Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Continuity and Suffering: Auden, Bruegel, Bishop & Me

My relationship to 19th and 20th Century Western poetry and prose is a bit awkward still. It's still not clear if I appreciate it for its beauty (and the genre is beautiful to me) or if as a reader and writer I feel to it the allegiance a child might feel to the home into which she has been adopted and raised after deciding to leave it. I have started to read poetry again, a practice that had become somewhat deadened to me in recent years. To be *able* to read is just a little better than writing to me; my first marriage was to reading and then to writing!

I started sharing my writing on this blog out of a desire to explore my suffering and healing. I continue to be intrigued by the human experience of suffering. I think that this year I have grown a bit and learned a few things about suffering. In this season of my life the two areas of suffering that I am paying close attention to are:

1. Suffering as a result of justice withheld
2. Suffering as a result of loss

My fascination with the second is personal, and the first has to do with my life's work. I am not interested in suffering for the sake of suffering but because of my life's Spirituality that provides stories and archetypal patterns where life giving events are accomplished within the experience of suffering, resulting in healing that extends beyond the initial scope of suffering. This is exemplified perhaps no better than in The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi when he writes that "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life, Amen".

I mentioned that I think my relationship to suffering has matured this year. I think specifically in a deeper acceptance of *continuity* as a reality within Suffering.

The following pieces for me reflect the themes of Continuity & Suffering:

Twenty Seven

Chicken Madras from the Corner of Northfield and Wisler, A pack of Players for non-smoker, a car radio for company, rainy night, the baby boy cries to have his head wrapped with my head scarf, quasi-life crisis, Season premier of The Office, Emily Dickinson's Narrow Fellow in the Grass, A business plan for Social Justice, A phone discussion with my father about finding the earliest link between the African Coptic Church and Ethiopia, self disappointment, and rest.

"Fall of Icarus" by Bruegel

I do not have a personal affinity to this painting but the Auden poem bellow that I love is based on the piece above, and gives it life for me.

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The Poem above reminds me of some of the dynamics of societal suffering (especially from justice withheld) and the cruelty and therapy of continuity, now Bishop's poem bellow seems more personal to her and I think to me, in the experience of suffering from personal loss, continuity becomes an artificially real way to deal with it, get on with things... there is a sarcasm and anguish in the tone that resonates.

One Art by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Monday, September 19, 2011


The act of pushing through from beneath and taking a bite of air,

It’s a struggle for sustenance and an inhaling of grace.

Providing no direction in a moment of decision; only confirming that indeed we have reached a crossroads, then moving on to describe the sights of South, and making note of the songs of North.

An unabashed pronouncement of greatness,
and simultaneously a naked exposure of weakness.

Writing is taking and giving,
hiding and emerging.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


When I was fifteen I began to entertain thoughts of saving the world, so I sold cookies and washed a few cars one summer whith the help of some good friends in the small town where we lived. I bought a big backpack, the biggest one I ever owned in my life, it reminded me of the tourist muzungus (whites) that used to walk around Nairobi when I was a kid, smiling at everything in their surroundings. If there is anything in this world that will make you feel like you are about to accomplish something seriously epic, it’s probably carrying around a backpack about the size of your own body. I boarded a plane and after a one week detour in Dallas, Texas, where we were provided with the basics and essentials of how to save the world, I ended up eventually in an inner city community in South Central, Los Angeles.

The kids I travelled with giggled a lot, laughed a lot, cried a lot, talked a lot and took many pictures. But I spent that summer like most of my teen years mostly in silence. I was the only non-white member of the short-term mission trip team of young people. But I wasn’t particularly aware of that in those days seeing as most of my world back home, at church and at school was homogeneous. I would break my silence every once in a while to share a thought or force an attempt at a conversation after feeling that my silence was getting awkward. Almost all of the time what ended up coming out of my mouth would be unintentionally funny and soon I was dubbed the funny girl from Canada. It was a comfortable little nook for me to settle in for the rest of the trip, now that I was explained away I could fall back into silence with less awkwardness. It also meant that now during meals when some extroverted voice would notice my silence and single me out sweetly with a “Hey Fanis, why are you so quiet?”, another equally extroverted and eager voice would quickly chirp in “You should have heard what she said to so and so” and then the voice would go on to quote one of my random remarks that would induce the laughter of the whole group. And I would smile comically as if the humour was perfectly intended and feel relieved at having escaped once again the unimaginable task of making myself known.

I think at fourteen and for the rest of our lives, we all feel deeply the desire to be known, but also not quite knowing ourselves, we have to withdraw hastily from any chance of meeting the impossible challenge of making ourselves known.

One day we went to do some drama and give away free stuff, and share the Christian gospel to those who would listen. On that day there was a mad black woman with worn clothes in the park. I felt really struck by her presence. Her mind had given way to either years of drug use or mental illness. I didn’t know her story. But something happened when she came to the park, I felt almost uncomfortable. I felt almost protective of her and indignant for her. I cringed when my team mates talked about her no matter how harmless their words. Looking back I think I was experiencing a crisis of belonging. I didn’t quite belong in the world that she seemed to represent, a hint margin and suffering that was out of the reach of my young imagination. Yet I projected something onto her as she wondered around laughing aloud then mattering to herself: I allowed her to represent all the unknown parts of me that were quiet and withdrawn and did not allow me to quite fit in with my team mates. And for this reason I felt drawn to her. We made eye contact many times during the drama presentation. When she laughed out loud disrupting one of the scenes of the dramatic presentation, I wanted to laugh with her. Something at that moment was perfectly humorous and I felt the joke. But at the same time like everyone else, I was afraid of her. I wanted to contain her, heal her, and explain her… anything to stop the awful muttering and laughing.

Many of the black people I came across in South Central L.A are almost black like me. It’s unexpected because the Black Americans on T.V are usually light skinned and I did not expect to find people that looked like me. It’s kind of like the bodies that they showed littering the streets after Katrina in New Orleans, and the people on T.V that were seeking shelter. They were surprisingly black. The little girls in South Central L.A had their hair twisted in matutas (thick braids). When my team mates started to hug them and take pictures of them. I wanted to shout at them. I wanted the cameras to stop flashing. And in my head I was screaming: “Stop it! What are you doing? Who are you going to show those pictures? You don’t know them! You don’t know me! They are not what you think, they are not faces from your mission trip, they are people like me!” Instead I stood quietly in the background.

We went back to our sleeping accommodations. Before we left L.A one evening we had a prayer service, the charismatic kind that some decades ago were not unfamiliar to that part of the United States. I like charismatic prayer meetings because I always feel free and like myself. Even then I was somewhat aware of the hundred year old history of William Joseph Seymour, a black preacher man born of slaves who started the Azusa Street Revival in L.A that gave birth to the Pentecostal Christian tradition in which I was raised. Seymour had also used his voice through the Azusa Street Revival to engage issues of racial inequality. All these had taken place at the turn of the 19th century just a few blocks from where we then stood during our prayer service.

The leaders took turns praying for each team member and soon it was my turn. When I was a teenager, perhaps as a result of my eccentric/egocentric adolescent imagination or some overenthusiastic sensationalistic sermons at youth meetings, I had developed a strong inner desire to discover that I was destined to fulfill some great purpose that had something to do with saving the world. When it was my turn to be prayed for, I really appreciated the drama and ceremony of the whole ordeal. A group of leaders surrounded me and took turns praying and saying blessings over me. Finally one of the leaders expressed that he was sensing a vision. I was very excited.

To be continued...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Travelling Coach

. . . written as an anniversary song, for my Justin, with the hopes that it will take on a pretty blues tune one afternoon during Izaka's nap, after the missing middle string is replaced on our guitar.

All these years and things that have passed,
carrying us slow and sometimes pulling us fast
to where we are now, sitting on this travelling coach.

And once in a while, when rocking calms
you lean my way and lift a skirt that hangs
curtaining the window of this travelling coach.

Your fingers let in some white-grey light
that escapes from moving fields into our tight
little space, spilling over the darkness of our travelling coach.

And on my left all our baggage is piled
and against your arm is our sleeping child.
I’m happy when your eyes meet mine on this travelling coach.

A family of three we are carried on,
Always thinking of the place we’re coming from
And the hands that hold the whip of this travelling coach.