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
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”…
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.
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…
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…