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Flowers

I wrote this poetry and took these pictures on a trip to British Columbia with Kathy via Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. It was for my mother’s 88th birthday and, at that point in her life, each birthday was an important event. She was the last of her generation in our family, on both sides.

I took pictures of two flowers common to temperate areas in North America: Fireweed and Paintbrush. Fireweed is hardy and is often found in areas which were disturbed by fire or oil spills generally spreading out in open areas left behind. It is part of the first step in ecological succession.

 

Appearing amidst destruction,

Flourishing,

Restoring,

Inviting to embrace.

Filling alpine meadows,

Colouring once damaged landscapes,

Lighting paths,

Giving hope.

The Indian Paintbrush or Prairie-Fire is widespread and was used by Indigenous peoples for food, hair conditioner, and to treat rheumatism. This is an example of the coastal variety.

Painting the world alive,

Gently,

Sensously.

Off Nature’s palette,

Dancing vibrantly,

Living colours.

During these times with the COVID-19 health crisis, which revealed the deep social, economic, and political fissures in our world and the social activism emerging after the murder of George Floyd, Canada has to take time to look at its own history and treatment of marginalized peoples. This begins, but does not end, with how we treated and continue to treat First Nations’ people. This is a song by a local singer-songwriter, Connie Kaldor, who sings poignantly about the murdered and missing indigenous women across Canada. The report, completed in June 2019, had over 90 recommendations, which have not been acted on. In Canada, protests against systemic racism highlight this lack of action.

 

Beauty

This tree stood all by itself on the crest surrounded by the pretty ones. What attracted me was it stood out from the crowd and thrived. I alluded to this in On the Edge. They were in the same area as we drove up to the Columbia Ice Fields in Jasper National Park. These trees do not just survive. They thrive in demanding conditions, sometimes for 100’s of years. There is little soil, water, and nourishment on the embankments, so they appear stunted. It thrives on the margins of its ecosystem. Perhaps, we find beauty in places we do not anticipate. We have to be ready for this or it will slip by.

In today’s environment, with calls for greater equity and social justice, it is not enough to ask people to survive with less than living wages, inadequate housing, little or no healthcare, etc. as if that is a major accomplishment. We must allow them to thrive as humans.

I took one class in special education in my B Ed. and another in my M Ed. I learned we have more in common than makes us different. Paulo Freire wrote of unity in diversity; John Dewey about communicating what we have in common to form community, and Parker Palmer about the paradox of living in community and with solitude. If we are more alike than different, we have a lot to communicate. It takes listening deeply, reflecting critically on one’s views (biases) of the world, and ethically transforming (moving beyond) the world, particularly that which is immediate to each of us. It is not enough to reform, but it may be a start to the process. It is becoming more and better, individually and collectively, in ways we cannot anticipate and can not be fully finished. There will always be good work to do, not matter how far we come.

On the margins;

Thriving–

Separate from the crowd.

Elements taking a toll;

World weighing heavy;

Thin, mottled.

Standing proud;

Reaching high–

Believing in something better.

Valuing who you are;

Individual, non-conformist–

Separate from the crowd.

Lonely, not alone;

Spacious, gracious solitude–

Revealing your own beauty.

Today, as I cruised Facebook, I found Parker Palmer posted Mary Oliver‘s poem The Summer Day. I love the closing lines: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is a wild and precious life.


Stairway to Heaven

Kathy took these pictures at Sunwapta Falls in Jasper National Park. The Sunwapta River flows from Athabasca Glacier and the falls plunge over a hanging valley left by receding glaciers about 8000 years ago. The path down to the overview above the falls is unique with the tree roots playing an integral role in the stairway. The “staircase” is a product of human and nature wearing the surface. With the help of the stairway, I got closer to the edge than I usually do.

I wrote the following poem to accompany the pictures of the and borrowed the title from a more famous group, Led Zeppelin. I took time to read about the meaning behind the lyrics. It appears to be a statement about money not buying one’s way into heaven, whatever one might think that is.

Gnarled and gnarly,

Wending its way upwards,

Nature’s stairway

Revealing beauty.

Gaining confidence,

Moving safely,

Finding my way,

Fuller, richer.

Nature awaiting,

Golden rays find space–

Guiding steps,

Shining on each step,

On a ‘highway to heaven.’

For those who want to compare my poetry to that of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, here is a version of the video.

The Weighing

Jane Hirshfield wrote the following poem, speaking to hope and resilience. At the end of our rope, we find we have more to give than we realized. It is a sense “this to shall pass” and we can only live in the present moment, which is fleeting.

Hard times reveal fissures in our world and society. Look at who has been hardest hit by Covid-19: people of colour, elderly, poor, etc. We can then see the fissures and who is left out. This became clearer with George Floyd’s killing. It is not enough to question who is left out, but how these humans are left out, dehumanized in the process. Injustice calls us to take account of the life we live, the world we live in, and ask how do we make this better, for each human being we encounter. Injustice calls us to weigh how we speak and act towards one another and to transform who we are for the better.

There are no easy answers to large questions, despite what politicians, carnival barkers, and reality TV hosts would have us believe with their divisive language and actions. We can embrace that we have more in common than separates us. As Paulo Freire proposed, there is unity in difference beyond superficial multiculuralism.

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

When I hike in wildnerness settings, I wonder what is around the next curve, over the horizon, on the other side of the mountain, below the surface, etc. I am unaware of so much. What is essential is I lift into critical consciousness what I can to better understand how I can make the world a better place and act on that as best as I can. I will likely never get to the other side of Kootenai Lake or the mountains on the far side, so I can only imagine what is there, a utopia of sorts. The same applies for the world we live in. The difference is we can incrementally get there, together.

As I am called to be a steward of the world, I am called to be a steward and servant in leading others. Without fully understanding where I am going, I am going there.

After I posted, I was listening to the radio and they played this song. It seemed appropriate.

Angry Young Poet

In keeping with Why Do I Write Poetry, the following poem is one I wrote many at about the same time. This is the third time I visited the poem in terms of writing and editing. Several years ago and while explaining the importance of teaching poetry, a student asked if I wrote poetry in junior high school and I responded, “Yes!”. He asked me to share with them. I found them in a small lock box I keep at home and shared several with the class. We talked about the context I wrote the poem in. Even in Canada, I lived in the shadow of the Vietnam conflict and struggled with what that meant.

Sam Intrator suggested teachers expose adolescent students complex, existential questions of life as they move through those formative years. I wrote my poems in 1969. It was a time when identity was increasingly rooted in a global nature of the world, not just immediate community and family. War entered homes via television. Increasingly, I discovered my voice through poetry, expressing an abhorrence to institutional and government sanctioned killing. What set me apart from my peers, was I took no sides. Each was equally wrong in my mind, advancing their ideological stance. My teacher, Mr. McKenzie, an innovative English teacher, encouraged us to discover our voices.

I shared the following poem with my students. We talked about how metaphors of war are used commonly in various institutions and how I found this as troubling as the violence and trauma of war. That feeling re-emerged over the past months with describing dealing with Covid-19 in war-like terms and the troubling events of the past weeks where purported leaders feel it is OK to speak about human beings, not citizens, as an enemy and objects to be manipulated for financial gain based on the basest forms of self-interests. It is worse than the war as it takes on invisible and pervasive forms. It is a form of Social Darwinism where the strong survive, trampling on those further down what is understood as a food chain premised on unfettered oppression of other humans, including various forms of systemic violence. Consider billionaires, in the Covid-19 crisis, gained while those in most need lose what little support they had.

I contrast this with Jacinda Ardern‘s message as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman describes her as an empathetic leader. What emerged in reading the article was we de-serve better leadership, mindful, transforming, serving, etc. focusing on people as humans, not objects.

Students asked me to share poems and I did, with the context within which I wrote them. Parents, who were in the classroom each day, asked about my candour. I responded “I am not about changing minds. I try to change how each student thinks about the world, to see under the surface, reveal a sordid underbelly, and revel in the wonderfulness of human life.” This is a hopeful message, and the leadership we need is evident e.g. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, Mary Wollenstonecroft, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, Soujouner Truth, Rosa Parks, etc.

Win or Lose: What Difference Does it Make?

A game–

Darwin misunderstood,

No great thing to win.

War and it language!

Bells ringing hollow,

Men, women, children gone!

Woe! vanquished losers and winners;

Humans, vanquished in every sense–

Thriving on dividing.

Resenting conquerors,

Rebuilding ruins–

On countless graves.

Morally rudderless,

Blaming the fallen,

Beggaring humans.

Homes on streets,

Hollowing souls–

What war brings?

Innocence dying–

Prryhric victories,

What war brings?

Comrades fallen,

Enemies vanquished–

Proving nothing.

Will we learn?

I pray

For human survival.

I leave you with the following video and song. We listened to Harry Belafonte, and I still do, with his uplifting and hopeful message. We are in this together, not against one another, with each other.

A Grateful Haiku

via A Grateful Haiku

What are each grateful for at this time? We live in unusual times. As I go through my daily routine, I read articles and posts about how this is a time to rethink what we value and what we are each grateful for in our lives.

Tanya wrote a haiku about the symbiotic relationship between a monarch butterfly in its larval stage and milkweed. I often overlook how nature provides a sense of harmony I have to look deeper to see. When I look past the monarch butterfly’s beauty to its larval form I understand it exists by taking bites out of the milkweed flower’s beauty.

In that vein, when I read the comments, I realized it was “dueling haiku” between Tanya and Stephen. I appreciated what lay beneath the surface of the post and was grateful for their poetry skills. After all it is National Poetry Month.

Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me to find the extraordinary, I look past and beneath the surface of the visible to uncover hidden beauty. Yesterday, it snowed and was cold, below 0 Fahrenheit (about 20 degrees Celsius), and there was beauty. I took this picture of a tree in our front yard with the clear sky in the background. If it had been January, not the end of March, it might have been easier to see beauty. I remind myself we need this snow to melt and add to a needed water table so we might grow and harvest later in the year.

Front Yard with Fresh Snow March 31, 2020

I recently wrote about challenges of being unable to teach in a university setting. At my age, the doors appear closed. As I reflected and wrote, I realized my days, as a teacher in some formal way, might be over. Quite frankly, we do not value the wisdom elders have to offer. Emerging from this sense of frustration and despair was a sense something else was calling me: to write in various ways. This is a form of teaching perhaps and a gift I had not been grateful enough to have.

Yesterday, a colleague and I were advised we were accepted to write a peer-reviewed article for a special edition of a journal. This is asecond peer-reviewed article in several months that has been accepted. For that, I am grateful. In being grateful, I need to look past how things appear superficially and re-cogize there is more I am becoming.

I leave you with this beautiful video from the late Israel Kamakawiwo`Ole or IZ as he was known.

Bodhisattva Prayer for Humanity

In my post one step, then another, I concluded with The Prayer of St. Francis, which is a significant part of my life and of my family.

Recently, I came across this prayer and understand the Dalai Lama recites it daily. I found several links between the two prayers. I serve as a guide, bridge between the our lives and those in need. There are many metaphors in this prayer for me to take the shape of as I move through the world. Even if I cannot reach others physically, perhaps I can be a lamp from a distance as to help guide them in a moment of darkness.

Perhaps it is only in a kind word and acknowledging of the other who is present as we pass each other in a store. Kindness can be in short supply and in moments such as the one we are presently in a smile and greeting may make all the difference.

As I watched the news last night, they interviewed people who were setting up local help initiatives for seniors, donating food that might go to waste from a restaurant, and setting up a small food bank on the walk in front of their house. It is in moments such as this we become a lamp in darkness, a vase of plenty, and a tree of miracles.

Too often, we think (over-think) that miracles happen out there with some divine impulse. Maybe it is in the ordinary we discover the extraordinary.

“May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.”

The other day, I heard Lean on Me by Bill Withers. It has this prayer’s message. Withers wrote the song as a call to others to lean on one another during challenging times. This form of love is agape, a love of one another as human beings, as opposed to a romantic love per se. But, romantic love that survives to become a pragmatic love (from the Greek pragma) takes on the agape more than romantic with time and seasoning.

On Langston Hughes – Black History Month Tribute to a Great Poet

via On Langston Hughes – Black History Month Tribute to a Great Poet

Melba posted a wonderful poem, Mother to Son, written by legendary African-American poet, Langston Hughes.

I used Langston Hughes’s poetry in our poetry unit each year. The metaphor of life as a staircase, sometimes smooth and other times unevern, seemed to fit junior high students. My students responded to it well.

Another aspect of including his work and Maya Angelou‘s poetry was around the issue of civil rights. In Grade 7, we read the book The Cay, by Theodore Taylor who dedicated it to Martin Luther King shortly after he was assassinated, about the relationship of a young white boy and an elderly black man to discuss what being well-educated meant. I included my mother’s line, which was “who would you rather be lost in the wilderness, someone who read about it or an indigenous person, with no schooling, who lived it?”

In Grade 8, we exoplored civil rights through the lens of heros. I let students choose, but some struggled with this choice. Knowing my students well, I introduced them to Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, and Wilma Rudolph, if they were interested in sports. Others, who came from religious families, I encouraged them to consider Martin Luther King  and Mother Teresa. If they were interested in people who stood for the rights of the oppressed, but might not be considered a religious person we talked about Nelson Mandela and Mahatama Gandhi. Regardless, I found, when I tapped into who each student was, colour, ethnicity, and gender dissolved and wonderful projects emerged.

Another Hughes’s poem we read was Dream Deferred, is sprinked with questions from beginning to end:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Here, is a video of the poem read by the poet.

What Do You Plan to Do with Your One Wild Life?

Mary Oliver wrote the beautiful poem The Summer Day. She ended the poem with a question: “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Actually, she included several questions, which are not answerable in any certain way. Life is unpredictable, but what we want to do with it echoes Hans-Georg Gadamer who wrote “desire beyond wanting.” To me, this suggests we each aspire, perhaps can aspire, to something beyond simply knowing and planning. There is more to life than we can plan and predict, yet we can hope.

I think, as important, the question is about vocation and what calls us forward and animates each of our spirits. Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer write about how vocation and voice relate to one another and are how we express who we are in life. Merton goes so far as to say some of us are perhaps destined to search without discovering what calls us.

I wonder, “have we lost this sense of spiritual purpose in the early part of the 21st Century?” We look out there, read the newspapers, follow 24/7 news, etc. and feel deep despair and hopelessness, perhaps even disinterest to follow what beckons. I don’t say this lightly. Two incidents led me to wonder about this. First, at a recent community engagement conference, I was struck by how much despair filled the room. Second, in a private conversation with a parent, they commented how a child was struggling with what exists beyond our individual life. The child is experiencing a sense of despair over this. In part, this is exacerbated because the parents are atheists and feel unable to give guidance in a spiritual way. Finding our voice and who we are is more than an instrumental process of work. It goes beyond to the spiritual essence of who each are and how that brings meaning to our lives and the world.

In the latter setting, I emphasized the idea that we conflate religion and spirituality. One can be deeply spiritual and non-religious and non-theist. One can be religious and theist without being spiritual. The essence of spirituality is to find what calls to me and respond with the qualities of life I want to find in the world. I don’t think those in short supply, but, if we listen to the media, we come away with a different view. At the heart of this, might be the great existential questions poets, like Mary Oliver, ask us.

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I include a lovely reading by Mary Oliver of this poem.

My Ojibwa prayer.

via My Ojibwa prayer.

John shares a beautiful prayer and a wonderful segue into a New Year. Many Indigenous peoples, like the Ojibwa (Anishinaabe and Saulteaux) cherished Mother Earth in their spirituality. Also in his post, there is a cover of John Lennon‘s Imagine.

When I read the prayer, I consider what questions arise from the various words and lines John shares. What if each human being prayed for peace? What would this mean? What if we questioned how much an acre of land is worth in human life, lives of other creatures, and destruction to land ? What if we each reflected on sacred places we seek refuge in, whether they are in some remote spot, a city park, or our backyard garden? What do those places mean to each of us? What is the cost to us if they disappear?

John’s words remind me of a story Leo Tolstoy wrote, How Much Land Does a Man Need? The main character Pahom consumed with greed makes a bargain with the devil to acquire as much land by walking around and returning to the starting point by the time the sun sets. As it turns out, Pahom’s greed gets in the way and he fails, giving up his soul and life in exchange for a grave that constitutes the amount of land he needs in his life.

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Kathy took this picture from the one of the overviews on the Road to the Sun in Glacier National Park.

There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of
wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the
greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world. There is not an act of kindness or
generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken . . .
that does not sing hymns to God.

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)

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