A final farewell

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Our friend Nicole has been gone for a couple of months now. I wrote about her here shortly after she died. Her death has been a particularly difficult one for the community, me included. Until last week I hadn’t been able to bring myself to bike or walk past the location of her death, despite the fact that it is on my usual route between Parkdale and home. I simply found a different route.

Then, last Tuesday Erinn and I were in her car, and drove past the spot together. We had a good cry, and prayed. Later that day Meagan, Erinn and I went to the spot together, buried a treasured possession of Nicole’s that she had given to us, and prayed some more.

The next day we saw Nicole’s partner at drop in, and he told us that he had gone to visit her grave on that same Tuesday. I knew that her birthday was in September, but I had the 21st pegged in my mind as the date. However, unsurprisingly, my memory did not serve me correctly. Tuesday September 19th, the day that we visited the site of Nicole’s untimely death, would have been her 43rd birthday.

I am grateful that, despite my poor memory, we ended up remembering and honouring Nicole on her birthday. I am grateful that her partner was doing well enough to have made it out to the cemetery that same day. I am grateful for a little bit more closure.

Nicole has left a hole in our hearts and our community. My prayer is that we (all of us) continue to grieve well.

 

The site of our little unofficial memorial

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Prayers of the people

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Folks at The Dale often have a way of expressing themselves with a searing kind of authenticity that sometimes leaves me breathless.

As I think I’ve probably written here before, one of my favourite times of the week is community prayer time at The Dale’s Sunday service. This past Sunday was no exception. A new friend, who has only been to a handful of Dale events, prayed this prayer: “God, thank you for seeking me out. I know that I sometimes look away, but I’m trying to look toward you.”

Another friend who has been an integral part of the community for many years recently asked Erinn, Meagan and me to come and help them clean up their apartment. So last week we spent an hour and a half sorting and pitching, sweeping and wiping. This friend has experienced a huge amount of loss and trauma, is currently quite ill, and despite our efforts is still living in less than ideal conditions. Yet, this friend prayed these words with utter sincerity: “God thank you that I can walk around my house again. Thank you that Erinn and Joanna and Meagan and You came through for me. And everyone here… Thank you that we’re a community that loves each other. I’m not going to ask you for anything, because I already have everything.”

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Camp

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This past weekend about thirty of us from The Dale went up to Camp Koinonia. It was an adventure, from start to finish!

This year we had a number of strong personalities on the trip, and a couple of folks with significant mental health struggles. The combination of these factors led to some tension on the bus ride up, a few spectacular blow-ups during the weekend, and more tension on the bus ride back (which also involved getting a flat tire on Highway 400). Good times.

That being said, all of these tense situations were handled in the moment, everyone stayed safe, and the difficult moments were far outnumbered by the beautiful ones.

One of my favourite parts of the weekend happened on the Saturday afternoon. As I wrote in my last blog, I had promised a friend (Kim) that I would paddle across the lake while she swam. In the end, another friend, Tim, did the paddling, and Erinn and I joined Kim in the water! It was chilly, refreshing and wonderful. A large-ish group of folks cheered us on from the shore as we swam from the camp beach to a rocky point partway across the lake and back again. Meagan and her fiance Ian paddled out to heckle us, and Cate (Erinn’s daughter) made her way out on a paddle board to accompany us on the way back. It was great.

Another beautiful period of time was during a hike into the forest behind the camp. We enjoyed some amazing scenery, breathed lots of fresh air, got a tiny bit lost, and found our way back to the trail. After returning from the hike, a community member who had never been up to camp with us before said that it felt like a whole other world, being out in the woods like that. Her face was glowing with joy and hard-earned perspiration.

At the end of the weekend a number of people said they’d like to stay up north forever 🙂 Despite the difficult moments, we were reminded again how important it is to take some time out of the city, as a community. Looking at the stars, singing campfire songs, working on puzzles, being outside almost all day… These are good, good things, for which we are collectively grateful.

Returning from the big swim!

Back in the saddle

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Happy autumn! I/we are back in the swing of things at The Dale, after a very full summer and then some time away.

Thanks to the generosity of a dear friend, she and I were able to spend the last couple of weeks away from our regular lives, doing some traveling: exploring, reading, hiking, thinking, swimming, praying, eating and resting. This time away was a gift in so many ways, and I’ve come back feeling grateful and refreshed. I am also grateful for Meagan, whose presence at the Dale made it possible for me and Erinn to have overlapping holidays for the first time ever (without The Dale being closed the whole time)!

I spent some time reflecting on the first thirty years of my life while I was away, and marveling at the fact that I get to do what I love for my job…and that I’ve been doing this work at the Dale for five years now! Half a decade of life in community: learning from each other and from God (often through each other), laughing even in the midst of hard things, getting frustrated with each other and seeking to work through it, grieving with and for each other, seeing changes in one another. What a ride it has been, and will continue to be!

This weekend we’re heading up to Camp Koinonia in Parry Sound for our annual fall retreat. About thirty of us will pile into a school bus with all of our stuff, and spend a few days up north. This is some of our folks’ only chance to be out of the city all year, so it’s a pretty special time. We’ll go for hikes, go paddling, and have camp fires. Some of us will go fishing, and some others will go swimming. I’ve already promised to paddle alongside a friend who would like to swim across the lake! If you think of us, please pray/send good thoughts for safety and harmony.

After the retreat is over, the next big Dale event will be the Ride for Refuge on September 30th! This bike ride/walk has become our annual fundraiser for our general budget (which comes entirely from donations). If you would like to join us on the 30th, we would love to bike or walk with you!! You can register at:

https://rideforrefuge.org/register

If you’re not able to join us but can donate, you can do that here:

https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/TeamFundraisingPage.aspx?teamID=768324&langPref=en-CA

Again, happy autumn everyone. May this season be full of apple cider, cozy sweaters, and fresh perspectives.

Dreaming and grieving

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I never used to remember my dreams.

In the last few years, though, they have been more vivid, and more of them have stuck with me after I awake. Sometimes these dreams are a bizarre mash-up of things that I’m thinking about, and I don’t read too much into them. Others are about things that I fear and are a little too realistic, leaving me feeling tired and upset when I wake up. Thankfully these are relatively rare.

And occasionally I have dreams that are lovely at the time and heart-wrenching afterward, because they are about friends that I have lost from Sanctuary or The Dale. I’ll dream that these friends are alive and well, and I’m so happy to see them. Then I wake up and realize that they are still gone. These dreams are hard, but they also give me hope. They give me a glimpse of how wonderful it will be to see my friends in the Kingdom, when death is put to death once and for all.

The most vivid of these dreams occurred quite a while ago, but it frequently comes to mind, especially now that we at The Dale are in another season of grief.

In this dream I was standing in the parking lot at Sanctuary chatting with a group of people. Then Terra walked up, a woman around my age who died the day before my birthday, 4 years ago. In real life I had told her that I hoped to do outreach with her one day, knowing that she had been engaged in street outreach at one point.

In the dream she told us that there had been a mistake, and that it wasn’t her that had died that day. She had moved a few hours away, made a major life turn-around, and had been working at a community center. She looked SO healthy, and SO happy. She had just come back to Sanctuary to tell us that she was doing great.

The next thing I knew, there were a whole bunch of people in the parking lot who [we thought] had died… Iggy, Mark, Fred, Cliff. It was the most beautiful thing. Then we casually parted ways, knowing that we’d be seeing more of each other soon.

Waking up from that dream was the saddest thing. But like I said, it also gives me hope.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grieving, and how to do it well when there’s sometimes no time to breathe between deaths. I think that these dreams are a way that my subconscious is helping me to process the deaths of my friends, and are therefore a means of grace.

So, when these dreams come I will receive them as bitter sweet gifts; reminders to keep on grieving and hoping.

 

John

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This week has been a tough one. Just days after having Nicole’s death confirmed, we learned that our friend John had also died.

John was a genuine kind of guy. A couple of years ago he was quite a constant presence at The Dale. He was going through a very difficult time, and would come into our Monday drop-in to talk things out. He was very open about the depth of his pain, and also about his appreciation of our community. He and his partner at the time were known to describe The Dale as a place to come and “get your calm on”. This made and makes me really happy.

Over the last few years John had been doing better, and we didn’t see him quite so much. When I did see him on the street he would always stop, ask how I was, beam his smile at me, and when we were parting ways he would almost always say, “take it eeeeeeasy.” He had a way of making me feel that taking it easy may actually be possible… If he could, then I could too.

I’m really going to miss seeing John around the neighbourhood. And I’m glad that he was able to get out to the east coast to be with his family before he passed away.

John, may you deeply enjoy taking it eeeeeeasy, from now on.

 

 

Nicole

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Nicole was special.

The first time I met her was at our Wednesday morning art and breakfast drop in a few years ago. She sat in the corner, quietly creating beautiful pen and marker drawings. She would eat breakfast, continue drawing, and then slip out. It took a number of weeks before we had a conversation, and even then it was short. It was soon obvious to me that Nicole was a woman of deep intelligence, courage, creativity, and carefully hidden pain.

Over the months Nicole gradually opened herself up, sharing some of that hidden pain with us. She also shared her art, her entrepreneurial dreams, and her incredible smile. Even when she was struggling mightily, she would look me in the eye and ask how I was doing.

Nicole and her partner came up to camp with The Dale last fall. They were newly dating, and it was very sweet to see them caring tenderly for one another. Nicole worked tirelessly on a big jigsaw puzzle and delighted in its completion, even though a few pieces were missing. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a beautiful result of a joyful communal effort.

For the last number of months Nicole and her partner have been homeless. This was a massive source of stress for Nicole. She had a number of treasured possessions that she asked us to keep safe for her, including a large, beautiful painting of Paris that she dreamed of hanging in her new place. She also asked me to keep a small vile of a loved one’s ashes safe for her, and I still have it in a special corner of my wallet.

Every death at The Dale makes me sad, but Nicole’s death also makes me angry. While there were a huge number of stressors in her life, homelessness did not need to be one of them. And from the outside looking in, it seemed that homelessness was the final straw for her. She had a huge network of people from various community organizations who loved her and were seeking out a safe place for her live. And the reality of the affordable housing situation in Toronto is such that she was left waiting and hoping for something that may not have materialized for another number of months. This is wrong. This city should not have homeless deaths. Full stop.

Nicole, you are very very missed and very very loved. Thank you for sharing your life with us. Know that we’ll keep advocating for a solution to the needless homelessness that you experienced. Rest well, friend.

Super not

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At The Dale we talk a lot about being a community where everyone is acknowledged as being a person with gifts to give as well as areas of struggle. When explaining this to people who are just learning about the Dale, we are very clear that this applies to those of us who hold positions of leadership. But if you hang out with us long enough, you’ll learn that the last statement goes without saying.

For example, I have a pretty bad memory. And the community knows it.

I like to blame it on the memorize-and-forget style of learning that I picked up during my undergrad degree (I’ve forgotten pretty much everything I ever knew about biology, chemistry and definitely physics). Or I blame it on genetics–a family trait that my Dad calls “benevolent amnesia”. But the fact remains, I often have the memory of a goldfish.

Folks in the community have adapted to my poor memory, and will call me up to remind me of things. Last summer I was sitting in a park in Nova Scotia when a community member called to remind me to cancel our Second Harvest delivery for the week. Another friend, for whom I run errands, put “memory enhancer” at the top of his shopping list. Concerned, I asked if he’s been forgetting things…and he said “no, that’s for you!” Ha.

This may seem like a silly example, but my inability to keep track of things without writing them down is, among my other areas of struggle, a very constant (and sometimes embarassing) reminder that I am anything but super human. I’m super NOT.  As a people-pleaser who always wants to do the right thing by everybody, it kind of kills me that I drop the ball regularly. And I love that my community and fellow staff members are patient with me, and help me out.

We all have gifts to give, and areas of struggle. Wait, did I already say that? 😉

The spice of life

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If variety is the spice of life, yesterday was a flavourful day!

We met in the morning to do some admin work at our new “office”, the kitchen of a baptist church in Chinatown that has graciously offered us space, access to wifi, and a coffee maker 🙂 We talked through some logistics, answered emails, and wrote letters to members of our support team.

Next on the docket was a recording session for “The Noisy Jesus Band”, a group of musicians from The Dale who help lead worship on Sundays. A generous friend of one of the community musicians has supplied some equipment that makes recording possible, and so The NJB got down to work!

After a quick lunch-on-the-go, Meagan, Erinn and I then journeyed to the apartment of a community member who struggles with hoarding. This friend had been talking about having us come to help clean for quite a while now, and this week took the vulnerable plunge to have us over. It was saddening to see the conditions in which our friend lives, but a privilege to be invited in. Our friend played upbeat music and told us stories while we began the process of cleaning up.

After saying goodbye to our friend, I popped by the community garden to do some weeding in The Dale’s plot. The dill, kale and parsley that we planted as seeds are sprouting up nicely, and our basil, tomato, rosemary, oregano and mint plants are doing well too. I connected with another gardener who was curious about who we are and what we do. I gave him our info, and he said he’ll considering joining us for a drop-in or church service with his daughter sometime soon.

On my way through one of the many Parkdale parkettes, I ran into Marlene, a dear community member who was going to feed the birds. She stopped for a little chat and a hug. Marlene makes my heart smile.

My final stop was the apartment of a community member who is currently in the ICU at St. Jo’s. This friend is the proud and loving owner of six cats and a dog, and a few of us at The Dale are taking turns caring for these critters. Yesterday was my turn. I’m sad for these little dudes, as they miss their mom, and grateful that we were able to gain access to her place in order to help care for them.

So yeah. That was our day. Just another day at The Dale.

I am grateful for the generosity of our many supporters, and the person who donated that recording equipment. I am grateful for the way our friends let us into the vulnerable spaces of their lives, and that we receive such care from the community at the same time. And I’m grateful for new growth sprouting from the good earth, and new connections that remind me of the that saying my dad instilled in me: “there’s no such thing as strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet!”

changes

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There’s been a lot going on lately, and lots of changes. Some of these changes have been really good, some have been really sad, and some have been hard, simply because change (even when it’s good) can be hard.

One of the very sad things is that Erinn’s dear mom, Elaine Grant, passed away on May 22nd. Elaine was wonderful, and was a hugely important part of Erinn’s life and the life of The Dale (she was a supporter in every sense of the word, and was prayed for every single Sunday by folks at our church service). Things were very hard for Elaine for many years, and she was still an incredibly grateful, generous and caring woman of faith. Her absence is keenly felt by Erinn, and the rest of her family and friends (of which there are many).

One of the good changes is that Meagan Gillard joined us on staff at The Dale on April 18! Meagan is wonderful- she’s calm under pressure, intuitive and efficient about things that need to be done, and keeps us laughing with her witty one-liners. While it’s a big adjustment for her, and for me and Erinn, we are glad that she’s part of our little team 🙂 I am especially grateful for the timing of Meagan’s arrival; her start date fell a month before Elaine’s death, which meant that she had a bit of time to get settled before becoming my right hand lady for a couple of weeks while Erinn was off. Meagan totally rose to the occasion, and I know those weeks were far more manageable because of her steady, kind presence.

Another of the changes is that we need to leave the space at 201 Cowan that we have been using for our Wednesday Art/breakfast drop in, and our church service on Sundays by July 1st. This space was probably the closest thing to a “home base” that the Dale has had over the last few years, so the loss of this space has been hard. However, we will still be meeting in the building on Sundays, in the main sanctuary rather than a classroom. And we are 90% sure that we’ve secured a space for our Wednesday drop in (stay tuned to find out where!). Two aspects of the Dale’s identity is that we’re nomadic, and that we roll with things. So, we’ll keep on rolling!

My thoughts on change are sort of summed up in one of my favourite Steve Bell songs (called Changes, appropriately).

Change is coming upon us

It keeps moving, moving around us

Got to keep dancing, knowing who loves us

Got to keep joy in our hearts

 

Amen.