Gaudium et Tremendum*

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”—G. K. Chesterton

We ended yesterday with a boat and a bonfire. The last of the sun turned the clouds baby blue and perfect pink, touched with fire, a cosmic nursery for the birth of stars; the moon a nursemaid all in white, smiling down. The firepit crackled and popped in greeting on our return to the dock; the sky turned purple, then navy and black; breath of spent oak mingled with pipe smoke and marshmallow; laughter and explosions of sound and color in the skies: blues and greens and purples and whites, red rosettes high above the trees to mark love of freedom and the birth of a nation.

At last the mosquitoes drive us indoors, brave descendants of saints and patriots that we are, fleeing from pinpricks and the whine of tiny wings! Homespun strawberry ice cream, jokes and laughter until at last sleep calls too loudly to ignore despite the din. Continue reading

Book Break: Manalive

“Madness does not come by breaking out, but by giving in; by settling down in some dirty, little, self-repeating circle of ideas; by being tamed.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve quit believing in coincidence. When seemingly random events culminate in a meaningful way, providence is my line now. Such was the case when I was searching the Great River Regional Library website for an audiobook to accompany me to and from Michigan over Divine Mercy weekend. I searched for several titles by name, and several topics by keyword, to little avail. Then I stumbled across an audio version of G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive, narrated by athiest-turned-Catholic and Theater of the Word founder and actor Kevin O’Brien.

I didn’t know what the story was about. That it was Chesterton told me it should be good — but as I’ve said before, Chesterton can be too clever by half at times, and I’d never tried his fiction before. I put in a request for this book and for Mark Twain’s biography of St. Joan of Arc, and Manalive arrived first.

I hesitate to say too much. It is the story of an apparent madman or idiot who invades a British boarding house and turns the humdrum lives of the inhabitants upside down. Ultimately, he is accused of insanity, theft, polygamy, and murder  but how can a man as wicked as that make others feel so alive for the first time in years?

On the other hand, why would such a joyful simpleton  a holy fool  carry a revolver among his holiday luggage and playthings? Our protagonist has a mission, which sounds ominous and, indeed, mad: “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man. But I shall not use it to kill him – only to bring him to life.”

Like Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue, which I reread over Holy Week, the book portrays a man who had dedicated himself to a worldview that the world has little use for and who pursues it at whatever cost. As a result, he makes us think about our own worldview and priorities. Manalive is chock full of great Chesterton quotes and paradoxes and memorable characters made moreso by O’Brien’s theatrical reading, voicing each of the characters as clearly as if he were several people himself.

By way of criticism: The work does wax poetic at times – particularly the introductory chapter – and at all times Chesterton’s presence is felt in the thoughts, wit, and turn of phrase of the characters. I would also be remiss in not pointing out Chesterton’s use of racial and ethnic stereotypes and language, particularly in drawing the character of  Moses Gould. In the context of this story, it was unsettling, but it struck me more as a product of his time than of strong personal animus. As to his actual views of minorities, I need to read more.

By way of endorsement: I listened to it start to finish on the way to Michigan, again on the way home from Michigan, and yet again on the trip back from Florida with Rose and Trev. It has climbed to the upper heights of my list of favorite stories — and if you want a fictitious explanation for why I’m leaving a good job at the church for a nebulous next step involving writing, this is it. I could not have stumbled across a better novel to bolster and encourage me in this time of transition.

That, friends, is providence.

Brandings

Blogger’s Note: Another past writing, from 2001. This is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction I ever wrote, and came back to my mind following this recent post from Prairie Father. In case you are wondering, Fr. Tyler is, in fact, the Tyler mentioned below. Finally, I’m no cowboy. If my terminology is imprecise or inaccurate, forgive me. If it is offensive to cowboys, correct me in the comments!
I

The city girl behind the counter called it a marking. She wore Doc Marten sandals and just last week mistook a bird’s call for approaching cattle. Drugstore cowgirl, with her chopped blonde hair tucked beneath a curled straw hat, more Junior Brown than Tom Mix. She wants a stampede string to keep it in place should she need to chase cattle at the “marking,” and I’m smiling at the thought of her sprinting in her sandals through knee-high grass behind some rangy Angus cow, her hat tied tight beneath her chin.

II

We rose to cinnamon rolls and coffee—six a.m., and Bob’s pulling his tall, red-topped boots over his jeans; a bright silk scarf about his neck; white shirtsleeves shining softly in the morning sunlight. Bob drinks tea, not coffee; sweeps the crumbs from his long moustache, takes from the wall a straw hat with the same crease, crown and brim as his felts, and heads out, spurs jingling, to catch his pony.

The hands arrive in twos and threes, and their rigs line both sides of the driveway—crew-cab pick-ups and long stock trailers with cow-horses saddled and tied short alongside. The men gather around the plank table in the kitchen, exchanging greetings and jabs, sipping coffee and complimenting Cindy on the rolls. All wear boots and hats; many have chinks, and most wear spurs. They range in age from 15 to about 60. Chance, Bob’s youngest, wears his boots outside his pants, same as his dad; a rosy plaid western shirt, battered chinks and a black felt hat set back on his head. He’s rough and ready, a chaw in his cheek and blue eyes sparking, happily cussing the dogs.

Chance has two friends with him today—John’s dark haired and dark skinned, with baggy carpenter’s jeans and Docs on his feet. He’s clearly not cowboy, and his T-shirt reads the same as yesterday: “I’m just one big f—ing ray of sunshine, aren’t I?” (Hyphens mine, not his.) His sister, Rachel, watches Chance with dark eyes and prepares to ride—purple chinks with heart-shaped conchos; a long denim shirt opening on a white tanktop.

Straws are the hats of choice in summer; still, a few felts make an appearance. “Real cowboy hats can be any color, so long as it’s black or silverbelly,” Bob says. Rick Smiley wears a dark gray hat, for what that’s worth, and sky-blue plaid. Frank Timmons wears battered silverbelly, with a sweaty ring at the base of the crown. It sits low on his brow, so that the curled ends of his moustache are often all that escapes its shadow.

Where I come from is not far from the girl at the drugstore. I shake hands with the men around me, conspicuous in a green Filson cap that suggests I’d rather be fishing. I remember selling western boots in that same drugstore, when my own boots and the pearl-white snaps of my uniform shirt branded me a cowboy in the eyes of little boys from New Jersey—this day even my father, in his broad black hat and leather vest with antler buttons, may have dressed too plainly to be called “cowboy.”

III

A couple days later we’re eating chili around that same plank table. Bob took a call a few moments earlier from a Manhattan-based research firm conducting a survey on environmental policy and public opinion. He spends a good ten minutes on the phone with the caller, and by the time he hangs up, he has identified himself as a heterosexual white male, a conservative, a Catholic, and a staunch Republican.

“You realize,” I tell him, “that you are the enemy.”

He’s cutting cheddar with the same pocket knife he cut calves with two days ago. He’s got a saddle shop in his kitchen. He doesn’t care.

IV

The riders mount and spread across a broad expanse of grass to round up the cows and calves. We’re watching from a windy hilltop overlooking the pasture, the pond, an old windmill and a few crooked trees, with the house, pens and buildings beyond.

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.

V

The cows are vaccinated, and the fire’s lit. Bob moves between groups of cowboys enjoying cookies and iced tea and assigns them to work as ropers, wrestlers, branders and cutters. Dad and John man the gate, shooing the bravest calves back into the pen. An odd pairing, to be sure—my father will lock up the brakes on the pickup at the sight of a middle finger, and this kid’s wearing as bad as that across his chest.

The ropers ride into a sea of bawling black and throw their loops. They drag the calves out by their hind feet, and the wrestlers topple them to their right sides and pounce on them, one on the head and topside foreleg, the other on the hind feet. The horses keep the rope tight, looking only slightly interested, and the riders watch. Two needles to the neck; blue smoke, the stink of burning hair and the sizzle of flesh. If it’s a bull calf, a few deft strokes with a pocket knife and a squirt of disinfectant. It’s brutal, quick and effective—strangely, the calves bawl loudest when first roped and dragged, and scarcely limp upon release.

Bob is cutting calves, and in just half an hour, his white sleeves are punctuated in red. He keeps his pocket knife in hand, wiping the blade occasionally on his chinks. It’s coarse surgery, without anesthesia or stitches, and I tell him so.

“You’re right,” he says, looking to the next calf. “It’s pretty rough, what we do to these critters.”

The smoke rolls.

VI

The latest issue of The Atlantic ran an ad for the American Indian College Fund, with the tagline, “Have you ever seen a real Indian?” The picture is of a young woman of no obvious ethnicity, with long dark hair, standing near a wooden cabinet full of microscopes. “Carly Kipp, Blackfeet,” the ad reads. “Biology major, tutor, mom, pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine, specializing in large-animal surgery.”

VII

The work’s nearly done, and Chance and Rachel are leaning against a gate, saying little. He dates her cousin, and he, Rachel and John spent last night beneath the stars on a hide-a-bed couch in the back of a pickup.

When the branding’s finished, it’s dinner—roast beef and beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; bread and salad and beer. Some of the men head home—the rest take up spots on the porch or the lawn. After a bit, two guitars come out, and Bob and Paul (a rancher out of Montana who owns the cattle we branded today) take turns picking—old country songs, rock older still—and discussing how music and cowboying has changed over the years.

“My wife tells me,” says Paul, “that if I want to get back to cowboying, the first thing I gotta do is get rid of about 1,500 head.”

I’m riding a sawhorse next to Chance. He takes his dad’s guitar and begins to play—bits and pieces of more recent rock songs. He finally settles into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”—bending strings to coax all the heartbreak he can out of them, the lyrics audible only in fits and starts above his playing.

Three-year-old Brendan’s on the porch with Rachel—they’ve been splashing each other with water from a five-gallon pail, and Brendan is soaked. Rachel’s hair is dripping, and Brendan’s new “pet” clothespin is clipped to the back of his shirt—he’s been looking for it for the past twenty minutes. She’s swiped a beer from the ice-filled tub in the grass, and Brendan wants what she’s having. They play together for an hour or more, when nobody asked her to—she’ll make a mother someday. Or someone’s favorite aunt, at least.

Bob says her older sister’s a beautiful girl—could’ve been a model.

“She’s got just enough Indian—they’d take her to Elko, to the Artists’ Ride, and dress her in skins …”

Rachel’s a beauty in her own right—her mixed ancestry shows in her complexion, her dark curls and brown eyes. She’s been arguing with Bob about whether her Adidas visor qualifies as a hat.

It takes a special girl, I think, to make a visor and chinks look good.

VIII

I’m driving to work and NPR is talking to songwriter who’s latest recording is called Scar. The title cut, he said, is based loosely on his relationship with his wife—it’s about how our relationships and experiences, for better and worse, mark us for life.

Brutal, quick and effective.

J. Thorp
May 2001

Summer Vacation, Day 74: A Good Day

This, my friends, is a good day. I don’t often wax religious on these pages, but we spent this Sunday morning where we ought to: in church. We were seated with our friends and their families, and the music was tremendous (an unlikely-looking older fellow in a resort shirt with two buttons open, singing nearly like an operatic tenor, flanked by several sweet-voiced church ladies).

After mass, our new god-daughter, Addelyn, was baptized, along with six other children. She slept peacefully through the first half of the ceremony, until the deacon anointed her chest, then looked in wide wonder as she was baptized with water, marked with chrism, dressed in her white baptismal garment, and entranced by her baptismal flame. We’ve been godparents before, but this one hit home – she feels like one of our own. We love her, and we’ve told her so.

I sat, carefully holding her candle, gazing at this little girl. Then I turned to Jodi and said, “Happy Anniversary.”

That’s right: 12 years now. Jodi and I were once talking to a former coworker of mine at a bar, and he told her that I seemed like the happiest married man he’d ever met. He joked with me that I might be the only one. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad about that.

Today I know: I’m happy. Thank God for Jodi – and little Addy, too!

Summer Vacation, Day 73: BFF and Stuff

Cooked breakfast for the masses this morning, then met some dear friends, Matt and Laura, in Big Rapids for a couple hours. Played in the park with their two boys and met their twin daughters (age 2 and a half already!) Then on to Todd and Suzette’s place.

There are friends, friends, friends, and friends in this world. Some you’ve known forever and love to see. Some you’ve grown with – as individuals, couples, families. Some you meet over the years, unexpectedly, and hit it off with – something new forms in a strange place!

And some transcend all of that. Maybe we’re just lucky – but we have friends who are like soul-mates en masse. We love each other like family, celebrate like friends, and trust each other completely. God has blessed us with people like our own. It’s so good to see them!