Geography of Injury

One year ago today, my friend Connie passed away. This poem, published in emerge 17, SFU’s Writer’s Studio Anthology, was written for Connie. I never showed it to her.

Over the years we met regularly for coffee, always getting around to talk of that quiet mania: writing. Spring before last, feeling the need for a shot in our writerly arms, we (essentially) dared each other to try make the cut for Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio.

I knew she’d be a lock. Her last gig was assistant editor at Eighteen Bridges, an upscale literary periodical. For a string of years before that, having previously aced the writing program at Grant McEwan which helped make her a meticulous researcher, she had a popular alternative health column in Vue Weekly (Well, Well, Well). In the meantime she published articles in the Edmonton Journal and Alberta Views. And…in the meantime, lived with and kicked at cancer’s lengthening shadow. Her blog, which is still up, courageously catalogues much of this time.

She received her acceptance letter first, but didn’t tell me, worried, with reason, I didn’t get in. For a while it seemed like this new opportunity/purpose/direction might so focus her as to send her, again, into remission. The “seeming” was short lived. Within a month of her start date she was forced to withdraw.

I never had the courage (was that it?), to show her the poem: it was dark, the images sparse, the overarching metaphor foreboding, the ending bleak. I had written it in hopes of some kind of catharsis. But if I could go back, I’d show it to her. It was not her way to shrink from reality, she had no problem facing what was in front of her. It’s me that had the problem.

For Jeff, Connie’s kids, family and friends. We still miss you Connie.

This memoriam (and award announcement) appears at the back of the anthology:

Beatitudes without attitude

Blessed are the unassuming: for theirs is the kingdom of gratitude. 
Blessed are the rivers: for they shall carry away the burning boats of sorrow.
Blessed are the still waters: beside which we shall be lead.
Blessed are the apostates of money and power: for theirs is the domain of freedom.
Blessed are the intake workers at homeless shelters: for theirs is the kingdom
          of mercy.
Blessed are they who profoundly ignore the fascination of the herd:
         for they shall escape hook, line and sinker.
Blessed are the wrens that dart about in blackberry bushes:
         theirs is the provenance of happiness.
Blessed are the eyes of sculptors and painters: for theirs is the realm of sight.
Blessed are the hands of potters: for they shall be called stewards
         of the second chance.
Blessed are those who topple the idols of mass culture: for they shall be called
         curators of light.
Blessed are the Great Grey owls: given to glide through parallel kingdoms.
Blessed are the gardeners: for they are the tilth of the earth.
   Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
      Blessed are they that linger, astonished at hibiscus: for they shall be refueled.
Blessed are the cigar rollers, brew masters and vintners: period.
Blessed are the prairie sloughs: where kingdoms of cattails await
         red-winged romances.
Blessed are the cardboard boxes: for they shall inherit mountains of memories.
Blessed are they who resist the K-Mart Caesar and all the little Neros: they shall
          sleep well at night.
Blessed are the power outages: for theirs is the reign of lit-candles
          with family and friends at kitchen tables.
Blessed are the bakers: that is obvious.
Blessed are the spiralling, hovering gulls: for theirs is the wisdom of wind.
Blessed is the waggle dance of bees: world of intelligence, truth and understanding.
Blessed is the eternal heretic: whose love yet reclines within us.
Blessed is the rising sun, the enduring earth, the forgiving seas:
         hear their groans of longsuffering grace.

At 63 I have become a particularly good house husband


At 63 I have become a particularly good house husband
      (a term, by the way, I have no quarrel with).
I am good at sex, even at this age,
and also at making quite a delicious pork tenderloin.
The secret here is a splash of balsamic vinegar.
As for the sex, I’ll let you in on that a little later.
In the meantime I hope the kids don’t read this,
I’m not one to cause any awkwardness or embarrassment
      (even at their age).
On that score, don’t hasten to audit my wife about the sex,
no point risking a red face, yours or hers.
All you really need to know about that is that
it’s critical to vacuum at least once a week and shake out rugs.
Also, take pleasure in doing laundry, which I do
      (does this surprise you?),
and don’t run out of organic bananas, or kindness.
And while the oatmeal is simmering on the stove
be available for an early morning walk
      (here, I’d urge you to learn the names of flowers
      and birds and how the tide works).
Also, learn the components and ratios for good conversation,
as well as for egg salad,
      (a bit of experimentation can go a long way).
Finally, be home no later than 5 PM to prepare dinner.
Certainly, an evening stroll is not out of the question
      (neither is a game of Rummikub),
and every once in a while keep chocolate cake in the fridge
or if you’re gallant and a bit daring,
homemade apple crisp can really hit the spot.

Declaration of a different reality


Thomas Merton, writing in the early 1960’s, observed:

Here is the great temptation of the modern age, this universal infection of fanaticism, this plague of intolerance, prejudice and hate…

This, said Merton, flows from the crippled nature of those who are afraid of love, afraid to dare to become human. He goes on,

…it is against this temptation that we must labor with inexhaustible patience and love, in silence, perhaps in repeated failure, seeking tirelessly to restore, whenever we can, and first of all in ourselves, the capacity of love and understanding…

It’s this capacity, he concludes, which makes us bearers of the Divine image.

It was something of this “image” that the father of Heather Heyer reflected when he spoke of the Charlottesville riots, and said of his daughter’s killer,

And my thoughts with all of this stuff is that people need to stop hating and they need to forgive each other. I include myself in that forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think about what the Lord said on the cross. Lord, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.

I don’t know how–so close to the event–this father found the resources to say what he did about his daughter’s murderer. And I can’t help but wonder how he feels today, or what he thinks now that the world, as it does, has moved on. And yet, there it is, like a  palm tree in a desert, sticking out there in all its naïve simplicity, a declaration of a different reality.

So often today Christianity resembles the vestigial wings of Kiwi’s: of no real consequence except as an evolutionary curiosity. Too often, the term Christian is abjectly embarrassing because it’s used as either a moral cover, an ethical club, a personal warranty for an afterlife, or another name for nationalism. And “Nationalism,” as ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has somewhere said, “is a religion, and war is its liturgy.”

But then, up through the layers of dross comes some otherwise overlooked voice speaking the mystery of the real Christ, the mystery of seeing and receiving the “other,” even an enemy, as fellow pilgrim.

Here’s Merton again,thomas-merton

Christ…did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. He brought to his disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish his peace not only in their own hearts but in society itself.

To work for peace beyond our private world is hard, dangerous, and as recent events and events throughout history show, even deadly. Of course, to find and maintain peace within ourselves is also hard. But persons at peace within themselves is where communal and cultural peace begins. Yet, paradoxically, internal peace comes as we model those who are themselves peaceable. Such is the movement of human connection, such is the pulse and flow of human community, such is the radiating current of the I-Thou mystery. I think this is what Bruce Cockburn meant when he sang, “To the motion be true.”

We need people like Mark Heyer. We need models. Of course I never had the chance to meet Thomas Merton, but I consider him a friend and mentor. Year’s ago, when I spent several days wandering Manhattan on foot, my first search, despite my admiration, was not the beat poets, but Merton’s flat on Perry St. in the heart of Greenwich Village, where he lived before entering the monastery. When I was in Bangkok, where Merton died, I followed his “tour” of images and temples, as outlined in his book The Asian Journals. Merton was/is still, a model of peace who embraced his faults and modelled his own life after the spirit of peace he found reflected in the life of Jesus.

AVT_Luce-Irigaray_8370Neither do I know the French philosopher and veteran feminist, Luce Irigaray, but for me, her words strike a decidedly Mertonesque tone, or better, an incarnational tone. (Irigaray returned to her Christian tradition, although her nuanced form of Christianity would hardly be accepted all the Faith’s eminent, self-appointed regulators.) She writes (as quoted in Kathrine Keller’s On the Mystery),

If our culture were to receive within itself the mystery of the other as an unavoidable and unsurmountable reality, there would open up a new age of thought, with a changed economy of truth and ethics.

And what a massive IF this is, yet what a resplendent vision! To speak it out loud is radical, to try to embrace it, revolutionary.