My Father

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My Father (Solace 1)

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            I saw my father yesterday evening. I walked through the zócalo, opened the main cathedral doors and walked in. The doors closed behind me. I looked towards the main altar and there my father stood, motionless. The evening light shone through the engraved glass panels and illuminated him as if he were some long passed saint come back to visit me. We stared at each other, but I couldn’t open my mouth to speak. The hairs on my neck stood on end and my hands shook. When I forced my mouth open, words stuck in my throat. He wore his best grey suit over a light blue shirt and a dark blue, hand woven tie: the outfit in which I had buried him.

               Three old women, dressed in black, broke the spell. One stood in front of me and wouldn’t let me approach my father. She held a large bag of knitting in her hands and the wool spilled everywhere as she pushed me away. The second threatened me with a pair of scissors that she held in her left hand and stabbed towards my face. The third beat a tailor’s measuring rod against my father’s head.  He nodded, smiled sadly, and they all turned their backs on me and hurried away out of the cathedral and into the square.

               Just for a moment, I stood there in silence. Then I pulled the doors open and ran in pursuit of my father. The setting sun filled the square with shadows that whispered and moved this way and that, as if a whole village had come down from the hills to walk beneath the trees and dance in the rays of the dying sun. I stood on the cathedral steps and called out my father’s name, but I could see no sign of him among the cut and thrust of the shadowy crowd.

               I ran out into that crowd and pushed at insubstantial people who stood firm one moment and then melted away the next like clouds or thick mist. I came to a side street and saw real people, flesh and blood beings, a group of villagers gathered behind their band. I stopped and as I did the village elder put a live match to the taper of the rocket that he clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The taper caught on fire and the rocket soared upwards with a searing whoosh. The village band marched forward and started to play a traditional dance as the rocket clawed its way into the sky to explode with a loud knock on the door of the gods.

               Tired of grasping at shadows and afraid of this living phalanx of men that marched towards me I went back to the cathedral and knelt at the altar of La Virgen de la Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. Real wax candles stood before her altar, not tiny electric lights, and I inserted five pesos in the slot, took a taper, and lit a fresh candle from an ageing one that had started to sputter. I knelt and, for the first time in years, I prayed. I prayed for the soul I had saved from extinction by lighting my candle from his flame. I prayed for my father and my mother and, above all, I prayed for myself.

               On the way home to my second-floor apartment where I live alone, I bought two litres of mescal, one to send me to sleep, and the other so I would survive the next morning.

The Yfory* Tower

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The Yfory* Tower

“Tomorrow never comes,” they told me,
because, by the time it gets here,
it’s already today.

All my tomorrows are woven into today’s
threads of mist that weave silk scarves
around the open-mouthed trees,
ensuring their silence

Silence, save for click of cat’s claws,
slither of pen over page, tapping of keys,
letters turned into words, words that worm
their way over the page, soundless, into my head.

Geese fly high, arrowing their way to the south.
Autumn is on the wing as days shorten.
Cold weather will be here tomorrow
even though they tell me that tomorrow never comes.

Beethoven rewrites the Fifth. I refuse to open the door
when the postmen knocks, bearing his fatal message.
I guess he’ll be back tomorrow, although they tell me
that tomorrow never comes.

Yfory*:
Yfory, the Ivory Tower, means tomorrow in Welsh.

Springle Dance

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Springle Dance

I guess the title comes from Tolkien where the Hobbits begin an energetic dance at Bilbo’s Party. Or something like that. Mine is a Fall Girl Dance. The hand on the right points to the poor misshapen heart as it moves between fall leaves and colorful dancing sprites and spirits that help it on its way. Where is it going? Who knows where the autumn leaves go once they leave the tree? The bodies fall to the ground, obviously. We rake them into dry, crisp piles and our children and grand-children dive into those leaf-piles, scattering them everywhere so we have to rake them up again. Think of them, the children, as forming leaf angels, a bit like snow angels, but, like the broken heart, a great deal more fragmented.

Try as I might with camera and photo shop, the colors are never quite what they were when I splashed them haphazardly, like September rain and wind-blown leaves, across the page. But life is like that: memories are discolored and distorted, old photos turn sepia, old folk turn white and grey and wrinkled and fragile, like withered leaves from the tree of life. And this is life, real life. We live it every day. Each dream, a flower, each moment a leaf, and every moment the only one we ever truly experience.

So savor those moments, both the good and the bad. They are yours and nobody else’s. Your like is what happens to you. Sometimes it is bitter with salt and vinegar and lemon juice. Sometimes it is toxic and poisonous. But it is yours. It is your chalice to drain as you stand in the garden, feeling betrayed. Like it or not, this is you. Then there are the dream moments: sugar and spice and everything nice. On those days, when the sun shines, it’s away with slugs and snails, and puppy-dog tails and hello hollow world, I see you for what you are and I welcome you for what you are. And yes, you can meet with triumph and disaster, and you can treat those two impostors just the same. You are more powerful than the forces around you. Centre yourself. Find yourself. Heal your broken heart as it wanders among the springle dancers sent to bring you peace and comfort.

Look for your self. Find your self. Be your self. You and your self are stronger than any woes that may beset you. Seek the light … and you will find it.

Pax amorque

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Pax amorque

“Nowhere did she find peace and love
save in the dregs at the bottle’s bottom.
She solved life’s dilemmas with her whisky
aides: Johhny Walker, Glenfiddich, Bell’s.

Doctors told her that she must stop drinking,
not stoop to conquer yet another bottle.
The remedies they suggested didn’t suit her.
Family and friends lectured her in vain.

She knew she would not live forever,
no matter what the religious told her.
She opened bottle after bottle of Bell’s
Scotch whisky and hid them everywhere,

all over the house and garden so she could
always have one more before the road.
She drank until darkness overcame her.
Conquered by Shadows, she never emerged.”

Comment:
A found poem, overheard.
Pax amorque is the Latin for peace and love.

Words Overheard

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Words Overheard while Waiting

“Just one of those things,” an old woman whispers,
“my husband gone and me alone with all the grand
kids.” “Was it four years ago?” her friend says.

I remember his name, but I forget his face.”
“I’ll cope somehow, and the fourteen-year old,
with her belly 
starting to swell.” Silence wraps
a warning scarf around their flapping mouths.

Lives and worlds end and begin. Back turned
to their words, I listen to them talk. They chatter
about friends, family, acquaintances, giving
intimate details of childlessness from cancers
and sudden sicknesses, all laid out before me,
willy-nilly, to root and grow in my listening mind.

Never will I put a face to the girls with breast cancer,
the overweight women with diabetes, the old men
with their heart attacks, strokes, and damaged brains.

Fine dust dances in a sun ray.  Floating motes,
my lost loves, buried before their proper time.

On the outside

 

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On the Outside Looking In …

I walked home on my own. As usual. I’d hated the church Christmas party with all its trumped-up noise, childish games, and artificial gaiety.
The priest, formidable yet effeminate in his long black skirted robe, had made us sit in a circle on the floor, legs crossed. He stood inside that circle and placed a bar of chocolate on the wooden boards. Then he walked around the group and whispered a word in each boy’s ear.
“You must wait until you hear your secret word,” he explained. “Then one of you, when I speak that word, whoever it happens to be, may have the chocolate bar,” he stared at us, large, horsey teeth, black no hair, eyes golden, fierce, like an eagle’s, beneath bushy eye-brows. “When you hear your secret name, you must run and grab the chocolate bar. Understood?”
I had come to the party on my own as both my parents worked. The mums and dads who had brought their offspring to the party leaned forward in keen anticipation. The boys all nodded.
“Are you ready?” The priest watched us as we nodded and then he shouted “Alligator!”
Nobody moved.
“Elephant!” The boys shuffled forward, like inch worms, hands twitching, fingers flexing and grasping.
“Tiger!” A sigh emerged from multiple mouths. Some of the boys licked their lips.
“Lion!” One boy moved, but the priest shooed him away. “Sit down. That wasn’t your word.”
“M-m-mouse!” The boys heaved, a sea-wave about to crest and break.
“I do love this game,” said the priest to the parents. “And so do the boys, don’t you boys?”
“Yes, father …” came the chorus.
“Monkey!” All the boys, except one, leapt into springy action. They dived, crawled, leaped to their feet, ran … a surging heap of boys writhed on the floor as the chocolate bar was torn apart and the long-awaited fights ensued.
All the boys moved, except me. I just sat there.         “I said ‘Monkey,’” the priest frowned at me. “That’s your word. When I say ‘Monkey’, you join in with the other boys and fight for the chocolate bar.”
I shook my head.
“Have some Christmas fun. Join in the game.”
I again shook my head.
“Why not?”
“It’s not right. You’re just mocking us.  I want to go home,” I stood up and walked out of the church hall. I turned at the door and saw the priest glaring at me while a mound of boys continued to scrummage on the floor.
As I walked home, it started to snow. Not the pure white fluffy snow of a Merry Christmas, but the dodgy, slippery mixture of rain, snow, and ice pellets that turned the streets of that little seaside town into an ice rink. I turned up the collar of my coat, bowed my head, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. Two houses before my own, I stopped.
A neighbor’s house. With a window lit up in the gathering dark. I drew closer, pressed my nose against the window and looked in. A Christmas tree, decorated with lights, candles, more decorations, a fire burning on the hearth, two cats curled up warm before the fire, presents beneath the tree, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. For a moment, my heart unfroze and I felt the spirit of Christmas. Then I thought of my own house. Cold and drafty. No lights, no decorations. No fire. The snowball snuggled back into my chest and refused to melt.
When I got home, our house stood chill and empty. My parents were out at work and the fire had died. Nothing was ready for Christmas. I sat at the kitchen table, took out my colouring book and began to draw. When my mother came home, I showed her my drawing.
“Very nice,” she said, barely glancing at it.
“But mum, you haven’t really looked.”
She stared at the picture again. This time, she saw the Christmas tree and the lights, the cats and the candles, the decorations and the presents. But she never noticed the little boy standing outside the house in the falling sleet, peering in through the window.

Railway Yards

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Railway Yards

The enemy came to bomb them. And they did. Tracks rooted out, twisted like spaghetti. Engine sheds burned down. Rolling stock ruined. Many children that year lived with the fear of thunder and lightning as Swansea, my home town, burned, in spite of the black out curtains and the air raid precautions. My father’s father lived by the railway yards. When I stayed with him overnight, the shuffle and clank of steam engines and the clatter of coal trucks scarred my dreams.

My mother’s father lived by the sea and each night the ebb and flow of the tides rocked me to sleep when I stayed in his house. I told the time by the tides and I knew every ship that entered and left Swansea Docks. Standing on the front step, with field glasses to sweep the bay, I could read the ships’ names, painted on bow or stern, and then check their movements in the local paper, the South Wales Evening Post.

Timetables: they ruled my life: time tables for the trains, tide tables for the ships.
When they drove me away to boarding school, I was far removed from the rail yards and the sea. I was now summoned by bells, my every activity chimed in by bell after bell. Bells: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, be silent. Bells for each class, for the angelus, bells for dinner, supper, bed time, and baths. Bells on the altar as we knelt before tall candles that flickered light as the tinkling bells flicked sound across the chapel. The only escape from bells came during field games. No bells then, just whistles. But bells and whistles whittled the timetables of a carefully regulated working life.

When we moved from Swansea (Abertawe) to Cardiff (Caer Dydd), our new house also backed onto train tracks and railway yards. The rattle of rolling stock lulled me to sleep. Each day, I opened my eyes to the clash and clang of early-morning shunting. Each night, at exactly 3:10 a.m., the express train to London would rattle past my bedroom window and shake me awake as I lay in my bed. The one day I didn’t hear the train, I woke up anyway, listening for its sound. When silence stalked beneath the stars, I knew there had been an accident, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Radio and newspapers, there was little television then, screamed the news, so many people dead and injured. We mourned for the unknown dead, just like we did in the mine disasters and the bombings.

Lights out at 9:30, prefects and house masters on patrol outside dormitory doors enforced the silence that ruled the night in those inland boarding schools that I was forced to inhabit. No trains, no ships, no tides, no rattling of rolling stock, no steam whistle, no salt smell of the incoming sea disturbed my dreams, just the snoring and whimpering of lonely little boys lost in their iron-frame beds and longing for the comforts of home.