Thursday, October 31, 2013

to be still

"The key to reintegration is to take it slowly. On your arrival home take time to be still. Resist the urge to hurl yourself into the midst of where you left off. take time to unpack mentally as well as physically. wait a few days before you begin to tell everyone about your travels, giving your spirit time to absorb all that has happened and to make sense of it within the context of your everyday life."

It's like the setting summer sun blew a kiss to these forests, showering them in hues of yellow, bronze, and amber. Yesterday morning, my early jet-lag morning, I ran towards the sunrise, seeing Hamilton in it's glorious dawn splendour from high on the escarpment trail. 

I followed a side path to see the sun rise, filtered through the mist-wrapped explosion of late-October colours. To my left, I could make out three does hidden in the woods. As I stood there watching, my jaw dropped open as I beheld a large tawny buck step out of the brush, peer at me at length from beneath his perfect rustic crown, and regally turn to stride away. Later, I stood motionless again on a yellow carpet of leaves, observing (what I think was) a rough-legged Hawk perching on a low branch. Squirrels, chipmunks, blue-jays, and dozens of birds that I can't begin to name - the whole forested world was irrevocably alive this morning, and I felt blessed to have stumbled in to it's daily sunrise celebration. When I left the wooded escarpment trail, I truly felt like I was stepping out of a forest-cloaked wardrobe, back in to the rest of my day. 

Good morning to you, too, Canada.

My favourite days abroad were the days I saw both sunrise and sunset, convinced that I couldn't have lived more fully as I had that day. Aching for some sense to be made out of all the experiences and information stored in my mind, I sat on a stone step above Webster's falls last night, watching the setting sun dip below the horizon.

"After all, the real journey is the one that begins when you start living your transformation. We go, only to return and begin again."

(Sally Welch, from Making a Pilgrimage)

Friday, September 27, 2013

pulling heaven's strings through prayer, community, and a long-awaited pilgrimage

On Sunday I'm flying to the UK to learn more about a movement that I've been increasingly more interested in since 2004. Last January I moved from New Brunswick (where I had just finished a contract with my University) to Hamilton, ON., to be part of an intentional community 'living in a context of prayer'. I had come to learn, to participate, and to create. The organization in Hamilton is called GOHOP ("The Greater Ontario House of Prayer"), but I had been introduced to it in the UK in 2004 simply as '24-7 Prayer'. 

Journal entry, Monday Jan 7, 2013
Tonight I arrived in Hamilton... my hopefully holy experiment. Lord, I feel like you led me here. I'm just going to... follow your lead. Like a dance. Help me to be sensitive to you, to follow you, trusting in your steps.

Last January I was invited to be an intern with GOHOP; my principal role was to help coordinate our annual night-and-day inner city prayer room in Hamilton. Over 450 people from over 60 different churches came to engage in prayer and worship in creative and interactive ways. Oh, it was amazing. To see people finding community, finding peace, finding a God that they could communicate with, finding a creative venue to express their doubt, their questions, and their faith.  

I've always found prayer rooms to be so interesting. God seems so close in these 'thin places' where the strings of heaven are pulled by punk and prayer-warrior alike. We're swept up in God's glorious fun of creatively communing with him, restoring relationships and places, and reaching out to others in prayer and hospitality. 

Since learning about the '24-7' movement and it's creative communities contextualized in prayer eight years ago, it's stayed alive in my mind as I've  taken the concept to each place I've been. I remember sitting on the stoop with a Philippino missionary friend in Thailand, sharing about 24-7 prayer: about prayer rooms and creativity, about vulnerability and healing, about potlucks and namaste. As tears slipped down her cheeks from being burnt out (she and her husband had adopted orphaned children from Mynamar), she agreed and shared my excitement. I even met a Burmese woman who shared my dream, and had already been renting our a building to hopefully use for discipleship, a Christian library, a half-way house, and a prayer room. It's been heavy on my heart, and I've participated and organized weeks of night-and-day prayer in Bible College, University, and moved to Hamilton just to be with and learn from others who share my excitement.

Each time I've been in England since I lived there in 2004, I've made my customary visit to the old building that used to house 24-7 Prayer in Reading, and try to organize a visit to one of the other communities in England. I almost joined the '24-7 Prayer Vision Course' in England last fall, but instead decided to continue working and paying off my student loans. After so long, I have the opportunity to visit other communities and mingle with other 24-7 folks! As an intern with the house of prayer, I am heading to the UK for one month to participate in the 24-7 International Prayer Gathering in Dublin, Ireland, with a team from Hamilton. En route, I’m also participating in a conference in London focused on prayer rooms in public schools (yeah. Seriously. I know. Check these folks out on their website), visiting other 24-7 communities of creativity, prayer, and hospitality, as well as the Celtic monastic communities of Northumbria and Iona.

In Hamilton, I currently work part-time as a bicycle mechanic for New Hope Community Bikes. It’s a non-profit where I’m able to mentor kids, teach youth and adults how to repair bicycles both in our workshop as well as at schools and apartment complexes, and be involved in an other really neat community and ministry in Hamilton’s lower income East end. I had originally been drawn to Hamilton in order to learn from the community here, and take new skills and understanding back to Thailand. However, I've found a home here, and until I’m directed abroad again, I’ll be based in Hamilton with my four housemates and our cat named Westley, having folks over for dinner, fixing bicycles, and creating neat-o prayer spaces. 

If you like postcards, send me your address and I'll pass on some love! Otherwise, thanks for reading, for your support, and for your friendship. If you like whispering into God's ear, pray that I'll be learning lots, staying focused yet flexible, and that our little team of six pilgrims from Hamilton will be a blessing to those we meet, and will travel safely. 

I've been abundantly blessed - over half of the costs of the trip have been already covered by anonymous donations and financial blessings from family and friends. If you feel that you would like to support me financially in this endeavor as well, you can visit, type in 'Greater Ontario House of Prayer', and just let them know in the 'message' that you wish to support my trip to the UK with 24-7 Prayer. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

my own shrinking heart

At the end of August I was able to visit my sister and her family in Saint John, NB. Within six months of moving my life back to Ontario, Naomi & Co. moved out East, an hour from where I used to live! It was a pleasure to be able to visit the lovely folks surrounding St. Stephen's University, as well as spending a few days with my sisters Jonna and Naomi, and Naomi's three sons.

 I'm not going to pretend that I was very good at helping with Oliver, Charlie, and Thomas. Honestly, I got pretty tired quickly, as I'm not practiced in the stamina of playing toddlers. I'm familiar with more time alone, in reading and in reflection, in cycling through the city and sipping tea in hidden corners of cafes. However, on one evening when the kids were safely in bed, Naomi came downstairs with a strange request,

"Uh... Nicci, Oliver wants you to come up and scratch his back." I opened his door slowly and sat on his bed, lightly 'scratching' his tiny back with my fingertips, singing to him. I wondered if that's how Jesus feels when we come to him with our requests, boldly like a child. My heart was full as I understood the love of Jesus a little more, through my own bumbling efforts to love my nephews... if I so eagerly went to the bedside of a little boy, not even mine, how much more does he run to us? 

PhotoSimilarly, after we spent our time at St. Martin's Beach building a dam with Oliver and Charlie, Charlie (2 years old) ended up sopping wet and freezing cold. I stripped him of his wet clothes and wrapped him up in my jacket, holding him in my arms, carrying him down the beach and all the way to the van. He snuggled up against me and closed his eyes, and though my arms hurt as his little body relaxed completely, I wouldn't have passed him off for the world. Dang, these little guys. Thanks for teaching me about the greater love of our God, through my own shrinking heart learning to love : ).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Honestly, tree-planting 2013 was... debilitating. Somehow, I still feel traumatized and anxious from the whole experience. Perhaps it was the last few days that scarred me so - I can't shake the memory of my bug-ridden corpse-like self fighting through the tall overgrowth and glue-like mud, trying desperately to plant out the last of the contract's trees while stepping in wasps nests and trying to see through my sweat and rain-clogged bug net. That's how I remember it. I'd like to say that 'planting was good!', when people ask. But, instead, this strange cynical atmosphere overcomes me, my language takes a nose-dive, and I struggle not to succumb to the hellish memories.

Some good things:
My best-day face : )

1. My third last day, I planted the most I ever have in one day: 5,300. They weren't even tiny pods or light trees or anything, I just decided that I would plant over 5, and I did. That was a good day. I would have probably returned next year if it wasn't for the two last days that followed.

2. Clifford. I adore that big red bus. I began writing poetry on the roof with sharpies, and others started following suit: Clifford, the big red poetry bus : ). Here is a picture of the planting prose that got 'posted' to the roof. I think it's just what happens when 24/7 prayer meets tree-planting, hey?

3. Worship songs have taken on new meaning than ever before: lines about soaring like eagles, and singing the songs that God has put into our hearts- these things I experienced first hand. I know how massive an eagle is. I have been to depths of rock bottom, and songs were put on my heart and lips that raised me up out of the muck and mire to continue breathing. Sometimes, I even miss the closeness.
Burning my planting clothes :)

I drove back to Southern Ontario with Michelle; we spent the time between passing out from beyond-exhaustion, and discussing the finished contract. Usually immediately after it's over, I come into a fairy-like ecstasy, feather-light from realizing that the contract is over and I don't have to plant any more trees!!! This year, I haven't experienced that. It's like the very experience scarred me to my bones, and I couldn't be happy simply because that existed, and I was there. Crazy, hey?

I'm back in Hamilton, and life is a dream. I love working at New Hope Community Bikes as a bicycle mechanic; I love drinking up the late summer in ice teas and long cycle rides. My bi-monthly paycheck from the not-for-profit is less than just the tax taken off any of my bi-monthly paychecks from tree-planting, but I smile coming to work every day, and treasure the relationships I have with the volunteers and local community. I hope that my hard exterior formed during May and June is slowly chipping off, and I'll come out the other side a stronger yet gentler person ;).

Currently, I find immense joy in sitting on picnic blankets, in eating good food with friends, in succeeding to refurbish an old broken bike, in participating in a few summer cycling and multi-sport races, and in reading my bedside-table favourite, Les Mis. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A collection of days, and two weeks left.

Day 0, Monday

Time is interesting. You can be soaking in the sun and the company of warm spring day, knowing full well that soon, your very same well-rested body bathed in sunlight will be wet, cold, and broken; most likely crying out some curse against the ever-changing land and weather of the north. Now, sitting on a bus heading to set up camp, it doesn’t feel like it’s been any time since I’ve sat with these same people. And now, at the beginning of my fourth season, I have more fears than hopes, more doubts than certainties, more school debt than I’ll be able to pay off, and more determination than ever.

For the past month or so, forested poems have been circulating in my mind, verses about spring have brought me to quiet branches in tree heights, and my pulse quickens in knowing planting anticipation. It’s time, and my body would know it even if the calendar didn’t.  

Day 13, Wednesday

Every joy of the day feels like it’s been robbed from me… and I feel in the depths of misery. Another planting partner loss. Chapin is getting his bus license on Monday and we were told tonight that we’ll be split up starting next week. I’ve written about the planting partner relationship before… it’s still a bit of a mystery to me I think. You go through hell and back together. You share each other’s successes as well as their failures. I feel like half of myself is being torn from me; when I first arrived this season without Angie, I was literally half a planter. She was my right hand and my other half; my smile in the afternoon and my hug at the end of the day. I think I have planting partner abandonment issues. I literally fear/have anxiety over the thought of losing Chapin as my wingman. We split up for a short while this afternoon in a cattle plant and I got so disoriented… the days go faster with a partner, and I’m less likely to despise the work. My heart sinks to the very bottom of my sopping wet planting boots just thinking about it.

Monday, Day 15

I haven’t been very positive of late… I’m weary of my own droning voice of hopelessness and haven’t written for a few days.

Last night I could hardly fall asleep because of the fear – the continuing contract, planting thousands of trees day after day without even a partner for company. And then – I decided – what if the last three weeks were the worst of the contract, and it’s only up from here? Since the beginning of the contract, five trucks and a bus have broken down, a crewboss ran over his own dog… our crew split up, and one rookie planter got left on the block and wasn’t discovered to be missing until the next morning after it had poured the entire night (he is now deemed ‘survivor man’, is still here, and continues to live up to the new name well). The thought of the rest of the contract being better than the last four weeks was a little light in my day J.

Tuesday, Day 16

Every other year I have planted, I took a copy of Annie Dillard’s, ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ with me. In my first year, I read it on the bus on the way to the block, to remind me to be aware and approach my wild surroundings with wonder and curiousity. I didn’t bring Annie with me this year. I have, instead, some Walt Whitman (Thanks, Brad!), and Thomas Merton. I also have a Francine Rivers on the go, borrowed from the church in Fort Frances. Accordingly:

Dear Ms. Dillard,
Perhaps it is only in the lack of your words, that prompts me to write my own. I’ve been pleasantly surprised this season with so many nature sightings and close-up experiences. Yesterday, I saw a tiny bear cub tumble after his Mother. As I was planting today, a protective mother bird flew out from beneath my next step, startling me and revealing three perfect cream coloured brown speckled eggs nestled in a tightly woven nest on the ground. This morning, Kida, one of the crewboss’ dogs, chased after a baby rabbit and maimed one of its hind legs; Chapin caught the little guy, and he seemed not to be hurt too badly. Since Kida wouldn’t leave it alone, we ended up nestling it in my back bag until she tired looking for the little thing. So, this morning I planted my first bag-up with a baby rabbit in my back bag. It calmed, and didn’t mind Chapin lifting its little fuzzy body out again to set it down in safety. Thank you, Ms. Dillard, for reminding me to have a posture of awareness, wonder, and gratitude.

Day 17, Wednesday

This morning I pumped the brakes on ‘Clifford’ the big red bus, and waited for a young mister moose to cross the road. One of the rookies from the city, jostled forward in his seat commented blithely, “funny how normal this is now”. On Monday I had to stop for a massive (Narnian, really) beaver, and an elegant deer as well. The deer crossed as we were coming back from out weekend in Fort Frances, and I was listening to the City Harmonic through ear phones.

“If I stumble, will you pick me up? What else would a Father do?”

Church that morning had filled me with longing = *groan. Such longing. To be free of my sin, to grow in patience, integrity, loyalty and trust… such longing. To be free. I watched as the deer leaped over the road and in town bounds she was across the wide ditch and was safe in the woods. She leaped so high – like obstacles were nothing to fear. I was envious of the enormous eagle in my piece a few weeks ago; I wasn’t envious of the deer – she had simply filled me with an ache to be able to leap over my own obstacles as easily as she cleared hers. Before I left Hamilton a few weeks ago, I painted these words on the prayer room wall:

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag…

If you were to see me in the land, you may see me cruising along, tree after tree in a smooth repetitive glide. Or, more likely, you may see me tripping and falling all over myself: getting sticks caught between my legs while I wobble back and forth probing for soil, with the weight of the forest on my hips and shoulders dragging me into each stumble and fall.

…Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains” Cant. 2:8, 17

Tree planting is raw – one of the reasons why I love it so much here. People swear, have emotions, and are honest when they have shitty days. No one dresses like peacocks, and when we do, we hardly recognize each other. I like the raw flavour. It teaches me to unload my social constructs and use common sense again. However, in its rawness, I meet my own raw heart and mind. As I watch my body continue to heal itself from the would I casually afflict on myself as I move through the land, I am only too aware of my anger, frustration, hidden intentions and fears brought to the surface in a wild little community outside of society, where everyone works themselves to exhaustion each long day.

I pray that this raw heart, this raw mind, is shaped and molded here in this raw place – that even here, my shepherd is leading me by way of the deer, and I may have enough humility and longing to be led willingly.

Day 29, Wednesday

Over the half way mark, and the end seems to be so far away. Thunder rumbles overhead tonight, and I could hear the rain on the water before it started falling on my tent. There are so many things I want to do before falling, mentally and physically exhausted, to sleep until another day threatens to begin.

Day 32, Saturday.

The fingers on my shovel hand clicked into place this morning, and I am desperately applying cream to the growing welt on my side where my bags chafe my waist. I cried walking to the block this morning… the blackflies and mosquitos swarming my face made me feel like an abandoned corpse, and life was more hopeless this morning than ever before. After a six day week of long days, there is not enough time in the day for enough sleep. A two day weekend seems too good to be true… and yet it is here. I truly don’t think I could have lasted another day... I spend each day now, day-dreaming of cycling with Hamiltonian friends without the overshadowing fear of the next day looming over my burnt and broken body. 

Monday, June 3, 2013


 Day 11, Tuesday

Perfect. Today we had the best find of all my years – a perfectly tiny, perfectly vulnerable, perfectly newborn fawn, nestled in the sticks and logs of a skidder trail. My poor partner had almost speared it with his shovel but stopped his throw inches before accidentally harming the sweet thing. He sat down on the log next to it, white-faced and cursing. It looked up at us with its big dark eyes, and slowly breathed in and out through its perfectly tiny wet nose. It was about three of my hands in size; we flagged the space around it (I named it Spock), and saw that its mum was moving it a few feet every few hours. We would often see the powerful mother bounding down skidder trails or through residuals, just catching her erect white tail as it darted past. We also saw a bear today, a beaver, and a little lovely blue egg – the first I’ve seen this season. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

through the wasteland

Tuesday; Day 6

          Rounded folks up early in the van. Forgot my helmet and Travis leant me his. Planted with Chapin for the first day; cut in totally wrong and have been made a comedic example of all day. Travis even drew a map on the whiteboard labelled ‘how not to cut in’. How embarrassing. 3250 today.
          Saw a wolf and a moose yesterday driving to T-Bay. The moose aren’t looking very healthy right now… each one I’ve seen look a bit patchy and dull-coloured. We’ve been finding a ton of sheddings as well – antlers are decorating outhouses, tents and trailers around camp recently. The wolf was huge – crossing the road I almost took it for a deer at first glance; it stood tall, its tail long and tipped with silver.
Wednesday, Day 7

          Two people asked me how my day was today. The first time I answered, “good, except I had to plant trees all day”. To the second I replied, “good! I got to plant trees all day!” I can recognize when I need a big attitude adjustment ;).
          I missed the pelicans landing tonight, but there were two eagles fighting over some sucker fish in the culvert. This morning we had an SSU favourite for breakfast and it felt a little like home. I was teasing Travis today as our piece held us for exactly two days, ‘It’s a good thing Chapin and I cut our own piece yesterday!’ 3325 today.
Thursday, Day 8

          Hump day! I began my morning with a little Thomas Merton, from his autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain. This excerpt had me thinking on the topic for most of the day, and elicited interesting conversation between my Chapin and I:

For that was to be 1939, the year when the war that everyone was fearing finally began to teach us with its inexorable logic that the dread of war is not enough. If you don’t want to effect, do something to remove the causes. There is no use loving the cause and fearing the effect and being surprised when the effect inexorably follows the cause.

          The planting day: I drove the van out to a new block today, with Chapin as my wing man in the passenger side. Next week I drive the bus, and I’ll miss this little green van. I feel a bit like a soccer Mom as I drop all my ‘kids’ off at their pieces at the beginning of the day. Chapin and I are the highballer pair of the crew, taking second and third place for most trees planted yet on the contract. This really just means we seem to get thrown into all trickiest and deepest pieces. Last week, I could just reach the middle of my piece with a full bag up of 650 trees, and this week Chapin and I were bagging up 590 trees (bigger pods) and were just reaching the back of our piece as we planted our last tree, meaning we had a lovely long walk to our internal cache after we bagged out each time. Long day. Good day. Sunny day. 2710 day.
          After planting we had to wait for the bus to pick up the rest of the planters, so we waited by the one-lane bridge on the Cedar Narrows. My crewboss, Travis, decided we should jump off the bridge into the freezing May waters of a Northern Ontario lake. His faithful supporter to the end, I jumped first and he did a graceful backflip seconds after. Saved myself the bother of waiting in line for a shower! Score. Somethings – you just need to do before you think about them too much. We played pooh-sticks, me with my makeshift sweater-made-skirt, and he with borrowed clothes and boxers. We threw rocks at signs, danced, and the bus finally came to pick the planters up an hour or so later. Following a delicious rib diner, we had a safety meeting, I practiced my circle test for my bus licensing on Monday, washed all the dinner dishes in the cook shack, and was still able to have some downtime by the lake with cigars and friends before bed. The trees were so heavy today – we have new stock, and my bags weigh far more though I can fit less in them. My back and hips hurt, and my feet are painful if they touch anything at all.
          Loons call each other across the lake as I write this; it was a perfect evening tonight: pristine blue until the very end, deepening as the moon rose. The water so still that the undulating treeline and its matching reflection appeared like waves moving across a sound board. The stars were overhead and sprinkled across the lake, the crickets were orchestrating their evening excitement, and I might have imagined it, but I think I even saw the season’s first of the fireflies. The pelicans flew tonight - it’s always chancy whether or not you see them, often it’s simply a lucky upward glance. Look up more.

Day 9, Friday

          The first few days of this week were a complete anomaly: clear blue skies, cool throughout the day with a constant breeze, boasting warm nights. Most often, the north only knows extremes. I’ve now taken my sleeping bag out again for extra warmth. The last few nights have been bitter cold – the pipes froze last night and there was frost covering the sinks. The days are so hot… it’s almost impossible to be hydrated enough. I drank almost 2 gallons of water today, and was still hallucinating from the heat and partial dehydration. My partner was pretty disoriented with a bad headache, and I had to continually remind him which way our cache was at the end of our bag ups. He went to bed early tonight, feeling ill. We jumped off the bridge again today, but the water was far colder from the below-freezing nights. All day Chapin and I were discussing what we would do with our weekend. We have a barter on for tomorrow: if I can plant the entire day without complaining about scarification (when the land is prepared for planting by having the soil flipped over in lines) or anything else about how terrible the land is, he will buy all the cheese for our wine and cheese tomorrow night. Honestly, I think I’m going to lose… positivity in scarification is not my strong point. Beat Eric at 1 of 3 games of connect four, and snuggled with Sarah before heading to my tent. Exhausted – hardest 2405 I’ve ever planted.

Day 10, Saturday

          A beautiful overcast day – sweet respite from the glaring sun of the past two days – and though we planted the same number as yesterday (and stopped planting for two hours while we switched blocks), it felt like half as many trees. We got to town late after attempting to close a block and one of our buses breaking down… but the shower and the big double bed at the Super 8 in Fort Frances have never felt so good! I also one the bet – I went the entire day without cursing the slashed and scarified land… It put me in a much better mood for the whole day actually.
          Discovery of the week: a neat little spore/cone-like thing growing from low-lying bushes in the clear-cuts. When the wind catches its scent, it sends the loveliest perfume through the wasteland.