What It Is

Let me tell you a story about the group, one that’s near and dear to my heart.

I’ll start by saying that I used to live in Edmonton, which is a sprawling city that’s surrounded by level fields of wheat and barley. That may seem like a mundane fact, but it’s not. What it is… is the context for everything I’m about to tell you.

Before I go on however, if not just to avoid confusion, let me give you three important facts about the group.

First, whether we know it or not, we’re all members of this group.

Second, whereas most other groups have a clear mandate, like fighting addiction or helping people deal with trauma, ours most certainly does not. The best explanation I can give you is that it formed in response to our existence on this crumb-bum planet, which as we all know is a tedious affair, and none too pleasant.

Third, the group organizes itself around themes. If you’re wondering how, you’ll find out soon enough.

Now I understand the group may still seem a little confusing, but I plead with you not to think about it too much, unless of course you want to.

What I can tell you is that it works. In fact, the story I want to tell you is about how I first came to realize the group’s real value, which occurred during one of the meetings I attended while I was still in Edmonton.

As for the theme that night, we’d made up our minds during the previous meeting, which was the night of laughter. It was Darlene who ran that one. She’d heard of this therapy, where she said we should just all sit together and laugh. We told her that’d been the idea all along, but she said no, seriously, we just need to make ourselves laugh, even if we don’t want to.

Finally she just said to us, “What bad could it do?”

And so when the time came, she got us to put some chairs into a big circle, wanting to create a “vortex of laughter”. She said it was a proven method, that laughing and hearing laughter made your brain shunt some chemicals to some other part of your brain, and that it was supposed to make you feel better, against your will even.

It was her night, so we did what she said, and made ourselves laugh and laugh and laugh, and let me tell you, the exercise certainly came full circle, in a way at least. The same way it always did.

Obviously the night of laughter was a bust, so before we all went our separate ways, we voted on the theme for the next meeting, one that was volunteered by Phil, and which we called the night of prayer.

To be quite honest, I couldn’t believe it finally came to that. I for one was skeptical to say the least. In the end I just had to remind myself that I was committed to the group, and needed to follow it through. We’re pretty big on commitment.

I arrived for that night’s meeting and saw the adornments of the new theme. Strewn here and there were various Christian paraphernalia. A few framed pictures of saints had been hastily hung, and the chairs were littered with bibles and vestments. Someone had made an 8-foot cross by sawing a giant minuscule t shape into an eight foot plank of raw plywood, and had erected the cut-out behind the podium that stood at the front of the room.

After surveying the décor the first person I saw was Phil. I nudged him in the arm and made some snide remark about the lackluster cross, told him I didn’t even know why I came. Poor Phil, he just turned to me and said, “I’m nervous”, just like that, and then turned away to to put on a collared white robe.

I mean sure, I had made a pretty tactless comment, and I did feel as though I should apologize, but I couldn’t because he already sidled away. I decided I would have to talk to him afterwards, and we did, so all is well. Turned out he was just nervous because we were expecting a new guy that night, and he wasn’t sure his chosen theme would make a good enough impression.

I had totally forgotten, but the week before, Darlene told us she was going to bring a new guy. She’d said she’d met him years ago, and that they’d dated briefly. She’d explained how the internet allowed them to reconnect, and how she’d decided to tell him about the group meetings, citing a conviction that he suffered the same sneaky malaise as the rest of us.

She said he was reluctant at first, but that once she told him about the themes, he’d agreed to come out and see what it was all about. He wasn’t with her when she finally arrived.

Eventually Phil took to the podium to lay down the itinerary and go over the script he drafted. It was already twenty minutes past the hour, so he convinced us that we should just start without the new guy. We didn’t need much convincing however. I’m pretty sure we were all wondering if the guy would show. I mean, it’s fairly well accepted that the group’s existence is absurd.

The script was simple enough, so we dove right in. Like I said, there was tacit agreement in the room about our commitment, and we knew we had to be enthusiastic at the very least. Phil really wanted to make an impression, so he wrote the first prayer all in caps, and instructed us to shout in unison:

LOOK AT US O’LORD! WE ARE THE BLEARY-EYED MASSES!

HAVE PITY ON US! GIVE US CONTENTMENT!

And then we’d go from there. Phil ended up reading some passages from the New Testament, and talking about the utility of faith. He’s definitely a smart guy. It seemed like people were really getting into it, and the prayers got louder and more boisterous as the evening proceeded.

The group was working itself into a real frenzy, as we’re prone to do.

About an hour in however, the hall door was thrown open, and light from the low-angled evening sun poured into the room. The group was stunned for a moment, but as our eyes adjusted, we saw the unmistakable silhouette of a cowboy framed in the doorway.

Apart from the hat, he bore a flannel shirt under a well-trodden jean jacket, and his boots were caked with old dirt. He revealed himself as a bona fide son of the golden west. He absentmindedly chewed on a toothpick as he scanned our faces in one broad sweep, and finally he said, “So this is the group…?”

He then caught Darlene’s eye and winked at her, saying, “Hey there darlin’, nice to see you.”

Dust motes swirled in the sun beams that enveloped him, and the room was heavy with anticipation. He spoke again, “For the rest of you folks, I’m Earl. Pleased to meet you.” We all looked on speechless, not expecting that sort of entrance.

He let his greeting linger a moment, then capped it with a demand. He said, “Tongue tied huh? Well good! Don’t say a word, just come on out here and get in my damn truck!” He then turned on his heel and walked back out the door.

We all looked at one another, trying to gauge our respective reactions. Eventually Phil broke the silence. He asked, “Is this a sign? Was this cowboy sent here to guide us?” We all silently reflected on those questions, and with very little hesitation moved toward the open door. Even Darlene had nothing to say.

We piled into the extended truck bed of Earl’s old Lariat half-ton, and he started out. Winding our way through the tedious infrastructure of Edmonton’s fringe subdivisions, it became increasingly clear that we were leaving the city.

As weird as it is that we passively accepted that ride, I find it even more so that no one complained about the long drive. And given just how far he drove us, I’d say it’s a miracle Earl was never pulled over. I guess we all wanted to see where he would take us.

Before long, we were speeding down the highway with the wind howling through our hair.

Eventually we found our way onto a gravel road bordering some low-grown midsummer fields. With a final jolt Earl made a hard turn into one of those fields and we all held on as we were jostled by the uneven ground. The truck plowed on for some distance then stopped, and the parking brake crunched into place. Without the rumble of that old Ford’s diesel engine, a rare type of silence engulfed us—a stillness born of the country.

Earl sat in the driver’s seat for a good while before finally stepping out. Perhaps he wanted us to become comfortable with our new surroundings. Wordlessly, he walked alongside the truck and leaned on its back fender facing away from us. We all looked to him for some sort of clue, starting to feel a little ridiculous.

“That’s right,” he announced suddenly as he bent to inspect the bottom of his boot, “it ain’t got nothin’ to do with your damn prayers.” He regained his posture and turned his head so we could see the profile of his face. He said, “It’s simple. It’s right here in these good ol’ prairie skies.” At which point he flicked the brim of his hat up, and pointed west.

Our collective gaze followed the path of his outstretched hand, and we were struck with a godless revelation. The immense sky opened itself generously, almost like we’d never noticed it before. It revealed the glowing rubies and blazing mandarins of a cloud-blasted sunset, one that mingled with the swaying canopy of wheat that lined the low windswept horizon.

Now I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but for me that vision acted as a primeval fire—one built to consume lingering doubts. By the time the sun found its way below the rim of the earth, only one question remained.

What did Earl mean by it?

For my part, I knew the answer before I was even done asking the question. It is the full array of earthly sunsets stretched through time. It is the question to the answer of the question of our existence.

That said, I still go to group meetings every week, and wouldn’t miss one for anything. Given your curiosity, I think you should too. Next week is the night of