July 11, 2022
Tell me. What is it to be an elder?
I want to learn to become an elder, not just old.
At 62 years, I’m teetering on the edge of old. I figure I’ve got another 20 turns of the planet in me, maybe. I want to enter them open to the mystery they hold. So, lately I have been asking: “How does one become an elder?”
I asked that question on a cobble stone beach, on Lake Superior. Between me and my two wind-stayed kayaking companions we have cumulatively clocked 184 years.
“I’m less judgmental than I used to be,” mused one. “More accepting of others, and myself.”
The youngest among us said he was still “Working on the letting-go-of-his-adult-kids stage.” We joked that you never really let go, you just learn to shut up.
Yesterday, I was at the Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Powwow for the Grand Entry and an address by the two Ceremonial Elders. Both of them talked about the importance of listening. Listening to the Creator, to the planet and especially listening to the youth.
I feel as if I am being called to speak less and listen more. And, when I do speak, to do it succinctly without elaboration or explanation. Above all, to say what I have to say with kindness and humility.
On the last day of our kayak trip, we floated in a cove protected from the wind. There we considered the risks of crossing seven kilometers of open, wave stacked, and icy waters. Sooner or later, we had to get from St Ignace Island back to the mainland. Were our padding skills sufficient to the conditions? Should we wait, possibly for days, for better weather?
One of our trio hadn’t paddled in years and was extremely anxious. So, we floated in calm waters. We chatted about death, sang songs from the seventies, considered options, acknowledged our fears. In the end, we set out on rough seas for the far shore.
We made it safely across. After we landed, the companion who had been most worried said, “Dave, back there before we left? That’s what being an elder is like; floating beside someone, not trying to tell them what to do but just coming alongside while they work out their fears.” His words have stuck with me. Elders are willing to come alongside and float with all kinds of fears. Maybe most of all the fear of death or of meaninglessness – our own and others’.
I’m not sure elders are in demand in this culture obsessed with success, vitality and productivity. But the stage of busy accomplishment is ending for me. I want to dive deeper into this less encumbered chapter of life, and find meaning in it. I want to walk its path through the flaming reds and oranges of autumn, breath the fecund scent of earth and fungus, and feel the warm slant of sunlight low on the horizon. I want to absorb the beauty of this inner turning.
So far this is what I am learning about becoming an elder: being less judgmental; setting our kids free; listening more and speaking less; speaking with kindness and humility; taking time to float beside those who are afraid, or confused or lost; and paying attention to the beauty of life.
Tell me. What is it to be an elder?
May 13, 2022
THese are the days of the endless summer
Photo by Ben Duchac on Unsplash
I am ready for summer! The climatological version, of course, but even more so the summer of the soul that Van Morrison sings about in “These Are the Days.” It’s been a tough two years of winter.
“These are days” never fails to evoke in me memories of the simple, joyful, roaming days of summer. Childhood memories of glass jars of Kool-Aid and peanut butter sandwiches; grasshoppers; canvas life jackets pushed down over our heads, flattening our ears; wet footprints evaporating on the concrete deck at the municipal swimming pool; cloud watching on my back; and ant watching on my knees.
It’s a song about what medieval mystics, like Meister Eckhart, called the via positiva; the spiritual way of joy and delight in creation. Spiritual summers come at less predictable intervals than the season that is upon us, but when they come, grace strips down to its shorts and reveals itself in all its glory.
As a teenager I worked summers. Still, the languid days and warm nights brought relief from the rigid schedules school: barefoot dancing on the grass; barbeques; summer romance; and drives out from the city to the long beaches at Point Pelee Park. Those were days, as Van Morrison puts it, of “…endless dancing… long walks…. [and] true romancing.”
The summer of 1984 I was the student-preacher in Crane Valley, Saskatchewan (population 65). They taught me that even prairie farmers, who work hardest in the summer, relish the season. We went for long drives, to check on the progress of the wheat and canola crops. On rainy days, we met up at the Co-Op, flipped quarters for coffee and exchanged predictions about whether the precipitation would be too little or too much. There was an easy communion in it.
As parents of young children, we beach-combed the sandy shores of Nova Scotia for driftwood, seashells and jelly-fish. At night we roasted marshmallows and lay on a blanket counting shooting stars until the children fell asleep.
Ten summers ago, we interred my father’s ashes beneath the pine trees, at the cemetery in tiny Igoldsby, Ontario. Fallen needles cushioned the sadness of the path we walked. The warm breeze chased the chill of death from our souls. A summer sky, the scent of wildflowers, the sound of a lake lapping up against the stones, can melt the winter of grief.
Summer makes us attentive, too: to the fuzzy stem of a Brown-Eyed-Susan; to the sweet, warm taste of a strawberry in our mouths; to the harmonies of a campfire song; to a splash of cool water—be it from a lake or from a fire hydrant opened on a hot city street. These are the days “…by the sparkling river.”
On days when summer shows up in our souls, union with the Cosmic Christ seems a like completely reasonable possibility. It is a season ripe with time that is qualitative, rather than quantitative. Time that is measured in increments of smells, music and beauty, not in minutes and seconds. Soul summer renders clocks, calendars and schedules absurd.
The grace seems endless. Of course, summers—both the weather outside and the weather within—end. That first day back to work or to school is inevitable. A scent of autumn drifts into our hearts on a northern breeze. We turn the calendar page from June to September. We squeeze our feet, and our souls, into stiffer shoes and sigh for warm days, when God felt easy. Let’s not trouble ourselves with that today.
“These are the days of the endless summer …There’s only here, there’s only now,” sings Van Morrison, “These are the days now that we must savor, and we must enjoy as we can… You’ve got to hold them in your heart.”
A an earlier version of this story appeared in The United Church Observer in 2015.
May 8, 2022
The REturn to Social Hugging
“You used to hug me all the time!” That was Matthew, hair flying and shouting as he burst from his front door and threw his arms around me. It’s true. Since the day he was born we’ve hugged often and long. It’s been two years since we last hugged. He’s in grade seven now.
As we emerge from our Covid caves, our eyes squinting at the bright possibilities of restored human interactions, there will be hugs. Thank goodness!
Oh, you may have risked a sideways-masked-facing-away-breath-holding-quick-embrace with someone whose viral status is a bit murky. Or in your excitement you hugged someone by accident. Guilty as charged. Or, fed up with two years of elbow taps, fist bumps and namaste bowing, you’ve engaged in outlaw hugging with truckers for freedom. Some of us have been bubbled-up with huggables during the plague.
As social hugging returns to the lexicon of human interaction, a quick review is in order.
Consent. You might not want me to grab you in a bearhug. I might not want you pressing your body against mine. So, first we ask. Especially children. Especially at church.
How to ask? Can I give you a hug? Would you give me a hug? These are invitations to unidirectional, transactional hugs. One person gives, and the other receives, a hug. These are excellent hugs for comforting or being comforted. Think funerals, divorces and Raptors’ losses.
Commands, such as “Bring it in,” are okay pregame for sporting events, where players can choose to linger on the edge or dive into the mosh. “Give me some sugar,” is the exclusive purview of southern Grandmothers. Otherwise, demanding a hug is out. (And, btw the two are not interchangeable. “Let’s give each other some sugar, then get out there and give’r 110 percent,” feels uncomfortable. Nor can I imagine my dearly departed grandmother insisting that I “bring it in.”)
“If I told you, you have a beautiful body would you hold it against me,” is for country songs, and playful romantic relationships. Exclusively.
Try “Hug?” Keep it simple, light. Or, “Are you hugging these days?” A simple, “Yes” or “No,” is fine. Explaining that, “Yes, as a matter of fact I am hugging, but not you,” feels unnecessarily cruel.
There are a variety of types of hugs. The “A-Frame,” is when huggers extend their backsides and make contact at the shoulders for a quick, sometimes awkward, hug. Back patting or rubbing is common with the A-frame.
The “Side-Hug” (aka the “Bro-hug”) provides relaxed physical distance, while communicating genuine fondness.
The hug-from -behind is excellent in emotionally close relationships—like with your beloved—not so much with the person standing in front of you in line at the folk festival.
I prefer a warm, body-to-body, hands above the waist, embrace sans back rubbing or patting (See “unidirectional, transactional hugs”).
The best types hugs are exchanged with mutually-trusting vulnerability, affection and without judgement regarding form or delivery. (Note: Caution, however, should be exercised vis-à-vis breasts and groins. See Chapter 3: Foreplay.)
Duration. A hug has a beginning, a middle and an end that feels natural to both parties. Researchers found that Olympic athletes hug, on average, for about three seconds (Yes, they studied it).
Pay attention to your own and the other person’s readiness to wrap it up. Then tag out. Hanging on, attempting to squeeze out the emotions you suspect the person you are hugging is withholding, is not cool. To paraphrase: If you hug someone, set them free. If they come back, hug them, if they don’t… Well, you get the idea.
April 12, 2022
In the slanting sunshine of last autumn, hiking the bush trails along the ridges above Lake Superior, I found myself inexplicably excited about the soil. All around me, the energy, the life force of the woods was burrowing back into the earth. The birch leaves were having one last hurrah of brilliant yellow. Mountain ash berries clung to the naked branches that had been their source of life. Tamaracks were raining orange needles to the silent ground. The grasses were golden and leaning toward the earth. It was not the glory of those colors, nor the brilliant green of determined mosses that captured my imagination. No, it was what could not be seen, deep in the rich dark possibility of the soil.
All evidence to the contrary, I knew that the soil held the promise of another spring, when everything pointed to an ending. It is this unseen potential, unrestrained by the evidence, that is so exhilarating. Just imagine what might come of this! Perhaps God has put within me, within you, within the world this same possibility. Just imagine what might become of this!
Good Friday is tainted with murder, darkness, defeat, and mayhem. Easter brings the symbols of new life—the curving green necks of fiddleheads, the crocus blossoms. Saturday, though, is the day between all that. It is the day of the miracle hidden deep in the soil of our existence. It is a day of hope bound to possibility—all evidence to the contrary.
How does one traverse that canyon of a day between the pooling blood at the foot of the cross, and the glory of the resurrection boogie? What can possibly carry our broken hearts and bodies across that ancient ravine between the cliffs of death and the giddy heights of new life, a canyon alive with joy and pain, fear and struggle, gore and delight. Perhaps only metaphysical materials—grace, hope, beauty, love, patience—can build a bridge long enough, strong enough, to bear the weight of our lives.
Only a baby’s downy ear and the love that made her could make it worth the trouble. Or an August raspberry. Or the clicking of a chickadee’s feet on a branch. Or a kiss at cemetery gates. Or the mystery of the One within and beyond, who calls us, in spite of the defeat, to something, we know not what. But there it is again—a whiff of something breathtaking.
Mercifully, our life’s journey is not made mostly on Good Friday. Nor do we live out our days basking in the radiant joy of Sunday’s resurrection, although when life does take us to either extreme, we find a faithful companion crucified beside us, or a dance partner on the lawn beyond the empty tomb.
Mostly, it seems to me, our lives are lived in that relentless Holy Saturday where joy and sorrow, bondage and liberation, life and death tangle. A day that unfolds forever between the cross and rising Son. Holy Saturday is the day of release from prison, with a new set of clothes and walking money, but no place to go. Or the day we see clearly that the marriage has broken beyond repair, but a ring is still on our finger. Or the day the funeral flowers have wilted, the out-of-town mourners have gone home, but our soul is stuck near the grave. Or when made weak by the cure, we hear the word “remission.”
Or it is simply the day when nothing happens. Holy Saturday, that in-between day, is the day we know best.
No doubt we trivialize the reality of Jesus’ death, and our own. “On good Friday we put Jesus in the tomb like bread in the toaster, fully expecting him to pop on Easter morning” (source unknown). We also skip over what is happening between the cross and the rolled-away-stone. For most of us, Saturday is that non-day between the death and life events of Easter weekend. Holy-week-harassed preachers put Jesus in the tomb Friday night and think, “Lucky guy, three days to just lie around.” The rest of us get up Saturday morning, put coffee on, get down the jam, paint some eggs, buy a ham. Jesus is gone but he’ll be right back.
Holy Saturday spirituality is for in-between times. By that virtue alone, it is a holy day among holy days. Author and theologian Frederick Buechner writes that
The ancient Druids are said to have taken a special interest in in-between things like mistletoe, which is neither quite a plant nor quite a tree, and mist, which is neither quite a rain nor quite air, and dreams, which are neither quite waking nor quite sleep. They believed that in such things as those they were able to glimpse the mystery of the two worlds at once.
—Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, 1988
Holy Saturday spirituality stands between the two absolutes of our existence. It is neither quite life nor quite death. It is on this day, between absolutes, that most of us catch glimpses of the mystery of those two worlds at once. This in-between day is a doorway to the sacredness of all days.
And it is unusually quiet. Meister Eckhart said that there is nothing in this world that resembles God as much as silence. Saturday is a day of rest, of silence. Even God—or especially God, it seems—was silent that day.
All the Gospel writers leap from “… they put his body in the tomb and it was sealed” to “Early on the third day…” It’s only later, when they tell the resurrection story, that they double back to images of fear and locked doors. Maybe Saturday can only truly be seen through the lens of Sunday. Luke alone has a word on how the disciples spent the day between death and resurrection: “On [Saturday] they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b, NRSV). Perhaps the first discipline of a Holy Saturday spirituality is stillness.
It is an expectant stillness. Some years the Roman Catholics in our town light up a vigil fire on Holy Saturday night. They gather outside the church dressed in parkas, toques and mittens, because it is usually still winter in these parts. There are as few as ten or 15 people, never more than 30. Maybe the children wonder why there are no marshmallows to roast. The fire casts their shadows up against the red-brick church and the Credit Union next door. It is not a big fire. It could not be seen with the naked eye from a space station, for example, or even a high-flying jet. Unless you happened to drive by, you wouldn’t even know it was burning.
But it is burning. That is the exciting thing. Even as the shadow of the cross lengthens across the weekend, there is a fire, a light that will not be defeated. John’s gospel makes that promise at the outset: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, NRSV). The Saturday fire is not big, but it stands as a defiant witness to the Great Light that will not be overcome, even by the blackened sky of Friday.
It is a mirror reminding us of the Light within and among us, refusing to surrender to the principalities and powers that would leave us languish on the cross, in whatever guise it appears. The spirituality of Holy Saturday is one that stands its ground with the Light, in spite of the pain and cruelty and darkness of the cross. This testimony of fire is not rooted in the evidence of the previous day but on the unseen promise of the day to come.
This hope sustains the seed in the winter and awakens it the springtime. Perhaps not fear alone, but also hope, kept the disciples clinging to one another until Sunday. “In the midst of winter,” wrote Albert Camus, “I discovered there was, within me, an invincible summer” (“Return to Tipasa,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 1952).
Saturday hope is much more than optimism; it is a choice for tomorrow against the evidence of yesterday.
“To hope is to gamble,” writes author Rebecca Solnit, “It’s to bet on the future” (Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2004).
Holy Saturday spirituality involves committing one’s life to the flow of love against the tide of death and hatred. It is a spirituality that binds one’s life to the undefeatable light, possibility and hope woven into the very nature of Creation, woven into the promises of Jesus and into the longing heart of God’s desire.
Palm Sunday April 10, 2022
We will march our
Green palm fronds
Around the church today.
Training our children
Preparing them to stand
Where they are
Told not to stand.
In Tiananmen Square
In front of tank.
In the heat of
An Arab Spring
In a square in El Salvador.
Shouting “Presente” for
Preparing them to sit
Where they are
Told not to sit.
On a bus.
In a theatre.
At a lunch counter.
To enter the Lion’s Gate
To dance a rainbow
Dance of pride.
To open their lives
To Black lives
To defy Moscow’s
Lies about Ukraine.
To lay their bodies down
On railway tracks,
Beside those who thirst
For clean water,
And the truth.
To march with the poor,
The dispossessed, the hungry
And those whose dignity
Is daily denied.
To declare justice,
The only possible
Path to Peace.
To parade for the planet.
To teach them that
It may end badly.
The chariots of
Empire are, afterall,
Rolling in from the East,
To crucify God’s dreams.
God’s march always appears
To end at the cross.
But we must practice,
To be ready
To March, to stand and sit,
To dance and shout, with
Our reedy fronds
Filled with joy,
Fueled by hope
Confident, that even if
We are silenced,
The rocks and stones
Themselves will sing.
FEBRUARY 23, 2022
GIVING UP FACEBOOK FOR LENT
I’m giving up Facebook for Lent. Last time I gave up Facebook, I posted: “Taking a FB sabbatical during Lent. Let’s meet up at the empty tomb.” I wasn’t surprised by the Likes and Loves, but I was surprised by the LOL emoticons my post elicited. Some people thought I was joking.
Let me begin by saying, “Cluck, cluck, cluck.” Lately, I’ve been feeling like a chicken in a Skinner Box—AKA “Operant Conditioning Chamber”—created by B. F. Skinner when he was a graduate student at Harvard. The chicken (or mouse) pecks a button and, sometimes, gets a reward. It doesn’t get a seed every time it pecks the button. If it does, the chicken loses interest. Same thing if it never gets a seed. The randomness of reward is addictive. The chicken will peck like an addict jonesing for a fix.
That’s me, pecking away at FB, my website, youtube, online news links, emails, in a constant loop, looking for something nourishing or affirming, or just funny. Peck, peck, peck. Sometimes, I get a seed. So, I keep pecking. I’d peck Twitter and Instagram too, if I knew how.
Lent is the forty days—not counting Sundays—marking Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness. It’s a penitential, spiritual practice that leads to crucifixion, and resurrection.
Some Christians give something up for Lent. We fast from chocolate, meat, alcohol and the like. Our congregation once gave up homophobia for Lent. It was harder than giving up chocolate, but it changed us in Christ-like ways.
We fast during this season of self denial to be reminded of, and to be in solidarity with, Jesus’ suffering and the suffering of the world. Our puny dietary sacrifices remind us of the world’s great hunger– for food, for justice that leads to peace.
We also fast to declutter our inner houses, to make space for deeper encounters with resurrection. It’s kind of a Marie Kondo tidying up of the soul: “The best way to find out what you really need is to get rid of what you don’t.” During Lent we get rid of things that distract us from our true selves, from the miracle of life, and from our service to others.
In Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, Johann Hari convincingly argues that we are less and less present in our daily lives. According to recent research, teenagers can focus on one task for only sixty-five seconds at a time. Office workers can focus on one task for only three consecutive minutes.
We are not losing our ability to focus; it is being stolen from us by multitasking and the growing hailstorm of distractions.
What those distractions are stealing is our flow. “[Flow] is when you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself,” writes Hari. “It is the deepest form of focus and attention that we know of.” The more flow we experience, the happier and healthier we are.
As a creative writer, I know flow. It’s when I lose and find myself simultaneously in my writing. Artists know it. Mountain climbers and athletes know it. Sometimes when we dance, or sing, or play, when we walk in the woods, meditate or pray, we experience flow.
It is increasingly difficult to get to flow though, because we are constantly hopping from one thing to the next. Flow requires focus. Hang on while I peck another social media seed button.
To experience inner depth and flow, it is not enough, says Hari, to try harder to mono-task. Distractions are omnipresent and constantly compete for our attention. Big-name websites and apps are designed to distract us, because our distraction is key to their profitability. To experience flow—creative wholeness—we have to unplug from the sources of our distraction, get out of the Skinner cage all together.
Sure, sometimes we find inspiration, thoughtful ideas, a form of community, a beautiful photo or a hilarious meme, helpful travel advisories, even kindness, on social media platforms. We’d stop pecking if it didn’t. There’s a good chance you are reading this because I posted the link on Facebook. Maybe you too, are trying to inject something positive, redemptive or healing there.
Social media are also seductive distractions that amplify shame, our sense of inadequacy and our constant need for affirmation. Their algorithms invent needs we didn’t even have until they told us we do. They prey on loneliness, calcify our politics, and tolerate disembodied incivility. They distract us from the wonder, the miracle of human existence, and from our focus on what really matters in life.
So, in one small measure, to make some space in my cluttered inner house, to resurrect my ability to focus and flow, next Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—I am giving up Facebook for Lent.
I’ll check emails at least once a day, and you can contact me from this website. But otherwise, I’ll see you on the flip side of the emptied tomb, dear friends.
February 10, 2022
A Valentine’s Kind of God
I love salted toffee ice cream and I love our children. Not in that order. I love monkeys because, well because they’re monkeys. Come to think of it, as a kid, I loved The Monkees but not as much as The Beatles. The musical ones, not the creepy crawlers. I love my friends. I don’t love my enemies, I’m trying to. I love my brothers, and my mom, and I love my beloved Pearl, all in profoundly different ways.
We’ve only got one word for love. The Greeks had six. When we say “God is Love” we are usually talking about agape—love for everyone—or philia—deep friendship—or even pragma—loyal, committed love.
Then there is eros—erotic, romantic love. Could God, who is Love with a capital L, also be the skin-to-skin, passionate, goose-bumpling, crying out, chocolate, roses and kisses kind of love?
In the Bible, the book Song of Songs—aka the Song of Solomon—a man cries out:
“Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon…” etc.
And the woman—who is not a horticulturist—sighs:
“Awake, O … wind!
Blow upon my garden
that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.”
Is it getting hot in here or is it just me? The Song of Songs drips with the honey, fragrant spices, liquid myrrh, romance and eroticism kind of Love.
Feminist theologians like, Phyllis Trible, say the Song of Songs is a positive expression of sexuality and egalitarian gender relationships. It’s the only book in the bible where the primary voice is that of a woman.
In fact, the imagery, language, and emotions of the Song of Songs suggest that the author was a woman. It was added to the Jewish canon in the 2nd century CE, however, because it was attributed to Solomon, a man with 700 wives and 300 concubines.
Traditionally, Jews have read it as allegory about God’s love for Israel. Christians have claimed it’s about Christ’s love for the church.
The body-spirit dualism expressed in the epistles led many Christians to reject corporeality in general, and rival fertility religions led to eschewing eroticism in particular. Clearly, they were having more fun than us.
Not a single word is whispered, however, about peace, justice, liberation, righteousness, or concern for the widow and orphan in the Song of Songs. Or about God for that matter.
What then is this red-hot, erotic love poem doing IN THE BIBLE? It’s a poem about physical, sexual, longing; about a nice girl running the streets at night in her pajamas, looking for her lover and sneaking him back to her bedroom to pleasure one another.
Was it God—who is Love—I fell into as a hormone-driven, haplessly romantic young man? Is it God-Love I meet now, in the tender, erotic, sinus clearing—look it up its science—lovemaking of a sixty-two-year-old?
Like all forms of love eros can get twisted and limited by shame, wounded trust, selfishness and so on. Also, not everyone experiences all the many kinds of love. When we find physical romantic love, truly, the touching and being touched, the tactile intimacy and the vulnerable ecstasy of it holds the possibility of the One Love.
If you have a special beloved, and you are unsure what to write in their Valentine card this year, may I suggest a few lines from the Song of Songs.
Feburary 5, 2022
To the children of the church set loose in the world
This is an open letter to young adults who spent their childhoods being dragged by parents to church, or running ahead of them each Sunday. Children like my own. I am hoping your your grandmother will send you the link from her Face Book page. Apparently, it is just us old people left on FB.
You know who you are. You coloured pictures of Jesus suffering the little children to come unto him; you’ve worn tinfoil halos or tea-towels on your head; one of your comfort foods is moulded jellied salad; your first crush was on another youth group member; and you can recite the stories of Noah and Moses and Jesus with uncommon accuracy.
First off, I want to apologize to you. I am sorry that the Jesus we served up at pot-luck suppers was so bland. That the God you met at Vacation Bible School was so compromised by western culture and middle-class morality. That the wildness of the Holy Spirit we preached was so domesticated. I am sorry we talked about prayer and social justice and forgiveness more than we lived them.
I am sorry that we managed to make discipleship so boring. People ask me: “Why aren’t young adults in church?” I tell them “…because church is boring.” Mainline Christianity, I confess, suffers from bad cases of frightened caution and numbing orderliness. It is a miracle really, that we managed to hang on to a few of you.
Still, we love the church, what it has been to us, how it continues to inspire us. The church community is a place where we experience real, if limited, love and grace on earth. It hurts our hearts to see what has become of it.
Are you aware of how much time we spend plotting to get you back? That’s why we got the band, spend far too much fruitless time on our Facebook, wear ill-fitting jeans on Sunday mornings, and put tables with crayons on them in the sanctuary. Apparently, you haven’t noticed, or our efforts haven’t been enough to lure you back to the fold… to save the church.
That brings me to the second thing I want to say to you. You don’t need to save the church. You don’t need to save us either or, for heaven’s sake, Jesus. Not that you seem to be worried about saving the church, but just in case. Saving the church is a matter of idolatry. And saving Jesus is, well silly.
Rather than saving the church, I challenge you to be the church, to be the rising body of Christ set loose in the world. It is not enough to fall back on being “spiritual but not religious”. We need community, places where we can learn, grow, be called to account, pool resources and talents toward wholeness. Religion.
That might seem anachronistic in the modern world but I have been watching some of you – you who as children we tattooed with Christ– doing things that look to me like small “c” church, that look like discipleship communities.
You get together with your friends to eat, laugh, cry and listen to the songs that jazz your souls. You break bread and drink wine – maybe a little too much wine. You create community through honest conversations about love, good and evil, sex, politics, capitalism, the planet. You inspire creativity in one another.
Some of you are successful in your careers and are wrestling with questions about how to give back, stay real, and guard your soul. Many of you are un or under employed and understand Jesus’ words in ways I probably can’t imagine.
You wrestle together with what it means to be kind, to be happy, after two years of Covid, in the 21st Century.
Like leaven and salt, I see you marching in Pride parades, calling for justice for Palestinians and Indigenous peoples, prophesying to the wounded condition of the planet. You volunteer at the food bank and shop at second hand stores, try to live simply so others can simply live.
Researchers tell us that while you don’t care much for church you still kind of like Jesus. You occasionally read your Bible. You pray and meditate and are sometimes moved to the tears of mysticism by all the beauty and the pain of living.
If you find a church where your faith and discipleship are nourished, live Jesus there, but if like so many in your generation you are feeling betrayed or simply bored by us, move on, be the church in some radical new way. If you are hearing the still-small voice, echoing from your childhood among us, calling you to servanthood, justice and love, then meet up with friends and strangers, find a way together. Be the church. Maybe we will join you.
*A version of this article was first published in the December 2013 issue of the United Church Observer, now called Broadview
January 12, 2022
I want to Go Off-Leash
Respectful of Covid restrictions, Pearl and I had only one out of town guest over the Christmas holidays. Pekoe is a seventy-pound, two-year-old husky-shepherd mashup. Still very much a puppy, Pekoe lives with—you really can’t own a dog—Naomi and Cameron, our daughter and son-in-law. They dropped Pekoe off at our place on their way from Thunder Bay to visit his family in the Sault, because Cameron’s mom, Brenda, has mini dogs who Pekoe might mistake for squeaky toys. It seemed like a good idea, at the time.
Okay, she did eat the sugar-maple sapling we have been coaxing along in the back yard, for the past three years. Pekoe really likes sticks. It was an honest mistake.
We were warned that Pekoe is not what you would call a dependable, off-leash dog. At doggy obedience school Pekoe got a “Participant” award, and a “Thanks for coming out, maybe next time,” from the instructor.
As I was heading outside to shovel the driveway, I said to Pekoe, “You wanna go outside, Huh! Sure you do. Sure you do!” I left her dancing inside the back door, while I went out to unclip her rope and bring it around front. Bent over, I heard the screen door bang open behind me, felt a swoosh of air, and saw a blur of fur hurling itself into the woods behind our house. I called out, authoritatively, “Pekoe! Come!” I repeated it. Demanded it. Loudly. Several times.
Pekoe dove into the snow and disappeared beneath the low branches. I don’t think the choice for low underbrush, where I could not follow, was intentional. She’s not that smart. It was probably sticks. The glory of an infinite number of sticks.
I momentarily cornered her on a path. She charged at me in great leaps of exuberant playfulness. I crouched, spread my arms wide intending to tackle her. She hit me like a cannonball, sent me spinning into the brush, and was gone. My left bicep is still bruised.
I searched the woods until it got dark—around 4:30 PM at this time of year—then came home and worried about what to say if we had to call Naomi, “Hey, remember your dog? Pekoe? Ah….”
Pekoe found us, three hours later. She was sitting, contemplatively, at the end of our driveway observing passing vehicles, serene as a monk. I opened the front door and called to her in a high-pitched, pretend-happy voice, “Here Pekoe! Come on inside. Good girl.” She stood, sauntered up the steps and inside, like she had not just terrified Pearl and I out of minds.
The next day, we were on one of Pekoe’s thrice daily walks. She was tethered to a thick canvas leash, clamped onto a harness with as many clips as a baby’s car seat. At the baseball diamond, Pekoe sat down and looked forlornly from the wide open space of the field, to me and back to the field. “You need to run, don’t you, girl. Sure you do. You wanna go for a run?” She raised her soft brown eyes and said, “Yes.”
I carefully secured both dugout gates behind us. The field is otherwise contained by a chain link fence. People run their dogs there all the time. I rubbed around Pekoe’s ears the way she likes, and unclipped her harness. And. She. Was. Gone. Like a cheetah chasing a gazelle, straight for the one, small, gap, in the fence, two-hundred yards away off in right field. Players use it to recover home runs hit over the fence. Pekoe targeted it like her life depended on it. “Pekoe come!” I shouted. Pointlessly. I swear, she was laughing maniacally when she hit the gap, made a hard left and torpedoed up the hill into the woods. She must have discovered the gap during her first escape.
It was dark. I went home. Angrily, I shoveled the driveway and worried about the best way to tell Naomi that her dog had been attacked by a pack of wolves or hit by a snowmachine. I was just finishing up when Pekoe loped between our house and the neighbour’s. Her massive tongue lolling, she appeared to be happily spent by a good run. Inside she waited beside her bowl. “No more off leash for you, Missy,” said I, and dished out her kibble. What the heck. I gave her a treat. I know, I know, we shouldn’t reward bad behaviour but I was relieved.
Pekoe and I took another long, on-leash—no more Free Willy at the baseball field for her—uneventful walk the next day. A squirrel chattered from a spruce tree. Pekoe lunged, almost dislocating my shoulder and actually dislodging my mitten. She bounded into the woods, my disembodied mitten still clutching onto he leash bouncing behind her. I didn’t call her. Why bother. Her tracks were easy to follow though. The leash left its unique marking in the snow between her paw prints. I found my mitten. It was dark. I went home.
Pearl and I, sick with worry, took turns searching the woods with our headlamps strapped around our hats. We called—pointlessly—“Pekoe! Pekoe!” I was in the woods when my phone rang. I pulled it out of the inside pocket of my parka. It was Naomi calling. I put it back in my pocket. We had yet to report to her any of the curious incidents of her dog missing in the night.
By not answering I doomed Pearl to a tearful conversation with our daughter. Not to worry, Naomi was calling to let us know that someone had picked up her prodigal dog and posted a photo on Facebook of Pekoe in their backseat looking like an arrested felon. They had also used the phone number on Pekoe’s tag to call Naomi.
Generally, when bad things happen to me—like when I had cancer, or when Pekoe came for Christmas—I parse my suffering for wisdom. The via negativa and all that (see It’s Good to be Here). In these years of the plague, I find myself wanting to raise a fist of victory, rather than chastisement to Pekoe, the great escape artist. I get it. I envy her. I too am weary of the Covid leash, tired of suppressing so much spontaneous energy. My soul wants to be unclipped from restrictions, lockdowns, fear, isolation and rumours of conspiracy, and run wild without restraint through the wild places of life. Maybe some day soon I will. Maybe you will want to join me.
For now, I will genuflect in the direction of my teacher, Pekoe, dawn my mask, and count my blessings.
January 3, 2022
I have downplayed the backstory to The Undertaking of Billy Buffone. I keep a succinct reply at the ready for the Is it based on actual events? question: It started with a pedophile who abused boys for 25 years in the town where I live. Beyond that it is completely fiction. Period. I wanted my novel to walk on its own two feet, as a work of literary fiction. Now that it is doing just that, I can share a little more.
My publisher and I talked about what to put on the book cover. Based on actual events? It’s not. Inspired by real events? There is nothing inspirational about the serial sexual abuse of boys. In end, we didn’t put anything on the cover about the backstory, summed up here by Katherine Macklem, in “Sordid Secrets” (McLean’s Magazine, January 20, 2003).
[Bill] Springer was charged in the fall of 1984 with 53 counts of sexual assault, indecent assault and buggery involving young boys. His victims are believed to number in the dozens. He pleaded guilty to 10 counts and was sentenced to two years less a day in prison. In addition to being a teacher and Marathon’s reeve, Springer, 47 at the time of his sentencing, was active with the Scouts and president of the Minor Hockey Association and of the Lions Club. He was also head of the Thunder Bay Municipal League, director of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and chairman of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Advisory Council. In the small, rough-hewn milltown of Marathon, Springer was a big man.
I arrived in Marathon, an isolated town on the north shore of Lake Superior, in 1987. Bill Springer had been sentenced, and an investigation into the local police had made it obvious, if unproveable, that the Chief of Police—along with countless others—had colluded in a decades-long cover up. Springer, after all—as reeve and Chair of the local Police Board—was the Chief’s boss. I was the freshly minted United Church preacher. City bred and raised, a babe in the woods, I was oblivious to the horrible events that preceded my arrival. Through whispers, quiet offers of advice and during traumatic pastoral visits the secrets were told that no one talked about in public.
The general consensus was that everyone should just move along. “Nothing to see here folks.” In private, people said things like: “He never really hurt anyone”; “We just kept our kids away”; “No one knew”; “Everyone knew”; “This is a safe town”; and “He was a stand-up guy, did a lot of good.”
Early on, I preached a sermon on exorcism, about how evil can masquerade as good, about unmasking social evil and confronting it as a community. A member of the congregation, and one-time friend to Springer, told me to “Leave it alone, that’s all in the past.”
It was not in the past, though. Enduring damage festered beneath the façade of a bucolic happy town. Shame, anger, silence and collusion were bottled-up. The statically high number suicides, addictions and mental health issues testified to unresolved trauma.
My phone would ring in the middle of the night, sometimes. It would be one of Springer’s victims calling. They struggled to talk down the ghosts who continued to haunt them.
One man called asking for help with steeling himself to confront two other men who were involved his abuse. One was a priest, relocated by the diocese before I arrived. The other man still lived in town. He called me, too, right after hearing from his victim. He protested that he had blacked out drunk. Had no memories of the multiple events he was accused of.
A petition was launched, demanding that Springer’s name be removed from places of honour. As a community leader his name appeared on plaques, his image in photos, all over town. The petition failed because ultimately it required an acknowledgment that our town was not the universally safe, idyllic placed we claimed it was. It would have required an admission of guilt or collusion, or of willful ignorance, or of having been duped.
A few years ago, the Historic Society placed an old baseball team photo the local paper. In it, Springer was identified as the coach, teacher and reeve. Not whisper about him being a pedophile who supplied alcohol to children on grade eight trips to Toronto, or who hosted drunken parties of underaged children and men at his camp.
Nearly forty years later, many who lived the Springer years are steadfast in their denial. When The Undertaking of Billy Buffone came out I was told about a woman who announced that she would never read it because “Bill Springer was my best teacher, I don’t want that ruined.” She knows that my novel is fiction, that it isn’t about Springer, but I think she is afraid of what it might force her to see.
The Undertaking of Billy Buffone is a work of fiction about the after time. It is about the enduring collateral damage, the secrets, the persistence of memory and the acts of kindness and love that heal. This work of healing is done by individuals and by the community. The community has to show up, as they do at the end of Billy Buffone. Ultimately it is a novel about forgiveness.
Forgiveness, Billy can see, is the opening of a door. It takes courage to step through it. Mercy and redemption come, subtly wounding us with humiliation and unbearable joy. They slip away and return again, when we least expect it. He vows to himself that he will take the first step, in spite of his unworthiness. (p289)
December 27, 2021
In the Midst of Winter
Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Covid blew in brutal and, like some winters, it has long overstayed its welcome. We’re anxious to shake 2021 from our boots and welcome 2022. Like we were ready to do last year. But Covid NINETEEN is still hanging around like a drunk looking for fight after the New Year’s party is over.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” The quote comes from Albert Camus’ essay, “Return to Tipasa” (1952). Camus went back to Tipasa, Algeria, looking for renewed inspiration, and sense of purpose.
Camus’ return to Tipasa, however, was in the winter, to a city “…which was for [him] the city of summers.” Instead of sunshine and languid days, he was pelted by rain that “wet the sea itself”; an “apparently inexhaustible sky”; and by downpours “viscous in their density.”
Camus is, of course, not writing about the weather. He is writing about the inner experience of feeling lost, disheartened and uninspired.
We are stumbling into another year of sickness and death, lockdowns, isolation, anger, fear and despair. Our “all in it togetherness” has started to sound ironic. Punch drunk healthcare-workers step into the ring for yet another round of pummeling. Anti-vaxing and anti-anti-vaxing feuds, among families and friends, fester.
Omicron is coming at us, not like a fourth wave, but like brick wall. And our failure to vaccinate people in poorer countries guarantees an infinite parade of virulent variants. We’re longing for summer but winter persists.
So, we wear masks, wash hands, relate by Zoom and FB. We share remarkable stories of kindness, respect, compassion, patience. We delight in small human interactions. We catch glimpses of beauty we didn’t have time to notice before. We post pictures of our families, wearing Christmas pyjamas, online. Each photo a declaration that we are still here, still living.
We want things to get back to “normal,” back to how they were before.
During that cold wet winter in Tipasa, Camus realizes the “…sheer madness…” of trying to relive at forty what he had loved and enjoyed at twenty. It is madness to think he can go back.
We cannot go back either. We are not the same as we were two years ago. We have been changed by winter. How exactly we have been changed won’t be fully evident until after the plague is done with us. We do know that it has called on our better nature—kindness, stillness, generosity, simplicity, gratitude and a growing awareness of our connection as a species. We’ll want to hold onto those.
And we will need relinquish the fear, judgmentalism, blaming, the fallacy that individual freedoms are unrelated to responsibility to our neighbours. Covid infected us with all those, too.
We will need seek absolution for the selfishness that caused us to fight for third dose boosters in a world where others had none. Forgive us the foolishness that imagined we can be immune to the suffering of the world.
“In the midst of winter,” Camus wrote, “I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” In the midst of Covid we’ve caught glimpses within ourselves of that inner, invincible summer. Some days it is difficult access, but there is—impossibly in seems at times—that warm hope, that inner sunshine inoculating our spirits against cold despair.
December 19, 2021
SOMEONE STOLE BABY JESUS – A Christmas Story
The following is based on actual events, that unfolded over several weeks in letters to the editor of our weekly newspaper, before Facebook existed. One of the crazy joys of small-town life, where a missing baby Jesus can become major event. It was fun to imagine if were to happen today.
December 6, 2021
A Prayer for Bethlehem
Photo by Jakob Rubner on Unsplash
O Mystery, as grand as the universe
O Mighty Force of all creation,
O Power beyond all our power,
You have come to us as an infant.
Vulnerable, fragile, beautiful.
You have come to us
in the midst of poverty,
powerlessness and longing.
Come again, O Promiser of Peace.
Come again, to the city of your birth
mired in fear, oppression and injustice.
Come again, where bullet holes
still pock the walls of Sanctuary.
Come again, where Children dream
of homes they have never seen.
Come again, where a single key
or the number 194 cry out again
of forced journey to Bethlehem.
Be born again in the camps.
Be born again in stables and homes.
Be born again in many cities and languages.
Be born again among nations.
Be born again in places of injustice.
Be born again a promise of hope,
a sign of love and joy to the world.
Be born again in our hearts,
that we too might be called
Makers of peace
and Children of God.
Watching for Salmon
December 1, 2021
The Humber River was surely known by other names among the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples who lived in the area long before settlers named it after a river in England.
Now a bustling city has grown up around it. It flows beneath a stone bridge near The Old Mill and under Dundas, Bloor, the subway line and the Gardner’s Expressway. The soil along its banks continues to thrusts up a little green life. Ducks, geese and heron still call it home. The sun still insists on photosynthesis and we are drawn, by unnamed longings, to the grassy banks of the waters that will eventually flow to the Atlantic.
And a few salmon, driven by their own DNA-desire to spawn new life, still make their way up its rushing current from Lake Ontario. Fewer salmon leap up into the cool autumn air, over the low concrete damns, than once churned the water red. These days, we might be blessed by a surprising splash and flash of light reflected off a fish’s crimson back, if we are watching.
Like a thief in the night—they are there and then gone. You couldn’t pick them out of a police line up down town. Still, having caught a glimpse, one is left with a sudden sense of aliveness.
Most of us never see the salmon at all. We are too busy, preoccupied with Christmas preparations, or an angry conversation, or the heart-ache that brought us down to walk along the river in the first place. Then something flashes on the periphery of our vision of the world. And our spirit vibrates with the good news that there are mysteries beneath the dark waters of this life.
Sometimes, families and friends come with lawn chairs, blankets and thermoses of hot chocolate. They situate themselves in familiar pews along the banks of the river. When the smooth surface of the water breaks twice—once by the appearing and once by the disappearing–they release their breath together. Their gasp is a hymn of praise, for the surprise and the beauty of the moment. They stop to smile at one another, and passersby, wanting to share the joy.
Others come alone. They pedal derelict bicycles with rattling handle-bar-baskets. They wear hats, pin-cushioned with lures, and rubber waders up to the chests of their plaid shirts. For them it is not enough to stand on the shore, patiently awaiting a mere Christmas glimpse of the mystery that sleeps below the waters of their hopes.
They read the river, wade into it. They trouble it with flies made of feathers, and long whipping casts. They cajole what lies below to rise up.
If they catch a salmon, they cradle it in their hands, touch its beauty. Then, having been blessed, they lower it back into the depths from whence it came. Grateful.
A few take the fish home to feast it into their bodies, driven by the mortal hunger for something real, and beautiful.
This Advent I’ve been remembering those salmon and the people watching the salmon along the Humber. Advent is a busy season, too busy sometimes to glimpse the flashing wonder of a God who came, and persists in coming, to surprise us. We gather at the edge of the Gospel full of wonder; to hear the outrageous prophets who wade into the waters, dissatisfied with mere glimpses, or artificial substitutes. Their longings, and God’s promises, are too powerful to resist.
Advent is the season when we reckon again with a God who startles us with small and vulnerable births. God’s Spirit continues to break the surface of mystery, continues to dwell among us. If we catch a glimpse of that, truly, cradle it in our hands, take it into our bodies, we are blessed.
With Deep Regret: A Letter to Mary
November 23, 2021
I intended to address this letter to “My Dearest, Beloved Mary,” but feared that at this point you would welcome only the barest of salutations from me. Maybe you have already torn these words and the papyrus upon which they are written into a thousand shreds and scattered them with the excrement that flows in the gutter. Who would blame you? I have been a fool. Worse than that, I have been an arrogant fool.
I have much more to write about you and me…but first I want to convey my deep relief and joy at the news that you are well and there with your cousin, Elizabeth, and her fine husband, the priest, Zechariah. The morning after you left, your father came to my house in a rage. He demanded to know where you were and what I had done with you. You won’t believe this, but he even broke my nose with a wooden bowl. Each time I touch it, I feel its thick pain. It makes me think of you. I’m glad he broke it!
Your mother came next, screaming like an eagle. Your father and I were rolling around in the red dust like a couple of synagogue boys. She grabbed your father by the ear, pointed an ominous finger at me, and ordered us inside the house. Quite a crowd had gathered. I’m sure that before I wiped the blood off my face, Mrs. Zebedee’s tongue had gone wagging like a dog’s tail around the village telling everyone what had happened.
Your mother told me that when they woke up that morning you were gone from your mat. I said that you had probably gone to the hills for the day. After all, since you were a little girl, that is exactly where you went whenever you were angry—to watch the spiders, you’d say. But my heart began to sink as I sensed that this was different. They said you were crying when you got home the night before and demanded to know what we had talked about.
I told them I had called off our wedding—and why. I was so shocked and hurt when you told me that you were pregnant, Mary. My heart turned to ice. And I felt insulted when you said that you believed that it was God’s will that this child, who is not mine, would change the world, liberate the people, care for the poor. It was as if you, an ignorant peasant girl, (I know this isn’t true but that’s what I was thinking) were calling me, a man, a religious elder, and your husband-to-be, a fool. My pride opened my mouth. I even convinced myself that I was doing the noble thing. Quietly calling off our engagement seemed to be the kind thing, the honorable thing. After all, everyone knows that I do “the right thing” to a fault. I would face the ridicule from the likes of Mrs. Zebedee, even from my own friends, but they would also say, “Isn’t he kind when he could have had her stoned to death?”
I was there when they stoned Deborah, Jacob’s wife. I still have nightmares. It was there, when Deborah was stoned, that I first realized that you were special among women and girls, and that I loved you. How old were you, 10 or 11 years? You must have sneaked out of the house—a pattern for you it seems. By the time your mother arrived at the stoning, you were screaming and tearing at the robes of the elders who were throwing the rocks. I was hoping that your mother would drag you away before…well, before Deborah died. So, I felt noble and honorable, sparing myself that horror.
I am glad your parents came. They told me of their shame too. They told me what they had always said to you about girls who got pregnant before they were married. People say things like that, Mary. They don’t really mean it. Not about people they love. Your father sobbed. “Cast the first stone? How could I say such a thing to my little girl?” Those are his exact words.
I was 12 years old when you were born and I watched you grow up. When your father and I agreed that you would be my wife, it was the happiest day of my life. I know—and you were right to say it—we men treat women like cows or donkeys, the way we wheel and deal over you. But, I don’t mean I felt happy in the same way I would be if I had made a good bargain with an animal. I mean I felt the deep joy of the completion of something I had always dreamed would come to pass. You helped me understand what the Torah means when it says that God saw the first human’s loneliness and said, “It is not right that this one should be alone,” and from a rib fashioned the one who would complete him. You, Mary, complete me.
So, when you told me that you were pregnant, I felt as though my whole life, my dream, everything had been ripped from my hands in an instant. I was angry. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand completely, but I’m willing to try.
You see, the truth is that I really am the sort of man who does the right thing, not because of what the neighbours will say, but because that’s how I am. When one of my customers overpays me, even a coin or two, I return it. If I find something that doesn’t belong to me, I could no more keep it than turn water into wine. That’s just how I am. I think that it is doing the little things right that leads us to God. It’s like practice for when the big thing comes along.
The big thing, Mary, is to step through whatever gate God opens to us. You and this child are the Creator’s gate for me. What else could account for this love that feels like drunkenness, but which helps me see the world more clearly, more beautifully, than ever before? Our love, this child, will lead us to both joy and suffering. Love always does. To deny that love, however, would lead to emptiness and to death.
Mary, please come home! Give my regards to Elizabeth and to Zechariah and wish them well with their own surprising birth, but please come home. Already I am under pressure to leave for Bethlehem in order to fulfill my census obligations. I would very much like to make that journey, and all journeys from now on, with you. Together we will find the way.
With all my love, Joseph.
First published in Gathering, Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, 2004–2005. Reproduced here with permission of the author. Please credit the author.
March 18, 2021
Light a Fire Against the Night
Gather up what is been broken
Bring what is wounded
Bring the long winter
and the impossibility of spring.
Bring hearts cracked open
by sadness, by defeat, even guilt.
Bring your whispered prayers
your raging souls,
your pain-filled memories
and your dreams stolen.
Bring your doubt and anger too.
Bring the lie, bring the lie
about the finality of death.
Bring it all, bring it all, bring it all.
Together we will carry it, like kindling.
Stack it high, brittle stick on stick
and rub those bones together,
to light a fire against the night.
p141 The Undertaking of Billy Buffone
Fact to Fiction, What Lies Between
I’ve been writing creative non-fiction for thirty-five years. This is about how I ended up writing a novel.
When I arrived on the north shore of Lake Superior thirty years ago, the town of Marathon was reeling from the revelation that a pedophile had preyed on boys here for twenty-five years. He was an esteemed citizen—reeve, teacher, scouter—who had fooled most, but not all, of his colleagues, friends and neighbours. Quite a few people knew, or suspected, including the police. Most of them looked the other way. After a quarter of a century, what had lurked in the dark had been brought into the light. He was charged with 53 counts, pleaded down to 10, and sentenced to two-years less a day. When I arrived as the green United Church minister, a concerted effort was underway to burry the ugly past in a deep grave. “He really didn’t hurt anyone.” “Let it go, the past is the past.” “You can’t change history.” “That’s all over, now.” The collateral damage, however, moaned in our midst like a ghost.
In an effort to bring healing, and to acknowledge the survivors still in town—the ones who had packed up their trauma and gone looking for geographical cures—I tried to write about it. The facts were raw and shameful and, in the end, the facts were not mine to share.
I also grew to love my neighbours, and to understand, as Malcom Gladwell explains in Talking to Strangers, that most human beings are—by nature and necessity—hardwired to trust one another. My neighbours were just doing what people naturally do: assuming the best. The story needed telling, but I didn’t want to hurt them. Nor did I want them to hurt me.
So, I turned to fiction. Moved to a fictional town, one like our town. James Joyce said “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” I hoped to get to the universal heart of trauma by getting to the particular heart of my home town.
There the story stalled, languishing untouched, in the proverbial bottom desk drawer for years.
Only now, after it is finally written, can I look back and see why it took so long. First, I had to learn how to write fiction. Second, I had to confront some inner demons, lurking deeper than the bottom drawer of my desk. I needed to visit the basement where my gremlins of judgement and fears of failure nattered.
In a radio interview, I once heard Margaret Attwood talk about going to cocktail parties. She said, inevitably, a brain surgeon will come over and tell her that he plans to write novels when he retires. Attwood said she likes to reply that she plans to take up brain surgery when she retires from writing novels.
I felt like the brain surgeon, an imposter, incompetent, lacking the “gift” for fiction. Good fiction. The fear of writing badly was paralyzing. I had to keep telling myself, “This novel is just an exercise. I’m just practicing. I’m learning to write fiction. Relax, enjoy the ride.”
I am an overly educated man, who has given his life to serious pursuits—spiritually, the meaning of life, changing myself and the world for the better. I was trained and rewarded for intellectual clarity. Creative narrative had its place in my writing, as a tool or a metaphor with which to communicate an important truth.
Those basement gremlins taunted me: “Writing fiction is self indulgent, frivolous and narcistic. A fine hobby, but only truly great and gifted people write good fiction.” Yet, the truth is; I love fiction. I am often moved and transformed by it. My dirty little secret: I enjoy Haruki Murakami’s capacity to make me believe impossible things, more than I do Eckhart Tolle’s capacity to do the same.
My journey from fact to fiction—across the murky territory of lies between the two—required quite a few trips, below the bottom drawer, down into the basement. The Undertaking of Billy Buffone will be published by Latitude 46 in April.
Lamentation 19 – Sunday November 22, 2020
I want to wet your shirt
with my tears
like an inconsolable child,
rest my head
upon your chest
rest my head
upon your heart
Weep for truth
nobility, all gone,
lost to lies.
Weep for wisdom,
courage and curiosity,
infected with conspiracies
manufactured by deceit
and by fear.
Cry out all day
and all the night, for
human kindness, for
compassion, for justice,
traded for open carry
threats of violence
for dreams downsized
Rail—in vain, let’s
flags of freedom
For the obscenity of wealth—
tallied in numbers
that blames poverty
on lack of ambition.
Weighed down by
weakness, to save the
world, or my own soul.
So, I rest my head
upon your chest,
rest my head
upon your heart,
and wet your shirt
with inconsolable tears,
for a moment.
My apologies for the time between blogs – busy with other writing these days. Let me offer instead a children’s story I wrote a few years ago.
Dinky the Donkey – November 12, 2020
Everybody knows about Joseph and Mary and the Angel and shepherds and the heavenly host singing “Hallelujah and glory to God in the highest!” What about the donkey? What about Dinky! Go ahead laugh, Dinky was used to it.
Dinky was a rinky, tinky Donkey. Dinky was afraid all the time. He was especially afraid of – now this part is a bit embarrassing – mice. When Dinky saw a mouse he saw fangs, flaring red eyes and powerful haunches coiled to lunge at his throat.
Dinky lived in a shed beside his master Jacob’s house. There were mice everywhere. Sometimes Jacob would sneak up and shout in Dinky’s ear, “MOUSE!” Dinky would jump four feet in the air and spin on one hoof. Jacob would roar with laughter.
One day, Jacob loaded two baskets filled with figs on Dinky’s back. They walked to the market. The sun was shining. People were buying and selling things. They were laughing and talking.
Children patted Dinky’s soft grey nose. A man, with kind brown eyes and a wild beard, chuckled, “Aren’t you a fine stallion”. The man gave Dinky a handful of sweet oats.
Dinky imagined himself as a mighty stallion, his thundering hooves as he pulled a beautiful chariot. Bursting past all the other horses. People scrambling out of his way. Dinky the mighty warrior.
Then he saw the mouse scurrying between some clay pots on a blanket. Fangs as long as your arm and about to lunge at him.
Dinky jumped four feet in the air, spun on a hoof and shouted “MOUSE!” but it came out “HEE HAW”. No one understood. He started to run and kick and kept screaming, “MOUSE! MOUSE!” “Heehaw, Heehaw”.
He smashed jars, squashed oranges, did the fandango and flung the figs. He did his best donkey kicks and ran in circles.
Jacob screamed at Dinky to stop and cracked his whip. Dinky accidently kicked Jacob in the tummy. Jacob doubled over, fell to the ground and wheezed through clenched teeth: “Donkey meat for sale.”
The man with the kind brown eyes whispered, “It’s OK boy, come here, come here.” Dinky hid his eyes under the man’s arm.
Jacob was fuming furious. He headed for Dinky with the whip. “Come here you crazy jack-ass. I’ll teach you!”
Jacob raised the whip and the kind man said, “Hello sir. Did I hear you say this fine beast is for sale?”
Jacob hid the whip behind his back and said, “Why yes, he is. I call him, uh ‘Delicious’. Have you ever had donkey burgers? Tastes like chicken.”
“My name is Joseph” said the man, “How much do want you want for this beautiful beast?” Jacob set a very high price, but Joseph just said, “A bargain for such a fine steed. Done.”
Joseph gave Dinky handful of oats and said “I have a special job for you.”
It was a strange and difficult carrying Mary all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was strange because in those days women didn’t get to ride on donkeys. They had to walk. It was difficult because Mary was pregnant and pretty big.
Dinky didn’t mind. He felt proud and strong. He liked listening to Joseph and Mary’s voices when they stopped for the night. “Why us? Why would God choose us?” they wondered. “We aren’t anyone important.”
Mary took Joseph’s hands in hers and said “Because, God cares about the poor and the hungry and the fearful. The little ones.” Dinky didn’t understand.
When they reached Bethlehem they were exhausted. People from all over the world were there to pay their taxes. Joseph went from Inn to Inn but couldn’t find a place to stay. Finally, an Inn Keeper said, “I’ve got no rooms left, but the straw in the stable is dry. You can sleep there.”
“STABLE!” thought Dinky. “That means MICE! No! No! No! Not the stable! ” The Inn Keeper was already leading the way with a lantern. Dinky would have to be a brave Donkey.
The stable wasn’t that bad. The other animals were friendly. The pigs wanted to hear about Dinky’s adventure. The chickens clucked he must be very brave and strong to make such a long journey. Dinky said, “I’ve been mistaken for a stallion before.”
After they settled into the stable the baby was born. Two women who lived nearby came to help. Dinky had never seen anything so scary and beautiful as the birth of a baby. Joseph and Mary seemed scared and happy. He felt that way too.
The two women wrapped the baby boy in some clean cloths. They laid him in a manger, but couldn’t resist picking him up. They passed the baby and took turns whispering ancient songs in his tiny, soft ear. They called him Jesus. Mary smiled, “This is the one the Angel told me about.” Dinky wondered what it was like to talk to an angel.
Some shepherds came. They stood at the door scuffing the dirt with their sandals, looking down at their rough hands. Joseph said, “Come in, friends.” They burst through the door and fell down on their knees in front of Mary and the baby. They took their hats off and elbowed one another to say something.
Finally, the smallest shepherd spoke up. “We, uh, saw an angel eh? Well, not just one. A whole herd of them …or flock maybe? They sang to us, us! Up there in the hills. And told us to come into town and find youse guys so we could be the first to meet the new king.”
“We know. We’re glad you came.” said Mary. “Please sit down.” They took turns holding the baby. The shepherds had held plenty new born lambs before. They knew how to be gentle. They talked about how wonderful it would be when this child grew up and changed the world. Mary looked worried.
“A King?” Dinky thought. “That’s boy’s a king? In a bed of hay, wrapped in rags, and surrounded by a bunch of yahoos from the hills? Nice guys but hardly a royal court. Joseph and Mary, aren’t what you’d call royalty either. And me! I’m not a stallion. I’m a dinky donkey, afraid of mice. A king would ride a mighty black stallion from Arabia not a donkey who would taste like chicken.”
“Diiiinky” a voice sang, “Be not afraid. Behold I bring you tidings of great joy. For unto you is born a new king, a new kind of king, who will love the small ones, care for the weak and the ones others reject. One day, this child will ride like a king, into the city of Jerusalem and on that day, you, Dinky, will be the mighty steed he rides.”
“Are you an angel?” whispered Dinky.
“Yes.” said the voice. Dinky had never seen an angel. He looked up toward the sky from where the voice came. There sitting on a rafter was a mouse. “I’m a tiny little angel,” smiled the mouse and twitched her whiskers.
Out Looking for Poetry – June 16, 2020
I went out walking, looking for a poem. First, I baked four dozen molasses ginger cookies—I’m kind of famous for them. I portioned the cookies into packages for delivery to our friends. Doing something nice for people you love can sometimes lead to poetry.
The first package went to Luis, who in exchange, shared a secret about his new business enterprise. I’m sworn to secrecy. I suspect I’m not alone in the secrecy. Luis is pretty excited.
Then to Sloan and John and their baby Clark’s home. Matthew—Luis’s ten-year-old son—answered the door. “Are you babysitting?” I asked.
“No but I’m sort of practicing,” he explained. “Like training.”
“Well, it’s good then, that your shirt and socks match.” They were both bright orange. “Prospective employers will see that you are a serious guy.”
Matthew looked at his socks, pulled out the front of his shirt and then—eyes wide—said, “I didn’t even realize!” A beatific smile shone on his face, like he had witnessed a miracle. He scooped up the cookies from the porch—set there in deference to physical distancing—and hurried off to tell Sloan and Clark about the amazing synchronicity of his matching orange shirt and socks.
Next door, Selina, our minister, answered my knock, with a ukulele slung around her neck. She claimed to be struggling with worship preparation for Sunday, but to mind it is a sin, not smile in the presence of a ukulele playing minister and molasses and ginger cookies.
Then, I loped along a street that traces a wooded hill. Houses line one side and a forest the other. There I heard the unmistakable sound of a bear, crashing down the hill directly toward me. Twigs snapping. Branches breaking. Growing louder by the second. I scanned my options for escape—fenced yards, easy to climb trees.
From the underbrush, came crashing out onto the street… a dachshund, aka a wiener dog. Our friend Valerie emerged hot on its heels. She scooped the dog up in her arms. “I’m going to strangle this dog! It out of the harness and I’ve been chasing it through the woods!”
“I thought you were a bear!” It was relief a see a dachshund
“He does nip,” she warned me.
The rest of our conversation was spoken in the language the absurd joy of life. “It’s funny that it’s you, who ran into,” she said.
“Well, you know Valerie, sometime our little inner dog leads us to places where there are no paths, they know we are lost, we just have to chase them for a while in our inner woods. We must listen to our inner wiener dogs!” We headed off in opposite directions, laughing.
In spite intending it as a joke, I found myself contemplating my inner wiener dog. Where was it leading me?
Then there was the sound of the tap dancing. I kid you not. To say there is not a lot of tap dancing going on in our tiny town, would be an exaggeration. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have said there is none.
Inside the pedestrian culvert, running beneath the CP Rails, a girl was—yes—tap dancing. Like an apparition. I cannot say much to you about her appearance because my eyes were mesmerized by her tapping patent leather shoes. She danced in the culvert on a portable square of wood flooring.
I watched, listened, awhile, my jaw slack with wonder, then I asked, “Is it okay if I pass by.” Six-feet of physical separation in a pedestrian culvert is not possible.
“Of course,” she smiled. (Right, now I remember, she had a lovely smile and long straight hair).
“I’ve never seen anyone tap dancing,” I said, “in a culvert.”
“I love the acoustics,” she said, and unleashed a flurry of rhythmic feet for our listening pleasure.
There really is poetry everywhere: in cookies, new work, babies, socks magically matching shirts, preachers and their ukuleles, wiener dogs losing us in the woods, and a girl tap dancing in a culvert. Sometimes we just need to go out looking for it. It’s Good to Be Here.
Fragaria Vesca – June 11, 2020
How many times
Have I walked past
The wild strawberries,
Pushing up between
Last year’s dry-brown
Leaves, and this year’s
How many times
Have I failed to rest,
The coming and the
Going of my feet,
To breathe the scent of
Spring, clinging to their
How many times
I forget, to sit the
Earth, in summer,
And taste the sweet-red,
Warm blessing in my mouth—
A universe of tiny seeds
Upon my tongue.
More times than I
Can know. But comes a
Breath, long enough to
Learn a Latin name—
Fragaria Vesca—to hear
Forgiveness, by all the wild
May 16, 2020
“What do you want for your birthday?” A reasonable question to ask a guy who, on Saturday, will have ridden this blue planet, sixty times, around the sun. Pearl, my beloved, asked it of me walking along the shore of Lake Superior.
I like gifts. A lot. So, I contemplated her question for about fifty-yards. “I just realized,” surprising myself, “I really do already have everything I need or want—except for a Triumph Bonneville 120.” Pearl laughed. The Bonneville ship sailed a long time ago.
“What about a celebration?” Pearl asked. “Sixty is a big year.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
I thought about it. I’ve lived three-quarters of my life, assuming I make it to eighty years. Given family genetics, a Y chromosome, and a few run-ins with the cancer, I’ve probably got another twenty left on the clock. How to mark this gradual tipping from middle to old age? From builder to elder?
I visited the cemetery, where I sometimes go looking for wisdom. There is no wisdom quite like that of the dead and the dying. And, in a graveyard, it’s easy to maintain six feet of physical distancing. Wandering among the marble stones I asked, “What would you do differently, dear ones?” Each and every one of them told me the same thing: celebrate life more. Maybe it just was me talking in my head.
I want a celebration of life. I’m not talking about my funeral 1.0. When I’m dead, I don’t want a cheerful, “David wouldn’t want tears,” Celebration of Life. When I die, I want weeping, wailing, shrieking, gnashing of teeth, beating of chests and tearing of robes. I want people to be sad that I’m gone. If not one person can muster a howl at my demise, hire someone to do it. Sing In the Quiet Curve of Evening and Jesus, You have Come to the Lakeshore. Sing In the Bulb There is a Flower, if you must, but sing it like you’re not so damn certain! Then again, I’ll be dead. Do what you want.
Loitering among the graves, however, I fantasized a ceremony where the great cloud of witnesses—that’s you—circled this, my deteriorating body. I am supine, naked as the day I was born and wrapped my Star Blanket. One gnarly foot, with its thickening toenails, immodestly poking out at the bottom. And you? You are dancing wildly, jubilant and lifting my body, rocking me above your heads, all the while shouting wonderful things about me. Come to think of it, it would make a nice funeral ritual, too.
Of course, in these days of the plague, such gatherings are verboten, and—manifest outside of my imagination—are logistically challenging and embarrassingly awkward. Besides, I’m am slightly more curious about what you are celebrating about your life, than what you are celebrating about mine.
So, this is what I want for my birthday: to hear what you are celebrating in these days of global pandemic. Tell me about the small things that become grand: finding yeast at the grocery store, not knowing what day it is, driveway visits with neighbours, finding a bag of cinnamon buns hanging on your door knob, bird songs, duck eggs, something green pressing up from the soil, the grace of giving and of receiving—each an exchange of gratitude. Your degree of present suffering may make it more difficult to celebrate but it would lift my spirits, and perhaps yours, to raise your blessings above our heads. Tell it in words, or photos, video or song. Remind us how, in spite of it all, it is Good to be Here.
Tell us what you are celebrating here, or in the comments on Face Book
Painting by Martin Howard ‘Wasabe’ From the 2017 Lost and Found Exhibition
May 13, 2020
Parables for the Pandemic
A woman could find no yeast
She searched and searched
Day and night
Store and store
Until she found a jar.
She paid, with
From her purse.
She baked bread until
All the yeast was gone.
Then rising with joy,
She bagged the bread
And gave it away, with
A note to say:
“Rejoice with me,
For I had no yeast and
Found generosity instead.”
A writer lost a word.
He had hundreds
of perfectly good words,
But one was missing.
He searched his mind,
He searched internet
He asked his wife
If she’d seen his word.
One had wandered.
He found Old words
Like mercy, grace
He called friends
on the phone
“Rejoice with me,
I found some words
I thought were gone.”
A Leader and a builder.
Alone, at home, she
She searched the
Faces on her Zoom,
She counted her degrees,
Her pay and prizes.
She found herself,
In the mirror.
Alone and loved
Beyond all she’d done.
“Rejoice with me.
This daughter of mine
And is alive;
She was lost
Now is found!”
“They killed Jesus? Why did they do that? They are bad people! He didn’t do anything bad. It’s not fair!” Our three-year-old son ranted in this fashion the whole walk home from his first Good Friday worship service. The sidewalk—lined with filthy snow, grit and melting dog turds—the drizzle falling from a clay-coloured sky, the barren trees and the moaning wind all seemed to agree.
Our son, for the first time, realized that baby Jesus, who became a man of the marginalized and a healer, was murdered. He was furious and inconsolable in his despair over the injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion. I held his hand. I told him Jesus’ friends probably felt the same way. I didn’t mention Easter. Tears ran down his cheeks.
Only the most courageous among us truly surrender ourselves to the Good Friday story. We prefer to put Jesus in the tomb, like bread into a toaster, confident he will pop back up on Easter morning. No worries. Friday’s grisly scene will soon be transformed into pastels, tulips, painted eggs, bunnies and sunrises.
What if we had only a charismatic, donkey riding, peasant revolutionary who was publicly tortured and put to death by a powerfully militarized occupying empire?
In Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night—about his survival in a German concentration camp—he describes being forced to witness the slow, agonizing death of a young boy, hanged for collaborating against the Nazis:
Behind me, I heard… a man asking: “Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows….”
We’re Easter people. We hurry from cross to empty tomb—the show stopper, the orchestra swelling, trumpets and timpani sounding, proclamations of the end of injustice and suffering, the victory of life over death.
Can we be honest? Death and suffering have not been defeated.
The resurrection—like Donald Trump on the return to normal after COVID-19—is aspirational. It is described poetically, with metaphors and symbols—the curving neck of fiddleheads, crocuses sprouting in the snow, the song of a sparrow in a blossoming cherry tree, the restoration of relationships, an ineffable inner awakening—all true, beautiful and full of promise.
Good Friday, on the other hand, is as literal as a grave. The fear, despair, injustice, violence and suffering of God on a cross persists in the flesh.
On this Good Friday of the plague, where is God? God is weeping in Italy and Spain, perishing in a Bobcaygeon nursing home, laying down her or his life for friends and strangers at the hospital and the grocery store, suffocating for lack of a respirator, sleeping cheek to jowl in a homeless shelter, deprived of a final kiss, alone, bracing as the pandemic stalks Africa. Suffering and death abound.
This week, a little girl came to the food bank with her mother. Stressed, tired and laid off from her minimum-wage job, Mom accepted the grocery card and picked 10 items from the pantry shelf. Her daughter rummaged through a basket of hotel toiletries. “She wants one of those hotel shampoos,” her mother sighed, “to wash her hair. I use soap.” But the shampoos were all gone. Only hand lotions were left in the basket.
“Where is God,” I wanted to cry, “when a frightened little girl cannot have 30 lousy millilitres of shampoo to wash her hair?”
And I heard Good Friday answer: “Where is God? Here She is—searching in a basket for shampoo.”
Photo from the Aida refugee camp, in Bethlehem, a memorial to children killed in conflict with Israel in 2014. (Photo: James Walker)
These Canadian pilgrims learned difficult truths about life in Israel and the West BankBy David Giuliano
December 15, 2019 – Good to Be Here, Cleaning the Bathroom
Last week, I went skiing and snowshoeing through the woods, where the sunshine cast long purple spruce tree shadows and there were lynx and fox tracks to follow. There was crisp winter air to draw into my lungs and expel—warm with sigh—glad to be alive, caught up in the mystery and healing of creation. On days like those, it is easy to remember that, “It is good to be here.”
Cleaning the bathroom? Not so much. My standards aren’t exceptionally high when it comes to the spit ‘n’ polish or the antibacterial attributes of our bathroom, but from time to time it’s got to get done. I put the mats and the waste basket out in the hall for shaking and emptying later. I clear the counter of hand lotion, razors, contact lens containers and solutions. I put the soap dish in the drawer and flip the shower curtain over the rod, readied for a full on bathtub scrub.
We try to stick with environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. None of the tile cleaners that, in the television commercials, send forth happy little spinning, foaming brushes that leave everything covered in digitized sparkles. At our house, there is a lot of vinegar, baking soda, eco-friendly soap and a lot of elbow grease involved. I sometimes covet those little smiling brushes that do all the work.
I shake baking soda and sunlight soap into the toilet and bathtub and spray the shower tiles and mirror with vinegar.
Admittedly, there is satisfaction in the fresh shine on the mirror and chrome taps, and in scouring the clot of dried toothpaste from the counter. The toilet. I’m not squeamish about toilets. A brief stint in the military right out of high school disabused me of any reluctance about diving—metaphorically—right in. It would be nice to have something industrial with which to blast the hard water stains streaking down into the bowl. The tub is fun—there’s a lot tidal swishing of water involved. Then the dreaded tiles which, in spite my best efforts, inevitably lead to soapy water running down my raised arm from the rag into my armpit.
Finally, on my knees—with no thoughts of prayer—I double-rag, backward out the door, while swiping up matted hair balls and errant toenail clippings.
It’s easy in the forest, or by candle light, or beneath the stars; it is more difficult—but not impossible—kneeling in the hallway, having cleaned the bathroom, to remember, “It’s good to be here.”
December 11, 2019 – I woke up to dancing
I woke up—but did not want to get—up 5:30 AM this morning. So I listened to BBC’s Cultural Frontline. Today’s show was called “Rave for a revolution”, about the power of techno-dance culture in the Palestinian struggle for justice.
In August, I traveled to Palestine with a group of young adults from Canada (read more about that in the January issue of Broadview Magazine). In Bethlehem, we were invited by our host to “a little engagement party for my nephew and his fiancée.” This little party turned out to be a feast for five-hundred and, including indoor pyrotechnics. It was the dancing, though, that inspired me.
Bethlehem is part of West Bank, and, for Palestinians, essentially a prison. Yet, in the midst of this constant stress, injustice, restricted movement, and apparent hopelessness, the dancing was positively ecstatic – the bride hoisted on chair, the groom riding the shoulders of various men, a bottle of champagne cracked open with a sword and fountaining over an elegantly dressed mosh pit of the young and the old, all bouncing to the beat of Arabic dance music. I was taken up into this raucous heaven on earth by the unaccountable joy of it. An irrepressible anarchy of joy and hope flowed through the room—joy and hope not grounded in the cruel facts of daily life but in defiance of the powers that seek to crush hope, peace, joy and love in those who dance-anyway.
This morning I lay in bed remembering the mysticism of that night in Bethlehem, and Emma Goldman, who said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And I remembered, it’s good to be here, where dancing is sometimes the most subversive thing you can do.
December 10, 2019
It’s good to be here. The further I travel from my Camino de Cancer, the harder it gets to remember that truth. So, in league with you who daily share your gratitude – like the always inspiring Laura Fouhse– I intend to remind myself each day that is indeed good to be here.
This morning it was -30 something Celsius with the wind chill factored in. I bundled up and went outside to shovel our driveway in that liminal time between night and day. I caught a last glimpse of the full moon and then the sun bleeding into the sky. I breathed the snap of air, felt the snow beneath my feet, and heard my neighbours beginning their days. A school bus roared past, ferrying a load of little miracles off to school. And I remembered, it’s good to be here.
Maybe you, like me, have a difficult time remembering that it is good to be here. Maybe life has taken you to places that aren’t good to be. I welcome your reflections and observations.
Light a Fire Against the Night
Gather up what is broken
Bring what is wounded
Bring the long winter
and the impossibility of spring.
Bring hearts cracked open
by sadness, by defeat, even guilt.
Bring your whispered prayers
your raging souls,
your pain filled memories
and your dreams, stolen.
Bring your doubt and anger too.
Bring the lie, bring the lie
about the finality of death.
Bring it all, bring it all, bring it all.
Together we will carry it, like kindling.
Stack it high, brittle stick on stick
and rub those bones together,
to light a fire against the night.
The Candle Man
In a garage, in an alley-
way in Thunder Bay,
there is an old man
who deals in candles,
on dark December nights.
A little boy, soft
in his brown parka,
peers into an open box
packed and stacked
with unlit, waiting lights.
He drops a mitten
to the floor forgotten, to
the mystery of the waxen sticks,
their cold and ready wicks,
awaiting fire, awaiting flame.
The old magician conjures up
a glass and purple globe,
sets it—like host—into small
upturned and empty hands,
entrusting it to inner lands.
“This one is mine,”
whispers the boy.
“Yes, for your advent,”
says the old man. “Yes,”
says the candle man.
And a garage, in an alley-
way in Thunder Bay,
flares with votive light,
becomes a grand cathedral,
on a dark December night.
Do you wonder why?
Does the birch tree
cry out, when its bark
splits open, unable to
contain one new ring
Does the dandelion
Mourn an infant seed,
carried on a warm breath
to waiting fertile soil
Does the green snake
gaze back upon her
discarded skin, longing
for days when she felt
Does the still, blue pond
refuse to reflect the sky
because the geese
it hosts discover wings
Do you wonder why
every birth, and every dawn
of every day, promises
tears of grief and of gladness
as the way?