The freedom of priorities revisited again

11 March 2018: So, I just finished reading Anna Karenina, and near the end someone quotes Matthew 10 “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which is the passage that most disturbed Levin in the Gospels. The clarity and utter refreshment that he feels in his conversion at the end of the story isn’t shaken by this political discussion about war. It is that freedom of priorities Varenka shows Kitty in the heart of the story. I am reminded that Jesus also called us to love our enemies, and that sword is the sword to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin- to cut away the things that evil tempts you to think are between you and God, or to cut away the false gods that seize you and make you feel stuck, preventing you from being with Him. It’s the love that cuts off those chains and frees the sinner. Like one of my English professors pointed out when we were talking about the Faerie Queen: it’s the reverse order of the French lyrics to O Canada- ‘your arm knows how to carry the cross [and that’s why] your arm knows how to wield the sword.’ I should add it’s regrettable Spenser wasn’t as virtuous in his views of the Irish, though.

The original musing before the new year: I wrote about the freedom you feel when, like Kitty in Anna Karenina, you find what’s most important- what you would give everything for- and how that gets everything in line and gets you moving again. When you find that out, you can easily give up most things and you can have the courage to give up harder things when called upon. I think of the story of Aron Ralston in the movie 127 hours: that’s an intense physical version of what you would sacrifice to be able to move again and live! Here’s hoping that everyone finds what is most important in 2019!


Featured posts from the archives: a yarn and a couple visual poems

“There was an eagle’s nest on a hydro tower we passed on our way south on the highway. What is it that drove me away from the physical comforts of my modern life, while that wild, majestic bird chose a manmade structure in the middle of all those wild, majestic pines?

The Flagging Tape Disorientation

When you pull up Google Earth and start zooming in on North America, then onto the Northeast, then central Ontario and onto that park that’s about the size of Vermont and, if the satellite image was taken in early Spring of that year and you can zoom in enough through the trees, you’ll see me and my brother—lost.

We were up shit creek without a paddle, so to speak; or put another way, we were lost in the bush in twilight on an overcast day without a landmark, map, compass, light, match, tarp, bottle of water, or even a knife.

I teach outdoor education, and when I teach shelter building and orienteering I always start by describing a scenario like that one and then ask them what they need to avoid. The kids invariably start with bears or wolves and never put a finger on the thing they need to avoid most—panic. I wasn’t avoiding panic at that moment, though. I was fully, keenly seized by it. I was in its mouth. I also teach the kids what to pack, even if it’s just a short hike. Well, I sure wasn’t a prudent boy scout that day, and I confirmed that silly saying about those who teach.

We had gotten out of bed before the sun was up to drive four hours north, then paddled for most of the daylight against the wind and current on the biggest river in the park. The trip to the cabin was made even harder because our aluminum and foam canoe was flat and wide—slow as molasses to paddle and quick as a wink to get pushed back or sideways by waves. The other two people in our party had a narrow Kevlar canoe, ideal for tripping. The map didn’t show all the contours and little points, so after hours of hope deferred—having seemingly spent all our energy feverishly paddling towards what we thought would be the final point and expecting to see the cabin as we turned only to see more conifers and yet another point far in the windswept distance over and over again—my brother and I did finally see that blessed cabin in a field beside a big marsh.

I flopped onto the beach like Ulysses after the shipwreck and my brother tripped over me. A phoebe bobbed its tail on a branch above us and a bur-reed rubbed my ankle. The fire roaring and the steaks sizzling and our friends with the Kevlar canoe sprawled out smoking and laughing, I opened up the cabin and perused the journal on the table by the stained woodstove. A few people wrote about a pristine spring just off the path behind the cabin. I didn’t expect a long hike. I was thirsty.

The well beaten path forked just past the thunderbox. The path turning along the lakeshore led my brother and I to the mouth of a feeder creek but no cold water spring. In the little plunge pool there were sculpins and leaves spinning around in the foam, red and green and glistening, and the water above it was the color of yellow stained glass. We doubled back to the fork and took the other path. There were pieces of orange flagging tape tied to trees every ten yards and the path was wide and clear. The promised cold water spring was still out of sight, though. As we walked the path thinned out and the pieces of flagging tape were farther apart and we followed the base of a hill to the burnt cornflakes of the bark on a big cherry tree. I considered turning back but pressed on without giving it much thought.

Eventually we heard the creek but didn’t see any more flagging tape. I rush toward the siren sound of the babbling brook and my brother followed me to the unspoiled fern lined banks. I didn’t notice the beauty of the park when I was relentlessly paddling and it all hit me looking at that serene brook, the beauty consuming, without any trails around and miles from the nearest road. Then it hit me that we lost sight of the last piece of flagging tape. The thrum of panic was deafening. I tried to sound calm and asked my brother if we should walk the creek back to the lake where we know it empties or do we try to find the flagging tape to follow the path straight back to the cabin. I don’t think I gave him a chance to answer and rushed back in the direction of the flagging tape—or so I thought it was that direction.

I had led my brother astray and then we were out of earshot of the brook and we couldn’t see flagging tape. I almost broke down in despair and I didn’t even try to hide it. My brother was poised, though, and told me one of us should stay put while the other looks for the flagging tape in order to prevent wandering even farther away from the lake and the cabin.

I saw flagging tape and yelled out to my brother, but my elation was crushed when I got closer and saw that it was purple. I cursed that this flagging tape must be a cruel joke when my brother caught up to me, and we laughed nervously. We used my brother’s bright idea of the searching and holding pattern and eventually found that cherry tree. It looked and felt like night in the bush, but as soon as we saw the light of the lake we heard our friends at the thunderbox call our names.

The steak and beans were cold. I was starving and almost too exhausted to eat, the fork shaking in my hand. I’ll never taste a better steak, though, and I hope I’ll never have to learn my own lessons the hard way again. We ended up finding the lid over the spring the next day, just by the mouth of the feeder creek. I still dream about following that brook to the source—this time prepared like a good boy scout—and catching trout that have never seen an artificial fly. There was an eagle’s nest on a hydro tower we passed on our way south on the highway. What is it that drove me away from the physical comforts of my modern life, while that wild, majestic bird chose a manmade structure in the middle of all those wild, majestic pines?

What many critics misunderstand about nostalgia

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 we should use strong metaphorical language

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

Short story: The Ministry of Natural Resources 

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. 

Creative writing vignette #5

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. 

The purpose of art in Frazier’s Cold Mountain

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