Xmas Baby

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Xmas Baby

Plural, it should be plural really, Christmas Babies. In Oaxaca, Mexico, the cribs lie empty, awaiting the miracle of the Christmas birth. All the cribs, everywhere, in the main square, in the cathedral, in the shop windows, in the schools, in the houses, the homes, the hallways, the bed-rooms. How can the baby be lying in the crib throughout December, when he isn’t born until midnight on the 24th? All those empty cribs, all those foster mothers and fathers, in waiting, so to speak.

Joyous times, full of expectation. The piñatas swinging from the flat roofs of the azoteas, and the puppet masters pulling the strings as the young children, blind-folded, take turns swinging with stick or baseball bat, trying their best to break the papier-mâché and release the Christmas goodies from their shattered container. There are many kinds of birth, and re-birth. Such joyous expectations. So many ups and downs as the clubs are swung and the piñatas are raised and lowered. Then, the lucky strike, and the silver-paper-wrapped treasure trove falls to the ground and the children dive in and collect their long-awaited goodies. Such joy. Such merriment. Such great expectations, and so seldom deceived.

Meanwhile, in the zócalo, the central square, the balloon lady sits in her  castle surrounded by the technicolor splendor of her plastic walls waiting for the children who will arrive, coins in hand, to purchase her wares and take them on their wind-walk through the square. How wonderful to see them, aerial dogs sky-walking with proud owners tethered to the ground below. How sad to see the child’s face as the occasional balloon seeks freedom in the blue sky above the cathedral towers. What pleasure to see the joy restored as another balloon replaces that first one.

Last night, they set fire to the castillos and waves of firework and flame flooded down church walls as rockets climbed to the sky to knock on heaven’s door and demand that the gods wake up and not forget their people rejoicing here in the streets below. Yes, the gods, for Oaxaca is still a pagan land where the old gods roam and devil and angels mingle on the cathedral steps with the witch doctor who lights his fire, burns his copal, and worships the old gods in the good old ways that never perished, in spite of the attention paid to them by the priests of the Spanish Inquisition. They hang on, the old gods, the old customs, the old Mixtec calendars, in barber shops and craft stores and you can purchase them in the market place or in the secret stores where mescal is brewed in the centuries’ old way and the yellow worms wiggle and glisten as they sink to the bottom of the bottle where they lie in wait to sink their hallucogenic teeth into the minds of  unsuspecting tourists.

Today, however, is Christmas Day. The baby is born. The cribs are filled with his little image. Some shops have a live child, with his mother and father standing there, waving, showing their baby off to the worshiping crowd who cluster, mouths open, at the window. Marimbas play. Village bands march. The State Orchestra warms up. What joy in the land, this Christmas morning as, back home in Merrie Olde England, all the bells are ringing and across the frosty meadows, carillon carols ring out loud and clear.

Gifts

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Gifts

What greater gift for Christmas than one person giving themselves to another? On 24 December, 1966, 6 days after she arrived in Canada, my beloved and I were married in Kincardine, Ontario.

How fitting, then, that today, 52 years later, my beloved and I, still together, should celebrate with this other gift, a portrait of a hollyhock, gifted to us by Geoff Slater, the art director at Kingsbrae / KIRA. This gift is also a gift resulting from a gift, for in the summer Geoff visited us, saw our beautiful hollyhock, photographed it, and carried away some of its seeds to sow in his own garden when he got home. Little did we know, in the summer, that those small seeds would have grown into this fabulous, timeless painting.

Geoff is known for his line-paintings and to have one hanging on display in our kitchen in a place of honor is to celebrate creativity, art, the role that flowers play in our lives, and the friendship that goes with gifting and re-gifting that which is beautiful and most precious to us.

 

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Here is my poem for Geoff and his beautiful wife Andrea. It is based on one of Geoff’s analyses of this painting (Studio 1, October 2018) and is my verbal gift from me to them, from poet to painter and painted.

No Exit
for Geoff and Andrea Slater

Where is the entry point, where the exit?
This labyrinth of lines, straight, not circular,
baffles the eye, confuses with a negative space
that lightens colors and begs more darkness.

Mystery surrounds the sitter’s form: the board walk,
no Dutch kitchen this, the chair on which she sits,
the locket she wears, the landscape, seascape
against which she is framed. White noise, perhaps,

but noise that turns to a single voice, a single line,
that of the paint-brush tip-toeing, delicate its thread
through interior, exterior meaning, just beyond

the viewer’s grasp. Yet walking past, each person stops,
stands still, as the painting draws them in, ties them up,
binds them with an ineffable thread, stronger than words,

mightier than the eye that traces its way along paths
that deceive, baffle, disturb, throw us from the high-wire
created by a mind that turns linear into circular space.

 

Xmas Birthdays

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Xmas Birthdays

They come in all shapes and sizes. The ones closest to Christmas, are they the best? Good question. Are the later ones any better? Who knows? In my case, January born, all I remember are the broken promises.

“I’m not buying you a Christmas present this year. I’m saving up to buy you something special for your birthday. What do you say to that?”

“Thank you, Auntie Gladys. You are so kind. I’ll look forward to my birthday.”

I next meet Auntie Gladys two weeks after my birthday. “Oh,” she says. “Was that your birthday just went by? I forgot all about it. Sorry.”

That’s just one example, but I remember many broken promises. I had to be older, sadder, and very much wiser before I realized that perhaps my Auntie Gladys didn’t have enough money to buy me one present, let alone two.

Then there was my mother’s mother’s birthday. It took place on December 23rd every year. During November, my mother never mentioned it. At the beginning of December, silence reigned. When my father’s office parties for Christmas drew closer, around the 15th or 16th of December, my mother’s mother’s birthday grew in stature and importance.

“Where’s your father?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s late. He should be home. Did he tell you what he’d be doing tonight?”

“No.”

9 pm, 10 pm, 11 pm … then a key in the lock, I’d run to the door and heave at it with enthusiasm, and my father, pushing against a door I was now pulling open, would fall face first onto the mat, writhing and giggling.

Two or three nights like this and, on the evening of the 22nd or the morning of the 23rd, my mother would announce to me in a loud voice and in my father’s absence: “It’s my mother’s birthday. Pack your bag. We’re going to see her.”

“Aren’t you going to wait for dad?”

“No.”

“Aren’t we going to tell him where we’re going?”

“No.”

She’d call a taxi that would drive us to the train station or the bus station. She’d buy us tickets to her mother’s hometown, 40 miles down the road, and off we’d go.

I was often too tired to note the anxious tones of my grandparents’ questions. The mumbled conversations behind my back. The little errands that I was asked to run while the ‘grown-us’ discussed the nature of the current situational crisis.

“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother’s family would ask.

“I want my dad,” I’d reply.

Then, On Christmas Eve, still fatherless, but full of hope and the promises of presents and joy, I would go to bed and fall asleep, too tired to wait up and spy on dear old Santa.

Next morning, my father, hung over, rather smelly having slept in his shirt, unshaven, and looking sleepily sheepish, would appear and offer me whatever special gift he had been looking for during the past three days.

“Just for you,” my father would say, handing me his wrist watch (one year) or his fountain pen (another). “I went up to the North Pole specially to get it,” his smile lit up the room.

“Liar,” my mother would say and her family would roll their own sheep eyes and look at the ceiling or at their shoes.

“Well, maybe not the North Pole,” my father, now a little moth or butterfly, would wriggle on the pin my mother was sticking into him. “I went to London, actually.”

“Liar, liar.”

“But it was the office club’s official party trip. We saved a shilling a week to hire a coach and drive up to London to see Swansea playing Tottenham Hotspur.”

“Liar, liar, liar.”

“Well,” my mother’s father would mediate, “Swansea were playing Tottenham yesterday.”

“Told you so,” said my dad.

It was Christmas. Mistletoe would appear, kisses would be exchanged, peace would be bought, my watch wouldn’t work, and next time my father saw me he was wearing a brand new wrist watch that actually went tick-tock.

23 December … it’s my mother’s mother’s birthday again. I welcome the day with open arms, yet I always fear what might happen, and I always wait for the worst to come when the first of those Christmas birthday ghosts arrives to sit on the end of my bed and taunt me as I lie there, eyes wide open, haunted, sleepless remembering …

 

 

Twits, Tweets, and Twitter

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Twits, Tweets, and Twitter
aka
Bits and Bytes

After a very cold and snowy December, with low temperatures, way below average and dropping at times to -24C, with snow on the ground almost all month, and all this in the fall, aka autumn, since winter didn’t officially begin until 6 pm yesterday, December 21, it was a real shock and surprise to listen to the rain fall and high winds batter the windows all night as the overnight temperature rose to +14C and we received 40 mms of rain. As a result, we awoke to warnings of flash floods from melting snow and an influx of rain as winter has begun with a more of a whimper and a watery splash rather than with a flash freeze and a bang as your bottom hits the ice. I wonder what the deer think as they paddle through the puddles on their way to and fro from the water-logged feeders. I know what I’m thinking: ‘thank heavens we don’t have to shovel it’, but it will be a totally different story when it all freezes over, the road are like bottles, and we descend the hill in first gear with an ever-present fear of a much too welcoming ditch.

I have just read an interesting article on how, accustomed as we are to Twits and Tweets, many of us are no longer capable of unravelling a long interesting sentence that rambles on and on and refuses to make an immediate Twitter Point, usually underlined by the use of CAPITAL letters for KEY WORDS and all of this for a sound byte audience that is becoming less and less literate as social media proliferates and news is telescoped into tiny jam jars of meaning that are spread around with an illiterate spoon and many exclamation marks. There: you have just read a 96 word sentence. I wonder how you did with it? Did you persevere? Did you give up half way through?

In my former life, when I encouraged young people to read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote from cover to cover (and they did), I was surprised to discover the difficulties they had with his long sentences, some so long that they continued for a whole paragraph or a full page. I was also surprised to discover that many Spanish speaking people are now incapable of reading Don Quixote in the original Spanish as it is too complicated for them and too difficult in meaning and structure. I have cartoon versions of Cervantes’s master-piece, but have always found them to be simplistic and undignified. I have read the original, in Spanish, twenty-seven times, usually in the Martin de Riquer edition, and have never found the language to be a problem. Indeed, it is refreshing to enter the labyrinth of a long sentence and to struggle for a little while with the exact meaning of a complicated structure that offers so many multiple readings that no single meaning can easily be extricated, if at all, and so the mind wanders on and on in the Cervantine maze spun by a spider-web pen and a brilliant mind, now no longer accessible to the multitudes: a paradise now closed to so many, a garden open to a only a select few / Paraíso cerrado para muchos, jardines abiertos para pocos.

The spirit of Cervantes, the creator, appeared to me last night in a dream. ‘Rogelio,’ the master said. ‘Spare me and spare my creation.’ ‘Don Miguel,’ I mumbled sleepily, ‘here sit beside me on my bed. Welcome to my humble home.’ ‘I am not don Miguel,’ Cervantes replied. ‘I never was a don and I never will be one. I am humble Miguel, writer, poet, and son of a vagabond surgeon who, like father, like son, often entered the debtor’s prison’. ‘That same debtor’s prison where the history of your hero was engendered,’ I replied. ‘So they say, but I am not here for that. I have come for you to save me.’ ‘How, my Lord, how can I save you?’ ‘Rogelio, I am not a Lord, but a rumor has reached me in my after-life, that they have modernized my knight, given him a car, not a horse, set the Civil Guard against him, ridiculed him with condoms that he blows up like balloons, sent him to Salamanca, and Galicia, where he never went, continued his adventures, reborn, in a foreign language that I loathed …’ ‘That is bad, my Lord, I mean don Miguel, I mean Miguel …’ ‘Worse is to come.’ ‘Worse? How can it get worse?’ ‘Indeed, it arrived at my ears, you might say a little bird told me, that they are releasing my book in a series of 240 word tweets on a thing called Twitter that speaks like a Jesuit with false flickering words.’ ‘But you were brought up by the Jesuits …’ ‘That’s how I know of what I speak. This cannot be, the history of my knight reduced to episodes of 240 words, the whole 124 chapters, 1000 pus pages of finely scrawled ink, reduced to tweets on twitter by some poor twit … you must stop this nonsense. I and my knight depend upon you.’ ‘How can I stop it, don Miguel?’ ‘Charge the windmills of Twitter. Attack the falsehoods of Tweets. Stand up for the long, soulful sentence that will withstand the winds of time …’ ‘As your book has withstood, until now, the literary storm that is about to engulf it in an Alfred Hitchcock swarm of wild birds that is poised to twitter and tweet you to your doom?’

The ghost of Miguel de Cervantes vanished with a howl, only to be replaced by that of Pierre Menard, Borgian author of the renewed Quixotic page. ‘To tweet,” the ghost whispered in a thin, shrill voice, ‘or not to tweet, that is the question, and therein lies the Cervantine rub.’

Umbrella

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When it rains, everyone needs an umbrella.

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Umbrella

Black clouds overhead,
yet I walk dry
beneath a black umbrella.

Pitter-patter of falling rain:
my ears strain to catch
a nearby robin’s song.

I have mislaid his voice
and can no longer
translate his liquid trills

nor transform them
into a sunlight that will glisten
through dripping leaves.

Frogs in the summer pond
explode light bulbs in my brain.

A rainbow glistens in the pools
beneath my feet.

I want to see my garden reborn,
with words and my world renewed.

I thirst once more for life’s
sweet, fresh water.

Here below is the voice recording of my poem Umbrella.

Xmas Trees

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This year we have abandoned real, once living trees in favor of plastic trees with LED lights. The house doesn’t smell the same, nor did cool air fill the space beneath the tree. No more watering the tree. No more collecting dry pine needles. No more worrying about the cat climbing the tree or the dog pulling the tree down as it chases the cat or tugs and worries at a string of lights. Nor do we have to worry that the puppy might chew its way through the electric cord and electrocute itself. And no more electric eels in the fish tank, even though they are the current thing.

That doesn’t mean to say we are in for a bleak mid-winter, not at all. We have strings of lights, music on the stereo, and even  peces en el rio que ven a Dios nacer, as they sing in Oaxaca (the fishes in the river who come to see God born). And who could not be merry at Christmas time with a fire in the fireplace, a Charlie Brown Christmas on the stereo, and guelaguetza music from Oaxaca waiting to be played and warm the party up. Nobody, but nobody, not even the meanest Scrooge or the most insistent Grinch, can resist the Oaxacan pineapple dance, played at full volume by the state orchestra or a local village band, at midnight, in the zócalo, when the rockets climb skywards to knock on the front door of the gods and the Virgen de la Soledad parades in all her mystery and glory through the candle-lit city streets.

Add to all of this a small miracle: the reappearance this year of the Christmas tree Clare’s auntie used to place every Christmas upon the counter in her shop in Cheap Street, Frome: one of the most famous and eligible streets in Merrie Olde England. We have placed auntie’s Christmas tree on the table in the hall by the front door and surrounded it with lights. What joy: the old and the new, hand in hand, in this new found land that is itself, so very, very old and where we now live together with our memories of a distant past.

And for those who still wish to decorate their very own Christmas tree, you can do so online, adding toys and lights, and an angel on the top, whenever you wish. And remember: where there’s a will there’s always a way.

Christmas Cards

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Recently, I started sending e-cards for Christmas. I didn’t always get responses, even though recipients could click on the cards and send a reply. I was never sure why my friends didn’t respond. Perhaps they couldn’t. One click technology isn’t for all of us, especially as we get older. Perhaps the old traditions are best.

One of my best friends confirmed this when he sent me an e-mail thanking me for my e-card. He explained that for him, Christmas was very personal and he preferred a hand-written letter, in the old style to any form of electronic or multi-person artificial greeting. I thought about this and came to the conclusion that my friend was right. Christmas badly needs the personal touch, the renewing of old friendships, and not just by the e-card delivered silently at 2:00 am, but by the addition of something only we can do.

So, to my annual Christmas cards for Christmas visitors to our house, and there are several every year, I added my own personal touch. In the above case, it is a couple of snowmen. The one in the viewer’s left is trimmed too fine and you can’t see the high-five he is giving you. The one on the left may well be a snow-woman. The clothes are unisex (for snow-people) but the hats are very different.

I love penguins. One of my favorite places in Bristol Zoo was always the Penguin Pen. So clumsy those birds on land, such wonderful swimmers when they hit the waters and flashed past the pane glass viewing panels of the underwater scenario. I have found the same thing with otters: so alive, so playful, when they are in their native element … water. When we talk about favorite books, I also return to The Wind in the Willows, with Otter and Mole, a childhood favorite that matured into a life-long companion.

If I had one wish for everyone at Christmas, it would be that each of you rediscovered that childhood joy, that old infant wonder, whether it come in the form of an e-card, an e-mail, a hand-written letter, a hand-painted picture. And so, to end this minor rant, with a cartoon, I add my other Christmas drawing entitled the Island View Penguin Parade with Chief Marshall, Princess Squiffy. May your days be merry and bright. And may you rediscover the joy and beauty of your own childhood Christmas mysteries.

 

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