Sixty and Holding

I am only just now back from celebrating my in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary. A quotable quote from the event was noted by my wife. She said that when she picked up flowers for this auspicious event, the clerk upon hearing about the anniversary, told her that her parents “came from the era when you didn’t throw things away.”

We talked a bit about this around the table. At a literal level this was true. I remember my Omma’s basement, once rife with the things that my mother would have thrown away in a heartbeat, and think on my mother’s basement, once rife with things that I would have thrown away in the day. With every generation, it seems, comes a little less anxiety about tomorrow’s basic needs. And yet other anxieties accrue.

I was chatting at this event with a relative who has worked for the same company since his twenties. I commented that it is becoming a very rare thing that someone should live out their working days with one company. Of course, in his instance, it actually wasn’t the same company since this company had been bought out along the way and he had somehow managed to ride out the waves of downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing that more commonly characterize the “rationalizing” of resources in a globally competitive world. The “logic” of this economy is expediency: the image of the economy as a reflection of the household is sacrificed to the image of the economy as a reflection of a well-oil machine: rid of excess. If something is not needed, then, toss it out: an employee, a friendship, a faith, a relationship, a whatever.

I am not being nostalgic for the past here. I know that the days of my grandparents where marked by lack and loss. They hoarded because they (barely) lived through the Great Depression; but still, they held onto virtues that are not only too rarely present today, but too often forgotten. These virtues include, among others, patience for delayed gratification and fortitude for commitment. You stuck with something believing it would pay off in the end; and a promise was a promise. I am fully aware that this too often resulted in commitment to loveless, and even abusive, marriages and more. Such simply cannot be countenanced, and yet, in our life together we need to re-imagine what it might mean to think twice before throwing things away and tossing people to the winds of change.

The upcoming generation gives me hope in diverse ways. I think, for instance, of the awareness of some of my students of global issues, or the growing popularity of board games against the onslaught of video games or the arrival the zero-waste movement. Some seem well aware that technology is not enough to meet humanity’s deepest needs. I am heartened by those in my children’s generation who seek after something beyond the quickest way up the corporate ladder, somehow intuiting that the bottom line is simply that: the point from which we begin to be by moving beyond “me”. My generation has been seduced by technology, but theirs – I think – might well be able to take some distance in knowing that know-how needs to be replaced by know-who: know who you are, and know from whom you come. They may yet become the generation that refuses the quick fix and a throw-away way of being in the world. Perhaps we may yet see the proverb come to fruition: “a little child shall lead them.” We can but hope.

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From Inside a Prayer Bead

This weekend my middlest daughter came home to visit. She took the bus from Ottawa to Toronto and my wife and I went in to pick her up. Gwenanne was going to a work Christmas party in Toronto and so after picking up N, we dropped Gwenanne off and the two of us headed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there that I had been hoping to catch, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Mystical Landscapes” is curated by Katharine Lochnan who, of late, is also a student of theology. The art she has drawn together in the exhibit is powerful and includes heavy hitters: Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Munch as well as a number of Group of Seven, Nordic and Western European landscape artists. I was especially entranced by some lithographs of Charles Marie Dulac. His pieces were ethereal and yet intimated an earthen connection that gives the viewer the feeling of being both grounded and floating. This is an artist experiencing something of a revival that is well deserved. The curators wisely set aside what I might call a “side chapel” for his work, which was most helpful in that his art is so subtle that it needs to be enjoyed in its own right/rite in a different light. We moved on a bit altered.

After making our way through the rest of this veritable feast for our eyes, we took in some sights at one of the floors dedicated to contemporary art and then headed off for a bite to eat. On returning we were wandering about, not quite aimlessly but nearly so, coming upon the sign for “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures.” We look at each other, shrugged and entered. I had remembered reading a bit about it in a magazine, and was immediately intrigued as we came upon the first display. Many of the displays were of prayer beads, commissioned rosaries wherein the bead was actually a small “ball” about 4 to 5 centimetres in diameter. The balls open up and illustrates scenes from Christ’s life. These prayer beads, crafted some 500 years ago have details not visible to the naked eye. The AGO has done a remarkable amount of research around these, and in a video we learned of Micro CT scanning that allowed researchers to take the beads apart virtually without dissembling them. It was really quite captivating, and when we reached the end of the display there was a young woman asking if we might be interested in a virtual tour of a prayer bead. Of course we said yes, and then each of us, in turn, was fitted with a head set and a set of googles that allowed us to “see” an opened prayer bead in front of us, seemingly about 4 to 5 metres wide and the same high. A control stick allowed us to expand certain sections, and we were able to “step” right into the ball. From inside we could bend down and look up at features carved into characters mere millimetres in size. I can’t quite describe the experience. It was utterly fascinating. I left the AGO on cloud nine.

On the drive home I thought about my experiences at the art gallery. They covered such a wide range: I was awed by a kind of minimalist art with a spirituality that left me without words, and I was also bowled over by a veritable army of technological innovation that made the impossible possible. These two experiences shared something, and I am still thinking about that. Good art, and the technology that supports it, moves us in ways various and sundry to the end that we live with just a little more awe – sometimes pondering the possibility that we really are making our way, day by day, through the bead that is prayer.

Pokégone

Not so many months ago, people were running around local parks looking for this elusive Pokémon or that, jumping fences in pursuit of cyber characters. There was much talk about the genius of this hybrid activity that was getting young folk and others out of houses and into the fresh air. I’ve noticed of late that fewer are on the hunt. It might be attributed to the weather, but still we have had a warm fall and it seems that the rage really has been ratcheted down in our parts. It never really made a big impact on our daughters, who are the age of its biggest fans.

My daughters did not play Pokémon in its heyday. While their friends enjoyed the game, they missed out on it because they didn’t think we could afford it. This was, a conclusion they came to on their own and in part, it reflected our decision in those days not to have cable. Consequently they could not watch the animated shows, nor did we have the Game Boy necessary to support the video games. Interestingly, they never asked about it, and it passed us by.

While it is true that we didn’t have a lot of money in those days – I was a graduate student and my wife was at home with the girls – their self-understanding at that time of our family as poor interests me. In some ways, they were correct. We didn’t have a lot of cash, and we lived frugally. But the girls never went without what they most needed, and we were even able to enjoy summer holidays some years. For the four years of my studies I had a bit of money from scholarships, a part-time pastorate and student loans. Our shekels, when scraped together, kept us above the poverty line. All the same, we lived well and I have fond memories of those days.

I remember, in particular, my last year in my program as a full time student. I split up my time with writing my dissertation, preaching on Sundays and caring for a small community, and teaching a theology class. I recall it as one of the finest years in my life, doing all the things I loved with hardly a meeting to attend. It was a rich life in many ways – at least for me, but one year was enough. It was time to move along.

Eventually we got cable, which we have since ditched. All the same, Pokémon never caught on – perhaps it was too late. Eventually our daughters came to realize that poverty and riches can be measured in diverse ways, and our place in a so-called first world meant that we are too often differently needy. And yet, slivers of light showed us and show us still that God gives us each other, as well as ways to live with some meaning and hope in our world and as well as the divine Self in Word and world. At the intersection of faith and love, hope shapes us into believing that a different way is possible: the coming Reign of justice, kindness and humility gives us something more substantive to seek than cyber characters. It drives us out of our pews and off of our haunches into a world where deep mysteries light our way and holy moments sustain us in dark times.

A Toast to Sabbath

Last week my wife bought a new toaster. It is a beautiful kitchen appliance with its artful balance of white and brushed metal, and a shape that would surely make it aerodynamic if it were to sprout wheels, which may yet happen. Why do I say that?

Well, when we first plugged in the toaster and fed it a piece of my wife’s lovely homemade bread, we were surprised to see a bright blue light emit from it when the knob was pushed down. We looked at each other, baffled at the utility of the blue glow that our toaster cast in our kitchen. Of course, it isn’t only our toaster that leaves us scratching our heads. I still recall our very first microwave oven. When our warmed milk was ready, a lovely “Ding!” called us to late night libation. I lost count of the number of “beebs” our latest microwave offers us. I fear buying another, wondering what will be done to outdo this senseless sting of sounds. All of which brings me to my observation: just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should do it.

Of course that insight isn’t altogether new. My mother told me it regularly as a child. Although this lesson might be lost on some designers, I think it is more relevant than ever because it seems we can do ever more things. After all doing one thing means not doing another; adding this beep means losing that silence; seeing this light means losing that soft shadow,

The question concerning what a technician should do – given what they can do – is not unrelated to the question of what a scientist should do in light of what they can do; nor is it unrelated to the question of what a politician, a bureaucrat, or a clergy person can do and what they should do. Choosing not to do something that I can do is a fascinating even if an unusual experience. We are encouraged to do whatever we can guided by the mantra of “no pain, no gain.” Yet experience teaches us that sometimes gain itself is a pain we cannot bear. There are moments in life when the most important job we have to do is to be still and wait.

Being still is an important spiritual discipline. Of course, it is not all there is to life. But it really is the condition for the possibility of living life in its richest iterations. Taking time to be is simply making time itself meaningful. To savour a second, a minute, an hour is to imbibe eternity, and so to live in Sabbath’s serenity.

Drum Beat Suite

Yesterday I attended a Pow Wow.  For those who have never been to such an event, it is marvelous opportunity to experience something of the spiritual, cultural, and artistic lives of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  Many things struck me as memorable: the sacred fire at the east inviting all to make a prayer with a pinch of tobacco; the swirling colours as dancers drew us into the dream of living in vital harmony; the honour accorded elders; the joy – shining in faces of young and old; and feathers, beautiful feathers drawing my mind on high.  But one thing stuck out for me above all else: an announcement.

At the beginning of the Pow Wow, after the prayer to the Great Spirit, and the Grand Entrance, it was announced that a dear elder from the Six Nations of the Grand River had died, and so an honour dance was to be performed to help her on her way.  Alongside of this was what usually accompanies honour songs: the request for all to stand, for men to remove their hats, and the prohibition of photo or videos.  This latter struck me as especially significant.  In our world where video and audio record our every thought, our every choice, our every experience, and so define our very existence, here I divined something different.  Memory was loosed from technology.  What do I remember from this unrecorded moment?  I remember the drum, beating in a way that was not so much heard as felt; an invitation to have my heart beat in harmony with the Creator and all who held this moment as hallow.  I remember Margaret, a friend and colleague of mine whom I bumped into at this Pow Wow, who thought that this was a healing moment for not only those mourning the recently departed, but all who dealt with any manner of loss.  I remember the dancers spinning, feathers seeming to sustain them as they spun a prayer of thanks for an elder who was remembered in hugs that filtered throughout the community.  I remember the smell of sweet-grass smoke, wafting with memories and hopes for a future lived with integrity with those who prepared our way but have passed on to another way.

I am no Luddite: I am not against technology.  Sometimes I delight in what it makes possible.  But every now and then we live into the moment in an altogether different way when we set down our stuff.  We discover that much is to be gained from calling upon our senses to capture – not everything – but what most matters: a drum strung taut, singing the woes and the wonders of a world that can only be hinted at with words as paltry as these.