One of the most dangerous ideas afflicting our culture today is that of balance. We talk about balancing career and family, or having a balanced diet, or keeping a balanced perspective, but when we live like this, constantly afraid to do anything that might upset the carefully constructed balance of our lives, we also fail to believe and to do the things that are truly important. Living a balanced life permits no great loves, no great deeds, no great passions.

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and throw themselves into some craziness or another just to add spice to their lives. What I’m suggesting is that we forgo a life of cautious balance in favour of the tension that lies between great and driving passions.

Let me be clear here. Being passionate in this way does not mean following your bliss. It does not mean dancing like no one is watching. It means loving things worth loving, and loving them so much that you are willing to do and to be and to sacrifice whatever they require of you. It means loving family and community, friendship and conviviality, justice and hospitality, mercy and forgiveness. It means loving them enough to do the things that bring them about.

Too many people stay with a spouse for fear of upsetting their lives. Too few stay because they have fostered a great and encompassing love.

Too many people have children to satisfy social expectations of what the family should look like. Too few have children because they love what the family can be.

Too many people volunteer their time out of duty. Too few volunteer their time because they love to see justice and mercy done.

Too many people are looking for balance. Too few are willing to live in the tension of great passion.

This poem was written for Valerie, on her birthday.

Keep Time From Running

Physics is sure that only gravity
keeps time from running in both directions,
but I suspect that the passing of time
has more to do with the need of friendship
to find and fulfill its one true future.

This was inspired by a picture. I know it’s not nearly a thousand words, but it’ll have to do.

Bark

The bark peels like charred skin,
curls away from the flesh —
burned at the stake perhaps
for some bright heresy.

This is a bit of nostalgia for my wife on Valentine’s Day.

Do Like We Used To Do

Girl, let’s do like we used to do,
when I lured you with lines of verse
down secluded highschool stairs
to find what else there was to learn,
or when we floated calm as ducks
on the lake while our hands paddled
like all hell beneath the surface,
or when we dunked each other whole
in an empty baptismal tank,
went in sinners, come out less clean
than advertized, yeah girl, let’s do
like we used to do, me and you.

I keep adding and removing this section from the novel I’m writing. The problem is that I love it, but it never really seems to fit. But I love it. I’m hoping that posting it here exorcizes it for me, but I doubt it.

He turned to the girl across from him in the university cafe, a classmate who knew him just well enough not to refuse a seat at her table in the crowded room, but someone who had been assigned the same book, who could perhaps be expected to understand what he had just read. “Have you got to the scene at the scaffold?” he asked. “The scene where the Count talks about dying alone?”

He held The Count of Monte Cristo, his finger marking the place where Franz witnesses the executions in the Piazza di Popolo, where he sees one of the condemned receive a pardon at the very foot of the scaffold, and where he hears the other prisoner cry out, “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised that he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!”

And that’s true, he had thought, when he read it. We wouldn’t be so afraid to die if only we didn’t have to die alone. He had seen himself there in the university cafe, dying slowly, one breath at a time, and he had known that everyone else there was dying too, though they believed their lives were just beginning, and he saw also that they were all dying alone, that their deaths were only one more thing that they couldn’t share with one another.

This, he had decided, this passage at the foot of the scaffold, where Dumas shows us what we are, this is revelation. We should all be made to read it — every one of us — we should all be made to study it like sacred scripture, not just Dumas, but all of literature, everything, because there’s revelation in it, whether we like it not, the revelation of what we could not otherwise imagine — the revelation of ourselves to ourselves.

“They didn’t talk about that scene in the notes I read,” the girl said, using a highlighter to keep her place in the textbook she was reading.

“But did you read that part of the book? Where the criminal is going to the…”

“I don’t really have time to read the books,” she said. “I get better marks if I just study the notes. They’re less confusing,” and she was poised there, prepared to resume her labour the moment her attention was dispensed with him, she and her highlighter equally uninterested in what he might have to say, however profound, so long as it was not directly productive of better marks on papers and better grades in classes.

“All literature is revelation,” he said, unable to keep from telling her, though he knew that it would do nothing except keep the highlighter waiting a few moments longer.

I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf Canada, March 2015) is one of my favourite things — a true fairy tale — neither a too-precious tale for children nor a too-heroic piece of genre fantasy, but a story of the kind that J.R.R. Tolkien describes as being characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder,” a story of the kind that Tolkien himself accomplished only rarely, in “Leaf by Niggle” or “Smith of Wooten Major”, a story in the tradition of George MacDonald’s Lilith or Howard Pyle’s The Garden Behind the Moon or C.S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces.

Like these others, Ishiguro’s novel operates on a symbolic level that should be described as mythical or mythopoetic rather than simply metaphorical or allegorical. It follows a small group of characters — an old couple who cannot quite recall their past, a young boy bitten by a strange beast, a warrior with a hidden purpose, an old knight who is the last of Arthur’s roundtable — as they seek the source of a strange forgetfulness that has fallen over the land. Their story explores questions of memory and forgetfulness, especially as they relate to love and death, war and justice, presenting these familiar human questions in a way made new and strange and thereby compelling.

Though the earlier chapters contain some elements that feel out of place, the novel as a whole is also strong stylistically, as Ishiguro’s books generally are. A sense of dreaminess, of forgetfulness, seems almost palpably to hang over the prose at times, immersing the reader in the very questions of memory that lie at the heart of the novel but making these questions strange enough that we must reconsider them, must search them out again, as if we are only catching glimpses of them beyond the horizon or seeing them in a dream from which we have just awakened.

I often feel with G.K. Chesterton that “the things I believe most now are the things called fairy tales,” and in this sense Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a story that can be believed, a story that speaks profoundly to our human experience by returning to us its essential strangeness and wonder.

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