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.





36 thoughts on “Avatar, Parsnips and Aboriginal Agony

  1. I talk to people often of the importance of Witnessing to one another.

    I lived through a very frightening childhood because a couple of key people saw me. My Great Aunt Dell saved my life by telling me, in various ways, that she saw me and my pain AND my beauty and my potential.

    Thank God for her and others like her.

  2. During my late teens I happened to be turning the channels and came across this soft spoken big hearted intellect of a man, Jean Vanier, discussing in great depth the mind and life of the disabled and mentally challenged person. I was memorized by his words and how he could take us into the world of the mentally disabled person, and give us great understanding about them, as if he himself lived this world. From that point on I surfed the channels desperately to find his programs.

    It’s funny how we go through life looking at people but never really seeing them. We allow busyness and distractions and routine to keep us from truly enjoying the uniqueness and beauty of one another. It’s even sadder when we do this to those closest to us, our family.

    I’ve often thought about this, how we all crave to be seen, to be known and valued, but how rarely we receive this attention or give it to others, all because we truly don’t “see” each other.

    And I’ve often thought about how our eyes & body language can say more to others than our tongues do, which is why our expression to others is so very vital and plays a big role in how we affect others and make them feel. You’re story of how Jean Vanier “saw” you, Steve, describes it beautifully!!!

    It’s nice to hear the words “I love you” (or Jesus loves you), but it’s also the unspoken words people see in our eyes and expression that speak the loudest! Unfortunately, my eyes often reflect the tiredness & stress of the day to my family more than it does the love I feel for them inside. I’m making some drastic changes in this direction this year!

    Excellent thought-provoking & encouraging blog, Steve… once again!!!

  3. Steve, having had the pleasure of traveling with you in Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and India, I would say that you ARE a see-er. I have watched you tease young children and make them feel valued. I’ve seen you connect with beautifully weathered old women in mud huts who’ve been marginalized by the rest of the world. I’ve seen your eyes twinkle when you make a connection with someone without a shared language. Someone someday – maybe in a cyclone ravaged area of Bangladesh, or a drought-stricken village in Ethiopia – will recall a story like yours and will fill in the name “Steve Bell” where yours says “Jean Vanier”.

    If you can find beauty in the smell of parsnips and some of the poorest people in the world, then you are already fulfilling your calling to pay quiet attention and be a see-er.

    Thanks for being an inspiration!

  4. Sunday night the baby and I locked eyes three times during the ceremony. It was as if she reconized that we wee sharing something, and it was all love, Steve. I will never forget that gaze.

  5. Hey Steve – loved Avatar… While I appreciate the critique Brooks offers and, yes, the writing could use a boost, the message that strikes home for me is simple – apart from the overwhelmingly beautiful and stunning special effects…

    The message hinges not on the overworked White Messiah plot but on the movie’s presentation (intended or not) that the approach to life so often used by humanity is a recycled version of the one we just finished – one which didn’t work well the first time through.

    Take for example the economic crisis caused by the domino effect of the credit “market” collapse in which we found ourselves September 2008. No sooner were we in its grip (caused unarguably by corporate greed for bigger, better, more, faster playing on the little person’s dream for something better for themselves) and the world is informed (by the same people that caused the problem in the first place) that the way out is a loosening of the credit markets and an encouragement of the consumer to spend what we do not have – in effect, to buy more whatever the cost!

    In the aftermath there appear to be no clear lessons learned by these corporate giants and the governments who support them – perhaps not even by us/me. At least nothing on which we are to build a sustainable future. The only clear and unequivocal ones visible from below are that some corporate structures are too big to fail and others will protect their ass-ets at all costs.

    And that, to me, is precisely what the message of Avatar is – not the “overworked white Messiah fable” nor its “benevolent romanticism,” nor the litheness of “colonial victims” who are “spiritual and athletic.” It is that we are unwilling to dismantle what has not and still is not working in favour of something new that might. Perhaps that is why Cameron unintended or not, called the substance the colonists were trying to mine, unobtanium – life with abundance can’t be had that way!

    I found it intriguing as the Na’vi prepare to battle to save their home, the now “awakened” Jake Sully asks Neytiri in the centre of the “garden” of Pandora (now there’s a mixed message if ever there was one!) near the “Tree of Souls/Life” if Eywa will intervene to stop the exploitation. Neytiri’s response is that Eywa is concerned not about winning and losing but about maintaining the balance.

    My grandfather once taught me that in order to find our way home when taking a new trail, we must spend twice as much time looking at where we have come from, as we do where we are going. In so doing we will discern the landmarks more easily and find the trail more clearly. That, for me as an aboriginal person is the most potent message of Avatar. We never seem to look behind for the messages on the trail that might shout at us “Wrong Way!” Avatar shouts at our perceptions of advance and progress. I think it is saying, “Caution, detour needed!”

    Love your music as always my friend. Hope we can hang together some day soon.


  6. When I walk downtown and folks are begging, even when I have no money to give, just making eye contact and saying so politely and giving a smile seems to provoke a smile in return. I think there’s a touch of the “seeing and being seen” going on there too.

  7. Just read your most recent blog entry (Avatar, Parsnips & Aboriginal Agony) and I don’t know why I’m crying.

    With all my questions and well-founded doubts about religion ( Christianity in particular as it is both the one I inherited and the one I have discarded) I feel this deep resonance with the core of what you have written and there is both a longing & an ache there.

    The longing isn’t for the company of people whose ideas mirror mine. It isn’t a longing for the false sense of security borne of believing that my ideology is superior to every other ideology. It isn’t a longing to know that my actions are approved of and rewarded by a supernatural parent figure that won’t disappoint me the way my own parents might. It isn’t a longing or hope for some future sense of justice that will, one day, make right all the things I perceive to be wrong with the world but am incapable of affecting by my own power.

    It is a longing to be rooted in something deeper than myself.
    The ache arises from a growing, deep set suspicion that nothing like that really exists.

    I don’t know if this longing is just a ‘Pavlovian’ reaction to a romantic ideal that has been a part of my milieu for so long that it is built into who I am (regardless of it’s veracity) or if it is actually an essential part of my wiring as a human being.

    Perhaps I’m crying because deep down I’m profoundly disappointed that at 42 years of age I still don’t know… anything.

    Thanks for writing. Your words and music often re-open wounds that shouldn’t ever be allowed to completely scab over and I am honestly grateful for that.

  8. I feel “seen” even reading this … just to know that there are others, including you of course, that understand and feel the same way. The feeling of not beeing seen is as tangible, with far reaching effect.
    Funny, I have no increased desire to see the movie (actually I had forgotten all about it by the time I got to the parsnips), I might however buy some parsnips on my way home today.
    Thank you … again!

  9. the story about Kenny is so disturbing. The story Jean watching you from the back porch is the only real anecdote. Oh God, keep me awake.

  10. A wonderful reflection. A new poem for you Steve:


    See it all at once,
    see the interconnection
    of the pieces of your whirligig,
    within a universe of whirligigs.
    Do not fool yourself
    about stability or stasis;
    only the Force that Fires
    all motion is unchanging.
    The rest is constantly shifting,
    moving, aging, being reborn.

    from Steve: Beautiful Doug, thanks. “Do not fool yourself about stability or stasis; only the Force that Fires all motion is unchanging.” Gorgeous!

  11. Thanks Steve!
    I’ll be sharing this with my students in a Media, Ethics, & Culture course I’m teaching this semester. My students are burgeoning filmmakers, PR reps, journalists, screenplay writers. I’m hoping they’ll be learning to See and to envision.
    Your post also challenged me as a dad to see my kids more deeply.
    Grace and Peace to you!

    Reply from Steve – Steve, you should have your students read and discuss the essay on education in Simone Weil’s book Waiting for God. She claims that all education is the practice of “attending” which eventually yields the kind of deep seeing / knowing we’ve been talking about. Ultimately, she claims, it leads to the capacity for prayer – but, I would add, may enable some significant art on the way.

  12. Thank you Steve for your devotion to your fans. I too am moved to tears by your stories and the comments posted.

    I worked in a L’Arche community doing respite care for a number of years and prior to this in a MCC group home and learned a lot about being vulnerable through working with the disabled. It’s so easy to keep it all in, that is the “bad” in our life that we are embarassed to talk about it in fear of being rejected or judged.

    Working in a L’Arche environment gave me permission to be vunerable and discover deeper community, relationship and love. This was somewhat of a break-through for me. I thought people would like/love me more if I appeared to be flawless and agreeable, but instead I found myself very lonely and at times depressed. The core members/ residents were the see-ers, they saw me for who I was. Through experiencing their love in it’s purest form, they taught me a lot about respecting myself and others and slowing down to peel the parsnips.

  13. Steve —

    I can’t thank you enough for this blog posting — it was inspiring beyond words. I am encouraged, loved, challenged, and awestruck by your words and the sharing of your heart. Your openness and talent with words are beautiful things! I’m so sorry to have missed you by not being at TimeOut during 2008-09, but know that you have friends (and a guestroom and open invite!) who love you in San Francisco whenever you are in the ‘hood. Barry Brown and I talk often about how much we’ve enjoyed your music and stories over the years — and your CDs have had a significant impact in my and my friends/family’s life as well — THANK YOU!!
    — David

  14. Steve,
    I had the honor of being at one of your concerts and listened to your story about Kenny and listened to your song. I was moved to tears then as I am now! I am First Nation and I felt and saw what Kenny saw. I have also seen some very beautiful things when I am with my people! I spoke to you at that concert and thanked you then for sharing your story and song I saw something so beautiful and felt compelled to encourage you to continue to share your story about Kenny. Thank-you for sharing again ! Your story about Jean Vanier was also profound and even your story about parsnips teaches people to be aware of and take the time to enjoy those special gifts of “seeing” that God gives us! Thank you again and God Bless you in your ministry for Him.

  15. Hi, Steve, A while ago, a few years now, I’m sure I must have mentioned a book that I was into then (and could still be, now, except I lent it to one of my Sisters, who finds it equally rich food. …So I don’t have it with me to quote, but I KNOW that Chapter 5 plays with this same image of seeing and becoming, as a result of being seen. The book is Impact of God: Soundings of St. John of the Cross, by Iain Mathew (can’t remember if he has 2 t’s in Mathew… somehow I don’t think so, but maybe.) It’s from the UK, so not all bookstores will have it. If you’re in Toronto, the Anglican Book Store did. I got mine in Niagara Falls at the Carmelite retreat centre. It also connects with an Orthodox point of thought on how we are image of God — in relationality, rather than intellect, as the Roman Catholics hold. (intellect serves relationality, in fact.) That thought came from another book I’m sure I’ve mentioned, now hard to get a hold of… The Freedom of Morality, by Christos Yannaris (U of T library catalogue spells it Giannaris) published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. (If you know where the Orthodox Consistory bookstore is in Wpg, try there.) Rich, rich food! both of them!!!

  16. My buddy Byron sent me this poem and consented to me posting it:

    Jean Vanier

    I listen to Jean Vanier a lot.
    He is safely tucked away
    on the television
    in the early hours
    on an obscure channel as if
    to protect the citizenry from his revolutionary vision of community
    in his safely tucked away community of vision
    somewhere in France.
    I pray for the day when I do not feel belittled
    by his love.
    He is no saviour for me
    (I’ve already got one)
    I must listen
    My every Christian deed chastised by his insight.
    He asks the impossible.
    I could not dedicate myself to some discarded community of
    imperfect beings with perfect souls.
    But perhaps it is enough that
    I look at his imperfect nose, his deep set eyes and know
    I am a perfect candidate to be his perfect friend.

    by Byron O’Donnell

  17. As a little girl, I waited at the end of Romper Room for the Magic Mirror to come out. The hostess would hold up a face-sized open hoop and say, “Romper bomper, stomper bo. Tell me, tell me, tell me do. Magic mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” Then she’d list off the names of all the kids she could see in television land.

    I loved the show, but the thing was, not once in all my childhood memories did she ever say my name. She couldn’t see me. I even started sitting closer and closer to the TV, and at one point pressed my nose against the screen. LOL! I really did. 🙂

    Your foster daughter was so perceptive. Kids notice so much. I grew to resent magic mirrors, and switched to Mr Dressup. Wise Old Owl saw everything. 🙂

    I was also taken with James Cameron’s use of “I see you,” in the movie Avatar. He uses the same line and sentiment in Titantic, in a scene with Rose and Jack just after they walk around the ship for the first time.

    I loved this blog, and hearing your thoughts on these three little words. You’re right. We all need to work on being a see’er.

    Our heavenly Father sees us… even before we were formed in our mother’s womb. He doesn’t need magic mirrors.

    I see you too, Steve. 🙂 You’ve got a great heart.

  18. just thinking – isn’t being a see-er like being right there in the moment? like practicing the presence of God?

  19. It is always thought provoking to take these mental and emotional journeys with you! Thanks for always sharing your heart your life and your talents!

  20. I LOVE Parnsips but haven’t seen Avatar, yet, in order to compare and contrast. Have you ever tried thin parsnip slices on pizza? Exquisite. Oh, and I put them in my Vita-Mix with roasted garlic for a mashed potato substitute. YUM.

    My sister, a Canadian citizen, turned me onto you. Even tho I don’t share the Christian religion, your music resonates soundly within. Thanks for your offerings.

    I am glad Kenny had/has you. I hope she is still in your life…


  21. Thank you for the stories.
    My husband and saw Avatar this passed Sat. I was struck by the very same words” I see you”
    I You are a see er. And am moved to scan the 61 years that I have lived so that I can remember the people who have “seen” me, and helped me to accept my gifts.

    Happy new year Steve and all of the people that have been touched by your vision.

  22. Wonderfully written. Your description of Kenny and her words are profound and resounding. Like most of us, I have experienced both being seen and unseen. I know a gentleman in our church who “sees”. He is a gift. I have learned from him how to see others.
    Thanks so much for this post.

  23. Thanks to Steve Bell for this moving personal faith story. The story “pulled at the heart strings” and stretched the spirit wide. Life by its nature is filled with ordinary moments. At differing places in life one becomes surprised. In this case it was through the “encounter” of Steve and Jean. I believe it is pure grace, a moment often immersed in silence, that speaks louder than any words. She, the Spirit, hovers where She will,weaving paths in people’s lives. It would seem that day an invitation was offered to Steve because another saw, listened and responded to the unique dance of life in Steve. As we are marked deeply by our woundedness so too by a holy affirmation. This affirmation responds, oh yes I see, know something and believe in the depth and yearning of your soul.

  24. Steve … your insight and authenticity are a “means of grace.” Thank-you for allowing God to embrace us and surprise us with moments of beauty along with moments of awakening to the needs around us.

    I have been preaching a lot lately on the goal of surprise and shared your Robin’s Donuts story … you didn’t ask for it, you were not seeking it … it was pure grace! God surprises us to get our attention. Jesus filled the boats of a few weary fishermen and BOOM they are on a journey of their lives!!!

    We need to be a community, a “symphony” [as you say in the ESO video] of celebrating the God who surprises. I think we are becoming dead to the presence of God – maybe even as a church along with the culture around …

    Anyway … thanks for the stories! Be blessed in your ministry as you continue with a deep and gentle authority!!!

    PS – Jean Vanier is quite the gift to humanity!!! Have you ever read the lectures he gave at Harvard? I forget what year – they are stunning; filled with simple revelation!

  25. AVATAR is the best movie EVER! it speaks truth about how we should cherish the simplest beings in our world. We have to respect our mother nature and live with her; not to subdue her.

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

    I know this was not the intent of your message, but while I was thinking about this story about how your foster daughter pointing out that only white people appear in commercials, I had this thought. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that aboriginals are not featured in TV commercials. For example, if you look at how white males are portrayed in commercials, we’re simply reduced to a stupid insensitive gender stereotype who says and does stupid things. Same goes for women, but they also get attacked by a one dimensional idea of beauty.

    Maybe we could just simple do away with commercials. Just a few cents I thought I’d share.

  27. Steve:

    I am a mountie of some 28 years. Sent you an email several years ago… lyrics … probably sucked however… back from a heart attack… died three times… still here… you met me at one of your concerts in regina and said that you looked at me and seemed to know me. Long story short… I would like to share with you some things I have learned along the way. I have had the opportunity to sit with ” Cat Stevens” during my tour in Bosnia …ya I know Yusaff Islam”… and I have spent so many years in the north with our first nations people.. Should you find time and should your heart feel so inclined I would love to chat. We have crossed paths several times once in your town of Manitoba while I was working on a police file. Hope that you might make contact. God bless Steve.

    Chris Lane

  28. Thanks Steve for always making me think about what you say. Sometimes, I understand and sometims I don’t. Thanks for helping me to peek into understanding about being “seen”!

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