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.