Category Archives: Family

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Remembering Dad

(cross-posted from Facebook)

I think I’ll break my Facebook “fast” to say a few words about Dad. He died 5 years ago today, as Dixie mentioned earlier.

I’ve never been one to miss people all that much, even those dearest to me. I don’t know why. I sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with me. But that’s one reason I didn’t think to say anything on Facebook. But I do think about Dad from time to time, particularly around this time of year: his birthday in mid-April and his date of death just over a month later.

Several of you said very kind and true things about my Dad in comments on Dixie’s post today. Thanks for that. It’s interesting how even the not-so-great memories of people will, with time, start to develop a sheen of sorts. Remembering seems to rub away the spots of corrosion and rust and leave polished metal underneath.

One of my great friends sent me a very kind message today in which he remembered some things about Dad which have been meaningful to him in the strange way that memory makes things meaningful, things which for me (at the time anyway) would have been more embarrassing than anything. My friend said he still uses a line that my Dad would, with a twinkle in his eye, say to him: “If you sucked as hard as you blew, you’d have the moon in your face.”

I remember him saying that, but I don’t remember the twinkle in his eye. I just remember feeling mildly uncomfortable because it made no sense to sense to any of us (or at least I thought not). It was just another weird saying that my grumpy, gruff Dad would randomly lob at people.

But now, all these years later, I think it’s hilarious, even though the phrase still doesn’t really make sense to me (or maybe it’s just starting to make sense), because that phrase is just so Dad.

I wish I could remember some of his other turns of phrase. But Dixie and I do carry some of them forward into our own family. Some of them we share just with each other. We will imitate him from time to time. We will say, “I like that pie,” when eating a delicious pizza. Or we will refer to that ubiquitous Seattle coffee company as “Starbuck” without the “s” at the end. And when we go for a walk, we’ll say it’s to “blow the stink off.” Those are all Dad-isms.

Maybe it’s not that I don’ t miss people, but that I don’t take enough time to think about them—to really think deeply and remember—because I really do miss Dad.

Holiday! Celebrate!

It’s amazing how set plans can positively influence your feelings. I’m on holidays at the moment. We’ve been trying to decide for months what we would do with the time I have off work and either things didn’t work out or we couldn’t decide. We sometimes get into funks that look like this:

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”


I’ve been wanting to do something a little smaller scale for years now, because it seems we always come back from holidays in need of another holiday. We often leave the first day off and return on the last. So there’s been some talk of having a staycation (though not quite like this) and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last couple of days, though somewhat listlessly.

There’s a strange internal pressure to DO something with the precious holiday time I have, as if staying at home and resting isn’t a legitimate way to spend one’s down time. But I’m realizing that there is something to be said for planning some away time. A change is a rest, as they say.

Some of these days at home — for me, at any rate — sort of plod along without direction. And if they have no direction, they feel like a waste. Reading a good book would be direction enough, but I’m not always in that place (being instead in an in-between-books stage). On these days I’ll hit some kind of emotional wall around midday and I’ll have a heightened sense, for example, of the things that need doing around the house (which I don’t feel like doing). I won’t feel like doing much. I’ll oscillate between wanting to go away on a trip and not wanting to go anywhere.

Maybe that’s just low blood sugar. Maybe it’s low-grade depression. Maybe it’s not being able to handle un-busy-ness and the sort of “quiet” that comes on the slow days of summer. Maybe it’s something else. Often a cup of tea will improve things (low blood sugar it is, I guess…), or maybe some lunch.

But the other day we finally settled things in a way Dixie and I are both happy with. We’ll stay home for the rest of the week, maybe make some day trips somewhere. My brother and two of his kids arrive sometime Saturday for the better part of a week and then after that we’ll head to the mountains for a couple of days.

That’ll be good: some staycation and some vacation. Something new to try without it being too different.

Canada Day 2013

Canada day 1 Yesterday — Canada Day — was a pretty good day. The day started out with some indecision and uncertainty about our plans. Fooling around with our new above-ground pool to get it sitting and working right. We left late for an informal church-family gathering in Edmonton, which involved a bike-ride from the Alberta legislature to a park 10kms away. Some mild panic and anxiety and uncertainty ensued.

You see, we’ve experienced enough major non-successes — I say it that way because they weren’t failures as such, but maybe “disappointments” would be sufficient — to make us second-guess getting involved in big official public celebrations. There was the year in which after some effort to get to them, we missed two fireworks displays — one due to rain, one due to unanticipated poor positioning.

Then there was the year of Santa Claus parade in Winnipeg, which neither Dixie nor I have spoken of on our blogs. It was a dark day in the history of the Vanderfamily. We drove the hour or so into downtown Winnipeg and found a decent parking spot near Portage and Main, where the Santa Claus parade would be passing by. The parade, as I recall, was a disappointment (but maybe that’s just the adult in me speaking — I don’t remember what the kids thought), but we were all looking forward to the fireworks afterwards.

The mistake was not watching the fireworks from an area near where we had parked. We were near the river and the location where the fireworks were to be held, but for the sake of a better vantage point, a bite to eat, and a bathroom break we decided to give up our parking spot to try to make our way across the river and out of the downtown core.

The problem was that due to the Santa Claus parade traffic was heavy and many roads were blocked off from traffic. For people unfamiliar with Winnipeg’s downtown, in the dark, with a number of one-way streets, this is problematic. We ended up driving in circles for an hour or so, trying backstreets and parking-lot shortcuts, never actually leaving downtown or crossing the river. Tensions rose to a crescendo and burst forth into marriage-high moments of yelling and anger and frustration and steering-wheel pounding.

By this time the fireworks were well underway. Whenwe finally found a bridge to cross the river we looked to the east through a gap in the office towers — and in my memory’s vision this is all in slow motion — we looked to the east and saw one faint red firework burst in the distance, just above the horizon.

And that was it. We saw no more fireworks that night.

Canada day 2 2013

We look back now and laugh at our anger and that one, lone firework we saw, but with that memory bouncing around in our minds, you can understand our reluctance to commit to driving into Edmonton’s downtown core with an additional 80,000 people driving and walking about there.

But it turned into a very good day. Madeline and I enjoyed a nice bike ride through Edmonton with some of our church people. In parts of the trailwe could have been in the Rocky Mountains for all we knew. Then we gathered for a picnic and conversation, followed by some games with the kids and flag-football. And then we made it, right on time, to the Wetaskiwin fireworks.


Sometimes you just have one of those days where you wish you had a RESTART button.

Somewhere recently I heard the term “The Facebook Lie”, which refers to the lies we tell on Facebook about our lives: the glowing portraits of a healthily functioning family at play, the hilarious things that we say to each other on a daily basis, the delicious meals, the serene setting in which we live. It’s not that those things individually are not true, but the overall picture we paint is a false one. Our lives are not living Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade paintings. Where are the arguments, the tears, the yelling, the mess? It’s one sided. I’ve thought more than once that maybe I should record some of those messy, ugly times with stylized Instagram photos and gritty Facebook statuses. I haven’t done that yet, except in what follows I guess.

I went to bed quite late last night. I knew it was a bad idea and all that prevented me from going to sleep was mindless browsing of the internet and hitting “refresh.” My body was tired, but I just didn’t want to go to sleep yet. I guess I did eventually watch a movie, but still, not a good reason to stay up these days.

Dixie was in Calgary for the week and I chatted with her a bit toward the end of the evening. I said, “I shouldn’t have stayed up so late. Now I’ll be grumpy with the kids tomorrow and generally useless.”

And so it was.

I turned my light off at about 12:15 or 12:30, about two hours later than we normally do. There was no school today, so I let the kids stay up a little later on the assumption that they would sleep in. They did a little, but not much. I was woken up at 7:39 by Olivia’s tapping on the railing of her bunk bed. That’s about 40 minutes later than I normally get up, it wasn’t enough to make up for the late night and I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Until about mid-afternoon, it was one of those days in which I repeatedly wished I had a “RESTART” button I could press to have a second (or third or fourth) go at the day. I was tired and didn’t feel like doing what the kids wanted to do (“The Game of Life”? Really?) and I was edgy. I’d snap at the kids, show them very little mercy (in other words: wouldn’t let them be kids), raised my voice in irritation and anger. Of course, they were the problem. My day would be much better if they would just stop…being them.

Later on the day I reflected on this. The problem wasn’t the kids. I mean, they had their moments of fighting, loudness, rudeness, disobedience and poor listening, but that’s not unusual. They’re kids, after all. The problem was me. I was cranky, I was on edge, I was impatient, which meant that I reacted where I didn’t need to react and, worse, I would set both them and myself up for further failure. One of them does something that isn’t wrong in itself, but it really bugs me because I’m tired, so I tell that one to stop it. They do it again and so I get angry with them for disobeying me. And things escalate. My crankiness leads me to set up unreasonable and unnecessary expectations for my children, which leads to further crankiness when those expectations are inevitably not met.

I attempted a couple of restarts today. I walked the few hundred yards to the mailbox and back, in hopes that the blue skies and fresh winter air would brighten my mood. It only worked for a couple of minutes. I tried napping after lunch but was woken twice by the kids right at that moment of transition between wakefulness and sleep. Then I just laid there restlessly for a while, unable to get back to that transition point. Later, at Madeline’s request, we went out for a walk. Luke and Olivia didn’t want to go outside initially, but pretty soon they were having some fun sliding down some piles of snow-covered dirt in the yard. They wanted to stay outside, but none of us (except Olivia) were dressed properly and I, being grumpy and the attempt at revival failing miserably, wanted to go back inside.

I hate those kinds of days. I loathe myself as a father on those days. And that loathing feeds my crankiness. I feel much regret on those days, cycling through failure and regret, failure and regret, failure and regret. And then I experience low levels of anxiety about alienating my kids, so I give them big hugs and tell them I love them and that I sometimes have grumpy days and that today is one of them. Moments later I’m likely to be Unreasonably Grumpy Dad again. Failure, regret, reconciliation attempt, failure, regret…

But you know what’s crazy (and this is perhaps what I should really take away from the day)? The kids are unfazed. They know their dad. They know I have grumpy days, and they are always forgiving. At lunch I apologized for my grumpiness. I asked them if they would forgive me. Luke said, “I’ll always forgive you, dad!”

What a gift! What a gift! It encourages me and it shames me.

It’s difficult to forgive myself on these days, to do that thing that seems to come so naturally to my own children. Is it possible give ourselves as parents the room to be who we are on these days without also justifying the way we are? Our kids seem to give us that room, but we are left only with regret.

Jesus seemed to think we had quite a lot to learn from children. I think he was onto something.

The afternoon was salvaged with pop, a big bowl of popcorn, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the kids with me on the couch, Luke snuggled up under my arm.

I Love You The Brownest

Madeline, my (nearly) 10-year-old daughter, had to write a poem for a school assignment last week. She has kindly given permission to me to post it here.

I Love You The Brownest

I love you, Dad, the brownest.

Your beard is like a soft bear’s fur.
I love you like creamy chocolate.

I love you like a sweet gingerbread
cookie, like the chewy taste of caramel.

I love you like the smell of warm,
fresh baked chocolate cake. I love you like
the fuzziness of the cat-tail plant, like the
wheat field swaying in the breeze.

I love you like the oak tree’s rough
bark and I love you like a monkey’s fur
as it swings madly through the trees.

I love you like the rolling hiss and warm,
creamy hot cocoa after being out in the
cold winter.

I love you, Dad, the brownest.

~ Madeline Vandersluys (December 2012)

Fishing at a neglected historical site.

The mouth of the irresistibly-named Rat River, which forms the meandering southern boundary of the Providence campus as it flows toward the Red River of rebellion and flood fame, lies about 20kms northwest of Otterburne. Dixie had heard that someone had caught some fish at the mouth and since it was nearby I planned to try fishing there with Olivia. That plan was waylaid by a brief but painful bout of strep throat. Today, however, was the day.

Google maps’ satellite view indicated that access to the mouth of the Rat River was a short gravel road off one of the main highways. The map didn’t indicate anything topographically or otherwise significant, but in fact there is a gate there indicating that we would be entering Mennonite Memorial Landing Site.

The gate.

I thought it wasn’t much more than a reasonably well-kept nature area until I noticed the marble monolith standing some way back in the forest.

The Monolith.

On it was engraved this significant historical information:


How about that? If that isn’t a significant historical site, I don’t know what is. But why isn’t it on the map? Why isn’t there any signage on the highway nearby? How many Manitoba Mennonites know that it all started here?

All of this is on the Red River floodplain. You pass through treeline fifty yards deep, in which the monolith marking the site’s historic significance stands. The other side opens up into clay covered in fresh vegetation–the water on the Red River rises high in the spring even in non-flood years such as this one. The boot-sucking shore of the river is littered with old cans, broken beer bottles, recently gorged-on watermelon husks, and other detritus. It’s a shame that such a significant point of interest is treated more like a dump for those fishing there. But it’s otherwise a beautiful spot (and great company)!

The scenery.

The smile.

(The Red River is about 30 feet to the right. It didn’t occur to me until now to take a photograph facing west to the place where the two rivers meet!)

But I’m not writing this piece of faux travel literature to bore you! No, I say, it was a monumental day in the Vandersluys household!

So Olivia and I came here to go fishing together. We made our way down the dirty, sticky shore. There were a couple of men already fishing. They spoke in a foreign language. As we approached, I assumed it would be German, but it sounded more like Ukrainian. We moved off to our own corner of the shore, farther into the mouth.

The men were casting their lines and letting their poles sit on forked branches jammed into the clay on the shore. I couldn’t tell what they were using for lures, but I felt conspicuously wrong in taking my standard cast-and-reel approach. They brought in a fish each as we were setting up. The caught a couple more while Olivia did some practice casting with a de-hooked weighted lure and I cast-and-reeled my generic rubbery/wormy lure. I kept spying on them to see what they were using. I couldn’t tell. Looked like fresh bait–chicken livers, maybe?

Olivia was ready to fish with a real hook. I asked her which hook and rubbery lure thing she wanted (you can tell I’m a fisherman, right?). She picked what she thought were the brightest and best colours. Away she went. One of the other guys had switched his lure to a large spoon/floating-fish kind of lure.

I cast out my line a couple of times. Then I hear splashing and–what do you know!–Olivia has a little jack on her line! Huzzah!

The catch.

Closeup of the fish and the lure:

The fish and the lure.

The other guys noticed. A friend of theirs who must have been fishing around the bend came and I think took a picture. I slipped and slided around the shore trying to get a quick picture of Olivia with the fish so that I could unhook it and let it go before it died. I got the picture and the fish jumped off the line on its own!

A good morning with Olivia.

(Here’s my first time fishing with Madeline and Luke. Here’s Luke’s first catch, several years later. Madeline is due to catch her first fish this summer, I think.)

Life goes on

Life in the trailer goes on these days. It’s finally going on. In fact, last Friday (June 1) was the first time since graduating near the end of April that I truly felt done with school and that I was resting. Dixie did some calculations and, beginning with the candidating weekend following graduation weekend, in 34 days we were gone from home for 15 days, 14 of which were out of province. Out of four trips, 3 were planned with a couple of days of actually leaving. Between Dixie and I we spent 10 days in classes, 10 days with sick kids, 8 days of soccer for our kids, a major birthday party, school plays, and so on and so forth.

We’re exhausted and fighting illness and I’ve been sleeping more than usual (multiple naps in a day). I’m not sure if that’s the month of business or the 3 years of seminary finally taking its toll now that things are slowing down a bit.

I don’t say this to complain, but simply to point out that things really do feel like they’re “normalizing” a bit. I realize all this busy-ness is life, too, but it’s not a good life. So I’m recovering and relaxing and doing some odd jobs around the house and reading.

The biggest kick in the butt was the impromptu 2,800km round trip to Alberta and back two weekends ago. Dixie and I were in constant disagreement about where we should live when we move. It became clear that the only solution would be to drive out and have another look at our options. We took the kids this time.

It was worth it. We agreed on where we should live (in The Field, about half a mile or so from Randall and Lauralea and not much farther from a number of people who attend the church). And that did it, that settled things down in our minds so that we could relax and carry on with our remaining time in Otterburne.

We will slowly pack. I hate packing, but for now Dixie has encouraged me to pack up the books, which I find to be a reasonably tolerable task. We will move in the first week of August or so.

In the meantime, life goes on. I have the feeling that there is some work-related reading that I should probably start doing before I get there. But not just yet.


A year ago today–well, almost a day ago by the time this gets published–my dad died. I wrote a good chunk of these thoughts in the weeks following his death last year, but at the time I didn’t feel comfortable posting them. I suppose the anniversary of dad’s death should be commemorated somehow, though I don’t know what that might look like. I kept my mind occupied today (not as an intentional distraction–it was just busy); mom apparently kept herself busy in a number of ways.

Last year around this time I was tempted to go with a cliche posting of John Donne (“death, thou shalt die!”). I was tempted again today. I shall refrain.

As I say, I wrote the first bit of this in June last year. I wrote a bit more in March of this year. And the rest today. A bit of a muddled mishmash of meandering thoughts on death and life.

I wasn’t at my dad’s side when he passed away. That night mom slept in a bed they had rolled into dad’s room just for her. She woke up every so often when dad’s breathing paused, as it had been doing for several days. Some time after 3:00a.m., mom knew the time was coming soon. She called me and my brother. I arrived at about 20 after 3; my brother was already there. We had both missed his death, but mom was there with him as he went.

What a strange thing death is. What is it? One moment you’re there, one moment you’re not. Your body is there, but somehow you aren’t. At times it was hard to believe that dad was actually dead. He certainly had the look of death about him–it had been there to some degree for a couple of days–but every so often it really seemed as if his hands, which had been placed on his stomach, rose ever so slightly.

We sat with his body for just over an hour. It felt like we should do something. How could we just accept that he was dead and leave it at that? Shouldn’t we try to revive him? Shouldn’t we lay our hands on him and command, in the name of Jesus Christ, that he get up and walk? No, that’s the stuff of apostles (the good guys) and faith healers (the charlatans?)!

Part of me felt like I should, even though I knew he would die again, even though I knew I didn’t have enough faith to do that kind of thing. And even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have enough faith to heal his dementia, which in some respects seems like a more insurmountable disease than death.

What good would a resuscitation/resurrection of sorts have done for him then? What good did it do for Lazarus? He, at least, presumably lived a fruitful life afterwards. Dad would have woken back to dementia. Maybe not. I don’t know.

As Christians we tend to speak of death as an enemy. There’s some nuance to the term “death” that may need to be teased out, but not now. For now I say that even if death is an enemy, sometimes it’s a friend, too–“to depart and be with Christ.”

I think of the 102 year old woman who I used to visit in a nursing home. She would tell me that she was ready and waiting to die. She would pray, “When, Lord?” She had lived a long, hard life, filled with pain and sorrow, and had outlived much of her family, including children, grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren. But she was also a woman of deep faith. In what way was death an enemy to her? It wasn’t. For her, death was a friend.

This is turning into a reflection on death more than a reflection on dad.

One of my professors here said something a while ago that comes to mind again now as I write. He suggested that most people outside of Christian circles aren’t aware that they have a “sin problem”, or if they’ve heard about it it doesn’t make a whole lot sense. Yet Christians tend to harp on the sin and guilt issue.

Here’s what people are aware of: the fact of death. We are inclined to do whatever we can to stop it or slow it down or reverse the process or at the very least deny it, perhaps best exemplified by the plastic surgery industry.

The defeat of death is another powerful reality of the gospel story in addition to forgiveness of sin. It’s written about a lot in the New Testament, and it may well resonate much better with people than a problem, like sin, of which they are not aware.

I’ll quote my professor here, on the bit where my mind drifts tonight: “The gospel’s solution to the death problem is to live trusting and obeying this Jesus that God raised from the dead, hanging on to this Jesus at all costs even through death, hanging on as if this Jesus was Life itself, and then to die and come back alive on the other side, a much better alive.”

I’m reflecting a bit on what I know of dad. I’m pretty sure he was hanging on to Jesus for dear life.