525600 Minutes

As we hit a decade of being The Dale, I have been in a reflective mood. Most recently this has been about our staff team. Not everyone might know that ten years ago I was the only staff member. With time that number has blossomed into our current team of four. To say we experience a lot together is an understatement. While each year has brought its own challenges, I think navigating a second year of pandemic life in 2021 can be categorized as unique (though that sentiment is now bleeding into the first few months of 2022).

There are 525600 minutes in a year. As a familiar song asks, “how do you measure a year in a life? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee, in inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?” I don’t know exactly how many of these minutes The Dale team has been together, but I know the number is high. It is also hard to gauge how many cups of coffee we have consumed, how many bouts of laughter we have shared, how many steps we have walked along Queen Street West, how many pieces of PPE we have worn, how many tears have been shed.

While there is a strong rhythm of life at The Dale, every day brings surprises. Sometimes these are happy: we have a great interaction with a stranger, or the exact thing we are running low on shows up as a donation, or we are invited to do something for a community member that is both random and wonderful. Sometimes these are sad: we can’t find housing for a friend who is exhausted from living outdoors, or we have to call 911, or we get the dreaded news that someone else has died.

So, given the complexity of our day-to-day life, how DO we measure a year? The same song suggests, “how about love? Measuring love? Seasons of love?” Yes. This I can do, not because love is easy, but because there are markers for it, including patience, kindness, a lack of envy, boasting or pride. Love does not dishonour others and is not easily angered. Love protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres. I bear witness to how we are working to love one another as a team, including the way we check in with each other and pray together (A LOT). We talk through things. I am confident we have one another’s backs.

Joanna, Meagan and Olivia are precious to me. In 2021 they stood with me during some very dark days, practically and emotionally. I know I can be vulnerable and transparent with them. They support and encourage me in my role at The Dale and even cheerlead my wildest ideas. We are there for each other in all these ways. Last year brought the four of us challenge, fatigue, and grief. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go through it alone. Believing that joy is not simply an emotion, we even found it in the hardest of things.

We like to say that life is both messy and beautiful, generally speaking and specifically at The Dale. We want to live into that tension, because both are true- one does not cancel out the other. While I might not remember every moment of 2021, I do identify it as another season of love for our team. I am glad to already be into the next 525600 minutes with them and our community.

Learning to Be a Good Hospital Visitor

There are some hospitals that I know really well: the different entrances, where the elevators are, which area has the best coffee. There are halls that I know will be quiet and I can get away with pacing and praying in them. Sometimes I am greeted by doctors, nurses, and chaplains by name. This is because over the years I have spent a lot of time being with people who have been hospitalized.

Over the last couple of years, visiting hospitals was largely prohibited, or if not, made very challenging. When Dion was in acute care last fall, I had to make an appointment for every visit, and was only allowed to stay for one hour at a time. It was rare to be allowed to visit community members of The Dale, even though many found themselves in the Intensive Care Unit. Only occasionally would being a member of the clergy allow me access. Calling the nursing station to get an update and leave a message became the norm.

Fortunately, this is all changing. Which has got me thinking about the things I’ve learned around being a visitor from those I visit. My mother notably taught me a lot, as one who lived in hospital for the last thirteen years of her life. I remember her coming up with a list of do’s and don’ts, all articulated both gently and clearly (very much her way). I notice myself hearing her voice when I arrive at the door of someone’s room, reminding me to announce my presence and ask permission before entering.

When going to a hospital, make sure you know the visiting policy and hours. If possible, connect with the person you are visiting to make a plan. Also, it is important to understand that, even if it has been a journey to get there, it might not be the right time for a visit. There are any number of things that could make it a bad time: nursing care, a doctor finally being able to do a consult, fatigue, visiting with someone else, needing time to discuss something important with a family member. It will matter that you showed up, even if you cannot stay.

It is good to not overstay. If you call ahead of time, ask how long of a visit is helpful. If you are only able to stay for a short time and know that an extended visit might be hoped for, be upfront about that too. Learn to read cues, for instance, is the person you are visiting starting to nod off? Are they pressing the call bell for medical attention? That could signal it is time to go.

Ask what side of the room is best for you to be on. Often a person cannot easily reposition themselves in bed and if you are on the wrong side, it will take up energy to connect well. If you bring flowers, bring something to put them in. I have seen countless bouquets of flowers falling over because the only container available is a disposable urinal- not the best way to admire such a gift. Be aware that flowers might not be the most appropriate gift if there are allergy concerns, either from your friend or their roommate.

Be careful about how you talk about hospitals. Sharing your terrible experience of one or talking about the bad food is not helpful in the moment. Those stories are best kept for a different and more appropriate time. Every person is unique when it comes to topics of conversation. My mom loved hearing what was going on in my life, or talking about art, or sharing about a recipe she saw on television that I might like to try. Sometimes all she needed was for me to listen, or simply be there and not say anything at all. She would also ask for me to tidy her side table, or retrieve something from the closet, or put a new picture on the wall. Once I was seated, I would ask for her direction about what she needed for the visit to be life-giving.

Just this morning I heard from someone who has been hospitalized and needs a visit. I count it a real privilege to be asked, and am so relieved that the hospital will allow me in. I asked if this person needed me to bring anything, and the answer was no, just myself. This reminded yet again of the importance of practicing presence. It isn’t always easy visiting a hospital, and for some it can be downright overwhelming. If you are the one hospitalized, it can feel extremely vulnerable and lonely, whatever the reason you are there. The truth is, we need each other- in good times and bad, in hospital and out.

My daughter Cate, visiting with my mom.

Beginning Again

I have very vivid memories of the beginning of Covid, especially at The Dale. Just the week before the world shutdown, we held our Monday Drop-In as usual. In that moment we had no idea of what was to come. We encouraged people to use sanitizer, as well as our little hand-washing station, one that almost looked like something you would find in a dentist office. I even suggested that we didn’t want to be alarmist about the just-starting-to-make-the-news-virus during our announcement time. Within days everything changed.

The first few weeks we cooked hotdogs for people on our little charcoal BBQ and served them outside. No longer able to meet indoors for our Breakfast and Art Drop-In, we began making breakfasts to go: hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, juice, and a muffin in a brown paper bag. We gathered beside the building where we would normally be hanging out inside to distribute the meals, until it was clear the police were watching and began to encourage us to move along. Then buying groceries became a challenge because stores would only let me buy one dozen eggs. The volume of food we needed for The Dale was perceived to be fending and hoarding for myself- something I could explain if given the opportunity, though that was not always possible.

I will never forget having to write a letter for each of our staff proving that we were front-line workers, therefore allowing us to be out in public during the lock-down should we be pulled over. It made the situation glaringly real. I still have mine in my backpack. More importantly, I will never forget the impact on our community. For those able to shelter-in-place, but with limited resources, the isolation was devastating. For those without housing and unable to access the shelter system, there was truly no where to go: no bathroom access, no places to warm-up, no benches to sit on without harassment. And The Dale, an organization without our own building, could not offer any indoor alternative.

The good news is that The Dale was able to readjust to the new reality quickly, being already both nimble and nomadic. In retrospect those early days were easier than what we are faced with now: having to figure out how to re-open. Our partner buildings are understandably still discerning how to open up for themselves, let alone for an external group like us. The Public Health guidelines for high-risk settings like ours are more stringent than the general public. None of this makes our own launching into regular-ish life straight-forward. It all feels a little too…unimaginable. But that is not who The Dale is. We are always looking for a way and are certainly willing to try and try again until we find the sweet, albeit messy, spot.

For now, we continue to provide meals-to-go. We spend a lot of time outdoors, even when the weather is terrible. Our Sunday gathering is the only thing happening indoors again, and for that we are exceedingly grateful. We go where we are needed, whether that be to someone’s home for a visit, or to drop off groceries, or to say hello on a street-corner. Though we wish they were not necessary, we are able to hold funerals again, meeting a need that Covid truly stole from us. Throughout it all, we are finding ways as a community to honour that every one of us has something to both give and receive. I am being cared for, just as I get to offer care. Every person holds a unique role, because each one brings their own gifts.

The last two years have been admittedly brutal. I remain so grateful for and proud of our community, one that teaches me about resilience, creativity, and hope, even in the most desperate of times. While we haven’t been able to do things the way we prefer, we have tried very hard to “Dale-i-fy” (that’s one of my new favourite words) everything. Can’t sit around a table? At least we can drink hot chocolate together in a park. Have to line-up for a meal? The staff can be in the line with our folks. Can’t gather on Sundays indoors? We will pitch a tent in a parking lot. Have to sleep outside? We can provide new blankets and sleeping bags. Must be isolated? We will show up at the door to say hi and bring needed supplies. I am confident that as we navigate this next transition, we can make sure to Dale-i-fy it too. Your support as we try is deeply appreciated.

Falling Slowly

It might seem strange but hearing about the upcoming Oscars always triggers thoughts about my dad. Our annual Oscar party was the last time I ever saw him, though we had a short conversation on the phone just days later. He called to see who won the pool, having left before the show was done. I announced that he had, to which he gave a cheer. He was pleased to have bragging rights. 

That Oscar party was especially relaxed. We gathered for dinner first, before retiring to the basement to watch the show. I remember folding laundry, something that I would not normally have done during a party, except that we were all family and it felt okay that night. My dad commented on how I used to like watching him do laundry, to which I replied, “I learned the art of folding from you”. He was meticulous about it. 

For some reason I have two vivid memories of the Oscar broadcast that night: Tilda Swinton’s speech, which my dad especially liked, and the performance of Falling Slowly, the song that went on to win Best Song. Not long after, my dad and stepmother left, leaving my sister-in-law Amanda and I to check their ballots. We noticed that dad had signed his paper “GB”, the name that Cate called him. We laughed, noting how much he liked his role as grandfather. 

A week later my dad was suddenly and shockingly gone. My brother Logan told me the news. I can remember his exact words and the feeling it produced in my body. As I drove to be with everyone, Falling Slowly came on; “Take this sinking boat and point it home, we’ve still got time. Raise your hopeful voice, you have a choice, you’ll make it now. Falling slowly, eyes that know me. Falling slowly, sing your melody, I’ll sing it loud.” I desperately wanted there to still be time.

That was in 2008. Since then, I have reflected a lot on life with my dad. His departure felt larger than life, just like he always did. He was an interior designer with an incredible eye, an avid golfer who gave me my first set of clubs, a chef with a flair for everything gourmet, and a perfectionist when it came to wrapping presents, maintaining a vehicle, and yes, laundry. When he found a restaurant he liked, he would be sure to get to know those running it. To this day, if I go to Bar Mercurio on Bloor Street, people from the kitchen will come to talk to Barry Grant’s daughter. Dad was also excellent at building and maintaining friendships with people like his mechanic and butcher. Because of his influence, I have gone to the same hairdresser and mechanic for nearly twenty years, both of whom I count friends. 

On March 3rd, my dad will have been gone for fourteen years. That number takes my breath away. It is the same age as my nephew, who was born just months after his GB’s death. I know my dad would have loved getting to know his now four grandchildren. I suspect he would be pleased that they ask questions about GB, and how Cate delights in liking similar things to him. I am grateful that so many of my memories, including the ones described here, remain as fresh as they do. I’m glad to raise my hopeful voice in honour of him. I miss you dad. 

The Dale Annual Report 2021

I don’t know if any of us could have imagined the COVID-19 pandemic wearing on throughout the entirety of 2021. At The Dale we have continued our re-vamped programming that began in 2020, which keeps us primarily outdoors. Whether outside or in, our commitment and love for the community has never wavered, keeping us on the front-line. We are grateful to everyone who has partnered with The Dale to help us create awareness, foster friendships, encourage mutual support, and nurture faith, all while practicing presence in the community.

In 2022, The Dale will have existed without our own walls for ten years. During this decade, we have found profound strength in partnership. Whatever your involvement with The Dale, whether it be as an individual, community organization, church, business, or funder, we are thankful for you. We are better together! 

The Gift of Ashmeed

I met Ashmeed, more simply Ash, in my earliest Parkdale days. If I wanted to connect with him, all I usually needed to do was go out to the steps of the church where PNC (now The Dale) was housed. If not there, he wasn’t far- maybe by the big globe outside the library, or around the corner on Queen Street. We had a lot of conversations sitting on a bench in the bus shelter. It was often about Scripture and how he was writing down long passages in a notebook stashed in his pocket, family, or the regret and pain that was pushed down and masked by other things. Ash would attentively listen to me too, quietly nodding and affirming my feelings. 

I have a lot of memories with Ash. One particularly poignant one happened on a Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday, when we remember the way Jesus ate the last supper with his friends and washed their feet). We were gathered with another community for a traditional Seder supper, which includes having an empty chair at the table in honour of the prophet Elijah. Ash entered the room, grief-stricken and worked up. He sat in the empty chair and poured out his anguish over the reality of poverty. “You all don’t know what it is like”. And he was right. I remain convinced that Ash came as a prophet of sorts that night. He was one crying in the wilderness. 

Years ago, though he had arrived in Canada at a tender age with his beloved brother, Ash was being threatened with deportation. Ash asked me to write him letters and vouch for him as a person. I went to the hearing in order to stand with him in solidarity, along with a couple of his family members and another friend. I was so proud of Ash that day- the way he managed through intense scrutiny, being asked questions that no one should need to answer in front of strangers. There was nothing easy about that experience, though it miraculously ended with Ash being allowed to stay. 

I think getting through that storm helped launch Ash into a new stage of life. Over the last number of years he found a different kind of stability. It was beautiful and exciting to participate in. Already an artist, Ash began frequently painting again. He became a regular at our Sunday thing, almost always requesting #41 in our songbook: Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Since Covid he has been the face greeting and giving food to the community at our meals-to-go. Not long ago we were sitting together when he looked at me and said, “we are together whenever it counts, both good and bad.” Through tears, I agreed. Together on the journey.

Just this past summer Ash moved into his own apartment, the first time living independently in years. A group of us got to help him move in, an honour that I will never forget. We had a picnic of coffee and pastries before picking up all his belongings in two vehicles- mine, and Morrison, The Dale van. Ash was so excited and nervous. He couldn’t shake his smile. Even though his place was not in Parkdale, he made sure to be consistently around.

In the early hours of this morning, we received word that Ash died this weekend. At first it did not feel real and I just sat in stunned silence. I looked at the picture included here, one I took just this past Thursday. It wasn’t until calling the Dale team with the news that the tears began to pour. I imagine the sense of disbelief will return periodically, as it usually does. The weight of this loss is heavy. I want to extend my deepest condolences to Ash’s family and friends who knew him best. I am so sorry. 

Ash. I don’t even know where to start. Thank you for letting me in all those years ago. I will always be grateful for our friendship, and that you were willing to count me also as pastor. Our Mondays and Thursdays will not be the same without you. If you weren’t available for a meal-to-go we would always say, “who wants to Ash today?” It was your role and you did it so well. I will miss praying together on the street, laughing, working through the hard stuff, and trusting that when we parted it wasn’t a goodbye, but a see you later. I do believe that last part is mysteriously still true. I trust this isn’t goodbye. I will keep singing #41.

When you’re down and out

When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you

I’ll take your part

Oh, when darkness comes

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will ease your mind. 

Ashmeed Ahamad, 1963 – 2022

A Story: From Scarcity to Abundance

It was my first drop-in day in my new role at what was to become The Dale. I was en route when my phone rang. I glanced down and saw the display: RBC (Royal Bank of Canada). I cringed and decided I should pull over to answer it, knowing that it was likely related to work and our current financial crisis. I was right. I listened as the person on the other end explained that our account was in overdraft, and was I aware? As calmly as I could, I explained that I was just back after a time away, I was now the appropriate person to talk to, and could I have one hour to see if I could sort things out? The reply was yes. 

I hung up, laid my head back and said out loud, is my first day back my last? I took a few deep breaths in and then out. I looked in the back seat of my vehicle at the groceries I had just purchased with my own money for our meal that day. I knew there were people waiting for me and that the food needed to be eaten, and so I thought, whatever might happen tomorrow, TODAY we are going to have drop-in. Give us this day our daily bread. 

Over the next hour two things happened. First, I spoke with a long-time friend and supporter who simply asked, what do you need in order to get through the next three months? I gulped and gave the accurate number. Without skipping a beat, they said: let me e-transfer it. I began to cry to which they matter-of-factly said, “no need to cry, this is something I can do.” Second, I uncovered a bank error, one that took us just into the black. 

When I think about this day, I can still picture the way the light was hitting the lake as I took the call from the bank. I remember the anxiety in the pit of my stomach that turned into a fierce determination to have drop-in. There was a keen sense of needing to live into the now and not yet, a strange and mysterious tension. I wanted to be in the moment, address the issues, and do whatever I could to work for and imagine a future. None of it was easy. All of it was covered in grace. 

I do not take for granted the way scarcity turned to abundance that day. It was provision for all of us, ensuring that our community might continue, at least for the next few months. So many years later, I remain grateful for the experience and how it has informed the way we respond and move through crises (of which there are many). Life didn’t stop being messy that day. It did strengthen some muscles in me though, including being present to what is and identifying the tasks in front of me to do, while igniting my imagination for things to come. 

Not Just a Pet, A Companion

Not that long ago The Dale began to raise money for our long-time friend Sanchez and his beloved dog, Maggie. Maggie had a growth on her belly that required surgery, except the cost was prohibitive. Joanna launched a Go Fund Me on our behalf, and slowly but surely, the money came in. We felt so excited about being able to come alongside Sanchez and Maggie in this way. Many phone conversations and a couple of appointments in, the way forward became less clear, though we all remained committed to the process.

Today we received the difficult news that Maggie died peacefully in her sleep, while lying in bed. Having not dealt with this kind of thing before, both Joanna and I made calls to see what to do. This culminated with us, along with our dear friend Sam, picking up Maggie to take her to the appropriate place. We first gathered around Sanchez in order to pray: “For God, you love all things that exist- every creature an object of your love. Thank you for Maggie, and for all that she meant to Sanchez. Surround him as he grieves. Thank you for the joy that Maggie brought so many…”. And then, as tenderly as possible, we wrapped Maggie in a blanket and took her away.

It is with the permission of Sanchez that I share this story. Maggie was a very well known and loved dog in the neighbourhood and we know that the news is spreading fast. Wherever Sanchez was, so followed Maggie (and Chica, Maggie’s own pup). Plus, there were so many people that contributed to the GoFundMe. In that regard, we will be reaching out soon.

As Sanchez said today, Maggie was not just his pet, she was his companion. This is a palpable loss. We feel your pain right now my friend. The Dale loves you Sanchez, and we certainly loved Maggie. You are not alone in this.

Maggie & Chica

My Friend Ronnie

I’m not sure when I met Ronnie, though it was most likely more than a decade ago. I can’t remember a time in Parkdale without his bellowing voice. For a while it seemed he was everywhere: I would roll down my window as I drove past the corner of Dunn and Queen to shout hello, only to see him moments later at the Health Centre, and then again by the Library. I would tease him about how much he got around. With a twinkle in his eye he’d say, “oh, you know me- always around. I’m a fixture.”

Ronnie would routinely come to our Monday Drop-In, always sure to greet us as he entered the room. He loved to chat. I learned a lot about the art of checking-in with people because of Ronnie. No matter what he was going through (and it was often a lot), he would stop, look me in the eye and ask, “how are you, love?” He would then ask about life in general, my family, Cate, and finally, about my heart- in other words, how was I coping? Oftentimes he would chat and listen for so long that others would try to interrupt. His response would always be, “can’t you see I’m not done? I’m talking to my people”. 

Ronnie also taught me about asking for what you need. He was not shy in this regard. He would follow up any request with an acknowledgement that though we may or may not be able to help, it mattered to him that we would always try. Whenever possible, Ronnie would do anything to help us too. We liked to finish conversations by acknowledging the importance of journeying together and taking care of each other. “That’s it, love: we gotta help each other”. 

In 2017 Ronnie’s mobility declined. He would show up to Drop-In using a rickety walker, more often than not with a story about constantly tripping and falling down. It was clear that he needed a mobility scooter, and so in true Ronnie fashion, he asked for us to try and find one. I will never forget the day we actually got what he needed and presented it to him. We were all crying. It didn’t take him long to make it his own, including a sticker on the front that ironically said, NO FUN.

Just this past Sunday the Dale team was walking the neighbourhood. Ronnie was seated in a familiar spot, but obviously not doing very well. We talked, trying to sort out what would be the most helpful for him. As we prepared to keep walking, Ronnie grabbed my mittened hand and pulled it to his face. We stayed like that for a moment, as I rested my free hand on his head. He wanted me to bless him. We both said, “love you”. As Meg and I moved along, I shared about how that interaction was scaring me. Ronnie really didn’t seem okay. 

Yesterday we learned of Ronnie’s death. I am still in disbelief. Wanting the news to be false, we have waited on sharing this until now. Oh, Ronnie. The block will not be the same without you. Thank you for everything: the check-ins, the little gifts, the laughs, the tears. You were the opposite of NO FUN. You lived life hard, and I so hope that you can now enjoy some much-deserved rest. I am very sad that Sunday was our last interaction, and yet you made our parting visit one I will never forget. 

Ronald Paul Gallant 1964 – 2022

In the Spirit of StreetLevel

In the mid-nineties I attended a conference in Calgary called StreetLevel, for people addressing poverty and justice. At the time I was a student working with First Nations Gospel Assembly, a collective led by Joe Elkerton. Joe was one of my first mentors. He used to lead me around the streets of the downtown core of Toronto, introducing me to people I would come to count as friends, and coaxing me out of my comfort zone. I vividly remember being terrified when he asked me, for the first time, to speak to a visiting group about our work (I am sure that his confidence in me helped springboard me into what I now do). Though Joe and our team, which included Dion, was in Calgary too, I felt keenly aware of being very green as I stepped through the doors of that conference hotel.

That StreetLevel experience, along with many subsequent ones, was tangibly good. There was something amazing about being in rooms full of people doing front-line work. I learned so much. I recall feeling both challenged and motivated. Sometimes I felt riled up, but in a way that sparked conversation. At a later StreetLevel in Ottawa in I sat in sad silence with friends as we grieved the many injustices named and explored together. I remember taking the train back to Toronto from that gathering, full of emotion over StreetLevel founder Rick Tobias’ beautiful closing session. It is an honour that I now count Rick, and the rest of the original crew, friends.

It is in the spirit of StreetLevel (and with the blessing of those who have come before), that I am here to ask about what it might look like, when Covid has finally settled, to gather again. The desire is to pull together information from as many people as possible, so that what emerges is both collaborative and diverse. Some sample questions are: What challenges do you face in your work? Do you feel alone? Is burnout rearing its head? Is grief accumulating? What systemic issue(s) must be addressed? Do you want round table discussions or speakers or just hang out time? Or some combination? How about art? Music? Do you like the idea of something small or big? Is the time right for this, or no?

For me, I can’t help but grin at the potential of being a part of a gathering of people again. I long for places to come, to be, to explore, to wrestle, to imagine- together. Being able to share our stories is important. Whether seasoned or green like I was back in Calgary, we have something to learn from one another. And just like front-line work, and life in general, whatever we do promises to be both messy and beautiful. Please hear the invitation to speak into what could be. I want to hold space for you to share whatever you are comfortable with. I hope that we can come up with something together.

If you are game to have a chat, please let me know at erinn@thedale.org and we can make a plan. Looking forward to connecting.