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.

Community Gardening

Spring is finally here and I’ve got gardening on the brain. I love getting my hands dirty. I love the way soil, fresh air and plants smell. I really love that there is a community garden in Parkdale that The Dale gets to be a part of. The garden is nestled beside a Community Centre and feels like a little oasis: when I am inside the gate I suddenly feel very far from the hustle and bustle of Queen Street.

Over the years we’ve endeavoured to grow an assortment of things to various degrees of success: tomatoes, carrots, swiss chard, lettuce, etc. We always plant a serious amount of herbs. During one of our more prolific harvests we were able to regularly send people home with packages of fresh food. I dream about being able to do that again.

I believe there is a lot that is important about community gardening. First, it reconnects people to the land: as city dwellers it can be easy to forget where our food actually comes from and gardening allows us to be in closer touch with it. Second, too often people forget the taste of fresh food because the cost can seem prohibitive or they simply have no place to store or cook it. Sharing smaller amounts of food from our own plot helps to combat this. Finally, gardening can help break down the kind of alienation that occurs when people are isolated. Gardening gets people outside where they must work cooperatively toward a common goal. There’s truly something satisfying about seeing a garden come to life.

I think we should each experience the wonderment of seeing a tiny seed buried in the ground, sprout, grow and produce fruit. Have you ever seen a child pull a carrot out of the ground for the first time? I remember the astonishment on my daughter Cate’s face when she yanked out a beautiful, long, bright orange root. I look forward to being similarly amazed this season.