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Something happens inside my spirit when I hold an infant, an experience I have never found anywhere else.  Such deep hope.  Such potential.  Such pure light.

Welcome to the world, little one.

It snowed a few days ago.  The heavy wet kind of snow that gathers on your eyelashes and blankets everything in white.  It has been a rare phenomenon this winter, so I decided to go for a walk.  I like snow.  I like how quietly it falls, how quietly it lands.  How it washes everything into the background.  It makes for good thinking spaces.

A blog, or at least this blog, is a personal project.  It puts my thoughts and opinions out there for anyone to find.  Occasionally it puts my fears, my doubts, my questions out there.  This is risky.  There is a fine line between being personal and being too personal.  Will you, reader, weigh my words with kindness or criticism?

Are you wondering where this is going? So am I.

I was churched as a youngster.  In my teen years, I was one of those Christians who went to church twice on Sundays, and Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays and sometimes even Saturdays.  The honest truth is I went because that’s where my friends were.  It was my social life.  I was not very good at relating to others, I fear social situations.  Church, especially with it’s structure and ‘openness’, felt safer than hanging out at friends’ houses or trying to make plans with acquaintances from school.

Over the last number of years I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly it is that I believe and what I was merely taught to believe.  This is no easy task.  Nor do I think it will ever really be complete.  But even with all the hills and valleys (pardon the over-used metaphor), this has been an important part of ‘growing up’, of figuring out who I am and where I’m going and why.

Of course, it was a lot easier to just reject the whole kit and caboodle than to really sort through what was worth keeping and what I should toss out.  An uncertainty about the ‘realness’ of God, combined with the fact that I had been hurt and let down by people in churches (who hasn’t?) led me to believe there was nothing about church worth holding on to.  I would have liked to take an eraser to my entire experience of religion.  Sometimes I still do.

So I’ve been on a long vacation.  About a year ago I came into contact with this idea: until you know where you are from, until you come to terms with your past, you can never live presently.  Living presently is something I strive for but almost unfailingly fail at doing.  I so easily get caught up in regrets about the past and anxiety about the future.  And of course, there is the whole issue of really truly seeking peace in my life.  It’s hard to find when you would like to deny a significant part of what constituted your life in the past.

So it’s been an uneasy process of sorting through the things I was taught, the things others around me believe, the things I am ‘supposed’ to believe.  Like a cluttered attic, I work at it in pieces.  Sometimes I neglect the entire project for months at a time, but occasionally I find myself making progress.

There is a lot about which I am still incredibly unsure.  The whole idea of a God who interacts in our lives seems so illogical at times.  And I think there are a lot of things that the Church promotes that God, if s/he exists, would entirely reject.  But there are a few things I think I know.

I think that God exists.  This is not something I can substantiate for you, but I wish I could.  I wish more than anything that I could find proof of this, to prove it true.  For myself.  To know without doubt.  And I know a lot of people who would argue that they can prove one way or the other whether God exists.  But I think the inability to prove his/her existence is kind of the point.  At least for me, at least for now.  This belief comes from dark nights and sun-filled mornings.  It resonates in my chest in my most fulfilled moments and in my deepest sorrows.  Not by choice mind you, or ‘faith’.  I have tried to deny God’s existence.  I simply cannot, and I don’t know why that is.  All I can come up with is hope that we are not alone in this world, that there is more than this.

And, more than just existing, I think God desires interaction with us.  I think this takes shape in different ways for different people.  I’m still figuring out what this looks like for me.

I think that the teachings of Jesus – forgiveness, grace, justice, love, hope, peace – are essential for living a fulfilled life.  I do not think he is the only good teacher or example of these principles lived out.  I think hope comes from believing that despite the heartache and injustices we encounter in life, at the root of human existence is a desire and capacity for good.  In fact, it is this desire, when unmet, that leads to brokenness.  I think our lives are fuller when we have a sense of purpose, when we live not for our own gain, but for the opportunity to give life to another.  In these ways, I think Jesus – who had compassion for the rejects of society, who taught his followers to care for the sick, the widowed, the orphaned and the hungry, who challenged the sources of injustice in his society (particularly religion) – laid out a good path for us to try to follow.

I don’t want to be a person that is too busy singing songs or attending church services to do the things Jesus modeled.  I want to be someone that lives out the things I say I believe in.  I want to feed the hungry, fight injustice, seek peace – even if it costs me something.  I want to love the unloved.  I want to become a better example of light and hope in dark corners and rejected lives.

And more than this, I want to find God in my neighbour.  Last summer I went to L’arche thinking I had something to offer.  What I found was how much I needed to learn from the people I thought I was there to help.  I want to learn from God through unlikely teachers.  I reject the belief that God only speaks through people who have all their ducks in a row.

I want to see beauty in broken buildings, potential for growth in deserted gardens.

The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve been debating a move.  Away from something.  Towards something.  Geographically, to Hamilton, Ontario.  Specifically, Beasley – the poorest neighbourhood in Hamilton and I’ve heard the third poorest neighbourhood in Canada.  The community of Beasley got a write up in the Hamilton Spectator a few years ago entitled “This isn’t Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood.”  Some of the stats are incredible.  Unemployment rates soar.  The number of residents on some form of assistance is significantly higher than the city average.  There are more food banks than commercial banks.  Take a walk down any main street and you’re bound to encounter someone muttering away to themselves or striking up an unintelligible conversation with you.

It all started just before Christmas when my friends Rachel and Brandon moved into a house on Wellington, the eastern border of the neighbourhood.  On my first visit I stood looking out their kitchen window which faces the brick wall of their neighbour’s house less than six feet away.  And something in me fell in love.  You may think I’m joking, but truly I am not.  The wall was cracked.  The mortar was falling out.  The bricks were stained and chipped.  It was so up close.  It was so real.

Last summer, after a drive through rural Cape Breton, I wrote this,

There is a desperation in these towns.  I won’t ever understand all the things that cause it, perhaps the job market or broken families or drug problems or the fact that all the young people are moving West.  I noticed St. Stephen felt the same way too sometimes.  Like a quiet sad realness that isn’t covered over the way it would be in the suburbs.  Life is not so much about appearances here as it is simply about surviving, being present to the circumstances of now.

Hamilton, specifically Beasley, feels like this too.  People don’t wear as much make-up in Hamilton.  I don’t just mean the kind of make-up that girls put on their faces.  I mean the stuff we hide our flaws behind.  Sometimes their hair isn’t perfect, neither are their clothes.  The city streets are dirty and littered with garbage, broken furniture, abandoned rusted vehicles.  Some people might walk through Hamilton (or more likely drive) and think the people are garbage, broken, abandoned.  Hamilton is sometimes called the armpit of Canada.  Some of the people smell bad, literally and/or figuratively.  Their wounds may be raw and infected.  These are not the kind of people one would immediately think would make good neighbours.

You may be confused about why I am attracted to this part of town.  The thing is, I know I will fit right in.  I’m tired of trying to hide my flaws.  I desire authenticity.

And more than this, I know beauty can be found in ashes.  I know wild flowers grow amongst thorns.

I took some time to chat with Dave and Inglebert (not sure about the spelling) last night.  These two men are beautiful people, if you are willing to look past their dirty clothes, messy hair and smelly breath.  Kind.  Compassionate.  Empathetic.  Giving.  These are the kind of neighbours I would like to have.  These are the people I would like to build community with.

On the eve of the Opening Ceremonies, I’m going out on a limb.

In 2006, I cheered as the Canadian women’s hockey team claimed gold in Italy.  I felt my heart swell with pride for our nation, for our women, for what is possible. I may have even cried a little bit.

In 2008, I hesitated as reports from Amnesty International claimed 1.5 million people were being displaced by the Beijing games.  After hearing a presentation by classmate Dave McCallum on gentrification in our Justice course, I began to wonder whether the development and investment that goes into a host city really is a positive thing.

In 2010, I began to research.  What I have found has hurt, dumbfounded and angered me.

For many Canadians, indeed many people around the world, the Olympics represent athletic excellence, national pride, unity and some even say peace.  CTV broadcast one advertisement that beckoned Canadians to embrace “the spirit of competition and celebration of excellence. Show the world you believe.”

But we must consider this question, what exactly are we being asked to believe in?

As I began to research, I found that (of course) I was not the only one hesitant about Vancouver 2010.  In fact a whole resistance movement has been working since 2006 to protest the Games.  A quick online search revealed many opinionated posts, some informative, some cynical, some down-right negative.  The media and corporate sponsors would like to wash over all the claims of these articles as the views of a few extreme radicals.  And perhaps they are right.

But there are some facts which I believe cannot, should not be ignored.

The Olympic Games guzzles millions, even billions of tax-payer dollars.  What is the long-term benefit of these dollars?

Vancouver has had an ever-increasing homelessness crisis.  The Games enable police to criminalize poverty, clearing the streets of pan-handlers and making it illegal to sleep outdoors.  And yet, the city has cut budget spending on affordable housing, social service programs and shelters, in order to fund the Olympics.

With the Olympics, there is always a swell in tourism.  Some say this is good for the local economy.  But local businesses owned by members of the community have been forced to close their doors, to allow the money of the tourists to filter straight into the pockets of the corporate sponsors.  The local business owners of Vancouver will not be benefiting from the Games.  Coca-cola, RBC, Petro Canada, McDonald’s, Bell and a host of other sponsors will.

With a swell in tourism comes a swell in prostitution.  To meet this demand, human trafficking in Canada has increased.  The majority of women targeted by human trafficking in Canada are Indigenous Women.  These women will not benefit from the Games.  The traffickers will.

The local arts in Vancouver have suffered.  I read of a series of murals, painted by 16 local artists in 2007, that were washed over with the Olympic colours.  Local residents stenciled these words across the wall in protest: “With glowing hearts, we kill the arts.”

There are a myriad of other problems associated with the Olympics, including severe degradation to local ecosystems and the production of 3.7 million tons of carbon emissions.  My friend Luke Wilson is speaking at UBC today on this issue.

So these are some of the costs of the games.  What are the benefits?

A sense of national unity.  International competition.  Pride.  One friend commented that seeing athletes triumph fosters a sense of discipline, teamwork and unity that we can apply to our lives.  And she may be right.

Of course in my research, I came across the opinions of those who believe the benefits are worth the costs, or that the costs are exaggerated by naysayers and extremists.

In response to some of the negative impacts of the Games, my friend Shannon Pringle raised a few important questions.  She wrote,

Why must we always “through the baby out with the bath water?” If we opposed everything where injustice and corruption were present what would we have left? Why must we focus solely on the bad things and completely disregard (not even consider) that society benefits greatly from events such as the Olympics? Is not possible to support the Olympics in ways that do not proliferate the injustice it may cause? What about all the “regular Joes” that will benefit from it? The jobs that have been created? The volunteerism? The people who work in the tourism industry? The kids who are inspired by the hard work and dedication of the athletes? The local musicians and artists who have opportunity to showcase their talents?

And Kendall Kadatz also responded with some important considerations.  He asked,

What have the games done for international relations? Is there a positive trickle down effect of the pursuit of healthy activities for the human body as a result of the games?

These are all very good questions.  And with any issue, there are no simple answers.  I take Shannon’s challenge seriously.  Is there a way to consider the benefits of the Games, to support them, without supporting the injustices that are involved in the production of such a large event?

With the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there was a lot of emphasis amongst human rights activists on using the Olympics as a platform for raising awareness of various human rights issues.  Perhaps that is possible with the 2010 Games too.  Perhaps we can use these Olympics to draw attention to the injustices that still occur in our own nation, and the things that are being done about them.  Bill C-300, for example, which addresses corporate accountability for overseas mining and development by Canadian companies, or Bill C-268 which ensures a five-year minimum sentence for the human trafficking of minors in Canada.  Amnesty International is still campaigning on behalf of the Lubicon Cree tribe in Northern Alberta, who are losing sacred native land to the oil development.  Though I don’t see a whole of attention on these important issues in the media.

So I’m left wondering if there are some more positive ways we can gain the benefits of an international event like the Olympics without some of the baggage that comes along with it.  As Shannon asked, is there a way to support Olympic spirit without ignoring these important concerns?  I think it’s a question that has the potential to keep me up tonight.

But wouldn’t it be so incredible if we could find our national pride in something that mattered more than sport?  Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to buy it from corporate sponsors? We could funnel all that cash into ending human trafficking, or poverty in Canada, or dealing with the climate crisis.  And we would be showing the world what is possible.  We would be showing the world the power of you and I.  And it would matter.

It’s a cold night in February.  I’m sitting in my room, at my friend Laura’s house, under the quilt that my great-grandmother made so many years ago.  I still haven’t turned on the baseboard heater yet this winter, and probably won’t at all – now more out of stubbornness, and a desire to prove something to myself, than lack of necessity.  Sometimes the room gets down to 10 degrees celsius, according to the little thermometer that came with my iPod speakers.  Who knows why iPod speakers need to include thermometers.

Still, I’m thankful for the quilt.

I’ve been unemployed for five months now.  This is not something I confess with pride.  I came home from L’arche in September with such hopes for what my life would end up looking like, and tonight, I’m sitting in the dark cold of my bedroom, and realizing it’s not what I thought it would be.  Especially these last few months.  I look back on them and wonder what happened.  How did I end up here?

Where?  I guess that’s the question on my mind tonight.  Where am I? Where am I going, how am I getting there and most importantly, why?  I feel like all I’ve been doing is spinning my wheels.  My friends and family have noticed.  I feel stuck.

There, it’s been said.  Well.  Now that I’ve realized that, the most logical thing to do would be to stop for a moment and consider how best to get unstuck.  Continuing to spin my wheels, as any good Canadian driver would know, is only going to make the problem worse, whether it be mud or snow (though I’m not sure which it is in this metaphor).

So, I find myself asking, what do I want from life?  As I read back over the email I wrote after I made the decision to leave L’arche, this thought came to mind:

As stressful and demanding as the job was at times, I felt alive.  Maybe it’s just the season, but this winter has felt like something different.

To feel alive, these things I know:

– I want to find meaningful work.  This is a difficult task in Ontario’s current job market but not an impossible one.  It is not wishful thinking to believe that I can find work that will be life-giving.

– I want to give something to the community around me.  Volunteering at one of the many community outreach programs in Hamilton seems like the right step.  I think the city encapsulates the rawness I saw in the Maritimes, that quality of human existence we spend so much time trying to cover up.  Pursuing a Bachelors in Social Work is another step in this direction, one that I am considering.

– I want to increase the voices I have with which to express myself, specifically through music and writing.  For now this includes this blog, my journal, letter writing, playing guitar, drum circles, and singing (but mostly only when no one is listening).

– I want to increase my capacity to live at peace.  With myself, with others around me, in harmony with God and nature, and in the face of suffering and injustice.

My hope is that this post will be the beginning of a new direction for me, or perhaps, a return to a path from which I’ve been wandering.

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