A Blue on White Delight

This last weekend was dedicated to orientation at the school where I work. For some years now, we have held it at the Crieff Conference Centre, a lovely locale run by the Presbyterians in our part of the world. The event is always inspiring in many ways, and although year to year admits a kind of litany of repeat questions, and worries, and excitements there is always something unique in the tone of each student speaking and in the collective voice that takes my breath away. I am grateful for this.

On the years when the weather is in our favour, my wife meets me on the last day, after chapel at Sunset Villa. This latter is just down the road from Crieff. It consists of a Danish restaurant and a holiday trailer park, where Danes from years past – and now their families – spent and spend their summers and weekends. We often park one of the cars there and scurry down to Lake Ontario to sail. This was the very thing we did this last Sunday, but there was a garage sale at the Villa, so we dropped in to see that.

This garage sale had many of the things one would expect to see at a garage sale: trinkets, clothing, curios, out of date electronics, record albums etc. As one would anticipate at a Danish garage sale, there were also the famous blue plates, some Royal Copenhagen and some Bing and Grøndahl. If you frequent Danish households in Canada you are sure to find some of these on the walls. They serve as aides de memoire of origins and special events. People will often buy a plate for special years: anniversaries, births, retirements and such. There was a rather handsome stack of such plates, but they didn’t catch my wife’s eyes, so much as a table set in the very middle of the garage sale “garage.”

Here a table was set as one might expect, with crystal for wine, schnapps and water, as well as a candelabra and dinner plates. But here too was the surprise. The dinner plates were white, with Danish blue plates laid on them. This was unfamiliar to us: using decorative plates for the first course. We didn’t know if people actually did this, or if it was for effect. The latter most certainly the case, and led me to thinking about our relationship to things.

Things are designed for a purpose, but rather like the words we write, or the poems we bleed, or the songs we breathe, once they leave us they take on a life of their own. It struck me anew that this is just as true for things as for words. There a piece of art becomes a use thing, and a use thing becomes a piece of art. And here a tool to make a sculpture is taken up into the sculpture itself. Designers’ intentions are thwarted by human imagination, and the sovereignty of the artist is usurped by some soul who imagines an instance of art commandeered to host a smørrebrød of herring on rye; and in so doing making a table setting to be a kind of art.

Theologians talk at length of the image of God, defining in sundry ways what this might be. I think I incline to a more fulsome than minimalist definition, and upon seeing those blue on white plates can well imagine that this imago Dei is also a way to say that people are finally just plain old interesting: both students with their heady questions and elderly Danish ladies upending my sense of what is what with the simplest and unexpected use of something beautiful.

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Ignite the Poem

I/ A single word can
ignite the poem, a
signal word that
plays the tongue and
stays silencing.
The poem
echoes beat of heart
mimics batting of eyelid
reflects crimson of cheek.

Ii/ The poem’s got my tongue, it
pinched it so as to
gain voice –
flaunting my sovereignty
in its bid to be blood and flesh.

III/ There is no need
to bother the muse – let
her sleep and I will feed
on the beauty of the day.
Let the muse be. I can
see a cloud parting the sky
in tenderness and terror both.
I am ignited in the knowing that
thunder is only the beginning.

Suffering March

March. How will I
ever make peace
with this
month well named:
raging and pillaging?

Not so many
days ago a tyrant, a
broadside wind
flipped over a
tractor trailer while
side swiping a few
days of spring seduction:
green pushing against the snow.

Does this
month
plot, and
scheme, sharpening
its talons and assessing
the holes in our armour.

Amore, it seems, is not
on this month’s mind,
and yet, and yet –
we hold this to be the month
when Word was fleshed in womb and so
was made to suffer misery, and beauty too.

No Truck with Deception

The sky holds no
truck with deception – nor
does it countenance
circumvention. It is
the soul of the earth:
soul, and skin.

The sky’s shudders
announce that You
are nigh and it
drips at
Your caress.

We wait below, as
dermal cells,
to and fro:
Now – shaking under shiver
Now – languishing under sigh.
Now – weeping at such beauty.

Faith at Niagara Falls

The week before last I spent three days in Niagara Falls. I wasn’t there to see the falls, visit the casino, or frequent the various and sundry quirky stops on Clifton Hill. I was there for a meeting of the Joint Anglican Lutheran Commission. The purpose of the Commission is to monitor the Waterloo Declaration, outlining the intention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada to live in full communion.

This is a committee whose members regularly comment on the deep satisfaction they get from this work. I have been a member for some 8 years. It is a great group and our twice annual meetings are rich indeed. For the last few years we have met in Niagara Falls, chosen for its economic efficiency vis-à-vis travel. In many ways it is an odd choice, with its crass commercialization around one of the most beautiful of nature’s wonders. Yet I regularly find these meetings spiritually enriching, in part because of the group and in part because we meet at the Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre, a monastery of Carmelite order, which serves as an ecumenical retreat centre. The folk there are so very hospitable, and the food is to die for.

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I learned, this time around, that the Centre is in the midst of developing vineyards: the one seen above and another 7 acres vineyard elsewhere. In due course wine will be available for purchase. This is, of course, a longstanding tradition for monastic communities and a part of its plan for long term sustainability. Yet, learning about it buoyed me in a way. We hear much about the demise of the church in North America in general, and in Canada in particular. But the Carmelites are committed to their vision of setting aside space for sacred contemplation, giving the kind of physical room for spiritual discernment within a stone’s throw of Canada’s version of Las Vegas. I find this most amazing and hopeful.

People in my circles are generally rather jaded about Niagara Falls. I understand this, but whenever I am there, I take leave from the Centre most evenings for a walk down to the falls. The City really is commercial in the worst sense of the word. But whenever I get to the falls proper, I am awed by the majesty of water reminding me of my impermanence. I am always intrigued, as well, by the wall to wall wealth of ethnic diversity chronicling their visit to this otherworldly place: orthodox Jews alongside hijabbed women, followed by busloads of Japanese tourists.

During this last visit, the weather was rather miserable and so my walk along the Niagara Parkway was untypically quiet. Against the dull roar of the water and the patter of the rain the absence of jostling was marked. In some ways it was dull, but differently so in that hope settled as the hype of capitalism receded. The rain washed the excess away for a bit, and I had opportunity to see the falls anew. Hope emerged, perhaps hastened in part, by the realization that spiritual renewal can happen alongside of our most desperate efforts to improve upon nature – a lesson learned from the Carmelites.

The Carmelites know well that hope feeds prayer, and prayer grows hope. They are resolutely committed to this vision in the midst of one of North America’s most desperate attempts to sell the beauty that is freely given. These have been days in which heartening and hope is sorely needed. It has been good for me, this last week, to remember Mt. Carmel, and to know that God’s reign surely comes.

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Arboreal Lessons

Our tree is not ours, but it
allows us to imagine it
so. It has much to
teach us, each
fall shedding
its skin,

leaving a leaf on step,

which when wet plays

the mirror and so

allows me to see my eyes

on its veins. It minds me.

This tree, with its leaf, speaks to me of creation and its end.

It knows intimately
the wager of letting
go: falling from
branch’s security.

It knows of farewells
and weeping
and the beauty of
ochred red against verdant grace.

It knows that this blue
globe we call home is
ocular: God’s seeing us.