Homeland Insecurity

The other day I had my first real bout of missing Canada since arriving in the UK three months ago.

Our new table top stereo had arrived from Amazon the day before, replacing and closely resembling the unit we gave away when we left Vancouver, another casualty of the voltage difference between the continents.   I bought the new one at a steep discount, the vendor advertising it as “slightly scratched, with damaged packaging”, but when it came there wasn’t any damage at all.  Pleased, I plugged it in, set the clock, made sure I could dock Renata’s old iPod, and then a USB stick, and finally began to tune the FM radio stations.  It was then I realized I didn’t know anything at all about radio in the UK.

Since our arrival I’ve only once listened to an actual radio.  We had taken the Tube and then the bus to a northwest London IKEA to buy a few things and, as one does, emerged three hours later, tired of slow walking and pushing two enormous shopping carts full of projects.  No way were we getting home on public transport.

The guy at the IKEA delivery desk took one look at our horde of mostly small treasures and informed us we didn’t want his next day service. He sent us to a neighbouring desk, that of a taxi company.   Ten minutes later, after anxiously submitting our postal code to be vetted, we were out on the pavement hurriedly throwing everything into the back of a minivan, an older one of the kind that looks not far off a giant and slightly melted microwave oven.

It was a hot day, the only one we’ve had so far really, the front windows were down and, as we crawled along in London traffic, a pleasant selection of classic rock & pop was playing on the radio.  “You know Billy Joel?” our young driver shouted at me over the noise of the traffic outside his open window, smiling proudly, as if he had just discovered him.

To be more like Jesus I ignored his question and replied with my own. “Where are you from?” I asked, having picked up on a heavy and distinctly non-British accent.  To be honest I could already tell from his physical appearance and accent he was of Somali extraction, but I was trying to be polite.

“Croydon,” he replied.

“Were you born there?” I continued, again being polite and not believing for a second he would answer in the affirmative.  I already had my follow-up question about Somalia at the ready.

“Yeah,” he said, “in 1991.”

Wow.  I thought of my own children, born and raised in the Netherlands; are they – second generation immigrants themselves – still so easy to identify as “foreigners”?  I wondered.

We chatted all the way home, he informed me of the name of the station he was listening to, and I gave him a decent tip for the help of  getting our things indoors and for the bother of time wasted in the traffic jam.

Now, weeks later and tuning my stereo for the first time, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the frequency of that station.  I duly consulted Google and came up with a list and descriptions for all the tunable FM stations in the London area.  The BBC dominates with half a dozen offerings pegged at different slices of the local demographic.  As for my UK-Somali friend, he had been listening to Smooth FM.  Very fetch.

The next day, radio tuned, it was my turn to cook dinner, something I enjoy doing and have long preferred to do while listening to the radio, in the company of a glass of red wine.  In the past five years, while living in British Columbia, I grew fond of CBC Vancouver’s late afternoon show, “On the Coast”.  Light banter, news, human interest stories, music, contests – it’s a really lovely mix for someone of my age and interests.  But, sadly, that too had to go when we moved to London.   (Yes, I could listen online, but am not likely to do so at 02:00 in the morning.)

At first I thought my irritation was because the red wine was missing.  I’ve given up most alcohol for the time being – long story – and there was a disruption in my regular pleasant pattern of cooking and sipping.  I was unsettled.

But then I realized it wasn’t the lack of vino that was causing my irritation, it was the newsy BBC radio station I had tuned to.  It was only news.  It wasn’t comfortable and homey.  So, leaving the onion half-cut on the cutting board, I went over and messed with the radio, selecting another station.  One that turned out to be hosted by the most obnoxious, self-absorbed, screechy chatterbox of a host as ever I’ve heard.  Again, knife down and another station.  Too much music; in fact, only music.  No good.

It was no use.  I was now missing CBC radio, missing Canada outright, missing my old life with all it’s familiar comforts and routines.  And my homesickness continued to build all through the evening and into the next day, for no apparent reason.  For one full day the UK just wasn’t good enough.  The weather, the traffic, the lack of mountains, the overcrowded grocery stores, it was all crap.

I’ve resided in numerous countries on four different continents, with my first intercontinental move coming at the age of three.  International transitions are not new or unfamiliar to me.  But no matter how often I do it, still there comes a day when I miss all that was good in my previous life, and I am temporarily blinded to the benefits of my new one.

Losses are just that.  They are genuine and not mere sentimentality; they must be grieved.  That life I left behind?  It is never coming back.  Even if I were to return to the same location, fill my life with the old routines, I myself will have been changed in the meantime.  My new home is already leaving its indelible mark on me, chipping away at my soul to change the contours of my being.

And that’s okay.  My heart may linger over what is gone, yes, but it will also grow to embrace what is new.  One day I will miss this present life and know that it too was good.


The Big One*

If you don’t know what The Big One is, you’ve never lived on the West Coast.

Yesterday I got to thinking about The Big One again when I was listening to the radio and heard the mayor of Nanaimo saying that, without the ferry service, Vancouver Island has about a three-day grocery supply. “That’ll never get them through The Big One,” I opined to Renata at dinner, happy once again to have moved off the Island.

Today I went shopping at Costco. If that doesn’t get you thinking about The Big One, nothing will. Costco membership comes, reportedly, with a guarantee that you’ll make it through The Big One; at least, it should.

Just HOW you’ll make it through, though, gives pause. Renata and I will in any case be drunk. Which, considering it’s The Big One, is probably a good start. The only drinkable liquid we have in any significant quantity in the house is wine. That and Real Lemon. I honestly don’t know how we ended up with so many litres of Real Lemon, but I blame Costco. So we’ll be drunk and our teeth will be on edge.

Our arses will be clean too, owing to a simply enormous bag of Costco toilet paper which I picked up today, falsely believing that our other enormous bag was nearly depleted. And we’ll have clean windows. The toilet paper in the pantry is only dwarfed by an even larger bag of paper towel. That, along with a gallon of Windex, will keep us occupied as we wait to be rescued.

And snacks! Boy do we have snacks. That’s one thing Costco is good at. Snacks and cheese. With all the wine and snacks and cheese we will throw a great get-to-know-the-neighbours party, a Really Big One. We’ll ask people to bring drinks (but not wine), and when it’s over we’ll NOT ask them to take their unopened drinks home again.

Thankfully we have only a small freezer so when the electricity goes we should be able to keep pace with the thawing food: some bread, salmon, berries, ice cream – we’re good for a couple of days on the freezer stuff alone. Cooking will be okay for the first week I reckon, judging by the gas in the tank on the deck and the two little tanks in the camping equipment.

I think we’re good. Some extra water would be a good idea – we don’t have any – but with all the toilet paper and paper towel in the pantry there’s just no room; extra water is really not an option right now.


*This is one of those just for fun posts that I originally wrote as a Facebook note in 2014.

Island Farewell 

I push hard against the door, fighting winter’s wind on the other side, stepping from the bright, cozy warmth of the passenger lounge into the dark night air.  Brrrr.  Baby it’s cold outside. Turning right toward the front of the Queen of New Westminster, my unzipped jacket flaps wildly.  I pause, turning my back to the wind and do it up, pulling both my hoodie top and jacket hood over my head.  Better; much better.

On the forward deck, directly under the bridge, I find the sweet spot, the quiet space created by the wind hitting the bow and being directed up and to either side over my head, the wind reduced to a moderate breeze.  I am alone.  I lean back against the cold steel of the vessel and take in the clear night sky above me.

In this moment I stand with Abraham, overcome by the brilliance of ten thousand points of light, my life – a single star in the brilliant hemisphere – seeming both small and significant at once. I remember a night in Fez three decades ago, the same canopy, the same wonder, the quiet assurance that, come what may, all will be well.

To my left on the distant horizon, the glow of Vancouver, adorned with a tiara of sparkling mountain ski slopes hanging as if in midair in the black void above her.  To my right the brooding dark hulk of Gabriola, ringed at the base by a warm cincture of home lights burning.  And dotted around in the vast, dark waters of the Strait of Georgia the lights of other vessels bear witness to Canada’s unending industry, fishers and loggers most prevalent here.

Vancouver Island, my first Canadian home, lies at the end of this ship’s wake, becoming a mere memory as we draw away. I’ve come to say goodbye.

Our four day journey saw us drive halfway up the eastern coast, taking the old Island Highway, enjoying the hospitality of friends and family, pausing in Black Creek to dust the snow off of the graves of our loved ones and sitting for a moment on the logs at Miracle Beach, like Adam and Eve, or whatever their names were in the aboriginal tongue and creation myth, when they emerged from these ocean waters ten thousand years ago.  In the hours between, the windshield wipers making music with the rain, me driving and Renata resting her feet up on the dash, we talked.  We talked as if talking would help us finally understand why we had come here in the first place, why we needed to leave, and what we left behind when we did.  This place changed us, but how?

Tears well up in my eyes now, turning the points of light into oversized Van Gogh-inspired creations.  How can a place that was never really home make me cry for it, long  for it again, miss it even before it is gone?  The words of Erasmus come to me:   “Ik ben een wereldburger, mijn vaderland is overal; of eigenlijk ben ik een vreemdeling voor iedereen.”   I am a citizen of the world, my homeland is everywhere; but really I am a stranger to everyone.

Farewell, Island.  I shall miss your misty forests, your mountains running down to the sea, your fine and friendly people, your deer, otter, eagle, and orca.  Hold our loved ones in your earth, hold them softly until we return, or their Saviour does.  You have blessed us, delighted and perplexed us; changed us and made us better than we were when we first arrived on your rocky shores.  For this we are grateful.  Farewell now; be well.


(Written aboard the Queen of New Westminster, 29 December 2015.)

Cape Mudge

Today we put Mom’s ashes into the ground. She’s there now, resting near family members she variously loved or endured, mostly in-laws; Isaac, Jacob, two Maria’s, Uncle Harry and all those poor kids who died on a cold winter’s day early in 1970. Heidi died too that day but her marker, if that’s what it is, is just an empty space in the line of seven stones. Her body was never found. “Slipped out of her life jacket,” is the conventional wisdom, but of course no one really knows.

We chuckled as we realized that in death Mom would have the same next door neighbours as she had in life. “No, not planned,” said the cemetery attendant standing nearby. Then we got serious again, said a prayer, sang a hymn, stood around uncomfortably in the summer heat until we shuffled off in different directions to see who else we might know beneath the grass.

Later, the sun setting, we gathered at the beach around a fire, cooking wieners, making smores, throwing rocks at the dark water. The same water that took Uncle Harry and his boat and all those kids. Yes, right there – we point at the lighthouse on Cape Mudge across the water – there the one group of bodies was found; the others further down the island, over there.

Tonight I’m in the made up bed in the spare room. Out the window the moon is full and bright, pulling a long golden train across the water. And below, the lighthouse on Cape Mudge beams its single light, every five seconds, keeping a silent vigil over our passing lives.


(*This is one of a number of my Facebook Notes which I will be folding into this blog so my writing is in one place.  I wrote this in the summer of 2014.)

Canada is not the USA

One hears it quite regularly from Canadians.  Americans, on the other hand, rarely think about it.

I heard it again yesterday in the words of a news article covering the hasty withdrawal from Canada of Target, the giant American retailer.   As it turns out, Target is only one of a long list of American businesses which have tried and failed to enter the Canadian marketplace.  Part of the challenge is pure logistics: operating in a country that is larger than the USA in area but a tenth of the size in population calls for a completely different logistical strategy.

And yes, we can all think of a number of relatively minor cultural differences in the realms of vocabulary, sports, etiquette and the like.  During a recent conference held on the border town of Blaine, WA, where the 200 participants consisted of roughly equal numbers from Canada and the USA, I passed a woman coming the other way down the hallway in the hotel.  As it happened we crossed where a hotel employee had parked his cart outside a room, making our shared pathway somewhat narrower.  There was still plenty of room for both of us to get by, which we did, but as she passed me she issued a quite genuine-sounding, apologetic “Sorry!”.  I would be willing to put money on this woman being a Canadian.

However, the Canada-is-not-the-USA claim is, I believe, a plea to recognize and appreciate cultural values which are considerably deeper than those behavioural differences we find variously so quaint or annoying about each other.  I’m no expert – I’ve lived in Canada for four years and have been married to a Canadian eight times longer than that – but here, to begin with, are three pointers for Americans hoping for a successful venture in Canada:

1) The Past Looms Large.

Canadians and Americans share a similar view of how the present time relates to the future.  The future is optimistic, not-too-far-away, and is directly connected to the present.  Decisions taken today will affect our futures, in our lifetimes.  The future is important, it’s right around the corner.

However, when it comes to relating to the past, our predominant national cultures part ways.  To Americans the past is truly in the past: it is relatively insignificant and distant.  For the American, the past is all shot in black & white film, as it were.

Not so for the Canadian.  Here the past is very near, in a sense overlapping with the present.  The past is what makes us who we are today and so it needs to be remembered, honoured, and (here’s the rub!) preserved.  This is true not only of significant national events, but also of quite local and peculiar customs.

Practically speaking this means that Canadians seem overly traditionalist to Americans; yes, they are willing to embrace the future but not if it means leaving the past behind.  “Why do we need to keep doing it this way?” asks the American.  “Because our memories make us who we are,” replies the Canadian.

2) Patchwork – vs – Melting Pot.

Okay we all know this one.  Or we think we do.  You know, the classic comparison of the immigrant histories in our two countries: that in Canada the result was a society like a patchwork quilt of separate communities holding fast to their ethnic identities; in the USA, on the other hand, the fires of liberty burned away those former allegiances and forged a new, common identity, the “American”.

What we often fail to appreciate is that this preference is not only at work on a grand scale, but also in how we relate to other groups or jurisdictions in general.

Recently, while interviewing for a position within the Anglican Church of Canada and trying to understand the context of the parish, I asked a group of representatives from the congregation whether they ever did “joint activities with other churches”.  It was interesting to me that what they heard me say was “joint activities with other Anglican churches”, which they told me all about.  This was not the first time I’ve received such tribal-like responses to similar questions.

Until very recently it was illegal to take British Columbian wine with you over the border into Alberta.  I once sent a nice bottle of wine to a friend in Ontario as a gesture of thanks for a favour he had done.  It was confiscated by the postal service and he received a stern note threatening a hefty fine the next time he tried to “import” alcohol.  Again recently: my application for a criminal records check was rejected by the clerk at the police station because it was “not on our form”; she handed me “our form”, which was exactly the same in every detail to the one I had just attempted to hand in, but printed on different paper.

All of this boggles the mind of Americans.  I believe, however, that there is an admirable cultural value at the back of it, and it is this: Canadians value and respect each other’s group identities more than Americans do; their patchwork is purposeful.  It is a consistent – if not conscious – rejection of the melting pot approach.

3) Yes, m’ Lord.  (You jerk.)

Americans are famous for their relatively flat hierarchies.  Good leaders are accessible, have acquired their status by virtue of their achievements, and relate well to those who serve below them in rank.  When push comes to shove the boss is the boss (“the buck stops here”), but when the crisis is over and the dust settles, you’d expect the boss to have a beer with the rest of the team.

To understand hierarchies in Canada one needs to remember that the country is much more tied to its British heritage than is the USA.  There is a hint of Downton Abbey here, but not so extreme.  While operating “upstairs”, on the level of office, role or function, leaders are afforded greater respect and deference than their American counterparts.  But this is counterbalanced by the hidden world “downstairs”, away from the task at hand, where loyalty to the leader is a different matter altogether.

To put it another way, Canadians have greater respect for the office and less for the person filling it.

Any more?

I may add other cultural values here as I identify them.  Also, I will be happy to amend what I have written above if you want to comment and leave me your wisdom.

Ecclesia Anglicana

Having recently become canonically resident and active in ministry in the Diocese of New Westminster, I am now also attending “clericus”, the regional meetings of diocesan clergy.  I’ve been to these types of gatherings in four different countries within the Anglican Communion and they generally hold to a similar pattern: we pray, have coffee and cookies, share what is happening in our parishes and personal lives, express our “concern about where the diocese is headed” (no matter where it is headed), come to a tentative agreement about our next meeting date and pray again.

My first clericus was held at St. John the Divine in Maple Ridge.  According to the commemorative plaque affixed to the portico, this small, wood-frame church is the oldest in all of British Columbia, having been built in 1859 and then barged across the Fraser River to its present location in 1882.  So Christianity in any significant form arrived on the northwestern shores of North America a mere 166 years ago.  Before that the Great Spirit was worshipped, for millennia, through rituals more ancient and indigenous.

As I stepped back and looked at the church in the bright, early spring sunlight, I recalled the words of two quite divergent authors.  The first were of Maria Pascua, a member of Washington State’s aboriginal Makah people at Neah Bay, just across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Vancouver Island.  At the end of her 1991 article for National Geographic magazine (“Ozette: A Makah Village in 1491”) Ms. Pascua, a Christian,  expressed her gratitude for her people having been introduced to Christ while at the same time acknowledging a deep sadness that remains for having been robbed by the European conquerors of a treasure trove of ancient rites and customs.  Would it not have been possible to embrace Christ without becoming European?

The other words which came to mind were those of Robert Louis Stevenson on leaving San Francisco for the South Seas: “I was now escaped out of the shadow of the Roman empire, under whose toppling monuments we were all cradled, whose laws and letters are on every hand of us, constraining and preventing…”.

The Sunday previous to our clericus meeting was the Second in Lent and also St. David’s Day.  On arrival at the church that Sunday I found the sanctuary decked out in daffodils; it was lovely and expected. But I also found the flag of Wales prominently displayed in floral arrangements either side of the altar and later as the icing of a large cake at coffee time.  I gladly engaged the festivities, congratulating and thanking the Welsh contingent in our congregation, explaining a bit about St. David, and lustily singing “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” as we recessed out of the church.  And yet, I left the church with questions on my mind.

I was ordained and served for over a decade in the Church of England and, even though I am not British and was serving in mainland Europe, never batted an eye about the “CofE” being a church so thoroughly British in all that it is and does.  Ecclesia Anglicana; it makes perfect sense.  Celtic enthusiasts and Robert Louis Stevenson know better of course but, those objections notwithstanding, the Church of England is a fairly indigenous expression of the Church in the British Isles.

However, after four years in Canada I’m still getting used to the Anglican Church of Canada being so British.  Or perhaps more accurately, being so purposefully British.  Yes, we should honour and be glad for our British heritage, its peculiar Saints and customs.  The Queen is our Queen too and the Church which she governs gave birth to our own.  That is our history and we cherish it.  But as an independent Church in a multi-cultural society, especially a Church that wants to grow and be welcoming of all people of whatever background or pedigree, would we not do well to continue to widen our celebrations to include those of other cultures and peoples?

Coming home from clericus I set to work on my sermon for the next Sunday.  The reading from the Gospel of John had Jesus driving out the merchants from the Temple.  Surely among the possible motives for his protest is the fact that the currency trade and livestock market was being held in the Court of the Gentiles, thus robbing the non-indigenous worshippers of their access to unencumbered prayer.  How often those of us of the dominant culture fail to appreciate what the marginalized have to bring, instead appropriating their space at our discretion and for our own purposes.

Our Church and our diocese have been blessed with some rich history of multi-cultural ministries.  The Reverend Robert McDonald in the mid 1800’s and the Reverend Dr. Cyril Powles more recently come to mind.  Today there are hopeful signs that we are becoming a true home for an even greater number of peoples from varying cultures and traditions.  The Ecclesia Anglicana runs through our veins but, following the Spirit, we are becoming so much more than that.  Thanks be to God!

Bah! to the church parking lot.

Much of what is wrong with the Church in North America can be found in the parking lot.  Does anything proclaim more loudly or clearly, “We do not belong to this neighbourhood” than a lonely church building, locked up for much of the week and surrounded by an acres-wide empty parking lot?

Thirty-odd years ago I was “sent out” by a typical American evangelical mega-church to be a missionary in Europe (I know!).  The last event I ever participated in at that church, as a regular attender, was held in the – I’m not kidding you – seven acre parking lot.  It was a warm Sunday evening in late September and we held a “Welcome to Church” hotdog & ice cream social in the parking lot, assuming wrongly that we would engage the neighbourhood by moving out of doors.  At the time I thought it was a cool idea.

Coming back to Canada a few years ago, now as an Anglican parish priest (there is a God),  I was struck time and again by the ubiquitous empty church parking lot.  Nothing symbolizes in quite the same way the church’s acquiescence to its marginalization and increasing insignificance in society.  Do you regularly pass by businesses with large parking lots that are consistently empty?  Yes, you do; and like me you think “gosh, they’re not doing too well are they?”

Lately I’ve been walking more.  For most of my thirty years in Europe, raising a family of four children, I didn’t own a car.  We cycled, we walked, we took the bus.  I tried hard to bring these good habits with me to Canada, in my first year here cycling more than 2000 kilometres on parish business.  Nearly every time I made a hospital visit I would receive astonished remarks, most of my parishioners knowing that I lived more than 15 kilometres from the hospital.  Now, having moved to Abbotsford, where things are considerably more compact than the rural Nanaimo area I was in before, I find that I can do much more on foot.

One thing I’ve discovered by walking: in Canada, it’s the poor who walk.  Oh sure, one sees the odd middle-class exercise enthusiast who is out for a stroll, but mostly the people who are walking from point A to point B in all weather are the ones who can’t afford a bus fare that day, let alone the privilege of owning a car.  Yesterday, on my way to and from the grocery store, I was greeted brightly by a few of these toothless types (another personal socio-economic indicator in Canada).  There is a certain camaraderie among poor sods in the drizzle.

Most of the churches I pass as I walk are completely out of touch with these people, or anyone else whose life is rooted in the neighbourhood.  The empty parking lot says so. It tells a tale of disengagement, it exposes the truth that our real lives are lived elsewhere.  It says, we don’t really belong here, we just drive through on Sunday morning, picking up a spiritual latte on our way.

A question I’ve asked my congregations to consider is this: “If this parish had to close up shop, would anyone other than the current parishioners and the diocese be upset?”  If those are the only stakeholders we have, the only parties interested in our well-being and continuance, then we’ve truly missed our calling in life.

The silent witness: the parking lot.