Wednesday, January 22, 2014

It's Not About Hockey

I'm sure when you see a post that begins with a photo of a couple of hockey players, those of you who don't see Hockey Day In Canada as a national celebration worthy of a day off may want to skip today's blog. I'm telling you now, it's not about hockey.

Some of you may know that hockey goalies are a very superstitious lot and though in our life - religion, superstition, and luck don't really hold a lot of water - our son has a few superstitions that we've just chalked up to being part of his game. He's the first to admit he can be a little obsessive/compulsive, even as a small boy, he incorporated little rituals into his game. Now, a 15 year old and a goalie, he has a full gamut of rituals that he runs through. He'll hit his pads and posts after every whistle, every stop. He has different little routines he goes through when he stops a puck or when he lets one in. He has even admitted to talking to his posts. The past few weeks, Aidan has been playing basketball at school in addition to his time on the ice with his new team. It seems he's been tracking his stats and when I come to a basketball game, they lose. When I come to a hockey game, they win. Vice versa with his father. When Jason heads to basketball, they win. Hockey, they lose. And so, Aidan's superstitions now dictate who drives him to which sport, which I'm fine with, except for when I draw the short straw and have to take him to his late night ice times, as I did last night.

But then, this moment, in between plays, I caught a glimpse of perhaps why I was on duty. It was just a few minutes, while the refs were sorting other things out on the ice, and I watched Aidan's teammate, Ben, skate towards him and they had just a quick interaction outside the crease. I grabbed my phone and fumbled for a photo and caught it before the play resumed. 

It may look like just a photo of a couple boys yapping on the ice but to me, it's an answer to a prayer I prayed a very long time ago, and quite honestly, had forgotten about. 

When I was 16, I was going into grade 11 and met a girl who would become one of my closest, best friends. It was one of those immediate kindred spirit type things in which two very different girls just click and become inseparable. We went everywhere together for the next year and our two individual names became connected by an "and" as people referred to us as "ShellyandMargie" or "MargieandShelly". The summer following grade eleven, we were planning our last year as high school students and college and university options when we came home from a week long camping trip to find out that Margie's parents had decided to move back the family back to Saskatchewan. It wasn't a good time in my life. I felt lost without my sidekick and I remember having to be the one to break the news at our grad campout that Margie had moved away. 

I am not going to lie, I didn't handle it well. I cried for weeks as I missed my friend and we wrote letters back and forth for the entire year. I had great friendships in high school and grade 12 was an amazing year but it always had that back-of-the-mind wish that Margie had been there to share in it.  For nights on end, I would pray that Margie and I could live in the same city and continue our friendship. 

Over time, our lives took us in different directions. She moved as much as we did. One year found us an hour apart in Regina and Caronport, so we were able to get a visit in. Annual letters and Christmas cards became phone calls to parents to catch up on each others' addresses...and slowly, we lost track of where one another had ended up. When I moved back to Canada from the U.S., I called her parents as I did sporadically, to see where she was living. They gave me a Saskatchewan phone number and told me that we were in the same city!  I called her up and we discovered that if I stood out in the driveway of the apartment we were renting and looked down the street, the house at the end was hers! 
Over the past few years, it's been such a gift to have her back in my life. Now, with seven kids between us and another on the way (hers, not mine!!) ...she continues to be one of my dearest friends. 

And so, last night, I watched as her son, Ben, and my son, Aidan, chatted it up on the ice, I just had this image of God just saying, "There it is, Shell, the answer to those teary prayers you prayed back on Cameron Crescent, feeling like I wasn't listening." It was as though the roots of that young friendship from years ago had really grown into something fruitful. I can't say that I was waiting for it anymore. I felt like having Margie back in my life was the reward I had waited for. I didn't even know that there could be more to it. And isn't that just how we pray? We look for the answer we want, without anticipating how much more God is willing to do to show us how deeply He loves us.  

It may just be a photo of a couple of hockey players. To me, it's evidence.

Friday, January 17, 2014


Sometimes lately, I've had to seriously pinch myself about how much I really, really like my life. It's not always like that. I'm a bit of an Eeyore at times, I admit it, and I've been known to nest in the ruts of life for longer than is probably recommended by the surgeon general for my health.

These days though? Even the rough ones seem to be just hiccups in what is generally a pretty good streak we've got going here. Yesterday was one of those days that can really throw a wrench in it. I woke up late, having worked a concert late into the night before. I had warned my boss that I'd be late  getting to work, and really, I have a really flexible job. Many times I've left early and worked at home or taken a couple half days instead of full days's great. So, yesterday morning, in the quiet hours of sleep...the dog slept in, the boys slept in...and it was 10 am before any of us even heard the phone ring. Knowing it was the school looking for Easton, it went to voicemail and we slowly roused ourselves out of nice warm beds. I'm not kidding you, there is something to be said for getting up at 10 am when it's actually light out instead of 7 am in the pitch black. I'm not even sure I credit the extra few hours sleep but there is much to be enjoyed about getting out of bed and not thinking your clock has played tricks on you and it's really 2 am and the moon is the only light.

We got ready and out the door and just as we were pulling out of the driveway, youngest son just broke down. It was one of those real, heart wrenching cries that sets off the Mom radar and so as we drove, I just listened to his lament of how he hates school. Now, to be fair, this is a familiar monologue from this guy but this version was different. He articulated, without dramatic embellishment of words and descriptors of players, some of the things he feels when he's in the classroom...and it really hit me. Similar things over the past years have prompted long conversations about school and education that, while not completely winning him over, at least placated him long enough to get through the next stretch of days till a break. This time, not so. We sat in front of the school for a long while and as he got himself together and out of the car at last, he started towards the school and I could see his whole posture sink and his shoulders start to shake again. I called him back, got him calmed down again, and told him we were having a "mental health" day.  I knew I'd made the right decision when he leaned back and though still crying, just curled into the seat and said, "Thanks Mom."

We headed over to Indigo, one of our favourite haunts and wandered for over an hour through the stacks of books, everything from Adventure Time to travel books, cookbooks to magazines. We grabbed drinks at the coffee shop and discovered that if you take a sip of a soy vanilla latte and then followed it with a giant peach ice tea, it tastes like peach pie and ice cream. When we were ready to leave, we weren't ready to go home so we decided since it was a warm day that we would head to the Forestry Farm. In the winter, entry to the small zoo is by donation, so Easton and I headed in and found ourselves the only humans to be seen. Just at the entry to the zoo is the grizzly enclosure and to our surprise, the bears were up and playfully batting one another. One of the grizzles was moving a log around and rooting in a hollow for snacks while the other spotted us and then laid down, head on a mound of snow, and just stared at us until his eyes grew heavy and he dozed off.  We continued on and in the quiet of the day, watched a snowy owl groom himself on the ground not 5 feet from where we stood, his mate perched up in a tree watching us with those owl-y eyes blinking, blinking, blinking.

We approached the lynx exhibit and there, a lynx was sitting against the chain link fence, close enough to touch. We didn't but as I leaned over to take a photo of the big footed kitty, he hissed and threw his paw up to warn me off. Easton and I both jumped! Grouchy kitty!  We wandered on through the park, past sleeping wolves, curled up foxes, active bald eagles and splashing geese. We watched a huge white goose do barrel rolls in his indoor pond, his wing span so expansive that he cleared the ducks and geese in a four foot radius around him as he played.  We searched for coloured poison dart frogs in the amphibian exhibit, freaked ourselves out in the nocturnal bat exhibit, and held hands through the glass with the capuchin monkeys who seemed starved for attention.  We watched sturgeon suction and then regurgitate rocks through their creepy mouths and we searched until we found the porcupine camouflaged in a bed of pine needles.  We walked through the entire park and saw no other humans until we were heading to the exit to leave. It was a beautiful day for fresh air and a walk, after long weeks of extremely cold weather.

In the car, on the way home, my boy was suddenly back to his own self, marvelling at the sturgeon's neck regurgitation and astounded that he had only just discovered that sanguivorous bats and the word "sang" meaning blood connected because sanguivorous bats actually suck blood!  I listened to him and realized how very lucky I am to be able to have this boy in my life. He hates school but not education. He hates homework but is happy to learn. I could have just made him go to school and he probably would have turned the day around like he often does, making a shift and enjoying his friends and some aspects of what he's learning, but I would have missed this connection. The one between him and I, where I took the time to listen and be empathetic and yet, one where he discovered new things and learned something that sparked his interest. I'm grateful that this is my life, one with some space in the margins to write in stories of days like these. With space to respond to things that come up and not feel that I'm too busy or to important to deal with them.  I don't always have the time or space to respond like this. This week I did and I think I learned more than he did.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Come to Cambodia ~ In Words

For those of you who did NOT brave the -50 windchill last weekend and make it to my presentation on Place of Rescue,  I am posting the link for the video and some of the photos/editorial for the presentation. It's pretty gracious considering you were tucked into your warm beds sipping coffee while I had to thaw my car, my husband's car, boost both vehicles off our neighbour's car, scrape the windows both INSIDE and outside of said cars and still speak publicly in front of nearly 80 of your heartiest friends and neighbours! Ok, enough martyrdom. Enjoy the photos. The slides. The lack of quivering voice accompaniment.

Place of Rescue Cambodia 2013 ~ Some of my favourite photos from Place of Rescue and surrounding area.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, our team ditched our luggage at our hotel, making wide berth around the beds that seemed to beg us to fall into them in our jet lagged state. We headed down to the river front area of the city. The city is beautiful, crowded, busy, and vibrant. It's tropical and the scent of jasmine and frangipani mix with traffic sounds while the ornate and colourful architecture hit our eyes, a serious full scale assault on all our senses, waking us up and completely engaging us.
One of the first things we notice is the traffic, constantly flowing, ebbing, with some unwritten pattern that allows scooters and tuktuks to merge seamlessly with cars and cargo vans, while pedestrians integrate themselves into any available space. For all the motion and seeming confusion, we don't witness a single accident or incident of road rage. Amid overcrowded tuktuks and families perching precariously on their scooters, small infants on their mother's breast feeding contentedly while in transit, to elderly women riding side saddle behind the driver, not even holding on, just balancing perfectly as they tilt in and out of traffic. 

We jump out of our tuktuks at the grounds of the palace and as we cross the expansive lawns filled with families and vendors, it's clear that this is a congregating point for many after the work day. Families are sharing food on the lawn, children chase each other and vendors sell everything from balloons to fruit to full meals to flowers. It's amazing and busy and overwhelming. We head across the busy boulevard to the river walk. Looking at the people around me, I become aware of the men walking purposefully with young girls on their arms. I see the transactions and the conversations and upon closer look, I can see that what I think is a young woman in her 20's is possibly just a young teenager, dressed up in makeup and heels, trying to earn a living - either for herself or someone else, that is unclear. What I do know is that once I recognized the players, I couldn't avoid seeing them everywhere,  even if I wanted to. 

We walked for longer than half of us wanted to but it was the only thing keeping us awake at that point. We were stretching for an 8 pm bedtime local time and we were not long past 6. We strolled past a row of temples, intricately adorned with carvings, scrolled tiles and embellished with gold. The smell of incense is so tightly connected to oxygen that after a few deep breaths, you forget the smell of it. Older women and young children situated themselves near the shrines and temples, selling lotus flowers, hand peeled to reveal their inner beauty, and incense sticks for pennies to offer to Buddha for merit. Caged birds would be set free for just a few cents, in order to earn merit in Buddha's eyes. Watching for a moment, I was struck by the contrast between the vendors, making a few cents here and there, day after day, and the extravagant decorations and ornamentation on each shrine. Surely merit should extend to those sitting at the foot of the shrine, if only for tenacity and work ethic.

Our first night, I slept soundly and woke early. Dressing quietly and heading for the balcony of the hotel lobby, I was amazed at walking into a wall of heat and humidity in the early morning hours. Below the hotel, the tuktuk drivers still slept in their seats, a few passersby hustled off to work or market, and the city began to wake up in front of me. 

Our days began with breakfast in the hotel's dining room...a buffet of asian food that I had to adjust my tastebuds for. Fried rice is actually very good for breakfast and sautéed bok choy is not bad with toast but most mornings, I didn't venture far past the toaster and the jar of peanut butter I'd packed along.  Tropical dragon fruits, persimmons, grapefruits and oranges were the highlight of the morning for me...I felt like I was consuming summer, far from the winter depletion of fresh fruits in the prairies.  

We headed out to Toul Sleng prison for the morning. It promised to be a sobering visit and it really did seep into my thoughts and my heart, the absolute terror and horror that so many Cambodians my age had lived through. In many ways, those who live with the memories, such as our guide, have been made to bear the injustice every day since the 70's, for there has been no reckoning or judicial justice for those who committed genocide against their own people. I wrote about  The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison here, and I have no more words for it, other than that it stays with me, night and day, months later. 

Then, onto the bright spots of our days in Cambodia, our purpose for learning this country's story... we visited Place of Rescue. I hesitate to call it an orphanage because that sounds institutional and corporate and dreary and this is none of those things. These are homes for orphans in a community filled with love and laughter, dancing and dreaming.  Marie Ens, a Canadian by birth but Cambodian in citizenship, has built a beautiful safety net for the children of Cambodia who are orphaned and vulnerable, as well as for families living with AIDS. She and her team of nationals provide a place where truly, children and grannies, families with AIDS and young women are knit together as families. Each home at Place of Rescue is a house with 9-11 children that live together with a committed house mother, raised as siblings. As family. Together. They are not fostered or adopted out of the country, they are raised and educated and loved into adulthood with the hope that this is the future of Cambodia. Well rounded, loved, secure, intelligent adults that have a passion for their country, their culture and their futures are coming out of Place of Rescue and it is an incredible story of one woman, listening to a calling on her life and living it out. 

At 79, Marie has a ten year plan. This is her retirement plan - to continue supporting and advocating and raising the children of Cambodia with her team of Cambodians, until she passes away, at which point, she'll be buried in the plot she has picked out on the back of the land that Place of Rescue 1 sits on.  She has 3 Place of Rescue sites as well as a fourth, more crisis intervention oriented, currently under construction. There, she plans to facilitate emergency shelter for children whose parents are unable temporarily to care for them, either because of illness or accident or whatever, with the desire to reunite the family when it's appropriate. Different than the other Place of Rescue homes, these kids will hopefully be supported through tough family situations and placed back together with their families when the situation allows. Cambodia is a kingdom without a government safety net and so many children suffer when mental or physical illness renders their parents unable to care for them.

In addition to these four sites, there are now two sites where Marie and Place of Rescue foundation have built secure dorms for students who have graduated grade 11 and are in grade 12 or university, from Place of Rescue. Here, students can live in safety and community, in their own dorms, for as long as they are enrolled in university or college classes.  For me, meeting these students was that moment where I realized I was not going to leave Cambodia unscathed or unchanged. As much as I could see the needs and the beauty and the love that the children at Place of Rescue had, it wasn't until I sat in a room full of college students as one by one, they told their stories. Stories of rescue. Childhoods that began with abandonment, loss, grief and poverty and were rescued by someone bringing them to Place of Rescue. Each story was unique yet reminiscent of each other, stories of childhood without hope of education or employment,  stories of parents passing away and children being passed among relatives, none of whom could or would care for the children. And the story of rescues. Children of inmates, murdered mothers, runaway fathers - sold to soup shops to pay gambling debts, left in town to fend for themselves - now studying to be accountants, nurses, teachers and English translators. The hopeless future of these children has become the hopeful future of their country.

L. Children dance with discarded bottles and plastic in the street, their playground.
Top R./Bottom R. Small children smile for our camera as we visit the site for Place of Rescue 4,
next to the small home they live in.

Top Right: Marie, whom they call Makyeak (Gramma) with two of her many precious kids,
whom she knows by name and each of their stories.
L. and bottom: Children at Place of Rescue are able to attend school and get an education,
 something that was out of reach for so many of them before coming home to Place of Rescue.

Towards the end of our time in Cambodia, the stories of the children at Place of Rescue really impacted me. Here, Kunthea (top left), Dara (top right) and Sopheak (bottom right) are pictured. Their individual lives are made whole by Marie's willingness to follow the calling she felt God had placed on her life. As she said to me one day, getting off the bus, "Can you imagine if I had not followed that calling? I would have missed all this!" 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

No Resolution

Over the past few days, there have been some moments that have really caught my attention. I am not really a New Year's Resolutions type of girl,mostly because they don't make it past the 3rd. Actually, if we're being honest, we celebrate Christmas at New Year's with Jason's family so really, they don't make it past 10 am on the 1st when I wake up and indulge in a double cream, double sugared coffee and one of my father-in-law's yummy "outsmaken", which I'm sure I spelled incorrectly but it's like a really great smashed egg extravaganza with gouda and mushrooms and bacon and.... you get the picture.  So, instead of resolutions, over the past few years, I've chosen a word to be aware of and focus on for the year. Sometimes it's a group of words or a saying, a mantra of sorts...last year was "Be brave with your own life so that others may be brave with theirs". It really shaped some of the decisions I made and how I approached things when faced with opportunities or risks. 

This year, the word I've chosen is "mindful".  I'm not sure where these words come from and maybe it's a buzzword that somehow makes its way into my vocabulary but for the few weeks leading up to New Year's, this word seemed to be integrating itself into a bunch of different areas of my life. It's a reminder to me to be mindful in all things. In the passing of time. In the way I speak. And eat. And move. Who I come into contact with. Where I spend my energy. What drains me. What fills me.

In that, the past week in particular, the first week of the new year, it feels like being mindful has pointed a spotlight on a variety of moments that have added up to a really full, emotional, rewarding, frustrating week. Somehow, this week, the first of the year, has really encompassed the full gamut of life. There have been those days where everything runs smoothly and much is accomplished and there have been those where the cars are frozen solid, I'm late for work and I feel completely overwhelmed by a morning standing in front of my church trying to convey the things I saw and felt while in Cambodia.  A friend's marriage is threatened, a friend's finances are crumbling and there are tears and questions and unknown futures. Meanwhile, there is joy in an engagement, a phone call from overseas, a moment of extreme gratitude that 2013 was a year in which I spent time with every one of my nieces and nephews and how amazing they all are, growing and becoming their own people. 

Particularly, over the past two to three days, there have been leavings and goodbyes posted, as the long term volunteers that we love leave homes again in England and Australia and Canada, to head back overseas to continue to serve and support the care workers we love throughout sub-saharan Africa.  They are leaving home for home in many cases, a feeling we know from our brief time there. And though there are goodbyes and missed occasions and longed for loved ones on one continent, there are welcome homes and hellos and more occasions on another. 

And then I am mindful. That in our efforts to achieve balanced lives and sort ourselves out, particularly heading into a new year, that we often miss the obvious - that life is balanced. Not always, sometimes it tips the scales one way or the other but for most of us, thankfully, in the grand scheme of things, there is a balance. A year of hard work and little tangible return gives way and the rewards are reaped.  A couple in a marriage that hits rock bottom, levels out and begins a steady climb back to restoration. The financial crisis that loosens all sense of control of circumstances opens the mind and hearts of someone who held too tightly to false security and gives freedom. I don't always see the balance. And when the emptying and hurting and insecurity push me towards the tipping point, it's hard to feel that small shift that sometimes is all it takes to get back to centre. 

So, week one of 2014? I'm mindful. And thankful. And even hopeful. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My Best Prayers

"Go Where Your Best Prayers Take You" ~Frederick Buechner

I read this quote a few days before the end of 2013 and it has really stuck in my head and my heart. "Go where your best prayers take you." My best prayers? What are my best prayers? Those that flow easily in moments of gratitude and happiness? Those that come mixed with tears and heartaches? Sometimes they are one and the same but other times, they are so opposite, I wouldn't know which direction to follow. 

And then I think, I do know. The ones that flow from gratitude and joy are the ones that revolve around my family, love, peace, relief, resolution and forgiveness. The ones that come mixed with tears come from my own selfishness, the need I have to feel like I'm in control, the ones that are provoked by a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of war, poverty, hunger and injustice. 

I'm not sure where this year will lead me but I do know, that if I follow my best prayers, it's going to be an interesting year altogether and one I wouldn't dare try to predict.  I know that the things that we are consumed with are often the things that direct our actions and intentions, whether for better or for worse, so the idea of being mindful of my best prayers, seems to indicate intention and hopefully will direct a little more positively than just going through the motions and allowing emotions or inertia to dictate.

Of course, to follow my best prayers, I have to continue to pray. And that, in itself, may be where resolution comes in.