Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

jpoliver-articleLargeProlific poet Mary Oliver has always displayed an unabashed love for animals and a special talent for pondering affection, beauty, and grief through the world’s smallest creatures. Her recently published poetry collection, Dog Songshonors the canine companions that have brightened her life and work.maryoliverdogsongs

Oliver praises dogs for their loyalty, playfulness, and “steadfastness”; she laughs at them and mourns for them. She even imagines what they might say to her in human language. “Love and company are the adornments/that change everything,” one of her dogs ‘says’—a simple line that carries much wisdom. Ultimately, this collection is about affection beyond words—and without conditions. You do not have to be a pet owner to appreciate Dog Songs as a unique and moving portrait of how our relationship with animals can remind us, as Oliver says, “how rich it is to love the world.” (Review originally published in The Banner)

Egypt’s revolution through the eyes of those on the front lines

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(Originally published in the Christian Courier) — The Egyptian documentary The Square begins in the dark. “This is normal,” says a young man named Ahmed as he lights a candle to brighten up a Cairo room. “The lights are out all over the world. The lights are out all over Egypt,” he explains. “Everything is like this, it’s not just the electricity. The electricity is the least of our problems.”

Viewers who have been following news reports and stories of the Egyptian revolution of the past three years already know this is true; Egypt’s people are well acquainted with the problems of oppression, corruption and violence. For 30 years, they lived under Hosni Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship. They know what it means to be powerless – and, because of the events that followed the Arab Spring of 2011, they also know the exhilaration of power reclaimed.

The Square allows us to enter the country’s toilsome journey of fear, hardship and hope by focusing on a handful of protesters on the front lines undertaking the beautiful and dangerous work of building democracy from the ground up.

Christian viewers expecting a documentary highlighting the plight of modern Egyptian believers will quickly see that this is not the film’s focus. The “revolutionaries” have varying religious and political beliefs and class backgrounds. Their differing motivations and histories speak to the complexity of this conflict. They are united, nonetheless, in their desire to bring down the regime and their commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless.

Director Jehane Noujaim uses original firsthand footage to explore what draws these men and women together as their country falls apart. This approach feels deeply personal, and makes the film more than just a portrait of national identity but a call to recognize shared humanity as well.

The Square’s graceful handling of the revolution’s quickly shifting timeline is commendable in itself. The film begins just before Mubarak is ousted then chronicles the chaos that followed – the corrupt rushed election of Morsi, his eventual removal, and the horrific military crackdowns on civilians.

Fresh-faced Ahmed could be considered the film’s “main character.” He is a passionate, good natured and idealistic young man swept up in the promise of renewal at the heart of the revolution. Most people will have an easy time identifying with him and or imagining him as their brother, son or friend. His friend Khalid, a highly educated actor who uses his status as a public figure to add media exposure to the protest movement, is also easy to admire.

Madgy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is at first an unlikely source of empathy for the typical Christian viewer. However, he shows himself to be a man of sincere faith and commitment to the non-violent principles of democracy – the very principles that have him proud to stand alongside his revolutionary friends and people of many faiths in the Square. He is painted by the actions of his party, especially when others accuse the Brotherhood of hijacking the revolution by selling out to the whims of the military. “We are all confused sometimes, and we question our beliefs,” he says  – and surely most Christians have felt such conflicted allegiance, too.

Ultimately, though, this is not a movie about the triumph of any one political movement or revolutionary push. It is about people – Christians, Muslims, men, women, everyone who believes, as a protest slogan goes, that “All men are entitled to “bread, dignity, freedom and happiness.”

But more than that, this harshly poetic film is about what was found in the dark – in Tahrir Square: loyalty and unity that transgressed long-held political and religious lines. “We found ourselves loving each other without even realizing it. There was no such thing as Muslim or Christian. We were all one hand,” says Ahmed. Although this love is constantly tested, it persists. You can hear it, for example, in the phone conversation between Madgy and Ahmed near the end of the film, even though they have bitterly argued about a secular state versus a Muslim state. “You know me. I’m not here to die or kill. You know my intentions,” Madgy says to his friend, warning him not to come to the Square because he could be harmed. These men recognize they both have a deep desire to do what’s best for Egypt.

As of early 2014, Egypt faces a difficult future – even in the wake of a newly drafted constitution that appears to take religious freedom and other democratic principles into account. Outgoing housing minister Ibrahim Mahlab has been appointed as Egypt’s new prime minister, and strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been elected as President.

The Square reveals, however, that Egypt’s hope is about more than who officially stands in power. As the film ends, Ahmed observes that Egyptians “are not looking for a leader as much as we’re looking for a conscience. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader.”

This long view of victory recognizes that true, lasting democratic change is larger than political structures. It is, instead, a movement toward goodness and justice that takes place in the hearts of the people willing to give their all for a cause greater than themselves.

Brilliant Falls by John Terpstra

One poem in John Terpstra’s latest collection, Brilliant Falls, is the story of a “holy raving protester” who climbed a tree to oppose the building of a highway. The poem begins with the often-quoted first verses of Revelation 21. However, the whole collection demonstrates Terpstra’s brilliant ability to see the “new heaven and the new earth” in both the beautiful and the troubling moments of the here and now.

These are poems of wonder, bewilderment, bereavement, and amusement. Several are first-person encounters with death and difficult life changes. Terpstra’s imagery feels personal and communal, local and eternal. Seniors’ home residents move across a linoleum floor “as though they are walking on water”; closets and dresser drawers of childhood are “as private as prayer.” This is a collection for anyone seeking to celebrate the sacred edges of everyday life, written by a master poet. (Review originally published in The Banner)

Nouwen wisdom

Henri_NouwenDrawing some serious writerly strength from my daily Henri Nouwen meditation today (subscribe here):

Making Our Lives Available to Others

“One of the arguments we often use for not writing is this: ‘I have nothing original to say. Whatever I might say, someone else has already said it, and better than I will ever be able to.’ This, however, is not a good argument for not writing. Each human person is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived. Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well. Writing can be a very creative and invigorating way to make our lives available to ourselves and to others.

We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told. We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will want to live them.”

Deity as commodity in Foreign Gods, Inc.

Foreign-Gods-COV-fin-397x600Okey Ndibe’s novel Foreign Gods, Inc. is the tragicomic journey of a New York cabdriver named Ike – a Nigerian immigrant desperate for wealth and willing to steal and sell his home village’s war deity statue in order to get it.

Ike’s plan is risky, reckless and culturally disrespectful; it also brazenly ignores Scriptural warnings about the love of money as “the root of all kinds of evil.” But Ike has no interest in Biblical wisdom. Nor does he give credence to the beliefs of those who see the statue as a true god (named Ngene) to be feared and worshipped. His plan is hatched out of a desire for the almighty dollar. For 13 years he’s been unhappily driving a cab, unable to put his honors degree in economics to use and gambling himself into debt in order to support a demanding wife he married for a green card. He believes his accent will forever hold him back from his dream of attaining the wealth he sees in American businessmen and celebrities.

Ike’s prideful quest for selfish gain makes him difficult to sympathize with. When he returns to Nigeria he is bothered by the poverty of his family and friends and thinks about how his plan would benefit them, but ultimately their needs are secondary to his success. Even so, his circumstances highlight the hardship many immigrants face, including the loneliness of feeling like a stranger caught between two worlds. They also speak to the brokenness of a consumerist society in which wealth is idolized and everything is for sale – including sacred things. His desperation is familiar. So is his greed.

The Nigeria Ike returns to is even more torn by religious war than when he left it. His impoverished mother and sister have been swept up by the false promises of a pastor who calls himself a Christian but acts nothing like Christ, exploiting the poor for his own income. His other relatives are faithful guardians of Ngene and shocked that anyone would worship an “invisible god.” Leaders in both camps feed off fear and promote material prosperity.

The deity that is tragically absent here is the Almighty God – the one who is both transcendent and immanent, who saves His children by grace alone. No character in Ndibe’s novel bears witness to serving a God like this, not even the well-known yet coercive British missionary Walter Station, whom Ndibe describes (in a 27-page historical interlude) as a temperamental leader who believes “heroic gestures” will secure his salvation.

Over the course of the novel, Ike’s plans for success shift toward his ruin. We see him isolating himself from those he loves, ignoring opportunities for generosity and taking other despairing turns. I suspect most will wish, as I did, for a character that could help make a more loving God known to him. The living Lord, who cannot be bought or sold. He wants far more for His children than earthly riches; as Scripture so beautifully says, He has even “given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them [we] may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

Ike’s journey is unique, and his course of action could even be called absurdly dramatic. But he is battling acquisitive temptations and skewed definitions of worth that plague us all. When read with this in mind, Foreign Gods, Inc. can be admired as an absorbing yet painful reawakening to the woundedness of a world enslaved by commodity gods – if we let it be.

(Originally published over at ThinkChristian)

Rilke on marriage

rilke.young.poet.mitchell“Marriage is in many ways a simplification of life, and it naturally combines the strengths and wills of two young people so that, together, they seem to reach farther into the future than they did before. Above all, marriage is a new task and a new seriousness, – a new demand on the strength and generosity of each partner, and a great new danger for both.

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

… For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.”

 — From Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke – a passage read by our friend (and matchmaker) Daniel Bowman Jr. at our December 31, 2013 wedding ceremony. UPDATE: Dan has a brief but beautiful reflection on this passage, and on marriage as one way to “love the expanse” others, over on the Relief Journal blog. Read it here.

Bearing witness to hope when memory fails

downloadYou are likely familiar with at least a few frightening stats regarding dementia. On the radio just the other morning, an announcer gloomily shared a recent report from Alzheimer’s Disease International stating that 44 million people live with the disease – and warning that this figure will likely increase to 135 million by the year 2050. A global epidemic, it is being called. But then, the stats themselves are not what haunt most of us, are they? Many of us have moved beyond the distant dread, having already experienced the intimate pain of seeing people we love altered by Alzheimer’s – a parent or a grandparent, a sibling or a friend. For poet and author Jeanne Murray Walker, that person was her mother, Erna Murray Kelley, who began to show signs of the disease in her early eighties.

Over the course of a decade, Walker’s feisty, sociable and practical mother became the frail, anxious and often-confused woman that her loved ones barely recognized. The Geography of Memory is Walker’s attempt to “bear witness” to the suffering and pain of her mother’s decline – and to the grace that upheld her and her family in this distressing transformation. As one would expect, this is a hard read, full of sorrow and fear. But this is a larger story, too – a tribute that honours the complexities of human personality and memory, and the God who created them. “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street,” Walker writes in the preface. By hopeful “news” she does not mean she has new, optimistic facts from science to hold against the gloom. No, her hope is anchored in the paradox of suffering: that it can alter people for the worse but also for the better, because it can bring with it a renewed awareness of love and grace. “Alzheimer’s is bleak. It is,” Walker says plainly. “But it is not all horror. My mother’s last years reveal that for all the heartache, there can still be joy and laughter, insight and love.”

Geography of Memory is non-linear – a  format that that feels especially fitting, given the ambling, irregular nature of human recall. The first chapter opens with Walker and her husband in a Paris hotel room, receiving the call with news that her mother had passed. Walker’s grief and bewilderment prove that we are never prepared for death – even when we know the time is coming, and when loved ones have radically changed.

As her mother’s memories become more faded and jumbled with the past, Walker’s own memories are illumined anew. Her account moves back and forth between memories of reckoning with symptoms of her mother’s disease in the 2000s and memories of her 1950s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. In between these narratives are what Walker calls “Field Notes” – one-two page reflections on the research into memory and ways to understand its role in our world.

Walker reveals that her family has been touched by the chaos of death and chronic disease before, with her father dying of heart failure when she was just a girl and her severely asthmatic brother passing away at eighteen. Through it all, Walker remembers her mother as stubborn and resilient – a dedicated nurse, a talented painter, a fundamentalist Christian and a devoted mother whose desire to protect could be in turns admirably comforting and frustratingly restrictive. Still, as a mother herself now she can see why the chaos compelled her mother to want to keep her family safe.

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Walker (on right) with her mother.

As a teenager, Walker’s relationship with her mother became caught up in clashes of faith – clashes that eventually led Walker to leave the church of her youth. But even these tensions, when recalled afresh in the light of her mother’s ailment, help Walker appreciate the “multiple selves” within us all. “They are stages in a journey – the child, the disillusioned teenager, the mother, the poet, the grandmother –stations on the way toward learning what it means to be human,” she says. “They are not unlike the many mothers who lived inside my mother.”

Since Walker is a poet, playwright and professor, it is not surprising that literature becomes her lifeline. She learns to embrace the language of her mother’s Alzheimer’s – the illogical statements and flashes from the past – as metaphor, rather than words to be corrected. She agrees with a researcher’s claim that “the language of the demented is closer to poetry than any other kind of speech.”

Along with a new understanding of language, Walker also reaches a new awareness of God – of who he is and how he works through our many chapters of “selves.” Of course there are times when God feels distant, and feelings of helplessness and despair overwhelm her. Even so, loving her mother through Alzheimer’s makes clear to her “the genius of Christianity,” a suffering God with “a good memory” of confusion, loneliness and other pain.

This vision of an ever-present God acquainted with grief is one of the “spectacular gifts” that Walker believes could only come to her through her experience with her mother’s illness. Through its lens she can also see the many gifts of grace and mercy given to her relationships, such as the intimacy and appreciation she reaches with her sister as a result of their difficult caretaker years. Even Alzheimer’s can be a means of finding resolution and deepening faith–a means of spiritual transfiguration.

This vision of God is also what makes The Geography of Memory more than a book to be read only by those with a direct experience of, or particular interest in, dementia. Instead it can be read by all those looking for honest, tender and luminously written evidence that, as Walker says, “in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that’s not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.”

(Originally published in the December 23 edition of the Christian Courier)