Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
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.
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.
The deaths of Thomas Disch and, more recently, David Foster Wallace have been preying on my mind of late. Both these fine authors took their own lives and while the circumstances might have been different, the reason was the same:
Writing is not easy work. I’ve talked about the physical toll it has taken on my body, the arthritis, shoulder and back pain, daily stomach cramps. But I’ve shied away from alluding to those days when my spirit isn’t in it, when I feel the words and desire to express myself slipping away…until my head is filled with static…and then nothing at all.
The words won’t come. My pen is on the page but there’s no impetus, nothing to get it moving and the page remains blank. Those are terrible, awful days to endure. I try to tell myself I’m going through a fallow period, that I must use this opportunity to recharge but the problem is I’m a writing machine, composing prose is an addiction, so when inspiration dries up, it’s like I go through withdrawal symptoms. I can’t eat, can’t read or focus on a movie. I’m restless, endlessly pacing, trying to relieve this frantic energy that builds and builds with no way to release it.
I snap at Sherron and my boys, pull away from them, duck into my office so I don’t say anything I’ll have to apologize for later. Little things send me into a towering rage.
I could never be a suicide, I just don’t have it within me. I’ve always joked I’m more likely to become homicidal than suicidal and that’s not far off the mark. Those rages really are unsettling to experience. I can feel the ghost of my drunken Irish father stirring within me. All my life I’ve feared my anger, what it makes me capable of. If I ever got in a serious fist fight, I’m not convinced I could make myself stop. I have dreams where I’m beating and beating and beating on someone until my arms are slippery with blood.
Nasty, eh? Well, I’ve got nasty genes. Lots of addiction, violence, lack of impulse control.
The radio play I just finished for CBC Radio, “The First Room”, delves into some of this. Those early memories of lying in bed, listening to my parents drink and get into wild, violent altercations. Writing about it brought all sorts of suppressed memories to the surface and it wasn’t pleasant. But it also gave me important insights into the obsession I have to control every aspect of my life. It traces back to those feelings of utter helplessness and terror I experienced as I laid there, convinced my father was going to murder my mother…and then do the same to his kids. And my bed was nearest to the stairs…
As I got older, I wanted to put myself in a place where I could never be threatened or intimidated or controlled ever again. That applied to every aspect of my life but most especially my writing. I have warned editors that I will beat the mortal piss out of them if they touched a word of my manuscript. I have told agents in no uncertain terms that I do not need their help in directing my career, choosing projects for me, lining me up to write some awful fucking six or eight or ten book series or media tie-in.
I won’t be anybody’s whore, not for any price. No rationalizations, no excuses (“I wanted to write a STAR WARS novel because I thought I could do something really different with Boba Fett’s character”–fuck you!). I don’t work for money and if that’s your focus, if you’re using your pathetic, puny talent in an effort to be the next Stephanie Meyer or Kevin J. Anderson, I spit in your face.
As a result of this stance, needless to say, I’ve become a literary pariah, earning the reputation for being difficult, uncooperative, arrogant, even dangerous.
And…I have succeeded in isolating myself, probably scuppered any chance at success or publication. Far inferior authors are seeing their books in print, stocked in the best book stores, plucked out and carried off by the readers I revere and covet so much.
So in the midst of not writing I’m forced to wonder if it’s even worth writing. That’s tough.
But just when it seems I’ve reached the end of my rope, something always happens. A voice whispering a character name, a title, a line of dialogue…and I’m off again. There’s a lovely Pete Townshend song on his album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. The tune is “Somebody Saved me” and I often think about certain lines when I’m going through one of my funks. Pick up the disk sometime, it’s as good as anything Pete ever did with the Who.
What happens when the voice no longer comes? Not for days…weeks…months…years…
What if nobody saves me?
What if there’s nobody there?
The sound of no one clapping.
No sound at all.
The silence of the grave.
Please, God, may that never, ever happen to me…