Sunday, October 31, 2010

We survived... another Halloween

Halloween is over for another year. In the end, it turned out to be as much fun as ever. When you're in the midst of costume angst, however, it's hard to remember that it usually turns out to be fun. Little Bo Peep had fun making a shepherdess' crook out of a sunflower stalk that was rescued from our garden, but it got stolen at the school dance, and was seen in the office later, probably confiscated from the thief by a teacher. The Belle of the Ball looked stunning for the dance with her peacock feathered masque, but opted for the opposite extreme this evening because it would have been too tricky to trick or treat in a hoop skirt. Belle became a green faced witch.

And the child with the creative Halloween costume angst that had her in tears three out of five evenings this week? She did just fine as a radio, though in the final analysis it wasn't very practical to plug herself into a wall, and the batteries her dad supplied her with didn't last until trick-or-treating! Though she soon tired of climbing up and down peoples' stairs in her box costume and decided to call it an evening before the rest of her friends, she and I took a little side trip to the local over-the-top Halloween decorated yard, and all the people who love her the most were suitably impressed by her costume creativity, so the day was a success.

She's already talking about how next year's costume won't be a box...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Breathing room

When I get to heaven, I'm going to ask God about why everything always seems to happen at once. This has been an extremely busy week, to the point that my moodling has been mostly in my head, and then forgotten. It's all good, as a friend of mine who is much busier than I am often says, but I am someone who, in living simply, strives to have plenty of "breathing room" in my life. I do everything possible to avoid overbooking the hours of the day, mostly because I'm one of those reflective people who needs quiet to think, and because my body doesn't handle stress the way it used to.

Today the stress levels are up, though. As life would have it, I'm doing a workshop called Rethinking Christmas: Moving Toward Sustainable Simplicity, from 10 to 3. I'm not one who likes to put myself out there, but this is one of those things that is important enough for me to stress over, my little effort to save the planet, ha! As life would also have it, a friend from San Antonio whom we don't see often is in town, just for the day, and he's spending the afternoon at our house. And it's Halloween weekend, and it's our turn to sing at church tomorrow.

It's all good, but it would be much nicer one thing at a time. Of course, life doesn't work that way, and that's what keeps it interesting! Now, if only my hands would stop shaking...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A gift from Thomas

It has taken Thomas nearly a year to figure out my name and the fact that I'm a regular fixture around the L'Arche Edmonton offices. Of course, that's mostly my fault. I think I confused him early on by telling him that I was "being Carmel" for a few days while our office administrator was away. He seemed suspicious of me for a long time after that. It also took me a while to understand that when he said "Who?" rather loudly, he was asking my name as only Thomas does. No wonder it took him so long to remember my name -- I didn't realize he was trying to in his own way.

While I was running the stairs to set up a meeting yesterday, Thomas met me on the landing, clutching some precious papers. One was a very colourful picture of a haunted house. "Is that for me?" I asked, knowing very well that it was for his favourite person in the building, and that I am not that person. Thomas told me who it was for, and I praised it up and down, then asked him when he was going to make a lovely picture for me to hang up at home.

He looked at it for a moment, then he looked at me, and gingerly handed it over. I applauded his use of colour, and was about to hand it back to him, when he said, "No, it's for you, Memaria. See, I being nice to you."

Later I learned that Thomas had started out making a "present" for a brother he will be visiting soon, but changed his mind, thinking to give it to his favourite -- but he got sidetracked again. His picture now hangs on the wall in my dining room. How could it not?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Halloween saga continues...

T minus seven days - Julia decides that it might be okay to go with her original plan for this year's Halloween costume. Sigh of relief.

T minus four days - Julia discovers that a small but critical part of her costume is missing.  After turning the entire house upside down and not finding it, Mom tries once again to convince Julia that it might be nice to be a blue-haired hippie girl. Heavy sigh.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Trading places...

In my work at the clothing room of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, I meet all sorts of people who have many different struggles. The fellow going into rehab, the woman living at a halfway house, the newcomer from Africa trying to cope with his first Canadian winter, the homeless woman under the influence of an addiction -- all make me wonder how it would feel if we traded places. Sometimes it's too easy to imagine it.

Today my inbox carries the following, a very honest reflection from Jean Vanier:

 For thirty years, Lucien, who was paralyzed, incontinent, could not walk or speak, was cared for by his mother. His father had died when he was young. One day his mother was sent to the hospital. Thinking he was abandoned, Lucien howled in anguish. And Lucien came to live with us. Sometimes he used to howl as if he would never stop. His cries were very high-pitched; they pierced me like a sword. I could not bear them. I would have liked to have killed Lucien, to have hurled him out of the window. I would have liked to have run away but I could not because I had responsibilities in the house. I was filled with shame and guilt and confusion.

For me, Lucien was an enemy. His cries of anguish revealed my own anguish; anguish which seemed to fill my body and make by heart pound until it was difficult to breathe. I never hit poor, weak Lucien, because I was not alone. I was in a milieu which protected me, a milieu which required me to observe certain rules, otherwise I would have been disgraced, judged, made to feel ashamed of myself. I am not saying that, if I had been alone, I would have hit Lucien, but it is clear that the community with all its rules and my need of respect helped me to contain my violence. But this painful experience with Lucien helped me feel solidarity with a lot of men and women in prison. When their inner violence was aroused by another person, they were not protected by a milieu which supported humane rules. So their violence led them to hurt or to kill. They were then condemned and humiliated. I was protected. But fundamentally there is no difference between us.

- Our Journey Home, p.75/78

It's that last line that gets me every time. Fundamentally, there is no difference between us, though we often think in terms of US and THEM rather than in terms of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who find themselves in dire straits. But if we are honest, their anguish is our anguish. As Jean Vanier is saying, it's only ever been US.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Watching the sky

I've always been a sky person. Maybe that comes from spending the first nine-and-a-half years of my life on flat prairie. Watching clouds and seeing stars fill me with a deep happiness that I can't explain. The sky is one of my simple joys in life.

Today my sky is full of flat winter clouds, so I'm happy to have found this video to share with you. Beautiful images for your own simple pleasure:

Friday, October 22, 2010

I don't actually hate Halloween.... but...

Two years ago, my youngest daughter developed her own Halloween costume and had a bit of a creative crisis because of it, but came through with pride and pleasure. The whole event struck me so funny that I turned it into a little piece for the Toronto Globe and Mail's Facts and Arguments page, published last year on October 30th. I called it, "I hate Halloween," but really, I don't. Hate Halloween, that is. I have enjoyed most Halloweens as a mom. It's just the costume crises I hate.

After 2008's costume success (, I thought we might be on a roll. For the second year in a row, Julia was a smash with the costume we built out of a box last year. As we made our way around the neighbourhood, not only did we see a couple of girls dressed as laundry baskets, but when we arrived at one door, a neighbour called her daughter, saying, "Come quick, here's the little traffic light everyone has been talking about."

These successes seem to have gotten Julia's creative costume juices overflowing. In the past year, she's mused about all sorts of possibilities for next week's costume, coming up with ideas about everything from alarm clocks to ballpoint pens. I listened to each suggestion and countered with, "and how are you going to do that?" and she would give me elaborate explanations, to which I'd reply, "that's an interesting idea. We'll have to keep it in mind."

About a month ago, Julia made her decision from among many ideas, and put in an order for some cardboard boxes. I brought a couple home from the cardboard corral at the SSVP Distribution Centre, and she insisted we get some bristol board from the dollar store. She and her dad set to work, and soon the costume was finished. She was very excited... until this week when a friend came over to play and saw the costume, spoiling everything in a way that I didn't understand. When I questioned Julia, her answer was that someone might copy her original idea like last year's laundry basket girls did, and then it wouldn't be original anymore. She insists now that she needs a new costume... and we have only a week to go.

I don't hate Halloween, really. It's just I rarely get through it without some sort of headache. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hair: Natural or Not?

I'm not talking the musical from the sixties. (But did you know its full title is Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical? I didn't!) I'm talking hair enhancement, so if you love to colour or otherwise enhance your hair, you might want to skip this moodling. Really.

My beautiful sixteen year old daughter came home from a friend's house with her lovely brown hair a fresh auburn colour two weeks ago. It's not the first time she's coloured her hair. Two years ago, she went for pink highlights, and she was auburn this spring, but it grew out. The colour looks wonderful on her, actually. I do like it. But something is really messed up when gorgeous teenage girls think that their hair is boring and they need to do something to change it.

I'll be the first to admit it -- I have coloured my hair in the past. My sisters and I had an evening with a box from Clairol not long after my third daughter was born. My hair was already greying at that point, so we picked up a rich brown (the ingredients of which I never thought to question) of non-permanent colour and, voila, a new me. Every time I washed my hair that week, I watched colour run down the drain. Years later, when my sister-in-law and I turned forty within two weeks of each other, we went to a snazzy salon and spent an outrageous amount of money on permanent colour -- with highlights. My hair never felt so soft or looked so fantastic.

So why do I have issues with the hair colour industry? Well, for the same reason that I have issues with anything that complicates life, like the cosmetics/beauty/fashion industries. They have a way of manipulating us so that we think we need to change just for the sake of change (and for the sake of their bottom line, but they don't mention that).  If I had the time, I could tear into just about every cosmetic craze, fashion fad or beauty boon that is recommended, but today I'm choosing hair dye. When a larger portion of the world's women every day are subjecting themselves to unpronounceable chemicals (ever try to read the side of a hair colour box?) in order to spice up their lives by spiffing up their locks, it can't be good.

I wish you could meet my dear neighbour, back alley Mary. She was a funny and delightful woman that I just loved to talk with whenever I saw her. We chatted about everything and anything over our respective fences, shared gardening tips, and she taught me to make pickles, perogies and pie crusts. She was like an extra grandma to my youngest daughter, and overpaid my kids for shovelling her sidewalks. We all loved her. You'd be hard pressed to find a better neighbour or friend.

Several times during all those over-the-fence chats, Mary commented on my salt-and-pepper hair and how lovely the grey looked. I thanked her, and commented that if she would go natural she'd be even lovelier than she already was. She'd pull at her dye- and perm-frizzed hair, saying, "Oh, I could never do that. My hair is already white -- see the roots? I'd look so old." And I'd look at her outrageous strawberry blonde or brassy brown with those white roots showing through and think, "Who has done this to you? Who has made you think that white hair isn't beautiful on a 74-year-old?"

We know darn well who has done it. Who can't name several hair dye brands without even thinking about it? We've all seen commercials featuring stunningly beautiful women with incredibly shiny (read: shellacked) coloured tresses flowing around them like cascades of riches. I have yet to meet a real human being with hair that looks like that, and I have yet to see an advertisment with a model who has unevenly greying hair like my friend Charleen's, or like mine. (I don't get the Grey Power magazine -- yet.)

According to Marie Claire Magazine (I looked up "International Hair Colour Trends" and found an undated article on the magazine website), in 2008, 1.6 billion dollars were spent on home hair colour in the US, $490 million in Mexico, $180 million in India, and $400 million in the UK (I guess Canada doesn't register on Marie Claire's radar). Increases in sales of in-home hair colorants from between 29% in the Middle East to almost 180% in the Eastern Bloc countries were reported since 2002.

Not a word in the article about chemicals in hair colour, but this week the David Suzuki Foundation (right sidebar under my Favourite Links) released a report on the toxic substances in our personal care products -- wanna bet there are more than a few in those dyes? Anyway... let's guesstimate... let's just pretend that out of 33 million Canadians, a fifth of us (I'll bet that's a good guess) buy six twelve dollar packages of home hair colour per year (gotta keep up with those roots, right?) to the tune of $72 dollars a year. That would mean Canadians spend about $475 million on do-it-yourself dye jobs. Add it with those other figures in the previous paragraph from 2008, and we're up to over three billion dollars spent on colour-in-a-box (and that doesn't include Europe, Australia, Africa, or Asia). Divide by $12, and we're talking two hundred and fifty million home hair colour jobs and all the chemicals they entail. And if every person uses a modest twenty litres of water to wash the chemicals away... that's five billion litres of polluted water. When you take into account the fact that the average person needs five litres of clean water per day to live in a moderate climate, and you realize that 1.2 billion people in the developing world don't have access to clean water (data from ), it doesn't take a genius to see that all the good water we waste colouring our hair could go a long way...

If you want to argue with my guesstimation or my math skills, be my guest. I never was very good at either. But water issues are becoming critical in a lot of places in our world due to climate change, and needless use of chemicals contributes to the pollution of land, air, oceans, and us. Do we need to dye our hair? Do we have to buy personal care/beauty products that contain toxins? Must we get rid of the clothes in our closets when they're no longer in style? Or is there any way, any way at all we can live more simply?

I moodle today in memory of my friend Mary. I love seeing peoples' true colours, and I never got to see hers before she died of cancer last summer.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Short Story #1

Today's moodling is pre-empted by tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes. It's spaghetti sauce day. Rather than leave you moodle-less, I'll share something I wrote in 2002, at the start of the MCWC (writing club) that my best friend and I formed. It's loosely-based on the life of a friend named Jean, God rest her. I still have her teapot, which now contains an aloe vera plant.

A Visit with Jean

I suppose you’ve come for tea.  That’s what we always used to do, isn’t it?…  You still have our old, cracked teapot?  I can imagine that wandering Jew would look nice trailing out of it.  I always loved houseplants.  See my china doll over there?  I made sure it came with me to this place.

Do you remember our teas during that storm that closed school for a week?  Father was away on one of his trips to Guadeloupe, and I was alone, looking through some knitting magazines, and the doorbell rang.  Who on earth would be out on this howling winter night, I thought?  I was afraid to answer the door, but I thought it might be an emergency, someone needing Father.  So I opened the door, but I wasn’t sure who it was until you peeled off your scarf.  25 below, and blizzard conditions, and you had come for tea.  I knew better.  I knew you had come to check on me.  We had tea every night that week, didn’t we?

Oh, I’m doing all right for an old lady.  This place isn’t so bad.  Madeleine comes to take me to mass every Sunday.  The food is good.  The people are nice enough, though Harold across the hall gets a little loud at times.  Sometimes Madeleine drags one of her grandkids along for a visit.  It’s nice having young ones around now and then.  No, I can’t complain.  Even if I had something to complain about, what good does complaining do?

If you wouldn’t mind reaching the tea from the top shelf there?  Thank you, my dear.  I’m just not as tall as I used to be…  No spring chicken anymore, either – I’m eighty-eight.  I’m sorry I didn’t know you at the funeral.  To be honest, there were a lot of faces I just didn’t recognize anymore.  You’ve changed quite a bit, though, in the last ten years.  Did you lose some weight?…  I thought so.  And your hair is going a little grey.  But I’m sure it was the little one in your arms that confused me the most…  Yes, let me see that picture.  Oh, aren’t they nice!  Hard to believe you have three of them already.  I guess I still think of you as a young lady schoolteacher.  I still think of me, sometimes, as a twenty-five year old, too.  But my body doesn’t let me get away with that illusion for long.

Do you take milk?…  I do, too.  It always tasted better to me that way, even when I was much younger.  It’s been a long time since I was twenty-five.  I loved my life then.  Yes, I suppose I’ve loved my life most of the time.  Back then I had a nice job at the Montreal Gazette switchboard during the war.  Bonjour, la Gazette!  Comment puis-je diriger votr’ appel?  I lived in a tiny little flat with another girl on the switchboard, a short walk from the office, and a two hour bus ride from my parents, God rest them.  I was in the Legion of Mary and did some work for Victory Bonds and had other involvements I’ve long since forgotten.  I’ve forgotten so much French since I came west, but sometimes I still think about answering the phone, Bonjour, la Gazette!  English?  I learned that at the convent school my parents sent me to; one of the nuns took the trouble to teach us.  But I’ve told you all this before, haven’t I?

I need to sit down, but if you wouldn’t mind, there are some lemon cookies in the third drawer there…  Yes, that one…  You’re right; it’s been a while since we had our evening teas…  Twelve years?  Well, time does fly, and it flies faster and faster as you get older and older.  My memory’s not so good anymore either, but I remember the first time I saw Joe at the Montreal train station like it was two minutes ago.  I was thirty-seven when I came to Alberta.  My parents had given up on their only daughter ever finding a husband, but they were pretty upset that I would go all the way to an unheard of place like Killam with this strange German farmer after having spent only two weeks getting to know him in Montreal.  They didn’t think my running off as a mail order bride with a man ten years older than me was such a good idea.  But my brothers talked to Maman and Papa, and told them I was a grown woman with my own choices to make.  Even without my parents’ blessing, I’d have gone.

I was far more concerned about Joe than about what my parents thought of me.  His four kids lost their mother when they were so young, and he needed a woman’s touch and help with the farm.  I liked Joe right away.  He wasn’t tall, but he was lean and dark, losing his hair when I met him, and almost like a billiard ball later on.  He was the kind of man you just knew was honest by the way he looked at you.  There was nothing hidden behind those eyes.  Good thing he didn’t have much of a temper – he’d have worn it on his sleeve!  He was quiet, he didn’t drink, he didn’t have anything physically wrong with him other than one missing finger, and I was intrigued by the thought of Alberta.  Those mountains!

Of course it wasn’t easy.  I soon learned that my English wasn’t as good as I thought.  Joe’s children didn’t take to me very well – they were teenagers who didn’t want a mother by then.  And I knew nothing about farming!  The children made fun of me using English words I didn’t know.  They were always leaving things in a mess and a muddle, on purpose.  Their dad didn’t see it, or didn’t want to – he had to take their side – I think he carried a lot of guilt that they’d been motherless so long.  I tried to be happy, but it was a challenge.  Madeleine tells me now, usually on my birthday, that she’s sorry about how mean she was to me as a teenager.  We laugh about it sometimes.  The boys never did get over the fact that their dad remarried, though they still extend a polite courtesy to me.  I think Madeleine was just young enough to need me a little bit, and for us to learn to love each other.

Joe knew I was having a hard time, especially with the boys, and he tried to make it up to me when the children weren’t around.  I’ll never forget the time he came in from the fields after seeding was done, saying, pack your bags, we’re taking a little trip.  And he drove us to Jasper before sundown.  We stayed at a little bungalow on the edge of the river, and it was beautiful, to say the least.  We hadn’t really had a honeymoon, unless you include our short so-called courtship in Montreal, so we made up for it in two days in Jasper.  I fell in love with the mountains then, and the town.  Nothing fancy there back then, but unspoiled beauty!

Then it was back to the farm, and the children, and reality.  I wasn’t too crazy about reality, but I did my best with what I had.  That’s what life is about, isn’t it?  Joe wanted us to have our own baby, but it just didn’t happen, and honestly, I was relieved.  Being a farmer’s wife and the stepmother of three boys and one girl was enough to get used to.  I know that Divine Providence was smiling on me, though – I got to know Barbara, the wife of Joe’s friend Leo, and she helped me adjust more than anyone could.  Being a farm girl all her life, she knew the ins and outs of a farmer’s year and was pleased to teach me, too.  How to butcher chickens, how to make sausage, how to plant and tend a garden, cooking for the hands at harvest – she taught so much to this city slicker!  I think our relationship started out of pity on her part, but we ended up bosom friends.  She lost Leo three years ago, and found that really hard, poor girl.  She has arthritis pretty bad now and doesn’t get around too good.  We talk long distance some Sunday nights, and she visits when she comes to town to see her daughter.

Where was I?…  Oh yes.  Farming was in its boom time, and Joe’s boys were all able to buy land and do well enough, and get married and start their own families.  The boys all settled around Killam, but Madeleine met a boy at a dance in Delburn, and before I knew it, she was married off, too, living a hundred miles away.  To be honest, that’s when I came into my own, with those children out of the house.  I got used to the rhythms of farming, and I loved my life with Joe.  We often spent our evenings with Barbara and Leo and other couples in the area, playing cards and visiting.  Whenever there was a dance, Joe would try to take me.  He was a wonderful dancer!  And he made sure we visited those mountains at least once a year.  For our twentieth anniversary, he took me to Emerald Lake for a whole long weekend and surprised me with this lovely band of diamonds…  Yes, I think you’re right; they call them eternity rings now.
It was when I thought I couldn’t get any happier that the shock hit.  Paul found Joe unconscious in the field, and until we got him to the hospital in town, he was dead.  He died in my arms in the back of the pickup without me really realizing…  Heart attack, the doctor said.

You’ve probably guessed that Father was the priest in town then.  He was very kind and patient with us all through the days after Joe’s death, and made sure the funeral was done right.  He’d only been transferred to town the previous summer, but he seemed to know that I was the outsider in the family, and made sure that I was included in the funeral planning even though Paul, Ed and George would have excluded me.  Joe’s boys respected Father, and I was glad of that.

The boys were basically running the farm by then, and Joe had left it to them in the will.  Without Joe there, I had no desire to stay on at the farm anyway.  Joe left me with enough to be comfortable, though.  I probably could have bought a little house in town and still managed alright.  I thought about returning to Quebec, but after 22 years, there really wasn’t anything to pull me back there.  My parents had both died, and I’d been back for their funerals by train – and found I felt out of place.  But if I didn’t go back East, where would I go?  I didn’t know.  Thank heavens for Barbara – she made me come and stay with her for a few weeks, and told me that Elsa Gerber, Father’s part-time house keeper, was going to Stettler to help her daughter with a difficult pregnancy, so Father was looking for another housekeeper to fill in – maybe I could consider that.

I didn’t know Father very well then, being only a Sunday Catholic in those days.  Farm wives couldn’t exactly drop everything and take the truck to daily mass.  Barbara talked to Father about me, but I wasn’t too sure I wanted to fill that position.  Father knew what he wanted, though, and the second Sunday I saw him after the funeral, he took me aside and practically interviewed me for the job right there.  He decided I would be fine for the job, and that he wanted me to work for him full-time.  And I didn’t really argue because I felt I had been living on Barbara’s charity long enough.  I could work for Father instead, at least for a while.

Town life was much easier on me than farm life.  I moved my few things into the little room in the back of the rectory, and started to cook and clean and care for another man.  No grown children to worry about.  At first there was a bit of talk about Father and me as I was only seven years older than him, but he said to just ignore it and it would go away.  He was right.  We settled into a rhythm, and it was quiet and good for my soul.  When I was young, I had thought about becoming a nun in a cloistered convent, but I was such a social butterfly that it was never a serious thought.  Life with Father was sort of like I pictured life in a convent to be, except I was still able to socialize.  If a parishioner invited Father out to supper, it was an unwritten rule that the widowed housekeeper would come, too.  Father and I were card partners in social gatherings.  It was almost like being married, except for having separate bedrooms and complete privacy from each other.

Sure, I missed the closeness of a physical relationship, but being Father’s housekeeper seemed to keep single men from approaching me unless there was some sort of emergency and they needed Father.  I was his receptionist, too.  Bonjour, la paroisse!  I was tempted to say sometimes.  The calls were usually for him.  My friend Barbara invited me out fairly often, and one day she told me that Elsa Gerber was back, but was happy to let me stay on as housekeeper as Father didn’t pay much for part-time work.  I was actually quite relieved.  I realized that day that I had become quite fond of Father and my life with him.

No, not that he was the easiest man to live with.  I’ve never met a man with such a mind for numbers, especially where money was concerned.  Having been poor as a child, he watched every penny.  He could tell you every price he ever paid for his antique cars, and lots of other things besides…  I’m not surprised he knew the price of your parents’ house – things like that stuck with him…  No, he didn’t pay me much, but with room and board as housekeeper, I didn’t need much to get by. 
With Father, things had to be done just so or his sarcastic wit would come out swinging.  I could always tell when I’d done something wrong by the way he’d go quiet.  Later I’d get the sermon.  He was real picky about some things.  Don’t forget to polish the silver.  Don’t buy apples from the Lucky Dollar; they’re cheaper at Stein’s.  Don’t interrupt him when he’s watching M*A*S*H*.  Make sure his laundry and mine aren’t hanging outside together or the neighbours might see.  Make sure it’s Earl Grey Tea after mass, and English Breakfast in the morning.  Don’t bother him while he’s restoring his Thunderbird…  I suppose you’re right, all men have their quirks.  I guess his weren’t so bad, really.  He treated me very kindly for the most part.  I have to admit I got a kick out of it when he took me around in one of his classic cars.  I felt like a teenager!

I learned to play the organ because of Father.  It was in Jasper that it started.  We were transferred there in 1980.  I was so happy!  I actually was living in those mountains, and not just as a tourist!  Even better was the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes at the side altar of the church.  She had such beautiful eyes, and a little smile always on her lips.  We became good friends, she and I.  I think she commiserated with me over my organ playing.  You see, there was no organist when we got to Jasper, so Father decided I should learn.  It bothered him that a big expensive instrument like that was just sitting there.  Playing it was a nightmare at first.  I had had piano lessons when I was a girl, but organ is something different.  You don’t play the organ the way you play “The Darktown Stutter’s Ball.”  You have to hold those keys down.

The first song I learned was the old Lourdes hymn, “Immaculate Mary,” for Our Lady.  You know the saying about teaching old dogs new tricks?  I got good at it eventually, but for a long while it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Our Lady shudder over at the side altar.  Some people complained that I had my own rhythm, and I suppose I did, but no one else came forward to play the organ for about three years, so they just had to put up with my rhythm.  Finally Dolores, a teacher from town, took over.  She was so nice about it, and we got to be good friends.  She even gave me some pointers about my playing.  For the most part, I lost my job as organist, which was fine by me.  Unless Dolores was away, and then I had to remember how to do it all over again.  I’m only glad that Our Lady and most of the tourists kept their smiles.  After we left Jasper, I tried to go and visit Dolores and Our Lady once a year, but I’m afraid it’s been nearly ten since I’ve been back.  Dolores still writes me, and says Our Lady is as lovely as ever.

When Father was transferred to Ponoka, my organ days were behind me.  They had enough organists there, and Father never wanted music at daily mass, so I was just the housekeeper.  I liked Ponoka, too – it was a little like returning to Killam.  Do you remember Millie Abt?…  She was one of my close friends there – she often came to visit Father and me, and she came to Father’s funeral, too.  There were a lot of people from Ponoka who came.  They proved what a good man he was, even though I know a lot of people in Ponoka complained about him, too.  Well, people don’t like change, and complained a lot about the way Father renovated the church, but he saved a bundle by doing most of the work himself.  I did try to tell him that the orange and green shag rug he installed in the meeting room was too dated, but it was a bargain, and he was so frugal that he wouldn’t listen to what he called vanity.  Millie told me that the first thing that they did after we left was get rid of that rug, and I wasn’t surprised.  I never did mention it to Father, though.

When we retired to Red Deer, Father seemed a little lost at first…  True, his life in Ponoka got to be almost like a retirement at the end, but I guess not having the responsibility for the Church day in and day out left him feeling antsy.  That’s why he built the chapel in the basement of the new house.  And he took on leading a couple of pilgrimages to Guadeloupe.  Las Vegas and Guadeloupe were his favourite places to travel, but especially Guadeloupe.  He loved the Mexican people, and was so delighted to discover the small Spanish community in Red Deer.  That’s where he found Josie to come in and help me with the housework.  I just couldn’t do it all anymore.  Because of Josie, Father started saying daily mass in the basement in Spanish, and before long, we had a dozen of her family and friends showing up for mass every day.  Did you ever get a Christmas card signed Padre Antonio?  He signed all of them that way…  No, I don’t know why he called you Mitzi – especially since your name is the name of Our Lady in Spanish.  Maybe you didn’t look Spanish enough in his mind.  Another one of his quirks, I guess.

My eightieth birthday party was the biggest surprise of my life!…  Father sent you an invitation too, did he?…  I’m not surprised.  Father rented out a small hall in the Black Knight Inn and invited some of the people we both knew from Killam, Jasper, Ponoka and Red Deer, all behind my back.  He often took me out for supper to the Black Knight, so I didn’t have a clue until I walked into the room and everyone shouted “SURPRISE!”  You could have knocked me over with a toothpick.  It was a wonderful party.  I’m sorry that you missed it.

Father didn’t complain much about the effects of aging.  I don’t think he thought much about getting old.  He did make sure, though, that he had a plot here at Mount Calvary and I had reserved the one beside Joe in Killam cemetery.  Once in a while Father would ask me if I had any special requests for my funeral.  Those were always short conversations because I never did, other than Immaculate Mary as one of the songs.  I always assumed I’d die before he did, and he’d do just the right thing for me like he did for Joe and so many other people we’d buried.  I think he thought I’d die first, too. 

The stroke came after Father had had the flu for about a week.  He woke up one morning feeling worse than usual, so I called Ed, his nephew, to come and take him to Emergency.  I had no idea that he would never return to the house, or that he would never speak to me again…   Yes, I suppose it was better not to know, but I felt so sad, having taken everything for granted up till that day when the stroke hit.  Had I known, I’d have talked with him more that last week, or gotten his family in to visit more, or…  You’re probably right; he just wasn’t up to company.  But I still think I could have looked after him better those last few days he was at home.

Ed and the rest of the family were very kind in looking out for me while they settled Father into the nursing home.  They helped me to find this place before they put the house up on the market, and Ed drove me to see Father every Sunday up until the week he died.  I’m not sure if Father really knew I was there, all those visits.  He just pushed his walker up and down the corridor with a blank expression, or sat in his lazy boy chair, drooling.  It broke my heart.  I wondered if he still was thinking about the cost of the first church he had built, or the time he guessed the exact score of the Grey Cup game and won fifty dollars from George Dewald.  I got too sad, talking to him and him never answering, so I started bring books to read to Father.  He had loved westerns, so that’s what I read.  I got to like them too.  I also took out his photo albums once in a while and showed them to him.  It was hard to tell, but I think he was trying to smile those times.

It’s so hard to believe he’s gone.  I think his passing took a lot out of me; I’m so tired now…  I was his housekeeper for 24 years.  That’s as long as I was married to Joe.  The funeral was nice, wasn’t it?…  Yes, so many of our friends were there, and the priests who used to come for supper.  Wasn’t Father Karl’s homily nice?…  He always was a good preacher.  Father was his mentor, you know.  It was all so nice, in spite of the fuss about the Last Post.  Millie told me that the newspapers picked it up.  I still don’t understand why the priest at the church refused to let Father have the Last Post to play him out.  He was a military chaplain, after all, and probably would have liked that…

I’m sorry, my dear… but I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave… so I can have a little rest…  I guess that’s what happens when you get old…  I’m ready to fall asleep in this chair, but it’s been so nice to visit with you.  Next time you come, bring your girls.  I’d love to see them…  Forgive me for not getting up to see you out.  Yes, I’m fine… I really am…  Father’s death was such a great loss… such a loss…  He’s up there now, looking out for me…  I guess now it’s his turn…  I guess it’s about time… they both look after me… both of them…         

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coffee and me

I have a love-hate relationship with coffee. I guess that's probably not unusual -- many people tend to come down on one side or the other when it comes to the strongly flavoured beverage, though with more recent developments in flavoured and iced coffees, even coffee haters have made exceptions.

I probably would have been a militant coffee hater if it weren't for the fact that I ended up with Type 1 (Juvenile) Diabetes at age 17. Suddenly, juices and soft drinks were taboo, and even milk had to be factored into my caloric intake. No- and low-cal alternatives in the fluid realm were required. Water? Too boring for a teen aged palate. Diet soft drinks? A person can take only so much aspartame, ugh. Tea? Too old-ladyish. Coffee? Too predictable, too bitter... or so I thought.

I started university seven months after my diabetes diagnosis, and discovered the world of flavoured coffees at Second Cup and Java Jive. Rare was the day that my best friend and I didn't end up at one counter or the other for a morning coffee... and the flavours were enough to tempt my taste buds. Butter Pecan, Hazelnut Creme, Columbian Supremo, Dark Roasts, Light Roasts, and Roasts in-between. It wasn't long and I was hooked.

After four years of coffee addiction at the U of A, I was fortunate to spend a year with a travelling performing troupe. The coffee was pretty dismal in the US, but our cast spent a lot of time in Eastern Canada that fall, and I introduced my cast mates to the joys of Second Cup, where, the Europeans said, cappuccinos were almost as good as the ones they had at home. They weren't much into flavoured coffees, but espresso passed muster in Canada. When our cast got to Europe, there wasn't any flavoured coffee to be found, so I delved into the espressos and cappuccinos that my European friends enjoyed... and loved them! What's not to love when you're sitting on the piazza overlooking Firenze with a frothy cappuccino in hand after a day of checking out Michelangelo's David and wandering the winding ways of the old city? Cappuccino is still my favourite caffeinated beverage.

But my love affair with coffee of any variety is coming to an end. I feel it with every cup. Caffeine affects me now in ways that I can't control. My hands have a perpetual shake due to a hereditary condition known as Essential Tremor, and the shake is even worse with coffee. I could take medication to eliminate it, but that means taking a relaxant that might make for driving drowsiness. (I could give up driving entirely, but that's another moodling for another day.) Besides, I'm not much for taking any more medication than I already do (six shots a day).

What's worse than my shakes or the meds to control them is that it's hard to justify the drinking of coffee when there's so much wrong with the coffee industry. True, Fair Trade sorted out some of the inequities in some places -- and made me feel better about my morning habit when I changed from Maxwell House to Kicking Horse -- but now that Fair Trade coffee has become an industry unto itself (with even Starbucks and McDonald's serving "ethical" coffee, and Walmart jumping on the Fair Trade bandwagon because it's a profitable enterprise), if a large retailer chooses to support a particular Fair Trade cooperative, it can freeze smaller, morally driven coops out of the market altogether. I'm scratching my head and wondering. How fair is my Fair Trade beverage?

As strong as these issues have become in pressing me to find another beverage of choice, there is one more that holds more weight than personal health or ethics. It's that the earth's atmosphere can only take so much pollution before things get extremely messy for all its inhabitants. I'm already contributing to that pollution enough by heating my house. I can't get through our Canadian winters without creating some fossil fuel emissions, but guess what? I can get by without coffee that has to be transported halfway around the world by fossil fuel-inefficient cargo ships.

I don't have to drink coffee. I grew and dried a lot of wonderful French mint this summer, and my best friend introduced me to homemade lemon balm tea (and gave me a plant) so there are alternatives from my backyard. Old ladyish teas, maybe, but I'm getting there. Backyard tea mixes are healthier for the planet, and for me. I know this is true. I know I should want this if I'm living simply. Honestly, though, I don't really want to give up coffee. I love its aroma. I plain old like it. Maybe I need to wean myself off it by halves, cutting back from my 14 oz mug first thing in the morning, to seven oz. Then from seven to three? Three to 1.5? The first sip is always the best, so maybe I could get by with 0.75 oz? And heck, if I cut it back that far, I can probably live without it, right? But not without a healthy planet.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Budgie update #1

Meet Pebbles (very close to actual size).

Pebbles has been with our family since August 5th. We picked her/him up at a large chain pet store after spending a couple of hours watching all the budgies in the pen. He beat out an albino that Julia named Marshmallow, and several other birds with striking plumage. Pebbles seemed to be the most sociable bird of the flock, running from one friend to the next, grooming and chatting them up. The sales assistant caught Pebbles in a net and unceremoniously dumped her/him into a box so that we could bring him/her home.

Young budgies are pretty much impossible for non-experts to sex, so as you've probably guessed, at the moment we don't know whether Pebbles is a he or a she. By the age of six months or so, the cere (the band above the beak where the nostrils are) turns brownish for a female or remains blue for a male. One of our earlier budgies, Sunny, turned out to be a female after we called her a him for the first six months of her life, and she was a victim of gender confusion for a long time after that. We have no idea what Pebbles is, though I'm guessing he's a he. Time will tell.

For the first few days at our house, Pebbles was pretty shell-shocked. Imagine, life with thirty friends like you in a two metre square pen suddenly turned into life in a small cage with five large monsters encouraging you to "Come out of the box, Pebbles. Come on Pebbles! You can do it!" He wouldn't come out, so someone finally tipped him out of the box. Then he sat on the floor of the cage for a day, and eventually moved up onto the apple tree branch we had carefully prepared (read: baked in an oven for an hour) for him.

He certainly didn't seem to be the same budgie we saw at the pet store. Huddled on his perch, barely moving, he flinched every time someone walked past. If a bird flew past the window or he saw a car drive by,  he would start budgie-yelling (scolding at the top of his lungs like sandpaper on cement) and flapping his wings, inevitably ending up on the floor of the cage. On the second day he was with us, someone opened the cage door, and he saw an opportunity for escape... but with clipped wings, he didn't get far. He ended up sitting on the rungs of one of our oak kitchen chairs, and the only way we could get him back to his cage was for me to gently close two hands around him and move him. My girls were very upset about that, saying I was destroying his ability to trust us, but what was the alternative?

He bit us fairly often for the first month. My girls absolutely loved our last budgie, Buddy, who was a very gentle, funny and playful character. They began to despair of ever being friends with this biting creature. Pebbles just couldn't compare to Buddy. To my girls' credit, though, they kept on trying to befriend Pebbles, sitting beside his cage with the door open, chattering to him, slowly winning him over and becoming his new "flock" of friends.

Pebbles is now trained to sit on anyone's finger or shoulder, and I swear he's talking. As I had my coffee this morning, I sat beside the cage and opened the door, and he jumped onto my finger saying, "How are you?" At least, that's what it sounds like. I also heard, "Pretty bird," and "I love you." I've been trying to teach him to say, "Hello, my friend," but he doesn't listen to me -- just chatters constantly in garbled budgie jargon. He listens to Suzanna, though, as the phrases I heard are the ones she's been repeating ad infinitum. Right now the two of them are playing with a jingle ball, and he's lovin' her up. Proof that with a little love and kindness, almost anyone can be won over.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The one who dies with the most toys... has missed the point

Honestly, there should be a moratorium on stuffed animals in this world. The reason I say this is because my children, like most North American kids, have each been given more stuffies than any single child could love, enough to supply a village of kids in the developing world. Lately, when I walk into Julia's room, I've been tripping over animals. She's gathered a group of bears, ponies, kittens, puppies, seals, owls, and various and sundry others onto her bed, and they inevitably overflow onto the floor for me to step on and curse in the dark.

At the Society of St. Vincent de Paul where I volunteer on Thursdays, it isn't much better. We have a tiny space where we display necessities for our clients, and one big shelf and two fairly large bins are always full of cuddly critters, with another special bin of soft little characters whose eyes and noses won't come off to choke baby. One of our homeless ladies always takes a large teddy bear if she can; maybe it keeps her warm? In our small storage area upstairs, there are bags and bags of stuffed animals tucked in with all sorts of other toys that have been donated by families whose children have outgrown them.

When you really think about how many toys the average child has these days, it seems pretty ridiculous in comparison to how many toys my mom had, or even how much I grew up with. Today's parents have been sold a huge bill of goods by toy manufacturers who have convinced us that, in order to develop properly, children need objects to stimulate their intellects, imaginations, and physical abilities. And I'm as guilty of buying too many toys as the next parent.

My least favourite toy purchase? The little "kitchen" we bought when Christina was three and Suzanna just a baby. I look at it now and recognize that, though I had two little girls (and one more to come) who would get a lot of use out of it, really, I bought it for myself. As a child, I always wished for a toy kitchen like that because some of my friends had them, but my family couldn't afford such things. But my girls wouldn't be so deprived! Of course, their pink plastic toy (that now gathers dust in the corner of the basement) didn't offer as much play value as the cardboard kitchen creation my sisters and I built out of a packing box. And ours was biodegradable!

The reason I'm thinking about toys today is because of a few email exchanges with a friend. She and her family returned just last weekend from eight months in Ghana, and are finding, after living with just the basics in Accra, that their home here is more cluttered than they would like. They would prefer to live more with less stuff. And it's no wonder -- while there, her kids played the way kids without storebought toys play -- happily, with their friends and their imaginations. A less cluttered life leaves more room for creativity, it seems. Sometimes I wonder if the reason so many kids these days complain of boredom is because toy manufacturers leave so little to the imagination. Maybe it's because some kids have so many toys, they have to spend a lot of time keeping them in order? Or too much stuff leaves no room to play?

My favourite toy purchase? The one that's had the most staying power -- those little Danish snap-together blocks that can be "a new toy every day." But even with them, you can't pick up a jumble of assorted Legos anymore unless you go to a garage sale as soon as it opens -- now the company sells sets so you can build a specific item. Fortunately for us, our girls have never bothered with building to the manufacturer's specifications, choosing instead to use their jumbled-together kits to create incredibly intricate homes for little Lego people, or structures that use every single block and look like temples from another world.

What's most telling about the most and least favourite toys I've mentioned is that, at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, we can't keep things like Legos in stock. Creative toys are usually the first to go, long before highly manufactured items like pink plastic play kitchens. As far as I can tell, the bumper sticker that proclaims as winner the one who "collects the most toys" misses the point altogether. The winner is the one who has the most fun using his or her imagination. And biodegradable is always better, too!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's not about speed

At my work at L'Arche, one of my responsibilities is shredding confidential documents for our community leader. It's a somewhat tedious task, unless I ask for help. Then I'm never quite sure what will happen.

The first time I asked one of our core members for assistance, "Thomas" was more than willing. The Community Leader and I invited him into her office, where I was supposed to be doing some filing while she went elsewhere to take a conference call. Not too surprisingly, I didn't get any filing done. Instead I spent the afternoon affirming what excellent work Thomas was doing, occasionally unjamming the shredder, and answering the same questions many times over. In the end, Thomas left the office quite pleased with himself, and I enjoyed my time with him even though I accomplished next to nothing. His happiness was worth it. When I commented to my boss that I hadn't finished the filing, she laughed and said, "Welcome to L'Arche, Maria."

When I arrived at work last Friday afternoon solely to get in an hour of shredding, I learned that "Sandy" had spent part of the morning helping the Office Administrator with hers. I asked Sandy if she wanted to help me during the afternoon. "Yes," was her immediate response, and she took my hand and led me upstairs to the offices, not letting go for a minute. I told her she could sit in the "community leader's chair," since my boss was away at the time, and I moved the shredder into her office, where my pile of shredding was waiting.

What I didn't realize was that Sandy would gather and bring everyone else's shredding with her, but no matter. The two of us got to it. At first it was very slow going, as she fed one or two papers at a time into the machine. Aware that I only had an hour and a half to finish the job, I decided to see if I could speed up the process by handing over a dozen or so pages at a time. It worked; my friend shredded them without comment, then reached for the next bundle.

We went on like that for about a half hour, making great progress... until the shredder quit, the little status window shouting, OVERHEATED. PLEASE WAIT. We hadn't even touched my fairly significant pile of shredding yet.

Sandy looked at me for a moment, then said, "Paper, please." I handed her some of the paper we were intending to shred, and using the blank sides, she began to write her name and the names of her family in large print, one name per page, and put it into her "outbox." She was taking her position as "community leader" very seriously, doing very important work, making the most of her time while we waited for the shredder to say READY.

I, on the other hand, had nothing else planned since I'd already done the week's filing, so I waited, watching my friend, her unhurried work making me wonder. Sandy, who does everything at pretty much the same pace, wasn't fazed by the overheated shredder, but I was feeling impatient and somewhat frustrated because I realized there was no way the job was going to be done before it was time for me to move on. Until I got involved, Sandy would have been content to shred two pieces of paper at a time, but I pushed paper more quickly, and probably pushed the shredder to its limit much sooner than Sandy would have. Besides that, I couldn't help but have the sense that, had we raced through the rest of the shredding at my pace, she would have been disappointed to finish early. For her, life is not about speed.

But for so many of us, it is. We complete one job and race to the next without taking any pleasure in a job well done, or in anything, for that matter.

As someone who wants to live simply, more appreciatively, and with less stress, I could take a few pages from Sandy. And not just literally.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Convenience vs. saving the planet

Okay, I'll admit it. I drove to work today. And I've driven to work probably twenty out of twenty times in the past two months (I work part-time). The reason that this is something I don't like to admit is that my workplace is only a twelve minute bike ride or a thirty-six minute walk from where I live. There's really no excuse for taking our vehicle and adding to carbon emissions most days. Especially since I have a wonderful bike, and I enjoy walking.

So why don't I use my "alternative transportation" more often? I rode my bike all summer, but somehow, when school started, I got sucked back into that factor known as convenience, coupled with something we might call laziness. If I drive, I arrive at work in five minutes flat, unflushed in the face, unruffled in the hair, and unsweaty, period, and I arrive home in the same smooth condition. I also have a few extra minutes on both ends to futz around in my own space at my own pace.

When I walk or cycle, my cheeks are pink, my hair is messy, and I feel damp until that light perspiration evaporates. But I also take unbusy streets, avoiding the five-legged spider of a traffic circle where cars crawl and blood pressure rises. I enjoy the gifts of the seasons: light in the sky, birdsong, the smell of tree blossoms or fall leaves, the colours of growing things, or the secret sleeping mounds of plants hidden under the snow. My lungs fill with fresh air and my heart thumps rhythmically and my doctor has no reason to insist upon cholesterol medication before my time.

Most importantly, though, when I travel on foot or two wheels, I'm living simply. I save the planet, just a little bit, for future generations. Oh, I know I'm not making a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, but what I can do now could matter in the long run, especially if other people join me in my little plot to use less of the earth's resources. Actually, a lot of people are already on the "saving the planet" kick. And if I'm at all wise, I will get more serious in this regard, too. I'll plan ahead, get organized early, and walk or cycle to work.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Moving into darkness

Now that we've passed the autumn solstice, we're moving into days of more darkness than light in this part of the world. We feel it when we get up in the morning, and when the sun sets four hours earlier than it did at its summer zenith. I don't much like darkness, and we've had a lot of it lately with our rainy autumn. I don't remember ever using the kitchen lights during the September daylight hours as I did this year. We've moved into winter darkness in a bigger hurry than usual, it seems.

So is it a God-incidence that I'm reading Mother Teresa - Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (2007, Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52037-9)? I am finding myself amazed by the tiny saried woman many knew as Mother Teresa. While I have often found myself rather irritated by the overly-pious accounts of the lives of what the Church calls Saints with a capital S, this account of Mother Teresa, taken mostly from her own writings (with a bit too much commentary from Father Brian Kolodiejchuk) is awe-inspiring.

I have always loved Mother Teresa. What isn't to love? A quiet, humble, in-the-background kind of woman, she unobtrusively got a lot done in her 87 years, founding the Missionaries of Charity and caring for the poor in slums all over the world. I can't count the number of spammy emails I've received that quote her in some way, and I read recently somewhere that there's a Mother Teresa film festival happening in Mumbai.

But reading this book, I get the feeling that the world has trivialized her too much by holding her up as an icon of holiness without really understanding from where that holiness springs. When she was 32, she made a personal, private vow "not to refuse God anything." Then she spent the rest of her life quietly listening for what God wanted her to do. Not that God told her in so many words. She did have a short period of time where she listened to a "voice" that asked her to leave her comfortable life as a member of a European religious community and start an order that lived with the poorest of the poor among the people of India. But once the Missionaries of Charity began their work in the streets, the voice became silent, and Mother Teresa found herself in spiritual darkness and emptiness, trying to "Come, be my light" even when God seemed absent to her.

The thing that really moves me is that her "darkness" went on for almost 50 years, but she remained committed to her work and to God. I don't know about you, but I would probably give up on everything if I had a long-lasting sense that there was no God, or that God had forsaken me. Mother Teresa struggled with her darkness for a long time, but eventually came to understand it as God's way of helping her to identify with the poor that she served, many of whom had no one and nothing for support. She embraced the darkness, and kept on "smiling" for the sake of Jesus, her one true love. She kept her sense of humour and joy in the midst of the pain of feeling alienated from her God, admitting at one point that though she was "married" to Him, "I sometimes find it very difficult to smile at Jesus because He can be very demanding." (p. 281). Only a handful of people had any clue that Mother Teresa felt icy, empty and alone when it came to God's presence; the rest commented on how she radiated that presence everywhere she went.

My friend Charleen is going through something very similar to Mother Teresa's darkness... only worse in some ways. Charleen might be feeling like Job did after losing everything. But Mother Teresa showed us that it is possible to learn to embrace the emptiness and darkness and live, if not in the light, in peace and joy. I believe that it's possible. And I hope and wish and pray it for you too, Charleen.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Yesterday morning, my husband and I took a brisk walk around Henderson Lake in Lethbridge. We had to lean into the wind on the south side of the lake, but on the north side we were sheltered by the trees and the lessened wind was at our back. Canada geese and seagulls entertained us and themselves in or near the water, the sun shone, beauty overwhelmed me and I was full of thanks.

It's been a cooler-than-usual autumn in the West, but there we were, in our shirtsleeves on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, enjoying the crunch of leaves underfoot and their colours in the trees and vines around the lake, greeting the people we passed on the pathways, and just being happy.

After that wonderful start to the day, the words of the first hymn we sang at church brought tears to my eyes:

For the fruit of all creation, Thanks be to God.
For the gifts of every nation, Thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
Silent growth while we are sleeping,
Future needs in earth's safekeeping, Thanks be to God.

In the true reward of labour, God's will is done.
In the help we give our neighbour, God's will is done.
In our worldwide task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests we are sharing, God's will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit, Thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit, Thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all that love has found us, Thanks be to God.

(Catholic Book of Worship #532, For the Fruit of All Creation. Text by Fred Pratt Green (1970) -- traditional Welsh melody "All Through the Night")

On days like yesterday, I know deep down, without a doubt, that a Love larger than we can imagine has found us. Thanks be to God!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The first will be last and the last will be first

Recently, my two youngest daughters developed a little game on their way to school in the morning. It's called, "Who can leave the house first?" Almost inevitably, the youngest is the last one out the door because she's just not as organized as everyone else. This morning, however, she got up a few minutes earlier than usual and was actually ready before her older sister, but older sister blocked the doorway as she was putting on her shoes. I was called to the door to witness injustice: older sister leaning against the door, and younger one almost in tears because, hard as she had tried to be first, she wasn't going to win (again) without parental intervention.

What is it with human beings and competitiveness? Why do we feel that first place is the best place? When will we ever learn that for every winner, much more is lost?

Having been the eldest of three girls in my own family of origin, of course I am as guilty of playing the "first-last" game as anyone else. My parents had to intervene so that my sisters could win, too, and from that, I learned that losing can be better than winning, because first place can be a lonely place. I also had a few very competitive cousins my age, and from them I learned that deeper friendships form when competition has no place in them.

Wouldn't you know it, today my inbox holds this "Daily Thought from Jean Vanier":
[A] child can also hide behind competitive games, where she can prove herself, instead of games of communion. Little by little she freezes her emotions – blocking off the inner pain of loneliness and broken communion. (Jean Vanier, Our Journey Home, p. 56.)
Jean, in his wisdom, is pointing out what's wrong with a lot of life these days. Oh, a little friendly competition can be a fun thing, but too often, it is carried to the extreme, and produces the negative results of broken communion. Those who always come first inevitably and unwittingly succeed in building walls around themselves and their success -- and end up envied and even disliked by those who didn't win. Those who lose aren't any better off. Their frustration and anger at being denied first place destroys communion for them, too, often leading to a sense of inferiority that no one wants to carry.

However, those who don't care about the game of first and last lose nothing. Their refusal to take competition seriously leaves them open to communion with everyone, first and last alike, because they have nothing to lose. This, however, goes against human nature as we know it!

Of course, these thoughts have applications to my pet topic, Voluntary Simplicity. People who choose to live simply refuse to play the game of winners and losers that consumer culture has laid out for them to play. They don't live by the adage of "who dies with the most toys, wins." Instead, they opt for using only as much as they need rather than being "first" in possessions, fashion, trendiness, and power. They try to live in communion with the earth and with those who will never "win" first place. I think they are the people Jesus is referring to when he says, "the last will be first," (Mk 10.31) or "the meek... will inherit the earth" (Mt 5.5) because for them, the happiness of everyone and everything in communion is more important than anything else.

When my daughters come home from school today, I plan to sit down with each of them and discuss their "first-out-the-door" game and its implications. Somehow, I doubt things will change much, but maybe I can convince them that their game isn't worth playing if they both want to leave the house happy in the mornings. Everyone's happiness, after all, is the true bottom line.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The luxury of choice?

This morning at the SSVP clothing room, as I was unpacking a bag of donated women's clothing, Henry, one of our homeless guys, came and asked me for some toothpaste. One thing I've learned about the homeless is that they don't ask for much because they don't want to have to carry unnecessary stuff around with them (for example, Henry also asked if he could come back when it gets cold, because he doesn't actually need a winter coat until then). I know that when Henry asks for a tube of toothpaste, he really needs it, so I went back to the room where the toiletries are kept and stood in front of the toothpaste shelf for a minute, wondering what kind of toothpaste Henry might like. Colgate Total with Whitening? Crest Anti-plaque? Sensodyne Fresh Mint? Aquafresh Extreme Clean? Aware that Henry was waiting for me, I closed my eyes and grabbed a box. When I returned and handed it to him, he didn't even look at it. "Thanks," he said, and headed out the door.

I went back to my unpacking, finding six identical shirts in six different colours, two still bearing their sales tags, and I wondered about whether it really is a luxury to have to pick from among so many brands of toothpaste, and so many colours of clothing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ki'avedaypogamplease? A tribute to a friend

The first time I sat at the reception desk at L'Arche (the office administrator was at home with a cold), I received a call that made it very clear I was in for an interesting time. The conversation went like this:

"Good morning, L'Arche Edmonton, Maria speaking."
"Maria? Whoyou? Wheh's Cahmel?"
"Carmel? She's not feeling well today. I'm just filling in for her."
"Oh. Ki'avedaypogamplease?"
"Pardon me?"
"Uhh, could you please repeat that?"
"Ohhh, Day Program, sorry! Of course, let me transfer your call."

After my initial difficulty in understanding the woman at the end of the line, I understood her a little better each time she called, though there were times I would have to ask her to repeat herself more than once, much to our chagrin. Eventually, though, she started calling just to chat, and I was able to catch enough words to make conversation about her planned activities for that day -- grocery shopping or housecleaning or visiting a friend. She would talk until she ran out of things to tell me, then ask to speak to someone else. I quite enjoyed hearing from her, and she usually phoned several times a day.

It wasn't until August that I made the connection between the voice and the person who owned it. A vigorous grey-haired lady of distinctive speech met me at the door of the Day Program room, newspaper in hand, and announced that she had been at the Special Olympics in London, Ontario. She proudly showed me a wonderful London Free Press article about how she was the oldest Special Olympian there, and told me all about her coach and bowling and how much fun she'd had -- and about seeing Don Cherry in real life. Finally I knew who Janice was, right down to the gleam in her eye.

Sadly, our L'Arche community lost our very good friend Janice to a heart attack this past weekend. Things just won't be the same without her presence at Day Program and various activities and celebrations. Already she is missed. I filled in at reception again today, and the phone doesn't ring like it used to...

The next time the angels bowl during one of our prairie thunderstorms, I will be thinking of Janice. God bless her, and may she rest in peace.

Here's a link to the London Free Press article on our special Special Olympian:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

God and St. Francis talk about lawns

I wish I knew who wrote the wonderful piece below. I'd like to shake their hand and give them some organically grown vegetables from my garden!
GOD: Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, thistles and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect, no maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But all I see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS: It's the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers "weeds" and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD: Grass? But it's so boring. It's not colorful. It doesn't attract butterflies, birds and bees, only grubs and sod worms. It's sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD: The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS: Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it - sometimes twice a week.

GOD: They cut it? Do they then bail it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS: Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD: They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS: No Sir. Just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

GOD: Now let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS: Yes, Ma'am.

GOD: These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS: You aren't going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD: What nonsense! At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. Plus, as they rot, the leaves form compost to enhance the soil. It's a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS: You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No! What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD: And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS: They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD: Enough. I don't want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you're in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE: Dumb and Dumber, Lord. It's a real stupid movie about ...

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis!

Copyright © 2003 American Water Works Association