Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.

Cracks that let…

Friends, late this afternoon there was an Art and Vespers Service at Keffer Chapel. The theme of the event was “The Crack That Lets the Light Get In.” I was asked to provide a short reflection on the theme, which follows. Blessings to you in the cracks in your days. Allen

Leonard Cohen invites us to think mystically about the crack, the lack, the imperfection that marks and mars our journey from cradle to grave:

“Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

These are beautiful words, words that sound the world round; words of hope that play especially well in these days; these days of cracks becoming chasms, and bridges being drawn, and barb-wired walls being scratched across continents and around the world. These words of the prophetic poet Cohen sing the promise of light, the light of God promised by the poetic prophet Paul who hymned

“For it is the God who said, ‘let light shine in the darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This light, says Paul, is the light of the knowledge of God; he tells us that Christians see this light in the face of Jesus, our brother; others speak of seeing this light in other faces, other places but all of us who long for light find it coming in through the cracks that the world hammers in our souls. Cohen invites us to see these cracks – as painful as they may be, as embarrassing as they are, as disturbing as they will be – he calls us to call these cracks differently, to call them portals of grace.

I love Cohen’s poem. I love the way it lets the light in, and I ache for light in these days that are altogether too dark. Into your apocalypse and mine the light comes:

Deep in our hearts, there is a common glowing
Deep in our hearts, God’s hope is burning bright
Deep in our hearts, shalom is surging, growing
Dispersing hatred with God’s sacred light.

Paul speaks of this treasured light lyrically saying “we have this treasure in clay jars,” this light abides in precarious, in precious, in fragile souls… The light that shines in our hearts is held in clay heart jars, jars that are

Afflicted, but not crushed
Perplexed but not despairing
Persecuted but not abandoned
Struck down but never knocked out.

Paul claims that we carry in this weak, in this broken, in this fundamentally flawed physical form the light of resurrecting love. The light that has come in through the cracks will also glow out through these same cracks as we walk into the darkness, into the confusion, into the abyss about us. Light shines out from our battered and broken bodies; hope shines out from our hearts, cleft and bereft; faith shines out from our sorrowing souls that swell and soar with love despite empirical orders to the contrary.

Friends, I close with a poem…

A light from the crack slips
Across my eye, so that now I
See sideways – Now I view the
World askew; now I hear the world anew.
Trees converse with me, and I with them as
They teach me to listen, train me to see:
Ears to bark, eyes on crown, my
Being breathing in their
Breathing out – and the world
Bursts open. It receives me as
I fall into holy palms, as I slide
Into God’s weeping wounds, the
Cracks that let the light shine in; the
Cracks that let God’s love shine out.

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.

An Echo to be Seen and Heard

 

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This last weekend was Thanksgiving in Canada.  For many this is a time to gather together around a roast turkey and pumpkin pie.  As we planned our Thanksgiving this time year, we realized that two of our three girls would be unable to join us, and so my wife Gwenanne pondered the possibility of meeting our middle daughter N for a camping weekend.  Gwenanne and I have never camped in the fall, and thought it might be fun.  N agreed and so we asked her where we might meet.  Algonquin Park is a favoured spot but was found to be full and so N suggested Bon Echo Park.

Bon Echo Provincial Park was unknown to me, but rather important for a couple of reasons, perhaps the most important being that the massive cliffs found at the narrows found in the middle of Mazinaw Lake served as the canvas for a massive number of pictographs, created by First Nations.  It is not overly surprising that these massive cliffs became the site of these ancient and mystical works of art: the cliffs are potent and the water pounding these rocks offers both access to them and protection for them.

The park was once the site of an inn, built first for retreat for the wealthy of Methodist persuasion until the Inn was purchased by Flora McDonald Denison, whose vision was to replicate in a Canadian context a place where the philosophy of Walt Witman could find a home.  Members of the Group of Seven also found a home here, who along with others, visited this site in their quest for Canadian artistic expression in the early 20th century.  The family ran the inn until the Great Depression, at which point it was leased until fire destroyed it in 1936.   Bon Echo was made a provincial park and opened in 1965, and still today park visitors come to be inspired, moved and quieted in much the same way that those First Nation and Group of Seven artists did.

On our last day there, we rented a canoe and paddled along the cliffs, taking in the many pictographs.  Knowing their provenance, and the fact that these pictographs were often painted in places deemed spiritually potent, I attended them with a sense of expectation, which was not disappointed.  I was also deeply moved as I looked up to see cliffs formed by massive geological events encoded in the diagonal press of rock from the horizontal of water splashing in song against these same cliffs.  Here and there, cragged trees pushed out of these cliffs, marbled with tales to be read by geologists with their long game wisdom.

I took a few photos of the park in our brief sojourn there.  As is usual, these woefully underrepresent the power of the place.  Yet, I hope to explore some of these paltry photos in painting on canvas in service of my soul as I discern how to echo the heavens “declaring the glory of the Lord and the firmament proclaiming his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

It was, in fact, a most fitting way to spend a thanksgiving weekend, even if the turkey we ate was soup (lovingly prepared by my wife) and the pie we ate was forfeited for a pumpkin loaf (a first time attempt on my part).  The sun illumined trees iconically.  The wind spoke to my soul.  The ground opened up, here and there, and showed divine fingerprints on our walks while bonfires at night reminded us that life is gift, pure gift indeed, and we have every reason to be thankful people.

 

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Penned Again

No sleep in this pen so
it calls me again,
late in the night.
I cannot but do its
bidding as it scratches
me across this page.  No
sleep now – with me
strewn blue across white – not
quite bruised but certainly
bent into shape
of poetry.

 

I am ink.
I am lettered.
I am poem,
the page now my home
until I am virtually
transfigured and
become the
sighting of your eye, the
curving of your tongue,
an echo
in your ear.

Coveting Joy

As the twelve days of Christmas draw to a close, our family slowly but surely makes its way back out into the world.  For a week and a bit, my two youngest daughters have been home from universities afar, and with their arrival my eldest, who lives not so very far away, has been frequenting home.  Of course, offspring often bring friends in tow, and so Friday three extra mouths were at table giving us eight instead of our usual two, and yesterday we had seven at table.  It is fun to have more feet around the house, more eating at the table and more laughter in the living room.  It is always a delight to have our children home again.

 

Yesterday our youngest asked for one of my watercolour paintings to take back to her apartment.  We pulled out an art file with paintings spanning our years as a family.  It was fun to reminisce as we looked again upon images I made in Northern Alberta, Toronto, here in Kitchener and while on holidays.  We were transported briefly back to earlier times.  It was also interesting to see my painting style shift and change, with an innovation tried for a bit and then discarded, as well as constant themes that interested and interest me still: skies, water, horizons.  The two girls who were here each grabbed what struck them and that made me glad.  It is nice to imagine a piece of me in their apartments.

 

I am a little sad knowing that they will soon be winging their way back to their lives, but this too is how it should be.  Leaving is a part of life: we leave the womb, we leave the safety of our parent’s laps, we leave grade school and on and on.  This is the cycle of life and while we sometimes want to hold some moments hard we also know that other moments are hell and the cycle serves us well in giving us distance from these.

 

It is a New Year, and so I am not altogether surprised that I am a little wistful.  While 2015 was a good year, it also held some disappointments and even tragedies for those near us.  Tragedies, of course, are contagions and  spread their darkness.  But joy too is infectious, and so it is good at year’s end to recall moments of rejoicing: delicious laughter and poignant peace, the gifts of reunions, and sharp prairie skies as well as sheets to the wind with water spraying over the deck and washing a kind of timelessness over “busy-wounds.”  It is good to remember those holy moments when we recall how small we are and yet find ourselves cradled in a palm of compassion knowing that we are, as Pastor Anne so gladly shares at work, “more than enough, so much more than enough.”  There is peace in cracks and joy in shadows; there is hope in losses and love in misses.   2016 will be what it will be and hold what it holds, but we are invited to enter the year with eyes wide open and hands to the plough.  There will be opportunities to create memories to reflect upon joyously a year from now – as tonic for griefs that come without our bidding.  I covet a year of great joys for each of you, and pray God’s winding way into your paths.

People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.