Slow TV

I remember calling my Mom in the winter months, in the later days of her life. I would often ask her what she had been doing when I called and she would say “Watching TV,” to which I would respond by asking what was on the television. She would tell me she had the fireplace channel on. I never did quite get that but as of late I have found myself watching “Slow TV” from Norway. I am now halfway through the 7 hour Bergen to Oslo trip. When I tell people, they generally think I am a few cars short a freight. I think differently.

First, I like trains. This semester, for the introduction section of the first day in class, I invited folk to speak about their favourite mode of transport. A good number spoke of trains, and their invitation to relax and see the scenery without worry about traffic etc. Trains are also (for now) low key modes of public travel without the security check etc. There is a kind of a comfort on a train that I do not experience with other modes of transport – aside from ferries.

But it isn’t only the “train” piece of the show that intrigues me. I am also reminded of my own trip from Oslo to Bergen and back by train some 30 years ago. I recall seeing people ski up to a stop, and take off their skis in order to get on, for a time, until the next stop. There is a kind of nostalgia in the show, I think.

Further to this, I like Slow TV as a push back against “reality TV,” which is so far removed from reality as to make a mockery of the real struggles that folk face in a real world not about an amazing race, or voting people off of an island, or some such inane theme. Reality TV seems, in significant ways, to contribute to a juvenile public and a dose of “real reality” seems fitting in these days – even in the mode of the mundane, the daily. It is good to see what people see who travel the lovely Norwegian country side – with sky touching fjord and mountain, and so inviting us to connect what is seen on television with what is seen during our own travels.

I also enjoy this show because it reminds me of my own pilgrimage in Norway some years ago. In some small way the show is an aide de memoire of that delightful journey that gave me occasion to be with dear friends, and make new ones. The paternal side of my family comes from Norway, and I find myself regularly drawn to things Norwegian in particular and Scandinavian in general. I can’t quite say it feels like home, to see the Norwegian country side fly by but it reminds me that I am from away.

I sometimes like watching television that does not aim to resolve a plot line, or mindlessly entertain, or sell a soft drink surreptitiously. The simplicity of the show is refreshing and reminds me of those twice weekly phone conversations with my mom. At the end of her days, life was slowing down and a fireplace was all she needed for entertainment. I am not there, but still, it is nice to watch the country side of my father that gives me occasion to remember my mother as well.

Thank you, Slow TV.

Poetry of Naught

Some poems say no:
No I will not be ignored;
No I will not be understood;
No I will not be written;
No.

we need to listen
to such poems
through such poems

Hard silences speak
You, You the
Pause, You the
Comma, You the
Full Stop.

You may or may not be
captured by earthly languages or
heavenly tongues, but You
shape shift
that, this
poetry of naught into me
where it now
resides as
seed.

Site of Silence

With a solid footing of snow, I decided yesterday was an fitting occasion to head over to Bechtel Park for a Nordic ski. I am more inclined to go to a local golf course, largely because it is so very close. But time was a bit more spacious on January 1, and so I jumped in the car and headed about 8 km north on the express way so that I could ski the set trails at Bechtel.

It was actually a bit icier than I was anticipating, and so after a few swings around a couple of trails I crossed a little bridge over a small creek and inched my way on a path neither groomed nor friendly to cross country skis. I eventually always do this when at Bechtel. I usually take along a small thermos of hot chocolate and get far enough away along the creek’s side to know that I won’t likely be meeting dog walkers or other skiers. Yesterday, I took a few photos with my phone before finding a fallen tree to function as my chaise. It wasn’t long before I noted a pair of cardinals across the stream in one tree, and a pair of nuthatches in another. I was transfixed by them. I’m not a birder and really know next to nothing about our feathered friends, but every now and then I find myself drawn to them. After a time, I made my way along the path back to the parking lot, realizing that I had not taken any photos of the birds, but happy enough all the same.

Later in the day, I listened to a podcast on “On Being.” Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton about his work to reclaim silence in our world. Noise pollution is his concern, and he makes the rather audacious claim that silence is about to become extinct. Silence, please note, is not for Hempton an absence of sound but a dearth of artificial sounds. He spoke at length, and eloquently, about learning to listen, and the curious fact that humans are not hard-wired to hear humans as much as certain other animals. Our auditory interest in humans is a later overlay. He spoke in particular of our ability to catch the song of birds, since their call often indicated a locale of some importance for the primordial homo sapiens. It seems there is a deep seated reason for my attraction to bird song.

Hempton spoke eloquently of our need for listening. He claimed that ours is a world pre-occupied with sight. Learning to shift our focus from eyes to ears, and then to hear what comes naturally is no small task. Luther, the famed Reformer whose 500th anniversary of the posting of 95 theses (which is said to have kicked off the Reformation) is being commemorated in 2017, spoke of the church as a Mundhaus, or place of hearing. He made mention some 500 years before Hempton of the curious fact that ears do not have lids like eyes. Hempton made the case that this makes sense from the side of evolution because hearing is how we best discern who or what is in the environs. Luther made the case that this makes theological sense because hearing is passive in a way that is not quite true for seeing and so an especially apt receptor of words of grace.

Yesterday I was delighted to both see and hear the cardinals and nuthatches, and I was also very happy to look up at the clear blue sky and see snow laden trees branches form a frame for that heavenly blue as if they were playing the part of stained glass. Hempton calls the great outdoors his cathedral, a point I can appreciate even while I am quite content to let cathedrals be cathedrals and nature be nature. Both have things to teach us. Both provide both moments of rapture and occasions of deep awe – in their own way. But I am happy to hear – and see – in both evidences of hope and healing. Both can be for me sites of silence.

Something in the Empty

Boxes everywhere, and
all emptied save for
air, now a cypher
for hopes both
disappointed,
and fulfilled.

“The day after,” too,
is sacred with rattled
bows unleashing oceans of
questions asking after
what we will.

These empty boxes
hold a potent
absence and are a
mirror of
sorts inviting us
to peer
into the void where
we finally
glimpse our desire.

Amidst this disarray of
Boxing Day, order may
well evade us, but meaning
presses hard against the
dis/content; there
is something in
the empty.

Hope is Where the Heart Is

Winter arrived while we were away last weekend. We left Kitchener while the grass was yet green, but came back to 10 cm or so of snow on the lawn. This was doubled yesterday, and weather reports advise more of the same over the next few days. It’s looking like this year will be rather unlike the last, which was devoid of snow. I am happy for this, a thought discussed by my wife and I the other night on our drive home after curling. We both like our winters here. We grew up in Alberta, where the cold can be quite a bit more severe. Here there is more snow, less cold and a shorter winter. This seems amiable to us. We like four season, but are happy to avoid extremes. It is likely that our distant ancestors, from Scandinavia and environs, knew weather more like ours than that of our childhood.

We wondered what those first winters must have been like for our families – more accustomed to Danish, Western European and coastal Norwegian winters – arriving on the prairies with its sharp winters. Still, they survived and even thrived. Humans are resilient creatures, and hope for a better life pulls us through situations of all sorts. Hope is a hardy virtue.

During our last week in class, we had occasion to talk of the nature of hope, and its relation to doubt. I spoke of Paul Tillich’s insistence that certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. This seed feel solidly in a few souls in class, and so I began to see some fruit here and there in term papers. Some students spoke, quite eloquently I might add, of their liberation in hearing this concept – new to them. One, in particular, wrote of how it helped her feel at home in her skin and make sense of scripture that was once obtuse to her. Giving a little room for not-knowing was freeing for her. I spoke recently to another student, of Rahner’s “Faith in a Wintry Season,” that speaks to the surprising persistence of faith in times that one might imagine capable of extinguishing it. Winter, was for him, a metaphor for those occasions that test faith true. Maybe that is why I am so warm on winter.

On the other hand, I am not so fond of the certainty I see in some adherents of faith. I am all for confidence, but confidence is located in the Divine while certainty, it seems, lands on the doorstep of the self. Winter is a season that points us to the Other and others. The other day, to illustrate, while snow-blowing our drive way, and the sidewalk on our half of the block, I saw many of my neighbours out assisting theirs in this way or that. Winter presses us to the necessity of looking out for the other. It is a season that announces our need, and nothing is as friendly for faith as need.

Shakespeare’s “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” points us to summer’s reprieve, but while we travel still in this winter season, we do well to let our eyes follow the soft contours of snow on snow on snow, on branches ever green. Under this wintry blanket we find that hope that does not disappoint. Hatred may rage, but hope stills us; spite alienates but faith enfolds. And in our wintry faith we find time for being , for being still, and for still being hopeful.

From Inside a Prayer Bead

This weekend my middlest daughter came home to visit. She took the bus from Ottawa to Toronto and my wife and I went in to pick her up. Gwenanne was going to a work Christmas party in Toronto and so after picking up N, we dropped Gwenanne off and the two of us headed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there that I had been hoping to catch, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Mystical Landscapes” is curated by Katharine Lochnan who, of late, is also a student of theology. The art she has drawn together in the exhibit is powerful and includes heavy hitters: Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Munch as well as a number of Group of Seven, Nordic and Western European landscape artists. I was especially entranced by some lithographs of Charles Marie Dulac. His pieces were ethereal and yet intimated an earthen connection that gives the viewer the feeling of being both grounded and floating. This is an artist experiencing something of a revival that is well deserved. The curators wisely set aside what I might call a “side chapel” for his work, which was most helpful in that his art is so subtle that it needs to be enjoyed in its own right/rite in a different light. We moved on a bit altered.

After making our way through the rest of this veritable feast for our eyes, we took in some sights at one of the floors dedicated to contemporary art and then headed off for a bite to eat. On returning we were wandering about, not quite aimlessly but nearly so, coming upon the sign for “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures.” We look at each other, shrugged and entered. I had remembered reading a bit about it in a magazine, and was immediately intrigued as we came upon the first display. Many of the displays were of prayer beads, commissioned rosaries wherein the bead was actually a small “ball” about 4 to 5 centimetres in diameter. The balls open up and illustrates scenes from Christ’s life. These prayer beads, crafted some 500 years ago have details not visible to the naked eye. The AGO has done a remarkable amount of research around these, and in a video we learned of Micro CT scanning that allowed researchers to take the beads apart virtually without dissembling them. It was really quite captivating, and when we reached the end of the display there was a young woman asking if we might be interested in a virtual tour of a prayer bead. Of course we said yes, and then each of us, in turn, was fitted with a head set and a set of googles that allowed us to “see” an opened prayer bead in front of us, seemingly about 4 to 5 metres wide and the same high. A control stick allowed us to expand certain sections, and we were able to “step” right into the ball. From inside we could bend down and look up at features carved into characters mere millimetres in size. I can’t quite describe the experience. It was utterly fascinating. I left the AGO on cloud nine.

On the drive home I thought about my experiences at the art gallery. They covered such a wide range: I was awed by a kind of minimalist art with a spirituality that left me without words, and I was also bowled over by a veritable army of technological innovation that made the impossible possible. These two experiences shared something, and I am still thinking about that. Good art, and the technology that supports it, moves us in ways various and sundry to the end that we live with just a little more awe – sometimes pondering the possibility that we really are making our way, day by day, through the bead that is prayer.