Naming A New

Last night we were driving home from an afternoon spent on our boat Santa Maria. My wife had wondered, while we patiently and persistently scrubbed away some scum from this corner and that crook of the good ship, what we might call a vessel were we to acquire one nameless. This question was prodded, in part, by the plethora of strange names given boats in a marina.

People are trying to be variously funny, poetic, clever, sentimental et cetera (not a bad boat name itself, that last Latin common phrase) in this naming. Failures are many and magnificent, although “funny, poetic, and clever” may well be in the eye of the beholder. We quite like Santa Maria – an inherited name – although she was once differently called. We posed a few possibilities aloud, and scratched our heads at some names surrounding us.

The finger of the slip we are on in the harbour is in poor straits. Apparently, the marina was pounded by the remnants of hurricane “Barry” this week, although I am unsure whether this particular pounding was from Barry or another storm. Naming hurricanes, too, seems a bit fraught. Once upon a time these were all called by women’s names, as I recall. Now storms are differently gendered once they reach the requisite speed of 120 km/hr for a full minute.

There had been reports of yet another storm coming our way, and so we made our way home in the early evening, and drove through that very storm. It was a thing of rare beauty and looked utterly different than the storm we saw when I saw it through the eyes of different cameras at various angles on the news that night. But in each photo, it was stark and poised, about to pounce.

As we drove from the edge to the eye of the storm on our way to Kitchener, once called Berlin (a topic for another blog) to 185 Sheldon St. I know that here and there, in the world, houses and farms are named. Ours are numbered, as have been people, with the Holocaust and the Residential School Systems being notorious examples.

Santa Maria has a number as well, nicely stenciled on the fore of her hull. But I don’t remember it, while I never even have to grasp after “Santa Maria” in my current mental capacity. I like names more than numbers, and wonder too, what we might call a boat without a name. I suspect we will never face this problem since new boats are out of our price range, even while we could very well be facing the prospect of renaming a boat one day. “Barry” and “185” are unlikely candidates, and I suspect “et cetera” would finally not pass muster. But for now this is not my worry. A wise man once said that each day has troubles sufficing for itself (Matthew 6:34), and on this day called “Sunday,” I’ll think a little on him and ponder the power of storms, the curve of a hull, and the mystery of names, now chosen, now found and sometimes arriving without much ado.

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Formed in the Deep

Night,
you haunt me,
hunt me and
spear me. Through
my chattering heart
your lance pierces
my island of dreams.

In the geography of the dark
you try me, you play me
with a joy here,
with a fear there.
Now my passion is
pushed beyond
boundaries.

If only I could steer
these dreams…
what pleasures
might visit the night!
I would eat at a sacred grove;
I would consume a canyon;
would devour mountains; and
take in each valley, feeding
my heart with desire.

But no, this is not to be.
Now is not the time for daydreams.
The hard work of night beckons, calling
me to be its matter, formed in this deep.

Dear Mom,

Dear Mom,

It’s been nearly six years since you left us, although you didn’t depart altogether. Every now and then, I find you in my shadow, banging pots about in the kitchen, flavouring this, tasting that. You carried me in your womb, your prayers, your heart and now I find myself bearing you, in divers ways. The other day, for instance, I found myself peeling a potato, and felt you hand guiding mine, sliding along the contours of this root of the earth, sensing that a potato was capable of bearing love, and that cooking for those I love is as holy as was my pious prayers at the altar today, where I sensed you yet again.

You have given me many things, Mom. But one of the best is a respect for women. I am surrounded by strong women: my wonderful wife who has imbibed deeply from her own Mother’s well of wisdom and has also found some wisdom of her own; my courageous daughters who continually redefine success for me; sisters and in-laws whose faith buoys me; friends and colleagues who leave me in awe with their talent, their dedication, their ability to know exactly what to say to me when it needs to be said.

You have given me the gift of eyes, Mom. What a precious gift that is! As yours faded so many years ago, in some small way I think they migrated to mine, and every now and then I think I see through you… well, only in part, dimly, through a glass darkly, as the good apostle says. I will never know what it means to be a woman, but from what I can see from where I sit, it is a marvel and a challenge, a contentment and a frustration; a holy calling.

Men sometimes stereotype women as emotional, but those leaky eyes I encounter here, and there; this turn of the head when cheeks become beds for rivered emotions; this weeping is pleading for justice and a burden for peace and healing. These tears often prophetically announce that things are not as they should be, and are begging for a world more just. I stand in awe of such tears and wish them for myself: to be able to cry peace and righteousness; to be fit to sob for the healing of creation. This I covet when I find myself paralyzed. But the women in my life, Mom, show me the way, just like you did for so many years: be not afraid; look for the opportunities to brighten someone’s world; invite people into relationship; knock at the door until someone opens; be of good courage; pray always and in many ways.

I miss you so, Mom, but I know that you are in a good place. I also know that you are never so very far away. That veil separating us is thinner than we imagine. And I thank God for your example: you were not perfect and you taught me that I don’t need to be either. You taught me that love takes many forms, and it needs to be embraced for its diversity. You taught me things that you did not know you taught me.

Today is Mother’s Day but I think on you every day and know that what made you a marvel was not so much that you are my mother, but that you were you, that you are you. Your being you, unapologetically, reminds me every day that the sacred slips into our lives askew: now in a potato peel, now in a tear, now in song, now silence, now.

Lovingly yours,

Allen

Let those with ears…

I’ve been trying to listen these days.

Not to listen for something, or someone – not even a still, small voice. I’ve been trying to listen – full stop. I’ve purposed to listen, every now and then, without deciding in advance what I’ll hear. It is an interesting exercise, and one I would readily commend to all. I can assure you, however, that it is harder than it first appears, and in truth my success in this venture is frighteningly fraught with failure.

It is a bit like the meditative exercise of sitting still and attending to your breathing. Soon, you find yourself thinking about what’s up at work, or how will I resolve this issue, or that. The only difference is that I do this while walking, or standing, or sitting. My eyes are not closed. I have no desire to empty my anything. Instead I aim simply to listen. And I have been a bit surprised in this.

The other day for instance, I listened while I walked across campus. I had just spent some time at the gym, and was making my way back to my office. The first thing I noticed was the tap of my feet on the sidewalk below me. And then, to my utter amazement, I noticed that I heard the footsteps of two young men 50 metres or so, in front of me. I didn’t hear their voices. I’m not sure if they weren’t speaking, or my ears were differently attuned. But the cadence of my steps, and theirs, served as a kind of Grundton for music of my journey.

On Saturday, my wife and I were down prepping the deck of our sailboat, Santa Maria, for fresh paint before she moves from the hard to her summer slip. As the day ebbed away, I took a break while Gwenanne did some last-minute touch-ups with Bondo, I stood still and listened to hear: the lilt of chickadee, red wing black bird’s trill, wind strumming branches and water settling into shore. It was a miracle of sorts.

It is now deep in the night and as I sit the clock walks its circular path, ticking each step as purposeful as any step I have ever taken. Softly, but noticeably, in the back the gas fireplace makes sound: now a click, now a whoosh of gas, and then later the fan kicks in a blaze of sound. All the while a I perceive a low, but steady ring in my ears. I can imagine how painful this latter would be if it were louder and persistent.

I’ve heard of rooms where all the sound is shut out, and all you can hear, in them, is your body’s sounds. Perhaps, finally, there is no silence in our lives. There is always the beat of heart, the swoosh of blood through veins and arteries. There is always sound, it seems: ever an acoustic horizon for the play of our pathway from cradle to grave. But then, again, I wonder about the experience of those deaf

The bible talks of sheer silence, when Elija meets God. I can only imagine its sound, or not…

Painting Me in Three

I decided, not so long ago, that it was time to paint a portrait again. I generally work on landscapes but a few years ago I painted my Oppa, from a photograph. It was a most trying and satisfying experience: trying because I must have spent more time working on his eyes than any optometrist ever did. But satisfying because I remembered him as I painted: the way he teased Omma, his slow but graceful ways, his lovely accent, his warm smile, and the fact that he is – at least in part – where I come from. It was a richly satisfying experience, emotionally. But it was hard work for this amateur, not that painting landscapes isn’t. Yet this was altogether different. I’m not surprised it has taken me some time to come back to a portrait. The delay has been extended by the problem of deciding whom next to paint.

Some time ago I came upon the idea of doing a self-portrait. Yet, I knew I wanted to do something a little unusual and so have demurred. A couple of weeks ago I came upon an idea while cleaning up some files. I found a folder with some school photographs inspiring me to paint myself as a young lad. I spent some time pondering myself at twelve different stages. I came to the conclusion that I peaked in grade three, the year when my teacher likely combed my hair, and my teeth were all in place, and I seemed to exude a joy that suggests that life was pretty fine. I found my subject.

I have not yet started painting me in grade three, although I have done some sketches to warm up to the task before me. Drawing the sketches has been rather vexing. I come out looking like a young adult. With some re-working I can get myself down to what seems to be about grade seven. It is hard to draw myself at eight years of age. Perhaps the years have made it hard for me to reflect the adventurousness and curiousity of my public-school self. I can’t quite get me, but I have spent quite a bit of time looking at my eyes. The eyes seem to hold the key, and I will likely need a bit more sketch work before I wander toward the canvas.

In the meantime, I have been making an acquaintance of my grade three self. It has been most interesting. Questions emerge: what were my eight-year-old worries, joys, dreams, hopes? Was I proud of those delightful freckles? Where has my hair all gone? When I see myself in the photograph, I think that I would like to spend some time with that young man! Of course, I can and do spend time with him. He wanders around inside me; some days spreading more trouble than delight, and some days the opposite. Some days I send him to his room, but he generally sneaks out, and for that I am glad. We are spending quite a bit of time together these days!

I am not especially confident that this will be a successful venture, but I am absolutely certain that it will be worth every minute: looking at myself at a different stage in life, wondering whether one day I will be 82 painting my 56-year-old self ,and wondering: “What’s up with that grin?”

Acutely Awake

Such a peculiar beauty – winter, a
crystal white world wedding
the dream of sleep and
soft light affording
luxurious insight.
Winter’s wisdom is
generous. It sees
beyond fault – sharp
edges softened by snow;
hard surfaces now
dancing under the
play of sun’s illumining rays –
now from this angle
now from that.
This season of sleep is a
time of grace; of being
acutely awake to
other worlds.

Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

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I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.