Monday, February 25, 2013

Gunfight at the Circle X Corral

When I was growing up, so many decades ago, there was no film a more automatic choice for a Saturday matinee and a movie house full of kids than a good old fashioned Western. Long, lean, actors who knew how to drawl - as well as draw - lovely fast horses, wide open range, the odd heroine, thunderous chases on horseback, and of course the ultimate gunfight, with the bad guy always going for his gun first, and instantly punished for doing so. I was a regular customer at the horse opera by the time I was six, and of all the movie genres I have to say that I think Westerns were the favourites of my youth.
Then when I was ten, the Western novel fell into my grasp, and my imaginative romance with the nineteenth century continued and intensified. Rummaging in a trunk in the upstairs hall of my grandparents' house, where we were living after the war, I found half-a-dozen orange backed Zane Grey's one night before bedtime, and was instantly hooked. The Idaho landscape of Thunder Mountain was vividly similar, in my mind at least, to the country around Falkland, in the North Okanagan, where I had lived for a few months when I was six, and I was delighted to be transported back out of the drizzling winter of the Coast, especially in the company of such stalwarts as Kallispel Emerson and his brothers. Now I no longer had to wait on Hollywood, nor endure the annoying modernity of a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry film just to take in some horses and gun play. I could ride the range whenever I so desired.
You could not really say that I became an addict of the Old West, because I had broad  tastes, fortunately, and an enormous affection for the sheer childhood joy to be found in the children's classics, in many ways much more beautifully realistic than any Western could ever be. Westerns work extremely well symbolically - which is why I started this essay in the first place - but they pretty much avoid the real truth, which means they don't work literally, because the literal insists that a society of illiterates is basically dull, spiritless, and addicted to sin. In other words, philosophize well, or you philosophize badly. There is no middle ground, just like there was nobody standing with a thick-walled bucket in order to catch the fatal lead flying up and down between the protagonists shooting it out on the main street of a cow town. In reality, and especially as reflected in literature, a human life without a full participation in the life of the Church is a rather dull and drab affair.
But I did love those six Zane Greys, and they provided me with uncountable hours of pleasure, insight, and vocabulary building. And, to repeat, a nice dry holiday on the open range, far away and across the mountains from west coast drizzle. And a fair amount of practical information about handling animals and camping out. I think it was from Zane Grey that I learned about being wary around  horses' hind feet, which came in handy only a very few months later when my father started logging with a pair of the noble brutes, and I was involved from time to time in looking after them. Babe, the four-year old bay mare, was an especially worrisome lady from time to time, but from Grey I had a comforting sense of being schooled in the ways of troublesome horses, and thus was one up on her most of the time, simply by staying well clear of her tail end.
I even tried to write Westerns a few times, once or twice as a script, a few other times in story form, but this was never a lasting effort, and pretty well lacked genuine inspiration. The best thing I got out of the idea was a nice memory of landscape, either from a real memory, or something pleasant imagined from a book.
There was a perfectly good reason for this failure, of course. The point was, I already knew all sorts of landscapes - and seascapes - extremely well, often as virtual, natural, visions of specific locations particularly blessed at a particular moment by the light and spirit of the Almighty, usually under the aspect of one of the members of the Trinity, and I especially knew the truest cowboy landscape of my own province, the Cariboo Chilcotin.The only way I was going to create a successful Western was to fall back, not on six guns and a lot of horses, because there had been none of that kind of action, but on what actually happened in, with, to, and  around me in my days in the outback, all that spiritual nudging toward even more light and a deeper spirit.
I had also been nudged by the Muse in the weeks before I went into the woods, for the novel I had left Dun and Bradstreet to write found itself engaged with my shadowy three young men. All three had started off the first chapters of the first effort at the yacht novel, a year later two of them turned up, in the midst of a soaring inspiration, in a short story, and now all three were back again as the principal dancers in my first full length attempt to get away from any hint of slick or expedient fiction. I had spent the winter basically not writing, using all my energy and leisure time for study and reflection on myself, albeit not without plenty of friendly company pretty much addicted to all sorts of cultural questions, and now the trio were functioning, more or less honestly, smack in the middle of the campus, a place I had never really used before for a backdrop.
By saying functioning more or less honestly I mean that I had dropped all attempts at a plot that would rely on the conventional adventures, with excellent results on my own relationship with words, but I had no thoughts on bringing in any aspects whatsoever of the spiritual life, which meant that no matter how well I might use words for what I did describe, there was no way I could reflect what I actually experienced, which had to make for a story that must limp, simply because it could not reflect life as I knew and lived it.
Would things have been different if I'd had any education about the mystics in my own English tradition? The question arises, quite naturally. out of recent months' study of the British medieval quartet, especially of Rolle and the Anonymous author of the Cloud, but I think the answer has to be no. To write of the spiritual life without writing as a plain fool the author needs both divine permission and divine inspiration. Simply experiencing such things takes a soul much out of the way of ordinary thought, and having to write about it takes him even further away from ordinary language. It is rather like flying, for a human, which is impossible with out some kind of manufactured wings.
I definitely had the experience. There is no question of that, profoundly unworthy and religiously unschooled as I might have been. God simply kept coming, showing up with every sunrise, even if that were hidden - as was regularly the case, behind west coast cloud and rain - and albeit lightly, insisted on putting me through my youthful versions of the spiritual exercises, offering regular minor excursions, into and back out of, the dark night of the soul. There was, in its own small but very useful way, a regular rhythm of consolation and desolation, to borrow Ignatius' categories from the Exercises.  
But this does not mean I could write about it then, for all the hope and satisfaction I took from knowing that eventually I would write about my life with the Spirit and its unique view of the world I lived in and with. "One of these days . . ." was a constant turn of thought and even spoken word with me, although I did not foresee how far away that day would be, with the exception of that thought, on the north bank of the Mosley in 1957, about the twenty years I would need to see my summer clearly enough so that I could start to write about it. And even when that happy grace arrived, it was only for fiction. There was to be no simple history for decades again. Good thing I came from a family of long livers.
And when I did write a small account of one incident, recently, it was instantly published, always a gratifying event for a writer! Granted there was no reference to the spiritual life, but it was a very true little tale and by its own account could never have been without some intricate rigging by divine Providence. In the last issue before Christmas just past, in the Williams Lake Tribune, the Black Press journal my oldest daughter reports for, there appeared a letter, virtually a short story, recounting my brief career as a "bull fighter" at the Bracewell Ranch, the Circle X, in the far southwest corner of the Chilcotin. As when I worked as a reporter myself, there was plenty of grace for the undertaking, in fact the text was pretty well dictated by the Holy Spirit while we were at Sunday Mass, so that I could write it, in one sitting as soon as we returned home, and fire it off to Monica at lunch time. Computers being what they are, she sent it right away to a Williams Lake writer, Sage Birchwater, retired a few years ago from long service with the Tribune, and he said it should be printed. Merry Christmas. There were already photos in place, not of me, but of the hostess that the party that led us all to the corral. Born in 1922, Gerry Bracewell is still alive - dancing in one of the photos - and was so pleased with what I had done that she had my daughter run off a dozen copies of the story for friends and relatives.
And thus not only a story, but a symbol, came to be, in such dramatic fashion that it is impossible for me not to ponder, extensively, what I might otherwise have not pondered, and ask myself why this sudden return to the Cariboo, so much beyond the ordinary need of the recollections of a writer who never could forget that part of the country in the first place? What is the major cause of it, and does that have anything to do with my agents deciding in September to send the last volume of Contemplatives to the Pope? Certainly by then Benedict was resolved on his retirement, and the arrival of the manuscript, by its very title - with which he was already well familiar - most solemnly did not contradict his decision in pectore.There can be no doubt that God has been deciding for the mystical body of the people of prayer for some time now, and Benedict's decision is simply a very appropriate outward manifestation of that preference. Come time for the election of the new Pope, there will be other manifestations. We will look back in retrospect for what was obvious all along to contemplatives, more or less, yet totally hidden from your average journalist and his/her incapacity to understand the Church as anything more than a collection of politicians who, strangely, refuse to wear business suits. All that cardinal red is to the media like a red cape to a bull.
Or, as was the case, a lady's borrowed bandana to a milk cow in the Circle X corral on a Sunday afternoon long ago. I had some great fun, and so did a number of spectators. That particular brand is what excited me as a symbol, you see. The Circle signifies eternity, the X a version of the Cross, the shape that Saint Andrew was crucified upon. Not a bad symbol for the Vatican to fly, and of course the election will be a shootout of much greater significance than anything set up by Wild Bill Hickok.
In its own way, the letter in the Williams Lake Tribune may be the closest thing to accuracy the secular press will have achieved during this particular season of speculation, at least once all the attendant circumstances are taken into account.