Location and Times
 

Being Honest with our Children

This week, our community lost one of its key children’s program leaders. Michael lived with a brain tumor for many years, managing the symptoms and functioning very well. Over the last couple of months, his reality changed and the tumor began to impact his movement and abilities.

After Michael was no longer able to be present with the community and teach the children, it was important for us to address his illness and his absence with the children with whom he worked so closely. During our regular conversation time during our gathering, we took some time to acknowledge the difficult reality of Michael not returning to teach. I spoke words similar to the following:

Today during our time on the carpet, we’re going to talk about someone very special. If you spent any time on this carpet, or in kidSPIRIT over the last 8 years or so, you know Michael. We have some pictures of Michael up here on the wall.

I want to tell you a little bit about Michael. He loves reading. He loves teaching. He loves science and understanding how things work. He loves old movies with a guy named Buster Keaton. He loves baseball, particularly the San Francisco Giants… we know this because he often wears his favourite Giants jacket to church on Sundays.

For as long as most of us have known Michael, he has had something strange happening in his brain. He’s had a tumor growing there. A tumor is a bunch of cells, just like the cells that make up our whole body – but these cells are growing in a place they shouldn’t grow…in a clump in his brain. For years and years, he was able to go to work, play games, come to church and lead kidSPIRIT and his brain did very well. But just in the last few months, that started to change and he couldn’t do those things anymore. Now that tumor is interfering with how the rest of his body works. He’s having trouble moving his arm and his leg and things like that. So now Michael is staying in a hospital where doctors and nurses and his family and friends can care for him.

This means that Michael won’t be able to come back to church and be our kidSPIRIT leader anymore. He’s sad about that. And we’re sad about that.

You might have questions about what I just said. It’s okay if you have questions or want to say something about this. You can ask me, or if you think of something later, you can ask your parents or your grandparents.

We went on to have a time of gratitude for Michael where we thanked him for his work and many years of volunteer commitment to kidSPIRIT. (You can read our tribute to Michael in a separate blog post) After, in their program time, the kids were invited to make cards and posters to share their love, care and appreciation for him.

As difficult as this time was with the children, it was important to do this. I think many times the realities of life and death are kept from our children. I know growing up, my parents certainly didn’t share with me when significant health events were happening in the lives of family members or friends. Even as an adult, there were times when my father was going through some cancer testing and didn’t tell any of us. Nobody wants to feel like they have to learn about news indirectly, or worse, learn about significant things much too late.

The thought of sharing difficult news with the children in our lives is more difficult in our imaginations than in the actual conversations. Children are so open…and when they have a trusted adult telling them serious or difficult news, whether its about someone they know or world events, many are very able to hear this in good ways. Our openness with children needs to be accompanied by the reassurance that they may not have a response right away; they may respond in different ways in an hour, a day, a week. And when that happens, we will be there for them to answer questions, to comfort them, and to continue the conversation.

I can’t imagine a community where we would not talk about someone so close to the children’s weekly experience. They know Michael’s not in the classroom anymore. They have questions about where he went. Imagine from their perspective if the adults in their lives knew he was dealing with his health and didn’t tell them. Perhaps they would discover this truth too late and be left out of any expressions of care and community in which they might participate?

I confess I was surprised when many in the community shared with me that they were amazed that we addressed this so directly with the children. I heard that they have never experienced a community that would be honest and open with the kids. This would be the real tragedy: if we didn’t honour our children enough to recognize the reality of sickness and death, in ways they can understand while reassuring them that they are safe, they are loved, and that they can have an impact in showing kindness and compassion. These are the skills of life at any age. I hope we can work to make this the norm for our families and communities.

I’m encouraged and honoured by the children’s reactions to our conversation, by their care and sensitivity, and by their love and respect for their kidSPIRIT teacher and hero, Michael.

 

Thank you, Michael

Michael O’Hea wins the kidSPIRIT VIP award as one of our most valued kidSPIRIT volunteers. Michael loves baseball, particularly the San Francisco Giants, and I know he’ll appreciate that a VIP award goes to someone without whom the successes and achievements we’ve made wouldn’t be possible. This is Michael. For more than 8 years, Michael has volunteered as a key leader in our children’s program.

Michael always has energy and excitement for leading kidSPIRIT, volunteering for summer camps and helping wherever he could to share his joy and positive spirit with children. His passion for science and wanting to share how our universe works, his love of nature and his excitement to teach and share are contagious! I would often ask him if he wanted to take a week, a month, any time away from kidSPIRIT so he could participate differently in the gathering, and he would always say… ”kidSPIRIT is where I love to be, it’s where I want to be, and it’s where I can contribute. Sign me up”. Michael has shown dedication to making our children’s program what it is.

So today is our chance to say thank you to Michael. With Michael transitioning and making a home for himself in St. Joseph’s Auxiliary Hospital, he can’t hear this tribute in person, but as he watches this video later he’ll see just how grateful we are for him.

We’re saying thank you today from all of us at SSUC:  for the years of leadership, week-in and week-out, making our classroom a welcoming, safe and fun place to learn, to explore; a place to be respected and loved.

Our hearts are with you, Michael, even though you can’t be here. We are with you – our support, our love, our care are there with you. Thank you for all you give to us, and the inspiration you are for us now as you face this challenging stage of your living.

 

These are some of the words used in a “Time for All Ages” moment with the children on Sunday, March 31st, 2019. Michael died later that night. Our hearts and care extend to Michael’s family, friends and all who loved and knew him.

“Green Book” … Life on the Road

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar Nominated Films.

Road trips are dangerous. It’s not just the weather or road conditions. It’s not just language or cultural barriers. It’s not just the risks of getting lost or running up against privilege, prejudice or the dangers of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Road trips should come with a caution label: travel at your own risk … you’ll never be the same again.

That’s what happens in this movie to Dr. Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga when they spend 2 months together on a road trip in 1962 mostly south of the Mason-Dixon line. Tony is a street-savvy, 3rd generation Italian American, born and raised in the Bronx. He is portrayed as earthy, quick tempered, profane speaking, a hardworking, family loving guy who bears the bigotry that characterizes his family and friends. Desperate for work when the night club where he is a bouncer is closed for a few months, Tony does, what for him is the unimaginable, and accepts a job to work for a talented, highly educated, sophisticated and cultured African American musical prodigy on a classical tour with his trio.

Across the miles, we witness the transformation that happens for each of them as they are changed by the road and by each other.  Tony’s hard edges soften as his respect for Dr. Don Shirley deepens.  Don lets down his guard as he experiences Tony’s fierce loyalty. Tony learns dignity is a higher road for anger than violence Empathy begins to fill the space that prejudice held in him. After experiencing segregation in the bathrooms he can and can’t use, the stores where he can and can’t shop, the bars where he can and can’t enter, the motels he can and can’t stay … after tolerating bigotry and violence, Don is empowered to walk away from the final concert when he is barred by his color from eating in the very Alabama dining room where his trio is to perform.

Tony and Don learn from each other. They are changed by each other and the experiences they have on the road together. In the end, Tony shuts down the bigoted comments of his family and welcomes Don into his home.  And Dr. Don Shirley steps out of his protective but lonely isolation to cross the threshold of a home in a neighborhood he wouldn’t ever have imagined finding himself.

Green Book is a Damascas road story … not in the blinding light, knocked off your horse kind of way that the 1st century story of Saul/Paul gives us, but in the slow, steady incremental true to life kind of way … in the way we are invariably changed by the road and those with whom we travel.

Maybe that’s why we need to see road trip movies. We forget the wisdom of the poet, Mark Nepo:

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.
To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.
To journey ad be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.

And we forget that although a straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, it isn’t always the shortest distance between two people.  It is the long and winding road we share that has the power to shrink the distances between us. It’s the experiences we have together that wear down our privilege, our prejudice, our preconceived ideas, our stereotypes, our defensiveness that narrow the gaps between us.  We don’t have to go very far to take a road trip. We don’t have to travel from New York City to Birmingham or from Jerusalem to Damascus. We don’t have to get in our car, or get on our horse. We just have to travel a thought, an experience, an idea, a belief, a conviction with someone whose experience of the world, whose way of seeing things is different than ours.

 

 

Bao

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar nominated films. 

Bao centres around a middle-aged Chinese woman living in Toronto. After her husband shoves three freshly-prepared bao (dumplings) into his face and heads out for the day, our protagonist watches as one remaining bao sprouts arms and legs and begins to burble like a baby.

What follows is a chance for this woman to experience all the joys, fears, and sorrows of motherhood. As her child grows, gets hurt, learns new things, and eventually begins to rebel and try to fly the nest with his fiancée, his mother – in a last-ditch attempt at holding on to her dear child – devours him.

While the experiences depicted may be specific to Chinese cultural nuances and intricacies, the themes are universal if, as viewers, we can step outside our own perspective. Our cultural signifiers might be different, we may or may not show our love through food, we may or may not see our own culture represented, but basic human emotions of protection, love, care and home are an experience that spans each of us as humans.

This moment where mom devours her dumpling boy is emotional. The first time I saw this, I gasped. I was taken aback. In an animated film that lasts 7 minutes, we might expect to laugh or to escape with some light entertainment…but this scene hits hard. This moment, as we can see by mom’s immediate reaction to what she’s done, is raw and human; it’s the pain of loss.

I think it’s left up to us whether this moment represented a real-life argument gone wrong, a mother’s attempt to protect her son and keep him at home, or the acceptance of the irony that there was no way she could’ve kept her son safe without losing him.

If our expectations of another don’t allow the kind of freedom

  • that lets a child leave home, or
  • that lets others outgrow the labels and silouettes to we put around them*, or
  • that lets another forge their own path, even if it means diverging from the one we expected,

then this moment in the film is saying to us that our expectations are consuming the ones we care about. We might as well eat them up.

*Mark Nepo, in his book The One Life We’re Given, describes this love in this way:
“We’re too quick to name or label people we meet without taking the time to experience the spirit they carry. And we seldom allow for those we know and love to transcend the name we’ve given them. Then, when they outgrow the silhouette we’ve put around them, we’re surprised, and even see their change as a betrayal.”

Thanks to Domee Shi’s amazing animated short, Bao, we are able to ask ourselves:

  • What might happen when we loosen our grip on our all-consuming expectations…of ourselves, of others, of our aspirations?
  • Where can we see that we’ve been holding on too tightly?
  • What might happen if we give each other the chances we all need to be whole?

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

This is part of SSUC’s March Spiritual Gathering Series
which seeks wisdom found in 2019 Oscar nominated films. 

Bob Merrill and Jule Styne wrote a song for the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl that Barbara Streisand sang…and the first verse goes:

People, people who need people
Are the luckiest people in the world
Where children needing other children
And yet letting our grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children

To be human is to recognize that we need each other. And depending on who we are, our upbringing, our temperament, this is variously easy or difficult.

I, for one, when I have a question about where to find something, recommendations about food or a service, or whatever…my first instinct is to research by myself and come up with an answer. I’m always shocked to learn that other people just put this need out there…on social media, with friends, with total strangers… “Hey, I need this. Anyone know anything?”  That is not my go-to. That doesn’t occur to me unless someone says: “You know people, ask them.” Oh yeah.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a 2018 film, with two Oscar nominated actors, that portrays this idea so well…perhaps tragically. Melissa McCarthy is portraying Lee Israel, a real-life biographer who when demand for her kind of writing dries up, turns to fabricating and selling letters from famous authors. As much as this movie chronicles Lee Israel’s stumbling into this criminal enterprise, it’s really a film about a stubbornly independent person being forced to admit—very much against her will—that she needs other people sometimes. But she’s so unpracticed at it that she fumbles her way through even the simplest relationships and interactions.

At one point, Lee is caught off guard by the gently romantic overtures of a bookseller named Anna. And we see just how ill-accustomed she is to receiving human kindness, much less responding in kind. When a conversation becomes too personal, too kind, too emotional, Lee quickly cracks a joke or turns the conversation into a sort-of business transaction. Anything to avoid the fact that another person might have a place in her life. Anything to avoid feeling vulnerable. To quote Lee Israel about breaking up with an ex: “she wanted me to listen to her talk about her feelings, and get closer to her friends, and crap like that.”

She has no friends…other than the new one she’s made in Jack – an equally lonely and pained character. Both of them on the outside looking in…a perfectly desperate situation that allows them both to seek meaning and purpose in less than healthy (and legal) ways.

What would have Lee’s life been like had she the people who supported her through her ups and downs? How might her decisions have differed if she’d been given support and love from family, friends, and her extended community? A different life – and not the same movie, for sure!

Community is powerful. The lack of it is just as powerful to make an impact in our lives and in the direction it takes. When it comes to building and strengthening connection, we each are immensely powerful. We all have the power to offer connection and community to others: community built on the reality that we’re all necessary, unique, and powerful to add our small piece to the puzzle. Wouldn’t it be great for every person to know they are part of something that looks after one another and ensures that no one has to go it alone. What an immense power to be able to give that gift to another.

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Gatherings at 10AM Sundays