Ordinary Time

State of Grace (3)

So I think again of Joanne, James Joyce, the Bible falling open — those decisive events in late 1976 that seemed the answer to what I had sought at the tomb of the Apostle John and for which I dropped my stone through the grate. I made my way to confession and that made a important difference. I recall the extreme awkwardness of being seen in a line outside the confessional — the sort of awkwardness I feel even now when I press “publish” on a revealing blog entry like this. Inside the confessional, the priest was kindly, unimpressed by my crimes, reassuring. And so I was reconciled.

It was now possible for me to receive Communion without digging an ever deeper hole in my own spirit.  I found an old religious manual among my parents’ books. It may have been called Our Daily Bread, and as I recall it urged people to frequent, even daily communion, which was an innovation in the days of the otherwise intolerable Pope Pius X, who spent most of his time trying to crush what he called “modernists.” Until the early twentieth century many people would steer clear of communion for months on end, largely to avoid sacrilege, and the pope wanted to set this right. That particular book was flowery and pietistic in the Irish manner. And yet it communicated intimacy and awe.

I could not yet pray, and so for just a few seconds each week I found myself in the presence of God immediately after receiving Communion. I think the sacrament was praying on my behalf. What do I remember about that? A brief sense of wholeness, clarity, and the momentary knowledge of love as a horizon.

I usually went to Mass with my father and sisters at 5 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. It became the longed-for moment of my week. I did not have the courage to go to a weekday Mass, and did not want to be seen in any posture of devotion. What I wanted was privacy, and rather liked the idea of appearing dragged to Mass by my parents, which was hardly the case. Humiliation is one of the constant experiences of childhood, and at fifteen I still lived in dread of it. Occasionally, I found ways to attend a Saturday or Sunday Mass by myself, and that was much better. In time, I found myself able to pray during Mass — I would ask God to take care of people who were close to me. I did nothing to start that prayer. It came unasked for.

I found another constant stream of encouragement from books I was reading — few of them even sympathetic to a religious view of the world. I had read and been deeply moved by the novels of John Steinbeck, especially the now-derided East of Eden, Ernest Hemingway, and above all Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward, Angel I would still want on my desert island. I was dabbling in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and would soon come upon a copy of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I read in a library while sitting beside a window where sunlight seemed to echo every word she wrote about Nebraska.

The chaos of Gonzaga High School was either subsiding or the shock was going away. I came to appreciate some teachers, among them a young Jesuit named Stephen Leblanc, a poor disciplinarian who had the unenviable task of teaching us French and religion. He had deep-set penetrating eyes and a pointed black beard, and though gentle to a fault  he somehow acquired the nickname “Stinger.” In one of his classes I learned about pronouns and irregular verbs. In the other, he taught us about modern theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin and Edward Schillebeeckx. I don’t think he spent a minute on that obsessional topic — impurity. I grew very fond of Stephen as did many of my classmates.

In the spring of 1977, two even younger Jesuits came into my life. They were novices sent as part of their early training to help out at our school. I continue to see one of them fairly often in Toronto. His name is Gordon Rixon, and he is a theologian at Regis College. We often pass each other on the street in the morning. A formidable intellectual, he also radiates a kind of benevolence I have seldom seen elsewhere.

Gordon’s companion was the outspoken and charismatic George Bastien, who had been a skier almost good enough for the national team, and after that a sculptor. He was extremely handsome, and with a trimmed beard he seemed the epitome of the French film star. Women were entranced by him, and he told the story of his earlier life as if he had been worst possible rogue. He did not remain a Jesuit, and I lost touch with him — Google tells me that he is now working in Quebec as a psychologist specializing in spiritual formation.

George spoke to our classes on several occasions. His personality transcended the whole problem of discipline. We listened because you just could not turn away from him. He spoke unabashedly of the love of God — something unheard of in Newfoundland culture. He talked about prayer as a normal and joyful thing.

By the end of the school year, I had made a connection with him but had not actually told him what had been happening to me. He would soon be returning to Ontario, and I would lose the chance. Walking on a Saturday in Churchill Square I saw him coming towards me. It was hardly a miraculous occurrence, but it was something that happened precisely when I needed it.

Standing on the sidewalk near the old Dominion supermarket, I think I told him fairly directly that I could pray only in church and that I wished I could learn some new way to pray. We walked back to the Jesuit house next to the high school and he spoke at great length about the love of God. I don’t think he taught me any methods of prayer. He just went on about God’s love. At the end of a couple of hours he gave me a card which had on it Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca, something that remains very precious to me.

I went home and that night my prayer truly began. I lay in bed praying for every person I was close to, face after face coming up in my mind. It continued for hours as if some barrier had broken. In a curious bathetic touch, the following days were devoted to driver’s education. I sat in a car with a cranky instructor and two other students, taking our turns shoulder-checking and changing lanes. When it was not my turn I fell back into prayer, and I remember just repeating, silently, the verses of “Amazing Grace.”

The week passed with the prayer growing deeper, and on the following Saturday, I woke up in a state of inner silence and consolation. I was in the presence of God and no active prayer was necessary. I remember looking out over Conception Bay towards Baccalieu Island and the Atlantic and being moved by its vastness and beauty. Through the day, I worked, oddly enough, at painting a pool and doing other chores. At 5:00, I went to Mass still in that state of silence. I received communion and felt myself immersed in light. In a moment unlike anything else in my life I was entirely given over to love.

At this point description fails, as it fails in a poem I wrote about this time called “Exultet.” For a few weeks after this experience, I prayed, especially before dawn in a hayfield behind our house where the dew snapped from my shoes; in the company of my German Shepherd I watched the world turning grey and then the shades of blue as I prayed the Rosary. Then for many months prayer became difficult again. You come down off the mountain. In time it returned more quietly, more bound to the narratives of daily experience yet still, very often, as a matter of silence and of light. It has been forty years.



State of Grace (2)

Image result for photo of grave of apostle john ephesus

I want to go back a year to an episode I described in my poetry collection Dante’s House (2013).  In November 1975, my sister and I went on an “educational cruise” around the Mediterranean in the S.S. Uganda — its aged holds converted to dormitories for about 900 students. We would be woken each morning by the BBC News, which at that time was dominated by the slow death of General Franco — at dawn we learned from loudspeakers which bits of him had given out during the night.

I had my own acquaintance with Catholic Fascists, among them a certain Christian Brother who had devoted a whole year of religious instruction to the sin of impurity in its various forms, assuring us calmly that hell lay just beyond the act. He taught us about sacrilege too, that is, going to communion when not in a state of grace — a doubly damning business — think again about Scobie in The Heart of the Matter. When asked if one would still go to Hell if hit by a car on the way to Confession, Brother W– hesitated, then made what he thought a great concession, “God is merciful.” A few years later, I encountered him at Tim Horton’s, no longer a Brother and by now humbled. He apologized for everything he had said that year. But he had done more damage than could ever be set right by an apology in a doughnut shop. Those classes drove many of my classmates out of the church forever.

An adolescent has many reasons to feel bewildered and lost — and part of my own unhappiness arose from a sense of being far from God.  And so in desolate mood,  I boarded the ship in Naples. We were first taken by coach to Rome, where I was deeply moved by the sight of the Baldacchino at St. Peter’s, and to Florence and the Uffizi. The ship sailed to Mykonos where we bought cheap leather and a little illicit ouzo, then to Crete and its memories of the Minotaur. Towards the end of the cruise, our ship put in at the Turkish port of Izmir, and the 900 of us were brought to swarm the ruins of Ephesus. I don’t recall in any detail the famous Temple of Artemis or the House of the Virgin. What I do remember is the supposed grave of the Apostle John. It was covered by a square metal grate. I don’t recall saying any words. I simply wanted to find my way back to God. According to the custom of the place, I made my prayer and dropped a small stone through the grate.

I have always believed that something came of that prayer — that I had been prompted to make it as the first of series of things which would, in a sense, bring me home.

(To be continued.)

State of Grace (1)

I  try to remember the details of being in grade 10. I had come from a year of revelations in which a superb teacher had brought me into the world of books. I had read widely before, but was now thinking of what Hemingway, Cather, Steinbeck, and Wolfe were saying to me. That teacher had taught me to ask the simple question, what am I worth as a human being? — and to look for the answer in literature.

Gonzaga High School in St. John’s was a shock and disappointment. I went there hoping that the epiphanies of the preceding year would keep on coming. But the teachers struck me as uncommitted. I admired the handful of Jesuits very much but had a hard time seeing the others as anything but time-serving  — I modified this view later, as I saw individual teachers striving impressively for the good of their students.

In the first months of grade 10, we defied our teachers, whom we discovered  had almost no power over us. They failed to communicate any sense of the value of what they were teaching, so projected no credibility — and they were not allowed to beat us. Indeed, we had been beaten thuggishly since grade two or three and rather expected it to continue. I recall teachers kicking metal dustbins across the room, and literally throwing the Bible at malefactors. From time to time, a teacher would kick through the side of his or her wooden desk, just to emphasize some point, so that the desks were all patched with masking tape. I have no idea how often I was punched by a teacher.  At one point, I got into deep trouble by referring to this violence somewhat jokingly  in the school newspaper and was told by the principal that I had undermined a particular teacher’s  “good name.” I tell my own students that I was twenty before I knew you could measure things with a yardstick.

At Gonzaga,  we continued the war on our terms against an unarmed opponent. We drove one young teacher to resignation, though he was persuaded by the principal to see out the year — he then left the profession altogether. He deserved better and we knew it.  By way of apology we gave him a t-shirt on his last day. Small recompense for having, say, a student leave a gas tap open in his laboratory so that flipping the light switch might cause the place to blow up.

These were not simple shenanigans. I think there were two kinds of emptiness confronting each other. Spoiled and belligerent students called the bluff of teachers who had nothing to offer. As I say, some teachers were thoughtful and hardworking — I just could not yet work out who they were.

My real life in those months took place at home, where I read constantly, and in the company of my friend Joanne, who was two years older and a little more aware of the world than I was. I would go to her house and we would talk about books and whatever else mattered to us.

At a certain point, Joanne shocked me. She told me that she had rejected Catholicism. She had read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in her last year of high school, and it made sense to her. As I recall, she found the Hell sermon cruel and absurd and reason enough to abandon the faith. In her first year university English course, she had read The Heart of the Matter, and found its account of sin, grace, suicide and damnation profoundly unreasonable. She summarized Greene’s plot for me, as I had not yet read any of his works, and I objected strenuously to the whole thing. It sounded alien to me. But there it was, someone I respected completely had said no to the faith.

Although a long way from a “state of grace,” I yearned for it. In the course of this unsettling conversation I said I had a few reservations about Christian teaching. For example, if Jesus was sinless, why at his death would he cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It sounded like despair. However, I thought on balance, the religion made sense.

I left her house, carrying her marked up copy of A Portrait of the Artist, which had on me the reverse effect it usually has. I admired it and reacted against it. But in the meantime, I had some thinking to do. If I believed, now was the moment to make a choice.

That evening I took the red family Bible off the shelf in my father’s library — our births were recorded in it, but otherwise it was seldom touched. I made the excuse that I had a school project and needed to look things up. I took it to my bedroom. It fell open to the twenty-second psalm, of which the first verse is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I now know there are technical names for what had happened: sortilege or Sortes sanctorum. There is a famous episode in the Confessions where St. Augustine feels compelled to “take up and read, take up and read” a random passage of scripture. All I knew was that this extraordinarily improbable thing had happened. Forty years later, I am still dazzled by its implications.

(more to follow).


The Rough Grain

On the night of the election, November 8, I went to bed thinking of Golgotha. I saw the rough grain of wood — a machine for dying.

After an evening of screens, I had walked away from the television and the computer, turned off the phone, and looked elsewhere. It is the Ignatian way, of course, to imagine the flesh and blood of holy things, but that night it took no recollection, no “composition of place”– I was present at a death.

I was not alone in feeling this way. Atheist friends spoke in metaphors of abandonment — I could sense what they meant. Consolation is never cheap, so our experiences converged to a degree.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself praying about the morning of the resurrection. I do believe in a life beyond this one — an omniscient God loses nothing —  but in that prayer the sense of departure was profound. The resurrection left me gazing down a road that someone else had travelled. Hope and grief were not separable.

I fear being melodramatic in my choice of examples, but in this very occasional blog a recurrent theme has been adoration — a condition that requires few words and largely escapes our powers to describe it. It is an act of reverence linked to memory, to the senses, and to desire.

Our consciousness does not really work without forms or signification. In adoration, the forms tend to be simplified.  I have had prayers in which I did no more than consider the grain of wood at the bottom of the cross — draw my hand across it.

The phrase “I prayed” or “I prayed about…” seems inadequate to me. I have often thought of saying “we” prayed, as it is a state of communion, but the resulting sentences sound a little precious. Even the active verb “pray” is a problem. I am not doing something — I am brought into a presence. It is a desired condition but not a determined act.

For example, I can be conscious of adoration as I go about my work — a sense of focus and intimacy beneath or in the midst of practical jobs. I find that from time to time, something inexplicable just asserts itself. I can be out walking or sizing up produce in a supermarket or prating at my students and joy occurs.

One of the harder paradoxes is that adoration occurs wherever it wants to — it sets itself up in messy lives.  I have had some disasters in my own life. I can only imagine that adoration is a perpetually renewed beginning.

Now and again I meet a prayerful person who has spent such a long time near to goodness, that they are changed. They become luminously kind.  It is as if acts of generosity, or indeed justice, begin in a sense of light and return to it. Or it may be the other way round that an act of justice is always larger than we intend — when we choose it, we are given an opening to adoration.  If I am right, the question needs no resolution: what we do and what we adore should be the same. For me, it remains a very distant ambition.

Smiley’s Lighter

Toby: George, do me a favour, okay? If you want a Hungarian babysitter someday, call me. If you go messing around with creeps like Kirov and Leipzig, you better have a creep like Toby to look after you. You’re an old spy in a hurry, George. You used to say they were the worst.

George: Oh, they are, Toby, they are.

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There are too few episodes of the original BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People to binge on, so I play those few over and over. I always stop at the scene in the art gallery. Replay. Replay. Toby is out of the “Circus” (MI6) and has become Signor Bernardi, seller of fake art. George wants to know why a statue supposedly by Degas is not numbered. Toby says “It’s a very grey area.”

What is it about these two, played by Alec Guinness and the also god-like Bernard Hepton, that so enthrals me? Oddly enough, I have met a good many people who served in intelligence or lived on the edges of it.  I am now writing a biography of the novelist and sometime MI6 agent Graham Greene, and this makes it necessary for me to read armfuls of biographies and memoirs of cold-war spies – what St. Paul would refer to as a mushroom-cloud of witnesses.

A few years ago, I interviewed John le Carré (pseudonym of David Cornwell) at his home near a cliff in Cornwall. In the early 60s, Graham  Greene promoted the young novelist, claiming that The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the best spy story ever written. Later, the two fell out over Greene’s public support for the double agent and defector Kim Philby, whom Cornwell, himself an ex-MI6 officer, regarded simply as a “shit”, someone naturally disposed to betrayal.  I suppose I bored Cornwell – I was yet another fellow with a recording device. After a few minutes of awkward q. and a., I showed him a letter Philby once wrote to Graham Greene, saying how he had read all le Carré’s books but hated The Honorable Schoolboy. After that, I think Cornwell got interested.  I spent another couple of hours with him and his family, talking about spies, war crimes, and cricket. And the Philby letter was duly dispatched to Cornwell’s biographer.

But, again, why do we care so much about spies? Homer did not need wiretaps. There is no micro-photography in the Aeneid. And yet, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, John le Carré and any number of others have written epics of the secret world. Our century believes that battles are fought largely in darkness. Behind each bullet is a long line of gadgets and codes reaching to some far-away desktop where the betrayal really happens and the trigger is pulled.  Once in a while a great act of public heroism matters – say, Boris Yeltsin going to meet the tanks on 19 August 1991 – but the secret world is never long in eclipse.  What we have now is Vladimir Putin, his FSB hackers, and, their protégé, Donald Trump.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the Philby-like Bill Haydon (played by Ian Richardson) says to Smiley, “I still believe the secret services are the only real expression of a nation’s character.” We don’t have to believe all Haydon says, but Smiley’s answers are tentative and somewhat resigned. Guinness is praised for saying almost nothing when he played George Smiley – acting by small gestures: wiping  his glasses, lighting a cigarette, looking uncomfortable in a love seat.  I think Le Carré’s point is that the learned, brokenhearted Smiley is close to a saint in this ugly world. But then, he is a hard read. It seems that he is partly driven by a lasting rage against the treachery of his profession and his wife’s infidelities. An old friend from the circus, Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid) describes George as the kind of man who has “fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold and deep-frozen.” But the England he was meant to serve no longer exists.   Smiley is a paragon without relevance.

In captivity, King Lear tells Cordelia that they would  “take upon’s the mystery of things, /As if we were God’s spies …” Le Carré holds no faith, but his books are racked with a religious yearning. In Smiley’s People, one young spy is so horrified at the murder of an Estonian expatriate that he leaves the Circus and enters a Franciscan friary near Ipswich – which is, as a senior spy observes,“A cold bloody spot to pray.” When Smiley traces the schizophrenic  daughter of the Soviet spymaster “Karla” (Patrick Stewart) to a Swiss sanatorium she tells him he is a very dangerous man as he represents the forgiveness of the authorities. Then, she asks, “Are you God?” When Smiley leaves she is distraught, throwing herself on his car – it is as if her universe is being emptied. I am convinced that in an age with no flames to keep, some scrap of religious culture makes a last stand in literary spy novels. Almost always, the plot turns on treachery. If you cannot believe in the empty tomb, you can at least believe in Judas Iscariot.

For most of their careers Karla and Smiley probe each other’s weaknesses. In Smiley’s case, it is his wife Anne, who betrays him repeatedly with, among others, Bill Haydon who is acting on Karla’s orders. Indeed, Karla keeps as a trophy a lighter Anne gave to Smiley. It is inscribed with a message of love, and as Smiley observes, “It was just an ordinary Ronson. Still, they were meant to last, weren’t they?” In time, Smiley finds out the one person Karla loves and is able to blackmail him. When the spymaster defects in order to safeguard his daughter, he acts out of love rather than ideology. Karla crosses a bridge from East Germany and then wordlessly tosses the lighter at Smiley’s feet. Having himself lost all hope of love, Smiley leaves it there.

Night Office

When I was 19 I met a Trappist monk who could not shut up. He had been a Jesuit for about 25 years and had crucified his companions with endless talk. In a Quixotic move, he decided to confront this deficiency in himself by switching orders — to the Trappists.

It didn’t work. He almost burst.

Trappists do not actually take a vow of silence and are not, in fact, all that silent — they sing the psalms at three hour intervals through the day.  Over the centuries, they developed an elaborate set of hand signals to conduct conversations.  After Vatican II, the order concluded that things had gotten a bit silly; they permitted the monks to speak when necessary.

Father Ambrose (I will call him that) was a different story. His superiors decided it would be cruel to shut off the torrent of words that came out of him. But they also outsourced their problem. They sent him from the monastery at Oka to a tiny daughter daughter-house in Ontario, and made him guest master so that he could talk to his heart’s content, just not to the other monks.

The Jesuits remembered him and invited him back to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of joining their order. Each surviving member of his year had a task in the celebration, such as main celebrant or preacher at Mass. The trick was to find some role for Father Ambrose that would not cut him loose to talk. It was believed that if he said the grace after dinner they might all get through unscathed. Alas, no — that grace went on for about forty-five minutes.

When I was 19, I was a Jesuit novice, and a devotee of Thomas Merton. One day, the other novices worked up the idea of going to see the Trappists. We made our way to Georgetown, where the monks had purchased an orchard. Among the apple trees I spotted a young-ish monk, in white cowl and jeans, playing with a dog. I was a bit surprised to see that he was talking to it.

The greater surprise was Father Ambrose, who talked to us steadily for about two hours — about being a Trappist, about praying, about apples. Then he began his Mass — I remember that he donned an ornate old-fashioned chasuble. He seemed full of devotion for what he was doing. Then, he got to his homily, and it went on for well over an hour.

The older fellows in our group thought he was ridiculous and that they had been cheated out of an afternoon’s quietness and reflection. There was much grumbling in the car going home.

For my part, I was fascinated by him. It seemed to me that he might be one of those odd saints, like Benedict Labre who lived on the streets and suffered from a mental illness. I could not articulate it at the time, but now I would say emphatically that there is no reason why a mentally ill person should be excluded from grace or why such a person should not be capable of extraordinary witness. Yes, of course, it’s complicated.

And perhaps Father Ambrose was not sick at all, just a chatterbox.

Some months later, I was troubled about remaining a Jesuit. I loved the Society, and still do. But I had fallen in love with a woman just before entering, and I was struggling with the whole question of obedience. I was sent to work in a jail and rather identified with the inmates. It was not that the Jesuits had imprisoned me at all, but that I had discovered an urgent need to make my own peculiar way.

I decided to go back to the little Trappist house among the apple trees. I arranged a very short stay in a guest room. I ate with the monks, tried to join in the chanting, and just wandered about the property. And I listened to Father Ambrose. He picked up right where he had left off.

In the middle of the night, a knock came at my door. It was Father Ambrose inviting  me to Vigils — the night office. He sized me up, and could see that I was not going to make it. ‘You go back to sleep.’ Afterwards, I regretted not getting up to join those men in their midnight songs.

I went back to my novitiate the next day. As I left, Father Ambrose asked what may have been a practised question,  ‘Did you find what you came for?’ One does not go to a Trappist monastery for no reason. I remember that question more clearly than almost anything else from that eventful year.  I did leave the Jesuits. Before long, I got married. And yet some part of me remained ever after in Georgetown to chant the night office.



Of Mules and Memory

Yesterday I wrote a sentence about Graham Greene in his hotel room in Tabasco crushing large beetles and reading Anthony Trollope. Today, I will get him up on a mule for a long ride across Chiapas. I will also put him on a little airplane, and  then give him a case of dysentery, for which I am sure he would be grateful.

For the last few years, I have been writing a biography of this novelist, to whom I am not related despite the coincidence of surnames. The research is finished and I am pressing forward with a possibly optimistic plan to have a draft done by next summer. My very indulgent publishers have been checking their calendars and glancing at their watches.

It is a very strange thing to inhabit another person’s life. When I was finishing my biography of Edith Sitwell (2011), I felt grief in the last hundred pages as she was now going to die. It was the completion of something that had been going on in my mind for over a decade, and I was giving that up too. You forget many of the details of the research, but you also find that an important relationship is coming to an end.

When I was in my twenties, I wrote a doctoral thesis at Oxford on the eighteenth-century poet Mary Leapor, a kitchen-maid who only lived to twenty-four, but produced some marvellous satires on the lot of women and servants — the sort of people about whom almost no information survives. Little was known about Leapor herself.  Nowadays, I am content to have my research on her plagiarized more or less constantly. She is a figure in the Norton Anthologies and plenty of other fat books, and it seems my discoveries and my claims for her importance have passed into a kind of common unfootnoted certainty.

As a graduate student, I would go into the five hundred year-old Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian — you will have seen it as the set for the forbidden books room in Harry Potter. There, with a few academical gnomes with sprouting eyebrows and tufted ears, I would root through immense county histories — trying to learn what I could from transcribed headstones. In the course of finding out about those long vanished scullery maids, ostlers, thatchers, shoemakers, weavers, farmers, you relive their deaths and lose them all over again. There are few documents as desolating as an old church register, as you become the only person in the world who knows of a life that may have lasted three days or of the young mother with whom the child was buried. You may become the only person living who knows about an epidemic that wiped out half a village.

One of my great friends, an acclaimed biographer in his 70s, often refers to the advice of Diana Athill, the 98 year-old former publisher and now memoirist, that biographies should eliminate as many names as possible. Names are hard on the reader. Athill is a wonderful figure in British letters, but I simply can’t accept the advice. Naming is a form of witness — it is all that remains of a life passed in obscurity. Mentioning that person when he or she passes through some larger narrative is the least I can do.

Like everyone else, I wonder at times about what I do in life. I love a certain number of people. I give a little encouragement here and there. I give my students some ideas to think about when they are older. But then there is the other thing. I write poems, sometimes funny, but almost always elegiac. And I write biographies. It is the attempt to understand and give value to individuals and to communities that will always be outside the normal range of seeing. It is memory as a vocation.




Austin City Limits

Carrots are boiling away in a pot. My friend is cutting ginger for a soup. Through the window over his shoulder I see two humming birds, big as a fingertip, hovering at the feeder. Beyond them a cardinal flies from a tree-branch.  A woodpecker takes his place and begins hammering. Two young deer approach – they eat leaves and herbs and are forever raiding the fig tree.

I know the dry beauty of Texas, but this week the rain has fallen almost without stop. At times, the rain seems to have lost all faith in the difference of one drop from another, and just falls. The grass I know as yellow and burnt is green. The streams and gullies I know as rivulets are gushing. Half the state is under a warning for flash floods. All the kinds of beauty in Texas are dangerous in their way.

My wonderfully hospitable friends have invited me out from Austin to spend the night with them. I have not seen their house since it had to be almost rebuilt after a tornado struck. It is as I remember it, but with all sorts of subtle improvements – new windows and floors, stouter walls, redesigned bathrooms. Everywhere in the house is the smell of freshly cut cedar.

And life has taken a new direction. They might deny it modestly, but my friends have become adept at yoga, and new joy seems to have come into their world. It is beyond unlikely that I will ever go down this path — I am fundamentally unbendable — but I am very happy to know that yoga has brought so much to their lives.

In this summer of Trump, I hoard up examples of people living well. One of my favorite places, Austin is itself changing and not for the better. Once sleepy and studiously weird, Austin is now the fastest growing city in America. Mopac and other highways are impenetrably gridlocked. The old honky-tonks are being knocked down one after another in favour of office towers and condos.

I spend my days at the Harry Ransom Center, the vast literary archive at the University of Texas. New campus-carry laws allow students to go about armed liked desperadoes. It was here, exactly 50 years ago, that Charles Whitman went on his shooting spree from the tower, killing 15 and wounding 31. There is something sad and inadequate about the little signs prohibiting firearms in this or that space. Even the lockers at the reading room have a notice forbidding the storage of guns.

I can’t say that yoga will ever fix any of this, but I think there is a witness in what my friends do, a standing apart from the violence, a simplification of the spirit. On the other side of Guadalupe Street from the HRC is a small church where I attend Mass most days. What witness I may give is usually in places like that. I am grateful that I do not have to assume a difficult posture, unless the whole thing is a hard-won gesture of dissent. I like to think that the two traditions converge at what Eliot called ‘A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).’


Babies, Cats

The great thing about being a youngish grandfather is that you get to be an ancestor without being dead. My father was 36 and my mother 32 when they had their first child (not me). I was just twenty-two when my daughter Sarah was born, so in a sense, I was growing up as she was. Perhaps, she made a better job of it.

I get back from Newfoundland on a Monday, and they come to see me the next day — Sarah, her husband Simon, and young master Thomas. And the cat. We will get to the cat.

I have an odd set of emotions. I seldom know what I feel about a thing just when it happens. The experience has to make its way as through an aquifer, then it pools. This may take hours or months. Sometimes I have to write a poem to know exactly what has happened to me. I am not prolific, so often enough the jury is out for a long, long time.

Not so when I learned about Tommy. Shortly after she told me she was expecting, Sarah gave me an image from her 9-week ultrasound. There he was, like a spaceman, a head and body round, two little hands out to the side and two feet on the tiniest of legs.

It was the first glance I had of someone who would be central to the rest of my life. I was, perhaps, confusing hope and certainty, as the doctors were not yet ready to give the all-clear on whatever they were seeing in this image — they soon did.  But I would look at this image every day and be lifted out of a sadness that was ganging up on me — five friends with cancer at the same time, my mother lost to dementia.

When I was 18, I went on a retreat that involved a late night exposition of the sacrament. For non-Catholics, this can be described as a prayer of adoration. A consecrated host is placed in a metal stand called a monstrance and you pray just by looking at it. That night, I saw through the little bit of bread at the centre of the monstrance a kind of openness, and was caught for hours in a sense of the vastness of God.

That ultrasound became a monstrance for me. I would look at this tiny figure and he was himself, a little body, which opened into a sight of far-reaching consolation.

I look at him as he is now. He is three and refers to me with a curious formality as “Grandpapa.” They are delivering Chester to me — a grumpy once-feral cat they adopted and whom I tricked into affection by rubbing the seam of my jeans with catnip. Floor-fixers are coming to their house in Hamilton and everyone, including cats, must clear out. The humans are going to Simon’s father’s house. Chester stays with me.

After a trip to the swings on Lowther Street, I help load Tommy into the car. He gives me a kiss. A creature mostly made of the past, I am looking at the absolute future.





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