A bird in the hand is worth…

On a sunny September weekend I held a tiny bird in my hand. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

In my new role as the Director at Crieff Hills Retreat Center I get to do all kind of fun new things, but my first ever bird banding event was the best so far.

Visitors gathered out in the back field by one of the old barns (left over from the days when the farm had cows and sheep) where we found a pot of coffee, an enormous plate of oatmeal cookies and certified bird bander Brian Pomfret. He is an experienced biologist with a remarkably quick wit. After a few words to welcome and gather us together, he said, “Follow me!” and we headed out to the forested trails.

birdbanding18e.jpgIt was a sunny walk with great company. I met a couple new to Canada who saw our ad in the paper and wanted to learn more about our flora and fauna. There were some girlfriends who were staying at Crieff for the weekend and came to see what was going on while their friends slept late. A few of us were there by ourselves.  Everyone was friendly and the day felt festive.

We didn’t get very far before Brian stopped and pointed to the nets he had strung up in an open clearing. Sure enough there was a bird caught up in it: still, safe, waiting. He took out a small cotton sack and gently put the bird in it before tying it up. We repeated this process a number of times until we had almost a dozen birds.

Back in the picnic shelter, Brian (with help from his children) carefully took out each bird, weighed and measured it, and put a tiny anklet around one foot. Everything was recorded, he explained, so the migratory patterns could be tracked all through the Americas.

birdbanding18cOnce Brian was finished with each bird—blue jays, chickadees, ‘oven birds’ and the like—they needed to be released. Were there any volunteers to help? he asked. Yes! When it was my turn, Brian showed me how to hold the little bird so that it wouldn’t struggle. He slowly placed it in my hand.

A bird! I was holding a bird in my hand!  The kind of bird I watch out the window every day, the kind that flies overhead and flits through the trees when I’m out for a walk! In my hand! I could feel its heart beating, tiny and fast. Its shiny eyes looked up at me. Its feathers were soft. It was completely calm.

I said, “Hi, bird!” (the most profound thing I could think of at the time) and I promised to let it go soon. The bird was very patient while I drank in the moment. I could have held it forever.

birdbanding18b.jpgFinally I opened my hand and in a flash the little bird was gone. It flew back to the familiar trees where it is most at home and I waved goodbye.

Months later, I am still feeling the effects of that moment. Birds now are not just sparrows on the lawn or geese honking overhead. They are living, breathing creatures. They are precious and fragile, and they share the earth and sky with me. Each has its own lungs, its own pulse, its own needs, its own life. Just like me.

I wonder how different the world would be if everyone could hold a bird in their hand, feel its heart beat and look into its eyes. How different would our conversations be about extinction, or climate change, or pollution if we recognized how life pulses through every creature great and small?

I held a bird in my hand and it made a difference to me.

(If you’d like to join us at Crieff for the spring and fall bird banding events each year, keep an eye on the website. Details will be posted there as soon as they are available.)  




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I have so much less and I couldn’t be happier

A year ago our family made a drastic change. We got rid of almost half of what we owned, sold our 3300 sqft home and moved into a 1200 sqft rental. It was one of the best things we’ve ever done.

We were living, as most people do here in the suburbs, soaked in debt: mortgage, student debt, credit card, car loan. With two incomes we could manage it all, but we had to keep a careful eye on our bank balance. We were frustrated that we couldn’t offer more financial support as our kids went to post secondary school. We could see changes on the horizon, including shifting real estate values and rising interest rates. And there was always a subtle sense of anxiety lurking under the surface.

cleomeAt first, we just sort of talked about imaginary scenarios where we sold everything and moved to PEI, our mid-life version of running away with the circus. But then we watched Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, on Netflix. We discovered Joshua Becker and started following his “becoming minimalist” page on Facebook. I read Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” We had some important conversations about money, jobs, and success.

At first, we took baby steps. We started to get rid of things in kitchen cupboards that we didn’t need and went through boxes of keepsakes that we hadn’t looked at in years. Then one day, we wandered into a local open house. “That house exactly like ours will sell for HOW MUCH?” my husband asked the realtor. And that was it. We called an agent and the For Sale sign went up. The hardest part was leaving behind my garden.

towne gardenQuite accidentally (Providence!) we bought low and sold high, which meant that we could pay off the mortgage and all of our outstanding debt, with a leftovers to put in the bank. We looked at our monthly income and chose to move into a more modest neighbourhood where we could easily afford the rent.

We have so much less now. We sold and donated a huge amount of furniture and we pared down our wardrobes, our pantry, even our Christmas decorations. We got rid of sentimental items that were broken or useless. We gave away old costumes and prom dresses, shared craft supplies with a summer camp, and found a home for the bicycle no one was riding. All six of us of us sifted through books, clothes, photos, instruments and old notes from elementary school. We kept only those things that, as Marie Kondo says, “bring us joy.”

frog in gardenI know that some people would say we have taken a step down the ladder of success because we own less now. The world is always telling us that more is better. But we know that we have taken a huge leap into freedom because we have less to insure, less to clean, less to worry about. We use less energy to heat and cool our home. We spend less money on interest payments, less time mowing the lawn and are less worried about our grocery bill.

A lot has changed for our family in the past year. One of the best things has been the discovery that less really is more.


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The Beauty of War Flowers

My generation does not know war. At least, not the way our grandparents did. The first and second World Wars are little more than black and white photographs and, if we are lucky, a few stories handed down to us. We learn a little in textbooks, too, I suppose, but that is often so carefully sanitized that we miss its complexity and humanity.

It is the very human side of war that I discovered at the WAR flowers exhibit last week. I visited the Toronto stop on a tour that began in Grand Metis, Quebec and ends in Montreal after several months in Vimy, France. It was a beautiful, fragrant, sorrowful, thoughtful morning.

warflowers3George Stephen Cantlie was a father who left his family behind to go and fight for his country. And, like so many soldiers who left their families, he did his best to stay connected even though he was miles away. “Everyday, he would pick a flower, no matter what it was, put it in an envelope and send it to his baby daughter…”

Letter writing is a lost art. Picking flowers is, too. But in George’s day they were ordinary tasks. I can almost picture him stopping to pick up a sprig of heather or a white daisy as he tramped along the roadway in his muddy boots. I’ve done the same thing, tucking  lavender into a map or folding up lupin seeds in a scrap of paper.

warflowers1.jpgIt amazes me that such an intimate family collection of letters and pressed flowers has survived and made its way into the Campbell House Museum. What’s more, the exhibit’s curator, Viveka Melki, let it inspire an exploration of what they were really about: devotion, healing, solitude, innocence, memory. A series of ten stations each display one kind of flower along with stories, photographs, sculpture, and mementos. The most captivating part, however, were the scents.

I had expected to find the simple scent of each flower, such as roses or heather. Instead there were complex fragrances blended from everyday wartime smells. Scraggly, weed-like stitchwort combined with camphor and antiseptic to evoke hospitals and healing. Lavender mixed with myrrh spoke of devotion. Lilies, roses, incense, vanilla–it was almost like adding colour to an old photograph. Each story took on a new intimacy and familiarity. I was inhaling a mysterious connection to people just like me who lived in an era that is nothing at all like mine.

warflowers4I left thinking about ditches filled with wildflowers while tanks rolled by. I thought about how my eyes often notice blooms along the sidewalk, and about how sometimes P. stops to pick a dandelion because he knows I like them. I thought about how, if he’d been born in a different time, my husband might have been the one slipping daisies into his letters home to us.

When I learned about war, there was never any mention of something so mundane as flowers. Having been to this exhibit, I now like to think that they offered a little beauty, a little comfort, perhaps even a little hope in the midst of chaos and suffering.

You have until March 25th to visit and think about it for yourself.

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Advent 4/Christmas: Listen for Laughter

I love being up early in the morning. My children, all home for Christmas, do not. Now that we are in a smaller house, it’s hard to be quiet at 7am when I’m ready to get on with my day. So this morning I took the dog out into a dark and foggy dawn.

winter2A morning walk is a luxury for Minnie. Most days, In the rush to get out the door, she’s lucky to get into the backyard for a few minutes. So I shouldn’t have been surprised at the spring in her step as we walked toward the park.

There is a lovely hush in the first light of day, and I was glad to breathe it in. This is a busy week for pastors, and I needed the calm. It didn’t last.

Once we reached the open expanse of trees and snow-covered grass, the dog began prancing and leaping around (which is hard to do on a leash!) She ran her nose along the snow, leaving the path to find the fluffiest powder. If dogs had knees, she would have been up to them in snow.

I stood there watching her and realized I was smiling. Then I started to laugh at how silly she was and how silly I was smiling like an idiot in an empty park. It was wonderful.

winter3.jpgWe made our way along the path, leaving behind a strange maze of footprints, with all the zig zagging and dancing around.

When we stopped on the bridge for a breather, I heard the song of a finch in the tree close to me. I looked up and smiled at him, too.

When we finally headed home, I noticed the sound of the small stream as cold, clear water gurgled it’s way along. More smiling. This was ridiculous–a cold winter morning when any sensible person would be huddled a home with a cup of coffee and here I was covered in snow and chuckling at dogs and birds and river sounds.

winter1But this the quiet of Advent as it transforms into Christmas, isn’t it? Darkness gives way to light, and longing makes way for laughter. When we listen for it, the mystery will sweep us up and carry us along its beautiful, snowy paths. Smiles make more sense when I look at it that way.

In these days of celebration, may you venture out to interesting places and listen well. When you are attentive, you will hear heaven and nature sing.

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Advent 3: Take to the trails

I went for a walk this morning along the streets of my neighbourhood. It was snowy underfoot and raining overhead. The dog and I had to walk carefully because it’s a typical suburban street with houses, front lawns, and lots of uncleared sidewalks.

Then we got to house number 68. Walking their stretch of sidewalk was a breeze. Why? Because not only did they clear away the snow and ice, they put down handfuls of sand, too. Traction!


060As we made our way along paths and bridges I started to think about all the people who have prepared the way for me. Sure, there is sand on icy sidewalks. But I also thought of those who pushed for the ordination of women fifty years ago. Composers who wrote music that makes my heart sing. Ministers in the 1960’s who created a summer camp where I would discover beauty and spiritual connection. My mom who made sure I went to university. A grandfather who planted the purple iris I now grow in my garden. Grandmothers who refined recipes that have become family treasures. So many people made pathways for me to travel.

This is a lesson for Advent. John the baptiser appears in church weeks before Jesus and hollers, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” God has important work to do, he says, so you’d better clear a path. And trailblazers have been making a way ever since.

209Just look at the trail you’re on. Think of all the lawmakers, advocates, poets and parents who made a path for you. Think of the teachers and preachers, builders and boosters who cleared your way. Your journey has been made possible by countless men and women, some of them generations before you were even born.

While you’re at it, think about where you’re going, too, and heed John’s words. Remember that every step you take prepares a way for those coming behind you. Your wise and courageous work will open the way to projects you have not dreamed of yet. You could help usher in fresh justice, compassion, and peace. You could prepare a path toward a multitude of joys, innovations and accomplishments. God still has important work to do in the world.

003As I write, two of my children are outside clearing the sidewalk after a day of freezing rain. They put on their boots, grabbed the shovels and got to work. They found the ice melter and will soon sprinkle handfuls all over the sidewalk. They are preparing the way for people we might never meet, and yet I am certain that some of them are already on their way to great things.

No matter what the weather is like in your corner of the world this Advent, I hope you will take note of the trailblazers who have blessed you. Perhaps you might also find inspiration to be one yourself.

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Advent 2: Learn from Saint Lucy

December 13th is the feast day of Saint Lucy. Legend has it she was a young Italian woman who secretly took food to persecuted Christians in Rome in the fourth century. Under the cover of night, she would make her way through dark city streets, travelling quietly on foot to help those who were hungry and desperate.

Lucy would have needed a lamp to guide her way through the darkness, but this left her with a problem. If she used her hands to hold a torch, they would be too full to carry all the food. Her solution? Candles on her head.

Yes, that’s right. It is said that Lucy wrapped a wreath of vines around her head and nestled lit candles into it. That way, she could see her way in the dark and still have her hands free to carry a load of food for the hungry. Brilliant.

In some Scandinavian countries, Saint Lucy will be remembered with feasting and pageantry this week. Children will dress up in long white robes with red sashes and crowns of lingonberry with (battery-operated) candles on their heads. Some will sing; some will serve sweet buns and coffee. (See pictures and more info here).

advent housesThis year, I’m trying to learn a little from Lucy. Of course wearing a long white robe is impractical for the busy season of Advent (especially if you are the parent of young children or take public transit). And balancing real, lit candles on your head sounds like a fast track to the emergency room (and the hair salon). So I have another idea.

Lucy found that there were too many things to carry and not enough hands. Most of us know exactly what that’s like, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Our arms are desperately holding on to far too many things: unrealistic expectations, shopping lists, too many responsibilities at home and at work. We juggle them the best we can, shifting them around from time to time to make darn sure we don’t drop any. But it’s exhausting and not terribly fruitful.

church candleSo how about we borrow a little of Lucy’s wisdom and creativity this season? We could use our head to figure out what we don’t need to carry and free up our hands for what matters most.

This season, get your hands off all the things other people should be doing for themselves and let them be responsible instead of you. Put voices of guilt and worry in the backseat instead of the driver’s seat. Ditch the myth of the perfect gift and find simpler ways to express your love and care. Get creative about celebrating Christmas so that you are more compassionate and less exhausted.

This Wednesday, I’m going to think a little about Saint Lucy. I might even light a few candles in her honour. We all could learn a thing or two from her about living a generous life. After all, we all mean to be generous. Sometimes we just need to shuffle things around and put candles on our head to make it really happen.


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Advent 1: A season for a saunter

This week I visited the home of a couple who have just moved to the country. The house is as comfortable as it is beautiful. It has plenty of places to bask in sunshine, curl up with a good book or meander through an acre of established perennial gardens. The neighbourhood, which is a loose collection of farms and houses accessible by a gravel road, sounds even better.

423The neighbours sound friendly but they must also be fun and thoughtful. This week, one family is beginning a monthly “Sunday Soup and Saunter.” People are invited to walk local trails together following a 9 km route or meet up halfway and only walk 4 km. Later in the afternoon they all gather for soup, bread and conversation. How lovely!

But don’t call it a hike. The invitation was careful to point out that this is a different kind of walk. I wonder if perhaps that means it will be a little slower and  little more thoughtful. This was at the bottom of the email:

Do you know the origin of the word, ‘saunter’? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the holy land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, “A la saint terre,” or “To the holy land.” And so they became known as the ‘sainte-terre-ers’ or saunterers. –John Muir as quoted by Albert W. Palmer, The Mountain Trail and its Message (1911)  

449This is a beautiful way to walk in the woods. It’s also a lovely way to walk through the season of Advent. Instead of rushing around, frantically buying gifts at the mall and hurrying to get to Christmas Day, why not slow everything down to a saunter? Stop at ‘good enough’ instead of insisting on perfection. Give up the traditions that have stopped being fun or meaningful. Be at peace with fewer decorations or cookies or gifts.

In our house we have been changing the way we live for about a year now. We have reduced our household expenses, our impact on the environment, our wardrobes and our possessions. It has been surprisingly easy and incredibly rewarding because every time we get rid of something–furniture, debt and even our house–we have found that we receive plenty more in return. As we begin the season of Advent we know the gift of peace and a slower pace. We are ready to saunter all the way to Christmas.

441I invite you to think about how you might make changes in your life, your routine, or your household so that you, too, can slow down to a saunter. There are so many gifts ready and waiting for those who decide not to hurry. May you find them as you savour the journey through the Advent season.



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Anise Hyssop and Bay Fortune

This summer I grew a beautiful new-to-me herb, Anise Hyssop.  It’s a plant I never would have experienced if I hadn’t taken a meandering trip to PEI and had a beautiful–even spiritual–experience at The Inn at Bay Fortune. 

194.JPGLast August, my beloved and I had almost two weeks together while our four children were at camp, so we hopped in our van and headed for the East Coast. We had only one thing planned and only one experience in our budget: an overnight at chef Michael Smith’s inn.

Now don’t get me wrong: we did all kinds of wonderful things on the island. We walked along sandy beaches, visited distilleries and took afternoon naps. We saw pretty lighthouses, found lovely campsites and ate at amazing places like Point Prim Chowder House. But visiting the inn was different.

179We arrived in the late afternoon but it was dinnertime when the fun really started. Oyster Hour, as they call it, invited us to wander all over the property and delight in the extensive perennial beds, the herb gardens (in wooden boxes just like mine!), and even to enter the kitchen, where Michael Smith himself gave me a quick lesson on how to shuck an oyster.

Inside, we found long communal tables in several different rooms. With all the food arriving family style, we talked, shared and laughed while each course was served. We had a wide ranging conversation with a couple from New York City in between bites of flower-filled salad and perfectly roasted beef from just a few farms over.

158The meal lasted for hours and it was not an early bedtime, but I was glad to be awake at 6am the next morning. I quietly made my way out past the herb garden, past the three happy pigs, past the tall compost heap and sunflower patch, all the way to the back fields where the inn’s vegetables are grown. Golden sunshine had just come begun to appear when I came across farmers Jeff, Carey and their daughter Olivia. They shared friendly greetings. I enthused about the farm.

199Breakfast–a serene meal with the best sticky buns I have ever eaten–plus another brief stroll to admire flowerbeds and chat with the gardener–and we were on our way again. But not without the feeling that we had been given a special gift.

For generations, people have understood that the church is a place to encounter what is holy, but it is certainly not the only place to seek out the divine. As for The Inn at Bay Fortune, they stripped away barriers, letting us into the fields and the kitchen so that we were witnesses to creation. Long tables gathered us into community where even the chefs and servers were available for conversation. Fair wages for the staff and support for local fishers and farmers spoke of justice and love. Food and beauty nourished us. All of these connected us to what is holy and good.

196Sure, Michael Smith runs a business. What I love, however, is that he is also opening a door for people who may never enter a traditional sanctuary. Here is a sacred space where people can be awed by goodness and graced with a multitude of gifts. Surely many are inspired to treat the earth with greater care and regard their neighbours as essential.

So I came home and grew some Anise Hyssop. The mass of beautiful purple flowers call me to gratitude every time I looked out the kitchen window this summer. God can be found in many places–churches, gardens, forests, families. And even, it seems, at an inn on Prince Edward Island.





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A Gardener’s Midsummer Dream: Wild and Cultivated

Garden tours are always lovely, especially for those of us who are a little nosy. What better way to spend an afternoon than peeking behind fences and waltzing through strangers’ backyards? Last week, I found the best one yet: The 2017 Mississauga Garden Festival. What made it so spectacular? It included a little bit of wilderness, too. IMG_5525.JPG

This event was a pilot project, and a new collaboration between the Applewood and Cloverleaf garden clubs. Inspired by Buffalo’s Garden Walk , it included more than a dozen gardens in two neighbourhoods as well as an open house at the Bradley House Museum.IMG_5531.JPG

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, but we almost didn’t notice. Huge trees towered over us the whole way and almost every yard was shaded. In fact, there was so little direct sun that by the end I called it ‘the hosta and hydrangea tour’ because almost every yard was filled with those shade-loving plants. I should add that I didn’t mind it at all–I discovered new varieties like the pinky purple Aspera hydrangea. I want one of those!IMG_5527.JPG

The tour necessitated a walk or drive between neighbourhoods. We chose to walk through the Rattray Marsh, and it was the best decision we made all day. Within seconds of stepping onto the woodland path, we felt as if we were hours from the city. Surrounded by lush green forest and native plants, P. and I held hands and slowed our pace. We stopped and watched the rippling waters of the Sheridan Creek. We even came across a pretty female deer and had a lovely visit, standing only a short distance away as she ate her fill of fresh greenery (including, we noticed, some just-planted city trees. Oops!).IMG_5546.JPG

At the end of the trail we returned to streets of impressive homes with carefully tended yards. I swooned over the house where the boulevard had been transformed from plain grass into lush garden. We stopped and rested on a stone bench beside a pretty backyard waterfall. And then came a final wander through the museum grounds, with its heritage vegetable garden and some much-needed refreshments. IMG_5547.JPG

Our tour lasted only about three hours, but it almost felt like we’d been away for the weekend! Now that summer is in full swing, I hope that you have the opportunity to tour a garden or two, or wander through a conservation area. Or maybe both. That’s definitely my recommendation.


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Bring on spring! And fiddleheads!

neighbour treeYes, I know it’s raining. Still, spring is the best. From where I’m sitting I can see the beautiful white blossoms on my neighbour’s trees and the buds of my backyard lilac bush. Everything is lush and green–even my groceries!

About a year ago, I used a gift certificate from a friend to order fresh produce from Mama Earth Organics. It was a pretty radical departure from my usual routine at the local discount grocery store. Feeding six people on a budget has never afforded me the opportunity to buy much from the organic aisle. Fiddleheads changed all that.

3254c915-f2d5-4302-8474-5118c9d9036f_thumbFiddleheads are the young, curled leaves of ostrich ferns that presumably get their name because they look like the scroll end of a fiddle (you can see them in this picture from the MEO website). They can only be harvested in the spring in Ontario, and I remember having them as a child at my grandmother’s house. If you manage to find some–they are always in short supply and the season goes by in a flash–wash them gently and well, being careful to get all the bits of sand out from the leaves tucked up in a tiny spiral. They taste a little like spinach and I think they are best when simply sauteed in a little butter. Yum!

Last spring, my fiddleheads came in a box with a bunch of other produce, delivered right to my front door. All of it was organic and sourced from small and medium farms within two hours of Toronto (if you go to their website you can even see a map with pictures of the farmers!). As a gardener, I love the idea of supporting small growers. As parent, I love the idea of my family eating fewer chemicals. And as person, I love someone else doing the shopping.

meoThere is one more important reason why I am still getting a box of fresh produce from Mama Earth every month: it is an opportunity to be mindful of each season. In the spring, it’s fiddleheads and wild leeks. In the summer it’s berries and tomatoes. Fall and winter bring colourful root vegetables and sprouts that grow indoors. With each delivery I am aware of the rhythm of the earth. It reminds me to respectfully live within its limits.

You may have noticed that it has been awhile since I’ve posted on this blog, but thankfully the seasons have shifted (as they always do). After four years I am now finished a Doctor of Ministry degree, which recently included intense work on a dissertation about introverts in the church. For the first time in a little while I am enjoying life without any homework or reading lists, and I couldn’t have timed it better. Spring is the perfect season to spend some extra time walking in the park, cooking up some fiddleheads, and stopping to smell the roses apple blossoms. I hope you are enjoying this beautiful spring season, too.

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