The critics are legion who maintain that nostalgia is a naive ideal, a dream of something that never existed that way- that the past is a different place where we don’t really have access. They’re right in their superficial criticism of nostalgia as simple kitsch. What so many of them miss in their disdain for nostalgia, though, is that that yearning to recover something lost is all the personal and interconnected lines in the imagination mixed with the redeeming memory of something universal- it’s a timeless refraction of the light charging our lives.
I think there is far too much Latinate academic jargon, which is often a kind of phoney precision, in common cosmopolitan English speech. I want a stronger, more metaphorical use of language that leans more heavily on fusion, pressure, and story-telling to say what is good, show beauty in life, and do hard things.
English is a mongrel language- and that’s its strength: it can draw on all the strengths of the cultures that have influenced it and temper the foibles. I just think we’re missing that early spark when English speakers didn’t have as many conceptual and technical terms to work with, so they had to use metaphor and story with intense effects.
I say LIFE is the best word in our language- and it ain’t Latinate
I’m also fond of these words with Celtic origin: bannock, shindig, spunk, whisky, bog, clock, nook, drum, hooligan, phoney
The drizzle and the diffused, colourful light made the trees look like they were behind dusty stained glass and the road like hot steel. Elliott was pining to fish a small stream since he opened his office in the morning, and now in the afternoon with every bend in the highway he felt better. From the beginning of a long straight away Elliott saw a hitch hiker wearing a Hi-Vis orange vest. The sight of a hitch hiker always vexed him. His stomach tightened until the internal pull of generosity and push of discomfort dug a pit in his stomach. He passed the hitch hiker. But then he glanced at the rear view mirror and quickly hit the brakes, sliding into the washed out sandy shoulder.
‘I’m going fishing about ten minutes south- I can take you down the highway that short spell, though, if it helps your cause.’ Elliott said with the window down.
‘I love fishing, man- I’ll join if you have a little extra line and a hook- I’m Al.’ The momentum from Elliott’s out of control turn of magnanimity was irresistible. Elliott was still tense but couldn’t stop obliging the scruffy man.
The men stepped out into the bush off the logging road and froze listening to the comforting song of the riffle. Elliott awkwardly handed Al a spool of tippet and a box of terminal tackle and started setting up his short, whippy fibreglass fly rod.
‘Would you like a fly?’ He asked, nervously.
‘Thanks- I have everything I need, good buddy- I think I’ll find some bait’
‘You deserve a fish with a cast like that- that was a hell of a cast- brave to side arm it under that canopy,’ Al hollered downstream, still searching for bait. Elliott couldn’t contain a warm smile, even though the cast didn’t earn him a fish.
Al stalked the creek slowly and deliberately, being careful to stay back from the bank. He spied a dogwood and broke a young branch off, and then tied the line to the skinny end of the pole and the hook to the free end of the line. With the long branch extended over the middle of the pool he gently dapped the hopper on the surface, tricking a chunky trout to leap and dance on the water. Elliott jumped in the air and hopped with joy at the sight of the shimmering fish as Al horsed it through the brush and landed it on the bank.
‘That got my heart going- like the drugs I used to take,’ Elliott said when they met by the logging road with their catch.
A yellow lab burst through the thicket toward Al, tearing both men out of their fast couple hours of blissful fishing. And Elliott saw a shadow cast from over his shoulder. He turned to see a conservation officer then he glanced at their fish and the cans of beer on the bank and the coals of their fire, and then back to the conservation officer. Al didn’t have a license, and they didn’t have a permit for their little campfire either. The conservation officer said they were ‘batting one thousand,’ and seized Elliott’s jeep along with his tackle.
If you were driving north on the highway at dusk that day, you would’ve seen a man with a Hi-Vis vest next to a man dressed business casual sauntering and sashaying along the washed out sandy shoulder, both grinning.
As I sat in the backseat of my friend’s new white Honda Civic, the tops of some houses were aglow in patches of sunshine while others were under storms clouds. The cold air ushered in by the storm gracefully lifted my bangs when we turned the corner. We all looked out the passenger side window at the intersection to the parking lot of the lowrise apartment buildings, where a shirtless man in sweatpants was repeatedly flipping a water bottle as high in the air as possible. The shirtless man leaned back in exasperation each time he didn’t make the seemingly impossible clean landing. ‘What is he doing? He isn’t even recording himself- what if he lands it,’ the perplexed driver said. The passenger just looked on, transfixed.
There is a chapter in Frazier’s Novel Cold Mountain where a ne’er-do-well drifter recounts how he found himself playing fiddle music for a suffering and dying young woman and feeling dreadfully insufficient for the task, but he was surprised with notes that comforted and consoled. He admitted that he was a bum and shoddy player before his original tune came to him, and I think that humble and compassionate state of mind brought on because he is playing for someone about to die provides the condition for his artistic fuel to ignite. Well, this is inspiring- to make art for therapy with the hope- for this is the only truly hopeful frame of mind- you can receive the grace to help someone feel better, peaceful, joyful.
That after he plays his fiddle tune the spring peepers in the creek sounded exceptionally sad and hopeful in the face of the coming winter is one of the most moving and evocative details found in a novel, because the peeper is too weak to dig down deep in the soil to avoid the cold and so it freezes solid in the winter but pumps enough sugar into its organs to preserve them so that it can thaw and move again in the spring.
He is excecuted next to his friend- and that embrace is the promise of spring
Creative writing vignette # two
It was a night in the third week of advent in the back room of a bowling alley lighting an irregular halo around the hoarfrost dusting the scrub land to the west. The men jockeyed erratically around the self serve betting machines as if they were in bumper cars. Eventually everyone found a seat and froze there.
‘That four horse was 70-1. I had the favourite and five other horses- not the four, though’
The horses at the main track were at the gate and the air in the stuffy room behind the bowling alley changed as everyone looked at the other tv screen- the tv on mute. The men frozen in their seats, breaths skipping beats.
The fourteen horse chugged along powerfully in a direct line like a dark train cutting through the prairie in an ice storm; the two horse almost floating on the outside, light as a feather and weaving like a leaf falling to the ground.
‘That two on the outside- I put a place on him eh- that grey- I put a place on him’
‘Don’t squeeze your ticket, eh- just keep them nice and flat if you want the machine to read them’
The finish was framed on the screen, so the men started moving again.
‘So a friend told me about a piebald horse I have to see next week- I’m putting all I have on that one- I don’t need the machine- I’ll cash my voucher in person’
creative writing vignette one
The voice and the strings in the band echoed off the cedar shakes beside the little sandy beach. The sun was warm in the blue sky; the breeze cold over the hills northwest of the lake. There was a toy grader half buried in the wet sand. The lifeguard watched. He was unkempt and had bandages on his head, ripped Motorhead t shirt and jean shorts, and only one leg. One of the boys in snorkeling gear by the floating dock kicked out deeper in pursuit of the orange and green flash of a pumpkinseed, until he couldnt see the tall weeds, only thick rays of light and plankton. When the boy woke he looked up into the blue and white, and water ran out of him.
The Working Memory Test
The resource room was cold; the walls naked beige concrete. Tim knew- even though it was his first time- it was for the weird or stupid kids. He felt a chill, his stomach tighten, his breaths shallow. Mme. Tremblay, the French teacher with a stern chiseled face always on the verge of smiling warmly, had a little office in the corner. Tim could see colourful posters through her opened blinds.
Scratching the gum under his desk, Tim rolled some gum shavings back and forth between his thumb and index finger. The condensation on the window beside him, framed by thick layers of paint and carved names, sparkled and invited him to gaze out into the parking lot in front of the school.
What he first noticed in the glass was the faint outline of his spiky hair, his big ears, and his long,skinny neck. He then studied the clouds: light wisps over a billowing stampede. Swirling and spiralling above the cars, a herring gull lifted Tim’s gaze. The rays of sunshine shone around the borders of rapidly retreating clouds and through the primaries and secondaries of the gull’s wings, finally landing to shimmer on the windowsill.
The special assignment teacher, a large woman dressed in Lululemon, opened the door and glowered at her desk, and then forced a thin, tight smile in Tim’s general direction. She sat down, moving stiffly, and picked her tablet off her clean desk, nothing but a slim, sleek computer, a small stack of papers, a pink Starbucks mug, and a small black picture frame.
‘Good morning, Tim- my name is Ms. Buckley.’ She said. ‘You know many patterns- I’m going to show you some. What do you think about that?’ Tim’s demure smile fell aslant to the floor. She was careful to emphasize to Tim, while maintaining cold, professional eye contact, this wasn’t a test and he wasn’t being marked.
She flashed random numbers on the screen at the front of the room and told Tim to pay attention to them.
Tim’s sight line gradually pulled toward the corner of the ceiling where an amazingly fine and intricate mesh of spider’s web fluttered.
‘The number sequence, Tim—whatever you’re looking at on the ceiling, it’s not important—now, what strategies are you using to remember these numbers?’
Laughing before he even processed what he was looking at, Tim saw a border terrier chasing a squirrel up the maple tree behind the parking lot. The dog, barking, scurried sideways and, plowing up a pile of leaves, stopped its momentum and stalled on its front legs at the base of the tree.
‘Tim, that dog outside isn’t what you should be focusing on right now—you need to concentrate on these letters–we’re playing a game of concentration’
When she picked up her phone, Tim walked over to the window, picked up a piece of yellow tissue paper and pressed it against the glass. He just stared at it. His dirty fingers and chewed up nails blurred. Closing his eyes, his lips trembling, he felt washed in the filtered light. He melted, almost out cold. The tall grass bent and sprung back and he heard the comforting sounds of the turn signal and the car slowing down off the highway and the moon followed him in the backseat and he felt his Lab’s hair graze his arm and he tasted gingerbread.
‘Can you tell me what those letters were in reverse?’
Bass notes reverberated in Tim’s ribcage, a white Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows and after-market rims in the parking lot. He picked up a pen off a desk beside him and pretended to load it with bullets, pointing the pen at the Escalade.
‘I can wait, Tim—you need to get through this test before you can go out for recess. I’m not on duty.’ Her strident voice tore into his dream, snapped him back into the room, and snapped his head around too.
He returned to his seat with his shoes dragging and his hands balling up the front of his shirt.
‘I’m going to show you the letters one more time—you’re almost done’
The whistle of a train in the distance made him think of the winter night when he saw a train garlanded with multicoloured Christmas lights pass behind his house, and he imagined it took him to a far, far place where polar bears wiped their bloodied snouts and rested in the snow and purple and gold fish swam under his feet, and the big tooth of the narwhal scratched mysterious words under the ice.
He grabbed a picture on her desk after he messed the sequence up again. She told him in the same practiced slow, firm voice to put it down and look up to focus on the projected sequence.
He didn’t respond this time, though; the old picture in the new frame transfixed him—it called him.
His brows tensed, his nose twitched, and he stuck his jaw out. She swiped at the picture, but he pulled it back and jumped on his chair and then jumped off when she got up out of her chair. He instinctively ran into Mme. Tremblay’s office, and then dodged the special assignment teacher and ran down the hall, exhilarated, light on his feet, like he just got out of a fight in a bathroom stall or like a dog when his owner turns on the ignition and he feels the wind in his face. The principal blocked Tim as he turned the corner, pulling the picture out of Tim’s grip and then handing it back to the special assignment teacher. She told Tim, curtly, that he could go back to class, and she returned, less stiffly, to the resource room.
Walking backwards, he turned away from his classroom when the principal turned the corner. He peered in through the blinds on the resource room door, looking at the spot where the picture stood on the desk before he fled with it. The report template on the computer was open and blank. He noticed her head was down and then he saw the picture in her hands. There she sat, staring at the old picture, her young face and her sister’s young face and the sunshine on their cheeks. The bell rang and the ragged, charmed sounds of children echoed down the halls.
I started reading ‘the soul of veere,’ a Belgian short story by lemonnier that starts something like this: a girl asked me if I heard the boy playing his little tunes, and I thought, good heavens, who would be so foolish to do that here?
Well, I say sing your tunes or whatever racket you want to make as loudly and lively as possible tonight, wherever you are!