Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on 2016

As I sit here on New Year’s Eve 2016, I am reminded of the Psalm that says, 

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so we may grow in wisdom"   Ps 90:12

I am fortunate to have daily reminders of numbered days, and the harm that springs from petty quarrels and greed. It is customary to make New Year’s resolutions but it is also good to reflect on growth and changes in the last twelve months. 

I kept a hand written journal for an entire year and wrote on the last page today. This has been an useful way to keep track of thoughts, ideas, wisdom from other people, and to-do lists. I journaled significant and mundane things together because life is that way. A beautiful sunrise, a butterfly, a bird, a chance meeting, a tasty dinner all bring me joy.  Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote,

 “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Journaling made me more aware of the sacred that exists in everything. One of my goals was to appreciate the humanity and potential goodness in everyone without pre-judging by appearance or behaviour. Everyone has a back story that deserves respectful listening. I continue to appreciate the beauty of the natural world which surpasses the grandest cathedral made by man. And relationships with other people are important to cultivate as we wither physically, mentally and spiritually without meaningful social support. 

I wrote a lot of prayers in my journal. I came to realize that most of what I called prayer was self-centred and petulant. I believe the primary purpose of prayer is to change my thinking, my attitudes, and my behaviour. God is not a genie who comes and releases us from our problems. He gives us the tools to do the work ourselves. Likewise, we, by our actions, bring about change in our sphere of influence. I am reminded daily how self-centred I am by nature and how hard it is to extend needed forgiveness and grace to others.

I am more appreciative of good health and know that abuse of our bodies is not easily overcome as we age. Making good nutrition, exercise, rest and stress management a priority is a daily challenge. I became aware of the concept of “mindfulness” this year. Multi-tasking robs us of awareness of simple pleasures. We rush about, eat fast food, gorge on social media, and misuse the time we need to invest in a meaningful, balanced life. I continue to make my own bread every week. When I eat a slice at the beginning of the day, I am reminded of my connection with Jesus, the bread of life, and human kind who has broken bread for millennia. This is communion in the truest sense.

My religious background was strict and questions had pat answers. I knew the statements of faith well and taught them to many children in Sunday School. My understanding of certain doctrines and practices has changed significantly. It has been good to journal my questions and musings and to listen to others who interpret scripture differently. Unanswered questions keep us on the quest for wisdom and knowledge.

I have a brand new journal for 2017 but will keep the 2016 version handy. Every day is a gift for which I am grateful.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Whimsical Diversions

The old man on the dementia ward held a cabbage patch doll, a boy, dressed in a blue sweater and overalls. I watched as he cupped the doll’s head in his hands and stared lovingly into its face. 
“My little boy, my dear little baby,” he said as he raised it up and kissed its forehead before bringing it to rest on his shoulder. The tenderness he showed toward the doll was very real and touching. 

As a child I truly believed my toys came to life when I wasn’t looking. I was influenced by Enid Blyton’s books and delighted in the magical world of fairies, pixies and elves and goblins. I tried to believe in Santa for as long as possible, if not for myself, for my younger brothers. I still like to imagine little woodland creatures living under a Mayapple leaf or inside a Jack in the Pulpit wildflower. I would like to be one of Tolkien's almost immortal elves.

I watched the French movie Amélie for the first time this summer. I loved the scene where Amélie takes her father’s garden gnome and sends it with a stewardess friend on adventures around the world. In July, CBC carried a fun news story about a lady in British Columbia whose garden gnome was stolen. The “thieves” returned the gnome weeks later with a hardcover photo book of its adventures through western United States and into Mexico. So when I saw a garden gnome in a clearance sale for under $10 at a hardware store in September… I bought it. 

Mr. Gnoddy is a bobble head gnome who has been quite busy since he came to our home. He has his own Instagram account and has found many other travelling gnomes online. When our dog sees Mr. Gnoddy, she knows it is picture time and generously poses beside him. He has been to Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and several places in between. He is going on his first flight in January. Perhaps he will be able to publish a photo book as well. 

Rein Poortvliet was a Dutch artist who is best known for his paintings and books about animals and gnomes. A Gnome’s Christmas is a delightful story book about the traditions of these little people. The larger volume, Gnomes, was a best seller when it was published in 1977. It reads like a fanciful biology text and may raise some interesting questions from younger readers.

Adults who follow whimsical diversions, from Beatrix Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien and many in between, have enriched our lives with interesting literature and art. Like the old man in the hospital, these make believe characters represent something true and memorable within us. We are never too old for imagination and play. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Earth's Crammed with Heaven...

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws

Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world

Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things

And spiritual,—who separates those two

In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,

Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,

Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,

Is wrong, in short, at all points...

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware...

From ‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

I read part of this poem today and wanted to share this excerpt, if for no other reason than to remember it myself. There are so many similes that resonate with me in her writing.

And so I will go about my day looking for inspiration in my routine, in the ordinary people I will encounter, in the hustle and bustle of the city and the solitude of nature. 

Monday, December 05, 2016

Christmas Customs and Culture

Christkindl Christmas Market

We attended the annual Christkindl Christmas market in our city this weekend. Our area was settled largely by German speaking immigrants a couple of centuries ago and while we are far more diverse now, Oktoberfest and the Christmas market are well attended events.

Traditional German band with an alpenhorn 

I asked a Hindu nurse at work if there were any December celebrations in her culture. She said no, but she planned to put up a Christmas tree and exchange gifts with friends and family. To her, it was a Canadian tradition she felt comfortable adopting. Other acquaintances are celebrating St. Nicholas Day tonight and tomorrow in the Dutch tradition. There was a Krampus run this weekend along with the Christmas market to celebrate some darker European Yuletide legends. 

Krampus is here                                                                        Catalonian Caganer (source)

Catalonian nativity scenes feature a figure who is defecating in a corner or behind a tree. The “Caganer"  or “pooper” is a symbol of fertility and good fortune in an agrarian society. He may also represent the fact that Jesus was a partaker of everything that is human. I work in an environment where regularity or irregularity is recorded and dealing with excrement is all in a day’s work. It is something common to all species who eat food, whether rich or poor, young or old, famous or infamous. It is part of our humanity. 

In Mexico, Christmas posadas are community events where participants go from house to house looking for the Christ Child. In parts of Newfoundland, Mummers go from house to house looking for food and drink in exchange for music and dancing.

Joseph at the Christkindl Market
I truly doubt that our nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus are even close to what really happened. In my mind, Mary and Joseph were likely staying with relatives in the autumn of the year. The lower part of the building housed the animals and the couple stayed there, as the guest room was occupied. They shared meals with others who were hospitable and generous. They may have been guests for days or weeks before the birth. Mary was not alone during labour but was attended by a local midwife and caring women. They were not isolated on a hill far from town but were part of the normal hum and rhythm of the community.

Legend and tradition have become the mainstay of our December celebrations with each culture interpreting the story according to their own history and perspective. Community is central to the celebration. I am fortunate to be able to participate in my community’s Christmas celebrations. Maybe someday I will have a chance to visit Spain and encounter a Caganer as part of their interpretation of the Christmas story.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Possessed by Possessions

Advent is here again, already, so soon. It is hard to concentrate on a season of waiting when we are so busy that each week seems to pass as quickly as a day. The city streets were congested today with shoppers rushing about to snap up Black Friday weekend deals. 

We went for a walk in the woods and even though the dog became mired in a muddy bog shortly after this picture was taken, nature was nurturing and relaxing. 

I am not buying or receiving Christmas gifts this year and it was liberating to make that decision. I want to focus on spending unhurried time with people, over a meal, at a seasonal event, outdoors or indoors, without the obligation of gift-giving and reciprocation. There is nothing wrong with gifts. I just prefer to spread the giving over the year, spontaneously or when there is a need. 

I participated in a November minimalism challenge where you get rid of one item on the 1st of the month, two on the second, three on the third and so on. By the end of the month over 400 items should be gone from your home. I had no problem finding things to give or throw away. Sadly, it is not readily evident that I have completed the challenge as we still have so many belongings. I need to do this for a year! The effort required to look after so many “things” is time consuming and tiring. 

Jesus’ life on earth was not about accumulating possessions but rather, nurturing meaningful relationships with God and others. In a parable he warned about possessing more than we need.

Luke 12:16-21

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’
“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”

My goal to let go of sentimental attachments to things in order to live with greater simplicity, thus freeing up time and energy to build rich relationships with others. I lifted this meme from my aunt's Facebook page because it is so true!

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Looking for Hope and a Future

We enjoyed Indian summer with several days of unseasonable warmth and clear skies this November. I watched the sun rise this morning, red and bright. The sky was on fire and late autumn leaves glowed in the low light. 

When it is evening, you say, "It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.
"And in the morning, "It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening."

And sure enough, a cold front approached in the afternoon with rain and cooler temperatures.

The leaves fall quickly now, crunching underfoot as I walk, covering the ground where they will shrivel and disintegrate.  I smell the dampness and mold that rots and hastens their return to the soil.

This is death. 

But I am not sad, for these leaves cover new life that will spring forth after the long, cold winter. There is a time of waiting, but the woods will once again be green and fruitful. 

Nations rise and fall. Good leaders and bad leaders have their season of influence. Sometimes it looks like hope has died but it will rise again when winter is over. These trees have seen many seasons, perhaps 100, 200 or more, some good and some bad. A season of dying always comes before the season of new growth. Winter is coming, but we have hope for better things in the future.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, 
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, 
plans to give you hope and a future. 

Then you will call on me and 
come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 

You will seek me and find me 
when you seek me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NIV)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reunions and Holding Space

The woman had a rapidly progressing, early onset dementia. She was admitted to hospital for assessment and was deemed incapable to live on her own. Her son had power of attorney but lived far away and his work obligations prevented regular visits.  She never mentioned any other family members. 

I saw a young couple standing nervously outside the locked door of the unit. I offered assistance and asked who they were coming to visit. The young man said he was the youngest son of this same woman. He had not seen her in over ten years even though he lived nearby. He was uncertain of the reception his mother would give him. I offered to tell her that he was there and would gauge her response to his name. She was a cheery person who retained her social graces and had no objections to having visitors. I led him to the room for their reunion and watched with emotion as he said anxiously,  

“Hi Mom, it’s me, Kevin.” 
I could tell she did not know who he was but she was able to cover her memory loss well. 
“How nice to see you!”, she said. 
They visited for a while, the conversation superficial and without much meaning.

I never asked what events caused the estrangement between mother and son in the first place. Every immediate or extended family experiences discord at one time or another but it is sad to see ongoing hostility and lack of forgiveness involving a parent and child.

I read an excellent article recently by Heather Plett on What it Means to Hold Space for People. (It is also worthwhile to read the follow up links at the bottom of the page). She writes,

“What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

What a beautiful concept! But it can be very hard to implement. Reunions would be so different without the judgements of others, real or perceived, causing us to be self-conscious and uneasy. 

How do I look? 
Am I successful? 
I feel stupid compared to _____! 
Why is that person avoiding me? 
I still can’t stand_______ even though I haven’t seen them in 20 years!

The candle holder in the picture above is from Ten Thousand Villages and is made of soapstone by artisans in Kenya. To me, it illustrates the ability to hold space in spite of different experiences, life choices, ideas and values while maintaining a connected relationship with others. Recently, it feels like our society is moving further away from this concept causing people to feel manipulated, judged and controlled. 

All I can do is work on changing my own attitude, thereby increasing my ability to hold space for others.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Québec City by Calèche

My first calèche ride, Québec City 1972

Grandma took me on a bus tour of Québec the summer I was seventeen and she was seventy-seven. My mother had taken the same route with her when she was a teenager. Grandma wanted me to ride a calèche in Québec City and see the birds on Percé Rock, far east of the big cities. Everyone on the bus called her Grandma by the end of the two week trip. There was only one other passenger my age who was travelling with her parents but we all had a great time. 

I took our daughters to Québec in 1998 when they were teenagers and told them Grandma’s stories. I re-read her copies of The Golden Dog by William Kirby and Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon. We went to Halifax and Prince Edward Island instead of Percé but stayed a few days at Ste. Anne de Beaupré as a base for our exploration of the Québec City area. And we toured the city by calèche.

Québec City 1998

Last month my husband and I visited Montreal and Québec City for a few days. Both cities are rich in the history and culture of Europe and the New World. We walked the upper and lower sections of Old Québec City and took the ferry to Lévis on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. We had some extra time on the last day and decided to take a tour of the upper city by calèche for Grandma. The limestone buildings and the Plains of Abraham were warmed by the low sun of a September afternoon and our driver chatted amicably with his lilting French accent. So much has changed and so much has not changed in the past forty-four years since I was seventeen. 

September 2016

The slide show has a short video clip in the middle of our horse-drawn tour through the old walled city. One thing that has changed dramatically over the years is the quality of cameras. I have 12 faded colour snapshots of the two week trip we took in 1972.

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

Saturday, August 06, 2016


“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel

We took the cog railway to the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire a couple of years ago. Travelling up the steep incline, we passed the tree line, a huge boulder field and arrived at the top in an unwelcoming mixture of wind, driving rain, cold temperatures and fog. Our temporary discomfort and risk was nothing compared to that taken by adventurers who hiked the distance, frequently passing markers with names of people who had perished on the same journey in the past. They had a more intimate knowledge of the mountain and its moods and gained strength and wisdom during the challenging trek.

Hikers on Mount Washington NH

It is easy to give advice to others about where they should go and how to get there. It is harder to allow them to take their own pilgrimage, perhaps on an alternate path with different experiences, making mistakes and learning their own lessons. It is especially difficult to free our grown children to forge their own way in life.

This is a year of drought. Scattered thunderstorms form on humid afternoons but we have not had long, soaking rains for weeks. Newly planted trees need water but they also need to develop large tap roots that reach down to the water table. Some people heap large amounts of organic mulch around young trees and pour pails of water on the pile. The trees send roots upward to the mulched surface rather than downward to a sustaining water supply, a journey that will ensure longevity for the tree, even in dry years. 

Gros Morne Park, Newfoundland Canada

We come to a time when we need to walk away from our shrines and become a pilgrim. Shrines can feel safe with someone there telling you what to think or do, saying this is the best or only destination. We may receive shallow watering, rote answers to hard questions, and acceptance from the group who hangs out there with us. We tend to unfairly judge those who are in different places, but in time we will see cracks and weaknesses in our own shrines as well. Shrines come in many forms and may be religious, political, social, career based or even family oriented. 

Jesus called a group of disciples to join him in pilgrimage. They travelled with their teacher but never envisioned where the journey would ultimately lead them. He taught hard truths in parables leaving his followers with more questions than answers. He encouraged them to walk away from the rigid rules and expectations of religion to seek righteousness, truth, justice and reconciliation with God and man. 

Toll road along the Devil's Spine, Durango-Mazatlan Highway, Mexico

The chaplain at our hospital is a Kenyan lady, gracious, wise and from an evangelical Christian denomination. She supervises chaplaincy students from different faiths, including Islam, and works with a diverse group of patients. When I asked her how she reconciled her own beliefs with her work at the hospital where proselytization is discouraged she said,

“Everyone is on a spiritual journey. My job is to find out where they are and to walk beside them.”

We will cross paths with other pilgrims. We may share a table briefly or stay with them for a longer season, and we may journey alone at times. I remember how hard it was when I began to question and move away from the inflexible doctrines of the church I was raised in. In my journey I have had spiritual mentors from every walk of life. I have grown in strength in times of difficulty and in times of favour. I want to continue my travels in wide open spaces, not in walled rooms. 

Blessed are those whose strength is in you (Yahweh);
    who have set their hearts on a pilgrimage.
Passing through the valley of Weeping, 
they make it a place of springs.
    Yes, the autumn rain covers it with blessings.
They go from strength to strength.
    Everyone of them appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84: 5-7 (World English Bible)

Ottawa River, Ontario Canada