Category: love

“Becoming” (Personal Essay)

I’m grateful I was born into a pre-digital society. Give me the wonder-filled Space Age over the Information Era with its rapacious consumerism and surveillance capitalism any day. I am a true analog kid and, like most people of that television-raised generation, I was/am at least partially ADHD (or whatever the hell the correct acronym is these days). My concentration frequently wandering, needing something to focus on, even if it’s only a scatter of shiny dimes.

Luckily for me, I discovered books at a relatively early age and ended up happily addicted to the printed word, which soon became my primary source of entertainment, opening doorways to other realities, while simultaneously educating me on the fine points of being human.

Reading was an escape in more ways than one. My home life could be a trifle tumultuous at Burns familytimes, particularly if money was tight and dad had been drinking. The rows got awfully scary and rather than coming together as siblings and drawing comfort from each other, my sisters and I retreated to our separate corners and went into full self-preservation mode. Every child for themselves.

My identity was set early: dreamy, distant, possibly smart, but since I didn’t talk much, it was hard to tell. All the evidence you’d need to diagnose a troubled home life. Withdrawn or shy, whichever suits you. Those pictures of me at five, seven, nine. Pale skin and sunken, dark-rimmed eyes. I had trouble sleeping, anxious and fearful, bedeviled by nightmares, prone to bed-wetting. Displaying wary, watchful behavior, not just toward strangers but everyone.

A loner by temperament, not choice, existing independently of neighborhood kids, relying on my own resources. A vivid, far-reaching imagination, if I may say so, and that undoubtedly saved me. To all outward appearances I might have been thin and delicate as a sparrow but in my mind I was captain of a spaceship, first man on Mars, steely-eyed and fearless, undaunted by gruesome aliens and lurking danger.

Ray Bradbury is the first author I can recall having an impact on me. Ray was a dreamer too and could convincingly describe the topography of Mars, the peculiar customs of its denizens, while at the same time authentically portraying the hopes and dreams of two thirteen-year-old boys one magical summer when a traveling carnival came to town…

By the time computers and video games began to nibble at my awareness, I was already a devoted bibliophile, poring over whatever I could lay my hands on, even stuff I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to; I’d rather read than play outside with my friends. Libraries and bookstores were holy temples and nothing in the known universe could compete with that special feeling I got when I cracked open a book for the first time.

Thank you, God. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Being born in 1963 meant I was denied the pleasure of spending my formative years surrounded and inundated by social media, wedded to certain platforms, chained to some sort of personal device (laptop or cell phone), obsessed with my status, the way I present myself to far-flung “friends” and a host of complete strangers.

Sis & me And as a result of my odd upbringing, I found that I had sort of dispensed with the need for affirmation or acceptance from others. That stood me in good stead whenever I interacted with my fellow homo sapiens; I wasn’t seeking their approval and, thus, was largely indifferent to their opinions of me, good or bad.

Upon reaching adolescence my personality developed an extra layer of protection: a wicked sense of humor. It was all those years of watching people, witnessing their many foibles, taking note of their effortless stupidity. When challenged or threatened, I now had a formidable weapon in my arsenal which I learned to use judiciously (otherwise, some troglodytic thug might’ve murdered me).

I had my first intimation of it when I was around eleven years old. It was during a sleepover at a friend’s place with four or five pals, probably a birthday party. It was long past midnight and we were all giddy, unable to sleep. I remembered a joke I heard my father tell, one of those traveling-salesman-stopping-overnight-at-a-farmhouse routines. Either we were all really, really hyper or I absolutely nailed the punchline (I’m guessing it’s the former), because I earned a huge, gratifying laugh and from then on blossomed into a regular smartass; not quite the class clown but definitely someone whose bent humor could provoke a reaction among his peers.

Childhood taught me grownups couldn’t be trusted and authority figures were either despots or dingbats. Is it any wonder that I gravitated toward comedians like Richard Pryor and Cheech & Chong…and, a bit later, with more long-lasting consequences, the genius of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”? For some people a healthy dose of the absurd isn’t something they’re born with but instilled by experience and circumstance.

You need something. A coping mechanism or self-defense strategy to keep the wolves at bay. A mask or a shield (or both).

As for career aspirations, I had come to realize that my two earliest ambitions—becoming a cowboy or an astronaut—were likely not in the realm of possibility. But…how about acting, directing or even (gulp) writing? Could I ever make a go at something like that?

Well, I guess I have my answer to that particular line of inquiry.

I had already intuited that I was physically and emotionally unsuited for most real world vocations (a summer employed in a huge factory, making and bagging bread and related products confirmed that), which is why I spent, yes, eight years working as a dishwasher in an upscale Regina restaurant. Making like my hero George Orwell, getting down in the trenches, slogging away at a low-wage, part time job with no benefits, surviving if not thriving.

I kept a stack of paper napkins on top of my Hobart (dishwashing machine) so that whenever an idea for a poem or short story struck me, I could snatch one up and scribble some notes as the steam rose around me, the air filled with delicious aromas from whatever was on the menu, a waiter snarking at the cook because an order was late and a customer was complaining…

Some of the best of my early tales originated in that kitchen.Kafka tribute

And then, during that same time, after years of hoping and praying, I met someone who was perfect for me. Call it a miraculous confluence of planetary bodies, a rare alignment of stars with “Thus Spake Zarathustra” thundering in the background, two fates colliding.

Before her, I was lost, then I was found.

And, y’know what, that twisted sense of humor came in handy because this gal appreciated a good joke and her laugh could shatter a Pyrex glass. I could be as uncouth and crude as I wanted to be and she’d not only keep up, but do her best to top me.

Let’s give her a name: Sherron.

Sweet, kind, good-natured Sherron. That’s the impression she likes to give but it’s far from accurate. Warning: when you’re around us there are no allowances made for the timid or thin-skinned. There are bouts of jocular barbarity that would make yours ears melt. No, there’s no point asking, I won’t repeat a single word. There are reputations at stake. Discretion must be observed.

She’s the only one who never recoiled from me. Before we hooked up I dated, irregularly, but there was no magic, no great rapport, and sooner or later they got that look on their face: you’re weeeeiiiirrrrd.

Prior to meeting Sherron, I lived and breathed and ate and defecated and got high. And I wrote. I was always writing but it wasn’t good. Bad poetry and meandering, self-referential short stories. Tales of an uneventful life, with secondhand accounts of sordid episodes related to me by friends spliced in. I was always the observer, never an active participant, hiding in the wings, where the perspective was clearer.

But Sherron changed all that. I started writing stuff to entertain her, widening the scope of my work, stretching my meager talent to the breaking point. I became a better writer and a better human being. All because of her. Credit where it’s due.

Decades later, how much has changed?

I’m still bookish, tending toward reclusiveness, but I also share time and space with the finest, funniest human being I’ve ever known.

And we’ve managed to retain our goofiness, still love a good laugh and smart talk and the occasional debate, never missing an opportunity to startle, surprise or disgust our better halfs, reminding them never to take anything too seriously in this chaotic, irrational, messed up world.

Because we both know: it could all change tomorrow.

In our mid-fifties now and very much aware that from here on the path grows shorter, a steady decline that quickly gains momentum, since we’re on an increasingly steep downward slope. We find ourselves being herded toward an inevitable future, fixed and unavoidable. Our legs growing tired, breath short, and, meanwhile, up ahead something huge looms into view, bearing down on us, becoming clearer and more defined with every passing day.

I’d like to tell you what it is, but, frankly, I hate spoilers.

Let’s just say there are no guarantees of happy endings or a better and brighter hereafter, but there will be a cessation of pain and worries.

In that respect, could whatever happens be all that bad?

“Death is not extinguishing the light, it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

Rabindranath Tagore

“Life is the crummiest book I ever read.”

Bad Religion, “Stranger Than Fiction”

Happy couple

A poem that has nothing to do with the worst film ever made…

 

Sister Ship

 

This house is unsinkable

I have made it water tight

installed extra bulkheads

to prevent catastrophic

flooding personally inspecting

every single weld and rivet

for signs of wear or defect

 

No need for lifeboats

I tell the others in response

to their misgivings we’re

fully insured through good

old Lloyd’s of London

only liable if we’re victims of

some unforeseen act of God

 

i.e. that ice berg you never

spot until it’s far too late

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…”

 

Missing you…

valley

Song for You

If I shouted your praises
this morning
climbed King’s Hill and
through cupped hands
serenaded the painted valley
with my corrido of longing
would you hear it
where you are
a whisper, a susurrus
pitched beyond sound yet
strangely pleasing to your ears?

(C. Burns)

Mother’s Day & various

flowerpowerI checked the interval since my last post and actually winced, a physical manifestation of my shame.

I must redouble my efforts at keeping this blog up to date. Maintaining contact with my fellow human beings. Not that my life is full of incident—that’s part of the problem, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything more interesting than Sat at desk, stared off into space, played shoegaze music until inspired to scribble a few words

Writing that over and over again, like Jack Torrance in The Shining.

I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat it for the sake of added emphasis: I have no life.

I did manage a trip in to Saskatoon to see a completely whacked film called “A Field in England”, posting about it over at my film blog.

Reading lots. Music constantly thundering away in my office.

And…reflecting…yes, rather a lot of reflecting.

Think I’m still in the process of adjusting to our sons moving out, suffering a bit from “empty nest syndrome”. Occasional bouts of loneliness and melancholia. This house seems awfully bloody empty some days. Feels like I’m transitioning into a new phase in my life, a fifty-something guy whose kids are no longer underfoot, suddenly free of many (not all) of the demands of parenthood. My role, my identity, has undergone a massive change in the past few months and it’s going to take awhile, I think, before I feel comfortable in my skin again.

Will close off with something for the mothers out there—after all, it’s your special day coming up on Sunday.

In his book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou quotes from a letter philosopher Andre Gorz wrote to his wife, Dorine. It’s one of the most beautiful statements on romantic love I’ve yet encountered, a paean to devotion and eternal, unbreakable bonds:

“You’ll soon be eighty-two. You have shrunk six centimeters, you only weigh forty-five kilos yet you are as beautiful, gracious and desirable as ever. We have now lived together for fifty-eight years and I love you more than ever. In the hollow of my chest I can feel again that ravaging emptiness that can only be filled by the warmth of your body against mine.”

Thank you to our wives and mothers, the wise women and brave sisters who give us life and protect us from the worst aspects of ourselves.

We celebrate and salute you.

leaf

Against the Shadows

Excuse me if I speak out of a sense of wonder.

I know the news is bad (as usual), another horror unfolding right before our eyes, brought to us in real time, boasting pools of real blood. Shouts and screams; pandemonium. The gruesome footage first exploited, then preserved for posterity.  There are cameras everywhere these days and not much escapes their notice. The best bits make it on to the nightly news. The ninety year-old grandma fending off two burly robbers with a replica .38. Looters smashing windows and emptying storefronts with the ferocious glee of rampaging Mongols. The fat kid facing down his tormentors in the school foyer, finally fighting back after years of taking it on the chin. Drawing on reservoirs of rage as he batters his opponent. We gape, we weep, we applaud, we shake our heads.

What a world.

But that isn’t all there is to it. There is sanity and normality out there. The crazy shit, it exists, no denying it.  Usually the setting is some big city, concentrations of people leading to explosions and meltdowns with tragic consequences. But not always. Small towns and remote farm houses are just as prone to evil thoughts, the cruelties equally inventive.

I repeat:  that isn’t all there is to it.

This month I’ve done more traveling than I have in ages. Usually, it’s my wife and kids who take off, leaving me alone in my office, grinding away on a big summer project. At it for eighteen hours at a time, no need to socialize or pretend to be human. It’s a ritual that’s been reprised almost every summer I can remember. But this year it was different. I had a couple of projects nearing completion and discovered a desire, an urge, an imperative, to enjoy my summer, seek out company, visit unexplored places, drink in experience. First, it was off to northern Manitoba, visiting Sherron’s brother and family. They live on the shores of a gorgeous lake and we spent several lovely evenings trolling around on their pontoon boat, our hooks dragging in the water. Snagged two lovely pickerels—no, really, here’s the proof:

Er, that’s me in the hat. My brother-in-law would never forgive me if I didn’t clarify that. And he’s a big guy, as you can tell. I caught those two babies literally our last morning there and the relief on both our faces is palpable. Finally...

Returning home, a long, ten-hour drive, barely catching our breath (it seemed) and then heading off to Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan. Stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast that used to be an old Convent (hey, Mette, Robert & Christine!), driving and hiking around the park, astonished by the diversity of the eco-system, having an unsettling encounter with a bison (no fences, folks) and constantly scanning the ground for rattlesnakes. Glorious, just glorious. Visually striking region and perhaps that explains the many artists who make their home in the vicinity. Judging by the work on exhibit at the Grasslands Gallery (hey, Laureen!) in Val Marie, there are some very talented folks in that neck of the woods. Er, bush, actually. Not many trees in those parts. Scrub, rolling ground and vast fields of wild plants and flowers.

It’s semi-arid, hilly and wind-scoured; cowboy country. This ol’ western nut felt right at home there. Wrote that poem you’ll find in the preceding post.  Met a lot of really nice people who didn’t give the impression they were about to embark on an axe-murdering spree or intended to poison their neighbor in retaliation for an incident that occurred decades ago. We walked in the hills and stood on some tall bluffs and buttes that looked out over a land that was beautiful and light-filled and right. Between the sky, the universe and that modest height, there was an unspoken concord, a sense that, whatever else may be going on on the vast, spreading universe, Sherron and I had been granted a short but memorable glimpse of the goodness and majesty no dark cloud can entirely conceal.

A few more words about grieving and loss

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.”