Stories of the lower lights

I am preparing to give a talk to the men’s group I meet with each week, twenty guys from many walks of life, variously still active, though all have “seen better days,” as the somewhat euphemistic phrase says.  There are many personal stories there, intriguing stuff that I wish more would share, although I know that few of these stories will be heard by me, or even sometimes by their families.  The lower lights rarely speak of their accomplishments or share their most important experiences.  It isn’t always easy to open up about oneself, and in some sense it’s risky.

I was into my forties before I started to discover in detail what the lower lights of the older generations in my family were about.  Before that time I was too busy struggling to make it in my own life, raising my own family,  and developing a view of the things of life. And the older people didn’t talk much about themselves or what they had been through. Once I met a woman from Europe who said she knew about my family from a documentary she had seen on Dutch television.  I have to admit that I politely brushed off her “mistake” — it must have been some other family with a similar name since all of us were lower lights.  It was at least a decade later before I started to investigate the story.

There’s a song that has been recorded many times by various artists, an old Philip Bliss tune that’s called “Let the lower lights be burning,” referring to the many smaller beacons that mark the shores for sailors out in dark waters.  These were collectively as important as the tall and more renowned lighthouses.  Because of GPS systems and other modern navigational aids, the lower lights are fewer as time goes on, and not many people even know about them.  I’m like most ordinary humans in that I don’t have many people who have taken the time to know me accurately.  That’s sort of OK, I don’t need a lot of people to really know me … half-a-dozen will do, and I will just have to let the rest think what they may.

Still, I enjoy hearing about the lower lights who, when I find out a bit of their story, often turn out to be quite extraordinary in some ways.  They do the best they can while facing long and tough situations, and together they have a storehouse of knowledge and achievement that would fill a library if it was recorded somewhere.  More traditional societies sat around in the evening and told stories about the elders and the wisdom or songs they had to share.  My ancestors have all long since been called home and I can no longer hope to have such discussions with them.  Oh yes, I realize that I might disagree with some of the things they would have to say, but I don’t think I would argue.  There would be enough intriguing information and useful insights to encourage me in my own walk through life, if they were willing to talk.

“Aye, there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare would say.  Typically, ordinary people have to be asked specific questions to help them overcome their reluctance to open up, and even then some of them will tell you to ask someone else.  But I think almost all of them will quietly be glad to have been asked, and it may lead them to share a bit of themselves at another time.  I’ll keep trying to open the conversation, and I will thank them for sharing, no matter how tentative or how few their words may have been.


Human meteorites

Recently, there was another news report of an unusually bright alien rock entering the earth’s atmosphere, briefly lighting up the night sky like noon before breaking up and disappearing.  I have had the privilege of twice being at the right time and the right place to witness such an awesome sight. For an instant, the mind flashes from intense wonder, to religious hope, to nuclear horror, before settling back into the scientific complacency of knowing it was “just” a large meteorite.

There have been meteorites among the human race as well.  This past week, I read two books about such notable careers that were also exceptionally short.  The first book was The Pope Who Quit, by Jon Sweeney, not about the recent Benedict XVI who stepped down three years ago this month, but his predecessor as far as resignation goes, a solitary hermit named Peter who reigned ever so briefly for 107 days as Pope Celestine V at the end of the thirteenth century, and who was rumored to have been murdered by his successor, Boniface VIII.  Sweeney notes a similarity to “the laughing pope” John Paul I who served for only 33 days before he (some speculate) was killed.  The other book was Oliver’s Twist, the autobiography of a much-respected CTV political reporter, Craig Oliver.  His own career has endured long but, among other things, he writes about the meteorite prime ministers Joe Clark (in office 273 days), Kim Campbell (132 days), John Turner (79 days), and Paul Martin (serving by contrast, a Methuselan 14 months).  It is more than interesting to learn how these people, some of them highly unlikely candidates and fiercely opposed by the established powers, managed to have their moment in the sun. For anyone who doubts there is much human frailty and corruption in Canadian politics or the political media, Craig Oliver’s telling of it may persuade you otherwise.

When they occur, meteorites surprise us humans so much that there is a sudden splurge of talk everywhere, and then the news dies out almost as quickly as the event itself.  So it is with meteoric people.  I doubt that I will think it hugely important to tell my grandchildren about these short-term prime ministers, or that the children will read much more than footnotes about them in school, though I could perhaps see myself making a cautionary tale of the very unusual papacy of the hermit Peter for those who want to radically change church or state.

These are political stories, after all, with tales of intrigue, lust for power, of exploitation and sleaze.  The same goes for the thirteenth century popes who were among the world’s largest land-owners at that time, heavily involved in worldly politics.  And part of the reason the brief careers were indeed so short is that the perfectly clever vices of opponents overcame the less perfect political instincts of these meteorites. But though such people are often forgotten, their experience in sudden office tends to shine light, as real meteorites do, on the darkness into which they came.