Rituals of Choice

 It’s almost over now, that ritual dance of words at the heart of Canadian democracy. Except that it has seemed less like dancing and more like frenetic, vindictive stomping fuelled by fear. I refuse to take sides here; we need all sides, in continual conversation, if we are to find workable compromises. Human beings are much too diverse in their gifts and their dreams to be co-opted by one voice only. A subsequent drift toward an enforced single vision is all too likely, as history has demonstrated more than once.

 And therein lies the trouble with this recent combative chorus of political voices, each of which claimed that the other voices were wrong: the volume was unmistakable, the vision largely absent. I was listening for someone, somewhere, to move beyond specific promises to a discussion of what we might be and become as a nation. Does anyone these days vote according to what might be best for our country, instead of what might bring dollars to our personal wallets?

 A long time ago, long before elections, before imaginations could even conceive of democracy, when large empires became larger by swallowing up smaller, tribal nations, a certain prophet in Judah believed that systems could and would change: “Every man will sit under his own vine / and under his own fig tree, / and no one will make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). This was not quite as individualistic as we might see it these days, since the peace that would make such an idyllic scene possible was to be established on the premise that swords would be beaten into plowshares and that disputes would be settled communally—among people as well as among people groups. True, the writer assumed that that could happen only in a theocracy, but he was gracious enough—or realistic enough—to acknowledge that other peoples might choose to “walk in the name of their gods.”

The world has since known other conceptions of the common good, drawn other blueprints for a good society, attempted various economic arrangements that were supposed to deliver happiness to the many. We have learned a veritable vocabulary of politics—and the word “politics” refers essentially to the process of allocating resources among and to groups of people; that is, who gets what, when, and how is a political matter, no matter what organization deals out the resources. Politics should therefore not be a dirty word. It is always and everywhere present as we try to work out how we should live together peaceably.

 Along the way, human beings have moved from smaller, tribal societies held together by family loyalties and rituals of gift-giving, to more complex societies that gradually adopted principles of ownership. We have experimented with capitalism, communism, socialism, dictatorships (supposedly benevolent and otherwise), monarchies both absolute and limited, democracies of greater and lesser integrity.

This is not the place, nor am I qualified, to weigh out pros and cons.

Instead, I would rather turn to poetry.

I am sure that we should all read more poetry, from which the whispers of holiness have never been eradicated.

Sara Maitland

            In “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” William Stafford begins provocatively,

If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Various parades of current ideologies all invite us to follow something, some god. Stafford argues that our choices among those possibilities will be made blindly if we do not get to know one another. In other words, we cannot realize our potential, our calling, alone. His plural pronouns are not an accident.

Indeed, if we do not maintain our “fragile sequences,” the moral dikes we have built to hold violence and selfishness and atavistic tendencies at bay may break and allow all the “horrible errors of childhood” to “storm out to play.” That, it seems, we have seen in spades recently, on the internet, on the national scene, on political stages. There has been “shouting” aplenty, until the individual voice of reason can scarcely be heard at all.

 Stafford’s poem is ambiguous with its images of patterns and lines and elephants on the way to a circus. Leaders and followers proceed, sometimes on the way to the right destination, sometimes not. One isn’t sure whether it is a good idea to break the line for an individual choice or when one should maintain the “fragile sequence.”

photo of elephants in a line

This isn’t an easy world, by any means, but Stafford does seem to call on his readers (since we are to read this ritual to one another, discernment clearly does not occur in solitude) to “know what occurs” and to be willing to name such facts aloud, “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” Such thoughtfulness is unlikely if the conversation has devolved into mindless shouting of slogans.

  I have been haunted by Stafford’s final stanza for many years:

For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

After rereading those strange and wonderful lines yet again, I wonder if it might be a good idea to interrupt the campaigning and the pointless debates, in which ideas have given way to shouted “zingers,” with some poetry reading retreats.

Let’s gather candidates in each constituency, including the party leaders (each in his or her riding) in a comfortable room with soft lighting, good coffee, real food, no cameras or microphones for quiet discussion. A neutral moderator could choose the poem(s) and begin the conversation. Let there be thoughtful silences, real attention to language, good listening, respectful body language. Let there be no purpose in the gathering but to undo the problem of “if you don’t know the kind of person I am /. . .  we may follow the wrong god home and miss our star.”

 I could pay attention to a campaign with clear signals, spoken quietly by “awake people.”

            Meanwhile, the voting booths await our yeses and our nos.  

photo of bridge over a dark chasm in the woods.

Of Fruit and Knowledge

Originally published in Prairie Messenger on November 23, 2016, but revised now in celebration of another season of fruit that’s come to an end.            

Fruit and I have close kinship; it calls to me and I answer – eagerly. As far as I am concerned, there’s no such thing as too much fruit, especially wild fruit. Family lore claims I can spot wild strawberries in the ditch along the highway through the windows of a speeding car. Small grandchildren have already learned that on hikes in the Rockies, it pays to stay near Grandma. If there is wild fruit to be had—strawberries, currants, saskatoons, raspberries, blueberries—I will find it. And will happily “steal” it from the bears who probably need the calories more than my clan and I do. My guilt over the theft, if such it is, is quickly smothered by my confidence that there are more than enough berries for us all. So far.

Wild raspberries along the trail to Black Elk Peak in Black Hills National Park, South Dakota
Wild strawberry flowers, beautiful in their own right

 The reckless, extravagant abundance of fruit, wild and domesticated, never ceases to astonish me. Even granting that some fruit in a human diet is essential for vitamins and fibre, was the Creator obliged to provide so much, in such profligate variety? Or to infuse some fruits with so much juice and joy that the first bite is like sexual climax for sheer self-abandonment to sensual indulgence? The very shape and luster of fresh peaches, to take one example, is enough to make the sensitive blush, and the intensity of taste in wild strawberries or blueberries can be grasped only through experience, through knowing.

 And abruptly, the biblical sense of knowing – physical intimacy – comes into play. A raspberry is not real until it is crushed by the tongue, and one is never the same thereafter (I speak here of raspberries for which one has braved the prickly canes, not the ones sold in multinational grocery stores, hybridized for their longevity, and shipped days ago). Whatever fruit one imagines that the first human pair ate in search of forbidden knowledge—perhaps a mango which drips juice everywhere, or a pomegranate whose every seed is a burst of flavor and surprise—it becomes an apt symbol for the uprush of new experience, with all its consequences.

 Fruit and gardens: both are so symbolically rich (and wild fruit has additional hints of the illicit and the adventurous) that writers, from biblical times to the present, find them irresistible.  Isaiah the prophet could find no more apt picture of redemption than the transformation of a wilderness into a garden; for St. John, the Gospel writer, it seemed fitting that the grieving Mary Magdalene should mistake the risen Christ for the gardener; and to John of Patmos, Heaven was incomplete without a Tree of Life that bore fruit every month.   

As I think of writers I have recently encountered, none does more with fruit and gardens than Darcie Friesen Hossack. In her collection of short stories Mennonites Don’t Dance, she piles theological implications on top of too-skimpy pies and blushing fragile tomatoes, and deftly measures her characters by their ability—and willingness—to love dirt into fruitfulness. Those who “have no use for fruit” have adopted a soulless utilitarianism designed to shield them from vulnerability. Those with wholesome relationships, with others and with their God, are most likely to grow gardens and love fruit; they’re unafraid of sensuality and are generous of soul and habit.

 What appeals to me in Hossack’s painfully honest stories about family dynamics is the recurrent insistence on hope, through the fertile, lovely gardens, in the shameless, abundant juices of fruit. Hope, for children wounded by their parents’ struggle to come to terms with their own past, is born as they learn to put seeds into the soil or gather dandelions for wine–transformational activities which Hossack associates with the creative impulse itself, often by way of a fascination with texture, not just taste, or a heightened sensitivity to color.

Sour cherry tree in our back yard.

 That last symbolic connection draws in the very nature of beauty, and raises the theological question of whether one can learn to love God without also learning to love that which is beautiful and celebrating our human sensuality. I am reminded of poet John Keats’ famous words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” If we’re going to follow that line of thought back to the Garden of Eden and reclaim gardening as a necessary theological activity, maybe even as a prologue to love itself (since growing anything is a surrender of control), then . . . well, what then?

Already on that path is a growing congregation of earth-keepers, from backyard composters and determined urban gardeners to highly trained scientists estimating the number of years we have left before our entire earthly garden withers and all its inhabitants with it. Keats’ observation now takes on some urgency; if the interchangeability of beauty and truth is the sole knowledge necessary, then to seek and to gain that knowledge, we need to know also (through experience, through the crushed raspberry on the tongue) that we, and the beauty and truth that we must know (with all our passion and energy), are rooted in the earth, on the earth.  Knowing begins in dirt.

To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi