travelling together – creativity through difficult days

down to the sea 2Several weeks before she passed away this summer, Shuling Chen gave her friends an opportunity to travel with her on the path of suffering and dying and living and loving. She did so by hosting a time of worship and reflection with us at the Jewish General Hospital where she was receiving palliative care. It was a deeply meaningful service of song and testimony and reflection and prayer, held in a beautiful solarium looking out on St. Joseph’s oratory. It was as human and honest an event as anything I have experienced in my life.

To be human is to travel in company with others. Some of those others are family members and close friends, with whom our truer selves may be revealed. Other fellow-travellers are women and men who walk alongside us more at arms length. Whoever our travelling companions, however, and whatever the degree of openness and disclosure between us, being together on the way defines us as human. In fact, we betray our humanity when we try to walk in isolation. Shuling’s invitation to celebrate and pray and worship with her represented an insistence that even the path toward death is one that we can and must share with others, in faith.

Shuling’s death came at the end of a very difficult year-and-a-half struggle with cancer. And one of the questions I wrestled with through that time was how to remain in company with her – how to remain a friend during her hospital stays, her days at home, and her return trips to the emergency room. I wouldn’t characterize Shuling as an intimate or close friend, but would describe her as a dear friend – someone with whom I shared in work and laughter and friendship over a number of years. So for me it was a question of how to accompany Shuling without my presence being a burden to her; how to speak with her and learn from her on this path while also respecting the nature of our relationship. Continue reading

onward and upward

To be human is to be on a journey. It’s a cliché to say so – but it’s also true. To be human is to be on a journey. And since literature to some extent reflects what it is to be human, it will come as no surprise to us that one of the oldest pieces of literature in western civilization is Homer’s Odyssey. The Odyssey, of course, traces the 10 year journey of Odysseus back from Troy and the Trojan wars to his home on Ithaca. It is an eventful ten year journey, to put it mildly – during his travels he encounters the murderous Cyclops, he meets up with six-headed Scylla, and he runs up against the cannibalistic Laestrygonians. Now perhaps our journeys will be so eventful as that of Odysseus, but we are human so we are on a journey.

This is reflected not only in ancient Greek myth and literature, not only in that grand epic of Homer – it is reflect also in many of the films that have come out of Hollywood over the past decades. There is O brother where art thou, and Rain Main, and Sideways, and there is the older film Easy Rider. These are known as road movies – films that reflect the fact that to be human is to be on a journey – that human identity is shaped through journeys. Continue reading