’s death. 
Her mixed and even paradoxical experience of celebrating God’s goodness one minute and feeling angry hopelessness the next, mirrors my own. 

As I wander through the new set of circumstances foisted on me recently, I might sound to others like either a determined spiritual pilgrim, in my gratitude for God’s faithfulness, or like an expert at distraction (three cheers for Netflix), or like a loser Christian who doesn’t really believe any of the bible’s Easter story when things get rough. And yup, that’s exactly what I am, all three of those. 

I am not ashamed of this admission. Only if God is truly greater than our weakest weakness, is there any point to Christian faith.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Sweet Storm

Soup, muffins, candy, banana bread, chili, lemon pie, salads, strawberries and more soup. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. 
As my family and I wait in limbo, one minute laughing at TV comedy, the next crying in a neighbour’s tight hug, my heart needs all the comfort it can get.

I have done nothing to deserve the gifts that keep arriving during the onslaught of my husband’s brain cancer 
(Shh, don’t tell the surgeons. We’ve already guessed the truth that they won’t mention before test results confirm).
Sometimes I wail with fear at this unfair disaster storming in on my family. Other times I tear up at people’s kindness and generosity. 

Our neighbours cleaned out our eavestroughs and carried the leaf debris to the ditch.
A church acquaintance dropped by with baking and the kind of perfect empathy that only her own painful experience could offer.
Encouraging emails greet me when I click open my inbox, every single one an injection of optimism, to counter my default perspective on life.
A longtime friend of mine repaired a seam on my favourite sweater as my mind buzzed, “Will I need it for a funeral outfit? Will it be cozy in cancer treatment waiting rooms?” 
Others have sent gorgeous flowers and an amaryllis bulb sprouting toward red blooms.
One of our daughter’s friends added insulation to an attic corner so that my husband wouldn’t worry about that item on his to-do list.
A loving relative mailed us a magazine from The Gideons, its glossy pages filled with quotes from the Psalms and peaceful photographs.
The list is so long it’s bound to be incomplete.
Visits and phone calls and concert tickets …

It’s hard to ignore a little demon that keeps hissing in my ear,
“But what did you do for them in their hard times? They’re being so much nicer, behaving so much better than you ever have.” 
I'm tempted to feel ashamed of myself and embarrassed by all of this sweet attention.

Thanks be to God that such destructive thoughts disappear under the flood of lovingkindness provoked by this unwelcome storm. I have earned none of this caring support. I guess it’s called grace.

Bono’s best song, “GRACE”: 
Sorry but you’ll need to copy and paste until one of you shows me how to enter a live link ;-) and furthermore, this song starts with a long instrumental intro, so be patient waiting for the exquisite lyrics.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

We Are Not Amused

How did I get on this ride? 
I didn’t buy a ticket, or get in line. I’m not even tall enough to qualify. Someone made a huge mistake. I’m not at all sure the seat belt and roll bar will keep me from getting hurt. It’s going too fast. I hate this swooping feeling in my stomach.

Three weeks ago we were floating along as usual in our peaceful retirement years.
Today, with gritted teeth, I pulled free two large bandages from my husband’s scalp, cutting any hairs that stuck to the adhesive edges. Good job I have a degree in nursing - not.
Underneath was a six inch long curve of bumpy skin puckered by a row of staples that held his skull together.  Frankenstein monster’s incision is behind his left temple. Bits of dried blood and antiseptic lotion remain. Showers aren’t allowed yet. Gross.

This is his first day home after brain surgery to remove as much as possible of an anomalous growth that had suddenly affected his speech. Ever ridden in an ambulance? First time I’ve dialled 911.

The tissue has gone off to a lab somewhere where someone will test it and do their best to report specific information to the surgeons. There is also a fourth (fifth? sixth?) MRI test being read and analysed by someone else somewhere else. Don’t ask me.

No one knows the diagnosis yet, let alone the prognosis. Three weeks ago we were whisked willy-nilly to these monstrous carnival grounds where nothing makes sense, and dragged onto a nasty midway ride controlled by complete strangers. Each healthcare carny politely tries to answer our stunned questions but the answers conflict and one worker is soon replaced by a new face on duty.

Who’s the manager here? What’s going on?

Hang on, my friend, just wait and see.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sumach Thanksgiving

In an autumn meadow, sumach saplings crowd together, their thin stalks fuzzed like adolescent antlers. The young shrubs sprout horizontal branches, each bearing two rows of delicate oval leaves. Like pennants, varicoloured in lime green and olive with sunset streaks of orange and violet, the leaves hang in opposed symmetry.
Older sumachs above stretch longer limbs draped with wine-red flags.

Creative artistry and all sciences fuse here. Think fractals, solar system, architecture and synthesis. Think...

The wild field’s treasure includes tiny yellow snapdragons and miniature white daisies. Here and there, unmown clover plants have spread into fountains, each stem capped with a purple busby. Khaki grasses stand toe to toe by the thousands. 
Rustling trees swaying high against the grey sky, play a soundtrack for October's sensory feast.

Look closely.
Not one petal or leaf is perfect, flawfree; there is brokenness and scarring all round. Indeed, Nature is preparing her annual graveyard.
But oh, the irresistible beauty. 

"The Spirit of God
Is a life that bestows life,
Root of world-tree
And wind in its boughs.

Scrubbing out sin
She rubs oil into wounds.

She is glistening life
Alluring all praise,

(Hildegard of Bingen)

Blessed Thanksgiving Day to All!

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Hidden Majesty

Once upon a time, behind an ordinary house in an ordinary neighbourhood, there appeared an art installation of gasping wonder. 
High above an old wooden deck the piece spanned a metre of thin air. It was anchored by invisible guy wires attached to the leafy branches of a so-called “junk” Manitoba Maple tree. 

The exquisite weaving glistened silver in the morning light.  Its complexity was dazzling. 
Fine threads formed a delicate hexagonal plane that slowly undulated in the soft breeze. Dewy moisture lit each strand in hope that humanity might notice Nature’s impossible design.  

Two lucky people stood beneath, heads tipped back, eyes startled wide, hearts burning within them.  An hour later evaporation made the wild, wet web disappear. 

"You are worthy, our God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they exist. " 
Psalm 104

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Charlotte Strikes Again

Between my house and my neighbour’s there is only a narrow walkway. Every time I carry my gardening tools from the garage along this short route to the backyard, I get “pranked”. Apparently the small gap between buildings is an ideal span for stringing up a bug-trapping web; every single time, a cobweb catches me in the face. I frantically brush away the sticky gauze, hoping that the spider itself isn’t now lodged in my hair or clothing. It’s an unwelcome surprise but it always makes me laugh at myself. 
“Oh Charlotte, you got me again.” 

My perception of spiders changed after reading the touching children’s story, Charlotte’s Web. Since then I have looked at spiders fondly, even as I occasionally dispatch an unwelcome one in my basement. Sometimes my inner Buddhist can’t be bothered releasing anthropoid intruders outdoors. These spider mothers reproduce too prolifically to qualify as house pets.

In the story, a spider named Charlotte is a wise advisor and faithful coach for Wilbur, the doomed pig who shares her barn. She encourages him by spinning legible compliments like “Some Pig”, “Terrific”, “Radiant” and, finally, ”Humble”.
When her dying time nears, she teaches him that all life is bound to a cycle of birth and death. He must soon say goodbye to his beloved friend. Sob. The bittersweet story ends with Charlotte’s many babies newly born as spider friends for Wilbur.

Like Charlotte, my husband and I are well into our senior years; we need wisdom and encouragement for facing this stage of multiplying changes. We’re reading aloud an excellent book by Lewis Richmond, speaking of Buddhists, Aging as a Spiritual Practice.
In the same tone as the bible takes in its remarkable third chapter of the book called "Proverbs", Richmond reminds us that though we cannot control the changes life brings, we can rest in the fact that we are deeply and reliably loved. Although he is a self-proclaimed atheist he heard "someone" in his mind assuring him of this eternal truth.

If we can hang on through his described “lightening strikes”, learn to “accept” our current reality, and make the necessary “adaptations,” we can win through to  the peaceful and positive stage of “appreciation”. 

Christianity aligns here. As one church minister emphasized, it was neither Christ’s good works of justice and mercy nor his resurrection that best epitomized what God is like. When Jesus willingly surrendered to an agonizing execution, God's glory (essential nature) blazed the brightest. In his refusal to fight hatred with force, he showed God's limitless love for humanity. Even while asserting, "Don't you understand that I could have asked my Father to send armies of angels for help?" Jesus accepted God’s upside-down, counter-cultural way. 

Life's changes are part of a vast wind that cleans and refreshes. We can trust God that every loss is followed by new life, just down the way.
The next time we get a messy web in the face, may we wipe it off bravely and look forward to the better surprises ahead.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


The grocery store aisle ahead was blocked by a disabled woman whose spine bent so far over her shopping cart that I could barely see the back of her wigged brown head. I reminded myself to be patient and soon was able to ease past, feeling the merest flicker of compassion as I carried on. 
After checkout, I was forced to pause again, this time by a large man and his cart of bottled water in front of me. He had a face and head that looked kind of like a bowling ball covered in whiskers; he was missing a front tooth. Not my kind of person. 
I saw his attention drawn to the same woman now at a counter where she was about to pack her grocery bags despite her contorted posture. He edged closer and with a strong accent asked, “You want some help?” She accepted.
In passing, I tapped his arm gingerly and said “Good for you” as I hustled to the exit.
Sometimes we get a second try. Driving out of the parking lot I noticed him standing near his car. Since there was no traffic behind me, I lowered the passenger window and stopped to call, “You’re a good man!” A smile enhanced his homely face. He replied, “And you are good to say that.” Light all round.
Now that the scaffolding had been removed, I could see the renovated sign on a local Bloor St. hangout called “The Crooked Cue”. I stopped on the sidewalk across the street to figure out why the construction had taken so long. 
In bright white letters I read the same old name with the addition of “Patio, Pool, Food”. Through their new second-floor wall of windows I could see sun umbrellas lit from above by daylight. My little peabrain wondered for a second,
“What? They’ve added a swimming pool?”
In front of our neighbourhood’s Roman Catholic church I noticed a woman looking lost. I asked if I could help and she gestured to the huge building, “I wanted to go in and pray but the construction workers inside are playing such loud music.” I murmured sympathy and suggested another neighbourhood church but we agreed that finding any quiet place is a challenge. She said she would sit on the church steps to pray. Although we didn't even introduce ourselves, I was cheered to meet a fellow praying pilgrim.
Nearing the bakery I noticed a delivery truck at its back door and a couple of rough-looking guys unloading. By the time I parked and entered, one of them, white-haired and beer-bellied (oops, sounds too familiar) with a scruffy beard, had reached the top of the basement stairs just inside the door. We both hesitated politely until he gestured for me to go ahead. 
By coincidence, a few minutes later I was leaving the store at the very time the same man was re-entering. This time he held the door open for me. I walked through laughing and said, “I guess we’re destined to dance together today”. 
I hooted when I heard from behind me, “You betcha, Babe!” Made my day.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Home Again, Home Again

Every time my dad pulled the family car into our driveway, he quoted, “Home again, home again, jiggedy jig”. Later I discovered the nursery rhyme source, but to me the phrase was our family tradition for marking the end of a trip.
Recently, I gained new appreciation for the significance of coming home.

 According to personality tests, I am an introvert. Although I’m loud at parties, and the first kid with my hand up in any class, I need to balance social interaction with plenty of time alone. When this summer's calendar held two non-stop weeks of being with relatives and meeting strangers, I knew I was heading for trouble. 
Both events were welcome, one week with my three daughters and their families, and a second week in Austin, Texas with relatives and other guests at my great-niece's wedding. However, had the choice been mine, I would not have scheduled such visits back to back.

During the preceding weeks I asked God to give me patient stamina and unselfish love. I had little faith that I could sail peacefully through the tiring, though valued, interactions, and required group activities, along with the added buzzing of  seven dear children who ranged in age from 2 to 11. 
Help me, please!

Sure enough, the fortnight was draining. I slept, or rather tried to sleep, in guest rooms and motels, nursing an attack-cold all the while. Up and down subway stairs, through tedious airports and during long highway drives, I kept smiling (there are photos) and doing the next thing expected of me. Fatigue increased as I tried to be a good mom and grandmother, a sweet aunt and sister.
“God, please keep my tongue from saying anything critical or cranky.”
As usual, my faithful husband was the one who suffered my private complaints. 
There was no miracle of calm inner seas, but I found surprizing endurance and enjoyed good conversations that deepened relationships. It was a pleasure to watch family and friends have fun together as I dragged myself around in the heat, ready with cough drops and tissues.

Besides illness and fatigue, a third companion on the marathon was my longing for home. I confess that my favourite place on earth is my bed on Humbervale Boulevard. Denied it for two whole weeks (and not on retreat at a hushed convent), I felt like I was only half alive. I staggered from the overload of noise, activity and strong emotions, not alone enough to regain stability. 

God did give me one quiet break, just long enough to catch a second wind. On our first morning in Austin, my husband shook me awake at the motel saying,
 “It’s 8:30. Are you coming for breakfast?” 
Nothing excites him like a free breakfast, no matter its quality. I groaned and stayed in bed until he returned with a sheepish apology, “Oops, I forgot the time change. It was only 7:30.”
As a morning person I was, by then, fully awake and talked him into going immediately to a local labyrinth I’d seen on-line. After that we’d head to Starbucks for real coffee. 
The meditative walk along a labyrinth’s looping path often calms my spirit and helps align my thoughts to God’s better perspective. 

We soon found ourselves, early enough for the breeze to be cool, under shade trees on a spacious property owned by Christ Episcopal Church, Cedar Park. At the opening to the lovely stone-lined labyrinth walkway, I stopped to settle down and to open my needy, tired heart to God. Into my mind came a motherly “There, there”. 
Instead of divine correction of my self-pity I heard tender reassurance.
It felt like getting a letter from home when I was away at summer camp.
I spent a silent hour doing the prayerful, circling walk and ended with more hope for the busy week ahead.

The second exhausting week was a little like a disorienting visit to OZ. This Dorothy encountered challenges and many  happy times, including one that gave her a new perspective on the concept of home. 
One of my nieces and her husband had already raised two capable (smart and beautiful) daughters to adulthood when they, in their Christian faith, took the brave risk of adopting two children, one at a time, each about 6 yrs. old when they moved in. 
The little ones had been tossed to and fro by their need for foster care. Not born siblings, this darling girl and adorable boy have found camaraderie in their similar histories, the details of which are too horrifying to describe. For a while now they have been cared for by devoted, wise parents who are gradually helping them to believe that they have truly come home.
Hearing about the past for these little ones and witnessing the beautiful contrast in their present situation, I imagined what they must feel. For most of their lives they lived without the security of a real home, that ideal place where we’re safe and free to be our unveiled selves. Now, every morning, they awoke in their own bedrooms ready for hugs and laughter with their forever family. 

My story here about two weeks of family visits is a shallow comparison to any orphan’s or refugee’s painful saga, but when I finally sank onto mine own little bed in Toronto, I almost wept with relief. Oh, the comfort of familiarity and security. At last I could fully relax. 
Ruby slippers off, I sighed, “There’s no place like home”.

How we hope that Christian belief is right, that life after death will feel like arriving where we belong, at home with the One who unfailingly welcomes us in. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

So Thirsty!

Oh, the sweet peace of sitting outside, safe and dry under my front porch roof during a gentle summer rain. The neighbourhood gardens are in full July bloom and I feel their gratitude for today’s wet benediction. Lilies, orange, yellow and cabernet-coloured, raise their trumpets to the sprinkling. White phlox stand tall while golden coreopsis bend their long thin stems gracefully beneath the shower’s gentle weight. Pale purple hosta bells bow their heads. Tough lavender bushes revel like children in the rain. After days of hot sun, underground tree roots must be surreptitiously slurping it up the way I do at my kitchen tap on sweaty afternoons.
The air is pleasantly warm, filled with the whispering sound of thousands of droplets hitting green leaves and dusty pavement.

I can’t sit still any longer - I need to write an ode to water. 

One of my personally canonized saints is Canadian Maude Barlow (see Council of Canadians, the only non-charitable organization to which I regularly donate). She is the political prophet who has been sounding the alarm for decades that we are squandering the very God-given substance that keeps us alive. For God’s sake, stop buying bottled water, I beg you. Mark my words, foreign corporations are draining our water table to get your money and drought-stricken Americans are eyeing Canada’s abundant melting glaciers and rainfall. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A week ago I had the honour of paraphrasing to my Texas children one of my favourite bible stories about water. 
I chose the tale of Jesus, hot and tired from desert travel, sitting without a bucket near a deep well. Along came a lone woman, alien in both gender and race. He asked her for a drink. 
She was no dummy. 
Clearly a thoughtful feminist, she replied wryly, “Why would you, a Jewish rabbi, ask me, a lowly Samaritan woman, to fetch you water?”
Jesus, admiring her comeback, replied with an equally provocative comment, “If you knew who I was you’d be asking me for a drink of living water.”
“What? Ask you? Are you better than our ancestors who dug this well? You don’t even have a bucket with you.”

Instead of attacking her for defying his superior male ranking, Jesus, with tender respect, stated a profound spiritual truth, “Anyone who drinks regular water will soon be thirsty again but anyone who chooses to take in what I’m offering will not only have their spiritual thirst quenched but will be so filled with peace and unconditional love that they will feel as if they have a spring inside of them, a fountain of forgiveness and faith in God that never runs dry.”
Again, she was no dummy. 
“Oh Sir, please give me that water!”

Jesus proceeded with a conversation perfectly tailored to this woman’s own situation. In the end she was so convinced that Jesus was God’s answer to all of life’s death-dealing deserts that she spread the astonishing good news to her whole town. 

Sorry, but I just can’t help it. I always read life as its Author's allegory, like a graphic novel that isn’t fiction or fantasy. Gazing with pleasure on today’s lovely rainy gardens, I, too, swell with gratitude for water, both literal and eternal. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Summer Break

The weathered, slatted rocking chair was a good place to relax. Years ago we carted it home to Ontario from a holiday in North Carolina. Using the chair on the front porch is a bit of a metaphor for life, the comfy to-and-fro rhythm interrupted by bumps when wooden rockers hit the uneven edges of cemented flagstones.

I was taking a break outdoors on a bright, breezy June afternoon, the very best of Toronto’s summer weather. My daughter and her family would soon arrive from Vancouver, and their visit motivated me to get some postponed  housework done. I'd cleaned out the junk drawer and washed the venetian blinds, scrubbed windows and scoured the oven, all tasks that usually don’t even make it to my list. It was a relief to sit down and look around.

Several generations of homeowners have transformed a former market orchard into our neighbourhood of lush, well-tended gardens and clashing styles of architecture.
We moved into our bungalow in the 1970's as our first house.
Apparently it's our only house.

As I rocked, the warm wind stroked my skin and made every tree branch wave. Idly, I noted what species I could see. The variety surprised me. Red Maple, Weeping Cedar, Linden, Japanese Lilac (the city’s choice), Spruce, Ginkgo, Golden Cedar and Birch trees were all within view.

A fuzzy, fat bumblebee grazed on the lavender bushes' new flowers. I imagined lavender-flavoured honey hidden nearby. 
Milkweed plants, our invitation to Monarchs, now stood a metre high and held purple globes of blooms. Does anyone ever notice wild milkweed before the fluff-filled pods appear?
A cream and black butterfly moved between fading white lilac blossoms, her busy ballet contrasting with the flowers’ inevitable dying.

 Out of nowhere zoomed toward me a large bird, but its white-tipped wings lifted it out of sight before I could get a close look. Nature is like its Creator, beautiful and reliable yet full of surprizes, inviting relationship but well beyond my control. 

It was hard to settle into the moment – oh, I should put polish on my toenails...and shake out that dirty doormat...and... 

Thank God that the glorious mystery is always there, waiting for me to pay attention, especially in a growing season. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Underwear Attitude

A clerk asked if she could help me. I was standing in the underwear section of a women’s clothing store. 
“I’m trying to guess which size I need without having to try them on,” I answered.
She, like me, was an older, roundish woman and after looking me up and down, she pronounced that I wasn’t as big as she was (a common fabrication of female solidarity). She told me what size would work and said that it was more economical to buy five pairs than two.
Then came the choice of colour; how many white, black, beige or grey.
“Oh, I just don’t care”, I said, sighing at the tedium.
“Whuh! Attitude!” the clerk corrected. “You have to care.”

I laughed at her command and remembered my bad teenage habit of retorting to my big brother, “I don’t care!” 
He would joke back, “But somebody has to care.”

I took the clerk’s picks to the checkout. She followed me, apparently appraising my behind, and commented, 
“Oh you’re much smaller than I am.” I snorted at the personal evaluation.

While she rang up the bill, I made conversation, telling her that I was buying clothes for a Texas wedding this summer. 
I moaned, “Can you imagine the heat, Texas in July?”

A second of silence passed before we met each other's eyes and said together, “Attitude!” 
Laughing again, I said, "You are so right about focussing on  positive stuff. I think I need you to come home with me."
I left the store feeling sky-high.

A few days later I was in the same mall and remembered a gift my daughter had given me. It’s a box of small cards, each one titled, “Thankyou” with a place to write on the back and a pop-out quote for the recipient to open.
I stopped into the clothing store on the off chance that my “Attitude" life-coach was working, but no. 
Since I was wandering weirdly through the quiet store, hoping to recognize her but not knowing her name, I stopped to explain my behaviour to another worker. She tried to figure out who I meant  and by the time I’d described my previous saleswoman’s friendly, joking personality, her colleague said, 
"Oh, that must have been Jane. She’s the manager but she’s not here today.”
Jane's co-worker happily offered to hand on the mini thankyou note and was effusive about my small gesture. 

From now on, when any negative thought tries to escape my lips, I think I'll hear Jane’s bold reminder, “Attitude!” And I'll smile at the memory.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gasping at Serendipity

Early one Spring, before any green leaves had appeared in Toronto, I noticed in a nearby park a bush whose branches were lined, every inch, with vibrant purple-pink flowers. From a park employee I learned that, contrary to its colour, the bush was named, “Redbud”. In all of my Ontario life I’d not seen this gorgeous magenta bloomer. 
Imagine my surprise, then, when recently I drove past acres of Virginian forests decorated with vivid Redbud bushes.  Here and there the woods were dotted with other trees blooming white or yellow, accentuating the Redbud's neon pink. I could hardly cope with the beauty as we sped along, gasping in grateful awe.
During one stop on the same road trip, I walked through the colonial village of Williamsburg, VA, and happened on a sheep pasture. Two cute lambs stayed close to their grubby, waddling ewe-mothers. Our random group of tourists and locals smiled as we fondly watched the babies. At one point the lambs trotted down a small hill and, as they ran, one leapt straight up, with all four hooves off the ground. Anyone who’s seen new lambs in Springtime knows that these sudden hops look like the little animals are jumping for joy. 
The best surprise was hearing the sound all around me, as complete strangers joined in surprised delight. No one leapt into the air, but pure joy generated our spontaneous chorus of  “Aww’s.”
This, I thought, this is the kind of united “Yes!” that our Creator wants for us.  L’Chaim!
At a hotel elevator, I stood waiting silently beside another guest. I noticed his shoulder bag, looking a bit incongruous on a middle-aged man. Hanging low at his side, the raggedy patchwork of cloth had been worn into a wonky art piece.
“I like your bag”, I said.
His face opened in a big smile,
“Thankyou! This is my favourite bag. I saw it at my brother’s house and admired it and he gave it to me! I’ve used it for seven years!” 
Charming enthusiasm.
At Okrakoke Island, NC, a National Park beach borders miles of the Atlantic Ocean. On the Outer Banks in April, few locals or tourists visit the shore so I was alone with the spectacular expanse of sky, sea and sand. Feeling the breeze on my skin, and hearing waves whooshing rhythmically, I noticed Nature’s extra garnish of the scene. At high tide mark the hard, damp sand was lined with a mosaic of seashells, each one a detailed design of stripes, ridges, multicolours and curves. Gasp. 
Extravagant abundance.

This web address will let you enjoy Jane Sibbery’s song about life’s beauty:

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Gobble, Gobble

It wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas but “gobble, gobble” is the sound I heard in my head.
I realised that I was hurrying through the several subscription emails I receive daily, gobbling them up quickly by only skimming their content.  
This behaviour makes no sense because the point of these particular emails is inspiration. 
I have chosen to read, every morning, a few good writers who carefully craft short pieces about intentional living. This is my attempt to follow the wise advice from the Bible and from current behavioural psychologists: We will be healthier, happier and more productive if we fill our minds with positive and true thoughts, avoiding the negative self-talk that results in discouragement and self-centred wallowing.
Good idea, but too often I rush through these writings in order to get on with my day. I don’t have the excuse of employment or babies that demand my time so why do I gobble up five emails without taking time to think at length about any of them?

I also gobble food when I’m alone. Instead of savouring one cookie, I reach for a second immediately, as long no one’s there to disapprove. You’d think I’d been deprived as a child, or that I’m scarce on resources. Why this tendency to eat far more than necessary?

I gobble up books so fast that I remember little of what I read and often draw a blank if someone asks what I’m reading these days. I was amused and convicted by one author’s admission that her way of avoiding life is to make sure she has another book ready for when she finishes the current one. Uh-oh. Luckily for me and my book lust, the Toronto Public Library system is reputed to be one of the best, so there are always more books available. 

I consider myself a contemplative who has learned (mostly) to focus gratefully on the present moment, whether I’m waiting in a checkout line or chatting with a neighbour on the street, so what’s with the hungry gobbling? 
Back to school for me!
“…the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things
 and will remind you of everything I have said to you." Jesus 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Squirrel Synchronicity

Ah, the first joys of Spring! 
On a still-cold walk through the neighbourhood I noticed her, sitting on a low bushy branch, a red-breasted bird. Hurrah for this year's first sighting, “Hi Robin, welcome back!” 

I moved along to feisty little Mimico Creek. Now crowded by development and buttressed by ugly gabions, it winds through Toronto’s west end heading for Lake Ontario. Careless garbage mars its banks, and yet it offers the luscious sound of water tumbling over stones, as mallard ducks ride the current. How can it never, ever, ever, ever  stop flowing? This constancy always seems like an impossible miracle and reminds me of when I was intrigued in elementary school by the "precipitation cycle".

Aha! I almost swooned when I saw some green shoots in a  sunny garden warmed up early by a stone wall’s backdrop. No blooms yet, but I recognized the first new leaves of tulip, iris and hyacinth. Three cheers!

The crisp quietness was interrupted by a vehement “CAW” from a king of the world on a high, bare branch, no reticence for him. Shout it out - Hallelujah!

Outside the daycare, toddlers in parkas pushed plastic lawnmowers across their snow-free asphalt play yard. Like sprouting bulbs those miniature bodies were growing toward adulthood. 

Suddenly, from out of a driveway rushed two squirrels, barrelling right toward me on the road. I froze in panic; which way should I move? Just in time, they noticed me, slammed on their brakes and pulled sharp right turns with parallel synchronicity. I laughed as they dashed away in their spring fever.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Holey, Wholly, Holy

Call it Easter Week or call it Holy Week, for Christians this week is the biggest annual festival of all.
Forgive the punning, but my holey self wants to enter wholly into this sacred celebration. The timeless story of Jesus Christ's execution and resurrection prompts a spectrum of thoughts and feelings.  

On this part of the planet, we’re crawling out of winter’s stark cold. Trees are still bare and there are no flowers at all. Nature's lingering death season makes it easy for us to identify with the dark hopelessness of the characters in the bible's Easter story. When everything we see is grey-brown it's almost impossible to believe that the greening will ever arrive. 
Besides his family and friends, and hundreds he had healed, lepers, blind people, the mentally ill and sick children, Rabbi Jesus had also embraced local cast-aways, like a Jewish woman deemed “unclean” because of her chronic bleeding, a financial cheater named Zack, an adulteress woman on the verge of being stoned to death.  All of these, so grateful for Christ’s miraculous kindness and life-changing message, must have felt bleak beyond bearing at the news of his arrest.

This week, on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Vigil Saturday we imagine what it was like for his followers at his last Passover meal where he spoke and acted in confusing ways. When his team disappointed him by falling asleep as he begged for their support, how did it feel for him and for them? Led by insiderJudas who kissed Christ's cheek, terrifying soldiers arrived to arrest him and chaos erupted as the disciples scattered and Christ was dragged away. Next came excruciating torture and finally his grim death by crucifixion. 

Re-hearing the ugly story with its elements of weakness, fear and betrayal, Christians think about our own cowardice when it comes to standing up for the poor, or to speaking out against wrongs.
We recognize our fears for the future.
We admit our own reluctance to take seriously Christ’s way of healthy humility that eagerly helps others.
We confess that we clutch our possessions tightly, murmuring privately, "Mine, mine, mine.”
We remember thousands of our sisters and brothers who are without safe drinking water and adequate nutrition, never mind our ham-happy Easter dinners and egg hunts.
What can we do but throw our puny selves face-down in our helpless hope for God’s forgiveness. We deserve nothing but punishment for the ways we have messed up our relationships, our ecosystems, our human community.

And then Sunday comes. Relieved and excited, we greet the dawn, millions of us all around the planet, reliving Mary's astonished shout, “I have seen him! He’s alive!” 

Better than the sight of Spring's green shoots, better than a newborn's arrival, better than a wedding day, Easter morning's shocking news calls for wild joy. Trumpets sound and the party’s on. Countless voices over the centuries in every language announce, "Once I was blind but now I can see. Once I was dead to hope but now I can trust. Once I was handcuffed in so many ways but now I am free. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!"

In the biggest mystery of all, somehow, Jesus the promised One rose from his grave to an unending new life. He was God's open invitation to peace, justice, kindness, and all goodness, welcoming all. The Life-Giver, the Holy Someone beyond our imagining, deigns to accompany us every day, to enliven us with the Love that wins.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!