Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Whose birthday is it, anyway?

This poster comes from the Buy Nothing Christmas people (see link on sidebar). The first time I saw it, I chuckled. They certainly picked a serious Jesus icon to get their message across. But they've got a point. Imagine the impoverished Galilean's reaction to West Edmonton Mall! Would he try to throw the money changers out of that temple of opulence?

The title of this moodling is borrowed from a publication that I've picked up for the past few years from http://www.simpleliving.org/.  When I received my first copy, it made me want to do something more than just read it, so I called up an Anglican pastor friend and asked if he would consider hosting an ecumenical "Rethinking Christmas" workshop. Helping people to simplify the most commercialized season of the year holds a lot of appeal, especially when a lot of the talk around Christmas these days is about "surviving." What about enjoying?

Too many North Americans try to pack too much into the month of December, and we end up as stressed out as our credit cards are maxed out. Whose Birthday is it, Anyway? offers a lot of helpful antidotes to the consumer craziness that threatens to engulf us starting at the end of October (or earlier -- some stores had their Christmas ornaments out with back to school stuff this year!)

Over the next few days, I hope to share a few simple Christmas ideas that have worked well at our house. Yesterday's moodling about http://www.kiva.org/ is just one example -- there are so many more. And if you have ideas that you want to share, please leave a comment. There's so much we can learn from each other.

Monday, November 29, 2010

An excellent gift idea

Let's face it -- in North America, a lot of us have everything we need and more than we want... so Christmas giving is unnecessary, except for the fact that we desire to recognize the important people in our lives with some sort of gift. So what do we do?

Here's one of my favourite ideas, passed along last Christmas by my friend, Cathy. She sent each of my daughters a $25 Kiva.org gift card via the internet. Kiva is an amazing organization that relies on donors to make contributions toward micro loans that enable people in the developing world to start businesses that support them and their families. My girls went to the Kiva website and were able to view all sorts business opportunities and the people who were asking for assistance to get them started. They were delighted to choose to donate their "gifts" to help a hairstylist and two grocers in Senegal, Togo and Uganda.

The wonderful thing about Kiva is that we've gotten regular updates on the business people the girls sponsored, and all but $4.48 of the money invested last Christmas has been paid back. The girls are able to sponsor new people with the original monies they received, and will have the fun of choosing and learning about them all over again. A Kiva gift truly keeps on giving, and that's way better than an ugly tie or a box of chocolates!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

One of my favourite seasons

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. On the Christian calendar, New Year's Day. I've always loved the season of Advent because it contains so many words of hope. During the darkest days in our northern regions, hope is essential. It warms the chill, mellows anxiety, promises peace... but only if we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Advent is a time to listen to the prophets of the past (and present)... and to ACT justly, LOVE tenderly and WALK humbly (Micah 6:8) with God and everything in God's creation. That is the way of hope, desperately needed in a world of people who have been convinced that they can buy happiness if only they find the right store.

So how will we act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly this new year? Again, if we listen, we hear it clearly and simply in the words of a prophet called Isaiah:
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
   with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
   and your night will become like the noonday (58:9b-10).
Finding ways to beat swords into ploughshares, do away with oppression and malice, and spend ourselves for the hungry and marginalized sounds like a darn good new year's resolution to me...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

An electronics moodling

My hubby is something of a computer geek, so I guess you could say I am, and our children are, by association. Some days, this is truly a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I love how our computer allows us to be in touch with people around the world with a click of a mouse, but on the other hand, I hate how, occasionally, we seem to have more screen time than face to face time. Of course, there is a solution -- limit those screens.

It's not easy, though, when school work now demands a computer, and everyone's friends are on Facebook, every Corner Gas episode is available on Youtube, Grandma and Grandpa can bridge a 500 km distance via Skype, and the computer stores all the girls' iTunes music files. But just as we've pretty much cut TV out of our lives, we can minimize the internet's influence on us too, by considering what kind of lives we really want to live and keeping time free for exercise, music making, and family time. We know that everything doesn't have to revolve around electronics and that living simply is better than being strangled by computer cords or numbed by wireless signals.

Speaking of which... here's another little video, newly released, from Annie Leonard, the Story of Stuff woman. She doesn't really talk about buying fewer electronics -- I guess our world will never go back to being Luddites -- but she does point out how toxic they can be if they aren't handled with care, and how we need to encourage companies to create computers that won't be obsolete every few minutes...

Love this computer age or not, it's here to stay. And if we all think about ways to reduce its impact on the planet, we'll all be better off.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends! And don't forget... tomorrow is BUY NOTHING DAY!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I love my job...

You know you have a good job when...

... you look forward to Monday morning and seeing everyone again after the weekend.

... one of the core members comes around just to say hello and pass out hugs.

... people argue over who gets to do a favour.

... you're expected to eat birthday cake and kibbitz as part of a day's work.

... laughter floats down the hallways at regular intervals.

... you are thanked for the smallest things.

... you love the people around you, and are pretty sure they love you, too.

To be sure, working for L'Arche isn't a complete bed of roses, but it makes me very happy. The core members never fail to make me smile, and it's great to work with a group of colleagues who value simplicity, kindness and compassion over keeping up with the Joneses. Our people with disabilities have a lot to teach us able-bodied people about what's really important.

We've had some more excitement at work this week, after Tim's happy dishwasher story last week. People can be so generous! Here's a link that will work for this week only:

The link led to a Shaw Cable video. A representative of Shaw Cable came to the L'Arche Day Program to present a hefty cheque for the purchase of a handi-van that will be used to carry our Day Program members to their activities and community involvements. The Day Program presented the man from Shaw Cable with an abstract painting created by one of the Day Program members... and the party continued from there!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


One of our homeless guys came into the clothing room last week on our first really snowy day, feeling cold, cold, cold. "I was having such a good sleep," Henry said, "and then the wind blew all the snow over me and my blankets." I suspect that he woke up and downed whatever alcohol he had left before trudging from his "camp" to us.

"I just want to warm up," he said. "I almost froze to death." He sat on a chair in the middle of the clothing room hubbub, rubbing his hands together, asking for a sleeping bag, long underwear (which we'd run out of) and gloves, and that's when I noticed that he's missing his little finger on one hand. Did he lose it to frostbite another winter? I wondered.

After thawing out for a while, Henry pulled a thin leather wallet from his pocket, and handed me its only contents -- a piece of paper. He asked if I would do him the favour of phoning his sister, who would take him away from the city for the winter. I made the call, but there was only a voicemail response, and I didn't know what message to leave. I took the paper back to Henry, and he asked me to call the three other phone numbers on the same piece of paper, though he couldn't remember the names associated with all the numbers. He was getting desperate, so I tried each number, but had no luck at reaching anyone.

When I took the paper back to him, Henry was warm and falling asleep in his seat. I tried to encourage him to go elsewhere, as we were about to close for the day, but he became angry because he just wanted to sleep, and he had no place to go. "Call the cops," he finally shouted. It was an uncomfortable place to be, not having any helpful suggestions for him. I don't know enough about inner city agencies or how homeless people survive winter here. I suspect they rely a lot on each other and the shelters, but it was still too early for the shelters to be open. In the end, another not-quite-so-down-on-his-luck fellow, God bless him, volunteered to take Henry to the Spadey Centre, and away they went together to the guy's car, Henry gripping the guy's arm and staggering along.

Last week, an Edmonton Journal newspaper article reported that there are 2400 homeless people in our city, a decrease of 21% since 2008. While I'm glad that there are 700 fewer people sleeping on the streets, that's still 2400 too many in an affluent city like ours. We don't need Daryl Katz's plans for a new hockey arena for millionaire hockey players and their wealthy patrons to enjoy. We need more successful programs like Housing First, which operates through the Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre, offering low cost housing to homeless people, giving them a place to start to pull their fractured lives together. In the last four years, Housing First has had a 94% success rate and has housed 350 people. Much of the reported 21% decrease in homelessness is thanks to Housing First and the people there who saw a need and made things work for some of our poor and underemployed brothers and sisters. For more about the program, here's a link:


At times I wonder about working at the clothing room, and whether I am not part of the broken system, enabling people like Henry to keep on making poor choices. I guess that until there are more organizations like Housing First, someone needs to offer Henry a place to warm up, a few basic supplies, and a listening ear.

It's brutally cold here this morning. I wonder where our homeless people are. I wonder where Henry is. I sure hope he's warm.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Simple pleasures... and books

I'm back to reading Dr. Robin R. Meyers' book, Morning Sun on a White Piano: Simple Pleasures and the Sacramental Life (Doubleday 1998, ISBN 0-385-48954-4). His third chapter begins:
Children's books are now edible. This is a fairly recent development, and a very sensible one. With cardboard pages and rounded edges, these board books (or chunky books, as they're called) can be gnawed on and slobbered over in lieu of actually being read. It occurs to me that this is not only a good idea for babies, but the perfect analogy for the importance of reading in life--long after the impulse to cut teeth has faded. Because no matter what our age, we ought never to stop eating books, for books are the feast of the imagination (p.27).
I've had a long love affair with books, and for the past eight years, I've kept a list of the ones I have read. Each year I go through my list to name my own "book of the year," usually a book that has moved me or stretched me in unexpected directions, or has stuck in my brain for one reason or another. Here are the last eight "books of the year," just in case you're looking for something to read during these long, dark winter nights:

2002 Rush Home Road, a fabulous story by Lori Lansens, an amazing Canadian writer. The final scene of the book is my favourite picture of heaven, ever.

2003 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helen Hanff. A book about book lovers writing letters. It didn't disappoint!

2004 Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver. Some of her beautiful images and ideas stay with me yet. Had I kept my book list in 2000, I suspect her The Poisonwood Bible would have been my book that year.

2005 Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet by Mark A. Burch. Most of my reading consists of library books, but this one I own by necessity, as I return to it again and again.

2006 The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It was recently made into a movie that somehow, I can't bring myself to watch. Hollywood has ways of messing up a really good book (except for The Lord of the Rings, but that's another story for another day.)

2007 Morning Sun on a White Piano: Simple Pleasures and the Sacramental Life. Have I sung Dr. Robin Meyers' praises enough yet?

2008 Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. A favourite among my favourites, and a children's book to boot. If you're looking for the perfect Christmas present for an eight year old girl, or the mom of an eight year old girl, this is it. It will be the subject of a future moodling, I suspect.

2009 The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. An unexpectedly moving story, recommended to me by my eldest daughter.

I won't supply publishers or ISBNs for any of these, as I'm sure they can be found through libraries or the internet, and I only keep track of authors and titles on my book list. Last week, while my youngest had the flu, we read The Enormous Egg (by Oliver Butterworth) together, and I relived my childhood a little. There are so many books that I would love to share with my girls, but for memory loss -- why didn't I start my book list when I was younger? For example, today the name Mrs. Medlock came unbidden into my head, and I couldn't place it. Of course, she is the head housekeeper at Misselthwaite Manor in Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, another magical book. And Julia discovered The Hundred Dresses (a fantastic little story about bullying written by Eleanor Estes in 1944) without my recommendation. I'm racking my brain for a book about a little Jewish girl that I absolutely loved, but that's the extent of my clues on that one. If you have any recollections in that regard, please let me know.

I've always preferred reading to TV and movies, especially when violence is part of the story. I never understood why that was until I read Robin Meyers' explanation further on in his chapter on books:
... by far the most important thing that books provide us is the best means for developing the most vital human faculty: the imagination. Words can describe, but it takes a reader to conjure up images, to shape them, and, if necessary, to censor them. Our children are committing too many physical crimes these days because too many visual crimes have been committed against them. Graphic images of violence are being hung in the gallery of their minds without first being checked at the door. The people who bring us "special effects" have a moral responsibility not to "burn" such things into psychic places that were meant to stay green.
Unlike the visual arts, books leave us humanely in charge of that process by which images move from type to flesh. Sadly, our society mocks this process with the pejorative phrase, "It's only your imagination." But what else can save us, if not this silent essential transportation of the soul? Most human cruelty would be eliminated if people had the capacity to imagine. As a prerequisite to empathy, imagination makes kindness possible by allowing us to inhabit the skins we weren't born in. Lack of imagination, on the other hand, makes the inflicting of pain, in all its forms, possible...." (pp. 31-32)
So here's my own little tribute to the compassion that comes from the imagination awakened by books, borrowing a lot of words from one of my favourites. Here's to many feasts of the imagination, including the one my husband is having at the moment as he plows through the second half of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And while I'm at it, I'll put in a plug for local libraries rather than buying books. Books are like great scenery or live music -- they're meant to be shared, not hoarded.

Favourite book of 2010? The jury is still out, but I suspect my favourite will be A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller. A quirky, funny, challenging little book that makes me want to be a better person. Then again, I'm reading Robin R. Meyers' latest work, and it may steal first place... but that's another moodling for another day.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Only one week to Buy Nothing Day!

What on earth am I talking about?

Statistically speaking, the Friday after American Thanksgiving is one of America's biggest shopping days of the year. With Thanksgiving feasting behind them, I guess our Southern Neighbours push away from the turkey table and head for the malls to get on with Christmas shopping. The day after Thanksgiving in the States has been dubbed "Black Friday" because for some retailers, it is the day that they leave the red ink in their yearly ledgers behind. It is also a black day in that, in recent years, people have been trampled to death in their attempts to be first to get to the bargains offered by some big box stores.

In 1992, a Vancouver artist named Ted Dave decided to see what he could do to subvert consumerism. He made up posters and organized the first Buy Nothing Day to offer society a chance to examine the issue of over-consumption. Since then, it has become something of an event in many places, and has been adopted by Adbusters, a not-for-profit, anti-consumerist foundation that engages in consciouness raising efforts. Their website posts information about Buy Nothing Day meet ups, where members creatively disrupt shopping activities in an effort to get people to think about their consumer habits (for example, Whirl-Mart: Participants silently steer their shopping carts around a shopping mall or store in a long, baffling conga line without putting anything in the carts or actually making any purchases.)

I've never attended a Buy Nothing Day event, but we are avid Buy Nothing Day people for as many days of the week as we can be because we disagree with the "over-the-top" consumerism that has become the chief focus of the Advent/Christmas seasons and the rest of North American life. I've done more than a little research for my "Rethinking Christmas: Moving Toward Sustainable Simplicity" workshop, and was shocked to learn from Stats Can that

Canadian Christmas shoppers spent
$28.7 billion
in December 2006.
They gave just over
$8 billion
to charity that same year.

In December 2006,
Canadians spent an average of
per person in retail big box stores.

Care to guess how much the average Albertan spent?

It's only November 19th, but last night I went for a walk around our lovely, snow-covered neighbourhood and saw a Christmas tree in someone's front window... so I guess it's not too early to talk about Christmas excess and different things that we can do to combat it. Buy Nothing Day is just one. See if, on November 26th (in North America) and 27th (in Europe and everywhere else), you can avoid running on the treadmill of consumerism. And watch this space for ideas about celebrating Christmas without shopping till you're dropping. Or better yet, check out:


And, just for fun, here's a little medley my family helped me with a few years ago. Amateur production values, but an important message:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

God's fresh white gift

Remember when you were a kid, and the world turned white overnight?

Remember when you couldn't wait to get out there and make fresh tracks in the new-fallen snow? To roll in it, to catch flakes on your tongue?

What if we could take some of that child-like wonder into our winters now?

When Jesus said we have to be like little children to receive the Kingdom (which I equate with sheer joy), maybe he was talking about snow days like today in Edmonton. If we can't take some pleasure in this white stuff, somehow, we've lost the simple pleasure of living in joy and wonder.

I'm going out to make some tracks! And maybe then I'll be able to relax a tiny bit more when I have to drive through the stuff.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to get a new dishwasher… Little Flower style

It didn’t take long for the members of Little Flower house to get tired of doing dishes by hand when the old dishwasher broke down on the weekend. Tim, honourary home maintenance guy and core member, drew a picture of a new dishwasher, showed it to everyone in the house, and they all signed their names to what became a rather effective make-shift petition.
Tim brought his petition to the General Body Meeting on Monday night, and showed it to the entire L’Arche Edmonton community, finally giving it to the community leader, Sister Pat. She showed it to the Board Chairperson, Wendy, who surprised everyone (including herself, we suspect) by announcing that she would take the petition to a few appliance stores the next afternoon, and see if perhaps she could convince one of them to donate a brand new dishwasher.
On Tuesday morning, Wendy told her curling team the story of Little Flower’s dishwasher petition, and showed it to her friends at the rink, explaining her intended errand that afternoon. She was surprised again when one of her teammates wrote her a cheque for a new dishwasher, asking only that a charity receipt be issued to her husband’s business. 

Tim’s efforts got results faster than any other known petition!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Vanity of vanities

Vanity of vanities, says the teacher. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity... all things are wearisome more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new?" It has already been in the ages before us...      Ecclesiastes 1. 2, 8-9
I opened my NRSV Bible this grey November afternoon, and I came upon Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, if you prefer. The preacher, or teacher, as he is named in the above passage. His words seem to be one of the lesser known books of the Bible, except for the famous passage about there being "a time to be born and a time to die..." that has been sung by many people and read at countless funerals.

A theologian/priest/cousin of mine (who also shares a few long-distance blood relatives with me) likes to talk about this passage when he sees me. Our common ancestral name, Prediger, translates from German to English as preacher; Qoheleth, if you prefer. My cousin is rather fond of Qoheleth, perhaps feeling a kinship to the world-weary preacher. "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," my cousin likes to say. "There is nothing new under the sun."

When I was younger, I didn't think much of Qoheleth, or his comments. There was plenty new under the sun! New music, new ideas, new styles, new technologies, all sorts of new things! The human race was constantly reinventing things, as far as I could see... and the preacher, whoever he was, wasn't giving us nearly enough credit!

But now, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity," is something of a mantra in my efforts to live simply. Who needs the latest and greatest of anything when it's only going to be made obsolete or replaced by something else in a matter of weeks? Better to avoid consumer culture as much as possible, as I am finite, and don't need to leave infinite possessions behind for my poor descendants -- or the landfill! And "there is nothing new under the sun" rings true when I hear my teenaged daughter's music. It reminds me of a lot of the stuff I listened to when I was her age.

"Nothing new under the sun" is also a consolation of sorts when it comes to my attempts at doing anything. God created it all before I ever did anything, so there's no pressure for me or anyone else to be deeply profound or super-intelligent or unbelievably inspiring in our "inventions" unless we listen to people who are determined to stress out humanity by insisting upon the "higher, farther, faster" mantra that is sure to burn us and our planet out before our time. How can we really improve upon the handiwork of the Creator of the Universe? By using up less of it. And if we walk more lightly in creation, we naturally enjoy ourselves more because we don't have to work so hard to burn out!

Qoheleth would probably laugh at the vanity of me moodling in cyberspace, and honestly, I laugh with him. This really is a pretty silly thing to do this late at night; a pretty silly thing to do, period. He's right, all is vanity, and I suspect he said what he did because he had a few years' wisdom behind him. Perhaps the fact that I'm starting to agree with him is a sign that maybe I'm getting a wee bit wiser myself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A different kind of map...

It's been a long and busy day, including a full day's work, a last raking of the yard before it's supposed to snow, and fruitless winter boot shopping this evening with two of my daughters. So I'm delighted to give credit to my husband, Lee, for today's moodling of a very interesting map of the world. See for yourself. Canada, where are you?


Friday, November 12, 2010

Thank God for global warming??

The weather we've been having in Alberta has been so mild these last few weeks that it's become a frequent excuse for thoughtless conversation. A few days ago, Lee and I were walking down a rather busy street, and a couple behind us was exclaiming about what a gorgeous day it was, sunny and ten degrees warmer than November used to be. The man enthused to his partner, "Thank God for global warming! I've been praying for this kind of winter weather for a long time."

It's a sentiment that's common enough... and that encompasses a huge problem for our planet. No one likes to be as cold as we often get during Canadian winters, but at the same time, no one should be praying for an increase in global climate change. It's tantamount to joking about the people who are barely coping in developing parts of the world that are heating up beyond a human being's ability to survive. This past summer, temperatures reached 50 degrees Celcius in parts of Pakistan and India, and over a thousand people died. That's not funny.

The huge problem is sentiments like the one I overheard on the weekend. Unthinking people who assume that comfort is the most important thing going never give a thought to the fact that pursuit of "the good life" above all else gives rise to imbalances in other spheres. Many of us have become used to thinking of ourselves as isolated and unrelated parts of the world as a whole, expecting that our ecosphere will continue to right the negative results proceeding from our wrongful sense of entitlement to life's pleasures. Even as we had glorious, far above normal temperatures in Western Canada this week, people in the Maritimes were dealing with serious flooding because of a freak storm that arose from... global climate change. Did the man who prayed for global warming give them a thought? How would he like to try to live through extreme high temperatures in a country where air conditioning is rare? Creation is interconnected in ways that are beyond our tiny minds' capacities to fathom... but if we look, we can see connections as fine as spider webs everywhere, between every living thing and every environment.

Clearly, something is out of whack when the temperatures in Southern Alberta reach 18 degrees Celcius in mid-November, and we are kidding ourselves if we think it has nothing to do with us and our consumer society, our greenhouse gas emissions, our "need" to take pleasure cruises (next to the Space Shuttle, one of the most inefficient uses of energy in the world) when our winters do get chilly. It's more than time to wake up and stop praying for global warming. It's time to stop joking around and take steps to reduce it if that's still even possible: perhaps to forgo air travel for mere pleasure, to reduce our consumption of the earth's finite resources, and to simplify our lives to the point of just enough.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembrance Day

In Canada today, we remember our war dead with ceremonies across the country. This Trews video shows one of the most current ways we honour our heroes. God bless them all, and may we find ways to peace.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lifestyles of the rich and famous

I'm not rich, nor am I famous, but my husband attended a convention at the Chateau Lake Louise in the beautiful Canadian Rockies this weekend, and I went with him. I have no idea about which rich and famous people may have stayed in the same building, but as I wandered the lobbies and concourses of a pretty fabulous hotel, I felt sort of like a celebrity myself. It's quite the place.

But always, what makes it hard to stay in such a place is the awareness that I am among the 12% of the wealthiest humans on the planet, while the people who make the beds in the building are not as fortunate as I am. It's only an accident of birth that separates us. I haven't worked as hard or sacrificed as much as many of them have just to get to Canada. It's not fair.

The inequities of this life are quite astounding when you really think about them. I think back to my moodling about serving the poor at the clothing room for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Vincent's words, "it is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you..." For my stay at a ritzy hotel this weekend, I should serve, with love, for another year. The poor have so many things for which to forgive me!

What's really interesting about Lake Louise is that, if you want to stay overnight and have a view of the lake, you've gotta have money. People who can't afford to stay don't get the view unless they're out for a walk. There's no campsite or less pricey hotel with a view. And the rooms at the back of the hotel cost a lot less than the ones facing the lake.

Life shouldn't be like this. If the top 12% of humanity, who use 80% of the planet's resources, chose to spread out our wealth and live more simply, making sure that we didn't have more than anyone else, but only just enough, how many people would still be considered poor? We'd all be rich if only we would share.

And here's something worth sharing...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A man and his flute

My hubby and I have just returned from a conference he attended at the Chateau Lake Louise. Yesterday morning while Lee was at a session, I decided to take a solitary walk along the lake. As I passed a few Chinese tourists taking pictures, I heard the sound of some sort of flute, so I back tracked to where a man sat on a frosty bench playing a recorder. Giving him a thumbs up sign as I meandered past, I moved a little further, taking pictures and listening to see if I could identify what he was playing.

After a few moments, I picked up on the chorus of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and a few moments later, a few Alleluias from a song I can't quite name reached my ears. My eyes misted as I looked at the gorgeous scene in front of me. I couldn't help but think how perfect an Alleluia was for the location, though I suspected no one present but the musician and I would recognise it for what it was. When I turned back toward him, he was gone, only an unfrosty patch marking where he had been sitting.

Twenty minutes later on my walk to the end of the lake, I recognised the man on his way back, walking with an almost military precision. I said, "You're the man who was playing the recorder. It sounded lovely, and I recognised an Alleluia or two."

He smiled and said, "I can't think of a better place to offer praise."

Neither can I.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seven simple words

"Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary."

This is one of my favourite quotes, often attributed to St. Francis, though no one really knows from where it comes. Seven simple words that underline the importance of a life well lived. Our lives say more about what we believe than we can ever say. What we do carries more weight than who we pretend to be.

No one has taught me this more clearly than my own daughters. Children, especially when they reach the teen years, scrutinize their parents more carefully than they do themselves (and they definitely scrutinize themselves -- one of my daughters has been known to change her clothes four times before leaving home for the day). We parents can't get away with the slightest hypocrisy. And I guess that is just the way of things, and probably, the way things should be.

In Morning Sun on a White Piano: Simple Pleasures and the Sacramental Life (Doubleday 1998, ISBN 0-385-48954-4), Dr. Robin R. Meyers puts it this way:
If you have children, consider parenthood a high and holy art, until death parts you from their constant gaze. Remember that children crave limits and secretly thrive on a wholesome kind of discipline. They will learn to navigate time, to cherish tenderness, to temper judgment, to remember birthdays, to defend the weak, to notice beauty, to endure inequity, to preserve humility in success and integrity in failure, to care about ideas, to be generous, and to be faithful -- all by watching the sermon that is their parents' lives. (pp 42-43)
Even though I've known these seven simple words for my entire parenthood, I've never thought of my life as a sermon for my girls. But I think they're doing okay in the above categories, so I must be, too, mostly...

How's your life's sermon going?

Friday, November 5, 2010

A quick moodling for a busy day

It's a busy day today, but that's no reason to stop moodling. So today's moodle is a quick one, a favourite of mine from Youtube. Don't miss the ending!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Simple pleasures... and fair trade chocolate

This week is my husband's birthday, so I made chocolate chip cookies. Homemade chocolate chip cookies at our house are fairly rare and rather expensive, because I've given up on the usual chocolate chips you buy at any grocery store. The company that produces them buys cocoa without caring about anything but passing on low prices to consumers. The only way I can be sure that human trafficking, civil war and child slavery aren't ingredients in my cookies is by buying fair trade chocolate chips, which are usually at least four to six times more expensive than the other kind.

Up to five years ago, I was an oblivious chocolate lover, never giving a thought to labour practices in equatorial countries that produce cocoa. But as Carol Off, CBC journalist and author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet (2006, Random House Canada, ISBN 0679313192) says, "as consumers, what we want is cheap goods. But what we should know is that when we consume something that is cheap, generally someone is paying for it someplace else. That's the message about chocolate."

When Lee and I attended Mark A. Burch's workshop on Voluntary Simplicity and Nonviolence the year before Carol's book came out, my eyes were opened to many things I really didn't want to see. When I heard about children -- the same age as my girls -- addicted to drugs and forced to work on chocolate plantations to the point of exhaustion and death, I almost cried. That and many other violences built into our consumer culture made the weekend workshop tough to take in, and I carried the grief and guilt twins around for about a week afterward. But as Mark says, guilt is only good for about ten seconds, and then you have to do something with it. So I did my own research and made a lot of changes, one being that I began to buy fair trade certified chocolate whenever it could be found.

The cost of fair trade is what chocolate really should cost in terms of paying its producers an equitable wage for what they do. Fair Trade also means, usually, that farmers employ more organic methods to grow cocoa berries, leaving soil, air and water in better condition than non-organic growers do.

Chocolate used to be a luxury afforded only by the wealthy on a regular basis. And when you pay the price for fair trade chocolate ($19.75/kg at Earth's General Store), it becomes a precious commodity once again. My girls understand about the problems with cheap chocolate. Suzanna even did a school presentation on it. We've stopped giving out mini-chocolate bar Halloween treats. We never gobble an entire chocolate bar all at once any more. One small piece, savoured and appreciated, is enough. These days, I make ginger snaps, orange shortbreads and oatmeal cookies a lot more often, saving fair trade chocolate chips for special occasions.

I suppose I should also be writing to grocery stores, governments and chocolate giants about refusing sources of tainted chocolate, but then I should also be advocating fair labour practices around almost every item I purchase. It gets overwhelmingly complex when I think about it. But being someone who wants to keep things simple, the simplest thing I can do is vote with my purchasing power, buy fair trade, and share what I've learned with others so they can do likewise. And you can join me!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Simple pleasures... and less TV

I'm rereading one of my favourite books. I don't often reread a book, simply because in the face of how many wonderful books there are, there are too many that I haven't read! But this one's simplicity and poetry makes me return to it from time to time, to savour its contents with a sigh of pleasure. It reminds me of the things I appreciate in life.

It's written by Dr. Robin R. Meyers, and it's called Morning Sun on a White Piano: Simple Pleasures and the Sacramental Life (Doubleday 1998, ISBN 0-385-48954-4). I think I love it so much because Dr. Meyers speaks so beautifully of things that I love: conversation, music, books, parenting, pets, letter-writing, living the moment, romance, mercy, freedom, activity, and anticipation. By the time I've finished reading, it's hard to think of a single pleasure that he has missed.

Here's a wee taste from the first chapter:
Conversation is the currency of passion; it is the courier of concern. To be listened to, really listened to, and to be heard is so fundamental to the renewal of intimacy that it has become the desperate refrain of our time (p. 9).
Dr. Meyers goes on to prescribe that we cut the cord on our TVs, to be entertained less and to talk more about important things, even (gasp!) religion and politics, because that's how values are shared and relationship is sustained. He's totally right.

When our family was small, we banished our TV to a solitary life in the basement. It might get used briefly once or twice a week, if that. The rest of the time, we enjoy lively kitchen table conversation without commercial interruption, and all three of our girls have turned into bookworms, tinkerers, artists and musicians. They are also less consumption-oriented than a lot of young people their age who let television tell them what to wear and how to look and act.

Robin Meyers' book is stuffed with wonderful suggestions for living more simply and joyfully. I've picked up two copies through Abebooks.com (a highly recommended online site that allows me to avoid the temptation of bookstores by buying used books rather than new) for friends of mine. If the library loses this copy, I'll have to pick up a third. It's that good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A makeup moodling

My parents recently gave my daughter the heirloom mirror that hung in my bedroom when I was her age, and it brought back memories of the day a sampler of makeup arrived in the mail. I remember standing in front of that mirror to try it all on: 12 shades of eyeshadow, three different blushes, two eyeliners and six tiny lipsticks. All the other girls at school had been wearing makeup since grade seven, and here I was in grade ten with lots of catching up to do! I think I washed my face a dozen times so I could try all the different combinations.

Now I look back at that young woman, smile and shake my head. Sometimes I look at my own daughter the same way. There are days when she leaves the house and I'm thinking, "but you're so much prettier without all that goop on your eyes/face." Of course, my mother probably thought the same of me, but somehow, I doubt she worried at all about the chemical composition of what went on my skin. Back then, it wasn't an issue that anyone would give a second thought.

Lately, however, there have been more than a few news items about personal care/cosmetic products and the lack of attention that has been paid to their ingredients, some of which can possess low levels of toxicity that no one bothers to think about. As someone who subscribes to the David Suzuki Foundation's emails, I received a request to participate in a personal care survey a few months ago. Not having anything really pressing to accomplish that particular rainy day, I rounded up a few cosmetics, shampoos and lotions from our cupboards, and sat at the computer checking the survey boxes that correlated to the ingredient lists on my bottles. For the cosmetics, I had nothing to go on, as the ingredients were listed on long-since-recycled packaging, but I did my own research... and was somewhat appalled at my survey's overall results.

Keep in mind that I'm not the average woman who uses at least twelve personal care products per day. Most days, two (soap, toothpaste), some days, nine (if I decide to wear make up to church or to work, which generally, I don't, as I prefer to go casual, and no one has complained about my lack of cosmetic enhancement yet). If the average number of products used is twelve, then there are lots of people using eight times as much as I do... and when you look at the Suzuki Foundation's list of ingredients of concern and compare it to what is listed on your own products... well, it can be far more frightening than Halloween. Here's a link to the "Dirty Dozen" ingredients that we should try to avoid:


The thing is, most of the products we use these days aren't necessary, when you really think about it. Our grandmothers got by without them. Yes, we need to keep our bodies clean and our skin from drying out completely in these cold dry prairie winters, but the rest of it?

Primer? Glitter? Moisturizer?
Anti-aging revitalizer?
Balm? Oil? Scrub? Wrap?
Fixer? Exfoliating mask?
Polish? Blush? Gloss? Straightener?
Lipstain? Bronzer? Mousse? Foundation?
Concealer? Powder? Lotion? Primer?
Toner? Firmer? Lifter? Liner?
Mascara? Shadow? Manicure?
Anti perspirant? Pedicure?
Cream? Laquer? Curl enhancer?
And a pondering on the increase in cancer?

I could go on, but I'll let Annie Leonard do it for me in her little video, The Story of Cosmetics.

While Annie isn't terribly scientific and uses more than a few scare tactics that are easily refuted (eg. the amount of lead in lipstick is minscule), she does briefly point out how silly society is for buying into products that supposedly improve us -- without giving a thought to what could be in them. Generally, the less extraneous stuff we have in our lives, the healthier we can be. Living simply is always the better choice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The simple joy of celebration

Celebrations certainly have a role in helping people to accept the sufferings of everyday life by offering them the chance to relax and let go. But to see them as nothing but a form of escapism is to fail to understand human nature. Our human hearts need something beyond the limitations and frustrations of the daily grind. We thirst for a happiness which seems unattainable on earth. We crave the infinite, the universal, the eternal – something which gives a sense to human life and its irksome daily routines. A festival is a sign of heaven. It symbolizes our deepest aspiration – an experience of total communion.
- Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.314
I'm not sure of which festival Jean Vanier might have been thinking when he wrote the above paragraph, but L'Arche Heritage Day might have been it. On Friday night, the Edmonton L'Arche community gathered in a church hall and celebrated its cultural diversity. I invited my neighbour to attend with me, and we were met at the door by a number of welcoming people, one of whom directed us to a table toward the back of the room. After introducing ourselves to the people already seated, we settled in for an evening of entertainment, food and fun. The evening began with a prayer, some jokes and introductions, and a slide show about the L'Arche communities in developing countries for whom the event was being held as a solidarity fund-raiser.

Then there was food from all over the world. Oh my. Everything from English cucumber sandwiches to Lebanese tabouli to Zambian sampo (or was it Kenyan sampo?) An amazing, delicious and delightful array of foods for any and every palate loaded the tables and our plates. The variety rivalled the Taste of Edmonton festival, and my neighbour commented that our tickets for the evening should have cost twice what they did. Had we known the feast we were in for, we would have skipped supper!

After the wonderful sampling of finger foods, the fun began. Little Flower arranged a trivia game that had us all laughing as we guessed everything from favourite tv shows to underwear colours of various community members. The talented Jordan Kaminski got toes tapping with a few selections on his guitar. The Noah House band performed some German dance music and taught us a chorus to sing. A Philippines dance group amazed us with their intricate movements, and Day Program performed an African Dance in international cultural clothing. The evening concluded with the smashing of two pinatas, a very special rendition of O Canada, and more dancing.

Smiles and laughter were everywhere, signs of a little bit of heaven on earth.