A book is a book is a book

A book is a book is a book

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

A good friend of mine once told me that her creative writing writing prof in the MFA program told the class: “We are not writers. We are re-writers.” Our mission in life, then, is not just to rewrite, but to think and to revise. The art of writing lies in analysis, research, thought, and thinking carefully about (a) what we are about to write and (b) what we have just written. As a great Spanish writer once said “I write as I speak and when writing I count my syllables.”

So can the same principle be applied to reading? In my undergraduate poetry courses, one of my wiser profs announced that “It is better to read one poem a hundred times, than a hundred poems once.” Is re-reading better than reading? Good question. But it is what I call a swimming pool question: it has shallow ends and deep ends. Joke – it depends, you see, upon the quality of the material one is reading. For example, does a single reading of the Bible suffice? I read it through, page by page, when I was twelve years old. Was that it? No, I still return to it – the good book – from time to time, selecting, remembering, checking, looking for comfort, advice, or sometimes, pure joy in the sound of the language – King James version, of course.

What other books have I read and re-read? Lazarillo de Tormes, Don Quixote, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The first book in the Harry Potter series – it reminded me of elements of my own childhood, especially the cupboard under the stairs. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt. The Wind in the Willows, Gongora’s Polifemo, Quevedo’s Metaphysical Poems and his Cycle to Lisi. Octavio Paz’s Sunstone / Piedra de Sol, Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, his Poet in New York, and his plays. Platero y yo. Charlotte’s Web. Several of Shakespeare’s plays, including McBeth, Henry V, King Lear, and a couple more. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and Stalky and Co. Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed. Robert Bly’s Morning Poems, Iron John, The Sibling Society. Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life and his Niebla. Enough, no more. It is not as sweet now as it was before. And there are so many more to which I have returned, again and again.

So, think about all the time wasted on trivial books, books that remained unfinished, books that have never been opened. One person’s vegetarian or vegan’s fare is a carnivore’s poison [sick]. Sometimes a book mirrors our thoughts. Sometimes it challenges us to rethink our lives and our philosophies. Sometimes it comforts us or takes us back into our childhood. And sometimes it just bores us and we cannot finish it.

A rose is a rose is a rose. A book is a book is a book. Or is it? We are not readers – we are re-readers. And if we aren’t, we ought to be. Think about that. Carefully.

Looking at the Stars

Looking at the Stars

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  Oscar Wilde

Another beautiful quote from Oscar Wilde. I look at the world around me and I see two different spheres – the celestial one where, on a clear night, Orion patrols the winter skies, his faithful dog star at his heels. These are nights of great beauty, fields where mythical animals wander their ways, clothed in sparking suits of light.

Then I open the newspapers, read the news, and wonder what we are all up to. Up to? Down to, rather, for I have that sneaking feeling that so many of us are indeed lying in the gutter, somewhere, thrown out of a moving car, and abandoned, like some dead deer in a roadside ditch. Everywhere, the news is dark and dreary – wars, rumors of war, shootings, beatings, corruption, lies – or terminological inexactitudes, as Winston Churchill called them, the word ‘lies’ not being permitted in the Mother of Parliaments.

The Mother of Parliaments, indeed. And what a non-sensical mess that has become. To repeat the litanies of nonsense spouted in the English Parliament nowadays, I hesitate to call it ‘the British Parliament’, is to risk rusting and ruining my computer keyboard with the salt tears I shed.

So many of them, then, literally lying- the word has multiple meanings – in the gutter. So many of us dragged down with them. But, each night, when the skies are clear and the clouds move away, I find myself, once again, looking up at the stars. Per ardua ad astra – through hardship to the stars.

Breathe deep – keep the faith and believe.

A Very Spanish Omelet

A Very Spanish Omelet

Spanish Omelets – I learned how to cook them in Santander, Spain, when I was attending summer school at the Universidad Internacional Menéndez y Pelayo. No – I didn’t learn at the university. My landlady taught me. She always left me an egg and a potato for supper. The first night she showed me how to cook a tortilla española. She showed me how easy it was – and from then on, she left the ingredients out for me and allowed me to cook the nightly omelet for myself.

Ingredients: splash of olive oil, pinch of salt, 1 potato (peeled, diced, or sliced), 1 egg.

Preparation: heat frying pan, put in the olive oil, let it warm, add the diced potato, add pinch of salt (to taste), fry until golden brown (or to taste) stirring all the while. Beat egg in a bowl. Add beaten egg to fried potatoes to make omelet. Turn omelet over in pan to cook both sides.

Seems simple, eh? But not so fast. Olive oil: I prefer Spanish olive oil, of a good quality. Other national olive oils will serve just as well, but they will change the taste of your omelet. Pinch of salt: now that’s easy. Or is it? I prefer pure sea salt. However, check the chemicals listed on the side of your salt box. Some add iodine, others sugar. No two salts are the same. Your omelet will change taste with the salt you choose. Gets complex, doesn’t it? Nothing complex about a potato, is there? But kind of potato will you use? The Universidad de la Papa in Peru lists approximately 80 different kinds of potato. Each kind will change the taste, and the texture of your omelet. Dicing or slicing? The cut of the potato will also change the taste of the omelet. When we took omelets to the beach in Spain, we always knew who had made the omelet according to the way in which the potato was sliced. Thin slices or squarish chunks? Regular cut or cut in irregular fashion? Sliced then chopped smaller? And as to the potato prior to frying, par-boiled or uncooked? Both ways lend a different texture to your omelet. De gustibus non est disputandum – there is no arguing about taste. There is nothing as simple as an egg – really? White shell or brown? Pale yolk or dark? Free range or battery hen? Fresh or, well, just hw fresh are some fresh eggs – “Eggs from Australia, fresh as the morning” -? Guess what – you omelet will change in taste, texture, and color according to the type of eggs that you use and the chicken that laid them. I wrote Add beaten egg to fried potatoes to make omelet – very true. But the good cooks that I copy actually add the hot fried potatoes (with as little oil on them as possible) to the whipped egg, and allow them to settle and gel together before returning the mixture to the pan. Not so simple then, this omelet cooking. Experiment. Try different methods and different blends of the four basic ingredients. When you find the blend you like best, stick to it.

Cebollista o anti-cebollista – the annual tortilla cooking competition in Galicia permits only four ingredients, as listed above, in their omelet entries. They do not permit the use of onions / cebollas. If you do wish to add an onion to the potato mix as it fries, you may most certainly do so. But the same cautions apply to onions as to potatoes. Be aware of what you are using and how you are using it. And whether you choose to use onions, or not, remember you have chosen a side in an ongoing war – cebollistas contra anticebollistas! Most people are one side or the other, rarely both.

Other things often appear in Spanish Omelets, sometimes under one name, sometimes under another. Next time, if any interest is shown in these recipes of mine, I will elaborate more on The Very Spanish Omelet.

Luminescence

Luminescence

Our world can sometimes seem to be a very dark place. Early yesterday morning, sitting on the back bumper of my car, breathing heavily, unable to shift the weight of snow, rain, freezing rain, ice pellets that had accumulated in our drive, I was gripped by the cold hand of old age and despair.

I remembered the talk show quiz games in which one option was to call a friend. So I did. He turned up after work, started the snow blower and did for me what I was no longer able to do for myself. He cleaned the paths round our house, at the back, to the bird feeders, and down the front the heat pump at the side.

He brought light and joy back into my world, made me realize I was not alone, and I gave him, as a token of my gratitude, this painting: Luminescence.

Those of us who are still capable of bringing light and joy to others must continue to do so. Whatever we do, we must not let the dark side and the shadows take over.

My friend – you touched my heart. I thank you.

Warm in the Kitchen

Warm in the Kitchen

This early morning, the only warm place in the house is the kitchen, close to the fire, with all the doors closed. The black-out curtains from the Second World War are still in place and hang languidly over ill-fitting windows that let cold air into the house. They must be pulled back in preparation for that first glimpse of day-light. Your elders move in and out, letting in the cold air as they open and close the doors at either end of the warm space where the fire is just taking hold.

Your grandfather banked it overnight with black sea-coal and then he raked the fine, grey ash, with its still smouldering lumps of charcoal, into a warm mound, ready for paper, kindling, coal, and the match. He has also placed a newspaper over the fireplace to create a draft. If the fire doesn’t catch soon, he will throw some sugar onto the embers to aid the blaze. The fire will suddenly flare into life and the room will be quickly warmed. In the meantime, the kitchen, though warmer than anywhere else in the house, is still slightly chilly because the damp night cold has invaded and made everything wet and slick.

It’s great when you’re at your grandparents’ house, but when we are back in ours, my father and mother always leave early, to go to work.

When I was younger, they had to feed me, but I soon learned to make my own breakfast from whatever I found in the fridge. Now I can use a frying pan. I fry bacon first, and then, when I have plenty of bacon fat, I fry bread, eggs, sausage, black pudding, kidneys, tomatoes, mushrooms, and anything else I can find, including laver bread.*

Before I know it, I have become a latch-key kid and, when I am hungry at home, I fry myself an all-day breakfast: eggy-bread or fried egg-with-its-hat on doused in HP sauce for lunch, all washed down with tea to which I add condensed milk and sugar.

But this morning, they have made breakfast for me: porridge. “Porridge, porridge, skinny and brown, / waiting for breakfast when I come down.” And I hate porridge, especially burnt porridge, with a passion, and yes, they’ve burned the porridge again. I hold a cup of hot tea in my hands. I breathe in the steam and it loosens up my chest. The china cup warms my fingers. I prod at the porridge, feed some to the canine mouth that dwells unseen beneath the table, and stuff myself full of toast. Whatever I eat, when the food is inside me, I feel much, much warmer and now I am ready for the rest of the day.

*Laverbread Bara lawr in Welsh: edible Gower sea-weed, a delicacy often called Welsh Caviar.

No Turkey, No Presents, No Tree

No Turkey, No Presents, No Tree.

And that’s how it is this year. Partly by choice. We decided against the stress of a turkey. Is it cleaned out correctly? Is it stuffed properly? Will we put bacon on top? Is it cooked to perfection? What about the trimmings? Stuffing (inside and out)? Bread sauce? Cranberry sauce? And the vegetables? And the Christmas Pudding? Will it be ready on time? Does it look nice? Have we laid the table properly? There are only two of us now. How much turkey can two people eat anyway? So we’ll have none of that this year. No stress. No cooking. No washing up. No leftovers. No turkey. The poem – The Twelve Days of Turkey – makes this clear.

As for the presents, well, that’s a sad story. We don’t really need anything. The house looks like a cross between a junk-shop and a museum gone mad. As Dylan Thomas said of Swansea Museum: it looks like a museum that belongs in a museum. And that’s what the inside of our house is beginning to look like. A crazy place inhabited by two crazy people and a crazy cat. Well, the cat would have loved some wrapping paper to play in, if it were a normal cat, but it’s not. So even the wrapping paper won’t be missed. No presents means no disappointment and that means that the Poem of Lower Christmas Expectations does not have to be written.

As for the tree, well, we don’t have a living tree, chopped down, and fed water daily, so that it can sprinkle its needles steadily over the carpet before it’s time to go. And the, on the way out, it drops the lot. Then we must vacuum clean, Hoover, Dyson, brush up, do the necessary, whatever it is, to make the place clean again. And oh, that cold January air when we open the sliding door to force the tree out. Force it out indeed – after 12 or so days inside, it doesn’t want to go out in the cold and freeze. And neither do we.

So, it’s a minimal Christmas. Three LED trees from past years. Clare’s Auntie’s artificial tree from her old shop in Cheap Street, Frome. Some strings of lights. Everything inside the house and nothing outside. And inside we have warmth, light, a fire in the stove, and for dinner, a tourtière, Acadian, all nicely spiced. With a selection of trimmings, to be determined later. Bread sauce and cranberry sauce probably. Oh yes, and we have a variety of puddings that can steam while we are eating. A minimal Christmas, then. No high expectations. The Christmas Mangers from Mexico and Spain all in place. And Christmas music, also from Mexico, on the disco and ready to go.

And yes, this will be the best Christmas ever. Because it is taking place within our hearts. And all best wishes for a wonderful day and an even better year to follow, to all of you, too.

Annie Verse Airy

Annie Verse Airy

Some I remember, some I forget. This one I don’t forget. 56 years ago today, Clare and I got married in Ontario. She had been six days in Canada and the vicar asked us if she were a mail-order bride. We said ‘no’ – for we had known each other for five years at that point and had been officially engaged for 17 months.

Ontario snow-belt snow, they called it. Six feet had already fallen on the banks of Lake Huron, and six more inches fell on our wedding day. How do I know? Well, I guess I must have been there. And ar gwaeth a pawb a pophet, rh’y n’i yma o hyd – and in spite of people and things, we are still here.

I wonder how many are left to remember that day. Clare and I do, obviously. Our daughter does. How many others? I hesitate to count – and it would probably take only one hand. No names, mind. Our wedding was very quiet. A family affair. Clare and I and our Canadian family who emigrated here after WWI, in 1919-20. They offered us their hearts, their home, and their hospitality. They also made all the arrangements and, since we had very little money, covered most of the minimal costs.

Our honeymoon was very brief – two nights in the town’s only hotel, and then back to Toronto on Boxing Day. The reality of the need to survive sunk in very quickly. We have no photos of the ceremony – couldn’t afford a photographer. No honeymoon, other than that brief hotel stay. No palm trees. No Caribbean Island. No white sand beaches. And we were much better off without them for, from the very first day we had to work together to survive and make a success of our lives. Luck and hard work walked hand in hand with us, and here we are, 56 years later, still together, still going strong. We will celebrate very quietly. At the appropriate time, we will light a candle together and raise a glass of wine, as we have done, every year, on Christmas Eve.

Now, as we age, each day is precious. We take few photos. We still haven’t had a honeymoon, let alone a second one. But, as the old song says, “we have travelled the road, sharing our load, side by side”. And we will continue to do so, for as long as we possibly can.

A Season of the Heart

A Season of the Heart

Here in the autumn of my life,
surrounded by the fruits of my labours,
filled with the accumulated wisdom of years,
surrounded by solitude, yet confronted
by fall’s splendour and the harvesting
of so many golden days, collected
and gathered in, safe from winter’s storms.

Old friends from years gone by move
restless through the mists of time
that hide so many things, while revealing
others in the sunbeam’s spotlight
that marks with a sudden enlightenment
the meaning of something I thought
I had lost, yet that still lingers, a shadow
on the mind-wall of memory’s cave,
where firelight flickers and brings things
back to life, magic moments released
from time’s spell and paraded before me,
here, where no bitterness dwells
in the sweetness of remembered time.

Click for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
A Season of the Heart

Movement

Movement

Incoming tide, a sparkling sea,
waves dancing beneath the sun,
white-maned ponies prancing.

Summer light changing as a cloud
moves its shadow over meadows
where cows graze, their advance slow,
gentle their movements, browsing.

Autumn wind, the dry leaves
casting a red-gold rainfall
over the lawn, shuffling along,
in time to the whispered wind song.

Silent, the deer, soundless as they move
through the trees at garden’s foot,
walking the tight-rope edge
dainty, between kempt, and wild.

Click for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Movement

Silence

Silence

Words emerge from the silence
of wood and stone. They break
that silence when they are born.

Silence, once broken, cannot
be repaired. A word once spoken
cannot be recalled.

The greatest gift is to know
how to be alone amidst the crowd,
how to sink into silence.

A world of words smothered
at birth and that world, unborn,
dismissed, forgotten, still-born.

A lost world of words whirled
on the silent wind that fans
the unborn fire within you.

The spider web of the mind
blown clear by the wind
that blows unspoken words.

The sultry silence of wood and stone,
the hush of the tadpole swimming
into its own metamorphosis.

Click for Roger’s reading on Anchor.
Silence