I think about gratitude a lot. I recently read an article that highlighted the importance of distinguishing it from the act of appreciation. Intrigued, I did a little research and came to better understand that appreciation is what you feel for the good in people or things, whereas gratitude is experienced when you realize good is experienced beyond the obvious. I was delighted to discover that the latin root of gratitude is sometimes translated “grace”. If there is an ‘awe’ to grace, then it would follow that the same would accompany gratitude.

I don’t recall feeling very appreciative when The Dale became homeless. I did however feel a deep gratitude for so many things about it: the community that was willing to teach me about transience; the hospitality we experienced from others; the freedom from belongings; the discovery that we were a living, breathing “church” without four walls. During those early days I regularly found myself in awe and wonder that I was witness to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

These truths are knocking around my heart as I think about The Dale today. We’ve been looking for a new location to house our Wednesday morning breakfast and art-making Drop-In. It isn’t easy to re-locate and we’ve been feeling admittedly anxious about it. The good news is that Parkdale Community Health Centre has opened its doors to us, eager to deepen the partnership we’ve been developing for years. I got this news the same day First Baptist Church agreed to let us use their building for administrative work and meetings. I am appreciative AND grateful.

As is so often the case, good is accompanied by difficult. During the same phone call with the Health Centre about space, we needed to discuss the death of another community member, Andrew Kri. As hard as his death is, I love that we knew Andrew and can now remember his life in all of its complexity. At the same time I am aware that as our losses accumulate it is difficult to process them, especially when there is so little space between each. As I was recently discussing with a friend, it does seem that we can only truly grieve when we have also delighted in life. Gratitude is somehow suspended in the tension of joy and sorrow.

I suspect that as we learn to appreciate the many pleasing things around us, a sense of gratitude will be cultivated, one that says, in all things, I will give thanks. Looking past the obvious, sifting through our pain and acknowledging that life remains a gift is not easy. Gratitude, as Martin Luther argued, is a “disposition of the soul”, a virtue that can be exercised and strengthened. Gratitude reminds us that grace is real and invites us to stand in awe.

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Part of my way through grief (through most things really) is to write. It helps me to sort out my thoughts and sometimes enables me to take a step back and see a situation differently. Since my mother’s death I have been thinking a lot about her ability to be kind and patient despite her extremely difficult circumstances. Hospital staff have shared about how much they loved her, always amazed at the way she found a way to smile even on the days when there was seemingly little to smile about. Though she rarely complained, my mom was far from being a pushover. If she had a concern, she dealt with it directly and often in writing. She would occasionally remind me that it took her a long time to learn how to speak up, but once she did she couldn’t look back. Sometimes she’d smile and jokingly say, “Erinn, I’ve become SO bossy”. I would laugh and tell her that bossy was the last word I would ever use to describe her.

I used to think that because my mom was strikingly calm, nothing scared her. Just as I came to realize how her ability to speak up was learned, I have grown to understand that she became very adept at acknowledging her fear and choosing to move forward despite it. Even the most terrifying of storms did not uproot her deep faith. I have been routinely listening to one of her favourite songs, one that I have referenced briefly before. Some of the lyrics are: “In a million miles you never thought you’d be here, standing at the peak. Even so your heart feels heavy, and your spirit is weak. And if you should forget that love is all you need: Hold on, if you need to hold on, you can hold on to me.” In her darkest moments (and there were many), mom actively chose to hold on.

In holding on, she also discovered how to reach out. Mom understood the power of community and did whatever she could to engage in it, even when she was forced to do so from a hospital room. She highly valued her family and friends. In fact, being able to enjoy everyone was one of her biggest priorities and informed many of her choices around healthcare. She relished long visits, the kind where every bit of news was shared and time was not tracked. Connection to people helped to sustain her, while the love of God always carried her.

My mom would never claim that she had it all figured out and I suspect she would balk at the idea that I might even dare suggest it. That’s not why I write all of this. I write, in part, because it gives me a chance to articulate my gratitude for her. When I am standing at my own peak, teetering on the edge with a heavy heart and very weak spirit, I think of her. She clung to her faith and was resolute in her hope, all while maintaining her sense of humour. During times of loneliness she found the courage to ask for help. She refused to be defined as a “sufferer”, while not sweeping the reality of her suffering under the carpet.

As I reflect on all of this, I am struck by how much I desire to be like her. She has left behind a LOT of lessons. I long to carry myself in a similar fashion to my mom. I want to: speak up and only jokingly seem “bossy”; acknowledge fear and keep moving; prioritize community; and in all circumstances, hold on.

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Nearly every day I turn to a series of readings and prayers in both the morning and evening. This particular rhythm has only become a habit over the last year. As I walk through the valley of grief, I am relieved that this practice has produced muscle memory, the kind that instinctively takes over. And so, on those days when I don’t know what to do with myself, I at least begin and end with good words.

I recently read, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves”. I have so many questions, many of which are the kind I suspect I won’t be answered in my lifetime. I wonder what it looks like to accept the things I cannot control and to develop the wisdom to know what I can change. I looked up patience in the dictionary and found this definition: “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset”. Oh, how I long to grow the dimensions of this attribute in my heart.

One of the things I have learned a great deal about in the last number of years is being present to the moment. I began to discover that my tendency toward people pleasing and perfectionism (as though that is even possible) was deeply flawed and rooted in terrible insecurity. My worth it turns out cannot be tied to a job or a person or a skill, it comes entirely from God. This work-in-progress heart change has better equipped me to pay attention to what is right in front of me. I cannot change the past, nor can I live in the future. Instead, I must live in the now.

‘The now’ is a jumble of challenge that requires a significant amount of patience. The grief over the death of my mom is a good example: I must be present to the pain of this significant loss and endeavour to tolerate the suffering without lashing out or giving up. Not too long ago my daughter described me to other people as an optimist. Though I don’t always feel like one, I was relieved that she could identify me as that. What I want her to know is that even in my grief, I hold onto hope.

One of the things I pray each day is: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever He may send you. May He guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm. May He bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you. May He bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors”. In this time of uncertainty, I choose to fuel patience with hope, and to live with the questions. I trust that with time understanding will come.

 

I didn’t go to work last week. After the tumultuous time that was saying goodbye to my mother, making all the necessary arrangements following her death alongside my brother, and finally holding a funeral, I knew I was going to collapse. The crash began after we’d returned home from the cemetery. In the early evening I sat on my bed and went into what I think was shock: my teeth began to chatter and my body began to shake. I remember lying down and crying, and then I must have fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew it was 2 o’clock in the morning.

Since then I have fluctuated between being shockingly calm (though it might be more appropriate to call it ‘in denial’) and totally wrecked. The grief hits me in dramatic waves. I have never been one to hide my feelings, so when the wave comes I try to go with it, even if it takes my breath away. The sadness makes me tired. Which is probably why my brain sometimes shuts down and allows me to feel like everything must be okay: surely I will be able to visit my mom once she has recuperated from this latest crisis. I know it’s not true, but my heart wants it to be.

My days have been filled with reminding myself to eat, napping, crafting, drawing, and a whole lot of wandering. I have talked with my counsellor and seen my massage therapist. We have eaten meals made by friends. Cate and I got a manicure together. On Saturday I ventured out to a birthday party for a six-year old friend. I have appreciated the string of nice days, grateful for the warmth of the sun and the comfortable breeze. Memories continue to flood in. Others tell me it isn’t true, but my face feels permanently stained with tears.

I am now beginning my reintegration to more regular life. I am going to take it slow, but my sense is that it will be helpful to have other things to focus on. One of my obvious coping mechanisms is cleaning (while everything might be out of my control, I can make a sink shine), and there are plenty of opportunities for it in the coming weeks at work and home. I was at the Dale Sunday service yesterday for the first time in a couple of weeks. The community gently gathered around me, offering me peace, prayer and refreshingly, not a single platitude. They loved my mom from afar and prayed for her without fail, every single week. I know they will be a part of helping me through this transition.

I keep describing this grief as a complicated one. My mom struggled for many, many years while maintaining deep hope that one day she would experience new life and a redeemed body. Picturing her finally eating food again around a magnificent banqueting table makes me smile. I am grateful that she is free. And I miss her. Life without her is not the same. Which is why reintegrating seems scary and strange, though I know she would be the first person to encourage me back to work. I can hear her reminding me of my call, and saying, “I love you sweetie. You can do this”. Well, I’m going to try.

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I must have been two, maybe two and a half. My mom had taken me to the park at the end of our street and then popped into the little corner store when it began to pour. As I sit here listening to the rain I can remember how she ran, pushing me in a stroller, the whole block home. We were soaked. She wrapped me in a towel, put on a Judy Collins record, and gave me a snack. She tried to dry off the monkey that I carried everywhere (and later tragically lost at that same park). I remember sitting in her lap on the floor. I know to some it might be surprising that I would have this strong memory from such a young age, but I actually have many.

I remember my mom walking me back and forth from school when I was in kindergarten. She let me invite my friends over for lunch, heating us bowls of noodles and making sure we had cut up carrots and cucumber too. She encouraged me to play outside and taught me to identify flowers and trees by name. We planted marigolds and lily of the valley and my favourite forget-me-nots in the backyard. When my first fish died she helped me bury him in that same garden bed. At night my mom would sing me Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, one of the songs I chose to sing to Cate every night of her early years.

As I begin the long and winding road of grief, it is memories like these, little moments in our shared life, that keep coming to mind. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”. Memories of my mom do include what she said and did, but what reverberates in my heart is how she made me feel. When I remember her tending to my many skinned knees, it is her tenderness that sticks out. When I shared my anxieties and troubles with her, she listened and somehow managed to make me feel like things would be okay, even if they were to continue being hard. I loved being in a room full of people and picking out her laugh. Knowing she was close by made me happy.

I think why the memories I cite here remain so vivid is that they all leant to me feeling safe: being pushed through the rain, walked to school, having my friends welcomed, being taught how to both garden and grieve, hearing lullabies at night. She was a very good mother. After my aunt died, my mom spoke of her own grief for her sister and how even the best memories were difficult at first. I understand what she meant, because the flooding of recollections serves to make the absence even more real. Comfort is also found in choosing to remember. I can take myself back to that rainy day, and many others like it, where I could sit safe in the lap of my mom.

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My mom died on Monday night. This is the first time since then that I’ve been compelled to write something here. I know that many of you met my mom Elaine on the pages of this blog. She has always, and will continue to be, one of my primary sources of inspiration. She was an incredible woman.

Last Friday night (technically very early Saturday morning), I was woken by a call from my brother Logan. The hospital needed us to know that mom had taken a sudden turn for the worse and we should come. I got dressed and walked to meet Logan, because we amazingly live just one block away from each other on the same street, and just minutes from the hospital. Having received calls such as this before, we could imagine what to expect, and that proved true again: mom had an infection that was causing a high fever, her blood pressure was dangerously low, and she was non-responsive.

Mid-morning Saturday Logan and I spoke with a doctor who advised us that mom had pneumonia and likely an empyema, a serious accumulation of infection that would require more than antibiotics to deal with. Mom however was too weak to manage any invasive procedure, and so we were gently, and very compassionately advised to call together family and close friends.

What ensued over the course of the weekend was what I would describe as beautiful, precious, and deeply sacred. Mom’s grandchildren Cate, Oliver, Harrison and Teagan came, along with Dion and Amanda. My mom’s sisters, brothers-in-law, many nieces and nephews and long-time friends joined us so that we could all be together. We filled mom’s room, flowed out into the hall, and spilled into the nearby sitting room. Hospital staff commented repeatedly at our presence, moved that mom had so many people who loved her. The doctor came to me later saying, “you were right when you said people would come. This is amazing”.

Cate brought her ukulele and sang song after song for her Gran. My cousin Kate sang A Life That’s Good…”at the end of the day, Lord I pray I have a life that’s good. Two arms around me, heaven to ground me. And a family that always calls me home”. Teagan and Roy, the two babies of the family got passed from person to person, offering sweet distraction from the sadness. Joanna was always nearby. We held times of prayer around mom’s bedside, including a late night vigil where we sang songs and hymns. We told stories, laughed, and wept, sometimes all at the same time.

I slept beside my mom on Sunday night. Though she lived in a hospital room, mom managed to make it a home, something I was again struck by as I lay there looking at pictures and her collection of sentimental things. When I woke up in the morning I decided to play mom’s playlist of favourite songs from her iPad. As I listened to the words of the top song, “Hold on, if you need to hold on, you can hold on to me. What ever road you’ve chosen shouldn’t be walked alone. Hold on”, I thought about how she had done just that for so many years. Mom clung to Christ though the road was hard.

Monday evening I decided to go home for a brief break. I ate a bit of food that a friend had generously dropped off and got changed. As I was finishing up, my phone rang. It was my aunt saying death was suddenly close. I ran all the way to the hospital, praying that I would make it. As I got closer, Victoria Day fire works started to shoot off in front of me, and I became even more overwhelmed. I did make it. At approximately 10:25 pm, surrounded by family, mom breathed her last breath. We remained with her for a while, even toasting her with wine served in styrofoam cups (all we had) and eating chips, two things that she loved, and always together.

We had a funeral and burial yesterday. As a group we hovered around her grave for a significant amount of time, her grandchildren and grand-nieces and nephews playing with each other. I kept imagining her sitting there, happily tucked in to her wheelchair with a huge smile on her face. She loved being with her family and so this felt like an appropriate book-end to the last week, one that started and ended together.

Mom, I know you are no longer bound to a bed or wheelchair, a truth that makes me smile. And I can’t believe you are gone. I began to miss you the moment you left. I took the photo below of the view outside your window on Monday. You would have loved the sunset. I know life was hard, but at the end of the day you always thought it was good. I love you, always.

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I’m always struck by how many people at The Dale can read me like a book. There are days when I am internally churning and think I’m hiding it well. Then I am greeted by concerned looks, words of encouragement and strong hugs from longtime friends and even people I know more peripherally. It is not rare for relative strangers to  approach me and proceed to speak the exact words I need to hear. It’s pretty amazing.

One of the things that I am repeatedly taught at The Dale is how to strip myself of masks, especially on those days when I’m trying to look okay while being anything but. I don’t think it’s that people expect me to lay bare everything going on in my heart. It’s more an invitation to be open about the fact that my struggles are real.

I have the opportunity to be very close to the pain of a lot of people. Yesterday I sat with a friend whose wounds are so bare they almost took my breath away. I realize that in this context I sometimes try to dismiss the weight of my own challenges: what are my struggles in comparison? But then my friend shifts the conversation to me and asks with sincerity about how I’m managing because “Erinn, you have a lot going on”, and I’m reminded: sharing our stuff matters. We both left feeling less alone.

Daring to remove our masks can be a daunting task. What will someone think if I admit x,y, and z? I suppose I wonder if people will love me if I reveal how messed up I am. I can attest to the freedom experienced when I confess my hurts and failures. Space is created for healing and a deep hope. I am grateful to be surrounded by people who routinely call me back when I am trying to hide. While it isn’t comfortable to be read like a book, it turns out it is good.

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“He came looking for me just to see how I was. He didn’t even want anything from me. He just wanted to care about me. It was like a little miracle.”

These words out of my dear friend’s mouth reminded me of the importance of being present. Her little miracle was that someone simply wanted to check on her, no strings attached. As she went on to describe this interaction, I was struck by how moved she was by it. At one point she threw her teared stained head back and said, “it felt SO good”.

I imagine we can all relate. I know how important it is to have a friend reach out to ask how I am, and how lonely it can be if no one does. We have an innate need to connect as creatures built for community. I think about relational poverty a lot, and am more convinced than ever that material poverty will never be eradicated unless we look at the holistic needs of people.

Years ago a relative newcomer to The Dale angrily disappeared for a number of weeks. We were worried about him and so three of us went to his place, knocked on the door repeatedly, and finally resorted to throwing rocks at his third floor window. We didn’t find him that day, but he caught wind of our effort and to this day talks about it. I’m certain it was the turning point in our relationship. He began to trust he was valued and has since grown in so many different ways as a result.

Being present is not always easy. I often fail at it. And sometimes because of my own insecurities I retreat, making being present even more difficult. But I’m aware that the moments of deepest connection come when I take a risk and ask someone how they really are, and conversely when someone asks me how I really am and I dare to tell them. Like my two friends I’ve described here, it’s enough to make me feel valued and as though I can grow and change. It feels “so good”.

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When I was in Grade Four I played a music box in my school’s Christmas play. I wore a decorated cardboard box that hung from my shoulders and black tights that I was always tugging on. I don’t recollect everything about the plot, but I do remember the song I had to sing and how it summed up the moral of the story: “Christmas is for giving, it’s not for getting things…”. I recall being nervous until I stepped onto the masking tape x on the stage, looked out at the audience, and opened my mouth to sing. I fell in love with performing as a result of that elementary school experience. At the time I thought I had discovered what I would do with my life: theatre.

Life is funny. I didn’t end up on the stage, though for many years I wholeheartedly pursued it. That was, until I found myself sitting on the pavement beside a man who was living in the entrance of the Royal Bank Tower parking lot in downtown Toronto. That person, along with so many others I met outside at night, changed the trajectory of my life. At the time it wasn’t clear what a life spent working with people who know poverty would look like. I just knew in my gut that it was right.

Twenty-ish years later I find myself reminiscing about those early days of connecting with the street. I was so young. Here I was, a girl who grew up in fairly affluent North Toronto, suddenly hanging out with people teaching me how to make a house out of a cardboard box, telling me stories about all they’d lost, and inviting me into their lives. They even asked me to sing before I left to go home. I’m certain there were many people who questioned my sudden change in vocation. I had many difficult conversations about my choice to give up what I had, until that time, always been working for.

Now I find myself the Executive Director and Pastor of The Dale. I only bring up those titles because they are truly not what I ever aspired to and yet now hold. I guess when I was invited into this role I felt much like I did as the music box: a little uncomfortable, tugging at my clothing and only strangely confident once I stepped onto the proverbial masking tape x on the floor and looked out at the community. I’m grateful that people took, and continue to take, a chance on me.

If you had asked me what I’d be doing as an adult when I was in Grade Four, I would not have imagined this. Though as I think about it, maybe there was a part of me that knew. As the music box I was asked to sing about finding joy and discovering what you wanted to give and receive from your heart. When I met that friend in the parking lot I witnessed a great deal of pain, but more than that I saw joy rooted in a life deeply felt and lived. I was taught about what it means to give out of whatever it is you have and be willing to receive out of whatever people have to give. That first solo was a life lesson in more ways than one. I am so glad for its lasting impact.

 

Some days are harder than others.

I won’t go into detail, except to say I was recently witness to a relational meltdown. It was loud, ridden with expletives, and incredibly sad. At times I stood between my two friends. Near the end we found ourselves seated, one crying, another staring into space and me, quietly and painfully aware of having no idea what to do or say.

I wanted to help. I hoped to calm the tension. I desired to speak the kind of words that might shift the conversation into being constructive versus destructive. I opened my mouth a few times, but not much came out. Instead I ended up listening. I heard things that made my heart hurt, and they weren’t even directed at me. I started to silently and repeatedly pray four words: “wisdom, safety, healing, peace…God give us wisdom, safety, healing, peace”.

Some days all I can do is lament.

On Sunday we sang a song that includes the lyric, “how long before the weeping turns to songs of joy?” That’s what I want to know. That’s what I’ve been asking since my friends and I parted ways, each in a different direction. That’s what I pray for in my own life when things are just heavy and hurtful and hard. I suspect that many of you can relate.

I sometimes fear lament. I wonder if I’m a failure at gratitude if I lean toward despair. But somehow I think the two go hand in hand. And on a day like the one I’ve described here, lament seemed the only thing I could do. Having been tongue-tied through most of the situation, I was able to weep and whisper to each of them about how sorry I was for their pain. Nothing was fixed. My four word prayer hung heavily in the air.

Like I said, some days are harder than others. Some days call for lament. And some day, I hope the weeping really will turn to joy.