The Bridge Called September

There is a view from
the bridge called September
by which one can see
a road, calling
wayfarers to
turn onto it and so into
themselves:
curious,
brave and
trembling on holy ground.

Many have stepped
onto this path –
some singing,
some swearing,
most sweating –
but all who enter there
never see the world
the same again.

Some of us are given
the grace to walk for a time with
those on this journey. Do
not think I take it
for granted.

With each step of each pilgrim

my heart races and

my soul soars and

my mind burns at a hint of a future.

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Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.

Site of Silence

With a solid footing of snow, I decided yesterday was an fitting occasion to head over to Bechtel Park for a Nordic ski. I am more inclined to go to a local golf course, largely because it is so very close. But time was a bit more spacious on January 1, and so I jumped in the car and headed about 8 km north on the express way so that I could ski the set trails at Bechtel.

It was actually a bit icier than I was anticipating, and so after a few swings around a couple of trails I crossed a little bridge over a small creek and inched my way on a path neither groomed nor friendly to cross country skis. I eventually always do this when at Bechtel. I usually take along a small thermos of hot chocolate and get far enough away along the creek’s side to know that I won’t likely be meeting dog walkers or other skiers. Yesterday, I took a few photos with my phone before finding a fallen tree to function as my chaise. It wasn’t long before I noted a pair of cardinals across the stream in one tree, and a pair of nuthatches in another. I was transfixed by them. I’m not a birder and really know next to nothing about our feathered friends, but every now and then I find myself drawn to them. After a time, I made my way along the path back to the parking lot, realizing that I had not taken any photos of the birds, but happy enough all the same.

Later in the day, I listened to a podcast on “On Being.” Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton about his work to reclaim silence in our world. Noise pollution is his concern, and he makes the rather audacious claim that silence is about to become extinct. Silence, please note, is not for Hempton an absence of sound but a dearth of artificial sounds. He spoke at length, and eloquently, about learning to listen, and the curious fact that humans are not hard-wired to hear humans as much as certain other animals. Our auditory interest in humans is a later overlay. He spoke in particular of our ability to catch the song of birds, since their call often indicated a locale of some importance for the primordial homo sapiens. It seems there is a deep seated reason for my attraction to bird song.

Hempton spoke eloquently of our need for listening. He claimed that ours is a world pre-occupied with sight. Learning to shift our focus from eyes to ears, and then to hear what comes naturally is no small task. Luther, the famed Reformer whose 500th anniversary of the posting of 95 theses (which is said to have kicked off the Reformation) is being commemorated in 2017, spoke of the church as a Mundhaus, or place of hearing. He made mention some 500 years before Hempton of the curious fact that ears do not have lids like eyes. Hempton made the case that this makes sense from the side of evolution because hearing is how we best discern who or what is in the environs. Luther made the case that this makes theological sense because hearing is passive in a way that is not quite true for seeing and so an especially apt receptor of words of grace.

Yesterday I was delighted to both see and hear the cardinals and nuthatches, and I was also very happy to look up at the clear blue sky and see snow laden trees branches form a frame for that heavenly blue as if they were playing the part of stained glass. Hempton calls the great outdoors his cathedral, a point I can appreciate even while I am quite content to let cathedrals be cathedrals and nature be nature. Both have things to teach us. Both provide both moments of rapture and occasions of deep awe – in their own way. But I am happy to hear – and see – in both evidences of hope and healing. Both can be for me sites of silence.

Being at Home, Being Away

I am just now home. I went to Alberta, my home province, last Wednesday for a church convention and then I took advantage of the travel to visit some family members these last few days. It is always an interesting experience to travel “home.” While I was at the convention I spoke with a couple of people – one who was originally from France and the other from the Philippines – who spoke of the odd feeling of having resided in two different countries and feeling as if you really belonged in neither. I’m not quite sure that this describes the experience of living some 4000 kms away from your home town yet in the same country, but it might approximate it.

In some ways going back to Alberta is and always will be a homecoming. This is the province of my birth, youth, marriage, and the birth of my children. Moreover, people I love are buried here and so there is land there that is, in a fashion, holy to me. Yet it is no longer my province. Much has changed since I left some 14 years ago. Ontario is home, and yet my roots here are only 18 years deep. I am a sapling in this province, and so find existence here a bit more tenuous – not in the sense that I worry about my health, a roof over my head, or having food in my cupboard but in the sense that calling this place home seems more like a wager, more a gesture than a hard fact.

In a way, I feel spread across the country. I am sure many have felt this way and can better explain it than me. But it seems that this stretch is of a piece of my identity. I am quite certain that it is utterly unlike the experience of immigrants in many ways, but oddly enough, it also reminds me of my immigrant origins – having a mother born in Europe and paternal grandparents from Europe as well. My people are from away and I am from away even while I stay in the country: dislocation is where I dwell. I think this a good thing. A sage from an earlier time tells me and those with ears to hear that the faithful are ever foreigners and aliens. Being a guest is my vocation. I am “rooted” in the hospitality of others, an experience revisited time and time again at the convention.

The theme of our convention was “Liberated by Grace.” As we pondered this theme, many speakers reminded us that liberation is found in our experience of being freed to serve; in our experience of reciprocating the gift of hospitality with generosity. We pondered how this grace catches us unaware in the embrace of a circle, in the beat of a drum and in the song of the land. We remembered that returning the gifts encountered on this land with generosity is simply “grace upon grace.” Giving itself is a gift and so, we are blessed in discovering ourselves at home in serving others.

In India, You Slip

In another town, another

place, I saw You

unexpectedly; for a time

with a toothless grin, and then

with elegance wrapping You round, You

sat with such poise and then gone – again.

And then Your trace graced my glance

racing to catch You on mother’s

lap in rickshaw.

But no.  No one is fast enough to

snag You, let alone bag You.

In market’s noise, in traffic’s throes, in

India, You slip between like the child

You are, running your father’s errand – You

skirt past me, again and I, I

am caught.

Awkwardly, Grace

There he is: words made flesh.

Vulnerable, his smile a

little uncertain, naïve, nervous and

yet not without purpose.  A man

with a question.

His curiosity piques mine as

his perseverance presses me past

points aware.  His lumbering

echoes are a kind of grace too, nearly not

known yet shown in an

awkwardness that takes me in.