my love for smithfield: block t

The Studio

The old doors of the lift rattle open before I prop them wide with a green and white weave basket filled with eight sewing machine peddles and two coiled extension leads. Out come the machines, two by two, and then the bags of sewing notions and left over sewing projects from a class I taught that morning. It might only be one flight up but the lift makes my weekly workout just a little bit easier. Inevitably, I will open the door to the first floor of Block T and Chris will take one look at my stack of machines and immediately offer help with moving everything down the hall to the studio. Chances are that I probably had collected the machines that morning on my own, taught a two hour sewing class and have just lugged everything back again. With each week the machines get lighter as I get stronger and my appreciation for Block T grows.

I was a latecomer to Block T but an early enthusiast for sewing. Following a run of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in secondary school my drama teacher told me that I should really take up costume design as a career because I came alive while doing it. “Yes,” I said, “but there is something I love more.” I pursued the first dream while maintaining and developing my sewing skills as part of my oasis of self-care. I would sew dresses for friends here and there while up-skilling in courses that were relevant. In my visits to Canada I began to take up quilting too and was adopted into the great big quilting family that is somewhere in every Canadian town.

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Two years ago I found myself in a fairly important transition time and was looking for a way that I could contribute to the community as an act of love for it, no strings attached. Generosity that is genuine and wholehearted changes places, it changes people and it can change communities. Sewing came to mind even though I had never taught a class before in my life. When I told family and friends they confirmed what I had been thinking – this made sense! It was a natural progression from some of the community work I had been doing before. At the same time, I was terrified. Theoretically, it made sense. Practically, I was recovering from some emotional wounds that left me afraid of anything I thought I was good at before. I was even having panic attacks when sitting in front of a sewing machine about to stitch a straight line. Friends patiently walked with me as I breathed through fear and took a courageous step in asking a local school if they could do with a sewing teacher. Within a month we had scrounged together ancient sewing machines and a diverse class of students. Soon I was getting calls from other local services asking if I could teach a group with them as well. Some generous people donated money for me to put together proper equipment for classes and in summer of 2015 all of this moved with me into Block T where I began sharing studio space with my good friend, co-founder of C Squared and visual artist, Laura Pettit.

Sharing a space with a visual artist is inspiring. Each week I enter into a space that is charged with eyes that see differently and shapes and colours that express intangible realities that resonate deeply. As I drift through the hallways of Block T, I am reminded that the world can look different. This old probation office building has been a Petri dish where new hopes and dreams for the future are given a chance to start incredibly small in order to become something that grows big enough to shape the culture of a city. Our practices interact with each other. During one Tuesday evening before Christmas I was in the art classroom with a sewing class. Paint was splashed across surfaces and well used easels stood as our backdrop – a room well loved with the lingering affects of art. Our gift in return was the calming smell of lavender from making scented heat packs. On evenings that I have ended up staying late to prepare for a class the next day, Kevin will knock on my door and ask if I have listened to this artist or that song. He helps me find them on my computer and they become an unexpected and very welcome soundtrack for my work. It has been an absolute honour to teach basic machine sewing skills as a part of their skillset programme as well as in the community. It is one way that I have been able to exchange generosity for the environment, opportunity, plasters (for when I cut my fingers open by being careless with a rotary blade) and helping hands every week.

Block T is a generous place. A dreamer’s place. A culture maker’s place. I, for one, will be sad to see it leave Smithfield Square in the coming months as it seeks a new home. Homelessness is a problem in this city. Meanwhile, I will be thankful as I think about my love for Smithfield and the role that Block T has played in strengthening many things that have been weak.

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thanks canada

2014-06-05 12.24.18In grade 11 I went on a drama trip with my school to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare festival. On our first evening south of the Canadian border we stopped in Washington for dinner at Denny’s. Across from our quirky group of misfits was something we had never seen before – teen guys all kitted out in football (the American kind) jackets and girls in cheerleader outfits complete with ribbons around their ponytails. You would think that we had just stepped into a teen angst film! For a long time Canadian culture was identified as what was not American. Canadian culture was not made up of cool football teams and cheerleaders. In the 90s Molson Canadian finally gave voice to what it meant to be Canadian, other than “not American.” In Bowling for Columbine we saw Michael Moore contrast the two cultures by walking into a Canadian home without knocking. Most of us laughed because none of us locked our doors then. Of course, we have had This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer to keep us laughing at our own private jokes. More globally and recently, people like Chris Hadfield have coloured in the shapes of what being Canadian means.

Since my teen years my Canadianness has been diluted a lot and yet I find myself regularly slipping on cultural values that I forgot I had. For Canada Day this year, I want to recognise some of the positive values that became a part of me just from growing up in Canada. I wouldn’t want to change these for the world:

Optimism and Positivity: Things can be different. This is not the end. Let’s go for it. Why not? You are great at that. There is always a way. I like falling into this train of thought. Not only does it feel good but it also opens up possibilities when there seems to be only problems. I can’t exactly tell you how we learn this or why but I realise that it isn’t normal all over the world. I think you are more likely to find a group of annoyingly happy people in Canada than in most places I have ever visited. Where should you go to experience it? Any shop or restaurant. Everyone is genuinely happy to serve with a smile! Even if everything is falling down around them and they aren’t satisfied in their job.

Critical Thinking: A month ago I was doing an online financial webinar through Canada. This is not a strength of mine so felt like pretty much everything was going over my head. Then they mentioned that there is an online game you can participate in that helps you learn how to understand your finances better. I sat in my apartment laughing out loud! Of course Canadians would come up with a game to teach people how to think through their finances and explore ways to manage them better. I don’t know if children’s programmes in Canada would be allowed to air without educational content in them. Learning is fun. Thinking is fun. Let’s be logical about it all and enjoy it. My memories of growing up are of people challenging us to think instead of memorize, discover instead of regurgitate, break the rules if logical to do so (and only if logical to do so, otherwise keep them).

Peacekeeping: “How did Canada get its independence?” When I mention Canada Day, I have often been asked this question. I have realised how rare it is to tell people that we talked our way into it, resulting in a signed piece of paper that gave us independence. There wasn’t a war (for that purpose). From the very start, people from around the world who were looking for religious or political freedom were invited to become a part of Canada. They came for a dream of peace and a safe place to build new futures without fear. When the potential for war comes up and Canada is invited to join I love that there always seems to be a moments pause to ask the question, “why?” Why should we go to war? What good will it do? It doesn’t just affect international relations either. We had a peer counselling system in my secondary school where peer counsellors were trained in mediation to help students in conflict come to peaceful resolutions instead of using a punitive system. We weren’t the only ones working towards restoration in the justice system.

Human Dignity: A few weeks ago someone in Dublin asked me if I thought that Ireland was really left-wing. I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about politics but I do know that Ireland hardly knows the meaning of left wing. From health care to education, equal access to opportunities to succeed is incredibly high in Canada. If there is one thing that sits on a pedestal and is the taboo to say anything against, it is human dignity. If there is one thing that Canadians will be blinded by emotion about and forget logic, it is human dignity. I was never really taught that I was less important or valued because of my age, gender, religion or lifestyle. Our volleyball team always felt terrible going to tournaments because we didn’t have very many people in our school who weren’t from European descent – we were afraid to be thought of as racist. Opportunities were open to most of us so long as we offered others the same level of dignity to others. In Canada everyone needs to be allowed to co-exist in their uniqueness and not just get what we think they deserve from our limited points of view.

Cultural Criticism: Canada has so many flaws, so many imperfections. It doesn’t live up to the cultural values that make it uniquely Canadian. People get blinded by emotion and group-think and forget to really grapple with issues. The history of abuse of people deemed “less human” is not pretty. There are social injustices everywhere you look and opportunities are not equal. No one is more critical of Canada than Canadians. I value this cultural criticism because it means I have learned that I can look at my own life and not get trapped in seeing myself as perfect while also not getting trapped in how I have screwed things up. We can become a more loving and kind people.

So thanks, Canada, for the values you have given me! Keep up the good work … and please work on your issues.

Happy Canada Day!

mammy mary

“Now don’t you be minding him! You just do whatever he tells you to do,” Mary says to the catering staff while giving Jesus a pointed stare. He hears the silent message in her eyes, “Stop messin’ and just help. I don’t care right now if you don’t think it’s ‘your time.’ It’s not like we don’t know you can.” She gives one last sweet smile and heads into the party leaving Jesus alone with a very confused staff who are, by now, a little embarrassed.

The grade 12 literature class I took was one of the most unusual learning experiences of my life. As we studied Shakespeare we also had classes that involved clearing the desks and chairs away so we could learn a  medieval dance while our teacher strummed his lyre. We learnt about the Wheel of Fortune and illnesses in the 16th century so that the humour and solemnity in Shakespeare’s dialogue would flow through the words into our imagination with a clearer understanding. When it came time to involve an audience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream we were able to succeed. Shakespeare became accessible and relevant, even in a school that was nicknamed ‘skid row’.

It was our understanding that led to a living interpretation that an audience could understand.

This past week I laughed out loud as I was read through the book of John for the umpteenth time. My attention snagged on this story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana, where he turns the water into wine. Out of nowhere, Mary suddenly materialised into this Irish mammy taking control of the situation and telling everyone what to do. I had never seen her in this story as anything but an underdeveloped character in Jesus’ shadow. Two worlds collided as my knowledge of Jesus’ story and my experience of Dublin’s story entered from opposite directions.

One of my professors in college would read to us at the start of the class. The words he read were the original Greek of New Testament texts. The words that came out of his mouth made his knowledge of the Greek meanings relevant to us in that moment. The words of that book are life to me. I want others to discover what I have so I pursue understanding and allow the two cultures to collide in the middle.

It is amazing what we can discover when the bridge of interpretation is crossed.

So what can we learn now from Mammy Mary? Mothers – you can cut yourself a bit of slack. Even the mother of God interfered when she might not have supposed to (and he was 30!). Adult children – cut your mothers a bit of slack. Even the mother of God told him what to do when they were out in public. All of us – although Jesus’ first public miracle was turning water into wine it probably wasn’t his first miracle. Who knows, maybe everyone in town loved going to dinner at Mary and Joseph’s whenever Jesus was there because they always had the best wine around. Mary obviously knew that Jesus could do this.