Friday, February 24, 2006

89 Days of Alcatraz

I am afraid to be alone sometimes, though without valid reason; I grasp for the tiny ledges of companionship that will keep me off the ground. I’d like just one more view of the night sky.

These pages slip between my fingers, fluttering in the wind, streaked with black ink. They are my second skin, bound to leather by string, fastening me tightly to the promise of words. My motivation for writing runs as clear as blood, but at least I know that words are my lifelines to the land of the living. When we can name we can create. Names become like cages for our ideas, because we are always trying to hold them for just a minute longer, begging them, please, not to grow up. Ideas, laughing like soft new babies. Unfinished and barely begun. Ideas open and bare and pink, without rows of teeth barring the world’s entry. Ideas not yet captured, ideas transparent as jars and holding silence.

“Hope is a revolutionary patience . . . so is being a writer.” I got this from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I’m only 20 pages in and because of it, my lust for words has already grown to ever more consuming proportions. There are words everywhere, running like black tar over city streets, making my front bicycle tire slip as I ride home at 2 am. Across the city I am towed and tossed, as if a sail were attached to me, a white canvas where words would lodge themselves, thrown from the sky: Recompense. Forgiveness. Salt. Wound.

Patience: Persistent, relentless, unwavering. And I wonder when Hope grew so tall. Hope, after all, always seemed so sunny, tasting faintly of orange sherbet on cool August nights. The sentence jumped out at me because I had, somehow corresponding with my quarter-century year, learned a much different Hope. I was only looking for its name: Hope a lot more like revolutionary patience. Hope like some kind of barnacled twine tying me to an iron post stationed at the end of a pier. Hope older and smelling of the sea, Hope darker and pleasantly bitter, like chocolate.

How does that cat know where she is at this hour? What is everyone doing, sleeping through this calm, missing the city’s most brilliant moments, choosing instead to awake to her most garish extravagances of day.

What's heavier, words or the things they name? (thanks to Malani for this tangent.)

Click on the picture for the source site.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Up up and away

Today is my brother’s birthday. I have noticed that birthdays have become less about gifts and celebrations, given that those closest to me are the ones furthest away. If I had rubber arms I would gather all of you to myself in one big greedy gesture. Like in that dream I have every year or so where everyone I have ever known and loved (or some combination of the two) comes together in the same place. It is a dream, I know, of heaven, of peace and of community. And a typical extrovert’s dream, perhaps.

Birthdays have become less about the advancing of years, or the achievement of a new set of arbitrary freedoms. Rather, I find that they have become more like days of honour. I wake, and the dawn rolls back to remind me of someone dear to me, past or present. I bring them closer, meditating on them, framing them with my thoughts, bending to kiss their foot like a devoted worshipper before a revered image. Too often this reverence doesn’t translate into phone calls, cards, or gifts, as it most ideally should. But it is any less generous? I am, of course, not trying to get out of gift-buying, for at its best it is one of the most tangible expressions of love. However, this shifted understanding of birthdays helps me understand something far more mystical, something I have chased all my life in varying states of confusion, frustration, and tedium: prayer.

When we honour the passing of a day of birth, we honour not a day nor a moment in history, but a person. When we hold that person in the front of our minds throughout an entire day, we are turning the self toward the other. Perhaps this simple turning is also the primary goal of prayer. When a person—their face, laugh, interests, presence—pervades our conscious life more consistently than in singular fleeting thoughts, is it as if the whole of our selfhood is consumed by them. They are there, in the spreading of honey on toast and in the selecting of oranges. They are there, in the donning of raincoats and rhythm of travel. They are there in the playing of music and the chattering of voices long into the evening.

I have learned and forgotten a lot about prayer. It has been a long time since I’ve knelt on a padded prayer rail, feeling the soft give of the leather under my knee, joining this age old communal and individual practice. I have tried to make substitutions for prayer, letting thoughts, intentions, and leanings stand in for the rigours of devotion. I have also been too hard on myself, deeming my prayer-life to be sub par when instead I just should’ve turned my attention to the new forms it had taken. There are many things that prayer is not. But perhaps there are many more things that it is, or that it can become.

I believe that the presence of God can be practiced in more ways than it can be denied. Can even the good and true actions and thoughts, on the part of those who don’t believe in God, proceed towards God? Does Christ thus re-route our misdirected thanksgivings and our most haphazard joys? Does true prayer happen even in the places we least expect it? Does it require conscious attention? Does prayer always and at all times have to be located only in the heart of believers?

And so my musings on birthdays have diverged into this new territory, where perhaps only the magic of dialogue can lead. And I see that there may be as many ways to pray as there are bones in the body; tendons to curl or to fold or to lay down before, and in holy submission to, our God.

"Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.
" -Simone Weil.

Pictures: 1- Traditional prayer, 2- "Study for the garden court" by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (a poster I had in my room througout adolescence), 3-Tibetan prayer flags.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Nobody Knows How they are Loved

The florist shop across the street is stuffed with Valentines day leftovers. Pink and red balloons keep each other warm, crammed together under the dimmed display lights. Pink and red maintaining the closed shop’s cheery fa├žade despite the fading light; pink and red spilling onto the grey sidewalks of Westcott Street. Just a few days ago that shop was bustling with last-minute lovers.

February, the month of love. The shortest month, too. As I look back over a life of February 14th’s, I notice how this day presents us with a variety of options. We can abstain from this frivolous, needless consumer dictate altogether, we can choose more creative ways of expressing our affection, or we can buy into the "50 ways to Love your Lover" offered to us at every turn. I’ve hosted “platonic potlucks,” been out on hot dates, had Chinese food with my brother, and, of course, served countless couples champagne at countless restaurants!

Every time a holiday or other noteworthy day comes and goes, I think of how it is being experiencing so differently, simultaneously. In all the moments a February 14th holds, there are a thousand or more stories lived, a thousand or more secrets revealed. These days mark the passage of time in a communal sense. We live through them together, almost as if they are social rites of passage, moments that tie us to each other in mutual agreement. It is when we feel most like hobos on parade, solitary wanderers through this alienating world, these days unite us. They give us common interests, and at the very least, topics for conversations (and blog posts)! In certain cases, like Christmas and Easter, they connect us to the people and the traditions that have made it possible for us to learn this thing called faith.

Valentine's Day serves a variety of social functions, albeit less noble ones. There are as many reactions to February 14th as there are people. Unfortunately for some, (like the woman we witnessed screaming across the airwaves on her cell phone), the day is a downer. For others, like the couple on the couch across from us at “Awful Al’s Cigar Lounge,” the day is a playground for public affection. And there are hundreds of Valentines Day experiences that fall somewhere in between these extremes. For those lucky enough to tumble into Valentines Day shortly after tumbling into a relationship, the day is but an insignificant blip on the screen of new love—merely one more day amongst the unfolding bliss. In this context, the lovers can do no wrong--a knowing glance slipped across the dinner table is as passionate as the perfect kiss, and a few moments in the presence of the beloved are worth boxes full of chocolate and fingers full of diamonds.

Then there is the next level: V-Day as filter. I’ve noticed that in more settled relationships, the 14th serves as a catalyst for the “fight or flight” reaction. When a couple’s first Valentines Day rolls around, say, a few months after being together, the l0ve-sensors seem especially sensitive. I’m sure many a well-intentioned man is dumped for not coming up with spectacular ways to wow their women on this particular day in mid-February. Valentines Day here is like a test one must pass in order to proceed to the next level. And this is where the card shops kick in, serving as Band Aids and cupid-godmothers for failed and failing lovers.

There are Valentines Days spent indulging chocolate addictions and lonely hearts with single friends, there are sympathy dates and blind dates. There are men sitting alone in neighbourhood bars, there are gentle bartenders pouring the healing wine. There are tears in the eyes of eight-year-olds when their bakers-clay Valentines break in their bag on the way to school, there are hopes and dreams locked behind the doors of closed florist shops, there are curses broken by a voice you wished you’d heard much sooner. There is the 28th card and 378th rose sitting on the kitchen table. There is the David Gray song playing on the radio: “This year’s love had better last.” There are spells cast by eyes reflecting all the good in you. And there are a hundred more besides, a hundred versions of love on the day all lovers wait for in hopes of feeling the ball in their chests pump just a little faster.

The Innocence Mission’s song “When Mac was Swimming” is a song about a family preparing a birthday party for their little boy, who is oblivious to the goings-on around him. There is a line in it that has struck me over and over again: “Nobody knows how they are loved.” Maybe there are things going on around us, above us, inside of us, that we haven’t named as love, just yet.

Thanks to
singer-songwriter Shannon Wright for the phrase “hobos on parade."

Thanks to Mark for the picture. And for other things, far too numerous to mention on this blog.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Born of dirt and laced with starlight

I came across this site quite by accident. 5 minutes later and I had done the quiz too, perhaps out of my love for satire and irony. I can just see this sort of thing parodied in The Wittenburg Door or something of equal mockery value. So now here it is, folks, everything you've always wanted to know about my forays into the forbidden land: my ranking on the seven-deadly-sin-o-meter, published on-line for all to see! The modern-day confession, writ large in html! (Jen crosses her fingers, hoping that such a candid confession will cancel out some of the said pride.) Seventeen magazine ("Are YOU a good flirt? Take our quiz!!) meets fear of eternal damnation. Ridiculous. If Christians are running this site, Lord help us all.

Greed:Very Low
Gluttony:Very Low
Sloth:Very Low

I'm not sure how such results were generated from questions like "What kind of car do you drive?" but apparently these things are important. (Maybe they just give "pride" out, as a default, to all the people who are just too good to accumulated high rankings in the other six. Since we're so perfect, we must be proud! Ha.)

This quiz has indirectly reminded me of one thing I despise: the scare-them-into-salvation tactic. There are people out there who think that fear is a legitimate way of introducing people to the ravishing freedom and extravagant beauty of God's kingdom. That, to me, would be like taking a child to the ocean blindfolded, or quenching his thirst with wine. The medium does not suit the message. The good is spoiled by that which he has not developed a taste (understanding) for. God seduces us with beauty and goodness and truth, and we Christians--said to be his likeness!
--come up with sin-o-meters and hell's flames plays! Like lego skyscrapers in the shadows of towering mountains, so are our plastic, tottering salvation-games. Should not God be the one who draws the soul forward?

The problem with pride though is that it goes in socked feet. It sneaks up quietly, and by a thousand new names. Even writing this is a prideful act, as I name what I believe to be "right" about my particular view, and in naming what I believe to be "wrong" about another. This is why I have such a great need for God's grace: because as soon as I begin to speak, I am already making myself into a little god. And so this silly little quiz makes me smile, because I know that the longer the bar is on that graph, the further God's arm reaches out towards me. And the further that reach extends, the smaller I shall become. And sometimes I am glad to be small. Small, said E.F. Schumacher, is beautiful.

I like the concept of humility the Bible introduces, as a counter to our obsessive, hamster-wheel attempts to run from pride. Paul says "think of yourselves with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." For me this means knowing and sharing myself: my gifts as well as my weaknesses. The dance of celebration and vulnerability. Sober judgment is a balancing act indeed, impossible "under the influence," so to speak, of pride. When we try to outshine others, we all just end up brown and withered from the excessive heat. When we hide beneath the covers of our fear, the world shivers without the touch of our hand.

Humility, hummus, human. Sharing the same root word for, you got it, dirt. Humility is a call to turn our poised and pious gaze back to the stuff beneath our feet, and to those rooted there--in the matted leaves, dried up tears, and withered moth wings. Being humbled is to be reminded of the dust drifting through my veins like sediment in a restless river. It is to return momentarily to the myth of my genesis, be it by the rib, the tadpole, or the exploding star.
Your thoughts are most welcome.

(and if you're really really bored, take the Seven Deadly Sins Quiz)

Friday, February 03, 2006

Forced into a silly game...

Like those old email forwards we all pretended to hate when we were teenagers, but we really loved because they gave us even more reasons to be self-obsessed, Mark has forced me into this "4 meme." (see his tag here ). Rookie technocrat that I am, I have no idea what this term even means; all I know is that it is taking up room on my blog.

Four jobs I've had:
1) "If you practice ten times this week I'll give you only 2 songs to learn..." (piano teacher)
2) "Yes, we all live here, yup, it is kind of like a commune, yes, on site, no, I don't really get bored...see, there's a lot of mountains around, yeah, I'm from Manitoba, yeah, that's in the middle of Canada..." (server at Num-ti-Jah Lodge, Alberta)
3) "No, these sandals aren't particularly good for ankle-support." (MEC)
4) "WOW, compost actually makes dirt! " (community garderner/green team)

Four movies I can watch over and over:
1) Amelie (for the playfulness)
2) Before Sunset (for the dialogue)
3) Contact (for the themes)
4) Baraka (for the cinematography)

Four of my favorite foods:
1) ants on a log
2) baklava
3) calamata olives
4) the legendary Ward family googly buns

Four places I have lived:
1) Allada, Benin
2) Gimli, MB
3) Bow Lake, AB (see pic)
4) Winnipeg, MB

Four places I've been on vacation:
1) Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands
2) Montreal
3) Yellowstone National Park
4) between the pages of countless books...

Four of my favorite drinks: (there are many more)
1) "Red Red Wine, stay close to me" (preferrably of the shiraz-cab designation, but I'm warming up to Pinot)
2) Bailey's and hot water (first drank it after returning from a backpacking trip SOAKING wet)
3) "Boiled shoe tea" (aka: Lapsang Souchong)
4) Kathleen's special "porch coffee" : )

Four songs that move me:
1) Acid - Emm Gryner
2) Suitcase - Over the Rhine
3) Messages - Xavier Rudd
4) Wise Up - Aimee Mann

Four places where I've found myself:
1) Molar Pass, Alberta
2) Nutimik Lake, Manitoba
3) St. Margaret's Anglican Church, Winnipeg, MB
4) Vancouver, BC

Four things I've imagined myself doing:
1) teaching English Literature
2) co-running a rehabilitation/retreat center organic farm
3) being a yoga instructor
4) opening my own cafe

Four people I am tagging:
1) Malani
2) Matt
3) Marla
4) Adam (someone withOUT an "M" name!)