Monday, September 12, 2011

with my left hand I raise the dead

Here's the thing, little candle-maker: my belief in second chances is unswerving.

Look. Even if you refuse to see what I see, look. You know what this is, don't you? This is every wretched failure, every moment of choking desperation. We have been here before, haven't we? This is all the abandoned drafts, this is all the crumpled pieces of staff paper. It's all so very familiar, isn't it? This is each bitter, ceaseless argument - it is each and every word, shaped as if to cut. Look. It is all around us, this cloud of witnesses to our worthlessness. Look. This is the moment you can't remember, when you ceased to feel it without realising, and it is the last time I ever saw him, and knew grief like a shroud. It is the fear that lurks in every future you imagine for yourself, and it is the eerie ache I feel in the hollowness below my ribs. This is the moment you saw them together for the first time, the moment when you knew, and it is the smile that holds my face together as I watch her with someone else. Look. It is the ghost. It is the ogre. It is the thief. Look. It is your tear-stained face, it is my trembling hands. Look. Even if you won't see what I see, look. This is the candle, and the storm, and the pane of glass that lets them speak.

But, here's the thing, little lighthouse-keeper: what you are is not that which they have made you.

Sit still, and silently. Feel, for only a second, every piece of your body's infinite jigsaw puzzle: the breath that sits in your lungs; the dull, perennial throbbing at your temples; the gentle tremor escaping through your fingertips. This is your cage - it is your release. Be still, silent, attentive. If they were trying to remind you of something you have forgotten, what do you imagine it would be?
Sometimes, life doesn't work. Sometimes we twist and turn in our own skin without a hope of escape. Sometimes nothing will work out, and everything we create is an ugliness. Sometimes these things happen, and when they do the most impossible thing in the world is to remember ourselves when we were otherwise: when our existence wrapped itself around us like a warm blanket, when every breath was an experience and every moment was a possibility, when our voices wrote poems of passion with a lifespan of seconds, and our nimble fingers painted until the cold, dead ivory became music.

Because, here's the thing, little lantern-bearer: we are an impossible dream.

Maybe this is it. Maybe nothing changes. The sky will rain or shine, as it always has. The Atlantic remains as wide and uncaring as ever it was. The stars are as dull or bright when we look on them in despair as when we looked on them in hope and, admitting nothing to be impossible, wished. A hundred-thousand banks of cloud have scudded between the stars and you since the last time your eyes saw anything but old, dead light. Maybe this is it. Maybe nothing changes. Maybe this is all you were ever meant to be.
Except for this one little thing: no. No. No f***ing way. I refuse to accept it. Not if it was tried, tested and proven. Not if it was prophesied, predicted, foretold, recorded, notarised, signed, sealed & delivered, no. Not if every doctor on earth diagnosed it, not if governments made it into law, and not if all the preachers in the world thundered it from their pulpits. Not if they tattooed it onto my eyeballs and carved it backwards into my chest would I believe that this is all there is - not if every voice in all of creation told me it was so would I believe that this is all you will be. Not even if one of those voices is yours.
I know things can be bad. I know that when they get this way, it can be so hard to remember how things were before - to imagine how they could be yet. But here's the deal: for every time it seems like something can't be done, I will remind you of all the times when we did the impossible; when light and life and hope seem like a half-forgotten dream, I will remind you of all the times our dreams came true; and when your body feels like a disjointed cage for holding a wild beast, I will remind you, one-by-one, of every moment of utter genius, every movement of pure grace, and every single expression of unmatchable beauty I have seen in you. It doesn't fix things, I know, but perhaps it's a start: a break in the scudding drifts of clouds so that we can see the stars again. Perhaps, a long time from now, in a future beyond our imagining, we might lie on our backs somewhere amid the deepening dark and in hope, admitting nothing to be impossible, wish.

Here's the thing, little phoenix: if you were waiting for a sign, this is it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

this house has been far out at sea all night

May god guard the ghostly ones,
the five-fingered fragment
that slipped in amongst us
and held my hand tonight:
sweet and disembodied,
warm and so inviting;
ever and only empty,
empty gesture and young,
younger even than such
uncalculated whim
should have a right to be.
Do not be born at night,
if they give you the choice:
start as you mean to go on,
believing, as we did,
you have the right to light.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Prose Extract 2.0 - 'Morality for Beautiful Girls.'

"The ground is hard
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
Displays a certain

The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod."
-- John Updike, "November"

I've been thinking a bit about beauty lately, primarily because it seems to want to throw itself in my face a little bit at the moment. That is, I read everywhere people trying to judge and figure out what it beautiful and what isn't, advising on how to make yourself more beautiful [I haven't seen anywhere yet advice on how to make yourself less beautiful - perhaps there's an opening in the market?] and pretty much selling beauty in a can. Most worryingly, however, I see a constant stream of comments from people, including people I care about very much, to the effect that they don't find any beauty in themselves, and doubt they ever will.

This is particularly worrying for two reasons: firstly, I think I'd be with the majority when I say to these people, "what do you mean you're think you're ugly? I think you're stunning!", and it always hurts me to see people I love with low self-esteem; and secondly, if we were to admit that you lovely people aren't beautiful, what on earth does that say about people like me? I realise I'm not quite hideous, but I'm certainly no Robert Pattinson, and if all of you look as bad as you think, I haven't got a hope!

The particular piece of work this comes from will probably never be completed enough for me to actually use this scene, but after one especially self-deprecating set of thoughts from someone whose beauty really isn't in question whatsoever, I felt like sitting down and putting some propaganda into my character's mouths.

So yes. Something like that.

Extract 2.0 - Morality for Beautiful Girls

When he came into the room, he could see she had been crying. Not a great deal, but enough to have two dark smudges of makeup down the corners of her eyes, and one murky mascara teardrop rolling down toward the end of her nose. He loosened the knot on his tie with a slight feeling of guilt, trying to make it look as if he had not been waiting.

Looking up full into the mirror, she caught sight of his lean frame propped against the doorjamb, and swore with surprising violence. For a moment she looked truly ferocious - then the fire fizzled and she put her head back in her hands. Leaving his tie hanging on the door handle, he sat down on the bed behind her, blinking in some surprise at the wealth of cosmetics spread out on the dressing table.

"I didn't know you owned this much makeup. I didn't know anyone owned this much makeup!"

She tried to snorted indignantly: what came out sounded more like a wet snuffle. "Typical boy. We all have this stuff, you just don't get to see it. You just see a pretty girl and imagine it happens all by itself. Poof! Magic."

The last word was unbearably bitter: he felt something twist in his heart. Not fair.

"Ah, but of course, how silly of me," he said, the gentle sarcasm softened by a smile. "What, after all, is the joy in seeing magic done if you already know the trick, right?" He fell silent for a moment: she, head still lowered protectively, said nothing.

"Let me take a look," he said finally, moving around to perch on the edge of the table. "Whatever disaster you're imagining, I guarantee it's not even half as bad as you think. If that."

"Or you could go away for five minutes while I dispose of the evidence." Her voice was brittle and hard. "Or the bodies. Phone the restaurant, cancel the reservations, order us a chinese or a pizza, something I can eat in jeans and a t-shirt and not feel like a child playing with her mother's makeup." She swore again, with some feeling. "This was such a stupid idea."

"It was a great idea, and it's going to be a great night," he said mildly, resisting the impulse to pat her on the shoulder. "It just needs a little fine-tuning, that's all. Let me take a look. Please?"

The gentle plea in the final word was like a key in a lock. With a sigh of frustration, she took her hands away and turned to face him, wiping a black tear-smudge across her nose in an endearingly childlike gesture. He smiled, remembering his sister again, and thought he caught the barest hint of a reflexive response, quickly stifled.

Her only sin, he thought to himself as he examined the source of her anguish, was trying too hard. Which, his inner companion commented drily, was really more of an inexperienced virtue. He felt, not for the first time, a real surge of anger against the people who should have been there for her, who should have given her more support and self-confidence. Not fair.

"Well, this is barely a problem at all," was all he said aloud. "Nothing that a minute or two won't solve. May I?" he asked, picking up the box of wipes - she nodded meekly, suddenly stuck shy.

"Your problem," he said slowly, gently wiping away some of the dark streaks, "is that you're trying to do a bit too much. You're starting off by assuming you don't look good, and that you're going to need a lot of work to cover that up, when in fact the opposite is true."

"Oh yes, I'm a beautiful butterfly and a unique snowflake," she retorted caustically, turning slightly so he could wipe some of the blush from her cheek. "A fairytale princess who can rise stunning straight from bed and into the world. Not all of us were born to be film stars, you know."

"Being a film star has nothing to do with it." She closed her eyes so he could clean her eyelashes off. "They need just as much work as anyone else, and twice as much upkeep." The wipe was added to the growing pile in the rubbish bin: he selected a fresh one. "They just have more time and money to spend on it than everyone else, that's all."

Finishing up, he examined her face, his head tilted slightly to one side, exactly as he'd watched his brother do a hundred times. The image of the solid and serious young man muttering furiously to himself as he went about his job, younger siblings looking on in wonder brought the smile back to his face, and he was rewarded with the slightest of conspiratorial grins in return. Taking advantage of her momentary attention and good-humour, he sorted through the products on the table, picking a few here and there and arranging them neatly next to him. Finally, with a brief apologetic glance at her apprehensive expression, he started with the lightest layer of the most sheer foundation he could find: she flinched slightly every time the sponge neared her face, finally opting to keep her eyes shut and her hands clenched around the arms of her chair, knuckles whitening as if she expected a slap. He kept up the commentary as he worked his way across her face by gentle degrees, trying to draw the tension out of her spring-loaded frame with the conversation.

"I mean it when I say that you're doing too much. Steven used to say it was the most beautiful models who were the hardest to prepare: at some point there's a limit to what you can do with cosmetics, and while you can slap a whole new face on an average-looking person, with someone naturally pretty you have to be much more selective."

He made a moue of disapproval and rifled through the boxes on the table, looking for a much lighter eyeshadow than the one she had out.

"Society tells you that you have to have makeup on to look your best, and if you want to go along with that, fine: there is a lot you can do with cosmetics, but it's not always a case of 'more-is-better'. That's not society trying to help you look beautiful, it's society trying to get you to buy more crap."

She smiled weakly, but kept her eyes firmly closed. "Why do I get the feeling this isn't the first time you've used this speech - oops, I'm sorry!"

He wiped away the liberal smear she'd inadvertently caused, laughing. "It's not my speech, really, it's more Steven's: he taught my sister everything she needed to know, with Mum not being around." He refused to let his voice shake. Not what I need now, God damn it. "I think it's what got him interested in the beauty industry in the first place."

"Was she a lot like me?" The question was out before she had thought it through. "I mean - " she hesitated. "Did she have the same problems, like this, sometimes?"

He was very still. She desperately wanted to open her eyes. Several long seconds ticked past: his fingers tickled her cheek where he had paused.

"Yes," he replied finally, "yes, she was quite a lot like you, actually." She didn't have to ask which question he had really answered. A gift, of sorts.

He resumed working; she let out a long breath.

"Steven used to tell her," he went on, surprising her, a odd note of affectionate laughter in his voice, "that women were just like food: there is no bad food, just different tastes; if they were bland, they could stand a lot of spicing up to make them appear more appetizing; but if they had enough beauty and character to them already - " he turned her gently in the chair to face the mirror, " - all they needed was the lightest of seasonings. Open your eyes."

It wasn't really a suggestion. Feeling afraid, confused and horribly bare, she complied.

What greeted her was unexpected. Instead of the stranger she hoped to see every time she finished this particular part of getting ready for the day, the face in the mirror was decidedly her own. And yet -

"What did you do?"

The pale arching eyebrows, the dark eyes, the strong nose and firm chin: everything was where it ought to be, but around them was the delicate emphasised line of a jaw and cheekbone leading up into the very faintest hint of red blush and the vague, almost non-existent shadow around her eyes. Her lips were a gentle pink against white, white china skin - why, she wondered suddenly, did I ever wanted to cover that up? - and her eyelashes seemed full and healthy below the barest hint of colour on her eyelids. I look beautiful, she realised very suddenly and, again, I look strong.

"How did you - "

She discovered he had moved: he was by the door, retrieving his tie from the handle. It seemed like a long time ago he had come in without knocking.

"I used a bit of makeup to help you remember how incredibly beautiful you are," he said with a smile, a full-blooded smile that lit up his face and rolled back, for a moment, the years of pain in a life too young to hold them in. "To everything there is a season, right? Just a hint of seasoning - magic."

He finished knotting the tie with a flourish and held out his hand. "Let's go. If we hurry, we can still make those dinner reservations. Between good looks, good food and good company, I think you might just make an evening of it."

She smiled back, a beautiful girl with a beautiful smile and a heart and soul worthy of both, and rose to join him.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


There is such power in this place. I had all but forgotten. Whenever I am here, I understand what people mean when they talk about 'the old places of the earth.' It isn't so much defined by absolute age in years or era, it's the knowledge of being in the presence of a power very much other than the ones that govern our everyday lives and set the rules we play by at work, at home, at school: there are times when I feel as if nature is becoming one of these powers, a force we can all but avoid in our normal existence; a beast we have found a way to trammel in and hem about, except for those rare occasions it escapes and wrecks havoc, and we are left picking up the pieces when we should have been better prepared. Here, though, on the edge of reality, nature is very much alive, very much free, and it is fey. It is extraordinary.

I'm a little ahead of myself. The Gortien can do that.

We are on holiday, my family and I, in a little crofting cottage on the west coast of Scotland, about an hour's drive to the coast from Fort William, by the town of Glenuig [for those of you who know your local geography!]. The Gortien is one cottage in what used to be a subsistence farming community called Smirisary - that is, a scattered collection of tiny homesteads that grew enough food to survive and perhaps trade for tools and other supplies, and nothing extra - an isolated existence virtually without money or governance, until the great and savage Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries wiped out and relocated vast swathes of the indigenous Scottish population. Since then the vast majority of such communities have remained abandoned, but Smirisary gained some minor recognition in the '50s when one woman in particular braved the harsh living conditions to document her attempts at an alternative, subsistence lifestyle. Since then, many of the old cottages in the area have been renovated to varying degrees as holiday cottages or private getaways.

The Gortien, my family's particular haunt, sits nestled in a fold in the hills just under ten minutes walk from the rocky coastline. It remains essentially the same building as when it was an isolated homestead a hundred years ago: a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen build out of rough, now white-washed stone and fronted by a simple wooden conservatory erected several years back. There is a tank on the hill collecting rainwater and an enormous Rayburn stove in the kitchen to complement the fireplace in the bedroom for providing central heating, but there is no electricity, no gas or phone lines, no drinkable water - everything you need must be carried the half-mile or so from the nearest road - litres of water, kilograms of coal and bottles of propane, all your food supplies and [of course!] piles of reading material. It is almost barbaric in its simplicity - it is bliss.

I honestly can't describe the experience properly: a failure of vocabulary. Tramping over the hills and through the ferns laden with stuffed backpacks and arms full; sitting out on top of the hill watching the sun set over the sea and ignite the Scottish islands perched on the edge of the horizon; reading by a hot, roaring peat fire smelling of bog and freshly-turned earth, safe in four solid walls of stone as the storms come raging in and as quickly are swept out again; playing cards on the old, scarred kitchen table while my father hums busily at the gigantic coal-fired oven, creating stew or baking bread; chasing sheep off the porch with a clattering of hooves and a chorus of indignant bleating ... so many utterly unique experiences rolled into one unassuming cottage by the sea.

This place brings the world back to life, for me. I could spend an age ranting about the depravities of my concrete mecca of a city, but sat here listening to the short-wave radio murmuring about the weather and the shipping forecast, writing the letters I can't write in the midst of the rattle and hum of reality, writing by candle-light and oil lamp and saying things that matter to the people whom I love and cherish - sitting here watching the red fade to blue to grey to black, I cannot care too much about the place I've come from. That I'll be going back there in a few too-short days is the least meaningful fact I am aware of at this moment: how is it meant to compare to the vital, immediate fact that there is a herd of wild highland cattle and one of deer that will come right up to the house to nibble the long weeds around the window, or the unbelievable truth of precisely how many different shades of blue and white can be seen in one split-second curve of a breaker before it crashes to the shore, or the way that even now the flickering lamp light makes strange, surreal hieroglyphs out of my writing, slanting upward away from the dancing glow of flame on steel nib, up the page and into the gloom. These are facts, essential and incontrovertible, they are everything that defines this moment. On Thursday I will be back at work, listening to the slack-jawed nonentities mumbling damp, meaningless sentences, and while my head nods and my voice makes empty noises of approval, my heart will say, "there is a place - you know it, because you have been there - where your hands and your voice, your eyes and your mind and every other fibre of your being act in concert, and what they do has a meaning that will no wash away in an instant, one that sits untouchable above the floods that wash away the revolting, soulless gestures of these cardboard people and stands exulting in the tumult and storm that rages around their clapboard lives, pulling them to pieces. It is a place of high walls, of deep harbours, of firm foundations in the midst of hurricane and warmth in the midst of gale and rain. It is a knowledge of real beauty, and real fury, and real danger such as we have almost forgotten, a knowledge that sees our pale imitations of these things standing naked before it and accepts that they are not worth the effort of contempt. Out here, beyond the electrical hum pervading our lives, beyond the simpering moral and intellectual rot gnawing at the root of our existence, beyond frightened people locked inside their own skins [and believe me, I know all about that], there is a moment upon cresting the hill and seeing the sun breaking up the rain clouds like fingers of fire shining on the sea, a moment as if coming suddenly to the edge of a thick bank of fog and pulling free of formless grey to see the entire wealth of creation spread out before you. There is that one moment with the sea air in your face like the very breath of God saying, 'here - now - you must understand that you are more real than that which you will return to - never be afraid of what you shall pass through like the fog.'

Well. Too deep for a little stone cottage on the Scottish coast? Then you've never been there. All I can say is that it doesn't matter what god, if any, you believe in, or what version of reality you subscribe to: there is power in this place, out sojourning amidst the very edges of the world. I could write another gospel without ever beginning to crack the secrets of what this place does, and I think that is how it was meant to be: this wild world sends you back a little cleansed, and a little less respectful of the snivelling demons waiting for your return. Come and try it out yourself sometime, would be my only advice: experience what it feels like, even for a second, to approach this mess of a world with the spark of the divine written in thunder and air across your face. I recommend it.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Bridges of Manchester County

"She always expects
surprise, even here, in the
rows of corn and wheat"
-- Cade, "City of Bridges: A Postcard from Saskatoon"

I have a thing for bridges. I'm not entirely sure why - somehow they have the suggestion of power about them, of standing against something [who knows what? gravity, perhaps, or the elements], of being tall and proud and indomitable. One of the images from Atlas Shrugged that moved me most was the picture of Nat Taggart standing alone and abandonned at sunset, still building his bridge - bridge-builders are great people, I think. There is something rooted in defiance at the core of people like that, people doing the impossible for the ungrateful and the unknowing, people who make connections and forge links. Craftsmen and visionaries share much the same set of tools, I think.
I came across the haiku at the beginning of the entry a couple of years ago, and was immensely moved. My mother comes from Saskatoon, and everything about our holiday visits leads me to agree with the writer wholeheartedly: it is a simple, unassuming prairie city after the old fashion of small, remote Canadian frontier towns, and yet - and yet, you can never be quite sure what you will find. She's quite correct in calling it the 'City of Bridges', too - seven major crossings in a city of just over 200,000 is impressive, and a little bizarre. There is one in particular that holds a place in my heart, the Grand Trunk Bridge on the corner of Sapadina and Power - built in 1907/8, it's a grand old steel-trestled train bridge that straddles the river at its widest point, just south of the city proper. Let me tell you: there is very little better than sitting out on a hot Canadian summer day above the river, legs swinging into space, with a notebook and a pen, completely lost to the world. It is [something I have yet to use it for - oneday!] the perfect spot for a romantic post-dinner evening, sat watching the sun go down over the river, talking about everything and nothing. It is inseperably entwined in my head with perfect hot summers and the endless sweep of the prairies, golden and dusty and beautifully simple. Some things never leave you.

Manchester isn't particularly famous for its bridges - no Golden Gate, no Grand Trunk - just a few functional stone and brick pieces here and there. There's still a certain mystique to some of them, however, as I discovered last night.
Stag parties are not my natural habitat, I'll be honest. I am bad at partying: I have a low tolerance for alcohol, no 'and-then-she-took-it-off-and-she-was-a-MAN!' stories to tell, and roughly zero desire to bring anyone [male or female] from Manchester town home with me. As depressingly cliched as it is, I am far more comfortable curled up with a good book, or at the very least drinking whiskey with a few people I actually know. Crowds of strangers don't scare me like they would have done a few years ago, but they don't excite me either - they just make me feel old and cynical.
As I made my excuses for the second half of the night's revelries and started the hour-long walk home [because the only thing worse than the city centre on a saturday night is the bus leaving it] I did what I do as a defence against the crowds of people hell-bent on seduction and sex, the desperate and the unthinking and the unstable and the whole unpalatable explosion of people's hopelessness and willful ignorance - I set out walking in one direction, any direction, and I kept going until I felt like I could think straight again.

A few miles out of the town centre, down Deansgate and nearly to the motorway, there's a quiet stretch of road the branches out over one of Manchester's innumerable tiny rivers - the bridge that holds it up is fairly recent, probably only a couple of decades old, a classic '80s brick ediface, solid and squat and unimposing. The guardwall is about seven feet high and a foot or two thick, all solid, slightly blackened bricks. Sitting on the top of it, staring out over the sluggish riverlet and the Saturday night revelries going on behind it, I sat there and tried to figure out how I feel about my city. And it is my city, as these things go: thirteen years of my life this summer I will have lived here, including the year I was born; as much as I might identify very strongly with wide-open prairies and the Rocky Mountains [and I do - they are a part of my bones and my blood and if I am away from them too long, those deep and tightly-knit features make themselves known, to my immense spiritual discomfort] there is nowhere else that I can call home in quite the same way I call Manchester home. Let me be very clear: there are plenty of times I wish it wasn't so, but I'm not one of those people who believes you can change where home is just by moving - if you run away, you will have to deal with that struggle sooner or later.
What I thought, looking out on the explosion of blue neon and breathing in the strong, heady smell from the profusion of honeysuckle growing wild all along the banks, was that I hate this place with a passion. It feels like such a natural reaction. Every morning I catch the bus into the centre of town to work, and it strikes me over and over again: the hundredweight of bitter, angry people covering every inch of pavement, snapping into mobile phones with their cigarettes dangling unsmoked, burning their fingers; people's faces are twisted into their public face, their city face, eyes downcast and features set in a neutral, formless expression that says don't notice me, don't talk to me, don't hurt me, don't make my day and more stressful and painful than it already is; the tramps who swear at you when you tell them you don't have any change, the mobile phone salesman and charity workers and public survey monkeys out in droves for your time, your money, your opinion, things they seem to believe inexplicably that they have a right to - when I want to give you my point-of-view, lady, you'll know it, believe me. And coming home at night, exhausted and bone-weary from eight or nine hours of dealing with the whole coffee-drinking, sugar-eating, hyped-up and downtrodden mass of English humanity, it's all the same: middle-aged women with so many shopping bags I'm surprised they don't have a little hired slave to carry it all around with them; teenage girls in layers of makeup shrieking aimless words across the city's squares, boys who don't know what it means to grow-up trying to hard to be men, laughing too quickly and too loudly, instantly in your face and up close and looking for trouble - I've broken a man's skull with a baseball bat, I said to one punk, quietly and with the perfect East-coast accent, I've put a bowie knife through a man's wrist and skewered it to the wall, stood there and laughed while he ripped one of his fingers off trying to get it free. I've put a bullet through a man's eye and felt his blood on my face. What do you want? He must have seen something he didn't like. He left without laughing. Afterward, sitting on the bus and shaking slightly, I thought, "what on earth possesses a sane person to say a thing like that?" I was a little younger then, than I am now. Perhaps that contributed, in some way, to my growing up.

There is a place out on the edge of Northenden, along the Mersey close to where I used to go to school, called Simon's Bridge. It's a little footpath that runs along by the water, little more than a glorified stream at that point, and over an old cast-iron trestle, rusting and slightly green with age. People walk their dogs down through the nearby fields - kids go to make out or smoke weed, whichever vice is more attractive at the time. But at dusk, just before dark and with what little sun the clouds have allowed in lighting up the river, it is quiet and usually abandonned. If you have someone with you, you can play Pooh Sticks, dropping twigs and branches over the one side and spinning around quickly to see which makes it out of sight first - if you are alone, the top of the old, worn abundments makes for a good place to sit and think for a while. I used to go there very occasionally when I lived closer, if I needed some time to myself and my feet happened to take me that way. Now, I'm further away. Things are a little less peaceful out here: the constant wailing of police sirens, the rough barking of stray dogs out in the alleyway, the roars and howls of the lower-middle class creating drama to make their lives interesting. I ought not to complain, of all the ills in the world, of not having a bridge nearby to sit on. But if I am to hate this city a little less, it is important to focus less on its faults, and more on its... inconsistancies. Little victories.

Really, what I think of this place matters very little in the grand scheme of things, or in any smaller schemes for that matter. Manchester will take no note of the boy who dreams of Saskatoon's railway bridge. I live here because there are things and people that I love and because [as much as a rail against the fact sometimes] if I am ever to escape this place - and that is an if - I have some reconciling to do.
The nature of a city is tied to the nature of its people, past and present, and also vice-versa. I can only imagine as much as we try to change this place, hopefully for the better, that as Nietzsche put it, he who battles with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. It is a quote that applies to a lot of situations. Who am I to tell people how to live?

"Past the derelict mattress
and the overgrown pavement
over the tracks
and through the hole in the fence
Past graffiti-bright buildings
and the junkyard alarm bell
and the screaming police cars
and it's all present tense

It's my beat
In my new town

Past the drunk woman reeling
with her bag of provisions
Down through the tunnel
with the stink-fuming bus
On to the bike path
where it's something like freedom
and the wind in my earring whispers
Trust what you must

It's my beat
In my new town

Ancient and always
The wheel's ever whirling
Today I'm riding
Tomorrow I walk
Step through forever
into this very moment
The heart is pumping
and the heart rocks

It's my beat
In my new town."
-- Bruce Cockburn, "My Beat"

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Switzerland [1]

[Oh my.]

1. What can be articulated

As I sit by my window, flipping through my notebooks and letting the gentle rain-cooled breeze soothe my red-tinged arms and shoulders, I'm uncertain where to begin. Although it was barely a week ago that I left, it feels as though I have been gone for months. The continent has worked its way under my skin quickly and completely, and it itches - I feel tired and tender, as if my flesh were trying to shed one reality and embark on another. It's a learning curve, too: every time I make the journey across the Channel I'm drawn a little further into the understanding that, despite the fact that Britain is only a few miles away from France, it is really far more like the USA - Europe-proper is a whole other world. There are different games and dances to navigate [metaphorically, thankfully, though potentially the literal danger lurks out there too], different sets of rules and, of course, different languages, even - especially? - when both parties are speaking English. Jumbled communication fosters surprising tolerance and patience - we slow down, we repeat, we rephrase and we listen much more carefully. As we are likely only marginally understood in any case, we are less afraid of seeming foolish.

Zurich feels like most older European cities - that is, as if it were populated mostly by benevolent ghosts of some kind. In the late evening, the winding streets are quiet and solemn, very still and leafy, as if they were waiting for something. We walked on and on down one such for an age, surrounded by beautifully-crafted architecture and well-kept greenery, utterly silent save for a single admonishing hush from a balcony high above us, aimed at our unEuropean exuberance of exploration. Even in daylight there is an unreal quality to the place, as if people who make so little fuss about their existence must only have one foot in it at most - calmly competant, calmly amused, efficient and good-natured by turns. There must be genetics for this kind of thing.

2. What can only be felt

The smell of the tiny tea-shop perched on the edge of the river, hundreds upon hundreds of tins and boxes and the smell like mother nature making spiced honey and wine; the unbelievable clearness of the water, spreading out from under the bridges and humming gently and tunefully, the backing score to these incredible people's lives; the incomprehensible vastness of the Alps at first sight, tall beyond reality - too big to exist, they can only have been painted on to the sky by some creative god; the taste of iced coffee and chocolate, nestled away from the sun under a simple striped canopy, listening to the low laughter and foreign conversation of friends, lovers, waiters moving deftly between the tables, and

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him...

There is so much more. I get lose just remembering.

3. The curious dream I had of you

Zurich Dream

We found your name in purple ink
the day we stole God's bedroom key,
and left him watching thunderstorms,
his feet up on the mantelpiece.
He'd written, "don't forget to pray
for this one, keep her in your mind"
and doodled with his fountain pen
beside the name he'd underlined.
We read through pages laced with awe
and journal entries filled with doubt:
we saw the angry scribblings
of helpless God, his written shouts
of old and tired disbelief
obscured by pages written and torn,
the spiky, childlike handwriting
all blurred by tracks his tears had worn.

We didn't hear the still, small voice
that echoed on the radio,
announcing tracks at 3am
while we were being bulletproof:
amidst the thunder of our dreams
we stood together back-to-back,
a pair of islands edges with reefs
and joined by a bridge of rock -
a danger in the going back,
a danger in the stepping out -
we sit alone on different shores
and wake alone to self-same doubts.
Remember when we fell asleep?
The radio was playing hope,
and warming rain had washed the sky.
But it was colder when we woke.

The night is old, but far away
the Alps are shining, cool and green:
our moonlit dreamscape rolls away
to greet the dawn, and in the east
and pale and white-haired morning star
is lighting up the Zurich streets.
We sit together on the bridge
across the Rhine and share a drink:
"remember that it's just a dream"
you say, and as I reach to take your hand
I feel the soft Swiss sun against my cheek,
and wish that you were waiting here
to greet me as I wake.

4. βλεπομεν γαρ αρτι δι εσοπτρου εν αινιγματι

Monday, June 01, 2009

R.I.P. Revd Dr. Hugh Rae [1921-2009]

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day."
-- Isaac Watts, O God Our Help in Ages Past

Here's a funny thing - the world is still turning. It was turning at 5am on the 1st of June as I lay unblinking on my bed, wide awake and knowing with cold, distant exactness why the phone was ringing; I would guess it will still be turning tonight. I'm uncertain whether tonight's turning will find me asleep - one thing is certain, it finds my grandfather finally asleep, quickly and peacefully and with less time than it takes to say a prayer.

The primary feeling is one of disbelief, of the unreality of the thing. Up until two weeks ago he was, with the exception of a little tiredness and occasional aches, in good health - barely a week ago my father flew to Japan for a busines trip, secure in the knowledge that when he returned the doctors would have a diagnosis and we could figure out which treatment options were the best. My grandpa barely held on [and it was holding on - I will never forget the pain twisting in my heart, watching him lie in bed, concentrating fiercely, conserving his strength so that he might see his son again before he died] long enough for him to make it back. I know my father well enough to see, with perfect clarity, him sitting on the aeroplane, head in hands, trying to figure out how to forgive himself if he was too late. The speed of it all verges on the absurd - what can you do?

The week of his illness and death was one of brilliant sun. Driving back through the city with my mother in the early evening, window down, there was a incredible softness to the light, the trees and buildings bathed in the kind of effusive glow that makes you want to take photograph after photograph. It has an interesting isolating quality, that light - other people seem to fade into the background, become very much part of the scenery, as if the two of us could have been the only actors onscreen in a film of our own. Chronic sleep deprivation has much to do with this, I know, but the circumstances also tend to relegate anyone beyond close friends and family into nonperson; my eyes have been gritty and tired lately, and I've taken to walking around without my glasses on when I'm in familiar territory, turning anyone outside the metre mark into nothing but a rough person-shaped blur. Distance is a curious and relative thing at times like these.

Recent memories are fragmented and unconcentrated: some important events, conversations are fuzzy and surreal, as if I had forgotten them and been reminded a long time afterwards; the minutae of the day, however, stand out sharply, like a solitary lit window in a long, dark street. The group of us standing around the bed, temporarily lost for words until someone starting singing one of many, many of his favourite old hymns and we discovered something special - our family falls naturally into four part harmonies. The district nurse, standing by the door waiting to give him his check-up, had tears in his eyes - "you all love him so much," he said. "Not many people I see have that. So many people are alone." Or the explosion of laughter as he woke from his fitful dozing to find himself surrounded, murmured amusedly, "eeney-meeney-miney-mo" to the various figures around him and drifted back off.
Other things, too, of a different timbre: the look in my father's eyes coming in the door, almost straight off the plane home, a look that went directly past everyone and took him straight into my grandpa's room before he had time to get his coat off; him knelt by the bed, head bowed, my grandpa's hand in his hair, saying, "I'm back, Dad, it's OK - I'm back"; the aching realisation, watching these things, of what it means to be a son. I'm a Christian, fatherhood and sonship are incredibly important parts of how I see the world: what does it mean when those things are taken away? "I'm an orphan," he said afterwards, with an almost-smile. A joke; a painful truth. We are who we are in relation to those around us, especially those we love - when we are reduced to the elemental core that is at the root of 'I' - what then?

The funeral was staggering. We couldn't fit everyone inside the college's church - they spilled out onto the grass, into the classrooms and under the hastily errected marquee, linked by audio cables zigzagging through doors and windows to bring our voices out to the throng of people that had gathered to pay their last respects, all 350+ of them. There are no words to properly desribe the incredible flood of emotions washing over me, standing there all of a foot from his coffin: sadness, anger, despair, rage, panic, grief, exhaustion, disbelief, but over and above all a tremendous, powerful sense of pride to have been a part of his life. And as the tributes and testimonies were given from family, friends, colleagues, fellow pastors and educators and churchmen of all generations and walks of life, I felt again the incredible, unburdened lightness that I associate so much with sitting in his living room, trading stories and advice and being taught more than I will ever even realise I have learned; I felt the fierce, explosive joy that is our only defence against death, the joy that knows without question that there is more to come. We mourn, yes, but! we do not mourn as those who have no hope.
There are no applause at funerals, though the speeches, especially my fathers, were well worth it. But there is singing. And as the hundreds of voices matched the old pipe organ, note for note, swelling up like light and life and love into the grey Manchester sky, I understood properly what the hymn-writer had been trying to say, and why my grandpa had picked this song for his funeral. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, W.W. How writes, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song; and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong; Hallelujah! Hallelujah! This life is a struggle, a truly terrible battle, but - we do not fight as those who have no hope. He never did, and even after his death he continues to inspire it in those of us who knew him, because he has shown us that we do have a choice, and that we do have a chance. Not as those who have no hope.

I have had, since I was quite young, an image in my head of what my death feels like, as if that one moment were a summation of my life. In it I am sat on the edge of a cliff looking over a broad, sweeping expanse of red-grey desert, watching a storm thunder and flicker round and about me as the sun sets in a blaze of blood and gold on the horizon; someone I love is sat beside me, stretched out on their back watching the first stars begin to flicker into existence above us, singing gently to themselves. It's not that I think this is how I will die, but if I could paint a picture of the many divergant lines of my life coming together to finish, that is what it would show. And standing in that chapel, feeling a solid wall of the love and respect of three hundred people behind us and several thousand more who sent letters, emails, phonecalls of apology for their absence, as I stood beside his still body I could almost hear him whispering some of his final words to my mother as she sat beside him, leaning in to catch the faint, fading sound of his voice: never be afraid to love, he said to her. You knew, didn't you? We are all of us so very afraid to love, sometimes, but as I stood there hearing the crowd of people whom you loved, and who loved you greatly in return, sing out strong and true in your memory - But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array! - I reaffirmed that vow: never to be afraid to love; never to give up hope.

I am exhausted and - as long as I have gone on here - my brain is as yet unable to fully process what has happened. It's not something I'm looking forward to. Unfortunately right at this moment I have no lighthouse to keep, no cottage to retreat to, no great adventure to occupy my thoughts. All I have - enough for now, surely? - is the feeling and memory of the man the last time I saw him, as I said goodnight and he gently pulled me in to kiss me on the forehead. You have been very much loved, were his words. Well, so have you, I said, to which he replied only, oh, I know. Tonight I will fall asleep reading Konrad and Tennyson, and when I wake - who knows? We read Corinthians 15:50, the one we used to joke had been written about us: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed! Things have moved on too fast for me, I am afraid - I have given up believing the world will still be the same place when I awake. But - and here's the thing, I think - it will still be turning.

At first I thought the world would stop. Then, later, I was angry that it refused to. Now, finally, I understand that it matters very little - the pain, the anguish, the despair, these things will pass away; love does not. He is dead, there is nothing that can change that now. But he was an incredible person, and he loved me, and love? Love endures. So must I.