Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commission has been to bridge the gulf between his own and 'white' culture, takes one into an even deeper territory of difference. For we travel into what the predominant culture would call, if being generous, the 'paranormal' and when not the merely superstitious; but, which Dan simply calls, at one point, 'Indian science'!

In the first two books, discussed here,, we follow Dan and Nerburn on two journeys. The first two are into Dan's past. The first concludes at the site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee from which Dan's parents are survivors. The second ends at the discovered grave of Dan's younger sister, Yellow Bird, whose apparent speech impediment and supernatural gift with animals had deeply unsettled her boarding school authorities (Catholic nuns). On her release from school, separated from her own family, she had acted as a house servant for a white family until her early death.

The third book, 'The Girl who sang to the Buffalo' picks up the story and travels into the future (and into an alternate view of the universe). It begins with a dream. A compulsive one that visits Nerburn on a nightly basis. Here Mary, the elderly Indian woman, that has helped him find Yellow Bird's grave, and Yellow Bird herself appear eagerly gesturing him towards a discovery. It is only after, one night, when locked in the dream once more, he is awoken by a thunderclap that no else hears that he decides to re-visit Mary. He finds that she has died (at the exact time that the thunderclap wakes Nerburn) but has left a journal with further details about Yellow Bird's life that she did not disclose (to an unknown white man) before.

Here we discover that Yellow Bird had, between school and servitude, been an inmate of the grim Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. A name that suggests that Americans genuinely have no sense of irony. After all her speech impediment made her 'retarded' and, with yet, with cognitive dissonance, her gifts with animals made her uncanny, unsettling and 'pagan'. The asylum was a place of unremitting degradation and, in its formidable structure, intimidating colonizing power.

Nerburn travels back to Dan with this new, dark picture only to discover that the world (from his perspective) was to get stranger. One of the virtues of the book is that Nerburn, as ever, whilst deeply sympathetic to Indian culture, is a balanced, and far from credulous, observer.

Dan has a granddaughter, four years of age, who in appearance, self-containment, and gift of imaginative sympathy with the world around her is strikingly similar to his, now long deceased, sister. Her withdrawn nature, lack of apparent social gifts have unsettled her parents and the white doctors they have consulted have suggested treatment. Dan is convinced that she has come bearing 'the old knowledge', the wisdom that had sustained Lakota culture for so long and which had gone into eclipse when confronted with the knowledge of the white culture and its power. How to protect his granddaughter from a similar degradation that his sister had suffered (even if one more kindly administered than the physical and emotional brutalities of the asylum)?

Mary's journal and its account of his sister's gifts is one clue as is the man that Mary's granddaughter originally sends Nerburn too: Bernais, an old Indian, fully immersed in the knowledge and tradition of his ancestors. Can this man's wisdom and practice so much deeper that Dan's own (however cogently expressed through all three books) be of help? Thus, the trilogy ends with another journey to find the old man and confirmation of Dan's granddaughter's gifts.

At it ends beautifully. Yellow Bird II is acknowledged as an 'old one' carrying knowledge by Bernais but can this wizened, strange old man be trusted? He is, to compound things, from another tribe, not traditionally friendly with the Lakota. Though Dan is an elder (and grandfather), he has a tendency to see 'sign' and 'meaning' in everything, too much perhaps. And the white doctors carry all the power of the dominant culture. But the world speaks. Yellow Bird II wanders off into the snow, searched for by her frantic parents, Nerburn, an Indian friend and a dog. She is discovered, eventually, surrounded by a transfixed group of buffalo to whom in the moonlight, she sings a haunting wordless song. They remain still, protective, sheltering her, until she ceases, returns to her family, the spell broken, and the world falls back into its 'usual' place. Nobody there is under any doubt that Yellow Bird II is special and must be brought up in the old ways. The doctors have lost their patient.

Reading it, I realized how little I identify with Nerburn. He positions himself, rightly and beautifully, as the outsider neophyte, often bewildered by events, in deeper than he can possibly know according to Grover, Dan's younger friend and fierce protector. This is not because I am 'an Indian' nor inclined to pretend to have knowledge neither structured as theirs or as deep. But because our paths walk close by - dreams can come, and have, from others, they have even predicted the future; when sufficiently attentive and sometimes when not, the world has offered a dance of synchronicity that has overwhelmed to the point of fear (in this I can identify with Nerburn); and, rarely but really, I have found myself communing with animals in a way that speaks, to use my own tradition's language, of a restoration of paradise.

In this last regard, I remember going for a walk in a wood in Southern Illinois. It was Friday 14th September 2001 and I had been watching the memorial service on television at the National Cathedral in Washington following the tragic events of 9/11. I was on my own and stepping into my path as I pondered my feelings was a deer who held me in her look. Time flowed ever more slowly. Time stopped as she regarded me with a resignation so deep that you were judged. Later it reminded me of Muir's beautiful poem of the animals on the fifth day of creation looking out with love and trepidation at ourselves the product of the sixth.

Nerburn's trilogy is a deep reminder of that indigenous wisdom that imagines the world as sign and gift and challenges us to remember what you do with a gift is to honor it and live with it kindly and to its purpose.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Quaker dwarf slams slavery

Benjamin Lay was a victim of 'history from above', airbrushed out of the history of the abolition of slavery for being not only ahead of his time but awkward, cantankerous, impolite and, importantly, an artisan and a self educated autodidact who was, quite literally, a dwarf coming in at a little over four feet high.

He was decidedly not one of the saintly persuaders of the subsequent generation - middle class, well-educated men of property and station, heirs to the burgeoning Enlightenment. But, as Marcus Rediker, eloquently argues in his, 'The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist', he led in the 1720's and 30's, through his writings, his provocative theatre of protest and his general way of life to pave the way. It was in the year of his death that the Pennsylvania Monthly Meeting, who had expelled him, agreed that the trade in slaves was incompatible with membership. The first step on a long path but which, in his own sight, allowed him to die vindicated.

Rediker shows how both the manifold aspects of his life and the traditions and reading he engaged with shaped Lay's life, thoughts and actions. He was deeply influenced by his encounter with slavery in Barbados, where he and his beloved wife, Sarah, also a Quaker and a dwarf, ran a shop. So too his life as a sailor had given him a taste for mutual aid and the practical egalitarianism of the sea. And though self-taught, he was deeply read - in the strands of radicalism associated with the English revolution including the early Quakers, in Greek philosophy and especially the witness of the Cynics to a life of simplicity, equality and truthful speech and, most critically, in the Bible and that most complex of books that of the Revelation of St John.

In this last text, Lay saw his justification for imagining that in succumbing to the ownership of slaves, Quakers had lost their mission, been literally subverted by evil and needed to be confronted with the mark of their treachery. This he did both in print but more importantly by subverting meetings for worship. Most notably he once took a Bible, a bladder of red fruit juice and stabbing the latter while brandishing the former literally branded his fellow Quakers, many of whom owned slaves, with the blood of their injustice. No wonder he kept being expelled! But he reminds us that confronting injustice, even if always non-violently, does not mean politely or without confrontation.

He, also, reminds us that struggling for justice is not, never simply, working on one issue for much is connected. Slavery was born out of a search for wealth, the system of wealth creation exploited others beyond slaves - the poor and animals were also of central concern to Lay, who became a vegetarian following the logic of his own argument. Wealth created inequality and pride that corrupted life; thus, Lay ended his own life living in an altered cave and off the produce of his own labour (including weaving his own linen clothes - refusing wool and leather). His was a radicalism all of a piece.

It is a fascinating book, beautifully written, that restores Lay to his place of importance in history but also invites reflection on our present. What does it require of us to positively protest lives of change? It hardly suggests that signing an online petition or donating a fraction of our income is enough. Nor does it suggest that seeking justice now is simply a question of technocratic fixing at the end of history. Our 'ideologies' matter and they should matter across and through the whole texture of our lives. We may not be as radical as Lay but Lay's life is there to ask us: why not?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Journeying with an Indian elder

A phone call from an unknown Native American woman precipitated the author (and sculptor), Kent Nerburn into a compelling unexpected journey. The woman's grandfather, Dan, had seen a book Nerburn had helped compile where young Native Americans had helped tell the oral histories and stories of their elders. "Would Nerburn," Dan enquired, "help tell his story"?

The answer was yes and in two books - "Neither Wolf nor Dog" and "The Wolf at Twilight" - Nerburn helps illuminate the life of an Indian elder. In doing so, he honours Dan's request neither to paint the portrait of an elder as insuperably wise, given to eloquent speechifying (though he can be) nor the shadow side of contemporary Indian life that of a drunk wastrel living at (and off) the edges of 'civilisation'. Indeed Dan suggests better to be seen as the latter than the former - better to be despised than complacently lauded.  Dan wants to be seen (and heard) whole.

As a child, he had been told that he had been given a complex and difficult gift - to see with two eyes - one the way of an Indian, the other the way of the white man. Through the books, you come to realise just how difficult that is as a gift to bear.

At the heart of each of the two books is a journey. The first ends at Wounded Knee, site of a massacre of Native Americans in 1890, where a flawed attempt to disarm a group of Lakota Sioux spiralled into indiscriminate murder. It was the place from which Dan's parents had narrowly escaped as children and from which other ancestors had not. The second ends with the discovery of the presumed grave of Dan's sister - disabled she had been absorbed into the brutal school system that had sought to eradicate 'being an Indian' and replace it with a 'new person' able to find their appropriate place in the dominant, white society. This particular school, to which Dan also went, was run by Catholics - priests and nuns - of unremitting cruelty.

Both destinations would imply texts of sustained darkness but, in truth, they are, if not hopeful, full of the prospect of hope because through them, the reader gains a deeper understanding of both the gulf that separates Native American and white society and by doing so can, at the very least, begin to see where you might build bridges. Nerburn is scrupulously open about his own failings as an interpreter and in this gives a deepened sense of the authenticity of Dan's seeking to communicate.

The contrasts are stark - from the very different notion of what it means to belong to a place - to be gifted by a created order or to own a portion of property right through to the way you shake hands. An Indian's greeting is soft, responsive to the touch of the other, the white man's is hard to show (or project) their own standing.

What I found most deeply interesting was Dan's discussion of story and truth. For a Native American, it rests in a communally shared myth that has, at its heart, what it means for the heart and the behaviour of the listener. For the white person, there is the tendency to prioritise what 'actually happened'. Thus, as he says, it is more important to know that Lincoln freed the slaves on such and such a date than to live out the moral witness of that emancipation in your daily life. Dan finds this attachment to what actually happened puzzling for in the central story that white society wanted the Indian to adopt - the life of Jesus - what actually happened is conspicuously relegated, overshadowed by what is the meaning of what happened and its exemplary status. Not for the first time, white society is playing by standards, paradoxical at best, duplicitous at worse.

Throughout the book is saturated with a sense that Dan lives in a world where everything as gift has significance and that living a life in response is a sensitive attention to that which is given. There is the right time for everything and it will unfold in its own time - we are in kairos - sacred time - and the tragedy for us, disorientated Indian and white person alike is that we think the world and its time is ours; and, we must anxiously arrange it to our purpose.

The two books unfold beautifully - with their high points and low, their anxieties and humour, their wisdom and tragedy. I cannot think of anything I have read that shows forth the difference in two cultures so compellingly, that lays a tragic history bear, and doing so invites you to contemplate, in whatever small measure, to change your perspective - on the indigenous other, on your own way of life in relation to, and critiqued by, that other and in your own life generally.

Last week I was in Guatemala and, as before, I noticed that, especially the indigenous people, I shook hands with did so gently, with a softness of touch rather than grip and rather than wonder why that were so, responded in kind and was rewarded, more than once, by quite a different knowing look. That we learn slowly is a truism, that we learn, we can hope.

P.S. Interestingly Nerburn, following Dan, refers to Indian(s) not Native Americans. As Dan causticly notes both appellations are false - one a Columbian geographical mistake and the other an Italian name's imposture on a whole continent!

P.P.S. That the repression continues is a stark injustice that judges us all and one not confined to North America sadly.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Fake news is always with us

If you imagined that 'false news' was a contemporary phenomena, think again! It is a recurrent theme. Wherever competing interests exist to be communicated, there it will be. This was brought home to me whilst reading Kent Nerburn's excellent, "Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce".

The Nez Perce first encounter with the white man was peaceable (and ennobling). It was with the expedition of Lewis and Clark as they made their way to and from the Pacific. The Nez Perce lived as independently minded groups in what is now Idaho, Montana and Washington. Intermingling with other tribes, through trade and marriage, differentiated from others by enmity.

As the pressures of white settlement mounted, much nobility evaporated and under increasing pressure, some chose the way of agriculture and Christianity, others, however, found themselves on an epic journey of months as they fled the pursuing US Army (and assorted vigilantes including other indigenous tribes, often lured by the Nez Perce's wealth especially their exceptionally well-bred horses). This flight was necessitated by an atypical act of violence against white settlers when the Nez Perce's patience at white depredation finally snapped.

The journey ended (after successful flight and fights) near the Canadian border. The Nez Perce were encircled, too exhausted to fight their way out, and reduced to a bare rump. They were shipped to Kansas and a reservation where they suffered further indignities (including at the hands of a Quaker Indian agent) until they finally find themselves either back with their settled Christian kin or in another tawdry reservation in Washington, trying to follow the old ways, ruptured by defeat and displacement.

One of the ironies Nerburn explores is that Chief Joseph though singled out by the press (and subsequent mythologizing) as the leader of the Nez Perce (and brilliant military leader), in fact, was only one amongst a number of chiefs, by no means, until the very end, the most important and spent most of his time on the flight looking after the needs of the elderly, the women and children; and, rarely having the opportunity to fight himself! You see compellingly (and dispiritingly) how the news about this unfolding event was simply and radically distorted by its reporting - savage Indians on the rampage or noble victims of bungling US government policy - with very little attempt (on any side) to arrive at balance or rounded judgement. A balance of which Nerburn's book is a beautifully written example.

Sadly, not only 'false news' is an ongoing reality so is the plight of indigenous people - as I write they are being widely either deprived or patronised. Their land stolen for resource extraction, their way of life condemned as primitive. In both cases standing in the way of 'civilisation' - for Joseph this was agriculture and Christianity - now, no doubt, it is wage labour and atomisation compensated for by the prospect of shopping!

If we do make progress, it is slow. Towards the end of his life, we find Joseph discovering the power of the media, and the image, for himself; and, interestingly the employment of the law to file for 'land rights' for a community rather than for individual property rights. Both of which have been, and continue to be deployed, to argue for indigenous rights, with some, if too little and fragile success.

It is a sad, instructive book - of the resilience and fragility of culture, of the realities of discrimination and power, and of a noble soul who endured it all and died defeated 'of a broken heart' and yet had never, in that same heart, surrendered.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

When the English Fall

A solar storm has knocked out much of the world's electronic/electrical systems only fragments of that world, so unthinkingly familiar, survives. Mobile phones fall silent, your credit card is useless and indeed redundant as your bank account, nesting in the 'Cloud', has disappeared! Just in time delivery means that nothing is stocked where it is needed, the cities and their citizens, go hungry and slowly, steadily citizenship, itself, crumbles.

Meanwhile, though not wholly unaffected, even they have made compromises with modernity, the Amish and their life continues to unfold. It is late summer, moving into autumn, there is harvesting to be done and the subsequent milling, canning, preserving. All of this shot through with scenes of community help, community gossip and, most importantly, for this ancient Anabaptist group, worship and prayer.

But even though they have 'separated' themselves, no one in the world is truly separate and the world's chaos closes in; and, the community must find ways to respond, to suffer and to survive.

David Williams' "When the English fall" is a post-apocalyptic novel woven around this scenario. It takes the form of a journal, kept by Jacob, an Amish farmer, who lives with his wife and two children, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, heart of the original Amish settlement in the U.S..

In his simple, reflective, measured prose the events slowly unfold until most of the community decide that to survive, without sheltering under their neighbours' defensive violence, they must go west to their newer fellow communities, where land is more plentiful and cities, with their emptying, threatening, desperate outflows of people, less numerous.

It beautifully captures the dilemmas of a community, wedded to non-violence, in a darkening age and, of course, uses the scenario to quietly question our growing 'connectivity' and whether it genuinely builds the resilience of community that we need.

It, also, interestingly weaves into the narrative hints of a gathering challenge, not as immediately catastrophic as a solar storm, but nevertheless already profoundly dislocating, namely climate change. It is cunning of the author to unobtrusively slip it into a farmer's journal recognising that it simply now, sadly, belongs there. Mr Trump in his golden tower might not believe in it but it is, as study after study shows, what every farmer now knows.

All of this is rooted in a narrative saturated with the community's Christian faith, a faith that, in the past, and now again, was and is much tested. A faith that indicates that though the world is a divine gift, our collective and individual handling of that gift leaves much to be desired. A handling that requires more reverence and humility than we have afforded it.

This mystery at the heart of things is most readily shown through Sadi, Jacob's daughter. She is 'fey'. She foresees. Growing up this is seeing simple things such as a forthcoming accident to a friend but as the storm approaches, she foresees the oncoming crisis, interpreted through her lights. Her promptings, when acknowledged, help the community take its next step but, equally, on their own can only ever be one among many sources of guidance. Even the 'magical' must take its place amongst an ordering of the world that is meant to serve the witness of community to its life and faith.

Along the way, you gain vivid insight into the ways of a living community and some sharp, if compassionate, asides on some of our current cultural predicaments; not least, the strange disconnecting angriness one finds on social media.

It is a dark novel - but with significant indicators to where light might lie: in faith, in resilience, in reconnecting with a gifted natural world, in scrutinising our default to violence; and, most simply, in preparation, nothing is as complacent as complacency!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The naturally holy

I remember when Rowan Williams was made Archbishop of Canterbury his staff had to persuade him to cease his previous practice of opening his own mail not only because of its increase in volume but also because often nestling within was the vituperative poison of the disgruntled and disaffected!

Avril Pyman in her accomplished biography of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh gives her own examples of this surprisingly common 'Christian' art form that this particular saintly bishop accrued to himself through his own management of the Russian Patriarchal Church in Western Europe that was his responsibility over many years. The disappointments of Judas, sadly, are always with us.

Since the organisational life of the Church absorbed so much of Anthony's attention and energy, likewise it must occupy his biographer but I confess it is, for me, the least interesting part of the book. The parsing of denominational difference especially when it is within Orthodoxy (rather than betwixt Orthodoxy and other dimensions of Christianity even) can only truly interest the specialist!

But the book comes truly alive when it continually steps back into the reality of the man.

I remember the first time I saw him. It was at a University London mission - the first night had been Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the second night was the Liverpool duo, David Shepherd and Derek Warlock, Anglian and Roman Catholic Bishops of Liverpool respectively; and, the third and last night was Metropolitan Anthony. Whilst the previous speakers had sought to explain to you why you might be a Christian in undoubtedly lively ways, Anthony simply was it. This is how the world is - God's gift - and you lived into that gift by following Christ and to follow you prayed. I had never met anyone, to that time, who radiated such holiness and did so with such charm, serenity and wit.

Afterwards I read his books - all of which carry the same straightforwardness of an experienced conviction that never talk at the reader, simply invite them in (rather akin to the photograph above). They, also, as the philosopher, Jacob Needleman noticed (in his book, 'Lost Christianity') have a strikingly 'objective' feel -unsentimental, direct, alive - as if sharing a discovery that anyone can discover if they place their attention and will in the right direction. Grace is ever present waiting to respond. Faith is a matter of observation and experience, not of belief.

This too was my experience of the man when we subsequently met (and I discovered through the book that by this stage - bearing on his age and health - this was a privilege). There were not many meetings but he taught me prayer (which is after all rather like saying he taught me the one thing necessary)! I remember each time we met (and the last time was in the more public forum of a Diocesan conference), I always found myself oscillating between embracing him and running away because he had a way of looking at you that saw through you. There was I felt to be no hiding place - especially not from my own conscience!  I also had that sense that though I stored up questions to ask, actually what mattered was not the 'answer' as such but a presence that let the reality he witnessed to unfold, dissolve the question.

It was a similar sense I had with the only other person I have met (as yet) who carried quite the same embodied, objective holiness: Dom Bede Griffiths. When we met for the first time, after a prolonged correspondence, likewise I had saved up all manner of question, all of which seemed to evaporate as we simply enjoyed lunch together, bathed in his kindliness!

Perhaps it is a mark of sainthood - that you step with them, however, momentarily into the world seen aright, made its true self again, all cleansed and transfigured; and, there is nothing striking about this except its naturalness from which usually we stand estranged in our myriad complications. We see the difference that makes the difference and, hopefully, re-gird our loins to dispose ourselves to the closure of that gap.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The world turned inside out

When I first came to live in Switzerland as a present to myself (for landing in 'tax efficient' Zug), I bought the two volumes of Kathleen Raine's 'Blake and Tradition'. Beautiful volumes now sadly out of print unlike 'Blake and Antiquity' the foreshortened version of these her Paul Mellon lectures. Last night, after a three year pause, I managed to finish the second volume.

They are masterly and beautifully illustrated.

Under her PhD supervisor at Cambridge, none other than C.S. Lewis, she set out to read everything that Blake was known to have read or reasonably supposed, from textual evidence, might have read; and, against this back drop, read the poems and the paintings. Her argument is, simply put, that Blake was the conscious inheritor of a tradition, a Christian esotericism, woven of elements from the Bible, Neo-Platonism, Christian Cabala, Boehme; and, more closely to hand Bishop Berkeley and Emmanuel Swedenborg and was writing in opposition to the new materialism of Locke and Newton.

Blake is a visionary poet and painter but he never stops at his art for the art has a sacred function that is nothing more nor less than redemptive. Just as he argues one sees through the eye, not with it, for the world is the body of imaginative perception, so too do you see through art to the nature of the real (and the manner by which the real is obscured from sight).

And Blake is a thinker - even when his mythology is being obscure, when reference builds upon reference, when untangled you recognize his precision. Nor is he a passive inheritor, he is as likely to correct Swedenborg, in many ways his inspiring master, as he is to criticize Newton or Locke! Though at times irascible, he is also generous, even Newton squeaks into the restored kingdom at the end. For the 'hells' we may find ourselves in are 'states' we pass through not places of permanent entrapment.

At Blake's heart, Raine effectively shows, is a sophisticated 'idealism' (as it would come to be known). The world is because it is perceived, nothing exists that is not perceived. The world is a creation of mind and that mind, ultimately, as Berkeley argued, is the 'mind of God'. Nothing does, or indeed can, exist outside this but what is critical is how one perceives.

Is your viewing open to, and aligned with, the divine in which case everything is seen as holy, and whole, within a unifying imagination? Or is it bounded by self-interest that sees one self as separate, over against the world, a world that itself is seen composed of separate things bumping up against each other in space? The choice is yours, rinse your seeing clean and see whole or limp through life seeing separation.

Every sinew of Blake's mythology, argument, image and song is bent towards the ability of the former. Read aright he literally turns your world around. The inner no longer dwells as a by product of the outer but the world is seen from the inside out - an imaginative reality rather than a 'real thing'.

This is, of course, a way of seeing the world that is deeply implicated with both Buddhism and Hinduism but if one were to imagine that this was simply the preserve of the 'religious' (however apparently unconventional as Blake's was), you would be heartily wrong. Idealism as a philosophical position is happily making a comeback, robustly and lustily helped upon its way by the strange worlds revealed by quantum mechanics and neuro-physiology.

Czeslaw Milosz reports that at an unnamed American university last century, the physics faculty opposed the appointment of a Blake scholar in the English department (!) because of Blake's criticism of Newton! It may well turn out that Blake will have the last laugh. (My favorite current defender of this position can be found here:

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...