We all have them somewhere, we few, we few, we privileged few, sent away to boarding school before we even knew what was tucked away in old school trunks, or locked away, cobweb-covered, in the dark recesses of parental minds.
This is my ‘back-to-school’ list. It contains everything a young boy needs, or can think of, when leaving home: shoes, shoe polish, many brushes for shoes, hair, clothes, teeth… everything: name tags, shirts, socks, underpants, trousers, jerseys, ties (of a quiet color), sheets, pillow cases, hankies, sports shirts (house and school), pen, pencils, ink, blotting paper.
So many memories spring out from this list, so many skeletons shake their fists, or wag a finger, or wave, hello, farewell, from that old trunk.
Look: the safety razor to shave that first hint of hair on a juvenile face. Bible and prayer book, too, though I never used them.
How could one not give thanks for the bounties of Thanksgiving? Listening to Cross Country Check Up, last night, as I have done for the last 55 years, I was amazed at how people, some of them in dire circumstances, were able to find things for which to be thankful. I haven’t made a list of the things for which I am thankful and I certainly didn’t call in to the talk show to give my opinion, but let me think…
I am thankful for the beauty of the natural world. Just look at that sunrise! Yesterday we walked in Mactaquac and admired the beauty of the changing leaves. Migrating geese put on a display, taking off from the waters of the head pond, flying, then settling down again. We: I am grateful for the presence of my beloved, still beside me after all these years. I am grateful that we are together and that we are both of us able to walk and indulge in this province’s autumnal beauties.
I am grateful for faithful friends. I will not name them all. If I did, this blog would never be finished. This morning, an e-mail from Geoff Slater, whose paintings and drawings have often appeared on the blog, spoke of the nature of ritual and how we use it. He spoke of external rituals and how, during times like these, when our normal lives are upside down, we lose the ability to follow our external rituals. This may cause dismay and a loss of stability to many. However, he also reminded me that we, as practicing artists, have established our own internal rituals. These keep us going in the difficult times, for they are always there to fall back on. Following his line of thought, I explored my own daily rituals, the ones that have kept me going throughout Covid-19. Thank you, Geoff, for those ideas and for your long-term friendship.
I am grateful for the initial offer, from the University of Toronto, to come to Canada to study all those years ago. Canada gave me a chance to challenge my established rituals and to build and shape new ones that were more suitable to my inner being, a being that I had kept well hidden from the Masters of the Universe who limited my creativity, and ruled the rituals of my Boarding schools and my undergraduate studies. Above all, I am grateful for that rich, inner world of creativity and dream and I am doubly grateful for those who have allowed me and encouraged me to express it and set it down for others to share.
So, Thanksgiving Day: a day on which to give thanks for all the blessings that are in our lives, large and small. Sure, times are tough. Sure, we could all do with more money. Sure, we could go on and on about our wants and needs. But today my want and my need is to give thanks for who, what, where, when and why I am. As my friend Norman Levine once wrote: Canada Made Me.
Was that where my life went, a spent candle trailing dark studies among the packed lines of your poems?
And you, was your life gutted by that same guttering candle by whose light you scrawled your tight black spider rhymes?
Were they all meaningless, your insights and my words? So few now know who you were and what you represented and I, your scholar, a mere shadow of your shadow struggling in the straggling light of a far-off continent, far from content at knowing so much about you. Intent I was on spreading light and the word to a world that thinks the two of us absurd.
Our world is spinning on its edge, placed on the perimeter of space, and going nowhere. Specks of dust we sit and contemplate the vastness of what exactly: our fortunes, our spirits, our houses, our power, our lands? Out there, in the vastness that surrounds us, worlds without end will never know we existed.
Bleak and blank our names, our deeds, our status, the statues they raise in our praise. And what of our thoughts, those sparks of electricity that link us lip to ear and mind to action and each of our actions transformed by a dance performed by circling planets that shape our wills?
Who programs that universe now? Who plays what trivial games of snakes and ladders in which we are the dots and dashes, pinballs among a million trillion strings of flashing lights?
“Meeting her, unexpected, with another man, and me, with another woman, all four of us looking bemused by what the other had chosen in each other’s absence — suspense and silence — then the halted, faltering politeness of a nod, a handshake, ships passing in the night, signals no longer recognized.”
Every day, now he’s learning to speak Welsh, he finds out something new about his childhood. It’s not the need to talk so much as the necessity of diving into himself and mining his memories.
Brynhyfryd / Mount Pleasant. Pen-y-Bont / the End of the Bridge. Ty Coch / the Red House.
This latter the house in which he was born, way out of town, by Fairwood Common, away from the strafing and bombing. The war generation of his family all born in the same in-the-country Gower bed. No room in war-time hospitals not even for the birth of war babies.
Three of his brothers did not survive those rough, household births. He still bears the forceps’ scars from the moment the doctor plucked him out, head first, and hung him up by the heels, shaking him, bringing him back to life.
He bears other scars as well from the survivor’s burden of carrying three dead brothers for seventy long years, alive and kicking in the womb-warm crevices of his still beating heart.
Codes and Coding Where’s Home? (4) A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.
“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.
Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.
The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.
But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo–Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b, c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.
This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.
When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.
It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.
Right from the address on the envelope where you gifted me a knighthood, calling me Sir Roger, I was captivated by this package.
I opened it at the Beaver Pond in Mactaquac and started to read as Clare did her daily walk, widdershins round the pond. Alas, I missed the great blue heron flying. Ditto, the osprey and the kingfisher. I heard all about them later.
Only you, Jan, only you. You are truly unique. Your words jump off the page, lean across the table to me, and offer me bread and wine. I do hope that this book is the first of many. Your words brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart.
So many themes that touched me deeply. The loss of language and culture: in this case, French and Gaelic, in my own case Welsh, a forbidden language when I was growing up. It is only now, at an advanced age, that I have started to learn it. What memories it brings back.
The sending of indigenous children to residential schools: in my own case, starting at age six, I was sent away to a series of boarding schools and never escaped until I was 18 years old. Good-bye family and culture: hello loneliness and solitude.
The enforcement of religion, top down, with the vicious punishments that accompanied doubt, unbelief, or non-acceptance. The brutal separation from family, with the whole experience of reintegration into a now-become-foreign world, relocation, loss of roots and culture, the difficulties of not belonging to the new communities.
There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day. Meanwhile, congratulations on this book, Jan. May it be the first of many and a delight and revelation to all.