The Tick of a Hand

Is it possible that the tick
of the clock is all there is?
That tock is a figment of my
Imagination, projected by
an ear anxious to hear what
really isn’t there?

I’m amazed and
arrested by
the thought that the
tock of the clock is a ruse.

As this thought winds
its way through my body, I
recall those odd times when
my eye twitched without my
willing it to do so – twitch, twitch,
twitch – like the tick of a hand
racing across a face
looking to tock.

Gone now, save in this memory

What will come of all
of this poetry:
verses
words
letters
punctuation? Will
they fill the white space
or will it consume
them? A
Q now an O, a
bite taken out of it; a
t now an l, the ‘–’
erased…

I remember well a poem
I wrote in grade nine, published
in an education column in the Edmonton Journal. It was
sent in by Mrs. Massing, my Language Arts teacher, and cut
out by my modestly proud mother, who pasted it
on the inside door of the food pantry,
only to be seen by certain eyes, and
gone now, save in this memory:
my chewing on it,
its chewing on me.

Of Stones and Such

This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.

As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.

I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.

I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.

Infinity on Edge

I recall – at age eight – a
field full of
triangles made of
six hay bales:
three kissing the earth
two holding the centre
and one with an eye on the sky.

This field was my playground;
I a fighter plane,
those bale stooks mountains,
and my flight a
reconnaissance.

O, to be eight again.
A magical age:
two zeros on
top of each
other –
infinity
on edge.

I heaven I suspect
I will be eight for
eternity, flying
reconnaissance,
leading me
to You, where I will
know myself anew.

Of Leaves and Letters

Aside from some time spent at Open House at Wilfrid Laurier University, yesterday was spent marking papers and raking leaves. The word leaf, of course, can reference both that thing that falls from the tree and a sheet of paper once a part of essays. These days, as you may well imagine, marking students’ work doesn’t involve much by the way of leafing through paper, but is done on computer – at least that’s how I do it. This method has much to commend it: fewer trees fall, the essays run through turnitin and so I know if there are academic integrity issues from the get go, and finally students don’t have to try to read my horrendous penmanship. I am able to type comments on the essay in comment boxes, and the system nicely allows me to preload comments such as “Please use ‘quotation’ here since ‘quote’ is a verb.”

Most professors do not count marking as their favourite task. I’d agree with that but neither is it the worst. Marking is one of those things that runs a gamut of experiences. It can be frustrating and tedious; it can be really quite exciting; it can be heart-breaking and sometimes moving to the point of bringing me to tears. As you may guess, I am not marking math – although calculus instructors may arrive at tears from time to time as well! I teach theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at WLU, and so sometimes mark reflection papers in which students integrate their life experience with theological themes. I count it an honour to see something of students’ faith lives from time to time. I find it quite humbling to have them relate their doubts, and express their joys, and narrate their varied and rich experiences with God. Of course, giving these kind of papers a grade is rather odd, but that is my job and so I do it as best as I am able.

I read some stellar papers today, and had some very moving experiences with some of them. But even so, it can be hard work and upon hearing that we were having leaf pickup on Monday I decided it was wise to take a break around noon and rake some leaves from the front yard – awash in colours – to the curb. The silver maple in our front yard is a world onto itself in size and more, and every year we harvest some of its joys and sorrows. I lay down a tarp and rake these tales onto the tarp and drag it to curb where I dump the leaves for the city. I then repeat this many times over. As I do so I think. And this thinking usually takes me deeper into me. I recall the past summer season; I recall past falls; today I thought about my parents. They have been gone some years now, but sometimes I think I feel them to be closer with each passing year. Perhaps that is because with every year I am one step nearer them.

I’m not certain why I thought of them today. We didn’t rake many leaves on the farm – or at least I didn’t. Maybe it was that movement from labouring in the soul to labouring near soil that opened up something. Maybe it was the fecund smell of dirt under the colourful quilt on the ground that took me to the farm. Maybe it was our proximity to All Saints Day. Maybe it was the realization that our days are not only as grass – as per the psalmist – but also as leaves. Not only do we fall not far from the tree, but we write, or paint, or sketch the life we are on the leaf we are. These are days with many such memory aids. These are the days when winter calls to fall, and I bow to both.

Slow TV

I remember calling my Mom in the winter months, in the later days of her life. I would often ask her what she had been doing when I called and she would say “Watching TV,” to which I would respond by asking what was on the television. She would tell me she had the fireplace channel on. I never did quite get that but as of late I have found myself watching “Slow TV” from Norway. I am now halfway through the 7 hour Bergen to Oslo trip. When I tell people, they generally think I am a few cars short a freight. I think differently.

First, I like trains. This semester, for the introduction section of the first day in class, I invited folk to speak about their favourite mode of transport. A good number spoke of trains, and their invitation to relax and see the scenery without worry about traffic etc. Trains are also (for now) low key modes of public travel without the security check etc. There is a kind of a comfort on a train that I do not experience with other modes of transport – aside from ferries.

But it isn’t only the “train” piece of the show that intrigues me. I am also reminded of my own trip from Oslo to Bergen and back by train some 30 years ago. I recall seeing people ski up to a stop, and take off their skis in order to get on, for a time, until the next stop. There is a kind of nostalgia in the show, I think.

Further to this, I like Slow TV as a push back against “reality TV,” which is so far removed from reality as to make a mockery of the real struggles that folk face in a real world not about an amazing race, or voting people off of an island, or some such inane theme. Reality TV seems, in significant ways, to contribute to a juvenile public and a dose of “real reality” seems fitting in these days – even in the mode of the mundane, the daily. It is good to see what people see who travel the lovely Norwegian country side – with sky touching fjord and mountain, and so inviting us to connect what is seen on television with what is seen during our own travels.

I also enjoy this show because it reminds me of my own pilgrimage in Norway some years ago. In some small way the show is an aide de memoire of that delightful journey that gave me occasion to be with dear friends, and make new ones. The paternal side of my family comes from Norway, and I find myself regularly drawn to things Norwegian in particular and Scandinavian in general. I can’t quite say it feels like home, to see the Norwegian country side fly by but it reminds me that I am from away.

I sometimes like watching television that does not aim to resolve a plot line, or mindlessly entertain, or sell a soft drink surreptitiously. The simplicity of the show is refreshing and reminds me of those twice weekly phone conversations with my mom. At the end of her days, life was slowing down and a fireplace was all she needed for entertainment. I am not there, but still, it is nice to watch the country side of my father that gives me occasion to remember my mother as well.

Thank you, Slow TV.

En route and off

Last week we went to Ottawa to celebrate the convocation of my middle daughter, who has completed a degree in mechanical engineering. We were exceedingly glad to celebrate the day with her and her friends. This was most interesting in that we have heard stories about many of them, and met a few along the way. The convocation, of course, also gave us occasion to meet some of their proud parents. Afterward, my wife made the observation that the convocation ceremony was notable in that, aside from siblings and grandparents, the audience was in the range of our age. It is rare that we gather in mass with people from our generation, that is the end of the baby boomers.

I thought about that a bit on our trip home. We travelled from Ottawa via a more northernly route, camping one night at Canisbay Lake in Algonquin Park. Along the way, we stopped to grab some food for supper, and my wife suggested we buy some bread, cheese, and veggies for a picnic along the way. An hour or so later, we managed to find a pull-in station along the highway, where there were picnic tables alongside a lake. We had a leisurely lunch, enjoying the sights before we continued on our way. As we travelled, we chatted of our memories of doing this quite often as kids, and with our children when they were young. At one point, in Alberta where we lived at that time, road side camp shelters were quite common. These were not over-night camp sites, but spots where folk could stop for a bit of a rest along the way. People would often take a break, and allow kids to run. I distinctly recall their demise. A would be premier, promising more services for less taxes, promptly shut them down upon his election. It was a sad day in my then province. I do not know if they have been returned with a recent turn in government. We have been happy to find a few here in Ontario, but I do not know if the current state of affairs represents a decline, or not. I suspect , in part, that they are probably less used if even still in place. This is sad since they are a pre-eminently civilized diversion in the increased rat race of our travel habits, now complete with hands-free phones, food on the go, and road rage. I recall, as a child, travel as decidedly more leisurely. Perhaps these days can be resurrected. If so, it will take some of us with a little bit different memory of the past to call attention to a different way to be, which brings me to my first observation.

In a way, a convocation is a profoundly important inter-generational experience. It isn’t exactly a passing of batons, but there is something of that to this important event. As a new graduating class makes their way into the world, they will make and influence choices for good and for ill, just as have those who sit in the audience. It is given to both to work together, in both dreaming and recollection. The past is not pristine, but neither is it obsolescent and progress is not the purview of the future alone. Theology, amongst other disciplines, knows these treasured truths and forgets them to its peril. The path forward is sometimes behind us and the future might well be where we finally meet our past. Memories are the repository of dreams and the obverse obtains, and no place is as replete with memories as a convocation hall.

The convocation hall, in a way, is a great symbol as a meeting place of both past and future, of many generations. It is a location of being together, which is surely the condition for the possibility of true community. Perhaps this, in a way, is the most important commencement address. We are community in being together, across generations for the task of celebrating these achievements and perhaps we ought to make this being together a habit, so that we might learn from both past mistakes and successes as we dream a world whole and well.