Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Dancing with Our Ancestors - A Women's Day of Celebration - Montreal May 2017

Following is the text of a talk I was asked to give at the annual Women's Day of Celebration in Montreal. I borrowed a little from another talk I gave at the 35th anniversary of women's ordination a few years ago. Mostly, it grew out of wrestling both with the meaning of being a woman today - and the connections with my female ancestors - and the difficulties I see and experience as girls and women - church in particular, and our society in general.

There was a wonderful line in Call the Midwife on Sunday night - Sister Julienne is holding Sheila tightly as Sheila's labour progresses and it is hard ... Sheila had been a sister, developed TB, left the community, returned as a nurse and midwife and married Doctor Turner. In response to Sheila's uncertainty and anguish, Sister Julienne says something like: "Every woman is the sum total of all the girls and women she has ever been ..." (Later - watched it again - the quote is "Every woman alive is the sum of all she ever did and felt and was...")  I love that. I've spent a long time integrating the girls and women I have been - anxious child, terrified teen, and especially the Sister of St. Margaret I was and therefore in some ways still am  - along now with one who broke apart and put together (with God's help and a lot of others), parish priest, director of Mile End Mission, writer ... and one who is wondering what retirement will mean ...

Here is the talk: At a point when I asked questions, I didn't expect responses - especially the second question - What is the little girl in you afraid of. But many DID respond. So moving.

Women’s Day 2017
On one of my first trips back ‘home’ to Bermuda, I walked to Grape Bay Beach and, alone except for my friend Judy, I danced a dance of freedom in the soft sand along the edge of the turquoise waters – imagining myself connected to my fore-mothers – aware of a long history of strong, courageous, fearful, amazing women - my Mum, Frances, my Gram, Emily Millicent, born in Bermuda, leaving as a 12 year old for England and then Montreal – with ‘African’ features but fair skin, passing for white because it was, and is, easier to be white in our world… my great-grandmother, Laura Mary and her mother, Susan Jane Smith who was born a slave in 1832.  At the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, August 1st, 1834 her owner Elizabeth Hayward was paid 14L 10s 16p for a 2 year old  slave’s freedom … Susan Jane’s mother was Joanna Virgin and her mother Margaret Burrows … Smith, Virgin, and Burrows were all the names of slave owner families in Bermuda. Since slave records are difficult to find – that’s as far as I can go. My DNA shows 7% African, mostly from Nigeria and Mali with 1% North Africa and 1% Central Africa hunter – gatherer.

There are lots of stories I could tell about these women. Susan Jane emigrated with her much younger British army husband to Runcorn in Cheshire in 1881 and died there in 1892 of lung disease in the horribly polluted industrial air. She made our exquisite family baptism dress and sent it to Bermuda for the baptism of my Gram in 1891.

How Gram and her sister, Auntie Jenny were teased about their colonial accents and probably their hint of colour – and their intelligence. How Gram won a scholarship to teacher’s college, but they emigrated to Montreal before she could finish – and she was always saddened not to have become a teacher. How she had green thumbs and then some. How she was always homesick for Bermuda – and returned (with my brother Jim and me) in 1963 for the first time in 57 years – and died the following year.

How my Mum never felt she was ok. She told a story of asking her grandmother if she was pretty and the response was, “You’ll pass in a crowd.” The way of the day. This same Mum told me shortly before she died that after my oldest brother Lorne drowned she was always afraid to be happy. (Happiness can be taken away in a flash.)  She also, 6 years after Lorne’s death, drove across Canada with my brother Jim and me. Became a teacher – and was one of the first to recognize and work with children with dyslexia. The day after her divorce from my Dad was final she flew to England and drove alone on the wrong side of the road to visit friends and family.



from Google Images

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. “Be still” they say. “Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”    Linda Hogan, 1947

What women do you dance with? Do you dance? What kind of dance?

My dance is one of becoming REAL. Like the Velveteen Rabbit.

The Skin Horse in the nursery says, ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,“ he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”  (page 17)  “…Except to the people who don’t understand…”

It’s scary, though. We carry broken bits and sorrows as well as joys and triumphs.

If you were to stop and look inside – and find the child that still exists in you – who would you find?

What does she love?

What is she afraid of?

My fears:

Katherine Paterson, a well-known author of children’s books, twice received the Newbury medal (top prize in children’s literature). Paterson was born in China to missionary parents.  And yet, competent, creative, and well-known as she is, she writes that every time she walks into a room full of people she feels like the little girl she was who was dressed in clothing from the missionary barrels.

Childhood – Deaths and insecurity in my first few years led to my being an extremely anxious and extremely good little girl. I made myself largely invisible – I remember the moment it began - unconsciously terrified of being sent away or of people dying and abandoning me.  Every morning before school, I’d run upstairs to kiss my Gram good-bye … terrified on some level something might happen to her if I didn’t. One morning I was late and going out the door – no – I ran up, kissed Gram (who was in bed) good-bye, and ran back out.  Control – imagining we are in control is, as children, preferable to realizing the world is chaotic and unpredictable.

I tried for perfection for many years – walking a tightrope … if I could just get it right … God would love me … I’d be safe …

My little anxious child eventually led me to look for a stable family in community – at St. Margaret’s Convent in Boston. I also loved God. The first part I didn’t understand at the time.

Convent: If my understanding of God was limited by a lifetime of anxiety, SSM also gave me an opportunity to grow in contemplative prayer, a life of discipline, commitment, struggle, love  ... courage ... some of my best friends ever ... and much more.  And SSM gave me two years in Haiti that changed my life. Sent as a missionary, it was I who was converted.

In 1975, back at the convent in Boston, I had a major breakdown. Big time. I’ve long since seen it as a breakthrough –God offering me health. In and of itself it was not a gift in ministry. First there were years of living through and scratching my way out of the Pit into light and discovering that I have a right and responsibility to live. Many years of hard work in knowing myself.  Weakness – strength – we all bring our weaknesses AND our strengths into ministry. Which is which? One of my greatest gifts has grown out of ‘falling apart” and creating a stained glass window with the fragments.   

In 1983, when it was clear I couldn’t return to the convent, I came home to Montreal and completed my BA, a diploma in theology, and an MA in Etudes pastorales at UdeM.  A theology student in Cowansville the summers of 1989 and 1990 – Bishop Mary was the priest down the road in Dunham. She told me going with women to shop at Zellers is ministry.  Hmmm - ministry outside the box. It was also the time I began visiting in a housing project – in people’s kitchens – and beginning to hear stories of spousal and child sexual abuse, including by clergy. Curate at St. Paul’s, Lachine. We met around kitchen tables. I heard more about abuse and the challenges of being a woman, especially a woman living on the edge of poverty.  We formed a women’s group: WINGS – Women Initiating New Growth Successfully. We learned to quilt. We had assertiveness training courses. One woman, Sheila, had three daughters also involved … at the end of one course, she said, “Now when Nancy asks me at the last minute if I can babysit, I can say, ‘I’m sorry, I have other plans tonight.’”

I took two units of CPE as part the programme at UdeM – integrating experience (with children with cancer and their families) with theology. I met Barbara the Brat – and I loved her.  Besides a cancer that would kill her at 13, Barbara had a really tough home life with parents short on parenting skills. She didn’t know she was loved and she tested us every way she could. She, like many of us, took on responsibility for her parents’ inadequacies   I helped Barbara, and Barbara helped me along on the journey “We don’t do perfect” which is a motto of both St CHL and Mile End.  Discovering my inner brat after so many years of being GOOD is challenging, freeing, and fun. And scary.

Until my car was rear-ended twice on my way to church and the bumper was replaced – I had a bumper sticker. “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”     It could also be, “Speak your heart, even if your voice shakes.”

Some of you may have been at synod about 10 years ago when I spoke up about funding for Mile End Mission. Norman Spencer had just become treasurer and he stood aside when he realized I was waiting to speak. Norman has retold this story many times, often in my presence – because he admired my courage. It wasn’t tidy. It WAS passionate – For 12 years I fought for stable funding at the Mission – 12 years of promises made and promises broken – and more…  I shook waiting to speak, I shook at the microphone, and I shook after I sat down. AND after 12 years, we got stable funding and all of my energies could finally be channelled into ministry. A few years later, Norman began to tell the story at synod while I was trying to get the mike to work – and I said, “It wasn’t that bad.” A woman’s voice came to me from the side, “Yes, it was.” I’m just sorry I said “It wasn’t that bad.” Why did I feel the need to put myself down? Apologize? And I’m saddened that another woman expressed disapproval that way.

I watch our girls – especially at the mission – and I listen – and girls can be cruel. Exclude. Passively aggressive.  We had a group of 10-11 year old boys and girls visit the Mission from our local school. I asked them if they thought there was any conflict at the mission. (Yes, there is.  Often.)  I asked how they handle conflict. Boys and girls said that boys fight. Their main answer to how girls handle conflict was - to push away, to talk behind their backs, to be mean.  In essence, “Who does she think she is?” And they/we pull each other down.


Google Image


I see Lori. She’s here today. Lori who has awesome gifts with people of every kind – who is able to bring together, respecting both, a heavily alcoholic and difficult man in need of a new health card and the man behind the desk who tries to push them away and refuse to help. Lori who was told, in frustration, by a board member, “You never used to speak up like this.” Lori replied, “I didn’t have to. Ros was here.” That’s when I knew I’d done my job at Mile End Mission. Empowering women to recognize and live out their strength and wisdom. Lori’s good! So quick to respond effectively in situations that might take me 15 minutes to two days to come up with – to trust my knowing …

We all have our own stories of Survival. Many (or most) of us have basic insecurities about our own worth  ...  Not knowing where we belong. Many of us learned as children that girls are supposed to be... mmm ... nice?

It’s what many of us learned at our mothers’ knees – withdrawal was/is a method of expressing disapproval, leading partly to a sense of shame. Girls and women often still use withdrawal rather than direct confrontation. We all learn as children the survival techniques in our own family situations – we continue to use them until hopefully discovering that we don’t need some of them anymore. We bring them with us into ministry. Not bad. Simply a challenge. How do we work together as strong, competent women? How much do we support each other, and how much do we allow ourselves to be supported and encouraged?

Feminist theology - I’m a feminist. I believe in inclusive language and round tables. However, for a number of years I bought into, but now see as at least partially Fantasy-land – the writings that suggested that men are competitive, women are co-operative. You know – the circle stuff. Somewhere in there – we are simply human beings – men and women - and we are all capable of being co-operative, and also competitive. So what? It’s real. What’s wrong with wanting to win? To do well? To find a place? To belong?  Both/And. A good Anglican position.  I am human. I can be both competitive and co-operative.

I was born on Hallowe’en, as convent bells were ringing in First Vespers of All Saints. I say I’m a witch – defining witch for myself – as a woman of power.  I wasn’t aware of own my power. I imaged myself for many years as a mouse. Hiding. (Those of you who know me, mouse is probably not the first word that would come to mind.)  If we don’t own our strength (power) we misuse it or use it in destructive ways. No more. The ‘mistakes’ I’ve made in ministry have mostly been when I refused to own my authority/power. It’s been a long journey from ‘nice’ to ‘real.’ Messing up sometimes, but real.

We’ve dealt with murder, suicides, rats, drug-dealers who take over the apartment of a gentle man who suffers from schizophrenia. ... alcohol ... child abuse ... spousal abuse ... abusive landlords ... cancers ...  psych units when someone is hospitalized ... welfare rights, people who have lived lives of turmoil who re-create chaos when things get quiet... People of many faiths and languages – creating community together.  Not things we can learn or be prepared for in seminary. 


There are very few places where, or people with whom, I feel I can be confident - confidently say I’m doing a good job.  I’m saying it now. I’m retiring. And I’ve done and am doing good ministry. Why should that be so scary? Will someone need to put me down? Can I/we be confident and show it? Can I/we stand tall and be less dependent on external acceptance?

Why should I play small?

I’d like to read a quote from Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Challenge I’ll leave us with:

Have you been put down by another woman – put in your place – had an experience of “Who do you think you are?”

Have put down other women, tried to put them in their place – wondered about another woman : “Who does she think she is?”   If so, Why?

There’s a wonderful story of my great-grandparents.  The Virtue family lived in St. George’s. Mr. Virtue, a white man, inherited a pew in the front white section – Pew # 26. The Virtues shared their pew with my great-grandparents. For years I’ve wondered how my great-grandma, Laura Mary, a woman of colour, got to sit in a front pew in the 1800’s. Two years ago, I met Sandra, the great-granddaughter of the Virtues. I asked her my burning question. Turns out Mrs. Virtue was also a woman of colour, but it wasn’t provable. I laugh every time I think of some of the white people at St. Peter’s looking at Pew # 26 and thinking to themselves, “Who do they think they are?”


And - one of my favourite passages of all time : Dancing with my ancestors...

From The Sacred Journey by Frederick Buechner concerning the Feast of All Saints'

...HOW THEY DO LIVE on, those giants of our childhood, and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still. The people we loved. The people who loved us. The people who, for good or ill , taught us things. Dead and gone though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us—and through them we come to understand ourselves—in new ways too. Who knows what "the communion of saints" means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us. They have their own business to get on with now, I assume—"increasing in knowledge and love of Thee," says the Book of Common Prayer, and moving "from strength to strength," which sounds like business enough for anybody— and one imagines all of us on this shore fading for them as they journey ahead toward whatever new shore may await them; but it is as if they carry something of us on their way as we assuredly carry something of them on ours. That is perhaps why to think of them is a matter not only of remembering them as they used to be but of seeing and hearing them as in some sense they are now. If they had things to say to us then, they have things to say to us now too, nor are they by any means always things we expect or the same things...