Reading in a time of stress

four books

I’ve been thinking about stress, and how we all respond to it so differently. This time of pandemic is highlighting some of those differences.

I have friends, for example, who need to shut down, taking to their beds to block out the noise and pressure. I have other friends who channel their nervous energies into creating art projects or music or tasty treats. (The latter generously populate their social media feeds with images proving their productivity and setting the rest of us to salivating.) You know who you are. Be warned: when this is all over, I’m coming over for coffee and something delicious! 

Me? I get busy, pouring myself into work, making meals, taking walks, reaching out to friends and family. But besides that? I read.

At first my reading was all coronavirus, all the time.

But you can only do that for so long before you start to realize that maybe one reason you’re not sleeping is because your diet of TOO MUCH NEWS is just proving to be too much. For me, my all news diet lasted about a week. Then I turned to listening to online lectures (first a series about the Black Death, and then a series about Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, (which he wrote following the sack of Rome).

And then – when I’d exhausted those uplifting subjects – I turned to reading books.

The first book I picked up had been at the bottom of the pile on my nightstand for a couple of months. Given to me by my mom, Tuesdays with Morrie (by Mitch Albom) was just what I needed. It’s a gentle story that proved to be the perfect antidote to anxiety. And for a few days, the minutes that I spent each bedtime with Mitch, and his mentor Morrie, offered me the welcome chance to reflect deeply on what it means to be human, to live well and to die well, all in ways that brought comfort and courage.

I’m also reading Fortitude (by Hugh Walpole) aloud with my husband. This is a novel we read to each other in the first year of our marriage, and then again after about 20 years. We’ve now been married almost 35 years, and while I remembered nothing about the book, it was the title that appealed and caused us to pick it up again. Who doesn’t need a little fortitude now? It begins with this thought, “Tisn’t life that matters! ‘Tis the courage you bring to it.”

My 87-year-old mother and I are reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (by C.S. Lewis) together, via FaceTime. Unable to visit in person, our daily FaceTime calls quickly devolved into:

“What’s new?”

“Not much, what’s new with you?” All while I stared at her forehead. She hasn’t quite gotten the hang of holding her iPad so that I can see her entire face. (My mom is not of the selfie generation – she looks at her screen to see my face, and clearly forgets to look at her own.)

But now we are keeping the company of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Narnia – a first for my mom. I was introduced to the book in high school, and then years later, read it again to my children. My mom is loving it. I am too. And I’m relishing the chance to exercise my best witch’s voice.

The other book I’m enjoying is The Diary of a Russian Priest by Alexander Elchaninov, a book I picked up last fall while on a visit to St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York as part of a writers’ workshop. “God created life. The devil defeated it through death. God repulsed the victory of death by Resurrection,” writes Elchaninov.

It’s an eclectic mix, these books, but as I consider the collection now, I see a common thread: each one touches on themes of living and dying, of courage, and of times of upheaval. So maybe I should not be surprised that they are nourishing my spirit.

How about you? What are you reading these days, and why?

 

 

5 work-at-home strategies to ensure work gets done

bookshelves

For more than two decades, my work has involved working from home. For many years, that meant a 30-second stroll to my home office five days each week. But more recently, my weeks have been a mix of both “at home” days and longer commutes into an office in the city.

Today, my home office is a space I love—with bookshelves crammed full of my favourite books (that’s them above), artwork that inspires, a much-loved antique desk, a bright window to let in the sunlight, and a door to keep out the noise. But for years I worked in corners of our basement, corners of the family room, or on corners of the kitchen table. I’ve shared desks with my kids’ homework and craft projects, and occasional piles of laundry. I’ve worked in chaos and in solitude.

Throughout this time, I’ve learned some things about maximizing productivity and minimizing distractions. Given that so many people right now are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to work from home, I thought I’d share some of my favourite strategies for ensuring the work actually gets accomplished. Please note: my husband is now retired and we are empty nesters. So I share these strategies in the spirit of imparting what took me years to learn and hone. People living with little ones, or with teens or elders will, of course, need to build in more flexibility.

  1. Structure and routine are my best friends. As soon as I realized late last week that as a result of the pandemic I would be working from home, full time again, and for the foreseeable future, I put myself on a schedule. Here, roughly, is what that schedule has looked like this week:
  • 5:00 am – 7:00 am – I know, it’s crazy early. But I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person. So as soon as I’m awake, I’m up. Make coffee, Bible-and-devotional reading, journaling, and prayer. Then I do an email check, read the day’s news feeds, and spend a few minutes on household budgeting, bill paying, and online banking. With the added stress of the last week or so, I’ve been waking earlier than normal – sometimes as early as 4:00 am. I’m sure this will settle down, but in the meantime, I’m just enjoying some additional quiet time at the beginning of my day.
  • 7:00 – 8:00 am – Cajole my (now retired) husband (who is NOT an early-to-bed, early-to-riser) out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out for a walk together. Then home for breakfast and a quick game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 8:00 am – 12 noon – Work on computer.
  • 12 noon – 1:00 pm – Lunch. Another game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm – Work on computer.
  • 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm – Another walk. Dinner prep. Dinner. More Monopoly Deal. (We’ve started a “Social Isolation Tournament” during these days of social distancing, in which we are tallying our games. I’m ahead.)
  • 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm – Check in with loved ones. Read. Watch TV. Listen to an audio book or podcast.
  • 9:00 pm – 9:30 pm – Bed.

2.  Get dressed for work. I’ve never been one of those people who could accomplish much in my jammies. There’s something about putting on actual clothes that seems to help send a signal to my brain that I’m ready to get down to business. The other day my husband asked me why I was bothering with earrings when I was just working from home. I told him they helped me feel ready to work. (And besides, I had a few zoom meetings scheduled.)

3.  Taking regular breaks is important. Very important. I try to force myself to push away from the computer for 10 minutes out of every hour. I think of it as my “water cooler” time. I’ll use that time to read an article, throw in (or fold) a load of laundry, chop vegetables for the next meal or to pen a note to a friend. Getting up from my computer is not only good for my body but good for my mind.

4.  Self-imposed boundaries can make the difference between a good day and a bad one. I’m a news junkie, and global pandemics are a great excuse for justifying “just a quick check of the news headlines.” And the 24-7 news cycle offers an enormous temptation, because there’s ALWAYS something new to read. But one too many such checks throughout the day and it’s easy to get to the end of the day, look at my “to do” list, and realize that very little got done. Limiting myself to such headline checks at the beginning, middle, and end of the day makes for greater productivity.

5.  At the end of the work day, push away. I admit this one can be challenging – particularly in the midst of a major global news event. To be completely candid, this week I’ve been struggling with it a bit. (I suspect that’s in part why I’m waking up at 4 am.) I know from experience that I’ll have both a better sleep at night, and a better day the next day if I call it quits at a reasonable hour, allowing my brain some downtime.

How about you? If you’re new to working at home, how are you coping? If you’re an old hand at social isolation because you’ve long worked from a home office, what works best for you?

 

Now’s the time to build a better world

Patricia Paddey with husband Doug and their grandson Davy

“A child is born into the womb of the time, which indeed enclosed and fed him before he was born.”

– George MacDonald

I’ve been thinking a lot about these words and their wisdom, which someone shared with me a couple of months ago. I became a grandmother six weeks ago. And so, even as I’ve been reflecting on the time into which my grandson has been born, (that’s him with my husband and me in the photo) I’ve found myself thinking about the future and what it will look like for him.

“Unprecedented.” That’s another word that’s been rumbling around in my brain, because, of course, there’s been nothing quite like this global pandemic to confront this generation – and by that I mean any generation now living – before.

It’s going to change our world. Heaven knows it already is. For those of us who find change unsettling – and isn’t that most of us, if we’re being honest? – it can feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

As a person of faith, I find comfort in believing that this pandemic did not take God by surprise. He is not the author of sickness, death, and sadness, and He has promised to be with those who cling to Him in the midst of such things. That does not mean that we will be spared suffering. But it does mean that we may experience it with a kind of strength and courage and peace that’s simply not accessible to those who choose not to avail themselves of God’s good gifts. It heartens me to know that come what may, I am not alone because He is with me.

In a column titled “Pandemics kill compassion too,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently of the impact that pandemics have on the world. “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together,” Brooks said, “but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart.”

Already, we’ve seen evidence of this: with hoarders rushing to stockpile items – not in the hope of having an abundance to share – but to deliberately deprive others of basic necessities in order to profit from the resale of such things.

What kind of world will we be left with when this is all over? What kind of world are we building yes, building, in the midst of this terrible event – to leave to our grandchildren tomorrow? What behaviours will they see us model for them to follow when the next disaster strikes? We know things will be different. But how they are different – to some extent, that choice is up to us.

When I feel anxiety rise, I find it helpful to take my mind off my own cares and worries for those I love, to think about others. That’s why, on Sunday afternoon, I printed off a stack of letters intending to introduce me and my husband. We put on our coats and stepped out into the sunshine and knocked on doors. Maintaining the recommended safe social distance, we hand delivered the letters to houses up and then down both sides of our street. I included our cropped image from the photo above – such a happy recent moment – and our contact information. I wrote, “if you find yourself in need in some way and think that a friendly neighbour may be able to help, please feel free to reach out to us.”

“No one should feel like they are alone in the midst of a global pandemic,” I concluded the letter. “It goes without saying that human beings need one other. Maybe we need one another now more than ever. If we can be neighbourly by helping out, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.”

Our neighbours have been responding in kind – sharing their names and contact information. It’s a small thing that we – and they – have done. But maybe it will lead to bigger things. And maybe when this is all over, we will point to such things and recognize that they helped to make a difference, for our grandchildren, and for our world.

 

 

 

 

 

A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the book, I mourned her for days.

But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those of us who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.

But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Announcing: Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer

Craft Cost Call book title

I had forgotten the sheer joy that could come with crafting words into meaningful sentences, the exuberant rush as paragraphs and pages poured out from some inner well deep within. But this new book, Craft, Cost & Call represents the most writing fun I’ve had in recent memory.

Like dancing to a favourite song when no one is watching, part of that experience came from the fact that there was no client on this project. The only people my co-author and I were striving to please were our book’s eventual readers.

The other part of writing with abandon no doubt came from the fact that my co-author happens to be a dearly loved friend. Karen Stiller is a woman I admire greatly. Anything done with a friend can be more fun than doing it alone, especially when you laugh together as much as Karen and I do. We believe that ours is a friendship that was heaven sent; it began more than a decade ago when my name literally popped into her mind one morning while she was applying mascara. She subsequently reached out to me with a partnership opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, our history will forever include this little soon-to-be-published book, Craft, Cost & Call : How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer. 

It was years in the making, not only because we worked on it together for that long, but also because it represents the sum total of decades worth of all we’ve each learned so far about what it means to earn a living as writers who are also people of faith.

I’m proud of this little book. I’m thoroughly delighted with the outcome. It gives me deep pleasure to think of passing along some of the hard-won lessons learned through decades working as a freelance writer. And I’m thankful for the way that working on this project together with Karen not only took my writing to new places—reminding me of the joy to be had in practicing this craft I believe I’ve been called to—but because it took my friendship with Karen to new places too.

When we thought we were getting close to the end of our writing, we sent the manuscript out to some other writers we admire and asked for their feedback. We were encouraged and overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Read their kind words of endorsement here.

Then we invited my daughter Jenna, an illustrator, into the project. Her drawings add a touch of whimsy to the book’s pages. Our hope is that readers will experience as much delight during the time they spend immersed in this book, as we did in writing it.

Craft, Cost & Call is our thanksgiving offering to the community of writers that has nurtured us over the years, and to the community of writers of faith who are yet to come.

 

 

 

When God speaks in a daffodil

Daffodil against garden shed

I believe God speaks. I believe He speaks constantly. I believe He is a communicating God, who reveals Himself in various ways and means to those who take the time to listen, who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

No, I’ve never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a message written in the heavens or a burning bush. But I’ve sensed that “still small voice,” speaking within my spirit at needed times. I’ve had words jump out at me from Scripture that led or taught or directed or encouraged or comforted me in important ways at crucial moments. I’ve sensed “promptings” or “intuitions” that I’ve acted on, only to be convinced later as a result of outcomes that it was God who was leading me. And I’ve seen things in nature—incredible, memorable things—that felt like messages meant for me.

I received one such message yesterday, and then again, this morning. And it was such a lovely bit of encouragement at just the right time, that I felt it ought to be shared.

A week ago yesterday, my mother-in-law, Dora, passed away at the age of 102. Her death was expected—she’d been receiving palliative care for weeks—and my husband, Doug, and I were at her side when she took her final breath.

Doug was her only child. And while she was feisty and amazingly independent right up into her early 90s, he’d been caring for her in one way or another since his dad died 30 years ago. Thirty years is a long time to bear the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. The last 10 years, after she gave up driving, Doug’s caring meant biweekly (at least) trips to her home in Thorold, Ont. (from our own in Mississauga) to take her shopping, to the bank, or the pharmacy and then to doctor’s appointments. Four years ago, we moved her to a retirement community 10 minutes from our home, and visits and excursions became more frequent. For the past two years, she’s had several lengthy hospital stays, which have meant more frequent visits yet. Sometimes every day for weeks or months on end.

It’s felt at times like a long road, for her and for us. She told us again and again that she was ready to go. And while death is never easy, there can be a sense in which it can come as both a release and a relief. Even as we witnessed the release of her spirit last Friday, we felt relief that her suffering is over, and our long responsibility for her soon will be too.

Thursday her body was laid to rest next to her husband’s, and her long-time pastor spoke words of remembrance, comfort, and truth at her memorial. Our three children eulogized their “Granny,” the ladies of her church congregation prepared a beautiful lunch, and for dessert, everyone feasted on a buffet of pies—in her honour. (She was a wonderful baker in her younger years famous, especially, for her pies.) I couldn’t help thinking how delighted she would have been by it all.

Yesterday morning we awoke early in order to head to her apartment to begin the two-day process of clearing out her things. As I sipped my first coffee of the day, I opened the blinds to look out into our little backyard, and couldn’t help gasping. For there, up against our garden shed, was a single, bright yellow daffodil, almost ready to open.

I planted a row of daffodils against that shed 27 years ago, when we first moved into this house. Their leaves came up faithfully, year after year, but they had never yielded a single bloom, not once in all those years. Every spring I would watch as their green shoots would push through the soil and grow tall, spreading out their leaves. Every year, I would hope. But not ever in all those years did we see a flower.

Until yesterday. It felt like a sign, a message from above. As I looked at that daffodil, I sensed God saying, “It’s all okay. She is at rest. And good things are ahead.”

This morning, on the final day of the move, and what we anticipate will be the last of our significant responsibilities for her, the daffodil was in full bloom.

*

 

Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Dying well

Hand holds sign saying It Is Well

I suppose I first began to think about what it means to die well 19 years ago, when my mother brought my father home from the hospital to die.

She knew he was dying and he knew it. We all did. After battling colon cancer for almost five months in hospital, a doctor had confirmed our worst fears; the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for Dad than to keep him comfortable.

Mom believed she could do a better job of that at home, and so that’s where Dad went joyfully, to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Together our mother, my siblings, and I established a 24/7 care team. Supported by hospice volunteers and visiting nurses we looked after dad until he died two weeks later. He passed away peacefully, holding my mother’s hand. I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling in the moments after he had taken his final breath that his was not an “ending” but a “leaving.”

Doing things with and for one another

Almost a decade later, I enrolled in a 10-week training program with my own community’s hospice organization. I thought I’d like to help others the way that the hospice volunteers had helped our family throughout my Dad’s final days. I completed the program but concluded I wasn’t ready for that kind of work just yet.

But I’ve once again been thinking—a lot—in recent months about what it means to die well. First, because I helped to usher a friend to eternity’s threshold this past summer, and more recently still, because my mother-in-law is now receiving palliative care.

“In the Christian practice of dying well,” writes Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Dying Well,” her essay composing chapter 12 in Practicing Our Faith, “Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God’s strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and for ourselves.”

Our culture has a different idea of what it means to die well. Personal autonomy reigns supreme, and so our laws today grant people help and support in ending their lives prematurely.

The Christian way

I do not believe that is the Christian way. However, faith and trust in God does allow for the “conscionable category,” as Pauw describes it, “of ‘ceasing to oppose death,’ making room for caring for the dying.”

It means recognizing that God gives and takes life. And when bodies signal that life is drawing to a close, loved ones can listen. Medical interventions that merely prolong a life that has been reduced to suffering may not be heroic but horrific.

We will all die; that is certain. And faith is not a guarantee that we will die serenely. “Christian practices hold no magic formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths,” Pauw observes. “When a life is cut short—by accident, suicide, disease, or violence—Christians view it as an evil.”

Dying well, then, is not something that we carry out on our own. But it is something that, in community, we can help to give to others. And if this is true, then we can also live our lives in such a way that we can hope that there will be others to help us to die well when the time comes.

Then, when we are gone, there will also be others whom we leave behind who will mourn and remember and tell the stories of our lives.

*

Note: When I saw the image at the top of this post, I knew I wanted it to illustrate the subject of this blog. One of the hymns I have been singing with my mother-in-law over the past couple of weeks has been the 1873 hymn by Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The words in the first verse of that hymn are:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 13 – This post is thirteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

The power of testimony

Hymn book photo by Kelly Sikkema

We’d teased that she was the Energizer bunny; she just kept going and going. An athlete in her younger years, she overcame a fall and broken ribs at 97, and two more falls—due to congestive heart failure resulting in a fractured hip and collar bone—at 101. Then, in November, just after her 102nd birthday, another fall, and another broken hip, which led to a long period of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Two weeks ago, the hospital said they’d done all they could for her, and maybe she’d be more comfortable at home. So, we moved her back to her lovely retirement community. In spite of better food (she’d found the hospital’s pureed options insulting) and familiar surroundings, she has made it clear that no, thank you very much, she really isn’t very hungry or thirsty.

On Friday morning, her nurse called to say that she isn’t taking in enough food or fluid to sustain her. Later that day, the doctor signed the necessary forms to admit my mother-in-law to palliative care.

When my husband and I sat with her on Friday afternoon, we began our visit by communicating in the only way we’ve really been able to communicate over the past number of months—by writing on an erasable white board. We reminded her that she has much to look forward to: she is headed for eternity, where she will be reunited with loved ones. We listed them by name. She shrugged.

But then we thought we’d try her “Pocket Talker” (sound amplifier) again; she had been refusing even that while in hospital. This time, she allowed us to put on her head phones. I held the microphone close to my mouth and spoke into it directly, trying to engage her, asking her questions that might provoke happy memories. What was her favourite game as a girl? Who was her best friend in high school? Again and again she just mumbled, “I don’t remember.”

A light comes on

“Well, let’s see if you remember this,” I said, and I started to sing Jesus Loves Me. It took just those three words sung for the light to come on in her eyes, and soon she was singing along.

With that kind of success, I invited her to sing another song with me, In the Garden. And then, How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace, and The Old Rugged Cross. Next we recited The Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed, and the Twenty-Third Psalm. She spoke them all in the loudest, clearest voice I’d heard from her in a while.

I reached for the hymn book on her night stand and began flipping pages, looking for anything even vaguely familiar, giving silent thanks for all those years of hymn singing in church where I’d learned to make my voice follow the direction of the notes on the page, and to hold some notes longer than others. O God, Our Help in Ages Past;  Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise;  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee;  Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty;  Come, Thou Almighty King; and Be Still My Soul.  We three sang them all, me holding the mic millimetres away from my lips so she could hear, Doug chiming in with whatever he remembered, both of us amazed by how much she recalled.

“Aren’t you getting tired of hearing my sorry voice?” I asked her.

“No, don’t stop,” she commanded. “I love it.” And so we sang some more.

After we’d been singing about an hour, it was clear she needed to rest. So we kissed her and said our good-byes. But I sensed a peace and contentment in her that hadn’t been there when we’d first arrived.

The dimensions of Christian testimony

At home that evening, I read Thomas Hoyt Jr.’s essay, “Testimony,” composing chapter 7 of Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  In it, Hoyt describes Christian testimony as “a deeply shared practice,” in which “people speak truthfully about what they have experienced and seen.” Hoyt further describes song as “one of the most precious forms of the practice of testimony.”

“Christian testimony has two dimensions,” Hoyt writes concluding his chapter. “One is testimony to the church and the world, where witnesses tell others about the action of God. The other is testimony to where witnesses tell God the truth about themselves and others.”

It was then that the penny dropped. Through our singing that afternoon, we had been reminding one another of the truths of God, even as we reinforced them in our own hearts and minds. We had simultaneously been singing the truth of our own sins, failures, and frailties to God, while expressing our trust in His inestimable mercy, saving grace, and love for us.

No wonder she seemed at peace. No wonder that we felt it too.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 8  – This post is eighth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Sabbath keeping

Candle by Zander Bederi

I remember the school children, running through the narrow avenues and alleys of the Old City of Jerusalem. Happy, but quietly so. Hurrying to get home for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, which begins at sundown each Friday and ends at sundown the following day.

It was early on a Friday afternoon in the winter of 2005 when I saw them, when the streets began to exhale people. School children were the first to collect—like autumn leaves—along those narrow stones worn smooth. But soon, the labyrinthine paths were filled and flowing as restaurants and businesses closed up shop, blowing their owners and workers out of doors. They too scurried, but purposefully; all those people, generations, moving with purpose.

And then, just as suddenly, a hush, as the rushing bodies seemed to disappear, having been inhaled again into their hidden homes.

Later, as I sat in our hotel’s candle-lit dining room, surrounded by tables filled with families wearing their best, I listened as our host prayed, welcoming the Sabbath. I watched as he raised a cup of wine, sang a blessing, then blessed and broke sweet bread.

And I felt envy.

The gift of Sabbath

Ushering in the day of rest in an atmosphere of thanksgiving festive and reverent—with food and family, prayers and candles—struck me as a gift. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the contrast with how I carried out my own practice during a weekly day of rest and worship, which often began with the stress of trying to corral everyone to get to church on time and more often than not included catching up on one or more tasks that somehow just didn’t get accomplished during the week: groceries or laundry, budgeting or completing that not-quite-finished project for a client. The contrast deepened as I walked the silent streets of Jerusalem the next day and saw how the entire city had ground to a very visible halt. I realized: Shabbat is a gift the Jewish people have received from God, but also one that through their faithful practice of honouring the Sabbath—from generation to generation across thousands of years—they have embraced completely.

It is a gift, according to Dorothy C. Bass, writing in the sixth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, in an essay entitled, “Keeping Sabbath.” 

“For time-starved contemporary people, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift just waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long,” Bass writes.

The renewing ways of life. Whose life couldn’t do with a little more renewal?

Jesus, too, taught that the regular day of abstaining from work is a gift. The gospel of Mark records him as saying that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A weekly day of rest set apart from the wearying labours of our lives was our Creator’s intention for humankind from the beginning. The Sabbath was made for us, and given to us.

But for a gift to be enjoyed it must be received. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, it’s not enough to receive it on some sort of intellectual level; to enjoy its sweetness and benefits it must also be practiced.

Deepening Sabbath practice

And yet, “Christians cannot keep Sabbath as Jews do,” Bass writes. “We know God most fully not through the perpetual covenant God made with the Israelites at Sinai but through Jesus Christ. … In an authentically Christian form of Sabbath keeping, we may affirm the grateful relationship to the Creator that Jews celebrate each Sabbath, and we may share the joyful liberation from drudgery first experienced by the slaves who left Egypt. But we add to these celebrations our weekly festival for the source of our greatest joy: Christ’s victory over the powers of death. For Christians, this victory makes of each weekly day of rest and worship a celebration of Easter.”

My own practice of Sabbath-keeping pales in comparison to what I experienced in Jerusalem. I gather with fellow believers for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to worship, fellowship, learn, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Sunday afternoons my husband and I have long enjoyed the tradition of taking a “Sabbath nap.” But I’ve also frequently taken advantage of Sundays to get a little bit of work accomplished and justified doing so in my own mind thinking, “The Sabbath was made for me, not me for the Sabbath.”

This exercise I’ve embarked on, however—of exploring and deepening Christian practices in my life—is making me think that I’m cheating myself by not giving myself over more fully to honouring that one day as a day of rest each week. It’s not about uncovering new reasons to feel guilty or new goals to be conquered. It’s about more fully receiving the gifts that God has for those who embrace a life of seeking relationship with Him.

Recently, I’ve been making a concerted effort on Sundays to avoid my computer with its many technological temptations. It has felt freeing and I’ve liked it.

So tonight, when the sun sinks below the horizon, I think I just might light a candle and say my own prayer of thanksgiving to God for giving us this gift, and then I’ll welcome Sabbath.

*

How about you? Do you take a regular day of rest? What sort of boundaries do you observe around it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, and invite you to leave a comment.

Practicing My Faith, Part 7 – This post is seventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

Some truths. About truth.

Truth. We teach children to tell it. Courts depend on it. Relationships suffer for want of it. Science and religion both claim to provide us with access to it.

Truth is absolutely essential for freedom, according to author and social critic Os Guinness, who describes truth as a “precious” and “fundamental human gift, without which we cannot negotiate reality and handle life.”

And yet, ours is a culture that plays fast and loose with truth. Disturbing evidence for that reality came to light in the March 9, 2018 edition of the journal Science, when M.I.T. researchers published the results of an exhaustive study looking at how English language stories—verified as either true or false—spread on Twitter. The data comprised some 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Their findings? “Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.”

Bots are not to blame. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” write the study’s authors, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

It all adds up to increasing cynicism and scepticism. Can anything be trusted as true? Indeed, scholars say that the notion of any kind of metaphysical truth is collapsing. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary says that when people no longer believe that there is a truth to be known, a crisis of meaning occurs. The emerging generation wonders, he says, whether there can be “a reliable revelation from God.”

Young people, it seems, are choosing to put their faith in the truths that can be known through science instead. Recent research by the Barna group into “Gen Z”—those born between 1999 and 2015—confirms it. Exploring some of the major barriers to faith for non-Christian teens, Barna reports 20% of nonbelievers polled cited their belief that “Science refutes too much of the Bible” as a barrier to faith. Barna further relates that “the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is also a factor for Christian teens. More than one third of engaged Christian teens (37%) and more than half of churchgoing teens (53%) say that the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.”

But it is a fallacy that science and faith conflict at the level of observable facts, says M.I.T. chemistry professor, Troy Van Voorhuis in a video lecture. “Science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence,” he explains.

In other words, when asked, “Why is the sky blue?” a scientist might expound on light waves and the Earth’s atmosphere. But a theologian might respond, “because God, the Creator, delights in beauty.” Two different interpretations, but both would be true.

That science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence is a truth that the Church can and ought to proclaim.

After all, Jesus described himself as “the truth,” said he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that truth would set us free. Those of us who try to follow him need to pursue, uphold and defend truth—wherever and however it may be found.

 

 

 

Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.

“To love and to be loved”

A former colleague appealed to his Facebook friends yesterday to offer their thoughts about an important question. Diagnosed with stage four cancer some months ago, he has transparently shared the highs and lows of his life since then through social media, with good humour, courage, and characteristic sass. Yesterday’s comments though, were uncharacteristically solemn.

He recently learned his cancer is dormant. “I got to thinking about what all this means,” he wrote, “and I believe it means that I have been given more time.” He went on to invite his friends to share their views on how he might make the best use of that gift. “Is it solely for me to carry on with all the things I hold dear? … Or is there something greater that I should do with the added time?”

I thought about whether I should respond – we were not, after all, intimates – and I wondered if I even had the right to speak into his life on such an intimate question. But he was the best boss I ever had. What made him so were simple things: his obvious love and enthusiasm for what he did, his approachability, his genuine trust in and care for the people who reported to him, and an ever-present twinkle in his eyes that said no matter what kind of chaos was erupting, everything would be alright.

So when some words came to mind that seemed fitting, I shared them. I’d read them recently while studying the life of Mother Teresa as part of the requirements for a course I’m taking.

The diminutive nun taught: “You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world … [to] make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved.” 

To love and to be loved. The words resonated when I came across them, so much so that I wrote them down in a journal I keep of favourite quotations. But they make life’s aim and purpose sound so simple. Could loving and being loved really be the greatest thing? After sharing the quotation in response to my former boss’s query, I pondered that question for the rest of the day.

*

I was still thinking about it last night, when my 84-year-old mother came for dinner. I’d promised to help her hem a pair of pants she’d recently purchased. I admit I almost called her to reschedule, because there was a paper I needed to research for school, and I knew she’d understand. But thinking about that question prevented me from picking up the phone.

Our meal over and cleared away, my mother asked, “Am I keeping you from anything you need to do?”

I thought about that other question, the big one, before answering hers. “No mom. Not a thing.”

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen, working with our needles and thread, each stitching one leg. For a while we chatted. For a while we stitched in silence.

As we worked, I thought about how my mother taught me to sew when I was just a girl. For a year, we both had part-time jobs doing piecework for the same company, sewing patchwork aprons, placemats, oven mitts and things. We must have spent hours back then, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on projects together. But I hit high school and developed other interests. Mom continued to sew, but it’s been years, decades even, since we’ve done anything like that together. Throughout my entire adult life (until five months ago when she sold her house and moved to town) mom lived in another city. During all those years, our times together had focussed on visiting, not projects.

So working alongside her last night felt special. The complete task lasted less than an hour, but I felt my entire spirit expand during those minutes, the way your lungs do when taking a long deep breath of fresh, cool, mountain air. I sensed it was a gift.

Pausing to re-thread her needle at one point, mom told me how much she was enjoying her evening and asked, “How long has it been since we worked side-by-side like this?”

“It’s nice for me too, mom,” I said. And it was. Really, really nice.

And in that moment I realized I’d found the answer to the question that had been rolling over in my mind all afternoon.

 

31 things I’ve learned from 31 years of marriage

Wedding day photo

My husband Doug and I mark 31 years of married life today.

This, less than 24 hours after hearing about the split of one of Hollywood’s power couples. Social media has, apparently, been filled with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the demise of #Brangelina. So for those who might be tempted to give up on the idea of love and marriage because of that demise, I’d like to offer hope in the way of sharing some lessons I’ve learned from married life. One lesson per year.

  1. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the two people involved.
  2. In marriage, character counts. Honesty, integrity, humility, loyalty, faithfulness, respect, good humour, the ability to forgive, and to persevere all matter. A lot.
  3. Character matters in both partners.
  4. No one is perfect. No one. But together, two imperfect – but committed people – can build something perfectly wonderful and deeply satisfying.
  5. Physical attraction never goes away. If the sound of his voice, or the look in his eyes, or the feel of his hand in yours makes your heart beat faster in your 20s, there’s a good chance it always will. (Providing that all of those other qualities I mentioned in point #2 above are also there.)
  6. Sacred vows are important: but only if you’re a person who believes in the inviolability of a sacred vow. Otherwise, I suppose they’re not worth much at all. (See point #2.)
  7. There are times in marriage when the ONLY thing that keeps you committed is your commitment to your vows. When you get through those times, you’ll be so very glad you stuck it out. (See point #5.)
  8. Prayer – alone and together – can be a lifeline. When you feel like you’re at the end of your rope and don’t know where else to turn, getting on your knees can bring help, hope and healing in a way that nothing else can. Getting on your knees together can bring about a level of intimacy that nothing else does.
  9. If you make each other laugh – and if you love each other’s company when you’re dating, chances are good that you always will. But it’s important to build in opportunities for fun and togetherness, to intentionally nurture the laughter. Otherwise, life can become dreary.
  10. If dancing together brings you joy, then dance! Dance in the kitchen or in the living room or the bedroom. Dance to music, or make your own.
  11. Love is a feeling, an emotion. But it is also an act of the will. When the intensity of the feeling diminishes – as it does – choosing to continue to love, and to act with love, ensures the feelings transform into something deeper, more resilient and satisfying.
  12. Trifling habits can make you make each other crazy. (He brushes his teeth in the shower. I perpetually use his hairbrush.) Some things just have to be forgiven – again and again …
  13. At a certain point you realize that some of the things that once seemed so important to do battle over, really aren’t that important after all. You learn to overlook those things, and find you’re both happier for it.
  14. There were times – in the early years of marriage – when I know we both wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.  What got us through those times? See points #2, #5, #6, and #8 above.
  15. When children come along, marriage can take on a whole new depth and purpose. Suddenly there are wonderful, incredible, amazing human beings on the planet, born as a result of the love you share. It’s astonishing, and you realize you would do anything for these little people, which is good because the extent to which they need you is almost overwhelming. Having a partner who is truly a partner in the midst of all that neediness can be the difference between deep satisfaction and despair.
  16. Seeing your partner love your children well can make you prouder and more in love than you ever thought possible.
  17. There are years of sheer exhaustion when the demands of work and family life can take a tremendous toll. But things get better. And when you get through those years, it’s a gift to be able to look at each other and say, “We did it together.”
  18. Children grow. And leave. They make their own choices and build their own lives. The leaving can be excruciating. But if you and your partner are there for each other, it can make all the difference.
  19. Having a friend who’s been at your side – through thick and thin – for 31 years, who loves you in spite of all your failings and weaknesses is like winning the lottery. Only better.
  20. It’s important to have each other’s back. If you don’t, who will?
  21. It’s important to be each other’s greatest fan, loudest cheer-leader and strongest supporter. If you don’t, who will?
  22. While character is important going into marriage (see point #2), marriage is also one of the best character-builders around.
  23. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of loving, willing self-sacrifice in marriage. On both sides. (See point #22).
  24. Marriage brings more than just two people together; it brings two families together, which also yields challenges and joys. How to get through the challenges? See points #20, #22 and #23.
  25. At times, marriage can be harder than you ever thought possible. At other times, it can be pure bliss. If you’re lucky – if you’ve chosen a partner of good character, who shares your values and goals – then you’ll find that most of the time it’s better than you could have imagined.
  26. If you’re both completely committed to your marriage – even during times when you might not feel completely committed to each other – you’ll find there is no such thing as “irreconcilable differences.”
  27. I truly believe that in my marriage to Doug, I got the better end of the deal. The thing that astonishes me, is that he says he feels the same way. I’m not sure what lesson to take from that – but I know there’s one in there somewhere.
  28. If I had it to do all over again, I would.
  29. Becoming “Patti Paddey” – a name I’ve had to explain and justify, again and again since the day I said “I do,” has been worth it.
  30. Bodies change. Hair grows grey. Parts sag. Passion matures. And it’s all good.
  31. Over the course of 31 years, you build a lot of shared memories. Some are wonderful, some are painful. But the fact that you’ve shared them has a way of making you grateful for each one – and of intensifying your gratitude for each other.

*

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

                                                             — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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Of pickles, procrastination and promises

jars of pickles

I loved her from the moment I met her. Lois is at once kind, humble and sweet, yet also tough, strong and wise. At 84 and recently widowed, she is grieving. Her eyes will redden and rim with tears at inexplicable moments; you can’t live and love for more than 60 years with a good man and not have every aspect of life upended when he is gone. And yet, at a time when some people would succumb to self-pity, give up or give in, shy away from others or shrivel up in bitterness, Lois actively engages in life and in her work, seeking out opportunities to enrich the lives of others.

I know, because she has enriched my life.

The first time I met Lois, I came home and told my husband, “When I grow up, I want to be just like her.” She made me lunch that day. Everything was homemade: from sweet grape juice, to savoury casseroles, to buttermilk pie that melted in my mouth. And the pickles! I had never tasted such delicious pickles, and said so. When I left, she gifted me a jar of them. My family devoured them in one sitting. So the next time I saw Lois, I asked for her pickle recipe, and vowed to try my hand at pickle-making when the season came around.

Cucumber season came around a couple of weeks ago, and as I harvested a few tasty ones from my small garden I thought about pickles. I told myself I should get out and purchase the supplies I would need. I should visit a farmer’s market and buy the pickling cucumbers and the dill. But I can be a world-class procrastinator when I’m afraid or intimidated, and with only limited canning experience, the prospect of making pickles felt like an enormous hurdle.

Hearing of my stalling tactics, Lois took pity and said she would gladly mentor me through the process. And so it was that early yesterday I found myself touring her impressive flower and vegetable gardens as she wielded a spade, digging up the fresh garlic we would need.

Standing in her kitchen, sterilizing jars, scrubbing and trimming cucumbers, she told me stories from her life, and of lessons she’s learned. When at one point I commented on her impressive gardening, culinary and home-making skills she reminded me, with a story from her childhood, how she’d learned that we’re all given gifts, and it’s our duty to steward those gifts to the best of our ability.

Then, because it seems she will not receive a compliment without giving one in return, she said, “I couldn’t ever go to Africa and write a book.

Jars of relish and sweet pickles

Relish and sweet pickles in Lois’ kitchen.

We worked from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. You can see some of the fruits of our efforts above. (The photo at the top of the page shows dill and bread-and-butter pickles, the one immediately above – sweet pickles and relish).

At the end of our day, I thanked Lois for her generosity and labour. I told her she’d given me a gift that would last throughout the year – and maybe even for generations to come.

“A labour of love,” she clarified with a hug, and a smile.

At lunch time today, my 20-year-old daughter sampled some of the relish.

“Mmmmm …” she murmured, licking the spoon. “How do you make relish, mom?”

“I’ll show you next year,” I promised. “We’ll make it together.”

*

“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” 

– Henry Van Dyke

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