I Shop Local

Have you noticed? Things are changing at the grocery store. It’s a big business market, of course, with superstores like Loblaws and Walmart in the mix. But something else is emerging… a grassroots eco-friendly food movement. Called the 100 Mile Diet, it was sparked by Canadian writers, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. Their book, entitled The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, spent five weeks on Macleans’ nonfiction bestseller list. The two writers from Vancouver, BC, decided to investigate their diet. They discovered some disturbing facts. The salmon they enjoyed, for example, was caught in BC, shipped to China for processing, and then shipped back to their own province. They learned that in order for them to have their pick of international bounty in or out of season, global produce was trucked thousands of carbon-emitting miles. Smith and MacKinnon embarked on an experiment – their 100-Mile Diet. They would eat only what was produced within a 100 mile radius of their home.

Barbara Kingsolver, a well-known American author, tackles the same subject in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle where she chronicles a year of eating locally. She and her family move to an Appalachian farm to explore what it is like to subsist on independently grown food. 

So when I shop local, I’m in good company. You might even assume that I am being similarly eco-responsible. But I really don’t know that much about the food industry. I haven’t even read The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  And, as much as I am intrigued by the concept of this new trend, I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the underpaid workers of South America if we stop buying their bananas. If they are underpaid now, what will they live on with no income at all? That’s a topic for someone who has done more research into fair trade practices than I have.

No, I shop local because I am a Christian. For me, shopping at Wyoming Foodland has nothing to do with where their produce originates, and everything to do with obeying the second greatest commandment summarized by Jesus: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt. 22:39). If I am going to identify myself as a Christian in my little town, I have a responsibility to act in loving ways towards my neighbour, and that includes supporting the people at my local grocery store.

I distinctly remember shopping there as a kid with my mom. In 1969 the store was called the Red and White and offered angle parking in front. I always got a kick out of parking our red and white 1958 Chevy Biscayne station wagon there. I thought it would make such a classy postcard!

The Red and White was cramped, dim, and, frankly, kind of dirty. Thankfully, the store has undergone a lot of modernization since then! There was also a Dutch store in Wyoming at that time, so we made two stops each week, one to get our Dutch staples, and one to get our Canadian stuff. Today the Dutch store is gone, but, fortunately for us, Wyoming Foodland still stocks the requisite favourites from the old country. I’m not sure if importing Maggi Seasoning and Honig Noodles from Holland impacts global warming, but I can’t make my Sunday soup without them!  🙂

Our local grocery store plays an important role in our community. Over the years, hundreds of teens, including my son, have been employed there to slice deli meat, pack the groceries, mop the floor, and do carry-outs. What’s important to them, no doubt, is that they’ve earned some money for their education or their sports or their clothes. But, at the same time, they’ve learned critical work habits such as diligence, punctuality, good grooming, courtesy, and tolerance. They’ve had the opportunity to share shifts, make friends, and mature in a team-oriented environment, sporting their burgundy sweatshirts and black pants. And, if they happened to have had any interest in business or marketing, they had the chance to observe responsible trade practices modelled by the local owners. This alone, this gift of employment for young people in our own community, is enough to ensure my patronage for years to come.

But there’s more. Like any local grocery store, Wyoming Foodland caters to a certain elderly and disadvantaged clientele who do not drive, but must walk or use a scooter to get their groceries. The cashiers know these folks by name. There is cheerful patience for the little old lady digging nickels out of her wallet and a friendly hello for the man who visits the store every single day of the week because he is lonely. I’ve seen Foodland staff deliver groceries to the home of the senior citizen who lives behind me. This kind of personal service is a hallmark of small town life, one that, again, inspires me to spend my dollars locally.

Our Foodland store owners pay taxes here. They live here. They support other local businesses, schools and charities here.

Throughout the year, a variety of local clubs and organizations camp out by the front door of Foodland, soliciting support. The Scouts sell apples and the guys from the Lions Club, wearing their blue vests, hawk their hotdogs, hamburgers, and raffle tickets to install playground equipment in our local parks. When, tragically, a young teenager lost her life in our hometown, her friends and family had a BBQ in front of the store to help raise funds for unexpected travel expenses. I am happy to support them all. They all get a smile and a loonie or two. They are my neighbours.

In the grocery store, I meet former students, classmates from high school, old acquaintances. Sometimes I meet people from my church. I meet my mom and my sister. Each encounter is an opportunity – to smile, to exchange hellos, to inquire after a sick relative, to share news about kids and grandkids. Each encounter is a brief moment to love my neighbour. And this _is_ love, make no mistake. There is no greater gift you can give someone than to acknowledge his or her presence. I see you. I know you. I care about you.

Shop local. Build community. And if it helps reduce the carbon footprint, I’ve got no problem with that.

Book Review

The Other Boleyn Girl  by Philippa Gregory (2001)

Don’t bother. Tarted-up Harlequin romance garbed in skimpy historical costume. I didn’t do an actual word count, but I think more text was devoted to the Boleyn sisters’ wardrobe than to Sir Thomas More, Archbishop Cranmer, or Cromwell. Henry VIII is a juvenile buffoon manipulated by his own lust. If you are looking for some quality reading that offers insight into Tudor England, this is not it. I feel dirty.  😦

Book Review

Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore (with Lynn Vincent)

This 2006 book, a New York Times bestseller, is worth your time. It’s a solidly written “feel good” story that will appeal to many different readers, but especially to a Christian audience. The book documents the unlikely friendship that develops between an illiterate homeless black man in Texas and a white millionaire art dealer living the cosmopolitan life. The best part? It’s true.

The story opens with Denver describing the deprivation and virtual slavery he experienced as a plantation worker in Louisiana. And, no, this is not the 1800’s. In his own rhythmic and authentic style, he relates the horrific details of his childhood. As a boy, he watched his home burn to the ground, with his grandmother, the only person who really loved him, unable to escape the flames. As a teenager, he was viciously attacked by a group of young white men who, needless to say, went unpunished.  He summed up his life as an adult, imprisoned by poverty and prejudice, this way: “I worked them fields for nearly thirty years, like a slave, even though slavery had supposably ended when my grandma was just a little girl. I had a shack I didn’t own, two pairs of overalls I got on credit, a hog, and an outhouse. I worked them fields, plantin and plowin and pickin and givin all the cotton to the Man that owned the land, all without no paycheck. I didn’t even know what a paycheck was.” Denver’s stoic and poetic narration of his journey into crime and vagrancy is absolutely compelling in its naked truthfulness.

Ron Hall grows up in the south as well, a middle class white kid who climbs the ladder of prosperity and eventually achieves the American dream. He and his wife Deborah go through some tough times in their marriage, though. Ron has an affair with a young artist while he is on one of his art-dealing junkets, and he and Deborah struggle to hold their relationship together. A fierce Christian, Deborah commits to forgiveness and Ron re-commits to fidelity. They mature as a couple and grow in their Christian faith. Eventually they are led to volunteer at a Texas shelter for the homeless.

It’s here that they meet Denver, the hardened drifter, cemented in his own prejudices about white people. Deborah is determined that Ron befriend this proud and reserved old hobo, believing that God has a special purpose for him.

The friendship develops slowly. There are many layers of suspicion, doubt, and reluctance to peel away, but a grudging mutual respect emerges. Both men learn to set aside their differences. Deborah, the spark behind this unusual friendship, faces a different kind of challenge as she is diagnosed with cancer. Together the two men care for her until her death. As they say goodbye to this caring and selfless woman, they are no longer millionaire businessman and homeless street person, but brothers, bonded in their love for Deborah, for each other, and for the God they don’t always understand, but seek to serve.

Denver and Ron forge a unique partnership after Deborah’s passing – one that results in an expanded mission/shelter in Fort Worth and extended services for the street people of that city. Together they have become a force for social justice in Texas and a united voice of hope for the homeless throughout the nation. Their efforts have been lauded and supported by many, including the mayor of Fort Worth, the governor of Texas, and former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Even though he is now a senior citizen, Denver continues to unearth a multitude of abilities buried beneath his disadvantaged upbringing. He has become an artist, a public speaker, a writer, and a leader. In 2005, along with Ron Hall, he attended a presidential inaugural ball in Washington. That didn’t faze him, though. “I found out everybody’s different – the same kind of different as me. We’re all just regular folks walkin down the road God done set in front of us. The truth about it is, whether we is rich or poor or something in between, this earth ain’t no final restin place. So in a way, we is all homeless – just workin our way toward home.”

Retirement – Planning on it?

  

Last Friday I received a reminder from Christian Schools International that I can begin the application process for my pension. In April I will turn 55 and can begin to collect my early pension benefit. This is kind of exciting! It’s the culmination of the last five years of transition, choosing to leave a career I loved, and planning to make significant changes. 
 
Retirement has been surprising. Not what I expected. Not what I had planned.
 
We are always being advised by banks, investment firms, Oprah and Dr. Phil to plan for retirement. Every bank statement I get warmly invites me to come in for a Personal Assessment so that I can retire the way I want, when I want, and make “enjoying life” my full time job.
 
This must be a relatively new societal impulse, or else an exceptionally lucrative one, to generate so much repetition and encouragement. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents didn’t spend much time thinking about retirement. They pretty much expected to work until they were very old, and, for the most part, that’s what happened. Frankly, not many of my ancestors got to live until they were very old, anyway. They raised large families, survived depression and war, slugged their way through life, and wore themselves out. But, if you read the papers, or watch the news regularly, you know that my generation, the baby boomers, are slated to enjoy a long life expectancy. Planning for retirement does appear to be a necessity, all the more so in the present uncertain economic climate.
 
When you are young, you don’t think about retirement. You’re preparing for a career, establishing a career, getting married, raising children, participating in a myriad of church and school activities, and paying the pressing bills. Some baby boomers might be financially astute, but me? Not so much. When I took a few years off to start a family, I cashed in my pension plan. We got a nice garage from that payout, but it wasn’t one of my stellar math moments. (Friends and siblings are scratching their heads here, wondering… when exactly did she ever have even one stellar math moment?) On another occasion, supporting three Christian educational institutions, I dipped into the RRSP’s to meet my obligations. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
 
Retiring at the age of 51 was probably not a sound financial move, either. But retirement isn’t solely a fiscal decision. After decades in the classroom, it’s pretty common for teachers to burn out, and I didn’t want to end my career that way. I had family issues, too. A daughter who was a single mom in need of some support. A mom, getting older. A husband whose work week was ballooning. Moreover, my house was deteriorating from neglect. My body was starting to spin out of control from stress and lack of exercise. Insomnia was becoming the bane of my existence. There was a dragging undercurrent to my days that was pulling me down.
 
 So I did my version of a financial forecast. I asked my sister what she thought about my retiring early. She said I should go for it because I could always get a job at Tim Hortons if I needed to. I asked my husband what he thought. He said I could do whatever I wanted. (One of his best qualities). With my minimal math skills and a calculator, I determined that, within certain constraints, we could probably make things work. It would mean budget cuts. It would mean that our present home would be our retirement home. No future “upscale downsizing”. I looked into what my CSI benefits would be if I retired early, and discovered they would be negligible, partly because of my earlier mistake of withdrawing my investment, and partly because some of my career was part-time rather than full time. I retired anyway. Or, as Mark is so fond of correcting me, with his sly grin, I quit.
 
Here are the surprises. I didn’t expect to feel so guilty. I felt guilty all the time. People just couldn’t believe that I would voluntarily give up my income. I was asked repeatedly by bank tellers, grocery store cashiers, and acquaintances: “Say what? You retired? You’re too young to retire!” Some could barely mask the rolling of their eyes as they sought to hide from me their instinctive judgement that I had lost my mind. Repeatedly, I would hasten to explain that I had worked a long time, twenty-four years, in fact, and that I was now volunteering, and helping my daughter, and my mom was getting older, and I was planning to do some writing… You get the picture. I fell all over myself trying to justify my decision.
 
That guilt and defensiveness is worth examining. My squirming efforts to rationalize my choice demeaned the Christian and feminist ideals I had always espoused. Why should I have been so abashed to admit that I was going to be a homemaker? I was going to do laundry, clean my bathroom, cut my grass, make meals, garden, wash my car, take out the trash, and manage the details of our home and family. It was work that needed to be done! Work that I had neglected for some twenty-odd years while I did my other work!  Humble work, unpaid work, yes, but valuable nonetheless!
  
I had succumbed to the cultural pressure to accord respect based on profession and income, to consider my “job” the defining characteristic about who I was as a person. A strong bias against “women’s work” – cooking, cleaning, caring for a home, nurturing children, the elderly, and the disabled – is still alive and strong in our culture. It was still living in me.
 
If media projections are correct, however, and we baby boomers are going to hang around for a long time beyond our income-earning years, we are _all_ going to have to explore who we are outside of our “jobs”. Traditionally, men have had a hard time making that adjustment. But it may now prove be a phenomenon that transcends gender, precisely because women like me have invested less and less of them in the “homemaking” that kept our grandmothers and mothers so busy. How will working women adapt to retirement if the role of women in the home remains so devalued?
  
There was still more guilt. I felt guilty about being privileged enough to retire. I was worried that I would be perceived as wealthy, that my early retirement would imply that we had a huge stash of cash bankrolled somewhere. Mark likes to needle me: “But we do have that hundred thousand in the Cayman Islands, don’t we?  🙂
 
We don’t. But with the adjustments to our retirement expectations that we’ve agreed upon, we should be comfortable enough. I hope. It could be that we’ve miscalculated, and that I’ll be handing out coffee at the Tim Horton’s window, or that Mark will have to work longer than planned. That’s OK. I’m slowly learning to accept that I am responsible to God for my financial choices. I’m not obligated to share all the Quicken data with everyone who might be curious about why I get to go for a walk in the afternoon instead of going for a shift at Foodland.
 
I felt guilty about retiring early. But I also felt swamped! I was busy! You imagine that you will have lots of time at your disposal when you retire. Time to do all the things you didn’t get done when you are working. I didn’t know that it would be so hard to leave a job, and so hard to establish a new life. Or that there would be so much to do to accomplish that!
 
It was hard to leave the school where I had worked for twenty years. I had to pack up my office, sort through stacks of files and books, and make excruciatingly difficult decisions about what to keep and what to chuck. I am still not done! My house is full of “teacher stuff” that I can’t let go. Every piece of art I saved, every creative story written by an eager student, every test and exam I laboured over, every entertaining video or fun game is a validation of that productive time in my life. Who will remember I was “that teacher” if all this concrete evidence is thrown out? Who am I if not “that teacher?”
 
The process of physically weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career remains much more emotional and time-consuming than I expected. The password on my computer is still teacher. Again, I need to re-commit to those Christian and feminist tenets that wife, mother, grandmother and friend are not lesser callings. Again, I have to buck my own secular habit of attaching self-worth to external criteria.
 
I also had a hard time letting go of the daily camaraderie of colleagues. I kept finding reasons to be in the school. I spent time coaching my replacement teacher. I worked as a supply teacher for about two and a half years. I led drama and art workshops and judged writing competitions and science fairs. Many people had helped me in my teaching. I felt an obligation to do the same. It was a struggle to disengage.

 At the same time, there was increasing pressure from other quarters to volunteer. There were requests from church, the community, and friends. I painted at church, took on the job of bulletin editor, judged speech contests, and ran errands for anyone who asked. I said yes to everything. How could I not? I was guilty. Guilty of having time. I got so busy, I wondered more than a few times why I had retired. Moreover, in the same period, my own three children and two of my siblings got married. Talk about overload!
 
Things are finally sorting themselves out. The transition that I thought would magically occur in the space of about three months has stretched to four years. In April, when I actually do receive a pension, and reach the “official” retirement age of 55, it will be easier for others and for me, too, to consider myself “finished” with the workplace. Maybe I will finally be able to part with my “teacher stuff.”  As a Christian, I know there is no such thing as retirement from discipleship and service. I will always be challenged to serve God and my neighbour, but I am beginning to understand that those commitments do not have to be driven by guilt.
 
Now for the happy surprises of retirement. I didn’t know that my marriage would flourish as it has. Simply being home more, sharing meals (where we companionably read the paper in silence), being together in a context outside of children and their needs, has been liberating and remarkably good for us. We work on projects around the house together, we go out to Home Depot together, we wash the car together and sometimes we even watch TV together (not often, because Mark is Supreme Commander of the remote). We’ve been able to enjoy a few vacations together, something we hadn’t done in a decade. Sounds prosaic, but, for us, a whole new world.

 
Another happy surprise is that my health and outlook have improved dramatically. My sisters tell me that I look better than I have in years (rather a backhanded compliment from the wicked sisters, don’t you think?) I no longer suffer from insomnia. I have time to go for walks. I have yet to achieve the weight loss that was supposed to arrive miraculously upon retirement, but I can dream. And I am actually writing. Good or bad, I’m finally doing it. 🙂
 
Retirement has also brought more time for devotions and reflection. Even as I write this blog, my eyes are opening to the issue of balance. Looking back at the frenetic pace of my teaching life, I see that the scale was tipped unequivocally towards work. Out of devotion and duty, assuredly, especially within the framework of a Christian vocation, but all-consuming.

 That’s why spending time with my husband feels so fresh and new. That’s why going for a walk feels so cavalier and taking a vacation so decadent. I conclude that I did one thing right. I retired at the right time for me.
 

                                                                                         

There is still much to ponder. Still time to learn new things. This stage of life, like every other, is not mine to control, even as I try, wisely or foolishly, to plan for its unfolding. Circumstances can change overnight. I thought retirement would give me more time with my sister, but she got a job with rotating shifts, and I see her less now than I did before. My neighbour’s husband left her after thirty years of marriage. A friend’s house burned to the ground just before Christmas. One of my former students just had an operation to remove a malignant tumor. Life never fails to remind us that no amount of preparation and planning can give us control over tomorrow.
 
Maybe that’s why New Year’s Eve is such a poignant celebration. Not quite sure what to do with that uncompromising tilt towards an unknown future, media pundits and celebrities drink and party in madcap bravado. But Christians can mark any juncture of old and new as a fulcrum, trusting that what was past and what is to come is levelled by the faithful companionship of the pilgrim God who journeys with us. He makes the crooked roads straight, the rough paths smooth. He knows the way. On the days when I have the faith to live by that, I travel lightly and with joy.

Book Review

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald

 MacDonald, author of the New York Times bestseller, Fall on Your Knees, tackles some touchy subjects in her acclaimed novel, The Way the Crow Flies (2003). The novel was inspired, in part, by the dramatic true-life story of Stephen Truscott, the Canadian fourteen year old convicted in 1960 of murdering Lynn Harper. Truscott’s death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. Upon appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, he was eventually released with a new identity in 1969. He steadfastly maintained his innocence and was finally acquitted. His conviction was deemed a “miscarriage of justice.”

 MacDonald’s novel, set in an Air Force base outside of Kitchener, Ontario, meshes the 1960’s fixation on the Cold War and the space race with the personal tragedy of a young girl’s sexual molestation by her teacher during the same time period. The two threads collide in the murder of a classmate and the arrest and conviction of a neighbourhood boy.

The novel opens so hopefully: “The sun came out after the war and our world went Technicolor. Everyone had the same idea. Let’s get married. Let’s have kids. Let’s be the ones who do it right.”  MacDonald’s ambitious premise stacks layers of global, communal, and individual loss of innocence onto the idyllic town of Centralia. The pretty decade of the fifties with its “many-splendored things (Chapter 1)” is crushed by the weight of this epidemic of violation. Madeleine loses her innocence at the hands of her abuser. Her father loses his innocence as he becomes ensnared in morally ambiguous political intrigue. Centralia loses its innocence as it unwittingly harbours a pedophile, while hurrying to condemn an innocent teen of a horrific crime. In a rush to excise the malignancies of WWII, the Western world loses its innocence profiting from Nazi science and technology.

While the concept of the book is brilliant, I think its comprehensive scope ultimately detracts from its final achievement. The narrative is clogged by a sprawling ponderousness that generates detachment rather than involvement. It’s a very patient reader who will wade through the minutiae of colour commentary to follow the actual plot. Like a drippy Big Mac, the slogans, ads, songs, and catch phrases of the 60’s practically leak from the text. Soon the constant reminders spark frustration: “OK. I get it. You did your research. Tell the story already.”

The subject matter of sexual exploitation also makes the novel a tough read. The teacher’s predatory manipulation of the little girls in his class is skilfully depicted and not excessively graphic, but I kept finding reasons to avoid finishing the book. As a teacher myself, and mother and grandmother, I had to swallow my emotional bile to keep reading, but this “war” was wholly credible. Distasteful as it is, MacDonald’s reminder about the vulnerability of children continues to be timely.

MacDonald is not quite as convincing in her treatment of the Cold War. The ethical ambiguities that arise on the world stage after World War II trickle down into the personal lives of the citizens on the Air Base. A variety of characters grapple with the ramifications of collusion with the enemy as Nazi war criminals and scientists are spirited out of Europe to bolster American space programs. Perhaps I am too Canadian and ordinary to suspend my disbelief. An international spy ring operating in sleepy southwestern Ontario? Not really buying it.

A final word on the characters. Fearlessly honest and guilelessly dishonest, Madeleine the child is endearing. Her friend, prickly Colleen, the adopted Métis daughter of mysterious neighbours, is also memorable. She becomes Madeleine’s tutor in schoolyard nastiness and pranks. Their quirky classmates at school are similarly believable. MacDonald’s delineation of the childhood experience is flawless.

The adults in the novel, however, suffer from artifice. They are far less engaging than the children, particularly Madeleine’s parents, Jack, the career military man and Mimi, the perfect homemaker. Living in a “June and Ward Cleaver bubble,” they are one-dimensional characters, almost stylized. I didn’t really care about them until the end of the novel when the peeling blisters of their choices suddenly ooze fresh and raw, and they confront the truth of their lives. Interestingly, although the youthful Madeleine was impish and loveable, I cared less and less about her as she reached adulthood. She grew increasingly selfish, manic, and grotesque. The sympathetic bond I had with her at the outset of her story slipped away.

It occurs to me that perhaps that’s what MacDonald intended.