Thursday, 4 October 2018

The universe in a grain of sand ... and a brief moment's smile

A few evenings ago I was sitting in my car, waiting for a turn in the light. Waiting for the green arrow so I could make my turn left onto Main Street from Cootes Drive.

With the University and McMaster Children’s Hospital on the left there was a lot of pedestrian traffic to watch while I waited.  Mostly university students.

One couple stood out.  A man and woman, just a few years older than the undergrad crowd, but old enough to notice.  Dressed one step less self-consciously than the students around them.  Looking a little weary.  Walking away from the hospital to cross the street in front of me.  The man was carrying a small cooler.  Dark blue with a white handle.

I watched them for a second as they began across Cootes Drive in front of me.  Then my gaze went ahead of them to where they would be in a few seconds -- to the other side.

There, another woman stood out.  Maybe late twenties or thirty.  Also less self-consciously dressed than the students who breezed around and past her.  Also a little weary-looking as she stood on the sidewalk’s edge, waiting for the signal to cross Main, close enough to the curb’s edge not to be in the way of the students.

I wondered about the two of them – the three of them.  The couple and the woman.

As the couple reached the far side of the street – the corner where the woman stood waiting for her own crossing in another direction, in the midst of and set apart from all the students around them, the three turned to one another and shared – offered to each other, a little smile.  Only that.  But definitely and quietly that.

At that point the light changed.   

The woman started out across Main and the young couple, without missing a step, made the little turn a bit to the right to begin the short walk into Ronald McDonald House.

One woman off for a short walk or an errand, maybe before heading back into the hospital to see her child.  A young couple after a day sitting at the bedside of their child, walking back to their temporary refuge together.

So much anxiety, exhaustion, hope and love they must have been carrying – alone and together, like a cross.  And in that quick and simple smile, a welcome grazing gift of the love of God.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Pay it forward

It was the "pay it forward" that caught my attention and made me start listening more intentionally to their conversation.

"Yeah, you know, 'pay it forward,' " he repeated to his friend, as though it were the most natural of human impulses that surely everyone must understand and practice in some way.

His friend -- every Saturday they meet to talk about everything and anything, at the coffee shop where I like to write my sermons -- seemed at a loss for words.  Either because he didn't get the concept, or because he couldn't believe his friend would actually do such a thing.

"Yeah.  You remember that time I put up my house to post bail for that kid?  The one who was picked up and charged.  His mom contacted me to see if I could help.  He didn't do it, and we knew it.  I believed her.  So I used my house to put up $100,000 for bail so he could stay out and keep his job while it got sorted out."

"And what happened?"  I was glad his friend asked the question that I didn't feel free to, sitting at the next table over and just kind of listening in.

"The charges were dropped.  He didn't do it.  And he got on with his life.  And he's done well."  And then a few seconds later, "And you know ... he never thanked me for it.  Or the lawyer who helped him."

Spell-bound until that moment by the wonder of his friend's risky generosity, the second man almost thankfully now had something comfortable to say.  "That's pretty low class!" he offered.  Pause.  "Really low class!" he repeated.  "Some people in this world just don't know how to act."  He was clearly glad to be back on familiar territory, back from that strange world where his friend's story about paying it forward had taken him. 

His friend didn't follow him back there, though.  Just quietly said, "I felt good.  It felt good.  I was glad the way it turned out okay for him."


And then from the second man, a quiet "You're a good man."  Guarded, but not grudging.  "I don't know if I could do that."

Pause.  Then a quiet, accepting, non-judgemental repeat of the three words, "Pay it forward" from the first man, before the two of them got up to say goodbye and move on to other, separate appointments for the day.  A warm hug, and they moved from their corner table back into the heart of the shop on their way to the front door and the street.

No more than a half-minute later one of the shop staff came to wipe their table, and noticed a leather satchel left behind on the floor tucked between the wall and the leg of the chair where the "Pay it forward" man had been sitting.  The kid picked it up, and it was clear he had no idea who had been sitting there.

I told him it was the two elderly black men.  That that chair was where the bigger of the two had been sitting.  

He knew immediately who I meant.  They were regulars.  He ran off to see if he could still catch them.

And maybe ten seconds later, from my table inside the front window, I saw the "pay it forward" man walking out the front door, out into the neighbourhood, across the street towards where his car was parked.  

With his leather satchel restored to him, carried nonchalantly under his left arm.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Rest in Peace

I'm sad.  And a little bit anxious.

At first I was just surprised and a little repulsed.  

It was the smell that got my attention.  

Today is garbage collection day on our street -- a day later than usual (like this blog entry) because of the Labour Day holiday on Monday.  I was on my way to the back yard shed to get the can of yard waste from last week's weeding.  And as I got near the shed, I smelt it.  

The awful reek of rotting flesh.  The smell made me look down.  And that's when I saw it.

The rotting remains of a partly eaten grey squirrel carcass.  Lying in the grass two feet from the back shed door.

I've no idea what got it.  My guess is a neighbourhood cat.  But who knows, maybe somebody's been trying to get rid of rodents and it found some poison laid down somewhere.  Maybe it died a natural death, but I kind of doubt that.  

I thought about scooping up the carcass and including it in the trash.  But I didn't have gloves handy.  Japhia was waiting in the car.  We had to leave to drive the grand-kids to school.

I left it there.

And now I am sad.  And anxious.  I wonder if it's one of the pair of squirrel friends I have enjoyed watching all summer, and wrote about last week.

I am going to have to keep an extra close and caring eye on their usual meeting place.  See if only one shows up.  Or the two.  

Or none.

And now that I'm home from the errand with the grand-kids, there's still time.  And gloves in the back shed.  The garbage has not yet been collected.

I am going to go back, and take care of the remains of that grey squirrel.  

Amazing the different ways our hearts get opened.  How the muscles of compassion get stretched and flexed.  How we learn to be more human, more alive in the image of the Creator.


Wednesday, 22 August 2018

I never knew

I never knew.

This summer two squirrels have been making themselves at home on our back deck -- most notably on the railing visible through our living room window, and I'm learning a few things I never knew.

I never knew, for instance, squirrels can make themselves that flat and seemingly lifeless when they bask in the sun.  Kind of a mini-version of a bearskin rug.  How amazingly and totally relaxed!

I never knew squirrels form friendships.  But I have no reason to doubt that the two squirrels I have seen on the deck railing through the summer are the same two squirrels.  That often arrive and leave together.  That also sometimes arrive separately -- one showing up first, the other a minute or so later, probably with some excuse about traffic or the kids or maybe that darned hawk that keeps circling the area as their reason for being late.

I also never knew squirrels groom one another.  Like monkeys.  And endlessly, carefully, day after day after day.  What an amazing and delightful thing to see. Two squirrel friends peacefully resting side by side on the deck railing like two friends at the bar, then over and over again giving themselves to grooming one another for 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time -- with hands and teeth carefully picking through and cleaning one another's scalp, back and sides.  Cradling each other's heads in their hands to get better purchase and just the right angle and leverage.  Not a single thing sexual about it as far as I can tell.  Not yet anyway.  Just amazingly tender, intimate and mutual care of one another.

And ... I also never knew this -- that this relaxed ease together, this faithful friendship, this mutual and intimate care for one another would happen so easily between black and grey squirrels.  For some reason I assumed that squirrels of different colours would not be such good and natural friends.  Would even be natural enemies.

I wonder where on Earth I got that idea from.  

The idea that creatures of one species but different colours might not get along well together, or would so easily take such good care of one another.

Makes me wonder about maybe learning from squirrels as well as about squirrels.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

In the garden - part two

A few weeks ago I was marveling at the lush, unbridled, and mostly neglected growth of the tomato plants in our garden, celebrating it as a sign of the miraculously gracious bounty of life simply to be enjoyed.  

And that's true.  Life does ooze out all around us, and bubble up even when we're not working at it.  

But a conversation since then with a more seasoned gardener than myself (you know who you are, MS!) has helped me understand the limitations of undisciplined growth.

Whoda thought that a jungle of stalks, branches and leaves intertwined in overstimulated, undirected, multi-tasking vitality might mean fewer or smaller tomatoes -- less fruit, in the end?  Because so much of the plants' energy is spent in just making branch after branch, and foray after foray in some new and interesting direction?

And why didn't I know that the tomatoes don't ripen if they don't have adequate time in the sun?  If they're so overwhelmed and overshadowed by the flurry and fury of all the branches and leaves that the plant has been busily putting out, that they don't have enough time just to rest in the light of the sun and mature inside?

Turns out that choices have to be made about how and in what direction the plant will grow, and not grow.  And that the fruit needs enough time just resting in the light to really mature.

"And it's not too late," MS said.  "All is not lost.  You can still do some pruning."

So two days ago I was back in the Garden in the morning light, doing a little spiritual pruning of the plant and creating a little sabbath space for the tomatoes.  I cut away excess growth, removed unnecessary branches and leaves, and even sacrificed some of the tomatoes that were there for the sake of giving the rest a better chance to grow and mature.

It's good for me.  Hope it works for the plants as well.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

In the garden

Yesterday evening I ventured out back to check on our small vegetable patch. 

As I stood and surveyed it, I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s lush and full.  Tomato plants form a dense jungle of vines with fruit beginning to form green and fill out under cover of all the leaves.  Pepper plants – jalapenos, Scotch bonnet and banana, have more than doubled in height and fullness, are strong, and sport little peppers hanging from the branches.  Garlic, still flourishing and growing strong.  Rhubarb, still offering ripening stalks well into July.

I’ve done so little.  Next to nothing.  Last fall, finally heeding years of encouragement from a friend, I sowed 10 or 12 little garlic bulbs.  First thing in the spring I weeded and cleaned up the rhubarb.  In one weekend I bought and planted tomato and pepper plants.  Gave one dose of fertilizer.  Maybe 3 shots of watering so far all season.  And weeded maybe two times.

I don’t deserve such a full garden.  Isn’t it amazing how indiscriminate is the goodness of life on Earth, how blindly gracious and freely giving is Life, and how happy I am when I let myself find myself within it – doing whatever little bit is mine within its seasons and cycles (and purpose) of indiscriminate goodness?

And I wonder … when and where – and why, considerations like deserving and worthy and earning come into the picture?  And into my own troubled self-image? 

I wonder if I should spend more time in the garden.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Screening out the human

Jim sat in his wheelchair and with his permission I sat on the edge of his bed to be able to chat with him.  He lived at the nursing home where I came once a month to lead a morning prayer service, and this was the first time in years we had really talked.  It was the first time I was in his room, rather than just chatting in passing in the common room before and after the service.

Tomorrow is his birthday, he told me.  Said he will be 67, and when asked, suggested that maybe the reason he looks younger than me is he still has a good head of dark hair.  Unprompted, he told me he is happy.  Asked why, he said because he is alive, because he "has his brain back" after suffering a stroke, and because of his family whose pictures he showed me on the wall above his bed.  "I have so much, and some people don't," he said, with one of the most honestly contented looks on his face and in his eyes that I have seen for some time.

The reason I was talking with him was that I missed the memo.  The nursing home activities director had emailed me earlier in the morning that due to staff turn-over and illness, they were cancelling the prayer service.  Not enough staff to manage what needed to be done to make it happen.  I didn't log on, though; I was out of the electronic loop, showed up not knowing the plan ... and found myself with some unexpected free time just to visit with some of the prayer service regulars.

And because I was out of the electronic loop, because I failed to plug in and log on and look at my laptop screen, I found myself serendipitously receiving some wonderfully warm, personal and welcome schooling in gratitude, one of the foundational elements of any honest spirituality. 

A few hours later I was on the run again, this time rushing into a Tim Horton's for a meeting with another staff member at the church.  I placed my order, paid for it, and got my coffee.  Then, in the very few seconds it took to move down the counter to the prep area to wait for my Chicken Ranch Wrap Snacker (my lunch), disaster struck.  The in-store computer network went down, all orders were lost from the now-blank screen in front of the prep person, and no amount of hitting the refresh button was bringing anything back on line.

And she did try.  A lot.  Frantically.  Panic gripped her face, and terror of the unknown pooled deep in her eyes.  She wasn't trained for this.

Shortly, though, I and the couple waiting beside me were able to calm her, and convince her we could tell her what we had ordered, and she would still be able to prepare it for us.  And it worked.  What a wonderful system!

It really felt wonderful.  Yeah, there was risk to Tim Horton's that we would make up some order ridiculously more expensive than what we had actually paid for.  But for once -- and I never really noticed its absence until this moment of its restoration, we completed our order at the counter with a real, honest-to-goodness, person-to-person interaction about what we were doing, without a screen between us guiding our every action and making trusting, human conversation between us unnecessary.

It's enough to make me wonder.