Adieu Iceland

This land is continually being born:
it ever brings forth new marvels, new
vistas, new possibilities. It sings of
change, and the power of play. I feel
this playful change seeping into me,
calling for

a molten mind,
a soul on fire, and
volcanic vision – even

while ice expands the fissures of my being open
and glaciers forge fjords of futures unbidden.

This land is etching itself onto
the geography of my body:
my skin now taut with
wonder, my lips now
quivering in hope,
and my heart
erupting now as
deep calls to depth,
and I feel myself shifting
while taking leave of this
tectonically trembling Ísland.

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The Rocks Ringing

Lapping waves have their own sagas.
Deep in their memories drift tales of
mer creatures, and Behemoth, and Jonah, and
water learning to listen to the One whose
voice stilled the sea, stills me – more water
than not, sitting on the rocks ringing this harbour.

This is not my Island, but still it
claims something of me: my
eyes behold its beauty with wonder, my
ears hear ancestors sing the wind, my
nose knows that sulfur has its own
history, a mystery in its own right, and
my skins feels the rough and cool of
basalt rock with two tongues.

I step mindfully in this place, because
I know that You, Holy One, have inhabited
this land of ice and fire

far longer than our remembering
far stronger than our forgetting.

I step carefully in this place, because You are

under every stone,
around every corner
within every sound

and I pine for Your appearing.

Finely Tuned in Iceland

We are nicely ensconced in Reykjavik, “we” being Gwenanne, myself and six brave pilgrims from the Waterloo area on a “Fun in the Midnight Sun” tour organized by TourMagination. We managed to negotiate yesterday’s jet lag and were up bright and early, and in time to make it to worship at Hallgrímskirkja, pictured below.

The church is a powerfully intoxicating. Built over 41 years, it looms large in Reykjavik, with its tower designed to mimic the spray of a geyser and the church itself is said to call to mind mountains, glaciers and the rock formation of this island nation called Iceland (Island in Icelandic). Visitors line up to go up the tower, take a handful of photos, and then leave, but we decided to forego the tower experience and worship with the local congregation.

Today is Trinity Sunday and the resident priest Irma Sjöfn Óskardóttir both preached and presided. The service included special guests in the form of a choir from the Dómkirkjan (Cathedral Church) of Reykjavik. They crafted a service that was inspiring, although we really understood nothing, aside from our ability to make out the form of the Lutheran service, with its overarching structure of gathering, word, meal and sending.

As the priest presided in this architectural wonder, with a kind of simplicity that draws heavily on our hunger for transcendence, I wondered how the space felt for her. I recall some years ago – in Keffer Chapel at Luther, where I work – while presiding at communion, the sense that the building was a part of symbolic clothing I was wearing that day (alb, stole and chasuble), mindful that where we are becomes a part of who we are. And then back in Hallgrímskirkjam, I heard the choir sing. I closed my eyes for a time and as the piece came to the end, the music just kept on going, spiraling around the room until it settled into silence. I thought of my colleague, Gerard, playing flutes in various guises and how he flowed through the instrument, and it struck me that the sanctuary was a kind of instrument transforming the voice of the choir; sanctifying it, in a sense. The space itself became God’s handiwork. It was a holy moment for me.

Later in the day, we enjoyed a conversation by Arnfriður Guðmundsdóttir at the University of Iceland concerning how climate change is impacting Iceland, and the church’s response to this. It was quite a different moment in the day, but holy in its own way as Arnfriður spoke of the ways in which hope can found in the tenacity of faith and its passion for justice for people and the earth. Fittingly, we learned that Guðmundsdóttir means “daughter of Guðmund,” and “Guðmund” references the hand of God. She too, was God’s handiwork. For her and for the day, we are all grateful.

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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.

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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