Sunday, September 25, 2016

Outside or Inside the Cup?

Old Order Mennonites at the St Jacobs, Ontario Horse Auction

The monthly horse auction was held on the grounds of our large farmers’ market yesterday. I drove up in the early afternoon to get some apples and noticed more Old Order Mennonites around than usual before I remembered that it was the last Saturday of the month. In our region we hardly look twice when we pass a horse and buggy on the roadway. General stores in the surrounding towns and villages sell hats, suspenders, and dress materials that identify members of our Old Order communities. Our neighbourhood in the city is home to an increasing number of Moslem and Sikh families. They too are easily identified by their clothing styles. 

Toronto Hipsters
We have a natural tendency to quickly judge people by their outward appearance and gravitate toward those who look most like ourselves.  My high schools did not enjoy much ethnic diversity in the 1960s and 70s, but we knew how to sight a “hoodlum” or a “hippie”. Today’s hipsters are identified by their facial hair, plaid shirts, skinny pants, footwear and lifestyle choices. Tattoos and piercings are trendy right now even though I shudder think what they will look like on crepey 80 year old skin in the future. 

I have learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Inner character takes more time to assess. I am reading a book that was a 1913 best seller called “The Inside of the Cup” by American author, Winston Churchill. The title is based on Matthew 23:26 where Jesus says, 

"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.” 

It is hard to believe the book is over 100 years old as the themes are so current. The exterior is often a poor representation of the true inner person. 

Recently, I was helping a nurse provide morning care to one of our patients with dementia. We were assailed with an angry torrent of racist, sexist and other crude language as well as attempts to hit, scratch and punch. Frontal lobe function does diminish with age-related brain atrophy and dementias but other patients remain sweet and kind in their confusion. From my non-scientific observations, the inner person will be revealed eventually. Hidden anger, anxiety, fear, racism, greed and hatred is uncovered when social graces diminish. Conversely, an inner character marked with love, patience, generosity and acceptance of others does not diminish with age. In this internet age, the outer appearance is hidden, but words and ideas identify the tribe. It is a challenge to wade through the rhetoric but we must check the source and context before we pass judgement.

A contact of mine posted a picture of the church bulletin where he attended today.  

Tribal markings will always exist but it is worthwhile to assess the inside first, starting with ourselves. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Scars and Tenacity

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

She is the same age as me and has been a patient at the hospital for over 100 days. We walked outside in the late summer sunshine as she shared her story. Whether all the details were exactly true or not doesn’t matter as past memories are easily distorted by emotion and time. 

“I have gone through life with a pickaxe, pulling myself up a rock face,” she said. 

Above average intelligence, education, and good looks did not smooth the scarring from abusive relationships, years of mental and physical illness, job loss and community disconnection. Life was a struggle but she was still fighting to make it to the summit. She talked about life “outside the village” and her “misfit” faith which was not understood in any church she had attended.   

I marvelled at her insight and her inability to find an easier route on her journey. Surely there was a paved road somewhere on that mountain. In comparison, my life is a peaceful cruise in a small, seaworthy vessel. I have encountered a few storms but the sun quickly appears through the clouds as I follow the beautiful shoreline.

We live in a country that is at peace, with good social services and free medical care. I have no metaphors for the life journeys of people who live where there is war, who are displaced and surviving without their basic needs being met. Every day I see how unexpected illness and injury can change the world of an individual or family. My life could be altered in an instant too. We never know when we might need that pickaxe.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Vice and Virtue

"Ruth is getting over a mild case of whooping cough. 
It has never affected her liveliness or her appetite. 
She eats like a little pig, a whole BIG banana every afternoon 
and then she cries for more. 
She loves her toes now and chews them 
with or without her boots on…"

Grandma T. kept every “aerogram” sent to Canada from my parents in South Africa. They are neatly numbered in an old Ganong's Chocolates box and my aunt graciously gave them to me a couple of years ago. I was born abroad and every little detail of my development was shared by my proud parents. A common theme in all the letters was my voracious appetite and my astounding rate of growth. The quote above was written by my mother in letter #37 when I was nearly six months old. It is obvious that I was born a glutton. I love bananas to this day, and thankfully still have ten toes.

We were challenged this week to write about which of the Seven Deadly Sins we are most guilty of. 
The medieval list;-

lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and hubris, 

seems a little repetitive in my opinion and could be summarized in three words, 

Overindulgence, laziness and malice.

I am guilty of all of them. They may not always be evident in my external behaviour, but if you could read my thoughts sometimes…

In truth, all human conflict is rooted in these vices whether it is a major war or a conflict at home or work. Self-centredness and taking personal offence can ruin our happiness, whether it is getting angry at a perceived inequity or getting in an argument with someone who has a different perspective or opinion than our own.

In spite of my faults, I prefer to focus on the seven virtues;-

chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, 
patience, kindness, and humility. 

Chastity has a deeper meaning than sexual purity and includes caring well for one’s body, knowledge, wisdom, and honesty. It abhors ignorance, hostility, and corruption. 

Virtue abounds in our world but vice gets far more press time. Nurturing virtue--personally, in our homes, careers, communities and nation is more of a challenge than simply calling out the short-comings of others. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lessons on Staying Young

I see the worst of physical and cognitive aging every day in my work at a hospital. It is easy to feel disheartened and believe that this is the inevitable pathway to death. I seldom see people who age well as they do not enter the doors of our facility as patients.

I will share the stories of two people, born in the same year, who inspire me with their energy, passion and joie de vivre. 

Jim and Margaret Atwood in Mexico

Margaret Atwood is a prolific Canadian writer and poet who has published many successful novels, short stories, poetry collections and more. Her first graphic novel, Angel Catbird, is to be released September 6th after next weekend's Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. I follow her Twitter feed and drink her signature, bird-friendly coffee from Balzak’s.  (Her graphic novel explores the relationship between cats and songbirds.) She is a passionate environmentalist, feminist, and humanitarian. A good friend of mine met her at a writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico a few years ago. She posed with him in the photo above. She is not slowing down in her mid-70’s and is an inspiration to younger generations of writers and artists. Our youngest daughter Becka, has a table at Fan Expo and is selling her own comic books and art. She hopes to have an encounter with Ms. Atwood and purchase her new book. 

Aunt Ruth, in blue, with co-workers at her birthday party

I have a special aunt who shares my name. She has the busiest social calendar around and is a talented musician. She works for an insurance company in Toronto and commutes downtown four days a week. Her co-workers put on a big party for her 75th birthday. This year, the company sent her to Nashville TN to celebrate her next, or maybe next birthday. Did I mention she is a big NASCAR fan? She has known joy and grief and life has not been without struggles. But she is resilient, with the  gift of laughter and the making and keeping of friends. Her co-workers wrote the following comments on her birthday card.

“Your zest for life in an inspiration to us all” 
 “Happy birthday to a young team member” 
“You are so amazing! I want to be like you when I grow up”  
“You are such a joy to have on the team” 
Keep that young heart beating” 
  “Looking forward to working with you over the next year”.

I have written about ageism and our tendency to segregate people by birthdate. It starts early in preschool, ends in nursing homes and is pervasive in churches. I have the privilege of working with many young millennials and our age differences are insignificant. As a team we complete the tasks and goals of the day. Sometimes I get to be “Work Mom” to younger colleagues when asked for advice or a shoulder to cry on. Every generation has something to offer to those younger and older than themselves.  

I posted the poem Youth by Samuel Ullman earlier today. It deserves its own reading and expresses so many truths about chronological age vs functional age. Even when the body slows down and faculties dim, we can be young at heart.

Doubt, fear, despair, pessimism and cynicism age people who are 20 or 80.
Faith, hope, self-confidence, optimism, and wonder keep us young at any age. 

YOUTH by Samuel Ullman

Youth is not a time of life - it is a state of mind,
it is a temper of the will,
a quality of the imagination,
a vigour of the emotions, 
a predominance of courage over timidity, 
of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. 

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. 
People grow old only by deserting their ideals. 
Years wrinkle the skin, 
but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. 
Worry, doubt, self-distrust, 
fear and despair - these are the long, 
long years that bow the head 
and turn the growing spirit back to dust. 

Whether they are sixteen or seventy, 
there is in every being's heart 
the love of wonder, 
the sweet amazement at the stars 
and starlike things and thoughts, 
the undaunted challenge of events, 
the unfailing childlike appetite 
for what is to come next, 
and the joy and the game of life. 

You are as young as your faith, 
as old as your doubt; 
as young as your self-confidence, 
as old as your fear, 
as young as your hope, 
as old as your despair. When the wires are all down 
and all the innermost core of your heart 
is covered with the snows of pessimism 
and the ice of cynicism, 
then you are grown old indeed. 

But so long as your heart receives messages 
of beauty, cheer, courage, grandeur 
and power from the earth, 
from man and from the Infinite, 
so long you are young. 

This is posted as background for my next blog post.
I looked to see if the poem is copyrighted but several different versions
 are widely available on the web.  I like this one best.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


Sun and shadow shroud the cliffs of the Grand Canyon as a
   Condor soars on air currents high above the Colorado River.
The San Francisco peaks are on the horizon but you cannot
   hear clanging cable cars, 
      see the Golden Gate Bridge or
         feel the ghosts of Alcatraz in the same-named city.

Pacific waters ripple over my feet in British Columbia, Ventura,
   and remote Mexican beaches with pelicans.
Cold Atlantic waves chill me in Newfoundland, Fundy, Rhode Island, 
   and New York City by the Statue of Liberty.
I stand atop Sulphur Mountain, Mount Washington, and float in the fault that
   holds the Dead Sea.

We cross Canada by land and sea from Victoria to Cape Spear, 
   over mountains, through prairies and forests, 
      and hear a loon laugh, the moon mirrored on a quiet lake. 
I listen to music in concert halls, on streets, in the hum of markets
   in Boston, Vancouver, Jerusalem, Guadalajara,
      and at home.

I ride a camel, travel by air, ocean liner, train, bicycle, bus 
   and drive California State Route 1.
History beckons from castles, cathedrals, communities, 
   and the Alamo.
Our world is large, yet closer, smaller and more
   accessible in modern times.

I watch a bright yellow Goldfinch tentatively
   remove a seed from a dead flower in my garden and
      wash it down with a sip from the bird bath beside me.
The search for beauty, relationship, rest, holiness,
   amidst the clamour of life brings
      a holiday for my soul.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Butterflies and More

September 2008

I took this picture eight years ago near our house. From 2006 to 2009 we collected monarch caterpillars and looked after them as they went from chrysalis to butterfly. We have milkweed growing in a section of our garden and they used to attract Monarchs, but I have only seen one in our yard in the past two years. Here is a video I took in 2008 showing how the chrysalis is formed.

I search for butterflies as diligently as I look for birds when I am out and about. The pictures below show almost all the butterflies I have seen so far in 2016. We saw a couple of Monarchs flying across the highway when we were on Manitoulin Island in July, but none resting in the ditches and meadows. 

Giant Swallowtail Butterfly                                                                     Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly

This is the first time I have identified a Giant Swallowtail butterfly. We found it at Mud Lake in the city of Ottawa, Ontario this spring. Tiger Swallowtails have visited our garden a couple to times this summer. The one above was on a flowering shrub at Queenston Heights near Niagara Falls, Ontario in July.

           Cabbage Whites                                       Milbert's Tortoiseshell                                      Great Spangled Fritillary

I walked the length of the road at Manitoulin Island every day, taking two to three hours each time to look for birds and butterflies. The weather was hot and there were plenty of wildflowers in bloom. I counted only three species pictured above and saw each of them only once.

Underwing moth species                                                                            12 Spotted Skimmer

There is a slow moving creek that flows into Lake Manitou where we stay. Water lilies and Arrowhead plants grow in the shallow water and most years there are many bullfrogs and dragonflies. I never saw a single dragonfly there this year but finally found one at the edge of Lake Huron when we were waiting to take the ferry home. The Underwing moth was tattered and almost lifeless beside the road.

Black and White Warbler- Manitoulin Island

I observe nature but am not an expert by any stretch. It is obvious that the numbers of butterflies, dragonflies, bees and other pollinators are declining. There are likely many contributing factors, including climate change, habitat loss, insecticide use, to name a few. Many of our birds are insectivorous and are threatened when their food source is reduced. For instance, Barn Swallow numbers have declined 65% since the 1960s due to habitat loss and use of chemical insecticides. The Black and White Warbler above looked down at me one morning when I was birding on Manitoulin Island this summer. Warblers need insects too. 

As I wrote this post on our deck this evening, I was irritated by numerous mosquitoes. It has been a dry summer but our weekend rains brought a new hatch of the annoying insects. It seems that some insects have adapted to change better than others. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

First World Problem: How Do We Help the Third World?

I watched her grow from a child to a young teenager over the past six years while visiting my family in Mexico. She lives with her parents and brothers in a small cement house on the five acre property. Her dad helps care for my elderly father and also maintains the grounds of the school, factory and houses. Her mom, Irma, who gave my mother loving personal care when she was ill, cleans the home and also works at my brother’s guava factory. Fatima's innocent charm, wide smile and helpful nature made me want to scoop her up and bring her home with me. But she is the apple of her father’s eye and her mother’s pride and joy. She is where she belongs.

With Irma and Fatima at my mother's funeral

Many people from first world countries visit poorer countries on short term mission trips or secular volunteer opportunities. The Mental Health Unit at our hospital has partnered with medical professionals in Guyana. Staff members use vacation time for teaching and training in an effort to set up better mental health services in that country. I know retired people who work with local people in third world countries in their area of expertise. Other volunteers and agencies respond and provide urgently needed aid after natural or man-made disasters. These are worthwhile, productive endeavours. 

There are critics of short term mission trips. Participants are eager to visit a poor area, bring gifts, build structures, evangelize, play with orphans and then go home in a week or two with plenty of pictures and a feeling of self-fulfillment. The focus is on how much the first world volunteers have to offer, not on the strengths and capabilities of the local people. The motives of the volunteers may be sincere but misguided. I have seen people leave Canada with suitcases filled with blankets, candies, school supplies and clothing to distribute to the “poor and needy”. But the definition of poverty is relative and care is needed to avoid conveying a sense of superiority because of our affluence. Gift-bearing volunteers may not understand the values of the community and can undermine the local economy. 

No "Shoebox" gifts required (photo by my brother, Mark)

We used to fill a couple of shoe boxes with recommended items each year at Christmas time for distribution to needy children. It appeared to be an unselfish thing to do in the spirit of the season. The boxes are collected, unpacked and checked by volunteers at a warehouse and then distributed around the world. The practice makes little sense socially or economically. The purchased items are usually inexpensive imported goods that may have been made by underpaid workers in another third world country. They are then sent by air to a community that may not share our values or holidays. Once again the local economy in the poorer country loses out as “free” items are given to “needy” children. The donors feel good, but the money could be put to better use.

People who are materially poor may be rich in relationships, community, meaningful work, and happiness.   
Conversely, the materially rich may be poor in relationships, meaningful purpose and contentment. 

Eugene Peterson recently tweeted, 

“Living in the land of the free has not made us free. We are a nation of addicts and complainers.” 

He spoke as an American but his statement is true in many developed nations. We may forget that strain in life builds strength of character, just as lifting weights develops physical strength. 

Visiting third world countries is a valuable learning experience. I remember visiting a home in a Mexican village in 2006 with my brother, who came to pay the man for work he had done. The adobe and tin house had a dirt floor and chickens walked in and out the door. A TV was on the table and an extension cord ran to an outside power source. The family received us with great hospitality and offered us a drink. I wanted to take a picture of the surroundings but knew it was not appropriate. The FIFA World Cup was in progress and Mexico was playing a game that day. While we were there, Mexico scored a goal and a great roar rose from the hills as everyone living on that mountain cheered. These people enjoyed community, had their basic needs met, and were content in their circumstances in spite of their relative poverty. 

Roadside Restaurant- Mexico (delicious gorditas!)

We need to share resources in collaboration with people who live in poorer nations. Education is essential and children often need uniforms, books and tuition to go to school. There are charities that work to address the root causes of poverty. People in third world countries have a voice, dignity, potential and ability to achieve their dreams. We cannot jump in and impose our values on them but need to listen and view their world from their perspective. It is important to do our research before giving to charities to make sure that the organization is using funds to empower the recipients, and not making them dependent on handouts. The same principles are important when dealing with poverty at home. 

Robert D. Lupton wrote an thought-provoking book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). He recommends an "Oath for Compassionate Service" with six guidelines: 
  1. Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves; 
  2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies; 
  3. Empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements; 
  4. Subordinate self-interest to the needs of those being served; 
  5. Listen closely to those you seek to help; 
  6. Above all, do no harm.
Other resources:
Poverty, Inc. - I highly recommend this documentary, available on Netflix and elsewhere
When Helping Hurts- a book with similar themes as Toxic Charity
Living on One - Two documentaries available on Netflix
Barbie Savior- Satirical look at the "white saviour" complex