When Small Things Become Big

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

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

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

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

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

Mentorship and Friendship Intertwined

Though we were both living in Toronto, I met Rick Tobias in the 90’s as a young and very new street ministry worker in Calgary at a conference he helped birth. I remember seeing him surrounded by people eager to connect. So many would take note when he entered any room. I attended a workshop that he helped lead, the content of which had me spinning for days. All these years later it remains amazing to me that I can now count Rick a dear friend.

In addition to being a friend, I also consider Rick a mentor. Though we’ve never had a formal mentorship plan, he has certainly functioned as an experienced and trusted advisor. When I took the scary plunge into my current role at The Dale, Rick offered me advice that has stuck with me and I still tell people about. Over the years I have taken challenges to him that I couldn’t see a way to overcome, and together we would formulate a plan for next steps.

Over the years I have been greatly influenced by Rick’s commitment to both compassion and justice. He talks a lot about how there are 2,000 texts in the Bible that address poverty and “the poor”, and how the weight of this Scriptural evidence strongly favours the people who are poor. The vast majority of these texts talk about the wider social issues that contribute to the creation of poverty. He invites people to see that compassion (though good) is not enough- we must move to justice.

Rick has a lot to teach about this move to justice and being compassionate caregivers. As a mentor, Rick encourages and enables my own development. He helps me focus by setting goals and giving feedback. My confidence has grown because he always gently and directly speaks of the strengths he identifies in me. He listens. He does all of these things as a friend too. When crisis struck last August, he and his wife Charis (who I also hold in very high regard) took the time to be available even while enroute back from their holiday. I trust Rick, which I know is a core element of any relationship.

After a recent social visit with Rick, I commented that I should have been taking notes throughout our conversation. He has a way of dropping truth bombs in the middle of a great story. I also love hearing about his motorcycle days, his visits to New Brunswick, his beloved family, and his many years as CEO of Yonge Street Mission. That he is my friend AND mentor is a gift. At the end of our visits I have usually laughed and cried. Sometimes I have a new joke to share. Always, I feel grateful for the time.

Halted Mobility, A Lament

EDIT: The subject of this blog, the broken lift which halted Dion’s mobility, was fixed exactly four weeks after its breakdown. Thank you to everyone who offered us support from near and far during this time.

When my husband Dion went through the most significant crisis of his MS journey a few years ago, we were faced with many decisions, including: did he need to live in a long-term care facility? If not, could our home be adjusted to accommodate his needs? What ensued was a long renovation to our house, one that was made possible through the gifts of many people, and yes, the bank. Along the way, we had a number of meetings with medical teams in order to discern what Dion needed, what I needed, and what we needed as a family. 

We determined that our basement would become Dion’s main living space, an option made possible through the discovery of a through-the-floor lift, aka a residential elevator. My brother/contractor organized the many trades people needed to dig down so that the ceilings would be high, build an accessible bathroom, create a space for a hospital bed and all the necessary mobility devices, make a cozy area for all of us to hang out, and install the elevator. The transformation was remarkable and enabled Dion to move home after living elsewhere for over a year. 

One recent evening, just as Dion, Cate and I sat down to dinner, there was a loud “thump”. At the time, I was the only one who noticed it. We figured it must have been something outside and proceeded to eat. When Dion got in the elevator to get downstairs in preparation for the arrival of his Personal Support Worker, it would not go down and we realized it was the culprit of the “thump”. The lights came on as they should, but nothing. I tried calling two different after-hours repair companies, only to learn that no one at either could service our particular unit. Stumped, we decided that Dion needed to be carried down the stairs (a precarious, but necessary choice) so that he could get to bed. We presumed that by the next day we could get the elevator fixed. That was three weeks ago. 

Since that time Dion has felt trapped, his independence halted. Through the effort of a mechanic, Dion’s wheelchair was able to be moved downstairs. That chair weighs in at over 400 pounds, making it necessary to leave it in the basement. Instead, we have a rental wheelchair that now lives on our main floor. At least three strong people are needed to lift Dion up and down the stairs each day, or at least every other day. 

When Dion is in the basement, Cate and I need to make sure that he has the things he needs. We have Personal Support Workers in twice a day, but only in the morning and evening. That leaves a large gap in Dion’s day. Plus, Cate is in school and I have a job, one that helps support our family. Internally, I battle with needing to be in multiple places at once, sometimes terrified that I am failing at everything. Dion often says that MS is “our” disease. It is one that each of us (including Cate) is required to carry in different ways, some more visible than others. 

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day we recall how Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his friends. Having someone else wash your feet is an intimate and vulnerable thing. These last three weeks have felt a lot like that: intimate and vulnerable. We have felt at a loss, like there is nothing we can DO to fix the issue. We do not understand elevators and are at the mercy of those who do. Dion has needed people to literally pick him up and I can’t be one of them, as I simply lack the strength. We have prayed and begged for a solution, one that as of yet has not come. Honestly, Easter is around the corner and yet right now feels terribly far away. 

I trust that at some point the part will arrive and the elevator will be fixed. Until then we are surrounded by friends and family eager to help. This is something I never want to take for granted. Community is a fundamental part of surviving hard things. My gratitude, mingled with tears, streams through the challenge. 

Remembering Jessica

In grade seven I found myself in a new school where I didn’t know anyone. I met Julie that year. We quickly became the best of friends. I spent A LOT of time in Julie’s home, so much so that her father famously (and lovingly) referred to me as part of their furniture.

I remember first hearing that Julie was pregnant. I think any time one becomes pregnant it is both scary and exhilarating news, and the announcement of this impending arrival was no different. I was just 16 at the time, a year younger than my best friend. I got to journey alongside Julie through her pregnancy. I remember shaving her legs when she could no longer reach them, feeling the flutter of kicks, and even experiencing some sympathy nausea.

Jessica was born on September 4th, 1991. I got a phone call telling me that she had been born, a healthy child who bore a striking resemblance to her Mom, including the auburn hair. The first time I met Jessica was just inside the door of what had become my second home, now her first. I would often walk around with her in my arms, loving when she would grab one of my fingers with her whole tiny hand. Sometimes I would sit at the piano and serenade Jessica with Edelweiss from The Sound of Music, “blossoms of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever…” I called her “Boof” more than I called her Jessica, and she would eventually call me “Auntie Ernin”.

I recently wrote a letter to Jessica where I shared many of these thoughts, including recalling one of my favourite outings with her to the zoo. Jessica, Julie, another friend, and I went. We were so excited to show Jessica all of the animals, especially the big ones like elephants and giraffes. Instead, Jessica was enthralled with one big rock. The picture I have included here is from the zoo. Jessica loved being outdoors and reminded us that day of how simple things can provide the most fun. 

Life did not remain as simple as that for Jessica. Through it all I desperately wanted to hold her again like I did when she was small and tell her again and again, “you are loved”. Julie once called me in a panic because Jessica seemed to be missing. I immediately began to search for her, reaching out to anyone (most of them strangers to me) about her whereabouts. I drove for hours one day to try and find her, eventually discovering that she was miraculously okay.

Just days ago Julie read my letter to Jessica. I don’t know how much she could hear, given that she was so near the end of her life, but I desperately wanted her to hear all of it, including this:

“There is much that I wish I could take from you: the cancer, the pain, the limited time. Since I can’t, I want to say that I will always love you Boof. I hope you can find rest and that as you do so, seeing the faces of your children and your family will remind you of your legacy. Jessica, you were created in the image of the Creator, one who calls you Beloved. I am praying that in this valley you will never feel alone. I am going to find a nice rock to sit on in your honour. Maybe I’ll hum Edelweiss at the same time.”

Jessica died last night. My understanding is that she had come to peace with dying, having spent much of her walk with cancer reconnecting and reconciling with family. My heart is with those she has left behind. I will never forget my time with the Stammis family; I will never forget Jessica. She will always remain Boof, and I, her Auntie Ernin.

How Both a Little and Big Hello Matter

One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was her ability to be fully present. She had a way of actively listening and engaging in conversation that always made the time with her go too fast. I think this was only magnified when she was forced to move into hospital. Though hindered by fatigue, mom wanted to maximize her time with people. I know it was difficult when her health issues prevented her from visiting. Though she had a large capacity to manage a lot of alone time, mom thrived when with family and friends.

I miss my mom. I live around the corner from the hospital she called home. Every single time I go by it I look up at the window that was hers. Part of the beauty of living in such close proximity was that it was easy to pop over for a long OR short visit. We sometimes joked that a side benefit of her situation was that I always knew where she was. I often replay the journey to her room in my head: through the front doors, straight to the back elevators, up to the fifth floor and room 516, where I would announce my arrival in the doorway with a “hello, it’s me!” to which she would always say, “hello my sweetie”.

My mom loved to ask questions about everything that was going on in my life. I know that she kept a running note of things to pray about on her iPad. We laughed a lot. I would listen to all of her news (she was a great storyteller), sometimes as she directed me to do things around her room: dust, reposition a painting, open mail, tidy up one of her ‘meaningful piles’. I routinely cut her bangs, and with much trepidation occasionally gave her a full haircut.

My mom was gracious even when I failed to visit because life got too busy. I was never made to feel guilty. Instead, she would gently issue another invitation to come and explain that she missed me. I also knew that if mom was feeling especially lonely and willing to articulate it, I needed to take notice and get to her side, which in truth, I always wished I would have done before she even had to say it.

For my mom it was important that I show up even for just five minutes to have, as my nephew Harrison likes to call it, a “little hello”. No matter what length of time we had my mom would say she felt energized and I would leave feeling filled up. It was a great reminder to me that making time, even by setting aside little bits of it, contributed to both of us feeling valued and loved.

As I grieve and celebrate my mom, I want to remember the many lessons she taught me: lessons about the gift of presence, active listening, good storytelling, being honest about your needs, and how to infuse it all with grace.

Cate with my mom, her Gran. They loved being together.

Built to Last

“I can remember my life before The Dale, but I can’t imagine my life after it” said my friend. All I could do was nod, smile and allow the tears to well up in my eyes. The words I thought to say got lodged behind the lump in my throat.

I took a long look at this person and was reminded of the journey we have shared. He was brought to The Dale by another friend who is now no longer alive. I remember that first meeting. In fact, I even have a picture of it. He seemed cautious about us, maybe even perplexed, which is why I was so surprised that he returned. Five years later and he’s at every single thing we do.

The transformation that we have been witness to in the life of this person is dramatic, though it happened (and continues to happen) incrementally. The anger that admittedly still takes up some residence, is managed in a better way. We can talk about difficult things AND laugh. He is learning to pray. We have been allowed to help with finances and housing. A lot of fun is had. The Dale has become his place of belonging.

This kind of community building helps fuel my passion for this work. It isn’t easy and more often than not, extremely messy. From an outside perspective I can imagine that it sometimes appears to be happening at a snail’s pace. But it’s in those little moments that hope begins to shine: when an apology replaces anger, when one decides to stay instead of flee, when a person identifies their gifts instead of only their perceived deficits.

For me, some of the best things in life have taken a long time to develop and nurture. My closest relationships are with people who have been willing to talk through the hard stuff, sometimes again and again (and again). At The Dale we endeavour to slowly build these type of friendships, the kind that last and as my friend says, might even leave you feeling like you can’t imagine your life without them.





“Kiss the World Beautiful”

Last night Dion and I joined friends at a concert. We were introduced to the music of Martyn Joseph many years ago and felt pleased to hear him live. The last song of the evening was “Kiss the World Beautiful”.

I have been thinking of the lyrics as I recall a conversation I had with a longtime friend yesterday at the drop-in who talked about how his desire to stop drinking can’t compete with his need to numb the pain. While I know I can’t, all I want to do is make it better.

I sang the song in my head this morning as I somehow managed to be present while someone died. I’m grateful to have been there, mindful of those who couldn’t be and quite honestly feeling as though I didn’t deserve the opportunity and experience. Gregory “Iggy” Spoon was absolutely surrounded by family and friends as he peacefully breathed his last breath.

Psalm 85 promises that one day “love and faithfulness [will] meet together; righteousness and peace [will] kiss each other”. I wait in hopeful expectation for things to be made right. I also acknowledge the beauty that was born yesterday and today: my friend chose detox and Iggy left this world loved and is now whole. Almost inaudibly i sing:

I want to kiss the world beautiful
I want to kiss the world fine
Shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek
That don’t sound much like a crime
I want to kiss the world beautiful
I have no name for this desire
I believe in light, but don’t know what to write
With the darkness drawing near
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Lay down this life I think I would
Give up my shoes and all of my views
Don’t know why just think I should
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Under the weight of all this earth
Sometimes it takes someone else’s life
To make us see what we are worth
I want to kiss the world beautiful
Dream but never fall asleep
Go up to God and say, do you have plans today?
Are you walking down my street?
I want to kiss the world beautiful
And not forget from where we came
There are losers and winners, saints and sinners
I hope we all end up the same
I want to kiss the world beautiful
I want to kiss your lips tonight
Sometimes it’s just more important to love

Last week I received a very lovely gift on the occasion of my birthday: a book full of encouragement from a beautiful collection of people in my life. One entry, from a Parkdale friend, said: “When Erinn isn’t smiling, she’s crying…”. This made me laugh out loud (through the tears). She’s right, I have very active tear ducts.

I went through a period when I wanted to temper my tears. I sometimes felt exhausted by the shear force of them. I attempted to will myself to not cry, to hold in that which so freely flowed. It sort of worked. I think I learned more about where my emotion was coming from. In some cases it exposed unhealthy behaviour and patterns in my life. It also made me realize that there is something very precious about crying and that I need not dry myself out.

One of the Bronte sisters once wrote, “But smiles and tears are so alike with me, they are neither of them confined to any particular feelings”. This resonates with me. Tears are a way for me to express my grief, regret, anger, embarrassment, joy and pride. I can laugh so hard that tears stream down my face, and then when no one else finds what I find funny, I tearfully laugh even more (this happens a lot). Occasionally I cry for what seems like no apparent reason until I realize that a smell or some other sense has triggered an old memory. I routinely weep over injustice.

Though sometimes I feel like a crazy mess, I know that crying has a cleansing quality to it. I quite often feel like I need to let myself weep so that I can take a deep breath and keep going. I’m grateful too for friends who know me and accept me as I am, including my friend who says it like it is: when I’m not smiling, I’m crying. Ha.