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Quote Unquote

‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’

By Mardi Tindal

Ilze extended her hand with a welcoming smile. She’s an exuberant 17-year-old who loves biology and works three jobs to prepare for a college education. We spent the next few hours as seatmates on a flight from Saskatoon. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t expect such a sweet greeting from someone with large metal body piercings, tattoos and fluorescent hair sticking out from her tuque.

I also don’t recall what prompted her to tell me the story of the tattoo on her right arm. She shoved up her sleeve to reveal the words “Forget me not” wrapped around a yellow rose. Her grandma has dementia, she explained. Her grandparents met on a blind date, and when Granddad finally got up the courage to ask for a dance, The Yellow Rose of Texas became their song. Ilze was generous with her story and didn’t ask about mine. So the subject of church didn’t come up until the end of the flight.

In the meantime, Ilze spoke about her passion for animal rights. We talked about the big issues of life and death without using religious language, and I was reminded of poet Emily Dickinson, who so often did the same — telling the truth “on the slant.”

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Mass., in 1830. Only about a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. It wasn’t until after her death in 1886 that drawers full of poems — nearly 1,800 of them — were found and Dickinson’s reputation as a great poet was cast.

According to scholar Dorothy Oberhaus, Dickinson was preoccupied with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and her poems take up the Gospels with wit. And yet Dickinson resisted the religious language of the day. She never made a formal declaration of faith and attended seminary for only 10 months. Some speculate that her departure was a rebellion against evangelical fervour.

I think Dickinson knew that it is impossible to tell all the Truth head-on, that the soul doesn’t trust anything that presumes to restrict the Truth to a few “right” words. The soul is more open to Truth when it comes on the slant — frequently through poetry, music, art and, yes, even tattoos.

In last year’s CBC Massey Lectures, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson suggested that poetry provides a bridge between parts of our brains: “Robert Frost wrote that a poem ‘begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.’ Poets are the luckiest, he believed, because while many of us are often unable to express what we feel, they can reach for words and images that will represent the feeling.”

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr takes this idea a step further: “On one level, soul, consciousness, and the Holy Spirit can all be thought of as one and the same. Each of these point to something that is larger than the self, shared with God, and even eternal. . . . Religion’s main and final goal is to reconnect us (re-ligio) to the Whole, to ourselves, and to one another — and thus heal us.”

As our flight descended into Toronto, Ilze shared two stories that revealed her experience of church. When she was working at Tim Hortons, a customer looked at her hair and declared, “If you stepped inside a church, you’d burst into flames.” At another restaurant, a customer who noticed her tattoo said, “Please serve me with your other arm. I don’t want any sin falling into my food.”

Ilze and I then talked a bit about faith and telling the Truth, slant. She seemed surprised — yet delighted — when I asked if I could quote her in a church magazine.

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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