After Six

Friends, I wrote this poem after a conference at The Six Nations of the Grand River Nation this summer. Here is a recently edited version.

They awe me, these suffering
ones, enduring

our colonial slips,

our empire eyes.

Oogling their land, and
straightening their circles, like

gluttons we grab and ignore and then

we fetishize and tokenize them

for our justification

for our failure

just to be.

They have much to teach us – when

our fists finally loosen

our eyes softly open

our hearts beat still –

when our voices find silence.

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Of Leaves and Letters

Aside from some time spent at Open House at Wilfrid Laurier University, yesterday was spent marking papers and raking leaves. The word leaf, of course, can reference both that thing that falls from the tree and a sheet of paper once a part of essays. These days, as you may well imagine, marking students’ work doesn’t involve much by the way of leafing through paper, but is done on computer – at least that’s how I do it. This method has much to commend it: fewer trees fall, the essays run through turnitin and so I know if there are academic integrity issues from the get go, and finally students don’t have to try to read my horrendous penmanship. I am able to type comments on the essay in comment boxes, and the system nicely allows me to preload comments such as “Please use ‘quotation’ here since ‘quote’ is a verb.”

Most professors do not count marking as their favourite task. I’d agree with that but neither is it the worst. Marking is one of those things that runs a gamut of experiences. It can be frustrating and tedious; it can be really quite exciting; it can be heart-breaking and sometimes moving to the point of bringing me to tears. As you may guess, I am not marking math – although calculus instructors may arrive at tears from time to time as well! I teach theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at WLU, and so sometimes mark reflection papers in which students integrate their life experience with theological themes. I count it an honour to see something of students’ faith lives from time to time. I find it quite humbling to have them relate their doubts, and express their joys, and narrate their varied and rich experiences with God. Of course, giving these kind of papers a grade is rather odd, but that is my job and so I do it as best as I am able.

I read some stellar papers today, and had some very moving experiences with some of them. But even so, it can be hard work and upon hearing that we were having leaf pickup on Monday I decided it was wise to take a break around noon and rake some leaves from the front yard – awash in colours – to the curb. The silver maple in our front yard is a world onto itself in size and more, and every year we harvest some of its joys and sorrows. I lay down a tarp and rake these tales onto the tarp and drag it to curb where I dump the leaves for the city. I then repeat this many times over. As I do so I think. And this thinking usually takes me deeper into me. I recall the past summer season; I recall past falls; today I thought about my parents. They have been gone some years now, but sometimes I think I feel them to be closer with each passing year. Perhaps that is because with every year I am one step nearer them.

I’m not certain why I thought of them today. We didn’t rake many leaves on the farm – or at least I didn’t. Maybe it was that movement from labouring in the soul to labouring near soil that opened up something. Maybe it was the fecund smell of dirt under the colourful quilt on the ground that took me to the farm. Maybe it was our proximity to All Saints Day. Maybe it was the realization that our days are not only as grass – as per the psalmist – but also as leaves. Not only do we fall not far from the tree, but we write, or paint, or sketch the life we are on the leaf we are. These are days with many such memory aids. These are the days when winter calls to fall, and I bow to both.

After the Manner

Someone called me a poet
the other day,
but I don’t know: all
I feel is my
poverty, my
reticence, my
lack.

Still, I wager a
word now and then;
some wheat to the wind.

I’m not sure what
to make of those
seeds I sow, but I
know that any
omens are not my own.

At times words accost me,
and I see fire above,
and cannot but report.

I am not so much a poet,
but after the
manner of Luther,
a beggar.

Sixty and Holding

I am only just now back from celebrating my in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary. A quotable quote from the event was noted by my wife. She said that when she picked up flowers for this auspicious event, the clerk upon hearing about the anniversary, told her that her parents “came from the era when you didn’t throw things away.”

We talked a bit about this around the table. At a literal level this was true. I remember my Omma’s basement, once rife with the things that my mother would have thrown away in a heartbeat, and think on my mother’s basement, once rife with things that I would have thrown away in the day. With every generation, it seems, comes a little less anxiety about tomorrow’s basic needs. And yet other anxieties accrue.

I was chatting at this event with a relative who has worked for the same company since his twenties. I commented that it is becoming a very rare thing that someone should live out their working days with one company. Of course, in his instance, it actually wasn’t the same company since this company had been bought out along the way and he had somehow managed to ride out the waves of downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing that more commonly characterize the “rationalizing” of resources in a globally competitive world. The “logic” of this economy is expediency: the image of the economy as a reflection of the household is sacrificed to the image of the economy as a reflection of a well-oil machine: rid of excess. If something is not needed, then, toss it out: an employee, a friendship, a faith, a relationship, a whatever.

I am not being nostalgic for the past here. I know that the days of my grandparents where marked by lack and loss. They hoarded because they (barely) lived through the Great Depression; but still, they held onto virtues that are not only too rarely present today, but too often forgotten. These virtues include, among others, patience for delayed gratification and fortitude for commitment. You stuck with something believing it would pay off in the end; and a promise was a promise. I am fully aware that this too often resulted in commitment to loveless, and even abusive, marriages and more. Such simply cannot be countenanced, and yet, in our life together we need to re-imagine what it might mean to think twice before throwing things away and tossing people to the winds of change.

The upcoming generation gives me hope in diverse ways. I think, for instance, of the awareness of some of my students of global issues, or the growing popularity of board games against the onslaught of video games or the arrival the zero-waste movement. Some seem well aware that technology is not enough to meet humanity’s deepest needs. I am heartened by those in my children’s generation who seek after something beyond the quickest way up the corporate ladder, somehow intuiting that the bottom line is simply that: the point from which we begin to be by moving beyond “me”. My generation has been seduced by technology, but theirs – I think – might well be able to take some distance in knowing that know-how needs to be replaced by know-who: know who you are, and know from whom you come. They may yet become the generation that refuses the quick fix and a throw-away way of being in the world. Perhaps we may yet see the proverb come to fruition: “a little child shall lead them.” We can but hope.

Infected Hope

Not so very far
from hope dwells love,
where time is stopped
with this gesture and
that glance. Each
is but a breathing
that this is enough.

Some say God is
love and so it seems;
but hope too is infected
with the divine; this sacred
contagion spreading
like wild fire, like a
virtuous virus,
causing
me to see
trees at prayer
skies in rhapsody
and you, yes You.

The Canvas that is Everyday

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We ate our turkey yesterday, and so today is given over to the happy task of left-overs, that ever important tradition of receiving yesterday’s gift, and so yesterday as gift. This seems a rather fitting motif of thanksgiving itself: revisiting in order to receive anew. As I think about this task, and turn my sights, not to the year behind me, but the week just past I am ever surprised by the convergences of joys and sorrows; of hope amid brokenness and pain.

Monday morning began with work, and the reminder that I do what I love for a living. This is no small gift. I go to work cheerfully, and although mine is not a perfect life or job, I find that my days go by with plenty of opportunity to count myself rich. I am especially grateful, this week, for my Monday afternoon class of GC 101: Christianity and Global Citizenship wherein a student spoke to the fact that the scandal surrounding football players kneeling during the American national anthem was originally a protest against racism, but has since been leveraged to different purposes for different reasons. This African Canadian student reminded me that it is easy to forget the roots of movements, and that social justice agendas, too, can be co-opted.

Tuesday is the day that Inshallah, the global choir to which I belong practiced. I have written of this choir before. This is simply a life giving moment in my week. To sing with joy and to pray for the gift of seeing love and justice meet (Psalm 85:10) is a delight. As I think back on the growth and increasing depth of this choir I am humbled to be a part of this effort to sing the circle wide.

Wednesday was a hard day, with the news that a former student – a beloved pastor of a community, as well as a husband, son, friend et cetera – was killed in a motor vehicle accident. I taught a class for our aspiring pastors immediately after hearing this news, and had to pinch myself from time to time, trying to live into this harsh reality of the death of 39 year old servant even while thinking through what it means to confess the faith onto death; and this with those who have a full life of ministry before them, a life that may be long or not as long as it ought to be.

Thursday gave occasion to take my middlest daughter out for a birthday supper in Ottawa, where I travelled for a conference. This was a special treat and also gave me occasion to meet her new kitty Willow and become reacquainted with her puppy Hazel. I was reminded that animals, in their own way I think, bear a different kind of image of God: being paw prints of divine creativity. This occasion also served as aide de memoire of the three births I attended and the happy truth that life can be ridiculously beautiful.

I was occupied with the conference Friday and Saturday, the former which gave me occasion to present a paper on “Faith, Freedom and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).” Good conversation ensued. I learned much from many very fine papers and had occasion to share a wee dram or two with Matthew, a dear friend who roomed with me for this event. On Saturday I drove home and caught the most spectacular sunset as I drove westerly. The sky modulated reddish orange over-coating a blue green canvas with gestures of clouds that floated about as leaves on water’s face. It was breath-taking and gave me opportunity to give thanks for breath.

Sunday involved church and then the happy meal that began my reflection. Two of my three daughters were home, one with a friend new to our acquaintance. The third is presently traipsing about Peru. The day involved an leisurely afternoon in our backyard with mid-summer weather in October, followed by a fine meal, a board-game and then to bed. This, with the knowledge the next day – now today – is a holiday, a holy day that may well remind me that every day is holy, hallowed by sacred sketches by the divine artist on the canvas that is the everyday.

Saints of Old

It is no easy
task to be
invisible, unheard, on
the other side of
evident.

One first has to
hear a tree speak
see signs in the sky
touch the Braille of
the wind.

I’ve never been
invisible, and
although I’ve played
at hiding – I’ve
always been found
out.

The saints of old became fire.
Saints today may well be rocks.
And somewhere between

stone below and flame above

I wait on the Voice whose Ear
hears my silence.
I keep my eye on the Eye that
sees me through.