After Six

Friends, I wrote this poem after a conference at The Six Nations of the Grand River Nation this summer. Here is a recently edited version.

They awe me, these suffering
ones, enduring

our colonial slips,

our empire eyes.

Oogling their land, and
straightening their circles, like

gluttons we grab and ignore and then

we fetishize and tokenize them

for our justification

for our failure

just to be.

They have much to teach us – when

our fists finally loosen

our eyes softly open

our hearts beat still –

when our voices find silence.

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A Blessing for Pilgrims for Indigenous Rights

Friends, I was asked to provide a blessing for some pilgrims walking from Kitchener to Ottawa in support of Bill C 262, which requests the implementation in Canada of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for truth and reconciliation, as per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report. This pilgrimage has been organized by the Mennonite Church Canada. My blessing followed upon a traditional sending by Myeengun Henry, an Ojibway elder in our city. The text for it follows:

God bless you in this journey of justice and peace.

May your feet feel each treaty
Holding you as you cross its reach,
Sustaining you as you walk in a good way.

May your ears be ready to hear
The stories sown in the territory you
Traverse step by step.

May your hearts beat in time with
Our Mother, the Earth
Who watches over you
In love, in delight.

May your minds be as one
In the community you are
On the way to truth and reconciliation.

And may you know

That your knowing is first being known.

And your loving is first being loved.

And your passion for justice and peace

Is first and finally God’s Reign in your midst.

God be above you, below you , behind you, beside you, before you and within you – as Holy Flame; as Sacred Word.

Music Communal and Mystic

Yesterday was an unusually rich day. After spending a morning working on a paper I’ll be giving next week I was off to Cambridge, Ontario, for a Bridging Communities Through Song concert. This is an annual event organized by Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women’s Singers)- a drum group of Indigenous women who sing (mostly) traditional songs. They have partnered with the Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus, an especially pertinent partnering given the fact that the police and First Nations have not usually had the best relationships, and certainly little trust. They were joined by the Rainbow Chorus, an LGBTQ+ chorus. The theme was care for water, and the program began with a prayer acknowledging the gifts the Creator has given us. The music was so very varied in genre: touching, fun and inspiring, and had the rich character of speaking from and to the community

After supper, my eldest and I drove to Toronto. She had bought me a ticket to a Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert. It was the first of a three concert series called “New Creations Festival.” For the series, composers were commissioned to produce new pieces. For last evening’s concert, four pieces were performed. One was a riff on “O Canada,” the second a Trauermarsch/Funeral March, the third a piece focussing on the ephemeral character of perception, and the fourth a piece attending to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This latter had five movements reflecting Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The piece included a score, some improvised orchestral music and improvised singing by Tanya Tagaq. This latter is an Inuit throat singer, who is quickly becoming rather famous in Canada, and abroad. For those who have never hear throat singing, it is hard to describe. The range of sounds is beyond description; for many new to its hearing, it delights, shocks, and intoxicates. But it isn’t about sound alone. Tagaq’s body contortions to her singing allow one to see what is heard.

As she sang, I first sensed the land suffering losses: I imagined northern terrain twisting in agony at the stunning grief of environmental decay. I then visualized communities facing days upon days without children in their midst, sent to residential schools for programmatic assimilation to European culture. I heard and saw her own pain. The sounds were so utterly primal. This throat singing comes from the earth, from life – like Adam/Land and Eve/Life – and so awakened in me a kind of primal ache. It was both beautiful and strange. Words fail me, in describing it, or I fail words, but still I try. I must.

Some experiences really evade description because they strike a core so fundamental to our being that these give birth to new language, to halting words. These experiences are so dear to us that we are driven to expressing them, if even in faulting words. Perhaps this is what the great mystics knew. I am not sure that this concert was a mystical experience, but I think it is about as close to it as I am going to get. I still am processing this experience, or perhaps it is processing me….

Pictographs at Superior

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No, these images cannot be
described – neither
poetry nor prose can
circumscribe these etchings
on stone, cyphers of tenacity
sketched on rock, scars of strength
anchored across
grandfathers’
cheeks.  My cheeks
now moistened as I feel
this place dripping divine: mine
the gain as  I lay down any sense
of superiority,
of expertise,
of being high priest.

No, none of these
obtain because here I am
a drop of water crashing against rock;
a tear salting skin-on-fire;
a dropping of the guard into the
truth that being a drop is more
than enough.

Silent Might

Last Sunday the global song choir to which I belong, Inshallah, sang at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on the Six Nations of Grand River reserve, some 60 km south of Kitchener. We were there a couple of years ago, and happy to make a return trip. Father Norm Casey, the local priest knows us well, and has been a remarkable host to folk from the Kitchener-Waterloo area on a number of occasions. The seminary where I work has made numerous trips that Father Norm has coordinated. Two of our students have done internships there, and the folk from Six have been to visit us many times. Slowly we have developed a significant relationship and coming to the reserve is always something of a sacred journey for me.

I offered to drive my colleague and his wife, who also sing in the choir since I know the area a bit. Alas, I did not know it quite as well as I thought, and made a right turn one road too late. We had given ourselves plenty of time, and so were able to re-orient and get to the church on time. Father Norm and the folk from St. Paul’s were busy getting ready for all of us. The church has recently received a significant bequest, which has enable the community to do some substantial repair, and so the church was shining, nicely dressed and ready for the party.

Our choir is rather large, and we exhausted the chancel and choir area of the sanctuary. The nave soon filled and the evening began with a traditional prayer, honouring and thanking all the creatures of the cosmos, as well as the Creator. This was done by Mike Monture, a gentle man whose prayer in Mohawk was done in a chanting fashion. He translated his prayer for us as he welcomed us to the territory. The evening then proceeded as we sang our songs, and heard as well the music of the Mohawk Choir of the Six Nations of the Grand River. This was lovely, and touching as well. At the end, Father Norm thanked us, and invited Mike to give the traditional closing thanks. He walked to the mike and spoke slowly, so very slowly, telling us that in the songs and words he heard the Creator remind us of the gift of children, and this touched him deeply because he taught Mohawk to children on the reserve. He thanked us for this, saying he would carry this evening into his classroom the next day. He also noted that he felt a deep peace in his heart and with the community there, and he was glad for this. And then he sang again the prayer of honour and thanks for Creator and all the creatures. It was a profound moment.

I discussed this bit with my colleague, Debbie Lou, the director of our choir. We both noted the profound power in Mike’s words, and how this power came as a truly being with us, evident in the ponderous pauses between his few and so very carefully weighed words, which were as potent as could be. It was the exact opposite of my experience at Ebenezer Baptist church a few weeks ago, but in a way it was the same experience. I felt God in that place and in that time in the authenticity of the speakers. Certainly I believe God is always with us, but every now and then, we have these moments that feel just a little like a veil is pulled back, and we are ushered into a new reality: where wounds are being washed, and memories are being honoured, and bridges are being built and friends are being made.

When we left, we discovered that the road I missed was closed because a bridge was out, and so my detour was, in fact, the most direct route. This seemed a fitting lesson as we slipped away from that holy moment into the fog that accompanied us all the way home.

Some Kind of Walk

I am now a week back from walking the last third of the Northwest Mounted Police Trail. My wife and I walked about 110 km of a 300 plus km trail. The trail runs from Wood Mountain Park to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. It was established by the NWMP in order to keep the peace in an area frequented by “Wolvers” from south of the border in the late 19th century in what is now southern Saskatchewan. These folk were known by this name since they killed bison, poisoned the meat and then collected the hides of wolves who ate this. They ran a booze business on the side, selling to Native Americans who were in the midst of losing a way of life as the bison disappeared from the land, and as the Canadian government waited upon them to starve, until they finally agreed to sign treaties in a desperate attempt to find a way in this new reality. This patrol trail across the praire is wet with tears.

How is it that I found myself on this trail? My friend Matthew Anderson, a theologian and documentary producer invited me and my wife and we said yes. You can learn more about this at Matthew’s site. Matthew is a scholar of pilgrimage and was piqued by the observation that people who research pilgrimage often write and research European trails, but seemed little interested in North American sites. He grew up in southern Saskatchewan and so knew of this trail and of its significance. He thought it especially important to visit in light of the recent report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which speaks of the continuing need for First Nations and Settlers to work toward renewed relationships of truth, accountability, justice, and concern for the land.

I learned much on this walk. We arrived on a non-walk day. In the evening, the author Candace Savage spoke to us of the sad history of this place. I bought her book and asked her to sign it. She did and wrote “welcome home” above her signature. This was a bit odd, since I am not from Saskatchewan. I grew up in central Alberta, in what is called “parkland.” But as I walked across this bald prairie, replete with breath taking coulees, horizons that spoke of the Creator’s breadth of fierce mercy, and a sky that glistened with the stark clarity of a diamond, I found myself breathless. Every now and then I would stop, and look, and find myself with hands on my hips: just looking. It reminded me of my dad, raised on the prairies, who would do this from time to time on our farm. We would be on our way to look at the cows, or check the grain, or whatever, and he would stop – like a man with all the time in the world – and look to the horizon with hands on hips. And here I was, reprising his posture, a posture formed in his southern Alberta by like surroundings. And then Candace’s note rang true. This was a homecoming on foreign territory.

All territory is foreign to us. We experience it as a home-becoming when we walk it. Walking is a holy venture: prayer on feet trod with attention to the marvel and miracle walking is. Children who first learn to walk and people who have lost their ability to walk know so very well that walking is a wonder. Walking is wonder-ful. As I walked this trail I found myself over and over again. I saw myself in my fellow pilgrims who both looked forward to a day’s end while they wished it went on forever. I heard myself in the Swainson hawks who prayed us across the prairies. I sniffed out myself in the sweet sage that bore witness to hope on hard ground. I felt my skin as I caressed teepee ring rocks, reminders that this land that has adopted me is my elder, my mother. I tasted myself in fresh bread made by farmers who invited us in, with prairie hospitality. As an ancient sage noted: we are grains of wheat, crushed, wetted, fired and broken to become food for the hungry.

I have walked for a time. I have walked with others, with the land, and by myself. I am richer for it, and now wonder how to best invest what I have accrued from this time. I am confident that a pathway will open up, as pathways do: mysteriously.

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Thanks to Matthew Anderson for this photo!

Ridiculously Rich

Dear Readers, the following was written late last night:

Today was an oddly busy day. It began with a funeral for a colleagues’ mother, which was, as they are wont to be, a polygamy of memory, re-connection, rejoicing, mourning and more. The afternoon found me at a three hour “Bridging Communities through Song” concert held at a local church, but brought to us by the Indigenous singing group Mino Ode Kwewak N’gamowak (Good Hearted Women) Singers and the Waterloo Regional Male Chorus along with friends. This event is in its third year, and aims to build bridges across divisions – of hostility and indifference; of race and class; of host and settler cultures. The event ended in a giant round-dance, with strangers and friends making their way around the church in increasing complicated circles of joy. It was followed up by a feast in which I had occasion to visit with a dear colleague, her daughter, and god-mother over a marvellous meal. Our table guests also included four other people previously unknown to me who were delightful dinner companions.

It is hard to process days like this and the ridiculous richness of emotions attending them. It was all there: from the pain of grief to the hope of reconciliation; from the horror at recollections of residential schools and the devastation following in their wake to the beauty of meeting new friends over good food and the warmth peculiar to a post-concert sigh; from the rush of running from A to B to the invitation to settle into a pew. What is one to do with so much – both old and new – in one day?

I came home and my wife and I decided upon a movie – a film set in the 1970’s called Remembrance. In this movie, a woman discovers that the man she loved – and thought dead – from her days in a WWII concentration camp is still alive. More emotions still! But with this movie, perhaps a lesson as well. As we debriefed the show we thought about how WWII survivors (from so many different kinds of prisons) spent the rest of their lives either unpacking their experiences or constantly packing them away. So much comes at us at times in life that it sometimes seems impossible to give our many experiences the deep, patient, reflective moments they need and deserve. Sometimes it seems we are unable, or perhaps unwilling, to ask what is going on in these moments. Where is God? Who have I become? What did this moment teach me about me, about life? Such moments, so very rich in possibility, call us to the discipline of reflection.

It is the season of Lent, and my discipline for this year is to write a little each day in my Moleskin with a new fountain pen. It is meant to be a practice of process; of intentionally looking at a day with an eye open for traces of divine tracks; looking for pathways that pattern how my life is being intercepted, and to what end. Today is one of those days that is going to result in a paucity, or perhaps plethora, of words in my daily record and oddly enough, either one of the two options seems fitting.