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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


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


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.


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.


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.

The Write Stuff.

It began, innocently enough, with two fountain pens.

A trusted colleague, whom I’ve come to love for his rare blend of quirky kindness and razor sharp wit, knocked on my office door one quiet morning.

He handed me a small bag. Inside were two Platinum Preppy fountain pens, one red, one blue.  I was touched by his thoughtfulness. Only a week before, I’d admired his pen on our bus ride home. He waited patiently as I spun the curved plastic between my fingers and made squiggly circles in his tiny notebook that he carried in the same pocket as his pen. We spent the ride talking about nibs, feathering. bleeding, and paper, me nodding in quiet approval all the while not having a first clue about most of it. I left knowing one thing with certainty:  fountain pens brought my friend joy.  Not the Marie Kondo thank-your-puffy-shirt-for-the-memories variety, but kind that leaves your heart wide, yet safe. The feeling of knowing that no one can take the sky from you.

He left my office and I slowly pulled the blue one out of the bag.  I placed the cartridge carefully into the feed, and screwed the barrel back in place.  I waited in silence for the ink to fill the nib and took my first tentative scribbles on a neon green post-it.  Smiling to myself, I placed the pen on my favourite orange note-book and went back to work.

That visit was almost three years ago. The two Platinum Preppies have expanded to a healthy collection of pens of various colours and price points, and I can now hold my own in conversations about the merits of medium and fine point nibs, and all things feeds and cartridges. One might even say I’ve been converted. And, although there is nothing quite like the feeling of a newly inked pen taking its rightful place at the top of a fresh new page, or the watching the swirl of smooth lines as they connect the dots in my bullet journal, I think my love of fountain pens is more about sentiment than instrument.  For this, I offer no apologies. With my work laptop often feeling like an extension of my fingers, rediscovering the simple joy of writing a thank you note has been an important balm to loneliness. What’s more: I rarely make a weekend grocery list without thinking of my friend, whose small act of kindness is still making a mark on my life, often in shades of deep magenta or crisp forest green.

We all need to find our own strategies for countering scarcity with joy, and for creating secure and beautiful lines of connection to ourselves and to those we care about. And sometimes, if we are really lucky, the answers are right at our fingertips.

Snow Pants.

It was mid-afternoon when the snow started falling.  

I’d listened to the forecast on and off throughout my work-from-home day, mentally calculating the precise time I would shut down the computer and pick up the Girl to avoid the worst of the storm. Shortly after two o’clock, part way through watching the dullest webinar in the History of the World, I was seized by a terrifying thought: THE BOY DOES NOT HAVE HIS SNOW PANTS.

To be clear, the Boy had not worn snow pants to school in over a year. Not wearing snow pants was part of the new global order since his transition to middle school last September. Yet, as I watched the snow begin to drift and heard the wind begin its purposeful howl, I quickly decided that the snow pant problem needed to be rectified. I closed my laptop and raced to the front closet.

I bundled up in as many layers as I could find, mentally calculating my odds of making it to the school before the dismissal bell. I stepped out into the bracing cold to begin the twenty-minutes-in-good-weather trek, snow pants in hand. By the time I reached the end of my street, the wind had picked up significantly, and my glasses had tiny ice chips forming on the inside of my lenses. I forged on, steadily crunching through the now accumulating snow.

Turning the final corner, the school finally in sight, I stopped to wipe down my glasses. I watched in silence as a handful of spindly boys made their way out of the front doors and jostled each other down the icy steps.  I felt a sudden twinge of unease upon observing that not one of the boys was wearing snow pants.

A few more kids spilled out from side door, coats open, boots unlaced. Not a single pair of snow pants in sight. I felt a slow dread start to assemble in my gut, and the full horror of what I was about to do began to take shape silently in my head. I was fifteen yards away from walking into my eleven year old’s school to BRING HIM HIS SNOW PANTS

I stood frozen, carefully weighing my options. After toying briefly with burying myself head-deep in the snow, I opted to take my chances, figuring I could beg forgiveness later. After a few excruciatingly cold minutes, I saw his blue and orange toque appear at the side door.  I had already braced myself for the awkward greeting, and was completely prepared to lie through my teeth about “being on my way home” and how I just happened to have his snow pants in my hand. (Wot?  I’m a mom. Stranger things have happened).  I stood stiffly as he made his way down the steps, and through the falling snow, I could see his expression shift gently as we made eye contact. 

He approached slowly, swinging his backpack gently behind him.

“S’up mom,” he said softly.

“Hi hon.  I.. um, well…I just thought you might want these,” I said.

The snow pants dangled pitifully at my side, looking like milk-drenched mini-wheats. I stared down at the snow, blinking back what I was sure would be half frozen tears. He stared for a moment, waving casually to two red haired boys as they scurried past us on the sidewalk. By now my dull dread was a full blown stomach ache, and I was desperate to find a way to salvage the remains of what I was sure was now officially the Worst Day of his Life.

I started to stammer out an apology, but he gently interrupted me. “Thanks, mum.  I think I’m good without them, but it’s pretty cool you came.”

We walked home together through the quiet, drifting snow.

Sometimes, it’s our kids who take the best care of us.

Soul Food.

Soul Food

On any given Thursday night around 5:30 pm, I send a text to my better half.

“Home in 20.  I’ll get dinner sorted.”

Often, he responds with gentle protests: “But you’ve had such a busy week! And we still have that lentil/kale/virtuous grain thing you made on Sunday for lunches and haven’t touched yet!”

And yes, in case you’re wondering, he’s an all-around way better person than me; his calm ­­­and steady countenance a balm for my itchy angst and chronic must do-itis.

He’s almost always right. It usually has been a busy week and by this point in it, I’m often spent; possibly even cranky beyond recognition. If it’s September or October, well, multiply that feeling by six hundred. Yet even after two decades of together, he sometimes forgets that we all have our own strategies for coping with overwhelm, and for moving ourselves from what can often be a debilitating mindset of scarcity to one of abundance, even if only in the contours of hearts. For me, the strategy is usually pretty simple: I make dinner.

Fear not, friends, for I have not lost my feminist marbles. While I struggle as much as other women with the relentless pressures of balancing motherhood, a busy full- job and a host of other commitments, grand illusions of a perfectly managed household have never really been my thing. My house is reasonably clean, but that is mainly because we are far too lazy to buy stuff and we both find the prospect of home decorating to be paralyzing. My kids are mostly presentable, and on a good week, there might even be an extra fluffy towel or two lying in wait in the bathroom–because really, who can resist a fluffy towel?–but that’s basically the extent of what I can manage on the Domestic Goddess front. My partner, the aforementioned way better person than me, takes care of almost everything else.

But what goes on in my kitchen, and more specifically, what goes on in my oven, my slow cooker, or even my microwave, is an entirely different story. The kitchen, and most chores that are connected to food in our lives—meal planning, list making, fridge cleaning, cupboard organizing—they almost always fall to me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In her gorgeous book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question that I have found myself returning to with increasing frequency this past year.  She asks: what is saving your life right now? Here, I think she means for us to consider all the things, experiences and our relationships that elevate our perspective, that feed our creativity and our sense of purpose, and offer us an ounce of coherence and wholeness in a world that often feels bound and determined to break us down. My family and friends always figure prominently in my answers to this question, but so does making dinner.

I find every step single satisfying: hunting down recipes, making lists and taking mental inventories of the local shops that are most likely to have enoki mushrooms, za’tar, or some other random ingredient in the mouth-watering Ottolenghi recipe that I have decided MUST be on my plate that night. Invariably, I track down the illusive ingredient at the specialty market, where I will of course also spend $16 on a bag of gourmet cheese breadsticks because you only live once and also because, well, did I mention they are cheese breadsticks?

At home, the ritual continues. I unpack the bags and carefully lay out the ingredients on my freshly wiped counter. I select the perfect culinary soundtrack, which I will listen to for exactly six and half minutes before my daughter appears in the kitchen to request the Shawn Mendez song that makes me want to stab my eyes out with a fork. I gently retrieve the rippled white serving bowls that my oldest friend gave to us when we bought our first house, and I always think of her fondly as I lay them down in wait.

Slowly, the symphony begins. It opens with the slow and measured strokes of rinsing and drying and moves to the staccato rhythm of chopping, dicing and slicing, interrupted only by the satisfying sweep of the knife’s edge across my cutting board. Measuring, pouring, peeling, grating, stirring, salting, tasting, I slowly begin to lose myself to the effort, moving further away from the day’s busy thoughts and concerns, and closer to rest. With every movement, I move deeper into connection with myself, and into the memories of the hands that once cooked for me. I see my Dad’s hands sweeping flour across the aluminum pizza sheets –made with his own hands—and picture my mom’s wedding band sitting in the turtle shaped cup at the corner of the sink as she scours the burnt pan. By the time my cast iron pan offers up to me its familiar sizzle and splatter, I am home.

As strange as this may sound, this is my favourite of prayer.

I lay the plates down, and I become aware of how my heart feels like it’s been recalibrated. As I listen to the cut and thrust of dinner debates and increasingly alarming variations of the “Would You Rather” game, I feel a swell of quiet gratitude that, a mere two hours before, seemed entirely impossible. I try to sit in its wake for just a bit longer before I start to gather up the dishes and conjure up plans for leftovers.

We all have our own ways of praying, or just reconnecting to ourselves and to what matters to us. My way just happens to routinely involve a lemon roasted chicken, a side of garlic rapini, and a glass of bold Malbec.

Somehow, I think God would approve.

One Damn Word, and a pile of Skittles.


As we walked to school, I struggled to find something new or important to say that would help crack through the layers of disappointment and anger.  I had done a decent job convincing myself that it was really about containing and contextualizing the election results for my kids. Both of them had amazing insight and questions leading up to this election, and I wanted to strike the right balance between cultivating their interest in world affairs, and making sure they could still eat a banana popsicle or jump around in the neighbour’s trampoline without worrying about the fall of civilization as we know it. But deep inside, I knew it wasn’t actually the kids who needed the words this morning. As my preacher friend often reminds me, his best sermons are the ones in which he is preaching to himself.  This morning, I needed someone to say just One Damn Word that could make me feel better about waking up in a province fuelled by rage and righteousness, about going to work on a campus that is more polarized and grim than anything I’ve experienced in 18 years, or about carrying on in a world where depression and anxiety routinely take from us the beautiful souls that help to scatter light in our own darkness. Just One Damn Word was all I really needed this morning.

I had already decided last night to take a much needed day at home, so I spent the morning in a fit of what I hoped would be therapeutic housecleaning, scrubbing away at the mental grit that’s been accumulating steadily for the last few weeks. But somewhere between picking up the eight thousandth piece of lego and scraping the remnants of watermelon-flavoured Skittles off my daughter’s bookshelf, I began to cry. At first, I thought it was your garden-variety “burn it all fucking down” angry cry, but sitting here now on my swing on this gorgeous early summer evening, many hours and three cups of tea away from those heaving, heavy sobs, I know it was more than that. It was mainly, perhaps even entirely, about the slow but searing pain of Letting Go. Letting go of constantly wishing and fighting for things to be different.  Letting go of the idea that if I just send one more email, organize one more union meeting, do one more facebook post, or check off one more thing on my never-ending to-do list, that it will magically feel like the world is back where it needs to be. It was about letting go of my beautiful, smart and tender boy who no longer needs me to walk him to school (but thankfully lets me anyway), or letting go of my girl who can now stand on a stage by herself, and calmly and forcefully speak her truth into a microphone and then eat five bags of popcorn. It was also about having to let go of the pleasant illusion that we can somehow prevent our children, and ourselves, from having mornings just like this one. Mornings that feel so heavy, anger-inducing and just so, so, hard. After awhile, I stopped crying and made my way back to the scrubbing. And though I didn’t feel great, I did feel better. I felt better enough to text one of my best friends and invite her over to soothe our election-induced hangover with some leftover Indian food. She had other plans, but the small act of reaching out to her helped to ground me slowly back into myself.  She likely doesn’t know it, but she helped turn this day back into something manageable just by being on the other side of that text.

As I continued scrubbing, I started thinking about a discussion we had at a church meeting a few weeks ago. We are knee-deep in installing a new heating system, and it was my job to explain to the congregation how the new system would “maximize efficiency, ensure longevity, and offer the greatest capacity for backup and support in the event of system failure.”  I think that maybe that’s really the most important thing we can offer to one another: backup and support in the event of system failure. Despite my deeply ingrained impulse to want to fix everything for those I care about, most people–including the littlest ones in my life–don’t usually need fixing. What they do need is: unconditional love, support, acceptance, and someone to look out for them, or even to just stand by, when all their normal systems are failing.

I still haven’t found the right words for today. But I did find some words —these very ones that are fighting their way through my fingers to land on this screen, in the faint hope that they  help someone else feel that it’s more than okay to sit down next to their own pile of dried out Skittles and have a big ugly cry about the state of everything. I might suggest that even if you didn’t find yourself crying in a pile of three week old candy, you should invite someone over for leftovers. Cuz there’s a good chance they need might really need it today.