Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Sixteen of us, with instruments, music stands and books, are packed into the music space at the front of the church this Christmas Eve liturgy.  We can hardly move, but the constraints don’t bother anyone.  Most of us know each other.  My husband controls the computer projecting the words of the hymns on the screen.  All three children lend their musical talents.  My sister, her husband, and their three children, also sing.  Our organist and drummer have joined us, along with four of our Sunday regulars.  

We have just rocked out “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy,” and we are jazzing through the third verse of “Silent Night.”  Our older son provides a steady bass, the organist grooves through the jazz chords, and our younger son, the trumpetist, improvises wildly.  My niece and a parish singer reach the stratosphere with the high descant.  As my contribution on piano during this piece is purely decorative, I can indulge myself.  I relish the moment.  Our daughter-in-law and my daughter’s fiancé chorus from the congregation.  I see my father’s spirit smiling from the front pew, and I hear my mother say, "Julian sure played his flute well."

I am in my element.  That’s a surprise to me and the music teacher who told my parents they were wasting their money on piano lessons for me.  I cherish this moment.

Fast forward three months.  Fifty-five colleagues and I gather on the theatre stage for an interactive afternoon to experience structured conversations we can use in the classroom so all students can talk, move, and best of all, learn.  Not an ideal venue, the stage is, however, the best place in the school large enough to allow so many people to be moving at once.  

Despite the challenges, the venue works.  For the Carousel experience, I have had to post my six images with accompanying chart paper in creative locations—on doors and walls in the wings, and on exit doors on either side below the stage.  Six groups of teachers, each poised at an image-chart-paper station, wait for my signal to brainstorm.  Now!  The room bristles with the energy of excited talk and laughter as they record their ideas.  I clap my hands.  “Please move clockwise to the next station,” I instruct.  Six groups of teachers navigate to the next station.  No one gets lost.  While they throw out suggestions at this new station, giggling all the while,  I have the time to marvel at this moment.   This session works.  Teachers talk, move, and learn.  When they return to their chairs, they suggest novel applications of the techniques to curricular contexts across the grades.  Their responses astound me.  I love to facilitate.  My cup overflows.

I am in my niche, able to bask for a minute or two in the fruits of the energy I have invested over decades in two of my passions—music and pedagogy.  This is not exile.  This is whole-heartedness.  As David Whyte notes in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea:  Work as a Pilgrimmage of Identity, whole-heartedness is the antidote to exile and the exhaustion it produces.   A marine biologist turned poet, Whyte relates the wise words of an Austrian monk:

You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?  The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. . . . You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life.  You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while.  You need something to which you can give your full powers.

The monk goes on to compare Whyte to a swan. 

You are like [a swan] waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better.  He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs.  It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence.  You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything.

My experiences with my family and the musicians on Christmas Eve as well as my colleagues a few weeks ago witness to my own elemental waters.  No matter the periods of exile I may have survived in my life, I have found my place.  How did that happen?  There may be individuals who are born in those waters and recognize them from the get-go.  Such was not the case for me.  My own elemental waters result from years of filtration through a cumulative and repetitive loop of risk, error, effort, and success.  As Whyte’s monk continues, “You have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard.  Particularly if you think you might drown.”  (pp. 132 – 133).

As far as I can see, wholeheartedness comes from finding our elemental waters and taking the risk to jump in, maybe after a time in exile that might make us gun-shy.  Those elemental waters become our place.  The moments they produce scintillate in color on a screen of fine water droplets like the The World of Color Show at Disneyland.  They remind us of what is possible. 

Monday, March 24, 2014


The car swallowed up the white bars dividing the highway, one by one, not greedily, but insatiably, on the road to Saskatoon.  I saw them rise up and disappear in a relentless line, alone on the road in the fall night, mesmerized, caught up not in their infinite regularity but in the words of the immigrant from Sudan recalling on Radio-Canada his first days in Canada.  After years in a refugee camp, he said, he marveled at the conveniences we take for granted—a toilet, running water, a hot shower, a stove, a refrigerator, a roof.  The loneliness, though, was something else.  It took two years, he said, for the phone to ring. 

A few years after his arrival in Canada, this man continued to live in exile.  Much of what he knew and understood about living was no longer useful to him in this new land of mecanization and strange mores.  He was living in a foreign land.  Instinctive responses and ways of being he had learned from childhood might not be appropriate in this new context.  He would have to reflect much more before acting, or speaking, and consider the cultural impact of his gestures.

We don’t have to move to a different land to be in a situation resembling that of the Sudanese immigrant.   All it takes is a new job with new colleagues and a particular culture, and we, too, find that our learned responses and ways of being don’t quite fit in the new environment, and we, too, have to consider the implications of each word and action.  Even worse if our new situation is a mismatch with our training or abilities.  We feel alone, and joyless, like the Jews in Babylon.   Whether we have left the place, or whether the place has left us—valued colleagues have left, or our job description has changed, or management has reorganized, or, God forbid, we have experienced an environmental or political catastrophe—when we no longer recognize our surroundings, we experience alienation from everything that has helped to make us whole.  And, to boot,  like the Jews in Babylon, we must sing.

As Psalm 137 says, the Jews forced into exile in Babylon were asked to sing the songs of the Lord, their traditional songs of joy:  There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy.  But how could the Jews sing, stripped of all heart and soul, ravaged in a place not their own, struggling every day just to survive?

By extension, how can we sing our own songs of joy in a place contrary to our nature, whether we have sought a new circumstance or circumstance has been thrust upon us?  Can we do our best work, actualize our talents, live as fulfilled human beings, in a metaphorical foreign land?  And if that is even possible, what might it take?

Well, it will take time.  And adjustment.  And rote action, putting one foot ahead of the other and just remembering to breathe in and out.  It will take character, and discipline, and perspective, and living in the moment, and patience.   It is exhausting and tough.  After a bit, though, we can make some headway.  We might reclaim our heart and soul.

Maybe we will be able to sing again.

Hey, the phone might even ring.

Monday, March 17, 2014


My father sits in his accustomed chair at the head of the kithen table in the house where I grew up.  As usual, his chair at the end of the table is at right angles,  facing the kitchen cupboards.   His right elbow is on the table, and his hand supports his forehead.  He weeps.  This man who never cries covers his eyes with his hand.

This is his last day in this house.  He and my mother have lived here for more than fifty years.  Although he is ninety-one years old, he is surprised that this day has arrived.  He never thought he would have to leave the community he has known since 1919.  He always expected to die here; it would have been so simple, and so much easier.

It was to be neither simple nor easy, however.  He would have to reinvent himself yet again, in a different place, away from the land he loves.  He’s already done it once, almost thirty years before, the fault of a back unable to endure farming any longer after decades of torture bouncing on a metal tractor seat.  That time, he sold the land to good stewards, and remained in the house.  Precedent does not, however, make this experience easier.  He is a product of this place. 

This land has carved his body.  The bales he has heaved, the rocks and boulders he has picked from the fields, the horses and plows he has managed,  the tools he has wielded and the motors he has lifted, all have chiseled a hard, muscled body.  Even at ninety-one, his biceps bulge and his abs are taut.

The land has etched his soul.  He respects the acres that sustained his family, and he respects the forces of nature on whose whims his security depended.   

The small community in a picturesque valley forms his character.  People seek him out to work his mechanical wizardry on unco-operative machines.  He is happy to apply his knowledge and his gift to the conundrum of the day.  Seldom is he remunerated.  His generosity extends to supporting both community events and worthwhile national and global projects.  Almost three years after his death, we are still receiving mail addressed to him from a plethora of organizations he supported.

He is the incarnation of Joseph Boyden’s insight in The Orenda :  “We are this place.  This place is us.”

Saskatchewan is my place, too.  I am comfortable here, in the wide-open spaces on the implacable land with the seductive sky, in the small communities where the engagement of every single resident matters, and where there’s the space and the clean air to breathe.  Winter and I have forged an uneasy truce; I invest in warm, impermeable outerwear, and winter does its thing. 

I am at home in this environment, and with these people.  Partnered with a forbidding landscape that has moulded their character, Saskatchewanians give of their essence, not just of their surplus, to raise five million dollars annually for Telemiracle; they support their neighbours in crisis and step up in a pinch.  In this land of good and generous people, cynicism hides in shame and hope struts its stuff.  Here, in a province numbering half the population of Montreal and one-fifth the population of Toronto, my abilities and gifts, whatever they might be, make a difference.   If I choose not to get involved, that is one less hand on the plough, one less voice in the chorus.

When we are in our place, creation, community, culture, and connection, a curious chemistry of c’s, coalesce in comfort and a sense of accomplishment.  Sometimes, though, circumstance intervenes.  Age, a health event, a job change, a natural disaster, a political shift, any of those factors might cause us to leave our place of comfort and accomplishment, or the place to leave us.  No matter, we become refugees in a strange land.  The trauma of that symbolic exile to Babylon was too much for my father’s stoicism.  What happens to us when we are faced with exile, and what might we do about it?

Now there’s a question for reflection in the coming posts.