He who would true valor see, let him come hither. One here will constant be, come bad or fair weather. No line length can him fright, he’ll with a paragraph fight, and he will have a right, to be a writer.
Those who beset him round with dismal stories, do but themselves confound: his strength the more is. There’s no discouragement will make him once relent his first avowed intent, to be a writer.
Rejections nor bad critics can daunt his spirit. He knows he at the end will a book inherit. So critics fly away, he’ll fear not what they say, he’ll labor night and day to be a writer.
Comment: John Bunyan tempted me and I fell into temptation. In fact, as my good friend Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.” So, ladies and gentlemen, change the he to a she or the pronoun of your choice, turn the writer to a sculptor, stoneist, poet, playwright, painter, novelist, dramatist, comedian, song-writer, singer. Breathe deep. Believe in your own artistic talent and remember: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Remember this too: “You’ll never get to Vancouver by bus, if you get off the bus at Montreal or Toronto.”
I wander a vacant, black and white wonderland of empty, accusing, crossword puzzle squares. Most mornings, I sit at the kitchen table, head in hands, puzzled by the news and the crossword puzzle’s clues.
Outside my window, crossbills squat on the feeder, squabbling, heads turned sideways, blinking,
and winking sly eyes. A yellow-bellied sapsucker hops over syrup-sticky squares. His hand-carved chess board
glistens as feasting flies swarm beneath the sun.
My own thoughts are rooted in a stark, new reality. They walk wordless through threatening spaces where unmasked people wander grey, concrete streets or walk in shops, in the opposite direction to arrows, painted on the floor to guide them.
Cross-words, cross-purposes: why do some people obey the current laws while others ignore them and risk their health as well as the health of others by doing what they damn well please, in spite of the scientists who beg them to do otherwise? Like the puzzle’s clues: I just don’t know.
Comment: Well, last year was a year like no other that I can remember. It is so easy to dismiss it as an aberration, but we shouldn’t do that. Hopefully next year will be better. But it might get worse. Let’s look on the bright side and hum along with the song the humming birds are humming: “Yesterday is history, today is still a mystery, but what a day it’s going to be tomorrow.” I still can’t workout how or why some shoppers just head up the shopping aisles, walking or pushing their carts in the wrong direction. Nor how they can stand for five minutes at a time choosing a breakfast cereal, one hand on the handle of their angled carts, another poking at the cereal boxes, and the aisle totally blocked. I also love the people who still handle every apple in the box before choosing just one of them. For apple you may substitute grapes, pears, avocadoes, tomatoes. Oh the joys of ageing in an age of skepticism and pandemic. Mind you: if life is, as Albert Camus always insisted, absurd, or if it is, as Calderon told us, nothing but a dream, I guess none of it matters anyway. Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux / we must believe that Sisyphus is happy!
“Sábete, Sancho, … Todas estas borrascas que nos suceden son señales de que presto ha de serenar el tiempo y han de sucedernos bien las cosas, porque no es posible que el mal ni el bien sean durables, y de aquí se sigue que, habiendo durado mucho el mal, el bien está ya cerca.” Miguel de Cervantes : Don Quixote de la Mancha.
“Know this, Sancho, … All these squalls that beset us are signs that the weather will soon clear up and better things will come to us, because it isn’t possible for good or ill to endure, and from here it follows that, these ills having lasted so long, good times are now close.” My translation.
Comment: This quote was sent to me by Marina, my close friend from Avila, with whom I have maintained contact, even though it is now twelve full years (2008-2020) since we last saw each other and talked, except on Messenger. Break ups and lost and absent friends and families: it seems to be the story of my life. And how could it be otherwise when one is a migrant who emigrates and immigrates and passes on and through, rarely resting in the same place for long? I guess it is also the story of the Intelligentsia: those whose learning and understanding and life experience moves them out from one place and into many others. Cualquier tiempo pasado fue mejor / any time from the past was better. Hiraeth: the knowledge that the past is lost, save in our minds, and can never be recovered, even though sometimes we wish so badly to do so. The Intelligentsia: always dissatisfied, both with the past which they can never recreate and which they view through the pink lens of nostalgia and with the present which is never as beautiful as that pastel pink past, that in reality probably never existed. Toda la vida es un sueño y los sueños sueños son / The whole of life is a dream and dreams are just dreams, and nothing more (Calderon de la Barca).
Boxing Day By the time I get up, the gloves are really off and the sparring has begun in earnest. I hear voices, walk downstairs to the kitchen, and a hush falls on the room. Knife-edge glances slice their menacing ways through the thick fog of war. Time for boxing: on my left, in the blue corner, my mother, smoking what is probably her second packet of the day. A thin haze of grey smoke escapes from her bruised lips and a cloud of exhaled fumes crowns her head with a murky halo. On my right, in the red corner, my father. White-faced, hungover yet again, truly into the spirits of Christmas. He breathes heavily, like a Boxer Dog in the mid-summer dog-days, snoring and snorting at a bitch in heat. In the middle, my grandfather, the referee. He is keeping the combatants apart, creating a tiny breathing space so the true Spirit of Christmas can disentangle itself from those false Christmas Spirits and bring peace to earth again for at least sixty seconds between each round. I look around the heaving, seething, threshing silence of a room where conversation has suddenly ceased. The fire is burning merrily. Beside it, tongs, poker, and small shovel stand to attention. On the hearthstone, the little red brush, with its long handle lies in ambush. This is what my father uses to beat me when he can’t be bothered to take off his leather belt. Scorch marks from the hot coal fire sear the handle and back of the little red brush. I threw it on the fire one day, hoping to see the end of it. Of course, it was rescued from the flames, resurrected, and I got beaten for that act of rebellion too. “It’s all your fault!” My father breaks the silence, pointing at me. His red-rimmed eyes blazing with a sudden and renewed anger. He starts to rise, but my grandfather steps between us. “Go and see your granny,” grandpa tells me. “She’s in the kitchen. Go now!” He points to the kitchen door. I run a gauntlet of staring eyes and go to my gran. As I shut the door behind me, voices rise higher in the room I have just left. Boxing Day, indeed. The gloves are off. The battle has begun again. My grandfather has evacuated me from no-boy’s-land and, for a moment, I am no longer trapped in the mud-filled, cratered, shell-holes between the trenches, the uncut barbed-wire barriers, the poached-egg eyes peering through periscopes and spying on me from the parental and priestly parapets. Here in the kitchen, for a while, I walk on the wooden duck-boards that keep my feet dry and clear of mud and water.
Comment: This is, of course, the true origin of the term Boxing Day. A genuine Boxing Day has nothing to do with the myth that it was the day on which the servants, who worked Christmas Day on the Lord’s estate, received their Christmas Boxes. Peace on earth and mercy mild has got nothing to do with alcohol-fueled quarrels, raging hangovers, and little children who should be seen and not heard. Sometimes, when all the elders are down at the pub on the corner, the night may, for a little while, actually be silent. But the noise when the drunks roll raucously home is most unholy. Then little children should be wise like the wise men, run quickly into bed, and lie there, neither seen nor heard.
Warm in Bed. Cozy. I roll over and the flashlight clipped to my Teddy Bear’s ear drives its hard, metal lump into my face. “Are you awake?” Teddy’s soft voice lilts across the pillow. “I am now.” “Look!” Teddy points with his little leather paw. “The moon: it’s climbing the fir tree.” Sure enough, a thin fingernail of gold is perched on a branch. It hides its face among the fir’s darkness and vanishes for a moment. “The maple tree has a garland of tiny Christmas lights,” says Teddy, pointing again. “Those aren’t Christmas lights, they’re stars.” “Spoilsport. Look, that one’s moving. I think it’s an angel.” “What time is it, Teddy?” “I don’t know.” “Here, lend me your flashlight.” I pull him towards me, switch on the torch, and focus its light on my wristwatch. “4:55 AM. That’s the early morning flight from Toronto. It’s a plane.” “I’d much rather it was an angel.” “Me too.” “Can we pretend it’s an angel, a Christmas angel?” “Of course we can. But it’s gone now.” “Perhaps angels don’t live long when they come to earth.” “I think they live for ever. Especially if we believe in them.” “Do you believe in angels?” “I was taught to believe in my guardian angel.” “What’s a guardian angel?” “He’s the one who looks after you when you sleep at night.” “But you don’t need a guardian angel. You’ve got me.” “But you’re a teddy bear, not a guardian bear.” “That’s true, but you’ve got Blueberry. He’s your guardian bear. Look at him standing there, on guard, all night long to protect you from the Night-Bumps.” “Ah yes, good old Blueberry. I’ve got a busy day today. I need some more sleep.” “Okay. Blueberry and I will watch over you. I’ll watch over you. I’ll let you know if any more angels climb the tree.” “That would be nice. Now I’m going back to sleep.” “Good night. Or should that be ‘good morning’.” Some days, when I wake up, I think I have dreamed all of this. Other days, I believe in talking teddy bears and angels. Today, I’m not so sure.
An acolyte in a charcoal suit runs by. He neither stops nor speaks but slips on slippery words dripping from another monkey’s tongue.
This other monkey has eyes of asphalt, a patented pewter soul, ice water flowing in his veins. “Hear no evil! See no evil! Speak no evil!”
The hatch of his mind is battened tightly down. Nothing gets out nor in. The acolyte’s fingers grasp at a khaki folder, his manifesto for success.
Senior monkey stalks to his office and turns on the radio. His favorite music: the clink of mounting money.
Disturb him at your peril: this monkey is very important, and very, very busy. He’s also clever: a real smarty.
First, he empties all the chocolate candies from the box then he sorts them into little piles: green with green, brown with brown, blue with blue, red with red.
Then, like the Good Shepherd checking His flock, he counts them again and again, to ensure that none have been stolen and not one has gone astray.
Comment: Another Golden Oldie, this time from Monkey Temple. I have updated it slightly so it won’t be exactly the same as it is in the printed text. Senior Monkey has, of course, built a bigger box into which he can place all his chocolate candies and tuck them away for ever and ever. I guess if he were a bull and not a monkey, he would have tucked them away for heifer and heifer. Such is the sad state of reality in the Monkey Temple. But if monkey were a bull, he would be living in the cow shed, not the Monkey Temple. Oh dear, oh dear: and oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive with fiction, flash fiction, creative non-fiction, and all the other sugar and spice which goes into the spinning of spider-webs and fairy tales. Speaking of which, did I ever tell you the story of the… well, maybe next time. So tune in again tomorrow. Same thyme, same plaice, and I’ll sing you a song of the fish in the sea… and a fishy tail that will be.
I saw my father yesterday evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him.
Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and thrust towards my face. The third smacked a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head. He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.
Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.
I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.
Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from another’s flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.
On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.
Comment: A Golden Oldie that I had forgotten about. I found it among the drafts of earlier work. Monte Alban is also known as Dani Ba in the indigenous language of the region. Click on the link for more on Monte Alban. And click on this link for another piece on my father and Oaxaca. It’s a funny thing about Golden Oldies: sometimes they stick with us and are ‘unforgettable’, but sometimes they were better off left in the pile that gathers dust, like a forgotten book on a forgotten shelf. Speaking of which, have I told you about the time when …
Sitting on the porch at Tara Manor, measuring the evening shadows as they lengthen and thicken, I study the jack pine’s wild, extravagant growth, the way it reaches out to reject the commonplace of ‘tree’, as Milton Acorn rejected the commonplace of ‘poet’. The jack pine grows in radical disorder, sprouting here, there, anywhere the sea wind blows and its capricious nature dictates. Each limb of the jack pine bears a thin layer of salt, borne in from Passamaquoddy Bay by thin fingers of air that sow salt on branches and needles. Broken branches, untidy crows’ nests limb-tangled like grim, bedraggled hair sprout out from on high. Lower down the tree extends a branch, held out towards me like a helping hand. Charcoal shadows fill in the gaps between darkening trees. Shy deer emerge, step by cautious step, drifting their sylvan ghosts, delicate, across footpath and lawn. Wrapped in a scarf of peace, I forget the city’s hustle and bustle. Stars poke peepholes in the dark. I try to name each constellation, as it traces its new-to-me path across the indifferent evening sky. I look around: more jack pines, no two the same. How could they be? There’ll never be another poet like Milton, another book like his Jack Pine Sonnets, no tale like his own tale told in his own inimitable way.
Once upon a time, there was a man who carried a large round rock upon his back. It was huge and heavy, like the globe that Atlas carried. One day he felt tired, laid that rock upon the beach at Bocabec, waded out into the Bay of Passamaquoddy, and was never seen again. He left the rock there for my friend to find. My friend called it Magic Rock, but what he did with it and thought about it is his tale to tell, not mine. I must tell another story. Once upon a time, St. Patrick arrived in Ireland. He celebrated Easter on the hill above Tara, the royal palace of the ancient Irish kings. Then he walked down the hill to their palace and tried to convert them to Christianity. But that is another story, and it is not mine to tell, even though the name of Tara was given to the red and white house of another friend of mine, red and white, like the dogs and cattle of Ireland. But that’s not my story. Once upon a time, a rich and powerful man came to St Andrews and built a summer home on the hill above the bay. Later, another friend of mine purchased it, painted it red and white, and turned it into a wonderful home for guests and visitors. I wanted to tell her story, but it’s hers to tell, not mine. I can only tell my own story. Once upon a time, my friend who lives on the shore at Holt’s Point, walked on the beach outside his house and found an enormous, metal ball, weighing almost two hundred kilos. It was almost as big as Magic Rock. It lay there, on the shore waiting for some one to find it. My friend went home, drove back to the beach in his truck, winched the ball onto the flatbed, and brought it home. What he did with it is not my tale to tell. I must tell my own story. So, what is my story? What tales do I have the right to tell and how shall I begin my tale? Well, once upon a time, in Ty Coch, a red brick house on the Gower Peninsula, in Wales, a little boy was born … and that is my story … but I will not tell it here and now. Instead, I’ll tell you another tale. But you will have to wait until tomorrow.