Birthday

 

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What a gift for my birthday: sunshine and light among water, glass, and flowers. It’s hard to believe sometimes that light and angle make such a difference. Who would believe, for example, that these are the same flowers taken from a different angle in a later light?

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What is it about birthdays? They are the same length as any other day, 24 hours. And yet, like milestones along the roadside, they mark our passage down the long journey of life. Miles, kilometers: my father could never make up his mind. When driving from Wales to Spain, he loved the miles, because they were fewer in number, yet he also loved the kilometers because, although there were more of them, they passed by more quickly.

Long journeys those: crossing the channel by ferry, then down the various routes nationales from the channel down to the Spanish border where we entered into Franco’s Spain, a very different world. Tricornios, the Guardia Civil, checking everything and everybody. We soon learned to carry an extra packet of cigarettes, some chocolate bars, something small that could be handed over or ‘confiscated’.

So what is it about birthdays, those milestones that mark our ways and our days? And where am I now on my life’s journey? Two years older than my mother, when she passed. Two years younger than my father. I look over my shoulder and see behind me the shadow of a bearded man, with a scythe, walking after me. He stoops at Lords cricket ground and, at six thirty, on the dot, he removes the bails from the stumps to signal the end of the day’s play.

Shadows are lengthening. I check my watch. The days are closing in. The umpires pass the stones they carry from hand to hand. One more over of seam, two or three more overs of spin? I adjust my stance at the crease, back away from the wicket and, like Sir Donald Bradman, I ask the umpire to give me a new guard …

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… I take it, scratch my marks in the crease, and look around me … shadows and the fielders are closing in.

Light

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Light

We are so lucky, those of us blessed with sight, doubly lucky if we have the time to stop and stare and look around us to see light falling on objects or filtering through plants and flowers. Last fall we placed two unused mint cuttings in water glasses in the kitchen window and the clippings rooted and grew. Almost by chance, I caught their beauty, leaves translucent, the window filled with sunshine, as I was walking by. A macrocosm, this picture province in which I live; a microcosm, my house where light falls on objects and transforms them.

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Here are our mini carnation pinks. We were given them on December 21, 2018, by Gwn and Victor, and still they thrive. We lost some, just a few, and to the rest we added a new bunch. Here are the smaller heads, nipped off and placed on the table in single rose glasses. The light from the window flows through flowers, water, and glasses to create a flow of warmth and joy. Sometimes, we travel the world in search of beauty, only to return, disappointed, and discover it at home.

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Last, but by no means least, I looked up from my journal and saw the light catching the leaves of this houseplant, given to me in 2010 by Barry and Susan. Plants and flowers survive in our house, thanks to the magical skills of my beloved. I try to preserve their beauty in image and word. The ephemeral, caught for a moment in the camera’s eye, and preserved, if not for eternity, at least for a little while longer.

I sometimes wonder if the souls that thrive and perish in these plants think like the indigenous in the Oaxaca Valley that life should be lived and not petrified in pictures. Maybe they don’t want me to trap the consummate  beauty of light falling on their leaves since their capture on film in still life and inanimate form prevents their migration from one plane of existence to another. Who knows? I don’t. Maybe one day I will find out. But in the meantime I will continue to celebrate the innate glories of light on leaf and to share them with you.

Academic Circles

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Academic Circles

A response to my friend who responded to an academic committee’s negative response with a response of his own only to receive from the committee another negative response to which he wants my advice on responding aka “the reason of the unreason with which my reason is afflicted so weakens my reason that with reason I murmur at your unreason.”

  1. Academic committees are keepers of the gates of universal knowledge. Knowledge is defined as (a) that which the committee will allow to pass those gates and (b) that which passes from the prof’s notes to the student’s notes without going through anyone’s head.
  2. If nature abhors a vacuum, academia abhors creativity.
  3. Creativity in academia is that which creatively follows the rules of academia while adhering to them with the utmost strictness.
  4. Academia teaches young people to think outside the box by creating creatively bigger boxes inside which they can think.
  5. Academia has solved the ancient problem of squaring the circle by thinking in circles and creating bigger, better boxes.
  6. Academia places its adherents, known as professors, in square boxes that are often called offices. In a zoo, they would be called cages and we know what they are called in prisons.
  7. Academia promotes its most successful adherents moving them into bigger boxes. Bottom level adherents are herded together in one small box, usually windowless. Top adherents are sometimes allowed an individual box sometimes with a window out of which they can see the world passing them by, if they have time to look out.
  8. Academia resolves everything by means of committees.
  9. Academia believes strongly in Freedom of Speech, with responsibility. That’s why Academia draws up committees to which their adherents are deemed to be responsible.
  10. Academia believes strongly in Academic Freedom, with accountability. That’s why Academia draws up committees to which its adherents are accountable.
  11. Academia believes in Creativity. Creativity is defined as (a) the ability to obey the rulings of committees while sticking to the letter of the law promulgated by those committees and (b) as the ability to creatively build, according to committee design and regulations, bigger and better boxes.
  12.  Academia does not understand, permit, or encourage mirth, and humor is banned.

Welcome to the Ivory Office Block (once upon a time called the Ivory Tower). Above are the twelve most important Laws of Academia. Disobey them at your peril. For more guidance on The Perils of Academia follow this link Thinking Outside the Box.

Reinforcements

 

 

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My grandfather used to tell me how, in WWI, when communications in the trenches were at their most primitive, information would be passed by word of mouth down a long line of soldiers who whispered the message into the ear of the man standing next to him. He would in turn pass the message on to the next soldier.  We also played this game in school where it was sometimes used as a language teaching method. To preserve the message without distortion was never easy and there were some spectacularly garbled mix- ups.

This is one of the most famous ones, though whether it was apochryphal or not, I cannot say.  However, I can say that, as schoolboys, the story was related to us as if it were true. I guess it was an object lesson in don’t believe everything you hear and double check your facts. Anyway, the message starts out as “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” and ends up as “Send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance.” True or not, it serves three purposes: (1) it is quite funny in itself,  (2) it introduces us to the now vanished English monetary system of pounds, shillings, and pence, and (3) it initiates the theme of reinforcements.

So happy have I been with my mini carnation pinks that when I saw some on sale yesterday, I immediately bought them. “Saw some equals awesome”. Well, it as awesome for me because I was not sure what these flowers were. I am not a flowery person, in that sense. I don’t know if these new flowers will last 23 days, like the old lot, but whether they do or don’t, I have put some together in one jar on the kitchen table and mixed in the rest with the best of the survivors from the earlier bunch. I placed those on the cabinet in the room where I surf the net. I guess I’ll follow their progress and we’ll see how they do. They are a much deeper shade of pink than the originals and it is easy to spot the old and the new in the photo. Also, the sun has gone, turned the corner, and walked to the other end of the house. Tomorrow, I’ll see them in full sunshine. That will also be fun.

 

 

Last Legs

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Last Legs

A wooden carving of Don Quixote stands guard over the mini-carnation pinks that have now lasted for 23 days. Alas, they are now suffering and several are ready to bow their heads and take their leave. They have done marvelous service. Arriving on December 21, a present from Gwen and Victor, these flowers have graced our house and table for over three weeks: a singular service in this age of rapid floral turnovers. We have looked after them, talked to them, cared for them, tended them, given them fresh water and sweet music. They have responded by filling our days with color and charm.

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Here they are in the early morning sunshine casting a shadow onto the wall behind them. So beautiful, the play of the early morning sun, through glass and water. Even the shadows are filled with tiny bursts of light. They were never heavily scented, these pinks, and their beauty lay more in their color and their longevity.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Well that’s one way of putting it. But the roses, regal as they are, break down so quickly, while these little fellows have hung on and on. What a pleasure to count the days and watch them flourish. “Gather ye mini carnation pinks,” I say, for they last longer and their love is more constant.

What joy, to rise in the morning and to know they will still be there. But now their days are numbered. My birthday draws near, and our Christmas flowers oh so rarely last through into mid-January. Perhaps I should crowd source and get a host of flowers, tossing their heads in sprightly dance, sent to me through e-mail. Now that would really be fun.

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“Forget us not,” they whisper to me through their leaves. “You’ll never be forgotten,” I murmur back. A sense of light and warmth wraps itself round me and now I can face whatever the future brings with joy in my heart.

 

 

Mini-Mums

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Permit me to introduce you to my two Mexican mini-mums, in the market square in Oaxaca, with their mini-mums. They sell them at minimum price, a giveaway for tourists who arrive with the all-powerful dollar and yell and holler about how this year’s prices are so much higher than last year’s prices. The flower girls giggle and smile. They have heard it all before. They know where each of the prospective purchasers comes from. They now how they walk, talk, slur their words, cajole, bully, and offer absurd amounts of money, either much too much or much too little. Those tourists: they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Meanwhile, in spit of appearances to the contrary, the cakes are on sale and the flowers are on sale, but the flower girls, Mano y Petate, and no, those are not their names, those things are definitely not for sale.  “Everything,” the tourists say, “has its price.” True, perhaps, in some circumstances. But people are not things and it’s brutally cruel to put a price on people. Occasionally, a tourist will recognize these girls. They are the ones who decorate the altar in the main cathedral in the square. They have also been known to sing, in Spanish, Latin, and Mixtec, along with their mother, before the high altar in Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo, the church with more than six tons of gold and gold leaf layered throughout its magnificence, a true treasure of humanity and an internationally protected building. Once, though, a long time ago, God’s Dogs, as the Dominicans were then called, ran baying through the Valley of Oaxaca, gathering workers with promises of heaven and visions of paradise. The work, they said, was the Lord’s and the Lord wanted them, the people of the Valley of Oaxaca, to build this temple in his name. And here they would stay, under lock and key, until the Lord’s work was done. El Cristo de la Columna: Christ tied to the pillar, stripped to the waist, and flogged. This symbol stands in every church in Oaxaca, and all the People of the Valley of Oaxaca knows exactly what it means, fr it is the punishment meted out to those very people if they do not work hard enough, long enough, fast enough, at their vision of heaven, their taste of paradise, this building of the Church of a Lord who is not even theirs. The tourists marvel at the church, the gold, the paintings, the statues. They praise the mother and her children singing at the high altar: “what beautiful children, what beautiful voices.” But they know nothing about the blood, and the sweat, and the tears that went into the temple’s building.

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Dispatch Riders

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WWI Dispatch Rider on Motor-Bike.

Dispatches 

For my grandfather

My grandfather fought in Northern Italy.
An engineer, he went out at night behind enemy lines
and strung telephone wires across the road at head height.
His mission: to bring back enemy dispatches.

The wires, virtually invisible, would decapitate a rider
if he was travelling at forty miles an hour
slice him in half if he was travelling at sixty.

My grandfather’s only task: bring back those dispatches
unopened, undelivered, and unread.

Good luck walked beside my grand-father:
he didn’t have to bury the men he killed,
and he came home safe and lived to tell the tale.

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Comment:

The poem is one of those I rejected from my latest book. If you think it is salvageable and worth saving, please let me know. The photos are wonderful and I am so glad that they survived. I do not know who the riders are. My grandfather simply wrote ‘Dispatch Riders’ under the photos, in his beautiful copperplate handwriting. He was a genuine artist and a wonderful story teller.

That’s twice I have lost my post when I have tried to update it. If anyone can tell me what’s going wrong, I’ll be very pleased to hear.