Samaritan

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Samaritan
(1890 AD)

I lived with him
he treated me well

to him
I was the other
yet he fed me
when I hungered
gave water
when I ran dry

I fell ill
he cared for me
nursed me back
to health

he taught me
his language
culture history
traditional skills

he loved me
never forced me
to forget myself
and be like him

he made me
what I am today
a discerner
between
light and dark
still the other

 

Aye, aye

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Aye, aye
(8 April 2019)

I am my eye
this eye
my left eye

rapid heartbeat
shallow breathing
tautness in chest
this is all about
my eye

frozen with gel
disinfected
bathed in iodine
it nestles in a nest
loitering with intent
within a blue tent
filled with oxygen

three bright lights
surgeon’s fingers
surgical instruments
moving shapes
this eye my eye
sees them draw near
then fade away

machines hum
laser beams bite
extract then implant
more liquids
face patted dry
dark glasses appear
smiles all around

“Oh my eye
and
Betty Martin!”

this eye
is not an eye
because you see it
it’s an eye
because it
once more sees you

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Writing Memories 8

 

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Writing Memories 8
Module 3.1: Illness

We talked about illness in old age, how our systems weaken and break down. Above all we discussed the difference between minor illnesses, the coughs and chills that, if caught in time, do not threaten to carry us away and the serious illnesses that are life-threatening or that steal our loved ones, still living, away from us as they shut themselves into the prisons of their own minds. Sad and serious faces filled the room. Everyone knew a friend or a family member that was suffering from, of had suffered from, Alzheimer’s or some form of cancer. It is not an easy topic: how could it be? Yet it is one that, as writers, we must often face and to which we must bear witness. How do we do it? Now that is the question. Here are two poems in which what turns out to be a minor illness is treated with humor.

Poems 1 & 2

Two Gnomes

Two small gnomes camped
last night, one in each of my lungs.

All night long they played
their squeeze-box, wheeze-box
concertinas, never quite in unison.

Sometimes they stamped their feet
and my body rattled with their dance.
Their wild night music caught in my throat
and I coughed unmusical songs
that spluttered and choked.

An east wind blew outside my window.
It whistled and groaned
as it herded the stars from left to right.

The stars pursued the westering moon.
The planets danced to the rhythms
of the accordion music playing in my chest,
and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded
its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch

This morning, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop,
evicted the two gnomes from my lungs.

Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji
then rented the free space in the left lung
to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart.
This piper piped me a highland pibroch
on his whisky-worn pipes.

A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated
the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung.
When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses
at that spot in my throat where the full moon
would have been, if she could have broken in.

They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul
and I lay awake all night with my heart beating
arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum.

The drum played, the pibroch wailed,
the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by
an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight
that drove stars from the sky and filled the room
with shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: These poems recall several sleepless night when the wheezing kept me awake. I remember watching stars and moon outside the bedroom window and thought long on the Platonic dance of the spheres. In fact, I composed these poems in bed on different nights and wrote them down the following morning. They certainly amused me at the time and I am certain that the maintenance of humor in the face of disaster is a gift from the gods. It bolsters our will to fight and makes light of the ills and evils that sometimes surround us. The prose versions clarify the poems.

Two Gnomes & Pibroch [Prose 1]

Two Gnomes: Two small gnomes camped last night, one in each of my lungs. All night long they played their squeeze-box, wheeze-box concertinas, never quite in unison. Sometimes they stamped their feet and my body rattled with their dance. Their wild night music caught in my throat and I coughed unmusical songs that spluttered and choked. An east wind blew outside my window. It whistled and groaned as it herded the stars from left to right. The stars pursued the westering moon. The planets danced to the rhythms of the accordion music playing in my chest, and the sky’s planetarium folded and unfolded its poker hands of silent cards marked with my fate.

Pibroch: In the course of the night, the bailiff, Mr. Koffdrop, evicted the two gnomes from my lungs. Landlord Bodie placed an ad on Kiji then rented the free space in the left lung to a tiny piper who took up residence by my heart. This piper piped me a sad-to-play pibroch on his whisky-worn pipes. A pack of miniature wolves infiltrated the midnight forest flourishing in my other lung. When the pibroch played, they pointed their noses at that spot in my throat where the full moon would have been, if she could have broken in. They mingled their howls with the bagpipes’ caterwaul and I lay awake all night with my heart beating arrhythmic suspicions on its blood red drum. The drum played, the pibroch wailed, the wolves howled, my body lay scarred by an absence of sleep and the presence of moonlight that drove stars from the sky and filled the room with dancing shadows and shifting shapes.

Commentary: Both of the pieces seem finished and I really have no desire to plump them out further. I feel that way sometimes with a piece of writing: “No la toques más, así es la rosa / don’t tinker any more, roses are like that” (Juan Ramón Jiménez). It is so easy to write those words from the great Spanish poet and Nobel Prize winner. But one would do well to also remember these words from Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” And yes, we may all be mistaken, especially when we believe too strongly in our own infallibility. Dealing with serious illness is a much more difficult proposition.

Shadows
Self-portrait

My front door stood open, but I thought
I’d left it closed. I tip-toed in and called:

“Is anyone there?” Echo answered ‘… there, there,
there …”
then silence. I walked from room to room,

startled by shadows. I opened doors, looked
under tables, searched behind chairs. No one.

Ghosts flitted deep in dark mirrors. Curtains
shivered in an unfelt, worrisome breeze.

The house stood silent and empty, save for
the fear, the silent fear, that lurked
like my remembered cancer in each room.

Commentary: This is a poem from a sequence of poems …  A Cancer Chronicle … to which I do not wish to return or, in the words of the immortal Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote it all happened: “En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme / in a corner of New Brunswick, whose name I do not wish to recall …” But this is one of the joys of writing: it permits us to bear witness to anything we wish, no matter how terrible it is. More, it allows us to face the unfaceable, to bear the unbearable, and to control the uncontrollable.  In our own little worlds we are indeed, as Alexander Selkirk discovered in his solitude, the masters of all we survey. This is, surely, an enormous consolation and comfort when we live in this brave new world in which we actually control so little of what happens around us.

Suggestions for the writing exercise included in each module:

Write a prose memoir, just reminiscing.
Use 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person narrative.
Choose 6-12 words from the reading and expand on them using associative fields.
Write from an image or a metaphor.
Journal style: automatic writing, but try to select the gems.
Letter style: write to a friend.

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Triumphs

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Triumphs

Waking to moonlight in the middle of the night, making it safely to the bathroom without tripping on the rug in the hall, managing to pee without splattering the floor, the seat,  the wall, or my pajamas, climbing back into bed, staring at the stars’ diminishing light until I manage to fall back to sleep. Waking to birdsong in the morning, walking to the bathroom without bruising my left arm against the door latch, shaving without cutting my face, getting in and out of the shower with neither a slip nor a fall and without dropping the soap, drying those parts of my body that are now so difficult to reach, especially between my far-off toes, pulling my shirt over those wet and sticky patches still damp from the shower, negotiating each leg of my pants hanging on to the arm of the rocking-chair so I won’t fall over,  tugging the pulleys of the plastic mold that allows each sock to glide onto my feet, oping the heel will end up in the right spot, forcing swollen toes into shoes now much too small, hobbling to the top of the stairs and lurching down them with my stick in hand, cautiously, one step at a time … on guard for the cat, the edge of the steps, the worn patches where my cane might catch or slip … one more step, and I’ve made it down. The first of today’s miniscule triumphs.

Impact

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Impact

This photo comes up from nowhere, springs into your half-awake mind, diminishes your reality. W5: who, what, why, when where? But there is no who, save the person bearing witness to this moment in time, and you, the double witness who also contemplates and is therefore complicit.

Do you recognize this scene? Is this a moment in your life? Are you the one who struck the match and lit the flames in the lower corners? And are they even flames? Or are they moments of glory, flashes of fireworks, the world coming alive in a moment of combustion when light and dark are mingled until, fiat lux / let there be light, and the world is reborn, light and form, drawn from darkness, and earth and sea divided into separate realms. In principium erat verbum / in the beginning was the word and the world was born / reborn in this verbal-visual instant between sleeping and awakening, when dreams gain substance and ideas take on form and shape and grow in the observer’s mind until creation sparks into life.

Who now knows what will be, what might be? We see. We bear witness. We paint, draw verbal pictures, take snapshots, unfold our souls, placing them on paper and canvas capturing them by camera in snapshots … but What’s it all about, Alfie? Do you remember the film? The suspension in space, the knowledge that all is absurd, that this is a jigsaw puzzle of the worst kind, with no solution, no answer, and every path bifurcating before us, and each of us wandering in a maze, a labyrinth, with an entrance, but no exit.

Do you think up or down, when you’re floating in a space without gravity, where nothing is substantial and all the rules you ever learned no longer hold? The roller-coaster rolls on and you hang on, and sometimes the sun comes up and sometimes the sun goes down, and is that the first light of morning or is it the last light of day, and how can you be sure?

And where is it anyway? Have you ever been there? And if I told you where it was , what time of day it was, or what time of night, would you believe me? And if not, why not? And who and what am I? And why do you trust what I say? And why would you trust me, when you have never met me, and you do not even know who I am, or where I am, or what I am, and even I do not really know who I am or why I am, and why does any of this matter?

It matters because we need faith, we need substance, we need hope, we need to believe in something other than ourselves and beyond ourselves. We still want to wake in the morning and see the dawn. We want to grasp it in our hands, not just in our minds, and know that there is light beyond this darkness, there is hope beyond this gloom, there are better things ahead. See that forgotten candle? Pick it up. Take that match. Strike it against the box. Now light that candle. Take it out. Show it to other people. Encourage them to light their own candles.

Sometimes we need to enlighten the world, to turn it round, to reject it as it seems to be and to recreate it in our own image.  But take care: the image of the candle is not that of the laser beam or the searchlight. One by one, the small people, we must join together, and like tiny stars and light up the firmament. I cannot do it alone. But together, you, and you, and you, and you, if you walk with me, we can do our best. And that is the best we can do, in this, as Voltaire’s Candide once called it, the best of all worlds and the only one we have.

 

Haircut

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Haircut

A new barber’s shop, all male, cutting and shaving, a sea change from the usual unisex, all women, we do it all for you, either of you, your choice. A Muhammad Ali barber shop: ‘we are the greatest’.

“Do I need an appointment?” I ask.

“Sure do,” the boy behind the counter replies. “We’re the hottest thing in town. Let’s see: I can fit you in tomorrow,” he checks the computer screen, scrolls up and down. ”2:35.”

“Nothing else?” I ask.

“Three vacancies next week … let me see …”

“Book me in,” I said.

“Good choice, my man, good choice,” he held out his hand and I shook it.

So here I am, balancing on my cane, hoping I can make it from welcome desk to chair. They greet me warmly. Tell me my guy’s waiting. It won’t be a moment. Here he is. He announces my name with a query in his voice. I nod my head in agreement and mouth his name.

Houston Control: we have lift off.

He accompanies me to my chair. Helps me settle in.

“What can I do for you?”

“Cut my hair?”

He examines me carefully, checks me out in the mirror, runs his hand over my head.

“Would you like to do a Number Two?”

Where I come from, a Number One is a golden shower, a pee-pee, and a Number Two is …

“Not in this chair,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“A number Two? I don’t know what you are talking about.”

He points to the chart on the wall where nine different men are posing in black and white photographs with nine different haircuts.

“Oh,” I stammer. “Do you think that would suit me?”

“It’s your choice, my friend.”

“Go for it,” I say, my heart filled with misgivings.

Love me

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Love me …  love my cat. I think she’s bemused by the sudden smell of all those flowers. She didn’t like the snow yesterday, either. Hands up all those who did. Ah yes, all the students and teachers who had their tenth snow day. No wonder the internet was so crowded all day long. It wasn’t that easy to get on and off but it was so easy to lose the connections. Speaking of connections, yet another circular debate is going round and round the Brexit roundabout in London today. That’s London, England, not London, Ontario. Oh the sea, oh the sea, thank God it still flows between Brexit and me. You’ve got to love it though, especially on St. Valentine’s Day: all those basket cases putting all their eggs into one little Brexit basket. They remind me of a set of Oaxacan donkeys, blinkered and blindfolded, walking round all day in circles, trying to grind the maguey or to draw water from an artesian well (una noria). It’s a thankless task at the best of times, but an incredibly tiring one when there’s a drought and a dearth of clear-thinking and intelligence. Round and round and round they goes, and when they’ll stop, nobody knows. Wow, I’m glad I got that off my chest: now I can enjoy Valentine’s Day with my beloved and my cat. As for Valentine’s Day: say it with flowers.

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Here are the geranium, a little bit winter-struck, still red-hearted and perky in the post-storm sunshine. I always marvel at how they  settle down, go all green-leafed, then start to blossom again: a miracle of love and kindhearted attention.

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And here’s Don Quixote keeping vigil just behind the carnations. Oh Brexiteers, he stands on guard for thee. He’s very quiet though. Not sure about anything, except the need to guard the flowers from fear, fire, and foe. He’s a good man, is Alonso Quijano el Bueno. He doesn’t round round in circles and lose sleep over uncounted and uncountable, slaughtered sheep. Speaking of which, the Welsh are campaigning for Welsh Lamb. They do not wish their products to be labelled with the Union Jack, but with the Red Dragon of Wales, Y Draigg Coch Cymraig. I hope I’ve got that right: it’s been so long. Meanwhile, speaking of love, Northern Ireland is talking divorce from the UK and a renewed marriage with the south. Scotland is talking love-talk with the Europeans and muttering about separation (was it really 1606?) from the Union. And Plaid Cymru is once again flexing it’s separation muscles. For how much longer, in the current state of division, will we be able to talk of a United Kingdom? Valentine’s Day: it’s best to be off with the old love before you are on with the new. Yet there’s mucho flirting going on between many possible future partners, even while undying love is being spouted across the various negotiating tables. The Queen of Hearts rules on Valentine’s Day: “Off with their heads!” Oh dear, whatever will the little caterpillar say, let alone Malice in Blunderland?

And the cat came back. Thank heavens. I cannot imagine Valentine’s Day without some flowers, my beloved, the cat, and a great deal of love and understanding. May the joys of red flowers and open hearts (not the surgical kind) be with you this day, and may you find a ray of sunshine to sit in for the rest of what still promises to be a stormy and snow-filled winter.

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