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This garage sale had many of the things one would expect to see at a garage sale: trinkets, clothing, curios, out of date electronics, record albums etc.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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What is this Dough?

What is this dough? This
melange of broken wheat,
salted water and yeast gone
wild? This rogue lump will not yield to
my will, yet still it calls me into
its rising.

I cannot knead this
dough without attending to
its soul: it will not be
bread unless I
heed its call,
listening to its song,
its laments, its lauds.

This mystery – growth
under hand
under time
under fire
– sustains as
dough mysteriously
rehearses again the
coming Reign:
bread for the hungry.

Words Sovereign and Free

They will not be coerced,
these words sovereign and free –
although I might coax them
with appropriate libations
or prognostications that
evoke their curiosity.

The other day my eyes
were on the street and
“peregrination” poked its
head around the corner, but
it walked away –
of course.

And I know
we cannot force
the hand of “manipulation,”
but if we wait, quietly, at
night with the stars, we
jut might catch
“consternation,” or
perhaps a
“cold.”

5 O’clock Dark

Heading home, Friday last,
I passed the Salvation Army and
the street lamps did me the honour
of multiplying my shadow leaving me
variously iterated in black:
here short and squat, like a puddle at feet
there long, lean and sliding across the street
but ahead just right, properly proportioned
and cutting a sweet angle a little left of centre,
slightly smug until an ambulance navigating the traffic
rendered me red on Sally Ann’s wall –
each shadow dancing a life under
the aegis of an emergency’s brief
incursion – after which I stepped
off the curb and slipped across
the street into a stretch
of easy dark.

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.

One Brush Stroke, One Prayer

Last Friday I took my youngest to the Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. She was on her way back to Halifax to begin another school year in the march toward her chosen career. We were able to get away a bit early, and so avoided the ubiquitous threat of being stuck in gridlock. A turn around trip home immediately after dropping her off would have meant a plunge into the madness in reverse, and so I opted for a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I got there a bit before it opened, and so snuck into a nearby coffee shop for a quick java. The shop hosted an exhibit call “Foot by Foot.” The shop was adorned by paintings 12 inches square with three spots allotted to each artist. It was a great accompaniment to the smell of fresh coffee. I followed my cup, carried by a kindly young woman, into a “terrace” interior to the café. The sky shone from above and four brick walls framed my space, where I read a brilliant article by Rowan Williams before stepping across the street and slipping into the gallery.

I wandered around, from one gallery to the next. I popped in on a few favourites, and met some new paintings along the way. There were many visiting from galleries across the Americas to take part in the exhibit entitled “Picturing the Americas.” Some of these will be remembered by me and others not, slipping over the edge into the black hole of forgetfulness: images enjoyed in the moment and then gone.

After a while I made my way into the AGO Store. There I pondered, for a bit, buying a book on Scandinavian Design, but decided against it. The time didn’t seem right, and so I moved along. I found a little something I had pondered buying years ago, but then lost sight of and now found again. I might describe it as an art device – it goes by name “Buddha Board.” It comes with a water container/stand, a brush and a special board that turns black wherever water touches it. After a short time – one to ten minutes depending on the amount of water used – the image disappears. Slowly lines soften, and a block becomes blob and a blob becomes a fog that fades into nothing. The purpose of the board, according to its makers, is to allow the artist to “master the art of letting go.” It might do that for me. Time will tell, but I think I bought it for another purpose.

I was intrigued by the idea of having an incentive to make art close to hand in my office, either at home or at work. It will serve, hopefully, to give me occasion to use those little bits of fractured time in my day to find some unity. Life, it seems, is often a collage of splintered experiences looking for a narrative. Art might be seen as up to the task, and so is a sister to faith, which also knows of what cannot be proven but surely is worthy of a gesture to, an attempt at wholeness. It pulls together what is disparate; it wagers a narrative. Indeed, memories fade, paintings are forgotten, children fly to their future, but still, still hope announces its presence: one brush stroke, one prayer at a time.