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David Waltner-Toews : Writing Philosophy

David Waltner-Toews. "The Practice of Spirit" published in Poetry and Spiritual Practice, Ed. S. McCaslin, St. Thomas More Poetry Series, Toronto, 2002. (By permission of the author.)

The Practice of Spirit

Most of my adult working life has been a juggling of computers and cattle, dung, blood, disease, death, numbers, diagrams, pictures, dogs, and, when I can, singing Bob Dylan or the baseline of a hymn. This is the twenty-first century, when the reality of this biosphere sinks in, finally, rots sweetly into our bones, sprouts mushrooms, a burst of flies, a spray of flowers, land-mines and spade-damaged potatoes left carelessly in the brain. I go from CNN reports of people dying from contaminated water in Walkerton, Ontario to hanging traps for tsetse flies in Uganda, from a meat-locker-cold hotel room in Kathmandu to celebrating Christmas amid the clean comfort of Kitchener. And mixed in here, somewhere, the kids are in Lebanon or Guatemala or America, my mother has become a whisper of skin and bone, and, as Leonard Cohen so well said, "I ache in the places where I used to play."

Through this day job as a veterinary epidemiologist and ecosystem health specialist, poetry keeps me going. Hiking through the woods near Cape Chin, Ontario, trying to keep at bay my fear of the aggressive bear who tried to break into my cabin the night before, I find myself shouting out Mary Oliver: "When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn." It's only one of three poems I have memorized, my answer to bear bells.

It is hard for a white male middle class guy to talk about this stuff, the hard times that most of the world lives in, the good times they celebrate in the midst of it. Sounds too much like whingeing, the contrived emotions of modern American novels, as if any of this has something to do with me. Yet what can I say? It's my work. And any WNAM who doesn't feel some guilt and anxiety about his unwarranted position in the world is pretty brain-dead anyway. So what to do? When, in the face of reality's onslaught in Calcutta, in 1967, at nineteen, the hedged world of my strict Mennonite Brethren upbringing fell into chaos, the deep spiritual roots which were also part of that heritage found new ways to survive in the arborization of poetry. Somewhere deep in the Mennonite roots, there was a need to express a sense of freely-chosen belonging; so the spiritual disciplines of my upbringing helped create the need within me for both spaces for quiet reflection and a particular kind of public, non-academic poetry, some combination of Pablo Neruda and Mary Oliver.

"You do not have to be good," says Mary Oliver. But we have an obligation to be real, and maybe, to be better. To care about what Neruda called "the fire that sprang to life in beautiful things", as well as the beauty that springs to life in the misshapen, the fallen, the ugly. We contribute to celebration and suffering whether we want to admit it or not, whether we are teaching in the North American mid-west or giving advice on the flowering shit-banks of the Bishnumati River in Nepal. Having said this, what's left to say?

David Waltner-Toews' works copyright © to the author.

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