Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Charlotte Strikes Again

Between my house and my neighbour’s there is only a narrow walkway. Every time I carry my gardening tools from the garage along this short route to the backyard, I get “pranked”. Apparently the small gap between buildings is an ideal span for stringing up a bug-trapping web; every single time, a cobweb catches me in the face. I frantically brush away the sticky gauze, hoping that the spider itself isn’t now lodged in my hair or clothing. It’s an unwelcome surprise but it always makes me laugh at myself. 
“Oh Charlotte, you got me again.” 

My perception of spiders changed after reading the touching children’s story, Charlotte’s Web. Since then I have looked at spiders fondly, even as I occasionally dispatch an unwelcome one in my basement. Sometimes my inner Buddhist can’t be bothered releasing anthropoid intruders outdoors. These spider mothers reproduce too prolifically to qualify as house pets.

In the story, a spider named Charlotte is a wise advisor and faithful coach for Wilbur, the doomed pig who shares her barn. She encourages him by spinning legible compliments like “Some Pig”, “Terrific”, “Radiant” and, finally, ”Humble”.
When her dying time nears, she teaches him that all life is bound to a cycle of birth and death. He must soon say goodbye to his beloved friend. Sob. The bittersweet story ends with Charlotte’s many babies newly born as spider friends for Wilbur.

Like Charlotte, my husband and I are well into our senior years; we need wisdom and encouragement for facing this stage of multiplying changes. We’re reading aloud an excellent book by Lewis Richmond, speaking of Buddhists, Aging as a Spiritual Practice.
In the same tone as the bible takes in its remarkable third chapter of the book called "Proverbs", Richmond reminds us that though we cannot control the changes life brings, we can rest in the fact that we are deeply and reliably loved. Although he is a self-proclaimed atheist he heard "someone" in his mind assuring him of this eternal truth.

If we can hang on through his described “lightening strikes”, learn to “accept” our current reality, and make the necessary “adaptations,” we can win through to  the peaceful and positive stage of “appreciation”. 

Christianity aligns here. As one church minister emphasized, it was neither Christ’s good works of justice and mercy nor his resurrection that best epitomized what God is like. When Jesus willingly surrendered to an agonizing execution, God's glory (essential nature) blazed the brightest. In his refusal to fight hatred with force, he showed God's limitless love for humanity. Even while asserting, "Don't you understand that I could have asked my Father to send armies of angels for help?" Jesus accepted God’s upside-down, counter-cultural way. 

Life's changes are part of a vast wind that cleans and refreshes. We can trust God that every loss is followed by new life, just down the way.
The next time we get a messy web in the face, may we wipe it off bravely and look forward to the better surprises ahead.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sparkles

The grocery store aisle ahead was blocked by a disabled woman whose spine bent so far over her shopping cart that I could barely see the back of her wigged brown head. I reminded myself to be patient and soon was able to ease past, feeling the merest flicker of compassion as I carried on. 
After checkout, I was forced to pause again, this time by a large man and his cart of bottled water in front of me. He had a face and head that looked kind of like a bowling ball covered in whiskers; he was missing a front tooth. Not my kind of person. 
I saw his attention drawn to the same woman now at a counter where she was about to pack her grocery bags despite her contorted posture. He edged closer and with a strong accent asked, “You want some help?” She accepted.
In passing, I tapped his arm gingerly and said “Good for you” as I hustled to the exit.
Sometimes we get a second try. Driving out of the parking lot I noticed him standing near his car. Since there was no traffic behind me, I lowered the passenger window and stopped to call, “You’re a good man!” A smile enhanced his homely face. He replied, “And you are good to say that.” Light all round.
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Now that the scaffolding had been removed, I could see the renovated sign on a local Bloor St. hangout called “The Crooked Cue”. I stopped on the sidewalk across the street to figure out why the construction had taken so long. 
In bright white letters I read the same old name with the addition of “Patio, Pool, Food”. Through their new second-floor wall of windows I could see sun umbrellas lit from above by daylight. My little peabrain wondered for a second,
“What? They’ve added a swimming pool?”
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In front of our neighbourhood’s Roman Catholic church I noticed a woman looking lost. I asked if I could help and she gestured to the huge building, “I wanted to go in and pray but the construction workers inside are playing such loud music.” I murmured sympathy and suggested another neighbourhood church but we agreed that finding any quiet place is a challenge. She said she would sit on the church steps to pray. Although we didn't even introduce ourselves, I was cheered to meet a fellow praying pilgrim.
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Nearing the bakery I noticed a delivery truck at its back door and a couple of rough-looking guys unloading. By the time I parked and entered, one of them, white-haired and beer-bellied (oops, sounds too familiar) with a scruffy beard, had reached the top of the basement stairs just inside the door. We both hesitated politely until he gestured for me to go ahead. 
By coincidence, a few minutes later I was leaving the store at the very time the same man was re-entering. This time he held the door open for me. I walked through laughing and said, “I guess we’re destined to dance together today”. 
I hooted when I heard from behind me, “You betcha, Babe!” Made my day.


Monday, 20 July 2015

Home Again, Home Again

Every time my dad pulled the family car into our driveway, he quoted, “Home again, home again, jiggedy jig”. Later I discovered the nursery rhyme source, but to me the phrase was our family tradition for marking the end of a trip.
Recently, I gained new appreciation for the significance of coming home.

 According to personality tests, I am an introvert. Although I’m loud at parties, and the first kid with my hand up in any class, I need to balance social interaction with plenty of time alone. When this summer's calendar held two non-stop weeks of being with relatives and meeting strangers, I knew I was heading for trouble. 
Both events were welcome, one week with my three daughters and their families, and a second week in Austin, Texas with relatives and other guests at my great-niece's wedding. However, had the choice been mine, I would not have scheduled such visits back to back.

During the preceding weeks I asked God to give me patient stamina and unselfish love. I had little faith that I could sail peacefully through the tiring, though valued, interactions, and required group activities, along with the added buzzing of  seven dear children who ranged in age from 2 to 11. 
Help me, please!

Sure enough, the fortnight was draining. I slept, or rather tried to sleep, in guest rooms and motels, nursing an attack-cold all the while. Up and down subway stairs, through tedious airports and during long highway drives, I kept smiling (there are photos) and doing the next thing expected of me. Fatigue increased as I tried to be a good mom and grandmother, a sweet aunt and sister.
“God, please keep my tongue from saying anything critical or cranky.”
As usual, my faithful husband was the one who suffered my private complaints. 
There was no miracle of calm inner seas, but I found surprizing endurance and enjoyed good conversations that deepened relationships. It was a pleasure to watch family and friends have fun together as I dragged myself around in the heat, ready with cough drops and tissues.

Besides illness and fatigue, a third companion on the marathon was my longing for home. I confess that my favourite place on earth is my bed on Humbervale Boulevard. Denied it for two whole weeks (and not on retreat at a hushed convent), I felt like I was only half alive. I staggered from the overload of noise, activity and strong emotions, not alone enough to regain stability. 

God did give me one quiet break, just long enough to catch a second wind. On our first morning in Austin, my husband shook me awake at the motel saying,
 “It’s 8:30. Are you coming for breakfast?” 
Nothing excites him like a free breakfast, no matter its quality. I groaned and stayed in bed until he returned with a sheepish apology, “Oops, I forgot the time change. It was only 7:30.”
As a morning person I was, by then, fully awake and talked him into going immediately to a local labyrinth I’d seen on-line. After that we’d head to Starbucks for real coffee. 
The meditative walk along a labyrinth’s looping path often calms my spirit and helps align my thoughts to God’s better perspective. 

We soon found ourselves, early enough for the breeze to be cool, under shade trees on a spacious property owned by Christ Episcopal Church, Cedar Park. At the opening to the lovely stone-lined labyrinth walkway, I stopped to settle down and to open my needy, tired heart to God. Into my mind came a motherly “There, there”. 
Instead of divine correction of my self-pity I heard tender reassurance.
It felt like getting a letter from home when I was away at summer camp.
I spent a silent hour doing the prayerful, circling walk and ended with more hope for the busy week ahead.

The second exhausting week was a little like a disorienting visit to OZ. This Dorothy encountered challenges and many  happy times, including one that gave her a new perspective on the concept of home. 
One of my nieces and her husband had already raised two capable (smart and beautiful) daughters to adulthood when they, in their Christian faith, took the brave risk of adopting two children, one at a time, each about 6 yrs. old when they moved in. 
The little ones had been tossed to and fro by their need for foster care. Not born siblings, this darling girl and adorable boy have found camaraderie in their similar histories, the details of which are too horrifying to describe. For a while now they have been cared for by devoted, wise parents who are gradually helping them to believe that they have truly come home.
Hearing about the past for these little ones and witnessing the beautiful contrast in their present situation, I imagined what they must feel. For most of their lives they lived without the security of a real home, that ideal place where we’re safe and free to be our unveiled selves. Now, every morning, they awoke in their own bedrooms ready for hugs and laughter with their forever family. 

My story here about two weeks of family visits is a shallow comparison to any orphan’s or refugee’s painful saga, but when I finally sank onto mine own little bed in Toronto, I almost wept with relief. Oh, the comfort of familiarity and security. At last I could fully relax. 
Ruby slippers off, I sighed, “There’s no place like home”.


How we hope that Christian belief is right, that life after death will feel like arriving where we belong, at home with the One who unfailingly welcomes us in. 

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

So Thirsty!

Oh, the sweet peace of sitting outside, safe and dry under my front porch roof during a gentle summer rain. The neighbourhood gardens are in full July bloom and I feel their gratitude for today’s wet benediction. Lilies, orange, yellow and cabernet-coloured, raise their trumpets to the sprinkling. White phlox stand tall while golden coreopsis bend their long thin stems gracefully beneath the shower’s gentle weight. Pale purple hosta bells bow their heads. Tough lavender bushes revel like children in the rain. After days of hot sun, underground tree roots must be surreptitiously slurping it up the way I do at my kitchen tap on sweaty afternoons.
The air is pleasantly warm, filled with the whispering sound of thousands of droplets hitting green leaves and dusty pavement.

I can’t sit still any longer - I need to write an ode to water. 

One of my personally canonized saints is Canadian Maude Barlow (see Council of Canadians, the only non-charitable organization to which I regularly donate). She is the political prophet who has been sounding the alarm for decades that we are squandering the very God-given substance that keeps us alive. For God’s sake, stop buying bottled water, I beg you. Mark my words, foreign corporations are draining our water table to get your money and drought-stricken Americans are eyeing Canada’s abundant melting glaciers and rainfall. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A week ago I had the honour of paraphrasing to my Texas children one of my favourite bible stories about water. 
I chose the tale of Jesus, hot and tired from desert travel, sitting without a bucket near a deep well. Along came a lone woman, alien in both gender and race. He asked her for a drink. 
She was no dummy. 
Clearly a thoughtful feminist, she replied wryly, “Why would you, a Jewish rabbi, ask me, a lowly Samaritan woman, to fetch you water?”
Jesus, admiring her comeback, replied with an equally provocative comment, “If you knew who I was you’d be asking me for a drink of living water.”
“What? Ask you? Are you better than our ancestors who dug this well? You don’t even have a bucket with you.”

Instead of attacking her for defying his superior male ranking, Jesus, with tender respect, stated a profound spiritual truth, “Anyone who drinks regular water will soon be thirsty again but anyone who chooses to take in what I’m offering will not only have their spiritual thirst quenched but will be so filled with peace and unconditional love that they will feel as if they have a spring inside of them, a fountain of forgiveness and faith in God that never runs dry.”
Again, she was no dummy. 
“Oh Sir, please give me that water!”

Jesus proceeded with a conversation perfectly tailored to this woman’s own situation. In the end she was so convinced that Jesus was God’s answer to all of life’s death-dealing deserts that she spread the astonishing good news to her whole town. 

Sorry, but I just can’t help it. I always read life as its Author's allegory, like a graphic novel that isn’t fiction or fantasy. Gazing with pleasure on today’s lovely rainy gardens, I, too, swell with gratitude for water, both literal and eternal. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Summer Break

The weathered, slatted rocking chair was a good place to relax. Years ago we carted it home to Ontario from a holiday in North Carolina. Using the chair on the front porch is a bit of a metaphor for life, the comfy to-and-fro rhythm interrupted by bumps when wooden rockers hit the uneven edges of cemented flagstones.

I was taking a break outdoors on a bright, breezy June afternoon, the very best of Toronto’s summer weather. My daughter and her family would soon arrive from Vancouver, and their visit motivated me to get some postponed  housework done. I'd cleaned out the junk drawer and washed the venetian blinds, scrubbed windows and scoured the oven, all tasks that usually don’t even make it to my list. It was a relief to sit down and look around.

Several generations of homeowners have transformed a former market orchard into our neighbourhood of lush, well-tended gardens and clashing styles of architecture.
We moved into our bungalow in the 1970's as our first house.
Apparently it's our only house.

As I rocked, the warm wind stroked my skin and made every tree branch wave. Idly, I noted what species I could see. The variety surprised me. Red Maple, Weeping Cedar, Linden, Japanese Lilac (the city’s choice), Spruce, Ginkgo, Golden Cedar and Birch trees were all within view.

A fuzzy, fat bumblebee grazed on the lavender bushes' new flowers. I imagined lavender-flavoured honey hidden nearby. 
Milkweed plants, our invitation to Monarchs, now stood a metre high and held purple globes of blooms. Does anyone ever notice wild milkweed before the fluff-filled pods appear?
A cream and black butterfly moved between fading white lilac blossoms, her busy ballet contrasting with the flowers’ inevitable dying.

 Out of nowhere zoomed toward me a large bird, but its white-tipped wings lifted it out of sight before I could get a close look. Nature is like its Creator, beautiful and reliable yet full of surprizes, inviting relationship but well beyond my control. 

It was hard to settle into the moment – oh, I should put polish on my toenails...and shake out that dirty doormat...and... 

Thank God that the glorious mystery is always there, waiting for me to pay attention, especially in a growing season. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Underwear Attitude

A clerk asked if she could help me. I was standing in the underwear section of a women’s clothing store. 
“I’m trying to guess which size I need without having to try them on,” I answered.
She, like me, was an older, roundish woman and after looking me up and down, she pronounced that I wasn’t as big as she was (a common fabrication of female solidarity). She told me what size would work and said that it was more economical to buy five pairs than two.
Then came the choice of colour; how many white, black, beige or grey.
“Oh, I just don’t care”, I said, sighing at the tedium.
“Whuh! Attitude!” the clerk corrected. “You have to care.”

I laughed at her command and remembered my bad teenage habit of retorting to my big brother, “I don’t care!” 
He would joke back, “But somebody has to care.”

I took the clerk’s picks to the checkout. She followed me, apparently appraising my behind, and commented, 
“Oh you’re much smaller than I am.” I snorted at the personal evaluation.

While she rang up the bill, I made conversation, telling her that I was buying clothes for a Texas wedding this summer. 
I moaned, “Can you imagine the heat, Texas in July?”

A second of silence passed before we met each other's eyes and said together, “Attitude!” 
Laughing again, I said, "You are so right about focussing on  positive stuff. I think I need you to come home with me."
I left the store feeling sky-high.

A few days later I was in the same mall and remembered a gift my daughter had given me. It’s a box of small cards, each one titled, “Thankyou” with a place to write on the back and a pop-out quote for the recipient to open.
I stopped into the clothing store on the off chance that my “Attitude" life-coach was working, but no. 
Since I was wandering weirdly through the quiet store, hoping to recognize her but not knowing her name, I stopped to explain my behaviour to another worker. She tried to figure out who I meant  and by the time I’d described my previous saleswoman’s friendly, joking personality, her colleague said, 
"Oh, that must have been Jane. She’s the manager but she’s not here today.”
Jane's co-worker happily offered to hand on the mini thankyou note and was effusive about my small gesture. 

From now on, when any negative thought tries to escape my lips, I think I'll hear Jane’s bold reminder, “Attitude!” And I'll smile at the memory.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gasping at Serendipity

Early one Spring, before any green leaves had appeared in Toronto, I noticed in a nearby park a bush whose branches were lined, every inch, with vibrant purple-pink flowers. From a park employee I learned that, contrary to its colour, the bush was named, “Redbud”. In all of my Ontario life I’d not seen this gorgeous magenta bloomer. 
Imagine my surprise, then, when recently I drove past acres of Virginian forests decorated with vivid Redbud bushes.  Here and there the woods were dotted with other trees blooming white or yellow, accentuating the Redbud's neon pink. I could hardly cope with the beauty as we sped along, gasping in grateful awe.
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During one stop on the same road trip, I walked through the colonial village of Williamsburg, VA, and happened on a sheep pasture. Two cute lambs stayed close to their grubby, waddling ewe-mothers. Our random group of tourists and locals smiled as we fondly watched the babies. At one point the lambs trotted down a small hill and, as they ran, one leapt straight up, with all four hooves off the ground. Anyone who’s seen new lambs in Springtime knows that these sudden hops look like the little animals are jumping for joy. 
The best surprise was hearing the sound all around me, as complete strangers joined in surprised delight. No one leapt into the air, but pure joy generated our spontaneous chorus of  “Aww’s.”
This, I thought, this is the kind of united “Yes!” that our Creator wants for us.  L’Chaim!
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At a hotel elevator, I stood waiting silently beside another guest. I noticed his shoulder bag, looking a bit incongruous on a middle-aged man. Hanging low at his side, the raggedy patchwork of cloth had been worn into a wonky art piece.
“I like your bag”, I said.
His face opened in a big smile,
“Thankyou! This is my favourite bag. I saw it at my brother’s house and admired it and he gave it to me! I’ve used it for seven years!” 
Charming enthusiasm.
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At Okrakoke Island, NC, a National Park beach borders miles of the Atlantic Ocean. On the Outer Banks in April, few locals or tourists visit the shore so I was alone with the spectacular expanse of sky, sea and sand. Feeling the breeze on my skin, and hearing waves whooshing rhythmically, I noticed Nature’s extra garnish of the scene. At high tide mark the hard, damp sand was lined with a mosaic of seashells, each one a detailed design of stripes, ridges, multicolours and curves. Gasp. 
Extravagant abundance.
Alleluia.

This web address will let you enjoy Jane Sibbery’s song about life’s beauty: https://youtu.be/Pj0eSfz7YZM