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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Casa Loma: A place of beauty, history, and Pokemon Go

OK, I admit it. I got sucked into playing Pokemon Go this summer. Actually, it was all very professional: as soon as I heard that churches were somehow involved, I had to try it for myself. I started with an American account, but it wasn’t long before I was Canadian again. I discovered that our church is a gym. Also, it is a game that works best if you leave your house and go to places like Casa Loma.

Pokemon Go wasn’t the reason I ended up there this summer. At a charity auction (my husband and I seem to go to an awful lot of those!) we bought a pass to Toronto attractions that included places like the Toronto Zoo and the CN Tower. The kids enjoyed some of them, but my beloved and I were glad to have a day to poke around the castle we haven’t been to in years. It was much nicer than we remembered, especially the gardens.103If you’ve never been there, Casa Loma is the former home of Sir Henry Pellat, a businessman who began building it in 1911 (it took three years to complete) and lived there until bankruptcy forced him out in 1924. It has grand rooms and secret passageways, a conservatory, billiard room and smoking room. There are stables, a garage and several different gardens, all sitting on four acres of property.086Why we climbed all the way to the top of a turret on a #*%! hot day is beyond me. But at least we were rewarded with a lovely view of the gardens below. (I didn’t even drop my camera when I took the picture.)

Getting to see that garden close up was lovely. It was set up for a corporate event, which made it hard to get close to most of the perennial beds. On the other hand, it looks like a gorgeous place for a tea party!102After we popped in to see the potting shed (which was actually a bright and beautiful building with pretty period details) we met up with one of the gardeners. She was getting ready for that night’s event, too, picking rose petals to be used in the kitchen. How does one get invited to that sort of thing, anyway?106The property is filled with long, sweeping perennial borders and winding wooded paths. There is a lovely blue fountain, too, surrounded by benches to sit and enjoy the sunshine. Everything was immaculate and there wasn’t a weed in sight (I spied a number of gardeners quietly tending the beds. Obviously they are doing a great job).  097It was a beautiful day. We did exactly what one should do on a day set aside for rest: we wandered down beautiful paths, shared a drink on the patio and admired the flowers. Also, I caught my first Gastly, a dark Pokemon with big fangs and a cloud of poisonous gas. A little weird, maybe, but a nice day all the same. Thanks for everything, Casa Loma.100

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I didn’t think it was possible, but camp just got even better

I love camp. It’s where I found spiritual nurture, physical challenge and a love for God’s creation when I was a child. I even met my husband there when we were teeangers. So it only makes sense that my children started attending a Presbyterian Church camp when they were little, just like I did. This summer, the two older ones are on staff at Camp Kintail and the two younger ones get up there every chance they get. And no wonder: Kintail is amazing. Especially the garden!

025The wilderness camp I grew up with had lots of great programs (does catching frogs count as a program?) but never anything like the chance to grow carrots. Since Camp Kintail’s co-directors grew up in farming communities, they know they know the importance of growing food. Now, what started out as just a few rows of vegetables has blossomed into a round herb wheel,  huge swaths of garden beds, a garden shed, a composting system and even a chicken coop. It seems to expand a little (or a lot) every year.

029In my years at camp I served as a canoe tripper, counsellor, and even a cook. But if I had the privilege of being camp staff again (oh, wouldn’t that be nice!) I would want the job held by a young man whose camp name is Escarpment–this year he’s the Camp Garden Director. Since the spring, he has been planning, planting, tending, weeding and harvesting a huge variety of produce including tomatoes, kale, peppers, lettuce, beets, potatoes, onions, beans, and peas. Everything goes to the kitchen where it is prepared and shared as a regular part of the camp menu. One of the directors told me that he was amazed at the beautiful bowls of fresh salad they serve every single day.

021But that’s not the best part. What I love most is that gardening has become a regular part of the program for everyone who goes to camp in spring, summer and fall. School groups, churches on retreats, international visitors and the lucky ones at camp in July and August all get to spend time in the garden. They see first hand how food grows and they learn how to tend it. Then they eat their hard work!

193There is no doubt that camp is fun, but it is not frivolous. Camps like Kintail teach all kinds of people how to live in community, and how important it is to respect the needs and comfort of others. It offers a level of spiritual depth and intimacy that is rare at home or even at church. It lets campers and staff live in close proximity to creation where they encounter the awe-inspiring beauty of stars and sunsets. It shapes them into compassionate, thoughtful people. When they leave camp, they go out to make our world a better place.

027I had never thought of it before, but a camp garden makes perfect sense. It draws a clear line between care for the earth and food on the table. It creates an opportunity to participate in feeding one another. It illustrates all the good that comes from working together. It has a unique set of lessons and experiences to offer in spring, summer and fall.

I know that there are all kinds of great summer camps out there. But Kintail is better: it has a garden!

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