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


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Gobble, Gobble

It wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas but “gobble, gobble” is the sound I heard in my head.
I realised that I was hurrying through the several subscription emails I receive daily, gobbling them up quickly by only skimming their content.  
This behaviour makes no sense because the point of these particular emails is inspiration. 
I have chosen to read, every morning, a few good writers who carefully craft short pieces about intentional living. This is my attempt to follow the wise advice from the Bible and from current behavioural psychologists: We will be healthier, happier and more productive if we fill our minds with positive and true thoughts, avoiding the negative self-talk that results in discouragement and self-centred wallowing.
Good idea, but too often I rush through these writings in order to get on with my day. I don’t have the excuse of employment or babies that demand my time so why do I gobble up five emails without taking time to think at length about any of them?

I also gobble food when I’m alone. Instead of savouring one cookie, I reach for a second immediately, as long no one’s there to disapprove. You’d think I’d been deprived as a child, or that I’m scarce on resources. Why this tendency to eat far more than necessary?

I gobble up books so fast that I remember little of what I read and often draw a blank if someone asks what I’m reading these days. I was amused and convicted by one author’s admission that her way of avoiding life is to make sure she has another book ready for when she finishes the current one. Uh-oh. Luckily for me and my book lust, the Toronto Public Library system is reputed to be one of the best, so there are always more books available. 

I consider myself a contemplative who has learned (mostly) to focus gratefully on the present moment, whether I’m waiting in a checkout line or chatting with a neighbour on the street, so what’s with the hungry gobbling? 
Back to school for me!
“…the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things
 and will remind you of everything I have said to you." Jesus 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Squirrel Synchronicity

Ah, the first joys of Spring! 
On a still-cold walk through the neighbourhood I noticed her, sitting on a low bushy branch, a red-breasted bird. Hurrah for this year's first sighting, “Hi Robin, welcome back!” 

I moved along to feisty little Mimico Creek. Now crowded by development and buttressed by ugly gabions, it winds through Toronto’s west end heading for Lake Ontario. Careless garbage mars its banks, and yet it offers the luscious sound of water tumbling over stones, as mallard ducks ride the current. How can it never, ever, ever, ever  stop flowing? This constancy always seems like an impossible miracle and reminds me of when I was intrigued in elementary school by the "precipitation cycle".

Aha! I almost swooned when I saw some green shoots in a  sunny garden warmed up early by a stone wall’s backdrop. No blooms yet, but I recognized the first new leaves of tulip, iris and hyacinth. Three cheers!

The crisp quietness was interrupted by a vehement “CAW” from a king of the world on a high, bare branch, no reticence for him. Shout it out - Hallelujah!

Outside the daycare, toddlers in parkas pushed plastic lawnmowers across their snow-free asphalt play yard. Like sprouting bulbs those miniature bodies were growing toward adulthood. 

Suddenly, from out of a driveway rushed two squirrels, barrelling right toward me on the road. I froze in panic; which way should I move? Just in time, they noticed me, slammed on their brakes and pulled sharp right turns with parallel synchronicity. I laughed as they dashed away in their spring fever.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Holey, Wholly, Holy

Call it Easter Week or call it Holy Week, for Christians this week is the biggest annual festival of all.
Forgive the punning, but my holey self wants to enter wholly into this sacred celebration. The timeless story of Jesus Christ's execution and resurrection prompts a spectrum of thoughts and feelings.  

On this part of the planet, we’re crawling out of winter’s stark cold. Trees are still bare and there are no flowers at all. Nature's lingering death season makes it easy for us to identify with the dark hopelessness of the characters in the bible's Easter story. When everything we see is grey-brown it's almost impossible to believe that the greening will ever arrive. 
Besides his family and friends, and hundreds he had healed, lepers, blind people, the mentally ill and sick children, Rabbi Jesus had also embraced local cast-aways, like a Jewish woman deemed “unclean” because of her chronic bleeding, a financial cheater named Zack, an adulteress woman on the verge of being stoned to death.  All of these, so grateful for Christ’s miraculous kindness and life-changing message, must have felt bleak beyond bearing at the news of his arrest.

This week, on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Vigil Saturday we imagine what it was like for his followers at his last Passover meal where he spoke and acted in confusing ways. When his team disappointed him by falling asleep as he begged for their support, how did it feel for him and for them? Led by insiderJudas who kissed Christ's cheek, terrifying soldiers arrived to arrest him and chaos erupted as the disciples scattered and Christ was dragged away. Next came excruciating torture and finally his grim death by crucifixion. 

Re-hearing the ugly story with its elements of weakness, fear and betrayal, Christians think about our own cowardice when it comes to standing up for the poor, or to speaking out against wrongs.
We recognize our fears for the future.
We admit our own reluctance to take seriously Christ’s way of healthy humility that eagerly helps others.
We confess that we clutch our possessions tightly, murmuring privately, "Mine, mine, mine.”
We remember thousands of our sisters and brothers who are without safe drinking water and adequate nutrition, never mind our ham-happy Easter dinners and egg hunts.
What can we do but throw our puny selves face-down in our helpless hope for God’s forgiveness. We deserve nothing but punishment for the ways we have messed up our relationships, our ecosystems, our human community.

And then Sunday comes. Relieved and excited, we greet the dawn, millions of us all around the planet, reliving Mary's astonished shout, “I have seen him! He’s alive!” 

Better than the sight of Spring's green shoots, better than a newborn's arrival, better than a wedding day, Easter morning's shocking news calls for wild joy. Trumpets sound and the party’s on. Countless voices over the centuries in every language announce, "Once I was blind but now I can see. Once I was dead to hope but now I can trust. Once I was handcuffed in so many ways but now I am free. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!"

In the biggest mystery of all, somehow, Jesus the promised One rose from his grave to an unending new life. He was God's open invitation to peace, justice, kindness, and all goodness, welcoming all. The Life-Giver, the Holy Someone beyond our imagining, deigns to accompany us every day, to enliven us with the Love that wins.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Monday, 23 March 2015

Oh, Them

He spoke with a guttural Eastern European accent that was hard to understand over the phone.  My heart sank a bit – isn’t there any construction contractor in Toronto who speaks English clearly? 
My frustration with this very common Toronto experience provoked unwelcome thoughts about other non-anglo immigrants: Poles who cling to their native tongue, still not fluent in English despite decades of Canadian residency; ubiquitous Filipino nannies walking through my neighbourhood with strollers, understandably more comfortable with their Filipino sisters than with my attempts at friendship; sales clerks who use English with me and then turn to a co-worker to carry on chatting in their mutual foreign language.

I force myself to remember how hard it is to learn a second language, not to mention the challenges of emigration itself,  but…

Current news headlines report a Muslim woman who believes that Allah is better pleased when she covers up her beautiful face, even while declaring the Citizenship allegiance to Canadian values of equality and community. How can we welcome you, Muslim sister, and build bridges, when there’s a black cloth barrier preventing us from seeing your smile? 

One of the most vivid sightings of ‘us vs. them’ surprised me during a political campaign meeting. Nervously I watched a person from one side violently grab and rip up a sign held by someone on the other side; audience members shouted down speakers they opposed. The police showed up. Ugh. It revealed how little some of us respect others' rights to disagree. 

Another time I sat in on a discussion where church people spoke disdainfully about fellow Christians. They scorned those "born agains" who understood Jesus' teachings differently - wrongly, in their opinion. 
“Oh them!” An accompanying spit was implied.

What a challenge it is to keep our hearts open to “those people”.  But Jesus showed the richest, deepest, most joyful way to live. He said to care for our neighbours as much as we care for ourself, and to treat even our enemies with unselfish love.

Because of my own ugly prejudices, I relish every experience that decreases such bias. I long for the healing of our divisions.
Yesterday, in a hardware store, I passed a young Muslim girl wearing a bejewelled headscarf, stretched tight across her forehead. She stood waiting for her parents to finish shopping. I gently touched her sparkles and said “So pretty!” She responded with a sweet grin. I shudder to think of how wary Muslims must feel in Canada these days.

It's easy for me to reach out to young girls. By contrast, stone-faced men make me nervous, especially if they somehow appear “foreign” (clothes? Hairiness? Wha?).  As it happened, one such was ahead of me in the long lineup at the Express check-out. He put his basket of groceries on the floor in front of me and hurried away, presumably to get a forgotten item. Before he returned, the line had progressed, so I stepped around his basket to put my two cartons of cream on the counter. Then he reappeared. I offered to let him go ahead but he refused, shaking his head silently with a mute gesture for me to move along.
I turned away, feeling a touch of rejection, to continue with checkout, but my heart lifted when I heard a male voice say, "But, thank you!" That simple appreciation from him connected us and gave me a bit more courage for my next timid border crossing into StrangeManLand. 

Still it's hard not to act hatefully by ignoring and distancing “those people”. There was the immigrant in my Toastmasters Club who chuckled about how he tries to remember not to bribe police here in Canada the way everyone did in his homeland. His differences became even harder to tolerate when he was annoyed that I couldn’t always understand his heavily accented English on the first attempt. Because he could speak English quickly he thought he was fluent, and maybe he was to his compatriots, but not to me. I was glad to say a permanent farewell when my membership ended.

Hard truth: if we want a peaceful planet, or even a peaceful neighbourhood, we have to make peace with others, even them.