5 O’clock Dark

Heading home, Friday last,
I passed the Salvation Army and
the street lamps did me the honour
of multiplying my shadow leaving me
variously iterated in black:
here short and squat, like a puddle at feet
there long, lean and sliding across the street
but ahead just right, properly proportioned
and cutting a sweet angle a little left of centre,
slightly smug until an ambulance navigating the traffic
rendered me red on Sally Ann’s wall –
each shadow dancing a life under
the aegis of an emergency’s brief
incursion – after which I stepped
off the curb and slipped across
the street into a stretch
of easy dark.

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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.

Black and White, and Colour too

Last Friday evening my wife and I attended the annual Gala celebrating Waterloo Lutheran Seminary’s graduates. The class this year was nearly 30 in number; young and not so young women and men who will make their mark in the world as counselors, chaplains, educators and pastors. It is always a proud and bitter sweet moment for us. Our students are the diamonds in the rough of the academy; they make our jobs worth the while even while they sometimes complicate our carefully crafted theologies and challenge our scholarly sense of self importance with the demands of teaching people rather than topics. We take this time to bid them well and adieu. Alongside this celebration, we also fêted Robert A. Kelly, our church historian who is retiring after 28 years at our school. Bob has been something of a institution in our institution. Students all have favourite Dr. Bob memories: his witticisms, his passion for the Gospel, his endless patience for students, and his utter lack of patience for entitlement and self-importance. Bob has been a compass in our community and we will miss him terribly.

Many colleagues and students stood up to recall fond, funny and formative memories of their interactions with Bob. As I listened to them, it struck me that this moment was one of those rare times in a life when you see something of the whole of someone. Random recollections from a broad selection of interactions gave me a richer picture of Bob. As I sit, now, and think about this it was rather as if I had been looking at a black and white picture that, for a moment, became multihued: or perhaps the reverse was the case, since both black and white and colour, too, have a peculiar beauty related to their different utilities. In my mind, black and white brings certain things into relief even while seeming to instill in us a sense of the ambiguous, mystical quality of life. Colour, by contrast, seems to celebrate not only diversity but also the utter incongruity of existence: how can it be that we are, rather than are not? Of course, both black and white and colour are good, true, and beautiful. We need to celebrate both the mystery of a person as well as their flesh and blood concreteness. We need to see both; to embrace both.

Friday was an important day for many reasons. It reminded us that we are a people composed of those who gather together. Next fall, when Bob is a visitor to our school, we will be a different folk. Our face changes as faces change; and this is both celebrated and mourned. This is both black and white and colour; both mystery and facticity – all nourished by memory. On Friday we remembered Bob and the students who leave with him this year; they are not gone, but they are differently present. Friday gave us opportunity to see who we were even while we anticipate who we will be. It was a moment to delve deeper into our identity; to remember that identity is slippery business, but a blessed business because we are remembered by God as well as we are remembered by one another. God knows us inside out because God sees us in black and white, and colour too.