#1 – Above all else: Grace!

I turn 70 tomorrow. This astonishes me.
How is such a thing possible?  Where did the time go?

I’m astonished that I even came to be, and that I survived my first year.

My parents conceived me when both were 41 years old. My brother Jim – 20 years and two weeks older than me – was an only child until I appeared. My conception and birth animated the gossipers in our neighborhood on West Chestnut Street, Souderton, Pennsylvania, and in our 500-member church at the end of the block.

My Mom’s pregnancy filled her with anxiety, and for good reason. Her mother Maggie lost two infants; the birth of the last one ended my grandmother’s life at age 37. Mom’s older sister Anna birthed five babies who didn’t make it to their first birthday. And while Mom was pregnant with me, Dad’s younger sister Esther delivered a baby girl who died.

My dad, Lester, and me

After my healthy arrival, both parents obsessed over whether the infant Susan was getting enough to eat. But I thrived! And 70 years later, here I am!

At various times of uncertainty during these 70 years, I’ve reflected on my unlikely birth, assuring myself that I was granted life on this planet for a reason.

Over this next year and a bit, I intend to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for this life I have been given.  I’m calling the series A Nourished Spirit.

At age 70, I continue to bask in God’s love and grace, and  to take comfort and courage in the companionship of God’s spirit.  Yet this nourishment often comes to me in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Oh sure, sometimes my blog will give thanks for things overtly religious – Church Community, Old Hymns, and the like. Other posts will focus on relationships – Cousins, Soul Sisters.  But many will illustrate the third verse of my favorite hymn, honouring the senses as a doorway to the holy:

Public Domain. From Hymnal: a Worship Book

“For the joy of ear and eye/for the heart and mind’s delight/
for the mystic harmony/linking sense to sound and sight:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

In fact the images and music of all six verses of For the Beauty of the Earth overflow with an amazing array of prompts to praise. Maybe that’s why I chose it as our wedding hymn in l969.

To complete my inventory of praise, I must surely include v. 6, even though the current Mennonite hymnal left it out:

“For thyself, best Gift Divine,/ to the world so freely given,/
for that great, great love of thine,/peace on earth, and joy in heaven:/
Lord of all, to thee we raise/this our hymn of grateful praise.”

Reflection Question: When you consider the circumstances of your own conception and birth, what if anything astonishes you? What if anything disturbs you?  What if anything makes you smile?

I invite you to sign up to receive a post each week by entering your e-mail address and clicking the “Follow” button at the very bottom of this blog.  

I hope my blog will encourage your own reflection on the myriad ways your spirit is nourished, whether in seasons of joy or sadness, excitement or boredom, or whatever unique combinations coexist in your life.

Next week: Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.


#70 – Enjoying Second Best

We were so much looking forward to a four-day vacation between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie last month. Sam knew the location of three new conservative Anabaptist settlements, all of them migrations from southern Ontario.

We wanted to buy something at the end of farm lanes from the Swartzentruber Amish, the Orthodox Mennonites, and the “regular” Old Order Mennonites.  But alas, we heard reports of uncontrolled wildfires and smoke at unpredictable places.  So we decided it was prudent to stay away from the Parry Sound and Sudbury regions.

Horses on a Swartzentruber Amish farm near Williamsford, fall 2016.

We settled on Owen Sound and parts of rural Grey County instead. We satisfied our Amish longings by driving through the Swartzentruber Amish settlement near Williamsford on our way north. But all was quiet – too early for the harvest scenes we’ve enjoyed in years past.

We satisfied another longing by driving past Mennonite Corners just south of Owen Sound, the site of the former Kilsyth Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church. Now a commemorative plaque marks the spot.

IMG_20180724_080753947Then as we approached Owen Sound, we turned our attention to new discoveries.  We enjoyed the view of the sound from our hotel window. We loved walking along the Harbour Trail on the east side of the sound, learning about days gone by from plaques along the way. We saw old grain elevators, reminding us of the era when large grain shipments found their way to Owen Sound via the Great Lakes, for transshipment by rail.

IMG_20180724_092649799We visited once again the grave of Tom Thomson in the village of Leith, noting the paint brushes people had placed by his stone along with photos and a walking stick.

We saw on the map a site called Sheffield Park, a black history and cultural museum just outside the village of Clarksburg, south of Collingwood. We had known of Owen Sound as a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad in the 19th century.  But we knew nothing of “Howie” Sheffield of Collingwood, a black restaurateur and hockey player of local fame who also researched Grey and Simcoe County black history.

Now two nieces own and operate the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum on an old Nazarene campground, giving a home to the many artifacts collected by “Uncle Howie” and others. We walked through the main exhibit on black history, as well as 13 other buildings such as a church, a seamstress and dress shop, a shoe shine shop, and a one room schoolhouse. We were amazed at this place!  We had never heard of it before.

“Cemetery”  at the Sheffield Park Black History Museum

We also had in mind locating as many of the eight waterfalls in Grey County as possible.  We did catch a glimpse of Eugenia Falls, but couldn’t find the upper trail to Hogg’s Falls nearby. So we gave up for the day. It’s just as well, since we drove back to Owen Sound in a heavy downpour. The next morning we easily found Inglis Falls in a picturesque setting just outside Owen Sound.

Inglis Falls

So our mini-vacation unlocked quite a few unexpected treasures of Grey County for us. Second best was just fine….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When have you needed to settle for “second best” when vacation plans went awry?
  2. What unexpected treasures did you find?

* * * * *

Well, I’ve done it!  I’ve posted 70 blogs in gratitude to God for 70+ years of life.

And I’m not ready to stop yet.  I hope to continue the A Nourished Spirit blog with a new subtitle: “finding simple pleasures amidst earth’s lamentation.” So stay tuned for #71 next week.

Next week: Of Farm Stands and Countryside Bakeries

#69 – Our Annual “Drive By” of Mennonite Churches

Our own Mennonite church takes a break on holiday weekends in summertime. So for the last three years, I’ve aided Sam’s research with our annual Sunday morning “drive by” of Mennonite-related churches.

Last Sunday we located as many such churches as possible on a route planned by Sam. Our explorations took us into Perth and Wellington counties as well as Waterloo Region.   We did our “driving by” from 9:50 to 12:20, often stopping to take photos of conveyances in parking lots. Our route took us past 26 worshiping groups.

Many of the churches we passed represent less assimilated groups than our own conference, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC). So as we drove through the countryside, we  listened to a CD of music from my less assimilated days – Mennonite Hour favorites from the 1950s (Hallelujah! Amen!).

Four of our sightings especially intrigued me:IMG_6268

  1. In the town of Millbank, we were pleased to find a lot full of horses unhitched from open carriages. We realized we were close to an Old Order Amish service taking place in a house, shed or barn– a “bishop district” worshiping in its usual manner.IMG_6256
  2. We came across two Old Colony Mennonite churches, originating with Mennonites who had migrated to Mexico from Canada. We were intrigued by the boat hitched to the maroon pickup truck in front of the Crosshill Old Colony church, and surprised by the large size of the new-looking Old Colony church at Carthage.  We happily noted the Amish-run Misty Pine Bulk Foods store across a side road.IMG_6271
  3. We were excited to locate the Hesson Christian Fellowship, now meeting in a former mainline church in the small village of Hesson. It’s the only local church belonging to Charity Ministries, a Lancaster County Pa.-based group which does not call itself Mennonite. It holds to dress codes for women and doctrines similar to those of conservative Mennonites, but with a charismatic twist. A sign in the yard with an evangelical message told us that the big old church no longer houses mainline worshipers.
  4. At one time or another, we’ve seen 14 of the 15 Old Order Mennonite meetinghouses in Waterloo, Perth and Wellington counties. Our route on Sunday took us past four of them, including the Conestoga meetinghouse.
    Conestoga Mennonite Meetinghouse without people

    At 12:20 we came upon it on Three Bridges Road near St. Jacobs. From a distance, the yard seemed full of wonderful colour swatches! As we came closer, we saw one block of white shirts and black pants (younger men and boys); another block of black (older men); and yet another swatch of solid-coloured dresses, some black (older women) and some even pink (little girls). People visited with each other in these groupings after the service. We saw horses hitched to open carriages or closed buggies at various locations around the yard, as well as a pile of bicycles.

    I’ve always had a special interest in the Conestoga meetinghouse. The Old Order split of 1889 separated families who had worshiped together near the present school and cemetery at the intersection of Three Bridges Road and Hawkesville Road. Part of that group formed the Conestoga Old Order congregation. I once pastored the other part of the group, which became the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in the town of St. Jacobs. I likely saw some of the Conestoga meetinghouse people at funerals in town.

Other reflections: I’m amazed (and personally shamed!) by the number of Mennonite-related people worshiping on a holiday weekend. Perhaps, I mused, we “should” have joined one of them for worship rather than just driving by!

Sam identified 13 different groups to which the 26 churches on our route belong.  Do we really need to do all that splitting, I wondered?  On the other hand, new church structures do sometimes bring spurts of growth and new freedoms. Or they preserve doctrines and practices which some believe others have let lapse.

The drive through the countryside was of itself nourishing.  When the Mennonite Hour CD finished, I pulled out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for us to enjoy.

We hoped to find stooks amongst the Amish in Perth County, but didn’t see any there.

IMG_6225We did take photos earlier in the week of stooks in the Amish community near Aylmer, Ontario. I love those squat stooks! We found them located between two Amish businesses we enjoy – Pathway Press (a major Amish publisher) and the Country Flavour-Rites Bakery.

Question for Reflection:

How do you view the splitting of Mennonites into different groupings?  A good thing? An unfortunate thing? Or just “the way it is”?

Next Week: Second Best Isn’t Bad!

#68 – Musings on Riding the City Bus

Bus-stopMonday morning I took the #7 Mainline from our home near Rockway Gardens in Kitchener to Waterloo Town Square, a bus ride of 20 minutes or so.

I lost my driver’s license last December due to brain lesions, and have depended on my dear husband and occasionally other friends for transportation since that time. But in good weather this summer, I’ve taken the bus to one or another of the many coffee shops in uptown Waterloo to meet friends.

On the bus, I sink into the reality of our multi-cultural twin cities with pleasure. I observe parents with babies in strollers, older women with shopping carts or walkers, teenagers with ear buds, and people who look to be homeless transporting their possessions. A cell phone occupies nearly everyone.

If anything I’m surprised by the politeness and consideration of most riders. Many say “thank you” when exiting the bus.

One day I’m standing on a full bus when I notice a physically challenged teenager communicating by signs with her mother.  Soon the mother stands up and tells me that her daughter wants me to take the mother’s seat.  I don’t feel at all decrepit that day, so I protest that I’m just fine standing, thank you!  But the daughter insists that I sit down!  So I do. It’s a humbling experience; I’m overwhelmed by the girl’s kindness….

Waterloo Town Square

Riding the bus fosters in me a sense of independence. After coffee one day, I take the time to try on necklaces at Ten Thousand Villages, then browse at Wordsworth Books and buy an old P.D. James mystery. Before heading home, I buy flowers in the Valu-mart at Waterloo Town Square.

This is the kind of leisurely shopping I enjoy! But when my husband is waiting (usually patiently) in the car, I rush through my shopping and thus it’s not very enjoyable.

We do have a good system for buying our weekly groceries, however. On busy Saturdays we split the list; recently we were in and out of the Stanley Park Zehrs Market in less than half an hour….

Testing the LRT near Waterloo Town Square

Perhaps when Light Rail Transit (LRT) finally begins operating in Kitchener-Waterloo, many more people with a driver’s license will abandon their cars for crosstown trips. In the meantime, the loss of my driver’s license  can symbolize for me diminishment, a loss of independence, and perhaps even a changed identity. But my joy in riding the bus also symbolizes the gains of a new way of living.

Kate Bowler, a prof. at Duke Divinity School who is also living with cancer, puts it like this in a recent podcast:

“Maybe you can, I don’t know, learn to settle into a different kind of present, where you’re alert and grateful for what you have, as opposed to always being hungry for something else” (from the podcast “Not all pain has to be explained,” Faith and Leadership, February 6, 2018).

Some days I’m almost there….

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What have you learned about your community or your region by taking public transportation?
  2. What, if anything, has helped (or forced) you to “settle into a different kind of present?”


Next week: TBA

#67 – Summer Reading

I’m drawn to novels and memoirs which are set in locations I have visited, or that flesh out stories I already enjoy. And for “summer reading,” they don’t need to be masterpieces!

Thus I’ve spent enjoyable time in June/July with these five:

1.  Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller (William Morrow, 2017). This historical novel purports to tell part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder story from Ma’s perspective – the trip by covered wagon from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to Kansas Indian Territory, and the family’s ill-fated settlement there. I’ve often wondered “But what about Caroline?!” in the Little House books, so it’s fun to read someone’s imaginings about her perspective.

2.  In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir  by Paul Quenon (Ave Maria Press, 2018).  I’ve visited Thomas Merton’s monastery at Trappist, Kentucky on several occasions, including a Kentucky Holy Land Pilgrimage in 2011. So when I saw this title for sale at the convent, I was eager to read it.

From Ave Maria Press

Br. Quenon has spent his whole adult life at The Abbey of Gethsemani. He weaves together glimpses of Merton (“Fr. Louis” or even “Uncle Louie”) with glimpses of the monastic life. I remember some of the beautiful Kentucky countryside he describes. And among other gems, he speaks of prayer as “a breathing that purifies the air, like leaves on the tree.” As a “community breathing together,” he suggests, “we raise the effect to an exponential level.” (p. 136)

3.  The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (Simon and Schuster, 2011). On a trip to Israel/Palestine 11 years ago, we endured a very hot half day at the archaeological site of Masada near the Dead Sea.  We approached Masada, at the top of a very steep “table mountain,” by cable car. We saw Roman tiles, storage rooms, and piles of rocks of the sort thrown down the mountainside at the Roman legions by 1st-century Jewish Sacarii (extremist Zealots) during the siege of Masada in 73-74 CE.Masada
The historian Josephus and legend have it that when the Romans finally breached the walls of Masada they found 960 persons (the Jewish patriots and their families)  already dead, apparently  choosing death at each other’s hands rather than slavery or death at Roman hands. Legend also has it that two women and three children survived the massacre by hiding in a cistern.

Alice Hoffman writes the fictional story of four women who find each other at Masada, including the eventual survivors.  It’s a 21st century feminist tale with more than enough violence and sex, but still a good “summer read.” Sam liked it too.

Published by Penguin Books

4. The Lost Chapters: Reclaiming my Life, One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz (Penguin, 2018). I’m a sucker for any author who writes about her experience inside a prison.  So I naturally gravitated towards this one.  A writer of literary fiction and a teacher of writing, Schwartz speaks in graphic language of her six weeks inside the Los Angeles County Jail on charges on DUI and battery during a relapse into addiction.

She chronicles her reading of 22 books which helped her reclaim her life while incarcerated. She also speaks of unexpected kindnesses from inmates named Duckie and Wyell, and of her amazement at meeting Qaneak the day  before her release. A Maundy Thursday service in the jail’s chapel with footwashing completely undoes her….

5. The Way of Kindness: Readings for a Graceful Life, ed. by Michael Leach et. al. (Orbis Books, 2018). I don’t usually read anthologies, but I picked this one up at the convent along with Br. Quenon. It was a head-spinning experience to read Ann Lamont, Pope Francis, Joan Chittister, Richard Rohr, Joyce Ropp and others on kindness at the same time as imbibing the culture of abuse of the Los Angeles County Jail!

Questions for Reflection:

1. Which books have helped you reclaim parts of yourself?

2. How do you select books for summer reading?

Next Week: Grey County Vacation

#66 – Stratford Remembered

I’ve been charmed by the Stratford Festival – and the small city of Stratford, Ontario – for 50 years now.

Last Sunday as I watched an expertly acted Oscar Wilde play, I dimly remembered my first introduction to Stratford in 1968. That summer I signed up for a two-week Stratford Seminar with Prof. John Fisher and other Goshen College students.  I’d never seen live professional theatre before, so Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Festival Theatre thrust stage mesmerized me.

25th anniversary along Lake Victoria

By the next summer, I had moved to Ontario to marry draft resister Sam Steiner. In our discussions of where to live, I longingly wondered about Stratford, where I dreamed of being an usher at the Festival Theatre. But common sense prevailed! We made Kitchener our home, and a Mennonite Church-owned bookstore employed me.

We didn’t own a car for our first two years of marriage, so we rode the Greyhound bus between Kitchener and Stratford and made a day of it. In those years, people really “dressed up” to see Stratford plays, so we came attired in our funkiest. A late bus from Stratford to Kitchener got us home in the wee hours of the morning. Shakespeare plays we saw together early on included Hamlet (1969) and The Merchant of Venice (1970).

We followed the Stratford career of actor William Hutt, especially enjoying his Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Wilde (1975), and his reprise of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2005). It turned out to be his last role at Stratford before his death in 2007.

Stratford-1994-smallBy this time we were already enamored with the acting of Brian Bedford, taking in Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya (1978) and just about any other play in which Bedford carried a lead role. Over the years, we also followed the Stratford career of Martha Henry, and later loved Cynthia Dale in The Sound of Music (2001), My Fair Lady (2002) and other musicals.

When seeing a play, we almost always arrived in time to walk around the Avon River where it widens into Lake Victoria. We’d start walking east along Lakeside Drive, continue across the bridge, and take the dirt path on the other side, ending at the William Hutt Bridge on Waterloo St. Sometimes we brought a picnic lunch to eat at one of the tables beside the lake.

Created in Google Maps

Slowly other charms of the city of Stratford beckoned us also. At 40 minutes from Waterloo, it became a perfect location for winter getaway weekends. Over the years we chose various of its small hotels at off-season rates, settling most recently on The Annex Room Inn. Knowing our interest, two different churches which I pastored gave us gift certificates for a weekend in Stratford as a parting gift!

We started eating Italian food at Fellini’s for special occasions in Sam’s life. For a while we joined Monforte Dairy’s artisan cheese CSA, and met cheesemaker Ruth Klaussen. She liked Sam’s “Russian” hat made of rabbit fur and thus somehow assumed we were “Russian Mennonites.” And of course I found women’s clothing shops and gift shops to visit twice a year….

In the last 10 years or so, we haven’t seen Stratford plays as often, alternating years between Stratford and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But the memory of beloved bygone plays and musicals continues to nourish my spirit, as do our weekend and shorter jaunts to the city of Stratford.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. To which theatre or music or art venue have you consistently gone to nourish your spirit over the years?
  2. Which town has charmed you in repeated getaways?

Next week: TBA

#65 – What Nourishes my Spirit?

Last Sunday I was the lead off speaker for our summer series – “What nourishes my spirit?”– at Rockway Mennonite Church. Our summer services are informal, with presenters from within the congregation and time built in for response.

“For the past year and a bit, I’ve been considering this question regularly,” I began.  I spoke of the genesis of this blog, and my beginning hunch that “my blog would honour what I experience through my senses as a doorway to the holy,” as well as celebrating things like Mennonite community.

For_the_beauty_of_the_earchI’ve recently re-read my first 60 blogs, and tried to put them into categories. I found that the verses of my favorite hymn – For the beauty of the earth – form a template for many of them.

For instance, verse 1, For the love which from our birth over and around us lies, inspired my reflections on “My Childhood Home” (blog #45) and “Cousins” (blog #3).  Verse 2, For the beauty of each hour, brought to mind “Sunday Afternoon Drives” in Old Order Mennonite country (blog #8) and “Sinking into Peace on the Bruce” (blogs #10 and 62).

Verse 3, For the joy of ear and eye, fostered blogs on music and on reading, as one might expect, but also  “Balthasar, Augustine and other Cats” (#6) and “Nourished by Coffee Mugs” (#21).

Verse 4, For the joy of human love, brought forth “Farewell to our Matriarch” (#46) and “The Comfort of Old Friends” (#41).

And finally verse 5, For the church… is reflected in blogs like “Tulips, Sunlight and Dust: Worshiping in Community” (#7) and “The Gentle Power of Small Groups” (#27).

Published by Orbis Books

A book I’m presently reading, Vesper Time: The Spiritual Practice of Growing Older by Frank Cunningham, suggests that in our senior years we look for an “arc of nourishment, a leading theme that fed the multiple phases of our past” (p. 1).

My own  “arc of nourishment” surely began in the Mennonite community of Souderton, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s and early 60’s. It curves through Goshen College in the late 1960’s, and then into the Mennonite world here in southwestern Ontario in the 1970’s and 80’s and beyond.

A good deal of my personal work in life has been learning to celebrate the similarities and navigate the differences between the Mennonite community that nourished me early on and the one I now espouse, while being grateful for them both!

I find it fascinating that some of my blogs start in childhood in Pennsylvania and continue in the Waterloo Region of Ontario. For instance, our Sunday afternoon drives into the countryside around here hark back to the drives we took in my Dad’s 1939 Buick Roadmaster to look at fields of grain he’d heard about.

And to my surprise, I’ve found that many of the same things that nourished me before my diagnosis of cancer continue to nourish me now. Having cancer strangely heightens my nourishment and joy in nephews and cousins and their spouses, in old friends and in my childhood home remembered. Cancer heightens my nourishment and joy as I walk through Rockway Gardens across the street or drive through Old Order Mennonite country (full of my fifth cousins!) or as I  gaze at the ever-changing sky from our 10th floor condo windows…

And it has certainly increased my nourishment and joy in my present church community; our worship space at Rockway is now a true sanctuary for me, enfolding me in God’s care.  Thanks be to God!


Question for Reflection:

Has a troubling time in life heightened your experience of those things which nourish you most or which you especially enjoy?  If so, what did this reveal to you?

Next week: TBA

#64 – Driving Through Old Order Country: Mt. Forest

On the Saturday morning of the long weekend, we looked for a half-day drive of interest to both of us.  We settled on the Old Order Mennonite country around Mt. Forest, about 80 kilometers north of  here.

The initial settlement began in the late 1960’s, as historian Isaac Horst and others bought farms there and established the first successful “daughter colony” of Old Order Mennonites from Woolwich Township, just north of Waterloo.

I dimly remember travelling to Mt. Forest years ago to “take notes” while Sam interviewed Isaac Horst.  His wife Selina prepared a tasty noon meal for us, and talked about her market garden patch and stand along the road.  Then about five years ago we took a half-day to explore the Mt. Forest settlement– numbering 180 families by 2002 – but hadn’t been back since.

Last weekend we enjoyed the healthy -looking fields of corn, beans and grain as we angled our way through the countryside. We stopped first at the crossroads hamlet of Conn, east of Mt. Forest on Hwy. 89.  There at the Misty Meadows Country Market we bought a more-or-less current map of the settlement, showing the location of five churches, 12 schools, and many Old Order farms, identified by the “head” of the family.

Misty-MeadowsAfter purchasing  spelt bread, morning glory muffins, and bulk food staples at the market, we headed west on Southgate Rd. 4.  I had fun calling out the names of farmers and checking the mailboxes to see if they matched. In many cases, they did. We found familiar Woolwich Township names such as Martin, Weber, Bauman, Wideman and Frey in abundance.

Saugeen-RiversideWe stopped to take photos at the Saugeen Riverside School and the Riverdale Church on a nearby side road. Riverdale is the newest Old Order meetinghouse in the area, built in 2003.

We wanted to spend most of our time in the districts south of Mt. Forest. To head towards them, we drove down a rugged but beautiful “no winter maintenance” road with fields on one side and a canopy of trees overhead.


Spring Creek Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse

Southeast of Mt. Forest, we saw the oldest Old Order meetinghouse in the area (1972), constructed of yellow brick rather than the more common white frame.

The nearby Maple View School had the usual playground equipment – two swings, two seesaws, and a baseball diamond. Bike racks were also in evidence.  At Tollgate School, constructed  in 2005, we noticed a building addition underway and the usual flowers planted nearby.

In the cemetery of the Westdale meetinghouse, built in 1997, we found only seven tombstones, two of them stillbirths. This suggested to us a congregation of mostly younger families.

It being a very hot day, we didn’t see as many Old Orders on the road or engaging in outside work as we might have expected.  Perhaps their long lanes hid what was going on better than in Woolwich Township, where farmhouses, lawns and orchards tend to be located near the roads.  Also, we didn’t see as many signs out at the road for produce, maple syrup or farm businesses as we usually find in Woolwich Township.

After exploring these country roads, we decided to go back into Mt. Forest for lunch, ending up at a Coffee Cultures. We noticed a young man who looked homeless walk in the front door. He headed for the easy chairs and coffee tables halfway back, slouched in a chair, put his feet on a table, and promptly fell asleep.  Before long, two police officers entered, woke the young man up, and gently led him out the back door.

We wondered: in a small town like Mt. Forest, where can a homeless person come inside to cool off on a hot day?

…As we left the area and headed home, Sam mused that the Old Order settlement nearly surrounds Mt. Forest by now (with fewer farms to the northwest).  We noted that this migration out of Woolwich Township has really worked!

Question for Reflection:

What explorations do you enjoy on a hot summer long weekend?

Next week: TBA

#63 – The Prison Book Club

Published by Ballantine Books

For 7 ½ years, it was my most nourishing volunteer assignment. Two friends and I co-led a monthly book club at the federal women’s prison in Kitchener under the auspices of Book Clubs for Inmates. I’d been in book clubs for the past 30 years, so when the invitation came to help launch this one, I jumped at the chance.

Book Clubs for Inmates was founded by Carol Finlay, an Anglican minister and former high school teacher, and now has clubs in 22 different federal prisons in Canada. Participants get to keep the books after reading them.

At book club, we meet with up to 14 inmates and the very supportive prison librarian in a classroom in medium security.  In recent years several women from maximum security have joined us also.  (A club with different leaders meets in minimum security.)

We read mostly fiction, with a memoir and perhaps a self-help book included each year. We choose the books with help from a list of suggestions generated by Book Clubs for Inmates. Each spring we leaders read books at a dizzying pace, looking for titles accessible yet also challenging for the range of readers in our group.

The women especially gravitate towards novels and memoirs with feisty resilient female characters who overcome great odds. Five of their many favorites over the years have been:

  1. Book-of-Negroes
    Published by HarperCollins

    Above all others, The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, chronicling the life of the fictional character Aminata…stolen from her village in Africa and sold into slavery in the U.S. South…eventually sailing to a free colony in Birchtown, Nova Scotia…ending up as an abolitionist in England. Hill was a huge hit when he came to the prison as our first visiting author. He endeared himself with his calm, respectful spirit, and took an interest in some of the inmates’ own aspirations as writers.

  2. The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeannette Walls of growing up in a poor, dysfunctional family.
  3. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. A lovely story about a tough young adult woman just released from the foster care system who heals through the language of flowers.
  4. Finding Nouf, a murder mystery involving a teenage girl set in Saudi Arabia, where author Zoe Ferraris lived for a time.
  5. Indian Horse by Canadian author Richard Wagamese.  A novel depicting the residential school experience and its aftermath, told in the voice of a boy enthused about hockey named Saul Indian Horse.

What astonishes me is that most months, there comes a time during our hour together when the differences between us fade away, and we’re just an intergenerational group of women (aged 20 – 70+) exploring a book together and making some connections with our own experiences.  I’m often amazed at the women’s  insights. And some of the best discussions are about books which club members don’t like or which garner a variety of opinions!

Comments from participants over the years include:

“The books are a gateway to anything, anytime, anyplace we want…” “Reading takes me out of my own misery and puts me into someone else’s…” “I like all the different takes on the books and being able to speak our opinions openly and freely…”

Last winter, health issues required my resignation from book club leadership. I was very sorry to leave the group. But I’m pleased that my friends are continuing, with a new partner.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your most nourishing volunteer commitment? Why?
  2. Which novels or memoirs have been healing for you? Why?

Next week: TBA

#62 – Peacefulness and Decision Making on the Bruce

Sunrise-on-the-bayFor at least 28 years, we’ve made the trek to the Bruce Peninsula at the end of Father’s Day weekend.  For the first 20 years or so, we rented a cottage with a lovely view of Colpoy’s Bay from folks at St. Jacobs church (See #10 – Ordinary Splendors on the Bruce).

Now we content ourselves with a nearby “resort motel” with a similar view of the bay. After lugging our bags up the outside staircase, we unlock the door to our room.  I glance at the bay through the patio windows. I’m stunned at the sensation of peacefulness that envelops me.

I realize with a start: the body remembers. My body remembers the bay as a place of calm, conducive to mulling over decisions.

Available from Penguin Random House

In his book entitled Sabbath, Wayne Muller submits that “the Sabbath rocks us and holds us until we can remember who we are” (p. 151).  Colpoy’s Bay does that for me.  The bay grounds me and whispers to me once again who I am. Almost always I sink into the utter peacefulness of it.

I’m relieved, for we find ourselves at a crossroads on this visit.  A decision of some significance calls out to be made over the next few weeks.  This might be a good place (I hope)  to mull over all the information we’ve gathered, to consider some implications where we just can’t know, and perhaps to leave the bay with a clearer sense of direction.

But on the Bruce we tend not to sit down to serious heady conversations full of pros and cons. Instead, we quietly mull during our usual relaxed drives around the peninsula. In our ramblings, we like to experience something different each year, so we choose two unpretentious-looking restaurants that have been around for years but that we’ve never tried before.

St-Margarets-ChapelEach year we also like to check out what’s new and what’s the same. So we’re pleased to spot one or maybe two pink Showy Lady Slipper orchids on the Oliphant fen. We’re glad to hear about an ecological upgrade of the Singing Sands fen site now underway (and we hope to visit it in September when it’s finished). We’re happy to see a new parking lot at St. Margaret’s Chapel near Cape Chin, presumably to accommodate worshipers at their summer Sunday evening services.  And I’m overjoyed to find lovely photo cards for sale at a couple different artists’ co-ops, thus resupplying my stash of greeting cards to send to people.

Haze-on-Colpoys-BayBack at the motel, I’m intrigued by the constantly changing moods of the bay and wonder how this might mirror my decision making process. Monday afternoon a mist falls, making indistinct the far shore. Then within half an hour the mist rises like smoke, until it’s completely dissipated and I see trees again across the bay.

In the evening, fog covers all but the very tops of the trees, then clears, and the sun shines through gray clouds as sunset nears.

So…did we make a decision through all this mulling, this noticing of things on our drives,  this imbibing of the moods of the changing bay? Well, yes, sort of. On the way home, one of us expressed a sense of the next step, and the other person agreed. Naming the next step and seeing what happens seemed fitting to us….


This year, no rainbow formed over the bay on our last morning there.  But on our first day back in town, my eye spied something colourful and bright out the window at 5:30 a.m.

It was a huge rainbow…the whole thing visible from our living room window…both ends brilliant, speaking of beauty, God’s constancy, and promise…

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you have a relaxing place to mull over decisions that need to be made? Where is this place for you?
  2. How do the changing moods of a favorite lake or river or the ocean commune with your spirit?

Next week:  TBA

#61 — A Perfect Sunday

Looking back, I thought – “now that was a perfect day.”

My Sunday morning began as usual, with the opinion and arts sections of Saturday’s Globe and Mail.

Then I wrote in my journal in a leisurely fashion, and read a couple articles in Presence, the magazine of Spiritual Directors International. A poem about snow geese, cranes, herons and whales attracted my eye and my spirit.


Abundant lupins on Prince Edward Island

After that, bright orange and red poppies called to me as I walked through Rockway Gardens across the street. The colourful lupins reminded me of roadside ones we saw in the Maritimes a year ago.

Back at home I took coloured pencils and experimented with artwork to accompany a text I’ve been considering lately:

Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
     and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
     and find rest for your souls.
Jeremiah 6:16a

Pastor Scott blessing a bicycle

Then we walked to church for a special service of “Blessing the Bicycles.”  Cyclists from preschoolers to seniors  rode their bikes to church, storing them at the back of the parking lot under the watchful eyes of two biking veterans. The service focused on seeing the natural world up close, being environmentally friendly, and imagining various kinds of blessing with biblical writers.

At the end of the service, we processed to the parking lot, where our pastor “blessed” each bicycle by putting a dab of 3-in-1 oil on the sprocket while we sang. It was a great intergenerational event!  One family grouping included a grandfather in his 70’s, along with his two daughters, a son-in-law,  and five grandsons…

After lunch and my nap, we headed across town to take in an event at Conrad Grebel University College. Starting a bit late, we got caught in slow-moving traffic in Victoria Park when I suggested, “It’s a perfect day…why don’t we go driving instead?”

The Conestogo River at Three Bridges near St. Jacobs

Thus began a long, leisurely drive combining parts of our two favorite excursions through Old Order Mennonite and Amish country.

What made that jaunt more perfect than usual was listening to seven innings of an amazing Toronto Blue Jays baseball game on the radio while driving. [Yes, I’ve become a serious fan over the past several years.] The flagging Jays won the game against the flagging Orioles 13-3, with rallies in the 4th, 5th and 6th innings, causing us to hoot with satisfaction….

But there was more! When we arrived home we relived our hymn sing of a couple weeks ago by looking at photos on the computer and deciding which ones to print.  Then after supper Sam read to me the first two months of my Aunt Esther’s diary from 1950, courtesy of a cousin. [The musty smell makes these diaries too difficult for me to read myself].

Thus I eavesdropped on my 37-year-old aunt. I glimpsed her life as a pastor’s wife, a mother and sister, a piano teacher, and a woman willing to name in private that certain endeavors of other people had “flopped”!

Published by Viking 

Finally I settled into a charming novel which our women’s book club at church will be discussing in September. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles recounts the adventures of a fictional Russian count under house arrest in a  formerly swanky Moscow hotel after the Revolution….

Reading the newspaper…journaling…walking in the public gardens…playing with art…blessing bicycles…driving through the country… listening to an amazing ballgame…recalling our hymn sing…glimpsing the life of a favorite aunt…losing myself in a novel.

A perfect rejuvenating Sunday….

Question for Reflection:  What does a perfect rejuvenating Sunday look like for you?

Next week:  Standing at the Crossroads