Foster Daughter

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Foster Daughter

Sadie tied her hair with twine;
Helen wore high heels in a snow storm.

Sadie whistled to the birds in the willow tree;
Helen bought a budgie at Simpson Sears.

Sadie sat on a stump scraping hides with a blade;
Helen sat on a lawn chair spraying the grass with Raid.

Helen placed rose-shaped soaps on the toilet tank;
Sadie hung rusty traps on the kitchen door.

Helen served eclairs for tea;
Sadie served Spam for dinner.

Helen read Chekhov and Dickens to me;
Sadie asked me to read the mail to her.

And now, my two mothers,
I sit here on the steps,
jewelled watch on my wrist,
beaded moccasins on my feet,

and wonder who I am.

 

I wrote this poem after fostering several children from Indigenous families. Some were “status” and some were not, even though they were half-siblings. I wondered what this move back and forth between cultures was like for them.

But this was also my own experience. When people read this poem they assume “Helen” was the foster mother. In my case, “Sadie” was more like the substitute mother I spent the most time with. My mother alternated between working long hours and recovering from frequent illness. I went to live with my grandmother as an infant before my mother was released from the hospital and I bonded with her. Grandma was my main caretaker in early childhood and after I started school our extended multi-generational family lived together until I was 16.

Grandma grew up in the area now known as Algonquin Park, miles from the nearest road. Her formal education ended when the school burned down after she attended sporadically for two or three years. Reading remained a struggle for the rest of her life.

School in Bark Lake

Her father hunted and trapped to support his family. He met her mother in an aboriginal village. We always assumed she was of indigenous extraction. Great Grandma taught my grandmother how to live off of the land, the importance of community and imparted to her a deep reverence and connection with creation.

My father told me stories of how his grandmother chewed hide to make moccasins for all her grandchildren, how she was a crack shot, and how she knew every plant and every sound in the forest. She raised ten children to adulthood without access to modern medicine, relying on herbs, raw honey, and prayer.

Dad learned that her father, a logger who spent months in the bush himself, abandoned her after her mother died. She was sent to live with a foster family in New York who treated her, as many unclaimed children were treated in those days, as a slave. She slept in the barn and did chores instead of attending school with the other children. She never did learn to read.

Ethel didn’t talk much about her early childhood, but something about her mistreatment prompted her to take the risk of running away. With only her dog as a companion, she set out to look for her father. All she knew was that he lived in northern Ontario.

She must have been a resourceful kid because she lived for several months on her own in the northern woods before some Algonkin people found her, took her in and raised her as one of their own. Eventually, when she was a young woman, she met my grandfather when he came into the camp carrying a buck over his shoulders to share. His size, strength, and generosity impressed her. She left with him, but the ties to the community remained and their way of thinking and doing life was passed on to the woman who shared in raising me.

On a whim, I searched for Great Grandmother’s birthplace when I was labeling old photos for my father. I was shocked to learn that not only was she entirely white, but she was a descendant of American royalty – the first Pilgrims in Massachusetts. I’m not part native Canadian after all. My straight dark hair and high cheek bones came from elsewhere, but I still have a deep love and respect for Indigenous people and the role they played in our family history.

I wonder if Canadians are less prone to put more weight on individual concerns than community concerns than American culture does because of the stronger positive influence of indigenous connection in early days. It made no sense whatsoever to my grandmother or great grandmother to see perfectly good food thrown away when people were hungry, for example. It would be like one person feasting alone after a successful hunt while hungry villagers looked on. In a harsh environment, community is essential to survival. It’s called caring.

Grandma felt the same way about possessions. She never understood why everyone on the block needed to own a ladder when she never saw more than one person at a time using a ladder. She just helped herself to “the” ladder when she needed it. The fact that it was stored in the neighbour’s garage turned out to be problematic – more for the neighbour than Grandma. She had no problem with friends and neighbours using whatever she had and didn’t understand why they were so stingy. She was incredibly generous and sheltered anyone who needed help. Her boarding house in Calgary became a community itself.

I think Grandma could hear the trees weep and the rivers wail when short-sighted resource-gathering practices hurt them. Even when she was in her 80s she begged my dad to set up his trailer in the middle of nowhere so she could revive herself in nature on a solo retreat. He argued it wasn’t safe, so she went to work as a camp counselor instead.

One day she taught her cabin of girls how to track by circling around and following the search and rescue people who had been sent out to look for them when they failed to return on time. “On time” was another problem. She was as likely to show up hours early as hours late.

My mother was definitely European. She was accustomed to excelling in competitive environments and creating order out of chaos. Grandma thrived in let-it-be chaos. In fact, she was often the source of it.

Growing up with two mothers who thought differently and had different priorities and values confused me at times, but I learned early there is more than one way to perceive a situation and that love overcomes a multitude of misunderstandings so people can honour each other’s strengths and live in harmony. I am richer for that inheritance.

Today on National Aboriginal Day (and soon to be known as Indigenous People’s Day) I thank the First Nations people who fostered my disadvantaged grandmother and enriched my life as a result. You laid stepping stones for us all and I am grateful.

Love Never Gives Up

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In the middle of the first letter sent to the new believers in Corinthians (with instructions on how to use the gifts or tools the Holy Spirit gives) Paul gives is this warning:

Without love, it’s all a gong show (my loose translation).

As Christians we talk about love. We urge people to take the job of showing love seriously. We quote the verse about turning the other cheek. But who knew the charge to love our neighbours as ourselves could turn into a burden that keeps people weighted down with disappointment in themselves and in other less-than-considerate members of the church that is supposed to lead in this area? Who knew the instruction to love could make us feel less loveable?

I used to think that love meant I should be able to conjure up feelings of affection on demand. I thought if I tried hard I could. I learned I can’t. I know I’m not the only one. With very little effort I can give you hundreds of examples of my failure to love in spite of my best efforts.

 

I even fail to love people who, like me, mean well, but leave a mess to clean up in their short-sighted efforts to demonstrate it.

I can’t even imagine what it is like for the victims of extreme persecution to hear sermons about extending love to those who hate them.

Love is all very good in theory, but, as is evident in nasty posts on various media  platforms, people who differ on political ideas, or even styles of music and fashion have a hard time showing it. Love, real love and not merely feel-good self-serving or erotic love is hard to come by. There are some days when I wonder if it is even possible.

And yet Jesus is clear about the command to love.

“’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’
Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ‘This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

The identifying mark of the early church was expressed this way, “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you have love for one another.”

Recently I hear another full-voiced charge from a pulpit that we should love like Jesus. I wanted to stand up and yell back, “Don’t keep telling us we should love without telling us how!”

People know the difference between genuine caring and marketing. They have a word for it. Hypocrisy.

Then the Lord reminded me he is not dependent on my efforts to do this without him. It’s about His love, not mine. He loved us first. I respond with that little bit that I can grasp before it falls through the holes in my heart and give it back to him. Then he pours out more love.

Paul described this kind of love – agape love, unselfish love from a perfect Father, in the passage in 1 Corinthians 13. I like to read it in different translations. The Passion Translation, which seeks to include emotional communication, calls this kind of love “large.” This is what Jesus came to show us. This is what Christ in us, the hope of glory, looks like and feels like. Large.

I need to soak in it. As I write this I am soaking my foot in a sterilized water and salt solution as part of the healing plan after minor surgery. In the same way, metaphorically speaking, I need to soak in God’s love for continuous healing of soul wounds. Abiding in his company purifies and removes distractions so I can know that I am the object of this love and that the Creator of the universe values me enough to never quit loving me. Only then can I give love the love I have received without risking burn-out or spiritual bankruptcy.

Developing a relationship with God and learning to abide, rest, dwell, and take up residency in the place of intimacy where we learn to accept a love we can’t earn is not for mystics who are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. It is the essential source for anyone who prays, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God never takes failure as defeat, for he never gives up.

Just by Standing

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Some days you win by standing, not by advancing. Some days your endurance is your victory because to overcome through endurance means that you get to make the enemy weary. You get to give him a heavy heart. You get to make him tired. You get to make him depressed. You get to overcome him just by standing and just by looking into the face of Jesus. That’s a priceless victory right there!

-Graham Cooke(from The Way Of The Warrior [Studio Version])

 

Even in the Dark

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True worship doesn’t put on a show or make a fuss; true worship isn’t forced, isn’t half-hearted, doesn’t keep looking at its watch, doesn’t worry what the person in the next pew is doing. True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark.

-N. T. Wright