I think it is difficult to convey how something makes me feel. The Dale’s annual February Feast happened last Saturday, and it made me feel A LOT of feels, the kind that if I could bottle them up and share, I would. I caught a smattering of photos, but that doesn’t quite capture it either.

For many years we have chosen to save our big turkey dinner for February, rather than December. There are simply so many meals of this type going on around Christmas, but in the dead of winter? Not so much. To add to the festivities, we also have an Open Mic. This is an opportunity for anyone to perform, and we applaud the courage to do so.

We had enormous support from a variety of people for this event. Groups from two other churches volunteered to help cook, set-up, serve, and clean-up. I loved seeing Dale community members chopping potatoes alongside new friends. Over the course of the evening, I noticed how the differences between these volunteers and the rest of the community became increasingly muted. There was a palpable sense of connection in the room.

Vibe Peace, a collective The Dale is newly acquainted with, led an art jam throughout the evening. They brought all the art supplies and set up two tables where everyone could contribute to three separate pieces. I have to say, collaborative art is one of my favourite things.

While we ate, listened to some amazing musicianship, conversed, performed and created, there were hard things happening too: some needed tokens to get to their shelter bed, or coats to survive the cold. Others were reeling at new loss in their lives. And somehow, many of those same people found respite for a few hours. More than one person expressed how amazed they were to be feeling genuinely happy, even briefly.

One of my favourite moments was when one person bravely sang parts of Country Roads by John Denver. She later told me, quoting the song: The Dale is “the place, I belong”. That, along with so many other moments made my heart full. I found myself stopping to just listen and take it all in. I long for a community where every tongue, tribe and nation are together; where socio-economic lines are blurred; where we are more aware of the ways in which we are alike, than different. On February 9th I caught a glimpse of that. It was a good night.



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On January 25th of 2018 I called an ambulance for Dion, gently woke up Cate to tell her, got dressed, and followed the emergency vehicle on foot through the snow to the hospital. Life since has been very different for the Oxford family.

A year later I am mindful of the spectrum of emotions and experiences we have gone through. Those early days were very dark. Dion’s health had deteriorated to a shocking degree, leaving him exhausted, depressed and wondering what could possibly be next. I felt overwhelmed, fearful, and very sad. There were many difficult conversations with health care professionals, social workers, family, and friends. The future felt uncertain.

Along the way we decided that renovating our house was the only obvious thing ahead. For us, it felt right. In the sea of unknowns, it was good to launch a practical project.

As of today, the renovations have come a long way. It’s fair to say they are nearing completion. The drywall is up, and the trim is painted. The tiles have been installed in the barrier-free bathroom (no fixtures yet). There is a hole in the floor awaiting the lift. I know that for Dion this last push is excruciating. It’s almost harder to have the end in sight, but still out of reach.

Every time I step into the basement, I am reminded of the host of people who have helped bring this project to fruition. My contractor/brother has been amazing. He, along with such a variety of tradespeople, have brought things to life. I need to do a count of how many people have contributed financially- it’s humbling.

In the course of a year it is not just our house that looks different. Admittedly, there are still moments of darkness. They are fewer though. Since those early days, Dion has adjusted to a new normal in terms of his health. I am no longer scared of him falling and not being able to pick him up. We are hopeful that he will continue to receive the kind of health care that honours his needs and equips both him and our family with the most independence.

Though we are thinking a lot about Dion’s 365+ days away from home, we are also thinking about 21 years of marriage as of January 24th. So many things intertwined. We still don’t know what the future will look like, but who does? Instead, we are endeavouring to live as much in the moment as possible, celebrating the good, lamenting the hard and giving thanks along the way.

I recently got to the work of sorting and organizing the room which has become a catch-all during the house renovation. As I went through the boxes of things I have carefully stored out of harm’s way, I was greeted by a variety of gifts from my friends at The Dale.

Will gave me a belt buckle with an eagle on it.

Mike wrote, “the light will always overcome the darkness” on a scrap piece of cardboard for me.

John gave me a glass bottle shaped like a boot, containing raspberry cordial. However seemingly random, I know to him it was the most special thing he could offer.

James painted a portrait of me and Joanna.

Marlene, a lover of jewellery, found me a glass bead bracelet- blue, because it’s “your favourite colour”.

Though I don’t smoke, Steve gave me a cigarette. He explained that in his culture, tobacco is considered sacred. Given that, and the fact it was his only one, I felt moved by his generosity.

Rita made both me and Cate amazing arrangements of artificial flowers.

Doug has made me countless recordings of jam sessions, church services and Open Stages at The Dale.

Peter fashioned a lion and a lamb out of clay that sits on my bookshelf.

Knowing how I love birds, Shannon found me a little porcelain one.

The list goes on and on. These gifts are one very tangible example of how I get to receive from this community.

It is good to both give and receive. We talk about this a lot at The Dale. Of course, a gift doesn’t have to look like any of the items I’ve just described: it could be a hug, an offer to listen, a kind word, a cup of coffee, or some other act of service, and that’s just the beginning.

There is something important about honouring the offering of another. I love that in the context of relationship we can begin to articulate what we might need (or not). AND, I think there is a time to humbly receive something that took sacrifice to give. With that in mind, I hope that I can be as gracious a receiver as my friends are givers.



The Dale has no walls of its own, unless you count the tiny post office box we rent. This does not mean we place a low value on buildings. Quite the contrary. We rely on the hospitality of buildings throughout Parkdale and even one outside of its borders to host our gatherings and do administrative work. We also understand that connecting well with our community means being outside, noticing people in coffee shops, and visiting those who are bound to home or hospital. We are nomads with a schedule.

The challenge in this is creating spaces that. though they are not our own, feel like The Dale. Seemingly little things help: using our own plates, mugs and cutlery on Mondays; placing the Scrabble board on the table at the Thrift Store; setting the communion table with our stole, a candle holder donated by a community member, a brass plate for the bread, and our cups. People notice if these items are missing.

These material contents (however few and important they might be), are not what primarily what make our spaces home-like. I think the transition to calling something home happens when we start to think of a space as “ours”. The Dale is its people. However chaotic or calm our spaces might be, we try to inhabit them in a way that fosters a sense of peace, safety, and respect.

Making the decision to give notice and spill into the street in 2012 was never made lightly. I recall how important it was for the community to grieve the loss of our space, especially considering that many people had no other place to call home. What it gave rise to is the recognition that we are not limited to our walls.

Now we gently live in the tension of needing buildings and being without one of our own. This has been our reality for nearly six years. As we face a new year, I want to acknowledge the importance of space, express gratitude for all of our building partners and the neighbourhood of Parkdale and honour our community members who make The Dale (whatever space we might be in) feel like home.

When I pause to reflect on the last year at The Dale, it’s the seemingly little moments that keep popping into my head. In work like ours, it is easy to want to share the big successes: this person was living outside and now is housed; we served x amount of meals over the course of twelve months, and so on. While such stories are amazing and obvious evidence of the validity of this work, there is much beauty in the everyday grind of being a community. 

“Tom” is one of the quietest people I know. When he speaks it is usually to ask for a coffee, or to say a quick hello. There is something very meek about Tom: he tends to keep his head down, his small stature hidden with a too-large coat. At a recent drop-in, he was sitting at the end of the table listening, but not engaging with the chatter around him, until something struck him as funny. Hearing Tom laugh (for the first time in the many years I have known him) made my heart swell. At the end of the gathering, he followed me, Joanna and Meagan outside. As I hugged my colleagues good-bye, Tom held open his arms and cautiously moved toward me: “Erinn, hug”- another first. 

“Clare” came in to our Monday Drop-In while we were just about finished with clean-up. Newer to The Dale, she was encouraged to come, mostly because everything she owned was drenched and needed something dry to wear before returning to her shelter bed. Our clothing supply fluctuates, but on this particular day someone had dropped off a huge amount of women’s clothing which still lay in a heap. Clare proceeded to fold every piece of clothing, carefully choosing a few things for herself, but not before handing me things that she was sure “would fit and look great on so and so”. She managed to take care of herself, our clothing room AND others in less than twenty-five minutes. 

He walked in to the Sunday service already upset, nearly poised for a fight. The first person to greet him unwittingly managed to trigger the anger further. I felt a lump in my throat at the prospect of a service that might feel on edge. I encouraged the two to honour each other’s space and proceeded to busy myself with set-up. After a few opening songs I invited everyone to stand for the passing of the peace, an opportunity to greet one another with either a handshake, a wave, a hug or even an elbow-bump (whatever is best for each person). I watched in amazement as the two people, so angry and sad at the beginning, apologized to one another and embraced. The tension that had been so thick suddenly dissipated and we continued with another song. 

There are so many stories I want to tell you about, like: the two street-weary men who call themselves uncles to my Cate and love to give her gifts, especially chocolate bars; the look of glee on our friend’s face when we managed to find a mobility scooter for him, replacing a terribly unsafe, wobbly walker; the woman who comes and shares her tears generously with us, and the man who quietly notices and finds Kleenex to dry them; the friend who is discovering that no matter how many times he falls off the wagon, he is loved by us, not shunned; the privilege we feel when someone allows us into their home to help ready it for an inspection by the landlord; what it feels like to have a community that allows me to share my own struggles. 

In 2018 at The Dale we have said goodbye to friends and grieved their absence, protested injustice and advocated for our community, walked Queen Street West countless times, partnered with numerous organizations, fought with and forgiven one another (or are working on it), made and eaten a LOT of meals together, and sought to create spaces that are safe and respectful. We are slowly, bit by bit, learning what it means to love God and love our neighbor. It is hard, messy, and wonderful. 

There is joy in this journey. 

Breakfast and Art Drop-In at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre


Service of Ordination at ESM 


Second Harvest Agency Cookbook, featuring Souad Sharabani’s recipe and The Dale

 
Part of The Dale’s Ride for Refuge Team

 
Baptism in Lake Ontario


Monday Drop-In at BPC


Our summer interns, Ahmeda (centre) and Olivia (right)


The Dale Fall Retreat, Camp Koinonia


Carolling in Parkdale


The “Dale Girls”


New freedom!



At The Dale we have don’t have an offering plate, we have a hat. This toque gets passed around during our Sunday service. Just prior, I always explain that we are each invited to give back a portion of whatever it is that we have been given; that this looks very different for each of us and may not fit in the hat; and that whatever our gift, it is received with gladness and will be used well. 

It is important that all people have the opportunity to both give and receive. I notice the look of relief on people’s faces when they realize we celebrate all gifts, not exclusively the financial kind, because for many, money is scarce.

So, what does this look like? 

For some people, there is an eagerness to give the small pile of change in their pockets. Occasionally little notes are tucked in the hat: “my gift is to cook pancakes at the Thursday Drop-In” or “my gift is giving hugs throughout the week”. We receive art supplies, or two-for-one Tim Hortons coupons, or mittens. It is a beautiful assortment of things. 

It is not always easy to identify what we have to give. Our hope at The Dale is that together we can help one another discover our gifts. We also acknowledge that there are people in our midst who do have financial resources to share, especially in our broader network. By combining and celebrating all of the ways to give, we get to experience a shared responsibility for this community. 

The ‘giving toque’ reminds us that we are in this together. For this, I am grateful. 


It seems time for an update.

Many of you will know that my husband Dion lives with Multiple Sclerosis. On January 25th of this year he entered the hospital. That morning Dion could not get out of bed, and so I called an ambulance. He has not lived at home since. 

At the time, Dion’s medical team hoped that some of his symptoms would settle and possibly return to the previous normal (which included being able to transfer from a mobility scooter to bed, for example).  As of today, Dion is in a wheelchair and requires a higher level of support, including assistance with transfers. He talks about that here: https://www.dionoxford.com/dependancy-287-days-away-from-home/

After discussing all of the options we decided that the most obvious next step in a sea of unknowns was to renovate our home. This decision was not made lightly. I often tell people that when my mother was alive, we considered what was necessary to have her in the house. For her, the only requirement was a ramp and so that is what we did. For Dion, a larger number of things are necessary, including: a lift, a hospital bed, and a barrier-free washroom. 

Joanna Moon, my co-worker at The Dale and dear friend eagerly set up a GoFundMe page on our behalf back in February, on Valentine’s Day to be exact. We have been overwhelmed by the response of people wanting to help, either through a donation, a meal delivered to our doorstep, assistance with demolition, good thoughts and prayers…the list is long and saying ‘thank you’ feels inadequate. 

I am very grateful to have my brother Logan as the contractor on this project. He is working hard to coordinate the many trades people that are coming in and out of the house on a near daily basis. Cate and I have continued to live at home, given that the bulk of the work is happening in the basement. We are just needing to make friends with the dust. 

As I write, the status of the basement is this: the plumbing and electrical have passed inspection, there is a new floor and the walls have been framed. A hole will be created in the floor in our dining room this week to accommodate a lift. Things are happening. 

Outside of the renovations, there are meetings about what kind of care Dion requires. We agree that I cannot be Dion’s full-time caregiver, and with him on long-term disability it is important that I continue to work. There are pieces of this puzzle to figure out. Unfortunately, it is hard to plan when the system cannot guarantee the level of care they will supply at the present time. 

Which brings me to this request: please pray for us. For Dion, for Cate, for me. I know a lot of people are, and for that I am grateful. We need prayer, not just for the renovations, but for what life looks like after they are complete. It is unlikely that there will not be glitches. 2018 has been a brutal year in many, many ways. As Dion and I both acknowledge, there is a lot of loss, too much to process, and a deep need for things to feel a little more normal.

Of this I am confident: God is present in this journey. I trust that we are being guided through the wilderness. In its midst there is sorrow, lament, joy, gratitude, and much hope. What a complicated thing life is. 

     

In my world, and maybe yours too, burn-out is a hot topic of conversation. What does burnout look like and how does one avoid it? If it does come, what is the way through? Can burnout ever be viewed as a gift?

At its most basic, my vocation is about being a care-giver. I have spent twenty plus years (I keep wondering how that is possible!) being present to people who have lived experience of poverty, substance addiction and mental health challenges. I know there are many who wonder how I can keep it up. There is no denying this work is difficult: I see, hear, touch and taste the effects of this fallen world on a daily basis. The truth is though, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

My faith and a deep sense of call propels me forward. I’m certain that on days when I would rather hide in a cave, I am given strength not my own to be present. At the same time, it would be unfair to claim I have never dangled dangerously close to the burn-out edge.

As I understand it, there are a wide range of symptoms associated with burnout, including: exhaustion, an inability to cope, cynicism toward work, apathy, and loss of creativity. As a demonstrably emotional person, I know to flag feeling numb as a precursor to burnout. I often say to my closest friends, “If you see me not reacting to a death in The Dale community, be worried. Please come and talk to me.”

I don’t know what it looks like for everyone, but for me avoiding/returning from burnout has involved knowing that I am no one’s saviour; recognizing the importance of  receiving help from my community; saying no; establishing healthy boundaries; re-evaluating priorities, and committing to a day of rest. It is a gift to work in a context where my own wounds are allowed to rise to the surface and are then met with a great deal of grace and mercy.

I think that no matter what you do (paid or unpaid), having a community around you is a way to protect against burnout. So often we are instructed to start looking out exclusively for ourselves, as though that is the way to recover. It might seem counterintuitive to become MORE dependent on others, but as Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak.”

If there is a gift to be found in burnout, maybe it is that we can simultaneously lose AND find ourselves while experiencing it. We are invited to be aware that God is present in the valley and on the mountaintop. In a strange way, burnout can help reorient us, directing us toward community, a place where we can learn to love, have empathy and compassion for one another, and discover the healing and hope of the one who created us.

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The truth is, I wanted to be able to write something this weekend about all that I have to be grateful for. I know there is a lot. For some reason every time I sat to write, nothing came out.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that I have long loved (my dad’s birthday often falls on it) and felt conflicted about (just ask any of my Indigenous friends to explain). This year, Thanksgiving weekend was particularly hard. I could feel it coming in the days leading up to it: I was melancholy and tired. Then the tears hit. I couldn’t stop missing people who have died. I felt overwhelmed by a number of different circumstances. Mixed up with the sadness was undeniable resentment.

I recently read about resentment being one of the opposites of gratitude. As I prepared to share about this idea at The Dale on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see myself in the middle of it. What does it look like to break through resentment and find freedom from its chains: the chains that prevent action, preoccupy thoughts, and propel unhealthy choices?

I suspect the starting point is confessing our resentments, which is not easy. One of the things I treasure about The Dale is how so many of my friends confess so freely. There are few masks, which challenges me to remove mine. So, through many tears I poured the hardship of the weekend out to Dion and then again at The Dale. In that act I felt heard, which in turn helped me feel less alone. Not news, but it turns out carrying resentment is very…human.

There is a space created for understanding, forgiveness, and grace when we confess. In turn, we are freed to develop a new spirit of gratitude. The act of gratitude takes practice, almost like working a muscle in order to make it stronger. I acknowledge there are many things to be thankful for, even in the midst of great struggle. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the seemingly “little” good things in life are actually very big and definitely worth noting. Resentment is hard to hold on to when there is a burgeoning spirit of thanksgiving.

I’m still tender. A serious wave of grief hit, and it has yet to break entirely. There is a lot about life that is hard, for each of us, in so many different ways. It is impossible to make sense of it all. What I believe is that life is a gift. I choose to believe that all things will ultimately be restored and made right. In putting away my resentment, I get to sing a new song, a song that can be sung everyday. Even on this Thanksgiving weekend.

 

 

Saturday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there was a bit of a breeze, perfect conditions to be walking/riding/wheel-chairing in the Ride for Refuge down at Ashbridge’s Bay. For the last three years The Dale has participated in this event, an opportunity for organizations like us to raise much-needed money.

First thing in the morning I ran into a double-flat tire issue that meant I would either 1) fix them and be super-late or 2) choose to walk and be on-time. I chose the latter! I have to say that the walk along the beach was stunning, especially with the sun making the water truly sparkle.

The Dale had a great team, many of whom you will see pictured (sadly not all. Note to self: take a group shot at the BEGINNING of the day before people depart on the various routes). Thank you to Dion, Cate, Joanna, Dave, Nancy, Meagan, Ian, Natasha, Hugh, Mike, and James. Together, with the help of so many donors, we raised $12,500. Thank you to everyone who made a contribution. Each and every gift is such an encouragement. For those who don’t know, The Dale receives no government funding. We instead rely on the support of a growing network of individuals, churches, organizations, and foundations.

Fundraising is hard. Admittedly, I sometimes get scared and wonder where the next bit will come from. With every passing year though my amazement grows at how The Dale is provided for. That feeling of wonder is something I never want to lose.

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