#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.

Lester_and_Sue
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:

For_the_beauty_of_the_earch
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.

 

#79 – Blog Book Just Released

NourishedSpirit_SueSteiner_cover-1When I turned 70 in April 2017, I decided to write 70 blog posts as a thanks-be-to-God for the life I have been given. As you know, I named this series of blogs A Nourished Spirit. At the behest of various readers, I’ve now selected 26 of those first 70 blogs and published them in a little book, along with some of Sam Steiner’s blog photos.

This project fascinated and occupied me for most of the summer.  I read over my first 70 blogs, making successive piles of “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”  As I read, I noticed that God’s nourishment throughout my life has often come in the simplest of ways, through very earthy means.

Once I got down to 26 blogs – or nearly – I re-edited them and organized them by categories, rather than in the random way I created them week by week.

For the beauty of the earth, #89 in Hymnal: A Worship Book (HWB), was Sam and my wedding hymn, and it provides the template for the first several sections of the book. The hymn names family, friends, nature, culture and church as sources of nourishment, doorways to the holy, and prompts for praise.

The next section of the book describes selected spiritual practices which open me to God.  A phrase from my theme song, My life flows on (#580 in HWB), gives shape to the book’s final section.

Table of Contents-1I’m grateful for the interaction with blog readers over the past 18 months, and for those who responded to my reflection questions. I’ve included the questions in my book, hoping readers will receive my reflections as a springboard to your own.

My life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer in November 2017. I’m grateful that I could continue with my weekly blogs, meeting my goal of posting 70 of them.  Now I’m at #79, and I’m not ready to stop yet!

I’ve found that having cancer strangely heightens my nourishment and joy in cousins, in my niece and nephews and their spouses, and in old friends.  It heightens my nourishment and joy as I walk through Rockway Gardens across the street or drive through Old Order Mennonite country or gaze at the ever-changing sky from our 10th floor condo windows.

Br. Paul Quenon, a fellow monk with Thomas Merton, reflects on life writing in his recent memoir, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. He says of his book, “These reflections and stories about my life are another way of being present to my life intentionally. Not in order to relive it, but to re-create it as a form of celebration.”(p.132).

May it be so with me.

Question for Reflection:

By what simple or earthy means has God’s nourishment come to you throughout your life?

Next week:

The Daily Scrabble Game

To Order A Nourished Spirit: Selected Blogs

To order a copy of the book in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com (replace the (at) with @) to arrange for delivery. The book cost is $20 Cdn.

To order a copy of the book from the USA, the book cost is $20.00 US plus $8.00 postage for a total of $28.00. Email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com for our mailing address if you wish to send a check, or to find out how to pay with a credit card through PayPal.

To order a copy of the book from Canada outside the K-W area, email steiner.sam (at) gmail.com with your postal code, which will enable us to calculate the shipping cost. The book cost is $20 Cdn plus postage (usually $10 or more). Payment can be by cheque, PayPal or e-transfer if you have a bank or credit union account that provides this feature.

 

#78 – Cancer Journey: Surprising Gratitude, Grace Unmistakable

Wagamese-Embers
Published by Douglas & McIntyre

“Joy,” says Richard Wagamese, “is a spiritual engagement with the world based on gratitude. It’s not the big things that make me grateful and bring me joy. It’s more the glory of the small” (Embers: One Obijway’s Meditations, 140).

As Canadian Thanksgiving approached last weekend, I wondered what it would be like for me. For my journey with cancer took an unexpected turn a couple weeks earlier.

A scheduled scan showed that my chemo pill continues to be effective below the neck.  However, some new lesions became visible in my brain. This necessitated a five-day course of palliative whole brain radiation, ending the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

So we’ve embarked on a new stage of my journey with cancer. Yet in the midst of it all, I’ve witnessed myself living in the “glory of the small.” Grace Unmistakable has found me during recent days and especially recent steroid-fueled nights.  These are still the days of miracle and wonder, which leave me grateful for lucidity.

Richard Wagamese asserts that “what defines me is not what I do but what I receive, and I have received in great measure” (155). Here are ten gifts I have recently received, which together embody for me Grace Unmistakable.

Gift #1: Visits during this period by three sets of old friends from afar, bringing chicken soup, new hymn arrangements for listening, and medical knowledge.

Gift #2: Steroid-fueled energy to get some things done, such as collecting books to donate to spiritual directors and beginning pastors, and fixing a box of sermons, books and files to send to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Gift #3: Increasing colour bursts outside our condo windows, with brilliant orange and golden leaves now dotting the cityscape.

Yellow-fall-treesGift #4: A brightened sky after the rain, calling me to a lovely walk in Rockway Garden across the street, which still looks amazingly good.

Gift #5: A wonderful church service on Thanksgiving Sunday for all ages, with rousing singing.  A self-possessed middler sings two verses of For the Beauty of the Earth, one of my favorite hymns.

Gift #6: Thanksgiving dinner with friends, followed by backyard entertainment involving chickens and growing boys.

Gift #7: Members of groups I’m in, making accommodations that enable me to participate with the energy levels I now have.  The sense of inclusion and caring is wonderful.

Gift #8: Finding the music CD of my farewell service at Waterloo North Mennonite Church in 2005, thus adding two tracks to one of my nighttime play lists. The rendition of Great Is Thy Faithfulness by two skilled pianists on two grand pianos makes me smile, reminding me of my Aunt Esther’s most joyful, animated piano playing.  The Bach Chorale Sheep Shall Safely Graze settles me in God’s care.

Candle-and-iconGift #9: Lighting a long-burning tea light candle in front of the icon of the Holy Trinity, which I keep in one of my alternate sleeping/resting places. Each time I open my eyes during the night, I gaze at that glow illuminating the Trinity.  I feel myself part of the circle, directly facing Jesus.  (See blog #32:The Icon of the Old Testament Trinity). This comforts me in the night and my spirit sings.

Gift #10: Receiving this verse, which comes to me one night and feels true and right: “So we are not depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, CEB).

I cannot control the future.  I can revel in and be grateful for “the glory of the small.” I can embrace these days of miracle and wonder.  I can take each day and night as it comes, in gratitude.

I touch and trust Grace Unmistakable.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How has Grace Unmistakable found you during difficult times?
  • Which gifts of the season and of your community are you receiving with joy and gratitude?

Next week: A New Book!

#77 – Of Blankets and Prayer Shawls

As a preschooler, my parents didn’t need to wean me from a ragged blanket which I carried around for comfort.  I was a thumb sucker though, which likely signifies the same thing.

As an adult, I’ve wrapped myself in warm quilts as I read or listen to music on the sofa or watch TV from the recliner.

That’s gotten me thinking about other tangible things which wrap me in comfort and hope. So I’m remembering the prayer shawls I’ve received these last years. I’m thinking about these shawls again as the weather gets cooler. I can wrap myself in them at home and or at church or wherever.  I’ve seen people take prayer shawls to cold hospital rooms with them as well.

Prayer Shawls Blessed
Blessing of prayer shawls at my church of origin–Souderton Mennonite in Pennsylvania

I especially honour the prayer shawl ministries which have emerged over the past 20 years.

In 1998, Janet Severi Bristow and Victoria Galo, two graduates of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, developed the Prayer Shawl Ministry as a result of their Applied Feminist Spirituality program with Professor Miriam Therese Winter of the Medical Mission Sisters. In a mission statement, Bristow said in 1998, “They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles.”

Sue-and-prayer-shawl
From the Shawl Sisters

In my current illness, I’ve received two shawls – one from the prayer shawl ministry at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church where I have served, and one from an informal group calling themselves Shawl Sisters.

In prayer shawl ministry, people get together to knit or crochet reflectively.  Often they do some of the knitting or crocheting at home as well.  Some groups pray quietly part or all of the time. Sometimes they have specific people in mind to receive a shawl; at other times they may just knit them and make them available for pastoral staff to give out.

Both groups which have given me a shawl “knew my colours,” which pleased me greatly.

And both times I received the same lovely printed Prayer of Blessing, which had been offered  over the shawl before it was given away.

Prayer-of-Blessing

A thoughtful knitter friend recently said to me, “My working theory is that one of the reasons why shawl ministry touches so many people is that the literal and the symbolic come together in ways they usually don’t. That is, shawls are symbols of warmth and comfort, while literally providing warmth and comfort.”

In the same vein, many congregations have shown warmth and support by giving a comforter at some point in the life of a child of the congregation, often via a baby quilt to recognize a birth.

At Rockway Mennonite Church, we give a comforter to persons leaving high school in colours they enjoy as part of our Milestones Ministry.  In our litany, echoing that shawl ministry prayer, we say:

May God’s grace be upon you,
Warming, protecting, and enfolding.
May this comforter be a reminder of God’s presence and invitation to follow, as you make decisions about your life direction and relationships.
May you be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love.
_______, we bless you in Jesus’ name. Amen

Such ministries nourish me and many others in body and in spirit. I applaud them.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What tangible things wrap you in safety, comfort, and hope?
  2. If you’ve been part of a prayer shawl, comforter knotting, or similar ministry, what has that experience meant for you?

Next week:  A New Book!

#76 – Soundings in Hope

Rainbow

This week, in the midst of cancer treatment, I had reason to lean into hope. Here are some “soundings in hope” I pondered.

Sounding #1:

This week I remembered Hope Bear, a pastoral care assistant at one of the congregations I served. This cuddly teddy bear resided with older children and with women for a time as they underwent surgery or struggled with trying illnesses. Hope lost an ear at one point, which I thought appropriate, since many of her recipients had missing body parts.  I gave her to someone permanently a few years back.

A woman with Parkinson’s disease sewed Hope Bear for me. Hope was one of the last sewing projects her hands could manage.

Sounding #2

I remembered a conversation I had long ago with a person with a chronic illness.  I was amazed by his wisdom, and still am.

He said something like this:

“Our society is so big on control, on happiness being defined in particular ways. But to even try to define hope is a kind of control. Because if we can define something, then we think we can measure it.  And if we can measure it, then we think we should be able to manufacture it or duplicate it.

“Maybe it’s only when things happen that we can’t control that we begin to enter into hope. Maybe it’s only when we come up against a barrier, up against mystery.

“Maybe sometimes we need to declare hope without explanation or proof, even when our experience challenges it.”

Sounding #3:

Messiah-programI remembered standing one evening as a choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus in a concert hall. And it seemed to me that we were up against mystery.  By standing and listening (or by standing and singing!), we were declaring Christian hope without explanation or proof, in spite of or perhaps because of some of our recent experiences.

As I looked around, I saw numbers of people who had endured serious illnesses, or who had come through difficult times of one sort or other. I hadn’t known whether some of these folks would ever be able to enjoy an evening at a concert hall again, much less sing such an affirmation of Christian hope.

But there we were.  I imagined us as a sort of temporary community holding ourselves and others in God’s hope.

Sounding #4:

Standing for the Hallelujah Chorus, I remembered that the first Christians relocated hope.  Hope finds its true home, they said, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. These usher in a reign of God that has no end – in which all of us are called to participate.

Sounding #5:

I’ve concluded that hope is different from optimism and positive thinking.  It’s also not the same thing as wishing. Wishing tends to focus on specific objects or outcomes, as in “I wish I would have traveled more.” Wishing can become quite a self-absorbing and self-absorbed activity.

Hope focuses instead on the larger picture, often including but going beyond human activity, as in “I hope for God’s reign on this beautiful planet.” At the very same time, hope recognizes limitations, and can actually be quite ordinary in its expectations, as in “This fall I hope to drive into the countryside to revel in the coloured leaves.”

Swartzentruber-school-in-fall

Seasons-of-your-heart
Published by HarperCollins

In A Prayer for Standing on Tiptoe, Macrina Wiederkehr puts together our “Kingdom-loving hearts” and our “earth eyes” in describing the location of hope.  Her prayer poem concludes:

“But still we stand
on tiptoe
Owning our kingdom-loving hearts
and our earth-eyes
We lean forward
and hope.”

Sounding #6

God be with you till be meet again (HWB #430) was our sending song at church last Sunday. It felt like our local Christian community was singing itself into the hope and the expectation of God’s loving care. All week, I’ve wrapped myself in this hymn’s lyrics, enhanced by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ comforting tune.

This weekend and always, may you abound in hope!

Questions for Reflection:

  1. For you, what is the difference between wishing and hoping?
  2. What are some of your deepest hopes?

Next week: TBA

#75-The Silver-bellied Geese and the Manure

This week I’m reminded of an experience a friend recounted several years ago, after a fall visit to the prairies.

My friend wrote:

“After a restless night, I was frustrated, so I headed out the door for an early morning run down rough dirt farm roads.  It was an astonishingly beautiful morning, the rising sun in the east, and the full moon still in the western sky.

Geese-flying-small
Old Greeting Card – Source Unknown

“Endless flocks of geese flew overhead. One particular flock flew low into the sun, and the light caught their bellies and underwings and turned them a blazing silver colour.

“I also ran between huge, stinking piles of manure – not once, not twice, but four times.  As I returned to my lodgings I wondered:
What am I going to believe in?
The silver-bellied geese or the stinking manure?”

“So many times I still wonder if the manure will win out,” wrote my friend.

“Will my cousin survive her debilitating disease with spirit intact?
Will I be able to do what I think I’m being called to do?
Will trust outlast fear?

“I know I’m not always going to make it to the top of the manure pile to see the silver-bellied geese fly by,” my friend concluded.

“But that moment reminds me to live in the paradox…
To take the risk of choosing beauty…
To walk through fear…

“To trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under…even on days when
I don’t quite believe it.

“Love is there… It’s waiting for me…for all of us.”

Yes indeed, I thought upon reading this once again. But some days it’s not easy.

Some days it’s not easy to walk through our fear, whatever that fear may be.
Some days it’s not easy to risk choosing beauty.
Some days it’s not easy to trust in God’s loving preservation deep down under.

Some days it’s easier to believe in the stinking manure pile, and to miss that gorgeous flock of silver-bellied geese.

It’s for this reason that I value the work of spiritual directors, poets and many others who invite us to pay attention, to notice the astonishing (or ordinary) beauty all around us, and to let that beauty nourish our souls.  Perhaps sometimes that beauty even tips the balance.

Red-Bird
Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poetry collection entitled Red Bird. A poem entitled “Sometimes” includes this stanza:

“Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

My friend and Mary Oliver help me risk choosing beauty.  I enjoy sharing the beauty I find with you, my blog readers.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What helps you risk choosing beauty?  How do you share it with others?
  2. What helps you pay attention and be astonished?

Next week: TBA

#74 – Celebrating Fall Energy

Sue-Kindergarten
Kindergarten picture

Since the age of five, my spirit has soared each September with the onset of the school year. I loved school, whether kindergarten just up the street or Goshen College in Indiana.  Each September I anticipated a new teacher, a new classroom, and old and new classmates. At the same time I looked forward to my favorite season, with its cooler weather and coloured leaves.

After college I worked in a bookstore for ten years.  Fall signaled more customers and exciting new book releases.  Eventually I served as a pastor and an interim pastor. Every one of those settings had a clear fall startup, and I helped foster the congregation’s renewed energy and the startup of programs.

In my early retirement years I did considerable contract work, maintained a spiritual direction practice, and volunteered all over the place.  Most of those settings also had a distinct fall startup, perhaps conditioned by the Canadian full embrace of our short summer.

In short, the fall startup has always energized me.

So here I am in fall 2018, almost fully retired, with some limitations of body, mind and (especially) energy. Suddenly I realize I am no longer helping to shape a fall startup anywhere! So, what to do with those days immediately after Labour Day?

Newly retired teachers have told me they deliberately go on vacation right after Labour Day. So we followed their example and headed to our favorite early summer vacation spot – Colpoys Bay at the base of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula.

We observed the residents of Wiarton and Lions Head relaxing into their fall routines as they took their town back from the tourists. In the Tim Horton’s line at 6:00 in the morning, people greeted each other by name. In a “down home” diner in Lions Head, they joked loudly with each other between tables. Our walk down the main street of Wiarton with ice cream cones from Lloyd’s Smoke Shop elicited smiles and even remarks from local passersby.

Purple=GentianWe took a side trip to the Oliphant Fen, eager to see what bloomed there in September.  Our eyes took in nothing spectacular.  We saw no Lady Slipper orchids,  but rather a few Smaller Fringed Gentians and various kinds of little yellow flowers.

Back in Wiarton, we watched a muted sunset, with few clouds in the sky. The bay was as calm as we’ve ever experienced it. Apparently nature took those days after Labour Day to catch its breath, along with the locals.

 

Duck-in-Colpoys-Bay
The calmness of Colpoy’s Bay

Georgian-Bluffs-TruckThe energy we felt came from the road equipment drivers of the Township of Georgian Bluffs, busily resurfacing a cottage road previously full of potholes. We thought half the equipment of the township must be there – a wood chipper, a roller, a water truck, a scraper, a digger and several dump trucks.

We arrived home after three detours around small towns where bridges were being replaced. A wonderful sunset greeted us Saturday night as we walked in Rockway Gardens across the street, reminding us of the pleasures of nature right at home.

Sunset-in-Rockway-Gardens
Sunset in Rockway Gardens

Sunday morning I read the church bulletin online, as I usually do in preparing for the service.  Energy oozed out of that bulletin.  What will it be like – I wondered – to participate in that energy without having contributed to creating or preparing for it.  “Will I feel a part of things?” I asked myself with trepidation.

At church that morning, our “first hour” discussion about some potential changes to the church program was well attended, well planned, lively and good-spirited.  Then the service began with enthusiastic singing. Worship leader Betti Erb invited God to “take our fall energies and turn them into the liveliness of possibilities.”

Ah yes, “the liveliness of possibilities.” I like that turn of phrase.  As Betti prayed, I realized I can happily participate in relaxed liveliness where the congregation together creates the possibilities, with good prompting by leaders other than myself.

And from the residents of Wiarton, I glimpsed a new kind of fall startup – being energized as I relaxed into the fall routine, focusing on relationships.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What has the turn towards fall meant for you over the years?
  2. How do you celebrate the energy of fall in your life currently?
  3. What – if anything – does “relaxed liveliness” mean for you?

Next week: TBA

 

 

 

 

#73 – Point Pelee, Dune Grass, and Pastoral Ministry

Point-Pelee-small
Point Pelee in 1980s

In 1987, I compared my experience of entering pastoral ministry to walking at Point Pelee, the southernmost bit of land in Ontario.

I wrote: “My early experience in ministry reminds me of walking along the Lake Erie shoreline with surf pounding in the distance. We’ve just spied that shifting spit of land known as Point Pelee, where waves crash from two directions, with many shipwrecks attesting to the danger. Some years the point is large; other years it’s barely there.

Point-Pelee-2012-small
Point Pelee in 2012

“I step out onto this year’s wide tip, and oh my it’s exhilarating. I’m not sure how much farther out we dare go. I don’t know where reasonable risk ends. I don’t know how to read the signs yet, but for now it seems stable enough underfoot. And though the waves creep towards me from both sides, they seem gentle and warm.”

Three guides in particular helped me find solid footing.  Or perhaps more accurately, they helped me cultivate my own ability to read the signs of the wind and the waves, attuned to God’s Spirit, in a vocation where the ground shifts regularly. Gradually I found my bearings as a congregational leader.

Kincardine-2001-small
Lake Huron near Ruth’s cottage

Those three seasoned guides included Richard Yordy, a huge resource as the senior pastor at St. Jacobs. When I entered St. Jacobs as associate pastor, I was also pleased that the conference appointed Martha Smith Good as my mentor.  Martha left Ontario and Richard retired at about the same time, which coincided with my desire for a spiritual director. Ruth, my first director, was an experienced Anglican clergywoman who saw me at her year-round cottage near Kincardine, Ontario. I looked out onto Lake Huron as we met by her big window. The predictable rhythm of the waves comforted me.

I felt on dangerous ground once again nine summers later. I had recently left my pastorate on good terms, but without another pastoral assignment in the wings. Would I ever find a second placement, I wondered? (I’ve been the kind of transition maker who needs a “neutral zone” between assignments to know what I’m called to next).

Again a shoreline experience ministered to my spirit. We were on vacation on the Long Beach peninsula in the state of Washington – a stretch of shoreline rivaling in danger Ontario’s Point Pelee. I called the little essay I wrote about my experience “Along the Edge of Dangerous.”

I wrote: “I walked along the beach at low tide this morning.  I’ve never been able to go that far out into the ocean here before.

“This stretch of shoreline is considered very dangerous.  ‘Do not even wade more than ankle deep’ all the signs advise. Why? Because it’s so near the mouth of the Columbia River. There are riptides, shifting sandbars, and clam holes. More than 2000 vessels have been lost here, not to mention 700 lives.

Long-Beach-Washington-1995-small-1
Sandpipers at Long Beach, 1995

“But at low tide along the edge it is safe.  We see sandpipers, skittering quickly and gracefully along the beach on their long legs.  We come across many gulls of course, poking around in little puddles of seawater made by indentations in the sand. We walk past soft clam shells, mostly blueish; then a few piles of “sea debris” – rope and kelp and who knows what. We wonder about plant life that might be the runners or roots of dune grass.

“Why walk along the edge of dangerous?  Because I’m compelled to somehow.  Because it oddly revives my spirit. Because low tide makes it safe and possible to respect the sea, to absorb the environment, to have all powers of observation at work while knowing the limits.  Along the edge of dangerous, my footprints are soon gone.”

Long-Beach-Washington-1995-small
Dune grass at Long Beach, 1995

I was also fascinated by the dune grass, by how it adapts to the stiff sea winds, to the salt spray, to being buried in sand.

“I am tough,” I wrote, “with deep roots and the ability to live and grow underground for a while, and I am flexible.  I can sway in the breeze, I can endure salt spray dumped on me. I can be partially buried in sand.

“I like the looks of dune grass.  And you can’t get rid of it.  If you yank it up, imagine what all you connect with underground.  I am fond of dune grass.  Very fond.”

I’m grateful that images from Point Pelee and Long Beach calmed my spirit in my 40s.  During those same years, the calm but ever-changing waters of Colpoys Bay mirrored my many moods as I decompressed annually at a cottage on its shore.

Now that I’m in my 70s, the rhythm of waves still calms my spirit,  and the changing moods of Colpoys Bay still fascinate me.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Which bodies of water or other aspects of nature have calmed your spirit during difficult times?
  2. Who have been spiritual guides and mentors for you through new and scary experiences?

Next week: Colpoys Bay Revisited

#72 – Retired Women Reading Books in Community

Creative-Aging
Available from Skylight Paths Publishing

Cleaning out files last week, I came upon my notes on all seven books our retired women’s group has read so far.

When we began five years ago, retirement was new for us, exciting and a bit scary. So we started by looking it straight in the face, with Marjory Zoet Bankson’s Creative Aging: Rethinking Retirement and Non-Retirement in a Changing World.

Next the five of us turned to books on aging and spirituality by Catholic authors. In A Season of Mystery, Paula Huston introduced us to 10 spiritual practices for a “happier second half of life,” such as delighting, lightening and blessing. In The Gift of Years, Joan Chittister gave us 40 short reflections on topics such as meaning, fulfillment and letting go.  Later we grappled with “awakening as we age” and other Buddhist-tinged concepts in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s The Grace in Aging.

In our last several books we’ve explored aspects of spirituality which are not age-specific. We focused for a time on Joyce Rupp’s The Open Door: A Journey to the True Self. Then we entered Christine Valters Paintner’s Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics. She showed us inner archetypes such as the Fool, the Orphan and the Visionary through introducing us to “monks and mystics” such as Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Hildegard of Bingen.

Wagamese-Embers
Available from Douglas & McIntyre

We’re currently savouring Richard Wagamese’s Embers –  short meditations from an Ojibway perspective on themes like stillness, reverence and gratitude, with wonderful nature photos.

I asked each woman to comment either on her favorite book or on our method of conducting our (nearly) monthly three-hour sessions.  Nobody could choose a favorite book – and I couldn’t either! As Brenda put it, “I have enjoyed all the books, and whichever one we are discussing at the time is my favorite.  I think this indicates that the books are merely a spark for the rich conversation and wisdom generated by our time together.”

We rotate leading the sessions and hosting the group.  When we meet, food is an important ingredient. Kaye speaks for all of us in naming, “Our group appreciates both the flavour and the beauty of food.  And food shared makes it taste and look even better.”

Of our sessions themselves Muriel says, “One of the things I appreciate most is the structure of our meetings, which insures that each person has uninterrupted time for sharing. We each have a chance to reflect in silence before offering our responses. For me, that structure is a primary ingredient in keeping our circle a safe and trusting space.”

Here’s how it works: the leader of the day sends us an “opening question” for our initial round of sharing (with food). The question may be related to the theme of the chapter or to the season of the year. Or it may simply prompt us to each offer a happening from our lives since the last time we met.

Then we enter the main block of response time to the chapters we have all read. Each person takes up to 15 minutes to reflect, with no interruptions. She may name highlights of the chapter, talk about how it connects with her life, or take issue with it!  After a moment of quiet, we each feed back to her some observations, usually of appreciation or agreement. Then we go on to the next person.  We take a break (for more food!) after two or three persons have presented.  At the end, the facilitator for the day may close with words of sending.

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Gift of Years available from BlueBridge Books. Illuminating the Way available from Sornin Books

Ardith says, “I often find that listening to others reminds me of things I had forgotten, or sheds a slightly different light on something that also caught my attention. I always go home feeling enriched and grateful for this group of women who have become dear friends and fellow travelers.”

Kaye affirms, “My appreciation for this group runs deep. Being given the opportunity to share one’s reflections with openness and honesty and to have those reflections held and honoured with loving care, attention, and wisdom is a profound experience. It is an honour and a pleasure to be part of this group – enjoying the company of each other on this quest of greater self discovery in retirement and aging.”

Brenda adds, “Aging is inevitable, but how we age can be so intentional with the encouragement of friends. Taking our circle to the cottage has been so meaningful and adds beauty to this space.  Laughter has also been an important part of our time together.”

Playtime
Art exercise from Illuminating the Way

I think it’s clear how my spirit is nourished by this group!  I love reading books in community with these women.  I delight in our annual cottage days. I also enjoy sharing things like art exercises suggested by various authors. I love to see how what I colour or otherwise create compares to what others have done. This madala is from the St. Francis chapter in Illuminating the Way.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How have groups you have joined fostered respect for members and their varied experiences?
  2. Do you agree that “food shared makes it taste and look even better?”

Next week: TBA

 

 

#71 – Of Farm Markets and Village Bakeries

We did not have a garden – other than flowers – on the small property in Souderton where I grew up.  My Mom bought quantities of green beans and peaches for canning, apples for making applesauce, and corn for freezing and drying.

As an adult I’ve always lived in the city, on properties not suitable for growing vegetables.  We did coax along raspberries in a flower bed for a couple years long ago – a special delight for Sam.

IMG_6286For years now, I’ve marked the growing season with farm markets and roadside stands. Touring the countryside for my favorite foods (and flowers) has long been one of the simple pleasures of my life. When I had a driver’s licence, setting out on my own gave me great joy. Now I still find such excursions satisfying, with my long-suffering husband doing the driving.

The season begins for us with local asparagus. This requires at least one trip directly to Barrie’s Asparagus Farm in rural North Dumfries Township. There I buy a $5 bag of the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten, and marvel at all the products Barrie’s makes with asparagus.

IMG_6299During the many years we lived in Waterloo, I tracked the harvest by weekly visits to Herrle’s Country Farm Market on the road between Waterloo and St. Agatha.  They’re known for their corn, but there’s lots to get me there long before corn appears.

Herrle’s opens each June when strawberries are ready. So Sam begins with strawberries and continues through raspberries and blueberries. In the meantime we find new potatoes and new carrots, and eventually corn, green beans, beets, peaches, new crop apples and enormous sweet potatoes. The “first fruit” of each new crop tastes wonderful! And if I can no longer tolerate a particular food, I savour the memory of how it tasted.

We also regularly visit stands at the end of farm lanes, mostly for stems of gladiolas at 3 for $1.00.  I look for bright colours wherever possible. One time recently I was especially pleased with the available choices. But when we settled ourselves back in the car to drive home, Sam killed ten ants, and we think we missed some!  So unfortunately we had to ditch those bright glads. I decided the two loads of roadside glads I’d bought previously were enough for this year.

IMG_6295The lovely thing about the Kitchener Market, Martin’s Family Fruit Farm (north of Waterloo), and Stemmler’s Meat & Cheese (in Heidelberg) is that I can visit them in any season. Likewise with village bakeries.  I especially favour bakeries owned by Old Order Mennonites. At Sittler’s Home Baking in Conestogo I head for the gingerbread figures, oatmeal bread and various kinds of granola. At Sunnycrest Home Baking, now in Hawkesville, I look for small pies (especially cherry), muesli bread and Christmas cookies.

I must admit that my very favorite Old Order Mennonite vendor is not in Ontario, but rather in Pennsylvania. We found Weaver’s Market and Bakery along the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. We’ve always stopped and bought preserves for the pantry and a large ginger cookie for sharing when we’ve traveled to my home community by that route.

IMG_2133Questions for Reflection:

  1. What is your relationship to the summer growing season?
  2. In what way – if at all – is the procuring (or preserving) of locally-grown food, or the procuring of local baking a simple pleasure for you?

Next week: TBA

#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.

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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 Thornbury. 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.

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“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.

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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