People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.

We Are Party to this Intoxication

We are all traversing

a whirling dervish:

earth in ecstasy,
madly twirling in
love, in
devotion, in
expectation. And
we are party to this
intoxication –
earth under us, earth in us,
earth our mother, earth our song.

Can you hear the music?

Can you hear her heart

beating a cantus firmus?

Will you be her melody?

Will you be her silence, her hymn?

Marking Market Day

I made my way yesterday morning to our local farmer market. The goal was to buy some tomatoes for canning. I had a bushel in my sights. Along the way I gathered some goose paté, a half-bushel of apples, Emmental cheese and a piece of Gjetøst. This latter is an especially marvellous find, being a Norwegian cheese not in our supermarkets. I bumped into some friends and we chatted for a time. They told me that they are there every week because the market is where they source their bread. I don’t have that excuse since I make our bread, using a recipe given me by my father-in-law. All the same, visiting the market could be an easily acquired habit; with violins and such humming around a variety of vendors. There is something intoxicatingly humane about a market. Things are scaled differently. Everything is weighed and priced in parcel sized pieces. There are no gross quantities of anything and if I am too slow to take it up, the last New York Times escapes my grasp. For some strange reason I find this comforting. I look people in the eye and they smile back.

I was also on the hunt for Weisswurst, a heavenly German sausage. As I walked around a corner in the indoor part of this market, I saw two young traditional Mennonite children playing at the window on my left, looking out on the world their tradition so carefully navigates. My eyes went right, where Mom and Dad were engaging customers and attending to their nicely stacked counter of organic vegetables, all the while keeping an eye on both Sohn und Tochter. I felt a smile escape me. I turned another corner and a student from school happened past me, and we shared a quick hi on the fly.

Eventually I made my way to the corner where tomatoes were on offer. I landed a bushel and felt both of my shoulders burn with happy burdens. I happened upon a young woman playing the cello with a generous smile on her face. Her cheerfulness was entirely gratuitous, since my hands that would have otherwise gladly applauded her efforts with cash were clearly and utterly occupied. It struck me that she might well be smiling because she enjoyed what she was doing. About half way to the car I passed a young man heralding the the gospel with brochures en français, a seemingly incongruous fact given that an eastern European, or perhaps a tongue from the African continent is more likely to be encountered. But then I remembered that those speaking this latter might also converse in our other official language in their native lands. I happily meandered to my chariot.

Every once in a while, for a blink of the eye or the inhalation of a breath, all seems well with the world. Yesterday morning I had one such moment. I have learned to embrace such instances even while knowing that razored security walls are being erected around the world, and people are finding the mouths of sharks preferable to places they used to call home, and immigrants are being demonized in our midst. It is good to remember that this walk in a market of plenty was what my paternal Grandparents and my maternal Opa and Oma hoped for their Kindern and our generation and so on. It is good, every once in a while, to stop and breathe in the gift, knowing that others paid hard prices for our smiles. And so we smile even while sighing a prayer for still burdened souls.

This Side of Language

These days the squirrels
query me about the nature of life
on this side of language.

I reply that their
play displays a tongue
of their own, one
that portrays that
theirs is not mine.

And yet, yet if I look
with intention and listen
with attention I discern
their voice as mine

This is a mystery:
to listen is to divine;
to watch is to marvel;
and perhaps to speak
of this spoken life.

Ephphatha, or God at Bat

Wonder arrests me as it
vests me with eyes
seen by robin, whose
cocked head whips mine
Wisdom unsettles me as
she wrestles me
into a garments of joy:

a toddler twists a word and world
a stalk explodes with a bloom
a preacher weeps the gospel –

finger to ear
spit to tongue:

Be opened.

One Brush Stroke, One Prayer

Last Friday I took my youngest to the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. She was on her way back to Halifax to begin another school year in the march toward her chosen career. We were able to get away a bit early, and so avoided the ubiquitous threat of being stuck in gridlock. A turn around trip home immediately after dropping her off would have meant a plunge into the madness in reverse, and so I opted for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I got there a bit before it opened, and so snuck into a nearby coffee shop for a quick java. The shop hosted an exhibit call “Foot by Foot.” The shop was adorned by paintings 12 inches square with three spots allotted to each artist. It was a great accompaniment to the smell of fresh coffee. I followed my cup, carried by a kindly young woman, into a “terrace” interior to the café. The sky shone from above and four brick walls framed my space, where I read a brilliant article by Rowan Williams before stepping across the street and slipping into the gallery.

I wandered around, from one gallery to the next. I popped in on a few favourites, and met some new paintings along the way. There were many visiting from galleries across the Americas to take part in the exhibit entitled “Picturing the Americas.” Some of these will be remembered by me and others not, slipping over the edge into the black hole of forgetfulness: images enjoyed in the moment and then gone.

After a while I made my way into the AGO Store. There I pondered, for a bit, buying a book on Scandinavian Design, but decided against it. The time didn’t seem right, and so I moved along. I found a little something I had pondered buying years ago, but then lost sight of and now found again. I might describe it as an art device – it goes by name “Buddha Board.” It comes with a water container/stand, a brush and a special board that turns black wherever water touches it. After a short time – one to ten minutes depending on the amount of water used – the image disappears. Slowly lines soften, and a block becomes blob and a blob becomes a fog that fades into nothing. The purpose of the board, according to its makers, is to allow the artist to “master the art of letting go.” It might do that for me. Time will tell, but I think I bought it for another purpose.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an incentive to make art close to hand in my office, either at home or at work. It will serve, hopefully, to give me occasion to use those little bits of fractured time in my day to find some unity. Life, it seems, is often a collage of splintered experiences looking for a narrative. Art might be seen as up to the task, and so is a sister to faith, which also knows of what cannot be proven but surely is worthy of a gesture to, an attempt at wholeness. It pulls together what is disparate; it wagers a narrative. Indeed, memories fade, paintings are forgotten, children fly to their future, but still, still hope announces its presence: one brush stroke, one prayer at a time.

Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.