A Thought for the New Year

Couldn’t find a photo of Don Quixote so I attached this instead. A suitable symbol for Brexit!

A Thought for the New Year

“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).

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden. A hawk perched nearby. There are so many ways to die.

Death by Devilry

Silence in the garden.
A hawk perched nearby.
There are so many ways to die.

A cerebral bleed, minor,
but enough to send him to hospital
and keep him there.

Cured, ready for release,
he would need extra care
and added attention.

The devil lived in the small print.
Too much attention needed now:
his care home wouldn’t care for him.

Back to the old folks ward he went.
There he lay, waiting for a vacancy
in a home that would really care.

One day, Covid came a-visiting,
stalked the ward that night, choosing
its victims: you, you, and her, and him.

What killed him?
A cerebral bleed, a minor stroke?
Or a major stroke from the devil’s pen?

Bold words, bare words,
a barren ward, another vacant place
around a Christmas table.

Comment: Sitting at the breakfast table, with an empty space before me, I penned these words. So tragic, so avoidable. Yet how many families have gone through something similar in the past twelve months? How many empty spaces are there, vacancies that will never again be filled? I look at today’s figures from the USA: 18,466,231 infected and 326,232 already perished, an increase of 227,998 and 3,338 since yesterday. I am reminded of the words of Pink Floyd: “Is there anybody out there?” Blas de Otero also echoes through my mind: “levanto las manos: tu me las cercenas” / I hold up my hands: you cut them off. And yet it is Christmas Eve and there is still the Christmas promise of joy, and hope, and a new year entering. Let us raise our hands in prayer: and let us pray they are not hacked off.

Building Bigger Boxes

IMG_1292 (2).JPG

Building Bigger Boxes

Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a  phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.

So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.

Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts  escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?

It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a  case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.

Comment: Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.

Dog Daze

Street of Life or Death

Dog Daze

Memories deceive me with their remembered shows,
shapes shifting with a click of the magician’s fingers.
What magic lantern now slips its subtle slides

across night’s screen? Desperate I lap at salt-licks
of false hope that increase my thirst and drive me
deeper into thick, black, tumultuous clouds.

A pandemic storm lays waste to the days that dog my mind.
Carnivorous canicular, hydropic, it drinks me dry,
desiccates my dreams, gnaws me into nothingness.

At night a black dog hounds me, sends my head spinning,
makes me chase my own tail, round and round. It snaps at
dreams, shadows, memories that ghost through my mind.

Tarot Cards and Tea Leaves are lost in a Mad Hatter’s
illusion of a dormouse in a teapot in an unkempt tale.
Hunter home from the hill, I return to find my house
empty, my body devastated, my future a foretold mess.

Comment: Tough days around us and even tougher ahead. Covid-19 in the schools and people I know, young and old, frightened and in quarantine as a result. People I know and members of my far-flung (thank you, Jennifer, for that long-lost word) family. Funerals to the right of me, funerals to the left of me, of friends I know, acquaintances I hardly know, and many more whom I’ll never know now. “Into the jaws of Covid-19 rode the gallant six hundred, all masked, many falling, fewer of them every minute of every day.” Gallows humor keeps me alive. Last night my favorite teddy bear went AWOL. I got up at 3:00 am and sent out a search party. Sharp eyes spotted the copper band I lost last week. It had been hiding under the pillow. Then, joy of joys, they spotted Teddy’s black velvet band, the one that ties up the hair that falls over his shoulder and gets up my nose and makes me sneeze. They hauled him out from under the bed. I picked up the phone and cancelled the 911 call before the masked men in their jackboots and their PPE could break down the door and strip search the house for a missing bear. Alas, dear Mabel: I would if I could but I am not able.” How those words resound in my ears. Left ear, right ear, and, like Davy Crockett, a wild front ear. I will not give in to morbidity. ‘He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.” I will survive for another day. Meanwhile, I’ll call for General Worthington, the fellow who can always make the enemy run. “Will you have a VC?” I said “Not me: I’d rather have a bottle of Worthington.” Alas, they don’t make it anymore. And Watney’s Daft Red Barrel has bitten the dust and gone the way of the dodo. And all my friends are in the doldrums, watching, as Admiral Brown abandons ship, mans the boats, and hauls away into fairer weather and cleaner waters. You say you do not understand? ‘Blessed are the poor in intellect, for they shall know peace in these troubled times.’

The truth goes marching on.

WFNB

Moo

WFNB

I have been a member of the Writers’ Foundation of New Brunswick for a long, long time. I am not a ‘founding member’, but I think I have been a member since around 1985, and I am sure I was a member in 1986, when Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, published my second poetry collection, Broken Ghosts. I was most certainly a member in 1989 when my still-unpublished poetry manuscript Still Lives placed first in the Alfred G. Bailey poetry competition.

In the years between 1985-1986-1989 and 2020, I have never received a hand-written communication from any member of the WFNB Board, other than an official communication of one kind or another. Imagine, then, my surprise, when the above postcard, inserted in a hand-addressed envelope, arrived in my mail box yesterday. I was truly amazed and very grateful to the president who wrote these kind words to me. Amidst the panic and the pandemic, it is so nice to be remembered and in such a thoughtful way. Madam President: thank you so much for reaching out to me with this verbal gesture. And yes, you can count on my support for yourself and our Writers’ Federation, I hope for a long, long time to come.

I was in two minds whether to post this or not. However, I wish to emphasize several things: the importance of reaching out, the importance of continuing to believe in ourselves and our creative talents during these difficult times, the necessity of creating alternate communities and of supporting each other as much as possible, the need to avoid total isolation and to maintain human contact in different ways when the physical things — meeting, touching, holding, direct dialog — and the normal activities and relationships of healthy human beings are denied to us, and last, but by no means least, the need to encourage each other and to offer comfort and recognition whenever and wherever possible.

Waiting for inspiration
and
hoping to fly!

This Vessel in Which I Sail

This Vessel in which I Sail

Trapped in this fragile vessel with the pandemic
a passenger waiting to board, I drift from port to port,
looking for a haven, safe, to have and to hold me.

No harbour will let me dock. “No room at this inn,”
they say. “No haven here.” They wave me away.

Now I have no destination. Aimless, I float and every
where I go the message is: “No vacancy: no room at all.”

Unwanted, abandoned, I wander with wind and waves,
my only friends seals, porpoises, and whales.
I walk the whale road, leaving a frail, white wake behind.

This vessel has become a gulag now, a prison
camp where I exist just to survive. Each hour of each day
endless, boundless, like this shadowy, haunted sea.

Today there is no motion, no goal. What is there to achieve
but survival? Each day’s journey is sufficient unto itself.

Apocalypse When?

Apocalypse When?

A strange, milk-cloud sky, skimpy, with the sun
a pale, dimly-glowing disc and my pen scarce
casting a shadow as the nib limps over the page.

Out on the west coast, fires still range free and this
is the result, these high, thin clouds casting a spider
web cloak over the sun face and darkening the day.

The west coast: five or six hours by plane and three
whole days to get there by train, even longer by bus,
all chop and change with multiple stops.

The wind blew and the clouds came widdershins,
backwards across the continent. Today they reached
across the ocean to claw the sun from European skies.

It is indeed a small world after all. Isostasy:
you push the earth balloon in here, and it bulges
out over there in the place you least expected.

Now we are all interconnected in an intricate network
of a thousand ways and means. What does it all mean?
Ripples ruffle the beaver pond’s dark mirror.

The forest mutters wind-words, devious and cruel,
that I sense, but cannot understand. High in the sky
clouds turn into horsemen on plunging steeds.

Fear, fire, flood, foe, poverty, unemployment, pandemic,
crops destroyed and, waiting in the wings, threats of civil
unrest, the apocalypse, and a war to end all wars.

Comment: A week in bed, unable to sit, to write, to use the computer, except standing on one leg and typing with one finger. Unable to concentrate, to create, and now, after four visits to my medical team, acupuncture, manipulation, massage, finally that pinched nerve has stopped pinching and I can get back to writing. However, my thoughts are as grey as these clouds that dim the skies. I no longer know who or what or where I am. The world around me has turned sinister and I suffer.

The result: black thoughts, black poetry, red, flaming skies, and the knowledge that all is not well, neither with me, nor with our sick little planet. There is no Planet B and this one, like me, is suffering.

Premonitions and dark thoughts. I lie awake in bed each night, sleepless, hugging my Teddy Bear and my hot water bottle, aching, suffering, waiting for the dawn.

Sciatica

Sciatica

There is no science to sciatica,
just a series of sensations
most of them involving pain.

I don’t know how or when it comes,
but one day, it knocks on your door
and you clutch back and buttock.

It’s like a hawk at the bird feeder,
flown in from nowhere to shriek
and shred, unawares, one small bird.

Was it the flannel I dropped yesterday
when showering?  I stooped to pick it up,
lunged forward, and that was it?

The pain came later. It kept me awake
all night, my worst nightmare.
No comfort anywhere. An endless

wriggling and every movement a knife
blade stabbing at my buttock and slicing
its slow, painful way down my leg.

The screws, my grandfather called it,
a metal screw screwed into his leg,
leaving him limp and limping.

I googled it today, sciatica, and they
suggested an ice pad for twenty minutes,
repeated twenty minutes later.

“Yes,” I muttered, “yes” and found
in the fridge the ice pack we used
to use in our Coleman’s cooler.

My beloved helped me undo my pants.
“This,” she said, “will be icing on the cake.”
“No,” I said, “it will be icing on the ache”

Tomorrow, I will call the chiropractor.
She will bend me to her will, straighten
my back, cure the pain, set me right again,
as long as Covid lets me in to her domain.

Lamentations

El Cristo de Carrizo

“Contemplate this crucifixion.
Each of your sins is a thorn
driven into His brow.

Each misdemeanor spears
the sacred side,
draws water and blood
from the open wound.

Your sinful deeds
drive nails anew
into hand and foot.

Christ lives in you.
Your misdeeds nail him
daily to the cross
He bears for you.

He hangs there,
open-eyed.

No death,
no resurrection,
just an everlasting suffering
from these nails
you daily drive.”

Comment: This poem is a very golden oldie. I wrote it in 1979 while walking the Camino de Santiago / the Road to St. James. I should add that this was long before it became fashionable to do so. I walked alone and, save for my thoughts, I was indeed very lonely. In fact, the long days walking, the solitude, got to me. I needed to talk, to meet people, and so, after long discussions with sundry people along the route, I determined to take the bus or the train to the main pilgrimage centres and to walk out from them in either direction. This allowed me to meet people, explore the towns with their churches, traditions, and museums, and to learn much more about the nature and art traditionally associated with the pilgrimage. In this fashion, I spent five days in Leon, two days in Hospital de Orbigo, a week in Astorga, another week in Ponferrada, and nearly two weeks in Santiago itself.

I wrote a collection of poems while I was studying the cities and the landscape. This particular poem is a summary of the conversation I had with the old priest, determined to convert me to Catholicism, who introduced me to the Cristo de Carrizo, in Leon.

In 1613, Francisco de Quevedo, the Spanish poet on whom I wrote my doctoral thesis (Toronto, 1975) wrote a collection of heartfelt mea maxima culpa poems dedicated to his aunt. It bore the title of El Heráclito Cristiano / The Christian Heraclitus.  This in turn was based on an earlier cycle of poems, Lamentaciones de Semana Santa / Lamentations of Holy Week (1601), which Quevedo appears to have written following the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

These spiritual exercises consist of a set of contemplations based on the Stations of the Cross, Via Crucis, in which the contemplator meditates on each of the moments of Christ’s torment and suffering leading up to his death by crucifixion at the end of Holy Week. The purpose of the exercises is to try and recreate in the mind of the contemplator the sufferings of Christ, to imagine his pain, and to feel his suffering at a personal level. This is an act not only of contemplation and contrition, but also of purification of mind and spirit.

This year, during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and the Resurrection), I attempted to follow in the footsteps of Quevedo and to contemplate the current world situation and my own specific situation, as influenced by the lock down in New Brunswick instigated on account of the Corona Virus pandemic.

Lamentations for Holy Week, then, is my attempt to examine myself and my own conscience at a time of great personal stress, a stress that I share with all those who are infirm, frail, in ill health, alone, and getting on in years. These are the people most affected by loneliness and the threat of the pandemic to our lives.

The Cristo de Carrizo is a hand-carved ivory cross, Mozarabic in origin. It shows Christ, on the cross, with his eyes open, looking at the viewer. Christ is not dead, in this crucifixion, but very much alive, and suffering. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Lost

Lost

My body’s house has many rooms and you, my love,
are present in them all. I glimpse your shadow
in the mirror and your breath brushes my cheek

when I open the door. Where have you gone?
I walk from room to room, but when I seek,
I no longer find and nothing opens when I knock.

Afraid, sometimes, to enter a room, I am sure
you are in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.
Sometimes your voice breaks the silence

when you whisper my name in the same old way.
How can it be true, my love, that you have gone,
that you have left me here alone? I count the hours,

the days, embracing dust motes to find no solace
in salacious sunbeams and my occasional dreams.

Comment: Another golden oldie, polished, rewritten, and revised. Today is Clare’s birthday and fifty-five years ago today we got engaged, on her birthday, in Santander, Spain. I wrote this poem a couple of years ago when she was visiting our daughter and grand-daughter in Ottawa and I was left alone to look after the house. I will be including this poem in my new collection, All About Ageingin an age of pandemic, on which I am currently working.

My vision of absence and of the bereaved wandering, lost, the house the couple once shared, is sharpened in this age of pandemic in which we live. My heart goes out to all those who have suffered short term or long term effects from the pandemic. My premonitions and visions, my memories and dreams, reach out especially to those who have lost loved ones and who live in the daily reality of that loss.