Griefs, Observed

The sun was shining on my most recent Sabbath, which for me is always a Friday. I had a quiet morning, during which I made myself a coffee and decided to sit in the backyard. There is a fountain next door, so I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of running water. A bee leisurely buzzed around me, a squirrel scampered by, and what at least sounded like an owl offered a “hoot”. I had brought out a book, which my hand rested on. As I took a sip of my drink and went to read, I was struck by a vivid memory of my mom sitting on the dock in Killarney, the place where her parents built a cottage though we always called it the “camp”. She loved to sit and read for hours, listening to the waves. 

I began to cry.

My mom moved from the dock to the chair beside me. I could imagine her enjoying the same sounds as she sat with a coffee (always strong and black) and a selection of short stories. I looked up and suddenly pictured my dad walking toward the backyard, likely having gone to the corner store for the one thing I was missing for our meal. He liked to do that. I realize how I often think of my mom as sitting and my dad as walking. I make a mental note of that to reflect on another time.

My tears gathered momentum at this point. I was now surfing the wave of grief. 

I was then joined by Rick Tobias. Rick spent a lot of time in the backyard, especially over the last few years. He would make the slow walk down the driveway with his cane, a cooler of ice and coke zero, a bottle of scotch, and a couple of his prized glasses from Iona. In fact, it was at this time last year that we had our last little gathering before Rick’s death on May 18th. But on this sunny day, Rick was back. I could almost hear his greeting and the sigh as he settled into a chair. 

I find that once I’m fully engaged in a moment like this, it is easy to begin picturing even more of the people I now miss. While that might sound overwhelming (and yes, it can be), on this particular day it was not. Everyone looked happy and relaxed, dare I say, whole. And I got to remain in my seat and welcome them all to the party.

I looked up at the blue sky with my tear stained face and began to take some slow, deep breaths. I prayed out loud. I finally finished my coffee and noticed that my book had fallen from my lap to the grass. The flood of memories stilled itself. I agree with CS Lewis who said, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” While I might wish for grief to be a linear journey, it is not. It ebbs and flows, and sometimes includes visitors on a sunny Sabbath day. 

Outside and In

In March of 2020 all of our partner buildings closed, with the exception of one. As a community organization and church without our own walls, this required that we get creative about how to run our programming. Already comfortable outside, we took nearly everything to the street. We are very grateful to have been able to do this. And it is fair to say that we are eager to get back to being together as a community indoors too. 

The journey to re-opening drop-ins has been a long and winding road. One of our first steps was at St. Francis Table, an outreach founded by the Capuchin Franciscan Friars. They serve meals, restaurant style, for $1 and are a well-known destination for many members of our community. They agreed to share space with us for a bi-weekly Bible Study. Joanna and I arrive at 5:30 pm to eat, and then as a group we move to an adjacent room. The discussion is lively and peppered with questions and vulnerable thoughts about faith. Last week someone shared thanks in a closing prayer for our “delicious” conversation. 

Even more recently, Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre offered us a room to host a weekly Art Drop-In. The whole Dale team heads over shortly after our Breakfast-to-Go. We set out a variety of materials for people to do self-directed work, including markers, pencil crayons, wool for knitting, paint, etc. The gathering has a remarkably peaceful feel to it. There is conversation, but also comfortable silence. Sometimes a person will offer to sing a song. We listen to music. Last week a first-time participant saw us outside after the drop-in closed and asked, “are [you] my people?” To which we said an emphatic yes. Her response? “And now I’m one of your people”!

The biggest hurdle for us has been finding an appropriate space for a larger-scale drop-in where we can eat together again. Just this week there has been movement in this area. While we don’t have anything to announce yet, we are excited to be in conversation with potential new partners. Your prayers and good thoughts are appreciated as we explore new opportunities. 

Though we look forward to continually be able to resume indoor gatherings, we don’t intend to reduce our presence outside. We remain committed to walking and connecting with people on street corners and in parks- basically anywhere around the neighbourhood. It’s one of the best things to be able to see friend after friend as we walk along Queen Street West. It’s where we get to have even more delicious conversations with those who are now our people, as we are theirs. 

Celebrating a Win

Somebody beloved to us at The Dale had a terrible and life-changing accident over the pandemic. Their body does not do everything it once did. Without providing too much detail, they have required significant rehabilitation because of the injury. The journey has been a challenging one and more recently became overwhelming in a new way. This friend found themselves living unsuccessfully on their own, in an environment that was isolating and without the medical supports needed. This all led to another hospitalization. 

Then something happened. While visiting our friend in hospital, we got to talk directly to the people involved in his acute care and advocate against being sent home. We then quickly got connected to the variety of people from different organizations involved in this situation, including social workers and healthcare professionals. I got to wear my two hats: one from The Dale, one from my role in a local hospital. Multiple phone calls and emails later, we got the news: our friend has been accepted into the transitional care facility of our collective choice (while waiting for Long Term Care). The move happens this week. 

To say that we are thrilled is an understatement. This kind of outcome is what we always hope and pray for, but the red tape of the system too often gets in the way. It is sadly the exception and not the rule. However, there is something special that happens when communication and connection happen between all the necessary people and organizations. The gap that our friend was likely going to fall through, narrowed and then actually closed. Oh, how I long for more of THAT. 

“Wins” come in all shapes and sizes at The Dale. We are constantly learning from one another about what it means to be grateful for the smallest of victories. We like to celebrate. And I think this latest win deserves to be celebrated too. It feels really big. Here’s to our friend being in the right place, right now. And here’s to more of our friends experiencing the same. 

Annual Report 2022

I find that it always helpful to reflect on the previous year and all that it held. Sometimes this is sobering, for instance the number of people who are on the waiting list for Toronto Community Housing increased yet again to a staggering number: 80,532. What is encouraging is how The Dale continues even when the issues are so difficult. I hope that by reading this report you have a deeper understanding of who we are, and that you too find it encouraging.

Take a Deep Breath

I have been out of sorts for a few days. The anniversary of the death of my dad, along with a variety of other challenging things has got me feeling more low than usual. I don’t like the feeling. I also don’t like the idea of pretending like it isn’t real. Life can be hard. 

There was space today to go for a walk with The Dale team. We stepped out into the sunshine and began to walk toward Queen Street. Almost immediately we saw someone who we haven’t seen in a while. They were headed somewhere so we simply waved. Moments later we were greeted by a friend. I had something they needed tucked in my van, so we swung back to get it. He said it felt like Christmas and gave me a hug. 

Outside the Dollarama we stopped to chat with someone. This person asked us how we were and noticed my hesitation to say “good”. He began to speak words of encouragement to all of us. At one point he looked directly at me and said, “I don’t know what’s up, but I want you to know you can expect good things coming your way.” Those words and all the others he shared caused me to well up. Near the end of our exchange, another community member tapped me on the shoulder with surprising and encouraging news of his own to share. As we walked away, I let out a long sigh and a few more tears. 

Near the LCBO a person smiled and referred to us as “The Breakfast Club”. More aware of the bracingly cold wind, we decided to cross over to the sunny side of the street where we immediately saw more people. A woman I have known for years gave us her sweet smile with a quiet greeting. Eventually we stopped at Capital Espresso to say hello and ended up with gifted coffees and a meaningful chat. As we left, we were greeted by someone who defaults to calling all of us “Maria”. As we departed, he said the first few lines of the Lord’s Prayer, waved farewell and shouted “OPA”. 

Now I’m back in our office, still sipping on the gifted coffee. Beside me is a container of Momo’s (Tibetan dumplings), handmade by a couple who we share space with. They had extra and all of us are going home with some. As I type I am trying to assess how I now feel. The hard stuff has not been erased. And yet it feels a little softer, as though tenderly held by the warmth, generosity and gratitude offered by such a variety of people. Joanna just sent a picture to the team that says, TAKE A DEEP BREATH THERE IS HOPE IN THE AIR. And so that is what I am doing. Taking a very deep breath of the hope in the air.

When Small Things Become Big

A week at The Dale involves many seemingly small, arguably mundane actions. When a friend once asked how to describe our work, we (half) jokingly said, “we move stuff”. We organize food, pack bags, carry things up and down the stairs, walk around the neighbourhood, put supplies in our van, drive the van, and so on and so forth. While it is true that we lug a lot of things around, we care deeply about forming relationship. Some might wonder how such little things have any impact and do they really form community? I am repeatedly reminded that yes, they do. 

When we first met, he barely gave me the time of day. Anger, birthed out experiencing terrible injustice the whole of his life, would understandably boil over quickly. I was surprised when he started to occasionally come to our drop-in. I was even more surprised when he convinced his regular haunt to give him not just one free coffee, but two, so that we could sit and have a discussion. He told me then that it mattered seeing me and The Dale team walk up and down Queen Street. That was the beginning of building trust with one another. Now we are friends, who offer mutual care to each other.  

We have never loved having to do our meals “to-go”, something required by the pandemic. The line-up often begins to form well before we are outside with the food. This means that people witness the folding tables being set-up and the trays of meals being carried out. It is not unusual to hear a chorus of greetings or have someone offer a helping hand. Sometimes we will notice a person standing quietly on the other side of the street, clearly trying to figure out what is going on. Whenever possible a community member is the one who hands out the food, while we as staff mingle in the line. We’ve been told that The Dale line feels different, like people have learned they are seen, can relax and not push to the front. I was told just last week that someone now identifies us as their community and it all began with wondering about our line-up and getting a breakfast in a brown paper bag.

In M&M’s in the Pancakes I shared the story of a friend who insisted on making what he called “fancy” pancakes for one of our drop-ins (I just re-read it and I’m still smiling at the memory). Over the last number of years, we have seen this person in varying degrees of wellness. More recently he has been around and increasingly lucid, his natural humour and concern for others evident. “When are things going to get back to normal? Like when is the drop-in going to open? I miss setting up the tables and stuff.” This person has always taken our invitation into full participation really seriously. For him, and so many others, The Dale is a place of belonging. 

What it largely boils down to is that The Dale works to consistently practice presence, presence that is motivated by love that is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs, protects and trusts, hopes and perseveres. We do it by walking around the neighbourhood again and again and again. We do it by making sure that whether we are sitting around a table or standing in line, we are doing it together. We do it by nurturing friendships over the long-haul, in sickness and in health. It isn’t easy or tidy, though all the things we repeatedly do in a week do create meaningful routine, the kind that we can all settle in to together. And it is in that pocket where we see: small things can become big. 

Tent Fires

Recently a person that we were just starting to know, died as a result of a fire in their encampment. Two Thursdays ago, he lingered at The Dale’s breakfast-to-go. He wanted to help and carried some empty trays back into the building. That was the last time we saw him. 

This morning we received the news that another encampment fire happened overnight. Fortunately, no one was hurt but everyone’s belongings were destroyed. As we gathered some supplies for these community members, one person shared how devastating an event it was. As I write, I am trying to imagine what it would be like to have a fire rip through my home. 

The harsh reality for many people is that home must be made in a tent. There are few to no shelter beds available on any given night. Housing is the opposite of affordable. And while the City can exercise discretion and open Warming Centres before it hits 15 below Celsius, they rarely if ever do. In order to not die from exposure, people light fires. I would too. 

This is a crisis that impacts very real people: each unique, each with a name, each with a story. It’s likely, since we are more interconnected than we sometimes realize, that we all know someone who is acquainted with the shelter system, lived in a tent, or couch surfed. None of us are immune from the potential of poverty. 

Oftentimes the issues that surround all of this feel insurmountable, but I don’t want to give up hope because of that. Sometimes all I can do/all The Dale can do is look for the next little step to take. Today that means giving our friends new tents, sleeping bags and…

fire extinguishers. 

Layers of Complexity and Beauty

During the month of December there were a number of moments which caused me to pause and give thanks. These are just a handful of them. Gifts given and received, from every angle. 

I admittedly can struggle with some low-grade anxiety as we near the fiscal year-end at The Dale. This has lessened over the years, though has never entirely gone away. I think it is a mix of remembering when we had so little and wondering, as we grow, if we will have what is needed. Tossed in is a sense of awe at how people support this community and a desire to trust for our daily bread. This year, aware that we were behind, I felt the all too familiar pit in my stomach. Then, surprise after surprise came and by December 31st, we had…enough. 

One Sunday he showed up at the referral of a friend who has long been connected to The Dale. We spoke at length about his hunt for housing while living outside. I wasn’t sure that he would stick around for the service, but he did. During the passing of the peace he shook my hand and said, “I feel warm in a way that I did not expect”. At the end, as he gathered his belongings, he stuck a small stack of coins in my hand for The Dale. “It’s not much, but it is what I have to give”. I told him it was a LOT. 

We have always had to be creative when it comes to preparing our Christmas meals. There are many components and limited kitchen capacity. This year we had a revelatory experience. Blythwood Road Baptist Church funded the meal. A group of three chefs volunteered to do the grocery shopping and all the cooking, while people from Christ Church St. James came to package everything up. This all freed the staff team to be working through other items on our to-do lists. It was a beautiful example of partnership and provision. 

We embraced while standing on the sidewalk during our meal-to-go. She had just candidly told me about all the reasons why Christmas is hard. As tears ran down her face and welled up in my own, we held each other in silence. Then another person, who also finds the season brutal, suggested that we sing. And so, we did. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”. 

A friend who I’ve known for as long as I’ve been in Parkdale made me this: 

A woman desperate to give her grandchildren presents asked if we could help with toys. We had just given away what we had but offered to keep our eyes open for options. A friend connected to a children’s space in Parkdale reached out to ask, “do you have anyone who needs toys? We have more than we needed”. The grandmother and I walked over to take a look and ended up leaving with age-appropriate goodies. She then pulled out a piece of paper and slowly read a note that someone had translated on her behalf, as English is not her first language. It was her gift to me. 

Experiences like this are not a rarity at The Dale. I cherish being a part of a community where the complexity of life is not ignored, and beauty is found in its layers. I cannot help but reflect on this as I consider heading into a new year. 

More Than Just Our Challenges

We chatted briefly one Saturday morning. She was sitting on her walker across the street, looking intently at the meal-to-go we were doing uncharacteristically on the weekend. We had met before on a few occasions but didn’t yet know one another’s names. As we conversed, I learned a little about her life and some of the hardships she faces. “I am more than just my challenges. I really want to do something. I would like to volunteer”. 

Today Maria (I have permission to use her name and tell this story) came to participate at our Breakfast. For a long time, our friend/core community member Ash was the one to hand out the meals, freeing the staff team to connect with people and stand in and with the line. Since Ash’s death, we have longed for someone to assume his role. He so embodied it, that to this day we say, “who wants to Ash today?” Well, on this morning the role went to Maria. 

At The Dale, we talk a lot about how important it is to both give and receive. We invite people into full participation of the community and celebrate that we have a shared responsibility for it. Too often people are robbed of the opportunity to give by being kept on the receiving end of charity. Everyone though has gifts to offer. 

While the line was still active, I went over to Maria to see how she was doing. Her response? “Today I feel like a real person. I love this”. Her whole demeanor softened as she greeted people and handed over brown paper bags of breakfast sandwiches, muffins, juice boxes and fruit. Many people she knew by name, having lived in the neighbourhood for many years. I asked her if I could take her picture, to which she said an emphatic, “yes, please!”

As the breakfast rush slowed, another person encouraged us to close our eyes and soak in the morning sunshine. With our heads back we collectively noticed how good it felt to pause and feel the warmth. Maria watched and reminded us that looking up at the moon and the stars, “is just as beautiful as looking at the sun”. I thought of that as the moon made its appearance tonight. As I again tilted my head back, what came immediately to mind was Maria’s contented face. May we all know, as she does, that we are more than just our challenges. 

Steve J

I don’t know when it changed, but at some point, it became a bit of a game. For a long time, Steve could not remember my name. We would see each other regularly, him in one of his usual spots, almost always sitting or leaning directly on the sidewalk. He would greet Joanna, Meagan and Olivia, and then look at me and say, “what’s your name again?” For a while I would get him to try and guess. A few times he called me Erinn. And then began the running joke. Steve would look at me with a glint in his eye and ask my name. I would say, “you know it!” and then he would start laughing. I loved to hear him giggle.

I’m not going to share the kinds of things that Steve experienced in his life, but I know he would be okay with me saying that he had more than a hard go. I have a strong memory of sitting with him and Joanna on a Queen Street West stoop one afternoon. He was generous with the way he shared. We talked about the importance of all people being treated as people, and how that’s what he wanted.

Steve died this week. I can’t imagine the corner of Queen and Dowling without him. I know that his friends, many of whom were constant companions, will be feeling his absence deeply. When I close my eyes, I can picture Steve on a happy day: he is lit up because a group of his people have gathered with drums and food. Some people are dancing in Jingle dresses. For a moment I can see young Steve, revelling in the feast.

Rest to you Steve. Chi Miigwetch.