School Supplies.

“How about lined paper?” he said. “They’ll probably need some of that, right?”

I nodded sympathetically as we backed out of the driveway. “Sure,” I said, “might as well pick some up.”  We drove in silence for a while before he blurted out, “And pencils. Mechanical pencils. Everyone needs those.”

I resisted the urge to point out that we had at least two unopened packs in the craft bin and that my strong hunch was that neither of our kids would need much more than a keyboard and monitor until at least December. Instead, I just nodded again.  “Yup, better get some of those too.  You never know.”

I could completely relate to his irrational urgency to buy school supplies, even if almost none will be needed this year. I could relate because my own love of back to school shopping has been known to verge on the obsessive. I mean honestly, what’s not to love? Row upon row of neatly stacked piles of paper standing sentry, ready for duty. Pens and markers of every conceivable colour nestled cozily in their plastic spheres, waiting patiently for just the right hands to pluck them from obscurity.  Bright neon post its and highlighters battling it out for attention on the shelf, while the staplers maintain the quiet dignity that comes from knowing your purpose. Bin after bin of push pins, rulers, glue sticks, paper clips, sharpeners, erasers. For nerdy types like me, it’s better than the buffet at the Mandarin. Well, almost. And then there’s the notebooks. So many beautifully fresh notebooks.  Honestly. I can’t even.

As we walked into the store and slowly followed the floor arrows to the back to school aisle, it struck me that the whole exercise was just our way of hanging on to a little bit of normal this fall. It was a way to remind ourselves that we will someday return to these time honoured rituals of return without the layers of dread and anxiety that have been our constant companion these last few weeks.

Like all parents, we wrestled with the back to school decision all summer. We went back and forth and back again, trying our best to follow the science and our guts, even if neither are particularly reliable right now.  After the requisite amount of agonizing we settled on the virtual school option, but it could have easily went the other way, and still might. Our kids aren’t thrilled about it, but a few long talks about the need to make imperfect decisions with imperfect information has helped a little. If this year has taught my kids anything, it’s that there’s isn’t aways a right answer to everything. Sometimes all you can do is summon your courage and make the decision that feels the most right for your family, then commit to living as well as you can with the consequences. I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to make this point, but it’s not an unimportant lesson. I’m so proud of the way our kids have accepted our imperfect decision-making with grace and ease, and I am grateful for their willingness to roll right along with the gong show that has been 2020.

As we gear up for whatever this fall will bring, it strikes me that we may need a different set of school supplies this year. Instead of the fancy lunch container, we might all be better off with a family size pack of patience and stamina. Instead of the three hole punch, we might want to pre-order a pound or two of resilience and an extra large sense of humour. This might be the year to skip the three pack of binders, and maybe even the notebooks (oh, the horror!) and start sharing our stories with each other. Maybe instead of another device, we invest more in trying to mirror back to one another the kind of love, acceptance and tolerance that we all are all craving in this stupid, difficult, relentless year.

Maybe this September, we can fill those shiny new backpacks with more awareness of how every single one of us is carrying around a story of the last few months, and some are a hell of a lot heavier than others. It might be also be a very good time to try to shift our gaze even a little beyond our own discomfort and fear and look for ways to move through this season of uncertainty with more compassion, more openness, and more joy.  Our kids need it. Our teachers need it. Our neighbourhoods need it. The alternative is just so damn bleak, and I think this year has served up quite enough of that nonsense.

No matter what decision your family has made for this fall, know that it was exactly the right one. There is no right way to go back to school this year. So, grab that basket and fill it up as best you can with what you need, then line up the people you love who can help you carry it when the shit hits the fan, which it inevitably will. We’re all gonna need a little more kindness this year, so you might as well stock up now.

Oh, and don’t forget the pencils. Mechanical pencils. Because you just never know.

Permission Slip.

For anyone who needs this today.

You have permission.

You have permission to serve them a bowl of popcorn and a lime bubly for lunch. Three days in a row.

You have permission to pretend that you are unaware that they’ve been holed up comfortably in their bedroom fort for five hours watching back to back seasons of Heartland instead of tackling their french homework.

You have permission to admit that you spent an obscene amount of money on art supplies in Week Three of quarantine that have been touched exactly once since landing on your porch (to remove them from their packaging).

You have permission to admit that the pre-sleep routines you’ve carefully cultivated over the years to help your still reluctant sleeper settle each night have been abandoned by the single phrase: “Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”  You have permission to admit that it is actually you who is comforted by her slow and steady breathing beside you in the night, even when her elbow is in your ear and her knees are wedged painfully into the small of your back.

You have permission to run the wash cycle three times because you can’t remember if the clothes inside are clean. And while you’re at it, you have permission to rescue your purple yoga pants from the dirty clothes hamper a final time because you can’t summon the energy to convince the twelve year old to carry it downstairs.

You have permission to define quality family time as nightly group viewings of RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Note: you will not regret this).

You have permission to remove the battery from the bathroom scale, and toss that fucker in the trash.  Then toss the scale in with it.

You have permission to show up to every morning department meeting and say, over and over, “I honestly don’t know.”

You have permission to say “no thanks” to the standing Zoom date you set up with your besties because some nights, you’d rather sink into a steaming hot bath and stare at the shadows on the wall until your kids have finally gone to bed (even if it’s your bed).

You have permission to toss aside the Booker Prize novels you ordered in Week Two and go right now and renew your online subscription to People magazine. You also have permission to spend an entire evening carefully combing through every instagram picture that Dan Levy and Reese Witherspoon have ever posted.

You have permission to make Ottolenghi’s mustard cheesy cauliflower six times in the last month because every bite makes you feel like might you just might make it.

You have permission to give up entirely on homeschooling and outsource that shit to the experts. Trust me on this one.

You have permission to acknowledge that exactly nothing about the last three months has been anything close to normal, and you have permission to stop pretending that anything is even remotely close to normal.

You have permission to do some other things, too.

You have permission to decide what it might look like for you and your family to re-engage with the world, however slowly. You have permission to feel as though you are not even remotely close to being ready to do that.  Or, you have permission to feel like you are ready to picnic naked in Trinity Bellwoods Park (but please don’t do that).

You have permission to feel that despite the tragedies of the last few months, a part of you has been grateful for more stillness. For more time to read and think, to play and to pray. You have permission to acknowledge that you realize that you are only now beginning to get to know the wonder of your family and that you are not all that anxious to get back to rushed meals squeezed in before Scout nights, swim lessons and church meetings.

You have permission to use this not-at-all-normal time to sit still long enough to finally listen to your own voice, and understand your own needs a bit better.

You have permission to use this time to finally acknowledge things you’ve been afraid to confront. You have permission to admit you might very well be in the wrong job, the wrong city, or in the wrong relationship. You have permission to stand up to the people and the things that continue to hurt you, and to entertain a world beyond what you’ve always been taught is possible for you. You have permission to finally answer the calls you’ve been terrified to answer.

You also have permission to change absolutely nothing at all.

You have permission to silently grieve the many losses of the last few months, or to find a community of like-minded souls to help you carry them. You have permission to sit and cry most nights, or to move constantly and energetically towards a different light. You have permission to let this awful year change you. You have permission to let this awful year change everything.  

You have permission to do all of this, and so much more.

And, you have permission to ask for some of that damn popcorn.

Field notes.

“You should write about this ,” I tell them. “You’ll want to tell this story someday.”

They nod politely but vaguely in my direction, barely lifting their eyes from their devices. I suppress the impulse to deliver a lecture about the relationship between screen time and deviant behaviour and head to the basement to clean up the remnants of yesterday’s mega-fort. I glance at the untouched craft corner I so carefully set up during Week Two, back when I was determined that we were all going to Make the Most of It.

In many ways, we have made the most of it.

We’ve settled clunkily into a Maslow-approved daily routine. We eat, we work, we learn, we play, we walk, we snooze, we fight, we laugh, and we pray. We wash our hands. Then we wash them again. Sometimes we even clean our rooms.

There have been unexpected sources of joy and much-needed normalcy. The light pouring into our pop up art studio in the kitchen, the campground set up in the backyard (complete with a clothes line and portable dish tub), and the slow and steady rediscovery of classic toys and board games long since orphaned by iPads and Galaxies. Virtual dinners with beloved friends. Sunday Bingo with extended family. Rediscovering Terry Pratchett. Watching The Girl nail a near perfect round-off and tik-tok in her impressively designed makeshift gymnastics studio. Trusted friendships that have made the leap through retina screens to deeper and more vulnerable places.

All of these moments are somehow calmly co-existing with a near constant layer of unspeakable grief. With simmering rage at who and what has been left ignored in this mess, and with workplace cultures that refuse to adapt to the contours of a new normal. With fitful sleeps and violent dreams that remind us that everything has changed. With leadership that harms and hurts. With an at times paralyzing fear about what lies ahead.

Yet these moments of joy keep showing up. They arrive as awkward but welcome hugs from a twelve year old when a morning newscast leaves us undone, sobbing quietly over our buttered toast. They burst through our tense jaws and clenched fists in “hey how’s it going” texts. They show up in emails from kind sisters who remind us that there are still gardens to be tended, books to be read, and movies to be watched. They pop up in our otherwise inane and depressing social media feeds to remind us that the communities and the people we love are patiently waiting for us. They speak loudly to us through music, through art, and through carefully crafted sermons that remind us of how much we are loved. Sometimes, they are sitting right next to us on the couch, laughing maniacally at a favourite episode of The Office while hogging the blanket AND the chip bowl.

They show up to remind us that while nothing is normal now, there is joy. And there is hope. And it’s perfectly ok, maybe even healthy and adaptive, to cling to these things while we navigate the endless waves of grief and sadness.

When these moments show up, we should pay attention. We should even write about them. Because someday we’ll want to tell that story too.

Cat bums, cute kids, and other unexpected delights.

Work has been so busy that yesterday was the first day I had a moment to process anything about the last two weeks.  And although it was a messy, difficult day that ended with a crash landing in my bed at 8:30 (where I proceeded to sleep for a glorious 12 hours in a row), it helped to push me through an odd auto-pilot phase to a place that at least feels like a beginning of some reckoning with a new normal.

I’ll have more to say in time (I hope), but here’s what I know today. Of the many, many challenges of the last few weeks, there have been some unexpected moments of joy and comfort in places I never expected to find them.

An example. I thought virtual meetings were going to be limiting and awkward. Yet in the short span of ten days of working at home, my daily departmental Zoom meetings have become the most stabilizing part of my workday.  The new “windows” they offer into one another’s lives have been quietly but extraordinarily powerful.  The cute kids peeking into the corners of screens, the indifferent cats sticking their bums in the camera, and the sounds of real life humming along in the background — all of it has had the effect of humanizing us all in ways I don’t think can really happen at the office.  Yet the virtual format still also gives us all the flexibility to decide what we want to share. Don’t feel like showing your unwashed hair or your kid’s disastrous bedroom (the same one that you’ve set up shop in order to escape the incessant bickering from the living room)?  No problem. Just click “stop video.” Or better yet, insert a virtual backdrop with pictures from your most recent vacation.  It’s all good, and it all works.

I’ve been honestly touched by the experience of watching folks come together to just dig in, get shit done, and work together to make sense of what is really needed and what is really just noise.

And then there’s the laughter.  So. much. laughter. Small but important mercies in this giant mess.

I am grateful for it.

52 Across (A Christmas Story)

This holiday, I spent time with old friends. A few of them showed up the Saturday before Christmas, landing on my porch at the crack of dawn with their characteristic thump. Holding my barely sipped coffee, I stepped out to greet them, savouring the burst of crisp yet concerningly unwinterish fresh air. I carried them inside to my kitchen table and unwrapped them from their blue plastic sleeve. I spent a brief few moments absorbing their features, but it would be a bit longer before we could spend any quality time together. There were errands still to run, presents to wrap and bathrooms (and children) to scrub. I placed my friends gently aside and puttered off to tackle my to do list.

The next night, after the final holiday party stragglers were sent home with bear hugs and Ziplocs full of creamy mashed potatoes, I wiped down the sticky messes that couldn’t wait until morning. I dashed upstairs to find my comfiest sweatshirt. Well, someone’s comfiest sweatshirt. I poured myself a proper pint of stout, inked up my favourite fountain pen, and after bribing my daughter with salted cashews in return for the fuzzy blanket, I plopped down in my favourite chair.

It was finally time.

I opened carefully to the gloriously empty black and white grid, beaming back at me with hope and possibility. I took a few moments to fold the giant sheet into crisp, evenly-sized quadrants, and scribbled circles with my fountain pen to make sure the ink was flowing smoothly. After a few minutes of scanning to get my bearings, I dove in. Within a few minutes I had settled into a pleasant rhythm, jumping steadily between the Across and Down sections, making small but satisfying ticks with the tip of my nib through each solved clue. Before too long I had a few good inches of ink on the page, and I started to feel the cognitive equivalent of runner’s endorphins flooding my tired brain with small bursts of delight. It felt, much like it does every year, like gently returning to the company of old friends. I carried on late into the night, steadily filling the tiny white squares. Turning, ticking, scanning, humming, and slowly carrying myself back to a place that felt a lot like home.

I sat in that chair for the better part of the week. I took periodic breaks to consume leftovers, go on rambling walks with my family in the unseasonably warm sunshine, and occasionally, to shower. I checked the basement every few hours to ensure that my kids’ developing brains had not atrophied too much from shamefully long stretches of screen time. When needed, I refilled the cashew bowl. But mostly I just sat comfortably in my chair, scanning back and forth between the clues and the grid until my neck was stiff and my eyes were fuzzy.

By day three, my son was starting to look at me with what I can only imagine was genuine concern for my well being. Finally, on one of his many trips to the kitchen for reinforcements, he turned to me tentatively. “You’ve been working on that thing a really long time. Are you, like…ok?”

I was more than ok. What my son didn’t know was that this year, the giant holiday crossword puzzle was more than just a fun thing to do on vacation. He didn’t know that sitting quietly in that chair was the centrepiece of a very deliberate strategy to re-centre myself and to recover from what I can only now admit has been among the most challenging but potentially transformative years of my life. I knew leading up to the holiday that if I did not set a specific intention to find stillness and rest, I would easily fill the time with a constant supply of chores and largely unnecessary tasks on my madey-uppedy to do lists. You can thank my working class Irish parents for my complete inability to gracefully relax. What my son couldn’t know was this year, the giant crossword offered me a tangible reason to sit a little longer, to breathe a little deeper, and to stay quiet long enough to hear anew the ambient sounds of love around me, which can often sound remarkably like high pitched giggles and armpit farts. More than anything else, working on that puzzle for days on end helped me to get re-acquainted with the gloriously beautiful business of living in the ordinary. The older I get, the more sure I am that this is precisely the place where God lives.

There were other fringe benefits to my strategy for the holidays. According to the internationally recognized Rules for Completing Giant Crossword Puzzles, you cannot look up answers, but you do get up to five phone-a-friends. I always make my choices carefully: Richard gets Greek gods and all things Old Testament, Karen is pop culture, Steve is philosophy, and my big sister Kathy is for, well, basically everything else. The truth is that these interventions are never just about solving crossword clues. The calls, or these days, the texts, are really just convenient excuses for reaching out to people I love. Sometimes these texts lead to the best kind of back and forth banter, and If I’m really lucky, they might end with a definite plan for a visit to share leftovers. I’m acutely aware that these moments of one-on-one connection have become tiny lifelines for me in a world increasingly defined by Facebook likes and group emails. Despite my fairly serious attempts over the years to hold spaces for meaningful connections online, my pre-millenial DNA can really only take me so far in this regard. Much to the horror of many of my friends and neighbours, the spontaneous in-person drop in is still far and away my favourite way to connect.

Notwithstanding the stout and cashews, one of the best things about sitting in that chair for days on end was that it reminded me of how something as simple as a crossword puzzle can, if you let it, serve up endless chances for reconnecting with the important parts of ourselves that often get pushed aside in the ceaseless demands regular life. This holiday, a five letter word for Îtalian Coins became, at least for a moment, the memory of my honeymoon, walking blissfully lost through the cobbled streets of Venice with my beloved. Baseball divisions (7 letters) became Sunday afternoons with my dad in front of the television, pretending to understand the commentary. Tahitian Women Bathing Painter (7 letters) was my coming of age novel by Summerset Maugham, while Cary of The Princess Bride (5 letters) became giggly high school sleep overs. Church council, also 5 letters, summoned the community of people that faithfully shepherded me through the loss of my mother and helped fill me with a renewed sense of direction and purpose that has changed my life in ways I never thought possible. Wrapped anew as a hockey stick (7 letters) was watching my son and his dad rediscover the joy of a freshly cleaned rink, while Football pass (also 7 letters) became the sound of loud cheers as my daughter accepted the MPV award as the school’s first ever female quarterback.

Hour after hour, clue by clue, the words helped to weave a tapestry of gratitude around my heart for the people, places and experiences that have shaped me, particularly in this past year. They also helped to crystalize a few of my hopes for the year ahead. I think maybe this is exactly what prayer really is: intentionally making the time and space to look carefully at what has been, what is now, and what is to come, and trusting that God, in her infinite mercy and wisdom, is with us for all of it.

May you all find the light in whatever form it takes for you this Christmas season.  And if you need to phone a friend, you know where to reach me.  Just follow the trail of salted cashews.

 

“You’ll want to meet Renee.”

Image: New York Public Library Archives, The New York Public Library. “Work with schools, Bronx reference center : college students using Bronx reference center, 1938.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1938. 

I had been in New York City for exactly six and a half days.  A snag with my social security number paperwork had delayed my first day of work as a reference librarian at the New York Public Library (in what is now the Bronx Library Center).  It was the middle of summer and I had no phone, no air conditioning, and no actual furniture. The only people I had talked to for more than ten minutes were strangers behind plexiglass trying to convince me that the paperwork I needed was already on its way to me (spoiler alert: it wasn’t).

I spent the next few days poking around my neighbourhood in the north end of Riverdale and heading into Manhattan to watch back to back movies in air-conditioned theatres. At least twice a day I walked from my second floor walk up to the pay phone at the bodega three blocks east of my building to check on the status of my paperwork.  By day three, all the shiny prospects of my grand adventure in the big city had dulled significantly, and I was starting to feel despondent and more than a little scared. In an effort to escape the interminable heat, I hopped on the BX1 bus to visit to the library branch where I would work, hoping to cool off and get some advice on my paperwork predicament. I lurked around the branch for awhile, finally working up the courage to introduce myself to the staff at the reference desk. They were warm and friendly, and for the first time in over a week, I felt the knot in my stomach start to release itself. An hour later, after a tour of the branch and armed with recommendations for everything from HMOs to tacos, I was getting ready to step back out into the heat when someone said, “Hang on one more minute — you’ll want to meet Renee.”

A few minutes later, I was introduced to Renee (Gail) Kotler. Some of the details of that first meeting are admittedly pretty hazy; I can’t even remember if she worked at that branch or was just on site for the day. I do vividly remember her approaching me with her broad, beaming smile. Ignoring my outstretched hand, she reached in with a warm hug, shouting a variation of “Hurray! We’ve been waiting for you!” I’m not sure if she really had a clue who I was, but in that moment, it hardly mattered. What did matter was that, for first time since arriving in New York City, I felt like I was actually going to make it.  

Renee became one of my earliest and still to date, one of my best mentors in the library world. She was a constant source of warmth and support as I found my bearings in a new place and in a new profession. As with so many other young librarians in the NYPL system, she took me firmly under her wing, opening up her time, her creativity, and even her home to create spaces of warmth and connection, particularly for those like me who were far from home. It was Renee who encouraged or rather, insisted, that I apply for a job in the Office of Reference Services even though I only had a year of experience in the branches. That position opened up the chance for me to take on work that I know was instrumental in landing a full-time position in the York University Libraries. In that sense, it was Renee who helped me find my way back home.

She embodied so many of the qualities that I really admire: she was smart, engaged, funny, constantly curious, fiercely passionate about her family, her community, the fine arts and causes she believed in. Her boundless energy was matched only by her kindness. She loved and worked with her whole heart, smiled with her whole face, and made everyone around her feel like they mattered. She made librarians better, and she made libraries better. I’m grateful to have known and worked with her. She will be deeply missed.

 

Collaborative Coffee Readiness Program

After 18 years of battling campus line ups, I finally bought a coffee maker for my department. If you work for an institution of higher education and are considering a similar bold venture, please feel free to adapt my Project Charter and Terms of Reference for your own Collaborative Coffee Readiness Program.

Sample Project Charter and Terms of Reference

Executive Summary

As part of an ongoing commitment to employee engagement, the ad-hoc organizing sub-working committee task force on employee engagement has recently launched a Collaborative Coffee Readiness Program (CCRP). The purpose of the program is to leverage personal productivity and overall well-being through the strategic deployment of caffeine. The terms of the pilot project were developed through the use of a SWOT analysis, a longitudinal examination of data on in-house consumption patterns, numerous consultations with relevant stakeholders, and several rounds of usability tasting.  

Background and Scope 

Several recent studies (Anderson et al 2018; McLellan, Caldwell and Lieberman, 2016) have found a strong correlation between the availability of caffeine and employee productivity. In order to best leverage the deep expertise of project participants in an increasingly complex beverage landscape, a coffee production station has been procured and is now installed in the department kitchen.


Project Goals / Deliverables

  • Increase in cognitive functioning and well being of employees in the department
  • Realization of measurable efficiencies in coffee procurement on the campus
  • Improved mechanisms for harnessing collective creative output in the pursuit of BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals)1

Timeline

Six weeks or until the coffee production unit malfunctions and/or explodes. Full implementation to follow.

Budget

Initial funding for infrastructure has been provided through a Ryan Insight grant. Ongoing operational costs will be evaluated during the pilot phase, and will be incorporated into recommendations for a sustainable permanent model for collaborative coffee production.

Assessment

Ongoing assessment of the pilot will be undertaken in accordance with the campus-wide Coffee Readiness Assessment Principles (CRAP).

Roles and Responsibilities 

Steering Group

A steering group has been established to provide strategic leadership and vision for the project. The steering group will meet weekly, preferably over buttery croissants, to evaluate progress on deliverables, and to identify improvements in workflows and in the assessment framework. 

During the initial phase of implementation, the steering group shall be responsible for coffee and cream procurement. As part of the assessment framework, a cost and workflow analysis will be conducted in order to make recommendations for a long term sustainable approach to collaborative coffee production.

Project Participants

Collaborative Coffee Readiness Program participants shall:

  1. Upon arrival to work, conduct a personal needs assessment to evaluate caffeine intake requirements. If caffeine is required, proceed immediately to the coffee production centre.
  2. If unit contains coffee, pour into cup. Add cream and sugar as needed. Return to your office location.
  3. If unit contains no coffee, make it. Wait approximately 8 minutes for brewing to complete, then proceed as per step 2. Make a mental note that you are now responsible for clean up of the coffee production unit’s filter and carafe. 
  4. Before leaving for the day, visit kitchenette to clean up unit’s filter and carafe, as per the instructions provided in step 3. 

Additional operational protocols

To ensure a smooth implementation of the pilot project, the steering committee recommends all participants adhere to the following operational norms:

  1. The first batch of coffee be prepared no earlier than 9:00 in order to maximize freshness. A 10-12 cup brew is recommended (1 tbsp of coffee per cup).
  2. Auto turnoff has been set for 3 hours from brew time in order to minimize fire risk.
  3. All participants are responsible for washing and putting away their own cups.
  4. The coffee production unit has capacity to accommodate flavoured coffee, but discretion should be exercised in order to reduce the risk of nausea and retching from other project participants.

Works Cited

Anderson, J. R., Hagerdorn, P. L., Gunstad, J., & Spitznagel, M. B. (2018). Using coffee to compensate for poor sleep: Impact on vigilance and implications for workplace performance. Applied Ergonomics, 70(Complete), 142-147.

McLellan, T. M., Caldwell, J. A., & Lieberman, H. R. (2016). A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71(Complete), 294-312. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.09.001

In the meantime. (On faith, 47, and handstands in the lake).

In early spring, just as everything around me was shaking off a winter sleep, I found myself grinding slowly to a halt. It began gradually. Mornings became harder, and my once manageable walking and exercise routines started to feel impossible. Routine chores that I normally found stabilizing were starting to fill me with dread. Even cooking, which is hands down my favourite mood lifter, began losing its appeal. Dinners started to taste remarkably like obligation. Within a few weeks, my low level meh took on a sharper edge: emails and texts went unreturned, sleep became fitful, and the tension in my jaw and temples became near constant companions. With a strange detached curiosity, I watched as my to do list expanded and my reservoir of resolve for tackling it shrank. The most concerning part for me was that I didn’t care. Those who love me know that for me, not caring about a to do list means something definitely isn’t right.

I moved along like this for several months, convincing myself that stress was the culprit. I chalked up my persistent low mood to the impossible demands of a new role at work, and to the widespread (and well earned) cynicism and crappy morale from a large-scale restructuring that has left everyone at the office a bit unmoored. I had enough self awareness to know that my lingering malaise was also connected to the private but painful loss of an important friendship, the impact of which I am only now ready to unpack.

I probably would have continued longer in that semi-aloof space were it not for a few sobering but ultimately helpful developments. The first was missing an important kid-related deadline. In retrospect, it was hardly the end of the world, but the sudden awareness that I had profoundly disappointed my son was enough to jolt me from indifference and start to try to figure out the source of my mood. Shortly after that missed deadline, I received some health-related news that is no longer overly concerning, but did force me to take stock of some basic things about the way I was moving through the world.

Flash forward a few months to summer. I was starting to feel a little better — still tentative and not quite back to my usual energy, but looking forward to the first stretch of holidays with my family. All the familiar pre-vacation rituals helped to create some much-needed momentum: planning cottage meals with my sister, creating playlists for the drive up, and of course, the final glorious act of turning on the out-of-office reply on my work email.  I even wrote the predictable facebook post about the joys of heading off on vacation, all the while trying to convince myself that all would be well once the lake was in my sights. 

As it turns out, I was entirely unprepared for what surfaced internally in my first few days off the grid. What should have been a solid week of rest and relaxation felt more like emotional paralysis. It was all I could do to prop my book open and stare at the page to ward off any delicate inquiries about my state of mind. As I watched the kids in my life (including the 50 year old one] jump in and out of kayaks, eat giant scoops of bubblegum ice cream and chase the resident chipmunks, I felt isolated and alone. I didn’t sleep or eat well, and spent of most of the first week alternating internally between a dull fear and a muted but ever-present simmering rage. I sat in my favourite deck chair for hours on end, staring out at the lake and praying silently that I would feel more like myself soon.

Half way through the week, I plopped down next to my nine year old daughter on the beach in the hot mid-morning sun. I watched as she hastily applied her sunscreen, anxious to get in the water to begin yet another day of perfecting her handstands in the lake. Feeling guilty for how little time I had directly spent with her that week, I mustered up all my available energy and offered what I thought was a noble compromise. “I promise I’ll come in the water as soon as I get hot enough, ok?”  She shrugged agreeably, working in the last of her sunscreen in small circles on her knees. “Ok sure, if you want to,” she said, turning her head towards the lake. “But if you don’t feel up to it, you can also just sit here on the beach. Because you can see my handstands way better from here!”  And with a quick kiss on my forehead, she ran towards the lake, shouting a preemptive and slightly obnoxious warning to her brother about the need to immediately up his handstand game.

As I watched her tear through the sand and dive headlong into the tiny rolling waves, I began to feel space open up in my otherwise tight chest. After a few minutes, my shoulders began to slowly drop back into their rightful place below my ears, and I noticed that the knot in my stomach was starting to release itself. I leaned back on my towel and using my floppy hat to block the scalding sun, I took a few long and deep breaths, letting the warm rays wash over me. For the first time in many, many months, I felt more than okay. It’s true that it would be a while before I was ready to  frolic happily in the water with my beloveds, or to face the horror of my to do list. Quite the contrary, in fact: in that moment, I was acutely aware of not being even remotely sure about so many of the choices I had made of late, or about what my next steps might be. All I knew is that after months of feeling strangely outside myself, and often very much alone, I was exactly where I needed to be. I was sitting on a beach, being warmed and cared for by the sun, and by my extraordinary daughter. I sat there for a very long time, enjoying the warmth, and the front row view of the handstands.

Since coming home, and especially since starting another stretch of vacation, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that morning on the beach. I still haven’t fully sorted out exactly what is driving my prolonged restlessness, but I am starting to feel like I understand the general shape of it. I’ve begun to tentatively take some action towards new directions that  better nourish the parts of me that I’ve long neglected. That morning on the beach didn’t solve everything, but it certainly helped to reframe a few very dark months into a time of possibility, and perhaps even necessity. It helped me know with certainty that my waiting and watching were actually taking me somewhere. If nothing else, it forced me to slow down long enough to take a closer look at things that I’d been pushing away with constant activity, and with immersing myself, often far too deeply, in other people’s struggles.

Perhaps most importantly, that morning on the beach reminded me that I didn’t have to figure everything out at once. I could take my time, secure in the knowledge that no matter where I lay my towel, or how long it might take to get back in the water, I was loved and accepted, exactly as I am. For the many kind and curious friends and family who have asked me about my faith over the years, this is the closest I can to an explanation. My faith is rooted in a very basic feeling of knowing with certainty that, even in the waiting and watching, I am deeply and utterly loved. And this feeling, and my accompanying belief in a benevolent God, is actually what makes it possible for me to work at,  at least some of the time, trying to offer some of that love back to those around me that are also waiting and watching, and sitting quietly on the beach praying for the courage to get back in the lake.

Today is my 47th birthday.  I’m still waiting and watching, and trying to sort out some next steps. I know this will likely take awhile, but I’ve learned that in the meantime, it’s also very possible to let yourself relax into even the most in-between spaces. In the meantime, you can function as well as you can, and try to get a few good things done. In the meantime, you can rent a cottage for a week and teach your kids to play euchre, then try not to whine too much when they smoke you three games in a row.  In the meantime, you can pretend not to hear when they whisper far too loudly about birthday surprises that include artery-clogging dinners made with more love than you ever thought possible. In the meantime, you can read four mystery novels in a row under a canopy of trees and sunshine, and rest in the company of friends who feel like family. In the meantime, you can learn to once again savour the pleasures of cooking (or better yet, eating) a simple but well executed meal, or watching the joy in your sister’s eyes as she correctly identifies the mystery bird perched high above in the tree. In the meantime, you can watch your partner sit quietly in the setting sun, whittling a celtic cross that you secretly hope is for you (it was), or painting delicate strokes on pieces of birch bark. In the meantime, you can think fondly about the many, many people in your life and in your various communities who help to reflect back to you the version of yourself that you sometimes just can’t see. Many of these people are also the ones who help remind you that something is working on your heart and mind in ways that you can’t even fathom. For me, that something is a God who is at once both divine and incarnate, armed with a boundless love and the ability to cast light in even the darkest corners.

In the meantime, you can also remind yourself of something that every good farmer knows: if you want healthy crops, you must sometimes let your field lie fallow for long stretches. Even the richest and most fertile soil needs in-between periods. All that waiting and watching will not be in vain. Before you know it, you might just be doing handstands in the lake.

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Finding Sundays.

For Rachel

This may not be the best crowd to hear this particular confession, but here goes: I’ve always hated Sundays. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not that unusual. I’ve whiled away many Monday morning hours around the proverbial water cooler with tired colleagues, commiserating about the familiar dread that often descends on even the brightest Sunday afternoons.

Truth be told, my contempt for Sundays is largely unjustified, because they have never been cruel to me. The Sundays of my childhood are mostly pleasant memories, full of the standard fare of many families: church in the morning, an above-average family dinner, and plenty of napping. These activities were interspersed with long stretches of TV watching, usually with my Dad, trying my best to remember the infield fly rule or to follow the twisty plot of yet another BBC crime drama. Days like this are hardly the stuff of serious complaint. And yet, for much of my life, the colour of Sunday was a thick dark grey, dappled with big splotches of boring beige.

In hindsight, I suspect that attending church might have contributed to my feelings about Sundays. I was raised Roman Catholic, and although we went to church every Sunday, my parents were not overly religious. We were faithful, but not really the type of family that took Jesus home with us. He more or less stayed behind with the hymnals in our regular pew, although I did notice that his full name, complete with middle initial, often figured quite prominently in my Dad’s attempts to fix the rabbit ears on our living room television. I got a sense pretty early on that church was just one of a number things we did every week–the place we went before stopping at the deli for a loaf of light rye, kolbasa and dill pickles. The congregation of my childhood church was characteristically Roman Catholic–not outright unfriendly, but definitely light on hospitality and big on self-restraint. Not a lemon square in sight.

I think my early experience of church was part of the reason why, after a high school years of some fairly intense wrestling with angels under the tutelage of the formidable sisters of St. Joseph, I eventually found myself, like so many others, wandering out into the wilderness. Disillusioned and heartbroken by the corruption and harm caused by the church, I began to back away. I wandered in and out of a few faith communities in my twenties, growing more restless and angry with each exit. Eventually, I resolved to fill up my well with more secular pursuits.

I gave it my best shot. By the time I was forty, I had a decent career and a beautiful marriage. I had lived in both New York City and Vancouver, and my young children had introduced a kind of love in my life that still knocks me off my feet at least a few times a week. I had, by all accounts, arrived. Yet, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something, or someone, was patiently waiting for me just few miles down the road, gently beckoning for me to come in out of the rain, take off my wet socks, and stay awhile. After a few false starts, a handful of emotional dustups and some unanticipated detours, I eventually spotted a clearing. Together with my young family I began the long walk back towards something that looked remarkably like light. I kept walking until I found myself outside the doors of Transfiguration.

As much as the churchwarden in me would love to say otherwise, it wasn’t immediately love at first sight. We spent a few months lurking in the back pews, trying desperately to strike the perfect balance between friendliness and nonchalance. At some point, my awkward smiles turned into recognizable words at coffee hour, and I began to put names to faces. The rich liturgies and beautiful music began to make their way home with me, and sometimes, the words I heard in both the readings and sermons even spilled over into my work week. Even Mondays. I began to feel the faint stirrings of something important returning inside of me and although I didn’t know quite what it all meant, I knew it was very, very good.

Flash forward two years. My husband had just launched the Transfiguration book club, figuring that we both met the minimum qualifications for this particular ministry. I was already active in children’s ministry, and was toying with the prospect of taking on a more formal leadership role at the church. We had most certainly begun to find a home with these people, in this place. But inside, I was still very much grappling with my particular flavour of Sunday-fuelled anxiety. Sometimes, it was just a feeling of being unsure or uncertain, but at other times, the doubt roared so loudly in my head and heart that I was sure it was only a matter of time before someone figured out that I was merely showing up for the pleasant company and the free childcare. Even though everyone knew my name, I still felt like a visitor, afraid to take the tags off my fancy new Jesus clothes just in case I needed to them back before the return period expired. I was both inside and outside this strange and familiar club. I desperately wanted it to be the place that we would finally land for good, but at the same time, I kept wondering if I was the only one whose most profound encounters with Jesus usually involved biting into a slice of Joanne’s blueberry lemon bundt cake.

It was in this liminal and tender space that I first encountered Rachel Held Evans. I had followed her blog for awhile and had pre-ordered Searching for Sunday to read as a possible book club contender. From the moment I opened it, I felt, like so many others, that she had gone out and hired an editor for the express purpose of writing a letter directly to me. Her wise and funny words leapt out at me from every page, making it possible for me to finally name aloud my growing love for a broken yet beautiful and resilient church, and for a God that was slowly making all things new in my life, whether I liked it or not. Page by page, chapter by chapter, Rachel whispered steady and careful assurances to me that it was okay to show up each week unsure and not ready, craving lemon squares over bread and wine, and carrying, as she would describe it, my heavy doubt like a fifth member of my family. Rachel, along with a few other people who were starting to etch marks on my heart, was a part of small but faithful crew who were teaching me that it was possible, perhaps even essential, to live comfortably in the contradictions and complexities of my faith without needing to resolve them. It was Rachel who assured me that I could still be smart and funny and cynical and a warrior for justice (even if only in my head) and still love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all strength and with all my mind.

Rachel helped me find my way back to Sundays. She also helped me know with certainty that it was perfectly okay to have weeks where all I can manage to do is wrap a heavy grey blanket named Sunday around me and weep for this broken world and this broken church, and then curl up and watch a baseball game with my son (who, as it happens, never has any trouble remembering the infield fly rule). Rachel taught me that even when the game, and the weeping, goes into extra innings, God is always waiting for me, gently beckoning me in from the rain, telling me to take off my wet socks and stay awhile.

I’m giving thanks for Rachel today. Though we ever met, I miss her very much.

May God hold her family in his strong and gentle hands.

The Art of Work.

My dad, Wilfred James Ryan, representing Local 2858 at a Steelworkers of America convention in Atlantic City, NJ, circa 1979.

In a series of six degrees of Kevin Bacon connections, I am meeting up with a curator from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) later today to talk about my Dad, who worked as an anodizer at the Alcan aluminum plant that has now been transformed into MOCA.

Seems fitting that I spent the better part of yesterday, May Day, sorting through my various photos and journals to spark my memories of his working life. This is a picture from him at a union convention in Atlantic city. His face reveals so much about who he was; equal parts tough and kind, armed with well honed sense of justice and compassion, and zero tolerance for bullshit.  He was also funny as hell.

I miss him so much still, but grateful for the chance to scatter some light into the ways he worked tirelessly to make difficult things a bit easier for his family, and for his co-workers. I cant wait to share some of his story.  More to come.