Thursday, September 30, 2010

The forgiveness of the poor

You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile.  It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting masters, you will see, and the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.
These words are attributed to St. Vincent de Paul, a man who spent his life serving the poor. I'm one of his unofficial disciples one day a week. I help out in the clothing room at the Distribution Centre of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP) on Thursdays, sorting clothes, signing in "shoppers," and offering assistance to those who come to look for free clothing.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been operating in Edmonton for about ten years. Comprised of a group of volunteers coming mainly from conferences operating out of different Catholic parishes across the city, the Society’s priority is to assist those living below the poverty line by providing basic necessities for life. People in need can call the Society’s hotline, and volunteers pay a visit to determine what is required by the individual or family. Furniture, appliances, food and clothing are gathered from donations received at the Distribution Centre, and are delivered to people who require assistance. Because clothing is usually an issue of personal preference, the 500 sq ft clothing room operates Monday to Saturday from ten to noon.
Life in the clothing room never fails to be interesting. All different kinds of people come in to "shop without paying," everyone from homeless Dave, who tells me he sleeps in the bushes somewhere in the river valley, to a few well-dressed women from Sherwood Park who heard there was “free shopping” and came to see if they could pick up some toys or games for their grandchildren for nothing (we tried to explain to them that our mission is to help the truly needy, but they wouldn't listen, they were so focused on the "bargains!") We meet a lot of immigrants who are experiencing their first winter in Canada and need warm clothing. One family from Mexico had to be encouraged to only take one winter coat per person – they were under the impression that once winter arrived, they would need several heavy layers each.
Often, people who come to the clothing room are looking for specific items. Ted, another homeless fellow, came to me one day asking for a pair of men’s jeans, size 34. To say that he was grateful when I managed to find him a pair is an understatement. There was a young woman looking at baby clothes at the opposite end of the room, but Ted said, “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll put these on right now.” He hid behind a clothing rack and emerged a minute later, emptying stubby cigarettes from the pockets of his old jeans as he handed them to me. “If you give these a wash,” he said, “someone else might like them.” As I folded them over my arm to take them to the laundry bin, thirty-nine cents in change jingled to the floor. I picked it up to give it back to Ted, and he took it and slipped it into our donations box. “For the poor,” he said.
Tanya came in once, telling me how she had been evicted from her apartment because she had fallen ill and couldn’t work to pay rent. Just recovering from surgery, she needed new clothing so she could get back to her catering job. We found several black pants and white tops, and she took two pairs of flat shoes, saying, “I hope these don’t give me blisters.”
Then there are the four sisters. They seem to alternate their visits, coming in pairs every two weeks, going through our racks and picking out the high quality ladies wear, mostly. They have each registered with four or more children, and we wonder: are they supplying their families and running their own clothing shop on the side, or are they outfitting friends and neighbours as well? Perhaps they don’t have access to laundry facilities? Their English isn’t good enough for us to know. Dave, the river valley homeless fellow mentioned earlier, often comes in at least once a week in the winter asking for gloves or mitts. We don’t know whether he loses them, sells them, or gives them to his drinking buddies, and we’ll never know unless he tells us, as we don’t want to be so nosey that he feels unwelcome.
Clients who come to the clothing room are asked to register, which means having a file card made up with their name, address and phone number if applicable, and the day’s date, so we can try to ensure that they don’t come in more than once every thirty days. For the homeless, we make exceptions to the 30-day rule, understanding that they have nowhere to wash clothing, but other, better-dressed customers who come in before their 30 days have passed are asked to return later so that everyone has fair access. The registration card system has its difficulties: we have caught a client or two abusing the system by posing as someone else. Today we wondered how many cards Chris has in our file. He gave me a name that I couldn't find, so I made him a new card. It took another volunteer whispering in my ear to make me realize I had made a card for him once before. Either he was taking advantage of my ignorance and hoping I wouldn't recognize him or he has a personality disorder, we half-joked at lunch. Generally, though, the people who come in are honest, and grateful for the service we provide.
At times, though, we wonder whether we are doing the right thing. Should people be given something for nothing? Are we creating another dependency? A parish priest in the inner city suggests that we should be charging a minimal fee for each item that goes out our door, but that would prove a bit of a nightmare for two volunteers faced with thirty customers who each have twenty or more items stuffed into bags, all heading out the doors of our tiny space within minutes of each other. My thought on the matter is that our storage space is often filled to the rafters with so many bags of donated clothing (a sign of Alberta's affluenza, which is a huge issue in itself!), so who are we to withhold abundance from those who need it? Christ favoured the poor throughout his ministry and did not judge them, and we try our best to follow his way... but still...
There are three things that keep me volunteering every week. The first is that the poverty line is a fine one. The family breadwinner could lose his job, a family member could fall sick, mental illness could strike, and it could be me or someone I know coming to the clothing room for assistance, or calling SSVP for help to furnish a new apartment when it’s discovered that the old one is infested with bedbugs, which are on the rise in Edmonton these days.
The second thing is the smiles and stories that our clients sometimes share. When the Kenyan woman (who seemed to have three different identities until her English improved enough for me to understand her) tells me about her life, I am more aware of our blessings in Canada, and our need to do more to help our brothers and sisters who are new immigrants.  When the homeless guys come in to kibbitz and get yet another pair of gloves or a dry pair of socks, they're sure to leave smiles behind them.
And the third thing has to do with what Vincent de Paul says in the quote above. As an affluent person with a roof over my head and more clothing and food than necessary in my closets and cupboards, I need the forgiveness of my inner-city brothers and sisters. I feel powerless and helpless to make things better for them a lot of the time. But sometimes, quite rarely, in a moment of shared humanity, I feel their forgiveness. It seems to come with their smiles.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My first L'Arche AGM

As my husband picked me up from the L'Arche Annual General Meeting tonight, he asked how a such a meeting could be conducted in a community of people "with and without disabilities." And I had to laugh and say, very well.

True, you'd probably never see anything like tonight's meeting at the corporate level, but then again, I imagine AGMs in the upper echelons are usually enough to put anyone to sleep. No one slept through this one! It was a celebration of the past year's events and achievements, joys and trials in the L'Arche Edmonton community, and the community members certainly didn't yawn through a boring agenda or sit on their hands!

The voting community members - with and without disabilities - were given orange cards to hold up when it was time to vote, and they did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Previous minutes and financial statements were approved, board members were elected and re-elected, and auditors and solicitors appointed, all with a waving of the cards. The chair's report and the financial reports were brief and to the point. Then the community leader asked each of the six homes to participate in her report, and participate they did -- with skits, songs, slide shows and dancing.

Corporate AGMs would be a lot more interesting if they followed the L'Arche model. Everyone present tonight witnessed a wonderful summary of a year in the life of our L'Arche community, and the infectious joy of the actors, singers and dancers made it a meeting I will never forget.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More colour

Two pots of Hot and Hearty Beet Borscht cooking on my stove this morning. Mmm mmm!
A thousand thanks to the recipe giver, and may she be inspired to make some too!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Local food insomnia

I love autumn for the wealth of produce that's extremely local and in season. Neighbour Bob's apples taste better than anything we can ever buy at the grocery store. Our pear tree overflowed with its goodness to us and the many people we are able to offer pears (the busdriver that took me to my dental appointment downtown this morning calls me the "pear lady"), and we're swimming in carrots, zucchini, spaghetti squash, beans, kale, and tomatoes. We even have six nice-sized pumpkins this year, which thrills me like I never imagined pumpkins could. Yes, I know I'm weird, but I have this incredible pumpkin soup recipe...

But a bout of insomnia like the one I had last night sets me to worrying about our world and its food habits. Why is it that, at 1 a.m., all the world's problems loom larger than the universe? Two years ago, our bee population took a noticeable hit, and my usually humming yard was empty of fuzzy buzzing friends. They haunted my wakeful should-be-sleeping hours at that time. This year the bees seemed to be almost back to their usual population density, fighting over blossoms in the yard, so it's not them that kept me awake last night -- it was our Late Blight Disease, the one that caused the great Irish Potato Famine in the middle of the 1800s. It made an appearance in Edmonton this fall, spoiling a lot of gardeners' tomato and potato yields and spreading quickly because of the unusual, highly humid weather we've had (today is only our fourth mostly sunny day this month, and we're back to rain tomorrow). The thing about the blight is that if you've got it, you can't plant any tomato or potato relatives (peppers and eggplants don't do well here, but still...) for at least three years.

What had my brain spinning last night was this: in our highly urbanized world, we city-folk have become extremely dependent on distant places to send us the food we need to keep us from starvation. Very few of us know anything about growing food for ourselves because we can buy strawberries from Argentina (and everything else from everywhere else) on a whim. (Aside: my daughter's friend didn't know that the main ingredient in salsa was tomatoes, so far are we separated from food production, sigh.) In the meantime, our small local farmers' livelihoods and lands are being threatened from all sides -- by developers, mega farming corporations, overapplication of chemicals, genetically modified foods, peak oil, you name it. And we are, for the most part, oblivious to the fact that, should the food system break down for whatever reason, we might once again have something like the great famine on our empty plates.

I'm not trying to be alarmist here... it's just what went through my brain while I was longing for sleep. It was enough to make me think that it's time to get really serious about shopping weekly at the local farmer's market even if I have to drive twenty minutes to do it, and after that, to eventually get me dreaming about making a big, steaming pot of hearty beet borscht from my backyard ingredients. The food I'll buy at the farmer's market (once my garden produce is put away to feed us for a little while at least) won't be travelling across an entire continent -- or keep me awake at night wondering if I've done enough to support local food producers.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Garden moodling

Today's moodling was all about... carrots.

About twenty lbs, chopped and blanched and in the freezer. Notice the Alexander Keith's premium white on the side. Made my blister feel better.

Our garden is one of our big efforts to live with less impact on the planet. Carrots, beans, beets, potatoes, etc. from the back yard are much tastier than the ones imported from the US and other places, and cost the environment much less in terms of soil degradation (we're organic growers) and greenhouse gases for production and transportation. Of course, Alexander Keith's brew had to travel across the continent to get to me, so back to Big Rock (a Calgary beer) if I want to live with less impact. Or maybe, no beer at all? I could have had a homegrown mint and lemon balm tea...

Friday, September 24, 2010


I am a writer. Always have been, always will be. I've always carried the feeling that life is the script for a book, perhaps because I've kept a journal on and off since I was thirteen, writing my own story. Not that much that I've written has ever been published -- to date, I've seen in print only a half dozen newspaper reflections, two magazine articles, and a goofy piece about my daughter's halloween costume debacle on the Facts and Arguments page at the end of Toronto's Globe and Mail.

Of course, publication isn't the measure of success for most writers. I suspect that there are more of us who have never been published than there are who have been. And that's okay! Fine, in fact, because we write, most of us, in the full knowledge that what we write may never go beyond file 13 (or whatever number you use to designate your waste basket). Writers put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard for the sheer joy of expressing ourselves. It's a creative act that nets very few of us anything but creative pleasure.

I blame my love of writing on two people. Violet Hansen was my grade two teacher. Due to a broken arm, she learned to write equally well with both hands back in the days when good penmanship was something that was encouraged (I know, I'm dating myself). It was Mrs. Hansen who helped me to publish my first and only book, which I still possess. She even sewed the construction paper cover onto the newsprint. The book is called, "All About Me" and is filled with drawings and accounts of life according to a seven-year-old. The Table of Contents lists such riveting chapters as: Me, My Birthday, When I am Big (I was planning to be a nurse), and Something Funny I Remember. The back pages are filled with purple-print glued-in poems that Mrs. Hansen copied with a Gestetner, the predecessor to the photocopier (I saw a photocopier for the first time when I was in grade three, on a field trip to the Saskatoon Star Phoenix with Miss Carson, but that's another dating-myself-story). Mrs. Hansen showed me how easy it was to write a book when I was young and impressionable, and it's partly her fault that I have actually written one as an adult.

The other person who is to blame has already been mentioned in an earlier moodling. When I moved away from small town Saskatchewan at age nine, Cathy decided to be my penpal, and corresponding with her through the angsty teen years led me into poetry and journalling. When the internet got up and running, we jumped into email. She was more of a writer than I was back then, taking creative writing class and forming a writing club with her brother and a cousin. Eventually, the two of us formed a club of our own, and when that began, it set off 22 short stories (thus far) and a novel that took me five years to complete.

With Cathy's support and encouragement, I sent my novel to a publisher this spring, and received my first rejection letter in August. "Only 99 more rejection letters to go," another friend quipped. Honestly, I wasn't surprised, but it did take the wind out of my sails somewhat. I dropped the creative writing after I mailed off the manuscript in April, and haven't done any since.

Then Cathy suggested a blog, and suddenly I'm back to creative writing with a vengeance. For the joy of it. It costs nothing, and it feels good. It's a bit strange to think that anyone can read this stuff, but no one really will. That's cool. I know who I'm writing for!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why I have chosen a life of Voluntary Simplicity

How do we live in creation? Do we relate to it as a place full of "things" we can use for whatever need we want to fulfill and whatever goal we wish to accomplish? Or do we see creation first of all as a sacramental reality, a sacred space where God reveals to us the immense beauty of the Divine?

As long as we only use creation, we cannot recognise its sacredness because we are approaching it as if we are its owners. But when we relate to all that surrounds us as created by the same God who created us and as the place where God appears to us and calls us to worship and adoration, then we are able to recognise the sacred quality of all God's handiwork.                        
Henri Nouwen,  Bread for the Journey, September 23. 

This is one of my favourite quotes from Henri Nouwen, a great Catholic thinker and writer (who also had ties to Jean Vanier and the L'Arche community). Nouwen has written many wonderful books, and there's a website that offers daily Nouwen reflections ( This is today's reflection, one I have used often in Voluntary Simplicity study circles, one of the things I do in my "spare time" now and then. 

In 1936, Richard Gregg, a follower of Mahatma Ghandi, wrote the following explanation of Voluntary Simplicity:
Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose. (Quoted in Mark A. Burch's book, Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for people and the planet. (2000, ISBN 0-86571-423-1) pp. 9-10.
My attempts to organize my life for the past five years have to do with my view of creation as a sacramental reality, though if it weren't for Henri Nouwen, I probably wouldn't have such perfect words to express that. I see creation as God's greatest gift to us, and cringe at daily news reports about the ways human beings are desecrating that creation. I happen to agree with David Suzuki that the human race is one of the greatest "forces of nature" at the moment, and that the force we are exerting on our fragile ecosphere's air, soil and water is, for the most part, dangerous, thoughtless and severely short-sighted. Human beings have lived for a long time believing that the planet is large enough to accomodate all our consumeristic foibles, but it's becoming more and more obvious that this isn't the case when we look at scientific evidence around things like Hurricane Katrina, recent droughts in Asia and Africa, present flooding in Pakistan, and the relatively rapid disappearance of glaciers and polar icecaps.

The aboriginal populations of our planet understand better than most of us that creation isn't ours to own or use. The guys who wrote the Bible really messed up when they gave God the words, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1.28, NRSV translation). I'm pretty sure God didn't mean "subdue it" in the way we have. I can't imagine that God is very happy that the fish and the indigenous populations who live downstream from our famous Alberta Oilsands have all sorts of tumours and other bodily disruptions. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to determine that it's unfair when 20% of the planet's population is using up 80% of the earth's resources. It isn't hard to figure out that if everyone lived as I do (with two cars and a 1400 sq ft bungalow), we'd need another nine planets to hold our present population.

Something's gotta give, and those of us who choose Voluntary Simplicity are volunteering to "give" as best we can. For the past five years, our family has been trying to downsize our life by doing things that use less of the earth's resources. When I see the cluttered corners in my basement, I know I'm not terribly successful at it yet, but I'm not adding to the clutter, at least, and I'm doing everything I can think of to opt out of consumerism and the sense of entitlement that comes with living in an affluent society. The fewer resources I use, the better for God's creation. I'm also encouraging others to do the same (though heaven knows it's not easy with three fashion maven daughters...)

In the spring, I posted this little video to Youtube to show some of the things we do to live more simply. (Other stuff like it can be seen at ). The sound track is kinda goofy because I was juggling papers and microphone and computer and stereo (and the phone kept ringing so I had to start over three times and was feeling a bit hoarse until I got it "in the can.") But it gives you an idea of life here, and the things we do to live more in harmony with God's sacred handiwork.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The colour of everything

Today's blog entry should be pre-empted by red tomatoes, red tomatoes, red tomatoes and... more red tomatoes. But I'm procrastinating on canning spaghetti sauce, because moodling is more fun than chopping onions!

I just returned from a walk in our river valley. We had a heavy frost last week, and the poplar trees are turning glorious gold against the dark greens of pines and spruces. The sky is a deep autumn blue after weeks and weeks of scudding grey clouds, and I am simply rejoicing in the colour of everything!
(This is a pear tree in our back yard.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Other inspirations

My brilliant husband entered a CBC radio contest last week, and darned if he didn't win! Two tickets to a sold-out event at the University of Alberta, and a book and signing with the presenter/author. I was pretty excited, because the presenter/author is another person who is one of my inspirations.

Dr. David Suzuki was here last night giving his "Legacy Lecture," the lecture that the University of British Columbia "forgot" to ask for when he retired some years ago. Originally a geneticist, but more recently a Canadian TV/radio personality who has made it his business to try to raise awareness about critical ecological issues, he is an excellent speaker who is able to bring vague scientific concepts down to a level where those of us who lack Ph.D.s can understand them.

His "Legacy Lecture" last night was his attempt to share "an elder's wisdom." David is 74, but I found it hard to think of him as an elder because he had so much energy on the stage. After the presentation, however, at the book signing, he looked tired and "elderish." Head down, writing away, not a word to anyone but the woman who was telling him to whom the book was to be dedicated. I'm sure it's hard work to be on the road at 74, ranting at the world about reducing human impact on the planet, leaving its beauty behind for future generations, and slowing down. Having so many people want a piece of you, even if only your signature in a book, must be exhausting. But he carries it off, night after night, his legacy to the world, even as it mostly ignores him.

I first heard David speak back in the late eighties at an Aboriginal Education Conference during my brief teaching career. And he used the same words then as he did last night: "How much is enough?" "Growth for the sake of growth is unsustainable and cancerous." "The economy is not the bottom line; the ecosphere is." I don't think his words ever left me the first time I heard them, but they were blunted during the years that followed as I busily set up my life as an adult -- career, marriage, home, family. I suspect Dr. Suzuki's words were one of the reasons that I fought against a lot of conventional accumulations by doing things like renting a wedding dress, sticking with a single vehicle, having a reasonable-sized home, and attempting to buy non-designer necessities and local foods.

When I met Mark A. Burch in 2005, suddenly "How much is enough?" returned to my life with full force. Mark isn't as famous as David Suzuki, but he should be. Mark should have a blog! (As if a blog makes anyone famous, ha!) Mark introduced us to Voluntary Simplicity, which is a more wholistic version of what David Suzuki has been ranting about for so many years. Because of Mark's workshops, and his friendship, we have learned many ways to reduce our ecological footprint and live in greater harmony with our damaged ecosphere, and have discovered that Voluntary Simplicity provides a more challenging and rewarding way to live. We've cut our consumption/materialism, become more self-reliant and community-minded, and are generally more aware of small things we can do daily to decrease our impact on the planet. Even so, we still have a long way to go...

Now there isn't a day that goes by without me thinking about living more lightly in one way or another. I'm blessed because my life has been one of awe and wonder at the beauty of this world coupled with a sense of it's fragility. This blog is a natural extension of that awe and wonder, and my desire to do something to make things better somehow.

Here are some links if you want to find out more about living lightly:

Monday, September 20, 2010

One of my inspirations -- Jean Vanier

Since I was a child, there have been three very distinct stages in my life. When I was thirteen I joined the navy and spent eight years in a world where weakness was something to be shunned at all costs. We were required to be efficient and quick and to climb the ladder of success. I left this world and another world opened up to me -- the world of thought. For many years, I studied philosophy. I wrote a doctoral thesis on Aristotelian ethics and I embarked on a teaching career. Once again I found myself in a world where weakness, ignorance and incompetence were things to be shunned -- efficiency was everything. Then, during a third phase, I discovered people who were weak, people with intellectual disabilities. I was moved by the vast world of poverty, weakness and fragility that I encountered in hospitals, institutions and asylums for people with intellectual disabilities. I moved from the world of theories and ideas about human beings in order to discover what it really meant to be human, to be a man or a woman.

- Jean Vanier, Our Journey Home, p.33

Jean Vanier is one of the people I admire most in our present world. He is the founder of the international community of L'Arche, which provides true homes for people with special needs of all ages, nationalities and religions. When I say true homes, I mean that everyone in the home is like a family member -- the core members who have special needs, and their assistants, who are able-bodied individuals that provide care and receive the many gifts the core members share.

I am working for L'Arche as an assistant to the community leader, doing typing, filing, and whatever odd jobs need to be done (like making coffee for this morning's assistant meeting). But what I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity I have to be part of the community now and then. On Friday, one of the core members celebrated her birthday. She is the tiniest Asian woman I have ever met, and that day, she flitted about like a goldfinch, revelling in all the attention, in the blowing out of the candle on her cake, in the tiny gift bag of presents. She is a delight. Her birthday was a delight. The community's celebration of her was delightful, too, especially when the latin dance tunes broke out.

If it wasn't for Jean Vanier, our little goldfinch might still be in the cage of an institution somewhere rather than in a home. I was fortunate enough to meet the man once, and the thing that struck me about him was his presence. We were in a large auditorium where he had just given an address to a packed house, and I stood in a long line in order to meet him. He took my hand, looked me in the eye, and spoke as if we were the only people in the room. His attention never wavered -- he was totally present to me for the moments that he was with me. And I imagine the person right behind me experienced that same presence.

Jean Vanier understands what it is to be really human, and lives it by extending his understanding to everyone he meets and every community he has helped to establish (and there are many!) I strongly suspect that he is a living saint, and I am so blessed to be part of his international community at this time.

Here's a link where you can meet Jean Vanier:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Moodling explained

This blog is the fault of Brenda Ueland and my longest-standing friend, Cathy. Actually, maybe it's all the fault of Cathy, who gave me one of Brenda Ueland's books several years ago. Its title is If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit (1987, Graywolf Press, ISBN 1-55597-260-8). Brenda Ueland is the woman who coined the word "moodle." Moodling, she said, is "long, inefficent, happy idling, dawdling and puttering (p. 32)."

My life is full of inefficiencies, happiness, idling, dawdling, and puttering (when my daughter isn't standing at my shoulder saying, "Mom, it's still raining, and this DVD doesn't work. Would you mind driving us back to the video store so we can get one that does?") We do our best to keep our lives simple enough that we have time to dawdle and putter and be happy and laid-back (and able to run off at a moment's notice for a DVD that actually works).

It strikes me, as I begin this blog of moodlings about living simply, writing creatively, and loving gratefully all the good in my life, that Brenda Ueland's book is one I will probably return to again and again. Brenda had a lot of good things to say about simplicity, creativity, and enjoying this life with which we've been blessed.

So, thanks, Brenda, for the book, and for coining the word that describes something a lot of us need more of in this crazy, busy, consumer-treadmill-world. And thanks, Cathy, for encouraging my moodlings and suggesting this blog even though it's probably last thing the internet needs!