Never Too Late To . . .

Presence coverRight now Tuesday is my favourite day of the week.  A little after nine o’clock in the morning I get on my bike (weather permitting!) and ride 6 kilometres across the city to the newly re-opened Toronto School of Art.   It happens to be housed in a former public school building owned by the Toronto School Board.

The irony of this is not lost on me.  It was in just such a building that my grade three teacher leaned over me and said: “No, Anne, Can’t you see that this is not what a tree looks like? Look out the window, look at that tree.  Your problem is that you are too quick.  You do not listen when I tell you what to do.  Now clean up your mess.  Our paint time is over.”  My 8-year-old excitement in handling paint and brushes drained out of me.  As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make anything look like what I saw.  Others could.  As soon as I could, I dropped art.  I didn’t miss it.  I told myself: “I have no artistic ability.”

Approaching the age of fifty, I found myself stopping in front of watercolour paintings.  An inner voice said;  “I want to do this.”  One day, prior to going on a retreat, I was in an art supply store.  A book caught my attention:.  the cover read: “Anyone can learn to paint watercolours.”  I leafed through the detailed step-by-step approach.  I bought the book and recommended supplies.  On retreat, I carefully followed the instructions.  At the end of the week I had a picture of flowers that looked like flowers

That autumn, I signed up for a watercolour course.  At the end, I had one picture that looked like the vase it was meant to depict.  Encouraged I went to a week-long watercolour course at the Halliburton School of the Arts.  It was a soul-destroying experience.  On the second last day, the teacher took us outdoors to paint.  I gave up.  I wanted to throw everything into the river.  The teacher suggested I take a drawing course.

That is when I met Denis Cliff.  It was a beginner drawing course.  On the first day, Denis sent us outside to draw whatever we wanted.  I picked the trunk of a tree.  What was I thinking?  On returning to class, he asked everyone to put his or her picture up at the front.  I couldn’t.  He didn’t force me.  I realize now he was just trying to get a sense of people’s level of skill.  He made it clear that he believed anyone could learn how to draw, and he set about to teach us.

Yes, people have different levels of natural ability, but like any skill, much can be learned through practice and instruction.  The greatest gift Denis gave me was this:  He took me seriously and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.  He was a gifted teacher.  He was able to engage every student where they were and gently encouraged them to the next opportunity for learning that is present in their work.  I have since learned that watercolours are the most difficult paint medium in which to work.  Over years now of taking many courses I know I will be a life-long learner in the art department.

Sadly, Denis Cliff died of a brain tumour in the autumn of 2013.  I wish I could show him the attached image which was one of many in my last show.  Thank you Presence Journal for publishing it.

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SYMBOLOTRY: Religious symbols – to wear or not to wear?

symbolotryIn the late 1970’s I began to train as a hospital chaplain, know more recently as “Spiritual Care Provider”.  While most of us in the programme and the profession – clergy – were from the Christian tradition, we struggled with whether to wear the traditional symbols – clerical collar, cross, or even nun’s habit – in the corridors of the hospital.  The experience and wisdom of those who had been there before us suggested that these identifying religious symbols were more often a barrier than a help, to building supportive relationships with those we encountered. Our mandate was to support anybody who was going through a life-threatening or severe crisis in his or her life, regardless of their ‘religious’ position.  More recently, spiritual care providers in hospitals might have their origins in a variety of faith traditions, but they are trained and thus offer spiritual care and support to all, regardless of anyone’s creed or dogma.

This understanding informs my thinking on the debate now taking place in, but not limited to, Quebec.  I understand that people who wear religious symbols do so as a statement of what is important to then from a faith perspective.  They may even believe that the wearing of such items is dictated by their tradition.

I invite us to step back and look at what might be going on here.  Is it possible to end up worshiping the symbol, rather than understanding it as a symbol directing us to something deeper about our particular tradition?

Years ago, the multi-faith council on Spiritual and Religious Care came out with a poster[1] that offered the statements from major world religions that demonstrate one common principle.  They all aspire in one-way or another to the “golden rule,” commonly stated as “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  For me, this means, who I am and how I behave towards others matters more than my religion, or any symbol I might wear to publicly demonstrate it.  Rather than focus on things that separate us from one another, can we not focus on the aspects of our traditions that seek to bring us together as human being on planet earth?

In my experience as a spiritual care provider in a downtown teaching hospital, I stood around the bedside of many people of all faiths, and of none, who were dying.  In those moments of death and grief, all the trappings of our particular traditions fall away in a profound human experience that transcends them all. The world needs those of us fuelled by our faith traditions to bring more love and humanity into our world, not more of what will continue to divide.


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A Good-Enough Christmas

gritty-city-2The fact that we are in the darkest and coldest time of the year might possibly be our first clue – to what you ask – that it is not so easy to have a “holly jolly Christmas” “in the bleak mid-winter.”  There it is – the big paradox.  In this, the darkest time of the year, many of us nurture unrealistic expectations and carry disappointments accumulated over the Christmases past.  Many people have difficulties right now, with life and relationships.   Then there is the collective ‘pretend’ that tells us to paste a smile on our face while we overspend money we don’t have, overeat food we don’t need, overdo the liquid cheer, and so on!

The expectations that live within us, those imposed by the culture, and perhaps those of people we love, can combine into a cocktail that makes us feel thoroughly not-enough.

I’m tired of signing every e-mail – “have a very happy Christmas or holiday season”.  I think I’ll start saying – have a good enough holiday season.  I invite you to examine your expectations to determine which are realistic and which will end up causing you more disappointment and pain.  Take a moment to think about what you already have enough of – and not just things.  Stop in your tracks on the street and just observe the frenzy around you.  Then look a little more closely at the faces, and offer them acceptance and compassion for wherever they are on the spectrum of “holiday” happiness.  Let it be.

Have a good enough Christmas, or if you want to be politically correct – holiday season.


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