Traversing Thoughts

I’m back now
after some
days away and in
diverse ways this
wandering has
left me in
wonder:

Airports are organic
too and sometimes
chaotic markets are
coherent after
a fashion.

Airline tickets have
an aesthetic – a taste of
their own while
tongues, indeed, are
dry now and then.

And change, change
that matters may be
so subtle so
chameleon like
as to be
surreptitious.

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These Shillong Stairs…

These stairs
where I stay,
stay me. Each step
differently deep than
the other. My feet are at sea:
now they meet stone too soon,
now they reach for stone not yet there.
But soon I will leave this inn, this town,
these hills, even while they will
not leave me; having taught me
not to take my footing for
granted; having taught me
the unpredictable play
of geography, of traffic,
of taste; and maybe
just maybe rubbing
off on me some
unpredictability.

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.

Walking and Boating in a Good Way

I spent last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday learning a bit more about wampums from George Kennedy, a teacher brought in by ANDPVA for their Creation and Clan Workshops held at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre. You can see some photos from the event here, with a shout out to Marissa Magneson for the awesome photography gracing these pages.

I have to admit I was a bit hesitant about investing three days at a wampum workshop. Time is precious, but by the end of the first day I knew I made the right decision. For those who do not know about wampums, they are treaties made in beads. The Two-Row Wampum pictured below was a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch. The two purple rows represent the two rivers they travelled on: one by canoe and the other by ship. The fact that these rows are parallel speaks to the commitment that the two communities will not interfere in each other’s business. The three white lines represent peace, friendship and respect. You can learn more about this wampum here.

Building a replica of this historic wampum was far more challenging than one might first imagine, and so was profoundly satisfying. The afternoon was structured around teaching, creating and eating, and the three wove together in a beautiful braid. I was reminded of the proverb that “a three-fold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) As we beaded, we all shared stories and got to know one another, and sometimes we just worked away at difficult bits in silence. A bit of a community of very diverse people developed. It was a magical time, and I am so very thankful to the organizers, George and my fellow participants: young and old, Indigenous and not, men and women and two-spirited, residential school survivors, and recent immigrants.

Since the event was held in downtown Toronto, and I did not want to spend three days fighting traffic on the infamous highway 401, I chose to sleep on my sailboat in a nearby Burlington, and take a commuter train to Toronto each day. From Union Station in downtown Toronto I took the subway to Dundas Street, and walked 15 minutes or so, traversing Dundas Square, replete with flashy larger than life screens before making my way, a few streets down, where I passed Margaret’s Respite Centre and its visitors who have great need of care and love. The character of Dundas changes every few blocks, as is common in downtown Toronto, and so I visited some very disparate worlds before landing in the warm and welcoming doors of the Toronto Council building. I did all of this in reverse at the end of each day.

Doing so allowed me to think about the teaching of the Two-Row, and the other wampums we discovered. I wasn’t exactly travelling by boat or canoe each day, but the lessons applied: even though we all travel our own paths, a commitment to maintain peace, friendship and respect does much to advance God’s mission to mend the entire universe. In Canada, that mending most surely includes working towards Truth and Reconciliation in Settler relationships with First Peoples. But these principles also travel well, and each of us is invited to imagine how the Two-Row might inform our relationships in our families, our neighbourhoods, our work-places etc.

I am so very happy for my time in Toronto last week, and pray Creator’s blessings on this ongoing work that advances God’s Reign of love and justice in Regent Park and beyond.

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Highway Eleven – Saskatchewan

I drove into a William Kurelek
painting the other day – the sky
an orb, seeing me
travelling in God’s eye. I
stopped at a roadside
coffee spot, and saw
two wizened souls

she in spotted frock

and

he with hat crooked just so,

both leaning into the wind and
wearing both weariness and joy.

I travelled past wounded windmills,
from another time, and felt my soul
caressed by granaries old
enough to be my Omma and Oppa –
they called out:
“Do not forget your whence

and

Do not forget that your whither

cannot be divined.”

On our Way to Wawa

A certain Zen attends this most
non-pedestrian of affairs.
I am behind the wheel –
this circle, this eternity –
that unveils the truth
it is: what goes round is first
found in You, Point
of departure,
of arrival,
of travel.

This, my peregrination to points
last seen two decades ago, may
or may not be pilgrimage.
How am I to know? My
not-knowing is a hard truth.

But this too is true:
I cannot
take a step,
drive a kilometre,
sail a nautical mile or
traverse the continent without You
upending each ending and
bending each first.

Yesterday’s Thoughts

My wife is off to Portugal to build a house, so our house now hosts none save me. This is a bit of a turn of events in our life together. For years she was at home while I went here and there with work. I’ve never travelled a lot with work, but enough to know that it is something best enjoyed in smaller bits. Work travel also generally has that odd character of being nearly “a-topical,” that is, you are in a place but not really. Most of the time is spent in hotels, or conference centres and the lovely people you get to meet are rarely the people who inhabit the land you visit.

I think it will be a bit different for Gwenanne. She is on a build with Habitat for Humanity, for whom she works. The people who receive the home work alongside the international builders, so she will have plenty of occasion to rub shoulders with locals. She went a few days early, and so had a bit of a chance to engage Porto. She has the happy opportunity of being in Portugal over Holy Week, so I am sure she will have tales to tell.

When I was doing graduate study in Toronto, we lived in what is called “Little Portugal.” The folk there were from the Azores Islands, which are half way between Portugal and the Americas. Most of our neighbours were fairly recent immigrants with limited English. When I went to the local grocer, or barber, only Portuguese was heard. Nonetheless, everyone was so kind and made an effort to engage us as best as they were able. I have such vivid memories of sardines on the barbecues in the summer and wine production in the fall. I also remember marvellous custard tarts, which G recently reported having found in Porto, and without compare. So far, no comment on grilled sardines has been made.

Being on my own usually means I am cooking or baking or making something. Today it was rye bread, beer and then banana bread this evening. Yesterday it was granola. I am afraid that my production levels are outstripping my consumption patterns. Cooking, it seems, is the way I negotiate being on my own. All the same, the quiet has not been oppressive. I turned the radio on at lunch time, for a bit, but quickly sent it packing. My herring and Akvavit were adequate dinner companions. Tomorrow a guest comes for a few days, and then it is the chaos that is the week, before I fly to Halifax to spend the Triduum with my youngest. Gwenanne returns the day after I do.

I think that I am finding balm in the quiet because the week prior to this was pure lunacy. This was, in part, a product of poor planning from my side and the simple collision of events in the accident that is life. Well, of course, life is not only accidents. We plan, God laughs, and then we react. Sometimes the best reaction is to get on a train and go see some art, which I did yesterday. Sometimes the best reaction is to cook, which I did today. And sometimes the best reaction is to go to church and to listen again to the stories of God’s accompaniment with us. That is my plan for tomorrow – inshallah.