Sunday, August 31, 2014

Getting Over the Hump

On Wednesday morning in Mish, I wrote in my journal:
August the 6th, Wednesday--what we laughingly call "hump day" at work (the day you reach the "hump" or the middle of the week--and once over it, everything is running downhill towards a resting time!)

By the end of that day though, I was just so tired, it may have been "hump day" but it felt like I was stuck on the hump.

I had been up with the dawn after maybe 5 hours sleep, in order to have some precious solitude. We had a full day of our regular activities, then the community bbq and the dance.

It was about 10.30 when the dance ended. The dark parking lot was full of people leaving the community centre. Our weary team packed up our coolers; the food that was left; the pots; bbq and the cotton candy machine and set about getting the equipment and the 9 of us that had been at the dance, back to the school.

My little Honda Fit was more than a little worn with wear. It was covered in the sand that works its way into every crevice of every thing on Sandy Road, and I noticed that the back windshield wiper was hanging down, loose. The car looked like I felt.

A woman with two boys approached asking for a ride home. People on the reserve mostly walk everywhere as few people have cars. My car was packed with stuff to take back to the school, and Paul was in the passenger seat. I couldn't bring myself to refuse the request so I said I would come back to pick her up once I emptied the car. But when we came back to get her, she was nowhere to be seen.

I got out and moved to the passenger seat so that Paul could drive back. He drove carefully as the sides of the unlit road were dotted with wandering dogs and people walking home, alone or in groups.

Once we got back there was still the clean up of our coolers and other equipment so that it would be ready for the next day. At that moment, with my feelings not my finest, it was best to be quiet. 

And really, I felt so lonely for Paul. The trip had been a heavy load for him; starting with the many details of coordination ahead of time; driving the 24 foot truck in the city of Toronto the day before we left, picking up donations, then going to the church and helping to pack it, with a team of volunteers. We drove in separate vehicles, and once we arrived we were both busy separately and I was just one of the rest of the team. 

At the beginning of the week in Mish I saw that our focus on the trip was not "us" but others; but I was missing him. 

Of course he would not have known that by my silence on the journey back to the school. And when we unloaded the stuff in the kitchen and we all worked at cleaning up, we interacted awkwardly.

It was after he left to go to the classroom he shared with the other men, that I picked up the small gift he had given me that afternoon when he came back from a trip to Pickle Lake. I had been busy in the kitchen and he had held it out, saying with a smile, "This is something to hang in your car."

Now Paul is the one who hangs things in his car; things dangling from my rear-view mirror distract me. I  hadn't really looked at it properly when he gave it to me, just said a quick thank you. 

But now I looked at it. And when I did...well, I clearly saw "us." I felt loved by it, no matter how unlovable I felt at that moment. 

And it helped me get over the hump of selfishness and self absorption. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Dance

Finally there were no more hungry customers lining up for our eclectic feast, and Tori and Christy were almost out of cones on which to swirl cotton candy--our outside party was winding down.

Dark had fallen, and in the community centre parking lot children of all ages played on in the night.

I wandered into the brightly lit centre, and pushed the big doors open to enter the gym. Earlier that day, during the men's conference, a sign was posted on the door saying, "Quiet please, drum ceremony in process." There had been a sense of something private and sacred going on, but now there was no quiet, there was the beat and rhythm of loud fiddle music and a party was in progress.

People sat on chairs that lined the walls of the gym, while others danced and followed the instructions of a "caller" for the square dancing. Round and round they went to the music; children and adults of all ages.

I found Paul and sat down beside him with Joyce and Sharon, but I have always found the beat of music irresistible. I watched and clapped from the sidelines for as long as I could restrain myself, but then I launched from my chair and broke into a pair of joined hands of the people going around in a circle.

Picture a happy looking white woman with black-fly bitten calves and no pride in the rest of her appearance anymore, enthusiastically breaking into a circle of Ojibway people doing a square dance. I wish I could have seen it myself; I'm sure I would have laughed. I was just so carried away by the music. I did notice Mervin, who was in the circle, calling to Paul in desperation, to come up and join us. I already knew that he wouldn't. Paul hasn't danced since he got me under false pretenses by dancing during our courtship. Mervin started calling to other people around the edge but no one else came up either. It was then that I realized that people in a square dance have partners! Suffice it to say that I wrecked the dance and we all had to improvise with much laughter until the end, when I went and got my camera to take photos instead, probably to everyone else's relief. :)

I was fascinated by a ritual that seemed to be part of the dance. A sort of shawl or big square scarf would be laid down by one of the women in the centre of the circle. One of the men would approach it thoughtfully as if sizing it up, then, with a sense of challenge, begin poking, then kicking it with his toe. Then suddenly he would toss it up in the air with his foot, catch it, and then he would go up to a woman and tie it around her neck. then they would all continue dancing around in a circle until that woman took off the scarf and laid it down in the middle. I wondered what the significance of it was.

One of the men, whose name was Caulie was an amazing dancer. He wore a bright red shirt, with a grey vest, and red scarf on his head, topped with a hat. His feet were like quicksilver!

 The next day Caulie was at the school and he told me that he has won awards for his dancing.

I couldn't wait to ask him the significance of the cloth on the floor in the dance. 

"What's it all about?" I asked.

Caulie said, "It's a square,"

"Yes?" I said, expectantly.

"It's a square dance," he said, and that was that. Sometimes a square is just a square! :) I felt silly; not for the first time in 24  hours.

One little boy asked me outside, after the dance, "Where you the lady who was dancing?" I said "Yes!" I'm so glad that kids notice the important things and know what parts to forget!

Dance--a universal language of friendship in which we hold hands and lift our feet from the earth, if only momentarily.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Community Feast

On Wednesday and Thursday in Mish, there was a two day Men's Conference at the community centre, followed by a square dance both nights. Pastor Mervin said that Wednesday evening would be a good time for us to hold the community barbecue that Paul and he had been discussing as a wonderful way to build bridges with the community.

Susan had brought her portable barbecue along for the event. Some of the team had gone out  fishing with Mervin the night before, and they came home with a big bag of walleye fish from somewhere (although I suspect it was from Mervin's freezer, not the lake! :)) Jamie had also bought a bag of frozen white fish for $20 from a woman at the community centre. There were hot dogs and buns and Paul bought hamburger patties in Pickle Lake. Sharon made a huge batch of her original Italian recipe huge spaghetti sauce with meat balls. The fragrance of garlic and onions cooking filled the kitchen.
Wednesday afternoon after the children's program, the kitchen was filled with people frying fish or making spaghetti sauce. I felt stressed by the whole thought of cooking enough food for all the people coming to the dance but I was the only one muttering, "I don't know how we'll do this." Everyone else was just doing it! 

Our mostly fearless crew set up outside the community centre as dusk was falling, cooking and serving. The people just kept coming as fast as the bugs kept biting us and hungry dogs circled us hopefully. 

But telling people,"It's free!" when they asked, "How much?" was so much fun; and,truly miraculously we didn't run out of food--we actually had some fish, spaghetti and meat balls to take back to the school.

 Christy and Tori made cotton candy non stop, all evening, until they ran out of cones, and the children lined up patiently over and over again for this treat that they had never tasted before this week. I tried to help but was hopelessly uncoordinated. I couldn't get the knack of going around the bowl one way while twisting the cone in the opposite direction!

By the end of the evening we went home so tired. 

That was partly due to the square dance--but I'll write about that tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hitting Our Stride

Tuesday in Mish it felt like we fell into a rhythm with everyone leaving the school soon after breakfast to set up and start activities for the children at around 11.00, with Joyce and I staying back to make lunch for the team and children and following soon after. 

Arranging food for 11 of us and 30-50 children was something we had planned ahead for. Food is so expensive in the nearby town of Pickle Lake that we wanted to be as self sufficient as possible.

We had made large casseroles and frozen them for our main meals and they traveled well, staying frozen in coolers on our three day journey to Mish. What didn't travel as well were the frozen hamburger patties intended for a barbecue Paul wanted to put on for the community. They all thawed out on the journey so on Monday we cooked them all and ate some of them for supper, but that still left a bunch of cooked patties to use up. Rebecca had the great idea of chopping them up and putting them with pasta for lunch!

So on Tuesday, after everyone left, Joyce and I chopped what felt like a never ending pile of patties.We had a vast quantity of spaghetti bubbling away in a big pot on the stove. And then we spotted some spaghetti sauce in our supplies on the shelf. I hesitated only momentarily before opening a couple of jars of sauce and throwing them in with the cooked spaghetti and hamburger chunks; adding some ketchup for zestiness. All the time the clock was ticking and we knew hungry children would be waiting. 

Photograph by Susan C. Stewart
How to carry the resulting mess of spaghetti to the community centre? We poured it all into a big cooler to keep it hot; dashed it out to the car with another cooler full of freezies, and some cookies baked by another Joyce at our church. We gathered up paper plates and cups; and like paramedics running to an emergency, we bumped our way down the sandy road to the community centre, picking up children along the way. 
Photograph by Susan C. Stewart

Our pasta dish was a rip roaring success, as were the helium balloons the rest of the team had been blowing up for the children. According to Susan, who took these photos, Paul started out being very serious with the children about holding tight onto their balloons, but as one after another escaped, riotous fun ensued, with funny high pitched helium voices and laughter and Paul madly trying to keep up with the task of getting balloons into the hands of children that had lost theirs. The young man in the white shirt is Jacob, who was on our team with Nayah, a girl, as two youth from the community; giving them a chance to learn leadership skills as they helped.

Photograph by Susan C. Stewart
Joyce and I gave out the most popular treat of all--freezies! Susan had the great idea later of cutting them in the middle and handing them out in halves. 50 freezies a day vanished quickly in the heat!

Photograph by Susan C. Stewart
Christy had prepared an amazing array of activities that kept the children busy from 11-3 every day. They played parachute games; had their faces painted; made picture frames; played with bubbles and shot hoops with A.J. in the community centre--when they weren't chasing him with water guns. A.J. quickly became the children's target of choice!  

It was Tuesday and we felt as though we were hitting our stride.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Testimony Sunday

It was Testimony Sunday at our church yesterday. We've had it once a month lately. I think it was started by our pastor just as an experiment--would anyone actually have anything to share? I look forward to it and it's always a pleasant surprise to find that it's the Sunday where no one knows who might say what! 

Our pastor is a structured type of personality, so this is a bit of a stretch for him, I think, and he really earns points with me for going there--opening the gates to the unknown. 

There is always that slightly scary moment, when he stands at the front of the church with the mic in his hand and a hush hangs in the air; but then the first brave soul steps up and then another, and then a queue begins to form; and it's the opposite of the nightly newscasts--the stories of countries at war, rockets and hostage takings. To hear stories of lives turned in different and good directions; funny and grace filled stories, results in a realignment of the soul's internal balance. That's how it was yesterday.

Right at the end two people got up to speak about Mish. We are having a special Sunday soon when we hope to get all 11 of us together at the church to share, but these two just couldn't wait; anymore than I've been able to wait to share in writing, I suppose.

Sharon was first. A petite woman with long white hair tied back in a pony tail. In Mish she kept the neatest bed on our classroom floor. It always looked like an immaculately tidy island in the middle of a sea of sleeping bags.
 She told how she was sitting beside one little girl at the start of one day, just hanging out, talking, and the little girl said longingly, "I'm so hungry...I haven't eaten anything yet today." 

Sharon said, "Don't worry honey, lunch is going to be here in just half an hour!"  

Then, she asked the girl that question adults always seem to ask children; she asked about her hopes for the future: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" 

The girl said, "I want to be a Christian." 

The story of that conversation touches my heart deeply, for what life ambition could be better? The little girl's name was Jourdan. I pray that she will always follow in the footsteps of Jesus and know his presence with her as I have known him in my life, and been so grateful.

Then Jamie stood, and with a voice choked with emotion, he said that he can't wait to go back to Mish. It sounded as though he left part of his heart behind there. He said that the Lord has been talking to him about moving there. Jamie is kind of a free spirit. I can imagine that he just might do it.

More stories of Mish are coming, but of course they are just my perspective. Today I just wanted to share how two other people's lives were touched.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tuesday in a Far Country

I woke early on Tuesday; poured out my heart in my journal, and shared some of it in the post titled: A Very Quick Note from Mish. I felt as though I had already failed on many levels, partly because I, and everyone else, was exhausted. But Monday was over and it was a new day. Thank goodness for new days, and for the prayer warriors that I knew were supporting us back home. It meant so much that people were praying, including our home churches, and the prayer team at The Word Guild.

We didn't go to Mish to directly share our faith; we went to serve the community in any way we could. Our First Nations have a  history with the Church that is painful, so we wanted to simply be there to help, to build relationships, and to represent our faith in action rather than words.

Paul has been making trips to that community for ten years. He has driven a truck there in winter with others, more than once; when the roads were being closed down around them, because there was winter clothing to deliver, as well as food and Christmas gifts for the children. In addition he has gone with different groups of people year after year in the summers.

What drives him is love for a group of people God gave him a special passion for. His faithfulness and consistency in that community has won acceptance for any people who come with him. Susan told me how different it was when she went for the first time, several years ago. She said that the children were the same, eager to participate in activities, but the adults ignored their presence.

On this, my first experience in Mish, I sensed quiet acceptance and trust. People who were Christians made themselves known to us and I was struck by the clear distinction between following the Lord, or not.  In our secularized culture the lines can get blurred; not so in the north, at least not from my observation. A drug and mental health youth worker we spoke to said that there is a lot of spiritual warfare in the community and you can see that in a way that is not so obvious in the south. The small white historical Anglican church was burned to the ground not long ago, but Pastor Mervin said that God is dealing with the man that did it--a sign of hope. Paul has a vision to bring Pastor Mervin south to share his personal story of coming to faith; it is a story of someone who truly came from darkness into light.

Many families are damaged by alcoholism and drugs, and yet  there is hope. I sat and listened to a woman who told me that after 28 years of abusive relationships and existing in an alcoholic haze to numb the pain; she made a change with the strength she found in faith in God, and has been living a life free of abuse and alcohol for many years. As she told me her story of guilt over a child whose death she blamed herself for, I saw someone who had suffered more than I can imagine, and was a victor. I was humbled in her gentle presence and thankful beyond words for faith in God who "makes all things new."

Marita, the custodian of the school, told me the names of her grandchildren,  including Shekinah and Genesis. What beautiful and evocative names. Kendra, Marita's daughter, said that Genesis's first name is Bitubin, which is an Ojibway word for that first gleam of light along the horizon just as the sun is rising. Before his birth she had several dreams in a row of that gleam of light, and a boy standing there. 

I pray that Bitubin will represent that gleam of light for his generation; a Genesis, a new beginning for the children of Mish

That morning, most of our group left to set up the activities for the children, and Joyce and I were to follow with lunch. We had just started preparing it when one of the custodial staff came to us with a request for prayer on behalf of another staff who was worried about her daughter, just hospitalized in much pain with a kidney infection.  We found her, clutching a tissue and in tears of anxiety. We prayed with her, for peace and for healing and felt the stress lift a little at least. We were so happy a few days later to hear good news, that she was much better.

All we had to do was be available to God. He was using us.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Monday, Our First Complete Day

After talking with Pastor Mervin Masakeyash on our first evening in Mish, we decided to take our first full day, Monday, as a day to get to know the people in the community and let them know we'd be running a children's program all week. It was the Civic Holiday, and people would be at the community centre for activities.

So most of us headed down the 4.2 km sandy road to the community centre, taking some activities for children, just in case they came.

Sandy Road really is well named. It winds down, around several curves,  to the community. At the top stands the dramatic and distinctive profile of the school and water treatment facility, and then the teachers' residences and the nurses residences. The road is dotted along the way with houses spread out on either side, with a lake on the right hand side. Outside the houses, there were usually several children playing. Some would watch us curiously or wave as we passed.

Driving the road can only be done slowly, and causes billowing clouds of yellow sand to rise in the air and settle into the crevices and curves of the vehicles. The fine stones rattled against the doors as we carefully drove along the road. We learned not to get over confident and speed up unless we wanted to risk ending up in the ditch!

That first day, some women were waiting at the community centre hoping that we would have brought the donated clothing that had come up with us on the truck, but Mervin had suggested that we bring it on Thursday, as the men of the surrounding communities were gathering for a two day conference on Wednesday and Thursday and the end of that would be a good time to put out the clothing. We valued his input so agreed to wait. Paul and Mervin instead drove the truck to the homes of some needy families in the community and delivered 50 lb bags of potatoes, and other food donated by the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto.

A.J. hung out with the kids in the gym at the community centre and Susan, Christy, Eliana, Rebecca, Sharon, Jamie and Tori connected with a crowd of kids that gathered outside, thrilled to join in the fun.

Paul had seen a 7 day old baby in a "bundle" while delivering food, and when he told me, I had to get a photograph, so he took me back to ask the mom. Joyce, who was an obstetrics nurse before she retired, came with us! The beautiful baby looked snug and secure. I kissed his  head and whispered a blessing.

Christy's cotton candy machine was a big hit! None of the children had ever tasted cotton candy before and they loved it. They willingly lined up over and over for a taste!

 Children everywhere love making daisy crowns.
 The dogs were ever hopeful of dropped crumbs or better. If we weren't careful they'd swipe food out of the children's hands. But they too, had a hungry belly to fill.

Christy had activities for all ages, and even though we hadn't planned to run the program that first day, we went with the flow, and the children who came had something to do.

Paul needed to go to nearby Pickle Lake and I went too, never having seen it before. I was shocked at the price of food and we were grateful that we had brought as much of what we needed, with us. I don't know how people manage to buy food at the prices we saw. A bunch of bananas, for instance, was $8.00! Of course it is expensive to transport food so far north.

Those working with the children had not had any lunch, so we quickly made tuna salad sandwiches at the school and drove back down the road to deliver them.

We were all exhausted by evening. It had been a day packed with new experiences. We had not communicated well with one another and some felt unsupported. We had ridden madly off in all directions. Some of us felt inwardly chastened by our reactions, spoken or not, under the pressure of that first day. But we had only just begun, and were only 11 tired very human beings after all. :)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Perfect Place to Stay!

We arrived in Mishkeegogamang so glad the doors of Missabay Community School were opened to us as a place to stay. 

We slept together on a classroom floor for a week, and it turned out to be the best accommodation we could have chosen.

The school is beautiful. Built on the shores of a beautiful lake over which the sun rose gold every morning. We did not have showers, but the Queens University students in the teachers' residence just down the road, gave us an hour a day in which those of us desperate to have a shower could share theirs, otherwise the girls and boys washrooms or the lake, or the showers at the community centre worked well.

MissabayThe school is named after Chief Missabay, in the photo below from the Archives of Ontario. He was a respected leader in the community in the early part of the last century, and it was an honour to stay in a place named for him.

Blind Chief Missabay, making a speech at Osnaburg

ca 1905

Archives of Ontario
C 275-1-0-2-S7600

"Missabay, the recognized chief of the band, then spoke, expressing the fear of the Indians that, if they signed the treaty, they would be compelled to reside upon the reserve to be set apart for them, and would be deprived of the fishing and hunting privileges which they now enjoy." Commissioners Report, Osnaburgh House, July 1905.

 We set up our supplies in the school kitchen and got organized, and had our first visit, from Pastor Mervin Masakeyash, who was part of our team for the week, along with two youth from the community.
The school is a hub of activity, with custodial staff arriving in the morning as early as 6.00 a.m. and people coming and going to use the wireless internet. Because we were there we had a chance to meet people and form relationships with Marita, Kendra, Josie, Mary, Donnie, Isaiah, Desiree, Savannah, Jeff, little Tameeka, Ishmael and Salvator, Bitubin, and others. We even had visits from four legged friends.

Whenever we had a meal, we invited the people around at the time to join us. It was humbling to hear the stories shared and get to know some of the people we met on a level we would not have done otherwise. They were so gracious and easygoing in sharing their space with us. We settled into a rhythm, sharing our space with one another, too. For me solitude is almost as necessary as breathing and I sought out precious moments alone by rising ahead of the crowd.

We started each day with a short inspirational reading, a chapter from Proverbs and a prayer. And then we debriefed daily as a team so that we could learn from our mistakes and keep the lines of communication clear. 

The school is built around a central circular meeting place, with corridors running off it. It is hung with colourful tapestries, and the walls are covered in historical black and white photographs of the community's earlier years. I loved looking at these photographs and the skilled art work in painting and needlework that surrounded us there.

And always we were drawn to the world outside that silently waited for our admiration. It was the perfect place to stay.