Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.

No Truck with Deception

The sky holds no
truck with deception – nor
does it countenance
circumvention. It is
the soul of the earth:
soul, and skin.

The sky’s shudders
announce that You
are nigh and it
drips at
Your caress.

We wait below, as
dermal cells,
to and fro:
Now – shaking under shiver
Now – languishing under sigh.
Now – weeping at such beauty.

Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

Shadows Settling Me

Is there a light
as lovely as a
candle’s? She
makes art
of the wall:
deftly balancing

light and shade

aptly drawing

my eye in, then out

graciously holding

the centre

while caressing

the contours of this space.

She transfixes me, this candle.

She sets me in the room, just so,

and her glow mirrors

Yours – Word Aflame – Word

seen and heard as You

divine me, define me

draw me in, enthrall me.

I sit in the splendor of this

candle, in the lure

of shadows settling me.

Family in the Rough

Today is family day in our neck of the woods. Family is variously received by folk, some having memories warm and inviting; others knowing little but rejection, suffering and such. My experience of family is rich, and for that I am grateful, but also mindful that finding a way to navigate hard experiences of family must be a lifetime task for those whose experiences have been so different from mine.

Beyond our positive and negative experiences of family, we have all seen different configurations of them – a point I remembered this weekend. Saturday afternoon we took some friends who were visiting out to St. Jacobs, and as we are wont to do, took them to the local Mennonite Visitor’s Centre. For those not in the know, the area in which I live is rich in Mennonite history, dating from the 1783 when these peaceable folk left territories south in order to escape what they feared might become warring expectations.

The Visitor’s Centre has a very well done short video introducing folk to Old Order Mennonites. There is a piece in the film pointing to the addition of Granny Suites on many Old Order homes, and an accompanying comment that children grow up with family all about them – including of course their grandparents. Often aunts and uncles would not be so very far away. The extended family was and is extensive and near. My children had a significantly different experience of family. Most of their family was and is some 4000 km west of where we live. Their experience of family has been radically different from mine, and mine from my Mother’s, for instance, who used to speak of her Grandmother living in their house. I used to see my Grandparents once a month or so, while my children saw theirs far less frequently, although their maternal grandparents most often spend a few weeks in our town in the fall and/or winter. So many families; so many configurations.

The Bible uses language of family to describe those who share in beliefs. Some theologians I deeply admire express reserve about the family motif in the bible, given the negative experiences some have had. They suggest that it is time to explore some new metaphors, or resurrect old and lost images. An important one discussed is that of friend. Christians assert that God in Christ calls us friends. Another popular motif is servant/slave: God has redeemed us from slavery to sin, death and the devil, not so that we might be footloose and fancy free, but that we might be bound to Love. So many metaphors; so many possibilities.

It seems that families, like metaphors, are diverse and wonderfully made. Let me invite you, on this family day, to think about who your family is and why God has put these people in your life and you in theirs. Think too about the gifts of friends and co-workers, and the different ways in which they, too, can be family for you.

Cracks that let…

Friends, late this afternoon there was an Art and Vespers Service at Keffer Chapel. The theme of the event was “The Crack That Lets the Light Get In.” I was asked to provide a short reflection on the theme, which follows. Blessings to you in the cracks in your days. Allen

Leonard Cohen invites us to think mystically about the crack, the lack, the imperfection that marks and mars our journey from cradle to grave:

“Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

These are beautiful words, words that sound the world round; words of hope that play especially well in these days; these days of cracks becoming chasms, and bridges being drawn, and barb-wired walls being scratched across continents and around the world. These words of the prophetic poet Cohen sing the promise of light, the light of God promised by the poetic prophet Paul who hymned

“For it is the God who said, ‘let light shine in the darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This light, says Paul, is the light of the knowledge of God; he tells us that Christians see this light in the face of Jesus, our brother; others speak of seeing this light in other faces, other places but all of us who long for light find it coming in through the cracks that the world hammers in our souls. Cohen invites us to see these cracks – as painful as they may be, as embarrassing as they are, as disturbing as they will be – he calls us to call these cracks differently, to call them portals of grace.

I love Cohen’s poem. I love the way it lets the light in, and I ache for light in these days that are altogether too dark. Into your apocalypse and mine the light comes:

Deep in our hearts, there is a common glowing
Deep in our hearts, God’s hope is burning bright
Deep in our hearts, shalom is surging, growing
Dispersing hatred with God’s sacred light.

Paul speaks of this treasured light lyrically saying “we have this treasure in clay jars,” this light abides in precarious, in precious, in fragile souls… The light that shines in our hearts is held in clay heart jars, jars that are

Afflicted, but not crushed
Perplexed but not despairing
Persecuted but not abandoned
Struck down but never knocked out.

Paul claims that we carry in this weak, in this broken, in this fundamentally flawed physical form the light of resurrecting love. The light that has come in through the cracks will also glow out through these same cracks as we walk into the darkness, into the confusion, into the abyss about us. Light shines out from our battered and broken bodies; hope shines out from our hearts, cleft and bereft; faith shines out from our sorrowing souls that swell and soar with love despite empirical orders to the contrary.

Friends, I close with a poem…

A light from the crack slips
Across my eye, so that now I
See sideways – Now I view the
World askew; now I hear the world anew.
Trees converse with me, and I with them as
They teach me to listen, train me to see:
Ears to bark, eyes on crown, my
Being breathing in their
Breathing out – and the world
Bursts open. It receives me as
I fall into holy palms, as I slide
Into God’s weeping wounds, the
Cracks that let the light shine in; the
Cracks that let God’s love shine out.

Steeling for Snow

I shoveled the walk
yesterday, leaving my snow
blower to rest, warming
up to its summer
hibernation. I settled
on the old fashioned scrape
of metal against concrete –
content with the push and pull
of these two, their force
felt in the vibration of
the wooden handle,
occupying my hands.

This steel shovel, so much heavier than its burden,
is a solid reminder of the days before plastic
when we lived a little closer to the earth.

The snow blower was
bought to hedge my
bets against heart attacks
and such. It is much
appreciated and yet some
days the nearly silent to and fro
of shovel sits well with
the serene snow about to go –
even though it only just arrived,
from far too far for me to
put it back from whence
it came.