It wasn’t Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Rumi, Eliot, or Rilke, though certainly I followed paths of their creation, too. It wasn’t Laurence, Grove, Butala, or MacLeod, though certainly I’d be no kind of writer without having read them first.
No, it’s been Suknaski all along. Little did I know.
I always wondered who was the poet who came before me and already said the things I want to say. Perhaps they’ve already been said. But perhaps it’s my turn to say them different, somehow. After all, I’m not a poet.
I remember that stranger saying to me: “you will write the words that have been forgotten.”
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.
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,
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?
Time passes, slips away, recedes right before my very eyes. It’s that time of year again, the time for shoring up, buckling down, tightening up. Winter is on its way, no matter how many warm and sunny days we’ve been having and may yet have. And true to form, to my own internal clock, something in me, the restless, creative drive has begun to curl up, to burrow in, to get all warm and comfy and sleepy. My ideas don’t have the sizzle and spark that they did in spring and summer. My overwhelming zest for life, so powerful that it’s almost frantic at times, has dwindled down. Not because the love has gone, but it has deepened into a solid appreciation, a constant gratitude for what has come about and what may yet be. I can rest on all that I’ve done the past several months, let myself sink into it until the restlessness returns, probably with the first stirrings of spring.
You, born on this farm and knowing no other home, not caring to even muse on such a thing
You who were free as the wind but who stayed for love and love alone.
You, illl-begotten get of Winnie, muttiest of mutts and the purebred boy-next-door.
You who were such a gift to us, adored by the world,
You of the aristocratic name – Cecilia, noblest of all.
You who saw every sunset and every moonrise on this farm since the day you were born (not counting those few days at the vet, but they hardly count)
You who knew every speck of this place, sniffed every scent there was to sniff
You who were too dainty and too pretty to bother with porcupine quills and would never dream of getting skunk sprayed
You who kept the coyotes away, even when I saw their eyes glowing in the darkness just across the road.
You who let strangers know they were welcome only if we said so
You who greeted old friends like old friends
You who needed to be by your master’s side
You, who would follow us anywhere and everywhere, even if it led to your death
You, who were everything a dog is supposed to be be, and more
You will run like the wind with Lizzie now, and howl at the moon with Winnie, and roll in the grass with Fiona and Ariadne, and chase cars with Javel and Shep and curl up near the door with Gus and bark at the coyotes with all the Nicks who came before you.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”
All life is a gleaning, especially when you’re a Virgo.
In the Middle Ages, when all agricultural work was done by hard labour, it was the women and children’s job to go out into the fields and glean. Every grain was precious in those famine-ready times. Nowadays, giant machines can do in one day what once took weeks. But still, there are gleanings left behind. No women and children out gathering them, except for me today.
Born in an exceptional year when harvest was already done (drought), I am nevertheless borne of the harvest season and so every year on my birthday I go out to gather my own small harvest. I like to have a bit of wheat around the house, if only for decorative and symbolic purposes. I take only a tiny amount from the field – that which stands at the fringes, or was missed by the swipe of the combine. There will be lots left for the geese when they come in their huge flocks next month. They are master gleaners. For them, like it was for medieval peasants, gleaning is a matter of survival.
For me it is nothing more than a past-time. A bit of a hobby. I’ve been fortunate to always be well fed. I work hard, yes, but not in the way the medieval peasants worked. I do not toil from dawn ’til dusk.
But even in this easy society I found myself born into, I have come to realise that all of life is work, or at least it should be. It’s a constant gleaning, a continuous methodical gathering of information, of facts, of flotsam, of flashes of insight. It is about taking the time to bend and stoop and squint and figure out what is good and what is not. To not take everything, but to leave some behind, for the geese, for the wind, for the earth to break down and absorb. For the poor and the travellers. To glean is to find out who you are and what it means to be you in this world. And to try to be the best you can be.