Of Stones and Such

This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.

As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.

I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.

I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.

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Aching to be Earth

Falls ebbs away in
this turning season. The
leaves no longer sing, now
aching to be
earth.

This gathering at
forest floor of raw
dying is primal, the
smell is sui generis, an
olfactory echo of the
odor of earth and birth
both, replete with
whiffs of bird’s
song and
the aroma
of being green: shot
through with chlorophyll, racing to leaf’s skin

And now this once verdant
blush lies at the feet of this
sylvan source
of life
of death
and everything
in between.

To everything there is a season…

This sentence is a scar…

Imagine, if you
will, this pen
a knife, this page
skin: sheet bleeding
ink into quill.

The scratch, scratch,
scratch you hear
is the sound
of paper being
lacerated and
from this
vellum comes
blood blue.

This sentence is a scar…

There is no writing
without pain, no
words without death.
“The Word was made flesh”
is both promise and warning:
“Write at your own risk.”

The Flying Saint

Last Thursday was spent on the docks. The beginning of October marks the time of year when sailboats in our climes move to the “hard.” We are relatively new to our Marina, and so I had my first experience of seeing about 50 boats move from floating to flying to resting in their “cradle.” The boat club brings in a crane and all day long boats are advanced along the pier, then hugged with straps before being lifted across the sky and nestled into a metal stand designed to handle the large keel that keeps sailboats afloat and stable while the wind propels them forward.

A friend asked me the other day if I feel a little sad on a day such as this. I do feel a little sad, knowing that another season of sailing has come and gone. Yet the day also comes with both nervousness and the relief that comes with seeing Santa Maria safely ensconced in her resting place for another winter.

All of us have these odd moments where we simultaneously experience a mix of emotions. It can make making sense of our experiences complicated. Of course, complication can be a good thing when we are looking at life a little too simplistically! It is easy, too easy to paint life in black and white, whereas our emotions remind us that the circumstances that have led to them tend to be outside of our control. Life is sometimes grey, often a kaleidoscope of colours, but rarely black and white! Emotions, then, are often complicated and uncertain. Add to that the fact that our emotions are usually shaped by memories that are molded by the singularity of our experience, and it is soon clear that we need to accept the complexity and intensity of these feelings. It is not unusual to be happy and sad over the same things; to be afraid and excited together; to feel love and repulsion at the same time. Emotions are complicated and complicating, but a gift of God all the same.

There are so many places in life where we live with these mixed emotions, and as I look back on some of the bigger ones in my life – such as major life changes etc. – I realize that this is a complexity that accompanies us to and into death, experienced paradoxically as both a poison and a balm. We hold our breath in the face of death, just as I did as I saw my boat lifted up out of the water and drifting some 40 feet above the ground across the parking lot before landing safely into the boat storage unit at which point I let my breath out again, and said a prayer of thanks.

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These Arms

My arms grow longer the
older I get. My
hands droop closer to
the dirt that will
one day vest
me.

So, too, these longing
arms reach higher
to the sky,
grasping
after the sun:
the heart at the hearth
of humanity.

When these arms are long enough
they will wrap me round thrice:
for the self I was

now coming to be

and then at rest, disarmingly.

Working Edges

This last Saturday night my wife and I went to The Mayors’ Dinner in Kitchener, a fundraising event for the Working Centre, a not-for profit organization in our community that addresses issues of poverty and unemployment. This happens every year, and a person or group of people, is given special recognition. This year the recipients were Arleen Macpherson, Gretchen Jones, and Jennifer Mains, all who work or have worked with St. John’s Kitchen. My wife and I have gone to a few of these fundraising events, but I was especially interested because I have had students that have done volunteer placements at St. John’s Kitchen. A few years back one of the Community Service Learning coordinators and I visited the site, and chatted with Gretchen, who keeps thing moving on a daily basis.

I still remember the visit well. We biked there from the University, Rebekah leading the way as we wound our way through a kind of back street route from point University to point Kitchen, in Kitchener. We locked up our bikes and said hi to a few clients on our way up the brightly painted stairwell, and into the well lit, vibrant, second floor of 97 Victoria St. N that houses the kitchen, the dining hall, and offices for some health care there. We sat and visited with Gretchen, who told us a bit about the program, and then expressed thanks for the volunteer work done by students. Of course, I already knew from student feedback that they received more than they gave at this volunteer site. For many students, their experience at St. John’s was a life changer, in important ways.

Many of them had never had experience working with marginalized people, and so this experience reconfigured the world they knew. They came to see that there are not simple solutions to problems like homelessness. They came to see that people in need do not need charity, but deserve dignity. They came to see that where their world ends is where other people’s worlds begin. This experience took them to the edges of their lives, where they started to work at important questions: who am I? what is my place in the world? where is God in this?

At the dinner on Saturday, Gretchen and others from the Kitchen spoke, and told some very moving stories: accounts of varied experiences that were miraculous in many ways. We also were introduced, via video, to some of the volunteers and guests of the kitchen, who opened to us the Reign of God, for those with ears to hear. We began to see the face of the Kitchen, painted with stories of broken people reaching out to care for broken people and so creating community. At the end of the evening, I rejoiced at having been given another snapshot of what it looks like to live in community, where truth makes things messy and hope makes people patient.

We have to be patient to work at the edges, where we discover ourselves anew in the experiences of growth, being stretched and strained in ways that remind us that the human condition is change: from cradle to coffin we are moving from life to death and from death to life. These two feed on each other, and so there is no food that does not entail death in giving life. Food is the marriage of life and death, and St. John’s Kitchen is one place that preaches the sermon that we are what we eat: the community of life and death that works at the edges, that works on its edges.