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.”
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.
The other day I received an inquiry from a chap in Jamaica (gotta love that world wide ‘net) regarding my play “The Break: Ten the Hard Way”.
It’s a a drama composed of ten monologues, employing a wide range of perspectives, radically different characters reacting to the impending end of a relationship.
“The Break”, like so many of my projects, started out as a writing exercise. I wrote one monologue and another character, another scenario, immediately presented itself. I didn’t know what to do with “The Break” once I’d finished it…and then, by chance, I caught an interview with two young Saskatoon actors, recent graduates of the University of Saskatchewan drama program. I noted their names and contacted them. Sent them the script and some time later “The Break” made its debut at the Refinery Theatre in Saskatoon, Josh Beaudry handling a very grueling acting assignment brilliantly.
I always thought this one would make the perfect “Fringe” show so, Josh, if you’re ever interested, lemme know.
CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke also excerpted some of the monologues on her “Sound XChange” program.
I was delighted by the reactions this piece elicited and I’m pleased to be able to present it to you, for free reading and downloading.
I’m certain some of these voices, at least, will sound very, very familiar to you…
Go to the “Rarities” page (above) for your free copy
or click here for the free PDF of The Break
Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:
This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide. You can visit their website for further details. I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference. Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise. Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it. Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.
Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged, I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third. So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts. Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.
But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you? You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with. I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed. They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them. Good grief. Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape. Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions. For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory). For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume. And one last consideration: I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.
My break’s over. Yesterday was fun: I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it. Grind, grind grind. Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.
This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember? I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July. Yike!
Time to finish up these tales and get back on track. It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.
That’s it for the update.
Hope you’re all having a fun summer. We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.
And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.
Thanks, Sherron, for everything.
Forever and ever, doll…
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)
And 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.
More late, breaking news:
“Matriarchy”, a particular favorite of mine, the best of a recent crop of mainstream short stories, airs on CBC Radio (Saskatchewan) this weekend (October 27th). The show is called Sound Xchange and it starts at 5:05 Saturday afternoon. The producer is Kelley Jo Burke–Kelley’s always been a big backer of my work and I’m sure she did a smashing job with “Matriarchy”.
The story is perfect for the radio. It was originally conceived as a writing exercise, the initial drafts were only four or five pages long. Later on, I went back and saw immediately that it needed an expanded narrative, which brought out more of the back story, which added layers to the narrator’s character, nuances not apparent in those early versions. I love this little beauty. More bitter than sweet, with a last line that just hums.
Here’s a link to the SoundXchange blog, where Kelley says such nice things about yours truly, I blush to repeat them.
Skye Brandon reads “Matriarchy” and another tale, this one by me old crony Art Slade (Art Slade’s Page). Art and I have known each other for eons and it’s been a pleasure to watch his career flourish. “Stubb” is a solid effort and will give you a good idea why Art has achieved the stature he has.
If you somehow manage to miss the initial airing…well, you’re probably out of luck. I asked Kelley Jo but she said WGC rules stipulate she can’t podcast or post the story (that way you could download it later). So it looks like a one-shot deal. Enjoy it…and, afterwards, if you think about it, maybe drop a comment or two my way. I welcome your feedback.
Have a great weekend, folks.
I’m blessed, I really am.
Surprised? Not expecting such mawkish sentiment on a site usually devoted to gloom-laden navel-gazing and bitter self-recrimination. You’re wary, suspicious of some kind of a misdirection or trick.
I assure you, I’m quite serious. Too often this blog has dwelt on the darker aspects of my character, my pride and envy placed front and center for all to see. Which has provided plenty of ammunition for people with a bone to pick–when it comes to showing my warts, I’m not shy.
But now I’d like to turn the tables. No more grousing (for the moment) about the glacial pace of my career, rants on the sorry state of the publishing industry and the useless bastards who—
Instead of going on and on about the indignities I’ve endured, I want to write about how I’ve managed to survive. Persevered through twenty+ years of putting pen to paper. Spasms of tantalizing promise and then (usually) crushing disappointment. Fifteen hundred rejection slips (minimum), at least a dozen phone calls from editors begging off. Two decades of waiting for my BIG BREAK. Waiting and waiting…
My wife Sherron is stalwart and courageous and true. Kind-hearted but nobody’s fool. Generous and imbued with genuine humility. Tough, strong…but never, ever mean. Sher is simply not capable of deliberate cruelty. One of the good guys. My reason to believe.
How many of you can say that you married your best friend, the finest, smartest, funniest, most creative and inspiring human being you’ve ever met? How many of you claim love at first sight?
It amazes me that we retain so such passion for each other…although now, perhaps, it is a different, more subtle and seductive kind of desire, deeper and so intimate I cannot speak of it without risking an indiscretion.
I am reminded of the woman I heard interviewed on the radio. Married for over fifty years and she admitted, with a little giggle, that even after all that time the sound of her husband coming up the front steps still gave her a little jolt of pleasure and excitement. Isn’t that lovely?
I have a hunch Sherron and I will be like that. We just celebrated our 17th anniversary. Seventeen years plus another six years dating and living together before that. Over half our lives together. So we don’t really make big deals about anniversaries and on several occasions have spent our special day apart, in different time zones. We’re at one mind on this: anniversaries, feh! Hallmark moments. Every day together is special—why discriminate?
Every day special, yes. And every day fun and new and exciting and filled with laughter. God, we laugh a lot. And we talk and we talk and we consult with each other and throw out ideas and cross-pollinate…
She reminds me that making art is a form of play.
Not to take things so seriously.
Get out of the house, go for a long walk, be sure to talk to people, re-connect, don’t stay cooped inside all day.
Try new things, don’t be afraid to fail and look foolish.
Sherron was the one who convinced me to give this whole blogging thing a go. I was pissing and moaning about how I couldn’t get my fiction to readers because the &%#@! editors and agents weren’t cooperating and (perhaps sick of hearing this tired refrain for the umpteenth time) she piped up: “So bypass them.” The more she talked about how blogging gave me complete editorial control and access to, potentially, millions of readers, the more the notion intrigued me.
Sherron found me WordPress and worked on the initial template with me. Showed me how I could import images to spruce up the text, create links, etc. etc. She’s my tech support, visual consultant and co-editor, all rolled into one.
She’s not a whiner (like me), she’s a doer. If she doesn’t know how to accomplish something, she has the guts to learn on the fly, improvising as she goes along. Completely fearless in that respect. Watching her operate when she’s in that mode is a breathtaking thing to behold. Turn her loose on something and she is a whirlwind of creative activity.
She has the unenviable task of being my first reader and editor. Sherron’s become very adept at critical reading, quick to spot typos, continuity problems, lack of clarity. I grumble when she points out a mistake but, invariably, she’s right and I make the change. She knows me well enough, my aesthetics, to comprehend what I’m trying to do when I tackle a story or poem or novel. When I fall short, she tells me in no uncertain terms. She’s absolutely fantastic at brain-storming and we’ve solved numerous plot problems and lapses in characterization by batting ideas back and forth.
Okay, it’s clear, she’s absolutely invaluable, the best thing that ever happened to me…but what about her? What did she get out of the deal? A neurotic, self-absorbed under-achiever with a nasty persecution complex. Sheesh. Talk about drawing the low card…
Well…we do all right. We manage, don’t we, sweetie? And along the way we’ve collaborated on a lot of projects, including plays and, oh yeah, a couple of big, smart, handsome sons. They’re something, aren’t they? Our oldest only about a half inch shorter than me and his bro closing the gap fast. Must be something they’re putting in the milk…
But they’re good lads, not bully-boys. Clever brutes too, always reading or writing and they’ve both done cool movies, you can check out their claymation shorts on YouTube, Twilight Kitten and Ride Through Mount Terror (and do leave a comment, they’d like that).
Sherron and my sons are my main support system and centre of gravity; they keep me from flying off in all directions. Without them I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have. No way. Because of them I can’t entertain the notion of giving up. They sustain me, their belief in me so absolute and unshakeable that it shames me to even consider the thought.
Because I love her
and because I am an article of her faith
I will not betray her
Because she is good and kind
and I cannot bear the notion of hurting her
I will not betray her
Because her soul has never known darkness
and she does not wish to be acquainted with horror
I will not betray her
Because of her eyes and that smile
insisting all futures are bright
I will not betray her
Copyright, 2007 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
My family gives me the courage to explore the farthest places, knowing that I’ll always be able to return to them once my arduous journey is over. For solace and, if necessary, for healing. I draw strength from that circle of love; their life force never fails to restore me.
We are a loving bunch, very demonstrative, cuddly. I like that. Kisses make some of the pain go away. It may not be scientifically verifiable but it’s true.
We find it difficult to live within our means and would spend our last dollar on a book. We dream great, big dreams and aspire to lives of purpose and significance.
And if we fall short, if things don’t quite pan out as we’d hoped and expected, well, we’ll still somehow find it within ourselves to forge on. As long as we have each other, we can absorb any rebuff, any disappointment. If all else fails, we start over again from scratch, right, guys?
Don’t ever count us out.
Love moves mountains. It empowers us to achieve remarkable feats and inspires our kind to strive, to toil unflaggingly and, finally, incredibly, to prevail…