Of Leaves and Letters

Aside from some time spent at Open House at Wilfrid Laurier University, yesterday was spent marking papers and raking leaves. The word leaf, of course, can reference both that thing that falls from the tree and a sheet of paper once a part of essays. These days, as you may well imagine, marking students’ work doesn’t involve much by the way of leafing through paper, but is done on computer – at least that’s how I do it. This method has much to commend it: fewer trees fall, the essays run through turnitin and so I know if there are academic integrity issues from the get go, and finally students don’t have to try to read my horrendous penmanship. I am able to type comments on the essay in comment boxes, and the system nicely allows me to preload comments such as “Please use ‘quotation’ here since ‘quote’ is a verb.”

Most professors do not count marking as their favourite task. I’d agree with that but neither is it the worst. Marking is one of those things that runs a gamut of experiences. It can be frustrating and tedious; it can be really quite exciting; it can be heart-breaking and sometimes moving to the point of bringing me to tears. As you may guess, I am not marking math – although calculus instructors may arrive at tears from time to time as well! I teach theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at WLU, and so sometimes mark reflection papers in which students integrate their life experience with theological themes. I count it an honour to see something of students’ faith lives from time to time. I find it quite humbling to have them relate their doubts, and express their joys, and narrate their varied and rich experiences with God. Of course, giving these kind of papers a grade is rather odd, but that is my job and so I do it as best as I am able.

I read some stellar papers today, and had some very moving experiences with some of them. But even so, it can be hard work and upon hearing that we were having leaf pickup on Monday I decided it was wise to take a break around noon and rake some leaves from the front yard – awash in colours – to the curb. The silver maple in our front yard is a world onto itself in size and more, and every year we harvest some of its joys and sorrows. I lay down a tarp and rake these tales onto the tarp and drag it to curb where I dump the leaves for the city. I then repeat this many times over. As I do so I think. And this thinking usually takes me deeper into me. I recall the past summer season; I recall past falls; today I thought about my parents. They have been gone some years now, but sometimes I think I feel them to be closer with each passing year. Perhaps that is because with every year I am one step nearer them.

I’m not certain why I thought of them today. We didn’t rake many leaves on the farm – or at least I didn’t. Maybe it was that movement from labouring in the soul to labouring near soil that opened up something. Maybe it was the fecund smell of dirt under the colourful quilt on the ground that took me to the farm. Maybe it was our proximity to All Saints Day. Maybe it was the realization that our days are not only as grass – as per the psalmist – but also as leaves. Not only do we fall not far from the tree, but we write, or paint, or sketch the life we are on the leaf we are. These are days with many such memory aids. These are the days when winter calls to fall, and I bow to both.

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I’m Turning a Phrase

My pen tends
this word and that as
seed in need of
field – aching for a
place to land and
fertilizer to lavish it
with a just-so adverb or
participle or preposition, as the
case may be.

I’m turn a phrase like
soil in spring; I’m upending a potato
hill in autumn, pregnant with pause, as
my hoe, my pen leads my hand
away from knowing and into
Dirt: life’s cradle, death’s bed.

Winter’s Reach

Not far from here,
sequestered in
forgotten cracks of
hidden boards below
decks scattered across
this city, winter
awaits. At just the
right moment
reaching out with
a tentacle of frost –
slipping across graying
once green grass – it will
Midas in silver and we will
awaken in a diamond.
And then, with purity, it will pounce
and pronounce us its subjects –
for a time,
for a time.

Here and Aloft

Another summer has come
undone; with undue
hurry, harried clouds
rush autumn along.

I sit unsettled
by this season’s evaporation:
time’s rising like water
now made mist, the
ungraspable ever
more evasive yet
grasping me.

Even so, squirreled away nuts and seeds
remind me of my pantry and that I too
am both root and fog, both
here and aloft.

Earth’s Unwinding

Friends, a poem from a year ago that seems fitting today.

This is the season of earth’s unwinding – finding
soil’s Sabbath.
You can hear terra firma
exhale
expire
exhausted, she
sleeps and with sleep
comes a dreaming –finally
ease frees earth’s form to reframe:
subliminal luminosity obtains.
The sun lays low and so
bestows on the earth – that I am –
a softer glow
a kind of light that sees shade
not as harbinger of dark dangerous design
but as foreshadows of my resolve:
I will stop. I will pray. I will stay distraction.
I will dare that dying
that is life, that is wealth, that is
repose, reward, renewal.
I will be late Autumn.
I will be November.

To and Fro

Yesterday afternoon my wife and I went out for our last sail of the year. It was a glorious day: the sun sang splendidly against a cerulean blue sky. Lake Ontario shimmered even though it was a little darker than its summer hue, portending winter’s approach. Soon it will be too cold to sail and so our sailing season winds down. While it is always a little sad to take down the mast in preparation for hauling out the boat, it seems a fitting task in October.

The winds yesterday were solidly out of the east and after bringing down the sail in order to motor to the marina, I set for south and the boat was just off perpendicular to the waves’ roll. A familiar feeling accompanied this: a strange kind of rocking in which it felt as if my body sloshed port and starboard at the same time. You don’t really get quite the same feeling under sail, yet it felt oddly familiar. Clearly I have had this feeling before while boating, yet the familiarity was not of that sort; not an “I remember this from last month” kind of familiarity. No, the familiarity was rather primordial. Not exactly an embryonic memory, yet more that than not.

It strikes me that this is really rather what life is sometimes like: a sloshing back and forth, a kind of moving in two directions at once. Pulled by this, pushed by that and sometimes that duality is calming and comforting – as it was for me yesterday – but sometimes it leaves me a little at loss; “at sea” as it were, and uncertain what to do, where to be, how to act because being pushed this way and that simultaneously is more than I can handle.

Strange this: sometimes a rocking motion is comforting and at other times it is uncomfortable or perhaps uncanny; a kind of eerie experience of my being tossed about in the world. Often it is marked by a loss of control that rattles my sense of well being. Yet, oddly enough, at other times being out of control gives me a paradoxical taste of freedom: since I am not ultimately in control I feel free to do what seems, what feels, what presents itself as right. Why does this sloshing, this tossing to and fro sometimes set me free, and other times unnerve me?

Likely the answer to this last question is too near to me to be seen objectively. Yet I know that when I content myself in my creature-hood I oddly find myself transcending myself, and when I want to play God, I realize I am not, and am reminded that I am dust – sometimes dust in the wind – blown about by circumstances beyond my control if not my knowledge.

The very taking down of our mast in a small way replicates this: I have no choice but to say farewell to a season, yet find the come and go of each season is a genteel reminder that ebb and flow is the way of life and death, and death and life. Each comes in its turn and with the passing over of one to the other I am reminded that it is enough to be in the hand of the One who rocks the cradle, who stays the storm, who paves this and problematizes that path.