Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's what we do.

I wrote the following piece after Rob, one of our counsellors, came into my office to tell me about the most remarkable evening he'd had the night before. Intriqued with his story, I found 'the star' and asked her if I could share it. She smiled and said, Please do.

I share it with you this morning. A Christmas Gift from the human condition.

Like Good King Wenslaus of yore leading his page through the storm, Google Maps led the travelers through the deep and blowing snow towards the animal shelter. It was the second animal hospital they had tried that night of the storm. With Google Map in hand, they found the first one only to be informed they handled animals of the four legged kind, dogs and cats. Definitely not birds.

Their patient was a bird. A pigeon with a broken wing. She had fallen onto the smoke deck on the second floor of the Di. “She landed right in front of me,” Bernice said, her round face wreathed in a beautiful smile. “I couldn’t just leave her lying there. It was pretty obvious she was wounded. I had to save her.”

Bernice tucked the wounded bird under her vest where it snuggled into her armpit. “And then staff found out.” She chuckled. “It was the second time I was caught with a bird. The first one was a baby sparrow. They wouldn’t let me keep her. I was so scared for her. I let her go over by the trees along the river.” Pause. A sigh. “I hope she survived.”

When informed the pigeon would have to be put outside Bernice insisted she would go with it. “It won’t survive out in the cold,” she exclaimed. “I’ll go with it.”

Staff Carrie was persistent. ‘You can’t sleep outside Bernice. It’s too cold.”

But Bernice was not to be dissuaded. Finally, Carrie and another staff member, Jordan, convinced Bernice to allow them to take the pigeon, whom she now called ‘Little Bernie’ to the animal hospital. The floor was busy, the shelter crowded as it has been every night for months. Carrie and Jordan couldn’t leave the floor so staff Rob, a counselor on the fourth floor, leaped to the rescue.

“I’ll drive,” he said. And Bernice promptly announced she was going with him. She was not prepared to let the little bird go. And by this point, the bird was not prepared to let go of Bernice. It snuggled into her neck, nipping at her throat, burrowing deeply into her sweater.

“It was so amazing,” said Rob. “To watch Carrie caring for Bernice. Bernice caring for ‘Little Bernie’. It was a beautiful moment.”

With imminent death by cold weather averted, Bernice and Rob set out only to return, bird still in hand, to search again for another shelter that would take a pigeon.

“It’s sort of like our clients,” said Rob. “They don’t fit in or they’re intoxicated and the only place they can come to is the shelter. Driving Bernice and ‘Little Bernie’, I felt a real connection to the plight of our clients. Snow was blowing. We were lost. What were we to do to save this little bird?” He shakes his head. Clears his throat.

“At one point the pigeon was puffing and Bernice said, ‘It’s thirsty.’”

He pauses to let the emotion of the moment settle. “She let saliva collect on her tongue and drip into the pigeon’s mouth. And the pigeon opened its beak to receive her gift. Bernice was so scared it would die and there we were in a snowstorm, no visibility, no hope we’d find our way, even with Google Maps and there she was feeding the bird the only water we had, her saliva.”

He shakes his head again. “Finally, we were so lost, we realized we’d have to go back to the Di and then, there we were." He laughs. "I was turning around in a parking lot to head back towards downtown, looked up and saw this big red cross glowing in the dark, snowy night. We were in front of the animal shelter.”

They took the bird inside and released it to the care of the staff at the animal hospital. It didn't want to let go of Bernice. Bernice didn't want to let it go until finally she was convinced that it was best for 'Little Bernie' that she separate herself from it.

“It’s what a momma bird would have done for its child,” Bernice says. “Anything to keep it alive.”

It is like that at the shelter. ‘Anything to stay alive.’ “I just wanted to help it out,” says Bernice. ‘You know. Be its family while it needed care. It’s a small creature. A being. Just like us. We gotta take care of each other.”

Taking care. It was someone else’s lack of care that landed Bernice at the Di six years ago. She was a construction worker. “I was cribbing,” she tells me, pride straightening her shoulders. “My co-worker up above loosened a bolt on some scaffolding and it crashed down upon me.”

That crash landed her a ride in an ambulance and time in hospital. “My back has never been the same. My shoulders were dislocated. My knees were already shot and now,” she shrugs and smiles, touches her long black hair. "There was a dent in my hard hat but it missed my head." Another pause. “I miss working. When I see the logo for the company I used to work for, I want to go back so bad. I miss working.”

“And I miss my kids,” she adds quietly.

And then she laughs. “But, it’s one day at a time. Calgary’s my home now. I’ve been here six years. This is my home.” She pauses. “I was just trying to help a little bitty bird. That’s what we do here. Help each other. We share. Laughter. Friendship. It keeps the spirits up.”

Keeping spirits lifted – it’s what we do here. No matter the weather. No matter the storm.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

And to all a good night.

Day 12
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

On the 12th Day of christmas my true love gave to me....

There are some who suggest that this song is a code. Believed to have been written in the 16th Century, at a time when the religious wars in Britian made it perilous for a Christian to practise their faith. The 'gifts' are said to be code for the most important and relevant teachings of the faith. 'A partridge in a pear tree' represents Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 'Two turtle doves', the old and new testaments. 'Three french hens', Faith. Hope. Love, the three Theological Virtues of Christianity. (Go here to read all their meanings.)

Whether their meaning is fact or fiction, no matter where you are, hum a few bars and someone will chime in and bestow one of the gifts upon you.

At the DI, Christmas blessings continue to arrive every day. From socks and hats and mitts and jackets, Calgarians are turning up in record number to bestow upon us the things that will make a difference in someone's life at the shelter.

Last week, I went to an elementary school (The photos are placemats they created for clients to use on Christmas Day -- Thank you Battalion Park School!) to give a presentation to students from K-6. At the beginning of my presentation, I always ask, "Do you have a dream about what you want to do when you grow up?" And the students always throw up their arms, wave their hands and call out, "I do." "I do." Doctor. Lawyer. Fireman. Hockey Player. Nurse. Astronaut.

No one ever tells me their dream is to become homeless. Or to become mired in an addiction that will steal everything you hold dear and leave you wasting on the streets. No one ever tells me that their dream is to one day walk into a homeless shelter looking for the EXIT sign to the other side of the street only to become lost in depression and despair.

Homelessness isn't a dream come true. It is mostly a nightmare.

This Christmas, as in year's past, the darkness of homelessness has been lifted by the generosity of those who work at the frontlines holding out hope for everyone who comes through our doors and those who stand behind them, supporting them, lifting them up and ensuring they have what is needed to care for the people we serve.

For our clients, that hope begins with accepting them where they're at and treating them with dignity and respect, no matter where that place may be. For our volunteers, hope is founded on the value our shelter adds to our community -- we create a safe place for those who have nowhere to go except the streets. We take care of those who have lost their place in their family circles. We take care of those others can't or won't care for. And, for our communities, our city, our world, hope translates into a kinder, more caring society. A place where no matter your economic, spiritual, physical or mental state of being, everyone finds a place to belong.

It is the 12th Day of Christmas. In liturgical practise, the gifts of the 12 days begin with Christmas and continue for twelve days to the Epiphany.

We've jumped the Magi and moved the gifts to flow into the Christmas spirit. It isn't about when the gifts appear, it is that they appear and cast light upon our journey.

Today, I share a gift from a beautiful woman who wrote a poem for those who walk the streets and those who take care of where they're walking. I've never met Maureen Doallas in person, but after reading these 12 Days of Christmas, she felt compelled to share a poem she worte for everyone here at the DI.

Homage to DI
Poem written by:
Maureen Doallas

not the kind
they know,
yet we know
they know.

Give us shelter.
And shelter we receive.

We need.
And so they provide.

We try.
And they say,
it's enough.

We give what we can
as we can
in return:

Remnants, mostly,
of dreams
we still follow
of circles we've
still to trace

We begin
where they begin
with us:

A hand open
A hand given

It's enough.

Copyright Maureen Doallas

In the words of season's past, "Merry Christmas everyone. And to all A Good Night!"

Thank you for all your support. For your contributions that make the work we do possible.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Time for Every Purpose

Day 11
The 12 Days of Christmas Blessings at the Shelter

It is the time of sleigh bells ringing and mistletoe and ivy adorning every doorway.

It is the season of snowmen standing sentry on front lawns with carrot noses and button eyes peering fearlessly into the dark winter's dawn.

The time of rosy cheeks and frosty breath steaming up an icy window and icicles suspended upside down from rooftops and tree branches.

It is a time for love, faith and joy. For holiday spirits rising and temperatures falling as children snuggle in for a long winter's nap with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads.

It is a time for hope.

A time when the Christian world awaits the promise of a Savior's birth who will rule the world in truth and grace. When Muslim and Sikh and Buddhist and Hindu and Shinto and Jew and atheists alike pray for peace amongst all mankind as we struggle to find comfort and joy amongst us.

A time when we stop and take a collective breath to rejoice in family, in goodwill amongst men, in our blessings gathered around a Christmas tree twinkling in the night.

It is a time for love. For sharing our abundance. For giving and receiving.

At the shelter Christmastime is a time of joy and of sorrow. A time when those who have nothing look to give something to the one's they love. For some, that something is another year without them sitting arm in arm at the table. For them, whatever drove them to the street continues to hold them back from stepping once again across the family hearth to connect to the circle of love into which they were born.

For others, they will give a phone call. A card. A simple note with the words, "Merry Christmas" written upon it.

For some, they will take what little they have and spend it on a special treat for a sweetheart, a table mate, a friend. They will share, a cigarette, a sip of pop, a coffee. They will share a smile, a hug, a warm greeting.

And for others, Christmas will come and go without their noticing its passing. They will remain locked in the lure of the substance that has stolen them away from those they love, that has wrenched them far from their family's embrace and left them here, on the street, searching for a way out as they wait in hope of a new day rising on the fullness of the promise of Christmas Eve.

Christmas is a time for mixed emotions at the shelter. A time to yearn for family circles and broken dreams. A time to long for a place to belong where poverty and lack and broken promises no longer fill the horizon of another day lost to the street.

And, it is a time to rejoice. To give thanks. To celebrate. A time for every purpose under heaven.

Yesterday, I went into the shelter to give a tour to a group of young hockey players who had driven an hour to drop-off boxes of hats and scarves and mitts and socks. "We had a Head to Toe Toss," one of the players excitedly told me. "We invited everyone who came to our tournament this weekend to donate something to the shelter."

Those 'somethings' resulted in over 1400 items plus $400 cash for purchasing lipbalm and razors and cough drops -- desperately needed items on our WishList.

As the students formed a line carrying the boxes into the shelter, clients stopped to thank them, to lend a hand, to wish them Merry Christmas. The children's faces lit up. They smiled and said, "You're welcome."

In the faces of those nine and ten year olds is the spirit of Christmas. They did not ask, "Why should we have to do this?". They simply asked, "Where do we put these boxes?" Their excitement in delivering the bounty of their Head to Toe Toss reminded everyone that, no matter what side of the street we walk on, we can all make a difference simply by sharing what we have without looking for someone to tell us what to do or what to give.

When we open our hearts, as these children did, and simply give because it's the right thing to do, we create a world that is so much more right than wrong. We create a world where the possibility of forgiveness awakens with every breath and where healing begins in every broken heart.

From all of us. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflecting the light

Day 10
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

Everyone wants to leave footprints behind them. My art is my footprint. Reg Knelsen
At last count, he says he's had over 137 jobs in his life, the first one at the age of 15 when he moved to Calgary and became the youngest Assistant Manager at A&W in Canada. "I was pretty proud of that one," he says. "It lasted one month."

Since then he's moved across Canada. Across the economic scale. Across the divide between abundance and lack. "I've sat in my living room with the cathedral ceiling on my Italian leather sofa, sipping a beer and watching the fire, and I've been miserable. I've had stuff, lots of it, and still been miserable. Stuff didn't do it. What does it for me is my art."

He is a man of deep intellect. Perceptive. Thoughtful. Generous. He is continually giving staff and visitors to the Wild Rose Studio at the shelter small tokens of his appreciation. He holds out a box of bookmarks to a young child, a warm smile on his face as he encourages them to take one, delighting in their choice as if it was the most amazing choice in the world.

"Maybe," he says of his gift-giving, "that child, or adult even, never received a gift from a stranger before. Especially a homeless one. Maybe that one gift will open that child's mind to the idea that people, no matter where they live, have value. Just like that tiny scrap of paper upon which I painted a design. It had no value until I found its worth in the image I painted upon it."

He paints on canvas. On scraps of wood. Old flooring. Discarded bowls. A table top. A stool. Anything he finds, or friends find for him, on their journey through the city. Found art. That's what he calls it.

Like himself. "I've found myself again here in this space. This space of magic. Of possibility. Of dreams unfolding," he says of the art studio where he is one of the founding members and a core volunteer.

"Look what this has done for me," he says, where he stands in the corner of the studio plying paint upon a piece of wood, creating a scene of wonder. "I never name my paintings. Their real name lies in the person who buys it and takes it home. I always ask my purchasers to name the painting. Then it becomes a collaborative piece. Then they have a part in the painting and a part in me."

He believes in making sure people have a part in the studio. He believes that everyone has a role to play.

"This place came to be because we all shared a dream and kept working towards that dream unfolding. If we get more people to come into the studio and share in the dream, who knows where it can go? Who knows what could happen?"

Reg Knelsen has been coming to for over three years. In that time he's painted hundreds of images upon the found objects, and the more traditional surfaces, of his craft. Most recently, he shared his feelings and experiences of becoming rehoused. Of being a working man with a day job, and a passion for the arts and a desire to touch hearts and minds and souls with his visual stories.

In Reg's words:

"Coming Into the Light"
(Reality reflecting the light)

Just where is it written down that one's solitude is a sought after value? Are we not social creatures who have placed value in our interpersonal relationships? This getting used to silence, peace and space of one's own is a lengthy process. It took this man six months to realize he did not need to put the protective cap back on his razor. No one was going to touch it. This of course carries over to all the matters of household chores, or if you will, the ghost work we all do.

After twenty years of not being in one job for even a year, I find myself on the verge of hitting another landmark. One year on one job, of all things, doing laundry in a homeless shelter. Albeit, it is only 30 hours a week. However, combined with my volunteer work in the studio, it probably works out to a full-time job.

Accomplishments after accomplishments. This must be an affliction of some sort. A moment of accomplishing this passion I speak often about. Reflecting the light.


This joy that I have in my energy (money), allows me to share in small ways with others. Ram (Project Forward) did not touch on this. His emphasis was on saying 'no' to requests for money, cig's, etc. Perhaps philanthropic values are not measured in the amounts but in the value of the act. (Many acts of kindness, occasional acts of great beauty.) Of course, what value you put on kindness or beauty will determine what those acts are.

My experiences here, growth, have now allowed me to realize that at times I must shut my eyes to see (hear) the beauty in what someone is saying. The very visual image that some of the clients present to me alters what I hear, also what I smell will also alter what I hear. I try to shut those out to hear/see the beauty.

My senses have increased over the years here. My art grows as I try to bring the feel, smell, sound, taste, sight of all that is in me and around me. My journey is growing to where I now paint the glory of pain, depression and all the lower emotions. My direction is to reflect to those that have not experiences this life or mind, the incredible places and people and things I have met and sensed.

I've now been making up my own titles for the pictures I paint. They are spontaneous and will not be put on each picture. (I still want people to put their titles on, they have great value. And, they become part of my journey.) But, in each painting my senses have gone into it so if they want to know, I will tell them.

The uncertainty of my life (I make plans. Life happens.) creates an energy of its own. Working with unstable people and artists creates a need for out of the box thinking while still holding onto my values and boundaries.


Reg is going home for Christmas. "The greatest part of this trip home is I've paid for my own ticket," he says. Two years ago his Christmas wish was for a ticket home to BC. He received it and reconnected with family he hadn't seen in years. "This year, I'm taking them all out for dinner. My treat." He laughs. "This having a regular paycheque. Planning for special things, is pretty exciting."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

In memory of a friend

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.

From a headstone in Ireland

Day 9
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

We held a memorial service yesterday for our friend, James Bannerman. James left this world at 12:45 am on Tuesday, December 8. I wrote about James' passing and my experience of spending the last few hours of his life with him last week -- and yesterday, we gathered as a community to celebrate his life and to wish him, 'God Speed' on his journey to the other side.

It was an incredibly moving and powerful event. About 50 people gathered in our multi-purpose room to pay tribute to a man who never asked for much and always gave more than asked.

Poets read. Musicians played. Singers sang and the entire event was filled with the wonder of creative spirits sharing their gifts to honour a man who, though his time with us was short, shared the best of who he was in every way he could.

The day before, while working on a powerpoint of James photos, I came across a series of photos he'd taken of a truck from Lynx Snow Removal*. It had a telephone number under the company name so I called it.

A man answered. "Hi. This is Cliff."

"Hi," I replied and explained who I was and where I was calling from.

"I'm just going through photos that James took," I told him, "and came across one with your company name and number on it. Did James work for you?"


"Is he gone?"

"I'm afraid so."


"Last Tuesday. December 8."

"He worked for me for nine years. He was a great guy. A guy you could count on."

We chatted some more. He thanked me for letting him know. He wished he could make the memorial service but would be on a job. I promised to send him one of James' photos of his truck and we hung up.

The next day at the memorial service, Don, who manages our labour office would tell me, "Cliff's a good guy. He used to pay James not to work. In those times when he didn't have work for him he'd pay him because he didn't want him to go off and get another job and not be available when he needed him. He loved when it snowed. It meant he was working for his pay."

James would have been happy with this winter. Lots of snow. Lots of work. Lots of pay. Lots of opportunity to feel good about a job well-done.

It was important to him. Doing a good job. Making a contribution.

It came through clearly in the comments that were said and read at the service. A brother, sister and neice wrote in to share their stories of 'Jimmy' as he was known to them. "My Uncle Jimmy was my favourite," wrote Tammy his neice. "He babysat me when I was little and my mom was at work. He loved to cook. Even taught me how to make his famous Chinese spaghetti."

The portrait of a man's past.

In the brother's letter he spoke of Jimmy's drinking problems. "He was a good man, my baby brother. Our mother died when he was elevent and I believe it is the cause of all his drinking."

We never knew 'Jimmy' as a drinker. As a man haunted by a bottle he could not put down. In the years James was at the shelter, he was never under the influence. Never known to pick up a bottle and lose himself.

"It's what we gotta do sometimes to beat the bottle," said Richard who got up to speak about James at the service. "We gotta leave our families behind to let go of our addictions."

Fellow member of the Wild Rose Studio, Reg, stood up and read what he'd written about James. "A cry of loss for an artist who has left us. A remembrance of his creativity and vision. I did not know his story, those things that most people put value in, job, car, house and family. Howver, we did at brief moments share our vision, stories of his muse that drove him to capture moments that moved people. His endeavours to say, show, shock people into looking at this world in a different way.

We, our community, is less than now for an artist has left us. We do not know what he may have brought to us in the future. A Mona Lisa. A Monet. A photoghrah of the year. My god, what can we do but look at his footprints and try to see the sound, the smell, the taste, the feel of that moment."

Max, artist, musician, poet and carpenter once wrote, "I am a father, a son, brother, uncle, nephew, friend. I am an artist, writer, carpenter. Which of these is diminished because I am homeless?" In Max' eyes, James was never diminished. He was always a man of great worth. He wrote,

"Last week we lost a friend.

Last week, we lost an artist.

Last week we lost a confidant.

Last week we lost an advisor.

Last week we lost a part of us."

It was a moving statement about a man for whom the past was not what counted. James never shared much about his past. In sharing what was important to him today, however, he gave us many gifts. Friendship. Kindness. Consideration. Photographs of this city, a place where he knew every nook and cranny. A place he travelled, on foot, by transit, in a truck with a man who employed him and to whom he gave good value for a job well-done.

Well done James. Your life is done. Your job here on earth has come to an end. Travel into that other world, those other spaces far beyond this realm we know not of and be of gentle spirit. You left an impact. Your footprints are left upon our hearts. Your images are set upon our memories. You will be forever remembered as a man whose gentle spirit was a gift to be treasured forever more.

This video was taken by James at our Christmas art show in 2008.

Friday, December 18, 2009

She lights up our lives

Day 8
The 12 Days of Christmas at the Di

I first met Onalea Gilbertson a year ago when she came into my office, a one woman tour de force, eager to talk about her project. Tall. Blonde. Beautiful. A thousand watt lightbulb of a smile. Warm eyes. Warm heart. An actor. Singer. Writer. Poet. She had been commissioned by "This is My City", an initiative by The City of Calgary, Arts and Recreation Department, to create a play for High Performance Rodeo and was in my office to explore how we could work together.

It was the beginning of a relationship that I cherish today as a friendship that has added incredible light and lightness to my life.

For the past year, Onalea has come into the shelter one evening a week (and many other days too) to meet with a group of clients who have now become, The Di Singers. The objective was to explore and develop their creative talents, and to write and rehearse pieces for "TWO BIT OPER-EH?-SHUN", an oratoria exploring homelessness, poverty, drug addiction and mental illness on the streets of Calgary by Land's End Chamber Ensemble. The oratoria, a musical composition for voice and instruments telling a sacred story, is based on the vivid stories of the clients as well as Onalea's experiences at the shelter along with contributions by Calgary performing artists.

It has been a year of growth. A moving experience for everyone involved.

One woman. Many songs. Hundreds of stories. A lasting impact.

Like a fairy godmother creating Cinderella's ballgown, Onalea sweeps into the Di, and beneath the power of her smile and incredible spirit, magic is created. Her commitment, compassion, empathy and belief in the value of every human spirit weaves a magical thread of possibility into each moment, every word that is sung, every note that is played, every instrument strummed.

As part of
"TWO BIT OPER-EH?-SHUN", Onalea has also worked with a group of artists to create, the "Found Sound Orchestra" Taking cast-out items and found objects, Onalea, the artists and clients on our second floor day area have created unique musical instruments that can be strummed and jingled and jangled and shaken and vibrated to create unusual, sometimes discordant, yet always pleasant sounds.

The instruments remind me of many of the people we serve. Sometimes outcasts. Cast-offs. Cast-away. Separated from mainstream society by the streets they inhabit, they often do not see their own uniqueness and value. As they come to light at the Di, they begin to find their own song. They begin to find the courage to march to their own drummer, no matter how different. They begin to pick up the pieces of their lives to weave together a new scene, a new picture that suits them better, fits them more closely and opens them up to new songs, new sounds, new possibilities.

Under Onalea's tutelage, the performers of the Di Singers have begun to find their own unique voice. To create a sound that is harmonious and rich, vibrant and alive with the multi-faceted voices and stories of those who have answered her call to be part of an experience that is unscripted, unparallelled and unprecedented in the shelter.

An amazing year. An unforgettable journey. An incredible woman.

Since that first meeting a year ago, I have been blessed to get to know Onalea as an artist, a human being, and as a friend. She is kind, caring, deep. Generous. Passionate. Funny. Insightful. Perceptive. Inquisitive, but never pushy. Curious, but never intrusive. She probes gently, prods lightly and pushes effortlessly to bring out the best in everyone she meets and to encourage everyone she encounters to be their most amazing selves.

I don't' know what Onalea wants for Christmas this year but I know what I'd like to give her -- gratitude, love and joy. I don't know what's on her list, but I do know that the list of things she's brought to the shelter -- and to my life -- are priceless. Joy. Awareness. Laughter. Amazing conversation. Creativity. A world of new thinking. A palette of awesome colour to paint vivid and vibrant scenes of life beyond the street, beyond this place called homeless. With her compassion and creativity, she has bridged the divide separating us and them and created a space where every voice is heard, every song is valued. A place where labels no longer fit. A place where every person has the freedom to explore their own incredible worth and fill their space with all they're meant to be.

It has been a year of exploration and creation. A year of delving into all that makes this place so amazing. A year of digging into our creative cores to find the gold in the shadows of city skyscrapers and back alleys, the gold hiding within each and everyone of us, waiting to be dug up and brought to light.

Merry Christmas Onalea. Your passionate commitment to bringing out the best in every human being you meet, has made the Di richer and more vibrant. Thank you for sharing your light so generously. Thank you for adding your incredible hues of love and joy and laughter and hope to our world.

The High Performance Rodeo Presents
The Land's End Chamber Ensemble's Production of
World Premiere
Saturday January 16 2010 7:30pm
Grace Presbyterian Church 1009 15th Ave. SW
Tickets: or call -- 403-294-9494

Composed by Marcel Bergman. Libretto by Onalea Gilbertson
Featuring The Land's End Chamber Ensemble with
Onalea Gilbertsen, Elizabeth Stepkowski Tahran
Doug McKeag, the choir Rev 52 and the Di Singers

70 minutes plus 45 minute talk back reception

Art show and sale
by artists of the Wild Rose Studio
at the Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I know I'll be okay

Day 7
The 12 Days of Christmas Blessings at the DI

She is 31. She loves to read, "It's my favourite thing in the world," she says. She loves to write. She's started her own blog. "I think if I force myself to write everyday," she says, "It will be therapeutic. And, I hope that if I tell my story, I'll inspire someone else to tell theirs and maybe, I'll be able to help someone else."

She has a gentle sense of humour. A laugh that tinkles like tiny Christmas bells ringing on a clear, winter's night. "I didn't ever expect this," she says. "I was really scared when I first came here."

"This" is homeless.

"Here" is the DI.

"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know what to do. I went to the YWCA but they were full. They told me to come here. I was scared."

Homelessness hit six months ago. "I have a disability," she says. She looks at me, her eyes wide, but slightly unfocused. "See my eyes? It's a learning disability too and that makes it hard for me to get certain jobs. I had a job I really enjoyed at a coffee shop, but they told me I was too slow."

One day, as I stopped at the drive-through window of the Starbucks where she used to work, I complimented her on something she had said at a memorial service for a staff member who had died the week before. "Oh," she responded. Surprise raising the 'oh' into an exclamation. "Thank you for telling me that." Pause. "You were there?"

"Yes," I told her. "I work there."

"Oh." She paused again. It is something I will learn to appreciate about her. Her gentle and considered responses. Not artificial or contrived. Gentle and considered. Jessica thinks before she speaks. "Do you like working there?"

"I love working there."

She smiled. Handed me my latte. "I love working here too."

And now, she no longer works there. She is too slow.

Too slow. In a world of fast --take out, drive-through, instant messages and immediate gratification where you gotta get up and go if you're gonna get where you're goin', Jessica is too slow.

I find her enchanting. There is a gentleness about her. A kindness. A naivety that stops me. Makes me think twice before I say something sarcastic or 'witty'. Makes me think twice about what I'm doing, who I am. She makes me want to be 'a kinder me'.

We are on the fifth floor of the DI. In a transitional housing area. It is 'her home' and she has opened up her home to a TV reporter doing a story on the Christmas WishList.

She opens her locker to show us everything she owns in the world. "It all fits in here," she says motioning to the gym-locker room style space. Metal. Tall and skinny, it holds a few clothes, toiletries, a box and her most favourite possession -- books.

"Where is all your 'stuff'?" I ask.

"I've never really had any stuff," she replies with a shrug of her shoulders. "I've always lived in shared accommodation. The last place I got evicted from because I couldn't pay my rent after I lost my job. I stayed with friends for awhile but that was too much too and when I left, this was all I had."

"What keeps you going?"

"Faith," she easily replies. "Faith in God. I know I will be okay."

This Christmas what would 'rock' Jessica's world is, a night in a hotel room. "Just one night to have a bath. To be alone. Privacy is non-existent here. I'd just like one night to myself on a soft bed." She pauses. Laughs. Thinks about it some more."Of course, if I had someone to share it with that would be nice too, but I don't." Sigh. Smile. "I'm single."

A simple wish from a woman with simple desires. She's 31. Never been married. Had a boyfriend but that wasn't too good. "I've got a lot of healing and learning to do," she says. "My step-father was really abusive. I think it really hurt me." She pauses again. "Deep down."

Deep down, the wounds of being homeless rankle her hard-won peace of mind. "People can be so mean. They can be so unkind. They make judgements. Call 'us' lazy. Or stupid. Or bums. It's not true. I'm not lazy. And I know I'm slow but I'm not stupid. I really want to work but being here makes it hard to remember that I can. It makes it hard to remember who I am."

This Christmas, along with over six hundred other clients at the shelter, Jessica has made a wish on the Christmas WishList. "It would mean the world to me if I get it," she says. She pauses again. "But, I know I'll be okay if I don't."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Wishes filled with light

Day 6
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

When we started asking clients at the shelter if they'd like to participate in Christmas messages online, Tim, the videographer said, "Think of this as those 'Messages to our Troops' we often see on TV. This is what these are like. Messages back home, to your family."

How exciting, people responded. In fact, they thought it was so exciting some have since approached and asked, "When are we sending the messages to our troops?"

This morning, we share with you the voices and faces of people who, while calling the DI home, eagerly share what little they have with people far away. In their yearning for another place, another time, other people we 'see' their joy and gratitude and longing to be connected with those they love.

In their heartfelt messages they speak of who we all are, what we all share in our human condition.

Some scientists describe our world as packets of light creating energy in the form of life. May these voices and faces remind you, we are all beings of light connected on this human journey, giving life to all that is wondrous and beautiful and heartfelt about us. We are all connected.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

May they come home, safe and sound

Day 5
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

It was just a plain cardboard box labelled with my name and address. Hopewell Hill, NB was the only clue as to the sender.

I knew who sent it. Sharon Wells. I'd heard from Sharon for the first time in November 2006 when she wrote to ask if there was anything she could do for the shelter. "My family is very grateful for the program and services that you and your association offer to the homeless and working poor in Calgary. Our daughter benefited from your services and our son may have been there too. He returned home this week and we had not seen him since 2002. This is one of the best Christmas gifts one can have that you cannot put under the tree; love of your family."

She's been sending hand knit mittens and toques every year for the past three years. This year she wrote:

"Enclosed is a box of hand made mitts and hats from two gals from new Brunswick who truly believe in the work that you and your volunteers offer the residents of Calgary. As in the past, you have supported our children as they went out west to find employment, and start a new life, that may not have been so glamorous, and ended up in your shelter.

In our appreciation, please accept these small tokens, made with huge hearts by mothers who know what it is like to have a child that has lived on the streets in Calgary. May these warm gifts from our heart help others that are in need this coming winter.

As in past years, these items are made with wool from sheep that have grazed in New Brunswick, wool spun and manufactured at Briggs & Little in New Brunswick and knitted by myself, a New Brunswicker and Marg, a Newfoundlander.

May you and your volunteers know that your work has not gone unnoticed but has encouraged many, even mothers on the east coast of Atlantic Canada."

A plain cardboard box. A label with just my name and address and a return address in Hopewell Hill, NB, a town I'd never heard of until a woman named Sharon contacted me to ask what she could do to thank us for caring for her child until he could return home again. A plain cardboard box that held all the prayers and hopes of mothers the world over. May my child come home, safe and sound -- for Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan. Whatever the occasion. May my child come home, safe and sound.

I opened the box and cried. Earlier in the day I'd received a box of belongings from James Bannerman. Staff had cleaned out his locker. Culled the items that were not personal and sent to my office those things they believed had value to his family or which could add value to the art program. I'd cried when I'd opened the box of James' goods too. Those tears had been of sadness. Sorrow. Loss.

When I opened Sharon's box my tears were tears of joy. Of gratitude. Of hope.

We never know when something we do will make a difference. We never know what that difference will be. We never know whose heart we'll touch.

In receiving Sharon and Marg's gifts from their heart, knit in hands of love, my heart was touched and moved and filled with gratitude. The simple gesture has made a difference. It is felt in the brightly coloured, warm woolen mittens they knit with such tender loving care. The wool is soft. Deep rich colours. Red. Green. Gold. Brown. Beige. Orange. Blue. Colours of the rainbow. A rainbow of colours knit into a box.

This is an amazing world. A world where lack and scarcity walk our streets and remind us that gratitude is the path to abundance. That when we count our blessings we build a bridge to the other side of the street that lights the path for those seeking a way back home.

This is an amazing world where on one side of the street people walk wrapped up in the warm coats of lives stitched together from one moment to the next filled with things to do, places to go, people to see. A world where, sadness and bleakness wear weary paths to the place where shelter is found in every kind of weather, just across the street.

A world where, just across the nation, mothers, like Sharon and Marg, sit together and while away the dark hours of winter to the soothing hum of knit one, pearl one. Their hope is knit into the truth that, no matter how far they are from the streets of Calgary, they can make a difference with their constant knitting together of woolen mittens cast on needles of love.

A world where two mothers spend their hot summer days on the porch knitting and chatting stringing together pearls of gratitude for the gifts their children received while so far from home.

A world where in the cool of autumn evenings, knitting needles click and two mothers create a gift that will shelter the hands of those who have been left out in the cold.

With each knit one, pearl one, Sharon and Marg stitch together the possibility of hope arising in the hearts of those who receive their gifts -- no matter the state of their lives or their position at the shelter -- because each stitch has been cast with a pearl one of gratitude, a knit one of hope.

In opening the box of multi-coloured mittens, I was reminded that when we knit one in hope, pearl one in gratitude, we stitch into the tapestry of this world all the love a mother's heart can hold. A love that, no matter the distance between us, can never be torn apart, can never come unstitched.

This year, there are those on our Christmas WishList who have asked for warm mittens. This year, they will receive the gift of not just a pair of warm woolen mittens, but also a gift knit with love in caring hands.

May their hearts be touched, their spirits renewed and their lives be forever changed. May they know the love that went into every stitch. May they know that across this wondrous land, there are those who care, no matter how far from home they may roam.

And may they know that somewhere a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, an aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, grandmother, grandfather, someone, perhaps many someones, wait, hoping and praying that one day they will come home, safe and sound.

Please. Listen.

Day 4
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

He sits in the hall. His body hunched over the love of his life. Holding her tenderly in his arms. He strokes her long neck, his fingers light. His touch soft. He stares at her lovingly. Coaxes her to sing.

Once upon a time he had another love. A woman who carried his name. "She was the boss," he quips. "Lesson learned. Move on." He smiles. "Now, the guitar is my boss."

Now his days are spent with this new mistress. His guitar. She's melodious and deep. A part of him. Carrier of his soul. Keeper of his hopes and dreams. He forever murmurs to her. "No. That's not right." "Try this." "Yes. Yes. Much better." "There. That's it. Like this." And the notes trip over the strings. Fall from his fingertips. Leap into the air. He nods his head. His cheek pressed against the worn wood of the guitar's rounded shoulder.

He wrote of his guitar recently in a response to a poem by Langston Hughes, Dreams.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Langston Hughes

He encountered Langston's poem during a writer's workshop Margot Van Sluytman was holding in the multi-purpose room on the sixth floor of the shelter.

"I don't write," he'd told me when I encouraged him to go. "I'm a guitar man." Like John Harris, "Guitar Man", my hearing can be selective. I didn't listen to his excuses. Neither did Margo. He went to the workshop. And fell in love. With Margot. With the words of Langston Hughes. With words posed next to each other like a beautiful melody. A counterpoint to the sonorous sounds of his guitar. Invisible feelings dancing in the air.

If I may be so bold
As to say silence is gold(en)
What is its opposite?

One note or many in perfect conjunction
May not fulfill our rambunctious function.

I hear, here, a tear and a fear
And purposeful reflection.

Ambient air with plush vibrations
Instrumentally piques some inner sensations.

This longing for oneness
and some sort of sense of commitment to art and public events
makes me write my dream in transient air
not knowing the feelings I may have put there.

The guitar is my lifeblood, for right or for wrong

Please listen, please listen,
for this is my song.
John Harris. November 2009

Tucked in an alcove of the Hygiene area, sitting beside a mop and bucket, John's guitar has poured forth its soothing grace beside the hum of the washers and dryers. It fills the air of the hallway outside the Wild Rose Studio on the 6th floor of the shelter. It adds grace to art shows and countless number of events the DI holds throughout the year. And always, John guides the notes with controlled movements. He willingly shares his gift with TV crews and reporters. With visitors and donors. With school groups and church groups who come to lend a hand or simply to learn about what it means to be a part of Canada's largest homeless shelter.

He is a man of deep humour. Of deep thoughts. Of deep notes rising forth from his guitar.

His wish this year is simple. A box of guitar strings would be nice he says. "One set doesn't last me long." A good book. A gift card to Walmart where he would have the freedom to buy what he needs.


There isn't much of it at a shelter. What there is John fills with the amazing sounds that rise from his guitar and fill the air with good tidings of joy. A gift of music for all mankind.

In. Out. Ebb. Flow.

Day 3
The Twelve Days of Christmas at the DI

I hadn't seen her for awhile. Not an unusual circumstance at the shelter. People come. They go. To rehab. To other shelters. Home. The street. To friends. To prison. A hotel for a few nights when the cheques come in. It is a fluid place, the shelter. Like the tide. Constantly flowing. In. Out. Ebb. Flow. Constantly carrying people from one place to the next. In. Out. Ebb. Flow.

She'd been gone for awhile. I hadn't known where but there she was a few weeks ago at the memorial service for a staff member who had passed away. She stood up and walked to the podium at the front of the room. Hesitantly. Haltingly. Emotion choked her. She opened her mouth to speak. She closed her mouth. Breathed. In. Out. Again. Open. Close. Breathed. In. Out. Again. Open. Close. Ebb. Flow.

I took her a glass of water. A box of Kleenex. "I first met Doug in 2002 when I came here," she began in her throaty voice, tears running down her face. "I'd just gotten out of prison. He was really nice to me. He'd give me cigarettes. He helped me. Get sober. For four years. I slipped in 2006. And now, I'm just out of rehab." Ebb. Flow. "I'm okay. I'm going to miss him. He was a real friend."

I knew her in her 'slip'. That place where she had ebbed away from sobriety into the flow of alcohol that separated her from staying on track with the world around her. I'd met her just after I'd begun working at the shelter. She was always funny. Always amused by the comings and goings of the shelter. Ebb. Flow. Her state didn't matter. Sober. Drunk. She always looked at the bright side. She was always chatty. Always looking out for her fellow man.

She went away for awhile and now she says, "I'm back."

She tells the interviewer for the Christmas WishList that she doesn't like the schedule of shelters and hopes to get her life back on track. She says she enjoys dancing, listening to music, reading and her favorite thing would be to soak in a nice hot bath.

And all she wants for Christmas is a pair of size 8 winter boots.

Size 8 boots. I imagine what she could do with those boots. Perhaps with winter boots she'd kick butt. Walk on out of here and into a different life. These boots are made for walking. I wonder where she'd go?

She's getting on track. Getting herself together.

I pray she gets what she asks for. I pray someone will read her wish and in their gift remind her, she is not alone. She is not forgotten. She has the power to walk on by the things that brought her down so she can get on up and get her life back on track.

In. Out. Ebb. Flow.

In. Out. Ebb. Flow.

Hello. Just call me Happy

Day 2
The Twelve Days of Christmas at the DI

He doesn't want to fill out a Christmas Wishlist form. "I don't need anything," he says. "I have everything I need, right here." His arms sweep out to encompass the large room around him, like a delicate bird fluttering its wings.

He is a small man. Wiry. Always moving. His fingertips touch when he talks. Flutter in the air. He nods his head. Constant motion like a brook burbling cheerfully through the forest. He is sitting on the second floor of the shelter. A happy man amongst almost a thousand other men and women, most of whom do not share his sunny outlook, but who do share a common theme in their lives; homelessness.

"Life is good," he smiles. "Yes. Life is good."

His nickname is Happy. "My mother, she called me Happy," he said once. "I think she didn't want me to be sad."

He was sad once. Really sad. He had a wife. A child. A family. A home. They took his child from him. Kidnapped her, he said. He didn't understand. Now he does. He has a mental illness that took away all that he loved. All that he held dear.

Now, many years later, he has found contentment. His needs are simple. His wants are few.

He needs community. People around him. Food. Shelter. People to share his smiles. He needs his meds to keep him walking comfortably along the paths and byways of this life he's come to know as his own, in spite of his scarcity. In spite of his homelessness.

His real name is Zahir. He comes from another country. Many years ago. Today, he calls the shelter home. He looks upon the people who serve him and who live with him as, his family, his community.

What does he ask for this Christmas? To be safe. To be well. To not, as he calls it, have 'the bug's' buzzing in his head.

We can give him his wish this Christmas. His wish is simple to fulfill.

What he gives us is so much more.

Smiles. And laughter. Stories. A sense of joy. A sense of wonder. For Zahir, the world is a place of wonder, sometimes mixed with the fear he will die alone. He will not be found on time. As long as he has a place to call home at the shelter, his fear recedes and he becomes who he wants to be, who he likes to be, 'Happy'.

So this is Christmas

Day 1
The 12 Days of Christmas at the DI

This is a busy time of year at the shelter, or, as one staff called it, 'tis the crazy season.

The season when those who call the shelter home feel, deep down on a soulful level, who is missing, what is lacking, who is gone, who is not there, where we are not, the tables and families and friends with whom we were once connected.

For some, it will be their first Christmas carrying the label, "Homeless". For others it is a well-worn reality they cannot shake. Like a bad cold it lingers and lingers, draining them of the hope of ever finding the strength to leave it behind. No matter how long they've been homeless, however, each year brings different challenges, different experiences. Poverty. Lack. Scarcity. Moments of joy. Of hope. Of expectations rising. Of love and feelings of being connected to a community here at the DI.

So this is Christmas.

Here at the DI Christmas is visible on all the floors. Lights twinkle. Trees stand sentry in the corners, their lights tiny beacons in the early morn. Parcels and packages are arriving. Some have names on them as they've come through the Christmas WishList just for John C. or Linda W. or Jordan F. Within each parcel is the thing they asked for, their "All I want for Christmas" wish.

It is all they can ask for. For many, most probably, the thing they long for most is what they cannot find, cannot have, cannot ask someone else to give them. A way back home.

For many, that road is blocked by addictions, family violence, divorce, death, mental health issues, lack of job, lack of education, lack of direction, of hope, of possibility.

For many, the road home is a long journey that begins each morning when they awaken and face another day in this place called homelessness.

For many, the road home will begin when they open their gift Christmas morning and discover the thing they wished for is really there. That thing they asked for, the warm winter gloves, the new sweater, the book, the bathrobe, really has been given. And in that moment of finding their wish fulfilled, trust awakens. Hope arises. Possibility opens up.

We never know what possibility one gift can bring. We never know how deeply someone will be touched, what can happen when a stranger cares enough to give the thing you've asked for.

What I do know is, this Christmas, no matter how crazy, no matter how far from home, the road back will begin with awakening on Christmas morning to find, someone cared enough to make a difference in their life.

So, This is Christmas.

For the next twelve days we will celebrate the people who make the season so bright here at the DI. Whether it is Christmas, or Hanukkah, Ramadam, or simply, The Season, whereever you are this year, look around you, reach out, find a place, a way, a someone, a stranger, a friend who needs something you can give.

Find someone to share your love and joy so that we create a circle of caring hearts opening up to the wonder of being alive on that special morning to receive the greatest gift of all. Love.

And on your Christmas morning, I hope, like me, you open someone's door and discover the greatest gift you have ever received -- those you love all around you.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Forever set in time.

It was cold when I arrived at the hospice. Cold and frosty. A clear winter's night. Stars littered the sky above. Glistening white in the black blanket of night. A half moon lying on its back low on the horizon. Snow covered the ground. Pristine white. It wrapped the earth in a wintry sheet. In the dark night, the hospice glowed like a beacon. Of hope. Of peace. Of little possibility of more life on earth for the man I'd come to see.

I had called around 7:30 to see how James A. Bannerman, son, brother, uncle, nephew, photographer, gardener, handyman, labourer, and homeless, was doing.

"He won't last a great deal longer," the nurse told me.

I wondered aloud whether it was appropriate that I come.

"It's up to you. You don't have to," she said. "As he nears the end, we will check on him regularly. We'll do our absolute best to ensure he's not alone when the time comes."

When the time comes.

I thought about that time. That time when death descends and life is inhaled on one last breath. That moment in time when the physical body releases its spirit to the night. I wondered about James being alone. What if... Someone else called at that exact moment and the nurses couldn't be there. What if... they timed it wrong? What if... he was alone?

I decided to drive the forty-five minutes to the hospice in Okotoks where he had been taken earlier that afternoon.

It had been the only time I'd ever heard James complain. We were in his apartment. The apartment he'd been moved into when he'd been released from hospital a couple of weeks before. The cancer was terminal. The doctor's didn't give him much time, though James was convinced they were wrong. He could beat it. He wasn't on any meds. He wasn't in any pain he said. He just needed a place to stay. The fourth floor wasn't appropriate. Too busy. Too noisy. Too uncomfortable for him. We were fortunate to have the opportunity of affording him a place of his own to call home for his final days.

I had gone over that morning as soon as I received the call. "They're taking James to a hospice. We're just organizing it now," Sharon, the Bridgeland Manor coordinator, told me.

When I arrived James was failing fast. I sat with him and held his hands. They were cold. I warmed them with mine. We sat as people came and went. I didn't want to let go of his hands. I wanted to warm them with mine, even a heart of stone is warmed in loving hands.

I'd once written that line in a fairy tale for my daughters years ago. But James' heart wasn't of stone. It was a warm, kind, loving heart. A gentle soul, he was constantly on the go. "Cleaning up the river bank," he'd tell me on my morning walk into work when I'd meet him on the river path, knapsack on his back, large plastic garbage bag in one hand. "I'm doing the city a service," he'd smile.

Sometimes I'd see him in the garden at the shelter. Constantly weeding, mowing, moving about. Or on a sidewalk of a downtown high rise office tower, shovelling snow, clearing up the mess.

It's what he did. Keep messes at a minimum.

Picture taking was his 'retirement plan', he'd told me once. "I'm getting kind of old for labour."

He was fifty-two. The years of hard living lined his face like ridges of bark rippling across a tree trunk. He always wore a cap of some sort. Ball cap. Cowboy hat. Always carried his backpack with him. It held his precious camera, laptop and photo files. It had been stolen once from the second floor. "Someone obviously needed it more than me," he said.

When it happened, a staff member, came to me and asked if we could set up a fund to help buy him a new camera and laptop. “I hate that it happened,” he said. “It makes me so angry. James’ a good guy. I want to help.”

James instilled that feeling in people. Of loyalty. Support. Caring. When I’d told a friend, Brian Willis, about James’ situation and told him about his love of photography and his remarkable gift, Brian had immediately replied. “They can steal the equipment, but never let them steal the dream. Tell me how I can help. Can I buy him a laptop?”

A man of few words, he always seemed to be observing, watching, noticing what was going on around him. Except in this instance when his backpack was stolen.

How can this happen? I’d asked him.

“It’s my fault,” he’d replied. “There are always going to be people who want what you have. I left it sitting on a chair. I went for a smoke and when I came back, it was gone.”

“How did you feel when you realized it was gone?” I’d asked.

He couldn’t describe his feelings. He had no words. He shrugged a shoulder and said with a chuckle, “It was time to upgrade my equipment anyway.”

The laptop was recovered. The thief caught and still James was looking for value in the situation. Optimism in the face of adversity.

That was James.

When I visited him in hospital and he told me he had stomach cancer, he’d laughed. “I figured my lungs would get me. Never my stomach,” he’d said. And then he’d paused. “Do you think you could bring me some of my pictures? I think I could sell some to the doctors and nurses.”
Optimism in the face of adversity.

He never complained. Never whined. Never bemoaned his fate. "I've had a good life. The life that suited me," he said.

And then, on the morning of the day they were taking him to hospice, I heard him whisper as I sat holding his hands. "Cold."

It was the only complaint I ever heard from him. It would be the last.

Early on the morning of December 8, 2009 at 12:45 am James A. Bannerman passed from this realm to another. I sat beside him as his laboured breathing grew more quiet. I held his hand. Spoke softly reassuring him he wasn't alone. 80's rock played on the radio. He'd asked to not be alone and that "Stairway to Heaven" be played. The closest we could find in that moment in time, when James crossed over and I sat in the stillness of the night holding his hand, was, "Like a Rock."

And he was. A rock. A quiet man of gentle voice and manner. A great man. A man of wondrous eyes. A man who saw the beauty in the angle of the sun hitting the corner of a building. A man who captured the awe of water dancing in the river as it passed through the downtown core to places far away. A man who was always looking up. At the sky. The cranes that litter the city skyline. The skyscrapers that defy the heavens. Birds flying in ‘V’ formation. Flowers dancing with colour in the light. A man who saw a doggie in the window, and captured his face pressed against the window and set his memory forever in time in a photograph.

James' memory will be forever set in time.

May he rest in peace. He will be forever set in our hearts.