Holiday Traditions: Passed Away and Passed On

Christmas hasn’t been the same since my grandmother died a few years ago. It may sound odd coming from someone who isn’t even Christian. She was Christian – hence the reason we had a Christmas. And, it’s not like every Christmas was blissful or that she was the warmest, most compassionate person. I don’t even like winter. However, I am reminded of her with affection and nostalgia this time of year as I look out my own living room window – not a flake of snow on the ground. So unlike the picturesque vision outside my grandmother’s window throughout my childhood.

Christmases with my grandmother were spent in a small, conservative Muskoka town. It’s the town where my mother in part grew up – just a few minutes away from the nearby and then undeveloped country road adorably named Butter and Egg Sideroad — where she was born. I cannot remember a Christmas up north without at least a metre of snow on the ground – and always a snowfall on Christmas Eve. All along the main street, lights adorned the streets and shops. And, every year my grandmother made sure there was a big feast on Christmas day and presents under a well-decorated tree. It sounds like a simple and predictable enough tradition. But sometimes it takes losing these things – with all the sights and smells to accompany them, to appreciate what it was and how it shaped the traditions we create for our new families.

My grandmother was raised in a nearby town among Free Methodist farmers. Her mother died when she was nine and while her kind-hearted father remarried, to a woman who also later died, my grandmother told me she became very angry around her mother’s death and never recovered. During a rebellious streak in her teens, she converted – becoming an Anglican. At 17, she was pressured into marriage. Later, she took drastic measures to extricate herself from that volatile relationship. While initially denied a divorce, she only became more determined, until it was granted – highly controversial for a woman at that time. She put herself, with young daughters in tow, through hairdressing school. Her goal to become self sufficient realized, she moved from the isolated white house in the woods to the nearby “big” town to start one of the first salons there — and live a life as a single mother. Life was tough but she cherished and celebrated her independence – even then – living life fully with travel and dating – always looking like a million bucks.

She had a fierce work ethic and her salon, which was an extension of her house — became a hub for women in town looking to connect. She kept her salon going just barely — with the few clients still alive dropping by – until she died at 89. Despite slowing down, becoming depressed about her failing health and her measly pension since outliving her savings in to old age, she still kept up the Christmas tradition.

We weren’t that close as I grew older, but about two years before she died, I decided to sit down with her to a) ask her for her Christmas recipes so I could repeat them and more importantly b) ask her for the details about her past — a past our elders rarely share with younger generations – pasts we younger generations often take for granted – dismissing crankiness or impatience as character flaws instead of the result of rich and often sad and unresolved life experiences. After our very long talk – where I found out about relatives all over the province and a rather colourful family heritage and history – my grandmother, who’s sadness was always articulated through anger, expressed true sadness. The next morning, she told me she hadn’t talked about any of those things for decades and that such difficult memories left her unable to sleep.

The year before she died, I moved Christmas to my house – yes, even though I’m not Christian. My grandmother came down for the first time and really enjoyed being taken care of for a change. While she wasn’t an easy person, it was good to give back to her – particularly now having learned all that I had — all that she sacrificed and how hard she worked to build community and family in her small Muskoka town. The Christmas before she died, she contracted C-Difficile while in hospital — already in failing health. With small children, and my own mother ill at the time, I couldn’t make it up to see her. She was angry and sad and alone that Christmas. I still feel badly about that.

We know that holidays are never ‘Hallmark’ perfect — but as I grow my own traditions – from Christmas to our weekly Sabbaths and more, I am extremely grateful I cared to ask about a family past that shaped our Christmas tradition and rituals – warts and all. I continue the tradition – though modified — in my home now, with my mother, husband, children and now a close family friend and her family, who are Christian. There’s no big tree, the food’s evolved a bit and it’s combined with another holiday of lights, Channukah – but the key traditions around family and ritual remain intact. Our friends who have no other family here are very thankful for it. One more gift this holiday season.

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Your Money or Your Life

There is a job search going on in our family right now and I find it fascinating. The work on offer is interesting and, I’m sure, quite busy making. As the conversation gets closer to terms of engagement, talk turns to how many hours are required, face time, evening BB availability and, oh yes, the occasional evening and weekend.

When I recently moved from one position to another I invited the woman who had previously held my title out for a coffee to get the lay of my new professional land. At one point she leaned in conspiratorially and confided that the job kept her busy “70 to 80 hours a week.” You have to give it 100%.” I’m not sure where she gets her sense of percentiles but given that one only has a 100% to give in a day I had to assume that she had nothing left for anyone or anything else. I hope I’m wrong and she just wanted to seem like she really worked hard. Whether that’s true or not for me actually depends on my level of engagement and empowerment. In truth when I feel valued and engaged in real decision-making I feel deeply motivated. When I am just another mule on the team — not so much.

That being said, I find it sad and wrongheaded that we are asked to sacrifice our families and friends on the altar of good pay and long hours. We have to stand up for the right to be in our families — men and women. It is our right to attend to and nurture the love we share.
We say that family comes first but the opposing message is strong — If you’re serious about work, you’ll go the extra mile, or miles.

I recently interviewed a very accomplished man. He has run the City of Toronto, the Blue Jays, the Toronto Sun and now the National Post chain of papers. His name is Paul Godfrey — you may know of him. He appeared to be a very good man and, he told me that family comes first. I then asked him what his work schedule looked like theses days — at 72 years of age. He said, “I work about…16 hours a day, 6-8 on Saturdays and maybe 4 on Sundays, depends.”

I couldn’t help asking “So Family comes first?” The audience laughed. Paul Godfrey is a success and lion of the executive class. We heap praise on those that give up everything for work — Olympic athletes, CEO’s, the officer manager down the hall.
These are the cultural norms — the quid pro quo for a middle class life or better — or less for that matter.

As a man who has, and still is raising children, I object. I am angry and I am sad that all around me, good people must engage in the theatre of work above all to keep their jobs and ironically their families afloat.

All the more reason why we must find ways to build community by unplugging and, as Leonard Cohen once told me, building a fence around the sacred. Invite people to eat and share with you once a week, leave the BB on a shelf and steal some valuable time back for you and your loved ones. Start your own Sabbath Project. Don’t fuss over the food too much. Keep it simple. Invite those you miss and those you don’t know well. Pause before the meal and let everyone say a few words about who and what they want to bless. Acknowledge and be grateful for.
Let’s reclaim our lives one meal at a time.

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In Denial: Are we Perpetuating the Problem?

Thanks to my friend Trish Hennesey for sharing the link to this New York Times article:
Some recent surveys seem to suggest that many Americans are in denial about the seriousness of the gap between the rich and poor.

I ask if perhaps this denial (and it isn’t just the US and it isn’t just income inequality) is the reason why so many of us vote against our best interest? We look forward to hearing from you.

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Tis the Season of Giving or Gifting?

In this season of hyper-spending and debt accumulation under the guise of holiday giving, I am always intrigued by those who have found creative and less stressful ways to engage in meaningful gift exchanges that don’t break the bank. At this past Friday night Sabbath meal, we had someone new around the table. She introduced me to a fabulous and really simple concept I hadn’t heard of before. It isn’t new – and many major world religions prescribe it to some degree. It’s not exactly easy to find though when living and doing business in a capitalist economy.

My guest was telling me about her brother’s new age book store in downtown Toronto. The store didn’t only sell books on spiritual healing but it also offered workshops, sessions, lecture series and community gatherings in-house with healers on everything from Reiki, Kundalini Yoga and other meditations, to Kabbalah, drum circles, movie nights and more. When they opened the store about 9 months ago, they understandably charged money for people to take part in these sessions. The result was not what they hoped for. Healers – interested in spreading the word about their work — had a tough time finding ways to advertise and interest from the public was inconsistent. Sometimes they were full, other times empty – leaving business at the bookstore equally inconsistent. Not a great start for a new business.

Then someone suggested our they try changing the economic model of his bookstore/workshop business from a “market” model to a “gifting” model – essentially an alternative to the market or even the bartering/trading economy. Instead of having people pay for the workshops, etc. everything would now be free – with the idea that both “healer” and “receiver” — benefit from this exchange of knowledge and human contact/energy. In academic circles, it’s well understood that nobody benefits if we keep our knowledge to ourselves. A tough sell when you have rent to pay though – especially in downtown Toronto.

I went down to check out the store and speak to owner Rezo Mekvabishvilli about the move and the impact of essentially offering free services. He said business has markedly improved with the gifting model. Gatherings were consistently full and so was his bookstore. He says philosophically, it also worked best for an alternative bookstore like his. That the change from “market” model to “gift” model improved team spirit and acted as a sort of equalizer for everyone there – changing the hierarchical focus from the master-seeker relationship to simply, the practice. Rezo says that in an open-source world, people are increasingly open to the idea.

Author and consultant Gifford Pinchot wrote that “Not all economics are based on maximizing personal gain – some are founded on giving.” and that the gift economy is actually “part of the pathways to a sustainable economy.” However, its success depends in part on changing many of our deeply held beliefs around success. Essentially, it’s about taking pride in our contributions as opposed to our pride in our possessions. Food for thought as we head into the holidays.

For more on this particular bookstore:

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Saturday Night’s Alright Too

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Citizenship and Community

We are so used to using words like freedom and democracy to describe our politics. In fact Tony Burman says we are transactional, parlaying partisan interest into retail politics. The New Sabbath Project encourages us to re-localize our community with meaningful conversations around an inclusive sabbath table. “

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Welcome Message from Ralph

For me, the seeds of this project were sown as I sat in the back of a production van on the way to a TV shoot on Cortes Island B.C. We were in the middle of production for a Gemini-nominated but predictably short-lived series called 5Seekers. We were taking 5 Canadians on a continental journey to find their spiritual path. As we wound our way through the cathedral pines of the pacific northwest, the sky a gun metal grey receding in our rear view mirror I looked through my notes to remind myself of where and who we were going to meet.

Turns out there was a woman, a resident of Cortes, who every Friday night invited any and all who wanted to join her for a Sabbath dinner. My assumption upon hearing about her was that she, like me, was Jewish. Why else would she pick Friday for a Sabbath meal? I was wrong. She wasn’t Jewish. In fact her home was filled with what amounted to the stations of the cross, except that each shrine she had constructed reflected a different religious or spiritual belief. Her home was a true spiritual buffet.
The meal she served was simple but the impact of that evening was powerful for me.

When I returned home I told my wife all about the trip — how we started in Sedona Arizona the new age capital of the world and ended in Cortes where the incredible Hollyhock Retreat is found. Our “Seekers”, well they went though a lot. Whether or not they found lasting transformation, I think that was frankly a bit too much to ask, of us and them.

Me, I have always felt comfortable in my faith but the Sabbath trip had rekindled memories of Friday nights with family and the fundamental sabbatical ideal that for six days we do and for the one day of the Sabbath we are allowed to just be. To unplug and restore. A profoundly green principle.
Since then our home has been a gathering place on most Friday evenings for friends, new and old, for ideas contentious and comforting, good simple food and yes a fair bit of wine. But this is not just a dinner party, though the table is home to everyone from atheists to those of devout faith.
We start each meal lighting candles, then we go around the table blessing whoever and whatever those who have gathered see fit. After we toast each other and bless the homemade bread my wife has baked, much eating and conversation ensues. The simple act of soliciting a blessing from all who have gathered brings each participant in to focus for themselves and those around them. They could be blessing a child away at school, an ailing mother or simply their love for their partner sitting beside them and being honoured. As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.

Now it’s time to tale this pluralistic, inclusive Sabbath project one step further. We want to incorporate the ideals of community, culture and a renewed citizenship into this event and share what comes from them with you. This blog-site is an opportunity for us and you to create connections that leapfrog the narrow conversation that dominates so much of our discourse and break through the isolation that modern life imposes.

We want to share ideas, links, even the simple recipes that make our gathering easy to create and filled with the voices that make us all richer.
We encourage you to begin your own Sabbath projects, not to the exclusion of those who share neither your cultural or spiritual background but in fact quite the opposite, we want to build bridges that allow us all to share in this journey together.

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Welcome Message from Cortney

If someone would have told me just a few years ago that I would be participating – and more– promoting – something that even contained the word “Sabbath”, I wouldn’t have believed them.
I grew up in a home with a spiritual, convert mother who embraced several faiths but in particular that which was animistic together with an Athiest Jewish father. Celebrating the Sabbath was just not something we ever did at home. That kind of thing was for the “religious” types. In fact, all holiday traditions were eventually marred by divorce, family feuds and all that stems from such family breakdowns. That’s not to say I didn’t miss the traditions that were once in place – the smell of certain dishes, the company of close relatives.
Later on, a transient, journalistic career didn’t exactly lend itself to a life of rest, reflection or spirituality – to say nothing of establishing roots where rituals and traditions are easily established .

The birth of our Friday night dinners was kind of organic really. I remember Ralph coming home from filming his documentary to tell me of this most amazing woman from Cortes Island who held multi-faith “Shabbat” dinners. No, she wasn’t Jewish and the meal was nothing fancy – just an authentic, community-building exercise that brought members of her community closer together once a week – to establish that often elusive personal contact — get to know one another and talk about things that mattered.

I loved the idea in theory. At that time, Ralph and I had a very young son and we were hardly getting out. As simply a way to reintroduce a social life, we decided to try this out with some adjustments. For instance, we kept some culturally relevant traditions but also introduced for lack of a better word – “blessings” around the table. Perhaps they are better described as outward moments of reflection/thanks/acknowledgements – bad or good – around the table. I admit that the idea of “blessings” — even non-religious ones — made me quite uncomfortable for some time. Such moments of reflection – particularly among a group of people I didn’t necessarily know too well — wasn’t even close to anything I came from – yet the impact on our guests – the way it opened them up – drove away ego — often revealing vulnerabilities – each to the other — was profound and immediate — every time. The short, cultural, non-english, singing blessing of the bread, wine and candles seemed easy in comparison. But our round the table blessings/acknowledgements/whatever people wanted to call them – brought a group – often of strangers – together in a very intimate way – often opening the flood gates to dynamic, passionate, sometimes volatile conversations about life, love, religion, politics, community, society and more – issues that are often dangerous to discuss at a dinner table. Those “blessings” however – set a tone – helping to encourage friends – new and old — however passionate, to be more likely to listen, and learn from one another.

To me, it felt a bit like an open, equal voice salon concept, with everyone from neighbours mixed with family mixed with people we’d met once or twice or hardly knew or met through work or reconnected with online. People who would never normally come together – from all walks of life. Strangers were no longer strangers – and we have been told over and over again – that our many many guests over the years – have felt richer because of it. These just weren’t your average dinner parties – and everyone felt included. We have always made our Friday nights an open door event. People are invited, but others often come last minute. We’re touched to know they feel they can. Perhaps the biggest sign of its success is when we hosted a New Years’ Eve dinner last year. It happened to fall on a Friday night and while we had no intention of bringing the “Sabbath” (and by this I use a traditional word to refer to a time of rest, reflection and togetherness) into the conversation, every person at the table insisted we do our individual “blessing” anyway.

So, why think about expanding this community-building exercise? Several reasons: One, the more I talk to people about it, the more they want in. A friend of mine recently said “I have everything I could want but still feel something is missing – something spiritual.” Regardless of what you call it, so many people are feeling “something” is missing – and so many people want that personal connection but don’t know how or where to find it. It takes me back to my husband’s show called 5Seekers – which as I said, is where it all began. Hundreds of Canadians – from the ordinary to the extraordinary — from all across the country – applied to come on the show – desperate to find that ever-elusive, missing piece to their life puzzle. Perhaps simplistic to think a TV show could solve the problem, but the application process and the show itself illustrated a profound thirst for something more than a consumer-oriented, individualistic culture that often leaves us feeling very disconnected from each other. I recently pitched the idea of bringing a non-religious, multi-faith, cross-cultural “Sabbath” type project to an organization that helps families in need. Organizers loved the idea, telling me that the parents they deal with often talk about feeling isolated – where neighbours, rarely stop to talk to one another let alone pitch in to create a communal dinner with some cultural or spiritual element. They were afraid of the name – connoting something “religious” and perhaps Judeo-Christian (as was I) – but in theory – they loved it.

My recent experience in the political arena was quite a wake-up call as well. I was heartened by some of the incredible people I met and worked with – people who were generous with time, money and support and who came out with no expectations – only a care and concern for our common future and common humanity. However, I was also amazed by how few people cared to connect – by how many people were suspicious about my intentions – furious I seemed unable to solve their personal problems. They wanted solutions without personal investment.

The New Sabbath Project is part of my investment. It’s a way to pay it forward on a community level, a cultural level and yes, a spiritual level. I’m paying it forward and thanking that woman from Cortes Island for passing it on to my husband who passed it on to me. Help us expand on our many many different groups that have formed in our dining room. Also, help us move the conversations beyond our own dining room. Help us generate new ideas, create friends and community – joined by our common humanity — from isolated neighbours. Help us create new, meaningful Friday night dinners in homes everywhere.

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What Are People Saying About the New Sabbath Project?

“It’s very rare a single event or a group of people create a paradigm shift in my life, but Friday night certainly did”.

“I don’t have words to thank you for one of the most exquisite evenings ever…Like out of a movie which one had not expected, before walking in and sitting down, that it would blow one away. The whole of yesterday we still felt all drunk from the intensity of the encounters with a round of absolutely extraordinary people”.

The New Sabbath Project is a destination for people interested in inclusive, pluralistic, and yes, spiritual conversations — about community building, culture and citizenship. It is an extension of our ever-growing, roundtable-like, Friday night dinners that are doing just that. Please share your links, thoughts, blogs, experiences and recipes so we can continue to grow this New Sabbath Project.

Breaking Bread and Building Community, Culture and Citizenship

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