Poetic Justice

Not far from my ear
I hear my tongue slicing air
with jabs of hope.

I witness world
being carved by this to and fro;
the thrust of a trust
that truth will weigh in.

I’m never sure which will win:
this incessant stab at grabbing what-is
or that ever present slip-into-not.

At least I have a
ring side seat, a treat
when television bores and
my books are too, too heavy.

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.”

First Draft, First Draught

Yesterday afternoon I finished a first draft of a paper I am to give on November 23rd. The respondent needs a version of it tomorrow.

I am never happy with my first draft, but am always exceedingly glad to have produced it. I experience a kind of pressure as the time to write draws nigh. I have generally done the prep work well in advance: read relevant texts, read texts about the texts, thought through it all to the point that a germ of an idea arrives. I review my notes, looking for possible themes, pondering alternative points of entry, imagining how my incipient idea would hold up against the critiques that are sure to come from the floor. The pressure takes the form of anxiety: time to write.

The experience of writing varies from paper to paper. Some papers flow effortlessly. Some are grindingly difficult – every word needing to be wrestled into place. Most papers land somewhere in between. But one thing invariably happens: I begin writing with a thesis in mind, and the thesis gets a twist in the writing. It seems that there are ideas I have, and then there are ideas that have me. The transition from the former to the latter involves putting these ideas to paper. Some ideas will not countenance their concretization in the form I propose. Generally, in reworking the saying of the idea, the idea says something new and a slight – although often significant – shift occurs. This often makes me chuckle, and brings me a measured amount of joy. Rather like the first fervent pull of a good beer or the weighty sip of single malt, this moment gives me pause.

Writing at its best is really a lot like drinking (you choose the beverage). There is the thought of what it will taste like – maybe even well formed by virtue of memory. But the initial swallow? Well that is something altogether unique and shaped by the convergence of any number of factors: How thirsty am I? Who quaffs along with me? What’s the weather outside? Inside? Was my drink properly brewed? On and on it goes. Every first draught is unique, even if not earth-shattering. But there is a joy in the expectation of discovery and that mirrors, in a fashion, the process of writing.

I think this experience is what makes writing addictive. The arrival of an idea in the moment is exhilarating, even while I realize that most often this inspiration is not of the highest order. All the same, I am too bewitched by the pen to gainsay that experience in whatever degree it offers itself. Writing, in this sense, seems to be life writ small: the wonder of discovery as delight writes itself into our efforts to say something intelligent, or beautiful, or inspiring, or any combination of the above.

Talking up a Storm

We have some dear friends who have a delightful, precocious and beautiful four year old. She has mastered a number of significant skills, not the least of which is fluidity in English and Marathi. She comes by it honestly. Her parents, from India, are exceptionally bright and can converse in a host of languages. They have decided that Marathi is a good meeting language for A and their family and friends from India.

When A talks her beautiful brown eyes bewitch anyone paying attention. Her mom and dad tell us that when she switches into Marathi, she is able to add to her sparkling eyes that graceful, and fetching dance of the head; a kind of swaying back and forth that waltzes with the cadence of the language. Her grandparents – who live in India and visit from time to time – demonstrate the same in their deliciously accented English. But A’s parents never betray this linguistic Bollywood dance in their English, except for the odd occasion in which we see them flipping back and forth from Marathi to English in the company of confreres from their homeland.

A is like her parents. Her English is dance-less. English doesn’t seem to demand the same rhythmic sway that accompanies Marathi, or Hindi, or other languages of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, I suspect English has a host of embodied oddities – some local in character – of which I am unaware because of my proximity to it. Place seems to put its stamp on speech. I remember, for instance, the first time I was in Switzerland and heard the Swiss speaking German. I thought them to be Norwegians speaking German. Both speak in a lilt that echoes the summits and dales of their country side. Could it be that language is shaped by the geography in which it finds itself?

I’m not certain that language always mirrors the contours of its locale. But it does seem that language regularly reminds us that it is thoroughly physical. Here it slowly scans big sky and broad horizon; there it climbs hills and races into valleys. In other locales it crashes against shores’ rocks, while it clips along in short, serious sentences ordered by big city efficiency. I am told that Woodland Cree ripples like the brooks it describes and sings like the birds its names.

It is a delight to see A growing comfortably into two languages. I am quite certain more will come along in due course. And with each language we will see little more of the world in a little one who is talking up a storm as she choreographs consonants and vowels intuitively. What a delight to know that the divine Word sweeps across the world with a range of words reflecting the world’s diversity!

A Yarn to Believe

I like learning new words, new expressions.

This week, two words I knew well became altogether new to me in their pairing: yarn bombing. Yarn bombing was born some 9 years ago.

I learned of yarn bombing at the Canadian Theological Society’s meeting in Victoria.  Some younger scholars introduced me to it, and I am very glad for this.  Yarn bombing might be considered a riff on graffiti (literally, “writings”).  Most people have rather strong opinions on graffiti, and might find the comparison a bit odd at first blush.  Yarn bombers gently and generously quilt trees, plants, planters, posts, and a host of other things with beautiful wool creations.  Check out some fascinating photos here.

Yarn bombers share the vision with certain graffiti artists that public space is precisely that: public.  Both groups are convinced that space that is truly public should allow for free speech.  They just happen to think that free speech includes free expression that embraces visual forms.  Graffiti, of course, is not transient like sound and herein lays a host of problems.  Yarn, however, has the happy quality of being easily removed, and not quite as offensive as certain expressions of graffiti.  But the best of both artists – with yarn in one group of hands and spray bombs in another – challenge us to ask “Who has voice in public space?”  Is it really right that those with the most money win our time and attention?  Who decided that perversely rich companies get to bombard me with advertisements avowing wares that feed our greed for more in the very spaces set aside for free intercourse.  I realize that things are more complicated than they first appear, and that some graffiti is vandalism pure and simple, while not all commerce is corrupt.  Yet too many consider corporate North America to be virtuous at best and neutral at worst, while graffiti artists are so low as to be almost below reproach: they are to be loathed. Consequently, many folk readily identify every expression of graffiti with hooliganism even though it is sometimes publically countenanced.  When I was recently in Ottawa, my daughter Nadia, took me to a site set aside for graffiti artists.  You can see it here.

There truly is some beautiful graffiti, but it is hard for many to see beyond the preconceptions that all graffiti is illegal and so immoral.  This is why I was intrigued to learn of yarn bombing.  These young theologians, in treating the topic of yarn bombing, were asking important questions about public space, and the role of faith communities in ensuring that the public commons was not being sold to the highest bidder at the expense of our communal well being.  They claimed that everyone, none excepted, has a stake in the survival, and indeed flourishing, of places where all have voice.

Yarn bombing interestingly provokes us with comfortable matter.  It is a paradoxical prophetic word: this balm of yarn becomes a bomb – an explosion of colour inviting all to ponder whether there is a place in public space for those who otherwise have little opportunity to speak.

Sing me to the Moon

Friday night my wife took me to a Kellylee Evans concert. Kellylee is an emerging artist who gives a jazz twist to a variety of musical genres. I really can’t describe what happened, but I’ll give it a shot.

Energy poured into “The Studio” in the form of a diminutive dame shorn of shoes. She sang with a voice serenely smooth yet strong; soft and strong, her voice invited me in. I crossed the threshold and the door closed behind me. Slowly a table was set. She took music that I might not otherwise imbibe – hip-hop, rap, various genres of music, along with jazz standards – and wound them round her voice, which is as peculiar and precious as scotch – neat with enough peat to pull disparate sounds into a sensual singularity.

She sang, she danced, she transformed a wooden audience into a waving, singing, swinging body. We drank from the same well and became one, if only for this moment of magical escape. But no, that isn’t quite the right word: it wasn’t so much a magical escape as a momentous immersion in the power of music. Here we discovered the joy of being in the presence of Song, in this instance we glimpsed another way of being in the world – a way of joy.

At one moment in the concert Kellylee said: “Thanks for coming out tonight and supporting live music.” Not “me,” not “the band,” not a thousand things you might otherwise imagine. No, she honoured “live music.” It made me wonder how often people encounter music in the flesh. Is our addiction to technology the kiss of death for musicians, for music? Who knows? It seems as if some folk are permanently plugged in – constantly under musical siege. But something different happens at a concert. There is a power in the presence of the songstress and her fellows as they call us to cast aside our control if only for a moment – for a pure moment as they chase the muse where she leads. Something happens in this loss of control, in this gathering around song, in this seeing a new of being in the world – swaying our way into abandoning ourselves to joy. She starred our Friday night.

As I went for a walk Saturday night, I thought of Friday. Kellylee Evans made our night shine. She sang me to the moon, where I could see constellations from a new vantage point. I drank deeply from her vocal well and was wondrously quenched with a new kind of thirst: a wanting more of this wonder at beauty, goodness, and truth, if not Truth.


I have seen a poverty of poverty,
a wealth that is gangrenous,
stinking rich – revoltingly so – it sows
seeds of death and feeds us with a
hunger for what matters less.

I have also seen a plenitude in
a panoply of one,
a satisfaction in
contraction – ever aiming at slight:
a flicker not bright,
a whisper in the wind,
a shadow on the wall,
a slipping through the crowd,
a fleeting glimpse– yet enough:
a shade that fades into more.

Bach Vespers

this beauty. Bach
beckons us to be prostrate:
Wie du willst, du, Gott,
God – slaughtering our
self-significant striving.
God – circumscribing our cunning
conspiring to remain
distant. No,
this beauty is God’s
vengeance – coals of the Lord:

Richter for Reel

This last week I watched the film “Gerhard Richter Painting,” (an apt and self-interpreting title). This isn’t a film for everyone, but I was spell-bound. Richter could well be Germany’s most famous cultural export. His paintings and photo-paintings are simply sublime. From time to time, I load one of his works of art onto my computer and just stare. Objectivity likely doesn’t inform what follows.

The film chronicles Richter working on a handful of paintings, alongside of his musings about the past, and film slices from his attendance at public events. Richter appears to eschew attention throughout the film, which makes one wonder why he agreed to the project. Nonetheless, the viewer is awarded interesting insights into the mind and work of this master. At one point in the film, he is working on a piece, and then begins to pace nervously about, looking at it from different angles. It is hard to describe the look on his face: pensive, impatient, ponderous, all of these and more. He stops, and says “I don’t know what to do next.” His face is blank, having become a canvas of its own as the viewer projects his or her own moments of anxiety and failure onto this visage. He walks over to his bench and loads some blue on his spreader, but pauses saying, “It’s not working.” There is an interchange between Richter and the interviewer, during which Richter mentions the movement towards the blue was “overblown.” The interviewer asks him if it was because he was “at a loss.” Richter replies “There’s always that. That’s not the problem. It won’t work. I don’t think I can do this.” If I was his mother, I would weep watching this anguish. But I’m not his mother, I’m his fan.

Fans expect both excellence and confidence from their heroes. Richter bursts that bubble. I can’t imagine how a man who has been producing seven figure paintings for decades could ever be at loss. I imagine him being full of the confidence reflected in his paintings. But that is my vision, not his reality. Richter produces astounding works of art, but by his confession, they come from the place of being “at a loss.”

Well, his loss is my, is art’s, is the world’s gain. He injects arresting beauty into creation. It comes from a place that I too am familiar with, yet a place I try hard to hide. I scurry to bury loss deep; Richter spreads it across his canvas. I imagine certainty and clarity to be the mark of the master, but this master gropes in the dark, even while chronicling his artistic wager with creativity for all to see. In so doing, he reminds us that often the path forward is behind us; the illumined way begins in the dark; life makes its appearance in death; and faith treads the way of doubt.

Getting to the Art of the Matter

I went to hear the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony last night. Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” “Violin Concerto in D Minor,” and Missy Mazzoli’s “Violent, Violent Sea” were on tap. Before going in I had opportunity to pop in to the adjacent KW Art Gallery, which had among other things, a display involving the art of Soheila Esfahani and Brendan Tang. This was altogether fascinating. I first saw a lovely group of images (ink jet printings) that were all in blue: inviting depictions of children and parents swimming in warm blue water: a cerulean circle framed by soft white. As I turned the corner, there was a stack of wooden pallets. As I got closer, I could see they were decorated with gorgeous burned wood etching in a Middle Eastern style. Stacked together, and viewed from afar, they looked like an epic stele. When I went around to the back of the stack come stele, each pallet had an email address stenciled on it! A stellar stele.

Coming around the next corner, I saw something rather hard to describe; perhaps I could liken it to the conjugal results of Chinese vases meeting Toy Story characters. Perplexed, I paused, and then moved on to another group of paintings from the first series, and suddenly it struck me: the swimming pictures were actually paintings of fine blue china, in which the careful rimmed designs on plate’s edge slowly become water, and then ripples, and then waves, and finally swimmers. Brendan Tang worked a marvel with this image. He reminded me of something I too often forget: art is a mystery.

Art inscribes life with surprise: it changes the way we look at things. Seeing the china vases enabled me to see the china plates come swimming pools, and seeing the china plates made new enables me to see the world new, in a different fashion; to hear new, with different accents and new possibilities. I suspect I heard the “Pastorale,” and I most certainly heard Mazzoli’s gorgeous “Violent, Violent Sea” differently because of Tang.

Whatever your art, know that it matters: poets parse possibilities we otherwise do not know; novelists give us novel ways to wind our way through the world; singers stretch our sense of sound’s beauty; architects arrange new ways to live together; sculptors describe and query our relationship to solidity and certainty, inviting us to imagine new futures. Our art matters no matter what sort it is. It expresses our path of self-discovery, and enables and enobles our self-emergence – even if we don’t share it with others. Art matters because our art expresses the mystery we are, and so honors the Source of mystery, imagination, and adventure.