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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

CliffBurns1A number of things on my plate in the past while, which leads, inevitably, to another long gap between posts.

Starting with the fun stuff, I attended a screening of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic “Nosferatu” and wrote about it over on my film blog. Some musicians from the Saskatoon Symphony provided accompaniment and, what can I tell you, it was an absolutely brilliant evening. The following day I turned fifty and couldn’t imagine a more fitting way to celebrate.

Yeah, I said celebrate. I’ve hit the big five-oh and, okay, physically I’m not as strong or durable as I was twenty years ago, but mentally and artistically I feel close to the top of my game. Growing spiritually, as well, and that’s an ongoing process. I’m in a good space, some of the fears and obsessional thinking that once upon a time dragged me down are either gone or have eased to the point where they no longer cause the kind of damage they used to. My family played a huge part in that transformation and also the sense that my life and work are serving a tiny role in a Grand Design God-knows-how-many years in progress. My faith life is essential to my entire sense of well-being; without it, I’m a miserable cur, hardly worthy of consideration, barely rating a glance.

In terms of my work:

Researching for the novel, reading reference books and trolling on-line for more info, looking for those obscure little tid-bits that add the perfect dollop of detail to a scene, imparting an authenticity that makes the Reader shiver (love those moments).

I collaborated on a sound collage with my youngest son, Sam. He’s getting to be quite the musician so when my wife asked the two of us to put together an “environment” for a puppet and mask project she’s creating, I was curious to see what we came up with. Turned out to be a weird, ambient piece nearly four minutes long. Now we’re going to edit together a short film using that soundtrack and footage Sherron’s assembled over the last couple of years. Hope to have that done in the next week or so.

What else…well, I’d been giving some thought to writing something for the CBC/Enroute Short Story Contest but every time I checked my well of inspiration, it was dry as fossilized bone. So with the deadline looming I’d pretty much given up any notion of sending anything…until a couple of days ago, when I sat down and started tapping away, managing to complete a tale that adhered to the 1500 word limit (barely) and turned out to be a darn good story. Imagine that—posted it yesterday, just under the wire.

Have to confess, I hate entering or submitting my work anywhere—as an indie, I’d rather publish it myself. But the prize money for a six page story is unbelievable, ridiculous, and the notion of spending two weeks in residence at Banff…how could I resist?

From what I’ve heard, the contest receives between 1800-2000 entries annually, so I’m not holding my breath.

But wouldn’t it be nice…

What else? Ah, I’ve been in my basement cave, doing some more painting. A couple of canvases currently being prepped, exercising my visual muscles, expressing myself beyond the precincts of the printed word. Who cares if I’m any good at it?

And music, lots of music playing, which is always an indication I’m in an inspired state of mind. Frequently heard these days: The Eels, Bob Mould, Brain Jonestown Massacre, Jimmy Eat World, R.L. Burnside, Radio Moscow, old Dylan. Keeping it eclectic.

I guess that just about sums things up. Heading into November around here, but the yard work is pretty much done, all I have to do is order some pine wood and see about winter tires for the car.

The next six to eight months will be spent on the novel (mostly), so by Spring, 2014 I should have the lion’s share of the editing done (crosses his fingers). I’ll keep you apprised of developments and, hopefully, will be posting more frequently than I have been of late.

But no promises…

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Just posted a new tale, bit of a brain-teaser, over at Scribd.

The story is called “The 1001st Night” and clocks in at around 1450 words. Very odd, but I like it. The way it weaves back and forth, exhibiting multiple points of view and perspectives and yet somehow coalescing into…well, see for yourself.

I’ll be adding it to my “Stories” page here (eventually) but Scribd has racked up some impressive numbers for me since I signed up and I thought I’d give them first dibs.

If you’re a real completist, you should probably subscribe to my Twitter link too because I’ve been known to post little snippets and Twitter-verse there and nowhere else. Just to keep everyone on their toes.

Glad to be offering new work for your perusal.

Hope you enjoy “The 1001st Night”.

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Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

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The Many Names of God

I like Philip K. Dick’s term:  Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS).  At least it gives some kind of scale to the forces we are talking about.  Divine powers of creation that can birth galactic super-clusters and knit it all together with a physics so neat and concise it can very nearly be reduced to an equation.  A few numbers and letters that denote paradigm shifts.

Some religions and belief systems hedge around the naming or depiction of their gods and/or lords of creation. Superstition…or an acute understanding of the power of words?  The periodic table, after all, nothing more than rows of nonsensical letters that, when properly arranged, become us.

Lapse (III) (Free ambient music)

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And, please, folks, during this magical time of the year, let’s not forget the true meaning and origin of Christmas.

I confess it:  I love it every time December 25th rolls around, and Christmas morning still sees me scrambling down the stairs, bright and (too) early, poking under the tree, pestering my wife to hurry up as she makes us her customary scones.  It’s ridiculous, I’m pushing fifty and there’s no excuse for such silly behavior.

But I was the kinda kid who avidly followed reports from CKOS-TV (Yorkton) on Christmas Eve, an announcer glibly informing gullible dopes like me that our military radar (Canada’s famed Distant Early Warning System) had picked up Santa’s sleigh as it departed the North Pole and his stupendously improbable round-the-world odyssey had begun. And, yes, later on, I’d be in bed, straining for the sound of hooves clattering on the roof. Swear to God. So I guess you can see why so much of my fiction tends toward the fantastic. It comes honestly.

Both my sons are in high school now so there isn’t that buzz around Christmas that there was in the old days.  We even wrapped their presents early, hoping to draw them like inquisitive ferrets but, well, Sam’s been rehearsing and performing in the school play and Liam wrestles four nights a week these days so they’re quite preoccupied with matters other than rattling boxes and guessing their contents.

Not that it would do any good—I’m a devious wrapper, cleverly disguising even the most modest gift so that by the time I’m done the Amazing Kreskin couldn’t tell you what’s in there.

Christmas is a time of kicking back, reading, relaxing, watching movies…which reminds me, I’ve got to dig some of the classics out of the basement storeroom:  “Charlie Brown Christmas”, “Muppet Christmas” and, it goes without saying, “Santa Claus Vs. the Martians”.  Lots of family time, lots of time in front of the fireplace, lots of…turkey.  Turkey, turkey and more turkey.  That is absolutely mandatory.

Editing on my western novel has been especially intense for the past three weeks. I wanted to have a good draft of The Last Hunt by Christmas Eve and it looks like I’ll achieve my goal.  That will make it easier for me to take a few days off, rest and recharge before I do a final polish of the novel in the New Year.  Everything on schedule, nothing to get uptight about.  Easy, boy, easy

Here’s wishing you a cheery, laughter-filled holiday season. Remember to spare a thought or two to those less fortunate, drop a few bucks in the hand of a street person, send a check to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, do what you can with what you have to make this world a little more humane and compassionate.

Oh, and, ah, KEEP READING.

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After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith.  This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter.  I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:

“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence.  Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question.  What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history?  They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.

Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’.  Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall.  Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace.  In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are:  I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human.  These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action.  The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more.  Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”

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I want to tell you it will be all right.

There’s been a lot of bad news of late.  Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits.  A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys.  Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about.  A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.

We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses.  Like the old Doors song goes:  no one here gets out alive.  But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise.  They deserve better.  That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence.  A cold, dead universe.  Endless and eternal and empty.

I know nothing of the physics of death.  I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists.  I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.

All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath.  These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours.  That may sound selfish but it’s not.  Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt.  We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake.  When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.

To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith.  Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound?  Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being?  Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?

We’ve been together a long time, you and I.  Not only in this lifetime but before that.  We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet.  As long as you are with me, I can survive anything.  I truly believe this.  Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.

You are all the proof I need.  There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges.   Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving.  We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us.  In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams.  Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.

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It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.

I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up.  One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words:  “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”

Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:

Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.

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imagesI warned you I had fallen in love with Garageband and that there would be more of my stuff recorded and set to music.

Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”.  Ethereal, odd, evocative.  Literary and auditory Rorschach tests.  Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.

Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:

Cliff Burns Reading Prose Poems (V.2)

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hindenbergYou don’t know what it’s like.

Or…maybe you do.

Living in abject fear, a state of near unbearable suspense, day after day.  How wearing that can be.  Because that’s what we’re talking about here.  A mindset centred around dread, a soul-sucking sense that things are about to fall to pieces and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

How can someone exist like that?  How can they face getting up in the morning?  What keeps them going?

Questions only the uninitiated, the smugly secure would dare ask.

Y’see, what the preceding sentences have failed to convey is the intoxication someone like me feels when a potential crisis peters out into insignificance.  The surge of relief that provokes can’t be matched or simulated by any mind-altering drug I’m aware of.

And on those rare occasions when my worst fears turn out to be justified, the sense of relief and vindication I experience is…sublime.  I actually tremble with the sick pleasure a junkie must feel just as the needle hits its mark.  I’m like Chicken Little, running around, clucking with excitement and joy as big chunks of the firmament crash to earth around me.

Rawwwwk! Told you so!  Told you so!”

I’ve always been a worrier, possessed by the certainty that happiness is transitory and danger lurks around every corner.  My childhood was like that, perhaps even my infancy; the baby who always makes strange, no matter how many funny faces you pull.  Filled with such foreboding when faced with each new encounter or experience that I was literally sick to my stomach.  Vaccinations, the first day of school, a trip to the dentist; preparing for these minor inconveniences as if they were a very public and brutal form of execution.

I can recall nearly wetting myself whenever I was called down to the principal’s office.  It invariably turned out to be something mundane, a message from my parents, a form that needed to be picked up.  I’d exit the office and immediately make a beeline for the nearest washroom.

My high school years were no better.  So fraught with painful anticipation, consumed by a nervous energy that burned off every ounce of my frame; I weighed about 125 pounds the day I graduated.   A long, thin stick insect, whittled down to the quick by neuroses.  Not an attractive figure.

There’s been some improvement since then but I still get thrown into a tizzy over relatively commonplace occurrences:

* A stopped up drain means ripping up the basement floor and paying an astronomical fee to some greedhead plumber (it turns out ten minutes of roto-rooting and a $150 touch does the trick)

* A stalling car means replacing the engine, maybe even being forced to buy a new(er) vehicle (no, actually the spark plugs need changing)

* One of my sons having a grumpy day is an early manifestation of a depressive personality (nope, he just got out of bed on the wrong side that morning)

doctorAnd did I mention that I’m a borderline hypochondriac?  Now there’s a lovely combination.  So every ache, every twinge is magnified in importance, exaggerated, fretted over.  A belly ache could mark the onset of pancreatic cancer.  A rare headache could mean a malignant brain tumour.  See what I mean?  And what about this latest development, waking up at 5:00 a.m. in the morning with low-grade nausea.  Not out and out sick-making, just a weird, unpleasant feeling in my lower gut.  Does this mean anything?  Is it significant in any way?

That nervous energy sometimes manifests itself as a racing heart.  Occasionally I get little jolts and twinges.  And with a family history of heart disease that could be an indication of a problem.  Or not.  But, let’s be candid here, one day–it might be tomorrow, it might not happen for decades–my fears will be realized, my body at last betraying me and those small aches and pains will coalesce into something genuinely life-threatening, something that keeps on growing until it blocks some vital pathway or invades and compromises a critical organ.  Punishment (or reward) for all those years of waiting for something serious to crop up, a final confirmation of the bad news I’ve been expecting all along.

Each day I pray for release from the irrational fears that afflict and bedevil me.  I place myself in my Creator’s hands and repeat my personal mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” over and over again.  Not only for myself, but also for family, friends and loved ones.

I know sooner or later it all comes to an end.  Each one of us, at last, runs down, ceases to function, the machinery wearing out with a grinding of gears, sparks, smoke pouring from our ears.  No one here gets out alive.

Funny, I don’t  really fear growing old.  That doesn’t factor into my thinking.  As a catastrophist, of course, I have serious doubts I’ll live that long.

Frankly, knowing the end is nigh will undoubtedly come as something of a relief.  It takes so much fucking energy and strength constantly fretting about money, not being able to properly provide for my sons’ education, what if something happens to the house.  Etc. etc.

The sense of panic that almost unmans me when I can’t shake the thought that I might not be up to the task and that, inevitably, life is going to present me with an intractable problem, something I can’t solve, hide or ignore.  I am hounded by the knowledge that I’m really not that smart or strong or brave.  And that the time will come when my weaknesses and vulnerabilities will be exposed (Christ, better anything than that).  The worst feeling, the greatest terror I have is that I won’t be able to save the people I love or prevent some terrible personal apocalypse that will consume them while I watch, helpless to intercede.  My resolve failing me at a crucial juncture, my faith evaporating away as I face on-rushing danger.  Something I glimpsed a long time ago.

Remember?  I tried to warn you of its impending approach, tried to make you understand the severity of the situation…but you told me it was all in my mind.

train

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