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.

The Heavy Fog

I was headed east when I noticed what at first appeared to be smoke from a fire. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized it was actually fog rolling in from the lake. Soon, no matter what direction I looked was a haze that made the skyline of Toronto eerily absent. The fog stayed for days. 

It was during this time that an unmistakable intense turn happened in the lives of many people I love. In general terms, there was a collective “we’re hitting the end of ourselves”. As I sat on the ground with someone in distress, I found myself with an uncharacteristic empty feeling in my gut. Neither of us could imagine a way forward. With tears stinging my eyes but not even falling, I joined in the lament for broken systems, injustice, trauma, lack of housing, misdiagnosis and overmedicating, estrangements, and the all too constant accumulation of grief. 

Just a week prior to this was Story Night, an event that I have yet to really process. When asked about it, I have consistently said that as a group we sat in the risky and messy middle of a lot of things, rare in this increasingly polarized world. At the beginning of the night I suggested that we didn’t need to rush through the lament in order to get to hope. We get to (need to) sit in the disorientation of pain, or as Walter Brueggemann describes, that place where we have, “sunk into the pit”. 

There are times when I sit in that pit and the weather does not match the mood, the sunshine taunting me to get up and get on with it. In a strange way, I think the dense fog that just wouldn’t lift was illustrating for me the necessity of being present to the grief. At times it was uncomfortable and very hard to see. All the familiar landmarks became unrecognizable. I had more than a few white-knuckled drives. It even felt claustrophobic. 

You can see the city again. The mist has retreated. Are all the lament-worthy things gone too? Unfortunately, no. I did however take notice of a few things. One person had a conversation with someone who had been ignoring them for years. Another has avoided eviction. Yet another had a bit of respite out of the city. I am also hearing from people who attended Story Night and were deeply impacted. It was an example of, as more than one person put it, mutual care.  Living into the tension of lament and hope is hard work. I am more convinced than ever that whether we are sitting on the ground with someone or gathered in a room with a lot of people, to navigate both the fog and the sun we need each other.

A Wedding Day to Remember

He walked up to me and said, “isn’t it great to be all dressed up and here for a party instead of something sad?” I grinned and returned the greeting with an emphatic “yes!” and a hug. Over the years the church building on Cowan has come to be an important part of the nomadic routine of The Dale. For many, it is the place we gather to grieve. On this particular day though we were showing up for a wedding! 

I have known Tasha and Eddie for many years, the entire time as a couple. I can picture them in those early days riding their bikes side by side through the neighbourhood, greeting people with the wave of hands. Tasha has often been the first person to tell me when another community member is suddenly in hospital or has died. Because of her, I have been able to quickly get to someone’s bedside in the ICU. Tasha and Eddie are also known for their hospitality and great BBQ’s. They are generous friends. When Tasha reached out in the summer to ask if I would officiate their wedding, I was thrilled and honoured. 

As I arrived at the church to get it open, the sun came out on what had started as a cool, rainy day. People began to arrive a full hour early, eager to not miss a thing. Once the ceremony began, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of Tasha walking down the aisle. We listened to an Ojibwe Prayer Song and then a poem read by Eddie’s Best Man. I spoke briefly. As a community we resoundingly agreed to support Tasha and Eddie, and then I led them through their vows, exchange of rings, and the signing of the register. After announcing the two as married, Eddie and Tasha walked down the aisle to cheers from us and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder. I was so happy I started to dance. Joanna and I couldn’t shake our smiles. 

In life generally, and our community specifically, there is challenge and a lot of loss. That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of joy too- there is. Rare though is to have an event like a wedding. Henri Nouwen once said that, “the more we celebrate, the more we realize that we are in communion. To celebrate is to create community…Joy is hidden in our suffering and revealed in our communal life.” I will not soon forget how it felt to look out at the faces of people I love made radiant in the celebration. 

Congratulations to you Eddie and Tasha. You are loved. The community is with you. 

Turn Toward the Light

I am sitting in my living room. It is quiet, except for the occasional creaking sound that seems to be brought on by the wind. My body is arguably idle, my brain is not. Today is the funeral for a friend named Ben, a person nearly the same age as me. As is often the case with me and death, it brings up memories of those already gone and causes me to consider my own mortality.

There are so many people that I miss. I can still picture my mother laying on the couch where I now sit, or my father emphatically sharing a story in the kitchen. I have a strong memory of my grandmother (who I called “Gran”) picking very-young-me up to go to Sudbury for a visit with her and Grandpa Bill. We went blueberry picking and then I washed off the purple stains on my hands by going for a dip in Lake Ramsay. Chocolate turtles and clementines always remind me of my paternal grandfather, because he gave us both every Christmas.

Recently, eager to show someone an old picture on my phone, I found myself scrolling by so many shots of Dale community members who are no longer alive. Chevy, Iron Mike, Mark, Clive, Ernesto, Sanchez, to name but a few. I remember Grumpy sitting in the bus shelter and greeting me with, “AHHHH. Did you know I’ve SEEN THE LIGHT? One of these days I’m going to teach you how to preach.” or Little Stevie calling out to me, “there’s my Erinn”. Sometimes my eyes play tricks on me and I think Will is coming around the corner by the library to have a chat on the sidewalk.

During a recent therapy session, my counsellor asked me to talk about some of the people I acutely grieve. I was invited to share about what a person taught me, or what I most remember about them, or how they made me feel. I was also safe to share about what drove me crazy, or even a difficult conversation we once had. Honouring a person doesn’t require remembering only the good. In fact, I think it is honouring to acknowledge the whole person, challenges and all.

I don’t know when my own time will come, or what that experience will be like. Despite being in proximity to death a lot, the whole thing remains largely a mystery. My faith causes me to cling to the belief that it is not the end- that there is more, and it will be beyond good. I like to picture my mom being freed of her wheelchair, or my Gran eating blueberries warmed in the sun, or any one of my friends who lived outside having the most comfortable bed to sleep on.

I have been asked to read two blessings at the funeral today for Ben. Both have a lot to do with light and how we bear it, even in the unbearable things. This part of one of the blessings leaps out at me: “I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does. That it will. That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you, though it may seem long ages in coming or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.” (Jan Richardson)

I am about to drink another coffee, made with the machine that Ben first showed me how to use on a New Year’s Eve spent together with our families and friends. The wind continues to blow. I am still sitting and glancing out the window, I notice the sun trying to peek out. The light makes me want to both cry and smile. Whatever I feel, I cannot help but turn my face toward it.

Story Night: Lament and Hope

Since the early part of 2022 I have been meeting and listening to people working or supporting street related front-line work about their experience of the work generally, the impact of the pandemic, and what they identify as their biggest needs. The themes of these conversations have been consistent, with the most dominant being the accumulation of grief. Overwhelmingly, people have indicated a desire to gather in a space that honours the need to lament.

I am very excited to share about what has been born out of this feedback AND inspired by T.H.E. StreetLevel Network, a movement of people who believe in cooperatively addressing the issues that contribute to poverty- Story Night: Lament and Hope is a one-night event happening on Thursday, October 27th at 106 Trinity Street in downtown Toronto. This is an opportunity to come together, connect, share some refreshments, and listen to a program of music and stories from peers about our shared grief and experiences of hope. As author Cole Arthur Riley says, “Our hope can only be as deep as our lament”.

Story Night is a collaborative effort, one where we are invited to hold space for one another to feel what we need to feel. The intent is not to eradicate grief in a single night (as if that is even possible), but to honour and give expression to it. For some this will mean arriving first thing and being present for the duration of the night. For others it might mean slipping in for the program and out again once it ends. If you need someone to listen, there will be people available to do just that.

Please come! There is limited space, so get your ticket now (CLICK HERE). We do not want cost to prohibit anyone from attending Story Night. This is a pay-what-you-can event. If you are able to donate $2 to $100 (or anything in between), please choose the Donate Ticket option. If you are unable to make a donation, please choose the Free Ticket option. All money given will help to offset our costs. Any excess will be used for a future Story Night, as we intend this to be the beginning of many. One drink ticket and savoury snacks will be provided to all guests. Additional drinks will be available for purchase.

Can’t wait to see you there.

A Vacation Log: What I Have Learned About Rest

It is a familiar drive, one done enough times that I have stopped counting. When I pull up to the cabin, a wave of calm comes over me. This place is shared with me by generous and loyal friends. It is the first week of August, the very beginning of my holidays. As soon as I am unpacked, I grab a book and head to the dock. I look out at the water and notice the sound of it lapping along the shore. A dragonfly lands on my arm. I exhale and close my eyes. 

As peaceful as my surroundings are, it takes time for me to settle. Sometimes I feel anxious, I think because my body is remembering my typical schedule and somehow believes I am forgetting where I need to be- at a staff meeting or doing a meal-to-go or on a fundraising call. I also recognize that I am not nearly done processing the past year, one that has been packed with transition and a lot of grief. I break out into tears multiple times, not even sure what I am crying about specifically at any given moment. I decide to give myself space for all of it. 

As the week wears on, I can feel a shift toward rest. I am drawn to dancing in the kitchen while I am cooking, watching the hummingbirds for extended periods of time, reading an entire book in a day, kayaking the perimeter of the lake, and napping in the sun. The solitary time, while not always easy, is good. It points me toward what is going on in my heart and mind and urges me to raise it up in prayer. 

I leave the cabin and return to the city. Some days are quiet and slow. Other days are full of visits and outings. Dion and I drive to Niagara Falls for a day. I get on a plane to fly to Nova Scotia to visit friends and family. While there, I officiate my cousin’s wedding. It is a beautiful day, one that I can only think to describe as magical. My feet hurt (in the best way) from all the dancing. I return to crisis that is now fortunately retracting its head. Today I am saying a tearful goodbye to friends-like-family who are moving across the country for a year. I am feeling all the feels. 

Marva Dawn writes about the components of Sabbath being ceasing, resting, embracing and feasting. I know that settling into that kind of rhythm is what I desire. And it is surprisingly hard work. I am learning that to truly rest I must cease, whether that be for ½ a day or a week or a month. This August I have been provided the space to journey from ceasing all the way to feasting. There have been bumps and distractions along the way. I am learning that rest does not promise a cessation of challenge. I am also convinced that it equips me to keep doing what I love to do. 

I sit in my living room and gaze at the darkness of the night through the window. I am happy to be motivated to write for the first time this month. I can hear a cricket. I’m thinking about making some popcorn to eat. In just a few days I will be picking up my daughter, Cate and like-a-son, Declan at camp. They are both going to be living in the house with me this coming year. I exhale and close my eyes, just as I did on the dock at the cabin. I feel many things, but not anxious. Soon I will return to work.

I am ready.

A Year of Hard (and Good) Things

I was sitting in bed one morning last August when it felt like the earth shook. Moments later a text from a neighbour explained the cause and had me running to the back window. A massive tree on a lot next to ours had fallen. It completely filled our yard, coming just short of the house itself while destroying our one-day-old shed in the process. The tree also blocked Dion’s only entrance/exit to the house. I felt stunned, especially hearing that Dion’s Personal Support Worker had been where the tree now lay, less than a minute before.

Shortly before the tree incident, workers had begun to fix the siding on our house. It was a job that we weren’t all that excited about needing done, though understood was necessary. We thought it would be done in about a week, maybe two.  It was not- mostly because the crew seemingly disappeared. In the meantime, we got someone to clear enough of the tree that Dion could get out and decided to escape to a movie. On our way there I had two difficult conversations on the phone- one trying to negotiate the covering of repair costs to our yard, and one attempting to track down the siding company. As I slid into a seat in the dark theatre, I began to cry.

After the movie, while still in the lobby, Dion looked at me and said he was in trouble. I asked a few questions and understood very quickly that “being in trouble” meant “get me to the hospital”. I got him in the van and drove to the emergency room. Though we didn’t know it yet, Dion had a very serious infection, one that would soon mean he could not move his body at all. Infections are no one’s friend but become especially scary when a person has Multiple Sclerosis. That day, even though he eventually recovered from the infection, was the beginning of Dion’s journey to Long Term Care. 

I had what I believe was my first ever panic attack in the hospital that first week of Dion’s admission. It was nearly impossible to talk to the health care team and no easy solution was apparent. I remember repeating the only prayer I could muster, “Speed to save us. Haste to help us. Speed to save us. Haste to help us.” Stumbling out of the hospital, I saw my brother and sister-in law drive by. I hoped they saw me too. Moments later we were on the sidewalk together, me a crumpled mess. My sweet nephew handed me some Kleenex and a bottle of water with concern written all over his face. Together we came up with a next step. 

What followed was a series of next steps, which included things like strong advocacy, hard conversations, and relentless prayer. After a battle to get Dion into a rehab program, we got word that he was accepted and to be moved the same day that I needed to get Cate into her new apartment. At the end of that day, I got into the elevator of Cate’s building and began to weep. I cried all the way home to an empty house. I decided to sit in that sadness and not try to escape it. In the morning I took a deep breath, relieved I managed to get through that first night.

There have been hundreds of nights since that first one. As August nears, I can’t help but reflect on this past year. It has been about living into the tension of so many things, embracing change both chosen and not, and weathering a spectrum of emotions. I have watched Dion adjust to Long Term Care, grieved that MS took him there, and felt relief that he has the support he needs. It is not how we imagined life to look at this stage AND it is our reality. 

The tree got cleared. The siding on the house was eventually completed. Cate comes to the house with frequency, much to my delight (and actually will be living at home again in the fall until going to the UK in January). You might spot Dion speeding down the street in his wheelchair, as the lack of Covid restrictions means he can get out and about. My therapist continues to help me navigate all the change, as does Dion, Cate, my Dale team and a community of family and friends. Some days I am full of energy and ideas. Other days I am hit with waves of sorrow. Death has hit again and again. So has opportunity to listen to live music, eat really good food, receive and give gifts, and experience the embrace of loved ones. 

There is a painting by a friend named Gil that hangs above the piano in our living room. It is pictured below. I stared at it a lot last August, especially as I was pleading for help. I felt like I was/we were stuck in the most turbulent part of the water. I couldn’t imagine the calm. “Haste to help us. Speed to save us”. I can’t claim that the answers came quickly, or that they were the ones I wanted. A way forward was made possible. I do look at that picture now and reflect on how different things feel a year later. There is nothing easy about this road. And somehow, it is also mysteriously good. For that, I am grateful. 

Artist: Gil Clelland

Stories Matter: Tales from The Dale

We have not seen her in a while. She is striking, with an amazing sense of style. On this particular day we spot her hanging out with other people we know on some familiar steps in the neighbourhood. We immediately get chatting and hear about some challenges with her housing situation, a place just around the corner that she wants to show us. She is very transparent, and wants us (and you, the reader) to hear about her years in the sex trade and the toll it has taken. As Joanna and I listen, rain begins to pelt down. Before we depart, our friend hands us each a sunflower. Mine has just two yellow petals left. “I know they’re not beautiful, but it’s my heart. I honour you each with them.”

It’s his birthday. He feels surprised, while we feel grateful, that he has lived another year. His extended family is not in the city and want to remind him that he is loved, and so they send me a video of people sharing birthday wishes, peppered with photos of various eras of his life. The hope is that we will be able to find him so that he can view the video on my phone. Fortunately, it works out. He looks so pleased. I can’t shake the smile off my face.

We first met while he was living in an encampment in Parkdale. Always trying to beautify the land on which he lives, this friend erected a birdhouse close to his tent and excitedly shares about regular gray jay sightings. Over time his art fills the space, canvases leaning against every available surface. Now housed, I get audio messages on social media from him when too much time has elapsed between visits. We always greet each other with a hug.

Whenever the weather is good, we meet outside for our Sunday service. One day a squirrel is positioned in the tree right above me. I have no idea what people are looking at, only to learn there is certainty it is going to land on my head. Another day a woodpecker attaches itself to the shed just feet away from us. It sounds like a (very loud) percussion instrument and persists its pecking throughout our prayer time. At first some of us muffle laughter, until the comments start to fly, nearly derailing the service. Finally, a community member determinedly begins to pray, with as loud a voice as she can muster, “I just feel SO grateful because I have never seen a woodpecker in real life. How amazing.” The bird begins to quiet, almost as though it is giving thanks back.

Our plot in the community garden is taking shape. A neighbour and friend who is always willing to lend a hand decides to build an enclosure for it to keep out the animals that want to take one bite out of everything. One of our only strawberries gets eaten anyway. Our neighbour will not be deterred. Upon hearing the news of the strawberry, he marches over to fortify the walls. We know he keeps on eye on things when we can’t, which is especially nice given that our watering schedule (which is posted in our office) for Fridays and Saturdays says, “hope for the best”.

I think stories matter. I always try to log the events of a day either in my mind or, when I’m feeling especially organized, in a notebook. It is easy to remember the activities that divide up our week at The Dale: meals to go, outreach, fund-raising, etc., but it is all the moments that happen at and in-between these activities that breathe life into this community. I am so grateful to be a part of the web of stories that occur at The Dale. Life here is rich, and full of gifts like sunflowers, birds, garden plots, hugs, and beautiful people.

Cristian “Sanchez” Castillo

I have no recollection of when I met Sanchez. Not remembering where and when I met someone is rare for me. I imagine it says something about the way Sanchez inhabited the neighbourhood. He was one of those people who seemed to be everywhere all at once: in the parkette beside the Health Centre, on the bench outside of what used to be the Coffee Time, by the steps of 201 Cowan Avenue, and always, always with his dogs, Maggie and Chica. 

Sanchez came to Canada from Chile. You could always hear the Spanish in his voice. Sometimes there was a language barrier between us, but in my experience, Sanchez always dealt with this patiently. Usually it made him grin, look down, and slowly shake his head while quietly saying, “I really need to teach you Spanish”. To which I would reply, “PLEASE. Please teach me.” 

I could usually recognize Sanchez, even from a distance. He had a recognizable gait and silhouette. Sometime this year he also started wearing a helmet, to protect him from the falls that were increasingly a nemesis. He didn’t seem to mind, if anything claiming it as a cool new accessory. I loved that about Sanchez. Though there was a lot that he struggled with, he somehow seemed comfortable in his own skin. 

If Sanchez was having a bad day, there seemed to be one thing that would bring him to life: talking about his dogs, especially Maggie (who was actually mother to Chica). These dogs were not simply pets, but true companions to Sanchez. If you look at his Facebook profile, the vast majority of photos are of them. It became a huge concern that Maggie had what at first seemed a growth but proved to be a tumour growing on her belly. Because the surgery required was cost prohibitive, The Dale launched a GoFundMe on behalf of Sanchez.

Heartbreakingly, though the money arrived, the tumour proved too much and Maggie died. I will never forget receiving the news. Nor will I forget what became a necessary support to Sanchez: me, Joanna, and our friend Sam going to pick up Maggie to transport her to the vet. We gathered around Sanchez, with Chica hiding close by, to hold him in the grief and pray. The last time I saw Sanchez was the day I returned with Maggie’s ashes in an urn. 

Not long after this, Sanchez entered the hospital. Because of Covid restrictions, we could not visit him. However, he and I started to communicate on-line. I would occasionally receive video messages- usually short updates and always ending with how much he missed Maggie. I think it is fair to say that recovering from this loss felt unimaginable to Sanchez.

Sanchez was released from hospital, though we had yet to see him. Just yesterday we were alerted to his death through a flurry of calls and messages. I know that I am not the only one in a state of shock. To be candid, it doesn’t feel real. On behalf of The Dale, I want to extend our condolences to his family. I extend the same to those who counted Sanchez friend. There has been a lot of loss in our community over the last few years, something that Sanchez felt acutely. Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy. 

Sanchez- thank you for all of the chats over so many years. No matter how hard the day was, you would always stop and say, “let me first ask: how are you?” I will miss seeing you in the neighbourhood. We all will. I don’t know what you are experiencing now, but I really hope you are tossing Maggie a stick and feeling pride every time she brings it back. Estoy agradecido por ti. I hope I have that right. I mean to say, I am grateful for you. 

The Need to Be Held

Roberto is a new friend, one who stumbled upon The Dale just weeks ago. With his permission I share this moving piece that he wrote about his first experience. He read it aloud to a handful of us just yesterday. As indicated in this story, Roberto has experienced shunning and deep loss, and so it is no small deal that he is daring to join us on Sundays. We are grateful for his presence and perspective, and for the actions of the woman who enfolded not just me, but all of us that day.

By Roberto Angelis Lyra

I have a confession. Something happened this past Sunday which brought me to my knees.

Dreamt of a church called “Beautifully Broken” where both pastor and congregants melded as one. Among a handful of souls – all but 3 out of tune – the music moved with grace. Gently shaking me awake, an angel beckoned I come, whispering the word “Family” – six forgotten letters to this ancient heart.

Suffice, knowing many such dreams have been prophetic, I refused to awaken, lest one hearken the summons or dare stiff a messenger. Kept hitting snooze, knowing no services would be held after eleventh hour.

That still, small voice…

A glint in my eye, I challenged the Spirit, ‘No way in Hell there’s a service anywhere in Toronto on a long weekend!’ Google chuckled in response, revealing one but a stone’s throw from home.

And what is “Home” without the ones you love…….

It was high noon and I was dead. Damn it, the service was at 2! This meant I had 2 full hours to prepare for crossing Queen West, where gospel awaited a disgraced cowboy.

An old flickering film entered my mind. “Forgive me Father, for I’m About to Sin!” Me and church and steeple eyes are strange bedfellows indeed.

Upon approach, one encountered a hidden gem, as it were an armoire’s entrance to Narnia. Interior of which once might’ve been regal, seemed shattered as life itself.

I fit right in.

Ten, perhaps fifteen parishioners were scattered amongst benches used to warming considerably more bums. What’s one more, I thought.

“Women shall NOT speak in churches!” rang through conditioning as a female pastor arose. I groaned inwardly at how they which raised me were the very reason I disbelieved.

With genuine tone, she taught about ways of Jesus, partial to suffering and those of the fringe, befriending any outcast by neighbour… one rejected of kin.

My eyes began to sting.

She continued with words touching my core despite their simplicity, stirring matter lingering beyond the deep.

More she expressed, ever greater this proverbial lump at throat.

That was when her voice began to crack. Slow recognition how she too, was dealing with trauma far too great any bear alone…

Openly weeping, the preacher apologized for inability to continue, expressing anniversary of her mother’s passing…

Another thing one did not do in the cult, was interrupt “Holy” service.

As the preacher cried outright, an elderly woman stood, shifting aside her walker, offering, “Sweetheart, can I give you a hug..?”

It wasn’t a question. Grandma was on a mission!

The sweet septuagenarian rose from her pew, becoming surrogate mother to a grown, grieving child – unaware that for me, She Was the Complete Sermon!

God knows all I ever needed was to hold and be held by my mother… one who still shuns me in the name of Religion and all things untrue.

Lord, I pray our day will come…and I might see you…