Wednesday, September 29, 2010

cancelled

We cancelled our cable television just over a month ago. The idea was that after we returned from our vacation, we would sign up with another provider who was offering a deal on satellite tv that included a free PVR. That hasn't happened. The truth is, we don't really miss it that much.

The only times I miss watching TV is when I do my ironing. A home improvement show always made an unpleasant chore much more bearable and helped the time pass quickly. For a few weeks, I ironed in silence, facing the silent, dark TV screen. Not that great. Then I decided to watch a DVD while I did my weekly ironing. Six shirts and three pants were not really enough to get into a movie, so that idea kind of bombed. Last week, I tried something new. I set up the ironing board in the guest room, opened up the curtains, and did all my ironing in front of the patio doors which overlook our neighbourhood.

While I ironed, I watched the sky, which is always changing this time of year. It started out bright blue with a few white wisps, then turned gray with what looked like rain clouds. I saw wind bending the trees in the park. Children played in the street. A boy rode by on his skateboard. Birds flew in and out of the scene, and the sun slowly pushed the shadows further and further away from me. As I ironed, I became part of this world of wonder.

The other time I used to watch TV was after coming home from a long day at school or after sitting at my desk for many hours studying. Too tired to tackle any more homework, I needed to give my brain a bit of a rest. It used to be reality TV that provided this break. When I walked in the door after school today, I pulled a bowl of watermelon out of the fridge, opened the curtains, and watched the changing sky as I sat on the guest bed and ate. The cat joined me in this moment of silent regard and relaxation.

Instead of reality TV, I now watch reality. Instead of being amused by clever scripts and camera-work, I now admire the natural, uncensored, untamed world outside my window. It rejuvenates my brain in ways that TV never did. It provides amusement, rest for a study-weary mind, and inspiration. It draws me into companionship with my world instead of isolating me in front of my personal screen. It is free and there is never any interruption in service. Though the storyline might be hard for some to follow, there is always something for the attentive viewer to enjoy and learn.

Windows versus cable TV. No contest.

This was a rainbow that I captured on my camera phone while Dean was driving on a rainy day in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That would be my hand that was tilting, not the houses.

Friday, September 24, 2010

thoughts on my birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. My 50th birthday. Some people think that's a big deal. To me, it is just a number that states how many days I have had the privilege of waking up and getting out of bed to explore life. And that thought causes my heart to become full and expand with a whole lot of thankfulness and awe at life itself. Yes, indeed. These were some thoughts I had yesterday:

I get to open my eyes every morning and see sunlight. Some days it is full-on, unclouded, make-your-eyes-hurt, kind of sunshine that greets me. Other days it is misty, rainy, curtained light, but it is always light. And I am blessed to see it every day.

I get to wake up next to a warm, cuddly, funny, wise, generous, and faithful man every day. He often stares at me with adoring eyes, and takes me on dates pretty much every week. He can fix almost anything electronic and always knows where we parked. He can keep a steady beat no matter how eratic and chaotic the sounds are around him. I am blessed to have such a hug-able rock in my life.

I get to go to university and enlarge my mind and my heart. I read things that challenge me and make me think about why I do the things I do. I meet people that are walking much different paths than I am, and get to walk together with them for a bit. I am student and teacher and child and mentor all at the same time. I am blessed to be in a learning environment every day.

I love our condo and being in it every day. I love its vaulted ceilings and all its stairs. My legs go up and down hundreds of steps every day, without hesitation. I love to chase the cat around the house, scoop her up in my arms, and laugh over her silly antics. I love to open my fridge and see a great big jug of orange juice. I love stumbling down the stairs in the morning and having that first, thirst-quenching draught of orange, pulpy goodness. I love to stand on my balcony and see the planes fly overhead. I love to listen to the sound of my neighbourhood. I love to study in silence and burst into spontaneous little songs of joy that make no sense to anyone but me. I love the bus drivers who drive past my condo and make it possible for me to get around Montreal without a car.

I love the nearness of Friend and Father. Sometimes I have felt the lack of both, since my father died when I was in my early 20's and friends come and go in our transient world. But there is one Friend who is always available to hang out. And there is a Father who is always looking out for my best interests when I am too naive or stupid or stubborn to make the right decision.

I love today. It is built on a lot of yesterdays that were all good in their own way, but nothing compares to today. It is special. It invites me to come and romp around in it with all my might. It welcomes me to rest and savour and enjoy the moment in a spirit of gratitude. It declares that God's goodness is written all over my life, whether I recognise it or not. It shines!
May I shine every day, too!
These were some vegetables at the St-Norbert market at the end of August. Brilliant!

Monday, September 20, 2010

hello, my name is...

Hello, my name is Matte and I am a student. Seems fairly straightforward, right? Not really. You see, I have been reading the story of Abram again in Genesis, and I noticed a thing or two about the difference between what we call ourselves and what God calls us.

Abram's name meant "exalted father." He did pretty well with the exalted part (had a knack for getting rich and for the most part, enjoyed a good reputation), but the father bit...it just wasn't happening. If Abram were to introduce himself to us, it might have sounded something like this:

Hello, my name is Abram, and I grew up with a father who didn't follow through on what he said he would do. Genesis 11:31-32. His father set out for Canaan but settled in Haran, which was about halfway there.

Hello, my name is Abram, and though I have a lot of potential, I find it hard to leave everything behind and pursue the call of God. Genesis 12:1-6. He left his home, but not his family behind, taking his nephew with him.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I sometimes exercise bad judgment in order to make my life easier and better for myself. Genesis 12:10-17. He lied about his wife in order to gain favour with influential people.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I have some family troubles and quarrels going on. Genesis 13:5-9 and 14:14-16. There was some fighting, some going of separate ways, some capturing, and some attacking and plundering.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I am disappointed at the way some things have turned out in my life - at God's lack of action, to be honest. Genesis 15:1-3. He had a lot of riches but no heir, even though God had promised him one many times.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I sometimes choose compromise over waiting for God. It seems better than being known as a man of inaction, a man who does not follow through. Genesis 16:3-6. He agreed to his wife's plan of getting the servant girl pregnant, which resulted in a lot more family trouble.

And then, something crazy happened. God changed Abram's name (Genesis 17:3-8). God added the letter "heh" near the end of his name. The letter stems from a root that means, "to breathe." Say it (heh) and you hear the sound of a breath being exhaled. The interesting thing is that God's name has two of these letters in it (YHWH). It was like God was breathing some of himself, his life, his spirit into Abram (see Genesis 2:7 where God breathes into humanity for the first time). He did the same with Sarai, Abram's wife, and added the breath of "heh" to the end of her name as well.

No longer would the childless man hear the embarrassing contradiction of his name, "exalted father," when people addressed him as Abram. Now, every time someone called him Abraham, he could hear the breath of God breathing into who he was, making it possible for him to be what God had called him to be.

The name I was given at birth was Martha Helen. I was never particularly fond of the name (doesn't it sound like someone's old aunt, or the queen's second cousin?), but when I think about what it means, I am challenged to live up to its grand calling. Martha means "lady" and Helen means "light." Therefore, I am called Lady Light. Cool, isn't it?

The name I have gone by since college days is Matte. There were an overabundance of Martha's in my family circle at the time, so I came up with the unique derivative. It just seemed to suit me better than Martha, but after a few years, I wondered if I should go back to the name, Martha. Was I somehow losing some of the richness associated with my given name by not using it? When I asked God about it, I was reminded if an image of a framed picture, like the one at the top of this blog. The paper between the frame and the photo is called a mat. It is what draws the eye to the picture and shows off its beauty. And that is indeed what I want to do: draw people's eyes to the beauty, the mystery, and the wonder of who God is and what masterpiece he is creating.
Hello, my name is Matte, and I point to God.

The above is based on a talk I gave last night at our church gathering.
The framed version of my photo is available at www.redbubble.com/people/mattedowney

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

my election story

The city where I live had a provincial by-election on Monday. Politics in Quebec are a different bird than anywhere else in Canada, so many times it is not so clear who to vote for. The options presented to us were the Liberal party (the party currently in power dealing with some integrity issues), the Parti Quebecois (official opposition who rallies behind Quebec's sovereignty), the Action-Democratique du Quebec (a relatively new and untried party trying to put some new blood and new ideas into government but little idea of how to do it), the Green Party (environmental concerns are the main platform), and the Quebec Solidaire (feminist and sovereignist leanings). Like I said, not that straightforward, but I tried to do my best. Here is what happened.

The afternoon was fading away on Monday as I put aside my homework for a bit in order to read up on the parties before I headed off to vote. I was leaning towards the Liberals, that being the strongest and most visible party, but thought I should look at all the options. On doing a little research on the Green, the PQ, and the Solidaire candidates, I decided that I was not on board with their agendas, so crossed them out of the running. That left the Liberals and ADQ. I read up on Mr. Fournier (Liberal candidate) and his CV was indeed impressive. If one wanted a high profile representative (with a cabinet position, nonetheless!), he was the one to vote for. The guy running for the ADQ was a 29-year-old family man who runs his own business, comes from Bolivia, and is committed to helping the immigrant population which currently stands at over 50% in St-Laurent. So, it was decades of political experience versus brand-new immigrant guy.

As I was walking to the polling station, talking to God about it, wondering what to do, a few key factors came up which influenced my decision:

Factor number one: One thing that stuck out in my reading was that this riding, since its inception in 1966, has always swung Liberal. It is taken for granted that people vote Liberal here, and vote strongly that way. The fact that Charest (the premier) appointed Fournier to a cabinet position before Fournier even won the election testified to the assumption that things would go that way again. Though one should never hold a politician's long experience against him, sometimes that longevity can cross over into entitlement, and this had that air about it, at least in my opinion. If you had been in my neighbourhood in the past few weeks, you would have seen the large posters splattered everywhere with Fournier's face on them. A lot of money was behind this campaign. No one else even came close to Fournier's marketing blitz, in fact, I probably saw only two other posters compared to the fifty or so advertising Fournier. Though money to spend on a campaign can be important, it seemed like money and an impressive resume were all the Liberals were offering. Nevertheless, I did not want to judge the guy too harshly.

On the other hand, Jose Fiorilo (ADQ) just seemed like a normal guy. He had no impressive political resume. His greatest assets were speaking a plethora of languages, dealing with difficulty earlier in his life, having what seemed like a large, happy family, and building a successful business for himself. That sounded good, but his ability to be effective in the political realm was an unknown. Plus, the ADQ have had having trouble establishing their credibility, so would voting for him be throwing away a vote? Factor number two: one thing that Jose said stuck with me: "I’m just asking for people to give me a chance, This is just a by-election. I tell people -’If you give me a chance and you don’t like me in 18 months, you can always vote me out in a general election.'" I had to give the guy credit for meeting the challenge head-on and inviting accountability.

Factor number three: While I was talking to God about it, I thought about the one thing that annoyed me about Jose's platform: he promised that he would be an advocate for the allophones in St-Laurent. What about the rest of us who have lived in Canada all our lives? Really, do immigrants need their own politician now? There are already so many of them in this area....and then I stopped. I was sounding like a racist, a prejudiced person, an unloving person, an unwelcoming person, a person who does not care about the underprivileged, or about the "other." Not like Jesus at all.

So, I made a decision to vote against my prejudice and to vote for enlarging compassion in my heart. Compassion is not to be confused with the politically-correct term, "tolerance," which is a relatively weak and passive position in my opinion. But real, sacrificial, compassion. I was voting for the good of someone else and not primarily for my own interests, because I needed to root out the selfishness I had just seen there. I prayed the prayer that Jesus did, Your kingdom come and Your will be done (here in this St-Laurent by-election) as it is in heaven, and after I had cast my vote for Jose, I left the end result in the hands of God. Ultimately, I am only responsible for what is in my heart and not how a whole city votes.

Later that night, Mr. Fournier was declared the undisputed winner by a large majority. Though the man I had voted for only came in a distant third, I was filled with hope for some reason. I suppose it was because I knew something had changed in St-Laurent that night. Something that the polls could never reflect.

This is a view of the sunrise this week from my bedroom window. I love living in St-Laurent!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

the man in the wig

I was on the subway a few days ago and noticed an older man with an odd hairstyle. Long, graying brown strands were tied in a thin ponytail at the back of his neck. There was nothing strange about this, but the top two-thirds of his head was covered with a thick, medium brown crown of straight, perfectly combed hair. The point at which the graying, uneven strands met the brown cap was obvious to me, even from a quick glance halfway across the subway car. I looked at this aging man for a few minutes, wondering why he would wear such a badly matched wig and trying to discern if it really made him feel better about himself. I came to no conclusions about him, but did come up with some questions about my own habits.

We all do things to change our appearance slightly - for the better, we hope. I dye my hair, I wear make-up most days, I shave my legs (more often in summer than in winter), and I wear clothes that accent certain parts of my body and camouflage others. The goal is to have this slightly unnatural self be mistaken for the real natural self. Deceptive, if you think about it, but perhaps not as deceptive as we hope. People might very well be aware of our small efforts to appear better than we are, but simply not draw attention to it. Perhaps they assume that everyone is doing something to enhance their appearance and are willing to go along with the small deception because it is mutually beneficial: I won't mention yours if you don't mention mine. Children, of course, are notoriously bad at this game.

The questions I found myself thinking about were: If I lost all my hair, would I wear a wig or try to compensate in some other way? If I lost a breast to cancer or was disfigured by some accident, would I cover it up in order to appear more normal? Going beyond questions of why we do the things we do in our appearance-driven culture, what about emotional, intellectual, and relational normalcy? What do I wear in order to cover up my lack in these areas? A smile when I am awkwardly troubled, pained, or sad? A confident look when I don't know the answer? A busy schedule when I am lonely? What is my bad wig?

If the man in the subway had not been wearing the brown hair hat, I would never have noticed him. It was his very attempt to cover up what he didn't like about himself that drew my attention to him and pointed out his weakness. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with improving our appearances or trying to be pleasant in our social settings, but I think the problem comes when we don't know how to live without these add-ons. We get hooked on the deception, the supra-normal, and forget that being real, honest, and humble is the way God intended us to be with him and with each other. On occasion, I believe it is healthy to go without makeup, to let the graying and balding parts show, and to live humbly with my uncomfortable shortcomings.

If I feel that I always have to bring my "A-game," I need to remember that the real issue is not winning the game, but loving myself and my fellow players for God's sake. If I begin to sense a pressure to always put my best foot forward, I want to remember that leaps of faith only happen when both feet are involved (yes, even the weak one). And when that cultural standard of appearance threatens to force its unrealistic expectations on me, I must remember that humility is the most attractive trait I can ever exhibit.
These are some Mennonite women at the farmer's market. Good food, great smiles, and simple lifestyles.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

what I did on my summer vacation

I landed back at home on Monday night. In the two days since my vacation officially ended, the treadmill of university life has been going at a steady, fast jog. I bought my books, attended my first Method in Theology class, met with my advisor, began my stint as a TA in Christian Spirituality, and finished notes on another Underhill book for my ongoing reading course.

But before I leave the vacation totally behind, I want to savour a few of the moments in those ten days that stood out. They were not moments that one would normally think of when relating vacation highlights. They were not spectacular adventures, awe-inspiring views, or once-in-a-lifetime events. Or maybe they were. All I know is that these precious moments were offered to me like a finely prepared meal of grace and mercy, and I sought to partake of them as best I could.

My mother has volunteered at a local personal care facility for many years, and she asked if we wanted to stop in and see an uncle that was now challenged by Alzheimer's. My first reaction was resistance; after all, we were on vacation and a visit to the local seniors' home was not my idea of a pleasant and relaxing outing. I always feel a bit sad and powerless and uncomfortably warm when I go to places like that. But after my mom took us out for a tasty Mexican meal, I decided that we would do whatever she wanted to do that evening. Part of the beauty of being away from your usual setting is letting someone else show you how they live. And this is something my mom would have done even if we were not visiting, so why not do it together?

We drove over to the sprawling building on the west side of town and parked. It was slightly stuffy inside. People in wheelchairs were scattered in different parts of a small TV room, some eating ice cream and others just sitting there, not really looking at anything in particular. What struck me was how quiet a room full of people could be. It was like they didn't have the energy to talk to each other. We spotted my uncle sitting along a wall and my mom approached him. His child-like eyes were wide with wonder as he stared at me. He said he recognised us, but I don't know to what extent. He seemed very pleased to see us, but had little to say.

After a few minutes of stilted conversation and lots of smiles, we headed down the hall and visited another family friend who was there because a stroke had rendered him unable to use one side of his body. In contrast to the other gentleman, he chatted about sports, asked questions about what we were doing, and amused me with memories from my childhood that I had forgotten. He nibbled on his snack of local cheese while watching TV and talking to us. Multi-tasking done quite well, I had to admit.

I always find that I have little to say in situations like this. Some of it is awkwardness, sure, and very often it has been years since I have seen these people or I don't remember them at all, but I know that part of what I embrace when I enter a place where people so obviously need physical and mental wholeness, is humility. I am humbled by their courage intermingled with their despair and lack. I am rendered speechless by their pleading eyes of hope set against a gracious dignity, even in the most undignified circumstances. I am undone by memories of their strength and vitality when I was young, weak, and foolish. I don't really know what they face every day, but I admire them for doing it to the best of their ability.

I am also put to shame by the kind voices and gentle hands of the caregivers. They are confident and capable while being respectful, positive, and personable. I could never do what they do. My mother has spent over 25 years helping people in this place by visiting them, helping them feed themselves, taking them to their doctor's appointments and other outings, raising money for medical equipment, serving on the board, and most recently, taking donations at the funerals of those who have spent time in this facility. It is not for the faint of heart, especially not for those who are uncomfortable with their own mortality and frailty.

As we prepared to leave the facility and were cleaning our hands with the obligatory disinfectant foam near the exit, my mother spoke to an older lady standing in the foyer. She was waiting for a taxi that was taking a long time to come. We were heading across the street for ice cream and she lived 10 blocks away, but Dean offered to give her a ride home even if it was a bit out of our way. She was most grateful, because it was a chilly evening and she was not dressed for the walk. My mom told me later that this woman regularly visits her husband (who used to be a local preacher) and had lost her driver's license due to an incident involving a lapse of vision. It was a simple thing to give her a ride, but it meant a lot to her.

And that's what stays with me about that Friday evening. The simple things. We listened. We looked someone in the eye and let them look back. We went to where they were because they couldn't come to us. We didn't rush away. We smiled. We offered a bit of ourselves, whatever they expressed interest in. We offered a ride to a stranger. We took interest in their work (Dean asked about a new computer system he saw a caregiver using). We remembered them, whether they remembered us or not.

This touched my soul more than the small family excursion to the USA, soaking in the hot tub, walks on sunny days, shopping trips, and play times with my young nieces and nephews, though I loved all of that. May I never miss the opportunity to go to a simple place and offer a simple gift of time and attention.

Jesus said: This is a large work I've called you into, but don't be overwhelmed by it. It's best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won't lose out on a thing. - from Matthew 10, The Message

This is a photo of one of the last remaining flowering sunflowers in a field close to where I grew up. I love sunflowers.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

where I come from

It is interesting being back in the place where I grew up. While there are a lot of positive memories here, there are also some dark ones, and I was surprised to have a few of them surface on this trip back to the prairies. One of my responses was to get annoyed at the small town dynamic and the restrictive nature of this whole place. And then I realised that freedom is never an external issue: it is a battle that is won or lost in my own soul. The fact that this place could call to life feelings of disappointment that made me want to leave town was not primarily an indication of the shortcomings of said community, but a sign that I was not truly free inside. Freedom is free anywhere! That's its nature.

So I went to the only place that always shows me a way out of my every predicament: the place of surrender. I told God that I was willing to let go all the disappointment (legitimate and illegitimate), forgive all the misunderstandings, and release all the idealistic expectations and comparative standards that I had placed on this growing-up place. And I was willing to let him search my heart for whatever was still harbouring resentment, unforgiveness, pride, and whatever other black holes might be draining love, grace, courage, thankfulness, and freedom from my life. I had done this before, but I needed to do it again.

That's the thing about freedom. It is not a one-time medal that I win and it's done (Jesus did that part); it is a place that I have to consciously go to and habitate every day - sometimes fighting off wild wolves of anger or envy that snap their sharp teeth at me, sometimes just planting my butt in the centre of the big chair of peace and refusing to let it be torn from underneath me by all the hurricanes that blow through.

Like flying, freedom cannot be grasped, but it is always as close as letting go. It is also as easily lost as hauling myself back into the safety of the nest when I should be out there catching a cold updraft of air. I choose freedom. Every day. Every hour. Bumpy as the ride may be, it is still freedom. And I LOVE FREEDOM!
This is a photo I took of the unsettled sky over the prairie landscape on Thursday night.