When the kids were little, we began tossing them big questions.Where are your dead grandparents? Where do babies come from? What is a good person? What’s bad? If the house were on fire and you had to grab one thing, what would it be? These videoed interviews took various forms: storytelling, metaphysical speculation, flights of fantasy, competition, bullshit and blather–exactly like adult conversations.
Actually, their conversations upstage adult conversations.
Everybody dies, and lots of people immigrate. But few Muslims marry Jews, and Mohawks rarely cross the river to conduct Condolence ceremonies among non-natives. Why? “A Daughter’s Song” doesn’t quite answer the question, but it captures what happens when such events coincide.
Three months after the death of Myriam Azoulay, Mohawks, invited by artists affiliated with Native-Immigrant (a Montreal arts project directed by Carolina Echeverria), offered a Condolence Ceremony for family and friends. This film braids together the ritual and a walk with Stephane, Myriam’s husband, who is accompanied by his daughter and mother-in-law.
Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”
This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.
Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.
When Cailleah was a kid, she complained, “Creativity, creativity, creativity…that’s all I hear in this family. I’m sick of all that C stuff.” Twenty-five or so year later she’s released her first documentary film, She Got Game, and Bryn, his first music album, Room on Ossington.
We must have seduced them into creativity and imagination. We can die happy now.
Before her 13th birthday Cailleah said there was no way we were going to do any of that R stuff like they do to African girls. I’m not sure what she imagined or where she picked up the images stuck in her brain, and she wasn’t about to say the word “menstruate” or “period.” When I asked if we could do C stuff, she asked, What? I said, Celebration. That made her happy. So we C instead of R.
There are two troubling R’s, ritual and religion. We didn’t succeed in making our kids religious, but we didn’t succeed in making ourselves religious either, at least not in the way “being religious” is usually understood. We’re not members of a religious group or institution. We don’t identify as SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) or Nones (no-religion people). Even so, I say I’m a religious animal. And Susan says, “If I’m anything at heart, I’m religious; that’s all there is to it.”
I’d define the words this way:
Creativity: practicing one’s gifts for the sake of the planet
Ritual: embodied, condensed, and prescribed enactment
Spirituality: life as lived in resonance with fundamental principles and powers, usually symbolized as deepest, first, last, highest, or most central
Religion: 1. how people tie things together (the etymology of the word); 2. spirituality organized into a tradition, system, or institution and typically consisting of interlacing processes: experiential-mystical, mythic-historical, ritualistic-performative, doctrinal-cosmological, ethical-legal, social-personal, physical-spatial
In 2012, Cailleah imagined I might die while she was in Japan. She worried that I would never know what she could become, so we improvised a ritual with her in Toronto and I in Waterloo. Then, she made this film. I didn’t croak (although I almost did in 2013). We’re both still going, making it up as we go. Soon we will make a follow-up film to this one.
I’ve been riding the Iron Horse Trail for years. In 1997 Kitchener-Waterloo drizzled a ribbon of asphalt over an old rail bed connecting the twin cities. Since then, we fine, upstanding citizens have been practicing–ambling, walking, riding, jogging. I say “practicing” because for some of us this is lifelong learning, and because some of us aren’t especially adept at it. So practice it is.
Some mornings I grumble at the thought that the trail calls. Should a trail “call?” It has friends enough. The neighbors are out there walking, biking, jogging, slicked out in sweats or pooping their pets. Others of us, early or late in life, trot out our iron horses: bikes, wheelchairs, strollers.
I bike. When people ask why, I say “to stay alive, why else?” I mean it. Secretly, I’m lazy. One of my Dutch students initiated the Walk of Wisdom, a circular pilgrimagearound Nijmegen. It’s 136 km. I’d never make it. That’s why you have enterprising students students: so they will walk the walk you could only talk.
Unlike the trail up Boulder Creek Canyon, the K-W Iron Horse Trail is flat, reminding me of the terrain around Nijmegen. (Ah, for one of those fine Dutch bikes, which I still can’t afford!) The flatness of the Iron Horse is, I suppose, easy on aging hearts and muscles, but flatness also provokes anxiety. I grew up in the high dry, dusty plains of eastern New Mexico, and I’m not fan of flatitude. In western Canada, they call these level expanses prairies. As a kid, I imagined prairies were places for prayer. Places where people asked God to help them escape to the mountains. Mountains and coasts are holy. The great continental mid-section is safe.
An iron horse is a train. If you’re not too young, you know this already.
“Horsing around.” Did you use that phrase as a synonym for “play?”
“Ironing:” what we used to do to our clothes before stay-pressed and no-iron were invented.
“Ironing your horse:” nailing shoes on it. By pounding them through an iron shoe and then through the horse’s “nails,” you render the poor beast roadworthy. In the process, of course, you damage the hooves. Take your pick: asphalt damage or nail damage.
I imagine animating the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail. Raising it from the flatlands of the urban imagination.
I revel, conjuring an evening of processing and parading, of candle lanterns and steampunk horses, of kids inventing new kinds of horses.
I went to an Iron Horse Trail town meeting and could find no compatriots. I wanted to reimagine the trail, conjure its spirits, fill it with masked processions, have funeral processions down it, dance down up, have a yearly contest to build an Iron Horse Trail horse. But most participants wanted to enhance safety, make the trail wider, and post courtesy instructions.
In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, New International Version of the Bible (NIV).
The rock is a key biblical metaphor. St. Peter’s name means “the rock,” and Jesus plays off it by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Regarded as the successor of Peter, the Pope continues this rocklike tradition. As result, neither doctrine nor liturgy is supposed to change; they too are rocks.
In a project called Building with Nature the Dutch, however, are learning to build houses on sand using a Sand Motor:
Unlike rock and its synthetic descendant, concrete, water passes through sand. What would Jesus do? He was a creative storyteller, so what else? Adapt the story: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise person who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because the rain passed through the sand. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like those foolish persons who build their houses on concrete foundations. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash, its basement full of water.”
The problem with theologies and theories of religion that use rocks as models is that they are based on a false premise, that invariant institutions and rituals can orient you in a flowing, changing universe. As surely as the hour hand on a clock moves, religions evolve; they are “edited.” There is no such thing as stasis, not for clock hands, not for rocks, and not for liturgies (even “divine” ones). There is no unchanging ground either inside religion or outside it. All is flow, all is flux; there are only differing rates of change. The tectonic plates of the earth move by subduction; they shift and float. Not only is the universe variant and imperfect, so are the religions and rituals by which people negotiate it and orient to it.
When you have the time and freedom to circle the deep, that’s glorious. When you don’t have either the time or the freedom–when you’re draped over the edge by another hand–that’s dreadful. When someone else cuts your life short by lynching, angry questions burn the air. The Equal Justice Initiative is building the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, near the site of a slave auction block. (Montgomery has 59 sites commemorating the Confederacy.) The memorial will include a lynching museum to commemorate the 4000 racial lynchings that happened in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II (1877-1950).
The Community Remembrance Project of the EJI is collecting soil samples from lynching sites and will incorporate them into the museum.
An historical view of the origins of lynching culture:
This bit of musing is an experiment in querying your big question.
Ron is me. Don is Ron playing the Devil.
Ron: Am I going to die?
Don: Of course. Silly question. Get serious.
Ron: Okay, when will I die?
Don: You really want to know that? Don’t you get anxious just waiting for the bus or train to arrive? Just think how paralyzed you’d be if you knew when you were going to croak.
Ron: Knowing when would help me prepare.
Don: Would it? If you knew you’d go tomorrow, would that help? You’d panic, wouldn’t you? Or if you knew your day was coming in 25 years, you’d do what? Get lazy?
Ron: True, panicking or loafing. What’s the use in either?
Don: Maybe you have a better question.
Ron: Like, How will I die?
Don: If I said, By auto accident, you’d…?
Ron: I don’t know. Quit driving?
Don: Right. So then you’d get hit from behind, that’s all. Well, suppose I said, You’ll die of Alzheimer’s, starting next year and running for 10 years, just to grind down your family. What then?
Ron: Dread. I’d have great dread for them and for me, but at least I could prepare.
Don: You don’t have to know how you’d die in order to prepare. Since you’ll never know the answers to future questions, why bother with the future? You could prepare now without knowing.
Ron: I’m wondering what I would do. I mean, day to day, what would I do to prepare for the Big Day? Probably the same thing I’m doing now.
Don: Better, but you sneaked the future back in. I’m going to press this buzzer every time you do that (a loud wrong-answer squawk). And what’s this “die right” stuff? What is it? And you get to pick that do you?
Ron: Well, I hope to have a good death.
Don: Hope (wrong-answer buzzer)?
Ron: Hoping for a good death then, how shall I live now? How’s that?
Don: Better, but you could just drop the front part, the hoping bit, eh?
Ron: So, you’d be happy with, How will I live now?
Don: There’s more resolve in that. But what kind of an answer does that question require? A description? A scene? An account of daily events? Or just a set of abstract virtues, you know, a good, true, and beautiful life following Plato or a trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly life following the Boy Scouts? Let me ask you a question, Is there a big difference between the life you’re living now and the one you’d live if you were acutely aware of your impeding death? How big is the gap?
Ron: Not too big. I’m living the life I want to live.
Don: Is that really true?
Ron: Pretty close.
Don: Such bullshit. What are you really saying is that you don’t have a big question at all?
Ron: Wouldn’t that be ironic since I’m hawking Big Questions, but I don’t have a BQ!
Don: Why bother even asking about death? Get a life.
Ron: I’m approaching 75. I am trying to ask an age-appropriate question.
Ron: Okay, let’s start again. These are real questions: Will my wife ever finish her book? Will my kids ever earn a living doing something they love, something meaningful?
Don: Those are their questions. Let them ask them. Ask your own damned questions.
Ron: Well, their questions are mine, sorta.
Don: Sorta? Are you sure your hidden question isn’t something like, How can they possibly get along without me?
Ron: (laughs) Maybe, but they are already doing that. They’ll be fine without me, sadder for a while, but fine. I want to come back to “age-appropriate.”
Don: I thought you were joking.
Ron: I was, but, look, I’ve lived a pretty full life, not perfect, but full. It feels like I’ve lived a couple of lives actually. If I died today, I’d die happy.
Don: You’re a pain in the ass. So why bother questioning then? You are a man-without-a-question. What a lonely soul!
Ron: I have lots of questions. Querying is my life’s motor. No more questions, no more life. I’m curiosity-driven. I want to know what’s over the next hill.
Don: Future stuff again (wrong-answer buzzer).
Ron: Find. I don’t know whether the Big Drop-Off is over the next rise, but I’ll risk scouting it out.
Don: While you’re still alive, right?
Ron: Right. I’m a 1-3-2 person.
Don: A what?
Ron: I jump from the beginning to the end, then I have to back to do, or re-do, the middle.
Don: Trouble is you can’t go back and re-do your 30s or 40s.
Ron: Yes, that’s my life’s problem. But I’m, what shall I say, in mid-late life?
Don: That would be funny if it weren’t such absolute crap. Let me make sure I get this straight. You want to creep up the edge of the canyon, peer over it, see the bottom, and live to tell about it, right?
Don: How do you propose to do that?
Ron: Imagine. How else?
Don: What do you imagine? Heaven? Hell?
Ron: No, nothing like that. In heaven, Which wife would I be married to? Singing all day, you gotta be kidding. Eating fried catfish all day, no thanks. Wing feathers everywhere. Gold streets hurting my feet. I can’t even imagine, much believe such poor imagined scenes. And your place, well hell, if God lets you get away with that, he/she is not God. So I imagine I am sand, dirt, sucked up by plants and trees. No thought. No heart. No breath.
Don: Isn’t that scary? Sad?
Ron: No, none of that.
Don: At peace?
Ron: No peace. No war.
Don: That’s not much. Are you running out of imaginative juice?
Ron: (begins to sing) “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play peanuckle on your snout.”
Don: I see, saved by your childhood antics. You probably chased girls with that song.
Ron: True, but it reminds me that I’d become compost, plant food, fish food, universe food.
Don: Universe food? That’s good. I like it.
Ron: Great, so my big question must be, How to imagine my post-life as universe food? What’s my taste? My smell? My smell after being eaten?
Don: (presses wrong-answer button) Now you did it.
Ron: Did what?
Don: Fell off the edge. You’re cheering yourself up with scatological humor? Food-become-shit, come on.
Ron: It’s a Grimes thing.
Don: Get over it. That crap won’t help you on this side or the other.
Ron: Okay, okay. What’s my post-death life? How to imagine it? Hmm, I biodegrade into beautiful red and gold and white desert sand. I’m in my version of heaven now.
Don: Just to remind you, it’s hot there. No water. Sounds like you in that other place—with me.
Ron: No, in hell you’d have consciousness, feelings, regret, pain. As desert sand, I’d just be.
Don: Sure, until a dunebuggy ran over you or until you landed in the bottom of an aquarium with goldfish pooping on you from above. No, even the deserts get messed with.
Ron: Don’t bother me. I am being sand. Windblown.
Don: Until someone runs an atomic test over top of you.
Ron: But would I care?
Don: You should, but even if you wouldn’t, you do now. You want to be pure sand, no radiation, no dunebuggies, but whatever you are, it won’t last. It’s all temporary. This life is temporary. The next life is just as temporary.
Ron: I’m ignoring you. My body is burned, and my ashes are scattered off the rim of Canyonlands, and I am one with…
Don: You are not one with anything. You are daydreaming. You’d might be alone for a bit, until some noisy kid shouted over you to hear the echo.
Ron: Now that’s a good question. As canyon sand, can I listen? I am listening sand. How can I keep listening?
Don: You’re lost. You don’t know which end is up. You’re distracting yourself by being sand in a silly canyon sandbox. See you later, or never, which is the same thing.
Here the dialogue ends, but the night I wrote it, I fell to dreaming. In one dream Susan brings home relatives to live with us; we have such a big fight that it ends the marriage. In the dream that followed, all I see are heroin needles and tiny bottles; I am alone, a heroin addict.
Just to be clear, our marriage is not on the rocks, and I’m not an addict. Still, what’s up here? Imagining myself as listening canyon sand, even though Don the Devil tells me that can’t happen, is for a few minutes comforting. But circling the question has thrown up some hard stuff from deep sleep. I would actually be afraid if the relatives were to move in, but that’s not an ultimate fear. I have no fear of becoming a heroin addict, so that dream is not about the dope but about the final state: being alone. What if I were conscious and alone in the universe? That’s scary, but the presence of a god is just as scary. I like the idea of being part of a dead family, but as soon as I ask, Who is in the family? that idea is scary too.
So, what’s the lesson here? Circumambulate your question a few times and see what you dream.