One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was her ability to be fully present. She had a way of actively listening and engaging in conversation that always made the time with her go too fast. I think this was only magnified when she was forced to move into hospital. Though hindered by fatigue, mom wanted to maximize her time with people. I know it was difficult when her health issues prevented her from visiting. Though she had a large capacity to manage a lot of alone time, mom thrived when with family and friends.

I miss my mom. I live around the corner from the hospital she called home. Every single time I go by it I look up at the window that was hers. Part of the beauty of living in such close proximity was that it was easy to pop over for a long OR short visit. We sometimes joked that a side benefit of her situation was that I always knew where she was. I often replay the journey to her room in my head: through the front doors, straight to the back elevators, up to the fifth floor and room 516, where I would announce my arrival in the doorway with a “hello, it’s me!” to which she would always say, “hello my sweetie”.

My mom loved to ask questions about everything that was going on in my life. I know that she kept a running note of things to pray about on her iPad. We laughed a lot. I would listen to all of her news (she was a great storyteller), sometimes as she directed me to do things around her room: dust, reposition a painting, open mail, tidy up one of her ‘meaningful piles’. I routinely cut her bangs, and with much trepidation occasionally gave her a full haircut.

My mom was gracious even when I failed to visit because life got too busy. I was never made to feel guilty. Instead, she would gently issue another invitation to come and explain that she missed me. I also knew that if mom was feeling especially lonely and willing to articulate it, I needed to take notice and get to her side, which in truth, I always wished I would have done before she even had to say it.

For my mom it was important that I show up even for just five minutes to have, as my nephew Harrison likes to call it, a “little hello”. No matter what length of time we had my mom would say she felt energized and I would leave feeling filled up. It was a great reminder to me that making time, even by setting aside little bits of it, contributed to both of us feeling valued and loved.

As I grieve and celebrate my mom, I want to remember the many lessons she taught me: lessons about the gift of presence, active listening, good storytelling, being honest about your needs, and how to infuse it all with grace.

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Cate with my mom, her Gran. They loved being together.

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She’s small in stature, with piercing eyes and wavy hair that, as she describes it, has a mind of its own. It is not uncommon to see her roaming around Parkdale, usually looking for help in the form of money or cigarettes. Some days are harder for her than others. The desperation that is likely always present internally, comes leaking out and manifests itself in wildly frantic behaviour. On a recent sunny Thursday though she was lucid and simply looking for a coffee.

We have recently started blocking every Thursday morning for outreach, which for us means we walk around the neighbourhood and connect with people along the way. Joanna, Meagan and I are enjoying being outside and are feeling thankful that Kirti, a case worker/counsellor from Parkdale Community Health Centre is joining us each week. Sometimes we chat with community members of The Dale, sometimes we meet new people, sometimes we intervene in difficult situations, sometimes we strategize with Kirti about how to help someone find housing or treatment or whatever support they might need, and sometimes, in the case of our friend I have just described, we provide a coffee.

With the drink in hand, she settled onto a small ledge jutting out from a storefront and said, “Do you think God sees everything I go through? Do you think God sees me? I mean, look at what I have gone through. Does God see ME?” Meeting her gaze, I fought back tears and said, “I believe God does.” She went on to describe much of her life: how it began with a desire to be a nurse, but spiralled out due to multiple traumatic experiences, many of which are too difficult to describe here. Poverty, a mental health diagnosis, and the loss of a child to the system have all contributed to her pain.

“People don’t see me you know. Or when they do they only see my dirty fingernails and messy hair. They can’t see past it. I’m not loveable in their eyes. But we are so much more than our outsides you know.” Yes, I told her, you are so right. I found myself thinking of the Beatitudes as I continued to listen. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount says things like, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn. What does that mean for this friend?

The origin of the word ‘bless’ meant to consecrate and speak well of, most often used toward God. Viewed through this lens, the Beatitudes reveal how God consecrates things like our poverty and grief. God holds up and makes blessed those who are poor and broken, revealing them as precious and having connection to Him. Similarly, when we seek peace, when we show mercy, when we mourn and when we are meek, God is connected to us. In this way there is not an absence of God in life’s greatest challenges.

This woman has already endured more than many people will in a lifetime. I don’t understand the disproportionate distribution of challenge. And yet, when I look in her eyes and listen to her story, I am struck by the wisdom she carries. While sipping on her coffee, she spoke significant truth about the condition of humankind, love, and grace. It became time for Joanna, Meagan, Kirti, and I to move on, but before we did I thanked her for being so open and said, “you are loved”. To which she replied, “I think God does see me. I even think God views me as special.”

Indeed.

 

I’m trying to direct my attention to the things that are happening in the present moment. It’s helpful for the most part. I say that because what’s right in front of me is a collection of things that are good, hard and pretty much everything in between.

Take today.

I woke up feeling good, which I received as an incredible gift. I’ve been sick and out of sorts this past week, acutely missing my parents and hyper aware of the challenges that I face. Somehow this morning my spirit was lighter.

I love the fall and today felt more like it to me. As I write, there is a cool breeze and late day sun pouring in a window.

Two funerals took place this afternoon for women I did not know, but were connected to many people I love, including Dion and Joanna, through The Causeway and Sanctuary (a place that functions much like The Dale). My heart grieves two more lives gone and reminds me of the many people we have said goodbye to this year.

Cate has decided she wants to be a watermelon for Halloween. A watermelon! So now I sit surrounded by reams of fabric and an old hula hoop, endeavouring to create a costume that she will be proud to wear. It’s a definite work in progress.

Today we celebrated a friend’s birthday at drop-in. We ate cake and carved pumpkins.

There are a number of people at The Dale who are not housed or at risk of being evicted. They need help, like yesterday. My voicemail is full of requests for The Dale to offer assistance. It’s humbling, hard work.

I’m making a pot of turkey soup, which is filling the house with a familiar, comforting smell.

Being mindful of what’s right in front of me does not make everything easy, though it does help in the way I manage it. Similar to my experience of Sabbath-keeping, it helps me to slow down and really look at things. I am able to pay better attention to not just my feelings, but what is motivating them.

Which brings me back to today. I have laughed and cried (and likely will do both again). I feel a mixture of joy and sadness. Somehow this day has been infused with a mysterious, yet firm sense of hope. Today, in this moment, I am grateful for all of it. Even the challenge of making an outfit that resembles a watermelon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was recently asked to describe the last six or so months of my life. As I shared the variety of things that have taken place, I stopped and for a moment thought “if nothing else, my life is consistently a roller coaster”. Up and down, up and down, sometimes all in one day. This existence is good, and hard, and full, punctuated by gratitude and grief. Which is why I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of Sabbath: a day of ceasing, a time of rest.

Many people scoff at the idea of Sabbath. It feels like a punishment: as though you must stop everything you enjoy doing, risk falling behind at work, and feel guilty about both. I have come to understand that Sabbath is actually meant to be a beautiful gift, and isn’t just a means to be more productive during the week. As John Bradshaw put it, “we have become ‘human doings’ who define ourselves by what we do in the world. [Sabbath] teaches us to remember our true essence as ‘human beings’ and to practice the art of simply being”.

This is, at least for me, difficult. I enjoy being productive. I love being with people and very easily fill up my calendar. But rest calls me to something even more challenging than to cease being busy: it invites me to release the anxiety that I carry around. Many of the hardships I face are ones that I have no control over, and yet I somehow believe that if I worry or do enough, I will somehow be able to “fix” everything.

It takes discipline to create space for rest. I long for the kind of break where my mind is not preoccupied with all that I should be doing and everything that may or may not happen in the future. I suspect that if space is made, something that I’m not planning or counting on might actually happen. As author Marva Dawn once said and I’ve quoted before, “A great benefit of Sabbath keeping is that we learn to let God take care of us, not by becoming passive or lazy, but in the freedom of giving up our feeble attempts to be God in our own lives”.

I suspect the roller coaster is going to continue. As hard as it is, I’m grateful for all the experiences that are teaching me to touch life beyond the surface. My hope is that I will keep learning to put the brakes on. Maybe as I slow down I can be reminded how to be and not simply do. In the quiet, I might even catch a glimpse of the good things in store over the next crazy hill, and instead of being anxious, I can enjoy the anticipation.

rollercoaster

 

Saturday was a really beautiful day. The sun was shining and the air crisp, good conditions for the ride and walk a group of us were about to embark on to raise money for and awareness of The Dale. I borrowed a nice bike from a friend since the one I could have been riding needed some major repair. We gathered at the start line and began our picturesque ride to the Leslie Street Spit. Well onto the road, as I chatted away with someone, I was suddenly aware of the murmurs of my teammates from directly behind me.

I can’t quote verbatim, but it went something like this: ‘Erinn’s seat is too low. Do you notice that she should be in a higher gear? I think her back tire is soft. She’s working way harder than necessary’. Though in mid-conversation I stopped and said, “I can hear you talking about me!” I think I even inferred that their commentary of the bike issues felt like a description of my sometimes-life: everything a little askew and more work as a result. What ensued was laughter and agreement that the situation was ripe to be made into a sermon illustration or life lesson.

We finally pulled over and Joanna raised my seat. I hadn’t even realized it was a problem until she pointed it out. Let me tell you, it is amazing the difference such a seemingly small change makes. Suddenly my legs could extend, creating momentum I didn’t have before. As Joanna’s dad pointed out, being up higher meant I had a better view. Eventually I sort of got the gears in the right place. The soft tire never got fixed, but I’m certain if it had my speed would have picked up.

Clearly, I’m no professional cyclist, though I do like to ride. I love the wind on my face. I love even more what being on a bike last Saturday reminded me of, that: I have friends who are looking out for me, noticing my weak spots, and finding ways to ease my load; a little air in my “tires” can go a long way; and small changes make a big impact. It is somehow comforting to be reminded of these simple truths, especially when life can be so overwhelming and such a lot of work.

By Saturday afternoon I was home. The stress I felt leading up to the big event (not so much the ride, but the fundraising) finally subsided, leaving me a good tired. I told Cate I needed to have a nap and escaped to my bed, where I’m certain I dreamt about the morning. I was riding along the spit, surrounded by my teammates on a bike the perfect size for me, with a properly positioned seat and fully inflated tires. I don’t remember much else, except that it felt like I could have cycled forever.

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Recently he sat beside me saying, “Erinn, I’m sick in the head. There’s no getting better. I’m dying from the inside out”. I didn’t have any words, so I continued to listen. I heard descriptions of the torture done to him as a child at the hands of people who should have been his protectors. I was told about decisions that once landed him in jail. I had to sift through some non-sensical things thrown in the mix of our conversation, mostly born out of his mental health challenges. It was all desperately sad. I couldn’t help but cry with my friend, who I’ll call “Trevor”.

At some point along the way I asked if there was anything I could do for him right now. “Buy me some alcohol? Or score me a hit?” I declined. I asked again, explaining the resources I had available. Looking at the ground Trevor quietly said, “play a game with me, kinda like you would with Cate (my daughter)?” That I could do. For the next ten minutes we played a game that he won. That seemed to be all he needed, so we gave each other a hug and went on to do some other things.

Just this week I saw Trevor again. He was writing on a scrap piece of tracing paper with a purple pencil crayon. I sat beside him and asked what he was doing. “I’m making a list that I want you to see”. Together we went over what was actually a list of goals, things like: open a bank account, buy a notebook from the Dollar Store to keep track of spending, finish school (“even though school sucks”), get a haircut, and so on. At the bottom of the page, with me looking on, Trevor drew a picture of himself with a smile and the caption “up with hope, down with dope”. I know Trevor didn’t coin the phrase- I  also know he meant it, because for Trevor one follows the other.

Honestly, seeing Trevor feel even the slightest bit of hope made my heart swell. I know that his battle is a hard one: he fights a variety of voices in his head that repeatedly say he’s not worth it. He uses substances to try to manage his pain and regularly admits it isn’t working. There are days when he is lucid and more days that he is not. I count it a privilege that Trevor is willing to share his life with me and really does invite me to share mine with him.

When asked about what ‘success’ looks like at The Dale, I usually point out that it comes in a variety of forms. In Trevor’s case, I want to celebrate the success that it is for him to move from utter despair to a moment of hope. My prayer is that when the darkness seeps back in he will see there are people rooting for him; that he will find the folded up list of goals; and that when all else fails he will remember how playing a game with a friend is actually good therapy.

It has occurred to me a few times since the beginning of this year that as of February, I have been working in Parkdale for ten years. I can’t believe that it has been a decade, which is maybe why I repeatedly forget to even mention it. Cate was in senior kindergarten at the time. Now she’s in high school. Needless to say, a lot has happened since 2007.

Over the years I have persistently felt a deep sense of call to my work, even when (or maybe especially when) I would rather hide under a blanket and never come out. In some of my darkest times, it has been God’s still small voice inviting me to stay that has kept me going. When I was asked to re-vision the ministry of Parkdale Neighbourhood Church I was terrified. Now, five years into being The Dale Ministries, I am entirely grateful that I decided to try.

The building of friendships in Parkdale has been slow, steady work. I have walked the strip of Queen Street West between Dufferin Street and Roncesvalles Avenue countless times. I know good shortcuts through alleys. If I can’t find a person in their usual spot, I can often guess where else they might be. I have sat with people in ambulances, accompanied many to the ER at St Joseph’s Hospital, and kept vigil in its ICU. Week after week, year after year, I have fallen in love with the people of the village-like neighbourhood that is Parkdale.

Being at The Dale has taught me a lot. I have learned about delegation, diffusing conflict, and decision-making. I now know how to identify bedbugs, safely dispose of needles, and administer Nolaxone. I can write a partnership agreement. I have come to realize that while I want to please everyone it is impossible to do (and that’s okay). I see my weaknesses. I better understand the beauty and blessedness in brokenness, and that in sharing our wounds we can begin to heal.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed. The amount of death experienced in this work is too much. Having to ask people for the money to cover my salary and the general fund of The Dale is daunting and downright hard. By the end of certain drop-ins my head is spinning because I’ve heard my name called easily one thousand times. And then a person walks up to me and reminds me of how I am valued and loved, and that The Dale is necessary and a primary source of community for so many people, including me. In that moment I take a deep breath and think, “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

Being close to people who know poverty has helped me see the ways in which I am poor myself. Together we remind each other to take each day moment by moment. Often it is a Dale friend who pulls me back when I’m worrying about a future that has yet to happen. We are journeying toward a deeper understanding of God and the ways that Jesus transforms us. It’s far from neat and tidy AND it is so good.

As I reflect on ten years in Parkdale and nearly twenty-three in street ministry, I am reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” I have the honour of working at The Dale, a place that has spilled into the streets. It is exciting to imagine how each little bit of repair we are involved in is leading us to hope. There is a Sara Groves song that says, “That’s a little stone, that’s a little mortar. That’s a little seed, that’s a little water. In the hearts of the sons and daughters…this kingdom’s coming”. I believe that to be true.

Ten

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes a camera does the talking for me. Here are a handful of images from Newfoundland that hopefully do a better job of showcasing its beauty than my feeble words ever could. I only wish I could help you smell the salt water air.

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We held two memorial services this week. Needless to say, it’s a heavy time. It’s difficult enough to figure out how to grieve, let alone when there is so little space between deaths. There is definitely something healing about remembering, and so I’m grateful that we gathered to mourn. Comfort does linger when we sing, pray and share stories together.

Truthfully, I’m weary. Earlier this week, while folding bulletins for the services and editing eulogies, I was overcome with sadness. My eyes got hot with tears as the reality of loss sunk in. As difficult as the wave of emotion was, I also felt relieved that it came. I am far more fearful of feeling nothing. I often say to people, should I become cold to death, that’s when you should really start to worry about me. For me, the way through grief is by embracing it.

As of today I am on holidays. It is difficult to leave when so much is going on. I also know it is important for me to rest, and so this too I embrace. I hope to sleep (a lot), strum the ukulele and sing, do a little photography, float in a lake, sit around a few campfires, journal, and allow my brain and heart to slow down while being alongside friends and family.

I invite you to pray for Joanna and Meagan who are not on holidays right now. We have many friends who need significant support right now and it is not easy. I am so proud of these two women and count it a privilege to work alongside them. Pray for The Dale as a whole, that a peace that passes all understanding would permeate the community. And pray that we all might have moments of rejuvenating rest, the kind that fills us up and enables us to keep going.

A time

The Dale has lost another friend. Just days ago Nicole died in an unexpected way.

Nicole was a quiet woman, often choosing to immerse herself in making art or doing a puzzle at our drop-ins. She looked younger than she was, with long dark hair and olive skin. It took a while to get to know Nicole, but once we learned to trust one another, the conversations got deep. I always felt it a privilege that Nicole would look me in the eye after sharing her own struggles and ask me about mine.

Last fall Nicole came on The Dale’s annual retreat to a camp near Parry Sound. At the time she was newly dating another community member, a relationship they were both very excited about. We haven’t had many couples emerge out of The Dale, so this was new for us too. A now infamous story of the weekend is how the two of them took a paddle boat out on the lake, only to get stuck because of the wind. One 9-1-1 call later and multiple rescuers sent in canoes, the two returned good-naturedly saying, “we failed! We’re such city slickers!”. Nicole did add an eye-roll.

Having just received confirmation of Nicole’s death, I find myself thinking of her constantly. I have some of her things stored in my house. They were supposed to be tucked away in the basement until she found better housing. As I went through a pile of papers today I found one of her drawings from a drop-in with the following inscription on the back: “January 2017. At God’s house. For God. Nicole. I love you! A great loving start”. It took my breath away.

I know that Nicole always hoped for life to be easier than it was. She longed for healing. I think Nicole worked hard to be resilient, even when it felt nearly impossible. She also had the capacity to both identify and celebrate beauty: the stack of colourful glass jars and artwork in my basement are a testament to that. As friends we did have some difficult interactions, though we always came out the other side. I will remember how she was a regular source of encouragement, especially during hard times, including our last conversation.

Nicole, you were loved and will be missed. Peace to you.

And now to him who is able to keep us from falling, and lift us from the dark valley of despair to the bright mountain of hope, from the midnight of desperation to the daybreak of joy; to him be power and authority, for ever and ever. Amen

dsc_0164.jpg1974 – 2017