Friday, September 30, 2016

Gone on pilgrimage

When you're practicing Voluntary Simplicity, it's hard to talk yourself into things that you know are good for you, but not so good for the planet. So I want you to know that it's with many misgivings -- and no small amount of joy -- that I am on my way to Europe one more time.

Because I know that the fossil fuels used by air travel are costing our planet dearly in terms of environmental degradation through extraction, spills, other disasters, and climate change, it was hard for me to talk myself into air travel, which, next to space vehicles and cruise ships, create more greenhouse gases per person than anything else. Took me a good two weeks. Adding to our beautiful planet's carbon debt load -- which is contributing to droughts, tropical storms (like the one that hit Taiwan this week), the melting of polar ice and rising sea levels that affect our brothers and sisters around the globe -- isn't something I want to do.

But I do want to spend a week on Pilgrimage in Taizé with Cathy, who has been my friend for a full 45 years, since our first day in Grade One, and who has led Taizé prayer with and without me many times over the years. We had always talked about seeing an opera in Milan someday, but I think Taizé is a better choice for us. And I do want to visit my Flemish friends Gaby and Yvonne, Luc and Brigitte, and Xavier and Ilse one more time, to enjoy their friendship and share their burden of grief in losing Dimitri, if only a little bit. I think from then on, I will just travel shorter distances that cost creation less in terms of environmental impacts...

So as you read this, I am overseas, possibly enjoying a day in Paris with my best friend, or perhaps already on my way to Taizé for the week of October 2-9. I'll be back to my ordinary, low carbon life in two weeks. In the meantime, I intend to make the most of these days in France and Belgium, having a full week to experience the Taizé Community's beautiful ecumenical prayer life, and several days just being with my friends in Flanders. I'm off on a spiritual pilgrimage of friendship. You can be sure that I'll pray for you as I go.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Simple Suggestion #257... Indulge your inner child

When we bought our 1950s-era home from the original owners in 2003, we marvelled at the oak tree they had planted in the front yard when they bought the house. How it must have grown in those nearly 60 years! And every autumn I bless that oak tree for the wonderful crunchy leaves that it drops over our yard and gardens. Not only are they gorgeous in spring, summer, and fall, and make wonderful compost, but they build fantastic piles for play!

There are plenty of elms and other trees in our neighbourhood, but the leaves from oak trees are special, in my opinion.
Their size and shape and the way they curl as they dry makes them the ideal material for leaf piles that prevent jumpers from hitting the ground too hard. And it doesn't take as many oak leaves as other, smaller leaves to get a really good-sized pile. 15 minutes of raking is all I need!

Three autumns ago, I was out cleaning up around our oak tree, forming a huge mound of leaves from the ones scattered across our and our neighbours' lawn, when I spied a young mom and her three little ones walking through the area park across the street. I called to them, and introduced myself, explaining to the little ones that my three little girls were all grown up and I had no one to play in and crunch down my leaf piles anymore. Every year since, Zoe, Isabel and Sara have "helped me out" by jumping in my leaves.

Autumn leaves are meant to be enjoyed, and my little neighbours definitely enjoy them! They came over on Saturday evening with their parents and had a pretty good time diving into the pile, throwing leaves around, and though I wasn't able to stay and watch very long, I'm guessing that maybe they even buried each other like my sisters and I used to, like my kids did. I wish I had been able to join them. It's fun to rise from a leafy grave, as long as no one jumps on top of you! When the kids were finished, their mom or dad raked a somewhat smaller, flatter pile back together, and I imagine every piece of the kids' clothing needed to be shaken out before they went indoors.

I've said it before, and I'll say it until I die: occasionally it's good to indulge the child that still lives within. Play is good for the soul. Wanna come jump in my leaf pile with me?

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Click here.

Monday, September 26, 2016

In case you might be interested... Open Bethlehem

What's below is taken directly from the Open Bethlehem website. I had the opportunity to view the movie and meet Leila Sansour, the young woman whose voice you hear in the clip, and the executive producer, Wael Kabbani, also the producer of two other critically acclaimed films on peace. It was a powerful experience. There has to be a way for Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace, to share their space, and this movie is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on how we can all contribute to peace in our world. If you have a chance to attend an Open Bethlehem presentation, please do!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

We don't have to fight

I'm sighing tonight. At church today, our new deacon's homily said several times that we need to fight for our eternal salvation. Where on earth did he get that idea? I guess Paul tells us to fight the good fight of faith, but is fight the right word? I wonder if Paul's letter was translated incorrectly, or if perhaps Paul just wanted to cheer people on like we cheer on sports teams. God and fighting seem rather incongruent in my books.

God gave the world Jesus so that we might believe in him and inherit eternal life. Jesus never said anything about fighting for it. He told us to love one another, to do good, to give away things that distract us from God, to share our abundance with those who don't have enough, and to let tomorrow take care of itself. Nary a word about fighting, because God's reign doesn't require it. God gives eternal life to us all, equally, and we don't have to do anything but accept it. So fighting for it is kinda silly.

What's more important is just letting God love us, letting God give us life, not just when we die, but right now. To appreciate God's goodness and allow it to fill us to overflowing so that we have some to share with others who need it. To let God's Spirit guide us in the way that Jesus came to show us, falling in love with God instead of fighting for what's already been freely given if we only let it happen. Eternal life starts now, if we let God's love run the show.

I'm afraid I didn't really hear the deacon's homily (but I hope he was encouraging us all to look for the poor Lazaruses who people our lives, and to care for them). Instead, his idea of fighting for eternal life lost me somewhere and led me into a prayer of gratitude for not having to fight, just living my way into it. And a long lost memory came back to me of a song that I first heard when I was just starting to fall in love with God as a teenager, around the time that contemporary Christian music took off. I share that song below. No confusion, no time of tribulation required, just slowing down and waiting on the Spirit of the Lord -- who is generous beyond our belief! Happy Sunday!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Goodbye, Summer

I'm sorry, but I think whoever organized our seasons made a few critical mistakes. For one thing, summer should be the four months from April 15th to August 15th so as to give us the longest days of the year to enjoy. It's not fair that summer only begins on the longest day, and that by the time it ends, our days are significantly shorter and darker. But I guess the folks who decided the calendar thought that measuring time by our astronomical equinoxes was more exact, even if summer's end isn't as bright as its beginning.

While out walking the dog last week, we ran into a neighbour who admitted to a bit of melancholy now that our evenings are cooler and darker. Last night I covered my tomatoes for the third time. Yes, there's definitely a melancholy that comes with the realization that we'll have to wait another year for fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, flowers and herbs, not to mention those warm summery evenings of walking in the light.

As I think about the summer that was, I realize that I never did get around to much moodling about it -- or showing vacation pictures. Now that the dew is heavy on the grass, nights are cool, and the shadows as long as though summer is about to end (which it does at 8:21 a.m. tomorrow), I'll say my farewells to a wonderful season by looking through my photos and sharing some highlights...

A family trip to Fort Edmonton on a warm June day...

Lee and friends having their own "Rock Parade"
(taking rocks from our yard to a neighbour's new rock garden)...

An early garden shot...

Being tourists in Edmonton... a visit to 
City Hall and the Federal Building near our Legislature...

Watching our kids perform (and get rained on)
at the Muttstock Festival...

The lovely Margaret Falls near Herald Provincial Park
on the Shushwap lakes in British Columbia...

Othello Train tunnels near Hope, BC with our cousin, Rebecca...

A Guldian Finch at the Bloedel Conservatory in Vancouver
with Lee's sister, Lynn, along for the walk...

A gorgeous ferry ride to Vancouver Island...

Enjoying the waves at French Beach...

The harbour of Victoria... and lunch in an Irish pub...

Playing frisbee around Goldstream Falls...

Fireworks and a moonlight walk at Butchart Gardens
(one of my favourite places!)...

Camping near Little Qualicum Falls...

The Canadian Sand Sculpture championships at Parksville, BC 
(this year's theme... Things with Wings)...

Our 25th Wedding Anniversary at Chemainus, BC. 
Lee struck this same pose on our honeymoon...

Ukulele songs at Paul Lake, BC...

My "Superheroes" on top of Whistler mountain
in Jasper National Park...

A picnic at Pyramid Lake...

Anniversary surprises when we got home...

A later garden shot...

Lee and his dad at the farm. 
They planted all the trees around the yard. 
How they've grown in 30+ years...


Buddha likes his cherries... and so do we!

Encountering many bison at Elk Island National Park
 with our Belgian friends, Xavier and Ilse...

A canoe trip for Suzanna's birthday...

That's more than enough pictures for one season. Time to get on with plum and zucchini loaves and my daily garden round... 

Farewell, Summer!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Farewell to the WCR: A sheep's lament

Image result for shepherd and sheep"The priest who seldom goes out of himself ...misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. ... Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers... I am asking you -- be shepherds with the odor of the sheep, make it real as shepherds among your flock."
--Pope Francis, Holy Thursday 2013

This week I learned that Edmonton's award-winning Western Catholic Reporter,  which covered the faith life of people in our province and western Canada, and published news from around the world, is being closed down. I can't help feeling sad and disappointed because it seems like another example of our Shepherds choosing to ignore their sheep.

I know that newspaper readership has been in decline around the globe, but up until our latest Shepherd took over the flock, the WCR had a strong business case. It exuded the "odor of the sheep" by serving its readers well for over 50 years and entering the digital age some time ago even as it continued to mail out hard copy newspapers for those who didn't want to read online. Both paper and website were visually appealing and had many interesting columnists and features to educate and inspire those who subscribed. I had a digital subscription and looked to it for information about local and world events related to my faith... but now I'm not sure where to turn to continue my faith formation. The WCR was a handy resource, and it published a calendar of events that I will definitely miss!

Our Shepherds seem to think that one archdiocesan communications person can put out a weekly bulletin to keep the public informed... but the WCR was more than just a bulletin. It was a dialogue between people in our faith community. It shared stories about what was happening in our Catholic school system. It carried human interest stories, and events in local Catholic church communities, as well as ecumenical news. It filled us in on the debates around assisted suicide and educated us about tenets of our faith. It published letters from its readers that helped us to be critically-thinking Catholics. 

Perhaps that's the problem. Though we aren't mindless sheep, it seems our Shepherds don't really want to hear from us if we happen to disagree with them. When we call Shepherds to a reality check regarding things like supporting LGBTQ students in our Catholic schools, discussing women's ordination, supporting charities of our choice rather than the Bishop's appeal, or practicing inclusivity when it comes to allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion (among many other issues) our "sheeply odor" seems to be too much for them. Our Shepherds have their agenda, which is not to be messed with. Meanwhile the WCR was trying to objectively meet the sheep's need for information and communication, allowing us to learn about and discuss questions of importance to us. I'm not sure the Shepherds liked that.

So now our lay columnists on social justice, life with disabilities, peace activism, and many other topics have been shut down with the paper. Six people will be unemployed, several more will lose their places as regular writers, all of them people who had their ears to the ground for issues that mattered to the flock. The Archdiocese's weekly bulletin pushes out the news according to the Shepherds' agenda, but if the Shepherds are too busy following their own agendas to listen to the sheep, how will they know what the sheep might really be needing to hear and discuss? The WCR was a publication that gave the laity a voice by sending reporters out to cover events and mingle with the sheep, by connecting with many different columnists and local lay writers, by meeting with and communicating with different faith groups across Alberta, and by publishing our letters.

But all that will soon be gone. The last issue of the WCR comes out at the end of September, and I'm not sure how long the website will last. So what do we do? How does the flock go on? After giving it some thought, I'm going to subscribe to the Prairie Messenger, our last Catholic paper on the prairies, to support their Catholic journalists as best I can. I hope to rejoin the flock's dialogue there, though heaven knows, it won't be the same. I'll miss all my friends from the pages of the WCR, even though I've never met most of them in person.

My deep gratitude to the editor, staff, journalists, columnists and contributors of the Western Catholic Reporter for your dedication and excellent work over the years. You will all be missed.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Love those September strolls

I'm so lucky to live less than a kilometre, as the crow flies, from the North Saskatchewan River. Because we live near one of its elbows, there are two gorgeous parks extending out at almost 90 degrees from each other that are perfect for dog walks. So this week, Shadow and I have been alternating between Strathearn and Forest Heights Parks, watching from different vantage points as the river valley changes into its fall colours.

Looking toward Forest Heights...

Looking toward Strathearn...
and all the gorgeous colours in between the two outlooks...

Alberta isn't so fancy as Eastern Canada this time of year -- it just turns green and gold in the fall with a few small splashes of red here and there.  But those reds are stunning -- this morning I saw a gorgeous scarlet Burning Bush, but I didn't have the camera with me. Might just have to go back there tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll post my favourite hollyhock picture.

Don't you just love fall colours?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


I've been hesitant to post the video below because I don't want to offend my readers' sensibilities. But ever since the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in August, this song has stuck with me, the chorus of Whoa-Oh's bouncing around in my head. And after receiving some rather unhappy news this morning, I decided it was time to revisit Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats' slightly naughty song, S.O.B., for a bit of a pick me up. There's just something about the melody (and the way Nathaniel dances) that lifts me up...

In spite (or perhaps because) of its language, S.O.B. was a real crowd pleaser at the end of the Folk Fest this year -- thousands of us stood on the hill and sang its chorus of Whoa-ohs at the top of our lungs to bring the band back on stage for a lively encore, to which the whole hillside danced. My best friend and I were too close to the speakers for me to make out many of the lyrics, so I looked this video up the next day and realized it was a pretty cheerful hurting song -- an alcoholic's lament, if you will.

"My heart is breaking, hands are shaking, bugs are crawling all over me," pretty much describes the kind of misery in which we find ourselves at certain crossroads in our lives. Change is never easy, but we have no choice but to keep on moving forward in spite of rotten circumstances. Sometimes it helps to swear a little, laugh through the tears, and dance to some rowdy music. So I offer this song in that spirit, especially to my friends who are struggling (you know who you are). Keep on keeping on, and know that you are loved! And really, I'd be happy to get you a drink anytime...

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Join us for Taizé Prayer tonight

With summer almost gone and fall activities getting underway, we resume our schedule for Taizé prayer this evening, 7 pm at Assumption Church (9040 95 Avenue). Consider this an invitation to join us for beautiful ecumenical prayer, followed by fellowship, coffee and goodies in the church basement. We all need to pray together more often, to be less afraid to cross each other's thresholds and share our faith journeys together, because spirituality is what makes us truly human.

We will be singing Bless the Lord this evening. God leads us into life, and that's worth celebrating together! Have a good Sunday.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Sunday reflection on a Monday: Practicing detachment

I've been thinking a lot about detachment lately, and how easy it is to become wrapped up in situations beyond our control. Really, almost everything is beyond our control, but we've convinced ourselves otherwise. So we imagine that we are in charge, that we call the shots, and when things don't work that way -- well, I don't know about you, but I get tied up in knots.

All of the readings at church this past Sunday were about detachment. The reading from the Book of Wisdom (9:13-18) reminded us that "our designs are likely to fail" but that God sees that "the paths of those on earth were set right, and people were taught what pleases you and were saved by wisdom." In Paul's Letter to Philemon (9-17), he is letting go of Onesimus, a "beloved brother" who has come to mean much to him. And in Luke's Gospel (14:25-33), Jesus is encouraging us to give up our attachments to connections and possessions in order to live in freedom as children of God.

"Let go and Let God" is a phrase I feel like I've heard all my life, but it still isn't easy. As a well-established worry-wart (and mother), I find it hard to turn off my brain and hand the worrying over to God, not to mention detaching from my possessions, my judgments, my thought patterns, my EGO! And yet, I know that if I can become less attached to all those things, entrusting them all to the One who really is in charge, I'll be much more at peace.

So this week, I am going to work on detachment, even as I deal with some problems in my daily existence. And I'm going to share a little video here, a guided meditation that was created by the Honest Guys, because I appreciate the fact that they've put it out there for free in an effort to help people who are working on letting go. It's a non-religious meditation with its heart in the right place.

Is there anything you're trying to let go?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Guest Moodler: Our journey to solar energy

Here's a first -- my hubby, Lee, is today's guest moodler, here to tell you about our 24 panel solar installation...

Our Journey To Solar Energy

I am writing this post in response to a number of people asking for more information about our family’s recent residential solar electric installation and for others who might benefit from our perspectives and learnings as they make similar individual choices. As it turned out, this journey was about improved energy, environmental, and food sustainability.

Our journey began about a decade ago when I attended a solar energy society event. During this event, the speaker noted that home owners should try to increase their energy efficiency to the maximum extent possible and reduce consumption before even considering a solar installation. Although not as glamorous as putting in a new solar system, energy efficiency has a number of key benefits:
  • it has immediate and substantial financial payback in terms of ongoing savings offering a better business case before even considering solar
  • it reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by reducing energy use from emissive sources
  • it has made our 1950’s vintage house more comfortable i.e. warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.  
  • it translates into lower first capital costs for solar systems since they can be sized smaller.
Along our journey we took a number of steps:
  • 2004/2005 -- upgraded a largely under insulated basement with up to R20 of insulation added.
  • 2005 -- upgraded old aluminum slider windows to triple glazed windows (R6 to 8).  South facing windows had a lower R-value to allow for more light and heat to enter the house during the winter.
  • 2006 -- removed old stucco and installed siding with R12 insulation on the exterior
  • 2007 -- upgraded attic insulation from R30 to R60; converted nearly all lights to fluorescent or LED; began drying as many clothes as possible on an outside clothes line, reducing electric dryer use substantially. (Clothes dryers can add up to 15% to an electrical bill in a given month.)
  • 2009 -- installed a 95% efficient natural gas furnace (old one was ~80% efficient); installed a high efficiency washer (went from a 134 kwh/month top load model to a 187 kwh/year front load model). Washed items were not as wet upon completion of the wash cycle, allowing for the use of an inside clothes line which not only further reduced electric dryer use and but also humidified our home during the dry winter months.
  • 2013 -- upgraded an old shed to be a cold-weather greenhouse to grow more garden food and bedding plants – reduced gardening and food costs and increased the amount of high quality local food produced.  This shed uses 100% green electricity.
This process of retrofits and improvements had a cumulative yearly effect on both gas and electrical energy consumption in our home. From utility records, I compiled two charts showing these gains over 12 years with the most dramatic gains achieved in the early years. Our consumption of natural gas dropped from 160 GigaJoules per year to about 70 GJ (more than 50%) and our electrical consumption went from over 6000 kilowatt hours per year to just under 4000 kWh (about 35%). Gains seen by others taking similar steps may vary depending upon their specific circumstances e.g. existing house insulation levels, existing furnace efficiency, natural solar gain etc..

Further Considerations 

I would also like to acknowledge that getting to a position where our household uses 100% green electricity (and biomass sourced natural gas) could not have been done without emerging utility company green energy program offerings. About 7 years ago we signed up for the Bull Frog Power program and last year switched over to a new EPCOR CHIRP green electricity program (and the EPCOR Encor green gas program) to further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This choice was made so that all the electricity consumed from the grid (or natural gas system) was from greener sources i.e. non or lower-GHG emissive impact.

The residential solar electric system we installed this spring (2016) is grid-connected, meaning that any electricity needed in the house and not produced by the solar panels is drawn from the electrical grid. During the night or in cloudy periods of the day when the solar panels are not producing enough electricity, we are using electricity from the grid. Any excess solar electric system energy produced by our house system is returned to the grid (with microgeneration credits received from EPCOR to recognize this contribution).

When considering solar electric system sizing, how the electrical utility company green program offerings are used is an important consideration. Some home owners may conclude that using such green program offerings are both an economic and practical alternative to installing a solar electric system. In our case, we initially chose this option for a quite a few years as the costs for solar electric systems continued to drop. This option has the added benefit in that it helps finance the increased build-up of the overall green energy capacity in the electrical system that will in turn be available to more consumers.

This year we decided to install a solar electric system because we believe this is now a better mid-term choice for our specific situation. Going forward, we plan to continue to utilize the green programs, but on a smaller scale. There are many possible deployment configurations. For solar installations, sizing impacts the desired amount of up front capital investment (payment plans are available as well), the cost per watt of the deployed system, and how much ongoing use of green electricity programs will be needed to fill any remaining gaps in electrical consumption.

Over time our family’s journey has progressed along inherently related and self-reinforcing pathways:

1) An economic/technological path: As our family pursued energy efficiency and related green/clean technologies the overall objective was not only to reduce overall living expenses, but also to live “lighter” on the planet. Monthly utility and food costs have been reduced.

2) An environmental/food sustainability path: Increasing environmental and food sustainability involved not only improved use of energy, but also a number of other changes including expanding our backyard garden, retrofitting an old garden shed to become a cold weather greenhouse and catching and utilizing rainwater to help water the garden.

3) A social path of changing personal practices and sharing them within a broader community: An important part of a household’s energy and environmental performance depends upon personal choices. For us, such choices have included a much greater use of clothes lines to dry clothes (electric dryer usage has decreased at least 80%), turning the thermostat down significantly at night, choosing to grow more food in the garden versus grocery purchases (lower costs and transportation-related emissions and higher quality local food), and turning off and unplugging electrical appliances and lights when not in use, to name just a few.

By sharing our experience, I hope that it will benefit a growing number of other people as they make their own personal choices.  And so the journey continues…

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below.

Here's our CO2 offset for the past month...

Maria's note: Our solar array began its work on June 1, 2016. To date, our carbon offsets are 217 gallons of gas, 96 trees, and 1919 kg of carbon emissions. Plus we haven't paid for electricity for the past three months -- we are being paid. 

Depending on market forces, it might take 20 years for the system to pay itself off, but we're not worried about that. We just want to reduce our impact on the earth now because our planet is warming too quickly. It's fun to watch the carbon offsets add up!