Writing Memories 10

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Writing Memories 10
Module 5.1 Generation Next 

We have now arrived at our last module: the happiness brought to us by our children and grandchildren. I refer to this as Generation Next. When we emigrated to Canada, our parents stayed behind in what I am now beginning to call the Untied Kingdom. If we were lucky, we saw each other every two years or so. Life’s realities have not changed all that much, and once every two years or so is when we see our daughter and granddaughter. The big difference, of course, is Skype. The social media breakthrough now allows us to see and talk and share on a regular basis. This is wonderful. So, where do we begin with Generation next? With a poem, of course.

Yellow [Poem 1]:

Sunshine and daffodils: my grand-daughter
paddles in the kitchen sink. Her mother
washes feet and dishes. “Sit,” Finley says,
and “stand,” following the words with actions.

Now she says “Yellow, yellow,” as daffodils
fill the computer screen to shine in that
far-off kitchen five hundred miles away
by road, but immediate by Skype.

“Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon
in that distant province where spring arrives
so much earlier than here, she will see
daffodils dancing their warm weather dance,

tossing their heads to gold and yellow trumpets,
fresh, alive, and young in the soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Amazing how children grow and develop. When Finley first came to visit us, her vocabulary was limited and she would select one word and preach it like a preacher leaning out from her Sunday pulpit. Yellow was such a word. Yellow bananas, yellow birds, yellow daffodils and, of course, yellow jello. Is there really any other color for jello? I tried to convert this poem into prose, but it didn’ change much.

Yellow [Prose 1]:

Sunshine, floating dust motes, and the ever-present scent of daffodils: Finley, my grand-daughter paddles in the kitchen sink, rainbow bubbles from the washing-up liquid, with its hint of fresh green apples. Her mother washes Finley’s feet first, then the dishes. “Sit,” Finley says, and “stand,” she follows the words with suitable actions. Sink water swirls and bubbles as she stamps her feet with the slurp of a washing machine, drubbing old clothes. “Yellow,” she says, “yellow,” as once again my St. David’s Day daffodils fill my nostrils with their heavy perfumes and the computer screen with their brilliant golds to shine in that far-off kitchen five hundred miles away by road, but immediate by I-Pad.  “Yellow,” Finley repeats, “yellow.” Soon in that distant province where spring arrives so much earlier than here, she will walk into the garden, hear the robin’s song, and see the daffodils dancing their warm weather dance, tossing their heads to wind-sound through green leaves and yellow trumpets, fresh, alive, and young, fanned by the scent-bearing, soft spring breeze.

Commentary: Some padding, yes, and an attempt o expand the scene and include more varied details, but a success? I am not sure. Right now, I don’t know that I have captured what I wanted to capture. Maybe it is time to rethink everything and start yet again. Before we do, let’s return to the theme of yellow.

Her Shadow [Poem 2]:

Grubby marks remain where her nose rubbed up
against the window pane. Excited she

stood there, watching birds perched on the feeder.
“Finch,” I pointed. “American Goldfinch.”

“Yellow,” she cried out with joy, “Yellow.” Her
tiny hands plucked at air, catching nothing.

Her nose, all wet and runny, left damp, snot
stained letters, her signature, on the cold

glass. That’s how I remember her. Still the
window stays unwashed and her shadow
often comes between me and the morning sun.

Commentary: We all witness them, those moments when time seems to stand still and we see eternity in a grain of sand, or in a stain on the window pane. And what pain we suffer when the little culprit leaves and the house returns to the now unaccustomed silence that reigned before the enthusiastic arrival of Generation Next. The next poem concentrates on the sense of emptiness, and no I will not retouch these poems. They are just where I want them to be.

Empty [Poem 3]:

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: We have all shared such moments and they will vary for each of us. You have had them too. Write bout them, preserve them, catch them and imprison them in the lines on the page that form prison bars for words. Keep them. They are as valid as photographs and just as powerful. In fact, with the proliferation of selfies and the gradual disappearance of the hand-written word, they are probably even more powerful than the ephemera that, like butterflies or one day moths, flutter and flitter through the anonymities of our digitalized world. And now, may the light of the poetic and prosaic muses shine upon you and bring you a wealth of inspiration, for my journey is over and this workshop is done.

Writing Memories 9

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Writing Memories  9

Module 4.1: Love in Old Age

We discussed love in old age, how it happens, how it continues, how it changes with age, how important it is. As usual, we began with a poem and, since Princess Squiffy, aka Vomit, features in the above photo, I will begin with a speech, or maybe it was a rant, I overheard when my beloved was away in Ottawa and I was talking to her on Skype. I knew the cat talked, but I didn’t know exactly what she was thinking until I heard this.

Poem 1:

In Absentia
Princess Squiffy

“I hear your voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by your plastic plaything.

You aren’t here. He is. I can hear you
talk. I stalk to his noise box and see a
shadow, moving, but I can’t make it out.

My muscles first tense, then stiffen. I sniff,
lean forward, but find no trace of female
smell. I cannot sense you. You call me by

my favorite names, mew at me, and I
respond. Shifting shadows, your haunting tones,
memories dancing to the music of

your absence. I can’t eat. I bristle when
he laughs. Where are you, my love? He doesn’t
care for me the way you do. I loathe him.”

Commentary: Since these are the cat’s words, not mine, I do not think it would be right to alter them in anyway. Therefore they must stand as they are. Oh dear. Meanwhile, we must contemplate the love we have for animals, so important as we age. And yes, I love my cat, and my dog, and my false, stuffed Koala Bear, and my old goat, even though I am well aware that yes, Goats do Roam.

Poem 2:

Lost
for my beloved

My body’s house has many rooms and you,
my love, are present in them all. I glimpse
your shadow in a mirror and feel your
breath brush my cheek when I open a door.

Where have you gone? I walk from room to room.
When I seek, I no longer find. When I
knock, nothing opens. Sometimes I am scared
to enter a room because I know you’re
in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.

Your voice, some days, breaks the silence, whispers
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 hours,
days, clutching dust motes, finding no solace
in salacious sunbeams and troubled dreams.

Commentary: I wrote this poem while my beloved was away in Ottawa, visiting our granddaughter. We Skyped regularly and it was during one of those Skyping sessions that the cat ranted the first poem. Love in old age takes many shapes, even for a poor little pussy cat. I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

Poem 3:

Le mot juste
for my beloved

Le mot juste, the exact word that sums it all up,
catches the essence of the thing painting it with care.

Seven colors stripe the rainbow sky, each with its name:
it seems so simple, but the world is changing every day.

Think color. Think blind. Think color blind. Imagine
the world we see reduced with failing eyes to grey scale.

Think flowers now, roses, daffodils, a hollyhock,
hydrangeas, hyacinths, hibiscus, poinsettia,

or the scent of early morning grass as it falls
beneath the blade. I look across the breakfast table

and see my wife of fifty years, a teenager reborn,
walking towards me in the café where we first met.

I search my mind for the words to describe her,
but I can no longer find le mot juste.

Commentary: What more can I say? I tried to rewrite this, but it is “so hard to recapture that first, fine, careless rapture” (Robert Browning). And I am many things, but certainly not a wise old thrush, singing each song twice over, though I wrote the above twice over, as you will see.

Le mot juste [Prose 1]:

Le mot juste
for my beloved

Le mot juste, the exact word that sums it all up, catches the essence of the thing painting it with care. Seven colors stripe the rainbow sky, each with its name: it seems so simple, but the world is changing every day. Think color. Think blind. Think color blind. Imagine the world we see reduced with failing eyes to grey scale. Think flowers now, roses, daffodils, a hollyhock, hydrangeas, hyacinths, hibiscus, poinsettia, or the scent of early morning grass as it falls beneath the blade. I look across the breakfast table and see my wife of fifty years, a teenager reborn, walking towards me in the café where we first met. I recall the café’s noise, the taste of the coffee, sugared, with cream, its bitter-sweet smell, the pink tip of her tongue testing her lipstick the hot, salt bite of melted butter on toasted crumpets. But when I search my mind for the words to describe her, I can no longer find le mot juste.

Commentary: No way, José. Great ideas, but they don’t cut it. Just stick to the original.

Poem 4:

Still
for my beloved

She moves more slowly up the slope, pushing
against the hill’s shallow grain. I know so
well her swaying grace of old, but now she
shuffles with the drag-foot limp of the aged,

and aged she has, like a good wine in an
oaken cask. Her beauty still lingers in
my memory, lodges in my mind and
still I see her as she was, and for me

still is, beautiful in body, mind … slim,
graceful, a joy to hold and behold. Her
eyes still sparkle and she bubbles still with

a champagne thrill that draws me to her, and
still she enhances each room she enters,
filling me, body, soul, with warmth and light.

Commentary: It is so difficult to watch other people age. It’s hard enough to work out what is happening in our own bodies and minds, but it is even harder to imagine what other people are going through. I look back on my grand parents, my parents, my own ageing process. Then there were cats, dogs, friends. I blinked twice and our daughter was suddenly entering middle age. My beloved and I have been together for fifty-eight years, fifty-three of them, married, here in Canada. So many memories. So much love. Sometimes words fail me. How can I say any more?

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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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Cat & Janies

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Cat & Janies

Everybody needs a cat to keep them honest. Dogs are cynics. Cats, on the other paw, are born manipulators. Princess Squiffy, seen here, is intent on the red squirrel that is eating seed just to the left, outside of the picture. PS is trying to hypnotize it, draw it close. If it comes near she will pounce and scare the ‘bejabers’ out of the poor squirrel.

Behind the cat are three blossoms from Clare’s geranium collection. Clare salvages the best geraniums each fall, re-pots them, and keeps them indoors throughout the winter. They bring us joy and color whenever they blossom and are as bright as male cardinals against the snow. We have a pair of cardinals who visit regularly, but hungry, prowling neighborhood pussy cats are often on patrol, so the cardinals are very wary and do not hang around for long. I can’t say I blame them. I don’t mind the blood red reflection of the geraniums on the snow. I am adverse to the blood-red of real blood.

Speaking of which, as I grow old and my skin becomes drier and more like parchment, I find I cut myself much more easily than I used to. This morning I pumped gas into the car. The air was cold, my hands were cold, my skin was taut. I noticed nothing until I got inside the gas station to pay. I had blood all over my hands from a half-inch crack in the skin of my right index finger. I do not know how it happened. But there it was. The young girl in the gas station was excellent and cleaned and patched me up in no time at all. She was very nice to me. I felt lucky. So I bought three lottery tickets. Within five days we’ll find out whether I was lucky or not.

It’s wonderful to be around young people. So much bounce, so much energy. So much joie de vivre. Mind you, our granddaughter wears us out in no time at all. I guess I’ve earned peace, rest, comfort, and relatively easy living in my retirement, mon âge d’or, just like Princess Squiffy. She’s a house cat, incidentally. She can look at that bountiful banquet of squirrel and bird, but she cannot reach out and touch. She can merely make the window rattle as she charges the sliding door. She reminds me of the Pelican, whose beak can hold more than her belly can. Except in her case, especially with the birds, it’s more like her eyes behold more than her belly can. Whatever I do, I don’t want a kitty smorgasborg, nor do I want to turn the bird feeder into a pussy cat feeder.

Speaking of pussy cats and how they belong in houses, here’s one of my favorite short poems from Guillaume Apollinaire: Le chat (1911).

Je souhaite dans ma maison :
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis en toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peux pas vivre.

I searched for the text online, as I had mislaid my own collection of his poetry. By the
way, Apollinaire is one of the few poets (English, French, Spanish, or Other), whose
poems I did not give away during the ‘Grand Clean Out’. The little drop down offered to
translate this page for me and, for once, I clicked it. Here’s their rendition of the poem.

The cat

I wish in my house:
A woman having her reason,
A cat passing among the books,
Friends in any season
Without which I can not live.

 Now all I need to ‘make my day’ is a poem about Geraniums, and I know exactly where to find one.

 

Copperopolis

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Copperopolis

Mountains and craters on the moon look like this:
scarred, barren landscape, scabs of a dead industrial
revolution that created the largest copper smelting
plant in the world. Labourers strove for a living,
but met early with death. Rows of tiny, brick hutches
where families crowd, breeding like rabbits. Back
yards with greenhouses, cracked flagstones, allotments
where life-saving vegetables grow, and a chicken-coop
for the occasional egg worshipped after childbirth.
I remember it well. The garden walls adorned with
broken glass, set in concrete, so nobody could take
food from the garden, or steal the precious hens.
Washday on Monday, when furnace dust had settled
after the day of rest. Clothes hung out on Tuesday,
stained with the industrial waste that clogged bays,
fields, and farms. Summer and Fall, my father walked
shoeless to school, worked hard to buy himself winter
shoes. He sanctified footwear for the rest of his life.
He studied hungry, slept famished, and awoke to hunger
and cold. Born into poverty, we were rich in love.
My father broke out, scaled those walls, got odd jobs,
went to night school, educated himself, became someone.
He wanted the world for me. But my hands were too small
to grasp the enormity of what he had achieved and who he was.
He aimed for the stars, failed, but scraped his wings on the moon.
I cut my teeth on broken bottles and never wanted to leave.

Dandelions

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Dandelions

My flowers drink water dosed with chemicals to keep them alive.
They survive in the vase on the kitchen table,
refusing to crumple. They fly bright flags as if trooping
their colours for Their Majesties, the King and Queen.

They withstand both sunshine and shade, neither wilting
nor fainting under the hot summer sun. In this house
there dwells no queen, just a domestic pussy cat,
Princess Squiffy, who knows she may look at a Queen.

“Your Highness,” say Cape Daisies as pussy cat passes.
“Ma’am,” say Peonies and Pansies, bending their knees.
Outside my window, the garden fills up with onlookers:
still-green Tomatoes, Clematis, and a tall Hollyhock.

A multitude of weeds crowds onto the lawn. Dandelions
spread splendiferous, waiting to take plebeian selfies.
Plebs, they are, vox populi, people’s voice, people’s choice.
Some ancient god must have loved them very much,
for they are ubiquitous, and totally indestructible.

Comments: A glittering plain of ice scintillating in the early-morning sun stretches across the garden. The deer visited us last night, self-invited to a bright moon Maritime Kitchen Party at the bird-feeders. They danced the dark away, leaving lunar craters half-empty with doubt, half-filled now with sun and shadows.

Now is the time to recall the flowers that blossomed last summer. Now is the time to purchase flowers and hold them captive in vases on the table looking out the window at the places they should be. Ground Hog Day, St. Valentine’s Day, St. David’s Day: each day brings new flowers. Wistful we look at iced-up sidewalks, frozen lawns, and glassy roads. We long for the freedom to roam among flowers and plants, without these -15 C temperatures, without these chill north winds that chill us, cutting to the bone.

Today, I will risk a journey to the flower shop or the super-market. I will indulge my need for light, and color, and the tang of hyacinths floating across the table-top. Tomorrow, I will take pen or camera, and I will bear witness to the breath-taking brevity, the shortness and beauty of this floral existence.