World Poetry Day

Yesterday, according to various emails that I found in my inbox, was a trifecta of world celebrations. In no particular order, it seemed as if the stars had aligned so that we simultaneously celebrated World Recognition of Down-syndrome Day, World Poetry Day, and World Commonwealth Day. And here I thought my own calendar planning was poor as I battle mistaken double-bookings and overstretched responsibilities.

Recently I found myself fielding a number of questions about my blog, and why I write one. I let it be known to a small gathering of people that I also enjoy poetry, and when I said that I write a blog, I know in my heart of hearts that there are really blogs that I write, not just this one you may be reading now.

Poetry, fiction, general writing, and for a large part, English classes, were not seen as a highlight of my academic career. More a point of humorous embarrassment and ineptitude. English was a subject for other people in my family. I cannot ever recall learning the building blocks of English grammar, and I think that I grew up in an era of English teaching reform where the students would just ‘know’ English and come to practice it without having to go into all the details; something like ‘new maths’. As such, I tend to blunder my way through writing but get immense pleasure from reading and writing. I even like the sound of words and marvel at people who have provided the world with silly rhymes, or majestic marvels (like Gerard Manley Hopkins). If I was to compare my English studies and eduction, it would be not dissimilar to building furniture from IKEA without the directions — you could manage, and in the end you have something recognizably like a sofa, but with a lot of left over metal washers and screws. So far, the sofa in our house is holding together, and I suppose the same is true for my writing and general use of the English language. Just don’t move it around too much.

Family will likely read this, or if they are smart, only see that a new post has arrived in their ‘inbox’ and promptly ignore it. Reading, writing and general composition were painful events. I read faster upside-down than right side up, and especially when tired, I will simply turn the book around and read upside down as it is not as difficult. These actions truly annoyed professors as they thought I was mocking them, but in reality it makes my brain hurt less. I get emotionally attached to what I have written, so much so, that I will sulk and pout if others wish to edit and correct. I am not always as clear as I think I am in my writing (or at any time), as I feel that my brain jumps to conclusions that are easily made, but others tell me that they cannot follow. Catch up!

In order to enter university studies I needed to take English classes until my final days of high school. I think I skimmed most of the reading, and played dumb for a lot of the response that was needed to speak about plays, novels, and poems, especially poems because only girls read poems. That’s what was the underlying message from my peers and so I, wanting to fit in, acted in this way. I think that I have now, later in life, rediscovered the books that I read in school or was suppose to have read, and have gone and done my penitence and re-read all of them. Well, there is still Doctor Zhivago, but I enjoyed the movie more anyway.

My mother and sister are the English buffs, as the bookshelves in our family home can attest to a prolonged love and study of English literature. I have to admit that as my grades were not good I needed to take a test for English in order to register for English 100 in school. Those of my peers who had done better at English 12 immediately jumped into English 101 which was only one digit higher, but held a infinitely greater prestige.

To this day I do not know what I did on that placement test, but I now look back at it with a smile. After standing in a long line of students at a registrars office I received my test score which allowed me to try for enrolment, not in English 100, but (gasp!) English as a Second Language classes.

So why am I writing this blog? Why do I like to read poetry? Why do I even bother? I suppose a lot has changed in my attitude about how I learn and in what ways I have progressed enough in my own self that allows me to write more publicly. When pressed by friends and acquaintances as to the reason why I write at all, let alone on a public forum like a blog, I need to think deeply about this question. I can say I don’t often enjoy it. No, it isn’t like that. I enjoy writing, but it is hard work. It feels like something I just have to do. Perhaps it is a compulsion or a laborious event that just has to happen.

Writing is something that takes a great deal of effort, and at times, I cannot be bothered and have learned other methods to express myself. When re-taking the English placement test, I did get into the regular English classes. Mostly those tests taught me absolutely nothing about English, and everything about my own determination, desire, and destiny.

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Crawl out of the sick bed to comment

There are few things that seem internationally identifiable as being classically Canadian. During my language classes which where were made up of students from around the world, the one thing that seemed universally known about Canada was that we play hockey.

I had forgotten that Canada and Germany were playing against each other in the Olympic hockey match today and was only able to see the last period of the game.  My very devoted hockey daughter called me from the car on the way back from school to tell me the shocking news that Canada was loosing (and spoiler alert) they lost the game.  Yelling at the television set has not helped my sore throat, but it has made me realize that I found more interest in another Olympic sport in which both nations competed and suddenly found themselves tied for the gold medal.  To think that in the age of advanced time measurements up to several zeros behind a decimal point, that two bobsled team got identical race times is extraordinary!

When our children were younger (I guess I was too) my wife got us tickets to see the Biathlon in Whistler while the Olympics were hosted in Vancouver.  The biathlon is my favourite Winter Olympic sport to watch as I am always impressed with the speed, endurance, and then the sudden breath-stopping-control that allows men and women to fire off a .22 round at a tiny target.  While I don’t remember who ended up winning that race, I do remember the atmosphere of the crowd – loud, jubilant.  I also remember the freezing cold and the new winter boats leaking on both of the children and me putting their ice cold feet on my stomach to warm them up.

I imagine that as the years go by it won’t be so much of a painful loss in todays hockey match, rather I will likely remember the loud screaming at the TV by my eldest daughter, and the sight of two bobsled teams standing on an extended platform to all receive a gold medal.  Maybe if I take more German lessons the students will recall two nations standing side by side on the podium.  The house is now a little quieter, and the nation of Canada is probably a little humbler.

Civil Involvement

As an immigrant I do not get to exercise my civic duty in voting in the German electoral system, at least not federally.  As a town citizen I do get to vote in municipal elections.  A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Burgermeister’s office asking me to participate in some of the town planning.  On my invitation I could choose to be in a small group, but that I would need to pick my top three interests from a list of several themes.  I ended up placed in Gemienshaft, Integration, Seicherheit (Society, Integration, and Security).  Truth be told, my invitation letter sat a long time on my desk, and even made its way to the recycling bin before I pulled it out and filled in the forms and then posted the return letter.  I had huge doubts about attending as I believe my German skills are lacking, and I felt particularity vulnerable to any sort of criticism that might occur because I am an immigrant – why should I get a say in the future of this town?  I eventually sent in my invitation as I then began to thinking that part of my own integration means participation (at any level) with the community.  My observations of the day once it finally arrived were punctuated with urges to run from the room feeling incompetent and inadequate.

The event took place in the Kur Park, a scenic park which is usually full of flowers, strutting Peacocks, and long chains of Nordic Walkers.  This morning was damp and cool and no sooner had I entered the doors of the building that I found I was standing under the one area where the roof leaked – cue my desire to leave.  Sitting alone and comfortably anonymous amongst the 60 or so people I sat through the initial explanation of the purpose of the day, the welcome by town officials, and 5 minute presentations by the local town staff on the several areas of focus.  After the first hour I was about ready to leave again as I felt like the only migrant in the room who struggled to make sense of the talking, reading of the slides and making sense of the various graphs of statistical information being beamed onto a large screen, all in 5 minute bursts.

I stuck around for the entire day, and I am glad I did.  I got to ask questions to officials such as – why is society, integration and security all lumped together? It made me feel that, as a foreigner I was somehow a security threat to the German populous.  The day gave me some insight on how society functions and how people think.  Of the several pin boards anyone could write on different colour coded note paper and then pin up the papers onto the boards for all to see.  The colours were Red – for Bad, Yellow – for Idea, and Blue – for Good.  Within about 15 minutes the vast majority of the boards were covered with red cards.  If I was at a Fussball match there would have been plenty of whistling!

Once separated into our smaller subject groups of about 10 people each, we began to look at some ideas, and some positive remarks.  Slowly there became more of a balance of Red, Yellow and Blue cards plastered on the boards.  For most the day we remained in our small groups and narrowed down some practical aims and appropriate tasks despite all of us having to struggle with what constituted and aim and a task.  The moderator of each group was able to help us formulate a vision statement, and our top 5 priorities. There was argument over the grammar of our vision to which I jokingly said that I wholeheartedly agreed with a incomprehensible compound word – hey, at least some people chuckled.  Our information was then presented to the wider group, and then the citizens had the power to place our 7 kleine rote Klebepunkte ( 7 small red stickers) on items we felt were a main priority.

I have to say I was a bit shocked at the end of the day as the small red dots were tallied up and the last point on my groups chart rocketed to the top of the popularity contest.  To give you an idea of the range of the list, the top priority in our group was Die Tafel which is the local food bank for lack of a better comparison.  I thought this was great as it is a place were all sorts of people gather and a wide range of society meets.  A place were strangers may become friends.  It is a place I have thought about volunteering at for a couple hours a week so that I can meet new people and aid my own integration into society.  In short, Die Tafel was a place that covered our topics of Society, Integration and Security.  The last item on our list had to do with security in the form of a Police presence in the town centre – taking on a form of a 24/7 police office.

When the red stickers were counted from the plenary group it came as a surprise that the clear forerunner was 24/7 Police presence in some kind of office in the centre of town.  Somehow people seem to think that this is going to make the place a lot safer – not that I was ever concerned with the level of crime in Bad Krozingen to begin with.

At the end of the day we were all applauded for our participation.  Out of the 1000 people invited, we represented the 60 -70 people who had found some interest to participate.  I realized that there were no visible minorities present.  I realized that for all our brainstorming, visions, aims and tasks, a huge amount of trust is given to a bureaucratic process that is already well established.  For instance, a civic department would be the place to act out our task.  It makes me wonder if we, in fact, thought hard enough on things as it seemed that everything fit nicely into some department or other of the town hall.  I was a bit worried to see that for some there was a big sigh of relief that because the tasks had been named and at times a department head was named alongside the task, that somehow we had done our duty.  It was a bit like being an armchair athlete as no real grassroots movement seemed necessary.  No civic responsibility seemed present to understand that it is the people that make society, the people that help with integration, and the people which leads to a safer and more secure future.  It is not just some state department task, we are all responsible.

At the end of the day I feel exhausted having learned a lot about local government processes.  I also am glad to have met some very talented and dedicated people.  I found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly in my small group so much so that I did not have to eat alone, or stand in a corner wondering what I should say.  I am glad I did not leave the event despite the few times I thought I had nothing to contribute as I hope to have a coffee with a few of these people in the future.  I hope also to continue practicing my German language skills, meet people at Die Tafel and perhaps show others how I try to adapt to life in Germany.  Certainly it is through participation that I find strangers are now neighbours, immigrants are part of the grass-roots of society, and that German society feels a little bit more like home.

Life in Black and White

Someone once wrote that if life were meant to be lived out in black and white, then we would all be piano players.

While it may be a tempting title to write about ones theological perspectives, or even racial views, I won’t venture in that direction.  Instead, when I think about black and white recently it is in the viewing of films and television shows that were before Technicolour.

I suppose on the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I can remember hours of sitting (too close!) to a tv screen, a black and white tv screen.  A smallish, by todays standards, tv which had a pair of needle-nose pliers that sat nearby that was use to change the channel.  The tv came with ‘rabbit ear’ antenna which one person would have to manipulate to the shouts of encouragement, or dissatisfaction from those in the room who could still see the screen and the quality of the picture. When watching a show alone it might be that out of sheer frustration that you would put up with a slowly moving picture frame as it jumped up vertically over and over again.

Then came a colour tv and the world, at least the small world on tv changed.  It was mind-blowing.  I can remember being absolutely shocked that my favourite tv character had red hair.  It was like reading a book, and then watching the movie.  Somehow the pictures on the screen are never as vivid as the pictures in our imaginations.

We now have satellite television, which means that we have about 300 plus channels of absolute rubbish tv.  A vast array of teleshopping and infomercials.  The bottom of the barrel North American tv shows only slightly dubbed over so that there is always a conflicting noise of some backwood bootlegger twang, with a Bavarian interpretation that seems to miss the nuance of the language.  I become picky in watching any television.  Soccer, (or Fussball) is rarely on tv as they want you to subscribe to a special channel, but the highlights often show men slapping one another, and then both falling down on the pitch rolling in theatrical pain.  The hockey is not much better as it is a sanitized game with little to no contact and the underdog is usually the team without any Canadian playing on it.  Watching a hockey game can be painful as the camera operator struggles to find the puck and a goalie is pulled out with 16 minutes left in the game…why not when you are 7 points behind!  While it is not all as bad as I can sometimes make it out to be, there are many gems to watch.

I’ve found that there are some really interesting older films being shown on the ARTE channel and that I am immediately drawn towards the old Black and White films.  It is fascinating to watch, as there is much more of a dramatic feel in the cinematography.  At least that is what my inexperienced eye tells me. The story lines are also much more ‘real-life’ as opposed to a Hollywood Happy Ending.  I find that leaving the colour out brings out a different way of storytelling and a different drama.  Either that or I am just being sentimental, pining away for an old glass tube screen television set that weighed about as much as three people, and which we would sit too close watching old shows together that we planned to watch and set aside the time to do so.  Now we are likely as a family to be all in our separate rooms, sitting even closer to the screen (of a laptop, iPad, iPod, iPhone) as we stream on-demand Netflix shows, binge-watching at any place, day, or hour.

Meanwhile on the silver screen – having gone to the cinema in town to watch the newest release of the Thor series in blazing colour and 3D glasses, I have to say, I enjoyed it a great deal even with the dubbed over German.  It is entertainment.  Even though, there is a different quality of experience when we, as a family, sat in a tiny movie theatre to watch a rerun of a Charlie Chaplin film in glorious black and white, with the only sound being a twangy piano soundtrack to play enhance the experience of action, sorrow, or adventure; and the flickering hum of a projector.  People munching snacks, slurping drinks, and at the quietest moments, the sound of a theatre full of people breathing.

While I am certainly glad for life in colour, I have become more aware of black & white, the range of greys. The silhouettes, and the drama of 3D.  And of utter silence.

Untittled

I am still discerning why it is I have not written on the Blog for a while.  Having had a regular discipline of writing it just seemed that after a short family holiday in Ireland that I needed a pause in this pattern of creativity.  I know of many people who like to post a lot of their life and daily events on Facebook or Instagram, and then for their various reasons announce that they have ‘had enough…’ and that they are ‘taking a break’ from Facebook.  It seems that there is some kind of abuse, a rant, or perhaps an overwhelming negative presence that they pick-up on Facebook which they feel some distance is required.  Many felt this way after Trump was elected in the USA and the online commentary seemed to become more and more vitriolic.  I don’t think it is for this reason that I stopped writing.  I was not flooded by ‘trolls’ or personally attacked.  It felt more seasonal, like a field gone fallow.

There were a couple false starts, that to this day, still sit in the draft box of the blog which will likely never see the light of day.  I went through a phase of feeling very guilty that I had not bashed out some writing. I’m still figuring that one out, as guilt is a very strange beast that I share with a great many people.

I suppose I feel that I am entering into a new phase: artists can have their ‘blue phase’, or an ‘expressionistic phase’.  While I am not sure how to name the feeling, or the ‘phase’, it does feel significant.  The things to which I strongly felt attached and committed have shifted.  The closest I can think of for some similar experience is when I first became more attuned to my religious and spiritual life.  In this reflective manner, I often feel that things are repeating themselves, but that I have a bit more distance between the ‘things’, be they emotions, or events.  I have the sense that I have been here before, that it is a well worn path, but that I am a different person able to see the path as repetitive, but able to appreciate new things along it.  Living in Germany I might make the comparison of having driven down the same road many times, but now, instead of zooming along at 200 km/hr the car has broken down and I am walking at a rate of about 5 km/hr.  The route or path is familiar, now there is far more detail to be observed.  In a sense I feel like I am letting go of things and appreciating the gifts that present themselves.

I’m sounding a bit philosophical I suppose.

There are many things on that Autobahn that I just don’t think I need to carry anymore.  As the speeding and achieving give way to the slowing and appreciating the pause in writing and reflecting will likely take a different tone as well.  One of the areas that I think motivated my behaviours that increased my speed, my push, and my resolve to achieve stems from a self-contmept.  It sounds terrible, and it is even difficult to see it typed out on a screen let alone think that others might read it.  Honestly, the focus on the unattainable, the high self-expectations, the need to be different, to be liked, to be defined by my feelings… these all seem to be on the road, yet again, but instead of them fuelling my ‘reason for being’ I just can’t carry them along the road anymore.  I’ve dropped them.  I’m sure that I will see them on the side of the road again, like I do now, but I just don’t think I need to pick them up; and if I do, I don’t think I will have the same attachment to them.

Several times in the last few weeks I have been reminded of a particular part of Thomas Merton’s ‘Seven Storey Mountain’.  In seemingly random conversations this book keeps being mentioned and I am glad for the prompting to recall the read, which for me, was fundamental and foundational.

I should first say in context, the Seven Storey Mountain was one of the first books I read in what I could describe a spiritual journey. Merton’s book sat alongside, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  There is a moment in the book where I thought, “finally someone else understands”.  I cannot quote chapter and verse, but there is a part of the story in which Thomas Merton describes a holy moment as he stands on a busy New York street corner and knows in an instant that everybody, everything, and himself is with God.  It sounds really simple, but for me it was the moment that I felt listened to and understood.  I felt both alive and dead at the same time.  Then it was gone.  I have not felt like chasing this moment so as to repeat it as I know that it has and will be, always with me.  The problem is that I’ve started going too fast, picking up unwanted ‘stuff’ and letting many of the ‘things/emotions/expectations’ that are flung at me, to stick.  Rather than standing on the street corner with some kind of mystical experience I have slowly, gradually, turned myself somehow into a street performer juggling balls which all the passersby and onlookers have thrown another ball out and I have thought it vital to my being to make sure I catch the ball and add it too my act.

I suppose something had to happen as one can only juggle so much before all concentration is lost.

The ‘balls’ are starting to drop and they lay about my feet, and yet again I feel that I have found myself at the street corner, where everybody, everything, is simply in God.  I don’t need to impress God with my juggling, and I don’t need to impress myself.  I really don’t care what people think of me even though I struggle with this constantly, and I suppose I am learning to use these experiences not as tactics of shame and inadequacy, but to acknowledge there presence, to treat myself more gently, and choose to act in ways that are transformative, redemptive and beautiful.

My day to day tasks seem to take on a different light, and I am far less interested in propping up an institutional presence, or persona that speeds along aggressively achieving only so as to hide feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Now I walk a little slower and more intentionally; focused on the here and now, rather than on dwelling on what should been, or could be.

One Big Loop

There is a certain symmetry to life, despite the moments of what may seem like chaos, when I look at things with a ‘big picture’ kind of view even the chaos falls into place.

The trip to Canada had its moments of chaos even before we had begun our travels.  Being a Canadian living in Germany, I was unaware of the change of travel rules that now require dual passport holders to travel into Canada with both passports.  This issue occupied a huge problem for us as a family as one of our Canadian passports had expired and the time frame for getting a new passport was far shorter than if we actually lived in Canada.  We the help of the friendly consulate staff in the Munich office we were able to get a Temporary Passport.  Even with the fact of having to personally drop-off the application, and personally receive the Temporary Passport there was much relief once the passport was in hand just a few days prior to our departure.  The nervous chaos seems a distant memory which has had its rough edges smoothed over with the passage of time, like that of a river smoothing a rock.

Time has a way of smoothing over a lot of things.

Once in Canada we had arrived in time for my Grandmother’s funeral.  With many people beyond that of family involved in the service at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, there was so much potential for chaos; however, the funeral was conducted expertly, and even the horse drawn hurst was able to make it through the busy downtown streets.

Over the next few days, many of the family set their energy and attention towards the wedding of my sister.  The wedding and reception, each beautiful occasions, which mark the beginning of a life together for my sister and her husband.  In the moments of planning and preparation it is sometimes difficult to see out of the chaos to a tranquil outcome, but as time has passed, the outcome certainly was romantic and serene.

In a small way, the activities in Vancouver came full circle, as one long marriage ended due to death, another marriage has just begun.  While the preacher at the funeral spoke powerfully and meaningfully to the gathered congregation, the same priest was also the last person to conduct a wedding in the Anglican church in which the marriage was held.  A mentor and friend at both the end and the beginning of these important acts of worship which punctuate the flow of life.

During our very short time spent trying to see friends and acquaintances in Victoria, everything worked out as well as could be considering the spontaneity of much of the planning and the coordination of many people.

The flight home to Germany felt like the completion of one great loop across the map that  burned brightly on the airplane navigational display.  The chaos of luggage loaded, passengers seated, and meals served, all translated, in the big picture, to a pleasant flight.  The chaos of life, with a little perspective, is not so unlike that rough stone which over time is smoothed down to a river rock.  The chaos of an aged life, and indeed a new life together, is also smoothed down and refined.

God has a way of smoothing over a lot of things.

Threading the Needle

I am of an age that can simultaneously recall mocking my elders for not being able to pass a thread through the eye of a large needle, and having the shame of now not being able to do the same myself.  My daughter, from across the kitchen informed me that I had succeeded in my endeavour to thread the needle.

Family reading this will likely be overjoyed at the turn of events.  I blame the strongly calcified water that I drink in Germany on my increasingly poor vision.

There are many things that while they seemed easy before, now seem like Herculean feats.  Getting over the fact that there are ten eggs in the container rather than the expected dozen seems like a small thing, but it makes a big difference when you want to cook, or bake something, and you realize that your planning is off.

Going to school for the children, while a normal event, can be more arduous than before.  The daughter that so clearly saw the needle finally being threaded is at a stage in life where the future is laid out before her.  The school system begins the classroom streaming this year, and for many young children, and their parents, they are forced to cast their gaze to a wide horizon and imagine what they want to be when they grow up.  The categories, levels, abilities and temperaments of the children (and to some initial extent, the parents) are all piled up and muddled through as career planning starts to get going.  Of course, one can always change streams, or continue on with more schooling; it is the initial segregation of pupils into academic abilities that feels so different.

If I look back on my experience of grade 4 it is not a pretty picture.  Even more scary is the idea that my abilities then would subject me to a certain destiny.  While I can see some reasons and rational for streaming the children at this stage in life, it does go against the grain to think that we, no matter what age, are always growing.  Surely, if we are not growing, we are likely to be dead.

Grade 4 was a terrible year.  It must have been as I can remember it.  I recall running away from school and having the police looking for me.  I had a terrible, dictatorial, sadistic and torturous teacher.  To think that that year would determine my placement in a future school…it just doesn’t really end well.

I’m happy to say, that my daughter doesn’t have the same feelings of her grade four teacher, but I still feel for her as we look at a big step in life.  I hope that she can understand that it may seem like a huge stage in life (as it is for her, or anyone who is in that moment), but that in the grand scheme of things, it is pretty small.  Small, but memorable; just like threading the needle.