On the Privilege of Bearing Burdens

(First written over two years ago, and now revisited in memory of my brother)

 Such a triumvirate of memento mori that was, in the space of two months or less: first the announcement of the dreaded Diagnosis (two of them, in fact, one in my husband’s family and one in mine); then the request to serve as Power of Attorney and Personal Agent (albeit the requester was still in excellent health); and somewhere in between, a book fell off the shelf into my hands – The Good Funeral by Thomas Long, theologian, and Thomas Lynch, funeral director. Clearly, I needed to pay attention.

Given my age and my status as the youngest in my family, I was not surprised that I should be reminded so directly and repeatedly that none of us is immortal. (The deaths of a good friend and of a brother within the last six months have sharpened that reminder.) That comes with the territory of post-retirement years.

photo of lake with geese and a bare tree on the shore.

What did surprise was an abrupt reversal of one of my assumptions, thanks to The Good Funeral. The book has much wisdom to offer on all kinds of matters, particularly the North American evasion of all reminders of death and the strange banishment of the body from all public displays of grief, limited as those displays now are. That cultural analysis I had encountered before. But I had never seriously questioned the commonly used phrase “I don’t want to be a burden.” Indeed, I had said it myself, if not so bluntly.

  An understandable sentiment, surely, an appropriate recognition of our dignity. Being a burden means becoming dependent on others who, presumably, have better things to do with their time than care for us. The agony of giving up a driver’s license, for example, lies in the coming horror of having to ask others for rides, to the grocery store, to church, to a friend’s home, unless public transit is readily available. And if physical mobility has become a challenge, then even public transit ceases to be an option. Any and all disabilities, including mental deterioration, can turn us into a “burden.”  

rocky edge of Lake Superior.

 How have we come to use such language? “Burden,” as a friend pointed out to me, “is such a negative word. It gathers in weight and awkwardness and struggle, all of it unwanted.”  Human “burdens” claim time and emotional energy—to do errands, help with chores, listen, make appointments, assume legal responsibilities, change bed linen. There’s no assigned contract limit for such a commitment to bear the weight of another’s physical weaknesses and to hold in one’s mind and heart an immeasurable emotional heaviness. Patience is required, abundant patience, which is another way of saying that one’s own interests and choices must be set aside.

 Being afraid of making such claims on others seems understandable, yet shouldn’t we think more carefully about the very nature of our relationships before insisting, instinctively, that we will not be a burden to anyone? What virulent strain of individualism has persuaded us that we can get through life without being a burden or without carrying a burden?

 But then, I hadn’t even questioned the concept of burdensomeness until I read The Good Funeral. Thomas Lynch caught my attention with his musings about how the first human death might have been experienced: suppose the woman wakes up to find her partner unresponsive, cold – what is she to do?

In a warm climate, she will soon know that the unresponsive one must be removed or she will have to find another cave for herself. Whether she elects to leave the body to the animals and birds or to bury it or to push it off a cliff into the sea, she will have to accompany the body to its last resting place.

As Lynch imagines it, “maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties who do their part sensing that they may need exactly this kind of help in the future” (57, italics mine). From then on, Lynch argues, human beings are human precisely in their ritual responses to death, rituals in which people, in a community, care for the grieving ones and dispose of the body with due respect.

sunset on lake with interesting clouds and a jet streak

 In his questioning of the concept of preplanning funerals—to avoid “being a burden to your family”—Lynch points out a simple fact I hadn’t thought about long enough: just as our children were once a burden to us in the sense of needing to be fed and carried and changed and trained, etc., so too will those children carry the weight of others as they grow older, first their own children and then their parents. That is the normal order of life and death (and I’m well aware that that order is sometimes upset, creating a particularly painful mourning).

Quite apart from this parent-child relationship, human beings thrive only in community and that entails taking on some burdens for others and becoming a burden to others. Of such is humanity. To pretend that we can manage our affairs so precisely that we never need the help of anyone whom we haven’t already paid for professional services is foolish, and deprives others of their turn to practice compassion, that most human of all qualities. 

Isn’t it time that we simply accepted the weight of being a human being? Then perhaps we can carry that weight with all the dignity that becomes those who stand a little lower than the angels, who, we are told, know nothing of the glory of bearing burdens. 

Does graciousness mean you want to help–or that you don’t and do it anyway? The definition of grace is that it’s not deserved. It does not require a good night’s sleep to give it, or a flawless record to receive it. It demands no particularly backstory.”   

Leslie Jamison

Meditation on Peppernuts

    It was time, definitely. There are those who begin their Christmas planning in July, their shopping in early October, and their baking in early November. Not I. Thanks to many years of teaching—and other reasons, of which more later—my family knew that Christmas didn’t begin in our house until exams were graded or urgency demanded it, whichever came first. The habit still lingers. But last week, as of this writing, it was time to begin baking.

Among my people, and in my immediate family, peppernuts are essential. Peppernuts (aka pfeffernüsse {German} or päpanät {Low German} or pebernodden {Danish}, etc.) are tiny, crisp, spicy – and addictive; eating only one is impossible. They’re wonderfully dunk-able in tea or coffee and perfect for keeping small children occupied in church.

photo of teapot, mug, oranges and bowl of peppernuts
Peppernuts and oranges and tea – all you need for Christmas entertaining, according to Doris Longacre, editor of More with Less Cookbook

 Making peppernuts is both labor-intensive and child-friendly. The dough itself is simple enough; its special character derives from added spices, which are variously decreed by traditional family recipes. It’s once the dough is mixed that children can be invited to roll the soft dough into thin snakes—hey, it’s like playing with playdough! After being solidly frozen, the dough-snakes are thinly sliced, and each small round placed on cookie sheets.  More fun for children. Then wait for the smell of warm spices all through the house.

 No longer having any young children around to conscript for help, I began alone, braced for inevitable memories. First, though, the pleasure of the work. Oh, I’ve heard about efforts (probably by men) to adapt a sausage machine into a dough slicer so that the work could be done more quickly. As if work is, by definition, onerous. But if I offer up the tactile pleasures of cookie dough to the god of efficiency, to what shall I give that “redeemed” time? To other work that I might likewise construe as onerous?

photo of recipe book, baking pan, snakes of dough, and the bowl with dough.
I’m still using the recipe I got from my mother-in-law almost 50 years ago, but now I’ve made it gluten- and egg-free. It still works.

 On the contrary, I would rather enter the task and make it beautiful, something of which I had already learned when I happened across Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful distinction between “washing the dishes to get them done” and “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” I’m not a complete Luddite; arthritic hands make me glad for a hand mixer, although I still miss the satisfaction of creaming butter using a wooden spoon. I’m just grateful that I can still roll out the dough, make even slices, and line them up on the cookie sheet, precisely the right distance apart.

 Then there’s the bits of raw cookie dough from the ends of snakes (I say fie on those who would rob me of that delight with talk of unsafe food practices), a taste of many Christmases past. And, yes, here come the memories, all of them, like a series of snapshots, from “tolerable—even warm and fuzzy” to “unbearable.”  

 Am I really the only one who anticipates Christmas with dread and joy? The season is so hyped, so elongated (it begins already with the snuffing out of Hallowe’en jack-o-lanterns and even appears, in places, in July), so stuffed with stories of plentitude and sentimentality that it raises anticipation to ridiculous levels, and provokes in me a curmudgeonly wish that Christmas be outlawed.

Then those who dwell purposefully within the sacred narrative could celebrate in secret, pondering what it means that divinity has been embodied in fallible humanity, while the rest of the population could find some other pretext for an orgy of buying more stuff and putting up more decorations. The advertising-fuelled expectations of Martha Stewart-style fabulous dinners and parties could then be held separate from the spiritual longing for redemption from pointlessness and violence and heartache.

Sure, the carols—or rather the Christmas-themed songs—do sometimes acknowledge that someone might not come home for Christmas, or that money might be too scarce for gift-giving. That’s but a token gesture for those whose families are too dysfunctional to gather over a turkey (if there is one) without some kind of bad ending. Or for those who mourn losses too painful to celebrate anything. And I don’t even want to imagine what this season of jolly commercial goodwill means in the midst of a war zone or in refugee camps or in slums.

 It’s not popular to speak of such stories at Christmastime. Try changing the conversation to world conflicts or poverty when someone in a store asks yet again, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Always I want to retort, “What do you mean by ready? Who is ever ready for the drastic upending that it would take to bring about ‘peace and good will to all’?” Indeed, what would we do if glory did reveal itself to our harried minds?

 Even as I take the first pan of peppernuts out of the oven, browned to perfection, I know that railing about Christmas demands will not solve either the vexing problems of the world or more particular family stresses. Nevertheless, I will make peppernuts—every year—and share them, with the family, with friends. I will make other favorite cookies, and, if it’s my turn to host, will cook the turkey and all the other dishes that surround it on the carefully set table with its lit candles.

a table set with good china, wine glasses, candles and decorations
Not our usual family setting, which is definitely more than four – this was, as I recall, a meeting of friends.

 We will also bring such gifts as the family has agreed upon, whether it be an in-house exchange or a charitable donation on behalf of the family. There will be pleasure in the doing and the making and the buying, if I choose to be mindful and to acknowledge the sources of my anxiety over all over all of the above. Familiar rituals give birth also to good memories. Neither ritual nor memories of whatever sort should be ignored.

 From the very first Christmas I can remember—during which I watched it all from my sick bed—to other Christmases, including one in which funeral flowers became the living-room decorations and no cookies at all were baked, I can choose to welcome the beautiful even as I learn to accept the reality of messy human experiences. Just as we revel in the diamonds of hoarfrost in the midst of bitter cold, finding warmth where possible, and giving thanks.

It’s all of a piece, isn’t it? Memories and fresh peppernuts.  

photo of teapot, napkin, full coffee mug, and bowl of peppernuts.

The Audacity of Hope

 “Signs and wonders are always doubted, and perhaps they are meant to be. In the absence of certainty, faith is more than mere opinion; it is hope.”

 (Mary Doria Russell in Children of God)

Hope is, by definition, tenuous. It is not certainty, not even probability. It is a clinging to the barely possible, in the face of more likely, undesirable possibilities. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson insisted, “That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune—without the words, / And never stops at all.” Hope is illogical and necessary, in equal measure. “Faith, hope, and love,” declared St. Paul, are the bedrock of theology. Also of sociology and psychology.

Also of stories. Whether the stories are fiction or history or memoir or true in some other sense, we listen with longing for wisdom and for a resolution that will satisfy. For this reason, modern fiction and drama often frustrates because of its seeming hopelessness, its bleak endings. I would argue, though, that hope is visible in the stoic courage of those who endure suffering without seeing an end. The little thing with feathers still “sings sweetest in the gale.”

One of literature’s frequent symbols of hope is the birth of a child. One tiny being suggests possibilities where none existed before. At the most elemental level, a baby means that the parents are fertile—the clan will not die out, there will be another harvest, the tribe can thrive under better leadership. Ancient myths are replete with miraculous stories of birth. Anything is then possible; all things are possible.

Yet nothing is guaranteed. The hope-full Advent story includes swords and later on, a cross. Even a cursory survey of literature offers sufficient examples of what T.S. Eliot calls the “hope for the wrong thing” (East Coker). When hope forgets humility and love turns into demand, the promised little one can only disappoint.  

In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster’s classic British novel on social class, a rich capitalist family, a cultured, artistic, intelligent family, and a struggling low-class family with little in common encounter one another through tentative friendships, and brief romances, only to fall into misunderstandings and antagonism. It all seems hopeless, until an illegitimate son is conceived out of a brief passion between the lower class young man and the younger daughter of the cultural elite. Despite that intimation of hope, though, the poor baby seems the child of an artificial marrying of intellectual concepts, not actual people.    

Similarly, in two Canadian novels, Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House, literally illegitimate children are made to embody hope for resolution of age-old conflicts. In Wild Geese, the conflict is between a pioneer patriarch’s cold, selfish drive to possess and control both property and family, and his daughter’s earthy vitality, sensuality, and rebellious drive for freedom. It is a gender-driven conflict that pits materialism against nature itself, and nature, through the now-pregnant daughter, wins, if one can overlook the swashbuckling, impulsive father of the child who may or may not be able to provide adequately for his new partner and child.

In As For Me and My House, set in the 1930s, the situation is even bleaker. The narrator/protagonist and her husband, who have moved through several dustbowl towns, giving inadequate ministerial care to survivors of repeated crop failures, are both failed artists: he’s a painter and she’s a pianist. Neither had sufficient courage to match their artistic ambition and instead stumbled into a marriage and a half-sham performance as preacher and preacher’s wife. Everything around them and in them is infertile; they have no child (to the acute disappointment of them both) and their gardens die. The baby at the end is born of a brief liaison between the minister and a young parishioner (who conveniently dies in childbirth). The minister’s wife, who knows of the affair, insists that they adopt the baby and then move away into the big city to begin a new life with a new career. Such an adoption and such a marriage have but a snowball’s chance in hell of thriving, but there is no doubt that Ross is using an ancient symbol of hope, possibly ironically.

Indeed, the hope seems the hope for the wrong thing. The poor babies are asked to bring peace to ancient oppositions and to do so without an adequate foundation of love.      

Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, also offer us babies as carriers of hope, but the tone is different. These novels are speculative fiction, located on earth and on Rakhat, a distant planet with two sentient species. The Jesuits’ first exploratory mission ends in seeming disaster, both for the planet and for the protagonist, whose faith, once close to sainthood, is utterly destroyed. Two babies play a crucial role. The first is born among refugees from an inter-species war of survival. The only human child on Rakhat, Isaac is fatherless and autistic; his mother, Sophia, sees no hope for this strange child among alien species. Yet he is gifted and creates an unearthly, uniquely beautiful piece of music based on the DNA sequences of humans, Runa, and Jana’ata. All three species recognize, in Isaac’s music, an example of God’s grace made manifest in the midst of on-going tragedy. Audacious as it may seem, hope remains.  

Back on earth again, at the end of the second novel, the weary ex-priest has gone, on the Day of the Dead, to weep alone at the tomb of the woman he had once hoped to marry. He has, he thinks, lost everyone he has ever loved. A young woman with a baby approaches, addressing him as “Padre.” He looks in amazement at her features, startlingly familiar, and sees a daughter he did not know he had begotten just before he was forcibly taken back to Rakhat. In submission to this new manifestation of grace, he opens his damaged arms to receive little Tommaso, his grandchild. Not all doubt has been resolved—it never will be—but love has become possible again. Nothing else is asked of this little one, just love.    

I end with a personal story. When I finally became pregnant with our oldest child, my parents had probably given up hope that we would ever give them grandchildren. At the time, my mother had entered another long period of depression. Even the brief return home of my older brother from Africa failed to rouse her from inner pain. My pregnancy was merely another cause for anxious fretting. 

My mother holding our infant son

Yet among my family treasures is a photo of my mother holding our son for the first time. Her smile recalls the beauty of her youth, when she was full of hope for the future. Our baby brought her back out of the darkness, admittedly not for very long. Life rarely works that simply. Yet those few months of newfound joy were a gift, and still are.

As T. S. Eliot warned, hope can be the “hope of the wrong thing,” just as love can be “the love of the wrong thing.” Even our worthiest expectations can be hubristic wishful thinking, just as Jesus’ birth, in an occupied country to an oppressed people, raised hopes of immediate political deliverance that were later nailed to the cross. This is not to say that we should not hope, for without hope, life—and love—cannot be sustained,  

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.  (T.S. Eliot)

Originally published in Prairie Messenger, December 13, 2017.

Mind Your Questions

“It’s all a matter of paying attention, being awake in the present moment, and not expecting a huge payoff. The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses.” (Charles de Lint)

 So it happened yet again, at a biannual extended family gathering. Whether this story is mine to tell or belongs to someone else who granted me permission to tell it is not germane to the matter at hand. Let’s just call him Adam—or Eve. Your choice.

 Adam had retired since the last family gathering and wasn’t much of a hand at letter-writing, or Facebook posts. Inevitably, then, The Question came, in this case from a hearty, well-meaning cousin. “Hey, Adam. I hear you’re retired now. Are you keepin’ busy?”
     Dutifully, Adam began giving an account of himself, including volunteer work at the Children’s Hospital and the local soup kitchen, the home projects that had been postponed for years, the church committee work he now had time for, and the university course he was taking for his own pleasure. At which point, the cousin expressed astonishment: “What the . . . .? Aren’t you supposed to be retired?”

 There you have it in two breaths—the hopelessly contradictory assumptions we have about retirement. On the one hand, since people are valued for the work they do and the pay they get for it, not being busy is the ultimate form of uselessness. Heaven forbid that we should have time to be, to reflect, to live quietly in the moment simply because it’s been given and is precious.

Pike Lake, near Saskatoon, SK, on a quiet fall afternoon, when just to be alive is enough.

On the other hand, our equally common assumption about work is that it is a sentence to be served, a debt to society that once paid should be rewarded by endless days of leisure and pleasure. Thus, the only approved ways of managing retirement, to judge by most advertising and by the ubiquitous “keepin’ busy?” are extended travel and perpetual golfing.

 What both questions pointedly ignore is that Adam—or Eve—is not accountable to every Tom, Dick, and Sherry who chooses to probe Adam or Eve’s use of time. For twenty or forty or even fifty years, Eve has obediently filled out time sheets, turned in regular reports, endured yearly evaluations, completed projects, explained to her parents that she was indeed doing what they had taught her to do, met her family’s needs, and served society. For thirty years and many more, Adam has wondered when he could finally call his soul his own (which, realistically, he can’t ever do, since we all have our being in the communities and roles that make us who we are). Yet now, when he no longer owes his soul to the company store, for the sake of civility, he has to give account of himself to every Shaun, Vicki, and Harry? Doesn’t that verge on being rude and unjust?

 Oh, many retirees over ever so many decades have genially gone along with the joke and made up facetious replies on the fly: “Oh, I keep busy watching the paint grow old on the walls.” “Hey, the grandkids keep me busier than I ever was. I don’t know how I found time to work.” “Man, I’m working my way through the beers (or novels!) that have been waitin’ for me.” And so on. The socially adept will find their way through this conversational minefield as they have found their way through countless other necessary meetings and greetings. It will not do to make too much of the usual awkwardness of finding something to say to someone one doesn’t know well but would still like to acknowledge.

My sympathies are extended, though, to the Eves and Adams who are introverts, those private people who treasure their newly acquired space in which to seek the inner quietness that has always beckoned them, who want to give their time to carefully chosen projects that were never meant to be loudly public. For them, the nosiness of “keepin’ busy?” is an intrusion on privacy, and the often trivializing responses to an honest account given in good faith feel humiliating. Maybe we could craft some gentle rebukes that can convey the gist of “none of your damn business” without spoiling the friendly tone of the conversation. I’ve heard someone say, “Well, I don’t have any days in which I stare at the wall and wonder to do next.” Or also, “I am content. Is that what you wanted to know?” My favorite response is “I’m doing nothing of socially redeeming value.” Which deftly signals both that the question has encroached on personal territory and that our assumptions about work require more thought.   

While it seems a useful service to humanity to provoke some mocking laughter at our thoughtless and sometimes foolish assumptions about other people’s work or not work, it is surely more important to practice the social niceties as peacefully as possible. Some irritations are not worth risking unease for someone else, who was actually well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, I’m still looking for some gracious responses that will stamp out the “keepin’ busy?” questions and invite my interlocutors into a space where doing and being can dance together in harmony.    

The author at the Toronto harbour
Swan Lake, AB, east of Grande Prairie

Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

Originally published in Prairie Messenger October 19, 2016

After the Choices

The election is over now. We’ve had time to think about our choices and balance them against the ones we might have made. We’ve heard the “victory” speeches, such as they were. Within days, we also heard a few mea culpas, not enough, mind you. How is it that after such an important exercise of democracy (ideally a thoughtful, rational, and informed process), everyone – politicians, pollsters, media people, coffee row pundits – can so readily agree that the campaign was short on vision and way too long on insults and trivialities? Was that not obvious early enough to have changed course?

 But it is not the post-mortem I want to focus on, although it has its place; in fact, I hope that its conclusions will definitely affect what comes hereafter. A minority government, as historians and students of current politics tell us, is a forced opportunity to learn cooperation and diplomacy out of which can come important legislation. However, nothing will get done if the shouting and the animosity don’t stop.

A distant shot of the Parliaments that includes more trees and river and sky than buildings.

I have not worked out yet whether I’m hopeful about federal-provincial cooperation or not. I do know that we need reasonable unity and focus in the 43rd Parliament, not more partisan jockeying for attention. We have pressing issues to attend to, and to have individual premiers threatening to take their marbles and go play elsewhere is not helpful.

Before the election, I suggested that we institute some poetry reading retreats for our political candidates, encourage them to get to know one another, away from the spotlights and under the influence of holy wisdom of poetry. Now I’m going to suggest some additional rituals, ones that call on our narrative imagination in different ways.

For the politicians, I recommend a private ritual of writing eulogies. (No, I’m not implying dark deeds of revenge and violent seizures of power!) I have noticed in the past that when a former or even sitting Member of Parliament dies, the eulogies spoken and written are warm and gracious, devoid of partisanship and rancor. Suddenly the enemy from across the aisle has been transformed into a statesperson of great stature and goodness. To our amazement, we hear far more than we knew before about this individual’s genuine contributions and honest efforts to create a better world.

So what if, after the election, each politician took time for a solitary, quiet retreat in which to compose a eulogy for that political opponent who had served most often as his or her punching bag in the recent campaign? That could be a first step in defusing the often pointless quarrels that have been magnified past reason in order to motivate voters. Such an exercise will not be easy.

If necessary, the composition of eulogies for opponents could be preceded by the writing of their own eulogies. What would each newly elected or re-elected parliamentarian want to have said about herself or himself? What goal, which once motivated the politician to enter the public square in the first place, would he or she like to see as a crucial point in the eulogy? Honesty and self-awareness would be required for this ritual, but I can’t imagine two qualities that I would like to see more of in our representatives, apart from, of course, a thorough knowledge of the home constituency and the constitution.

 For the rest of us, I will make a different recommendation—although personal eulogy writing wouldn’t hurt us either. What I suggest will require some detective work, and considerable attentive listening. Here it is, with all its echoes of clichéd advice from previous centuries: look for stories of positive change and circulate those instead of the latest rant. Tell the Rick Mercer types to take a hike.

 For example, it was a friend, with first-hand experience, who told me about a little-known goal of Saskatchewan’s former premier Brad Wall, who had decided early in his political life that he wanted to make his province the best possible place for people with disabilities. Many of us, including me, became very angry over several cuts in his last budget, such as the shutting down of our provincial bus service (STC), yet we failed to notice that funding for disability services  had remained steady and even increased.

While the attention given to one group of vulnerable people does not cancel out the pain of another vulnerable group—social ledger sheets cannot be so balanced—it does remind me that premiers, like the rest of us, are not always consistent. Internal trade-offs seem an inevitable part of the job description.

The story also reminded me that we cannot possibly know all of the details, or understand the complicated processes of getting some programs through and cancelling others. Even in the age of social media when nothing seems private any more, the general public is not always aware of essentially good motives and acts of personal integrity. We should not forget the humanity of all political actors.

 On a more local level, I recently heard encouraging stories of initiatives in Saskatoon that seek to ameliorate the difficult living conditions of our most at-risk residents. Whether a particular helpful measure is conceived and brought into reality by city council or by creative and determined individuals makes little difference to those who receive a hot meal (Friendship Inn asks no questions but simply serves the meal) or a place to sleep in security (The Lighthouse). We need to hear these stories.

 So let’s not forget the second portion of this ritual of finding positive stories: pass them on. Admittedly, I have no right to give advice regarding social media, since I do not use them (with the exception of personal email and this blog!). Perhaps there are already a myriad of feel-good stories that are circulating, some of which are even factual.

What I have in mind, though, is the act of pointing out good initiatives in direct conversation with others, as well as passing on pertinent links to specific individuals. Admittedly, it is hard to stay cool in the middle of a heated conversation and then to retell, tactfully, some facts or stories about the object of the rant. Yet without such deliberate tamping down of anger, how shall we proceed toward the cooperation that we all say we’d like to see in our governments?

Long may our narrative imaginations flourish!

“[Marcus Aurelius] argued that the [narrative imagination] contributes to undoing retributive anger. He means that when we are able to imagine why someone has come to act in a way that might generally provoke an angry response, we will be less inclined to demonize the person, to think of him or her as purely evil and alien.

Martha Nussbaum
A photo of a solitary path through the woods.

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

Here and There: The Puzzle of Place and Time

 Decades ago when I first discovered Canadian fiction, I read Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson with happy recognition. Back in the 1970s, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing familiar scenery in novels; characters all lived elsewhere. So when the fictional Maggie Lloyd got off the bus at Kamloops and hitched a ride into the hills to a fishing camp, I was delighted. I could actually visualize her journey clearly and recognized the names of the small towns she traveled through. Our family had camped at Paul Lake near Kamloops, and we had driven the Princeton-Hope Highway, back before the Coquihalla Highway made straight the wilderness of the Fraser Canyon.

Low mountains and pine trees along the old Princeton-Hope Highway.
Taken from the campground near Lytton, BC.

Maggie’s confidence—“I know this all and I know how to live here”—was also familiar. That’s how I feel whenever we drive into Jasper, Alberta. I recognize every bend in the road and can name most of the mountains, thanks to summer jobs in Jasper when I was a university student. I had walked its streets many times and hiked up whatever slopes were accessible in a day off.  Ever since, driving into Jasper has felt like coming home, though buildings change, and Mt. Edith Cavell loses a glacier and rearranges the landscape. I love that place. When I’m there, I can barely imagine my real home in Saskatoon.

Mt. Edith Cavell near Jasper, Alberta.

That whole puzzling business of being “here” rather than “there”. . . . How do place and memory connect? And what has the connection to do with who I am? As I pack up camping gear, I tell myself, “In two days, I’ll be in Wapiti Campground.” It seems unbelievable. Then three days later, breathing the wondrous mountain air, shivering in the evening coolness, my home seems remote, as if back there, I was someone else, not this woman who now sips her hot tea and watches the elk wander past.

Am I the only one who runs up against that disconnect, I wonder? How do frequent travelers cope? Those who go to Europe one summer and Barbados the next and Africa the year after. How do they know who they are? Or is their need for at-home-ness in a particular space less than mine?

Place and time and memory—and identity: philosophers have tangled with those magnitudes ever since human beings could think of themselves as separate from their surroundings and grasp the passage of time.

 It all comes into sharp focus during the last days of planning and packing, before  departure. I stare at the familiar walls of my study, that place where thought and language happen, and try to fathom that in three days or four, I shall be in wherever—Fresno, California, or Goshen, Indiana. And when I’m actually there, maybe at a conference, I wonder who I am—the woman who did dishes at the sink and chatted with her husband the day before (such are the wonders of air travel), or the woman standing at the podium delivering a paper to other scholars, who are also from elsewhere.

 Time then seems to bend and waver, stretch and condense in confusing ways. The hours in the airport are time suspended, refusing to move on. The last day away is both slow and too rapid. I think: today I’m looking at orange trees by the pool; tomorrow I shall pull on parka and boots to slog through snow.

Pool by a hotel in Fresno, California.

I wonder if those who traveled once by slow boats or walked or rode their camels had a more solid sense of who they were and where they were. Were they more at home in their skins, then, when all they saw was recognizable, even after days of travel?

In the opening chapter of Swamp Angel, Maggie Vardoe (not yet back to being Maggie Lloyd), stares out her kitchen window, rehearsing in her mind her careful plans, made over years, to leave Vancouver and her marriage. Every simple action of preparing supper has been done before, many times. Only an hour or two, now, before she will walk out the back door, step into a prearranged taxi cab, and begin her transformation into Maggie Lloyd, fishing camp cook hundreds of miles away. And she is aware of “time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past),” fearing that time had “stood still, or had died.”

 There are occasions in our lives when time both stands still and marches on, when who we are is about to change beyond recognition. It might not even be through physical travel from place to place; sometimes an inner journey, a private decision, turns everything around us into a different country. Who can live through such moments? Yet we all do.

I have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s admonition to breathe and be where we are, not where we plan to be or where we’ve been. “When you sit and breathe mindfully,” he says, “your mind and body finally get to communicate and come together. . . . usually the mind is in one place and the body in another.” Precisely.

No wonder that time wavers and bends and stands still. I am attracted to mindfulness, can see the freedom of living in “now-ness,” yet cannot give up the creativity that I think is inherent in our endless puzzling about time and place and self, the pieces provided by memory. I am not prepared, yet, to give up self-awareness. Not for longer than a reasonable meditation time, anyway.             

On the Awe-full Bosom of Mother Earth

 I am a dual citizen on planet earth. As a lifelong prairie dweller, I made my peace long ago with a difficult landscape. When visiting family members mock Saskatchewan as the land that God forgot, I defend not only the clichéd delights—crocuses, meadowlarks, waving wheat fields, the scent of sage, sunsets and sunrises—but also fierce winter blizzards, the spectacular percussion of summer storms, the utter lack of boundaries in the sky.

 Nevertheless, when, as a young woman, I lived in Jasper, AB, for a summer, I gave my heart to the sublime and awful beauty of the Rocky Mountains as if I had been in exile until then and had only just discovered my true home. Becoming a lifelong vacationer in the Rockies seemed as natural as breathing. There I could forget the prairie’s harsh narratives of grasshoppers and drought, and my own small stories of grief. The mountains felt clean, uncontaminated by human failures (although I knew they were not); I could breathe here, I could feel the voice of the Divine.

View from the trail to Illecillewaet Glacier near Rogers Pass, BC

 By the time I first read about the correlation between the essential human spiritualities and the primary landscapes—forest, plains (or desert), water, and mountains—our family had been tenting and hiking in the Rockies for many years. Those vacations had always been so soul-restoring for me, that it took no great act of discernment to know that mountains were my spiritual home. There I was often caught up in worship, speechless and ecstatic in the face of a beauty both exquisite in its changeable colors and terrifying in its physical demands. This terrain is not to be taken lightly. Rocks may be ancient and solid; they are also unforgiving and moveable in dreadful ways. Yet I loved it all, and felt loved within it.

 Two summers ago, our family camped in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta. Above the gash of the coulee, where the Milk River flows past the hoodoos, lay the prairies, shimmering with heat, drawing the eye skyward to eternity. Apart from the trees along the river, this was closer to desert than anything we’d known before. Among the sage and grasses and prickly pear cacti lived prairie rattlesnakes and cottontail rabbits; on the sides of immense hoodoos near the river nested cliff sparrows in great colonies and pack rats in their untidy holes.

Hoodoos along the Milk River in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone has been sacred territory for indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Their stories are etched on the rocks in symbolic pictures. On the barren tops of the cliffs, vision quests were held, and even now, recent sacred offerings left for the Creator are mute testimony of a strong human relationship with the earth.  

 Such a powerful spiritual place we were visiting, yet I felt only curiosity and wonder. My soul remained unmoved, as if it knew that I was an outsider, one whose heart had been given elsewhere and couldn’t be truly present here.

 Then came the night when heat made sleep impossible. Under an almost full moon, I needed no light to walk the campground road. A scant breeze ruffled stately cottonwoods into soft sibilant music. Could I ever learn to love this place? The moonlight on the nearby Sweet Grass Hills across the border in Montana was – tender? No, wrong word. “Cool” was more like it, with its old meaning of chilly distance.

Moonrise over the Sweet Grass Hills seen from Writing-on-Stone.

Back in the tent, I still couldn’t sleep although I lay quietly now. Then I felt it. The very soil – so close under me, less than two inches of man-made substances between me and it – rose and fell in a rocking motion that nearly stopped my heart in fear. Those 30 seconds of earth movement were no dream. A sudden scatter of agitated voices nearby asking “what happened?” told me it was real. For the next half hour, I waited, alert now, before feeling again two or three slight shiftings, then all was still.

 In the morning, I discovered that of the 6 adults in our group, all of us sleeping in light nylon tents, I was the only one who had felt the earth move. My story was greeted with courtesy but unspoken scepticism – until the next-site neighbour came over to tell us that her trailer had been shaken violently enough to wake her, and she wondered if mischievous teens had come through our site as well. When I told her what I had felt, she assumed that human hands had shaken our tent (I knew that was wrong).  Later I heard other campers whose trailers had been rudely shaken wonder who the culprits had been. All who had layers of human construction and several feet of air between them and the earth had experienced the event as a mechanical one of human agency.

 Then came news that an earthquake in Montana (5.8 on the Richter scale) had sent tremors even farther north than Writing-on-Stone. My “I told you so” satisfaction gave way abruptly to a reverent gratitude that I had been “chosen” to feel those tremors against my body. What was a rattling disturbance for everyone in trailers was, for a tent sleeper, an intimate pressure gentle enough not to wake anyone. If I had been sleeping, would I have awakened or would it have become part of my dreams? What does it really mean to be at one with the earth?   

 The next day, we hiked up through the hoodoos up to the level prairie to seek refuge from the heat in the excellent Visitors Centre.

Trail through hoodoos near Visitor Centre in Writing-on-Stone.

After a futile effort to absorb information, I volunteered to take my turn to stay outside with the dogs. Since they were content to pant beneath the picnic table, I was left alone with the land, from the grasses and sage at my feet to the towering hoodoos nearby, from the Milk River below me to yonder Sweet Grass Hills. This, this was the land that had moved and had moved me with it.  

Originally published August 30, 2017 in Prairie Messenger.

Sorting Through Family Stories and Finding My Place – Part 2

 The desk and floor in my study are cluttered again, this time not with just papers and open books—which I insist is the sign of a working mind—but also boxes of pictures and albums, old journals (mine and my father’s), and my father’s old briefcase with some ancient documents and a tattered Bible. I had not planned to delve into my family history again. I had been there and done that, more than once.   

On the floor are two photo albums that belonged to my parents and my mother’s Bible.

Yet we do not choose when convergences will invite us into new layers of self-knowledge. Emails arrived. Old pictures were shared, not all of which I’d seen before. Questions were asked. Memories came back to haunt. Different stories were told that I hadn’t heard or remembered. And reminders of mortality were showing up. For some conversations, it was already too late.

It seemed wisest to pay attention and prepare myself to re-enter the shape-shifting nature of retold stories. For one thing was becoming clear: each time I have become caught up in the formative stories of my parents—and my people (the Mennonites)—some new information emerged that demanded a changed narrative. Just how that also changed my identity, my sense of who I was in relation to my family and my inherited faith story, I wasn’t always clear. But these stories mattered, whether I understood just how or not.

What I had worked out, after the third or fourth go-around, was that one’s identity is shaped in a spiral fashion. Instead of progressing in a nice, straight line, preferably upward toward greater wisdom, it is the nature of human self-awareness to keep circling back to old material, not to rehash old emotions without change (at least one hopes not), but to return to problems not yet resolved, old knotty issues that never made sense, now seen in new contexts and thus from new perspectives. Hopefully with more knowledge and greater maturity as well.

Dramatic versions of startling discovery followed by a completely new self-identity are the stuff of novels, of course—protagonist discovers skeleton in the closet (sometimes literally – see Sarah’s Key) and has to re-imagine entirely who she or he is. It’s the stuff of memoirs, too, such as My Secret Sister. Perhaps part of the reason we read such accounts so eagerly is that, on some level, we’re all aware of how partial our knowledge is of our parents’ lives, yet how important it can be. Without some sense of who the people are who raised us – as individuals and more than just their roles in relation to us – we cannot really understand ourselves.

My father’s well-worn Bible (upper left) and various immigration documents kept in a very fragile cloth wallet.

 In my various explorations of family histories, I have found no actual skeletons in any closets. Mostly, what I learned about the sources of my parents’ fears and prejudices made it easier to forgive them for not being perfect parents, although I am still learning to forgive myself for not being the perfect daughter (that’s material for some other posting, if ever!).

 What is more difficult is sorting through the stories of who my people are. My childhood vision of good Mennonites being led almost miraculously by God to the safe country of Canada, out of the power of the evil Communists who were destroying the beautiful, clean, and prosperous godly Mennonite villages in Ukraine is no more. That mythologized version of the story was completely revised in my mind during my four years of thesis-writing when I felt as if the self who I had been was being pulled apart and somehow I would have to salvage the necessary parts.  

Why had I never known that the Mennonite villages were not small utopias at all, but were seriously divided, economically, the landowners with power in the church and community and the landless labouring class? And I had known nothing of the huge estates owned by the wealthiest Mennonites who depended upon an impoverished Russian peasantry for cheap labour, nor that the initial land grants under Catherine the Great had given Mennonites advantages that the Russian people had always resented. Small wonder, then, that Revolutionary fervour got out of hand in the prosperous, privileged Mennonite colonies.  

Ironically, now that I had a context in which to ask truly important questions of my parents, I could no longer ask them. Yet would they have been able to re-examine their primary narratives? Is there a point beyond which such personal foundation stories can no longer be retold in new language? Will I know when that happens to me?

My mother’s Bible, with a list of dates of sibling birth and deaths, some cards that were meaningful to her, and a map of the Molotschna Colony where she spent her early childhood.

And now I have re-entered the stories again. I had not thought that would be necessary after our pilgrimage to Ukraine, to visit the birth-places of my parents. Yet that pilgrimage led to sharing stories with the next generation, which is stumbling into its own necessary questions. Then—oh, the serendipitous beauty of mysterious timing—came the emails from cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, if ever.

The pictures and questions and stories, and subsequent visits to libraries and museums, are drawing me into a different kind of rethinking of the family history. Until now, I had been placing myself into these stories through asking “who am I in relation to my parents?” and “who am I in relation to my people, my ethnic roots?”  What was missing was connection to the extended families.

For the record: to my wonderfully discovered clan of maternal cousins – thank you! I had not realized how much my soul craved a fuller family context, which you are now providing. I had been doing my story-work alone, without the help of those who share portions of my history and half of my genes. To see my grandparents and my mother through stories told by her siblings and her nieces and nephews changes my perspective again, rounds out the landscape. Like the poet Stanley Kunitz, in “The Layers,” I feel now as if “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own.”

A clean study again – for now.

A child’s curiosity can absorb some family stories; the young adult hears the same stories with idealistic disdain for bad choices; the middle-aged parent ruefully acknowledges that old family behavior patterns have not been left behind after all, but are being subconsciously repeated; and the older adult, with leisure now, and presumably emotional maturity enough to hold all sadness with respect, seeks not to achieve  closure for good and all (ambiguity will always remain), but to add what wisdom is possible before bequeathing those stories to the next generations to live into however they choose.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes. 

Stanley Kunitz