Old canoes and old sermons

Some years ago, a fellow from the Adirondacks called Willem Lange, one of Vermont’s treasured storytellers, wanting to know if he had the time to restore an old canoe. Lange didn’t have the time, but since it was the kind of thing he could do in the evenings, and since he loved old canoes, he told him to bring it over. The canoe was a rare, vintage beauty. “If its owner had brought me a Stradivarius,” Lange wrote, “I’d have felt no more reverent about it.”

The canoe had been refurbished a long time before by, as Lange described it, “an impatient young varnisher just learning his trade.” Shortcuts and inexperience had left their telltale marks: runs in the varnish and a few quick, cheap substitutes for original parts. It didn’t take him long to recognize the canoe as one he had clumsily revarnished a half-century earlier. He even recalled the part he played in the canoe’s history, when he served as a guide for the family that owned it then, a history that included a trap laid for a peeping Tom and some hidden paddles that were part of the trap. The canoe still bore signs of that history in the birdshot trapped in its then-fresh varnish.

Lange’s recognition of his inexperienced earlier work reminded me of a time twenty years or so ago when I looked over some sermons I had written during the nearly two decades before that, the product of an earnest but clumsy and inexperienced young pastor, which I had saved for the day when they might again be useful. Lange could correct his work with some judicious stripping and sanding and the skilled application of new varnish. There was no such remedy for mine, other than to put the whole batch of files in the recycling bin and start fresh, which I did with no regrets. A weight was lifted.

It’s time for another purge. This one will be easier in some ways, requiring only a few keystrokes instead of hauling a couple of dozen boxes of files to the shredder. It’ll also be easier because I remember how it feels to step from under the weight of such a load and start fresh – to clear myself of how I once saw things, hoping to see the brand-new landscape of my existence – and not have to discover later what I’m writing now, like Lange discovered his earlier work on that canoe. Proust observed that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” Now seems the right time – undoubtedly it’s past time – for another major purge so I might discover what’s emerging.

In 1949, thirteen years before his death and a few months before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner wrote in a letter to the legendary editor Malcolm Cowley, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them” (Selected Letters of William Faulkner, ed. Joseph Blotner, Random House, 1977).

Looking back over the twenty years since the last major purge of my writings, and looking ahead to whatever may come next from my pen or keyboard, I’ll probably sign what I publish, Faulkner’s example notwithstanding and my ego being what it is. But I expect I’ll soon regret it. When what I write gets into the ether, I won’t be able to correct, cover, or purge my mistakes as easily as Willem Lange could strip and sand and revarnish that old canoe.

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