Looking Back

Empress 048

Looking Back

Looking back on a wonderful weekend, the WFNB WordSpring in Quispamsis, I remember the highlights.

  1. Picking up Kerry-Lee Powell and driving with her to Quispamsis. Never has the road seemed so short, and rarely has time passed so quickly. Whether it’s our shared Welsh roots or the course I took with her online at Toronto, we had so much to talk about.
  2. Arriving to find so many friends and all of them so willing to help with books and luggage and getting me to my room. Special mentions: Jeremy Gilmer‘s hug on arriving, Zev Bagel‘s offer to help with luggage, Chuck Bowie‘s warm presence and guiding hand, Cathy Fynn‘s hug and firm control of registration and checking in, and many others, some of whose names will appear bit by bit.
  3. Settling into the room was easy.  Then it was a case of preparing for the first workshop (The Sense of an Ending) that started at four and was due to run until five. I went early to the room and met the participants as they arrived. My first surprise: Barb Fullerton, another member of our online Toronto course, announced her presence with a warm smile and greeting. We had chatted online for eight weeks and now she was here at my workshop. Wonderful. Starting the spring conference with a workshop on endings seemed very inappropriate, until I remembered my T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end …” The circularity of time and the intricate relationship of the end to the middle to the beginning … it made a great central theme for the workshop.
  4. The group was composed of many excellent writers and I was able to mention many of them by name. In addition to  some of those already highlighted above [Chuck, Jeremy, Kerry-LeeZev, Chuck] , Ana Watts, Jane Tims, Neil Sampson, and Terry Armstrong stood out and I urged people to circulate during the mobile, inter-active session, meet these writers, and talk to them about their undoubted finishing skills.
  5. Time passed too quickly and we found that an hour was not enough. No problem, I checked with Cathy and we kept going for another fifty minutes in a seamless transition of lengthened workouts.
  6. Friday night passed in a flurry of conversation in the hotel restaurant, coffee house, and bar. Chuck (the TWUC Atlantic Representative) introduced me to Marjorie Doyle, the Chair of TWUC and our guest speaker for the banquet, and we held a delightful, wide-ranging conversation on literary values and travels in Catalonia.
  7. Saturday morning saw the advent of my second workshop, this one entitled The Black Ink of Fear. This workshop was by request and I was more than a little afraid of how I would handle it. I circulated my own Fear Document  and invited people to read it. Victor, my Australian friend, found his sheet was upside down and amazed the room by standing on his head, to much applause, as he read it the right way up. This clearly broke the ice and we employed Chaos Theory to good effect by doing absolutely nothing in Chaotic Fashion and getting everywhere.
  8. Lunch was a delightful selection from Chef’s Table (Sussex) and Chuck Bowie played a major role in keeping me a seat (I arrived late) and getting me settled (thank you again, Chuck).
  9. Worn out after lunch, I missed the afternoon’s sessions and took to my bed in traditional Spanish fashion enjoying a well-earned, rather extended siesta from 2-5 pm.
  10. Supper was at 6:00 pm and I was truly honored when Jeremy Gilmer read my poem Inundation that I wrote on May 6, just when the St. John River flooding was at its worst downstream below Fredericton. We dedicated our thoughts and prayers to the people in Saint John and Quispamsis still affected by the now diminishing waters. It was a double honor when I was invited to say a traditional Welsh Grace, in Welsh, followed by an English translation: “Thanks be to God for Good Food and Even Better Friends.”
  11. My weekend’s activities were not yet over and I received an award (3rd place in the David Adams Richards’ Prose Competition for my short story collection Devil’s Kitchen). I read in a thick Welsh accent a short piece of Flash Fiction from this collection, called Teeth. For some strange reason that I could not fathom, the room was highly amused by this true story of domestic bliss.
  12. Saturday night and we retired to the bar where a small group of us Marie, Louise, Angèle, John, Andrea, and I stayed up and sang to John’s marvelous harmonica and guitar music until one thirty am. Contrary to malicious rumors spread by unknown sources, not mentioned by name, we did not sing rugby songs, but a marvelous mix of Irish ballads, Newfoundland songs, Acadian and French chansons, and contemporary songs by internationally acclaimed singers, many of whom might not, midnight being long past, have recognized their own music.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Later that Sunday morning, we made our sad farewells and Kerry-Lee and I headed back down the road to Fredericton where we arrived after what what seemed to be about five minutes driving (at well below the speed limit). I dropped Kerry-Lee off then stopped at the Happy Baker for cakes and croissants. These I presented to my beloved for Mother’s Day. We shared them over hot coffee … and that was that.

 

Teeth

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Teeth

Lunchtime.

Tiggy opens a can of tom8to soup and heats it on the stove. She slices the remains of yesterday’s loaf of bread into one inch cubes and fries them in olive oil and garlic. Tom8to soup with croutons. Then she puts two slices of bread in the toaster. Her father will only eat toast soaked in butter and layered with Marmite when he eats tomahto soup.

“Lunch is ready,” she calls out.

The black American Cocker Spaniel, bought by Tiggy’s late mother, in a moment of madness, by telephone, unseen, camps in the kitchen. It nests at the far end of the table, by the stove, and defends its territory with warning growls and a snapping of yellowed teeth. Tiggy will not go near the dog.

“Lunch is ready,” Tiggy calls out, a little bit louder. Dog, as they call him, growls and clatters its teeth. It has hidden a treasure in the folds of its old, gray comfort blanket, and guards it with the fierce, loving worry of a dragon protecting its golden hoard.

Tiggy’s father enters the kitchen as she places the soup on the table.

“I’m not ready to eat. Put it back in the pot.”

“What’s wrong, dad? I thought you were hungry.”

“My teeth,” he mumbles through a mouthful of pink gums. “I can’t find my teeth.”

“Where on earth did you put them?”

“I don’t know. If I knew where I’d put them, I wouldn’t have lost them.”

Tiggy’s father circulates round the kitchen opening drawers, lifting saucepan lids, and shaking empty yogurt pots to see if they’ll rattle.

“I can’t find them anywhere. I can’t eat lunch without my teeth.”

“But it’s only soup, dad, tom8to soup.”

“I don’t like tom8to soup. Your mother always made tomahto soup. Why can’t you be more like your mother?”

“Sorry, dad. I’ll call it tomahto soup, if that will make you feel better. But it’s still made out of tom8toes.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic. Help me find my teeth,” Tiggy’s father stomps towards the stove and Dog growls fiercely from its blanket as it guards its treasure.

“Take that, you dirty dog,” Tiggy’s father lashes out at Dog with his stick and cracks it across the head.

“Dad, stop that. It’s not Dog’s fault.”

Dog howls and spits out what it is chewing.

“There they are,” Tiggy’s father bends down, picks up his teeth, still hairy from the blanket and bubbly from Dog’s saliva. He pops his teeth into his mouth.

“That’s better,” he says, “now I can enjoy my lunch.”

Comment:

I included this short story, first published here on my blog on April 13, in Devil’s Kitchen, my new story collection that received third prize in the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick David Adams Richards Award for prose this year. I will probably read this tonight, at the awards ceremony that follows the banquet here in Quispamsis. It’s a beautiful morning, with sunshine streaming through my bedroom window. Hopefully a full day of sun and warmth will help decrease the already diminishing flood waters that have struck this area of the Lower Saint John River Valley.

Recycling

Books

Recycling

“You never know when you might need it,” my
grandfather said, finger-nails cracking red-
waxed parcel string. Bright sealing wax rained down
on the tablecloth, covering it with hard,
scarlet chips. Wax cracked, tight knots emerged.
One by one, my grandfather first loosened
them, then sought the string’s free end, following
it along its snaking way from knot to
knot. Like Theseus following his twine
through the labyrinth below the palace, my
grandfather mused, hesitated, followed
the clues given him by the knotter’s mind.
Set free from its parceled knots and lashings,
he looped the string around his fingers and
tied the twine into a tight bow that he
stowed away for future use. Reef knots, slip
knots, sheep-shanks, bowlines, bowlines-on-the-bight,
he showed me how to tie them all. He taught
me too how to never tie granny knots.
“Never cut string with a knife: untie knots,”
strict his advice. I follow it today.

Commentary:
The photo shows my grandfather’s chair sitting before my basement desk where I write and store my books. I used to climb up the back of this chair when I was a tiny child, and blow on the bald spot on his head while he was asleep. Such memories nesting in the attic corner of the dormant mind. One day, I will write about that. Oh: I just did.

Thursday Thoughts: Cricket

 

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Thursday Thoughts
19 April 2018
Cricket

            Street cricket. Played on cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of our cul-de-sac street that backed on the railway yards. The wall the boundary. And the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked and hit behind the wicket and over the railway wall. You also had to retrieve the ball yourself. Game stopped until you climbed the wall, looked down at the rail yards thirty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball or throw it back.

            No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked rail yard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I go get my ball?” Then run all the way back down the railway lines to where the waiting players hung over your own street wall, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles, avoiding rolling stock and the occasional shunting engine. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall to the waiting hands. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gate man politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The Lissingdowne / Pissingdown type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.

            Basic rules. Six and out if you hit it over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the to bomb buildings at square leg, next to the railway wall. No fielders there. Banned territory. Still piled with grass-overgrown bombed bricks and debris. Fragile, crumbling walls still still liable to tumble. Cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. Four and out in a neighbor’s front yard. Some were nice and didn’t mind. Watch out for the old witch with the garden gate. If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’d be out quick as a flash, steal your ball, and wouldn’t give it back. Otherwise, it was single-batsmen. Run the runs and walk back from singles. One hand, one bounce. Tip and run once you’d scored twenty. One hand off the wall if you didn’t clear it for a six and out. Out if your fox terrier got the ball and ran round and round in circles with it in his mouth. Damn difficult to catch. Also his sharp, terrier teeth might puncture the ball. Damned dog. Lost ball and stopped match if the dog ran into the house and gave the ball to your gran who was saving it for tennis.

            Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still un-repaired, in walls and shattering the glass of now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs in tip and run was legal and not a crime.

            Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.

            Game’s over. The Tests Match is on. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a grassy field in a fairy-book world, a world that most of us back-street boys and girls will never know or see, but that comes over to us as a dream of reality on this old black-and-white tv.

Wednesday Workshop: Vis Brevis

 

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Wednesday Workshop
18 April 2018
Vis Brevis

Rain. Persistent rain. Cornish mizzle that chills and wets. Basque chirrimirri penetrating flesh and bone. Low cloud blankets buildings, wraps itself round the windshield. Clings with the tenacity of Saran wrap. Visibility variable, now clear, now a muffler round the car’s headlights. Darkness gathered, still gathering. Lights moving, cars moving, the road moving, blending first with the lights then with the shadows, shape-shifting.

Down the hill now, out of the city lights, into the countryside. The road changing, patches and potholes, lights flickering in and out, darkness and light. Small animals of light, the potholes, shimmering, bumping by. Another pothole, moving, turning from side to side, a pothole with a ringed tail and two tiny eyes. A baby pothole, misses the front wheels, not the back. One dull, dry thump.

What were you doing there, in the middle of the road? Why alone? Why no mother, no brothers? Why so small? I didn’t mean to … I didn’t want to … Why me? Why now? If only …

Light breaks through the darkness clouding my mind. Memories: the driver on the road to Kincardine, chasing a jackrabbit, trapped in the headlights, a Belgian Hare, dodging down the middle of the country road. Laughing, the driver, with the joy of his hunt. Then: one dry thump. The car stopped, the hare, still twitching, held by its long ears, shown as a trophy at the car window, then thrown in the trunk. Memories: two lads in a half-ton, on a back road by Grand Lake. A sunny Sunday. Spotting the ground hog at the roadside. Driving at it with the truck. Swerving to hit it. The joy and laughter in their faces, looking back. One dry thump. The ground hog, front half viable, spine fractured, back legs paralyzed, dragging itself with its forearms to the roadside, dropping into the ditch.

Legend tells 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. Travelled to Bagdad. Met there with Death, who welcomed him. “Why were you surprised to see me in Cairo?” the man asked. “Because we had a meeting here in Bagdad, tonight,” Death replied. “And I didn’t know if you’d show up.”

“Every morning, at day break,
oh Lord, this little prayer I make,
that thou wilt keep thy watchful eye,
on all poor creatures born to die.”

Dylan Thomas wrote those words in his poetry play for radio, Under Milkwood. All poor creatures born to die. That’s us. That’s you and me. We don’t know how, or why, or where, or when. And it doesn’t matter. That’s the whole point: it doesn’t matter. Our death is born with us, walks with us, lives inside us, and one day will take us, each of us, we poor creatures born to die. What matters is that we live while we can, rejoice while we can, thrive while we can, think while we can, write while we can …

Enlightenment came last night, at the darkest, wettest of times. It followed me home and crept with me into my bed. I thought of all the creatures found each spring morning, their lives cut short at night along the sides of our New Brunswick roads: deer, porcupine, squirrels, groundhogs, foxes, domestic and feral cats, dogs, skunks, and yes, one, very special, baby raccoon, a tiny raccoon, so small as to be almost invisible in chirimirri, mizzle, and mist.

His spirit came to me in the under-blanket dark, wrapped itself warm around me, and brought me comfort. “You too,” he whispered. “You too. But not just yet. My work is done. I can go now. But you still have lots of work to do. Remember: Vis brevis, ars longa,”  his raccoon spirit nuzzled me and I reached out and patted him. Then both of us settled down to dream our different dreams of a life and death that is surely nothing but a game of touch and go.

 

 

 

Braids

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Braids

All thumbs,
I can manage
two bunches,
one on each side.

But now,
with her mother gone,
it’s much more difficult
to part my daughter’s hair
neatly into three.

I work hard to perfect
that one thick plait
she loves down her back.

As for fish-bones
and French braiding…
she begs me to try

and I promise
that when my thumbs
turn into fingers,
I’ll give it a go.

Thursday Thoughts: An Old Song

Chaos

Thursday Thoughts
8 March 2018

An old song

… an old song, words and tune wrapping themselves around your neck, a loose scarf, brilliant in the sunshine, and oh so warm, flapping as you walk the streets, and people see the scarf’s frayed ends waving in the wind, so they wave back at you, and then they see those same ends tucked back in your jacket, hugging you tight, a pair of arms borrowed from your lover, and oh the light in your eyes, and the sun picking out the gold spots in your hair, and all’s well with the world …

… or left, left, left, right, left … it’s a marching song and the world falls away as you walk to work or to play and every day is a new day with blood stirring and this call to arms, to alarms, to alarums, and everything up for grabs, and you, marching in tune to the tunes in your head and the words wrapped around you, warming you, comforting, as you sing and stride along …

… or maybe it’s a sad song, and there’s rain in the sky, small drops gathering, a heavy mist, or a light mizzle, and you walk as if through a cloud, and yet you are still dry and warm and comforted and the words wrap themselves round and round you, and yes, you are sad, but you are comforted, as if in a verbal comforter, and the sun breaks through and hugs you and the raindrops radiate the brilliance of that sunlight, winking off your tears, as they gather at leaf’s end and spread sun’s twinkle from the radiance of flowers …

… and today it’s a Nor’Easter … snow in the air … on the trees … on the ground … a steady accumulation … you know how its is … and a fire in the fireplace … warm heart … warm heart … no travel today … books and the computer beckon … a time to read and write … to remember the old ways … the old days … those memories … a warm scarf wrapped around the neck … and the comforter … comforted … and comforting … so much to wrap around you … so much to wrap your head around …