Thursday, 17 May 2018

Should-ers and shoulders: I know I'm capable of being either one.

Last night we were in the ER again.  From 7:30 pm to 1:30 am.  Not a good night.

And while we were there, sometime around 9:30 Japhia's purse was stolen.  Then quickly found in a bathroom trash can.  But with her wallet and its contents -- cash, bank and credit cards, significant ID cards, and who knows what else gone.  A terrible night.

And just as tiring a morning-and-afternoon after.

We've received a lot of help, though.  Caring support and helpful direction.  Some predictable advice.

And I think I've discovered one kind of help I welcome, and another kind I don't.

The latter -- the kind of help that I would rather not receive in a time of crisis, is that of those who are natural "should-ers."  The kind who say things like, "You know, you shouldn't really have done that ... or made a practice of such-and-such ... or have been there in the first place.  Really, you should ..."  Which actually means -- or at least comes across as, "I never do that."  Or, "What I always do is ..."   Which quickly seems to suggest, at least in the mind of the listener, "It really is your own fault, you know."

The should-ers.  Often the best-intentioned and sympathetic-hearted people in the world, and people I love and cherish as friends most of the time.  But in a time of crisis I think I might choose to not even tell them what happened.

But then there are the shoulders -- the ones who are willing to shoulder whatever the burden is, and just help bear it.  The ones who in a time of crisis -- no matter how it came about, will say things like, "How terrible!  I'm so sorry.  There's some important things to do now, aren't there?  What can I do to help you?  Will you let me help?"  

And nothing more than that for the moment.  Just a shoulder to lean on, and to count on.

Shoulders, not should-ers, are the ones we are glad for in a time like last night and this morning.  Thank God for the shoulders all around us. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Getting down the beach together, ten feet at a time

Last week -- for nine days actually, Japhia was in the hospital.  Several times a day I traveled between home and hospital.  Folks at the church put up with my absence, and a good friend stepped into the pulpit on Sunday to give me a break and some help.

At the same time my brother-in-law, in Vancouver for an annual week-long golf-trip vacation with two good friends, was lying instead in limbo in a hospital there with a gallstone, pancreatitis and an indefinite prognosis, with my sister stuck here without any rational way to be with him.

And from my son I learned that my first wife had fallen and broken her arm, and he was suddenly having to be big-time caregiver.

What a wounded, limping bunch we are.

And in the midst of this I happened to see a 4-minute video of an elderly man and his wife walking back to their car after an afternoon at the beach.  His name is Duncan, hers is Cathy.

And the walk goes like this.  

Cathy sits in a folding beach chair.  While she sits, Duncan carries a second chair 10 feet ahead, and sets it in the sand.  Then he walks back to where Cathy is sitting, takes her by the arm and leads her slowly to the second chair, where she sits down.  After which he goes back to get the first chair, carries it past where Cathy is sitting, and sets it down 10 feet farther on.  Then he walks back to Cathy, takes her arm and helps her walk to the new chair ten feet along, where she sits down.  Then Duncan walks back to the vacated chair, carries it past where Cathy is now sitting, places it in the sand another ten feet along, and goes back to help Cathy to this chair.

Over and over again. Ten feet at a time.  Until they get to where they need to be.

Cathy is sick and weak, dying of cancer.  She has an oxygen tank that Duncan carries for her while he helps her walk, and places on her lap when he goes to move a chair.  Ten feet is all she can walk at a time in the sand.

Cathy died seven months after the day of that walk.  Duncan and Cathy did not know they were being video-taped, and when Duncan was asked later about their walk, he said, "When she got sick, it was just the right thing to do.  She loved the calmness [of the sea], and she loved putting her feet in the water."

In the video, all the while he is helping his wife walk down the beach -- him walking fifty feet back and forth for every ten of hers, Duncan is whistling and perfectly content.  The woman who shot the video and later met Duncan says, "Here he was slowing down and showing her kindness, like he didn't have a care in the world, like that was what he was created for, just to help her along."

If you want to see the video and the fuller story of Duncan and Cathy's walk go to

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Thoughts after a tragedy

It's slow-motion, protracted grief.

News reports trickle in, one at a time, a day at a time so far, about the identities of the victims of the van attack on north Yonge Street on Monday.  

Such random victims.  

Victims of a rage -- either against himself or against others in general, that no one foresaw suddenly exploding in that way.

As I take in the slow, one-by-one, day-by-day identification of the victims I remember a book I read years ago in school -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey written in 1927 by W. Thornton Wilder.  It's the story of the collapse of an Incan rope bridge across a great chasm in Peru, and of five people who were on the bridge at the time and fell to their deaths -- who they were, their separate life stories, and how each in their own way came to be on the bridge at the moment of its collapse.

A religious brother named Brother Juniper who witnesses the tragedy is troubled by it, and he sets out to explore the lives of those who died, thinking that somehow he will find evidence of divine providence in what happened to them.  He needs to believe, and to prove to others that people live and die by the good and perfect will of God.  That life is not random and its events accidental.  But he cannot find the answer he is looking for, and in the end he is condemned by the church as a heretic for what he has not been able to demonstrate.

I also remember a story about Mister Rogers, I think told by Mister Rogers himself.  When he was a child, so it goes, he became aware of bad things happening in the world, and he asked his mother, who was a very religious person, where God's angels were when these bad things happened.  Thinking, of course, that the role of angels is to protect us -- at least, those of us whom God deigns to protect.  To which his mom replied, "When something bad happens, when something tragic occurs, look for the helpers.  If you look for the helpers, you will see God's angels."

Angels who help.  Who reach out to comfort.  Who sit and weep, or stand and lament over other's pain and loss.  Who know both their utter weakness and their true power.  Who refuse to shoot a suspect just because he may have a gun.  Who in response to tragedy are not moved to incite fear and bring further sorrow into the life of the world, but to wonder at how we might continue to live out love even more fully as the only answer we have to the pain of life.

For there is that famous conclusion to Wilder's story, still standing after all these years:

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

And it wasn't even a full moon (actually, only two nights after a new moon)

Last night the ER at St. Joe's was particularly alive.

Above average number of folks coming in for care.  A steady stream of ambulance arrivals.  Longer than usual wait times, but with enough of the variety of humankind around to make it interesting.  Especially two different people brought in by police escort in the course of an hour.

The first was a young man who seemed really not too dissimilar from any of the rest of us.  The two officers who brought him in seemed almost incidental to the scene.

The second was a young woman whose profanity, complaints, ploys, anger, and threats made us all both thankful and a little anxious for the two female officers responsible for her.  And kept us all enthralled for the better part of the evening as she made her way with us through triage, waiting room, assessment, more waiting, testing, more waiting again, and then step-by-step treatment.

I say "with us."  At each step along the way she was isolated and watched-over by the officers in an enclosed room of real walls, isolated from us but for the open door.  But she was very much part of our journey, as her voice and her defiant spirit flowed out of whatever room she was in, to fill the rest of the ER and grab our hungry attention.

Some expressed shock and dismay that a young woman would be shouting such crude profanity, and for so long.  "Has she no pride?"  "Has she no self-respect?"  "What kind of woman acts like that?"  Indignation.  Disgust.  Incomprehension.

Others could be seen turning their heads and even craning their necks to try to catch a glimpse of this she-force of nature in our midst.  Some even arranged little walks and side-trips for themselves to try to see what she looked like.  Like you would any sideshow.  Curiosity.  Delight in the unusual and outrageous.

I wondered, as I'm sure others did, what she was "in for."  What crime had she committed?  Why the police officers?  And what injury had she sustained, or what drug had she taken, or what disorder was she suffering to make them bring her first to a hospital?  Curiosity of a different kind, but no less alienated and objectifying.

The officers must have seen her as a threat to run, as they had her in cuffs when they arrived.  As things went on, they seemed to see her also a threat to herself, to others, and to hospital property because at one point at least they also cuffed her to the bed to limit her mobility.  Word spread some time later that she was even "tied down."

Many, though, did their best just to ignore her.  Maybe to avoid getting involved, and stay safe.  Maybe to give her some space and a chance to regain some dignity.  Maybe because their own ailments and reason for being in ER were quite enough for them to cope with.  All kinds of reasons to practice distance and separation.

What most caught my attention was an overheard conversation among a cluster of paramedics waiting with their stretchered patients not far from where the young woman, unseen but still clearly heard, was maintaining her defiant challenge against authority a full three or four hours after first entering the institution.

Word was circulating that the medical staff were going to give her a mild sedative.  

"I can understand calming her down," one paramedic said.  "But you sure don't want to break her spirit."

"Yeah," said another, "with a spirit like that, she'd make a great fire-fighter."

So many ways of seeing the same thing, the same person ... so many different starting points and so many different end results when it comes to relating to others around us ...

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

So now that it's dying, we find out it can be fun. Who knew?

Last night I attended a Presbytery meeting ... and fun broke out!

It was the oddest thing.  

I think it started when three women shared with us a report on a year-long experiment in amalgamation by three struggling congregations that they were involved in, that in the end "didn't work" -- and that we honestly applauded.  Not because we were glad the amalgamation didn't take, or that one of the three congregations is now closed and the other two face even more challenges back in their own separate places.  But somehow the courage, openness, and honesty of both the experiment and the report moved us to some new place as a presbytery that seemed quite joyous and freeing.

Then there was the report on the Skylight Festival this summer and the need for financial support if it's to include all that the planners envision ... that led to a motion (passed unanimously) to direct Mission Council to consider sponsoring an invited presenter, to the tune of $2,500 ... and then to the Social Justice Committee deciding at a hastily called meeting at the coffee break to commit $500 of their budget to the Festival .. and then an impromptu free-will offering among the presbyters that raised another $507!  And ... oddest thing of all, we seemed to be having fun being so spontaneously generous!

And then there was the Resource Centre conversation question: "Think about the end of Presbytery [remember: Presbytery and Conference are slated to cease to exist as entities after Dec 31, 2018 as the United Church restructures itself, and none of us have any real clue as to how the important things we count on from the these levels of the church are going to be done after that date -- quite a fearsome prospect in some ways] ... what sort of Resource Centre would you need?"  And the unusually engaging and hopeful comments and suggestions that ensued.  We were actually having fun envisioning a little bit of a new future beyond the death of what we know. 

I wonder if there's something about dying ... or at least, about detachment from the need (or even the possibility) to maintain what we are and what we are in, against dying, that frees our spirit -- or Spirit in us, to enjoy the present moment in a different way than usual ... to just simply have fun with the possibilities for courage, generosity and creativity that are always with us, but are most often hidden by the prayer and the need we feel for things to stay as we have known them.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Seeing Being

Any time I am in the neighbourhood, I see him there.  On the pavement of the courtyard of the nursing home.  So far, in every season of the year.  In today's almost-spring morning chill, with a blue toque, grey sweatshirt, yellow plaid scarf, black pants and grey full-back slippers.

Sitting in a wheelchair.  A gentle and still presence, quietly attentive to all that is around him.  An old man with a beard worthy of Santa Claus, and a manner maybe worthy of God.

He takes an occasional drag of a cigarette, but that hardly seems his reason for being out there.

Maybe ten or fifteen feet from his chair, a scattering of broken bread pieces.  Every day.  And him quietly watching the coming and going of the birds that he feeds.  I have never been there early enough actually to see him do the breaking and scattering.  I just believe he does.

He also looks for, and follows the movements of any and every squirrel that comes into and through his field of vision.  Patiently following every stutter-step and burst of speed.

When people happen by, he nods and says hello.  Chats a few minutes.

Today he also sees and keeps an attentive eye on the Cogeco service van parked just off to one side of him, blocking and interrupting part of his normal field of vision.  Or does he maybe just see the van as, this day, what fills this part of his field, and thereby earns his attention?

The grace of his gaze.

I am tempted to wonder what he thinks.  How he feels.

More deeply, I wonder at how his quiet, attentive, daily presence draws me into a quiet space of my own.  And helps me see.  And accept.  And deep down peacefully know myself within a landscape of gracious connected-ness.

I am thankful for him.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Repenting in the dust

She was a few machines over from me.  On one of the stationary bikes, talking with a friend standing nearby.  Remembering my own age, I assumed she was in her seventies.

And when I heard what she was saying, I thought I had her pegged.

She was telling her friend about a play she saw at Theatre Aquarius the night before -- that some of her companions gave up on at intermission, at which she stayed to the end only to get her money's worth.  It was "The Invisible Hand" -- a story of a kidnapped American banker held for ransom in Pakistan, who has to earn his freedom by helping his captors with his financial know-how.  It's apparently not an easy play to watch.

And my friend (I don't know her name.  She doesn't know mine.  We have never talked.  Why do I suddenly call her "my friend"?) was telling her friend that the play was simply "too dark" for her taste, which set them both to wondering and lamenting at the change in theatre from lighter fare to more heavy, controversial, "thought-provoking" stuff.

I thought I had her pegged.  I began to see myself as somehow superior for liking the darker stuff.  I prided myself on my restraint in not making any comments, and just keeping out of the conversation.

But then I began to wonder.  

I realized she was, actually, quite self-aware in the way she straightforwardly admitted to her friend that she likes to go theatre for something light and enjoyable.  And I had to ask myself, what's wrong with that?

And then came the real surprise.  From theatre, this seventy-something woman's conversation moved on to cars, and why she bought the one she did, and the relative merits (including engine size and accessories) of the Honda CRV and HRV ("There are two Honda RV's?" I found myself wondering) and some Subaru I have never heard of.  Then on to the newset cell phones and what they have to offer (again something I do not understand at all).  And then to the new leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives and his relative weaknesses and strengths against the platforms and leaders of the Liberals and New Democrats.

In other words, that seventy-something woman on the stationary bike left me in her dust.

By this time I was over on the treadmill, and beginning to despair that I don't know nearly as much as she does.  Nor about as many things.

I wondered if I would ever know that much, no matter how old I live.

And then I began to wonder about maybe the thing that really counts.  

Why don't I just stop comparing and wondering how I measure up, and just open my ears and my mind and no doubt my heart, to be happy to listen and learn what someone else might have to tell me?