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Nicola Gladwell

kind of like buttons.

By | 2011, Europe | No Comments

I don’t think I am an emotional mess; I’d like to call myself ’empathetically emotionally aware’.

Confession: I have cried almost every single day since returning home from Europe.

I cry in beauty.

Watching my brother coach his son’s soccer team. When I heard about a ‘young Mother’s’ meeting at our Church continuing to meet together long after the formal meetings ended. Reading about a coastal town in Italy that has been setting a trend of welcoming refugees in with open arms. Every time I put on the Les Miserables album.

I cry in anguish.

Listening to a friend talking about his wife’s struggles through cancer and radiation. Learning about the incumbent divorce of close friends. Reading about the reality of Tunisian refugee camps.

An event didn’t used to grasp my attention unless I personally identified with it.

In Dachau we saw a crematory that had disposed of tens of thousands of denigrated human bodies. In Dresden we toured where the all-consuming inferno had swallowed up the whole town. In Paris, we stood near where the guillotine had sat. In Assisi we learned about one man’s life lived for peace. In Munich, we learned about Sophie Scholl and her sacrifice for freedom. Just when human life seemed irredeemably disposable, it became more precious than ever.

My perception of institutionary Christianity took a beating on the trip, yet my adoration and appreciation for people – Christian or not – bringing about the love, peace, and graceful equality of the Kingdom of God grew to overflowing. Life is so precious. Life is too precious not to share it.

Travelling Western Europe expanded the boundaries of my ‘self’. At least, I’d like to think that my identity was enlarged; I have been introduced to my history, my roots; my heritage. I’ve become aware of my shared history, shared roots, and shared heritage. With this and the realization that life is too precious not to share, I think I’ve adopted a clearer purpose and meaning for life.

I’m not saying one has to cry to be ’empathetically emotionally aware’. I hope I can grow to process through life without looking like an emotional mess, but for now I appreciate my tears as a God-given way of expressing my joy and pain, and I don’t want to lose them, not yet.



kind of like buttons. disposable? precious.

[Nicola Gladwell is currently slack-lining and reading the first volume of Les Miserables for stress-relief as she battles through post-trip academia and looks for a job that’s hopefully pertinent to her IS degree. She has a lovely habit of collecting discarded buttons and calling them gifts of grace. She misses her friends and professors, yet is grateful for the near-completion of her first-rate liberal arts university education at SSU!]




drawing stickmen

By | 2011, Europe | No Comments

So. In Assisi I talked about my contradiction between my personal and institutional faith life (strongly associated with my religious heritage seen in Europe). I talked about how I was hurt and prideful against the Church, and how St. Francis (my favorite ‘spiritual great’) had been a major balancing/centering figure for me on the trip (he saw the problems in the Church and loved it/them even more; humbly and selflessly).

I’ve come a long way! I’ve realized I’m even more prideful than I originally thought, and living in an intense (or shall we say, ‘in-tents’?) community has made me realize that I am greedy of my comforts and possessions, I’m easily irritable, I would rather buy an Italian coffee or Belgian beer over tithing my change… *sigh. In short, I am so, so, so far away from the spiritual ‘greats’ we’re learning about (St. Antony, St. Therese de lisieux, St. Francis…). I study them, and I want what they have… I really, really want it. I do. But, I just… can’t reconcile the distance that divides me from them.

And so we talked about it (we do that sometimes when with friends 24/7). We were talking about art (we see a lot of art)… and about how we might feel pressured to be the next artistic ‘great’. I don’t feel the pressured to be the next artistic ‘great’. Honore Daumier and Franz von Stuck (two people who I had never heard about before 2 months ago and now I am in love with their work… look them up. seriously.) can keep their crowns. But… give me a second to experience the intimacy that Erasmus or Francis might have felt in their relationship with my God and I will mimic ‘The Ecstasy of Theresa’ (google it?)… or so I feel sometimes.

Maybe if the art galleries inspire so much as a stickmen from our pencil tips – some form of impression – some form of expression – than maybe we can hope to draw stickmen with our mumbling, tripping, and fumbling faith. Nygel said in reply, ‘generosity is my stickman’. It is. In the rain, after a full day of museums, when I’m cooking and the sky hasn’t been blue for days (or even when it has (the sky, I mean – being blue) and everything is ammazzing) I often feel as though I don’t have enough generosity to even draw a stickman with. But I try. I try to try. I want to try to try. And Jesus said that, ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled’, right? In the process. In the trying. In the wanting to try to try. In the wanting to want.

And with every trying to try to want to try to want (?) maybe I can hope to bring a little bit of heaven to earth, to be pleasing to my God (oh, yes please)… to participate in bringing heaven to earth, like all those spiritual greats.

I want to share about all the art that has touched me: about the morning dips in a Swiss lake; about walking to the Florentine Duomo in bare feet late (late) at night; about para-gliding in the alps; about lying on the ground and then dancing beneath the Eiffel Tower at night; about running to catch the North Sea sunset. But I talk instead about drawing stickmen. I just feel like… if I don’t learn to do this, if I don’t learn to better exhibit the qualities that my God wants in his heaven, then all of this is useless. It is.

Oh, let me draw stickmen.


European Slackline

By | 2011, Europe | No Comments

I travel Europe like I walk my slackline: in one outstretched hand I hold the contradiction between a growing understanding of my religious institutional heritage and my personal faith (ever in process). I grapple for balance on the thin wire and can only balance myself with my other arm – this hand, held palm up, gratefully holds the growing knowledge and appreciation I have for Saint Francis of Assisi, whom I have been reading about since we left Home Sweet St. Stephen.

St. Francis of Assisi: I feel as though I am a pilgrim striving for more understanding, more insight, and more experience. Now, having just left three overwhelming days in Rome, I find myself in a small cafe/bar with the peaceful lights of Assisi at night glowing on the nearby hills.

In one hand I hold St. Peter’s Basilica, in contradiction and in tension with my rebellious ‘I listen to Rob Bell pod-casts’ faith; in the other I hold a man who kissed the feet of corrupt priests, knowing it was his role to love rather than judge (knowing his own frailties full well).

I have challenged myself to better understand my religious heritage this summer: an obligation? a responsibility?

Keep us in your hearts as we struggle with whats been laid on ours.

Peace. From Assisi.

 – Nicola

this grateful pilgrim

By | 2011 - Kenya | One Comment
I was struck with gratitude tonight. Like, really struck. Surprised, even, by the… powerful swelling of honour and gratitude.  I sat amongst friends and teachers at a long bamboo table, and realized, that by the end of my time at University, SSU will have brought me to three different continents, and countless countries within those continents (not counting Borneo and the Philippines (are they their own continents? I should know this).

As I snuck some downtime at the Bangor Airport (Bangor – Detroit – Amsterdam – Nairobi), a janitor came by to dust the pay phone booths I sat near, commenting on Geoff’s charger in the wall outlet; he said, “It’s amazing what people leave behind; they’re rushed, in their flights, you know…” He went on to describe what kind of significant gadgets he’s found plugged in to the wall, while I thought about the events of that morning: being surrounded by my SSU family as I and the ‘Kenya team’ were poured on with prayer and hugged soundly by dozens of friends and mentors (it’s phenomenal how many mentors one tends to collect here). I thought about who I had left behind for two weeks, and how supportive they have been in our pursuit to come here.

A haiku (thank-you, Agnes), I wrote while catching more downtime in the Amsterdam airport… that’s doesn’t comply to haiku rules (…sorry, Agnes).

bright orange corner couch / a home in between two / continents not my own

As I chilled out on the retro corner couch reflecting on our recent walk through the red-light district of down-town Amsterdam, an Italian masseur walks up to me and asks me 1) why I’m taking pictures of my feet (because I think feet pictures are cool), 2) what I’m doing in Amsterdam, and 3) if I think I’de like a book that he’d like to give me. He disappears and comes back with an anthropological look at the English called ‘Native Land’: what makes the English, English, by Nigel… someone-or-other. That’s the thing about travelling; as I study and experience other cultures, I realize more and more about what makes me me, what I’ve been taught, and whether I still want to do things how I’ve been taught… etc. Travelling has made me incredibly aware of myself and my culture. I prepared myself, again, to recognize even more about myself and my home culture while experiencing an other’s. I prepared myself for my second of three continent-hopping study-adventures with SSU, ready and excited to embark on the next two weeks with our team of nine, in and around Nairobi, Kenya.

Since we arrived yesterday morning, we’ve learned about rehabilitating orphaned baby African elephants and illegal poaching in Kenya while watching them play in the mud and drink milk out of over-sized baby bottles (our semi-touristy activity but still very relevant intro to Kenya ‘on the way’ to our accommodations), aaaaaand visited a community centre at the heart of the Eastleigh slum in Nairobi.

learning about water purifying initiatives in Eastleigh

childen at the Eastleigh slum community centre sing in swahili and english

How can I possible describe this experience of visiting Eastleigh? My journal entry today was all questions. All questions, complimented by profiles of the people I had seen or met today. How can I possible pretend that I know something for certain, to write comments and facts, about a place and circumstances that are anything but certain and factual? Eastleigh… as I understand, is almost entirely composed of refugees – in only my short time at the community centre (a partner with Canadian Baptist Ministries [CBM, the organization we came with]), I had met young men and women from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Congo. Among them, a veiled 18 year-old woman named Saada* who had travelled from central Ethiopia four months ago, and a man named Joseph* from Congo who had migrated to Kenya and was learned how to be a mechanic at the community centre to support his family. We met Alice*, too, who has, through the catering vocational program at the community centre, helped about forty young refugees a year to achieve careers in hotels as caterers or start businesses. What an achievement!

In addition to two full pages of questions, I have gratitude, writing,

“Going with a team I’m comfortable with is so important… or rather, is so beneficial, because all I learn is challenged and stretched and multiplied by conversations, questions, and discussion with the group – both peers and leaders; it’s completely different than travelling by myself. So valuable! Sitting around the bamboo table at our guesthouse-that-feels-like-home, Margaret is talking about development literature, and I realize – that we are educated. We are learned, and we are learning. I am grateful. When I lived in Thailand by myself after the Asia trip with SSU, I attempted to dialogue through blogging, pleading with people to dialogue with me about what I was learning. Now, we have spent evenings around the dinner table, hours, sharing and learning and being challenged, in blessed dialogue.”

The last line written in my journal today, regarding something someone said tonight, reads, ‘how can we live that out?’ At SSU we’re constantly challenged to ‘live it out’. Perhaps thats what drives our volunteer initiatives, ‘material history’ or ‘creative writing’ courses, and travelling as pilgrims all over the world. It’s not perfect; anyone who has ever travelled in community knows that… but often, the blemishes accentuate the beauty. And we, like our friends we met today in Eastleigh, can dare to call ourselves beautiful.

^^Thank-you again to everyone who supported our time in Kenya. Today I was especially thankful to the generosity of the SSU community: to mention only a few- Katie Avery, who donated her hard-earned knitting money; Angela Broda who sold fudge for us (as well as so many other apron-wearing student wonders), Karis, Jess, Grace, Moriah, and others who donated their stunning artwork to sell, my own family, Shannon-May who donated a photo-shoot, Kindred Home Care who donated so generously… the list is actually limitless. Thank-you all so much! We are so grateful!^^

I think I was caught off guard by the Bangor janitor’s words; have I left people behind in pursuit of adventure; do I leave people behind in a rushed flight from normal? Um, I don’t think so. After all, if only 20% of the world lives like we do, it can hardly be called ‘normal’. Good thing we travel in community to discuss things like this ; ).

*I used their real names. Real people deserve real names.

– Nicola

There and back again

By | 2010, Asia | No Comments

Katie Ironside has just pointed out that my departure from Thailand was exactly a year after I left the first time, with our class at SSU. I suppose this must have some hidden meaning, yet eludes me at the moment and so will leave it as an interesting anecdote.

I’m currently in transit on my way back to Canada from Thailand. I’m in dreary yet lovely London at the moment, as ‘on the way back’ is a lovely concept when you’re on the other side of the world, and nearly everything except for Vancouver and Hawaii is ‘on the way’. I’m currently visiting with family and friends.

I’m up early this morning, hungry and thinking of all the Thai food I would love to eat… having an imaginary conversation in Thai with a food vendor in my head as I lie in bed, trying to come to terms with invariably losing this language that I’ve worked hard to learn. Such is jetlag. Yet, I did tend to wake up at 6am in Thailand as well.

‘A People on the Move’ by Joel, sits in front of me on the desk. I feel like a nomad. I’m reminded that there is a whole community of nomad-like people whom I love dearly, all living in a large yellow house… all also building an understanding of what it looks like to live healthily, live justly, live wholly.

Last year March I left Thailand with my class after the study term; we had also been to the Northern Philippines, and East Malaysia. I had been putting an emphasis on human trafficking throughout my studies, and trafficking for sexual services specifically. I knew the reputation Thailand had when I arrived, and struggled with how I could simply be a tourist and a student in a country I so ached for. I felt God speak to me then, as we landed in Chiang Mai; ‘Nicola. This is for something else. But I will bring you back.’ Sure enough, my efforts to connect with the humanitarian world were constantly thwarted while I was there, and when I flew out again, a year ago, I was confident, as I knew I would be back again soon.

I had written a blog here, about a year ago. About Asian dialects poking about in my head long after they were useful to me, about a place called Mae Sai, on the border of Myanmar. I didn’t like Mae Sai when I visited. It was a dirty border town, the most porous border with Myanmar, known for the amount of female flesh and young labourers it allows to pass through its gates. The only entertaining factor here are the US army uniforms the Burmese border guards tend to wear.

Six months later I was on a plane again, this time without my school peers and fellow nomads. I had taken a year out from SSU to go back to Thailand, back to Mae Sai, back to the North. I had applied for a volunteer position with an NGO working to prevent human trafficking on the border of Myanmar. I spent October in Chiang Mai with my host family from 6 months previous, taking a TEFL course.

The five proceeding months found me immersed in a world I had researched and imagined.

From writing or editing grant proposals, to sneaking on to the roof to stargaze with a little Thai sister living at the centre, to singing hymns and camp songs for children, most of whose fates will inevitably be exploited. From educating novice monks on human rights, to worshipping at a dump, to adventuring in Laos to meet up with repatriated girls in their home village after years in Thailand. Eating dog, water buffalo, and chicken feet. From avoiding spies in Myanmar to sitting on a friend’s porch singing worship songs on the same side of the border. From making friends with beggars and celebrities.

Finding meaning in washing dishes at the tiny Bible College near my house. A great pair of sandals someone made for me that I wore for five months until my heel poked through the other side. Breathe. Being.

And now. And now? I don’t know. I sit in the guestroom of a London townhouse. I don’t know where to place myself. I still have bruises from the bed bugs in Laos. I have Thai dialogue running around in my head, more than the simple words I had learned last time. I reminisce on my time in Thailand, both with SSU around me and then with SSU in my heart.

I will return to my community in St Stephen in September to finish my BA in International Studies. to I look forward to being surrounded by nomads in ‘selah’, in a resting point, in peace; a time risk belonging, providing foundation for future transience.

The Business of Redemption

By | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mind-held Thai expressions tease my tongue. Each essay determinately engaging with the SE Asian sex trade…

I have had a line ringing in my mind since our return, mingling with the leftovers of Asian dialects:

In the business of redemption.

What does it look like to be in the business of redemption?

I am reminded of: plant pots made from painted car tires in the Philippines; a Malay man’s obsession with mundane rocks allowing him to find a wealth of value in his collection of unique stones: singing boulders, growing gems, and petrified wood; in eating meat, Asians use the whole of the beast: even if this meant finding pig snout on my plate in the Philippines and chicken feet in a Malaysian curry; a dollar-store toy that we would scorn in the west has found new value in the hand of a Filipino girl, as does the scrap tin finding its place in the sea of huts within Manila or Bangkok.

In the business of redemption. what does it mean?

Perhaps it means finding value in imperfection- in another’s garbage, setting it free from judgement and compartmentalizing snobbery.

I loved Thailand; I could live in Chiang Mai. I would ride to work on an elephant and guide rafts on mountain rivers for a pitiful living, seeking wisdom from aged monks and taking a master’s in sustainable living or linguistics at CMU. However. I have a problem. I can’t get it through my head- you have to help me.

There are over 2 million prostitutes in Thailand; in Chiang Mai all of them are brought from destitute Burmese villages and trafficked through the village of Ma Sai on the border. I was in Ma Sai. I bought a pen. And a necklace. All Burmese teen girls traveling through Ma Sai leave without their virginity and thus their hope for a future and marriage, and almost half leave with an AIDS death sentence from their first few weeks in the industry.

What does redemption mean to a sex slave in Japan, in Bangkok, in Kuala Lumpur? If I see so much of what we call garbage being redeemed throughout Asia, isn’t there a way to redeem the consequences of societal chastity, idolatry, obligatory merit-making, hierarchical systems, and poverty?

In the business of Redemption.

Thai vocabulary, redemptive ideas, thoughts of the summer, and efforts to summarize my year at SSU swirl around my mind. I feel reminiscient of a Hogwarts student awaiting the next school year, or Arnold buckling his seatbelt in the Magic School Bus. I feel like all my life I have been taught to stand on a gymnasium line or sit quietly without being told why, and now my experience has set my mind free from dictated learning. Let me ask questions, don’t break life to me gently, let me dive in and let me experience both the joy and the pain of humanity. What will I learn next year?

I think redemption would be a good business to get into.

A disconnect in Reality

By | Uncategorized | One Comment

Sometimes this is only an adventure, only pictures to display on Facebook, only an opportunity to gather exotic gifts. Sometimes I forget if this is reality. I am awakened by a Thai woman whose features strikingly resemble my Mom’s.

Is it for power? Is this rash display of wealth for power? meaning? hope? There are only a few Thais actually in here (only one of the perhaps thousands of Wats – temples – that speckle Thailand) the rest are Farang – Tourists. I want to be an ‘experiencist’ (as opposed to a tourist). Are these images only to create a tangible god to worship? A symbol makes it easier to unite under, not unlike a nation’s flag. Though the icon is so important to Buddhist culture, I feel that creating an image of Buddha is saying that his teaching wasn’t enough. I could speak of a thousand things, but this seems to be foremost on my mind; maybe Jesus and Buddha can sympathize, as we performed a similar gesture with his cross. I can’t help but think how many people could be fed if people were not giving money to build a temple in order to increase their merit, of how many rural daughters and sisters it took who work in urban brothels to send money back to their families  to build a golden Wat surrounded by rice paddies: a place for boys to get free education and a strict hand. Then I talked to older Monks- Monks who preach against worshipping Buddha, who’s favourite part of the day is meditating morning and night, and who simply by their peace and laid back attitude almost have me flying to Cambodia to become a monk as well.

I have found a lot of societal contradictions here in Thailand; they confuse me and I wonder if I will be privy to Canada’s own versions of these contrasts when I arrive back in Toronto. The world shown to casual tourists differs sharply to the real Thai world; the high morals expected of Thai women contradicts the slack attitude toward prostitution; in fact the hierarchical culture even seems to support it.

I want to be an experiencist… I don’t want to see old buildings and flashy tourist-traps if they serve to hide the triumphs and the plight of the people. I want to sit and understand. Upon coming overseas, I thought that the differences must not be so rash; in the end we are all humanity. Somethings, however, I don’t understand; I want to, but I don’t. In some ways this trip has pulled the world together, and in others it has blasted me with awareness of what a vast and varied world we live in.

As a tourist it is easy to detach oneself; it is dangerous to realize that you are entering into another’s life for a short time on the other side of the world and really recognize that they are just as real as you are. What would happen if I truly saw myself selling mango sticky rice for a lifetime, or blindly playing an accordion in the middle of a market? I am sitting in an internet cafe in Bangkok city and cannot weld this disconnect in reality– *sigh; one contradiction that I desperately do not want to add to the mounting list already existing in Thailand.

I hope to come back someday- Dichan my pen Farang; con Thai dee Kwa!

Sa wat dii Kha!

what makes the difference?

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

I almost forgot to take off my sandals before entering the outer premises of the Mosque. As my white feet touched the carefully swept cold. patterned pink tiles, we sit in a line as a buzz of activity rhythmically surrounds us. The rev of a scooter, a loud speaker reciting Hebrew. Joanna came to deliver long skirts and head scarves to us. I sit, with only bare hands, feet, and face, tight against laura as the number of men gathering in the inner Mosque grows, and I hear the sounds of hands, feet, and faces being cleansed at a water trough to the left of the tiled area. We look elegant in our head scarves. I sense only a slightly different atmosphere as I do in an immense cathedral. There is a fluorescent digital clock on the front wall. Its numbers contrast against the ancient Muslim devotion. Some enter wearing traditional Muslim garb, some wearing fashionable or athletic clothing. I can see the British influence in their choice of soccer garb. I feel protected covered by yards of cloth, comfortable even. I feel confident as I drink in my scarf-framed scene as deeply as I can. I wonder what the decorative circular caps the men wear are for; I wonder what the overhead speaker is saying.  I wonder who recorded it. I wonder if the activity gives a sense of peace, belonging, and meaning. I wonder if any of the men praying here have doubts. I wonder if it is okay I writing? A gecko scales the wall in front of the men in the room I can only see through a centered open door, next to the out-of-place clock. Is the path to the Mosque worn… does the wearing paint on the handrails comfort them? How do they feel about a line of white female faces looking at them in wonder? Later I would talk to Sofre, a Muslim man, about the tension between Islam and the West; we even talked together about Shane Claiborne and Jonathon Hartgrove’s healing experience in Rutba, near Baghdad. His hurt face pleaded with me to not believe the stories about Islam that we are told, instead to go back to my country and tell of my experiences in Keningau. When I come back, ask me about the kids, the musicians, the politician, and the school teachers I met there. “When you cut yourself, your blood is red, and so is mine… so what makes the difference?” What a healing adventure.


By | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A friend at school loves to make lines with a snowplough; anyone coming to the university wearing only socks can recognize when someone has made tracks with wet boots inside Park Hall; and I have a niece who loves to make families of snow angels in lines. This afternoon I hope to snowshoe in the woods around Dominion Hill, the retreat centre I am at for the weekend; next Saturday, I hope to sink my toes in white sand on the North coast of the Philippines. It seems like God made us able to make tracks for a reason… looking behind at the trail I’ve made in the snow, I receive affirmation that I am here and present; I have physically made a difference to my past.

These weeks leading up to our trip to Asia, we have read a lot of books, written a lot of book reflections and reviews, and listened to a lot of lectures: I am beginning to think I know more of South East Asia’s History than Canada’s. As I read the stories of these nations over the years, I often wished I could change the path that they were heading in; I could see where the trail was leading and the events that would eventually perspire. Western Colonialists have left footsteps in SEA and can look behind them to recognize their presence and the reality of their actions. Sometimes corrupt national leaders have risen in times of upheaval, their steps only leading to tragedy.

We are about to embark on another adventure that will be leaving a trail, and I guess I’m a bit anxious about the path we’ll make and the tracks we’ll leave behind. I’m scared that I don’t have the cross cultural know-how to make good decisions, that I won’t know when to trust and when to be wary, or what parts of my character that aren’t globally appropriate and which of my many idiosyncrasies are. I feel like I will make a lot of mistakes, and I’m nervous about how many confused – or even worse: hurt or distanced – looks I’ll get! I want to learn as much of the language as possible, be risky enough to ensure that I live consciously, and love new friends freely. I want to leave behind no regrets: a trail of relationships that both reach beyond and embrace cultural differences, experiences that enrich the meaning in my life, and a stretched world view, transforming the goggles through which I interact with my experiences.

But for now… I’m going snowshoeing :).