Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Eels, dogs and strangers of our kind

The beauty of a small town:  you don't have to know each other in order to speak to each other.

Sometimes you can have the same experience in a city.    Lately, in Halifax,  I wandered into the Forum, where a farmers' market had just started up- and sat down with my African meatpie at a table already occupied by a couple- and we had a friendly conversation.  One chats to the market vendors as one would to the vendors in downtown St Andrews.   And then next door at the Women for Music book sale - raising funds for Symphony Nova Scotia- some of us got into a little chat about this author and that.     The common factor: going to markets and going to book sales, one feels one is pleasantly surrounded by like-minded people .  It says something about you already, if you forsake the malls to go in quest of local food,  or if you set down your electronic devices and instead pore over real physical books,  debating which you can offer a good home.

In beautiful downtown St Andrews , you don't always know everyone.  In any Maritime coastal community,  travellers often pass through.    Those from there who have had to go away to work come back for holidays, especially if their parents are still here- and if you're a relatively new resident from here, you didn't know them when they were growing up here.   And many day trippers come by St Andrews for our musical events, our July 1 festivities,  our summer farmers' market and the like.   Not to mention the cruise ships which anchor in our bay or send busloads down from Saint John.  

And even in very rural small inland communities,  you never know who lives there or who might visit there- or whom you might meet if you stop in at a flea market or a supper.

One of the joys of all the chance conversations - whether with people I know or people I don't know:  you learn constantly.

Only this week:  I happened upon a nearby blueberry stand which sells the most delectable wild blueberry sundaes.  They're not portable, so 3 of us wound up sitting outside snacking at the same picnic table- actually 4, one was a very small baby.

  Among various topics:   I discovered there is an eel business in rural Charlotte County.   This was a revelation as I didn't know there were eels, but apparently our rivers are full of them.    Eels spawn in the Sargasso Sea,  and somehow the young eels travel the Gulf Stream as far north as Canada,  up many an estuary into our rivers.   They are harvested in nets - I am hoping with conservation in mind-  and sold  mainly to Asian customers, some of whom, I can vouch , make them into beautiful barbecued eel sushi.   Apparently the reproductive life of eels remains something of a mystery: Carl Jung found that human psychoanalysis was less bewildering.

Today, sipping my French Roast and reading my Times Literary Supplement in a beautiful sunlit outdoor spot, I was glad I asked what someone was reading as I found out an author I had never heard of.   Beyond book learning, I studied the behaviour of dogs.  

A dog was barking very loudly simply because he was lonely- even waiting for his human companion for a few moments was more than he could bear.  He calmed right down when she reappeared.   Much to my amazement,  two other dogs came up - dogs whom he'd never met before- and I saw tail wagging, sniffing,  and other signs of sheer delight  - not a growl or bark to be heard.      I wondered- what is it to be part of a species who so quickly warms to total strangers, recognizing them as part of our kind?

And as a former city-dweller like me overcomes my shyness and speaks to people I don't know- as I am rewarded by widened horizons - do I too discover the joys of warming to others of my species, others of my kind?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Back to the creative path!

Since Labour Day 2011,  I've become even more peripatetic and eclectic!

I go back and forth between two United Church pastoral charges [our word for parishes], Wesley in beautiful downtown St Andrews by the Sea , New Brunswick and St James in the hills and ridges north of St Stephen.  In St James we go back and forth between two churches, Scotch Ridge and Oak Hill, found on country roads, attended by people spread up and down over many other country roads.

In the winter we go back and forth between upstairs and downstairs:   in St Andrews we go upstairs to save heat and enjoy a more intimate worship experience.  In Oak Hill we go downstairs to the Friendship Room , with keyboard and drums.   In Scotch Ridge, last year we experimented with a few Sundays in someone's capacious living room, complete with resident cat!    We're learning that spiritual community and connection can happen anywhere: all we need do is show up!

In my back-and-forth,  I serve two very different communities.    St Andrews is home to 1700 or so permanent residents but a seaside resort for  many other visitors and passers-by .  It houses a biological research station,  under the auspices of the national Department of Fisheries and Oceans; the Huntsman marine research centre and aquarium;  a branch of the New Brunswick Community College;  elementary and high schools;  a health centre and access to doctors and dentists; a long-term care home;   beautiful  Kingsbrae Garden; an excellent public library; Sunbury Shore Arts and Nature Centre and several  art galleries; restaurants and coffee shops;   many small specialized local businesses as well as the usual supermarket and post office and bank;   walking trails  and much more.

There is an abundance of cultural and culinary and sporting events year round.      The Arts Council uses our church and other churches for classical music practices and events.   There is a host of volunteer  organizations.  Two examples only:  the Spindrifters organizing social, cultural and educational events for the many over-50s;  Save Ocean Science /Save Our Science which has been advocating these last years for the protection of and promotion of government science.   Many of us are part of book clubs.  The Film Society organizes showing of movies which are later donated to the library.  

In contrast,  the rural surroundings of St James Pastoral Charge contain fields, forest,  spread-out homes , the odd working farm still,   and churches and church halls.   For goods and services and cultural and educational events,   one must travel  to St Stephen .   A sturdy vehicle is a must.

In a rural setting like St James, the church is a centre of community and connection in a special way.  Most of the Scotch Ridge and Oak Hill events are  - organized by a small core of very active
church volunteers:church women's meetings, flea markets, potlucks, pancake suppers , community evenings and  Christmas teas.  The  other communal events are potlucks down in Little Ridge organized by the residents themselves,   the area firefighters' suppers and fundraisers [many of the volunteers are connected with our churches !] and a community men's club [involving our church men of course! ]   which puts on an Easter breakfast and does many quiet good works.  These events are widely attended.

"My" two spiritual communities could not be more different.

 St James is the backbone of its rural district.    Wesley is one church among many , one organization among many, a minority of the population.

 St James members were mostly born and baptized there or not far away.  They have mostly known each other all their lives and have generations of history together.  Wesley members mostly were not born or baptized in St Andrews.   Some came here because of work opportunities.   Many have retired here, often within the last  5, 10 or 15 years.

Many Wesley people travel , to warm winter climates or to Europe or to visit family.  St James people are  more likely to go on small road trips, if they travel at all.

The musical tastes, the life experience, the spiritual journeys are very different too!

And yet these two communities are alike in their adaptability, resourcefulness and strong lay leadership.    This common ground has enabled them to cooperate, sharing me as their full-time minister.  This is good news for them and good news for me.

The result : I have indeed become eclectic and peripatetic, more so than I imagined when I first moved here.  It's challenging and exhausting - but it's also great fun!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Questions for your Labour/Labor Day

Happy Labour Day?

What is your work?

I often ask myself that question.

Is it what I am paid to do:
sermons, Sunday services, weddings, funerals, pastoral visiting, meetings,  study groups, working with children, youth and seniors?  
Much of this work happens behind the scenes: reading, research, imagining, writing, and visits/conversations which are held in confidence.  

This is work I really love- although it is not the sum total of what I love.. 
 It does not say everything that needs to be said about me or my life-purpose.

What about your paid work, if any?

Because I work in a low-budget, non-profit organization, I also do many secretarial and administrative tasks, unnoticed unless undone or done imperfectly:
emailing, organizing, arranging for the use of the church building, answering random phone calls, sorting mail, keeping records, photocopying, maintaining Facebook pages, helping to maintain websites and blogs, and a host of other tiny bits and pieces . 

Now I have 4 hours of paid administrative support from a wonderful woman who can do these tasks far more efficiently than I.
But  , like many so-called professionals, I still have to do a lot of administrative tasks,
for which I have no great aptitude or inclination.  

Many of us in creative, educational or caring professions have to do more and more management and administration.
Those tasks are time-consuming and painstaking.
They have to be done "right".
Spurts of creativity don't help one bit. 

And so I seem to use more and more work time on tasks for which I lack any great aptitude.
I become anxious because I  know I am not good at them and am afraid of making mistakes.
And I am not supposed to be anxious, because my job is to be  a "non-anxious presence".

What about your paid work?
What part of it do you really love?
What part of it is stuff for which you don't feel gifted, for which you never consciously signed up?
Do the "have-tos" detract from what your work is really about?

But then there's unpaid work.  We all have it unless we have full-time homemakers at our disposal or can pay for household staff!

You know the work : dishes, laundry, garbage, food preparation,  bill-paying, car maintenance, updating necessary wardrobe items, house-cleaning, yard work, and so on into infinity.  Of course, if you have animals, children or other dependents , this work increases exponentially!

This "unpaid" work consumes many hours: hours we would  rather use for rest, recreation, conversation, creative pursuits.

One way around it is, if you can, to pay for some help with housework, lawn care, and yard work. I have done this as long as I have lived in a house and worked full time.  I live in houses provided by the church, with more lawn and driveway than I would personally choose. Happily sometimes the church has helped pay for the maintenance of said lawn and driveway!.

But I see a day coming when I can no longer afford household help.  Many of you cannot afford it now.  So then the unpaid work is ours and ours alone.

I try, when I remember, to make my unpaid work into a spiritual practice.  I can do it contemplatively, rather than just looking forward to it being over.

 I can and do give thanks:
for good food,
for a home in a safe neighbourhood,,
for indoor plumbing that makes dishes and laundry more fun,
for the ability, creaky knees and all , to do my housework,
for the wonderful modern convenience of paying bills online,
for the inspiration of my favourite radio programmes which accompany all my work,
and of course, for my beloved cats, who are the reason why I have to clean litterboxes!
If you are busy because of children,  you can give thanks for the gift of your beloved children too.

But still my necessary work , paid or unpaid, easily crowds out the  deeper , more interesting questions:

Such as:
what am I in this world to do?
 What is the meaning and purpose of my life? 
Where do I feel energy?
 Where is spirit prompting me? 
Where do I find joy?

Frederick Buechner , and then Parker Palmer, ask: "Where does your deepest desire connect with the world's deepest need"?

That is a good question.

How would you answer it?

Happy Labour/Labor Day!

Monday, August 15, 2011

On travelling solo

I’ve travelled solo a long time.  You might think that I am making a virtue of necessity.  After all, I am an only child,  I have somehow remained single, and I move so much that I long since left my closest friends behind in another province or country..

Isn’t someone who goes out in public by herself bereaved, isolated,  friendless  or all of the above?  No, actually I quite enjoy going out by myself.  Does that mean I don’t like people?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I am as eclectic in my friendships as I am in other enjoyments.

I don’t always go about by myself.   I amuse houseguests by taking them out on little expeditions, often  to places I scouted out on my own.   Sometimes I go on small trips with my mother or with friends.   Sometimes I meet up with someone to go to a concert or play.  

Such shared activities are pleasant in their way.  But they are not at all the same as a solo experience.  My first consideration is no longer the expedition, concert or play, but the happiness and comfort of the person or people I am with.  Where do they wish to go?  When does it suit them to arrive?  When do they need to hurry home to attend to their families?  Do they find the temperature of the car too warm or too cold?  Do they find the  seats uncomfortable?  Are they tired?  Do they need to unburden themselves of their stresses, worries or problems?  If I know them through work, will we wind up talking “shop ?  

My profession requires me often to put my preferences and interests aside for the good of others..  I need times when I do not accommodate to others, when I do not have their well-being as my first priority.  Often when I am sorely in need of such times, the meetings multiply, couples come by to see me about weddings, and  I get word of a dying person or a bereaved family.    And so I  carve out times of respite when and where I can.

Such times, short or long, are contemplative times.     Contemplative  does not mean detached and otherworldly- it means being present, immersed, enjoying my surroundings.   It means not having to hurry from point A to point B, but pausing to admire the view.  It means setting aside my to-do list .  It means letting go of my worries and other people’s worries about money, work prospects, getting older and the state of the world.  It means being  here  , and not somewhere else.  It means being now, not back in the past or forward into the future.  It means being.

I do not discount kindness to one’s friends and family., and I cherish kindnesses received.   But if I want to have a contemplative, renewing and restorative experience, it is usually better for me to travel solo.

For example, I do better visiting art galleries alone, unless I am in the company of a visual artist or fine arts student.  Left to my own devices, I will wander around  at least twice, lingering with the works I found most captivating..  I will fall into random conversations with the art gallery owner or staff, and with anyone else who comes along.   If it’s an exhibition opening, I want to find out what makes the artist “tick”.

Even if there are 20 other art galleries in town- as in a place like Lunenburg, Nova Scotia-  I don’t mind about “doing” them all.   The way I look at art galleries,   I would rather have been to one or two galleries and truly, have been there  and not halfway to the next one, or halfway back in the previous one..

Very few people want to hang about in a gallery as long as I do  I was guilty once of keeping a friend waiting for an hour when I went in to look at an exhibition in Regina of just a few impressionists. I could not “get through” them in the 20 minutes I had negotiated..  Since then I have come to understand that 20 minutes is more than enough for many an art-gallery visitor.  It’s better that we don’t travel together!

I also choose to be a solo concert-goer  or theatre-goer too, unless I’m with someone who is as curious about theatre or , even more important, as hooked on classical music as I am.  My ventures into the concert-hall are a refuge and relief from all the mundane chores and stresses of everyday life.  I want to study the programme. I want to settle myself into the space.  I would rather be there half an hour early so that my spirit as well as my body have a chance to arrive.  I cherish the moments of sitting and just being. 

At a concert or play,  if I do talk – before, after or at the intermission- I would rather talk to people I do not know, or whom I would never see anywhere else.  As in art galleries, I savour the chance to get beyond my usual circle and glimpse a life story I would otherwise have missed. .  That’s much more likely to happen if I am not busy catching up with a companion.

 At the end of a beautiful and moving piece of music,  or a thought-provoking play, I like to emerge from it in my own time and my own way.  I don’t want to be in a hurry to leave the space and return to whatever it is I am supposed to be doing. If someone else is on a high and wants to share that with me, I welcome that- but my spirit isn’t ready, quite yet,  to go back to “same old, same old”.

It was when I went to university student recitals by myself, that I got my courage up to go talk to the student performers   and learn a bit about their enjoyments, challenges, hopes and dreams. That’s how I discovered it might also be fun to talk to cast and crew if they were available after a play- perhaps find out what it felt like to play that character or deepen my appreciation of the stagecraft..

As for eating out, yes, I am thankful to go out with friends or family , when I cannot work food preparation time and social time into the same day.  But I am on a limited budget, so it’s a special treat to take myself out.  It’s a chance to soak up an ambience, to take in the energy of a different space, to do a little discreet  people-watching, to imagine their stories,  to enjoy the sound , sometimes, of various languages.  It’s a chance  to read, or think, or look  out the window, or just be. . 

Also I like to eat slowly, savouring each morsel.  This works better when I am  not sitting with others  who are anxious for dessert or a quick get-away.  I am like a Mediterranean eater who’s unaccountably got transplanted into a North American fast-food restaurant. I loved eating in Italy because one did not have to rush from course to course, and because, with one exception, the plates never got whisked away until we were all through eating.  So, far from feeling guilty for holding everyone else up,  the slowest eater set the pace . When in North America, it’s only when I eat alone that I enjoy the luxury of setting the pace for myself.

And as for road trips, conversation is good.  But so is : turning up the radio to my favourite programme and listening to it all the way through, or savouring a beautiful view, or deciding when I am ready to stop for a coffee or lunch or stroll, or when I am energized and enjoying the radio and good for another hour or two.. 

As for plane trips,  what better time to read through a whole long novel from start to finish- a luxury almost unattainable at home!  Or to contemplate the shape and texture of the clouds?   Or  lose myself in my own , random, unstructured thoughts?   Or to let glorious strands of Mozart  unfold themselves into my conscious memory?

So, much as  I love people, I also love travelling solo. More of that in my next posting......

Friday, July 29, 2011

A song in my heart

I heard the shocking news from Norway-  a week ago- while I was in the midst of funeral and Sunday preparation.   I would have agonized all Saturday about my Sunday sermon, but this was not a week for preaching.  Instead, we had what was perhaps the best response of all: 7 young adults singing beautiful arias, Lieder and oratorio excerpts, within a Celebration of Music service. 

Some years ago on CBC radio, I heard that the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin had performed, just after World War 2, to concentration camp/Holocaust survivors.  These survivors had experienced what I would name "hell"; not a place one goes to receive punishment after death [I have never believed that , for a host of reasons] but a condition human beings unfortunately create on this earth, all too often.  Words fail us , and words should fail us, when responding to such a terrible manifestation of evil and inhumanity.  Music goes where words fail, reaching parts of our hearts which words cannot.  And there is something defiant, resistant about music- a refusal to be silenced by all the forces and dynamics which so easily stifle and silence, and snuff out whatever spirit is in us.  Music makes me able to believe in "resurrection".

A few years ago, I visited an exhibition on the Holocaust and Anne Frank, showing in Halifax at ,I think, the Museum of Natural History.  I read German. And so not only did I get the emotional impact of the pictures of Anne Frank and her family, and the pictures of Hitler, atrocities against the Jews, and the death camps themselves- but also every word of the Nazi propaganda in ads, placards and the like! The nastiness and brutality was there already to see in those words, even without the means to predict where it would lead.

 By the time I left the museum, I was feeling physically ill, and rightly so. I was glad of the fresh air and the beautiful trees lining Summer St, with a view of Halifax's Public Gardens.  On my way down Spring Garden, I happened into the late lamented Madrigal music store, just in time to hear a glorious performance of Beethoven's 7th Symphony by the wonderful Orquesta Sinfonica Simon Bolivar conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  I remembered again the ultimate healing power of music.  In no way does it change or erase or make tolerable any past or present injustices, atrocities, suffering and death.  But it is surely the breath of the human spirit which won't give up, which opens to the flow of "beauty and grace" [to quote a favourite phrase of mine from Annie Dillard].

The Simon Bolivar is a youth orchestra, many of its members  from very underprivileged backgrounds who have been given this chance to find their musical voices and experience the joy of creative community. We cannot change all the young lives so tragically cut short by the Holocaust, and indeed by wars and violence past and present.  But what better response than to do everything in our power to nurture the bodies and hearts and minds and souls of the young lives we can still tend, encourage and enjoy?

I mourn the deaths of those visionary, idealistic youth on what should have been a safe island haven.  I  have many such youth and young adults in my life and I would be devastated to see any of their lives cut short by any means.  My abiding passion is to see young people grow and thrive and be all they can be. My abiding sadness is that we have made a world that is so fraught with danger, difficulty, injustice, environmental degradation and persistent violence- what are they to do with such a world?

Reminded so vividly of what a world our young are living in, I was all the more consoled and delighted on Sunday to hear these aspiring  young singers. They are working and studying and managing performance anxiety and subjecting themselves to critical evaluation, in order to let beauty, and truth, and grace flow through their words and their very breath.  And as I write , I hear Opera Workshop students  singing beautifully outside my office. Two of them, and the pianist/saxophonist husband of one, are staying in my house , filling it with music and the energy, warmth and openness I so often find in my young adult friends. And there is a song in my heart and , amid all that is to mourn, I give thanks, and I have hope.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Welcome to Jane's blog

Welcome !

 Why eclectic ? I have formally studied  Classics and Modern Languages [Latin and German],  Late Latin language and literature, church history and many branches of theological studies, and more recently many aspects of spirituality.  Informally, I have explored fiction and poetry - starting with English but branching out from there- , politics, peace and justice, mystery novels,   biography  , journals , essays, classical music, art history etc.  Although I am a Christian and in fact work in a church, I am fascinated by other religions- I continue to learn what I can about Judaism, Buddhism and Islam and any other religion.  If you were to visit my house you would find books on these and other topics.  If you were to have a conversation with me in person, we would end up with piles of books on the table and the floor, as we looked up this and that which came to our minds.

Eclectic has a deeper meaning for me too.  Even as I may , and do, have my own personal convictions, I have always sought to respect, encourage and enjoy diverse experience , beliefs, gifts and perspectives.  My hope for this world with all its troubles is that we draw on all manner of insights and wisdom, not only that possessed by the most visible and powerful few.  Also I care about traditions, movements, languages, cultures and species which are at risk of being lost and forgotten.  I have often lived in small communities at the periphery of the centres of power, and have wanted those voices to be heard.  So often I have learned not only from books but from the experience , wisdom and compassion of people who are not published or publicized.

Why peripatetic?   The word peripatetic derives from the Greek- meaning "walking about".  It was the name of a philosophical school, and I suppose I am , literally, someone who seeks wisdom, though not in an academic department of philosophy. I am one of those who is always moving, who is not sure what if any place to call home.  I started out in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic coast of Canada.  I spent some of my school years in Toronto and some of my weekends and vacations in rural Nova Scotia.  I travelled to Europe as a child and again as a teenager, and had the opportunity to live in England for 12 years, appropriately as a would-be perpetual student.   Since then I have lived in a Canadian prairie city- Saskatoon- and then in small Saskatchewan towns, followed by a Nova Scotian coastal village, a small Maritime university town, and now beautiful St Andrews on the southwestern coast of New Brunswick, almost at the Maine border.

I have not yet found anywhere where I can live and work for more than 5 1/2 years, and in these rapidly changing times, I am not sure I ever will.  But I cannot regret any of the places where I have lived- they all have their gifts and wisdom. Place is very important and formative, I think- so if you move as much as I do, every place has made you who you are now.  I am sure I will be writing about some of these places in this blog.  I also like to hear, and read about, the experience of others who also find themselves to be wanderers on the face of the earth, often in much more perilous circumstances than a sheltered North American like me has ever known.

I am peripatetic in my spare time too, when time and weather permit!  If funds are short, I happily explore the towns, the landscapes, the art galleries, the coffee shops, the music and theatre within driving distance.  When money and location have allowed, I have travelled in Europe- France, Germany, Austria- but my greatest love so far is Italy.  If I could afford it , I would spend a month a year in Florence, immersing myself more and more in the art and architecture, and exploring the Tuscan countryside.  Venice is magical too.  Another revelation was a trip to Istanbul, and I would love to be able to see more of Turkey- I have read much of Orhan Pamuk's writing and am fascinated by Turkey's unique and complex blending of- and tension between- East and West.

I am as much of an internal peripatetic as an external one- so I will be wandering from one topic to another, and "visiting" writers, artists, activists and sages across time and space. My next posting will take me to Egypt but also to the late 1960s United States and who knows where else.

Welcome to any who read this page!