Wednesday, February 23, 2011

knock knock

It has been a week where death has knocked on my door a few times. In our culture, death is usually relegated to bad guys who meet their messy, but just, end on the big screen, or found in statistics that are for the most part distant and therefore, somewhat meaningless, or just some unfortunate incident on the news. This week, it was different.

First came a phone call from my mother on Sunday night informing me that her brother had died. Something in her opening sentence, "I don't have any more brothers," painfully reflected the hollowness that death leaves behind. Yesterday, one of our colleagues in the family of Vineyard Canada (our church affiliation) was killed in Africa in an accident while on a year-long adventure and humanitarian aid trip with his young family. The images from a devastating earthquake in Christchurch yesterday just added to the sense of loss and being lost.

This week I was reading a book on the metro in which the writer said that if he gets to heaven, he has a question he wants to ask God. His was about giraffes, but others often indicate that same desire to ask some variation of "Why?" when they finally encounter the Omniscient One. Personally (and from some reading I have done of respected ancient texts), I believe one's first response when coming into contact with the otherness of Holiness is usually to fall down in terror, worship and gape in awe, or be rendered speechless. Questions are not at the top of the list of activities in the presence of God, it seems.

Nevertheless, this week has unsettled me and left me wondering. The question I have is not why but what now? How does one move forward after death has visited? How does one live honestly and well, yet with joy and spontaneity? How does one open their heart to compassion without having it break continuously? How does one stop fear and death from becoming bigger than love and life? I don't know the answers. They can only be answered in the living out of life and for me, by letting the day to day deadly despondency be washed away under the waterfall of grace.

In the end, it is not I who ask the questions of God; it is he who asks: "Do you trust me?" May I say yes before I have complete understanding, before I know everything I feel I need to know, and before doubt creeps in and makes a malignant nest.

I raise a glass to the breath of life (inspiration) infused into me by the lives of Uncle Pete and Mr. Hall. You made and continue to make my life richer.
This is a photo of a wall hanging that I came across in a day care for underprivileged families on my visit to South Africa in 2006.

Friday, February 18, 2011

the best poem ever

This morning, I was one of 7 students to give a mini-lesson in my University Teaching Course. All of the graduate students in this class (there are 22 of us) are from varied fields of study, so it proved to be a very interesting time. We learned about art theft (who steals art? what kinds of things do they steal? why?), textual analysis of poetry (what tools do you use to interpret a poem?), the political system in Canada (who has the power to appoint the prime minister?), fair play in sports (is Fastskin swimwear giving certain swimmers an unfair edge?), fine art (what constitutes a portrait?), and verb forms in the Hindi language.

The jewel of the morning was a poem we received in a hand-out from a student teaching Introduction to Literary Studies. I believe its message applies to any subject that we are trying to study, but is especially relevant to reading such a text as the Bible. Here it is:

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins (1988)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Here are the notes I jotted down in the margins of the poem:

When I read the Bible, do I hold it up to the light? Do I really see it?
Do I really listen? Do I recognise the plurality of voices?
Do I offer up my thoughts and ideas, letting them drop into the text to see if they can find a way through?
Do I dislike being in the dark? Do I take the time to feel for the light? Is this a tactile experience for me?
Is there action, skill, and a thrill involved in engaging with the text? Is it a friendly interaction? Or do I feel that it is an antagonistic exercise? Is it static or dynamic?
Do I enforce restrictions to keep the text tame?
Do I demand that it gives me what I want instead of letting it speak freely?

Let me never make the Bible a prisoner of my own small-minded motivations nor a victim of my weak and inferior version of truth. Today is a good day for waterskiing.

This is me learning to waterski in South Africa in 2006.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I am not a soprano

I love to sing. Not everyone loves to listen to me, but I have always loved to sing. I started to play the piano around the age of 5, and was soon improvising and writing my own simple melodies to sing and to play. The ability to hear and sing different harmonies was encouraged by a musical grade school teacher and ever since then, I have preferred the tension and sweetness of two or three voices to one. I sang second soprano throughout high school and college, that middle voice that is often the hardest to identify in a musical piece, but the one that is in the closest proximity to the other voices.

On occasion, I was thrust into the soprano role, just because I could hit the notes, even if they were a bit on the light and airy side. I never had much strength in my singing voice, and this frustrated me as well as various musicians and soundmen who had to compensate for my lack of volume. I always wished that I had more power in my singing voice. In some ways, it seemed so different from my speaking voice, which was much deeper and had plenty of power.

And then, somewhere in my twenties, I realised that I had been singing in my falsetto all these years. Because the parts that are available to girls are either soprano, second soprano, or alto, I learned to sing in all these ranges. However, all of these required me to sing mostly in that soft, breathy voice that is known as falsetto, and I had a pretty well developed falsetto range, about 2 octaves' worth.

When I began to sing with my real voice, the voice that matched my speaking voice, I discovered that my true range is more like a tenor. Since I had never really exercised this deeper singing range before, it took a few years to build up some strength, stamina, accuracy, and tone. I am forever grateful to all my fellow musicians and friends who bore with me in that awkward transition time. Finally, I felt like it was the real me singing, and not someone trying to sing what everyone else was singing and never quite getting it right.

I don't have the most beautiful singing voice you will ever hear; it cracks on high notes sometimes and doesn't have a very big range, but it is truly mine - it sounds like me. And when I put my heart into a song, it transcends my vocal abilities, because music is never about being able to sing it all perfectly. It is about giving myself. And in order to do that, I have to sing with my true voice. The voice only I have. The voice that God put inside of me to sound different than anything and anyone else. The voice that is missing if I do not open my mouth. Sing!

Here are some short video clips from musicians for your inspiration:

Dave Stewart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5PE160Tl2I

Washuntara: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VPHiSDrlZ4&feature=related

And, go out and buy Happy Feet and watch it!

This is a picture taken on a snowy evening in Alexandria, Virginia. There is nothing like walking and singing in the snow!

Monday, February 07, 2011

sentencing

I was grading papers this past weekend. Many of them were really good, which made it all the more enjoyable for me. As always, I came across quite a few writing errors; this is understandable in students whose first language is not English, but even verbose writers with large vocabularies can make some pretty big mistakes. Here are a few of my favourites (mistakes, not verbose writers). May they bring a smile to your face as they sometimes do to mine. And yes, I have made pretty much all of these myself at one time or another. That's why I do something called 'proofreading.'

1. The split personality subject: This is when the beginning participle, which is supposed to describe something about the subject, does not match the subject found in the main clause of the sentence. Here are some examples that I wrote:
a. Thinking that the chocolate cake in the fridge was the perfect way to end a long evening of studying, the kitchen became my destination. (My kitchen does a lot of thinking, obviously.)
b. After conquering the enemy in a brutal and lengthy war and taking many of them as captives, they were confined to prison and later forced into manual labour. (War really sucks when you win and still have to go to prison.)

2. I don't need no stinkin' subject: This is where the writer neglects to use a subject at all. They assume that you will remember who or what they were talking about from the previous sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter. Also known as a dangling participle, just left hanging out there....
a. Hurtling towards the earth at ever-increasing speeds which made it hopeless for anyone to stop the catastrophe. (If the previous paragraph was about meteors, this makes sense. If it was talking about cats and dogs, that's a whole other thing.)
b. When all the countries' leaders held a council to decide whether or not they would agree to use a common currency, establishing a link not only for ease of commerce but to simplify cross-border travel. (It's a cliffhanger: what happened next?)

3. The Fluid Tense: Some writers like to time travel, mixing past, present, future, and all kinds of other tenses.
a. Smith wrote about exactly such a scenario when he says in chapter three that even if we will be able to harvest all the gold in the world, it wasn't going to make everyone rich. (I don't understand when I won't be rich.)
b. Later that evening, Samantha is meeting Bob for dinner who would be early. (Oh Bob, you're in trouble.)

4. Who needs a verb? Participles and descriptive clauses look a lot like main verbs, so why bother with the real thing?
a. By citing McIntyre, who was a renowned author and historian from the nineteenth century, and Brown, later to be known for his innovative work in the area of molecular biology for which he was nominated for a Nobel Prize. (By doing this, nothing happened, I guess, so why do it?)
b. Nevertheless, no one that participated in the demonstration, even though they managed to avoid being arrested, despite some minor injuries from crowding, trampling, and just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. (So what happened to no one? After the trampling, that is.)

5. Does punctuation make my sentence look fat? Some writers don't want to weigh the sentence down with unnecessary punctuation marks. Or they just don't know where they go, so they leave them out to avoid making a mistake. It makes for fun reading sometimes.
a. Every time the monkey considered by many to be too attached to his master stopped reading the book The Bear the bell was rung not to be silenced until the master always sleeping nearby awoke. (Tell me you didn't have to read that more than once.)
b. The cat a very clean animal coats its fur with saliva when licking a cleaning ritual thereby producing dander this when dried is a substance that many humans are allergic to.

6. The Test: what's wrong with these sentences?
a. Driving to the end of the world, it was flat.
b. Grading hundreds of papers over the past few months, many of which contained at least one or two of the errors mentioned above nevertheless revealing most of the students to have at least a working comprehension of the subject being studied.

Remember: If it doesn't make sense the first time you read it, it probably needs to be rewritten. Or you need to go to bed.

This is a photo of one of the essays I wrote last term, along with some remarks from my professor. I chose to show you a part without grammatical errors.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

because I said so?

I am back home, sitting at my desk. The cat has her back to me, sleeping on the couch. The kettle is heating some water for chai tea. I just finished an assignment due tomorrow, and have 50 papers to grade and some reading to do for Monday. Big things like graduating with my MA are on the horizon, but in reality, it is the little details that I attend to every day, like keeping up with my assignments, exercising regularly and eating well, taking time to rest, and avoiding unproductive pursuits, that get me to the big things.

I have been reading the book of Leviticus, chock full of laws and regulations on many minute details of life. It can be quite a downer if one sees mostly the oft-repeated ominous statements: "make sure you don't do this" and "if someone does this, they shall die" or "this makes you unclean." It just all seems so petty , doesn't it? Who cares if two types of fabric are sewn together? But interspersed throughout all of this is the recurring statement, "I am God, your God." In some chapters it shows up every few verses. Is this the equivalent of a parent saying, "You should obey me because I'm your father!" or "Do this because I said so?"

Not at all. This small phrase is a constant reminder of what lies behind all these regulations, all these distinctions between clean and unclean. God is inviting a people (Israel) to attach themselves to Him, to belong to him, to be holy (set apart) like he is. He invites them to once again act like him and look like him so that the resemblance that he originally put there (making them in his image) is given a chance to shine. This repeating phrase is a comfort, a gentle prodding by a mentor, a statement of support and encouragement. I am here. I am not going anywhere. I will be with you. Don't lose sight of me. Don't forget who loves you and claims you as his own. I will be your source of strength. Don't give up. Trust me, I have your best interests at heart.

Many of the guidelines have direct health implications; some are related to promoting a safe and just community environment; others signify a commitment not to follow the pagan ways which many of the tribes around them practised (to their own detriment); still others seek to promote common sense and an improved lifestyle. But these rules are never the point. The writer chooses to insert the main point over and over again in case we miss it (and we most often still do): I am God, your God. This God is the beginning and the end of us, and he is trying to tell us how to live life well, in sync with him instead of opposing him. Why is this so difficult for us to hear? To live? Perhaps because he knew exactly how difficult we would find it, these words of committed reassurance are included.

Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God. Do what I tell you; live the way I tell you. I am the God who makes you holy. (from Leviticus 20, the Message)

This is a photograph I took at Penn Station in New York City. A small stop of a few hours on my journey to Washington DC.