Archive for August, 2011

The mysterious mirror of disability

If you were to build a perfect society, how would you build it? What you would include in it would be telling. But perhaps more revealing would be what you might exclude from your perfect world.

McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville wrote this week in a Globe and Mail column about a move in Denmark to make the nation a “Down syndrome-free perfect society” (actually a headline from a Danish newspaper). Apparently the Danes want to encourage the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome so their society would be free of anyone with Down syndrome by 2030. This is the vision of a good society, the absence of apparent blemish and defect.

But I can’t help wonder how defective this concept of perfection is. Tonight I enjoyed dinner with a group a people and one of them was a quiet, beautiful boy with Down syndrome. His loving cuddles with his dad and quiet cleaning up after dinner were a sweet part of the evening. I cannot understand the mind that would name his absence as a more perfect world.

Journalist Ian Brown wrote a searingly beautiful book, The Boy In the Moon, about his son Walker who suffers from a rare and severe disability (CFC). It’s an unflinching introduction into the pain of Walker’s disability and yet Brown wonders about the mystery of his son’s disability, what it teaches the rest of us, how people like Walker might make the rest of us better (for example, growing our sense of compassion and sympathy).

Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, author and professor at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale and author, gave up his acadamic career to work at L’Arche and serve a severely disabled man named Adam. When someone suggested that Nouwen should delegate these menial responsibilities and focus on writing or speaking, Nouwen quickly responded, “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Nouwen shows us how God reveals himself through the reality of disability. Without trying to romanticize the complexity and hardship of any disability, he writes that Adam taught him

a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way. First of all, he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with God and not to do all sorts of things to prove that I’m valuable … then he taught me something else. He taught me that the heart is more important than the mind … Adam didn’t think. Adam had a heart, a real human heart. I suddenly realized that what makes a human being human is the heart with which he can give and receive love … I suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that God even chose him to become the instrument of His love. He was so vulnerable, so weak, so empty, that he became just heart, the heart where God wanted to dwell, where He wanted to stay and where He wanted to speak to those who came close to His vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human … He wanted to dwell in his broken person so that He could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength, and call people to become vulnerable.”

What if our quest for “perfection” is, in reality, deeply defective, our drivenness to achieve a disability? What if God is showing us his heart, his vulnerable love through the life of a disabled person? What if we need the artless grace and love of a person with Down syndrome more than they need our care-giving attention?

I can’t help but think that the Danes are avoiding a mirror that people with disability gift the rest of society – namely, that all of us are disabled. Some in visible, diagnosable ways but for others our disability is easily masked, socially accepted and undiagnosed. Denmark, and any society, will be severely impoverished and vastly less than perfect without the presence and blessing of people with disability among them.

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Friday photos

A few fun photos of things that caught my eye during a recent trip to Seattle (and oddly emblematic of my life).

I loved this breathspray I spotted at Pike Place Market – and the best is the line “Succumb to the fantasy!”  For anyone who is not Canadian, now you can give yourself over to that secret fantasy you’ve always been harboring about being a Canuck.

And then this great beer, “the holy trinity of ales.”  I enjoy Belgian beers and when I saw “The Reverend,” well there was nothing stopping me from enjoying this local microbrew.

And finally, when ultimate faith commitments get reduced to bumpers stickers, then the making fun of said slogans should be generally expected – and this one in fine taste too.

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Don’t forget to remember

Ever since I briefly lost my memory during a late-night hockey game with friends in my high school years, I’ve been fascinated with the role and function of memory.  In the high school hockey incident, my helmet-less head hit the ice, the lights went out for a minute but my memory was on hiatus for the next 18 hours.  It was like some delete button had been hit – I didn’t know who I was, couldn’t recall basic personal information and my only memory of those 18 hours is reconstructed from what others have told me.

Of course, the most important memory question is “why can I never remember where I put the car keys?” but  others quickly follow: What is the biology of a memory?  Why do some have far keener memories than others?  Why do we forget?  Does memory change over time, becoming edited along the way (read The Invisible Gorilla for an interesting take on how revisionist our memories might actually be)?  What is it like to live without a memory (Read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat for a deeply human and sympathetic look by a doctor at patients with various neurological disorder, but regarding memory especially see “The Lost Mariner”)?  Who are we without a memory (try to imagine who you are without the accumulated past of what has happened to you)?  What is the power of remembering to forge our identity (are we our history)?

Earlier this summer I read a fun and fascinating book by Josh Foer called Moonwalking with Einstein.  It’s about the stunning capacity of the human memory and begins with Foer covering the World Memory Championships (yes there is such a thing) for a magazine article.  He’s watching mentalists perform unfathomable feats of memory (last year’s memory champion memorized pi to 50,000 decimal places; other contestants memorize multiple decks of playing cards in minutes).  He’s astounded at these feats of remembering and yet is told again and again, “It’s all technique, anyone can do this.”  And so he asks one contestant, if anyone can do this, teach me.  And the rest of the book is the story of how Josh returns the following year to participate in the American Memory Championships.

The book explores the old practice of memorization using what’s called the memory palace.  It’s remarkable how our memories are spatially constructed, as if memory needs a map to structure and retrieve the data we store in this.  Foer leads you through the process of using the memory palace and it’s uncanny how it works – in about 30 minutes on plane trip out East I memorized, and can still easily today recall, a bizarre and random list on p. 92-93.  Overall, its an interesting read with some good reflections on memory, on a lost skill and what it may cost us in a world of external memories.

Have you ever taken stock of all the biblical injunctions to remember, the premium God places on a healthy memory?  Remembering seems to be one of faith’s top survival skills.  Because we are created in the flow of time, because God submits himself to this created reality and acts within history, faith rests on memory to continually nourish it.  There’s a tendency to become spiritual chronological snobs, insisting on immediate experiences to feed faith when scripture, again and again, calls us to remember, to recognize that we’re part of a story long underway and the only way any of us will understand the story and our place in it, the only way you’ll make sense of today and tomorrow, is by remembering.

Frederick Buechner, a wonderful writer and thoughtful minister, writes about our our experience of God’s saving work in scripture, in the world, in our own lives.  He notes:

To remember the past is to see that we are here by grace, that we have survived as a gift …  and because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done he will continue to do, what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition. ”  (A Room Called Remember).

So don’t forget to remember.

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Friday photos

Spent time last week camping in the mountains with a group of friends.  Spectacular time, fine community, gorgeous scenery, and unbelievable bear activity (we basically made our home with 6 Grizzlies.  One of our friends saw one of the bears tear through the bushes near the kids play area at the campground, followed by conservation officers with guns raised – and we still let our kids play and ride their bikes.  This is Alberta after all).

I found myself enjoying water’s capacity to distort, ripple and enhance my vision.

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Music for the head and the heart

Betty and I recently attended what may turn out to be our last Calgary Folk Music Festival (cue the tears – we are going to miss this fabulous festival).  We’ve been coming for the past thirteen years and leave Prince’s Island Park every year with a few magical performances in our heart and a handful of new artists to enjoy.

This year was no different, with the highlight for Betty and me being the Seattle indie band The Head and the Heart.  First off, great name!  Who doesn’t want to live the full human experience of emotion and intellect, engaging fully both the head and the heart?  And then their music is plain lovely.  Their concert at the Calgary Folk Music Festival was emblematic of what we love about the whole festival – sun dappled lawn, summer heat, and a memorable performance.  The band was genuinely humble and so appreciative of the audience loving them and their music.

Check them out and give these two videos a look: Lost in my mind and Rivers and Roads (I guarantee that sometime later today you’ll find yourself singing the stick-in-your-head hook/chorus “rivers and roads”).

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Friday photos

Raspberries, those tart and tender thimbles, are the perfect finger food.  God’s good guidance in them is child-like simple: sometimes you should play with your food.

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Friday photos

One afternoon last week a stunningly gorgeous cumulonimbus cloud was building over Calgary, towering over the downtown towers.

The thing was alive – if you stopped long enough to watch it, you could see the cloud tufts grow and move like an organism, or like a floating cauliflower on steroids.  It had an eerily nuclear appearance to it.

As soon as we got home I dashed out on my bike to find a good place to catch a few shots of it dwarfing the downtown core.

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Uncle Andrew and me

Bedtime reading with our kids is one of my favourite things to do.  I love the quiet bodies and whisper breathing of our children as they listen, but also I love getting to read great books (like the great labour relations drama of Click, clack, moo, the wonderfully egalitarian Everyone poops, or anything from the brilliant Kate DiCamillo).  The other night Owen and I were finishing up C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew and we came across a passage that rung so true, it felt like a shot to my own heart.

In the story, you’ll remember, Digory and his Uncle Andrew stumble into Narnia where they witness its first days, watching Narnia’s creation as the lion, Aslan, sings it into being.  Lewis is quite amazing here as he describes the glory of this act of creation but for Uncle Andrew it’s all quite a dreadful experience.  Later in the book, Aslan has this to say about Uncle Andrew:

“This world is bursting with life for these few days because the song with which I called it into life still hangs in the air and rumbles in the ground.  It will not be so for long.  But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice.  If I spoke to him, he would only hear only growlings and roarings.  Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!”

It reminded me of this crazy passage in the gospel of John that Lewis echoes.  In John 12,  a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus and says: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  But those around Jesus didn’t hear a voice.  The text says “the crowd that was there and heard it said it thundered …”

What if all our defenses are so dismayingly clever that we, more often than not, miss God’s address to us?  What if God is indeed calling out, speaking – all around and all the time – but our well-fortified defenses interpret it as thunder or some other natural phenomenon, explaining those whispers from beyond time as indigestion?  What if this world is filled with the voice of God but our we have neither the sense or the smarts or the courage to hear it?  What if, in this very moment, the Creator God is addressing you in innumerable ways, wishing more than anything that you would not avert your ears one more time but be still, be present and listen?

In her brilliant Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (I can’t wait to read, or at least discuss, this with my kids one day), author Annie Dillard is on a hunt to remain awake to a world “bursting with life,” to the lingering song of the Creator.  She writes:

“We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, violence, beauty … beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

As one so intricately webbed into the shared life of creation, it seems a high crime to neglect the minimum standard of living, the practice of doing the least – simply being there, a witness to the song of God in creation.

Oh, for ears dug open and eyes unscaled for this old sinner.

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