Thursday, July 31, 2008
The founder of the Society of Jesus has always been big in my adult life, beginning with a fairly short period in the spring of 1958 when I was for a short time convinced he was my worst enemy. My mouth got really ugly about a thing or two that he had written, although I think only in Shawn's company, and it was about that time that she had begun to think that because I was so headstrong, in whatever direction I was aiming at the time, she would have to tell me to get lost unless I became a Catholic. She wasn't going to have all that blather upsetting her children. Or herself, for that matter.
I had been reading something about Ignatius and his directions in the Exercises about believing that black was white if the Church said so. The something was no doubt from an author who felt that such a principle was an assault on the autonomy of the intellect and the search for truth, and for the moment I felt the same. But I also felt humiliated in every bone in my body, after the argument and my outburst, as I rode away from Shawn's house on her borrowed bicycle, and thus had a mental experience similar to the kind Ignatius himself underwent, during his convalescence after the siege of Pamplona, whereby the discernment of spirits operated to some degree and he began to get his reading habits in order.
Yet even here there was a peculiar irony operating, because I had in fact already made a kind of Ignatian retreat, although totally unaware of such a title applying to any decision of mine, two years earlier, when I had left the parental home to live in a fraternity house on the campus while I worked for the Sun, studied a little philosophy and read a number of short stories by Ernest Hemingway set in Catholic Spain, the land of Loyola's birth, education, and conversion. This contradiction shows how widely, and wildly, my imagination could roam. Moreover, the retreat was no weekend, nor merely an entire month, because it lasted for a third of a year, was a predominantly solitary affair in so many ways, and accomplished enough changes in my view of myself that it unquestionably reached precisely some of the objectives a retreat and a run through the Spiritual Exercises hope to achieve. I later knew a bishop who spent an entire 30 days, under a retreat master, and in the company of other bishops, yet returned home worse than when he left, so I have no ear for any arguments against my conclusions on the subject.
To consolidate those advances, two months later I again took a month out of the world, after I left law school. The routine was similar: I read well, I spent an enormous amount of time alone, putting my mind to good use, and in the second case I did no outside work and was fully content and fully occupied with things of the mind and spirit, recreating my nature so that later on grace could have a swift and permanent effect.
But of course, without the scientific language of theology, especially spiritual theology, I did not at the time of these withdrawals understand my choices or the results in these terms, I only thought of myself as a writer making the choices that were appropriate to growing into my vocation.
Fortunately, my antagonism toward Ignatius was short lived, probably not a month passed before I knocked on the door of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The priests there were Redemptorists, the sons of Alphonsus Liguori, and had little to say about the Jesuit, but he showed up again after I was about three months in the fold and had begun, with Lent of 59, to go to daily mass. Through my constant reading of all sorts of Catholic writers I had become aware of the Spiritual Exercises as a process and a text, and once again rode off on a bicycle. This time it was my own, a three-speed that was by then carrying me all over the city, and one morning it carried my to the Immaculate Conception rectory and the eminently genial and warm Father Leahy, SJ.
We had a number of useful conversations, including a joke significant of the rivalry between Jesuits and Redemptorists, but he insisted that I was too young and too new to the Faith to make the Exercises, and I dropped the inspiration. There was no harm in this. By July, I was a regular student of John of the Cross via the incomparable Ascent of Mount Carmel, far and away the best spiritual writer for a little brother of Elijah.
But the Exercises turned up again, a full decade later, this time for their final, and incomparably most useful, employment.
By 1969, with all those misapplications of Vatican II in full flood, the nuns in a certain West Coast convent were zealously purging their library of "old-fashioned" books. From a family friend once a student at Notre Dame of Nelson, we received an entire box of these "rejects", including a nice little red-bound hard cover version of the Exercises. I was delighted, but not yet able to make full use of it, and stuck with my habitual texts, fully aware that I was not yet in the seventh mansion, and confident that it was only keeping on with the Carmelites that I would get me there.
Nonetheless, I dipped into Ignatius from time to time, at one point especially feeling some genuine contact with the book and a practical reason to be scouting it. This was during the Easter holidays of 1971, when Marianne was back from the Catholic high school in Kelowna for the holiday and could drop in for a chat with her director. In the fall she would return to Nelson for Grade Twelve, and year later, join our family and monastic environment forever. I would have told her that I was starting to make some sense out of the red book, although I most certainly had no interest in her reading it and insisted she keep on with Poulain and Saint Teresa, whenever her teenage mind felt the need of the most profound depths of the spirit. Also, with her living for a year two hundred miles away, the old correspondence that had done so much to create her vocation in the first place was back in operation.
When she finally joined the house, at the beginning of November, 1972, she was enrolled in a full academic course load at NDU, and quite busy at her school work. Nonetheless, the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, and all our favourite and most influential saints and angels cranked up the spiritual life, so that by Christmas, the Seventh Mansion had been constructed and Christ, in person, had really begun throwing his weight around the premises. And at some point I took up the Exercises and found them eminently clear, eminently applicable, part of a whole new level of understanding of the Scriptures, of Thomas, of the Carmelites. We followed Ignatius' scheduling as closely as a household could, albeit employing the 90 minute rule of section 19, given that Marianne had to put in a full day at the college, and I found that I had to resort to the text on a daily basis from November to Easter, at which point the Spirit advised me that I would one day have to share my appreciation with the rest of the world, and this is now happening on line.
Our new bishop has a lively, quite co-natural, relationship with the saints. He put in a three day stint of morning masses this mid-week, filling in for our regular pastor, and this triduum concluded on today's feast, where he spoke, making an interesting comparison between Ignatius and the founder of his own order, Saint Francis of Assisi. It was, to me, like an Alpha and Omega sign of my own spiritual journey, and seemed like a blessing on the process at hand.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
When the "final phase" of my fiction arrived in March of 1980, I was both mightily relieved, and also hoisted to a new level of creative tension. Writing had always been work, and I had not minded the fact, but as soon as I had done my huge hatchet job on ninety percent of what followed the two good pages of March 17 and immediately afterward, I knew I was in for a new level of waiting on the Muse, with a greater responsibility for getting it right. Therefore, whenever I was able to write fiction, I came out of it with the personal conviction that after such a struggle I really would not be required to change much, come the day of the galleys. A little punctuation here, perhaps some spelling there, maybe the occasional tightening up of the language. And, in retrospect, it seems that this is precisely what Marianne and I did when we started recording, first in 90, with my oldest son on the tape deck and controls, in assorted studios, and then in the spring of 93, with all the children finally up and gone, in our own studio in what had been the girls' bedroom, with MT on switches.
I did not mind the opportunity to improve for an audio audience, and editing for a future Pope is clearly an incentive, but I again thought of the newish text as quite satisfactory and pretty much the version that would go to galley.
From the Prologue on, in this phase, the Muse has read out a new set of directives. I remember hearing some years ago a locution: The graces of rewrite. When it came to mind the other day, I cannot admit that it sat all that well. I was afraid that it might apply in some way to the great 2200 and my entire being shuddered at the thought. I thought of what Teresa of Avila said to Jesus when her carriage got dumped in a stream. "And you wonder why you have so few real friends!" It seemed like an awful lot of ground to re-plow.
But, there was no real choice. First of all, the scanner and Word 2000 could not really talk to each other. We had success with some early chapters, but not with others. Thus the differences with the page width on the novel section of my blog. But then this turned out to be a happy fault, for we realized that typing in the text gave the best format. So now I type, and as I type I rework, actually quite happily, because I've learned that there is a significant difference between the chore of getting the story out of the author and the craft of getting it into the reader.
And the Muse does do his/her best to help. (My wife is always surprised that I think of the Muse as a He, even though I know how useless I'd be without the Virgin Mary.)
This really hit me with chapter four, which to me, marks the beginning of real story-telling. I was, I have to admit, pretty stunned at how much I found needed changing. But I got some help. For Michael's getting sat on from above, Auguste Poulain, SJ, author of the "The Graces of Interior Prayer", Routledge, London, 1950, looked over one shoulder. For the natural features of our hero's return to this planet, none other than Ernest Hemingway was editor and coach. Ernie owes me, of course, as it was his book, "Farewell to Arms", through which I had the life scared out of me. But it was lovely all the same for him to show up, as he has done regularly over the years when I've been between a rock and a hard place.
So who is showing up as I journey through chapter 5? I got to it this morning, not long after I posted #29, and again was surprised at how many changes it seemed to need. This required enough work that I was only good for two manuscript pages, and much relieved to hear the cry that lunch was served. After lunch, when I had really been planning a good walk and a stop at the government store for a little keg of Heineken, I actually flaked out on the new hammock on the enclosed porch and was made to ponder the new regime. The Heineken is mostly not for me. The hospitality season begins on Monday when little Anna, who is of course little no more, and an awfully good kayaker as well, comes for a week to hike, listen to the latest music theory, and, so she thought, sample some of Grandpa's ale. But Grandpa has been too busy to brew, and thus commercial substitutes. There are to be a lot more visiting, I hear, than just Anna.
Hemingway has a granddaughter too, Marielle, who made a movie with John Candy, "Delirious".
I've always thought there was much more truth in it than fiction. The artist really does get to kick life into action.
Later, when it's available from the BBC, we'll get to watch Michael Palin's DVD, wherein he travels through the places wherein Hemingway lived and wrote. Thus Michael pays homage to his favourite writer.
I don't think I can say that EH is my favourite. For one thing, I'm very fond of and grateful for a galaxy of authors, poets, and playwrights; for another, he simply did not cover all the bases I've felt drawn to run around. But, in the summer of 56, he was unquestionably the perfect teacher for me, and he did bring home, right to my face, France, Italy, and Spain, countries with a mostly Catholic culture, and in Spain, the landscape and language of the Carmelite mystics. This gave God a tremendous amount of room in my soul for creating a sensibility I certainly needed but just as certainly had no other way of discovering than through the boy from Oak Park, the man who not only couldn't stay home, but who also never gave the land of his birth a major novel. In that sense he may have been an honest prophet, punishing America for its adherence to the thought levels of Calvin and the philosophers of the Age of Reason.
I actually tried writing a letter to him after my summer in the woods. Perhaps all that axe and machete work and months in a tent made me feel that I had somehow caught up with the simplicity of "Big Two Heart River". I did write a letter, in fact, but it felt a little stupid, and I didn't send it. It probably felt stupid because I could not say - because I then did not really understand my vocation - that I was already praying for him and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Circumstances had brought both of them to me that year of discovery, at just the right time. I needed them, I knew that I needed them when they fell into my hands, and I had the wit to take them up and try to learn the art they awoke within, because, basically, I had rarely applied the principles of poetry to my prose. To no small degree, I was inclined to write stories like a reporter, more concerned with facts than with a pleasing style. Yet, to have mercy on my youth, I have to ponder that this ungainly method may have been necessary to get at the facts of what it was I was born to write about, that is, the life of perfection, which is something no one has ever come to by making style and poetry his main priorities. cf John of the Cross' always applicable introduction to The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
You know how blog dating works. The date for this baby is July 26, which date in the unfolding of my universe provided the substance of the inspiration for this piece, the spirit of which arose out of my re-tackling the first two pages of chapter five. But today is the 27th, with, in the liturgy, the gospel of the pearl of great price, which would indicate that if I value the labour of the original text, wherein I spent 2000 pages learning how I write, I will sell all my human fears of honest work and try to bring the thing off worthy of its substance. And that, of course, means nothing other than the discipline of the poet.
And guess what? My journal judges the situation precisely. Solomon should have been so lucky.
See this, for Sept. 27, 1990. "Very sweet memories of UBC - the last year - before I got up, of Bellevue Drive, and the phrase 'The graces of rewrite' came to mind, brought, no doubt, on the usual wings. I thought "but I haven't even drafted a text" and then remembered all the little notes and sketches of the autobiography I began in '73. It ain't over till it's over, and it ain't begun until it's begun."
As John of the Cross insists, God's intimations are infallible in themselves. Our problems with these come from our attempts at interpretation. Yesterday I was specifically involved with drawing an accurate picture of the house I lived in on Bellevue Drive from October of 58 to the very end of June, 59. This is the house, with its indescribably happy memories, that I used for the home of Angus and Yvonne Cameron, and as I sailed into chapter five anew, I knew that I had more work to do to get it right. So, this time, poetry. The graces of rewrite had nothing to do with the '73 sketches, as valuable as they might be. It was the inspirations of 1980 Someone was gunning for, ten years later, with almost twenty years to pass before they applied.
Aristotle said that a poet loves his own words. I've always felt that this did not apply to me, as my mind was more on the substance, the Word Himself, that the Greeks never knew. (Well, until Paul rode into town.) But now I have to admit that Aristotle just might be right. Again.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
I was, for a variety of excellent reasons, all primed to hit this post this morning with a tribute to one of the finest treasures of the Pacific Northwest, the huckleberry. It's been three full summers, you see, since MT and I, and Shawn if she had the day off, have scoured the local slopes for the fruit that makes the Kootenay winter the finest in the world. Renovations were the culprit. We've had to be here for our wonderfully skilled tradesmen. But the reconstruction of house and grounds, except for what we can do ourselves, is over. Our schedule is our own, and once we knew it would be, we thought again of the berry grounds.
The first huckle pick, back in the summer of 74, included the entire family, and did not actually start out as a quest for the dark blue first desk man of the summer symphony orchestra. My youngest, one of the cheering section for Dad's new enterprise on the Net, was then turning five, just old enough for an extended ramble in the bush. The family set out on a Saturday hike, loaded with lunch and water bottles, up to a trail first shown to Marianne by a high school friend who's father had been on staff at the university. We'd earlier done a road up there, and watched our dog and a huckleberry eating bear ignore each other, but we'd never scouted for the berry itself, even though we were well aware that for many of our fellow Nelsonites this was an annual event, a kind of gatherers' and gleaners' annual World Series, with the score not coming in runs, but in pounds and the quality of the year, depending on frosts, rainfall, and bees.
By the time we were ready for lunch, we had climbed high enough to be in good berry country. With a drinking vessel to each man, and a large tin box that had held the lunch, we were rigged for picking. We had always been a family of walkers, but now we were pickers as well and all hands fell to, in spite of the area being somewhat difficult, owing to steep slopes and fallen logs. Our score was five pounds, which we were very proud of until Shawn, a few days later, met a lad from a large family with years of experience and an off road vehicle for getting to the best places, who said his outfit had hauled in 200 pounds over the weekend. Undaunted, we took up the tradition in following summers and got up to harvests much larger than our first, and thus knew the winter delight of huckleberry pies, tarts, muffins, etc. The annual hunt thus became part of the family tradition, running 30 years until the renovations took over. On the Wednesday just passed, happily a cool, even wet, day unique in this long, hot, summer, our take was just over 20 pounds, with an introduction to a new device I call the bear claw, out of Lee Valley, no doubt one of our era's finest arguments for free enterprise. It's a plastic scoop, with rounded wire teeth. It took me all day and a rainstorm to finally realize the genius of the device, but MT, being a woman and a gatherer for the sake of her kitchen and the glories of a pie or two appearing in the Christmas season, was on to it from the get go. Also, as a herbalist, she had a sense that the leaves that came with the berries could be used medicinally. She was right. Looking into Terry Willard teaches us that the huckleberry leaf does the same work as leaf of the bear berry. When they are so good at humbling men in so many theatres, why do women desire the profound inefficiency of a female priest?
So the writer was trying to get to this, and to editing and posting chapter five of Contemplatives, where the presence of the Virgin Mary and some of her company is so thick you can cut it with a broadsword, but somehow he could not make it to the computer. So, he carried on reading his journals. When in doubt, study history.
July 22, 1982. "Letter from Desmond. He lost the photocopies. I can only chuckle. It is not always true that no news is good news. Says he'll be at Qualicum from Aug 5 to 18. Do I have a trip coming?" In those weeks, with what then looked like a reasonable hope of being published in Toronto by an old friend, I had been contacting old acquaintances, and had sent Desmond a photocopy of the first three chapters or so.
Back in the winter of 57-58, Sir Desmond Fitzgerald, the last Knight of Glin, now an art expert, and with his wife a valiant labourer in the struggle to keep heritage buildings in Ireland up to scratch, was fully involved on the UBC campus in the fine art of making rhetoric and literature available to the student public. He was something of a key figure in my own intellectual journey, because in many of the intimations I'd had over the 57 summer, as I deliberated over the question of journalism in Toronto, or a return to UBC for another year, I often felt that I had simply not seen enough of university life. I was only a few weeks back at the campus when I attended a debate between Fitzgerald and one Derek Fraser. The subject was the Monarchy, that is, in 1957, the Queen. To keep her, or let her go? I was not then aware of the Fitzgerald relationship with the monarchy, nor had I met Shawn, who would later tell me that she knew Derek, remembering him well from Kootenay area Bible reading competitions during Music Festival week. But I did know Derek from Older Boys' Parliament.
The debate was a hoot. Why not? Desmond was an Irish knight-to-be, and Derek would go into External Affairs. I knew I had made the right choice to come back to UBC, but I also saw that I had no skill whatsoever for debating, in public, simply political questions.
This was not, however, the Knight of Glin's finest hour, in my particular history. In October of 57 I was not a little inflamed to write a short story, "The Axe", which Desmond later published as editor of The Raven, and then in February of 58 he provided an utterly unique occasion of hospitality. You had to be there. You also have to have some background.
Precisely a year previous, one of my roommates had attended a clambake called the Academic Symposium, a gathering of faculty and student posited to discuss issues of pedagogy. Was the faculty getting through? If not, what could be done about it? Jerry had come back utterly excited, not only about the symposium itself, held up in the center of Vancouver Island at the Parksville Lodge, but also because a small group of students, including him, had driven down island to Victoria to confront the then Premier, W.A.C. Bennett, to demand new funding for UBC classrooms, out of which came the Buchanan Building.
Now Jerry had been part of the series of inspirations that had hurled me out of law school, and, again, he came up with a spark that told me, then working in downtown Vancouver, that I really should consider returning to the campus in the next year, and not only coming back but hooking up with the Academic Symposium. Thus I got myself involved with the selection committee for the symposium, before I met Shawn, and was thus in a good position to make sure she got on the list to go to Parksville after I met her.
Desmond was also on the list, I think because he had become editor of The Raven.
It was a ferry to Nanaimo, and a bus to Parksville, full of highly charged students, one of them completely enamoured, there was room check-in, supper, probably some kind of welcoming ceremony, and then dozens of students milling around at loose ends. Suddenly the knight took centre stage, with a lad who had come by car in tow, and announced to three of us - Shawn, myself, and a another lad who had been interested in her, that he thought he'd motor up to his mother's place at Qualicum and would we like to come along?
The mother's place was, literally, fit for a queen. Elizabeth and Phillip had stayed there on their 1952 journey around the Commonwealth. It not only had three distinct and very commoudius sections, but in the entrance room stood an Elizabethan dining table, solid oak, narrower than we are used to now. If you bent down a little and looked along the surface you would see the marks of the shaping knives. We bent and we saw, and we also were introduced to the housekeeper. Desmond's mother was away. I think we sat in the gold suite, five students enjoying the setting, the history, and the brotherhood of souls who all cared about literature and the common sense stimulus it gave the mind. And there was, of course, a new romance to celebrate. Would the flare of wit die with the inevitable moving on into the real world, or would it actually amount to something? The evening simply flashed. T.S. Eliot should have been there. Setting, company, opportunity; nothing hollow or stuffed about it, even if all concerned were too young to know how it would end.
The symposium went on for the next two days, but that evening was the most lyrical moment of the weekend.
So much for the 82 journal. Again, in ranging into my morning mind, yesterday, to find the keys for the next foray into cyber world, I was moved to take up my first serious effort at the young writer's daily record. I began it April 21, 1958. The first two young men mentioned are Desmond and one of the lads from the Qualicum adventure.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Bob Dylan was becoming a household word, although not yet to my household, and I had been two weeks on Nelson, a resident in Saint Martin's Hall, the men's dormitory at Notre Dame University of Nelson, and then on the night of the 14th slept in the house that would be our home for the next three-and-half years, two blocks up the street from the Nelson cathedral and Saint Joseph's School.
I'd had great luck, being told the house was available to rent in the middle of the month only an hour or so after I had walked into the university administration building, announced my presence and had settled into looking around the library. I had come to terms with a generous landlady, called Shawn, and then spent a fortnight as a bachelor hanging around the summer school, auditing a new math for teachers math class, and strolling about my new, and final, hometown.
I had gone to morning mass at the cathedral on August 1, the feast of Alphonsus Liguori, coincidentally the founder of the order that had seen me through all the sacraments bestowed on me in my becoming a Catholic, but for the rest of the two weeks my mass attendance was in the university chapel, a pleasant little A-frame with a modest electric organ I would putter at over ensuing months when no one else was in the building. Then, on the Friday, the day I had finished moving in and taking up residence, I returned to the cathedral.
At the end of mass, the rector, Father John Frederick Monaghan, came down to the pew where I was kneeling and said he'd heard that my wife and children would be arriving next morning at the Castlegar airport. Did I have a car?
I said no. I knew that there was a taxi shuttle specifically for air passengers between Nelson and Castlegar, and assumed I'd have to settle for this service.
Father Monaghan said that I was to come by the rectory next morning and pick up the keys to his car so I could pick up my family.
I was of course immensely grateful and also reflected that the man, the priest, I had heard so much about from Shawn from our earliest times together, was indeed as generous and good as he had been described. On the other hand, after five years of working with Catholic clergy, habitually with remarkable harmony and the most satisfying results, and especially in the past weeks having cast our fortunes all but irretrievably on Providence, I was not surprised at Father Monaghan's generosity. He had known Shawn and her family for years and therefore I was not at all a stranger.
It was a beautiful day for the drive, a perfect promise for the flight in, I was delighted to be seeing my little brood again, and everything about Nelson had so far gone perfectly. Click, click, click.
As I think I said earlier, my beloved had a number of reservations about coming back to her home town, and these were still with her. She appreciated the convenience of the car over a shuttle bus, but her mighty brain was somehow intuiting difficulties I hadn't thought of. The mystic has to ride on his visions, his intuitions, his locutions, or go mad. I had come to Nelson from my history of all these phenomena pointing to the town over the past years, she had agreed, backing up step by step, because Vancouver had not turned up any jobs, despite my thumping my Ronnie Knox translation on Archbishop Johnson's desk and raising my voice.
The ride home was not quite the triumph I had imagined, and she did not completely cheer up even as we drew up in front of our two-story, three-bedroom house, more space to ourselves than we'd known since we were married.
She took in the rug rats, I wrangled the luggage, then came out to take the car back to the cathedral rectory.
I experienced a new phenomena, something I had never known before. It was as if the car had an aura, although not a holy one. This aura was a kind of sickening yellow, drab, and making me feel disgusted, bored, ugly, useless. Life had no spark, no joy, no meaning. The mood had not been there when I was driving to Castlegar, nor on the road home. It had come just now, when the car and I were alone together as I was about to take it back to the rectory. Being a mystic, having behind me years of accepting the fact that God could thrust into my face the most obnoxious of signals, without giving me any clue whatsoever as to their significance, I registered the experience without getting querulous as to its significance. After all, I had no natural information on which to build a new grace of understanding.
As far as I can remember, this was the first external manifestation of negative spirits that I had encountered. I'd known innumerable dark moments within, up to that point, but not, as it were, without. The "without" experiences were habitually positive, full of light on the outside, loaded with joyful spirit on the inside. And few movements of the spirit had been more delightful than the promises of things to come in Nelson and the south-eastern corner of my home province. Thus the yuk was a complete surprise, and a great puzzle.
And yet I never thought of it again for a long time, even when I began to run into rumours about Father Monaghan, or had exchanges with him myself which cast doubts as to his priestly integrity.
Possibly the reader who thinks in the short term, or views Christ's Church as primarily a practical expedient for making life a little more orderly than it would be without such an organization, will find this Divine schedule of 'Now you see it, now you don't', somewhat wasteful, or administratively inefficient. How come God did not 'finish the check', as they say in the hockey arena? As I'd already had a few locutions - a very few, mind you - why did he not simply fire off another one? "Father Monaghan is a dirty old man. Take him by the scruff of the neck and drag him to the police station."
A very good question indeed, one I've often asked myself, being the helpful type and liking to see communities run happily. The ministry of human resources, when Monaghan was finally run to ground, in 1988, gave out the figure of at least 278 victims. He'd been at it for decades, but if he'd been nipped in 1964, that total would have been a lot less. Why did a supposedly loving God, anxious for the well-being of little girls, simply not tip me the wink? After all, I was no servile Dogan, eager to suck up to the clergy. I loved priests and all they gave, when they were good and trying for wisdom, but I'd also never been pushed around by the collar and I'd more than once, metaphorically speaking, backed a priest or bishop up against the wall. The Old Testament Jews, remember, knew all about the difference between priests and prophets, and so did I. Once the Holy Spirit told me to jump I could only ask how high, no matter what the consequences.
Well, God once said to me, not so long ago, "I never waste your time." This means, that as God is omniscient, he knew that none of the other agencies that eventually began to realize and exercise their stewardship were ready to co-operate with "merely" supernatural evidence, because they were not even acting on ordinary evidence.
Parents had for years complained to Bishop Doyle. He did nothing about it. I have no evidence about what was said to the police in those earlier years in Nelson, but I know that the police in Newfoundland, over the Mount Cashel incident, thought of the Church as too strong to take on.
Do the police really have that option? Are there two separate criminal codes, one for clergy and one for other people? Also, when I was having my own mystic's difficulties with the ministry of human resources the police would not deal with it, and other government agencies showed no evidence of any education that would make them capable either. And finally, the press. Although I actually knew nothing concrete about local clerical misbehaviour until 1968, in the early summer of 1965 I wrote a letter to the Nelson Daily News expressing my general discontent with the university. It was not printed, nor was the editor of the day curious to examine my intuitions, even though in his position he must have been privy to all sorts of information which I later had to learn the hard way.
In other words, all my wife's apprehensions of Nelson small-mindedness turned out to be true, although of course in many more places than the heart of the Kootenays. Such is the life of the thoughtful Catholic, especially where contemplation according to the norms of the Carmelites is part of the household furniture.
It's all so plain, in retrospect. That's why we study history, if we actually study. So if I have the same spiritually propelled energy now, on behalf of the young, only this time in the sphere of music rather than sexual interference, why am I running into the same indifference amongst the established authorities?
And the music business is getting very serious. Huge breakthroughs in the past week, and even though it's summer and the off season for keyboard studies, visits from a couple of grandchildren have given the opportunity to demonstrate how these new techniques bring a sparkle to the young people's eyes.
Is there any intelligent life out there?
Monday, July 14, 2008
It had been jiggeting around in my mind that I would have to come up with a post that would explain this spousal observation on my style, structure, and substance, and I was looking forward to do so in fairly academic fashion until last night, when I was actually rescued by the one name that everyone who can read associates with the Victorian age of big, fat, stories often released in installments.
We were at a modest concert in a coffee house, right here in Nelson, overlooking the old rail yard and operated, as the universal unfolding would have it, by a daughter of Eric Johnson, the Nelson native and folksinger who made us feel so at home in the first days in the Kootenays. Obviously the tradition of hospitality has been continued by Laura, also a musician, and she was hosting my wandering grandson, his singing partner, and another young lady, all three of them doing basically songs they had written. They had CDs to prove it, too. Record studios have replaced trading posts from one end of the landscape to the other.
It was a fine evening. Full house, warm night, and the music composed and performed inspired me to come up with a couple of ideas of my own. But also, there were some thing said by the girls about their days in music school that provoked my teaching instincts, and of course any opportunity to hustle the numbers I take when I can get it. So I struck up a conversation at closing time with the third singer/composer/guitarist. That went quite well, especially as #1 lab rat, sister to the wandering magician and also the impresario, hove to with a hug to vouch for me, and confirmed that the method makes sense to her.
But the young lady had also told us she is studying literature, in the East, and when I asked her to name her favourite authors she came up with a lot of names that have not crossed the generation gap. I shook my head, and shook my head, and no doubt began to look less and less useful to her education. But then she said that she loved Dickens, and said it with genuine enthusiasm. (I think at her age, lost among Camus and Brighton Rock, I had wandered from the man who gave us Scrooge and Tiny Tim.)
Aha, said I, also with enthusiasm, because now we could connect because of my wife's old label for my story-telling intentions.
This had come on quite quickly, long before we were married, probably while Shawn was reading the manuscript pages of the book I had been trying to get back to when she was defending literary symbols. She finished the reading, actually, of the finished draft, as I rowed her around Stanley Park's Lost Lagoon, one sunny afternoon in the spring. And not deliberately, she lost the last two or three pages overboard. I wasn't worried. Once I was on a roll, the words were not that hard to come by. But the friend who had said you had to burn the first million words had said nothing about drowning.
Shawn also said that I was like Winston Churchill. I would have to do a lot before I was published. Neither of us considered that technology would be the one that had to do a lot.
So I told the young lady about my blog, saying she would find literature as well as music under discussion. And some literature itself.
The literature was possible because the old first chapter of Contemplatives, the first of the three sent to Rome, had hit the Web late Sunday afternoon, after a weekend of surprisingly extensive rewrite. There was a glitch in getting the text from the CD - and that had come from a scanner - into this computer, for it would not morph into Blogger text, which is, of course, a delight for the author to behold.
Benedict is about to celebrate World Youth Day in Sydney. I feel as if I've already had my contact with the third generation.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
I'm rewriting some of the words, in the name of inspiration.
"Something old, something new, something far, something near."
I've written enough doggerel to realize that this variation doesn't rhyme, but it does possess the virtue of alliteration, so we'll use it because it defines the process of inspiration in about as few words as this can safely be done. It's short, and yet it encompasses the extremes I not only had to sort through in the designing of my first novel, but also the extremes I have to sort through now as I work at getting out the message that the novel is becoming available on the Net.
I probably haven't really settled into the magnificent matter-of-factness of the situation of all this magnificent technology, but I'm trying. Maybe by Christmas.
As for the near, that started last week when I asked the Valley Voice to run an ad. As for the far, since then I've been emailing some rather major dailies, finding out along the way that out of four papers so far, two do not have, as far as I could see, a regular religion editor or columnist. As just any new author looking for readers, this made me grateful for Vancouver and London, England, but as any old mystic and prophet pondering the decline of civilization, this made me fearful for Toronto and New York.
It might be argued that I should have searched for the literary people, and perhaps I will, once I've swung out on the inspiration I picked up this morning as I paid some detailed attention to the editor's note in a magazine that happens to be part of the near.
This was "Kootenay Mountain Culture", published out of Nelson for a few years now, carrying all sorts of ads dealing with the outdoor life in all its forms - from kayaking and mountain biking in the summer to skiing in the winter - but also running nicely to some very thoughtful prose about what it should mean to live in these parts, or to visit them for a mental as well as physical experience.
Summer 2008 is the Design issue, and because we have begun to put Contemplatives on the blog, I have quite naturally been moved to talk about the design of the story. Mitchell Scott's words coming to me at such a time indicated that I should get on with it immediately, even before I took on the pleasant task of what used to be known as editing the galley proofs, in the days of hot lead and ink. Imagine, half-a-milennium of technology now history wherever the computer can function. In the Ubyssey days I put in hundreds of hours with galleys, and throughout the years of writing Contemplatives I assumed it would be galleys I would be poring over once I'd landed a publisher.
When I started the final version, in March of 1980, I was using a typewriter, which meant that when I decided to start printing copies for sale, two months later, because I could only afford photocopy, I had much less than a text that looked like book print. This bugged me no end, so you can imagine how nice it is to see how the text looks now. Thank you, Mr Gates and others. The reader may find the material or the style challenging, but at least he can't turn away on the excuse that it doesn't look as if it were worth bothering with. Mind you, the loyal few did plod through the readers' copies that we made, and offered all sorts of encouraging comments that helped keep me going.
And of course photocopying, in 1982, made it entirely possible to send the text to John Paul II, which, to some degree, made November of that year the first month of the rest of my life. His own writings on John of the Cross may not have been perfect, but he had the humility and the wisdom to recognize what had come across the transom, and that too helped with the novel's progress. Talk about design. God lays it down, always shrouded in mystery, and we wait to watch it decipher itself.
What is deciphering now is the fact that I am about to put the more or less final editing process to the first three chapters that Marianne sent to Rome on November 22. It should be quite the spiritual adventure to go through those anniversaries again, in the process of a final edit. An edit, by the way, made as efficient as it could possibly be by the people at Google and Blogger.
Oh my. Chuckle chuckle. They sound like pair of characters designed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
What was Tim Berners Lee doing at Easter of 1973? That's when the Muse spoke to me about the Web, although I didn't understand it at the time.
But that's part of the design, is it not?
Right. It was the day after I had taken Shawn Harold home from the first party we had shared where we actually talked to each other. Singing back and forth is one thing, conversation is another. It's Monday, at lunch time, on the campus, or rather on its very western edge, at the top of a sandy cliff, backed by fir trees, looking down on the mouth of the Fraser River. I'm exulting inwardly about being so finally, properly, proportionally, absolutely, in love, and she's wondering what the hell she's gotten into. And of course we're playing academic poker, because we are, after all, students, and if students don't use that time primarily for their intellects they're wasting their own valuable time and abusing the tax payer.
I have no idea what started the post-lunch bag conversation, on a relatively gray day, but all of a sudden the question of symbols in literature came up and I decreed to the firs and the ravens and English Bay that symbols, as explained by the academics, were bullshit.
Shawn, in third year and pondering an honours English degree, was not only horrified, but immediately got bloody angry. She had been reading a variety of quite excellent critics, among them Allen Tate, who in the post-80 years of Contemplatives I was to rely on continually, and couldn't imagine why I was suddenly so pig-headed and ungrateful for honest labour over the classics. I actually was, in all honesty, protecting an incredibly valuable childhood experience against the stupidity of certain critics as I understood them, but I had no words then to defend myself, and came off as a first class Philistine, as Matthew Arnold used to call them. (Later, Gerald Vann, OP, did the same thing.)
You note, I hope, that we were not arguing over religion, sex, money, politics, or opinions of friends or artistic objects, but simply symbols in general.
She left for a two-hour English class. Late Victorian authors and poets. With Dr Hunter-Lewis, the man who shut down the Georgia pub with Dylan Thomas. There were some great lads in the class as well, including Desmond Fitzgerald, of the landed Irish Fitzgeralds. He also recognized Shawn's enormous literary sensibility, and had met her before I did. But, he had explained to her, because his grandfather - I think it was - had gambled off a good part of the family property, it was up to him to marry money and restore the family fortune. Shawn's Dad had a good and responsible job, and even belonged to the Terminal City club, but he was not wealthy.
I went back to the Ubyssey offices, to work on the novel from the spring, which I had recently taken up again. (We had actually had a conversation as I bashed at it on the morning before the play.) But no words came. Had a woman ever done this to me before? Not a bloody word. Nothing but a blank stare.
I killed time, somehow, until 3:30, and then marched over to the war-time huts where classes were held before the erection of the Buchanan building. I met her at the door and said we were going for coffee in the auditorium's basement cafeteria. She complied.
We got the coffee and sat at a table in the presence of two of our dearest friends. I was still steaming, and rather quickly into the fourfold conversation announced, "One of these days you'll marry me."
She grinned, and the brown eyes flashed again. "Probably I will," she said.
Mitch Scott grew up, in part, a couple of blocks from the property those brown eyes ruled over, full of our children and other people's, for almost five years.
That's probably symbol enough, and I'm very happy to chronicle it.
Monday, July 7, 2008
It has been a rather momentous week.
On Tuesday, the bishop did make it for dinner as scheduled, showing up precisely on time, five pm, in his brown Capuchin robe and sandals, just as MT hoped he would. Conversation flowed wonderfully for three-and-a-half hours. He compared my home-brewed dark ale to beer he had drunk in
On Thursday, I had a personal rerun of some of the most difficult spiritual hours of my beginning days as a catechumen and came out of it realizing that it was time to try putting my first novel on the Web. I had been working on the process of posting some excerpts on a geographically relevant Website on the coast, but when I found the individual chapters and read them in context I knew publishing selectively would favours to no one. MT flew at the technical parts of the operation and by late yesterday the prologue to "Contemplatives: The Novel" was not only available via the mouse but linked to this blogspot.
After all these years of various forays into the world of paper publishing I'm still astounded at the opportunity of the technology now available for writers, and can only offer Blogger.com my heartiest thanks. Obviously the Omniscient One has had in mind all along the means which would allow me to be both published author and relatively secluded hermit at the same time, but we can only know events hidden in His personal schedule when he jolly well chooses to let them manifestly unfold.
This time of year has always been interesting for its inspirations for attempts at getting the novel out there. In 80, I was printing little photocopies and selling them, only to give up when it felt that the format lacked a dignity proportionate to the subject material. Also, sending copies to a variety of university literature faculties had failed to arouse any interest. In 82 it looked for a few weeks as if an old friend, turned publisher in
Ten years later, minus a month, we had a bit of a tussle with the policies of the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine, as we were flogging the tapes of the read aloud version, but we bashed past their policy of refusing to comment on an unpublished manuscript by insisting - via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - that the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was entitled to a spiritual life, especially as the then Pope, John Paul II,had already been commenting on the chapters he had been receiving since the end of 1982.
At this morning's mass I reflected that this is the first time I had sat in the cathedral as a published author. Of a novel, that is. The Nelson Daily News has kindly carried my letters on a number of subjects for years - with a few exceptions - and as Shawn pointed out to me on our customary post-liturgy stroll, my only published short story, "The Axe" was carried in a student magazine. But on that fateful morning in early 1952, when the Muse scared the pants off me by telling me I was a novelist, there was no mention of short stories, songs, plays, or letters to the editor, so obviously this morning's realization carried the tang of a special moment.
And to celebrate, there were two turtles visible at the waterfront pond! Their backs were gleaming, too, for both had just crawled out of the water.
One of the many fruitful things about the evening with Bishop John was the grace to be able to chat about some of the more peculiar things in my own personal spiritual thinking on the nature of the Third Person of the Trinity. I had actually had a very real encounter with the Spirit one late summer evening in
This commentary on my own spiritual puzzles came up because of the bishop speaking very passionately about the Holy Spirit and Saint Francis of
Fagan was a man of unswerving loyalty to the authority of the Church, was determined to see only the best in people as long as such a view was rationally possible, and had boundless enthusiasm for life from day to day. Sitting across him day after day I was regularly grateful, if only as a writer, to have the experience of such intimate daily contact with someone almost old enough to be my father, yet with the faith my father had never had.
It must say something for the spirit of a good diocesan priest when it has taken a Capuchin bishop to make me so reminiscent of the good old days.
Father Fagan also had a great love of the first music of the liturgy, the Gregorian, as he had spent most of his student years in the Benedictine abbey at Mission. We did all sorts of Gregorian chant in Ocean Falls, and were in at the start of the revised Easter liturgy. The diocese of Nelson, four years later, was playing catch up with Easter and has rarely had any lasting ability with Gregorian unless my family was involved.
How will the diocese now cope with Benedict's obvious preferences regarding the recovery of the liturgy?
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
They had come to play basketball, in spite of the heat of that especially warm day at the end of August, in spite of the fact that the place where they chose to scrabble around each other and dunk their baskets as best as they could was the blacktop yard of the school that was about to swallow them up in a few days, reclaiming them for months from the halcyon hours of the summer holidays.
They could have gone to the beach to loll about on the sand in the sun, and swim as the mood took them, but they had gathered in the school yard, the six of them, to throw around a basketball. They were too young to hold down regular summer jobs, but one of them came from a family of means, as her father headed up the town’s main industry, the lumber mill and the woods operation that supplied it, so they might have cadged a boat and gone fishing, or simply messed about like Ratty and Mole in the waters off the island, talking about the nothing that was everything and counting down the days until they returned to the questionable business of acquiring an education. But they had decided on basketball.
Ratty and Mole were big that summer with Deirdre Blakeley, the daughter of the manager, and of a mother who had always read to her when she was small, and encouraged her reading when she became skilful in the art in her own right; and so was Roderick Haig-Brown, who was still alive and writing not too far north of their own town on that literarily blessed shore, so a boat out on the water came under the heading of inspiration and adventure that had been much acknowledged in the greatest written works imaginable. Not dealing with girls in his stories for youngsters, Haig Brown was not quite Arthur Ransome, with his pairs of brothers and sisters in Swallows and Amazons, but he was local. Wildcat Island never smelled like the shores Deirdre was used to, with their salt and seaweed and ever changing tides that in some places she knew left huge reaches of sand or mud.
And yet Deirdre and her friends had chosen basketball, and that of the most nonchalant variety, half-a-dozen youngsters in their ordinary summer togs all horsing about a single basket, with no particular ambitions to excel physically, so they could spend a maximum of energy simply talking, prudently getting ready, had they been willing to acknowledge anything so adult as prudence, for another long run at the books and the desks and the teachers that would not know a decent break until Christmas.
They had arrived not long after lunch, contemptuous of the mid-day heat, determined to make all the use they could of the last days and hours of their unsupervised existence, and within half-an-hour had come to many grand conclusions, socially speaking, and not a few excellent plays and nicely sunk shots, some from occasionally battling off interference close under the basket, others from well placed deliciously suspenseful long tossed drifters. Of the two boys present, one was destined for remarkable glories on an Island already famous for its basketball players.
In those days there was not the hockey there is now, and basketball, under roofs shielding them from the omnipresent winter rain, was big. He was also a generous lad, destined to become after basketball a teacher, and he always took pains to show the rest of them how to dribble properly, that is, without looking at the ball. The afternoon had begun well and no one saw any reason why it should not continue in just this manner until it was time to think about supper and drift off home, probably by way of an intervening corner store and several bottles of pop. In the holidays, basketball could go on forever, with neither classes nor homework looming in its way. All that leisure was a lovely thing to hold on to.
And then had come the music.
Via a long-standing tradition, there were two pianos in Saint Bridget’s school, one in the ample space that doubled as gymnasium and auditorium, one in the grade eight classroom, which happened to be right beside the playground, because in the history of the religious order that had taken care of the souls of the young in the Catholic school in Blackfish Bay, the teacher in charge of the grade eights, the oldest class, was usually musical. And this year to come, so the news that spreads from convent to town as quick as can be had told it, the custom was not to be broken except in the vocation and sex of the grade eight teacher, who was to be a young man, not a nun and not a religious brother. And yet the news held it to be – and Deirdre had this on good authority from her mother – that the young man was nonetheless no duffer on the subject of the Faith, coming from a family famous for it in many ways, and also, apparently, a considerable musician and singer. It seemed that he played all sorts of instruments and knew all sorts of well-placed musicians and artists of other skills, and could teach art himself. It also happened that of the six youngsters playing basketball on that warm afternoon, five would find themselves in the grade eight class room.
None of this was very exciting to the boys, especially when they heard that the new teacher was supposed to be very knowledgeable in classical music. It would all be so much better for them if he knew something about sports. And then there was the thought that if he were only a layman, he might not be as strict as the sisters, and they could get away with murder, maybe run the classroom themselves. They were even talking along those lines, the two boys among the four girls, as they thumped the ball on the ground and alternately hit or missed the basket, and chortling over the possibilities. The boys had never known any males teaching in public schools..
And then, as I say, came the music, floating out of the grade room beside the playground, and although their individual skills and taste and understanding varied – Deirdre was the most accomplished – they all understood that it was music, summoned out of the piano with an amazing combination of vigour and lyricism, not quite like anything they had ever heard before. Perhaps floating is not the write word, for all the energy that brought forth the sound.
The boys tried to keep the game going, but all the girls wavered and Deirdre most of all came to a full stop. As Aristotle said, a musician, when she hears music, can think of nothing else. “Would you listen to that?” she said. “Who is it? It can’t be Sister Barbara. She went off at the end of June and no one’s seen her around since. Besides, she never played like that. That’s really loud, sort of like dance music. Almost rock and roll. Anybody know the tune?”
They all shook their heads, but the boys gave up bouncing the ball.
“Actually, I don’t think it is a tune. I think that’s some kind of scale practice, although it doesn’t sound like any of the scale practices I’ve had to do. It’s not at all boring. Just listen to it!”
On the subject of music, there was little point in arguing with Deirdre, and they listened. And, to tell the truth, it was not difficult, for there was indeed a mighty sweep of sounds pouring through the open windows, powerfully and consistently rhythmical, and yet at the same time there was no shortage of a very melodic emphasis. Very tuneful, yet not a tune, for the performer – or student, it was not easy to decide which – now and again inserted lengthy repetitions of one chord, or two or three in a repetitive pattern.
“Do you know what?” Deirdre said, “That person is practicing and having an awfully good time doing it.”
“Do you recognize it yet?” asked one of the girls.
“No. Like I said, I can’t make it out. He – or she – is mixing up major and minor like I’ve never heard before, I think. At the beginning it was just major chords, I think, and yet not in any scale that I could recognize. And yet it’s not a tune, which is the only place I’ve ever heard major and minor mixed up like that. Well, that person, whoever it is, is playing little tune passages in a way, but I bet it’s just some kind of exercise in which he’s having a lot of fun. That doesn’t sound like any of my exercises. I hate my exercises and now Mrs. McCallum is telling me I have to do even more exercises and scales when I go back in the fall. It’s enough to make me think of giving up the piano!”
“Oh, no!” said the same girl. “You’re too good a it to quit. Besides, your Mom would never let you.”
“The thing is, she would. She quit, you know, at just the age I am now. She had a great row with her parents, but in the end she won, and she quit. She said it didn’t make any sense that there were some subjects she loved, like history and home economics, and literature, and some she’d started to hate, like the piano. We’ve been talking about it, and if I don’t want to go back, I don’t have to. Would you listen to that? How is he using his left hand? It’s got to be a man! It’s so strong! That left hand is incredible!” For a moment, she danced a few lively steps. But her musician’s curiosity suffocated her desire to perform and she became still again to listen. How was the player doing what he was doing?
“Oh, I can’t stand it,” Deirdre said. “I’ve got to go in there and see what’s going on! Who’s coming with me?”
“ Not me,” said the taller of the two boys, the one who made the best shots, especially the long ones. “I’m not going into that building until I absolutely have to. Music or no music. School starts too soon as it is.”
Deirdre looked around the group. None of them looked eager, and except for the girl who’d told her she had to keep studying, there was a uniform shuffling of feet and then a starting drift back to playing positions. Who in their right mind wanted to deal with a teacher in these last hours of the holidays? “Maggie,” Deirdre implored, “You’ll come, won’t you? I’ve got to see what’s going on! I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t find out!”
The tall boy thumped the basketball on the blacktop. “Women!” he said.
“No,” said Deirdre. “Not women. Artists. I have to know what’s going on in there. I have to know. I’ve never heard it before and it sounds really good. If some great basketball player came to town and from watching him you thought you could double your accuracy from the court you’d ask him to show you how it’s done. C’mon, Maggie. Let’s leave these jocks to their fate.”
All the way to the front of the school building, Deirdre was terrified that the front door would be locked. It was one thing to go right up to the door of the classroom and humbly ask to come in and inquire about the magic; it was something much different to bang on a locked main door, interrupting the pianist in the midst of his flight. But the door was open, wonderfully open, and inside the building the music for some reason sounded even better, even more inviting, bouncing off the empty walls that would soon be full again. Nor did there seem to be anyone else in the school, and the door to the grade eight room was also open. There would not even be the sensitive moment of wondering if they should turn the handle. They peered in.
It was a man, as she had begun to be positive, and therefore he had to be their new teacher. What was his name again? K something. Ketchum? Cartwright? These were two names she knew from her Dad’s business. No. Cameron. Mr. Cameron. That was it. But she’d forgotten his first name. Well, what did that matter? Students didn’t call their teachers by their first names anyway.
The music stopped, and for a second the girls both expected a scolding for their boldness, for causing an interruption, but the man only grinned and said, “Aha! An audience. And a generous one, too, for I’m only working on scale patterns. No tunes today, I’m afraid. No tunes until school starts, and then of course you’ll have the bother of having to learn them. That is, if you’re in my class.”
“But that’s why we’re here,” Deirdre said. “I knew you were doing exercises. I study the piano too, and I never heard anything before like what you were doing so we came in to see if you’d show me. I mean, they may have only been studies, but they were beautiful, and I wanted to see if I could catch on to your method. Mrs. McCallum really pitched into me at the end of the year and threatened me with a whole book of scales. You must know Hanon?”
The young man chuckled one of the warmest chuckles Deirdre had ever heard, and it was at that moment that both girls understood that this was not only a musician who could do things they had not been aware of, but that he had an amazing ability to make them feel utterly at home, and Deirdre, being a generous soul, suddenly felt sorry for the children who had stayed on the playground. But it was all right. They’d have him next week.
“Only as the enemy,” Mr. Cameron said. “He and his like are no friends of mine. Or of yours, I suspect. I take it that Mrs. McCallum is your piano teacher?”
“Yes. Oh, she’s very nice. But she’s . . . .”
“Ambitious for you. She wants you to get your grade ten with the Conservatory and all that.”
“Yes. And I love the piano and I love to play and both my parents are very encouraging in all the right ways but I know I hate scales. They seem stupid and boring and unmusical.” She had never put her attitude into just these words before, so thoroughly categorical, but there was something about the presence of this dark haired new teacher of theirs that made it possible, no necessary, that she say what had lain in the bottom of her heart. “And I think I’m starting to hate the conservatory.”
“And so you should,” Mr. Cameron said, still grinning, but both girls knew he was looking them over thoroughly. In fact they felt that he was somehow looking right through them. “The conservatories, all of them as far as I know, are great victims of eighteenth century philosophy, of the neglect of Aristotle and sensible metaphysics, to say nothing of metaphysical sensibility.”
He kept grinning. “Do you know what I’m talking about?
“Not really,” Maggie finally spoke up. “But it sounds very interesting. Is this something we have to study this year?”
“Oh, yes. But it’s not as hard as it sounds. You do know who Saint Thomas Aquinas was?”
“Yes,” said Deirdre. “His feast day was in March. We had a special mass, and Sister Principal said a few words. She was our teacher last year and we learned a lot about the middle ages and how Saint Thomas baptized Aristotle so the Church could stay sensible. But what’s that go to do with piano studies? My Mom talks about Saint Thomas sometimes too. She told me that your grandfather is a great expert on his writing. And some other saint whose name I can’t remember.”
“Ah. It’s a wise mother who understands her daughter’s teacher. But right now the only thing we need to know about Thomas or Aristotle is that a philosopher in the seventeen hundreds decided to ignore both of them and came up with his own version of Plato just in time to confuse piano teachers, so that they ran away from common sense and forgot what Aristotle said about music being a branch of arithmetic. You see, what you heard me doing, and seemed to be charmed by, was merely the use of numbers as applied to the keyboard. Numbers and common sense, along with the ears God gave you and some attention to all the possibilities of fingering, but also with some attention to some rules.”
As he had begun to talk, Mr. Cameron had gestured with his hands, inviting them to come right up to him, so that they were now in full view of the front of the piano, and from that vantage point, Deirdre could plainly see that the shelf where one usually found printed music was totally bare. Not a book, not a sheet.
“Good heavens! What you were playing you were playing from out of your own head, weren’t you? You don’t have any written music in front of you.”
“Not a jot. Of course. When you know the math, you don’t need written music for these exercises. In fact, you don’t want it. It would just get in the way. Kant came along just as printing was about to get cheaper, so some people grabbed at the opportunity to make money by making it seem like students couldn’t get along without books full of stupid studies. I’m not talking about real compositions. For the classic stuff, printing is both necessary and very democratic. It saves us from the tyrannies of the oral tradition.”
“Who was Kant? What did he compose?”
“He didn’t compose anything. He was a philosopher. But philosophers have a way of affecting art and the way that art is taught.”
“You must have been really smart to figure all this out,” Maggie said.
“Not me. My grandfather. He only played the violin, and he could read music to sing with too. But when my mother wanted to study the piano he started to figure out the stuff she didn’t like and found a better way. She taught me.”
“Is that the same grandfather that knew about Aquinas?” Deirdre asked.
“Yep. That’s how he knew what was wrong with the teaching methods. Finally. It took him a while.”
Well, Deirdre thought, it’s now or never. He can only say no. Maybe it’s a secret he’s not allowed to share, even if he looks so nice. And sounds so nice. But I have to ask, or I’ll die. She gathered her courage, again. “Will you show us? Will you show us what you were doing, and explain it? I’m pretty good at math, and so is Maggie, and Maggie has started studying the piano too. A couple of years ago.”
“ Same teacher?”
“Yes,” said Maggie.
“Ah. So eventually more Hanon, or at least the watered down versions. Hang ‘em all. Sure I’ll show you. But what about the game? You guys were doing some good stuff. That tall boy is a great shooter. And he was teaching you some drills. Seems like a nice lad.”
“That’s Andy. Andrew Johnson. I tried to get them all to come in with us, but they don’t want school to start yet. They’re not musicians.”
“To a degree at least, they will be. But all in due time. For the moment, let us seize the day and get you started.”
“Really. What else are teachers for, but to teach? In the key of C major, to begin with, only forget that the letters are the most important names for the notes and start to believe, for now and forever that it is the numbers that give us the dynamics and therefore the meaning. Can you sing?
Of course you can. Whoever heard of girls who couldn’t sing?”
“Of course we can sing, especially after Sister Barbara. But what’s singing got to do with piano?”
“Everything, as you shall see. Think of it as a conversion experience.”
“Teacher’s joke. Never mind. Try this.” He poked middle C and sang out in a perfectly resonant voice: “One”. Only he held the syllable for a very long time, longer than they had ever heard anyone hold a note, including Sister Barbara. They were both so shocked by the power of Mr. Cameron’s voice that they couldn’t sing a note themselves.
Deirdre finally spoke up. “Do we have to sing like that?”
“No. Of course not. I was just using up some of the energy I picked up when I was rolling on my chords. You sing as quietly as you like, so long as I can hear you get the numbers right. Okay? ‘One, two, three’ and so on. After all, you wouldn’t want the others to hear you. Let’s go.” Thus they started, with four slow beats on each note, as he took them up the octave. He did not sing loudly this time, but he surprised them by using “one” for the top note. “You could say ‘eight’, because it’s the same thing, but the vowel for ‘one’ is a back vowel and easier to sing than the front vowel that does for ‘eight’, when you get to the high notes. For some people the upper C is getting high. All right? Take a deep breath and we’ll go down. Going down is easier by the way. The Greeks liked to sing their scales downward.”
They did as they were told, but Deirdre had another question at the bottom of the stairs. “Do you teach singing too?”
“’Fraid so. It’s a family disease. We will do a lot of it, but I think you’ll all have a good time. Singing is very good for you, especially when you do it right.”
“Do you know more about singing than Sister Barbara did?”
“At the moment, I have no idea, although if Sister Barbara did not study with my mother, I just might. But do you know what? I’ve been incredibly rude. I haven’t even asked you your names.”
“Of course not,” Deirdre said. “You were waiting to see if we could sing. This is Maggie – Margaret – Schlegel – and I’m Deirdre Blakeley.”
“ Irish. Ah. I know lots of Irish and Celtic songs. And Schlegel! German! The greatest heritage in classical music. Maggie, it will be up to you to become my protector when I start your classmates on Bach’s Variations. That’s where the numbers really strut their stuff. My first name is Paul, by the way, but things being what they are, you have to use my surname. At least in public.”
But the impelling curiosity that had summoned Deirdre into the school in the first place had not been satisfied. “That’s neat about the singing, Sir. But what were you doing with the piano keys? That was unbelievable, and I have no idea what it was!”
Paul studied her with mock ferocity. “Ah. So you want me to reveal the family secret, do you? Give away the treasures of the guild?. It might cost you supper, now that I know who you are. I was chatting with Father McKeon, inasmuch as I’m staying with him for the moment and he told me how involved your mother was with the arts. Well, it would cost your mother supper, although not necessarily tonight.”
“Really? Tonight would be great. I know things are quiet at the house. Maggie is staying overnight anyway and we can just bring you home and tell Mom we need another plate. I know she’s got a whole bunch of cold salmon in the fridge. Or did Father have you lined up with someone else? Or maybe he’s expecting to talk more with you?”.From what had been said at home about the new teacher, Deirdre had got it into her head that for all his youth, Mr. Paul Cameron knew so much about the Church that he would be the sort the priest would want to be talking to all the time, so much so that he might even live at the rectory. The religious elements had seemed to be the predominant subjects, her mother speaking to her father in quite amazing tones, actually, and the artistic elements had not had quite as much attention. So if the music was any sign of his abilities with religion, he must be really something. It also hit her, with no little force, that this was the first time she would have a man for a teacher. As young as he was – what, twenty-three, twenty-four? – he was not unlike Father McKeon, and yet he was also, somehow, different.
“It all sounds very organized then, almost ordained. Therefore, I am under obligation to let the cat out of the bag. So be it. Smarter than any of the Bachs, and even smarter than Beethoven and Mozart, shall you be, courtesy of Aristotle and my Grandpere.” He paused. “That is, if you practice. Do you know the joke about the little boy with the violin who asked the old man the way to Carnegie Hall?”
They did not, so Paul told them: Practice, son, practice, and then began to show them the major and minor triads for each degree of the scale, with the appropriate left hand notes. He made them do quite a lot of singing of the numbers, and scolded them kindly when their fingering was not consistent, but both girls knew they had never had so much fun around a piano before.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
From the earliest days the Cariboo has been Oblate country, evangelized by as hardy and devoted a band of missionaries as ever settled amongst pagans, and as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate obviously have by their name a special relationship with the Mother of Christ, one should not be surprised by her firing off special messages in her own back yard. But, as I was to realize within a few months, there was more to it than that.
One of the most mysterious elements in the ultimate pairing of Shawn and Ken was the fact that the set of friends that we both spent so much time with in the spring and autumn of 1957, although it saw plenty of us, never saw us at the same time. Both of us, as throughout our lives, indeed already 'had a life', had other things to do and people to see, and simply never showed up with this set at the same time, until it was time for it to matter.
I was actually totally surprised to learn, as things unfolded, that a lad I had known well, and liked very much, for months, had actually been her boyfriend, and a frequent visitor to the digs I shared with two other lads, one a student, one working downtown like myself. Had I been a member of the Players' Club Shawn and I would have met, but in those days I had no thoughts of acting.
By the time of the blue light, Shawn and the lad had broken up, and faith was the main factor, because for all his other qualities, he had no interest in religion. Literature, philosophy, and good music - especially jazz - yes, but not religion. She had grown up in a mixed marriage, and did not look forward to watching history repeat itself under her own roof.
It was from him, however, that I first learned her name. It was a wet November night, and I had stayed on the campus so as to drive home the young lady I was then spending time with. She was rehearsing her part in the English Department's annual production of a classic, this year Ibsen's "Peer Gynt". Somehow I ran across the old boyfriend on my way to the auditorium and we had just arrived inside when three girls came down the stairs, led by the bounciest of the trio, in long brown hair and with eyes like saucers. They were all laughing. I knew one of the girls who was not my passenger, but the eyes of the dynamo I had never stared into before.
"Oh!" said the girl. Nobody knew then that she had just been confronted by the old and the new, least of all me. But she must have had a sense that something was up.
"Who's that?" I asked my companion.
"Shawn Harold," said he, without any reference to a former alliance. I drove my passenger home and life continued until Christmas Eve day, when I got a long stretch of the dark night for a vigil present and then on the night of the 27th saw Miss Harold again. For the second time I asked a question of a member of the set that had never seen us together, as we had all gathered for a party in a large house in West Vancouver.
"Who did you come with?" I asked him.
He pointed to the same girl, standing across the living room in a violet wool dress, very well cut. "That," he said. I gathered there had been some lively conversation in the vehicle that had brought them all, but I didn't have much time to think about it because my job for the night was resident minstrel, and all old friends were happy to see each other after Christmas with family; we had a great deal to talk about. The young lady I had driven home from the rehearsal was spending the holiday in California with the family of the young man she would marry before the end of the summer.
Later, I was told that the wool dress talked with my younger brother, who gave me, I think, a fairly good press.
January came and went, while I enrolled in law school for the second term and also had an intimation that I could become a judge and an alcoholic at the same time because I wasn't living out my life as a writer. This felt like a very good thing to know but I also knew I still had to hang on to my life at the university for the time being.
And then at the end of the month, in and around the production of "Peer Gynt" I discovered why, and a year-and-a-half later we were married, on this date, in a family only ceremony in the little chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help church on Tenth Avenue. My mother-in-law was so upset at the idea of her oldest marrying not only an aspiring writer but a lad already a veteran of strange 'headaches' that the usual big celebration was out of the question. Everybody cried except the groom. Mystics get an iron head at the oddest times. And I had already cried the night I saw her in "Peer Gynt".
In six weeks, we had left Vancouver. Eventually we also had six children. Two of them have worked as professional musicians, much respected for their work when they performed live, and this morning early I listened for the first time to our daughter Pauline's first CD, recently recorded, mixed, and mastered in Vancouver, not far from where the father of the musician went to high school. I had something to do with Pauline's vocal training, but it is her mother that has been the shoulder.
I heard the mother singing that night in West Vancouver, her incredible voice carrying over the sound of my banjo.
This week MT and I started attaching shoulder straps to our battery of instruments. Some are electric, some are acoustic, but even the acoustics have pick ups, and my wrists seem particularly unfrozen.
And tonight, for the first time, our new,Capuchin, bishop is to come for dinner.