A Garden for Your Thoughts

Yesterday was a full-on gardening day, for my wife. I joined her mid-afternoon after some marking, going for a run, and running some errands.

The work for me began in earnest in “my little garden.” It is a bit of a joke, but many years ago I was given charge over a small bit of soil just outside the office window. My wife takes responsibility for the rest of our rather large yard. I do not recall the provenance of this grave responsibility, but I do admit that I have a consultant who provides me with sound counsel. This year this counsel included pulling out a trumpeter vine, probably as old as the house (just shy of 70), although I do not really know. It is beautiful when it flowers but a bit of a chore when it drops orange trumpets. It is also in constant need of grooming. We have thought about pulling it out some years but have always decided against it in the end. This year it simply did not come back to life, and so it was time to remove the vine, which has over the years grown to be a thick stalk rather like a branch of large tree.

I don’t know why, but whenever I have to pull out a shrub or a tree I am reminded of the book called “Shane” that was read in grade nine. Shane drifts into the community in which the novel is set, and becomes a hired hand at a farm. The young boy of the family takes a liking to him, and I especially remember a bit about Shane working at removing a stubborn stump on the farm. Shane is tenacious and taciturn, mysterious in his refusal to say much about his storied past. I don’t recall much more from the book, but I do recall that scene with its focus on resolve and the teacher using this scene in the book to discuss literary tropes, and what the scene might really be pointing toward. It all comes rushing back whenever I grab an axe, which I needed yesterday.

After I had dug down about 30 inches or so, the stalk was still thick and solid, so I got out the axe and played Shane. The stalk was really a thing of beauty in its own way, gnarled and twisted, bending as needed to make its way in the world. I felt a little bit whimsical in this work, and grateful to the vine for adorning our house over the years. We replaced it with a Dwarf Alberta Spruce, which paired one at the other end of my plot, between which two I planted flowers with solid advice from the resident expert. My wife takes gardening seriously – or perhaps “delightfully” is a better term. When she stops planting and steps back, looking at what she has done, she appears rather like an artist before a canvas. I am basically like a hired-hand in this work, useful for my strong back and capacity to dig out rooted things and to lift in rooting things. I can be tenacious and taciturn at times but I am no Shane, and this blog is no novel. However, there is plenty of novelty at 185 Sheldon, as a garden rages against COVID-19 and preaches a fine sermon for those with ears to hear. I am glad to have a small part in the sermon preparation.

In Praise of Pansies

I glanced out my May window,
and saw a pansy and her peers
standing out
in the snow with faces
cheery, appearing cherubic.

I praised these strong flowers and
asked them about their life with men.

They spoke of being trodden under foot, and
of hearing their name used and abused
to hurt, to maim, to wound others,
and so, their own way of being in the world.

I hung my head in shame.

Upon seeing this, these pansies
turned their heads to the sky, so that
I, too, might look up and perceive that
those closest to the earth have a worth
rooted in what those who trample
flowers will never know.

Staycation in Canvas and Verse

Today my wife and I were to return home after a week spent in Trinidad and Tobago building a home with Habitat for Humanity. It became apparent some time ago that this was not to happen, but I had a week of holidays to be completed before the end of April, so a staycation was in the offing.

The danger of staycation, especially after an extended period of working at home is figuring out a way not to work at home. I have to admit that I wasn’t altogether successful at this, but I did better than I thought I would. I was helped, largely, by two decisions I made. One was to buy a year’s subscription to Master Class, and the other was to work on a painting that has been kind of drifting about in my head for some weeks.

I was especially interested in Billy Collins’ class on poetry in Master Class. I delight in Collins’ poetry and so was not surprised to find his lessons entertaining, insightful and inspiring. He revealed much about himself and his process of creating poetry, all the while sharpening my tools for reading poetry as well as writing it. One of his great lines from the class was “the beauty of a poem can be measured by the degree of silence it creates when it is finished.” He read a few poems of his own and introduced me to others that gave me pause at their completion. Collins’ lectures, mostly in 10 minutes clips or so, allowed me to take in small bits, think about them for a time and return when I was ready for more. Undoubtedly, I will be revisiting these before the year is over. I have just started Margaret Atwood’s class, and it proves to be promising as well.

I would spend my morning doing a bit of reading, listening to a few Master Classes, and then think a bit about my painting for a half-hour to an hour. At noon or so I would go for a jog, eat some lunch with my working wife, and paint for a good part of the afternoon. Painting, when you are in the right space, is a timeless activity. A minute feels no weightier than an hour. Sometimes, I find my heart racing as an idea falls in place for dealing with some shape, or colour, or balance. Sometimes I tremble at the fear that I am going to wreck something that feels right as I move the painting forward. Painting, like running, are really spiritual experiences for me. I feel God powerfully in them, and they do not need to be successful to be successful.

I spent my evenings watching a movie, or another Masterclass, or reading some theology. I would end my evening with some yoga and a glass of red wine. I found good bits of silence in the course of my week, which makes me think that some of it was poetic, à la Collins. Luther famously said that the Holy Spirit is the best poet of all and so I suspect that divine fingerprints can be found here and there in this week of canvas and verse.

Eggs, Over and Out

On my way downstairs,
I grabbed an empty
egg carton –
ripe for recycle –
recalling that
my daughter started
spring plants in one filled
with twelve fistfuls of soil:
a dozen ova of expectation;
a dozen disciples of revivification;
a dozen loci of resurrection.

My egg carton remains empty.
But still, I find the vacated spaces generative.

Notice What You Feel

When I was younger, I used to think it important to be strong. Now I know it is wiser to be flexible and balanced.

This applies to many levels – intellectual, spiritual, physical, etc. – but I am increasingly convinced that intellectual and spiritual insights have to be grounded in physical practices. I have always been physically active and have written in other posts about the ways in which running has been spiritually and intellectually enriching. But over the last few years I have been spending more and more time trying to keep limbs and such malleable and have mused often about trying yoga.

I decided that this recent lock-in was a good time to give it a go, and so I asked my daughters, who are my doctors in many ways, for advice and they suggested “Yoga with Adriene.” Adriene Mishler recently completed a 30-day program called “Home” and so I began watching her January 2020 series on YouTube some days ago. I just finished day 22 with the theme of “Stir.”

On day 22 Adriene made a comment that gave me pause. She said “You should not be in pain, but we do want to be in a place where we can observe sensation.” I am a beginner, but what is slowly coming to clarity for me is the goal of getting your body into a place where some new awareness of what you physically feel is evident. She often says “scan your body,” or “pay attention to what your body is saying to you,” or “notice what you feel” or like. When I was younger, I played football, where strength was king, and no-one invited us to “notice what you feel.” Numbness rather than awareness seemed to be the goal. I recall, for instance, a drill where we would jog on the spot and at the blow of a whistle fall jarringly to ground: no pain, no gain. Perhaps things have changed. I hope so.

In yoga we are invited over and over again to observe breath, body, and the beat of the heart. Balance and malleability are the collateral benefits of a practice that is about getting to know the body and so the self. There is a spiritual tradition associated with yoga, and the practice of yoga in North America has sometimes been criticized for underplaying this. I do not really know enough at this point to weigh in on the critique, but I know that the attention to the breath in my daily time with Adriene has caused me to think deeply on the breath of God: the Holy Spirit.

Next month I will be teaching an intensive course remotely called Spirit and Community. The theme of body should loom large when Christians think about community (often called the body of Christ) and the Breath that animates it. If the bible sees the body as a fit cypher for the spiritual community of Christ, then we need to take a careful look at how we apprehend the body. Although much still needs to be decided in how the course will proceed, one thing is clear to me. A healthy body is balanced and flexible. This is true for physical bodies and for communal bodies. How could it be any different for communal bodies that are Spirited?

Ocean of Easter

No poetry I write can quite
do You justice, since these
fractured, fumbling words are
but drippings of my soul from
heart to hand to page.

You speak and I fly;
You turn away and I fall.
I am between sky and sea as
You suckle me with Your
seeing me now,
not now, now.

But always You arrest me,
attesting to Your quest to
raise me, amazing me
as I envisage Your angels
sliding across my heart; and
Your graces probing me.
I am at sea In You:
Ocean of Easter.

Home is Where the Questions Are

Home is where the questions are:

My hearth now a why
My door a where
My window a who
My pen a how
My clock a when

And presently my oven is baking a future.

At our table we eat hope
but every now and then
I fail to attend to the time
and a bit of despair
is scorched in our
daily bread.

My pantry asks me about
my neglect, or sanity perhaps,
with no deluge of toilet paper, or
yeast, or pasta, or beans.
Gape-mouthed, I failed
to seize the day, or
the flour.

Home is where the questions are:

Why do we count angels on the head of pin while people die?
Why do we cast stones at those who think, who act differently?
Why don’t we break out in song, in dance, in verse at the fact that

home is where the questions are;

and questions are where the Answer is.