Working Edges

This last Saturday night my wife and I went to The Mayors’ Dinner in Kitchener, a fundraising event for the Working Centre, a not-for profit organization in our community that addresses issues of poverty and unemployment. This happens every year, and a person or group of people, is given special recognition. This year the recipients were Arleen Macpherson, Gretchen Jones, and Jennifer Mains, all who work or have worked with St. John’s Kitchen. My wife and I have gone to a few of these fundraising events, but I was especially interested because I have had students that have done volunteer placements at St. John’s Kitchen. A few years back one of the Community Service Learning coordinators and I visited the site, and chatted with Gretchen, who keeps thing moving on a daily basis.

I still remember the visit well. We biked there from the University, Rebekah leading the way as we wound our way through a kind of back street route from point University to point Kitchen, in Kitchener. We locked up our bikes and said hi to a few clients on our way up the brightly painted stairwell, and into the well lit, vibrant, second floor of 97 Victoria St. N that houses the kitchen, the dining hall, and offices for some health care there. We sat and visited with Gretchen, who told us a bit about the program, and then expressed thanks for the volunteer work done by students. Of course, I already knew from student feedback that they received more than they gave at this volunteer site. For many students, their experience at St. John’s was a life changer, in important ways.

Many of them had never had experience working with marginalized people, and so this experience reconfigured the world they knew. They came to see that there are not simple solutions to problems like homelessness. They came to see that people in need do not need charity, but deserve dignity. They came to see that where their world ends is where other people’s worlds begin. This experience took them to the edges of their lives, where they started to work at important questions: who am I? what is my place in the world? where is God in this?

At the dinner on Saturday, Gretchen and others from the Kitchen spoke, and told some very moving stories: accounts of varied experiences that were miraculous in many ways. We also were introduced, via video, to some of the volunteers and guests of the kitchen, who opened to us the Reign of God, for those with ears to hear. We began to see the face of the Kitchen, painted with stories of broken people reaching out to care for broken people and so creating community. At the end of the evening, I rejoiced at having been given another snapshot of what it looks like to live in community, where truth makes things messy and hope makes people patient.

We have to be patient to work at the edges, where we discover ourselves anew in the experiences of growth, being stretched and strained in ways that remind us that the human condition is change: from cradle to coffin we are moving from life to death and from death to life. These two feed on each other, and so there is no food that does not entail death in giving life. Food is the marriage of life and death, and St. John’s Kitchen is one place that preaches the sermon that we are what we eat: the community of life and death that works at the edges, that works on its edges.

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I’m Turning a Phrase

My pen tends
this word and that as
seed in need of
field – aching for a
place to land and
fertilizer to lavish it
with a just-so adverb or
participle or preposition, as the
case may be.

I’m turn a phrase like
soil in spring; I’m upending a potato
hill in autumn, pregnant with pause, as
my hoe, my pen leads my hand
away from knowing and into
Dirt: life’s cradle, death’s bed.

And then I breathe…

What am I to do with this
sharp this hard gift this lack
of time – edge of knife limning
me as I strain to discern
which pressing possibility
decidedly speaks
my name.

Some days, I
step back and ponder my
choices, my being chosen. I see me,
for a time, as a haggard, ragged man
– not always so aware
of my surroundings
as I wish
I were.

But then and now, robin
sings me awake his
head cocked his
fluttered wings wetting in bath and
I see my life, I see my eyes
and then I breathe…

Penned Again

No sleep in this pen so
it calls me again,
late in the night.
I cannot but do its
bidding as it scratches
me across this page.  No
sleep now – with me
strewn blue across white – not
quite bruised but certainly
bent into shape
of poetry.

 

I am ink.
I am lettered.
I am poem,
the page now my home
until I am virtually
transfigured and
become the
sighting of your eye, the
curving of your tongue,
an echo
in your ear.

Slip into Life

Write please write.
Push the pen until it bursts
solar flares on white;
bend it
until it leaks God
until it bleeds sky and soil.

Do not be content with
anything less than what
blinds you. Gaze
beyond your reach
waiting on shades to teach
your eyes your soul your fingertips
to feel for what is needed.

Sit
for a time
in the dark
and breath
rhythmically. In
your breath is
an echo of
death and
on hearing it
you slip
into
life.

In this now…

In this now
I am utterly
where I am:
under blanket,
fire near,
pen ready,
and you at hand.

I descry
your eye
on mine
amid these
words that
I scratch.
Gazing out
from the unformed

white light of page

your sight reframes

my seeing and so my so

very important priorities
collect as refuse
at feet.
 

You call and I collapse,
dying to be a full moon fogged –
softened and softening:
a full stop’s
negative.

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.