Cast Out Into The Deep

The way into my garden is down. Down a few steps, across some stones carpetted in mosses and creeping herbs bounded by the woodpile on the left and, to the right, a perennial bed just beginning to unfurl in yellows, golds and reds; down a few more steps, laid decades ago, of railway tie and red kilned brick, through an archway created by bushes of wild gooseberry here, joe pye-weed there and a canopy of shiny mulberry leaves and heavy, crimson fruit; down and a little turn to the right, through giant ferns and the massive trinitarian green heads of jackies-in-the-pulpit, their sermons audible to the very few. 

Down more steps, round ones, cut slices of maple, winding their way down between rockeries and sloping beds of spurge and periwinkle, sedum, giant and creeping, trillium, violets, yellow and purple, multi-coloured huechera and brilliant red and green ajuga falling over itself, layer to layer, like some kind of organic slinky. Side paths, whose stepping stones are quickly being covered with the summer’s bountiful crops of creepers and vines, beckon into pungent, variegated pools of chameleon, lily of the valley and wild iris. 

Down to a landing bordered by echinacea, more sedum and jungles of gracefully curtseying Solomon’s seal. The sloping remains of an old Manitoba maple serve as ladders and leaners for ivy, leggy coreopsis and cleome trying to grab the scatter-shot of sun that makes it way through the canopy above. The trunk ends in a table-top perpetually covered with the remains of someone’s meal, chestnut casings, walnut skins, cherry pips, apple cores. 

Down to a ravine room of flat stones, green with more moss, an arbour that supports the sprawl of a marauding grape vine that offers no grapes in return for the favour; a bench; a fire pit black with use and filled to overflowing with stories of neighbourhood marshmallow roasts and birthday parties, late night poetry, ritual and word. 

Beyond, the gate opens into the maw of the ravine, sloping down and up and away and beyond through woods and wild gooseberries, japanese knotwood, more jackies, violets and spurge, to the modest bed of some wee, hidden tributary of Taylor Creek. There is a quiet here that transports, a trompe d’oreille, that makes you believe you’re somewhere else.

And this is Toronto. Hustle, bustle, lights, way too many lights, cars, way too many cars, trolleys and subways, billboards, way too many billboards, people, people, many hued and cultured people who take their turns cooking and dancing in the streets for dawalli, Eid, Victoria Day, independence days, jazz festivals, gay pride, soccer pride, high-holy-day, Caribana, fringe, hot docs pride.

And this is Canada! the land of Stephen Harper… and Nobel peace prize nominee and Inuit environmentalist, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who lives on and next to that melting, breaking ice Al Gore talks about; both Ed Stelmech, premier of Alberta, our answer to Texas, who thinks the tar sands development and breathing are not contradictory or mutually exclusive – and Maude Barlowe – who’s waking us up to the threat of privatised water; Stephen Lewis, who’s given his heart to AIDS orphans in Africa, General Roméo Dallaire, who shook hands with the devil and lived to tell the tale – and adds Sudan and child soldiers and Beijing to the tale, the tale that continues, it seems, never-ending …; and Ursula Franklin, 85 year-old Quaker and professor emeritus, who led the exit of like-minded University of Toronto faculty from Convocation Hall just as George H.W. Bush was standing to receive his honourary degree. And Tommy Douglas. Baptist minister. Father of Canadian universal health care.

And did I mention Stephen Harper. He’s our Prime Minister. We’re sorry. He says strange things like ‘God bless Canada’. Where did he get that one from?! Though he has latterly quietly conceded that maybe not joining the coalition of the willing was a good idea, he does really like the guy stuff, the camos, the khaki. Thanks to him, we now have a real presence in the world, the only kind that counts, a more muscular diplomacy, punching above our weight, killing and being killed in Afghanistan in a war the rest of us don’t remember saying yes to. No longer does our Department of National Defence run wussy ‘Come see the world with the Canadian Armed Forces’ ads in Chatelaine; now it’s ‘Come and fight’. Come and fight. And our DND annual budget has almost doubled to $15.7 billion dollars – or .04% of that of our nearest neighbour. 

We’d like to think he is a mistake; we didn’t mean it; he will go away soon, we hope. He thinks US war resisters should just go home. He thinks 2050, when his kids are grandparents, is soon enough to start thinking about getting serious about climate change. He thinks Omar Khadr, a child soldier and a Canadian, who has spent six years in Gitmo, should stay there and just trust US martial law for justice.

Give him credit for one thing: he gave John McCain a pass when he came to Ottawa (uh, why?) a couple of weeks ago and went and hid in Saskatchewan where he told farmers that he would save them from those socialist marketting boards and Stéphane Dion who wants to screw everybody with his carbon tax nonsense. Really.

But perhaps what is most preoccupying is a sense of permission that issues out of Ottawa – and issues daily in headlines that make me want to weep or rage and run. And hide. 

And so I go down. Down to my garden. As soon as I begin the descent, its coolness washes over me, my heart beat slows, the ache in my shoulders and in my heart, the rage in my soul, eases. And a harvest of peace begins.

The crowd that day, on the shores of Gennesaret, was large, pressing. The day before, as the biblical account goes, Jesus had preached a sermon in Capernaum, teaching with an authority that astonished his listeners. He healed a man on the sabbath in the synagogue and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in her house. And they followed him, recognising good news, recognising an authority unlike any other, curious, wondering where it was all leading.

Jesus borrowed a boat and made it into a pulpit. Some listeners idled in the shallows, weary from the night’s trawling. Put out into the deep, he urged them. Is he talking to us?? Go down. Cast your nets in the deeps. But they had worked all night, perhaps wary of the lake’s reputation for sudden, death-dealing storms. ‘But Master,’ Peter says on behalf of his fisher friends, ‘We have toiled all night and have caught nothing!’ Go down, Jesus urges; Go deep. Risk the deeps. Cast out.

The fishers return to their boats, hauling their newly washed nets over the gunwales, pushing out further. Who is this guy? they mutter as they re-set their sails and their barge poles drop with the receding lake bottom. What’s he know? doesn’t he know we’ve been working all night? He can’t possibly know what he’s asking of us; the risks out here, down there? Does he know we can’t swim?

He is always doing this sort of thing, urging us on, outside the lines, a little further. You have heard it said, but I say unto you…! That ancient law was OK, as far as it went, but you need to go further, push out beyond the margins, out from the secure ground of shore and shale, out into the deeps. Go down. Love your neighbour, love those who love you. OK. But the call of the gospel takes you into the deeps – to: love your enemies. Have no enemies. 

This guy. 

As for me, I go down into the garden to pray; perhaps to hide, because it’s all too much: the suffering of the world, of my neighbours, my complicity; the daily political madnesses, the daily waste of human ingenuity or stupidity on the destructions of persons and peoples, habitats and homes; homelessness, theirs and mine, real and essential, my complicity.

And then I see: there is no hiding, not here, not anywhere. But here I settle into the grief, anger, sadness, loneliness, despair. Bent to the earth, the griefs, the loss, the despair, the loneliness, wash over me, hold me gently in their grip, hold me, hold me, until I can let go, its power transformed. 

God is my refuge, my wilderness place, sitting there, until the power of exile is transformed. Life is not denied here, but confronted, cared for, embraced, loved. The cosmos is here: birth, decay, death, beauty, predators and prey, breakdown and successes and failures; life in all its fullness, beauty, decay and despair – cannot be denied here.

One year for my birthday, I got the gift of two hours with an urban forester. I took him through my garden, down to the ferns and jackies, down to the spurge and ivy and solomon’s seal, down to the cornflowers, grapeless grapevines and wild gooseberries. Where did that come from? he said. Be careful of it. It’s out of its natural place and will take over. Make sure it doesn’t invade the ravine. OK.

Biggest Jackie seed-pod he’d ever seen! I had helped them a bit in their migration from the ravine beyond, where they were every year, after their brave start, overtaken, overshadowed, overwhelmed by their aggressive neighbours. Though they had been apparently with this arrangement, re-planted in a place all of their own, they tripled and quadrupled their size, producing metre-wide expanses of leaf and brilliant red fist-sized seed pods; every year, they multiplied themselves by five, until I could start introducing them into other parts of the garden – where they could spread their feminist word

What’s that? I asked. What’s eating my tickseed and sneezeweed? He parted the leaves to show me the spittle home of the spittle bug. What can I use to get rid of them? They’re eating my plants! He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a few seconds, then returned my question with another: What percentage of the leaves would you say has been eaten by the bugs? Two per cent; maybe five, perhaps ten per cent in spots? I nodded in slow agreement; I guess so. So that means 90, 95% yours left over; hey! that’s not bad, is it? Pretty good deal, I’d say! 

The raccoons have had a rolling fight through the coreopsis; not a one remains standing. Leftovers from my neighbours rubbish bin litter the maple steps. The rain that has created an unparallelled lushness of greens has also lifted all constraints on the propagation of slugs, whose food is my garden. There is no hiding, no denial of death or loss or grief. Stories of struggle, cosmic battles, birthing, pain, suffering, beauty all play out around me, silently, sometimes not so. Here is where I risk asking and answering the questions that go down deep: what is my greatest love? what does it mean to love? how am I to be in relation to the suffering of others? what are my motivations? what is my interest? what hurts? what gets in the way of that love? What needs to be let go?

Here is where I come to know myself, to sit long enough for my pain-shadows of violence, anger, loneliness and grief to emerge, to assert themselves, to play out their stories, and then, to embrace, them me, me them. Here, in the presence of living water, I can manage the journey out from the shores, dredging deep, meeting what must be met, making peace.

It was about mid-week of that week that history calls the last great offensive of the Salvadoran civil war. While I spent my nights in the relative safety of San Jacinto in the southern edges of the capital, enduring the nightly terrors of helicopter gunships, bombardment and machine gun fire – trying to sleep, trying to drown it all out with Bruce Cockburn’s If I had a rocket launcher – every day we were out and about in the city in the areas of the worst bombardment and highest death tolls, taking in supplies, sneaking people out. 

Our tortuous route through the rubble of destruction and military check-points takes us unexpectedly along the south ramparts of University City, which has been taken over by the Salvadoran army. As we career around a corner, a tank swivels its long nose in our direction. Far above on the ramparts, soldiers whistle incongruously. The pastor abruptly turns the jeep, climbing the curb, and then speeding down a street at right angles to the university. Suddenly there is the sound of gunfire, as we find ourselves in that most inconvenient of places: crossfire, the army behind us, the FMLN somewhere in front of us. Heads down, shouts the pastor, and off we dash, ducking our way through some horrifying game of London Bridge. 

Minutes later we come to a halt, the thuds and bangs outside echoing in hammering hearts as we crouch on the floorboards of the vehicle. Get the sons of bitches, I hear myself mutter in Spanish. Get them, boys. 

Later that night, I remember the moment and my words, the thoughts and the feelings that gave violent birth to them. I weep and weep, wanting to go home; looking in my mirror is more than I can bear. You fraud. Some armchair pacifist are you. Right there! only this far below the surface, your warrior lives and thrives. 

To trawl the depths of my soul; why? don’t you know I can’t swim? I have toiled all night in the busyness that pays the bills, gets me by. I run to this, I run to that. Why. 

A second role play begins. This is Ombdurman, the land of the dervishes that still swirl at sundown. This is Sudan, Rwanda-in-slow-motion. Three weeks into a month-long training in conflict transformation, the twenty Sudanese, women and men, Muslims and Christians are playing out the economic roots of violence. Lewi (labelled in English and Arabic a high-ranking officer of the Sudanese Armed Forces) is accompanying Amojad (an official of the China National Petroleum Company) on a tour of a piece of land that promises oil reserves and rich returns for both Khartoum and the CNPC. Mr SAF points to a map in his hand and then sweeps his hand, demonstrating the sweep of the land under discussion. Mr CNCP expresses concern about the people he saw on the road as they drove in; how will their presence be dealt with? Mr SAF assures him that they will prove to be no problem at all.

Off to the side, Ambrose, Joseph and Tahani are animatedly discussing the flying gossip that petroleum prospectors are in the area, accompanied, as always, by military or corporate militia. What are they going to do? They huddle to put together a plan. Soon, Ambrose walks into the ‘clearing’, approaching the two men, raising his hand in greeting – Asalaam aleikum! He shakes Mr CNCP’s hand, at which point, Mr SAF gets on his cell phone, turns away and engages in conversation about the securing the land. Only reluctantly does he turn to accept Ambrose’ extended hand. Though our translators are working hard to keep up with the exchange, I can imagine the content: Welcome to our land. May I ask what you are doing? May we help? This land is not for sale; it is commonly held by the people of the surrounding villages. 

Ambrose’ offer of conversation is rebuffed by the two men; he leaves the clearing to join the others. Shortly, the three arrive in the clearing, carrying a mattress and declaring that they are planning on setting up camp right here and they will not move. Comically, they then check their own and their companions’ clothing labels and toss overboard anything ‘made in China’. The stand-off continues with angry, impassioned debate. 

Suddenly, the businessman demands that the soldier shoot them, get rid of them! The soldier pauses; the businessman urges him to be rid of these human impediments to their plans. The soldier raises his gun; pauses again. The businessman attempts to grab the gun, but the soldier pulls it away from him and shoves him away. ‘I can’t. I can’t do it. They’re my people.’ 

The ‘curtain’ closes and discussion ensues. Many in the room have been drawn in to the drama; it all sounds so familiar. The government, the military, their militia, the foreign extractors of Sudanese resources – they’re all in a conspiracy against us, one says. We are nothing to them. Just obstacles in their path. For some, it is the oil of the south; for others, the prospect of another dam, more violence, more forced removals, more loss of land, story and antiquities; for still others, it is the scarce grasslands of the Darfurian west and north, the wadis, the seasonal waters, the sharing of which the nomads and tillers used to be able to negotiate in peace.

Others are reminded of the destruction of informal settlements that ring the capital, home for hundreds of thousands, the not-so-collateral damage of decades of war and uprooting, destruction meant to make room for the new roads, sewers, shops and infrastructure that will service the influx of Libyan, Chinese, Saudi, Malaysian and European investors.

The stories continue; the shadows lengthen in the compound. Later, as everyone packs up for the day, the four trainers, Sudanese, Swedish and Canadian, gather as usual in the relative cool of the compound shade. We begin our unpacking of the day, each one’s ‘noticings’, observations, feelings. Philip begins, followed by Martin. Ilham then suddenly interjects: ‘It doesn’t happen that way! It doesn’t end that way, she says. They shoot. Believe me! They shoot. They killed my cousins.’ She is crying; she bends her head towards her knees, the tears flowing. ‘That is not how the story ends!’

The happily-ever-after ending was more than Ilham could bear. I sit listening, conscious now of my desires for happy endings; silly, naïve foreigner. The land of Ilham’s birthplace lies beneath the waters of the Nile. The protests of her parents, their families and neighbours went unheeded, met with the out-sourced violence of corporate militia and yet another generation of Nubians were removed. 

An earlier generation was relocated to the arid land of the northeast, housed in tukuls roofed in woven asbestos; Canadian chrisotyle asbestos, it would seem. Eighty per cent of the cancer victims in Dongola and Khartoum are dying of slow, creeping mesothelioma, asbestos-induced cancer of the lungs. Two day later, Ilham’s sister-in-law will die of mesothelioma. 

In Barbara Coloroso’s most recent book, Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, she takes her well-honed analysis of schoolyard violence – the bully, the bullied and the bystander – and applies it to the genocidal violence of the Ottoman Empire (against Armenians), Nazi Germany (against Jews, Roma and Sinti) and Rwanda (against the Tutsi), casting the characters in each of these 20th century dramas. When ‘denial, apathy and impunity are applauded,’ she writes, the drama simply packs up, goes on the road to another location, with a new cast of characters who have studied the previous genocides and improved on the script.’ 

Now into the 21st century and six years since the curtain rose in Darfur, the drama here is ‘nearing its closing act’. What is at work is not only what Martin Luther King called the ‘vitriolic actions of those who are bad, but also the vitiating inaction of those who are good.’ Our humanity is marred as we look the other way, silent bystanders, complicit by our silence, severed from one another, cut off from ourselves. ‘Never again’ becomes a slogan, not a promise. Or, Coloroso writes, we step out of our roles – bully, bullied or bystander – moving out into the deeps – to become resisters, defenders and witnesses.

There’s another water-y image that comes to mind: the one about pulling bodies, dead and alive out of the river – for years, burying the dead, caring for the survivors – but refusing to ask the question, forgetting to go upriver to find out why all these bodies keep coming down the river. Vaguely discerning the threat, the risk, the villages stay put. For upriver is not just them, the easily discernible ‘bad guys’, but us. Me. Taking part in the death-dealing of earth or neighbours; complicitous, crucifiers.

With apologies to the banner-designer: I think that’s what we’d like the way that leads to peace to look like; maybe the banner-designer wanted to remind us of Easter, while the path itself is the one that leads through Good Friday and into the long silences of Holy Saturday. I don’t experience the path quite like that: it’s strewn with boulders and obstacles – at least some of them, perhaps most of them, laid by me, with my name on them; and mirrors: oh! what’s that ugly thing! why that’s you, peacemaker. Weeds and storms. Shoals and predators. 

The good news is this: we do not travel the path – whatever it looks like for you or me, alone; the One who goes before us has visited crucifixion, gone down into the deeps of Saturday and holds resurrection in his hands.

Prayer:

Quench, O God, the longings of our soul with water that satisfies. Living water, satiate our thirsts that we might walk with peace the path of peace. Oasis of our journey, bring us to the silence that you inhabit where we find all we need to risk the depths, to confront, embrace, make peace, to venture out from the shores – for a harvest awaits.

And we bless ourselves in the name of God who can do all things; of Jesus Christ, who reconciles us and makes us whole, and of the Holy Spirit, restless movement of hope among us, One God. Forever more. Amen.