Monday, 30 December 2013


It’s been trying to creep in, the “morning after”, let-down feeling. 

No matter how hard I try to lower my standards and minimize stress, the merry Christmas season is more tiring than peaceful. 
Sure, it’s fun to choose surprising gifts, and to decorate the house with coloured lights, candles and crèches. There are exquisite concerts and moments of awe at the incarnation story. Time spent with family, friends and neighbours is rich with laughter and love. 
But still the intense celebration makes for an after-effect of fatigue. 

I was glad to find the video below, where a baby adds her voice to her Mom’s, as Francesca Battistelli sings a song that imagines Mary singing to baby Jesus. (apologies for the abrupt deejay’s patter when the song ends…but it’s sort of another life metaphor)

The song, along with the baby herself, reminded me that the excesses of what we call “Christmas” have little to do with the best news ever. 
No matter what 2014 brings, we are not alone in a mindless universe! 
Despite life’s frustrating questions, despite our despairing “Why?”, we can choose to hold onto the hand reaching out to us in Jesus.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Sidewalk Sister

Cold, white beauty poured down over the city, ideal snowy weather for the Christmas season. After a sweet day of family love and the fun of decorating our IKEA-bargain fir tree, we looked forward to Saturday night downtown. In a rare indulgence we planned to eat out before we would head to the concert hall. The pub was jammed with people but a server led us past two bars and a pool table to a quieter room at the back. Ahh, bliss. I ordered minimally, not wanting to feel over-full, but the food I did eat tasted delicious. The whole day had gone well. I ruefully admit that such comfort is my idol.

An hour later, with happy tummies, we slid our way through the slush on King St. In the snowy air we heard a brass band playing “O Come All Ye Faithful”; it was an idyllic Canadian Christmas moment. Five shivering members of the Salvation Army offered an outdoor musical welcome to all of us arriving for the Army’s annual concert at Roy Thompson Hall.  “Salvation Army” – what an embarrassing, out-dated name! They still wear military-esque uniforms, more than a century after their Victorian founders declared war on poverty in Jesus’ name. Despite the quaint style, their social activism is admirable and their music first-class, so I was excited to go inside.

Sure enough, it was a spectacular evening. What a soaring sound three hundred voices can make! Expert musicians accompanied the choir with brass and piano. From traditional carols to a swing arrangement of “Let it Snow”, the show was a feast. We revelled in some creative musical arrangements and the soloist’s strong, pure voice singing  “Breath of Heaven”. We tried to think kindly of the tambourine dancing girls (I kid you not) and the brief sermon. The skilled singers included Toronto Northern Lights, a men’s chorus whose exquisite harmonies in “Mary, Did You Know?” were transporting. In awe we gave thanks for God’s miraculous Christmas message of love.

After the concert we bundled up, and, full of comfort and joy, walked out into the still blowing snow. 
There, smack in the middle of the wide sidewalk, sat a woman, cross-legged, with a begging cup in her hand. It was bitterly cold and the snow was thick. She was crying, sitting there facing down all of us who were hurrying home after a beautiful evening of music. Well, now. Could you walk past a sister in tears, sitting alone on icy cement in the middle of a winter storm? 
I bent down to her, at a loss for appropriate words, said, “What are you doing?”
Close up, I could see that she was much younger than most street beggars and without their usual alcohol-creased face. She looked up, sobbing, “I need money.” 
Trying for an honest conversation, I asked gently, “Why don’t you have a job?”
She answered, “You can’t get a job when you don’t have an address.” 
Of course I have learned about the complexities of our homeless population. I know that there are many causes and mostly inadequate solutions. I’ve seen friends pay a painful price when they have risked reaching out to needy individuals. And any stranger on the street could be a scammer. But still.
“I guess you’ve tried all of the shelters?” I said, feebly. 
My husband dug through his pockets in the wild weather and tucked a bill into her cup. She twisted to see where the money had come from and thanked him. 
She went on, “I’m only forty! I have nowhere to sleep.” 
My husband and I crooned in sympathy and patted her back.  Helplessly, we said stupid, useless things:
“Oh, Honey, I wish I had a magic wand to fix your life”
“God loves you; God bless you.”

Instead of swearing at us or punching us in the face for our platitudes, she thanked us over and over again, still crying.  Heartsick, we turned away and hurried on toward the subway train station. An hour later we arrived at our merry, sparkling house with its vacant guest room in the basement.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Christmas Pigs

The letter carrier handed me a large cardboard box – how exciting to receive an unexpected parcel in December! So many of us hardly ever mail packages any more because the mailing often costs as much as the gift inside.

I looked at the return address – yes, I knew who it was but we don’t exchange Christmas presents and rarely see each other due to distance. I cut open the taped seams to find a bunch of styrofoam peanuts and many small wrapped presents.
What on earth? 
I rummaged until I found an envelope to explain the lovely surprise. The very funny card was a reprise of a “pig” joke that started decades in the past. 

About 25 years ago, a beloved young couple stayed overnight at my house near Christmas time and they gave me a collection of unusual cookie cutters. Since I knew they’d be stopping by on their way back home, I made gingerbread cookies using the pig-shaped cutter, the one most amusing to me. I labelled the tin, “Christmas Pigs.” After checking to make sure that I wasn’t implying anything by such a choice, they began the pig game.

We have never lived nearby and our visits are random, but once in a while one of us has found something oinking and bought it for the other.  They have given me stainless steel pigs for salt and pepper, a gaudy mauve and gold china porker, a grinning Santa-pig cookie jar, and once, a soft, stuffed piglet and piggy storybook for my new grandbaby. The list continues, more faithfully on their side than on mine. I’ve had a 3D pig magnet sitting on my desk for years while it waits to travel across the country, but I’ve received many more pigs than I’ve given.

Why this big box this year? 
Inside the card was a note: “The twelve pigs of Christmas”. What?! My excitement rose along with my laughter. Sure enough, besides the card there were eleven other wrapped goodies, from miniature flat somethings in pale pink or rosy tissue paper, to larger rectangles and squares tightly covered in glossy red, and long rocket shapes exploding with silver and hot pink sparkles. White tissue paper covered one small box, topped with a shiny red bow. What a glorious pigapalooza! I grinned from ear to ear, astonished at the effort and expense offered on my behalf.

After the laughter came tears. I felt overwhelmed by such an expression of thoughtfulness and generosity, not even from a spouse or a close friend, but from a relative who is distant in both geography and connection.

The words “grace” and “agape* came to mind. There is a certain kind of generous love that has nothing to do with a gift exchange. It isn’t based on romance or obligation, and certainly not on selfish desires for appreciation or admiration. 
My sty-ful of presents from out of the blue felt like agape. Because I’d done nothing to deserve such kindness, it reminded me of the Christmas baby, God’s mindboggling gift of incarnation in Jesus. 
He would spend his life showing that we are valued by God beyond what makes any sense, not because we’re good, or because God wants praise or gratitude, but just because that’s the way God is. All we can do is rejoice and spread the love around. 

* agape:  Greek word for the selfless love of one person for another (especially love that is spiritual in nature)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Murders and Mother Mary

Every December I’m hit with the same incongruity. The lovely pre-Christmas season of Advent includes the anniversary of one of the saddest days of my life. Today I’m thinking about how to put these jarring opposites together. 

On December 6,1989, I was a 40 yr. old mother raising three daughters, when 14 young women were shot dead inside a Montreal College. That day, as I sat on my couch watching the news, I wept and howled over injustice and hatred. I was infuriated by these murders, the latest horrifying example of what patriarchal conditioning produces. Now, in 2013, men are still murdering women and girls who won’t obey them.

Like all women, I have experienced my share of sexist insult, hearing males sneer at a lousy baseball pitch, “Ya throw like a girl!”, and being shut out of various “No girls allowed” clubs. Over my lifetime, I have learned how the cultural lie of male superiority has wounded boys and men, also. 
Continuously, since the Garden of Eden, evil has put enmity between women and men. The same evil has estranged humanity from a living connection with our Creator. We want our own way more than we want to learn God’s ways. 

But then there’s Christmas. December arrives and the nights sparkle and neighbours get together and choirs sing and charity increases and our anticipation of the merry miracle rises again.

Advent is the time for waiting, waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, God’s breakthough into our human dilemma. Maybe the mournful anniversary of the Montreal murders reminds me that we’re still waiting for Love to finally win.

Young Mary was minding her own business when a wild and wondrous surprise arrived. An unearthly creature appeared, immediately reassuring her, as angels seem to do. 
“Don’t be afraid, Mary, God is pleased with you!
Breaking news! You will conceive and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus.
He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High”

Mary’s reaction was “WHAT?”
“How can this be, when I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, 
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;
therefore the child to be born will be holy;
he will be called Son of God….
because nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary had no idea of the agony and joy her son would bring her. Nor could she know God’s historic plan for rescuing the human race from self-destruction. But somehow, Mary recognized truth when she heard it, and made her choice.
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.” 

Without understanding, she surrendered to God’s weird ways.
As it turned out, her son would be a famous feminist, so counter-cultural in his relationship to women that 2000 years passed before most of his followers understood the sinfulness of patriarchy. 

Over the centuries of our waiting He has been the source of hope and healing to millions. He is the one who moved Wilberforce to fight slavery, Martin Luther King to protest racism, and Nellie McClung to insist on women’s equal rights.

Yet still we weep and wait.
Still we need to support the Dec. 6 Fund for abused women, work for justice, and struggle against our own self-centredness. 
And while we wait, we can choose to surrender to the puzzling ways of a God we don’t understand. 
We can sing Mary’s song: 
“My soul rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for God has done great things for me
and holy is God’s name.”

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Quit It!

I wish y’all would quit changing bits of our common language. It’s bad enough that the fickle gods of planet www. keep us confused and pathetically helpless, struggling with endless program updates and new devices as we beg workers in Pakistan for tech help. It’s bad enough that long time favourite restaurants, mechanics and florists vanish into thin air. Change is the norm – I get it. But my mother tongue? Is nothing sacred?

For instance, it used to be that when we said we had the “flu”, we meant that we had a stomach upset, with the nasty feeling of nausea and its subsequent disgusting regurgitation.
A “cold” was the term for sinus congestion, a sore throat and/or a cough. 
In the last few years, however, we’ve been urged to get “flu shots” so that we won’t transmit our colds to vulnerable babies and elderly folk who might be prone to pneumonia. Who changed the terminology?

Have you noticed also a change in the phrase “a couple of”, referring to two members of a category? Even in edited and proofread books and articles, I have begun to see sentences like “He’d been there a couple times before.” and “She stuffed a couple shirts in the backpack”. Who decided to drop the preposition “of”?

The once precise and slightly esoteric expression, “begs the question”, has been trashed by its now common misuse. Casual listeners assume it means that something “demands” or “raises” the question that they are about to ask, and they proceed to use the phrase because, well, what a fancy new thing to say! Wrong. 
When the word “begs” is used in this expression, it means “avoids” and its particular use of the word “question” means “the issue at hand” or “the point under discussion”.
In other words, when Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, keeps saying in self-defense, “Well, everyone gets drunk and uses drugs” he is begging the question of his own guilt. He is avoiding his accusers’ argument that he has a  unique responsibility to be a sober, law-abiding mayor, regardless of what he mistakenly believes that everyone else does. It’s unlikely, however, that the phrase will recover its original meaning. Sigh.

It used to be that I needed to buy “running shoes” for my three children (please don’t ask them about the epic fit I had one day in a shoe department). Does anyone else still say “running shoes”? Nowadays it seems to be either “runners” or “sneakers”, although of course there are also the options of “trainers” and “jogging shoes”. Maybe I’ll start referring to them as “plimsolls” to completely confuse any fellow North Americans who don’t read British novels.

Cutting short this lament that I could easily continue, I’ll leave you with two last words that have been ripped out from under my… 
Women used to wear “slacks” and “brassieres”. Now we wear pants and bras. I still remember the boys in my high school English class snickering one day when Mr. Cole pronounced Shakespeare’s word for a barbecue, “brazier”, like we pronounced the word, “brassiere.” Fifty years later, my adult daughters snicker at me if I forget that the new word is “bra”.
Quit it!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Beyond Words in Beautiful B.C.

Mile after mile, acres and acres, as far as the eye can see -  such clichés are pitifully weak for the grandness of this western landscape.  Millions of spiky fir trees cover valleys and swarm up mountain slopes, cloaking a vast Canadian wilderness.
It is autumn. Here and there the grey-green forested slopes are lightened by buttery yellow patches of aspen or tamarack, holding onto summer’s sunshine until winter arrives.
Jagged snowy peaks, true skyscrapers, dwarf man-made cement towers, even those named CN or Trump. Each row of these granite giants is backed by other innumerable crags. Mere humans gasp at such magnitude. Our eyes and minds strain to cope with the views, and our spirits soar with joy.

Thousands of narrow waterfalls plunge down impossibly steep mountainsides into rivers that twist their way through narrow gorges. These streams rush and race toward icy lakes and on to the oceans west and north. Here is its source, faithful quencher and cleanser, the watery miracle that keeps us alive.
Seen close up, the rivers’ turquoise waters ripple over sculpted rocky beds; scarlet salmon idle in the current. 
Why turquoise? Why scarlet? Glorious art.

Away from the exhilarating sound of running water, there is different music. In this remote wonderland, small birds chirp, tweet or screech: midnight-blue western Jays, black and white Magpies in their formalwear, tiny round Chickadees all singing. Quails, wearing white clerical collars above their brown tweed vests, coo and cluck, a one-feathered “fascinator” springing hilariously from each head.
Human giggles add to the birdsong.

 And the animals: taupe mountain goats graze in groups, white-tailed deer nervously raise their furry oval ears, casual coyotes trot by in the dusk, and elk loudly clack their antlers, male to male. None of these is tamed; any might be dangerous. Oh, their beauty, their wild life.

Beyond words there is deepest, reverent gratitude.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Shouting Out Truth

On a chilly November day I stood with a large crowd in front of a stage near Toronto City Hall, listening to speeches about the wilful failings of our current mayor. 
He admits to having bought illegal drugs. He sometimes shows up drunk at his workplace and in public places.  He casually flings slurs and swearwords at various groups of people and refuses to consider any opinions that do not mesh with his own. Despite urgings by his municipal colleagues and  his friends, he denies that he needs to take time off for addiction treatment and stubbornly refuses to step aside from his position of city leadership. He cannot see that he is hurting the very community he claims to love.

As we heard such truth spoken at the downtown rally, we applauded, cheered, booed, and cried out “Shame!” Drummers added to the noisy protest. When the speeches ended, as one body we spontaneously turned away from the stage and slowly walked toward the front doors of City Hall where dutiful police waited for us behind metal barriers. Contrary to one media report, we did not “storm” City Hall. I know. I was there. It’s a good reminder that what the media report is not always exactly accurate. ;-o 

At this protest there were no violent infiltrators so we law-abiding (unlike our mayor) but frustrated Torontonians stood as close to the government building as allowed, yelling at the top of our lungs. We wanted Rob Ford to give up his position as mayor of our city. Subsequently the huge majority of City Council passed an official recommendation that the mayor step down from his office. Neither they nor we have any power to force Mr. Ford to leave. And he still refuses. So what's the point?

Many scoff at all such protests. If you can’t force change, why waste your energy parading and shouting? Many look down their noses at the “Occupy Movement” and “Take Back the Night’s” annual march, seeing such public displays as utterly useless. What good does it do? What effect do such brief demonstrations have?

It occurred to me that many would say the same about church services and other worship gatherings. What good does it do getting together to listen to yet another sermon telling us that there is a transcendant and loving Someone beyond human kind; that we are called to love our enemies; that Jesus welcomed the broken and lost, saving his criticism for show-offs? What good does it do to sing and pray words like “Your will be done on earth” or “Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope in years to come”? 

Like our attendance at church gatherings, joining such non-violent protests first of all reminds us about our personal values and our goals in life. 
Secondly it provides a chance to publicly express our refusal to conform. We reject our culture's priorities of greed, coercion, and selfishness. When I am part of a crowd shouting, “Hey Mister, Mister, get your hands off my sister!” or “Whose streets? Our streets!” or “Rob Ford has got to go!”, I am calling aloud what I believe to be truth. 
Thirdly, when we join others who are like-minded, we see that we are companions on the slow journey to peace and justice. 
Instead of muttering alone at home, by participating, I am helping to fight feelings of despair and powerlessness in myself and in others. When the gathering ends, I leave feeling stronger and more hopeful about taking my next small, practical step for change, instead of giving up. Maybe spectators, as well, will find new motivation for positive action.

Dear Reader, I invite you to join me. In one way or another, shout it out!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Remembrance Day used to delight me as a child, with its pageantry and solemn rituals. I especially liked the dramatic moment of silence, and if it was followed by a trumpet’s lament, even better. 
Even in shopping malls, at 11:00, on 11/11, shoppers stopped in their tracks as a reverent hush fell over the crowd. 

When I was young there were still many WWII veterans we could hear tell about the monumental battles to keep Germany from taking over all of Europe. We listened to Jewish survivors of the holocaust and trembled at the horrors. 

Slowly those generations began to disappear and by the late1960’s Vietnam’s mess turned the idea of heroic battles on its head. In the decades since, I, like you, have seen TV reports of war, after war, after bloody war, until a sense of futility has usurped any drama or glory.

Millions now live amid dangerous conflicts, whether tribal in Sudan, religious in India, or political in Syria. Here in Canada, I find it hard to even respect the military, let alone glorify it on Remembrance Day. In fact, whereas uniforms used to impress me, now, having encountered riot police during the G20 in Toronto, those insignia make me shudder. 

I used to hear stories about Canadian soldiers putting themselves between warring factions and felt so lucky to be born into a country whose army brought peace instead of war.  Now guns are appearing in my own city and our politicians think that more police with guns and taser weapons will solve the problem. 

Surely we must each do our part to turn this tide.
Let us make Remembrance Day a day to honour peacemakers. 

Let us remember that wars sprout from a lustful greed for power. 
Let us remember that violent opposition should be only a desperate last resort when all other options have been tried. 
Let us remember Christ’s radical alternative to war: “Love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6)

How different life would be if we chose this way, instead of posting nasty comments on blogs, cursing anyone who gets in our way, despising those who disagree with us, taking revenge when we’re cheated, or caring about only our own.

Let us remember Ephesians 2:
Jesus has abolished [religious] law with its commandments, so that he might create in himself a new humanity in place of [warring factions],
thus making peace
and so that he might reconcile [all] groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility through it. 
So Jesus came 
and proclaimed peace to those who were far off 
and peace to those who were near, 
for through him we all have access in one Spirit to God the Father/Mother. 

Let us remember God’s promise to humanity: Micah 4 
In days to come…many peoples shall say,
“Come, let us go…to the house of the [one] God;
that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” 
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. 
Come, let us walk in the light of God!

May it be so.

Monday, 14 October 2013


Who’d think that going topless could be a spiritual epiphany and a holy metaphor?
In early October, five women were at a lakeside retreat centre, some of us friends, others strangers. We luxuriated in the sprawling modern building filled with comfy furniture, attractive art pieces and golden autumn light from dozens of windows. The outdoor setting was golden too, as sunshine backlit yellow trees and warmed forest carpets of caramel oak leaves and pine-needle straw. Placid blue water was visible from the screened porch and our hosts served up the best of home cooking. Instead of a chockfull agenda, the retreat leader left us hours of empty space between sessions to loll on our beds, read or hike.
For two days we learned and practiced the theatre art of improvisation as it relates to spirituality. The goal was story telling, not Second City wisecracks. As a professional performer and spiritual director, our leader explained a structure of safety and acceptance, gradually easing any performance anxiety. She urged us to say “anything” and to be “dull” and “ordinary” as we played along with improv exercises. How those boring words freed us into wild creativity!
 We laughed ourselves silly when we pretended to move invisible canoes and to open imaginary boxes. One evening, without instructions or words, we found ourselves playing every recess game we could remember, even without skipping ropes or hopscotch chalk.
As we used some of the techniques to act out bible stories and give spontaneous homilies there was more laughter alongside deep truths. Picture one person simultaneously playing Lazarus’ corpse and Jesus arriving at the graveside! Her antics made us giggle but when two of us, as Martha and Mary, lamented loudly over our dead brother, tears sprang to my eyes. Where was Jesus when we needed him!
There were breathtaking worship times when we stood in a tight circle taking turns to speak one word each as we created a communal prayer or hymn. Dancing and running broke out. The familiarity and freedom of creative play moved us quickly into intimacy.

On our last morning, again without discussion, we cooperatively drew a strange picture on a white board. Each person took turns sketching one line in mindful randomness. We ended up with a peculiar water creature and a woman with huge bare breasts, a bow in her curly hair, and only one foot. We finished by jointly making up the story of the picture, “Once upon a time…”
 The retreat was ending and after lunch we would leave. During our last solitary reflection time I sat on a log looking at the water and remembered our funny drawing. I imagined taking my top off to become the bare-breasted woman by the lake, but of course decided not to shock passers-by. I am, after all, 64 years old and very round. Still, the idea percolated.
 At the buffet lunch where we five were the only guests, I caught the eye of the inn’s talented chef and signaled to her. In a private corner I told her that I was going to take my top off if she could warn the two male hosts to disappear for a minute. 
Just out of sight of my new playmates, I took off sweatshirt and bra, and then stepped into sight wearing only my jeans and shoes, calmly opening my arms to display my full, drooping breasts and bulging belly. The women screamed and bent over with laughter. Each one hugged me before I scurried to recover my clothes.
 What on earth? Never in all my years have I done such a thing! I felt fine…and then a little self-conscious. But it was good. Since then my moment of madness/wholeness is morphing into some spiritual insights.
What if we all felt so accepted and free that we could bare ourselves, even the imperfect parts? Our improv retreat leader 
had functioned as pastor, therapist, and coach in teaching us the boundaries and urging us to “be brave”. Gently and wisely she had eased us into mutual trust.
 What if there were so much playing in Parliaments and churches and classrooms that even strangers laughed themselves into friendship? The improv games we played built community fast.
 Another improvisation principle is that mistakes are expected. Whoever made the mistake takes a second to acknowledge their error but carries on as other players rally to redeem it. How could we not think of Christ's great redemption story?
 I like the improv ideas of “offering” and “accepting offers” so that the group’s story or game can continue. For example, if you offer another player an imaginary hat, she might accept your offer by pretending to put it on and saying it was her favourite colour. You could then tell her that when you had seen it at the store you’d thought of her. You offered; she accepted; you "endowed". In improv the concept of “endowment” doesn’t imply that you need a bigger bra but means adding to someone else’s offer so that the story is enriched.
 In God’s endless story we’re all invited to play a part and our daily lives are filled with offers both appealing and scary. We can resist life’s offers or say, “Yes! I’ll go along with that” and see how even the worst surprise can be accepted and endowed.
Without quite realizing it, in my topless moment I had manifested another improv feature, “reincorporation”, by impersonating the main character in our group’s drawing and subsequent story. As the bible says, “Remember, remember.” This was one adventure with God I'm sure I'll never forget.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Despite the Hair in My Hummus

Our wedding anniversary plan for June 6 had been rained out, so on one sunny September day we  headed for the Toronto Islands. I was pleased to see the bronze memorial sculpture for Jack Layton near the ferry docks, and especially touched when I watched two people reach out toward it, one fondly stroking Jack’s arm, the second patting his shoulder.

On the boat packed with excited tourists, I noticed a young Japanese woman. Her t-shirt read, “Hug Me”. Old women like me can get away with just about anything, and I asked her, “So should I hug you?” She looked confused and was apparently not a native English speaker. I pointed to her shirt. She looked down, read the words on her shirt and grinned at me. I spread my arms out. She giggled and reached toward me. It was a heart-warming hug between generations and cultures.

While we were still crossing the harbour, a student from a large group wearing back-packs and matching tees,  approached and asked me to go to a club with him that night. Before I could do anything more than grin he said, “You don’t have to come, I just have to invite you.” He was a foreign student attending the U. de Quebec in Montreal. He and his fellow students were part of an unofficial “Amazing Race”  that would take them to Niagara Falls and Chicago as well as Toronto. 
As we talked, his friend filmed the evidence so that they could check off another task on their list. We chatted about their home countries and which Toronto club they were going to that evening. 
Although I knew he had just been playing and wasn't sincerely inviting me to appear at their evening party, it took me until later to understand that the prescribed task had  been a disrespectful poke at old age. It was meant to embarrass the students as they ridiculously pretended to invite some unattractive, doddery oldster on a date to a dance club.
Nevertheless, their sweet, polite approach and my willing participation produced another moment of friendly connection. 
And by “participation” I don’t mean that I showed up that night at "Cube". But I might have.

After the ferry ride we ate lunch on the treed patio of The Rectory, just off the boardwalk on Ward’s Island. The server was not only efficient but playful, telling us that we had chosen the “ghost table”. Somehow the table where we sat keeps sending orders and bills to the cash register computer program. We laughed with her and ordered a luxurious meal, celebrating our 40 odd (and I do mean odd) years of marriage. 
Imagine the Maitre D’s chagrin when I motioned her over to show her the black hair I’d found in my hummus. She gasped with apologies, snatching away my plate and asking if I’d like a replacement. Since I’d already eaten about as much of the appetizer as I wanted, I thanked her but refused. Our server came to ask if I’d like some apple-squash soup instead. Oh well, now… YUM. As we lingered in the lake's breeze, my husband with his beer and I with my thrifty one glass of House white, the Maitre D’ arrived with a bottle to refill my wine. Bonus.

After lunch we wandered around the leafy lanes between charming cottages until the ferry arrived to take us back to the city.

It was one of those days when all you can do is sigh with delight, smile blissfully, and whisper “Thankyou!” 

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Billy Bishop and Me

Toronto City Council is deciding whether to allow Porter Airlines to expand Billy Bishop Airport for the use of bigger jet planes. Bishop is a small airport at one end of a cherished island park and a charming community near downtown Toronto. Our huge Pearson International Airport is on the city’s outskirts.

For those of you who don’t know Toronto, the city fronts on the shore of magnificent Lake Ontario at the place where two great rivers empty, the Don and the Humber. 
Just across from the downtown lakefront is an arc of treed islands accessible by ferry. Many decades ago a small airport was built on these islands amidst much controversy. Now Porter is fighting to make a yet bigger intrusion into this idyllic  lakeside space.

Needless to say, there is opposition from those who care more about environmental improvement and human wellbeing than about travel speed and increasing wealth.
I filled in the City’s survey here
Please consider doing the same.

When I read the survey’s page about possible health effects of the airport expansion it struck me that while there was mention of increased noise, air pollution and traffic injuries, nothing was said about an even deeper impact.

Our current definition of health includes what we call “wholeness” or, in spiritual language, “holiness”, an encompassing state of well-being. We want political decisions that will encourage healthy bodies, healthy minds and healthy relationships with both our human kin and with the natural world on which our lives depend.

As I have commented on the survey, the downtown airport's noise already interrupts and taints our refreshing enjoyment of Toronto's lakeshore parks. Whether we're on the islands or using any of the boardwalks and parks near the water, it is impossible to ignore the roar of landings and takeoffs. The air traffic imposes mental distraction and adds stress, aside from its pollution of air and water.

Many of us would be willing to pay more taxes and/or reduce our consumerist demands in order that our governments not be tempted to prioritize economic growth and excessive accumulation of corporate wealth.

We who are glad to have learned that there are more important things in life than increasing our possessions need to speak out. Let us encourage our civil servants to grow the contentment quotient in our neighbourhoods instead of just the tax base.

In a time of violent confrontations and many suicides, maybe city planners and political advisors should ask citizens “What could be done to increase peace and joy for you and your family?”

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Music Video Awards and a Weird Word.

One simple word can raise a flurry of thoughts and emotions. Recently I happily referred to myself as “old” and a friend reacted strongly. She is a physical trainer in her 70’s and often hears clients moan that they’re too old to …   From experience she knows that our bodies are capable of more than we think, if, barring illness, we keep active even into old age and stop thinking of ourselves as past our prime.
I understand her negative response, but because my focus is not on physical fitness, the word “old” has different connotations for me. Now that I’m an elder, I think of the phrase, “wise old owl”, and fight against our culture’s fixation on youth. Same word, different connotations.

I write this post after watching news about the pornographic performances at the 2013 Music Video Awards and reading this rhetorical question from Psalm 119:9,
“How can a young person stay on the path of purity?” 
Now there’s a problematic word: “purity”. 

Where does your mind go when you hear it? Imagine the reactions if we asked  the MVA audience how they try to “stay on the path of purity”. Ours is a culture where even opera advertisers use come-ons like “lies, murders, lust and betrayal!” assuming that such language will draw audiences, not turn them away.

Can you imagine a politician during a campaign saying that they try to live purely? Purity used to be an admirable goal; now it’s an archaic value.
At the rare times we hear the word, it’s usually in discussion of sexual abstinence outside of marriage.  Such a limited meaning for purity truncates a magnificent ideal.  What if we expand the word’s meaning to suggest these characteristics: integrated, authentic, consistent, and uncontaminated? What if we think of “pure gold” or “pure drinking water”? 

It was disappointing to hear a Christian minister base a sermon on a vulgar, crude musical (her words) that she had seen. Even as she joked about the congregation not telling their friends that their minister had said they should buy tickets, it was clear that she had no regret or shame about enjoying the performance. She valued the strengths of the production despite its impurity. True, sometimes we have no choice but to search through life's garbage for meaning, but why choose it for entertainment?  It sounded as if she were dismissing the wise biblical advice to fill our minds with excellence, beauty, joy, kindness and goodness 
(ex. Galatians 5 and Philippians 4). Long before modern psychology, spiritual teachers were recommending cognitive behavioural therapy: change your thoughts and you will change your feelings and behaviours.

Maybe the preacher, like others, was over-reacting to Puritanism, that uptight, “holier than thou” rigidity that looks down its nose at others. They assume that a steady commitment to high values always breeds snobbish disapproval of anyone who doesn’t measure up to those values. To the contrary, Jesus himself criticized such pharisaic attitudes. He befriended swindlers and adulterers, calling them to God’s love.  He would definitely have befriended all of the performers at the MVA’s.

However, he clearly did not chuckle at people’s self-destructive sin or follow their example. He urged them (us) to change direction toward the path of wholeness or purity. A desire for Christ-like integrity  (what the bible calls “righteousness”) need not imply an unhealthy wish to be better than other people. 

The question we started with above was written centuries before Jesus, part of the Jewish tradition he followed. 
How can a person stay on the path of purity, the path of humility, confidence, service and courage, the path where one aligns with humanity’s best and trusts God to do what we cannot? The poet’s own answer to his rhetorical question is that, young or old, we “stay on the path of purity by living according to God’s word”.  We listen for God’s wisdom in sacred books, in human experience, in Nature’s wonders and within us. 
Pure brilliance.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Men: alien encounters

On my way across a parking lot, I noticed a car idling as I carried on into the store. After talking to three polite and earnest salesmen who couldn’t sell me the radio I wanted, I returned toward my little white Honda Fit and heard the black SUV’s engine still running. Through its tinted windows I could see that the driver was male and I hesitated before approaching. Maybe the sultry August weather increased my motivation. I stood at his closed window until he opened it. “Hi. I don’t want to be a pest but you’re idling the car and polluting the air that we all breathe.” He was polite but protested that he was charging his computer. 
“Oh, is that the only place you can do it?” I asked innocently. 
He mumbled, “ Well, sort of”.
I said “Thanks”, for what I’m not sure – maybe for not cursing me - and I drove off. I thought of how much I, myself, was contributing to air pollution by driving from store to store looking for an emergency radio. I wonder what he was left thinking.

Approaching another mall I noticed seven men standing in a circle outside. They were dressed for business, mostly in dark suits, all younger and taller than I. I recognised a faint fear response in my gut – “The enemy! En garde”. I could hear that one guy was conducting a meeting, but since I had to walk right by them to enter the mall, I stopped with a big smile and said, “Ooh, scaaary - Suits!” The leader grinned back, friendly, and patient with my interruption, “What?” 
I teased, “Where are all the women?” 
Laughing, he replied, “Oh, they’re on their way”. He understood my issue and didn’t respond to my comment with irritation.

Driving again, I merged into an exit lane and let two roaring dump trucks go ahead of me. I thought of all the men who work in the rough and tough occupations, dirty, noisy, dangerous, and tiring. Although I’m glad not to have their jobs, I hope for equality’s sake that more women are choosing such work. When I was writing this I googled “trucks women drivers”. I didn’t find any stats but was encouraged to read an announcement on the “Truckers Support” website, promoting awareness of of sex- trafficking, its connection to truck stops, and urging professional drivers to help stop the crime.

Speaking of "men's work", near our house there’s an intriguing construction site with deep holes, a large crane, modular buildings and lots of men in hard hats. When several neighbours stood watching, the supervisor (tall and muscular, with steel toes and dusty clothes) joined us to chat. He cheerfully answered our questions and said how excited he was to see the modules arrive so that the job could keep going - not the gruff and silent type at all. 
A couple of days later I was walking by the site and he gave a friendly wave, just as if I were a fellow human being instead of an invisible old woman.

This summer it’s been charming to watch two young fathers interact with their children in nurturing ways. Both were affectionate with their sons as well as their daughters, both were patient and instructive, both gave full attention to specific parenting moments the way mothers traditionally do.

Another surprising alien male encounter happened during a walk along my local main street. I saw a rough looking, long-haired guy riding his rusty bike toward me on the sidewalk. He looked to be about 40, wore a sleeveless t-shirt (are they still called "muscle" shirts?) and was helmetless. He seemed out of place in our by-law compliant part of town. As he passed me, he called, “Your white hair is gorgeous!” 
Alright then. Welcome to the neighbourhood, man.

When I finally found the right store for buying a transistor radio, a middle-aged man (never my first choice for clerks) expertly advised me on exactly the right product. I was grateful. Okay, they’re not all condescending to women.

I hope that one day it will become automatic for me to expect the best of men, instead of the worst.