Sunday, February 23, 2014

With Gratitude!

Thank you to everyone who voted in the Canadian Blog awards. Whatever He Says won Best Religion and Philosophy Blog!

Congratulations too, to two other members of our writer's group--Julie Bowles, who won 2nd place with her blog, Devoted to the Lamb, and Susan Starrett, who tied for 3rd place with her blog God and the Black River--what a celebration for Writers Nest!

And dear Dave Hingsburger, my friend, won Best Personal Blog and Best Health Blog with his always challenging and thought provoking blog, Rolling Around in My Head. Congratulations Dave, and thank you for your continual encouragement and mentorship in writing.

Belonging...and Not

I thought I should explain that I'm filling in at the start of each week for a couple of months for my boss, Dwayne Milley, who writes Monday Morning emails to our work team; usually on the themes of leadership or belonging. 

So my first post of each week lately has centred on these themes. Meanwhile, Dwayne is doing something much more exciting than work. You can read about his journey in parenthood and adoption on his blog: Everyone Plays.

Last week I mentioned our agency's vision statement that has to do with belonging.

I was thinking about "belonging" as Paul and I chatted over breakfast on Saturday. We spoke about a friend who lived in an institution--a place he felt he didn't belong--for 25 years. 

I've known this friend since 1974, when Paul and I moved in with our two pre-school children to be house parents at the home in the community that this man had moved to one year earlier. 

He was just 41 when I first met him. With a feisty nature to match his Brylcreamed red hair, his communication was hard to understand at first, but with patience, his stammered and deliberate words made sense. He would come back from shopping, and slowly and patiently count every penny; receipts laid out on the oilcloth covered kitchen table; to make sure that he had been given exactly the right change; cigarette stained fingers, slightly clumsily counting out each cent. Frugality was one of his traits, and he painstakingly rolled his own cigarettes until one day the price of tobacco went up beyond what he was willing to pay. He stopped smoking "cold turkey," and never started again.

After a few years he moved into an apartment in Toronto, and finally lived free of all unwanted constraints. In the 40 years since we first met, our lives diverged, but remained linked by friendship. 

But for him, 81 years old now, 40 years of freedom has not erased the pain of 25 years of captivity. Whenever we spend time together he talks about the circumstances that unfolded into the nightmare that he found himself living. There were things he felt should never have happened, and sadly, the first thing he always talks about is his birth.

"She should never have had me," he will say of his mother, "She waited too long."

Although his mother was only 38 when she gave birth, to him that seems old in comparison to when she had his siblings. "The youngest was 18 when I popped out," he says.

He had some difficulties in learning. He could grasp basic math, but never learned to read and write, and he had epilepsy--grand-mal seizures. 

When his mother was 53, she died of cancer. He was 15 by then, and his next youngest sibling, the one who was 18 when he was born, would have been 33. His father couldn't look after him, so he was placed in the care of an institution; a euphemism for the reality.

On his first day there, a vulnerable 15 year old; still grieving the loss of his mother; a staff sucker punched him in the stomach. He clearly remembers why..."to show him who was boss."

"I should never have been there," he says over and over. But he was there--because there was nowhere else he belonged.

That day was the first of a "life sentence" of 25 years, served for no other crime but difference and vulnerability.

Also living in the home where I met him, was Sam, a man whose life connected with his for a while. Sam had also lived in an institution for many years. His speech was almost unintelligible due to cerebral palsy, and his efforts to communicate were emphasized by increased volume and the gestures of desperately flailing arms and legs--angry, agitated movements. When he calmed down enough to talk as slowly as he could, he said, "I...don't"

Paul made a deal with him. He said, "If you go for several weeks without having an angry explosion, I will work on getting you an assessment." 

Both of them kept their part of the deal, and this man, who had taught himself to read, and who couldn't write by hand, but could use a typewriter, was found to have above average intelligence. 

It wasn't long before Sam and our other friend were apartment mates. They were ideally suited, as one could read and type, but was hopeless at managing money. The other could manage money like the best of financial advisors, but couldn't read and write. They happily supported each other in their lives for many years, until Sam died.

When I think about belonging, I think of the fact that so many people that we support have lived with the horrifying reality of being trapped where they did not belong, and knowing it.

Society eventually caught up--with the realization that no one belonged where they were.

People with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thirty Years Later, Part 2

This is an addendum to the blog post I wrote last Monday: "Thirty Years Later," in which I reflected on a battle Paul fought long ago, for changes within the institution he worked at.

One morning this week I asked him if he had read it. He smiled and said that he had, then a faraway look came into his eyes and he began to share other changes that he had worked for.

"The men would be lined up for showers naked, often by young female staff."

He told me how he managed to get housecoats for the men. They all were ordered in blue, but at least they had the dignity of being clothed while waiting in the hallway. 

In order to find office space for the Occupational Therapy department, the plan was to order bunk beds for the people on the ward where the offices were to be built. Paul successfully fought to block this plan, saying that the bunk beds would not only be a safety hazard, but that it would be wrong to take precious space from people that had so little.  The offices were built elsewhere.

The last thing he mentioned was getting locks on the lockers in which people kept their personal belongings. I can only imagine what it meant to have a key to the locker where your things were kept safe.

Ontario's last institution closed in 2009 and on December 9, 2013, the premier of our province, Kathleen Wynne, apologized on behalf of the government of Ontario for the pain and suffering of people who were institutionalized. She said, "Their humanity was undermined; they were separated from their families, and they were robbed of their dignity." A successful class action law suit is awarding compensation for this pain and suffering, but acknowledgement alone is a powerful thing.

Institutions remain in some other provinces, but their days are numbered. In Saskatchewan, for instance, the government is closing Valleyview, a centre that is home for 200 people with disabilities, by 2016. 

Our agency has a vision statement that guides us in our work with people with developmental disabilities:

People with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.

We are on the journey to fully realizing that vision of belonging, but it takes only a glance back to see how far we have come.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Two Booster Rockets for Life

Two books are currently having the impact of booster rockets in my life.

Wikipedia defines a booster rocket as: "a strap-on rocket used to augment the core launch vehicle's takeoff thrust and payload capability. Boosters are generally necessary to launch spacecraft into Earth's orbit or beyond." A great description of the impact of these books on me.

Theologian and writer, Dallas Willard died in 2013. Ever since reading an article about him by John Ortberg, written after his death and published in Christianity Today, I have wanted to read his books. You can read the article for yourself here.

In Willard's book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, he opens up the difference between trying to follow Christ by responding to life's circumstances in a "godly way," and actually becoming godly in character by following Christ's pattern of life--the spiritual disciplines he practiced. Willard the describes those disciplines and how their practice is the secret of the "easy yoke" Christ speaks of:
Matthew 11:30
The Message (MSG)
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The book is challenging; inspiring; inviting and exciting! I have glimpsed glimmers of this truth at times, but never understood it as clearly, or the futility of undertaking a life of faith from any other standpoint. I love this book.

Another book that I am reading is The War of Art by Simon Pressfield. This book is not about faith; it is written primarily to help artists understand the forces that lead to procrastination; but it has spiritual application and implications for all parts of our lives. It is motivating and inspiring in a different way to Willard's book but read together they are twin booster rockets! 

Pressfield identifies "resistance" as a force that derails all of our best intentions. Understanding the concept of resistance and how it plays out in my own life, has galvanized me! Recognizing and naming a foe, tends to have the effect of defeating it. Now I understand the darker force behind procrastination--the urge to organize the fridge or clean my house--in fact do anything other than the key thing I really should be doing. 

Know your enemy and defeat him. :) 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Thirty Years Later

I sat across from Paul recently at a meeting at work. He was challenging us to think differently about supports to people with disabilities. 

My mind went back thirty years to when he was in his last months at Pine Ridge, the institution he had worked at for almost 13 years and was then helping to close.

During his time working there, he was always in a battle for improvements, always a visionary who drove change. He petitioned for a "village area" on the institution property, where several portables gave people an opportunity to live in a more homelike environment and get ready for the next step--living in the outside world--the community. 

He fought for breakfast to be cooked on the large wards on the weekends, so that the men who lived there would have the pleasure of smelling bacon and eggs cooking. It also meant that they could sleep in later on those days and not miss breakfast--simple things that most people take for granted. 

Before this, some people did stay up later on Fridays and Saturdays and were tired, but the night shift would still get everyone up early in order to change the bed linens as the day shift didn't like having to do it. It was a short change for staff, which meant that those who had worked until 11.00 p.m. the night before were back at 7.00 a.m. and not always in a good mood. The weekends, as a result of short fuses all around, were times when there were many angry outbursts.

When Paul asked for breakfast to be cooked on the ward, many said that it would be impossible to manage. How could 52 people fit into the small dining area available? He said that if his guess was correct, people would get up as they woke up, not all at once--and that is exactly what happened. The dining table never had more people around it than would fit, and the atmosphere changed from tense to relaxed.

In the mid 1980's a wind of change began blowing...a wind that would bring the closure of Pine Ridge and the eventual closure of all institutions in Ontario.

Thirty years later we still need to be challenged. What are we perpetuating just because we've done it that way for years? What do we need to speak up about that could and should be done differently but is tolerated because systems don't change easily? How can we break through barriers in our thinking so that we can see beyond what is, to something so much better that we haven't even imagined it yet?  Something that is as radical as breakfast on the ward, thirty years ago. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Father I Want to...

We relaxed, some of us in the wingback recliners, with feet up; others sinking into the welcoming, cushiony golden leather of the couch. Lamps softly lit the big room at the back of our house where a small group of our friends gets together weekly for dinner and a chat. 

We call it "cell group," because in our faith, the analogy of "the body" is used for a church community. So we are a small part of a body, a "cell;" in other words we're just a group of friends who love one another and enjoy getting together. And we encourage each other in life and faith.

Last night we were on our second week of studying a book by Royal Hamel. The book is called, Unmuzzle Your Inner Sheep. It's about freeing yourself to share faith--not about putting yourself out to graze! 

We're enjoying the conversation the book has prompted. We talked about the struggle between obeying the "Great Commission" to share the good news of Jesus' life and purpose, and wondering how to do that effectively. Do we worry too much? Should we just do it and leave the results with God? Are we holding back a precious gift by not speaking about it more openly out of a wish to be polite? Should we just be open to when people invite such a conversation, or should we be more outgoing?

Then today I opened my big red Life Application Bible to tuck something inside the cover and a folded piece of paper with Mum's familiar handwriting made me catch my breath.

She's been in my thoughts because it is February, and it is two years ago this month that she fell ill, a few weeks before she died.

In her neatly slanting writing was a hymn she had copied out because the words meant something to her. When I went through her things after she died, I found pieces of paper tucked here and there; many with verses of scripture; small footprints of a faith she didn't talk about a lot; which just "was" and that she practiced quietly. I felt so close to her as I read the words written by her dear hand, that I pressed it to my lips--as close as I can get to her this side of heaven. And as I read the final verse, it felt as though she had joined in the conversation of the night before!

Father, I want to be with You
And do the things You do
Father, I want to speak the words
That You are speaking too
Father I want to love the ones
That You will draw to You
For I know that I am one with You

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Canadian Blog Awards

Hello Friends,
The Canadian Blog Awards are in full swing again. Whatever He Says has been nominated for Best Religion and Philosophy blog. Also nominated in that category is the blog of my friend Susan Starret who writes at God and the Black River.

The blog of another dear friend; Rolling Around in My Head, by Dave Hingsburger; is nominated in the categories of Best Personal Blog and Best Health Blog. I never miss reading Rolling Around in My Head. Dave writes daily and generously, sharing ideas, his journey of disability and perspectives that provoke and challenge.

I hope that you will consider voting. It only takes seconds; you don't have to be Canadian to vote, and voting in this round ends on February 22nd.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Just Joy!

Our family has a standing date for Sunday dinner on the first Sunday of every month. Not that we don't see each other at any other time, but we all know that particular Sunday is pretty much for sure--and I look forward to it so much--the front door bursting open and our house being filled once more with the voices and vibrancy of six grandchildren and their parents. 

This week Spero, Brenda's new Australian Shepherd puppy came too, and met his extended family, leaving Molson at home to have a rest! He was duly adored by all of us.

He came with a dazzling array of toys and is proving a fast learner, already sitting on command and responding to Tori's training. I was so impressed at her technique of quickly rewarding a turnaround from any slight naughtiness with praise for "good sitting," or "good" any other desirable behaviour! 

Tippy had her hair cut stunningly and bravely short the day before; making a statement about who she is as a unique individual, on the verge of turning 16. Brenda sent us this photo, taken at the salon the day before, so that we could be prepared. She is our quietly strong grandchild, vulnerable and sensitive, yet artsy and individualistic; firm in who she is. We told her how beautiful she looked and how the new style revealed her lovely features.

While they grow up, I struggle to keep up! I'm getting used to laughter at my technological ineptness. It is a rare visit when I don't take advantage of younger brains and/or Pete and Kevin's technical support with my laptop or iPod Touch--and this time was no exception. When Pete opened my iPod Touch, it seemed that almost every page I had ever opened was still open. I didn't know that you flick them upwards to close them down--I mean, how would I? :) 

Pete said, "Did you notice it was running slowly Mom?"

"Um, no," I said, while thinking, "You let me cook the roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, and just take care of me with my electronics please!"

The Burston clan left sooner than Brenda and her girls, because Kevin had a Super Bowl party going on at their home, and they were staying until things calmed down back there; so Tori, Bren and I played a few hands of Dutch Blitz. It's been years since I played and oh, my, the rules are complicated! It took us some time to figure them  out again after not having played the game for several years, but soon Brenda and Tori were slapping cards in piles with lightning speed, and the chaos that is Dutch Blitz was in full swing, even though we weren't scoring yet. 

In comparison I felt as though I was sooooo slooooow! Again, they laughed at me! And I thought, "Is this what I have to look forward to in my old age?" After they left, I studied the rules again and realized that there was even one more factor we hadn't implemented the complicated set of rules about putting down cards.

I think though that I have them all straight now--I mean there are piles of cards named "post" piles, "wood" piles and "blitz" piles--and on some piles the numbers are built on in ascending order, others in descending order, and there are "girl" cards and "boy" cards and different coloured cards and four different sets of cards. 

So I have decided that this is going to be my mental agility training. Anyone want to practice with me?  I want to shock them with my speed next time they visit! :)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Handle with Care

A couple of weeks ago I started writing now and then, about a few of the life lessons I've learned. I'm still an avid student in the classroom of life, so this is not intended to come from a platform of Yoda-like wisdom--just, for what it's worth what I've learned so far. 

Life lesson number 4--since this is Valentine's month: Handle important relationships with care.

This probably seems obvious, but  there's a reason for that old saying, "You always hurt the one you love." We relax into a relationship and we feel that we can "let it all hang out." Letting it all hang out is a recipe for damage and pain.

I grew up in a family that laid a foundation of some strengths that I'm grateful for, but also some counterproductive patterns that I've spent a lifetime trying to un-learn!

A book that helped me with that was Scream Free Marriage by Hal Edward Runkel. Runkel writes about 5 ways that we "scream" in relationships and I think I had a good number of them in my repertoire. I loaned my book to a friend, so I'm going by memory here, but I think they are:

  • Withdrawing--the proverbial "cold shoulder"
  • Shutting down--withdrawing and closing off completely--a more extreme form of withdrawal
  • Using words in anger or sarcasm  
  • Yelling, shouting and literally screaming
  • Triangles-involving third parties in conflict
Our family handled conflict with shouting and crying and slamming of doors, as well as silences that went on for days. And we were great at the geometry!

Any one of the "screaming patterns" tend to come out of our box of wonky tools when we experience anxiety about some aspect of our relationship. Understanding that anxiety is behind a lot of anger is extremely helpful. Figuring out what I am anxious about is even more so. 

Runkel writes about "calming down, growing up and getting closer." He also writes about taking responsibility for your personal feelings and needs.

I have learned that while solid relationships may be resilient, they are really more like fine china than those dishes that can take the hard knocks. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

All on Fire

It's Monday morning, a good time to share a few thoughts about being "all on fire."

I've been on fire since November for the needs of the people in South Sudan, using the simple gift of baking pies to raise funds. The freezer compartments of our two fridges are filled with pies. A cupboard in our basement is filled with flour, sugar, shortening, cookie sheets and cooling racks; and baking pie is never far from my mind. Other people have joined with me in numerous ways, from donating time and supplies to buying pies.One pie at a time, almost $3000 has been raised so far. 

I am energized by a vision of the need and an awareness that I live a life of privilege in the wealthy west. When I'm rolling out pastry in my spare time, that's what drives me; the passion that burns in my heart; the energy that turns what could feel like hard work into a joy.

Yesterday morning at church, a young woman announced that she'll be working with the children on an Easter program. Her face glowed and her eyes sparkled as she explained her plans--the process of auditions, practices etc.. She said that she was "All on fire," ready to share her gifts of organization and drama. 

Another person announced that our church freezers are full of ready made meals, cooked by someone in the congregation who is an excellent cook. The meals are for people in the community who are in personal crisis or need--an outreach by our Missions Team.

I realized that all of these examples have some common factors:
A natural gift or inclination...tied to a vision....that births a passion... that inspires others to join in and help meet a need--of our neighbour; our community; or our world.

So what does that mean to us on a Monday morning, faced with multiple priorities to juggle and always the unexpected that will surely insert itself into our day?

It's the reason to dig deep for the "why," that we can lose sight of in the pressure of the day. It's the people behind the paperwork; the passion for lives lived with dignity and value. 

Doing so will energize us to share the unique gifts within us with vision and passion.

I imagine all of us as neurons firing in a body, pulsing with energy. For an amazing video of this in reality--click on the link below!

Firing Neurons--Cell Dance 2010