My friend Heather Bishop (singer/songwriter/ painter/ activist) has a little cabin in southern Manitoba that I have taken the liberty of dubbing Bishop’s Barque. A ‘barque’ is a simple, small sailing vessel to take one out to sea. Given my history of the place, it seems an appropriate title. It is a humble abode for sure; simple hay-bail construction, open floor plan, lots of light, wood stove, no phone, no internet. Perfect. I’ve twice driven down there for private retreats and both times come home with a new song.
Some places are just special – who knows why? It would be hard to identify the single quality that sets Heather’s place apart. If the above description isn’t enough, think: scrub oak and whispering aspen, prairie tall grass and lady slipper, milkweed, garter snakes, chipmunk and woodpile, monarchs, hummingbirds, jays. Big sky.
Heather, herself, lives a quarter mile down the road from the cabin in a fairly unique enviro-design home she built with her own hands (literally). And so, if while retreating you find yourself too isolated, she is usually puttering about somewhere and good for a lively conversation, a song, a healing prayer or counsel about a song-in-progress. And… Heather paints. Beautifully! Her gracious home is hung with the tender portraits of the faces that have captured her. Her subjects, and the delicacy with which she treats them, tell so much about her. She’s the kind of person that makes you want to be better at what you do.
Last June, just before having to lay my guitar aside for several months to let a repetitive stress injury heal, I took five days at Bishop’s Barque to finish writing a couple of songs and to work on arrangements for my new CD. I didn’t get very far on those tasks, mostly because the place lends itself far better to rest and restoration than task and accomplishment. Mostly I slept, read and noodled about on my guitar. The weather outside was gorgeous and atypically free of mosquitoes. So I sat for hours, absolutely still, outside the cabin, drinking in the staggering complexity and miracle of the surroundings. A chipmunk who lived in the woodpile kept me entertained endlessly. The ants about my feet and the impossibly bloated bees fascinated. A soothing cacophony of birdsong settled my soul while the hot sun and cooling breeze alternately invigorated the skin on my face. At night, the sun would humbly retire so the cosmos could shine; the deep-space stillness – enchanting. I and all the other creatures drank it in – felt our kinship and our gratitude.
I had a book of poetry with me, Richard Wilbur’s Mayflies. I’ve read and reread this collection dozens of times. Wilbur’s poetry is earthy – not the faux-earthy of one who has simply forgotten his or her manners – but earthy like loam, like compost, like a pile of leaves in fall. He has a way of re-animating the familiar. His words teach you to see again. And so under his eye, a “lofty stand of trees beyond the field” becomes a “great fleet of galleons bound our way / across a moiled expanse of tossing hay.” And, a mature relationship, or “long love” (which constant spirits are the keepers of) has the quality of a finely (divinely) crafted thing, “like a good fiddle…like the rose’s scent… like a rose window or the firmament.”
The poem that was honored to give the Mayflies collection it’s name elegantly tells of the a profound kinship that is the ground of creation from quark to galaxy. And I couldn’t help but be suddenly saddened by all that is not kind. I could not help but grief the petty meanness we humans willfully indulge, our capacity to diminish the other, the false autonomy we blindly celebrate. I must admit that as of late, the level of vitriol in public discourse has vexed me. We have traded in debate for insult; honest argument for cheap victory at the expense of the other. It seems we have forgotten why we must be patient, honouring and kind, and have equally forgotten how to blush.
It is my conviction that, whatever else may be true of God, God is (in God’s-self) communion, unity. God is mutuality. This is the intuition behind the doctrine of the Trinity. And as with any good poet, I assume God’s created work is an externalization of the true interiority of the artist. Therefore, kin-ness is no mere accident of evolution – it is the fabric, the logic of evolution. And I believe we’re heading somewhere purposeful and good. It is ours to freely choose how we will co-operate with or resist this unavoidable relationality. But our choosing makes a world of difference to the experience we know and the world of experience around us.
And so, inspired by Wilbur, and in part by a blog posting by my friend Prof. John Stackhouse, I wrote: Be but your own good friend / and be good to the other/ cherish those sisters and brothers on the road. / And to the earth extend / every reverence and wonder / tend to the wounds of your blunders / and honour God who formed our home.
Below is a demo version of the song if you want to take a listen. And just so you know, “demo” in my world is what “first draft” would mean to an essayist, or an initial sketch would be for a painter. It’s a working version I laid down in the summer. (My son Jesse was the recording engineer.) Currently the song is being re-recorded for my new CD to be released in January. But given the advent of World Food Day, October 15, and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s corresponding Fast For Change – Tend the Earth campaign, I thought I’d share it now:
click song title to listen
GOOD FRIEND | STEVE BELL
Bishop’s Barque / June 2010
Lyric adapted in part from Richard Wilbur’s poem Mayflies.
On somber night
When shivering clouds bemoan
The aching of souls alone
Then stars appear
One arch of their dance shows clear
And glittering song intone
Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
On the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
And honour God who formed our home
When sun is low
Bright bands in forest glow
Fair fiats of love. Behold…
See shimmering flies
In their quadrillions rise
Weaving a cloth of gold
Be but your own good friend…