Dancing a Story

Yesterday I attended the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre Pow Wow. I have been at this Pow Wow a number of times. It is a great opportunity to connect with some friends, to watch some great dancing, to hear the big drum and to support some local Indigenous artisans.

I was especially inspired by a dance called the “Duck and Dive.” The Pow Wow MC told the story behind the dance. It is a men’s dance that recounts the historical attack of the Nez Perce tribe by US Calvary in Montana in 1877. He spoke of the Nez Perce’s valiant two day attempt to counter a much stronger force. He spoke of the Calvary’s shooting more women and children than men. In the dance, the dancers rehearse the strategy of duck and diving to escape the shots. The dance, in sum, rehearses the story of the violent subjugation of Indigenous peoples by colonial forces and in so doing the dance reverses that subjugation step by step.

As I thought about the dance, and the manner in which it powerfully illumines a narrative that I did not know, I was struck by how effective dancing a story was. One of my concerns as an educator has been to challenge my students to bring the body back into the classroom. The history of modernity in western cultures has been a history of problematizing the body. People ignore the body as a source of wisdom and/or obsess over the body and its image. The dance reminded me of another way to see the body: the body is a story teller.

Of course, our bodies tell many stories. I have a scar below my lip that recounts a basketball I took to the face when I was in junior high/middle school. Our histories are written into and on our bodies. Limps, scars, and bodily habits all bear witness to the ways in which our lives are embodied. Learning to listen to the body is one of the most important lessons in life, but a lesson that we too often fail to learn.

That Paul compares the assembly of believers to a body, and that the ancients described the assembly of citizens as a body politic speaks to the importance of the body. I was so mesmerized by those bodies at the Pow Wow dancing the Duck and Dive. As these dancers spun and swirled, they told us that history matters, bodies matter, and dancing matters. As I looked out on the dancers sharing their skill in telling an embodied tale, I was reminded that I too tell tales with my body. My every flinch, each grin, my open or closed arms, all of these say something about who I am and about my understanding of the world we live in.

I might not be dancing a story, but people are constantly reading my body language and so I am reminded that bodies matter, including the body politic, the body of Christ, and the body twirling the Duck and Dive at the Pow Wow, preaching a kind of a sermon – one I felt deep in my bones.

Art Opening at Keffer Chapel

They gather the room round,
All artists of the land, all born in a clan,
their hands blessed by sweetgrass, sage
by cedar, by tobacco.

Their subjects are wampum belts, medicines,
the tree of peace, fire, water, all our relations.
They portray truth, beauty, goodness and
so set their souls on display. They
invite me to join them on the wall.

Later I stand in this chapel,
now a gallery, now the Holy of Holies
and hear the whispers of angels. They speak
with the paintings, with the artists, with me.
And then they touch my lips with a live coal
and I cry out: “Here am I! Mend me…”

On Water Walking

Saturday morning found me at the edge of the Grand River in Kitchener. I was there to learn a bit about the role of water in the spiritual practices of certain Indigenous people of Turtle Island/ North America. The event was organized by the Feather and Cross committee of our church. We sat at the feet of Mary Anne Caibaiosai, a knowledge keeper and a water walker. A water walker is someone who commits to walking the distance or circumference as a body of water.

I used to think that at the heart of a water walk was the attempt to draw attention to concern about the well-being of the water, and that is true but there is so much more that a water walker does from my experience of Mary Anne’s account of the All Nations Grand River Water Walk. She spoke about the need to care for water in light of environmental challenges, but then she spoke quite passionately about it in personal terms. At one point she said “The water needs us.” She compared sick water to a person who is too ill to get out of bed, and in need of words of caring. At the heart of the water walk, it seems is not only the saying of something to us about water, but also something to the water about our affection, love and care for it. For four years, once a year, Mary Anne and a group of core walkers walked the distance of the Grand River from its source to its mouth where it enters Lake Erie. Water was carried in a copper pail for hundreds of kilometres with the accompaniment of an eagle staff.

Mary Anne invited us to understand water as a person, with care and agency, with purpose and history. We were invited to reframe our relationship with a part of God’s creation which really does know us intimately. We are, of course, about 60% water. It makes up our blood, our urine, our tears and more. We use it to sustain our being, to wash our wounds, to travel and more. But most of us likely never think of water as a person. I have heard, in the past, of a common Indigenous practice of offering a body of water a sprinkle of tobacco before entering it. At the event this morning we were given tobacco to give to the Grand River, along with some word. I said “Thank you Nibi” and thought about how I need to think differently about water. This was an astounding gift from Mary Anne.

Water plays such an important part in Christianity in baptism, in the narratives of Jesus and Israel. What might happen if we begin to think of the washing of water over the head of a baptismal candidate as an embrace of one of God’s creatures by another? What if we recollected that at the font the Holy Spirit was as much in water as the Son was in flesh at the incarnation and sacrament, but in the shape of a co-creature and as beloved of God as we are? I think that this might not only enrich our image of baptismal water, but of all water.

Later in the day I went for a sail, and I have to say that I saw Lake Ontario differently, in a good way. For this I give thanks.

Embers Pulsing Peace

I looked into the fire the other night
and felt You heal me:
not giving directions,
not answering questions,
no pep nor straight talk.
You simply and softly
massaged my soul.
Reaching out from the fire,
You held me by my eyes, so
that I found some succour in
Your silence as Your tongues
resolved themselves into
embers pulsing peace.

A Word in the Air

The other night, before
sleep swallowed me, I
made my way into the
bounty of our backyard:
the lawn my bed,
the trees my bedposts,
the stars my cover.

I wept at the beauty of
life’s intimacy and at
the tragedy of its
fragility.

I breathed in and out
imagining that one day I –
like my last breath,
at my last breath –
will hang in the air,
a word You have
finished speaking.

Sabbath and Sailing

Friday night we made our way down to Santa Maria to put on her sails. The boats were late in the marina this year because of some insurance, then crane issues. We managed to get the mast up this last Tuesday and were glad to have finished getting her all ready on Friday, so we were set for our first sail on Saturday.

We started out with a very slight wind from the south-west, a gentle breeze that was just right for raising the sails for the first time of the season. Shortly after the sails filled they emptied of air – nothing moving for about 15 minutes, or so. We decided we would motor back to the marina and do some cleaning and work on the boat. There is always more to do! But just as we brought down the sail, suddenly a solid wind came in from the east. We quickly raised the sails and had a lovely first sail, with the sun shining temperatures in the low 30s – nicely offset by a cool breeze that allowed a great first sail of the season.

I have had that happen before: a lull in the wind just before a complete change in direction. I suppose, in some ways, that might function as a bit of a metaphor for life. Given the way that life is too often altogether too crazy, quiet times often seem like moments for taking a deep breath and taking stock. This much is true, but also true is that these moments are times to get ready for next steps.

Summer is a bit of a lull in the cycle of the seasons. For me, anyways, work’s pace changes a bit. Life has a kind of an ease that is less easily accessed at other times of the year. But these quieter moments are opportunities to imagine what next steps might be.

This is why sabbath is inscribed into our week: a day set aside to ready the sails for what is coming around the bend. Of course, we generally have no idea what that might be. And that too is a sabbath task: not only to ready ourselves, but also to remind ourselves that the ebb and flow of life is rife with moments that cannot so easily be presaged, and those known about cannot be known as good or bad until after the fact, and perhaps not necessarily even then.

After our sail we made our way to a marine supply store, which was closed. But there was a brewery right next door that makes one of my favourite IPA’s, which we bought before making our way home. There, I settled myself in our back yard, under two of my four favourite trees and drank a fine brew that reminded me that lulls are gifts – gifts that keep on giving as they unsettle our obsession with certainty and productivity.

Into the Night

I went for a walk one night
this last week, my mind caught
up in that space between
hard facts and fickle feelings,
even though I know that
facts aren’t really hard nor
are feelings fickle.

I stopped for a moment at
that sweet spot between
two streetlights, that holy
place where I shadowed
in both directions equally:
the me-ahead mirroring
the me-behind.

I thought that this might be
a parable about life, or maybe
I sign I could divine in these
peculiar times. But in the end
I decided that this was simply
a strangely satisfying sight, which
might be what I most need as
I step into the night.

Convocation Season

Convocation season is upon us. At Wilfrid Laurier University, where I work, this biannual event (one in spring; one in fall) has been ramped up this year in order to allow for people who missed an in-person convocation to attend one on campus now – a year or two after they were granted their degrees. We had one such event a couple of weeks ago, and then one again yesterday. These events tend to be a bit shorter than a normal degree granting convocation, but we have a full on event coming out way next Friday.

Convocation has become remarkably smoother than it was when I first started teaching at the school. When I first began they did few convocations with thousands of graduates. It sometimes went on for hours, and faculty were known to sneak a book in with their program. Now, convocations run all week, twice a day and they tend to be closer to the one-hour mark than two. But what an important hour it is for many students! Of course, not all students opt for the pomp and circumstance but many consider it an important launching moment – having an opportunity to get one last photo on campus with friends, family, and faculty members.

The event itself is quite colourful, with faculty wearing the robes from the universities granting them the PhD. Mine is quite handsome, I think, with a rich red bordered with a bright blue, and a beefeater hat to top me off. It is fun to see the variety, each robe representing another community of learning.

Over the last few years, some Indigenous faculty have been wearing their own communal regalia. So, alongside of the robes from universities we will see ribbon skirts, moccasins, suede vests, etc. This is a rich and important development in our community, I think. It signals that in addition to the academic work that these scholars have performed, they are also informed by and buoyed with the wisdom of their communities. When Indigenous faculty wear their regalia, I have a strong sense that our community has this wisdom in our midst, a wisdom attentive to balance alongside of progress, space and place alongside of time, and the knowledge of the community alongside of the lone scholar working away in their lab or office.

Indigenous students increasingly add their own distinctives to the university robes that they often choose to wear. Moccasins, jewellery, beaded accessories, etc. grace their western dress with Indigenous blessings. It warms my heart, as does the event itself. It is a gift to teach students and to celebrate with them this milestone in their lives is grace upon grace, and evidence of the Creator’s diversifying fingerprint within our midst.

Sisters’ Act

My three sisters have begun
their summer sojourn with
roots going down and stalks up, their
journey well underway. Yesterday
I setup a net to setback the advance
of robber squirrel and friends since sisters
can only profit by hungering
those preying upon them,
including me.

I have the luxury of not needing
to seed for summer sustenance
nor to stave off starvation in winter.

But my ancestors? No.
They knew life’s balance more
intimately – a summer garden was not
a pleasantry but a necessity, a kind of
lifeline denying death.

As I ponder this, squirrel smiles and wiles
her way into other sources of green,
in this summer of her cycle.

Home for Me

Friends, at a conference on the theme of the home at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, our host Derek Nelson invited us to write a poem about our understanding of home at the start of our time together. I share mine – edited – with you here.

Home for me is near to a tree:
then a poplar I climbed with a friend
now a strong Norwegian maple speaking truth;
then a willow by water, flexible yet strong like a yogi
now a hemlock evergreen, with needles soft to the touch
and smelling like heaven;
then ein Apfelbaum in Omma and Oppa’s backyard
now, in ours, the wizened wood of blue beech, whose canopy preaches
welcome.
Home for me is between now and then.