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.
We first met in the summer of 2014. Greg Kay, a Board member of The Dale at the time, brokered the connection between me and Marion Cameron. We met in a room at the back of 201 Cowan Avenue to discuss whether or not she would be willing to do the bookkeeping for The Dale. We had just suffered the death of our bookkeeper Diana Fong, and I felt unsure of how to move forward.
Marion did agree to take on the books. I still remember handing over a heap of paper to her and sheepishly saying, “I’m sorry!!” to which she replied, “oh no, this is FUN!” We had definitely found the right person. Marion took that mountain and turned it into excellent records, something she has been doing ever since and all on a volunteer basis.
I deeply value Marion: her work ethic, attention to detail, patience, humour, and friendship. I love the ways we have gotten to know one another over the years. Marion likes cappuccino, the Toronto Blue Jays, and a good glass of wine. She always asks me how I am and gives very good hugs. I know it isn’t much, but I have taken to putting some form of chocolate in the monthly envelope of documents for her because I am so grateful.
Marion gave me a lot of warning that she would need to step away from her role at The Dale this year. From the beginning she indicated she wanted to give us seven years of very good books, all audited. When she delivered everything to our auditor for 2021, she hit that magic number. Marion has indeed given us what she promised: books that are transparent and meticulously done. Beyond that though, she gave us the gift of herself.
I have known in my gut that part of honouring Marion’s hard work is to find a replacement for her in the right time frame. I am thrilled to say this has happened. The transition from Marion to another person has begun. Just last week I sat with them, huddled around two computers, to look at the systems Marion has created and is now passing on. A few times I sat back and thought to myself, “blessed are the bookkeepers”. What they do with the piles of information I create is remarkable.
Marion: thank you for everything you have done for The Dale. It has not gone unnoticed and will be remembered by me, the rest of the staff, and the Board. I will miss our monthly exchanges. I look forward though to still taking you out for coffee and sharing stories about our lives. I hope and pray that this next chapter of retirement for you is full of rest, adventure and lots of chasing those Blue Jays.
It’s a Sunday at The Dale. The first thing we do is get the “nave” ready, otherwise known as the sanctuary, for our gathering at 2 pm. Songbooks are placed in every other row. A small wooden table is positioned at the front, on which we put two plates: one with bread and one with little plastic cups containing grape juice. There is a candle too. A community member routinely trims the wick and shaves down the sides, a skill learned earlier in life and now part of their Sunday role. A basket on a stand is placed to the left side of the table for our offering.
There is a beautiful grand piano that I get to play during the service. Behind me is a community member who plays the guitar (he likes to call it his “godtar”), usually with an amp precariously placed on a stool. This friend prefers to do the intros and likes to wail throughout. We invite people to choose songs at various points in the service. We usually start with at least three, because folks LOVE to sing at The Dale.
We mean it when we say, “come as you are”, and so everyone arrives with a variety of things going on. Sometimes this is especially messy. It can mean having hard conversations in the foyer, or dealing with a conflict, or simply listening because someone is desperately sad, or leading a person to a spot where they can begin to sober up. Sometimes I am the one who feels overwhelmed with life, which is true on this day.
Given all of this, we choose to start our time together in silence each week. Though the space is not always entirely quiet, the point is to begin the work of settling our own hearts and minds and re-adjusting our gaze. Then we sing, we offer one another peace (which is helpful on those days we aren’t feeling very peaceful), we are given opportunity to share what we are grateful for or are struggling with, we pray, we listen, we offer gifts (everything from money to coupons to mittens to little notes that say, “I will give a smile to everyone I see this week” or “I will help hand out the meals on Monday”), and we share communion. On this day a disagreement occurs between two people but is rectified during the prayer time with astonishing transparency and repentance.
Today we considered the parable of the Prodigal Son. Which son do we identify with? The one who left? Or the one who stayed? We think about how we sometimes do unhealthy things that we need to stop doing, and also how we are invited to turn away from the failures, guilt, or regrets that bind us to the past, the sorrows and losses that keep us from being fully alive, or the fears that control our lives and keep our world small. We are invited into the warm embrace of God, whether we are the brother we went away, or the one who stayed.
There is a strong rhythm to our time on Sundays, though each week is unique. We are co-creating something special: a place that is as safe-ish as possible, and where room is made for the sacred, all are welcome, and voices too often marginalized are centred. I am often moved to tears when I look around at our beautiful motley crew. They know how to keep it real and push me to do the same. For that, and our shared journey, I am deeply grateful.
I had to drive somewhere today. I turned on the radio, just in time to hear a favourite Vinyl Cafe story about the fictional character, Morley. In it, Morley is described as a lover of fall. But, says the narrator, fall can be a “perilous partner”- for if winter is the warm hearth, summer sweet sorrow, spring the eternal optimist, then autumn is the season of wistfulness. It holds on until winter’s arrival, producing a kind of melancholy in the process.
This description of the autumn resonates with me at the moment. I think all weekend I have been feeling a keen sense of nostalgia, one that makes me both smile and weep.
Yesterday was my Dad’s birthday. He has been gone since 2008, but October 12th will always be the day he burst into the world. On this past weekend in 2008 my Mom came to our house for the first time in four and a half years, years spent exclusively in the hospital. She couldn’t eat any food through her mouth anymore, so instead we had what affectionately came to be called an “aroma buffet”. I still expect her to roll up the ramp to our back door, even though she too is gone.
The Dale did not get to go on our annual fall retreat this year. However, we did gather on Sunday for a church service. We met outdoors. It called me back to the days when we first became a church without walls (literally). As I looked around at the community, I was struck by how far we’ve come; how may seasons we have weathered together. Sitting in that parking lot, some of us wrapped in hand knit blankets, a vase-full of sunflowers on the altar, surrounded by the sound of the wind, I pictured a Phoenix rising out of the ashes, an image that I have returned to frequently to describe the journey of The Dale.
I got lost in a box of photos recently. Pictures of big family gatherings for turkey and potatoes, me and my cousins playing, little Cate, family from Newfoundland out for a walk to admire the fall colours. I was reminded of an October weekend spent in Killarney when I must have been 8 or 9. We decided to hike the Chikanishing Trail on a very wet day, except I had no boots. To the rescue: some plastic bags and rubber bands. So many memories of this time of year.
I have much to be grateful for in my past, I also have much to be grateful for right now. My uncle gave me a call over the weekend; we got to see my brother, sister-in-law, nephews and niece; Cate is settling in to university; Dion is doing well; The Dale community is still a phoenix; I have family who are friends and friends who are like family; I get to live and work in a city I love; I am known and loved by the Creator.
Once the story on the radio came to an end, I spent the remainder of my drive lost in remembrances and filled with gratitude. Like autumn, I am holding on. The colours are vibrant and the air is crisp. It’s a perfect time to wear a sweater. And, while the winter may be coming, I keep reminding myself that there is always the promise of spring.
Some people called him “Rasta” others, “Dreads”, but to us he was simply Jahn. I first met Jahn when he regularly hung out at the now defunct Coffee Time on Queen St West. He would always shout a greeting, even when I was still a block away. I noticed three things about Jahn right away: his kind smile, his radio worthy voice, and his unbelievable hair- dreadlocks that when released from his tam (hat) were longer than he was tall.
Over time, Jahn became a regular at The Dale. I always appreciated his presence at our drop-ins. The place we most often saw him the last few years was the parkette beside Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. He became one of the unofficial caretakers of the space, making sure that it was kept as clean as possible. At Christmas he helped decorate one of the trees with a variety of ornaments, saying that it was a good way to spread some cheer. Not long ago he was hired as a Peer Worker for the Health Centre’s Harm Reduction Program, a role that he was keen to fill.
Jahn loved dogs. A week or two ago while we were on outreach, he excitedly showed us pictures of the two puppies he recently got. He lit up talking about them and describing the good tired he was because of their endless energy. The dogs, a new place, and the Peer Worker job all made his big smile even broader.
Over our many years of friendship, even if I was the first to ask, “how are you doing?”, Jahn would wait to answer until I told him what was going on in my own life. No matter how challenging circumstances got, Jahn would express gratitude for life. “It’s a gift just to be walking around, you know?”
This past Monday I had a conversation with Jahn where he again expressed his upbeat outlook on life, though he wasn’t feeling physically great- nothing to worry about he assured me. He even let my daughter Cate and her friend take the pictures included here. Cate has a video of him too, one that is beautiful and now very hard to watch. We don’t know what happened between Monday and today, but this morning we learned of Jahn’s death. I can’t believe it. Many people are reeling from the news.
Jahn: thank you for the gift of your friendship. I am fortunate to have known your gentleness and your smile. Your absence is already felt. You will be missed on the block. You will be missed by The Dale. You will be missed by me.
One thing I try to practice is keeping a gratitude journal. Years ago, I found a little hard cover book (if you saw it on a shelf, you’d think it was a novel) with the title, “The Heart Talks”, that I write in regularly. During this pandemic I have found it especially important for me to consider the things for which I’m thankful. I think that’s why I really appreciate John Krasinski’s Some Good News or SGN show that he’s doing from his home. So, here’s SGN from my world, including The Dale front.
On a recent Thursday, a person came to get a bagged breakfast from us. While a good size meal- it included a fried egg and bacon English muffin sandwich, one banana, one tomato, a yogurt cup, a granola bar and a cookie- it was definitely made for one person. Joanna later discovered our friend sharing this breakfast with two other people, all three of whom are living outside. Fortunately we had more food to share, but felt extremely moved by this example of generosity.
A couple who live close by and are currently unemployed due to COVID, have volunteered to make deliveries of groceries and prepared meals to community members every Monday. Thank you, Sheila and Ross! On top of this, Sheila is making and selling earrings, the proceeds of which go to The Dale (message me if you are interested).
There is a boy, I would guess 10 years old, who I see walking nearly every morning now as I leave to go to work. He is ALWAYS singing. He seems happily in his own world, quietly singing made up songs for his own enjoyment. Without knowing it, he helps me start the day with a smile.
A Dale friend has started to make the most amazing sculptures out of plastic cutlery. I don’t think this picture does them justice, but if you look closely you will see an intricate dinosaur and another animal. This person is gentle, quiet, creative, and resilient. If you notice him panning in Parkdale, please offer some support.
Our daughter Cate is perennially optimistic, and this is no different right now. Not that there haven’t been moments of sadness over things lost- there have been. It’s just that Cate finds things to celebrate: building a fort in her room, watching a movie projected on a sheet, painting watercolour postcards, getting all of her laundry done. Cate’s genuine zeal for life is something I am thankful for.
I am grateful for food to distribute, and a place to have people safely line up to get it. I am grateful for the conversations we can have, even two metres apart.
As some might recall, we had to do a major renovation in order to make our home accessible for Dion. It was completed last year. Over the course of all that work our little front yard took a major beating, so much so I would have been surprised if anything sprung up out of the ground this spring. There is a solitary tulip that is pushing its way through the ground right now. Something about that gives me hope. Things might be upside-down, and yet there is new life pulsating out of it.
The lead up to The Dale’s February Feast always makes me a little anxious. Which is funny, because in many ways it isn’t that different than what we do for the majority of Mondays throughout the year. It must be the unique variables: needing to cook enough turkey for 150 people without the kitchen facilities to do so and managing an Open Mic, to name two. This past week included making multiple lists, buying groceries in bulk, delivering turkeys to willing volunteer cooks, and always, a lot of prayer.
As I was driving around to pick up turkeys and vats of gravy yesterday, I was struck by how amazing it is to have such a supportive network of people that surround The Dale. Twelve people helped with cooking prep. Another had a friend make 150 packages of beautiful cookies so that everyone attending the feast could have something sweet at the end of the meal. My anxiety lessened as the van filled up with such an abundance of food.
When I arrived at 250 Dunn Avenue, the site of the feast, the space was already filled with people ready to make things happen. Together we got to work. Core community members and staff got potatoes and vegetables on to boil, made stuffing and gravy, buttered rolls, mixed punch, put cranberry sauce in bowls, and refilled salt and pepper shakers. Some decorated tables with tablecloths, tea lights and place settings. Sam, our friend and sound guy for the night, got the stage ready with gear.
Much to everyone’s delight, we also got to visit with Meagan (our Community Worker who is on Maternity Leave), her husband Ian, and their baby Charlotte, as well as our newest staff member Olivia’s husband-to-be, Grant. I have to say, it is so exciting to have The Dale’s family expanding!
By 5:30 pm the room began to fill up. More people willing to volunteer arrived too. Shortly after 6 pm I welcomed everyone and explained how things work when we gather for a meal: we are invited to take care of one another by passing the platters of food at each table, ensuring that we all get a good first serving; the meat and gravy would be delivered to each person separately, just to make sure it gets around to everyone; that we want The Dale to be as safe, respectful and peaceful a place as possible, and that we all play a part in keeping it that way; that should any issues arise to come very quickly to any staff member; we thank everyone who has participated in making the evening happen with a round of applause; and finally we pause for prayer.
The room was full, lively and…so peaceful. The Open Stage began as people were still finishing their very full plates. Children shared songs and poems. One man spoke about discovering The Dale and his memories of the daughter he lost to Leukemia, followed by a song/rap in her honour. Flowers By Irene, a band fronted by two Dale folks, rocked a set. Mr. Bittersweet, Doug, Sam, Sunny, Alisha, Peter, Marlene, Joanna, and I all offered something too.
There is something very special about the kind of community that has emerged at The Dale. We are all the things really: noisy, peaceful, raw, grateful, grief-stricken, struggling, and somehow/sometimes hopeful. We disagree. We have a lot of fun. We are discovering our togetherness in our diversity. As the February Feast came to a close, I looked around the room and thought, what a gift to be a part of this. I became aware, yet again, that the anxiety I carried at the beginning of the day had beautifully melted away.
Lately, I have been feeling reflective about the journey that has been The Dale. It was nearly seven years ago that we gave up our leased space and became a nomadic community. At the time (and maybe still) many thought it a crazy decision on my part. I could feel the skepticism. I don’t think anyone wanted us to fail, I just think some wondered how it could possibly work.
I remember being scared for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the thought of messing things up. I couldn’t bear the thought of having to close down and yet I knew that to be a very real possibility. It seemed wise to set markers in the first year, ones that if not met would signal the plan wasn’t working. Looking back, I am struck by how often we were surprised by grace, again and again experiencing unexpected provision.
I know that God invited me to step in to a role that I would never have considered myself for. I felt inadequate and strangely determined. Fortunately, I was and continue to be surrounded and supported by my family, a Board, and our precious community. I continue to learn from Jesus’ example that to lead I must serve, a posture that is messy, challenging and necessary to choose repeatedly.
At my ordination examining council a community member said, “Erinn is no stranger to suffering, and so she can walk with us”. What a relief that I get to be a part of a community where that is valued. I don’t need to pretend that everything is easy, when everything is not. Together we are discovering what it means to lament well, to practice gratitude, to engage in prayer, to feast together, to admit our failures, to apologize and forgive, and to be transformed by God.
Last week The Dale led a workshop at Assembly, the annual gathering of our denomination. During the debrief time near the end, I sat at the front alongside our team: Joanna, Meagan, Pete, and our two interns, Jan and David. Six of us. Even as I type that I have to stop and take it in. Seven years ago, I was alone. I can’t help but weep tears of wonder.
It is a privilege to be a participant in the work of The Dale. Thank you to everyone, past and present, who has been a part of the journey. I have tucked our many stories in my heart and love knowing that there are countless more to come.
The truth is, I wanted to be able to write something this weekend about all that I have to be grateful for. I know there is a lot. For some reason every time I sat to write, nothing came out.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that I have long loved (my dad’s birthday often falls on it) and felt conflicted about (just ask any of my Indigenous friends to explain). This year, Thanksgiving weekend was particularly hard. I could feel it coming in the days leading up to it: I was melancholy and tired. Then the tears hit. I couldn’t stop missing people who have died. I felt overwhelmed by a number of different circumstances. Mixed up with the sadness was undeniable resentment.
I recently read about resentment being one of the opposites of gratitude. As I prepared to share about this idea at The Dale on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see myself in the middle of it. What does it look like to break through resentment and find freedom from its chains: the chains that prevent action, preoccupy thoughts, and propel unhealthy choices?
I suspect the starting point is confessing our resentments, which is not easy. One of the things I treasure about The Dale is how so many of my friends confess so freely. There are few masks, which challenges me to remove mine. So, through many tears I poured the hardship of the weekend out to Dion and then again at The Dale. In that act I felt heard, which in turn helped me feel less alone. Not news, but it turns out carrying resentment is very…human.
There is a space created for understanding, forgiveness, and grace when we confess. In turn, we are freed to develop a new spirit of gratitude. The act of gratitude takes practice, almost like working a muscle in order to make it stronger. I acknowledge there are many things to be thankful for, even in the midst of great struggle. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the seemingly “little” good things in life are actually very big and definitely worth noting. Resentment is hard to hold on to when there is a burgeoning spirit of thanksgiving.
I’m still tender. A serious wave of grief hit, and it has yet to break entirely. There is a lot about life that is hard, for each of us, in so many different ways. It is impossible to make sense of it all. What I believe is that life is a gift. I choose to believe that all things will ultimately be restored and made right. In putting away my resentment, I get to sing a new song, a song that can be sung everyday. Even on this Thanksgiving weekend.
On May 14th of last year my brother Logan and I went to spend some time with our mom. It was both Mother’s Day and my birthday, a double whammy that seems to happen every few years. We had a good visit, the kind that was full of shared stories and the occasional bought of laughter. Eventually I had to run off to a birthday dinner, but not before mom had the chance to point in the direction of her present to me. She was a great gift-giver, even when it required buying things on-line from her hospital bed. That day she gave me a sturdy blue and white striped canvas bag, one that she hoped I would fill with things like flowers, baguette, good coffee beans and of course, chips.
I had no idea at the time, but that would be the last opportunity I would have to chat with my mom. I heard from her on the 17th via an email filled with family news, and gratitude for our visit. On the 19th we got the call that she was not okay. What transpired next still feels a bit like a dream, though it was all very, very real. The doctor carefully and sympathetically told me and Logan that we needed to bring together family and friends because the end was near. A huge group held vigil throughout the weekend. And then on Victoria Day, surrounded by her immediate family, Elaine Clare Grant (nee: Muirhead) took her last breath.
Nearly a year later, I find myself struggling to cope with the way my beloved mother’s death, Mother’s Day, and my birthday have all become intertwined. I suspect the acuteness of this will soften with time, but for now, on the eve of this first anniversary, it hurts. For the majority of yesterday I did a little better than expected. I looked at Cate and marvelled that I get to mother her; I was greeted by multiple people at The Dale as “Mom”; I felt safe to acknowledge how complicated a day like Mother’s Day is for so many people, including me; I thought of the many mother-figures I have in my life; Dion and Cate took me out for dinner. It wasn’t until the later evening that I started to panic: how can the day be almost done and I haven’t seen my mom? Of course I knew the answer, but as Joan Didion so aptly wrote in her memoir, it’s the kind of magical thinking that happens after someone dies.
The long and short of it is this: I miss my mom. Nearly every day I think of something I want to tell her. In all of the ongoing challenge of life (and there is a lot), I long to hear her voice offering comfort, wisdom, and love. She understood. I also know that as a result of so many years of persevering, mom was weary (though she never complained). It is a relief that she is no longer bound to a bed or wheelchair. Mom’s faith sustained her in life and promised her so much beyond it. I like to imagine her walking, maybe with a striped bag on her shoulder like the one she gave to me, filled with things that she loves. As Mother’s Day 2018 drew to a close, imagining her smile made me do the same.