Thursday Thoughts: Fear

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Thursday Thoughts
10 May 2018
Fear

Tomorrow I drive to Quispamsis to give a writers’ workshop on Fear. How do I tell the participants that I am afraid? I am afraid of the journey there by road. I am afraid of stray moose and deer, fleeing from the flooding, and standing, frightened, by the roadside, ready to panic and run at the car. I am afraid of getting lost, of losing my way, of being stranded in unknown streets with no outlet, no exit, no easy way home.

How do I tell them I am afraid of them. I am afraid of their knowledge. Many of them will know more than me. They are all unknown quantities, blank faces at present, with tumble dryer minds full of churning ideas, ideas that I have never had nor met. I am frightened. I have it in my head to call in sick, to say I am no longer available, to say I cannot come to orchestrate the music that I myself composed.

Stage fright, I suppose, these pre-conference  nerves that battered me all last night with their owls’ wings, leaving me sleepless, turning and tossing, cringing at my own lack of everything that I will tell them they should have.

Fear: a black monster that hides beneath the bed. I dare not leave arm or hand above the blankets in case the monster emerges and bites off the hand that feeds it with more fears. Fear: the shadow in the corner, looming over the bed, shaking me by the shoulder as I lie there, tormented. Fear: the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch, the hand that holds me by the ear or the scruff of the neck and drags me back into a shadowy past where monsters dwell and flicker in the candlelight, growing larger as I walk down white-washed halls.

Enough, no more: I am just as afraid now as I was before. Sleepless tonight, too tired tomorrow to care, I will leave early, hope for the best, wind my way carefully through deer strewn roads and perilous paths. When I get lost, and I probably will, I will ask the way. And all the time I’ll sing my favorite travel song: ‘I know where I’m going’ … even if I don’t.

Thursday Thoughts: On Water

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Thursday Thoughts
03 May 2018
On Water

In the seventy-fourth year of my life,
sitting on the car in Mactaquac Park,
waiting for my wife to walk down the slope
to where I’m writing, a warm wind today,
sunshine, the river still rising, more rain
called for tonight, another inch or more,
that’s twenty to thirty millimeters,
you can hear from here the restless waters
powering the dam’s dynamos, creating
great creamy waves to wash over coffee
colored waters fathered upriver with
their splintered debris wafted from waters
still gathering strength in the north where snow
melts steadily while the stormy sky builds
clouds, and weathermen forecast thunderstorms
yet to descend and overflow our streams:
sitting safely I fear for those downstream
who deal with flooded basements, water pumps,
animals in distress, destruction come,
no sanctuary save in flight, wood, mortar,
brick promising no safety, no respite
from rising waters and eternal rain.

Commentary:

In the great flood of 1973, we lived on the Woodstock Road in Fredericton. We watched the river waters rising. Luckily they stopped on the other side of the road from where we were living and didn’t cross the road. This year we live out of town on the other side of the hill away from the river. Each time we drive into town we see the river waters and measure how they rise. Our hearts go out to those folk who are forced to evacuate their homes. We find it hard to believe that the waters are now at the levels they reached in 1973 and may, in some places, exceed those levels by a meter or more.

Next weekend, Word Spring, the spring meeting of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick, is scheduled to take place in Quispamsis. Yesterday, the people of Quispamsis found themselves on flood alert and were told to prepare for instant evacuation. It rained last night and more rain is expected. While it may not rain here in Island View, the catchment area of the St. John River, the Rhine of North America, is enormous. Any rain falling in the north of the province may affect the river. The snow is still melting from the deep woods and clear cutting along the river banks has, according to some, affected the ground’s ability to retain water.

All in all, a difficult situation and one that is forecast to last for another week or ten days. More details can be found here:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/homes-cottages-flooded-1.4645225?cmp=news-digests-new-brunswick

Thursday Thoughts: M. T. Head

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Thursday Thoughts
26 April, 2018
M. T. Head
 

I sat in the class, head in hands, avoiding eye contact. I hoped the teacher wouldn’t point me out, call on me, nominate me with a finger … to no avail … he called my name … “You have sixty seconds to speak about …” he paused, then produced the rabbit from the hat, “matches. Come along, stand up, you have sixty seconds, starting …” he watched the second hand go round on the classroom clock, then counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” waved his hand, and shouted: “Now!”

Matches: cricket matches, boxing matches, rugby matches, soccer matches, chess matches, matches to light the burners on the gas stove, the oven, to light the fire in the fire place … matches, matchsticks, Match Box toys, Dinky toys, toys for little boys, toys for big boys …

“Ten seconds have gone … you have fifty remaining.”

“When I think about matches, I think about …”

The first spring day in the bungalow, our summer home. The rooms are cold and damp after the winter and nobody has been here since last year. We lay a fire in the grate, but the wood is damp, as is the old newspaper we gather from our last visit. We search for sugar to aid the blaze that we hope to start, but the sugar bowl is empty. We go to the stove. Cold, winter ashes crowd the fire bowl. We scrape them together in a desperate search for charcoal remains …  but we find nothing. We move to the oil-fired lamps and oil stoves. Matches dragged across soggy sandpaper fail to spark.

“Come along, boy. Have you nothing to say? You have thirty seconds left.”

Silence fills the room. It is broken by the childhood sniggers and chuckles of long-forgotten friends. The unmentionable shuffles its outsize feet to shatter the silence. My cheeks grow red. I start, stammer, and stop.

We leave the bungalow. Go next door to where our neighbours winter over. We knock on the door. “Can you lend us a match?” we ask, holding out our hands. Mrs. Williams beams at us. “A match,” she says. “First time in after the winter?” We nod. “I thought so. Saw you arriving. Wondered why you hadn’t come earlier. The weather’s been nice. Here: I can do much better than a match.”  She moves over to the fireplace, picks up the little coal shovel, shovels up a generous portion of her fire, heaps on another lump, then two, of fresh coal, and “Here you are,” she says. “Just put it in the fireplace and add some wood and coal. You can start your first fire with this.” “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” we say. “No problem,” she replies. “It’s good to see you back. It’s been lonely here this winter without you.”

“Time’s up,” the teacher says. “That’s sixty seconds of silence and you can hardly find a word to say on a simple subject. Are you stupid or what? You should be ashamed of yourself.”

My face turns red. I hang my head.

I feel ashamed.

I am seven years old.

Thursday Thoughts: Cricket

 

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Thursday Thoughts
19 April 2018
Cricket

            Street cricket. Played on cracked tarmac. The wicket: three sticks whitewashed on to the high stone wall of our cul-de-sac street that backed on the railway yards. The wall the boundary. And the neighbor’s front yards. Six and out if you hooked and hit behind the wicket and over the railway wall. You also had to retrieve the ball yourself. Game stopped until you climbed the wall, looked down at the rail yards thirty feet below, and shouted until someone emerged from a workman’s hut to find the ball or throw it back.

            No worker … no ball … no game. Then you had to run out of your street, down the main road, up the hill for two streets, beg permission at the locked rail yard iron gates: “Please, mister, can I go get my ball?” Then run all the way back down the railway lines to where the waiting players hung over your own street wall, shouting and cheering. Search for the ball among shiny rails, shunting rails, rusty rails, dandelions, thistles, and nettles, avoiding rolling stock and the occasional shunting engine. Find the ball. Try unsuccessfully to throw it back over the wall to the waiting hands. Try again. No good. Wall too high. Carry ball back to iron gates. Thank gate man politely so you can come back next time. Return ball to game. Game continues, rain or shine. Unless it’s real rain. The Lissingdowne / Pissingdown type. If so, run for nearest house and shelter by fire in kitchen.

            Basic rules. Six and out if you hit it over the railway wall. Two runs and fetch the ball yourself if you hit it into the to bomb buildings at square leg, next to the railway wall. No fielders there. Banned territory. Still piled with grass-overgrown bombed bricks and debris. Fragile, crumbling walls still still liable to tumble. Cellars that might open up. Low walls that might collapse. Four and out in a neighbor’s front yard. Some were nice and didn’t mind. Watch out for the old witch with the garden gate. If you hit her window, even with a tennis ball, she’d be out quick as a flash, steal your ball, and wouldn’t give it back. Otherwise, it was single-batsmen. Run the runs and walk back from singles. One hand, one bounce. Tip and run once you’d scored twenty. One hand off the wall if you didn’t clear it for a six and out. Out if your fox terrier got the ball and ran round and round in circles with it in his mouth. Damn difficult to catch. Also his sharp, terrier teeth might puncture the ball. Damned dog. Lost ball and stopped match if the dog ran into the house and gave the ball to your gran who was saving it for tennis.

            Cricket, in those days, was civilization. It had survived the bombing raids that missed the railway yards and bombed the bomb buildings. It had survived the machine-gun fire from the fighter-bombers that had strafed the street leaving bullet-holes, still un-repaired, in walls and shattering the glass of now-mended windows. It gave us a sense of rule and law, for the rules were strict and nobody broke them and stealing runs in tip and run was legal and not a crime.

            Cricket: a small, bright window on the back-street where I lived, a window filled with happiness and light, even when it’s over the wall and six and out, or the dog runs away with the tennis ball, or the ball vanishes down a mysterious rabbit-hole in the bomb buildings and slides down to someone’s ruined cellar.

            Game’s over. The Tests Match is on. The one primitive, tiny black-and-white screen in the street lights up with flickering figures and we sit around on the floor watching real men playing the real game on a grassy field in a fairy-book world, a world that most of us back-street boys and girls will never know or see, but that comes over to us as a dream of reality on this old black-and-white tv.

Thursday Thoughts: Secrets

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Thursday Thoughts
Secrets
12 April 2018

Thursday Thoughts: there are none. This morning, I read the online newspapers, I played a game of chess against the computer, I played two games of solitaire, also online, I checked my dwindling financial resources, and then I sat down to write.

The piece that I wrote was so personal, so deep, so full of darkness, that I will keep it under cover, hidden from the light of day. Writing that expresses the authenticity of being, indeed: but when that being is weak and full of fear, how can that writing be exposed?

A flower in the desert, blooming unseen? An exposé of that which is better kept unexposed? I think of the multiplicity of ghosts best kept safe, old bones in Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard.

‘He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.’ My grandfather explained to me that this was how he had survived the trenches in WWI. His medals in the cupboard upstairs, his oak leaves for bravery, belie the stories he spun when I was a child.

Yet today, this Thursday, discretion is the better part of valor. I am the guardian of my family’s secrets. Some of them will be kept. Many of them must be kept. That is my thought (and my decision) for today.

Thursday Thoughts: Downsizing

 

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Thursday Thoughts
05 April 2018
Downsizing

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax,
of cabbages and kings,
and if the sea is boiling hot,
and whether books have wings.”

Downsizing: such a sad time. Over the last few weeks we have slowly and steadily packed seventeen boxes with a part of our precious book collection. We are giving it to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, our local provincial university. The collection contains several specialist areas including Mexico, the State of Oaxaca, and five pre-Columbian Mixtec codices, the 1492-1992, quincentennial facsimile editions. Today the Mexico collection, minus the codices (which we will deliver later, by hand), departed.

Their departure has left an emptiness on our shelves and a sadness in our hearts. Old friends, they are. We sought for them in Oaxaca, chasing through old books stores, market places, state institutions, and the houses of friends. The result: a steady accumulation of literary gems. Clare, in particular, took a delight in the codices, learning first to read them, then to analyze them. Much of the Mexican collection centres on how to interpret these precious documents, one of which still bears the burn marks where a wise priest drew the manuscript codex from the Inquisitional flames and saved it for posterity.

When the Mexican collection settled down in the boxes, a little space remained and we filled one box with the first set of books from our Quevedo collection. This was La Perinola, the Revista de Investigación Quevediana. I lay awake most of the night agonizing on whether or not I should let this review series go. Then, at 4:00 am, I got up, put on my dressing gown, went downstairs and photographed the Perinola, in all its glory. When this was done. I returned to bed and was finally able to fall asleep.

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The Perinola meant (and still means) so much to me. I still remember the thrill of being asked to sit upon the consejo honorífico, the only Canadian scholar, and one of only two Anglophones to be so honoured, my external reader being the other. To read my name next to that of the external examiner for my doctoral thesis on the love-poetry of Francisco de Quevedo (University of Toronto, 1975) was, and still is, an extraordinary honour. I still get butterflies when I see my name attached to this review. The butterflies settled, bit by bit, as I realized that I could preserve my personal memories with a photo while donating the series to the greater glory of Quevedo Studies in the wider world of Hispanic Academia.

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Thursday Thoughts

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Thursday Thoughts
22 March 2018

Washroom

Locate the nearest washroom …  I am growing old. Maybe I am the only one who needs the consolation of the proximity and known whereabouts of this item, but I am so much happier when I have located it and know where it is.  For me, it’s part of the pre-reading, ‘scouting out’ process that I wrote about yesterday.

The other thing I should have mentioned: work out for yourself a simple relaxation exercise that helps you to concentrate and brings your nerves back under control very quickly. Closing your eyes and breathing deep, one in, one out, does it for some. When uptight, I use a simple exercise from my early piano lessons. (1) Shrug your shoulders, relax your arms and let them hang down, then roll your shoulders, forwards and backwards; (2)  shake out your forearms and fingers; (3) close your eyes and breathe deep. This takes about five – ten seconds.

A personal anecdote: the first time I was due to read a paper at a major academic conference (in Laval University, Quebec) I was standing outside the lecture room listening to the chatter of a group of friends. I opened my mouth to join in and … squeak … no sound … speaker’s block … my voice had disappeared.

I eventually found a washroom,  did a series of  relaxing routines, including this one, sipped some water, and just like that, my voice came back. I returned to the conference and was able to read my paper, five minutes later, without further embarrassment.

Such narrow margins between success and failure.