Grief & Honour

Ray – photo taken at an outdoor concert in 2013. I think I knew when I took this photo that it would be a perfect image when it came time to honour and grieve his life.

I attended a funeral today. A funeral for a dear, dear man who had NO IDEA how much influence he had on the world around him.

I want to tell you some of his story.  I love to find little ways to honour people that society often does a poor job of honouring, and Ray is one of those people who got the short end of the stick – over and over, for a lifetime.

Yet, the beauty of his story and his person were unmistakeable.

(This isn’t my first post about a friend from our neighbourhood.  Read about  Christina, Ruthie, & Brian if you like.)

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Ray with my kids a few years ago. One of many Christmas morning breakfasts.

I only know a few stories from Ray’s early life.  He was in foster care as a youngster, and the stories we heard were of abuse and sadness.  I hope there were other kinds of stories, too.

As a middle aged man, Ray got into an altercation on Main St. where he was struck on the head with a thick steel pipe. He was in the hospital for months, where his body recovered but his brain did not.

I met Ray in January 2009- six years ago. I had brought a group of kids from Saskatoon to Winnipeg for an inner city learning trip.  Our group lived in WCV – the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard (this was a few months before it actually became my permanent home) – for a couple of weeks. Ray was a daily fixture during our trip. He walked around the neighbourhood with us, told us about his friends and enemies, prayed for us, gave us stern, finger-wagging warnings, laughed and cried with us.  He took us to his favourite restaurant – Angelo’s Chip Shop on Main – the one with the striped red awning.

Ray

Ray.

Afterward, I heard the youth remember story after story of what Ray said, did, and taught – I got a glimpse of how influential Ray had been – what he’d taught them not only about poverty and oppression, but also about hope, spirit, relationship, and love.  Of course, Ray had no clue at all what he’d done for them. He just went around being his simple yet profound self.

Ray has been a fixture around WCV and Flatlanders for years.  He lived in two different buildings nearby – on both of the eastern corners of Main and Jarvis. He found friendship and community in this place. Anytime the doors were open for a service or event, he’d be there, invited or not.  We had him over many, many times: for dinner, for coffee, for Christmas breakfast, for a yearly birthday party (we celebrated him turning 63 at least 3 times, because Ray didn’t actually have a clue how old he was!), for concerts, for art openings.

Eventually, the public housing authority evicted him for cleanliness issues, even though we’d been working diligently on a plan to keep him housed and supported.  I cleaned the garbage out of his apartment weekly for a while, hoping that the repeated act of bringing waste to the refuse chute would sink in. (It didn’t.) Ray’s relationship with government housing ended the same way his relationship with many systems designed to help him ended – badly.  Homeless, he moved into our memorial garden, where he claimed to be keeping Ruthie company because her ashes had been scattered there. When it got colder or when it rained, he slept in our foyer, until the prayers and efforts of many were answered, and Ray got a space in a group home for adults with disabilities.  You might ask why we didn’t ask Ray to move in with us – we do offer housing, after all.  You’d be in good company – we’ve asked ourselves that question a million times. The answer is … well, if you knew Ray for any length of time, you probably know what the answer is.

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Ray, after one of our shopping trips to get new clothes so that he’d have a shower. He liked stripes and plaid.

Ray was loving, kind, and gracious a lot of the time. There were also times when he was angry, jealous, even mean. But I think its safe to say that ALL the time he was stubborn. His stubbornness had two sides, a faithful-tenacity side and a determined refusal-to-cooperate-with things-he-didn’t-want-to side.  I had the dubious distinction of being the only person who could “force” Ray to have a shower; I suspect this is because our stubbornnesses are a little bit similar. I just didn’t back down about him getting clean, at least every once in a while.

One of my favourite Ray stories: I was hunted down by one of the men organizing a summer fishing trip a few years ago. They wanted to bring Ray along, but it had been really hot, and Ray’s odour was a bit riper than usual …. Could I please change my afternoon plans and “do my thing” so Ray could go on the trip? I did; Ray and I argued and negotiated for at least 30 minutes; he relented, got clean, and then he went. Afterwards, Ray had a fishing story to tell – another experience of community that was facilitated by the fact that he truly belonged to a community.

Of course, our belonging to him and his belonging to us was broken. He’d get angry and call the curses of God down on us – literally.  We’d get frustrated with his tirades, his smell, his constant requests for cigarettes or change, or to come in for a cup of black coffee even when he could see that we were on our way out. The story of our relationship with Ray, and of Ray himself, is that broken doesn’t mean worthless. Oh, how I want to pay better attention to this. Thanks, Ray, for living the kind of wisdom I desperately need and desperately avoid.

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Proudly showing his artwork, on display in one of our community shows.

I’ll miss you, Ray.  I’ll always remember the Christmas that you showed up with presents for each of us. I’ll remember the way you’d look toward the ceiling whenever you said a prayer for me – as if God lives right in our rafters.   I’ve especially missed your presence in our neighbourhood. I love you, dear friend, and oh, I’ll miss you. Forever.

Two thoughts from Ray’s funeral today should be remembered always: first, that he carried the violence of our neighbourhood in his body and in his life.  Few of us are worthy of such an honour, and few of us walk with such a sacred intimacy with their Creator. Ray revealed what it means to be blessed in poverty, the thing those of us with any power at all avoid and reject.

Ray made these words from 1 Corinthians come alive: God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world to reduce things that are seen as important and worthy. 

big feelings

working with kids and families has helped me come up with this phrase: “big feelings” –  you know about big feelings, right?  the kind that threaten to overwhelm you, that feel a bit like a wave or a roller coaster, the kind that need to be managed carefully; neither given full reign nor squashed down into oblivion? Sometimes it feels like we must either protect ourselves entirely from big feelings or give ourselves completely over to them.

IMG_3133big feelings. I have them today. Big feelings aren’t necessarily bad feelings, they’re just big.  In my case right now, they are connected to a family wedding we had yesterday. My nephew, the first of our kids’ generation, got married in a beautiful ceremony and celebration. This sweet boy came into the world as a big surprise to all of us, and captured everyone’s heart the moment we met him. I was 19 when he was born  –  maybe my reminiscing and wondering where the time has gone was the start of these big feelings?

My own wedding day was 20 years ago, almost to the day. Looking back overIMG_3028 our 20 years of mistakes and opportunities, of growing up and making peace – maybe that was the start of the big feelings ….

As we were getting ready for the wedding, amid bathroom-wars and hair-curling, I realized this was one of those occasions when I should wear my mom’s earrings.  She was gone before my nephew was born, but somehow, she needed to be part of the wedding day of her first grandchild. I needed to bring a piece of her with me, to honour her somehow.  More big feelings – especially when I saw the bride wearing another piece of my mom’s jewellery.  Cue happy-grief-tears.IMG_3217

The beautiful day! the sweetness of this young couple’s love for one another, the palpable hope for the future that they exuded, the beautiful swirl of busy-ness:  family members prepping and serving food and drink, agonizing over picture poses and flower girl hair-do’s, the rain that threatened and finally poured down right on our heads in the middle of the outdoor ceremony … aaarrgghhh! It was beautifully intense, creating a memorable day for all – including matted hair and droopy makeup!  still more to add to the big feelings.

Big Feelings. They’re a threat if we give ourselves completely to them. But if we protect ourselves from them, we stand to miss out on the texture and definition that they can give our lives.  So here’s to finding harmony – within ourselves and with our big feelings.

Quebec Anniversary no.1

I’m sitting on a passenger train for the first time ever, and I’m travelling the québécois countryside, also for the first time ever. I always blog a little more on vacation; more time + more to say, I guess.

This holiday is all about celebrating 20 years of marriage. So romantic, right? Canada’s European quarter. We explore our nations history while commemorating our own? I can’t believe we’re here. Literally – we probably should be more frugal. And it’s so far from our kids! And the Fringe is on in Winnipeg- our favourite time of year! But also figuratively – I can’t believe those two ridiculous 20 year olds who got married 20 years ago stayed married! There were doubters along the way, including ourselves. As we grew up (together), it was clear that two people don’t get much more different, or more stubborn, than the two of us! That stubbornness has served us though – stubborn love, stubborn passion (dare I say it?), stubborn commitment, stubborn long-suffering some years (dare I say it?).

We read some Henri Nouwen aloud atop Mont Royal yesterday. (Go ahead, imagine the romantic-ness of us up on a grassy hill overlooking a historic city reading out loud- that’s why I’m telling you about it!) (also, go ahead and clap for me that I put aloud and atop together in the same sentence.). Anyways, Nouwen was talking out how we often see joy and suffering as opposites rather than as bound up together. Isn’t that true? We reject hard times or avoid them, chasing instead what we think will deliver happiness. We tend to see joy and suffering as either/or instead of as both/and. But it’s when we allow ourselves to experience the stuff we’d rather ignore that we actually catch onto genuine joy. (So while you’re imagining that romantic scene, don’t, for the love of Pete, imagine that it’s all there is to us. We’re often unromantic, which makes reading aloud atop a hill pretty joyous indeed.)

Anyways, we’ve just spent three fantastic days in Montreal. I took a bunch of photos of places “a louer;” so I’ll know where to look when I move here. Just kidding, I love my Winnipeg life – but there’s something so appealing about the density in Montreal. It’s so clear that this city valued urban development over suburban sprawl, and something about that resonates loudly with me. The lifestyle possibilities are palpable – the cycling culture blew us away. Patios and pedestrians everywhere! Also facilitated, undoubtedly, by shorter winters, but I’m not gonna start the winnipeg winter rant …!
We were comfortable biking around the neighbourhoods around us in no time. We also cycled to Jean Drapeau park so Bren could circle the F1 track that was used just a month ago for the Canadian Grand Prix. The Biosphere is also there, with hammock stations on the grounds. (!!!) We cycled back over the Jacques Cartier bridge – 10 storeys up! Some local folks must do it daily, but I’m not accustomed to cycling all the elevation! It felt a little like San Francisco sometimes.
Recommends? Danny’s Pizza next door to the Hilton on Sherbrooke. We look for hole-in-the-wall type places, knowing that it’s a risk … This one didn’t disappoint- it’s finds like this that keeps us doing it! (Well, that and perpetually tight budgets!)
Eva B. Vintage on St. Laurent – I went twice in three days, which says a lot when there’s so much to take in. The clothes and the food and the staff – a great combination. (Those choco cookies by the till? Eat one!) So much fun, and I got a couple awesome skirts that’ll remind me of the trip for years to come. I want to recreate the generous and creative atmosphere of this place in my own city.
I’m a 2nd hand shopper, so I also loved Cul de Sac – the shop owner repurposes all sorts of cool clothes and bags. This shop is soon getting a new address a few doors down; 3794 St. Laurent.
Transit in Montreal is super easy to navigate- I’m frequently lost and found my way quickly every time.
We stayed at a B&B for two nights and the McGill residences for the third. The dorm was quite a bit cheaper so we’d recommend it – basic and good. Our B&B had a shared bath, Bren especially wasn’t a fan of that, so it was nice to switch it up. But B&B’s do give the gift of meals with international guests, so it was win-win.
Finally, we didn’t go for smoked meat at Schwartz, but we did go across the street to Ripples for 6x chocolate ice cream. Serious chocolate intensity, not just added sugar. So good.
Next post: Quebec City. Here’s a few shots so far: our B&B staircase; so inviting! Me and my luggage between buses, airports, train stations, and hotels. (I don’t have to wear it for another week now!), and the two of us across the St. Lawrence from Old Montreal.
If you’re into hashtags, more photos at #bk20pq on Instagram and Twitter.

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baby reminders and say nice things.

photo 2Its the week of my daughter’s 17th birthday, so I got up this morning and looked at baby pictures. Of course. And I cried. Of course.

Looking through old photos wasn’t the only reminder of her baby-hood that I’ve had this week; I’ve had a couple weird little prompts … the first was over lunch with friends who have an 8 month old baby. I picked up this cute, smiley guy and was struck by how much he felt like my daughter did as an infant. Like eerily familiar … the way he felt in my arms, the way he fit on my hip. I had to give my head a couple good shakes.  I’ve picked up many, many babies over the past 16 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever had this vivid of a reminder of what my own baby used to feel like in my arms. Back when she wasn’t driving a car, loving glittery things, and travelling the world. Back when my hip or my lap were her best seat in the house.  Okay, if you’ve met her, you know: she probably did like glittery things right from day one!

And then weird reminder #2: we strolled the back-way through Osborne Village to her birthday dinner.  As I was walking, I heard a baby making happy noises from a first floor apartment. I looked up to see these huge brown eyes – her eyes, I swear it – looking down at me, with little fists pushing against the window screen.  Again, eerily familiar –  I was brought back in time and had to re-orient myself to the present, remembering that my baby isn’t a baby, and her brown eyes have seen quite a lot already, even in their short life. As we arrived at the restaurant, ordered and ate, chatted and laughed, the image of the baby in the window hung around and filled my thoughts. I kept sneaking peeks at my daughter, making sure the last 16 years have really happened.

Dinner included a few of the special people in her life, so we did “say nice things” – a tradition that friends who know us (often reluctantly) join.  “Say nice things” is like pouring the cheesiest (and most validating) cheese on a conversation, and directing all that cheesy encouragement toward the someone being celebrated.  Its hard to do, because being affirming and appreciating others –  especially in a group setting – isn’t something we’re practiced at.  I force it on the world because saying nice things publicly is a good thing to get better at… and because we all like to hear others’ nice words about us.

So, here’s a written summary of sweet Syd’s “say nice things” – from some of the people who know her best and love her well:

You are growing up. It’s beautiful to watch. You’re funny and fun. We can’t wait to see what’s ahead. You’ve matured a lot in this last year, it probably has something to do with all that travelling you did. You’re kinda inspiring, we like being friends/family/housemates with you. You’re engaging in life more confidently, you’re thinking things through in new ways. Your participation is appreciated and welcome. We enjoy so many things about you. We feel lucky to have you in our life. 

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this was taken just a little while ago…

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they’re cousins and great friends🙂

easter shouts. easter whispers.

Easter lillies.

 

“He is Risen”

so happy to shed the shadow and gloom of Good Friday.

eager to be done with suffering.

Can’t the trust come without suffering? Can’t it?

for generations, we’ve pleaded.

this is our story, humanity.

Can’t sunday come without friday?

that’s how I’d have written it.

no whispers and shadows.

Give us certainty. order. revolution.

If only we were designing the kingdom. there’d be more shouts and sure.

more obvious.

these low ways make perfect sense; they’re so easy to grasp.

 

We think life is ours alone, just for us, we hold it so tight.

eyes squeezed shut, don’t see, hold fast to illusion.

He hardly put up a fight. We hold tight.

He said ‘take it’ – this isn’t what it’s about anyway.

 

This is the invitation?

wanting to see another way.

this is the invitation.

spring ice break on the Red River.

 

their eyes didn’t recognize him

cloaks and shadows

never as expected

intuition and hope – the women first

shepherds and women – you chose the unexpected, you always do

never as we expect

we know this

still, its never as we expect

glimpses and shadows

this is our king, this is the kind of kingdom

eyes that don’t (yet) see

minds that don’t (yet) comprehend

 

communion with you

– this is what opens our eyes, changes our hearts, brings clarity to our minds

they were afraid. we are afraid.

 

peace,  be not afraid

trust the shadows.

Let (y)our eyes be opened.

See the king. He’s whispering. (on a small loud donkey.)

 

– written on easter morning, 2014, after reading resurrection accounts and watching the sun rise with good friends.

a heart in three worlds.

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I’ve loved this quote for years, probably because it articulates something of the profound helplessness of parenting. We don’t like to think about that, do we?   We focus on what we can feel in control of, like our kids’ diet or playdates. Or else we dwell anxiously on possibilities that send us into panicky tailspins. We don’t really think about making peace with that which can’t be managed, especially as parents. Is it just me, or do you swing between the two extremes of managing everything and getting all anxious, too? It’s a good practice, I suspect, to rest in the middle a bit if we can.

My heart has been walking around outside my body in some vastly different and far-away parts of the world for the past few months, and the pieces of it won’t be put back together until mid-March. It was once strange for my heart to be wandering around outside of my body when “out there” consisted of a sleep over at the neighbour’s house or a trip to the corner store. In the past few months, I’ve gotten accustomed to my heart being separated from me by date lines and time zones and Ukrainian protests and poisonous snakes and oceans and airplanes.

I’ve been coping well, I think, with my kids being far, far away.  (I want to call them my babies, because that’s what they’ll always be.  However, I’m starting to accept that this is no longer an appropriate label, given who and what and where they are these days.) They’re in Europe and Asia, while I stay parked in Canada making sure there are enough pesos, hryvnia, dollars, or euros in the bank for their adventures. The younger one left for 5 months ago and is due home in a couple of weeks.  The older one left last week and is gone for less than 2 months.  I suspect this would be easier if they weren’t 18 and 16. Like, if they were 51 and 49, I probably wouldn’t give their global whereabouts more than two or three passing thoughts. I’d probably be thinking more about playing bridge and not working, or how much money my seniors discount saves me, than about their travels.

Since they aren’t 51 and 49, I sit here, at 1:30am – for the 2nd consecutive night – praying and thinking .. trying  (again) to  find that middle place. Hoping to silence the invitations to manage or to panic, to accept the invitation to be okay and rest in the helplessness that we, as a family, chose. Not only did we choose it, we planned really carefully for it, and we are incredibly fortunate to have such choices to make.

So, I sit in the dark quiet. Praying silently and fervently into the space that these adventures will open up in my kids’ lives, in their experience, in their character. Praying for peace, justice, and equality in Ukraine.

Hardly a moment goes by before I’m filled with gratitude.

… for gracious friends who act as host families. These are amazing people who are genuinely excited to know our kids, offer them guidance and love, witness and encourage their gifts, provide them generosity and care.  How do you even say thank you  for such sincere support and grace?

… for courageous kids who can be street smart and book smart (when they want!), and who seem to be open to gaining all kinds of smarts that might not come from traditional education.

… for creativity in the everyday stuff of life.

… for the possibilities exposed by helplessness, and for the chance to explore all the nooks and corners of being a mom.

Putting 30 to bed.

This past weekend I celebrated my 40th birthday. We had a party, with lots of the significant people in my life all gathered in one place.  My husband made me a memory book that features every bad haircut I’ve ever had, along with nice quotes and stories from all sorts of people. I’ve already read the book 5 times. Today.

Milestone birthdays invite reflecting  so here are a few of my reflections on the decade I just put to bed.  (If you like these aging and trying to grow old gracefully kinds of posts, or if you want a little laugh, go herehere or here.)  (Keep the comments about manliness to yourself, please.) 

Now that I’m 40, I can comment on a few things I learned and did in my 30s, things like:

  • Changing careers –  I got the training to make the things I loved best about my old career into my new profession. If you ask  my friends and family, they’d say it took courage. If you ask my financial planner, he’d say it took stupidity. They’re both right. (Crowdfunding retirement fundraiser soon to be launched.)  (That’s only partially a joke.)
  • Moving 9 hours away from home – Which is good, even when you move back home two years later and you thought you’d be away forever. If you’re going to do something like this, we suggest double-buckling your seatbelt and stocking up on kleenex. Also, don’t be silly; plan well. But don’t be so silly as to expect your plans to actually happen the way you think they will! Approach your plans as if they’re a loose, but important, template. Doing it like this might necessitate less kleenex, and possibly more seatbelt.
  • Accomplishing long standing life goals –  for me, starting and finishing seminary –  is a fantastic feeling.  I haven’t finished all of things that I’ve started in my life, but I did finish this.  It feels good.
  • Deciding to stay married … because commitment actually requires us to re-make this decision every day, in big and small ways. If you’re like me, your 30s might include a good, hard, honest look at the relationship you’re in. I decided  to do my part to help the marriage I’m in to also be the marriage I want. It was a good decision.
  • I learned to examine what I tolerate and to stand up to oppression and abuse.  My early life did not equip me to do these things, but late is better than never.   I am learning that living honestly is better than the sticky, deep, dark, cave of denial and performing. Way, way, way better. Way.
  • Loving the skin I’m in: I’m starting to like the crooked smile that I can’t get to look good in pictures no matter how old I get or how hard I try, to embrace the rolls I have in every possible “wrong” place,  to intentionally not mask the earned grey hairs that seem to reproduce faster than rabbits these days. As we age, there is less pressure to put ourselves down all the time, have you noticed? It’s nice.
  • Giving up wanting to be the kind of beautiful that magazines and pinterest promote and believing that there is a kind of beautiful that I can actually be.
  • Meeting yoga and inviting it to teach me things; change me.
  • Appreciating my history instead of condemning and judging it.
  • Coming to understand that “more is more” is kind of my way of being; I’m not likely gonna outgrow it, so I might as well make peace with it.
  • Becoming “communitarian.” Deciding to stick out life with 20 roommates in a society that believes insulating ourselves from each other is the better way has changed me. like. nothing. else. could. Living communally with people who are not your family and who are all very different from each other is like having a mirror permanently installed a few inches from your face. A mirror that especially reflects your warts, bad hair days, and your need for grace.
  • Learning more about this simple fact: Jesus meant the things He said about love; peace; power; greed. He still means it now.  Also, this: I can participate in what He meant.
  • Having young kids is a stage that actually ends, just like people promised me it would back when I thought I might drown in diaper pail water after sleeping not at all for 8 straight months. As our kids got older and older, there was little to equip us for parenting adolescents and the anxiety/toxicity that goes along with being a teenager in our social media, image-is-everything culture. My most important realizations so far: love will get us through. It really is enough. Not instantly, not magically, but absolutely.  With no unicorns, but with a more than a few rainbows.
  • Allowing myself to be known – with my insecurities and fears showing – gets less and less terrifying with age and practice.
  • Travel – while being a luxury, not an entitlement –   should be carefully planned for and wisely integrated into one’s life if it can be possible. I had no idea about this until I was well into my 30’s and I’m so glad my kids are benefitting from this awareness long before I did.

That’s it. Blessings to you, friends. If you were one of the ones who wrote in my memory book, sent cards or greetings, or came to my party – thanks. Really, I’m grateful for all of you lovely people.

Let us age with grace – as best we can. And also with humour and play ….