Ridiculously Rich

Dear Readers, the following was written late last night:

Today was an oddly busy day. It began with a funeral for a colleagues’ mother, which was, as they are wont to be, a polygamy of memory, re-connection, rejoicing, mourning and more. The afternoon found me at a three hour “Bridging Communities through Song” concert held at a local church, but brought to us by the Indigenous singing group Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women) Singers and the Waterloo Regional Male Chorus along with friends. This event is in its third year, and aims to build bridges across divisions – of hostility and indifference; of race and class; of host and settler cultures. The event ended in a giant round-dance, with strangers and friends making their way around the church in increasing complicated circles of joy. It was followed up by a feast in which I had occasion to visit with a dear colleague, her daughter, and god-mother over a marvellous meal. Our table guests also included four other people previously unknown to me who were delightful dinner companions.

It is hard to process days like this and the ridiculous richness of emotions attending them. It was all there: from the pain of grief to the hope of reconciliation; from the horror at recollections of residential schools and the devastation following in their wake to the beauty of meeting new friends over good food and the warmth peculiar to a post-concert sigh; from the rush of running from A to B to the invitation to settle into a pew. What is one to do with so much – both old and new – in one day?

I came home and my wife and I decided upon a movie – a film set in the 1970’s called Remembrance. In this movie, a woman discovers that the man she loved – and thought dead – from her days in a WWII concentration camp is still alive. More emotions still! But with this movie, perhaps a lesson as well. As we debriefed the show we thought about how WWII survivors (from so many different kinds of prisons) spent the rest of their lives either unpacking their experiences or constantly packing them away. So much comes at us at times in life that it sometimes seems impossible to give our many experiences the deep, patient, reflective moments they need and deserve. Sometimes it seems we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to ask what is going on in these moments. Where is God? Who have I become? What did this moment teach me about me, about life? Such moments, so very rich in possibility, call us to the discipline of reflection.

It is the season of Lent, and my discipline for this year is to write a little each day in my Moleskin with a new fountain pen. It is meant to be a practice of process; of intentionally looking at a day with an eye open for traces of divine tracks; looking for pathways that pattern how my life is being intercepted, and to what end. Today is one of those days that is going to result in a paucity, or perhaps plethora, of words in my daily record and oddly enough, either one of the two options seems fitting.

Thoughts from the I 90

Dear readers, be assured I have not abandoned you. I have made plans and then my plans have remade me. This past month has entailed a trip to the United (as of now) Kingdom, a trip to Copenhagen followed up by a week’s long conference in Chicago. In the midst of all of this, classes have started, and I have endured meetings that have not always been endearing.

Increasingly I have come to know life as the undoing of my plans. I am working at being at peace with chaos, even while I pine for a pause in life. But I have also come to know that peace is more often imbibed in bits: a poem here, a vista there, the vision of a child wrapping herself around her mother’s leg that takes me outside of myself and to a place I covet for all. When I least expect it, repose sneaks up on me. For instance, last Wednesday a generous young woman named Sarah agreed to ferry me and a Malaysian friend from Hyde Park in Chicago to O’Hare Airport. The organizer of the conference had wisely arranged for transport for all well in advance of normal departure times. Winds in 40 knot range were expected along side of the precipitation befitting such gales. As was expected, the trip was about double the time. This plodding commute gave me occasion to ponder the last week since I was not in charge of driving, not needing to be anxious about when to get on or off ramps and like. I was able to sit back and revisit the conference; meeting new and old friends from Indonesia, Nigeria, Germany, Brazil etc. I was at a meeting of the Lutheran World Federation, where we asked the question: How do Lutherans the world wide read the bible?

As you can expect, no easy answer emerged. Some had suggestions while others queried the wisdom of travelling down this path at all. After all, some argued, the empire upon which the sun never set was obsessed with uniformity, and we all know how that ended. But then again, that empire, like so many others, has not really ended. It lives on even if only in wistful wishes for an empire of no setting sun. But the sun insists on setting, even in the shadow of busy airports.

Here and here, in the midst of traffic crawls, and renegotiated flight departures pause is thrust upon us. This is really the tale of life: while we may struggle with the rudder, the wind is beyond our purview. We bob along, and hope for the best; at least the wise do so. In those pauses, welcomed or not, comes our very own opportunity to be welcoming: will we breathe when the opportunity arises? Will we take leave of our importance? Will we embrace those moments that arrest our constant, if not consistent, rushing about? Will we will Sabbath? Will we ache to become a deep breath in harmony with all of creation? Will we be content with the moment given us, to be grateful and so generous? Life is so astounding in so many ways; here an unexpected gift of time; there an opportunity to practice peace; and in the midst of it all – God, ever offering fresh starts, even on a Illinois Inter-state.

Being Red, Being White

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Today we celebrate Canada Day.  I’ve always loved this holiday.  I’ve celebrated it in many and various places, but perhaps one of the most memorable was last year’s festivity.  For my readers with a little longer history with me, you may recall that last year I was in Norway at this time of the year, making my way with five other pilgrims from Dovre to Trondheim.

 

We were all Canadians, and I recall that at one point in the day, we dropped our packs, raised our voices  and belted out “O Canada” in a Norwegian meadow on the side of a mountain.  It was a memorable moment, touching even.  In some ways, this moment recapitulated the enigmatic character of  pilgrimage – in its various guises.  People in pilgrimage studies have studied the why, the how, the where, the who and the when of pilgrimages.  But to tell the truth, this pilgrimage was as much circumstantial as by design.  The invitation just came at the right time, and my wife and I had enough interest, and the bank account gave us a thumbs up, and so we went.

 

 

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But our going, at least my going, was something of an internal journey: some making sense of my DNA.  Where is the locus of my people – or at least half of them.  What did they leave behind?  Why did they go?  Did they ever want to return?  Alas, so many of my questions remained unanswered, yet attenuated by the stubborn beauty of this land called Norway.  We did learn of the difficult economic time at the end of the 19th Century that had ripple effects for many years.  We learned of the impossibility of finding enough land for a house full of children.  Of course, I also knew of the attractive – if not quiote honest – images being used on posters to encourage immigrants to the prairies.  Pictures of buxom young women (blond of course) in front of acres and acres of wheat bordered by vineyards.  Little did those young Norwegian men know that they would end up on a prairie in sod huts with land requiring back breaking work.  And as for the young women?  Some were lucky in love, but others not so much.

 

Immigration is hard work.    Immigrants have to navigate how to fit in, what are appropriate social cues etc.  And yet immigrants still come.  They often hope to escape the very real possibility of death by war or interrogation or targeted hatred.  In others cases, like that of my grand parents, they were simply looking for a place to call home.  As we sang “O Canada” in that Norwegian dale, I knew that Norway was not my home, but I also recognized as a second generation Canadian that my people are fresh on the land, still learning what comes by second nature to the First Nations of this continent.

 

Canada Day is a day for Canadians to consider the gift it is to be hosted by generous First Nations, but it is more.  It is an invitation to return hospitality to those coming from afar.  It is good to be the stranger – even on a Norwegian mountainside – so that I, so that we, can practice the radical hospitality and infectious joy that marks the way of the One whose way I follow.  Dear Canadians, take time this day to recall what brought your people to this place, and try to imagine the feelings of those wondering if they will ever fit in, and if so, how.  Take some time today, or in the next few, to become what you have enjoyed: grace, hospitality, and an ease with the land.  Happy Canada Day all!

Futile Wisdom, Clever Folly

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” I Corinthians 3:20

Yesterday I stopped by the 4th Annual Pow Wow at Conestoga College. If you have never been to a Pow Wow, I highly recommend it. Here is an event teeming with life, the drum beating like a heart at the centre of the circle, and all around the community gathers, as a body: to celebrate, to mourn, to reconnect, to sing, and above all, to dance.

As I watched those with winged feet whirl about the circle – ever clockwise in this territory, I chatted with my good friend Jim. Jim grew up in Haudenosaunee territory years before I was born. As a young lad he attended the Brandford Mohawk Institute, one of the many residential schools committed to the infamous Canadian policy of assimilation. He commented that as an Indigenous child he never saw such dancing. It was, of course, deemed illegal. The “wise” ones of those days had outlawed the traditional practices of those who have loved this land for many, many generations before settlers arrived. In their “wisdom” – both futile and horrific – they imposed rules that have inflicted pain on too, too many of Jim’s generation and those that followed.

I came home from the event with a purple ribbon on my jacket. My wife asked what it meant, and I told her that I purchased it at the Wilfrid Laurier University Aboriginal Services table. I also bought a cookie there, and the money from the cookie, and the donation for the ribbon were being used to pay for the funeral of a young woman in the community who had taken her life. Only the Lord knows the reason for such despair, but certainly generations of Indigenous cultural denial by mainstream settler “propriety” and greed inform the why of such a tragedy.

As Jim and I watched the dancing, I pointed to a young man, whose whirling and intricate foot work mesmerized me. He brought to my mind a bird, nesting a world. Jim said that this was Scott, the son-in-law of his youngest sister, and that Scott wouldn’t have grown up dancing, but clearly mastered it along the way. About that time a little one, maybe four years old, feathered and sequined and at one with the drum ran and danced and danced and ran. Jim smiled and said that this one will always know dancing. And I thought, this is how it should be: dancing your way into life, foolishly losing yourself to the drumbeat, the heartbeat, the heart, the hearth, the fire, the flame.

Such is hope: folly to the “wise.”

Mist and Mystery

Yesterday a thick fog framed our city.  North, south, east, and west: in all directions a gentle, yet persistent frozen mist softened the day’s light.  My maple trees shone with ice crystals; pine trees decked with diamonds wrapped around my back yard.  Hoarfrost left behind by that soft haze made me wonder whether I live in a dream.  Is this gentleness real?  Or am I imagining this beauty?  Who is behind this astounding gift so freely given?

Some of the indigenous people of this continent call the Creator of this wonder Kitchi-Manitou.  This name can be variously translated, but the two words point to a mystery, a fundamental anima that is great beyond all telling.  Many of these indigenous peoples assert that Kitchi-Manitou is everywhere.  Yet there are places where this divine presence is concentrated: here and there God is so present that people seek out these particular places to experience vision in times of trial and guidance in periods of perplexity.  Kitchi-Manitou is beyond manipulation, but still promises this mysterious divine presence at sacred sites.

On a day like yesterday, when I looked out over the trees poignant with white, I pondered how this mysterious mist serves as a parable of the mystery of God.  On my midday run, I could clearly see the path at my feet, yet further down the path the fog accumulated to dampen sight.  I knew that from a distance the place where I was and could clearly see would seem to be blanketed with the same thick mist that I only saw at the horizon.  And then, I looked over at the trees and there, the mist left a trace of its presence.  On trees’ twigs and evergreen’s needles the vapor deposited reminders of its presence.  Here and there, evidence of that earthen cloud made a mark that invited me to focus my seeing, so that all of my being might be touched by the mystery of mist.

Of course, this hoarfrost lasted but for a time; rather like a summer fog.  Only a moment is given for seeing this beauty that caresses the eyes; that stills the heart; that opens the ears.  But still this pregnant moment etches itself in my mind’s eye so that I ever see that heaven touches earth and leaves traces of its sanctity even here, on the branches of my back yard.

Kitchi-Manitou has visited my neighbourhood, and so I walk in this place now holy, in wonder as creation’s beauty arrests our propensity for cynicism, our predilection for ego, and our placation with prejudice.  The hoarfrost preaches a mighty sermon:  look for the holy, live with the whole, and give some space for mist and mystery in the imagination.

Drum Beat Suite

Yesterday I attended a Pow Wow.  For those who have never been to such an event, it is marvelous opportunity to experience something of the spiritual, cultural, and artistic lives of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  Many things struck me as memorable: the sacred fire at the east inviting all to make a prayer with a pinch of tobacco; the swirling colours as dancers drew us into the dream of living in vital harmony; the honour accorded elders; the joy – shining in faces of young and old; and feathers, beautiful feathers drawing my mind on high.  But one thing stuck out for me above all else: an announcement.

At the beginning of the Pow Wow, after the prayer to the Great Spirit, and the Grand Entrance, it was announced that a dear elder from the Six Nations of the Grand River had died, and so an honour dance was to be performed to help her on her way.  Alongside of this was what usually accompanies honour songs: the request for all to stand, for men to remove their hats, and the prohibition of photo or videos.  This latter struck me as especially significant.  In our world where video and audio record our every thought, our every choice, our every experience, and so define our very existence, here I divined something different.  Memory was loosed from technology.  What do I remember from this unrecorded moment?  I remember the drum, beating in a way that was not so much heard as felt; an invitation to have my heart beat in harmony with the Creator and all who held this moment as hallow.  I remember Margaret, a friend and colleague of mine whom I bumped into at this Pow Wow, who thought that this was a healing moment for not only those mourning the recently departed, but all who dealt with any manner of loss.  I remember the dancers spinning, feathers seeming to sustain them as they spun a prayer of thanks for an elder who was remembered in hugs that filtered throughout the community.  I remember the smell of sweet-grass smoke, wafting with memories and hopes for a future lived with integrity with those who prepared our way but have passed on to another way.

I am no Luddite: I am not against technology.  Sometimes I delight in what it makes possible.  But every now and then we live into the moment in an altogether different way when we set down our stuff.  We discover that much is to be gained from calling upon our senses to capture – not everything – but what most matters: a drum strung taut, singing the woes and the wonders of a world that can only be hinted at with words as paltry as these.

Writing Wrong

“Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.  The page, the page…”  Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 58

Dillard tackles the terror that every writer, every painter, every artist knows:  where will I find the courage to write, to paint, to dance knowing that at some level I will fail.  In the passage I quote here, Dillard points her readers to the way in which the blank page points us to our death.  In a fundamental sense, awareness of our dying empowers us to put the pen to the page, the ink to the canvas, the fingers to the keys.  The blank page points us to our last day and so calls us to write our life.  I think this is very helpful.  But I think that the blank page has at least one other possibility.

The blank page also reminds us of a screen; a screen that invites our intentional projection.  To project mean “to put forward.”  But what will we put forward?  What will we project on the screen of the blank page?  What image, or images, will encourage us to write?  What will inspire our ruminations?  What muse will move our musings?

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27

The sage James knew that religion can be a great source for both good and ill precisely because it has the ability to inspire human beings.  And so James reminds his readers that those who need to be “put forward” or projected into our imagination are the least, those whom the world forgets.  The blank page can become a screen upon which we can “see” those who are not seen and from which we can hear those who are not heard.

Those of us who write for life need to know whom we write for and what inspires us.  James encourages us to write for those who have been wronged: to give voice to the voiceless and bring to sight those who are not seen.  In Canada, over 600 Aboriginal Women have gone missing.  The United Nations has expressed concern over this situation.  The Native Women’s Association of Canada invites us into a moment of silence on Oct. 4 to remember the forgotten http://www.nwac.ca/media/release/22-08-12.

Here are some images that might help you when you next write what is wrong:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Missing-Murdered-Aboriginal-Women-in-Canada/313160025391260.