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.
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.
I groan as I open my eyes at 2:30 am, frustrated to be woken from what felt like a deep slumber. I roll out of bed to walk down the hall to the bathroom, a familiar and quick route. The bathroom is located beside our daughter Cate’s room, a space that has been eerily quiet all summer long because of her absence. Cate works at a camp far north of the city in which we live. She is happily planning activities, singing campfire songs, and living amongst the trees, lake and stars until her return at the very end of August. Until then, her door is kept shut, mostly so the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as hard, but also to hide the stack of boxes for her impending move away from home. I peek inside occasionally, recently noting that I need to remember to close her window.
In the darkness of the bathroom it takes a moment for my vision to adjust. I grab a Kleenex and reach for a cup on the windowsill. As I go to turn the tap on, I become aware of a lot of noise, wondering what is going on outside. I listen, only to realize the noise is actually coming from the room right next to me- Cate’s room. Suddenly, I am fully awake. I lean my head on the wall and think to myself, “someone or something is in there and I know it is not Cate”.
My stomach begins to turn while all of my senses shift to high alert. What do I do? At this point in the story many people suggest that running would have been the best option. To which, in retrospect I tend to agree. However, I chose to make some noise of my own. I turn on the hall light, stomp around, and use my fist to make one loud thump on Cate’s door. Then I stop to listen, only to hear the other activity intensify. I begin to quietly pace, my heart racing. What do I DO?
Suddenly I hear what I feel certain is the little porcelain dish in the corner of Cate’s desk spinning. I hold my breath as I listen to it go around and around, until it slows to a stop. With that, the house goes quiet. I can’t recall how long it takes for me to work up the courage to open the door. I have to push it, as boxes are strewn about and now blocking the way. The screen from the window is on the floor, the gauze-like curtains torn and blowing in the breeze, a side-table now literally on its side. I survey the room, checking to see if any of its contents are now missing. Beyond the mess, all seems intact.
As I get on a chair to put the screen back in the window, I notice what must have been a long-forgotten and tucked away solid chocolate Easter Bunny, now on the floor, out of its package and gnawed in half. As I peer more closely, I can see familiar marks in the chocolate. And then comes a wave of recognition:
It’s 9:30 am. There are four chairs, spaced at least six feet apart in the basement room that has become our ground zero. The staff team, which includes me, Joanna, Pete, and Olivia (our fifth, Meagan is on maternity leave) takes a seat to check-in. We first each take a turn to describe how we are feeling/doing/managing before praying together.
The donations we have received are divided onto different tables: non-perishable food, fresh food, toiletry items (including sanitizer, toilet paper, and hand-sewn masks), containers, clothing, bags (plastic, Ziplock, paper). There is a spot next to the kitchen door for our own Personal Protective Equipment.
We now create bags and bags of groceries. On this day a bag includes potatoes, carrots, beets, celery, a melon, kiwis, avocados, onions, one-litre of milk, a bag of chips, and a box of Kraft Dinner. We lament that there is a box of onions that might need to go to waste, except that later in the day a new friend and volunteer, Brad, offers to salvage them by cleaning off the bad parts in order to create a batch of french onion soup that we can freeze.
Meanwhile, we begin our outdoor set-up. Orange pylons create a lengthy line through the courtyard and onto the sidewalk, all six feet apart. A sandwich board is positioned at the front of the gate, both a way to communicate what time things will begin and keep the space clear for our tables. Two tables are set up just inside the gate: the first is where a person will walk to in order to be greeted and receive food, the second is where the food is run to from just inside the building. This system keeps everyone at a safe distance.
At 11 am our friend Natasha arrives on her bike, bringing with her a delivery of homemade and individually wrapped baked goods and another bag of hand-sewn masks from Patty. Natasha and Patty would typically be in our kitchen prepping food at our Monday Drop-In. They, along with some of our other volunteers, have been supporting us by baking, sewing and gathering additional donations. We have a quick check-in outside in the sun.
At noon I receive a call that the 75 prepared meals which have been gifted to us are ready and will arrive in about ten minutes. We head out to receive the delivery and place everything in the lobby of the building. This brings us closer to 1 pm, the time we open for the community. The last rush is to bring everything up the two short staircases from our space: the groceries, a basket of masks, a box of cilantro (since we know people have a love/hate relationship with it, we figured we would ask who might like a bunch), Ziplock bags of dog food for those with a furry friend, and some extra plastic bags.
Though our start time is 1 pm it is not unusual to have a line forming much earlier. Today this is the case, which leads to a conversation about possibly opening earlier. We decide to hold off until about 12:50 pm. We each get freshly masked and gloved, before determining who goes to what post: the table to distribute food alongside a volunteer, the gate to monitor the front of the line, the sidewalk to ensure that people are lined up well, the end of the line to offer a goodbye and help carrying things around the corner to Queen Street. Wherever we are, we want everyone to feel welcomed and cared for, even if just over a brief conversation.
By 1:31 pm all of the food has been distributed.
Between 2 and 2:30 pm more friends arrive to pick up thirteen bags of groceries and meals to deliver to community members able to shelter-in-place. Sheila and Ross have been doing these deliveries for weeks and have an established routine. We help load everything into their vehicle.
It’s now 3 pm and we are doing the last bit of clean-up in the space. Door handles, tables, taps, etc. are all sprayed with a disinfectant. We don’t leave garbage, compost or recycling in the space, so it is ready to be carried out as we turn off the lights and lock up.
As happy as we are to be working in this way, there is a grief that accompanies this kind of modified Monday. We miss long conversations around a table, preparing a meal with the community in a bustling kitchen, passing the shared platter of food, making music together, and embracing one another. People can’t even see us smiling from behind our masks- though I do keep greeting people with, “can you see me smiling with my eyes?”
As we disperse for the day, we don’t get to say goodbye to one another with our typical hugs. Instead, we each stretch out an arm and say, “GO TEAM”! Together, we are responding to the COVID crisis. It might look very different than our norm, but we’re glad that it still feels like The Dale.
It’s not hard to describe the regular schedule of The Dale. On Mondays we have a lunch drop-in, on Tuesdays we meet in the park, etc. What maybe is more difficult, unless you’ve spent time with us, is describing how things feel.
On Monday I found myself unable to meet with all of the people who wanted to connect and it admittedly led to some tension. I became a little sad and needed to take a minute to compose myself. I want to listen well, make the calls someone needs (often to a Social or Housing Worker), and generally be a good friend. In that moment of deflation, there were many community members who did for me, exactly what I hope to do for them: they noticed I was a tad out of sorts, offered encouragement, gave me a hug, and asked how to help.
On Wednesday we held a Memorial Service for Mike. It was somber. He was an important friend to many people. A number of people spoke to me about the difficulty of compounded grief: how there have been too many untimely deaths and that the need to say a proper goodbye is necessary. There is relief that The Dale is present to facilitate memorials and funerals. One person came to me after and in their grief for Mike repeatedly said, “what would we do without The Dale? We need to keep being together”.
Following the Memorial a group of us went to a small stretch of beach along the lake because a community member named Kim had indicated her desire to be baptized. Joanna and Meagan led two readings, one from Scripture, the other something Kim wrote. And then we waded out into Lake Ontario where Kim announced her faith and allowed me the honour of baptizing her. What followed was communion and a tea party on the sand. With her permission I share Kim’s words about The Dale here:
Loving me as I am, in my loner spirit and nomadic ways, I felt drawn to a spirit community that I had not known before. I had always found my “spiritual” needs in nature, among God’s creation of wooded areas and rivers, and away from critical judging eyes. I had become a loner due to difficult circumstances in life, and felt I never quite fit anywhere else. Then I saw an open door, and the light shone on my heart, and a community grew into my family that I had not known before. I felt connected, and my loner spirit changed: I grew from being an “I” single, into a shared “We” community, and that felt good. I found stability, built a foundation, within a church with no walls, yet full of a caring community spirit. I now walk proud, and take risks to move forward, knowing I am part of community, and we walk together spilling out into the streets!
So many different feelings: tension, grace, grief, relief, joy, connection. The thing about The Dale is that we really do want it to be a place of belonging for whoever comes here. It’s not just about me, or other staff/volunteers doing something FOR other people, it’s about all of us doing something together, wherever we come from. We all, including me, need to both give and receive. Choosing to do life together in this way is messy. Sometimes we let each other down. People fight. The challenge of life circumstances, either poverty, or addiction, or mental health, or broken relationships, or death, or [insert your own struggle] can impact the way we interact with one another. And, it is most often in working through the messiness that we experience the joy of redemption.
Meagan, her husband Ian, and I were just starting to set up our table at Spring into Parkdale, an annual event organized by the BIA that celebrates the neighbourhood, when a librarian from the Parkdale Public Library approached me. “Have you heard about The Dale Ministries namesake?” I confessed that I had not.
Apparently Mary and Helen of the library found a mannequin at the side of the road on a cold rainy day. Destined for landfill, they decided to rescue, clean up and give her a new home at Parkdale Public Library. They felt she needed a name. “I brought up The Dale Ministries and said, they bring in those who have been marginalized. We should really name her Dale.”
Ha! Amazing! I was moved that The Dale came to mind. Over the years we have gotten to know various staff at the library, an oasis for many of our friends who need a place to be throughout the day. Years ago, when one of our mutual friends died, they attended the funeral we held and even took up an offering in support of the beloved cat he left behind.
Now mannequin ‘Dale’ has been ceremoniously crowned the Green Queen and will be used to feature events and books at the library. Her first event was Spring into Parkdale, where Creative Reuse Toronto dressed her with material from worn books. There are even plans to give her a new hairdo. What an honour to be a small part of this initiative. To our friends at the library: thank you!
I had just finished a session with my therapist and was entering the subway to head home. The station (or more accurately, the building that it is housed in) was under some major construction and erected some temporary, metal stairs. An elderly woman was next to me, carefully holding the railing and slowly making her way down. I felt the toe of my boot snag in a gap which thrust me forward into an almost movie-like fall. I tried to grab something to stop myself and nearly took out the woman in the process. I somehow managed to keep either of us from tumbling and breathlessly apologized for the accident.
I will confess that I can be a klutz. I suspect this, along with being pre-occupied by all the thoughts running through my head from the earlier appointment lent to my near fall. I was also thinking a lot about my impending ordination council. The next day I would be presenting my statement of faith before a group of people who would then vote about whether or not to affirm my sense of call, not exclusively, but particularly to The Dale. I guess I felt even more anxious than I realized.
I carried on with my day, only to have yet another incident. I needed a quick dinner and decided to pan fry some perogies. Somehow, and I swear I don’t know exactly what happened, I managed to spill hot oil onto my hand. It left splatter marks and one sizeable blister. This was not helping my nervousness about the next day.
After my ill-fated supper, I went to an event at Cate’s school which was a good distraction. Later in the evening I felt relieved that I was tired enough to go to bed at a reasonable hour, hoping I would sleep well. In the early hours of the morning I was suddenly awoken by…my reading lamp, affixed to the wall since 2001, FALLING ON MY HEAD. I kid you not. The light bulb even broke, leaving shards of glass on my pillow. I thought, this is either a bad sign or everything terrible that needed to happen is now out of my system and today will be fine. I hoped it was the latter.
Thankfully the ordination council proved to be a beautiful time of encouragement. All of my anxiety melted away as I told my story of faith and journey with The Dale, explained my philosophy of ministry and theological views, answered questions, and was voted (unanimously!) to be ordained by the CBOQ. I felt surrounded by the community that presented me for this process, which made it not my day, but OUR day. And the truth is, after a year of too many deaths, struggles and heartache, it was good to have something worthy of celebrating together.
In a weird way, I’m even grateful for my series of misfortunate events. The fall, the burn, the lamp all reminded me that I am a frail being. Whether I managed to steady my feet on those subway steps or not, God is with me. It is God who has invited me into my role at The Dale. In humility I want to be a leader who serves and loves people, albeit a klutzy one. I am thankful for the affirmation of my peers. I really can’t imagine doing anything else.
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.