Sunday, 21 April 2013

The story of a man who nearly became a lumberjack - the necessary fictions by which we live

Copperas Woods
READINGS: John 14:1-14 - I am the way, the truth, the life

A Walk by Gary Snyder

Sunday the only day we don't work:
Mules farting around the meadow,
                            Murphy fishing,
The tent flaps in the warm
Early sun: I've eaten breakfast and I'll
                              Take a walk
To Benson Lake. Packed a lunch,
Goodbye. Hopping on creekbed boulders
Up the rock throat three miles
                              Puite Creek –
In steep gorge glacier-slick rattlesnake country
Jump, land by a pool, trout skitter,
The clear sky. Deer tracks.
Bad place by a falls, boulders big as houses,
Lunch tied to belt,
I stemmed up a crack and almost fell
But rolled out safe on a ledge
                              and ambled on.
Quail chicks freeze underfoot, color of stone
Then run cheep! away, hen quail fussing.
Craggy west end of Benson Lake – after edging
Past dark creek pools on a long white slope –
Lookt down in the ice-black lake
                             lined with cliff
From far above: deep shimmering trout.
A lone duck in a gunsightpass
                             steep side hill
Through slide-aspen and talus, to the east end,
Down to grass, wading a wide smooth stream
Into camp. At last.
            By the rusty three-year-
Ago left-behind cookstove
Of the old trail crew,
Stoppt and swam and ate my lunch.

-o0o-

One of the things that can all too easily cripple the liberal religious mind is when it becomes obsessed with the idea that, if only we could get back to an “original” story, we would have secure access to something approaching the (capital T) “Truth.” This obsession may be summed up as “the earlier, the more authentic, the truer.” (In my “Strawberry Fields Forever” sermon  couple of years ago I took a look at this question in another way.)

For our liberal Christian tradition this obsession has often centred particularly on the person of Jesus. The fantasy has been that if only we could only get behind all the fiction about him that we know is found in the gospel stories then we would be able to access the authentic, True story about Jesus and, in consequence, we would be enabled to make a rational and, therefore, truly trustworthy decision about whether we should or should not be prepared to make a life-long commitment to living by his example and teaching. Whenever this approach has been followed it has, of course, for the most part been taken as a gamble that Jesus WAS a truly great man and that his full and real greatness WOULD be revealed most perfectly once we striped away all the dogma and rituals that have accrued around his name and also all the imaginative fiction that the gospels accounts of Jesus' life clearly contain.

However, centuries of attempting to do this stripping away has shown that we cannot do it with any assurance we have been successful and that the picture of Jesus we may have ended up with is not simply another interpretation of Jesus. By the mid twentieth-century we were forced to acknowledge that our pictures of Jesus are always interpretations. In other words we have to rest content with the realisation that these interpretations began, not just with gospel writers who had to make sense of the stories they were told about Jesus, but with those who actually heard Jesus and had to interpret for themselves what his stories meant.

But for many liberals this admission means that, because we know our inherited story of Jesus (in the gospels) is not historically true, as a foundational story actually to live by it must, therefore, be abandoned for something more fully known and secure. But to reason this way seems to me to be the height of folly. Clearly one must be free to choose not to follow Jesus and to refuse to take him as your primary, human, exemplar but to make this choice on the basis that the gospels contain so much that is fictional or interpretation should not be one of them. The substance of this address is a personal story which, I hope can help to illustrate how fictions are both necessary and appropriately able to fill a whole life with authentic passion and meaning for these are stories which get us going in the world.

As you know my father has been very seriously ill in hospital and I've recently spent a few days staying with mum while we visited him. I'm glad to say that he has significantly improved since then and is making some good progress. However, a very serious illness such as this inevitably encouraged me to reflect back on my relationship with my father and, of course, to have a few conversations with him (and mum) about life, the universe and everything.

One story dad told me when I was a teenager, about which I wanted to talk with both of them because it was so important to me, concerned the period immediately after dad had finished his National Service with the RAF. He and a mate, Reg simply couldn't settle back down into civy-street so, together, they concocted a plan to become lumberjacks in Canada. It appears that they got as far as visiting the Canadian Embassy to inquire about just what exactly they needed to do. However, other events intervened (not least of all in the form of the lady who was to become his wife and my mother) my dad and his mate stayed in Britain, and both of them ended up working in the insurance broking business for the rest of their working lives.

Gary Snyder
Now dad told me this story at a time when I had become passionately interested in jazz and also the writers and poets who contributed to, or were actually involved in, the San Francisco Renaissance of the late 1940s and 50s - among them Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Important tropes in many of their writings was the "wild" and also the "woods". Indeed, one of my particular favourites, Gary Snyder, wrote extensively about his time in the woods as a lumberjack, trail-cutter and fire watcher.

Their's was a lifestyle and set of values to which I was, and still am, very attracted to, and this way of being in the world seemed to me to run counter to the kind of life that would be lead by an insurance broker - a profession into which I was being encouraged to consider going. (Although as some of you will know Wallace Stevens' life goes someway to challenging this idea.)

But, given my passion for jazz and poetry, at the time I could not but read my dad's story as an expression of veiled regret and, by extension, I took him as subliminally saying to me that I should risk following my dreams so I wouldn't, like him, get "trapped" for life in insurance-broking. I took his message to heart and leapt, feet first, into a wildly bohemian world. I succeeded in becoming a jazz musician and the first day job I took after leaving school to support me in this apparently lunatic project was to work for a pittance in an Arts Council funded poetry book shop in Colchester Arts Centre with the wonderful poet and story-teller John Row. A poet who shared the same literary inspirations as me.

My job interview consisted of him reading out loud Allen Ginsbergs' poem "Howl" which he concluded with a question: "So, what d'ya think of that?" I replied "Fucking, amazing!" To which he responded: “You've got the job.” And so began a wonderful three and a half years of taking our bookshop to poetry festivals, tree fairs and arts centres both here and in Western and Eastern Europe.

And so, in one way or another, it has carried on and, to this day, I've never had a proper job. One of the high points for me in the story so far was getting the chance to collaborate - albeit only via email and CD - with one of the San Francisco poets who had so inspired me as a youngster, Gary Snyder, in the making of  a CD of pieces setting some of his poetry. I contributed one composition to this project - a setting of the poem you heard earlier about what he did on one of his days-off whilst working as a lumberjack. Why I chose this poem should by now be clear. (For those of you with Spotify click on this link to hear the full track).

With my lumberjack jacket in Copperas Woods
Now my folks place on the Essex coast is very, very close to the River Stour (John Constable's river) and between their house and the shoreline is the wonderful Copperas Wood - a still working coppice wood which everywhere shows signs of the lumber trade. Every morning and evening after mum and I had visited dad in hospital I'd go for a long walk there to clear my head and to think. Now quite by chance (or was it quite so by chance?) I had taken with me my authentic American black and red lumber-jacket. Walking in the woods so attired and thinking about dad the story I have just told you, naturally, came flooding back into my imagination.

On one bus journey into hospital I asked mum about it. It turned out that I had remembered the basic facts perfectly correctly but what I had got wrong was that dad had, in truth, had no regrets at all about not becoming a lumber-jack. Being in insurance suited him just fine. In addition to being a good and socially useful thing in which to involve oneself it was a secure job that enabled him to get married to mum, buy a house and a car, have two kids - my sister and me - and always adequately to provide for us. It also allowed him to pay into a good pension scheme and to have a good, comfortable and enjoyable retirement. For all these things I am infinitely grateful.

During my walks it became abundantly clear to me that my father's story was, from his point of view, not told as an expression of veiled regret nor a piece of disguised encouragement to risk following my crazy dreams. Far from it! My antics, though I was always lovingly supported through them, were the cause of more worry and puzzlement to him than they were occasions of unalloyed delight and excitement. From his point of view the story was a simple recounting of something he and a mate had once considered doing. It was most certainly not central to his life and nor was it defining or pivotal for him in any way. My conversation with mum had stripped away my interpretation of his story and, if you cast you mind back to what I said at the beginning of this address, it was tempting to say that I was closer to a more authentic, truer version of the story.

But this raises a question - because I have lived by a very different interpretation of my dad's tale - one which helped powerfully energise and inspire me to leap fully into a bohemian life in the world of jazz and poetry - does this mean I have been living a lie and that I must now tear up my version of the story as false and untrue?

I don't think so at all. You see, all the stories we really live by are never only made up of simple, authentic, originary facts because stories - even the most factually based ones - will constantly be being told and re-told, heard and re-heard, received and re-received, interpreted and re-interpreted. However, it will forever be true that the fashion in which I first heard, received and interpreted my dad's tale gave me a meaningful and legitimate way to proceed, a truth to follow and a life to lead and I came by these things by no other way than through my father. For giving me a story that was capable of bearing this interpretation I am also profoundly grateful.

Now, as a particular Unitarian and Free Christian community the way we have received the story about Jesus is not going to be very different from the way I received my dad's tale. It's clearly going to be full of interpretations and emphases that Jesus himself almost certainly never intended to give. But, even so, it remains legitimate for us to say that in our interpretations of the story gave us a meaningful way to proceed, a truth to follow and a life to lead and that we came to these things by no other way than through Jesus.

To say, either as individuals or as a church tradition, that Jesus (or rather the story about Jesus) forms for us our primary way, truth and life is to say no more, nor any less, that what I am saying when I tell you that my dad, in his story, has been for me the primary, way, truth, life. These stories are vital to us and remain so even when later on we realise (for whatever reason) that they contain much that we call fiction. Let us not fear the fictitious story rather let us learn to judge our stories by their fruits.

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