Life doesn’t need to be boring and ugly

Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy

In a gorgeous article over at the TheCatholicThing (which I urge you to read in full) Anthony Esolen talks about a concert he attended this past summer with the world-renowned Celtic fiddler Natalie McMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy.

The concert, he says, took place in a green field behind a Catholic Church in a town in Nova Scotia where Natalie grew up. This is how he beautifully describes it:

All kinds of people were there, old and young, men and women, kids running around, carpenters, fishermen, farmers, local musicians and step-dancers, and at least one professor – me. Everyone eagerly waited for the star performers. …

When they greeted the crowd, [Natalie and Donnell] remembered with love the good priest who married them in that same church, whose body now lay in the cemetery beside the field. I sat beside Natalie’s brother, Kevin, who regaled me with family lore, of MacMasters and Leahys, most of whom do other things besides playing music to put bread on the table, but who get together as families on an evening to play Celtic music, long into the night. It seems that the children take up one instrument or another.

There were children – the sweetest thing of all. After Natalie and Donnell made the hills sing with music, they retreated, and, one after another, their children and their cousins came out, step dancing. They would call out a name, and a child would appear – first three teenage girls, almost young women, then five boys in a row, then a scattering of boys and girls down to the youngest, a little girl who had to be held by both hands as she toddled on stage and did a step or two.

Esolen writes that what he “beheld that night was culture, in its full and true sense.” I agree with him.

If what Esolen describes sounds beautiful and idyllic, it’s because it is beautiful and idyllic. And if it sounds too good to be true, it is only because we, as a culture, have so completely rejected this type of beauty in favor of the ugliness of pop culture that we have forgotten what authentic beauty looks like.

But I know from personal experience that the “authentic culture” of which Esolen writes still exists, and that he is not painting it with overly rosy hues. It exists and it is just as rich and joyous and good as he says.

I am fortunate enough to know the Leahys and Natalie McMaster personally. I go to the same parish as them. In fact, I’m renting one of the Leahy’s houses, while she is living in Montreal. Her three Juno awards (instrumental artists of the year, best new group, and best country group or duo) are in the closet in my office behind me as I write.

But more than that, I am part of the whole community within which the Leahys grew up – the intimate but boisterous Catholic community of Peterborough, Ontario.

The first time I was introduced to this community was on a summer’s day three years ago, when my wife and I drove up to visit the school where she was looking at getting a job. We were invited to a party at the house of a local judge where, it seemed when we arrived, the whole world had gathered. When we pulled into the drive there were perhaps a hundred children, from toddlers to teenagers, playing a massive game of soccer in the field out back. Inside and on the deck overlooking a sprawling panorama of field and forest, the adults talked and drank. Soon there was a potluck dinner with every delicious food you can imagine, and then the instruments came out. It seemed as if everybody could play, and not just play, but play well.

Late into the night there was dancing, there was singing, there were virtuosic performances on the fiddle, on the accordion, on the piano, on the guitar. Children mingled with adults mingled with teenagers. At one point in the uproarious evening I looked out on the front porch and I saw that a dozen or more teenage boys had somewhere dug up a couple pairs of boxing gloves and were staging an impromptu series of boxing matches. At one point I distinctly remember Donnell Leahy joining the fray, facing off against a cocky teenager who he quickly forced into retreat.

If, of course, this were a one-time thing I might be accused of taking a single event and overextending it as a summation of a whole community. But it wasn’t a one-time thing: my wife and I have since moved into this community. We have seen that it is a community of joy, of music, of prayer, of partying, of poetry, of learning, of hobbies, of creation, of peace. There is little discord between parents and children, little discord between siblings and siblings. Parties of the kind described above happen often. On occasion myriad families will get together for poetry recitations, or to play music. There are regular Céilidh’s (Irish dances) where young dance with old to live fiddle music (usually played by one or another of the Leahys) while a master of ceremonies calls out the dance steps. There is little television and even less video games – and not because of some curmudgeonly belief in the “intrinsic evil” of the medium, but simply because most of the people out here have realized that they have better things to do than to spend their weekend killing virtual zombies until their brains ooze out their ears.

And what is best, is there is nothing forced about this, nothing inauthentic. No one here is consciously trying to “live in the past.” This is not a re-creation of an idealized past, but a living tradition, passed down through generations. Family and faith and music and poetry and dance are in the blood of the community. And the result is happy, joyful, good people.

No, it isn’t perfect. No, it’s not some new garden of Eden. There is suffering, and sickness and death; there are disagreements and arguments. There are people who don’t get along with other people. But it is beautiful, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else than with people who are this real.  Life does not have to be boring and ugly. It is not impossible to live in this way; we simply have to make a choice to reject the ugliness.

About John Jalsevac

I am a PhD student in philosophy.
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3 Responses to Life doesn’t need to be boring and ugly

  1. John says:

    Awesome. You touch on a lot of the reasons I left the “big city” and moved to small town Ontario. Just yesterday, we had a pretty serious incident of graffiti, a yawn worthy event in the big city, but a big deal in our small town. No less than 5 police cruisers responded and I have no doubt the culprits will soon be seen scrubbing it off. I was talking to my boss, a third generation resident of Victoria Harbour and he said it was the first time he’d ever seen vandalism on that large a scale. I love living in a small community, where walking by another human without acknowledging their existence would be unthinkable and when it does happen, it’s usually a cottager up for the weekend from the city. It’s the simple things, the lack of a “rat race” that make life worth living – even for us non-religious types. Fiddle music rules…..

  2. Tony Esolen says:

    Dear Romulus: I believe I know the judge you mention! Someday, I hope someday sooner rather than later, I’ll have to pay your community a visit …

  3. Dorian Speed says:

    This is beautiful (just happened upon your blog and am very glad to have discovered it). I especially like what you say toward the end – “No one here is consciously trying to ‘live in the past.’ This is not a re-creation of an idealized past, but a living tradition, passed down through generations.” I think there’s a tendency among a certain subset of Catholics, me included, to want to throw every possible tradition at our children in hopes of creating some idealized super-charged Domestic Church. Which is hardly an organic handing down of heritage, although for those of us who didn’t grow up with many distinctive traditions it’s perhaps better than the bland alternative.

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