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.

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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.

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.

Legacy Twinned

I had the great pleasure this last week of spending time with my mother, who lives some 4000 kms from where I live and work. I only am able to be with my mom a couple of time each year. As of late, she has not been well, my mom: heart problems, mobility issues, and failing sight have complicated her life. Since I don’t get out to see her often I like to maximize my time with her. My wife suggested I bring along a book to read to her, which I did. I found it to be a rich experience to read to my mother who read to me as a child. It is a coming full circle, something that I hope comes around to me in due course.

In addition to reading the book I brought, I also read her the local paper which had an article remembering Arthur and Allen Dickau, local gentlemen who died at the age of 90 years. Arthur and Allen were twin brothers who had slight cognitive impairment. They also happened to have a very fine sense of humor. They owned hats that read “I am Allen, the other one is Arthur” and its opposite. They publically swapped hats to confound folk. I remember them so well: they spoke with a kind of slight accent I associate with children of German immigrants, in a rather sharp tenor voice. They belonged to the local Baptist church, and were much loved by folk of faith and beyond. They were true ambassadors for my home town of Ponoka. As the years progressed, their backs bowed in homage to the years of manual labor that gave them occasion to boast of having raised this roof, or having poured this sidewalk; including the sidewalk and roof of my parents’ retirement home, recently vacated by my widowed Mom in her failing health.

As I sat and chatted with my Mom about the article, she told me of the first time she and Dad met them. They were fresh in town, and making their way to the little Lutheran church. Arthur and Allen were on their way to the Baptist church and waved hello with their bibles in hand. She also reminded me that the twins often asked after me. You see, Allen believed I was named after him. Mom chuckled at that memory. I gathered this wasn’t true, but one could do worse than be named after someone who was beloved by all, who lived life to the fullest into his 90th year, who knew the names of many who did not know each others’ names and brought smiles to the faces of all. In fact, I am honored to be claimed by someone who forsook the self to live fully in the community where God placed him; not worrying about what others thought of him, but only thinking of bringing a little joy to others. One could do worse than emulate a man who loved his brother unequivocally. They died within months of each other.

Allen and Arthur will be fiercely missed in their community. Yet I believe that their legacy will be carried on, even if unaware: all who have been touched by them have learned to touch the earth tenderly, to engage their community holistically and to embrace their neighbors tenaciously. Their voices may be still but still they are heard, because you cannot corral compassion set free by joie de vivre.