Thursday, 14 August 2014

A Wee Word from an Absentee Author

What a whirlwind summer it's been so far here in the wilds (okay, we have wifi so it's not exactly tree-planting isolation) of Muskoka. This week I'm staring at Main Camp from the opposite side of the lake, tapping out an update while listening to our dish crew flipping through their playlist:  Shania Twain, something reminiscent of Casting Crowns and Taylor Swift, maybe? It's pretty quiet now, but I don't expect that to stick. Mini-Yo-We is never calm and tranquil very long while campers are nearby.

Through most of this season I've felt a tugging on my heart for city life... but moments like this? I am blessed to have called this place Home for so long. I'm ready to travel and explore, but I am comforted by how steady the rhythms are here. People come and go like a tide in Huntsville: in with the Spring, out with Autumn. The winters are still, the summers are chaos, the whole lot of it beautiful and precious and safe and pure. I love it here. I love the water that I am also mildly afraid of, and the snow that I will curse by February, and the furry little devils that eat through our food supplies. I love all the people I can't wait to escape from at the end of a very long day and the rain that makes the commute a little treacherous and all of the other things my Husband has to endure me griping about these days. I love it all. I just don't always remember that truth.

Every day has highlights and treasures. This morning I came early to make breakfast for a couple girls working in town during the day and volunteering here at Camp at night. They were running late, but with one look they managed to make my 6am arrival, car-stalling Tim Horton's stop and three hours of scone-making yesterday completely worth the effort. Their grateful faces (and subsequent encouraging text messages) lifted my weary spirit and helped me remember why I'm here: satisfy a physical need so that others can be freed and fuelled to tackle more spiritual demands.

...I have my fingers in the soul-feeding too, and my ongoing Curriculum Project now has a little home online. But for now it's back behind the apron. Chicken-broccoli casserole, anyone?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Copper Redemption

Three weeks had gone by since she dug up the old coin in her muddy front yard on the day it had rained. She’d been looking for earthworms to lay out for the robins before her five-year-old fingers unburied their treasure and the feeding of birds was forgotten. She rubbed off the dirt in a puddle nearby, but even mostly-clean it was much darker than the rest of her collection. She put the piece in her mouth and carefully removed the stubborn lumps of earth with her tongue. The taste of it was unfamiliar, unpleasant and lingering but children are dedicated archaeologists and she noticed every possible detail before removing the coin to examine it with methods more palatable to adult sensibilities. 

The edge was round, but imperfectly so, with straight parts she could feel but not see. It was brown, mostly, with a tint of turtle-green… the same colour as the stuff her mom sometimes put in their garden to make sure it grew only nice flowers and no grass; the colour of real Christmas trees after Christmas when people leave them outside to die, and get covered up by falling snow. And there was a picture of somebody’s Nana on one side, playing dress-up like a princess. The little girl carried it protectively, cupped between both hands with the instinctive knowledge that it was something both precious and rare.

“It’s a penny,” said her mother with a note of surprise in her voice. “I haven’t seen one since I was a kid. They stopped making them before I was born, but you could still find one from time to time back then, hiding under dusty old couches or in the pockets of coats people hadn’t worn in a while. I think they’re supposed to be lucky. That’s a pretty special mite of metal you’ve got there my girl.” 

Later that evening she took the penny upstairs. She put it into a brown paper bag with great care and wrote her name across the top with large, wobbly letters; she put that parcel into the front pocket of a retro Magic School Bus backpack her grandfather had picked up at an auction many years ago. It was a struggle to get the antique zipper moving, but she persistently worked the slider over a few rusty places along its length and at last secured her prize. Very few things were made to zip anymore, so the technology was a trial on its own. She slipped the straps over her small shoulders and tugged them tight. 

For three weeks she wore that backpack like a shell, only taking it off in absolutely critical moments. She wore it to school on the days she had to go; she wore it to the grocery store when she traveled out to shop with her mother. She even wore it to bed, and after a few restless nights learning to sleep on her side, she began to feel it quite a comfort. It was like wearing a hug, laced with magic and mystery. On occasion, when she thought her memory of the coin was beginning to fade and blur, she would sit off in a quiet corner of the world and pull the penny out of its hiding place to stare at it. The copper coin was a delight and a marvel to the little girl every day she had it, and it stirred in her thoughts even months after it left her possession. 

Three weeks after discovering the coin, the girl and her mother took a winding path on their way to town for the afternoon. At his usual place on the third bench from the gate sat the man she knew only as Mr. Dundurn, so called after the name of the park where he spent so much time. He was always polite and smiling, and had built up an unspoken acquaintanceship with the strolling pair, but he wasn’t quick enough to hide his tears before they passed him this time. Her mother looked on with pity and apology, but those are not the first instincts of childhood. The little girl quietly stopped walking, removed the brown paper bag from her pack and set the penny gently on the seat beside the man. “It’s a penny,” she whispered. “It’s old and nice like you, and I think it’s a lucky one. I hope it’s lucky for you too.” His eyes continued to steam as he whispered his thanks in reply, but the source of their flow had changed. The girl took her mother’s hand once more and left one lost man and one found coin sitting together on the bench by the oak.

Worth restored to the fringe and forgotten. And luck had nothing to do with it.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Gate

There is a little girl just over the fence, sitting alone on the grass. She is playing with blocks, making a careful study of each one as though it were the key to a riddle, or the answer to a mystery that might announce itself if she turned it the right way in the sunshine. The fence is not a particularly imposing barrier, white picketed of the sort found in old stories of quaint, by gone times. Close to the girl is a gate on three hinges with a sign reading "Welcome," hung up on a nail. It is closed with a latch on her side.

A boy is playing on the sidewalk with toy cars, treating each groove in the pavement as a river or set of train tracks or occasionally a crack in the world that falls through to Australia, and then he would find things to drive his cars upside down on for a while before getting tired of the facade and returning each toy to its proper country.

At the moment his vehicles are in Australia, and he is driving them (a blue sedan of some kind, and a red one with up-lights and an edge) along a highway made of the underside of his arm. The sound effects alternate between revving engines, squealing brakes and little boy giggles as he reaches a straight part, a corner and a ticklish bit in turn. He sees the girl through the slim slats in the fence and walks over to the gate.

"Can I come and play building-things with you?" he asks, loud enough to get her attention but gently enough that she isn't startled. She sets down the blocks and gets up to her feet but holds to her place on the lawn.

"I'm not building," she says simply.

"But they're blocks," says the boy, perturbed. "What else are they good for?"

"I don't know yet," she says with a sigh. "I'm trying to figure that out."

The boy considers her reply a moment while his cars idle, Down Under. "I could show you how to play building-things, if you want. I like it, lots and lots. It's fun! And you could still think, if you want, while we play."

The girl tips her head to one side and then the other, surveying the boy with the same vague and curious intensity that had been applied to the pieces of wood at her feet. Hesitant but obliging, she agrees. "You can come in, as long as you promise to be careful."

"I promise," he promises.

They face each other over top of the fence which comes up to both of their noses. "You'll have to open the gate," says the boy. She looks at the latch.

"It's locked," reports the little girl, already defeated.

"Can you try and unlock it?"

"Maybe," she whispers, "but I don't know how it works. It could take a long time... I've never really let anyone in before. Not by the gate."

The girl is both keen and nervous. Perceptive for someone his age, the boy decides not to push her any further. Instead, he smiles and makes his next move slowly. Fixing his eyes on the little girl he reaches one hand over the fence and holds out the red car, inviting her to trust him in the same way a child might try to tempt a rabbit closer with a leafy bit of celery. "We can just play here for a while, if you want," he suggests, "and worry about the lock later." She nods and takes the toy out of his hand. She smiles.

The clouds on her side of the fence change shape and colour far more than the sky above the boy. One minute they grow thick and dark with threat of rain, clearing again in the blink of an eye to fine wisps of pink and purple, billowing high into the atmosphere, covering the whole of the sky, then shrinking down to nothing and revealing only the great blue beyond. They move swiftly, the clouds, in stride with her countenance. He watches the weather and he watches the girl. She watches him back. And they play.

Time, in the liquid present, moves like the clouds: one moment in a hurry, the next standing still. Children very rarely stand still, but it would be impossible to say how long this boy and this girl stand playing at the gate before the stillness of time is interrupted by another person. But that person is now coming, and will inevitably, eventually reach their place. It is a stranger, an Adult, who has opened locked gates before and will teach the little girl what to do. The latch will be mastered, the playmate invited to cross an uncrossed line, and the mysterious bricks once studied will be marveled at once more, this time in the company of a Friend.

But for now, they just play. 

Monday, 5 May 2014


Somehow the last few months of planning since the proposal has evaporated and Ben and I are getting married THIS WEEK! I'm currently sitting outside of my bedroom where I have spent my morning thus far packing a big ol' suitcase for our mysterious honeymoon (Ben's very tight-lipped secret)! The little breather I'm granting myself feels simultaneously well earned and glutenous, like the reward of ice cream at the end of a hefty meal... it has been an absolute joy getting here, but I still feel like I need a little break! Making dozens of little decisions about font style and ribbon colour; organizing with others to tackle creative projects and mundane repetitive tasks alike; receiving and giving thanks for so many wonderful new things. There has been work involved, and a few tears on a few occasions (and many tears once or twice), but the whole experience has been the setting-up of a magic trick: focus on the delicate mechanisms so that everyone else can simply soak in the wonder of the final moment of prestige. The audience cheers, the crew smiles appreciatively and the magician and his lovely assistant take a bow on their behalf. That's kind of what I'm expecting on Saturday.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Traditions of Court: an Easter Allegory

Every child in Court is given one gift on their birthday, but not until they are five years old. Boys and girls are taught from the cradle what makes a birthday special and as a family they acknowledge the day with sweet cakes and pink lemonade, but never with a gift of any description -- not until the child is five.

A person's fifth birthday in Court is a fervently anticipated affair. It is not uncommon to see entire communities rally around the central figure, each household in the neighbourhood preparing enough lemonade and cake to feed counties of bellies. You might find a block party on the street, or a celebration hosted in a large hall, or a collection of people in a park or at the beach if the weather is nice; but there is no question that you would find them, should you be in town on one of these looked-forward-to days. The joyful noises of the place echo around every corner in the city, steadily drawing people nearer. It is a playful afternoon, bursting with music and dancing and family and joy, topped off with a vibrantly ribboned present, presented and opened at the festivity's start.

The gift is beautifully wrapped in gold paper. Sometimes the gift would be box-shaped and sometimes it would be swaddled simply in a few layers of newspaper below its lovely metallic sheen; whatever its outward adornment, the content of the gift was well known to every person in town. It was the same sort of thing that each of them had received on his or her fifth birthday, and on all following birthdays for nine years more. It was a bear. It was always a bear.

"On this great occasion, little one," announced the Mayor of Court as soon as the paper had been pulled away and the soft stuffed animal had been coddled in a smothering embrace, "on this day you join us as an official Courtier. You will learn with us, live with us and grow in this land. When the time comes you will serve with us, and when you grow old you will be cared for. By receiving this bear, you receive the gift of the protection of Court, and by receiving this bear you enter into a lifelong commitment that you will not yet understand. We will help you, as you gain knowledge, experience and understanding of what this covenant really means. But for now," his voice swelling in a grand crescendo as he turned to the crowd and spread wide his arms, "it is time to celebrate!"

Cakes were cut, lemonade was poured and the music got cranked up in volume to an almost inappropriate level. It was impossible to hold a grudge or keep a frown on a fifth birthday. It was a jubilee where all such weights and burdens were thrown off and then forgotten: a cultural cleanse, committed several times a year.

There were no toyshops anywhere in the land of Court. No miniature cars, no baby-like dolls, no easy-bake ovens or marbles or chess. In place of these contraptions, kids played together in elaborate games of make-believe and pretend that always featured their bears. For five-year-old children that first bear was hero and heroine, villain and victim, brother and sister and friend in turn. That first bear, though joined by another on each birthday until the child turned fifteen, was the most important gift ever received, and was the most treasured possession of any Courtier boy or girl. It was always given a name; it was always treated with particular respect; it was always remembered with a tender fondness, even in the legendary stories told and re-told by those of the greatest age. Ten bears given, nine bears cherished and displayed for a lifetime.

No one in Court would deny an answer if you asked them directly about the fate of that first precious bear, but the story might come out from behind glazing eyes. Deeply wounding moments and deeply proud ones can sometimes reflect similarly in remembering faces, and in this particular case the two are so closely conjoined that it can make emotion difficult to swallow -- but if you are patient and willing to sit for a while, they might invite you to stay for tea, pick up one of those treasured bears, and place it in your hands.

For fifteen years, they would say, children in Court enjoy a peaceful, playful life. Oh, they go to school, they learn to cook and build and are taught to participate in other household work, but their cultural burdens are low. Their air is clean, their home is warm and they fear neither stranger nor disease.

On the eve of their fifteenth birthday, every Courtier is brought to a very old building in the center of town. It can be an intimidating process for these kids, especially if they are the oldest among their siblings or friends. The edifice is used for nothing other than the ceremony on the evening and day of a fifteenth birthday, leaving it empty for months at a time. As with the fifth birthday celebration, many neighbours, local dignitaries and family members are in attendance to support their young loved one -- but the mood on these occasions is sober, somber and solemn.

Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, a layer of familiar faces as thick as smoke, the birthday child is led into the middle of the open space by their same-gendered guardian. Four chairs and two elders await their arrival: the Orator is seated to the left of this parental figure, and the Magistrate on the right. The child faces them, alone.

There is a moment of silence.

"My child," his father or her mother would begin, reciting with precision the same words they received on the eve of their own fifteenth year. "Tonight marks a very special moment in your life; you are mere hours from adulthood and the full weight of social responsibility in Court. The time has come for you to live out in reality all of the theories we have trained into you and which, up to this point, have almost made sense. Your age of innocence has come to a triumphant end. The covenantal burden is upon you."

On this cue the Orator would stand, step to the seated child and place a strong hand on one shoulder. With a voice to the crowd he would carefully repeat an old story - the oldest anyone knew, entrusted word after word by the man by whom the responsibility was previously carried. It was the history of the whole world in the language of its making, in the elaborate poetry of simple, well-woven words. Every facet of character was unveiled in its turn: the gentle affection of an artistic creator, whole mind engaged in the project of life; the hopeful pursuit of an invested lover, whole heart devoted to courting His muse; the acute attention and protection of a doting father, whole soul consumed by the security and peace and purity of His children. The Courtier God was all of these things and more: He was the arbourist of their orchards and the mason of their rocky land; He blew wind to the sea when the fish needed catching and when the bows turned homeward again He shifted the currents towards the shore; He was the crafter of law, the sustainer of light and the architect of their dome-sheltered realm, after which design only one building was patterned. Like the myths of an Atlantean world, lost but living beneath deep ocean waves, Court was protected by an atmosphere sealed away from the rest of humanity.

"And He has provided for all of our needs," continued the Orator in his thundering way, "by giving us the blessing of the Flowering Ivy!" The crowd erupted in shouts of praise, swelling like a brass crescendo in an orchestra, vibrating louder and louder as their excitement and their adoration reached its climax with a sudden and united cry of "GLORY TO THE MASTER!"

The Orator sat as the Magistrate stood, taking up the same commissioning posture next to the youth. "It is concerning the Ivy that we assemble here tonight," he said with a weight in his words. "The Ivy which grows around the perimeter of our land springs a tiny, cream-white blossom every year. We harvest from between its petals the saffron-like fibers of material oxygen. Pure, delicate and of immeasurable value, this precious silk is thin as cloud and strong as canvas. From these threads we create the front-door filters that bring to each home the Breath of Life; the woven cloth of this Ivy smolders in the Memorial Chamber without end as a physical blessing to the inhabitants of the whole world, keeping us alive in the most fundamental of ways; and it is the Vine that gives life to the Body of every child's fifth-birthday bear."

From the doorway, the child's second parental guardian emerges carrying a small package, beautifully wrapped in gold paper. Sometimes the gift would be box-shaped and sometimes it would be wrapped loosely in a few layers of newspaper below its lovely metallic sheen. It was a bear. It was *the* bear.

Everything else in the room ceased its movement as the young man or young woman became transfixed a second time by the soft little creature coddled in his or her arms. It was a tender thing, full of grape-juice memories that leave a permanent stain on the affections of your mind.

"With this gift came the promise of security and protection, but the gift itself was the fulfillment of that promise. The heart of the gift sustained you in a special way through your journey of growth and maturity. Now that you are grown, now that you have matured, now that this gift has completed everything it was designed to do, now the time has come. You must sacrifice this gift, precious and loved, to the One who holds you preciously with a far surpassing love. He has given much... and tonight you must give some of it back."

Like a frost that begins around the edges of a winter window pane, sadness creeps into the eyes of every Courtier child who hears those words. Understanding dawns slowly: something is required of them; a sacrifice must be made. The Magistrate continues his speech with a mechanical crispness that is unique to matters of law, but it is heard as through a fog, or as though spoken softly from far away. "Are you ready?" asks the Magistrate. Broken daze, eyes and thoughts refocused. "Are you ready," came the refrain. There was only one answer to give. "Yes," says the child, "I am ready."

"Then come."

The sun was rising as the child, his parents, the Orator and the Magistrate led the way from the Great Hall to the Memorial Chamber. A white smoke rose from the center courtyard, a vapourous flag of peace that signaled the continual alignment of God and Man. Once a year this pale, translucent wisp will flash with the brilliance of a lightening strike; once a year the altar does not simply smolder - it burns.

The air pressure changed as the large, gold-embroidered double doors of the Memorial Chamber opened before them. The tips of your fingers had only to brush against the mahogany handles before they parted in two as if crafted of the lightest silk, as if by enchantment. Behind the doors was a great courtyard of open-space design. Furnishings were simple: an extremely tall pillar of steel towered in the center; a long, high table to the far left that shone metallically in the natural sunlight of the place; off to the right was a structure that resembled an enormous cardboard box with something spilling out of it. On the opposite side of the hall another set of doors could almost be seen, camouflaged against the wall and overgrown with an ivy - the Flowering Ivy. The roots of the Ivy grew deeply in the room beyond and the vine of it spread out from there, wrapping around the skirting edge of their domed world and back to this very spot, back to the source.

All of these things could be seen from the open doorway, and from a Courtier's earliest childhood memories they are able to piece together the basic layout of the Memorial Chamber from this vantage point, but children are not permitted to cross the threshold.

Stepping into this place for the first time as a youth of barely fifteen is an overwhelming experience for many. A freshly broadened understanding of sacrifice made every inch of the place feel weighted with a sudden gravity. The stone floor had been worn smooth by the tireless treading of devoted Courtiers over time immemorial. Their ancestors had walked these paths. This was the sacred space of history's preservation.

With only the bear for company the child would cautiously cross to the table. On busy days the decision of where to begin can be a trick, but on this day it was quiet and only one other person was in the whole cavernous room, standing behind the table. Smiling, but with a worrying pity in his eyes, the older man would beckon the newcomer to himself.

His uniform was covered in threads and bits of cloth and tufts of soft fabric fur. Stuffing was caught in the ridges of his corduroy pants, on his hat and under his fingernails. All over the table and all over the ground the remnant evidence of thousands of bears could be seen. When most people encounter this for the first time they instinctively take a nervous step back in retreat... But there is only forward from this place. Swallow your fear, force your feet to move, hand over the thing you treasure the very most in the world so that you can fulfill an old vow to an older God... so that you can remain in alignment.

The bear is placed with trembling hands on the cool steel of the high table. The Attendant nods ominously to the pair of large fabric scissors that everyone works so hard at first to ignore, but there is no more room for pretending not to see things.

"Make one incision," says the older man, "along the back, towards the head. We want to save as much fabric as we can."

"What will you do with it?"

"Make another bear. Another bear for another child."

The scissors are heavier than they look, and the fur is often thicker than you might expect. All told, making that first cut is a hard thing both physically and emotionally with the only merciful consolation being a swift accomplishment of the task. Before permission to leave can be granted, the Attendant must take the bear by the scruff of its neck and empty it of the life-giving material. He will then brush the fur of its pelt, snip the threads that hold on its eyes and cut off the ribbon collar. The skin of the bear is sent across the courtyard to the Crate to be recycled into new animals; the fibrous insides are added to the Post; the ribbon and both eyes are placed with the firmness of love into the right-hand palm of the young man or woman across the table. "Off to the next doors," they are told by the Elder Attendant, "you must leave by the exit beyond them."

Two buttons, a bow and all the memories of a lifetime drag their feet across the stone floor of the Memorial Chamber. The doors that separate the outer courts from the heart are so small and slim that you might mistake them for a cupboard if you came across them in someone's home. They were covered in Ivy, carved and cultivated. The knot of branches looks so tangled that a wave of discouragement often stuns those attempting to pass through - but eventually, as with the scissors, it becomes obvious that something must be done: a knob turned, a panel pushed against, the Ivy brushed back gently as a mother might find herself tucking her daughter's hair behind one ear. Each person approaches this door a little differently, but unlike so many things in life this door responds to the simple faith that something will happen; everyone who makes a move is rewarded.

A short flight of wide, shallow stairs descends to the middle of the room and rises again at the far side. The space is lit by the glow of a hundred candles encircled around the stone chimney that stands proudly in the center; directly under the chimney draft, sitting on a heated plate of gold, was the tightly wound ball of the precious thread. A white smoke that swelled and faded as calmly as a sleeping breath rose as it smoldered. Along the ceiling, down three walls and growing along and up from the dirt floor was the Flowering Ivy in its perplexing perpetual bloom. On the only wall uncovered by the Vine was the memorial that gave the Chamber its title: a hundred thousand button eyes stared down from the wall, each different from the next, each mounted on a short ribbon bow. There were no names, no dates, no labels of any kind; each eye and its ribbon stood alone, a testimony to the bear and the child that placed it there.

On a slender pedestal centered under the memorial is found three things: a threaded needle, knot tied; a clasp of the sort used for brooches or decorative medallions; and a fine pair of scissors in every way unlike the coarse sheers of the High Table in the Outer Court. Engraved into the side of one silver blade was a simple inscription:

“A time to tear, and a time to sew.”

Cut the ribbon. Center the button. Affix the pin. Tie the knot. Follow the silent instructions of those who have gone before you, ease the transition of those who will come in your wake. It is the way of this world; it is the symbol of obedience and participation worn over the heart. Emerging from that small, dark room is the first milestone of maturity, impossible to forget.

Your teacup has long been empty, your face drawn taught with compassion. “Tragic,” you might say. “Tragic indeed,” says your host, “and brutal and beautiful. For centuries on end the people of Court have been repeating these ancient traditions, and some still do.” “Some?” “Yes, some. For most of us, Maria’s bear changed everything.”

Maria was a timid girl, rarely in the middle of things, never in trouble, never one to fight or fuss. She was born on the Night of the Flame when the Ivy’s annually collected fiber is set alight and the whole world celebrates. Every year she participated in this celebration with the added joy of a new bear and a belly full of cake, but on the evening that she was to turn fifteen, the night before the Festival took place, her whole world went sideways.

“Are you ready?” asked the Magistrate. “No,” said Maria. She looked at the opposing authorities. Their faces were stunned, their script interrupted for the first time in living memory. “No?” her mother asked nervously. “Of course not!” said Maria, horrified that they would insist she give up her bear. “He is special! He’s not like other bears!” “What are you talking about, girl!” Her mother asked, angry and afraid at once. She flushed. “He …he can breathe.”

The onlookers laughed and shot looks across the room to each other in tones of derision. “Grow up, Maria!” shouted a boy from the group. “Let it go,” came another. The Magistrate called for silence and addressed the little girl. “These bears can’t breathe, they assist people to breathe. They filter the air, and that is all. Tomorrow morning, your bear will purify the atmosphere along with the remnants of all other bears sacrificed this year. It is special to you, but it is not unique. It’s just a bear.” “You’re wrong!” she shouted and jumped up out of her chair. “You don’t understand! He can breathe! He can!”

Two of Maria’s neighbours came into the circle to try and settle the situation. She was growing hysterical, but the Magistrate was insistent. “The ceremonies cannot be delayed!” he thundered. “Bring her to the Memorial Chamber!” The men held her fast and carried her out the door. Her mother and father followed closely, carrying the bear. All the way to the High Table Maria continued to struggle and scream. “I won’t give him up! I won’t kill him! He can breathe! He’s BREATHING! STOP! Please!” The Magistrate was deaf to her cries.

When they arrived, he ordered that the men put Maria down and make her to stand up alone. “Take the scissors,” he demanded. “I WILL NOT!” she yelled at him, no longer acting with any reserve on emotion. “YOU WILL OBEY!” He yelled back. “MURDER!” she screamed, and his voice turned to ice. “Fine,” said the Magistrate, shoving the sheers into the Attendant’s hands. “You do it. Make her watch.”
The Attendant did not speak. He took the scissors, made the incision and emptied the bear. Maria was beside herself, throat raw, consumed by grief. The Magistrate took the pelt from the Attendant and held it in front of her face. “This is the covenant, girl. This is how the world works. It is cruel, it is true.” He popped off the bear’s button eyes and tore the ribbon from its limp body. He dropped them on the ground at her feet, flung the skin towards the Crate with bitter indignation and left her to weep alone. The men who remained escorted her to the Inner Chamber and softly closed her in. As the latch shut, the Flowering Ivy shivered and every white blossom fell from the vine. The Attendant, still holding the sheers, began to cry; Maria’s parents sank to their knees in shock; the Magistrate retuned to his office and slammed the door behind him.

In the cities, people went to their front doors and tapped at the filters that seemed to have stopped working. The gatherers returned home with empty baskets and fallen hearts. As a result, a record number of citizens showed up to celebrate the Night of the Flame at the gates of the Memorial Chamber. Maria, mute with sorrow, stood at an edge and observed as the Orator and the Magistrate took center stage. They both spoke about the importance of Sacrifice and the deep, unchanging virtue of obedience to their ancient traditions. After their speeches, the Elder Attendant struck a match and set it to the fiber-covered Pole – but instead of the familiar white cloud, a toxic black smoke billowed into the sky. The towering testimony of human devotion turned to pitch and tar. The crowds fled for shelter afraid, confused and terribly short of breath.

What the people did not know and what the Magistrate and his allies could not believe is that Maria’s bear had been special and it did breathe. It was filled with threads harvested from the Ivy growing in the Inner Chamber, right from the Source. It was infused with a supremely holy vein of energy that remained mysteriously connected to the Vine, and when the fibers were destroyed, the Flowering Ivy suffered the wound. Maria had treasured her bear with every drop of devotion and loyalty she possessed, knowing that he had preserved her life in a way she couldn’t articulate. He had been a comfort in fear and a hope in sadness; He’d loved her back. While the rest of the world was breathing shallow breaths, she filled her lungs full and deep; though even her parents suffered from the withering of the Ivy, Maria showed no symptoms of failing health.

Courtiers struggled through one miserable night after abandoning the Flame. At home with their families they prayed to their God for mercy. At dawn, the hour of forfeit and exhaustion when even the Magistrate had fallen to his knees in a plea to the Divine Sustainer, a mighty cracking was heard throughout the land. The Flowering Ivy, as through stretching awake after a good long sleep, sprouted fresh new vines that shot through the city streets weaving around telephone poles and wrapping cars, creeping under front doors and through open windows. The Land of Court became a jungle of bright green vines and tiny white flowers in less than nine minutes. Everyone took a deep breath of relief and ran to the Memorial Chamber to praise in chorus.

Maria got their first. The Magistrate was close behind. A crowd pressed in past the gates and gathered around the High Table. The stone floor of the Outer Court was a carpet of vines that had swallowed the Crate and crept up the legs of the High Table. Its steel surface shone like crystal and the butchering sheers lay broken upon it, one half at each end. Between them lay Maria’s bear, eyes in place, ribbon restored, back stitched with a fine crimson thread. Everyone saw it there, breathing, and then nobody saw it. The bear disappeared.

“As the years have passed,” explains your host, “Courtiers have become divided on what caused the Great Bloom. It seems obvious to me, but some have chosen to hold to the ancient traditions despite the miracle I have just described. Some saw the Bloom as proof that the rituals were ineffectual all along and have since abandoned the work of honouring the Creator in every way. It’s a heart-wrenching decision. Breaks this old heart.” The elder extends a hand for the bear you are still holding and puts it back on the shelf. “So, what happens now?” you ask.

“The Ivy grows thick in every house and up every street, and the air in Court is filtered now even outside; the Breath of Life is everywhere and abundant, and the silk harvest reaps more every year! Instead of padding only the fifth birthday bear with our precious fibers, now every bear is stuffed with the stuff, and the Night of the Flame has been, shall we say, extinguished. My granddaughters will still be called to give up their first bears, but as a gift to another child and not as a sacrifice to the Great Provider. To most of us in Court it is clear that He no longer requires us to abide by all of the old traditions. We believe there is something else He has asked for – our daily faith.”

The elder Courtier places an Ivy-covered book in your hands and begins to gather up the empty tea things. “Read this a bit,” comes the gentle suggestion. “I’ll put on the kettle.”

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Ten Cent Wedding Dress

Exactly one week ago tonight I drove home with my Mum and my future Mother-in-law from a trip to Toronto... with my WEDDING DRESS. This, folks, is something that I have been saving for since high school. In the eight-ish years since I began, I am proud to say that I haven't spent a dime.

Well, maybe five or six in that time, but with a burdensome reluctance.

In my room at my parent's house I have an old five gallon water jug that I found at a second hand store somewhere for the purpose of having somewhere lovely to store all my dimes. About a month ago Ben and I sat down with a couple bags of paper coin rollers (and a delicate kitchen scale to double-check) and started counting. By the time we finished we'd made it to just shy of $650! Over the next few days we raided our cars, closets and couches (and Tim and Carolyn gave me a jar of dimes that they have clearly been working on for a long time too!) and made it to my long-time goal of $700. And what did I do with all that money? I bought a wedding dress. For cancer.

Attention all awesome women (and men who one day plan to marry one)!

If you haven't heard of the Bride's Project, listen to me. They're a not-for-profit "social enterprise" organization run completely by volunteers that collects donated wedding gowns from brides and designers (if a style has been discontinued), sells them for half of what they are worth and DONATES 100% OF THE PROCEEDS. Check out their website.

I can't remember who told me about this first [credit claimed by the beautiful Sarah Jones], but I loved it instantly. I knew that I wanted my dress to come out and my dimes to go in to this magical place. So, last Sunday, I went in with my $700 budget and found a $700 dress. It was perfect except for one last tiny detail... I forgot about taxes.

So, I'm $91 short of accomplishing my dream of paying for my wedding dress in dimes. Usually I would have ended this post before explaining that, but because the Internet is making me bold I've decided to throw it out to you, my online community or supporters. If you open your wallet today and find that a couple of blue-nose-backed coins fall into your hand, would you consider donating them to me? If you buy your coffee tomorrow and they hand you a dime with your double-double, would you set it aside with our marriage in mind? And if all these 1.75gram gifts add up to more than the cost of my dress, I will pass it along to the amazing Bride's Project people so they can keep going strong. I want to bring them a couple of dresses I have anyway.

So there you have it, everybody. Pictures available in 89 DAYS!?!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Wool and Wax

Cornelius Splinter noticed things. He could trace the unusual patterns made by the wind blowing over a great mound of snow; he could point out the differences between two colonies of ants, busy building their neighbouring hills; and he saw in the sunsets each delicate hue, untamable in brilliance and variety. If anyone had noticed him, they would have said he had eyes as big as dinner plates, or as wide as two full moons, but nobody ever noticed him. Their eyes were open without seeing, their vision clear without the gift of clarity. Cornelius Splinter was special.

He didn’t say much. In fact, he didn’t say anything. He had lived in a house once where he was called The Quiet Boy, and everyone assumed he was unable to speak; so silent a life did he lead. Speechless, but not thoughtless. In his mind, Cornelius Splinter was the Poet Laureate of his age, which was eight. He was a composer of magnificent music that marveled audiences so affectingly that they were left, to turn the phrase, dumbstruck. He was a painter of fine art, a sculptor in the tradition of ancient masters. He was, in sum, a genius.

But outside this safe space inside his own head people bellowed discouraging things. The man who paid him for lighting the lamps always looked angry and called him Sinecure as he dropped candles and matches and one loaf of bread into the boy’s open hands. The young lad didn’t know what the word meant, but the man’s tone said, “A waste of good grain and bad wax” when they met. He traded some of his matches for potatoes with the grocer’s wife who said he was filthy as sin itself and wouldn’t let him play with the garden boy who was about his size. He was distrusted by everyone in daylight and ignored completely in shadow, as one might ignore an abandoned parcel sat off in a corner, or a bit of rubbish on the side of the road. He did not enter their thoughts.

Every evening at dusk he took to London’s cobbled streets with a mission to light the lamps from one end of the city to the other, replacing the candles, cleaning out ash and trimming wicks as each was in need. In every case he brought light into darkness and heat to the cold. Every small flame brightened his own heart and buoyed his spirits. He could shimmy up a lamppost like a squirrel up a tree and perch at the top without fear of falling. Cornelius Splinter loved those moments dearest, watching the people moving about from high above the street. And it was from this perspective that he first saw Anna.

She was beautiful.

She wore a blossom-coloured dress and leaf-coloured gloves and a rather uneasy expression on her face. She was pacing back and forth in the light a stone’s throw from where he was watching. Every few seconds she would rub her gloved fingers together and make a quiet tisking sound with her lips. She was calling for a cat.

Cornelius Splinter noticed four things all at once. First, he saw that the sun had disappeared over the horizon and night was coming in quickly; second, that no fewer than three kittens were shyly answering the girl’s call; third, this little lady was decidedly alone and would not be safe without a companion much longer; and finally, for all her beautiful clothing and tidy, proper appearance, she wasn’t wearing any shoes.

He dropped gently to the ground, landing in the floodlight of the lamp he’d been kindling. The girl and the growing litter at her feet all started at the noise. “Hello?” she called, melodically as though her voice was the shivering of a chime. “Who is there? Can I trust you?” The boy pulled a grey candle out of his pocket and held it out in front of him, extended towards the girl. With his other hand he loosed a match from its box and caught the wick aflame. It came off like a magic trick in the young lady’s eyes and without intending to do so she exchanged her apprehension for curiosity and wonder. She drew near.

“I’m Anna,” said Anna with a curtsey that would have put a ballerina to shame. “My father is Yes Sir and my mother is called My Lady, or Lemon, or Sweetheart, or Darling, but I know her name is really Anna too. We live…” and she brought her finger to level, but found she had nothing familiar to point out. She turned all around in circles, eventually letting her arm and her countenance fall in one go. “We live in a tall house between other houses, but not on this street. I’m afraid I’ve become quite jumbled, really. I came out looking for my cat.”

The quizzical look on his face was so clear that she couldn’t help but elaborate. “It got out the window,” said Anna as a crimson blush flooded her features. “Well, I opened the window, really. I was kneeling at my bedside you see, just as I ought, and then one of my eyes popped open because I heard something make a very loud sound indeed! I simply had to see if Saint Nicholas had come to call, so I opened my window ever so slightly as to listen with greater care, and my cat leapt up to the sill and out to the ground before I could even blink! It wasn’t a long drop, so I followed him this far before I lost sight. I didn’t have time to go fetch my slippers. They are in line by the fire tonight because it’s Christmas Eve. Did you know it is Christmas Eve right now?”

Cornelius Splinter shook his head. When he had lived in the house long ago he’d heard vague whisperings about firesides and presents and a generous man in red, but those blurry ideas had been gathering dust like the rest of his small frame in the years between home and here. It is much more work to remember than observe.

Anna’s cat didn’t take long to rejoin his mistress. The three of them toured the streets together, Cornelius Splinter walking with his candle outstretched like the front man of a parade. The light shimmered and shone off the frosted bricks beneath their feet. When they found her house, he helped Anna climb back in through her open window, cat and all. Soon as the pane of glass slid back into place, the boy ran to the lamppost across the road from Anna’s house, scampered up the pole, put his candle inside, lit the wick and polished the iron with his sleeve until it glowed like the silver moon and the golden sun all at once. Then he waved at her window, dropped down to the street and disappeared into the deepening night.

Every morning after their adventure together Anna would stare out her window and wonder what had become of the mysterious elf-child she had met in the street on Christmas Eve. She thought she could see him, sometimes, clinging to the top of the streetlight across from her house, and she would wave. But the boy, if he was truly flesh and not phantom, never waved back. “He might be a shadow,” she thought to herself. “A trick of the candlelight.” But her heart couldn’t believe her own logic, because whenever she peered out at the lamppost she found it already shining away and making the whole street merrier for its glow.

Cornelius Splinter used three times as much wax and at least twice as much time tending to his labours at Anna’s house. He had to replace the candle several times a week even though candles were made rather differently in those days and lasted a good long time if the wick was kept trim. The light burned day and night and charmed the entire neightbourhood, not just the little girl who had taken his affections along with the cat. Rain did not stop him, snow failed to give him pause and while summer’s scorching sunshine made climbing the pole a painful chore, the boy, now nine, could not be dissuaded from his task. Every day for a year he walked to Anna’s house, right to Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, when hope and persistence and love and magic all meld, he climbed the lamppost across from Anna’s tall house. He breathed a deep breath of the icy winter air and let it out with a sigh. The now familiar home was decorated once again with twinkling white light. The house looked like heaven, star-filled and beautiful. And then Cornelius Splinter noticed something peculiar… heaven’s door stood open. A small child burst out of it, dancing towards him in leaf-green gloves and a long dress that moved about like a flower in the breeze. As soon as she made it to the light under the lamppost she leapt up with both feet and landed in a sudden stop. She was laughing.

“Hello!” called Anna to the boy perched above. “Come here, I have to give you a gift.” He spiraled down the pole with the grace of a maple key and stood beside her. She looked like an angel. The girl was carrying a large box in brown paper. Cornelius Splinter’s full-moon eyes grew wider than ever as she held it out towards him. “It’s for you,” she said, encouraging him to take it by giving the package a bit of a shake. “I’ve spent the whole year making it.”

He took a long time just looking at Anna before he actually received the present. He was soaking it in, absorbing every detail of the moment. Then he carefully unwrapped the box. The box was full of paper. The paper was full of wool.

A simple knitted scarf lay folded carefully inside. He noticed the uneven tension of the stitches in each row; he noticed the differences in width from beginning to end; he noticed large lumps where the yarn had run short and more needed to be tied in to lengthen the project; and he noticed that the rich green colour matched to Anna’s gloves. It was perfect. The little boy smiled so broadly that every single one of his teeth could be seen, even his molars. She beamed at him and flung the scarf around his neck many times. He could barely move by the time she was through, which had the convenient effect of securing his emotions in place. Had his trembling lips been uncovered, he would have certainly drowned them both in a thousand tears of joy.

Anna’s family moved out of the city before the next Christmas Eve could arrive. He knew it was coming, he had seen it before. The night before they left, Cornelius Splinter climbed the post across from Anna’s house and stayed there all night, talking to the angels about the one who lived across the street. When morning dawned he lit a new candle, humbly walked up to Anna’s front door and left it burning there on the stoop as a token of gratitude to the one who had noticed him and had chosen to be kind. Two gifts given, both treasured forever: wool and wax. And magic.