Matthew Anderson

They Know Not What They Do

reading Valtonen book

They Know Not What They Do – Jussi Valtonen (London: Oneworld, 2017)

Reading They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen, is a bit like looking in on a group of observant and smart people, who share thoughtful, even profound, observations on love, disappointment, and American and Finnish culture, but who just happen to be on a sinking ship. You – and they – can never forget that things are only going to get much worse. Set against Helsinki’s endlessly brooding winter skies, and the droning of cicadas in Baltimore’s summer heat, a feeling of inescapable doom hangs over this dystopic novel as its flawed characters meet, mate, and make mistakes. The book feels somewhat long at 470 pages, but perhaps that’s just because, while there are lots of surprising plot twists, tragedy never feels far away.

They Know Not What They Do is an apt title. Joe, the ambitious American protagonist, Samuel, his estranged Finnish son, Alina, Samuel’s mother, and others in the novel seem to lack self-awareness in a normal, bumbling, struggle-through-the-day kind of way. However, they’re not lucky in life. None is able to escape the extraordinarily tragic consequences of failings that seem, in the end, fairly ordinary. This is part of the novel’s power. We’ve all made these mistakes, and if we haven’t met such tragedies, perhaps we’ve just been fortunate. The inside back cover states that Valtonen is not just a fine author and an exceptional wordsmith, but also a psychologist. He clearly knows day-to-day human weakness. Although he’s sympathetic, he’s a realist. The often very funny black humour will keep the reader going, even while a sensitive reader sometimes wants to put the book down rather than go through yet another looming misunderstanding, disappointment, or mistake.

If anything marks the book as Finnish, perhaps it’s this close attention to failure. As a Canadian reader, I’m familiar with literature where simple survival is victory. Finnishness and Americanism are presented as opposites, and are played up in the novel. But the stereotypes are presented only to be subverted: the American protagonist ends up paralyzed by indecision and fate, while the Finn achieves a sort of resolution.

The language throughout is clear, crisp, and its observations razor-sharp: the reader would never know the book was originally published in Finnish (translator Kristian London). Valtonen won the Finlandia Prize for this book, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s exceptionally observant, and extremely well-written. Academics will recognize their foibles in its sharp-eyed observations of university politics, but so will fatigued young parents, adolescents just entering college, and the middle-aged trying to decide if they’ve accomplished anything with their lives. They Know Not What They Do was written by someone who very definitely knew what they were doing: if you can handle the coming tragedy, it’s well worth getting to know these people as well.

Watching The Good Place during the Month of the Dead

To mark the month that for Christians begins with All Saints and All Souls’ days, Dr Christine Jamieson and I wrote an article about the NBC/Netflix ethics comedy “The Good Place.” It was picked up by Salon! Here’s the article:

“The Good Place”: Ethics comedy asks if there’s a second chance at life

The Good Place

‘Twas Nillig

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I’ve been writing poems while looking at Sara’s sketch book. This one popped out.  With thanks to Lewis Carroll!

‘Twas ‘Nillig, and the savagnola

Spired and glarbled aft my slake;

All rumsy were my conturbations

Mid the sorms dafts o’ertake.

 

‘Beware the Sappertalk, my child!

Beware the Rampling Dot, and shun

the maws that flap, the tweets e’en mild,

o’erpious Pêtians, every one.

 

So frake your heartened hard now addened,

Papered prayers lay lacquered flumb.

Snicker-snack again the morrow.

Off to rumpled bed; be done.

 

Matthew R. Anderson  Aug 9, 2019 Nottingham UK

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

Scarf and Medicine Bundle

Matthew squares off with Scarf Women

On my leaving, the Finns of Montreal gave me a gift. It wasn’t a gift card, or a gold watch (do people do that anymore?) or a bottle of fancy wine. They thought about who I was to them, and who they were to me. Then nine households – nine different women, to be more precise – knitted a scarf. Together. They each, in turn, added wool from Finland, and colours from their homes that would mean something.

I’ve rarely been so touched. I wear the scarf often. I keep it in a place where I can look at it, as I’m doing now. Its colours tell me about the people who knitted it and the services and events we enjoyed together. Its heft in my hands reminds me how warmly I was embraced by the Finnish community. Although it wasn’t intended as such, the scarf turned out to be the perfect length for a stole (that priests and pastors wear over their robe as a sign of their ordination). When I got it, I told the women it would be a ritual object for me – it couldn’t help but be, because of how it was made.

In 1884 Canada’s Federal Government passed the potlach law, part of the Indian Act. It “legally” abolished all “Indian cultural practices,” the Sun Dance, the potlach, and other religious ceremonies. It also forbade Indigenous people and groups from keeping their ritual items. That provision was only repealed in the 1950s. Bob Joseph, in 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, writes that “for 71 years…almost three generations grew up deprived of the cultural fabric of their ancestors….thousands of irreplaceable ceremonial masks, robes, blankets, and other….items were lost forever to their people” (49).

When I walked into the Castle Museum here in Nottingham UK, the first thing to catch my eye was the medicine pouch you see below. The little sign says it comes from Alberta, Canada. When ceremonies – the life of a culture – were outlawed, many of the stolen objects were given to museums. That bundle belonged – STILL belongs – to someone…Blackfoot? Cree? It’s hard to imagine someone coming into my house to take my Finnish scarf, or a Bible, or a communion chalice. But that’s exactly what my government did to the Indigenous peoples. Learning this, and remembering it, is part of being ready for reconciliation.

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All Our Systems

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the V2V: system meets relations, but who did the paint-job? photo: M. Anderson

The sound of a chain saw greeted me as I walked toward the intersection, where Government street meets Victoria’s harbour, right by the Empress Hotel. The street was closed to traffic. On the meridian, in the middle of the lanes, with downtown buildings all around, a half-dozen workers were finishing the job of bringing down what must have been a fairly large tree. Some were cutting the trunk into pieces, others were shredding branches, still others were piling four-foot slices of hard-wood trunk onto a front-end loader. The crew was working hard. But there was just as much action outside the cordon. Three different TV crews had cameras trained on the workers, who self-consciously were trying not to pay attention to them. Several camera photographers were snapping photos.

I ran my errands. Fifteen minutes later, on my way back, the cameras were gone. A flag-woman guarded the yellow tape.

“What’s all the media interest about?” I asked her. “What happened?”

“Oh,” she replied, “we cut down a tree.”

“Was it an important tree?” I asked.

She shrugged. “There aren’t that many around– take a look.” Her arm swept the horizon. “I guess so.”

“There were protesters?”

“Believe it or not, only one.” She laughed. “All those media folks came down on her like a gang. They all had to interview the same person!”

“Why’d they cut it down?”

“That’s the best part,” she leaned in, as if sharing a secret. “It’s for a bike path,” she whispered. Then she hoisted her neon vest and headed back to the other workers. “We live in a bizarre world!” she called over her shoulder.

Today I’m flying out of Victoria, headed east. And you cannot fly without experiencing – and, let’s be honest, benefitting from – systems. There’s a system that directs travelers through airports onto planes, and systems to guide the planes safely across runways and through the air. A system will, I hope, make sure my luggage arrives when I do. A system for bike paths spelled the end of that tree. But despite their undoubted value, we make a mistake when we treat other people, or creation, as if it’s only that – a series of systems to be managed, and not relations to be nurtured and respected.

We use systems, and we think of them as external to us. On the other hand, we are part of a web of relations. Tanya Talaga points this out in her book “All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward” (Anansi Press, 2018). Other Indigenous writers such as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Indigenous activists such as Kenneth Deer warn us that to ignore our relations with creation puts us at peril. Indigenous courage and sacrifice in defense of the planet, whether against fracking, or pipelines, or sacred sites, has led the way. I don’t know if that one tree, in downtown Victoria, should have been saved. A bike path is certainly a good thing. But I wonder if it was a case of “all our systems,” rather than “all our relations.”

The Tea of the Day

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One morning I was early for my lecture, and hadn’t eaten, so I walked over to the student co-op café. There was a young woman there whom I’d seen before, setting up. Otherwise the place was completely empty. “Hi, how are you doing?” she smiled. I smiled back. I asked for the tea of the day. We don’t have anything on the go right now, she responded. What would you like the tea of the day to be?

How about this Earl Grey? I pointed to a bag

What’s the difference between that Earl Grey and this Earl Grey? She pointed to another, fancier tea beside her.

I don’t know.

It’s all the same price, she went on. Today. If it’s the tea of the day, it’s going to cost $1.50. And we just decided it is – the tea of the day. She smiled again.

There was something confident and serene about her, as if already at whatever age she was – twenty, maybe? – she’d figured out already the thing that takes most of us years. How to be happy with herself.

I ordered a piece of quiche and as she warmed it, she talked.

I don’t like sweet things for breakfast either, or at least most of the time.

I like jam, still. But sometimes just a piece of toast and cheese.

Or an egg.

Or an egg.

My dad always used to make me these smoothies, she said. Then her face got this far-away look, as if she could still see them. We were five kids. He’d get up early and make five smoothies, every morning. With protein powder. I loved the smoothies but hated the protein powder. You gotta have it, she pitched her voice lower and talked out of the side of her mouth. It’s good for you. She laughed. I guess it was.

I laughed too. I make my daughter smoothies sometimes. Although occasionally she makes them for me. Does your dad still do that?

She glanced up with a look I couldn’t quite fathom. I don’t live at home anymore.

No. I just meant: even with you gone, do you think your dad makes those smoothies for himself? Maybe it’s a ritual. For remembering.

Maybe. I don’t know. She looked thoughtful. Then brightened. I’ll have to ask him. Here you go. She handed me the food.

I paid and went to sit down, looking out over the campus, my back to the young woman and to the counter. The music was some kind of alternative stuff, lots of synth and guitar and corrected voice. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her walk over to another part of the room, and then the music went dead. A minute later, something else came over the speakers. An old James Taylor song. She’d put it on, for me. Or maybe, for her dad.IMG_5397

17 “Finnish” Clergy & the Future in Canada

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Look at this photo of the “Finnish pastors” at this year’s Suomi Conference in Sudbury. Seventeen smiling faces. Seventeen clergy who, for the most part, like each other, share jokes, help each other out, support each other, and share an eagerness to be the best leaders they can be, in a renewed, vital Finnish-Canadian church.

But as they say, a picture tells a thousand words. And this picture, taken in the closing minutes of the Suomi Conference 2018, says a lot about what the Canadian Finnish church is, and might become.

17-6= 11          17-3=14           14-3=11           14-7=7             17-4=13

To start with, six out of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors in this picture aren’t Finnish at all! Six are actually English-speaking pastors from Canada. Only one of the six “anglos” – Stanley Johnston – is fluent in spoken Finnish. The rest of us practice our pronunciation with varying degrees of success!

Three of the seventeen “Finnish” pastors who DO speak Finn were either born in Canada or the United States. Or moved here at a very early age. That means that nine out of the seventeen people in the photo are probably more culturally North American than European. That’s major. The Lutheran church in North America is not a state church. Lutherans have always been a minority here. When you’re a minority, living with small budgets, and relying heavily on volunteers, you tend to think and act differently (as North Americans do, in any case).

Three of the seventeen pastors are actually visitors from Finland. Olli Valtonen is founder of the Tuomasmessu (The Thomas Mass), an international movement, and a book author. Leila Valtonen is a book author as well, a group psychotherapist and an expert in the Enneagram personality test.  Mauri Vihko is the new Kirkon ulkosuomalaistyön johtaja, administrator of Finnish churches abroad. He says that the Finnish church is also shrinking, along with its budget. Since 90% of the Suomi Conference budget comes from Finland, that’s a concern! Mauri assures us that there is no immediate danger. But changes are ahead…. Mauri is very interested in how to reach out to Finns who are “global migrants”, travelling out of Finland for jobs, adventure, or relationships. This is EXACTLY the kind of Finn we’re seeing more and more of, in Montreal.

Fully half of the fourteen Canadian pastors in this photo are either retired, or within a few years of retirement. Nothing wrong with grey hair, but there’s a lot of it in this photo! Three of the seventeen serve part-time, mostly because the parishes have become so small they don’t need a full-time pastor. Only four of the seventeen are women. But notice – they are among the youngest in an otherwise aging group. The face of the Finnish presence, and the face of clergy, in Canada, is changing.

This photo says it all! (photo courtesy of Ismo Makkonen; missing from photo: Pat Dorland)

 

 

 

Jonah of Lac-Mégantic

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Friday, all three former railway employees involved in the terrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic were acquitted. Most locals didn’t want them convicted. Even though the three men have admitted they bear some responsibility in the loss of 47 lives, everyone knows the fault lies higher up, with what the Bible calls the ‘principalities and powers’. If there was a Jonah for Lac-Mégantic, the prophet wouldn’t be in that little village. Jonah would be walking through parliament, in an Ottawa whose successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, let regulation go slack, and through Wall Street, or wherever the now bankrupt MMA Railway’s shareholders and executives live and work. Those are the people who should hear the call to repent. Some of those people might – actually – be you and me. We think ethical investment is an option. Is it, really? In light of Lac-Mégantic? Would Jonah have a word for us when we too, value financial returns over human life?

 

Between Candle and Bell

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All Saints’ is about a community bigger and better, more surprising, more joyful and more inclusive than we could possibly imagine. It’s about lighting a candle for someone who has died, and honouring the fact that there are lines that connect us with them that go on despite death, lines we can hardly guess at, but that our Creator knows intimately. Why? Because they were woven with gracious intent into our very fabric of being.