On a Sling and a Prayer

This week Santa Maria made her way from slip to cradle, via a magical flight expedited by a crane. For long-time readers of stillvoicing, this has been described in earlier posts. In fact, I have likely written about it many years, as I do again this year! In part, this is because the sight of a boat floating through the air is quite unlike anything.

Since our marina is a not-for-profit club, members assist on lift-out day. This year I was part of the compound sling crew, a first for me. I have now cycled through all of the volunteer positions on the dock. This crew receives the boats and assists them as they land in the cradle, a metal structure holding the boat upright. Fittingly, my shift began with the arrival of Santa Maria. It was nice to see her settled for a long winter’s nap.

Owners of boats are asked to tie four lead lines to their boat, two at stern and two at bow, about 15 – 20 feet in length. As boats soars from lake to compound, these lead lines stream from the boat like strings from a balloon. My job was to grab one of the lead lines, along with three other sailors-come- dockhands. We would pull a boat this way and that as the crane operator and his helper communicated by radio. Often we would need to spin the boat 180 degrees to get stern straight and bow in place. I have to say that it is an incredible experience to grab a lead line and move a boat thousands of pounds, suspended in the air. It is as easy as a pushing a partly full wheelbarrow, even though I know that this boat would pulverize me were it to fall from its slings.

Once the boat is nearly in place, the cradle was fine-tuned left and right, back and forth. After the keel touches the base of the cradle, the cradle pads are raised to an inch from the hull of the boat. Then the crane operator lets the boat come down with all of its weight and the boat meets the four or more pads. One of us would then jump on the boat to release one side of each sling so it could come out from under the boat. Another would guide the slings as the operator raised them up to the sky to make their way over to the next boat.

A couple of time I remember staring at these slings slipping away into the cerulean sky speckled with spectacular clouds, and my breath simply left me. It was so beautiful, utterly transfixing.

Yesterday we returned to the boat to wrestle the motor off the stern of the boat. This was more of a Sisyphean effort. The gentle tugging at the lines of an airship on their way to their cradles on Wednesday seemed so far removed from Saturday’s cradling a motor close to my core as I pried it from its summer station and eased it into the wheelbarrow for its journey to my house, its winter home.

I am struck by how different these two labours were, and yet they were both labour – both blessing me with the gift of living into my body and being reminded that movement, and sweat, and satisfaction, and even momentary frustrations are gifts of the Spirit that sustains both the strenuous grunt and the bewildered gasp.

Drive-by Derision

I was winding my way down the Iron Horse Trail, on a Friday afternoon jog, when a gentleman on a bicycle encountered me while I rejoined the trail after a brief shortcut. I was deep in thought, as I am wont to do in the middle of a run, when I heard him say to me “I don’t care much for Laurier, a snotty school.” It took me a few steps to process what had just transpired, then I remembered that I was wearing my “Laurier – 1911” t-shirt. It was a shirt celebrating the 100th anniversary of the school, which began as The Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada, which after various iterations, became provincialized as Wilfrid Laurier University in 1973. I now work at Martin Luther University College, the inheritor of the mantle of the original school, now a federated college of Laurier.

I hadn’t given any thought to which t-shirt I was wearing until this drive-by derisive comment. As I continued my run, I wondered about this anonymous aside. Would this fellow had said this to me if we had encountered one another walking on the street, or on the bus? And what precipitated this comment? Had he been refused entrance to a program? Did he have a boss whom he despised, who had graduated from Laurier?

I was intrigued by his interest in telling me his opinion. There was, of course, no time for a response of any kind. We were travelling in opposite directions and he was moving quite quickly on a bicycle. I wondered: How many people out there are looking for an opportunity to anonymously set someone straight on what’s what? Does he have a wrath-reaction every time he sees “Laurier”? So many questions, with no answers…

One of the wise, and recurring, bits of wisdom I have heard during Covid has been a reminder that none of us knows what kind of trials people are burdened with – bubbling below the surface. We usually don’t know the contexts of peoples’ comments. People can be a bit like icebergs, it seems, with a grimace on their face being but a sliver of a sore festering below the surface. And all it takes is the right trigger in the right context.

Of course, this person’s experience of Laurier is as a valid as those who claim that Laurier is warm and welcoming, as are that of people who have experienced the school in both ways. The interaction was a curious experience, and my lament is that it provided no opportunity to speak to the person about his experience. That would be helpful, for him and me both I think. Authentic relationships emerge when we share our stories with one another. Tales tie us together and that is why sacred scriptures are awash with narrative. Narrative draw us into one another’s lives, including the life of God.

In a way, the interaction was a missed opportunity. But then again, it afforded me the occasion to think about how I might trigger people’s feelings with something as a simple as a t-shirt. Of course, that same t-shirt might evoke the comment: “I love Laurier, the people there really care!” I have heard this said of both Laurier and Luther. I just haven’t heard them as drive-by accolades. But I live in hope.

Musings on March

My relationship with March is
complicated. I want it to be
what it cannot: a younger May
stripped of any hint of January.
Instead, March is fiercely March.
It is a month with a mind of
its own and it brooks no challenge
to self-expression. Now its
ice winds cut across my skin even
while shadows shorten and trees
begin to drip sweet. March snow clings
to shadows tenaciously – white knuckling
the wheel of life.

The other day I ate my salad outside on an Adirondack chair,
bundled up like a swaddled babe, the sun was stroking my
face even while the wind scratched it. The snow chuckled,
nervously.

The Heavens are Shattered

This bare tree framing the sky lays
bare the state of my soul:
a little bit empty
now and then
I might be seen through
but this too is gift:
the tree frames sky
and I frame why.

Branches cut up what is on high just
like lead pieces glass together by dividing:
the power of the line meets
the strength of the translucent.
The heavens are shattered
and so beautiful…

At Their Feet

These plants on my windowsill
watch me day in and out,
looking about my office, they
track my comings and goings,
sniggering at my sweltering
sense of self-importance.

These plants are close to the earth
and hold the long view, knowing that
instantaneously – in a geological sense – I
will be in the earth feeding their fellows.

These plants also cheer me on, when I
close my laptop and play with the rocks
in the silica-now-glass container on
“my” oak tree-now-desk.

These plants weep when
I fail to taste my apple, when
I forget to thank them, when
I refuse to listen to their call
to pinch myself
alive.

These plants are poets of the first order:
Aloe Vera and Christmas Cactus – and when
I am wise, I sit at their feet, in a manner of speaking.

Seeing and Seeing To In 2021

Finally, it comes to end, this 2020 called by many – though not all – an annus horribilis.  For many of us, of course, it has been a strange year with much disappointment and anxiety: lost opportunities, the lack of familiar social and religious comforts, alongside of the pounding presence of never really feeling confident in making plans. 

But I also know of people who have found their footing in this dystopian time – discovering new possibilities in the space opened up and discovering physical and spiritual practices that would have been untapped had this been an annus ordinarius.  I suspect that most of us have had a mixed experience but we are tipped in the direction of wanting to shake off this year because its character of unpredictability is so unsettling.  And we don’t like being unsettled – be it by unemployment, or uncertainty, or illness.  And that is utterly understandable.  But this year also afforded us the opportunity to learn from our experiences. The data of our year – whether it be tragedy, or triumph, or a mix – provides an occasion for taking stock of our place in the universe.  Of course, this is always true but something about this apocalyptic year has sharpened our capacity to look at our lives more acutely.

That feeling of being unsettled, of course, is always just behind the curtain upon which we project our cinematic sense of self.  Down deep, we know that our carefully crafted narratives are subject to another illness, or a shift in relationships, or a fractured spirituality.  But right now, the curtain has drawn open and the film of our life is projected onto a spherical ball with projectile-like spikes.  And the image that results is hard to discern, and so we hunker down, or we shake our fist, or we make an anxious plan.

These responses are neither right nor wrong.  How we respond is who we are, and we are accepted as such by Love.  But Love also invites us to consider if this is how we want to be.  Love invites us to look at whom we have become. It calls us to behold the gift we are and our invitation to growth – both of these now present in our being human.  Our being gift, of course, is radically recast in these COVID-19 days as we realize anew the profundity of presence.  And growth, too, is being drastically reframed for us in these strange days as we ponder that sometimes growing means letting go and being less, doing less, being content with less.  Powerful forces try to negate this message. Yet that little sphere with its spikes reminds us that less can sometimes do more than principalities and powers and doing with less can be more than we can ever imagine.  We have seen strange things in 2020.

Blessings to you, dear readers, as you see, and see to, yourselves into 2021.

Your Hold on My Heart

Yesterday the sky wept, and
the branches of the trees
bled a bit of red. The earth
knows something that
I do not.

I want to read the earth.
I ache to converse with trees,
to listen to the stars, and
to feel the heartbeat of the soil,
but I am a soul too easily
sated with white noise,
with white… but at night
when my pen befriends me
and my guard goes down I
begin to hear, to see, to be differently,
Your hand on my shoulder, Your hold on my heart.

Taking Leave

One of the realities, often lamented and much discussed, in this time of COVID 19 is the amount of time we spend on Zoom, Teams, etc. This is an especially pertinent concern for those of us who teach. And one of the things that I have found that is especially odd about it is the difficulty of taking leave from class. In a normal setting leave taking is protracted, with some people disappearing immediately, some heading out of the class after a bit, and other not leaving at all choosing to stay in the class for study time, or hoping to catch up with me, etc.

But Zoom just erases this. Taking leave is abrupt. One moment you are with someone and the next they have disappeared, sometime leaving you with a hollow feeling. I have been mulling over different ways to end mediated meetings, and decided this semester to try something a bit different with my class. We end each class with a body prayer/meditation. Basically, one of my outcomes for the class is to get the body back into theology, and so at the end of each class we focus on one body part. It might be the neck, the elbow, the skin, the spine etc. I invite my students to shut off their camera, and I walk them through a five minute meditation on a part of their body, thinking about what that body part says about who they are as people as they hold, or explore, or imagine it. I then invite them to give thanks to God, and/or their ancestors, and/or themselves for that body part. This exercise is not mandatory and people are welcome to leave for this last five minutes of class. But often everyone stays.

At the end, I shut off my camera and before my eyes are the names of my students – no faces. I imagine them still feeling the nape of their neck, or the curve of their palm, and then slowly at first and then rapidly, the names disappear and mine alone is left. It feels nice – a silent but significant leave taking. I haven’t asked them, yet, about this experience from the perspective of ending. A few have expressed deep gratitude for the meditative experience, and I am happy for that. But most recently, I have wondered about this experience in terms of bringing a class to close.

Of course, endings are so very important. We spend our lives – if we spend them wisely – in preparation for our ultimate experience of taking leave and so, of being welcomed. Leave taking is a profoundly spiritual practice and in this mediated age we are wise to ask: “How do our small farewells fare in terms of ensuring that it is well with our souls?”

In My Eye

A tongue of fire
rises from this candle
taller than two
others; brothers
flanking her. Their
tongues, their talk
lumine her. These three
enter me times two, then
become one in my mind’s eye.

I see my reflection in them:
flaming away I deplete each day
until I will be but one with You,
alight in Your eye – finally and fully
a human seen, as surely as
You have been a human being
aright in my eye.

No Memorial

He lay splattered across my
wife’s emptied plate – now void
aside from this wasp’s corpse – flailed
by a fly-swatter repurposed:
wasp swapped for fly.

One wing conveniently
remains intact, shooting straight
up, like the arm of a child
anxious with an answer,
or a washroom request.

Of course, I grabbed the
dinnertime demon by the
sleeve and tossed him over
the guard rail into the
garden below.

No words were said over
his body; no proper burial;
no notice on some wasp website;
no memorial for him aside
from this poem.