Monday, January 31, 2011

My dream home

My house is small,
no mansion for a millionaire.
But there is room for love
and there is room for friends.
That's all I care.
If anyone can tell me where this comes from or why it's stuck in my brain today, you're better than a mind reader. I suspect it's one of those poems by the infamous Anonymous, who has written more than any writer in the world. It's a great little poem, with simplicity at its heart, and it fits perfectly with today's moodling about my dream home.

I'm one of those lucky people who actually lives in hers. It's a 55 year old three bedroom bungalow, nothing fancy, but there are so many simply wonderful things about it:

the light right over the kitchen sink
dual clotheslines in the back yard
an ironing board that folds into a cupboard in the wall
lots of nifty little cupboards and shelves
a cold storage room under the stairs
a shallow basement with eight foot ceilings
a big picture window in the living room
oak kitchen cabinets
hardwood floors
big trees out front
pear trees out back
a little park across the street
a cinderblock fence
and lots of garden space for vegetables and flowers

Of course, the folks from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine would probably laugh at my dream home because there's nothing new or chic or trendy about it. I can imagine any number of people gutting the place and renovating, especially the kitchen.

We've lived in it for seven and a half years and have done just a few renos to make the place more functional, practical, durable and energy efficient, but I love it even more than the day we moved in. Not only does it have all the wonderful features mentioned above, but now it holds wonderful memories, too:

a surprise housewarming sing-song in the living room
painting various rooms with friends and relatives
gymnastics performances in the basement
kids hiding in cupboards
our daughters' sleepovers with their favourite cousins
wonderful neighbours
pear picking and amazing garden harvests
August backyard birthday parties
singing around the Christmas tree
clothesline tents
garden ball games
a weekend for two, at home with no kids
back alley Mary bringing apple pies and pizzelli
special guests (including cousin Leo tonight, on his way to Cambridge Bay tomorrow!)
park barbecues
crazy budgie friends (and their hallowed burial grounds in the lily of the valley patch)
impromptu dance parties
Easter egg dyeing at our lopsided kitchen table
Mabelle waving out her window next door
walking miles and miles with the local ladies

What can I say? It's my dream home. There is room for love, and there is room for friends. That's all I care.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Life is but a dream?

Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
The other day in the lunch room at work, we got into a discussion about this children's song as a metaphor for life. One of my colleagues expressed the opinion that the song is about how our lives are the stream, and even if we turn and paddle against the current, we'll all end up in the same ocean eventually anyway. Another colleague commented, "If that's the case, why bother doing anything?" As often happens with group conversations, the topic split apart into separate dialogues, and I'm not sure where or how it all ended, but that little piece of conversation has been part of my internal moodlings for the past few days.

The idea that we're all rowing our boats gently down the stream of life has a certain appeal. It sounds relaxing, this going with the flow business. But I can't help but wonder how we'll manage if the stream is leading us to Niagara Falls! Let's face it -- a lot of how we live happens in a hurry, without us giving it much thought. We have our routines down, and we rarely question them because they seem to work. But sometimes it's a good idea to wake up from this dream that we call life and examine where the stream seems to be going and how we're getting there.

Here's a pretty cool website for people who are interested in examining where their lifestyle is leading in terms of the earth's future. It offers a quiz that helps to determine the resources needed for our present lifestyles, and shows ways that we can reduce the impact we're having on the planet that sustains us. It's been updated a lot since it first came out in 2002, and while it's still not perfect, it offers an interesting wake up call...

My results say that if everyone lived like I do, we'd need 3.83 planets to sustain the world's population, and I live pretty simply, yikes! How about you?

Even if you've done the quiz before, I'd encourage you to see where your stream/dream is taking you these days. I'd also encourage you to share this link with friends. The more of us who take the quiz and figure out ways to reduce our footprints, the more likely we can imagine Niagara Falls as a sightseeing destination instead of... a transportation route! 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Time to take action

Here in Edmonton, we've gone from snow and cold that wouldn't stop to rain and above average temperatures. My mind has wandered back to global climate change (or global climate destabilization, if you prefer) and the importance of taking action to stop it. I have been walking or catching public transit to work more often lately, trying to cut my carbon emissions even further as I think about my friend in Winnipeg and how his house will soon be underwater if spring flood predictions hold... As I walked this afternoon, I remembered this little video... that has now been turned into a book, it turns out.

Greg Craven is a high school teacher (chemistry, I'm guessing) in the US who has made a compelling argument about why we should take action when it comes to global climate destabilization, whether we believe it's happening or not. He gets a bit too goofy for my liking with the "devil's advocate" routine, but I can't argue with his logic. I just wish he'd go further and challenge his viewers to embrace voluntary simplicity, cut their consumption, reduce fossil fuel use, etc. etc. But that's just me, of course!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More on writing

I want to assure you with all earnestness, that no writing is a waste of time, --no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding. I know that. Even if I knew for certain that I would never have anything published again, and would never make another cent from it, I would still keep on writing.        -- Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit (1987, Gray Wolf, ISBN 1-55597-260-8, p 15.)
My first moodling back in September made mention of Brenda Ueland by way of her being the woman who coined the word "moodle." Her book makes its home on my writing desk. It's my permanent reminder that writing is a good thing, something that I forget from time to time.

Being a writer since my first and only "book" was published in grade two, I've never stopped. I wrote myself through many journals in my angsty adolescence; into friendship with Cathy, my longterm penpal, who gave me Ueland's book and our very own writing club; into lifelong romance with my husband via loveletters that flew fast and furious across a hundred kilometres; and out of something I laughingly dubbed "semantic what-cha-ma-call-it" (aka the inability to recall and use more than two syllable words) when my daughters were small. Writing has been a joy to me all my life. It has helped me sort things out, find meaning, and share stories.

Unfortunately, it hasn't always been easy to believe in writing as something essential, even though it brings me so much pleasure. I have always had to fight the feeling that writing is a waste of time that could be spent doing other, more important things, whether it was studying for an exam, marking papers, doing the housework that never seems to go away, or getting a real job. There is always an excuse to avoid that which makes us happy, some duty that calls and keeps calling. But Brenda Ueland was right. No writing is a waste of time. I treasure my journals, letters, and stories from years gone by. As I have grown older, I've come to realize that getting the dust off the top of the refrigerator isn't nearly as satisfying as crafting a novel (or a moodling), and besides, the dust will still be there when I'm done, whereas, if I don't get an idea down quickly, it tends to disappear.

The other thing that makes it hard for an amateur writer to believe that her writing is important is the big box book store. If having a book on the shelf is a sign of success, I'm anything but a successful writer, so why continue -- especially if it isn't actually my lifelong goal to have a book on one of those shelves? The fact that I've written a novel that wouldn't fit on one shelf or another as far as genre goes gives me a rather hopeless feeling... until I remember that the person I wrote the book for quite enjoyed it, so I have succeeded, and who cares about the bookstore? If my novel should, by some miracle, end up published, that wouldn't make it any more successful, really. What matters is that I experienced the joy of completing a story that took seven years to somehow write itself, a story with a climax that took my best friend completely by surprise even though we'd discussed its possibility at one point. That in itself made the whole effort worthwhile.

For most of my life I've tried to write while my family was otherwise engaged. It hasn't always worked out very well in that I'd start as soon as the girls were in bed and end up writing until the wee hours when Lee was away on business trips, and inevitably be a cranky single parent the next day. Or there were the times that I'd just gotten rolling on a writer's block inducing section of novel, and it was time to pick up some child or other from someplace or other. When my novel neared its end, my poor family was basically ignored as I wrote like a madwoman, muttering to myself or giggling with glee.  Lee joked that he was a writing widower, and my kids complained that I couldn't hear them over the characters in my head as I wrote to the finish line.

Fortunately, moodling doesn't require the same intense concentration. My burning writing is behind me, unless I start the next novel that's bumping around in my brain. I'm trying to hold off on that until our girls have left home or are otherwise occupied so that they won't feel ignored by their mother. Until then, I'm enjoying my quick moodling jaunts in that they keep my writer's awareness sharp and "semantic what-cha-ma-call-it" at bay without removing me from the really important things that are happening at home.

I'm going on about writing here because it's my thing, but there are so many simple ways to find joy through creativity, like knitting, dancing, singing, refinishing antiques, building rockets, baking, or a thousand other things I don't have time to list. Writing, as a creative outlet, has made me a happier person. I have learned a lot from the process of letting characters develop and story lines progress. It's been almost as good as watching a garden grow, or a child. For the record, I'm still hoping my novel will be published somehow, as I think the story can do some good for a particular social agency in my hometown. I'll be sure to let you know when something happens in that regard.

The point is, it's wonderful to exercise creativity. It may even be essential to happiness. As I'm not actually a great or accomplished writer, I'm going to let Brenda Ueland end this moodling with a little piece of her wisdom:
...Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?
     Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth or beauty and express it, ie. share it with others? (p.179.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bowling for Haiti (and other places)

On Saturday afternoon, a lively crowd of more than fifty people gathered at the local bowling lanes to have a Bowl-a-thon in support of the L'Arche communities in Central and South America. We started with a short prayer for those communities, and then people with and without disabilities bowled two games together.

Bowling with the community is a real hoot. Mostly, we use the lanes with the gutter guards, and though there are four prizes for the highest scores for men and women with and without disabilities, there are also prizes for "most enthusiastic" and "most creative" bowlers. Not being a great bowler (I have a wicked curve that I can't control), I really enjoy bowling with people who celebrate every pin that goes down. Nothing like hearing constant cheers to raise everyone's spirits! Julia had one of her best games ever, and one of her worst: she beat her mother and almost broke a hundred in the first game, then "silly-bowled" the second (shooting under one leg, then the other, bowling backwards and performing all sorts of contortions) for a grand total of... 24 gutterballs and 15 points. I think she could have won the worst score trophy had there been one!

The annual Bowlathon has been happening for a number of years to raise funds for L'Arche communities in developing countries. L'Arche Edmonton has a Solidarity Committee whose mission it is to raise over $5000 a year to be sent to L'Arche communities in places like Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Haiti. We've learned a bit about some of these communities through pictures and letters, and a very special blog.

Mwen Pa Fou (a Haitian Creole phrase that translates as "I'm not crazy") is the name of an online journal by a young man who lives with one of two L'Arche communities in Haiti. I have been following Jonathan Boulet-Groulx's writings on and off since he launched his blog the week before I began working for L'Arche in October 2009, and have really appreciated his take on life there, especially since the goudougoudou (earthquake). All the members of L'Arche in Haiti survived the quake except for one board member, but many are still living in tents because their buildings were destabilized or destroyed on January 12th last year. Jonathan tells many interesting stories about life with L'Arche, and offers very interesting reflections about the extremely slow "rebuilding" of Haiti:

He has also posted a link on his sidebar where donations may be sent, if you, like many others, have been unsure of ways to get your money to where it is needed.

Having learned a bit about the communities in Haiti, I wish there were also people like Jonathan who could share about the other communities for whom we bowled on Saturday. Knowing about the people for whom we raise funds always makes the exercise a lot more meaningful.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A spot of Spring

I don't know about you, but by the end of January, I like to have a few fresh growing things in my life. These pretty little narcissi often find their way onto my kitchen table this time of year. They come from Burnaby Lake Greenhouses in BC, and they make me happy. With all the grey winter skies we've been putting up with lately, they're a spot of Spring sunshine, good for the soul. Once they've died back, I cut them down and save the bulbs to be planted in the fall, often forgetting where they've been planted until they surprise me the next spring.

Today I'm also thinking about the seventy tulip bulbs I planted in October, imagining them slowly spreading their roots under over two feet of snow and four inches of soil. God did a great thing, creating spring bulbs!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mr. NoName

Last week at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul clothing room, two homeless guys came in and asked for gloves because they had gotten jobs shoveling snow. It was their lucky day, as there were two brand new pairs of sheepskin-lined deerhide mitts in our bin. The guys were congratulating each other when they headed out the door and another man arrived. Unlike most clients, he didn't "register" as he came in, but began looking around, fingering things, and putting me off when I asked for his name so I could pull his card from our client file. He asked for a pair of those nice gloves his "buddies" just left with (if they were his buddies, why didn't he greet them at the door?) because he was working with them, he said, but I told him they got the only two pairs. He seemed a little shifty, so I followed him around a bit, listening to him talk about himself, asking for his name so I could register him. He kept evading the issue, not making eye contact.

We were having a fairly friendly chat about various paperback novels on the bookshelf when three new clients showed up. My attention was diverted from the fellow for a time as I registered the women, writing their names, addresses and phone numbers on file cards (mostly so we can be sure people aren't "shopping" too frequently). Then I walked to the men's aisle where my evasive friend had gone and said, "I really need to register you now, because that's how we keep track of the people we serve."

"I have to get going," he said. "It's too crowded to shop right now anyway." He pushed past me and went out the front door, ignoring my protests. The women who had just registered said, "What a rude guy!"  "Some people!" "It's not that crowded -- we're the only ones here." I muttered, "Next time you come back, buddy, no name, no shopping!" and the three laughed.

Guess who was back today? I didn't actually see Mr. NoName come in, but I heard his voice. He was talking to my mom about getting some food, so I walked over and stood there, listening, letting him know that I was aware of his arrival. When my mom said, "I don't think you registered when you came in, so we need to do that before you go any further," she got the same response as I did last week. "I have to get going," he said, and took off. Mom wasn't surprised when I told her about his visit the previous week. She thought he probably snuck past me and made a beeline to talk with her because they had no previous history.

I can't help but wonder why the fellow won't give us his name. He's got me curious, and my writer's mind has been mulling all afternoon, inventing different scenarios. Could he be an escaped con, afraid that we might somehow turn him in? Is he a shoplifter who gets his thrills from taking things without permission (even if they're free)? Or is he simply someone who enjoys playing outside the rules, snubbing the system? Does he tell a different story to a different volunteer at a different agency every day of the week? Does he enjoy thumbing his nose at authority of any sort? Could he have some form of mental illness that makes him paranoid? Or has he just had the kind of life that prevents him from trusting anyone?

I doubt we'll ever know, but it's guys like him who make life interesting. For a few minutes, they mess with my sense of everyone being basically honest and loveable, of life being mostly good, of the world being a generally gentle place. It's only too easy to worry or get disheartened when I think about the many people in our world who, for whatever reason, are unable to trust anyone. But even if our nameless friend registers the next time he comes in, we have no way of knowing whether he's telling us the truth, so does his telling us his name really matter in the long run?

I wouldn't want to pass any sort of judgment, I just would love to know the truth about him, being a curious person. But truth can be elusive, as is Mr. NoName.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A simple hello

I've been walking to work more often since my moodling about Convenience vs. saving the planet ( For me, it's more pleasant to walk than drive anyday, though walking takes 35 minutes one way. It's even longer when the sidewalks are snowy and the path through the schoolyard of Vimy Ridge Academy is like a one-way mountain goat trail.

Unfortunately, as I walk, I often end up thinking about how unfriendly we urbanites have become. Where did we lose that little sign of civility known as "Hello"? Inevitably, I pass people on the streets, and I'm beginning to suspect that most of them think me a little strange for calling out a friendly, "Good morning." I try to greet everyone I pass, including the kids I overtake on their way to school, even if they have ipod cords running into their ears. Usually, I'll get a grudging "hi" back from the teenagers, but some of them keep plodding along, heads down, unreachable. I'm always delighted to meet one particular boy, maybe eleven years old, who greets me first. It's nice to see that some people are still inclined to smile and acknowledge a fellow traveller.

This morning I passed five people on my way to work, four of whom completely ignored my greetings. They had me wondering if perhaps they're unfriendly because of the shopping mall mentality that has taken over my city. No one greets a stranger at the mall unless they're trying to sell something, and I often get the feeling that when I salute people as I walk to work, they're ready to bolt the other way. Do they think I might ask something of them if they reply? Perhaps many of us have become skittish in our street civility because we've been approached by too many salespeople, telemarketers, panhandlers, petitioners, and politicians. But is that any reason to give up on simple courtesy?

As I reached my workplace, I came across a fellow shoveling the sidewalk in the schoolyard next door. After being ignored by the last four passersby, did I dare try again?

"Good morning," I called.

His face lit up. "Good morning! How are you?" he replied.

"I'm fine. And you?" I asked.

"I'm fine too. Isn't it a beautiful day?"

I stopped and looked across the chainlink fence at the one person who more than made up for the four-out-of-five who refused to respond. "It is definitely a beautiful day," I replied. Especially when a simple hello can make us both smile.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Being sisters and brothers of nature

Have you noticed that the weather is getting to be less and less predictable? Sometimes I get the feeling that our sciences, maths, probabilities and meteorological indicators are stories we tell to convince ourselves that everything is "normal." I keep wondering... if our polar icecaps are melting, where is all that water going to go? We've sure got a lot of snow this season... and people in Brisbane and Brazil aren't doing so hot with their homes destroyed by water or mud. Freak occurrences, or part of what's now called Global Climate Change?

We'll never really know because so many variables are at play, but I have my suspicions. And my suspicions lead me to believe that it's time human beings woke up and paid more attention to things that are happening, rather than trying to explain them away. The calendar on my wall this month quotes Ekhard Tolle: "To awaken within the dream is our purpose now." In North America, we've been dreaming that the earth will always be able to supply our every need and satisfy our every whim. We've dreamed until a lot of Earth's species and resources have disappeared because of us, and now it's starting to look as if Nature is about to revolt. Who can blame her? We certainly haven't been very good stewards in our twin quests for luxury and convenience. Personally, I could handle a lot less of both if it would mean fewer disruptions in the health of our planet.

For too long, we've been taking the easy way out. We've lost touch with so many of the processes that allow us to live. It wasn't that long ago that we grew our own food, built our own homes, and worked with our hands to provide for ourselves and our communities, and we were much healthier for it. We didn't have to worry about diets or exercise because both were balanced and integral parts of our daily lives. We knew how to make do, and we lived in solidarity with each other, rather than in competition to see who had the most or best of everything.

We can't go back in time, but we can return to our roots. It's high time we start to consider ourselves to be sisters and brothers of nature and forget all that biblical bosh about "filling the earth and subduing it." We need to wake from the dream that we are in charge and that every homeowner must have their own fill-in-the-blank. We need to get on with living lightly, with using as few of Earth's resources as possible, and remembering that we aren't the pinnacle of God's creation, but just a small part of it. I expect that God loves everything created, right down to the tiniest amoeba, and our challenge is to live in harmony with it all.  Henri Nouwen hits the nail on the head when he says:
When we think of oceans and mountains, forests and deserts, trees, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the galaxies, as God's creation, waiting eagerly to be "brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God" (Roman 8:21), we can only stand in awe of God's majesty and God's all- embracing plan of salvation. It is not just we, human beings, who wait for salvation in the midst of our suffering; all of creation groans and moans with us longing to reach its full freedom.

In this way we are indeed brothers and sisters not only of all other men and women in the world but also of all that surrounds us. Yes, we have to love the fields full of wheat, the snowcapped mountains, the roaring seas, the wild and tame animals, the huge redwoods, and the little daisies. Everything in creation belongs, with us, to the large family of God.      Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, December 9th
God's dream is so much bigger than ours. It's time to wake and live God's dream. My seed catalogue arrived last week. I'm going to cooperate with God's dream today by ordering seeds to grow this year's vegetables to help feed my family.

What's your plan to live God's dream today?

Monday, January 17, 2011

More snow

It's just not stopping out there. The winter wallop keeps walloping along, and the trees are just loaded. We're on our way to beating my memory's record of snow in Edmonton.

I took a lot of pictures on my walk to church yesterday morning, thinking I'd have a lot of beautiful things to post this morning. The only problem is that the overcast skies make the camera see grey in my photos, instead of the dazzling, beautiful whites that enthrall me so much. So I'll post a few shots here, and wait for the first sunny day to take some really stunning pictures (I hope).

See, this would be so much better with sunshine and blue sky!
But I'm afraid the wind will knock that snow down before I get the blue sky shot.
We'll see, I guess.

Nope, the camera just doesn't do the day justice. Next time I take this picture, there will be sparkles in that snow, I hope!

After church, Suzanna and I decided to have some fun with the seven foot piles of snow beside our driveway, and we spent about two hours building a snow fort of sorts. It has four doors, and seems pretty sturdy. The only problem is that there's another four inches of snow on the driveway today that I'll have to shovel over the top... filling up my path to the compost pile (if it's not already full...)

Sunday, January 16, 2011


I took my camera with me on my walk to church this morning, intending to capture some wonderful snow pictures. I'll post them tomorrow, because this little fellow deserves a moodling all to himself. He was out on the sidewalk his dad was clearing, pedalling back and forth, anticipating Spring. I asked his dad's permission to take his picture, and the little guy turned his bike around and posed for me. I was still grinning when I met my family at church!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mr. Obama got it right

I have never posted two moodlings in one day -- until now. I can't help myself today because Barack Obama made an amazing and inspiring speech last night, one that is still resonating in the chambers of my soul.

I'm generally not one to pay heed to American politics because the rhetoric below the 49th parallel carries far too much anger and vitriol for me to stomach for more than a few minutes. But the shootings at the meeting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona and U.S. public reaction to it has caught my attention. As horrible as it is that something so terrible happened, I listened to President Obama's memorial speech with a sense of hope for our neighbours to the south.

Mr. Obama got so much right last night. He said many things, but this jumped out at me:
...what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other... As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility, rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame. Let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and to remind ourselves of how our hopes and dreams are bound together. 
He went on to speak about how tragedy shakes us out of our routines and forces us to look inward, to reflect on our past, present and future. He pointed out that times of loss are a good place to take stock of how we live our lives and nurture our relationships, and he offered what I'd call an excellent "examination of conscience" for such times:

Do we show enough kindness, generosity and compassion to those around us?
Are we doing right by our families, our communities?
Do we have our priorities in order?
In the short lives we have to live, do we recognize that the important things are not wealth, status, power or fame, but how well we have loved?
Do our actions align with our values?
Are we always striving to be better people, and to widen our circle of concern?

The above is a brief and woefully inadequate paraphrase of a very powerful 30-minute speech that can be seen at

It is too easy on almost any occasion to judge the attitudes and actions of others who are not like us, but as the President explained so well, that's not what's needed in our world. Judgment ostracizes and divides people, but compassion unites them. Judgement wouldn't do a thing for the two homeless guys who came in to warm up on a -33C (-27F) Edmonton morning, but offering them some warm mitts and sharing a few laughs built a connection between us. Mr. Obama's speech holds true in any difficult situation you care to name.

Thank you, Mr. President, for the reminder. I hope a lot of people are listening, because it's well worth hearing!

Fair trade chocolate, again

This morning, is in my inbox with an appeal asking that we use its handy-dandy email form to send letters to chocolate companies that have dealings with chocolate exporters in Ivory Coast. Apparently, Laurent Gbagbo, recently defeated president of Ivory Coast, is clinging to power in the country, backed by militias who are being supported with funds from corrupt cocoa companies. The country is on the verge of civil war, and UN Peacekeepers are in danger, too. Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the recent democratic election, has yet to get anywhere near his rightful place as leader of the country. Avaaz urges, "Chocolate lovers of the world, let's flood popular brands like Nestlé, M&M/Mars and Hershey's with messages to end trade with Gbagbo now and commit to working only with the legitimate government."

If you want to participate in Avaaz's efforts, here's a link:

Avaaz has provided all sorts of information regarding its reasons for this initiative. Here are two that caught my attention:

Hot Chocolate: How cocoa fueled the conflict in Côte d'Ivoire - A report by Global Witness, June 2007:

Ending Child Trafficking in West Africa: Lessons from the Ivorian cocoa sector - Anti-Slavery International, December 2010: 

As good as all of this is, it doesn't quite go far enough yet. If Avaaz really wanted to have an impact, they might suggest that consumers vote with their pocketbooks and stop buying chocolate from those companies that deal with unethical cocoa sources. So far, people haven't quite put the pieces together to the point that fair trade chocolate is the only chocolate of choice. But my mother-in-law has gotten the message, and this year for Christmas, she gave our family some marvelous fair trade bars and chocolate chips! It's one way to ensure that consumer power is supporting the good of people and the planet.

Fair trade chocolate isn't yet a choice where most people buy chocolate. Maybe it's time we approach our convenience/grocery store managers and suggest that they consider supplying Cocoa Camino bars, or the Ten Thousand Village brand. Know of any others to suggest? Let me know!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Everybody has a role

Today at L'Arche, the usual characters from our downstairs Day Program came up to my office for a visit. Thomas had to find out if I was still sick (I have a cold) and where I parked my car (I caught the bus). Harry had to make sure the chairs were in the right place and tell me (in his humourously expressive but garbled speech) about his roommate's comings and goings. Sandy straightened my papers and wanted to help me shred a few things that, unfortunately, I didn't want to shred (I promised her we would shred things together another day). Jane just wanted to shake hands and say hello.

Everybody who comes upstairs has an important role to play in the structure of the day. Thomas is our head-counter and parking patrolman (I especially enjoy him when he tells me, point blank, that my vehicle is dirty). Harry is our furniture arranger and kibbitzer. Sandy is office assistant and chief photocopier button pusher. And Jane is our hospitality gal. While I don't think any of them could name or explain the importance of their roles, I know that if they weren't there to fulfill their adopted responsibilities, I would miss them. Each one of them makes a day so much brighter in some small way.

When I think about it, it's like that with all the people in my life. Everyone has a role to play. Some roles stand out more than others, some are quieter and behind the scenes. They all carry some significance that often can't be measured or named. Still, if one is missing, the difference is felt. The trick is to appreciate each one, because every person has something unique to teach me about what it is to be fully alive.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lessons from a man who was captured by pirates

My role as a volunteer for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul led me in a new direction last week. A grade six class invited me to speak to them about the Society and what we do. One of our volunteer coordinators supplied me with a lesson plan focussing on the Society's work with the poor, but unfortunately there was little reference to St. Vincent himself or how the Society began. I decided to do a bit of research, and found a story too good to keep to myself.

I've always been a sucker for saint stories. When I was a child, my parents bought us four little square books filled with the lives of the saints, and I read them over and over. The people in their pages were so strange, and so heroic! I don't remember reading about St. Vincent de Paul in those little books, but he was probably there. After all, anyone who survives being captured by pirates definitely belongs in saintlore!

Vincent de Paul was born in France in 1581, to a middle class farm family near Paris, and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1600. In 1605, while he was sailing along the coast of France in order to collect an inheritance, the ship on which he was travelling was captured by Turkish pirates. Of course, Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies wouldn't last a minute next to the pirates of Vincent's era. They killed everyone who wouldn't provide them a fine ransom or fetch a good price when sold as a slave.

Vincent, being young and strong, was taken to be a slave in Tunisia. After six years of hard labour under different owners, his singing in the fields captured the attention of his new master's wife, and her interest in Vincent created the opportunity he needed to convert his French master back to the Christian faith he had abandoned. The two eventually escaped back to France.

I strongly suspect that had Vincent collected his inheritance without incident, we never would have heard of him at all. However, when he returned to France, his experiences as a slave opened his eyes to the plight of the poor, and he used every opportunity to bring the needs of the oppressed before France's wealthy elite. The rest of his life was spent ministering to the poor and building hospitals, orphanages, schools and housing for them. He took a special interest in galley slaves, insisting that they be fed more than black bread and water and be treated more humanely. He started seminaries and convents to train those who were attracted to his mission of serving the poor, and he wrote over 13,000 letters of appeal and spiritual encouragement. After reading everything that Vincent did, I find it hard to imagine that he ever slept! During the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) that devastated so much of Europe, he was Paris' Mother Theresa, rescuing people from the gutters. Hardly an ordinary middle class citizen.

Yet it's so darn easy to be an ordinary middle class citizen if you've never known anything else. My needs and those of my family are met, we have good health, a warm home, plentiful food, and enough work that we can provide for ourselves. It's easy, in a middle class world, to close our eyes and believe that poverty doesn't exist, that no one falls through the cracks, that injustice has no home in our wealthy oil-rich province. But it's only a matter of opening them to see the illusion break apart. Homeless people warm themselves in the malls. Immigrants clean our office towers late into the night. The un- and under-employed keep the Food Bank hopping. Those with chronic illness or mental health issues, and people who have simply made poor choices, perhaps because they were never taught how to make good ones, fall through the cracks at regular intervals. We often hear of their "crimes" on the nightly news.

But is it a crime to be sick? To be uneducated? To have to flee a country where civil war threatens life? To have a disability? To be a misfit? Vincent de Paul understood first-hand how simple misfortune can change a life, and 350 years after his death, he has provided us with the inspiration and opportunity to follow in his footsteps. One of his disciples, Frederic Ozanam, started the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833 during a cholera epidemic... but that's another moodling for another day. There's no shortage of inspirational stories when it comes to the Society, and I suppose many middle class people like me could be examples, too.

I used to be one of those people who was scared of the poor. If a panhandler came up to me on the street, I felt afraid. I suspect my fear was because I might be inadequate in my response. Perhaps it grew out of a sense of guilt that I lived a comfortable middle class life while some of these guys were dumpster diving in my back alley.

As a friend of mine likes to say, "Guilt is only good for about ten seconds. Then you have to do something with it." Volunteering with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a definite antidote to guilt... and fear. It has brought me into regular contact with those I once avoided out of discomfort. I used to be afraid that the poor would ask more of me than I am able to give, but I've since learned that, with the help of the Society, I have an unending supply of what our inner city folks most need: respect, compassion, and the ability to help them find solutions, at least for one day, sometimes for more. My work at the clothing room has given me a strong desire to live simply, sustainably, and in solidarity with the poor. I've learned that abundance is meant to be shared, not hoarded. I've learned that fear and guilt can only be overcome by action, by stretching myself. And I've learned that every person deserves attention and compassion because God loves us equally, no matter our status in the world's eyes.

That's quite a load of good lessons from a man who was captured by pirates!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ordinary time?

Yesterday our church "undecorated," putting away all the Christmas finery and returning to what's called "Ordinary Time" on the liturgical calendar. All signs of jubilant festivity disappeared, and the worship space, while a lovely place, seemed empty and forlorn in comparison with the last few weeks.

Dramatic transitions always make me think about life and its seasons. When we consider our lives, I would guess that, for a lot of us, everything but special events and vacation are considered to be ordinary. We spend most of our lives in ordinariness, looking forward to unusual or exceptional, and when extraordinary happens, we miss it entirely, because it doesn't arrive with the fanfare that we might expect.

But every day that we are able to wake up, get out of bed and put on our slippers is extraordinary to people who are paralyzed. A slice of toast and a cup of coffee for breakfast would be incredible or unbelievable to a lot of people in the developing world. There are thousands, if not millions, of examples of mundane situations in my daily life that someone else would consider miraculous. So many of the ordinary things I take for granted are beyond amazing when I really think about it.

Sarah McLachlan, one of my favourite Canadian musicians, sings an incredibly beautiful song about how, really, everything is a miracle. I don't know who put these pictures to the music, but he or she did a marvelous job:

Today, ordinary or not, is an incredible gift.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A song that makes me happy

I'm down with a nasty cold, and feeling a little cabin-feverish, especially with such a wonderful snowfall that no one has messed up yet. I wanted to go out and dive into snowbanks with my kids this afternoon, but had a nap, worked on a jigsaw puzzle, and did a crossword, things that I never managed to do during Christmas break.

It was a gloomy grey sky day out there, so I listened to Connie Kaldor's Wood River CD to lift my spirits... and was reminded of this wonderful piece of Canadiana sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle. It makes me happy, and the National Film Board animation is terrific. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A winter wallop

"Winter wallop hits Alberta" says my news website. In my Edmonton neighbourhood, it's a pretty gentle wallop... the snow is drifting down gently, with just a light breeze to stir it around. If it gets windy, it will be another story entirely.

It's been a while since we've had a good dump like this. The year my eldest was born, we got seventy cm (almost 3 feet) in the month of January, and I was back in my pre-pregnancy jeans in two weeks after all that shovelling. Today's snowstorm reminds me of that January.

I have a bad cold today, but I had to go out and enjoy the snow, snow, snow, snow, SNOW! (Sung in four parts in my head by Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in White Christmas.) I wanted to take pictures for my warmer climate friends to enjoy.

It's not often we get so much snow that it's higher than our doorsills.

It's hard to imagine the summer garden...

Only intrepid nuthatches and chickadees have been to the feeders this morning, but they've had to shovel snow to get at the seed!

There was a bit of a drift by the gate, but otherwise it was an even snowfall, a good fifteen to twenty cm everywhere, and it's still coming down.

I'm always amazed at how a snowfall like this makes the world white and shades of grey, though you can see a bit of a brownish tinge on the clematis vine.

The snow in the park is knee deep, and the branches of the Mugo pines are loaded. The kids will have to dig out their forts under the branches.

At this point, I decided to make a good old-fashioned snow angel. I put my camera in my pocket and fell backward into the snow, pouf! It was deeper than I expected, and I had to thrash around (and fill my pockets with snow) to get up again.

A very satisfying snowfall, all in all. The world is quiet and clean, there's not a lot of traffic moving around, and it's good to have a cozy home waiting for me, once I get this all shovelled!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thanksgiving for the gift of friendship

Today my friend came to join me for lunch at work. She's one of those friends who is more than an acquaintance, one I can call a kindred spirit or soul mate because we are able to talk about things at a deeper-than-surface level. Not all of the people I call friends would be comfortable eating lunch across the table from two people with disabilities, one of whom won't eat unless everything is slathered in ketchup! I also appreciate the fact that my friend isn't a stand-offish sort who waits for introductions, but takes an immediate interest in the people around her and introduces herself. She's a low-maintenance-and-high-satisfaction-kind-of-friend.

Today my inbox holds more wonderful words from Henri Nouwen:
Friendship is one of the greatest gifts a human being can receive. It is a bond beyond common goals, common interests, or common histories. It is a bond stronger than sexual union can create, deeper than a shared fate can solidify, and even more intimate than the bonds of marriage or community. Friendship is being with the other in joy and sorrow, even when we cannot increase the joy or decrease the sorrow. It is a unity of souls that gives nobility and sincerity to love. Friendship makes all of life shine brightly. Blessed are those who lay down their lives for their friends.
Today I offer a little prayer of thanksgiving for the friend who had lunch with me, for my high school friends, for my Winnipeg friend in Simplicity, and my San Antonio cousin friend in Theology, for my childhood-and-everything-since friend in Duncan, BC, my furthest friend in Germany, my groupees, my sisters, and sisters-in-law and my parents and parents-in-law. Life certainly wouldn't be as bright without friends!

Who makes your life shine more brightly?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Simple pleasures... and making music

One of my favourite things in this world is making music, doesn't matter what kind of music it is. Singing a round, playing guitar, beating a drum, it's all good. What's better is when there's a whole group of people playing and singing together. I'm not one to sing solo, but I love duets and harmonies. Did you ever notice that participation is way more fun than just listening? My favourite musicians are those who come up with easily singable choruses, or leave spaces in their harmony lines for people like me to sing, or who invite their audiences to sing along.

Music is good for the soul in more ways than I can count. It carries emotion, memory and joy like nothing else. My parents both came from musical families, and they've never stopped making music. Some of my early memories include "sing songs" with rooms full of people and my mom's brothers playing piano and guitar. I remember asking them and my dad to sing "Blue Spanish Eyes" for my decidedly un-Spanish dollie! And they did!

When Mom and Dad gave my sister and me 12-string guitars for Christmas 30 years ago, we didn't know that we would enter into the sing-a-long tradition. My youngest sister plays piano, and the three of us have played for a few dozen sing songs over the last fifteen years. Recently, my daughter requested a sing song for her birthday, and a half dozen of her school chums were initiated into the tradition. Will it continue with the next generation? I hope so.

It doesn't take much to make music. I'm not a very talented guitarist as I never took lessons, can't play a bar chord to save my life, and rarely practice, but in a pinch I can lead a group of kids or adults in singing "I am a Pizza," or "Let It Be," and thoroughly enjoy the process. A lot of us sing in the shower with only the sound of water as accompaniment and enjoy that, too. Unfortunately, somewhere along our lives, too many of us lose the small child's ability to sing completely un-self-consciously -- and the joy that goes with it.

Making music is magic, an endorphin-producing pleasure that should happen more frequently than it does. A European cell phone company capitalized on this idea, and invited a crowd of people to raise their voices in Trafalgar Square -- a mega sing song. I love how everyone enters into the spirit! Why not sing along and up your endorphins on this winter day?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A return to roots

The day after Boxing Day, our family made a little pilgrimage to the farm house where my husband grew up. It was a lovely winter afternoon, but the clouds on the horizon hid the mountains that edge the landscape. No sign of Chief Mountain in Montana, or the other Rocky Mountains that my husband woke up to every day of his childhood. But beauty isn't dependent upon mountains, as you can see.

The farm hasn't changed a lot...

The quonset and cattle shed are still there, seen on either side of Dad and his tractor. The house itself is as solid as ever.

It was built in 1918 from the leftover white granite blocks that formed Cardston's Mormon Temple. It looks pretty small from the outside, but looks can be deceiving. I was amazed at how spacious it was once we went inside.

It was a trip down memory lane for my husband as we walked through the rooms. He showed the girls the "dungeon" bedroom he shared with his brother,

remembered various things that happened in different places, and pointed out storage spaces we would have missed altogether, not having been there before. I loved the light in the old house.

The pilgrimage was a good thing to do in more ways than one. Our girls got a sense of their dad's childhood (and an appreciation for not having to share a small basement bedroom). We all enjoyed the peace and quiet of the place, where, when a vehicle drives by, it makes an unearthly roar. We also found Jesus in the basement -- or rather, a white plaster statue of him. No one really knows where he came from, but we brought him home to Mom so he can have a place of honour instead of sitting in a dark laundry room.

Our trip to the farm made me think of that line by Jonas Salk: "Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is; wings to fly away and exercise what's been taught them." My husband's roots and wings have made him into a very good man, one who really values his relationship with his parents. While our girls are slowly discovering where their wings will take them, our annual Christmas pilgrimage to be with their grandparents gives them a good idea of their roots. All is as it should be.

Monday, January 3, 2011

New year's joy for the birds, Charleen, Pebbles and me

Last year, for the first time, I hung a store-bought suet ball outside my window, in clear view of my kitchen computer desk. Within the week, I had a flock of new friends who amazed and amused me with their antics... and their pecking order. I didn't know that female nuthatches were the queens of the heap in the suet ball world (as long as the downy woodpeckers aren't around). Then come the male nuthatches, and the chickadees, female and male. I often found myself forgetting my writing when the birds came for breakfast.

Just before Christmas, I went looking for a store-bought suet ball, but didn't find one. I did find some chopped suet, so I brought a package home, warmed it on the stove over low heat, and threw in a handful of raw sunflower seeds and some budgie seed. I searched through the freezer, high and low, but we must have eaten those leftover summer raspberries, so I added a handful of raisins instead before putting the lumpy mess into two small containers and freezing them. Voila, two homemade suet balls. One is hanging outside my window again, and I gave one to my friend, Charleen, on New Year's Day, because I know she loves the little birds as much as I do.

These days, our budgie, Pebbles, sits on the windowsill for long stretches. When he's not throwing my grocery list papers all over the place,

he's waiting for the birds and shouting to them when they come. "Hey, birdie! I love you, birdie-bird! What's up, birdie?!"

Pebbles waits for his friends.

My girlfriend, Cathy, and I have a tradition of choosing a word to focus on for each new year. The word of the year 2011 is Joy. If you want to add a little simple joy to your life, I'd highly recommend a suet ball!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The feast of Epiphany... and Short Story #22

"Epiphany" is a wonderful, rather exotic word for a surprising revelation. Here's a short story I wrote recently as a Christmas gift for my best friend. I don't think Cathy will mind me sharing it with you this Epiphany.

Monica’s Epiphany

Christmas was a week away, and Monica was in miserable martyr mode. Hurrying along the mall concourse, she chanted a litany of the things she still needed to find: new Christmas candles, some slivered almonds, two new pillows, and—oh dear, she had forgotten something. What was it? What was it?
Sighing deeply, Monica paused at the food court, racking her brain for the missing item. Seeing an empty table for two, she found her way through a crowd of shoppers having late afternoon snacks. She sat down and slid her bags and parcels onto the table top. There was already more than an armload; how was she going to lug all this and two pillows home on the bus? Frowning, she picked up her purse, and rifled through it for her shopping list.
The search was fruitless, and her mood worsened -- she would never get everything done without that list! Looking at her Christmas purchases, she thought hard about each store she had visited and where the list might be, but there was no way of knowing whether she’d find it if she back-tracked. Besides, she didn’t have time. Her bus home was less than an hour away.
This business of Christmas was highly overrated as far as Monica was concerned. Holding a commercial festival that had nothing to do with anything was ridiculous, really. Not being religious in any sense of the word, Monica couldn’t for the life of her understand why thinking adults would put themselves through the yearly chaos surrounding the birth of a mythological biblical character who was supposed to be God, but she grudgingly went along with it. Her husband and kids seemed to sort of believe in something about it all, and she couldn’t refuse them anything. For her own part, Monica was ready to call it quits entirely.
Furious with herself and the missing Christmas list, Monica scanned the noisy crowd around her until her eyes halted on a group of three elderly men sitting in the midst of the hubbub, grinning at her. Unnerved, she turned and looked behind her, thinking they might be amused by something going on at the Chinese food counter. When she turned back, their eyes were on the playing cards they each held in their hands. The old Asian fellow was laughing at something the white-haired man of African descent was saying. The small, grey-goateed Middle Eastern-looking gent threw his cards on the table with glee, and Monica actually heard a roar of mock disapproval from the other two over the noise of the crowd. They were clearly having a good time, while she was having everything but.
Monica shook her head. It wouldn’t surprise her if the old roosters’ wives were running themselves ragged doing Christmas errands while the men didn’t lift a finger. Husbands were all the same. Wasn’t Al home reading the paper or watching TV? He complained that he hated mall mayhem this time of year. Well, so did she, but someone had to prepare for Christmas.
An hour later, Monica sat on the bus, her parcels taking up the seat beside her, causing frowns among the passengers who were stuck standing in the aisle during rush hour. Avoiding their eyes, she checked her bags one more time. A sweater for Al, gift cards for the grandkids, pine potpourri and the new pillows (suggested in that Debbie Travis article), chocolates (for the boy who shoveled her sidewalk and any extra friends who might show up with a gift that had to be reciprocated), new Christmas towels for the bathroom, slivered almonds for cookies, three extra Christmas cards (for the friends she had crossed off her mailing list because they didn’t send cards last year), and earrings for her friend Teresa.
 Not bad a bad haul, though she hadn’t come up with a gift for her daughter Janie. As Monica closed the last bag, she spotted her Christmas shopping list slipping to its bottom, crossly snatched it out, and didn’t have to read further than the first item. Silver polish! She had forgotten the silver polish! Her head dropped as angry tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them back and looked up, right into the face of one of the men she had seen playing cards at the food court.
His dark brown eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled at her, and he removed his hat to reveal thin, curly white hair that contrasted with his dark skin. “If I held the biggest bag on my lap,” he said in a deep voice with a faint but unmistakeable accent, “would you mind if I sat beside you?”
Surprised, Monica shuffled the smaller bags aside as the man lifted her bag of pillows and slid his lanky legs beneath them. His hands were black against the downy whiteness of the pillows peeking out, and the tender pinkness of his palms and fingernails embarrassed Monica somehow.
“I forgot the silver polish,” she confessed quickly, then wondered why she had said it.
“Silver polish?” the stranger repeated. “Is it important?”
“Well, yes,” Monica replied. “I polish the silver every year for Christmas.”
The man considered that for a moment, then said, “Why?”
“Well, it gets tarnished. It’s a wedding gift, and we’ve always used it for Christmas dinner.”
“What would happen if you didn’t use it?” her seatmate asked, looking her in the eye.
“I don’t know. I suppose that as long as everyone has knives and forks, that’s all that really matters.”
“So who are you polishing the silver for?” he asked, smiling.
Monica’s mouth dropped open. She was about to protest, but surprised herself by saying, “I’ve always hated polishing the silver.”
“So why not make a change?” the stranger said gently. “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine,” he grinned, wiggling his white bushy eyebrows.
Monica almost rolled her eyes like a teenager faced with Mom’s advice, but smiled instead. “I guess you’re right,” she said.
“Here’s my stop,” said her seatmate. “Thanks for the seat.” Leaving her pillows beside her, he shuffled past others to the front of the bus and disembarked. As the bus pulled away, Monica watched his figure recede in the darkness.
Someone touched her shoulder. “I sit?” said the small Asian man she had also seen at the food court.
“Of—of course,” Monica said, and looked past him to see the third card player, the one with the goatee, holding onto a handrail. The Asian man took her pillows and held them on his lap as he settled beside her. He beamed, nodded, and pulled a folded newspaper from under his arm. “I going to Christmas concert tonight,” he said, pointing to a notice in the paper. Handel’s Messiah. “You go to Christmas concerts?” he asked.
“I used to, when my family was younger,” Monica replied. “But now that they’ve left home I have too much to do to get everything ready for Christmas. Tomorrow, I need to put up the tree and get going on my Christmas cleaning, and after that I have to decorate. Oh, and bake almond cookies.”
“Ah. Why you do so much things? Husband, children no help, or you not like help?” he asked. “Why they don’t help so you can enjoy Christmas, go to concerts?”
Monica was speechless. She had never really asked for help. But now that she thought about it, Al probably wouldn’t mind setting up the tree, and Janie would likely be willing to come over and wash some walls and clean the china cabinet for her. Monica's daughter had always loved that cabinet and its porcelain statues. Come to think of it, Janie should choose one or two of those dust-collecting treasures as her Christmas gift this year. And her twelve-year-old daughter, Sara, would probably love to make Almond snow drops for her Girl Guide badge, since she swore they were her favourite cookie.
“I suppose I could ask for help,” Monica murmured.
“Confucius say, “They must often change who would be constant in happiness and wisdom.” Yes, ask for help. Go to concerts,” her seatmate said, pointing again to his newspaper as he tucked it in with her pillows and stood up. “My stop, good bye.”
“Oh. Goodbye,” Monica murmured, too late, as the little man hustled forward and stepped gingerly off the bus. He waved at her as the bus pulled away. When she turned back from the window, the third card player was sitting beside her.
“What is it with you guys?” she said.
The grey-goateed man smiled and shrugged, saying with a thick accent, “We have been friends for many years. But we noticed you didn’t seem to be enjoying yourself this afternoon.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Monica admitted. “I misplaced my Christmas shopping list, and couldn’t remember the things I intended to buy. So I forgot the silver polish… and -- oh no! Spicehill Farms gift boxes for my neighbours.” She cursed internally.
The man shrugged again. “Do you like your neighbours?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t buy them presents if I didn’t.”
His eyes twinkled. “So who needs sausages and cheeses? Do something different instead. Our only true security is our ability to change. Why not invite your neighbours over for some Christmas cheer?”
Monica laughed. Years ago, when Christmas was simpler, didn’t she and Al host a neighbourhood Christmas party? And invite the Magnussens, Wongs, Chomiks and Leighs? How had that tradition been forgotten when it was such a good one? Oh yes, Al had pneumonia that one year, she had the flu the next…
“Good idea,” Monica said, smiling. “Why are you and your friends so wise?”
The man smiled, shrugged, and put his finger to his lips. “You’ll have to excuse me. This is my stop.” He stood and handed Monica her pillows. “Have a Merry Christmas,” he said.
“Thank you,” Monica smiled. “And thank your friends, too. You each gave me a good idea.”
When Monica reached home, she was surprised to find Al in the process of putting up a Christmas tree. “TV got boring,” he said, as she gave him a kiss. “I thought you might like some help. And I’m warming last night’s casserole leftovers in the oven. I hope that meets your approval.”
Monica felt like applauding, but settled for giving him an extra kiss. “How would you feel about taking in Handel’s Messiah tonight?” she asked.

After an incredible evening of letting Handel’s glorious music wash over her, Monica had the most vivid dream of her life.
She dreamed she was walking a rugged path in a cool, dark valley, the sky above her sparkling with more stars than she had ever seen, though the edge of the horizon held the palest glow of coming dawn. There was just enough light that Monica could see the path ahead of her for a short distance. Somewhere behind her, there was a gentle jangling of bells.
Suddenly, the bells became louder, and Monica turned to see a large beast come over a rise in the path. A tall man in a turban was silhouetted against the sky where it had begun to lighten. He limped along, leading another man on a camel. A second camel and rider came behind them. Instinctively, Monica stepped off the path into some shrubs to let them pass, but the procession came to a halt.
The elderly black man in the lead looked familiar to Monica, but she couldn’t place him. He began to speak to her, but she didn’t understand a word. He paused, and tried again, a different sounding language, and again, another language she couldn’t begin to recognize. He turned to his friends on the camels, and they each tried to speak with her, but nothing they said resembled English in any way. So the leader reverted to sign language, pointing toward a small village ahead, and to the camel, indicating that he wanted Monica to ride.
“Oh, no, no,” she replied, and then remembered that he probably didn’t understand her. “You’re limping, she said, pointing to his foot and doing an imitation, then gesturing from him to the camel. “You should ride.”
But the goateed man on the camel the dark one was leading had already dismounted, and the two of them pushed Monica toward it, making clucking noises against her protests, helping her into the saddle. The two men linked arms and hobbled slowly down the path toward a sleeping village, the beast below Monica tossing from side to side in an ancient rhythm unfamiliar to her. She turned to the Asian man mounted on the camel behind her, and he shrugged and smiled encouragement. Why did they all look so familiar?
The tiny caravan stopped as it reached the outskirts of the little town, and the men in the lead walked back to the one still seated on his camel so all three could confer in a soft-sounding language. The goateed man drew some instruments out of a sack that was fastened to his belt, and seemed to take a reading from the fading stars. After a short discussion, a point in the direction of the far end of town, and quiet murmurs of assent, the three men resumed their positions.
Somewhere a rooster crowed as the light increased, and a few more joined in chorus. The camel procession passed through the shadows of the dusty town, only the sounds of harness bells and the camels’ footfalls echoing from stone walls. The group was almost at the last home in the village when they stopped. The man behind Monica dismounted, and the other two came to help her down before all three went to the first camel and unpacked some beautifully ornate jars and boxes.
Monica stood alone, not knowing what to do next, but the three men beckoned that she should come with them to the door of a tiny house with a dim light in one of the windows. Curious, she followed them, standing to the side as the goateed man rapped on the door. The light in the window increased, and a moment later, a tousled-haired girl bearing a lamp peeked through the door. Surprise registered on her face as her eyes travelled from face to face. Nodding to Monica, she murmured a moment in the soft-sounding language Monica had heard the men speaking, and disappeared for a few moments. The goateed man made a comment, and all three chuckled as the girl returned to the door, pulling a robe around her slim body.
The girl opened the door and held the lamp aloft, gesturing that the visitors should enter. Monica found herself swept into the tiny home with the rustle of the three strangers’ robes. She was standing in the middle of a single room. A man on a mat in the corner raised himself onto an elbow, and a tiny child peeked out from under the blanket that covered the two. The girl set the lamp on the room’s only table, turned to a shelf on the wall and brought down a pitcher and bowl. She was reaching for a towel when the man with the goatee said something that made her stop mid-reach. He gestured toward the two on the bed. The child had sat up, his dark curly hair standing on end, his eyes reflecting the lamplight, and the man put an arm around him and spoke what seemed a soft challenge to the visitors.
The child looked intently at Monica as the man with the goatee took a step back, waving one hand in dismay, speaking softly. Monica scrunched her eyes at the little one the way she had with her own grandbabies, and he grinned, put a finger in his mouth, and scrunched his whole face as his father and the stranger spoke to one another. The girl put one hand to her mouth and sank to the table’s bench, following the conversation with her eyes. Monica wondered what was being said, but continued to exchange blinks and winks with the little tyke.
Suddenly, he wiggled out from under his protector’s arm and stood up, taking three steps toward the girl. Almost as suddenly, the three men standing in the doorway dropped to their knees, smiling, reaching toward the little one. The child toddled to the girl’s knee, and she lifted him to her lap, smoothing his hair, but he wiggled and slid to the ground again. Then he went to Monica, who had crouched to his level.
Silence filled the room, and the lamplight seemed a little brighter, Monica thought. The child looked into her eyes questioningly, and smiled. “Ah, you’re a charmer,” she murmured, reaching out to tousle his curly hair. She let herself down onto the floor, and he plunked down in front of her, legs akimbo.
“I don’t suppose you know Patty-cake, do you?” she said, and he wrinkled his nose in a quizzical fashion. “Here,” she said, taking his hands and smacking his palms in gentle rhythm, “Patty-cake, patty cake, baker’s man…”
The next thing she knew, the girl was sitting behind the little one, pulling him into her lap, listening intently to the rhyme. Once the cake had been put “in the oven for baby and me,” the child clapped as if to say, “again,” and Monica repeated it. When she finished, the girl smiled shyly, and began to clap her son’s hands in a different rhythm and sing a little melody, pausing for the child to fill in syllables now and then. Monica looked over at the other visitors, and they too were sitting on the floor, eyes shining, watching the clapping game, smiling and nodding at Monica.
The child’s eyes moved to the three strange men, and he clambered off his mother’s lap toward the one who was closest to him. He touched the Asian man’s wrinkled cheek, and the old man touched the child’s cheek and murmured what only could have been appreciation. The little one then moved to the one with the goatee and touched the tip of his rather bulbous nose with one finger. He laughed, and the goateed one laughed, and flattened his nose with his own fingertip, crossing his eyes, making the toddler giggle. Finally, the boy reached the darkest one. The old man closed his eyes, smiling as little fingers traced his bushy white eyebrows. Then he opened his eyes, took the child’s hand, and kissed it gently.
The young man on the mat had tied his thin blanket around his waist and moved to the table. He unwrapped a few crusts of bread in a towel, offering them to the three visitors. They shook their heads, the goateed one responded at length, and then turned to the others in conferral. The three then removed from the folds of their robes the ornate boxes and jars that Monica saw earlier, and held them out to the young couple. The girl shook her head, but the old one with the goatee slowly got to his feet and went to her, pressing his boxes set with stones into her hands before returning to help his fellow travelers to their feet so they could do the same with their jars. The goateed one spoke with some urgency to the young man, and a look of alarm crossed his smooth face. He swallowed hard, making eye contact with the girl. The two nodded almost imperceptibly, and the girl scooped up the child and gave him to Monica.
Confused, Monica and the child watched from their place on the floor as the young couple moved uncertainly about the room, seemingly in a panic. The black stranger grasped the blanket the young man was wearing, and Monica averted her eyes and began playing Pattycake with the little boy while the young man dressed and the old one folded up the bedding. The Asian man picked up the bread that had just been offered him and handed it to the girl as the goateed man took a rough cloth sack from a hook on the wall and gave it to her. The young man brought a hammer and chisel, and a small shirt that he passed to Monica so she could dress the child while the rest hurriedly but carefully packed the few things from the room into the sack, including the gifts the strangers had brought. When the child’s head and arms emerged from his little shirt, he clapped his hands and made grunting noises to the Pattycake rhythm, and Monica repeated it again, smiling in spite of the anxiety she was feeling.
The girl interrupted the game by wrapping a blanket around her son’s shoulders. She spoke softly to him for a few moments, and he raised his arms to her. She picked him up, and he snuggled into her neck as she rummaged in the top of the sack for the bread. She broke off a crust and gave it to him, and he offered it to Monica.
“Ah, no, little one,” she smiled. “It’s your breakfast.” The young woman smiled an anxious smile, and before Monica knew what she was doing, she held both mother and child in a wordless embrace.
The young man appeared at the girl’s elbow, speaking rapidly as he hefted the bag and gestured toward the door. But the tall black man held up a hand for a moment, opened the door a crack, and looked out. Cautiously pushing the door open, he led the young couple and child out into the slanting early morning light. Monica and the others followed.
The young man made a deep bow toward the three, put his arm around his wife and child, and was about to walk along a path that led into the hills when the Asian man became quite agitated, pointing toward the horizon, where a cloud of dust could be seen advancing toward the village. Waving his hands, he spoke quickly to his companions and grabbed the young man’s sack of belongings. The other two men had hurried to the nearest camel, unloading bedrolls and satchels before tying the young man’s sack and their own canteens to the camel’s saddle and handing the young man the beast’s lead.
The Asian man took the child from his mother and gave him to Monica as the other two visitors helped the girl mount the saddle. Monica kissed the child's curly crown and lifted the little one up to the girl, whose eyes were misty as she spoke words of what seemed to be gratitude to the three visitors and Monica. The men smiled and bowed, and Monica followed their lead, then crinkled her eyes at the child, who responded in kind. The goateed man spoke seriously with the young man for a moment, pointing first one direction, then another. The young man nodded, gripped the older man’s arm, and hugged him tightly for a moment. Then he nodded to the other two, who coaxed the camel to its feet and began shouting and slapping its backside. The young man led the lumbering beast up the path without looking back. The girl and her child, their eyes dark, their smiles bright, turned and waved to the strangers who had come to visit. Then the girl wrapped herself and her child in her cloak, and the two turned to face their seemingly uncertain future.
Monica stood watching until the little family disappeared over a rise. When she turned around, the three old men were standing with their only camel and the things they had unloaded from the beast they had given away. The goateed man threw up his hands in disgust and spoke to the Asian fellow in a rather irritated tone. The black one laughed aloud, said something himself, and a moment later, all three were laughing. Their laughter rang like bells, peal after peal, and Monica suddenly found that she was laughing too, even though the joke was beyond her. As she turned toward the horizon, her laughter caught in her throat and her smile faded. Her companions’ eyes followed hers, and Monica became aware of the sound of marching echoing through the streets.
“You—you saved them, didn’t you?” she said, pointing toward the hill where the young couple had vanished. “You knew they were in danger, and you warned them. Your camel was probably the most important gift you gave them. How will you travel now?”
The goateed one reached for Monica’s arm, lowered it to her side, shrugged, and put his finger to his lips. Then he whispered, in a thick accent, “God grant me the serenity to accept the situations I cannot change, the courage to change the ones I can, and the wisdom to do what must be done.” 
Monica woke, and wondered.

Though she never saw her three wise men again, Monica took their words to heart. Her silver was donated to a charity sale, she now involves her family in pre-Christmas preparation (and has discovered that they actually enjoy helping out), and she has stopped worrying about buying her neighbours gifts and has started inviting them over more often.
Since then, every year during the Christmas season, Monica approaches an inner city charity and asks for the name of a needy young refugee couple with a small child. She buys blankets, food, and a Pattycake book, and leaves them on the family’s doorstep on Christmas Eve.
Monica is a changed woman.