No, Seriously! Vacate, Staycate, Just Take a Break Already!

When was the last time you took a holiday? A real “sabbatical” as it were to relax, unplug, rejuvenate?

A guest around our New Sabbath Project table this week said the last time he took a holiday was 14 years ago – when his 17 year old daughter was three. He could afford it financially. It just never happened since then. It was a tough one to explain. Interestingly, the question about holidays came up as we were talking about stress, sleep – or lack thereof, and the difficulty so many of us have with permitting ourselves to truly relax and recharge – often with a change of scenery. As someone who has always guarded my personal time and space and who had also spent a fair bit of time outside my hometown – I was floored by this piece of news from our guest. I understand how much more difficult “getting away” – even for a day – becomes with full time work and children for instance. I live this experience. However, for me this occasional change of scenery – this need to rest and recharge my batteries is not an option. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

While we know that Canadians for instance receive far fewer paid vacation days than our Scandinavian and (some) of our European counterparts, recent studies show that too many Canadians take those precious vacation days they are allotted. When the surveys asked why Canadians didn’t use all their holiday time, about one-quarter said they couldn’t afford it, and 15 per cent said they didn’t have enough time to plan something. Sadly, others worried their bosses would think poorly of them and yet others said they were just too busy. While he didn’t say so, I suspect my New Sabbath Project guest, a former senior manager in a large corporation, likely fell into that second last and/or last category. I suspect it’s more common than we think.

Even worse, two thirds of Canadians in one survey said they check in with the office by email or voicemail while they are on holiday – lower than some European and East Asian countries but nothing to sneeze at. My husband could relate to that idea. He found a work relationship forever altered for the worse when he didn’t stay connected to his work place while we were on a hiking holiday years ago. To his boss at the time, it was a sign of disloyalty and a lack of commitment.

It is well-documented that regular sabbaticals – recharging our batteries with unscheduled, perhaps unplugged time – preferably with some change of scenery – help relieve stress, stave off burnout, keep us healthier and can strengthen bonds with family, friends and community. Without it, our 24-7 working world with our over-scheduled lives leave us with little to no time to pursue personal interests or hobbies or heaven forbid – an afternoon nap. The problem I think is compounded in a tight job market with more competition – and a work culture that says if you love your work, there’s no need for a break from it. If there is, it’s a sign something’s wrong.

While I realize that a vacation in the traditional sense is a luxury many many people cannot afford, I can’t help but wonder if, by neglecting the need for any kind of conscious sabbatical — we are making ourselves sick – both mentally and physically. .

I remember a former colleague of mine – responsible in part for scheduling holidays for others in our workplace – was particularly resentful of all those vacation requests. In a sense, he seemed to see them as superficial demands from spoiled employees, for time “he” never took. I recall one conversation in which he expressed with bitter pride, that it had been years since he’d taken a holiday. Shocked, but careful not to insult him, I asked him why and encouraged him to do so. He said he was just too busy. I doubted both then and now whether that was true. But, if that was true – then his priorities were and are off-track. Not because we all have the same ideas of what a holiday or vacation or sabbatical looks like – but because I am quite certain we all run out of physical, emotional and creative space without them.

In the meantime we continue to sleep fitfully, pine for sun and surf and for a growing number of Canadians (and others) continue to call in our prescriptions.

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Growing the New Sabbath Project — Across Toronto and Hometowns Everywhere

Challenge: Looking for 5 – 10 other people who would like to host a New Sabbath (Shabbat) dinner all over Toronto or your city. Let’s build community and keep growing.

Need inspiration? Check out Ted Talk and Alain de Botton on Atheism 2.0

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Push Boundaries and Welcome the Stranger

I was honoured at this past Friday night to have a future school board trustee, future city councillor and perhaps even a future Prime Minister at my New Sabbath table. This future leader is only 15 and her decision is a recent one. I could however appreciate her optimism and her sincerity. Perhaps more interesting and telling about potential leadership was that she agreed to come to our New Sabbath dinner in the first place – it’s not exactly the way most 15 year olds I’ve known choose to spend their Friday nights. We have had young people at our table in the past – but usually they are with their parents and are not here on their own accord. This teen (and her 15 year old counterpart) took a chance – on the suggestion of another new guest at our table — who contacted us through our blog — a social innovator who works with youth in the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto through mentorship and the arts — and who wanted to “sample” a New Sabbath Project.

I’d be lying to say we weren’t somewhat apprehensive about welcoming guests had never met before into our home. It’s not something we’d considered when we thought about expanding our Sabbath of “togetherness” to loosely borrow from the book by Pinchas H. Peli and his 1988 book called Shabbat Shalom: A renewed Encounter With the Sabbath. Most new guests come via some older and more well-established guests. Clearly, they didn’t know what to expect either. The religious and cultural diversity was not unlike so many other New Sabbaths we’ve held but the dynamic of having three complete strangers with no obvious connection to any of them was a wonderful exercise in stretching our comfort zone – particularly in a society that preaches over and over to fear the stranger.

Comments both during and since Friday tell me it was a boundary worth stretching. Our guest who initiated initial contact told us he expected more formality and more flash. He was surprised to learn it was little more than dinner in our home with some blessings. In response, I told him since deciding to take what we do “public” as it were — based on what we saw as a crisis in both citizenship and community — we wondered about whether to introduce things that made it more formal. We are still not entirely sure if we should be introducing more structural elements into it but I think the whole point is that if you create a formal atmosphere with bells and whistles and great expectations, it might bring more self-conciousness into what has naturally evolved into what is otherwise an intimate gathering place — even a salon as one guest from last Friday labelled it in his note to us afterwards. What we feel is most important is ensuring it is not just another dinner party full of small talk — but instead a place for bigger conversation (most of the time – kids usually in bed), some cultural and spiritual rituals, and simply making sure you do it regularly. It then becomes more than an occasional dinner party but a disciplined and ritualized way of creating a bit of a fence around the sacred – something that many feel missing in our secular, highly consumerist society.

Perhaps most telling is that another first time guest told us that night how blessed he felt taking part in such rituals – this “salon” as he called it — having grown up in an Athiest home with no cultural or spiritual practice – and thus no anchor. And our teenage guests? Well, by the time they looked at the time, they were amazed it was already 11 PM. They thought it was only nine.

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Chasing Fear and Building Community – One Smile at a Time

While I always welcome more time with my kids under “normal” circumstances, I was somewhat relieved to see my 6 year old off to school this past Monday morning. I know many parents feel the same way after the intensity of the holidays. I felt guilty about feeling that way and I mentioned it at our first New Sabbath Project of 2012. While I am a huge advocate for work-life balance, I found that five weeks at home quite suddenly – first with just one, then both kids – no support, a husband at work, and expectations that I too needed to find paid work (try doing a job interview with a 2 year old crying in the background) – as is currently the case – while keeping up the house and everything that goes along to it – a shock to the system. It felt just as out of balance as being at work long days, having little to do with my kids. I was craving some intellectual stimulation that came with adult conversations and work-related topics.

One of our guests remarked that perhaps many of us simply like our work lives more than our family lives BECAUSE it’s so hard to raise children – and that’s why we spend so much time at work. He hadn’t intended to offend his own wife with the suggestion – but he did. While another guest suggested that men – being the bigger earners generally – which is in itself another story – don’t have the luxury to contemplate work-life balance, I disagreed with him. It’s not about a love of work but about the difficulties that come with raising children in isolation – without communities of women to support each other – unlike the days my mother was home. I would never romanticize the days when fewer women worked outside the home and the lack of choice that came with that. But over the last 5 weeks – at home alone with either one or both of my children, I realized I was suddenly launched into a culture where childcare workers are the majority – and have understandably built communities based on geography, culture and language – and have no interest in spending time with mothers, despite the friendships formed between the children. So, not quite welcomed into the paid childcare worker group and finding so few stay-at-home parents you know well enough to spend time with or connect. Facebook doesn’t exactly cut it in terms of building real, in-person relationships where you look out for each other’s children. It seems no one – including me — is around long enough to invest time and energy into building these relationships. I guess we can’t blame people. But, under the circumstances I’ve described, I can understand why many women opt for paid, out of the house labour.

It’s not that we aren’t trying to build community in our own ways. I’ve been organizing kids’ classes in my home for years while working flexible hours or part-time. In that all that time I have rarely met parents except over email. Even those classes could be seen as part of the over-scheduling of our children and ourselves that rarely lead to relaxed time and unstructured play. People come in, pay a fee, and leave when it’s over.

Some other guests from our last Friday New Sabbath project said their new years resolution was to expand their sphere of people with whom they spend time. Our communal dinner, according to them was a good start. They say they’ve always preferred to stay home but realized that without a dedicated community building “project”, their circle of friends , old and new remained relatively limited. Interestingly, when it came time for blessings our female friend spoke of the people she passed jogging in the park that morning – people who decided to smile back at her as she ran past. It actually stood out and was therefore, worth acknowledging. Sweet but somehow sad, really.

Still, when I talk about putting this together each week, the question I get asked over and over is “how” to do it. One friend and frequent New Sabbath Project guest said that all she could imagine doing on a Friday night (aside from being hosted at our place) was lying down on her couch and doing nothing because she’d gone so hard all week at work. I told her to keep it simple and have friends bring some good wine and a little bit of the food. I told her it wasn’t easy for us and that we had taken some breaks over the years when things had gotten too over-scheduled. But I can’t help but thinking she perhaps missed the point. Perhaps we’re all missing the point.

We’re too busy and too disconnected to connect. Fear telling us we won’t be able to do it – make new friends, make dinners, connect to our neighbours or our larger communities – building walls instead of removing them. May we all take more time in 2012 for opening our homes and joining others – even last minute. Make and share food – smile at strangers – and use time WITH new friends to acknowledge special moments.

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Your Money or Your Life – Part Two

As I look back on 2011, I can’t help but to follow up on a blog my husband wrote last week and write about a recent Leger Marketing poll that had Canadians ranked 23rd in the world when it comes to happiness. Following that poll, a Toronto Star article asked whether we can believe such a ranking. A CBC radio reporter included in his report an expert that said indeed the numbers couldn’t be true.

What a shame that neither reporter investigated the reasons why the poll numbers may indeed be true (I’m certain long, dark, winter days don’t help.)

This poll (and the journalists’ response to it) remind me of a dear family friend who just came into town this week. She and her husband and kids used to live around the corner. Then she got a job offer in the Netherlands (The Dutch are apparently some of the happiest people polled) – an offer the family just couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make. She has extremely close ties with her family and she had no particular problem with living here in Canada’s biggest city – decent job, decent house. Seemed fine – as fine as you can be – juggling a full-time job, a husband who works as many if not more hours than you do and, two kids under five.

But now that she’s been gone about a year and a half, I find it interesting to talk to her about the comparisons between living there versus here. She still loves Canada but what comes up in our conversations over and over again – a big difference — is the institutionalized support for that ever-elusive work-life balance and family more generally that really does not exist here in North America — a work-life balance that many many people argue – gives us more happiness than more money ever could.

My friend can’t completely tie Dutch “happiness” to work-life balance or an overall, institutionalized family-friendly atmosphere, but she says it doesn’t hurt – and sure makes her happier than she ever was trying to fit family into life here in Toronto.

I love the story she first told me about eating at an upscale restaurant when she first arrived there. Terrified of dragging along a couple of 4 year olds, but unable to snag a babysitter since they just arrived, she and her husband decided to take their chances – just in desperate need of a night out. Upon entering the restaurant – preparing for those ever-familiar sneers from both waitstaff and fellow patrons, the hostess instead arrived with menus and a box of lego at the table. My friend was both suspicious and in shock. She is no longer either.

She’s an academic – so let’s consider academia (which is just one of many professions in addition to law, journalism and medicine, that so many women leave after having children). While academics here in Canada can easily expect an 80 hour work week – often at the office – the doors to the Dutch university close at 6 – work at home if you like but no choice — you’re out of the building.

That “no choice you’re out” sentiment was pervasive in pretty much all public places. I recall a day out shopping for a few gifts in town. At about 4:45, sales staff everywhere started shutting down and let you know it. They weren’t rude – but they didn’t apologize either. Here, we call that bad service. There, they call it work-life balance.

My newly “dutched” friend tells me she’s in the minority working the hours she does. Seventy-five percent of Dutch women work part-time. While I don’t know which came first, kids are in school half-days, 2 days a week. Her husband now works just part-time hours so is also the person at home more often. I asked her how families can afford to have one person work part-time hours. She has stopped using the word “cheap” and now says they just live more “modestly”. She says the Dutch aren’t trying to compete with design shows for home decorating and they predominantly vacation in RV’s close to home. It helps that excellent public transit and cycling is well supported by government. Car ownership is not rewarded. Virtually no one has two cars.

We must be careful not to romanticize situations elsewhere. Nothing is perfect. But when another dear friend and long time Friday night dinner guest tells me that if you want a job that matters, you have to be willing to work really long hours and be on call for the rest, I know something is terribly wrong. That we must start talking about why it is that we can only talk about “work” that matters. What system have we created that makes good work and work-life balance totally incompatible concepts? How far have we come when in an effort to create work-life balance, we have to virtually go broke to achieve it? My husband and New Sabbath Project partner says it’s time to “Occupy the Cubicle”. I’m inclined to agree for all 100 percent of us.

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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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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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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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