Sunday, November 22, 2015

April 1974

A book, or maybe two, a broken watch;
Some notes and a couple of scars for souvenirs;
Looking on my shelves, so little sign -
The friends of those days scattered with the years;
Yet my soul, which is the burden here
Of all the tale that lies before my hand,
Holds herself in awe of inner forms;
Rebirth of memory makes her understand.

Lady, Mother, Mistress of my life,
I feel your hand so sweetly on my brow
You know the joyful weight I've born so long
Do you give me leave to share it now?
Your hand stretched out so numbers all my years
That everywhere I turn, if I can wait
Your Spouse has commandeered my peace of mind
He bid me write, and what is worse, of Him
Having glorified His presence in my past
And raised my eyes from where they once were blind
He now requests , or so my soul suspects
Some accounting of His time with me
- A glorious but complicated task
I need your help to set the process free.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lasqueti Island Part Two

    My father was in the Second War from the beginning until some months after the end. He joined as a private, or gunner, as he was called in the anti-aircraft and by the time the war was over he was an officer and gunnery instructor. He had started his military career with only a grade eight education, like so many young men whose teen-age years were the Depression years, and the army gave his natural intelligence a high school education. As one might expect of an artillery man, he was fascinated by mathematics and problem solving.
    When I was older, he was concerned that I appreciate trigonometry especially and his love for working out design problems and learning something new often made me wonder if he should have become a school teacher.
    Because of the war, we had moved about much more than most families. Between 1941 and 1946 I had changed schools ten times. With my father back in Canada in 1942 - the air war in Britain finished -  my mother was able to be near him. I moved with her, when that was possible, or was boarded out, but my little brother stayed in the West with another family until the summer of 1945. The important thing about the house at Lasqueti was that it was to be our first family home.
    In December 1945, when my second brother was born, we were staying at my grandparent's house in Burnaby. Their house was huge, with a three-quarters acre lot on which they raised most of their own food and three hundred chickens. It was the house - and miniature farm - that my father had grown up in. It had also been the scene of my first experience of the spirit of story telling. My grandfather Lamb was always an influence for good, and in my first memory of him as a story teller, he was an influence of the magic that I would later try to make my profession. Sitting on a couch covered with wolverine skins, within view of an antelope head high on the wall of that fourteen foot ceiling dining room, he told me some of his experiences in the Cariboo. As I said, it was magic, in my child's soul. partially because of the images of rivers and horses and wild animals and camping scenes; partially because my grandfather lived out of the Bible and most of the time prayed as he talked.
    So my grandparents' house just down the hill from the uncut acres of Central Park evergreens, was a good place to be, even if it meant going to Sunday School, but it was not our own home, nor did metropolitan Vancouver offer the kind of work my father wanted. He who had been an instructor, and in the months before his discharge a kind of defense counsel for soldiers charged with assorted offenses, in his heart of hearts wanted to go to work in the woods. He also wanted, after six years of army life, to be his own boss.
    In the beginning of January, I was ten. Sometime in February, I think it was, my Dad went away. A few weeks earlier, not long after my youngest brother was born, I remember my Dad telling me that he had found work as a logger, for a man who had a crew of eight or ten men. The trip my father took was to find us a place to live, and look over the island with a mind to the future.
    One night after supper, just after he returned, we stayed at the kitchen table to look at some plans he had drawn. These were of a houseboat he was designing for a home. He had no chart of this little island I had never heard of, but he drew a sketch of the part of the island that he had his eye on, showing us the little cove he would use as a booming ground. On the shore of the cove our houseboat, when it was built, would tie up. He knew the routes from there to the school, and in the meantime, until the houseboat was built, there was a house we could rent.
    We never did live in that houseboat, for it was never built, but my father's drawn plan, the sketch, and his details of the island's location and how we would get there started my imagination rolling. Lasqueti Island began as an adventure, which it was to remain all the time we were there, and ever afterward.
    A boy at school had spent summers on the island, and said there were salmon to be caught off the government wharf at False Bay. My father mentioned some of the people he had met - loggers, fishermen, even a few Indians. The house we were to live in until the houseboat could be built was big, standing in the middle of a field, and had a fireplace. There was a barn, and when he went to work for himself he would use a horse or two, so he was going to buy a horse. In Falkland, where my mother and I had lived for a few months when I was six, other people had horses. In Springfield, I lived on my Uncle Frank's farm and he had horses, but on Lasqueti Island we were to have horses of our very own! I had once walked a mile out of my way and got home from school much too late because of a grade two girl who deceived me into thinking there were horses at her house but now it was me who would have the horses.
    I was also to have a bicycle and that was just as exciting as the horses, for I did not even know at ten how to ride a bike. I had roller skates at six and learned to skate and ski in the Nova Scotia winter, but this was my first bike.
    I made a few discoveries before we left for the island. One was the western romances of Zane Grey, the other was my capacity for schoolwork. Like any other small boy, I had loved movie westerns. I had in fact become something of a purist, insisting that only the nineteenth century was the real West. The Roy Roger version, with airplanes, radios and automobiles was not real. Zane Grey, of course, was pure nineteenth century and his books were mine to go into whenever I pleased. I was no longer restricted to show times and the money it took to get in. When I got to Lasqueti, moreover, there was no theatre.
    The first Zane Grey I read was "Thunder Mountain", set in Idaho. The mountains of that book gave me visions and the rest of the ex-dentist's writings gave me consolation that was to last for years. Once I had seriously taken up the study of writers, Grey's unedited fantasies and horrendously stilted conversations became unreadable, but in those youthful years he provided me with magic. His writing had its fine moments - especially when he described the outdoors, and the epic themes of his plots could not fail to make a youngsters heart feel good to be alive.
    In moving schools so much I had not had the opportunity to assess my intelligence vis-a-vis that of other students. I simply enjoyed learning most of the time and did well enough to survive the changes. Being able to learn the lines for a lead in a Christmas play the year before was a confidence builder, and at the end of the year, in Vernon, I had come up with a good report and seemed to be among the top three students. Like most boys of nine, I had been much more interested in hitting home runs. I was not then, nor ever, much of a hitter. I had come a cropper, I thought, on an I.Q. test, and in the fall of grade five, did not seem to be doing so well. In Burnaby, however, the schoolroom felt interesting and I somehow picked up a few study habits. We stayed at my grandparents' house just long enough for me to pick up a report showing that I had headed the class.
    The household was proud of me, of course, and perhaps the news was taken as a good omen of the move to Lasqueti. In retrospect, though, it is not too hard to see the growing proof of my academic powers as one of the reasons why Providence was going to give us only two years on the island.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Recollective essay - Lasqueti Island

    Even as a teenager, I loved to tell stories about Lasqueti Island, where my father worked for almost two years as a logger, but I do not remember seriously thinking about writing about the island until I had met my wife. Very early in our courtship she had charmed me with stories of the town where she grew up, but she had at that time practiced only as a poet. She knew I was a hopeful story-teller even before I started my campaign for our marriage, and as I matched some of her adventures and learning experiences with accounts from my Island years - when I was ten and eleven - she insisted that I should one day write down these stories and the sooner the better.
    Shawn Harold was a great reader, and she knew that two years of island boyhood was a natural situation for a book, which she said she would very much like to read.
    I agreed, but the story of the island presented problems. To tell of individual adventures as they came spontaneously to mind was one thing; to knit them all together in a book was something else. I had a feeling that young writers were unable to do justice to their boyhood, that it was a province best kept for old age. The island had been, I thought, a truly wonderful experience for me, and I did not want to sell it short before I had reached the full use of my powers as a writer. There was also the reason of my mother's unhappiness with the island; she had been a city girl, much fonder of concerts and ballets than backwoods living, and I did not feel like dwelling on her bitter experiences before I had lived long enough to see them through some age acquired perspectives of my own. Finally, a book about a schoolboy on an island did not feel like a major work. I had a thirst, quite healthy, for plunging on into the moral issues of the university age and upward, and I also was driven, by books Shawn had bought for me just before we were married, to get to the sort of spiritual wisdom the great Carmelites write about. I did not see how writing about my childhood, at that point, would help me toward this goal.
    I promised a substitute. "When I sell a novel," I said, "I'll take you there and you can look the place over as long as you want." That would be good for research, of course, for the book I eventually would write. That I was going to sell a novel soon, of course, was something I did not know how to doubt.
    I did not sell two novels, as a matter-of-fact, but shortly after the second one was rejected Shawn got a job teaching school up the coast. The job was not on Lasqueti Island, which is sixty miles north of Vancouver, but at Alert Bay which is two hundred miles north of Vancouver!
    Leaving the city harbour at night, we passed Lasqueti in the dark, not seeing it, but in the spring, sailing down to the city so I could look at a job for myself, we did, see Lasqueti in daylight.
    I had studies the marine charts in the ship's hallways the night before and mad some simple calculations. I knew we could have a look at it if we got up early enough. As it was, we were up just in time, probably aided by the impossibility of us sleeping in when we insisted on sharing the bottom bunk. We were already abeam of the part of the island I had known as a boy before I was sure of where our ship was. I was able to point out Tucker Bay for sure, near where I went to school, and what I hoped was Marshall's Beach, where I had many of my holiday adventures.
    We were both excited, and with my habits of confusing the natural with the Divine, I was sure it was all a sign that we would soon be able to visit the island at our leisure. We were on the boat because I had a chance, I thought, at a job in the Kootenays. If I were to land the job, which would start in the fall, might it not be possible to arrange to spend part of the summer on the island?
    I did not get the job in the Kootenays; we went back up to Alert Bay via the Vancouver Island highway and we did not see Lasqueti again. At the end of the summer we went further north, up to Ocean Falls, where it was my turn to teach. To have spent the holiday on Lasqueti would have been impractical, as Shawn was due in July with our first born, and for a variety of other reasons, spiritual and physical, we needed to finish out our summer at Alert Bay.
    We have not yet gone to Lasqueti, and perhaps never shall. I did in fact revisit the island when I was fourteen, and that was a separate learning experience, but other places I have come to learn have always been more important. Realizing that, I have learned something of the power and purpose of memory.
    Perhaps we shall never visit the island, even though I have assumed that I would one day take my children there. It might be that they are supposed to accept a book instead of a visit, especially as they have already known a number of beaches and forests and glens of their own. We cannot go back to everything in the physical world except by way of the spirit, through which we can go back to everything more completely than time and change often permit. Even if we are permitted to go back physically, it has to be for the sake of the spirit. One must go to grow, as a man, as on went to grow as a child.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Untitled/ Ocean Falls

Running north from Port Vancouver
Plenty of gas to keep me far from home.
I'm not going back till I'm good and ready
No reason to stay and lots of cause to roam.

That old city did me good in its time
But she's not what I need any more
South-Easter blowing and a following tide
And something better to do all along the northern shore.

Guess I'll ramble round till they know I'm missing
And I can't say that they'll ever know I'm gone.
I was just about invisible in the last days
I wasn't sure I knew what was going down.

Ocean Falls

At one point they threatened to close the town.
The ancient pulp mill, everybody knows,
Grows obsolete, uneconomic, but now
That the government owns it, embarrassing
To let it ruin. Besides, in the long, lonely
Scarcely settled coastline, fat with fish
And rich with timber, where precious few
Have learned to farm, they need all the towns
The can get, simply to be civilized. From
Campbell River to Prince Rupert, except
For the smelter city of Kitimat, it's one, long,
Sparse string of villages. The fierce
Confinement of the fiords has something
To do with this primitive approach to civilization,
But that excuse won't quite wash clean
With men from Switzerland and Trondheim.
So, they say, technology bar the door against
The grizzly bear, and keep those logs competing
With the killer whale, and justify the raven's
Acclimatization to human garbage of a vaster
Sort than Indians could ever have imagined.
But I, as my photo album shows
Have personal reasons to see the old place stay:
Not only, as a poet, to forestall any more
"Deserted Villages", but because we lived there,
I and she - and love makes three -
While I learned to teach and was taught to pray,
And dwelt, while I studied history
With devotion, among a little corner
That was forever Europe.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Recollective essay circa 1977

    It was ten years ago, one evening after I had returned home from a visit to a contemplative convent, that I first began to think of using the events of meditation and mysticism as material for novels. I had gone to the convent to instruct an elderly nun, who loved music, how to play the ukulele, and in the course of our conversations she told me that neither she nor the sisters generally read novels. There was not enough theology in fiction, she said, to make such reading worth their time.
    I was at work on a novel at the time, rewriting the third version of a plot I had been developing, at intervals, for a dozen years or so. The manuscript was lying on the table where I had left it for the ukulele lesson, and when I picked it up again to continue work I knew I felt challenged to write fiction that would contain enough theology to make it worth the time of contemplative sisters.
    The challenge in fact seemed Providential, for I had been studying the classic writings on meditation and mysticism for almost as many years as I had tried to write novels and stories, and I always felt that my personal relationship with my writing was somewhat hamstrung by my avoidance, generally speaking, of the material that I had found so interesting. I spent quite a long time thinking about what the sister had said, quoting her to my wife for her opinion, and wondering how and when the new thoughts would affect my inspirations.
    The answer came very quickly, although not in the form of a new and hyper-spiritual plot, nor, at that time, in a radical revision of the story under way. I was within a few weeks called upon to write a long series of letters to a student contemplative and was not long afterwards drawn from my field of school teaching to that of counselling and spiritual direction. My researches of the contemplative life, it would seem, had only fairly begun, and if I were to acquire the understanding out of which to write satisfactory stories on the subject, I had much more work to do before I would be allowed to write about it.
    But not for the old sister. She said she would pray for my work, and always remembered me at the fourth station of the Cross, where Christs meets His mother, but she died before her bodily eyes could read any of the effects of her prayers. Besides that, in the years that have passed, the reading public for contemplative subjects has expanded much beyond the walls of convents - and not just because so many convents no longer have walls - but because the younger generation has of its own accord acquired a taste for these matters, and as that age group has moved this way, it has aroused the interest of generations ahead of it. The Maharishi and Thomas Merton have had their say, Zen Buddhism has a wide reading and it is probably that the meditative approach to religion has a larger following now than at any time since the sixteenth century. And it is more than a lip service kind of following. The past decade in North America alone has probably witnessed more individual revolts in the name of a meditative conscience than any simply economic or political movement would ever dream of inspiring. God is not dead, but what He has done is slaughter an enormous number of sacred cows, which, when they thought about it, were probably happy to die.
    Perhaps such a movement, for both its best and worst aspects, needs a chronicle, perhaps it also needs a story teller's introduction to the masters of the systematic writings.