Tuesday, January 26, 2016

This Life

"Comparison is the thief of joy"

This is a small mantra I often play on repeat in my head. Particularly in this age of Instagram and Facebook and Tumblr and every other kind of media out there...it's hard to remember that someone else's life isn't just one big fun fest while mine isn't. And then, I hit the reality that I'm sure there are days when my life IS one big fun fest and someone else's isn't.

So, hear this...that for all the oversharing I do on social media and over coffee and on the blog, it's still just a snapshot of a moment. So, if you catch me on a good day with make up on and having run a brush through my hair...remember that there are just as many days like today. I'm home. I have a hacking chest cold that has turned me into a big sucky baby that yells "It burnnnnnns" to the dog every time I have a coughing spasm. (As an aside, this supposedly most loyal breed has retired to the top of the stairs, out of my coughing range and barely lifts her head now when I look for sympathy and solidarity in my weakened state.)  My house is half painted, with painting paraphernalia all over the coffee table and kitchen island. Dishes are piled in the sink and the boys are going to come home shortly to complain that there is "nothing to eat" as they rummage the pantry and fridge in their mid day feeding frenzy.

So, yes, enjoy our photos. They are beautiful and they capture our family well. But keep in mind that they don't tell the whole story. That Easton has a broken collarbone in these pics. And our oldest nephew and niece are now at college and away from home...and that means they have their own lives and we don't have many years left where we'll all be able to gather this way. That cancer has had its way with more than one family member in these photos. That we don't get to be together this way on more than a few days a year, though we are lucky enough to recognize that it's precious when we do. That the boys who now tower over our heads are the same ones who have just walked in the door and demand to be fed copious amounts of teen approved snacks...and I'm the one they are looking to to provide them. Our life is incredibly good. It's simply life...with all its ups and downs and mind numbingly mundane in between. And it's ours. Even when the bills pile up. And the boys fight. And I'm sick. And the dang dog barely acknowledges me all day.
Mac and the cousins 

My gorgeous nieces...

Jenessa and Cailey

Kamerin giving it back to Aidan. 

Snowball fight on the lake
Jason and I 

The whole VanBinsbergen clan on the lake

The cousins. They're like a small gang.

The family...I'm definitely the shortest

Easton and Aidan
Oma and Opa

Friday, January 1, 2016


I've been unable to write for a few weeks. I wish I could say that it was because I've been busy and that I have been doing so much for others and being productive, but the truth is...I've been laying kind of low because once again, depression has thrown itself over me like a wet, wool blanket. I'm thankful for a family that generally understands and allows me to figure out what it's going to take to get out from under it. It's not situational, in that I'm not sad over a particular event or loss or subject, but it is heavy just the same and though I may not feel sad, it can be exhausting just trying to corral my thoughts into something worth articulating. Though I slow down exponentially when it hits, I have to continue to slog forward as if wet cement were surrounding my moves and threatening to hold me in place for eternity. I feel like if I allow myself to be immobilized, then I risk staying stuck.

Add to this general malaise, the idea of resolutions and New Year's and instead of being inspiring, it can be daunting and overwhelming at times. I mean, if it were socially acceptable to double a batch of cookie dough just so I can eat half of it uncooked and still have an outcome of at least a dozen cookies, then I believe my issues with resolutions and goals would be solved. But alas, it's frowned upon so I have to set my ideals a little higher. Or do I?

I mean, what on earth do I have to live up to anyway? In fact, the paradox of my life is that I aspire to live down to the level of simplicity and honest generosity that the people I admire most live. I want to live in such a way that selflessness and generosity mark my life the way that it does of Sukai and James, or of Blessings and Prudence, of Elizabeth and Dorothea and Reuben and Joyce. I want to have the kind of joy in my work that I see in Priscilla who comes every day to a care point and embraces the challenges of nearly 150 children that depend on her and her team of volunteers to provide for them - a place to play, a healthy meal, a chance to learn, a chance to be cared for and parented and protected.

Last year, I picked "mindfulness" as a word to focus on for the year. It was meant to invoke focus and attention in areas that matter to me. In some areas, I admit that it worked. I was able to cut through some of the peripheral stuff in my life that draws my attention from the things that really matter to me. It wasn't perfection but it was progress of sorts. I relapsed over the year time and time again to going through the motions in lots of areas of my life, but once in a while, the reminder of "mindfulness" came to me and helped me get back on track.

I've been struggle with the idea of even a word for this coming year. Or a phrase. I guess the gist of it is that I want to keep moving forward and to keep growing, but at the same time, I want to be engaged in the day to day, not just pressing on to the next thing all the time.

So, no word. A blank space on the inspirational wall hanging this year. And yet, there's something about the blank space that says I can fill it in as I go.  Maybe I can't limit myself to one word or one phrase or one resolution at this point in my life because everything is so wide open. It's daunting but it's also exciting, when I have the mindset to be optimistic about it all. I'm watching boys grow up in front of my eyes and I know that time is fleeting. I'm feeling a pull to change some things in my life that would be really crazy, empowering and inspiring but they are tempered by the terrifying nature of change itself.

So today, January 1, 2016. A New Year but the same old me. A blank calendar in front of me but only a pencil to write on it with. There's not much that inked at this time...which I'm learning to embrace.

This afternoon, I took Charlie down to the river for a walk. It's a gorgeous, windless, blue sky prairie kind of day and it is crisp and fresh outside. We wound our way through the peeling birch and red willows of the riverbank and we listened to the sounds of birds above us and water under the ice and our feet crunching the snow beneath us. We wandered for about an hour and then cut up the hill on a deer path and emerged on the track above the river. There were plenty of people and dogs out today and we caught up to a woman who was bent over in two, catching her breath, while her dogs ran in and around with Charlie. She stood up and looked me in the eye and I asked her if she was ok. She nodded and explained that she had some back pain related to dialysis that she was undergoing. We'd never met before but the first question she asked me was "Where are you travelling to this year?" I looked at her again and asked, "Do you mean, like, as in resolutions or where I think this year is going to take me?" She shook her head and said, "No. Where are you really going to travel to this year and why?" I told her that I planned to go to Zimbabwe this year and we began to walk together, slowly, and she asked me questions about our work there and the reason I go and what I do there, etc. She told me about her dialysis and how she was unable to travel. We talked about dictators and governments and our own election results of this past year. We stopped often for her to bend over and get relief from the pain in her back. We talked about walking and dogs and fresh air and mental health. When we parted ways at the road, I walked away thinking that sometimes there are just people around us that ask the right question and are willing to really listen for the answer. I have had encounters with women that make me wonder if they are really angels or messengers or prophets of sorts; the kind of encounters that make you believe that God becomes flesh to point things out to you again for clarity. Maybe it's just me, and the fact that I'm a slow learner, but I feel like when there have been changes afoot and decisions to be made, that there are often strangers with objective opinions that seem to speak into my life in the most mundane and wonderful ways as if to point me in the right direction.

I don't know what the total message was meant for me today, but the bottom line was, she advised me to keep proceeding. Keep walking. For my mental well being and for the greater good of serving others. One foot in front of the other, even if on the way back, you're in pain and bent in two from the exertion, it's better than having missed the journey.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Give Me A Break

As if we didn't spend enough time together in clinics in the past month and a half, Easton decided that surfing a sled down Diefenbaker hill seemed like a great idea yesterday...until he launched himself off a small jump and landed shoulder first on the hard pack and broke his collarbone. 

I'm going to say this. Thank God for the Canadian healthcare system. Thank. You. God. 
For real. We waited in a clinic with power. We were ushered into a private clinic room with a door that closed and privacy afforded. Easton lay on a clean bed as he waited for the doctor. He needed an x-ray and that was done in the same building, just down the hall. 

We got results. We got a sling. We were able to walk away without a hefty bill.  It made me grateful again to be afforded such luxury. I didn't have to think about whether or not we could afford to take him to the clinic. I didn't have to think about the long term effects of such an injury, knowing it would be diagnosed and treated pretty much by the end of the day, if not sooner.  

I'm not saying this to put down the care we received in Zimbabwe or in Zambia, because we were taken care of. We were well taken care of. BUT, we were taken care of because we had the money to afford it and the contacts to make it happen in a safe place. Not everyone has that luxury. 

So, we were given a break. Afforded one. A small price to pay for the realization that we are incredibly lucky to live where and how we do. And as for Easton, he's just proud of the fact that he broke it doing something cool, which in turn, affords him some street cred with his buddies and a story to share for the next while. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Case of 'The Feels'

"When you are joyful, be joyful; when you are sad, be sad. If God has given you a sweet cup, don't make it bitter; and if He has given you a bitter cup, don't try and make it sweet; take things as they come."
--Oswald Chambers, Shade of His Hand

Suffice it to say, it's been a period of feeling things deeply these past few weeks. October was a time of feeling joy and sadness simultaneously. I was filled with joy at having returned to the company of some of the people I admire most in the world, and yet, feeling sadness at how heavy the load is that they carry for the people around them who suffer so much because of poverty. I'm proud and frustrated that there should be such a calling as that of serving the poor, because it's helpless and hopeful work that somehow can coexist miserably and beautifully in each of us, if we let it.

I admit, there are times when I want to go backward in my knowledge. I long for times when I could fabricate long Christmas lists of gifts that I believe would make me happy. Of a time when I could travel for pleasure rather than for purpose, even though there is pleasure in that. There are just days when it would be easier to look forward to a swim up bar and dread shopping for a bathing suit, rather than eagerly anticipating a day in a slum and dread the thought of who is no longer there to walk alongside you.  I grow somewhat despondent in that a cream coloured Karmen Ghia convertible would cause me to pause in my exuberance knowing that it would afford me more than one trip back to the sprawling urban shantytowns that I find myself loved in.

These are some of the honest but self centered thoughts I have when I come back and settle back into the routine of life after being in Africa.  Home is home and I love being here, surrounded by my friends and family and yet, I long to be free of it as well. That the two days of travel and two months of income it takes to get to where I long to be means that I have to find a way to make the most of my time here as I do when I'm there.  It was a perfect trip in that it enabled Easton and I to visit our favourite places...Zimbabwe and Zambia and to find ourselves in the company of those we long to speak with so often when we're back in Canada.

I'm not sure if I've ever felt so removed from our community in Zambia as I have in these past weeks. I've certainly never left with things unsaid or undone before that have come home in my luggage as excess baggage. It's here where I struggle. With regret. For things unsaid. For time unspent. For a visit not made. For the opportunity lost. I'm still trying to figure out how this is all supposed to make me stronger or fortify my resolve when really I'm just feeling sad and guilty and selfish for not having been able to go and visit my friend while she was in hospital. There are reasons I couldn't and constraints that were put on our time that made it nearly impossible but I knew in my heart that I wanted to see her. So much that I asked on several occasions and was not confident in the answers. That the hospital was far. That she would be isolated. That she wouldn't be up for visitors. I allowed myself to concede that it wasn't possible. And now she's gone and I'm carrying regret.  I don't for one second believe that Cynthia did not know how much I loved her, or how much I thought of her and cared for her, even across the miles. The regret is that given the sliver of an opportunity, I allowed myself to let it slide by me without seeing her. Would she have known I was there? Would I have been allowed to see her?  I don't even know the answers and I never will.  It's changed me to come back from this trip with regret. I know I won't let it happen again. I'm learning to trust my place and to speak my feelings because it's when I don't that I find it easy to let the blame sit on my shoulders and that's what's been weighing me down over the past few weeks.

The weight adds to the day to day run of the mill type stresses that appear in the season leading into Christmas. The financial, the traditional, the mundane all compound under the burden of grief coupled with regret. I don't say this to make excuses, I've been difficult to talk to and hard to make laugh and less inclined to be generous....quite the opposite of the lesson I should be learning from regret, but I've never been accelerated in the academia of life lessons. So what I'm throwing out here, for my own benefit, is really the basic self talk I've been giving myself. Be kinder than you feel. Be slow to get angry or offended, and slower to speak into it. Present thicker skin than perhaps you're feeling. Remember that everyone is carrying their own burdens and the weight of theirs doesn't diminish the weight of your own. Be generous. With yourself. With your time. With your energy. But spend it wisely too. There's a limited supply and give it to those who need it most whether you know them or not, whether they share your stash of dark chocolate or just your city streets. Be careful in this season. Assess what is worthy weight to carry and shed what is not, and don't pick it up again simply because it presents itself in your path moment by moment. Step over it and keep moving.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

These Days

There's just a lot of heavy sighing going on over here. Not a lot of words right now. It's just a season of heaviness right now, I guess. There's grief and friends who are grieving. There's worry and friends who are worrying. There's racial division and opposing views. There's fear.  There's sadness and resignation and frustration and stagnancy.

There is also an incredible warmth in these December days that bring some energy. There's good things happening in our city like a surprise wedding celebration for newly immigrated Syrians in our city. A church who served over 700 people for Christmas dinner the other night in one of our core neighbourhoods.  There are books to be read. There is a dog on my bed and there are meals on the table. There are boys running in and out on their way to their basketball games and theatre rehearsals. There's noise. There's mess. There's life.

Some days, I'm under it all. Some days, I can tread water at the surface. Some day, I hope I can rise above it again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Invitations to the Unknown

We all have those friends who regardless of how much time passes, just simply "get" what we need when we share the things that have us twisted or upside down. Over the past eight years, I have learned to say "yes" to these kinds of friends when they invite me into experiences or adventures, regardless of the details. There's a certain level of trust there that what they have in mind isn't going to kill me or hurt me, though there have been times where following my friend, Deb, has led me to the gym and suspension thingy's and a few days of not being able to lift my arms above my head, but for the most part, I have some pretty great people around me that challenge me into new experiences.

Last week, when I shared with my friend, Cathy, about the passing our friend, Cynthia, I knew that she would feel the loss much the way I do. Cathy and Cynthia were pen pals before they had ever met. Cathy and I were co-workers for a few years when I first went to Zambia. When I returned, I had told her about Cynthia and how I had stayed in her home with her and the girls and just felt like she and Cathy had some kindred spirit kind of thing going on across the globe. Cathy sent a letter for Cynthia along with me on one of my next trips and I became the postmaster for two unlikely pen pals who lived oceans apart.

In 2012, when our family went to Africa for a few months, Cathy joined us in our adventure for a few weeks in Zambia and met her friend, Cynthia, face to face. It was an ordained meeting, I am sure of that.  Fast friendship, laughter and chatter that crossed the language barrier, I watched two friends cement their friendship. Cynthia always asked about Cathy when I came to Zambia and I know that she held the photos and letters from Cathy very close. Cathy would catch up with me when I'd return from a trip and find out how her friend was doing.

Messaging Cathy with the news of Cynthia's passing was hard and we were both sort of at a loss as to how to grieve long distance for this friend. We passed a few photos and memories back and forth and then Cathy invited me to her workplace today for something called "Feast for the Dead", mentioning we could sit and remember Cynthia together.

I'm not sure why, but I agreed, even though a "Feast for the Dead" sounded vague and ominous and not at all like something I would enjoy. Yet, I just agreed because that's what I do when Cathy asks me to join her in something. I agree. She's never led me too far astray. So, I showed up today at AIDS Saskatoon and came in through the back door to the kitchen in search of Cathy. She was piling apples onto a platter and sort of figuring out the details of this event as they unfolded. We threw my coat in her office, along with the belated birthday gift I'd brought her, and set to work making tea, piling fruit, and organizing some of the last minute things to get ready for the feast. I still reallllly didn't know what I'd signed on for but at this point, I was pretty comfortable. The kitchen smelled amazing...moose stew and bannock...and I can make pots of tea if that is what is required.

Slowly, it became clear that this was a sort of memorial feast for those who'd passed away in the last year. A sort of celebration of life - group style. It wasn't lost on me that the people who were gathering in the front room were grieving too, even if they weren't displaying it or wore no visible signs of their sadness. I watched several people make small triangular flags with the names of their friends who had passed away and I read the messages around the room as we waited for the Elder to arrive who was going to perform the blessing and start the feast. "I miss you kid" was the message that got me. It was that kind of intimate nickname that said more than any formal epitaph could.
I could feel the endearment as if it were spoken out loud, just from the way it was written on the small flag above the coffee urn.

AIDS Saskatoon is a pretty nondescript building, much the same as any sort of non-profit that scrambles for funding. The "living room" or drop in centre is basically a collection of random couches and bookshelves, coffee tables and desks, decorated a la mode of most overused and underfunded agencies in this realm of work. If you closed your eyes to the messages on Hep C and the admonitions that it's not okay to fix any time on the premises...you could be in any one of a number of agencies across the world that scramble to do their best by those they serve on a shoestring - a shoestring that often gets stepped on and shortened according to who is leading the dance around the budgetary ball.  There's the resident coffee urn and newspapers for people to peruse while hanging out, out of the snow and the wind that decided today was winter's arrival in our city. I keep busy photocopying the word search and crosswords for a couple of guys that are looking for something to do while we wait.

The room is filling and the First Nations Elder arrives and begins to settle into his position, ready to begin the ceremony. He looks like a salt of the earth kind of guy, jeans and a ball cap, glasses and hands that have worked hard. There's no ceremony about him but he takes his duties seriously and begins to speak in a low voice explaining how the ceremony will take place. His voice is low and surprises me.  In a room that was minutes before full of the chatter of those who live alone and seek conversation here as well as the accompanying noise of winter coats being shed, the wood floor complaining under the wet boots and melting snow, and the clatter of the kitchen presenting the food for the blessing, it is suddenly quiet and he speaks his low instructions and even throws in a joke.
He begins the blessing ceremony and a group of men serve each of us a large plate of food. As his voice quietly covers the room, it becomes sacred space.  Oranges and apples, cookies and candies, moose soup and bannock become elements of something important and necessary.  It's beautiful and it's generous. We sit quietly until everyone is served. Some women slip to the floor to sit, as is the custom in this sort of ceremony. I sit quietly in my chair and think it is much like communion being served, a tradition I don't comprehend in its entirety. It is such an intimate gesture to be served by someone in this way, particularly when you don't know them.  I'm looking at the food on the platter in front of me and I'm thinking about the words of the Elder who is passing around a bucket. Each person takes a small portion of everything on his plate and puts it in the bucket as an offering to those who have passed away. In my faith, I can't think of anything cultural equal to this that we hold on to but in my mind, I'm thinking of the Old Testament sacrifices as well as all sorts of parallels in modern day of homages we pay to those in memorium. As I break apart the bannock and the apple and the orange on my plate, my eyes fill with tears as I think that Cynthia, who has struggled for so long in a community with no food security, now has nothing to worry about in terms of nourishment. I honestly felt that I was sharing food with Cynthia in a non-mystical, not to be misinterpreted kind of way, but in a way that acknowledged that her struggle for food and to feed her family was over. I was incredibly grateful for that for her and I held on to that gratitude for the entire afternoon.

As the Elder spoke the blessing over the meal, in his language, I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was in. Around me, no one stirred. In a room of people mostly of First Nations descent, there is an incredible beauty to the respect they have for their elders and for the ceremonies of their culture. I have often felt this way when in the presence of other cultures, that there is something we've missed in our own, that deep reverence for things past and the desire to keep them alive in tradition and to hold them with such respect. In recent days, with so much talk in the media about assimilating cultures and new Canadians needing to blend into our culture, I realize we have little culture to offer them. I'm as proud of a Canadian as I think you'd find but while I love hockey and maple syrup and poutine, I think that the beauty of our country is what I was surrounded by this afternoon. Culture doesn't need to be feared or suppressed, it also doesn't water down our own beliefs or culture to acknowledge that of another. I learned more about my own faith and my own beliefs today being part of this ceremony that I would have imagined.

After we ate and the remnants of lunch were packed up and dispersed to everyone to take home, Cathy and I grabbed a few minutes to just chat and catch up a little. She opened her birthday gift that I had brought along...a glass bottle of Grape Fanta. It was a shared memory from our time in Zambia and she responded exactly as I knew she would. I love that about her.  I grabbed my jacket and scarf and began to reassemble the outdoor gear needed to go back out in the snow. The tracks we'd left coming in had been all but obliterated, just faint indentations in the white landscape ahead.

 I felt that I had been able to say goodbye to my friend, Cynthia, over the miles, appropriately. There was a release in that. It was a small celebratory funeral in its way...to sit with Cathy and chat about Cynthia and what we remembered of our times together. It was what I exactly what I needed and I'm thankful for friends like Cathy who know what to suggest. It's not lost on me that Cathy accepted my invitation to the unknown when she jumped into the opportunity to come to Zambia. I think that is what makes for strong friendships, trusting one another with the adventure or answers the other sees for you, when you can't see it or articulate it for yourself.  I walked back to my snow covered vehicle and sat for a moment, isolated by the white out of the windows, and just allowed the grief to lift and the gratitude to settle. I wiped the tears away in time with the windshield wipers sweeping away the snow and through blurry eyes and windows, I headed home, leaving the tracks of this day to be filled in behind me.
Cathy and Cynthia in 2012. Two halves of a great friendship!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On Losing a Friend

Cynthia, just as I remember her...smiling and full of mischief. <3

What a loss. Our dear friend, Cynthia, passed away. She lived amazingly well, which is not easy to say of someone who lived in an urban slum, had been abandoned by her husband, had her best friend murdered and many other very difficult situations that would have broken many. It made her strong and compassionate and selfless. She served the kids in her community with such love and affection. 
I've slept in her home, shared meals, laughed and cried, sang and danced and walked miles with this woman....and I am so proud to have been called her friend. It's been an incredible privilege to share our lives over the past 6 years. Heaven just received a very feisty saint. And we just lost one. 
Our love goes out to Olantah Mwape, Benedette, and our Little Cynthia. We love you girls.