Mastery, and Truth

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.

                                                                          – Victor E. Frankl

I’ll never forget sitting in that crowded, humid pub on Water Street in St. John’s, open mic, a Friday probably, wintertime, and a young man done up dapper in a brown suit stepped up, opened his mouth, and sang.

Shamus leaned over to me and said, “that’s a real singer” with the conviction that only a folklorist of Gaelic lineage who grew up in the post-industrial world of Nova Scotia can have. I was new in town, new to the island, to folklore, to this pub, felt like I was new to everything, and I barely knew Shamus, a fellow folklorist who just happened to be sitting next to me.

And I remember how the hair stood up on my arms, not only because of the pure voice of the singer proving Shamus right, but because of the truth in Shamus’ statement, and his recognition of the mastery possessed by that singer. I remember the statement more than the song – like so many things ephemeral, the song rushed into me, filled me up, then departed, leaving me with only the memory of having experienced something grand, no memory of the thing itself. But I remember Shamus’ words, and the way he said them, and the expression on his face as he said that true thing.

Now I use that term when I read something so true, so full of mastery, so perfectly written, that it hurts the heart. I say it or think it to myself when I read and re-read clumps of certain words strung together by the likes of Alistair MacLeod or Richard Yates or Sharon Butala or Irène Némirovsky. That’s a real writer.

When I see a rancher settle himself in the saddle with practised and unconscious ease – that’s a real cowboy. When I see my dad duck his hand into the stream of grain flowing from the back of a truck to catch a sample – that’s a real farmer. When I see my friend lean over a tiny piece of stone with some fine-pointed tool and his eyes squint and glaze over and throw sparks altogether at once – that’s a real artist.

There are lots of good singers, lots of good farmers, lots of people good at things, but not all of them are “real” in the way Shamus meant it that night. You can perfect a craft, be a brilliant writer,  a competent artist, a skilled artisan, an experienced farmer, rancher, coal miner, professor, tailor, sailor, butcher, baker or candlestick maker, but still not reach the one step further to mastery, which comes only once you’ve managed to tap in to the vein of truth, the depth of knowing that goes beyond the immediately knowable. It only comes once you’ve realised the power in submitting to something greater than yourself. The knowing that no matter how much you practise, or try to perfect, that there’s something beyond you, out of reach, that you must submit to. Trust in and submit to.

The truth.

 

 

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Grub Line Runners

Fellas who would spend the winter moving from one farm or ranch to the next, doing an odd job here and there, just enough for a meal and a place to sleep until it was time to move on to the next. One could keep body and soul together all winter running the grub line ’til spring came and it was time to get a job.

exempli gratia: ‘Ol Frank there, he was a grub line runner all right. Never knew him to have a proper job between round-up and calving time.

Why Didn’t I?

This past summer I drove halfway around the world. I never left the prairies, but still, the amount of road I covered would stretch halfway ’round this earth, if one cared to measure miles in that way. The road still stretches out before me, but now there is some time to slow down, to stay put, to reflect, to remember. To ask myself questions,

Like,

Why didn’t I take that one back road, that one somewhere out west, down south, near the line, the one that had that old house, that old barn, that abandoned homestead? There’s so many roads like this, so many abandoned homesteads, I’ve photographed lots already, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop that one time, that time I really wanted to when the sun was setting behind me and bathing everything in a coppery light, casting my hair into shades of flame in the rearview mirror, a light so dense I could feel it? How many sunsets do I need to take pictures of? I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop near that slough, the one that was full of pelicans gracefully and serenely bobbing amongst the cattails, brilliantly white? There’ll be more pelicans to see, they’re kind of far away anyway and besides, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

How many back roads did I take? How many times did I stop to take photos, to sit on the hood and just gaze all around me, how many times did I roll the windows all the way down so the heat and the dust could come in and cover me over? How many times was I on some abandoned highway and felt so much at home that I believed I could live there, at 100 kilometres per hour, forever? How much did I relish every moment of it, even when my eyes were gritty and my shoulders ached? How many times did I arrive at my destination breathless just in the nick-of-time or even a little bit late because I just had to stop to look at that church, to drive through that decaying village, to try to capture the brilliance of the springy green grass? How often did I speak aloud my wonder at the all-encompassing beauty of the hills, how many times did I express my love for every cow, rabbit and antelope that I whizzed past? How much more could I have seen, stopped for, photographed, marveled at?

And yet, why didn’t I do more?

Stink Lake House