Practicing the Past

Tomorrow marks the end of reading week. Mine has been a fruitful time on many fronts. Last weekend we made our way up to Ottawa to spend some time with our middle daughter, and to enjoy a bit of Ottawa’s Winterlude. On Sunday morning we managed to hear Dr. Anthony Bailey preach, a Caribbean-Canadian with a stellar homiletic reputation, who did not disappoint. In the afternoon we managed to see an exhibit on Vikings at the Canadian Museum of History. I’m always up for learning a bit more about that bit of me down deep in my DNA. We then had dinner with a dear friend that evening and took opportunity the next day to skate on the world’s largest rink, the Rideau Canal.

After the trip home I was able to make use of some free time in this non-teaching week to get caught up on a few academic duties: putting some emails to rest, pulling together some proposals, getting some editing done, etc. Yesterday gave me occasion to attend the Conestoga College Annual Powwow, where I connected with some friends and again heard the earth’s heart beat.

All in all, it has been a good week and I feel recharged. Tomorrow we go back to the books in earnest for the back half of the semester. It will be a bit of a whirlwind with a number of special events, and some speaking responsibilities. I’m not quite there, but I am feeling close to ready. Reading week has been good.

As I think back on this break, it strikes me that one of the gifts it has given me is some space to stop and look back. In our harried existence, we too rarely do that. The present has its demands, and the future has its anxieties and the two together make for anxious demands and demanding anxieties. Sometimes a little historic distance is the tonic in need. Of course, the past is not always a balm. I suspect that most of us have moments that we would rather not remember, yet they sneak up on us unawares. A song triggers a heartbreak not quite mended. A smell reminds us of a loved one missed. A look in the mirror brings to mind years that have raced by. All of us overtaken by events and emotions, hurts and lost opportunities that catch us by surprise.

I sometimes wonder if part of the sting of the past comes from an incapacity that is, in part, self-inflicted. If we do not regularly revisit our past in its breadth, when it sneaks up on us with its deep pains we face them myopically. Our historic range becomes limited and when unsummoned memories emerge we can’t place them in a broader context. It is interesting that the Psalms – as but one example of biblical literature – revisit the past with astounding regularity: both times good and bad. The benefit of this, I think, might be in its developing our capacity to establish a context for landing recollections that come out of the blue. I don’t see this as a panacea for our pain, but I sometimes think the recollection of our past is rather like watching the nightly news. I sit in my chair and receive a distillation of the worst of humanity’s faults and vices in 22 minutes. Yes, there are horrors developing in the world, but I’m not seeing the big picture.

Well, soon my vision will focus again on the pressing needs of grading, lectures and meetings, and that is how it should be. But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of this week can seep into the weeks ahead.

Advertisements

People behind People

Just last night I joined my wife and her parents in Stratford, ON to see the play “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. We had occasion to bump into the playwright, whose parents are friends of ours. She spoke of the surreal experience of hearing words that she had written come to life by actors. I’ve had that experience to a lesser extent in hearing liturgical pieces I have written enlivened by others. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her, but I can tell you a little of what the play was like for me.

The play was really quite incredible; a riff on the life of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry the Eighth. In the production notes Ms. Hennig describes her interest in imagining the character of the too often suppressed voices of women. The play does a nice job of inviting its viewers to envisage history differently. The director nicely signals this in a couple of ways on a sparse but powerful stage. Hanging at centre stage from the ceiling is an upside down castle, and we see the back of a throne, letting us imagine life behind this seat of power, whose front is presented to the kingdom but not the audience, save at the end. These are effective signals which are further funded by images of bedroom exchanges between Hal and Parr, the everyday handles for the royal couple. We witness their day to day struggles as well as historic junctures. Ms. Hennig has done her historical homework but also advertises “viewer beware.” Poetic license is at the heart of art, which aims at something bigger than “just the facts.” So, we were invited into an alternate view of some hard historical data; we were invited to imagine history from the other side of the throne. What did this accomplish?

I was entranced. The use of colloquial language allowed me into the history in a different way; reminding me that bigger-than-life boats float in everyday waters. It invited me to think about events behind “The Event.” It reminded me that historians cannot catch it all, and there are a constellation of forgotten and little known factors that are as important as the known facts. But this decentering experience is also more broadly supported by the experience of being a patron of the theatre. The room darkens, lights ebb and flow, you see stage “hands,” people really who subtly manage the matter that sets the scene. Music comes and goes. It is hard to be “objective” in the sense intended by historians of the 19th century. Your feelings are at the fore as you consider the characters Kateryn and Henry. You begin to think about how you read all texts (the Bible, the paper, the news, emails etc) and the role of the many stage hands play in our everyday world. Someone translates texts; someone delivers the paper; someone secures a connection; someone references a source and writes an introduction. I am dependent on these many, and beholden to their choices.

Of course, Ms. Hennig made choices and we are glad for that. She chose to investigate the life of Katelyn, and she has been working on the lives of the two other Tudor Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. I look forward to her take on these characters and the experience of entering again the magic of the theatre. This is completely not my world, but it is a world that completes a part of me that is otherwise left undone. So, to her I offer my gratitude, as well as to all the thespians who venture the drama of it all.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This has been Luther Hostel week at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary – a week with credit and continuing education events, as well as special worship and recreation events.  Last night we had opportunity to see the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”  This movie is about groups of women, both Christian and Muslim, who worked for peace in war torn Liberia.

 

The story is stark, and difficult to hear: sons enslaved as soldiers, daughters raped by marauding gangs intoxicated with guns and the numbing power of drugs, mothers and fathers forced to see and hear the unspeakable, moments before their death.

 

I do not know so very much about this story.  The film served as a correction, even while alerting me to the fact that there is so much more to learn.  While a film such as this is disturbingly dark, it also came with moments of hope.  Seeing the women dance and sing – each turn, each stanza made into a prayer – was incredibly moving.  Hope shone through in strength of these women who refused to let the devil have the last word in their communities.  Together, in sit down strikes and stand out defiance, they turned faux peace talks into a test of accountability.

 

The film also chronicled the difficult task of facing former child soldiers, now young men, in this post-war situation.  We have the good fortune of having Esther and Lazarus, two church workers from Liberia, with us for a couple of months.  They were able to comment on the work being done in this area by the Lutheran Church in Liberia.  They reminded us that these former child soldiers have had their childhood robbed from them, even as they robbed life, and hope, and community from others.  In the film, some of the victims spoke of the difficult task of forgiving these.  Not all are able to do this.  I can certainly understand that.  But for those who are beginning to see their way into forgiveness, an important step was seeing them again as children rather than child soldiers.

 

I will never forget the strength of the women in this movie.  Their righteous anger echoed the beatitudes proclaimed by an itinerant preacher of a time long ago.  He talked of tables being turned, of the weak taking power, of the meek inheriting mantels, and the mighty being brought low.  Something of this was experienced in Liberia.  A new Reign fell upon this land.  Prayer and solidarity held hands as mercy and truth met in these strong women.  Much work remains to be done in Liberia, where our thoughts, prayers, and solidarity are coveted.  But hope is being enacted in the form of former child soldiers now learning talents and trades to contribute to a new Liberia, to a new kind of freedom.

Jogging Past

My Saturday afternoon routine generally involves a midday run followed by herring on heavy dark bread that I make myself. Akvavit and/or beer aid the digestive process. I look forward to Saturdays. This little routine sets this day apart from others and the lunch serves as a nice crown to the jog. This last Saturday was one of those odd days when it was the run rather than the lunch that stuck out.

We had some snow this last week, and so my run meant negotiating sidewalks that haven’t been cleared, people walking their dogs, and folk forging forward in the direction I run. In more clement weather, these latter are no problem. I simply slide from sidewalk to lawn, or perhaps the street and sneak by without their knowing. When the lawns are full of snow, it isn’t so easy and so I try to slip around them while staying on the beaten path. This is more difficult than one would imagine, because people gravitate to the center of the sidewalk when they don’t see anyone coming toward them. There isn’t, then, much room for passing. As I slither past them, I give often give them a fright. Sometimes I try to make noise before I arrive, but that too shocks them. I feel bad about this. But this last Saturday it got me thinking.

When we walk, we tend to anticipate meeting people in front of us. It is as if we imagine the future before us, and the past behind us; and it is really the future we need to look out for. But my running reminds me that sometimes it is the past that sneaks up on us. We often imagine that the past is spent, but as Faulkner notes: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun) This invites us to walk differently. Treading softly we hear the ever present past; seeing peripherally we discern history’s advance; being aware we develop that sixth sense – the ways of the wise in our midst who have learned to anticipate the unexpected, to dance with a ghost.

But perhaps I have made too much of a jog. After all, all of this is but a trope. Yet tropes too have truck with truth. At the very least, it gave me something to chew on after lunch, which I washed down with a nice cup of black coffee, warming and fortifying me for an afternoon with books theological.