Sometimes it’s really good to be a tourist in your own backyard… a traveller in your own city. I was reminded of the importance of this by two things that happened this week.
One of the blogs that I love to follow is Jules Verne Times Two. Verne and Jules write exceptionally skillfully about the places they travel. Their photographs are beautiful, and their use of language is so eloquent and descriptive. Packed with interesting history and research, stunning photos and wonderful insights, it is a blog of substance.
Jules & Verne just came back from a five month sabbatical that saw them taking a trip around the world. Upon arriving back in their native Portugal, they took a look at some of their favourite places in and around home. Some of them are tourist destinations, and some of them are scenes of importance from long ago in their lives, even pre-dating their relationship.
An ode to past memories, a recent post is intimate and revealing: Wintertime in Portugal is full of a profound sense of place and a sense of love and wonder for home. Containing 17 little stories, it’s an appreciation for the contrast that life there continues to have and has had to the travelling experiences they’ve lived on their recent trip. I just read it this morning, and it really struck home for me.
Why do we travel? While travelling is exciting, and ofttimes very different from the life we live at home, its novelty and difference from our day to day lives shakes up our perceptions and makes us question the “how” and “why” of the way we live and the choices we make in our lives. As such, it helps to ground us in this world.
One of the reasons that I love to travel is because coming back home each time gives me a renewed sense of place. A new fondness for where I live. And a renewed sense of purpose. However, it is possible to travel in our own backyards, if we just shake-up our definition of travel, and alter our mindsets.
This past week I volunteered in Edmonton’s inner city at the Mustard Seed, an organization that tries very hard to service the needs of the marginalized, the struggling and the poor in our inner city. Being there was such a mind altering experience for me. It was like travelling to a new city or to a different country. I was most certainly a tourist there and I might as well have been traveling, for the place, the way of life, and the experiences of the people there are so very, very different from the comfortable life that I am privileged to know.
I hesitate to write about this because I fear it will sound insensitive or trite, trivial and simplistic. But I found the experience eye-opening and fascinating. Walking through that door, before the clients arrived, to help prepare the meal that was to be served that night was like entering a different world in both good and distressing ways.
First, the good: it was a world staffed and orchestrated, created and warmed by the enthusiastic hearts and minds of young people.
Without exception, the staff and volunteers at The Mustard Seed were all energized. Excited about the work they were doing, they were out to change the world. By and large, they were mostly in their 20s. Youthful, hope-filled, caring and full of life and purpose, they were clearly setting out to make the world a better place. Their creativity in response to need was inspiring (with sewing circles, painting nights, mom & tot play groups, a small food bank, an emergency need area, etc.).
Their energy was infectious.
The hope that was in the air was palpable, almost a physical presence. And the addiction counsellors that sat with the clients (the individuals who sat, head down and alone, the couples, the groups of friends, and the families) were warm and caring and giving.
Those who know me well, and know the other hats that I wear in this life, know that I love nutrition and food science. (If truth be told, it might be one of the main reasons I love travelling so much… exploring the food of other cultures, the way it’s prepared and the customs that surround its enjoyment and preparation, hold endless fascination for me… see my 4 part series on Peruvian food here, here, here and here.)
[As an aside… last night I was making a delicious Costa Rican Black Bean Soup and its secret ingredients are cinnamon and kelp… our son came in and said he wasn’t hungry enough for one of my “food experiments!” Ha! What does he know!? But I digress.]
Let’s just say I’m passionate about it, and leave it at that.
Working behind the scenes to prepare a meal for the 226 people who came through the door of The Mustard Seed that night, was logistically fascinating. Add to that the fact that the organizers do not know how many people will come through the door on a given night, yet know that the meal that they’re preparing is so vitally important in the lives of the people who eat it, that ALL who come MUST be fed, and it is an invigorating challenge. Our group had a lot of fun preparing the meals that night.
The meal we made was well rounded and surprisingly nutritious. Judy, the kitchen overseer, does very well, pulling it together as she does, ordering as she needs to for numbers as large as they’re dealing with from institutional food prep places like Sysco. Regular donations from local businesses like the wonderfully healthy breads from Cobs Bakery and fresh fruit from Steve & Dan’s Fresh BC Fruit, a farmers’ market fixture in these here parts (insert a western, cowboy twang), make their attempts at dishing up sound nutrition easier. Their staff and volunteers do a terrific job with what could very well be the only meal in the day of some of their clients.
And that brings me to my second point: the distressing element of the experience.
Standing in the food service line up, dishing out carefully measured portions of shredded cheese, and making small talk with people who came by in a valiant effort to help them experience some kindness in their day, I was immediately struck by how many people were clearly suffering from extreme mental illness.
Though the Addiction Beast was most certainly present, it was the mental illnesses that stood out more than anything. They were there in the big moments (like when a man came in shouting across the room at the top of his lungs, “Hey! Get the fuck out of that seat!” Roaring, “That’s MY seat!” after which you could have heard a pin drop!) And they were there in the small moments, in the little signs (the handful of people who got intensely agitated when cheese was sprinkled on the plate instead of entirely on the pasta, or when salad touched sauce).
A little background….
An organization that my husband volunteers with was making a financial donation to the Mustard Seed Society. And part of what they ask you to do when donating financially is come, help prepare and serve the meal that you are paying for, and get a tour of their facility.
This is exceptionally smart on their part, as it breaks down barriers and cuts right through the stigma attached to our concept of homelessness and our preconceptions around poverty in our society. Working there, be it only for an evening, you get to know intimately the work they are doing. You get to see, first hand, the creative ways in which they try to meet the overwhelming needs of the marginalized in our society. You get to meet the clients they serve and see and feel and interact with their innate humanity. You feel safe there. You become more attached to the organization and develop a deeper belief in what they are doing and you see the Herculean efforts they muster to attempt to spend your donated dollars wisely.
You also get to travel to a different world, right in your own backyard.
The Mustard Seed in Edmonton is not just a soup kitchen. It is an organization that offers work experiences to incarcerated people, helping to prepare them for their reintroduction to society. It collects household donations for people setting up homes on poverty-level budgets. It offers life skills classes and counselling and gives emotional support to those struggling in life. Its ideas are helpful and forward thinking in so many respects. Its staff see a need and work as creatively as they can to fulfill it. It provides unique volunteering opportunities. It employs new grads, including those in human ecology, social work and nutrition science. In short, it does many good things for many people and has fingers that reach into plenty of levels of our society.
From what I understand their building was donated by the Baptist church. It is in need of modernizing and facility plant repair, but its central location is ideally situated for their clientele. Their utilities and the meals they serve are funded entirely by donation. Some of the programming they offer is eligible for grant funding.
If you’re ever given the opportunity to volunteer at an organization like this, try it. Failing that, make it happen. There are organizations like this in every large North American city. Go travelling in your own backyard.
As uncomfortable as it may be on so many levels to say this, it was such a wonderful experience. It’s one of those restoring your faith in humanity things. Heart warming, heart wrenching… but beautiful and inspiring.
Travelling can take so many forms if we are just open to redesigning and creatively interpreting of our life experiences, be it through reading about the travels and seeing life through the lens of a fellow blogger or volunteering in our communities and seeing our own backyards from a different perspective.
My hope is that you will muster the courage to venture beyond your day-to-day. Shake things up a bit. Step outside your comfort zone. Be adventurous… in whatever form that takes for you… even if it’s tasting a hearty soup with seaweed and cinnamon sticks! Ha!
And really live and love this life.