TEXAS IS GOING TO KILL MY FRIEND


Unless he is granted a reprieve, Ramiro Gonzales will be executed by the State of Texas on August 10th.

Two years ago, while I was pregnant with my second child and experiencing a period of chronic insomnia, I found myself in a late night web surfing marathon reading article after article about capital punishment in the United States.  It wasn’t a particularly cheery exercise, and it certainly didn’t help with my sleep.

Continuing on the theme of my poor judgement, I began reading the comments left at the end of these news articles.  These comments varied widely, from those asserting these (mostly) men “got off too easy”, to general outrage at the continued use of the death penalty, to suggestions of alternate methods of execution that would be cheaper and more effective (the firing squad, hanging and altitude chambers being popular choices). Continue reading “TEXAS IS GOING TO KILL MY FRIEND”

SOMETIMES (CHURCH) FAMILY IS HARD

Intention. Love. Time.

Today was a difficult day.

As many of you know, my family and I belong to a United Church congregation in Toronto. Today, our congregation voted on whether to continue the pastoral relationship with our lead minister. We were basically voting on whether or not this minister should be fired.  Continue reading “SOMETIMES (CHURCH) FAMILY IS HARD”

MOTHER’S DAY & MARSHMALLOWS

Happy belated Mother’s Day to all of you who are mothers (however you define that experience for yourself) and have mothers.  I was blessed to spend the day with my husband, sons, Aunt and Grand-Mére.  You’d think Grand-Mére would have the day off from cooking, but she insisted on making cabbage rolls.  And brownies.  I’m about to let you in on a family secret of which Grand-Mére is always reminding us–her baking contains ZERO CALORIES. I know it’s true because she tells me all the time.  I think I’ll have another brownie right now…

Here is what my kiddies chose for my Mother’s Day present:

It's natural and healthy!
They’re natural and healthy!

Don’t be alarmed if you are wondering what these things are.  You probably haven’t tried them since you were eight years old eating a 50 cent grab bag from the local hockey rink.  They even taste like grade 3!

In case anybody is wondering what the heck happened to my website – unfortunately, the gnomes who live in the servers who host the site went on vacation.  Something blew up and nobody was there to save my site.  So I lost everything.  Something like that.  I guess I’m just going to have to start leading a more exciting life so I have something to fill the pages with.

Love and Light.

 

HEARTS ON FIRE

Last month, I had the pleasure of performing at Orono United Church as a fundraiser to support the relocation and settlement of a Syrian family.

It was a great show with some fine people.  I had an amazing time.  Apparently, so did the folks who were there, because I’ll be returning to Orono to perform on June 11th.

This concert, once again hosted by Orono United Church, is being held to raise funds for those who’ve had to flee the wildfires currently raging through northern Alberta.  There will be opportunities available to donate to the Red Cross, with the Canadian Government promising to match contributions.  The show is called Hearts on Fire and you can find all the details here.

You can also watch this video of Aleksandar Gajic and I performing Sugar Snow, filmed by Rev. Ceri Reese, at last month’s concert.

Beautiful Music

Last night I had the pleasure of playing at Trinity United Church in Elmira. I was joined by Aleksandar Gajić on violin. It was a fun show and I was honoured to be among such wonderful people sharing their Friday evening with me.

Just moments before we were about to go on stage, Aleksandar looked at his phone and read aloud the reports we was hearing about the terrorist attacks in Paris. At that time 100 people were confirmed dead. Multiple locations around the city. The full scope of the attacks was still unclear.

After he stopped relaying the reports, and as we were being introduced, Alek picked up his violin and said “This is terrible. Now let’s go make some beautiful music.”

Because what else is there to do? Terrible things happen. And sometimes the only way to respond is by trying to put more beauty into the world. Perhaps the more beauty and love there is in the world, the more hate can be pushed out.

My heart is heavy this morning while learning the full extent of the attacks in Paris. I only hope the world will respond with love for all the people who are experiencing pain, and not hatred for a small few taken out on millions of the most vulnerable.

Amour.

The Canadian Superhero makes it to Parliament Hill

Last week, the Conservative government added a disturbing measure to an omnibus bill that would give them control over the salaries and working conditions of employees within the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  What’s the concern?  According to Friends of Canadian Broadcasting:

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that an editorial decision to go easy on the government could be made in the heat of a contract negotiation, if the prime minister is, in effect, seated on the other side of the bargaining table

Even subtle influences on story line-ups affect the quality of news decision-making. Without a strict, arm’s-length relationship and independence from government, the CBC will lose its credibility.
– Ian Morrison, Spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting

Today, FRIENDS was on Parliament Hill to present a copy of the FREE CBC petition signatures (collected by FRIENDS, Leadnowand SumOfUs) to members of the government and opposition parties and to hold a press conference.

And what’s that you hear in the background?  Our favourite retiree’s song, Ballad of a Canadian Superhero!

You can sign the petition here. If you’d like a FREE DOWNLOAD of Ballad of a Canadian Superhero, you can get it by signing up for the mailing list!

Epilogue

Update: Check our my friend Erin’s reaction to our Do the Math Challenge. You should also read the rest of her blog as well.  She’s pretty awesome.

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These are spinach banana muffins made with whole wheat and flax.  I whip these up for Isaiah so I can be sneaky with his vegetables.  We missed them during our 7 days eating nothing except what might be found in a food bank hamper.

It’s been more than a week since my family and I finished our Do the Math Challenge.  This will likely be my final post about our experience.

I promised I would get into next steps. But first, here are some more questions that have come up since my last post:

How much did it cost for you to buy the groceries for the simulated food bank hamper?

About $68. This was to feed Jason, myself and baby Isaiah for the whole week.  It was more food than a typical food bank hamper would have because those are only meant to last 2-3 days.

What was the most surprising thing you noticed throughout the week?

I have a few.

1.  I was surprised by the degree to which I felt physically and emotionally awful, and how quickly those feelings set in.  By Day 2and Day 3 I was absolutely unable to think clearly.  By the end of the week I was choosing not to eat rather than eat the food that was in my cupboard.

2. We were very socially isolated.  I didn’t want to invite anybody over because I had nothing decent to serve them.  I couldn’t go out to meet friends because I couldn’t order anything from a restaurant…not even a tea!  The one outing we did take was to a friends house, but we couldn’t accept any food or drink.  She served fruit salad to the others.  I could smell it throughout the entire room and it seemed likely that it was the most delicious fruit salad in history and we were missing out on it.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not clear about why we were instructed not to accept offers of food or drink from others.  Perhaps it’s because if we were never able to reciprocate it’s unlikely we’d be spending time with friends serving delicious fruit salad.  Or perhaps it was to really get a feel for what it’s like not to have an out.  Regardless, we stuck to the rules.

Fruit salad. That was my biggest temptation for the week.  Thanks, Sonia.

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3.  I had absolutely zero connection to my food, and I missed it.  The closest I came to cooking (other than fishcakes and flatbread) was opening a bunch of cans and mixing the contents together.  I wasn’t making anything, and when I thought about it, I really had no idea how any of it was made. I’m not trying to give the impression that Jason and I are foodie purists who only eat raw, local, vegan and organic food.  I have a weakness for refined sugar, we both like our Starbucks lattes, and the guys who own our local Indian roti joint know what I want when they see my number on call display.  But we do the best we can.  It was the consistency of white starch, simple carbs and food from a package that was overwhelming.  It was unclear to me at what point the florescent orange powder with “real cheddar cheese taste” was something living, growing or breathing.

So what should we be donating to the food bank?  We’ve been told they only want non-perishables, canned foods and peanut butter.

Food banks offer a band-aid solution to a greater problem.  The issue isn’t so much what food banks are offering their clients, but a tragically flawed system that creates the need for food banks in the first place.

Healthy food grows and then dies.  It is a living thing.  If food doesn’t go bad, there’s a reason for it.  (fun fact: the only natural food that does not spoil is honey!) In my experience, most food banks distribute only once a week.  That’s a long time for produce and baked goods to be sitting around.  The little produce that’s distributed is often purchased from cash donations.

But the real problem is the lack of access our most vulnerable neighbours have to healthy and nutritious food.  That is why Put Food in the Budget is asking (demanding? pleading?) the provincial government to add $100 to monthly social assistance payments so that even those who are struggling financially have the means to provide some measure of health and dignity to their families.  The maximum amount a single person relying on OW receives is $604.  That’s $604 to pay for rent, transportation and food.  It’s simply not enough.

That’s what I think, anyway.  I don’t want to get too preachy.  Sometimes that’s not the best way to move people.  I know I don’t like being preached at.

Example:

As I’ve mentioned before, my family undertook the Do the Math Challenge along with five other families from our church congregation.  Last Sunday, I spoke about what the week was like during our worship service.
It was a very emotional experience and I was not feeling at all well from the lack of real food.  I can’t stress enough how much this exercise affected my physical, emotional and spiritual state.  Everything was sitting in a very raw and open space.

Three members from the PFitB team came to the service and stayed for lunch afterwards.  It was wonderful to have them and it was nice to know that the greater campaign was interested in our small gesture and experience.  But when I went down to the lunch, one of the PFitB members came over immediately and started asking about our next steps while handing me a bunch of papers about a new campaign, telling me I should be getting our committee mobilized to email the premier and bombarding me with statistics about how the freeze on social assistance is actually a cut (this is true and PFitB explains how on their website).  I didn’t know what to do except take her papers, letting her know I would make them available to the congregation.

I made my way around the tables, talking to congregants who had  more questions aboutThe Challenge.  I was then finally able to join my family for the simple soup lunch we share as a group once a month.  I was soon joined at the table by the PFitB members.  I was asked again about next steps and where we would go. I explained that our mandate for this year is education with a look towards being able to eventually speak out against suffering and injustice as a unified group.  I was assured this made sense.  But then the other members started once again suggesting (very strongly) I get people to write the new premier.  There were other actions and more statistics, but I don’t remember them.  My brain shut off.  It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I really do care.  I think the work these folks are doing is awesome.  But in that moment, I felt like I was being preached at in a way I don’t like.  I was being told what to do and really, I wasn’t in the right head space for it.  It felt like the cause was overriding the very human experience some of us had just shared (knowing it was only a small gesture of solidarity with those who rely on food banks every week).  I was weepy and weary.  I needed time before I could even think about being a feisty crusader.  Time.  I needed time.

But I’ve had a bit of time now, and I think I’ve managed to scrounge up a bit of feist.

If you’d like to contact the premier to advocate for the $100 addition to OW and ODSP, you can do so here.

Post Script

Wednesday morning at 6:55am, my Grocery Gateway order showed up at my door.  I wish I could say they woke me up, but my days of sleeping in until 7:00am vanished almost a year ago.  When I brought the box upstairs and started to put everything, I was expecting to find vegetables and flour.  Instead, I found instant rice, condensed chicken noodle soup, and (holy wtf!) macaroni and cheese in a box! Jason walked in the room and stopped dead in his tracks. 

“What. The. Hell. Is. That?”

It seems I didn’t clear the cache in my shopping cart history from when I was doing initial research on what crappy food costs.  Now, I have more crappy food in my house.  None of us want to touch it.  Not that we’re against crappy food (I admit really liked the Rice-a-Roni when I figured out how to cook it properly) but the thought of trying to scarf down another bowl of Kraft Dinner any time this decade makes my body ache in protest.

I’m so very, very grateful and fortunate that I have a choice.

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This is Isaiah eating a carrot.

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Thank you to the ~500 of you who have been following this blog.   If you’d like to see more of what I do when I’m more properly nourished, you can find me at www.bri-anneswan.com

Peace and health to all of you.

Day 7: Fin.

I am actually writing this posting Sunday night. Day 7 was yesterday, but I was too busy getting ready for the talk I gave at church today. I only managed to get half way through what I had prepared to say before I started to cry.

Again.

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I’m hopeful that this week will bring less tears. I am tired of being such a delicate flower.

This was our final meal. It’s pasta with the dreaded, disgusting tomato sauce:

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I’ll be posting in a few days about next steps and where we go from here, but I wanted to take up some virtual space answering some questions I’ve received throughout the week via email, Facebook and in person about Do the Math and our experience.

I’ll start with my favourite question:

So, are you guys, like, radical hippies or something?

My immediate response is to say “no”, but I suppose it depends on what you mean by “radical”.

If by “radical” you mean “a deep and profound belief that every human being has the right to a life of health and dignity”, then yes, we are radicals. It would make me sad if this was considered a radical thought, though.

As for the hippie part, Jason does have long hair, we both love Folk Festivals and we had a child out of wedlock. Take from that what you will.

If people don’t want to rely on food bank donations, why don’t they just get a job?

Excellent question. Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple.

First of all, many people who access food banks do have a job. The working poor make up a significant number of food bank clients. Toronto is the most expensive place in Ontario to live, but minimum wage is $10.25 across the province. A single parent working 40 hours a week will have less than $1500 a month after taxes from which to pay for rent (in Toronto, two bedroom apartments start at $850 but most are well over $1200 and that would be nowhere near the downtown), transportation, utilities, clothing and food. Assuming transportation costs are $100, that only leaves $200 for everything else. I spent $68 on groceries for this week’s challenge. This did not include buying formula, which isn’t cheap! So, even eating like crap, minimum wage is not enough to cover the costs of both a place to live and food. If number crunching is your thing, you can read all kinds of snazzy statistics about hunger in the GTA on the Daily Bread Foodbank’swebsite.

But numbers aside, after eating nothing but canned and processed food for a week, I can personally attest to just how difficult it is to feel motivated when you’re malnourished, even maginally. I honestly think I did dishes twice in seven days. I let a bunch of things slide that I really should have done. I just couldn’t make myself get off the couch. Even keeping this blog was difficult. There were times when I didn’t even want to play with Isaiah…and he’s The Most Awesome Baby in the World! I wanted to be in bed. My general crushing, slumpy, foggy, gunky, demoralizing haze was all consuming. And this was after only eating a food bank diet for a few days. Towards the end of the week, I was choosing not to eat rather than eat from the food that was in my cupboard. I think I’ve come closer to understanding how difficult it could be for somebody in this situation to feel motivated towards change (and this is even without getting into all the ways The System works to keep the cycle of poverty moving along, but that’s a whole other topic altogether).

Don’t you feel awkward/bad/guilty about taking food away from somebody else who needs it?

Not really, because we didn’t. We purchased our groceries based on a list provided by The Stop which was meant to replicate what might be in a food bank hamper.

As for the meal programmes, we will be making donations to the drop-in centres we visited that will more than cover the cost of our meals.

We hope the wonderful volunteers at these meal programmes will understand what we were trying to do: raise awareness about the human experience of families who rely on food banks and meal drop-ins, and hopefully motivate people to support Put Food in the Budget’s campaign to add $100 to social assistance payments for the purchase of healthy food. Of course, this does not directly help the working poor (see above) but it is a start.

What was the hardest thing for you to eat?

No Name pork and beans with molasses. It tasted like vomit.

You only ate from the food bank list for one week. How can you say that your experience even comes close to somebody who has no choice but to eat like this week in and week out?

I can’t and I’m not trying to. I’ve been aware throughout this challenge that as difficult and demoralizing it was for me, it was likely nothing compared with those who suffer this malnutrition every day and without choice. All I wanted to do was share my own experience as I lived it. It was my story. It is not my intent to force that upon anybody else.

I eat Kraft Dinner all the time and I’m not poor.

That’s totally fine, if it’s your choice (although I would suggest eating Kraft Dinner every day might not be the most efficient way to meet your nutritional needs). However, not having the option of providing anything more nutritious for your family is part of what this week was meant to highlight. People need to the agency and means to be able to make healthy choices. Access to healthy food should be made available to everybody.

Ok, so you’ve done the Food Bank Diet Challenge. What’s the point? What have you accomplished?

For this, I’d like to borrow some thoughts from our friend and minister Doug Norris:

The entire project of this week, members of the congregation eating in ways that are unfamiliar to most of us, is about nothing but understanding and awareness. No more. It does not move us any further along.

But if we remain unaware, we will never move to the next step which is a lament that understands our complicity, and our connectedness in the web of people. Everything we do affects the neighbour, and every neighbour who is brought low diminishes us, diminishes our humanity.

Change is a process. Our project this week was simply about raising awareness (within others and ourselves), hopefully encouraging those interested in our story to reflect on their own beliefs and actions in relation to food security.

What are your next steps?

I’m glad you asked. That will all be covered in my “epilogue” blog post this week.

You son is just the cutest baby I’ve ever seen in my whole entire life. I mean, I just want to pick him up, squeeze him, kiss his nose and nibble his chubby little cheeks. Nom. Nom. Nom.

Thank you. I think he’s pretty awesome too.

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Final food diary:

Breakfast

1 packet of instant oatmeal
1 hot dog wiener

Lunch

none

Supper

Pasta with vile delicious red tomato sauce

Day 6: Rice-A-Roni Failure

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This was our dinner tonight.  I’m glad we have friends who are more creative cooks than I am taking this challenge.  The idea for this meal came from our friend Heather. See those patties?  They’re fish cakes made from our can of salmon, crushed up soda crackers and one of our two remaining eggs.  I also used the last of the pepper Jasonswiped borrowed from a local chain restaurant.  It actually felt like I was makingsomething!  The rice in the photo is really Rice-A-Roni.  I know, I know…It doesn’t really look like Rice-A-Roni at all.  That’s because I’m the only person I know who has managed to completely screw up cooking Rice-A-Roni.

While speaking with my cousin tonight, we were trying to figure out exactly when the last time was that we ate Rice-A-Roni.  Neither of us could remember.  For me, I suspect it was at least 10 years ago.  I know I’ve made it before.  But stuck within the brain fog that’s been consuming me for days, I just glanced at the back of the box and managed to misread the instructions.  Actually, the instructions had pictures, kind of like IKEA furniture.  They should have been impossible to misinterpret.  Jason and I have assembled a lot of IKEA furniture over the past couple years. I’m always telling him to look at the instructions  “C’mon.  How hard can it be?” he says.  He does always manage to get the furniture put together, but keeps insisting IKEA sends “extra” screws “just in case”.

You know what wasn’t in the instructions on the Rice-A-Roni package? Boiling the rice and vermicelli directly from the package.  I was supposed to fry them up with butter first.  Oops.  I couldn’t throw it out, so were were going to have to eat boiled Rice-A-Roni.  Then I looked for the seasoning packet and couldn’t find it.  I looked everywhere but I couldn’t see it – until I looked in the garbage.  No idea why I thought to throw it out before actually emptying it.  Brain Fog. I retrieved it.  It wasn’t too soiled and at no point did it share the garbage can with a poopy diaper.

Just so everybody knows I’m not a completely incompetent cook, take a look at this shepherd’s pie I made for the Grey Cup a few years ago.  It was when Saskatchewan lost to Montreal (the second time).

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I’ll just say it one more time: I messed up Rice-A-Roni.

Jason and I have both been in some physical pain that has only increased over the last two days.  Jason has problems with his ankle; likely repetitive strain since he literally walks for 900km at a time.  I have problems sometimes with my lower back and the small joints in my hands and wrists have caused me minor suffering since giving birth.  In November, Jason and I went on an eight week “anti-inflammation cleanse”.  We lasted six weeks.  It wasn’t a miraculous improvement, but my hands did feel better towards the end.  My back has been relatively okay for a while.  But today I could feel the tell tale signs that it was close to spasming. My hands have been so sore it’s been difficult to hold Isaiah.  Jason’s ankle has been giving him problems for days.  Is it nutrition related, or merely coincidental?  I have no idea.  Am I just being  a drama llama in thinking that this week has hurt our bodies so much? I hope so.  I just can’t believe it’s possible for this all to happen so quickly.  The compassion I feel for those who do this week in and week out without end is overwhelming.

Here is what I ate today:

Breakfast

1 packet of instant oatmeal

Lunch

None.

Snack

Water with a slice of lime

Supper

½ fish cake
¾ cup of poorly made Rice-A-Roni

Snack

Coffee Crisp chocolate bar

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I woke up with legs cramps last night for the first time in ages.  This is likely from a lack of magnesium.  Or I might just be acting like a drama llama again.

Day 5: Tears, Guilt and Gratitude

Today was without a doubt the most difficult part of this challenge so far.

Jason, Isaiah and I went to a meal-drop in as a family. I selected it because it was in an area of town where I thought the guests would not necessarily be homeless, but simply needing food to get them through the week. If it was just Jason and I going to eat I wouldn’t have done this. But babies are sensitive creatures, and I didn’t want to expose Isaiah to the negative energy that often accompanies those who are experiencing such profound suffering. I became affected by it last year while coordinating a meal programme and would often come home teary and worn and drained. Yes, I’m predisposed to crying at the best of times (Jason calls me a delicate flower). This week has only augmented that trait.

I was wrong about the location though. Very wrong.

We took the bus as a family. It was difficult to find the correct entrance to the building. The security guard was a little annoyed with us. We tried three different doors before we found the correct entrance to the dinner. As soon as we walked in, the volunteer greeter looked at us and looked at Isaiah and said, “We don’t take babies here. We can’t accommodate a baby.” We simply said ok and were ready to leave but she said, “Let me see what I can do.”

Another volunteer eventually came over and told us that they don’t normally allow babies, but they just couldn’t let us leave without eating – it was far too cold (it was one the coldest nights of the year in Toronto). He was going to try and find us a corner to sit alone. We tried to say it was okay, but they insisted.

I honestly didn’t know what to do. Our intention was not to cause extra work. It wasn’t to cause a fuss. Guests who were eating nearby started yelling, “LET ‘EM EAT!”.

The social worker came over and asked to speak with Jason alone. The volunteer came back and asked if we had a home to go to. They couldn’t find a place for us to sit, but they would make a take out package for us. I became more and more ashamed and more and more embarrassed. I could feel the volunteers staring at us and was sure they were thinking, “Why on earth would you have a baby if you’re not able to feed him?” I’ve heard volunteers say these things before. I have no idea if that’s really what the volunteers last night were really thinking. Imagining was enough. I felt very judged.

But on the other hand there were volunteers who were trying to do everything they could to help us. Their caring was astounding. The social worker asked Jason if we had a home (I suspect CAS would have been called immediately if they suspected we were without housing) and Jason assured him we did.  The social worker then asked Jason if he had lost his job.

We decided that if were were asked about why we were eating at a drop-in we wouldn’t lie. But we also didn’t want to say, “We’re here because we’re completing The Stop’s Do the Math programme to create awareness for the need to add additional funds to social assistance payments so people can afford to eat properly.”

Jason’s response to the social worker regarding whether he lost his job was “It’s personal.”

The social worker handed Jason his card and told him to call.

The volunteers came back with a box of food for us. We thanked them and took it home. It had four clementines, meatloaf, vegetables and roasted potatoes, soup and rye bread. I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t even hungry anymore. I went and got Isaiah’s bath ready while he and Jason ate.

After Isaiah and I went to bed, Jason and I debriefed about the experience. “What if we really had to do that?” I said.

I felt shame enough doing this for the week voluntarily. I couldn’t imagine the shame I’d be feeling if I didn’t have the resources to adequately feed and take care of my child.

Jason assured me that the only people who were possibly harmed tonight were me and him. As I mentioned in previous posts, we’ll be making donations to cover our food coats. Isaiah was fine, the guests were fine, and we know from our own experiences that people like to help others. It feels good.

I’m still not convinced what I did was okay tonight. It’s going to take more than a little while to process this experience.

One thing is for sure though – Jason and I don’t ever want to do this again. For real, or “pretend”.