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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Sometimes

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Sometimes an image comes to us, out of nowhere, and we struggle to put it into words. Or else it comes as words, and we strive to put it into color and shape. And what if it is the scent of grass, or of apples, or of fresh cut hay? Mushrooms frying are so symbolic. I think of Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Nobody can recreate for me the smell of fresh laverbread, barra lawr, Welsh caviar, according to Richard Burton. And don’t talk about the Penclawdd cockle women, ever-present with the laverbread in the Swansea market I knew as a child.

Names float through my mind: the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker, the man who wanted me to become a professional boxer, the man who wanted me to article with him to become an accountant, the day I wanted to leave school to article to be a lawyer. Were they just dreams? Or were they colored balloons, floated into the atmosphere, with multiple strings attached? And what does it matter now, forty, fifty, sixty years later, when life has been lived, and all those pasts have been condensed into a single tune, that recalls what I was then, what I am now, what I did, and all of it music played on a squeeze-box accordeon by a man who knew everything about me, past and present, and made his knowledge of my life his PhD thesis, dry, dusty, and so academic and biased, and yet his gateway to eternity’s Hall of Fame.

The little lady who lives above us looks on. Does she judge us or just take all that knowledge in and retain a rigid silence? Who knows? Who’ll ever know? And what about us? Are we just corporal ships sailing through a sea of silence surrounded by who knows what reefs and perils? And deep down, does it really matter, any of it? And anyway, who cares?

Today I met a former colleague. She scowled at me and lisped my name. I gave her a two-fingered flick of acknowledgement and turned away without speaking. What did I matter to her or her to me? Did the ice she used to store in her knickers actually melt when she saw me? Did she know me for who and what I am? Do I, did I, give a damn? How many fingers do you see, I wondered? Five? Three? One? And what does that one finger mean, standing out like a lighthouse on a lonely headland above a dangerous reef?

My Madonna of Grief, wrapped in her shawl of uncertainty, drifts through a cloud of unknowing and doesn’t give a damn, one way or another. My Lady of the Discalced Carmelites plods on through rain and snow, feet soaked or frozen, love and warmth in her heart, her foundations ever before her, her soul ghosting above the stupendous stupidities of this stultifying life.

Oh to fly with the angels, to float above the fog and fury of our daily lives, to rise and grasp the meaning of stars, planets, constellations, to hear the eternal music that binds the universe, to become one with the music of the spheres and their song of songs.

 

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.

Death’s Angel

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Death’s Angel, also known as the Angel of Death, or the Black Angel, is probably the most important figure that we will meet, face to face, here, in the evening of our lives. He appeared at my bedside the other night, and spoke to me. Bright moon. The Angel stood there, haloed, blazing in a spotlight of glory.

“Everything you have, I own,” he announced, taking my hand. “Your house, your wife, your children, your cat, your dog, your car, your books, your flowers, your garden, they are all mine. And one day I will return and take you  from them.”

Cold, the moonlight. Frigid, that waking from my dreams. My hand burned with his fire, yet I shivered.

“When will you call for me?” I asked?

“Soon,” he said. “Very soon. And remember: it will always be much sooner than you think.”

“What can I do?”

“Nothing. I will lend you all these things that you think you own, for a  little while longer, but you must never forget that I am lending them to you. You do not possess them. They are only borrowed.”

“And then?”

“And then they will be mine As you will be mine.”

“There must be something I can do to …”

“There is always something. Embrace me now. Hold me. Breathe in my breath. Know me for who and what I am.”

I did as he asked and his warmth filled me. I looked into his eyes and no longer knew fear.

“There is no past,” he said. “No future. All that you own is this precious moment, the magic of the now, this breath you inhale, this air you release. That is what you own. Understand that, and let everything else go. Live in the moment, for the joy of the day. Seize each second, as you live it. Enjoy it, for that alone is yours. Knowledge, foreknowledge, and understanding: these are my greatest gift to you.”

Then, for a moment, I knew and  came to terms with the gifts he gave me.

“Sleep now,” he said. “But remember, I will be back.”

I fell asleep and dreamed of the man who met Death in Cairo. Death looked surprised to see him. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Fear filled the man. He ran, packed his bags, left Cairo with its vision of Death, and traveled as swiftly as he could to Baghdad. where he met again there with Death, who welcomed him.

“Why were you so surprised to see me in Cairo?” the man asked.

“Because we had a meeting here in Baghdad, tonight,” Death replied. “And I didn’t know if you’d show up.”

When I awoke, a joyous sun illuminated the world. What I had heard and seen rang out with splendor of church bells calling across green fields and leafy woods on a summer morning. I also knew that what the Angel told me, was not for me alone. It was for everyone I knew. A message, not of sorrow, but of joy, not of despair, but of hope.

This wine I sip, this bread I break, this ray of sunshine, this raindrop glistening, that nervous deer peering shyly from the woods, that chickadee feeding, those crows that bring the world back to life with their daily chorus, each is instant of life held, for the briefest of moments, and then released.

My greatest joy, gained from reading Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements,  is to pass his wisdom on to you who read my words, for this message will change your life, as Don Miguel Ruiz’s message has changed mine.

Carpe diem: seize the moment. Deus est in nobis: it is the world soul alive and living within us, unique to each of us. While it is with us, our joy will live forever, and, even though we perish, that joy once shared will never die.

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Heart Dance

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Heart Dance: This is what the heart does when you have a good friend around for lunch and you spend an hour or two discussing art, creativity, meaning, change, artistic development, moving on, changing one’s style, and welcoming and creating new artistic visions. Heart Dance is about possibilities, about opening things up, seeing the interior self more clearly, watering the creative soul and encouraging it to grow outwards until it fills the whole person.

Heart Dance moments happen at different stages in the artistic life. They are urgent moments, impulsive moments, moments when you can suddenly hear the music of the spheres and see the universe dancing for you, before you, and with you. They are magic moments when the heart becomes one with the universe and heart and soul join mind and body in a universal heart dance where the dancers are one and the dance is not just for one, but for all sentient and creative beings who can hear the music and feel the rhythms pounding through arteries and veins.

The dull, grey, concrete life of the nine to five desk-bound existence fades away to be replaced by a flowerbed of activity, full of light and sound and color and music. Usually, this happens to the individual in the privacy of his or her own mind. Occasionally, we can share the event with a friend who is going through the same, or a similar, change at the same time. A unique experience to feel and witness the music with another person and to be bound into the circle of dancers, treading where other artists, great and small, famous and less important, have all danced before.

We talked of the joys of visiting great museums and of staying in one room, before one painting, and of spending the day there. This I did with El Greco’s El entierro del Conde Orgaz / The burial of Count Orgaz, with Picasso’s Guernica when it was housed in the Mesón de Guernica, with Hieronymus Bosch’s The Hay Wain, with Velásquez’s Las meninas, and with Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, not one picture, but a series of etchings taken in, day by day, over a period of a magical month spent in Madrid.

In poetry it happens when I return to poems that I love. I read and re-read them, again and again, finding new nuances, new meanings, new depths. I think of the anonymous Poema de Mio Cid, of Góngora’s Polifemo, of Quevedo’s Canta sola a Lisi and his Heráclito cristiano, of Octavio Paz’s Piedra de sol, of Lorca’s Romancero gitano and his Poeta en Nueva York … the wonderful original poems of Fray Luis de León and of St. John of the Cross … and this is just scratching the surface of an exterior world that I have interiorized until it has indeed become a part of me.

Heart Dance: my heart dances and sunshine floods my soul as I write these words, words and thoughts that I have just shared with a good friend, as he shared similar words with me and we joined together in a heart dance during which the sun shone brightly and the whole creative universe sang and danced with us.

Lost Angel

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Lost Angel

One day she was there,
the next day she was not.

She slipped through our fingers
like water or fine sand,
here one day
and gone the next

We looked away for a moment,
and when we looked back
she had disappeared.

The wind whispers secrets
that are multiplied
by grass tongues
wagging on deserted dunes.

The wind thinks she left us
to join the children
who play hide and seek
on empty September beaches.

“Hush now,” says the wind,
“if you make a sound
the children will know you are here.

They will slide through clefts in the rocks
and hide in silence, waiting
until you too have disappeared.”

Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this one from my book All About Angels. I wrote All about angels in homage to Rafael Alberti’s book, Sobre los angeles, one of my favorite poetry books in Spanish. My angels are not Alberti’s angels. How could they be when his angels are Spanish and mine are Welsh and Canadian? Do you really  believe in angels, you ask. Well, you’ll never know, because I’ll never tell you. That said, I did write a book about them.

An Angel at Jarea

15 May 2002 Pre-Rimouski 141

Kingsbrae 25.3
25 June 2017

An Angel at Jarea

An angel moves through the room
in the silences between our chatter.
He fills the interstices of speech
with the wonder of feathers
enlightened by rainbows.

Tranquil his footsteps
as we sense his presence.
He places his hand on an arm,
his arm around our shoulders,
and now, commanding silence,
a finger on his lips.

We sit here
scared by our intimate inadequacies,
scarred by the fierceness of his immanence
as we sense the vacuum
of his soon-to-be absence.