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.

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