In Canada and the United States, April is National Poetry month. At first glance, poetry and advocacy seem to have little to do with each other, yet poetry isn’t something separate from the work of the Ottawa Office. Rather, poetry can expand our ways of thinking about our work. By focusing on other ways of seeing, through art, music, written reflections, and yes, poetry, we are able to bring new insights into the work of advocacy. We are reminded that our work is one part of the daily art of living, and that to advocate also requires imagination, creativity, storytelling, and spaces for renewal.
In the spirit of National Poetry month, members of the Ottawa Office are sharing some of our favourite poems, songs, and reflections.
I came across the poem “Election Year” by Richard Blanco recently when I was looking for poems of spring flowers and gardens to get me through what seemed a longer than usual winter. It was written in November 2016 in response to the US election. The poet describes gardening in the spring when things are starting to bloom but then “overnight, a vine you’ve never battled creeps out of the dark furrows” and starts choking everything you’ve planted. It resonated with me because I often think of advocacy as a form of gardening. We plant our seeds and hope for growth knowing the conditions may not be in our favour. Sometimes the seeds don’t germinate and other times they just begin to grow when an election is called, and the conditions change. The changes can be helpful and provide nourishment for the seeds, but sometimes the changes lead to stunted growth or a weedy mess. Nevertheless, we do keep donning “jeans dyed black by years of dirt” and “worn gloves molded by the toll of .. toil” to “clear dead spoils” and “trowel the soil for new life.” We keep working in the garden of advocacy using our words and actions to nurture a better world represented by “garden flowers [that] thrive in shared soil, drink from the same rainfall, governed by one sun, yet grow divided in their beds where they’ve laid for years.” The poem ends with a reference to hope which is essential for the long hard work of both advocacy and gardening. “Maybe it’s not just the garden you worry about, but something we call hope pitted against despair, something we can only speak of by speaking to ourselves about flowers, weeds, and hummingbirds; spiders, vines, and a garden tended under a constitution of stars we must believe in, splayed across our sky.”
With God on Our Side – Bob Dylan and Joan Baez
This song was beautifully written by Bob Dylan but perfected by the voice of Joan Baez. It reminds me to not make assumptions about the work I am doing. There are many events, movements, and causes in the world that believe they have a higher power on ‘their side’ or a righteous calling. This belief has lead to countless atrocities but also countless triumphs for humanity. To be honest this song has greatly challenged me to reflect on Christianity’s role in the world or within my own life. This poem speaks to the mingling of power, wealth, and religion, and how blurred the lines can get. It is also a song of liberation. God is bigger than sides or these events that some people deem were God ordained. Justice, peace, and human dignity does not belong to a select few that are on ‘God’s side.’ They are for everyone – even the perpetrators – because there is no dignity in violence for either side. Lastly, this song calls on me to not view others as inferior because of their religion, where they are from, or who they are. Bob Dylan uses irony to show us our own hypocrisy and shame. Those in power do not necessarily have God on their side – they are human, and to me that is deeply reassuring.
Bread baking is an art. It is also a reminder that so much about what it means to live life with dignity involves access to life essentials, such as daily bread. In “Ode to Bread” Chilean poet Pablo Neruda writes not only about bread itself, but also about the struggle of people to gain access to bread. After reading this poem, I can no longer look at my morning toast in the same way. Instead, I am encouraged to reflect about how sharing and eating food can cause us to think anew about justice.
I love the way Neruda moves from the simple:
Dense or light,
flattened or round,
you are, bread,
and how profound!
To the complex:
Because we plant its seed
and grow it
not for one man
but for all,
there will be enough:
there will be bread
for all the peoples of the earth.
And we will also share with one another
the shape and the flavor of bread:
the earth itself,
taste like bread
and have its shape,
the germination of wheat.
exists to be shared,
to be freely given,
“To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”
― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, xvi.
This quote reminds me of how love, belonging, hope, and faith often stand out to me most when someone does something or something happens that in their essence are very simple. A smile, a good conversation, fresh baked bread, or a bird sitting down near me. That is when I experience the divine.
I have yet to find a writer that captures the calling for peace and justice I feel deep in my heart more than Henri Nouwen. He feels deeply and personally the sufferings of those who experience violence and injustice. For Nouwen, being present, standing with the suffering is an essential part of the path to enduring change, as he sees in the example of Jesus. But he does not stay in this despair. He uses lament as a foothold to cry out to God for justice to be restored, his hope for peace embodied in simple acts of compassion as much as it is within grand movements for change.
The following is a portion (edited for length and clarity) of a 1972 reflection Nouwen offered at a memorial service for victims of U.S. bombing campaigns in Southeast Asia, published in The Road to Peace: Writings on Peace and Justice.
“…Out of the depths of our being, we cry to God for peace…Out of the empty spot of silence where we feel helpless, embarrassed, and powerless, where we suffer from our own impotence to stop the reign of death in our world.”
“…If we do not enter into those depths, we can only be cynical, skeptical, and sarcastic…If we do not enter into those depths we will never be able to fashion a contrite heart and confess that we are not standing over against the evil but are co-conspirators and participants in [its work]…
“Our hearts are broken, our minds confused, our souls tired…with a deep sense of futility and inability to carry through our good intentions and live up to our commitment to joy, peace and justice.
“But… maybe our helplessness will bring us to a deep sense of solidarity and our contrite hearts will make us slowly die to the illusions of righteousness and generosity, and the pretension of being saviours… to a real confession of our brokenness… as a community, a city, a nation… Maybe we will finally reach the depths out of which we can cry to the Lord, “Lord have mercy.”