Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Roadhouse Madonna Two

In the second place, as far as ordinary catechetical education goes, Toby had known very little about the Virgin Mary. Singing Silent Night at Christmas, or browsing the minimal references that occurred in English literature were extent of his formal education on the subject. No family rosary, no holy cards, statues, or the preaching common to any Catholic parish that knows which side its bread is buttered on, and all his formal contacts with Christianity, his biblical grandparents, his occasional brushes with Protestant Sunday schools had taken place in regions firmly dedicated to decrying and ignoring anything that smacked of Rome and the Pope, with all its happy and natural relationship with the ultimate expression of the feminine side of the Almighty and his first spoken word. Thus, where the women in his life fell short of perfection, and on occasion far short, he could not fall back on a good schooling in the automatic recourse to, and refuge in, the Woman among women.
That is to say, not in the dial-up of the spiritual life that he was conscious of and could practice as a life-saving habit.
Nonetheless, as it is the common doctrine of the sensible faithful that there is no grace that does not come through the mother of God, where Jesus has struck in plain fashion, she, although utterly hidden and unheard of in the ordinary way, is part of it. So she must have been around for Toby's childhood visions, albeit unknown and unacknowledged, nor could his great affection for nature have existed without some input on her part.
And in fact there was a special signal of this sort of intervention, around the same time as the Lord had dropped into the Baptist Sunday school.
One Saturday morning Toby's father and grandfather had found they had some business at a nursery, and they took the lad with them. At a point where the adults were talking business in the green house with the owner, Toby, left outside to admire his magical surroundings, heard a bird warbling the most heartbreakingly beautiful song he had ever heard, at the top of some ornamental conifer he was standing by. The beauty of it pierced his soul most keenly, and left a fair amount of painful longing when the song was over. Never had he heard such a song, never had he seen such a tree. Not even a Christmas tree, full of lights and ornaments, with its foot surrounded by wonderfully wrapped presents, had ever seemed so lovely. Nor had it seemed to break his heart with longing for its presence after it had vanished.
He said nothing to anyone about the experience, nor would it have been within the norms of grace to do so. If no one in his family could deal with the Virgin Mary in the literal sense, they would be even less capable of doing so in the symbolic.
Later, as a full adult in the Faith, and professionally conversant with the rules of the mystics, he came fully to understand that visions, locutions, and all other manifestations of special attention from the Almighty required absolute coughing up to one's spiritual advisors. But by that time he had truly spiritual company, souls who had grown robust and frightfully clear-minded over such events. In those early days and for long after he only knew the untrained and the only partially experienced, if that, and God was quite content to shoot from the hip and then immediately bury the body so no one, not even Toby, could tell about what had happened. The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, looking cheerfully ahead to the day when all could be revealed in civilized company, not only because of the company but also because Toby's education would finally catch up with his experience.
Nothing is more peculiar to the acquisition of wisdom than the fact that the principal route toward it is so hidden. Given that Jesus is a man, one could almost be justified in giving Him three or four good smacks up the side of the head for his manner of hiding his mother away from the great unwashed. You don't think this is realistic? Well, just look at the history of one of the most useful books ever penned, Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary. Anyone who knows this book well has to be horrified by the fact that Divine Providence allowed it to be buried in a bloody trunk for nearly a century-and-a-half. This only makes any kind of sense when you stop to realize that the coming of Christ was held off even longer, much longer. That's how valuable, how essential to a fully realized faith, that book is. Happy the man with the grace to read it at all, even happier those who would never let it wander from their bedside shelf.
But I digress.
The girl was, indeed, like a statue in a church. God help the fools who think He does not like images in His buildings. She was tall, blonde, long legged, and beautiful, especially to a dozen men about to say goodbye to ordinary society, wherein half the actors on the stage of their immediate world would be female.
The little cafe held only four or five tables, and bar with stools for half-a-dozen souls. The tables were empty, before the surveyors arrived to take over most of them, but the bar was all but full, not only for the sake of conversation among those who sat to it, drinking coffee or tea, but also for the convenience of the men who had come to eat their last meal in civilization.
As with his evening in the pub north of Sechelt, the westering sun shone through the windows, and Toby once again felt the magic of a place where all came together by accident, or at least seemed to. Later, again, he was to learn that there is such an enterprise along that westering road called The Moccasin Telegraph, and he would realize that the girl and her company would have known they were coming, and come down to see. Why not? She was . . . . fourteen, maybe sixteen at the oldest, and somewhere in the midst of all these lads she might have caught a glimpse of a face that would suggest her future husband. He could, of course, actually be amongst the crew, and moved by the spirits of the moment, take her hand and declare himself now. Stranger things had happened. Not that she favoured any of them with a specific glance. Iron willed, she spoke only to the older woman that was beside her, and or to the man behind the counter. But always in a low an softened tone, as Mary would have spoken to the men of her household.
The surveyors, chattering as they emptied their vehicles and stumped up the stairs, fell wonderfully silent as they entered the room and beheld what awaited them. It was a total shock. The other inhabitants, those who gained the place before them, were prepared for what was coming. They were as cool as the soft drinks in the refrigerated display unit. The road west was thinly populated, and the daily truck driver carried all the news of the weeks ahead.
The proprietor hustled forward, order pad in hand, and the surveyors got to it. But all went forward in the most subdued tone. It was as if the girl had to be included in the conversations, yet not in any obvious way. She was one of them, but she belonged to all of them, and no one had the right to single her out as his own. They talked out their day, they inquired of Mortimer and Gorman the details of the rest of the night and the next day, but always in a mood that knew she was in the room.
By the time supper arrived, Toby had an interesting thought. Was it his ego, or had he divined something particular to the relationship between musicians and the female. Had the word got out that there was a musician in the group? Had she come to lay eyes on him? Interesting, because if there was anything he had steadfastly refused to take advantage of, it was the belief, in some quarters, that musicianship granted an automatic right to special considerations. Perhaps he was imagining things, of course. What novelist was incapable of making mountains out of molehills? But there was a possibility, and therefore there was a responsibility to go with the general mood of the evening and make no special concessions. He would be simply one of the crew, and not break ranks, not sidle up to the coffee counter for a singular conversation. If she had been older, perhaps, just to be polite, given that she'd made the effort to show up. But she was too young, intellectually, unlikely to be a conversational match for the girls he had known and still knew at university, so in the present circumstances she worked best for all of them simply as an image, especially as she kept her voice down and did not shriek or giggle at the sight of so many males incapable of being unaware of her radiant presence.
Toby actually sat with his back to her, which lost him his view of the girl herself, but augmented his observation of the effect she was having on his fellows, and possibly it was his deliberately selecting the blindest seat that dictated the tone of the evening meal. None of the young men shrieked or giggled either. The room was full of a very pleasant mood. The meal went forth in a tone that would have done credit to a monastery. With another hour's drive ahead of them they did not linger, and the girl was still at the counter when they left, filing out as thoughtfully as parishioners who have just heard an usually effective sermon. No one really spoke about the girl, back on the road, and when Toby and Nikos were settled into their room in the Alexis Creek Hotel, Toby borrowed one of Nikos' books, a Penguin paperback introduction to calculus, to spend a pleasant hour with it while night fell and Nikos tried to find a seat in the hotel's taproom, very small, and jammed with local natives.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Chariots of Fire

This being the Saturday of the fifteenth week in ordinary time in the Church's liturgy, the first reading for the day was about the prophet Elijah's being taken up into heaven. The assumption of Elijah is in fact the title given to the event, thus making the hoary old nemesis of Ahab and Jezebel the precursor of the Assumption of the Virgin. That feast, of course, we will be celebrating in a month, a week before the big family clambake in the Royal Hotel and elsewhere, and the date by which both my recent batches of beer will be in utterly prime condition. And as if that weren't enough jollification, precisely half-an-hour from now - it is 6:30 a.m. as I write - three of the older grandchildren will be, like Santa's elves, running about our basement and kitchen following my directions as they begin their apprenticeship in Grandpa's brauhaus with current batch #3.
Phew! Finally I get to my own answer for Marianne's cousin, Massachusetts Jack Tremblay, who from a recent reading of the blog seemed to think I thought there was no beer in heaven! Good Lord! Does he not know what Saint Benedict's initial band of followers did to their own revered founder when he suggested there was to be no wine at Monte Cassino? "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" also runs the other way, in the best circles.Yes, there is most certainly beer in heaven, and even though my brew is always praised to the skies, we all know it's nothing on the stuff we'll get to drink up there. With, bless us one and all, no closing time. Rest assured: all the best theologians understand the term inebriation as a positive thing.
But I digress. Film is the big item for the moment. Film and the music system, and a new generation.
And I think this must be hard news, as the journalists say, and not just optimistic speculation, because the Muse last night yarded me right out of all artistic and natural science situations and plunked me down where I am most content, because most secure, in the the literature of John of the Cross. Honey, I'm home. Folded in the arms of passive prayer, of the dark night, the soul is incapable of mistakes and the only stress comes from keeping the will facing into the headwind, which, when you know what's good for you, would be no stress at all if it weren't for the devil, who is so often trying to knock you off the puck, as we say in Canada.
There is a natural element or two in all this relaxation, which is often the case. Not only am I, finally, at rest in the eight modes, and therefore know the boundaries and the general divisions of the real foundations of music, but in some relatively new arrivals in Nelson I have the ears to hear about, and help me do something with, the most efficient processes for sharing this information.
And, just as it used to be in the glory days of Nelson theatre, there is something to advertise.
In other words, I have run into a real film maker, internationally known, who lives in dear old Nelson. His movie, Camille, has done well at the Seattle film festival and is also much appreciated in Russia. As I said to Greg Mackenzie, at our recent and first meeting in Nelson's Oso Negro coffee shop extraordinaire, Russia owes me a bundle, and it seems it has started to pay off.
Russia is watching his film, Greg has an open ear on my music theories, and I was also able to say to Greg and his wife well placed in the midst of Nelson's run for the brass ring, that I have an African ear on the wisdom of my music research.
My my my my my. Just imagine the power of the film industry yoked to the power of Africa.
Remember Paul Simon's magnificent album: Graceland? I finished out Contemplatives to that disc, descending to my then basement studio as the music roared out on the kitchen speakers, as MT settled into the preparation of supper. Ladysmith Black Mombasso was such an integral part of the process, and wasn't little old Paul clever to include them? It reminds me of an expression I had for Nelson from the beginning in this very white town. Not enough blacks, not enough Jews.
Well, in recent years we've acquired quite a nice complement of the children of Abraham, who all take their part in most of the facets of civic responsibilities, not infrequently with outstanding success. But the black faction has been minimal until recent weeks, at which point it has come with that kind of impact that can be provided only by the Catholic Church as founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ in His unique function as Son of God and Redeemer of the world. Jesus is such a gentle fellow, slow to wrath and condemnation, but from time to time He really does kick butt.
The grand news of Pope Benedict appointing a Capuchin as bishop to the diocese of Nelson was only days in the works before I asked a long-established member of the diocesan clergy if our new bishop would be able to bring some of his fellow reformed Franciscans to our part of the world.
"Oh, no," said this cleric, with all the assurance of the complacency that has dominated this diocese for so long.
I knew immediately he had missed the boat, although it has taken a while to prove me right. It was only in the month now ending that we have had the benefit of a Capuchin from the Congo, not only a profoundly substantial priest in his own right, but a sign of better things to come. He's a doctoral student at San Lorenzo in Rome, out of class for the long summer and thus available to fill in over here for the local priests' well-earned vacations. We have him for the month of July, and not only do we go to daily mass, but he is available for supper once a week, and has taken a lesson in the music system, with another to come before he moves on to his next temporary post.
Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Roadhouse Madonna

In the first place, it was not really a roadhouse. In those days, still in the wake of the strange legislation that arose out of the hysteria of the temperance workers on our continent full of confused pioneers, the natural combination of food, live music, and alcohol was not often found under one roof, in the province of British Columbia, especially in the rural communities, even in a rural community so full of legend and romance like the Cariboo. In the founding decades, in the gold rush days, these blessings existed side by side, of course, for even in Toby's heritage there had existed a grandmother who had played her violin in the hotels of the Klondike. But subsequent legislation by leaders educated in systems other than the cathedral norms of good old Europe in the Old World and the southern hemisphere in the New, had left the heart of man puzzled and at a loss. Toby had grown up assuming these were universal standards, until one of his immediately recent roommates had told him how things were in his younger days in England, where his father took his beer in the same place as his young son took his lunch, while they were traveling and had stopped at a pub, and Toby had been hard put to figure out the morals of the difference, for all that his own father had usually taken his evening pint in the same place where Toby ate his supper.
So, there was no live music, nor any hope of any, unless Toby were to illegally take his banjo out of his duffel bag, and there was no booze. There was only a clean, modest, small cafe on the north side of the road west, an hour or two short of Alexis Creek, where they were to stay for the night in the lone hotel there. The Alexis Creek hotel had a dining room, and a pub, so it was said, but the dinner hour was upon their stomachs at the nearer location, and the three vehicles pulled at the humble cafe.
This decision had been made somewhat earlier, overlooking the spring green valley of the Chilcotin River. David and Toby had been leading the pack since they had left Williams Lake at noon, loaded with groceries, leaving the spotty rain in the valley for the gradual clearing and then utterly clear skies above the Cariboo plateau, and they had been chatting all the way on all manner of subjects - including the rising young film actors sketched in a magazine David had picked up along the way - until well on in the afternoon when the truck had bent a sudden left in the highway and emerged from behind a wall of jack pines to suddenly behold, to their left and behind them, the awe inspiring surprise of the valley, some few miles wide, lying hundreds of feet below them and extending east for almost as far as they could see. moreover, on the top of the hills to the south, lay the buildings of the fabled Gang Ranch. In Toby's mind, this historic institution was not quite on a par with Rich Hobson's wilder location further north, but it was still a striking sight, a mightily poetic connection with all the westerns he had read in his younger years. David had all but slammed his laden vehicle to a halt, and leapt out with his camera, to shoot and shoot again, and in his own habitually quiet way wonder in amazement at Toby for his lack of a camera.Toby laughed. "I'm a writer. I have a memory. If I can't recover this scene on my typewriter I'll have to get a different job. When I write my book, however, I might ask you for a photo. That is the most profoundly wonderful view, and all the more for being so goddamned unexpected. Behind those trees, we didn't have a clue. Not a clue! I've never seen anything like it!"
The jeep and the sedan drove up, and likewise disgorged all the other camera owners, and Mortimer said they would stop for supper something under an hour further along the highway, instead of waiting until they reached the Alexis Creek hotel and its dining room. There was a unanimous murmur of approval, then they got back into their vehicles and rode into the sunset.
So the view of the valley, you might say, had set them up for what was to come. And of course they were a group of men, mostly young, now stopping for dinner on their third evening on the road, which has to bring to the situation a certain sense of the special. All of their meals together had been lively celebrations, with the jokes and the stories flowing, and no one relying on reaching into the gutter to get a laugh. They were all too busy getting to know each other, for the sake of the long isolation ahead of them, and none of the university men were the least bit interested in being snobs about their educational good fortune. To a man they came from working class families, even if Toby's father had somewhat risen to higher levels through the education he had received during the war, and they all had enough sense to be grateful to have well-paying, well-fed summer jobs, and to respect the trade skills of the professionals at their sides. To respect and to learn from them. It was a very nice mixture of men, Toby had thought from the beginning.
And he had been mightily prepared for the experience, although by spiritual and literary experience more than by formal doctrine. The concept of "the common priesthood" he would not actually hear in sermon form for three or four years, but the actual practice of it had been banging through his mind and sensibilities all his life, in quieter fashion, and at least in the last year, simply as a bloody riot. Mentally speaking, no running with the bulls in Pamplona could have done more for his psyche than the shocks of the spirit, sometimes aesthetic, ecstatic, and otherwise all the sensations of the soul the poets look for; sometimes downright brutal and annihilating, the things the real mystics look for, even when a big part of them doesn't really, naturally, want to.
And yet - and this was a contradiction he would be enduring for several months ahead - he had no vocabulary for these events, no index or glossary at the end of his life-book of the moment. It was true, of course, that like anyone educated up to and beyond the high school level in his culture he had been somewhat informed about those earlier cultures when the saints purportedly exercised all sorts of fantastic privations in order to acquire perfect unity with God and the universe. One simply read in history class of the rigours of anchorites and prayerful men at the top of poles. Everyone knew of such things. But at the back of Toby's head lay a prejudice against outward show, and whatever actual hard core spiritual life he had, he preferred to keep it undiscussed. This was just as well, and in no way ungrateful or disrespectful of what he had already been given, simply because he knew no one at that time qualified to give him spiritual direction. And in fact he would later find that out that such ability was in great shortage in even the Catholic culture of the city of his birth and most of his education. So the common language for the spiritual life, which is, of course, much different than the ordinary devotions of both Protestants and Catholics, and indeed any religion, he had no awareness of, for all that he had already been given a good deal of it. Nothing is more desirable, for instance, than a regular dose of aridity mixed in with all the consolations that come from nature, good reading, reasonably virtuous friends, and even the slightest contacts with organized religion, and particularly from his adolescence on, he'd known the beginning skirmishes of the dark night of the senses with enviable regularity.
But, as I said, he did not know that he knew this in the way a formal and detailed theological education would have given him, nor did he talk about these events with anyone he knew, and the light that came and went, had in fact been coming and going throughout his conscious life, even before the aridities he assumed were something everyone else experienced, and just didn't talk about, or else somewhat unique to him but still not a subject for conversation.
It was in so many ways a ridiculous situation, but man must pay for heresy and rebellion against the order God intended, and so Toby was, in those days, a victim of his heritage as well as a benefactor by the divine will to overcome it.
And, on occasion, that will manifested itself with remarkable effect, sometimes sheerly on its own, sometimes through persons or things. So far, from the landscape of the province as it flowed by on their journey, things had led the parade of instruction, as in the fourth stanza of John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle. Something of mankind was about to take over, and the sometimes remarkable play of the intellect and even the spirit to manifest themselves.
In retrospect Toby was to remember that the little cafe lay in terms of the points of the compass pretty much as had the inn, as it called itself, that lay high above the strait on the road north of Sechelt. Both buildings thus faced enough to the west to get the full effect of the declining sun, and both had full windows to make the most of the opportunity.
There were a couple of significant differences: Toby was by himself when he'd driven from his grandparents' place on the Inlet, to down a couple of draft on a gorgeous evening just less than a week previous, in a pub with the most expansive view, of the strait, that he'd ever seen from the windows of a beer parlour. The clientele, however, was utterly humble: a few local whites, a few local natives from the nearby reserve. Not a high roller in a fancy suit in sight. Having just spent an entire year being out and about in high society, with a car and money from two different jobs to bank roll his writer's sense of research, he'd hit some of the best leisure locations on the Coast, on both sides of the strait, where the drinks were priced accordingly. But none of them, for all their furnishings and classy entertainment, could boast of the view at hand, to be had for the price of a couple of bier ordinaire.
The other difference was that nothing of an especially spiritual nature had happened while he sat in the pub. True, his painter's eye - such as it exists in a novelist - was mightily filled up by the light of the falling sun and the green of the forest below and the blue of the strait beyond, and the more faded green-into-blue of Vancouver Island beyond that, and perhaps there was an extra slice of metaphysics, a brush with the intuition of being that had been coming now so regularly and intensely since he had started to get serious about philosophers, but nothing to shock him, pleasantly or otherwise. It had been a peaceful thing to sit quietly in the pub, absorbed by the view, the convivial quiet, the sense of adventure awaiting in the upcoming job.
But just as he drove back into his grandparents' private road and was parking his car, something odd, and not at all pleasant, had come into his soul.
It was more than a mere interference with the process of ordinary thinking. This he had known at least since he became something of a frustrated Latin student, immediately on his first day of class, and then known much more thoroughly from the time he began law studies. As he was to learn later, the ligature of the faculties, that impediment which simply hurls a soul on to a notable rung of the ladder of perfection, had taken an irremediable hold on his mind. But this had hardly been unpleasant. Indeed, it was more like a comforting, quietly joyful, stupidity that still let every form of life about the campus, including the law school and its populace, be utterly acceptable and the only place to be, yet without any indication whatsover that he was about to become a scholar of the Law. His sense of the intellectual life continued to come from literature.
But this intrusion was unquestionably a bitter thing. It was as if someone was quietly filing on his brain and ragging his spirit, so that he felt that there was nothing worth knowing and nothing in all of life worth tasting. He was puzzled, and somewhat frightened, and on re-entering the house, not much comforted by rejoining the company of his grandparents. It took something of an effort to relate to them, and he was relieved that they, like he, were off to bed.
But he was only relieved for a little while to find comfort in the sack. His youthful imagination had just nicely gone somewhere it did not really belong, when he found himself in Hell, although not in his body, but in his soul alone. For as long as the exercise took, he did not have a body. He only knew his spirit, and that was unquestionably something he really did not want to know as long as it was in the place it was. He had neither read of nor imagined any pain or horror or darkness like that he had been plunged into, and it seemed to be going on forever, although it is unlikely that it lasted for more than a minute, if that long.
Then it went, and Toby lay quietly for a while before he fell asleep, yet not actually thinking too much about what he had just gone through. It had been a winter and spring of things he had never really read about, or heard about, more joyful and inspiring than otherwise, so this must have been just one more first exposure to the whole story of what it meant to be his kind of writer, whenever he could figure out what that was. When he started back to the city in the morning, he was especially conscious of how beautiful the forest was along the highway to the Gibson ferry, and really did not remember at all what had happened to him during the night, so high and wide and appreciative of creation flew his soul for the moment.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Innocents Aloft Canto Three

Now they were in the bush, and finally at the real climbing. No more the easy grade of the road, and as the slope ahead and above them had either been logged, or burned, or both, decades earlier, they were not to have the park-like ease of old growth terrain for their feet. Salal, devil's club, thickets of small conifers: these created either barriers to penetrate or thick clumps to go around, and occasionally there was a log to climb over, although fortunately not often. They constantly had to watch where they put their feet, or warn each other of branches that would spring back and smack a face at the same time. Easy conversation was not a little done away with, and they fell more into their own thoughts. And there were bugs. Not hordes, as in Toby's days along the Moseley, when the surveyors standing still by their instruments had needed the most intense repellents to stay sane, but enough to make moving steadily a necessity. Also, it was getting warm. They were on the north side of the mountain, but the early summer sun was well into the sky and heating things up. Toby remembered his first summer of surveying, with its one-day trip for a domestic power pole in Squamish, and the heat of the valley there.
Not powerfully, not in any way as an inspired concept, just very quietly, he thought they might not really get to the top of either Lion, let alone both. It would not matter, unless Gabe or Willow had suddenly changed their habitual attitudes as to what made a hike go right from start to finish.
Right from the beginning, everything had to be leisure, or it was nothing. No goal beyond the instruction of the moment, no work ethic. Their time together was only about friendship, the enjoyment of each other's company, a sort of wandering about off the streets of the city or the lawns of the university while they recollected and reviewed the books they read or the movies and plays they had seen and the music they listened to. Or occasionally created. Toby was a musician of sorts, and both he and Gabe had taken a turn at acting in substantial roles. Both of them had experienced, for themselves, that getting to the heart of a character took more concentration than getting to the top of a mountain, and that good theatre was just as exciting, and made a more lasting and useful impression, than a good game of any sort, although now and again they threw a football at each other.
Their first outing had been nothing but modest, a leisurely day at an old rock quarry in North Vancouver, wherein Gabriel had shown Toby how to negotiate a chimney, carefully pointing out how to employ the three-points-of-contact principle of rock climbing. The chimney thing Toby had found wonderfully fascinating because, as with many situations in climbing, the successful technique was precisely the opposite of one's animal instincts, that of clinging desperately to the nearest single surface. On the Homathko there had been some discussion of technique, as his partner on the ridge trip, Carl, was a climber of some experience, but there had been no chimneys. The ridge, for all its height, had been little more than a long uphill stroll in perfect weather, except for that interesting moment when he had realized that the long comb of snow at the top of the ridge might be an overhang that would let them into a five hundred foot fall into the valley on the north side.
The North Van quarry had offered another lesson as well, one pertinent to the mood of this particular day. The trio had been puttering leisurely about the various surfaces for an hour or so, utterly enjoying the mixed elements of physics and human chemistry that were about, when a younger lad turned up, on his own, and also began to tackle the quarry faces. He seemed to think that climbing was a process wherein passion and determination would substitute for a complete lack of technical understanding. For about another hour he scrambled up and down, huffing, puffing, and declaiming. He was not at all interested in instruction. Toby not only felt grateful for Gabriel, but also for having the sense to be docile to his expertise. The trio had a good view of the young man's performance, too, for he made such a racket with body and mouth that he destroyed the atmosphere they had brought to the place; they did not go back to their own proceedings until after he had left and they had enjoyed their lunch.
It was not, in the long run, a wasted performance, however. A decade later, in a different mountain range, he met a priest who liked to climb in much the same attitude. Toby made a study of refusing to venture on to a slope in his company.
Also, on that day at the quarry, he had probably started the then hidden negotiations of the spirit that ten months later had landed him the immense good fortune of getting to live in the MacBride house. Willow forgot her camera, left on a shelf of rock after recording various phases of their exercise, and only remembered it as they had just reached Stanley Park. Toby naturally looked for a turn around and headed back. It was the obvious thing to do, of course, and yet he felt that it was a decision of huge importance on his part, even to feeling a very strong and unpleasant presence trying to stop him from such a simple and utterly necessary gesture. Yet once the decision had been made, and they were on their way back to the quarry, he then had to deal with the feelings of thinking himself to be an extraordinarily generous fellow. Bloody hell, as the English said! That was just a ridiculous as refusing to turn around would have been. What was happening to his mind?
Nor had this been the only severely thought provoking event of that particular day in his young life. The very beginning of the hours ahead had brought the greatest challenge to his will, probably because not only was he about to take an entire day off from his law books, but the evening as well, for that night was to be first real date for himself and Jelena. An entire day of enjoying himself, in the best possible company. It had seemed like too much luxury. And yet it had to be done, because he had agreed to the scheduling. So, he had tried getting up an hour early to study. Contracts Two. Or had it been torts? It didn't really matter. In a sense, they were all the same, and all so much of the time impenetrable. His mind would simply skate across the page, like a deer on ice. How come he couldn't settle into it? Why was it all so boring compared to any other subject that caught his fancy? So he had made himself his breakfast, and packed his lunch, and then killed time before takeoff by reading some Bertrand Russell. Lord Russell was amusing: on the one hand critical of nuns preoccupied with wearing bathing suits in the shower, and on the other castigating Oxford in the eighteenth century as a cesspool. Excellent stylist, however. Mathematics had not crippled his skills with words. He made a fellow feel like writing himself, made one Toby Skinner feel like geting back to his novel. He would probably discuss Russell that night with Terrence McLynn, who was hosting the party they were all going to at the end of the day. It had been on for weeks, and would be a rocking affair, as Terrence cut across a broad spectrum of campus personalities. Both he and Jelena had been invited separately, before they had really met each other in the ambience of a genuine dialogue.
Terrence had been one of the people that had made coming back to the campus, back to Vancouver, worthwhile, instead of keeping on with his earlier idea, from the weeks before he had headed into the bus, of going to Toronto to take up journalism there. Toronto would have been interesting, but he had not been long in the Cariboo before he had felt the call for one more year on the campus. And the one year had become two. In the first year of the return he had come to experience more student life, as a writer, and wound up finding a wife and becoming a Catholic. In the second year he had experienced the university as a Catholic mystic, instead of just a mystic who half the time didn't know what the hell he was doing. (But even then it seemed there was no one to tell him what he should be reading beyond dogma.)
Like the night, at Terrence's, as a matter of fact, when he had made a complete ass of himself.
Fortunately, only for a brief moment, but even for that he had been royally smacked about by man and God. Ah, well. He had, after all, been in the final hours of the dark that inevitably preceded the dawn.
It had been his last try at returning to his Protestant roots.
On a rainy Sunday evening in November, two months home from the bush and still trying to figure out his own mind and the turbulent events going on within it, he decided shortly after supper to drive twenty miles to the western side of the city and attend a Sunday evening service. Once or twice in grade school, for a few Sundays again when he was a little older, he had on his own been inspired to involve himself with a Sunday practice, something there was no hope of from within the family. But not since he was fifteen had he gone anywhere near a church on his own. With scouts, then cadets, then Older Boys' Parliament, there had been some hours in a place of worship, but these were laid on by the organization; his only personal contribution had been to acquiesce with decisions of the organizers, and show up. The closest he had come to a personal inspiration had been a few months earlier, when his roommate, because he had a car, had asked him to drive his widowed mother and himself to a Unitarian service. Toby had found himself totally happy to perform such an act, and to enter into the spirit of the Sunday morning, but he did not suddenly become a Unitarian, although later he realized that the event had made a very nice little bridge with the Unitarian MacBrides.
His choice was United Church, thus the same doctrines, which he knew virtually nothing about by doctrinal theory, as the church that had been built in the neighbourhood of his teenage and first three university years. But he did suspect the United Church of being somewhat more liberal than Baptist, and the church of his youth had sponsored his happy post-Christmas jaunts to Older Boys' Parliament, a very pleasant way of dealing with the doldrums of the holidays for a college man.
It was a wet night for driving, but there was indeed a modest crowd at the evening gathering, and a sermon on the evils of smoking. Given the chemical content of the modern cigarette, there should nowadays probably be machine guns aimed at fag factories, but in those days, tobacco was not so lethal, and Toby was puzzled by the choice of content. But there was some singing of the good old standards, which he had always enjoyed, and a lovely young brunette in the choir. He could not quite hold her hand, like Samuel Pepys one otherwise boring Sunday, sitting in a London pew beside a handsome girl, but her face was consolation enough, and if, indeed, he had not had another young lady to answer to, he might have hung around after the service for an introduction. But he only joined the line up leaving church and shaking the minister's hand, and he went so far into hypocrisy as to tell the reverend gentleman that he had enjoyed the sermon. He was not convinced that the minister believed him, but he had no idea what else to say.
Nonetheless, Toby had enjoyed the evening. He always enjoyed singing hymns whenever the occasion turned up, and as was usually the case in a church he found the atmosphere comforting, a stimulus to the intellect, and a reminder of the light he saw everywhere much of the time, so long as he did not wander into places that were none of his business, and probably recollected that in the spring he had come to thinking that when he had a wife and family he would probably go to church.
And yet he decided to drive to Terrence McLynn's place, and the fact that Terrence had a pleasant handful of guests in his basement flat did not deter Toby from instantly launching into an attack on what he had just experienced, which included an attack on himself as well as on religion generally. Terrence had simply listened, even though the rant when on for a long moment, but one of the other guests, a young man, scowled. Toby felt rebuked, or challenged, or perhaps simply disliked, and took himself off into the night, back to the city roads and car lights gleaming through the rain. A few miles from home, on the Lougheed Highway through Burnaby, the old route to the job that had given him the money to buy the car, he suddenly felt an enormous pain in his head. It was more than a headache, it was a brutal invasion, something quite incapacitating. He had to pull over and stop the car for a few minutes.
While he sat there, with the evening traffic swishing by, a little voice said, "Don't you ever do that again."
That was all there was. Only those words. No more, and no communication of any other kind that would explain precisely what the 'that' was that he was not to repeat, but Toby was pretty sure that what the voice was after was the fact that he'd not only gone to a Protestant church but he had lied to the minister. He had not really enjoyed the sermon, and even more importantly, the sermon had had bugger all to do with the things he knew he should be thinking about and researching. The light in the church, the girl, and the hymns had made the evening memorable, thus not a waste of time, but he was clearly not to go back. And he'd probably better not go mouthing off in Terrence's place again, either. Also, he'd better keep looking for his own soul, and thinking about the things that had happened to him in the summer in the mountains. The things with books and the things with thinking. He waited for a break in the traffic and pulled out back on to the highway.
It had been so much different the next time he was in McLynn's apartment, this time with a dark-haired girl with a marvelous face who also could sing, and was not a Protestant, but a Catholic with an attitude about all sorts of things, and an amazing brain and a love for all sorts of arts including the one that was the most important to him, writing. He had not simply found the wife he had actually prayed for during one of the moments when his mind was on such a wave length, but he had found the editor he had never dared even dream of. It had been one incredible week, following one incredible year and more, and it would probably take him quite a while to even know how to begin to write about it. Pity the poor writer. He wasn't allowed to leave anything alone. His English teacher had said it, quoting Somerset Maugham. You want to be a writer? Good. Learn how to take notes while they're burying your mother.
Only problem was, nobody had told him how to take notes when the Almighty was burying his brain, nor had they outlined the plan of the graveyard or described the tools, nor had his own adventurous prowls through the philosophers and poets and novelists and playwrights produced the concepts and vocabulary he needed so he could articulate to himself and anyone else, including Jelena, about what was going on. To have things work out, to suddenly feel so immensely happy, these were not problems. God brought such things about. But the skids without road signs? The unpremeditated onset of confusion, deadness, outright ragging, numbing, pain? What the hell was that? Where had it come from, and why? How could you write about something you had no name for?
The quasi-intellectuals in Europe had come up with that most ridiculous of terms, angst, but that was of no help to him, and one could tell from the context that it was only babble in the first place, even if it did seem to give some sense of comfort to people who had yet to find a purpose in life, a predicament he'd simply never known. Months before he was out of high school, for example, he'd known he was to become a writer, in fact a novelist. And yet there was so much of the time when he did not write, he only lived among his peers and his family, participating in the day-to-day, and learning and re-learning the strange events of his mind. These he had once thought had mostly to do with the fact that he was a writer, but he was starting to lose that assumption in favour of the admission that he had been singled out for the unusual, and he would just have to get used to it, no matter how democratically he tried to think. And in fact there wasn't much point in trying to resist the situation. It just kept coming, jacking him joyfully up or darksomely down as the spirit saw fit.
At the end of that first climbing day with Gabriel and Willow, for example, when he had to kill time and have supper with another pair of friends, before the party at Terrence's, he had simply lain on the spare cot in their little basement apartment for an hour, listening to a flamenco guitar record and finding his soul, with his limbs and heart in tow, humming with bliss the whole time. It was not the sort of experience he'd ever known from studying, or trying to study, the Law. And it did eventually leave him, so he could get up, drive to Jelena's place, and carry on to the party.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Monk, the Friar, and the Grandson

Like so many working musicians, my oldest grandson plays by ear. He doesn't read music, and up to now he hasn't felt any real need or desire to read music. It's not that he's illiterate: quite the contrary. He's done some time in post-secondary in Vancouver, and back when he was in junior high, or middle school as they call it now, he borrowed my Tanqueray to study the capital vices and got himself an A for his little essay on the subject. He has a great affection for life, for people and other aspects of reality, not the least of which is the reality of the sounds of rhythm, melody, and harmony as they are found in the music that he listens to, plays and sings, or writes. Or records.
He has in fact recently won an award for a song he wrote and recorded.
Up to this point, he is not, of course, unique, except, perhaps, for the Tanqueray, which makes him not only unique among a lot of musicians but also among a lot of modern clergy and religious. (Tanqueray, the good Sulpician, was not a saint, nor by experience a veteran of the spiritual mansions, but he's a good place to start if you really want to find out what makes the universe hum. And also a nice bit of litmus paper for testing the reading habits of priests, especially if they happen to claim they're qualified to teach ascetic and mystical theology.)
But now James is unique, because he has come to stay with his grandparents and the incomparable Tremblay for a few weeks, doing some finishing work around the yard and soaking up Grandpa's research conclusions. Nice timing, as the true application of Guido d'Arrezo's genius finally works its divinely given wisdom through the researcher's brain. And fingers. And heart. And voice.
You know the young. On the road from Vancouver all night - a ride with a friend to Kelowna, then the bus to Nelson - so no sleep, but still game for a session that would have choked every conservatory, seminary, or university music faculty head in the world. It covered a lot of ground, for all that he was running on empty, and concluded with "How to Become Carlos Montoya in One Easy Lesson."
This was not before he went to bed, but before he went off into the town to find his sister and or friends. Bed, actually a brief stop on the couch on the porch, came at the end of the day. Ah, the younga people, as our beloved Kootenay Doukhobours call them and their almost endless energy.
As Ireneaus' sense of timing would have it, I had only a day or two before taken my recent application of Guido to the guitar as applied to J.S. Bach's first invention. Right, you morons, I was reading the bass clef, and turning every little passage into a solfa exercise. Showed James a bit of this, and he registered his classic grin. He's never had any use for that bastardization of the staff what goes with guitar guides that pretend to teach you how to read, and now he will find out why.
Later on, MT and I went on our first huckleberry hunt of the season. My little story in Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine sat well as I refined my technique with the berry scoop and the road through the woods above the town gleamed like a Monet from Arcadia. How we need art to make the best of nature.
Also in the midst of these adventures, there was the second dinner with our new bishop, the Capuchin, and a certain amount of discussion on the role of Saint Francis of Assisi, the former troubadour, and his role in bringing the immense heritage of the chant of the French Church into the universal liturgy. At present, it seems as if the Capuchins do not consider themselves equal to the Benedictines regarding a universal responsibility to teach the world the glories and common sense of the principles of chant. I doubt that Saint Francis is totally pleased with this situation, and said so, if only because until some good son of Saint Benedict can prove me wrong, I have to believe the order has failed theory class. And holds Aristotle, Aquinas, and Guido in contempt. As I said before, I've seen the evidence from Collegeville.
I never really knew about Francis' huge part in the Church's music until very recently. But the new knowledge does much to explain my private vow of poverty that followed my reading of Jorgenson's "Life", back at the end of the 50s, and further sheds light on its ultimate destination.
The Church has not a little guilt in the accumulated ignorance, and had better start waking up to the fact. It is well known that even God has limits to His patience.