Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Spinsters


    Once upon a time there were two middle-aged, single women who lived together in the farming village of Markham, Ontario.  In my mind they transform the insult of "spinster" into an honourable title. Quaintly named "Dixon Riley" and "Kitty Alderson", they were refined women who lived in a modern ranch-style bungalow near my family’s ramshackle two-story. 
My parents had little money for d├ęcor or landscaping. By the time I came along as their fourth baby, they were too busy keeping food on our table to give us children much individual attention. Our mother wasn’t the expressive type; my little girl self was starved for both emotional warmth and aesthetic joy. 

Perhaps surprisingly, a fundamentalist Christian upbringing made me confident of God’s love, instead of driving me away from spirituality, the way it has some. While I credit that confidence to many adults from my youth, my trust in God surely stems partly from the kindness of Miss Riley and Miss Alderson.

Once a week they hosted a children’s club for any neighbourhood kids who wanted to attend. A gang of kids regularly showed up at their house. I loved arriving at their manicured gardens and nicely decorated living room, an oasis of beauty and peace away from my stormy home. 

They must have rearranged their furniture every week because I picture our sitting in rows of chairs. I remember the feeling of being truly welcomed when quiet Miss Alderson took my coat and Miss Riley greeted me with gentle words and a smile. There was no sense that they ever worried about our rambunctiousness in their pretty home.

 Somehow Miss Riley kept us entertained with games, bible stories in felt-board pictures, and songs about how Jesus loved us. We eagerly waited until the end of the club meeting when one of us would find a prize taped to the underside of our chair. I'm seeing a foot-long, pink-swirled stick of candy.

Only years later did I appreciate the effort, time, and expense these two women put into each weekly event. Like all children, I was self-absorbed. I know that I eagerly received every pat on the head, every cookie, and every encouraging word.

Thinking back, I admire Miss Riley’s memorization technique of removing from the felt board one word at a time, as together we shouted the bible verse over and over until we could all say it without any text left to prompt us.
I still entertain my husband with my sing-song recital of one verse I learned in the Shakespearean English of the King James Bible, “Man looketh on the OUTward appearance but the LORD looketh on the heart.”
Timeless truth.

If there is an after-life when we will see those we’ve lost, I hope to hug these two unassuming, childless women. I want to hear their life stories...how they became the generous women I knew. And I will be so glad to thank them for helping me believe in a God who loves.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

There She Is Again Part II


“Any visitors here today?”
 I put my hand up. 
“Where are you from?” 
“Toronto”
Toronto! I’m just getting over my frost-bitten lungs after visiting your city a couple of weeks ago.”
Laughter.

I was in a Spanish-style building in southern California, a continent away from my hometown where I’ve given up on attending church. I was at the worship service partly for my husband’s sake and partly because I had noticed La Jolla Lutheran’s lawn sign that read simply, “We follow Jesus”.
Now that’s the kind of church I dream of – one where following Jesus took precedence over ego, where apologies and forgiveness would be the norm, where humility and the desire to improve ruled. That kind of church could make a difference in the local community.

Imagine my surprise when the minister proceeded to spend half of his sermon recounting a story set in Toronto. With wit and self-deprecation he told how years ago he had encountered the supernatural presence of God at what is now called "Catch the Fire", a church near Toronto's Pearson airport. He attended meetings during a “revival”, a phenomenon that sometimes springs up when people become deeply hungry for the new way of life that Jesus offered the world. At these meetings many people experienced strange sensations and inexplicable physical healings that convinced them of God’s reality and Jesus’ divinity. 
The minister’s stories were the kind that cause the same two reactions that people in bible times had to Jesus. Either this is really God or that guy’s totally lost his rational mind.

The preacher admitted that he himself had remained sceptical until he collected more evidence, but that he eventually became convinced that God does things that don't necessarily make sense to us. His thesis was that we should avoid scornfully dismissing what others do or say before we consider whether it could be of God. We can't confine the Eternal One to our comfy Sunday rituals or familiar traditions. 

I had a hard time sitting quietly in my pew as I thought, “There She is again!”
I sensed the One who is greater than the internet, the One capable of attending to every human being simultaneously, not to offer clear answers like a search engine, but to interact with each one of us intentionally, like the wisest of coaches. If we're willing, it seems that God shows us how to change for the better, enlivening us to add love and justice to our corner of the planet, just as the members of this local church were doing.
Instead of scolding me for not hanging in there at any church right now, apparently God looked with love on my hopeless disillusionment and surprised me with this visit to one church that seemed to be serious about following Jesus. These Christians didn’t only put up a lawn sign that stated their commitment, they also hosted a free art show for local artists, staffed an overnight shelter and diningroom for homeless folks and provided sermons that warned pew-sitters not to be judgemental. 

Is my thinking so simplistic and self-focussed that I imagine the Source of Life arranged a special church service in California for this Torontonian on the one Sunday in February, 2014 when I'd be at La Jolla Lutheran? Haven't I noticed that  there are important global issues that need divine intervention?
There you have the paradoxical mystery of Christian belief. God, who is beyond human understanding, uses every way, in every place and time, to whisper to every person,
"Here I am. My love for you is endless. If you look for me, you will find me. I intend to heal creation and I hope you will join me. Follow Jesus." 

Maybe, on that morning in delightful San Diego, my eyes and ears were wider open than usual. The Pacific's gorgeous surf roared nearby and days earlier I’d been stunned by the miracle of tiny streams trickling through the vast stony desert at Borrego Springs. It was easy for my vacationing heart to well with gratitude and delight. There She was again, God's invisible self, in a church building, of all places.

It’s harder to feel the same joy and confidence when I'm writing today in my Toronto basement during freezing winter weather (yes, still). And, yes, I still don't know a local church where I would fit in. But as I endure the annual wait for Spring's green uprising, I’m remembering the hard truth described in Hebrews 11:1,
"Faith is the assurance 
that what we hope for will come about, 
and the certainty that what we cannot see exists."

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Blue Chip


 The flight was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. so we arrived at the airport at 4:00. I had slept badly the night before because of a cold and was in that worst phase when you can hardly breathe, your nose is running, you’re coughing and your throat is starting to hurt. All I wanted to do was sleep, but instead we began the process of lugging suitcases, backpacks and my purse that held the vital travel documents through check-in, luggage-drop and American customs. I kept drinking water and coughing and rummaging for more kleenex.

We thought we knew the tiresome routine. Quelle surprise! Our dear neighbours to the south have instituted an extra treat for visitors to their country. After check-in, American customs now includes waiting for an available computer kiosk where you insert your passport, opened to your photo, and stare at a camera that takes a new photo and prints it out.  With print-out (and passport and boarding pass) in hand, you then haul yourself and your carry-ons over to the next official who looks at your print-out and your passport to see if they match, before discarding the printout into a garbage can and waving you wordlessly on to the next part of security. Just what we needed, one more step in the tedious process. 

Next you must take off your shoes, empty your pockets, remove your belts and, like half-dressed children, listen to loudly repeated instructions and threats by the adults in uniform.
“Any liquids should be discarded or consumed or you may be taken aside to have your luggage searched... Any liquids should be disc…”
In sock feet you nervously shuffle through an x-ray doorway, your eyes glued on the stern guard who stares impassively at you and then checks her screen. Will she nod her permission to proceed or send you back to try again for entrance to paradise? Given the go-ahead, you feel pressed by the huddled masses behind you to get out of the way quickly. You hurriedly grab up armfuls of your scattered possessions and hop on one foot in order to put on your shoes on and feel like a grown-up again.
No one offered a smiling, “Welcome to America.” 

We finally made it onto the plane just after 6:00, and dutifully strapped ourselves into the tiny padded cells where we would be confined for our five hour trip from Toronto to California.
Oh, how friendly the "Captain" sounded as he welcomed us and thanked us for choosing Air Canada.
 “We will be taking off shortly after a quick stop for de-icing.” Having never been de-iced before, I believed him.
Yes, it was snowing in Toronto and we were grateful that our flight hadn’t been cancelled. That’s the last moment I can remember having a warm feeling of gratitude.
From then on I quoted to myself, through gritted teeth, bible verses about joy and peace.
Time passed in the cramped and over-heated plane. As usual I had turned on every air-vent I could reach, desperate for a calming breeze. More time passed and our plane continued to sit at the de-icing station. I drank water to soothe my throat, sucked on cough drops, and blew my nose, cough, cough. An hour passed and the plane's wheels didn’t move an inch but could we use the toilets? No, we could not. The seat belt lights were still on. 

“Do not lose your inward peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” St. Frances de Salles
You know, at my age, I’m fed up with the fact that every bit of good advice is easier said than done.

Eventually the trucks surrounded our plane and sprayed it with something green. 
We’re moving! Of course the seat belt lights stayed on for take-off and ascent to “cruising” level. I calculated that by now it had been two hours between the last opportunity passengers had had to use the washrooms in the airport lounge and the moment when the seat belt lights first dinged off.
 You should have seen the stampede! It was a race to unclip seatbelts and line up in the aisle for the measly two washrooms provided for us plebs. Instead of politely asking her to move, I climbed rapidly and apologetically over the poor woman who was sitting in the aisle seat of my row and managed to be third in line at the “Occupied” door. Luckily for me, I was heading back to my seat past the rest of the anxious line-up when I heard a “ding”. 
“The Captain has turned the seat belt lights on. Would all passengers please return to their seats” 
Are you kidding? What were those poor people supposed to do? Amazingly, they dutifully left the washroom line-up and returned to pull a seat belt across their distended bladders and wait until the evil lights went off again. 

For the next five hours it was like every slapstick comedy – funny to watch but miserable to experience. Desperate passengers would stand up to head for relief and an announcement would start, “Would all passengers please return to their seats until the Captain turns off the seat belt lights?” I silently cheered one elderly man when he defied the command by continuing toward the washrooms past the flight attendants who were happily strapped in, doing nothing for most of the flight except telling passengers to go back and sit down. Mercifully they allowed him to use the bathroom despite the Captain's orders.
Every time the lights turned off there would be another rush to the aisle and a few lucky souls could take their turn squeezing into a cubicle before the now-hated Captain’s voice would start again, “Sorry folks, we’re experiencing more turbulence. Please return to your …”
I started fantasizing about the turbulence I’d like to cause by storming the cockpit and demanding entrance to the flight crew’s washroom. 

Meanwhile, the cabin was stifling. Furthermore, the movies and TV shows offered were feeble and few, half of the screen's "menu" unavailable. I was tired and I was ill. By the time we arrived at San Diego airport I had prepared a short speech for the Captain, but he was nowhere to be found as we exited the plane.

It was midnight, Toronto time. We trudged though another airport and after the excitement of finding our luggage on the carousel, hauled it outside to wait for a shuttle bus to the car rental location.
“There’s a Thrifty’s van! Oh, it’s already full and pulling away.” 
When we jostled with other arrivees to get on the next shuttle I felt bad for those with children, but not quite bad enough to let them take the last seats on the van. For hours I’d been praying like Ann Lamott, “Help me, please”, so that I didn’t murder anyone (the Captain in particular). I was a wreck.

After a short, bumpy ride, twenty of us were about to leap from the shuttle and form yet another line (at midnight, mind you) for our rental cars. My husband and I strategized, having lost all compassion for other human beings.
 “I’ll get the luggage. You run to the Blue Chip desk.”
I'm proud that I beat everyone else, especially those with little kids, to the First Class, Blue Chip desk, and shamelessly called out, “Is anyone serving the Blue Chip?” as the crowd stared at me through bleary eyes.
Sure enough, Thrifty staff snapped to and we were in our rental car and pulling out of the driveway while those other people were still standing in line with their exhausted children and luggage, waiting for their turn at the NOT-Blue-Chip counter.

How sorry I felt for them all as we drove away. How happy I was that we had filled in the free registration forms for Blue Chip service at Thrifty’s. How much more I loved my sick and tired self than I cared about anyone else in the world. How fervently I vowed never to fly Air Canada again. How grateful I was for an ordinary bedroom at a nearby Best Western hotel as I lay down at 2:00 a.m.
Sad but true.



Tuesday, 4 March 2014

There She Is Again


The ocean was wild that day.
The first rainfall in months was hitting southern California and storm winds blasted the shoreline. Just outside La Jolla’s famous Children’s Cove, we watched sea lions ride the surf. One baby sea lion was having trouble escaping the waves to follow its mother up onto the beach where they could rest from the hectic water ride. Although every wave pushed the small animal shoreward, the outgoing water sucked it back into the sea. Blindly, the baby kept heading right for a cement staircase that people used during low tide, and the waves were dashing the little one again and again onto those hard steps. It was painful to watch and a few of us couldn’t help groaning aloud, lamenting each time the baby missed the chance to head for the open beach instead of the staircase. Tension grew as we waited helplessly.

But instinctive mother-love prevailed. The mother sea lion returned again and again, calling to the baby, and doing her best to get between the waves and her offspring, steering the little one toward safety.
What a relief to see the baby finally swim in a different direction. They both slid up onto the beach and awkwardly humped across the sand until they were beyond reach of the dangerous waves.

A few minutes later we watched another mother who wasn’t so lucky. At the more sheltered shore inside the cove, tourists line the fences to see dozens of sea lions and seals that are always lolling on the sand. The group included several babies who stuck close to their mothers. Some of these pairs looked to be having fun, playing together in the waves before landing. In dismay we noticed one little body that wasn’t moving. Its mother was pushing it further up the sand to keep the waves from washing it ocean-ward but it would just drift back with each wave. At one point she grabbed a flipper in her mouth to drag it to safety. When she got it away from the water, she lay down beside it. Once in a while she would nudge it with her nose, clearly not understanding yet that it was dead. We guessed it must have drowned in a struggle similar to the other we had seen. For as along as we could bear to watch, this mother stayed beside the small corpse.
I felt sad, hoping that animals don’t have the emotions they  seem to express. I thought of the many human mothers who have lost a child and how I daren’t even imagine their grief.

And then I recognized that I was glimpsing a part of God. There S/He was in these mother seals, showing us a miniscule picture of how much She loves each one of us, her human offspring, of how She faithfully and endlessly tries to nudge us in the right direction, of how She longs for us to live life fully. Everywhere I look, there She is again.