Monday, 24 October 2011

I Was Born into the Wrong Culture

It was fun to watch an African woman cross in front of my car at a red light. Underneath her Canadian winter jacket, she was wearing a long skirt of beautiful Kente cloth. The colours brightened up the grey Toronto intersection of cement sidewalks, hydro poles and pavement. There she was with her creamy coloured head wrap, orange, green, gold and red swirling around her legs.
Just look at your wardrobe, or take a subway ride. How much black, grey and navy do we really need to see in a Toronto winter?
I should have been born in Kenya.

Black women everywhere, African or American, somehow scored permission to be admired for being round and wide. Here I am, rounder and wider with every passing year, feeling repulsive in a culture that idolizes thinness.
I should have been born black.

At two funerals I attended recently for well-loved men, the crowded church sanctuaries were quiet but for occasional discreet sniffing. The only other sign of pain in a room full of breaking hearts were some red eyes as we filed out of the service. One adult daughter of the deceased couldn’t stop weeping fresh tears when each mourner greeted her and I heard a surprised comment on the quantity of her tears, a comment tinged with a disapproving tone, no less.
On TV I’ve seen bereaved Mideastern women in black who throw themselves across the casket, ululating in grief.
I should have been born an Arab.

I once told a psychiatrist that I was feeling so introverted and depressed that I didn’t always feel like saying “Hi” to people on my neighborhood streets as we passed each other. She looked at me in horror, “Why would you think you needed to greet strangers on the street?!”
I should have been born in the Southern States.

In most church worship, whether Roman Catholic Mass, Anglican ordination, or Evangelical songfest the congregation is expected to behave. Sit quietly in the pew, stand when the choir stands, sing when the organ plays, clap self-consciously if someone else starts the clapping, control yourself.
Have these polite worshippers ever watched the hilarious frenzy of two squirrels chasing each other in mad circles around a tree trunk until they’re both exhausted? Have they ever enjoyed the way four year olds wiggle and jump to the sound of drum music? Have they, themselves ever screamed, leapt to their feet with their arms in the air when their team scored?
Do church folk forget who created squirrels, little kids, music, our human bodies and emotions?
I should have been born a Jamaican Pentecostal Christian. They know how to dance and shout their joy.

It’s very cool that the world has immigrated to Toronto where I was born, because I was born into the wrong culture.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fall Leaves

We all notice when there’s a gorgeous blazing sunset, but every day Earth is like an outdoor gallery full of  installation art pieces.
Stepping out of the car this week, I noticed a brilliant rose-coloured leaf in a small pile that the wind had blown into a corner of my driveway’s retaining wall. Even though it was a cold, rainy day, I had to pause for a closer look.

There, set against the charcoal-grey asphalt background was a freeform sculpture. Two red-pink pointed ovals from a neighbour’s bush lay among buttercup-yellow heart shapes and curled rusty maple leaves. The intensity of rose and yellow contrasted deliciously with the darker shades of maple.
My eyes widened as they focussed on a surprise in the background. The biggest leaf, about three inches long and surf-board-shaped, was a luscious brown; it looked like leather, flat and smooth without a hint of withering. I stood up and looked around to see what tree held such leaves. No use. They must have flown some distance, a wild ride on the gusty day.
Some small ginko leaves added to the beauty, their summer green now fading to ecru. Ginko leaves are shaped like perfect fans, complete with stem handles.

The Artist who composed this installation is so prolific and wealthy that I’m sure She won’t mind; I scooped up two hand-fulls of the leaf sculpture, carried as much of it inside as I could, and re-installed it haphazardly on my kitchen window sill.

Sunny yellow, burnt orange, chocolate brown and brilliant rose; are these the colours of death?

I’ve two funerals to attend this week. 
Both are for men who were not elderly and who, before cancer appeared, filled their lives with adventures, with laughter and with family love. One was an engineer and stand-up comic, the other an accountant who dressed as a clown for the Santa Claus parade. It hurts to imagine the pain left for one man’s 12 year old daughter and the other’s five little grandchildren... his aging mother… his widow.

Surely the Creator who designed joyful colours to be revealed in Fall’s dying leaves meant them as a metaphor. Even in the face of death there is hope. The clues are everywhere that death is not the end. This is, however, a truth easy in the saying; in practice, bitterly hard can be the wait for spring.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part IV: Signs

It felt weird to walk up my quiet suburban street, solo, holding at my side a hand-made protest sign. I avoided people’s eyes but could see that everyone I passed curiously scanned the upside down text on my piece of cardboard. Have you ever been on a protest march all by yourself? On your own block? Embarrassing.

At the subway entrance, I hoisted the sign over the turnstile, scooted down to the platform and when a train stopped, leaned the sign against the train’s doorway wall, out of people’s way. I slunk from one side of the car to the other (with my sign) so that I could stand in the doorway opposite the one where riders were exiting and entering.  As usual, multiple passengers offered the old lady (me) their seats. This time I pointed at my sign-on-a-stick as I smilingly refused their kind offers. Now they think I’m crazy as well as old.

St. James Park was week-day quiet, still filled with tents and guarded by police on bikes. I walked around reading chalk messages along the sidewalks. Beside these on the grass were piles of cardboard signs. “People aren’t for sale”, “We are the 99%”,

I noticed a group of teenagers. Their teacher spotted my sign and said to them, “Look at this. It’s a bible verse” They obediently looked over, with that killer teenage stare.

Micah 6, the Bible

They weren’t impressed.

The sound of drumming started and I found a few First Nations guys gathered nearby. They had a couple of Indian flags and a megaphone. After a song and a speech the leader started off to march to Bay St. A small group followed.
Since nothing else was happening, I figured I’d join in.  I shortly found myself dodging both the leader who was using the megaphone to share his political harangue with stunned passersby and some tall man wrapped in a cannabis flag, carrying a sign that read, “Hemp will save the world”
Oh dear. I did a u-turn and headed back to the park.

In my head someone’s singing an old 60’s song , “Signs, signs, everywhere a sign,  blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind”.

I remembered one more sign on the grass at St. James. I didn’t write it, honest. In big letters on brown cardboard it said “ God is here”.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part III

St. James Park on King St. was full of tents. Smack up against the most “establishment” church in Toronto, hundreds of young adults have hunkered down to live out their own values and make their own rules. St. James is the Anglican cathedral (head church), and in the history of Toronto, Anglicans used to call the shots. This is the church that mayors (maybe not Rob Ford) and Premiers still attend on Christmas Eve.
It also welcomes the Queen and other royals any time they’re in Toronto on a Sunday. This is where, if anywhere, the ultra rich are likely to worship among their friends. It was a hilarious and wondrous sight to see a rebel campsite in the side yard of the huge, old stone building, its spire long a landmark for our city.

I wandered among the tents seeing handmade signs for First Aid, Media, and Information.
There were roughly crafted signs everywhere, leaning against tree trunks, stuck in the ground, taped onto people’s chests, or laid in rows under another sign that read, “Signs”, ready for the next street march.
I could see a couple of the usual union banners but  few people over forty.

As an aside, people are very kind to anyone with white hair like mine. They assume we’re fragile and decrepit, offering me seats on the subway so frequently that I’ve given up saying I prefer to stand. White hair is a perfect disguise for a rebel.

I was warmly welcomed and asked if I was going to join the march. I said, “Sure” and could hear surprise in the young guy’s voice, “Great!”

A covered bandstand was serving as a stage for speakers. I didn’t understand what the crowd was saying in unison until I got closer and witnessed something intriguing. Maybe the technique is common in poorer countries but it was new to me. 
The speaker had no microphone, so, as if he were working with a translator, he would first shout “Mike check” and then begin his speech or announcement. Without a real microphone, those near enough to hear the speaker would loudly repeat what he had said, so that people further back could get the message. It worked brilliantly. 
When the speaker  was trying to tell the crowd where any volunteer leaders would be meeting and pointed to  a meeting tent, the crowd repeated his words and his gesture.

I spoke to a couple of young women beside me who had come in from London, Ontario. According to them, these speeches, by anyone who signed up for a turn, had been going on for three hours. Somehow a commitment had been made for consensus decision-making and they had spent hours trying to agree on their next steps. What a refreshing change from the usual cynicism of politicians and corporate executives! Impractical and inefficient, sure, but glorious to see.

Occupying Toronto, Part II

Today I heard God speak on TV.

A television reporter was standing at the Occupy Toronto encampment in St. James Park and wanted to find someone to answer the anchor desk's question about how these campers could afford to stay in the park for days on end. 
The reporter pulled in the nearest protestor.
Here's the short interview with young “Elijah”.
Reporter: “How can you afford to do this?”
Elijah: “I quit my well-paying job as the operations manager of a woodmilling shop.  I moved out of my apartment . We’re going to stay here until world peace is achieved.” He looked into the camera, raised his hand in the peace sign and said, “Welcome to freedom.”
Again, I admit, the naivete is breathtaking, but...

Elijah is the name of a Jewish prophet who lived many centuries ago. He is honoured by Jews, Christians and Muslims. He is famous for conducting an outrageous experiment to show his contemporaries that there is only one God worth recognizing, the God who created us and wants justice and mercy for all of humanity. He tells the people to to stop giving honour, time and money to false idols. 
The folks who are occupying world cities are speaking out against the false idols of wealth and power. They are calling us all to love justice and mercy, to share power and to lift up the poor.

Jesus said to the rich man who wanted spiritual salvation, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor”. Like all the other preachers who explain this bible story, I’m sure Jesus didn’t really mean what he said (!), but a few people take his words seriously.
Some of them are camping out in our cities and marching through our streets. Instead of scoffing, we should cheer them on and help them find their way.
We oldsters who watched in amazement as the Berlin Wall was torn down, we know that the unimaginable is possible.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Occupying Toronto, Part I

After my neighbour called me out for being at home doing a crossword on my front porch instead of joining the protestors downtown, I decided to head for the subway. She never attends such marches and rallies herself, but knows that I’m a demonstration junky. I joke that my favourite part is getting to walk in the streets shouting my head off. It feels great yelling chants like, “Hey Mister, Mister! Get your hands off my sister!” or the favorite call and reply chant, “Whose streets?” “Our streets!”

In truth, I am always interested in what issues motivate people, and often they hit the streets for reasons that matter to me, too. However, I hadn’t been moved by this new “occupy” action immediately, probably  because economics makes my head spin. I’m allergic to numbers, spreadsheets and anything else that reminds me of Grade 10 math, the last year I took that lousy subject. Apparently fate thinks it funny to watch those of us who snobbishly scorned the highschool courses in typing, scrambling desperately, decades later, to learn keyboarding. Likewise with math. I was chagrined to hear a leading feminist preach that if we wanted to change the world for girls and women in particular, we had to learn how the world economies work. Doggone it.

So I have learned about micro-businesses and made myself listen to some of the reports on Bernie Madoff and his evil colleagues. I’ve watched documentaries explaining how the mortgage mess happened in the U.S. and others that tell sad stories about clueless home buyers who are now homeless. Once in a while I even open the Business Section of the newspaper.

Lately there’s been enough broadcasting about occupying Wall St. that despite the appearance of disorganization and lack of clear goals among the protestors,  I do recognize values in common. I suspect that the Spirit of God has provoked many to take a stand, even without offering solutions,  against the unfair distribution of resources and profit. They are protesting a capitalist system and unionism that are both unchecked by any concern about their abuse of power and endless greed. 

Yes, the ‘occupiers’ are a ragtag bunch, unable to identify exactly what they want or exactly how fundamental changes to our economic norms can happen (don't ask me). But the movement may be, at least partly, an expression of a God-given insight that we are living in a deeply unhealthy culture, where some among us need reality TV shows to rescue us from buying more stuff, and others rob and murder as a twisted response to hopeless poverty. 

My own story of occupying to follow.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Baby God

She bounces into the cottage kitchen first thing in the morning, white-blonde baby hair frizzed by sleep into dreads and ringlets. Her pyjamas are a pink flannel one-piece. My granddaughter.
Although she has wakened all of us an hour earlier than I usually get up, my heart races when I see her on this new summer day. Anticipation floods me. I open my arms and she runs toward me.
I know that one day this pattern will change, but for now 2 yr.old Amelia Charis runs into my arms every time we greet each other.

With my widest grin and raised brows I bend down and scoop her up so that we’re face to face, with her whole length flat against my chest and belly. She clasps my upper arms as far round as her baby arms can reach, and tucks her head inbetween my neck and shoulder. I feel our bodies, so disparate, melting into each other’s warmth. Her relaxation is as complete as mine. I stand motionless as she lies against me in a full embrace, both of us lost in the feeling. For some reason, she doesn’t squirm in my arms to be put back down on her toddler feet, feet that have already learned the pleasure of running and dancing.
She is still.
I close my eyes so that I can focus on sensation. Quietly, I hum and murmur tunelessly, rocking a bit. I whisper, “I love you, Amelia”.  
She rests.
It feels like prayer to me.

Eventually, she lifts her head to look into my face. Our eyes meet and we gaze full on, soul to soul. I drink in her perfect, fresh-born face haloed by wisps of blonde, her flawless complexion and clear blue eyes. I forget what she is seeing, skin that blotches and sags, and my aged eyes.
She doesn’t turn away.
I wonder what she’s thinking.
Wordless, we hold each other and look long at love personified.
Ecstatic Union.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Patient Love

Turning a corner as I drove home from some errands, I caught a passing glimpse of love. 

A middle-aged Asian couple were bent over a white woman in a wheel chair. The man faced the disabled woman and leaned forward to hold the front arm-rests of her chair. The woman was standing behind holding onto the chair’s handles. 
The very elderly woman sitting in the chair had her pale face turned toward the sky, whether by choice or painful necessity. The wisps of white hair still clinging to her balding head lifted in the breeze.  Her eyes were closed, her mouth agape. She looked to be at a dreadful stage of life, the one I’ve seen so often in senior’s homes, where once robust adults sit hunched in a lobby, many of them mutely at the mercy of someone else’s decision to wheel them back to bed.
During the instant this trio was in my view, I noticed that the woman behind the chair was bent low enough to speak into the white woman’s ear. I smiled, pleased that the caretaker respected the older woman enough to talk to her, even though she appeared to be mentally absent.

Was the caretaker hissing, “Oh, stop your noise. We’re almost there.”?
I don’t think so.
I think she was Mother God whispering, “You’re okay. We’ve got you.”

Friday, 14 October 2011

Wednesday Shopping

I needed some kind of spike to hold up the wooden garden sign I’ve painted for a new garden at my church.

When I tried the Water Art store I found no sign spike but beside the parking lot was a chestnut tree. I picked up some gorgeous, mahogany-looking chestnuts. Others were still hiding within their, first green, then brown husks with huge spikes that actually feel a little painful to the touch. “Oh, God they’re amazing. What a design.”
When a car door opened beside me, I shared my delight with a little girl and her dad. Typically for her age, she didn’t smile or speak, but the curious things in my hand certainly focussed her attention.

I gave up on the artsy store and tried Rona Lumber. The clerk at the door pointed me to a tall young man in the hardware dept. He was standing doing nothing until he noticed us watching.
After listening carefully to me he seemed to get the idea, even though his Eastern European accent showed that English was not his first language. Instead of just showing me where the metal slats and rods were, he stayed with me to muse about what might work. I hadn’t thought about the metal spike rusting. He showed me aluminium options. Before I could ask the price, he took out his digital price reader so that I’d have an idea of the various costs. It was helpful. I bought nothing.
I thanked him and bustled away.

Thinking back, I was impressed by the amount of time he had taken serving me. Then I remembered that the store had been very quiet. The picture came to mind of him standing idly in the aisle when I first arrived. I bet he was bored witless. I think he was glad that a customer had come along, one who wasn’t sure exactly what she needed.

It was a simple interchange that likely pleased both of us. I just wish I hadn’t been quite so self-focussed and hurried away with only a quick thankyou. He might have appreciated a bit more friendly chat, especially as an immigrant. 
I’m always so worried about taking people’s time with small talk; I have a horror of becoming one of those irritating talkers who won’t go away.
“Spirit, please slow me down and help me not to assume what others are thinking.”

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Looking for Light

 Shapeless and empty, formless and void, dense darkness… until You spoke,
“Let there be Light”.
 “In the beginning was the Word”, You spoke again.
“The true light that gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. In Him was life and that life was the light for all”.

2011 cancer deaths, First Nations poverty, Haiti, sex-trade, North Korea, murdered wives, homelessness, criminal police officers, hungry children, road rage…formless and void. But darkness cannot overcome light.

Oh God,
You are like a treasured candle when the power goes out.
You are like a yellow caution light, urging, “Slow down”.
You are like brilliant Christmas lights cheering on our celebrations.
You are like starlight by which we navigate.
You are like the springtime sun that transforms dormancy into blooms.
You are like a desk lamp making it easier to see our task.
You are like a breathtaking magenta sunset when night is looming.
You are like our Lite Brite playmate.
You are like car headlights illuminating the next few metres.
You are like every sunrise that gives us hope.
You are like a street light when we’re walking home alone in the dark.
You are like crashing lightening that keeps us humble.
You are like the sunlamp beside a crib, slowly healing our jaundiced skin.
You are like a searchlight beaming through a cloudy sky, guiding us to the centre.
You are like a flashing red roadside beacon helping us avoid the crash.
You are like the dancing beauty of a dangling prism.
You are like the lighthouse lamp, faithfully warning of nearby rocks.
You are like a fire’s glow offering warmth and company.
You are like a miner’s headlamp in the deep, dangerous, underground dark.
You are like a laser of instant surgery.
You are like the whirling red light on a police car announcing that a law has been broken.
You are like the tiny twinkle of a dewdrop on a single blade of grass
You are like the porch light, left on until we’re home.

We are the light of this world? By your grace, shine through us.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Dove Hunting

Well, She's everywhere , isn't She? The Spirit, I mean.
Someone asked if I owned anything like a sculpture of a dove, which they could use as a focus for an evening course on the Holy Spirit. After a futile tour of my home I offered that I might be able to find a seagull feather at the lake if she thought that would do. The hunt was on.

Before I could chase seagulls on that October Saturday, I had to join my husband in cleaning up the garden and stashing summer furniture in the garage. After an hour of marital negotiations as to which of the garage’s current contents could be given away, my husband was pleased to be left alone to store the rest of his junk in peace.
I drove to a park at nearby Lake Ontario, and started beachcombing for feathers. The shore at this part of the lake is covered in egg-sized, round stones, and what washes up is more likely to be broken plastic bottles or straws, not anything pretty.
There is a huge population of ducks, geese and seagulls, so you’d think feathers would abound, but
I couldn't find anything remotely feather-ish.
I eyed a pristine white swan, imagining what one of her giant feathers would look like, but she eyed me right back with a swan’s usual fierce, warning glare.

The fall weeds and the lake views were beautiful on this sunny cold day and I was glad to get the exercise, so I continued along a paved lakeside path to get to the next beach.
After a few minutes, I saw a tiny white fluff of feather on the mowed lawn beside me, and then another and another. A bit of hope sprouted. 
But what good are tiny fluffs for a symbolic display?

I stuffed the bits of feather into my pocket anyway. My search continued. I had to get closer to the water again. For the first time ever, in the years I’d been walking here, I ventured off the paved path to push my way through waist-high purple asters and dried goldenrod stalks, right down to the water. No one else was on this part of the beach where rock piers jut out between pebble-covered coves.
It was glorious. Who cares about feathers? The Creator was here.
Spirit wind blew strong at my back. Great Lake waves rushed toward my running shoes. 
As each wave ebbed, the retreating water draining through the stones made the most beautiful hushing sound, a Spirit song.

I started seeing lots of dirty bedraggled feathers, black ones and white ones, the quill still rigid but the plumes half gone. I guessed they had been dropped out in the lake and soaked and tumbled and finally dragged through the sand and stones until they were total wrecks.
Is there some spiritual lesson in their appearance?

What had begun as a task transformed into a walking meditation. Again nature’s ancient and powerful elements were giving me glimpses of the Mystery. God, you are frighteningly strong if you spoke this wind into being.
You are a brilliant engineer if you created bird feathers.
The way water, sun and sand produce driftwood art manifests your unfailing plan to redeem death’s destruction.

What if I don’t find the feather we want for the display?
Sometimes God stoops low enough to give us these little kisses even while we must still wail in confusion over abused women and new wars. Sometimes, childlike, we pray for a parking place or a sunny wedding day and are given exactly what we asked.
 Other times there are no divine hugs or kisses to be found.
I was getting tired of walking and was reminding myself not to get obsessed. It actually wouldn’t matter one bit if a gull’s feather never appeared. I decide to go home at the end of this beach section.
Alone at the lake, amid beauty and careless debris, I gave thanks for the pleasure of walking with the Holy One in her beautiful world.

Hidden secrets, big and small, also reflect God somehow. We can’t always find God in the ways we hope. I was ready to accept that I didn’t find the feather I wanted.
And then, surprise. When I saw it, I smiled knowingly at the One who was smiling at me – a feather, half hidden under a log, camouflaged by nearby speckled stones and sticks. Yes, amid black feathers and ruined, grubby once-white feathers, I found one whole pure white feather.