Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2013

The Pianist (A Fairy Tale)

I’ve seen her at the pub before.  She is young, especially for a place like this, and one of the first things most any fellow would notice about her is how full her lips are.  Generally she is sitting at the bar drinking with an older fellow – not the same older fellow – but different men who look almost but not quite old enough to be her father.

She doesn’t smile very much.  Her posture and her expressions remind me of the way a person drinks at a work function.

Another gal I used to drink with at this pub once told me that she is a sex worker who picks up clients here.  Perhaps it is the formality with which she drinks that led to this conclusion… perhaps it is the ever changing older and far less attractive men around her.

I don’t know if this story is true.  Maybe she’s just socially awkward and, let’s be honest, it’s pretty much only older folks who drink at this place so if a pretty young gal shows up here, there’s bound to be any number of daddies creeping on her.  And, who knows, maybe the gal who told me this story was just feeling insecure or jealous of her beauty.

But, honestly, I don’t care either way.  If a person chooses to be a sex worker, I reckon that’s no better or worse than choosing to be a social worker or a construction worker or any other kind of worker.

~

When she sits down beside me, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where our conversation might go.  We are both fairly drunk – her more than me, I think, as she keeps repeating the same questions or makes the same statements multiple times.  She begins by telling me that she is a registered nurse but later states that she’s actually a nurse practitioner – it’s just most people don’t understand what a nurse practitioner is, so it’s easier to say she’s an RN.  On weekends, she goes to Toronto and is a “Bud Girl” at special events.  She does a mock performance of how she gets the fellas to buy beer from her.  She is quick to call me “honey”.  Mostly, I only like it when the older servers at the bar call me that.  They’ve spent a lifetime waiting tables, dealing with drunks, putting up with pricks and I reckon they can get away with calling people “dear” or “honey” or “sweetie.”  Whenever the younger servers pull that on me, I feel like they’re trying too hard.  Let’s not get carried away, okay?

But she calls me “honey” and she touches my arm a lot when she talks to me.  She asks me if I’m single and I say that I am.  She asks me why and I am honest and say that most everybody I meet bores me – I don’t really give a fuck about hearing somebody talking about her favourite TV shows or her favourite kind of music or the fact that she really digs guys who can make her laugh.  Wow! Who knew?  God, what a bore.  She says she understands and feels exactly the same way about the guys she has met since moving to Ontario when she was twenty-four.  That was three years ago – she came here from B.C. – and started a new life for herself.

I don’t mention that I’ve already decided that she is boring, too.

~

She gets excited when she learns that I play piano and have a keyboard.  Turns out she is a classically trained musician – piano and vocals.  She asks if I have all eighty-eight keys and if they are pressure sensitive.  It is imperative that they be pressure sensitive.  I say that they are but that I don’t have a full range.  She asks if I have drinks at my place and if I like to party.  I mention I have drinks but I don’t party much these days.  But, hey, I don’t care if she indulges.

~

She asks about going back to my place.

I say okay.

Getting into her car she says, “But we’re just doing this as friends, right?  This is just a friends thing, okay?”

I say okay.

~

My place is a bit of a mess from having kids for the last four days.  I tidy up quickly and mix a drink for her as she settles at the keyboard.  She plays some songs from memory and some songs from sheets that I have.  I play a few songs and she sings in the background.  She has a decent voice but she is an exceptional piano player.  When I play, she pauses to powder her nose… a few times.  And then she plays one of the most beautiful renditions of the Moonlight Sonata that I have ever heard.

When she finishes, she says thank you very much and, gosh, it’s hot in here, and I escort her to her car and say goodnight.  I smoke a final cigarette out back after she drives away and then I go to bed.

~

A friend tells me I should be looking to get laid.  She points out that the mock profiles I set up on an online dating site – one to see if I could get rid of an old toaster, one pretending to be a total D&D nerd dressed up like a banana, and one pretending to be a circus bear – aren’t actually very conducive to meeting people and she reminds me that, really, I should be more serious about dating or at least picking people up.  She says it’ll make things easier.

I’m not so sure.  The story of lonely people meeting in bars and going home to lose themselves in the embrace of strangers seems a little overplayed.  I met a girl at a pub.  She came home with me and played my piano and then she left.  I never touched her once.  And, that, I think, made this whole encounter much less boring than I thought it was going to be.  I was laughing to myself about it as I fell asleep.

~

I hope I don’t ever see her again.

~

I have started talking to the flowers and the trees when I walk to work in the morning.  I thank them for being beautiful, I thank them for giving us clean air to breath and for replenishing the soil and for caring for the bees and the ants and the creeping things.  I apologize to them for the ways we are poisoning them.  I apologize to them for cutting down their brothers and sisters (the City recently felled a number of old trees that I used to pass on my morning route).  I tell them I don’t know what to do to make things better.  I touch their skins – their bark and leaves – I feel the dew and the rain that collects on them and rub it into my palms.  I smell the evergreens.  I ask them to come and visit me in my dreams, where we can share a common tongue and speak with one another and be understood.

They haven’t shown up yet.  I’m not sure that they trust me.  I don’t know why they would.

But I’ve got time.

~

What do you see, when you look upon the world into which you have been thrown?  What are you looking for?  What do you find there?

~

For a long time, I went looking for Death.  Not because I was attracted to Death but because I thought that love could conquer Death and I thought that I could be an agent of love and Life in places abandoned and scarred and living in the valley of the shadow of Death.

And I found Death.  The more I looked, the more I found Death everywhere.

(I think that Death, like God (if we can speak of such “things” as “God”), is beyond gender.  But I will refer to Death as a “he”.  It seems to me that men as a whole have had much more to do with Death than women or transgendered or intersexed people.  It makes sense (quite literally, of course) to refer to Death as a “he.”)

But, yes, I went looking for Death and I found him.  I found him lurking under jungle gyms in suburban parks.  I saw him pissing behind a tree on the trails by UBC.  Once, I passed him while he was smoking a cigarette at the base of the war memorial in Victory Square.  I grew up with him, as did many others.  The kids and adults and men and women I have worked with over the years were intimately acquainted with him.  I hung out in bars he frequented – bars that put up signs saying, “watch your drinks, date rapes happen here.”  I hung out in other bars where he came just as often but nobody put up any signs – buit, hey, I suppose that’s a bit of the difference between the rich and the poor, in dive bars people care for one another, in college bars, nobody gives a fuck.

But Death does not discriminate.  I found him in the company of the rich and I found him in the company of the poor.  He was in dining rooms and conference centres and churches and classrooms and alleys and condos and the greasy spoon breakfast joints that are everywhere if you know where to look.  He asked thoughtful questions, he listened to lonely people talk, he often sat in silence watching us, he was generous with his embrace.  He was nothing but generous.

~

michelangelo-pieta

~

Hebrews 13.2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Perhaps.  I don’t know anything about angels but I suspect that we have, often unbeknownst to ourselves, frequently hosted Death.

~

I looked for Death and I found him and I thought that love would conquer him… but slowly and inexorably, Death conquered me.  I grew tired.  I stopped loving well.  And then I forgot what it is to love.  Love became a stranger to me… and I became more and more attracted to Death.  Memento mori, memento mori, memento mori.

How could I forget?  How do you?

Do you know Santa Muerte?  I know her well.  She is the Virgin to whom I could pray for intercession.  Have you seen Tod und Frau by Kathe Kollwitz?  That is the only kind of visual art that connects with me – that hits me like a kick in the chest.  Everything else leaves me cold.

~

When I sit on my couch and look out the window in my apartment, all I can see are trees and the sky.  Because of where I am (next to a seniors’ home), and because of the angle of my view, it’s like there is nothing else out there but the trees and the sky, even though I am only minutes from downtown.  I remember the day I realized that the trees were alive – that they were a form of life, silently growing and breathing and eating and drinking, just outside my window.  I began to count how many I could see and I lost track somewhere around fifty.  My God, I realized, I am surrounded by Life.  I looked at the flowers.  I looked at all the tiny blades of grass growing from the lawn below me.  My God, my God, Life is so abundant.  It’s everywhere.  Silently there.  Silently alive.

The world is full of Life.

~

Ruby is in love with animals.  I hold her up by the window and we look for what we can find.  She laughs and smiles and points and does an excited wriggle in my arms every time we spot something.  So far we have seen squirrels and skunks and raccoons and rabbits and dogs and cats and geese and mallards and hawks and sparrows and starlings and cardinals and red-winged blackbirds and chickadees and butterflies and spiders and beetles and ants.

The other day, just outside my work, I saw a groundhog.

The world is full of Life.  Ruby knows this.  I had forgotten, but I am remembering now.  I am beginning to look for it.  I am starting to see it everywhere.

~

(And I have not forgotten Death – how can you forget him?  But I am remembering there is more, so much more – in the ground, in the air, in the water, in the cracks in the sidewalk, crawling up the screen of my window, there is Life.)

~

A few weeks ago, I cried for the first time in over three years.  After the night in the airport when my wife flew away with my son and I didn’t know if or when I would see them again and I cried and I cried and I cried, I haven’t been able to cry – no matter how much I felt like crying, nothing would come out.  I felt sick in my heart.  Something was wrong inside of me.  Even during the dissolution of my marriage, I never cried.  That’s just one example.  So many traumas have occurred recently, and I have never cried.  In all the tumult and hurt and breaking and brokenness of the last three and an half years, I have sat with a blank expression on my face and wondered why no tears came.

Then, a few weeks ago, two very dear friends came to visit me.  It was a wonderful visit and after they left I cried – full-on hard, ugly cried.  I cried not because I was sad that they were leaving – I cried because I was overcome with joy and gratitude that there are such wonderful people in the world and that I have the marvelous privilege of having some of those people consider me a friend.  My God, my God, what a gift.  I wept for joy and my tears said “thank you, thank you, thank you” in ways that I could never put into words.

Since then, I have found I myself crying much more frequently and much more easily than I have in a long time.  I wept watching soldiers return home to their children.  I wept when I heard that the grandchild of a friend had died.  I am weeping at almost every fucking sentimental video I come across online.

I think my heart is knitting itself back together again – another cycle of rebirth has begun.  And this is what I have started to wonder: perhaps it takes an intense experience of joy and gratitude to liberate us to feel the full bodily intensity of our sorrows.  Perhaps it is knowing joy that permits us to know our sorrows.  Perhaps.  I don’t really know.

I do know this: I have gone looking for Life and, wonder of wonders, I think that I am also finding it in myself.

~

Revelation 21.1-5a: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and God will dwell among them and they shall be God’s people, and God will be among them, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any Death; there will no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’

And the One who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”

~

I was holding Ruby and thanking her for spending time with me and telling her that I loved her so much and telling I was looking forward to seeing her when she came back from spending time with her mommy.  She laughed and pointed over my shoulder and said, “Squirrel!”

Posted by: Dan | May 29, 2013

Best Friends Forever

Image 

He bought some helium balloons and wrote on them with a large felt marker: “do not resuscitate.”  He tied them to his wrist and climbed the six flights of stairs to the top of his building.  When he forced open the door to the roof it triggered an alarm.  He didn’t need a lot of time.  A few steps and the parking lot below.

~

His message wasn’t necessary.  When they found him his head didn’t resemble much of anything we would recognize as a head.  It was broken and shattered and leaking lots of things.  More than you might imagine, unless you’ve seen that sort of thing before.  The balloons were still attached to him.  They were floating straight above him.  There wasn’t any wind.

~

When he stepped off the edge, I wonder if he wanted to just hold onto those balloons and float away.  I guess
in a way
he did.

~

~

(And I took the balloons – I took them home with me.  I think he’s still there, inside of them.  At night I hear them scream with a voice that seems to be rising from underwater: “Do not resuscitate!  Do not resuscitate! Do not resuscitate!”  I hold them in bed beside me and I whisper to them, “It’s okay.  I’m here.  It’ll get better, I promise.”  As the balloons shrivel the voice gets fainter and now they are deflated I carry them with me in my wallet.  I take him places and tell him what I see.  At night I still whisper to them, “It’s okay.  I’m here.  It’ll get better, I promise.”  Sometimes I hold them to my ear and I think I can hear the faintest, dried-out whisper, “Please… please… please…”.  I will never puncture them.  I will love him forever.  He’s my friend.  I’ll make him better.  I promise.)

Posted by: Dan | February 1, 2013

There Lived… An Emperor

the-emperors-new-clothes

Is the desire to convince ourselves of our significance — the desperation to participate in something meaningful — is that a symptom of our particular historical moment?  A symptom of the spectacle?  Of life after God?  Of opulence? Of enlightenment?  Of living in a world where we are all now aware that our high standard of living comes at the cost of the health, children, and lives of others?

Or what?

Whatever the cause, it’s a sad desperation that is masked with irony and alcohol and adrenaline and name brands and accessories and Facebook friends.  Because I hear people describing daily occurences as “epic” and I see people repeating the same lines over and over, and reliving the same moments time after time, and throwing all their intimate details before the world on a computer screen, and I look into their eyes and I examine their brands and I listen to their voices and this is what I here:

Am I living a meaningful life?  Do I really matter?  Does this?  How can I know?  How can I be sure?  How can I know? How can I know?  How can I be sure?  HowHowHowHowHow?

I matter, right?  I matter?  Please, tell me I matter.  Please, believe that I matter.

Because, look, we see others getting up for work everyday.  We see their smiling families online.  We see the tan they brought back from Cuba.  They tell us stories about sex and parties and promotions and awards and paying off mortgages and buying new cars and making a mark in their field and publishing papers and books and articles and chapters.

We hear them talking about how rewarding their lives are.  We hear that their dreams are all coming true.  We hear them talk about sleeping well at night.

And the Emperor’s clothes really are as beautiful as everyone says they are, as long as we say it enough to believe it.  Just a few more times.  Tell me again about how beautiful they are.  Just one more time.  I can almost believe it… almost… Tell me again.  They really are beautiful, aren’t they?  Aren’t they?

That’s the thing, isn’t it?  That’s what drags us on and on.  That we can all almost believe it.  We get so close.  So close.  And we think that one day we’ll cross that final barrier and be free and oblivious and drugged and happy… but we never quite get there.  Or do we?

Did you?

~

Solidarity’s going to give a lot less than it’ll take
Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?
Is there a human alive that can look themselves in the face
Without winking?
Or say what they mean without drinking?
Or believe in something without thinking what if somebody doesn’t approve?
Is there a soul on this Earth that isn’t too frightened to move?

~

Before I realized that every land we live in is a fantasy land, I used to have this idea in my head about “the real world” and how mind-blowing it would be.  I think this was partially the product of reading a lot of adventure novels (including the Bible) and watching a lot of stunning nature documentaries at a young age.  One of the results of this was that I discovered that I had oddly high expectations of a lot of things.  Like mountains, I still remember my first time seeing mountains (I thought they would be bigger) or flying (you had a better panoramic vision in the documentaries than from the window of the plane) or even seeing animals in “real life” (wait, I blinked and missed something… I can’t rewind that or wait for the slow motion replay… and if I was looking at animals at the zoo they kinda looked restless, plus the bars were in the way of a totally clear view).

I think there is something about imagination that allows us to feel the unspeakable or the inexpressible or the unrepresentable.  As I child reading those stories and watching those documentaries gave me something of that feeling.  My mistake was thinking that somehow, somewhere,I would encounter that unspeakable, inexpressible, unrepresentable thing and then I would know it in a way that could be spoken or expressed or represented.  But every word, every form of expression, every representation, every signification, and every thing ends up falling short and (at the very first, even if only for an instant) feeling like a let down — “Oh, I thought that this would feel like… I don’t know… something else… something more…”

~

Tonight,
We are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter
Than the sun

So if by the time the bar closes
And you feel like falling down
I’ll carry you home,
Tonight.

~

I walked that way for awhile.  Alcohol and parties and three day hangovers and walking home as the sun comes up still drinking one more beer and smoking the last of your cigarettes.  And, despite the beauty and the intimacy and revelation that occurs in communities of beautiful and broken people who gather around a particular substance which both devastates and enlivens them (which both defiles and purifies them), I chose to walk away.

This will not be the fire that consumes me.

~

Instead, I think, the key is learning to live with longings that will never be satisfied.  Feelings that will never be translatable.  Rather than desperately trying and always failing to cross over into meaning, the key is accepting that we live in a liminal state.  We live in the borderlands.  Like Moses on Mount Nebo but, even then, we die before we make it high enough to get a decent view.

~

This, too, is a beautiful outfit is it not?  Look at the cut of the vest!  Look at the buckle of the belt!  Look at how the colours match his complexion!  Beautiful!

~

Because, babe, here is the truth that cannot be spoken: reality is the most beautiful clothing of all and we are, all of us, naked.

Posted by: Dan | January 15, 2013

In a Faraway Land

When I was young, a baby Robin fell out of the nest in our front yard and was abandoned by its mother.  It was small and pink and featherless, and I made a little nest in a shoebox, but my parents told me not to expect it to survive the night.  I know it may seem strange to think that a child growing up in an atmosphere of violence and fear could still have an unbroken heart, but in many ways I did, and I think my parents were trying to protect my heart and prepare me for disappointment if the bird didn’t make it through the night… but it did.

I named the Robin “Tweet” and it grew feathers and hopped around.  When Tweet was very small, I fed him/her through an eyedropper.  As s/he got older I dug up worms and mashed them up for him/her.  I tried to get Tweet to watch me dig up the warms so that s/he would learn how to do it.  I took Tweet outside but mostly s/he stuck by me.  I got used to cleaning bird shit off of my shoulder and the front or back of my shirt.

I was never sure if Tweet was going to be able to fly but one day s/he did.  And then one day, when the seasons were changing and the nights were getting colder and longer, Tweet flew away and never came back.  I knew that was for the best, I had been working towards Tweet being independent and free so I knew this meant I had completed what I was supposed to do — I had saved a life — but I still locked myself in the downstairs bathroom and turned the fan on so that nobody would hear me crying my eyes out after s/he flew away.  Tweet was my best friend.

~

Today I went to the bank to open my own chequing account because my wife and I are beginning to formalize the separation we agreed to in mid-December.  In Ontario, it is easier to get a divorce if you have been separated for a year first.  And we are getting divorced.

The woman at the bank was wonderful and sensitive and friendly and kind.  She remembered my children and commented on how lovely my daughter was.  After I told her where I worked she told me that her daughter had committed suicide eight years ago.  Within twenty-four hours of being released from a mental health ward in the hospital she was dead.  She was twenty years old.  Everybody’s got a story that will break your heart and, baby, my heart broke when she told me hers.

~

It seems that most of us want things to be black and white, we want there to be good people and bad people and we want to be on the side of the good people so that we can feel superior to the bad people (at least I’m not poor… at least I’m not a criminal… at least I’m not a woman-beater… at least I’m not a goof… everyone wants to feel superior to somebody, right?).  But really, babe, there’s just broken and lonely people and everyone of us is trying to find our way from there.

~

I was still whistling in my funny childhood way when Tweet flew away — whistling while breathing in instead of out — and for the first few years when the Robins came back in the Spring, I used to whistle to them to see if Tweet was back and would recognize me and come and perch on my shoulder.  But none of them ever did.

I think it was around the same time that my dad accidentally killed our pet rabbit, Flops.  I sure wept hard when that happened.  I think my dad felt real bad about it.  It’s the only time I remember him sitting me on his knee and trying to comfort me.  I remember thinking I would never recover from that loss — that I would return to school and simply sit and mourn silently at recess and that my peers would look at me and whisper in hushed tones, “Oh HIM?  His rabbit DIED.” And they would be amazed at my loss and silent fortitude — that I had loved so deeply and lost everything but bore it all silently — and they would also be secretly grateful that this was happening to me and not them.

I’m probably understating things to say that I was a bit of a melodramatic child (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)!

~

It is harder to know which is more difficult to bear — privately carrying the loneliness of feeling unloved or publicly admitting to the world that you are not any good at making another person feel loved.

~

We had two dogs when I was a child — a white German Shepherd and a Samoyed — but my old man sold them both (on separate occasions) when us kids were all away at school.

~

People grow and people change in good ways and in bad.  Some of our wounds heal over time, some tear open at unexpected moments.  Some of us sprout wings and learn to fly, others of us fade away like fires in the early hours of the morning.  Some of us have our best years ahead of us, for others of us, those years are already behind us.  There is no knowing which way any of us will go in advance and you can only hold on to each other for so long when your river forks and what used to be a single current pushing you along together turns into two separate currents pushing you in different directions.  You keep holding on and the water batters you and you both begin to drown.

What are you supposed to do?

You search and search for an answer but you learn that those who are wise realize that they cannot advise you, while those who are still learning to be wise give poor advice.  You also learn that there is no God out there who will help you out or save you or tell you what to do one way or another.

And then you learn how complete your loneliness is.

~

I was fully and completely in love with the beauty of animals when I was young.  The only shows I was really allowed to watch — and which I absolutely loved watching — where nature shows and documentaries about badgers or cephalapoda or tigers or the great barrier reef or whatever wonder was yet to be revealed to me.  Every night, before I would fall asleep, I used to pray: “Dear God, if you only ever answer one prayer in my life, let me be able to talk with animals.”

But then the documentaries started getting more and more sad.  Everything would begin beautifully, but then the final third of the show would be dedicated to talking about how this animal was now on the brink of extinction or about how the environment was being destroyed.  Man, I was a child.  This was all too much for me.  I stopped watching the shows because I couldn’t stand learning, time after time, that all the beauty I was seeing was being destroyed.  Completely destroyed in the never-coming-back, never-living-again kind of way.  How could I process that as I child?

~

How can I process it now?

~

Listen, children: we live for a moment only.  In a second we are born, we live, grow old and die.  We vanish like drops of rain in the ocean, like every breath we exhale into the air. But, listen, children: that second is sacred.  Sacred in the manner that is wondrous and sacred in the manner that is terrible.  It contains everything — all of our great loves, all of our great sorrows, all the little but not insignificant things, too, and, yes, everything else as well. But, listen, children: I will ever only be grateful that, within this second of mine, I got to share it with you.  If all of this is a part of what it means to be with you, it is worth every goddamned thing that ever was or ever will be.

I love you, Charlie, you are my sun and my stars.

I love you, Ruby, you are my beloved.

It's raining sunshine!

It’s raining sunshine!

1. Down the Rabbit Hole

If you want to surprise yourself after you watch “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” ask this question: who is the protagonist in this story and who is the antagonist?  In other words, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? (And, yes, they are both guys.)

Once you ask this question you realize something surprising: the person you might otherwise imagine to be the bad guy — Flint Lockwood, who almost destroys the entire world — is actually the protagonist.  He’s the fellow we’ve been rooting for.  If that’s the case, who is the bad guy?  The Mayor.  Of course, we are groomed from the beginning to root for Flint and to dislike the Mayor — Flint has a backs story and we first meet him as a wide-and-starry-eyed child who is bullied by his peers but loved by his mother (who dies while he is young, leaving him with a gruff but loving father who doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with his boy).  Unlike Flint, the Mayor has no back story — I didn’t even know that he had a name until I looked the movie up on IMDB.

Flint = good; Mayor = bad.  Everything unfolds from this.  And down the rabbit hole we go…

2.  Friends and Enemies and You

Who or what is Flint Lockwood?  Well, we know he is something of a dreamer and an inventor.  He is a bit nerdy, sometimes a bit misguided, but always well-intentioned.  After a number of failed efforts, he does something of great significance: he invents a machine that causes it to rain food, thereby revitalizing the economy of a town that was dying and creating access to a resource that was quite limited (previously, the folks in Flint’s town lived off of sardines).  Food, of course, provides people with energy — Flint is an energy provider.

However, Flint’s method of resource extraction ends up producing some less-than-ideal results.  The amount of waste produced is staggering and, although everyone ignores it (Flint invents a machine called “The OutOfSighter” to catapult the waste out of sight and out of mind), it piles up on the horizon and threatens to tumble down and annihilate the town.  As if that’s not bad enough, the mass production of this resource also results in an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy the entire planet.

Does this story sound familiar to anybody?  It should.  Flint isn’t just any energy provider, he’s Big Oil.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood's character.

An early sketch of Flint Lockwood’s character.

So, if that’s who Flint is, who is the Mayor?  Well, let’s look at the way he speaks about himself in the first behind the scenes shot we have of him:

This hellhole is too small for me, Brent. I wanna be big. I want people to look at me and say, “That is one big mayor.” And that’s why this has to work. It has to work. Otherwise, I’m just a tiny mayor of a tiny town full of tiny sardine-sucking knuckle-scrapers.

Of course, the mayor very quickly does become big… very big.

Before

Before

After

After

So the oil company is the good guy and the Mayor is the bad guy and the bad guy wants to be big… do I really need to explain this?  The antagonist in this film is big government.  Yes, you see, the problems arise because the government wants to exploit the kindly, good-hearted but somewhat naive energy producer in order to gain wealth and status.  Flint just wants to make everybody’s lives better — the Mayor wants to be big.  Because of this the Mayor pushes Flint to do things he would not do otherwise.  Flint realizes that things are getting somewhat out of control and dangerous and wants to pull the plug — but the Mayor talks him out of it and then, when that fails, the Mayor breaks Flint’s machine to prevent him from pulling the plug.  Then, when disaster strikes, the Mayor abandons the town to try and make his own escape at the expense of others.  Big government is not your friend.

But there is another enemy lurking here, somebody else who is to blame for all of this.  Who is this hidden enemy who also helps to drive the world to the brink of destruction?  You.  You see, if you weren’t demanding that the energy provider continually flood the market with more and more and more, everything would have been just fine.  The energy provider was ever only trying to make you happy.  After all, unlike the Mayor, Flint was never motivated by a desire for wealth, or power or status.  Sure, he wanted to be loved by others (who doesn’t?) and maybe that blinded him a little, but isn’t that true of all of us?

3. Vindication and Salvation

All of this is beautifully explained in a speech that the police officer, Earl, makes to the townspeople when they are intent on lynching Flint because they blame him for the disaster.  As they rock Flint’s car back and forth, Earl jumps in to restore order and says:

This mess we’re in is all our faults. Me, I didn’t even protect my own son. Look, I’m as mad at Flint as you are. In fact, when he gets out of that car, I’m gonna slap him in the face. I know Flint Lockwood made the food, but it was made-to-order. And now it’s time for all of us to pay the bill.

So, you see, BP, TransCanada, Keystone XL, Imperial Oil, none of them are to blame for any of this mess.  We are.  If the oil companies are guilty of anything it’s of trying too hard to make us happy and to be loved by us.

This is all your fault.

This is all your fault.

Notice, also, that it is a police officer making this speech in the movie.  Earl is the representative of the rule of law in this film, and the law vindicates Flint.  Sure, he may deserve a slap… but even that is barely enacted, and Earl quickly apologizes to Flint for slapping him (but, don’t worry, Flint is such a nice guy that he responds by saying, “That’s okay”!).  So, really, the law punishes the energy provider more to placate the people than to serve justice (and, of course, out of love for the people, the energy provider goes along with it… just like good ol’ Tony Hayward who pretty much died for our sins).

Not only does the law vindicate Flint but it is right to do so — for Flint is the one who ends up saving everybody in the end.  How does he do this?  With further technological advances.  Specifically, he invents a flying car that permits him to gain access to the machine in the sky that has gone haywire so that he can prevent a catastrophe.

That he uses a flying car is significant — aren’t flying cars the symbol of a future when technology has produced a wonderful world for us wherein anything is possible and all our problems have been solved?  The solution, then, is not to abandon any of our technological advances but to trust in technology to miraculously save us from an impending disaster that appears to be unavoidable and catastrophic.  If this also sounds like a familiar story it should — the oil companies have been saying the same thing to us for years about climate change.

4.  Conclusion: Stop Worrying…

All told, the message here is this: any environmental catastrophe we are experiencing was produced by self-serving politicians and greedy consumers exploiting well-intentioned energy providers.  The solution, then, is to not cast stones, except at big government, and wait for BP to save us, just like Flint saves the townspeople in the film.

So, really, if this is anything to go on (and anybody with children should break out in a sweat from 3:10-3:40, although the previous minutes provide the necessary context for that segment), by watching this movie I’ve been preparing my child to view the world in a certain way — a way that favours the narrative of the oil giants and a way that brackets out other narratives.  This is how I’ve been teaching Charlie to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Posted by: Dan | January 6, 2013

Once Upon a Time

In the fall, when the migrations occurred, the geese used to fly over in such great numbers that we could hear them inside the house.  I remember running to put on my shoes and jacket and rushing out onto the front lawn to try and count them all as they passed by.  Giant Vees.  Far more than the few I’ve seen in recent years.

This memory just came back to me the other day.  It feels half like a dream… how did we hear the geese?  Were our windows open in the fall?  Was it really so quiet, and the geese really so numerous that we heard them inside?  Wasn’t it, rather, that I was already playing in the yard and simply heard the birds before we saw them?  I don’t think so, although I have recollections of that happening, too.

There are some things we lose and never remember for years.  They are so lost that we do not even know we have forgotten them.  When did we lose the awe we felt when we stared into the sky?  When did we stop feeling grateful to hear the birds sing?

~

In the mornings it is still dark when I walk to work.  The sparrows congregate in the bushes a few streets over from me.  They chirp and sing and scold me as I walk by and I say thank you and good morning and I’m sorry to bother you.  And then I laugh and my breath freezes in the air.

~

I have another memory that has always puzzled me.  When I was very young I remember playing in a pile of leaves under the maple tree in our backyard.  I was looking through the leaves trying to find the prettiest ones.  I remember finding a very small maple leaf that was blue in the middle and had a fringe of yellow and red around the outside.  I was so amazed and excited that I dropped the leaf and ran inside to tell my mom that I found a leaf that had turned blue.  My mom explained to me that maple leaves did not turn blue in the fall and I insisted I had found one that did.  I went back outside and spent the rest of the afternoon sorting through the pile of leaves trying to find that one little leaf, but I never did.  But, at that time, this did not stop me from believing that it existed.

I’ve thought back on that memory more than once over the years.  I’ve told myself that I must have been confused and I must have imagined it (maple leaves don’t turn blue in the fall)… but I still remember exactly what it looked like.

~

The ice begins to form on the river then melts.  It begins again and melts again.  The squirrels in the trees on the riverbanks stand out like blotches of black ink on a white and grey and silver canvass.

They are constantly rooting through the garbage bins behind the building where I live and make half-hearted motions to run for the trees when I pass them coming home from work.  I don’t really buy it and they don’t really worry about it.  Mostly, we’ve learned to co-exist without ever really registering, or reflecting upon, or caring for the existence of the other.  Yep, squirrels.  Boring.  Yep, humans.  Boring.  For a second maybe, we remember that there is actually something beautiful about the other, for a second maybe we remember that there is something terrifying about the other.  But it passes quickly enough.  And we fall back into the worlds we have created for and around ourselves.  It’s the same with squirrels as it is with birds and flowers and trees and rivers and stones and earth and sky and fire and children and men and women.

~

After I had my ankle surgery and I had to crawl slowly and labouriously to the washroom, with my cast weighing painfully on my foot, my cat used to slowly herd me and encourage me on my way there.  He would come and rub himself under my chin, go forward a pace or two ahead of me, wait for me to catch up, rub himself under my chin again, and then repeat the process.

He loved me, and when he got sick and I couldn’t afford the surgery bills, I killed him.  Well, had him “put down” because he was going to die anyway.  It’s odd killing a loved one for money — especially after the way in which he cared for me when I was sick (because, let’s be honest, I could have taken out a loan or sorted out some sort of twelve year payment plan to pay for the surgeries).  If I’m capable of doing that, I reckon I’m capable of anything.

~

There is a parking lot beside my work owned by the local newspaper.  It’s kind of out of the way, next to the railroad tracks, on the fringe of downtown in an area that’s mostly quiet apart from the shelter residents or street-involved people who frequent my workplace and the other programs that are offered there.  Often, people would hang out on the boundary of the parking lot that borders the train tracks.  There were trees there that offered some shelter and some people stored belongings in the trees.  It was a place where a person could drink whatever a person chose to drink, even if it was an alcohol-based product not intended for consumption, and chat with friends.  I never saw or heard about anybody getting hassled from outside that community (internal conflicts, of course, occur in any community) but the folks from the paper decided to cut down the trees.  They’re putting up some fences.  We got some advance notice of that at my work but were told not to spread the word in case anybody got upset and… um… did something or something (I’m not sure what they were afraid of but we all complied).

~

When I was young, I only knew how to whistle when breathing in and not when breathing out.  It was a distinctive whistle, but pretty quiet.

One day, my little brother and I were out playing with the neighbours across the road and a stray dog — a whippet — came and, literally, laid down at my feet.  I bent down to pet her and she rolled onto her back.  She clung to me but was skittish around everybody else.  I would whistle in my weird little way and she would run to me.  I don’t know why.

I went home with her and my mom called Animal Control to come and pick her up and take her to the pound.  She stayed with me while we waited.  When the dogcatcher from Animal Control showed up, the dog got scared and ran away.  He tried to chase her, but she was very fast and he couldn’t keep up with her.  He got worried that he was actually going to lose her in the neighbourhood.  Somebody suggested that I catch the dog since she seemed to like me.  The dogcatcher gave me a collar and leash and I went down the block after her.  I whistled and she stopped.  I whistled again and she laid down and waited for me.  When I caught up to her, I called her a good girl, I patted her, and I put the collar on her.

I still remember the look she gave me.  It was a look of love, of broken-heartedness at my betrayal, and of acceptance or resignation.  The love was still there but it was wounded… it wouldn’t be the same.  To me, at that age and that time, that’s how it looked.  At least that’s how I remember it.

I’d never seen anything like that before (although I would see it again).  Everybody told me good job and well done and they said that I must have some sort of gift with animals and I remember my mom telling the story to her friends… but I knew the truth and at that age I learned that people will lie and tell you that you are a good and wonderful and gifted person as long as you are willing to do horrible things for them.

But over time, maybe we forget, and we start to believe those lies.  And that’s how we end up with social workers and pastors and servant leaders.

~

About two weeks ago, I was awake at two in the morning because Ruby was awake at two in the morning and all of a sudden the old prayers I used to pray flooded into my head.  The fruit of the spirit listed in Galatians 5.22-23, the beatitudes from Matthew 5.3-12, the “Lord’s Prayer” from Matthew 6.9-13, and the Jesus prayer.  I’ve started to meditate upon these things again.

~

I once found an abandoned house next to the ravine by my college.  There was a hole in the roof and birthday cards for a newborn in the fire place.  Fog used to come off of the creek at the bottom of the ravine and it crawled up through the trees and the overgrown grass of the yard.  Coming out of the house in the early hours of the morning I was surprised to see a deer and two fawns that had come out of the ravine standing about ten feet away from me.  I think they were surprised to see me too, although they didn’t jump or run.  We all stood there and looked at one another as the satellites passed over our heads.  It was a moment that felt frozen in time.  That is to say, part of me is still there.  Just like part of me is still petting the dog that laid at my feet (and still looking in her eyes as I put the collar around her neck), and part of me is still saying a tearful farewell to my cat, and part of me is still staring into the sky and counting geese.

What, after all, is time and what, in the world, made me imagine that I’m a singularity?

~

About a year ago, I had the following dream: Charlie had a nightmare and I was laying down with him in his bed.  He feel asleep and I held him and felt his chest rise and fall.  Looking up from the bed, I saw, gathered in the room before me, all the children who had died in documentaries I had watched recently.  Dead children in the Sudan, children who starved to death in Somalia, children with bloated stomachs, children hacked to death by machetes, all of them, row upon row, looking at me.  And this is what their faces said:

“Do not turn your children into us — orphans, forsaken, unloved. Sacrifices.”

There was no judgment, there was no condemnation (even though I, too, am responsible for their deaths and the deaths of their parents and aunts and uncles and languages and cultures and memories and worlds).  It was only that.

I knew then, that I would never leave you nor forsake you.

~

~

Look, do you see it?  Outside the glow of the fire, there, where the horizon has begun to lighten.  The seasons are changing.  You can smell it in the air.  Do you understand?  The sun is rising.  We are being made new.

~

~

Even if part of me is still there
at the altar
with you
saying “I do.”

Posted by: Dan | December 30, 2012

Books of 2012 (2/3)

So looks like my two part series, turned into a three part series… sorry for the brevity of some of these (that’s what I get for doing this all at once at the end of the year instead of monthly)…

19. Germinal by Émile Zola.

Germinal has been on my books to read list for a long time.  I’m very glad that I sat down and read it this year.  It was a really phenomenal narrative exploring matters related to class, industrialization, the rise of the capitalists, and the crushing of the proletariat in France.  Characters from various classes (from the owners to the miners) are presented as having depth and complexity and are not caricatured or presented as “bad guys/gals” vs. “good guys/gals”.  I highly recommend this book — it was one of my favourites this year.

As I was reading it, I was struck by the absence of this kind of literature in the contemporary scene.  Folks like Franzen and Wallace are (or were) writing really good books but this whole struggle with matters related to class, not to mention matters related to justice and inequalities regarding class, labour, wealth, and the distribution of goods, seems to be completely missing from our stories.  I wish somebody would write a book like this rooted in the present day.  Regardless, this is really highly recommended reading and reminded my as to why I fell in love with 19th century literature in the first place (think I may go reread some Hugo now).

20. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

I joined a book club when I moved to London and this was the book they were reading when I joined.  It is the tale of a few small town gangsters in a British resort town back in the 1930s.  It was a fun read although I didn’t feel that it had the depth of character and plot that I found in The Power and the Glory (although it has been some years since I read that book, so I might be wrong there).  There were a few things I found fairly interesting though.

First, the ways in which the villains are caught up in the social imaginary and moralism of Roman Catholicism, whereas the woman who represents justice (Ida), has shed that moral system.  The mobster kill people are are convinced they are going to hell.  Ida drinks and fucks her way to justice — even, it should be noted, if that ends up being costly to other people along the way (Lady Justice, standing blindfolded with her sword and scales came to mind more than once).

Secondly, I found it interesting how the most ruthless mobster was always contemplating his damnation and the possibility of redemption or forgiveness (which he seemed to desperately desire, even though he repeatedly stated that this was out of his reach).  In this regard, he kept thinking about an old saying that if a person repents in the split second when they are dying (in the time it takes from them to fall “from the stirrup to the ground”) then that person will be saved.  Now this is interesting because when another gang tries to kill Pinkie he is so distracted and shocked that he doesn’t even think about repenting.  This terrifies him.  However at the end [SPOILER about to happen!] when he falls from the cliff something funny happens — those who were there remark that they never hear a splash… as though he were simply lifted out of existence.  Keeping in mind the remarks about finding salvation while falling, I like how Greene leaves this open to the possibility of Pinkie being saved.

Thirdly, as another possible interpretation of this last point, I was struck by how some of the characters involved in the gang thought that they were already living in hell (i.e. — we’re not going to hell, we’re already there, baby).  What if this is actually true and “Brighton Rock” is Greene’s vision, not so much of hell but (since he was a Catholic) of purgatory?  Then, there is no splash when Pinkie falls because, having done is time and repented, he is lifted out of purgatory?  This is a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to play with the text in this way.

21. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I have read various political essays Roy has written (mostly about Maoism and revolution in contemporary India) and so I was happy to finally get around to this Booker Prize winner this year (my wife had been telling me I should read it for years). I enjoyed her voice and the ways in which themes of family, and class, and communism, and caste where woven together with a little magic and a lot of tragedy thrown in.  It was pretty and sad… but just seemed to be missing the certain something that would push it from going “good” to being “exceptional.”  I don’t know… maybe I was flying high from reading Wallace and Zola and so I was in the wrong head space to get the most I could have from this book.

22. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.

Prior to reading this book (the second one selected by my book club since I joined), I didn’t know anything about Ned Kelly or his time as an outlaw in the Australian outback.  Seems like a pretty interesting character and something of a Robin Hood/Jesse James kind of figure in Australia (and if you want to read a letter written by Ned and his gang, see here).  It was a fun story to read and Carey did a good job in inhabiting the character of Kelly in order to tell it (even though, it should be noted, that means we may not always want to believe the claims made by the narrator). I enjoyed the ways in which matters of race, poverty, religion, resistance and violence where woven together.

It’s funny — we can look at gangsters or outlaws or criminals or fugitives from different eras of history and we can actually view them sympathetically or even as heroes or, at the very least, recognize that they acted nobly given their circumstances.  Yet we are completely blind to this kind of reading of criminals or fugitives or “terrorists” in our context.  Shit, I mean we have a First Nations chief who is on her third week of a hunger strike here in Canada because of the Canadian government’s consistent practice of violence, law-breaking, treaty-breaking, and genocide against her people and she is the one settler society is calling an “extremist” and “terrorist.”  That doesn’t make much sense to me but, then again, Ned Kelly, Robin Hood, and Jesse James were all white men so maybe that makes a big difference.

23. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe.

I was recently looking over my list of “Books that I have read” I noticed a LOT of gaps in my reading (actually, it’s a bit embarrassing to have that list posted because of the massive gaps in pretty much every area, but I don’t mind a little embarrassment).  One of the gaps I noticed in my reading is the absence of literature from outside of North America and Europe.  I’m intending to work towards rectifying that so I picked up this book by Achebe late in the year.

I found it to be enjoyable and it was good to read a narrative exploring colonialism, the spread of Christianity in Africa, and traditional ways of structuring life together in parts of Africa, that come from the perspective of an African author.  A pleasant and quick read.

24. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.

So, you would think about book filled with technical tax information and terminology, telling the stories of workers at an IRS office would be boring as hell but, hey, you would be wrong!  This book was well on it’s way to being one of my favourite books ever before it’s rather abrupt termination (Wallace killed himself before he completed the manuscript… I thought it was further along than it was when I picked it up, so I was really pretty sad that we don’t get to see the story and the threads come together [or not] in a manner comparable to “Infinite Jest”).

I really love Wallace’s voice.  It is hypnotic and it was that, sometimes more than the plot or the characters, that pulled in through “Infinite Jest” (in the same way that Proust’s voice pulled me through “In Search of Lost Time”).  However, I think Wallace’s writing got better with this story.  There were points where I laughed out loud several times in a single chapter and I pretty much never do this when reading (even when reading things I find funny, I usually just smile or laugh in my mind but not out loud).  It was really a delight to read and a major disappointment that it ended where it did.

Although, you know, given the way that “Infinite Jest” ended (i.e. by leaving the plot threads pointing towards one another and a certain conclusion but not actually completing the story and leaving it to the reader to work out that conclusion on his or he own), maybe this was part of Wallace’s intention.  Instead of an “infinite” story (which one could read in a loop forever) one has a permanent rupture and the literal death of the author.  In this situation, what is the role of the reader?

25. I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings by Franz Kafka (edited by Nahum N. Glazer).

I remember  a writer once saying that she would always disappoint her fans when they sought her out to discover more, to dig deeper into the the depths out of which she drew her stories, to find further answers to their questions, and all that.  She stated something like this: “the best of me, the very best part of me, are those stories.  There is nothing deeper behind them or greater beyond them — they are the best I have to give.”  I’ve often thought of that quotation when learning about authors and scholars.  It’s a good quote to keep in mind when coming to Kafka because, shoot, reading these autobiographical writings made me think, “Man, what a miserable prick” (and then made me note to my self that I should post less autobiographical material!).

26. Scorned and Beloved: Dead of Winter Meetings with Canadian Eccentrics by Bill Richardson.

This was a fun little book to read on the side when I felt like being distracted from more serious things.  Richardson, a CBC radio personality, traveled across Canada and dug into the archives and folk tales in order to dig up stories of various eccentrics from across Canada.  It was fun to read but not spectacular (although the bushman who lived in the middle of nowhere and, at one point, cut off his own hand and healed and survived on his own without medication was pretty spectacular).  A lot of the “eccentrics” where fellows who like wearing dresses or were gay before such things were what they are today.

I was struck by the ways in which small communities back in the day used to accept these so-called “eccentrics.”  Yeah, so Timmy likes to wear dresses and he’ll steal your buttons, and maybe sneak into your kitchen, and steal some of your wife’s clothing off the line if he gets a chance… but that’s just Timmy, he’s a part of our community, he don’t mean no harm, and we look after him, I suppose.  That sort of care and understanding seemed pretty common.

The same point was pretty strongly made in a documentary I recently watched called “Brother’s Keeper” about four brothers who are illiterate, may have other developmental or psychosocial barriers, and sleep in a tiny shack together (one brother is accused of murdering another brother and this is the central drama driving the documentary).  Along the ways, it turns out that the brothers all share a bed together and there are rumours that they have sexual relations with each other.  Based on our perceptions of tiny, rural, poverty-stricken communities in the United States, one would expect the brothers to be ostracized and vilified because of this… but the local people actually are very accepting of the brothers and very non-judgmental — “How’s it my business what goes on in there home?” and that sort of thing.

A third time I came across this point was reading Venturi’s “Roots of Revolution,” about the history of social and populist movements in 19th century Russia.  I was reminded of how socialist and anarchist-based groups, back in the 1860s in Russia, where already adamantly proclaiming the equality of women and the equality of people of all races.

This made me rethink the story that contemporary urban, Western, liberal society tells itself about itself — i.e. that we are a recently new and improved phenomenon wherein queer people, people who are differently-abled, women, different races, and “eccentrics” are all accepted as equals.  I’m still thinking through what the implications of this might be and have a few ideas… but that’s probably the subject of another post, if I ever get around to writing.

27. Lost Dogs by Jeff Lemire.

I really enjoyed Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy — it is amongst my favourite graphic novels — so it was fun to come across this earlier work.  It is a poignant and sad story, with a lot of violence, few words, and no redemption.  Not as good as Essex County but I really like the way in which Lemire is able to communicate so much in rough broad stroke pictures and little use of language.

Posted by: Dan | December 15, 2012

Books of 2012 (Part 1/3)

Usually, I post reviews of the books I have read each month on the month in which I read them, but this year I got a bit behind, then a lot behind… by the time I actually started writing the reviews, I kept adding more to the list before I finished reviewing what I had already read.  So, the end result of this was that all my book reviews got bumped to the end of the year.  That means that my already too short, too personal, and too idiosyncratic reviews may be even worse than usual.  I’m okay with that.  I was originally planning on organizing these into categories (philosophy, fiction, history, etc.) but have just decided to post them as I complete them.  Here is part one.

1. Empire in the New Testament ed. by Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall.

Many thanks to Christian at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.

This collection of essays comes out of a conference that was at MacMaster Divinity School.  The first two essays lay some of the foundation for an imperially-nuanced reading of the New Testament by looking at matters related to empire in the Davidic literature and in Isaiah.  We then have three essays dealing with material from the Gospels, two essays dealing with the Pauline and deutero-Pauline material, one essay dealing with the non-Pauline epistles, and one concluding essay looking at the ways in which the Church Fathers interacted with the traditions they inherited (from both the Jesus Movement and the Roman Empire).  Notably absent from any of this is any comment on Acts.  I found this disappointing as I think some of the most exciting work has yet to be done in relation to Acts.  Pair that with the observation that some of the essays collected here were a much higher quality than others (I found the essay on Isaiah to be repetitive and dull and the essay by Warren Carter was essentially restating things he has written elsewhere) so this felt like a missed opportunity to me.

For the sake of brevity, I would like to single out two essays: Tom Thatcher’s piece about Jesus’ crucifixion as it is presented in John’s Gospel and Gord Heath’s article about the Church Fathers and their relation to the Roman Empire (aside: about ten years ago I played in a floor hockey tournament with Gord Heath; we used to call him “short shorts” because of the clothes he wore during games).

I want to begin with the Thatcher essay because I think it was one of the strongest in this collection (maybe actually the strongest).  What he does is engage in a reading of the crucifixion of Jesus that draws attention to the ways in which crucifixion functioned within the ideology of Roman imperialism.  Crucifixion enacts a certain kind of drama that communicates a certain kind of message — about the gods, about Rome, about conquered peoples, about justice and salvation — and Thatcher spends a fair bit of time drawing this out.  He does this very well (Brigitte Kahl does something similar in Galatians Re-Imagined, so it’s good to see this kind of reading gaining some traction — it is very compelling).  Thatcher then argues that the Gospel of John recasts the crucifixion of Jesus so as to create what Foucault has called a “countermemory” in order to still affirm the ideological importance of this crucifixion — along with the whole cluster of themes related to it — but in subversive manner that reveals a surprising reversal: the crucifixion of Jesus reveals God’s conquest of the Roman Empire.  I really recommend this essay.  I think the perspective being provided by people like Thatcher and Kahl is crucial for understanding the cross of Jesus and, I dare say, the development of a Christian soteriology.

Gord Heath’s article deserves comment because it strikes me as a good example scholarship that is intelligent but shockingly acritical.  A good deal of conservative or reformist scholarship seems to exhibit these seemingly contradictory traits — on the one hand you have somebody who is obviously intelligent and capable of scholarly work but, on the other hand, the same person seems to be unable to step back from the material and has the most basic critical questions.  In relation to Heath’s essay this plays out in the following ways:

Heath spends a fair bit of time highlighting and developing the complexities related to the ways in which various Church Fathers interacted with the Roman Empire in light of the traditions they had inherited from the New Testament and the early Jesus Movement.  His emphasis tended to fall on those voices that were more sympathetic to the empire (compare this, for example, to the more developed arguments of Justo Gonzalez in Faith and Wealth — an important work lacking from Heath’s bibliography — where a whole different emphasis comes to light).  Ultimately, he concludes that most were quite sympathetic to and supportive of the empire, apart from its ever-present violence and idolary (which, I believe, Heath only understands in the most obvious and superficial manner and which he does not seem to relate to some of the other areas where violence and idolatry operate — areas that have been highlighted by social theorists and philosophers who work in the domain of “postmodernism” that Heath rejects and, not surprisingly, misunderstands).

Hence, on the one hand, we see Heath acting as an historian should (dealing with primary source material… even if he is a little selective with it… who isn’t, right?).  But, on the other hand, we see him dismissing major scholarly endeavours without any critical engagement.  Heath can’t imagine any reason why the early Jesus followers would be anti-empire — and his “hunch” is that the early Jesus followers would better understand the “relative benefits of Roman rule” — and so he concludes that counter-imperial readings of the New Testament are simply grounded an assumption made by the interpeters who favour this reading: the New Testament is said to be counter-imperial because the interpreters are counter-imperial.

Of course, Heath is open to being faced with the same charge since he concludes that we are to act the same way today as he says the Church Fathers acted.  After all, he concludes his essay with these words: “They were good citizens, appreciative of the empire, and loyal to the emperor, but never completely a part of the empire, for their ultimate loyalty lay elsewhere (much to the chagrin of the imperial authorities).  This was the tension then, as it is today.”  But I think this just shows the vacuity of the charge he is making — if you’re going to dismiss a position simply because you believe the conclusions that are drawn support or are supported by the values of the person drawing those conclusions then you can dismiss almost everything that has ever been said.

That said, one more remark on the Church Fathers.  I find it interesting that so much focus has come upon the Church Fathers amongst Conservative or Evangelical scholars in the last decade or so (at least that’s my impression).  It seems as though they have gained something akin to canonical status in some circles.  Especially when it comes to interpreting the New Testament.  I find this troubling.  I believe that, in many ways, the Church Fathers betrayed the values we find in the New Testament (perhaps not even consciously for they came from a long line of people who were vying for power and control over the early Jesus Movement and we already see the seeds of this betrayal in the Pastoral Epistles or in the parties with whom Paul is struggling in Corinth).  Many of the Church Fathers are simply those who were most successful in gaining power of the Jesus Movement, gain the more powerful imperial patrons, killing or silencing their enemies (the “heretics”), and so on.  Why we would want to privilege them to the extent that many do is beyond me.  So sure, some Church Fathers wanted to be good citizens and appreciated the Roman Empire (as they had moved well away from the call of Jesus and Paul and were already well situated in places of power), but why we should see that as a model for our own actions — or as the lens through which we should interpret Jesus and Paul — is beyond me.  This is the case, not simply because I find that model unappealing, but also because I believe a good historian should take these kind of things into consideration.

2. Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers by Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Robertson.

This book is a very good study of the ways in which First Nations peoples have been presented in the mainstream Canadian media over the last 120 or so years.  What becomes markedly apparent is the ways in which the mainstream media presents a vision of Canada and of First Nations peoples that is deeply entrenched in the mythical narratives of colonialism.  The media both recycles racist white, colonial representations of both settlers and indigenous peoples, and further entrenches those portrayals within the social imaginary of Canadians.  This study shows just how deeply colonialism is embedded into the core of Canada and being Canadian (therefore, recalling a somewhat distant — in internet time — conversation with a fellow at at Conservative blog, I would assert that the history of Canada’s relationship with Native peoples does indeed have “some sort of controlling relationship over the whole of Canadian action” [see here if you want]).  Of course, the problem is that the general public remains indoctrinated by the sort of thinking exemplified by the Canadian media and refuses to see a need to educate themselves further on this matter.  Hence, any assertions that challenge the dominant ideology tend to fall on deaf ears.

I’ve been thinking about this problem more since moving to a small predominantly white industrial city that relies upon jobs in plants that are poisoning the local First Nations community (and the town, too, although people don’t really talk about that).  I’ve tried to take the advice of Taiaiake Alfred seriously (who follows Malcolm X in suggesting that well-meaning white people stick to trying to educate and change other white people [if, that is, they are unwilling to assassinate the Minster of Aboriginal Affairs and Nothern Development, although I think he was joking about that]).  I’ve had many conversations at the bar with different people about matters related to the First Nations community here and nobody sees the problem and actually gets offended by what I say — charging me with “reverse racism” and a rude for of “exclusivity” and so on.  I’ve tried to present the broader picture and issues and so on, but all this falls on deaf ears.  I’m not sure how to better go about having these conversations but any suggestions are welcome.

Anyway, this is a really good book.  Recommended readings for any other living in these occupied territories.

3. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger.

Read More…

Posted by: Dan | December 14, 2012

Fast with Theresa Spence

Today I am fasting in solidarity with Theresa Spence.

I am a settler and the descendent of settlers who first came to Turtle Island from Europe in the early and mid-twentieth century but I know that my liberation is tied to the liberation of the First Nations people.  As such, Spence’s hunger strike holds out the possibility of life and freedom to me and other settlers even though the explicit focus of her strike is the life and freedom of First Nations people.

How can this be?

In the context of colonialism and oppression, all parties are dehumanized.  The colonizer (the oppressor) is dehumanized because he or she lives a life stained with the blood of others, benefits from goods stolen from others, and experiences privileges that are premised upon the denial of the rights of others.  Consequently, to live as a colonizer is, in my opinion, to live a less-than-fully-human-life.  This is the case, even if a person is kind or sensitive or knowledgeable – even if a colonizer (like me) claims to care about all people equally regardless of their race or origin, that colonizer still participates within and benefits from racist systems and structures.  That, as far as I can tell, is the reality of the world into which I was born.  As a settler living within a nation that is premised upon theft, colonialism, and genocide, the reality of my situation is one of bondage.  I am bound by a nation, a culture, a law, that are all structured in such a way as to refuse me the ability to be just or nonviolent.

Consequently, the actions of Spence and others who are proclaiming that they will be idle no more are actually actions that hold the potential to liberate me from this context which dehumanizes me.

And yet I wish to pause here – once again I discover a situation where settlers are exploiting the First Nations people.  My people are those who have created this situation – my people are those who have stolen the land, resources, health, children, cultures, languages, and lives of many Onkwehonwe – yet now it is the Onkwehonwe who are acting to rectify the situation.  I am a member of those who created this context of oppression and genocide and now I stand to benefit from the sacrifices made by those like Spence?  Once again, it will be First Nations people who struggle and suffer and I, as a settler, will benefit from their struggle if it is successful.

How, then, can I begin to engage more directly and appropriately in a process that pursues the transformation of our context by means of a mutually liberating solidarity?  It does not seem right to me that First Nations people should be the ones choosing to starve themselves to death (if need be) when they have already had so much violence imposed upon their bodies by settler society.  Shouldn’t it be settlers who are now offering to starve themselves to death in solidarity with the Onkwehonwe?  Isn’t it time that settlers began to pay, with their bodies, something of the price for liberation and for creating a more just way of sharing life together?

These are the questions I ask myself and I share them with you because I do not know the answers and I do not know the way forward.  I have been grasping and fumbling and trying and failing to find my way.

However, today I will fast in solidarity with Spence because this request has been made and I wish to honour those who are asking it.  Yet having said that, I also want to be conscious that true solidarity requires much more than symbolic actions performed sporadically.  I know that my hands are not washed clean of the blood of others by engaging in this fast.  Just as attending an anti-war protest does not make me a peaceful person (for I still pay taxes that are used to fund war in Afghanistan and elsewhere), so I know that this symbolic action does not decolonize me or make me less implicated in the violence of settler society.  I know that much more needs to be done.  I cannot forget the words of Che Guevara:

Solidarity is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression, but of sharing her fate; one must accompany her to her death or to victory.

Hard words, indeed, but true.  There is a long road to walk to freedom, and I cannot see well to find my way… but today I will fast and bring the name of Theresa Spence to the Creator.

I will also ask the Creator for patience when dealing with my own people.  I have tried to heed the words of Taiaiake Alfred who, echoing Malcolm X, has encouraged well-meaning white folks to go back to their own people to confront the racism and violence that exists there.  I have tried to do this and have had little success – I think perhaps I get angry too easily and I am unable to sway those with whom I speak.  I will confess my inability to act or speak well and I will ask the Creator for guidance on this road.

Thank you for reading.  Creator, may this day be good.

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