Of Stones and Such

This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.

As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.

I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.

I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.

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Differently Beautiful

You are differently beautiful here,
in this land of hills, folding over
the other, draping pleat
over knee, over there.

Here You speak in
tongues between the
crow-like beeps of
horns incessant. Here
here You gird Your
loins with hospitality.

You meet me here
in inquiring eyes, eyes
that soften mine. I hear You
call my name in laughter as Your
daughters – strong and nimble –
colourfully and gracefully slide
past muscled motored men, like so
much water navigating rocks,
softening edges
and finding a
way.

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“For some” or “Foursome”

I am now nicely ensconced in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. I’ll be here
for a month, doing some learning with the good folk at Martin Luther Christian University: teaching a course, learning a bit about tribal communities, and doing a workshop for PhD students, among other things. I have been hospitably received, this hospitality being a red thread tying together the mystery that is India.

This is my second time to India, and it seems oddly familiar and oddly strange at the same time. Let me illustrate. In order to gain some bearings as I move through the fog of jet lag, I decided to go for a walk after Saturday breakfast in the guest house where I am staying. My walk gave me an appreciation for the geography of the place. Part of the allure of Shillong, is that it is a city on hills, sharp hills, with lovely multi-story housing clinging to the steep like wild vines to a tree trunk. Winding weathered roads hold these homes together like a net strewn over rocks. I made my way along a bit of string on this walk, which took me to the local golf course right in the middle of town.

This being India, a tour through a golf course is, in itself, a revelation. There are clearly worn walking trails crossing the fairways, reminding me of cow paths back on the farm, meandering from a to b, with enough clarity to know where you are going but with enough drift to make the tour leisurely. They seemed a bit out of place on a fairway. In my experience in North America, the public does not generally swing through golf courses, but here the signs on the course make it clear that it is okay to do this, with a handful of provisos: no lunching on fairways, no meandering on the greens, no balls larger than the golfing sort for sport, watch out for golfers etc. In fact, on Sunday evening at sunset the fairways were full of families picnicking (in defiance of rule number one). It was a lovely sight.

On my Saturday walk after reading the sign, I chuckled and then came upon a most interesting scene. On one of the greens, I was surprised to see a part of eleven – yes eleven! – golfers at play. I have always wondered why four was the magic number on the courses I have played (perhaps an altogether too generous verb here). It seems another magic is at work in India. You play with the number of friends golfing. I later saw a party of seven, and so I can imagine there are permutations above and below and between four and seven, when considering a fitting “some.”

I’m not sure which hit me as more enticing, the idea that a golf course need not be dedicated to one pursuit alone, or whether the rules of the game might be bent to the needs of the community. I suppose, both speak to the reality that is Shillong. I trust that this month will give me yet more insights into not only the oddity of this place, but the oddity of my own, that place that prescribes a maximum of foursome and the dedication of expansive space to those with clubs in their hands.

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Eve and Adam

To learn more about runes, check out this site.

Eve,
today your
beauty was severe
as you sang the poetry of
trunks and branches runed,
and your face sparkled
with the blush of
first light.

Your breath spirited me
to this marvel of your
possessing me fully.
Here I fall ever
anew into you, into
your sacred site of joy.

I will not slip between
your fingers, but will cling
to you until that moment when
I finally and fully fall into death; and
until that days comes, I will
practice dying by coming
again and again to
the loam I am:
Adam.

Running Like a Fish

It has been an unusually mild winter in our parts – not much snow nor sun. These winters are utterly unlike those I remember as a child. This isn’t altogether surprising since I lived far west and north of my current location: now Southwestern Ontario, and then Central Alberta. I miss the sun but not the cold, although I find the weather feels warmer when there is snow on the ground.

While I haven’t been so fond of the weather, the upside is that it has made running outside quite easy. I have done a number of longer runs over the last little while, all around 10 km. My run starts with a bit of an uphill climb for the first 5 minutes or so. If you were to drive my pathway, you would have no idea that the path is uphill. In fact, when walking I would only attend to the grade for the last 100 metres or so of the first 500 metres. But running, like cycling, makes one intensely aware of grade, and wind, and temperature.

My pathway mostly involves a hiking/running path. It is well protected, which is nice when the predominantly northwest winds are blowing hard. The run is largely uphill on the way to my 5 km turn around. The trip home tends to be downhill, with the wind behind me most days. The trip home seems to be the part of the run where I manage to experience the “runner’s high.” This makes the run doubly rich.

The euphoria of these moments – not experienced with every run – are really quite remarkable, and give a kind of gravitas to the idea that the journey is the destination. The race itself is the prize, it seems. Many times, as I’ve run, I’ve thought about the marvel of being able to move, something I most often take for granted. When I’m in the right head and heart space, it strikes me as an utter marvel that I can slip across physical space like a fish through water. As I do so, I feel badly for people in cars, too often seemingly stressed and sometimes racing to make lights etc. When my lungs and legs are in harmony, my spirit soars and I have no desire to give up that feeling of being alive for the comfort of the car.

Last week I was speaking with a senior friend at church who ran regularly throughout his adult life. He spoke eloquently of the joy of the sport. He, unlike me, ran competitively. I have not run in a race proper since I was a youngster. One day I might try it again, but for now I revel in the experience of knowing that my knees can still sustain my joy, and my heart can yet propel a hope that humanity will find the collective will to ensure that the air for all is fresh.

My friend no longer runs but he remains an avid walker. One day my running days will be over, but as long as I’m able, I keep on the move, thankful for movement in whatever way I can manage – recalling all the while that it in God that we live and move and have our being.

Another Epiphany

This place feels strange, but
still, when I touch the
earth I feel home: this
red soil God bleeding
Adam, this crisp air God
spiriting Eve. The primal
pair is everywhere with
their progeny in tow.
Here I crouch on
the backs of
elders.

Not far from where I trace
You in the dirt, ancestors
watch me, seeing
whether I will
pay respect or not.

I try by God I try to walk in a good way.

I breath, and You come to me:
clothed with hills that pleat round
your sacred sites; Your cheeks now
flush with generosity; Your
locks frame your strength.

I look up to the rocks and
see You seeing me now
through these eyes, now
through those.

And I breath again and then
remember this: we all share
Your breathing us and
that is Joy.

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Takk for Alt

Christmas is upon us, a time of great joy for some and of some darkness for others. While this person celebrates, that person mourns. Most of us, I suspect experience a bit of both, thinking on those whose presences have graced our tables in times past but do so no more. I find myself thinking of my parents at Christmas. They are now gone but still present in important ways. Strangely, this last little while I have found myself thinking about my father’s mother, my Norwegian farmor. I never knew her, her having died some years before my birth. But I have heard bits and pieces about her, too few.

She was raised in Norway and came to the USA for a marriage that produced one son. Her first husband died in an accident, I was told, and she came to Canada to take up a business opportunity at Milk River in Alberta, where she met my grandfather – my farfar – who was homesteading a piece of land. They went through hard times, raising a family of 8 through the depression of the mid-20th century, losing a child and scratching out a living with little luxury. She died in her early 70s, I’ve heard. When I was visiting a cousin in Newfoundland, I ate at her table and was glad for that experience. That cousin has memories of farmor. I have none.

And so, I wonder why she is on my mind these days. How can someone I never knew take up residence in the “kingdom of memory,” a phrase used by Elie Wiesel? How is it that farmor commands my attention? I really have no answer for this question but am glad for her presence in absence.

Christians speak sometimes of the experience of presence in absence, feeling God acutely in those moments when we feel most godforsaken. Many of us see that evidenced in the life of Jesus, especially on the cross, where he quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Scholars remind us that sometimes the first verse of a psalm was a kind of aide de memoire, invoking the whole of the psalm. In the case of Psalm 22, then, we are reminded that the same person who laments at the beginning of the psalm also said in verse 24: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide the divine face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

There is something right-headed about the fact that the psalmist both laments and praises God’s absence and presence in the same psalm, I think. From one psalm comes both praise and lament. In like fashion, from one heart comes both lament and praise, both doubt and faith. And from all of us comes an ache for a wholeness that is all-inclusive. Maybe that is why I’ve been thinking on farmor these days. Deep in my bones is the desire to be whole, and whole includes holding the hands of all who have suffered for my well-being, for my little successes, and for my great joys. My blood pulses with a desire to say thank-you, and this desire has taken shape in a thought, a thinking on a woman I never knew but whom I know to be a part of me. And so, on this Christmas time, I say to farmor “Takk, farmor, takk for alt.” And to all of my readers, I say thanks for journeying with me in 2018. You will hear from me again in the month of Janus, the wolf who stands at the door of the New Year.

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