Sunday, 22 December 2013

Tiny Light Logan

Yesterday (December 21st) at 2:15pm Logan died peacefully at Roger's House, a children's palliative care centre in Ottawa. Logan, the little brother of my great-nephew Josh, son of Jeff and Raelene, was three and a teeny bit. He had a devastating type of leukemia, and fought the good fight for about 8 months. Chemo and chemo and more chemo. Nothing was able to halt the disease.

Logan was cute. And loved. Had a radiant impish smile. He also looked like his big brother Josh. He left behind people with broken hearts.

Ottawa has a project - "the tiny light foundation" - that organizes for local professional photographers to do shoots with families of children with life-threatening illnesses. Below are three photos taken by photographer Julie Hearty of Ottawa. If you want to see more, go to Julie Hearty's facebook page, click like, and scroll down to Tiny Light Logan.

l-r My favourite oldest great-nephew Josh, Jeff holding Logan, Raelene

Beautiful boy

Always together
WHY? We ask ourselves the big questions - why do little children suffer and die? There are no answers. At least I don't have one - and I think anyone who says they do, lies.

At funerals, I always say we are there to do several things that seem at odds with each other. We give thanks for a life and for the ways in which the person touched our lives - for memories and the opportunity to love and be loved by this person. We grieve the death of this person we loved. And we give this person back to God from whom he or she came, and to whom he or she returns - God in whom we live and move and have our being.

I say none of this lightly. Grief is so very human and REAL. The death of a child is incomprehensible. It doesn't make sense. It is out of the order of things. Logan's family grieves not only his death - but the death of their dreams and hopes for him - the loss of watching him grow and grow up... and so much more...

No platitudes. No lies. No "Time will heal your grief." No - no - no ... no easy answers to make ourselves feel less hopeless and helpless. NO.

Simply - Josh, Jeff, and Raelene - you are surrounded with love, with people who will walk beside you, behind you, and before you, who will sometimes carry you, and who will share your tears. 

When I did my chaplaincy training in Burlington, VT almost 25 years ago, I worked in pediatrics, and did my Master's in Pastoral Studies while ministering to, journeying with, and learning from children with cancer and their families. I found a book called "Why, God?" by Burton Z. Cooper. Cooper was (is?) a lay Presbyterian theologian two of whose children died. He's searching for an answer and he traces the problem of suffering through the Bible, especially the suffering of the innocent.

In the end, his answer is - there is no answer to suffering, except - US.

"We are a living body of caring ... we are the answer to those questions of suffering and evil that rise out of our lives and onto our lips. We are a LIVING ANSWER (caps mine), not a dogmatic one. Our primary response to evil is not one of explanation but of witness... in the life of a community of sisters and brothers in Christ (and in other faiths, I add) there is a way - a way of worship, a way of listening, a way of seeing, a way of acting - which can counter the power of evil in all our lives, and set us on our feet again ... " (Page 124)

Our call - according to Cooper:    God's presence through us - our listening, being, waiting with, our presence with compassion and suffering companionship.

When our Lorne (Jim's and my brother) drowned in 1950, someone said to Mum shortly afterwards, "Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone." Others crossed the street to avoid her grief and their own helplessness.    NOT the way. Understatement.

We ARE helpless. We don't have answers. It's ok to tell the truth and admit we don't have answers. No one wants glib try-to-make-them-feel-better answers. We have the gift of presence, compassion, and understanding. That is all anyone can give. And that is what Jeff, Raelene, and Josh need in their deepest grief.

I never met you in person, Logan, but I've watched you grow through Josh's photos and stories. You touched my heart. 

Soar with the angels, Logan - or do whatever the littlest ones do on the other side of death in the new life you're discovering. Slide on rainbows. Dance in the woods. Make snow angels (I hope there's snow in heaven). Greet relatives you've never met who died before you. Love and know how loved you will always be.

You were and are a treasure. God's treasure and our treasure. Know that everyone who ever met you, or knew you through others and their love for you, will always remember you - your smile and courage and sweetness and little boy playfulness.... all that you were and are and are becoming.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Balance, Grace, and Snowlight

Attended a Solstice night celebration last night. A marvellous group of people, most of whom I didn't know. We were asked to bring a poem or other share about where we are now in our lives, what we'd like to leave behind ... you get the idea. It was beautiful! Solstice was explained. Elizabeth told with passion the story of Demeter, Persephone and Hades  - and how our seasons came to be according to Greek myth. There was guitar music, drumming, candle-lighting, one person sang O Holy Night in a deep, vibrating voice and I felt I'd never heard it before. Everyone had a pomegranate at her (mostly - there were two men) place to take home. Such a potluck feast. Such a night of grace.

This is my poem - it had been simmering inside, but I didn't have time to write it until I had completed the liturgy for Christmas Eve, sent it to the printer's, picked it up, two other errands - cat food from the vet's would be top of the list of necessaries Annie 'n Maggie would say ... so - it's a work in progress... 

I’m regaining – or maybe gaining balance.
Physically, I lost it with sciatica.
Emotionally, from childhood, I walked a tightrope in terror 
that if I stepped a cm out of line, 
God’d get me like he did my brother
Waiting, afraid at every pinch or twinge that the cancer had returned
sneaky, undetectable until it is too late.
Overwhelmed with work –
Building Mile End Mission from nearly scratch
Guiding our little parish
through conflict, racism, insecurity about our future – do we have one?

And now … partially retired, concentrating on our parish, genealogy, and writing ...

New life
Hard work claiming and re-claiming
I’ve traded the Mouse (a lie - though she's still part of me) 
for Tiger Ros
and speak, 
even when my voice shakes
as the saying goes

Searching for roots 
Black and Pequot slaves in Bermuda and relatives of every shade
Generations of our history in ground and above

Grandpa Mac who, so the story went, died in Uruguay in 1923
but died in 1954 in London 
a product of rigid and harsh Covenanter-type Presbyterians

I found him 
a scoundrel, and an interesting man of many mysteries
lost in the secrets and in the lies we believed.
Margaret, his daughter we knew nothing of, 
is my friend and fellow sleuth.
I wish I could tell my Dad I found his father.

I find myself connected to people who struggled
with what it means to be human in our family.
We’ve lived and loved and lost and messed up.

George Bernard Shaw  said, 
“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet,
you’d best teach it to Dance.”
I’m dancing with my skeletons
and writing a book:
Maybe called “Grandpa Didn’t Die in Uruguay.”

Since my breakdown in ‘75,
(now I call it a breakthrough)
I’ve chosen, 
cautiously at first and for a very long time, 
to climb out of the Pit     
Live the life I’ve been given
Face my terrors
Confront the lies
Embrace the challenges
Learn to love and be loved
Walk in snow-light
Return to the contemplative I am
and was as a nun in my prior life
and, energized, reach out with passion and compassion
wearing mis-matched, multi-coloured socks.

Advent - my favourite time of year. Hope. Expectation. Peace in the midst of the rush. I had a clean-up day again. Some people seem (am I wrong?) to be able to keep their homes neat and tidy all the time. I don't know - papers and stuff multiply while I'm asleep. I think they move around, too. I still haven't found my keys that I put in a safe place before going away last summer. Are some people naturally organized? Is it the INFP in me? Ah well, now is an opportunity to slow down, to breathe, do my physio exercises, read, prepare ... and I'm not in a hurry for Christmas. Advent is here. Now. I love it. Snowlight is a bonus for which I'm so very, very thankful. It lights up my heart. Grace.

Last evening, (December 14) we celebrated at our little church with an Advent service and Christmas Carols, a potluck supper (a feast) and talent sharing. We tidied up a little early and made sure everyone had a drive home in the -17C with a wind chill factor of about -30C. It has begun to snow lightly, the roads were exceedingly slippery, so we just took our time and chatted, laughed, and enjoyed the Christmas lights. Raucous laughter when I stopped at a corner and waited for a non-existent traffic light to change. I wonder how long it would've been before someone told me to wake up. 

This morning, the world was magically white. Joy! Soft, fluffy flakes - a marshmallow hat about 15cm deep on the small round table on the front verandah. I went for a walk and took photos and breathed in the peace and silence. Tonight - we have about 35cm and counting ... the snow is piled high as I remember it as a child - everyone shovelled it into the streets. Where else could it go? 

Tonight it's snowlight. Soft. Sparkling. Christmas lights on houses. Car swuffing quietly and for the most part, slowly. Sidewalks plowed. People standing in their windows gazing out at the exquisiteness of it all. I waved at them and they waved back. :-) Others were out shovelling and clearing off their cars. If it hadn't already been written, I'd do it - I feel a song coming on ... "What a wonderful world."

Tattered but standing - snow on my car.
This is how I find the car in parking lots while supporting the Habs, of course!

Stairs untrampled
More stairs untrampled and snowy hats. Heavyseges' old home.

Fluffy marshmallows
My home - upstairs

Ruby and Hughie's old home

Ruby and Hughie's at night

I need to figure out night camera - but it's still beautiful

Salettes' old house - a place of unhappy secrets, ghosts, and memories.

And more magic

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Family Sculpture - Safety and Belonging

Fractured Family - by Marie Findlay

Almost 20 years ago, I took a pastoral care course at the Montreal Pastoral Institute. One of the tools we used was "Family Sculpture." I was curious (be careful about being curious) and innocently volunteered. Family Sculpture involved taking other people in the group and props like chairs, and setting them all up in a way to express one's experience of family - for me, as a small child. 

I set them up. A slight arc facing inwards. Three chairs.  Looking from outside the arc, Mum sat to the right with her head down, resting her hand on Lorne, our brother who had died, who was sitting at her feet. Jim who was 5 at the time of Lorne's death, (but this could have been later than the actual year, 1950), stood partially facing Mum, to her right, not touching her or being touched. Gram (who lived upstairs in our home), sat facing the middle. Dad sat to the left also facing sort of inwards. No one seemed to see each other. All was still. Except in the stillness, I found my three-year-old self running back and forth behind all of them - not touching them - looking, looking for a place to belong. To connect. To be seen and safe. The sculpture had a feel that we were all invisible to each other in deep sadness -in our own worlds.

That experience had an emotional impact (as it was meant to - sneaking past the intellect to experiential knowledge) that still reverberates in my soul. The image is imprinted on me and I can see the set-up as if it were yesterday. Ohhhhh! Ohhhh... Thus began a new level of understanding that led to ... wuff... more growth. 

We all need and want to belong. We all have our own experiences of searching and finding - or not finding - safe people, safe places - a family or community or .......  We're human after all, and our journeys differ in the details, but not for the most part in our longings and needs.

A colleague recently told me a powerful story. A woman who lived in a 'hot-bed' area of a city had been invited to preach in his parish in a quiet suburban church. She told the people she would like to live there (at least on one level). She imagined they might feel fairly comfortable and safe, whereas she lived in an area where people seldom felt safe. It was as if she had kind of stroked them, lulled them into a sense of peace and security with a heart-warming homily and then WHAM! 

She told them they are NOT safe. No one is safe. We are all going to die someday. In some areas, it may be more likely that people will die young of violence. But we are not safe. Something will invade us and kill us one day. 

I spent my life trying to feel safe. Trying to find a safe place, family, community, 

I built walls of poor and destructive theology around me like an invisible heavy plastic armour. In terror, I crushed the life in me until I became like a very hard small kernel filled with darkness - but a tiny, tiny red flame remained - unable to escape - seemingly hopeless. I wasn't quite dead. I recognize this image now; I didn't them. Many people helped me crack open that shell and come to life. 

There is a wonderful story by Rachel Naomi Remen - in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal. A dynamic and powerful business woman of Asian descent came to Remen for psychotherapy as she was being treated for ovarian cancer. As a small child, "Mary's" family was massacred by invading troops, but she lived because her mother hid her in a wooden rice box. When all was quiet, she exited the box to find the bodies of her family on the floor. Mary survived on the streets by committing horrific acts with other orphan children, including murder. She was adopted by Americans and, being extremely intelligent, excelled and in time climbed the corporate ladders over the 'bodies' of anyone who got in her way. 

Now here she was in her 40's with a life-threatening disease, telling her story for the first time in all its horror. Sometimes, Remen said, it was all she could do to listen, and all Mary could do to speak. "Over and over a wall of silence and despair threatened to close us off from each other. Over and over I would beat it back, insisting that she tell me the worst...
I often found myself not knowing how to respond, unable to do anything but stand with her here, one foot in this peaceful calm office on the water, the other in a world beyond imagination... I had never been orphaned, never been hunted, never missed a meal except by choice, never violently attacked another person. But I could recognize the whisper of my darkness in hers and I stood in that place in myself to listen to her, to try to understand..." (p.132).  

Many months into therapy, Mary had a dream. She was looking at herself in a mirror... saw the darkness and felt the familiar intense shame, but couldn't look away. She passed into the mirror into her own image, moving deeper and deeper into her darkness. "Just as she was certain that there was no end, no bottom, that surely this would go on and on, she seemed to see a tiny spot ahead. As she moved closer to it, she was able to recognize what it was. It was a rose. A single, perfect rosebud on a long stem."

Mary said, "I can see it very clearly, the stem with its leaves and its thorns. It is just beginning to open. And its colour is indescribable: the softest, most tender, most exquisite shade of pink."  (p. 134)

Asked what the dream meant to her, she replied, "It's mine. It's still there. All this time it is still there. It has waited for me to come back for it." (p. 134)

Taken on my walk-abouts while recovering from back surgery
June 2013

Yes. Stories of healing. When we tell our stories - even if simply to ourselves, we find healing. When I first read this story "Remembering" I cried. It's a 're-read often' story. Telling our truths frees us. Listening to other people's stories can be freeing for them and changes us as well.  We're in it all together on this human journey. Sometimes, we find we aren't as alone as we think or feel we are.

Safe? No, we're not safe. But are we maybe not safer when we own our truths and stories? That little Rozzie running about in the family sculpture still lives, but she hasn't the power she used to have before I listened to her story. My story.

Where's God in this, you may ask? God says She's been there all along, and that I don't need to talk God-talk - sometimes used as a distancer - to understand and accept the painful parts of the journey. And while I give God some credit for the healing that has taken place over the years - accompaniment - sometimes carrying - I do not give God the credit for all the hard (understatement) work I've put into becoming more whole. And I give Bryan some of the credit for walking with me, listening, allowing me to learn to understand myself and grow through sacred play. Isn't life sacred play? It's how children learn. (There's a very good book btw  - The Playground of Psychoanalytic Therapy)

Safe? No. Yes. The old Anglican both/and. Paradoxes? If we don't accept that none of us is safe, then we won't find places (inner and/or otherwise) of safety. Comments welcome. Disagree with me if you like. This is a work in progress. There ain't no perfect family.  This Advent, though, p'raps there is hope and peace to be found in the midst of wrestling with our inner children - and accepting and loving them. And admiring their courage!

Monday, 2 December 2013

More on Turning Points

Sister Winifred in the snow outside the convent on Louisburg Square.
May we all know that kind of joy some day.
I've waited to write again for two reasons. 

Firstly: a friend asked me why I do this, and put it on the internet for so many to see. My response: my journey is simply a human journey. Others connect with aspects of my journey - and their own stories. I used to be desperate to be 'special' - because at the time to be 'special' in my unconscious mind would have meant to be safe. More on that theme later. Now - well, we're all special. I haven't made perfect, so old stories linger on - but to be special has quite different tones now.

Secondly: I've hesitated to continue with the turning points theme and my sojourn as a Sister of St. Margaret, wondering if it's my story to tell. Well, duh, I say to myself ... yes of course it's my story. Just as my family story is my story as well. Both involve other people - specifically, in this case, the SSM Sisters and community life in the late 1960's to 1976.

It also fits in with my dread of telling 'secrets' - family 'secrets'. A very old story - and one many, many of us have lived with or through. Every family has secrets. Some of us hold onto the secrets to the detriment of our souls and even bodies out of a false sense of protecting those whom we loved and may still  love. Stories sometimes of abuse. 

For our family, there were two main secrets (though there are plenty of others) :-)  : 

1. We are descended from slaves of African and Native American origin. This has meant that not only are we extremely interesting, :-) but we have new relatives and new friends of all colours - from pink (not white, for goodness sakes!) to Black. Who ever starting calling fair-skinned people white, anyhow?? 

2. Grandpa Macgregor from whom I gained my wonderful Scottish last name, was said to have died in a construction accident in Uruguay in 1923, when in fact he died in 1954 in Richmond, England, and even - joy! - had three more children. And MORE JOY - one of them is still living and I've met my Aunt Margaret twice! We've had great fun together. And she is the only living person who knew my grandpa.

The truth truly does set us free.  

Back to the convent. I long ago decided that I had two choices - to deny my life and experiences and love of convent life at SSM, or to gradually integrate it into my life story - body, mind, spirit. I was First Professed on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, 1971 and Life Professed on St. Joseph's Day 1974. St. Joseph's Day is still special to me.

I'm not going to tell other people's stories except some of the ways in which different ones changed my life.

Sister CM (who later left the community) taught me the intricacies of sacristy life. She was buoyant, fun, and thorough and called me her handmaid. I learned to ring the huge chapel bell - counting carefully according to the service and whether it was the five minute warning bell calling us all to pray or the bell to begin worship. This teaching led to my being sacristan at Trinity Mountain Camp, CT and at the convent and cathedral in Haiti. Do you know the correct way to fold a corporal so it always opens properly on the altar?

We dusted in chapel way more than anyone in her right mind would do now. I was 45 years more flexible than I am now, so the up and down wasn't quite as demanding. I loved to dust the  panels behind the Sisters stalls, connecting to the Sisters who had died and whose names and dates were carved there. Faithful servants who lived the religious life and died in community. The sanctuary - what a privilege. Words fail. The altar and reredos were exquisite. Joy. And lighting the lamps for festivals. We pulled them down on their brass chains, lit the candles, and pushed them high again. Kneeling in the silence, candles glowing in the dark, peace - reminds me that there is a contemplative hidden still inside - and after the years of high activity as a priest, I'm learning to re-connect to that aspect.  

Once I was clothed as a novice, I was sent for a bit to work at St. Margaret's Home in Montreal. Sister Felicitas was in charge still, Sister Juliana, Sister Jane and ... memory's gone... oh right - I was the fourth Sister :-) We lived in the old Notman house at the corner of Clark and Sherbrooke. I remember visiting old ladies - and in those days, the third floor of the large building was two large dormitories. No such thing permitted now, of course. And I remember Mrs. Thomas. And that one of our priests, Peter Blunt (who may have been a theology student at the time) used to visit her regularly. Hilda Penk, a former parishioner of St. Mark's, Longueuil (my home parish). Miss Penk, one of the most joyful people I have known, was born with cerebral palsy. It didn't stop her, except to limit her physically. 

Sister Mary Eleanor with Brian, Liz and Abbie by the Boston convent creche c1980
Abbie is holding the sleeping Baby Jesus. There is an 'awake' one, too.

Canon Bonathan presided at the eucharist once a week in the tiny chapel. Jeno Kohner was the Sisters' chaplain and confessor. I wish I'd realized then what sin really is and what it isn't. Good grief! 

All of the houses had Christmas crèches from the Wantage Sisters in England. Never, ever have I seen more moving and  exquisite crèches. There was a mouse crouched by the manger, a blind shepherd who sees ... (see below for details)

Displaying Christmas Creche 2.jpg
Convent creche in its new home at the convent in Duxbury - awake baby
(Photo by Sister Grace 2012)
In Haiti, we only had Baby Jesus, but he was near to baby size and could be cradled in one's arms. And poinsettias growing wild in the mountains across from Kenscoff.

I did a little cooking at home before heading south to Boston, and made a little recipe book to take. It wasn't long before I found hidden talents. Amazing what obedience can lead to - and, I add, other people recognizing gifts that are hidden from us. I loved the sacristy. I loved the kitchen (St. Margaret's Home, Trinity Mountain Camp, St. Monica's Home, and the convent - planning meals, ordering and buying food, baking hundreds and hundreds of loaves of bread. Sister Mary Eleanor taught me bread-making. SME sits on my shoulder and I still feel connected when I make rolls - kneading and baking - and Christmas stollen as gifts for friends. I was what they called 'dry' housekeeper as well at various time. Besides dusting rooms (in whatever order of mopping and dusting), it involved putting laundry away and distributing it. I still fold towels in three, and Sandi, my sister-in-law, liked the style and has taken it on, too. 

I worked one summer as a novice at St. Margaret's Camp, but immaturity in theological terms meant it wasn't the best fit in some ways at that time. I'd been a counsellor in the summers of '66 and '67. Using boxes and labels with caution, it has taken many years and a breakdown to grow into a flexible, feminist, liberal who isn't clinging to the lie that if we just pray hard enough, God will DO whatever we ask. Like keep our parents from divorcing, or children from dying. Control. Who's in control? Is anyone?

The work - the life of prayer - the discipline of getting up when you didn't feel like it - of working in the altar bread department (not my favourite) all changed me. Not as dramatically as Haiti did, but still real.

We had morning and afternoon snacks in the lunch room. I'm afraid I especially appreciated those breaks when I was in the altar bread department. Sometimes there were leftover desserts. Always milk - or coffee for those who wished - and a favourite still - graham crackers and peanut butter. I recently found (in one of my sorting and clean-up attacks) a tiny match box with teeny white buttons, and old name tags Sr Roslyn Marie. What, you may ask, am I still doing with this? I could throw it out.  I will some day. Or someone else will if they find it after I die. ;-)

I also have a tiny mouse made by one of the Sisters, other mice dressed in habit, cassock or choir robes belonging to Sister Rhoda and that she gave me. I had a thing for mice - and being little - not having discovered my inner tiger yet. Other people saw hints of her, though. I treasure a tiny St Margaret's cross glued on a gold-wrapped piece of cardboard - given to me by Sister Rosemary for my profession. Concrete reminders. Nothing like memories and the people and experiences that play an enormous part in who I have become.

There's more. Much, much more. Sister Winifred, who is dancing in the snow in the photo - who was deaf. It's been said that deafness can be even more isolating than blindness, because one can be in a group of people and not able to participate in conversation. Sister Winifred was joyful, kind - and what might have led another to become bitter, only seemed to deepen her. I have a card she sent me when I was hospitalized, with a tiny black kitten on it. A cat person, too.

Sister Rhoda and I had our differences of opinion - and I had not yet learned that ego-strength comes not from being able to do things we believe are right - but from a learned flexibility that listens. I struggled - especially I know now, once I had 'arrived' at being professed, and therefore 'safe'. Haiti had undone me in the best possible ways. Life was REAL. Desperate poverty. Courageous and resilient people. And I was living afraid, but didn't know it.

When Sister Rhoda was dying, and I was working and away from the convent, I used to come afternoons to visit her in the infirmary. We had long since patched up our hurts. We chatted or were silent. When I asked once what I could do for her, she said, 'Remember me." That I do. What is to remember but to take into oneself. And her request has echoes - "Do this to remember me." 

Sister Rhoda died June 7, 1983 shortly before I realized I couldn't return to convent life, and moved back to Montreal to continue my studies.  I was ordained priest on Pentecost, June 7, 1992.  Sister Eleanora's profession anniversary was Pentecost. Sister Anne Marie sent me the lead and stained glass Holy Spirit window hanging that used to be in the Mother's office window. I treasure it.

I was, in one sense, a breakdown waiting to happen - from my earliest years. I walked the edge of cliffs, clung to a theology that helped me feel safe when I wasn't, imagined that I was responsible for others' lives and safety. A child imagines this level of responsibility for the universe because to acknowledge that the adults around us aren't able to protect us from death and lesser? evils would be to face the impossible. So, we blame ourselves. Hmmm... methinks I no longer want even to imagine that kind of power, never mind to have it.

People sometimes say childhood is golden. It is NOT. At least not for most. Childhood can be terrifying. And we are powerless. Yes, there are wonder-full times, too. 

So - while there are other memories of SSM - p'raps one of the most important gifts of convent life was: it prepared me to survive the breakdown that began in earnest in 1975. Cracks were appearing, but the Pit opened up and swallowed me in the spring, summer, fall of 1975. And as I look back on what I now call a breakthrough - I know that a life of prayer, love, discipline enabled me to survive in those first years until I could gradually begin to come to life. 

I need to remember the convent. It's not nostalgia. It's a crucial part of the person I am still becoming. And I thank God for it all. And She says, "You're welcome."