Sunday, April 14, 2013

Phoenix Rising

Yesterday was the Actual Day - ten years since the doors opened for business at Nilgiris Tea House. Don was the first person through the door: he had set an alarm. Matthew had the privilege of being the first person I rang through the cash register. We were busy that entire terrifying day from the moment we opened. 

Mum, Dad, Bonnie C, Angela, BA all came to bail Andy and Brenda and me out when it was clear we couldn't cope with the tidal wave that had hit us. We had been so naive in our expectations of this place. But somehow, with the grace of God and the graciousness of friends and family who rallied around, we managed to get off the ground.

Fast forward ten years. Yesterday morning at 7:17 I heard from the staff member due to work the late afternoon / evening shift. It turns out she was "uber tired and grumpy" and thus would not be able to work.

We were already short staffed for the day. Frustrated at the irresponsibility, I wondered how I would get through the day. I resigned myself to having to close for the evening.

For two hours I grimly and methodically got on with the tasks at hand. And then just after 9 a.m. I heard a cheery voice: "It's only me!"

The first voice I had heard on that fateful morning ten years ago. Brenda's voice.

She washed her hands, pulled on an apron and got to work.

Shortly before 10, another voice: Char's. She straightened up the dining room and got the doors unlocked and the Open sign hung up on the pillar.

Then Shehana, my lovely Shawni who has roots in Pakistan and India and wings in Canada, showed up for work.

And people poured in, just like they had ten years earlier. Even my dear Bonnie and Gordon, the friends who own the guest rooms next door and who have bailed us out on so many occasions when we were short staffed, came for lunch with our friend Joanne.

But something was missing, and I realized that it was the joy Mum would have brought to the day. How she would have loved this day, I thought to myself. She would have been proud of me for this milestone ...

Just a few moments after I started feeling sorry for myself, the back door opened and Dad entered on a swirl of snow and frosty air. His arms were laden with a gold gift bag and a wrapped bouquet. He handed them carefully to me and then hugged me. "Happy tenth anniversary, Honey," he said.
Brenda put the flowers in water and placed them on one of my favourite spots in the TH, the piano. I unwrapped the green tissue cushioning the contents of the gold bag. Inside were two pieces of antique china - but not just any china. These were two exquisite pieces from the Brown Cinnamon Estate china, complete with the insignia of the phoenix that was part of the crest.

My Mum's heritage. Dad knew I would be missing her this day, and he brought me a concrete acknowledgement of the occasion, a tangible message of love.

Do you know the legend of the Phoenix?  It was blessed by the sun to live forever, and in return it promised to sing its song for the sun alone; but it grew jaded in the spotlight and took for granted the blessing it had been given, and so it flew away from its source of power and strength. It went into hiding. It still attempted to sing its songs to the sun; but something had changed.

After many years in seclusion the phoenix grew old and tired and frail. It had drifted far from the sun and the blessing now seemed more of a curse. It decided that its only chance of restoration was to return to the sun, to get back to its place of origin. As it flew it gathered bits of cinnamon bark and various other beautifully scented herbs and spices. Tucking these treasures into its wing feathers, it finally arrived back where it belonged, and it started building a nest of the cinnamon bark and the herbs. Then it rested, crying out to the sun one last time to make it young and strong again.

The sun heard and shone brightly down on the nest. So powerful was its rays that the nest ignited and the phoenix was consumed in the flames.

When the conflagration died down, the nest remained unscathed; but where the phoenix had been was a heap of ashes.

Suddenly there was movement and from the ashes emerged a young phoenix who grew to the size and beauty of the old one. It stretched itself and opened its mouth. Out poured a glorious song of praise to the sun.

The story of the phoenix reminded me a bit of the story of Nilgiris. We opened originally with such energy and expectations and fanfare. But as the months and years slipped by we moved further and further from the sun, the source of our strength and beauty. We ended up closing the place and for one year I lived in grey chilliness of defeat and despair. I wondered how I could have drifted so far from what I knew to be true and good and right. I wondered if I would ever see the Sun again, feel the warmth of His love, bask in His approval.

Then one morning I was sitting miserably on the floor next to the Action Couch in my little rental house, almost in the shadow of the TH, and I was thinking about a sermon Dad had delivered the day before. It was on Jesus' disciple Peter and the story was the one where Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus.

A lot of us know this story: Jesus had told the disciples one evening to get in a boat and cross the lake to the other shore while He remained behind to pray.

The night grew restive and a storm blew up. The disciples spent that night huddled together in terror. Then, in the darkest moments just before dawn approached, they saw Jesus walking on the water toward them. Their fear increased - they thought He was a ghost. But He called out to them, "Be of good cheer; it is I; don't be afraid."

We know the story of how Peter walked on the water to Jesus; how he was distracted by the churning waves and the whipping wind and looked away from Jesus and started to sink. We know how Jesus immediately reached out His hand and lifted him up and rebuked him for having so little faith. When they were both in the boat, the wind ceased and they had smooth sailing to the other side of the lake.

But what I remember so vividly from that day in 2007 was Dad saying words to this effect: "The real wonder of this story is not that Peter walked on the water. The truth is that after Jesus had set a course for them - get to the other side of the lake - Peter actually veered from the course when he clambered out of the boat and walked on the water. The real wonder is how Jesus patiently got Peter back into the boat and back on course and how they did indeed reach the other side. The real wonder of this story is how Jesus brought Peter back to what he was supposed to be doing, where he was supposed to be going."

My heart and will were broken that morning and I stopped looking around at all the storm of troubles roiling around me. I stopped dwelling on the past decade of failure and loss. I finally turned my eyes back fully upon Jesus for the first time in ten years.

And He heard me! He had been just an arm's length away, the same as He was for Peter on his stormy night. Shortly after that I was given a mortgage from the TD Canada Trust bank; and a few months after that I was back in the TH, living and working and trying to stay within the rays of the Son. 

Like Peter, who even after this experience denied knowing Jesus not once but three times on the very night of His betrayal and ultimate death, I have made some colossal errors and grieved the One who so patiently keeps giving me chances. But since that summer day in 2007 I have had no doubt that He is with me, close enough to reach out to at any time.

The TH is now a cinnamon-scented nest, a place where people can often find a measure of peace and restoration.

The song is back.

All of this came to my recollection with the priceless gift Dad bestowed upon me on Nilgiris' out-of-sorts tenth anniversary morning.

We closed at 5 p.m. My beautiful Shehana worked faster and harder than I'd ever seen her. Her glowing smile and her cheerful spirit evoked the fragrance of cardamom and cloves and cinnamon as she washed china and restored order to the kitchen.

She had to leave immediately after her eight-hour shift, hoping to make it back to Calgary before the worst of the snow storm broke.

We set the table for a quiet celebration: Vernon and Sharon, Char, Brenda, Dad and I sat together at the table named Quiet Corner and thanked God for His goodness and provision; and we feasted on spaghetti and meatballs, Caesar salad and garlic toast, fresh berry pie and mugs of fragrant coffee.

The storm raged outside, wind using trees as whipping posts. But we were snug and safe inside, a group of friends who love each other and love the Tea House.

What a perfect celebration!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ten Years Ago Today ...

... we were basking in the well wishers of friends old and new who gathered at the about-to-be-opened Nilgiris Tea House for a little tea party.

 So it struck me as particularly fitting that ten years later to the day we celebrated our friend Gaylene's milestone birthday with a little tea party.

But what a difference a decade makes! In 2003 we were exuberant, nervous, excited, hopeful, full of anticipation for what the next day would bring. 

We didn't have a clue what we were doing, what we were in for.

As we opened the doors for today's tea party we certainly had a clue. Ten years perforce provides a lot of opportunity for learning - and our learning curve was steep! - and many windows of grace when the lessons seemed almost too difficult to see through to the end.

We might not be as exuberant or as nervous as we were back then; but we're still excited and hopeful, and full of anticipation for what God might bring to us next.

Thank you all of you who were with us that day ten years ago. Thank you for your enormous patience with us as we found our feet. Many of you have become trusted friends and we are so grateful to you for your love and support.

Thank you Gaylene and Debbie for the opportunity to celebrate with you today.

And thank you, God, for the gift of our little TH.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Nilgiris' Tenth Anniversary Week: "Banking Can Be This Comfortable"

The Green Chair is in town!

I'll admit to falling for the grumpy old men each time I see the TD Canada Trust TV commercials; but what I admire even more is how my branch in Three Hills cares for me.

This week marks ten years since Nilgiris Tea House opened its doors. 

It was absolutely awful.

We were swarmed that first day; and - woefully unprepared - we served chicken pot pies, too many different types of labour-intensive sandwiches, a couple of pots of soup, orange muffins, and coconut cream pie.

ONE coconut cream pie ...

At the end of that nightmarish 13 hours, we wanted to shut the doors for good.

We did indeed close the TH at the end of June 2006: we needed to regroup, to adjust to new normals, to evaluate where all of this was going. We tried to sell the place, but nothing worked out. I felt stranded, immobilized.

Then the bank who had financed our mortgage in the beginning bailed on us; even though I had not missed a single mortgage payment, I was now deemed too great of a risk for the bank named after our province.

In despair I talked to the manager of the Three Hills TD Canada Trust branch, where I did my personal banking.

Shane looked at the numbers, calculated various scenarios, and came up with a mortgage that would be manageable if I lived upstairs, kept my job at Carswell and opened the TH on weekends - exactly what Mum and I had been talking about together for a little while as we pondered why God had not allowed this sweet place to find a new person to love it and take it over.

This was August 2007. We planned to open on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which falls in October.

But in the beginning of September, my family's entire universe changed as my Mum was hospitalized for the last time. She exchanged this world for her heavenly home on the 18th.

One of the first people I called was Shane. "Focus on your Mum; focus on your family right now," he urged. "Don't worry about anything else. It'll all work out."

I reopened at the end of November. Shane and the TD staff were some of my first guests.

When Shane moved on to another branch, Russ became the new branch manager, and he continued to support the TH in whatever way he could - including eating as much carrot cake as I would allow him to purchase ...

Russ eventually found a new branch home, and Diana recently took his place as Branch Manager. She too has shown us nothing but enthusiasm and encouragement.
I had an appointment with Mary Lynne on
my birthday - and she decorated her
office for our meeting!

And through it all - through all the branch managers and the changes that perforce come to all major institutions these days - has been the corps of loyal, devoted, dedicated employees at the Branch. In alphabetical order they are BethAnne, Cammy, Denise, Emmy, Mary Lynne. Each of them has helped me over the last eight years, and each of them has exemplified consistently outstanding customer service.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these women, and now Diana too, have my back. They appreciate my strengths and assist me with my weaknesses. They are interested in me as a person and in the goings-on of the TH. 

And I'm not an exception - when the conversation in the dining room turns to banks, TD Canada Trust Three Hills branch customers invariably tell me of the high level of customer service they receive and how the staff at our little branch truly cares for them and endeavours to find the best solutions for their needs.

So it came as no surprise to me that The Green Chair landed in the Three Hills branch, a reward for being the best customer-focused team in their division. Of course, the team in the branch are well aware that I am enthralled with The Chair, so they let me know I was welcome to get my picture taken with it.

Recognizing an Occasion, I rose to it, and so did they, of course ...

Branch Manager Diane Sheeler, Financial Advisor Mary Lynne Penner, Financial Services
Representative BethAnne Ironside, Manager of Customer Service Emmy McDonald -
my own tea party in the comfy Green Chair!

To all of you I want to take this occasion to say a heartfelt thank you. You always go above and beyond the call of duty. I am grateful and proud to be a member of the TD Canada Trust family. I literally could not do it without you.

Banking is this comfortable!