Monday, November 16, 2015

Adrienne Rich -- "The School Among the Ruins"

As we grapple with how to respond to the horrific violence in Beirut, Paris, and too many other places, I'm convinced that we must consider the human cost of militarism in all its forms. Adrienne Rich's 2001 poem "The School Among the Ruins" is a powerful reminder of the reasons so many refugees are fleeing--and the consequences of how we do war these days.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

November, in contrasts

The way the bare branches of the Box Elders reach up, up to the white November sky, pebbled at their ends, reminders of the promise of buds some half a year away from coming: the texture of that sky, opaque as milk but softened with subtle grey: the complicated crosshatch of the branches, hosting tiny pairs of birds and then empty again.

Does the Internet need another little voice, another handful of paragraphs, added to its cacophony? Probably not.

But sometimes one just has something to say: the branches, today, are a tangled beauty, and I need to stop and notice.

Friday, August 21, 2015

on applesauce, and Instagram, and the creation of the world

I write from the land of nap time, rumpled couch in the still living room in the rainy small town on a Friday afternoon. Once upon a time I used to record all five senses each Friday. Once upon a time I was not juggling work that requires computer time with efforts to raise a low-tech child.

Today I am processing 17 pounds of apples. I have another 17 to go on Sunday afternoon or Tuesday next week. Today I have made applesauce, and as I type a pot slowly bubbles and murmurs on the stove, thickening and browning into apple butter. Every so often I must get up to stir the pot with my decade-old wooden spoon, scraping the bottom, letting it know I have not forgotten it. I will measure out cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, perhaps a dash of ginger in a little while. I will funnel this spicy brown goodness into small jars, and lower them into their bath of boiling water, and set the timer. I will hope for a good seal, although a bad seal means we're obligated to consume the failed jar right away, which isn't such a terrible form of obligation. 

I have been sharing photos of this process on social media today, multiple photos in a row, participating in a practice colloquially known as "overgramming." And I have been drawn to contemplate what drives this photographing, this sharing, and thinking about criticisms of a generation that shares pictures of each restaurant meal, each outfit, commentary on each minor revelation or frustration. Here's the thing, and I'm sure I'm not the first to say this: there is of course an unhealthy penchant for oversharing, for building a public self up out of just the pretty images of life, or inflating drama to establish one's social importance. But there is also, I think, a very holy and human impulse to document small moments of beauty, to carve out a space in the monotony or the frantic pace of life or the very real and present sorrows in this world in order to recognize a bit of goodness. There is an impulse to connect around these moments, to inspire and to be inspired by common practices and attention to similar sparks of light. 

Now: heaven forbid that these bits of beauty be all that we allow ourselves to see. But isn't it important for us to stop and recognize them in our own lives, and to affirm them in other people's? 

I have also been thinking about Wendell Berry's many thoughts on maintaining a household, and Kathleen Norris's beautiful writing on the dignity and poetry of repetitive housekeeping. I have been thinking about seasons, cycles of birth and life and death and renewal. I have been feeling a little off-kilter, canning apples in summer, when I hail from a place in the world where apples are picked in proper autumn, not August. And so I have been thinking about home, and what home is. 

Home is also vivid in my mind because I have been musing all week on Psalm 84, one of this week's texts in the Revised Common Lectionary. How have I not been struck by Psalm 84 before? I have heard its first few lines in songs and liturgies time and again, but verses three and four? 

Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you.[c]

How beautiful to imagine the Creator of the universe as One Who welcomes all into one holy house, not just people but all the created world, including the little sparrows and swallows. How wonderful to picture God as One Who cares for the vulnerable, the fluttering heart of a feathered mother. How glorious to think of joining our songs together in praise for such a One, and calling that place and that music home

And the question follows: what does it mean to live into this little life, this sprawling brown brick house of mine, this canning pot and sack of small apples, so that it manifests, just a tiny bit, that holy space of welcome? 

A coda: I stood at the sink washing a second round of jars today as M finished her leisurely lunch, mostly hummus spooned directly into her mouth with little use for the carrots and cucumbers, and also chia-seed chocolate pudding. She had been fussing at having to come in out of the rain, but she soon settled. I was lost in thought (see above). Out of her chatter rose a recitation: "In very beginning, God's love bubbled over when there was nothing else--no trees, no birds, no animals, no sky, no sea--only darkness. Out of that love, God spoke: Let there be light. 

"And there was day. And there was night. 

"And when the first day was done, God smiled, and knew that it was good."

She went on, skipping around the text of the Desmond Tutu/Nancy Tillman creation story collaboration Let There Be Light. She jumbled the order of things, naming and chuckling at the various created things ("Elephants and giraffes!" "Bees and bugs!"). But again and again, she repeated that it was good

I stood with my back to her, my hands in hot, soapy water, and cried at the goodness of it, this life, this world. 

My point here is not to impress you will my precocious toddler's book memorization, nor is it to make a point about biblical literalism (how can anyone insist on six literal, twenty-four-hour days when the mechanisms by which we understand such time to be measured were not even set in motion at the outset of the biblical story? how can we presume to imagine the Most High constrained by our human understanding of time?).

What I learn from this moment is the beauty of a 22-month-old praising the Creator in poetry, delighted in this earth-home on which she finds herself, calling out its goodness, recognizing that we are made and that this world is in some very real sense good, even in its tedium and tragedy and injustice, and that in some wonderfully real sense we are home

When I turned around again, M was covered in hummus and chocolate chia pudding. It took three rinse-and-wring-outs of the washcloth to clean her up to passable, and I'm not sure I'll ever get the stain out of her sweater. But if you give me a moment, I suspect I'll might catch a glimpse of the holy, even in that. 

Amen and amen. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

from Levertov's "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus"

...I believe and
interrupt my belief with
doubt. I doubt and
interrupt my doubt with belief. Be,
belove'd, threatened world.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charleston, Sorrow, Silence, Speech

Here is where I am coming from. I am an American in Canada. I am the daughter of working-class Baptists, descended from German, Polish, and an unspecified southern mix of immigrants, as well as probably Cherokee--though most Americans seem to claim as much. (It's part of the folk culture, I think, a way to feel less bad about Manifest Destiny since it blurs the line between "us" and "them.") I grew up outside Detroit. I am a white woman with a PhD in English, focusing especially on women writers, postcolonial literature, race and gender, and religion. I am preparing to teach about the Middle Passage, Native American jurisdiction, and NAFTA in a Saskatchewan classroom this fall, via texts like Beloved (Morrison), The Round House (Erdrich), and The Guardians (Castillo). I am raising a little girl. I am learning to care for another gardener's perennials in a house newly purchased.

I have no right to speak, no platform to speak. I am uneasy at the thought of self-aggrandizement--using tragedy as an excuse to write and receive affirmation, the rush of accumulating social media likes and shares.

The horrors pile up. I watch them. I comb my daughter's hair, blinking back tears. Brutality, rampant prejudice, death, shrill arguments that leave no space for actual listening. Not to mention the under-reported and unreported tragedies, the deaths-by-drone, the Elsewhere sorrows.

I observe, mostly silent, doubly removed as an expatriate, while Canadians lose crucial freedoms, its leaders seeming to shrug off serious suggestions to ameliorate the effects of its own wicked history--while my own country, day after day, exports news of its bloodbaths. I am not the one to speak, the suburban white woman, young and untried.

Mostly, then, I listen. I follow friends who compile Black sources, Indigenous sources; I read up. I donate funds to organizations that seek to undo injustices. I attend events when I can. I am helping to plan a conference that will do a tiny local part in these larger conversations about structures of power and justice and hope. I bake bread. I weed the flowerbeds. I read some more.

Lately, though, I feel that my silence might be a rejection of responsibility. I feel, deeply, intuitively, uncomfortably, that I may need to share a few words with my corner of the internet.

Here is what I know: I know texts. I sit, figuratively, at the feet of womanists, postcolonial feminist theologians, novelists. I read and re-read their stories and theories and laments, seeking not to idealize or idolize or romanticize them but to learn from painfully-earned wisdom. I have painfully-earned wisdom of my own, as well, but it is different. I am seeking to gather together the various wisdoms, to learn from more than myself.

A crucial insight: If there is one inescapable point in Toni Morrison's Beloved, a complex and nuanced novel, it is that the history of slave trade in the Americas will come back to haunt. Everybody should be reading Beloved. Everybody should be reading The Guardians. Everybody should be reading The Round House. Not just my students in Transnational Literature--all of us. We need these stories to confront us and challenge us.

A following crucial insight: I am culpable. As a white person who benefits from a system that holds my skin colour as neutral, as regular, as default (see the "flesh"-colored crayon I grew up with; hold it next to my skin), I am implicated in a racist system. Never mind that I was born in the 1980s; never mind that I grew up in racially diverse schools; never mind that I read and study African-American literature. I benefit from a structure that hurts others, symbolically and materially, emotionally and spiritually. (Parallel: never mind that I've only been in Canada for three years. As a white woman, a university professor, I am implicated in the whole history and system that stole land, livelihood, culture, and self-respect from Aboriginal peoples and now blames them for the troubles that follow.)

I'm not saying I'm personally guilty, or that we should wallow in regret and self-hatred. I'm saying that I benefit while others struggle. And I am left to wonder: what does self-divestment look like? What role does lament play? How do I raise a child in this world, this broken and brilliant world, raise her to know the history and lament it and also feel the nourishment of hope and community? What are my responsibilities?

This is what I sense: I should keep reading. I should keep listening. I should stand before my classes and admit the gaps in my knowledge even as I seek to teach them texts about Others--without idealizing Otherness to the point that we no longer see the particular Others and their particular joys and pains (always a temptation: see Aunt Jemima/Mammy; see Strong Silent Tragic Native). I should raise my voice with others. And sometimes I should step back and let others do the talking.

What are your ideas, friends? How do you confront the privilege and deprivation within you and around you?

Reading suggestions:
Seven Ways to be a White Ally
The Crunk Feminist Collective

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Quickly, quickly

It's the time of year when the light arrests me, shocks me at its early arrival and late departure, like a much-longed-for-houseguest who brings gifts and listens well, no matter how harried I have become in her absence, until I find my sentences slowing and my breathing slowing and my rhythm slowing, altogether a different cadence.

Hello, spring: or, this far north and inland, hello, almost-spring. You are a terrible flirt, and I love you.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

M has learned this game, the little song, the circle-dance, the falling. She has learned to sing (not all the words, of course) and twirl and fall. She has learned to pretend "Ring Around the Rosie" with her little figurine toys. When "we all fall down," she tosses the toys magnificently. Theirs is rather an epic fall. 

I am sitting in a dark bedroom, waiting for a toddler to fall asleep (this is a new struggle--falling asleep alone). Several blocks away, a handful of the members of my faith community gather to receive ashes from J's hand. I know how he presses those burned palm fronds against foreheads, the gentleness with which his finger imposes the reminder, the tenderness of his words, the seriousness and kindness of his liquid brown eyes. I know, as well, the cracks and roughness of his skin, evidence of the dishes he washes, the diapers he changes, in our household--in other words, I know the love more than most. 

But still, I wish I could be there, hearing the words, singing the songs, commemorating the day as more than just one more in the busy hubbub of cooking and grading and sweeping the floor. 

These early parenting weeks and months and years are a joy (I've never laughed so much or felt so drunk on the scent of another human's skin), but they are also consuming. I am amazed at those who can parent small children and regularly blog. Not all bloggers are employed full-time elsewhere, I remind myself, but I didn't even find the time during my year-long maternity leave! I find myself spent by early evening--and then I almost always still have work to do. I find that I am learning new patience, and new self-forgetfulness, and new asceticism. I find that time moves both more quickly and more slowly. I find that I am faced in a whole new way with the fact of mortality: Please, keep her safe. Please, keep us safe so that we can keep watching the wonder of her life unfold. 

Which is to say, I suppose, that the crucible of parenting is another form of Ash Wednesday, day in and day out: a humbling, quiet bearing in one's body the reality of limitation, the inevitability of a return to dust, the preciousness of fragile life, the longing for more. My forehead is not marked tonight, but my body is marked; my life is marked. We all fall down--and we all long and hope to get up again. 

Amen and amen.