Wednesday, January 29, 2020

C is for Comfort

This seemed like a good idea at the time, way back in December when I was looking ahead to a church work schedule that would accommodate my goal to have the book about my father done in six months, but let me tell you, the Alphabet of Faith is really working my brain.

Here's my idea: There are 26 letters in the alphabet. There are 26 Sundays between January 5 and June 28. Ta da! Six months of work guaranteed (with a three Sundays off).
So far, out of four Sunday, I've presented two letters: A and D. Snow kiboshed the other two (and now it looks like a huge snowstorm is on its way for this Sunday!). All I can say is the amount of thinking required with this worship plan means I'm earning my pay cheques whether I present on Sunday or not.

I decided I would post a condensed version of my Sunday message each week on my Facebook author page, but I realized my friend Shelagh, oft-mentioned here and who is mentioned in the message about Comfort, is not on Facebook so she doesn't get to read these messages. It's a shame for her not to experience more of my brilliance.

This is a long-winded way of saying I'm going to post my favourite messages here, 1) for Shelagh to read and 2) so that not every post is a Life Sucks post. They are not a typical "field notes" post but I do a lot of tromping through the field as I try to figure out what I'm going to say, and to clear my overworked brain at the end of the day.

The photo is of Shelagh and I at our church in Cobourg, Ontario, taken in May 2017 when I did a sermon the day after my Ontario book launch of Field Notes.

C is for Comfort: A condensed version of my Alphabet of Faith message for January 19.

In the summer of 2006, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer.
It was most unwelcome, as most diagnoses are, but especially since we were six months into my father’s residency in the dementia unit at a nursing home, and our days revolved around taking care of him.

The first step of her treatment was surgery to remove the offending tumour in her colon. It happened on the Friday before the long weekend of July, and I was scheduled to read the scripture at church that Sunday. I went ahead with it, and beforehand, I said to my friend Shelagh, Wait till you hear it! It’s the perfect scripture for me to read.

I don’t remember now what it was in that scripture I was referring to, that I knew Shelagh would appreciate – because something completely different tripped me up during my reading.
And I mean, tripped me up.

Three days after my mother had surgery to remove a cancerous polyp, I had to read the words, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Now, you all know that I can get choked up with some of the things I say, but I have never sobbed my way through a message or prayer! But that’s what I did that Sunday in July 2006– as soon as my brain saw that line and connected it with what was going on in my life, and with my mother, I started to cry.
And I had to keep reading to verse 43. I didn’t know what else to do – I’m sure no one else did either! No one came to rescue me so I kept going.

Later, during the prayers of the people, when a friend of my mother’s called out her name, a ripple of awareness passed through the congregation.

And afterwards, people came up to me and thanked me for bringing such raw and honest emotion to the reading.
I was mortified – Shelagh was laughing – and people were thanking me.

We forget that church is, and should be, a place where we can ‘let go and let God’.
Where we can get emotional, where we can open our minds and our hearts, and express whatever raw and honest emotions come to us.

We call this a sanctuary.
A place of refuge, of safety, of solace.
This is a place of COMFORT. A place where we come to worship God, sure, but where we come to find God in the midst of our lives – in the midst of our joys – but more importantly, in the midst of our sorrows and sufferings, our heartache and grief.
In the midst of our letting go.

We come here to find COMFORT – when we are letting go of burden we carry: the guilt, the shame, the regret – when we are letting go of the negative emotions we cling to: anger and resentment and bitterness – when we are letting go of love, through the end of a relationship because of distance, or divorce, or death.

We come here to find COMFORT – because this is supposed to be our COMMUNITY of faith, our faith family – where we are CONNECTED to each other based on our beliefs and values, on our history and friendships – based on what we have in common through Jesus: the assurance of love, acceptance, welcome.

Yet church is often the last place we come when we are suffering, when we are waiting, when we are lost and lonely, when we are afraid, when we are mourning…because we don’t want to get upset. We don’t want to upset others. We don’t want to make a fool of ourselves.

Let me tell you, as someone who bawled through an entire scripture reading, I’m totally over worrying about making a fool of myself by showing raw and honest emotion in the pulpit.

It’s okay to cry through a hymn. It’s okay to cry during a Christmas Eve service.
Hey, most of get all teary-eyed during a baptism – so tears of joy and tears of sorrow: every kind of raw and honest emotion is welcomed and encouraged here.

But we deny ourselves that healthy release. We deny ourselves our uniquely human response. We hold in our emotions, we deny our need to cry – often by pretending to be strong and in control, or by avoiding church all together.
Thereby denying ourselves the comfort that comes from this place, and from our faith.

“I can do all things through God who strengthens me.”

And we can do all things, get through all things, endure all things through our faith friends who strengthen us.  
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

You know how we take a moment at the start of our worship to breathe? To relax the muscles of our backs and chest and shoulders?
That’s is how I live out that verse: You carry your weariness and burdens, your worries and responsibilities in your body – so when you come here, and sit inside this sanctuary, I help you find some rest – a way to put down those burdens, set aside the worries by reminding you to find connection to holy spirit through your breath, through breathing deeply into every cell of your body.

So this is what I want to say to you, at whatever level of comfort – and need to cry – you are at:

Have faith. Have faith in yourself.
Because everything you have endured so far in life, you have survived.
Because having endured the worst thing you, you were transformed into a better, stronger, wiser version of you.
You became more you because of what you went through.

The same goes for those of you who have come feeling weary and burdened: Everything you are enduring now – you will survive. And because of what you are going through, you will be stronger, wiser, and more at peace because of it.

Everything we fear – crying, dying, hurting, suffering, waiting, wondering – becomes something we appreciate and understand once we’ve survived it, and perhaps thrived because of it.
We don’t fear what we know,
so…  Trust in your experience. Trust in your strength. Trust in your own heart’s voice to guide you.

Remember what Jesus said:

“My friend, by your faith, you are healed. Go in peace.”

by Sara Jewell

Monday, January 27, 2020

Cleaning Up After Animals

In July of 2018, I wandered outside in the warm day to sit next to my husband on a pile of milled lumber he was going to use for a small structure to house two horses.
"Are you sure we should be doing this?" I said to him. "I mean, can we really afford to build a kind-of barn and keep two horses?"
He looked at me, and answered, "I've been thinking the same thing."

Less than a month later, he had a stroke, and I was glad we had cancelled that build before we started. It would have been hard for both of us to look at a half-finished structure; me seeing the end of my dreams of having a horse, and him feeling frustrated that he couldn't make that dream come true.

On Sunday afternoon, with a mild spell bringing temperatures up to plus six (Celsius), I cleaned out the chicken coop. I love doing this. I get such a feeling of accomplishment by scooping up all the dirty shavings and piles of poop and dumping everything into the wheelbarrow, then spreading fresh, dry shavings all over the floor.
I also like hearing them talk to me while I'm working; chickens being a skittish bird, it's mostly in protest when I get too close. They walk around saying "berk-berk-berk", or when I shovel right under their spot on the roost, they raise their voice, "bok-bok-bok". They are funny birds, and I enjoy caring for them. It's good for my soul.

For an hour, it's a time to focus on their needs, on the work, on the muscles in my back and arms, on getting the job done the way I want it done. It's a time to be part of their space, a welcome break from being in my own office space too much. For an hour, I don't think about what I'm working on, or need to work on, or won't get the chance to work on. It's a time of peace and quiet for my brain.

So now I wish I had horses or donkeys or goats to take care of, to be able to be in their space and be entirely focused on them, to take my mind off my worries. I'm really struggling these days, feeling adrift, sometimes even lost, wondering what meaning my work has (not only as a writer but as a worship leader and as a teacher) and what my future work will be -- because right now, I simply don't see it. I don't deal well with uncertainty, with waiting and wondering, with not knowing.  Having a couple of horses or a pair of goats to take care of would help alleviate that feeling of not having any purpose anymore.

In my first job in radio, when I lived in a new community where I knew no one and worked the morning shift which meant I was home all afternoon but went to bed at eight p.m., the cure for my loneliness was to get a dog. It changed my life. Suddenly, there was a purpose to my hours outside of work: walking twice a day, getting to know this other creature, restructuring my life to include her.
Having Maggie in my life meant I spent a lot less time focused on myself -- and that was a good thing. It's something I need now, desperately. I know it can't happen, it's simply not feasible (we don't have a building, for one thing), but it would be nice.

Having responsibility for an animal is a healing practice, a way of getting out of one's own head, and remembering there is purpose in serving others. It's the therapy of hard work, and the symbolism of heaving one's own crap out the door into the wheelbarrow.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Walk And Talk

Silence is essential. We need silence, 
just as much as we need air, just as much
as plants need light. If our minds are crowded with
words and thoughts, there is no place for us. 
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Every so often I'll call my best friend in Ontario and say, "Wanna go for a long walk and talk? I could use about six hours!"
And she laughs and says she'll meet me at the corner.
Then we sigh and wish it were so.

This is what I miss about living so far away from my very best friends: doing the Walk-and-Talk. I'd started this with my then-new friend Shelagh just before I moved to Nova Scotia, and now a morning Walk-and-Talk is one of the reasons I like to stay at her house when I visit Ontario.

Walking alone over the field and up the road and through the woods doesn't stop me from having a Walk-and-Talk, however; I simply talk to myself. That is just as effective, albeit without the good advice. But hearing myself speak the problems that are dogging me, and hearing the one-sided conversations I'm having with other people helps me realize what I want to do, and what I shouldn't be doing -- and also how brilliant and eloquent I am when I am walking alone in the woods.

Also: this helps me sleep.

I came up with this theory this past week when, after the day of ice pellets on Sunday, there was a great base for walking. During the dark days of winter, I hit the treadmill almost every day because, without sidewalks and streetlights and our wonky weather, it's simply not as easy just to head outside for a walk. Honestly, I get tired of walking in mud.
So it's been a treat this past week to walk every day, twice a day, taking full advantage of the concrete-like walking base under a light covering of snow to go for long walks into the woods.

Since Monday, I've been sleeping through the night. I haven't been waking up at two o'clock in the morning to worry about giving up writing and getting a job, to think back over all the bad decisions I made in my 20s, to berate myself for not planning better, being braver, going back to school sooner.

That's because I'm doing all that while I walk. Because I've provided time during the day to do that kind of thinking.
When I'm on the treadmill, I'm watching TV, and wearing headphones so other people's voices are close and loud. I can't think.  But when I walk outside by myself, I'm walking in silence. I'm able to think because there are no voices in my head. And that thinking is kinder and more productive than the middle-of-the-night thinking; I'm not as hard on myself, and can pull out of the negative spiral with plans and reminders -- finish this project THEN worry -- you have six months THEN you can deal with that -- The gut-clenching worries dissipate in the daylight, thank goodness. The work seems possible, the goals seem achievable.

The best part is by the time I turn around to head home, I'm done thinking. I'm doing yacking. The Walk-and-Talk becomes just a walk, and it's quiet inside my head as well as all around me.

Funny, so often we don't want to walk in silence, we don't want to fill that space with our thoughts but now I know how essential it is -- we need to face our worries, we need to talk ourselves down from the DEFCON 1 of fretting about the future. We need the cold fresh air and the distraction of snowflakes and the beauty of bare tree limbs against a slate grey sky.
Sleeping through the night makes facing the work (and the worries, let's be honest, they're always there) much easier. Tossing and turning solves nothing; doing the work gets me closer to my goals.

I am grateful to have experienced this -- to have been reminded of something I didn't realize I was missing. Grateful to have had several good night's sleep. Grateful to have completed another draft of the manuscript about my father's life and sent it off to the printer to be ready for another go-around next week.
Grateful to have had a week of breathing in the silence and breathing out the thoughts. Grateful for lungs full of snowflakes and a mind empty of useless information.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Throwback Thursday

Stella and I in January 2010

Ah, Stella. My girl. And the world's most annoying dog. I wonder if I'll ever get the chance to write a book about her? At least she got a couple of essays in Field Notes. Remember her stealing my father-in-law's donuts off the counter during a visit?
She died in 2015.

Stella loved having her picture taken. And her fawn colouring worked well; it stood out against any backdrop, grass or snow.
Abby, on the other hand, hates having her picture taken; she always looks like it's painful or a punishment. Between her facial expression and her colouring, she takes a terrible photo! She's a darker brindle, and the camera compensates by lightening the rest of the shot, so taking a photo of Abby in snow means she turns into a black blob (unless of course she's wearing her coat). My best photos of Abby are in the spring and fall when everything is either green or light brown.

Miss you, la bella Stella xo

Abby and I in January 2020

Saturday, January 04, 2020

New Year, New Decade

Now that the new year has begun, it seems as if the doldrums of the last six months have slipped off me like a loose, ragged sweater. Yesterday, walking up the old road and into the woods with the dog, I realized I was feeling like myself again.
What does that feel like? Optimistic. Energized. Ready to create. Ready to be brilliant! 
In an email exchange with a friend who wanted some editing advice, she said she was feeling good about this new year, that she'd received some boosts creatively and business-wise that excited her.
"But for what felt like an eternity, I had to drudge through a hazy-fog before the clarity came," she wrote. I totally got that. I feel like my hazy-fog has lifted, and even if I still don't know what my writing future looks like after the end of June, I am revitalized and looking forward to getting into winter writing mode next week.

Without my usual hope and expectation this time. For the first time in my life, I am working on a writing project without any attachment to an outcome (as in, getting it published). I am writing it for the sake of writing it; I'm writing it simply for my father. If it never gets published, so be it. In this case, at this point, it really is the journey that is more important than the destination. I've learned so much about my father, that makes it all worthwhile. But I've had the hope and expectation of publication pummeled out of me.

My mother, an avid reader, says most of the recently published books she reads mention climate change somehow, so how my novel about a girl who can communicate with animals and who hears the thoughts of the people around her, or a memoir about a father who was a funeral director can fit into the current publishing market is beyond me.
I no longer care. That's what it means to let go of expectations, not have no attachment to an outcome. That's a weird place for me to be in, yet at the same time, it's incredibly liberating. I have accepted that in six months, I may give up writing and find different work. And I'm fine with that; in fact, part of me thinks it would be very relaxing to have a regular job with a regular pay cheque. Acceptance is a powerful thing, my friends. It frees you to do what you want in the way you want to. My future is a void, a complete uncertainty, so I can't worry about it. I had to slog through a thick, hazy fog -- of hopelessness, of uncertainty, of depression -- to get to this place of letting go and not worrying about the future but that's how it happens.
Rock bottom has a basement, right?

But in the spirit of NEVER GIVING UP, in the spirit of putting it all on the table for the next six months, Dwayne and I rang in the new year with dinner, dancing and a champagne toast at midnight. It's like that quote I found shortly after I left Vancouver in 2002 -- if you want to stop a downward spiral, you only have to change one thing.
So we changed up how we acknowledged the new year. Instead of ignoring it, going to bed at 10 pm, treating it like any other day, we intentionally kissed the old (and rather shitty) year goodbye and welcomed the new year, and the new decade, with open arms.
Open to all the creativity and courage and possibility a new year and a new decade offers. We are ready for the good stuff, whatever that may be, and we wanted the universe to know we are ready.

I had this first part of this Wendell Berry quote handwritten and stuck to the wall next to my desk so it was lovely to find a longer version in this lovely graphic. This could be it -- my real work, the work of telling my father's story.
When none of the books I pitched in 2019 were picked up, my mother said, "Maybe a path is being cleared." For this writing project. There's no way to know if she's right, and if Mr. Berry is right, unless I see this final book project through to the end.

A new year is a chance to believe again in all the possibilities. Because you never know. Epiphanies happen in the weirdest places -- like the card, book and magazine aisle of the grocery store, and clarity can come when you least expect it. And maybe it helps to wear a funny hat.
May it be so for you as well.