For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.
The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.
Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:
Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)
Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.
A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.
I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.
Come visit me sometime.
Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…
When we were young we
killed time indiscriminately
savagely using swords and
laser beams slaughtering it
by the hour with hyper-active
games mindless babble or just
lying on our backs making
shapes out of obliging clouds
Now time flees from us while
we are sleeping or otherwise
occupied each new morning
revealing the extent of the
damage and no matter how often
how hard we try to save or slow
time it runs down runs out always
too soon never long enough
© Cliff Burns, 2015 (All Rights Reserved)
Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,
I tear down this crummy, old fence
of ours—then what?
Do I replace it with another fence,
clean and white and perfectly straight,
the wood treated with poison
solvents to keep it from weathering?
Perhaps a higher fence, six feet
or more, the boards squeezed close
together to dissuade prying eyes;
a solid wall to keep others out.
If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana
or what have you, as has been suggested,
will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy
barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?
The other option is to leave our backyard
wide open and accessible to the alley…but
I’m not comfortable with that.
I agree that our fence is worn out,
dilapidated, something of an eyesore;
I apologize if it embarrasses you.
But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy
matter replacing it—and some of your ideas
involve considerable expense. We must not
act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.
I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best
I can, until a practical solution presents itself
or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally
collapses, defeated by a horde of years.
* * * * *
Apparently I suffered from a
“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,
the school counselor, told my mother,
which somehow explained the boils,
bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.
I remember wondering if this cuteness
was curable and how I got it when I
was such an ugly child, my sisters said
so, and no one else took my side or
stated a contrary view.
When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of “professional” actors would stage and perform it.
I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.
I wish I’d kept a copy.
And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.
The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—
He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.
Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.
My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.
My first submission and my first rejection.
But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.
We’ve had more snow this winter than in at least a decade. We’ve broken one snow shovel, shaken our fists at the sky and moved God knows how many tons of snow from our sidewalks and property. And, of course, this much snow means a big run-off come Spring. It’s a good thing we’re situated on a fairly substantial hill—hopefully the water will flow down and away from us.
I notice that at 49, snow shoveling is a whole lot less fun than it used to be. I have to take frequent breaks, lean on my shovel, gazing glumly at the white expanse in front of me. Our long driveway has become my nemesis; I joke that it’s an alternative landing strip for the space shuttle. I say even worse things when I’m scraping it off at thirty below. Because as well as being a snowy winter in these parts, it’s also been seasonably cold. Note the choice of words. We’ve gotten off lucky for the past few years, experiencing relatively mild cold seasons. Not this year. 2012-13, we’re getting the real deal. Saskatchewan at its most nasty and inclement.
In the old days, the cold never got to me. I could play road hockey with my pals until our clothes were frozen stiff as cardboard, our cheeks and noses raw and inflamed. Not any more. My body has developed a strange sensitivity over the past decade and I’m prone to awful chills, getting the shakes so bad my jaw locks tight and my body stiffens, arms clamped against my sides, shoulders up around my ears.
I think I’m starting to understand why so many Canadians become “snowbirds”, fleeing to warmer climes as soon as the first Arctic front descends from the north.
But this is Canada, after all, and whining about the cold weather is like complaining that grapes won’t grow on Pluto. There are certain realities you just have to adjust to, certain mentalities you have to adapt.
Be at one with the snow…become your shovel...
Keeping in mind, in six months we’ll be bitching about the heat and bugs.
On that happy note…Cheers!
One of my heroes has died.
Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, an aviation pioneer, a far traveler and fearless explorer of unknown places. Watching Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon is one of my earliest memories. They inspired me to look up, and instead of endless, daunting depths, view space as a domain not entirely empty or hostile to our kind.
After July 20, 1969 we were earthbound no longer.
(for Neil Armstrong)
The First Man must be humble
yet self-possessed in times of crisis
confident, as one who’s been sorely tried.
Drop him, spin him, shake him
race his heart,
see if he dies.
Undaunted by fame,
puzzled by all the fuss,
natural in the glare.
Stick him in a close compartment,
sling it into the girding dark;
crown him with hero’s laurels
should he return.
I saw the man walking on the moon. I watched it on TV. I couldn’t believe someone was really up there. I went to get my mother and ask her. She said she was too busy. She was cleaning up the kitchen or something. I told her about the man on the moon. But she didn’t seem to care. She had other things to think about. She told me to go outside. She told me that was enough TV for today.
I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous. But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive. On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.
The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state. I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood. There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long. The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now). I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there. The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case. When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.
Montana had worked its magic on me.
This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively. The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too: we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt. A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it. And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer. I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.
Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming. Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up. Lee, you’re a gem.
Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest. And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.
Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured. Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak. We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place. A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old. Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.
“Come on downstairs.” We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear. John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.
Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years. We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat. I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you. Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction. And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it. After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”
I think I might have stopped breathing. Of course I had. I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…” Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”
I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar. What a lost opportunity. Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”
Well. There it is.
Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes. Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted. Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit. Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it. “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor. “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply. There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons. While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—
And there he was. James Crumley. Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness. To me, Crumley is the man. For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen. He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well. Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking. Ah, Jim…
I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture. Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait. To your good soul…
Met any number of terrific people in our travels. We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell. I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures. Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.
Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent. They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business. People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington. They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors. I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.
Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back. I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan. The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive. I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.
Check out the short essay I wrote on “Forbidden Planet” and other classic oldies—you’ll find it over at my film blog, Cinema Arete.