Avatar, Parsnips and Aboriginal Agony

Avatar movie image (3)I have to admit that I loved Avatar – the movie. I know the writing is a bit lame and there are all kinds of concerns about the message it sends (see thoughtful critique by NY Times op-ed columnist David Brooks). But visually, it is wildly entertaining and at times, movingly beautiful.

0810p24-parsnips-mHaving said that – this morning I was peeling parsnips for tonight’s stew and it occurred to me that as stunning an achievement Avatar is, it is still no match for the wondrous smell of fresh-cut parsnips. And I’m not kidding.  And that, I think, is one of the good messages of Avatar: that if one attends patiently and reverently to things, the wonderousness of their nature shows itself; it shyly peeks around the corner and rewards those who have learned to revere and attend.

For some reason this morning, I was in a rare space to notice and delight in a parsnip. It was truly wonderful.

Simone Weil talks about this in her  book Waiting For God. She instructs that Truth is indeed shy and remains obscured until it is teased out by the ones who really want to see; who patiently attend and show they will honour and cherish disclosure.

Maybe that’s why truth is not easily found. We tend to lay claim on, commodify and then consume.  No wonder we’re alienated from creation, from others, from ourselves. We’ve bought into the great western experiment based on the assumption that human nature is autonomous and self interested. Our politics, economics and infrastructures are based on this assumption.

But what if it’s not true?  This morning I saw an interview with Jeremy Rifkin who has just written a book called The Empathic Civilization.  He claims that biology is discovering that humans are “hard-wired for empathy” and therefore, civilizations structured around the assumption of the autonomous self are only bound to generate havoc and pain. Hmmm…

A moment in Avatar that struck me was after the obligatory love-interest couple overcame a conflict that threatened to sever their covenant. Once reconciled, the words they speak to each other are, “I see you.”  And it is understood that both seeing and disclosure are sacred gifts.  I have a lovely memory that was triggered by this line, I see you.

Jean Vanier

I was around 12 years old when Jean Vanier (founder of L’Arch Communities) came to our home. He was in the middle of a cross-Canada speaking tour to inmates in  federal Prisons.  (For those of you who don’t know him, think  Mother Teresa as a tall lanky male with the gentleness of a fawn, the patient wisdom of an ancient olive tree, and the love of a grandmother, and you have Jean Vanier.) He spoke at Stony Mountain Penitentiary while my father was the chaplain there, and so he slept in our home, and ate at our table.

It was the strangest meal. We were generally quite a talky family, but in the presence of this settled saint, there was  little conversation. It was a bit awkward at first but as the meal went on, the silences, punctuated by warm smiles and short casual comments, began to feel lovely, restful.

Afterward my sisters and I went out to the backyard to play and left the adults to their adultness.  I was tossing a ball about when suddenly the hair went up on the back of my neck.There was a palpable shift in the atmosphere and ambiance of the early evening bathed, as it was, in a setting sun. I spun around to see Jean Vanier on the back porch looking my way, enraptured by something wonderful. Instinctively I looked over my shoulder to see what it was he found to be so delightful – but there was nothing there. Then, it occurred to me that it was me he was looking at.  I turned my head back to meet his warm gaze and we remained motionless for what seemed like a long time.   And in those few seconds… I was born… I don’t know how else to describe it. Somehow, his penetrating gaze flourished me in a way that I can remember today as if it just happened. We never spoke, and something eventually distracted me and I went back to my play, but I’ve never been able to consider even the possibility of worthlessness since that time- because I’ve been seen.


Here’s another story. A sad one.  Years later I was sitting on the couch with my 8 year old foster daughter Kenny. She was snuggled up under my arm as we were watching  after-school cartoons, waiting to be called for supper.

Kenny is Oji-Cree and came to us at age 6. Nanci and I were the latest in a long and dreary line of foster parents, too numerous for her to remember. Kenny’s mother was still part of her life, but was then too wounded to take care of her daughter.  We loved Kenny. We loved her mom.  It was a very sad situation.

At one point, just after a string of commercials, Kenny looked up at me and said, “How come there are never any Indians on TV?”

I quickly reassured her that there were, and listed a few notables that I could rattle off the top of my head: Tom Jackson, Tina Keeper, Graham Greene, Buffy St. Marie ….

“No,” she said,” I don’t mean that… I mean in commercials. There are never any Indians in commercials selling soap or cars or anything like that.”

I was silent for a minute as I was trying to anticipate where she was going with this.

“Nobody wants to see us do they?” she said sadly.

I didn’t see that one coming. And I had no answer.  We just sat in lonely silence until supper.

I will never know that pain. I’ve been seen.

What does it take for me to become a see-er? A few weeks after Jean Vanier visited our home, I asked my dad how one decides what to do when they grow up.  Dad counseled that the better question, rather than what, was whoWho do you want to be?

“Pick someone you respect for characteristics that you deeply admire, find out what they did, and do that.”

“What if he’s a Catholic?” I asked my protestant father.  Immediately, my dad realized I had been affected by Jean Vanier and broke into a smile:

“So be it.”

Forty-ish years later, I haven’t become a Catholic, but still hope that a life lived in adoration of Christ, with a slowly increasing capacity for quiet attention, reflection and prayer, will eventually produce a see-er,  a flourisher of others.  I’m not there yet – but one can dream.

Red Brother Red Sister

Music and Lyric by Bruce Cockburn

Went to the museum, red brother
Saw your ancient bloom cut, pressed and dried
A sign said wasn’t it clever what they used to do
But it never did say how they died

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey

Went to Regina, red sister
Heard a cab driver say what he’d seen
“There’s a grand place to eat out on Number One
All white ladies if you know what I mean”

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey

Went to a pow wow, red brother
Felt the people’s love/joy flow around
It left me crying just thinking about it
How they used my saviour’s name to keep you down

Hey hey hey
Hey hey hey

CD Cover for My Dinner With Bruce / Steve Bell
CD Cover for My Dinner With Bruce / Steve Bell

Red Brother Red Sister was recorded for Steve’s CD, My Diner with Bruce. To view the CD, listen to tracks or to purchase, click HERE.