Thursday, February 27, 2014

Three About Me

It’s finally time I wrote about me—sort of.

On the Internet, it amuses me how bloggers are eager to share what they had for breakfast while essayists, in contrast, can get engaged and married without breathing a word in their essays. Perhaps essayists are too uptight, or modest to a fault. Or maybe they just believe in crafting really focused essays.

As for myself, I think my life is just too boring for others to care about: That’s what I told my fellow students last week—I’m taking a night class in creative nonfiction. My excuse for posting some class assignments here is that I’m finally revealing a little about me. Besides, I don’t like to “waste” anything I write, not if I can put it out there again. (In fact, I just took last week’s web essay down to my college alumni magazine)

Here are three short assignments: They don’t focus directly on me, yet they are revealing. My classmates in my real life found the pieces interesting; so here’s hoping some readers in cyberspace will too.

Assignment One: Find a newspaper article that moves you. Encourage readers to feel too. 250-300 words.


In my life I’ve earned a one-year college certificate, a college diploma and a university degree. I’m smart, by the grace of God, and I have good will towards those not-so-smart: They too have their story. You could say I’m conservative, don’t swear and I go to school: These three attributes describe everyone in the family of Juliana Tolifson—everyone except, explains Juliana, herself. She is a hairdresser with tattoos—she came to her family from an orphanage back when Romania was under communism. She says she’s nuts, she’s the black sheep, and she wants to meet someone like her. Now she’s nearing the end of a seven-year quest to learn more about herself by finding her birth mother. The only photo Juliana has is one of her mother wearing a leopard print bra under a white T-shirt: Juliana can really relate.

I’ve often met people like her, cheerful and spinny—the folks who never get into the history books or the weekly TV dramas or the Sears catalogues. They don’t read books, they don’t know world politics—still, they are optimistic about their community and willing to do their part.

I am touched when folks like Juliana learn how I read so much and then respond by marveling, being too nice to call me four-eyes. Perhaps Juliana is nice because back in elementary school she was bullied for being a “foreign kid.” Today she’s a successful hair stylist, getting ten different big Romanian flowers tattooed all down her arm. I’m old enough to be her uptight uncle, without any tattoos, but I wish her well. I sure hope her birth mom agrees to meet with her.

Assignment Two: Write about someone who you admire, or on why you became a writer. (I did both at once!) Maximum 400 words.


I am older now than my spiritual father, George Orwell, was when he died of tuberculosis. For me his essays are what he will be remembered for. The man who wrote great essays could also write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.

Orwell knew imperialism first hand. One hot day, as a young police officer and administrator in Burma, he found himself walking with an army officer, from his own class, behind a file of common British soldiers. He really didn’t like their smell that day—and he knew this was mere class prejudice, since the soldiers were all healthy, well fed and well washed. Admitting his fault, he also admitted the same nation that imperializes foreigners would imperialize each other. Call it: Divide by class and conqueror. He took action: resigning his commission, and going back to England, there to mingle with the lower orders, the “proletariat,” enough to shake off his prejudice. (To quote another writer, “he (They) walked away from Omelas”)

Like many idealists of his time he knew there had to be something better, a world where all people could be equal comrades. Yet, unlike the rest of his generation, he knew that bloodstained, actively lying communism was not the answer. To him, a socialist England would still have soldiers guarding Buckingham palace with the buttons on their tunics inscribed with, as he titled his essay, The Lion and the Unicorn.

I too am a writer; I was born in the 1950’s; and I too had to invent myself. Orwell had the word “sensitivity” in his vocabulary: He once took the measure of Rudyard Kipling by saying Kipling had enough sensitivity to write, and just enough insensitivity to fraternize with imperialists east of Suez. Other writers, noted Orwell, would not leave London for the colonies. Now “sensitivity” is part of my own vocabulary, as one more bit of my own self-invention.

Orwell was socialist, yet not a communist. Reformist, yet not a sandal wearing vegetarian crank. Leftist, yet sympathetic to the flag and soldiers. A scholar of revolution, yet sympathetic to the actual working class, not to some romanticized “proletariat.” An intellectual, yet he fought with volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. To me he remains a model of a man who would not hate, nor deceive himself, nor lie for any cause. A decent man… I try to be as decent as he.

Assignment Three: Write about a setting. Maximum 500 words. (This, like the above, was an exercise for me in word processing, as I kept adding and cutting to get under the word count)

Concert at the Lantern

On a cold prairie night, in the older part of the city, I find the Lantern Church. A little paper sign on the door says, “Pull the handle down hard.” I manage the little handle and step inside.

Smiling people take my ticket, and I walk down, down past rows of long curving pews filled up with spiritual people. I sit. Many folks here have a past, many would say they are on a healing journey. Now I see people happy and eager, with spouses and families and jobs—the past is the past.

I see Margret, the mother of Eily Aurora. I see a man operating a camera on a tripod—it’s David, Eily’s father. I’ve known the couple since Eily was teenager, later Eily was active on campus, now she’s actively staging her second concert. Set on stage is Eily’s harp, and her Japanese sitar. Also on stage is Trevor’s Australian didgeridoo, and drums that have surely been used in a drumming circles. I know Trevor from Miracles Toastmasters. Later they’ll be joined by a goateed guy with an electronic base guitar and by a bearded young man who uses vocal sounds as an instrument; he has a Celtic drum too.

Eily had told me last week she was scared; but that’s natural. Tonight she does fine. Speaking slowly enough and lovingly enough she speaks of owls and vision quests and invites us to listen for what comes up for us. We begin the concert with silence… as many folks close their eyes.

As for the audience, no one is dressing to conform. No suits or ties. No one minds wearing color, or embroidery, or stripes on their jeans. All have warm fuzzy friendly fabrics; no one wears plain blue cold polyester.

None would describe themselves as rigid. In fact, I suppose I’m one of the more rigid ones here. Yes, I know music is like modern art; I realize I get out of it only what I put into opening myself up to: I “need to sit with it.” I know this, but it’s still hard. At least on this night I’m not actively uptight and dampening my feelings—that sort of life was years ago.

And the music flows over that spiritual crowd, over us all, with a beat and rhythm but no melody; voice, harp and bell, and sometimes the team gets loud and fast to simulate the fact of chaos. And then back down to beauty. People love it.

At the intermission it is clear that people have brought their hearts. Some one freely yoga stretches. No one hesitates to talk to anyone. A young lady with a red fuzzy toque tells me she feels this is a good church: plain, not overly decorated, “It doesn’t take money from the people.”

The music resumes. We clap. We echo. Folks are invited to sit on the stage stairs as “receivers.” People dance freely in the aisles.
…Pray for peace…

Sean Crawford, Calgary, 2014

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