Saturday, May 23, 2015

Extra Ordinary Days

Yesterday, I found myself at a table, surrounded by a group of pretty incredible women. My buddy Deb, her amazing mom Mary, my friend from book club, Judy, and then my friend, Jan and her wife, Debbie. If that alone had been the agenda, I would have signed up just to spend the day with these women. Firefighters, paramedics, an incredible woman who pulls together home lotteries to fundraise for hospitals, a store owner, a business owner...but those are just their roles, as we discovered together through a seminar called "How to Lead An Extraordinary Life".

Throughout the day, we were asked to really examine our own lives, our priorities, our fears, our hopes and our passions. If you had asked me to sign up for that agenda, I probably would not have signed up. At one point, early in the morning, when we were told we needed to get up and hug as many women in the room as possible, I totally admit that I mouthed, "I hate you" to my beautiful friend, Deb, who had invited me. I started to shake and twitch and heaven help me, sweat a little and even blush. Ridiculous, right? But, that's me in that setting. Thankfully, Jan's wife, Debbie looked as uncomfortable as me as maybe did ONE other woman in the room. What is it with women? Suddenly, though I clung as close to my chair, wedged between two tables, as awkward to get to as I felt, I was being hugged by complete strangers. What really choked me is that I saw Debbie escape to the bathroom and I reminded myself to follow that wise woman next time we were in any uncomfortable setting. But, this time, I was at the mercy of a hundred (it felt like) happy huggers. I lived. That in itself was extraordinary.

Though I feel like I'm pretty self aware, I know that I am also my own worst critic, often irrationally so. Many women are. I tell you though, we were asked to write 10 things we like about ourselves and it took me the full amount of time. Not because I was honestly short of things to write, I mean, I do have some decent qualities, it was more that it was awkward to write them down about myself. One of the women at our table though, seriously, just rattled off a list of 10 and then looked at the rest of us like she couldn't believe we were still trying to figure it out! I loved that. It actually was a huge moment for me in the seminar and it came from our table, not from the front.

I think that part of what I took away yesterday is that if I can surround myself with an amazing group of friends and family such as the people I was with yesterday, I can't help but be inspired to live a better life.  I was still thinking about it this morning as I texted Deb saying, "I just had caramel popcorn for breakfast and now I'm cleaning up dog barf. I'm living the extraordinary life!!"  Of course, the truth is that not every moment can be extraordinary or that would become the mundane.
The reality is though, that if we fill up our lives with the dutiful and the mundane, we may miss out on the extraordinary. Not always, for sometimes extraordinary comes in the midst of the mundane, but as a rule, we often push off our passions and our dreams for the duty and the day to day.

Deb mentioned to me last night that we had been talking about getting out on the paddle boards a lot this week. The weather was supposed to be incredible today, though we were a little afraid of how cold the river would still be, given that we just got rid of frost warnings last week, but, we made a plan to go out and paddle today.  Saturdays are busy and the kids are home and the husbands are working and I had other things to take care I thought, if Deb doesn't mention it, I'll let it go.
Then my neighbour, Bobby, who really does live quite an extraordinary life, though he's young and choosing to now live it in a much nicer place, came by to pick up the last of the things from the house he just sold across the street from us. We chatted for a few minutes and then he said to me, "I talked to Deb last night. She said you guys were going out on the river! Do NOT let her off the hook. You guys need to get out there."  It made me kind of glad the smartypants was leaving the neighbourhood. (Just kidding, you man.) So, responded to a text from Deb, we set a time, I got the basic work stuff I had to get done, done and by 1:30 pm we were on the river, giddy as schoolgirls, paddling for the first time this year after a long winter of longing for it. It took us a while even to settle into it because we were just so pumped to be doing it.

Somewhere along the way, we paddled into a side arm of the river, carried mostly by the current and the two of us sat on our boards and let the current take us. We were completely quiet. Deb told me after she was working on a breathing exercise we had learned yesterday. I was listening in a way that I learned yesterday - starting from the farthest off noises to those that come from your own breathing and heartbeat. I honestly could have listened to the sound of the nose of my board meeting the water for the entire day.  It was so restful.  Crazily though, in the midst of the peaceful float, we heard the hugest splash right behind our boards, and looked to see the ripples. I instantly thought we were under attack, because that happens a lot in rural Saskatchewan, paddle boarders are attacked while floating down the middle of the river far from anywhere. Deb realized pretty quickly that it was a beaver. Clearly, imagination wasn't on her list of good qualities like it was on mine. The Beav, as I have now named him,  had probably come up on us thinking we were logs, just floating along. Or he was warning other beavers of our imminent arrival, either way, he was loud and disruptive but it was just funny. Who gets jerked out of their reverie by a belligerent beaver? He surfaced a distance behind us and then disappeared as we floated farther away.  Talk about an extraordinary day.

And that's probably the nitty gritty truth of it all. That extraordinary comes in the midst of the mundane, it can be your quiet, meditative moments or it can be the thing that jerks you out of it. It can be the balance of a morning of dog vomit and caramel corn, weeding and sweeping and then finding yourself in the middle of a river, floating along with only the water and your board beneath you.

I think that many of us live extraordinary lives. I know I when I am mindful, I can see it. But, we need to be reminded at times to look for it, and if it takes to long to search out, perhaps we need to make it a little more readily visible, if only to our own eyes.

It was an extraordinary day. Though we may replicate many of the elements of it, dog vomit exempted, there will never be another just like it. So, I'm storing this one up for when I need to be reminded.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


I just wanted to share a few of my favourite photos of Nkosi...
if you'd like one for your own collection, feel free to copy them.
With love, Shelly

When I think of Nkosi, this is one of my favourite pics. We held a camp at Kachele for the kids
and the care workers from Mulenga. Nkosi came out and sat and "watched" the children play games in the
field, and was just so present and available. I didn't know then how indicative this was of who he was. 

Nkosi in 2009, proudly wearing his Breakthrough Home Based Care shirt

Nkosi listening to the children at the camp around his table. 2009

Nkosi with fellow care workers, Reuben and Evalyn in the streets of Mulenga. 2009.

Nkosi and Mildred 2009 at Kachele Farm

Nkosi in 2012, always smiling his gentle smile, even when his eyes couldn't see you,
they smiled too.

Those same boys from our first camp, years later, in 2012 still flanking Nkosi. Redson (Junior),
 Hackim and Emmanuel have all grown up with Nkosi in their lives. They'll miss him dearly, pray for these boys. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Light in the Dark

Early this morning, well, more the middle of the night really, I was awake to see my phone light up across the room. It only lasted a second and normally I wouldn't leave the bed to check it, but I did. I had a message from my friend, Ashley, who is serving with Hands at Work in Zambia right now. She was letting me know that our dear friend, Nkosi, had passed away in Mulenga.

If you've been following the blog or in my vicinity since my first trip to Mulenga, you'll know how deeply impacted I've been by this man. A Malawian who somehow wound up in Mulenga, Zambia, Nkosi was an older man when I first met him. He wasn't exactly sure of his age but he wasn't young. He was going blind and walked with a stick or on the arm of one of the other care workers. He lived, at the time, in one small room, with only a chair, that he slept upright in,  and a few meagre belongings, but you would think he was the world's wealthiest man from his joy and contentment.  The first time I met him, I realized he was very special if only from the way that others responded to him. He was well loved in his community and had a smile and something encouraging to say to everyone. He took time with everyone and asked real questions to get to know you.

A year later, on a return trip, I spent more time with Nkosi in Mulenga. His sight was deteriorating until he could only see shapes and shadows, yet the moment I said hello, he knew it was me and we just picked up where we had left off. He still sang and clapped and danced as the care workers worshipped before going off on home visits. Nkosi too, at that time, still walked the crooked, uneven paths of Mulenga to visit children and make sure they were safe and care for in their homes. I think this trip, I recognized the amazing gift of Nkosi to this community and made time to be around him. He's one of those people that you see joy radiating out of and you want to just catch a bit of that light for your own.

A few years later, I returned with my boys and with Jason. Introducing the boys to Nkosi was such a beautiful moment for me. He immediately began to call them "his boys" and inquired after them whenever we would come into the community in the time that we stayed there. He loved Easton's name and knew Aidan's voice by heart. Nothing made my heart happier than seeing Easton, just 10, leading Nkosi up the path on his arm, chatting all the while, with no regard to language barriers.  Nkosi treated them as "his kids" just as he did all the kids at the care point. He now got around mostly with the help of some of the boys who grew up under his care over the years, at the care point.  He didn't often go on home visits anymore but would sit at the care point while the children came to eat and he would be surrounded by the older boys who would hang on his words and laugh at his jokes and generally just soaked up being around him. His eyes were sightless now and yet, he knew each child by the sound of their voice, recognized their laughter and could stop a squabble with a tap of his stick on the ground in the general direction of any conflict.  He sat with his legs crossed, his arms folded and listened intently, observing all that went on around him with the senses he had left at his disposal. He still spoke such encouragement, particularly to the boys who were growing up around him and to the other care workers.  Many times, I spent sat on the floor of the care point with several care workers and Nkosi, after the children returned to school, and he would take some of the littlest ones by the hand and play with them or he would sing and smile at whoever happened to be in the vicinity to receive his love.

In between that month + in Mulenga and my visit last year, Nkosi had suffered a stroke. Not faring well on his own, Elizabeth, another of the care workers, took him into her home, made him a bed and cared for him as her own brother.  There were fears at first that he was not going to recover, but recover he did and even though physically he was weaker and in pain, his inner strength and faith and joy grew even stronger. On good days, he would visit with the kids and be available to talk and pray. On bad days, he would pray from his bed and encourage whoever came to visit him. His mind was foggy but his faith was crystal clear and he spoke with the urgency of a man who recognized that his life was to be spent sharing what he had learned about the God he loved.

I last saw Nkosi nearly a year ago. When our team arrived in Mulenga, we were greeted and set to work, and I went straight away to see my old friend.  He was having a pretty good day, though he repeated himself often, but upon reflection perhaps that was something greater than himself. For the words he repeated were ones of love for us and for our family and for our work in Mulenga. He apologized for not showing us his love by coming to visit us when we came to visit him so often. We knew his heart was to remind us that though he had no conventional way of showing us his love, he was going to make sure we heard it straight from his lips. He continued to pour encouragement on Aidan and Kim and I as we sat near him at his bedside. I held his hand and we had a short but good visit, one I knew in my heart would be my last with him. When we left, I hugged him goodbye and I thanked him for all the lessons he had taught me. His goodbye to me was to tell me to greet "his Jason and his Easton" for him and to thank me for bringing "his Aidan"...those things further cementing his place in my heart for loving my family.

Knowing that he's gone leaves a giant hole right now, but it is also an incredible reminder that I need to believe what I say I believe - that a blind man can now see. That the weak are made strong. That there are no more tears, no pain, no suffering. How can I not celebrate the passing of Nkosi from the difficult and impoverished life he lived to the rich and rewarding one he deserves. I'm just mindful that celebration can involve tears and today, I just miss the guy.

Nkosi plays with Mattie, Cleopatra's baby, while we rest after the noon meal at the care point.
To me, this is the essence of Nkosi...caring, gentle and laughing while showing love.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Gray May

May has really started out a little greyer than usual in our house. It's not the weather, for once, we don't have anything to complain about there. And being from the prairies, that's not normal. Neither is having two family members having brain surgeries within weeks of each other, but since when have we been normal? 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my brother, Dero, here, who had undergone his third brain surgery in an attempt to once again, slow the growth of a tumour that he has been dealing with for several years. The pesky thing just keeps coming back and inhabiting the cosy little cave that has been carved out for it. Unfortunately, that means having to go in and evict the thing when it threatens to spread out.

Thankfully, my brother is doing well and feeling good and on the road to a full recovery. 

And then there's my nephew, Mac. He's a pretty cool kid (don't tell him I said that) but unfortunately for him, what he thought were headaches and side effects from a hockey concussion actually turned out to be a nasty brain tumour as well. So, last year, he had it removed and carried on living life to the fullest in the way that only teenaged boys can do...playing hockey, going to school, jet setting around Europe on his class trip....only to find out in a recent MRI that the tumour had, as well, been living life to the fullest and now had grown back into the cozy little cave that had been carved out for it. Eerily similar and yet unrelated. So, this week, on Monday, Mac had his second craniotomy and today, Thursday, he's home and resting up for return to full life living, graduation and whatever the summer brings his way. 

I didn't know there was such a thing as Brain Tumour Awareness month but apparently even before our family had been affected, there are so many others. Our dear friends lost their Dad this year to a brain tumour. A friend told me that her mother and mother in law both had to have brain surgeries to fight tumours. Is it one of those things that once it happens to you, you hear it everywhere? Like when you're pregnant and suddenly it seems everyone around you from the gas station attendant to the receptionist at the obstetrician's office is having a baby? I don't know...I hope it is that I'm just more open to seeing and hearing the stories, and yet, it seems pretty prevalent. Especially if it accounts for 20-25% of all primary paediatric cancers? Those are frightening statistics. 

I'm not asking anything of you here. I'm just putting it out there. If lightning can strike twice in our family, then just be aware. Be proactive. Don't procrastinate on checking out symptoms you may be having or hearing your friends or family mentioning. That's it. Just a public service announcement, friends, for no reason other than I really, really like you guys. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

When Your Child Becomes a #

365 nights of an unbelievable grief and fear, the panic that would never leave you when you think of your daughter in the hands of those you fear most, who hate so fervently that they would steal her from you while she was at school.

365 days of not knowing. Not knowing where she is. Not knowing if she's alive. Not knowing if she's hurt. Being abused. Being raped. Being beaten. Being traded. But knowing, it's likely, that if she is alive, she is now someone's property. From a daughter and a schoolgirl to a slave and a body to be raped and beaten. Disposable. Degraded.

How as a parent do you survive the abduction of your little girl. The one you carried in your arms and  whose little fingers wrapped around your pinky when she learned to walk. The one who represented a change in culture when she first donned a school uniform and sat in a classroom. The girl who helped with the cooking. The dishes. The girl who hummed tunes, skipped rope and giggled with her friends. The girl who wanted to stay up to read just a little later and to sleep in just a little longer on cold mornings. Your girl. Your daughter. Stolen.

A year of hearing the mantra "Bring Back Our Girls" and only hearing "Bring back my girl." And seeing the parents of other stolen girls and understanding their grief but being unable to assuage it.
How do you comfort yourself and your daughter's siblings? How do you ever feel safe again? How do you ever put a meal on the table and choke it down, knowing she may be in pain or hungry or worse.

Once again, the absolute horror of 200 families facing another night without their own precious girl safely under their own roof is ahead of them. Can we spare a few minutes to remember their names and ask our governments to do the same and apply pressure to seriously, bring back their girls? And to write their families and tell them you've done so.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Lighthouse in Our City

"I always knew that I like this place. You don't have to look too far, to find a friendly face." - Jon Bon Jovi

Yesterday morning was one of those crazy, windy mornings here in the city. I came in to work and drove my usual route, along 20th St., in front of The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse to me is one of the best things about the city. It is certainly not everyone's. In fact, several nights ago, and many times before that, I got into debates with neighbours and friends about The Lighthouse and the residents and people that frequent it.

The Lighthouse is an affordable housing complex. It also provides supported living and emergency shelter for those who are either homeless or hard to house. There is access to the health bus, a nursing station, nutritional meals and budgeting support. The emergency shelter has been incredibly successful in reducing the need for those under the influence to be locked in police custody to sober up as they used to need to be, because shelters were unwilling to accommodate them unless they were already sober. Tough spot to be in on a -30 night in February. It's a complex place, downtown in the heart of the city. It's on the bus route, centrally located, accessible to social programs and health clinics. It's also straight across from a multiplex theatre and kitty corner to what could accurately be called "Pub Row" -a street of bars, restaurants, an event centre. It's the kind of street that if you're going to go out on the town later in the evening, you'll probably wind up on this street. Or after work for drinks before heading home to the suburbs.

Unfortunately, there are times when residents of the Lighthouse and those who are out for a night out cross paths. Often, it's little more than a momentary passing. Sometimes it involves being asked for money or a cigarette. Sometimes it's a derogatory comment or a misplaced suggestion to "Get a job!" Sometimes it escalates. And when it does, the complaints begin about the Lighthouse and its guests and residents and then the crazy talk that sounds a lot like disdain and racism and elitism... and  it comes from a desire to stay in the comfortable bubble that we put so much security in.

I hear all sorts of things about the problems surrounding the Lighthouse but I would offer this in reply. I love being at the Lighthouse and getting to know the residents. I love it more when I drive down 20th in the mornings,  see Mimi with his cane, shuffling out the door and he gives me a wave and a nod on my way in to work. And I see Anna in her green coat, bracing against the wind and I know that she'll go for a long walk and return in time for lunch. Maybe she'll see her daughter today. Maybe she'll just wander along the riverfront. Maybe she'll head into the thrift store on 20th to pick up and look at each ceramic piece of kitsch as though looking at treasure.  Or maybe, like yesterday, I'll honk at Dave and he'll yell super loud, "Hey Shelly!" and come over to my car window at the red light and chat for a few, until he notices the cops behind us eyeing him. I wave at them and he tells me he better move on or they'll think he's asking for money. We laugh and the light changes and I can hear him yelling "Goodbye!"as I pull away.

I know that there are those around the downtown that cause a lot of problems. But I know the names of those who don't and I'm always grateful to know where they're laying their heads at night.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Better in Africa.

Last summer, I took a team to Zambia to visit Mulenga. Over the course of the first few days, there became this catchphrase that the girls on the team applied in all manner of circumstances...."You're ____________ in Africa."  I'm not sure how it started but it became the sort of backhanded compliment/criticism  that we would give someone whenever possible. We were smarter in Africa. Kinder in Africa. Better drivers in Africa. Grumpier in Africa. More unreasonable in Africa. Prettier in Africa.  Somehow we found a way to figure out our best and worst qualities in Africa. 

This photo from Ethiopia that one of the guys from my last team sent me yesterday brought that right back. Look how funny and engaging I am in Africa! I'm definitely funnier in Africa.  This was just a snap as we were waiting for a ride...a few kids on the street apparently found me quite engaging. I'm saying this knowing full well they could have been laughing at me as easily as I interpreted it as laughing with me. If I'm this funny in Africa, maybe that's why I just keep being drawn back.  I can't imagine sitting, waiting for a ride in Saskatoon and engaging a group of passersby in this manner. 
I must be funnier in Africa. 
I loved my second time in Ethiopia. Gone were the firsts of figuring out language and culture and traffic and my own quirks. I felt like the learning curve on this trip was rapid for me. This day especially was pretty meaningful. Another phrase came out of this day for me. The boy closest to me is Renando. He just kind of hung around all day wondering why there was a feringe (foreigner) perched next to a latrine with her feet up over the sewage draining out to the street. Not something you see everyday, I guess. Several times he'd bring friends by to peek in the gate of the tight little yard we were working in and they would chatter and practice what little English they knew. At one point, I went out and sat with them and just listened to them chatter. Hours later, they had dispersed, we were cleaning up the remnants of the construction materials and tools and sat on the main road waiting for a ride. Suddenly, Renando showed up again with more boys in tow and we chatted for a bit with the help of Getu, who would interpret when language failed us. At one point, Renando spoke the line that has stuck in my mind since. In English, he asked me, "Where are you born?"  I replied, "Canada. Where were you born?" And he pointed, with his full hand, around the corner into the alley we had just come from, and said, "Here. In this slum. We are all born in this slum." Regardless of our short lived interaction, I know that when I see this photo in years to come, I'll remember these boys, their laughter, their curiosity and their natural charisma...and I'll continue to hope that one day they are able to rise above their humble beginnings and reach their full potential. I want their lives to be better in the truest sense of the words.