Snow Flies

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You hear it all the time: “we’ll do it before the snow flies,” let’s wait until the snow flies,” “when the snow flies.” Warning … Freudian Slip … I wrote “sow flies” and the spell check didn’t catch it. Maybe it was thinking “pigs on the wing”, pink pigs from Pink Floyd, or maybe pigs really do have wings. Why shouldn’t they? The hart does.

Anyway: I have spent a long time in Canada, more than half a century, much more than a teenager or a kid in kindergarten: horse flies, black flies, mosquitoes, hornets, green hornets, bud worm, butter flies, lard flies, yard flies, dragon flies, no-see-ums (felt but rarely seen), and many other types of flies, but I’ve never seen snow flies, though everybody talks about them. So  what do they look like? Alas, when I Googled them, I found nothing.

So, I imagined what they might look like and there, in the cartoon above, after close observation, you see a multiplicity of the Canadian snow flies I found in the garden during the first snowfall of winter. They are gorgeous, and only a scratch upon the surface. You’ll recognize many of them, of course, but a few may be new to you. But then, perhaps you’ve never thought about it: I know what a snow fly is, you say, and I’ve seen a no-see-um, and it’s only in Ontario that you die with the black fly playing an angel’s harp upon your ribs, and we live in the Maritimes, not Upper Canada.

Down here, in New Brunswick, it’s all dulse and dulcimer, and we know exactly what a snow fly is, don’t we? Well, make this an entry in Wikipedia, and everyone who follows this blog will know what a snow fly looks like, won’t they? But if we do nothing, nobody will know, and then when the snow flies, or when the snow flies hit the fan … nobody will know what’s happening … think about it!

Crocodile Tears

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Crocodile Tears

         The crocodile lives in the wind-up gramophone. The gramophone lives in the top room of the house. The boy winds up the gramophone with a long brass handle, round and round, till the spring is tight. The tight spring frightens the crocodile and he sits quietly in his cage. But as the record goes round, the spring loosens up and the crocodile roars and demands to be freed. He’s the Jack that wants to jump out of the box. His long-term dream is to eat up the witch who looks out of the window and watches the boy as he plays in the yard.

         Last week the boy decided to dig. He picked up a spade and dug a deep hole that went all the way down to his cousin in Australia. The little dog laughed and joined in the fun, scraping with his front paws and throwing earth out between his back legs like happy dogs do. The witch in the window cackled with laughter and the rooks in the rookery rose up in a cloud and cawed in reply. Only the boy can see the witch and he only sees her when she sits in the window. But he knows she wanders through the house, and the air goes cold when she enters and exits the rooms, especially when she brushes past the boy and sweeps his skin with her long, black gown.

         When the boy gets tired of digging, he drives the spade into the ground and leaves it standing by the hole. When his father comes home after work, it’s dark and he doesn’t see the hole but he does see the spade. So he doesn’t fall in to the shaft of the coal-mine that goes all the way down to Australia. No free trip to the Antipodes for that lucky dad. He beats the boy for that, for digging that hole. Then he beats him again for lying: the hole doesn’t go to Australia. Australia is too far away and the angle is all wrong. The boy laughs when he sees that his dad doesn’t know where Australia is.

         “Ha-ha,” he laughs and his dad beats him again, this time for laughing.

         Sometimes at night the boy can hear rats running through his bedroom walls. They scuttle and scuffle as they hunt through the guttering. The crocodile growls from time to time in that upstairs room. The witch cackles with laughter. The boy puts his head under the blankets and cries himself to sleep. Sometimes he wishes the crocodile would come and eat up his dad. But he loves his dad like the dog loves his dad even though his dad beats both the boy and the dog. Sudden beatings, they are, beatings that arrive without warning: hail and thunder from a sunny summer sky.

         “Well, you’re not laughing now,” his father announces.     When the father beats the boy, the dog cowers beneath a chair. The boy hears the crocodile growl and smiles through the tears as he wipes salt water from his eyes.

         “Are you laughing at me? I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face,” the father taunts the son and beats him again.

         The crocodile growls. The old witch cackles. The rooks in the rookery rise up in the air and the father’s hair stands up on end like it does when lightning lights up the sky, and thunder rolls its drums, and the sky rattles like an old farmer’s cart whose iron-rimmed wheels have not been greased. The veins stand out in his father’s cheeks as the old man raises his hand to the boy.

         The old man tells the same old jokes again and again. The boy must always remember to laugh at them as if he had never heard them before. If he doesn’t laugh, his father gets angry. Some of the jokes are good, and the boy likes the one about the Catholic who goes into the bar in Belfast and asks the barkeep if they serve Protestants. Or is it the one in which the Protestant goes into the bar and ask the barkeep if they serve Catholics … anyway … one night, the boy has a dream and it goes like this. The crocodile escapes from the gramophone. The witch hands the boy a leash and a collar and between them they restrain the crocodile.

         “Walkies?” says the boy.

         The crocodile nods his head and croc and boy walk down the street to the Kiddy’s Soda Fountain on the corner.  When the boy walks in with the croc, the waitress raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth.

         “Do you serve grownups in here?” the little boy asks her.

         “Of course we do,” says the waitress.

         “Good. I’ll have a glass of Dandelion & Burdock for myself and a grown-up for the crocodile. Please.”

         The witch says grace, the boy sips his Dandelion & Burdock, and they all shed crocodile tears as the boy’s pet crocodile chomps on the fast disappearing body of the boy’s dad.

Insomnia

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Insomnia

Mine was at its worst in Moncton in 2015. I was committed to eight weeks of radiation treatment, and after two weeks, I slept restlessly, if at all. Some of the other residents of the hospice were worse off than me. They got up at all hours of the night and paced the floors downstairs, nursing their wounds, both mental and physical, searching for the peace and the sleep that eluded them. I never went down to join them. My case was different. All cases are slightly different. In spite of this society’s attempts at social engineering, each of us is an individual and we deal with our own problems in our own way.

In my case, the need to pee during the night dominated my sleep. I would sleep in ninety minute cycles, then get up and visit the bathroom, then return to bed for another ninety minutes. Sometimes, I was lucky and the cycles went for two hours, or two and a half hours. I rarely got more than three hours sleep. Upon returning to bed, I would often just lie there, remembering, thinking, musing, hoping, waiting for sleep to come. Often my cycle would reject the sleep I needed, and I just lay there waiting until I was ready to pee again. These were not great times. Luckily I never fell asleep so deeply that I wet the bed. Some did, but I was one of the lucky ones and managed to keep my bedding clean.

During this time, I learned to divide the night into segments. I thought of the segment that ran from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am as an uphill climb with the initial joy of dropping off to sleep tempered by the knowledge that the urge to urinate would soon be upon me. The segment from 3 am to 4 am was the plateau at the top of the hill: I rarely slept during this period and would look frequently at my clock while the minutes ticked by. Sometimes I would turn on the light and just watch the second hand throbbing slowly round. It was like watching sand sift through an hour glass, or water sift through the fingers: uncontrollable, unstoppable, life just slipping away. I had plenty of time to think and much to think about. I relived my life during those eight weeks and a lot of it was unpleasant as I blamed myself for the situation I was in.

At 4 am, the universe shifted, and I was able to relax and slide downhill into the Land of Winking, Blinking, and Nod. With the urges of the earlier segments fading, I would often get two sound sleeps at this stage, one from 4 to 6 and the other from 6-8. If I was lucky, I would sleep from 4-7, or even 4-7:30 am. These were bonus nights and I awoke after a three hour sleep session to find myself greatly refreshed.

Three years after my treatment, many things have returned to normal However, those sleep patterns have not changed that much. I no longer feel the need to urinate at such regular intervals, but I still dip in and out of those same sleep cycles. They have become a part of my system. The easy part, tired, sleeping from bed-time to about 2:30-3:00. The lying awake, anywhere between 2:30 – 4:30, then the relaxing slip into dreamland, for the last part of the night.

The good thing is that my dreams have changed. I am no longer chased by the ghosts of times past who pace through my night, awake and asleep, to prove that my suffering is due to past moments of childhood iniquities discovered in soulful daily examinations  induced by a consciousness of minute sins demanded by the weekly confessional. Now, I dream of many things, of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings, and if the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. This is much more fun: I find I can now control my dreams, re-think them, and re-write the endings. In my waking periods I do just this, and my dreams adapt and change and become more pleasant as I fall back into sleep. This has turned into a time of great creativity: but that is a tale for another day.

Friends

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Friends

Strange things, friends. What are they exactly? And how do we make them?  In fact, do we make friends, or do we just grow together, like gardens or trees? Birds of a feather, they say, but our feathered friends are flighty and the snow-birds leave in the hard times only to return when the sun comes back. Fair-weather friends, then, and I have known a lot of those.

I turned to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, but all I could find under FRIENDS was a series of articles on TV shows, every episode, every actor, every friendship, every situation, but no discussion of what friendship actually meant. FRIENDSHIP: I looked that word up and the results were much more satisfying. The article ranged from a definition: ‘a mutual attraction among people’ to a series of academic studies about friendship in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and older adults. As we age, so our notions of friendship change. In addition, as we move from place to place, job to job, so our circles of friendship grow old, renew themselves, and gradually fade away. One study shows that in adulthood we rarely have more than two good, true friends. Our acquaintances are many, but our friends are few. Old age brings a different set of equations to bear and loneliness and isolation with the consequent absence of friends, all bring their own problems, including sickness and ill-health.

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Here are some of my closest friends. Rosie is named after Rosie the Elephant in Bristol Zoo. Teddy is the Koala. Basil is the small one on the left with the pink ribbon. Chimney is the little one on the right with the orange skirt. Her name’s Chimney, but I call her Sweep. Don’t ask, I won’t tell. These friends summarize all the needs of friendship: they don’t beat me up, they listen when I talk, they don’t interrupt me, they nod silent agreement to my opinions, and they soak up my tears when I cry. They also keep me warm in bed at night. Well, Rosie and Teddy do anyway. These are not their real names, incidentally. Teddies, like cats, have secret names, and you cannot really call a teddy bear your friend until he or she has revealed that name to you. It may take years for that to happen. The speed or the slowness of the true name’s arrival has nothing to do with the success of the friendship.

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This is Princess Squiffy aka Vomit. She threw up beside my chair again yesterday and I am just not sure if that is a sign of friendship or not. At least she didn’t throw up in my chair, which is what she did last time my beloved was away visiting our daughter in Ottawa. So, how do your friends show their friendship? By sitting in silence and listening? By keeping you warm in bed at night? By throwing up in your chair? By presenting you with hairballs, so carefully formed and all gift-wrapped? I am not sure. I guess I’ll have to go back to Wikipedia and check it all out. In the meantime: here’s a picture of man’s best friend.

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I bet you weren’t expecting that!

Ruins

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Ruins

There are many types of ruins, ruined castles, ruined churches, ruined monasteries, old stone circles fallen into ruins, barns alongside the highway, backs broken, roofs caved in, old people beg, still clean and proud, outside the supermarket, proud, yes, but still more or less ruined. And then there are unkempt gardens that fall into ruin when summer crawls to the burnt out embers of  its heat.

When I came back from my week’s creative retreat in KIRA, our garden lay in ruins. The hollyhock still stood, but it was on its last legs, drying up. It didn’t imitate the dead sticks of the yucca plant, four flowers this year, nor the dried up foliage of summer flowers. Nevertheless, wind and rain have now brought him close to his end, poor thing. I want to remember him in all his glory. I want to see beyond this bent, withered stick of a plant that slowly bows its head to look down at its roots. My hollyhock, please, in all his glory!

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All our glories! I too am in decay and falling into ruin. I dug out an old photo of myself. Bristol University, 1964, running for the First Cross-Country VIII on the Bristol – Weston road relay. Hugh Arnold was just handing off to me and I was setting out on my 5 mile leg of the race. Young, fit, no grey hairs, no wrinkles, no limp, no stoop: it was a five mile leg that I would complete in about 25 minutes. Alas, slow is me: it takes me that long now to walk 400 metres. And I need rests and a stick to help me on my way.

Standing amidst he ruins of my life, yes. But I stand proud, my head held as high as I can hold it. I can honestly say I have done my best. And what more can anyone do? Athletics, rugby, coaching, research, publishing, teaching, facilitating workshops and retreats, travelling, editing, creative writing … it has been a crazy life, packed with fun and adventure and no, I do not regret a moment of it.

Come to think of it, unlike many people, I have actually lived many lives. My first took place in Britain and Europe. Then in September, 1966, I was reborn as a Canadian. Each subsequent Fall, at the beginning of September, as each new academic year began and the year’s cycle turned round to freshness and intellectual renewal, I was born again. Teaching, coaching, working with young people: what wonderful things to do. Now, I look at the ruined garden and remember the joys of summer. They will return. My hollyhock will also be back. He has sown his seeds throughout the flowerbeds and sooner or later he will return. I too have sown seeds: the seeds of joy, knowledge, learning, creativity. I too will live on in the many virtual children whose minds I have inhabited and helped to shape.  Winter is drawing near. The cold and the dark encroach: but, like my garden, I will be back.

Early Bird

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This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. Kingsbrae held their painting session for children in June 2017, and I joined in with the five and six year olds. It was such wonderful fun. They slapped the paint onto the canvas with unbounded joy. It was hard not to be joyful with them. Many of them expressed curiosity about my painting: “What is it?” then later “What are they saying to each other?” The conversation between bird and worm (or whatever it is) was of incredible importance to them. I thought of it as my “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” moment. Now that’s confidence for you.

My strange accent, slowly developing as mid-Atlantic Welsh, with a touch of West Country English and a dab of Upper Canadian and a touch of New Brunswick also fascinated them. “Where are you from?” “Fredericton.” “No. Where are you really from?” “Island View, New Brunswick.” “No. Where were you from before that?” The questions continued until they had ascertained that indeed, I was not a Canadian, a real Canadian, even though I was in Toronto in 1967 to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. 1967: that’s 51 years ago, and I still support the Maple Leafs and I still have my strange overseas accent. “You’re weird,” they told me. “I’ve been in Canada a lot longer than you,” I told them. “Where did you grow up?” They asked. I silenced them with my answer: “I don’t think I have yet.”

Happy paint-splashers, we dabbed on and on in alternating mirth and silence. Some left the table and walked away. Geoff collected our paintings and left them to dry. Later that day, we hung this painting on the wall in the KIRA dining room. It sat there for several days and nobody noticed it. Alas, a hawk-eyed young lady finally spotted it the first night she came over for dinner and “What is that?” she asked, pointing at my painting. Bold and italics combined cannot reproduce the scorn and disdain rolled up in the single word: that. I remember the butler in a country house in Somerset removing with a pair of tongs the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker from the weekend newspapers left on the doorstep. He, too, was very disdainful.

I also remember the tone of an Old Etonian, well he said he was an Old Etonian and had a rasping, high-pitched nasality that made him sound the part. This jolly goof fellow summed me up at a dinner party one night in Toronto when I first came to Canada: “Oh, you’re Welsh.” The grate of his voice was the scrape of a stick removing a dog turd from a shoe. “No,” I said. “Irish, actually.” I used my broadest Welsh accent. “My family is Irish Catholic not Capel Cymraig / Welsh Chapel. Moore is an Irish name. Llewellyn ad Jones are Welsh names. I am not called Llewellyn or Jones.”

And this reminds me of my father, standing in the elevator in a posh hotel in Bordeaux, when three Irishmen walked in. They scanned him for a moment, and then one said, in the broadest of Southern Irish brogues: “T’is the map of Ireland written all over your face.” “Yes,” says my father in his thick, Welsh accent, “I am Irish. But I was born in England.” And that brings me back to my painting. Is it the early bird that catches the worm or the late worm that gets caught by the bird? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, the beauty of children. They accept, often without judgement and often without speculation and I love their readiness to befriend the growing child within the old man as he ages. They may not hold doctorates in philosophy, but by golly they are true philosophers in their finest moments. And then of course, they go to school to learn how to behave … and may the good Lord have mercy on them.

The Painting Lesson

The Painting Lesson
KIRA 

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Geoff is teaching the participants in the creative retreat how to paint a cone flower. He plucked several on the way to the workshop and placed a couple in a cup of water so we could study them in close up. Mine are on the table just to my left hand. The golf cart outside is the main means of transport when it is time to move me from place to place. It’s so much easier to sit in comfort rather than to pick my way carefully over slightly uneven grass. Geoff has shown me how to paint the background to my flower. Alas, my background is nothing like his background. I often wonder if this is because I went to school in England, while he went to school in Canada. Certainly our backgrounds are very different. Geoff took the Golf Cart keys from Mad Max. Hence the drive over to Studio #1, where I wrote for a month in June 2017 was very smooth. Mad Max is very kind and gentle. Until he gets behind the wheel of a golf cart. Then he earns his nick-name: Mad Max. My plastic chair is about to collapse and land me on the floor. But I don’t yet know that. It will happen about three minutes after this photo was taken, but the camera had gone by then. Fortunately. Or the next picture would show my rear end raised into the air in all its glory with my little legs kicking.

 

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This next photo shows my painting with my lovely cone flower painted in. My cone flower does not resemble Geoff’s cone flower, nor does it look like the real thing that sits on the desk in front of me. I hope you can see my  cone flower in the painting, but if you can’t, don’t worry. My best advice is search for something that doesn’t look like a cone flower and you will find mine. We are not sure what happens when I paint. Whereas all the obedient students have only one large realistic flower in their painting, my painting sprouts flowers as if by magic. They just appear, like dandelions. They are everywhere and in all colors. It’s quite the bouquet, really, though that is not what it was meant to be. It was meant to be a cone flower. Geoff says I have a unique and powerful style of my own. I think this is instructor-speak for “Roger, you can’t paint for love or money and, as a painter, you are as dumb and stubborn and inflexible as a knot in a lump of wood, but shucks, I’m not a negative person, so I’ll call your messy message unique.” Thanks, Geoff. It’s nice to be unique. Much better than being an abject failure. When Clare saw my painting, she thought my eye-sight was going, so she made an appointment for me to see the optician, or whatever he’s called, next week. Or the week after. I couldn’t make out the date. Her hand-writing is so blurred. Maybe her hand-writing is unique, too. Either that or she also needs an eye-appointment.

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This is the final product. Geoff says it is very strong and demonstrates the strength of my personality. I think it looks like a cross between a Tangled Garden, a nightmare bristling on the facade of one of Monet’s Cathedrals, a Van Gogh flowery sky, and a walk in the park with Picasso when he was trying to relearn how to paint as a very young child would paint. The other participants say they like the energy of my brush strokes. Brush strokes, a lovely idea. I hold the brush like a carving knife and, pretending the canvas is a lump of recalcitrant cheddar cheese or a fierce Shropshire Blue, I attack it with my bristle sword, hacking it into colorful lumps that can be whatever the viewer thinks they might be. Speaking of cheese, this painting is the sort of dream that comes in the night to haunt me when I have eaten too much cheese. The slashing of the nightmare with the paintbrush sword brings a moment of release and a wonderful feeling of relief and relaxation when canvas and cheese are cheerfully hacked and the contents of their souls released into a heaven-haven of paint. Ah soul: I think you can see one or two souls flitting through my tangled garden. I’ll tell you a secret, though: I don’t know how they got there. I thought I was painting butterflies at the time.