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.

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