On the subject of churches…

As kids we would be dragged off to church every so often with one or another of the relatives who were scattered across small towns and cities in Ontario. Different kinds of churches, different denominations, but no matter what time of year, or where we were, the sermon was always the same: The Prodigal Son. And no matter the situation, I always fainted.

They used to cart me downstairs to the Sunday school with the smaller kids, a blessed punishment it felt like. Eventually, they stopped taking me in to the churches at all and sent me straight on down. Even well into my teens and at the odd wedding, I dropped out one way or another; on my own two feet or unconscious.

We grew up in Alma, Ontario, rural town of two churches, two gas stations, a pie shop and a post office. Oh, and the school.  Just about anything that went on was held at one of the churches so as you can imagine, with all the fainting going on it wasn’t long before I convinced myself that I was evil and ought not to be in church. As my teenage years went on I took a different view and decided church services were just too dull to hold anyone’s attention and figured it was a miracle the whole congregation didn’t faint.

But I never forgot the one and only story I ever heard and sometimes wondered if somebody was trying to tell me something. Was I doomed to be the prodigal son? The jealous sibling? The joyful parent? At different times I have felt like each of them. Perhaps we all do.

Staying away from churches didn’t really help with the passing out thing. Eventually the blood clinics told me to stop coming and many a comic episode involved first aid, first on the person who needed it and then on me. Late one night in a Montreal hospital, the doctor drafted me to help him as he sewed up my friend’s eyebrow. After being as helpful as possible, I tried to make my way to the bathroom to throw up in peace, plagued by visions of the threads getting stuck on their way out of said eyebrow. I found the washroom all right; it helped that the wall of the hall was on its side and I could sort of crawl there. Once there, however, I couldn’t quite reach the light switch. A doctor, presumably, came along and said, “Hey! What are you doing here?” and I suppose I said something like “blahbluh blbbb”. Next thing you know I’m on a stretcher in the hallway, suction cup thingies all over, some things going into me, other things going out of me. I came-to in time to see my friend and the doctor come out of the room we’d been in, “what happened!?” they gasped. I passed out again.

The weekend we moved into our Hamilton house, I passed out just because a doctor looked at my finger. A broken glass had acted like a melon-baller and scooped out the nub of it from bone to finger nail. I was fine (or conscious at least) until the doctor set eyes on it. I woke up on the floor. Unfazed, the doctor called it vasovagal syncope which sounded romantic in that old fashioned ‘consumption’ kind of way, but Wikipedia assures me it just means ‘faints easily’.

So now, armed with the knowledge that I am not devil-spawn and that the fainting doesn’t have anything to do with churches at all, though I may have a trinity of prodigal, jealous and joyful in me, I wear a t-shirt with this warning:

“Faints easily – nothing’s actually wrong.”

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Rise up, all you by-standers, talk is cheap!

When some random person shows up at a meeting of community volunteers and takes issue with the way things are being done but doesn’t want to come out to help, I have to say, my patience wanes.

The issue at the recent South Stipeley meeting was that there was a message from one of the churches in our Newsletter and someone who read it was offended that we were printing church messages, that it implied an affiliation.

Hello! We are affiliated; we hold our meetings at New Westminster Church. The church minister is our treasurer. St Giles Church is the anchor for the Community Hub. The complainant wanted us to stop running church stuff because other organizations aren’t represented. Rise up all you other organizations and get involved! If a thing looks lopsided, it’s better to add more than to take away what you’ve got.

Last year, five Hamilton churches from different denominations got together and asked themselves how they could be helpful and make a difference in the lives of people in the neighbourhood, even those who weren’t members of any of the churches. Together they collaborated to initiate and sponsor the South Sherman Hub where the local planning team (of volunteers!) works to engage the community in sustainable improvements. This is a good thing.

I remember being a theatre student at university. Theatre is one of the most logistically driven industries in existence, with everything planned to the second and planned way way way in advance. My job was to secure some sound equipment from the university’s media department. After handing it over, the guy says “It’s due back in three days”. Three days! Our show runs for two weeks, I told him, steam coming out my ears at his impenetrable obtuseness. “So”, he said, “it’s due back in three days.” I protested some more, to which he replied, “We aren’t the theatre department supply depot. Theatre isn’t the only department in the university”. Oh. I see. And my own impenetrable obtuseness became gallingly clear.

After that he became my go-to guy when I needed things and we figured out creative ways to get what we needed without hogging equipment.

After our random neighbour had dominated most of the meeting with newsletter griping, or church griping, or whatever it was, that was it. She didn’t pitch in on the food drive or community garden or graffiti measures, or neighbourhood watch. I invited her to lend a hand and get the other organizations in the area to participate, to submit their blurbs to the newsletter, but she declined. It makes me wonder if some people are just take-take-take.

Or maybe it will sink in later and we will become her go-to team when she starts to feel a little bit inclusive. Maybe, she will even join the team.

People-People in your neighbourhood

As the epicenter of front-porch-culture in Canada it is no wonder that downtown Hamilton is attracting people-people; more and more every month. My question is, does the place make the people or do the people make the place?

Here in Hamilton I have found a community of like-minded souls, motivated by each other, eager to integrate, to participate, to be themselves and to get to know one another. Who could have imagined that so many people would come out in sweltering heat or pouring rain to clean up back alleys or deliver newsletters with no inducement beyond each other’s company? At these events I catch up with people I am getting to know and meet people I don’t yet know, and as I observe them what seems clear is that Hamilton is bubbling over with people-people.

Rows and rows of front porches, peppered with upholstered furniture and old TVs, clusters of people every few houses. Betty next door mows and weeds people’s lawns and Rob on the other side shovels up and down in the winter. The neighbourhood kids help me prepare for parties and the fellow across the road helps them with computer homework. I hear many, many stories of people being  neighbourly like that (mostly from Betty) while others get involved with the community groups for more collaborative projects. Still others turn their vision of helping into services like the Hamilton Dream Centre. And so it spreads, this interconnected web of helping-giving-doing interaction. It is a community rife with need but rich in assets, the greatest of which is its people.

Are all the people-people living here in Hamilton or are there other neighbourhoods where this sort of thing goes on? You tell me…

Spidey Sense

I used to be sickly afraid of spiders. Boys at camp used to get them on sticks and chase me cause it was fun to watch me go crazy. Crazy is when they get in your clothes and you can’t tell if they’re gone, or when there’s one in the kayak and you can’t get out fast enough.

I have only ever had two nightmares and they were both recurring. One day, when I was about 18 or so, I told my mother about the spider one. It goes like this:

In the dream I am a small kid and we are at my grandfather’s house, my father’s father, who I have not seen since before my memory kicked in. We are at his house and he wants me to go down into the basement to get something or do something. I don’t want to because there are spiders and it is dark. He gets angry. I get scared. Defiant. My brother Charlie, who must have been quite small, says “I’ll go. I’m not afraid. I’ll do it.” But this is not good enough. Finally, in the dream, the grandfather boots me down the stairs and slams the door. It is dark. It is not like the falling-forever dreams; in this one I hit the cold packed-dirt floor of the cellar and it is crawling with spiders.

Then I wake up. Thankfully. It is the same dream over and over. When, after many years, I tell my mother about this dream, she says, “That’s more or less what happened.”

Maybe that’s why we never saw him again.

After that, I stopped having the dream and I tried to make peace with the spiders. It was a long and hard relationship to negotiate. Last year at the cottage, there was a constant parade of russet-coloured daddy long legs going forth and back on the railing of the porch. My favourite thing is to sit there in the bendy chair with my coffee, early in the morning before the others are up, my feet on the railing, being one with the stillness, watching the sky and the water come to life, just me and the grey Heron, pretending we’re in a magazine ad.

And then there’s this incessant flow of spiders. But last summer, one of them stopped when he got to a small screw that was sticking up, and his antics to get around it were so… funny. I laughed out loud. Then he got to where my feet were blocking his progress and he seemed so afraid. He stopped, and he seemed to say to me, “Why do you keep persecuting us? WE never did anything to you. We never hurt you, but you keep punishing us, over and over and over.”

I thought about how many spiders I have killed in my CRAZY fear. I moved my feet and he carried on in his funny little way. The next day as I came up to the dock it was covered with dock spiders. If you have never seen them, they are thick and black and hairy; the ugliest creatures ever. Are they related to tarantulas? Do they swallow small children whole? I had kids with me so it was all I could do to get out of the boat without touching any of the spiders and without setting a bad example, a CRAZY example, for the kids. While I had suspected there might be dock spiders there, I had never encountered them, certainly not so many. I couldn’t understand what was going on. Were they sun bathing? They didn’t flinch an inch as we clambered past.

We made our way to the other end of the dock and were going to get into the canoe but as I did my pre-boarding bug-sweep, I found the mother of all dock spiders, evidently trapped by the smooth sides of the canoe. She was the size of my hand and scariest of all. Would that a good scream could fix the situation.

I realized that these other spiders, perhaps her children, must have been looking for her. I used a paddle to flick her out of the canoe, and none of my paranoid fantasies of her climbing up the handle faster than I could get her off actually came to pass. The relief was incredible, and so was the surprisingly good-Samaritan feeling that came over me.

After that, the spider parade waned and this year they did not come at all.

I thought about that grandfather, and wondered if I was somehow a spider to him, if maybe we all were, and if he ever made peace with his spiders in the end? And it makes me wonder, if you are trying to build relationships, to engage people in a community, what do you do with people like that? Find someone else who will listen to them long enough to hear their story? Take your kids and leave? Punch their lights out?

I don’t know. Me and my spidey friends have better things to think about now.

Gone Fishing

Once upon a time I looked forward to holidays and vacations, not just for what they offered but also as an escape from the daily grind. Like the end of summer holidays as a kid I would dread the whole back-to-work feeling that would creep up on the last few days.

But now, with my own business that lets me do things that I enjoy doing, work with people I like and meet the most interesting clients, I found myself wondering, “What the heck am I doing out in the wilderness alone, just when things are getting interesting back home?” Is my work really more interesting than a day off or have I become a work-a-holic? Is it really about the work or is it people withdrawl?

I used to wish for nothing more than a hundred acres of Canadian wilderness and no neighbours. The no neighbours was the key point. Nobody to complain about your noise or the fact that you don’t cut the grass. Can’t recall what all the other perceived advantages were but I suppose it is a common enough dream if your daily grind is oppressive.

Instead, I have sought out communities at work and at home where people will notice if you don’t cut your grass and they’ll cut it for you, where people will notice if you’re too noisy and they’ll join the party.

As if all these good things weren’t clear enough in my mind, there I was parking the pontoon boat for the first time after having bid farewell to the others. Just me and my dog and the rain and the wind and a slipery stone dock and next thing you know the new flip flop slips and the other foot pushes the boat away. I try to yank it back as I fall in and it does come back in time to smush me up against the stone dock. There’s enough Irish in me that I got lucky and fell in just at the point where the stone dock curves so I was buffetted between a rock and a hard place rather than squashed. Though I wailed like a peacock the poor dog could do nothing and no one else could hear. Of course, it wasn’t the mid-atlantic so I eventually got out and tied up the boat and went off to sulk and wonder what the heck I was doing out there anyway, sans internet, sans people.

Is this just a case of safety in numbers or have I become a people-person?