Happy Hours

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As the inscription on the old Roman sundial announced: Horas non numero nisi serenas / I count only the happy hours. And, of course, the sundial is right. When the skies are cloudy and the rain and snow are falling, the sundial sleeps and refrains from marking the passage of time. But when the sun prances brightly through those heavenly meadows and casts shadows across the numbers on the clock, then the sundial counts the hours, precisely because they are happy.

I try to do the same. I try to avoid the shadows that are cast across our planet and I try not to count them. Alas, like the grains of sand on the beach and the countless stars in the sky, they are innumerable, though the latter are being named, numbered, and counted, much to their chagrin.  Who wants to be called Welsh by foreigners, with all the negative connotations they associate with the epithet, when our real name is Cymraeg? And no, we don’t live in Wales, we live in Cymru, or better still, in Canada when we (e)migrate. Canada: I wonder what the real name is for this huge and wonderful land? And what about the local indigenous peoples? I can accept that they are First Nations. No problem. But who are our hosts and neighbors when they call themselves Wolastoqiyik (or Maliseet) and we call them Aboriginals (or worse)?

What’s in a name? North, South, East, West … simple, eh? How about Upstream, Downstream, Away from the River, Towards the river? Think names of the months, names of the days of the week. Now think guidance, think signposts, think culture, think separate cultures, think different ways of living, think different ways of life. Think possessive pronouns: my book, my house, my cat, my dog, my son, my daughter, my Wifi, my wife.  Or as le grand Charles de Gaulle expressed it, in Le Canard enchaîné: “Ma France, mon coup de frappe, mon Europe … mon Dieu.” Maybe we would be better off without possessive adjectives. But then …

“Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to our house
and stole a leg of beef.”

Taffy: a generic name for the Welsh. Any male person from Wales is automatically a Taffy from the moment he opens his mouth and speaks with anything like a Welsh accent. Taffy, from the River Taff that flows through Cardiff,  aka Caer Dydd, the fort on the Dydd. There are many rivers in Wales, many regions. Men from the Isle of Mona, Llanberis, Caernarfon, Brecon, Abertawe, Aberavon, Castell Nedd, Caerfryddin, Pen-y-pont, Caer Isca, Usk, Cas Newydd, Pen-y-Bryn, Sgetti, Uplands, Trebanog, Llanelli, Llanfairpwllgwyngilldrawbwllchllantiisilioggogogoch, Cwm Parc, Trebanoc Cwmbwrla, Cwmrhyddiceirw  … Taffies one and all, even if they were born miles away from the River Taff and rarely visited Cardiff, the very name of the river and the city anathema to them.

I once had a friend, a very good friend, or so I thought, educated in Harrow, Oxford, secret member of the ultra-secretive, fabulously expensive, well-endowed and super-privileged, ultra-elite Bullingdon Club. He had a triple barreled name of course: Somerset-Trilby-Frisbee or something like that, I forget now. Whenever I arrived at a reunion or a meeting, he would greet me with a bullhorn, bullfrog chorus that reached into the far corners of the room: “Lock up the silver spoons, the Welsh have arrived.”

Humor? His laughter would rock the rafters and shake the room once more. Racism? What racism is there in mocking the Welsh when you are English? Bigotry? No man with a three part surname, an English public school background, and a list of ancestors longer than your arm could possible be a bigot.  Idiot? He was very intelligent, slightly unbalanced, and totally oblivious to any social norm or indignity, unless he was the threatened person, and watch out for vicious mousetraps if you made him the butt of your own humor and he took umbrage at the slight. Criminal? No way: the Welsh were always the criminals, for back in the legendary mists of time they had stolen a leg of beef and now they were here to steal the precious plastic spoons and knives and forks that masqueraded as silver …

… what’s really in a name? What’s in a grey day or a blue day? What’s in a cloudy day or a sunny day? What’s in our hearts when we denigrate our friends and doubly degrade our enemies and those we declare to be our enemies, sometimes on a gut feeling or a whim? Horas non numero nisi serenas … Time to look on the bright side, to walk on the sunny side of the street, to reject the shadow and live in the sunshine. Time, in fact, to turn the whole day into a succession of Happy Hours. Study the cartoon above. Now that is a portrait of someone who really enjoys a Happy Hour. And not a glass or a bottle in sight.

Snovember

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The snow came early this year, hence the above cartoon: Snovember. The deer came early too, and we saw three of them wading through the bottom of our garden, about fifty feet from this tree, where the now-bare trees separate our lot from our neighbor’s. It was just after lunch, and quite the surprise, as the deer usually arrive just before dawn or just after dusk, and much, much later in the year.

So it’s clearly a season of firsts and readjustments. Yesterday, we went wild and invested in an early Christmas tree. It’s a six foot tall white birch (plastic and ever-lasting) with 120 led lights and we will plug it in the corner of the dining room by the computers.

In the short dark days of winter, we are affected by Sun Absence Depression (so SAD) and keep a set of lights burning in the corner of the dining room by the computers. These lights are particularly effective in the early winter mornings, before sunrise, when the world is dark and we need warmth and comfort. Turn the computer on, and on come the lights shedding joy to welcome us as we read the enormous amount of bad news that seems to be circulating through our world right now.

Light in the dark: I think of it as a pair of rose-tinted glasses that allow us to reject the bad news and to look for the bright side, the silver lining that blesses every seeming cloud. That’s why the snow falls in bright flakes in my cartoon. The tree appears to be bare, but a couple of birds and some scrag ends of leaves adorn the branches.  The days may appear to be dark, but the bright lights on the tree are a silver lining to the cloud of unknowing that hangs in the air like a black umbrella.

The cloud of unknowing, the dark night of the soul … so much mystery, so much joy and despair, in life around us, yet it is a mystery to be grasped and savored, to be tested and tasted … and what is life without uncertainty, challenge, faith, belief, and lights, colored lights, a festival of lights, and humor, even in this darkest of all seasons?

 

Ghosts

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How many ghosts loom out of our past and stand over our beds at night ready, willing, and waiting to enter our dreams and haunt us? I guess we all have them. But, like the animals in Animal Farm, where some are more equal than others, I guess some of us are more haunted by our childhood past than other people are.

What haunts me most from my childhood? Loneliness, rejection, and abandonment, I think. An only surviving child, I was sent to boarding school at a very early age. This initiated the sense of rejection. In my own mind, I was clearly being thrown out and equally obviously, nobody wanted me around. This reinforced my sense of abandonment. Rejection and abandonment were complicated by loneliness. When I came home for the holidays and talked about ‘school’, nobody in the family knew what I was talking about, because nobody in my family had ever been to a boarding school. My school experiences were foreign to the rest of the family.

We lived in a working class area of Wales. It didn’t take long for my ‘posh accent’ to further single me out and this led to even more torment inside and outside the family. I will not repeat some of the things that were said, but I have never forgotten them. Only recently have I begun to understand what many of those words and snide comments actually meant.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones,
but words will never hurt me.”

The old Welsh proverb seems to ring true. I certainly got the sticks and stones, above all the sticks, daily beatings and canings in school. Back home, the words swarmed like black-fly and yes, they stung, hurt, and did a great deal of damage, much of which still clings around me.

Loneliness: how important was that? Both my parents worked, so when I was home from school for the holidays, I was either at home all day during the working week, alone from early morning until late afternoon when my parents came home, or fostered out to family members, not all of whom wanted me around. Many, many days I spent at home, on my own, face pressed against window panes, waiting, watching the eternal rain.

There were some blessings: I learned very early how to cook and I have carried the love of cooking with me always and everywhere. For me, cooking is a joy, a filler of space and time, a beloved occupation that dispels loneliness, and abandonment, and fear. Cooking: the thinking, the planning, the creativity, the activity … I hated cleaning up afterwards, always have. But, it’s amazing how many people love you, and love to hang around you, when you know how to cook, and how to cook differently and well.

Why do I write about this now? Well, I read this article on trauma and addiction a few minutes ago and it moved me greatly. Clearly it’s time for me to face some of those past ghosts and to banish them from my life. Can I do this? I don’t know. But I’ll give it a WIGAN, a jolly good try.

Heart Dance

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Heart Dance: This is what the heart does when you have a good friend around for lunch and you spend an hour or two discussing art, creativity, meaning, change, artistic development, moving on, changing one’s style, and welcoming and creating new artistic visions. Heart Dance is about possibilities, about opening things up, seeing the interior self more clearly, watering the creative soul and encouraging it to grow outwards until it fills the whole person.

Heart Dance moments happen at different stages in the artistic life. They are urgent moments, impulsive moments, moments when you can suddenly hear the music of the spheres and see the universe dancing for you, before you, and with you. They are magic moments when the heart becomes one with the universe and heart and soul join mind and body in a universal heart dance where the dancers are one and the dance is not just for one, but for all sentient and creative beings who can hear the music and feel the rhythms pounding through arteries and veins.

The dull, grey, concrete life of the nine to five desk-bound existence fades away to be replaced by a flowerbed of activity, full of light and sound and color and music. Usually, this happens to the individual in the privacy of his or her own mind. Occasionally, we can share the event with a friend who is going through the same, or a similar, change at the same time. A unique experience to feel and witness the music with another person and to be bound into the circle of dancers, treading where other artists, great and small, famous and less important, have all danced before.

We talked of the joys of visiting great museums and of staying in one room, before one painting, and of spending the day there. This I did with El Greco’s El entierro del Conde Orgaz / The burial of Count Orgaz, with Picasso’s Guernica when it was housed in the Mesón de Guernica, with Hieronymus Bosch’s The Hay Wain, with Velásquez’s Las meninas, and with Goya’s Desastres de la Guerra, not one picture, but a series of etchings taken in, day by day, over a period of a magical month spent in Madrid.

In poetry it happens when I return to poems that I love. I read and re-read them, again and again, finding new nuances, new meanings, new depths. I think of the anonymous Poema de Mio Cid, of Góngora’s Polifemo, of Quevedo’s Canta sola a Lisi and his Heráclito cristiano, of Octavio Paz’s Piedra de sol, of Lorca’s Romancero gitano and his Poeta en Nueva York … the wonderful original poems of Fray Luis de León and of St. John of the Cross … and this is just scratching the surface of an exterior world that I have interiorized until it has indeed become a part of me.

Heart Dance: my heart dances and sunshine floods my soul as I write these words, words and thoughts that I have just shared with a good friend, as he shared similar words with me and we joined together in a heart dance during which the sun shone brightly and the whole creative universe sang and danced with us.

Brexit 2

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So, I called Mrs. May, the British Prime Minister, this morning, in search of clarification and she very kindly agreed to send me the road map she had drawn up for Brexit. As you can see from the above photo of the road map, it is very simple: the truth of the matter is that in Brexit ‘the truth points the way’. So, just follow the arrows and you will arrive at a satisfactory solution that will please all parties.

Thank you so much for this road map, Mrs. May. It reminds of the RAC maps that led us through France to Spain by following one straight line that never deviated. I remember trying to follow that one straight line through Bordeaux one year, in the rush hour crowds that followed the end of a soccer match and a rugby match. Marvellous. I can’t remember how many times we got lost in the twisting turning narrow streets we encountered when we once took a false turning, away from the packed streets of revellers, while looking for our RAC booked hotel.

In the end we  picked up a street urchin and he drove with us for another half hour tour of the city before we realized that he too was ‘just taking us for a ride’, so to speak. In the end, we stopped outside a large, five star hotel, unbooked, and spent the night there. My my father and I were in the elevator, going upwards to the Nth floor. The elevator stopped and three large, husky, obviously foreign men walked in. They looked at my father in great surprise and one of them spoke to him.

“Tis the map of Ireland written all over your face,” he said in a thick Irish brogue. The other two nodded their agreement.

“Yes,” said my father in an even thicker Welsh accent that he had picked up working in the Rhondda Valley, “I am Irish, but I was born in England.”

Ah, road maps: they lead you anywhere and everywhere. You can always trust them. And they always turn out just right in the end. All you have to do is follow that one straight line for page after page and never deviate from it. Ask the RAC: they will tell you.

 

Thinking Outside the Box

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Clichés, I love them.  Take one of our current Canadian educational clichés, for example: “We teach you to think outside the box.” I have met many teachers at various levels of education who tell this to me, and to their students.  Yet most of these teachers cannot themselves ‘think outside the box’. What they usually do, when teaching, is shut off the student’s original box by teach them to build a slightly larger one around it. They must now learn to think inside this new box in the way the teacher wants. Hence the cartoon above: We build bigger boxes and Building bigger boxes.

The central motif is, of course, the original ‘tiny’ box outside which the student must be ‘taught‘ to think. For ‘taught‘ substitute one of the following: persuaded, bullied, pressured, beaten, shamed, starved, embarrassed, … depending on the time and place, all of these words are sadly suitable and yes, in my learning career, I suffered at one time or another at the hands of teachers who used each of these methods, and others equally (or more) brutal, sometimes more than one at once.

What was inside that original box? Of course the contents vary with each individual, but creativity is in there, challenging authority is in there, self-belief is in there, a desire to ask endless questions, a childish wisdom to see the world as it is, not as the grown-ups say it is. I ask you, have they really ever grown up, have they ever escaped from their own hand-built boxes? Education: locking down the walls of that original box. Do away with creativity [not that way, this way!], free thinking [you mustn’t say things like that!], challenging  authority [cheeky, disobedient child!], asking questions [little children should be seen and not heard …. silence! … silence in class!] and finally, do away with self-belief and make the child dependent on the teacher [please, Sister Mary … please, Mother Theresa … please Father Maguire …] …

As the walls of the bigger boxes grow thicker and stronger, so it becomes more difficult to once again think as a child. Questions are answered by authority figures or on the internet with answers to FAQs and pre-packaged concepts. How do we regain our creativity? I assure you, we have never lost it. Where is it? Where is it hidden? In this world of folly and rush, of hustle, muscle, and busy bustle, so few of us have the time or can afford to take the time to sit and think, to undo those false walls that surround us, to find again the child-loving pleasure of thinking for ourselves, of discovering for ourselves, of being creative in the ways that we were so very, very long ago. Remember what Picasso said of his later paintings: ‘it took me a long time to relearn how to see the world as a child.’

Creativity: it is always with us. We must rediscover it. We must unwrap it from the tarpaulins that the system placed around it. We must dig it out from under the walls, the ruinous walls, with which the system surrounded us. It is still there, waiting for us to rediscover it. Believe. Roll up your sleeves. Dig deep inside yourself. And think for yourself. Then, when you have found that original box, open it, find exactly what is in it (the universal gifts to the new born), and become creative yet again. Only then will you have taught yourself (yourself, because others won’t teach you) to truly think outside the box, the multiple boxes, that the system and society designed to trap your creative spirit. Open the cage door: , release your creative spirit and let it soar to the skies.

Naval Gazing

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Naval Gazing

Of course I haven’t spelled it incorrectly. Just look at those three ships, not to mention the ‘bell-bottom blues’ jeans my alter ego wears in this apology for a selfie. And yes, of course, the protagonist is navel gazing, too. We all do it from time to time. We have to. We need to know who we are and what we are all about. As Cesar Vallejo wrote, a long time ago: “Hay golpes en la vida, yo no s锑there are setbacks in our lives, I don’t know.’ How do we deal with these sudden setbacks? That depends on each of us: our background, our culture, our ability to bounce back from nowhere and nothing to set ourselves upon the true path again. Man is stronger than he thinks he is, while woman is even stronger than man. Strength: it exists in many forms and holds many meanings. Sure, it means the amount of weight we can lift. But it also means the amount of weight and cares we can carry and how long we can carry them for. And that is where women are so strong.

Every so often, we must all navel gaze. We must look at ourselves, not in the mirror, but in the depths that live within us. I am in navel gazing mode right now. To a certain extent, I have lost my way and I feel very strongly I must find it again. So I sit and think and look inside myself and search and wait with great patience for the light to arrive and  enlighten me once more. It will come. I am sure of that.

Yesterday

Yesterday, a lovely lady read me
my biopsy results.

She poured a bitter drink
into a poisoned chalice
and offered it to me.

It was my personal Gethsemane,
a cup from which I was forced to drink.

I sat there in silence, sipping it in.
Darkness wrapped its shawl
around my shoulders.

‘Step by step,’ she cautioned me,
‘it’s like walking on stepping stones.’

I opened my eyes, but I could no longer see
the far side of the stream.

This poem opens my book A Cancer Chronicle (available on Amazon). It refers to the moment, three years ago, when my urologist confirmed that indeed I had prostate cancer and that, yes, it needed treatment. “Hay golpes en la vida, yo no sé”. The cartoon, I hesitate to call it a painting, was completed on the ninth day of September, two months after my treatment ended. I sat in the kitchen at home, looking out at the mountain ash, watching the birds as they swarmed the tree in search of nutritious berries. Then I made the cartoon. I called it Naval Gazing. I might just as well have called it  “Hay golpes en la vida, yo no sé”.

How we deal with  such golpes / setbacks / blows defines us as human beings. I have spent much time recently encouraging others, and they must all remain anonymous, to confront their demons, call them out, and overcome them in as fair a fight as is possible. Today, I too sit in the dark, watching the snow fall, watching the birds scurrying to and from in search of sustenance. I too am searching, once again, for meaning, for light, for the energy to continue. It will come. When it does, I will embrace it with both hands and start all over again, picking up life’s threads from where I left them. Then, once again, I will see the far side of the stream.

Yesterday is the opening poem in my book A Cancer Chronicle. It is available on Amazon.

Yesterday
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