Citing in the Trenches

In my academic work, pretty much all writing is actually a conversation. What has this person said about this issue? What has that person said about that? Academic writing is not to be an exercise in mere opining. It is an entry into great conversations. And when that works well, well, it can be rather exciting.

I recently wrote a paper that was exactly that: a delight to write. I had completed a good bit of reading and research in preparation for it, and the paper nearly wrote itself. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel as if the heavens have opened and I have been given a gift: the ideas came flowing in, and I couldn’t write fast enough. When that happens, I have the important task of noting which ideas I am building on, and which ideas I am refuting, and which ideas are my own. The first two bits are really quite easy; it’s the last that is somewhat vexing. When I’ve read reams of material, I want to make sure I give all the authors I’ve read their due: I want to make sure that it doesn’t appear as if my seemingly novel idea is novel when, in fact, it builds on the thought of another. Sometimes in the flurry of writing, I’ll make a note: “citation needed.”

When editing time comes, this note-to-self is most trying: “citation needed.” It demands that I get back inside my head: was I referencing something I remembered someone saying; was I uncertain about the idea and wanted some support from another thinker; did I simply need to think more about the matter under investigation? When I’m editing, and hit this, I feel like I am doing nothing but grunt work.

But here’s the thing. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer working for a construction firm, and did nothing but grunt work. I tamped dirt in preparation for cement; I hauled about forms that shaped a place for the cement to land; I pushed wheelbarrows full of cement. This work was not intellectually challenging, but it was incredibly important. Without a solid foundation, a house is soon uninhabitable.

Without solid ground-work nothing holds together. The same is true with writing. The preparatory work makes the writing a pleasure, and the need to acknowledge those who have fed you is an ethical obligation. Yesterday I spent a number of hours chasing down a handful of references. It isn’t as heady as experiencing an idea arrive in my lap, but it is just as important: ideas don’t arrive without further ado. They are the gift of my conversation with scholars who have proceeded me. I honour them by making sure I give them credit that is due.

A day spent tracking down quotations and making sure that commas and footnotes are in place isn’t my favourite way to spend a day. But I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that when I take care to credit sources informing my ideas, I am doing a good thing; the right thing, really. I expect it of my students, and when I expect it of myself, I remind myself that I too, am a student. There is certain giftedness in this realization that I will always be sitting at the feet of masters who have generously made space for me to say my piece in this conversation that is life.

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.

Takk for Alt

Christmas is upon us, a time of great joy for some and of some darkness for others. While this person celebrates, that person mourns. Most of us, I suspect experience a bit of both, thinking on those whose presences have graced our tables in times past but do so no more. I find myself thinking of my parents at Christmas. They are now gone but still present in important ways. Strangely, this last little while I have found myself thinking about my father’s mother, my Norwegian farmor. I never knew her, her having died some years before my birth. But I have heard bits and pieces about her, too few.

She was raised in Norway and came to the USA for a marriage that produced one son. Her first husband died in an accident, I was told, and she came to Canada to take up a business opportunity at Milk River in Alberta, where she met my grandfather – my farfar – who was homesteading a piece of land. They went through hard times, raising a family of 8 through the depression of the mid-20th century, losing a child and scratching out a living with little luxury. She died in her early 70s, I’ve heard. When I was visiting a cousin in Newfoundland, I ate at her table and was glad for that experience. That cousin has memories of farmor. I have none.

And so, I wonder why she is on my mind these days. How can someone I never knew take up residence in the “kingdom of memory,” a phrase used by Elie Wiesel? How is it that farmor commands my attention? I really have no answer for this question but am glad for her presence in absence.

Christians speak sometimes of the experience of presence in absence, feeling God acutely in those moments when we feel most godforsaken. Many of us see that evidenced in the life of Jesus, especially on the cross, where he quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Scholars remind us that sometimes the first verse of a psalm was a kind of aide de memoire, invoking the whole of the psalm. In the case of Psalm 22, then, we are reminded that the same person who laments at the beginning of the psalm also said in verse 24: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide the divine face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

There is something right-headed about the fact that the psalmist both laments and praises God’s absence and presence in the same psalm, I think. From one psalm comes both praise and lament. In like fashion, from one heart comes both lament and praise, both doubt and faith. And from all of us comes an ache for a wholeness that is all-inclusive. Maybe that is why I’ve been thinking on farmor these days. Deep in my bones is the desire to be whole, and whole includes holding the hands of all who have suffered for my well-being, for my little successes, and for my great joys. My blood pulses with a desire to say thank-you, and this desire has taken shape in a thought, a thinking on a woman I never knew but whom I know to be a part of me. And so, on this Christmas time, I say to farmor “Takk, farmor, takk for alt.” And to all of my readers, I say thanks for journeying with me in 2018. You will hear from me again in the month of Janus, the wolf who stands at the door of the New Year.

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Marking Market Day

I made my way yesterday morning to our local farmer market. The goal was to buy some tomatoes for canning. I had a bushel in my sights. Along the way I gathered some goose paté, a half-bushel of apples, Emmental cheese and a piece of Gjetøst. This latter is an especially marvellous find, being a Norwegian cheese not in our supermarkets. I bumped into some friends and we chatted for a time. They told me that they are there every week because the market is where they source their bread. I don’t have that excuse since I make our bread, using a recipe given me by my father-in-law. All the same, visiting the market could be an easily acquired habit; with violins and such humming around a variety of vendors. There is something intoxicatingly humane about a market. Things are scaled differently. Everything is weighed and priced in parcel sized pieces. There are no gross quantities of anything and if I am too slow to take it up, the last New York Times escapes my grasp. For some strange reason I find this comforting. I look people in the eye and they smile back.

I was also on the hunt for Weisswurst, a heavenly German sausage. As I walked around a corner in the indoor part of this market, I saw two young traditional Mennonite children playing at the window on my left, looking out on the world their tradition so carefully navigates. My eyes went right, where Mom and Dad were engaging customers and attending to their nicely stacked counter of organic vegetables, all the while keeping an eye on both Sohn und Tochter. I felt a smile escape me. I turned another corner and a student from school happened past me, and we shared a quick hi on the fly.

Eventually I made my way to the corner where tomatoes were on offer. I landed a bushel and felt both of my shoulders burn with happy burdens. I happened upon a young woman playing the cello with a generous smile on her face. Her cheerfulness was entirely gratuitous, since my hands that would have otherwise gladly applauded her efforts with cash were clearly and utterly occupied. It struck me that she might well be smiling because she enjoyed what she was doing. About half way to the car I passed a young man heralding the the gospel with brochures en français, a seemingly incongruous fact given that an eastern European, or perhaps a tongue from the African continent is more likely to be encountered. But then I remembered that those speaking this latter might also converse in our other official language in their native lands. I happily meandered to my chariot.

Every once in a while, for a blink of the eye or the inhalation of a breath, all seems well with the world. Yesterday morning I had one such moment. I have learned to embrace such instances even while knowing that razored security walls are being erected around the world, and people are finding the mouths of sharks preferable to places they used to call home, and immigrants are being demonized in our midst. It is good to remember that this walk in a market of plenty was what my paternal Grandparents and my maternal Opa and Oma hoped for their Kindern and our generation and so on. It is good, every once in a while, to stop and breathe in the gift, knowing that others paid hard prices for our smiles. And so we smile even while sighing a prayer for still burdened souls.

Grounded in Gratitude

How do you thank a class,
soil for my soul?
Fecund with curiosity
they press me into life and
push me into passion.

How do you teach those
who teach me what I know
and so render me prostrate
before the One who alone knows me,
who sows me into the classroom?

How do you learn, save by rising
like a green blade,
striving for sun and
soaking in spring rain.

Snowing Down

Yesterday my wife announced “ Tomorrow we’re going to buy a snow blower.”

Small things can be bigger than they first appear, and something the size of a snow blower portends even more significant changes than one might imagine. This is clear from the rationale attending this pronouncement: “We aren’t getting any younger.” Of course, this has been true for quite a few years; and so this particular proclamation yesterday meant something more than it has before.

All week long I’ve been whining about a sore shoulder. We have had a few weeks of trying weather. For those familiar with south-western Ontario, this will not come as news. The snow we’ve received over the last few weeks has been unusually dense. Not much air, if any, is found between the needles of the ‘flakes’ in my yard. Shoveling has become a bit more onerous.

I should mention that this isn’t the first time the idea of a snow blower has been broached. Two years ago we had a winter with astounding amounts of snow, and I suggested we might buy a snow blower for my fiftieth birthday, which came and went during a green winter. This year has been a bit different – although most certainly not our worst. Still, my wife sees me shoveling and, I suspect, is mindful of my family’s heart history. A snow blower is as much a preventative caution as a prescriptive cure for the odd ache.

I appreciate my wife’s concern for my health, and suspect that a snow blower might not be a bad idea at all. This, not only because it will hopefully relieve my shoulder of its pain and my wife of my complaints, but also because it will serve as a regular reminder that this journey from cradle to grave has important markers that invite me , invite you to stop and take stock of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. This is never a bad thing.

So, today in church, I will take a moment to give thanks for the many years that have been a rich gift to me. I will take a moment to savor being beside someone whose life intersected mine at just the right time. I will take a moment to ponder how I can live fruitfully into future moments fully alive in each day given me. I hope your day gives you occasion to do what you need to do to pause, to ponder and to anticipate the gifts of life and the gift of new life.