Category: inspiration

Somber Days

I won’t lie to you: it’s been a grim month here at Casa Burns.

We lost a couple of people very near and dear to our hearts and that’s never easy.

Awhile back, I posted a poem titled “The Grief Path” that did a good job of alluding to the sense of emptiness and pure anguish one experiences with the death of a loved one. It exposes the rawest emotions, the agony reaching right down into your soul, the seat of your faith. Only the passage of time offers a slim promise of solace. There is simply nothing you can do for it except keep putting one foot ahead of the other and wandering up that long, lonely track. Keening your song of sorrow and woe.

And then just when it seemed like the atmosphere was lightening, some of the spiritual and emotional pall lifting…

…the decision in the Colten Boushie case was handed down.

I had the privilege of meeting Debbie Baptiste, Colten’s mother, last summer, within weeks of her son’s senseless death at the hands of Gerald Stanley. I was immediately impressed by her poise and dignity, despite the weight of the incredible burden that poor woman was bearing. I couldn’t help wondering how she felt when she heard that terrible verdict read, realizing that in the eyes of a court of law, a fundamental Canadian institution we have been taught to honor and respect, her boy’s life was deemed worthless.

What can we say to her?

Is it sufficient to remark that sometimes Justice really is blind…and deaf and dumb too? Somehow, I doubt that will cut it. She has been let down at every point of this ordeal and at the end of the day, whatever happens next, she won’t be getting Colten back.

She and her many supporters have every right to demand answers regarding how the RCMP handled the initial investigation and their behavior toward Debbie and her grieving family in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

I’m pleased to hear talk of altering the rules of jury selection, but don’t foresee any speedy or significant changes to a system that has failed, disproportionately, our First Nations people since before Confederation, compounding the misery that everyday, casual racism inflicts on them, the stereotypes they must endure.

The only thing that gives me hope are the on-going efforts we’re making—through education and increasing knowledge of aboriginal history, cultural exposure—to reach out to each other, share our stories, growing together as a nation of nations. I know people intimately involved in this process, men and women who recognize the power we can tap into whenever we collaborate, combining our energy and spirit on meaningful endeavors that celebrate our diversity, the collective strength of the many.

That’s why I grieve, but I do not despair.

I know in my heart the good guys are on our side and the better angels within us will prevail.

It will take time, tremendous effort but we cannot fail, cannot allow the small-minded, the vulture-hearted, to steal the future from us and color it blood red.

We’ll do it for Colten and all the others who die without fulfilling their promise.

We’ll do it for Debbie and the mothers who weep for the children taken from them.

And we’ll do it for ourselves, to prove we are worthy of our roles as stewards of Creation and the children of a wise and loving god.


My mantra for 2018

New Year’s Eve I was pacing about my office, thinking about my plans for 2018.

What am I looking for? What do I want, as an artist and human being living in these strange, dangerous times?

I have a shelf of books devoted to religion and spirituality and I paused in front of it, scanning titles, seeking a message or—

Consult the Bible? Too obvious. But I have a collection of Sufi writings compiled by Idries Shah, so I plucked it off the shelf, opened it to a page at random and found this quote:

“Detach from fixed ideas and preconceptions. And face what is to be your lot.”

-Sheikh Abu-Said Ibn Abi-Khair


If the universe was trying to communicate something to me, it couldn’t have been more direct.

No more pissing about, Cliff, time to accept your fate, don’t shy away from whatever destiny has in store for you.

No fame and fortune for me, I’m afraid. I’m not a mainstream artist, I present my works to people undiluted, without apology, an alternative to the pap and kitsch mass-produced and excreted on a daily basis.

My oeuvre is not for those who prefer their diversions light and facile and entertaining. I despise escapism; my visions are darker, offering no comfort or reassurance.

Instead, I adhere to my hero Franz Kafka’s dictum:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Celebrating you

Ah, the grand adventures we’ve had.

Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.

Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.

We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.

Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.

Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.

More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.

We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals.  We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…

What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.

There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.

That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.

Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.

“Forever and ever…”


An Agoraphobic Abroad

Part I

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

The Hippodrome (Istanbul)

I note with chagrin that I didn’t concoct a single, solitary blog post for the entire month of September.

Tsk, tsk.

I don’t think that’s happened before, has it?

I confess I spent a considerable portion of the thirty days in question trying to process the sights, sounds, smells, etc., of our trip to Europe. Did a lot of reflecting and maybe a tad too much navel-gazing. Paged back and forth through my travel diary, reading passages to pique my memory, skimming through the hundreds of photos we took.

You have to understand, Sherron and I had been planning this trip for at least a decade. That’s a helluva buildup…but that month we spent in Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic far surpassed our expectations and became, for both of us, a life-altering experience.

The pictures help but they can’t possibly capture or accurately portray the many, many special moments, the brief, chance encounters, the sense of what it felt like to be so far from home, so far outside my comfort zone. The locales ranged from the exotic and sublime to the grimiest backstreets. From the ancient world to a 21st century traffic jam.

I am a reluctant traveler, preferring to remain as near to my personal omphalos–this office where I am presently typing–as I can manage. Right here is the center of my universe, the place I feel safest. When I step across its threshold, venture outside, I am no longer in control. And the anxiety grows…

But I was determined to overcome my fears and apprehension; the time had come to expand my horizons. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes…

Unfortunately Air Canada got things off to a bad start. Our flight to Toronto was delayed for mechanical reasons, which meant we missed a connecting flight that would have taken us directly to Athens. Instead, we were re-routed to Heathrow, where we had to linger for six hours before we were finally on our way to Greece. So we arrived later than expected and once we were dropped off in central Athens promptly got ourselves lost and—

Never mind. We’ll skip those initial rotten bits and instead focus on getting to our quaint little Air B ’n B apartment and the view from our balcony. The Parthenon at sunset. And not just a postcard either: the real thing. We hugged each other and captured the moment with a photograph while Alex, our host, looked on in approval.

Parthenon (Athens)

Parthenon (Athens)

Greece in mid-July is hot. Really, really, really hot. Sherron and I are from Saskatchewan, remember? We weren’t prepared for that fierce Attic heat. Climbing the Acropolis on a day when the temperature topped 40+ degrees Celsius was not one of our smarter moves. Definitely not recommended for the faint of heart or those subject to heat stroke.

The bones of ancient Greece are in evidence all through its longtime capital. The skeletons of structures that have survived barbarian invasions, earth tremors and thousands of years beneath that harsh, unforgiving sun. The numerous excellent museums trace and name the epochs of a land inhabited since pre-history, wreathed in myth. I saw the famous funerary mask of Agamemnon (discovered by Schliemann) and posed beside a bust of Marcus Aurelius. There were some magnificent pieces at the Cyclades Museum; I was moved and inspired by the austere beauty of carved, stylized figures from the fourth millennium B.C.E. If I could have one piece of art for my collection:



Believe it or not, after three days we’d had enough of Athens and were on a bus south, to a small village called Kiveri. Friends from Saskatchewan kept a summer home there and had graciously offered to not only share their abode but also shuttle us around to other sites of interest, including Mycenae (Agamemnon’s palace and burial chamber), Thermopylae and Meteora.

Now you’re likely familiar with the first two place names I mentioned, but Meteora probably doesn’t ring any bells. The area features some amazing geology, pinnacles and steles of rock thrust into the air by massive tectonic forces. For fifteen hundred years, monks and ascetics have come to these stone towers to find refuge from the temptations and trials of the physical world. At first they built crude shelters in the eroded caves and crevasses; later, they came together, scaled those lofty peaks with ropes and ladders and built the first monastery, others rising up on adjoining fingers of rock in the centuries to come.

Meteora (Greece)

Meteora (Greece)

I can’t tell you how inaccessible and daunting some of these monasteries still appear today, even with all our modern roads and conveniences. But those mad, stubborn monks hauled and toted tons of rock and wood to the tippy-top and built themselves impregnable sanctuaries, redoubts against the evils that resided in the land far below.

Varnavas was one of the first of the hermit monks to arrive (7th century). One night at our lodging in Meteora, encouraged by the proprietor’s generously large scotches, I wrote this:


I am here
find me
on my
lofty perch
do not
deny me
your presence
forgive me
if I err
catch me
if I fall.

From Greece, it was off to Istanbul, despite the recent coup attempt and the oft-expressed misgivings of friends and family.

Istanbul, coup or no coup, is a craaaazy place. Crazy and huge and bursting out all over with life and energy. The first time I heard the local muezzin call the faithful to prayer, I was standing on the balcony of our cozy rented apartment—what a beautiful sound. I knew at that moment we’d made the right decision to come. The fellow in our neighborhood had amazing pipes; it gave me goosebumps as I listened to that voice emanating from mounted loudspeakers, echoed and magnified by his colleagues in nearby districts.

Istanbul (back street)

Istanbul (back street)

I think of Istanbul and I recall the passages that led to impossibly narrow streets; I think of the sheer mass of people that a population of twenty million souls represents. And I shudder when I remember the absolutely insane cabdrivers, who sped through the streets, honking their horns, oblivious to any life forms that ventured into their path. Those dudes rarely applied their brakes and seemed positively contemptuous of pedestrians. Once, when Sherron and I were walking near the Gallery of Modern Art, we witnessed a brawl between two cabbies, a melee which quickly attracted the attention of the police. Their customers looking on in bemusement as the two men glared at each other, shirts ripped, fists clenched, cursing and gesticulating, the cops wisely keeping them separated. Murder in the air.

There’s so much to see in Istanbul—this is a city that has played a central role in many important historical episodes; it has witnessed the rise and fall of great empires, flourishing and suffering by turns, the fate of any Eternal City.

We visited the magnificent Aya Sofia (aka Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Emperor Justinian and intended to be the most magnificent place of worship in the known world. The very quality of light seems different there—the way the beams penetrate from outside, imbuing the interior with a regal, exalted ambience. It was impressive to us but imagine the effect on pilgrims from bygone times, men and women from rustic, humble origins who were bound to be moved and awed when they walked through those massive doors and saw…this:

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia

Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar (with its famous book market)…so many different places to explore, each possessing its own special atmosphere and claim to fame (or infamy).

And then there was Troy…

(To be continued)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Book Bazaar (Istanbul)

Writers are “hungry gods”

cross“How little of ourselves we give even to the writers we love best, compared to what they asked and expected of us. Genuine admiration and respect for a writer’s work is very intermittent; usually, we think only about ourselves and how we can use what we’re reading. But this must be considered a legitimate technique of self-defense, since if we opened ourselves to all the just demands for attention made by the dead, we would be totally overwhelmed, placed permanently in the wrong. For dead writers are like gods who are always hungry, no matter how many sacrifices they inhale.”

Adam Kirsch, from his essay “Rocket and Lightship”