Foster Daughter

lake rocks reflect reeds ch rs IMG_5043 - Copy

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.

Outflow

headwaters columbia ch 406

I read somewhere that the Koine Greek word translated as “head” (as in Christ is head of the church) in most English versions of the Bible, carries the connotation of head as in headwaters.

This thought came to me as I came across a photo I took at the south end of Columbia Lake. These are the headwaters the mighty Columbia River that eventually supplies water for irrigation and shipping systems for much of the western USA.

What’s behind that mighty river is a beautiful lake in our backyard that collects the abundant run-off from the mountains.

Christ taught servant leadership.

Jesus: You know that among the nations of the world the great ones lord it over the little people and act like tyrants. But that is not the way it will be among you. Whoever would be great among you must serve and minister.  Whoever wants to be great among you must be slave of all.  Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to be a servant—to offer His life as a ransom for others. (Mark 10: 42-45 The Voice)

It is what flows out of a person that makes them a great leader. If they are in alignment with Christ as their living head, Christ’s love can flow through them. As others join in unity of the Spirit a confluence grows that pours out in an increasingly deeper and wider outflow, providing for many downstream.

When a leader, any leader, demands homage and lords power over others the direction of flow is reversed. When it becomes all about respect for titles and offices and need for recognition coming his or her way the stream dries up. Submission to the type of leadership Jesus demonstrated is cooperation and confluence, not slavery. It produces much fruit.

We love Christ because he first loved us. Our love and worship is a response to him. Love must be voluntary or it is not love at all. It is something else entirely devoid of freedom.

Freely you have received. Freely give.

Overwhelmed

snow-day-alley-ch-rs-img_6651
Have you ever noticed that crises don’t have the decency to line up and come single file, waiting patiently until the previous demand has been met?

It’s snowing – again. During the unusually big dump, three weeks ago, I met this guy digging out not only the access to his carport, but a neighbour’s place as well. Then he went on to help clear the way for a midwife who lives down the lane before she returned from night shift at the hospital.

“The important thing,” he told me between shovelfuls of snow, “is to not let it pile up on you.”

“But it’s still snowing!” I said, as my blue toque turned white with accumulated fluffy stuff.

“I know. But if I waited until it stopped the task would seem overwhelming. So I work, take a break, and work some more.”

He tossed another shovelful on a snow bank taller than he was.

“Just keep at it,” he grunted.

I admit he demonstrated a better work ethic than I often do. Sometimes I look at the task ahead of me and feel so overwhelmed I quit, hoping a miraculous event will clear the path like a sudden thawing chinook wind (which we don’t get on this side of the Rockies.) At the moment I feel buried under inertia.

But the man with the shovel reminds me to persevere.

So first I respond to obligations and crises, then clear my desk, file my notes, answer my emails, take a break, clear my emails, edit my photos, take break, and write my stories – one sentence a time. I toss words on the page like tossing shovels full of snow on the spot I hope will transform into a garden someday.

It feels overwhelming but maybe, someday, there will be a book where once nothing existed but blank whiteness.

Just keep at it.

All the Time

blue-striped-snow-shadows-gouache-ch-crop

“Every life has dark tracks and long stretches of somber tint, and no representation is true to fact which dips its pencil only in light, and flings no shadows on the canvas.”

– Alexander MacLaren

Winter days are short in the north, but when the sun reflects off the snow they can be gloriously bright. The contrast between extreme brightness and dark shadow is sometimes difficult to capture with a camera. Photographers have to figure out how to adjust for areas of an image appearing either blown-out white or indiscernible black.

As I drove in the countryside my eyes could not adjust quickly enough to the deep blue shadow across the road in a forested section after open white fields. For a moment I couldn’t see. I felt disoriented. Nothing had changed. The sky, the earth, the road were still all there and as solid and real as they had been seconds before driving into the shadow. It takes a while to be able to discern shapes and terrain in a canyon cutting between tall fir trees.

Sometimes when we enter dark times in our life we are tempted to question what we knew only a short time before. Does God still love me if I can’t feel him or see him? Did I mess up so badly this time he has given up on me? There are lots of voices offering condemnation in this place. Where do they come from?

It takes a while to be able to discern truth in dark places, but it is still truth. When we refuse to panic and instead choose to slow down by resting in trust, gradually we can again see and hear that the love of God has been there all the time.

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose?

If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us?

And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger?

The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way!

Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture: They kill us in cold blood because they hate you. We’re sitting ducks; they pick us off one by one.

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us.

I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

(Romans 8:31-39 MSG)

Save

Yes, She Knew

snow-greenbelt-img_5996

I love the song, Mary Did You Know? I was thinking about how much Mary knew as I wondered and wandered out in the valley with it’s traffic-muting hush of new fallen snow.

I also love The Magnificat, Mary’s prophetic response of praise after her cousin, Elizabeth gave her prophetic confirmation:

You are blessed, Mary, blessed among all women, and the child you bear is blessed!  And blessed I am as well, that the mother of my Lord has come to me!  As soon as I heard your voice greet me, my baby leaped for joy within me.  How fortunate you are, Mary, for you believed that what the Lord told you would be fulfilled.

Mary responded with her own prophetic declaration:

My soul lifts up the Lord!

My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!

For though I’m God’s humble servant,
God has noticed me.
Now and forever,
I will be considered blessed by all generations.

For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
holy is God’s name!

From generation to generation,
God’s lovingkindness endures
for those who revere Him.

God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
The proud in mind and heart,
God has sent away in disarray.

The rulers from their high positions of power,
God has brought down low.
And those who were humble and lowly,
God has elevated with dignity.

The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.

To Israel, God’s servant,
God has given help,

As promised to our ancestors,
remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever.
(from Luke 1 The Voice)

Did Mary know?
She knew.

Elizabeth knew too. These two women had a greater understanding of God’s magnificent plan than the religious specialists around them. In the Christmas story God spoke through women as well as men and angels.

He still does.

A song of joy, great joy:

Save