Swerves of Gratitude and Grace

My usual Saturday run yesterday involved an unexpected detour. I generally run along the Iron Horse Trail, aptly named because it follows the route of a former train track. At the point at which the trail crosses a local creek, a barrier was up. A former rail bridge is now removed, and a new bridge is not yet in place. So, a detour was in the offing.

Fortunately, there is a “Y” in the road at that point, and by following to the right I was able to enter Victoria Park, complete with a larger than life statue of its namesake. The park is replete with paths, some encircling a little lake that the local swans call home for the summer.

Yesterday, however, I didn’t see many swans but I did see a park full of people walking about with their faces in their devices. This, of course, is normal at the university where I work, but the number of people doing this on Saturday was astronomically high. Since this is Thanksgiving Weekend in Canada, and we are right in the middle of Oktoberfest in Kitchener-Waterloo, I surmise that what I saw was some sort of virtual scavenger hunt.

Running in the midst of this was a bit tenuous. I generally find that people walk without much thought to what, or who, is behind them. I suppose I do the same myself. But when you’re running – especially on a narrow path – a walker’s casual swerve to one side or the other can be a bit of a disaster to a runner trying to negotiate a safe path for a pass. This problem was simply racheted up by the fact that these walkers were deeply invested in their devices. I avoided crashes by giving them wide berth, which is reasonably easy in a park.

As I made my way out of the park I thought a bit about our walking patterns in particular and thought about how travel becomes a metaphor for our journey from cradle to gravel. John Malloy, one of our professors spoke a bit to that theme in chapel this last Wednesday. As we travel, he invited us to make gratitude a pattern for our journey from cradle to grave, noting its especially important place for Canadians in the midst of a national election. He noted that gratitude is a firm tonic against cynicism. It is no accident that one of the foci of Christian worship is the Eucharist, coming from the Greek word for “thanks,” which itself contains the Greek word for grace in its root. Cynicism is countered by gratitude, which is grounded in grace.

I was very grateful for my run today; to be able to enjoy the fresh air, the beautiful colouring of trees, the joy of movement and the surprise of detours. When the journey is the destination, however, it seems a bit odd to speak of detours. Perhaps my journey in the park wasn’t so much a detour as small, and so remarkable kind of adventure reminding me that a certain capacity to be fleet of foot is beneficial when you set out on a journey.

I wish such a journey for each of you, no matter your mode of transportation and regardless of your destination. Let yourself be carried away by gratitude, and I can assure you that you will travel far, wide, and deeply.

Contentment on a Fall Day

Saturday was leaf day at our house. It wasn’t really planned that way, although we did know that it was soon time to wrestle the trees’ labours to the curb, where the city will collect them in early November. We are fortunate in our neighbourhood to have this service, which occurs because we have an inordinate number of older trees that tower over our streets and homes. This time of year is so very gorgeous; as the leaves come down we find ourselves swimming in a sea of orange, and red, and yellow and a coral-like pink too.

My eldest and her boyfriend popped by Friday night, and in the morning Anelise exclaimed that she wanted to rake some leaves. I was quite glad for this intervention, and so the plan was that after brunch – we all had a handful of jobs to do – we would return to turn the yard from its fire-hued palette to green again. I went for a run, an especially lovely thing to do in autumn, and came back to find everyone hard at work. I gladly joined in, as we visited, and joked, and amassed the leaves at the curb, where they will be collected sometime in early November.

I do so much work that generates such little concrete results that I find a rich pleasure in things like raking leaves. A deep satisfaction attends my settling them curbside. I’m not sure if it is the rush of colour on the blue-black pavement, slick with rain from earlier in the day, or the return of the lawn to a contented fall green, but there is a kind of aesthetic pleasure in the process. Or perhaps it is the rhythm of moving a rake. I think at some deep level, it is because we were created to be moving and so many jobs these days are at desks, and the closest thing to activity that we manage is moving a mouse, or making our way to the coffee pot, and such.

Certainly, part of the attraction of this is the way it ritualizes our immersion in the cycles of the season. It seems many of us have lost our sense of identity with the earth. We live in a market driven world with an unrelenting concern with progress that drenches our days and drowns our souls. We are forever wondering about how our portfolios grow, how our careers advance, and how our communities compare with others. We feel like failure without progress. Nature doesn’t progress. It adapts. And deep down, I think, we know that we need to have this truth drench our very being, and bless us with contentment.

And so, we grinned today as we rallied our rakes in recollection of the cycle of life. Blood pushed around our body, and air cycled in and out of our lungs until we worked up an appetite for lunch. As we gathered around the board, and reminisced about this and that, it struck me that what goes around comes around: the “round” matters as much as most everything else.

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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.

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.